Belgian prune pie in Wisconsin

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Belgian prune pies by Gina Wautier / photo Gina Wautier

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

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

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

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

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Namur, Door County is named after the Belgian city.

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

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

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The plaque at Greg- Doiceau via kayesite.com

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

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

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The Emigrants (1896) by the Belgian artist Eugène Laermans

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

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

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

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Belgian pie made with cooked rice and cheese topping

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

Topped with a sweetened cottage cheese-type mixture when made with fruit, the pie both tastes like, and resembles, a filled Danish or kolache. (The latter is often made with mashed potato too.)

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

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Limburgse Vlaii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pies by Gina Wautier

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

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

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Belgian prune pie, via the Door County Visitors Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Door County tourist information.

Further reading:

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

Seeking ice cream inspiration?

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

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

[1] Add Indian flavours:

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

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[2] Stir in some chilli honey:

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

[3] Add in some roasted pineapple:

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

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Simon Law/Flickr/CC

[4] Stir in some gooseberry and hazelnut:

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

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[5] Go Sicilian:

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Mamushka by Olia Hercules

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 Earlier this year I published my review of Mamushka, a new book about Ukrainian food by Olia Hercules on the Spy books pages. Since then the book has garnered much praise and some nominations for food writing prizes, deservedly so, and I couldn’t bear to not celebrate such a wonderful piece of food writing on my site. So, here it is and if you haven’t already bought your copy, what are you waiting for? 

I don’t know about you but I get tired of endless *new* cookbooks which claim to be a fresh take on Italian/French/Spanish/Deep South food and by dint of a only few ingredient substitutions, are championed as culinary ground breakers. I am also tired of the self aggrandising proclamations by new kids on the block about their burgers/hotdogs/dim sum/bone broth/permutations of fried chicken and pulled meat when they have clearly carried out little research into the history and gastro-geography of their chosen foods.  Food as fashion is a pretty unpalatable concept when half the world seems to lack basic nourishment and some of the difficulties faced by the homeland of Olia Hercules throws this whole issue into even starker relief. Her book, Mamushka is refreshing because she writes about her food culture in an authentic, personal and respectful manner and as I read it, her stories remind me of memories from my own past.

When I was around twelve, my grandparents street in East Anglia gained a new Ukraine neighbour. He sometimes wept when he spoke of his homeland. He’d spend many hours in his gabled shed filled with swallow roosts where he dried the pungent tobacco that grew poorly in our unsuitable climate, eyes wet and fingers stained a deep russet from the leaves that hung in clusters from the rafters. These rustled each time the shed door slid open on its runners, adding to the cacaphony as swallows screeched in and out. My neighbour had escaped after being warned that he was being ‘watched’ (He never explained to me exactly what the implications were but I had an imagination) and he suffered great fear and hardship as he made his way towards the west. I think he knew he would never see his parents, grandparents and extended family again. He would have been so pleased to see the food of his youth so warmly commanded to the page, food he tried to cook for himself but having been well looked after by Ukrainian matriarchs, he struggled to replicate it and struggled even more in the retelling.

Olia Hercules is Ukrainian and was born in Kakhovka, just two hours drive from the Crimean border although her book celebrates the rich cultural diversity of her family with its Siberian, Moldovan, Jewish, Uzbekistani and Ossetian roots. There is ( in her words) a “messy geopolitical mosaic” which at times caused her family to have to negotiate food shortages and conflict but above all, her book and writing bears a richness that transcends those geopolitical boundaries. Mamushka celebrates foodstuffs and recipes that come from lands that may or may not have always been politically friendly with her mother country. This, to me, is emblematic of the generosity and welcome that infuses her cooking.

Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham
Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham

The south of the Ukraine is only two hours away from the Turkish border which totally trashes many peoples ideas of her homeland which, as she states, centre upon permutations of cold/bleak/vast/grey. We read of giant succulent tomatoes with pink, sugary juices, of picking great hanks of sorrel, the bosky ceps from Belarus, sour cream like silk and drinks made from the berries of buckthorn. There are endless days of sun where thirst is slaked by a syrup made from strawberries and rhubarb and their hunger appeased by jam made from watermelon skins. These watermelons are farmed in her home region, Kherson, and grow to humongous size, aided by the heat of the Ukrainian summer. Funnily enough, when I read Alison Uttley’s incredibly British accounts of her own childhood cuisine, forged as it was from the fields, woods and hedgerows of the Derbyshire countryside and from centuries of local farming lore, I am reminded of Olia because the cordials and syrups in Mamushka are very similar.

Some of Olia’s recipes reflect her countries proximity to Russia and the gastronomic exchange that exists between the two, even when other relationships are strained. There are familiar dishes, popular in Russia, such as borsch and a handful of salads which are also made from beetroot but they all have their own Ukrainian spin- they are definitely different from their Russian cousins. One version of beetroot soup brines the root vegetable first and the salad made from beets also includes prunes. There’s a more substantial wintery borsch with a depth charge from a stock made from oxtail or beef short rib and, to keep it truly authentic, one should also make it with salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic.

Armenian pickles.
Armenian pickles.

The Ukrainian cook really gets the importance of sour as a way of cutting the soft fattiness of meats and broths and a reminder that life contains moments that aren’t always sweet- a kind of riff on the ‘bitter tears’ of Jewish Passover although this may be my take and not theirs. There’s a sorrel broth that has melting rich duck at its heart, adds in beet leaves for earthiness and is finished with the sorrel left au natural, uncooked to keep its verdant brightness both in flavour and appearance. There’s fermented tomatoes, used green, and served fizzy (because this is another important and underused oral sensation), with winter casseroles. I have already made the chilli and garlic cucumbers which use those stubbly and prickly cucumbers as opposed to our slender, less tactile versions. Made with all the good things- sugar, cider vinegar, chile, garlic, salt- they are perfect on their own and I can’t get enough of them although I’d also serve them with Suffolk black bacon or a fatty coil of lamb breast. Finally, Olia includes a recipe for proper fermented sour gherkins which I’ve bookmarked to make when my new crop is ready on the allotment. They are perfumed with horseradish leaves and use sour cherry leaves to keep them crunchy and fresh. I also have a sour cherry tree which embraces my allotment shed with reddish brown striated branches, so I am ready to go.

The garlic bread is magnificent. Pillowy or like a ‘pampushka’ as the Ukrainians refer to a gorgeously plump and sumptuously fleshed woman, it uses 20g of wet or regular garlic to produce an almost brioche level of unctuousness. Slightly less lush in size but no slouch in the taste stakes. Moldovan breads are flavoured with cheese (feta) and sorrel to produce a summery bread with an edge. These have a fizzy, sour backbone from the kefir dough which has bicarb, white wine vinegar and sugar bolstering it.

Unlike Olia’s family I don’t have goats but I do have goats cheese and her potato cakes have this added (unusually). I also chucked in some grated courgette alongside her carrot and onion and they worked beautifully. Served with blackberry sauce, these are Ukrainian trad and now become Anglo-Irish-Spanish-Huguenot trad in our house.

Sensibly there are glut recipes: a plum, raisin and rum conserve; a gooseberry and strawberry jam; a cornel cherry jam and those jars of pickles. There are loads of meaty, ricey things to eat them with and Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb makes a virtue of the crispy underside of the rice. It is served on top of the meat. Their Caucasus chicken is served with walnuts and prunes and the liver of the chicken is added to buckwheat and crispy shallots to make a kasha based meal.

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There might have been a credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine during the early 80’s but Olia’s family didn’t stint on puddings and cakes either. Choose from crumbly Ukrainian biscotti dimpled with pecans or walnuts; a towering Napolean cake made from layers of crumbly pastry and creme patissiere; curly wasp nest buns which are a little like the American monkeybread and a pretty honey cake with a creme fraiche rim balanced with the sweetness of honey comb. There’s also an intriguing loaf shaped cheesecake.

