Monthly Archives: June 2010

“this lovely selfish anti-gorging”

For Swedes, “midsommar” is a day in the middle of the year to eat well and get very drunk. June 24th, or the following weekend, means the crack and slurp of crayfish, the burn of iced snaps. To paint a picture: Around tables laid copiously with food, people will bustle – chatting, eating and drinking until they break into raucous, very Swedish, song. There’ll be bowls of lovely new potatoes, plain and boiled or in potato salads and salads of beets and lightly pickled cucumber. There’ll be jugs of elderflower cordial, buckets that clink with ice and bottles of weak, supermarket beer. And then the serious booze from Systembolaget (the state-run “alcohol retail monopoly” which, according to its website, “exists for one reason: to minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way”. Ho ho!). You hope to find Janssons frestelse, le vrai gratin dauphinois du nord – waxy potatoes cut into matchsticks and baked with cream and spiced and cured anchovies. There’ll be slightly sweet inlagd sill to pile on crispbread with sour cream and pretty little fronds of dill. There’ll be old codgers thrilling from the stink of putrid surströmming, assembling hors d’oeuvres on soft or hard tunnbröd, variously with bits of onion, potato, chive and, again and again the taste of the Baltic, sour cream and dill. These do the job of carrying a serious pungency (though really it’s one much more of the nose than the mouth). And, last but not least, there’ll be the main event: platters, or vast cauldrons, of crayfish, usually cold, and snaps and lots of it.

I have felt for a while that we lack something like a Swedish midsommar: a summer festival somewhere between Easter and Hallowe’en, or Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving if you’re American, even Christmas. I mean, I think, one where a ritual of food and drink makes the day, and people say: “Happy Midsummer!” A summer party – there are lots of those scattered through the summers of my childhood – isn’t quite the same thing. We’d have marquees, barbecue things on half-oil drums, make too many banoffi pies in a way which approached custom – but it always felt more just a really good party than a festival of collective indulgence and celebration.

At Cambridge, there has been May Week. It’s a time that extends several weeks from the end of May – May Week Was in June – when the university comes together to celebrate liberation from the library and the exam hall. All over people are popping bottles of Cava and eating punnets of half-price Elsanta strawberries from Marks and Spencer. And this May Week, my final one, sitting with a few others on the banks of the river, has felt quite lovely. But I’m glad it’s over. The alcohol and the picnics – blowout picnics where great whacks of bread expand inside you with a slurry of pâté and fatty sausage – begin to take their toll. Consumption has been relentless – so much food and one, two, three bottles every day. I might feel awful the next morning and think, No, I’m not doing it again – but there’ll be a drinks reception or a garden party. Someone thrusts a cooling glass of half-decent sparkling wine in your hand which, hair of the dog, whets the appetite and away we go again. New fetishes for ice-cold manzanilla and Campari and soda do not help things. My liver, my flabby stomach, my aching head have begged me to stop.

That’s really the problem with these things you take part in just because you do, just because it’s traditional. They become, after the initial euphoria, dreadfully punishing. As I often do, I was flicking through Elizabeth David’s collections of essays a few days ago and came across a few of the things she wrote on Christmas. (Jill Norman collected them along with a folder of unpublished recipes in the posthumous Elizabeth David’s Christmas. It’s a book worth owning.) Her attitude to Christmas is no less acerbic than to most of the other things – there are a lot of them – she deemed the masses to have made distasteful through excessive enthusiasm.

If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening. This lovely selfish anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it’s all Lombard Street to a China orange that they’ll spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming.

