O Mosey Quince – a history with a few recipes

 

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“O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake”

Unlike Chaucer, who often seemed to encounter in the wild, the fruit he described in ‘O Mosey Quince!’ as having cheeks  ‘enbolned lyke a melow costard, Colour of orenge your brestys satournad”, I rarely come across English quinces on the tree, let alone for sale in local stores.  That is my fault, not the fruits. I have seen them sold by the side of the road in French villages of palest stone and hanging from Spanish hedgerow branches that lean into the light to set their fruit. I have made the acquaintance of quince trees amid the cork oak forests near Tempio Pausania in north western Sardinia and their opposite; the trellised, manicured ‘Minarette’ beauties of Villandry which edge the potagers planted with pink-frilled cabbages, miniature artichokes and the tangled frizz of fennel. I have even seen a gnarled and elderly wind-sculpted specimen on Cheju island in South Korea, a silent witness to generations of newly-wed Koreans who traditionally honeymoon there. Earlier in the year, it fluttered with blossoms the shade of sugared almonds which faded to white barred with shell-pink as sunlight and wind-sear got to them. Later on, the tree staggered under the weight of its fruit, their rounded rumps a perfect spanked bottom rosy yallery-pink. Clusters of leaves were thickly felted with white and provided shelter for clouds of winged creatures as vivid as stained glass windows.

A honeymoon destination sounds like an appropriate location for quinces although the fruit is often associated more with a knowing carnality as opposed to blushing and innocent exploratory fumblings. When the vicar conducting our wedding suggested he read from ‘Song of Solomon’, I read it, blushed and felt an unusual coyness at the thought of quince carnality. We decided against it.

This poem by Shafer Ben Utman al-Mushafi, vizier to Caliph Al-Hakam II of Cordoba in Andalusia is another favourite of mine and the words possess a similar drowsy eroticism:

“It is yellow in colour, as if it wore a daffodil tunic, and it smells like musk, a penetrating smell.

It has the perfume of a loved woman and the same hardness of heart, but it has the colour of the impassioned and scrawny lover.

Its pallor is borrowed from my pallor; its smell is my sweetheart’s breath.

When it stood fragrant on the bough and the leaves had woven for it a covering of brocade,

I gently put up my hand to pluck it and set it like a censer in the middle of my room.

It had a cloak of ash-coloured down hovering over its smooth golden body,

and when it lay naked in my hand, with nothing more than its daffodil-coloured shift,

it made me think of her I cannot mention, and I feared the ardour of my breath would shrivel it in my fingers.”

In France, they call quinces ‘les coings’: the original Latin term for the fruit was cotoneum which then evolved into the French coin or coings. Quince is a well travelled fruit, aside from where we plant it, native to the Caucasus between Persia and Turkmenistan and spreading in cultivation to the eastern Mediterranean basin. Apples originated in Kazakhstan but it is thought that the quince came earlier: was Eve’s apple really a quince? Did Helen of Troy bribe Paris to award a quince to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as the prize in a beauty contest, starting the Trojan War?  Did quince trees spring up wherever Aphrodite walked? The truth about Eve’s offering is hard to qualify but it is likely that most golden apples mentioned in literature were actually quinces as they would have been more widely grown and certainly more familiar to locals, particularly in the Levant and southern Europe.

Time and good breeding has seen its shape transformed from those earlier fruits which came from the town of Kydonia on Crete and which gave the quince its botanical name, Cydonia Oblonga.  The Greek name “Cydonian apple” appears to suggest that Crete served as  a ‘halfway house’ in the spread of the quince to Europe. The quince’s route to the west is intensely romantic, travelling through the narrow trepidacious valleys along ancient trade routes, reaching the Middle East and then the Mediterranean under their old name, golden apples. The routes they took eastwards were no less arduous and dramatic, a tough skin and sturdy flesh helping them survive the deserts of the Silk Road, arriving in China and acquiring a new name: the golden peaches of Samarkand.

El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904. Paris is holding the golden apple on his right hand while surveying the goddesses in a calculative manner
El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904. Paris is holding the golden apple on his right hand while surveying the goddesses in a calculative manner

The Ancient Greeks associated this most plump of rump fruit with fertility, love and marriage, and as a bridal breath-sweetener before she entered her marital chambers, a reminder of Shafer Ben Utman al-Mushafi’s words: “It’s smell is my sweetheart’s breath.” The quince played a meaningful role in wedding celebrations and rituals too. They are baked into Greek wedding feast cakes along with honey and sesame seeds-a symbol of enduring commitment. Lear knew of this and celebrated it in the union of The Owl and the Pussycat whose own meal of honey, mince and quince was imbued with romance and the desire for marital bliss, escape and adventure- all perfectly encapsulated by the quince and its own history.

