Sunday, 25 November 2012

Bombay toast

Between finishing school and going to university, I spent four and a half months in India. Many years later, I read a book by William Sutcliffe called “Are you Experienced”. William Sutcliffe was born in the same year as me. His hero, Dave, like me, travelled to India in his gap year. Dave, like me, was about to read English at university. Dave, like me, was going to York University. I assure the reader of “Are you Experienced?” that my experiences were very different to those of “Dave” and that I have never met William Sutcliffe in my life.

“Dave” does not encounter “Bombay Toast” on his travels. I discovered it in about my second week in India, at St George’s Anglo-Indian School and Orphanage, Madras, where I taught for a couple of months. It was Tory, one of the other volunteers at the school, who described it to me when a stack of it arrived at breakfast time: “Bread dipped in a pancakey mixture and then fried”.

The key thing is that it should resemble a pancake, not an omelette. Unlike some versions of French toast, it is definitely sweet, not salty. This version is based on a recipe for “Pain Perdu” by Rachel Khoo. I leave out the fruit compote. The point of this is simplicity.

Ingredients:

1 egg.
100 ml milk.
1 tablespoon sugar.
4 slices of brioche bread (this is closest to the Indian version of Western style sliced bread).
1 tablespoon butter.

Method:

1. Beat together the egg, milk and sugar and pour on to a flat dish.

2. Place the brioche in the mixture and soak for about thirty seconds on each side.

3. Heat the butter in a large frying pan on a medium heat.

4. Add the brioche and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden, then flip the slices over and cook the other side. Eat immediately. Cold Bombay Toast isn’t worth eating.

I discovered that Bombay Toast was readily available in the "Indian coffee houses” dotted around South India and it became my breakfast of choice on my travels. I associate it particularly with a breakfast by a lake in Ooty (official name: Udhagamandalam). There were a number of different versions of Bombay Toast, some, it has to be said, inferior: sometimes too thickly covered in batter; or with insufficient batter and tasting only of the oil in which it had been fried. Worst of all was the version available on Kovalam beach which was smothered with coconut and banana. On another occasion, in Mahabilapuram, I ordered four slices. The proprietor, possibly wilfully misunderstanding me,brought eight slices on the basis that a normal portion consisted of one slice cut into two. In other words, I had eight slices of Bombay Toast to get through.

Bombay is now officially known as Mumbai. "Bombay Toast”, on the other hand, has not been renamed “Mumbai Toast”.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Crab House

Some meals are memorable. This one was in the US, following the only time I have ever been in a train crash. It happened on our way from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida. Just outside Jacksonville, we came to a standstill with a jolt, having hit a car which, inexplicably, was on the track. Unlike the ending of “Back to the Future 3” in which the time-travelling DeLorean is hit by a train and destroyed, no damage seemed to have been done. No one, the driver assured us over the PA, was seriously hurt. We copied everybody when our train arrived in Orlando three hours late and walked over the rails towards the taxi rank.

As it was Florida, we should probably have looked for a restaurant serving Alligator. Instead, we headed for somewhere doing seafood. It was called "The Crab House”, on International Drive, halfway to Disneyworld and in the midst of Universal Studios. Other attractions included a “Just can’t believe it museum” where even the building itself was skew-wiff – a bit like the old King's School shop in Canterbury, only more so.

While waiting for a table in the restaurant, I went over to inspect the “unlimited salad bar”: masses of shrimp, oysters, mussels, clams and crabs. Seated and with our menus, I plumped for “half a lobster with snow crabs” while Mum chose “snow crabs and garlic crabs”. Our waiter did not approve and told us they were “not very good”. So I chose the unlimited salad bar instead, which the waiter seemed to think was a brilliant idea. Mum’s second choice, broiled shrimp, he didn't like either, and told her she could have “unlimited shrimp” on the salad bar. So Mum took the hint and chose that too and the waiter put on a broad grin and said in a drawn-out way, “Alright!” We speculated after he had disappeared that the menus were phoney and that the only thing available was the salad bar. The waiter soon brought us plates which we went and filled. More than once. As I stuffed myself with shrimp, Mum commented that she could eat the oysters almost as quickly as the man at the salad bar was opening them. Shortly after this, the waiter came over bearing a slightly anxious look on his face and a loaf of warm bread, which he urged us to try: “It’s really good”. But we were not as interested in filling ourselves up on the bread as he was keen to persuade us, and, instead, we took a further trip to the salad bar where we loaded our plates with seafood for a third time. Finally, we were defeated.

