Sunday, 13 March 2016

Table mats

My brother William has long had a naughty streak. On one occasion, aged six, he was caught by my mother in the school playground throwing a little girl's mittens into a muddy puddle and then stamping on them while giggling furiously.



But he was a teenager when staying with my aunt CeCe and several cousins. CeCe had straw table mats and Will insisted that they would be infested with weevils. To prove his point, he picked one up and tapped it on the table - tap, tap, tap - and all around it gazed as tiny white creatures began to crawl slowly around. CeCe became mock-furious with her nephew and for ever after, the words "Tap, tap, tap" have been used to tease her.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Lobster

One of Joan Aiken's short stories has a character called Gloria who is a lobster. Delightfully, we are told that for her lunch she has mayonnaise.

The first time I ate lobster was on my first night in Portugal in a restaurant a short walk from the house where I was staying with my uncle and aunt and cousin Tom.  We were able to select our lobsters from a tank. They arrived grilled and buttered. I shared one with Tom, who elected to divide it horizontally rather than vertically so he had the claws and I had the tail. This suited me extremely well.

Another memorable lobster supper was in a restaurant called "Lobster and burger". The menu was limited to a choice of - lobster and burger. I chose the lobster roll: sweet-tasting lobster in a soft white roll. Delicious.

Roald Dahl writes entertainingly about lobster in "My Uncle Oswald". This is what he says: "by the way, don’t you love it when you are able to draw the flesh of the claw out of the shell whole and pinky-red in one piece? There is some kind of tiny personal triumph in that. I may be childish, but I experience a similar triumph when I succeed in getting a walnut out of its shell without breaking it in two. As a matter of fact, I never approach a walnut without this particular ambition in mind. Life is more fun if you play games."

Sausage rolls

Sausage rolls can be a delight or not worth eating. As a general rule, the smaller they are, the better. I tend to like the artisan ones with roughly cast pastry.

Palmiers

If I had to identify a favourite pastry, this might well be it. Heart-shaped, sugary puff pastry. I first discovered them in France, where they were available as a special treat on Thursdays only in the bakery local to my parents' house in the South of France. Most satisfactory when the mouthfuls are soft rather than crisp.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Pancakes

"They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide foam."

One of the most evocative descriptions of pancakes ever, it is that of William Allingham. Thinking a little more closely about the poetry, however, I have to say that I prefer my pancakes not to be crispy. Also the idea of yellow tide foam sounds faintly repellent. Like yellow snow.

In my opinion, pancakes are not worth ordering in restaurants because in the time it takes to get them from pan to table, their point is lost. The times I have had soggy, sodden, cold disappointing pancakes. In a kitchen straight from the pan and on to the plate in front of the eater. Ideally the person producing them is not overly keen on eating them.

As for fillings, forget, please, about over-elaboration. Lemon and sugar are all that is required. Thus the perfect pancake will have contrasting flavours as well as contrasting textures.

Delia Smith has the best recipe in her Complete Cookery Course.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Cannibalism

"I had seen a sailor who had visited that very island, and he told me that it was the custom, when a great battle had been gained there, to barbecue all the slain in the yard or garden of the victor; and then, one by one, they were placed in great wooden trenches, and garnished round like a pilau, with breadfruit and coconuts; and with some parsley in their mouths, were sent round with the victor's compliments to all his friends, just as though these presents were so many Christmas turkeys."

(From Moby-Dick)

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Bacon and waffles

Certain combinations of sweet and savoury can be disgusting. I am thinking of raisins or pineapple in curry. On the other hand, I was quickly converted to the combination of bacon and maple syrup, served with potato waffles. The combination of the soft, bland potato, the salty crispy bacon and the unctuous sweet syrup. I first learned of waffles in Susan Coolidge's "What Katy Did at School" when one of the characters orders them with alacrity. They are less popular in an episode of "Rentaghost" when one of the spooks asks his colleague "What is a waffle?" Warning him off them - ghosts cannot eat - the other replies: "It's a sort of heavy duty biscuit, with a non-skin tread."

Maple syrup I encountered in another work of Americam children's fiction - "Little House in the Big Woods" when there is a chapter about sugar snow and numerous ways of handling and eating maple syrup described.


Whale meat again

It came from a boy at school who I didn't know well but seemed quite touched that I rather relished the dried meat he used to bring to school as a playground snack and asserted was whale meat. It tasted sweet.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Speck and lardo

Jack Spratt could eat no fat. Nor could the vet James Herriott. There is a wonderful account of his being fed by a kindly farmer's wife a cold slice of bacon consisting of pure fat and only managing to force it down by eating it with copious amounts of Picallili. I think I, too, would have struggled to get through it. On the other hand, I am very fond of the thin salty slices from Italy called "Lardo". Delicious on slices of toast. I rediscovered lardo in an Italian restaurant in Sheffield. In Germany, it is known as Speck.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Croissants

I read recently that one of the larger supermarkets has abandoned selling crescent-shaped croissants and will henceforth only be selling straight ones. It sounds rather like one of those outraged articles about EU madness: you know the kind of thing - straight bananas, straight bangers etc etc.

Be that as it may (and I do think that making croissants straight in part misses their point), I am keen on the idea of alternative uses for croissants, such as filling them with clotted cream and jam. Even better than the British scone. Another favourite snack would be croissant with egg mayonnaise and crispy bacon.

Then there is the following delightful moment in the children's book Street Fair:

"Anna sat down and finished her breakfast, taking up the last bit of yellow of egg with the tip of her crescent roll; it looked delicious and John hadn't thought of that."




Thursday, 11 February 2016

Sopocka

To my slight surprise, I found on Wikipedia that there was no article on Sopocka. So I created one. I await its deletion or serious editing...

I plagiarised the entry on Kassler to produce my article. What I did not say (as Wikipedia editors are not supposed to include opinion) is that Sopocka is a slightly moist and delicately flavoured ham. I can imagine stuffing a well-buttered baguette with it together with cucumber and mayonnaise.

English ham

It seems slightly bizarre to start this entry with a reference to "Jambon de Paris", but this was a term I first heard my mother use with a contemptuous tone of voice to refer to plasticky ham of any kind.

Even worse than plasticky ham, though, I reckon, is tinned ham. Once a luxury - imagine receiving it from the Americans in World War II! - I associate it with impoverished old ladies. I recall a school friend and I being given it for supper and heating it on a candle which gave it an interesting grilled edge.

Finally, I must confess that although I may receive a rocketing for saying so, I find it difficult to distinguish our various regional hams: Wiltshire ham, Yorkshire ham, Northampton ham for goodness' sake? That is not to say that British ham is a bad thing. Think of a ham sandwich with granary bread, unsalted butter, wholegrain mustard and gherkins for lunch. One of my breakfasts of choice would be poached eggs on ham, the home-cooked, crumbly variety, like my grandmother used to make. She once cautioned me shortly before some guests arrived not to offer them ham, because they were Jewish.

French supermarkets

I love French markets. I love tiny shops in small French villages, selling charcuterie. But, banal though the concept may seem, I adore French supermarkets. Géant Casino, E Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour, Intermarché...

It is probably down to the fact that they signified we were on holiday: the ritual of our first visit, on our first day, would tell us we had arrived.