They dined on mince and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon.

The golden skin of the quince was compared to that of the planet Venus by Nˆaser-e-Khosrow- an Ismaili poet and philosopher and we also know Venus as the planet of love. During the Middle Ages,  moslems prized the quince as important for fortune-telling and dream-interpretation: it was given to brides the night before their marriage ceremony although accounts of what might happen should bridal dreams advise of a grooms’ unsuitability are thin on the ground.

Last week, our own journey in search of local quinces ended in Harleston where we picked up a couple of crates worth from a Twitter friend made flesh, yet another journey undertaken by this most travelled of fruits. A fruitful year had left him with a surfeit of everything and we were some of the lucky recipients. An hour later, after driving through an early Autumn fog which rolled in over Thetford and the Brecklands, we were home. The car was filled with a perfumed fug as dense as the Norfolk mists outside, notes of pineapple, the verdancy of pear and a heady guava sweetness, with a sneeze-inducing pepper at its heart. The scent is still there, weeks later.

It isn’t just the scent which lasts either. The quince is emminently suitable for careful storage, each fruit shrouded in newspaper and placed in crates down in a cool cellar or dry weatherproof shed. We don’t brush off the grey lanugo-like coating that clings to the skin of just ripe quinces; just as the lanugo on a newborn child is left to rub off naturally, so must that of the quince. Whether prepped immediately or stored, we modern cooks follow a grand culinary tradition because medieval cooks also held the quince in high regard, spiking its cooked flesh with exotics such as cloves and ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and honey and serving it alongside game and other rich foods.  The quince’s epic history made it perfect for medieval courts and banquets and it was presented to the nobility of Europe in the form of jellies and pastes: cotogna in Italy, carne de membrillo in Spain, marmellad in Sweden, cotignac in France and marmelline in Middle French. Both the Greeks and Romans preserved quinces in honey, giving rise to the name melimelum from the Greek for honey apple. It is not difficult to see how this became the Spanish marmello and then, membrillo although later versions of the paste replaced the spices of the original charde de quince with rosewater, honey, musk and ambergris. Similar pastes were also made at the time with crab apple and pear, namely, chardecrabe and chardepere.

Van Gogh: Still Life with Quinces
Van Gogh: Still Life with Quinces

The Tudors believed in its early reputation as an aphrodisiac and stimulator of carnal and carnivorous desires. They cooked it down into pectin-rich marmalades until it was a deeply pinkish- orange jelly, firm enough to hold its own shape. Wrapped in golden foil, this delicacy would thus be served to the object of their desires. The effects of naturally occurring pectins were first discovered by the Romans who cooked and then preserved the fruit but, by the sixteenth century, the Portugese began to make marmelada, whose name came from the Portuguese for quinces, marmelo. In 1611, John Tradescant brought this Portugese quince to Britain and a royal marriage between Portugal’s Catharine of Bragacança and Charles the Second benefited England not only because her dowry included two cities, Tangiers and Bombay, but also because of its copious amounts of tea and quince jelly. So fruitful was this union that Picadilly in London was even named Portugal Street in commemoration and little wooden boxes of this paste became tres chic, given as gifts and seen at the smartest functions. The British, via their close links with the Portugese, began to devise their own recipes for thick fruit pastes because they could be costly to buy and the name thus morphed into marmalade. However, until the eighteenth century, marmalade solely referred to a preserve made with quinces and not with oranges or other fruits.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a quince always requires careful preparation and cooking because it is sour to the point of being inedible. Was thus not always so. In the first century AD, Pliny praised their medicinal virtues and mentions the Mulvan variety, which was the only cultivated quince at the time that could be eaten raw. Later on people started to believe that raw fruit of many types would cause illness and inflame the senses so, until the eighteenth century, eating it uncooked fell out of favour. Alongside Pliny’s Mulvan quince, the quinces of Isfahan can swell to large sizes and when ripened, are fecund with a sweet juice which can be enjoyed straight off the tree. Many of the quinces of Central Asia, the Middle East and South America can also be eaten ‘raw’ but they are also gustatory reminders of a time when Westerners possessed a less developed sweet tooth. In the past a toothsome sharpness, an astringent citrus perfume in the mouth was more highly prized, not regarded as undesirable and became a most welcome counterpoint to heavy, rich and sometimes greasily fleshed meat. The Persians were masterful when it came to melding different qualities on the plate and in the mouth, cooking meat and sour fruits together, and the British took careful note, going on to serve quince sauces with richer game meats like partridge.

