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.

“My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food”- I talk to MsMarmiteLover

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Photo courtesy of Kerstin Rodgers

 

 Stand in front of a map, don a blindfold and point, and the chances are that you’ll choose a country that food writer Kerstin Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover has either visited or plans to do so very shortly. For those of us who lack the budget of an oligarch but still aspire to eat well and see the world, Kerstin is your go-to woman, having travelled widely on a realistic budget as sole parent, often with her child in tow, and packing little more than a curious mind, an appetite and a guidebook. And now Kerstin ventures forth to Bury St Edmunds to stage a show at the Theatre Royal with wine expert Nick Adams which promises to marry memoir, menu suggestions and travelogue with food and wine pairings, compared by BBC Suffolk presenter, Lesley Dolphin. It is a night that promises to be interactive and informal and offers something a little different for audiences in this Georgian jewel of a venue.

Check out Kerstin’s blog and her four books and you will see that she isn’t the kind of woman to draw the footbridge up behind her either. Her latest book is packed with advice and guidance for would be food writers with a dream of making a living in one of the most competitive industries of all and her blog is jam packed with seriously useful advice designed to make you feel that you can do it. There’s recipes of course, but also a fresh and at times irreverent take on the High Church of Careers in Food and the Art of Travel Discourse with stories about her exploits in places such as a state fair in Alaska where she could have paid ten dollars to enter a raffle to win her own gun or meeting anarchic French wine producers (and correctly and helpfully defining what anarchy actually means).

She writes about staging an exquisitely researched secret 18th century tea party at Dennis Severs’ ghostly Georgian house in Spitalfields, Christmas spent with her daughter at an abandoned mining town La Vieille Valette near Alès and Kimchi cooked Gangnam style which was inspired by her first Korean meal, served bizarrely in Ecuador and not, um, Seoul or Pusan. This is set against a back story which involves her starting out as a teenage photographer at New Musical Express, becoming the subject of the Madness single ‘My Girl’s Mad at Me’ and launching the supper club/pop up/underground restaurant movement in the UK in 2009 via the inception of her supper club The Underground Restaurant.

At a time when the dominant narrative around single parenthood can lean towards little money, limited horizons and a serious lack of agency, Kerstin is a refreshing change and I would have loved such a role model back in the day when I (briefly) found myself alone with a child. You also might not know that Kerstin is a facilitator and, as she describes herself, a passionate believer in the punk philosophy of a DIY philosophy as applied to food, meaning that she acts as friend and mentor to many small food producers across the UK. Kerstin helps them to establish themselves in a crowded market and sell their wares whilst sharing mutual expertise and advice. I am hoping that she will find Suffolk a new and fertile stamping grounds for her ideas and initative and that we might benefit as a county from her gastro-expertise which has been hard won over time.

Another of Kerstin's books
Another of Kerstin’s books

Over the course of a near three hour interview (a lot of which featured delicious food world gossip and off the record laughs) I asked Kerstin about her life and career and about what we might expect when she comes to the Theatre Royal. As someone who adores food writing myself, I am keen to hear her opinions on the genre and what direction it might take in the future. “I’m desperately hoping that food blogging won’t die out” Kerstin says, straight off the bat when I ask her this. “My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food but I do worry that people don’t actually want food writing and content anymore. They want lifestyle.”

Yet Kerstin’s blog is remarkably broad in its remit without being unfocused, going from elaborately staged supper clubs to relatable suggestions for creating a similar ambience in your own cooking and home. From embroidering her own tea towels to writing posts about niche ingredients that we all buy then wonder what the hell to do with (bottarga anyone?), there is a spirit of can do realism in Kerstin’s work. You encourage people to enjoy their nests, I remark.

“I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I love doing that. I think we are still in recession and a few lucky people aren’t and people haven’t got a lot of money. I’m very careful with money. I’ve just been careful. There was an urge to go with that when I started the supper club. That, in a way, was the ultimate nesting thing, you are having a whole night out in my own house.”

Kerstin provides a much needed alternative to the dominant media image of lone parents- the idea that they all live poverty-struck, grim and unimaginative lives of subsistence, eating TV dinners in front of a giant flat screen. This narrative can be a dangerously narrow one where aspirational and hard-working single parents are not accurately represented in the media. It’s important to be a different role model, I tell her, whether you intended this to be the case or not.

“I’ve been a single mother for twenty years. I KNOW what it can be like. I was on benefits too and the one thing I didn’t do was starve. In fact what I could afford to do was eat. That was the one thing I could do. I was one parent with one child taking on all the responsibility and it’s an intimate situation. I don’t hide things,” she said.

“It’s not what you say, it is also what you do. Kids aren’t watching us cook anymore. It’s a really important life skill.