In our earlier family holidays, though, we would eat food brought from home: shredded wheat, Fray Bentos pies, meatballs, powdered ice cream.

But later, we opted for a "big shop" in the big supermarket near to where we were staying, on the first day or so of our holiday.

There was Petit Suisse, from which you would peel the paper oh so carefully to keep the shape and then eat with apricot jam and sugar on the side. Flavoured Petit Suisses: pink, orange, yellow... Olive oil (La Fruitée) on "promotion". Huge mountain hams. Meaty sausages. Frisée lettuce. Tins of flageolets. Tubes of mayonnaise. 

Not everything we bought was French. Mini Mars Bars, condensed milk, to be eaten with plain chocolate in bread.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Mountain ham

Jambon de Montagne or mountain ham is unlike some of the other cured hams I identified in a previous piece, because it does not come from a particular location (such as Parma ham, Iberico ham and Bayonne ham, the last of which I do not recall ever having eaten). On the other hand, as I have just discovered, it means precisely the same thing as Jamon de Serrano. I rather like it in Spanish omelettes. Delicious.
French mountain ham, though, is in my view different to its Spanish counterpart. Definitely more robust, less delicate but none the worse for that. My mother occasionally bought an entire mountain ham in the suparket when we were on holiday and there would always be enough remaining on the bone to smuggle home. Delicious. I recall taking a baguette with olive oil and mountain ham - nothing else - which I took on a walk with my mother to an old ruin on a hilltop while my father waited patiently with the car, not fancying the climb.
Less pleasantly but as memorable was the occasion when my aunt CeCe who had brought home the remains of an entire mountain ham and planned to chop some into some pasta discovered to her horror little things wriggling inside which turned out to be maggots feasting away. She placed the entire bone in the middle of the lawn and sprayed it liberally with insect repellent. What a waste. But it has made a good family story - you just have to mention maggots or ham - and for my fortieth birthday, CeCe presented me with a large quantity of packets of mountain ham...into which she had introduced a collection of plastic flies.







Starting to cook

I first began to cook regularly for myself at York University. My mother gave me a crash course. I fear that some of the early efforts I inflicted on friends did not go down well. I presented a beef curry to one such friend and he later dined out (in my presence) on a description of carrots in water. He also slept on the floor of my room and was distinctly unimpressed by the British Rail posters and sleeping bag which I had promised him was extra warm. Unfulfilled expectations, I fear, but we are still on speaking terms.

Although my own early cooking efforts may have been less than adequate, I did at least make an effort to cook things from scratch. Unlike a girl in a nearby corridor who told me proudly of her nightly meal: "tinned mince, tinned potatoes and tinned peas". She would consume half a tin each evening and save the remainder for the next day. Yuck.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mustard

Let me begin with the villains. First, so-called French mustard which I say is so-called because I doubt it has ever been anywhere near France. Brown, slimy and sweet-tasting, it will often be brought to the table in a pub following a request for "French mustard".

Then there is the sweet American mustard. Just about acceptable on a bad hotdog if one wishes to eat one.

Next, pointlessly flavoured mustard. Whisky-flavoured mustard or, even worse, truffle-flavoured. A waste of good ingredients, one strong flavour overpowering the other.

Although I find English mustard far too fiery, I will give it cupboard room because some of my friends insist upon it as their mustard of choice and also because the powdered version works well for the purposes of dusting a joint of beef before cooking it. And I quite enjoy the ritual of making the mustard up with a teaspoon of powder and a teaspoon of water.

Wholegrain mustard is another matter: it is splendid exotic-tasting stuff and I like the way the mustard seeds dissolve in the mouth. My mother once cut her hand trying to force open one of those large grey jars of Pommeroy mustard which end up as pen holders or useful pots to put things in.

But best of all, and most versatile, is straightforward Dijon mustard. Milder and tastier than English, it is what I tend to eat with a sausage or roast beef. It also works well in a vinaigrette. Yum.

Grandfather's barbecue chicken

Black on the outside contrasting with the white breast, in a sticky, salty-sweet sauce, wrapped in foil and served with rice, stained with the sauce: not a dish my mother particularly liked.

Although I am fairly confident he took it from Delia's Complete Cookery Course, I failed when I attempted to reproduce it as he had made it.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

More butter

Butter, like milk, is one of the earliest foodstuffs to enter anyone's consciousness.

"Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?"

wrote A A Milne.

Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her mother's strawberry mould into which the butter would go; apparently, it was white in winter, but "Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty" so she would add carrot juice to turn it yellow. Curious.

I also remember a marvellous book called the Giant Jam Sandwich in which a town was plagued with wasps and eventually the citizens made a gigantic jam sandwich, using spades to spread the butter and jam and eventually trapping the wasps in the middle of the sandwich by dropping the second slice on to it. Splat!

Butter, of course, has many different consistencies. How is one expected to spread it when it comes straight from the fridge? To scrape little chunks off and placing them strategically around the slice of bread is so unsatisfactory and contrary to the principle in How Green was my valley that butter should always be spread "tidily". Putting it in the microwave never quite works: unless one is very very careful, it ends with the butter seeping into a pool.

Italian and Spanish ham

I have already mentioned what must be the most well-known of the dried jams: Parma ham. San Daniele ham is less ubiquitous but, in my opinion, as splendid. Returning for a moment to Parma, I discovered there something called Culatello, which is similar to Parma ham but aged in a bladder. I ate it in Parma accompanied by a doughnut like bread called gnoccho fritto into which you were supposed to stuff the meat. In passing, I note that the English, encouraged by supermarkets attempting to make something sound more exotic, often refer to cured Italian ham as prosciutto which is correct but incomplete. Prosciutto is merely the Italian for ham which could equally well be cured or cooked.

Second to Italian cured hams, in my view, come Spanish. Serrano ham is lovely but best of all is the Iberico ham which melts in the mouth. I recall visiting the Goods Shed near Canterbury West station which used to be, as you might expect, the goods shed, but which is now a food market and a restaurant. I asked for some Iberico ham to have as a snack on the way back on the train. I blenched when the stallholder gave me the price - about £12.00. I resolved not to scoff the ham on the train but to have it on white china with a glass of white wine.

Jambon de Bayonne is not a ham I recall ever having eaten although it has the distinction of being mentioned in an early English novel - Tom Jones. It reminds me of the rhyme which begins:
Who signed Magna Carta? King John.
Where do bayonets come from? Bayonne.
I will write more about French cured ham in another piece.

 

Gingerbread house

Hansel and Gretel has, as long as I can remember, been one of my favourite fairy tales. It is the gingerbread cottage which is, as far as I know, the unique component in this fairy tale. A Judge I used to appear before reminded me of the inhabitant of the gingerbread cottage. "Good morning", this benign-looking old lady would coo to everyone as we walked in. The moment we had all sat down, it was as though the cage had descended on Hansel's head...

Once upon a time, my mother suggested making a house of sweets similar to that in Hansel and Gretel...or I begged her to do so. We were staying at Granny's house and walked to the local newsagent's, Fayne's, where my mother bought the ingredients. A photograph of the work in progress appears below. The roof was made of milk chocolate. The windows were glacier mints. Initially, she put a stick of "Rainbow Rock" in the garden but then removed it and allowed me eat it. I do not recall whether we ever got round to eating the rest of the house...

