Friday, 31 December 2010

Forget the teeth – just chew!

Imagine a food that would make you forget everything else – even the discomfort of eating it. What would that food be for you – what would send you into such raptures that you'd forget anything else but the taste?

This isn't an entirely academic question. I probably wouldn't quite have realised it before yesterday, but blinis, warmed and topped with crème fraîche and lumpfish roe, is the sort of food hit that does it for me.

As explained some time ago, I'm currently in the middle of long process of dental treatment, tackling the results of the undiagnosed (and un-dealt with) gum disease of a couple of decades.

We're at the half-way point now, as I get used to a full set of gnashers up top for the first time in some years. They aren't wonky either – or at least not since I tried some fixative. Having said that, several of my remaining bottom teeth are most definitely wonky – and if anything, that's increasingly obvious.

But hey – we're on the way. And if you asked me, this time last year, whether I'd be this far down the dental road, I don't think I'd have even wanted to have the conversation.

So that has to be one of the most important things that happened to me in the last 12 months. Not just on a food front – although it's going to have a massive impact as the treatment progresses to its logical conclusion – but in other ways too. I'm beginning to be able to smile again, for instance – although if I see myself in the mirror doing it, I barely recognise the face looking back.

But setting all that aside, what have been the big experiences/lessons of the last year?

Well, the Orient Express was certainly an experience – although personally, I think that Venice was more affecting. And of course, to eat in Italy was a revelation.

Grilled sardines on a sailing boat off the Spanish or French (depending on who you believe) coast – perhaps that was culinary nirvana.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet gave me the best eating out experience I've enjoyed in the UK – a quality of food and cooking (and a price, come to that) that I've only experienced previously on the Continent.

Reaching a point where looking at a recipe by the likes of Joël Robuchon or Michel Roux or even Escoffier doesn't frighten the life out of me. I'm not entirely sure when that happened, but it does seem to have taken root. It doesn't mean I'm a good cook, but I think it illustrates progress of some sort, and a learning curve that hasn't ground to a halt a mere few metres after beginning.

My food photography has developed hugely this year – and here's another in the style I've been creating for myself.

Very Dutch Old Master, as someone described the style elsewhere.

The whole black background thing was an accident, but it works rather well, I think. Indeed, it does invoke those wonderful old still life paintings that you can find in the galleries. And I want to explore it much more.

Then again, I didn't start photographing food in a particularly serious way – so what I've done thus far is a real plus, and leaves me a real challenge on building on that.

On the wine front, I started to get a better understanding of what wine is about – and how to taste it. I have a long way to go – but what a pleasant journey lies ahead!

Finally, I think it started to dawn that on me that there is not so much of a divide between what we think of as everyday food and what we see as 'posh' food. The gap continues to narrow for me. How much I can personally bridge that space remains to be seen.

And as my rather light research illustrated toward the end of the year, it's something that has filtered into the mainstream eating life of this country, with many people falling for the con that they cannot afford quality – yet shelling out no small amount of cash for inferior food.

Entirely apropos of nothing that has just gone, I was down at Borough Market earlier today, for my final food shop of the year. Amongst various other things, I got some pressed tongue. It was, as it happens, the first thing I've bought from acclaimed butcher The Ginger Pig.

But 'lunch tongue', as I've always heard it described before, has long been something I've liked. On the other hand, after tasting this – from a stall that had full tongues for sale too – it could become something I love. The quality is just wonderful: moist and flaky and full of flavour. It'll all be gone before I have time to make an actual sandwich.

And so we near the end of 2010.

I'm not, at this stage, going to set myself a specific serious of challenges and tasks for the year ahead. I don't want food and cooking to become Too Serious. It should be fun – and always a pleasure, even a pleasure that you take pretty seriously. If it stops being a joy, though, you might as well just pop something into the microwave and watch the telly while you consume it, ignoring the question of its taste.

So to one and all of you – thank you for reading this blog. I can only assume that you're not a bunch of complete masochists, but that you do find something here to enjoy and amuse!

So have a wonderful 2011 – and the very best of eating to you all!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A French chef cooked WHAT?

Let's be honest. When you pick up a book of recipes by a serious chef – and perhaps particularly a chef from Frenchland – you do not generally expect to find a page devoted to explaining the best way to make ham and egg.

Okay, you might expect it from Heston Blumenthal, but then he's not French and besides, in his world, the eggs alone would involve frying the white and yolk separately.

But no: this is Michel Roux we're talking about and he has ideas about exactly that humble dish – and they work really rather well too.

The Other Half fancied ham, egg and chips and, seeing as we had plenty of ham left and I'm an obliging sort (some of the time), I decided to do just that.

But browsing through the Roux book on eggs (it's in danger of already becoming a household bible), I spotted that the man himself had written down a recipe for the dish I was intending to toss together.

Now, I don't know whether it's just me, but it would not even have crossed my mind to warm the meat. My approach would, simply, have involved plonking some cold-cut ham on a couple of plates, frying eggs and serving them atop the aforementioned meat. Simples, as the meerkat says.

But Monsieur Roux was having none of that. He suggests that you heat some butter gently in a pan, then warm the ham for a minute on one side, turn and gently place an egg (from a ramekin) onto each piece of ham and give it until it's cooked to suit your taste.

Taking account of his general instructions for fried eggs, I lidded the pan at this juncture, allowing steam to help cook the eggs. It's obvious when you think about it. And the result was excellent – eggs beautifully cooked, but not crozzled. Ham warmed through nicely.

On the side, chips à la Delia as is my usual – in other words, twice fried. And earlier in the day, I'd made mayonnaise for the first time. Yes, I've made aïoli often enough, but not 'original' mayo. And given the menu, I like mayo with my fries.

My introduction to mayo with chips wasn't in France, but some years earlier in Amsterdam – where you can also get sauerkraut with hot dogs as an example of really top street food. Once I'd tried the mayo option, though, I've been addicted to chips this way since.

Having long put off making my own mayo – the process seemed rather more complicated than that for aïoli – I decided to follow Joël Robuchon's instructions. Yet again, it seemed far easier than I had assumed.

Take an egg yolk, a teaspoon of mustard (I used a medium German one rather than Dijon), a pinch of salt and pepper and a few drops of any vinegar (a white wine one with tarragon, in my case) and then mix together. One of those hand-held electric whisks makes really light work of jobs like this.

Once it's all mixed together, start slowly adding a neutral oil (sunflower), just a little at a time. Once the emulsion has come together, you can add more, a little more quickly.

Mayonnaise is one of those things that does actually cost more to make your own than to buy. But having said that, what you get in a jar bears little resemblance to what you can produce yourself.

Decanting the unctuous mixture into a jar, I was close to scoffing the lot in the sort of foodie 'oh-my-god' state that is not a million miles removed from orgasm.

So, ham, egg and chips – the posh version. Or not, really. This latest batch of books is proving a revelation, starting to close a gap that exists in my mind between Good/Proper Cooking and 'ordinary' cooking.

Not that the day's fodder was all quite so down to Earth. The same Roux book also brought forth another dessert: this time, a chocolate and orange mousse.

In the morning, I actually left the flat and pottered up to Broadway Market – almost blinded by the natural (albeit rather grey) light – to pick up a few bits and pieces, including liquid glycerine from the chemist (The Other Half suggested I might find some there). It's the first time I've purchased a product that declares itself as being for "skincare and food preparation".

However, one tablespoon was added to two yolks and two tablespoons of warm water.

150g of good, dark chocolate is melted gently in a bowl over hot water, while 150ml of double cream is mixed with 30g icing sugar.

Then put the egg and glucose mixture into the chocolate mixture and, once that's combined, gently add the cream and sugar, decant into containers and chill.

Clever clogs here mixed the cream alright, but forgot to add the sugar (and probably over-mixed the cream itself too).

Now the original recipe also involved creating a syrup with the zest of an orange and putting a couple of 'layers' of this in with the finished chocolate mix, before topping with more of the same.

My deliberate deviation from the written word saw me scrub an orange to get rid of any wax (and release the lovely scent) and then finely grate it, stirring most of that into the chocolate mixture and leaving just a little to garnish.

It gave a wonderful flavour, although the mousse itself was so dense that it was more like a torte (probably either my forgetting the sugar, over-whisking the cream or a combination of both). But then again, I'd eat a chocolate torte with no complaint, so it was hardly to be consumed under sufferance!

So, the lessons of the day:

1) 'chef' food isn't all complicated and fiddly stuff that's just for 'special' occasions, while there's something else called 'ordinary' food for 'ordinary' days;

2) read the bloomin' recipe carefully – several times before you start and then carefully again while you're working from it!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Earthy, easy food for a lazy day

A combination of holiday laziness and teeth that are still a bit nightmarish to gnash with has, since Boxing Day, been creating a dual question: what to eat and what can I eat?

I still get a touch of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ about cooking – as though it should feel a lot more like serious toil if I’m Doing It Properly.

Perhaps that’s a widespread British view: cooking – food – as another form of toil and, therefore, something to largely be avoided (except at Christmas, obviously, when it becomes a nightmare.

