Sunday, 30 January 2011

By the book isn't enough

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a comment from Nigel Slater about the British being a nation of recipe book cooks, as opposed to passionate cooks.

Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with recipes (and recipe books!), but the latest episode of macaron madness in this household illustrated just why recipes are not the be all and end all of cooking.

I think that I’m a little on the geeky side when it comes to cooking – some might say that that would be an apt description of other parts of my life too – but I have the sort of a mind that is fascinated to discover some really rather ‘scientific’ things about food.

For instance, I’m currently reading A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc, a book that deftly mixes autobiography with food science, food philosophy and recipes.

Last night, I was amazed to read Blanc’s comments on making a classic French onion soup. He regards white onions as the best for the job, having done extensive tests. Not only are they sweeter sweeter, but white onions also contain less sulpher than other onions, and it’s the sulpher that makes you cry.

That’s seriously good information to have – for more than one reason.

And after reading something else in the same book, I was very near to trying an experiment today: taking two pans with the same amount of water in and gently heating them both. One would contain a torn bay leaf, the other an un-torn one.

Blanc’s idea is that it answers the question of whether or not to tear/cut the leaf: taste after five minutes and you’ll apparently see a difference. Taste again after another five minutes and the difference will have become more pronounced. The water containing the torn one in will taste increasingly bitter and unpleasant.

Even if I never actually get around to doing the experiment myself, it gives an understanding of why you don't tear the leaf.

Likewise with onions: Blanc suggests taking the time to smell and taste different onions; to look at the way they’re structured when you cut them differently.

In other words, to learn about what you cook and not just how to execute what a recipe tells you.

In years long gone by, I did a lot of acting. On one occasion, a particularly poor director wanted me to move across the stage at a certain point, simply for the look of it. I could never remember the move. A fellow actor (who had had professional theatre experience) suggested a motive for the move – something as simple as my having spotted an envelope on the mantelpiece and crossing the 'room' to see what it was. Once this bit of business gave the move some reason, some logic, I never forgot it again.

Now I’m beginning to see something similar happening in the kitchen. I want to know how and why something happens so that I can understand not just why things work, but when they don’t, why they don’t.

Following a particular macaron recipe this morning, I started preparing the “ganache” for the filling. I heated pineapple juice and a little lime juice (both carefully measured), then let it stand, infusing with some black pepper.

After that had cooled, the recipe has you beat together caster sugar and the egg yolks that you have left from the macaron mix itself, then add cornflour and cooking “over a low heat” for the listed time of five to seven minutes. Then it was decanted into a jug to cool. When that had cooled, it was popped into the fridge.

Some time later, it was clear that it wasn’t setting or even thickening. A slight ‘eureka’ moment occurred as I realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making a ganache – I was supposed to be making something like a crème patisserie.

Look at the ingredients: egg yolks and cornflour and liquid – this is a custard. And a custard, dammit, needs to be cooked over more than “a low heat” to bring it to a thickening point.

Once that realisation had occurred, then it also became clear what that irritatingly unquantified and unquantifiable “low heat” really means.

The use of the word ‘ganache’ in the recipe is utterly misleading and unhelpful. Indeed, according to Larousse Gastonomique – which is as good a bible as I can think of to refer to – a ganache is " a flavoured cream made with chocolate and fresh cream, sometimes with butter added". In other words, exactly what I understood it to be.

It was only because I’ve cooked a few custards that it finally dawned. And the use of “a low heat” is itself deceptive, since it’s really quite unscientific. I’d cooked it “over a low heat” for the specified time – but it wasn’t enough.

As it also happens, remembering Blanc’s constant call, I had tasted it – but then my distrust of my own instincts and knowledge had seen me continue to take the recipe at its word. Only once I'd realised what was (or wasn't) happening, did it explain to me why it was a tad grainy: the sugar had not melted properly.

Language is important – and technical language is very important.

The mixture went back into a clean pan and back on a hob.

Then, unfortunately, I forgot what I know – and left it while other tasks absorbed me. By the time this dawned, there was a burnt crust forming on the bottom – not much, but enough to wreck the filling altogether.

So it was back to square one – and just as I’d come so much closer to really getting the macaron cases so much closer to what I’ve bought in the shops. Argh!

