Some thoughts on oyster soup

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“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.

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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.’

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Johann David Wyss, woodcut 1891

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.

Oyster soup

(Serves 6)

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.

 

 

 

 

A chat about Spam with Chef Jeremy Pang

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Chef Jeremy Pang // image via Jeremy Pang

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.

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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….

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Lion head seafood fishcake crusty roll w/minced prawn, fish and crab meat, water chestnut, toasted rice crunch, sriracha // Panko covered spam, tossed in coconut shallot crunch, fried quail egg, sriracha, chilli, carrot and coriander pickle.

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?


Chef Jeremy Pang on twitter

More on the history of spam and the other chefs cooking with it.

The story of spam

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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.

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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.

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SPAM musubi: image courtesy of Hormel Company

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.

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Eating Spam during the Korean war: image via americanwwii.com

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.

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Korean army stew (budae jjigae)

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)

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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.

 References and useful reading:

Ann Kondo Corum. Hawaii’s Spam Cook Book, Bess Press, 1987

Guam Loves Spam on Pri’s ‘The World’ report by Mark Kay Magistad.

, Local: contextualising Hawaii’s Foodways, Published online,  427-435

Arnold Hiura, Kau Kau: Cuisine and Culture in the Hawaiian Islands (Honolulu: Watermark Publishing, 2009

Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawai‘i’s Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1996)

 Chef Mark Noguchi on pre-c0ntact food in Hawaii

Amy Reddinger, “Eating “Local’: The Politics of Post-Statehood Hawaiian Cookbooks,” Nordic Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (2010): 67-87

Julie Wan on Korean army stew for WaPo.

A week in Venice: what to eat, where to to eat it

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*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.

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Razor clams at Alle Testiere

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 ‘.

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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.

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Fried seafood cicchetti from Acqua e Mais

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.

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Grilled eel at Alla Madonna

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.

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The Rialto

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.

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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.

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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.

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Alle Testiere: sea bass with lime

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.

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Venetian coastguards setting up a speed trap by La Dogana.

Torcello

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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.

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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.

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Storms over the mainland as we motor back from Mazzorbo and Torcello

The cathedral is technically not a cathedral anymore on account of there being no resident bishop and is opposite the Museo Archeologico della Provincia di Venezia di Torcello.

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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.

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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.

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Rosie & Jim appear to have retired to Torcello

Burano

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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.

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Burano is at least a half hour trip by vaporetto from Venice (take the vaporetto 12 from San 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mazzorbo

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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.

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Sculptures dot the island of Mazzorbo and grounds of Venissa

Giudecca

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Giudecca

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.

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Zattare, Venice from the island of Giudecca

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.

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Hand made rocking horse at SS Cosima e Damiano
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SS Cosma e Damiano

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.

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The back streets of Redentore on Giudecca

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.

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Guidecca and the monastery gardens as seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio

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.

San Giorgio Maggiore

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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.

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Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore seen from San Marco by Moya _ Bren

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.

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Pellestrina

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.

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Osteria Al Merca

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.

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Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo

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).

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Alberoni

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.

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Da Celeste

We’re not quite nose to tail yet, are we?

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Google eating bulls penis in Korea if you want to see strut-eating at its worst where a parade of culinary scalp hunters eat something they consider to be so out there, the only way they can do it is via a series of dissembling jokes. This self-consciousness masked by bravado does such a disservice to foods which might appear odd to them and possibly terribly threatening to their sexuality, but are pretty basic bitch elsewhere. Clarissa Dickson Wright talked about the popularity of penis as a lunchtime street food in London, over 150 years ago, in her TV series, Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner so it seems like we’ve become estranged from animal parts that remind us most of our own bodies. Organ meats can appear pretty visceral on the butchers slab but we’ve never seen our own human equivalents so there’s a corporeal disconnect on some level which may make it easier to cook and eat some parts of the animal than others, irrespective of how they actually taste.

I first ate bulls penis (hwangsoui seong-gi 황소의 성기) in Busan in the early eighties when I was a teenager staying in this southern Korean seaside city where my father was working. Based at Haeundae Beach where a smattering of international hotel guests were pandered to with tuna club sandwiches and neutered versions of local cuisine, I was constantly in trouble for roaming the streets, meeting local teenagers and playing hooky from the roster my parents had set. Starving hungry from hiking up Jangsan Mountain where we’d dare each other to annoy the soldiers who patrolled the fenced-off minefields, I’d snub the hotels five restaurants, return to the town, and slurp up bowls of goodness knows what from the hawker stalls along the promenade.

