BBC Dish Up (notes from a small kitchen, part 2)

I’ve been involved in promoting a new BBC campaign, Dish Up, aimed at breaking down barriers to cooking, and getting the inconfident and self-proclaimed incompetent into the kitchen. The campaign is based around a website, which contains recipes, all very simple and easy on the kit and the ingredients, along with articles, tips and tricks which link to the various reasons people gave for wanting to learn to cook. The Beeb did a survey to inform the website content, and show the scope of the problem. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women said they’d never been taught to cook.  So what?, I hear you cry. Teach yourself (which is what I did in my teenage years). It’s not that simple. 19% of the population say they don’t think they can cook at all – higher for the under 24 year old age group. And around 50% of the population say they’d not feel confident in cooking relatively simple things like toad in the hole and macaroni cheese. We’re spending less time cooking, and are more likely to eat ready meals and entirely no-cook meals more and more of the time. And, as has been repeatedly shown by various studies, that’s not a good thing. There are potential health dangers in high consumption of heavily industrialised foods, including the simple fact that portions are on the large side. Even if you genuinely don’t care about the taste of your food, and can happily ignore the various issues around sustainability, in both food and environment terms, there are still loads of reasons to cook. 

The Dish Up survey suggested that the main motivators for wanting to cook are health and saving money, but there are also factors around sociability, family dynamics, and enjoyment. There are so many barriers to cooking, but the main ones seem to be perceived cost (presumably the people who cited cost as a motivator for learning to cook are either different respondents or maybe, I hope, aware of the reasons for very cheap processed foods) hassle factor (cleaning a microwave is hell vs a hob and a knife, I’d say, but hey), and time. Keen cooks will be aware that all of these barriers are rubbish, if you pick the right recipe. More pernicious, I suspect is the fear of failure, unrealistic expectations based on the incredible stuff produced by the ‘amateurs’ on Masterchef and GBBO, and a lack of motivation to just get in there and have a go. Anyway, there’s loads of stuff on the website to tackle these misconceptions, and I had a crack at challenging and encouraging wannabe cooks over 3 hours of radio interviews on Friday 22nd, when the campaign was in full launch mode.

I also thought I’d see how well I practise what I preach, and since we’re once more in a French gîte, with its random range of equipment and limited scope for ingredients (very little here, don’t want to spend a fortune stocking up on my full range of stuff from back home), the time seems perfect. The gîte, by the way, is stunning, but the owners admitted they never cook, and gave us a comprehensive list of local restaurants. As a result, the kitchen is one of the most poorly equipped I’ve ever seen. 3 saucepans, a frying pan, some flexi-mats (one of which is split) as chopping boards, and oven proof dish, a lemon squeezer and some tableware. The only knife is a bread knife (I have brought a 10 inch cooks knife and a paring knife). No mixing bowls (though it does have a lettuce washer). I made mayonnaise on day 1 in a mock flowerpot which was being used to keep the dishcloth in. And I did buy a couple of cheap 70s mixing bowls at a car boot sale on day 2. Clearly, I’m no scared, inexperienced cook, and I have a tendancy to buy fresh, as-near-to-unprocessed-as-possible produce. And I’m not on a scarily tight budget (but neither, necessarily, are the uncooks that the Dish Up campaign is aiming at – this isn’t about food poverty, but people not cooking in general). Otherwise….here goes.

Day 1: olives, cheese. It’s Eurovision, so finger food is important to allow all attention to be on the screen. Fried sand smelts, battered in a fizzy water, flour and egg batter and shallow fried. Boiled artichokes with tartare sauce (home made, we’ll never use a whole jar of mayo). Massive box of strawberries and unpasteurised cream (there are some large advantages to being in France). 

Day 2: yoghurt and jam for breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner of tuna marinated in olive oil and garlic, briefly blanched globe artichoke and cheese salad, more strawberries. There are now no more strawberries.

Day 3: breakfast poached egg and asparagus. Put slotted spoon on list of things we need to buy.  Lunch, local brasserie. Dinner, endlessly cooked white beans (can get them tinned, but we have the time, and they are way cheaper with more variety in a plastic net), with tinned chestnuts and mushrooms and cream sauce, with boudin blanc, fried and sliced and chucked on the beans with some lettuce as a sort of hot salad beast. Oodles of watermelon. 