‘Untraditional Christmas Food’ (Vogue, Dec 1959), in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? (London, 2001), p.171

Her un-Christmas dream rings polemical; not so much a serious proposition for Christmas eating, but in defiance of its communal good spiritedness determining what you must buy, cook and eat. Read her Christmas book further and we find odes to crystal consommés, to winter soups, enthusiasms for hams, carefully cooked poultry, cold goose, various nut and fruit-rich stuffings – all the stuff of Christmas, “untraditional” and traditional. But the phrase “this lovely selfish anti-gorging” distils Elizabeth David’s attitude to food and drink, I think, into an admirable phrase. Festivals like Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and their enthusiastic gorging and boozing are quite necessary, but largely to satisfy a weakness for carnival and ritual, the assurance of annual motion and of repetition. We could do with a bit of that at our midsummers; I would like a few sweet, rusty-shelled crustacea and a measure or three of vodka. But too much enforced, traditional gorging – viz. May Week – makes you realise how good it is to eat and drink sensibly, that is, not quite meanly, but impressionistically, judging by caprice.

I like white wines with all cheese dishes, and especially when the cheese in question is Gruyère. No doubt this is only a passing phase, because as a wine drinker and not a wine expert one’s tastes are constantly changing. But one of the main points about the enjoyment of food and wine seems to me to lie in having what you want when you want it and in the particular combination you fancy.

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (London, 1986), p.52

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nasturtium, courgette, elder, (flowers!)

Some thoughts on cooking with flowers contributed to Varsity.

The nasturtium is one flowering plant that makes excellent summer salads. Like watercress, the leaves taste strongly of mustard and pepper, while the gentler petals contribute a contrast in flavour and texture, as well as brilliant strokes of crimson and saffron. A few other leaves, an olive oil and lemon dressing are all that’s needed. Tiny courgettes are appearing now and occasionally with the flowers intact. I might serve a nasturtium salad with courgette flowers, stuffed, lightly battered and fried. The stuffing would consist of sliced courgettes reduced to a fragrant pulp in olive oil and garlic – or perhaps of pine nuts, mascarpone, parmesan and chervil as rich little fiori di zucchini ripieni.

Flowers have sadly disappeared from our cooking. We still crystallise the odd primrose at Easter and scent retro syllabubs with flower waters. Seventeenth century cooks delighted in all manner of floral confections. Gilly-flower wines, candies of violets and cowslips, conserves of roses, vibrant petals (and the occasional gilding of gold-leaf) seriously blinged dessert. The eighteenth century retained a taste for floral scents, particularly in sweet dishes containing cream or almonds, but the petals themselves had largely disappeared.

If flowers and floral scents dwindled into archaic use, elderflowers somehow endure – especially in northern Europe. Fanta in 2003 released cans of an elderflower drink onto the Swedish market (“Freaky Fläder”), though it was later withdrawn. The curd-like “sprays”, now in mid-June tumbling from the trees, are for a brief period ready to pick. Aside from spritzy pressés, Polish Orchards (vodka, apple juice, elderflower) are fabulously heady. Gooseberry and elderflower make a classic pairing – infuse a few flowers in a simmering compote and serve with a swathe of cream.

A favourite this summer, though, is elderflower fritters. Prepare a light batter (100g flour, 175ml soda water, an egg white), coat the flowers, deep-fry and dredge with caster sugar. Hannah Glass’s 1747 recipe for “Elder-Flower Wine very like Fontineac” registers the fragrant similarities of elderflower and the Muscat grape (Frantignac, Frantignan). With this in mind, serve the fritters with wedges of lemon and a glass of very cold Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.

proscuitto, carpaccio, ricotta, Vin Santo

How to reproduce well. Step one: embrace. These are some notes on eating at Jamies’ Italian (Wheeler Street, Cambridge), contributed as a restaurant review to the May week Varsity.

Gordon Ramsay for one might be sweating nightly over a stove at Hospital Road if it weren’t for Patricia Llewellyn. The TV producer gave him a show and an image and he shot to global stardom. This year, though, with one thing and another, he’d been having a “shitty” time and fancied shaking the sweary, no-nonsense gig. So he went to India on what was billed as a spiritual-culinary quest. Actually he just  shouted a lot, swore a lot and berated some Indians for being religiously vegetarian.