But today has actually seen two new culinary experiments – experiments for me, at any rate. And both required ‘proper’ cooking and some thought, but also provided an eating experience that wasn’t nearly destroyed by the tentativeness of my new masticatory equipment.

It was another pleasantly relaxed start to the day, with coffee, books and cuddling cats seeing off a grey and damp morning.

Which leaves you with the dilemma of what to open the day’s eating with.

Michel Roux’s Eggs includes a series of recipes for baked eggs, from the most basic version to rather more complex ones. It’s not something I’ve ever done. I don’t know why – we both like eggs – and when you read that basic recipe, it’s hardly complex or time-consuming.

There’s also a recipe for baked eggs in The Stornaway Black Pudding Bible by Seumas MacInnes – with black pudding, of course – but for reasons that will become clear later, I decided not to use that one today.

Not only do I still feel the eyes of that old work ethic watching over the shoulder of my culinary endeavours, there’s also a side of me that is actually rather lazy and wants to know whether there are short cuts to some things. Today, that was a question of wondering whether I could simply grease the ramekins with one of the pieces of butter paper that are stashed in the fridge.

But no. Stop it. After all, melting a little butter in a pan is hardly onerous, is it?

My self-appointed sous chef and food taster in chief was on hand to make sure that no corners were cut. On the basis of last night, when I was getting a bit fraught while doing my predictably last-minute tax return, Otto seems to have decided that she’s my accountant too.

So, melt a little butter and then brush it on the inside of the ramekins, to a centimetre from the top. Then season lightly. Crack the eggs into a saucer, one at a time, and tip each one into the prepared ramekin.

Since this was a brunch, I used a couple of larger ramekins and did two eggs per person.

Finally, drizzle some double cream over the top, avoiding the yolks.

Put the ramekins into a tin or dish, pour boiling water to half way up the side of the little pots and pop into an oven that’s been preheated to 170˚ and cook for around 10 minutes.

That temperature is for a fan-assisted oven, by the way – although mine still takes longer than Monsieur Roux’s.

Check to see how they’re doing: the yolks should be just set. If they’re not – or if you like them a little firmer – just give them another few minutes.

And in the meantime, you can contemplate why something that describes itself as ‘double cream’ on a container is so often barely any thicker than single cream.

It is a long-held and oft-repeated complaint of my mother’s – which is rather odd really, given her puritanical pronouncements on food pleasure. Because proper double cream is about nothing but pleasure.

Not that she’s wrong: even that supposedly classier supermarket, Waitrose, stocks single cream, double cream – and then extra thick double cream.

Fortunately, La Bouche on Broadway Market sells Langley’s double cream, which is seriously thick and utterly gorgeous.

Anyway, the baked eggs (with proper double cream) were delicious. And hardly a difficult prep or cook.

Musing over what to serve for dinner later, my mind drifted back to a browse through that Stornaway book and to a recipe for black pudding dumplings.

Now, there is plenty of black pudding in the fridge for a reason, so it was simply a question of what sort of stew/casserole to make for such dumplings.

I diced an onion and softened that in butter before adding chopped garlic and then a couple each of chopped parsnips and carrots. Then in went some roughly sliced black pudding (about 100g) and some thawed (and heated) beef stock.

Bring to boil, then turn down to a simmer and leave until the veg are getting nice and tender, which is around half an hour.

For two people, the stuffing recipe requires 125g of self-raising flour, sifted with ¼ teaspoon baking powder. Then add 30g of shredded suet and 50g of chopped black pud. The recipe also included a tablespoon full of chopped spring onion, but I didn’t have any in the house, so hard cheese, as they say.

You add as much water as is required to make a stiff dough and then mix into balls. Pop onto the top of your stew for 20 minutes – or into a separate pan of boiling water. This is the only fiddly bit – the instructions suggested using two spoons, as I’ve seen suggested for making quenelles. But not having done anything like that before, it was a tad awkward.

Finally, slice some more black pudding and warm gently in a pan with a little oil. Use this as a sort of garnish. What you’ve effectively got is three different hits of the black pudding: pretty much melted in the stew itself, mingled with the dumpling mix and then the slight crispness of the fried pieces.

And in general, the taste of the whole is good and earthy and warming. Next time, though, I’ll serve it with a dollop of mustard on the side.

So given all that black pudding, that was why I’d not done MacInnes’s baked eggs earlier in the day.

Last night, via the joys of Facebook, Graeme reminded me that MacInnes also runs the famous and award-winning Gandolfi Café in Glasgow, where he has created and continues to cook a lot of his black pudding dishes.

Now, my first work trip of the coming year will be to that city – I’m starting to wonder whether I can squeeze enough time out of a busy schedule to pay a visit – and thank you in advance to Big G for that nudge.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Ideas from a pile of books

There's no doubt that it has been the most foodie-based festive season I’ve ever had.

First, my birthday produced the Kenwood iMix, plus Roberta Muir’s 500 Cheeses. And following hot on the heels of those came Escoffier: The King of Chefs by Kenneth James, together with the great man’s Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery and Joël’s Complete Robuchon, plus Elisabeth Luard’s European Peasant Cuisine.

That’s not forgetting The Stornaway Black Pudding Bible by Seumas MacInnes and Bob Dewar, plus one of those irresistible Amazon deals to netted me Eggs, Pastry and Sauces by Michel Roux for a ridiculous bargain price.

And then there was the recently arrived Bistro Bruno: Cooking from l’Odeon.

There has not, thus far, been a copy of Why Bible-believing Methodists Shouldn't Eat Black Pudding by Stephen B Dawes. Not that I recall black pudding being proscribed at home.

But anyway, it’s all very well having such books, but I don’t have a coffee table, so now I have to start putting some of the culinary wisdom contained in them into practice. They’re not meant for decoration – and particularly not the Escoffier and Robuchon, which are such serious cookery books that they don’t even have illustrations. Gulp.

First up was an idea for dessert from the Roux Eggs book: a coffee-flavoured custard, baked in a caramel-lined ramekin, chilled, and topped with sugar that’s then burnt with a little cook’s blow torch.

I’ve done custards before, so that wasn’t too daring. And indeed, if anything, the instructions made it seem slightly simpler than some previous ones.

I’ve only done caramel a couple of times and it’s one of those things that astonishes you with the speed at which it sets. I barely had enough time to get the golden liquid spread over the base of three ramekins and a tiny bit up the wall of one, before it had ceased to be liquid.

How experienced cooks do it – and particularly when they have more pots than my meagre three to fill – I’m really not sure.

Anyhow, after the caramel had set and cooled, I made a custard, with a teaspoon of decent coffee granules in it. Once decanted into the ramekins, these were baked in a dish that was lined with baking parchment and had hot (not boiling) water added to half way up the ramekins.

The oven temperatures in the book are apparently for a fan oven – I still needed to give the custards another few minutes over the stated 45 in order to ensure that a sharp knife came away clean after being inserted.

Once they’d cooled, they went into the fridge to chill. Later, to serve, they were topped with sugar and blow-torched. The result was divine – and it’s almost seems like a miracle: that the caramel that I’d seen with my own eyes setting to rock-like hardness on the inside of the ramekins is lusciously liquid once you break beneath the surface.

Not that I was the only one who liked it. I'd left a third one for today, partly to photograph (and then consume, of course). I turned my back for one moment – and there was Otto checking it out. Apparently, it's pretty darned good for discerning cats too.

The next thing I attempted yesterday was from the Robuchon: a gratin of potatoes and leeks to accompany the boiled ham with sour brown shallot sauce.

Perhaps what you expect with Robuchon is extreme cheffiness. Well, it is there – scallops with fresh ginger, for instance, would be in such a bracket, I think. But many of the dishes are really straightforward and not flashy in any way. This was an example.

For two people, I took a medium onion, peeled and sliced it into rounds of approximately 3mm thickness. Then I did the same with a leek and a couple of spuds.

The Other Half rolled his eyes when, reading the recipe, he noted that Robuchon calls for a bouquet garni to be made out of thyme, parsley and bay leaves, wrapped and tied in a piece of leek.

He rolled his eyes even more when I showed him that I’d done exactly that! It might sound posy, but if you’ve got the leek, then why not? Saves using muslin or cheesecloth or something like that.

You soften the onion and leek in a little butter, then add around 700ml of milk, a little grated nutmeg, salt and pepper, the sliced potatoes and the bouquet garni, and cook gently for around 35 minutes – or until a knife glides easily into the potato.

Heat your grill. Pour the milky mix carefully into a buttered dish and pop under the heat for around 10 minutes or until it’s starting to turn golden.

It needed a bit of extra seasoning, but that is a tasty side dish that’s far from difficult or fancy. And it went very nicely with the ham.

So, a good start to life with all my new cookery books. A one that will prompt plenty of further experimentation, I don’t doubt.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

More drizzle than Jack the Dripper

It’s 2.17pm on Boxing Day. Coffee-flavoured custards in caramel-lined ramekins are in the oven and the sauce espagnole has just started its journey.

A week of feeling under the weather as a cold meandered its way to and fro in my system hadn’t left me feeling particularly inspired on the food front. All I wanted to do was curl up in a chair with a book.

