I bought a plumptious white peach on Sunday and perched it on the windowsill facing my desk so it could bask in my admiration. I tried to find pleasure in the anticipation of eating it but the important part – that a delay in eating must be voluntarily self-imposed to be truly enjoyable- has gone.
I was diagnosed with diabetes six weeks ago. My days of eating peaches without care are over.
These days I have to perform carb maths, tapping on my phone with fingers sore from multiple pinpricks. (How did people in the olden days cope without apps to help?) I conduct an internal dialogue with my pancreas and liver (please let me eat this!) in front of market stalls or rammed up against a seething, hungry mass of humanity at food festivals. I hang around online food sites at 2 am in the morning when I am fitful from hypoglycemia or its hyper-odious sibling and torture myself with the Things I Cannot Have. It’s a form of self harm, I know, but it serves as a necessary part of accepting what has happened to me as I push myself up against my diagnosis. I can no longer leave any room for mistakes in a body that has become as confounding and wily as an old coyote.
The immutable reality of peach carbs (14-17g) meant it would have to replace the slice of wholemeal toast I prefer for breakfast and wouldn’t do at all as a mid-morning snack; I ensured I drank lots of water with it; I ate it slowly; I did ALL THE GODDAMN SENSIBLE DIABETIC THINGS.
By 11 a.m my blood sugars had shot up to ridiculous levels and what felt like a million tiny grains of sugar were needling me underneath my skin, prickling and itching and jabbing. There’s no drug on earth that can fully mitigate these sensations either; they take time to disappear, even after insulin or other diabetic medications return blood glucose levels to normal*. Not even antihistamine works (believe me, I have tried). It’s not itching in any sense that you might understand, rather it feels as if I am being pricked by a thousand needles from the inside. It makes me jump and twitch, my head pounds, my eyes and mouth become as dry as Dorothy Parker. By the time my husband came home I was about ready to burn the world down with fire.
I really, really hate the fact that fruit- and other carbs- have become loaded with problems. I am so resentful that I can’t just eat a piece of goddamn fruit. I have one overriding thought:
WHY WOULD ANYONE CHOOSE TO DENY THEMSELVES ENTIRE FOOD GROUPS IF THEY DON’T HAVE TO?
I am looking at YOU Gwyneth, Ella, the two Hemsley Sisters. Tess Ward and Madeleine Shaw (whose ‘chia seed egg substitute’ is about as appealing as toad shit) among many others. The fact that so many of you are women does not escape me. I’m calling it a form of dietary Stockholm Syndrome but you don’t get a feminist pass out of your self-imposed exile from joyful eating. Neither do I buy the argument that all clean eaters are psychologically unwell themselves. Some may well be, but does this also apply to the publishers and media organisations who make a lot of money from hawking dietary woo? Nope it does not. You would take advantage of people like me if you could.
I don’t restrict carbs because I need to post photos of myself on balmy beaches hashtagged #blessed. I don’t restrict them because I erroneously mistake a full belly for bloat and I cannot cope with the idea of my body taking up more space in the world. I don’t restrict carbs because I have bought into a weird, sex ‘n death ‘n food vibe based upon quasi-spiritual concepts of denial and purity.
I CAN’T eat more than 40g of carbohydrate a day. Keeping to this is really difficult to do so I wonder why anybody would choose to live like this. It doesn’t hugely matter where the carbs comes from either which flies in the face of conventional dietary advice to diabetics, although carbs that take longer to be absorbed (brown rice, eg) are *better*. I refuse to accept that anyone with taste buds will always think ‘oh yum!’ when offered brown rice over a piece of sourdough spread with good butter or a bowlful of cacio e pepe with a snowy covering of pecorino, or a tray of roasted root veg. A handful of cherries or juicy peaches are as damaging to me, blood sugar-wise, as a chocolate bar is at the moment. When it comes to sugar, my body doesn’t care if it’s the *worthier* fructose from whole fruit or the baddie du jour, glucose. It gets mighty pissed off if it’s lactose, too. My diabetes doesn’t give a shit about clean eating and prefers torture by a thousand sugar-needles over my old habit of negative self-talk if I over-indulged. If you want to get all biblical then let’s call it a damn hair shirt.