It all reminded me of the bit in Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”where James Bond, forced to spend the night in Florida, is treated to a meal at "Bills on the Beach” in Miami. Junius Du Pont, a man whom he met in the first Bond book, “Casino Royale”, is his host and does the ordering:

“Stone crabs. Not frozen. Fresh. Melted butter. Thick toast. Right?”

When the food arrives:

“With ceremony, a wide silver dish of crabs, big ones, their shells and claws broken, was placed in the middle of the table. A silver sauceboat brimming with melted butter and a long rack of toast was put beside each of their plates. The tankards of Champagne frothed pink. Finally, with an oily smirk, the head waiter came behind their chairs and, in turn, tied round their necks long white silken bibs that reached down to the lap”.

Bond considers it the most delicious meal he had had in his life:

“The meat of the stone crabs was the tenderest, sweetest shellfish he had ever tasted. It was perfectly set off by the dry toast and slightly burned taste of the melted butter. The champagne seemed to have the faintest scent of strawberries. It was ice cold. After each helping of crab, the champagne cleaned the palate for the next. They ate steadily and with absorption and hardly exchanged a word until the dish was cleared.”

Pumpkin soup

I am particularly fond of the word pumpkin (two plosives plus diminutive kin). I also love the look of a pumpkin or, better still, a heap of pumpkins, like the one outside Hagrid's hut in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". To eat by itself, however, the pumpkin is a bland, slightly stringy, wet vegetable. To turn it from a sandy flavourless soup into a velvety soup worth eating on a cold night demands onion, curry powder, cream and time. There are probably those who would disagree, do without the curry powder or make a pumpkin pie instead.

Ingredients:
2 oz butter.
1 onion, finely-chopped.
2 tablespoons Bolst's Curry Powder (or whatever you prefer).
1 lb pumpkin, peeled, seeded and chopped into small dice.
3/4 lb potatoes, peeled and chopped.
1 tin chopped Italian tomatoes.
2 pints chicken stock.
1/2 pint double cream.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Some chives and/or croutons if you have them.

Method:
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan.
2. Add the onions and allow to soften for about 5 minutes.
3. Shortly afterwards, add the curry powder. Allow to cook slowly, without either burning.
4. Add the pumpkin and cook over a gentle heat for another 5 minutes.
5. Add the potatoes and stir on a low heat for about 15 minutes.
5. Add the tin of tomatoes, followed by the stock, the salt and FGBP.
6. Simmer until everything is tender (about one hour).
7. Allow to cool slightly then sieve or blend.
8. Return the soup to the pan (a few exciting scraps of unsieved soup left behind won't do any harm) and stir in the double cream.
9. Re-heat and eat. A few chives or croutons sprinkled on top are rather good.

Final thought: this is not soup to eat while watching "Halloween 3: Season of the Witch". I have, however, served this for a Halloween party. My friend Vicki Telling used the pumpkin shell to create a clever effect: my face amalgamated with Harry Potter's in a wizard's hat through which a lit candle shone. It was on the same occasion when her husband Richard Worth crept upstairs to change into his monk's outfit and came down in the dark bearing another candle. He caused quite a stir. A Tale Worth Telling.

This recipe is based on two taken from a little orange book called "Pumpkins, squashes and things......and how to cook them". Neither recipe has any curry powder to be seen. I am dedicating my version to my cousin Olivia Weiss who was born on 31 October!

