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

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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

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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.

A Tale Of Two Pickles

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It strikes me as odd that we use the terms pickle and ferment so interchangeably. Ask for a pickle in America and you will most likely be given a dill pickle, that is to say a lacto-fermented cucumber; ask for the same in England and you will probably receive a heavily vinegared baby onion or, if your hypothetical pickle-giver didn’t catch that indefinite article, some sort of Branston-alike, which is to say an equally vinegared vegetable chutney.

Fermenting and pickling, it’s true, do serve the same purpose both practically and culinarily; they preserve the gluts of summer against the long bare winter, and add (ironically) freshness and life to otherwise bland or rich meals. It’s amazing how much more gruel you can choke down if it’s interspersed with bites of sauerkraut, or, at the other end of the scale, how much more palatable a couple of cornichons renders an inch of good foie gras terrine. Despite these seeming affinities, pickling (by which I mean vinegar pickling) and fermenting achieve their aims through exactly opposite approaches; the fermenter creates, but the pickler destroys.

In its classic British format, such as the aforementioned sweet pickled onion or the murky pub egg, pickling constitutes a four-pronged assault against the forces of decay. A solution is made of a strong vinegar, sugar and salt, all in themselves harmful to various forms of microbial life; just in case you thought the sugar might encourage and feed any lurking yeasts or bacteria on your onions, the whole lot is heated and poured boiling over the vegetables in a final sterilisation, and the jar sealed against the living air. No life thrives in such an environment, and the only instability is the slow action of enzymes on vegetable flesh.

This is an excellent way of preserving things and it has unsurprisingly become the standard method (with additional pasteurisation) for industrial pickling; as well as satisfying the hatred of bacteria which is the lynchpin of food safety practices, it produces a consistent and stable product which is capable, on occasion, of deliciousness. Although bought pickled onions are never quite crunchy enough for me (probably that pasteurisation) their vinegar is always excellent, with the ferocious quantities of salt, acid and sugar colliding in the middle into something like balance, while good jarred cornichons are essentially perfect. Certainly they are good enough to render making them at home pointless, even if you had a ready supply of cucumbers no bigger than the top two joints of your little finger. If I did, I think I would ferment them.

wander in simplicity

You may have noticed that I haven’t written anything much lately. You may, of course, having many other things to concern you in this wide and dangerous world, not have noticed at all, but we’ll let that slide; I’ll assume the former, and apologise. I’ve been pretty busy, having just moved to London and started a new job, and don’t seem to have been able to find the time to write – or rather, as I have if anything more time to myself than I did before, I don’t seem to have been able to enter the writing frame of mind.

Partly this is down to simple disruption and tiredness. I do my best work (I think) second thing in the morning, after a good night’s sleep and walking the dog; the first few sentences form on the walk, with the gist of the rest pacing behind, and when I get back I make a pot of coffee and write them down. With no such routine in place, and with my main walk of the day taking me to work, ideas simply have no space in which to land. More subtly, perhaps, I think the newness has shaken me.

So much writing, of all kinds but particularly about the craft of cooking, comes from a position of wisdom or at least authority. If we are to take advice on what is after all the most fundamental and universal of human activities, then we rightly expect the advice-giver to know more about it than we do, whether we think that knowledge was handed down over generations (as we assume with ‘ethnic’ food writers) or forged over years of training, thought and research, as with professional cooks and writers.

Part of what stuck in the craw from the now-stalled ‘clean eating’ movement was the fact that the pampered children at its helm obviously lacked both breadth and depth of knowledge in their assumed field, despite their posturing assumption of authority both medical and culinary; they claimed theirs was the only way when it was the only one they had ever tried. At the other end of the scale, you have chefs like Shaun Hill of the Walnut Tree and Stephen Harris of the Sportsman, the last of whom is finally publishing a cookbook after nearly twenty years of running probably the best kitchen in the country (I don’t count anything with two stars or more as really cooking); you can be sure their authority and even wisdom is absolute. Everyone else, I suppose, falls somewhere in the middle.

