“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.
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.’
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.
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.
*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.
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 ‘.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Burano is at least a half hour trip by vaporetto from Venice (take the vaporetto 12 fromSan 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length
Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)
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 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.
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’sThe 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.
“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.
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.
Its difficult to get hold of fresh Key Limes outside of the Americas. The memory of the fruits hanging in clusters on the rows of trees in Mexican orchards and the fruit, ripe and fallen in the front yards of the houses that edge the sandy streets of Florida’s Estero Beach torment me. I am back home in cold old England, vainly emailing Waitrose to ask if they will stock them and pestering my local market stall to look for them when they are next at New Covent Garden.
What makes the Key Lime even more valuable (and costly) is that it takes between 10-18 of the fruits to produce a small cup of the juice as opposed to the more easily available Persian lime which yields 2-3 tablespoons of juice from just one of them. And what juice the Key Lime has- both tawny and citrus sharp, like a lime with a suntan. Add to this, the aromatic oils contained within the fragile rind which itself turns a shade of arylide yellow when it is fully ripe.
Consider foods made with it- the eponymous pie and pound cake, the latter sturdy and born of the homesteader yet flavoured with a fruit very far removed from a workaday staple; the granddaddy of Floridian sauces, ‘Old Sour,’ a fiery tincture of chile, lime juice and salt; the Mulata cocktail with its deep base of creme de cacao lifted by the zing of citrus and vanilla warmth of rum. All of them wonderful hybrids, the culinary offspring of a much travelled fruit.
The journey from tree to plate is hard won though. Workers harvest the fruit wearing thick leather gauntlets (if they are lucky enough to be given them) to protect against the vicious thorns that the trees arm themselves with. Twiggy stems flex, pierce and spike pickers in the face as they push their way into the crown of the tree where the best, sunripened fruit is located. Then, once on the chopping board the battle is yet to be resolved with flesh that defies being cut into neat segments and a centre thick with seeds.
For these reasons, it is not easy to get a slice of Key Lime Pie made with the real thing these days. As Raymond Sokolov wrote in the ‘Fading Feast’ (1981):
” I drove down from Miami,, impelled by a lifelong desire to taste an authentic Key Lime Pie. As I crossed the last bridge from Stock Island onto Key West, I assumed I was only minutes from enjoying a rich slice of Florida’s most famous regional speciality. But after a week of stuffing down piece after piece of one so- called Key Lime Pie after another, I came to realise that probably none of these pies contained a single drop of freshly squeezed juice. Indeed, after some serious enquiry among local experts, I am now morally certain that virtually all ‘Key Lime Pies’ are actually made with the juice of the Tahiti (or Persian or Bearss) lime, which is not a true lime at all.”
Sokolov was not alone in his concerns and earlier attempts to ratify its ingredients had been made by the state government in 1965 when Bernie Papy Jr introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be ‘levied against anyone advertising Key Lime Pie which was not made with the real fruit.’ Unsurprisingly the bill was not passed. Then in 1994, the State Legislature officially recognized the pie as ‘an important symbol of Florida’ even though North Floridian lawmakers had argued against this, calling instead for the pecan pie, with nuts grown in state, be afforded this recognition. On July 2006, House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the pie the official Florida state pie- and who doesn’t love the idea of a state (or county) having a state pie, especially one made with such an alluring ingredient, far more than the sum of its very great historical parts?
Likely to be a three way hybrid involving three plant species and at least two different genera) of citron (Citrus medica), pummelo (Citrus grandis), and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha, the Key Lime was carried by the Arabs across North Africa into Spain and Portugal, finally ending up in the Americas after being brought along for the ride by the Spanish and Portugese who themselves rocked up there in the early part of the sixteenth century. The lime took to the climate of the Deep South with the result that it went on to flourish throughout the Caribbean and the east coast of Mexico, migrating through Central America down to the more tropical areas of South America and, not least, the Florida Keys where it flourished under the mulches of seaweed, beggarweed and velvet beans laid down by orchard owners each year.
Part of their harvest was placed in wooden barrels, pickled in saltwater and shipped to Boston where they became a popular snack for school children; who remembers the mention of pickled limes in ‘Little Women’ and ‘What Katy Did?’ Youngsters were fortified with much needed vitamin C as were the sailors who took the preserved limes with them on long voyages, the practice a nod to the pickling, salting and drying of limes and other citrus which has been long practised across the Levant and Arab countries, the latter being the original home of the lime.
