Aches and Kale

What’s a food writer to do in the face of such ridiculous weather? I was almost ready to write about little boiled artichokes and loose green mayonnaise, poached fish, fricassees of rabbit and peas – about spring, in other words, and beyond it the faint potential for wine and roses; then along came the snow. I suppose it’s fortunate given these circumstances that I’ve already written an entire book about the possibilities of spring eating, or I would find myself quite frustrated. As it is, I’ve quite enjoyed the opportunity to reembrace thick soups, dark with brassicas and bitter herbs and dense with beans, black bread with tooth-marked butter, problematic Anglo-Saxon drinking, and all the other fond habits of winter.

It rarely gets cold enough in this country to properly appreciate, for example, potatoes covered thickly in oozy stinking cheese, or at least to do so entirely without guilt. We so often look to the Mediterranean for inspiration that it is quite refreshing to settle into the cushioning carbs of northern Europe. I have spent most of the last week with a powerful craving for dumplings of the Russian or Polish or Georgian varieties, which has yet to be sated, largely due to my own laziness. Although spring seems to be attempting a reboot, I’m hoping it might still be cold enough over the next few days to enjoy a dumpling or two. Whether free-standing and dough-wrapped or nakedly bobbing in stew or soup or sage butter, dumplings must be one of the great universal comforters, little pillows of softness in a cold hard world.

To Build A Fire

The first little brightnesses of winter are beginning to appear after the long mulch of autumn and December; the low sun is in a clear blue sky and soon restaurant plates everywhere will be lit up with flashes of Sicilian blood orange, dark-grown Yorkshire rhubarb, and pale green leaves speckled with mahogany. Everything will be bitter leaves and cured fish, as if January had no more need for comfort. These flavours are welcome, of course, as welcome as a walk around the sunny park when for a week the sky has been a uniform lead grey, like living in one of the grimmer Jack London stories; eating uncooked fish and sour-sweet fruit is almost always welcome, and it feels like you are being good to yourself in a very particular way, the way of brisk walks and bitter cordials and melancholy non-fiction. Sometimes that is the self-care you need, to feel fresh and clean or at least alive in the face of leaden greyness; sometimes you need to take the opposite path, and sit in your warm pyjamas drinking a deep amber wine, eating anchovies on hot buttered toast, half listening to the radio, and half writing this.


Pulse of Life

I have long appreciated the Italian habit of eating lentils on the last evening in December, the little coin-shaped pulses, we are told, guaranteeing prosperity in the twelve months to come. The joke, of course, is that if you feasted on lentils every day prosperity would be almost guaranteed. This combination of superstition with practicality strikes me as very Italian or perhaps very Catholic, the flipside of the Feast Of The Seven Fishes, that blowout fast, observed in Provence as well as parts of Italy, where diners gorge themselves on the few ingredients allowed them by their religious dietary calendar. As well as the titular seafood, an array of no less than thirteen desserts is offered; to be fair, though, most of them are fruit. Still, after such extravagant frugality, you can forgive the Italians for confining themselves to lentils for the next big event.

Sausages, of course, are the proper accompaniment, and I have had a hankering for this particular preparation of the two; for a variety of reasons, though, not least the general availability of cotechino on a Sunday in Norwich, I’m not making it today. Instead I am reading back into my own family traditions for this lentil ragu, a constant in my childhood and still much-requested whenever I or my brothers visit home. In fact, as my mother told me when I asked her for the recipe, we once had it as the main course on Christmas Day, piled (as is traditional) on top of a mound of spaghetti; I say ‘we’ but this was, by my mother’s account, six years before I was born. I think, anyway, that New Year’s Eve is a more appropriate place for it – you need something to line the stomach, after all.

