encounters in history

A certain chef burnt some pine nuts the other day, as occasionally happens when the one timer you have in the kitchen is temperamental at best. Not wanting to waste them, I put the nuts in a jug and covered them with water with the intention of making a pine nut milk – I’ve been experimenting with making nut sorbets. The jug went on a shelf and I went home, forgetting to put it in the fridge before I did so, and when I came into work the next day, I found that the contents had begun to ferment; I did what anyone would do in the circumstances – left it to see what happened.

The folklore of food is full of happy accidents. The Chinese, for example, have an improbable tale of a swineherd who, setting his hut ablaze, accidentally discovered roast pork and crackling; this story runs counter to the popular belief that folklore is the repository of ancient truths by being clearly false in every particular. Our view of the origins of cooking is murky at best, but we can, I think, safely say that houses do not pre-date cooking and that the keeping of pigs did not come before their eating. Other stories are perhaps a little more probable, especially when they deal with fermentation, the slow works of enzyme, bacterium and yeast.

Most foodstuffs, after all, have a certain inbuilt tendency or what we might call an intent to ferment, a process which is after all only one leg of the journey towards rot; ripe grapes, for example, crushed under their own weight, will begin to bubble and change in a matter of hours. The story of cheese being discovered when milk was carried inside a pouch made of rennet-rich stomach is distinctly probable, at least next to the tale of the swineherd; rennet intends to coagulate milk, it is what that enzyme is for. Still, we can draw a distinction between simply leaving things to themselves and leaving them to see what happens. Piles of cabbage will rot, but if you salt them and leave them to see what happens, you get sauerkraut.

When I tasted the bubbling pine nut water and found it had a distinct umami, reminiscent of soy sauce, the obvious thing to do was to blitz it, add 2% of its weight in salt, and put it in a jar; I had, now, some idea of what the result might be, but I was still just leaving it to see what happened, which is often what I do in the kitchen. There are, really, two ways of going about cooking. You can start with a clear idea, gleaned perhaps from a recipe, a memory, or simply your imagination, of what you want your food to look and taste like, in which case you may well have to go shopping; on the other hand, you can see what you have, combine it in some way, and see what happens. As the process continues and your food begins to take shape, you might seem to act with a little more purpose, but really you are just doing what your ingredients want you to do.

I never intended to become a maker of non-pork charcuterie, for example; I certainly don’t do so from a dislike of pork. It’s just, you see, that someone sold me a couple of sheep; at the time I wasn’t aware of the Scandinavian tradition of cured ovine meats, so I just decided to salt up the legs, and see what happened. That I now have four legs of hogget ham hanging in the breeze and two more boned legs of mutton salting quietly in the dark is something of a shock, when I stop and think about it. Come to mention it, I never really intended to become a chef, and the fact that I am one, an apparently adult one living in Suffolk, and not, for example, an academic, an astronaut, an archaeologist or an Ostrogoth, is still a source of surprise and delight to me.

those in peril

I know, I’ve been really slack with this recently. I’m sorry – I’ve been working on Other Things. I still am, actually. To tide you over, here is the piece I wrote as my shortlisted YBF entry last year. Do enter, by the way, if you do food things. The party is fun, if nothing else…

– I like boats – in theory. On a family holiday to Cornwall, we hired a little boat to potter round the bay; I saw a dolphin, and nearly crashed into a container ship, towering above the rest of the harbour like a piece of the scenery. Other than that, only ferries, across the Channel or the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus or the Grand Canal, normally on bright clear days or nights, surrounded by whirling seagulls, and warm. I’ve never been on a fishing boat; I’ve never even been fishing, unless you count scooping some kind of eely thing out of the Stour and throwing it, wriggling, back in. I know that fishing boats look too small to face the wild sea; but they do.

About nine-and-a-half British fishermen die a year, from accidents at sea; this is a small amount, compared to other countries. Alaskan fishers, working in the freezing stormy darkness, have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Still, it seems a lot. I don’t think ten chefs, or food journalists, die each year from work-related injuries; bakers rarely fall into their ovens, and the good people of Blythburgh do not walk in terror of their ravenous pigs. There is a level of danger accepted in the getting of seafood which is unparalleled in the food industry, perhaps justified by a sort of knightly romance, a sense of quest and hunt, which is attached to the fishing industry. I found it strange, reading Moby-Dick, that people would do something as dangerous as actually hunting whales through the sea, simply to get lamp-oil and perfumes; commercial fishing is, at least, more useful than that. We eat the stuff, after all – and we’re always being told to eat more of it.