Sadly, commercial production of Key Limes across the south of Florida and its west coast islands near Fort Myers and Estero Beach, along with the Keys, was halted by the 1926 hurricane which wiped out the citrus groves along with a substantial acreage of pineapple plantations. The growers replanted with Persian Lime trees which are easier to grow and pick and sturdier to transport because of their thicker skin. The peel of the Key Lime, by contrast, lacks the toughness and verdancy of its Persian cousin, becoming yellow, (called ‘yallery’ by locals in Estero), at maturity and producing that tawny, pale yellow juice that is higher in acidity than other lime varieties and flesh that is stubbornly resistant to serving in segments. The thinner the skin, the juicier the pulp is a good rule of thumb and the best limes have rind that can be pierced with a sharp thumb nail and scraped back sans knife if necessary, something appreciated by the conch divers of Florida.
These divers have Anglo Saxon Bahamian descent and now live in the Keys, eking a living from the archipelago waters by turtling, fishing and sponging. On days when the wind is ‘walking right’ the waters become ‘as crystal as gin’ (Conch speak) and the spongers, peering through buckets with a glass base, bring up sponges and conchs from depths as great as 60 feet although many of them also free dive. Some eat their conch raw, bouncing the glutinous, milky flesh around their mouths after using a knife blade to enter the shell and sever the muscle that binds it. Grasping the muscly protruding heel of the flesh, they draw it out and slice it into thin, gelatinous sashimi that quivers as it is prepared. Seasoning can be as simple as a dip in the seawater over the side of the boat or a squirt of Key Lime juice which cooks in the manner of ceviche.
Alongside the conch, another popular fish is the ‘Grunt.’ so called because of the noise this small bottom feeder emits as it is pulled from the deep. Being rather tiny, a considerable number are required to make a meal and after flash frying, they are eaten with a seasoning of ‘sour,’ the name for the bottled Key Lime juice that is squirted onto them (Nellie & Joes is often used). First their heads are whipped off between finger and thumb and after some dextrous plucking, the cerebral cavity of the grunt is exposed so the brains can be sucked out followed by the nibbling away of the crust, strips of dorsal flesh, tails and fins. These are nose to tail eating leaving little behind, not even enough for Hemingways famous polydactyl cats that prowl the island.
Years ago, the sponge and conch fishermen would have to remain at sea for some time and rations aboard could have included sweetened, condensed milk and key limes alongside eggs, the milk having been created in 1856 by Gail Borden to compensate for a lack of refrigeration. It wasn’t until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930 that tank trucks were able to transport ice, milk and refrigerated goods to the Keys. The terrain of the Florida Keys is not conducive to cattle farming; indeed a lot of the state is not, being largely reclaimed swamp and old Native American hunting grounds and historically, dairy was not a food group easily available to people living there. These food stuffs, milk, eggs and limes handily make up the ‘trinity’ of the pie but how we got from a larder of ingredients to the finished pie is unclear.
The origins of the classic Key Lime Pie are not conclusive with stories, in the main, appearing apocryphal at best, downright presumptious at worst. The first written reference to this pie that I can trace is in some of the writings by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) published in the 1930’s. Set up to create employment for unemployed writers during the Great Depression, the WPA created many art related programs for the relief of artists, writers and theatrical professionals, including the Federal Writers Project and in the later years of the programme, writers were sent out on assignments with photographers to document how America was eating.
Not a cookbook (in fact cookbook writers were banned from contributing), but rather ‘an account of group eating as an important American social institution and its part in the development of American cookery as an authentic art.’ The WPA writers filed thousands of stories that captured, as never before, the role food played in the formation of the countries society from possum dinners at Elk Lodges to the conch and key lime juice eating fishermen and divers of this old Spanish colony dangling off the right hand side of the contigious United States.
A ‘Promotional’ from the WPA, published in the 1930s, mentions the “world-famous” key lime pie yet a cook book by the Key West Womans Club published nearly ten years earlier in 1920, omits any mention of the recipe. Locals state that this may be due to the ubiquity of the pie being such that the editors felt nobody was in need of a written recipe (the teaching granny to suck eggs defence), but this doesn’t make sense when you consider that most Little League cookbooks feature their regions most popular and iconic recipes. Can you imagine a Charleston Little League cookbook without a recipe for benne wafers, pecan pralines and she-crab soup or its Texan equivalent lacking a recipe for a Bowl ‘O Red (chile)? Additionally, when it comes to a famous recipe that is such a vital part of a regional cuisine, everybody thinks that their recipe is the definitive one. I find it hard to believe that the editors of the Key West Womans Club recipe book were in possession of ego’s immune to such fancies.