German ham


"They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious ham."

I have long thought that the ham in Hillaire Belloc's Jim would have been “kasseler rippenspeer” which I first ate as a child in South London. The first and only time I have eaten it in Germany was in Aachen. I later discovered that a butcher called Cassel who lived and worked in Berlin in the nineteenth century invented the "Kasseler"  process. After smoking a large loin of pork, he then placed it in brine, drawing moisture out of the meat and preventing the bacteria from spreading. Not only did it preserve the meat but it gave it a distinctive taste. It is unlike other dried hams, such as Parma ham or Serrano ham, I think because it still contains more moisture than those kinds.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Caviar

I once ate caviar for breakfast in Mahabilapuram, India, courtesy of a Dutchman and a Canadian who had bought it the day before from a party of Russians: there was a limit to the amount of hard currency they could export and, to supplement the feeble amount they were allowed to bring, they also brought vodka and best Beluga caviar which they sold for a pittance. The tin needed finishing and so I did my best to polish off as much of the grey pearls as I could. With freshly-squeezed lime juice on top, it was a memorable and tasty breakfast. But I must confess that I much prefer taramasalata. As a contrast to the salty caviar, I finished with some Bombay Toast.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Bolst's mango pickle

Bangalore is a city named after food. It means "Beans Galore" or "Full of Beans". And it is the place where the Bolst Family used to make their famous Mango Pickle. My father once told me that he thought the Foster Family knew the Bolst Family. That may well be true because, about a hundred years ago, the Foster family lived in India, in Bangalore itself. It was there that my grandfather, Donald, was born, in 1914. He went to Bishop Cotton’s School there before he sailed to England to go to school in Canterbury.

Bolst’s Mango Pickle used to come in a glass jar with a red lid and a white label with red writing on it. On the lid was a scrawly white signature: Bolst. When the jar was new and opened for the first time, the pickle underneath had a film of orange oil floating on the top. Over time, the label on the jar would become greasy and grimy with the oil. The pickle underneath the oil was most unlike what you would normally expect a pickle to look and taste like. It was coloured dark brown and had a slightly granular consistency, almost like brown sugar which had had a little water added. One of the main ingredients was indeed sugar. There were no chunks of mango to be found, although occasionally there were what looked suspiciously like bits of mango skin. Over time, the bottom of the lid would turn black: corrosion, I think, caused by the pickle. But the pickle was so full of chillis and sugar that it would never, ever, turn bad.

A family tradition with Bolst’s was that we would eat it with Shepherd’s Pie. And when Grandfather made one of his chicken or beef curries (which Mum called one of his "watery curries" and she actually liked very much), out would come the jar of Bolst’s for those who wanted it. Granny used to tell me not to put too much on my plate and end up leaving it…and some of us would end up mopping up the dollop of pickle on our plates with a piece of bread.

But not everyone liked Bolst’s Mango Pickle. My brother Will always preferred Patak’s Mild Lime Pickle and he used to enjoy eating Mum’s game pie with it, which she always made at around Christmas time. Mum occasionally said that she was not convinced that it was a particularly good idea to mix her delicious pie with Lime Pickle but I think she got used to the concept and it, too, became a family tradition.

When I was growing up, there was no problem finding Bolst's Mango Pickle. But gradually, probably as the Patak and the Sharwood Families became more and more popular, shops stopped selling it and people stopped buying it. It was a vicious circle.

I managed to find a supplier in an Indian grocery not far from West Croydon Railway station. I must have visited the shop on about three occasions and each time, bought up their entire supply of Bolst’s Mango Pickle  and, sometimes Bolst’s Lime Pickle which was similar to the Mango but not as good. But the last time I visited the shop they had none left. Lots of other pickles but no Bolst’s.
 
Towards the end of Grandfather’s life, when he had run out of Bolst’s Mango Pickle, I wrote to a company in Enfield, Middlesex called "Bombay Emporium". Their name and details were on the last jar of Bolst’s Mango Pickle in our possession and they were the agents for Bolst’s in this country. I pleaded with them to tell me where I could find their supplies of Pickle and I got a kind letter back from them enclosing six free jars and saying, "I am sure your grandfather will be delighted!" I think he was – even though, by then, only the Hot Mango Pickle was available when he preferred the mild version.

Grandfather died in 1999 and at his funeral, among other things, we ate Samosas which Mum and I had bought the day before at the Indian restaurant at the end of my road in Leyton. They did us proud and had them set out beautifully on foil trays so we were able to set the trays out without any further work when we got them to Kenilworth. No Bolst’s pickle to go with them but there was no need. Happily,  there was still about a jar remaining of Bolst’s Mango Pickle so Grandfather never ran out. There were also some jars of Bolst’s Curry Paste which I don’t think Grandfather ever opened. They were still sitting on the shelves in Kenilworth in 2010, twelve years later because I think Granny found it very difficult to throw them out – perhaps because she thought it would upset me if she did so.
 
Mum knew about my love of Bolst’s Mango Pickle and she occasionally used to visit Bangalore herself. She managed to find some jars of the hot variety and brought them back with her, sewn up in a wonderful parcel made of hessian. I think I distributed some of the jars among family members who were particularly fond of it. I think I even gave another jar to poor Granny who was probably, by then, sick of the stuff.

But then, disaster. Mum made another trip to Bangalore and got a colleague of hers to get hold of some of the pickle. Again, it arrived in one of the exciting hessian parcels. But when I looked at the jars, the contents looked nothing like what I was used to. They looked instead, like the contents of a jar of Patak’s Pickle. And when I opened the first jar, my suspicions were realised. They had changed the recipe completely! So all that we had left were the remaining few jars of the original Bolst’s Mango Pickle: possibly the only remaining jars in the world.
 
Then came another disaster after my mother died. We were sorting out her belongings and I was hovering in her kitchen wondering what to do next and said, "If anyone sees the jar of Bolst’s Mango Pickle, please make sure it doesn’t get slung. It will be well past its best before date but it’s one of the last remaining jars!" My sister-in-law looked at me rather sheepishly and said, "Lynda and I were going through stuff in the cupboards and we threw out a lot of stuff." Although I didn’t hunt through all the cupboards, it seemed pretty obvious what had happened. Among the collection of old, mouldy, unwanted, inedible jars, packets and tins, had been Mum’s last jar of Bolst’s Mango Pickle. And the pickle had probably been washed down the sink while the jar had gone into one of the glass recycling bins. I can even imagine the conversation: "How revolting!" my aunt Lynda would have said. "I don’t think there’s any chance of anyone missing that".
 
But I said it was a disaster. Not entirely. I may, one day, write to the people in Bangalore and see whether they could tell me the secret recipe or send me some more jars. Or I might see whether some of my friends in India – or some of Mum’s friends – could help and get in touch with people I might not have spoken to ever again as a result.
 

Kenderdine's

The food I ate at nursery school was pretty unmemorable but a few fragments remain in my mind. My first day of staying at school for lunch, when I reported to my mother that we had had "chewing gum in gravy". She knew it was liver. Then there was the occasion when the cook mistook salt for sugar, making the apple crumble inedible.

