Tom Hagen’s risotto

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Speck and cabbage awaiting the carnaroli rice

I first read The Godfather by Mario Puzo when I was about eleven after I found a tatty copy of it on my fathers bookshelf, keeping company with his yellow and black-liveried Dennis Wheatley paperbacks. As a man who spent half his life on a plane, he had amassed a fine collection of airport novels and at the time The Godfather and Arthur Hailey’s Hotel ruled supreme. I loved Puzo’s descriptions of sloppy red-pepper and steak sandwiches eaten as the Corleone brothers arranged to go to the mattresses after war broke out between the ruling mobster families of New York City and New Jersey. Life and death came together in these glorious kitchen feasts as Sonny Corleone charged round like a raging bull and the family consigliere, a man called Tom Hagen, attempted to calm him down.

Tom Hagen’s name is a wonderful genealogical collision, the result of the characters German-Irish ancestry which made him an unusual choice of lawyer/advisor for these Italian-American gangsters. So unusual a choice was he that the Corleones were referred to as ‘The Irish Gang’ by the other families who struggled to understand why the Corleones did not choose an Italian to be their counsel.

My son spent last Christmas at his uncles in a little village a few miles from Frankfurt: the towers and skyscrapers of the financial district were close enough to be seen in the distance from the roads around their house. He brought home a hamper filled with German foodstuff and all that speck, headcheese, pumpernickel, pflaumenmus (prune jam) and several kinds of wurst have kept us fed ever since. I love the muscular texture of speck, the sturdy way it stands up to all manner of boisterous kinds of cooking and to the Irish-inflected cabbage. It is this resilience which makes it perfect in my risotto, an Irish-Italian-German melange which earns it the moniker: Tom Hagen Risotto.

The flavours are wintry and bold and the Savoy cabbage perfectly melds with the cheese as it melts into the rice. The speck is sliced lengthways then cut into bouncy little dice, some with an edging of fat, some not and fried. The cabbage is julienned and then fried in butter too which causes it to develop lovely caught edges with a browned-butter flavour. There’s flexibility regarding what cheese you use too: fontina or taleggio all work well and I have also used a munster-géromé from Alsace-Lorraine. You do need a cheese that yields though as opposed to one that just sits on top of the risotto because those soft cheesy trails from mouth to plate as you fork up heaps of cabbage, rice and bacon bring the best pleasure.

The important thing to remember about risotto is that it loves your company. Stand close by with a wooden spoon and a pan full of warming stock on the next hob. Risotto doesn’t appreciate infusions of cold stock which cause it to lose heat and the steadier the temperature and more metronomic the stirring, the creamer your risotto will be. And you will feel calm and warm and well-disposed towards your fellow humans. It’s a shame Mama Corleone didn’t make this calming meal for her warring children because she might have spent less time at church praying for the repose of their souls.

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Ingredients

4-5 tbsp unsalted butter / 1.5L Chicken stock / 400g Carnaroli risotto rice / 1 med finely diced onion/ 80 ml white wine / 400g Savoy cabbage, cut into fine ribbons (julienne) / 150g speck cut into lardons / 100g grated fontina or taleggio /

Method

Place the chicken stock into a saucepan and bring it to a gentle boil. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat and keep it simmering and covered on the back of the hob. You may need to top it up with more stock if you run out but this should be enough. I have used ready-made fresh stock for this risotto and I have also used stock made from the carcass of a chicken with a few leeks, carrots, a stem of celery and some onion too. It’s your call. Here’s a good stock recipe if you want to make your own.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a wide and shallow pan, add the finely-diced onion and start to sweat until softened which will take around four to five minutes. Keep the heat nice and low, you don’t want burned onions. Put another tablespoon of butter into a small fry-pan and add the ribbons of Savoy cabbage and let them start to soften. This should take a couple of minutes, then switch the heat off under the cabbage and let it rest.

Now you need to add the diced speck into the pan of softened onion and fry over a low to medium heat until the fat runs and the speck starts to colour. Those fat little cubes will start to pop and jump around in the pan like miniature Brown Betty bombs so don’t worry, this is normal but stand back a bit. When it has started to brown, stir in the risotto rice and swirl them around the pan, ensuring the grains acquire a glossy brown-butter coat. If you need more butter, now’s the time to add it. This stage is a very important moment known as the brillatura, or “sparkling,” which describes the translucent look of the rice kernels as they appear to toast in the browned butter.

Now pour in the wine over the rice mixture and stir over a low to medium heat until most of the wine has been absorbed by the rice. Now add in the set-aside cabbage ribbons and stir again.  You want to maintain it at the all’onda e al dente stage where the risotto moves across the pan in a wave-like motion as your spoon travels round and round the pan, stirring and stirring. You don’t need to stir constantly, but you do need to stir often because this is what encourages the rice to give up its starch.

Ladle in a cup of the hot chicken stock and continue to stir over a low-medium heat until all of this stock has been absorbed. Keep it company, make sure you have a little taste now and again and add a little salt if you think it requires it- let it cool slightly on the spoon so the flavour isn’t masked by the heat. The speck is naturally salty so you will need to allow for that.

Continue to ladle in the stock until it has pretty much been used up or the rice is done: you will know if it is because it will possess a creamy texture and the centre will retain a small bite. You don’t want mush, you aren’t making congee. This process should take about twenty to twenty-five minutes and don’t rush it as what you are aiming to do is slowly integrate the rice with the other ingredients, allowing each grain to be permeated by the flavour of the stock. The time you spend will be amply rewarded, I promise you.