Day 4: Lait fermenté pancakes (essentially buttermilk ish pancakes) with cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch ham and cheese in a baguette. Apples, more watermelon (now all gone). Dinner, veal chop, cooked over wood on the gîte BBQ (long story, but there was no charcoal, and Monsieur gave me a load of kindling and assumed I could light a fire), with more artichoke salad and black pudding.

Day 5: more pancakes, decided to buy some muesli as by now groaning. Lunch an ice cream (cider sorbet, ahem), as breakfast was so large and so late (I’m on holiday!). Dinner fried floured mackerel fillets, tomato salad, melon. 

Day 6: muesli. Epic lunch at a recommended resto, followed by a cheese crawl round Camembert and other cheesy villages. Dinner, as a result, was cheese, saucisson, pickles and baguette. And strawberries, now happily replaced.

I could go on, but it will get repetitive. As an experient in whether I can do as I say, not just say it and ignore my own advice, it was a success. I suppose the outcome wasn’t necessarily in doubt – after all, I managed 3 years as an undergraduate with one frying pan, one saucepan, an electric wok and a toastie machine. (You can do an entire fry up in a toastie machine as long as you get the right model). I once made fresh pasta by dint of crouching on the floor, which I’d stuck greaseproof paper to, rolling out the pasta with a wine bottle. But time moves on, and I’ve got very used to a well-stocked kitchen and zillions of things lacking here, like mixing bowls, graters, and cake tins. Conclusions? I don’t feel like a hypocrite, promoting the fact that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or kit-heavy – unless, of course, you want it be, and that’s fine too.

Further reading 

BBC Dish Up is here.

For processed foods and health, Joanna Blythman, Swallow This (occasionally a bit Daily Maily, but a good and interesting read)

For a more general debate on food and sustainability, anything by Michael Pollen and also Jay Rayner, Hungry Man in Greedy World. (Includes must-read chapters on supermarkets and farmers markets)

Brilliant broccoli

My broccoli is about to come to an end. For over two months now it’s kept me in lunches and dinners at least twice a week. I’ve also turned up to friends’ houses armed with a generous bag on at least four occasions. I’ve loved every minute of it but, as usual when things are glutting, I’m not that sad to see it start to flower and to realise that its time is nigh….time to stick the squash seedlings in the veg patch instead.

Given that it’s nearly the end of the season, this isn’t the most timely of posts, but hey. If your brocs are still going (or if you’re buying them from the market, supermarket, grocer etc, when the season is a bit longer than that allowed by the vagaries of my veg patch), and you’re starting to rather desperately seek ideas for it other than boil/steam and slather with butter, what’s the historical angle? Well……er……mainly its boil and slather with butter actually, but there are a few alternatives around. 

Broccoli is a relative newcomer to the UK, with the first mentions of it in print at the beginning of the 17th century. There are so many new introductions in the 17th century that, in culinary terms, it’s a dead exciting period to study. I wonder whether the tumult of the mid-century, with the interregnum, and the lapse of censorship, the spread of new and often radical ideas, and the total reshaping of British society, helped hasten the adoption of new foodstuffs. A country in which anything can be said, and anything discussed, is surely a country at its most receptive. Culinary conservatism tends to be deeply embedded, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that so many new foods and techniques are embraced in the 17th century (that and, obviously, new world foods finally creeping up from Spain and across France to leap the channel, and the winning of the right to trade with Spanish America at the end of the century). Broccoli isn’t a new world ingredient, however, it’s firmly old world, probably a byproduct of attempts to breed better, white, juicier cauliflower.

Once introduced, broccoli gained a following fairly quickly, though right up to the 20th century it remained associated with cauliflower. Most recipe books suggest that you boil it and serve it with butter, or treat it as per cauliflower which, increasingly, means covering it with decent cheese and sticking it in the oven. That works a treat with the big headed broccoli which I associate with my childhood (and which were invariably cooked to mush and served with a hideously bland white sauce). Growing up, all broccoli was the huge, stringy stuff, with nary a sprouting broccoli to be seen. Now it’s everywhere, and has a tendency to command occasionally shocking prices. Surprisingly, though, the sprouting stuff predates the other stuff, and, indeed, was all you could get when it was first introduced. Inevitably, the Victorians threw themselves enthusiastically into breeding it, and by the mid 19th century, you could choose from green, purple, red and brown sprouting broccoli. The purple sprouting sprigs we devour today are, once more, but a pale shadow of the glories of past veg patches. The modern reinvention of sprouting types seems to be relatively recent – the last 30 years or so. Maybe we’ll slowly get back to the Victorian broccoli heyday. (I’m going to help the process this year by planting both sprouting brocs and walking stick broccoli, which I’ve been dying to grow for years – it can reach 3m high and is a classic example of the 19th century being both brilliant and random at the same time).