When you are told you cannot eat the foods you have always adored, it feels like part of you has died, never mind the dire warnings of actual death or blindness, renal and heart disease or the grim possibility that bits of you will literally start dropping off if you don’t maintain ‘good control’. (It doesn’t escape me that some of the language of diabetes care resembles the self-think of eating disorders**). I’ve not forgotten that time when as a HCP, I took a patient for an X-Ray and a blackened, diabetic toe rolled out of his sock as we removed it. I intend to die with all my toes- and toe rings- still attached to my feet because to paraphrase Kate Moss: “nothing tastes as good as having all your toes feels.”
I never did eat much white bread, white rice or pasta. I’m actually not a huge fan of pasta tbh. But when you can no longer blithely eat these sturdy workhorse carbs, by god you realise the fundamental role they played in your culinary repertoire. It’s really hard having to cook food for others that you cannot eat. It feels like an eating disorder that compels me to cook and serve my family with delicious food whilst I toy with a lettuce leaf and tedious lumps of protein in the next room.
To not be able to sneak a roast potato from the tray when serving up lunch unless you count its damn carbs like Scrooge on Christmas Eve? Horrible. Snaffling the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakers? No longer a spontaneous joy. Having to ask Leon or Pret for the carb content of everything you think you might be able to eat and having people look at you like you’re some kind of Gwyneth Loon-Disciple? Humiliating. Ordering drinks in pubs? Challenging because caffeine shoves me into hypos really swiftly and there are not many drinks that are sugar-free and caffeine-free. For those of you suggesting water, YOU try drinking it all night. I haven’t even addressed the joys of eating out in decent restaurants where it feels like an insult to ask the chef to accommodate you by leaving this or that from the finished dish. Yes I know I can just leave it but sitting in front of morsels of deliciousness knowing you cannot eat them is really, really shit.
Basically, when it comes to restricting food groups, the transaction will always be voluntary for clean eaters. They know they have a get-out clause. They know they don’t have to do it. If their resolve breaks and they decide to eat a slab of cheap chocolate or hunk of white bread, it ain’t gonna hurt them because despite whatever woo nonsense they believe in, physiological homeostasis really isn’t that precarious. Pretending that it’s a matter of life and death for them, that the food they willingly exclude is harmful to them (when it is not) is sickening. For those of us contractually obliged to no longer eat in abundance the kinds of food we love because our bodies have let us down, the exclusion is of a more permanent kind.***
* My diabetes is my diabetes. Yours may have different symptoms.
** That’s a whole ‘nother blog post on how diabetes can really mess with body image and food issues. Feel free to commission me on this.
My love for barley began in two ways: a can of Heinz scotch broth which was packed with its chewy little nubbins in an otherwise forgettable soup, and Robinsons Barley Water which I personally believe to be the best way to soothe a fulminant UTI. No wonder tennis players, flinging themselves around on a hot court, drink gallons of the stuff.
I’ve found a better way of eating what is such a versatile little grain and this technique for fried barley will give you a fine carby foil for whatever fish, meat or vegetable you care to accompany it with. Barley is a wonderful carrier for flavour and accommodates reheating beautifully and I try to keep a cooked bowlful of the stuff in the fridge at all times to mix into salads, soups and stews or eat as is, with butter, black pepper and salt.
There are two forms of barley: hulled and pearl. Hulled barley has had the tough, inedible outermost hull removed and retains its bran and endosperm layer, resulting in a chewier grain when cooked. Pearl barley has been polished to remove the bran, leaving a pale and cream-coloured grain which cooks more swiftly. Hulled grain is the more nutritious of the two types because it has retained its fibre but pearl barley releases its starch into any liquid it is cooked within, making it a good thickener for soups and risottos.
The recipe that follows is more advice than prescriptive guide and serves around four or me, over several meals.
Make up 1½ litres of chicken (or vegetable) stock and bring to the boil in a large pan. Pour in 300g of pearl barley and cook at a simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley has doubled in size, becoming swollen and a little fluffy around the edges. Drain, place into a bowl and leave to cool.
