The local sugar beet campaign has started and there are days when its scent hangs heavily over our town. I have always been fond of this factory right from my sixth form days when, approaching town after an interminable school bus journey, a plume of water vapour would hover over the fields and the bus would fill with the scent of hot, woody, sugary roots as we approached the Southgate roundabout. And on the way home, we would look back and see the factory lit up against the waning light of an early winter afternoon. It seemed so mysterious. How many local children grew up believing they had a ‘cloud factory’ in their midst? I certainly told this story to my own children and I still think of it as a cloud factory. There is something Willy Wonka-ish about it; I have never been inside so it is easy to imagine it as a vast city peopled by tiny, scurrying workers who we never see enter or leave. And their labour transforms mud-clodded roots into gleaming crystals of sugar, beautiful sugar to sweeten candy, chocolate, cake, and our mood. And this delicious local sweetness starts to be made as winter approaches. What good timing.
Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as a sentinel, telling locals that they are home and despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many of us are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all. Deakin was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.
Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as “sugar city” on their CB radios (Like this is a bad thing?) and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nation’s health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil-smelling smoke and steam billows like candyfloss out of a forest of steam chimneys and high-tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil-smelling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a potpourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”
Roger, this is a bit harsh. The campaign scent is not always an unpleasant one: there’s sweet, burned sugar with a vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant, or potato grown soft at the back of the vegetable bin. It is an agricultural smell and we live in an agricultural region. Although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects; indeed most people seem fairly pragmatic about their neighbour, recognising that this is a place that creates work and opportunities for a significant amount of people across our region and strives to develop a ‘circular approach’ to manufacturing, which reuses by-products, resulting in virtually zero waste.
It’s easy to find beauty in woodlands, the bright electric blue dart of a kingfisher in flight, or the seer, granite edge of a tor but one has to look a bit harder to see the grace and beauty in the work of an engineer, scientist or technician. But it is there. Humans designed and built this factory and we can see it as a blot on the landscape or a series of incredible scientific discoveries and technical refinements, which went on to reduce our dependence on sugar cane produced by enslaved people and colonial systems. As was said in the National Era, the options for refining sugar needed to “show that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Sugar from beets has, in part, allowed us to do that.
I love leftovers; the patchworked plates of food gathered from a rummage through the fridge, and Christmas holds particularly rich pickings in this department. In my family, it has always been a time for weird food combinations -some of which have more longevity than others-and my father was the king of scraps, once managing to hide the leftovers of an entire turkey dinner inside an omelet. I also have a fondness for catered roasts. The work Christmas meal, school lunches, the hospital canteen’s version, and inexpensive pub carvery lunches all hold special memories, and so the slightly institutionalised flavour of reheated gravy, turkey and veg in the days following the 25th holds a particular appeal. I am only half-joking when I say I cook Christmas lunch specifically for the scraps.
I want tradition on the 25th of December. I’m not interested in interesting twists on the old classics, nor do I want to reinvent the wheel. I rarely eat turkey at other times of the year and so on the actual day itself, that is what I crave; traditional accompaniments and all (apart from bread sauce which I cannot bear). I want a bony turkey carcass in my fridge, to be stripped and pulled at during ad breaks; I want stuffing which grows increasingly crumbly as the days pass, needing to be moistened with the last dregs of the gravy and a hefty dab of horseradish or mustard; bubble and squeak made from potatoes and leftover sprouts splodged with brown sauce or sriracha. I always used to phone my grandparents in mid-October to remind them to get the sprouts on and I was kind of joking and kind of not. I do my sprouts two ways: some with a bit of crunch and whatever bits and pieces I think might go with them (chestnuts, bacon etc) but I also have a pan of half-boiled to death sprouts too because they remind me of my grandparents who never met a vegetable they didn’t try to murder. I have been programmed to like sprout mush.
However, there are only so many turkey sandwiches one can take before one starts to consider whether it’s time to hurl the rest of that damned bird into the bin so I like to have a couple of what we will call non-accidental meals in my repertoire. These rely on an element of construction as opposed to throwing a load of scraps onto a plate, so, I present to you, the Boxing Day Brunch Monte Cristo.
There is much conjecture around the origins of the Monte Cristo and it’s worth bearing in mind the words of Mark Twain about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Some people believe the sandwich to be an amended Croque Monsieur whilst others point to the popular version at Blue Bayou at the original Disneyland site in California which first appeared on the menu in 1966. The oldest recipe I can find for the Monte Cristo sandwich was printed in The Brown Derby Cook Book back in1949 and appeared to be a hybrid of a club sandwich with its three layers of bread, and a classic toasted sandwich. Certainly, the technique and the ingredients have appeared in older cookbooks than the Brown Derby’s although none of the sandwiches bore the name Monte Cristo.
This is not a sandwich for those of you wanting to embrace dietary austerity one day after Christmas. It’s indulgent and immodest. Boxing Day is not the time to care about these minor issues. I prefer to eat it for brunch before the scavenging-the-fridge urge kicks in and I am, therefore, no longer willing to cook. The inclusion of lingonberry jam is a nod to the Scandinavians who do Christmas so well and it is essential, adding a layer of sweet and sharp to cut through the meat and cheese. I buy my jars from Scandikitchen who operate a next day delivery service. making it an ideal gift to yourself. (Great in Christmas stockings!) You can also find lingonberry jam in Ikea, on Ocado, and from some independent delis. If you can’t get it, cranberry-based chutneys or Welch’s grape jelly (jam, in our parlance) make a good substitute. If you’re worried about having a leftover jar of jelly knocking around, don’t be. I can vouch for the fact that savoury scones or American-style biscuits are delicious layered up with crispy bacon, grape jelly, and some wilted, drained spinach. (My recipe for biscuits is on the BFP website.)
