Some thoughts on oyster soup

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“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”

How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.

Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.

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Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.

In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.

M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared. The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.

The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’

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Johann David Wyss, woodcut 1891

Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.

It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.

“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.”  By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.

Oyster soup

(Serves 6)

two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)

2 rashers streaky bacon

4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs

1 tbsp butter

16 fl oz full fat milk

8 fl oz single cream

pinch ground mace

pinch ground nutmeg

pinch black pepper

salt to taste

Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.

 

 

 

 

A week in Venice: what to eat, where to eat it

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*Extracts from this piece were first published in the Bury Free Press. 

Whilst there’s much joy to be had roaming this tiny but densely built-up city in search of the unexpected, it also pays off to prepare a little in advance because the most popular spots book up well in advance. Here’s my recommendations for the best places to eat in Venice at all price points. 

Meal of the holiday and probably the entire year was at Alle Testiere  (huge thanks to Victor Hazan who recommended this delicious place and told us to drop his name to get a last-minute res) where we ate razor clams, pasta with mixed seafood, sea bass with lime, bronte pistachio gelato and great clattering heaps of clams just hours out of the sea. Chef Bruno and Luca the sommelier work the tiny 22-place dining room in a friendly but discreet manner. Dress up for dinner but lunch is more casual although we’re talking Italian casual here.

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Razor clams at Alle Testiere

On our first night in Venice we wandered deep into Dorso Duro looking for cicchetti and ended up finishing the evening propped up at the small wooden bar of Da Fiore whose wide shutters open straight onto the narrow alley. We ate Sarde in Saòr (fried sardine fillets topped with a sweet and salty tangle of rosemary, juniper, wine-soaked sultanas and onion); golf ball-sized fish and crab polpetti; scooped up tangled piles of onion with tiny crusty triangles of fried polenta and finished off with artichokes sliced in half, dressed with oil and scattered with grilled orange peel. Afterwards, we strolled around the crosshatch of alleys filled with shops which specialised in exquisite things: tiny hand-made wooden boats, marbled paper and chandlers selling hand-braided rope. I was smitten by an artists shop whose window display of pigments in old wooden trays and stained and ancient pestle and mortars drew the eye. The first thought that sprung to mind was Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book ‘Colours, a Natural History of the Palette ‘.

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Later on in the week we came across the teeny Acqua e Mais in the San Polo district where seafood is dusted with polenta and fried while you wait. Cornets of calamari, shrimp and salt cod (baccalà mantecato) also come served with soft polenta or a fritti of local vegetables, costing a mere 3-5 euros. Orient Experience in Cannaregio is also inexpensive and offers something rather different to local cuisine in that its staff are drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern lands and the food reflects this. Choose from Iranian rice with saffron, Afghani basmati rice with lamb, raisins, almonds and carrots or beef meatballs with potatoes, prunes and walnuts. There’s kebabs and Syrian fattoush plus live Arabic music some nights.

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Fried seafood cicchetti from Acqua e Mais

You’ll eat wonderfully at Ristorante Alla Madonna as long as you’re prepared to tolerate the indifferent attitude to non-locals. The wood-grilled eel quickly soothed though; soft, fatty flesh backed by smoked chewy skin, its fat running onto the plate to be sopped up with unsalted bread. The linguine with clams was briny with a good chew to the pasta. We wanted to order more but to be honest we didn’t feel like lingering.

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Grilled eel at Alla Madonna

If you’re not that familiar with Venice and its food, it can be hard to navigate past all the tourist establishments although a good rule of thumb is to avoid places with lurid photos of their dishes on the menu and translations in multiple languages.

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The Rialto

The Rialto area is particularly full of tourist restaurants although its backstreets are also home to Trattoria Alla Madonna which is anything but a tourist place. Another good tip: follow the gondoliers at lunchtime and eat where they eat. We ended up at Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina ( Campo San Polo, 2741) near San Marco and the Rialto. The menu is classic Venetian with good wines sold by the carafe and the prices are decent: fourteen euros for a plate piled high with calves liver and polenta. It’s nothing to look at from its exterior which is a tad grimy and graffiti-damaged but the cosy wooden interior facing a small bridge and canal tells you that you have struck gold. It was filled with rows of men in stripy-shirts when we arrived and these fellows know how to eat.

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Osteria Al Ponte ‘La Patatina

Venture into San Polo and you’ll encounter another Da Fiore (San Polo 2202a, Calle del Scaleter, 30125),  a small and elegant restaurant where you’ll be expected to rock up in something other than shorts and Tevas. The best tables have a canal view and you’ll need to book well in advance. The lemon and liquorice granita was much-needed on a hot stuffy day as was the sea bream in the classic saor style and a thick slice of saffron tuna encrusted with polenta. Those of you heading there in the autumn should order the pumpkin and chestnut mushroom soup.

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The mushrooms sold in Venice are stellar; apricot chanterelles, fat little porcini and the deeply grooved ceps were just arriving during our time there and the greengrocers advice was to char them on a griddle and serve with radicchio. If you crave more liquorice, head over to Redentore on Giudecca where there’s a tiny gelato parlour selling the best liquorice gelato we have ever eaten. Or try  Nico’s near the Zattere stop on the main island, which is deservedly popular. The roasted banana, a simple fiore de latte (always a reliable test of a gelato maker) and the fig, honey and nut were repeat orders for us.

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Alle Testiere: sea bass with lime

There’s more to Venice than the main island though, lovely as it is, so be sure to travel around the lagoon and time your return to Venice with sunset. The islands of Murano and Burano are popular and I’ll return to them in a minute but Torcello, Mazzorbo and the tiny enclaves of Pellestrina and Alborino on the Lido should not be missed. Only by visiting these will you gain a full picture of Venice’s fascinating history and geopolitics.

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Venetian coastguards setting up a speed trap by La Dogana.

Torcello

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Go back some fifteen hundred years and you’ll arrive at a time when the tiny island of Torcello was still the largest and most fiscally important Venetian island of all with over 20,000 residents who made their home there after fleeing the Barbarian hordes on the Italian peninsula. But they couldn’t flee from geographical forces as yet beyond their control. As the mainland rivers poured silt into the lagoon,the shallow waters around Torcello became clogged, choking the maritime traffic essential to its existence and providing a good home for mosquitoes instead of the fish and seafood that it was previously known for. The locals migrated to Venice, scavenging Torcello’s buildings for materials and today, just a few residents are left and much of the island is a nature reserve.

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We travelled to Torcello from Burano and Mazzorbo on the vaporetto (No 9 from Burano) and walked along the fondamente towards the cathedral at the heart of the island. Lining the canals were trattorias and bars whose piazzas were shaded by pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. The Devil’s Bridge arches over the main canal into an olive grove bordered by tamarix whilst a larger, flatter bridge led to the church yard proper. Its name is a likely corruption of a local family name -Diavolo- although a legend dating back to the Austrian occupation of Venice is more poetic.

It was a hot day and the air stood still over the lagoon, keeping the thunderstorm over the mainland firmly in place, so the occasional breezes from motorboats filled with local teenagers were welcome. It always amuses me to hear loud rap music coming from these boats set against this timeless landscape; they’re Venice’s version of British boy racers.

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Storms over the mainland as we motor back from Mazzorbo and Torcello

The cathedral is technically not a cathedral anymore on account of there being no resident bishop and is opposite the Museo Archeologico della Provincia di Venezia di Torcello.

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The cathedral is Venice’s oldest monument with a suitably grand name: the Cattedrale di Torcello (Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) and its foundation dates back to AD 639. Go inside and check out the 11th/12th century Byzantine mosaics (a Madonna and Child in the apse, a Last Judgment on the west wall). The gold-flecked beauty curves over ones head in the soft light. During the daylight hours, make sure you climb the campanile behind the cathedral for sweeping views of Torcello, the lagoon and Venice in the distance. This is the best way to see how the Venetian lagoon works because when visibility is at its best, you will be able to see the shipping lanes picked out by wooden posts as far as the eye can see.

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Where to eat on Torcello? We liked the small bars serving panini, cicchetti, fruit platters and pasta whose owners let us pick our own pomegranates (ripe in early September). Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo is by the eponymous bridge and is particularly lovely with a shady garden but there’s also Locanda Cipriani (yes, THAT Cipriani), beloved of Hemingway who wrote part of his novel, Across the River and Through the Trees here. It’s the place to eat if you like big ticket restaurants but I’m so keen on what appears to be a terribly upmarket version of a chain restaurant. If I’m going to spend big, I’d rather go elsewhere. You’ll need to book ahead for all the Torcello restaurants if you’re planning to visit at the weekend.

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Rosie & Jim appear to have retired to Torcello

Burano

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We were charmed by Burano after a less than pleasurable visit to Murano which we felt had been spoiled by tourism aimed to flog the glass the island has become so famous for. It wasn’t just the multi-coloured cottages and picturesque canals that made Burano so popular with us but also its back streets where sprawling gaggles of children congregate around communal water fountains (it’s tiny so there aren’t many streets) and the harbour where the mooring posts are painted to look like chunky pencils.

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Burano is at least a half hour trip by vaporetto from Venice (take the vaporetto 12 from San Zaccaria near St. Mark’s or go to Fondamente Nove and catch one from there) but this working fishermen’s community is a great place for fish and seafood, both to buy to cook yourselves or eat at one of the many restaurants and bars lining its waterways. Do make the effort and step away from the main tourist drag to get a better idea of how the island ticks over as a working community.

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Al Gatto Nero da Ruggero was our favourite place to eat, with freshly-made pasta and puddings, exquisitely mannered staff and pretty little tables lining the canal.(Booking ahead is recommended and thank you to Justin Sharp from Pea Porridge for the recom). Da Romano on Via Galuppi is a good bet, cooking a risotto which some diners claim to be the best in the world. I ate risotto as dark as night, coloured with seppie nero from the cuttlefish which stained my lips the deepest of blue, and tagliolini with spider crab but Da Romano is more touristy.

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If you want to eat with the locals, I’d go for Sunday lunch at Gatto Nero, kick back and be prepared to spend a little more (pasta is around 24 euros). What was delicious? Risotto Buranello made with the gó fish (which buries itself catfish-style in the lagoon mud) and a sturdy workhorse of a pasta in the form of a fat slippery bigoli slicked with a sardine-tomato sauce. We finished with a platter of local cookies, made soft by dipping them into fragolino wine. They didn’t mind us lingering a little because we booked second sitting. Other good things we ate on the island? A bowl of seafood lasagne, layered with shrimp, scallops and zuccini, flavoured with fennel pollen and saffron and tiny chiffonaded squash blossoms. It didn’t look like much but hidden beneath that seafood sauce were delicious treasures.

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Burano is home to the bussolà of Burano, an egg-enriched biscuit said to have been made by wives for their fishermen husbands to eat at sea. Some bussolà are enriched with rose water, chocolate, orange and other spices and a local legend tells of an aroma so intense the biscuits also doubled up as pomanders, hung in cupboards and placed in lingerie drawers. You’ll see the dough is twisted and formed into all manner of shapes from the classic shallow ‘S’ to more elaborate cream and nut-filled confections. Find them at Panificio Pasticceria Costantini ( San Martino Sinistro) and Panificio Pasticceria Palmisano Carmelina on Via Galuppi and look out for gelati flavoured with bussolà crumbs too. The biscuits pack light for those of you travelling back with hand luggage only.

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Burano is the place to buy hand-tatted lace although be careful; much is machine-made so do your research first. The vaporetto drops you off by Galuppi Square where local ladies sit on stools outside their cubby-hole stores, their fingers a perfect cats cradle of industry.  Leonardo da Vinci was a visitor to the island lacemakers and  bought lace to cover the altar of to the Duomo di Milano. Find out more from the museum of lace, the Museo del Merletto.

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Mazzorbo

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Easily accessible from Burano via a wooden bridge over the lagoon, Mazzorbo was the location of one of our best meals of the entire trip. We ate at Venissa where the chef is deeply committed to’lagoon cuisine’ although there are influences from all over Italy.

Venissa is the creation of winemaker Gianluca Bisol, whose family make some of Italy’s most famous prosecco in Valdobbiadene, an hours drive from Venice. On its tiny island plot lies the hotel; converted from farm buildings and fishermen’s houses, and an old storehouse which is where we ate outside in the sun. Shrimp marinated in watermelon, tortellini filled with Asiago Stravecchio served with a  mint and clam sauce both form part of the ‘mudflat’ tasting menu for 130 euros although there’s an á la carte option too. The fish changes daily according to what has been caught. This is deeply seasonal food with no pretention or fanfare and it is seasonal because it has to be: importing food into the Veneto is prohibitive and what can’t be grown on Mazzorbo comes from the nearby garden isle of San ‘Erasmo and the many produce markets around Venice. The restaurant uses produce grown by older people from the neighbouring island of Burano who work Venissa’s vineyards and fields.

A post-prandial wander reveals just how tiny this place is: there’s no shops, only one bar (Trattoria alla Maddalena) and the precariously-leaning campanile of Santa Caterina. Next time we visit, we’ll stay the night.

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Sculptures dot the island of Mazzorbo and grounds of Venissa

Giudecca

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Giudecca

This long low island faces Dorso Duro and the fondamente of San Marco. To walk the length of Giudecca at dawn and dusk is to gaze upon Venice at its best where the sky meets the water and the city seems to hover between them. Early evening is the golden hour, a time to stroll along the fondamente, drink an aperol and listen to the ringing of church bells. The coastguard moors at Palanca and the men pop in for a coffee and a chat. As the light plays across the Venetian waterfront colours grow richer and sound travels further and amid the chatter of the locals, we fancy we can hear the crowds across the water in Zattere. It’s not all ethereal stuff though. Giudecca is a working neighbourhood, a place where visitors can feel part of things, albeit temporarily. Miuccia Prada and Elton John have apartments on Giudecca but it is not a millionaires playground.

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Zattare, Venice from the island of Giudecca

Giudecca lies immediately south of Venice and is composed of several small islands linked by bridges. Once filled with large palazzos with extensive and lush gardens, the evidence of its recent industrial past can still be seen in the form of the redeveloped Molino Stucky flour mill, now a Hilton hotel which also houses the Fortuny showroom. Our apartment is on the front right corner of the mill, overlooking the canal and Venice.  Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous map of Venice, shows its geography, a string of eight small islets separated by canals, made green by those private gardens. Make time to explore its backstreets where a women’s prison lies next to rows of houses and a deconsecrated church (SS Cosma e Damiano) where a cat sanctuary and rows of artists studios in the cloisters make their home.

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Hand made rocking horse at SS Cosima e Damiano
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SS Cosma e Damiano

There’s Giovanni Toffolo, a boatyard on Giudecca, where we strolled one evening and saw wooden-hulled boats being restored in a building filled with the sound of workmen singing along to opera on the radio. The yard has its own lunchtime mensa- a canteen- nearby (The Food & Art Canteen, Fondamenta Berlomoni 554) where the public are welcome: take the vaporetto to Palanca and it’s a short walk to the boatyard along the canal with spendiferous views of Zattere to your left.

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The back streets of Redentore on Giudecca

The Giudecca fondamente is lined with bars, restaurants and bakeries, some of which have a long narrow counter parallel to the till where one can take morning coffee and pasticciera. (Look out for the little boy walking his pet rabbit!)  La Palanca, close to the Ponte Piccolo, is a good lunchtime bet where canalside tables offer great views and the chance to have your feet washed during acqua alta. Tagliolini ai calamaretti (pasta with tiny calamari) and swordfish carpaccio with orange zest were lovely, as was tuna with grapefruit. Ristorante Ai do Mori serves huge rich portions of crab gnocchetti which would be filling enough for two if you ordered a tomato salad and bread to accompany. The gorgonzola pizza is very good (well, it is the king of cheeses) and they do take-out if you want to eat at home or sitting on one of the benches overlooking the lagoon although the trattoria does have waterside seating.