Shred two large handfuls of wild garlic and mix into the barley. Cut a lemon in half and squeeze its juice over the wild garlic and grains. Add some fresh thyme sprigs too.Taste and adjust the salt if necessary. In the photo above, I have chucked in some leftover salad leaves which wilt beautifully in the heat of the pan but this is by no means compulsory.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet and when it is hot, add the pearl barley and stir fry in two stages unless your skillet is REALLY big. You want it to develop a bit of a crust underneath so don’t toss it too much. Keep on frying until it is golden and a little caught around the edges. Serve whatever way you like; it keeps for three or four days too.
British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup, Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.
Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably, all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.
According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.
Referred to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.
Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:
“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.
And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:
“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”
“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.
When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.
Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:“I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.
“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.
“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”
Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.
These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.
Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.
You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.
The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.
When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.
As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew” (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.
Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.
Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.
Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”
Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.
“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”
“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”
The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.
*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.
There’s so much more to the food of the American south than barbecue, cornbread and bourbon and this tart, topped with luscious persimmons which are one of the signature fruits of the region, deserves its time in the [autumnal] sun, and to be more widely eaten in the UK.
In the USA, persimmons are usually left to fall from the tree and if you travel around the south in the autumn, it’s not unusual to see mattresses and tarpaulins scattered around the base of each trunk , ready to catch these readily-bruised fruits. They split easily, spilling out soft flesh which attracts all kinds of critters so you have to be swift.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can give you a nasty, mouth-puckering shock if you eat it before the first frost because the fruits needs that cold snap to convert their tart soluble tannins into a sweet jelly-like mass. Because of this, there’s a Japanese variety of persimmon called ‘Fuyu’ whose fruits are sweet from the start which stores in Britain are starting to stock around now. It’s pretty hard to find American persimmons over here because they do not travel easily.
Fuyu doesn’t have much of a core and its skin is edible making it easy to prep and even easier to eat on the go. And the flavour? There’s some papaya notes, a lot of floral and a little tomato, a honeyed sweetness and something unique that defies description. It’s a fruit with flavour that deepens after cooking, becoming more than the sum of its parts and possessed of tender flesh easily incorporated into cakes, breads and puddings, made from recipes that are centuries old. Southerners still make a persimmon bread pudding with a burnt sugar syrup which is the descendant of a recipe learned from the Delaware and Cree tribes of Native Americans who showed the pioneers who crossed the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley how to use the fruit.
For this tart, I’ve added a sliced layer of persimmon to a base I use often, made from a soft pressed-in dough, flavoured with spices. The persimmon cooks down into a soft and wobbly jelly, each slice collapsing as you spoon it up. It’s this quality that makes persimmon so useful as a filling because it creates its own juicy setting and all you need to do is add a little spice, some crunchy sweetness in the form of brown sugar and you’ll soon have autumn on your plate.
It’s vital to let the tart cool before slicing to allow the cooked persimmons to meld with the sugar and ginger syrup to produce that semi-set jelly (or jam to us Brits). So don’t worry if there seems to be a lot of liquid sloshing around the fruits as it cooks.
*Caveat* I usually test recipes at least six times. This one has only been made twice but it turned out well each time.
Spiced Persimmon Tart
8 oz plain flour (all-purpose in the USA)
2 tablespoons of soft brown sugar and a further 6 tablespoons of demerara sugar
3 oz cold butter, cut into little chunks
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
3 ripe small to medium Fuyu persimmons
tbsp ginger syrup from stem ginger jar
Switch oven to 180C .
Make the pastry base using a processor or by hand: combine the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, the mixed spice and the butter until fine crumbs form or pulse in a processor until you have that fine crumb. Add the egg yolk and whirl or stir by hand until the dough comes together in a soft ball. Press the dough over the bottom and the sides of a 4- by 14-inch tart pan with a removable base (or use a 9-inch round tart pan).
Combine the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar, the lemon juice and brandy in a wide bowl.
Slice persimmons into slim rounds and check for seeds, removing if they are there. Slice the rounds in half and muddle them into the brandied sugar mixture, ensuring they are thoroughly coated then arrange fruit in 2 overlapping rows on top of the dough (or arrange in circles if using a round pan). Plaster any leftover sugar mixture from bowl over the fruit then ladle over the ginger syrup, ensuring it coats the slices.
