The first cookbook I ever bought, through the book club at my primary school, posits, across 13 recipes and accompanying poems, the idea of the cook as magician, of recipes as spells gleaned from witches, ogres and dragons; otherworldly, perhaps, in origin, but applicable to the day-to-day, The Weird and Wonderful Cookbook shows cooking as a mystery to be learnt, mastered. “When you’re cooking, you are the magic” is its closing, rallying cry, and the recipes it collects (being a children’s book, it doesn’t have to pretend to originality) – a simple yoghurt cheese I still make now, ginger beer – suit its transformative rhetoric entirely. We are shown here how ingredients can be rendered entirely other by the application of heat, the introduction of air or water, as Neil Gaiman has a character of his point out, making a case for cooking as one of the fine arts – which is the same, really, as saying it is magic. For myself, I would rather consider cooking as a craft, as the Renaissance painters saw their work – one capable, from time to time, of a powerful and nagging beauty, but rooted always in the work of many hands, capable of repetition without dilution, and always in some sense useful. Craft, focusing less on individual genius and more on gradually accrued knowledge, allows more space for hand-me-downs and for the folk artefacts, the products of time and history, which are the basis of most cuisine outside of the world of multiple Michelin stars.
The Weird and Wonderful Cookbook, then, with its collected recipes of aliens, monsters, and various beasts, was in a sense the precursor (for me, that is, not chronologically) to my most-loved cookbooks – Luard, Roden, Apicius and the like – the writers of which never put a “my” before a tedious salad but are keen only to give you the best, the truest, the most interesting recipe of a kind. It’s surely as much the fault of readers and editors, but the absolute worship of the new which animates a lot of modern cookery writers is something I find really astounding. As is the case with fairytale and myth, and indeed with learning of most kinds, the accumulated wisdom of generations is considered suitable only for children, while adults are fed on an artificial stream of stunted newness, blind to history and shallow of scope. The unique experiments of a lifestyle blogger from Chelsea are praised to the uncaring skies by people who struggle to slice a tomato competently, let alone master the patient skill of boiling water. The combination of encyclopaedic rigour and wine-eyed Romanticism which the French bring to food make them easy to mock, but the fact of their 17 words for stages of boiling does not deserve its share of disdain. We could do with a few more in English, and perhaps would lose the spectacle of otherwise intelligent adults pouring water from a kettle straight over pasta, or cracking eggs into roiling foam.
Life came up out of the water and loves to return, and it is one of the first ingredients most of us learn to manipulate, in mud-pies, in sandcastles and rivers, in cups of squash or tea, while boiling meat is perhaps as old a way of cooking as any, developing alongside roasting as taste or circumstance allowed; we say boiling, but stewing or simmering would be more appropriate words. Before casseroles, saucepans, skillets, or cauldrons, the stew-pot would have been a hole in the ground or suspended hide, the water heated, as Reay Tannahill explains in The Fine Art of Food, by fire-warmed stones. The result of this slow process, the author continues, would be the loss of a great deal of the meat’s flavour into the stock; like the good scholar he is, he holds his tongue on the matter, but I’m sure that these primitive chefs must have drunk their broth. The water in which meat has been slowly cooked – especially when salted or smoked, as ox tongue, ham hocks, or pig’s feet – is, like the oil from roasted tomatoes or chicken, the crisp skin you snack on as you pick through a slowly cooked lamb shoulder, one of those by-products almost better than the main event, well worth the price of admission alone. The process of poaching involves a gradual giving up of meathood into the water, in the form of collagen, gelatine, proteins, essence of muscle and tendon, until, if overdone, your ham hock a ghost form of watery strands, your water a dense, deep stock, the two ingredients entirely change places. This, of course, is the point of stock-making, an alchemical transference of flavour – and with it nutrition and strength, though not, perhaps, as much as the bone-broth advocates would have you believe – from a solid to a liquid form. Stock is one of those frugalities only really available to the professional or dedicated domestic cook – such an investment of space and time – and a lot of chefs seem to regard it as the ultimate form or perfection of water, using stock in soups, stews, and braises, as a poaching medium or the basis for further, stronger stocks, to cook pasta, polenta, rice or noodles, vegetables both green and underground; I’m sure people boil eggs in stock, but I haven’t met them. While a well-made broth gives essential body to a lot of dishes, its constant use, especially in the concentrated form of jus, can become a bit samey.
As I said, though, this is a luxury of storage space and labour time, and presumably the broth from poaching meat must have originally been used as a one-off, part of the meal, as it is in the pot-au-feu, the bollito misto, the New England boiled dinner, and the cucida of Spain, all of which make a virtue of plainness and depth. An older form of water max would have been seawater, still used by fishermen, fishing communities and Romantics as a cooking medium for fish and especially shellfish; although the Italian adage tells us that fish should be drowned in wine, the use of heavily salted water, as well as seasoning, helps to keep moisture from leaching into the shells of crabs and lobsters; wet, over-cooked dressed crabmeat is an all-too-common insult to an excellent ingredient. Away from the beach, you can scoop handfuls of sea salt into boiling tapwater. A little more precision, some sugar, perhaps garlic, cloves, juniper and peppercorns, and you have a brine; once used as a blunt instrument for preserving, refrigeration means you can now ease up on the salt and use brines mainly for the seasoning of otherwise plainly cooked meats. This aside, though, the point at which food for utility edges into food for pleasure is hard to guess at. In this matter of broth, Reay Tannahill, as elsewhere in his excellent little book (I’ve always wanted to say that), confines himself to the evidence. In a little over a hundred pages, he sketches a history of the food of the world, drawing lines from prehistory to the modern age, and from India to Peru; most importantly for anything desirous of ‘excellent little book’-hood, he combines a gift for broad strokes with a deadpan eye for the animatingly ludicrous detail. Illustrated with a number of colour plates (hence the title) and enlivened by anecdote and poetry, you can tell that Tannahill relishes the eccentric task he has set himself, but it’s a shame he doesn’t aim for greater precision in his use of language. A lot of culinary explanation and misunderstanding could be avoided by a more careful use of the word boiling.
Meat, really, should never be boiled, which implies a continuous agitated roll, a constant motion and loss of heat from the surface of the water. Green vegetables, pasta and jam should be boiled (some disagree) – some beans, such as kidney, at the start of cooking, to kill off toxins in their skins – but that’s about it. For almost every other preparation involving heated water, a simmer is what you want. Of course, this contains a number of subdivisions, but it’s still a useful category. Egg-poaching water, tomato sauces, puttering ragouts, stocks, flour-thickened sauces, soups and stews, all suit a simmer with, at the most, Champagne-like bubbles rising to the surface, while fish, blood, custards and so on take even less than that, with proteins that coagulate at a temperature far lower than you might expect – lower, in fact, than the legally recognised threshold for cooked food, but that’s another matter. There are, in fact, so few cases in which boiling is appropriate that it’s strange that that is the word we have latched on to. Of course, we boil water for other reasons too, like tea, originally, we’re told, a response to the undrinkability of natural water supplies; I’d rather have the wine, and keep my water patiently simmering at the back of the stove.