The construction of the Monte Cristo not overly complicated. Thickly sliced bread is layered with turkey, cooked bacon, cheese and lingonberry then dipped in an egg and milk mixture. It’s basically an eggy bread sandwich (a good and noble creation) and not French toast-based, a term that I believe belongs only to bread sogged in a sweetened egg wash. If it’s savoury, it’s eggy bread. In the USA they sometimes beer-batter and deep fry their Monte Cristos but that is a step too far for me on a Boxing Day morning. Americans have also been known to sprinkle cinnamon icing sugar on the finished sandwich. something I saw on the menu in a bar in Memphis last month and you are free to do this. I think less is more in this case although I am rarely so understated at Christmas time.
Turkey, bacon and cheese Monte Cristos
For two sandwiches:
4 thick slices of white bread (don’t use sourdough or any bread with an open, holey crumb)
2 large eggs
1 tbsp milk
salt and pepper
2 slices of Emmental or Maasdam cheese
As much leftover turkey as you can fit in, sliced (it’s traditional to use white meat but use what you have)
Four slices of fried streaky bacon
Fry the bacon until its crisp. Drain and set aside.
Beat together the egg, milk, salt, and pepper in a bowl that is shallow enough to lay the sandwich down flat into.
Lay out two slices of bread and place a slice of cheese on one of them. Spread the jam onto the cheese then cover thickly with the sliced turkey. Crisscross the bacon slices on top of the turkey then add another layer of cheese and top with the remaining slice of bread.
Reheat the griddle pan (or shallow frying pan) and melt a nugget of butter.
Press down on the sandwiches with the flat of your hand and then dip them into the egg mixture. Lift, drain, then dip again, the other side down. Don’t leave them to soak or they will fall apart.
Place the sandwiches on the hot griddle/in the pan and fry until golden and crisp, using a fish slice to turn them once. If you have leftover egg, pour it in around the frying sandwich until it is set and crisp around the edges. Serve hot.
First published in the Bury Free Press (and edns) Christmas section, December 2018
I bought a plumptious white peach on Sunday and perched it on the windowsill facing my desk so it could bask in my admiration. I tried to find pleasure in the anticipation of eating it but the important part – that a delay in eating must be voluntarily self-imposed to be truly enjoyable- has gone.
I was diagnosed with diabetes six weeks ago. My days of eating peaches without care are over.
These days I have to perform carb maths, tapping on my phone with fingers sore from multiple pinpricks. (How did people in the olden days cope without apps to help?) I conduct an internal dialogue with my pancreas and liver (please let me eat this!) in front of market stalls or rammed up against a seething, hungry mass of humanity at food festivals. I hang around online food sites at 2 am in the morning when I am fitful from hypoglycemia or its hyper-odious sibling and torture myself with the Things I Cannot Have. It’s a form of self harm, I know, but it serves as a necessary part of accepting what has happened to me as I push myself up against my diagnosis. I can no longer leave any room for mistakes in a body that has become as confounding and wily as an old coyote.
The immutable reality of peach carbs (14-17g) meant it would have to replace the slice of wholemeal toast I prefer for breakfast and wouldn’t do at all as a mid-morning snack; I ensured I drank lots of water with it; I ate it slowly; I did ALL THE GODDAMN SENSIBLE DIABETIC THINGS.
By 11 a.m my blood sugars had shot up to ridiculous levels and what felt like a million tiny grains of sugar were needling me underneath my skin, prickling and itching and jabbing. There’s no drug on earth that can fully mitigate these sensations either; they take time to disappear, even after insulin or other diabetic medications return blood glucose levels to normal*. Not even antihistamine works (believe me, I have tried). It’s not itching in any sense that you might understand, rather it feels as if I am being pricked by a thousand needles from the inside. It makes me jump and twitch, my head pounds, my eyes and mouth become as dry as Dorothy Parker. By the time my husband came home I was about ready to burn the world down with fire.
I really, really hate the fact that fruit- and other carbs- have become loaded with problems. I am so resentful that I can’t just eat a piece of goddamn fruit. I have one overriding thought:
WHY WOULD ANYONE CHOOSE TO DENY THEMSELVES ENTIRE FOOD GROUPS IF THEY DON’T HAVE TO?
I am looking at YOU Gwyneth, Ella, the two Hemsley Sisters. Tess Ward and Madeleine Shaw (whose ‘chia seed egg substitute’ is about as appealing as toad shit) among many others. The fact that so many of you are women does not escape me. I’m calling it a form of dietary Stockholm Syndrome but you don’t get a feminist pass out of your self-imposed exile from joyful eating. Neither do I buy the argument that all clean eaters are psychologically unwell themselves. Some may well be, but does this also apply to the publishers and media organisations who make a lot of money from hawking dietary woo? Nope it does not. You would take advantage of people like me if you could.
I don’t restrict carbs because I need to post photos of myself on balmy beaches hashtagged #blessed. I don’t restrict them because I erroneously mistake a full belly for bloat and I cannot cope with the idea of my body taking up more space in the world. I don’t restrict carbs because I have bought into a weird, sex ‘n death ‘n food vibe based upon quasi-spiritual concepts of denial and purity.