Close to our apartment was L’Arte del Pane (Fondamenta Sant’Eufemia 655) with the best bread, grissini and pasticciera on Giudecca. They also sell panini, focaccia and ciabatta to be cut and stuffed with whatever filling you like. The walnut and gorgonzola was pretty good as was the classic Italian ham and asiago. There’s enormous bags of bussola for sale, (the hard biscuits Venetians like to dip into coffee and liqueurs), zaleti made from polenta and raisins, baci in gondola (sandwiched with dark chocolate) and focaccina Veneziana (a pillowy brioche-like bread studded with almonds and pearlised sugar). My favourite fishmonger is here too, whose men patiently explained to us what to buy despite the pushing eagerness of Giudecca’s housewives around us. For 6 euros we bought flats of butterflied sardine and anchovy (about twelve of each) to take home and melt in the pan to be spread on bread and spooned over pasta. The mantis shrimp were in season and twelve of those for 4 euros fed the pair of us with a tomato salad and olive oil.

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Guidecca and the monastery gardens as seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio

For a great view over the lagoon, the Sky Bar at the Stucky Hilton is a good place to base yourself as night falls. Above you are the lights of planes landing at Marco Polo and to the right is San Marco and beyond that, Castello. Left is Sacca Fisola, the last little island of Giudecca and the large yachts moored at the Port of Venice. The drinks aren’t cheap, I’d recommend just the one in fair exchange for that view, then retiring to one of the lagoon-side osterias and chatting with the locals- Ai Do Mori serves a bloody good aperol. What is great about the Hilton is that it has its own water taxi and you can use it free of charge to hop across to Zattere and San Marco. They run all night too.

San Giorgio Maggiore

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The small island of San Giorgio Maggiore, located in front of Saint Mark basin and a short vaporetto trip from Giudecca, has been named after the church of San Giorgio which crowns this relatively green part of the city. The view above is from its campanile and it is a glorious one, allowing visitors to see how the city is put together. There’s a lift for tired legs and the few euros they charge is well worth it. Have a wander around the monastery (inside there are paintings by Tintoretto) and gardens behind this 16th- century Benedictine church, the monastery offers well-priced lodgings for guests and a chance to lord it over the people staying at the ridiculously- costly Cipriani which is virtually next door, separated by the Canale delle Grazie.

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Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore seen from San Marco by Moya _ Bren

Lido, Alberoni and Pellestrina

Best known for hosting the annual Venice Film Festival, the Venetian Lido is well worth the trip across the lagoon. During the holiday season, the beaches are dotted with gaily striped beach umbrellas and it can become very crowded indeed. If you are visiting off-season, some of the beaches are closed although there is still access to the wildlife reserve with its gorgeous sand dunes.

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Pellestrina

A historical restaurant popular with actors and directors who dine there during the Venice Film Festival, La Tavernetta is a small, family owned restaurant. The cuisine is a mixture of  Tuscan and Venetian: the famous Chianina beef of the former and the plentiful fish and seafood of the latter, prettily presented and served in an interior which resembles a family dining room.

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Osteria Al Merca

Osteria Al Merca is located under the roof and open sides of what was once a produce market and the fish and seafood is straight off the boat fresh. Choose from baked scorpion fish, schie or mantis prawns served with polenta and tender vegetables from the island of Sant’Erasmo; local puntarelle and the tiny violet artichokes are a joy in season.Dress warmly in cooler weather or evenings when the breeze is fresh off the lagoon; you are eating outside, remember. It’s not the cheapest but worth the money.

The Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta is the Lido’s main shopping street and it is thickly lined with cafés and bars. Gelateria Tita is worth a visit so you can try Torta Tita, a cake of custard and chocolate-hazelnut gelato with a centre of crispy meringue, as well as the many flavours of gelato and sorbeti.

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Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo

Cycling is a great way to get about if you don’t want to take the bus which runs the length of the Lido. Hire a bike from  Lido On Bike then cycle down the island to Alberoni which is also a nature reserve and the site of some of the best beaches. Here you’ll encounter wildlife, some naturists and a wilder landscape of dunes and drift wood, well away from the manicured private and public beaches. Trattoria al Ponte di Borgo, a rustic restaurant in Malamocco is a short walk or bike ride from Alberoni and is more affordable than many other Lido restaurants. Cichetti is served as are the universal Aperol spritzers alongside generous platters of sweet crab in its shell and bowls of pasta alla malamocchina (mussels, tomatoes, oregano and smoked cheese).

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Alberoni

An all-day public transport ticket covers your journey to the tiny, sleepy island of Pellestrina via a ferry which departs from the tip of Alberoni. Pellestrina is only 11km in length and extremely slim-waisted, narrowing to just a few metres wide to barely accommodate its Adriatic sea defences, a wall named the Murazzi. There’s an unspoiled beach and three tiny fishing communities; San Pietro in Volta, Porto Secco and Pellestrina itself, where the boats seem to outnumber the people. Where to eat?  Da Celeste is the place for a culinary blow-out (up to 100 euros a head) but the location (all peach-pink sunsets and deep blue waters) and the fish (boat fresh, the best of the catch) is superb. The tables line the lagoon, the napery is snowy white and the service is smoothly unobtrusive. The scampi with polenta and the gnocchi al pomodoro are especially good and if you really want to go mad, order the whole turbot.

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Da Celeste

Some thoughts on baking with citrus

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The space
between the leaves
is full of sunlight.

At the sharp edge,
no longer crowded
with past and future,

fruits ripen on the lemon tree
in the silence
rising
from the morning air.
–   Ok-Koo Kand Grosjean, Garden

That sunlit space is where all citrus fruits reside, a place of sharp, bright awakening and the way we use them in cooking is a tale of cultural derring-do: even the simplest of recipes can possess multiple cultural references, reflecting the complex culinary genealogy of these fruits. Although I use them frequently in savoury meals, today I want to gather together some of my favourite citrus recipes. And if a pudding course redolent with lemon and its citrus cousins is not enough, then precede it with chicken, spaghetti and circles of calamarata pasta dressed with lemon, garlic, parsley and clams, turnip tops and roasted cauliflower .

 One of my favourites is a recipe for a grapefruit yoghurt cake which possesses a convoluted culinary genealogy by way of Ina Garten and Deb Perelman and it is Deb who tinkers with Ina’s original lemon pound cake — and tries to lighten it up. Butter and buttermilk are replaced by oil -and the aforementioned yoghurt – in a nod to the sainted lighter living and not something I usually subscribe to, being of the school of eat a little of whatever the hell you fancy. Anyway, butter is not bad for you. This is not substitution in order to reduce calories or fat but to adjust texture:  the yoghurt adds flavour whilst the oil ensures the crumb retains dampness even when the cake is a few days old.

When we bake with citrus fruits, their sharp, grassy, rimey and clear flavours cut through the melding tendencies of eggs, butter and other oils like Flashman. Grapefruit lends a more rounded, burnished flavour than the lemon and is further rounded-out by the yoghurt which produces a springy, moist crumb with a lactic tang. A grapefruit’s flavour is warm amber compared to the clear jewel-like citrine taste of a lemon.

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Classic lemon bundt cake

Adding the zest to the cake mix results in a drizzle cake in all but name: the grapefruit juices are poured over the cooling cake and then used in an icing sugar-based glaze and this method clearly lends itself to all kinds of free-styling. The Southern Girls Kitchen has a newly published recipe for grapefruit pound cake which would make a great starting-block for experimentation using different glazes and adding in fruit to the batter: the cream cheese in the mixture and the filling also adds moistness and flavour. I have baked madeleines flavoured with bergamot and lime accompanied by a coconut dipping sauce and sharp lemon and lime loaf cakes where a sprinkle of sumach adds a rounded tangy flavour: Nigella’s lemon and polenta cake would also work well with sumach. I like the idea of friands scented with mandorla and Earl Grey tea or made with a blend of pomelo and Lady Grey. There’s other tea blends which sound intriguing too: try Adagio teas who sell a blend called crema di mandorle di albicocca (described as marzipan meets apricot in black tea with a splash of cream) which I think would be amazing in a cake on its own as well.

