Tuesday 29 November 2011

Twelve to one gone - mince pies

Homemade mince pies

I always like the idea of mince pies but in recent years have steered away from shop bought samples. Too much pastry, too sweet, generally too much of what you don't want and not enough of what you do - a rich fruity spicy filling with melt in your mouth pastry. A reason for never making my own was a slight aversion to suet and lard - saturated animal fats in my pastries is not an altogether attractive prospect and vegetable suet is not an everyday ingredient. Thankfully my local health food shop, Coopers on Lower Marsh, had the foresight to stock up on it ready for the onslaught of seasonal culinary delights. So no more excuse.

At times like this Delia usually seems the best place to start - like asking mum. My battered copy of Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course is the 1995 version - and 36th print edition since it was first published in 1978, and who knows how many more since? But one thing is certain that there are a lot of people out there looking to Delia for advice. Her recipes are no nonsense and usually deliver - especially on the baking front. Her interview in the Guardian this weekend struck a chord. When asked: If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose? Restaurants that are run by real cooks serving real food, and not what Elizabeth David called "theatre on a plate". 
Well said. I like to think of the theatre as taking place in my mouth - food that has been so finically fingered to produce a fine dining version of a meal is a spectacle to behold not an everyday occurrence. Fashion dictates that this is the model we should all be aspiring towards unless of course you are Giorgio Locatelli trying to find a new angle for your cooking - so hey la cucina povera and Sicilian Cooking, but that's another thought.

Getting back to mince pies. Delia's recipe makes 2.75kg of mincemeat - I thought this was a lot until I started eating them and now can see another batch being made before the festive season even begins! I think the real secret is rolling your pastry really, really thin and putting as much mincemeat as you can without them overspilling! So with Delia's recipe as the start point this is my version and its called Twelve to one Mince Pies because literally as soon as you make them they all get gobbled up - this little fellow only survived as he was requisitioned for modelling duties!

I like my mincemeat - well minced really, so that means a little more work and chopping up all the dried fruit. I also like almonds so I've added extra but as with all recipes adapt to your own taste.

225g vegetable suet
350g raisins - rinsed and chopped
225g sultanas - rinsed and chopped
225g currants - rinsed and chopped
225g mixed candid peel chopped
350g muscavado sugar
2 unwaxed oranges zest and juice
2 unwaxed lemons zest and juice
125g toasted almond flakes
4 teaspoons ground mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 whole nutmeg grated
450g Bramley apples - peeled, cored and finely chopped
6 tablespoons brandy - Calvados if you have it

So all you have to do is mix up very well all the ingredients - excluding the brandy, in a large bowl. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave for 12 hours for all the flavours to meld in together. Then transfer to a large baking tin, cover loosely with foil and place in the oven at 120 Celsius for 3 hours. As Delia says 'this process slowly melts the suet which coats the other ingredients, and prevents fermentation taking place if too much juice seeps from the apples during storage.' Allow to cool, then stir in the brandy and spoon into sterilised jars and seal.

Mince pies

This makes enough pastry for 36 mince pies but you can divide it in 3 and keep in the fridge then just make up as and when you like/need/fancy!

Shortcrust pastry
350g plain flour
150g unsalted fridge cold butter, diced into small cubes
pinch of salt
cold water to mix

Homemade mincemeat

Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Easy in a food processor but if doing by hand just make sure that you don't over work the pastry - minimal rubbing in - so it looks like large breadcrumbs. Then add cold water a little at a time - just enough to bring the pastry together - I pour the mixture onto a length of cling film and draw it altogether into a tight ball, that way avoiding manhandling the pastry too much and then pop it in the fridge for minimum half an hour.

For 12 mince pies roll out a third of the pastry as thin as possible and cut 24 rounds - pastry cutters are good or a glass the right size is fine also. Lightly grease a baking tray - line with pastry, fill with as much mincemeat as you dare. Dampen the circumference of the remaining rounds and press firmly to seal the edges. Brush with milk and make 3 snips with a pair of scissors in each pie.
Cook near top of oven for 18 minutes or until they are golden brown. Cool on a wire tray and then dust with icing sugar.
Twelve to one - all gone!

