Clammy Cells

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I’m sure I say this every year, but autumn really is an extraordinary time for British food. We spend the height of summer eating greenhouse tomatoes and endless gluts of courgette, wishing we were south of the thick black coffee line drinking something cold and pale in a cafe by the sea; its a season that we are not fully equipped to deal with, and so we spend it semi-conscious, drifting between shore and field in a sort of gentle fever dream, punctuated by ice-cream. Autumn, on the other hand, is the time to wake up. The hedges are making good on the promise of the early blackberries, with damsons, crabapples and soon sloes weighing down the spindly branches; country roads are once again teeming with semi-wild game birds, running idiotically between their Scylla and Charybdis of front wheel and gun. On the days after the first shoots, the flattened corpses of young partridge carpet the roads.

At least partridge tastes quite nice. The strange situation with pheasant is that these birds are bred in protected environments (often to the detriment of other, perhaps more native creatures), then released into the wild to be shot at, in such numbers that ‘hunters’ give them away for free; no-one wants to eat as much pheasant as can be killed, because, finally, it’s just not very interesting. A sort of dark white meat which dries out easily, it has none of the bloody excitement of a duck or pigeon, it’s too big to tear apart with your hands … to make matters worse, people often don’t prepare them properly, so the legs are full of tough sinews which must be picked laboriously from the meat. All in all, a waste of everybody’s time. If you do get given one, best to brine it in salty tea and then joint it so you can roast the legs slowly, the breasts quickly. Like all game birds, it goes nicely with a jelly or compote of appropriate fruits.

The chickenish paleness of their flesh is, I assume, due to both their early captivity and to their lifelong habit of walking everywhere, even out of the way of oncoming cars; it is certainly shared by the similarly-raised partridge, though the meat of these latter birds is somewhat finer, capable, I’m sure, of a rewarding blush when carefully and delicately cooked; I like to brown them in hot oil and then pickle them. This is a treatment native to Andalusia, but it seems appropriate for an English autumn, and as a recipe it is about as simple as that – just make up a vinegary brine, flavoured appropriately, and pour it, hot, over the browned birds. You don’t need to worry too much about acidity and salinity unless you intend to put them up in a barrel for the winter, in which case you are on your own; fermentation is one thing, but the sterile preservation of protein is fraught with danger. Just put them in the fridge and eat over a few days, and no-one will get botulism.

If you roast or stew your partridges, remember that, as with all pale, wild flesh, they will need a good helping of fat, having very little of their own, either in layers or running through the meat. It’s traditional to roast such birds covered with little strips of streaky bacon, which the cook can then silently eat while preparing the accompaniments; another way is to wrap them in prosciutto or similar and pack them tightly into a casserole for pot-roasting. I once cooked this for Julian Assange, oddly, though I don’t know if he liked it. He certainly never came back. I don’t know if partridges traditionally hide in pear trees because they are themselves pleasingly pear-shaped, or even if they do so at all, but they certainly go nicely with pear, perhaps pickled; or possibly it is just the pleasure of the association. Either way, worth a try.

So much for these sort-of game birds. My own personal favourite is the pigeon, as I think I’ve said before, but as they are easily availably year-round, they don’t carry the seasonal thrill of, say, a nice mallard (smaller and neater than the fat, farmed Gressingham duck), which is what I happen to have in my fridge right now, next to the pot of pickled partridge. Duck is perfect with the sweet tartness of the season, the hedgerow fruits, the heavy, honeyed flavours; there are so many options that I’m not quite sure, having briefly considered Pekinese and Venetian treatments, what I should do with it. Duck and damsons sounds nice, but if you have any suggestions, I would be glad to hear them.

Quel Outrage!

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The best of summer requires so little in the way of human intervention on its way to the plate that it often seems, by the end of the season, as if I have almost forgotten how to cook. Tomatoes fall apart under the knife, providing their own dressing to soak into yesterday’s bread; slices of cured fish nestle just-so against piles of freshly-picked herbs; torn pieces of greengage and peach drip down the chin and onto the wrist. I’ve gone for months barely chopping an onion – I’m not ready for the endless peeling and dicing of squashes, roots, tubers and stalks, the slow building of flavour through sweating, stirring and braising.

Although the weather still thinks it’s high summer, however, the garden disagrees, and this time of year demands that you at least show willing, perhaps heating a few things together, boiling this, toasting that, moving slowly back from assembling towards cooking; it helps, in this situation, to have a well-stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer. It’s amazing what you can throw together when you’ve spent the last few months squirrelling things away. If you don’t spend your entire life in either a professional or amateur kitchen, then this recipe will take a little more time – in fact, it will become a whole series of recipes. All of them are worth making, though. Sit down with a bowl of this and a glass of rosé and you will have successfully extended summer by another hour.

