Gin (and cake)

Plug-time. I have a talk coming up at Kew Palace on June 20th called Gin & Cake. It does, pretty much, what it says on the tin. I spend about 45 minutes taking you through the history of gin, which is often fairly sordid, and remarkably free of my usual anatomical gags. Indeed, when writing the thing, I found it a topic quite devoid of laughs.

As a hardened gin drinker, I was aware, in the back of my mind, of its darker history. Like every British schoolchild, we ‘did’ Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street at some point (presumably between the voyages of discovery and endless, endless, hours of Corn Laws which is most of what I remember from pre-GCSE history classes. I knew that gin was demonised, polarised as part of 17th and 18th century class and gender dialogues, and I knew, if I thought hard enough about it, that it must have been rehabilitated sometime in the 19th century. Otherwise, wherefore all those pictures of grinning Englishmen and women wearing far too much clothing while supping on a G&T on immaculate lawns in Singapore, Hong Kong and India. When I started researching gin properly, however, both the vitriol of its detractors, and the desperate need of its drinkers, was striking. Gin was blamed for every conceivable social ill, especially (of course) the ruination of the flower of English womanhood. It was taxed, it was legislated against, it was, in effect, outlawed. But it outlasted all the attempts to prise consumers away from it, and onto more suitable drinks: beer, ale and, though itself disliked in some circles, tea.

Clearly, people getting blotto and falling out of their clothing, vomiting, putting themselves and others in danger is not a new phenomenon. Neither are warnings against the evils of drink which somehow cross the line into public entertainment (witness all those REAL POLICE, and FRIDAY NIGHT ON THE STREETS style TV programmes). We’re shamed, appalled, and fascinated in equal measure, as much in 1715 and in 2015.

Gin, however, has changed. It’s fashionable. You can visit gin distilleries run by bearded hipsters who can reel off the names of more obscure botanicals than they’ve had hot dinners. But it’s still edgy. James Bond drinks gin (admittedly as a cocktail). It’s an acquired taste, disliked by most adolescent drinkers, at least. It’s still got a certain something. (Not tonic, round my way, as I stopped drinking tonic with it once the usual 18th century corruption of my palette kicked in, and now I drink gin neat, which can get me strange looks). I suppose the whys and wherefores of that are what I eventually set out to explore in my talk.

The cake bit of Gin & Cake is a completely different thing. The history of cake, though, is not without controversy, mainly due to its frivolous nature: cake is not a staple food; we don’t need cake in our diets. As early as 1845 Eliza Acton was calling it ‘sweet poison’, and sniffily refusing to give many recipes for cake (a shame for cake-likers, as she’s one of the best pre-1900 authors I can think of). But cake hasn’t (yet) been blamed for murder, or beatings, or riots. Who knows – the current demonisation of sugar echos that of gin in the 17th century in some ways. In both cases, there’s a level of black and white thinking which allows for very little middle ground for the occasional consumer.

Anyway, the talk is on Gin and Cake, and, as usual, I aim to entertain and educate in fairly equal measure. Last time I gave the talk (last year), it sold out, which was nice, and I had the most mixed audience I’ve  ever seen. Absolute gin fanatics rubbing shoulders with interested in history teetotallers. Young and old, men and women – etc. It was great to see so many people coming together through a love of the past (or, possibly, drawn because of the samples of gin and cake of an historic persuasion, included in the format of the talk). Hey ho.

Link to Kew Palace talks site is here.

NB: I’m doing a sort of mini-residency at Kew this summer:
Gin and Cake (20th June)
Flatulence & Phlegm: on Georgian salads and herbs (2nd July)
Spice Night (8th August)
Abusing Hot Liquors: tea, coffee and chocolate (3rd Sept)
All will include samples.

10 dishes for incompetent cooks

Following my post on the BBC Dish Up campaign, I was having one of those idle discussions you (well, I) have in the car when I’m mainly thinking about driving, but need an easy topic to chat about so I don’t fall asleep with the sheer boredom of a lengthy motorway. My other half was a non-cook when I met him. He was 20, a vegetarian who wasn’t very keen on vegetables, and loved all things involving highly processed carb more than anything in the world. As you might imagine, most of that is not longer the case (put him near unattended pasta or roast potatoes and you can forget leftovers), so, as the other person in the car, he was quite a good person to be having that discussion with. To be fair, despite my current culinary habits, I lived on microwave meals as a teenager, only really discovering the joys of food and cooking when my Dad and I moved to France for 3 years when I was 16. Up to that point, I’d enjoyed the cooking I did, but it was certainly not the overarching interest (obsession?) it is now. The aforementioned car discussion wasn’t, therefore, completely uninformed.

