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.

Nothing Is Lost

When I was going to sleep, I think the night before last, I had a really good idea for a piece. Today I need to write it, and I have not the slightest idea what it was. Gone. Possibly it was in fact quite a bad idea for a piece, or, it might be, a few lines from a song or a book, the memory of a smile from an imaginary film, which became entwined in my nearly-dreaming brain with, say, a discussion of the relative methods of octopus preparation, complete with recipes. I remember once, in the drifting minutes between the first alarm and the final waking, composing a song which was also a pie, a very fine pie, and am still rather disappointed that I have forgotten the details, which, come to think of it, are probably non-existent and at any rate impossible.

The problem is that, between work, a demanding puppy, and the cold and the dark, I am really quite exhausted, and I can see why most food writers confine themselves, in December, to the production of lists of various kinds, or to a retread of festive tropes providing twists on seasonal classics. Now, I can see why these are useful, if you have a lot of parties in December (as apparently people do), or indeed if you work in a restaurant, and wish to serve people something other than a bulked-up Sunday roast, over and over again. Personally, though, I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that they need to constantly change the Christmas meal itself, to fall in with fashion or diets or simply for variety’s sake. Surely the point of such meals is that they are always, by and large, the same – like listening to the Fall, or reading PG Wodehouse.

If I was at home for Christmas (‘home’ in this context always being where your parents or the majority of your family live) I know that on Christmas Eve there would be shepherd’s pie with braised red cabbage and mulled, perhaps blackberry wine, with a treacle tart to follow (or is that New Year? Maybe it’s warm mince pies), a warm hug after standing in the cold for the carol service; Christmas dinner means soup, a leg of pork, long chipolatas wrapped in good bacon, stuffing balls, slightly overdone sprouts, sneaky parsnips to be picked out of the roast potatoes, proper gravy and all the rest; it means Christmas pudding and ice cream, mint chocolates, nuts, fruit, the yearly indulgence of coffee with cream in it, and the rest of the day spent dipping bread in gravy every time you walk through the kitchen. The soup might change from year to year; an extra piece of meat might come out, or the veg vary depending on what is left of the allotment in the freezer, but the essentials remain.

I won’t be at home for Christmas itself, this year, so we can do what we like. I think a salt cod and potato pie for the night before, and maybe a game-hung five year old hen, perhaps pot-roasted, for the main event. If it ends up tough and stringy, as well it might, considering I have never cooked one before, then at least we have the trimmings, which are after all the best bit.

Alternate Kitchens

You probably don’t remember, but my first ever post on here was on the subject of imaginary cuisines. What if, I asked, what if amongst those washing up in America fleeing war, poverty, oppressions and famine there had been a significant number from Turkey, whose meyhanes and grills now formed as much a part of the New York cityscape as red sauce joints and Ashkenazi delis? That such alternate cuisines are easy to conjure up demonstrates how food cultures spring not only from landscape, from quirks of geology and weather, but from the various movements of humanity, from immigration, from trade and from war. What would the cuisine look like of an island stuck between Africa and Italy’s boot, ruled at times by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, polenta-eaters and mafiosi? It would look Sicilian, and its real glory would come not from the scorching hills of the interior but from the alleys of Palermo; it would be easier, if it were imaginary, to understand.

It strikes me occasionally that anyone engaged in trying to cook what is called Modern British cuisine is engaged in a similar act of creation. Even the most ardent defender of the food of this country would admit that there is a crack in our culinary heritage, a break between then and now; blame it on industrial urbanisation, on Victorian puritanism, on the privations of rationing, but there it is. The apparently fervent embrace of the cuisines of former colonial subjects and various immigrants seems an attempt to fill that gap, a search for the authentic in sweet-and-sour sauce and tikka masala. The irony, of course, is that these cuisines had already changed, adapted to the ingredients they had to hand and to the palates they had to satisfy; they are part of the patchwork of British cuisine.

It has always been a patchwork, of course. Everything has. Medieval kings gorged themselves on the spoils of the Crusades; recipes for curries and pilafs and pasta go back further than you think. Ketchup on everything? That worked its way here from Indonesia, I believe. The Romans taught us how to make sausages, and they brought cabbages and onions to go with them. Back to Modern British; this supposed break with some imaginary peasant Golden Age means we can, essentially, do what the hell we like. People in Italy argue over their ‘genuine’ cuisine, which was mainly invented by Mussolini; we’re still appropriating from everywhere, this time with an added handful of what-ifs. What if Britain had discarded its frankly baffling fear of culinary decay and embraced fermentation and air-drying, alongside its Northern European cousins, if we pressed our herring, dry-cured our sheep, desiccated our cod in the bitter North Sea winds? We don’t have to always-have-done, luckily. We can just start now. Do your bit for an inclusive Britain – nail a fish to a tree.