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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Don't watch - I'm eating truffles

Tolkien’s hobbits were inordinately fond of mushrooms. Although I don’t think of myself as hobbit-like in any other way, I sometimes worry that there is something sinister about how much I like eating fungus.
My first experience of eating fresh truffles was at a reception held by a French investment bank. I couldn’t tell you which one, anymore than I can remember anything about the speech that the chairman made just after the very simple pasta with truffles was served.
Nobody had warned me that the real attraction of truffles is that they taste subtly but unmistakeably of sex. Eating truffles in polite company is like watching an erotic Japanese arthouse movie with your parents. It’s not totally taboo, because it’s a classy film, but you are embarassed by how beautifully sexy it is.
Sadly, almost the only way I can afford to eat really good truffles is when it’s being paid for on an expense account, so I have spent a lot of time wondering how much the embarassment blunts my enjoyment of these subterranean jewels. The conclusion I have come to is that it’s always worth it, even though it sometimes makes me very resentful of the generous person simultaneously buying and ruining my lunch.
Until my ship comes in, I am very happy to stick with more plebian mushrooms in my own kitchen. This cep formed the main flavouring ingredient in a richly comforting risotto last week, while pieds de mouton, English boletus, slippery jacks, girolles , chanterelles and shaggy parasols made a wonderful mushroom stew to accompany a savoury pie.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

My dog has no nose. How does he smell?

The morning after a delightful evening at which my wine-writer friend supplied the drink and my affineur friend the cheese, I opened the fridge to get butter for toast. Even though the fridge door was only open for perhaps thirty seconds, this was long enough for an invisible fume of dank, drain-like smell to escape, hover a minute or so in the kitchen, then wind its poisonous way through the flat to the bedroom, where it woke up the Man quicker than I’ve ever seen him come to consciousness on Sunday morning before!
The cheese, wrapped though it was in several layers of waxed paper, was not asleep.
What is the relationship between smell and taste? The theory is that we have tastebuds for just five flavours: salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. All the other delicate arrangements of flavour that we experience while eating are actually through the olfactory bulb in the nose.
If this is the case, why do we experience the smell of so many food stuffs as so different from their flavour?
As a child, coffee seemed repellent to me to taste, but I used to go out of my way coming home from school in order to sniff the air next to the coffee stall on the market. Durian fruit is notoriously bad-smelling, but pleasant to eat. And cheese can smell like a teenage boy’s gym kit but be absolutely delicious.
I think (and this is based on nothing more than personal observation and wild speculation) that there must be some change in how we perceive things that are inside our mouths. The smell may be the same, so the olfactory experience is technically the same, but it is now combined with a mouthfeel (cool, salty, fattiness in the case of cheese) and our expectations of the sensation is altered.
By this latter, I don’t just mean that we expect the époisses to taste good, but that it fills our sensory horizons so we no longer have a standard of non-smell to compare it with. When I worked in the cheesemongers, many customers (not all under 8) would wrinkle up their noses on entering the shop and perform amusing mimes of themselves vomiting at the smell. If they didn’t immediately flee in fits of laughter, we were always able to cure their nausea. A taste of cheese, ideally Montgomery’s Cheddar, would instantly dispell the tyranny of the air heavy with the aroma of dozens of cheeses.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Turkey twizzlers? I don't think so!

I had all sorts of clever and profound things to say about the importance of introducing children to good food early on. I was also planning to boast about my friend who devoted a large amount of her maternity leave to steaming and puréeing organic fruit and vegetables, then freezing them in ice-cube trays so that Baby Louis would be able to have gourmet mixtures at every meal (apparently six veg-cubes constituted a meal). But in the end, the picture of Louis, now liberated from the strict vegetable diet, enjoying a hearty gnaw, speaks for itself.
This is how to enjoy food!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Radio review

One of the best things I have ever heard on radio was yesterday's Food Programme on BBC Radio 4. This is partly because it was dedicated to the potato, a topic close to my heart, but mostly because they were featuring an entirely straight-faced report on the 6th annual Festival for the Recognition of Sauté Potatoes with Onions as a Main Dish. Go to the website, listen again, and never again regard Sauté Potatoes with Onions as a menial side dish.