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Chosun Beach Hotel, Busan

Having visited before, I was accustomed to eating meals where the ingredients were unknown and we were often invited into the homes of the locals my father worked with to eat, but that night we were served bulls penis it wasn’t much of a challenge to identify what was on the menu. Perched on a bench, sweating in the oppressive humidity of a late summer evening, what initially resembled snipped-up, flayed eels soon came into sharp focus. A bulls penis can be more than two feet long and cooks usually split along its urethra then slice the two halves into thick coins; diners can expect to be presented with an organ whose tough visceral membrane has been removed and then washed out as carefully as good chitlins are. Seen scaled up, you can appreciate a dick in all its hydraulic glory and marvel that erectile dysfunction isn’t more common in animals as well as humans. Mine still had part of its sigmoid flexure attached and the entire organ had been sliced longitudinally then boiled in a tenderising chili-infused stock before getting the hot coal treatment.

The dissection and boiling was bold but fresh penile tissue will contract and shrivel up when it hits the heat of the coals  and without that tenderising bath you’ll end up with a dog chew. As a prelude to the bulgogi which was the main event, a pot of burning hot coals had already been slotted into a hole in the centre of the table  and five or six penes were placed inside special cages that resembled lacrosse sticks. These rested on the coals and the basting sauce was mopped onto the meat using a brush with bristles as long as a hippies ponytail.

My penis wasn’t served with a garnish of culinary philosophy. There was no menu detailing chef’s conversion to nose to tail eating and the locals simply ordered, waited, then ate and nobody patted themselves on the back for being daring. I didn’t feel adventurous; the only thing I will not eat as a matter of course is porridge no matter how artfully it is presented because it is the devils work as far as I am concerned. The penile flesh was smokey hot, patched with char and packed a hefty, gluey bounce and fightback in the mouth. I chewed and chewed, I chewed some more and then I swallowed. A good eater should always swallow.

Penis is not a culinary treat by any stretch of the imagination. Even ten hours of cooking will fail to produce anything better than a brutalised gummy bear but texture is important to Korean diners. What I do share with these guys is a carelessness about eating the bits that make others blanch but I’m not referring to that daft nonsense where culinary scalp-hunters go in search of the most outrageous and rarest meals so they can tell you all about it via Buzzfeed or Vice. This always seems to other the cuisine of the nations concerned in the process and I really don’t want to do that.

Eating low on the hog was, and is something that I give little thought to, and not because I was a massively over-privileged and precocious food brat. It was simply how we cooked and ate, probably because I was nurtured in such a way as to expose me to homely cooking in different parts of the world and when I came back to Blighty I didn’t go back to the kinds of food other British children in my neighbourhood ate. It’s hard not to feel a certain loftiness about the nose to tail movement because thus it ever was with us. My Midlands relatives would certainly not think it appropriate to praise a child for eating black pudding, liver, tripe, scratchings and faggots, haslet or cow heel in that affected way you see now, but we’d get a clip round the ear if we left any of it. Nor would my broad tastes be regarded as anything other than expected by the Mexican people who took my catholic appetites for granted because it was simply unthinkable for a small child to exert any kind of control or influence over the family diet. This didn’t mean that they neglected our palates, far from it, but spiritual and religious attitudes towards nourishment and gratitude precluded fussiness.

Try turning down a bowl of menudo after someone has slaughtered their animal, broke its carcass down, cleaned miles of intestines then turned some of them into a soupy bowl of stew. Its eating was as communal as the slaughter, an act of reconciliation and thanks, driven by hunger and crowned by a sense of communal satiation. Waste was fiscally and morally unthinkable and superstition came into it too: in northern Mexico our housekeeper’s mother strongly believed that discarded leftovers, tossed carelessly on the ground ‘for the chickens’ would poison it for crops forever more.”Dios lo sabrá,” she’d scold me when I left a few scrapings on the plate and off she’d go to hunt down a scrap of tortilla to mop the plate with because the marriage of two leftovers in one meal turned it into a sacramental act.

So I don’t differentiate between high and low and I abhor snobbery in food. I don’t congratulate myself when I find something to cook from larder sweepings because it has always been this way. Delicious is delicious but I know that for some people, cooking with offal is a bigger deal, and believe me, there is no implied criticism contained in that statement, just a desire to shine a light on some of the animal parts that in the UK, you might not have encountered before.

