Mostly plants

Strange though it might seem to the long-term reader of these pages, I don’t actually eat very much meat. I’ll eat it when I’m out, because that is a treat, and because I generally go to restaurants I trust to source well-raised and -slaughtered animals; the last time I bought any to cook at home was for my birthday in April when, unable to find any coq, I got a couple of the large, slow-grown Sutton Hoo chickens to braise au vin, with buttered fresh pasta on the side and radishes to start. I don’t shop at supermarkets and I can’t afford to buy meat from the butcher anything more than occasionally – and rightly so. By meat, I should say, I mean chunks of skeletal muscle. I eat a fair amount of other animal products.

When I lived in Suffolk, I ate a lot of eggs, because I knew the chickens. I don’t drink milk, in part because the dairy industry is a dreadful thing but largely because I prefer oat milk; I find it less intrusive in coffee and it obviously has a greater affinity with cereal and porridge than does the milk of cows or other ungulates. I choose oat milk over other plant-based alternatives because it is readily available unadulterated with sugar or with emulsifiers and because the alternatives are disastrous environmentally. To pick almond over cow’s milk is to weigh the ravages of the Californian drought against the mass death of newborn calves; ultimately, I suppose, everything we do is destructive to the face and the depths of the earth, and the puzzle is to find some sort of balance.

For me the answer lies in a sort of economics of death. How much can you wring from each animal, and do you need to? Fish sauce is brewed from entrails and bycatch, and a few drops transforms a meal; a chunk of salt pork enriches a whole mess of beans. If you’re going to eat something like a burger, sandwich ham or chicken nuggets, which bears little resemblance to its original form, I think you may as well eat seitan or Quorn or whatever. A cow might provide vast quantities of meat but the point is that it does so inefficiently and largely unnecessarily. Nobody needs to eat the amount of protein that huge steaks provide and in any case steaks are boring. Even a really good steak just tastes like a steak. To grill a rump or a porterhouse is to close it in on itself; the more economical cook allows meat to give itself up. Even so, I like to save it for moderately special occasions.

The cliche, of course, is that vegetarians and especially vegans are evangelical about their dietary choices, and will aggressively bore anyone nearby about, say, the exploitation of bees in the Chinese honey industry; while I have no doubt this is true of some, I find evangelical carnivores far worse. There is a certain type of person who takes the fact that you don’t eat very much meat, actually, as a personal affront not just to them but to their ancestors, their family, their beliefs; I’m not sure why this should be. The economic ability to consume meat, actual pieces of meat, three times a day has come very recently to most of Western society, and the vast majority of the world does not possess it. It is never presented as a hard-won privilege jealously guarded, though, more as a divine law flouted only by heretics and fools. The fact, as I say, that the vast majority of the human diet throughout its history has been composed of plants in various forms makes this all the stranger. I can only imagine how these people must react to actual self-declared vegans; luckily, I suppose, I like cheese too much to ever become one.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

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.

wander in simplicity

You may have noticed that I haven’t written anything much lately. You may, of course, having many other things to concern you in this wide and dangerous world, not have noticed at all, but we’ll let that slide; I’ll assume the former, and apologise. I’ve been pretty busy, having just moved to London and started a new job, and don’t seem to have been able to find the time to write – or rather, as I have if anything more time to myself than I did before, I don’t seem to have been able to enter the writing frame of mind.

Partly this is down to simple disruption and tiredness. I do my best work (I think) second thing in the morning, after a good night’s sleep and walking the dog; the first few sentences form on the walk, with the gist of the rest pacing behind, and when I get back I make a pot of coffee and write them down. With no such routine in place, and with my main walk of the day taking me to work, ideas simply have no space in which to land. More subtly, perhaps, I think the newness has shaken me.

So much writing, of all kinds but particularly about the craft of cooking, comes from a position of wisdom or at least authority. If we are to take advice on what is after all the most fundamental and universal of human activities, then we rightly expect the advice-giver to know more about it than we do, whether we think that knowledge was handed down over generations (as we assume with ‘ethnic’ food writers) or forged over years of training, thought and research, as with professional cooks and writers.

Part of what stuck in the craw from the now-stalled ‘clean eating’ movement was the fact that the pampered children at its helm obviously lacked both breadth and depth of knowledge in their assumed field, despite their posturing assumption of authority both medical and culinary; they claimed theirs was the only way when it was the only one they had ever tried. At the other end of the scale, you have chefs like Shaun Hill of the Walnut Tree and Stephen Harris of the Sportsman, the last of whom is finally publishing a cookbook after nearly twenty years of running probably the best kitchen in the country (I don’t count anything with two stars or more as really cooking); you can be sure their authority and even wisdom is absolute. Everyone else, I suppose, falls somewhere in the middle.