To be honest, Mamushka’s melding of the sweet, the savoury and the sour means that the western convention of courses following each other as day is chased by the night seems very old fashioned. Olia is not prescriptive and this book is a tempting suggestion as to what you might eat and when, interspersed with lovely family stories and explanations of customs. I look forward to more.

Olia can also be found on twitter -@oliasgastronomy.

The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, the once highly-popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have risen rapidly in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the “polyester of lettuces” by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian but God love her, she is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if Iceberg contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale? Just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Deliciously Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the Iceberg was once the most celebrated of lettuces. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, Iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time-faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the Iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed-like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

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Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, Iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and all kinds of vinegar. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with Iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the Iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and Chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard-boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?

A dab of heat

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Like a lot of people, I struggle to find an economical way of feeding large amounts of people with fish: it is rarely inexpensive and nor should it be bearing in mind the time and effort it takes fishermen and women to catch and land their bounty. I am a dab hand (sorry) at stretching a few fish into bright curries, mash topped pies and little round cakes hiding nuggets of melting cheese but for me, the ultimate luxury is a large white plate topped with a single perfect fish, prepared simply, served whole. And if you choose to serve sole or plaice, flounder, skate or brill (turbot, is sadly out of the question) to several diners then the pounds rack up: some of these are high end fish for high days and holidays and none are cheap as chips any more.

This is where the dab should take a bow. They are prolific breeders in the cold dark waters of the North Sea and around the UK in general and are capable of breeding within two years, when they are only fifteen centimetres long. A precocious ability to reproduce explains in part why dab are so numerous and they are also a reliable catch because they will apparently feed in both daylight and darkness, gliding silently onto sandy beaches, estuaries and anywhere where rock clusters and sandy bottomed gullies have attracted the sea creatures they, in turn, feed upon. Their price reflects this and when I visited a local fishmonger, Fish Burwell LTd in Newmarket, I bought a bag full of dabs at only £1,75 each for fish that weighed in just over a pound (usual for a sold dab). They were beautifully fresh- still in rigor- irridescent, splodged with marmalade coloured spots and I bought them as nature made them although they are a lot easier to fillet than roundfish if you wish to serve them in this manner.

On the fishmongers slab, you’ll notice it has beady dark eyes on the right side of its body and skin the colour of wet sand at Walton on the Naze. Take it home and rub your fingers over its uncooked flanks and you’ll feel a roughness like a kittens tongue, pushing against the pads of your fingertips. You can cook them with head and fins attached and they tolerate pan, grill, oven and flame happily, without breaking up- a result of that determined and pliable skin which makes great eating too. The flavour is rich – a result of their marine diet of prawns, molluscs, shellfish and small crustaceans- and the meat falls away from their cartilaginous skeleton with a light touch of the fork.

I’ve written before about how I think what we refer to as ‘trash fish’ will gain popularity as it becomes the marine equivalent of nose to tail eating and dabs are a prime example of an under rated commercial fish, often disposed of when caught as by-catch by trawlers although things are changing. The fishing industry has realised there is a need to create a market for dab and other by catch. In the past they’ve been regarded as little more than flotsam and jetsam, not worth landing and certainly not worth the fuel miles to port where they would no doubt have lingered behind unsold. However there is a long way to go as of yet, with skippers having to return to shore with their entire by-catch, regardless of whether it can be eaten or sold. This is a terrible waste of fish, time and fuel, especially when fishing crews report that some by-catch fish might well have survived a return to the sea. Ultimately, the inability to return under-sized fish to the seas can only harm future stocks. Even if the by-catch has perished, all is not lost as indigenous marine animals such as birds and other fish would eat the discarded fish or their carcasses would decompose on the ocean floor, releasing essential nutrients into the water and sea-bed.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, DEFRA and the Marine Institute have all been working with people employed in the fishing industries to reduce the amount of undersized catches. The recommended strategies have included an increase in the size of the mesh in cod nets. From the first of January 2016, all whiting, haddock, prawns and hake will be subject to an extended ban on by-catch, as part of measures being phased in by the European Commission to tackle the problem of by catch which resulted from its previous quota system. However, this has its critics because Irish and British waters are heavily fished by fishing crews of boats registered to other mainland European countries. These can continue to catch the most lucrative fish whilst Irish and British vessels are moored in port because they have reached their quota of caught fish.