Chorizo roll

Brindisa in Borough Market do something called a chorizo roll. It consists of a roll drizzled with olive oil, a split in two grilled chorizo, a red piquilla pepper and some rocket. You can either have a single or a double (quantities of chorizo and pepper). Having a double appears much better value. The queues for them normally snake quite a way out of the covered section where they are sold. Today, people had to huddle inside, out of the rain. Still, they sold like hot cakes. Seriously good.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Lucie's leftovers

My first "guest" recipe! Unlike a plate of buttered noodles or a fried onion, the word "leftovers" can cover a delectable feast or acres of disgustingness. Much more to say on the subject but I think my general principle would be: avoid the temptation of making use of everything at your disposal. And don't hesitate to combine the leftover bits with something fresh and new. As Nigel Slater once said, if you have cold boiled potatoes in your fridge, then you have treasure. I would add: very easy to corrupt that treasure.

Lucie's recipe was spontaneous and, I am assuming, followed a roast lunch. I haven't yet tried it but it seems to me (without getting over-analytical) that it fulfils the basic criteria above, the joy of "one pot cooking" AND the principle that the golden bits at the bottom of the pan are worth a lot of effort. They are the buried treasure!

1. Sauté a sliced leek in butter in a frying pan until it starts to brown.

2. Add thin slices of roast potatoes and leftover vegetables. Root vegetables such as parsnips or carrots are particularly likely to work here as they will caramelise. Peas will also work but I emphasise: be careful in your choices. Re-cooked vegetables can so easily go wrong. Cook as slowly as you can.

3. Add a handful of pine nuts.

4. This is where Lucie and I have a difference of view. She says add some cubes of sheep's or goat's milk feta. I say add some mozzarella. My prejudice against feta... Reasonable people can disagree.

5. Cook until the cheese starts to melt. The golden brown crispy bits (not burned) at the bottom of the pan are delicious.

Cousin Pen (see earlier entries) would probably enjoy this but might well have eaten the roast potatoes cold before Lucie could get her hands on them.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Bolognese sauce

It seems to me that there are only four essential ingredients of a Bolognese sauce although the Bolognese themselves might well disagree - just as they would never serve this sauce with spaghetti. For reasons I have articulated elsewhere (round food) I don't rave about spaghetti much anyway. My pasta of choice with this sauce is tagliatelle. James Bond and I would disagree about the choice of pasta if not the sauce. In Thunderball, one of the "three obsessions which belonged to his former life and which would not leave him" was: "a passionate longing for a large dish of Spaghetti Bolognese containing plenty of chopped garlic and accompanied by a whole bottle of the cheapest, rawest Chianti (bulk for his empty stomach and sharp tastes for his starved palate)". This is possibly the first dish I was ever taught to cook and it got me through university. When I first published this version, I received a particularly helpful critique and have incorporated some of the suggestions from it into this revised version.

Those essential ingredients, then: an onion, about 1 lb or 500 g of minced beef, a small tin of tomato purée (I would not have added an accent but the device I am using cleverly did so) and the empty tin filled with water and stirred so as to leave the tin shiny and no remnants of tomato within it. There will be ample fat in the mince for cooking purposes. Just these ingredients will make a rich sauce far better and more cheaply than anything from a jar. One of those dishes like Shepherd's Pie which is simply not worth eating other than at home.

That said, I have refined the sauce over the years and would add the following optional ingredients: a clove of garlic, a pinch of thyme or oregano, a bay leaf, a little freshly ground black pepper, a carrot or two, a stick of celery, a handful of lardons or pancetta, a tin of chopped Italian tomatoes, a splash of olive oil and a splash of red wine. The imprecision of some of the quantities given is not intended to sound airy or unhelpful but to demonstrate that, unlike some other recipes, it's fairly flexible. NOT, though, when it comes to certain additional ingredients...