Local Keys history tells that sometime towards the end of the 1800s, a prominent resident of Key West named William Curry, a Bahamian born immigrant to the USA who went on to become Florida’s first millionaire via his ship salvaging business, employed a cook called ‘Aunt Sally,’ also from the Bahamas, who is said to have created the first Key Lime Pie from the fruit. The story of how the recipe arose does not appear terribly likely because of the odd thing that happens when you combine lime juice and sweetened, condensed milk. They curdle and appear to ‘cook’ sans heat; without prior knowledge of what is happening and that this is meant to happen, it is quite likely that a cook would throw the whole thing out and start over. Or could Sally have been intending to bake a lemon icebox pie which also uses egg yolk and condensed milk and decided to try out the key lime instead of a lemon- in which case she’d know what to expect when milk hits citrus.
Certainly condensed milk allows cooks to make a custard without actually cooking it, a boon to a busy ships cook in a confined galley space. A boon to anyone really who is short of time or equipment. In fact, the spongers probably bought their cans of condensed milk from Curry after he began importing them to the islands to use on their hook boats, named for the hooking methods used to harvest the sponges. They would mix the milk with pelican eggs snaffled from under the bills of these huge sea birds which populate the coast of Florida so densely.
Key West is home to historian David L Sloan who is a bit of a Key Lime and pie expert. He possesses what he claims to be the ‘original’ recipe and cautions against muddling history with authenticity, a common pitfall of the food historian. Founder of a local ghost tour, it was his research into the islands ghosts that led him to the mansion of William Curry and the recipe belonging to Sally, found in the pantry. Much of the debate around the pie is binary: Graham Cracker crust or traditional pastry crust; a topping of cream or lofts of meringue; peaks toasted under the grill or blow torched big hair style. Aunt Sally opted for the former and a filling made with the condensed sweetened milk which Sloan claims Curry would have brought back to the island, fully aware as a ship salvager of how useful it would be to a ships cook alongside his own house cook. Yet despite finding what could be seen as recipe for THE ur pie, Sloan comes down on the side of the spongers as creators of it and goes as far as claiming that their version probably did not have a cracker crust either. Fighting talk there.
Here are a few of my favourite recipes made using the Key Lime. We’ll start with a drink and work our way through a (semi) complete menu.
A more sophisticated adult sibling to those chocolate and lime sweets (candies), the combination works well in this cocktail which is traditionally served straight up although you can also serve it frozen by pureeing the ingredients in a blender.
1 and 1/2 oz Light Rum / 3/4 oz dark cème de cacao / a tbsp fresh Key Lime juice or to taste / 1 cup ice cubes
Combine all the ingredients in a bar shaker, cover and shake well then strain into a martini glass.
The venerable grandparent of old Floridian sauces, this is a snappy and piquant mixture of very few ingredients that combine to form a multi purpose seasoning for both raw and cooked foods. Make a batch of it and keep in a sealed jar. It will keep unrefrigerated for several months and becomes better with age.
1-2 peppers (use Bird, Datil, Scotch Bonnet or other super hot chiles) / 1 cup fresh Key Lime juice / 2 tsp salt (I use a good Maldon, crushed in a pestle and mortar).
Leave chiles whole for a less potent sauce and slice thinly if you want it hotter. Combine all the ingredients in a sterilised jar and cover tightly. Shake well to dissolve the salt. Let the Sour stand for a week at room temperature before using then smear all over meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables.
Key Lime Pie
Needs no introduction other than by setting out my Key Lime stall, I am going to invite a chorus of “That’s not authentic!”
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs or digestive biscuits, crushed / 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar / 1/3 cup butter, melted / 2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk / 1 cup fresh Key lime juice / 2 egg whites / 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar / 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Combine the cracker crumbs, the brown sugar and melted butter then press into a 9-inch pie plate and bake piecrust at 350° for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool. Stir together the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice until blended. Pour into prepared crust. Set aside. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed with an electric mixer just until foamy. Add granulated sugar gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until soft peaks form and sugar dissolves (2 to 4 minutes).
Spread meringue over filling. Bake at 325° for 25 to 28 minutes. Chill 8 hours.
Key Lime Pound Cake
This recipe was inspired by Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake in her book ‘Bread and Chocolate’ which I bought years ago and read regularly. I swapped the lemons for Key Limes because in my opinion, a Meyer lemon is to an everyday lemon what a Key Lime is to its Persian relatives.
8-10 Key Limes (use ordinary limes if you cannot get the Keys but you’ll only need 3 of them) / 1/2 cup water / 1/2 cup sugar
Zest the limes and put them in a small pot with sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the limes to collect 1/3 cup of their juice, and reserve for cake.
1 1/4 cup flour / tsp baking powder / 10 tbsp (5 oz) butter / 1 cup caster sugar / 2 eggs, beaten / 1/3 cup lime juice / prepared lime zest, drained (syrup reserved)
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time then add the dry ingredients alternately with lime juice. Stir in zest. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake about 1 hour. While cake is still warm, poke with skewer and drizzle with reserved lime syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.