FERMENTED TOMATO BOUILLABAISSE

To serve 4, or thereabouts

around 2.5 l of good fish stock

8 fermented tomatoes, plus 250ml of their brine

1 tbsp tomato puree

a long splash of absinthe or pernod

a small wine glass of good olive oil

some fish

Basically, you just put all of these things in a pan and boil them, hard. This is to force by violence the oil to emulsify with the other liquids, and is probably the only fish soup to require this treatment. You want to reduce the whole by about half.

I suppose the fish stock is the thing here. Any Marseillaise or probably any other Frenchman, and certainly anyone who has read Elizabeth David, will tell you that it is impossible to make a bouillabaisse outside of that fair port. The variety of fish is key, this soup originally being composed of the tiddlers too small to go to market; the only essential, we’re told, is that is contains scorpion fish, a peculiarly ugly creature which lends, I believe, a certain gelatinous quality to the broth.

To all this I offer an elaborate Gallic shrug. If the real thing is impossible to make, then so be it; we can do as we like. My stock was made with lobster carapaces (although I didn’t, it is quite fun, when making soup, to smash these up with a thumping pole) and cod cheek trimmings, along with several branches of flowering fennel and of sweet cicely. The cartilaginous frames of the various rays do very well in a stock, replacing, perhaps, the aforementioned horror; fishmongers, who normally sell the wings alone, often have several of these quasi-skeletons knocking around in their freezer. The carcasses of whatever fish you intend to use should probably go in, unless they are sardines, herrings or mackerel. What the hell are you doing, putting pelagic fish in a bouillabaisse? Salmon heads, on the other hand, turn the whole a rather lovely shade of coral. At this stage, you don’t want to boil your stock, and neither do you want to cook it for long – a gentle simmer for twenty minutes or so should do nicely.

That’s that, then. The fish depends on how much of a meal you intend to make of it – perhaps a fillet or two of white fish per person, a handful of mussels or clams, whatever. You have already offended the proud Provençal, you might as well carry on. Stick a whole bloody crab in it.

Oh, and you’ll need aioli, rouille, croutons and cheese. Carry on.

 

Just a Snicket

“Toasted cheese”, moans Ben Gunn, marooned in a lonely paradise; of all the trappings of his lost past, it is this that he craves the most. I, too, have been a stranger in strange lands, and I have always longed for cheddar cheese. Ubiquitous across Britain, synonymous, in fact, with the very idea of British cheese (imagine ordering a cheese-and-pickle sandwich and getting crumbly Wensleydale or aggressive Stilton), a decent or even semi-decent cheddar is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The stuff that some Americans call cheddar would be a joke, if it were funny; as it is, it is horrifying. I spent a year in upstate New York, and though, I think, every single sandwich I ate had cheese in it, not one cheese sandwich did I see. My (vegetarian) father tried to order one once, at a gas station deli somewhere in the Adirondacks, and was met with polite confusion. “Mayo, cheese, yes – what filling would you like?” Your American cheese lacks both the structure and the physical presence to carry a sandwich by itself – with the exception, of course, of the grilled cheese.

The grilled cheese is grilled in the sense that it is cooked directly on a solid flat-top grill, possibly alongside eggs over-easy, fat pancakes and little sliders; that is to say, it is fried. In its platonic form, before the current sourdough-and-raw-cheese reinvention, it consists of cheap sliced white sandwiched around cheap American cheese, the outside buttered or even mayonnaissed and fried or ‘grilled’ until golden brown. The stated ingredients perfectly match the treatment given them; sliced white (I will not call it bread) is of a uniform density which allows for both maximal surface crispness and minimal escapage of the cheese within, which, being so heavily processed, easily melts in the time taken to cook the sandwich. Sourdough is obviously a vast improvement in terms of flavour, but its irregular size and numerous holes present a new set of challenges to the sandwicheer; best, in most cases, to wrap the whole thing in foil and fry within. As for the cheese, I find the hard calcified click of a good cheddar wasted here, unless you happen to have some gratable odds and ends lying around. A classic melting cheese, something like a raclette or ogleshield, seems most appropriate; it is like a reminder of what American cheese could have been.

