Long Story

It is a curious thing, as I believe others have remarked, that the written recipe – at the moment probably the principle medium for the sharing of culinary knowledge – represents at the same time the end of a long and often tortuous journey, and the beginning of a new one. For the recipe writer and professional cook, the neat list of ingredients and method is an imperfect distillation of not only a more-or-less exacting process of thought, testing, tasting and adjustment, but also of a lifetime or even lifetimes of experience, whether your own of that of family, friends, or indeed total strangers. As Sarit Packer once said to me with a shrug, when I confessed to wholesale theft of her method for cheesecake, recipes travel; how they do so might be a fascinating story.

There is, of course, the what-I-did-on-my-holidays school of recipe writing, of which I admit I have been often guilty; in the right hands, which is to say those of Claudia Roden, this can be illuminating. Her anthropological rigour, and the easy skill with which she teases out tangled family recipes into long threads of history, is quite remarkable, and her books, at their best, open up entire worlds. More often than not, though, this sort of food writing is conducted in a spirit of magpie dilettantism; I went here and I ate this and then I recreated it at home is not a particularly interesting story, and nor, to put it another way, does it show much interest in the story of the recipe itself.

Far more interesting, to my mind, though they may lack in exotic locales, are the lists of odd coincidence and happy chance by which written recipes travel about the place – a clipping from a magazine tucked inside a book given to a charity shop bought by a pub for decoration and opened only out of boredom, perhaps, or just one passed on by a friend, knowing that it in time would be cut and adapted, mutilated and changed, and become the start, in time, of its own story.

Boat Bread

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Of all the alien things about Georgia – the language, apparently written in Elvish, the darkly ornate Christianity, the fruit-and-garlic sauces, the tininess of their cats – perhaps the strangest is that that they simply don’t eat breakfast, or at least have no real culture of doing so. Although there is something to be said for the lingua franca of the hotel continental breakfast – always different, always the same – one of the key pleasures of travelling, I find, is to explore the different ways in which various peoples choose to start their day. The mezeish spread of a Turkish weekend, picking at muhammara, sausage, dates, cheeses, tahini, clotted cream, olives, salads and fruit, puts you in a frame of mind very different to that engendered, say, by a pastry washed down with an espresso at a Neapolitan bar, which is one of the reasons that being in Naples is very different to being in Istanbul. The lack of breakfast makes Tbilisi hard to grasp.

Given that another key pleasure of travelling is staying out until two every morning drinking in the street, however, it is easy enough to get up late and treat every lunch as brunch. Although we went to an excellent place which specialises in hangover cures to try the traditional Georgian remedy of spiced tripe soup (properly speaking this should be slopped down drunkenly before you go to bed, though it still seemed effective after the fact), I couldn’t entirely escape my British craving for egg and bread; the Georgians will see your scrambled egg on toast and raise you an Adjarian khachapuri.

Khachapuri simply means cheese bread, a genre of Georgian baking which sees the one stuffed into the other; in its Adjarian form it is boat-shaped, similar to but rounder than the Turkish pide, and crowned, as pide often also is, with an egg. The genius of the Georgian version is that the egg is left almost raw and joined with quite a large amount of fresh butter, to be mixed into the still-hot cheese filling at the table; cheesy scrambled eggs, essentially, which you scoop out with pieces of the crust – an excellent way to begin the day, although given that in its smallest tourist size it is a good seven inches across, that day is unlikely to be very productive. These are easy enough to make at home – Olia Hercules has a recipe in her new book or here, which you will need to triple in size for the full experience – although you might find that negates the lazy pleasure of having one brought to you as you sit in a cafe in Hackney or Tbilisi or Batumi over late coffees and salty mineral water, your head still full of last night’s wine.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Lunch

I have never had much time for lunch. At primary school, lunchtime could bring the whispered excitement of macaroni cheese, swiftly spreading round the hall; it could also bring the dishwater grey of poorly-drained spag in under-reduced bol, our generation’s equivalent of the thunderous cabbage of school dinners past. Pudding might be jelly, with that weird sweet cream which tasted like cake mix, but it might equally be a heavy sponge in a pond of thickening custard, smelling strongly of furniture polish. A packed lunch was a more predictable procession of Marmite-and-cheese sandwich-Petit Filous, except when said fromage frais exploded in my lunchbox; possibly the first but definitely not the last time I would regard my meal through blinked-back tears.