Now in all fairness, in the case of this particular book, it might be a problem with the translation – French to an English for all English-language market (thus 'superfine sugar' for caster sugar, and 'confectioner's sugar' for icing sugar).

Or is it just me not reading recipes properly, with any depth of understanding – and simply bemoaning everything being written as though I really require a volume entitled Cooking for Dummies?

Still, once I understood what was required, something could be done.

Fruit juice heated and infused with pepper (crushed this time too, since it gives off more aroma and scent that way). More egg yolks and sugar beaten together, before cornflour and the juice are added. Then the lot was decanted into a pan and heated: slowly, to be sure, but enough to melt the sugar properly and to thicken it.

It’s now sitting in the fridge, slowly chilling and getting thicker and thicker. It might actually reach a point where it’s possible to sandwich it between the shell halves that are a considerable improvement on last time (they're incredibly fragile, but light as air and with the proper 'crust').

But whether or not it’s me or the book or a combination thereof, perhaps what Slater was meaning was that when we’re concentrating on a specific recipe, we forget to think for ourselves and expect the recipe to do all the work.

And yes – when you do that, there’s also little space for ‘passion’ in your kitchen.

Boy. I have some catching up to do. Blanc has no formal training – but he clearly learnt so much from his mother, who had learnt so much from her mother before her. And to read of Maman Blanc is to feel such admiration – and yes, envy.

Levels of understanding that I can but aspire to. What I'm doing now – what I'm thinking now – is part of that attempt to catch up.

Blanc's descriptions of the culinary desert that he came face to face with when he came to the UK at 22 to be a waiter are staggering. On many fronts, we have got better.

But in a perhaps perverse way, it is also heartening to know that that is my context: that my ignorance and the position I start from is far from unique.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Scottish odyssey comes to a close


The name of Stravaigin, which has sat on Gibson Road at the heart of Kelvin
bridge since 1994, means ‘to wander’ and its ethos of “think global, eat local” seems to match perfectly.

The influences on its food may be wide, but it aims to be as local as possible when it comes to sourcing produce. And the menu is evidence of just what variety that can mean.

It was the final stop on my whistle-stop tour of Scottish gastronomy and a unique experience it turned out to be.

Arriving in good time, I was shown into the basement dining room. There were just two other diners, as I sat in a snug, warm corner and dived into the menu.

I’d hoped to find scallops and black pudding – as suggested by the online version of the menu – but they’d apparently been struggling to get any of quality and this was off the menu.

So instead, I finally did something that I’ve been tempted to do before in restaurants, but always backed out of, as though it would look ‘bad’: I choose two starters.

In fact, it allowed me to try more soup. This time, chef’s special of “Ramsey’s smoked ham hough and split pea soup”. Ramsey’s are “butchers of distinction since 1857” from Carluke.

Surprisingly, there was a real lightness to the dish, with pea shoots lending a freshness to the pea base and garlic croutons that were as light as air. The ham flaked beautifully and the whole thing had no saltiness about it, but a very pleasing pepperiness.

And on the side there was a bowl of lovely moist, chunky cumin humous, with bread that's made by Andy Wilson of differentbreid.

Roast parsnip and Lanark blue cheese fritters, with a thyme aioli and dressed leaves, followed. A nice combination that was surprisingly filling.

By this time, the other two diners had finished and left. The entire dining room was my domain and mine alone. And in between courses, I chatted with waitress Eleanor, who shared my foodie enthusiasm and was delighted to provide unexpected company – something she’d rarely have the chance to do because they’re usually a great deal busier.

My final course was a “Belgian chocolate cushion” – that’s a light sponge, heavy only in the glorious bitter richness of the chocolate, to you and me – which came with milk and honey ice cream and pistachio sabayon. Very nice it was too: the intensity of the sabayon was astonishing.

And then it was back top the hotel and packing for my return.

But what impressions did I bring away with me from this little odyssey?

Scottish produce was as good as I’d hoped to find. And I’d include the black pudding and haggis I brought home, plus the steak pie I ate while standing in the chill air on Crow Road. I won’t include the food I ate at the hotel.

Most memorable single course was, I think, the Marrbury smoked salmon at Rogano. It epitomised the whole philosophy of excellent produce and it also arrived at exactly the right moment for me, after reading those comments from Raymond Blanc on tasting.