I CAN’T eat more than 40g of carbohydrate a day. Keeping to this is really difficult to do so I wonder why anybody would choose to live like this. It doesn’t hugely matter where the carbs comes from either which flies in the face of conventional dietary advice to diabetics, although carbs that take longer to be absorbed (brown rice, eg) are *better*. I refuse to accept that anyone with taste buds will always think ‘oh yum!’ when offered brown rice over a piece of sourdough spread with good butter or a bowlful of cacio e pepe with a snowy covering of pecorino, or a tray of roasted root veg. A handful of cherries or juicy peaches are as damaging to me, blood sugar-wise, as a chocolate bar is at the moment. When it comes to sugar, my body doesn’t care if it’s the *worthier* fructose from whole fruit or the baddie du jour, glucose. It gets mighty pissed off if it’s lactose, too. My diabetes doesn’t give a shit about clean eating and prefers torture by a thousand sugar-needles over my old habit of negative self-talk if I over-indulged. If you want to get all biblical then let’s call it a damn hair shirt.
When you are told you cannot eat the foods you have always adored, it feels like part of you has died, never mind the dire warnings of actual death or blindness, renal and heart disease or the grim possibility that bits of you will literally start dropping off if you don’t maintain ‘good control’. (It doesn’t escape me that some of the language of diabetes care resembles the self-think of eating disorders**). I’ve not forgotten that time when as a HCP, I took a patient for an X-Ray and a blackened, diabetic toe rolled out of his sock as we removed it. I intend to die with all my toes- and toe rings- still attached to my feet because to paraphrase Kate Moss: “nothing tastes as good as having all your toes feels.”
I never did eat much white bread, white rice or pasta. I’m actually not a huge fan of pasta tbh. But when you can no longer blithely eat these sturdy workhorse carbs, by god you realise the fundamental role they played in your culinary repertoire. It’s really hard having to cook food for others that you cannot eat. It feels like an eating disorder that compels me to cook and serve my family with delicious food whilst I toy with a lettuce leaf and tedious lumps of protein in the next room.
To not be able to sneak a roast potato from the tray when serving up lunch unless you count its damn carbs like Scrooge on Christmas Eve? Horrible. Snaffling the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakers? No longer a spontaneous joy. Having to ask Leon or Pret for the carb content of everything you think you might be able to eat and having people look at you like you’re some kind of Gwyneth Loon-Disciple? Humiliating. Ordering drinks in pubs? Challenging because caffeine shoves me into hypos really swiftly and there are not many drinks that are sugar-free and caffeine-free. For those of you suggesting water, YOU try drinking it all night. I haven’t even addressed the joys of eating out in decent restaurants where it feels like an insult to ask the chef to accommodate you by leaving this or that from the finished dish. Yes I know I can just leave it but sitting in front of morsels of deliciousness knowing you cannot eat them is really, really shit.
Basically, when it comes to restricting food groups, the transaction will always be voluntary for clean eaters. They know they have a get-out clause. They know they don’t have to do it. If their resolve breaks and they decide to eat a slab of cheap chocolate or hunk of white bread, it ain’t gonna hurt them because despite whatever woo nonsense they believe in, physiological homeostasis really isn’t that precarious. Pretending that it’s a matter of life and death for them, that the food they willingly exclude is harmful to them (when it is not) is sickening. For those of us contractually obliged to no longer eat in abundance the kinds of food we love because our bodies have let us down, the exclusion is of a more permanent kind.***
* My diabetes is my diabetes. Yours may have different symptoms.
** That’s a whole ‘nother blog post on how diabetes can really mess with body image and food issues. Feel free to commission me on this.
My love for barley began in two ways: a can of Heinz scotch broth which was packed with its chewy little nubbins in an otherwise forgettable soup, and Robinsons Barley Water which I personally believe to be the best way to soothe a fulminant UTI. No wonder tennis players, flinging themselves around on a hot court, drink gallons of the stuff.
I’ve found a better way of eating what is such a versatile little grain and this technique for fried barley will give you a fine carby foil for whatever fish, meat or vegetable you care to accompany it with. Barley is a wonderful carrier for flavour and accommodates reheating beautifully and I try to keep a cooked bowlful of the stuff in the fridge at all times to mix into salads, soups and stews or eat as is, with butter, black pepper and salt.
There are two forms of barley: hulled and pearl. Hulled barley has had the tough, inedible outermost hull removed and retains its bran and endosperm layer, resulting in a chewier grain when cooked. Pearl barley has been polished to remove the bran, leaving a pale and cream-coloured grain which cooks more swiftly. Hulled grain is the more nutritious of the two types because it has retained its fibre but pearl barley releases its starch into any liquid it is cooked within, making it a good thickener for soups and risottos.
The recipe that follows is more advice than prescriptive guide and serves around four or me, over several meals.
Make up 1½ litres of chicken (or vegetable) stock and bring to the boil in a large pan. Pour in 300g of pearl barley and cook at a simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley has doubled in size, becoming swollen and a little fluffy around the edges. Drain, place into a bowl and leave to cool.
Shred two large handfuls of wild garlic and mix into the barley. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice over the wild garlic and grains. Add some fresh thyme sprigs too.Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. In the photo above, I have chucked in some leftover salad leaves which wilt beautifully in the heat of the pan but this is by no means compulsory.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet and when it is hot, add the pearl barley and stir fry in two stages unless your skillet is REALLY big. You want it to develop a bit of a crust underneath so don’t toss it too much. Keep on frying until it is golden and a little caught around the edges. Serve whatever way you like; it keeps for three or four days too.
“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared.The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.
