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.

Quietly Shining

When you step outside to dump yesterday’s coffee grounds, to relieve the dog, to squeeze your curing hams or to otherwise do whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and you find that the grass crunches underneath your feet and the sharp air catches in your nostril – when, in short, there is every sign that the ministry of frost has been busily fulfilling its duties overnight, it is time to think about boiling bones.

Although the health claims made for bone broth are dubious at best, the Jay Rayners of this world are wrong about one thing – it is not the same as stock. Not at all. A properly made stock has never risen above a simmer; it has been skimmed and pampered its whole life through, and the end result is eerily clear. A soup made with stock, with neatly diced vegetables cooked just-so in it, might be right for a summer day; a good bone broth, never.

I have some pork bones boiling up right now, in with a good smoked gammon hock – and they will be boiled. They will be cooked until the collagen and the fat breaks down and emulsifies with the water, which will be cloudy but glistening and almost tacky to the touch, like the pellicle on the skin of a drying mackerel. You can see, when you make broth, how bones become glue.

Personally, I rarely put in vegetables when I’m boiling ham and bones, though the skins of brown onions give a satisfying colour. As you’re normally doing something else with it, you can add the vegetables then, and give them a fighting chance to retain their integrity; not much outlasts the smoke and salt of a boiling ham hock. Today, when the broth is done I will sweat diced onion and carrots, add some pickled cucumber and its brine, then buckwheat and the broth and finally parsley, great handfuls of parsley and dill, and maybe some soured cream. I’ll share it with some good friends and some good beer, and we will know in our bones that it is cold outside and we are warm.

A Pretty Pickle

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If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, I might think that the above TripAdvisor user and self-described customer of Darsham Nurseries Cafe were an old-fashioned racist, the kind who thinks Turkish food begins and ends with dubious kebab shops, just as the sum total of Chinese cuisine can be found within the walls of the Golden Dragon; as it is, I will confine myself to the observation that he doesn’t know a huge amount about the food of the Eastern Mediterranean. If he did, he might join the dots between the plate of largely Stamboulite vegetable preparations he was served and the origins of the kebab, and figure out the bizarre reason why such a chilli might have adorned his plate; either way, he is certainly a snob, as anyone who professes a dislike for those “chillies you get in kebab shops” must be. For one thing, what he was actually served was Spanish guindillas, similar to those chillies you get in kebab shops, and for another, those chillies you get in kebab shops (CYGIKSs, from now on) are one of the finest of all pickles, a standout even in the impressive pickling world of Turkey.

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A good pickled chilli needs crunch, heat – but not too much heat – sweetness and sharpness and salt; it should be edible by itself with only a slight wince, so it can be eaten with abandon as a counterpoint to rich, fatty meats or sharp cheeses and nuts. The CYGIKS is a perfect expression of these qualities, and the Spanish guindillas we used to use at work are one of the closest equivalents that don’t come in 10l tins, for delivery, presumably, to kebab shops. I say ‘used to use’ not because the above review showed us the error of our ways but because we have started making our own, which, if anything, are even more like those CYGIKSs. We grow a huge number of sweet and chilli peppers at Darsham, among them the two main varieties used for CYGIKSs, the short stubby pale green ones and the long curly pale green ones. They probably have names, but I’m no expert. As it happens, I have spent a decent portion of the past four years perfecting my chilli-pickling method, starting with a frankly useless Jamie Oliver recipe and a box of generic greens and ending with a major breakthrough just as this year’s plants started seriously fruiting. We now have jar upon jar upon jar of the things, and they will be proudly adorning our mezze for many months to come.

CYGIKSs

This is more of a method than a recipe. As a general-ish rule, a 1l jar will take about 500g or so of chillies, which will need about 500ml of liquid to cover them. You’ll want to make loads, anyway, because they’re delicious.

STAGE ONE

chillies, preferably green curly mild ones

salt

sugar

water

Slit each chilli through one side of its flesh, all the way from stalk to tip, and pack them into a jar or crock. Pour water over them, then pour it off into a measuring jug – just to see how much brine you’ll need.

The brine is 3.5%, which is to say you’ll need 35g of salt and the same of sugar for each litre of water, so make this up, pour into a pan and bring to a boil, just to dissolve the solids. Let it cool to room temperature or thereabouts and pour over the chillies. Weight them down with something and leave to ferment for a week.

STAGE TWO

brined chillies

white wine vinegar

sugar

By now the brine should be cloudy with lactobacteria and the chillies should be crunchy and well flavoured. Drain them well and pack back into the jar.