I’ve enjoyed pots of chicken necks slow-braised then given a few minutes to blister under a grill, the flesh rubbed with aromatics for a final flourish; and assorted lights, viscera and skin of various critters have been fried, boiled, roasted and stewed then served up. Gelatinous pigs tails with blistered skin and soft as silk meat were served up on street corners near to the small units where the Guadalajaran glass blowers plied their trade. Thrust into a charcoal brazier until they ran with fat, these bronzed little corkscrews were placed inside a corn husk in order to catch the scalding hot drippings. If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll know this part of the pig is fought over and damn right it should be but curly tails are far more fun for a child to eat than their straighter brethren although better chefs than I have rhapsodised over the latter. Either way, the fact that the skin covering a pigs tail remains in place (unlike oxtail) means that each sticky-lipped bite contains a perfect ratio of skin to meat to partially broken down tendon and cartilage. Ask your butcher: they can get tails, necks and other bits for you, and they are usually super cheap.

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There’s plenty of porky adventuring still to be had if you’re doing the Disney thing in Florida. Keep on driving north of the Disney complex where neutered interpretations of world cuisine threaten to kill gustatory curiosity and you’ll enter the classic Deep South. Stop at a country store and there on the counter will most likely be opaque jars full of murky red liquid where pickled pigs lips float and bump against the plastic walls. That spooky red liquor they float in isn’t blood by the way, it’s red dye which for some reason is traditionally used.Slightly bloated like all floaters are wont to be after a few days of immersion, they are less disturbing than you’d think in this age of plastic Hollywood trout pouts; basically what Babe the Pig would look like after a few months wed to a Kardashian. Regarded as a classic dive bar snack in Louisiana and immortalised by rappers VP and Breezybee in their 2014 rap, “Pig lips, boudin and chips” the eating of them is encoded within the DNA of many southerners who know to create a tension between chaw and crunch by matching them bite for bite with the jagged shards of potato crisps. Bash the bag of chips on the counter first, then bung in the lips and give the bag a good old shake. It’s working class panko, basically and if you can bear the idea of a pickled egg inside a packet of crisps, this isn’t that much of a leap, truly.

Want to try lips? It’s not easy to buy them ready-pickled in the UK but if you are US-based, you can order online from the Pickled Store. These aren’t Johnny Come Lately pig lips, the Pickled Store say, so don’t mistake them for a postmodern version all lubed up with irony so as to allow them free passage through your gullet without the triggering of cultural and class insecurities. These haven’t been fiddled with by a young buck of a chef seeking to make their mark on the world by introducing a new crowd to a reinterpreted old faithful. Your gorge will have to cope with their defiantly unreconstructed nature although their congruence with our own animal parts plays a role in ensuring good animal husbandry, surely? It’s harder to countenance animal cruelty when you identify with said animal unless you’re vegan and don’t believe in eating them at all, in which case this post is probably not for you. The company have been making their pigs lips to the same recipe since 1933 and their customer testimonials lay bare the love we all have for certain foods, no matter how peculiar they sound to others.

So will the nose to tail movement result in pigs lips moving out of the country store and gas station and onto our (higher-end) plates? Will ex-bankers running food trucks suddenly see the labial light? My money isn’t on bulls penes becoming the latest trailer snack in the UK, that’s for sure but pig lips and tails? They should be. It’s possible that the popularity of crispy pigs ears and porky heads on plates has groomed us to eat the other facial features solo. And I’m definitely comfortable with betting £50 on the likelihood of barbecued pigs tails becoming more popular over here.

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Caldo de carda

So where else do they eat animal penes?

In Jamaica, cow cod soup is bull penis is stewed with bananas, rum and peppers and is used as an aphrodisiac.

In Bolivia, caldo de cardan is similar and is also a popular hangover cure.  The soup takes its name because it is believed a bulls penis is similar to a cars drive shaft. Lengthy braising (ten hours +) concentrates the broth and helps develop taurine, it is believed, before beef, chicken and an entire lamb rib alongside boiled egg, rice and potato are added.

Malaysians eat beef torpedo soup to increase male virility. The thick and spicy broth is spiced with fennel seeds, cinnamon, garlic, and cloves and diners can enhance the symbolic potency of the dish by building it up with more bones and tendons.

A North African recipe serves the penis cut cross-wise, scalded, skinned, drained then boiled and sliced. Aromatics in the form of onions, garlic and coriander flavour the flesh as it is slow fried in oil and then added to vegetables, then braised for another couple of hours.

Yemeni Geed has chopped peppers, tomatoes and cumin and saffron added to the braise. The Yemenite Jews eat Gulasz z Penisa, a stew made with ram or bulls penis, too.

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A quick autumnal tray-roast

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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.