When you prepare food for a living, you are constantly aware of waste; the closer you get to the living food, the more there is of it. A stir-fry pack of broccoli florets is expensive, but you can use it all immediately. A bed of brassicas cut from the earth might be half or more stalk and outer leaf, but if it is in your hands you can control it, you can redefine for yourself what is and isn’t a waste product. Stalks can be shredded and fermented into kimchi, dense with mustardy flavour; leaves can be cooked as spring greens, and the actual vegetable, the distended flower-head of the plant, becomes almost an afterthought; this has happened, essentially, in meat, where the Hendersonian revolution has succeeded to the extent that my butcher now tries to flog me cheap racks of cutlets as an alternative to the bellies, breasts and shoulders we usually cook. This has happened, though few people die in a pig’s journey from sty to sausage.

So it hits me, when I am removing the heads, spines, fins, livers, eggs and guts from a pile of beautifully striped mackerel, a primordial bag of squid, darkly intelligent octopus, that perhaps it is insulting, in the face of death – of animal and of human – to throw so much away, that, more than Fergus’ common sense, it is common courtesy to wring every last scrap of meat and of flavour from these creatures, which we exchange for the lives of those, from Whitstable, from Lowestoft or from Grimsby, who live in peril on the sea.

Stop and drink


Cooking is simple, in the ways that it is simple, because it is predictable; ingredients rarely lie, prevaricate, dissemble, or even change their minds. Two eggs, mixed correctly with the equivalent weight each of fat, sugar, and flour, make a cake, and if they don’t turn out to behave as you expect, the fault lies with you and with a failure of your technique. You can’t blame the butter because you didn’t cream it for long enough; it did what it was bound, as it were, to do, and what it in fact told you it was going to do, if you had been paying attention. If the butter turned out, on closer inspection, to be margarine, then you might be angry at yourself, for somehow not having realised that it was margarine, or you might be angry at your partner or housemate, for deliberately bringing margarine into your home; you might be angry that margarine, that greasy parody of authenticity, even exists. You can’t say that it only just became margarine, though, or that it hid its true nature until you had bought it and had it out of the packet; it was always margarine, and it says so on the label, which screams I can’t believe it, even though it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about butter, or margarine, that it is not the one and is the other.

If, on the other hand, cooking is difficult, then it is difficult to the extent that it is complicated, whether obviously, as in a baking recipe which might use forty ingredients in as many steps over four days, or more esoterically, as in cooking something like a steak, say, a process which involves so many variables, the cut, thickness and temperature of the meat, the exact heat and conductivity of your pan or grill, the exact age and physical condition of the original animal, that they are usually glossed over altogether, perhaps with the instruction simply to cook it to your liking, which isn’t, when it comes down to it, very helpful.You can, as a cook, either take this rather disingenuous instruction as it is, or you can attempt to understand every invisible step, every variable involved, in which case you will very probably get worse at cooking before you get better; you will, on the other hand, have the knowledge to see the occasional cooking disaster not as a blind act of fate or coincidence, but the direct result of actions taken or not taken; you can do better next time.

Cooking is predictable, you might say, because it is banal; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking is complicated because it has deep roots; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. On the one hand it seems trivial, when every breaking news alert is seasoned with the sense that America, and perhaps the rest of the world with it, is swiftly approaching some final catastrophe, to attempt to sit down and write about dinner, or worse, brunch; on the other, what else is there to write about? Whatever else happens, we all have to eat, and February is grim enough anyway without this extra burden. I seem, unconsciously, to have been focusing recently on cooking skills which might be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland – canning, preserving, foraging, cooking over open fire, butchery, and so on; these ferments I have stored against my ruin. Less bleakly, it seems reasonable, at such times, to bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.

Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.

Yes We Can


The Italians, who, despite their supposed reverence for the ingredient have as much of an interest in cooking techniques as do anybody else, express a certain penchant for extremes when it comes to the application of heat. A sauce is cooked for either five minutes or five hours, beef either raw or collapsing to the touch; when something is to be overcooked, as in that rather lovely broccoli cream used to dress pasta, they will overcook the hell out of it – which is just as it should be. If something is not at the extreme end of what you are trying to do to it, then it is not, to my mind, as good as it could be. The correct amount of salt in any food is nearly-too-much; anything less is not enough.