Among Llewellyn’s other successes is the Two Fat Ladies. Here was the show that united Jennifer Paterson, former cookery writer for the Spectator, and alcoholic model/barrister turned obese cook Clarissa Dickson-Wright in a Triumph Thunderbird. It was a sum of parts that could not, and did not, fail to be brilliant. In turn, The Italian Kitchen was a quietly informative exposition of the work of Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers at The River Cafe, Thames Wharf. The pair’s commitment to excellent ingredients and Tuscan rusticity has been a pervasive force in the cooking of the last two decades. It was also, incidentally, at The River Cafe that Llewellyn chanced upon Jamie Oliver, deftly juggling sheets of gleaming yolk-rich pasta.

Dickson-Wright claims that Llewellyn simply gave Oliver a persona – a verve and pukka vocab which are quite inauthentic. I’m not sure about this (or its hypocrisy). But doubtlessly toned-down in maturity, and a better man than Gordon Ramsay, from his background Oliver has developed an effective personal and culinary style he is not about to relinquish.

This is apparent nowhere more than in the rollout of Jamie’s Italian. Both the food and the location in the revamped Guildhall, a grade-II building on Wheeler Street now complete with “that cracking Jamie’s Italian funky finish”, are triumphs of the mid-range restaurant. The menu could do perhaps with some judicious emendation. “My amazing chicken”, “Good old grilled steak” and “Proper Panzanella salad” come just the wrong side of cutesy: when idiolect goes cringe. But it’s forgivable.

My “plank” of cured meats is balanced on two tins of tomatoes, but it looks sort of cool, and the bits of pig variously salted and dried are fabulous. Pleasing with it are some exquisitely fresh mozzarella and a little slaw spiked with mint. Calamari, garlic mayonnaise and a selection of breads are artfully done, though an arrabiata sauce with ravioli fritti is, I’m told, less than “angry”. As for mains, some black truffles and tagliatelle fail to smack of requisite sexy earth. But the beef carpaccio is a delight: lovely rounds of British beef, carmine red and marbled, are crowned with a mustard-heavy salad of bitter rocket, radicchio, beets and parmesan, which lends a pleasing salt tang. Spaghetti bolognese, not to be overlooked, has a rare, livery, winey depth.

A big domed and pillared hall, several individually styled little rooms, scrubbed wood, colourful and various furniture, stacked breads and whole hams make this, I give it to him, a totally funky, cracking place. We finished on a high of affogato and amaretto, fresh ricotta and honey and a glass of good, very cold Vin Santo.

Meal for five with wine (young but respectable Primitivo), several beers and other drinks, came to £150 with tip.

June rain, trout, peas, sauce/salsa

or, On The Vièrge: some thoughts on change, delicacy and stubborness

I wanted fritedda. This morning, after a warm downpour, the air was thick with wet pavements and grass. I wanted something to eat that could be fresh, bosky too, and really verdant, something that spoke of green and the early summer. I thought about an Italian warm salad doused copiously with olive oil, consisting of peas, artichokes, broad beans – some peeled like bright little green kidneys, some in their pallid skins – and spiked with parsley and mint. Fritedda, recalling that Blackadder sketch, is purest green.

I haven’t eaten broad beans yet this year, nor globe artichokes. Their earthy quality goes very well with peas and mint, conversely so fragrant and sweet, and they’re just about at their best now. June is here. I think about asparagus, still perfectly good, but never quite coming through May kicking. Jersey Royal potatoes, I look forward to those for months in advance, lack some thrill now – even they! It is these delicate points of change in the year – as when the rain in early June becomes warm, refreshing and not unpleasant – when eating certain things, certain new things, feels quite urgent.