But I’d motivated myself to make the beef stock early in the week and on Thursday, headed to Borough Market.

After the final trip to Broadway Market to collect various orders and pick up a few basics, Christmas Eve saw something close to a frenzy in the kitchen, with a turkey leg roasted – in a fit of nostalgia, I decided that, if I didn’t want a roast turkey dinner, I still wanted the dark meat to wedge, well seasoned, between slices of factory bread in the evening as I sat in front of the telly.

Two pears were poached in spiced red wine and the remaining liquid bubbled away to almost a syrup.

And, if not quite as expected after all my reading up, the consommé was clarifying. I’d thawed and deposited the two tubs of game stock from some weeks ago into a large saucepan, together with a big handful of dried mushrooms. And then, as per the clarifying instructions, stirred an egg white into the mix before heating very, very gently – it must barely simmer.

It’s a piece of culinary wizardry, as the egg white attracts fat and impurities in the broth to it, forming a sort of cloudy ‘raft’ on the top that can, after a couple of hours of the most gentle reduction imaginable, be skimmed away.

That made a difference to the clarity, but there was still some way to go. Eventually, I hauled out a square of muslin, lined a sieve and carefully poured the broth through. Which pretty much sorted it – although I still ended up convinced that it was a little cloudy at the bottom and, when I decanted it back to a pan the following day, it was with great care, attempting to avoid even that little cloudiness.

Yet even after a day of such kitchen delights, I still needed a metaphorical kick up the backside yesterday to actually get up and get going.

No decision had been taken about exactly when I was aiming to have dinner started on Christmas Day itself – that, of course, is one of the joys of not being tied down by the timings of anyone else.

But as we sat comfortably in front of the TV, The Other Half raised the issue of food – was I planning a Christmas lunch or something later? Because if it was going to be the latter, then he’d need to get himself something in the interim.

I took that as a cue and, after a sluggish beginning, got myself properly going.

The reality is that it was far from a difficult cook, because for once I’d really got the preparation and planning pretty much nailed on.

First things first: final prep. Four plum tomatoes, skinned, halved, de-seeded and then diced.

The steak: allowed to come to room temperature, trimmed and then well seasoned with crushed black pepper.

The consommé went on to come up to a merry old heat, while I clarified some butter.

One of the things I learnt about consommé is that you need to make plenty. Not as much as you would usually expect to be enough, but much more.

There was nowhere near enough to bother hauling out soup bowls, so I decanted it into cups. But if that didn’t allow me to revel in the clarity – and yes, I really did feel like preening over that – it detracted nothing from the taste, and that was really strong and not remotely salty.

It was a success.

Next up, the tomato concasse had been gently warmed with a little dried chili, a little olive oil and a drizzle of dipping Balsamic.

That was portioned out into neat circles (I have two rings for such things) as the scallops were pan fried. Pretty good.

Then the clarified butter was heated and the steak fried. Basmati rice was bubbling away in another pan, allowing me to heat the brandy over it in a ladle before setting it aflame and pouring it on the meat.

I’ve done it before, but there’s still something about seeing the flames that gives me an adrenalin surge. Once the alcohol has all burnt off, the meat is deposited onto a warm plate, covered with foil and popped into a just-warm oven. The sauce is reduced slightly, meaty bits scraped off the pan, and double cream added. Take the meat back out, drip any juices that have been released as it relaxes into the sauce and then serve.

Plate up by buttering a cup and using it as a mould for the rice, popping steak next to that and then dripping sauce around the plate in pale imitation of true cheffy drizzling.

After that, dessert was a doddle. Pop a pear in the centre of a small plate, drizzle the sauce around it, feel posy and drizzle a little raspberry vinegar on the plate too and then finish with a drizzlette of double cream. It might have looked quite good on a canvas in the Pompidou – it certainly tasted alright.

The only thing that had not worked had been the rhubarb sorbet, which I’d abandoned after seeing that it had become simply a mound of pink ice crystals that we barely capable of sticking together.

But you only learn by trial and error – and in general, I had plenty to be thrilled about.

Individually, everything was fine, but the consommé was way beyond my expectations.

The meal worked as a whole – not just on a practical level, but feeling balanced too.

And so to Boxing Day, invigorated and ready to spend more quality time in the kitchen.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

So what's the new peasant cuisine?

First – I’m sorry that this wasn’t the “tomorrow” that was promised on Sunday, but a nasty cold is to blame for laying me too low to do much of anything – let alone think!

But this is an appropriate day for this second article, since there’s a Panorama investigation into supermarkets on BBC1 at 9pm this evening.

Anyway …

I don’t have any concrete memory of the word ‘peasant’ until the time, in my late teens, when we lived in Lancaster and my mother would use it derisively of an elderly Polish couple who lived next door.

Which is all the more ironic because, as my knowledge of such matters increases, it’s easy to see that her own choice of husband comes from something little removed from the peasantry: a family that had a little bungalow in rural, rural Cornwall (there was a village squire – I kid you not), with no electricity, no hot running water (I actually remember sitting in an old tin bath in front of the fire) and in the rambling garden, chickens and rabbits for food.

My paternal grandfather was also a road mender (his wife an occasional barmaid) who was so short-sighted that the limits of his service in WWII was the Home Guard: he was a very quiet man, but always laughed at Dad’s Army relishing how true it apparently was.

I have no memories of my maternal grandmother’s cooking, but I assume it was basic.

But if we’re using Elisabeth Luard’s definition of peasant cuisine, therefore including working class dishes where there has been no peasantry for centuries, then what is the ‘peasant cuisine’ of today?

For working people, the choice of food is primarily governed by time.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a trained cook – and she’d continued to undertake further training and get qualifications throughout her working life, not resting on her laurels – who was made redundant from the old people’s home in which she worked when the council decided to sell it to a private developer.

She was in her 50s. She struggled to get any sort of a job – and ended up doing three cleaning jobs just to make ends meet. Her husband – who had retired from the fire service after a serious accident – was struggling on as a school caretaker, in the fairly certain knowledge that he will end up in a wheelchair.

She actually enjoys cooking, but is frequently so exhausted when she gets home at night that a take-away is all she’s capable of organising before dozing off on the sofa. And besides, it’s often so late in the evening that her husband has already had his own meal.

Where is the quality of life in this? Is this really the apotheosis of a supposedly civilised society in the 21st century?

Perversely, we now seem to be moving into an era where those people who could be described as the ‘working poor’ are vilified and blamed for their own condition.

The ‘logic’ appears to work something like this:

‘If you’re on a low income, get the training/education to get a better-paid job’.

Obviously this means that:

• there are no shortage of such jobs (as my interviewee, mentioned above, who had continued to get improve her CV, discovered);

• anyone in a job with low wages deserves to be there and to be on low pay (and, concomitantly, with a crap standard of living/quality of life).

The latter rather ignores the point that the overwhelming majority of jobs are not acts of charity: they exist because there is work that needs to be done. So someone will always have to do it. In which case, they are saying that someone will always deserve to have a shitty standard of living/quality of life.

Again – and this demands to be repeated: do we live to work? Or do we work to live? Which should it be?

And if it is the former, then why? Who or what is the work that dominates our lives for?

To clarify a point slightly (and I feel I shouldn’t have to make this, but it’s best to do so for fear of any misunderstanding): I do not mean that every worker gets the same pay, right across the spectrum of jobs.

But let’s put it another way: in the UK at present, the median wage is around £21K. Sound a lot?

Okay. The average cost of a house is £246,387. Now, in the days before the chronic housing shortage and the boom in prices that inevitably followed (and the banks deciding to offer increasingly dangerous mortgages to people who were desperate to get a home), it was considered sensible to have a mortgage that was no more than three times your annual household income.

So, to buy a property at the current average price, you’d need a joint (or single) income of over £82K. Or to put it another way, that median wage, applied to a sensible mortgage, would get you a property of £63K.

Most women – certainly in the UK – have little choice these days about whether they want to work or stay at home after having a child. The sort of financial realities sketched out above make it Hobson’s Choice.

So it could be argued that we need fast food and convenience food to help sustain the economy as it currently exists.

This is actually something that Stewart Lee Allen touches on in In the Devil’s Garden. Personally, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, preferring instead to apply Occam’s Razor whenever possible. And the idea that, in effect, government has ‘encouraged’ a culinary culture of supermarkets, ready meals, take-aways etc, as a way of those time-short workers feeding themselves and their families, is not one I like or feel comfortable with.

But the reality in the UK is that, for many, many people, their food ‘choices’ are now limited what they can pile into the trolley, and then into the car and then into the freezer at the weekend.

It is, in this ‘post-industrial’ landscape, quite handy when people will apparently happily spend money on mass-produced rubbish, from Lancashire hot pots that require pectin to ‘beers’ that are full of chemicals; just as it’s handy that many people have come to believe that quality of life is measured in terms of how much they can buy.

It would be more than a little awkward if that were not the case.

Yet we have increasing obesity – particularly in childhood – with the concomitant diseases that go with it. And there’s no connection to the diet that people are increasingly consuming?