As a teenager, eating is the last thing to do on your lunch break, and food the last thing to spend your lunch money on, while for the student, lunch is the same as breakfast, and both are taken more medicinally than gastronomically; we’ll draw a veil over those years. Then I started working, and a chef rarely eats lunch. It, rather, eats you.

For most of my life, in other words, dinner was the thing. By then, you and your tastebuds have woken up properly, open to spice and fish and offal and, of course, booze – it’s a social occasion, with a dinner party often turning imperceptibly into an actual party. If you’re going to be up until seven in the morning, it doesn’t really matter if dinner starts at 11pm; perfect for a young chef’s lifestyle, but not something I can do any more. The open-endedness of dinner could be its downfall, with any memory of the truffled pork ravioli we had spent all day making dissolving in a slurry of cheap red wine. If you’re already tipsy by the end of dinner, you may as well keep drinking. Lunch, on the other hand (with the honourable exception of the Sunday roast), is a neatly finite affair.

The key to lunch is the proper procession of drinks, for which you need to look to France and Italy – it was there, at least, that I learnt about lunch. The adman’s 3-martinis and the clubman’s magnum of claret are no good for a lunch where you intend to move about afterwards, which is the greatest promise of lunch; what you need is wine by the carafe and a good coffee afterwards. The caffeinated line this draws under the booze is the defining part of the meal for me, whether a thick Neapolitan espresso or a gentler French press. “Enough!” it says; “On with the day.” This done, you can go back to your symposium or your museum or simply your street-wandering, though preferably not your heavy machinery, with a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step from that carafe.

A lunch wine, of course, should be light. If you’re struggling to agree on one, or if one of your party “only drinks red”, and there’s nothing suitable, get prosecco instead; this goes with everything, at least at lunchtime. You might have to get it by the glass, but if you can get it in carafe (especially on tap), you’re onto a winner. The flattening effect that decanting has on prosecco’s effervescence turns it into the perfect lunchtime drink, especially if you are enjoying it with deep-fried seafood. Soft-shell crab is best, I suppose, but whitebait, calamari or plaice and chips (with a scattering of scraps, of course) will do almost as well, with a shower of rain, starting just after you ducked into the restaurant, the ideal accompaniment; and salad, of course. In fact, you should probably have the salad first, then you can eat as much deep-fried soft-shell crab as you like.

A lunch like this, which, you might have gathered, is not hypothetical but in fact an actual, fondly remembered lunch, has as much of a medicinal effect as those student breakfasts; any tired- or illness, any arguments or problems which might have blighted the morning as you traipsed around an unfamiliar city, getting first thrillingly and then frustratingly lost in the maze of little streets and canals, weaken in the chink of cutlery on plate, the gently meandering conversation, the dying bubbles in the carafe, the espresso’s bitter full stop.

