Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Repton


These entries are supposed to be about food and eating. Is it cheating, I wonder, to write about the eating of imaginary earth and diamonds? Let me do some explaining before this becomes too surreal.

There are those who will switch off immediately at the mention of the words "computer game". I will press on regardless in the hope of winning some converts to a series of games where, despite a complete lack of programming knowledge, I played a small part in their creation.

By way of introductory digression, it has occurred to me how many games (not just computer games) involve the winning of (artificial) food. Trivial Pursuit: different families have different names for the plastic shapes which one collects on answering certain questions: wedges, pieces of cake or slices of cheese. Then there are even the ancient party games where real food is involved: Bob Apple, Snapdragon, Egg and spoon races. And one we played at a birthday party - eating chocolate with a knife and fork.

Returning to the artificial and the electronic. Fruit machines, for instance. Three cherries in a row. And the earliest electronic games of all, Pacman, involved a yellow snappy creature gobbling dots and fruit in a maze. 

But back to this particular computer game. Repton. Not the public school in Derbyshire but the title of the game and the name of its hero, a green-headed yellow-shirted blue-trousered creature who has to explore caverns, eating diamonds and earth while avoiding monsters and boulders. There are other subtleties but I will ignore them for the moment. What distinguishes this game from others is that although there are some minor random elements, the game is almost entirely dependent on skill. Puzzles can be straightforward, fiendishly difficult or somewhere in between. There are "junior" versions of the screens intended to catch them young. By contrast, there is an "OAP" version of Repton who carries a walking stick. Later in the series, versions became available where Repton took on new roles: there are games set in the arctic, the oceans, the prehistoric era, outer space, and (my own especial pride although I did not design the graphics) a version set in the world of the Arabian Nights.

It may be a tenuous link between computer games and food, but I commend Repton and its successors to all. The trouble is the amount of time that can be spent...

Monday, 19 August 2013

Granny's strawberry ice cream


When Granny grew strawberries in the back garden, she kept them, as they grew, in jam jars. I never wondered why but discovered, many years later, that it was to protect them from snails. Unfortunately, the snails were undaunted by the jars and simply crawled in to feast.

Despite the snails, she managed every year to harvest some fruit. Strawberries and cream were served in white and pink china bowls that had belonged, I think, to her mother.

Then there was homemade strawberry icecream, made either from her own strawberries or ones we had picked at Snitterfield. It consisted very simply of the fruit mashed up with milk and single cream, poured into a Perspex bowl and put into the freezer.

Taken out, it always needed a little while to defrost slightly; thus there was a thin layer of pink-purple slush before the hard slab underneath, which needed to be chopped out of the bowl with a knife.

More of a sorbet than an ice cream; so cold it hurt your teeth as they sank icily through. Occasionally we were allowed to pour cream on to it, which hardened and could be peeled off the ice cream to be eaten in its own right.

A slightly less austere version of this recipe would use double cream and stuff the milk.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Milk

It was a short story that haunted me when I was younger. By Joan Aiken, I think, its main character, a child, became obsessed about the moon: first she dreamed of it as a luxuriant, shining white garden but, in later dreams, it appeared to her as an empty, dusty desert. Falling ill, the girl went to hospital, where a man in a white coat showed her under a microscope her earlier visions of the moon. He then told her that what she was examining was a drop of milk: "Milk's full of moons", he said.

I had a curious experience of my own in hospital several years before I first read that story. I was there for the investigation of fits. During my stay, I was taken to a small room where the man and woman there offered me a choice between a moon and a star, to go at the end of my hospital bed. I chose a moon, which seemed to surprise the woman, who told me she thought that a star would be much better. But I stuck to my original request, buttons were pressed and the cardboard moon was produced from a machine. It was a silver crescent moon and before handing it to me, the woman used scissors to snip off the pointy ends, on the grounds that they were "sharp". When I repeated this story to my parents a number of years later, they told me that I had been full of medication and that it must have been a dream: a drug-induced dream indeed.

Another fairy tale is the tale of Lady Greensleeves - but the music is better known than the tale. It concerned two children who go on a quest to find their enchanted uncles. They are tempted on the way by a wicked equivalent of the child catcher who warns them of frogs in the water and offers them instead a goblet of milk "in which the rich cream floated". When they refuse, preferring on the advice of Lady Greensleeves, to drink water from the stream, their enemy angrily tips away the milk only to return later with an even more lavishly Blair goblet of wine.

But to return to the topic of milk. There is something drug-like about it. The way it can send babies into a stupor, followed by sleep. Perhaps it is the opaqueness. There is an episode of the Avengers in which the baddies introduce a mind-altering drug into milk bottles delivered by a fake milkman to various senior people in government. At a pivotal moment, Patrick Macnee's sidekick, the one whose name everyone forgets (NOT Diana Rigg and NOT Honor Blackman) is trapped in a glass churn of swirling cream desperately waiting to be rescued. When Steed finally saves her, she is caught like a fly in amber, in the middle of a gigantic block of butter.

I suppose, then, that milk is our first ever experience of food. Curiously flavourless while full of flavour: think of the difference between top of the milk and the rest of the bottle. Of the spoilsports who cheerfully tip the bottle on its end twice before opening it... Once there was gold top and silver top. One of my grandmothers, who I seem to recall buying sterilised milk, had the habit of not removing the silver top but instead piercing it and pouring the milk through the resulting hole.

Milk is something to be rejected instantly if its flavour goes wrong: I am thinking of milk that has gone only slightly sour. Like those triangular cartons or miniature one third of a pint milk bottles we had at school, both provided with a straw to poke through, left in their grey crates next to a warm radiator.

You can now buy in supermarkets bottles of creamy yellow Jersey milk. And in France, packets of Candia Frais with globules of cream amid the slightly sweet-tasting milk, which landed on and improved the arid texture of the shredded wheat. In St Tropez over breakfast outside our caravan, beneath the pine trees, we once noticed a solitary ant dragging a strand of the cereal that my brother had dropped from his bowl.

I also recall as a child reading one of the "Katie" books which refers to the evocative sound of "clinking ice in the milk-pitcher"; although cold milk is the way forward, I would be concerned about the ice diluting the milk.