In reality, of course, no-one ever stops learning, or rather they shouldn’t; the fact that I am again learning new techniques and facts not just from reading but personally from others with far greater experience than me is no reason to stop writing – at the very least I guess I should be taking notes. I learnt the other day, for example, that it is some compound in the dripping steam that makes covered pans of vegetables go that sickly grey; leave the lid off for brighter greens. I suppose I might have learnt that for myself, if I have ever finished reading Harold McGee cover-to-cover as I planned. I didn’t, though, and so was happy to hear it from someone who had winnowed a relevant fact from those masses of words, and applied it to the first flush of sweet French peas.

those in peril

I know, I’ve been really slack with this recently. I’m sorry – I’ve been working on Other Things. I still am, actually. To tide you over, here is the piece I wrote as my shortlisted YBF entry last year. Do enter, by the way, if you do food things. The party is fun, if nothing else…

– I like boats – in theory. On a family holiday to Cornwall, we hired a little boat to potter round the bay; I saw a dolphin, and nearly crashed into a container ship, towering above the rest of the harbour like a piece of the scenery. Other than that, only ferries, across the Channel or the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus or the Grand Canal, normally on bright clear days or nights, surrounded by whirling seagulls, and warm. I’ve never been on a fishing boat; I’ve never even been fishing, unless you count scooping some kind of eely thing out of the Stour and throwing it, wriggling, back in. I know that fishing boats look too small to face the wild sea; but they do.

About nine-and-a-half British fishermen die a year, from accidents at sea; this is a small amount, compared to other countries. Alaskan fishers, working in the freezing stormy darkness, have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Still, it seems a lot. I don’t think ten chefs, or food journalists, die each year from work-related injuries; bakers rarely fall into their ovens, and the good people of Blythburgh do not walk in terror of their ravenous pigs. There is a level of danger accepted in the getting of seafood which is unparalleled in the food industry, perhaps justified by a sort of knightly romance, a sense of quest and hunt, which is attached to the fishing industry. I found it strange, reading Moby-Dick, that people would do something as dangerous as actually hunting whales through the sea, simply to get lamp-oil and perfumes; commercial fishing is, at least, more useful than that. We eat the stuff, after all – and we’re always being told to eat more of it.

When you prepare food for a living, you are constantly aware of waste; the closer you get to the living food, the more there is of it. A stir-fry pack of broccoli florets is expensive, but you can use it all immediately. A bed of brassicas cut from the earth might be half or more stalk and outer leaf, but if it is in your hands you can control it, you can redefine for yourself what is and isn’t a waste product. Stalks can be shredded and fermented into kimchi, dense with mustardy flavour; leaves can be cooked as spring greens, and the actual vegetable, the distended flower-head of the plant, becomes almost an afterthought; this has happened, essentially, in meat, where the Hendersonian revolution has succeeded to the extent that my butcher now tries to flog me cheap racks of cutlets as an alternative to the bellies, breasts and shoulders we usually cook. This has happened, though few people die in a pig’s journey from sty to sausage.

So it hits me, when I am removing the heads, spines, fins, livers, eggs and guts from a pile of beautifully striped mackerel, a primordial bag of squid, darkly intelligent octopus, that perhaps it is insulting, in the face of death – of animal and of human – to throw so much away, that, more than Fergus’ common sense, it is common courtesy to wring every last scrap of meat and of flavour from these creatures, which we exchange for the lives of those, from Whitstable, from Lowestoft or from Grimsby, who live in peril on the sea.

A Pinch Of Salt

In my experience, the most common way to express praise for someone’s cooking (after furious consumption) is to ask for the recipe, by which they often mean a list of ingredients. This is odd. It could be construed as mildly insulting (as if the recipe was the only good thing about the dish), and at the least it displays an almost wilful ignorance as to the mechanics of cooking. This is especially noticeable in restaurants. Yes, they have better equipment, more cooks, and often much better ingredients than you would normally use at home – but the main difference is that the people who work there are better at cooking than you. People sometimes seem to think they’re being tricked when this is pointed out to them. They ask how you make your scrambled eggs, as if there was one secret ingredient only available to the trade, and are disappointed when they hear the answer – “eggs and butter”. And “extremely well”. This is a charade that a lot of cookery writers are involved in. Not wanting to admit that cooking requires skill and effort, and a lot of practice and cock-ups of various kinds, we are told that all you need to do is buy the best, the free-rangest, the rarest – helpful in constructing a tomato salad, less so in making, say, a soufflé, though I guess nobody makes soufflés any more. A loaf of sourdough, say. Yes, good flour is better, and of course you need your well-fed, bubbling SCOBY, but your bread will still be awful if you don’t know how to knead it properly – worse, in fact, than a loaf made with dried yeast, because wet, recalcitrant natural leaven is quite difficult, or at least frustrating, to work with.

