Lights of My Life


Excellent times at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Someone remarked that it was like seeing their bookshelves come to life, which seems apt; I chatted with Bee Wilson, Elisabeth Luard and Fergus Henderson, watched Claudia Roden, Jacob Kennedy and Jennifer McLagan, and added many more writers to my reading list; I met academics, fellow-travellers and stars of the future like Rebecca Johnson and Amanda Couch, who I watched perform a Mesopotamian-style liver divination – not something I ever thought I’d see.

It was, if not actually humbling, at least a signal honour to present a paper to such an illustrious and appreciative crowd, to have a space where I, as a non-academic with a semi-academic background and a wide range of interests, could come and be a part of the debate. The papers’ll be edited for online and physical publication before the end of the year, at which point I’ll put up my presentation, too; for now, since this kind of effusiveness doesn’t come naturally to me, here is a portrait of a pig.


Eight Legs Better


 I’m fairly comfortable with my meat-eating, generally speaking. I don’t buy a huge amount, and when I do it’s often game, or odder cuts from well-reared animals; having been vegetarian for 10 years, I’m conscious of the ethical arguments, but feel that informed meat-eating is a better choice than the outright protest of vegetarianism, quite apart from the ecological ramifications of removing the entire meat industry (and I’m conscious there’s a counter-argument to that, thank you). We’re lucky in this country that animal farming is comparatively well-regulated, and that while the horrors of battery farming still continue, its products are easy enough to avoid; if we keep making informed decisions, perhaps it will wither away – although that may be a trifle optimistic.

Fish-eating, in comparison, is a bloody minefield. Although we have the MSC certifications and so forth, the actual state of fish stocks change so frequently and vary so much from sea to sea that the best of intentions often go astray. I get round this by almost never buying fish – something of a copout. At the restaurant we’re lucky in having a small fishmonger (his operation, I mean – he’s of average size) who deals only with dayboats and sustainable sources; he makes the informed choices so we don’t have to, which is good, and means we often use things we might not have otherwise tried, such as sand soles, cuttlefish, and fresh, British octopus.

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for the argument that we shouldn’t eat the more intelligent animals. The intelligence of dogs is, I think, highly overrated, and while I’d happily eat them I don’t think their meat would taste very nice. There’s a reason we don’t generally eat carnivorous mammals. Pigs, while smart, are also quite smart enough to up and leave if they aren’t happy with the situation; there’s a good argument that their ‘domestication’ was something of a reciprocal arrangement in the first place. At any rate, pigs are quite happy to eat their own young if the situation requires it, so I don’t think they’re squeamish about such things. So much for pigs.

The intelligence of the octopus seems of a quite other order. The more I read about them, the more chillingly intelligent they seem. When captured, they refuse to participate in research which could teach us more about them; they escape from their tanks in the dead of night through holes the size of their beak, walking on dry land if necessary to reach their goal; in the wild, they decorate their homes, they use tools, they communicate. They are an intelligent alien life form, and when they rise up out of the sea with their stolen weaponry, I fully expect to be held to account. The problem is, they’re just so tasty. 

Maybe it’s their intelligence that makes them so delicious. Just as pigs are, objectively speaking, the tastiest of animals, so the flesh of the octopus is nicer by far than that of their dumb, brutish cousins the squid and the cuttlefish, really rich and sweet, capable of standing up to the thick, beefy flavours of stifado as well as the subtle astringency of a celery and potato salad. If we don’t get them much here, I think it’s because people are rather afraid of cooking them. There’s all kinds of nonsense about how to tenderise their flesh – beat with a hammer, dry on a clothesline, add corks to the cooking liquor – but the best way to do it is just to stick them in the freezer as soon as you get them, and leave them at least overnight. The violent effect this has on their cells, undesirable in delicate white fish, tenderises them perfectly.

The next day, I normally braise them in oil, wine and herbs before chopping their tentacles and adding to salads, or leaving them whole and blackening on a hot grill; if you clean them properly (brains out, beak off) you can cook them directly in your tomato and purple olive ragu, and so much the better for everyone. Just be prepared for the day when the sea-spiders rise up and come seeking revenge.


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?