The thing with overcooking is that it comes in circles. The most obvious example is one of the cheaper cuts of steak, hanger or some other kind of skirt. Cook it fresh and bloody, and it cuts like butter under a questing knife; cook it medium-well, and your diners will think you have grilled them one of your worn-out Crocs. Cook it for three hours, perhaps with some sweet onion, some anchovy and a bosky Pinot Noir, and there it is again, melting to tenderness, just the thing to spread onto a piece of almost-burnt toast and eat, standing up, with some nearly-too-sharp pickles on the side. This is true, broadly speaking, of almost any sort of protein. You wouldn’t do it to a fillet steak, but then who eats a fillet steak in this day and age? Hamine eggs, to take another example, boil through grey rubber and on into soft cream, and are all the better for it.

We might not, perhaps, think of doing this to fish. Cephalopods, of course, demand the all-or-nothing treatment, with cuttlefish especially demanding a cooking time of either three hours or close to zero; even the apparently intractable octopus can, with a little judicious preparation (freeze / defrost / brine / dry / marinate) be successfully flash-fried. Your actual backboned swimming fish, though, would seem to be another matter, with even a fish stew only including the fish for the last few minutes of cooking – except, that is, for tinned fish. I’ve written before about the luscious texture, reminiscent of tinned tuna, you can get by slowly poaching fish in olive oil; since then I have also become enamoured with a Japanese preparation, involving entire mackerel cooking in a deeply flavoured marinade. The true, melting nature of actual tinned fish, though, requires the extra heat available from a pressure cooker; as luck would have it, I got one for Christmas.

I’m aiming to get hold of some tin cans to try this with, but for now I am canning fish in screw-topped Kilner jars; the principle is the same. Oily fish (it needs that fat, I think) and some strongly flavoured things go into a sealed jar, and are cooked at pressure until rendered delicious; conveniently, this also kills off botulinum spores. I wanted to try this with the pomegranate mackerel recipe, but I could get neither mackerel nor pomegranate molasses; instead, I’m trying chunks of salmon with fermented pepper paste, blood orange juice, and a few other things. I have high hopes.

Sharing Plates

However much people bang on about medical improbabilities, long journeys by donkey or by camel, an overstretched hospitality industry, symbolic vegetation or even just the steady movement of the earth around the sun, everybody knows that the real meaning of Christmas is the food – or rather, the feeding of it. The recent examples of (largely Turkish) restaurants opening their doors to the homeless and the lonely show that we know no-one should have to eat alone on Christmas Day, even those who have no particular reason to celebrate it; this is because we know that no-one should have to eat alone ever, unless they want to. Personally, I quite like eating by myself, especially at lunchtime – though not on Christmas Day.

No, the food is there to be fed, and feeding – that is to say sharing – is, whether done begrudgingly, lovingly, thoughtlessly as a natural right, or even at all, is a political act. The recent review of Donald Trump’s dreadful restaurant was hilarious, of course, and clearly well-deserved, but the reason it resonates is that someone who doesn’t give a damn about feeding people non-terrible food, and for whom hospitality is merely another opportunity for conspicuous consumption, is obviously unfit to run a country. If he’s going to operate a restaurant simply to extend his brand and to make money, why wouldn’t he operate his government in the same way?

I’ve never been sure if the remark of Lenin pictured above is intended to imply that government should be open to all, even a lowly cook, that the mechanisms of government should be so well-designed that even a cook could step in and run them, or that the particular multitasking-forward-planning-hard-working-selflessly-food-sharing skillset of the cook or chef makes them ideal for the job; if the latter, as I have always chosen to assume, then he must have meant ‘run’ in a bureaucratic, backroom, Mycroft Holmes sort of a way; no-one would want even the most talented and generous of cooks as the face of government. For that you want a maitre d’, or perhaps a world-weary barman. Imagine Trump as a maitre d’, throwing a tantrum when you didn’t order his ‘favourite’ special, ‘accidentally’ spilling wine over your date so he can wipe down her breasts. Imagine David Cameron as a maitre d’! He’d upsell you Champagne and then teabag your soup for a laugh. If Theresa May’s grim rictus greeted you at a restaurant door, you’d back out and settle in at the pub across the road, where it’s warmer, they keep the ale well, and they cook food with the intention to feed.