Imagine a platter piled high with chunks of young lamb, sliced or cubed quince on a bed of rice which swiftly becomes saturated with fragrant juices. The Persian ḵᵛorešt-e beh uses a bed of yellow split peas as a sop for flavour instead of rice.  Quince also stars in in āb-gūšt-e beh, a thick soup where the fruity flesh is cubed and combined with lamb shanks, dried legumes, tomatoes and spices, all served with piles of flat breads their surfaces blistered with chewy brown heat bubbles.  Their cooks called their version of quince paste morabbā-ye beh and served it for breakfast and used the fruit in wildly inventive ways:  in the tenth century, the chef Bāvaṛčī refers to a recipe for a sweet bread (komāj-e beh) made with quince, flour, ghee, milk, almond paste, pistachio paste, and rose water.

The Persian table would also include toršī-e beh- another kind of pickled quince- and a sherbert style drink known as šarbat-e beh-līmū, which refreshes an over-indulged palate with a sweet syrup base comprising lemon juice, sugar and water. A stock quince syrup is layered with water and ice to make the prettiest of drinks, a Tintoretto in a glass, although the daftest [ab]use of quinces I could find appears in The Satyricon, by Petronius. Here we learn of a dinner given by Trimalchio, a vulgar freedman with more money than taste or style,  where the assembled diners are presented with ‘Quinces, with thorns implanted to make them look like sea urchins.”

This time of year leaves us awash with recipes for quince jellies, preserves and the various eau de vies and flavoured liqueurs that ward off the shivers during a long British winter. I’m offering a couple of recipes that are a little different and most certainly hark back to Olden Tymes. The first is my version of ‘Quynces Bake’ which was served during the coronation of Richard the Third. Originally a pastry coffin filled with quinces cored and filled with sugar and ginger, my version is considerably lighter and devoid of anything entombed. The original menu from the banquet still survives actually, and this was the last dish served to diners no doubt suffering from fairly advanced dyspepsia or what the French might call ‘un crise du foie.’

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The quince bake can also be made as a crumble without the pie base.

Quynce Bakes (or tarts)

For the crust and filling:

butter 100g, room temp / golden caster sugar 80g / plain flour 200g / egg 1, lightly beaten / 1 lemon / 500g dessert apples (I use Hereford and Egremont Russets) / 2 tbsp golden caster sugar / 4 tbsp honey mead (I use Tournament mead from Lyme Bay Winery but any good one will do.)

Crumble topping:

plain flour 150g / 75g butter, salted / golden demerara sugar 75g / 1 lightly beaten egg / 1 tsp ginger / tbsp crushed hazelnuts /

Grease a 22cm tart tin with a removable base and set aside. You will need to make the pastry crust first and this is made easy by dicing the butter and putting it into a processor/mixer with 80g sugar, creaming until fluffy and light. Add the egg and after this has been well mixed, tip in the flour, spoon by spoon. Work the dough lightly until it forms a ball and put it onto a well floured surface. It will be soft and yielding and you will have to knead it a little to bring it into line. Dust your rolling pin and roll out the dough to fit your tin, pushing it carefully into the corners so it fits. Don’t worry about having to patch any tears; this is a forgiving and rustic tart. Refrigerate for at least half an hour when done as this will help prevent the crust from shrinking.

Now put the baking sheet into your oven which will be set at 200c. You will now have to turn your attention to the filling and start off by juicing that lemon, pouring the juice into a mixing bowl. Peel, core and chop those quinces into small tart shaped pieces, toss them in the juice to keep them from browning.

Put the quince pieces into a deep pan, add the sugar and the mead and cover with a lid. Cook down over a low heat (check and stir from time to time) for about 15 mins and they will be ready when you can easily pierce them with a skewer or sharp knife point. As the syrup reduces, you’ll need to keep a careful watch for burning.

As the quinces cook and fill the kitchen with delicious honeyed scents, peel and dice the apples. Tumble the peices into the quinces when the latter are  nearly tender and keep on with their cooking, lid on for 5-10 minutes or until the apples are just soft. Leave in the pan to cool. Your kitchen should now smell so beautifully that Aphrodite might well be resurrected.

Now make your ‘coffin’ topping by cutting the butter into little bits and adding it, with the flour, into the processor, blitzing until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Non processor owners can rub the butter into the flour in the time honoured manner. Then, add the sugar, the crushed hazelnuts and the egg and mix it all together until it forms the crumbly, jumbly texture you love most about a crumble.

Take the uncooked tart case from the fridge and pour that honeyed fruit into it, setting aside any juice, then scatter over the crumble topping with your fingers. Put the tin onto the baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes until both crust and topping are crisp and golden. Allow to stand for ten minutes or until you can stand it no longer and serve with a few whole hazelnuts, a trickle of reserved fruit juices, cream and a glass of mead.