As a teenager, I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong, where my father worked and I developed a habit of running off with the teenaged bellhops and chambermaids at the various hotels my father’s company put us up in. Much to my parents chagrin, I would disappear for days on end and it was during these away-days that I encountered the cha chaan teng canteens of Kowloon and Hong Kong island. Dining with the locals during their all too-short lunch and dinner breaks meant I had to use a super-swift form of nod, point and smile when choosing items off the menus or from the steam trays; I frequently did not know what I was eating expect the odd occasion when a slice of Spam bobbed on the surface of a soupy bowl of noodles. I liked its familiarity. I liked having something in common with my new friends.
Decades later, when I heard that Chef Jeremy Pang of School of Wok fame (and a Food Network regular) had a Hong Kong-style canteen restaurant called Cha Chaan Teng in London’s Holborn, serving Spam, I had to go and eat there. The Spam was sweet, salty and moreish, with a good crunch which mirrored the soft chew of the buns it was served in. I was hooked and needed to know more and Jeremy was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his culinary Spam inspiration.
Can you tell me about the start of your love of spam and where and when you developed a taste for it?
My mum and dad used to live in and out of Hong Kong (HK) when I was younger, so when I grew up, I would travel to Hong Kong twice a year in between school terms. It was the best of both worlds – being in HK for holiday, but at the same time, knowing where all the locals go to eat… I just loved the atmosphere of the HK cafes and diners, and everyone seemed to be eating the same thing: Macaroni or vermicelli soup with spam and a fried egg on top… maybe with some chilli oil on the side… so when the waiters came around for my order – the easiest thing was to ‘copy that’ and dig into the spam! (My spoken Chinese isn’t brilliant you see – so at that stage, it was very much a point and smile type of ordering.) I guess spam has that sense of nostalgia on my palate.
You mentioned that people in HK seem fond of eating spam. Do you have any theories about why this might be so?
I believe Spam would likely to have been introduced to HK via the British after World War II. The British took a liking to Spam after the war and would have also eaten it on their long journeys whilst travelling through the world.You will find spam in all the local cha chaan tengs’ (tea house lounges) or breakfast cafes. They are essentially greasy spoons, where they will serve spam as an option for many different types of breakfast, whether it’s in a soup, with eggs and toast or in a baked bun. The saltiness tastes great and if fried, the crispy texture accentuates the softness of it the ‘meat’ inside. Hong Kong people love that ‘soft’ meat texture, which is probably why it’s still so popular out there.
macaroni and spam broth
Can you tell me how you use spam in your restaurant cooking? And do you eat it in your downtime- and how? (I have been talking to Hawaiian chefs who congregate around the spam musubi trucks after service!)
Haha… well that’s maybe something I don’t share with the Hawaiians! In the restaurant Cha Chaan Teng, in Holborn, we serve a slightly ‘posher’ version of the macaroni soup with spam and egg, where we make the bone broth from scratch, and then make some fresh pork and prawn wontons, and top it all off with the fried spam and fried egg. We also serve it with a selection fresh greens, veg and pickled carrots to get a good balance of flavour, texture and colour into the dish. My favourite way of eating it at the restaurant however, is the spam crusty roll (Spam, covered in panko and a coconut shallot crumb, deep fried and topped with a fried quail egg, and some sriracha mayo). At home – I must admit, once in a while, I might have a bowl of instant noodles with a slice of Spam here or there, but only really after a night out….
If you wanted to persuade someone to eat spam, maybe someone who ate it at school and has disliked it ever since, what would you cook for them to best showcase it?
That crispy roll with spam…
Can you tell me about your Holborn restaurant and the thinking behind its menus and philosophy? Were there a few eye-blinks when you mentioned cooking with spam?
There were many “eye blinks” at the beginning, but over time, the customers have grown to understand that the food I have created at Cha Chaan Teng is playful, but most of all, very tasty. The idea behind the menu was that we would take the ‘essence’ of a classic Cha Chaan Teng and, as the owners (Splendid Restaurant Group) of CCT like to say, “flip it on it’s head”, with dishes that have influence from both the Western and Eastern world. This is exactly what the biggest and best CCT’s in Hong Kong have become – a miss match of more-ish foods from around the world- that Hong Kong Chinese have somehow found a craving for at some point in time.
How do customers react to your spam dishes? Are they pleasantly surprised or are you catering to spam lovers already?
Yes, once they have gotten over the word ‘SPAM’ I think most are indeed, pleasantly surprised :).
How versatile is spam as an ingredient?
For the meat eaters out there, it’s pretty versatile, it’s soft and salty, yet can be crisped up easily and balanced out with other flavours. A little bit of spam in you life here or there wont hurt. Apparently, there is much more meat in Spam than the average burger in the UK. (It was mentioned in the BBC news a few years back, that the average economy burger in the UK only has to have 47% meat in it!) Spam is essentially much like the inside of a frankfurter, but again, it’s likely to have a lot more meat in it than the average hot dog… That said, it’s not something that should necessarily be part of your daily diet (there’s quite a lot of salt content in Spam!) So…eat it once in a while, as a guilty pleasure or treat, like a hot dog or a burger and if you have a balanced diet on most days, why not let yourself have a little taste?
British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup, Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.
Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably, all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.
According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.
Referred to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.
Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:
“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.
And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:
“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”
“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.
When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.
Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:“I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.
“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.
“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”
Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.
These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.
Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.
You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.
The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.
When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.
As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew” (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.
Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.
Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.
Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”
Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.
“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”
“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”
The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.
*Extracts from this piece were first published in the Bury Free Press.