A spiced persimmon tart for autumn

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There’s so much more to the food of the American south than barbecue, cornbread and bourbon and this tart, topped with luscious persimmons which are one of the signature fruits of the region, deserves its time in the [autumnal] sun, and to be more widely eaten in the UK.

In the USA, persimmons are usually left to fall from the tree and if you travel around the south in the autumn, it’s not unusual to see mattresses and tarpaulins scattered around the base of each trunk , ready to catch these readily-bruised fruits. They split easily, spilling out soft flesh which attracts all kinds of critters so you have to be swift.

The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can give you a nasty, mouth-puckering shock if you eat it before the first frost because the fruits needs that cold snap to convert their tart soluble tannins  into a sweet jelly-like mass. Because of this, there’s a Japanese variety of persimmon called ‘Fuyu’ whose fruits are sweet from the start which stores in Britain are starting to stock around now. It’s pretty hard to find American persimmons over here because they do not travel easily.

Fuyu doesn’t have much of a core and its skin is edible making it easy to prep and even easier to eat on the go. And the flavour? There’s some papaya notes, a lot of floral and a little tomato, a honeyed sweetness and something unique that defies description. It’s a fruit with flavour that deepens after cooking, becoming more than the sum of its parts and possessed of tender flesh easily incorporated into cakes, breads and puddings, made from recipes that are centuries old. Southerners still make a  persimmon bread pudding with a burnt sugar syrup which is the descendant of a recipe learned from the Delaware and Cree tribes of Native Americans who showed the pioneers who crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley how to use the fruit.

For this tart, I’ve added a sliced layer of persimmon to a base I use often, made from a soft pressed-in dough, flavoured with spices. The persimmon cooks down into a soft and wobbly jelly, each slice collapsing as you spoon it up. It’s this quality that makes persimmon so useful as a filling because it creates its own juicy setting and all you need to do is add a little spice, some crunchy sweetness in the form of brown sugar and you’ll soon have autumn on your plate.

It’s vital to let the tart cool before slicing to allow the cooked persimmons to meld with the sugar and ginger syrup to produce that semi-set jelly (or jam to us Brits). So don’t worry if there seems to be a lot of liquid sloshing around the fruits as it cooks.

*Caveat* I usually test recipes at least six times. This one has only been made twice but it turned out well each time.

Spiced Persimmon Tart

  • 8 oz plain flour (all-purpose in the USA)
  • 2 tablespoons of soft brown sugar and a further 6 tablespoons of demerara sugar
  • 3 oz cold butter, cut into little chunks
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
  • 3 ripe small to medium Fuyu persimmons
  • tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar

  1. Switch oven to 180C .

  2. Make the pastry base using a processor or by hand: combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the mixed spice and the butter until fine crumbs form or pulse in a processor until you have that fine crumb. Add the egg yolk and whirl or stir by hand until the dough comes together in a soft ball. Press the dough over the bottom and the sides of a 4- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable base (or use a 9-inch round tart pan).

  3. Combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, the lemon juice and brandy in a wide bowl.

  4.  Slice persimmons into slim rounds and check for seeds, removing if they are there. Slice the rounds in half and muddle them into the brandied sugar mixture, ensuring they are thoroughly coated then arrange fruit in 2 overlapping rows on top of the dough (or arrange in circles if using a round pan). Plaster any leftover sugar mixture from bowl over the fruit then ladle over the ginger syrup, ensuring it coats the slices.

  5. Bake the tart until the crust is golden which will take around 25-30 minutes. Check the persimmon slices for doneness and if they are still a little hard, cover the tart loosely with foil and bake until they are tender when pierced. (Another 10- 15 minutes but this really does depend upon the ripeness of your persimmons.)

  6. Remove tart from oven and allow to cool completely. Don’t worry if it seems to have some liquid sloshing around the persimmon slices. As it cools, this will set to a light jelly (jammy) consistency. When it has thickened and set, its time to slice the tart. Serve with creme fraiche, mascarpone or ice-cream if you like it even sweeter!

Victuals by Ronni Lundy: a review

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Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.

Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’

Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.

“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’.  She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.

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Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’  we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.

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There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.

Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.

Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.

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Buttermilk pie

Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.

Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.

Victuals is my cook and food book of 2016.


Find out more

Find Ronni on twitter @ronnilundy

All images from Victuals by Ronni Lundy

 

 

Back to my [French] roots

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Pêche à Pied | Plage de Mousterlin Finistère| Pierre Guezingar /Flickr

In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.

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I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.

It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.

So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.

These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook, during my nurse training.

The same  need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.

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Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down

| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.

Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.

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So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.

Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples.  Its authorJudith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.