Old enough to know better, I once attempted to make hot chocolate in Scotland by putting milk on to boil in an electric kettle. A funny smell resulted and the kettle was destroyed. That experiment over, one question continues to fascinate me. How would milk taste if it were put through a soda stream?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Buttered noodles


This discovery was in the south of France on a blazing hot day. At lunchtime, Mum produced them from an enormous saucepan:  French noodles - short strips of pasta - dressed with nothing but French unsalted butter, sea salt (which did not destroy the point of the unsalted butter) and black pepper. A mound of them on a yellow glass plate, melted butter and salt crystals glistening, the steam gently rising. How quickly they swam down our throats.
Years later, they became a staple at university. I once cooked a bowl of buttered noodles for a girl I rather liked there; these particular noodles were green. "Thank you for the lovely tagliatelle", she said on leaving my room shortly after finishing her bowlful. She was far too sophisticated for me, a friend told me, having disclosed my secret to the object of my affection and been told there was no reciprocal interest.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Japanese food


My mother tells the story of how, staying in a hotel in Japan, she went down to breakfast one morning. The waitress came to her table and asked her politely: "Amelican Bleakfast or Japanese Bleakfast?" Being adventurous when it came to food, my mother immediately decided against "Amelican Bleakfast" and plumped for the latter option.

When recounting the story, she recalls little of what was brought, other than that there was a mound of rice and an egg, still in its shell. It was only when my mother cracked the egg on to the table and its contents spilled out and started to drip on to the floor that she realised the egg was still raw.

I want you to understand that my mother ordinarily had no difficulty with raw food but even this defeated her. I think the next day she opted for Amelican Bleakfast.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The City Arms


The Round Wimpy in the Coventry Precincts was my favourite cafe. The City Arms in Earlsdon was my favourite restaurant. It was where our grandparents would take us as a special treat. About five minutes' drive from their house, the City Arms was at the bottom of Earlsdon High Street, next to a roundabout: a hub dividing affluent, leafy, unchanged Coventry from its bomb-shattered heart. Not far away, as a child, my father had ridden his bike into "Devil's Dungeons", an exciting dip in the ground, surrounded by woodland.



I think the City Arms was a Berni Inn or its equivalent. Dark upstairs, red plush everywhere, it epitomised the nineteen seventies. But we spurned the cloying sauces and over-rich gateaux which went with the territory. The meal would not vary as far as I was concerned: rump steak with chips on patterned oval plates followed by vanilla ice cream in small silver bowls with a thick raspberry sauce and a scattering of nuts on top.



My younger brother once decided that he wanted just the sauce and nuts in a bowl with no ice cream. When this rather sparse-looking dish arrived, Grandfather was a little anxious about whether this was really what William had wanted. My brother appeared to be entirely content.



The waitresses were only too happy to serve the grandparents taking out their small grandchildren. "Aren't they kind bringing us all this lovely food?" my grandmother insists that I piped up on one occasion, a story she dined out on for years afterwards.



It was at the City Arms that I learned the concept of having a steak cooked to a diner's specification. Of all people, it was Granny who told the waitress that I would have it cooked rare. Of all people because neither Granny nor Grandfather could bear their meat cooked rare. But Granny knew that if I was my parents' son, the prospect of my wanting beef cooked into grey dryness was remote. Rare. I wasn't sure what rare meant. I wanted it red. And rare, I discovered, meant red. But with pleasing grill lines seared on top.



When I sat the entrance exam for King Henry VIII grammar school, my friend Rachel told me that if she passed the exam, she would be rewarded with a meal out and a box of chocolates. I repeated this to my mother, quite possibly in the hope that I would be offered a similar bribe. Instead, my mother was horrified at the prospect. "Imagine how she'd feel if she failed!" There was only one logical consequence. Merely for sitting the exam, I was taken out for lunch afterwards at the City Arms. And, as it turned out later, I managed to secure the lowest mark in Maths of all the candidates and thus failed to get into the school. But this had not stopped me from securing my rump steak, ice cream and box of Black Magic, with the best chocolate of all inside: the liquid cherry.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Onion vinegar

The best chip shops offer a choice of vinegar. There is the common brown sort which used to be called malt vinegar but now comes in bottles labelled "non-brewed condiment". And the clearer, slightly green sort which I was told by the man in the chip shop in Canterbury was onion vinegar: the stuff in which pickled onions are stored.

As well as looking different, it has a more interesting flavour, and soaks far better into the chips and batter than the malt variety. Of course, the purist would say that it is wrong to call these vinegars at all because vinegar means sour wine. Hence our being lumbered with "non-brewed condiment". And I have tried shaking wine vinegar on to fish and chips. It just doesn't work. Just as a green salad with oil and malt vinegar is an abomination.

Monday, 17 June 2013

A short cut to mushrooms


Hobbits, Tolkien tells us, are very fond of mushrooms. The author himself admitted that it was one of the things that made him know he had plenty in common with hobbits. An early chapter in "Lord of the Rings", before the shadows lengthen, is called "A Short Cut to Mushrooms". At one point a basket is produced "from which the unmistakable scent of mushrooms was rising". I have never thought of mushrooms as having a scent. Be that as it may, their earthy, half meat and half vegetable nature seems to me to make them obvious fodder for the likes of Frodo and Bilbo, in their hole in the ground.

Nigel Slater has provided a delicious late supper involving mushrooms in the first book of his that I ever encountered, "Real Fast Food". Mushrooms on toast. I recall impressing Granny when she asked one evening what I was having for supper and I told her this. I cannot promise that it is an exact replica of what he says in the book but so much the better he would doubtless say.

Fry and brown your sliced mushrooms in butter. Add some thinly sliced shallot and, perhaps, a few lardons, but they are by no means essential. Then stir in a significant amount of double cream, let it bubble briefly, and serve on toast.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bacon and avocado


Philip was the inspiration behind this piece. See my entry called Ethiopian restaurant for more about him. He suggested an entry on "the mystery of why bacon and avocado combine to so sublime an end". Not one to mince his words when it comes to food. He is right.

I first encountered this combination when working over the summer for British Telecom in Crouch End. I should at this point say a bit about Julian Santos who was unique in my experience of bosses. On my first day there, he said this or words to like effect: "We have times when we are exceptionally busy and then I expect all hands to the pump. Equally, there are times when there is nothing going on, and I don't expect you to have to pretend to be busy. Feel free to make as many personal telephone calls as you wish. Or you've got free access to the computers. You might want to train yourself up on something." The most enlightened boss I have ever had. I learned how to touch type that summer. As a result, he got us all to work harder and more contentedly as a result. The sole woman in the office was Miss Moneypenny to his James Bond, sighing adoringly about him whenever he was out of the building.

Not far from the building where we worked was a perfectly good sandwich shop. Hardly worth a mention but for the fact that it was here that I discovered the bacon and avocado sandwich, which rapidly became my lunch of choice that summer. Hot bacon, ripe avocado; these are essential. Mayonnaise. Probably white bread is best on the blotting paper principle.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Batter


I should look up where this word comes from in the context of cooking. It sounds violent enough: cod that's been beaten up, anyone? It has the same lip-smacking, tongue-tooth clashing sounds as one of its ingredients, butter.