I’m currently testing a cake-riff on a breakfast grapefruit where we can take the grapefruit halves usual sprinkling of grilled brown sugar and transform this into a brown-sugar and butter icing for a brown-butter and grapefruit loaf cake, perfect for the colder months ahead.  In winter, try incorporating rosy quinces into a damp-crumbed fruity cake spiced with star anise; drench griddled brioche or madeira cake with blood-orange curd for breakfast; or tuck poached kumquats and lychees inside a friand so each bite of cake is enlivened by a heart of fruit. Keep an eye on this site and on my newspaper food column for the recipes.

Rachel Roddy has written about her own baking template- the yoghurt pot cake- which can be adapted as the seasons change and, as she finds, is terribly good-tempered about this. Here, she flavours it with lemon and persimmon which we sometimes refer to as Sharon fruit in the UK. The hachiya variety rewards the wait for ripeness as Rousseau explains: ‘patience is bitter but fruit is sweet,’ maturing to a sweet-jellied voluptuousness. Sponges made with it are beautifully damp. Add in a few slivers of stem ginger to deepen its sweetness into something more dustily mysterious and don’t be too fussy about shaking off the beads of syrup which cling to the little balls of ginger when you spoon them out of their jar and stir them into the batter.

Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms MarmiteLover) has published a recipe for a boiled-orange upside-down cake which also happens to be gluten-free. Made for one of her secret tea parties, the original idea came via Diana Henry on Saturday Kitchen and the recipe caught my attention because I remember my mother saying that the worst thing she ever had to eat as a child was boiled oranges in post-war Britain. After years of citrus fruit shortages, all she wanted to do was eat one fresh and as un-mucked about with as possible. I don’t think that boiled oranges are disagreeable at all, especially when the caramelised orange juices from Kerstin’s cake (which are fortified by Triple Sec or Cointreau) seep into the base of the almond-enriched crumb. Use Seville Oranges and after you’ve poured the orangey juices over the cake, dust it with more brown sugar and give it a blast under the grill: I think a Seville orange-flavoured cake needs this extra sugar, you, however, may not.

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Blood orange

I’m partial to  Diana Henry’s pomegranate and blood-orange cake which is, she says, ‘for those lunatics who don’t like Christmas pudding’ although I am not one of them. The photo alone sold it to me before I even looked at the recipe as it’s the loveliest thing; basically John Masefield’s Box of Delights in cake form. Pomegranates are such a Christmassy fruit and a heap of fruits on the table and windowsills allows their ruby peel to absorb and reflect back winter light. They glow softly in the corner of the room keeping company with piles of nuts and those long cardboard boxes stuffed with glistening gooey dates. Mead always seems Christmassy to me and I have been testing cakes flavoured with it, either as a soak for the sponge layers, combined with a light hit of orange or lemon in the cake mix or added to the whipped cream, mascarpone or creme fraiche served with each slice. There’s also a quince honey and mead stack cake in the style of the Appalachian apple stack which I made for a friend’s birthday. Watch this space.

Then there’s pies. I have eaten raspberry pies and used the leaves to flavour the cream which is poured over each slice. (Disclaimer: don’t give raspberry leaf cream to women who are pregnant and not at full-term just in case it does what it is reputed to do and primes their uteri for labour by triggering small contractions.) The North American Shakers created a lemon pie made from whole lemons, rind and all, and it is topped with bright wheels of sliced lemon. For all its summer sunniness, it is also the perfect pie for a cold winters day. Claire Ptak from Violet Bakery recently discovered this pie and published her recipe on Guardian Cook . It is pretty much the same recipe as the classic Shaker one.

Tommi Myers uses Tarocco blood-oranges in her pie, here. These oranges are the result of a random mutation of the common sweet orange (citrus sinensis) in a fifteenth century Sicilian orange orchard grove although there is evidence that one blood orange variety arose independently in China. The levels of anthocyanin, a water-soluble pigment commonly found in many types of red, purple and blue plants are elevated in the blood-orange and will only develop if the fruit is exposed to cold conditions during its development or post-harvest.Whilst we’re talking orange pigments, did you know that some oranges grown in some African countries might not develop the characteristic orange-hued peel, remaining green?

Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are a good alternative in the winter or the loose-skinned minneola (a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit), tangelo (bred by crossing the tangerine, grapefruit and orange and also known as the ugli fruit) in the warmer months: these all have aromatic peel and are incredibly juicy. If you have frozen raspberries left over from the previous summer or one of those bags of frozen berries, tip them in too because they add a lovely floral depth and give a pie the shade of a Turner sunset. I have eaten (and want to recreate) a cranberry-tangerine tart with a walnut crust whilst away at Christmas-time on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Nancy Capelloni’s Cranberry Cooking for All Seasons has a lovely-sounding recipe for a cranberry-orange loaf cake which again, is Christmas and Thanksgiving appropriate. I’d probably knock up a sugar-syrup flavoured with quatre-epices to pour over the finished cake to mitigate any overly-tart tendencies these fruits might possess.

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The Meyer lemon

I’ll finish on a high note in the form of Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake recipe, taken from her book Bread & Chocolate. Gage once owned and baked in a well-known San Francisco patisserie and is equally as talented at writing in this, her first book, and its sequel, A Sweet Quartet. Each chapter begins with a brief essay linked to a recipe and in the chapter devoted to citrus she tells us of the elderly woman who strode into her bakery one day with a brown paper bag full of citrons which became marmalade and of her own Meyer lemon tree. After patiently waiting for it to mature and bear fruit, Gage’s pleasure in her precious harvest of floral-scented fruit which comes via its lemon and mandarin-orange parents is palpable. This cake is my absolute favourite. Gage recommends we soak the lemon zest overnight in sugar-syrup (Neruda reminds us that the freshness of a lemon lives on in the sweet-smelling house of the rind) and, alongside the couple of ounces of  lemon juice which goes into the batter, this produces a cake of such tender dampness that it melts in the mouth. This is a cake to eat whilst you sit outside on a sunny day and read Helena Attlee’s  book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, which journeys through Italian history in order to trace the story of the lemons which were brought there by Arabs and now grow so prolifically in Italy.

Meyer Lemon Pound Cake

lemon soaking syrup:
4 lemons
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Zest the lemons and put in small pot with the sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the zested lemons to make 1/3 cup juice, and reserve for the cake.

To make the cake:

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
10 TB (5 oz) butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup lemon juice
prepared lemon zest, drained (syrup reserved)

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with the sugar until fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the lemon juice then stir in the zest. Pour the batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour. While the cake is still warm, poke holes all over its surface with a skewer and drizzle it with the reserved lemon syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.

 

 

 

Fennel cream cheese and tomato tart

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Like the French, I am not ashamed to buy and use ready-made puff pastry. The quality is generally good and it can save precious time when tiredness stands between you and a freshly baked tart.  I’m a big fan of open tarts because they can exert powers of resurrection over the tired stuff at the bottom of the fridge if you need to use it up. As always though, this will taste and look even better if your tomatoes are taut, herbs fresh and the cheese is the best you can afford. The fennel, herbs and cheese are whipped into a soft creamy bed for the tomatoes and smoothed over the uncooked pastry. If you don’t have access to fennel leaves (fronds) from a garden then many of the bagged salads in supermarkets contain it. Or look for an entire fennel root with a decent amount of fronds attached. The rest of the bulb can be sliced and added to salads, cooked down into summery tomato-based pasta sauces or roasted in its entirety so it won’t go to waste.

This tart takes minutes to prepare and they are good minutes too: by the time you slide the tart into the oven, the air will be scented with the aniseed notes of the fennel and the sharp grass and fruit of tomatoes at the height of their season.

Ingredients

320g ready-made puff pastry

2 very large tomatoes (around 750g)

150g Le Roule soft herbed cheese (or similar brand: Rosary garlic and herb goats cheese is good, too)

2 cloves garlic

sea salt and pepper

sprigs of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram (chopped, about 3 level tsp), keep a few more sprigs whole for garnishing

chopped fennel fronds (about 2 tsp) or fennel seed (1 tsp)

2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length

Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)

olive oil

Method

Heat oven to 190c / 375f and grease a flat baking tray with oil. Put tray in oven to get good and hot. This gives a good baked finish to the pastry base- no soggy bottoms.

