I read with interest about Jonathon Meades’ (hopefully) forthcoming cookbook. (Go on, have a pledge.) I’ve written before about the misplaced focus on originality and ‘art’ in cooking, the bizarre idea (heavily encouraged by the publishers and writers of cookbooks) that everything must be new, groundbreaking, never-before-seen; the idea that recipes follow something like the folk process of fairytale and ballad is one that I’m interested in. After all, amidst all the clamour for bigger and shinier cookbooks, the absurd contortions of Masterchef contestants, a love of food can be fostered, at least partly, by childhood eating experiences, from Mum’s or Dad’s or Grandma’s recipes, passed down in turn. This alternative narrative, of food as a link of an unbroken chain to the past, is what we claim to admire about the ‘peasant’ cuisines of France, Spain, Italy; a link they manage to maintain, perhaps, because their cookbooks aren’t stuffed with new and exciting recipes for potato salad.
Leaving aside romantic notions about Continental cookery, it is interesting to see the ways in which dishes are passed around and down, with a tweak here, a misremembering there making each iteration slightly different. An attempt to recreate flavours without the slightest notion about technique, or with only rough approximations of ingredients, can yield something subtly altered; this is how cuisines are formed. No one is ever trying to do anything ‘new’, yet everything changes all the time.
All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this cake recipe. My Mum made this often when I was little; remembering it recently, I asked her for the recipe; in the course of finding it, she mentioned, in passing, to my brother, that it was based on one she had eaten somewhere, which he told me; there’s a little folk process for you. So, for anthropological purposes, I give you the recipe as she gave it to me, with my own notes and further alterations. It’s yours now – make it new.
CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT LOAF
“I went to lunch years ago with Therese Sellen, who had two daughters at Wincheap [Primary School] around the same time as Joseph and James [my older brothers]. (I think Helen Chandler was there as well [utterly irrelevant detail provides verisimilitude] .) Therese – who was Swiss – made this chocolate hazelnut cake for dessert. Before tasting this, I hadn’t been aware of the potential for replacing flour by ground nuts, but went home and later experimented with a madeira cake recipe from THE book (ie the battered radiation cook book, the source of all wisdom about domestic British cooking in the 1950s.”
We assume the original cake is a Swiss recipe, but who knows? Perhaps Therese based it on one she’d had at Helen’s house. Nowadays, of course, you’d just Google “swiss hazelnut loaf recipe” when you got home.
“The cake in question is an adaptation of mine of a madeira cake recipe. The standard recipe is: