Saturday, 13 November 2010

Paranoia and profiteroles

Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is proving to be a fascinating book – not just because the history itself is fascinating (I’m around 120 pages in, thus far, and the history is certainly fascinating), but also because the recipes are intriguing too.

It's probably no surprise to regular readers that, within a short time of starting the book, it had occurred to me that it might be really quite interesting to try salting my own meat at some stage.

And sitting in bed reading this morning, a 1968 recipe for salted, boiled beef from an Irish publication inspired me further. It was a recipe, I thought, that looked particularly interesting and particularly doable.

But it required, amongst other things, a “pound of course salt” and a little saltpetre. At which point, it dawned on me that there might be a problem.

Now saltpetre, as any schoolboy knows, is a vital ingredient in gunpowder as well as in salted beef.

‘Can you buy saltpetre in the UK these days?’ I wondered.

This sort of situation is what the internet was born for. So I Googled. And it appears, on the basis of what I could discover, that you cannot buy saltpetre in the UK any more – or at least not food grade and not if you’re an individual rather than a registered company wanting to purchase wholesale.

Now I’m perfectly well aware that the English are bonkers – and it’s frequently a bonkersness that I enjoy (often termed, a tad more politely, as ‘eccentric’ and more than once applied to yours truly), but there’s also a culture of bonkersness that grates.

Who is being protected from whom by such nonsense? The individual wanting to salt meat is suspect but a company never is? The individual is in danger from a chemical – but the company not?

Given that there are apparently a considerable number of ordinary household cleaning products that contain materials that can be used to make explosives, why such a regulation for this particular one, which has a very, very long history as an ingredient in preserving food?

Perhaps it’s partly an end-of-empire thing: a shrinking in on self; confusion, fear – even paranoia.

We do it with children too, increasingly wrapping them in cotton wool – oh, from the best of motives, no doubt, but also without considering the reality of the dangers they face: that child abuse, for instance, is far, far more likely in the home than as ‘stranger danger’ on the street.

Then we fill our homes with ‘antibacterial’ cleaners and other materials, without apparently considering the damage we actually do to our bodies' capacity to be effectively acted on by antibiotics when we really need them.

The latest TV advert promoting utter paranoia about germs/bacteria shows how awful, nasty things can get onto your conventional soap pump when you apply your nasty, germ-covered hand onto said pump to pump some soap out.

Ahhhhh! Can you imagine anything more terrifying?

Or illogical.

Because if you put a dirty hand on the pump to activate it, then your other dirty hand will be under it to catch the soap when it’s dispensed. Whichever way you do it, the soap goes into a dirty hand. But that’s the point, Because then, when one hand has pumped the soap out, it joins the other in the actual washing process – the process that removes the dirt and the germs.

The hand doesn’t go back and touch the germ-infested pump the minute it’s been washed (you don’t have to switch the pump off) – it only goes there again when you need to wash your hands again because they’ve got dirty again.

Unless you have obsessive compulsive issues – in which case, you might need some help, but not on the basis of a supposedly germ-infested soap pump.

Now obviously, the advert is aiming to exploit; to make money from the abject terror and ignorance that it builds on. The company has a nice, new soap pump to flog – one that doesn’t need touching, but which simply dispenses soap when it senses your filthy hands nearby. Strange to tell – but obviously entirely coincidentally – a quick check on a supermarket's online site reveals that this gadget is also considerably more expensive than conventional soap dispensers. And that's before you take into account the financial or environmental cost of the batteries that it requires.

We have schools that won’t allow children to play conkers – not because of ‘elf ‘n’ safety gorn mad’ (that’s a myth) but because of schools being terrified of litigation if a child is in any way injured.

This is all, quite simply bonkers.

I am delighted to report, however, that after searching further, I came across, a company that, among other things, sells “curing salt”, which is “easier and safer to use than ‘saltpetre’.” Setting aside the question of what, on the basis of the recipes I’ve seen, is difficult about using saltpeter or what is apparently unsafe (unless it refers to the more inconsistent results that come from using the rather ancient ingredient instead of other nitrates that are favoured now – but are probably no easier to find and, who knows how they translate in a menu), at least the job can be done.

I intend to order some and have a bash sometime over the forthcoming holiday.

In the meantime, today has been busy and very satisfying.

The rhubarb sorbet was finished early this afternoon – forking it around every half hour or so for three hours was hardly a major chore.

A French onion soup for lunch was perfectly tasty – although I always seem to forget, in advance, just how long it takes to brown enough onions for such a soup.

Dinner was from a recipe in Leith's Fish Bible: monkfish fillet cooked in a very light curry sauce, with coconut milk, sliced onions, a little garlic and sliced mango, and served with basmati rice. I’ve had the book for some years but have barely cooked out of it, finding it generally rather intimidating. Looking at it this morning, I found myself wondering why.

My confidence in the kitchen grows: the dish was very nice, although I adjusted the cooking time for the fish. The recipe said 10 minutes. I gave it nearer 30.

Increasingly, I’m finding that I give dishes longer – because if I stick rigidly to the times stipulated, it won't be cooked. Whether that’s partly to do with having a fan oven – which still confuses me when it comes to times – I couldn’t say with certainty. But it doesn't just happen in the oven – indeed, this was cooked on the hob.

In recent months particularly, I’ve realised that what is said on packet instructions or even in books can be misleading. For instance, risotto needs longer than recipes often claim – and I only really understood that after trying risottos in a couple of good eateries. They were not what I had previously understood by the phrase ‘al dente’. But okay, that could simply be my misunderstanding of something.

Pasta is another example: if I cook most dried pasta as per the packet instructions, it’s nowhere near as cooked as the pasta we had (and enjoyed) in Venice earlier this year. I’m going to assume that the Italians know what they’re doing when it comes to spaghetti.

Likewise the French. After not having any monkfish for some time, because, following instructions rigidly when I’d tried it, it always seemed quite tough, we discovered in Collioure and Port Vendre this year that in that region at least, it’s cooked rather longer.

But it's down to that confidence again.

However, the triumph of the day was my first ever attempt at making profiteroles – indeed, my first ever attempt at making choux pastry.

Okay, okay: they were not impeccably smooth or round, as you can see from the picture. I need to work on this – in the morning, when chatting with Ed in L’eau a La Bouche, he’d said that that is the really hard part and he’s dead right. But they were crisp and light, and the crème patisserie was not bad at all, though I say so myself. So on taste, I can allow myself great satisfaction.

I must give a little nod at this point to Bill, who blogged about making profiteroles at Ballymaloe a few weeks ago: bearing in mind his experiences, I concentrated particularly hard on making sure my filling was stiff enough, even though I wondered if I was risking it being too stiff at one point.

These, I admit, quite simply made my day. And now I'm pleasantly knackered as well as feeling pleasantly well fed.


  1. You'll be alright with the curing salt. It would be quite difficult anyway to evenly mix the tiny amount of saltpetre needed into the salt.

  2. Thanks George. I hadn't thought about the mixing thing. Still stupid to ban it from sale to individuals, though. ;-)