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.