Jane Grigson’s Quince Cream

In ‘English Food’, Jane Grigson rightly celebrates the quince and although her paste recipe is a stalwart, it is to her quince cream that I turn the most. Made also with gooseberries and the muscat with which these tiny sharp fruits have an affinity, the substitution of quinces is, for me, inspired, producing a pudding which is yet another one of those classic ‘doucets’, the set creams that the British love so. ‘Blessed be he that invented puddings” said Francois Misson and in Autumn we are most certainly blessed with a pudding which can be eaten as is, with a dollop of stewed fruit on the side or poured into a pastry or tart case and turned into something a little more substantial.

500g quince / golden caster sugar / 300ml double cream / 3 egg yolks / 60g butter, melted / an ‘appropriate wine or spice’- I recommend mead, any eau de vie which is copacetic with quinces or a madeira, sweet marsala or Stones ginger wine. For spices, ginger, saffron, vanilla or star anise all suit.

Peel, core and dice the quinces and place in a heavy pan with three tablespoons of water and three tablespoons of sugar. Cook down slowly until soft enough for a skewer or knife point to easily pierce its flesh. Remove from the heat and place in a sieve over a bowl. Set aside the juices and put the soft mass of fruit pulp into a mixing bowl. Add more golden caster sugar to taste: you want it sweetly fragrant. Let cool and then beat in the cream then the egg yolks and the soft butter. Flavour with the spices if you have chosen to use them and add a few spoons of the mead or other alcohol but not so much that it makes the consistency too runny.

Now you can either cook this mixture slowly over a bain marie until it is very thick or turn it into a prepared pastry case / tart case and bake at 190C / 375F until just set. If you are cooking on the hob, keep the heat low and take a few moments to enjoy the slow contemplative stirring required to produce this manna from your kitchen. Too high a heat will curdle the egg yolks so be purposeful, be patient. I have made this into a tart with a base of crushed ginger biscuit and butter in the manner of a cheesecake and I have used pre prepared butter pastry from the chiller cabinet too. I have also eaten it as is, spooned from the cooking pot or, when on my best manners, poured into delicate bowls of pressed glass. It is an astonishingly kind recipe.


Thank you Jeanne De Montbaston for your help.

Thank you Andrew McDonald for the quinces (twitter)

For more on the etymology of the word ‘quince’, click here.

Header image: A quince tree in fruit. Detail of the garden mural from the triclinium in the House of Livia, Rome. The paintings date ca. 30-20 BC. The murals are now displayed in a dedicated room of the National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo. By Ian Scott via Flickr. (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

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Pheasants…

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“Don’t go in there!”

The shout reached me a hundred yards down a rutted track, plashy along its edges where the water table rose up. The caution from my husband came just in time to stop me from stepping over a sagging chicken-wire fence to follow the dog walkers ahead of me into a stand of pines, forest-dark and upright as a Japanese etching against a sky the colour of porridge.

Ahead of me, a semi-circle of straw bales mouldered and sagging after a wet summer, and underfoot, discarded grain hulled by the sharp beaks of the thousands of young pheasants which are released from their pens into the countryside. They are now ready for the lucrative meets which will soon pepper our skies with shot.

Slades Covert, where I stood, lies next to the village of Gt Livermere and acts as an elementary school for game birds, a place for them to clatter around until they pluck up the courage to venture forth onto the open fields which surround their feeding pens.

This time of year country roads become the avian version of a crap shoot, as these immature birds have yet to become wise to what happens when feathers meet car bumpers: they burst out of hedgerows, putter about in the middle of the road and change their mind mid-crossing meaning our roads soon become decorated with brightly coloured smears as pheasant meets car.

We’d only stopped here so I could boost some dandelions, couch grass and assorted other weeds to take home for my rabbits from the road side but I’m a sucker for field-edge footpaths and cannot stop myself from wandering up them, even at dusk when the chances are high that I will have to navigate back using my phone torch and wearing the most unsuitable shoes.

Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons
Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons

I’d spent half the journey mourning the passing of every creature splattered on the tarmac and the other half delivering lectures on road safety to the partridge families that were scratting about in the washes of grit that are left after a cloud burst, those channels of yellow mud and tiny stones that braid the road verges. It wasn’t just game birds either; a kestrel was eating its fill of roadkill and another was further along the road, pecking at grit, perched on the verge and reaching down over the edge. He was clearly older and in possession of road wisdom. The surrounding field, clodded in brown and devoid of crops operate as a partridge fight club where the birds went for it, hell for leather, their wings rayed and furious as they flew at each other until one surrendered and ran away, head extended, a feathered stealth bomber in retreat.

Walk the back lanes of Gt Livermere in the late afternoon and the noise is deafening as hundreds of water birds return to the mere and settle down for the night on waters turning mercury grey as night approaches. The clamour rises for a time then starts to fall: ‘In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon…Where is? I’m here? An upward inflection in query and in response’, Alice Ostriker calls it, in her poem ‘Birdcall.’