The best meal was, without doubt, Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery. Fish and game of a really superior quality – and super prices making it incredible value.

I don’t think I’ll forget that woodpigeon for some considerable time.

The cullen skink at Rab Ha’s was great too – I’m going to try to reproduce that before very long – as was the pea and ham soup at Stravaigin.

So on the basis of what I experienced, Scottish food is in rude health. And the belief in the quality of ingredients and the simplicity of preparation is at the heart of it – and thank goodness for that!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Onto a winner

Right. So here we are, properly back in the merry old land of Hackney and with a day to myself – so just what foodiness can be managed?

Broadway Market beckoned: I miss shopping there when I'm away for a weekend (well, unless I'm food shopping in France, of course), but I had the germs of a few ideas swimming around in my head and, even without taxing the culinary imagination at all, we needed fodder for this evening.

I'd got hold of some rhubarb yesterday and was wondering whether to try some mackerel with it – a nice combination. But I had other ideas too, largely influenced by the presence in the fridge of a large piece of black pudding.

Once in the fish shop, I faced choices. After mulling, I got half a dozen scallops and a mackerel, which I had filleted.

Back at home, I discovered that I'd missed a delivery. I wasn't expecting anything, so this was a bit of a mystery. Next door had taken the parcel in, so I popped around and collected it. It was a large, heavy rectangular box, covered in grey plastic. The mystery deepened.

Snipping the plastic open revealed a bright orange box – containing a Le Creuset roasting dish and rack. Memory surged back – this was the result of a prize draw that I come across on a bag of potatoes from Waitrose last year. I'd entered my contact details and a number that came on the bag, and submitted it. As simple as that. Since entries were not limited, I'd done it twice more when I'd had more bags of potatoes with the same promotion attached.

I am incredibly chuffed. A first-class bit of kitchen kit for free – and a thing of beauty too.

Although I'd forgotten about them since, the entries had been made with a reasonable confidence. Many years ago – well, 1988, to be precise – my parents and I had stopped off at a motorway service station for a break during a journey. The cafe was promoting a 'Best of British' prize draw – a draw that was taking place all around the country.

Since there was no limit on how many cards you could fill in, I did six and my mother did three. My father scoffed, said it was a waste of time and refused to play along.

Nicely and proportionately, my mother's three entries bagged her a set of Kenwood kitchen implements. My six produced a top-notch CD player and a canteen of cutlery. My father's zero entries produced, needless to say, nothing.

It was pretty clear that, unless we had been staggeringly lucky, few people had entered – presumably entertaining the same thoughts as my father.

Many people, buying those Waitrose potatoes, won't even have noticed the promotion. Others will, and will have thought it a waste of time. Others will have forgotten to do anything about it. And so forth.

So the moral of the story is never think it's a waste of time to enter free prize draws.

And now I have to think what to roast in it first.

But back to today.

For lunch, I grilled the mackerel fillets and served them with some borlotti beans, sliced courgette and red chili that I'd cooked in a little oil. Really easy and really tasty – and very healthy.

Tonight was hardly much more complex. I cooked and mashed some potatoes in late afternoon, adding butter and cream before letting it cool. Thinly sliced savoy cabbage was cooked briefly too, then drained and mixed into the potato. Here's the basis of that classic Irish dish, colcannon.

All you need to do after that is finely chop some onion or shallot and cook gently in butter (or lard or even goose fat), before adding the potato and cabbage, mixing it all together to warming thoroughly. Easy.

Then take some slices of black pudding and warm through. Sear the scallops for around two minutes a side maximum

There was a little pot of French onion confit that's been waiting to be opened for some months. It was the perfect accompaniment. And I went a bit posy and garnished with redcurrants because I'd spotted them at a local Turkish grocer – and because The Other Half likes them.

For dessert, it was a case of the Sarah Raven rhubarb syllabub again, although with slight tweaks: the rhubarb mix was infused with ginger instead of star anise and cardamom, while the sugar and cream were whisked up with a tiny tot of whisky.

That was it. Really not difficult.

It's funny to think what I now find as 'easy' on the food front. Certainly, what I've done today doesn't require any great skills. The recipe I took a cue from for the black pudding and scallops was a Waitrose one – and suggested using pre-made colcannon for the dish. So, a 450g packet of pre-made colcannon, costing £1.99.