In reality, of course, no-one ever stops learning, or rather they shouldn’t; the fact that I am again learning new techniques and facts not just from reading but personally from others with far greater experience than me is no reason to stop writing – at the very least I guess I should be taking notes. I learnt the other day, for example, that it is some compound in the dripping steam that makes covered pans of vegetables go that sickly grey; leave the lid off for brighter greens. I suppose I might have learnt that for myself, if I have ever finished reading Harold McGee cover-to-cover as I planned. I didn’t, though, and so was happy to hear it from someone who had winnowed a relevant fact from those masses of words, and applied it to the first flush of sweet French peas.

green in judgement

It used to be quite common in recipe books to read that if you didn’t like coriander, parsley could easily be used instead – an instruction so entirely wrong-headed it is hard to know where to begin. Britain then being in thrall to French notions of gastronomy, perhaps parsley was considered so innocent and ubiquitous that to use it was almost the same as using no herb at all; perhaps, to put it another way, as the use of such garnishes and flavourings is all so much affectation and ornament, as they all taste the same, no-one will eat them and in any case all meals and all lives eventually come to an end, it doesn’t particularly matter which selection from the herbalist’s garden you choose to throw all over your food – I don’t know. The increased use and therefore availability of good fresh herbs (or perhaps vice versa) is, I think, a handy way in which Britain’s food renaissance can be measured.

The thing about herbs, of course, is that none of them can be substituted for any other, which is odd when you consider that almost every herb we cook with comes from one of two families. Certainly nothing can be substituted for coriander, evoking as it does either the aromas of distant shores or the poky hum of a shield bug. Experts seem to differ as to whether this difference can be explained by a difference in human biology – like the gene which supposedly allows some to taste the hidden foulness of brassicas – or in the plant itself as it varies across place and across time. Personally, I have always found it to be more unpleasantly pungent as the plant begins to bolt, as most herbs are. At any rate, it is one of those smells which, once experienced, seems to lurk always in the background of the once-loved flavour, in the same way that the sweet smell of fresh crab meat can never be entirely free of its sickly decay.

No, apart from the bitterness of plants gone to seed, and the generic greenness which comes out when you bruise or smash any leaf, every herb has a flavour which is really entire and of itself, to the extent that cooking with one new to you is really like discovering a whole new flavour, the more so as the varieties less-used for cooking tend often towards the bold and astringent – whispering Sweet Cicely being, I suppose, the honourable exception. Lovage! Its folding leaves and umbrellas of flowers mark it out as a member of parsley’s team, and it is often compared to celery, but it takes the latter’s astringency to the point where it almost tastes like mint – really, of course, it just tastes like lovage, and very fine it is too, if too strong to be used in great quantity.

One of the delights of Levantine and related cuisines is the use of herbs more as a salad or even a cooked vegetable than as a flavouring or garnish; think of a properly made tabbouleh, which contains only a hint of bulgar wheat against great fistfuls of neatly shredded mint and parsley. The use of similar amounts (the proper measure, Olia Hercules assures us, is “a shitload”) of dill in food that stretches round from Turkey and Georgia, up and through into Russia is something that many find off-putting; for me it is a shibboleth which ties together those rather disparate cuisines, and points to shared origins. Although, as with any herb, you can have too much of a good thing, it is the heavy use of dill and of flat-leaf parsley which makes me prefer the food of Turkey to my once-favourite Moroccan cuisine with its blanket of soft-leafed coriander. Context, though, must play a part; perhaps it is the heavily spiced sweetness I object to more than the herb itself, as I enjoy coriander tucked amongst fish sauce and shredded cabbage and chilli and lime.

Perhaps this kind of taxonomy of food is mistaken; many herbs are more ubiquitous than you might think, although in Britain their use seems to have always been more medicinal than culinary – although as these two pursuits have forever been intertwined, perhaps it would be better to say that their use has been homeopathic, in food and medicine alike. One bay leaf tucked into four litres of braising beef is quite sufficient, thank YOU. Personally, I like to use herbs in great handfuls, whole-leafed in salads, bunches flavouring cream or liquor, masses chopped into a sauce for cold roast mutton. The stronger ones can be chopped up with parsley, which while not featureless does act as a good carrier for more assertive flavours; I like to use the leaves of alexanders, chopped half-and-half with those of parsley, in a green sauce for braised rabbit. Some can still be used homoeopathically, though. Gill Meller tucks a couple of stalks of lovage into some poaching rhubarb, which he serves with fresh cheese; I have an urge to replace the cheese with smoked eel and serve the lot on burnt toast, pink fruit, buttery fish, the scent of mint and iron.