Silhouetted against the risen moon were an inbound wedge of geese and ducks who skillfully wove a flightpath through the thick brush that lay between mere and us. The splashes as the geese settled onto the waters into a tight plump bounced around the fields. There was no wind at all to stifle the noise down on the ground, unusual for this exposed part of the county although up high, their powerful wingbeats rebuffed the wind, hurling and gliding.

Binoculars do nothing to close the space between us and birds in flight and seeing the mechanical struts and bolts of their extended wings only amplifies the essential mystery of flight. I know how the science works, but I am still wondrously unknowing at the same time. Staring up at the geese, my head tilted back as far as it will go, I turn slowly, 360 degrees and then again until dizziness overtakes and feel like I might swirl through the thick viscous grey of the skies, shedding the magnetic grounding in time and space which keeps me pulled tight against the sticky cracked clay of the field.

Up high, the birds looked down in flight and watched the world swing into shadow as Sunday evening draws the weekend to a close.

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Gt Livermere Church faces the mere.

Cook book reviews for Autumn 2015

Picking your way through the forest of new cooking titles that pop up like mushrooms isn’t easy so we’ve taken a look and chosen some of our favourite releases for you. There’s something for all here from modern baking by a Californian transpant to Hackney to a book that shows us how to channel the spirit of the Swedish Fika. We also welcome new books by some favourites from the restaurant world too. Enjoy and let us know about your favourites too.
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The Paw-Paw is largest edible fruit native to the United States and tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. Growing wild in twenty-six states, it has fed Native Americans and European explorers, presidents, and enslaved African Americans, inspiring folk songs, poetry, and scores of place names from Georgia to Illinois. Requiring no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, it is made for organic production methods and the fruit possesses compounds that are among the most potent anticancer agents yet discovered. There’s much to discover, clearly.  In Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, author Andrew Moore explores the past, present, and future of this unique fruit, traveling from the Ozarks to Monticello; canoeing the lower Mississippi in search of wild fruit; drinking pawpaw beer in Durham, North Carolina; tracking down lost cultivars in Appalachian hollers; and helping out during harvest season in a Maryland orchard. Along the way, he gathers pawpaw lore and knowledge not only from the plant breeders and horticulturists working to bring pawpaws into the mainstream (including Neal Peterson, known in pawpaw circles as the fruit’s own “Johnny Pawpawseed”), but also regular folks who remember eating them in the woods as kids, but haven’t had one in over fifty years. I’m a big fan of single-subject food writing and Moore has written a superb guide to this most unusual fruit which is also a reminder to all of us to engage deeper with our own foodways and eat those foods which perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

 

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Lynn Hill established the Clandestine Cake Club in 2010 partly as a response to the recent rise in popularity of secret supper clubs. There are now over 200 clubs around the UK and overseas and this is her second cake book, containing 100 ‘celebratory’ recipes contributed by club members and by Lynn herself. The cake club meets tend to have a theme which members bake to and The Clandestine Cake Club: a year in cake structures its recipes around this with each cake paying homage to noteworthy events and occasions throughout the year, including a sea salted caramel cake which honours Nigel Slaters birthday and the time he paid a visit to the CCC to film an episode of his own show.

Ingredients and cakes range from the traditional (Victoria sponges, roulades, vanilla, coffee) to the less so (tres leches cake, opera cake, rosehip, masala chai) and include unusual combinations ( bacon and maple syrup, sweet potato and vanilla). Traditional cakes such as bara brith are reinvigorated with new ingredients like Welsh honey and camomile and seasons are reflected too (summery lemon and mint cake). The golden pineapple cream cake and caramel pecan brittle swiss roll take this mix of innovation to another level. Sumptuous but clear photographs by Kris Kirkham help less experienced bakers gain understanding as to how the cakes should look and, as you’d expect, the recipes are well written and therefore they work.

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Another year of good eating for Mr Slater is prefixed by some cautionary words about the current epidemic of imbuing foodstuffs with moral and characterful qualities and, as he says, “the need to divide the content of our plates into heroes and villains.” Slater has been cooking for five decades now which affords him the moral authority to overview the constant relay of food and eating fads. He is right, he has ALWAYS been right to warn us about the consequences of allowing guilt and shame to drive our eating. Yes, the methods of production do have an intrinsic moral value and we are right to shun factory farming, companies that do not pay a fair wage and excessive, indulgent food miles but essentially food should be about pleasurable fuel for the body and his recipes reflect that.

His latest book, Kitchen Diaries III- a year of good eating is a collection of recipes collated into a diary form from a few years worth of eating. There is evidence of Slater using ingredients new to him and fashionable to others but he incorporates them into meals which are more than a ‘for sake of’ use of todays buzz food. His New Years Day crispbreads contain trendy rye and spelt but having read and cooked from Kitchen Diaries I and II, I can see the evolution, how Slater arrived here as opposed to a phagocytic takeover of a trend or movement which was created by other people.