When you think it is ready, turn off the heat and stir through another teaspoon or so of cold butter and then add in the pecorino, taleggio or fontina or whatever cheese you have chosen and stir it in. This stage is not an after-thought nor a casual finishing-off of your dish: it is far more important than that. You are completing the mantecatura where diced cold butter is vigorously stirred in to make the texture as smooth and creamy as possible. This completes what happened during the cooking when your stirring freed the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the stock. The released starch helps create that unctuous texture and you are looking for a risotto which Italians describe as all’onda, ( wavy, or flowing in waves”) so that when you tip the plate slightly, the risotto ripples across its top. Don’t hang around either, it needs eating immediately because it will continue to gently cook- part of the reason why it is so comforting to eat as its steam and creaminess warms you from the outside in.

 

 

blood-orange and honey curd

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This curd will give you a Turner sky in a jar…………

Blood-orange season offers a licence to gorge, a short period of time to enjoy the brightest of fruits in the depths of winter. Yesterday I realised that I have eaten nearly a crate-full of Taroccos in just three days, bought from my local market and most of them eaten as they are, split into quarters or sprinkled with either salt, celery-salt or a little chipotle dust to enhance their natural sweet-savoriness. I’m not alone in my love of salted blood-oranges either; read Rachel Roddy’s sensory evocation of oranges, eaten closer to their olive-grove home. Some of my oranges went into a blood-orange and pomelo sticky crunch cake and I re-visited last years fennel and blood-orange salad. Yet more were sliced and sprinkled with chipotle, achiote and salt then chucked into a roasting dish full of chicken thighs. The sturdy dark-meat of this part of the bird stands up to the most boisterous of flavours and my hands have taken on a semi-permanent orange hue.

Waitrose has re-branded them ‘blush oranges’, which sounds like something Hyacinth Bouquet might dream up and I hate it. Their blurb makes no mention of the dreaded B word and although they specify Sicily as country of origin, no more information is offered but they are Taroccos as many imported bloods seems to be. That red-stained flesh contains shed-loads of anthocyanin antidioxidants and one of the highest Vitamin C levels, compared to their peers. It’s an easy fruit to handle too, with thin and easy to peel skin, very little pith and what pith there is lacks the tongue-drying bitterness of other citrus fruits.

I already have a jar of Scarlett & Mustards orange curd in the fridge alongside their blackcurrant and star anise but after reading Melissa Clark’s recipe for blood orange olive-oil cake from her book In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite, where she mentions making a compote of blood-orange and honey to accompany it, I thought why not make some blood-orange and honey curd?

This recipe gives you a mellifluous curd, and ‘mellifluous’ couldn’t be more apt a description with its late Middle English and Latin root, [mel= honey and flu= to flow]. The honey adds a dulcet tone to the citrus-salt of the fruit, rounding it out through the labours of the bee, a creature defined by the first Spanish dictionary, back in 1611, as “the symbol of the curious, who gather sentences as the bee gathers flowers, making a work smooth and sweet.”

Clark’s little compote is simple: she takes three oranges and supremes them then drizzles in 1-2 teaspoons of honey and leaves the mixture to infuse but my curd involves a little more work- you will need to stand and cosset it a little as it cooks. It will reward you by keeping for a week in the fridge although my batch went in two days: I stirred the curd into ice-cream, used it to sandwich bitter-chocolate cookies and made a French toast hybrid by cutting brioche into fingers, frying them in a pan until golden and slightly caught on the edges then spreading them with a thin layer of curd. Or go Sicilian-luxe by sandwiching gelato in a brioche bun whose cut sides have been spread with curd first. You might choose to use it as a rich filling for a Pav which is also a useful way to use up the left-over egg-whites, (to make the meringues, here’s Nigella’s meringue recipe) give  cannelles a lovely citrus-sauced heart or sandwich together a sponge layer-cake. I imagine it’d be great dolloped onto your breakfast yoghurt or oatmeal too. It makes a good sauce to add interest to tiny friands and plain madeleines- thin it down a little with another squeeze of juice first. Stirred into cheesecake batter it not only adds tartness and depth, but also a beautifully rosy pink-red colour. So so versatile, like all curds are.

When a recipe is this simple, it really helps if you can try to find the very best ingredients you can: free-range eggs with golden-orange yolks, good unsalted butter of palest cream and honey with a light floral scent will all give your curd a superlative flavour and looks. However, it will still be a joyous thing to eat even if you use supermarket basic ingredients, so don’t worry if that’s all you have. This curd will give you a Turner sky in a jar.

Recipe for blood-orange and honey curd. 

You will need:

4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, sliced into little pieces / 60ml of honey (I use the set kind and I’d encourage you to avoid the very strong flavours: the chestnut, lavender, rosemary varieties are not what you want here) / 4 large egg yolks / 2 large whole eggs / 240ml of fresh blood-orange juice from unwaxed and then zested fruits (around 4-6 oranges) / 1 tablespoon of very finely grated blood-orange zest

Method

Take a medium bowl and cream the butter and honey inside it until it is fluffy and the butter is pale and creamy then marvel at the gorgeous colour,smell and texture. Break the whole egg and egg yolks into a jug and beat until foamy then stir the eggs into the honey/butter mixture slowly until they are incorporated. Take your time over this: add them slowly and ensure they are fully incorporated before pouring in more egg. You don’t want it to go all grainy. Now add the fresh blood-orange juice (again, very carefully) and when you have folded this in, pour the mixture into a medium-sized and non-reactive saucepan.