Irregular verbs

Have you ever noticed that, in languages other than the irrepressibly irregular English, it is the most commonly used verbs that are least regular? To a student, this can seem like a willfully excluding trait, putting the highest hurdle first; but of course it is perfectly understandable that the words that are most used are those that get rubbed into different shapes. Those shapes may seem unreasonable to the outsider, but they are comfortingly familiar to native speakers.
In the same way, it is the basic building blocks of a cuisine, universally used and often ignored, that are hardest to replicate in another country.
Everyone knows that the Irish are fussy about potatoes, so no-one is surprised when I lament the lack of ‘balls of flour’ in English greengrocers, but even I am taken aback by how much I still miss Irish bread. Not the brown (soda) bread that I could make for myself or even buy by going to the right London supermarket, but plain old Irish sliced pan.
After years of vague disappointment every time I had toast (Kerrygold butter is available here, so I knew that wasn’t the problem) I identified the issue: it wasn’t chewy enough.
I don’t know if it’s because of the damper climate, which might affect either the wheat itself or the rising process, but Irish bread is almost without exception chewier than its English equivalent.
It’s not necessarily better, but it’s how I like it. The glutinous verb of chewing bread is familiar to me and anything else tastes like a foreigner saying “I goed” instead of “I went”.
Even grand organic freshly baked bread is usually less chewy than I want it to be, but I have finally found a source of bread that is delightfully tough, although packed with flavour.
The Flour Station now has a weekly stall on Borough Market, where the staff are unfriendly until you show an active interest in their bread, at which point they open up and tell you in detail about their lengthy proving, the importance of the ingredients and how they are treated and how to look after the bread they are selling you. Apparently the difference is that any loaf of bread you buy from them has taken nearly 24 hours to reach its farinaceous apotheosis, which gives the gluten time to develop. Last week I spoke to a relatively junior assistant, who told me to come back when his boss was there to explain the science behind it. I plan to spend the intervening time reading Harold McGee’s account of bread-making, so as to be able to ask intelligent questions. In the meantime, I will live on the memory of the country levain, the English stick and even the olive-oil laden focaccia.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

One query answered, another posed

Thank you to Mat, who tracked down real Israeli couscous for me! It’s simple to cook and tastes exactly as it does at the Table, where I first came across it.

Now my only query is: what is the other stuff that I found? It’s more porous than the Israeli couscous and took forever to cook. It might be nice as a thickening in stew, I suppose, if one liked that kind of thing.