My mother claims to have found this recipe in a women’s magazine some time around 1980; be that as it may, the use of sweet spices in a tomato sauce for pasta strikes me as rather Venetian and so this evening we will be preceding it with sardines agrodolce and some little crostini of smoked eel, a little touch of luxury before our frugal feast. This is what she sent me –

The recipe as I always cook it:

4oz red lentils
1 small can (140gm) tomato puree
4 small cans (ie the empty tomato puree can) of water
1 tsp grd cinnamon
1 tsp grd coriander
2 cloves garlic, crushed
olive oil

Lightly cook spices and garlic in olive oil in a pressure cooker.
Add lentils, tomato puree and water.
Bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then cook at pressure for 30 minutes.
Salt to taste.

The above quantities and timings give a rich thick sauce – the only thing that has ever gone wrong is that it sometimes burns a little on the base – but stirring carefully until it boils prevents that. I have never cooked it in an ordinary pan, and am not sure whether it’s the pressure cooking that gives it its particularly rich quality.

The pressure cooking certainly fits with the dates my mother gave, and I think she is right to attribute the sauce’s particular richness to that technique. Heston Blumenthal says that pressure cooking allows liquid to boil at a temperature high enough for Maillard reactions to take place, those complex caramelisations of sugar and protein which give well-browned meat its irresistible savour, which is why he always cooks stock in a pressure cooker; this being the case, the sweet tomato puree and savoury lentils must be undergoing the same process in the method above.

Half an hour at pressure, furthermore, roughly equates to (I think) around one and a half hours of regular simmering, much longer than you would usually give red lentils. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, as I’m sure most people don’t, then fry the tomato puree in the oil after the garlic has coloured a little, so it cooks out and begins to darken; then, when everything is added, simmer slowly for one hour and one half (you might need more water) until the lentils collapse into absolute submission. If their particular rich quality does not guarantee your own richness, you will, at least, be well-fed.

Soup Of The Evening

When you awake, perhaps a little hungover but in any case tired from a long week of work, to a quiet white blanket across roof and pavement and more coming down fast, the inevitable desire for pies, braises, broths and stews has to battle with the mundane reality of kicking through the slush to the shops. For some reason, while being out in the snow with no purpose is a great delight, running errands in it a soggy chore.

Some chefs and food writers have, I’m sure, a freezer full of old bones, scraggy pieces of meat and the like, stored for just this reason; many must have tupperware full of daubes and casseroles only needing a long defrost. As my freezer contains only two wholemeal flatbreads, badly freezer-burned, my dreams of soup remained just that. I could, come to think of it, have made a little broth of dried mushrooms and potatoes, but to tell the truth I couldn’t really be bothered; far easier to pound garlic, anchovies, capers and walnuts, loosen the mixture with some of the water from just-cooked pasta, toss together and eat with a glass of unambitious wine.



Sometimes coming up with a recipe or (to put it another way) cooking dinner requires a long and hands-on process of tinkering, of adding salt here, acid there, a little cooked-out tomato puree because you didn’t use enough to begin with, constant top-ups with water or quick reductions; sometimes it just opens up like a flower. In the latter case, although it feels like you are cooking with rare grace and skill the apparent ease is usually just because you are using four or five ingredients and doing very little to them; it can require more craft and skill to fix something already broken than to make it properly in the first place. Some things – a scrambled custard, a stew made with an unsweated mirepoix – are beyond repair, while some things require not fixing but rather a little nudge to give them a new lease of life, like a cleanly diced broth of mushrooms and potatoes given a handful of pasta and a squeeze of lemon, and eaten as a late breakfast on a cold day.

Mostly plants

Strange though it might seem to the long-term reader of these pages, I don’t actually eat very much meat. I’ll eat it when I’m out, because that is a treat, and because I generally go to restaurants I trust to source well-raised and -slaughtered animals; the last time I bought any to cook at home was for my birthday in April when, unable to find any coq, I got a couple of the large, slow-grown Sutton Hoo chickens to braise au vin, with buttered fresh pasta on the side and radishes to start. I don’t shop at supermarkets and I can’t afford to buy meat from the butcher anything more than occasionally – and rightly so. By meat, I should say, I mean chunks of skeletal muscle. I eat a fair amount of other animal products.

