Food crimes and other hyperbole

I was asked to be on You and Yours on BBC Radio 4 last week, talking about so-called ‘food crimes’. Iceland had just announced a curry-filled Yorkshire Pudding, and there had been a spate of articles about the Tesco lasagne sandwich. Given the format of Y&Y, I was pitched, to some extent, against Nisha Katona, a chef from Liverpool, who is seeking to challenge the prevailing idea of curry as brown muck. We had a spirited discussion, mainly centred around notions of authenticity, and whether there is anything wrong with mixing up various cuisines and foodstuffs. I probably destroyed any credibility I might have had by admitting on air to consuming a spam and creme egg toastie, though I did point out I was drunk at the time. In fact, as my fellow consumer, now human rights and prison reform expert Anton Shelupanov pointed out, we also made a pork pie and creme egg toastie. He remembers the latter, I the former. My long-suffering other half suggests we made both, because we liked the first one so much. He also ate them. So there. (And they were weirdly compelling, for anyone wondering….but the goo which leaked out did necessitate the removal or my carpet and partial ruination of the toastie machine).

Anyway, if you are still reading and not retching, you, like me, may now be musing further. I think there are 3 main areas to ponder upon. Firstly, the idea that certain combinations or ideas are a ‘crime’, in the sense of being intrinsically wrong, mainly on grounds of good taste, but also, as Nisha pointed out, for health reasons. Secondly, the concept, which we discussed, that cooks should strive for authenticity in their creations, and not meddle with something which has tradition on its side. For me, there’s a further issue, which is that some of the various foods cited I wouldn’t eat because I suspect the quality is crap, and I wouldn’t like the end result regardless of what the actual combination was.

I shall come out and say straight away that I don’t believe in the R4 definition of a food crime. I don’t shriek with fear at the idea of lasagne sandwiches. Indeed, I have made lasagne pizza and indeed, risotto pizza and pommes dauphinoises pizza and, apart from a massive overload of carbs and starch, and the fact that I don’t actually like risotto, they were pretty good. The combinations might be ‘weird’ or out of the norm, but nothing in that statement makes them intrinsically wrong, tasteless or something anyone should avoid. After all, how does food evolve, if not for people trying stuff out? There are plenty of combinations in historic food which people today would look askance at: meat in mincemeat, caramelised sugar on top of a savoury fish custard, cheese ice cream etc etc. I’ve eaten all of these, and they are all delicious – but only once you accept that most notions of edibility are as culturally contrived as pretty much everything else in life. (Obviously there are exceptions, and most of them are universal, such as not eating as carrion eaters, or putrefied meat. But in terms of flavour combinations – anything goes).

The health argument carries more weight. I entirely agree with Nisha on the general principle that some of the foods that were cited are not those which a sane and health-loving person would necessarily choose to eat. But here we veer, surely, into a different set of arguments, centred around quality, mass production, and processing of food on the one hand, and the rather vexing question of what is actually good for us on the other. (And, indeed, whether being told what we can and cannot eat by a wide range of people is entirely acceptable or desirable – especially given the often contradictory advice which we seem to be given.) Nisha used the example of fat- and cream- laden curries, entirely removed from curry in the Far East, and a habit which debases what is, at is essence, a fairly healthy set of foods. I don’t disagree, in principle, but I think we should recognise that if someone likes a fat and cream-laden curry, then that is not a crime against taste. Let’s face it, if they aren’t suffering health issues, and don’t plan to eat one every day, it’s not exactly a taste issue either. I have concerns over dictating what ‘should’ be in a dish, or what the ‘rules’ of any form of culinary endeavour are. It’s the best way to render a cuisine moribund that I know.

Which brings me to authenticity. I think authentic is a very dangerous concept. What is authentic? Where do we put our stick in the ground? On air, I suggested that claiming all curries should strive for authenticity by the removal of modern ingredients and methods was unhelpful and simplistic: where do you take your curry back to? What is ancient? What is traditional? Because if you head back prior to the 16th century, the purist wouldn’t be able to include potatoes, tomatoes, or chillis, all new world ingredients introduced to India by the Portugese and Spanish, in the first instance. And, presumably, we’d also dismiss as inauthentic a whole range of Anglo-Indian adaptations of curry from the 18th and 19th century (oh, and lose the word curry as a generic and useful describing term itself). I should probably admit that most of these dishes aren’t cooked anymore, and that my fellow Kitchen Cabinetist and fab Scottish-Indian chef Angela Malik blanches whenever I bring one in. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious (or healthy), and even Angela is prepared to admit she can see where and why the adaptations were made (apple or melon for mango and tamarind etc). We’ve argued the toss a lot, and I agree that the dishes are of their time, while still enjoying them. (I also enjoy her creations, which are completely different!)