Betty Botta bought some butter

My grandmother, continually angry at being forbidden the high cholesterol of full fat dairy produce, reminisces about the days in the 1950s when her farming household consumed two pounds of butter a day. “One for your grandfather and one for the rest of the men.”
For the last forty years or so of his life, she never spoke to and rarely of my grandfather, so this snippet was memorable. She doesn’t know, or probably care, that he continued to consume butter in gargantuan amounts, only that she is forbidden to do so. Perhaps that is why she has outlived him.
Although falling short of Grandpa David’s heroic standards, I have inherited the family love of solid churned cream. Spread thickly on bread or used to fry almost anything, even melted into egg yolks to form hollandaise sauce, butter is one of my favourite food stuffs.
This has been the case for many years, but until recently I was under the impression that the only decision to be made about butter was ‘salted or unsalted.’ It is only recently that I have come to appreciate how much it can vary. My first inkling of this variability came at a point when I was trying to economise, and thought that one easy way was to buy cheaper butter from New Zealand in place of the heavily subsidized but still more expensive Kerrygold that I had been in the patriotic habit of buying.
This change in buying behaviour was also driven by a brief flirtation with economics, a friend having ranted to me about the iniquities of the European common agricultural policy. I did my bit for free market butter economics for a couple of weeks but was soon driven back to the protectionist stuff that did not go rancid so quickly.
This may be simply because it is more highly salted, as is my taste, but the underlying taste is also sweeter to my palate.
Having worked out this difference, it became clear that it might easily be worth spending money on expensive butters to find the best, or those bests that are most appropriate to different needs.
Since then I have wasted much money, raised my own cholesterol level and tasted many different kinds of butter. I know that it can vary in colour, texture, saltiness, firmness when refrigerated or not, keeping quality and sweetness. It can be made with fresh or fermented cream, or even the whey from cheese-making. Contrary to expectations, a higher water content is often a good sign, although it’s not clear whether that is because it associated with artisanal methods of churning and the higher quality ingredients that implies, or is actually a good thing in itself.
In the last few weeks I have sampled bright yellow and crystalline clotted cream butter, smoother whey butter, which is not noticeably less sweet, the familiar salty smoothness of Kerrygold (the standard Irish butter, originally produced by the Kerry Co-op and marketed internationally by one Tony O’Reilly, who went on to head multi-nationals Heinz and Waterford) and the pale sweetness of the French butter sold in Borough Market at a specialist butter stall, sliced from demi-tuns and eaten irresistibly with a London bloomer loaf.
I wouldn’t eat a pound a day of the latter, but only because I can’t afford it; my next plan is to try making pastry with it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Colourful cuisine

A colleague of mine recently went to the restaurant Dans le Noir, where blind staff serve you in the dark. She reported that it was disappointing to discover that her other senses were not stimulated by the deprivation of sight, and that she would not care to repeat the experiment.
‘Experiment’ is my word, and expresses the only way I think one could approach such an experience. Such temporary sensory deprivation is unlikely to give enough time for other senses to compensate, so the point of eating in the dark must be largely to bring home to one how important sight is to the enjoyment of food for most people. When I was little, we used to play around with such ideas by doing things like being blindfolded and being fed randomly cubes of onion and of apple, or eating assorted sandwiches with our eyes closed.
Certainly there are all sorts of visual cues that we pick up and interpret, without having to think in such sophisticated terms as aesthetic impact. Food needs to be the right colour for us to be comfortable eating it; apparently we are conditioned to be suspicious of blue food, but food that is inappropriately green, or darker than it should be, or even just brightly coloured and unfamiliar, will also set off alarm bells.
Whatever the evolutionary reason for the attention we pay to the appearance of food, it can now be used to enhance our enjoyment. One of my personal indulgences is the occasional purchase of black truffle potatoes, which are unprepossessing in their natural state, looking like dirty dark purple Jerusalem artichokes, dull and knobbly. When boiled, peeled and mashed, they turn into a wonderfully episcopal purple mass, with a dry, floury texture and an earthy, almost fruity flavour. With a garnish of spring onion tops for contrast, they make a beautiful third of a meal that also involves the jewelled red of pomegranate seeds on top of the fried duck-breast with a pomegranate sauce and the startling yellow of braised ceps.
Although the flavours were delicious, a great deal of my pleasure in this meal came from the simple joy of the bright colours together - I would love to go to Dans le Noir, but only as an experiment.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Everybody eats