You will need to cook this over a low-medium heat on the stove-top and stir constantly with a broad wooden spoon as you do so. What you are looking for is the point at which the mixture becomes thickened, creamy and almost jelly-like: watch for when it clots and then pulls away from the sides of the pan as you cut through from one side of the pan to the other with your wooden spoon. The mixture will arrive at this point quite suddenly so now is not the time to check your phone or glance at the newspaper. It’s a culinary high-wire act because you don’t want it to boil, you need to keep it on the edge of doing so and it will want to boil so stay close. Just before it breaks into that boil, when it is beginning to splutter and putter at you, remove the pan from the stove-top heat. You will know it is done because the curd will leave a clear trail on the back of the wooden spoon. It will be volcanically hot and it WILL stick to your skin if you splash it on you so be careful.

Now you’ve removed it from the heat, stir in the citrus zest. As you do so, lean over and breathe in the dizzying scent of oranges that will rise from the pan. Take a moment to enjoy this. Your curd is done. Now all you have to do is pour it into whatever pretty jar or pot you have set aside. That pot will have already been washed in boiling water and left to air-dry, or whatever method you choose to sterilise them. (If you decide to omit this stage and just wash those jars, the curd will keep for around 5 days in the fridge.) When you have decanted all your curd, let it cool in the jars until it is stone cold and then you can screw on the lids. Store it in the fridge and eat it swiftly. This is not a long-life food once that jar is opened, just as the blood-orange is with us for a few short weeks.

 

 

We meet.. Vanessa La Faye, author of Summertime

Interview with author Vanessa LaFaye: 'Summertime'

With its setting in the humid and isolated Florida Keys of the mid-thirties as the islands and their inhabitants stood defenceless against an oncoming hurricane, Summertime, the novel by Vanessa LaFaye shines a light on a historical event that passed virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world despite its horrific consequences. Based on a true event with fictionalised characters drawn from very real tales of human survival and deaths, Summertime is a beautifully evocative and deeply moving account of a period of history that retains strong parallels with our present: Katrina, race relations and the way we treat veterans.

Lafaye is from Florida but had not heard of the tragedy herself until she began some research for another project. The real event that sparked the main theme of Summertime centres upon a group of damaged and dispirited veterans who were despatched to work on the Overseas Highway then abandoned by their government to perish in the hurricane which struck, all too ironically, on Labour Day 1935. One of the worst storms to ever hit the United States it resulted in the deaths of several hundred veterans out of the approximately 700 working there and many locals who lived permanently in the Keys were killed too. A category 5 hurricane, it was so severe that people caught in the open had their clothes sandblasted off their bodies by 185 mph winds.

memorial to hurricane dead

(Memorial to the hurricane dead)

The veterans were living in three Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) camps in a work initiative designed to bring employment in the Depression Era to thousands of out of work veterans who had, earlier in the decade, marched on Washington DC in protest at their treatment. Denied adequate housing, cheated out of the bonus they had been promised and unable to find work after being feted upon their return as heroes, the men found themselves living in squalid conditions in a part of the world that was very different to the Florida the tourists of today visit. Their relegation to the bottom of the heap became apparent when the simple storm evacuation plan, where a train would be sent from Miami to evacuate the workers, went awry….

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[Overseas Highway, wooden bridge between Key Largo and Mainland, April 9, 1929:  Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)]

Against a backdrop of torpid heat, racial segregation and the dissonance that arises from living a life so closely intertwined with the African-American locals who raise your children and care for your home when you are a wealthier white resident of the Keys, the stories of the Heron Key families unfold. As the residents of a tiny community try to cope with their proximity to a camp full of disturbed and desperate men, they also have aspirations: to be respected as equals and thus develop their own authentic and independent identity. We see how the white residents hold all the power in defining what a relationship can be and the problems that arise when Henry, a returning African American veteran, will not allow himself to be defined. He will not be customary in his response to the situation he finds himself in when he becomes the main suspect after a white woman is attacked and left for dead. His is not the only life put at risk when the hurricane marries an attitude of ‘every man and woman for themselves’ with the social codes that are more rigidly enforced when both a storm and a violent crime threaten the status quo.

Vanessa LaFaye

We spoke to Summertime’s author Vanessa LaFaye who told us about her book and its background:

(1) I am a huge fan of fiction and memoir set in Florida and the lesser known parts of the American South and am also aware of how the southern narrative can get stuck in a groove. However it is important to reexamine the events of the past especially in the context of what is happening now. How would you say Summertime straddles the old Southern narrative and the emerging one, created by the new generation of writers of which you are one?

Florida is weird because it is geographically southern but only on the fringe of the Southern cultural tradition. Although it shares a lot of values with states like Georgia and Alabama, it is so different in terms of history. The Civil War defined those states in a way not shared by FL. For one thing, most of the population consists of transplanted northerners, which has a huge impact on the culture. So I hesitate to call myself a Southern writer. I plan to write more books set in FL, but there other places that I’d like to write about in the future. For now, I’m catching up with the history of my home state, 35 years after departing!

(2) We’re all saturated in images of Florida or, at least, the standard Disney-beaches- holidays one. Your story takes us to visit another aspect of the state. How would you describe Florida to newcomers and what are your favourite places to visit? What do you wish we knew?