Nothing Is Lost

When I was going to sleep, I think the night before last, I had a really good idea for a piece. Today I need to write it, and I have not the slightest idea what it was. Gone. Possibly it was in fact quite a bad idea for a piece, or, it might be, a few lines from a song or a book, the memory of a smile from an imaginary film, which became entwined in my nearly-dreaming brain with, say, a discussion of the relative methods of octopus preparation, complete with recipes. I remember once, in the drifting minutes between the first alarm and the final waking, composing a song which was also a pie, a very fine pie, and am still rather disappointed that I have forgotten the details, which, come to think of it, are probably non-existent and at any rate impossible.

The problem is that, between work, a demanding puppy, and the cold and the dark, I am really quite exhausted, and I can see why most food writers confine themselves, in December, to the production of lists of various kinds, or to a retread of festive tropes providing twists on seasonal classics. Now, I can see why these are useful, if you have a lot of parties in December (as apparently people do), or indeed if you work in a restaurant, and wish to serve people something other than a bulked-up Sunday roast, over and over again. Personally, though, I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that they need to constantly change the Christmas meal itself, to fall in with fashion or diets or simply for variety’s sake. Surely the point of such meals is that they are always, by and large, the same – like listening to the Fall, or reading PG Wodehouse.

If I was at home for Christmas (‘home’ in this context always being where your parents or the majority of your family live) I know that on Christmas Eve there would be shepherd’s pie with braised red cabbage and mulled, perhaps blackberry wine, with a treacle tart to follow (or is that New Year? Maybe it’s warm mince pies), a warm hug after standing in the cold for the carol service; Christmas dinner means soup, a leg of pork, long chipolatas wrapped in good bacon, stuffing balls, slightly overdone sprouts, sneaky parsnips to be picked out of the roast potatoes, proper gravy and all the rest; it means Christmas pudding and ice cream, mint chocolates, nuts, fruit, the yearly indulgence of coffee with cream in it, and the rest of the day spent dipping bread in gravy every time you walk through the kitchen. The soup might change from year to year; an extra piece of meat might come out, or the veg vary depending on what is left of the allotment in the freezer, but the essentials remain.

I won’t be at home for Christmas itself, this year, so we can do what we like. I think a salt cod and potato pie for the night before, and maybe a game-hung five year old hen, perhaps pot-roasted, for the main event. If it ends up tough and stringy, as well it might, considering I have never cooked one before, then at least we have the trimmings, which are after all the best bit.

The Genesis of Porridge

Whatever our romantic notions of European peasant cuisine might be, they almost certainly don’t include enough gruel. Those delightfully thrifty offal dishes you choke down at street stalls and in little backstreet diners? Before urbanisation and centralised slaughterhouses, they were once-a-year treats, the only freshly steaming meat you’d ever eat. Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables? Aside from the fact that raw fruit was once considered actively harmful to health, the juvenile state we eat most of our produce in is simply wasteful, a poor use of energy and time. A young pea straight from the pod is delightful, but that’s because it is mainly sugar; leave it on the plant long enough, and you have a suitably starchy pulse to see you through the winter, as a break from, yes, your gruel.

You can make gruel from any grain or pseudo-grain you like, ground or not, or even chestnuts. Before corn and therefore polenta came to Italy, and a long time before mechanisation made pasta a staple dish, the peasantry lived or at least survived on porridges of either buckwheat or chestnut flour; this is something you seldom see in modern temples to the cucina povera, for some reason. In Britain porridge tends to mean a sweet gruel, and it tends to mean oats, which collapse quite well into creaminess, especially with the addition of cream. The true Scottish way is to eat it with salt alone, of course – and maybe a tot of whisky. As I say, though, oats can take such meagre treatment; most other porridges need some sort of enlivening. I don’t know how long you could live on plain chestnut porridge alone, but it would certainly be long enough to wish you didn’t. Congee, the Chinese rice porridge, sounds a little more appetising, but that might be because the last recipe I read for it emphasised that it should be made with a good chicken stock; given that I would happily drink a good chicken stock by itself, this is hardly a fair comparison. A good white risotto is essentially a rice porridge, but again, that is enlivened with not just stock and wine but also large amounts of cheese and butter; given that I would happily … But I repeat myself.

I have always thought of porridge as quite a primitive thing, a slight misstep on the way to making bread, though I suppose it has just followed a parallel path. On the one hand, it is quick to make, and doesn’t need an oven; on the other, it requires  a good metal cooking pot, a comparatively advanced piece of technology.