Decreasing numbers of families sit and eat together, but spread out around a home, in front of the telly or the computer etc, with their own food. And there are plenty of commentators who apparently think we have increasing family breakdown and an inability amongst young people in particular to learn social skills and relate to people outside their own peer group.

We have town centres that have become no-go areas for families and older people at nights and weekends, when young people in particular (with a lack of social skills – so they find it difficult to comprehend why there is anything wrong with their being as noisy as they want, regardless of where they are and anyone else) arrive for a night’s drinking in industrialised drinking establishments.

When you think of it like this, it’s easy to see why no real changes are attempted.

And it’s easier to build more and more supermarkets, and encourage people to believe that ready-meals and junk food are cheaper than real food, than it is to deal with the equation of low pay and a high cost of living that forces many people to take two or three jobs at the same time.

Or of dealing with the whole question of quality of life and work-life balance.

Do we really live to work? Or do we work to live? Which should it be? When you look at the political decisions made in the UK over the last 30 or so years, primarily that of moving us to a ‘post-industrial’ economy, you can see, for such a post-industrial economy to work, what the answer has to be (for ‘them’, at least).

Against this background, how odd that Lancashire hot pot is something that you might (if lucky) find in a gastro pub now – although such an approach is considerably later than the French taking their peasant cuisine and moving it into the restaurant … think duck confit, for instance.

The new ‘peasant cuisine’ in the UK is either fast and take-away food or over-packaged, pre-made, ‘ready’ meals – supposedly cheap but not really, but which offer people ‘convenience’ and big business ever increasing profits, at the same time as destroying town centres and communities, and aspects of our culture.

One is left with a question: we’ve been on this path for some years – but where does it lead?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The time for peasant cuisine is now

A couple of days ago, a copy of European Peasant Cookery by Elisabeth Luard landed on my doormat, courtesy of m’friend George.

Peasant cuisine has provided the roots of what we now think of as rather posher food; dishes that we choose when we dine out, spending good money in smart restaurants.

But of course the UK hasn’t had a peasantry for centuries, since Enclosure and the deliberate de-forestation of the country, which were carried out with the intention of driving people off the land and into the industrialising urban areas.

Which doesn’t mean that Luard neglects the UK. She includes, for instance, Lancashire hot pot, as well as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Welsh cawl, Scotch broth and many more.

In other words, traditional dishes of the British working class.

As it happens, she doesn’t include a recipe for pea and ham soup – which I decided would be perfect fodder for the weekend, for a number of reasons.

Both The Other Half and I, along with assorted colleagues at work, have come down with coughs and colds. In my case, yesterday afternoon I coughed so much that it felt as though a herd of baby elephants had stampeded across my torso. And back again.

But we’re also in the middle of another ‘cold snap’. With snow already lying thinly on the ground overnight, yesterday began with a gentle flurry of the white stuff drifting down. As I shopped, however, it turned into the closest thing I’ve seen to a blizzard since living on the edge of the Pennines over 30 years ago. The Other Half, looking out from the comfort of our living room, donned outer clothing and headed up to find and help me. Most welcome it was too.

A week earlier, I’d seen that the Longwood Butchers van on Broadway Market had ham shanks for £4. And in the intervening days, I’d found an old family recipe that, a long time ago, I’d faithfully and neatly copied onto the back of one of my father’s used orders of service, then folded away and popped into a notebook.

Now I’ve cooked Erwtensoep, the Dutch version, before, but never the English version, and now seemed the perfect moment to break that culinary duck. As it happens, I altered it a bit. But then again, there are no absolutes for cooking such dishes – simply as many different versions as there are people who have cooked them.

I soaked the ham for a couple of hours, together with a box of quick-soak peas.

Then it was into the pot with everything and water to cover. Well, not quite. Given the size of pots I have, plus the size of the ham itself, that would have meant a lot of water and probably nowhere near enough peas. So I lidded the pot and allowed the top of the meat to start off by steaming, turning it occasionally.

It needs to be cooked gently anyway or the peas will stick to the bottom of the pan and make a dreadful mess.

After a couple of hours, I added sliced carrot and parsnip. The recipe had said a grated carrot, but this was what I felt in the mood for.

It had another long, slow cook, so that the veg were pretty much broken down. And then we had big bowls of the stuff.

Hearty and warm and hardly unhealthy.

And you remember the price of the ham? £4. One 250g packet of Batchelors Quick Soak Dried Peas was a whopping 35p. I’m afraid I cannot recall the cost of two carrots and two parsnips or the water. But we'd barely be looking at a fiver in total.

We both had a good bowl last night. We have also had a good bowl tonight (the colds are not leaving us feeling ambitious, from a culinary point of view) and anyway, as might be expected, it had actually improved with keeping.

There’s still enough left for lunch tomorrow.

This is not expensive food. It is good food; it is real food. But it is not expensive food.

Out of interest, four 400g cans of Heinz pea and ham soup from Tesco are currently on offer for £3 (usual price 82p per can). Mind, for that money, you’re actually getting:

    “Water, Split Green Peas (21%), Peas (5%), Potatoes, Reformed Ham (3%, Pork (72%, Water, Whey Powder (from Milk), Salt, Emulsifiers – Tri, Poly and Diphosphates, Dextrose, Preservative – Sodium Nitrite), Onions, Carrots, Cornflour, Modified Cornflour, Celery, Salt, Flavourings (contain Wheat, Barley), Vegetable Oil, Sugar, Cream, Dried Skimmed Milk, Spice, Colour – Beta-carotene, Stabiliser – Polyphosphates and Sodium Phosphates.”

Damn. My recipe missed out most of those. But trust me, a can of soup like that is not a substantial meal – no, not even at one can per person. I had a can of Baxter’s pea and ham soup earlier this month during my previous chill/cold – these colds seem to have induced a bout of nostalgia – so I do speak with the benefit of recent experience.

Now, I’m lucky in that I have easy access to a butcher who will do things like suddenly have ham shank available – and for a damned decent price.

Most people are not so lucky: in that same post about Lancashire hot pot, I mentioned that Tesco itself, for all it has bemoaned the slow demise of classic English dishes, was also one of a number of supermarket chains that have helped to create a rate of local butchers dying out of rate of 23 a month (survey, reported in the Telegraph in 2008). Few people are as lucky as I am to have the choice.

Extending the research a bit, I did another little search on the Tesco site. I came up with the following result:

“We did not find any products to match 'ham shank'.”

Somehow, I’m not surprised. Nor, incidentally and in the interests of fairness, does Waitrose. Or Asda. Sainsbury's translates 'ham shank' into 'lamb shank'. I'm not registered with Morrison's and cannot check.

Carrying on with the research, I found that Tesco’s basic “Lancashire Hotpot” is £2.90 for 450g. So, that’d be around £11.60 for a family of four.

The list of ingredients is more complex than anything that Luard or my book of Lancashire recipes comes close to:

    “Marinated Lamb (28%), Potato, Carrot, Onion, Water, Vegetable Juices From Concentrate, Lamb Stock, Vegetable Oil, Cornflour, Wheat Flour, Tomato Purée, Garlic Purée, Salt, Pepper, Rosemary, Marinated Lamb contains, New Zealand Lamb, Water, Cornflour, Tomato Purée, Salt. Potato contains, Potato, Vegetable Oil. Vegetable Juices From Concentrate contains, Carrot, Celeriac, Lettuce, Beetroot, Spinach, Parsley. Lamb Stock contains, Lamb Stock, Yeast Extract, Sugar, Salt, Cornflour, Onion, Rosemary, Thyme.”

Those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now, because I am on the verge of a ‘what-the-fuck!?!?’ moment.

Actually, the hell with it. Let’s have some fun. Tesco also sell an own-brand “Finest" hot pot ("Finest" is that chain's top range). Again, this is 450g, but this time it retails for £4.25 per serving (so, £17 for the proverbial four-person family).

Let’s have a little look what all that extra moolah gets us:

    “Potato (38%), Lamb (36%), Carrot, Celery, Onion, White Wine (3.5%), Leek, Vegetable Oil, Lamb Stock, Cornflour, Redcurrant Jelly, Chicken Stock, Wheat Flour, Yeast Extract, Gelling Agent, Salt, Thyme, Rosemary, Black Pepper, Barley Malt Extract. Lamb Stock contains, Lamb, Salt, Sugar, Cornflour, Onion Concentrate, Rosemary Oil, Thyme Oil. Redcurrant Jelly contains, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Redcurrant Juice, Sugar, Gelling Agent. Chicken Stock contains, Chicken, Sugar, Water, Salt, Cornflour, Onion Concentrate, Chicken Fat. Yeast Extract contains, Yeast Extract, Salt. Gelling Agent, Pectin.”

Hey … look at that! More potato than in the cheap version – in fact, more potato than there is lamb (although there is more lamb than in the cheapo one)! No tomato purée, but loads of lovely cornflour and pectin. Pectin? What on Earth is pectin doing in a bloody hotpot – pectin is what occurs naturally in fruits and what is used to set jams. And who puts sugar in a stock?

Next time I make a Lanky hot pot, I’ll make a note, to the very last penny, of what it costs. But I make you a promise now: it will not come even close to £4.25 per serving. And it will have good meat and good kidneys in it. And it will be rather bigger servings than the amount mentioned above (which is only 50g more than a tin of soup).