It’s great that British people come for the big attractions, but there is so much more. St Augustine in the north is the oldest town in the US, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Everyone should swim with wild manatees in Crystal River once in their lives. I am completely besotted with these amazing creatures. And Fort Jefferson, a short ferry ride from Key West, is Florida’s Alcatraz. Built during the Civil War to defend the Union, it’s an immense brick fortress that rises out of the ocean. Amongst its unwilling guests was Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth’s injured ankle after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. And don’t get me started on the Everglades or the Native American history…see what I mean?

(3) Tell us about how you came to write Summertime and your growing awareness of the historical events that shape the novel- at what point did you grow a story in your mind?

I came to it through a series of accidents. I was discouraged by lack of success with other books (women’s fiction) and debilitated by my first experience of breast cancer when I stumbled on a newspaper story on a visit to my parents. This led me to the story of the hurricane and the veterans. I didn’t think that I would write another book, and certainly not one set in FL. But I felt compelled to dramatise the events because I thought that it was wrong that they had been forgotten. It’s just what happens sometimes. My life has taken several unexpected turns, and this one is especially welcome.

(4) Tell us a little about the progression of the novel and about how it might have changed from first draft to being ready for publication? What was your initial plan?

In deciding to depict the largest storm ever to strike America, I gave myself several challenges. The obvious one was creating the storm scenes in a way that would bring the power and terror of it to life, using only words. But first I needed a set of characters that the reader would relate to, before I put them in peril. Some of this was dictated by the facts, e.g. the rescue train crew. The rest came from my imagination and the survivor stories. I had lists of characters who lived and those who did not, and I assigned a fate to each of them. I drew heavily on the factual accounts for this. People really were found in the tops of key lime trees, and they were cut in half by flying debris. But none of the violence and destruction would make a gripping narrative without characters who we care about. So that was my top priority, along with honouring the memories of the people who went through it. The final draft mostly involved cutting. I had too many minor charaters who interrupted the flow. I probably deleted 7 of them before submitting the manuscript. It’s still a big cast, but it was unmanageable before.

Manatee

(5) There’s that old adage “write what you know”. How much do you subscribe to this? Would you say that the writing is the process of knowing?

I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. People often assume that the research for the book took years. I didn’t, because I drew on a huge store of childhood memories that I had never used in fiction before. Although I didn’t grow up in the 1930s, I was very familiar with the sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of FL. It would have been much harder for me to write about Wisconsin, for example, or North Dakota. Once I move away from writing about FL, I will need to allow a lot more research time. But there is also the credibility factor. It’s easier to get away with showing the reality of a place if you come from there.

(6) A giant and lethal hurricane is a pretty daunting plot device. How hard was it to control this and avoid the possibility of it overshadowing the more nuanced side of the story, the hopes and thwarted dreams of Hilda Kincaid and her troubled intrapersonal relationship with her own body or the pace at which Dwayne works through his feelings about his baby (or not his baby as the case is?).

I wanted to make the storm into a character in its own right. The way we track them and describe their behaviour is similar to how we talk about wild beasts. And they almost seem to have personalities. But the storm is also the agent of change, for good and bad. By the end of the story, all the main characters have lost and gained something important to them. Writing those passages was emotionally exhausting because I wanted the reader to feel things in real time, without ever forgetting the personal stories of the characters.

Statue

(7) There’s the drama of Missy and Selma and the alligator which is one hell of an introduction and one which made me feel physically unwell with anxiety. Was this a difficult decision to open the novel with this? You control it beautifully by the way.

Thank you. I had actually written the opening before I decided to write this book. Likewise the scene where we first meet Hilda. When I stumbled on the hurricane story, I dug them out, and realised that they fitted into the landscape that I wanted to create. From this, I have learned never to throw away anything that I’ve written, because one never knows when it may be useful!

(8) I once heard Florida described as “always having a rich literary tradition- even if much of it has been tattooed across our felons necks” which was said in reply to the news that Hemingways ‘To Have and Have Not’ was the most famous novel set in Florida. What are your essential Florida reads?

I’m a big fan of Carl Hiassen. His books are funny and violent and full of great characters, but he also has a very important message: that the state is being ruined by uncontrolled development. Zora Neale Thurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (referenced at the end of ‘Summertime’) is a classic of FL literature, and includes an amazing description of a hurricane.

(9) The way the veterans were treated has parallels with Vietnam, the Falklands in the UK and the Gulf situation now. Have we learned anything? The relative lack of knowledge of what happened in the Keys is a major divergence from the war hero rhetoric of most Western governments isn’t it?

I don’t think that we have learned much, although there are more assistance programs than in 1935. In general, Western societies do not know how to cope with damaged soldiers. The situation is far worse when the conflict lacks public support, as it did in WWI and the others you mention. It’s mainly left to charities to give them real help. They remind us of the reality of war, which makes us uncomfortable, so we prefer to label them as heroes and then forget. We like to think of Western society as civilised, highly evolved beyond such messy, primitive things as war. But as Henry says, civilisation is just a veneer.

(10) Summertime is saturated in atmosphere. I could hear the bellows of alligators, the sizzling noises that bugs make as the sun goes down. I could smell the mangroves, the salt and the acid of the key limes. I also heard music as I read it. Along with the eponymous song, what would be your soundtrack should the book be made into a movie? Let’s imagine a musical score!