There is something immensely satisfactory about the way that it turns from liquid into crisp solidity, hardening into the shape of the thing it surrounds; somehow it enhances a dish by simplifying it. Think of a flaky tempura prawn; the best I ever found were in a Japanese shop, now sadly closed, in Chinatown. Or fish from a fish and chip shop. And there are those little bits of loose batter that they'll give you for free if you ask. Perhaps the ultimate in simplicity is the white ladleful turned into a golden pancake. Pancakes which should never be merely crisp, but crisp and melting.

Bur it can be dull, something to chew through, such as bad Yorkshire Pudding. Then, of course, it can be a disguise for something horrid: spam fritter, for instance. Or it can make something utterly unhealthy even unhealthier: deep-fried Mars Bars (do they really exist?) and even deep fried pizza: yuk is not a word I often use as I try to recognise that it is reasonable for others to love food that I detest, but: yuk.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Porc


The summer of 1980 was one of those golden periods between one school and the next. That year, as usual, we went to France. Early in the holiday, we ended up at a campsite where our tent was pitched next to the caravan of an English couple called Gladys and Alan.

For some reason, my mother took an instant dislike to them. In fairness, it was, initially, nothing that they had done wrong. Her feelings stemmed from a prejudice against the Brits abroad. When in France, save for her own family and friends, she preferred to forget the existence of the Anglais.

And, to my mother's horror, Gladys and Alan were only too delighted to have an English family of four staying next to them. How they first introduced themselves I do not remember. I speculate that they offered us cups of tea on our arrival; my mother couldn't stand tea. Before we had been their neighbours for long, Alan had made a wooden boat with metal fittings for my brother. It was almost as though we were surrogate grandchildren.

One evening, Gladys came over to our tent and told us in a state of high excitement that she and Alan were going to a telephone box for the purposes of finding out their daughter's O-level results. "Have fun!" said my mother briefly. After they had left, my father, presumably thinking her hostility had been ill-concealed, murmured a mild reproach to my mother: "They've been very hospitable." No doubt he was referring to the tea.

Later on, the couple returned, having failed to negotiate the workings of the French telephone system. It turned out that they had been dialling the area code for Brittany rather than the international code for Britain. My father lent a hand and, in the process, discovered that although they had been coming to France for many years, Gladys and Alan had not picked up a word of French. We learnt that when it came to shopping for food, they would simply march into the butcher's and say: "Pork!" which, out loud, has the same meaning in both languages. They ended up eating casseroled pork, pork chops and roast pork. But always pork.

Thus it was that we ended up being invited to a barbecue with them. Gladys returned to the campsite after a morning's quest for food: "Success!" she announced with a beaming face to my underwhelmed mother, who at first indicated puzzlement. The couple had found, it must be admitted, a rather magnificent cut of pork for cooking on the barbecue, cylindrical in shape. That evening, they roasted it for us on a spit and I can remember nothing about what there was to go with it. But the meat was memorable.

We duly moved on from the campsite. Gladys and Alan sent us Christmas cards for a few years and then stopped. Exactly ten years later, my school days had come to an end and I was now in that period between school and university. We no longer went camping; my parents had bought a house in the south of France. One day, my mother decided on a whim that we would have supper in a playing field next to a river where there were some barbecues. There she roasted pork chops. During the meal, we reminisced about Gladys and Alan, that couple we had met at that campsite years ago, who thought Brittany meant Britain and only ever ate pork. The banal can often make the greatest memories of all.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sneaky Tomato Sauce

This is another of the occasional "guest" recipes that I host. It comes from the same source as the last one: Lucie. But I took the liberty of adapting her recipe last time and ended up having a irreconcilable debate about the merits of delicious mozzarella and less than delicious feta. So on this occasion, I am not adding or taking anything away from Lucie's recipe.

"Sneaky Tomato Sauce for Pasta (For Veggiephobic kids!)

Ingredients:

Coconut oil
Onion peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium carrots peeled and roughly chopped
Green beans washed, topped and tailed and chopped
Two tins of chopped tomatoes
Tin of kidney or Mexican beans
Two gluten / yeast free vegetable stock cubes
Turmeric
Ground coriander
Ground Cumin
Ground ginger
Chilli flakes
Boiling water

Method:

Melt coconut oil, fry onions for a few minutes on a medium heat. Add carrots and green beans and fry for a further few minutes. Add spices and stir through. Add tomatoes, stock cubes, kidney / Mexican beans and about a cup of boiling water. Stir, bring to boil, then simmer for about an hour. Remove from heat and use a hand blender to remove lumps. Serve with pasta. It's a great way to use up veg and get any fussy children to eat their veg."

Thanks Lucie!


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The first French restaurant

When my parents first started taking us to the south of France in the mid nineteen seventies, they were doing something relatively unusual for the times. There was not a lot of money and - surprisingly, perhaps, for the daughter of an Italian - my mother would pack food from home which we took with us: packets of Shredded Wheat; those round flat tins containing Fray Bentos steak pies; and tins of meatballs. It might have had something to do with exchange controls.
Be that as it may, two tins of the meatballs got to the south of France. One was pronounced so disgusting that the other was shipped all the way back to London and given to harvest festival collectors who came to the door.
One year, we had arrived in northern France; the tent was up; and we were all hungry. I have a feeling that my aunt Christine was with us. For whatever reason, the idea of opening one of the tins of food was rejected and we headed out, destination unknown. It was to be my first meal in a French restaurant, indeed my first meal in any restaurant other than a Berni Inn.
I do not recall there being much choice about where we would eat. The restaurant was on a  square in a nondescript northern French town. It was dark. But the light coming from the restaurant was cheerful and the place bustled. There were probably white paper tablecloths. It was that kind of place.
In those days, my brother and I shared one adult portion between us. I can remember the menu very clearly. Cornets of ham, filled with "crudités"; stuffed tomatoes; Steak-frites. And, having said I can remember the menu, I have no recollection of what there was for pudding. If the place was anything like the dozens of other, similar restaurants we were to encounter over the years, there would have been a choice: Crème Caramel, Mousse au Chocolat, Tarte aux Pommes, Glaces, Flan. Or was "Flan" simply another term for "Crème Caramel"?
I suspect that if we had walked into such a restaurant thirty years later and been offered the same things, we would have spent the rest of the holiday reliving the appalling meal we had endured. Instead, on that August night in the nineteen seventies, we were all enchanted with cornets of plastic jambon de Paris with tinned Russian salad in thin mayonnaise; with tomatoes that were stuffed with some kind of mince; with steak that, according to my mother, was "probably horse".
So enchanted were we that a few years later, at my particular request, we returned. It was a mistake. None of us knew for certain even the name of the town, although I had a vague recollection that it was called Albans or something similar. My father only remembered roughly where we would have stopped on that first night. We spent some time fruitlessly searching for it as the night grew darker and ended up back at the campsite, hungrier than when we had left, forced once again into self-catering. A sarcastic remark I made ("Well that's great!") was misconstrued as being a criticism of others and it was not a happy evening.
The following day, we renewed our search and very quickly came upon the square in the town, to find the restaurant, and it was open. It was not usual for us to eat out at lunchtime but it would clearly have been rude not to have done so on this occasion. And my father suggested we did just that. It was perhaps an illustration of how one should never try to recreate the perfect meal. Unlike its forerunner, the menu has passed into oblivion, although my father documented the "foul mashed potato" in the holiday log. His conclusion about the meal was that it was "much less impressive (and more expensive!) than last time". Or had we simply grown more sophisticated in the intervening years?