Invisible City pt. 2


“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets … how many kinds of pavement cover the ground” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver
So much of Venice reaches up and away from the water, from the intricate canals and from the lagoon itself. The long needle of the Campanile, and the squares of Paul and the Magdalene, where, if you stand in the middle, you can pretend you are in a solid, everyday city, are the most successful; all of the buildings, though, all of the warehouses and palazzos and the elaborate bridges, do their best to reach away from the seaweed which purrs at their foundations.
These days the canals are reserved for richer tourists, who the gondolas, still black-clad for shadowy assignations and espionage, ferry around a largely forgotten city. The trattorias, with their lace curtains, batteries of hanging pots and their poorly-rendered aquatic scenes, sell endless processions of cuttlefish and calamari, while the still-living markets heave with the terrestrial products of the Veneto, with puntarelle, with radicchios of all kinds – curled, spotted, delicately pink – with honey-sweet apples, large and baby and carved artichokes, cardoons and celery and cauliflowers and all of the other favourites of the vegetable-loving Italians.
Here, though, in the richest part of the country, leaves don’t carry quite the same respectability as they do in the poor, dried-up south; here, the restaurants which offer an alternative to seafood tend to do so in the form of elaborate dishes of meat. These days we tend to think of Italian cuisine as all cucina povera, breadcrumbs and strange fish and offal; liver and onions, of course, is a favourite of Venice, and I saw tripe, tongue and the like in various butchers windows and on the bars of smaller eateries. In a restaurant, though, you might get half a duck, roasted and drenched in a quite astonishingly rich ragu of chicken livers; fricassees of veal, both sweet and deeply savoury; and, of course, the famous carpaccio, a fairly recent invention of the upmarket Harry’s Bar.
Apart from the latter, a distinctly urban dish, this might get described as ‘mountain food’; aware, perhaps, that their amphibious city has become a playground for tourists, the Venetians look inland and up for a different taste of home. Even here, though, they can’t escape the water. If you wander about the houses between the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal, you might find a strange replica of an Alpine hut, hung about with straw hands and opening on to a boat yard; it is a gondola workshop, and the people who build and pilot them are often, themselves, sons of the Dolomites and beyond, far from their solid mountain homes.

Invisible City pt. 1

“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

 

Venice, it’s fair to say, is a city mainly composed of bridges and water, a fact emphasised when you enter it, by vaporetta, on a chilly, rainy day in late February, the kind of day when the sky and the water seem composed of the same great sheet of grey. The canals lap at the seaweed-bearded streets; bridges appear out of nowhere, and any alley might lead equally to a church or to the sea. Why anyone chose to build a city there is beyond me, but I suppose they made a good go of it, becoming “excellently amphibious” in response to their waterlogged, sinking surroundings, bringing, for a while, large parts of the Mediterranean under the control of their largely mercantile empire.

 

I always find it fascinating to trace the history of a place through its cuisine; part of what I love about Sicilian food is the little touches of Arab and Spanish flavour, the faint whispers, even, of Roman and Greek – seemingly un-Italian spicings, sweet fruit and meat, the absolute ubiquity of the anchovy – but apart from the occasional flourish of cinnamon, little seems to remain of La Serenissima’s once-vital place on the spice route. Apart from a few remnants of later occupations – the cream doughnuts and the peculiar Venetian lust for strudel – their cuisine is as amphibious as them, entirely a product of the lagoon and its immediate surrounds; which is to say that they eat a hell of a lot of fish.

 

Apart from breakfast, which for Venetians means an espresso and a cornetto and for us meant the bountiful purgatory of the Continental buffet, almost every meal we had was largely aquatic. The first night was cuttlefish in sticky ink, thick bigoli pasta in a dense sauce of anchovies, sardines in their beautiful sweet-sour bath, and simply boiled king crab; the next, tiny, toy-like octopus and spaghetti vongole; for lunch, the little soft-shelled local crabs, no bigger than the palm of your hand, which stuff themselves with Parmesan batter in a morbid frenzy before a quick end in hot oil. In between, very often, there was baccala. Although, as far as I can gather, this is made with stockfish rather than salt cod – that is to say, dried without being salted, giving it all the hairy texture without the sometimes overpowering flavour – it shares a lot, in its most common preparation, with the Catalan brandada and the French brandade.

 

Although all these (and salt cod in general) seem totemically Mediterranean dishes, they are essentially a product of trade, early fusion cuisine. The fish, from cold and teeming northern waters, was salted and dried on cold Scandinavian beaches, in dry Scandinavian winds, travelling almost to the other end of the known world to be revived and mixed with good southern olive oil and cracked eastern pepper – and, for the last few hundred years, served on grilled cakes of ground Mexican corn.

 

I make my own salt fish (normally with hake or ling, for various reasons) but don’t generally dry it; I’ll give that a go, and work on a recipe for baccala mantecato. In the meantime, look for Russell Norman’s POLPO recipe; or go and eat it at Polpetto, where it is perfect.