We talked broccoli on The Kitchen Cabinet recently*, and I struggled to find an interesting recipe with which to regale our audience, both in the theatre and in the wider radio-listening world. Best I could do was this one, from Errol Sherson’s Book of Vegetable Cookery (1931). Maybe I’ll use the last of this year’s produce to try it. I’ll probably just griddle it or steam it and slather it with olive oil, or butter, lemon juice, parsley and a bit of chilli though, Sometimes, really, unimaginative though they are, the old ways are the best.

Sherson, Veg Cookery, on broccoli

* The Kitchen Cabinet, series 10, episode 2, from Bury St Edmunds. Air date on BBC Radio 4, 10.30am 23rd May 2015, repeated 26th May. On BBC iPlayer radio for 30 days after broadcast date, or as a podcast. Podcast links here

The Glorious Twelfth (Cake)

Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance. (William Hone, 1825)

The Queen's 12th Cake, 1849 from the Illustrated London News.
The Queen’s 12th Cake, 1849 from the Illustrated London News.

At the start of this year I went on holiday to Nice (very nice). It meant I was there for Twelfth Night, which fact had occurred to me about three weeks earlier, mid-lecture, and caused me to lose my train of thought entirely and splutter a bit. I lived in France for a few years as a teenager, and hadn’t been back there at that time of year since, and, as I failed to find my lecture words, what was really going on inside my head was a sort of massive yippeeeeeee. I’d only just clocked that me in France + Twelfth Night = galette des rois. And so it was, that every boulangerie and pâtisserie that we passed (ogled), for the days preceding the 6th January was bursting with seasonal, pastry-based goodness. The queues on the 5th were out of the door. Everyone seemed to have their special galette bag, advertising that year’s new design of ceramic fève, hidden inside to choke the unwary. It made me very happy. But it also made me muse, for we used to be the same in Britain. We’ve lost many many traditions, but that of the Twelfth Cake seems to have gone so entirely, it doesn’t even live on as a vague idea. Most people have never even heard of Twelfth Cake here, yet it thrives in France. What’s going on?!

So, as we speed fast away from another Christmas, it seems apt to post an entirely untimely post on a lost British tradition. It’s not that untimely – I’ve only just polished off the last of the mince pies, which I swear were breeding in their cosy tin. Still, for most people Christmas is a distant memory. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Christmas in the 21st century starts around September, and ends promptly, just after dinner on the 25th December. How different to the medieval and early Tudor festival, which started in early December with the advent fast, and really got going on the 24th or 25th December (it depended whether you counted the start of the day from the evening of the night before). You then had 12 glorious days of feasting until Twelfth Night, on the 5th or 6th January (see previous explanation – there doesn’t seem to be a hard or fast rule, and it’s time and culture dependant. In some countries the 24th December is still the key day for the Christmas feast). Each day was associated with a different saint, and could include different customs and foods. There’s an excellent blog post about it all here.

Twelfth Night, therefore was rather more than just a day when people were all back at work, starting diets, going ‘dry’ in the most depressing month of the year, and generally rubbing salt into their Christmas-induced wounds. It signalled the end of the feast season, and the start in earnest of the new year. The early Christian Church harnessed all the various pre-Christian shenanigans to religious festivals, in this case to the Feast of the Epiphany, when according to the Christian mythology, kings from afar brought gifts and knelt before the new-born Jesus. For that reason, it’s also known as the feast of the Kings, and for many centuries we ate King or Twelfth cake as part of what was really quite a small list of date-specific foods. Today, for example, we think of Christmas pudding and mince pies as specific to Christmas Day, but in the past, they were more ‘seasonal with a Christmas bent’ – eaten throughout the winter, not just on Christmas Day itself.