For the pickle, you want 400g of sugar for each litre of vinegar – it helps to make a little extra up, to top up the chillies as necessary. Bring this mixture to a boil and pour straight over the chillies, remembering that hot acid hitting chilli seeds can sting the eyes a little (quite a lot, actually). Seal and leave for a week, then eat with your mezze or kebab.

Clammy Cells

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I’m sure I say this every year, but autumn really is an extraordinary time for British food. We spend the height of summer eating greenhouse tomatoes and endless gluts of courgette, wishing we were south of the thick black coffee line drinking something cold and pale in a cafe by the sea; it’s a season that we are not fully equipped to deal with, and so we spend it semi-conscious, drifting between shore and field in a sort of gentle fever dream, punctuated by ice-cream. Autumn, on the other hand, is the time to wake up. The hedges are making good on the promise of the early blackberries, with damsons, crabapples and soon sloes weighing down the spindly branches; country roads are once again teeming with semi-wild game birds, running idiotically between their Scylla and Charybdis of front wheel and gun. On the days after the first shoots, the flattened corpses of young partridge carpet the roads.

At least partridge tastes quite nice. The strange situation with pheasant is that these birds are bred in protected environments (often to the detriment of other, perhaps more native creatures), then released into the wild to be shot at, in such numbers that ‘hunters’ give them away for free; no-one wants to eat as much pheasant as can be killed, because, finally, it’s just not very interesting. A sort of dark white meat which dries out easily, it has none of the bloody excitement of a duck or pigeon, it’s too big to tear apart with your hands … to make matters worse, people often don’t prepare them properly, so the legs are full of tough sinews which must be picked laboriously from the meat. All in all, a waste of everybody’s time. If you do get given one, best to brine it in salty tea and then joint it so you can roast the legs slowly, the breasts quickly. Like all game birds, it goes nicely with a jelly or compote of appropriate fruits.

The chickenish paleness of their flesh is, I assume, due to both their early captivity and to their lifelong habit of walking everywhere, even out of the way of oncoming cars; it is certainly shared by the similarly-raised partridge, though the meat of these latter birds is somewhat finer, capable, I’m sure, of a rewarding blush when carefully and delicately cooked; I like to brown them in hot oil and then pickle them. This is a treatment native to Andalusia, but it seems appropriate for an English autumn, and as a recipe it is about as simple as that – just make up a vinegary brine, flavoured appropriately, and pour it, hot, over the browned birds. You don’t need to worry too much about acidity and salinity unless you intend to put them up in a barrel for the winter, in which case you are on your own; fermentation is one thing, but the sterile preservation of protein is fraught with danger. Just put them in the fridge and eat over a few days, and no-one will get botulism.

If you roast or stew your partridges, remember that, as with all pale, wild flesh, they will need a good helping of fat, having very little of their own, either in layers or running through the meat. It’s traditional to roast such birds covered with little strips of streaky bacon, which the cook can then silently eat while preparing the accompaniments; another way is to wrap them in prosciutto or similar and pack them tightly into a casserole for pot-roasting. I once cooked this for Julian Assange, oddly, though I don’t know if he liked it. He certainly never came back. I don’t know if partridges traditionally hide in pear trees because they are themselves pleasingly pear-shaped, or even if they do so at all, but they certainly go nicely with pear, perhaps pickled; or possibly it is just the pleasure of the association. Either way, worth a try.

So much for these sort-of game birds. My own personal favourite is the pigeon, as I think I’ve said before, but as they are easily availably year-round, they don’t carry the seasonal thrill of, say, a nice mallard (smaller and neater than the fat, farmed Gressingham duck), which is what I happen to have in my fridge right now, next to the pot of pickled partridge. Duck is perfect with the sweet tartness of the season, the hedgerow fruits, the heavy, honeyed flavours; there are so many options that I’m not quite sure, having briefly considered Pekinese and Venetian treatments, what I should do with it. Duck and damsons sounds nice, but if you have any suggestions, I would be glad to hear them.

Angel’s Kiss

In Oliver Rowe’s new and rather lovely work, a photo-less cookbook-diary-memoir called Food For All Seasons, which details the sometimes extreme locavorism that drives his cooking, he talks of the turn of the seasons as a sort of relentless force which moves entirely as it pleases; not a peaceful, steady wheel but a rollercoaster which gathers or loses speed and momentum according to the time of the year, the weather, and so on. The seasons, as he describes them, are a hard taskmaster, demanding constant vigilance and thorough organisation in order to get the most out of their bounty.They are now approaching full speed, as the year rolls into full summer and every week, it seems, brings a new crop; the other day, having just got used to the constant rain and chilly evenings, I was shocked when our grower brought up the first of the cucumbers. Spiny pickling varieties, some a dark alligator green and some a highlighter-yellow, I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, quite ready for them; luckily, the limited success of my miso project meant I had a spare crock, and in they went, with some wet garlic, fresh bay and fennel fronds for company. It’s so hot at the moment that they are nearly ready, three days later – everything moves faster in the summer, which is unfortunate, given that it is too hot in the kitchen to move above an amble.