I love this question because music is a big part of my life. I conduct a local community choir and sing in an acapella sextet. I would love to have a soundtrack for a novel. Imagine playing it while you read! Someone should do this. I chose ‘Summertime’ for the title because I wanted the reference to ‘Porgy and Bess’, which was first performed in 1935 and was the first opera written for an all-black cast. It’s such an atmospheric yet complex song. The words sound happy but the tune in the minor key says different. There are archives of folk music recorded in FL in 1930s, which would be important to include – the real voices of the people who kept those songs alive. Plus you would need a good sample of gospel songs, because church was the centre of the community. This was a time when popular music was being written for the radio, and there are some great songs from the period, like ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Night and Day’, and of course, ‘Stormy Weather’.

(11) What’s next for you as an author?

I’m going to write about an epic love story and unsolved murder which took place in Key West in the 1920s. It’s another fascinating yet forgotten story from a place that a lot of people think they know.


All images (manatee, hurricane memorial, cemetery angel and author photo) courtesy of Vanessa LaFaye

Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida and her first visit to the UK was back in 1987. She now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her writers den on Facebook.

Summertime is published in the UK by Orion Books.

Keep the Memory Alive: Norfolk Women and the Holocaust

Yom_Hashoah_candle
(Wiki Commons)

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day archivist and historian Frank Meeres is giving a free talk on Thursday 28 January, at 1pm in the Norfolk Record Office looking at the lives of four Norfolk women who either experienced the horrors of the holocaust or risked their life to protect others.

Archivist Frank Meeres, said: “These fascinating stories tell of lives lost or forever changed due to direct involvement with the holocaust. I know local people are often amazed to learn that the holocaust is not just something that happened far away, but did involve people born and brought up here in Norfolk.Listeners will hear the moving story which led to Constance dying, either on her way to or at Sobibor concentration camp. Her husband Saloman was gassed at Sobibor on 28 May 1943 and their son Alfred died in Auschwitz the following year on 28 January 1944. Constance’s sister Joyce was also living in occupied Holland, and listeners will hear moving descriptions from her own letters of life there – and the dramatic story of her escape.

Visitors will also be able to see Elsie Mary Bell’s memoir which offers a moving and tragic account of her and her daughter’s wartime experiences.

Elsie was raised in Great Yarmouth and trained as a teacher in Norwich later taught in London where she met and married a Belgian soldier. Elsie then moved to Brussels where she lived with her husband Georges Marechal and children Elsie and Robert. They were there when Belgium was invaded by the Germans on 10 May 1940.

The Marechals became actively involved in helping Allied soldiers to escape from the Nazis but tragedy befell the family in 1943 when Georges was shot and Elsie and her daughter then spent the rest of the war in Nazi prisons and concentration camps.

And Frank will talk about Elsie Tilney, a Norwich-born woman who was in France during the war, and who saved a Jewish man from the horrors of Auschwitz, an act of courage for which she is formally recognised by Israel.

‘Keep the Memory Alive’: Norfolk Women and the Holocaust, is in the Green Room in The Archive Centre, next to County Hall at 1-2pm on Thursday 28 January. Entrance is free and no booking is required.

For more information on this and other events at Norfolk Record Office visit www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk and read A History of Jewish Persecution in Bury St Edmunds for more local history.

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Afternoon tea with Nancy

Afternoon tea with Nancy

Without wishing to go all Pollyanna on you, sometimes the peskiest Nuisances Of Life can end up as good things and such was the day which started with a ridiculously long detour because we forgot about the road closure at Clare and ended up driving miles out of our way. After months of being tortured by photos of gorgeous cream teas on the Nancy’s Tea Shop twitter feed we decided to visit but had NOT intended to drive to Newmarket via such a circuitously long, albeit pretty, route. We trundled past the ancient and flinty Packhorse bridges at Moulton, watched streams of racehorses being exercised in clouds of dust as they cantered along the Newmarket runs and crossed the borders of three counties: Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Eventually, our chosen route (if you could call it that) deposited us outside the door on a side street off the main shopping drag in Newmarket.

The street is fairly unprepossessing and I would imagine it’s not an ideal location for a business that must rely on footfall as much as local rep but the curious shopper, venturing off the main streets onto the ‘clock end’ of Old Station Road, will be greeted by a warmly retro interior which manages to stay on the right side of the past. Nancy’s avoids the overly fussy, rolled- through- Cath- Kidston- covered- in-glue style of interior decor that some tearooms fall into the trap of. It’s light and airy, there’s plenty of space to move around and you aren’t crowded in by flowery, bobbly ‘stuff’.

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(Cream tea image by Nancy’s)

There’s a menu of teas with names to help you navigate (Tranquil-tea, Purit-tea, Heart-tea) and these are custom blended, including the classics such as Earl Grey (a darn good EG too) and Breakfast Teas alongside cold American-style ice teas with mint and lemon. They’re poured out of teapots into bone china teacups, patterned with violets, primroses and sprigs of ferns, or served cold in retro glass jugs and tall hi-ball glasses. While we were there, we saw a table full of young women enjoying an afternoon tea with teetering cake stands piled high with scones, petit-fours, cream cakes and slices of sponge cakes (lemon drizzle, red velvet, coconut and raspberry). There’s various permutations of afternoon tea too with special events such as VE Day, baby showers and leaving parties and Wimbledon catered for (themed tennis ball patterned macarons anyone?) and the in-house chef guarantees a constant supply of these, all freshly baked.