When I lived in Suffolk, I ate a lot of eggs, because I knew the chickens. I don’t drink milk, in part because the dairy industry is a dreadful thing but largely because I prefer oat milk; I find it less intrusive in coffee and it obviously has a greater affinity with cereal and porridge than does the milk of cows or other ungulates. I choose oat milk over other plant-based alternatives because it is readily available unadulterated with sugar or with emulsifiers and because the alternatives are disastrous environmentally. To pick almond over cow’s milk is to weigh the ravages of the Californian drought against the mass death of newborn calves; ultimately, I suppose, everything we do is destructive to the face and the depths of the earth, and the puzzle is to find some sort of balance.

For me the answer lies in a sort of economics of death. How much can you wring from each animal, and do you need to? Fish sauce is brewed from entrails and bycatch, and a few drops transforms a meal; a chunk of salt pork enriches a whole mess of beans. If you’re going to eat something like a burger, sandwich ham or chicken nuggets, which bears little resemblance to its original form, I think you may as well eat seitan or Quorn or whatever. A cow might provide vast quantities of meat but the point is that it does so inefficiently and largely unnecessarily. Nobody needs to eat the amount of protein that huge steaks provide and in any case steaks are boring. Even a really good steak just tastes like a steak. To grill a rump or a porterhouse is to close it in on itself; the more economical cook allows meat to give itself up. Even so, I like to save it for moderately special occasions.

The cliche, of course, is that vegetarians and especially vegans are evangelical about their dietary choices, and will aggressively bore anyone nearby about, say, the exploitation of bees in the Chinese honey industry; while I have no doubt this is true of some, I find evangelical carnivores far worse. There is a certain type of person who takes the fact that you don’t eat very much meat, actually, as a personal affront not just to them but to their ancestors, their family, their beliefs; I’m not sure why this should be. The economic ability to consume meat, actual pieces of meat, three times a day has come very recently to most of Western society, and the vast majority of the world does not possess it. It is never presented as a hard-won privilege jealously guarded, though, more as a divine law flouted only by heretics and fools. The fact, as I say, that the vast majority of the human diet throughout its history has been composed of plants in various forms makes this all the stranger. I can only imagine how these people must react to actual self-declared vegans; luckily, I suppose, I like cheese too much to ever become one.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

Long Story

It is a curious thing, as I believe others have remarked, that the written recipe – at the moment probably the principle medium for the sharing of culinary knowledge – represents at the same time the end of a long and often tortuous journey, and the beginning of a new one. For the recipe writer and professional cook, the neat list of ingredients and method is an imperfect distillation of not only a more-or-less exacting process of thought, testing, tasting and adjustment, but also of a lifetime or even lifetimes of experience, whether your own of that of family, friends, or indeed total strangers. As Sarit Packer once said to me with a shrug, when I confessed to wholesale theft of her method for cheesecake, recipes travel; how they do so might be a fascinating story.

There is, of course, the what-I-did-on-my-holidays school of recipe writing, of which I admit I have been often guilty; in the right hands, which is to say those of Claudia Roden, this can be illuminating. Her anthropological rigour, and the easy skill with which she teases out tangled family recipes into long threads of history, is quite remarkable, and her books, at their best, open up entire worlds. More often than not, though, this sort of food writing is conducted in a spirit of magpie dilettantism; I went here and I ate this and then I recreated it at home is not a particularly interesting story, and nor, to put it another way, does it show much interest in the story of the recipe itself.

Far more interesting, to my mind, though they may lack in exotic locales, are the lists of odd coincidence and happy chance by which written recipes travel about the place – a clipping from a magazine tucked inside a book given to a charity shop bought by a pub for decoration and opened only out of boredom, perhaps, or just one passed on by a friend, knowing that it in time would be cut and adapted, mutilated and changed, and become the start, in time, of its own story.