What do I really want to cook? There’s a lovely Raclette tart which cuts an eggy, buttery and creme fraiche richness with the acidulated tang of cornichons and the mild burn of a good salami. Pork bone soup is inspired by a hole-in-the-wall meal and a dog-eared laminated menu and his loganberry summer cake is Tove Jansson on a china plate. The date of writing this has me turning to the corresponding recipe for a marmalade of onion and collapsed fig tart and later on in October, he suggests a smoked mackerel and celeriac remoulade to use up the nobbly root in my larder.

There’s a useful new idea too- four seasonal sections devoted to easy cook, easy eating and a development of his previus cookbook, Eat, which riffed off the twitter format with 140 character recipes. These are the heart of our everyday eating, an answer to those days when you haven’t got a ziplock bag of lamb chops marinading in the fridge or a complex gratin with layers beautifully melded together. He’s understated is Mr Slater and his recipes are not predicated upon a perfection of finish and state of the art technique- Slater does not want to leave his readers breathlessly impressed at his skill and wondering if they can pull it off.  His food is a clever distillation of a lifetime’s adventures in food and you, dear reader, get to live this vicariously and achievably through those recipes.
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Claire Ptak owns a jewel box of a cake shop and cafe in East London. The Violet Bakery Cookbook is her fourth book and what a book! Focusing on decent quality ingredients and making an effort to explore alternatives for those of you who cannot eat gluten, it goes to say that Violet is a progressive and modern book that still pays its dues to the rules of patisserie. And because of this, the recipes work. Along with running her bakery-café, Ptak is also a food writer, food and prop stylist, recipe developer and consultant which explains its exquisite design, underpinned by real substance. An old school jacket and cheery yellow bookcloth contains recipes that read as a day in the life of her kitchen, covering savoury and sweet foods eaten for breakfast, merenda or elevenses, dinner, parties and lunches. Ptak isn’t a finish fascist either, her icing and decoration show the eye of an artist but are engagingly freeform in appearance. The amateur will feel able to have a go and feel content with their efforts.

Favourite recipes? Banana buttermilk bread, butterscotch blondies, the very adult-sounding ginger molasses cake and the coconut-cream trifle cake.The savoury recipes are great but to be honest, the sweet stuff is what lured me in and kept me baking.

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An ingredient-led feel is what attracted us to Sugar and Spice by Samantha Seneviratne with over 80 recipes that reinvent classic sweets and introduce readers to the more unusual spices, used to infuse puddings. Veteran food editor and recipe developer Samantha Seneviratne invites readers to explore a bold new world of spice-centric desserts with chapter concentrating on a different spice–some familiar, like vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger; others less expected (especially in sweet preparations), such as peppercorns, chiles, and cardamom. There’s familiar recipes such as brownies except these are perfumed with salt and pepper. The cinnamon section (a spice massively popular in the USA and UK) has cinnamon, hazel and date buns, new love cake and ricotta cheesecake with bourbon raisin jam  whilst the nutmeg section has tales of the nutmeg trail and Dutch and British battles over this highly-prized spice.

These recipes are practical but by God, you get the romance too. Seneviratne is a storyteller, making the reader feel thoroughly at home in her life as the child of a first-generation Sri Lankan family, a history she interweaves with the history of the spices and herbs she cooks with and, interestingly, the consumption of sugar in the US and its attendant health issues. We read about her grandmother in Sri Lanka and her beloved brother, and meanr about Seneviratnes mother’s love of the ‘boxed mixes’ she grew up on. As the family adjusted to the USA, they developed a love for all things “American” which threatened to overshadow her grandmother’s love of Sri Lanka and eclipse the sensual wonders of the nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom that grew on her property amongst the coconut palms, teak trees and frangipani, avocado and bananas.

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The Appalachian region of the USA doesn’t spring to mind when one lists the great cuisines of the world but overlooking it altogether would mean we miss out on a fascinating story of geology, ecology, human migration and seasonality. Eating Appalachia by Darrin Nordahl kicks off with a lesson in how to pronounce the name of the region (think how ‘apple atcha’ sounds) which extends from the mountainous spine of Maine in the northernmost reaches of the contigious States right down to Georgia in the south.