Friday, 24 May 2013

Crockery

I suppose that the plates, bowls and mugs from which we eat food can be as significant in inducing memories as the food itself. If not more so. Food is transitory. Yet we can eat off the same plate day after day, year after year. I think, for instance, of the light blue crockery which we used at my first boarding school. Of the white china plates at my secondary school...and the reassuring thud they made against the rubber rubbish chute as the remains of the food went into the pig bin: did pigs ever get it? And of the grey pottery plates my parents used for dinner parties.

But to go back even further, the first bowl I recall using depicted a nursery. On the floor of the nursery was a red train engine. That engine became totemic and a battleground with my brother: which of us would have the privilege of eating from the red train bowl? When we were eating porridge, our mother skilfully persuaded us to eat it quickly to see, by uncovering the engine, who had secured the prized bowl. Now my nephew eats from it.

But the time swiftly came when bowls were for babies and instead, the grownupness of using "ordinary plates" - light pastel shades, used everyday - became much more attractive.

How does it all work now? I enjoy eating off fine white china if the meal is stunning. For food eaten by myself, I will almost certainly eat from a bowl rather than a plate, or, for soup, from a mug. Is it that the bowl and mug, being more enclosed and smaller, are more comforting than the wide expanse of plate? Or is it just that there is less chance of the food spilling onto the floor?

Monday, 20 May 2013

Snitterfield


The very name "Snitterfield" conjures up what it was and is: a quintessentially English place, in the heart of England - Warwickshire - and a place where childhood memories were forged without my even realising it.

Granny would take us, probably once each Summer. It was a pick-your-own fruit farm. Two white plastic punnets placed in the green cardboard metal handled basket, on the ground that if you only used a basket, there was a risk of the fruit tipping out. 

Then out to the fields. Raspberry hedges almost always. We tried strawberries once. But mostly it was raspberries. Long rows of hedges where we would separate and then try and work out, through sound, where the others were. The sun, always, beating down. Other families wandering past. Keeping a rather superior eye on my younger brother to ensure that he wasn't blithely gathering underripe raspberries.

Full punnets. The hut where the fruit was weighed and paid for. The baskets now stained purple. The repetitious joke in the queue: "They should weigh you when you go in and when you come out".

Back at home, fresh raspberries and cream, occasionally with meringues that made you cough. Some of the raspberries into the freezer to have when there was snow on the ground. We spent one afternoon over a saucepan making raspberry jam so thick you could hardly spread it.

Once, we were disloyal to Snitterfield. My mother and aunt Christine accompanied us and, on the way in the car, Granny spotted a new pick-your-own-fruit farm and a decision was made to try it out. We ventured into the fields but a few samplings later, my mother concluded that the raspberries were not worth eating. Granny was not entirely convinced but Christine agreed: "I'd rather eat a bowl of bread and butter". She also suggested an alternative use for one of their punnets and our minds were quickly made up. Before her threat could be put into action, we left and headed to Snitterfield.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bell

It was rather a fine bell: heavy, metal, it rested on the table of whoever was on duty. Some of the more sympathetic of the masters would permit a pupil sitting next to him to take over the duty of ringing it. To do so required delicacy of touch. There was, in effect, a button on the top of the bell, attached to a short narrow shaft. If you pressed down for too long, no sound would emerge. A short, sharp strike was the preferred method and a surprisingly loud "Ting" would sound.

The bell was used throughout the meal for the purposes of silencing everyone so an announcement of some kind or another - "There are seconds" - could be made. Towards the end of the meal, the bell would sound twice: "The double bell means silence!" Presumably the logic behind this was to ensure speed in finishing our meals and clearing the tables.

The final bell was the signal for chairs and benches to scrape back and everyone to rise to their feet: "Benedictus benedicata per iesum christum dominum nostrum Amen." Curiously, the Latin master, John Herbert, never said the grace in Latin but went instead, briskly, for this considerably more austere form: "For what we have just received, we return thanks. Amen."

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Scallops

This has nothing to do with the seafood but it does concern something I have only ever found in a fish and chip shop. I should be slightly more accurate: in fact, I have come across the scallop in a handful of fish and chip shops, but only in Coventry, where I was born, and York, where I went to university.

More chip than fish, the scallops I have in mind are discs of potato, dipped in batter and then deep-fried. Their shape, size and the addition of batter gives them, in my view, an utterly different taste and texture to chips. I would not wish to suggest that you replace "a portion of chips" with a scallop, but instead, have it as an extra item, like a gherkin or a pickled onion. And if that sounds excessive, what are you doing in a chip shop anyway?

Creme Fraiche

Somehow, I have gained the impression that Creme Fraiche from the Normandy town of Isigny is the best of all. The only other thing I know about that particular town, never having been there, is that Walt Disney's last name is derived from it. According to Ian Fleming, that fact interested James Bond when he was reading up on genealogy in order to infiltrate Blofeld's mountain lair in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

For a very long time, I viewed Creme Fraiche as something inferior. Perhaps this resulted from our inability in France to find fresh cream; instead, it was always soured.

It always seemed to me that its sourness made it inferior to ordinary cream. Now Creme Fraiche would be one of my trio of essential creams: the other two being double and clotted. All the others - single, whipping, extra thick double - have no virtues that the trio lack, and a number of weaknesses. As Nigel Slater points out, extra thick double cream comes with a disagreeable, slightly chemical flavour. He goes so far as to say he wouldn't feed it to his cat. I would agree, if I had one.

Creme fraiche then: excellent eaten with a spoon, its richness offsetting the sourness and vice versa. But its main purpose, in my view, is as a cooking ingredient. Nigel Slater suggests adding it to a pan of cooked chicken thighs for an instantaneous and rather wonderful sauce. I agree. The cream melts into the frying pan, merging with the meat juices. Maybe add a few capers or some of those green peppercorns in brine.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Tequila

A thirtieth birthday party when Tequila shots were brought round reminded me of an occasion many years ago (in fact in about the year the birthday girl was born) when my parents entertained a Mexican at our house in East Dulwich.