The pernicious wheatphobia of the clean eating brigade has, anyway, led to a resurgence in the popularity of porridge, often made with so-called ancient grains, many of them varieties of wheat. I am currently eating a porridge made of buckwheat – which, despite the name, is actually a relative of rhubarb – not because I am avoiding gluten but because I like buckwheat, though not, it turns out, enough to enjoy eating it as a gruel, even with the addition of prunes and malt extract and various other favourite things of mine. Perhaps it needs a good chicken stock, or at least a slick of cream; perhaps eating gruel just isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Perhaps for lunch I will eat something crunchy, and thank the stars I am not a medieval peasant, eating three bowls a day.

Quietly Shining

When you step outside to dump yesterday’s coffee grounds, to relieve the dog, to squeeze your curing hams or to otherwise do whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and you find that the grass crunches underneath your feet and the sharp air catches in your nostril – when, in short, there is every sign that the ministry of frost has been busily fulfilling its duties overnight, it is time to think about boiling bones.

Although the health claims made for bone broth are dubious at best, the Jay Rayners of this world are wrong about one thing – it is not the same as stock. Not at all. A properly made stock has never risen above a simmer; it has been skimmed and pampered its whole life through, and the end result is eerily clear. A soup made with stock, with neatly diced vegetables cooked just-so in it, might be right for a summer day; a good bone broth, never.

I have some pork bones boiling up right now, in with a good smoked gammon hock – and they will be boiled. They will be cooked until the collagen and the fat breaks down and emulsifies with the water, which will be cloudy but glistening and almost tacky to the touch, like the pellicle on the skin of a drying mackerel. You can see, when you make broth, how bones become glue.

Personally, I rarely put in vegetables when I’m boiling ham and bones, though the skins of brown onions give a satisfying colour. As you’re normally doing something else with it, you can add the vegetables then, and give them a fighting chance to retain their integrity; not much outlasts the smoke and salt of a boiling ham hock. Today, when the broth is done I will sweat diced onion and carrots, add some pickled cucumber and its brine, then buckwheat and the broth and finally parsley, great handfuls of parsley and dill, and maybe some soured cream. I’ll share it with some good friends and some good beer, and we will know in our bones that it is cold outside and we are warm.

Alternate Kitchens

You probably don’t remember, but my first ever post on here was on the subject of imaginary cuisines. What if, I asked, what if amongst those washing up in America fleeing war, poverty, oppressions and famine there had been a significant number from Turkey, whose meyhanes and grills now formed as much a part of the New York cityscape as red sauce joints and Ashkenazi delis? That such alternate cuisines are easy to conjure up demonstrates how food cultures spring not only from landscape, from quirks of geology and weather, but from the various movements of humanity, from immigration, from trade and from war. What would the cuisine look like of an island stuck between Africa and Italy’s boot, ruled at times by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, polenta-eaters and mafiosi? It would look Sicilian, and its real glory would come not from the scorching hills of the interior but from the alleys of Palermo; it would be easier, if it were imaginary, to understand.

It strikes me occasionally that anyone engaged in trying to cook what is called Modern British cuisine is engaged in a similar act of creation. Even the most ardent defender of the food of this country would admit that there is a crack in our culinary heritage, a break between then and now; blame it on industrial urbanisation, on Victorian puritanism, on the privations of rationing, but there it is. The apparently fervent embrace of the cuisines of former colonial subjects and various immigrants seems an attempt to fill that gap, a search for the authentic in sweet-and-sour sauce and tikka masala. The irony, of course, is that these cuisines had already changed, adapted to the ingredients they had to hand and to the palates they had to satisfy; they are part of the patchwork of British cuisine.

It has always been a patchwork, of course. Everything has. Medieval kings gorged themselves on the spoils of the Crusades; recipes for curries and pilafs and pasta go back further than you think. Ketchup on everything? That worked its way here from Indonesia, I believe. The Romans taught us how to make sausages, and they brought cabbages and onions to go with them. Back to Modern British; this supposed break with some imaginary peasant Golden Age means we can, essentially, do what the hell we like. People in Italy argue over their ‘genuine’ cuisine, which was mainly invented by Mussolini; we’re still appropriating from everywhere, this time with an added handful of what-ifs. What if Britain had discarded its frankly baffling fear of culinary decay and embraced fermentation and air-drying, alongside its Northern European cousins, if we pressed our herring, dry-cured our sheep, desiccated our cod in the bitter North Sea winds? We don’t have to always-have-done, luckily. We can just start now. Do your bit for an inclusive Britain – nail a fish to a tree.