Now the ingredients don't include anything that shouldn't be there – potato (67%), savoy cabbage (21%), onion, unsalted butter, white pepper – but it's hardly a rocket science dish to make and, when you do, it costs less. 225g would be a small portion. My version wasn't huge, but it was bigger – it included cream and it was still cheaper. The big con again, I'm afraid.

Elsewhere on the food front, I finally got around to calling the lady at Piccolino for a chat. She was actually off work, so will call me back on Monday when she has my comments in front of her. Wow. They're taking this seriously.

And then it was a case of organising a restaurant for Monday evening for The Other Half's birthday. In a display of no originality whatsoever, I've booked Bistrot Bruno Loubet again. There's a danger of going back to somewhere really quickly after you've been massively impressed – but somehow I just cannot see that happening in this instance.

So in other words, it was a bit of a win, win day on the old food front.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Raise a glass to the haggis

I might be back in the Metropolis, but that's no excuse to let go of all things Scottish just yet.

It's just gone six and I'm back in my own kitchen and there's a haggis simmering gently on the stove.

Later, I'll chop and then boil both some potatoes and swede, which will then be mashed and buttered, with the latter getting plenty of ground black pepper too for good measure.

I just might add a touch of whisky to the haggis itself once I've cut into it.

After all, this is Burns Night.

On Monday, with time to spare after my work was done, I caught a bus to Crow Road and walked up until I found 334 – Christie butchers, an address given to me by the concierge at the hotel. I don't know, to be frank, whether he often gets asked where a guest can get hold of good haggis and black pudding, but he came up trumps.

It's a proper, old-fashioned butcher, with an amazing range of meat – much of which comes from their own Duntiglennan farm. That was exactly what I'd been hoping to find.

I bought my haggis (look at the picture to see just how un-factory produced it is), together with a third of a huge black pudding they made themselves too. Meat products of something a little under a kilo in weight came to a grand total of £5.13.

As we finished the transaction, the butcher nipped into the back and brought out a freshly cooked tomato sausage, cut into three, for the other two customers in the shop, and myself, to try. If I hadn't been having to store my purchases overnight in a minibar, I'd have bought some – it was delicious and moist.

It had been a funny old start to the day that, for various reasons, had left me feeling frustrated and a tad grouchy. My successful trek for haggis brightened me up no end.

Then there was the question of lunch. A few yards further back along Crow Road I spotted an old-fashioned bakers called Bradford's – one of a small chain that was established in 1923. In the window, alongside cakes and buns, were Aberdeen Angus and Scotch steak pies.

Remembering a conversation from Sunday's lunch, when one of my friends had assured me that any pub in the area does steak pies – and does them well – I mused over whether there was such a pub nearby. And then it struck me that the baker itself might sell me one, warmed up.

Inside, it turned out (rather obviously, on thinking about it) that they had a cabinet with cooked ones ready and waiting.

The woman asked me whether I wanted an Aberdeen Angus one. I asked what she recommended. She said that, personally, she preferred the other (slightly) cheaper one, as she found it more moist. I had one of those and stood outside at the bus stop, in the chilly wind, munching a pie of minced steak, oozing tasty fat and surrounded by a peppery, thin, crispy pastry. It was a moment of perfection – and my grin just got wider.

On the bus back into the city centre, two very helpful ladies guided me as to when to get off. They happened to be sitting on the same seat but had never met. Within moments of my asking if they could kindly let me know when we reached Charing Cross, where the driver had suggested when I was paying my fare, they were exchanging memories and informing me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing to see there ("40 years ago there was plenty there, my husband tells me – I wasn't brought up round here so I don't know – but not since a motorway was built through it") and that they'd tell me when was best.

Bearing in mind the benefits of local knowledge, I did as I was told. When I got off at the appointed stop, I began an amble down a slight hill into the main shopping area.

Pausing to light up, I noticed a rather different building. It seemed to be a jeweler's shop. But on closer inspection, it became clear that inside and upstairs was the Willow Tea Room, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I glanced at the menu and dived in.

Sometimes it really does pay to listen.

On the first and second floors are two tea rooms. I sat in the lower one – and ordered a pot or tea ordinaire and a scone, with butter, strawberry jam and cream.