Let me do some explaining. This, above all, is a meat sauce. The onion, garlic, celery and carrot are condiments only, to melt unobtrusively. You do not want great lumps of them in this sauce. Nor, in my view, should other, alien ingredients, such as mushrooms, peppers or, dare I say it, sweetcorn, be added. I like to think I favour liberalism in cooking. And if you fancy a mince and vegetable sauce for your pasta, fine. But it seems to me that too many extra vegetables or whatever cross the line between what can legitimately call itself Bolognese and what cannot. The other thing to add, while I'm being principled, is that this is a thick meat sauce: it shouldn't be watery.

The method, leaving out steps depending on the optional ingredients...

1. Finely chop an onion. My only tip on avoiding tears is this. Peel it all first and don't chop off the ends until you've done so. You want to minimise the amount of time following the first cut which starts to release in vapourised form the (very dilute) sulphuric acid that attacks the eyes.

2. Heat about a teaspoon of olive oil in a frying pan. If you're not using any oil, leave out step 5: ie add the mince first, followed by the onion.

3. Finely chop the garlic if you're using it. Warm it gently in the oil. Remove once it's added flavour to the oil.

4. If you're using lardons, fry them at this stage.

5. Fry the finely chopped onion, stirring frequently to prevent it from burning.

6. Put the mince into the frying pan, turn the heat up and brown the mince on all sides. Gradually mix the mince with the onion. Stir frequently, breaking up any clumps of mince as you do so and stopping the onion from burning. Shake the pan every so often. If there's a lot of fat in the pan, now's a good opportunity to pour it off.

7. If you're adding any of the other optional vegetables (carrot and celery), add them at this stage, as finely chopped as you can. To repeat myself, they are condiments. Similarly, the thyme, bay leaf and FGBP can all go in at this stage.

8. Add the tomato purée. Because of it's thick consistency, it may be a struggle at first to mix it with the mince. Persevere: the heat will rapidly cause it to melt. Don't add water at this stage, but stir furiously. You don't want the tomato - or anything - to burn but the direct heat at this stage seals in the flavour. I think.

9. Add the splash of wine and/or chopped tomatoes if they're going in.

10. Finally, add the water. Turn the heat down to its lowest possible setting. Let the sauce bubble gently. Scrape down the sides of the pan every so often. Stir and/or add a little more water every so often if there's a danger of sticking.

11. I think this should be allowed to simmer for 45 minutes or longer. There should be some, but not too much, rich red liquid on the top. Cook the pasta. Eat.

Some reminiscences. This was the first thing I was taught to cook before I went off to university. It's still a staple. On one occasion - this was before I had learned to cook it - we had all been to the theatre with an extended party of family and friends. The plan was that Mum was going to cook this when we got home afterwards. But she had to be dropped off at the local hospital, having got something in her eye. So my father took us all home and asked us what we'd like to eat. In an injudicious attempt to lighten the atmosphere, I said airily, "Oh you know, some smoked salmon, some caviar, something like that". In my defence, I hadn't appreciated my mother was actually in casualty; she happened to work in the hospital and I'd thought one of her colleagues was going to sort her out. In any event, my father didn't lose his temper in front of guests but we were swiftly banished from the kitchen and he put together a bolognese sauce about which one of my cousins was a little doubtful. My roasting came the following day after everyone had left...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dinner at the Hamlet

Upstairs, Downstairs. Those of us in the first and second years of the Dulwich Hamlet Junior School in the late 1970s ate their dinner in the lower dining hall. Those higher up the school – I left after two years so never got there – would eat upstairs. After morning lessons, we would all hover in the school playground outside the dining hall. Over the entrance was a blackboard, listing each class, in the order they were due to go in for the meal. Every so often, a bell ringer would emerge from the doorway: one of the teachers, together with a pupil. While the teacher clanged the bell, the pupil would brandish a white card showing in black the class whose turn it was to enter. It was as though the bell was ringing out the name of the class: “1F,1F, 1F, 1F, 1F”. F stood for Francis, Mrs Francis, the name of my class teacher.