Guardian Q&A with Delia Smith

Monday 7 November 2011

Membrillo and the overlooked Quince

Cotan's quince, membrillo
Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Juán Sanchez Cotán circa 1600, Oil on canvas 69.2 x 85.1 cm. San Diego Museum of Art.
Quince, membrillo
''Koehler's Medicinal-Plants'' 1887
Quince in Chelsea Physic Garden

Fresh quince
Quince jam, membrillo

The quince is a fabled and ancient fruit playing a host of different roles; from original sin in the Garden of Eden - theological interpretations of ancient texts suggest it could have been the quince that tempted Eve as opposed to its much maligned cousin, to its multifarious medicinal properties as a cure for numerous conditions - from pneumonia and lung disease, to colds and coughs.   

Before giving up his studio to become a Carthusian monk, the Spanish Baroque artist, Juán Sanchez Cotán,  painted, amongst other things, still life. His compositions were ascetic and minimal and so rendered his chosen objects with spectacular detail. The relation proposed by Cotán between the viewer and the foodstuffs, so meticulously displayed might be described as anorexic, taking the word in its literal and Greek sense as meaning 'without desire'. Fruit and vegetables are suspended in space, framed by the black void, devoid of human contact and divorced from any notion of appetite or consumption - their value goes beyond that of mere nourishment.

By imbuing the ordinary and the overlooked with such exacting detail, by imbibing foodstuffs with the care and expertise of his craftsmanship, (that at that time was usually only afforded to the megalographic subjects of the court and the divine) Cotán's version of the hyper-real can be seen to 'persuade vision to shed its worldly education'- that is to question what society deems spectacular and consequently what the eye has been trained to ignore and pay attention to the otherwise overlooked.

The quince has now become a relative stranger to the British eye and palate but the subtlety of its delicate flavour once cooked to a rosy amber hue, to produce quince cheese or membrillo, is a perfect foil for strong cheese and cooked meats.  


1.5kg Quinces 
750g Granulated sugar

Core and quarter the quinces – there’s no need to peel them. 
Put them in a large saucepan with just enough water to cover. 
Simmer gently until the flesh is really soft and collapsing. 
Pour the fruit into a blender and puree.
Push the mixture through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon.
Measure the purée – there should be just under 1 litre. 
Put the purée back in the pan with 450g sugar for every 600ml of purée. 
Heat gently, stirring from time to time to help the sugar dissolve, then bring to the boil and cook gently for 30–40 minutes or until the mixture is so thick that if you scrape a wooden spoon through it, the purée parts and leaves a clean line at the bottom of the pan.
Spread the mixture into lightly oiled dishes or moulds, or pot in clean, sterilised jars. 
The membrillo will set firm as it cools and will keep for up to 6 months in the fridge.

Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, (London, Reaktion, 1990)

Thursday 27 October 2011

Chicken soup casserole - souperole or cassoup?

Fresh carrot and leek for chicken soup or casserole

Perfection is a myth perpetuated to paralyse. Impossible expectations of symmetry. A signified sense of beauty. All this results in, is a self-loathing and an over critical expectation of a perceived beauty and we're not just talking vegetables here!

I'm still filled with the same sense of incredulity and indignation when I think of my first visit to New York and the high temple of food culture that is, Dean and Deluca. Carefully, precariously, sculpturally stacked fruit. Shiny, glossy, rosy, rosy red apples. Remember Snow White, and the poisoned one? Impossibly red and like the fairytale, so inviting. But the shock was maybe just as great - not coma inducing but a total non taste sensation. Tough, indigestible skin. Furry, fluffy flesh. No sign of crunch or juice dripping from your chin with this fellow.

These are the apples of interior designers - plenty of style but little soul. We are free to create our own sense of enchantment with the printed image - intoxicated by an imagined ideal. Truly feeding the eye is important but not at the expense of taste or flavour. Images are there to seduce us but buying fruit and veg is a multi sensorial practice not limited to the visual alone. 

Organic fruit and veg in the supermarket has suffered the same fate as all the others, homogeneity being the prerequisite of any self-respecting (i.e. clueless) buyer. There's a classic story my father tells of a chance encounter with such a person from the UK's biggest supermarket and a crate of oranges.