Our major preoccupation, apart from me steering, not speeding and going in the right general direction, was to come up with a list of basic recipes which would be a) useful, b) easy, c) reasonably cheap, and d) versatile, for anyone coming to cooking from scratch for the first time. I argued my case based on firm historic principles and a love of eggs. M came at it from having to fathom out my scrawled instructions when left alone after I’d vaguely taught him something and then waved my hands about airily and told him it was well easy. Anyway. This is the list we eventually came up with.

1. Omelette: eating what became my version, which involves a LOT of butter, was the moment I realised food was more than just fuel. It was 1996, and it had been thrown together by a Frenchwoman with whom I was boarding. Seriously. You are never alone with a (good) omelette.

2. Batter pudding: the batter mix can also be used for pancakes, and pancakes piled up with jam and cream to make an impressive and stupidly easy dessert. Plus, batter puddings can have absolutely anything put in them. Sausages, obviously, as toad-in-the-hole, but I like leftover roast beef, pork etc. And if you stick apples in them and sprinkle with sugar, you’ve got a cheap and filling sweet. Oh, and stoned fruit and sugar makes clafoutis.

3. Suet crust pudding: because a pudding basin and a cloth are easier to store than a slow cooker, and suet crust is divine. Basin-cooked steak and kidney, or pork and apple, or pigeon and parsnip are all dead easy, and you can then branch out into sausage or bacon and onion or jam roly poly. Getting the hang of using a pudding cloth only appears daunting, and any leftovers can be baked the next day, at which point the pastry crisps up and it’s a whole new dish.

4. French meat: it’s always called that in our house, but it’s the age old principle of take meat, fry it in butter with a bit of flour, add booze (cider, wine, beer, whatever), turn right down and simmer til tender, remove meat, pimp sauce with thick cream. These days I often chuck in a tin of beans or something as well.

5. Maître d’hôtel sauce: lemon juice, parsley, butter or olive oil, plus seasonings. Can add garlic, can add cayenne pepper. This is my go-to sauce for everything. It’s amazing in haricot beans (and butter beans etc), fabulous on thinly sliced kidneys fried in the butter (in which case, add lots of salt too), zings up green veg, and actually, root veg like artichokes and potatoes (can also add olives), and it’s pretty good as a dressing for chicken and veal and – well, you get the picture.

6. Soup: historic recipe books are full of soups, though it’s clear that they are regarded as a fundamental precursor to dinner by the upper classes, optional by the middle classes, and foisted upon the working classes (to somewhat paraphrase Charles Herman Senn in 1901 – New Century Cookbook). Soup is great. You can have light lunchtime soup based on delicate stocks, clarified to the point of beauty, or a thick, sustaining winter soup in which the spoon stands up. Essentially though, they are mainly based on the principle of fry stuff – add stock or water – simmer for ages – purée, taste, season, and thicken if required. Stock pretty much falls into the same category.

7. Fried fish: this is M’s big one. We do fish skin on, very crispy, mainly with the aforementioned maître d’hôtel sauce and veg or other stuff. Cracking fish cooking was a big thing in our house.

8. Roast meat: I can take it or leave it (unless it’s been properly roasted, i.e. on a spit), but it is a thing for many people. In a modern kitchen, the key is a meat thermometer and resting time. This category could and probably should be extended to include decent roast potatoes (parboiled, at least double roasted, ensure there are leftovers to refry to go with marmite the next day), and gravy.

9. Stuff to do with leftover bread: this isn’t a recipe, it’s a category. According to various reports (there’s a short BBC article here), we waste about a third of the bread we buy. Now, ok, white sliced makes dreadful breadcrumbs, stinks when you try and bake off the moisture in the oven, and is generally fit for nothing, but it still appalls me that we waste so much, when there are so many things which can be done with stale bread. Bread and butter pudding, breadcrumbs for thickening, breadcrumbs and fruit purée baked pudding, crumble, topping for gratin…argh! Etc.

10. Bread dough: why? Because you can roll it out thinly and top with tomato purée and cheese etc and it’s a pizza (and the etc means literally anything you like), and you can smear it with lard and dried fruit and fold it and roll it and it’s a lardy cake, and you can shape it into rolls and fill them with sausagemeat and it’s a perfect picnic. M says having learnt to make pizza as one of the first things he did, when it came to wanting to make bread later on, he was never scared (and now he has a sourdough starter with a name – and offspring, and is bread making fiend). Plus, cold pizza for lunch, mmmmm. And most of the above take less than 90mn start to finish, with very little actual contact time.

Anyway, that was the fruit of an hour or so on the road. What about you? Top easy recipes for the novice cook?