Dine & Wine

Making a risotto, you might think, is a fairly tedious business, which it is unless you do it properly – which is to say in the right frame of mind. One way to enter this frame is for the bottle you open to add the first splash of liquid among the toasted grains to be the one you drink throughout the cooking process; unless you are making a radicchio risotto, this will probably be a light, dry Italian white, perfect for the slight mental dislocation required to stand stirring, watching and listening for the next twenty minutes or so as your rice turns into velvet.

We are told, often, never to cook with anything we wouldn’t drink, which for most young cooks is almost meaningless. a category containing only, at a push, WKD Blue; it certainly includes no known wines. It is intended, of course, to advise us only to cook with good wines, but then what does that mean? Good for cooking, should be the answer, in which case the advice becomes tautologous and disappears. Certainly the idea that we should cook with the best wines we can buy is flawed.

If you are making, for example, a fine coq au vin, then the bosky pinot noir you rightly intend to drink with it would be wasted on the cooking; for one thing, you are going to brutalise the wine by reducing it by half, emphasising some flavours and destroying others. More importantly, though, you don’t need subtle undertones of mushroom and herb when you are in fact going to cook it with both of those things. What makes a good wine as opposed to just a nice wine, you might say, is nuance, and you can always add nuance; that’s what seasoning is for.

Leave the aforementioned bosky delight unopened for now, then, and reduce instead two bottles of the Co-op’s own claret with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a handful of dried mushrooms – if you’re making a fine coq au vin, that is. If you’re making that risotto, in which the wine element is more of a votive offering than anything else, then open something bright and white, and toast with it the coming meal, and the fellow drinkers you are cooking it for.

Flower of Phoenicia

It is easy to find your way around battered Palermo. In the centre of town is the Quattro Canti, a square which could be accused of being an octagon; from this emerge roads aligned with each point of the compass, slicing the city into four. To the North lies the Opera House, the street of artisans, and a fine friggitoria serving doughnuts filled with cooked ham and ricotta; to the East lies the Casa del Brodo, the Antica Foccaceria, the puppet museum, and of course the wine-dark sea. What is in the South and the West, I do not know – churches, I imagine, the outside walls a dusty beige, the interior lustrous and deep – but at any rate, like all maps, this is of course a fiction. It is easy to get lost in Palermo.

The city has that quality, which it shares with Granada and also with the flatly shadowed cities of your dreams, whereby it is quite possible that a side-street you thought terminated in a little square and perhaps a coffee shop opens out instead to reveal the ancient slopes of mountains, the scent of wild fennel drifting in on a snowy breeze, the darkness of looming buildings giving way to a harsh winter sun; turn back again, and there is the coffee shop, and you sit with your dense espresso and your little pastry amidst ancient dust and passing scooters. It doesn’t especially matter where this is, as there is good coffee everywhere – scooters, too, even when the streets narrow so quickly it seems they will drive into the vanishing point. Even in the thick crowds around the market they weave through the slabs of swordfish and piles of wiggling ceruses, the great heaps of artichoke and citrus, and the slicked-back men singing as they grill intestines over coal.

You might discover an urge to get out of this crush, away from the dust and the violence of history; this would be easily done, if the perimeters of the town were not guarded with spaghetti-ing roads and the hulking remains of the Cyclopes, trapped in knock-off concrete by the building contractors of Casa Nostra, if you could work out the bus timetable. Ah well. Back to the city and to the fat sfincione which must surely be the original of the American Deep Dish Pizza Pie; a great number of Italian-Americans are in fact Sicilian-, as indeed are British Italians. Look at the ice-cream parlours of St Andrews and Broadstairs – look at the British habit of dumping pasta sauce on top of pasta, rather than emulsifying it in the pan; a Sicilian habit, too. Whoever codified the so-called Mediterranean diet had clearly not spent much time in Palermo, where, at least in public, they eat a quite astonishing amount of white carbohydrate, and very tasty it is too.

Pane e panelle, for example, gram flour fritters stuffed into white baps, is a dish which epitomises the cucina povera – chickpea in Italian being, as it is in French, the meagre or the pauper’s pea – while at the same time seeming distinctly modern or at least urban, and you eat it and look up, and realise you are standing not in myth or history but in a city which bustles as all cities do, where hurried sandwiches are eaten on the way to or from work, and you shake yourself, and head off, via the Quattro Canti, to a nearby bar.

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.