To Build A Fire

The first little brightnesses of winter are beginning to appear after the long mulch of autumn and December; the low sun is in a clear blue sky and soon restaurant plates everywhere will be lit up with flashes of Sicilian blood orange, dark-grown Yorkshire rhubarb, and pale green leaves speckled with mahogany. Everything will be bitter leaves and cured fish, as if January had no more need for comfort. These flavours are welcome, of course, as welcome as a walk around the sunny park when for a week the sky has been a uniform lead grey, like living in one of the grimmer Jack London stories; eating uncooked fish and sour-sweet fruit is almost always welcome, and it feels like you are being good to yourself in a very particular way, the way of brisk walks and bitter cordials and melancholy non-fiction. Sometimes that is the self-care you need, to feel fresh and clean or at least alive in the face of leaden greyness; sometimes you need to take the opposite path, and sit in your warm pyjamas drinking a deep amber wine, eating anchovies on hot buttered toast, half listening to the radio, and half writing this.

 

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.

Dine & Wine

Making a risotto, you might think, is a fairly tedious business, which it is unless you do it properly – which is to say in the right frame of mind. One way to enter this frame is for the bottle you open to add the first splash of liquid among the toasted grains to be the one you drink throughout the cooking process; unless you are making a radicchio risotto, this will probably be a light, dry Italian white, perfect for the slight mental dislocation required to stand stirring, watching and listening for the next twenty minutes or so as your rice turns into velvet.

We are told, often, never to cook with anything we wouldn’t drink, which for most young cooks is almost meaningless. a category containing only, at a push, WKD Blue; it certainly includes no known wines. It is intended, of course, to advise us only to cook with good wines, but then what does that mean? Good for cooking, should be the answer, in which case the advice becomes tautologous and disappears. Certainly the idea that we should cook with the best wines we can buy is flawed.

If you are making, for example, a fine coq au vin, then the bosky pinot noir you rightly intend to drink with it would be wasted on the cooking; for one thing, you are going to brutalise the wine by reducing it by half, emphasising some flavours and destroying others. More importantly, though, you don’t need subtle undertones of mushroom and herb when you are in fact going to cook it with both of those things. What makes a good wine as opposed to just a nice wine, you might say, is nuance, and you can always add nuance; that’s what seasoning is for.

Leave the aforementioned bosky delight unopened for now, then, and reduce instead two bottles of the Co-op’s own claret with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a handful of dried mushrooms – if you’re making a fine coq au vin, that is. If you’re making that risotto, in which the wine element is more of a votive offering than anything else, then open something bright and white, and toast with it the coming meal, and the fellow drinkers you are cooking it for.

Stop and drink

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Cooking is simple, in the ways that it is simple, because it is predictable; ingredients rarely lie, prevaricate, dissemble, or even change their minds. Two eggs, mixed correctly with the equivalent weight each of fat, sugar, and flour, make a cake, and if they don’t turn out to behave as you expect, the fault lies with you and with a failure of your technique. You can’t blame the butter because you didn’t cream it for long enough; it did what it was bound, as it were, to do, and what it in fact told you it was going to do, if you had been paying attention. If the butter turned out, on closer inspection, to be margarine, then you might be angry at yourself, for somehow not having realised that it was margarine, or you might be angry at your partner or housemate, for deliberately bringing margarine into your home; you might be angry that margarine, that greasy parody of authenticity, even exists. You can’t say that it only just became margarine, though, or that it hid its true nature until you had bought it and had it out of the packet; it was always margarine, and it says so on the label, which screams I can’t believe it, even though it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about butter, or margarine, that it is not the one and is the other.

If, on the other hand, cooking is difficult, then it is difficult to the extent that it is complicated, whether obviously, as in a baking recipe which might use forty ingredients in as many steps over four days, or more esoterically, as in cooking something like a steak, say, a process which involves so many variables, the cut, thickness and temperature of the meat, the exact heat and conductivity of your pan or grill, the exact age and physical condition of the original animal, that they are usually glossed over altogether, perhaps with the instruction simply to cook it to your liking, which isn’t, when it comes down to it, very helpful.You can, as a cook, either take this rather disingenuous instruction as it is, or you can attempt to understand every invisible step, every variable involved, in which case you will very probably get worse at cooking before you get better; you will, on the other hand, have the knowledge to see the occasional cooking disaster not as a blind act of fate or coincidence, but the direct result of actions taken or not taken; you can do better next time.

Cooking is predictable, you might say, because it is banal; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking is complicated because it has deep roots; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. On the one hand it seems trivial, when every breaking news alert is seasoned with the sense that America, and perhaps the rest of the world with it, is swiftly approaching some final catastrophe, to attempt to sit down and write about dinner, or worse, brunch; on the other, what else is there to write about? Whatever else happens, we all have to eat, and February is grim enough anyway without this extra burden. I seem, unconsciously, to have been focusing recently on cooking skills which might be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland – canning, preserving, foraging, cooking over open fire, butchery, and so on; these ferments I have stored against my ruin. Less bleakly, it seems reasonable, at such times, to bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.