Whilst there’s much joy to be had roaming this tiny but densely built-up city in search of the unexpected, it also pays off to prepare a little in advance because the most popular spots book up well in advance. Here’s my recommendations for the best places to eat in Venice at all price points.
Meal of the holiday and probably the entire year was at Alle Testiere (huge thanks to Victor Hazan who recommended this delicious place and told us to drop his name to get a last-minute res) where we ate razor clams, pasta with mixed seafood, sea bass with lime, bronte pistachio gelato and great clattering heaps of clams just hours out of the sea. Chef Bruno and Luca the sommelier work the tiny 22-place dining room in a friendly but discreet manner. Dress up for dinner but lunch is more casual although we’re talking Italian casual here.
On our first night in Venice we wandered deep into Dorso Duro looking for cicchetti and ended up finishing the evening propped up at the small wooden bar of Da Fiore whose wide shutters open straight onto the narrow alley. We ate Sarde in Saòr (fried sardine fillets topped with a sweet and salty tangle of rosemary, juniper, wine-soaked sultanas and onion); golf ball-sized fish and crab polpetti; scooped up tangled piles of onion with tiny crusty triangles of fried polenta and finished off with artichokes sliced in half, dressed with oil and scattered with grilled orange peel. Afterwards, we strolled around the crosshatch of alleys filled with shops which specialised in exquisite things: tiny hand-made wooden boats, marbled paper and chandlers selling hand-braided rope. I was smitten by an artists shop whose window display of pigments in old wooden trays and stained and ancient pestle and mortars drew the eye. The first thought that sprung to mind was Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book ‘Colours, a Natural History of the Palette ‘.
Later on in the week we came across the teeny Acqua e Mais in the San Polo district where seafood is dusted with polenta and fried while you wait. Cornets of calamari, shrimp and salt cod (baccalà mantecato) also come served with soft polenta or a fritti of local vegetables, costing a mere 3-5 euros. Orient Experience in Cannaregio is also inexpensive and offers something rather different to local cuisine in that its staff are drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands and the food reflects this. Choose from Iranian rice with saffron, Afghani basmati rice with lamb, raisins, almonds and carrots or beef meatballs with potatoes, prunes and walnuts. There’s kebabs and Syrian fattoush plus live Arabic music some nights.
You’ll eat wonderfully at Ristorante Alla Madonna as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the indifferent attitude to non-locals. The wood-grilled eel quickly soothed though; soft, fatty flesh backed by smoked chewy skin, its fat running onto the plate to be sopped up with unsalted bread. The linguine with clams was briny with a good chew to the pasta. We wanted to order more but to be honest we didn’t feel like lingering.
If you’re not that familiar with Venice and its food, it can be hard to navigate past all the tourist establishments although a good rule of thumb is to avoid places with lurid photos of their dishes on the menu and translations in multiple languages.
The Rialto area is particularly full of tourist restaurants although its backstreets are also home to Trattoria Alla Madonna which is anything but a tourist place. Another good tip: follow the gondoliers at lunchtime and eat where they eat. We ended up at Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina ( Campo San Polo, 2741) near San Marco and the Rialto. The menu is classic Venetian with good wines sold by the carafe and the prices are decent: fourteen euros for a plate piled high with calves liver and polenta. It’s nothing to look at from its exterior which is a tad grimy and graffiti-damaged but the cosy wooden interior facing a small bridge and canal tells you that you have struck gold. It was filled with rows of men in stripy-shirts when we arrived and these fellows know how to eat.
Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina
Venture into San Polo and you’ll encounter another Da Fiore (San Polo 2202a, Calle del Scaleter, 30125), a small and elegant restaurant where you’ll be expected to rock up in something other than shorts and Tevas. The best tables have a canal view and you’ll need to book well in advance. The lemon and liquorice granita was much-needed on a hot stuffy day as was the sea bream in the classic saor style and a thick slice of saffron tuna encrusted with polenta. Those of you heading there in the autumn should order the pumpkin and chestnut mushroom soup.
The mushrooms sold in Venice are stellar; apricot chanterelles, fat little porcini and the deeply grooved ceps were just arriving during our time there and the greengrocers advice was to char them on a griddle and serve with radicchio. If you crave more liquorice, head over to Redentore on Giudecca where there’s a tiny gelato parlour selling the best liquorice gelato we have ever eaten. Or try Nico’s near the Zattere stop on the main island, which is deservedly popular. The roasted banana, a simple fiore de latte (always a reliable test of a gelato maker) and the fig, honey and nut were repeat orders for us.
There’s more to Venice than the main island though, lovely as it is, so be sure to travel around the lagoon and time your return to Venice with sunset. The islands of Murano and Burano are popular and I’ll return to them in a minute but Torcello, Mazzorbo and the tiny enclaves of Pellestrina and Alborino on the Lido should not be missed. Only by visiting these will you gain a full picture of Venice’s fascinating history and geopolitics.
Go back some fifteen hundred years and you’ll arrive at a time when the tiny island of Torcello was still the largest and most fiscally important Venetian island of all with over 20,000 residents who made their home there after fleeing the Barbarian hordes on the Italian peninsula. But they couldn’t flee from geographical forces as yet beyond their control. As the mainland rivers poured silt into the lagoon,the shallow waters around Torcello became clogged, choking the maritime traffic essential to its existence and providing a good home for mosquitoes instead of the fish and seafood that it was previously known for. The locals migrated to Venice, scavenging Torcello’s buildings for materials and today, just a few residents are left and much of the island is a nature reserve.
