I LOVE EUROVISION

It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend. If you are not hanging up the bunting and getting in the booze, then you are missing out, in my view. Especially at the moment, watching all the mud-slinging of the Brexit/Bremain stuff, I sort of despair. I adore Eurovision. Always have. To me, it’s a chance to celebrate all the good things about Europe – cultural diversity, shared experiences, and, above all, a sense of massive fun. In the UK, we tend to look toward America for our foreign music, and I still remember the shock and mild horror when I realised that French radio played a lot of French music – and Spanish, and German, and whatever was popular in the European club scene at the time. Eventually I came to enjoy it, and I still listen to as much French music as I do English, I suspect. I shan’t rehearse all the reasons why Eurovision is BRILLIANT here, (though I shall direct you to this radio show with by the Swedish Ambassador, which is very good), but suffice to say that, while the top-rated songs are generally genuinely good (not always- I’m looking at YOU very bad Polish butter-makers in 2014 – terrible, terrible technique), it’s the mixture of great – average – dire and sheer WTF which makes the whole evening such a joy.

I am head down writing chapters of A Greedy Queen like a demon at the moment, so I shall make the rest of this post pithy. Here’re my favourite songs, and, as the point of this blog is to muse in a historically meaningful way, some suggestions of what to cook to celebrate them in a suitably ye olde way:

Austria: OK, I LIKE THIS SONG. How about Kaiser-Schmarn, from Countess Morphy’s Recipes of All Nations? It’s a pancake on LSD – 1/2lb of flour, 1/2 pint of cream, sugar, eggs, raisins, salt and butter. I ate a modern version last year while on the Great Austria Trip and it was immense. Countess Morphy is also immense, as she’s a fake Countess, and wrote what is, in my view, one of the best cookery books of the 20th century. In an amazing departure from every academic norm ever, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry, which has been edited by a crack team based around the Oxford Food Symposium, and therefore is one of only about ten accurate food history articles on the web.

France: Inevitably. I am the only person I know who liked Twin Twin’s Moustache. For France we can delve into the 18th century, as high end cooking was all French influenced at that stage. I’d like to offer up wine chocolate, published in John Nutt’s Cook’s Dictionary of 1726. The French drank a lot of chocolate, and this one has booze in, which you tend to need about halfway through the first song. Anyway, take a pint of sherry, or a pint and a half of red port, four ounces and a half of chocolate, six ounces of fine sugar, and half an ounce of white starch, or fine flour; mix, dissolve, and boil all these as before. But, if your chocolate be with sugar, take double the quantity of chocolate, and half the quantity of sugar; and so in all. I use rice flour as the starch and it’s divine.

Belgium: She’s a sort of foil-clad Kylie. Fun. Go for Brussels Biscuits, which were Princess Victoria’s favourite snack when she was recovering from illness in 1835. Essentially they are a rusk made of brioche dough. Additive. If you seriously want to try them, ping me a comment and I can send the recipe. It’s going in the book…..

Australia: good on the Australians for taking it seriously enough to send a really good song, and being undecided enough to only send her with only half a dress. We’ll plump for an 1880s Beeton recipe, which I suspect no-one ever cooked: parrot pie. It’s the same as pigeon pie (steak, egg, bird), so clearly adapted for a hypothetical Antipodean audience (or possibly just friends and family at home) based on existing recipes, and decorated in the same way with feet sticking out of the lid except….feathers. Love it. It’s as flamboyant and unreal as the whole contest.

parrot pie beeton 88
Can also be made with parakeets.

I should probably admit that my actual menu for my own evening with friends is not exactly this. It’s entirely modern, unusually for me, and rather random. I’ve got recipes representing the UK (Kay Plunkett-Hogg’s Xinjang Lamb), Sweden (Swedes are involved in about half of the entries, so it’s kind of broad – Bronte Aurell’s Cinnamon Buns), France (Pierre Hermé’s excruciatingly complicated macarons),and Israel except also France (taboulé, which I learnt to cook in Paris). I have Austrian, Spanish and French wines though…and German, British and Belgian beers.

Music should be enjoyable, right? (NOT YOU, GEORGIA), and so should food. A winning combination. Here’s to Eurovision, 2016!

 

 

In praise of the pudding

Puddings have been in the news a bit recently. Apparently there’s a puddings only restaurant opening somewhere in London, and it’s hitting the zeitgeist. I was quite excited by this idea, and then I read this article, which gives more details, and shows that there is one fundamental problem. The restaurant only serves sweet dishes. What? What is this infantile bollocks, quoth I, enraged. This is not pudding!