I have managed to ignore my inner Judge and can now freely order cake for starter and main course should I so wish to without feeling *too* piggish. I have achieved this by ensuring I sit facing away from everyone else in the room so I don’t have to look at their judgy judgy “look at her, she’s eating cake three times in a row” face as they nibble delicately on their three leaves of rocket with gluten-free celery on the side, or whatever these joyless, soulless folks live on. This is a TEAROOM people, and yes, I KNOW Nancy’s also serves savoury food and YES I do like non sugary things too but there was FOUR cakes on the counter, fluffing up their buttercream icing, their layers of fruit and cream flirtily peeking out like the underthings of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

nancy 3

I had cake for starters. The raspberry and coconut with a buttercream icing. We also ordered a china plateful of curried cauliflower soup which sounds rather unsummery but actually worked in a ‘Days of the Raj’ kind of way ie curry spices = cooling us down through various biological epocrine processes over which I will draw a veil. It was lightly spiced and spoon coatingly creamy. I’d have added more salt but then I always say that and it was actually perfectly balanced salt wise, according to my husband who isn’t as committed to an early salt-related death as I am. The soup left enough room (even after the accompanying cheese scone or bread) for a fruit scone, jam and clotted cream (I wonder how many scones Nancy’s gets through each week?) with a good tart jam offsetting the richness. A pear and elderflower cooler from local company Breckland Posh Pop was so good I ordered another bottle.

 

We could have had a pea and ham salad (specials board)  and they also do classic English things like gala pies, homemade pork pies and picalilli, eggs hollandaise and plates of tiny triangle sandwiches alongside larger rolls and toasties. There’s ice cream sundaes too which little kids will have to stand up to reach into.

Nancy’s is where I’d bring a gaggle of teenage kids to entertain them and teach them how to ‘bee-haive’ in polite society although Nancy’s is not stuffy or staffed by people who will look sniffily at you should your teenagers remain glued to their smartphones or put their elbows on the table. It’d make a great venue for a tea party for younger children too, alongside bringing mum/granny/grandfather. The prices are incredibly reasonable, the staff are friendly and you can linger on comfy sofas and take your time- nobody is going to chase you out with a stick after twenty minutes.

Nancy’s Tea Shop.

Taking it to the Next Level: Tuddenham Mill’s Head Chef Lee Bye

Taste Head Chef

Image courtesy Tuddenham Mill/Lee Bye

 Chef Lee Bye hit the ground running when he took the top job as head chef at Tuddenham Mill two years ago and he hasn’t stopped for breath yet. Steering the restaurant to gain an award of two rosettes by the AA a mere two months after taking up position and then being named the winner of the Employee of the Year Award in the Bury Free Press Business Awards, 2014 culminated in the restaurant being awarded the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award for the best set lunch. In 2015, his team at Tuddenham Mill went on to win the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award 2015 for the best set lunch menu in the UK and Lee was titled Suffolk’s Chef of the Year in the Suffolk Food and Drink Awards 2015.

Tuddenham Mill enjoys a bucolic setting on the outskirts of its eponymous village, close to Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The hotel has been sensitively restored with a restaurant and bar used by locals and visitors to the region. Having developed a new menu, Chef Lee and his team intend to ensure that Tuddenham Mill becomes a regular stop off for locals and visitors to the region and Lee’s input has been fundamental to steering the Mill restaurant in a fresh direction.Lee may have won accolades early on in his tenure as head chef but he is far from complacent, aware of the pitfalls of the culinary equivalent of that difficult second album:  “When I was told about the [Editors] award I kind of sat in my chair for two days; the spotlight comes onto you and brings a lot of pressure. As a young chef I was suddenly made to think ‘how do I sustain this?’ I’d reached a goal- The Good Food Guide- it was always a personal and professional goal of mine, that old school vintage thing that the award has, I like it and I achieved it early.”

How would you describe yourself as a colleague and boss?

“I wouldn’t say I am a modern chef in that respect.” He takes a moment to think… ” My focus after winning was not to move onto the next thing but to sustain our success and build on it. I’m old school [as a chef]. I like the traditions, that idea of ‘win as a team, lose as a team’ and my main focus now is finding the right team members, the right blend of people in my kitchen.”

Every chef knows that to a certain extent they have to build a kitchen and the people who work within it in their own image but they also must balance this with bringing on the individual talents that each person brings to the table (or prep area in this case). The chef also has to manage their teams response to the long hours involved at the top. “It’s challenging across the industry as a whole and for the right reasons. It is hard to attract the right personnel and the people who want to do it for the right reasons. I’m 99.9% of the way there but it has been hard.” he answers when I ask him about how he copes- both as head chef and as a person trying to have a life, a life that involves a partner (who works front of house) and a new baby, born at the end of last year.

The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye
The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye

“I believe in the old values, of team work and consistency and complete honesty and I do not want them to suffer in silence when things are tough.”  Valentines Day was a recent case in point, seventy people booked to eat the tasting menu with 350 plates to prepare and get out to tables of couples, buzzy with the expectation that Lee and his team will give them a memorably romantic evening- a LOT of pressure. If a chef is not proactive enough about signalling a potential problem in advance, the potential for it to all go tits up (technical term, that)  is huge and there is no second chance from a customers point of view as he says: “The team is a very young one, top to bottom and it takes a lot of dedication to bring them on. When someone runs into deep trouble on their section and sits in silence I cannot bear it.  I have to have honesty, for them to come to me early on. It can be sorted out then and the team functions as a whole.”  Fortunately, they powered through what must be one of the industries busiest nights to live, cook and prosper another day in an industry where every service is the equivalent of opening night as far as the customer is concerned.