Unwrap the pastry and place it on the baking tray then, using a sharp knife, score a line on the pastry, about ½ in (1 cm) in from the edge, all the way around without cutting all the way through. This will ensure that when the pastry bakes, a natural lip will form around the topping.

Crush the garlic with a flat blade and finely chop it. Then chop the fennel and herbs finely too, keeping a few stems of thyme and marjoram intact for the garnish.

Place the soft cheese into a  bowl, add the crushed garlic, fennel (fronds or seeds), chopped herbs and a goodly amount of salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Whip it together with a fork until it is creamy and well combined then using a small palette or other round-bladed knife, spread the cheese mixture evenly all over the surface of the pastry, right up to the line you scored earlier.

Now, thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the cheese in whatever pattern pleases you. Sometimes I overlap, sometimes (as in the photo above) I just dot them about.  Arrange the spring onions over them. Brush the edges of the pastry with olive oil, and drizzle some of the oil over the tomatoes and onions then season them  with a little more salt. Scatter the herb sprigs on top.

Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 40-50 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft, slightly charred at the edges and perfectly roasted. Keep an eye on it during the last ten minutes because seconds can lie between a perfect charred edge and black smoking ruin. I always throw on some shaved parmesan to serve, too.

 

The best new cook books

I have been spoiled for choice with so many great new books about food and cooking published or about to be, making it hard to whittle this post down to a reasonably sized list. Some of these cookbooks are already on sale whilst others you are going to have to wait a little while longer for. Part II is on its way.

Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes // Robin Ha

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Robin Ha has combined two of my favourite things (graphic art and cooking) and in doing so he’s created a fun way to tackle a cuisine which can seem intimidating to some. Via two to three-page comic strips and colourful renditions of ingredients, the steps required to produce your own Korean meals at home are broken down into achievable and relatable tasks.

The recipes are well-written too, all 60+ of them. There’s easy kimchi and bulgogi (soy and garlic flavoured beef on rice), gimbap (seaweed hand rolls) and lesser known meals such as pine nut porridge (jatjuk), knife noodle soup with clams (bajiirak kalgukso) and acorn jelly salad (dotorimuk) but fear not, there’s plenty of more familiar recipes too with ingredients easily found in most stores. And the graphic ‘what’s in a Korean refrigerator?’ will help demystify things. Robin Ha tells us his story as he goes along, using it to explain the history and culture of Korea and the reasoning behind its culinary techniques. If you are a fan of Lucky Peach, this is for you.

Ingredienti // Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan

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Before you cook, you must first know how to shop and if your own parents have not taught you this, let Marcella Hazan step in for them. And even if you consider yourself a veteran in the market and the kitchen, I can guarantee there’s a few tricks you still don’t know about. Ingredienti, co-written and edited by her husband Victor after her death a few years ago is Marcella’s last gift to her fans. And what a gift this simple and elegant manual on how to shop for the best ingredients and prepare the most delicious meals is.

For over sixty years, Marcella Hazan made almost daily visits to the market in order to choose the ingredients of that day’s meal. Ingredienti is underpinned by her belief that in order to cook well, one must first develop affection for ingredients to the degree of seeing them as characters in a wider culinary narrative. There needs to be respect for one’s store cupboard which will then translate into greater confidence in the kitchen.

Ingredients are organized from A to Z and the book also includes sections such as how to store vegetables so they keep well and how the storage time indicates what kind of preparation and recipe they can be used for. The chapter on artichokes is a particular joy in this respect. There’s more advice about how to choose the best pasta and cheese, how to find good olive oil and even guidance on breadcrumbs, that most modest of ingredients which Marcella knew to be transformative when added to a dish of cardoon or baked endive. Her advice applies as much to the large British supermarkets as it does to our tiny farmers markets and the sumptuous markets we explore when on holiday.

The best food writers are able to magic up a conversation between themselves and their readers. Nigella and Diana have this ability and so does Marcella. It is to her husband Victors credit that he can continue this dialogue seamlessly. Her legacy lives on through this last book and her wisdom which is now ours, to hand down to our own children.

The New Mediterranean Table: old world recipes for the modern home // Joyce Goldstein

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The New Mediterranean Jewish Table is devoid of glossy photographs and has recipes in prose rather than the traditional bullet-pointed format. If you are a novice cook or prefer a photograph and illustration to give you some idea of what to aim for then this book might not be the one for you. But readers in search of a competently-researched guide to the Jewish culinary diaspora should get out their credit cards now.

Goldstein has a passion for adding a contemporary twist to traditional recipes and meals so we’re not wading through recipes preserved in [kosher] aspic. There’s a great sense of forward movement which reflects the wonderfully diverse contribution Jewish people have made whilst also paying tribute to their ability to protect and preserve their own culture in the face of great tribulation. This is Old World cooking in a New World Kitchen with some flavours ramped up to suit the modern-day palate.. Goldstein challenges the dividing of Jewish culture into two common strands: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, preferring to distinguish between Sephardi and Mediterranean jews. Sephard was the ancient name given to the Iberian Peninsula and jews forced to flee Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition were given the name Sephardim. According to her, this term does not refer to the jews of Italy, the Maghrebi and the Mizrahi who are Mediterranean jews instead.

Taking us through jewish history, its flavours and palate, we arrive at the recipes via an explanation of the jewish holidays which punctuate the calendar. Their organisation is traditional: appetisers and salads such as Persian olives with pomegranate, and walnuts and a mint vinaigrette reflect the popularity of Ottolenghi-style meals with lots of small and colourful plates. I have already cooked a Venetian dish of sweet-and-sour carrots with raisins and pine nuts and bookmarked the thick tranche of fish under a vibrant duvet of green- herbed tahini which originates from Egypt and Lebanon. There’s layered baked dishes with matzo instead of bread which reminds me of the Sardinian taste for pane carasau layered with egg and tomato.

For something heartier, try the Sephardic meatballs offered with seven sauces and sharpened by charoset, served at the Passover Seder and presented in nine different ways. Recipes don’t come in a vacuum either: the scholarship is impressive and Golstein weaves in the history and culture of the Mediterranean Jew, offering the reader sources and bibliography of works in English, French and Italian to facilitate further fact-finding. One example of this is a spicy squash spread called thurshi which originally came from North Africa and turned up in a cookbook about Italian Jewish cooking. “It is likely that the recipe made its way into the Italian Jewish kitchen in Livorno, where many North African Jews settled,” she tells us.

The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club // Marlena De Blasi

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In Orvieto, a city just ninety minutes from Rome, hewn from volcanic rock and crowned by an exquisite duomo described by De Blasi as ‘a glittering wedding cake awaiting a bride’, group of four Italian rural women gather in a stone house in the hills above Italy’s Orvieto. There, every Thursday evening—along with their friend, Marlena—they cook together, sit down to a beautiful supper, drink their beloved local wines, and talk. Surrounded by candlelight, good food and friendship, Miranda, Ninucia, Paolina, and Gilda tell their life stories of loves lost and found, of ageing and abandonment, of mafia grudges and family feuds, and of cherished ingredients and recipes whose secrets have been passed down through generations.

This is a book to stimulate all kinds of appetites as we hear stories of preparing pigs testicles, gathering wild asparagus (called Luppoli hops), cooking pasta in red wine and participating in the Vendemmia and the harvesting of olives during the Raccolta until the candles gutter out and the tired ladies drift off to bed. The stories are mined from De Blasi’s 20 years spent living and travelling in Italy and via her inner circle:  the author (considered a newcomer, having lived in Orvieto only six years), Ninuccia, Paolina, Gilda and the aged Miranda, the keeper of the local culinary flame, who at the beginning of the book has reached the point where she feels she must hang up her apron.

There’s recipes too which we have come to expect from De Blasi and she effectively conveys a rural way of life which retains many elements virtually unchanged over the centuries. Her writing amusingly depicts the regional competitiveness between the different Italian regions and shows how regional preferences developed and go on to be expressed via food and its preparation. If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and the writings of Frances Mayes, this one is for you.

Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking–Flatbreads, Stuffed Breads, Challahs, Cookies, and the Legendary Chocolate Babka // Uri Scheft (published Oct 2016)

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Israeli baking encompasses the influences of so many regions—Morocco, Yemen, Germany, and Georgia, to name a few—and master baker Uri Scheft marries all of these in his well-regarded baked goods sold at his Breads Bakery in New York City and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv. Nutella-filled babkas, potato and shakshuka focaccia, and chocolate rugelach are all regulars. In Breaking Breads, Scheft takes the combined influences of his Scandinavian heritage, his European pastry training, and his Israeli and New York City homes to provide sweet and savory baking recipes that cover European, Israeli, and Middle Eastern favorites. Scheft gives us recipes for classics like challah, babka, and ciabatta—and adds his creative twist as well, showing us how we can do the same at home—and introduces his take on Middle Eastern daily breads like kubaneh and jachnun. The instructions are detailed and the photos explanatory so that anyone can make Scheft’s poppy seed hamantaschen, cheese bourekas, and Jerusalem bagels, among other recipes. If you can’t get enough of Ottolenghi or Honey & Co, this one is for you.

Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites, from Pfeffernüsse to Streuselkuchen // Luissa Weiss (published Oct 2016)

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German baking has influenced baking traditions around the world for generations but its been relatively neglected by the publishing world with few mainstream German baking books making waves in the yearly ‘best of’ round-ups.  Enter Luisa Weiss, the Berlin-based creator of the adored Wednesday Chef blog and self-taught ambassador of the German baking canon whose latest book ably collates these fine recipes in an easy to follow compendium. I have a brother in Germany and he was sensible enough to move to a village with a decent bakery which gave me plenty of opportunity to press my nose against the glass display cabinets as I tried to memorise its entire contents to recreate at home. Luisa’s book is a useful aide-memoire.

Luisa is not German-born and she discusses her fears about her culinary authority in her introduction but they are unfounded. She’s done a sterling job, sharing with us over 100 rigorously researched and tested recipes, gathered from expert bakers, friends, family, and time-honored sources throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. What caught my eye? Well I’m a sucker for nut-enriched northern European bakes so walnuss zwieback (twice-baked walnut crisps) and nusskuchen (a toasted hazelnut loaf cake) are top of my must-try list. There’s  streuselkuchen (streusel cake) and tender flakey strudels and a delicious-sounding heidjertorte (lingonbery buckwheat cream torte) plus tortes with carrots, with every colour of currant and ones studded with dark-red plums.

Savouries aren’t forgotten either and the Swabian parsley cake (peterlingkuschen) sounds intriguing as does a green onion and bacon cake (grünerkuchen) and the sweetened quark buns (quarkbrötchen) appeal too:  I often eat brioche with savoury foods because I am weird and I bet these would do just as well. Your baking will be guided by detailed advice and lots of stories about the origins, meaning, and rituals behind the recipes. There’s lovely photographs of Berlin and her Berlin life and of baked goods, such as Elisenlebkuchen, Marmorierter Mohnkuchen, and Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte which should attract more visitors to this rather cool German city.

The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem // Marcus Samuelsson (published Oct 2016)

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When the James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, he envisioned more than a restaurant. It would be the heart of his neighborhood and a meet-and-greet for both the downtown and the uptown sets, serving Southern black and cross-cultural food. It would reflect Harlem’s history. Ever since the 1930s, Harlem has been a magnet for more than a million African Americans, a melting pot for Spanish, African, and Caribbean immigrants, and a mecca for artists.

These traditions converge on Rooster’s menu, with brown butter biscuits, chicken and waffle, killer collards, and donuts with sweet potato cream. They’re joined by global-influenced dishes such as jerk bacon and baked beans, Latino pork and plantains, and Chinese steamed bass and fiery noodles. Samuelsson’s Swedish-Ethiopian background shows in Ethiopian spice-crusted lamb, slow-baked blueberry bread with spiced maple syrup, and the Green Viking, sprightly Apple Sorbet with Caramel Sauce.

Interspersed with lyrical essays that convey the flavor of the place and archival and contemporary photos, The Red Rooster Cookbook is as layered as its inheritance.

Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir // Thomas Pecore Weso (Out late summer, 2016)

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In this food memoir, named for the manoomin or wild rice that also gives the Menominee tribe its name, tribal member Thomas Pecore Weso takes readers on a cook’s journey through Wisconsin’s northern woods. He connects each food—beaver, trout, blackberry, wild rice, maple sugar, partridge—with colorful individuals who taught him Indigenous values. Cooks will learn from his authentic recipes. Amateur and professional historians will appreciate firsthand stories about reservation life during the mid-twentieth century, when many elders, fluent in the Algonquian language, practiced the old ways.

Weso’s grandfather Moon was considered a medicine man, and his morning prayers were the foundation for all the day’s meals. Weso’s grandmother Jennie “made fire” each morning in a wood-burning stove, and oversaw huge breakfasts of wild game, fish, and fruit pies. As Weso grew up, his uncles taught him to hunt bear, deer, squirrels, raccoons, and even skunks for the daily larder. These recollections are what I loved most because they are filled with love and warmth, with respect for heritage and pride. He remembers foods served at the Menominee fair and the excitement of “sugar bush,” maple sugar gatherings that included dances as well as hard work. There’s memories of wild rice harvesting in the small boats and a fascinating account of how the wild rice plants react and adapt to their location. If you are interested in agri-ecology and want to learn how we as humans can achieve a less damaging relationship with our environment, Weso’s book is for you.

Polska //  Zuza Zak

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The word ‘Poland’ is derived from ‘pole’ which means field, so for Zuza Zak, author of Polska, her countries name is connected to the earth. Zak has tracked Polish history and heritage to provide a fresh take on a cuisine and nation she fears is often misrepresented.

Kicking off with a useful explanation of Polish history which gave birth to a saying that ‘too much eating and drinking cost us our Poland’, Zak reminds us all that the simple pleasure of eating and drinking is an understandable one in the face of relentless bombardment. She addresses regionality and its influence on cuisine: Pomerania is windswept and coastal with poor soil but it is rich in fish; the Tatra mountains have a history of cultural separatism which has protected their food traditions from outside influences; there’s the wonderful mushroom dishes of the forested and watery Mazury Lake District; and the Russian and eastern influences on Mazowsze which was once a Russian colony.

Seasonality is important: the rich and golden light of a Polish summer gives way to the long and harsh winters where meals are heavily supplemented with preserved foods and in the main, Polish people have retained these rhythms no matter where they live. Breakfast sees people feasting upon cinnamon and apple-filled bakes because apples remained freely available even during the worst of the Communist privations. There’s crunchy rye bread with gzik, a kind of cottage cheese which is served with radishes. chives and yoghurt and is the perfect dacha-style breakfast on a hot morning. Like the Russians, many Poles escape the heat and rent a dacha in the countryside where they can grow their own fruit and vegetables as the Polish peasantry once did: their foodways were rich in folklore.

Bread is of fundamental importance to the Polish people, Zak writes, and bread with salt was a symbolic gift to visitors. Zaha¸ski is the Polish word for a type of party food and alongside her earlier recipes for rye and sourdoughs, Zak includes a chapter on zaha¸ski, cautioning that her father believes that all good versions of it must contain some fat to neutralise the vodka although vodka is no longer obligatory. There’s little cumin babkas on a sea of marinated red peppers, nettle leaves in beer batter with a honey-mustard dip and mama’s gherkins with horseradish and oak leaves.

If you bought and cooked from Mamushka by Olia Hercules then you will enjoy Polska. The two books have much in common in that they challenge stereotypes, highlight foodways that are borne from strife, human resourcefulness and cultural exchange and are packed with delicious recipes whose ingredients are seasonal, easily sourced and grown. Both books make you want to cook, so, job done.