Bake the tart until the crust is golden which will take around 25-30 minutes. Check the persimmon slices for doneness and if they are still a little hard, cover the tart loosely with foil and bake until they are tender when pierced. (Another 10- 15 minutes but this really does depend upon the ripeness of your persimmons.)
Remove tart from oven and allow to cool completely. Don’t worry if it seems to have some liquid sloshing around the persimmon slices. As it cools, this will set to a light jelly (jammy) consistency. When it has thickened and set, its time to slice the tart. Serve with creme fraiche, mascarpone or ice-cream if you like it even sweeter!
Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.
In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.
I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.
It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.
So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.
These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.
The same need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.
| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.
Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.
So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.
Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples. Its author, Judith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.
Having laughed and agreed with Sarah Millers feature on the food-writing terms that properly stick in her craw, I had no choice but to compile a list of my own. The food-writing police are in the building and they ain’t leaving any time soon. I’d love to know what your most-hated terms are (or if you think I am a prescriptive joyless b*tch and should let people get on with it).
Makes me want to spit, not swallow, in disgust.
2] Nom Nom Nom
What are you, a baby being fed microwaved mango and banana for the first time?
You clearly wouldn’t know what decadence was if it slapped you round the head with a gilded mullet although I must admit that my bar for decadence is set pretty high. Oscar Wilde’s black feast? *Meh*. Bronze-lined triclinium filled with Roman flute girls and a platter of hare decorated with wings to resemble Pegasus? *Basic*.
4] Opted for
I opted to stop reading your article at this point.
5] Tangle of
GREAT idea to remind me of a plate of hair when I’m reading about food.
Not a fan of any word whose utterance causes ones mouth to form the shape of a cat’s anus. Also VV juvenile. See also: ‘sammies’ for sandwich. God knows what they whisper at you during sex. They probably have a name for their penis, too.
7] ‘Slipped through’- as in ‘my knife slipped through’
THIS DID NOT HAPPEN.
Buttery meat [blech]. Marlon Brando’s buttery meat [blech]. Also a much-beloved term for fashion writers who ought to be incarcerated in fashion jail and fed ten times a day every time they describe leather as butter-soft (which is a LOT of times).
Authentic for whom?
I can’t speak for you but for me, murder, theft and everything Donald Trump says and everything Donald Trump does are pretty high up on my list of sins. The act of eating is not (although possibly, the consumption of a Trump steak would be). Same applies to ‘guilty pleasures’ because YOU ARE MISSING OUT if the closest you get to this is eating a bloody ice cream. Stop colluding with the language of eating disorders.
I’d rather be called a professional wanker. Do you refer to gallery goers as Arties?
12] Food movement
Especially after a bad oyster.
13] Food porn
Using the word porn to describe food makes you sound so repressed, you probably think Larkin got it wrong when he said sexual intercourse started in 1963. Seriously, go get laid and then think about the sexual politics of equating abusive sexual practices with what’s on your plate.
14] Farm fresh
Conjures up images of a big fat cowpat imo. ‘Farm fresh’ on a label is usually accompanied by a line drawing of a generic farm called ‘Happy Valley’ or ‘Green Meadows’ that you know DOESN’T EXIST. And if I see this written on a restaurant menu it makes me want to ask them ‘as opposed to what? Rank and stale ?’
Patti Smith is iconic. The Chrysler Building is iconic. The Taj Mahal is iconic. Your cheese toastie is not, even if it has been handmade by Rene Redzepi.
I am as likely to crave a bowl of ice cream as much as the next person but let’s not pretend my love for the icy stuff is going to make me lie in bed shivering, doubled up with cramps if I miss a hit.
17] Cooked to perfection
As opposed to raw, burnt, covered in dog hair, frozen in the middle? I happen to like my steak still mooing as its brought to the table. To me that is perfection. To you it probably is not.
So help me God but if I read this about gnocchi or bao one more time I am going to place a real pillow over the face of whoever wrote it and press down hard.