We travelled to Torcello from Burano and Mazzorbo on the vaporetto (No 9 from Burano) and walked along the fondamente towards the cathedral at the heart of the island. Lining the canals were trattorias and bars whose piazzas were shaded by pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. The Devil’s Bridge arches over the main canal into an olive grove bordered by tamarix whilst a larger, flatter bridge led to the church yard proper. Its name is a likely corruption of a local family name -Diavolo- although a legend dating back to the Austrian occupation of Venice is more poetic.
It was a hot day and the air stood still over the lagoon, keeping the thunderstorm over the mainland firmly in place, so the occasional breezes from motorboats filled with local teenagers were welcome. It always amuses me to hear loud rap music coming from these boats set against this timeless landscape; they’re Venice’s version of British boy racers.
The cathedral is Venice’s oldest monument with a suitably grand name: the Cattedrale di Torcello (Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) and its foundation dates back to AD 639. Go inside and check out the 11th/12th century Byzantine mosaics (a Madonna and Child in the apse, a Last Judgment on the west wall). The gold-flecked beauty curves over ones head in the soft light. During the daylight hours, make sure you climb the campanile behind the cathedral for sweeping views of Torcello, the lagoon and Venice in the distance. This is the best way to see how the Venetian lagoon works because when visibility is at its best, you will be able to see the shipping lanes picked out by wooden posts as far as the eye can see.
Where to eat on Torcello? We liked the small bars serving panini, cicchetti, fruit platters and pasta whose owners let us pick our own pomegranates (ripe in early September). Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo is by the eponymous bridge and is particularly lovely with a shady garden but there’s also Locanda Cipriani (yes, THAT Cipriani), beloved of Hemingway who wrote part of his novel, Across the River and Through the Trees here. It’s the place to eat if you like big ticket restaurants but I’m so keen on what appears to be a terribly upmarket version of a chain restaurant. If I’m going to spend big, I’d rather go elsewhere. You’ll need to book ahead for all the Torcello restaurants if you’re planning to visit at the weekend.
We were charmed by Burano after a less than pleasurable visit to Murano which we felt had been spoiled by tourism aimed to flog the glass the island has become so famous for. It wasn’t just the multi-coloured cottages and picturesque canals that made Burano so popular with us but also its back streets where sprawling gaggles of children congregate around communal water fountains (it’s tiny so there aren’t many streets) and the harbour where the mooring posts are painted to look like chunky pencils.
Burano is at least a half hour trip by vaporetto from Venice (take the vaporetto 12 fromSan Zaccaria near St. Mark’s or go to Fondamente Nove and catch one from there) but this working fishermen’s community is a great place for fish and seafood, both to buy to cook yourselves or eat at one of the many restaurants and bars lining its waterways. Do make the effort and step away from the main tourist drag to get a better idea of how the island ticks over as a working community.
Al Gatto Nero da Ruggero was our favourite place to eat, with freshly-made pasta and puddings, exquisitely mannered staff and pretty little tables lining the canal.(Booking ahead is recommended and thank you to Justin Sharp from Pea Porridge for the recom). Da Romano on Via Galuppi is a good bet, cooking a risotto which some diners claim to be the best in the world. I ate risotto as dark as night, coloured with seppie nero from the cuttlefish which stained my lips the deepest of blue, and tagliolini with spider crab but Da Romano is more touristy.
If you want to eat with the locals, I’d go for Sunday lunch at Gatto Nero, kick back and be prepared to spend a little more (pasta is around 24 euros). What was delicious? Risotto Buranello made with the gó fish (which buries itself catfish-style in the lagoon mud) and a sturdy workhorse of a pasta in the form of a fat slippery bigoli slicked with a sardine-tomato sauce. We finished with a platter of local cookies, made soft by dipping them into fragolino wine. They didn’t mind us lingering a little because we booked second sitting. Other good things we ate on the island? A bowl of seafood lasagne, layered with shrimp, scallops and zuccini, flavoured with fennel pollen and saffron and tiny chiffonaded squash blossoms. It didn’t look like much but hidden beneath that seafood sauce were delicious treasures.
Burano is home to the bussolà of Burano, an egg-enriched biscuit said to have been made by wives for their fishermen husbands to eat at sea. Some bussolà are enriched with rose water, chocolate, orange and other spices and a local legend tells of an aroma so intense the biscuits also doubled up as pomanders, hung in cupboards and placed in lingerie drawers. You’ll see the dough is twisted and formed into all manner of shapes from the classic shallow ‘S’ to more elaborate cream and nut-filled confections. Find them at Panificio Pasticceria Costantini ( San Martino Sinistro) and Panificio Pasticceria Palmisano Carmelina on Via Galuppi and look out for gelati flavoured with bussolà crumbs too. The biscuits pack light for those of you travelling back with hand luggage only.
Burano is the place to buy hand-tatted lace although be careful; much is machine-made so do your research first. The vaporetto drops you off by Galuppi Square where local ladies sit on stools outside their cubby-hole stores, their fingers a perfect cats cradle of industry. Leonardo da Vinci was a visitor to the island lacemakers and bought lace to cover the altar of to the Duomo di Milano. Find out more from the museum of lace, the Museo del Merletto.
Easily accessible from Burano via a wooden bridge over the lagoon, Mazzorbo was the location of one of our best meals of the entire trip. We ate at Venissa where the chef is deeply committed to’lagoon cuisine’ although there are influences from all over Italy.