From the intoxicatingly scented paw-paw and Appalachian spice bush, the foods of this region are explored, introducing us to the people responsible for the resurgence in popularity of them, competitions and festivals where they are celebrated and recipes developed by the many people the author encounters. We read of the problems foraging of plants such as the ramp and ginseng is causing too, a salutatory warning for the UK which is seeing an increase in this activity and restaurateurs start to take notice of what is on their door step. The recipes are lovely and easily achieved IF you can locate these ingredients, many of which are botanically specific to the region. However, improvisation is accommodated. There’s Pawpaw Panna Cotta, Pawpaw Whiskey Sour, Chianti-Braised Elk Stew, Pan-Fried Squirrel with Squirrel Gravy, Ramp Linguine, and Wild Ginger Poached Pears, among others.

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More food writing now with Simon Majumdar’s Fed, White and Blue: Finding America With My Fork who describes himself as not your typical idea of an immigrant. As he says, “I’m well rested, not particularly poor, and the only time I ever encounter ‘huddled masses’ is in line at Costco.” But immigrate he did, and thanks to a Homeland Security agent who asked if he planned to make it official, the journey chronicled in Fed, White, and Blue was born. In it, Simon sets off on a trek across the United States to find out what it really means to become an American, using what he knows best: food.

Stopping in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about what the pilgrims ate (and that playing Wampanoag football with large men is to be avoided); a Shabbat dinner in Kansas; Wisconsin to make cheese (and get sprayed with hot whey); and LA to cook at a Filipino restaurant in the hope of making his in-laws proud, Simon writes wholeheartedly about the food cultures that make up America. He brews beer and works in farming; spends time helping out at a food bank, and even finds himself at a tailgate. This is a warm and humorous book that explores what it means to be American through a prism of food.

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Relae: A Book of Ideas by Chef Christian F Puglisi looks, at first, to be terribly worthy and earnest; a series of interconnected “idea essays,” which reveal the ingredients, practical techniques, and philosophies that inform Puglisi’s cooking. Each essay is connected to one (or many) of the dishes he serves, and readers are invited to flip through the book in whatever sequence inspires them—from idea to dish and back to idea again. However, the result is a deeply personal and unusual reading experience: a rare glimpse into the mind of a top chef, and the opportunity to learn the language of one of the world’s most pioneering and acclaimed restaurants. It is an interesting departure from the standard format of a recipe book by a working chef, Christian F. Puglisi who opened restaurant Relæ in 2010 on a rough, run-down stretch of one of Copenhagen’s most crime-ridden streets.

His goal was simple: to serve impeccable, intelligent, sustainable, and plant-centric food of the highest quality—in a setting that was devoid of the pretention and frills of conventional high-end restaurant dining. Relæ was an immediate hit, and Puglisi’s “to the bone” ethos—which emphasized innovative, substantive cooking over crisp white tablecloths or legions of water-pouring, napkin-folding waiters—became a rallying cry for chefs around the world.

Today the Jægersborggade—where Relæ and its more casual sister restaurant, Manfreds, are located—is one of Copenhagen’s most vibrant and exciting streets. And Puglisi continues to excite and surprise diners with his genre-defying, wildly inventive cooking.

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More American food writing now from Writings in The Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways by David A Davis and Tara Powell and, more specifically, writings with their roots deeply in the fertile soil of the Deep South. Aiming to go past tired old cliches yet cognizant of the fact that ignoring those well known tropes won’t make them go away, Writings in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.This collection examines food writing in a range of literary expressions, including cookbooks, agricultural journals, novels, stories, and poems. Contributors interpret how authors use food to explore the changing South, considering the ways race, ethnicity, class, gender, and region affect how and what people eat. They describe foods from specific southern places such as New Orleans and Appalachia, engage both the historical and contemporary South, and study the food traditions of ethnicities as they manifest through the written word..

Scarlett O’Hara munched on a radish and vowed never to go hungry again. Vardaman Bundren ate bananas in Faulkner’s Jefferson, and the Invisible Man dined on a sweet potato in Harlem. Although food and stories may be two of the most prominent cultural products associated with the South, the connections between them have not been thoroughly explored until now.

Southern food has become the subject of increasingly self-conscious intellectual consideration. The Southern Foodways Alliance, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, food-themed issues of Oxford American and Southern Cultures, and a spate of new scholarly and popular books demonstrate this interest. Writing in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.

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April Bloomfield is one of the new British young turks whose chef skills have won them huge accolades in New York City and in A Girl and her Greens: Hearty Meals From the Garden, Bloomfield allows colourful, tasty vegetables to take centre stage. Previously focusing on the glories of the pig, here we see a chef at the height of her powers of imagination and creativity, proving that vegetables are not an also ran. There’s roasted onion with sage pesto (a great nod to British stuffing flavours), Swiss chard cannelloni, fennel salad with blood orange (delicious) and braised peas with little gem lettuce, the latter paying homage to classical French cuisine. The ingredient lists aren’t exhausting either. Crushed spring peas with mint has just seven items and none of them expensive or hard to find. The ingredients do need to be fresh, seasonal and good quality though although she is flexible. Take foccacia with three toppings: each topping offers an opton for different times of the year and acts as jumping off point for your own ideas too. Fashions are referenced too with the ubiquitous kimchi recipe included.