Being Sicilian and coming from a town know as paese delle aranci, land of oranges, and having connections in the airline industry he organised for a crate of his own oranges, fresh from the grove, to be air freighted over. The meeting with the supermarket was set up. The crate was carefully prized open and the delicious fruit revealed in all its individual glory. The buyer recoiled - "Why are these not individually wrapped? Why have they not been graded by size?" My father snatched away the crate and gave the man a withering stare "Are you not even going to taste them? Go to hell, I would rather let these oranges rot in the ground than do business with you." And with that he left.

We all fantasise about the fruit and veg we eat whilst away on holiday and bemoan the flavourless offerings that the supermarket has to offer. But if you have time on your hands you can source delicious highly individual specimens, like the ones photographed above. They were the base for a comforting and deeply satisfying chicken soup/casserole - is that a souperole or a cassoup?

Chicken soup is a panacea and maybe the most popular home remedy ever. Folklore and The Reader's Digest suggest that chicken soup can help prevent white blood cells from triggering inflammation and congestion in the upper airways. Rich steamy broth also helps loosen up congestion and garlic and onion have mild antiviral properties.

The whole veg make it a hearty meal as do some Cornish new potatoes on the side. Adding brandy towards the end of cooking gives the soup a clean, rich flavour.

Chicken soupy casserole
(Enough for 3)

2 whole organic chicken legs (drumstick and thigh)
2 shallots chopped roughly
1 large clove of garlic
300 grams button mushrooms cut in half
6 sage leaves
2 bay leaves
glass of white wine
2 leeks roughly chopped and washed
lots of carrots scrubbed
1 litre chicken stock
splosh of brandy

Season some plain flour and lightly coat the chicken with it.
Brown the chicken in 2tbl spoons of olive oil in casserole dish.
Remove chicken, add shallots and mushrooms and gently brown.
Deglaze the pan with the wine.
Add the bay and sage.
Add the carrots and leeks, best left in big chunks so they don't cook too quickly and still have some bite at the end.
Pour over enough stock to cover the chicken and vegetables.
Simmer with lid on for approx 40 mins or until chicken is cooked through.
Remove the chicken and most of the veg with a slotted spoon to a dish.
Turn up heat and reduce stock down by about a third.
Check the seasoning, add the brandy and cook for a few minutes.
Meanwhile discard the skin from the chicken and remove the meat from the bones and flake it bite size pieces.
Put all meat and veg back in the soup and heat through.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Autumn lunch

Mushroom, sage, and lardon quiche with beetroot and radish salad

Picnicking in the park in October is a rare and treasured experience. The slightly obtuse contradiction of crunchy leaves underfoot and warm, warm sun. Sensorial delights are further offset by melt in the mouth shortcrust pastry filled with mushrooms, sage and lardons and yet more earthy tones from a beetroot and radish salad.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Arancini - the taste of Sicily

Finally air borne, after a four hour delay spent not sampling the delights of Gatwick airport's culinary offerings, I happily tucked into the sandwiches I'd prepared at home almost half a day earlier. A curious combination of the English and Italian - provolone cheese with beetroot, lettuce and salad cream. I apologised to my neighbour who had not had the foresight to come prepared for the worst. His previously single minded focus on the short failings of budget airlines soon wavered and the conversation turned to food - what should he eat in Sicily...what a question! 

My mind began to drift and my taste buds tingled with anticipation. Delicious bread, crunchy green salad tomatoes, super salty pecorino cheese, firm cracked olives spiked with chilli, deep fried pastry ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and chocolate chips almost too sweet but a perfect counter balance to the eye watering bitterness of the shortest espresso in Italy. 

Pizza, pasta, fresh fish, ice cream these are global phenomena. The true tastes of Sicily are dictated by climate and geography. Sweet, salty, agrodolce - you automatically crave intensely flavoured food, it's a reflex. As you sweat in the heat, day and night, your body demands replenishment. Simple foods stuffed chockablock with three dimensional flavours. So back to the question - what should he eat in Sicily...well arancini of course.