I have no idea how he ended up staying with us but he brought with him a bottle of Tequila and gave us a lesson in how to drink it. We were all assured that his was the authentic way. There were the three stages. A pinch of salt on the bridge between the thumb and the index finger to lick, a swig (no shot glasses!) of the Tequila, and finally a sip of tomato juice from a separate glass. Somewhat extraordinarily, I was permitted to participate. Personally, my favourite bit was the salt and lemon juice.

Since then, I have never seen anyone drink Tequila in that fashion. Instead the form appears to be to start with unadulterated salt, then to down a shot of Tequila and finally to suck on a lemon slice. That was how we did it at Katy's thirtieth, anyhow. One of the deleted scenes from "The Office" involved an interesting variation on this theme in which the lemon slice was held between somebody else's teeth.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and the Sausages

In the aftermath of her death, I feel the need to record something in connection with Margaret Thatcher and food. My immediate thought as I started to write, though, was that, unlike many other things, food is a topic on which she never, publicly, pronounced.

Having said that, I realise I am wrong. I recall that in her memoirs, she referred to having a Chinese takeaway on her first night in Downing Street and having to cater, on subsequent occasions, for the many visitors to Number 10. She asserts that there was always "something to cut at" in the fridge, says she knew every way with eggs, and, in particular, mentions with approval Bovril toast with a poached egg on top. One MP recently recalled the ubiquity of Coronation Chicken at Number 10. The absence of staff in the Downing Street flat to do your every bidding is one of the more attractive aspects of the British Constitution. Keeps our Prime Ministers down to earth.

But there were, on occasions, compensations. And Chequers had staff. I seem to remember that Gorbachev sent the Prime Minister a pot of caviar at Christmas, which she contributed to the cold collation at Chequers on Christmas night. (Personally I'd have been tempted to tuck it away, wait until the guests had left and then demolish it with a horn spoon.) One of her guests told the story of how, in the absence of the staff, who were given Christmas night off, the Prime Minister insisted on personally returning the half-eaten pot to the fridge in the deserted kitchen at Chequers.

She did not like garlic, I have read somewhere, and Denis, I am told, used to insist upon his steak being cooked to within an inch of its life... Definitely middle England. On the strength of those prejudices alone, I might have struggled to get through dinner in the Thatcher household, in the highly unlikely event of my being invited.

There is another story of her going to some European summit and the then German Chancellor turning down her invitation to coffee. Followed by the embarrassment, a little later, of spotting him in a cafe stuffing his face with Black Forest Gateau... Despite all these reminiscences, I am not aware of her ever having expressed any views on iron-rich food.

Since publishing an earlier version of this piece, I have discovered, to my delight, a recorded reference to Margaret Thatcher and sausage dating back over fifty years - to 1962, when she was a mere MP, and provided some Christmas recipes for her local paper. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, no doubt with an eye to the bigger historical picture, classifies the document as "trivial". I disagree. It is wonderful on many levels and worth reading in full. Here is a taster: what the diarist, Margaret Clifton, says about Margaret Thatcher and sausage. "With an eye on something to serve with the cold bird, which, says Mrs. Thatcher 'seems to go on for ever!' she makes Sausage Stuffing as an extra. She forms it into sausage shapes, which she coats with egg and breadcrumbs. This way, she has plenty of spare stuffings for after-Christmas-Day meals. Like most mothers, she feels that the Sauces grown-ups like for the Christmas Pudding are too rich for the children; she serves single cream with the pudding, for her twins, Carol and Mark".

My earliest encounter with Margaret Thatcher was in December 1978. She was then Leader of the Opposition. Five months later she would be Prime Minister. The occasion was the House of Commons Children's Christmas party. The children of MPs and others had been invited. My brother and I secured an invitation because our father was a political journalist.

I have this vague memory of seeing Margaret Thatcher slipping past the long tables of children stuffing their faces with party food. Even then, she stood out from the crowd. The only other person I recall meeting that evening was Father Christmas. I am now wondering to myself whether he might have been Jim Callaghan or Denis Healey in disguise...

The food on offer included sausages and baked beans, which I rejected, to the consternation of my mother who probably feared I would complain of hunger later. Curiously, it was the subject of sausages and beans on which Margaret Thatcher chose to engage my mother in conversation. Referring to another group of children who, like me, were none too keen on the sausages and baked beans, she gushed: "Of course, we won't expect the African children to eat their sausages and beans, will we?" Telling the story later, my mother says that she gave Mrs Thatcher a look but did not reply...

About twenty-five years later, long after Margaret Thatcher had ceased to be Prime Minister, I was at a function in Middle Temple which she attended. I am no expert in meeting the famous but happened, shortly after the speeches, to be standing right next to her. The proof is below. No one else was there so I turned to her and blurted out some gauche remark about how grateful I was that she hadn't made me eat my sausages and baked beans at that party. "You should never force children to eat what they don't want to eat", she asserted, and with that, our audience was at an end...






Friday, 5 April 2013

Hot sausage and mustard

Red Dwarf's Lister once mused, "Why do intelligent people buy cinema hotdogs?" No doubt he would agree with the existence of the rule that states that a hot dog stall should sell sausages as rubbery and lacking in any flavour other than that of stale oil, which should be contained in soggy white rolls and served with slightly burned onions or, worse, onions tasting as though they've been boiled for a very long time.

Is it something to do with the need for a sense of danger about the experience? Enid Blyton's Snubby is one of her more engaging child characters, certainly next to his insipid cousins Roger and Diana. He was prepared to refuse the sausage sandwiches on offer at Rilloby Fair, choosing instead "tomato sandwiches of which he was inordinately fond". A sensible child. His cousins got food poisoning.

In my first job, I recall the sausage sandwiches provided by a white faced and overweight cook; he would cut each sausage in half horizontally. They were average but not bad sausages.

I reject the thesis that bad food should emerge from a hot dog stall and that one should simply learn to appreciate it. My recent encounter in Bromley demonstrated my point. On offer at the butcher's stall, along with meat for cooking, sausages were sizzling. Three kinds of sausages - ordinary, Cumberland and pork and apple. I went for ordinary, with onions. The sausages themselves were described as organic, no guarantee but a promising sign. What further reassured me was the sight of the stall holder poking the sausages carefully with a meat thermometer. When I saw this, I said to the stall holder, "You do this properly, don't you?" He looked pleased or maybe he just felt that would be the politic response to my eccentricity. The bread rolls themselves did not look cheap and nasty. It all augured well. I added some mustard and set off, eating along the way. I was not disappointed. Sausage so hot that I had to chase it around my mouth breathing heavily. A meal to cheer.