But those were bad days. Wednesdays were always good days. They followed swimming and instead of our eating in the dining room, we always ate upstairs. We were each given a handful of peanuts which I used to count carefully and savour. Tomato soup would follow, and sandwiches.

And lastly, I remember returning to the school a year or so after I'd left and being invited to stay for lunch of fish fingers and chips. How small the blue plates were...

 

Steak and onions

Steak is arguably one of the classless dishes: a luxury for all. I think of Shirley Valentine ("We always have steak on Thursdays") feeding her husband's dinner to the neighbour's dog: "You're a bloodhound. You need meat."

I used to read the Dandy comic avidly and one of my favourite strips was called "Bertie Buncle and his Chemical uncle". One story involved the uncle creating in a test tube something that has a strong aroma of steak and onions. Bertie "borrows" the test tube and releases the aroma in class at school. The teacher gets more and more hungry and in the end yells "Class dismissed! We're all starving!" and rushes for the tuckshop, gown and mortarboard flapping. Although I read the story in the nineteen eighties, schools in comics remained old-fashioned with teachers brandishing canes.

Earlier than the Dandy was Enid Blyton and one of her "Five Findouters and Dog" stories has a character appropriately named Fatty arriving home for the school holidays to learn that lunch is to be steak and onions. Although generous, Fatty is not prepared to share his lunch with the four other "Findouters" and heads straight for the kitchen to eat half cooked onion straight from the frying pan.

In my exoerience, steak is rarely worth eating in a pub. I once ordered one and asked for it to be cooked rare. The reply I received was hardly reassuring. The man behind the bar said doubtfully, "I'll see if we've got any rare steaks".

On the other hand, the Americans have no difficulty with the concept of cooking steak to the customer's liking. I happened to be at Boston station at lunchtime and saw a fast-food joint that does "New York Steak" for under $5. Promisingly, I was asked how I'd like it done. "Rare", I said, and indeed it was: wrapped in silver foil, slices of delicious steak in a granary bap with herb butter and salad. Delectable. But it never works when you try to repeat the perfect meal. When I returned on another day for another, it was not quite as rare and delicious as before.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Oysters

The first time I ate an oyster, I described it as like eating a lump of seawater but interesting.

Now I am very happy making my way through a dozen oysters as a pre-starter, preferably with a glass of Pastis with ice, the clear drink turning milky with the addition of water. I used to do this in the town of Meze which looked on to the Bassin de Thau, a sea lagoon where oysters were farmed.

One time in Meze, friends staying with us came up with the idea that for lunch, we should have oysters on the beach. Away they disappeared on their errand. Our friends returned with a large pannier of oysters together with several lemons. My mother, an expert, was press ganged into opening them all. After a while, we children were sent away with a handful of oysters each to bash them open on the rocks. I recall thinking that sand and oysters do not mix.

On my brother's wedding day, we were not in Meze but in a village outside Winchester. This was for a pre-wedding lunch for the groom and family. One of the starters was "six oysters". So I ordered "six oysters". What arrived were six plates of six oysters. Thirty of the oysters were accordingly sent back but the bill (which I failed to check before settling up with my father's credit card) still charged for the six plates.

Raw is how I like eating them best although an oyster gratinee is a fine thing as well. I have never tried tinned oysters but they come recommended in one of Susan Coolidge's Katy books as having a remarkable flavour all of their own - a tinny flavour if I remember rightly. Another of my favourite literary references to oysters comes in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" and the Tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter:

"But answer came there none,
And this was scarcely strange for they'd eaten every one."

Reading that poem is one of only two occasions when I have ever felt sentimental about eating oysters.

The other was when I was Christmas shopping in the Conran shop where there is or used to be an oyster bar. I stared at a delightful sight: a mother, a godmother or an aunt taking out an eight-year-old for a plate of oysters. Both adult and child appeared utterly absorbed in eating and I resolved that one day I would do the same thing.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

21st birthday party

My mother's Christmas Book is not merely about Christmas but includes accounts of other celebrations. The first of these in the volume is my 21st birthday party, held on 5 April 1992 for 42 people. My mother records the menu as follows:

Vichyssoise with croutons.
Salmon (cold, baked in foil - Delia Smith). 1 x 7 1/2 lb, 1 x 8 1/2 lbs (3/4 salmon left over).
1 6 lb topside beef roasted medium rare.
12 tiny poussins (roasted with olive oil & herbs).
Avocado salad 15 avocados - not enough! need 20)
Tomato salad (4 lb beef tomatoes - could have been 5!)
Green salad (1 x frisée, 1 iceberg, 2 bunches watercress - too much!)
Baked potatoes.
Orange & lemon charlotte x 4 in big metal bowl.
Green fruit salad -  Prue Leith - apple, grape, grapefruit & kiwi x 4. Made sorbet with leftovers!
27 bottles Champagne (special offer Sainsbury's extra dry!)
50 side plates, soup bowls, dinner plates, soup spoons hired from King's College Hospital.
Big bowls x 2, flat dishes x 4, knives, forks, spoons, glass pudding bowls borrowed off a friend.

I recall the embarrassment of having Happy Birthday sung to me, two speeches delivered in my honour, a poor speech in reply and my mother catching one of the waitresses hired for the day merrily chopping the avocados into the salad with their skins on. It was a good day.

Glühwein

One of my favourite lines in the Narnia canon is "Bring spiced wine for their majesties", which I think must have been what we would think of as mulled wine.

My mother never made mulled wine; what she made she called Glühwein and I recall, at a party, a Scottish friend of my mother's insisting to me repeatedly and smugly that this was called "mulled wine" rather than "Glühwein". This was in the presence of one of my cousins, only six months older, who was attempting to have a very adult, sophisticated conversation with her and smiled patronisingly. "Glühwein" is the German/Austrian version and means, literally, "Glow wine" which speaks for itself. Another hot alcoholic beverage from that region is called Jägertee - or Hunter's tea. I have never before and never since seen so many adults of my acquaintance in hysterical laughter following a glass or possibly two of this. Its alcoholic ingredients include red wine, overproof rum and plum brandy. And perhaps you can forget about the tea.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

A duck dinner

One of my favourite books as a child was "The story about Ping" by Marjorie Flack. Ping was a duck who lived with his numerous relations (a little like Rabbit in the Pooh Bear stories) in a boat with wise eyes on the Yangtze River. Ping gets lost - through trying to avoid the spank on the back that the last duck back on the boat would always receive. He ends up being caught by a small boy swimming in the river. When child and bird are on board the boat belonging to the child's family, the father comes out with the immortal line, "Aha, a duck dinner has come to us". Mother replies: "I shall cook him with rice at sunset tonight". The boy protests...but in vain. Down comes a basket over Ping's head. Much later, the boy secretly sets him free, and Ping manages to find his own boat - but not quite in time to avoid the spank on the back! One of the things that never occurred to me as a child is that Ping would have ended up as a duck dinner in any event...

I ate a duck dinner the other evening. My friend Philip, who introduced me to Ethiopian food, cooked something altogether more successful: a stuffed duck from Aldi, with rice cooked in its juices. Delicious.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Christmas 1991 Part 2

Here is the menu plan for 1991 in my mother's Christmas book, again with nothing added and nothing taken away.