The Burwells fish team had this to say about the problem: “By catch is being reduced by a change in legislation allowing fishermen to land more product avoiding the need to throw by catch back into the sea. As a fishmongers we promote the use of less know fish on a daily basis.”

Asked about their own stock, they told me: “We stock fish such as Dabs, Hake, Gurnard on a regular basis along with a recipe for people to try it with. We believe that some of the lesser known varieties of fish hold a lot more flavour and are also lighter on the wallet too. We would like to see people eating more Hake, Gurnard, Red Fish, Whiting and Coley.” Certainly, whenever I visit, I enjoy that interaction, the chance to gain more knowledge about what I am buying, about what I ought to be eating more of and what could benefit from a ‘ piscine close season’ because stocks are getting a bit too low for comfort.

Much of what I do starts with something read in a book and my search for a nice little pan fish to take kindly to began with Katy Carr’s food adventures in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next:

“Soles and muffins she finally decided upon and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam. ‘Muffins sounds so very good in Dickens you know, she explained to Mrs Ashe, “and I never saw a sole.’ The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called scup. All the party took kindly to them but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them of scorched flannel.”

After reading What Katy Did Next, I laboured under the illusion that New England scups were the same as sole which were similar to what we call dabs- I was wrong. Properly known as Limanda Limanda, the dab is a member of the Flounder family and similar in appearance to the sole and plaice, which of course Katy Carr had already noted. The dab fitted the bill for our hungry and on the side of large, family. I was keen to serve whole fish too, because it has always been important for children to understand what ‘real’ fish look like and to not only eat it neatly filleted and parcelled up with all the trickier parts- head, fins, tail, skin- removed and disposed of lest they be too, um, ‘fishy’. But how best to cook it?

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Keep it simple stupid is definitely the mantra here. I like the sound of the Fisherman’s Roll, made with the best of the catch and hence, little added bells and whistles are required, but it requires the dabs to be filleted and I wanted to serve them intact. If, however, you like the idea of this, then ask the fishmonger to fillet the dab and  then dredge them in seasoned flour, fry in olive oil and serve in a buttered soft bap with a squeeze of lemon and liberal shakes of good salt and black pepper. Nigella’s  soft white dinner rolls are a good match, otherwise look for pale flour covered baps sold in independent bakeries- the kind with a soft and spreading girth. In the USA, Parker House Rolls with their buttery glazed tops are delicious with fried fish or pair the sweet, fluffy Hawaiian rolls with the toothsome dab. Hawaiian rolls are yeast risen, enriched with milk, eggs and sugar and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who flocked there to work in the sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. It is a short and logical step to pair the sweet rolls with the fried fish that Portuguese people so love and together they compliment rather than overload the palate. Spread the rolls with a good unsalted butter, add a slice of tomato (choose Jack Hawkins if they are well ripened) and season the fish well. For those of you without access to Hawaiian bread, use brioche rolls sold in store for burgers- the kind with toffee coloured glazed tops. (Aldi and Waitrose both sell good versions or ask your local indy baker if they make them.)