Another memorable sausage sandwich was provided to me by a family friend. Andrew Reid took my order the night before, very carefully and methodically taking my instructions: whole grain mustard, bread rather than toast. We had to set off very early in the morning - an icy morning - from rural Buckinghamshire. Keeping me warm on that coldest part of the journey were the contents of the package handed to me by Andrew, wrapped in silver foil.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Lemon

So much of a lemon often gets discarded: the pips, rightly; the skins, which is often a waste (see Lemon pickle (2)); but most often the part that does not have a name. I will call it the residue. Imagine chopping the lemon or juicing it. On the chopping board or still in the juiced lemon is a mixture of flesh and juice, of solid and liquid. The point is that there is nothing inedible about it. Both the flavour and texture are good. Just for stirring into a mayonnaise or a curry, say.

Are there any other fruits or even vegetables that have so many different parts from the cook's perspective: zest, peel, juice and flesh. Compare other staples: onions, garlic, carrots, celery. All essential ingredients but in each case only one part that can be eaten: I might be prepared to accept that celery has a couple of other parts beside the flesh with culinary value: the leaves and the seeds.

The lemon is one of my eight desert island foods. Its ability to cut through richness, to alter flavour, to destroy blandness makes it a crucial thing to have around. Then there's always lemon pickle...

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Cold turkey

The turkey is a bird I could live without. As Pippa Middleton reminds us, it is convenient for feeding large numbers, but that ought not to be the test. It seems more than a little ominous if the first thing to be considered is its ability to assist with mass catering. Just multiply your chickens or pheasants is my alternative suggestion. That said, the size of the bird does mean a large quantity of the very finest dripping, for spreading on toast with flakes of sea salt.

To begin with, we did have turkey on Christmas Day. My father was particularly keen on it cold and there I think he is right. There is something rather fine about slices of cold, dry, crumbly turkey breast. That reminds me of the appalling moment in our house when I realised that the turkey which I had been picking at had started to grow a white beard. Cucumber with lashings of Tabasco seemed, for some reason, a sensible plan.

Let me conclude with a post-Christmas story. It happened in London, maybe the day after Boxing Day. Plenty of cold food around. I had offered to prepare supper for my parents and the offer had been accepted. So I "paved their plates" with turkey slices, probably cold ham as well, and potato salad. Then disaster struck when I decided to make a French dressing to go on the green salad. Olive oil and wine vinegar: can't go wrong, you might think. But shortly after I triumphantly carried in the plates of food came howls of outrage from my mother. What on earth had I put into the salad dressing? It turned out that the bottle of what I thought was red wine vinegar was in fact cherry brandy.

Completely unintended by me, but my mother was unforgiving, thinking it was one of my "jokes" which had been becoming increasingly tiresome of late. But food was not something with which I would ever joke.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Chocolate slot machine

It is rare that my brother is able to dredge up embarrassing memories from my past of which I have no recollection whatsoever. Last night, over whisky, he told me of an occasion over Christmas about thirty years ago when we had both been given one of those chocolate selection packs: Bounty bars, Milky Ways and so on. At the time, he was very keen on the concept of the slot machine - pressing buttons, pulling levers and so on. With a degree of cunning that I find it hard to imagine I possessed at the age of nine, I persuaded him to join in a game in which I had invented a chocolate slot machine. I think it was made out of a duvet. All he had to do was press imaginary buttons and in return he would receive a bar of chocolate. The only payment was that the slot machine's controller would take an initial bite out of the bar of chocolate in question. What William failed to recognise at the time was that this was HIS selection pack of chocolate and I was therefore appropriating my brother's rightful property...

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Steak

Is steak the quintessential classless dish? There are examples dotted throughout film, television and literature of all manner of people making it their (usually evening) meal of choice, and being quite protective about it.

Such as Enid Blyton's Fatty Trotteville, going into the kitchen, having declined to divide his steak among his friends, to make love to the cook and fishing half-cooked onions out of the frying pan.

Shirley Valentine's husband, livid when his Thursday steak is fed to the neighbour's far from vegetarian bloodhound and he is presented with egg and chips instead: "What's this?"

The wailed "Where's my steak and onions?" from a film whose name I can't even remember.

The splendid diet of beefsteak prescribed for the hypochondriac (the one who reads a medical encyclopaedia and discovers he has everything bar Housemaid's Knee) in "Three Men and a Boat".

There is even the glorious moment in my favourite television programme as a child, Rentaghost, when one of the ghosts is ordered to produce a steak to put on somebody's injured eye. Instantly magicked up is a very tempting looking plate of fried steak, chips and peas. Rejected by the wife of the injured party ("Not that kind of steak - a RAW steak you idiot!"), the plate is grabbed by a greedy Christopher Biggins: "I'll have that. Delicious!"

Also from childhood, I remember a particular strip in the recently defunct "Dandy" comic, which was one of the regular adventures of "Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle". In this particular story, the uncle produces in a test tube a synthetic smell of steak and onions, which Bertie "borrows" and takes to school. He surreptitiously undoes the stopper in the classroom where one of those teachers who continued to exist in comics until at least the eighties sits in front of a blackboard, wearing mortar board and gown and brandishing a cane. The teacher is unable to discover the source of the delicious aroma wafting visibly across the classroom and licks his lips: "That smell is beginning to make me hungry. Slurp!" In the next picture, we see the steak-and-onions smell still drifting past the now suffering teacher's nose: "Oh dear, I can't stop thinking about food". Next we see him yelling manically as he leaps from his desk: "Class dismissed! We're all starving!" And finally, they are all wrestling with one another in the tuck shop, food flying everywhere, the teacher at the front of the queue, gown flapping. And all because of steak.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Pashka

It is hard to describe this without either sounding as though I am exaggerating...or as though I might be trying to put you off eating it. I think it's indescribable. The nearest thing to Ambrosia I have ever eaten?

I have heard it described as "Russian Easter Cake" but it really isn't like cake. My father described it as similar to "raw cake mixture" (don't forget how that was always so much nicer than the finished product). But unlike raw cake mixture, you really can eat large quantities of this without regretting it. My personal theory is that it's due to the sour ingredients offsetting the sweet in an impeccable combination. It is supposed to contain all the ingredients you are not supposed to eat during Lent.

The following recipe was handwritten for my mother by the granddaughter of a Russian woman - Kyra Mahoney - who, if my memory of family legend serves me correctly, left Russia as the revolution started. When my mother enthused and begged for the recipe, she was a little chary about disclosing it... Her daughter Chris, my mother's oldest friend, said that her mother would stand at the stove, stirring endlessly. These were pre-Google days. Eventually, Kate, her granddaughter, managed to obtain her Nan's recipe - and it is in front of me now: blue biro on green paper, and the ingredients in evidence on the paper. Here it is, unamended:

"1 lb cream cheese
1 lb cottage or curd cheese
8 oz butter
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 gills (6 fluid oz) sour cream
10 oz caster sugar
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence
6 oz blanched almonds (flaked)
4 oz seedless raisins
3 oz mixed candied peel

Mix cream and cottage cheese together and turn into a cheesecloth.

