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.