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.