Personally, I prefer cold cheese; cold cheddar cheese, in malted brown bread. I resist the idea that every sandwich should be toasted – and no-one would argue that all cheese should be fondued. The joy of fresh mountain cheeses, crumbly, soft and sharp, lies partly in their coldness. Like a cucumber, there is something refreshing about their existence, so clean and white. These are also the easiest sorts of cheeses to make at home, which is nice; just sour and salt some milk and drain off the whey – no culture or clamp required. These are ancient things, particular to animal and soil and air; they are born fresh every day, in country, in village and in farm. It would be instructive and, of course, delicious, to do a comparative study of cheese terroir, ranging across all of Anatolia, Greece, Sardinia, Spain, to see the different flavours wrung out of dry slopes and distant seas.

Who could possibly say which is better, a ball of mozzarella cold out of its brine or melted across a scarce few millimetres of dough – the way the former tears into strings, the way the latter pools and glistens? I would rather eat a whole burrata with my hands. In a good pizzeria, I like my dough almost bare, just a few razor-shavings of garlic across the sweet tomato sauce. As the bread gets worse, the toppings pile higher – which isn’t to say I would turn my nose up at pepperoni, hot peppers, olives or even mushrooms, though I draw the line at sweetcorn; that way lies pineapple. To be honest, I have never encountered a pizza or indeed any form of melted-cheese-on-bread that I have truly, viscerally disliked. Even that sliced white grilled cheese, though barely providing sustenance, has a beauty of its own. Nothing else sits so well next to a cup of cream of tomato soup. Still, for all the joy of cheese-on-toast, of Welsh or Italian rarebit, of saganaki and fondue, if you put me on a desert island it is a good strong cheddar, cold from the fridge, that I would cry for in the depths of the night – so long, of course, as there were pickled onions.

Sour & Bitter

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 I’ve recently been discovering the joys of putting things in barrels. If you put neutral grain spirit in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get whisky; it’s easy, really, despite all the mystery and romance piled around the subject. I suppose that’s the Celtic way. Now, neutral grain spirit isn’t very nice, while whisky, of course, is. It follows, then (I suppose), that if you put something nice in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get something better than whisky. To really test this theory, I guess I’d have to leave the something in the barrel for a good ten years; I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the patience. However, putting things in smaller barrels sort-of speeds the ageing process, or at least some aspects of it (surface area, don’t you know); to cut a long story short, I’ve put a bottle of Morris Gin in a small oak barrel. It’s been in there for two months now, and is starting to get some colour and good whiskiness from the wood. I’m going to leave it a couple more months, I think. My next project is to barrel-age two litres of mixed Negroni; I can only imagine that this will be extremely delicious.

None of this is very useful unless you intend to fill your house with barrels. It reminded me, though, that flavours can leak from unlikely places, and that alcohol is very good at capturing them. If you read a recipe requiring you to macerate oak twigs in wine, you would be surprised, though that is essentially what happens when you age the stuff in barrels. I have, in fact, a recipe somewhere for an oak-branch aquavit; “this sounds disgusting”, I thought, before the penny dropped. I’ve never actually tried this sort of reverse barrel-ageing, though. Silly, really, when we’ve got an oak right outside the kitchen. One reason alcohol is such a good medium for capturing these flavours is that unlike, say, water, it is capable of dissolving flavours from fats and oils; this is the principle behind ‘washed’ spirits, which have become a thing recently. This basically involves mixing a fat with booze and leaving it for a few days, then skimming the fat off. Easy! The first I heard of it was with bacon-fat bourbon (tastes like bourbon with bacon in it) but I was reminded of the technique recently by the olive oil-washed gin in Sardine‘s dirty martini – a very fine aperitif cocktail. It so happened that at the same time I was looking for something to do with the cynar I had made. Cynar, if you’ve never had it, is an Italian bitter made chiefly of artichoke; it is truly, horrendously bitter – and I say this as a lover of Fernet Branca. Artichoke and olive oil, I thought – and so this drink was born. You may have heard it mentioned in passing on this Radio Four programme – I know the fig leaf wine was the star, but you can get the recipe there, so I thought I’d give you this.

ARTICHOKE SOUR

This takes ages and has several steps. Sorry!

CYNAR

about 20 artichoke leaves

a few angelica stalks

a bottle of vodka

Put everything in a jar and leave for at least a month, preferably two. Strain and bottle. Or buy some Cynar.

OLIVE OIL-WASHED GIN

a bottle of gin (I used Plymouth)

350g extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together in a big jar or bowl – something you can cover tightly. Leave for three days, whisking and re-covering every day, then put in the freezer overnight. Scoop off the solidified oil and strain the gin into a bottle.