Angela Hartnett serves a version of them as an appetiser at Murano - a sophisticated but ultimately a shadowy interpretation of the real thing. Arancini, literally means little oranges, but are a combination of spicy, herby meat ragu and peas, shrouded in sticky risotto rice, then covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. This is not a health food snack. This is messy food to be eaten with your fingers, letting the oil drip down your chin. There's a vegetarian option, shaped like a croquette, of spinach and mozzarella, or a conical one with ham and cheese. 

In Sicily arancini are eaten as an early evening snack, freshly prepared for 7pm when the pizzeria opens to tide you over until supper time. As we sat in the piazza under the watchful gaze of Padre Pio, with the church bells summoning believers to early evening mass, our repast was truly a joyful and blessed experience, a multi sensorial delight.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Fresh fig fancy

Fresh gardens figs

Fig, prosciutto and basil salad

Freshly picked figs, chilled and served with Parma ham, basil, a drizzle of olive oil and black pepper.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Wonderful Copenhagen

Aamanns Copenhagen - smorrebrod

Aamanns Copenhagen - smorrebrod

Lunch in Copenhagen couldn't get much better than a selection of smorrebrod from Aamanns. Opened by Adam Aamann in 2006 he has since received a honorary diploma from the Danish Academy of Gastronomy for his elevation of the traditional open sandwich to the level of gastronomic artistry. 
In Denmark there is a real sense of eating with your eyes. Like the Japanese sensibility, flavours and textures are combined whether fresh, raw, cooked, pickled, preserved to give a harmonious delight to both eye and palate. Our selection featured the most succulent, melt in your mouth sirloin beef with home made tiny crispy onions, a remoulade of root vegetables and fresh horseradish. A wonderfully subtly smoked mackerel with dill pickled cucumber. A vinegar pickled herring with super sweet green tomatoes, shallots and sour cream, and finally sliced new potatoes with sour cream, chives and radish all served on the most delicious home baked rye bread.
Sandwiches have rarely tasted so good.

Monday 4 July 2011

Transform me into a handsome fish

Si Dio mi transformasse in un bel pesce
E mi gettasse nel mare piu profondo
Potesse giungere un pescatore a pescarmi
E a vendermi in una piazza d'amore
Potesse venire la mia amante a comprarmi
E mi friggesse in una padella d'oro
Non avrei alcuna pena di bruciare
Basa che potessi entrare nel suo cuoro

Should God transform me into a handsome fish
And throw me into the deepest sea
Perhaps a fisherman would catch me
And sell me in a place of love
Perhaps my love would come and buy me
And fry me in a golden pan
I would have no trouble burning
For that would be enough that I could enter into her heart

Traditional Sicilian folk songs focused upon the themes of life - love, work, food, celebration and death. According to Sergio Bonanzinga, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Palermo, "This song is based on a 19th century romance model which filtered with significant adaptation into the rural milieu. The text is one of the most moving love poems of Sicilian repertoire." The poetic imagery clearly indicates depth of feeling but also connectivity with the sea, fishing and of course food. 

Fish here in the UK is unfortunately a luxury both in terms of procuring it and in the variety that we are offered. Of course there are exceptions to the paltry, dried up offerings on sale at the supermarket. A few wet fish shops survive and in doing attract people from far and wide. On the whole our relationship with fish, as with so many fresh food products, has been reduced to the abstract. No longer do we want to approach a fish with its head and bones intact. Integrity and with it flavour has been sacrificed in favour of convenience. To ask for whole fish singles you out, according to a fishmonger in Gloucester Avenue, as not being British! If that's the case I am a happy alien who will continue to buy, cook and savour whole fresh fish.

Music courtesy of:  Sicile: Musique Populaires/ Sicily: Folk Music, November 2004, Ocora
Image: Visual Athletics Club

Places to buy fresh fish in London:
Granville Arcade, Brixton Market, Brixton
Le Petite Poissonnerie, Gloucester Avenue, Primrose Hill
Fish Works, Marylebone High Street

Sunday 26 June 2011

Why not...

Smoked salmon risotto with pastis

Risotto is smooth and creamy - the most comforting of comfort foods and with endless variations. My parents are partial to rocket and taleggio. I like to vary and use whatever's lurking in the fridge or cupboard - grated courgettes, added at the last moment with pecorino, fresh broad beans and asparagus, or like last night fresh peas, smoked salmon and a slug of Ricard. The flavour is robust but complimentary - wonderfully fresh, fragrant and fishy with a hit of aniseed to enliven the taste buds.