With gorgeous photos by David Loftus and cute illustrations by Sun Young Park (the cabbage kimchi squat is a favourite), the recipes are organised by season, by vegetable type or by ingredient/dish; the structure is not hidebound by the way. Her restaurant, The Spotted Pig and previous book, A Girl and Her Pig are referenced with chapters called Top to Tail where all the vegetable is used up (carrot top pesto is an example) which is an approach I haven’t encountered so explicitly before although it is a philosophy many households follow by necessity. Other chapters are titled ‘My pal, the potato’ and ‘with a Little help from meats’- it isn’t a vegetarian book which needs to be made clear although there is much for non meat eaters here. Bloomfield is no aloof perfectionist either; she shares her less than successful results and uses a personal tone throughout.

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To another perfectly designed book now with Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats Hardcover by Anna Brones; one of my favourite book releases of the last year because it distils everything we find swoonsome about Scandinavia- its literature, food, design and way of living- down into one book. Fika pays homage to Sweden and its status as one of the world’s top coffee consuming nations. The twice-daily social coffee break known as fika is a cherished custom and can be partaken of alone or with others. It is as much a state of mind as it is of being.In this adorable illustrated cookbook, Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall share nearly fifty classic recipes from cinnamon buns, Swedish cinnamon and cardamom bread and ginger snaps to rhubarb cordial and rye bread and include information and anecdotes about Swedish coffee culture (why it was once a boys club), and the roots and modern incarnations of the custom. Explanations of traditions such as name days are accompanied by recipes for celebratory cakes like advent pepparkakor alongside charming illustrations about how to flip and roll Swedish pancakes and the traditional shaping techniques for baking such as Swedish saffron buns and Semlor, the latter served before Lent.

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The exquisiteness continues with another beautufully designed cookbook by a trained chef of national reknown. I have frequently had the pleasure of eating Skye Gyngells food when she was at the helm of the Petersham Nurseries kitchen in West London and now, thank goodness, she is back with the eponymous new place to hang her toque up on and a book. Published to celebrate this, Spring presents a collection of mouthwatering original recipes from the new restaurant’s menu -there’s beautiful bread and pasta dishes, seafood and meat dishes, colourful salads and vegetables, enticing ice cream and desserts, original preserves and refreshing non-alcoholic drinks. there’s crab salad with chilli, pumpkin, curry leaves and lime, pappardalle with oxtail ragu, guinea fowl with faro and parsley, kimchi and warm chocolate and espresso puddings.

But Spring also provides a fascinating insight into the creation of the restaurant itself, from Skye’s first visit to the space at Somerset House, through the design and development of the site to the opening of the restaurant. She describes how the menu evolved, from the early days testing recipes in her kitchen at home to the opening in October 2014. She also reveals details about the other aspects that give the restaurant its unique character: the decor, art, staff uniforms, table settings etc. We really welcome a book which gives such insight into a chefs life and in doing so, properly credits their hard work, skill and creative input. This embarrassment of riches culminates with Andy Sewell’s evocative photographs, which capture the essence of Skye’s inspirational food as well as the dazzling atmosphere of the restaurant.

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Know what? I love Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher and Jane Grigson needs to take up her place up on the podium alongside them. Her confiding warmth makes her one of my absolute favourite writers and I cannot understand why she is not championed as much as David et al. Now, 25 years after her untimely death and having been out of print for over a decade, Grub Street is republishing the ultimate compendium of Jane Grigson’s recipes as The Best of Jane Grigson. Following the success of her first book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cooking, Grigson’s research and flair for cooking speak for themselves within this tome. With a delightful introduction by her friend, Elizabeth David, this book is a staple for every cook. The book is organised into regional cuisines from across the globe including: the Americas, the Mediterranean, the Europeans, India and the Far East and contains sections entitled ‘At Home in England’ and ‘At Home in France’; both places close to Jane’s heart. There is also, of course, a detailed chapter on charcuterie.The recipes are introduced in English, with brief descriptions by Grigson, but are also simultaneously designated in the native language of their origin. There are graphs and pictorials for the accurate cooking of meat joints by weight and detailed instructions for picking the best ingredients and making the most of them when they are in season. The book concludes with a chapter on the enjoyment of food which encapsulates Grigson’s approach to cooking along with the experience of reading this book. The recipes are diverse and diligent to detail. There are recipes for the simple weekday dinner to the elaborate celebratory feast. This collection of her best and most-loved recipes, with her introductions, anecdotes, quotations and poems, is a fitting tribute, not only to her culinary and literary skills, but also to the warmth, wit and intelligence that shines through all her books.