SIMPLE SYRUP

equal weights of sugar and water

Boil together for five minutes, cool and bottle. Or buy some gomme.

LEMON JUICE

Juice some lemons. Or, yes, buy some pasteurised lemon juice in a squeezy lemon. You’ve got this far, though…

When you’d like to actually drink this, just mix equal quantities of everything. I assume you keep all of your booze in the freezer; if not, stir over ice. Enjoy! You’ve earned it.

Inglorious Bustards

There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and bosky wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which, broadly, we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated significantly, adapted itself around human settlement. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my back garden. The pig farms of Blythburgh have as much right to the land as Folkestone Warren.

Any radical conservation (if you’ll excuse the phrase), that is to say, any attempt to rebirth a truly wild British landscape, would require, ironically, a huge intervention, in the form of a vast holocaust. A near-total annihilation of the human population, not to mention of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, alpacas, horses, goats, elephants, wallabies, rheas, hares and so on, a final eradication of the mark of so-called civilisation from the map, would be followed by the reintroduction of wolves and of bears; the regular cull that our semi-wild deer population receives would be carried out more naturally. There are those who advocate for this, if not in such extreme terms – it is the logical conclusion of a certain strand of conservationism, but most people tread a more compromised path.

To return to total wildness, let’s say, is impossible or undesirable or both – what then? If you agree that we have some responsibility towards the rest of nature, to try and ensure we do as little harm as we can – well, it seems arbitrary to choose now or rather a rose-tinted recent past as the moment to conserve, but what else to do? Muddle along, I suppose. Even if we had the inclination to resurrect ecosystems past, we don’t have the ability or the knowledge. The culture in a pot of naturally fermented kimchi has still not been successfully modelled – imagine the complexity of the wild wood! So we tend to our garden, we manage and conserve, we farm the things we think are farmed, we hunt and forage the wild ones – and this, really, is the problem. Most of them are not wild.

The humane farming of animals for meat has taken huge strides in recent years. A loose coalition of chefs, farmers and consumers has made a huge positive change to animal welfare and to its importance in public discourse; everyone knows to at least pay lip service to happy hens, blissful cows, quietly ecstatic pigs. If there is still some distance to go, there is at least a general recognition that, quite apart from ethical issues, meat tastes better when it has spent its life outside, eaten a varied diet, had a gentle death. The quality of good meat in Britain now is really quite astonishing, and cooks both professional and amateur are right to insist on the good stuff; it is more expensive, but so it should be; it takes space and time to farm well, and these things cost money.

On the other hand, we have game. I have written a few times before about rabbit, and nothing’s changed since then; it is still, alongside pigeon, plentiful and generally healthy in its large feral populations, shot at by farmers as pest control. It is, I think, right to eat it for as long as these conditions attain. Although farmed in some places, the various types of deer which roam Britain are in a broadly similar situation – in the absence of their apex predators, they are regularly culled. I don’t especially like venison and, still treated as a meat of kings, it is pretty expensive, but I don’t have a problem with it; eat away!

Game birds (pigeon excepted) on the other hand, are very different. Most, like the rabbit, were introduced to be kept as a semi-wild food source, though lacking the rabbit’s capacity to breed, adaptability to various environments, and resilience to even horrific biological warfare, they need keeping, breeding and rearing as chicks, their environment heavily managed to the detriment of other species – all so they can be shot at. Are they wild or farmed? The huge pens called ‘grouse moors’ are kept solely for the benefit of these creatures. Foxes and stoats, which prey on them, are trapped and killed, as are hares, which can carry parasites harmful to grouse; the surface of the moor is burnt away. All of this, I think, is legal, but there are also many recorded instances of birds of prey trapped or poisoned, which is not. Higher ground is drained, to the detriment of lowland towns.

This is farming, free-range farming on a wastefully gigantic scale – but without the payoff. Where cows are herded into abattoirs one-by-one, unaware of the imminent blow of the bolt-gun, calmly led to euthanasia, semi-tame grouse and partridge and pheasants are released, hounded and flung into the air to be shot at, winged, dispatched, shoved into ‘the bag’. No wild meat should require such intervention; no farmed animal deserves such a death. Driven grouse shooting gives us the very worst of each world. The reason it is allowed to continue, of course, is that it is a hobby of the very rich, for whom nature is not red in tooth and claw but just another playground under their petulant command. It creates jobs, they cry, it is economically necessary – stop buying grouse, that cruelly half-farmed highland chicken, and it won’t be. Remember that when you cook with grouse, when you eat it, you are cooking not wild untrammelled nature but the discarded carrion of an aristocrat’s game.