And tomorrow, if you’re not bored to tears already, I’ll attempt to explore what I am coming to believe ‘peasant cuisine’ means in the UK today.

Friday, 17 December 2010

This Christmas, consider the following

This woman is 51.

She is a TV 'health guru' advocating an holistic approach to nutrition and ill health, promoting exercise and a pescetarian diet that is high in organic fruits and vegetables. She recommends detox diets, colonic irrigation and supplements. She also makes statements that yeast is harmful, that the colour of food is nutritionally significant and about the utility of faecal examination.

This woman is 50.

She is a TV cook, who drinks her fair share of wine and eats nothing but meat, cream, butter and desserts.

So take note, then crack open the wine and chocolates!

* And thanks to Steph, who forwarded this to me.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A tale of two restaurants

If Christmas can be the best of times, it can also be the worst of times – and not least for the culinary arts.

This has been The Week of Festive Lunches: both Tuesday and Wednesday saw us quitting our desks early for mellow afternoons of food and drink.

In a quirk of timing, Tuesday also saw me get my new teeth, so I was looking for easy-to-eat food by Wednesday when I decided to make my first proper efforts at eating with said gnashers.

On Tuesday, our small (but perfectly formed) editorial team headed to Da Mario in Covent Garden, to be wined and dined by our major external supplier.

A family-run Italian trattoria, it offers decently-priced, enjoyable, simple Italian food.

I had a starter of deep-fried goat’s cheese and roasted red pepper sauce, served with a shredded salad or raw white and red cabbage. The cheese was very mild and I half suspect – perhaps completely unfairly – that it had been bought in, ready-crumbed. But it was comforting, nicely presented and not unpleasing.

Next up for me was a dish of pappardelle, with Italian sausage, broccoli, garlic and chili. Comforting and enjoyable – although I couldn’t get any taste of garlic or chili. It was well cooked, with both the pasta and broccoli nicely done, while the thin but meaty sausage remained moist.

Dessert was a large ball of lemon ice cream, with frozen Limoncello liqueur inside, and covered in crushed meringue: it looked unspectacular compared to everyone else’s dessert (that’s The Other Half’s semifrodo in the background), but was a really zingy delight.

So, a definite success.

And so to yesterday afternoon and lunch with the full unit at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street.

If it had only been called ‘The Cheshire Cheese’, someone would have had to change ‘The’ to a ‘Ye’ and add an ‘Old’. With an ‘e’.

Now it’s fair to say that nobody (that I know, at any rate) goes to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese for the grub. You go for the atmosphere; for the knowledge that, after a previous incarnation was destroyed by the Fire of London, this place was rebuilt in 1667. That’s right – re-built. And almost 350 years ago.

Our party was in the Chop Room, where a portrait of Dr Johnson hangs over one bench, with a brass plaque stating that this was his favourite place to sit. Next to the fire – a sensible man. It’s the sort of thing to give a literary fan like me a certain frisson.

In a frame in the same room there’s a copy of a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, which includes a scene in a pub that is clearly Ye Cheese. Dickens certainly visited more than once. And of course, while it’s a rather limited view of Yuletide tradition in the UK, the Dickensian Christmas looms large in the collective psyche.

So this, in other words, is a very big cheese amongst London pubs – and not least during this jolly season.

Which is all quite enough for me to conclude that the atmosphere alone is worth the visit.

But at what point do you then say that the standard of the food is irrelevant?

To get a private room, we’d had to guarantee 25 people. That was at £30 a head. In other words, the owners made a guaranteed (paid up front) £750 – which didn’t include any drinks at all or even coffee at the end of the meal.

There was a limited choice of four wines – two red, two white, none named specifically and none under £18.

With the need for softish food fairly high in my mind, I started with a terrine of salmon and smoked trout. It was okay, but a tad salty.

Then I went for the steak and kidney pud – a really traditional dish. The first thing I speared was a tiny piece of kidney. I nearly whooped in delight, imagining that if that was the first thing I’d found, it wouldn’t be the last piece of velvety deliciousness to pass my lips (it always irritates me that steak and kidney pies and puddings seems almost devoid of one of those essential ingredients).

But my nearly whoop had been too soon. It was the last piece of kidney I found, amid some reasonable steak, a middling gravy and a ton of slightly soggy suet. The roast potatoes were hardly the stuff of legend, while the sprouts and carrot batons were undercooked. Nothing was piping hot – and although the room had an open fire, it would have had to be roaring rather more than it was to really spread any warmth further around the room than Dr Johnson’s chosen space.

For dessert, I went for a poached pear, served with an orange marmalade ice cream. It would have helped to have a dessert fork as well as spoon for what was arguably the most successful of the courses. In Italy, they might be able to fillet a sole with a spoon, but I cannot easily eat a pear with a spoon alone.

Now our party was not full of what you’d term foodies, but even some of those for whom food would not be a major issue have since voiced their disappointment.

On the other hand, the view has also been put that: ‘Well, it’s Christmas and what else can you expect?’ as if it’s actually unfair or unreasonable to expect better.

But the more I think about it, while I certainly wouldn’t expect haute cuisine in such an establishment – it’s not what you’d want there anyway – is it really unfair to expect a better standard than what we got, particularly when we were hardly paying peanuts in the first place?

It is, I suspect, another aspect of that very English attitude of not complaining, of ‘putting up’. And perhaps it’s also that big con again – the belief that quality in food is beyond the reach of most people’s pockets, so that we have to put up with a lesser quality because it’s what we can afford.

As Da Mario showed, food doesn’t have to be over-ambitious to be good. You don’t have to over-stretch yourself just because it’s Christmas.

And steak and kidney pud isn’t called ‘steak and one bit of kidney pud’ – so put more kidney in it!

All of which brings me back to Harrison’s, the Bloomsbury gastro pub in which we had our festive lunch last year. Another team went there this time around and reports have filtered back to me.

Quite apart from whether a pineapple soup is really the best way forward for a venue that was struggling to cope with simpler fodder last year, serving a chocolate tart with Greek yogurt must be a form of blasphemy in most people’s book.

I’ve no desire to be unfair to cooks who are working damned hard to give people a good culinary experience – and cooking’s no soft-option job. But perhaps we all need to sharpen our critical muscles – and stop simply accepting and excusing food that isn’t up to what it should be and which, frankly, constitutes something of a rip off. Regardless of whether Dr Johnson held court there or Dickens felt a touch of inspiration while quaffing a tankard of porter.

Back down to Earth

When you get a new mixer, you have to use it – and use it quickly. The kMix was calling to me. And if an excuse was actually required, then our office tradition of birthday boys and girls providing cakes for everyone offered me the prefect one.

I had spent some time browsing books, wondering what to make, when I alighted on chocolate cupcakes in Nigella’s Domestic Goddess.

There is something about cupcakes that makes you expect sugary sweetness, that suggests cakes for children. But this recipe provides a satisfyingly bitter chocolate hit – very much a concoction for grown-ups.

The mixer makes life so much easier: creaming sugar and butter together, compared with the old-fashioned bicep-building slog, is a dream. It’s tempting to caress the beautiful machine as it hums away, fluttering your eyelashes at it flirtatiously, à la Nigella herself.

But setting aside such frivolity – it’s just a machine, woman: it doesn’t even vibrate as fetchingly as the washing machine – it makes light work of baking.

Once the brown sugar and unsalted butter are creamed (125g of each), you add two large eggs and beat that all in, before adding 125g of self-raising flour, plus a tablespoon each of cocoa and espresso powder. Then add 50g of melted dark chocolate.

Pre-heat your oven to 200g. Share out the mix into a muffin tray, lined with a dozen cupcake cases, and bake for 15-20 minutes (my notoriously awkward oven required 25).

Leave in the tin for a couple of minutes and then move to a cooling rack. When they’re fully cool, top with a simple chocolate ‘icing’ of 300g dark chocolate, 50g unsalted butter and two teaspoons of espresso powder, melted gently in a bain marie.

I would say that, sticking religiously to Ms Lawson’s measurements, there’s no way you can ‘pour’ the cake mix into the tray. It’s more a matter of plopping the mix in, a spoonful at a time. But that’s a minor complaint. And I didn't do as she suggested and "lop" the top off each little cake to make a flatter surface for the icing – there's no need (and it's wasteful).

The result was very grown-up cakes, with a light sponge and a very adult topping.

I baked two batches, in the full and certain knowledge that the office gannets would descend gleefully. I was not disappointed.

By Monday evening, it was very much a case of getting back down to Earth after the culinary pleasures of the weekend.

I’d picked up smoked haddock from Vicki on Saturday morning and poached it in a mix of water and milk, before letting it cool and then gently flaking the curving, milk-white flesh onto a plate.

I wonder if there’s anything much more soothing than smoked haddock? It has to be properly smoked, though: the stuff that’s dyed a deep colour is pretty much offensive. The only colour should be a slight blush of pinky brown, while the smoky flavour should be subtle and not overwhelming.