"23/12/91
Dinner - sausages (garlic ginger & coriander. Mashed potatoes overwhipped - like wallpaper glue. Fried onion, pineapple rumtopf.)

Xmas Eve
Salt duck & melon. Kedgeree; Fresh fruit/ice cream.

Xmas Day
Sm. sal. tr. Goose, roast potatoes, green beans, sprouts, carrots, stuffing, gravy, sausages (from good butchers), bacn rolls, purple broccoli.
Fly away Xmas pudding & brandy butter. Aunt C & Pen. John, Julien, Ali, William.

Soup and sandwiches.

Boxing Day. Lunch party. Cod turkey, beef, ham, game pie, profiteroles, treacle pud, potato salad with mayonnaise, green bean salad (2lb bought in Bromley High St Xmas Eve), rice salad, green salad (little gem & iceberg), tomato salad, xmas cake made by Jules. Veggie rice salad too. Pen & Aunt C bought ham & stilton.

Supper - turkey soup & left overs.

27th Left overs

28th. Off to Austria.

Turkey for Boxing Day was cooked on Xmas Eve.
Xmas Day. Peel spuds. Put in goose. Sauce?

Left overs of all meats. Profiteroles made with wholemeal flour. Not as nice as white flour. Treacle pud ... & was too big."

Cream of porcini soup

This looks like one of my mother's more recent recipes. Serves 4:

1 knob butter
1 finely chopped onion
500 g flat mushrooms (finely sliced)
50 g dried porcini (soaked)
4 bashed cloves garlic
1 glass white wine
1 l fresh chicken stock or tinned consommé diluted 50/50 with water
100 ml crème fraiche

Soak porcini in hot water until soft. Melt butter in large saucepan & add next 4 ingredients. Turn down heat & cover. Cook gently for 20 m. Add white wine & reduce by 1/2. Add stock & bring to boil. Simmer 10 m & add cream. Remove heat. Liquidise in small batches and return to clean pan. Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Food in Ohio

Burnet is a fictional town in Ohio in the "Katy" books by Susan Coolidge. Here is an evocative description of a table prepared in the family home for visitors in What Katy did at school.

"The tea- table was set with the best linen and the pink-and-white china. Debby's muffins were very light. The crab-apple jelly came out of its mould clear and whole, and the cold chicken looked appetizing, with its green wreath of parsley. There was stewed potato, too, and, of course, oysters. Everybody in Burnet had oysters for tea when company was expected. They were counted a special treat; because they were rather dear, and could not always be procured. Burnet was a thousand miles from the sea, so the oysters were of the tin- can variety. The cans gave the oysters a curious taste,—tinny, or was it more like solder? At all events, Burnet people liked it, and always insisted that it was a striking improvement on the flavor which oysters have on their native shores."

By contrast, a rather less elaborate tea at boarding school is described: "The meal was very simple,—tea, bread and butter, and dried beef:—it was eaten in silence".

Iced mushroom soup

This is another "lost" recipe: just the title appears in my mother's recipe book. I have a vague recollection of her making it. I would imagine onions, mushrooms and cream would be the primary ingredients. Black speckles on beige in a white tureen with the ice cubes clinking.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Jansson's delight

My first duty is to admit uncertainty in relation to the spelling of this dish. My mother spells it "Jansen's";  but I have seen it claimed that the name originated with the opera singer Pelle Janzon; alternatively that it is Jansson's delight, borrowed from a film called Janssons frestelse or Jansson's temptation. Whichever, I set out my mother's recipe below: I note that the ingredients call for single cream but the method refers to milk.

1 lb potatoes
2 large onions
2 tins anchovies
Single cream

Cut potatoes & onions to matchstick size. Layer with pieces of anchovy fillets in baking dish. Sprinkle with residue of tin. Salt & pepper & pour in milk. Top with breadcrumbs and bake until potatoes are tender. Sardines, herrings etc may be substituted for anchovies.

Another version of pumpkin soup

There is a reference to pumpkin soup in a list of my mother's which I discovered at random. She also refers to spiced pumpkin soup in her account of Christmas 1990. Here, in her book of recipes, is what I think she was referring to:

"1 young and soft skinned small pumpkin, peeled & cubed (scrape off coarse fibres in middle).
1 large onion.
2 spring onions & greens.
1 level teaspoon curry powder.
2 beef stock cubes.
1 large can chopped tomatoes.
Olive oil/butter.

Fry chopped onions & pumpkin in butter/olive oil gently. Sprinkle on curry powder & fry until curry powder cooked through. Add tomatoes & stock cubes & 1/2 pint water. Simmer until pumpkin soft. Liquidise & add water until right consistency. Salt/freshly ground black pepper to taste."

Family stories: another list

The companion volume to Alexander's Roots is a book of family stories for children. Some of them are apocryphal, including a splendid story about an evil old aunt who provides "very healthy food" consisting of things like "very plain pasta with pallid slimy mushrooms" or "a pile of Barlotti beans, boiled until they were mushy and served with small pieces of stringy chicken, all skin and bones, and some soggy onion. None of the food was ever browned or caramelised or crisp: it was always colourless: even the salads were made with pale, blanched chicory with a bitter taste...For pudding there were always under ripe bananas, already peeled and cut into chunks." The children, we are told, "hated all this pale tasteless food and longed for savoury grilled and roasted meat, savoury salami, fragrant orange fleshed melons and black grapes with a bloom on their skins and melting figs and juicy peaches with furry skins". Worst of all, this woman beats children with a wooden spoon. Towards the end of the story is a wonderful description of lunch for eight hungry children:

"After what seemed a very long time, Giacomo and Uncle Orlando returned to the dining room. Giacoma was bearing an enormous dish of food. There were tiny artichokes preserved in oil, pink prawns, grilled aubergines with black marks from the grillade, shining red tomatoes, brilliant red peppers, mozzarella balls with herbs, eggs halved and stuffed with anchovies, Barlotti beans livened with tuna, roasted green peppers drizzled with olive oil, potato salad and many other delicious morsels. "Enjoy your antipasti, my children," said Uncle Orlando Norsa. "There will be some properly succulent pasta to follow, and then grilled veal cutlets with fried potatoes. And there will also be some changes round here. From now on your mother will take her meals alone in her bedroom until she is feeling better."

Alexander's Roots and Nonna's Ribbons

My mother wrote a book of family history, completing it about six months before she died. It was written for her grandson (Alexander) in her words "to record some family stories which were in danger of being lost and forgotten".

Here is one such story, describing my mother's Italian grandmother.

"I have few personal memories of Nonna Rita but they are very vivid. They include sitting in the dining room at the Weiss family home at 38 St Andrew's Road, around 1949, watching Nonna make pasta. She put tea towels over the backs of the chairs and hung strips of pasta in great pale swathes of lasagne and pappardelle flowing over the chair backs, and we called the pasta Nonna's ribbons.
...
My mother found her quite demanding, and the problem was probably compounded by communication failures because Eve spoke no Italian and Nonna very little English. Eve remembered raised voices on one occasion when guests were coming for dinner and at the very last moment before they arrived Nonna insisted on having the meal served to her in her bedroom instead of joining the party."