So where does that leave us? Embracing the foods the media sniff at? Well, why not. The issues here are much more complex than they’d first appear, and cover more ground than a 2 minute slot as light relief in a lunchtime radio programme can do justice to. I have mused, but drawn few conclusions. I do recommend a processed meat and creme egg toastie though. Kind of.

Dressing (down) for dinner

With the Waitrose Good Food Guide out last week, the PR machine behind it has been seeking hooks for newspapers. The main story I’ve seen centres around the apparent rise in informality in fine dining establishments. The staff at the two-starred Hibiscus are doing away with their ties, and various chefs are quoted as endorsing a move away from leather-clad menus and toward a recognition that jeans are acceptable eating-wear. Elizabeth Carter, the editor of the GFG, suggests it indicates the rise of fine dining as an activity for ‘ordinary’ people, enjoyed by those who partake much as others would enjoy a football match, or a visit to the theatre. She points out that (some) high-end restaurants have become a destination, with a meal to be saved up for, anticipated, savoured at the time and afterwards. Tied, for some at least, to the habit of taking photographs of every dish, and live-tweeting the entire experience. Restaurateurs who don’t relax the rules for this new, more free-wheeling set of eaters, risk alienating potential customers. But, as the brief furore over photography in restaurants last year shows, while there are those who want eating out to be an extension of walking down the street, there are others who still want dining, at least at the upper end, to be something special, marked out by a degree of reverence, of privacy. The kind of experience you get somewhere like Le Gavroche: you feel cocooned and cosseted, wrapt up in a room full of food and from which you emerge, blinking, and a little bit poorer. Done well, as at Le Gavroche, I love a bit of formality. I like dressing to go out for dinner: the rituals of posh frock, make up, and maybe even heels, add a certain mystique to my dinner and make the experience into far more than just stuffing my face. Done badly, and I have undergone achingly pretentious levels of formality, mainly, it must be said, in France, and I want to throw my cutlery at the waiter and start dancing on the tables.

I think there’s room for a lot of different levels of formality. There always have been. Our current notions of what constitutes ‘formal dining’ haven’t really changed since the 19th century. Then, they made perfect sense. A restaurant meant something specific, as opposed to a chophouse, an inn, a hotel, a café, or a tea rooms. The restaurant was something intrinsically French, upper class and elegant. The term emerged from 18th century France, and it’s generally agreed that the first establishments to call themselves restaurants did so because the set out to ‘restaurer’, to restore, in this case both health and palates, jaded by the rather brilliant, but at times excessive, delights of upper class French cuisine. The French were probably influenced by the existence of a long English tradition of eating out for pleasure: nearly all 17th and 18th century diarists depict eating out, both in public eating houses or in clubs, as a regular activity. Try Dr Johnson, Pepys, or Thomas Trussler – and then there’re the number of cookery book authors who proudly declare that they are the cook at [insert inn name here]. Either way, the restaurant quickly became established, and eventually they started to open under that name in the UK. They were always distinct from other types of dining out of the home. The cuisine was ‘recherché’ – fashionable, modern, above all else, French, which was rapidly being established as the aspirational ideal for the ever-rising middle class. The dining style was also markedly different from dining at home. Restaurants were known for being places which favoured the lone diner, allowing, as they did, a free choice of dish from a range on offer. That range could be very long indeed, and the diner needed neither to carve, nor to help serve out, as was often still the case in a domestic environment throughout the 19th century.

Dining in a restaurant, therefore, was akin to dining in an idealised home, without the hassle of negotiating with one’s cook, and was deliberately removed from the informal environment of an inn or chophouse. Eating at home was beset with social pitfalls. The late Victorians had codified dinner to a degree where table manners could be neatly packaged, written down, and sold to wannabe socialites as their ‘in’ to polite society. Of course, it was largely rot. One commentator, ‘fin bec’ commented narkily that ‘an etiquette book in the possession of a diner is virtually a pièce de conviction’. In other words, if you need a guide to doing it, you aren’t the right type of person to be invited in the first place. In late Victorian society, the almost infinitesimal divisions between social groups could be negotiated through manners, and dinner was a crucial area for their observance.