Simple // Diana Henry (Published in Autumn, 2016)

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I haven’t been able to get my hands on a review copy of this but deciding to buy any Diana Henry cookbooks is a no-brainer. Judging by her recent food columns and awards, the lady is on bloody fire, professionally, so recommending  this book sight-unseen seems a safe-bet. Turkish pasta with caramelized onions, yoghurt and dill and paprika-baked pork chops with beetroot, caraway and sour cream and my current favourite vegetable, a Parmesan-roasted cauliflower with garlic and thyme, sound strong. Some ingredients might sound esoteric if you’re not a keen cook but all are available online and in most decent food stores and her recipe testing has always been stringent, meaning her recipes can be trusted. In a world where some of the most famous cookbooks have page after page of poorly-tested recipes, that attention to detail and respect for her readers is something to be appreciated. Above all , Henry draws you in with her prose which is warm, instructive but not didactic, and encouraging.
(Update: I’ve now read the book and yes, you really should buy it)

Toast Hash Roast Mash: Real Food for Every Time of Day // Dan Doherty

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Mr Duck & Waffle is back with his second cookbook and what a beauty it is. Breakfast and brunch are the two meals Doherty sees people getting the most excited about and his new book is studded with easy but impressive ways of feeding ourselves when we’ve just staggered out of bed. He ranges far and wide- India, Brazil, Ireland, the Middle East and Italy have inspired him- and his own late night/ early start lifestyle underpins the book. There’s no laborious instructions or recipes with eleventy billion ingredients and these are meals which can be eaten at any time of day so if you don’t eat breakfast (WHO are these weird folk?), this book will still appeal.

Starting off with toast, we are given recipes for plum jam and a heavenly-sounding chocolate and almond spread which kicks nutella into the tall grass. Further on, there’s maple roasted apple on French toast, custard-soaked brioche, a carrot aperol, black pudding hash and chickpea pancakes (socca, basically) plus a retro-sounding gammon brought up to date with pineapple ketchup. I agree with Dan, breaking the fast is the best meal of the day and one embedded deep into our national DNA. His book is ideal for those of us who go to bed planning what to eat when we wake up.

Squirrel Pie (and other stories): Adventures in Food Across the Globe // Elisabeth Luard

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Author of Still Life and Family Life, both brilliant prose food memoirs, and countless cookbooks, Luard remains one of my favourite authors. I have been impatiently awaiting this new book by one of the most travelled writers around and Squirrel Pie doesn’t disappoint in its accounts of the meals she has eaten on her travels and her encounters with the people who cooked them. Luard is not given to purple prose about food or humans and she’s honest, warm and bracing in that classic English way: if you love Jane Grigson, you’ll adore Luard. (I’m a big Grigson fan- where’s her blue plaque btw?) Whether Luard is scouring for snails in Crete or squirrels in Maine, learning how to butcher a kangaroo carcass and gain maximum nutritional value from goanna tail, sampling exotic spices in Ethiopia or tasting oysters in Tasmania, her practised eye and academics brain (she is one of the forces behind the Oxford Food Symposium) means her words can be trusted as a faithful recreation.

There’s practical advice too, borne of her own research and associations with just about everyone working in the culinary field.This book is divided into four landscapes – rivers, islands, deserts and forests -because Luard has determined that geography is the biggest determining factor in what we eat and her divisions reflect the commonalities the people of each region share. And, as she points out, to ignore the diet of necessity because we now benefit from modern accoutrements is to lose what we can ill afford to. The stories are accompanied by over fifty recipes, each one a reflection of its unique place of origin, including macaroni cheese with oysters (and you thought adding lobster was a luxury!) Boston bean-pot, Hawaiian poke, Cretan bouboutie, mung-bean roti, roasted buttered coffee beans, Anzac biscuits and Sardinian lemon macaroons. The sketches are Luard’s too as she was a water-colour artist long before she wrote a recipe- she is one fine and talented woman.

The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes from the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau // Abraham Conlon, Adrienne Lo, Hugh Amano (Published October 2016)

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Aged sixteen I visited Macau and the New Territories and although its a long time ago, I can still remember the food I ate so the publication of Fat Rice which shines a light on the food of this true melting pot of a place is cause for celebration. Based in Chicago, Fat Rice is a cult favourite and its chef-patrons serve up their own unique take on the food of Macau, a country which is just one hour away from Hong Hong and located on the banks of the romantically named Pearl River.

Macau’s modern-day glitz (gambling is legal there and a source of great wealth) belies its rich, centuries-old history as one of the greatest trading ports in the world. Ruled by Portugal from the 1600s until 1999, Macau was a crossroads along the spice route, and a place where travelers from Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and mainland China traded resources, culture, and food–making Macanese cuisine one of the most eclectic and deliciously unique food traditions in the world.
 The Adventures of Fat Rice is a fun and whimsical tear through modern-day Macau–and the minds of two wildly creative and James Beard award-winning chefs. As they said in an Eater interview:””The main goal for the book is to be the most comprehensive documentation of Macanese cuisine that there is. Not only the food of Macau, but the food of Macanese people, the Portuguese and Chinese-mixed families that we mainly focus on at Fat Rice. And [it’s also] to show our interpretation of these dishes, and maybe enlighten people as far as the history of food as we know it, through the lens of Macanese cuisine and the other places that Macanese cuisine is influenced by, whether it be Malacca, Malaysia, Brazil, Africa, Japan, or wherever..”

Dishes like Hong Kong French Toast (Macau’s version of dim sum), Po Kok Gai (a Portuguese chicken curry), and the titular Arroz Gordo (if Spanish paella and Chinese fried rice had a baby) are enticingly exotic yet accessible and even playful. Featuring a mish-mash of classic and interpretative dishes, plus comic book-style illustrations and edgy location photography, The Adventures of Fat Rice will be the first book to bring the eclectic, richly satisfying, and previously unheralded food of Macau to the mainstream.

Victuals // Ronni Lundy (Published in the UK, Aug 2016)

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Lundy once wrote a book called Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: the Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens which went on to become one of my best-loved cookbooks because of its natural way with the words and the fascinating stories of the people she grew up among. Her words are one of the main reasons why I have become so enamoured with this relatively mysterious region of the USA. It goes without saying that the recipes Lundy chooses are always wonderful and so I am extremely delighted that she is to publish Victuals, out in August 2016.

“The great thing in writing about food (and the secret subtext hidden in many recipes) is its revelation of the voices of people who traditionally have not been consulted when history is told—even their own history. Recipe and cookbooks are where we hear what women’s lives were actually like in different eras, and what constituted daily life for the family. If you want to look at it in those terms, in food we learn the experiences of the humble, the poor and the outcast as well as those who have it made. Food is an easy door into strange cultures and stories,” says Lundy in an interview with Ace Weekly and  Victuals is an exploration of the foodways, people, and places of Appalachia which includes over eighty recipes.

The book guides us through the diverse history of food in the Mountain South and beautifully demonstrates the principle of culinary genealogy in action. We explore recipes, traditions and innovations with each chapter covering a food or tradition of the region. The essays introduce readers to their rich histories and the farmers, curers, hunters, and chefs who define the region’s contemporary landscape. Mountainous Appalachia offers a wide range of ingredients and products that can be transformed using traditional methods and creative extension of local foodways by chefs and cooks who have migrated to the region and married their own culinary heritage to that of the Appalachian people.

 

Our Korean Kitchen // Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo

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This isn’t newly published but it might well be new to you and I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet so here it is. London-based Jordan Bourke and Rejina Pyo have their own Korean kitchen where they have spent considerable time demystifying what is actually a very down to earth foodways for us all so we can have a go ourselves. And they have done a cracking job so I make no apologies for including a second Korean cookbook in this selection.

Back in the eighties, I spent a fair amount of time in South Korea, in Cheju, Busan (some call it Pusan, too) and Seoul. We travelled into the surrounding countryside and I met locals making their own kimchi and I picked weird little wild peaches from trees growing near the beach in Cheju along with quinces. I ate dried squid, grilled my own bulgogi and laughed when my mother inadvertently ate bulls penis and a fish that resembled a giant penis. I have retold this anecdote many a time without stopping to think that I was perpetuating an unfair image of Korean food as wacky with scary ingredients. Generally, it is not like that at all. And anyway, coming from a nation with a tradition of serving up badly-cooked tripe, cheap faggots, school tapioca and Vesta curries made from cardboard and a Jeremy Clarkson concept of India, I was standing on very shaky ground.