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Sylvia Plath's favourite food

In her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath describes an elaborate and luxurious sit down party she goes to, sponsored by some wealthy donor, where the food appeals to her greed. She describes how she "paved" her plate with chicken slices, then covered them "with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn't ooze off and ate them." She also talks with relish about having the portions of others who are not fond of caviar. Memorably too, she describes the avocado which come stuffed with crabmeat. It is, alas, this final item which proves her undoing; with her fellow guests she succumbs to food poisoning, caused by the crabmeat. It sounded like a delicious meal, though.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Crème Brûlée

I can remember the first time I ever ate this most sublime of puddings (when done properly). I can even remember the dish. Mum had made them in metal bowls. So greedy were we that having left one for Dad to come home to, we carefully transplanted the centre section into a smaller ramekin and ate the edge. Much avoiding giggling when Dad returned. It became such a favourite that Mum used to make it as a treat when I returned home from boarding school. On one occasion I dipped my finger in to one of the ramekins when it was cooling and spoiled the glaze. Undeserved (for it had been my fault), I was asked whether I wanted the glaze redone and I said yes: the crackly crunching top of this is part of the whole point of the pudding, a little like the crust on clotted cream. There is a video recording from the early 1980s of my tucking in to one of these and playing to the camera when doing so. For some reason, this is almost always disappointing when eaten in a restaurant, with only one exception, namely a restaurant called Buggins which used to be on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich. The following recipe comes from Aunt CeCe, minus raspberries which were added: I share her view that this pudding should not be mucked around with!
Ingredients:

600 ml/18 fl oz double cream
1 vanilla pod or ½ tsp vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
60 g/2 oz demerara sugar

Method:

PREHEAT THE OVEN to 140C/275F/gas mark 1.
PLACE THE CREAM and vanilla pod in a pan and bring to the boil. Off the heat, remove the pod, split it and scrape the seeds into the cream. Discard the pod. Add vanilla extract, if using.
LIGHTLY WHISK THE YOLKS and sugar until pale. Whisk in the hot cream; pass through a sieve.
POUR THE CUSTARD into 4 ramekins. Place the ramekins in a roasting tin, pouring in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides. Cook for 45 – 50 min or until set. Cool.
TO CARAMELISE THE TOP, sprinkle with sugar and place under a very hot grill until the sugar melts and turns golden. Alternatively, use a cook’s blow torch, as many domestic grills are simply not hot enough. Chill for 30 min.

CeCe's Pavlova

Like shredded wheat, nothing added; nothing taken away...

Ingredients:

2 egg whites
4 oz caster sugar

Method:

Beat egg whites until stiff. Add half the sugar. Beat again until stiff. Add rest of sugar, beat again until stiff. Put a square of greaseproof/baking paper on a baking tray and lightly grease with butter. Spread meringue mixture (and this depends how artistic you're feeling!) you can either just do a disc about 8 or 9 inches in diameter (about 3/4 inch thick) or you can also build up the sides about an inch. Either is fine. Depends whether you feel like feedling. My oven is a vicious fan oven so I cook it for about one hour fifteen at just under 100 c. This is equivalent to about 140 on a non fan - better too low than too high as you don't want it brown. It's really just a question of suck it and see. When it peels off the greaseproof easily, should be done. If I am expecting a load of greedisons, I use three eggwhites and 6 ozs sugar.

Beetroot & orange consommé

Here is a further recipe from my mother's book. I include it more for historical interest. I cannot contemplate my mother using orange juice or arrow-root in any recipe from 1980 onwards...

"Cut up one large raw beetroot and two onions. Cook them gently in butter for 5 minutes. Add two beef stock cubes in one pint water. Bring to boil and simmer until beetroot is pale. Strain. Add 1/4 pint orange juice, 1 tablespoon arrow-root to thicken, a little hot pepper sauce, freshly ground pepper to taste."

Scallops in cream

Another dish in my mother's hand:

"Principles of cooking scallops - fry them quickly & serve them immediately: then they will be tender and melting. Fry them in butter for 1 1/2 minutes each side (until gently browned). Then deglaze with double cream, stirring all the time and it will make a lovely pale brown unctuous sauce!"

Menus

Perhaps it was a tradition from the 1960s or 1970s but among my parents' papers I have found an A-Z index book recording guests and what they ate. It is interesting to see how trends change...

Here, to start with, is a more recent one, the first to appear in the book.

"Alison and John, dinner Sunday 07.06.09.

Oden melon & Black Forest Ham; risotto of rice, wild mushrooms, oyster mushrooms and broad beans; frozen mango puree with raspberries & cream; cheeses; Kangaroo chardonnay & Wolf Blass Australian Cabernet Sauvignon."

Lists

They can be dull; on the other hand, in their intensity, they can resonate.

Here is an especially compelling one, in my mother's hand, in one of her notebooks:

Delia's peppers.
Cold delights from smoker + potato salad, green salad, nice bread. (Little ones?)
Orange & lemon Charlotte.
Clotted cream.
Boned birds, new potatoes, roasted potatoes, green beans, cauliflower, carrots.
Gravlax.
Damp beef. Turkey. Casserole.
Pumpkin soup. Kedgeree.

A Christmas menu? Probably.

Christmas 1991 Part 1

Here, unedited, is the entry for 1991.

"Plan for 1991. Box of left over crackers. By end of Sept - make cake. November - buy presents. Beginning of December - send cards. Ali take off Xmas Eve, Xmas Day, Boxing Day. Skeleton service rest of week. December. Organise table linen etc. Tree. Pickle pork. Ice cake.

Stockings were organised well in advance. So were most presents! Rosemary in state! Donald bad back!

Julien & Ali went to Midnight Mass - very OTT & female Terry Waite sans beard look alike.

Xmas Eve weather beautiful. Ali worked. SOS x 2. Both admitted.

Goose very nice - free range. Safeways.

Christmas Day. J J & W went to church with R & D & other Fosters in Orpington & spent morning there.

Boxing Day. John, Ali, Julien, William, Pen, Aunt C, Alison, Jean, Paul, Kathy, Sue, Liz, Nigel, Heather, Naomi, Gordon, Harriet, BR, Rene, Bill, Donald, Rosemary, James, Suzanne, Chris, Ed, Rob (arrived 3.00), Dave Thevet, Rachel (arr 6.00), Chris, Emma."

Some explanation is required in relation to the above names: "BR" was short for Bea (not, as another of the assembled company improperly suggested, "Bloody Redhead"). Thevet was not a genuine surname but invented because nobody knew what it was at the time that a skiing holiday had to be booked. So his profession was used to create his surname.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Chowder

This was an alternative to kedgeree on Christmas Eve, which my mother discovered after a trip to the States. It is not cheap to make so rather contrary to the principle that Christmas Eve is a time for something relatively humble before the excesses of the following days...

My favourite reference to Chowder is that which appears in an early chapter of Moby Dick, which is served to the narrator, Ishmael, and his companion, Queequeg, in the Try Pots inn:

"Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt."

They follow this with a cod chowder. Delicious.

Christmas 1990

I have already referred to my mother's Christmas book. Here is an extract relating to Christmas 1990 and its aftermath. I have decided not to edit it:

"1990 Menus:

Day before Xmas Eve.
Lunch - clam chowder. Simon and Aunt C.
Dinner at Paul and Kathy.