The so-called traditional rules of restaurant dining, therefore, reflects a society obsessed with social acceptance, and determined to invent ever more ways of testing it through etiquette. Do we need to sit down to a place setting hemmed in by ranks of silver cutlery? No. Do we have to worry over cutting or tearing the bread? No. Does it actually make a blind bit of difference which glass we drink the wine out of? Hell no (though jam jars are a different matter and anyone serving me a beverage in a jam jar deserves to go straight to culinary hell). But it did matter; really, it did. And to some people it matters still. Are they old fashioned? Perhaps. Should we push their views to one side and rush to embrace a more informal approach? I don’t think so. If you chose to dine in jeans, and pick your menu using marbles, good on you – as you masticate, you will be in the company of like-minded people. But if you choose to wear a tie, and expect a menu which feels reassuringly heavy*, good on you too. Just like a good Victorian, how you dine reflects who you perceive yourself to be, and that, surely, is always ok.

*That said, it is never ok to have a menu which doesn’t have prices on for the lady, and does for the chap. Just saying.

Late Victorian domestic dining, from The Graphic, 1890. I once saw it labelled as 'short sighted lady looks for her place'. HUH?!
Late Victorian domestic dining, from The Graphic, 1890. I once saw it labelled as ‘short sighted lady looks for her place’. No comment.

Further reading:

John Burnett (2004) England Eats Out, 1830-present
Rebecca Spang (2000) The Invention of the Restaurant
Michael Symons (2001) A History of Cooks & Cooking

Adventures in jam-making, part 1

Blackberry season is upon us. I can’t help it: I’m mad for them. Every half-hearted jog from late August to the end of September sees me coming back with purple-stained fingers and scratches up my arms. This year, banned from jogging due to injuring my knee, and with the hedgerow that keeps on giving at the end of the road denuded by the other sods who live in my street, I’ve (re)discovered cycling as a ‘way to keep fit’. It goes like this: put large container in bike panniers; cycle off looking serious (in cycling shorts and hi-vis vest); do at least 10mn of proper cardio style work; find blackberry patch….on Friday I managed 25 whole minutes of actual exercise and an hour of blackberry picking. Calories burnt: some; miles covered: 5ish; all pitiful, but when measured on the blackberry scale…4 litres. Not bad. I was picking thorns out of my fingers for two days afterwards, and my fingernails are still black, but overall, I’d say that was a good morning’s work.

Trouble is, I pick all of these things, and then I have to do something with them. Put together with the blackberries I’d scrumped previously in the week, I had nearly 6lb of gooey black loveliness. Last year I did endless tarts. This year I was up for jam…except I don’t really like jam. Neither I, nor M eat much of it. I have buckets of carrot jam which I use for Victorian and Second World War events (Mrs Beeton published a recipe for it in the English Domesticwoman’s Magazine in 1858 and, unusually for her, didn’t garble it much and it actually works). I also have a few bits and bobs which I tend to use for making sorbet. But jam, as a rule, comes under the heading of ‘why did I make that again?’ Sod it, thought I, I can always use it for something, or give it away. But, in the spirit of common sense, I also found a recipe for blackberry and apple gin (thank you, River Cottage). The jam proved more challenging, as all the historic jam recipes I read were for very basic jam, which didn’t suit my mood at the time. Most of the blackberry recipes in my collection tended more towards ‘shape’, along with fool, pies and a lot of wine. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the use of blackberries for wine, I set aside 3 pints to have a crack at an 18th century version (Elizabeth Raffald, 1769, and of which, more anon). Eventually modernity won out, in the form of Diana Henry’s blackberry and Pinot Noir jam.