On to the risotto itself. Now, I make no pretence at my take being as good as the divine one that I ate at Brasserie Blanc in Bristol last month, but I decided to tweak and play a little this time, and by and large, I think it paid off.

I started by softening a chopped small onion in olive oil as usual, then added some shredded leek and some celery salt, and cooked it a little longer.

The Arborio rice went in and took on the oil, followed by a slug of Vermouth that fizzed away as it hit the pan. Once that was absorbed, it was the turn of the chicken stock that I’d been heating. A ladle of that and then, when that was absorbed, a ladle of the milky poaching liquor, and so on.

I added fresh thyme and, as the cooking neared its conclusion, green peppercorns. On the side, I was sautéing more shredded leeks.

With the rice having absorbed its maximum level of liquid, the flaked fish was added, a lid went on, the heat was turned down and it was left for around 10 minutes. No, that's not what you read in recipe books, but it's the only way I can get the rice to the sort of texture that I've had when I've eaten risotto in a restaurant.

Since The Other Half doesn’t like cheese, I don’t add Parmesan, but finish my risottos with some crème fraiche instead.

In terms of serving, the risotto is topped with the leek.

I liked most of this: there was a depth of subtle flavour to the risotto itself that was very pleasing, although I’d perhaps let it get a tad too sloppy. I was less pleased with the leek topping. I probably need to use less leek and fry it so that it adds a really crispy contrast. I shall have to look into this.

Earlier, I said that it was essentially a case of getting back “down to Earth” after the sophisticated pleasures of Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Saturday.

But while such dining is not an everyday experience, it’s interesting to see how it can inspire and influence. It may not sound like much, but perhaps my ideas of expanding on my usual basic risotto by using some fish-infused milk, adding green peppercorns and leek with the onion at the start was a response to such an experience and a desire to push my cooking a little further.

Whether it all works is, of course, an entirely different matter. But then again, not only is living learning, you learn by your mistakes.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A dream of a dining experience

In a review in the Observer earlier this year, Jay Rayner said of Bistrot Bruno Loubet: “It’s what restaurants are meant to be like.”

It had been recommended to me, not by food critics, but by friends who had been there, not long after it opened last spring. ‘Not cheap’, they said, but excellent food and service.

I made a note and then forgot about it. But about a month ago, I was contemplating the question of what to do on my birthday and, within a day or so, a piece in the Independent revealed that Raymond Blanc rated the place rather highly too.

For some time, I’ve been wanting to go to a chef-led restaurant in the UK – but it had dawned that, if you’re really interested in a chef’s food, then there’s not actually a lot of point going to, say, one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants, as the chances are that Gordon won’t be there, let alone actually cooking.

So Bistrot Bruno Loubet filled ticked the box perfectly. I booked.

A little research followed. Apparently Monsieur Loubet was a star of London’s gastronomic scene some years ago, having won a Michelin star when very young. But then he upped sticks and headed for Australia.

I had not heard of him – but this means little, since I was barely an infant in terms of culinary pleasure when he tired of the Metropolis and took off Down Under. But what was clear was that his return was a cause for celebration – as Giles Coren, ever the master of understatement, put it in the Times, it “is the most exciting comeback since Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus just hours after the Crucifixion and said, 'It ain’t over till it’s over'.”

It had a lot to live up to.

We arrived in good time and were given a choice of tables – picking a larger one, we found ourselves sitting right next to the kitchen, which is open to the dining area. And yes, that was the man himself at the helm.

First impressions: it’s informal; quite full but not cramped, with touches of rustic wood furniture that help drag it back from feelings of sterile modern glossiness. An awkward space has been designed really well, avoiding any sense of regimentation. The light is good and the background music is just enough to take the edge off the quietness. The staff are young, relaxed, helpful and friendly. You could quite easily begin to feel that you were in Paris rather than London.

So to the food. It’s a short menu – always a good sign – and after spending some minutes hovering over the idea of trying to balance my choices by choosing a lighter starter if I was going to have a meaty main, I gave into the meatiness of the menu and my own inclinations on the night.

So to start, I had a pig’s brawn and leek terrine, with celeriac remoulade. And jolly good it was too. A delightful terrine: flaky, naturally sweet and soothingly tasty, with a lovely aspic.

And the remoulade, with grain mustard in the dressing, gave a wonderfully sharp quality to the dish. I once tried to make a celeriac remoulade, but failed rather dismally. It doesn't help when you have nothing against which to measure a dish that you're trying to make for the first time. Now I have more than an idea.

The research had revealed Loubet’s signature dishes – The Other Half had enjoyed a mousse-like white grouse boudin with cassoulet-style beans for his starter – and I opted for one of these in the hare royale, which came with a macaroni and spinach gratin.

An extraordinary dish: a disc of meat – including a piece of liver – on a bed of puréed pumpkin and dried orange, surrounded by a dark, dark sauce (another recurring Loubet theme) and topped with a slice of roast hare and (I think) some marrow.

Unbelievable. The meat simply flaked away and just melted in the mouth. The sauce, which looked as though it might have been overwhelming, was superb. The first mouthful produced one of those moments when your eyes close as the taste hits your senses.

At this stage, The Other Half was busy revising his view of the duck confit from: “This is one of the best duck confits I’ve had” to “this is the best duck confit I’ve had”.

In between concentrating on the food, I kept trying to surreptitiously glance at the kitchen, where the culinary star was looking as cool as a cucumber as tables filled up. There was no shouting, beyond the occasional "service!" as he alerted the busy staff to the readiness of another dish.

Feeling pretty much stuffed by the end of the hare, I considered a simple dessert of just sorbet and ice cream. But then again, this was my birthday and, if you can't go the whole hog on your birthday, then when can you?

Following the judicious application of such logic, I opted for the chocolate marquise, with caramel and salted butter ice cream and a ‘biscuit’ curl that was as thin as paper. You probably don’t need much of an attempt at description to realise that this was pretty darned stunning.

Everything was washed down with a demi of Vignes de l’Église 2009 from the Languedoc: light and fruity, not long, but a very pleasing wine.

And my pleasure was complete, in a girlie star-struck sort of way, when Bruno Loubet himself bade me “au revoir” as we left.

We decided to perambulate for a few minutes – in reality, it was more of a stuffed waddling – but that was one stunning meal and, on the basis of London restaurant prices, it was very good value too. And yes – it's very much what you dream restaurants will be.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The festive season starts here

With Saturday shopping out of the way nice and early, it was time to settle into proper birthday mode – indeed, into proper festive mode.

Someone asked me yesterday whether, when I was growing up, having a birthday at this time of year had meant a sort of suffering. I wouldn't put it in such an over-dramatic fashion, but it did always get absorbed into that general holiday two weeks later.

Now, I've taken to seeing it as the proper start of the seasonal festivities. When I was a great deal younger, I'd be allowed to watch BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, which was always on the Sunday night closest to the day itself. Even though I haven't watched it for years, it seems odd that, this year, it's a whole week later than my birthday.

For some reason or other, which is a little vague and may be partly the inaccuracies of memory, the film Ice Cold in Alex attaches itself to my relatively few specific birthday memories. My sister and I had been at home while my mother had to go out. I wanted to watch this classic old war movie, but she'd already said 'no' for some reason. I watched it anyway, followed by a certain amount of telling off when this was discovered. You see what a badly behaved child I was.

It might not have been around my birthday, but that's what the memory banks claim, so we'll stick with that tale.

Working at home on Tuesday as I recovered from my gastricky chill, I had a phone call from The Other Half in the office, warning me that a parcel was due to be delivered – and that I was on no account to open it.

In due course it arrived – a vast box from Amazon that I struggled to get down the narrow corridor from our front door and into the hall, where the kittens took control of it.

It sat there until yesterday when, after I'd left for work, The Other Half wrapped it.

And then it waited until shopping was finished, the kitchen bin bag had been emptied, assorted bits and pieces had been removed to the recycling crate and other such little jobs had been completed.

The cats, of course, are delighted with the now-removed paper: it's shiny, for starters, which will amuse them for some time.

In the meantime, I'm delighted with the contents – a lovely Kenwood mixer. It's the sort of thing that makes me feel as though I've reached a new level with my culinary endeavours.

It seems to say: 'You're a grown-up cook now, so you can have a grown-up appliance'.

The Other Half used to be reluctant to give as presents anything that we could describe as a 'household gadget' – when you've next-to-no money, you don't want 'practical' for Christmas or birthdays but fun – but this is perfect for a keen cook. And not only is it practical, it's a thing of beauty too, all gleaming metal and 'raspberry' enamel.

I intend to bake tomorrow, but in the meantime, I'm going to be very good and actually read the manual properly first. And then there's the little practical matter of working out where it's going to sit in the kitchen.

And this apprentice gourmet also received a book on 500 cheeses, together with a history of bad language in English: words and food – George knows me well.

It's common to say to people that they're aging like good wine, but in the last few years, I feel in some ways as though I'm aging like a sauce that's being reduced: that instead of being all over the place with interests and so on, things are becoming concentrated; stronger and clearer.

This seems to be an appropriate extension of that, as I start to contemplate things I've never made before: macaroons and meringue for starters.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The new puritanism

How would you define a ‘vice’ – in a food sense, that is?