Anyway, back to Twelfth Cake. The concept goes back to the medieval period, when the cake would have been a yeast-risen rich fruit concoction. Each side concealed, respectively, a dried pea and a dried bean, with men and women taking slices from each side until a Twelfth Night King (He of the Bean) and Queen (she of the Pea) were revealed. They’d lead the dancing, or be forfeit, or whatever was customary at that gathering. By the 18th century, when the first printed recipes start to appear, the pea/bean selection process had been replaced by a set of cards with characters on. The various cake-eaters would select a card at random and play that character for the evening. The cake would be cut later. Surviving pictures often depict the cake, which could reach epic proportions, with one or two crowns on top. But that’s easy….They seem to have been a popular choice of baked goods not to cook in-house, and I suspect that they may have been one of the reliable best-sellers for pastry-cooks and confectioners at the time. One advert shows a Twelfth Cake decorated with figures, presumably those commonly depicted in the Twelfth Night cards, and probably made from sugarpaste pressed into moulds. But late Georgian Britain was a place of epicurean and sensory delight – why stop at people and crowns?

The Regency 12th Cake - complete with Prince of Wales feathers
The Regency 12th Cake – complete with Prince of Wales feathers

Here’s Hone again, as per the opening ditty: ‘In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates’. Tongue-in-cheek? Yes, but still, what joy!

The recipe for Twelfth Cake remained an old-fashioned one, well into the 19th century when yeast-risen cakes were on the decline. To be honest, I’ve never found much difference between a rich fruit cake with yeast in, and a rich fruit cake with well-whisked eggs in. The sheer amount of fruit just outweighs everything else. By the middle of the 19th century, both the recipe and, increasingly the concept, was starting to look a bit anachronistic. The combined forces of Dickens, publicity around the Royal Christmases (think: tree), and mid-19th century soul-searching was changing the nature of Christmas. It had already moved from an uproarious popular and religious festival, to something fashionable folks seemed a little ashamed of. Many aspects were outlawed during the interregnum, and there’s no doubt that when it re-emerged, blinking, into the light in the Restoration, it had lost something. Celebrated, yes, but often behind closed doors, by the end of the Georgian period Charles Lamb was lamenting Father Christmas’s ‘shrunken girth’, while declaring, with a ring more of hope than certainty, that he was still a ‘lusty fellow’. (Father Christmas was, at this time, a sort of Father Time figure, and not a jolly quasi-Cardinal with a habit of slipping down chimneys and furkling in people’s stockings).

The Twelfth Cake, therefore, was in danger. More than that, it was in mortal decline. Increasing emphasis on Christmas Day, and not Christmastide, meant that Twelfth Night celebrations seemed a little outmoded. People were back at work, now living a much more urbanised and less agrarian society than that in which Twelfth Cake had been born. The fruit cake itself remained popular, but was increasingly rebranded, stripped of its fun and potential for disruption, as a Christmas Cake. Bleuch.

So what remains today? The sixpence in the pudding – obviously derived from the pea/bean/token custom, only made its appearance after the final demise of the Twelfth Cake. Crowns in crackers, reminiscent of the paper crowns sometimes used to show who’d found the bean. It’s not a lot. Yes, we still have Christmas Cake, but it makes no sense when you really stop and think. Surveys suggest it’s not always liked. Too much, after all that Christmas food (because now we seem to cram 12 days of feasting into one). Pointless, when we have similar flavours in the pudding. Etc etc. And quite so.

I’d like to make a plea to bring back the Twelfth Cake. Start planting the seeds now. Get your friends and families used to the idea. Then – go for it. As garnish and outlandish as you can make it. Pea, bean, the whole works. Paper crowns, saved from Christmas.

We were all ILL, ok.
We were all ILL, ok.

As a spur, here’s my cake from this year – well into the spirit of garishness detailed above. And, just to show how far I go in the name of research, because I sought out and ate both of these (actually, more than one in the case of the first one), here are two modern variations on the theme, from France, where a version of Twelfth Cake still thrives. Both the galette des rois (puff pastry, almond and booze custard) and the gateau des rois (orange flower water flavoured mildly disappointing brioche) have ceramic tokens in. Both are available only in January (mainly). Both come with crowns. Both have their culinary origins in the early 19th century, based on the recipes, so they’re a positively modern twist on the theme. You can do it too.