Monday 20 June 2011

Food, fashion and photography

Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2001, Perishables
Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2003, Perishables
Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2002, Perishables

Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2007, Maria
Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2007, Maria

Pinar Yolacan, Untitled, 2007, Maria

Without biography or the marketing speak of a gallerist or curator we are free to engage with work on our own terms, resonances are often visceral, although there is little neutrality as we approach everything with a set of learned ideals and preconceptions. Location and situation, the where and how, of our encounter is another element worth considering.

The work of Turkish born, London Art School educated, New York based artist Pinar Yolacan came to me in the reading rooms of the British Library as I worked my way through the entire back catalogue of Gastronomica magazine. A research project may start with one very particular set of questions but the end result often tansmutes into an entirely different thing. 

As I flayed amongst the limitless possibilities of my chosen subject (the visual representation of food) her work hit me with the same intensity as the accosting smell of rubbish truck does. A shiver as I imagined the cold, dead, raw meat draped on these women - an emotional response. Entrails sewn into the fabric of the design, intergrated to become bespoke items, beauty in the profane. 

Yolacan's work is not about food, fashion or photography - they are merely the mediums that she incorporates into a collaborative performance with her subjects to articulate her own underlying autobiographical narratives. In her photographs food is reduced to its material element, it is given agency through its incongruous inclusion, it demands attention in its own right.

All images Pinar Yolacan courtesy of Rivington Arms Gallery, New York, USA. Images taken from the exhibition catalogues "Pinar Yolacan 'Perishables'" 2-28 March 2007, and "Pinar Yolacan 'Maria'" 20 March-4 May 2008 at the Yapi Kredi Kazim Taskent Art Gallery, Turkey

Monday 13 June 2011

Fruity flan

Almond, brandy and apricot pie

If I tell my father I like something this is a green light for a generous offering - this week it was two punnets of fresh apricots. Now I can only eat a certain number of apricots in one sitting - so it was really a toss up between jam or a fruit flan.

This is an adaptation (what recipe isn't?) using Skye Gyngell's sweet pastry recipe. She leaves the fruit with little embellishment besides lemon and sugar. I wanted to add almonds and a little alcohol and felt that a glaze and more toasted almonds would add another layer of flavour and texture.

Apricot and almond flan

For the pastry
250g plain organic flour
1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk
2-3 drops  vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of caster sugar
Pinch of sea salt
125g unsalted butter - cut into the cubes

For the filling
15 apricots - halved and destoned
4 tablespoons ground almonds
2 tablespoons caster sugar
Large glug of brandy
Juice of half a lemon

For the topping
2 tablespoons of apricot jam
Juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons of toasted flaked almonds
Add the cold butter to the flour + salt - crumble to resemble coarse sand.
Add remaining ingredients form into a smooth ball - wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour.

Put apricots and all other filling ingredients in a bowl, mix together and set aside.
Roll out pastry to fit a 9 inch flan tin (with a removable base), prick all over and return to the fridge for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 180 degrees centigrade
Blind-bake for ten minutes.

Remove from oven and add filling - stack the apricots like dominoes, spoon over any remaining mixture.

Bake in centre of oven for approx 35 minutes, turning half way through to ensure even cooking. The apricots should be caramelising slightly and the pastry a light biscuit colour.

Put the apricot jam and lemon juice in a pan over a gentle heat and mix together. Pour over the apricots, sprinkle with toasted almonds and leave to cool slightly.

Serve with Greek yoghurt.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Ginger Pig lamb leg steaks

Ginger Pig lamb leg steaks with garlic and thyme

Another cut of lamb from the Ginger Pig, ideal for the small family or those who do not want to exercise the time and labour needed for a whole roast leg of lamb. Lamb leg stakes with enough fat to ensure a succulent (as always) piece of meat. Pierce the meat with a knife and add slivers of garlic and thyme. Rub the meat with salt and pepper then...cook as per Tom the butcher's instructions:

Heat oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
Flash fry starting in a cool, dry pan with fat side down - let the fat render off and the meat will brown in that.
Pop in the oven and roast - 12 minutes will give you lovely pink meat.
Take out, leave to rest, then carve. 