Puddings are not sweets, or desserts. Desserts – in the modern world – can be puddings, as can sweets, but they can also be not-puddings. They can be cakes, or tarts, or patisserie, or ice cream, or jellies, or blancmanges, or trifles. Puddings are puddings, and, although I fear I might be a rather lonely voice in the wilderness, I think when we conflate the word pudding with sweet stuff after dinner, we lose something very vital in doing so. Puddings, you see, can be sort-of-tarts, and they can be a-bit-like-cake, and you can certainly get some stunning iced puddings which head down the ice cream route – oh and blancmanges started life as kind-of-puddings…but puddings are so, so much more. Most importantly, they don’t have to be sweet. Indeed, my favourite puddings aren’t sweet at all. Sausage roly poly pudding, steak and kidney pudding, chicken and ham pudding… I mean, treacle pudding and that 1890s chocolate pudding I really like are all very well, but nothing – really, nothing – can truly beat a good suet crust (especially when baked, in my view: all that crispy exterior and gooey interior and sense of wellbeing).

So what is a pudding? Well, it’s hard to define, it’s anything you want it to be, really. Puddings probably started life as sort-of-sausages, and the word may or may not be related to the French boudin. Haggis is pudding (sheep’s pluck pudding, an early modern favourite was cooked all over the place, and not just in Scotland where it would find its eventual apogee). Black pudding is pudding, as is white pudding (sometimes savoury, sometimes custard-based and sweet). Batter pudding, originally cooked under the roast on a spit, and, like haggis, eventually associated only with one region (Yorkshire), is pudding. Plum pudding, once eaten with the roast and now a sad reminder of more broad-minded attitudes to food in the past; that’s a pudding. And so is sticky toffee pudding, and sponge cake pudding, and toad-in-the-hole and pigeon-in-the-hole), and Eve’s pudding, and bread and butter pudding (try adding marmalade; oh my word), and dumplings, and rice pudding. Man alive! I hear you cry! What is a pudding? For me, it’s a feeling. And it’s very, very British. (The French, the leaders of cuisine from the 18th century onwards, don’t have a word for pudding. It’s le poudding – a bit like le five o clock, for afternoon tea).

Anyway, definitions are for the faint-hearted. I was recently asked to write the foreword for a brilliant book on puddings, by the photographer, writer, cook and blogger Regula Ysewijn (@missfoodwise on Twitter). It’s an absolutely gorgeous book – I hadn’t realised how fabulous it would be, old master-style photography and all, when I penned my minor contribution. If you are into puddings, it’s definitely worth a look. Regula’s book explains puddings from the point of view of a self-confessed Anglophile (she’s Belgian), and, to me, this outsider’s view of a British culinary staple brings a real richness to the text. We don’t celebrate our food heritage enough, still, in this country. Puddings are a joke: we have ‘pudding stomachs’ (we don’t. Stop it. Grow up), and people are ‘pudding-shaped’. What a shame. Puddings are fab. We should celebrate them, and love them, and treat them like as the endless source of delicious delight that they are.

In typically perverse form, having salivated all over my advance copy of Regula’s tome, I went away and cooked one of my own favourite puddings. It’s not in a published book, but in a handwritten manuscript from Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. It belonged to Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1723-1797), so the recipe probably dates to the mid-18th century. It took me a while to work it out, and there’s no doubt that the result could be called a lemon tart as much as pudding, but it was a pudding to Jemima, so it’s pudding to me.

This is the original recipe:

2016-03-28 13.22.15
Stunningly readable handwriting. Georgians win vs Victorians on that score nearly every time.

Take 2 lemmons, scrape ye inside clean out, boyle ye rinds til they be tender. When they are cold, beat the, to a pulp with 3/4lb of butter, then mix up with 10 yolks of eggs and 3/4lb loaf sugar, finely powdered. Beat them together half an hour. Butter the dish and paste it to set it in ye oven. Half an hour will bake it. You may make orange pudding the same way.

If you want to cook it, it’s both ridiculously easy and fiendishly difficult. For the lemons I use lemons I’ve previously juiced – and I sometimes use 3 if they are the very small ones you get in modern supermarkets. Also, eggs were smaller then, so use pullets’ or bantams’ eggs, or halve the amount stated here. The full amount of mixture will easily fill two standard sized flan tins, so scale accordingly. And yes, a food processor works just fine for the beating part.

 

Proper pastry. A faff, but its worth it.