Boat Bread


Of all the alien things about Georgia – the language, apparently written in Elvish, the darkly ornate Christianity, the fruit-and-garlic sauces, the tininess of their cats – perhaps the strangest is that that they simply don’t eat breakfast, or at least have no real culture of doing so. Although there is something to be said for the lingua franca of the hotel continental breakfast – always different, always the same – one of the key pleasures of travelling, I find, is to explore the different ways in which various peoples choose to start their day. The mezeish spread of a Turkish weekend, picking at muhammara, sausage, dates, cheeses, tahini, clotted cream, olives, salads and fruit, puts you in a frame of mind very different to that engendered, say, by a pastry washed down with an espresso at a Neapolitan bar, which is one of the reasons that being in Naples is very different to being in Istanbul. The lack of breakfast makes Tbilisi hard to grasp.

Given that another key pleasure of travelling is staying out until two every morning drinking in the street, however, it is easy enough to get up late and treat every lunch as brunch. Although we went to an excellent place which specialises in hangover cures to try the traditional Georgian remedy of spiced tripe soup (properly speaking this should be slopped down drunkenly before you go to bed, though it still seemed effective after the fact), I couldn’t entirely escape my British craving for egg and bread; the Georgians will see your scrambled egg on toast and raise you an Adjarian khachapuri.

Khachapuri simply means cheese bread, a genre of Georgian baking which sees the one stuffed into the other; in its Adjarian form it is boat-shaped, similar to but rounder than the Turkish pide, and crowned, as pide often also is, with an egg. The genius of the Georgian version is that the egg is left almost raw and joined with quite a large amount of fresh butter, to be mixed into the still-hot cheese filling at the table; cheesy scrambled eggs, essentially, which you scoop out with pieces of the crust – an excellent way to begin the day, although given that in its smallest tourist size it is a good seven inches across, that day is unlikely to be very productive. These are easy enough to make at home – Olia Hercules has a recipe in her new book or here, which you will need to triple in size for the full experience – although you might find that negates the lazy pleasure of having one brought to you as you sit in a cafe in Hackney or Tbilisi or Batumi over late coffees and salty mineral water, your head still full of last night’s wine.

An Old Sweet Song


As you fly into Tbilisi the morning sky is the colour of just-poached trout and the only buildings to be seen are tower-blocks of a dense Soviet gray which give way to the flimsier gray of office and mall as the bus circles its way into the city but as soon as you come up through the underpass the gray refracts into a gentle riot of mint, peach, aquamarine and marigold, the air smells of tarragon and charcoal, and there you are, surrounded by cats, on a street you can’t pronounce at the north end of the Old Town of Tbilisi, already thinking about dinner.

If, the three or four books already published this year on Georgian cuisine notwithstanding, Tbilisi is not yet a major destination for European food-lovers or indeed for European tourists in general then I think the variegated shades of its culture are partly to blame, sat as it is seemingly at a trading post between Europe, Russia, Asia Minor and the Middle East, both exotic and eerily familiar. At first glance, in fact, most of its food seems borrowed from elsewhere, cucumbers pickled with dill and garlic, little money-bag dumplings, pilafs, kebabs both shish- and kofte-, the boat-shaped breads of the Black Sea, though it’s hard, of course, to say where these things originated and who took them where; who knows what came from Georgia?

Perhaps the round translucent leaves of fruit leather, which, folded neatly into albums, are sold in backstreet market and tourist emporium alike, find their way into dense meat broths, a little sharpener to complement or replace the sour plum sauce which is used also as a table condiment, sharp with garlic and spices, to lift up some grilled pork or a little chicken, crisped under hot weights and served with all its juices; perhaps wine, all wine, although I believe some Armenians would dispute that. Certainly there is no doubt in the Georgian mind that their country is the cradle of wine-making, that their qvevri were turned into amphorae and their techniques taken around the civilised world, altered, bastardised, forgotten. Certainly the newer generation of Georgian vintners, having thrown off the travesties of the Soviet years, make wines which feel correspondingly ancient – intense, spicy, dry, of the rich ambers and dusty reds of a sunset across the Caucasus or the Black Sea or anywhere at all.