Delicious with slightly overcooked potatoes with lots of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper and a medley of tender carrots, fresh peas and broad beans.

Friday 3 June 2011

Let the food speak for itself

Sicilia in Bocca by Franca Colanno Romano

The page spreads of Sicilia in Boca  are an abject lesson in the possibilities and inspirational quality of cookery books without photographs. The highly mediated and stylised images produced for most cookery books set an almost unachievable bar for most cooks to reach. The images can indeed inspire but they can also alienate as the high production values used to create them are not the criteria followed by most of us in the kitchen. Food is manipulated to please the publisher and sell books as opposed to being a "true" representation of how a particular dish appears. How many of us have followed a recipe to the letter only to be sorely disappointed that our food appears nothing like the beautiful image in the book?

Illustrated cookery books do just that - they illustrate an element, convey a feeling, an essence of the recipe - they leave the end result to the cook. Experience and practice are two key elements to cooking - as with any other craft you hone your skill and develop your technique to create your own highly personalised version and so let the food speak for itself, the images tell another story.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Homemade spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Homemade spinach and ricotta tortelloni

Perfecting a classic dish is the first step towards experimentation. Once you've mastered the technique then you can broaden your horizons and experiment. Making fresh pasta is one thing but filled pasta is another entirely. My first attempt was OK, my second was a disaster and one which I unwisely attempted to foist upon my parents. My mother was wonderfully forgiving, my patriarchal Sicilian father less so. He withheld any verbal comment but the manner in which he approached his plate spoke a thousand words.

So this is my third attempt and this time I have followed a recipe and used a snazzy device that cuts and crimps the tortelloni together - tonight I will serve them with all arrabbiata with basil and parmegiano - tomorrow I may try and tempt my father!

Friday 20 May 2011

Lavender and blackberry fairy cakes with lemon icing

Lavender, blackberry and lemon fairy cakes
Serpentine Pavilion, Frank Gehry
Visual Athletics Club: Gehry Roof, Serpentine, 2008

I remember eating some fairy cakes at Frank Gehry's Serpentine Pavilion a couple of summers ago - three now actually. Amazing how the memory of a flavour combination stays with you quietly remaining in the background until one day you finally get it together and work it out.

So this is my version - blackberry and lavender fairy cakes with lemon icing. Memories are good but the real thing is even better.
Heat the oven to 180 C and prepare a baking tray with twelve fairy cake papers.

100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
100g plain flour mixed with +
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 tablespoon of organic lavender
12 blackberries
Unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons of icing sugar

Cream together the caster sugar + butter until light and fluffy.
Add a spoon full of sifted flour + one egg beat well, add another spoon of flour + second egg - beat well.
Add the vanilla essence + the lightly chopped lavender - mix well.
If the mixture does not drop off your spoon easily add a little bit of milk.
Take a teaspoon of the batter and drop it into each of the papers - smooth down, add a blackberry.
Spoon more mixture on top + smooth down.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 18 minutes.
Remove and leave to cool.
Grate the zest + the juice of half the lemon add to the icing sugar, add more sugar/lemon juice to get required icing consistency.
When cool spoon over cakes - leave to set.

The blackberry and lemon add a wonderful zing to the subtle perfumed flavour of the lavender.


Thursday 19 May 2011

Foraging in a suburban garden

Wild plants in a suburban garden
Visual Athletics Club: Down the bottom of the garden, 2009

I've been foraging - unfortunately without my camera to share the specific spoils of my labour. But this is the garden wilderness where the riches are recovered. This week my exploits include stepping gingerly to avoid nettles and bumble bees to pick fat, juicy, wild strawberries, also claiming the last tender shoots of broccoletti a taglio which has sprouted on an a recently cleared bramble patch, and climbing high to gather elderflowers.

We picked enough flowerheads for three litres of elderflower cordial and left the rest for later on in the summer when we will combine the berries with vodka and sugar to make a wonderful hedgerow liqueur.