Charles Campion is indubitably an accomplished restaurant reviewer, while only the most embittered begrudger would claim that Heston Blumenthal is other than a gifted and massively dedicated chef.
Campion however seemed blind to one of the most basic issues surrounding food, while Blumenthal was adept at avoiding the question of why Campion’s teenage children seemed open-minded at a sixteenth birthday lunch at the Fat Duck, but insisted on tomato ketchup on anything supplied by Campion himself.
Do we have to remind you of the tensions surrounding relations between parent and teenage child, Charles?
The reason food is an infinitely fascinating topic is precisely that everyone has to eat, so that it is an infinitely available battleground for power; person, political or absolute. If you are lucky enough to live in a society where sufficient food for basic nutrition is not an issue, it almost inevitably becomes a locus for expression of family relationships with all the complexity that implies.
To express bewilderment that a teenage child rejects your strongly held food-related values is surely disingenuous. It may be excusable in terms of your family relationship, but it is to ignore the fascinating psychological and power structures surrounding food.
Everybody eats. This basic fact means that food can never utterly dissociate itself from the need for survival, so of all art forms in our over-civilised society it is the most unsettling, the most decadent.
Campion complained that while an opera critic may be asked to stand in for the food critic on a newspaper, the reverse never happens. He sees this as an indicator of how lowly food is valued. Rather I think it is a sign that editors feel, rightly, that everybody eats, and anyone who is used to thinking critically can apply that skill to a universal act. It is hard to refute this opinion; the onus is on food writers to prove that we have something more to offer than simply a report on whether the steak was overdone.

Removing sandals on holy ground

Tonight I went to hear a demi-god of contemporary cooking and was confronted with a veritable god of the pantheon. Evening Standard reviewer Charles Campion was soi-disant ‘warm-up’ for Heston Blumenthal, who casually referrred to ‘Harold’ in the audience. This was Harold McGee, author of McGee on Food & Cooking, for whose signature I queued up with a collection of similarly awestruck foodies.
I first heard of McGee’s work in the early nineties when visiting my plant geneticist aunt in Palo Alto. Her foodie/scientist friends insisted to this embryonic compulsive cook that no-one could be serious about food without knowing this cross-over writing from an English graduate with an interest in chemistry.
14 years later, I was overwhelmed by the presence of this inspirational pioneer, who coined the term ‘molecular gastronomy’ but still seemed pleased to hear about my recurring awe at the everyday magic of food.
Anyone who has ever wondered at the alchemical transformation of clear egg white into firm white foam after beating or opaque rubbery whiteness through heat should read McGee for an enlightening, empowering and exciting exposition of the alchemy of cooking.
Cooking is quotidian conjury, chemistry and physics at your fingertips, and McGee explains it without removing the spark of excitement. No self-respecting cookery shelf is without his masterpiece, although not everyone is lucky enough to have a signed copy from this personally charming sexy greybeard!

If you take school dinners....

"If you take school dinners,
Better set 'em aside.
A lot of kids didn't.
A lot of kids died."

There is a lot of debate about school dinners going on in the UK at the moment, but it can be hard for a foreigner to engage with it.
How shocking we are supposed to think it that there are schools that have no kitchen at all! But no school I ever went to in Ireland had a kitchen. The more luxurious ones had hot soup available at morning break.
One secondary school in the London borough of Hackney makes a big thing of its healthy living ethos, which involves banning vending machines from the school (good, but why in the world were they let in in the first place?) and forbidding students to bring packed lunches. Huh? What’s wrong with packed lunches? Admittedly I hated packed lunches, but then I hated every aspect of school, and the idea of taking some responsibility for one’s own nourishment is not a pointless one.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, where I spent one term aged 10, all schools in the district had the same menu each week. This menu was announced on local radio (I never missed corn on the cob day), so that students and their families could decide if they wanted to eat school food or bring a packed lunch. It is now available on the internet , parents are as welcome as ever in the canteen and the menu looks remarkably similar to my memories of more than two decades ago.
My two worst school dinner experiences were indeed in the UK: at primary school in a very deprived area of Liverpool, we were convinced that the second sitting of lunch had to finish up whatever the first sitting left. Burned in my memory is the time that a small boy at my table (we were all small, but he was naughtier than most) stirred his pudding into a disgusting pink moosh, then refused to eat it. The table monitor pleaded with him, explaining that it was unfair to leave this horror for second sittings, but in vain. How grateful we all were to the capricious authorities who had declared we got to eat first!
Another stint at a UK school came some ten years later, when I volunteered to report on the otherwise unvisited school canteen for the School Council (a very democratic institution).
The air surrounding the canteen building was thick with grease, while the interior was how I imagine a temporary army canteen might be, right down to the terrifying people serving the food. Marked out as exceptional by our age and non-uniformed status (only the lower orders in the first three years usually ate there), my head-girl friend and I had to force down our oily burgers and cold chips under the glaring eye of the head dinner lady.
Returning to the Irish morning ritual of putting together two cheese sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a packet of crisps and a drink did not feel like a return to deprivation.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hooray for hedonism!