All of which leads me to the adventure. I have been banned from making jam in the kitchen. In the house in general, in fact, though the garage remains a grey area. I have form. The Great Quince Cheese Incident of 2013 is writ large in the annals of shame round here, involving, as it did, quince dripping from the ceiling like congealed orange bogeys, and orange jammy stains all over the walls. We had to redecorate. It was not nice. We had moved in a mere 2 months earlier… In fact, I have worse form than that, since only 2 weeks are moving in with M I was steaming Xmas puddings and accidentally let one boil dry. Cue lots of smoke, me running outside with the saucepan, net curtain billowing in the breeze then billowing onto the hot pan….scorched nylon pattern by now on the outside of huge pan, massive panic… Etc etc. I did learn a lot about what boiling a pan dry does to the bottom of a putting basin though, which comes under the heading of experimental archaeology. It helps explain the pattern of cracks on several of the ceramic food moulds in the collection of York Castle Museum, so not all was bad. Oh, and then there was the Flaming Microwave Incident, which also resulted in me melting the wheel of the BBQ as I threw the baked potato which was the cause of the flames out into the garden, where it hit said wheel and caused said melting. Oops. I had to buy a new microwave and mildly redecorate behind it. Liability, much?

I have, therefore, had to expand the jam making arm of my culinary operations into the garden. Banned from the kitchen? A plug in hob, an extension cable, pan and convenient table are the answer. Until…it starts to rain.

I’m not going to continue. Suffice to say, I was eventually allowed back into the house on pain of extreme death if one splatter made its way onto the walls. The jam was superb. And I have discovered that I can now guess set point accurately once the thermometer gets to that annoying one-degree-below-where-it-needs-to-be bubbling point without recourse to saucers or the wrinkle test. It’s at perfect set point just before it explodes onto the ceiling. If only I’d known that last year.


My view. For 45mn.
My view. For 45mn.

A sad day in the tomato patch

My tomatoes have blight. Two weeks ago, it was merely the odd brown leaf, and I looked proudly at them and considered them rustic and French potager-like. But in the last few days I have had to face facts: they are blighted, benighted and frankly buggered.

Happily, I am not the only sufferer. It’s the first year I’ve grown them in the ground, since up to last August my garden was roughly the size of the average sofa, and everything was in pots and growbags. I feared it was a novice gardener thing, but apparently our passive aggressive allotment-owning neighbour has lost all of his tomatoes too, so all is well with the world. I’ve ripped out the vines, lamented over the vast, squishy, brown ex-crop and, in a spirit of blight defiance, stripped off all the green tomatoes which remain unaffected. I really hate waste. I had vaguely planned a green tomato chutney, but it seemed far too obvious. Plus, I have only just finished the divine, but incredibly rich 1870s chutney from three years ago, and I have three jars of various homemade chutneys people have given me. All lovely, I’m sure, but how much chutney does a girl need? Obligatory with a cayenne-laden Victorian kedgeree, good with a meat chop or a cold pie, but after that… Mouldy chutney beckons once again. So, given a recent mild obsession with a particular type of Scandinavian pickle, it seemed obvious that pickled tomatoes was the way to go.

Pickled veg seems peculiarly un-British in 2014. Branston, yes, pickled things, yes (onions, eggs, gherkins, beetroot – bring it on), but beyond that, the habitual use of pickled veg (and fruit) seems a bit Scandinavian, or maybe Japanese. Fermenting, salting, brining, pickling, all techniques which we’re turning it enthusiastically, if the food press is to be believed, but when it comes to using the results, are a little but harder to place. I’ve gone back to the 18th century, when pickling the various gluts from the garden (and hedgerow) was a normal part of the culinary year, and I’ve started using pickled bits of stuff as a general accompaniment to pretty much everything. A typical lunch at the moment would be a poached egg, some beans or rye bread, chopped parsley and oodles of pickles. For the tomatoes, I dug out a recipe from 1924, from Warne’s Model Cookery. No point in looking much further back than the mid 19th century, for tomatoes weren’t widely grown until the Victorian period, and early recipes tend to revolve around ‘tomata sauce’, or catsup.

All you do is slice and salt, then cook the tomatoes up with pickling vinegar, sugar, garlic, chilli, mustard and cloves. They retain a certain amount of texture, and they take on flavour from the spices. The tartness of the green tomatoes cuts through the sugar, and the spices pack a fairly hefty punch, compared to some of the anaemic shop-bought pickles around today. They are much better than a chutney would have been, and I confidently predict that they won’t be around for long. I’d have loved to keep my lovely tomato plants cropping and bursting with health, but it was not to be. I feel this is a suitable elegy to the heap of sorry brown badness now in the council’s green bin. RIP, tomato plants.

Poor bastard tomato bushes.             Salting, resting overnight.            2014-09-07 11.29.19