Venissa is the creation of winemaker Gianluca Bisol, whose family make some of Italy’s most famous prosecco in Valdobbiadene, an hours drive from Venice. On its tiny island plot lies the hotel; converted from farm buildings and fishermen’s houses, and an old storehouse which is where we ate outside in the sun. Shrimp marinated in watermelon, tortellini filled with Asiago Stravecchio served with a mint and clam sauce both form part of the ‘mudflat’ tasting menu for 130 euros although there’s an á la carte option too. The fish changes daily according to what has been caught. This is deeply seasonal food with no pretention or fanfare and it is seasonal because it has to be: importing food into the Veneto is prohibitive and what can’t be grown on Mazzorbo comes from the nearby garden isle of San ‘Erasmo and the many produce markets around Venice. The restaurant uses produce grown by older people from the neighbouring island of Burano who work Venissa’s vineyards and fields.
A post-prandial wander reveals just how tiny this place is: there’s no shops, only one bar (Trattoria alla Maddalena) and the precariously-leaning campanile of Santa Caterina. Next time we visit, we’ll stay the night.
This long low island faces Dorso Duro and the fondamente of San Marco. To walk the length of Giudecca at dawn and dusk is to gaze upon Venice at its best where the sky meets the water and the city seems to hover between them. Early evening is the golden hour, a time to stroll along the fondamente, drink an aperol and listen to the ringing of church bells. The coastguard moors at Palanca and the men pop in for a coffee and a chat. As the light plays across the Venetian waterfront colours grow richer and sound travels further and amid the chatter of the locals, we fancy we can hear the crowds across the water in Zattere. It’s not all ethereal stuff though. Giudecca is a working neighbourhood, a place where visitors can feel part of things, albeit temporarily. Miuccia Prada and Elton John have apartments on Giudecca but it is not a millionaires playground.
Giudecca lies immediately south of Venice and is composed of several small islands linked by bridges. Once filled with large palazzos with extensive and lush gardens, the evidence of its recent industrial past can still be seen in the form of the redeveloped Molino Stucky flour mill, now a Hilton hotel which also houses the Fortuny showroom. Our apartment is on the front right corner of the mill, overlooking the canal and Venice. Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous map of Venice, shows its geography, a string of eight small islets separated by canals, made green by those private gardens. Make time to explore its backstreets where a women’s prison lies next to rows of houses and a deconsecrated church (SS Cosma e Damiano) where a cat sanctuary and rows of artists studios in the cloisters make their home.
There’s Giovanni Toffolo, a boatyard on Giudecca, where we strolled one evening and saw wooden-hulled boats being restored in a building filled with the sound of workmen singing along to opera on the radio. The yard has its own lunchtime mensa- a canteen- nearby (The Food & Art Canteen, Fondamenta Berlomoni 554) where the public are welcome: take the vaporetto to Palanca and it’s a short walk to the boatyard along the canal with spendiferous views of Zattere to your left.
The Giudecca fondamente is lined with bars, restaurants and bakeries, some of which have a long narrow counter parallel to the till where one can take morning coffee and pasticciera. (Look out for the little boy walking his pet rabbit!) La Palanca, close to the Ponte Piccolo, is a good lunchtime bet where canalside tables offer great views and the chance to have your feet washed during acqua alta. Tagliolini ai calamaretti (pasta with tiny calamari) and swordfish carpaccio with orange zest were lovely, as was tuna with grapefruit. Ristorante Ai do Mori serves huge rich portions of crab gnocchetti which would be filling enough for two if you ordered a tomato salad and bread to accompany. The gorgonzola pizza is very good (well, it is the king of cheeses) and they do take-out if you want to eat at home or sitting on one of the benches overlooking the lagoon although the trattoria does have waterside seating.
Close to our apartment was L’Arte del Pane (Fondamenta Sant’Eufemia 655) with the best bread, grissini and pasticciera on Giudecca. They also sell panini, focaccia and ciabatta to be cut and stuffed with whatever filling you like. The walnut and gorgonzola was pretty good as was the classic Italian ham and asiago. There’s enormous bags of bussola for sale, (the hard biscuits Venetians like to dip into coffee and liqueurs), zaleti made from polenta and raisins, baci in gondola (sandwiched with dark chocolate) and focaccina Veneziana (a pillowy brioche-like bread studded with almonds and pearlised sugar). My favourite fishmonger is here too, whose men patiently explained to us what to buy despite the pushing eagerness of Giudecca’s housewives around us. For 6 euros we bought flats of butterflied sardine and anchovy (about twelve of each) to take home and melt in the pan to be spread on bread and spooned over pasta. The mantis shrimp were in season and twelve of those for 4 euros fed the pair of us with a tomato salad and olive oil.
For a great view over the lagoon, the Sky Bar at the Stucky Hilton is a good place to base yourself as night falls. Above you are the lights of planes landing at Marco Polo and to the right is San Marco and beyond that, Castello. Left is Sacca Fisola, the last little island of Giudecca and the large yachts moored at the Port of Venice. The drinks aren’t cheap, I’d recommend just the one in fair exchange for that view, then retiring to one of the lagoon-side osterias and chatting with the locals- Ai Do Mori serves a bloody good aperol. What is great about the Hilton is that it has its own water taxi and you can use it free of charge to hop across to Zattere and San Marco. They run all night too.