 

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.

Not A Fig

One of the best things about growing your own food (or rather, working somewhere where someone does it for you) is that you get to use parts of the plants that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t even see. Pinched-out broad bean tops make a fine salad; artichoke leaves can be infused into cynar; rosemary flowers have a vagrant fragrance, more delicate by far than the bruising aromatics of the leaves. The basic rule, which seems very obvious once you realise it, is that all or most of the plant carries flavour. We usually use just the fruit, or the leaf, or the root, but the rest is full of untapped potential.

 

Of course, we have to exercise some restraint in this. Broad bean flowers are very good, but if you use them all you won’t get any broad beans – a bit of a waste of a plant. Leaves are less finite, but strip too many off and your tree will die. Luckily, in most cases you only need a few to bring a strong flavour to your recipe – in this case, your ice-cream. The leaves of fruit trees or bushes lend themselves very well to this. The bursting fragrance of fresh fruit is beautiful in a water- or buttermilk-ice, but the added acidity and liquid can be difficult to handle in a proper creamy ice-cream; the leaves give a lot of the former with none of the latter. You just need to plan a little in advance.

 

Although a lot of recipes for fig leaf ice-cream cook the leaves, I prefer not to. Broadly speaking, leaves of all kinds contain two strands of flavour. There are the oils and aromas particular to the plant itself, redolent of mintiness or blackcurrantness or whatever; then there is a more generic leafiness or grassiness, common to most greenery, which is in fact a defence mechanism against violence, and is brought out by physical insult or by heat. Sometimes, as in a chlorophyllic chimmichurri, you want this latter quality, which is why you smash the leaves in mortar or in magimix; more often, you don’t. In these cases, careful chopping or cold maceration are the way to go.

 

FIG LEAF ICE-CREAM

You’ll need, obviously, some fig leaves. We have a tree growing against the wall of the cafe, which is handy. Without this luxury, you’ll have to hunt one down. There’re a couple in the ground of Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m reliably informed there’s one in Vauxhall Park. Just don’t take too many.

300ml full-fat milk

4-5 fig leaves

300ml double cream

200g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

a pinch of salt

Scrunch or slap the leaves lightly, so they smell strongly of figs; put them in the milk and leave for two or three days, then squeeze them out and discard them. Add the milk to the cream in a saucepan.

Whisk together the sugar, yolks and salt (preferably in a free-standing mixer; it takes ages) until really fluffy and pale. A sort of wan lemon should be your guide, but it obviously depends on the eggs.

Meanwhile, scald the milk mix, and when the eggs are right, pour the hot liquid over them, still whisking, and then pour the lot back into the pan.

Heat very gently, stirring the whole time, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of whatever utensil you are using. If you overcook it, it will scramble, and you’ll have to start the whole three-day process all over again.

Decant into a container and cool completely, preferably overnight in the fridge, then churn in your ice-cream machine or whatever charmingly old-fashioned arrangement you have. Eat it now as a soft-serve or freeze overnight for a more traditional scoop. Some little biscuits would not go amiss.

Lights of My Life

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Excellent times at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Someone remarked that it was like seeing their bookshelves come to life, which seems apt; I chatted with Bee Wilson, Elisabeth Luard and Fergus Henderson, watched Claudia Roden, Jacob Kennedy and Jennifer McLagan, and added many more writers to my reading list; I met academics, fellow-travellers and stars of the future like Rebecca Johnson and Amanda Couch, who I watched perform a Mesopotamian-style liver divination – not something I ever thought I’d see.

It was, if not actually humbling, at least a signal honour to present a paper to such an illustrious and appreciative crowd, to have a space where I, as a non-academic with a semi-academic background and a wide range of interests, could come and be a part of the debate. The papers’ll be edited for online and physical publication before the end of the year, at which point I’ll put up my presentation, too; for now, since this kind of effusiveness doesn’t come naturally to me, here is a portrait of a pig.