After the pantomimic howls of indignation over foie gras by some Guardian readers the other week, I’m delighted to report that it’s not just sandal-munching, museli-reading lefties who get in a lather about such things.

Over at the Telegraph, a report into the slow food movement in Italy provoked the following: “is there anything more absurd than being a ‘foodie’? it is remarkable how humans can turn a necessity into a vice.”

And this comment had then, apparently, been ‘recommended’ by four other people.

As an aside, apparently we have former New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene to thank for the term ‘foodie’.

But back to the subject at hand: what makes anyone get their sackcloth knickers into such a knot over food? Or more to the point, over the pleasure that other people take in food?

And when did the enjoyment of food become “a vice”? Or to put it another way, at what stage does enjoyment in food turn from something acceptable into something unacceptable? Where is the gastronomic rubicon? And who gets to decide?

Now I obviously don’t know for certain, but somehow I just cannot imagine this happening in France or Italy or Spain – unless possibly in direct connection to certain interpretations of religious behaviour.

Yet judging by what I’ve seen in recent weeks over here, there is no religious aspect to the disapproval that a number of people appear to have for other people’s enjoyment.

Is this one side of the increasing secularism in society, whereby people are filling the void of conventional religious belief with some sort of other religiosity?

More than one contributor to these discussions threw out the logic before posting. There are people around, for instance, who think (in a somewhat loose sense) that if someone loves food, then that is their entire life and their entire life can be judged accordingly.

The condemnation by a surprisingly large number of people of the idea of taking (excess) pleasure in food seems to have its roots in the puritanical aspects of our past.

Be unhappy with other people eating animals; be unhappy with farm production methods; be unhappy about all sorts of things, by all means. Explain your reasons; put your arguments; campaign.

But why be unhappy about people taking pleasure in something?

Mind, I’ve found myself also considering my own responses to a couple of issues too.

A couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the reported demise of some of our culinary heritage.

But times change – if they didn’t, we’d all still be swinging from the trees and, even if shoved into a room by the thousand, wouldn’t be able to come up with Hamlet.

But here’s the balancing act: times change, but does that mean baby out with bathwater is always positive?

Some of the dishes I touched on in that post are good enough to make it into Larousse. Yet we don’t value them widely on this side of the Channel. What does that say about what we do value of our own heritage and culture?

And what happens if we simply let our heritage and culture die away in a rush to try different things? Why is heritage and culture important? In part, because of our sense of roots, of belonging, perhaps? These things are part of us – they don’t exist apart from us.

It isn’t a question of believing that nobody should try anything new, whether a whole cuisine or an ingredient. But it’s about not throwing everything out in the rush to try something new, like a spoiled child who wants a new toy every week.

I also found myself wondering if I myself wasn’t a little susceptible to the ‘how dare you enjoy yourself doing this’ mantra, when a colleague announced that he was going to The Fat Duck for a slice of the Heston Blumenthal experience.

I’d touched on the madness of the £200 Christmas pudding here, but I must say that Jay Rayner hits a number of nails on their respective heads in this piece in the Guardian (which comes complete with puritan comment warning).

So, what is my problem with Britain’s top chef? Is it jealousy? Question with a question: of what? Is it a puritanical belief that, assuming they’ve got the dosh, people shouldn’t spend it on whatever they like? No. Apart from anything else, that would be massively hypocritical of me.

Trying to put it clearly, my problem with Mr Blumenthal is not actually Mr Blumenthal, but the way in which the pseudo-worship of what he does seems to be another fad.

To try to explain more clearly: take El Bulli, the Ferran Adrià-run restaurant home of molecular gastronomy near Barcelona. This home of gastronomic experimentation sits alongside a wonderful local cuisine; a cuisine that is valued and vital and fabulously alive.

Here, The Fat Duck doesn’t do that because it can’t do that, because no such situation exists in terms of an indigenous cuisine. So it just seems to me to be one of many distractions from something that has much to offer, but is being neglected, partly because of faddiness and partly because of a lack of interest in the pleasures of food generally.

No, that’s not quite the puritanism I mentioned above, but more the culture of not enjoying food enough to resist the pressures to eat mass-produced fuel in front of the telly, instead of taking time to sit down to a meal with family and/or friends.

Is it too big a leap to suggest that, if as that brief sketch implies, we are becoming more and more alienated even within our own homes, our apparent willingness to dump our culinary heritage is actually linked?

I’ve had online conversations with people who have suggested that there are no objective standards for judging food; that one foodstuff is no better than any other.

That leaves you with a belief that there is no qualitative difference between, say, a Pot Noodle and a chateaubriand steak.

Or as one of those online puritans that I mentioned at the top of this piece suggested, there is no difference between animal and fish produce and vegetarian alternatives: the textured vegetable protein burger and the real burger are no different.

Is it also, therefore, too big a stretch to suggest that, in a time when big business and finance (including the major supermarket chains) hold such sway in the country, such a puritanical rejection of pleasure in food, whether deliberate or not, is useful?

I don’t know the answers and I’m am not about to start positing any glib ideas. But it increasingly seems to me that denying gastronomic pleasure is a stance with more widespread ramifications than we might imagine.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The kitchen

It’s funny what being ill does to you. A bout of something gastricky and chilly hit last Thursday, and left me shattered and without an appetite for the entire weekend.

No food at all on Friday, as I tried to starve it away, and then little the following two days.

But that’s not to say that the mind didn’t drift to matters culinary. Culinary and nostalgic.

I might not have been hungry, but I still found myself craving something: current buns, well toasted and buttered.

That was a Sunday breakfast when I was growing up.

And as I lay in bed, tired but unsleeping, my mind drifted back to those mornings and to the kitchen in Mossley. For some reason, it’s the only kitchen I remember clearly from any of the houses we lived in: possibly because, although it was not the last home I shared with my parents by some years, it was the longest we spent anywhere.

It was painted a bright yellow. At least I think it was; if memory serves me correctly. Yet it was a stark room in other ways. L-shaped; square, with a narrow bit leading to the back door that was partly filled with an old sideboard, stuffed with various things, from notebooks with family recipes in to a box for keeping money-saving coupons in place. My sister and I had made that, cutting down some used box and then covering it in a montage of food pictures clipped from magazines and coated with sticky-back plastic: these were our Blue Peter days.

A bay window looked out over a strip of grass and beyond to the drive that sloped up steeply from the road to the left and then leveled off to lead to the garage. A garage that was never used for the car, but spent eight years as a storage area for … well, for all the things my family could never quite bring themselves to part with, lest they ‘come in’.

The wooden garage door was a dulled emerald green: I spent many an hour playing football against it, practicing how to use the inside of my foot to control the ball rather than simply toe-poking it; hints learned from watching Bobby Charlton’s skills programmes during school holidays.

One evening, my mother, my sister and I stood at the kitchen window, watching as a mother hedgehog led her young in single file up the drive and behind the shed into our rather unkempt garden.

My father barely did any work in it. Admittedly, he was ill a lot of the time – he battled on with work, but there was no chance that he would do such additional jobs.

I’d weed the drive occasionally and, later, clip the hedge that bounded the drop into next door’s garden. Everything was slopes; drops and rises.

There were a couple each of blackcurrent and gooseberry bushes. I remember my mother as making a decent shortcrust pastry – perhaps because it required more of a pragmatic approach to cooking than one of flair. We’d harvest the berries, and the rhubarb that grew in a corner, and she’d make pies and crumbles.

You came up the drive and turned right along the shortest wall of the house; right again and you were at the door of the old outhouse. Papers were stored there, ready for the scouts to come and collect. I slipped in there a couple of times when my parents couldn't see and furtively ripped out topless pictures from the Saturday 'Football Pink', hiding them away.Oh Gillian Duxbury, I still remember you.

Then back into the kitchen through the door next to the outhouse. Not a kitchen for learning to cook in – although it was the kitchen I first prepared a meal in, one day when I was about 16, when my parents were away for a night (visiting a new prospective parish, I think). It was the first time we’d been left to fend for ourselves. I think my mother had bought something like Bird’s Eye frozen pies. with tinned potatoes and sweetcorn for me to heat for my sister and myself.

When they returned, they gave me a copy of William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (I was obsessed with fantasy at the time), inscribed with a note saying that it was for not burning the house down.

When I come to think of it, that was like so much else: it was so often greeted as an entirely unexpected surprise when I turned out to be able to do something.

The kitchen sink stood in the bay window. I looked over the blank drive as I scraped new potatoes or prepped sprouts or dried the dishes (never washing them).

The oven was to the right and a twin tub washing machine behind on that side: a vast device that lasted decades (with occasional repairs) and had to be hauled out every Monday, helping mark that as an entire day lost to the laundry.

I think of Monday evenings as egg-and-chip nights. Or of re-warmed pork pies from Cakebread, a local baker, served with baked beans.

And Saturday mornings, with banana sandwiches for breakfast, then toasted buns on Sunday and both to the sound of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart on the radio. Peter, Paul and Mary, The Seekers ...

For all its garish yellow walls, it had something impersonal about it, institutionalised almost. There was nowhere to sit; it was not a room for socialising but for work, for chores.