Xmas Eve.
Lunch - cold pork - soup. Donald, Rosemary, Aunt C, Nanny, Ali, Julien, William (John in bed with flu).
Dinner - Kedgeree.

Xmas Day.
Turkey lunch - smoked salmon starter. Donald, Rosemary, Aunt C.
Dinner - soup & sarnies (beef, smoked salmon).

Boxing Day.
Lunch - cold buffet. Cold damp beef, ham, pickled pork, raised venison pie, potato salad, cold veg, leftover salad, rice salad, green salad, tomato and cucumber salad, olives, mince pie, chocolate rum trifle, Alison's mincemeat and apple tart. (Donald, Rosemary, Aunt C, John, Ali, Julien, William, Alan and Alison Miller, James, Suzanne, Christopher, Edward, Robert.)
Dinner - soup & sarnies/leftovers.

Thursday.
Lunch - shepherd's pie.
Dinner - soup, smoked salmon & cream cheese rolls, lamb, pineapple. Celebration because John had missed Christmas. Crackers/Champagne. (Donald, Rosemary, Aunt C).

Friday
.

Saturday - Westendorf.

Lots of leftovers - meat & cheese.
Pickled pork joint - 2 lb.
Lots of Veuve du Vernay.

Good skiing holiday in Westendorf except Nanny Simpkin who bust her anterior cruciate ligaments (R) knee. Tree put up before Xmas Eve - good move. Check supplies of olive oil for J's mayonnaise. The Xmas cake was taken skiing but left on the plane by Will & grabbed by some greedy thieves! It was white iced & encrusted in Harrods gold & silver dragees. Ali called in to work for emergencies 27th and 28th. John had 'flu on Xmas Day."

Fried spaghetti

First, as Mrs Beeton never said, make your Bolognese sauce. Now I am aware that any Italian reading this would be appalled at the idea of having it with spaghetti. Linguini or tagliatelle will do equally well. But I am not going to be over-precious about this. Here is what to do with the leftovers. Simply mix together the remaining pasta and sauce and put them into a hot frying pan with olive oil. It requires a little care not to allow this to burn since, if the sauce has been made properly, there is very little liquid. Then serve. A meal best served for one as a late breakfast or early lunch - and it goes surprisingly well with lime pickle.

Lutefisk

I have been known to write pieces about bad food: the worst meal I have ever eaten in Greece, for example, and my account of the Ethiopian restaurant. I do not know the author of the following piece about "Lutefisk" but he (I assume it is a he but I am happy to stand corrected) writes his account of a meal in a restaurant in Oslo with deep emotion. A couple of extracts will suffice.

"As the waitress piled dishes on the table I started to wonder what I had let myself in for. With the appearance of a large dish containing a dirty green mush with the texture of badly mashed potatoes I started to become a little concerned. When this was followed by an even larger dish of what really was mashed potatoes my worries grew. However, it was the enormous bowl of hot bacon fat with a few pieces of chopped fried bacon floating around that finally made me realise that, even if this was going to be the best meal of my host's life, the chances that it would be the best I had ever eaten were extremely small.

Finally, with some ceremony, the waitress brought out the two oversized plates piled high with the Lutefisk. At first I was baffled, where was the cod? My plate was covered with a mound of a translucent white gelatinous substance. I presumed this was a sauce on top of the fish. But no, how wrong could I be? The wobbling mound was the cod. What could they possibly have done to a perfectly good piece of cod to reduce it to this sorry state I wondered?

...

My host soon led the way quickly tucking in to large portions of the Lutefisk mixed with helpings of the potatoes, the green stuff (which turned out to be nothing more exotic than mushy peas) and the bacon fat, and then washing the lot down with a swig of aquavit. I soon found that I could just about tolerate the slighty soapy flavour of the Lutefisk - it was the peculiar gelatinous texture that I found hard to cope with. The equally soft textures of the partly mashed potatoes and the peas did not help, but surprisingly, the somewhat salty bacon fat gave just enough edge to the mixture to make it possible to swallow without wincing. In practice it was only the swig of aquavit after each brave mouthful that kept me going - albeit rather slowly. My host had soon polished off all his plateful while I still bravely fought on. I tried to give the impression I always ate this slowly to make sure I savoured each moment of the experience. I believe I almost convinced my host that I was actually enjoying the meal - I did not really lie to him, I merely said I had never before eaten anything like it!

Eventually after a mammoth effort, I managed to finish the plateful of Lutefisk and most of the side dishes. As soon as I had taken the final mouthful our waitress appeared at my side and whisked away my plate together with that of my host. My relief at seeing the end of the Lutefisk was, however, very short-lived. No sooner had she gathered up the empty plates than she pronounced in a lilting Scandinavian accent the words that I shall never forget as long as I live. "And now would you like your second plateful of Lutefisk?"

Impressions of another

It is not often that I receive a written review of something I've cooked; the closest is usually in the form of a bread-and-butter letter. But a few years ago, family friends had supper and stayed over with me; and one of them was an Australian priest who wrote a diary for his parish magazine. The egocentric in me was delighted. I quote:

"The meal was good. With the drinks were little pieces of toast spread with a pungent, dark coloured, but tasty paste, there followed a cold orange soup and then a good salad with an eclectic collection of interesting food from a platter, including pickled herring in cream, prosciutto, ham, and more, all excellent. Ice cream and strawberries for dessert."

The "pungent, dark coloured, but tasty paste" might have been tapenade, I suppose. The cold orange soup was certainly Gazpacho (not, I must confess, homemade). I find it surprising that I would have served ice cream with strawberries.


Friday, 15 January 2016

Marinated lamb with potato salad

My personal recipe book contains a number of newspaper clippings: recipes that I like the sound of but have rarely (if ever) got round to testing. Here is one such cutting, attributed to Ruth Quinlan.

Serves 6.

Ingredients:

2 whole fillets or 6 steaks lamb
4 cloves garlic
4 twigs rosemary
1 tbsp. ground black pepper
1 kg new potatoes
200 g green beans
1 tbsp capers
2 tsp paprika
1 lemon (juice and zest)
150 ml olive oil

Method:

Chop the garlic and rosemary leaves and mix with the pepper and enough oil to coat the meat. Leave in a cool place for at least six hours or overnight. Boil the potatoes and the beans. While still hot, break the potatoes in half using your finger and toss with the rest of the ingredients. When the barbecue is red-hot, sprinkle salt on the meat and cook the steaks for eight minutes and the fillet for 15 - 20 minutes. Rest the meat in a warm place for ten minutes. Serve with the warm potato salad. If you are using fillet, slice thickly. In case of rain, grill (full power) or roast (220 degrees C/mark 7) the meat. The same cooking times apply.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Flageolets with chorizo

This is similar to bacon casserole with flageolets minus the tinned tomatoes.

Ingredients:
3 or 4 cooking chorizo, chopped roughly
1 medium onion chopped finely
1 stick celery chopped finely
2 carrots chopped finely
1 tin of flageolet beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 glass white wine
Gently heat the olive oil then turn up the heat, add the chorizo and fry until well cooked. Add the onion, turn down the heat and allow the onion to soften without burning. Add the celery, the carrot and the beans and continue to cook without adding any water but making sure the contents do not burn. Allow to simmer for half an hour (adding a little white wine if contents in danger of drying out) and serve.