Behind the professional satisfaction these awards bring lies another, more complex story about consequences and implications, the behind the scenes stuff that places a young chef and his team in the running for industry recognition even though Lee is keen to impress that accolades do not define him and nor is he chasing them. As we talk about what it takes to function well in the kitchen and the long hours built into the industry as standard, a look of determination crosses his face.  Lee is just a few months into new fatherhood and and working hard because of a joint decision made by himself and his partner that this is his time and one he must take full advantage of. Although their family life might appear to the casual observer, to be, in his words. a traditional set up, it is one that acknowledges that he has to sacrifice some family time now for the bigger picture and means hours away from his new baby and partner. This is something that he does not ask of his employees though, rather more, it is a decision that they must make for themselves “I cannot ask them to put me in front of their own families.” It is the right decision for his family and whilst undeniably, a tough one, he has a partner who he says fully understands the unique pressures of the hospitality industry being employed within it herself.

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Tuddenham Mill at Halloween / courtesy Lee Bye

With regards to the under reported problem of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues within the catering industry, he has a clear sighted grasp on how it affects chefs and the difficulties they face in trying to wind down after a hectic adrenalin filled service. He is also cognizant of the lazy stereotype of a chef with a drink problem. ” People laugh at the thought of chefs as alcoholics, they laugh at the label. They should work in the field and they’d see what it is really like” he says with a degree of annoyance. “They just say, ‘there’s a lazy assed chef’ and don’t consider that there’s a life balance out of the window. If a policeman did that [drink excessively] people would acknowledge it as a problem but with chefs, people expect it or don’t think it is important. Chefs come home after 18 hours of service and have to force themselves to relax. You cannot just go to bed and that’s why many younger ones end up wandering down the High Street looking for a drink- they have to release that [adrenalin].”

Acknowledging this problem in an everyday manner is something he sees as important and the first step towards prevention. “it’s sad to see when chefs fall off the edge. I want my chefs to have a life [outside of work] and I want them to build their own strength, to be resourceful but I do check up on them to see if they are alright. I’ve been there- I didn’t want to ask for help- so I do ensure that they know they can come to me, to ask for help. I’ve seen when people go off in the wrong direction in their heads, they just swim off and you can lose them so I step in, get there before that.” He concludes by pointing out that this has benefits to both himself and the customer. Lee works six days a week and has just the one day off. Building a reliable team with an inbuilt sense of Lee as mentor and boss means that he can have time away knowing that all is well without him. “The customer must not know that on that day I am not in the kitchen. The food must not give that away.”

Stonebass 'St Jacques' sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye
Stonebass ‘St Jacques’ sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye

So who motivates the motivator then? As he says, It is very easy to let go when you are at the top without somebody else there and like most chefs, Lee has a strong background of mentors, the people who have guided his career or conduct themselves in ways he admires. Top of the mentor tree appears to be former head Chef of Tuddenham Mill Paul Foster, who Lee trained under, eventually becoming Sous, two and a half years ago. When Paul left last year, Lee returned to the Mill after a spell working across several other establishments, gaining experience. He donned his head chef toque. Aged only 31 when he left Tuddenham, Foster has garnered huge praise and respect from his former sous.“Working for Paul massively improved my brain and I will always be thankful. You find a lot of chefs will add one component too many and the dish then becomes unbalanced. Paul [among many things] educated my palate, taught me to bring my own personal edge to my food, not think too hard and end up with too much on a plate, using stuff for the sake of it and losing seasonality.”

The same respect is afforded the ‘chefs chef’, Marco Pierre White and Lee acknowledges that while he will probably never get the chance to work by his side, the books written by this undoubtedly great chef serve pretty well in his absence. “Going back to the idea of my kitchen philosophy and those of others, well Marco is full of them. He said ‘nature is the true artist’ and for me, that says it all. The easiest guideline but one that too many chefs ignore.”Lee’s own cooking shows he has taken heed of Marco’s counsel too. Take one main that caught my eye, served for sunday lunch- a straightforward sounding crispy pig’s head, cockles, pear aïoli. coastal herbs, written as is, on the menu. I asked Lee to talk me through the conceptualisation of the dish.

“I always bring the pig back to Suffolk. The pig is Suffolk and a lot of our meals, our canapes are pork based. Our core base has, in the past been a lot of city folk but I do not want to be London in Suffolk. I want our diners to have the experience of Suffolk with a boutique edge in the surroundings. As I’ve said, I’m quite old school, traditional in what I do and am inspired by what is around me.”

The dish is clean, uncluttered, paying homage to the pig as orchard animal with the pear spiked aoli, designed to both cut through the natural fattiness of pork and season the plate. Instead of going with the obvious apple, we have pear, also an orchard fruit and feasibly what pigs would eat should they get the chance to live as a pig naturally would. The coastal herbs are from Walberswick and whilst Lee doesn’t seem to want to be identified as someone who has adopted the recent trend for foraging- and there are serious environmental implications (some parts of the New Forest have seen indigenous fungi populations decimated)- he is aware of the amazing produce the region contains. “That salty edge from the sea herbs pulls this dish together. These are from Walberswick and collecting them on a walk is a great way to spend spare time. I’m not a massive fan [of foraging] but stuff like Samphire that is so good here? You’d be mad not to use it.”

Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

 The award winning set lunch menu features a lot more of the same good regional stuff (sea trout, beef flank with St Edmunds sauce, an under used cut) but avoids an over adherence to the principle to the exclusion of other ingredients worth a look in from further afield (Shetland mussels, Spanish squash). The puddings are eye rollingly tempting-  a banana tea loaf with salted toffee, blackberries, earl grey ice cream had my name on it- and don’t seem an afterthought, something that a lot of other pudding menus display. My particular dislike is snobbishness about patisserie and good puddings where they aren’t seen as important as the other courses which might be the result of a place not employing a creative or technically innovative pastry chef or existing chefs simply not being interested in this aspect of cooking. The whole set menu comes in at £15,50 for two courses, £19,50 for three at the time of writing. That’s less than twenty quid for serious technique and flavours, right there.

I am unsurprised when I ask Lee what his last meal would be and he cites Pierre Koffman’s Gascony birthed stuffed pigs trotter, one of THE greatest signature dishes of all and originally served at La Tante Claire. Pureé chicken breast, egg whites and double cream are bound in with veal sweetbreads and morels then fried in butter to make an unctuous stuffing, elevating this usually humble pig part to an exalted position on the hog eating scale. It is a dish of classical technique, a test of a chefs training and a wonderful collection of contradictions- high/low, earthy/ethereal. Lee would follow this with a chaser of Beef Wellington cooked by Marco and Gordon Ramsay. (Would the dish ever end up at the pass or would it serve as kitchen projectile?) He rounds his last meal off with a glorious tarte tatin-made by Pea Porridge’s Justin Sharpe to be precise.

Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye
Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye

A bit of a coincidence that on the way to see Lee, I subjected my husband to a long monologue about the Koffman stuffed trotter and how one could protect a signature recipe from plagiarism. I asked Lee about this whole issue and he turned out to have a pretty measured take:

“It’s flattery at the end of the day. People will always be inspired by the food of others and they will want that for themselves.”

But how do you deal with this when it appears to be less of an homage and more attempt to actually pass off somebody else’s creation as your own, I wonder, finding it hard to imagine your average chef not turning puce with annoyance at all their hard work and inventiveness being essentially nicked. Lee passes on more wise advice from his former boss. “Paul used to say that they [plagiarists] will never replicate your brain, they cannot reproduce where that dish comes from.” He goes on to explain that when he trains his own team, he can teach them to cook from their hearts and to use their imagination to create dishes but the mind, the terroir if you like, of a chef is uniquely his. This terroir, like all carefully tended land, is multi layered, both wellspring and sponge, soaking up all that surrounds the chef, inspiring him to produce food that is greater than the sum of its parts.

And one thing that surrounds all chefs are critics- start making a name for yourself and they will appear. What do you think of them? Without missing a beat, Lee assured me that he saw a place for them, “It’s an opinion at the end of the day although we are at the needle point of the freedom to be praised or slagged off.” He spoke amusingly of the day Jay Rayner came to town, dined at the Mill and reviewed it, raving over the less is more, local and relevant philosophy that Paul became known for and Lee is now revising and developing.  Lee was sous back then and was busy prepping in the kitchen on the Sunday the day the review came out- published some time after Rayner’s visit. He watched in amazement as “car after car, Jags etc came flooding in, down the drive and parking then people getting out with the copy of the paper underneath the arm.” He laughed. “We got on with it but…” I asked about the double edged sword of a review’s effect and he admitted that yes, there is the danger that for smaller establishments especially, the attention can be overwhelming and cause as many problems as a regular full service can solve.

Rosemary, hazelnut and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Rosemary and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

Lee is pragmatic about critics, Trip Advisor reviews, and having to deal with the good and not so. As he points out, a chef cannot own the praise of a top critic and the approval of less famous patrons then disregard and reject the criticism if and when it comes. Not if he wants to avoid looking like a dick that is. But he also makes it clear that the work is hard, arduous involving deep emotion alongside finances and time: a bad review from someone who doesn’t understand what the chef is trying to do and bases an opinion more on personal taste as opposed to objective analysis may be a game changer, restaurant closer and career ender. There are consequences. The same goes for twitter he feels. Lee uses it (find him on @leebye) but counsels against unnecessary and indulgent unpleasantness for the hell of it. and because it can blur the line between professional person and professional ass, even if it is a private account. “it’s a brilliant tool.” After I recount a recent trolling experience that spilled over into real life from social media (threats made over my land line, police called), his face blenches.

Lee has achieved so much, relatively young but this is not a guy who is ready to rest on his laurels and nor is he restlessly looking for a new thrill or gimmick. Keen to take himself, his kitchen and the hotel to the next level, the last year has been about him establishing himself as head chef in a kitchen he has come up through, about putting more bums on seats and building the reputation of Tuddenham Mill as a flexible place to eat, offering many different options for dining. The coming year will see a challenges to attract even more locals to the restaurant and build on the reputation that being the recipient of such awards bring. As Chef Bye says “We’ve been through a long tunnel and held the ceiling up. This year we’re going to build through it.”

Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye
Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye

To make a reservation, head to the Tuddenham Mill website.