Leave in a cold place (not fridge) to drip overnight to make sure that cheese is really dry.

Next day, rub through a nylon or hair sieve.

Melt butter and allow to cool but not to set again.

Turn egg yolks and sour cream into a basin and mix together.

Add sugar and vanilla and whisk altogether for about 10 minutes or until sugar has dissolved. (Remember this was written before electric instruments were used).

Stir into the sieved cheese.

Add almonds, raisins and chopped candied peel and turn into a heavy saucepan.

Put the pan on a very low heat and cook stirring continuously.

When mixture shows signs of boiling (in about 1/2 hour) remove it from the heat at once (1st bubble) and stir until it is almost cold.

Take a sterilised flower pot (nearest approximation to a pashka mould) or a similar shaped vessel (not metal) of about 2 1/2 pint capacity with draining hole(s). Line it with cheesecloth and urn in prepared mixture.

Set the pot on a rack over a plate. Lay a piece of greaseproof or waxed paper over the mixture, set a saucer or small cake tin base in a plastic bag on top and weigh down about 2 lb weight.

Leave in a cold place/refrigerator if poss overnight.

Saucer must just fit inside lid of pot. We don't bother with greaseproof or plastic bag but fold excess muslin over top of pashka. I hope you like it."

Here is some commentary on the above, based on my having made it twice.

Bear in mind that the very first bit needs to be done in advance, but it takes fewer than 10 minutes: I recommend a Good Friday night and have an unhurried Easter Saturday making it: it doesn't actually take that long - say two hours before it's in the moulds and ready to go in the fridge. But one of the many points of this is that there is real pleasure to be derived in making it so give yourself plenty of time.

I use tea towels as my cheesecloth.

I use unsalted butter.

I use vanilla extract rather than essence.

This is the only recipe I know that uses gills as a unit of measurement.

The toughest part of this recipe is pushing the cream cheese and cottage cheese through the sieve!

There is no indication in this recipe as to when the butter is supposed to go in. I put it in once I've mixed the egg yolks and sour cream.

I approve of making it in a flower pot and have one that I use exclusively for Pashka. The photograph is of one made in London and eaten in Winchester.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Cornucopia

In Scandinavia, there is the Smorgasbord. In France, Hors d'oeuvres. Not to mention canapés. Spain: Tapas. Japan: Sushi. Greece and Turkey: Mezze. Italy: Antipasti. China: Dim Sum. India: Chat. There is even the Cornucopia in the Arabian Nights.

A too little-known children's book from the nineteen thirties called Street Fair has some wonderful descriptions of food. Here is a description of hors d'oeuvres from a restaurant that was frequented by Marcel Proust:

"The waiter brought a lot of little dishes filled with delicious bits of food; there were small dark olives, quartered hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes, sardines, anchovies, sliced beets, quartered hearts of artichoke, tuna fish, radishes, rice with peppers -"

Even though one of the adults claims that this is "really too rich", we are told the waiter also "brought a plate of sausages with bright-coloured odours, three kinds of ham-"

But all the children are permitted are some radishes and tomatoes. "That was worse than not having any".

In England, we have the cold buffet. Much too severe an expression. "What a spread", people say brightly and politely, hoping there will be at least something there that's edible. Far too often, there is so-called quiche, wet and soggy, flabby chicken drumsticks and nasty little Scotch Eggs filled with a suspicious scrambled egg mixture.

I much prefer the term "cold collation" (or, better still, Granny's term, "cold collage"), particularly if it resembles Dr Watson's experience:

"It was after five o'clock when Sherlock Holmes left me, but I had no time to be lonely, for within an hour there arrived a confectioner's man with a very large flat box. This he unpacked with the help of a youth whom he had brought with him, and presently, to my very great astonishment, a quite epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humble lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pâté de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles. Having laid out all these luxuries, my two visitors vanished away, like the genii of the Arabian Nights, with no explanation save that the things had been paid for and were ordered to this address."

I wonder about the pâté de foie gras pie. The use of the word "pâté" rings alarm bells. If one is going to eat the stuff at all, it should be the genuine article: foie gras. No pâté about it. Would this, I wonder, have been simply foie gras en croute? I think I saw one of these in Selfridges's before they banned it. Finally, I note that the meat and wine is catered for but there is no mention of carbohydrates. Would the caterers have brought a salad or two with them? Potatoes dressed with olive oil and lemon juice? Some lettuce leaves?

Even without the vegetables, this sounds like a meal fit for a peer of the realm, as it is indeed intended. For understandable reasons, the peer walks out before the meal begins.

But unfortunately we did not walk out before a particularly unpleasant "cold buffet" we experienced several years ago. The party had been that most risky of events: those who were not hangers-on like us had been asked to bring their own contributions to the food. My father commented afterwards that the only thing he found that he could bear to eat on that table was his mother's pizza even though the pizza had had baked beans in it.

"Acres of disgustingness", shuddered my mother when we were a safe distance away. She then muttered something unflattering about the provinces. But her finest line, summing up her indignation at the evening wasted, was a reference to someone, admittedly shorter than average and admittedly tedious, who had monopolised her throughout the evening:

"And who was that monstrous dwarf?"

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Strawberry milkshake

Packets of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers; tins of Condensed Milk; and bottles of Strawberry Crush. These were things that my parents used to buy at Sainsbury's when we were all younger - but they were not, as might be expected, intended for my brother and I. They were for my father. My brother and I would, naturally, help ourselves to the odd caramel wafer. And, on occasion, the odd milkshake.

My father once found me in the kitchen mixing Strawberry Crush and milk and immediately took over at the brown work surface. Tipping double cream into a blender, adding the mixture I had prepared earlier, he skilfully blended all the ingredients together, giving a running commentary: "Now, I whipped the cream before adding it". Finally, he presented the result to me in a tall glass. "I think you'll find that's pretty special."

Many years later, I was thousands of miles away, in Madras as it was then called. A short walk along the Poonemallee High Road from the school where I was teaching and living, was a restaurant called the Gouri Shankar. Sometimes, instead of food cooked by the Ayah, we would each receive a plate of noodles or fried rice brought in from the restaurant. My high ideals - before arriving in India, I wouldn't have contemplated the notion of being served with special, costly food at the school's expense - were abandoned. The noodles, in particular, were delicious. Shona and Tory were the other volunteers. Towards the end of our time at the school, possibly a little impatient with the restrictions, we would sometimes venture out in the evening and head to the Gouri Shankar. It wasn't quite the pub that Tory longed for but it was atmospherically dark, chillingly air-conditioned and the noodles, as I say, were delectable. Plus they did rather good strawberry milkshakes. I had one on my nineteenth birthday. Not quite as good as the one my father made.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

My Favourite Cafe

When we lived in Coventry for the first seven years of my life, we used to shop in the Precincts. One of those terms like "ring road" and "dual carriageway" with which I was very familiar due to regularly hearing it. But I did not know exactly what it meant.