Fish Burwells LTD enjoy a dab or six and although most of their stock tends to be sold to older customers, there is a decent demand for them locally. The fish team recommend serving them tapas style, using a paillard technique to flatten the fillets out even more before spreading with smoked salmon pate, rolling, eggwashing and shallow frying each one. I’ve seen a more complicated version of this 18th century dish cooked by Chef Michel Roux Jnr from Le Gavroche, who stuffed a Dover sole with lobster before frying in a similar manner. The dish can also be made with trout which was one of the signature dishes of Chef Charles Elme Francatelli who was a pupil of Carême and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen. (From Francatelli’s Modern Cook, 1886 edition.)

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We prepared ours simply in two different ways. First off, the classic pan fry in brown butter after a dredge with seasoned flour, swiftly cooked and tipped onto a plate with little more than a lemon half, plenty of black pepper and Maldon salt. The light flour crust tightens around the flesh as it cooks and the pan juices become deliciously enriched with that nutty, crunchy flour residue. The juices can be sopped with white bread- and it must be white bread to give you that soft deep crumb which becomes deliciously sweet/ soggy when used to sandwich the fish. Secondly, we dusted the fish with powdered achiote (from Seasoned Pioneers if you are in the UK), added salt and a schmear of chipotle paste which can be either freshly made or in a jar from a deli, Waitrose or M&S. ( I use the Gran Luchito or Santa Maria brands in the UK.) The fish was then grilled until it developed a crisp, smoky carapace although you could just as easily pan fry it too. Remember to get the grill decently hot before sliding the fish under it on its protective bed of silver foil.

Achiote gives the fish a woody, earthy flavour very similar to the taste of the clay cooking vessels we ate from in Northern Mexico and the spice is geographically specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine, although our housekeeper had southern roots, meaning achiote became a regular feature of our northern cuisine. Also referred to as sázone, you can buy ready prepared packets of achiote without added MSG and it lends a vivid yellow-orange hue to foods. Sometimes it is sold as ground Saffron but you’ll know you’ve been had because of its inexpensive price tag. Combined with the schmear of chipotle (which is actually smoked and dried Jalopenos), the result is a deliciously rich and fruity smokiness which doesn’t overpower the dab and allows you to ramp up the accompaniments- maybe serve wrapped inside soft corn tortillas or piled inside fried taco shells with lime, avocado, fridge cool shredded salad and sliced jicama for a vegetal and much needed crunch?

 

 

 

Maple mashed carrots and swede

By Elsa Bostelmann: from a found copy of a 1949 National Geographic
By Elsa Bostelmann: from a found copy of a 1949 National Geographic

When you imagine what a poet might choose as muse or subject, a swede doesn’t easily spring to mind does it? Yet when I sat down to eulogise the swede as one of my chosen foods, I was most surprised and pleased to find that plenty of far more illustrious writers and poets had got there well before me. And they hadn’t all written verse after verse about clotted mud, strafing winds, chapped legs and tight, tense backs although having worked school winter holidays as a potato picker in farms perched upon the high ridges of the South Suffolk Stour valley, I can attest to how tough these jobs are.

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920) The Swede Harvest
Alfred Parsons: The swede harvest

In We Field Women by Thomas Hardy, set on Flintcomb-Ash, the farm in Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we are not shielded from the back-breaking effort that hard manual labour involves though and it is still important that the travails of those who bring us our food are recognised. The poem is narrated by one of the field women who spend each autumn trimming swedes in the rain; cutting off the knobs on the swedes to make them easier to slice up for cattle food. The fact that the job ceased when the swedes became too cold to cut up says much about the bone numbing, frigid conditions they endured, causing hands to become red-raw and cracked from the swede juice as it leaked around the handle of their clasp knives:

“How it rained

When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,

And could not stand upon the hill

Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill.

swedes – root vegetables The wet washed through us – plash, plash, plash:

How it rained! How it snowed

When we crossed from Flintcomb-Ash

To the Great Barn for drawing reed,

pulling out long straw for thatching roofs Since we could nowise chop a swede. –

nowise – not at all (because the swedes were frozen) Flakes in each doorway and casement-sash:

How it snowed!”