It is a very, very long time since I've been in a traditional tea room – a vague memory drifts past of going to an Olde Worlde tea room somewhere in either Cornwall or Devon with my parents on a family holiday: possibly the latter for a Devon cream tea. The waitresses were all elderly and with permed hair to go with their starched aprons and little caps.

But this was extra special, with Mackintosh-style furniture and decoration everywhere. Although it seemed a tad strange to be there after first really encountering the Mackintosh trail in Port Vendres in the south of France, of all places.

The scone was warm and light and beautifully crumbly. The portions of butter and jam and cream were generous. The tea was exactly what I needed.

There was no music. It was delightfully quiet, apart from the noises in the tiny kitchen and the gentle buzz of conversation from the few other customers who were in at that time of the afternoon. There was a hint of Paisley and brogues and blue rinses.

The butter melted on the scone and I piled jam and cream on top in gluttonous abandon. The grin was getting wider still. Food – it really is therapy.

And now the haggis is nearly ready. I know there's a great debate about what a 'neep' is – or more to the point, what some people call a turnip, others call a swede. It's a difference between Scotland and England – but also between parts of England.

So, here's a glass to the haggis – and it seems entirely apt to conclude with a few lines from Rabbie Burns himself.

"For a' that an' a' that

It's coming yet for a' that

That man to man, the world o'er

Shall brithers be for a' that"

From Is There Honest Poverty by Robert Burns

Monday, 24 January 2011

It's a gateway to heaven at Two Fat Ladies

Two Fat Ladies at The Buttery has nothing to do with the Two Fat Ladies of TV fame. It’s named for the bingo call of the street number – 88 – that was where the first of four ‘Two Fats’ (as it is commonly known in Glasgow) opened, 21 years ago.

So it's nowhere near as old as Rogano, where I'd eaten two days earlier, but quite long enough in the tooth to have established itself firmly on the city’s eating scene.

It was, however, one of my non-recommended picks, found via a spot of Googling for the best Scottish fodder in the city. It’s renowned, apparently, for its fish.

Sunday lunch saw the culmination of my initial duties in Glasgow and I’d arranged to meet with friends straight after. We traveled first to the main – well, oldest anyway – campus of Glasgow University, for a quiet amble (with cameras) amid the fabulous Gothic buildings. The university was founded in the 1400s and the present site was started in the following century.

It might have made one think of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue and Harry Potter, but it’s also a reminder of just what a centre of learning Scotland has been and remains today.

The day was grayish and far from warm, but it was a joy to have the cobwebs blown away in good company.

And so to lunch.

We were each handed a set menu and the à la carte one. All three of us spent an age choosing – there was nothing you wouldn’t have fancied trying. In the end, in an act of astonishing culinary solidarity and great-minds-thinking-alike, we all picked the same starter and main course from the set menu.

First up – pan-fried fillet of sea bream on creamed leeks with fennel oil. As one of my fellow diners put it: what a joy to find a chef who’s cooking with butter!

This was so, SO good that I ate the skin; crisp and seasoned with flakes of salt. The flesh was perfect – soft yet firm, moist and brim full of taste. The sauce was creamy and rich but still light.

Our joint choice for a main course was roast woodland pigeon served on shredded cabbage with a redcurrant jus.

Where do I start? Well, the wonderful meat was gloriously pink in the middle; so tender, so full of flavour. Parfait! as the French might say.

Red cabbage is far from my favourite, but this was wonderful: still with bite, but also soft and sweet. The jus added the necessary sharpness. It was all perfectly balanced. And there were delightfully roasted potatoes, courgettes and carrots on the side.

We went our separate ways for dessert. I chose a golden syrup tart with whisky ice cream. Oh dear. They were out of the whisky ice cream. I had to make do with honeycomb ice cream instead. The sacrifice!

I’ve read that most restaurants – most chefs – have a weaker point within their repertoire. It might be dessert – but it might be their fish. Their pastry might be stunning, but their vegetables let them down a tad.

Well, none of us could find a weakness in this meal. It was all simply wonderful. And the service was excellent too: friendly and relaxed, yet attentive when it needed to be.

Wine was available by the glass, in three sizes, and there was a decent list to choose from.

