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.

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.