“It is tough [single parenting] and as single parents, we are very scary. We’re often single women and we are managing! I’m a bit like Elizabeth the First; without a man I am more efficient… Stronger, I get stuff done and a man can be a distraction. It can take away from yourself to look after them although I’d quite like one, sometimes….” she laughs.

Kerstin self identifies as feminist, telling me that “to learn to drive, it’s the most important thing to do, as a vehicle gives is freedom. It’s a feminist thing,” and we talked at length about the ‘official’ food world and the narrow tropes that tend to dominate it.

“99.9% of the worlds cooking tends to be done by women yet there is an inverse proportion of men doing the high profile restaurant reviewing, food writing and cheffing. It’s narrow and it is wrong and its all wealthy white men.”

Kerstin is well documented as the creator of the now widespread idea of eating out in other peoples homes, known as supper clubs. Despite the profound effect her idea has had upon the culinary zeitgeist she claims, “If I were a man, having created a new style of eating, I would not be in this position I am in. It can be really difficult to earn money and one of my battles is trying to earning enough money to carry on.This is my living, people pay money for my food.

“Tim Hayward (a food writer and owner of Cambridge bakery and cafe Fitzbillies) always says you need to be rich to be a food writer. Many people who work in food are well off to start with,” she adds.

What do you call yourself, I ask. What job description describes you best in this career of yours which weaves together so many different creative and practical strands?

“I call myself a reporter” she replies. ” I feel that is what I am doing. With my blog I only write about what I have done, seen and the people I talk to. Basically I go to places, like when I met the anarchic punks who make wine. I go to them, I interview them and spend the day with them. I learn about what they do and photograph it and then report back.

“And that is the sort of stuff thar really interests me.”

Kerstin’s background as a rock photographer stands her in good stead in an industry where visual aesthetics are beginning to take precedence over the ability to construct a sentence and write knowledgeably about the culture of food. Her ability to let a photograph tell the story is clear (and if you check out this blog post, you’ll see what I mean) but she is generous with her skills and keen to pass them on to a new generation of bloggers- if they are willing to listen and learn.

Her latest book, Get started in food writing: Teach Yourself (Hodder Staughton) is packed with handy tips from how to construct a recipe to building brands and securing TV appearances. “It’s the first non cookery book I have done and although it was pretty badly paid for a lot of effort, in the end I enjoyed doing it,” she says, wryly.

“It is a bit of a dry format but I tried to make it as juicy as possible. I enjoyed doing the interviews, from the horses mouth of talking to people so to speak, and that really interests me”, she added.

This is a word heavy book, and she is unfairly comparing it to her previous cookbooks which are visually very rich, packed with lovely images, memories and recipes with context. However ‘Food Writing’ solicits the expertise of some very well known food industry bods including the aforementioned Tim Hayward and is a really useful resource with cautionary tales about what the business can be like and hints on avoiding these pitfalls. Kerstin’s work has been plagiarised in the past and has had to use the resources available to her in order to seek redress through social media and her own blog posts about the experience. “I sometimes think that sometimes with certain celeb chefs, my feed is basically their pinterest board,” she confided.

I ask her about the recent backlash against the ‘clean food brigade’ those deliciously glossy and long boned young women (because they do tend to be female) who are all over the weekend food supplements, plying us with recipes for avocado slices dropped into cucumber (Yes, this was actually offered as a ‘recipe’, recently) and other digestively moral advice.

“There are all these skinny 22 yr olds talking about food. I went to Istanbul with one of them recently” she confides, “It’s the shadow side of the food industry. Its basically, a complicated relationship with food. It’s rock n roll, it’s glamour and we have incredible guilt about what we eat,” Kerstin says emphatically.

“There’s all these diseases from overeating such as diabetes but these girls are unrealistic. We all looked like that when we were 22, or most of us did. It’s easy to be thin and moral when you are 22 with beautiful youthful hormones, dancing all night in clubs,” she added.

“I’m not a fan: it’s another fad and in a years time we’ll all be going, do you remember that time when we were all mad about…? It’s another form of dieting, these women are diet bloggers. It’s this lifestyle thing, focused upon what you look like and these girls photograph well. Can any of them cook? I don’t know.”

So at its worst is it a form of eating disorder?

“Yes.”

Look at the men in food, I add. Not glam are most of them?

“We treat food like fashion and it is all about being in your twenties- there’s ageism going on too,” she agrees.

V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin's books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.
V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin’s books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.

Kerstin writes about vegetarian and vegan food a lot and one of her books is an incredibly useful and realistic cookbook for vegans (V is for Vegan). Despite her concerns about some aspects of the food industry, she is aware that the zeitgeist is quite sensibly focusing upon eating less animal fat and finding ways of enjoying food without contributing towards the environmental burden upon the planet.

“*I don’t have meat in my house and it is an ethical choice. The book (V is for Vegan) is my way of paying respect to the vegan community and I would have loved more space as its quite a short book. I fought to get the pages I got.”