This was quite new. My two previous schools, both in Coventry, had been reassuring places at mealtimes. This was noisy, chaotic. Beyond the tables, at the opposite end of the hall from where we trooped in, was the kitchen, the long serving hatch and the dinner ladies. Memories of the first day are acute. One of the white-capped dinner ladies had purple hair. My mother was highly amused at me when I reported this to her agitatedly when she collected me from school that day. “What charming people you have at your school”, she told me, reassuringly. The next day it was a woman with pointy black eyebrows who made me nervous: I couldn’t take my eyes off her. But the dinner ladies gradually became friends. Particularly Ivy, “the pudding cook”: orange-haired; squat; a dry, bark-brown, powdery, wrinkled face with a lipstick smile. "There’s a dinner lady called Ivy at every school”, my father explained to me. Ivy signed her name elegantly in my autograph book on my last day at the school: “I. Smith”. She was the provider of Arctic Roll, of chocolate sponge and of my very favourite, jam sponge: a crispy top, a little jam underneath the sponge. I always refused custard. I also blenched one day at sickly rose hip syrup and, another time, a revolting thing called "Queen of Puddings", cold, slimy and flabby.

The food took some getting used to: day one introduced me to grey, heavy, strong-tasting, meaty lumps of beef burgers. I couldn’t get through mine and was reprimanded by Mr Holmes, the master in charge, but he permitted me to get away with it on that first day. I grew fond of the burgers over time and even of Mr Holmes. The thought of having male teachers for the first time had made me anxious before I joined the school. Dressed in a green suit, Mr Holmes was a tall, lean and scathing schoolmaster, with a slightly sinister, hungry grin and a voice that carried. “There is a boy here who is not allowed to eat flour”, he bellowed on that first day, and everyone fell silent. “Would he please go to the kitchen and discuss what he can eat with the kitchen staff”. The singled-out boy in question quickly obeyed his instructions.

Puddles of mince – soya mince – I could not eat. On another occasion, it was Miss Ware who was in charge in that lower dining hall. I had bizarrely and stupidly chosen “spam fritter”, something I had never tried before. The first mouthful, strange and foreign-tasting, was manageable. But I realised quickly that I could not eat much more. Our plates had to be inspected before we were allowed to return them to the kitchen hatch. Miss Ware was unimpressed with the amount still on my plate and told me to eat just the spam. “But it’s the spam I don’t like”, I told her, plaintively and truthfully. She took pity on me. “Well just eat the fritter then”, and I returned to the table, relieved and did as I had been told. Another teacher, Mrs Selvum-Holly, used an alternative, kindly, technique on pupils who had not emptied their plates.“Just three more spoonfuls”, she would cajole and it was not hard to obey, by making the spoonfuls particularly small. Rounds of mashed potato, crisped on top, which I soaked in vinegar, I remember as being edible, but I cannot remember what they were called.

Yet the thought of going without lunch, however foul the food, once filled me with raw misery. It happened on about my second day at the school. Every morning before assembly, Mrs Francis would collect each member of the class’s “dinner money”. But that day I had been given no such money by my mother and was alone in the class in not handing up my little brown envelope with its coins inside that were to pay for lunch. Nobody had noticed, seemingly, and nothing was said to me. I sat through assembly, in miserable fear, as the teacher read us a story about Simon and the Witch, generating gales of laughter from everyone except me. Back in the classroom, either I approached the teacher or she came up to me and I was told that my mother had already paid for a term’s school dinners by cheque. I felt a fool, but a relieved fool.

After we had finished eating lunch, we were not allowed to hang around and so “I’ll wait outside for you” became a familiar thing to say to the slower eater. I fantasised once that I would persuade everyone in the dining hall to wait outside for me; two lines would then grow along the school playground; and I would emerge and process all the way between the two lines (is there a word for such a concept?) to the end. Of course, I admitted to myself, there would be some who would not be there as comrades but as enemies, no doubt sticking out an unkind leg to make me fall. Now the word for that is gauntlet.

