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?

 

Life of Pie

You could walk around Greece and eat a different cheese pie every step of the way. Filling, construction, pastry, all seem dependent on local custom or whim. You might get a brittle, multi-layered filo affair, sliced in a wedge from the round on an aluminium counter, dripping spinach onto the sunburnt concrete; or something more like a pasty, short and buttery, filled with feta alone, crumbling warmly on the deck of the night-ferry to Crete; or something between the two, soft and pungent with dill, with chips and tomato salad who-knows-where except it was hot and smelled of coffee. (That might have been in Turkey, actually, but we’ll let that slide.) I say ‘you’ but I’m obviously talking about me. I wish I’d taken notes, really, except then I’d probably be touting myself as some kind of expert on Greek cheese pies (tyropita, since you’re asking), spouting on about the traditional pastry of the night-ferry to Crete, the fillings particular to the lunchcarts of Athens, when really I don’t know anything about it. I’m sure some of the ones I ate, far from Mediterranean authenticity, were equivalent to those of a Grecian Greggs – but none the worse (or less interesting) for that. I’d like to see someone do a serious study into regional variations on the chicken lattice, or the ritual significance of cold pastry products in British life.

Pies here (no pastry dogmatician, I happily include plate pies, dish pies, and pasties under this umbrella) tend to come in various shades of meat, notwithstanding the noble cheese-and-onion slice – often a good option if you’re somewhere you ‘don’t trust the water’, so to speak, like a service station, or Nuneaton. Pastry, in fact, seems to have come into being (I hesitate to say ‘been invented’ when a lengthy folk process was obviously involved) mainly as a means of cooking and preserving bits of animal, with edibility a secondary concern. Before well made, tightly-fitted Le Creuset dishes, an airtight seal could be made with flour and water; before fridges (or tins?), cooked meat could be coated with a rich jelly, the whole encased in pastry and left in the larder til Christmas. (When romanticising such practices of our hardy ancestors, it’s good to remember that all of these people are dead.) The association of pies with meat, gravy, and the trencherman’s diet is still so strong that the prospect of a vegetarian pie (and here I’m not including pasties) seems to throw a lot of chefs into disarray, out of which comes an ill-considered mush (I wouldn’t dignify it with the word ‘hodge-podge’) of parsnips, tomato, and lentilles de Puy. Calm down, I always think. Nothing wrong with a plain cheese pie – especially with a hot-water crust and served at room temperature, where the flavours of aged dairy really shine. When it comes to a hot pie, though, there’s no competitor to meat, a fact which is easily proved (the best bit of a hot pie is where the gravy soaks down into the pastry at the bottom, and up into the underside of the lid; without meat, there is no real gravy). I suppose it comes down to venison or beef. (Hot pork pies just don’t exist, for some reason, as pastry-covered lamb ones don’t, traditionally. And chicken pies, while delicious, rely on artificial aids – béchamel, usually – for their saucing, which compromises the aforementioned gravy-soak effect.) I am personally not a particular fan of slow-cooked venison, and I find the traditional mitigators of its haughty richness – sharp redcurrant, clanging, floral juniper – distracting in a pie, which should (to my mind) represent an almost monomaniacal depth, rather than a dilettante breadth, of flavour. I’m prepared to concede that this is a personal preference, however, and wouldn’t say no to a venison pie – unless beef was also available.

Pastry, of course, is a whole other matter. Once, as I said, mainly a cooking aid, pastry has attained an almost equal role to its filling (it is, after all, what makes a pie a pie -unless it’s a shepherd’s pie) and in the process become largely a vehicle for the consumption of butter. A really buttery shortcrust, beautiful on a lemon or custard tart, is far too fragile for a meat pie – and one made strong enough is far too solid to be enjoyable. Puff’s thousand layers, wonderful as a lid, are wasted on a pie bottom; weighed down and soaked through, they don’t have a chance to expand, and lose all purpose. Flaky is clearly the answer. (Having moved firmly onto British pie-making, I’m ignoring filo, wonderful though it is.) What might seem like a compromise – a cheating cousin to rough puff – is actually a star in its own right, especially when made with quantities of lard. (Old recipe books tell you to use lard for texture and butter for flavour, but I like the slightly rank fattiness you get with lard alone.) It has the added advantage of being easy to make, not a whole-day job like proper puff, a task which almost dares you to use Jus-Roll; a great product, but you can always tell it’s bought. And no-one wants to think about bought pies, all hooves and eyeballs and dust. (People, myself included, eat things in the name of nose-to-tail that they sneer at in a hotdog.) Still, pie-making is something you should set aside both time and space for. The filling needs time to stew and reduce to that desired depth, the pastry to rest, the whole to bake through, without a trace of raw flour at the base, and it’s nice to have a whole sunny kitchen to yourself for the duration.

As a final piece of advice, I would suggest you err on the side of making too much of everything; you can always eat the extra filling, and there’s nothing sadder than stretching a well-made pastry past its capacity for beauty. Be generous, and it will show in your pie.