Time distorts. And memory is elastic.

Some of what I’ve described I’m surer of than other things.

It’s funny what you remember sometimes; what stays with you.

And how, even when you’re not actually hungry, you can crave toasted buns with butter.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Salty tales to pique the appetite

Salt: A world history by Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlanksy’s Salt: a world history promises to do something that seems rather obvious on the surface – to illustrate the importance of salt in the history of the world.

After all, we can all acknowledge the importance of salt in a general sense, can't we? But if ever there was an illustration of history being news, then this is it.

There will be many for whom this book is still a revelation in terms of just how many uses – culinary and non-culinary – the world has found and developed for the whole range of salts that have been known of and used since the dawn of time.

Ham and salted fish and gunpowder are one thing (well, several things, actually), but I confess that it’s to my shame that I personally didn’t realise quite the role of salt in cheesemaking, for instance.

This extraordinary book covers as wide a geographic terrain as the author found possible, from China to Cheshire.

It touches on politics, on economics and on religion, as well as science, engineering – and, of course, food, with a host of salt-related recipes.

There are times when Kurlansky’s tale is a whirlwind that leaves the reader dizzied.

As when he writes: “In the Caribbean, the leading cargo carried to North America – more tonnage than even sugar, molasses, or rum – was salt. The leading return cargo from North America to the Caribbean was salt cod, used to feed slaves on sugar plantations.”

There’s something so circular, but so crazy, about this scenario, that it is difficult to get the mind around it.

And personally, I knew nothing about the role of salt in the struggle for Indian independence, with British imperial bans on the people of Orissa making or gathering their own salt – in order to create a market for Cheshire salt – helping cause famine and much hardship.

It's rather amusing – in a wry sort of way – to realise that current economic orthodoxy both rails against any form of the protectionism that enabled the British (and US) economy to build in the first place, and claims that for growth, developing world economies must open themselves totally to foreign investment. In other words, they must 'choose' to do (because they're told there's no alternative) what they previously had to be forced to do.

And then came the 240-mile march by Gandhi and some of his followers to Dandi to gather salt illegally – and integral part of the struggle for independence.

Nor did I know of the role of salt in the American Civil War, where one unexpected legacy from that period is Tabasco Sauce: another circle, with the seeds for the peppers having been originally taken from Mexico to grown in the US – and recently having been returned to be grown there for the same sauce, while salt continues to be mined at great depths on Avery Island.

Circles are no more evident than at the conclusion, when Kurlansky describes how most salt became uniform, and then most salt producers were bought out and absorbed into a few massive companies. And yet … some people persist in wanting variety; in searching for something more authentique, if you will. So small producers start making salt again in the old ways.

I could be pernickety and point out that Kurlansky is a tad inaccurate or misleading when he describes Port Vendres in the South of France as: “a contemporary hillside monument to industrial efficiency”. It was first discovered by the Greeks as a safe port in around 600BC, and while parts may be new and industrialised, and while Port Vendres is certainly no Collioure, it is not all modern and it is not without its charms.

But that feels a tad churlish, for in general, Kurlansky’s book is an entertaining, informative, fascinating read.

And all this from someone who makes no claims to be a professional, trained historian (so in the same boat as Stewart Lee Allen).

On the other hand, a preliminary browse through the second edition of Cuisine and Culture: a history of food and people, by Linda Civitello, who has an MA in history, was more than enough to annoy me out of starting to read it properly.

For instance, in the introduction, one discovered that there have been nine world wars. Yes, you really did read that correctly.

I thumbed rapidly to the appendix that apparently detailed this, together with all other important wars and battles since ancient times, starting with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

The War of the League of Augsburg is listed as one of her ‘world wars’. As are the Wars of Spanish and Austrian succession, the Seven Years War, the American and French revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars …

This, after some Googling, seems to be the ‘theory’ of a US historian called Thomas A Bailey, who produced the original version of a textbook for US schools, The American Pageant. I couldn't find any other historian, reputable or otherwise, supporting the same idea. I can't imagine many people are about to start describing the events of 1914-18 and 1939-45 as WWVIII and WWIX.

Returning to Civitello’s own tome, however, let’s set aside the typo (presumably) that omits the US from the “who fought” list of WWI (well, they did wait until rather late in the day to get involved), but then there’s the classic error that surely a real, live historian with an MA should know or check before making, of describing something as the “Civil War” in England (there were three English civil wars).

And then there’s the matter of referring to “England” as a combatant in many wars (including the two real world wars), as opposed to Great Britain.

But this appendix, set out as a chart on a gray background, in the fashion of the charts that pepper the rest of the book, is part of the problem: it’s enormously simplistic. To describe, for instance, the Thirty Years War as simply “religious”, 'fought by' Catholic v Protestant, is to almost sinfully misrepresent the extremely complex nature of that conflict.

So is this book intellectually rigorous and authoritative or not?

On page XIX of the introduction, she also repeats as fact the story of the Romans feeding “Christians to the lions for entertainment”. The Romans did persecute Christians, but there is no supporting evidence for the idea of mass throwing of Christians to lions in arenas. It is a myth. And 21st-century historians should not be citing it as a fact.

And on p221, on another of these charts (which make the entire book seem less like something aimed at intelligent grown-ups and more like a school textbook) laying out the gender division of work on a Midwestern farm in the 19th century, she includes the somewhat unscientific phrase: “Make everything look nice”.

On p361, of a Fox Network programme called Glutton Bowl, she comments that it “presented chow hounds as athletes”. “Chow hounds”? Oh pur-lease. It’s the same sort of sloppy language and approach that has no place in a book that sets out to be serious and intellectually sound.

And that was after a glance inspired by reading the introduction and finding the nonsense of ‘nine world wars’.

I’d trust Kurlansky infinitely more, and it returns to the shelf fully read and as an important part of my growing culinary library.

The Civitello – unread, apart from the gems cited above – has only been allowed back on the shelf for when I need a sort of Daily Mail moment to make me shake me head in irritation and horror.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mulling some Dickensian seasonal pleasures

With snow-filled clouds heading toward London, it was the perfect night for the staff social club to show Oliver! to a small but perfectly formed audience, for the purposes of some pre-Christmas singing practice.

Fortunately, the boss who referred to me, a month or so ago, as being "really a gay man" was not around to witness just how many of the lyrics I know without having to read any subtitles.

In an effort to get fully into the mood, eggnog and little mussels in brine were available – with the latter offering Colin the inevitable opportunity to see if he couldn't manage to make a new version of a retro snack by spearing a mussel and a ball of Butterkist popcorn onto the same cocktail stick. Well, it makes a change from cheese and pineapple.

Mulled wine was, un-fortunately, not on the menu for technical reasons (the lack of any obvious way to heat it in the staff bar), although it must be said that the stuff is never quite as good when supped indoors. I didn't use to think it any great shakes until visiting Amsterdam for new year in 2008. Then, sitting outside in glorious sunshine but freezing cold, glühwein metamorphosed into simply the most wonderful drink in the world.

I had a large paper cup full at Borough Market last Friday – it was the perfect weather for such a thoroughly Dickensian treat.

Like so many things, though, forms of mulled wine are popular around the world – and it pre-dates Dickens by some considerable margin. The oldest known glühwein tankard belonged to one Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen – the first Riesling grower in the world – in around 1420, but drinking heated wine dates back to ancient times, when spoilt plonk was made drinkable again by adding spices and honey and heating it.

Of course, if we'd had access to serious heating, we could have had jacket potatoes too.

For some reason or other, I was astonished to read, in Kate Colquhoun's Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking that baked spuds had been massively popular street food in the 19th century.

But probably not stuffed with the leftovers from the previous day's dinner, as is the wont of the staff canteen where I work.

Imagine it if you will: jacket potatoes, stuffed with the remnants of a 'beef bourguignon' that hasn't even seen any red wine, let alone a Burgundy; a dish that, in the reality of our self-styled 'deli bar', resembles a certain French classic about as much as I resemble Catherine Deneuve.

The Other Half perpetually describes jacket potatoes as "student food". And indeed, it's difficult sometimes to realise that they do pre-date microwaves. Which in turn makes you tend to forget just how good they can really be.

But not when stuffed with a faux bourguignon. Or baked beans and grated plastic cheese, for that matter.

The best method I've found for baking spuds is one from Delia, with a skewer adaptation from me (it doesn't only help the cooking, but makes them easier to handle and gives you the basis for testing if they're ready).

Preheat the oven to 190˚.

Take your spuds and make sure they’re clean and dry.

Prick them a few times with a skewer – and then skewer them all the way through, lengthways.

Brush them all over with some olive oil and then sprinkle salt over.

Balance the skewers over an oven-proof dish and stick in the oven to cook.

Depending on size, they'll need at least an hour and 15 minutes.

To test, if the skewer comes out easily, they're done.

Serve with nothing more than good butter, salt and pepper.

And this is the perfect season for real jacket potatoes, when you're all cooked out after Christmas and Boxing Day, and you've got loads of left-over meat to use up. With some chutneys and pickles on the side, you've got an easy and simple meal.