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.

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.

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.

Wild Ferment


Although I’m still learning and experimenting, I’ve done enough fermentation now, I think, to consider myself reasonably experienced, at least when it comes to solid, savoury foods; in the field of fermented drinks, I’m still a complete beginner, at least in my adult life. The first ferment I made, in fact, was Binger Geer from The Weird And Wonderful Cookbook, a comically fizzy and powerfully gingered concoction made first with the help of, and then, as I got bored with the lengthy, repetitive process and realised I didn’t much like the stuff, almost entirely by my dad, himself a keen home brewer. He makes a fine dark ale, and a number of more or less experimental and palatable country wines; the blackberry has, in years past, made an excellent mull for Christmas Eve.

Brewing beer has always seemed like a complex and arcane process to me, requiring large investments of time, skill and equipment, and so, in fact, it is; you can buy one of those can kits and make yourself a batch of indifferent bitter with relative ease, but as you can easily buy indifferent bitter at any supermarket, cornershop or pub, it seems a little pointless. Making anything decent or interesting is hard, and best left to professionals or dedicated hobbyists; making country wines is much easier. This is obvious, when you think about it. With beer, you take a sweet-smelling but fairly unpalatable mash and coax it gently into a complex deliciousness; wine-making lets you start with something delicious and basically leave it alone, your only input being to not cock it up. Moreover, light, gluggable wines are something I generally want to drink, and they’re quite hard to come by in this country. So.

With this in mind, and with the help of Sandor Katz, I thought I’d try making honey wine. Given that honey is basically the tastiest natural thing, this is very easy. You just mix honey with water (1:4) in a bucket and leave it to do its thing; once it’s done that, you put it in a sequence of bottles until you want to drink it. There’s a little more to it than that, but those are the basics. Deciding when you want to drink it – that is, when it is at its best – is the hard part, but since it’s your wine you can sort of decide what its supposed to taste like anyway. There, that was easy, wasn’t it? Even if it goes really wrong, you’ll probably end up with vinegar, and fresh, unpasteurised vinegar is a lovely thing. You can, if you want, use it to make more drinkables, in the form of shrubs or sipping vinegars; or you can pickle things in it, taking the all-my-own-work glow of preserving up a notch. Or you can just use it as vinegar, in dressings and sauces and marinades. Honey wine vinegar is bloody lovely. Next time you find yourself with a lot of something sweet, I urge you – stick in a bucket and wait. You might not be disappointed.

Cabbages (and things)

  
Dinner last night, after a weekend of fairly gluttonous feasting, was a nearly meat-free dish of white cabbage wedges, thickly pot-roast on a bed of beans, bacon and leeks; taking around an hour and a half of hands-off cooking, it was reasonably delicious, although it would have been more so if the cabbage had been fermented first. The deep umami flavours of sauerkraut cooked with cured pork are quite extraordinary, something the Poles, the Germans, the Alsatians and indeed the Luxembourgeois know full well.

 

The week before we had eaten a pot-roast red cabbage, simply browned in lard and then cooked slowly in its own juices; served with stewed apple and a heaping dollop of creme fraiche, it was a revelation, with meaty, giving textures and a real depth of flavour, from charred and peppery to rich, sweet mustard – but what else would you expect from Stephen Harris? The Sportsman head chef’s recipes, which express the elegant precision of his cooking in simple language and accurate instructions, are a great gift to both the lay and the professional cook; almost as great as his grotty, rundown pub by the sea.

 

One of the reasons Fergus Henderson has become such a towering figure, aside from his revolutionary cooking, his unimprovable restaurants, and his remarkable dress sense, is the work of his acolytes across London and beyond. Justin Gelattly, James Lowe, Claire Ptak, Lee Tiernan; if these were the only cooks to have passed through his kitchen his legacy would be assured. They aren’t, of course. Noble Rot, a dark and odd wine bar in Bloomsbury which approaches, between the colfondo prosecco and the violent espresso, its own particular perfection, has a kitchen headed up by one Paul Weaver, who has done time under both St Fergus and Stephen Harris, who also consults on the menu.

 

Now, I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and possess neither the patience nor the vocabulary to be one; look elsewhere for a fuller appreciation of this excellent, terse menu, which raises a brasserie menu du jour to a particular, vibrant beauty. I’m still thinking about the Comte tart, warm and quivering, with a custard that offers no resistance to the edge of a fork and a pastry which crumbles in all the right places; of the salad of red chicories and pickled walnuts, sweet and bitter and razor-sharp. It is the sort of thing that you eat in an anonymous station bistro with a glass of rose and dream about for the rest of your life; to have it easily available in West London seems cheating, somehow, but also glorious.

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?