Galette des rois
Galette des rois
Gateau des rois
Gateau des rois

Further reading
-*William Hone, The Everyday Book, London 1825 and later editions: full text at here
-Bridget Henisch (1984) Cakes and Characters
-JAR Pimlott (1978) The Englishman’s Christmas

-Recipe for modern galette des rois from Raymond Blanc (heavenly) here
-And another one, with lovely descriptions of the modern tradition from Trish Deseine here
-Food historian Ivan Day still uses original wooden moulds to make a suitably joyful Twelfth Cake every year, which you can see here along with a selection of recipes. (He also runs cookery courses including one on Christmas food – not running 2015 but back in 2016, he assures me).

While researching this entry, I kept coming up against what seems to be a fairly new and exciting food myth, which suggests Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Cake in 1870. Never a proper reference given. I’ve searched the statue books, and can find no trace of any such thing. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t some legislation which affected the demise of the cake, but I am somewhat cynical. Is this another case of The Simnel Cake Rubbish, or The Great Afternoon Tea Invention Myth? Or does anyone out there have firm evidence (i.e. and pretty much limited to, a copy of the act)? I might have to have a rant about food myths in a future post.

The Great French Bake Up

Le Meilleur Pâtissier is back on French TV. This is exciting news, for I didn’t notice the first series existed until I read (snorting with laughter) this blog review, and, as rumour has it this may be series 3, I may have missed series 2 as well. I’m determined to rectify this lack in my life by watching as many of the current series as is possible. I should point out that can’t record it, and French catch up TV may or may not exist and may or may not be functional in the UK. Anyway, for reasons which will become clear, there are limits.

I have a love-hate relationship with French cookery programmes (with French TV in general actually, but it’s good for my French, and I pay for the weekly TV listings magazine without which I’d never watch anything at all). I am a slave to the unintentionally hilarious Top Chef, and every week is made better by yelling at Masterchef. Masterchef goes on for about nine years each night that it’s on, and involves cooking for rugby teams, the army, up cliffs, down mines as well as copying as exactly as possible ever more complicated cheffy dishes, while weeping at the mere presence of the many-michelin starred chef who is judging them. After you’ve lost the will to live, and have been reduced to a dribbling wreck, they eventually eliminate a couple of lost souls, who give lengthy speeches about ‘the adventure’, ‘the journey’, ‘inspiration’ etc etc. In the first series, the judges were so rude that the contestants were frequently reduced to tears, and now they are so saccharine that you need a whisky just to cope with watching. Anyway, Meilleur Pât is another imported format, made French, and with it, compellingly and frustratingly random.

Meilleur Pât is, as the name does not entirely suggest, The Great British Bake Off, version Française. There are direct borrowings – the entire credit sequence, which has just been photoshopped so that the writing is all in French – the music, though there is a lot more of it, and the general idea of a faaaairly cosy programme, centred around people and their ovens. As with GBBO, there are 3 challenges, including a technical bake, and it’s filmed in a tent with a stately home as a nice backdrop.

Mary is now Mercotte, who to me is slightly less steely, but she’s absurdly terrifying for the contestants, who, being French, have a grandmother-food obsession based on the widely-held French myth of all top chefs having being taught everything they know in the kitchen by their grand-mere. You can get books devoted to cuisine des grands-mères. Mercotte takes that and then applies Fear. Paul Hollywood’s role, meanwhile, is filled by Cyril Lignac, who is ubiquitous on French TV, and also played Jamie Oliver in the remake of Jamie’s School Dinners a few years ago. He looks like Gary Oldman in the Fifth Element, and the only time I have come across the name Cyril used seriously before was at a game fair, featuring Cyril the squirrel and his amazing racing terriers (Jack Russells with knitted jockeys tied to their backs chasing a toy squirrel to the theme tune from Benny Hill and one of the funniest things I have ever seen). Needless to say, I can’t get over either of these facts, and I can’t take him seriously at all. Mel and Sue can’t really be recast, as they are unique, so the narrator/stooge/explainer role is taken on by Faustine Bollaert, who, like Mel and Sue, adds some much needed humour into proceedings. She eats less of the contestants’ ingredients and doesn’t do as many knob gags, which I’d say was a failing, but it’s a different type of humour. And she holds the whole thing together and makes it bearable, frankly.