In fairness, baking books suffer the least from this affectation, but only because baking (especially bread-baking) is seen as inherently “different” from cooking (by which is meant roasting, braising, sautéing, grilling, and so on), being more scientific, precise, a boys’ game (only bread-baking), a craft requiring patience and graft, totally unlike the free-form expression of personal genius one finds, say, in the construction of an omelette. (You might have guessed from my tone that I find this position a little immature.) It might be true that a sourdough boule requires greater precision of execution than a “rustic” (horrible word) stew, but that doesn’t mean that the latter requires none – only that the consequences of imprecision are more obvious, and less fixable, in the former. Baking is a high-stakes game. Mess up at any one stage – kneading, proving, even (especially) in the proper feeding of your yeast source, before the recipe begins – and you have probably messed it up for good. No amount of prodding and tweaking will rescue it. This is important, and it’s what people mean when they say that baking is more of a “science” – but it doesn’t follow that stewing (braising, sautéing) is a free-for-all. The many opportunities for personal intervention only really offer more opportunities to mess the whole thing up. If you know what you’re doing, you won’t – but the same is true of baking. It’s just easier to master the basics of stewing, which – depending as it does on controlled interactions between heat, protein, acids and salt – is just as much of a science as baking.

Anyway. The consequences of this, for the average cookbook user, are that while some (not all) baking books, (to which I might add brewing and barbecuing – notice a trend?) as purveyors of a specialised craft, are happy to give technical instruction to an almost exhaustive degree, most (nearly all) cookery books, on the other hand, are content to give almost none – or to give the pretence of it in a way that is almost useless. Sweat, sauté, sear; it is assumed that we (I mean you) know the difference between all of these, their particular applications and circumstances. But – and this is the paradox of food writing – if you did, you wouldn’t need the cookbook at all. What you would require is a list of ingredients and the instruction “make a stew (fricassee, daube, whatever)”. A smattering of technical language lets you feel you’re in the club, and ignore the fact you’re reading a recipe that takes two pages to reiterate a basic technique, and add cardamom. I’m being unfair, perhaps, but only a little. This does, however, ignore the real reason we (I) read recipe books, which is for the recipe introductions, sparsely evocative, lushly hedonistic or winningly self-deprecating, which I’m told are a particular forte of British food writers. (In America, where practicality and competence are not considered personal defects, recipes do tend more toward the technical.)

This trend for inclusivity is a relatively new one. Look at old books of “receipts”, as they are still called by the kind of person who says “sparrowgrass” and owns waistcoats, and you will find a shorthand written by and for professional, or experienced domestic, cooks. These are, in the main, just lists of ingredients, which assume you know how to perform a plethora of kitchen tasks (cake-baking, pastry-making, braises and sauces and so on), and need no instructions; often, quantities and timings aren’t given, at least not precisely – the assumption is that you can judge for yourself how much pastry you need for your joint of lamb, or whatever. Partly, I’m sure, this reflects the now-broken oral tradition of “real” “peasant” cooking, handed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter; equally, though, it’s just that cooking has got more complicated. A pastry designed half as glue and half as insulation, and not at all as edible, can be a little rough around the edges – add enough water to make the flour stick together, and you’re done. A pastry designed to hold a rich, golden custard through baking without cracking, and then to melt into butter in the mouth, needs a little more precision. Or take thickeners. A handful of breadcrumbs or ground nuts, added to a sauce, has an effect that is both intuitive and quickly obvious; the amount of slightly cooked egg yolk, stabilised yoghurt, roux, cornflour, or agar agar that might have a similar but more refined effect is less easy to judge by eye – and, as with baking, a mistake does more lasting damage. There is a tendency to a sort of Golden Age view of cooking which ignores the steady technical progress in the field.

All of this, really, avoids the original question, because the answer is quite unpalatable. Yes, I am better at scrambling eggs than you; I know the texture, the look, when to take off the heat and when to return, when to quickly shuffle out of the pan – and when to chuck the lot away and start again. Yes, my eggs are better, larger, fresher, their yolks more golden, their hens happier – but I also use a lot more butter and particularly salt than you would care to think about. It’s a sad fact, but people who will scour the outer reaches of Waitrose for the most obscure of Ottolenghi’s demands are often scared of simple brute seasoning – a shame, when the way to improve on almost any recipe is to take it with a big, three-fingered pinch of coarse sea salt.