Going back to economic constraints on food budgets she points out that “the first thing we give up on when money is short is meat. I think eating animal protein should be a rare treat if you are going to do it and a lot of it is not good for your health., I don’t think it is something for 3 times a day.

“Meat used to be for Sunday best. Stir fries etc, tiny bits of meat making it go a long way for the rest of the week. We never used to eat the amount of meat that people eat today.

“I honestly believe that cutting down on eating animal protein is good for your health.”

The advantage of travelling so much means that Kerstin is able to see these trends (if indeed this issue should be called a trend) and her travels to the USA in particular have informed her recipe development and menu creation although she is exasperated at times by the way we respond over here.

“The decision to become vegetarian or vegan is more respected in the States and [it is] very well written about over there. Lots of very well respected chefs are doing fantastic things with food but here, yet again, we’ve turned it into a fashion item. The British always seem to need to turn everything into a gimmick, like we do with street food” she said although she acknowledged the benefits of veganism becoming “fashionable again” for newly vegan people desperately searching for inspiration.

The Theatre Royal will be a good fit for Kerstin in my opinion with its intimate Georgian atmosphere. The show’s format is a new thing for her and she is keen to explore new ways of working in food and collaborations with people who possess expertise and longevity..

You’ll be well placed on that stage, I tell her. People in East Anglia are happy to travel miles to see a show. We’re kind of like the British version of Midwesterners living on the great plains, I laugh, and whilst it might be something a little different to the usual theatre programme, I think that those attending will enjoy the format.

“I’m working with Nick Adams who is a most respected master of wine” she said.

“I know him. He isn’t showy, you talk to people in the know and they say ‘yup’. He is very knowledgeable and quite acerbic about wine which is refreshing. I’m keen to see what he will do.”

We’ll be like the Muppets audience, jabbering away and completely slaughtered in the stalls and little theatre boxes if he passes the wine around, I comment, which we laugh about.

“It’s hard, talking about wine,” she explains.

“I’ve just done an article for the Wine Trust. I basically finished it at 2am last night and I’m not a wine buff. I hate writing wine descriptions. Some people do it really well but its very difficult to describe HOW something tastes and I always try to avoid it. I tend to concentrate upon stories about the wine, the winemakers- that I can do something with.”

So, the show will be something different for those of you going along and by all accounts, a new way of working for Kerstin Rogers. She told me that “this mania about food will move on. We’ve kind of jumped the shark about it and I’m wondering what the zeitgeist is going to be next.”

I agree that the mania needs to move on but I am hoping it will leave room for a more considered debate about food and the kind of enjoyable essays about food and the people who produce it that Kerstin and other good food writers publish. Kerstin has always been aware that they are the real stars of the show. The rest of the food world will eventually, and hopefully, catch on.

This feature was previously published on Bury Spy and publicised an event held at The Theatre Royal

 

Cook book reviews for Autumn 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Norfolk Book of Baking

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The Little Norfolk Book of Baking has been born! Originally conceived as a competition entry by ten girls from the Norwich High School for Girls for ‘Young Enterprise’ a competition designed to give young people an insight into running their own business, the book fills a gap in the market for a Norfolk baking book that celebrates both local talent and our rich culinary heritage. We contacted  Katie Bates, a member of their fledgling business ‘The Saffron Enterprise Company’ who wrote,

 “The popularity of home baking in Britain has seen a huge surge in this decade thanks to programmes such as the Great British Bake Off, and today the British baking industry is worth an estimated £3.4 billion. It was this huge evolving market combined with a shared passion for all things baking that led us to create our cookbook”

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Keeping it regional meant approaching Norfolk’s stellar culinary talent and the students received a highly positive response from all those they got in touch with, quickly acquiring enough recipes to fill the 44-page book. Contributors include 2010 MasterChef finalist Tim Kinnaird, and celebrity chefs Galton Blackiston and Mary Berry. We at Mumsnet Norfolk & Suffolk are particular fans of Dr Kinnaird’s macarons and other delicacies having sampled them in the past. Interspersed with these are the girls own favourite recipes, resulting in a cook book that appeals to young adults – those starting out as cooks who might be intimidated by some of the more complicated and less realistic baking tomes out there. 

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The students have recently won the Norfolk county finals, and since then have been trying to sell as many books as possible before the regional finals in Cambridge in June. The book retails for £5.99, and can be found in Jarrolds’ book department and at Blickling Hall, as well in restaurants and cafes in Norfolk, such as The Box Tree Cafe. They recently appeared on the new local station, Mustard TV to promote the book, and have also previously featured in The Norfolk Magazine. We at Mumsnet wish them the very best of luck and will most certainly be using this gorgeous little book. 

The Little Norfolk Book of Baking can also be brought from the school– http://goo.gl/0gJLXu

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