So what’s different? Why ‘bearable’? Well, there’s format: the short contextualising films are gone now. They invite a guest judge on for the last round, who makes faces and glares a lot. Oh, and it lasts THREE HOURS. And then there is a behind the scenes programme which lasts another hour or five (I don’t know: I go to bed at that point). At times, each challenge feels like you are watching it in really real real time. Achingly real real time. About halfway through you feel yourself slide slowly off the sofa and you reach for a book. By the time they get round to actually sending someone home you’ve seriously lost the ability to care.

The other major, and culturally fascinating difference, is that all they cook is pastry. I mean, yes, the pâtisserie bit in the title would suggest an emphasis on sweet, dessert-style niblets with perhaps the occasional foray into cake – the things you’d expect to find in a pâtisserie – but you might also just maybe expect a bit of other baking, non? Absoluement non. Where the British has themes weeks – bread, pie, biscuits etc – the French version applies all that mind-numbing lengthiness to the same thing every week. No bread. No pie. No baked puddings. I keep hoping for a crumble, but although the French have now embraced (and changed for the worse) Le Crumble, nary a decent buttery crumb have I seen. Sometimes, the contestants are forced from their comfort zone of standard French classics, to do a regional or slightly outmoded technical challenge, or, worse still, something not French – the sachertorte was met with gasps of horror and staggering. I am alternatively warmed by the depth of their devotion to what is a massive range of pastry-based products, and appalled by the narrowness of their culinary aspiration.

I’m not exactly surprised by the structure though. It’s hard enough for the average French person to contemplate making pâtisserie at home, given how easy it is to buy exquisite goods locally in most towns. Making bread would be a step too far. Bread is utterly enshrined in the French culinary mentality – bread riots contributing to the Revolution, bread prices set by law, municipal bread ovens still extant in many villages across France. When fishing seasonally in Newfoundland, the Brits built themselves houses, and the French, bread ovens. Predominantly sourdough, vs the Brit yeasted doughs (it’s all about the prevalence of brewing and, later, internal communication networks), predominantly white vs the granary or seeded loaves of upmarket British bakeries, and always, always, professionally made by people steeped in general traditions of French baking, why o why, would you ever cook it at home?

A different rationale applies to savoury stuff. By its very nature, the pâtisserie that the contestants are cooking is that which is cooked in pâtisserie shops across the land. Their repertoire, comfortingly familiar to the tourist seeking their Mille Feuille hit wherever they go, was laid down following what amounts to invention of pâtisserie as we’d recognise it today by Cârème in the early 19th century. Pâtisserie is about fantasy, foodstuffs emerging from the ethereal sugarcraft sculptures of the late 18th century dessert table, and before that the Tudor banqueting course, with its edible sugarplate tableware, and exquisitely moulded marmalades and spiced fruits. What could be more fantastical, and less useful, than puff pastry layered with sweetened cream and custard? Or chocolate cream-filled miniature nuns? But, gosh, what delight they give. A sturdy game pie, stuffed with quinces and pigeon and made moist with mushrooms and suet, isn’t quite in the same league (though, on balance, I’d probably rather have the pie). So the contestants in the show make fantasy food which has no real use other than giving pleasure at the moment of eating. It’s all about instant gratification.

I suppose you can argue that the Brit version is mainly cake and frippery, and the very nature of TV is that it focuses on the instant: a common complaint about every cookery show on TV is that they privilege quick cooking methods over slow cooking because it’s more exciting for the viewer and allows challenges to be over in 30mn. But it does mean that Meilleur Pât, in all its lengthy glory, is essentially the same programme every week, which, after you’ve mused on cultural differences for a bit, is a tad tedious. And all that sugar just leaves me craving cheese and that most British of culinary icons, marmite. Seriously. Marmite. Yes.

The presenting trio in all their glory: Mel/Sue, Paul and Mary revisités, as it were.
The presenting trio in all their glory: Mel/Sue, Paul and Mary revisités, as it were.

The link to the official website is here: – next week the trailer suggests they are making meringue penises, so that should be mildly interesting.

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.