 

Sparkle 100%
Eggs, eggs, eggs…

Through trial and error, I have worked out a method which works for me. You may well choose to do it differently, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I do. I make exceedingly excellent pastry (hand cut in the butter, full-on pâté brisée, all the care and attention in the world), as it deserves it (normally I use a food processor and it’s fine, but not exceedingly excellent); and I blind bake it for about forever. I also make a lid separately and bake that as well. (You can buy a cunning lattice lid cutter if you make it, or other cut-lid tarts, regularly. Or you can leave the lid off.) Once I’ve glooped the mixture into the pastry case, I cook it very slowly – 160 degrees for about 30-40mn until just cooked through. Any faster or hotter and it will crack and separate (mine invariably does this, except this once, but it’s is still bloody lovely, to be honest). It rises, soufflé-like, so I tend to stand a tray under it. Once done, I plonk the lid on immediately, so it fuses to it as it settles.

 

The final article

Warning: it is very lemony, especially when served chilled, or it should be. As my grandmother used to say, it’ll draw your arse up to your elbows, and that’s the point. There is no room for lemon with meringue in my world.

 

Lovely, lovely basil

About 5 years ago, M and I visited Lyon, the self-proclaimed gastronomic capital of France (along with a few other places). Altogether a grand place to sally around for a few days, for me one of the highlights was a restaurant which advertised that it specialised in la cuisine de nos ancêtres. Clearly, this was like a flame to my moth, so we booked – and in booking ended up in a conversation with the chef-patron, who was a medievalist (and I get going around 1650). Long ish story, brilliant outcome – when we rocked up a couple of evenings later, he’d done me my own menu, going as late as he felt happy with in terms of his experience of historic cookery. This wasn’t just ‘inspired by’ either – although the place offered a modern (well, standard French) menu, most of it was cooked on chafing stoves and over a wood fire, or spit-roasted. Pant-wettingly exciting to a food historian, anyway.

The point of that preamble is that as part of this rather unique meal (I can find no trace of the restaurant online now, and fear it has since disappeared, along with its scholarly and brilliant chef that night), included as an apéro, basil wine.

Basil wine may sound a bit odd. It probably is a bit odd, if you only ever drink kir or beer before a meal. But it was absolutely divine. I love basil anyway, and this was slightly honeyed (not too much – honey, ik), palette-cleansing and appetite whetting all at once. I drank, I loved, I asked where you could get it….and of course he’d made his own.

Cue about three years of obsessing. Eventually, perusing Maria Rundell, I found a recipe for clary wine. And this is where I and books diverge. Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as historic cookery, there’s just cookery. And there should be no surprise that some old recipes taste good, because some new recipes taste good. And some, old and new, don’t. And tastes change. And, a crucial point for the study of cookery in the past, recipe books don’t tell us everything. If I were to pick a load of recipes books off your shelf, would I truly get a picture of how you eat? Even if you’ve annotated the recipes you’ve done (and many people don’t), I’d never pick up all the recipes you cook and which aren’t in those books – the instinctive ones, the ones you don’t need to look up, and the ones which have moved so far from how they were originally written that no one would guess how they started. Recipe books are great! But they can only ever be a starting point and a way of generalising about experience, past and present. A recipe is a snapshot – kind of realistic, but always filtered through the viewer’s personal experience, by which I mean, in this instance, likes, dislikes, what’s in the cupboard…. There is quite simply no guarantee anyone, ever, actually cooked any recipe written in any cookery book unless you have cast iron proof to the contrary. And then they may have changed it next time they cooked it.

All that is simply justification for my total bastardisation of Rundell’s recipe in the name of wanting basil wine. Mainly, purists will doubtless point out, that fact that pretty much all herbal wines use flowers, not leaves. Yeah, well, I had leaves, ok. And I had to scale it down. A lot. So, Annie’s mash up of what is probably a very nice recipe is as follows:

4pt water – 1.5lb sugar – 2fl oz yeast – 12fl oz  basil leaves. Later – 4fl oz brandy. I take a pint to be the old pint, I.e. 16fl oz, and yes, that is a liquid measurement for dry leaves. Don’t pack them in too tightly. And yes, I use about a third of a tsp, maybe half as I’m a bit crap at measuring, of powdered yeast, with a little lukewarm water.

All you do is simmer the water and sugar together to make a weak syrup and leave to cool completely. Stick this in a demi-john and add the yeast and basil leaves, no need to tear or chop. Put one of those plastic corks with a thing with water in it on top to keep out nasties and allow bubbles to escape as it ferments (I’m sure there’s a technical term). Leave for a bit – I did 2 weeks the first time, two months the second and I can’t remember the last batch. Eventually it will stop bubbling. Strain the liquid off into a big bowl/bucket and discard the basil (see – if you’d’ve chopped it, it would be a total arse to get out of your demi-john now). Add the brandy. Bottle – kilner style bottles are safest as two of my batches underwent secondary fermentation and became basil champagne. Leave for 4 months.

I have no idea how alcoholic it is, but I get fairly happy after two glasses…..

Here, for reference, is the original.

Maria Rundell, 1818 edition