Terms food writers probably shouldn’t use

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Having laughed and agreed with Sarah Millers feature on the food-writing terms that properly stick in her craw, I had no choice but to compile a list of my own. The food-writing police are in the building and they ain’t leaving any time soon. I’d love to know what your most-hated terms are (or if you think I am a prescriptive joyless b*tch and should let people get on with it).

1] Mouthgasm 

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

2] Nom Nom Nom

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

3] Decadent

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

4] Opted for

I opted to stop reading your article at this point.

5] Tangle of

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

6] ‘Sossidge’

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

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

THIS DID NOT HAPPEN.

8] Buttery

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

9] Authentic

Authentic for whom?

10] Sinful

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

11] Foodie

I’d rather be called a professional wanker. Do you refer to gallery goers as Arties?

12] Food movement

Especially after a bad oyster.

13] Food porn

Using the word porn to describe food makes you sound so repressed, you probably think Larkin got it wrong when he said sexual intercourse started in 1963. Seriously, go get laid and then think about the sexual politics of equating abusive sexual practices with what’s on your plate.

14] Farm fresh

Conjures up images of a big fat cowpat imo. ‘Farm fresh’ on a label is usually accompanied by a line drawing of a generic farm called ‘Happy Valley’ or ‘Green Meadows’ that you know DOESN’T EXIST. And if I see this written on a restaurant menu it makes me want to ask them ‘as opposed to what? Rank and stale ?’

15] Iconic

Patti Smith is iconic. The Chrysler Building is iconic. The Taj Mahal is iconic. Your cheese toastie is not, even if it has been handmade by Rene Redzepi.

16] Addictive

I am as likely to crave a bowl of ice cream as much as the next person but let’s not pretend my love for the icy stuff is going to make me lie in bed shivering, doubled up with cramps if I miss a hit.

17] Cooked to perfection

As opposed to raw, burnt, covered in dog hair, frozen in the middle? I happen to like my steak still mooing as its brought to the table. To me that is perfection. To you it probably is not.

18] Pillowy

So help me God but if I read this about gnocchi or bao one more time I am going to place a real pillow over the face of whoever wrote it and press down hard.

 

A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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

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

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

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

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

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

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.

 

 

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

Taste Head Chef

Image courtesy Tuddenham Mill/Lee Bye

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

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

How would you describe yourself as a colleague and boss?

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuddenham Mill at Halloween / courtesy Lee Bye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Fancy trying squirrel for supper?

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Long eaten across the American Deep South and very popular stewed long and slow, squirrel meat was even included in older editions of that famous American cooking tome The Joy of Cooking as a ‘tender alternative to chicken or rabbit’. It might not be long before people across East Anglia become accustomed to eating this lowest of food-miles meat and with over five million of the bright eyed and bushy tailed beasties hopping across our lawns, parks and forests, the questions has to be ‘what took us so long?’

Squirrel meat is on sale for the first time on the butchery counter at the Elveden Courtyard in Suffolk. Similar to rabbit in flavour, it is a light-coloured, finely textured meat that is low in fat and completely free-range. Its natural diet of berries and nuts contributes to a flavour I can only describe as nutty having eaten it some time ago, coated in a flavoured breadcrumb Southern style and deep fried. I also recommend a paella made with squirrel instead of rabbit or chicken and the great Brunswick Stew, an old Southern one pot meal beloved in North Carolina and Kentucky and which must be made with three specific ingredients to be genuine- okra, lima (butter) beans and squirrel.

One regular Elveden customer, Helen Sturgeon, has already created some lovely squirrel pasties using the meat and food shop manager Richard Howard explains the benefits, “Squirrel from Elveden is wild, nutritious and has virtually zero food miles, coming straight from the estate itself, making for a highly ethical meat.” If terroir is your thing, squirrel meat, like all wild game, is its perfect expression.

The move follows an increase in demand for game from the estate butchers, with venison, pheasant and wild rabbit highly sought after. Although rabbit can be shot all year round, a national decrease in population numbers has led the estate to restrict the numbers shot each month in order to ensure the animals flourish. It is generally advised to avoid eating town squirrels because of the risk of ingesting what they have eaten which may include poison put out to kill rats. Buying squirrel meat from a reputable supplier eliminates the risk.

“Rabbits are no longer breeding ‘like rabbits’,” explains James Holliday, Forestry and Conservation Manager at Elveden Estate. “Nationally, numbers have been in decline over the past few years and have now reached such low numbers we are limiting the number killed in order to maintain a sustainable population.”

The Elveden Estate is located in the Brecks region of Suffolk, an area renowned for rabbit warrening and a unique ecosystem that greatly depends upon controlled rabbit populations to maintain the open and friable structure of the soil, benefiting the huge variety of plants that are specialised to sandy healthland. So while we’re trying to build local rabbit populations up again, why not try its arboreal taste equivalent?

The Elveden Courtyard shops are open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 5pm and Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

For further information, please visit www.elveden.com

Elmer Fudds Brunswick Stew