Angel’s Kiss

In Oliver Rowe’s new and rather lovely work, a photo-less cookbook-diary-memoir called Food For All Seasons, which details the sometimes extreme locavorism that drives his cooking, he talks of the turn of the seasons as a sort of relentless force which moves entirely as it pleases; not a peaceful, steady wheel but a rollercoaster which gathers or loses speed and momentum according to the time of the year, the weather, and so on. The seasons, as he describes them, are a hard taskmaster, demanding constant vigilance and thorough organisation in order to get the most out of their bounty.They are now approaching full speed, as the year rolls into full summer and every week, it seems, brings a new crop; the other day, having just got used to the constant rain and chilly evenings, I was shocked when our grower brought up the first of the cucumbers. Spiny pickling varieties, some a dark alligator green and some a highlighter-yellow, I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, quite ready for them; luckily, the limited success of my miso project meant I had a spare crock, and in they went, with some wet garlic, fresh bay and fennel fronds for company. It’s so hot at the moment that they are nearly ready, three days later – everything moves faster in the summer, which is unfortunate, given that it is too hot in the kitchen to move above an amble.

With a combination of this and a slight change in technique, our pickled turnips are ready overnight, the mixed pickle only slightly longer. Ol’ Yeasty belches and swells swampily, and his doughy offspring rise like a dream. The downside is that experiments which could otherwise have been left happily to themselves for days on end require constant vigilance; if they don’t end up victims of their own bubbly tumescence, the fruit flies will probably get them. I understand why they target the rye sourdough, which is after all pretty much pure digestible food, but their particular love for drowning themselves in anything vinegary is baffling, and has led to the death of a poorly-wrapped maceration of cherries; luckily it also makes it easy to set traps for them. It’s lucky, then, that the concoctions of sugared wine and crushed fruit on the shelf above the bar are sealed in Kilner jars and well-wrapped in clingfilm; they would otherwise shortly become infested with tiny corpses.

Containing, variously, green walnuts, black cherries, and squished gooseberries, these infusions will become what the French, rather lovelily, call ‘window wines’, as they sit on a bright windowsill to mature in the sun, which streaks through them and turns shades of orange, green, and scarlet. Even if they taste disgusting, which seems rather unlikely, it would be worth making them just for this. I have, as is often the case, Diana Henry to thank for introducing me to these, which I have been meaning to make for ages. It’s just so hard not to eat cherries, especially when you are squashing the stones out of them and the juice splatters all over your hands and face. The cherry and the gooseberry should both be ready in a day or two, but the walnut, made, like Opies’ finest pickles, from the soft buds before they develop shells, is supposed to take two months. This is frustrating, but I suspect its taste – which I imagine is dark, spiced and woody – will sit better in the dark end of the year. Summer, on the other hand, was made for drinking cherry wine, in little glass beakers as the sun goes down across the hedgerows and the hills and the backs of the hot-bricked houses, as the first blue stars emerge.

Humblebrag

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It seems to have become the thing, when receiving an award, achieving some ambition long-worked-for or completely out of the blue, to declare yourself ‘humbled’. I’m not really sure what this means. I am humbled by the sublime majesty of the Adirondack peaks, the wild Atlantic, or the North Norfolk coast; I am humbled when I eat the food, say, of James Lowe or Stephen Harris, or read W.G Sebald or MFK Fisher, and realize I may never work with such simple grace. When, on the other hand, the restaurant at which I work is named the 80th best in the UK in a prestigious and well-respected list, I am far from bloody humbled. Why should I be? I am QUANTIFIABLY better than you – or at least most of you. I don’t know why it’s not considered acceptable to instead declare yourself ‘distended with drunken pride’, but there it is; etiquette, I suppose.

Another thing about which I find myself decidedly un-humble is that I have finally, two years after seriously starting, succeeded in making sourdough bread good enough – with that crust which crackles just-so as you squeeze it – to sell in the restaurant. Two years is just about as long as I’ve ever worked at anything (well, apart from my degree, but I’m not sure I count reading Jack London as work; he certainly wouldn’t have), so I consider this a justified result for my effort, which consisted largely of doing the same thing over and over again until I got good at it – the final step missing from all pastry and bread recipes – as well, of course, as stealing advice and techniques from whoever I could, including monks, Prussian princes, long-dead writers, and, on occasion, bakers.

As the adoption of these techniques, and the various pieces of equipment they require, which demands a certain amount of time, money, and practical experience, would form the bulk of any recipe, it would be largely pointless for me to write one down here; the only changes I have made from my last bread post, anyway, have been to adapt the flours, to add a secret improver, to alter the constituents of the starter, to make a wetter dough, and to change the equipment and therefore the process I use in almost every respect, so you might as well just follow that one.

I think, anyway, that it does’t much matter which recipe you follow. The important thing is to stick to one, and to stubbornly follow it again and again until the bread which comes out of the oven is perfect in every respect. Feel humble if you like, but it makes me feel alive.