With a combination of this and a slight change in technique, our pickled turnips are ready overnight, the mixed pickle only slightly longer. Ol’ Yeasty belches and swells swampily, and his doughy offspring rise like a dream. The downside is that experiments which could otherwise have been left happily to themselves for days on end require constant vigilance; if they don’t end up victims of their own bubbly tumescence, the fruit flies will probably get them. I understand why they target the rye sourdough, which is after all pretty much pure digestible food, but their particular love for drowning themselves in anything vinegary is baffling, and has led to the death of a poorly-wrapped maceration of cherries; luckily it also makes it easy to set traps for them. It’s lucky, then, that the concoctions of sugared wine and crushed fruit on the shelf above the bar are sealed in Kilner jars and well-wrapped in clingfilm; they would otherwise shortly become infested with tiny corpses.

Containing, variously, green walnuts, black cherries, and squished gooseberries, these infusions will become what the French, rather lovelily, call ‘window wines’, as they sit on a bright windowsill to mature in the sun, which streaks through them and turns shades of orange, green, and scarlet. Even if they taste disgusting, which seems rather unlikely, it would be worth making them just for this. I have, as is often the case, Diana Henry to thank for introducing me to these, which I have been meaning to make for ages. It’s just so hard not to eat cherries, especially when you are squashing the stones out of them and the juice splatters all over your hands and face. The cherry and the gooseberry should both be ready in a day or two, but the walnut, made, like Opies’ finest pickles, from the soft buds before they develop shells, is supposed to take two months. This is frustrating, but I suspect its taste – which I imagine is dark, spiced and woody – will sit better in the dark end of the year. Summer, on the other hand, was made for drinking cherry wine, in little glass beakers as the sun goes down across the hedgerows and the hills and the backs of the hot-bricked houses, as the first blue stars emerge.

Pickle Prayer

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Put your faith in salt and time

and trust that pickles will result;

Put your faith in time and salt.

 

Put your faith in time and salt –

Age gives heft to more than wine –

Put your faith in salt and time.

 

In time and salt put all your trust

– the salt and sour will keep it safe –

time and salt deserve your faith.

 

In time and salt put all your faith

discard the failures when you must

but keep your faith, and time, and trust.

 

Nothing But Flour

Imagine if there were no more recipes. A provincial lifestyle blogger quietly posts a gluten-free iteration of Southern Fried Chicken, accompanied by her Smashed Cucumber Salsa and Rainbow Slaw, and that is it; the last possible combination of edible ingredients with heat, salt and time. There are no more recipes. The deluge of food related content begins to slowly dry up. The first things to go are the words “my”, “new”, “unique”, from headlines, tweets and titles; the writers know there is nothing unique in their oat cookies, their mixed salads and complex braises – not that there ever was. The adjectives of surprise start to disappear, too; as the rabid hunt for the new dies down, cooks realise that they never wanted dinner to amaze, only to fill and to delight.

As professionals and amateurs alike return to the archives, to their heaps of coffee-table cookbooks, to family recipe collections and to the depths of the Good Food website, to revisit old favourites and to finally try that dish they’d always meant to, the food-writing community is thrown at first into a blind panic. What are they to do without their newness? For a while there are no food pages in the supplements, no blog posts, no stop-motion recipe videos; Ottolenghi weeps into his spice cupboard, for there are no more worlds to conquer. Gradually, though, they recover. If they cannot create, at least they can still cook, interpret, curate; days can be spent exploring the possibilities inherent in a few lines of Elizabeth David, Mrs Beeton or Apicius. The fringe elements of cooking, the bakers, brewers, charcutiers, anyone who has spent months or years perfecting a single technique, come to the fore at last; their patience, long appreciated, is finally celebrated as a love of craft overtakes that of creativity.

This new sensibility, transferred to more everyday cooking, to the slow perfection of pasta, crackling, fried fish or salad, has immediate results; palates widened by a thousand flavour combinations become narrow of focus, gradually attuned to more subtle variations, to salt applied half an hour before or five minutes into cooking, to leaves picked in the heat of the day or by wet moonlight, to different ages of wheat. No-one can master all of these things; as specialisation deepens, meals become communal and sprawling, as everyone contributes the element they do best to the table, which might be cultured butter, pork pies, or a croquembouche. All of these things are equals at the feast, and our food has never been better.

