The Genesis of Porridge

Whatever our romantic notions of European peasant cuisine might be, they almost certainly don’t include enough gruel. Those delightfully thrifty offal dishes you choke down at street stalls and in little backstreet diners? Before urbanisation and centralised slaughterhouses, they were once-a-year treats, the only freshly steaming meat you’d ever eat. Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables? Aside from the fact that raw fruit was once considered actively harmful to health, the juvenile state we eat most of our produce in is simply wasteful, a poor use of energy and time. A young pea straight from the pod is delightful, but that’s because it is mainly sugar; leave it on the plant long enough, and you have a suitably starchy pulse to see you through the winter, as a break from, yes, your gruel.

You can make gruel from any grain or pseudo-grain you like, ground or not, or even chestnuts. Before corn and therefore polenta came to Italy, and a long time before mechanisation made pasta a staple dish, the peasantry lived or at least survived on porridges of either buckwheat or chestnut flour; this is something you seldom see in modern temples to the cucina povera, for some reason. In Britain porridge tends to mean a sweet gruel, and it tends to mean oats, which collapse quite well into creaminess, especially with the addition of cream. The true Scottish way is to eat it with salt alone, of course – and maybe a tot of whisky. As I say, though, oats can take such meagre treatment; most other porridges need some sort of enlivening. I don’t know how long you could live on plain chestnut porridge alone, but it would certainly be long enough to wish you didn’t. Congee, the Chinese rice porridge, sounds a little more appetising, but that might be because the last recipe I read for it emphasised that it should be made with a good chicken stock; given that I would happily drink a good chicken stock by itself, this is hardly a fair comparison. A good white risotto is essentially a rice porridge, but again, that is enlivened with not just stock and wine but also large amounts of cheese and butter; given that I would happily … But I repeat myself.

I have always thought of porridge as quite a primitive thing, a slight misstep on the way to making bread, though I suppose it has just followed a parallel path. On the one hand, it is quick to make, and doesn’t need an oven; on the other, it requires  a good metal cooking pot, a comparatively advanced piece of technology.

The pernicious wheatphobia of the clean eating brigade has, anyway, led to a resurgence in the popularity of porridge, often made with so-called ancient grains, many of them varieties of wheat. I am currently eating a porridge made of buckwheat – which, despite the name, is actually a relative of rhubarb – not because I am avoiding gluten but because I like buckwheat, though not, it turns out, enough to enjoy eating it as a gruel, even with the addition of prunes and malt extract and various other favourite things of mine. Perhaps it needs a good chicken stock, or at least a slick of cream; perhaps eating gruel just isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Perhaps for lunch I will eat something crunchy, and thank the stars I am not a medieval peasant, eating three bowls a day.

Brownie Points

photo (1)   Not just another cake recipe, but another chocolate cake recipe. I don’t know what’s happened to me. In my defence/aggrandisement, several customers have said this is the best brownie they’ve ever eaten, so see this as a public service announcement. I know, I’m too kind. Brownies are one of the easiest but also one of the most abused of cake recipes. Relying not on aeration and raising agents but on obscene amounts of butter and chocolate, they really are just as good as their ingredients. Unfortunately, not having the cachet of the Frenchified chocolate mousse cake, people seem more inclined to mess around with them. Start adding too much flour, add any baking powder, or worst of all, cook it past the point of gooeyness, and you’ve got a cake. Maybe a very nice cake, but definitely not a brownie. Their construction means they aren’t cheap to make, but neither should they be – if they were, we’d all be fat as houses. So. Your basic brownie is chocolate, butter, sugar, eggs, and generally nuts, held together with a whisper of flour. As you’re using the latter in such small amounts, and only for its binding properties, this is an ideal opportunity to go gluten-free, and make the coeliac in your life very happy. See this, however, not as some Hemsley-esque deprivation – I’m not going to start wittering about superfoods and broth – but as a chance to pile in more flavour. Your basic flour doesn’t really taste of much, which is rather the point, and neither do a lot of gluten-free flour blends, being made of ground rice and other tedious things. Buckwheat (not a wheat), however, has a pleasantly hoppy bitterness which cuts through the richness nicely. I used to have a very good brownie recipe gifted to me by my first head chef, but I lost it a couple of years ago, so the basic amounts here are taken from Justin Gelattly’s excellent Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding, which I freely recommend to everyone.

DARSHAM BROWNIES

Makes two small trays.

400g good dark chocolate, in drops or chunks

300g butter, cubed

5 eggs

500g light muscovado sugar

a pinch of fine sea salt

300g hazelnuts, roasted and skinned

100g buckwheat flour

Heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4 and line two small trays with parchment. Set the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, and leave to melt. Whisk the eggs and sugar together with the salt until just combined. Blitz the nuts with the flour (this’ll help stop the nuts from breaking down into butter), pulsing to keep the nuts mainly in discernible chunks. Whisk the chocolate mix briefly into the egg mix, again until just combined, and then fold in the flour mix. Pour into trays and bake for 25 minutes. The surface should be cracked and glossy, the whole not quite set. Leave to cool before attempting to slice. These are good from the fridge or even straight from the freezer.