Us Brits have much in common with the Koreans. We both adore pickles and know how useful they are for disguising the blandness of winter hunger-gap food (and it gets REALLY cold in Korea at times). Beef is highly-regarded in Korea as it is here and they have a love of comforting things served in bowls, like we do. And Korean Kitchen will show you how to make all of those sexy bowls of bibimbap that you’ve seen on instagram. It’ll show you that kimchi can be made without access to inherited six-feet high stone jars buried in the ground. It will hold your hand through step-by-step instructions and great photography and eventually you will be eating like a [Korean] champ.

 Super Sushi Ramen Express// Michael Booth (Published Sept 2016)

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“Since the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, chefs from Europe and America have made pilgrimages to Japan to pilfer ingredients, techniques and presentation styles. Nouvelle cuisine was born of that first visit by the chefs of the French Olympic team, while the elaborate, multi-course kaiseki meal remains a key influence on many leading chefs,” Booth wrote in a feature on Japanese food and yes, Japan is a Mecca for the world’s greatest chefs, with more Michelin stars than any other country. Yet its foodways are so often misunderstood and sometimes wilfully.

In this book, food and travel writer Michael Booth writes about moving his family to Japan for a few months in a kind of ‘Fuschia Dunlop-lite’ way. ( I don’t mean this disrespectfully.) Accompanied by two fussy eaters under the age of six, he and his wife travel the length of the country, from bear-infested, beer-loving Hokkaido to snake-infested, seaweed-loving Okinawa. (I am glad that he didn’t neglect the regions of Hokkaido and Okinawa which tend to get overlooked by other writer-visitors.) Booth addresses the unique elements of Japanese cuisine, such as the importance of texture, the principles of Kaiseki, (a simple explanation is that it is a kind of Japanese haute cuisine) and why slurping will make your noodles taste better.

The Booths dine with sumo wrestlers and free-diving, female abalone hunters; they eat snake, get scared by giant crabs and visit a restaurant where customers catch their noodles as they travel downstream in a river. Despite the cultural differences, Booth manages to not depict Japan as a kind of wondrous theme-park full of Hello Kitty, plastic sushi and weird slimy things in buckets and acknowledges that many of their national traditions are in decline as Western influence grows.  He meets and interviews people who manage to adapt to the modern world  whilst protecting the essence of their craft which is pretty inspiring and he is also good at correcting popular Western misconceptions about Japanese people and their food such as sushi, the use of MSG and what real wasabi is like.

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.

A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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“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

 

Yay! Best Food Writing 2015 will be with us soon. #reviews

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“Anthony Bourdain, John T. Edge, Jonathan Gold, Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Alice Waters. These are just some of the celebrated writers and foodies whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing over the past fifteen years. Whether written by an established journalist or an up-and-coming blogger, the essays offered in each edition represent the cream of that year’s crop in food writing. And 2015 promises to uphold the same high standards with a dynamic mix of writers offering provocative journalism, intriguing profiles, moving memoir, and more.”

I own every single one of the Best Food Writing series and have read each one countless times. Editor Holly Hughes proves there is still vigour in food writing with her annual collation of though provoking, quirky and intelligent pieces from food writers both well known and less so. I eagerly await the publication of each annual volume because although I consider myself a voracious consumer of the genre, even I will not be able to access the very best writing, scattered as it is across all manner of journals, newspapers, blogs, websites and magazines all over the globe. This really does bother me.

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My own collection.

Hughes provides a trustworthy food-wire service in book form. There’s always some standouts and in this collection, Tim Hanni’s ‘Maverick Wine Guru’ is one of them. Published by the Sacramento Bee (nope, me neither), he develops upon a phenomenon I first encountered via Jeffry Steingarten’s essay- the supertaster- and he applies this to the world of wine tasting, turning some popular pre-conceptions on their head as he does it. Ever wondered why Zinfandel, Asti and Moscato are the only wines you are able to palate? Well Hanni might be onto an explanation here.

Sara Deseran’s ‘Kidsnobs’ is another fresh angle on a food movement we see more and more and have (probably) our own private views upon- that of the super engaged child foodie. Relating her own experiences of children who are obsessively interested in food and the acquisition of food related experiences, she asks us to draw our own line and is honest in her appraisal of her own children and the fact that in their case, nurture is all and down to both parents working in the industry. Where does the education and empowerment stop and the over indulged, over privileged entitled show off-ness start?

This is a world where top chefs are both celebrated and self define as rock gods and this anthology is heavy on chef profiles. These always polarise readers and reviewers with some complaining that the focus of these anthologies has become too food nerdish. However if Hughes is to accurately reflect the culinary world, the cult of cheff-ly personality cannot be ignored. So we have Blue Hills’ leftover pop up dinners where fish skin, old noodles and veg peelings are fought over in a reservations war and charm food critic Pete Wells. Underpinning this is the very relevant and important subject of reducing food waste in the hospitality business and Blue Hill aims to redefine what is waste and what is not (clue: everything is and could be on the table). In an amusing addendum to the fragile chef ego, there’s a piece about Wylie Dufresne’s reaction to a comment he overheard in his restaurant which referred to chefs as pussies. and we revisit Leah Chase, queen of NOLA’s creole cuisine. Chase survived Katrina and rebuilt her restaurant in Treme (as in the popular TV series) and her place is top of my list when I visit New Orleans next Spring. She is the quietly confident antithesis of people like Dufresne, Ramsay and Batali.

We zoom in closer to the cultural effects of the hospitality business too with a very important essay by Todd Kliman on the informal colour bar which still operates in DC restaurants despite the beliefs of restaurateurs that they have addressed this. Seemingly it is not enough to paint a mural of black cultural heroes on your establishment’s wall unless you like reminding patrons of motivational decor pasted up on their high school halls. Consideration is given as to why sushi bars and other specialised cuisines might not immediately attract black customers historically (lack of familiarity, their own family dining history- in the all too recent past they simply weren’t able to eat in ‘genre’ restaurants because of Jim Crow), something that is a thorny subject and hasn’t been properly addressed before.

It’s not just about the high minded and highly intended either. There’s the down home reminder that home cooking can be an exhausting merry go round of WTF shall we cook ( Molly Watson and Tamar Haspel) and other writers take us on a gastro-reminder about why Taco Bell rules (John DeVore) and long standing foodie figures Jane & Michael Stern extoll the virtues of Nashville’s hot chicken. Seemingly this latter subject has not yet been done to death as they manage to squeeze further juicy copy from this topical bird. DeVore hits us with a startling and frankly ludicrous assertion: he declares that Taco Bell has the best Mexican food? After I had finished spluttering in horror, I carried on reading only to find a fairly convincing argument (albeit tongue in cheek). In a few pages we move from dude to a heartwarming conclusion. I’m not convinced though. We had less dude from Bourdain too as he writes about food traditions with an ode to the clams of his childhood which he is now handing down to his own young daughter. I like this Bourdain, who appears less preoccupied with getting into stupid dick swinging competitions with other chefs which can come across as bullying.

I can never read too much about coconut cream pie and thankfully Kim Severson cannot write enough about it either. A mothers cookbook shares more than just recipes and I imagine every American home has a coconut pie with a story attached. This is Kim’s.

Sarah Grey’s  essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta,” was first published in Serious Eats and utterly deserves its inclusion here with vivid and homely touches where the scene is set for a family meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by her daughter and a table set with fourth generation china. It celebrates red sauce, reminds us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Friday Night Meatballs transcend a lot of cultural barriers to communal eating, Grey discovered, and she offers up warmth in spades as she writes about her own solutions to all of these: “The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We’ll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”

Long may Holly Hughes reign over the world of food writing anthologies. These, alongside the Cornbread Nation series, are my absolute favourite. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes is published by Perseus Books Group, De Capo Press.