Craft turns into cult, as the special knowledge of each technique – of little interest to anyone else, busy as they are with their own trades – is hardened into mystery, to the secrecy of family and guild; experimentation and perfectionism, at first the lifeblood of what has become known as the New Cooking, is discouraged. Adherence to the rules, to the recipes laid down in the ancient texts and websites, becomes a matter of almost religious discipline. There is clearly a best way to make, say, bread, which is that enshrined in the Book; any deviation is, by definition, inferior, and should be rooted out in case it spoils the palates and the hands of future bakers – so the thinking goes. Understandably, many baulk at this; they are suppressed. Finally, after generations of this, someone dares to tinker. Rebellion builds in their heart until they can take it no more. One day, at Stage Two of The Recipe, they swap the vinegar for lemon juice and capers for finely chopped cornichons; they serve it, against all precedence and logic, with salmon. It is disgusting.

I contain multitudes 

The kitchen is alive at the moment. Better than alive; it is thriving. Under the sinks, in a space just high enough for the airlocks, there are two demijohns of bubbling honey-water; on the warm shelf on top of the pass are jars of carrots, asparagus and turnips, each brined with its particular citrus and spice, and murkier pots of peel and trim, ageing into edibility. A bowl of plain water and strong flour teems with fungus and bacteria. Today it smells good and sour, reminiscent of rye and pickle and milk – tomorrow it will smell of yeast, of warmth and buns and baking. In the hot dark, squid entrails slowly change.

We chop and pound dead matter, sow it with salt and starve it of oxygen – and life springs up from these airlocked graves. It’s like bloody Dracula. Maybe the whole coffin-full-of-native-earth thing was to keep him stocked up on the bacteria and fungi which supported his particular microbiome; perhaps a vampire is merely a highly advanced form of pickle. There is certainly something (as they say) of the night about the whole process – if you want to look at it that way. I prefer to see it as a creation myth. Various cultures have given us worlds birthed from the brains of giants, the testicles of elder gods, raven shit and living clay; we create a squawling life from compost and salt – our breath moving over the cabbagey waters.

Chop stalks of kale, broccoli, or kohlrabi; mix in 100g of salt and 50 of sugar to every kilo of vegetable. Squeeze and crush it in, and leave overnight.

Tomorrow, make a paste of green chillies, garlic, spring onion, mint, and fish sauce or seaweed; mix and pound that in, too. Pack into jars, seal tight, and leave for a week. It lives!

Tears and Memory


Fermenting sprouts, it turns out, smell exactly as you might expect them to smell; they will convince no-one of that brassica’s deliciousness. The chopped stalks of cavolo nero, on the other hand, fermented kimchi-style with green chilli and garlic, after an initial period of cabbagey pungence, enter a sort of late imperial phase during which they smell strongly of truffles (or at least of truffle oil), which, as everyone knows, in turn smell strongly of pig testicles.

 

Smell (and therefore flavour) is, like poetry, composed of a set of seemingly abstract and subjective connexions which turn out, on closer inspection, to be absolutely concrete and precise. Truffles do not just happen to smell like pig testicles; they have evolved that way to attract the rooting attention which, buried underground, allows their spores to spread. Nor, really, do they just smell like pig testicles; they smell of them, evolution having precisely replicated the chemical component of that heady musk. Remember that when some gourmand invites you to sniff his knobbly fungus.

 

It is a common piece of inverted snobbery to laugh at the descriptors on wine labels, with their vanillas and leathers and fruits; “it smells of red grapes to me!” is, to be sure, a fine and time-honoured dad joke, and if it keeps him out of the good stuff then all the better, but it ignores the chemical complexity of fermentation and aging, the interplay between grape, yeast, bacteria and wood which makes wine smell, in fact, almost nothing like grape juice. The reason, for example, that this particular red has a strong taste of vanilla is because it contains quantities of vanillin, the same ingredient found in the bean and synthesised for the flavouring, which is thrown up by the wine-making process.

 

More readily understood is the fact that similar-tasting plants often contain amounts of the same chemical flavourants; the mustardiness of cabbage comes from the same source as that of mustard; anise, aniseed, fennel, dill, tarragon and chervil all have a similar make-up. This might seem obvious, but it is only recently being understood. It’s what leads Heston to things like salmon in liquorice; at a less exalted level, it’s behind the current-ish fad for herbs in desserts, as well as the precise amplification of flavours which marks a lot of good modern cooking.

 

So what, you may well ask; well, I thought it was interesting, but what I’d really like to know is –

a) what made that kimchi smell of truffles?

b) will the smell ever come out of the jar?

c) can I use it to attract pigs, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn?