Belgian prune pie in Wisconsin

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Belgian prune pies by Gina Wautier / photo Gina Wautier
 “We found a roadside motel in Algoma. The innkeeper had a funny accent I could not place….The next morning, she came to find us as we loaded up the car. “You are going to try some Belgian pie, aren’t you?” she asked. (From American Pie by Pascale Le Draoulec, Harper-Collins)

Traversing the United States in search of pie, writer Pascale Le Draoulec was struck by the vastness of a country where entire sub-cultures can set up home and continue the traditions brought with them from the Old Country, yet remain relatively unknown outside of their immediate region. When she arrived in Algoma in Wisconsin after an evening spent at a fish boil on the banks of Lake Michigan, Le Draoulec encountered one of Door County’s most popular-and mysterious to outsiders- food traditions, the Belgian pie. Described as truly unique, when I posted a query for more information about the pie and its Belgian-descended bakers on a private Facebook group where food writers and industry insiders gather to chew the fat, only five of them had heard of it. They were intrigued. “Go find out more,” they said.

Travel back in time to the early nineteenth-century and the story of Belgian pie in the USA begins with a small group of Belgians who originally migrated to the USA from Belgium and made their home in what is known as Door County in the state of Wisconsin. Thousands of miles away from their motherland, they re-built their community and to this day continue to bake pies filled with fruit or cooked rice inside small outdoor ovens, celebrating a yearly harvest whose failure all those years ago in Belgium caused their ancestors to make a long Atlantic crossing in search of a better future.

Door Country lies on a peninsula of land some 50 miles long and twenty miles wide, surrounded by the dark waters of Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. The county name originates from the Potawatomi tribe whose members perished trying to cross the lake-passage in canoes, causing them to dub the waters the “Door of Death.” Translated into French, it’s also known as “Ports des Morts” and in English, “Death’s Door.”

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Namur, Door County is named after the Belgian city.

The Belgian communities of Namur, Brussels, Rosiere and Little Sturgeon in Door County and 11 other villages located in Kewaunee and Brown counties have retained much of what first made them special, more than a century and a half ago. Indeed, William Laatch, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay maintains that, after the Amish communities and Native-American reservations, the settlement of Belgians in north-east Wisconsin is the most enduring ethnic island in the United States. It is unsurprising that Belgian prune pie has also remained geographically distinct.

Back in 19th century Europe,  a harsh winter led to crop loss and a rural crisis and not only did their ruler, King Leopolde not restrict migration, he supported it, although in the 19th century, only 29,000 Belgians left the country for the USAIn the years before the First World War, another 50,000 Belgians arrived in the USA.  (Travel to the little Belgian town of Grez-Doiceau and on its town hall, there can be found a plaque which commemorates the first ten Walloon families who left the town to found a Belgian Community in Wisconsin, in 1853.)

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The plaque at Greg- Doiceau via kayesite.com

 The Grez-Doiceau group boarded the Quinnebaug,  an old, American three-masted ship and set sail on May 17th. The crossing was beset by stormstaking fifty days, a week longer than normal and in the last days of the voyage passengers were starving and two children died.

Once arrived in their first American settlement, the Aux Premiers Belges had to adjust to the harsher climate and a sense of isolation in this vast land. Native Americans were the only human contact they had living as they were on land that was once the ancestral home of the Menominee, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi, among many. The Native-Americans taught the Belgians how to trap wild animals and smoke their meat; to tap trees and make maple syrup and to ice-fish in the winter on Lake Michigan and, as time passed, they began adapt their Belgian foodways to this strange new place.

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The Emigrants (1896) by the Belgian artist Eugène Laermans

Today, many Belgian descendents still live the 35 square mile area settled by their ancestors and, in many cases, their farms have been in the same family for over a century. The prune pie remains a regional speciality of Door County whose population retains strong ties with Antwerp in Belgium where the prune pie has its roots although in other parts of Belgium, this pie is not baked at all, according to Regula Ysewijn, a Belgian national and author of the recently published Pride and Pudding. Prune tarts have always been her favourite, Antwerp being her home city where they are traditionally served on Ash Wednesday albeit not in the same form as their American-Belgian cousin. Regula also suggested that Belgians from Antwerp immigrated to the United States via the Red Star Line whose ships sailed from Antwerp directly and the line was supported via grants from the Belgian government. This might explain why the prune pie has a particularly strong presence in Door Country.

The Kewaunee and Brown counties are where older Belgian houses can be found and many of them have been built with outdoor summer cooking areas where the fierce heat can dissipate. These ovens are not the more commonly-found summer kitchens and are actually accessed via the latter. The baking was done via radiant heat and therefore the oven dimensions had to be precise although the ovens are generally not free-standing as was the custom in Belgium where the same ovens tended to be used communally. The wilds of Wisconsin where communities and individual houses are often many many miles apart renders the communal oven less practicable than it did in compact little Belgium.

Many of these bake-off ovens could cope with forty pies although most of them have since fallen into disrepair or have been demolished. Those left are made of masonry and fieldstone, with walls two feet thick and equipped with chimneys and oven interiors constructed from red-brick. These whitewashed structures were often trimmed in green and provided much-needed shade during the dog days of summer.

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Belgian pie made with cooked rice and cheese topping

There’s some debate locally as to whether prunes, rice or raisins are the traditional filling and these pies can be challenging to make. With a circular base of raised sweet dough made with mashed potatoes and a layered filling of cooked, sweetened rice or a pureé of prunes or raisins (according to which the makes considers traditional), their preparation is multi-stage as local bakers combine their talents to make the hundreds of pies required to feed everyone.

Topped with a sweetened cottage cheese-type mixture when made with fruit, the pie both tastes like, and resembles, a filled Danish or kolache. (The latter is often made with mashed potato too.) I spoke to Jenny Schact who has family ties to the region: “Prune pie is made today with many other fillings including poppy seed, apple, cherry (of course, it is Door Country where cherries grow everywhere), raisins or rice . It is delicious – I know! There isn’t a funeral anywhere in this area that doesn’t have Belgian pie served at the lunch after the funeral, too.”

“There is a grocery store/meat market in Brussels, Door Country, called Marchant’s that has a little bakery,” Jenny adds. “They bake these pies once a week and when they’re gone, they’re gone. The pie has a sweet dough crust that is filled typically with the flavors listed above. I have a cookbook from The St. Francis and St. Mary Parish in Brussels that has several recipes for Belgian Pie and these are the old, handed down recipes submitted by the parishioners which probably date back generations. This cookbook was published in 2009 and I actually bought it at Marchant’s Meat Market in Sturgeon Bay.”

I spoke to Sue Marchant from the bakery where they make the pies year round, ramping up production around Belgian Day (the second week in July) to 1000 pies and over 1200 during Kermiss. “We started making Belgian Pies about 50 years ago at the store. My husbands great- grandmother came from Meeuwen in Flanders Belgium during the 1800’s and she was taught how to make the pies and which recipe to use, ” Sue said. “I learned from her and since then have been making them although I’m not actually of Belgian descent.” Their store receives many visitors from Belgium including the guests from foreign exchange programmes; over 21 different students have stayed with the Marchant family. When I asked Sue about how their pies are received she told me that they liked it despite its differences: “We have visited Belgium and their pie is different, much larger in size and no cheese on the top and the fruit is not sweetened, so they are quite tart,” Sue added.

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Limburgse Vlaii

Meeuwen is a town in the province of Limburg where there also exists a custom of making fruit pies, says Regula Ysewijn. Referred to as Limburgse Vlaai ( Vlaai= tart or pie) these  are open-topped pies, sometimes with a lattice pastry top and traditionally filled with cooked fruits such as cherries (called kriekenvlaai), apple or apricot and, more significantly, with rice or prune puree-the cooked rice and custard porridge is called a rijstevlaai . These pies are popular all over Flanders but are specific to the town of Limburg where they are served at funerals, kermis and other important family occasions but the dough is different. It does not use potato and has only a small amount of butter, is yeasted and must go through two risings whereas the Antwerp version uses a short pastry. There’s no curd cheese topping either.  To be a genuine Limburgse vlaii, the whole pie must be baked and not just the pastry shell.

 In his book, The History of the Belgian Settlements, Math S. Tlachac writes of the Kermiss preparations which overtook the community:

“Then came the baking, which in the early days could only be done in outdoor ovens. As many as three dozen Belgian pies could be baked at one time. The Belgian pie! What would the Kermiss be without the famous delicacy, the crust of which was made of dough, spread over with prunes or apples and topped with homemade cottage cheese. So tasty it was that one bite invited another.”

A hundred or so years later, The Post Crescent Newspaper from Wisconsin wrote about the October 1969 Kermiss celebrations and it is clear that pie-baking remained a herculean task. There is an understandable reluctance to part with secret family recipes as a result although one local baker was less secretive when interviewed by the newspaper:

“Mrs. Jean Guth baked 120 pies to be served in her husband’s tavern for the Ker- miss in Brussels the first week in September. Mrs. Mamie Chaudi’ous and her daughter made them by the dozens. And the women are still mixing and rolling the dough in their kitchens in these Belgian settlements. Though cooks are rather cagey about their special recipes, Mrs. Guth was gracious enough to part with hers….”

After watching the instructor Gina Wautier demonstrate her technique for creating the perfect pie Sandy said this isn't your first rodeo, is it Gina's technique is heavy on the filling and topping nearly to the edge
Gina Wautier and her Belgian pie

Gina Wautier is her daughter and now runs Belgian pie-making classes in Door County. She can remember what happened after her mother shared her recipe with the local newspaper: “When mom was interviewed by news reporters in 1960 she caused quite a stir among the local women for sharing her recipe and allowing it to be published.” Mrs Guth was descended from some of the first settlers in the county and the recipes she used were handed down from her own mother and grandmother, then used to perfect the thousands of pies she served to hungry travellers at the Brussels (Wisconsin) tavern she ran alongside her husband, Ray. There were thirteen other taverns in the immediate area but none baked and sold as many pies as Mrs Guth did.

Pie-baking days in the Guth household were rigorously organised and it is obvious why: “It was not uncommon for her to make 200 pies that would be given away and/or sold in my dad’s tavern at Kermiss time, ” Gina says. “For days our home was covered with pies set out to cool; on the beds, extra tables,  ironing boards, and on wooden planks.  Cold storage was not an issue as the bar’s beer cooler was a great asset for the old peach crates converted into pie carriers.”

She recalls a childhood spent helping her mother in the kitchen on pie baking days: “Belgian Pie making as a young girl in my mother’s kitchen was more a lesson in observation rather than participation’ she told me.  “My jobs were important; dishwashing, peeling apples, pitting prunes, grinding cheese, and greasing the pie tins.  My mom, Jean Guth was very particular in mixing the dough, filling and baking the pies to perfection.” In fact, Mrs Guth made it clear that the method of handling the dough and its mixing are of even more importance than the ingredients.

Every Autumn, Belgian locals gather together to celebrate Kermiss which follows the bringing in of the harvest and kicks off with a thanksgiving mass. The  word Kermiss was originally Middle-Dutch and comes from Kirk-Messe (the German kirchmësse), which means ‘church mass’, and it originated in medieval times as an annual celebration commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the church before it morphed into the later festival. In Europe, it has various spellings: kermis, kermes, kercmisse, kircmisse, keermisse, carmisse, kirmisse and kercmisse but none of them end with the double ‘s’ which seems to be the most common spelling in Door County and therefore the one I use here. Belgians have been described to me as a community-minded and extremely social people and they historically valued the social side of church attendance to such a degree that it became a fundamental part of their collective worship. Amusingly, and as befits their practical side too, the Belgian immigrants made sure that they built saloons close to their places of worship- often right next to the church so they could keep what they deemed as the less spiritual chatter and gossip away from the house of God.

The Kermiss kept lonely Belgians in touch with their homeland and they would travel great distances across this most northerly of states to meet and celebrate together. In fact, some locals made round trips of 160 miles in order to buy the ingredients for their pies. The first Kermiss in the region was held in 1858 in Rosiere at the same time as Kermiss in its Belgian namesake. A Father Daems came from the Bay Settlement to say Mass and afterwards, local Belgians processed to a hall, serenaded by a band. The procession was briefly halted for a traditional ‘dance in the dust’ on a dirt road before resuming its route.Three days of feasting, dancing and socialising would follow.

Today, the Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation maintains the Kermiss tradition and hundreds of local families flock to the little brick-built former church of St. Mary of the Snows to eat pies,  trippe, jutt, and booyah. Amusingly, their ice-cream is churned by a John Deere tractor.

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Pies by Gina Wautier

Even though Gina Wautier helped her mother prepare the pies, she grew up with gaps in her knowledge and, concerned that the custom might be at risk of dying out, she set about the task of learning the process from start to finish, using her mothers recipes and her own memories to draw upon. Aged just 25 and having lost her mother, trial and error and the assistance of her then mother-in- law proved successful (tradition also says that Belgian pies can help new brides break the ice with their in-laws!) and the task itself was made less time-consuming because Gina had access to food processors instead of a hand grinder and swifter ways of cooking such large quantities of apples. However, her mothers recipe did not cut corners when it came to the quality of its ingredients, she told me: ” It contains real butter, cream, eggs, active cake yeast and vanilla.  No substitutes or imitations.  The crust is thin, fillings thick, and the toppings goes all the way to the crust leaving just enough filling so you can tell what kind of pie it is.”

Like all local foodways, each Belgian pie will be the sum total of their maker and, as Gina says, they are as unique as the people who make them. There are similarities in the technique but its execution can vary: some bakers prefer a thick crust to a thinner one; some will bake a crust using baking soda, whilst others raise their dough slowly, over time. As  another Door County resident called Emily Guilette points out in Le Draoulec’s chapter about her Belgian pie  (which is made with a raised mashed potato and egg crust by the way), ” who sells frozen Belgian pie crusts?” As things stand, these pies simply must be made by hand although sensible locals do pop a few of them in the freezer for when company arrives.

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Belgian prune pie, via the Door County Visitors Bureau

The toppings vary too although one thing is made absolutely clear: a true Belgian pie must have  the cheese spread out towards its edge. I was told most firmly that ‘those that claim they are Belgian pies and then put a small dab of cheese in the middle are so wrong in their claims’ by an impassioned local. According to Gina Wautier, when making the cheese topping, some people will use cream cheese and others cottage cheese sweetened with egg-yolks, butter and sugar.  The filling underneath the crust of cheese can be prune (sweetened with applesauce) or apple and raisin with a cottage cheese topping or the pie can be filled with cooked rice topped with whipping cream. Generally, rice-filled pies do not have the cheese topping and the popularity of apple is down to the preponderance of apple orchards in Door County although during my own research I encountered a recipe for Grandpa Boyen’s Famous Belgian Rice Custard Pie. This version has a regular pie crust base and a rice filling poured over a layer of sweetened, cooked prune left au naturel, with no topping of any kind. Apparently the Grandpa Boyen of the recipe was a boulanger-patissier in Belgium before he moved to Montanta of all places, where he opened a bakery and popularised his pie.

Yet another version was tracked down to a bakery in West Tarentum, Pennsylvania where the pies had a crust base resembling bread dough in texture and  were filled with prune, rice, apricot and raisin. Certainly that bread-like crust sounds similar to the pies made and sold in Kewaunee County which had the typical ‘Danish pastry’ type appearance. At Marchants Bakery, they still use the traditional recipe, do not describe it as having ‘a typical pie crust’  and offer a variety of fillings: rice, prune, apple, cherry, raisin and poppyseed, Sue Marchant told me, adding, “prune and rice are the best sellers at Kermiss but for the store and Belgian Days the best seller is cherry.” Door County is also home to thousands of acres of cherry orchards and both sour and sweet cherries are popular in all kinds of baked goods- not just Belgian pies- although the fruits inclusion is an interesting example of local foodways melding with those European food traditions brought to the USA by the migrants.

 The fillings listed by Gina Wautier were all made by her own mother although “other varieties (cherry, blueberry, apricot, poppy seed) were discovered by accident in our house.”  As she points out, when you make batches of 30 – 60 pies it is hard to be exact on ingredients, remembering “when mom would have extra dough and cottage cheese left she would send one of us kids to the store to get a can of Wilderness pie filling to “use up” the extras to save on waste.   It really was a great combination.”
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A Belgian pie-making class with Gina Wautier and student

Wautier started teaching pie-making classes in 2009 and is now based at Saint Norbert College Language Services Program alongside Karen Stillman who assist in the three hours each class runs for. Each participant is asked about their Belgian heritage (if they have one). ” A common theme in these stories is that they remember their moms and grandmas making the pies but were not allowed in the kitchen to learn how.” It seems that such a labour-intensive process, where bulk-baking is involved, might be less conducive to parent and child baking, I wonder. The classes offer an insight into the way these pies are baked too, in several batches of ten pies per batch. “I have played with my mom’s recipe in order to bring it down to a manageable amount, she says.  “Following my directions it is easy enough to make 5 pies at a time of one kind in a 2 hour time frame.  The rising of the dough is what takes the time. One 2 oz. cake of yeast will make 10 pies.” Wautier demonstrates how to make the dough and uses the slow rising time to teach participants how to make the filling and toppings before dividing the class into two groups for their hands-on part of the lesson. Everyone gets to take home a couple of pies. They all have great fun.

What would your mother think if she could see you now. I asked Gina.

“I think my mom would be very pleased to know that since I started teaching nearly 150 people (young and old) have learned from us. Also my skills are used to bake pies for various non- profits and benefits.  Over $1,500 combined has been profited for charities,” she replies. “Yes, I have a passion for pies.  However I have yet to teach my own children the art.  Maybe I should make that another goal!”

The Marchant Bakery is also concerned about the future of Belgian cuisine and are taking steps to ensure the skills required to bake these pies are handed down: “We need to keep our bakers passing the recipe on to the new staff if we want it to continue,” Sue Marchant told me.”We make and have in the store many old recipes of different products  from the mother country and yes, I would say we are very proud of our heritage here in Brussels and Namur.”


Huge thanks to Regula Ysewijn for her informative emails and help with research. 

Recipe here: http://edibledoor.com/recipes/desserts/grandma-jeans-belgian-pie/

Door County tourist information.

Further reading:

  • Laatsch, W. G., and C. F. Calkins. “Belgians in Wisconsin,” in A. G. Noble (ed.), To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 195–210.
  • Martin, Xavier. “The Belgians of Northeast Wisconsin” in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1895, pp. 375–396.
  • Pecore Waso, Thomas. Good Seeds: a Menominee Food Memoir. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. 2016

The best new cook books

I have been spoiled for choice with so many great new books about food and cooking published or about to be, making it hard to whittle this post down to a reasonably sized list. Some of these cookbooks are already on sale whilst others you are going to have to wait a little while longer for.

Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes // Robin Ha

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Robin Ha has combined two of my favourite things (graphic art and cooking) and in doing so he’s created a fun way to tackle a cuisine which can seem intimidating to some. Via two to three-page comic strips and colourful renditions of ingredients, the steps required to produce your own Korean meals at home are broken down into achievable and relatable tasks.

The recipes are well-written too, all 60+ of them. There’s easy kimchi and bulgogi (soy and garlic flavoured beef on rice), gimbap (seaweed hand rolls) and lesser known meals such as pine nut porridge (jatjuk), knife noodle soup with clams (bajiirak kalgukso) and acorn jelly salad (dotorimuk) but fear not, there’s plenty of more familiar recipes too with ingredients easily found in most stores. And the graphic ‘what’s in a Korean refrigerator?’ will help demystify things. Robin Ha tells us his story as he goes along, using it to explain the history and culture of Korea and the reasoning behind its culinary techniques. If you are a fan of Lucky Peach, this is for you.

Ingredienti // Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan

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Before you cook, you must first know how to shop and if your own parents have not taught you this, let Marcella Hazan step in for them. And even if you consider yourself a veteran in the market and the kitchen, I can guarantee there’s a few tricks you still don’t know about. Ingredienti, co-written and edited by her husband Victor after her death a few years ago is Marcella’s last gift to her fans. And what a gift this simple and elegant manual on how to shop for the best ingredients and prepare the most delicious meals is.

For over sixty years, Marcella Hazan made almost daily visits to the market in order to choose the ingredients of that day’s meal. Ingredienti is underpinned by her belief that in order to cook well, one must first develop affection for ingredients to the degree of seeing them as characters in a wider culinary narrative. There needs to be respect for one’s store cupboard which will then translate into greater confidence in the kitchen.

Ingredients are organized from A to Z and the book also includes sections such as how to store vegetables so they keep well and how the storage time indicates what kind of preparation and recipe they can be used for. The chapter on artichokes is a particular joy in this respect. There’s more advice about how to choose the best pasta and cheese, how to find good olive oil and even guidance on breadcrumbs, that most modest of ingredients which Marcella knew to be transformative when added to a dish of cardoon or baked endive. Her advice applies as much to the large British supermarkets as it does to our tiny farmers markets and the sumptuous markets we explore when on holiday.

The best food writers are able to magic up a conversation between themselves and their readers. Nigella has this ability and so does Marcella. It is to her husband Victors credit that he can continue this dialogue seamlessly. Her legacy lives on through this, her last prose book and the her wisdom which is now ours, to hand down to our own children.

The New Mediterranean Table: old world recipes for the modern home // Joyce Goldstein

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The New Mediterranean Jewish Table is devoid of glossy photographs and has recipes in prose rather than the traditional bullet-pointed format. If you are a novice cook or prefer a photograph and illustration to give you some idea of what to aim for then this book might not be the one for you. But readers in search of a competently researched guide to the Jewish culinary diaspora should get out their credit cards now.

Goldstein has a passion for adding a contemporary twist to traditional recipes and meals so we’re not wading through recipes preserved in [kosher] aspic. There’s a great sense of forward movement which reflects the wonderfully diverse contribution Jewish people have made whilst also paying tribute to their ability to protect and preserve their own culture in the face of great tribulation. This is Old World cooking in a New World Kitchen with some flavours ramped up to suit the modern-day palate.. Goldstein challenges the dividing of Jewish culture into two common strands: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, preferring to distinguish between Sephardi and Mediterranean jews. Sephard was the ancient name given to the Iberian Peninsula and jews forced to flee Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition were given the name Sephardim. According to her, this term does not refer to the Jews of Italy, the Maghrebi and the Mizrahi who are Mediterranean Jews instead.

Taking us through Jewish history, its flavours and palate, we arrive at the recipes via an explanation of the Jewish holidays which punctuate the calendar. Their organisation is traditional: appetisers and salads such as Persian olives with pomegranate, and walnuts and a mint vinaigrette reflect the popularity of Ottolenghi-style meals with lots of small and colourful plates. I have already cooked a Venetian dish of sweet-and-sour carrots with raisins and pine nuts and bookmarked the thick tranche of fish under a vibrant duvet of green- herbed tahini which originates from Egypt and Lebanon. There’s layered baked dishes with matzo instead of bread which reminds me of the Sardinian taste for pane carasau layered with egg and tomato.

For something heartier, try the Sephardic meatballs offered with seven sauces and sharpened by charoset, served at the Passover Seder and presented in nine different ways. Recipes don’t come in a vacuum either: the scholarship is impressive and Golstein weaves in the history and culture of the Mediterranean Jew, offering the reader sources and bibliography of works in English, French and Italian to facilitate further fact-finding. One example of this is a spicy squash spread called thurshi which originally came from North Africa and turned up in a cookbook about Italian Jewish cooking. “It is likely that the recipe made its way into the Italian Jewish kitchen in Livorno, where many North African Jews settled,” she tells us.

The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club // Marlena De Blasi

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In Orvieto, a city just ninety minutes from Rome, hewn from volcanic rock and crowned by an exquisite duomo described by De Blasi as ‘a glittering wedding cake awaiting a bride’, group of four Italian rural women gather in a stone house in the hills above Italy’s Orvieto. There, every Thursday evening—along with their friend, Marlena—they cook together, sit down to a beautiful supper, drink their beloved local wines, and talk. Surrounded by candlelight, good food and friendship, Miranda, Ninucia, Paolina, and Gilda tell their life stories of loves lost and found, of ageing and abandonment, of mafia grudges and family feuds, and of cherished ingredients and recipes whose secrets have been passed down through generations.

This is a book to stimulate all kinds of appetites as we hear stories of preparing pigs testicles, gathering wild asparagus (called Luppoli hops), cooking pasta in red wine and participating in the Vendemmia and the harvesting of olives during the Raccolta until the candles gutter out and the tired ladies drift off to bed. The stories are mined from De Blasi’s 20 years spent living and travelling in Italy and via her inner circle:  the author (considered a newcomer, having lived in Orvieto only six years), Ninuccia, Paolina, Gilda and the aged Miranda, the keeper of the local culinary flame, who at the beginning of the book has reached the point where she feels she must hang up her apron.

There’s recipes too which we have come to expect from De Blasi and she effectively conveys a rural way of life which retains many elements virtually unchanged over the centuries. Her writing amusingly depicts the regional competitiveness between the different Italian regions and shows how regional preferences developed and go on to be expressed via food and its preparation. If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and the writings of Frances Mayes, this one is for you.

Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking–Flatbreads, Stuffed Breads, Challahs, Cookies, and the Legendary Chocolate Babka // Uri Scheft (published Oct 2016)

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Israeli baking encompasses the influences of so many regions—Morocco, Yemen, Germany, and Georgia, to name a few—and master baker Uri Scheft marries all of these in his well-regarded baked goods sold at his Breads Bakery in New York City and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv. Nutella-filled babkas, potato and shakshuka focaccia, and chocolate rugelach are all regulars. In Breaking Breads, Scheft takes the combined influences of his Scandinavian heritage, his European pastry training, and his Israeli and New York City homes to provide sweet and savory baking recipes that cover European, Israeli, and Middle Eastern favorites. Scheft gives us recipes for classics like challah, babka, and ciabatta—and adds his creative twist as well, showing us how we can do the same at home—and introduces his take on Middle Eastern daily breads like kubaneh and jachnun. The instructions are detailed and the photos explanatory so that anyone can make Scheft’s Poppy Seed Hamantaschen, Cheese Bourekas, and Jerusalem Bagels, among other recipes. If you can’t get enough of Ottolenghi or Honey & Co, this one is for you.

Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites, from Pfeffernüsse to Streuselkuchen // Luissa Weiss (published Oct 2016)

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German baking has influenced baking traditions around the world for generations but its been relatively neglected by the publishing world with few mainstream German baking books making waves in the yearly ‘best of’ round-ups.  Enter Luisa Weiss, the Berlin-based creator of the adored Wednesday Chef blog and self-taught ambassador of the German baking canon whose latest book ably collates these fine recipes in an easy to follow compendium. I have a brother in Germany and he was sensible enough to move to a village with a decent bakery which gave me plenty of opportunity to press my nose against the glass display cabinets as I tried to memorise its entire contents to recreate at home. Luisa’s book is a useful aide-memoire.

Luisa is not German-born and she discusses her fears about her culinary authority in her introduction but they are unfounded. She’s done a sterling job, sharing with us over 100 rigorously researched and tested recipes, gathered from expert bakers, friends, family, and time-honored sources throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. What caught my eye? Well I’m a sucker for nut-enriched northern European bakes so walnuss zwieback (twice-baked walnut crisps) and nusskuchen (a toasted hazelnut loaf cake) are top of my must-try list. There’s  Streuselkuchen (streusel cake) and tender flakey strudels and a delicious-sounding heidjertorte (lingonbery buckwheat cream torte) plus tortes with carrots, with every colour of currant and ones studded with dark-red plums.

Savouries aren’t forgotten either and the Swabian parsley cake (peterlingkuschen) sounds intriguing as does a green onion and bacon cake (grünerkuchen) and the sweetened quark buns (quarkbrötchen) appeal too:  I often eat brioche with savoury foods because I am weird and I bet these would do just as well. Your baking will be guided by detailed advice and lots of stories about the origins, meaning, and rituals behind the recipes. There’s lovely photographs of Berlin and her Berlin life and of baked goods, such as Elisenlebkuchen, Marmorierter Mohnkuchen, and Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte which should attract more visitors to this rather cool German city.

The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem // Marcus Samuelsson (published Oct 2016)

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When the James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, he envisioned more than a restaurant. It would be the heart of his neighborhood and a meet-and-greet for both the downtown and the uptown sets, serving Southern black and cross-cultural food. It would reflect Harlem’s history. Ever since the 1930s, Harlem has been a magnet for more than a million African Americans, a melting pot for Spanish, African, and Caribbean immigrants, and a mecca for artists.

These traditions converge on Rooster’s menu, with Brown Butter Biscuits, Chicken and Waffle, Killer Collards, and Donuts with Sweet Potato Cream. They’re joined by global-influenced dishes such as Jerk Bacon and Baked Beans, Latino Pork and Plantains, and Chinese Steamed Bass and Fiery Noodles. Samuelsson’s Swedish-Ethiopian background shows in Ethiopian Spice-Crusted Lamb, Slow-Baked Blueberry Bread with Spiced Maple Syrup, and the Green Viking, sprightly Apple Sorbet with Caramel Sauce.

Interspersed with lyrical essays that convey the flavor of the place and archival and contemporary photos, The Red Rooster Cookbook is as layered as its inheritance.

Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir // Thomas Pecore Weso (Out late summer, 2016)

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In this food memoir, named for the manoomin or wild rice that also gives the Menominee tribe its name, tribal member Thomas Pecore Weso takes readers on a cook’s journey through Wisconsin’s northern woods. He connects each food—beaver, trout, blackberry, wild rice, maple sugar, partridge—with colorful individuals who taught him Indigenous values. Cooks will learn from his authentic recipes. Amateur and professional historians will appreciate firsthand stories about reservation life during the mid-twentieth century, when many elders, fluent in the Algonquian language, practiced the old ways.

Weso’s grandfather Moon was considered a medicine man, and his morning prayers were the foundation for all the day’s meals. Weso’s grandmother Jennie “made fire” each morning in a wood-burning stove, and oversaw huge breakfasts of wild game, fish, and fruit pies. As Weso grew up, his uncles taught him to hunt bear, deer, squirrels, raccoons, and even skunks for the daily larder. These recollections are what I loved most because they are filled with love and warmth, with respect for heritage and pride. He remembers foods served at the Menominee fair and the excitement of “sugar bush,” maple sugar gatherings that included dances as well as hard work. There’s memories of wild rice harvesting in the small boats and a fascinating account of how the wild rice plants react and adapt to their location. If you are interested in agri-ecology and want to learn how we as humans can achieve a less damaging relationship with our environment, Weso’s book is for you.

Polska //  Zuza Zak

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The word ‘Poland’ is derived from ‘pole’ which means field, so for Zuza Zak, author of Polska, her countries name is connected to the earth. Zak has tracked Polish history and heritage to provide a fresh take on a cuisine and nation she fears is often misrepresented.

Kicking off with a useful explanation of Polish history which gave birth to a saying that ‘too much eating and drinking cost us our Poland’, Zak reminds us all that the simple pleasure of eating and drinking is an understandable one in the face of relentless bombardment. She addresses regionality and its influence on cuisine: Pomerania is windswept and coastal with poor soil but it is rich in fish; the Tatra mountains have a history of cultural separatism which has protected their food traditions from outside influences; there’s the wonderful mushroom dishes of the forested and watery Mazury Lake District; and the Russian and eastern influences on Mazowsze which was once a Russian colony.

Seasonality is important: the rich and golden light of a Polish summer gives way to the long and harsh winters where meals are heavily supplemented with preserved foods and in the main, Polish people have retained these rhythms no matter where they live. Breakfast sees people feasting upon cinnamon and apple-filled bakes because apples remained freely available even during the worst of the Communist privations. There’s crunchy rye bread with gzik, a kind of cottage cheese which is served with radishes. chives and yoghurt and is the perfect Dacha-style breakfast on a hot morning. Like the Russians, many Poles escape the heat and rent a dacha in the countryside where they can grow their own fruit and vegetables as the Polish peasantry once did: their foodways were rich in folklore.

Bread is of fundamental importance to the Polish people, Zak writes, and bread with salt was a symbolic gift to visitors. Zaha¸ski is the Polish word for a type of party food and alongside her earlier recipes for rye and sourdoughs, Zak includes a chapter on zaha¸ski, cautioning that her father believes that all good versions of it must contain some fat to neutralise the vodka although vodka is no longer obligatory. There’s little cumin babkas on a sea of marinated red peppers, nettle leaves in beer batter with a honey-mustard dip and mama’s gherkins with horseradish and oak leaves.

If you bought and cooked from Mamushka by Olia Hercules then you will enjoy Polska. The two books have much in common in that they challenge stereotypes, highlight foodways that are borne from strife, human resourcefulness and cultural exchange and are packed with delicious recipes whose ingredients are seasonal, easily sourced and grown. Both books make you want to cook, so, job done.

Simple // Diana Henry (Published in Autumn, 2016)

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I haven’t been able to get my hands on a review copy of this but deciding to buy the cookbooks of Diana Henry is a no-brainer. Judging by her recent food columns and awards, the lady is on bloody fire, professionally, so recommending  this book sight-unseen seems a safe-bet. Turkish pasta with caramelized onions, yoghurt and dill and paprika-baked pork chops with beetroot, caraway and sour cream and my current favourite, a Parmesan-roasted cauliflower with garlic and thyme, sound strong. The ingredients seem to be easily available and not too esoteric and her recipe testing has always been stringent, meaning her recipes can be trusted. And in a world where some of the most famous cookbooks have page after page of poorly-tested recipes, that attention to detail and respect for her readers is something to be appreciated.

Toast Hash Roast Mash: Real Food for Every Time of Day // Dan Doherty

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Mr Duck & Waffle is back with his second cookbook and what a beauty it is. Breakfast and brunch are the two meals Doherty sees people getting the most excited about and his new book is studded with easy but impressive ways of feeding ourselves when we’ve just staggered out of bed. He ranges far and wide- India, Brazil, Ireland, the Middle East and Italy have inspired him- and his own late night/ early start lifestyle underpins the book. There’s no laborious instructions or recipes with eleventy billion ingredients and these are meals which can be eaten at any time of day so if you don’t eat breakfast (WHO are these weird folk?), this book will still appeal.

Starting off with toast, we are given recipes for plum jam and a heavenly-sounding chocolate and almond spread which kicks nutella into the tall grass. Further on, there’s maple roasted apple on French toast, custard-soaked brioche, a carrot aperol, black pudding hash and chickpea pancakes (socca, basically) plus a retro-sounding gammon brought up to date with pineapple ketchup. I agree with Dan, breaking the fast is the best meal of the day and one embedded deep into our national DNA. His book is ideal for those of us who go to bed planning what to eat when we wake up.

Squirrel Pie (and other stories): Adventures in Food Across the Globe // Elisabeth Luard

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Author of Still Life and Family Life, both brilliant prose food memoirs, and countless cookbooks, Luard remains one of my favourite authors. I have been impatiently awaiting this new book by one of the most travelled writers around and Squirrel Pie doesn’t disappoint in its accounts of the meals she has eaten on her travels and her encounters with the people who cooked them. Luard is not given to purple prose about food or humans and she’s honest, warm and bracing in that classic English way: if you love Jane Grigson, you’ll adore Luard. (I love Jane Grigson- where’s her blue plaque btw?) Whether she is scouring for snails in Crete or squirrels in Maine, learning how to butcher a kangaroo carcass and gain maximum nutritional value from goanna tail, sampling exotic spices in Ethiopia or tasting oysters in Tasmania, her practised eye and academics brain (she is one of the forces behind the Oxford Food Symposium) means her words can be trusted as a faithful recreation.

There’s practical advice too, borne of her own research and associations with just about everyone working in the culinary field.This book is divided into four landscapes – rivers, islands, deserts and forests -because Luard has determined that geography is the biggest determining factor in what we eat and her divisions reflect the commonalities the people of each region share. And, as she points out, to ignore the diet of necessity because we now benefit from modern accoutrements is to lose what we can ill afford to. The stories are accompanied by over fifty recipes, each one a reflection of its unique place of origin, including macaroni cheese with oysters (and you thought adding lobster was a luxury!) Boston bean-pot, Hawaiian poke, Cretan bouboutie, mung-bean roti, roasted buttered coffee beans, Anzac biscuits and Sardinian lemon macaroons. The sketches are Luard’s too as she was a water-colour artist long before she wrote a recipe- she is one fine and talented woman.

The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes from the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau // Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo, Hugh Amano (Published October 2016)

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Aged sixteen I visited Macau and the New Territories and although its a long time ago, I can still remember the food I ate so the publication of Fat Rice which shines a light on the food of this true melting pot of a place is cause for celebration. Based in Chicago, Fat Rice is a cult favourite and its chef-patrons serve up their own unique take on the food of Macau, a country which is just one hour away from Hong Hong and located on the banks of the romantically named Pearl River.

Macau’s modern-day glitz (gambling is legal there and a source of great wealth) belies its rich, centuries-old history as one of the greatest trading ports in the world. Ruled by Portugal from the 1600s until 1999, Macau was a crossroads along the spice route, and a place where travelers from Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and mainland China traded resources, culture, and food–making Macanese cuisine one of the most eclectic and deliciously unique food traditions in the world.
 The Adventures of Fat Rice is a fun and whimsical tear through modern-day Macau–and the minds of two wildly creative and James Beard award-winning chefs. As they said in an Eater interview:””The main goal for the book is to be the most comprehensive documentation of Macanese cuisine that there is. Not only the food of Macau, but the food of Macanese people, the Portuguese and Chinese-mixed families that we mainly focus on at Fat Rice. And [it’s also] to show our interpretation of these dishes, and maybe enlighten people as far as the history of food as we know it, through the lens of Macanese cuisine and the other places that Macanese cuisine is influenced by, whether it be Malacca, Malaysia, Brazil, Africa, Japan, or wherever..”

Dishes like Hong Kong French Toast (Macau’s version of dim sum), Po Kok Gai (a Portuguese chicken curry), and the titular Arroz Gordo (if Spanish paella and Chinese fried rice had a baby) are enticingly exotic yet accessible and even playful. Featuring a mish-mash of classic and interpretative dishes, plus comic book-style illustrations and edgy location photography, The Adventures of Fat Rice will be the first book to bring the eclectic, richly satisfying, and previously unheralded food of Macau to the mainstream.

Victuals // Ronni Lundy (Published in the UK, Aug 2016)

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Lundy once wrote a book called Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: the Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens which went on to become one of my best-loved cookbooks because of its natural way with the words and the fascinating stories of the people she grew up among. Her words are one of the main reasons why I have become so enamoured with this relatively mysterious region of the USA. It goes without saying that the recipes Lundy chooses are always wonderful and so I am extremely delighted that she is to publish Victuals, out in August 2016.

“The great thing in writing about food (and the secret subtext hidden in many recipes) is its revelation of the voices of people who traditionally have not been consulted when history is told—even their own history. Recipe and cookbooks are where we hear what women’s lives were actually like in different eras, and what constituted daily life for the family. If you want to look at it in those terms, in food we learn the experiences of the humble, the poor and the outcast as well as those who have it made. Food is an easy door into strange cultures and stories,” says Lundy in an interview with Ace Weekly and  Victuals is an exploration of the foodways, people, and places of Appalachia which includes over eighty recipes.

The book guides us through the diverse history of food in the Mountain South and beautifully demonstrates the principle of culinary genealogy in action. We explore recipes, traditions and innovations with each chapter covering a food or tradition of the region. The essays introduce readers to their rich histories and the farmers, curers, hunters, and chefs who define the region’s contemporary landscape. Mountainous Appalachia offers a wide range of ingredients and products that can be transformed using traditional methods and creative extension of local foodways by chefs and cooks who have migrated to the region and married their own culinary heritage to that of the Appalachian people.

 

Our Korean Kitchen // Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo

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This isn’t newly published but it might well be new to you and I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet so here it is. London-based Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo have their own Korean kitchen where they have spent considerable time demystifying what is actually a very down to earth foodways for us all so we can have a go ourselves. And they have done a cracking job so I make no apologies for including a second Korean cookbook in this selection.

Back in the eighties, I spent a fair amount of time in South Korea, in Cheju, Busan (some call it Pusan, too) and Seoul. We travelled into the surrounding countryside and I met locals making their own kimchi and I picked weird little wild peaches from trees growing near the beach in Cheju along with quinces. I ate dried squid, grilled my own bulgogi and laughed when my mother inadvertently ate bulls penis and a fish that resembled a giant penis. I have retold this anecdote many a time without stopping to think that I was perpetuating an unfair image of Korean food as wacky with scary ingredients. Generally, it is not like that at all. And anyway, coming from a nation with a tradition of serving up badly-cooked tripe, cheap faggots, school tapioca and Vesta curries made from cardboard and a Jeremy Clarkson concept of India, I was standing on very shaky ground.

Us Brits have much in common with the Koreans. We both adore pickles and know how useful they are for disguising the blandness of winter hunger-gap food (and it gets REALLY cold in Korea at times). Beef is highly-regarded in Korea as it is here and they have a love of comforting things served in bowls, like we do. And Korean Kitchen will show you how to make all of those sexy bowls of bibimbap that you’ve seen on instagram. It’ll show you that kimchi can be made without access to inherited six-feet high stone jars buried in the ground. It will hold your hand through step-by-step instructions and great photography and eventually you will be eating like a [Korean] champ.

 Super Sushi Ramen Express// Michael Booth (Published Sept 2016)

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“Since the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, chefs from Europe and America have made pilgrimages to Japan to pilfer ingredients, techniques and presentation styles. Nouvelle cuisine was born of that first visit by the chefs of the French Olympic team, while the elaborate, multi-course kaiseki meal remains a key influence on many leading chefs,” Booth wrote in a feature on Japanese food and yes, Japan is a Mecca for the world’s greatest chefs, with more Michelin stars than any other country. Yet its foodways are so often misunderstood and sometimes wilfully.

In this book, food and travel writer Michael Booth writes about moving his family to Japan for a few months in a kind of ‘Fuschia Dunlop-lite’ way. ( I don’t mean this disrespectfully.) Accompanied by two fussy eaters under the age of six, he and his wife travel the length of the country, from bear-infested, beer-loving Hokkaido to snake-infested, seaweed-loving Okinawa. (I am glad that he didn’t neglect the regions of Hokkaido and Okinawa which tend to get overlooked by other writer-visitors.) Booth addresses the unique elements of Japanese cuisine, such as the importance of texture, the principles of Kaiseki, (a simple explanation is that it is a kind of Japanese haute cuisine) and why slurping will make your noodles taste better.

The Booths dine with sumo wrestlers and free-diving, female abalone hunters; they eat snake, get scared by giant crabs and visit a restaurant where customers catch their noodles as they travel downstream in a river. Despite the cultural differences, Booth manages to not depict Japan as a kind of wondrous theme-park full of Hello Kitty, plastic sushi and weird slimy things in buckets and acknowledges that many of their national traditions are in decline as Western influence grows.  He meets and interviews people who manage to adapt to the modern world  whilst protecting the essence of their craft which is pretty inspiring and he is also good at correcting popular Western misconceptions about Japanese people and their food such as sushi, the use of MSG and what real wasabi is like.

Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

Seeking ice cream inspiration?

Ice cream, gelato and frozen custard are my desert island choices. They are what I choose when I am tired and don’t know what to eat and at the end of a bad day, comfort is found not in the bottom of a glass, but staring into a full tub of full-fat frozen something-something. But I don’t have an efficient ice-cream maker yet so when time is short, I have to rely on what I can forage from the store unless I have a stash of home-made sitting waiting for me. And it doesn’t tend to hang around for long either.

I do make a lot of ice cream though, using the old-fashioned elbow grease method of constant beating with a fork to break the ice crystals up as the mixture freezes but I also have some good suggestions for jazzing up store-bought flavours up my sleeve too. Here are some of them:

[1] Add Indian flavours:

I buy Pradip’s special chewda mix from Rafi’s Spice Box  store in Suffolk but similar mixtures are available from most Indian food stores. Chewda is a sweet and salty blend of puffed rice, sweet almonds, cashews, peanuts and peppers, a few candied lentils and enough chilli powder to provide an interesting contrast to the cold ice cream. It tastes great over coconut, pecan and vanilla but I imagine mango ice cream or sorbet would be a lovely match too. It’s easy to customise too: I’d add some fresh coconut flakes, slivers of salty-sweet prunes and dried mango.

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[2] Stir in some chilli honey:

Last year I got my hands on a bottle of Mike’s Hot Honey, made in Brooklyn. After a few delirious weeks of adding it to virtually everything I ate as an experiment, I had to make my own. Mike’s is made with wildflower honey infused with vinegared chillies and goes well with ice cream but my version is less tart: making it in small quantities means I can get away with adding smaller amounts of vinegar although honey tends to preserve itself anyway. All you need is a jar of honey, a few chillies (two per pound of honey) OR a quarter tea-spoonful of chipotle paste. Simply slice the chillies and remove the seeds then place into the jar of honey to infuse. After a couple of weeks it’ll be ready. If you cannot wait that long, stir a tiny blob of chilli paste (I like chipotle from Luchita) into the honey and seal the lid. Keep this one in the fridge and eat within two weeks. I stir chilli honey into ready-made vanilla ice cream or add it in when I am making my own from scratch. Don’t mix it thoroughly through the ice cream though; what you are aiming for are ribbons of chilli-hot flavour.

[3] Add in some roasted pineapple:

For some Caribbean flavours, skin and slice a pineapple into rings and place them onto a well-buttered non-stick baking tray. Sprinkle the rings with a little rum, a good coating of brown sugar and some chilli flakes (these are optional). Dot with butter and roast in the oven until glazed, golden-brown and caught around the edges. Now let it cool completely then cut into small pieces (or a rough mash) and mix into a tub of ice cream. Vanilla is good for showing off the fruit flavours but brown butter ice cream from Judes goes well as does stem ginger. If you want a real flavour pairing, drink a cup of Colombian Sierra Nevada coffee (Cafe de Colombia) with it or better still, make some Colombian coffee ice cream.

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Simon Law/Flickr/CC

[4] Stir in some gooseberry and hazelnut:

In season around June in Britain, millions of pounds of gooseberries will be picked, cooked into fruit purees, turned into jams and curds then baked into pies, sweetened fools and puckery sauces for oily fish. But did you know that this little fruit works really well with hazelnuts? At their simplest, the berries can be washed, dried and sliced then macerated in sugar for a day in the fridge before being added to a bowl of ice cream with hazelnuts scattered over the top. But why not cook them down into a fruity puree with brown sugar and a slug of Frangelico (a hazelnut-flavoured liqueur from Italy) then mix them into a plain ice cream with some toasted hazelnuts on top? Or if your summer liqueur of choice is St Germain – such an elegant art deco bottle- simmer the fruits in this for a more floral effect.

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[5] Go Sicilian:

This is simple. Slice and toast a brioche bun and fill it with a scoop of gelato, ice cream or granita then eat for breakfast with a cup of coffee. The best version I ever ate was filled with almond granita (icy, milky) but to be honest it is hard to imagine a bad one. There’s so many variations on a Sicilian theme too. Look for ice cream made with ricotta and toss in a handful of dried orange and lemon peel plus some shavings of dark chocolate for the classic island cassata; lemon or passion fruit sorbet with added white chocolate chunks; pistachio ice cream with candied Bronte pistachios (which are some of the best in the world and grown on the island).

[6] The Middle East and a handful of pistachios:

The pistachio nut is an evergreen tree native to Asia, dating back to 7000bc in Turkey. Its movement across Europe and the Middle East is a history full of romance and legend and one I’ve chosen to commemorate via ice cream. Apparently the Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios to be an exclusively royal food which meant commoners were forbidden from growing the nuts for their own use and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were planted with pistachio trees on the order of Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon. The nut travelled to Rome in the first century A.D when the Emperor Vitellius introduced it and Islamic texts recorded pistachios as one of the foods brought to Earth by Adam. Fortunately this commoner lives in more permissive times and I now buy this set sesame paste studded with nuts, sold by the cut weight, from market stalls and Middle Eastern stores in larger towns and cities. Arabic halva is made from crushed sesame and tahini sweetened with either honey or sugar  whereas the halva I encountered in Turkey was made with brittle pressed strands of wheat flour and sugar. Often based on semolina as opposed to sesame, it’s sold plain or mixed with dried fruit and nuts and even cooked and dried fruit and vegetable leathers. I’m not going to suggest you make it at home although there are lots of recipes online should you wish to do so. What I would do is buy some good quality halva, Turkish delight and fresh pistachios then simply crumble them over a bowl of (vanilla or honey) ice cream or semi-freeze a tub of Greek yoghurt sweetened with honey and studded with fresh chopped pistachios, then serve alongside a platter of fresh halva and dates. Place a little jug of date or pomegranate syrup and a dipping bowl of sesame seeds on the table to pour over. 

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Halva with pistachios on sale / Etsy / ggbytech
NOTE: None of the links are affiliate, sponsored or mentioned at the behest of the companies involved. These are all products that I have purchased independently.

Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

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H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terms food writers probably shouldn’t use

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Having laughed and agreed with Sarah Millers feature on the food-writing terms that properly stick in her craw, I had no choice but to compile a list of my own. The food-writing police are in the room.

1] Mouthgasm 

Makes me want to spit, not swallow, in  disgust.

2] Nom Nom Nom

What are you, a baby being fed microwaved mango and banana for the first time?

3] Decadent

You clearly wouldn’t know what decadence was if it slapped you round the head with a gilded mullet. I admit that my bar for decadence is set high though. Oscar Wilde’s black feast? *Meh*. Bronze-lined triclinium filled with Roman flute girls and a platter of hare decorated with wings to resemble Pegasus? *Basic*.

4] Opted for

I opted to stop reading your article at this point.

5] Tangle of

GREAT idea to remind me of a plate of hair when I’m reading about food.

6] ‘Sossidge’

Not a fan of any word whose utterance causes ones mouth to form the shape of a cat’s anus. Also VV juvenile. See also: ‘sammies’ for sandwich. God knows what they whisper at you during sex. They probably have a name for their penis, too.

7] ‘Slipped through’- as in ‘my knife slipped through’

THIS DID NOT HAPPEN.

8] Buttery

Buttery meat [blech]. Marlon Brando’s buttery meat [blech]. Also a much-beloved term for fashion writers who ought to be incarcerated in fashion jail and fed ten times a day every time they describe leather as butter-soft (which is a LOT of times).

9] Authentic

Authentic for whom?

10] Sinful

I can’t speak for you but for me, murder, theft and everything Donald Trump says and everything Donald Trump does are pretty high up on my list of sins. The act of eating is not (although possibly, the consumption of a Trump steak would be). Same applies to guilty pleasures because YOU ARE MISSING OUT if the closest you get to this is eating a bloody ice cream.

11] Foodie

Leave the food writing trade immediately if you use this. Just…No. I’d rather be called a professional wanker.

12] Food movement

Especially after a bad oyster.

13] Food porn

Using the word porn to describe food makes you sound so repressed, you probably think Larkin got it wrong when he said sexual intercourse started in 1963. Seriously, go get laid.

 

A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)…”girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

That Jeffrey Steingarten’s forensically precise account of baking the perfect coconut cake was published in Vogue both amuses and exasperates me. I imagine Anna Wintour bitterly gnawing on a knuckle as she proof-read it: his words on Great Coconut Cakes of the World are mouth-watering. Then I wonder whether he’s getting the audience his great writing deserves because, um, HELLO, it’s food-writing in Vogue. NOT your obvious home for it. But still, this is fabulous to read and makes me want to end my days on a bed made from tender and luscious coconut milk-infused layers of sponge.

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distils the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing ones own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life and I also recommend you read Simple Cooking, Now and Then which is where Thorne is shown how to make mayonnaise with a fork.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopaipallas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought.When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our tastebuds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday  food  and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

 

 

 

Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn: a review

 

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Some might say that pride and pudding are two things my own life has shown a surfeit of but I would argue that in the case of the latter, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. And if I sound a little proud of that, then so be it.

Enter the newly published Pride and Pudding: the history of British puddings by Regula Ysewijn where the authors in-depth exploration of historical cooking texts has led to a rather splendid and faithful recreation of over eighty puddings, both sweet and savoury. By referencing each pudding’s original recipe against an updated version, Regula provides a contextual revival, helping us understand how and why recipes change over time. The bibliography and reference section are manna from heaven, providing the reader with a fine culinary and gastronomic genealogy and I wish more cookbooks did this, even if it invariably results my spending some eleventy billion pounds on yet more books (although my lack of fiscal self-control is hardly Regula’s fault).

The word ‘pudding’ sounds peculiarly English despite an etymological origin ranging from the West Germanic stem *pud- “to swell” which cognates with the Old English puduc ‘a wen’, or its possible origins in the Old French boudin “sausage,” which itself came from the Latin botellus ‘sausage’ and Regula explores this in her introduction. In the modern sense, the word ‘pudding’ had emerged by 1670, as an extension to the method of cooking foods by boiling or steaming them in a bag or sack. The German pudding, French pouding, Swedish pudding and Irish putog all derive from the word and as Regula points out in her foreword, in the eighteenth century when English food was developing its identity once more, pudding was central to its gastronomy and represented a solid challenge to the tyranny of French food which had developed itself as shorthand for all that was refined at table.

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Pudding has moved on from the stuffed vegetable recipe outlined in a Book of Cookrye in 1584 and the medieval technique of preparing fish, game birds and other beasts with a large pudding stuffed inside their belly although it took a Frenchman called Francois Maximilian Misson to declare “Blessed be he that invented pudding for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people…ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding.” Regula takes his lyrical tribute and runs with it, having amassed five years of blogging experience in the subject prior to writing her book.

Pride and Pudding begins with a handy guide to the different types of pudding (bread, baked, milk, boiled etc) then launches into a historical account of puddings through the ages, from their first mention in Homer’s The Odyssey where black pudding was prepared for Penelope’s suitors to feast upon as they competed for her hand, through to the Romans, Vikings, Normans and onto the court cooking that was documented in the years following the Hundred Years War when plague, taxes and harvest failures led to widespread famine. Moving onto the Medieval period, Regula tells us about surviving manuscripts which recorded the food of the elite: there’s a jelly made in the shape of a devil, a castle and a priest surrounded by a moat of custard and the first record of a pudding-cloth replacing animal intestines to cook puddings in. The Reformation wrought changes in the kitchen too with elaborate Catholic-associated feasts being replaced by ‘proper, honest cooking’ (the eternal cycle of fashion in food, perhaps) whilst Elizabeth the First’s sweet tooth led to a total lack of patent teeth in her later years. The introduction of refined white sugar  during her reign led to a sea-change in its use as sugar was transformed into the highly decorative sweetmeats which graced wealthy tables, and thousands of patissières must have cursed as they nursed burns from sputtering hot pans of sugar.

Moving onto the seventeenth-century, Regula tells us that French food gained dominance in Britain yet despite the prominence of this male chef-dominated cuisine more cookbooks were written by British women than ever before, kicking off with Hannah Wolley’s book, The Queen-Like Closet, published in 1670. Traditional white and black puddings continued to be popular whilst new puddings began to emerge such as Sussex Pond Pudding (1672, by Hannah), the first printed recipe for a Quaking Pudding was published as was the first recorded mention of the Christmas Pudding via Colonel Norwood’s diary record in 1645. As we move into the eighteenth to nineteenth-century and Georgian and Victorian cooking, the focus remains on spectacle with innovation in glassware permitting delicate milk puddings, syllabubs and jellies to be displayed beautifully and if you thought Heston Blumenthal popularised food made to resemble something else, you’d be wrong; the Georgians delighted in creating flummeries that resembled bacon and eggs.

Cabinet Pudding
Cabinet Pudding

We read of Parson Woodforde’s plum puddings, pease puddings and a pike with a pudding in its belly whilst Hannah Glasse makes the first print mention of the iconic Yorkshire Pud. The Georgian table was pudding heaven and the Victorian street-traders made them available to the lower-classes, selling plum duff and meat puds from steaming-hot baskets. Bookshops sold cookbooks entirely devoted to the pudding alongside Eliza Acton’s tome, Modern Cookery for Private Families, firmly locating the Angel of the Home back inside her kitchen unless she could afford staff.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw the growth of cooking as a leisure activity as an end in itself and the gradual move away from staffed kitchens in all but the grandest of houses. Two World Wars, the easy access to convenience foods and ingredients, the movement of women into the paid workplace, immigration, easy access to foreign travel and the decline in school cookery lessons has led to a period of turbulence in British food as it redefines itself. And our attitude to puddings very much reflects this. There’s our fetish for nursery-school puddings in a search for comfort and identity through shared nostalgia, the regained pride in our culinary past, the rise of chefs as superstars, and the constant need for new recipes to fill acres of space in cookbooks, magazines, online food sites and the many food-related TV programmes. And part of this necessarily involves looking back at where we-and the pudding- has come from.

This is where Regula’s solid research-based approach holds especial good, providing us cooks with context for ingredients and techniques. (The short section on what suet, rennet, gelatine and bone marrow is and what they are used for is both historically grounded and useful.) It is important, as a cook, to know why suet creates lightness in certain puddings and that vegetarian rennet substitutes go back to the time of Homer and are not newfangled. Once you start to take the why on board, you will soon be able to improvise and devise your own recipes as well as cooking your way through Pride and Pudding.

So…what about the pudding recipes? They are categorised into six sections: boiled and steamed; baked and batter puddings; bread puddings, jellies, milk puddings and ices; and lastly, a section for master recipes where you’ll find how to make clotted cream and custard-based sauces alongside various pastries, biscuits and flavoured vinegars. Regula incorporates notes  at the base of some of the pages, annotated with a sweet illustration of a pudding spoon. For example, her tort de moy, which is made with bone-marrow, double cream, candied peel, and rosewater among other things, has a suggestion of adding almonds to the infusion used to flavour the custard and her Devonshire white-pot can be cooked using a Dutch oven over a fire with its lid covered in hot coals instead of being placed inside an oven. There’s serving suggestions too.

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I’m particularly intrigued by her white-Pot recipe because a few weeks ago, I tweeted about a local bread and butter pudding recipe called Newmarket pudding (basically wailing for help) and Regula replied to me as did another culinary historian, Dr Annie Gray. The white-pot originated in Devon and consists of buttery layers of bread, set with custard and layered with sweet, plump dried fruits. Unlike our modern-day version where slices of bread are sogged in a mixture of sweetened-cream, the white-pot is sogged with a proper cooked custard made from egg-yolk, cream and sugar. It is an extremely luxurious-sounding meal although centuries ago, if you had access to your own cow, the incorporation of cream and butter would not have felt so indulgent and the pudding would have been a good way of using up stale bread. What might have been more of a luxury item would be the dried fruits which feel more prosaic to us, nowadays. Interestingly, the Newmarket pudding of which I mentioned was most likely the same pudding given a local name for no specific historical reason other than someone seeking to re-brand a generic national recipe for their own. The better historical question to ask is not who ‘invented’ Newmarket Pudding but why someone might seek to rename an existing recipe?

There’s in-depth recipes for haggis and black puddings with photographic depictions of their construction and the option of baking the latter in a tray instead of sausage casings. A white pudding sounds especially beautiful baked with saffron, pinhead oats, egg-yolks, dates and currants then served in a single burnished coil with honey, golden or maple syrup which would surely please James Joyce who saw the simple beauty in such a meal. A delicate castle pudding is similar to a pound cake in its ingredient proportions, lightly spiked with citrus from curd, juice or thinly sliced orange rounds. The sambocade, a cheese curd tart flavoured with elderflowers and the daryols, a flower-pot shaped custard tart, both made from hot-water pastry are somewhat sturdier, even rustic in appearance which belies the delicacy of their flavourings. I was particularly keen to make the prune tart whose genealogy includes their being made in Regula’s hometown of Antwerp on Ash Wednesday and it turned out beautifully despite my being unable to obtain’ the fairest Damask prunes’ as specified by Gervaise Markham in The English Housewife. I love prunes and the tablespoon of dark brown sugar added to them really intensifies their sticky dark flavour. If that doesn’t satisfy you then maybe try General Satisfaction, a pudding from Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book, 1868. Topped with a froth of beaten egg-white which covers a base containing a layer of raspberry, sponge fingers and cream, this is a mad confection which seems to take the best from many traditional British puddings. Hence the name, maybe?

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Ypocras Jellies

The batter section has another recipe I have never encountered before, Jersey Wonders, little twists of dough which are browned in lard and look for all the world like tiny pairs of female labia. (I may or may not be selling these to you, based upon that description!) Regula has chosen to not fiddle with the original recipe too much, keeping the sugar proportions roughly the same apart from a dusting of icing sugar. These are next on my list to try alongside the Ypocras jellies whose name comes from the original name for mulled wine back in the Middle Ages although, as she says, mulled wine has been around since Roman times. Mentioned by Chaucer when the first written British recipe appeared, these jellies contain all manner of spices, ‘bruised’ using a pestle and mortar and they look richly festive, perfect for Autumn and Winter feasts when their cardomom, bay, nutmeg, clementine and sloe gin flavours naturally shine (and are in season here in the UK). If you want to inspect a recipe for the mulled wine used in the jelly (also called Hippocras), this website has reprinted a manuscript from 1530 with permission of the British Library and it contains some unusual ingredients such galingale, grains of paradise, cubebs and long pepper (and should you wish to buy long-pepper, Barts Spices sell a decent one). I suspect that Nigella Lawson, no slouch in the alcohol-infused jelly stakes herself will adore this part of the book. In the same section (jellies, milk puddings, ices) you will find all the indulgent flummeries, syllabubs, trifles, possets and bombes you could ever need. Perfect party food all of them, naturally possessed of a comforting glamour, and something that chefs like Heston Blumenthal and the jelly company Bombas & Parr have clearly been inspired by. This is a book whose art direction is as meticulous as its academic research yet at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed by style over substance. The images are Old Masterly in style and cleverly compliment the contemporary twist Regula affords her pudding recipes.

If, like me, you crave a return to a more thoughtful kind of cookbook that entertains while it educates, Pride and Pudding: The History of British Puddings is out now, published by Murdoch Books in Britain, Australia and New Zealand and Regula’s website also has details of some specially commissioned Pride and Pudding bowls. It’s a wonderful and  timeless book and one hell of an achievement.

Regula’s website: Pride and Pudding

Photographs used here with kind permission of Regula Ysewijn.

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48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

Harwich Lighthouse ?exhibited 1820 by John Constable 1776-1837
Harwich Lighthouse // 1820 John Constable 1776-1837 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01276

Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above]  of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour  as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.

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The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here.  Ports are  a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.

Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Harwich by Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal. 

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”


[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port  where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s  livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.

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An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.

I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?

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Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth]  to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”

Copyright nick macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licenc
Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP  and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.

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Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.

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The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.

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The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.

Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel  which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.

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Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones,  the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.

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Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and  ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:

Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.

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There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”

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It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry  Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.

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It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.

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Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.

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Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry. 

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Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.

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If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank.  The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.

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The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.

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Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.

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In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.

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Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).