Salade Lyonnaise

Warm salads, counter-intuitive though they are, are a favourite. This is a recipe from "Good Food" for Salade Lyonnaise.

Ingredients

2 tbsp olive oil
Pack of lardons (see tip)
1 garlic clove, smashed once
175g piece crustless white bread, cubed
1 small head of frisée

Method

Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large frying pan, then add the bacon and garlic. Sizzle for about 15 mins until the bacon is crisp and brown, then scoop it out with a slotted spoon into a bowl, leaving the garlic and bacon fat in the pan. Throw the bread into the pan and toss in the bacon fat, adding the remaining oil if the pan is dry. Fry the croutons for 5 mins on a low heat, tossing occasionally until golden and crisp, then remove pan from heat.

While the croutons are frying, make the dressing. Whisk the chopped shallot, vinegar, mustard and 1 tbsp water in a small bowl. add the oil gradually to make a thick dressing, season, then set aside. Cut away and keep the lighter lettuce leaves and wash if needed, discarding any of the tough outer leaves.

When all of your ingredients are ready, bring a pan of water to a gentle boil and add the vinegar. Crack the eggs into small bowls then gently lower into the water and poach for 3 mins exactly. Line a plate with kitchen paper and use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs onto the plate.

Tip most of the croutons, lardons, all the leaves and two-thirds of the dressing into a salad bowl and toss well. Pile the salad high into the middle of two plates and arrange the remaining croutons and lardons around the side of the plates with the shallot rings. Drizzle the rest of the dressing around the outside and, just before serving, top each plate of salad with an egg, then season it.

I also like this with melting pieces of foie gras...and duck breast...but not sweetcorn. I am not over-enthusiastic about the version with chicken gizzards.

Hot lardons and melting mouthfuls of foie gras. The salad should be frisée. There should be croutons as well.

A bowl of cold chocolate

I hold the view, shared with my father, that chocolate is generally not worth eating unless eaten cold straight from the fridge. When you haven't been bothered to make a pudding and there are guests for supper, you can do worse than cracking open a few different bars of chocolate, break them into squares (or triangles if there is any Toblerone available) and then offer them round in a bowl. Cries of delight.

Vinaigrette

This is not a copy of a recipe, but my memory of some instructions given to an interviewer of Raymond Blanc in a Sunday magazine. Its importance lies not in the ingredients, which are standard, but the method.

Put a teaspoon of Dijon mustard into a mug. Add some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then add olive oil, as though you were making mayonnaise, slowly at first and then a little more quickly, stirring vigorously, until you have a mixture so thick you could turn the mug upside down. Then add about a teaspoon of vinegar.

The advantage of doing it this way is that you have an uncurdled vinaigrette which coats every leaf beautifully.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Ali's Christmas book


Twenty-five years ago, in 1990, my mother started her Christmas book, the cover of which is reproduced below. It started life as a practical document: containing records of Christmas card recipients, presents given and received and menus; but, later on, became more of a diary: an account of what for my mother was one of the most important celebrations of the year.

On the inside cover is a heading, "Receipts", and a list of what I remember were some of the main Christmas dishes that would find their way into our home each year. I reproduce the list below, and will at some stage attempt to track down the recipes themselves:

Granny Foster Xmas Cake.
Damp beef/damp beef soup.
Oeufs a la Rook.
Kedgeree.
Boned birds and mushroom duxelles.
Orange and lemon Charlotte.
Rosemary's ham.
Delia's peppers.
John's brandy butter.
Confit de canard.
Gluhwein.
Cherries in chocolate.
Pork with garlic and anchovy.
Spiced pumpkin soup.

The recipes for the Christmas pie and the Gravlax have already appeared. I have no idea what oeufs a la Rook consisted of. More research to be done...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Roasted peppers stuffed with fennel

Another recipe taken from Granny's red file. Never sampled by me but similar to one of Delia Smith's in her "Summer Cooking" and from the list of ingredients, it looks to me as though you can't really go wrong. I don't know who is responsible for the illustration which appears on the same page as the recipe itself.

Serves 4 to 6 people as a first course.

4 large red (or green) peppers.
2 small bulbs fennel.
1 x 14 oz tin chopped tomatoes.
1 teaspoon mixed pepper berries. (I surmise that these are peppercorns).
1/4 teaspoon whole coriander seeds.
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds.
8 dessert spoons good quality olive oil.
The juice of 1/2 lemon.
Rock salt.

Pre-heat oven to gas mark 4.

Slice each pepper in half lengthways, cutting right through the green stalk end and leaving it intact. Remove seeds. Place pepper halves on the baking sheet, then divide the tomatoes into eight portions, placing each portion inside a pepper half. Pare off any brownish bits of fennel and cut the bulbs first into quarters and then again into eights, carefully keeping the layers attached at the root ends. Put them into a saucepan with a little salt, pour boiling water on them and blanch them for 5 minutes. Then drain them in a colander and arrange two slices in each pepper half. Sprinkle olive oil over each one. Lightly crush the pepper berries and seeds with a rolling pin and sprinkle them evenly over the peppers; finish off with a grinding of rock salt. Bake for approximately 1 hour on a high shelf in the oven. Then sprinkle them with lemon juice, cool and serve. If you want to make them ahead of time cover with cling film but do not refrigerate as the flavour will be spoiled.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Mozzarella and tomato

Tricolore requires red, white and green: it does not, however, require avocado but basil. Then olive oil, sea salt and pepper. And no vinegar.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Savoury mousse

Another source of material has emerged in the shape of my grandmother's battered red file of recipes, some typed, some handwritten. I dislike the title of the first recipe, "Cheese special" - but having sampled a few scrapings from the bowl in advance of a dinner party where this was the starter, can testify to its goodness.

Ingredients:

1 Philadelphia cheese
1 Boursin cheese with garlic
1 tin of C&B consommé - 8 oz
1 teaspoon Worcester sauce
4 oz single cream
Optional: a few prawns or shrimps
A little parsley

Method:

Put 3/4 of consommé into bleder.
Add both cheeses, Worcester sauce and cream.
Mix slowly if slightly lumpy or fast if smooth result required.
Pour into 5 or 6 ramekin dishes leaving 1/4 inch space at top.
Optional: add prawns/shrimps by hand before pouring into dishes.
Place in fridge for about 1/2 hour.
Remove from fridge and pour remaining consommé on top.
Return to fridge.

Serve:

Remove from fridge a few minutes before serving and sprinkle with a little parsley.

A very seventies dish which sounds potentially disgusting but is in fact rather good. Although I can certainly recall Granny making this as described above, I think my mother did something similar but without the consommé on top which she called "Snaffles mousse".

Friday, 8 January 2016

Gammon and spinach

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.

As for spinach, I've never eaten it with gammon.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Shrimp paste

It had lain in the kitchen cupboard for a long time: a suspiciously brown block - a lump smelling strongly of what it was: shrimp paste. Mum pondered it and told us that had we all been in a concentration camp, she would have mixed a tiny amount of it with rice. In the end she threw the packet away.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Logs

I have just seen a sign advertising "seasoned logs". I mean, what do they do with them? Sprinkle them with salt and pepper?