The sterilisation of the natural landscape to make way for new housing developments where trees, shrubs and even grass have been usurped by decking, and paved driveways means that wild food grows in increasingly inhospitable spots - coerced by this onward march of  progress. Overstretching on a step ladder to reach the best flowerheads, the desire to just gather that little bit more and the knowledge of when to stop is all part of foraging. But the rewards are incomparable to those of the soulless exercise of visiting the supermarket. 

The simplicity of the process of combining the gently fragrant flowerheads with water, sugar, lemon and citric acid - the alchemy of an infusion to provide a homemade cordial is a wonder to practice and a joy to behold.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Would you like a cup of tea?

Ginger bread, Ferrells Bakery Fore Street St Ives
Visual Athletics Club: A nice cup of tea, 2010

Tea is a panacea - a cure-all that we defer to in times of stress. Emotions are mollified by a cup of tea. In hospitals it's an indication of bad news, and if biscuits are produced you know you're really in trouble. Sweetened tea is an alternative to a shot of brandy applied to steady the nerves and becalm an emotional tsunami. As we work hard to control our unspiralling lives we turn to certain crutches to see us through - a cigarette, a large drink but a cup of tea is the anywhere, anytime solution.

Rituals and symbolism that surround tea may be a hangover from the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The UK Tea Council describes its nascence  as coming from 'the Taoist idea of trying to find beauty in the world combined with the Zen Buddhist belief that the mundane and particular were of equal importance with the spiritual and universal. Thus the ritual of tea making expressed the quest of greatness in the smallest details of life, and the formalised acts of graciousness and politeness that are integral to the Ceremony are an outward form of an inner belief in the importance of peace and harmony.' 

By serving tea we could subliminally be tapping into an ancient culture that put tea at the heart of a meditative, highly contemplative ritual, thus lending stability to crisis. A cup of tea remains a fail-safe, a gesture, an acknowledgement of our inability to alter the situation but a remedy seeped in empathy.


Thursday 5 May 2011

What's for lunch?

A faded photograph of a universal scene mother and daughter, birthday cake - the anticipatory moment before the candles are blown out. The cake, the choice of a favourite meal, maybe steak and homemade chips with rosemary, a chance to influence on your own special day. 

Food is the ritual through which we mark celebrations - the sharing and coming together of friends and family united by occasion and appetite. A special meal where all are suitably grateful but what about all the other meals? Not the grand gesture of the occasional cook who breezes in to announce in a tone of simultaneous self-congratulation and sacrifice that - "Tonight I'll cook you supper" but the every day provisioning of a family. My mother cooked day in day out, usually for eight - four children, grandma, nonno, my father and herself and then there were the pets - three dogs, a cat or two, hamster, canary...but that's another story.

My father, as the Sicilian, is often seen as the inspiration behind the family's love of food but my mother whose unsung invisible hand provided the endless meals is the true influence. Food is far more than sustenance and keeping a large family fed is a task which many of us rarely have to contemplate as the extended family has become more rarefied. 

Now as I shop for my family of three I'm constantly amazed at the quantity of fresh food we consume, the endless trawling home of food procured from market or local shop. My mother did not drive, she had some help managing a large back garden planted with a variety of fruit trees and vegetables, peas, broad beans, strawberries, gooseberries and an especially large dual use apple tree, a Mary Barnett, outside the back door.

In a family kitchen helping hands are seconded to peel vegetables, clear away, wash and dry up. But the real task requires a sophisticated imagination and logistical organisation to deal with the complex dietary foibles of an octogenarian nonno, an orthodontically challenged grandma and four small children, and of course a rather exacting patriarch. My mother was fortunate in some way that at school we had very strict ascetic rules regarding food - whatever was taken on your plate had to be eaten - this set us in good stead for home where the same exactitude was in play.

My mother soon adopted a wide Italian repertoire, taking on the more time consuming dishes my father would not consider. Traditional English was also included as were a variety of her own variations of continental classics. Her only respite from the grinding monotony was on a Saturday when father would cook lunch, usually a plate of pasta, and grandma would bake.

The egocentric nature of children meant we took the care bestowed upon us for granted - the hours they spent toiling to keep us healthy and satiated. So now, when opportunity arises they sometimes let us return the compliment. My father is still exacting in his likes and dislikes but my mother is wonderfully gracious, complimentary, delighted even - just have someone else take care of what's for lunch.