Once, I emerged from the dining hall to find not a procession but everyone rooted at various spots in the school playground, booing loudly. Knowing nothing about what was going on, I joined in. The reason emerged when, later, the Headmaster, Mr Dartnell, summoned the school to the assembly hall. Those who had started the jeers had been insulting visitors from another school and we were all admonished. By contrast, on another day, those of us who volunteered to clear litter from “Sainsbury’s Field” after a sports day, were rewarded with a can of drink: my first 7-Up.

At another assembly, there was an announcement from Mr Dartnell. It must have been winter of discontent time. The kitchen ladies were going on strike and we would all have to bring packed lunches. Cheers erupted. Mr Dartnell was indignant: “You have the best school dinners in the whole of South London”, he insisted. But we never saw him at lunch, except for once a year at the Christmas lunch when he crept into the dining hall and said a few words in hushed tones - “Ah...this is…er...our Christmas Dinner…” - ending in an invitation to us to raise a cheer for the dinner ladies.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Hot chicken salad with bacon and tarragon

Warm salads are counter-intuitive. I found this on a recipe card in Sainsbury’s and cooked it for many friends since. Simple to put together.
 
Ingredients:

4 chicken breasts, skins removed

4 rashers of middle bacon OR lardons

1 teaspoon olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon tarragon

Ground pepper

1 lettuce
 
For the dressing:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

Salt, pepper
 
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan.  Chop the chicken and the bacon intobite-sized strips and add it to the oil. Fry until crisp.  Add the lemonjuice, tarragon and pepper and allow the liquid to reduce.  Put the lettuce in a bowl and dress.  Add the chicken and bacon mixture, toss andserve.  Serves 4.

Bacon casserole with flageolets

Possibly the first recipe I wrote down, this falls into the category of simple food for a winter supper.
Ingredients:
3 rashers of streaky or middle bacon or 1 bacon chop chopped roughly
1 medium onion chopped finely
1 tin of chopped Italian tomatoes
1 tin of flageolet beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon oregano
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil

Gently heat the olive oil then turn up the heat, add the bacon and fry until well cooked. Add the onion, turn down the heat and allow the onion to soften without burning. Add the beans and continue to cook without adding any water but making sure the contents do not burn. Finally, add the chopped Italian tomatoes and the herbs and bring to the boil. Then allow to simmer for half an hour (adding a little water if contents in danger of drying out) and serve. Eat hot or cold; good if dressed with olive oil.

Christmas pie (2008)

"My" Christmas pie has a number of variations, including its name. It's also known as "bird pie", "cold raised pie", "game pie" and "Hunter's pie". Perfect for a long walk on Boxing Day. This is the version made in 2008, recorded very basically by my mother in my recipe book.

"Dame, get up and bake your pies."

For the pastry:

6 oz lard
1 lb plain flour
Salt.

Make hot water crust. Mould 3/4 to line pie tin and preserve 1/4 for lid.

For the filling:

Sausage meat
Chopped bacon
Powdered mace
Pepper
Juniper berries
Finely chopped garlic
Grated rind of one lemon
Chicken breasts

Mix together all except the sausage meat. Line the pie with 3/4 of the sausage meat. Insert bacon and chicken breasts, cover with sausage meat and pastry top. Cook about two hours, 1st half hour 170 degrees, then 160 degrees.

It may have been on a different occasion that Mum made the large pie as normal but, with some of the leftover meat, a number of tiny pies. She also experimented once by mixing some of the sausage meat into the pastry. "God, how divine."

Herrings Alethea

Alethea was my mother's first name. This is the first recipe in the "fish" section of her recipe book and it is written in red biro in handwriting I don't recognise but may be an earlier incarnation of hers.

At the foot of the recipe in brackets is my mother's maiden name, A. Weiss, followed by a word that I cannot read. Next to the name "Herrings Alethea" in different-coloured ink is an address: 111 Woodstock Road Oxford. Was this something she cooked when working as a secretary in Oxford before she went to university? Strangely, someone has crossed out the recipe. But it is still legible and, for the record, here it is below. I don't remember ever having eaten it.