The small island of San Giorgio Maggiore, located in front of Saint Mark basin and a short vaporetto trip from Giudecca, has been named after the church of San Giorgio which crowns this relatively green part of the city. The view above is from its campanile and it is a glorious one, allowing visitors to see how the city is put together. There’s a lift for tired legs and the few euros they charge is well worth it. Have a wander around the monastery (inside there are paintings by Tintoretto) and gardens behind this 16th- century Benedictine church, the monastery offers well-priced lodgings for guests and a chance to lord it over the people staying at the ridiculously- costly Cipriani which is virtually next door, separated by the Canale delle Grazie.
Lido, Alberoni and Pellestrina
Best known for hosting the annual Venice Film Festival, the Venetian Lido is well worth the trip across the lagoon. During the holiday season, the beaches are dotted with gaily striped beach umbrellas and it can become very crowded indeed. If you are visiting off-season, some of the beaches are closed although there is still access to the wildlife reserve with its gorgeous sand dunes.
A historical restaurant popular with actors and directors who dine there during the Venice Film Festival, La Tavernetta is a small, family owned restaurant. The cuisine is a mixture of Tuscan and Venetian: the famous Chianina beef of the former and the plentiful fish and seafood of the latter, prettily presented and served in an interior which resembles a family dining room.
Osteria Al Merca is located under the roof and open sides of what was once a produce market and the fish and seafood is straight off the boat fresh. Choose from baked scorpion fish, schie or mantis prawns served with polenta and tender vegetables from the island of Sant’Erasmo; local puntarelle and the tiny violet artichokes are a joy in season.Dress warmly in cooler weather or evenings when the breeze is fresh off the lagoon; you are eating outside, remember. It’s not the cheapest but worth the money.
The Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta is the Lido’s main shopping street and it is thickly lined with cafés and bars. Gelateria Tita is worth a visit so you can try Torta Tita, a cake of custard and chocolate-hazelnut gelato with a centre of crispy meringue, as well as the many flavours of gelato and sorbeti.
Cycling is a great way to get about if you don’t want to take the bus which runs the length of the Lido. Hire a bike from Lido On Bike then cycle down the island to Alberoni which is also a nature reserve and the site of some of the best beaches. Here you’ll encounter wildlife, some naturists and a wilder landscape of dunes and drift wood, well away from the manicured private and public beaches. Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo, a rustic restaurant in Malamocco is a short walk or bike ride from Alberoni and is more affordable than many other Lido restaurants. Cichetti is served as are the universal Aperol spritzers alongside generous platters of sweet crab in its shell and bowls of pasta alla malamocchina (mussels, tomatoes, oregano and smoked cheese).
An all-day public transport ticket covers your journey to the tiny, sleepy island of Pellestrina via a ferry which departs from the tip of Alberoni. Pellestrina is only 11km in length and extremely slim-waisted, narrowing to just a few metres wide to barely accommodate its Adriatic sea defences, a wall named the Murazzi. There’s an unspoiled beach and three tiny fishing communities; San Pietro in Volta, Porto Secco and Pellestrina itself, where the boats seem to outnumber the people. Where to eat? Da Celeste is the place for a culinary blow-out (up to 100 euros a head) but the location (all peach-pink sunsets and deep blue waters) and the fish (boat fresh, the best of the catch) is superb. The tables line the lagoon, the napery is snowy white and the service is smoothly unobtrusive. The scampi with polenta and the gnocchi al pomodoro are especially good and if you really want to go mad, order the whole turbot.
It’s time for a roots revival after a summer of lightly-prepared frilly green things and fruit which can be eaten straight from the tree or bush. Some root veg such as carrots, celeriac and daikon can be consumed all year round but as the nights draw in and the frosts nip faces and the newly dug-over clods of the vegetable patch, the thicker and less delicate roots come to our attention as their starches are converted to sugar by the cold, making them perfect for roasting and slow braising. Winter carrots, parsnips, swede, celeriac and scorzonera stand up well to such treatments when their summer cousins might not.
This is an easy way to cook parsnips, either on their own or with the hasselback potatoes shown in the photograph which used up the last of our late-summer potatoes from the allotment. They’re par-boiled then sliced and basted with a marinade made up of chile-honey, maple syrup, salt and olive oil. A quick roast in the oven until golden and you’re good to go. The hasselback technique originated in Sweden and is named after Hasselbacken, a Stockholm restaurant which first served these potatoes in the 17th century. By slicing potatoes and root vegetables like parsnips only part of the way through along their length, you end up with a soft creamy centre with lots of caught, crunchy edges and a super-luxe roasted root vegetable which tends not to dry out even hours after cooking.
So to make them….
Wash as many parsnips as you need and peel them if the skins seem super-tough, leaving them in one whole piece. I’ve left the skin on here as I like the extra goodness. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and then place the parsnips in a pan of salted boiling water and par-boil until the tip of a knife just pierces their skin. Drain them well and place in a shallow roasting pan which has been coated with olive oil. Using a sharp knife, make shallow cuts widthways across each parsnip down its length, taking care to not cut them all the way through. Baste them with more olive oil and roast for fifteen minutes then remove them from the oven.
For every kilo of parsnips you will need to mix one tablespoon of honey, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and a small pinch of chile powder and sea salt in a bowl. Once this is mixed, brush it over the entire surface of each parsnip and then place them back in the oven. Keep an eye on them because you don’t want them to burn and roast for another 25-30 mins or so until darkly golden and caught in places. Don’t worry if they catch a bit, it adds to their flavour.
If you want to make the hasselback potatoes, it is basically the same process without the honey-chile and maple syrup baste. Par boil your potatoes in salted water and drain then after they are cool to the touch, slice them widthways part of the way through. Baste with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and black pepper, then roast in the oven at 180C until they are golden. You may need to baste them with more oil as they cook.