The precincts spread far and wide and, doing a morning's shopping, we would range over them, going into shops here and there, retracing our steps on occasion. Sometimes the sight I longed for came into view, from a number of different angles. But it would be a very rare occasion that we would venture in.

My favourite cafe was round. It was on the highest level of the precincts and to reach it you had to walk up a ramp. Walking up it, the lower levels of the precincts far below, was almost like crossing a moat to reach a castle. Inside, it was a Wimpy bar. These were the days before McDonald's persuaded them to get their act together and so there was, for example, a ketchup-encrusted plastic bottle on each table in the shape of a tomato.

I would tend to have the same thing: a fillet o' fish: an orange breadcrumbed square, with chips. Puddings were out of the question, beg as I might, but I would look longingly at the photographs on the menus with wordy descriptions of what was on offer. The idea of a Banana Longboat thrilled me, with its piles of "cocktail fruit" and scoops of vanilla ice cream. Then there was the "Brown Derby" which I used to pronounce as though it rhymed with herby. A sort of doughnut, I seem to recall.

More often than to my "Favourite cafe", if we ate out at all during these shopping expeditions, it would be to Elizabeth the Chef we would go: a steamy, bustling coffee-scented place that was altogether more sophisticated than the frankly greasy and tatty Wimpy Bar. But it didn't have the tomato-shaped bottles on the table, no fillet o' fish, and no Banana Longboats.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Thunder and Lightning

I cannot recall where I first came across this - the label on one of the ingredients? - but as soon as I did, it fell into the category of "Can't go wrong". The ingredients are very simple: Honeycomb and clotted cream - "but don't bother about the bread please", as A A Milne once wrote in relation to the honey part. Actually, I do bother about the bread. Ideally, a warm fruit bun. It is my Christmas breakfast of choice and a fitting prelude to the excesses which are to follow.

Further thoughts about clotted cream. I am filled with horror if anyone stirs in the crust on top. On the other hand, I am always delighted to meet someone who dislikes clotted cream, such as my godfather Douglas, because then I can have his share. My aunt Ce-Ce takes the view that there is only one fitting accompaniment to clotted cream: a spoon. She wouldn't bother with the honey. Uncle Brian, on the other hand, would let me have his share of clotted cream. He calls it "cow slime". Jack Spratt...

One of the things I recall about the first ever flight I took - Glasgow to Heathrow - was being presented with a small tub of clotted cream to have with my scone. My father, who had been given one as well, proposed (is that in the middle of suggested and insisted?) that we should share one of the tubs and take the other home for my brother. I agreed but not happily. I regret to report that the tub brought home went sour.

Nigel Slater has an interesting take on it which is that a much better concept than a scone with jam and clotted cream is a croissant with jam and clotted cream. As in so many other things, he is right. Scones are over-rated, a bit virtuous, tiring to chew: possibly a useful antidote to the richness of the cream - but frankly why bother?

Mum made her own clotted cream on a couple of occasions. It involved leaving a heavy flat dish to sit for several days, so she abandoned use of one bathroom which became the dairy. The result was extraordinary: clotted cream but even more so. The nearest commercial equivalent I have ever eaten is some "raw cream" I found once at Borough Market.

I have rarely ventured into Cornwall but when I paid a short visit there a number of years ago, I was determined to take home some clotted cream. I expected to find a modestly-sized, slightly over-priced tub illustrated with pixies or similar. What I found at the junction of a steep road in a very basic grocery store was far better: a large square litre-sized tub, more normally associated in my mind with vanilla ice cream. Packed to the top with thick yellow, granular clotted cream.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Allotment on the Underground

It was a cold night shortly before Christmas, a time for having "It's a Wonderful Life" moments.

On my way to drinks with a friend, I arrived by tube at Kilburn, a place I'd describe as "edgy" or even "gritty". Neither of which descriptors are intended critically. Having arrived from more manicured parts of London, I knew that, among other things, I was guaranteed to find on Kilburn High Street my two remaining bits of Christmas shopping, namely a pie tin and some Polish Kabanos.

On the platform I saw it: a small low-walled patch of vegetation. But not merely flowers. Vegetables. Herbs. And a sign explaining that this was an allotment run by volunteers and that anyone was welcome to pick their own vegetables, provided they left some for others. Chives are my thing so I picked one there and then and nibbled it. I then left and, glowing, headed to Kilburn High Street.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gammon

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Cecil; it is part of family legend that we are descended from Elizabeth I's Secretary of State. Another is that we have all inherited something called the "Cecil Mean Gene". That is to say, put at its gentlest, we avoid spending money and gain serious satisfaction from a bargain. Last night, I found myself in precisely that frame of mind while wandering around the supermarket. I lingered over the "Reduced to Clear" shelves, a place where there is a hint of tension. Will anything really exciting arrive there during my survey, so I get first dibs? Will someone manage to grab something before I do? I tend to watch people like a hawk, noticing what they pick up, occasionally willing them to return it so that I can then snatch it. It's like a return to toddlerhood.

What I found last night was a large piece of gammon which had been reduced to half price - the reason being, I surmised, that the best before date was that very day. Into the basket it went.

At home, I decided to conduct a little experiment. The gammon would be simply roasted. I stuck a few cloves in. Then, taking an idea from Nigella Lawson (cooking ham in coca cola) I tipped over the ham the dregs of a bottle of ginger beer and then smeared some honeycomb on top, put it into a hot oven and waited for a couple of hours.

I think it worked. The ginger beer had completely dried up on the bottom of the roasting tin. The fat of the ham was completely blackened and shiny. The ham itself was neither too moist nor too dry. I had some of the end for breakfast this morning, with unsalted butter, coarse grain mustard, in a hot cross bun.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Flowers good enough to eat

The idea came to me at Victoria station. I found myself in need of a bouquet and had a little time on hand before my train. So, for the first time in my life, I walked around the perimeter of the flower stall surveying what was on offer. I think it was the sight of something relatively unusual in the context - some large blackberries - that inspired me. This would be an edible bouquet.

I took the stall holder into my confidence and she led me round pointing out the possibilities. On this occasion, besides the blackberries, there was lavender, there were sunflowers (seeds? oil?) and, weirdly striking, a fluorescent purple pineapple.

I suppose a horse would regard any bouquet as edible but this bunch of flowers could not, in truth, have been eaten. Culinarily themed is perhaps the more accurate description. Whatever, it went down well.