Cut and fillet 1 herring for each person. Lay flat on floured board and place slices of garlic, dabs of French mustard and a few drops of lemon juice. Clean 1 small sweet pepper and a couple of tomatoes, fry them lightly in cooking oil along with a few very thin slices of onion.

Place a few teaspoons of this mixture inside each herring, roll it up and place in a greased baking tin. Plcae remains of tomato/pepper mixture on and around fish and then pour about half a cup of milk over them. (The roes should be chopped up and placed inside the fish.) Season and bake [?] in a low oven until fish is tender.

MOT

Stands for marmite, onion and tomato. That doesn't do it justice. Let me do some explaining.

First, good bread: one of those slightly dry "pain de campagne" or a baguette. Lightly toasted. Then spread marmite thinly on it; butter underneath the marmite if you wish. Finely chop some cherry tomatoes, or any other kind of tomato, provided it isn't Dutch. Then finely chop a shallot, or about a third of an onion. Mix with the tomato and squeeze on some lemon juice. Scatter it on the marmited toast. Scrape the tomato juices and any stray pips from the chopping board on to the bits of toast as well. Eat.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Making salt

In about September 1981, I began studying Chemistry at school as a separate subject. My career as a chemist was to come to an ignominious end four years later when I dropped the subject, having achieved the distinction of the lowest mark in the exams in the entire school year.

But I still remember aspects of the subject with affection. Burning magnesium! My white shirt being turned into a chromatogram by some clever idiot in the desk behind me, using ink, a pipette and surgical spirit or similar. Best of all, in that very first lesson in 1981, we made salt.

The process involved dissolving a pile of what looked like sand in water, heating the water (Bunsen burner) and then - can't remember the detail but I think filter paper may have been involved somewhere - ending up with a small and rather damp pile of salt.

Very satisfyingly, we were allowed to take the results of our experiment into the dining hall to have with our lunch. Monday lunches were particularly dispiriting: salad, so-called. The salt improved the undressed lettuce and slab of pork pie.

It may have been on the same occasion that I was required by the prefect in charge of the table (I shall name and shame him: Jonathan Harding) to eat my pork pie jelly, a feat I managed only by melting it into the barely warm mashed potato on my plate.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Tomatoes and peppers

The tomatoes from Tuscany, the peppers from the stall next to the bus stop where I got off at Leyton after my flight back from Italy.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Spaghetti alla vongole

This is Part 2 of my trip to Ventimiglia. I remind you of the date: 11 September 2001.

After stocking up with Parma ham and Napoli salami (both to be the subjects of other entries, I predict) and a quick whisk around the covered market, we headed to a restaurant on the coast for lunch.

It was Pen’s treat – and I should add that it almost always is. The only way to prevent this from happening is to agree very precisely with her well in advance that she will in no circumstances be the one to settle up at the end of the meal. Even then, she has been known to slip quietly away from the table and, before you could say “bill”, she has already requested and paid it.

Unusually for me, it was not a meal where starters were in order. I can only recall what I ate which was perhaps as perfect a choice as I could have made at that particular moment: for the very first meal I ate in Italy, right by the coast, outside, at lunchtime on a warm September day. Spaghetti alla vongole. Normally, I avoid spaghetti. If I were being dishonest, I would say that it was because spaghetti are cylindrical and so the sauce falls off which simply does not happen to the flatter types of pasta. But I cannot even explain my prejudice to my own satisfaction.

The shells in spaghetti alla vongole are a good sign. If they are not there, I suspect tinned clams. You need little else other than the clams: a little greenery, some wine, perhaps some shreds of chilli. A plate on which to discard the emptied shells. A fork and people surrounding you who have no objection to your helping the clams out with your fingers. My heart usually sinks when I hear the expression a “light lunch”, but if it consisted of a bowl of spaghetti alla vongole, I’d be very happy.

This golden day ended shortly after we arrived back in Lorgues, at about 4 in the afternoon, French time. We had just settled down on the terrasse, when suddenly the telephone rang. Pen took the call in the house and came outside shortly afterwards in tears. Her friend, Monique, had told her to switch on the television.