Nothing necessary, of course, but right nonetheless. I went to the market for broad beans, artichokes, fresh peas. I had forgotten that it was Sunday, however. The market in Cambridge is by turns excellent: the greengrocers nearest Gap, the cheese stall, the bread stall with its anciennes the size of a torso, the French men selling compotes, tins and jars of preserved meats, and country breads, the Spanish man who carves slices from a magnificent jamón set up on a wooden stand, the fresh fish and shellfish. Some, or a great part of them, as the man in the All Saint’s Passage cheese shop replied when I asked why they had stopped appearing at the market, “just peddle crap for tourists.” If at all, this is truest of the Sunday market. Its best feature is doubtless the stall selling organic farm produce; nice guys and gals with dreadlocks sell you carefully unwashed vegetables. Fantastic quality they are too, but limited today to chards, beets, rhubarb and a few other odds and ends. No fritedda for me, as Sainsbury’s, I find, carries not an artichoke, not a broad bean.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in getting very set in what I want. It upsets me to mess up the aesthetic of having the right dish at the right time. But things don’t have entirely to change, but can vary slightly and thoughtfully depending on what is available. What was Italian finds an equivalent in French which is by no means the same, but conveys the idea. In this case fritedda became petits pois à la française (recipe below). I would have this to begin with, and then, well, I had thought of having a thick pink slab of salmon from the market, fried hard in olive oil on the skin side and served with Elizabeth David’s excellent recipe for a variation on salsa verde – al rafano – with horseradish, tomatoes, parsley, a few sprigs of mint, a good deal of olive oil and (traditionally, though I tend to omit them) breadcrumbs. But, translated, this became two delicate little fillets of trout served with sauce vièrge, a notably similar but subtle variation on the salsa theme – with its certain French reserve. It is I think my favourite preparation to go with what is the sometimes rather underwhelming flavour of farmed trout.

I was going to call this post On The Vièrge. Cringeworthy you might say. But I’m just thinking about verges, brinks and points of contiguity – when one thing becomes another, something like the subtle differences and samenesses in translation: spring and early summer, salsas and sauces, the Italian and the French, the verde, the vert – the vièrge.

I also wonder whether this attachment to rightness is a good thing. I should have gone to the market instead of thinking so hard. After all, there are many excellent things to do with chard, salads of beets staining little rounds of goats cheese puce, so much custard to eat with rhubarb. Yesterday I got all sniffy about going into a kebab shop and ordering falafel. It’s a beautiful afternoon! I should be eating something beautiful! But I’m wrong. However saturated it was with “bad things”, albeit stowed under foil in a plastic tray ready for reheating: after a few halves of ale and a pint of perry I’d had with some friends, this falafel – hot greasy pucks of chickpea, steaming pitta, lettuce and slather of tzaksiki – couldn’t have been righter. It was just that I had planned to have a tomato omelette and a glass of the very lovely Pouilly Fumé I’d put in the fridge.

Petits pois à la française

Melt an ounce  or so of butter over a gentle heat and soften in it a large onion with a little salt but without colouring. This will take a good ten minutes. Place in it the quarters of two or three gem lettuces and continue softening for five minutes with a lid. Over it, tip three quarters of a pound of shelled peas – frozen ones are quite alright. Cover and continue cooking in the butter and gentle steam for ten minutes. Chop a good handful of parsley to add at the last minute. Check the seasoning before covering until you need to serve it. It need not be piping hot.

Trout and sauce vièrge

When I am alone I can’t be doing with skinned tomatoes. Chop one or two, less the seeds, very finely. Chop very finely half a shallot and mince a scrap of garlic with some sea salt. Add to all of these a good deal of salt (a couple of good pinches) and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. Mix and let them sit for half an hour. Meanwhile shred a little basil and parsley.

For the trout, use two small fillets per person. The following method is one which works for me, though I am sure there are many better. Rub skinside generously with olive oil and a few grains of good salt. Heat a good heavy pan until very hot and place the fillets skinside down. Reduce the heat to the lowest temperature and wait until the fillets are half cooked through (opaque white-pink). Add a good ounce of butter to the pan, take it off the heat and turn the fillets.

Now add the herbs to the tomatoes along with at least four or five tablespoons of good olive oil, or as much as is necessary to balance the acidity of the vinegar.

The fillets during this little time will have cooked. Transfer them to a warmed plate and sauce them attractively.