Originally uploaded by clashsophia.
What a great evening! This is why I like living in London, against all the odds. This evening had three excellent events, so my only problem was to decide which of them I could get to and which had to fall by the wayside.
It started with a drinks party at Nobu, where the canapés lived up to expectations and my glass of champagne seemed bottomless.
I managed to say “Stop, little glass, stop” firmly enough to enjoy the lobster and foie gras skewers and the chunks of black cod, and to charm the CEO of the company hosting the drinks party into a promise of match tickets at the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium. I can only hope that he didn’t see my exit, which was delayed by an irresistable need to waylay one of the serving staff who had foolishly allowed me to glimpse her plate of prawn tempura.
Consoling myself with the thought that everyone understands that journalists are underfed, I swanned off to a colleague’s birthday drinks at Hawksmoor bar in Shoreditch. Against all expectation, I managed to resist the enormous buckets of punch, but the ebullient Cuban barman Jorge did (after a refreshingly citrussy French 75) inveigle me into drinking a bizarre but delicious concoction of gin, gooseberry purée, thyme syrup and fresh mint, which must remain nameless because Jorge couldn’t remember its name and I was too drunk to insist on looking it up.
The steaks for which Hawksmoor is known looked wonderful coming out of the serving hatch, and I will probably manage to get back there for the meat before I can save up for an evening at Nobu, which is now definitely on my list.
And the event I missed? A debate on ethical food at the Garrick Theatre. It sounded fascinating, I would have loved to go, but against Nobu canapés and supporting a colleague, it stood no chance.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The sweet flavour of rosehips remembered

I have always been a fan of gathering the wealth of the hedgerows, although I may have been a little spoilt by the ready availability of sorrel, blackberries, raspberries and fraughans (the Irish word for little wild blueberries) along the little-used roads surrounding the farm where I grew up.
Even in London, I am not to be deterred from gathering nature’s bounty: gallons of elderflower cordial are the product of trips to the local graveyard; more recently I have eaten myself sick on mulberries ignored by everyone except the birds, the squirrels and me.
However, despite their beauty and nutritional value, rosehips have never tempted me. They are impressively high in vitamin C: when rationing was imposed in Britain during and after the second world war, children were expected to gather them to make rosehip syrup to ward off scurvy, in lieu of the citrus fruit that was virtually unavailable.
Their flavour is tangy but not too sharp, often a welcome ingredient in herbal tea to balance the insistently herbaceous hibiscus and they grow almost everywhere.
So why are they not top of my scavenging menu?
It’s the guts of the fruit that put me off.
At my primary school in Ireland, there were wonderful sprays of rosehips gracefully draping themselves over the school wall into our playground every autumn term. And every autumn term, some bright spark would pluck a dark red fruit, split it open with a fingernail, scrape out the furry, fibrous seeds inside and use this pale stuff as horribly effective itching powder. In the end there were always tears, the teacher would get involved and punishment and bannings from the playground would ensue.
It’s probably silly to pass up on all the hippy goodness of the fruits, but I don’t think I could dissociate their flavour from the prickly, itchy feeling of fibres that are so firmly lodged in the fabric of your t-shirt that it can even survive washing.
In fact, I am even now shifting uncomfortably in my chair and furtively scratching my back where I can feel the phantom rosehip seeds.
Nostalgia is a fine thing, but it can be over-rated.