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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Scent of Melons

I have often wondered why there aren't more positive words for smells. There are lots of unpleasant words - stench, stink, mephitic, acrid, putrid - a few neutral or context-specific - pungent, earthy, sharp - and a handful of not very specific pleasant ones, such as aromatic and fragrant.
This is in spite of the power of smell to make us happy, to trigger memories, to influence us. People trying to sell or rent their houses are told to have a pot of coffee on the stove to make prospective buyers like the place more. Supermarkets are said to pump artificial fresh-bread-smell out to make shoppers feel hungry and make the place more appealing.
One sniff of fresh blackcurrant cordial and I'm back in my grandmother's kitchen, while the smell of hay transports me back to my childhood, hot and happy summer days bringing in the hay.
And walking past the fruit and veg section of our local Turkish shop the other day, I was seized by a scent of the most extraordinary beauty. It was a ripe Galia melon, which I bought and took home to put where I usually put a vase of flowers, and it filled the room with its sweet, soft, cool smell.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The perks of the job

I have mentioned before that my job has certain perks and that I take shameless advantage of the culinary ones.
The latest was outstanding. I was invited to a dinner at the chef's table in Gordon Ramsay in Claridges, with the head sommelier (a champagne specialist), a delightful Italian waiter called Lello, the head chef, the senior sous chef and various other functionaries dancing smiling attendance on us.
Course after course arrived, each with its own carefully chosen bottle of wine. Highlights include the bacon, egg and chips that constituted the starter: parma ham, a poached quail's egg and the most extraordinary "chips" made out of chickpea flour. The illusion of the worker's caff was completed by the bottle of red pepper ketchup. Fortunately they drew the line at the mug of tea.
Fortified by this, we set out on a tour of the kitchen.
Let me remind you that this is a top end restaurant in the middle of the dinner service. All six of us were conducted through the sweating, shouting arena, past unbelievably hot stoves and a kitchen brigade of some 15 people dedicated to producing each dish looking perfect and coordinated so that each element - garnish, meat or fish, sauce and vegetables - arrived on the plate piping hot when the waiter was ready to take it from the pass.
And yet they managed to produce welcoming smiles for us as we asked fatuous questions and ooohed and aaahed about how hot it was or how fast they were working.
Back at the table, the head chef asked for volunteers. And this is how Kimberley, Gill and myself all ended up learning how to plate up the fish course in a real chef's kitchen.
(Tip: it helps to have fingers that don't get burnt easily).
It probably wouldn't be kind to go into too much detail about the venison wellington with truffle potato puree, or the bottles of Condrieu or Pouilly-Fumé that contributed so much to my reaching a state of euphoric stupefaction by the end of the evening.
The carefully selected cheeseboard we can pass over, as the Sachertorte with blackberry sorbet, but I must just mention the little balls of hazelnut icecream they produced on request. Mmm.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

Perhaps my parents sang this to me too often in my cradle. There has to be some reason for my compulsion to bake cakes.

Last night I decided my colleagues had gone too long with no cake or cookies, so I bought some blueberries and made Blueberry Streusel Cake from one of my favourite websites.

Streusel is a staple of American coffee cakes. It took me a long time to work out that coffee cake in American novels refers to cake to be eaten with a cup of coffee, not coffee-flavoured cake. They tend to be plain sponges with some keynote ingredient and the streusel.

It sounds exotic, doesn't it? It's basically just an aromatic and crispy crumble. It adds an interesting texture and a very pleasant, sugary-spicy flavour to an otherwise slightly dull cake.