Our dispositions might not be sweetened after a day in a freezing cold field but the frost and snow certainly has a sweetening effect upon many root vegetables and turns the flesh of the swede a darker hue. Cold weather triggers the breakdown of the starch contained in its swollen globular shaped root and they release glucose. Sugar freezes at a lower temperature than water and becomes a super useful vegetal anti-freeze thus preventing the damage that frozen water causes in more tender plants. Come the deepest winter, any swedes left in fields are said to be the food of choice for discerning hares and rabbits- a gnaw-able energy ball if you like- and finding them becomes easy when the freeze-thaw cycle pushes the green, bronze and purple shoulders of the roots upwards until they become a lumpy patchwork on the field surface, crowned with their floppy green leaves.

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Charmingly, for poet Edward Thomas, the sight of a well stored earth clamp of swedes arranged in layers and enclosed in straw and soil is akin to the opening of a Pharoah’s tomb, the roots kept sweet and dry from the ‘moans and drips of Winter’. For hungry people cooking their way through the hunger gap, they are as precious as the jewels and treasures of an Egyptian King and were seemingly stored with similar care:

“They have taken the gable from the roof of clay
On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun
To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds
Unsunned. It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.”

Mashed with carrots, roasted and enriched with maple syrup and Jamaican long-pepper, swede comes a long way from its humble roots (sorry!) and simple, country stock. Turned deep-marigold from the heat of the oven with a chewy, smoky-sweet crust from the maple syrup and smoothly fleshed underneath, it is perfect with roasts, accompanying stews and braises and as a bed for a pile of barbecued pork ribs or chicken thighs. The addition of long-pepper adds a complex taste more reminiscent of spice mixes such as garam masala with notes of cinnamon, musk and cardamom. Its effects are cool in the mouth, as opposed to warm, and although the Kama Sutra praises its aphrodisiac qualities stating that long-pepper should be  mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to  I don’t recommend you apply it externally as the Kama Sutra does- on a cold night, a warm meal cooked for your loved one after a hard day at work is aphrodisiac enough, I find.

I first had swede served with maple syrup at The House on the Green in North Wootton, Norfolk, a little pub with attached restaurant which happens to cook astonishingly great Sunday roasts. Served alongside giant Yorkshire puds and rosy beef, the dishes of cauliflower cheese, maple syrup carrots and swede, peppered cabbage and spring onion mash were sides which shone as brightly as the sunniest frost-sharpened winter day. Here’s my version but do go try theirs.

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MAPLE MASHED CARROTS AND SWEDE

Ingredients: 400g carrots / 2 small swedes/ 2 tbsp maple syrup (I prefer Grade B for extra smoke and complexity)/ salt / Jamaican long pepper

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees and put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Peel and cut the swede into small chunks. Then peel and chop the carrots up into slivers. Place both vegetables into the boiling water and cook until fork tender. Drain well over the sink using a colander and then place back into the saucepan for mashing. Put the pan with the drained swede over a low heat to further dry them out (this will make them fluffier) and roughly mash them. Take off the heat and dribble over the maple syrup and stir it in ensuring it is evenly distributed. Then mash some more until you have a chunky mash: try not to make it too smooth because you want the chunks to catch in the oven’s heat and caramelise a little in the oven. Put the mash into a baking dish, taste and check for seasoning- you might want to salt it more- then rough the mash up with a fork and put into the oven for around 40 mins or until deeply golden and slightly crunchy on top. Take it out halfway through and stir, to ensure maximum caramelisation. Do keep an eye on the mash because you don’t want it to burn.

When it is done, remove from the oven and taste. Grate enough Jamaican long pepper over it to your taste and serve with a large pat of butter on each portion.

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, traveling 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 were 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 traveled 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 eminently 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 Portuguese began to make marmelada, whose name came from the Portuguese for quinces, marmelo. In 1611, John Tradescant brought this Portuguese 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 Portuguese, 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 flatbreads 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)