And as a bonus for me, the portions were a perfect size – I almost licked every plate clean!

I did say "almost".

So for one of Glasgow’s top eateries, what about the price?

Well anyone who has been paying attention knows I’m beginning to obsess about how people are conned into thinking they cannot eat really, really well, because they’d need a second mortgage to do so.

But those three courses were a whopping £18.50 per head. Or rather, a not-so-whopping £18.50.

The more I think about that price, the more I realise what an absolute bargain Two Fat Ladies at The Buttery is.

Later, spending a quiet evening back at the hotel, I went outside for a fag break and got talking to a young woman who was up for a trade show at the next-door exhibition centre. She’d just been to exactly the same restaurant – and was raving too.

My friends had been thinking that such a place would normally be out of their own remit. By the end of the meal, knowing the price, they were planning a return.

What more needs to be said? Superb Scottish food, superbly cooked and presented, with service to match. This is what good eating is about – and it will be some considerable time before I forget this fabulous meal.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

You take the high road ...

Glasgow: extremely cold and, by and large, either very cloudy or just downright foggy. Although somehow, ‘A foggy day, in Glasgow town’ ... doesn’t carry quite as much charm when one is standing outside a hotel/conference centre right next to the river, gasping at a fag and freezing one’s metaphoricals off. But then again, Gershwin never wrote about it and the lady Ella never sang about it.

But outside of the business that brought me here, there has been plenty to experience – and much to make my foodie heart sing.

It all began at Heathrow on Friday morning - I had to leave home at 5.30am, for goodness sake! - with a still-early breakfast after I’d got through security.

I went to Hawley’s and ordered eggs Benedict. Eggs okay, muffin so-so (sodden with sauce), ham not bad, but hollandaise most definitely not the best I’ve had. Well, I could taste the vinegar, that was for sure.

Having said that, looking at the breakfast that they then offered us in flight (I didn’t need anything other than tea, thankfully), I’d made the best choice. Not the complimentary one, but the best one.

When we arrived, Glasgow was bathed in a brittle sunshine, with a thick frost everywhere reminding you that yes, it is still winter.

My cab driver from the airport made cursory conversation to start with and then settled into an odd silence that was punctuated at apparently random points with: “Aye” and “aye” and even “aye”, for good measure.

Despite the varied intonation, I remain clueless as to the meaning or purpose – although I was later informed that that is the default sound made at regular intervals by any Glasgwegian husband.

Arriving at the hotel with a little time to spare before my work started, I needed lunch and, since there’s nothing near enough to use as an easy alternative, it was a case of selecting something from the bar menu in the hotel, with that old staple of scampi and chips winning out.

The scampi was reformed but at least hot and freshly cooked; the chips were equally okay (but not handcut). And it was all hotel expensive. In other words, with a diet Coke, over £11.

Things absolutely had to get better.

After an afternoon’s work, I tidied up, ordered a cab and sat down to wait with a pre-meal G&T.

Rogano, an Art Deco restaurant that first opened its doors in 1935, while the Queen Mary was being built on the Clyde, was calling.

On the flight up, I had started reading A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc. I already sense that it might become a personal bible.

One of the things that had already struck me, by the time I left for Rogano, was Blanc’s initial thoughts on taste. No, not the: ‘I’ve got good taste and you haven’t’ sort of snobbishness, but the whole idea of taking the time to think and really experience what we eat: to taste.

One of the joys about eating on your own is that that is easier to do. Although I realised quite early on at Rogano that I still have a tendency to rush my food rather than relish it when alone. I made a deliberate effort to deal with that.

I had already ordered when they planted in front of me a complimentary espresso cup of scallop bisque with chives.

Now that was a bit special – a heady, intense taste of scallop (from the corals, presumably, given the rich colour).

And then came my ‘real’ starter, a plate of Marrbury smoked salmon. I had enquired for more detail. A charming young waiter went off and got it for me: this was salmon from Dumfries, oak smoked, with juniper and whisky.

And what did it taste like? Well, I shut my eyes and tasted. And worked at taking my time. And worked at thinking and letting the food work its magic on me. And the taste was incredible.

There was the wonderfully subtle smokiness first – and then slowly I found myself getting the whisky. This was an extraordinarily long taste. And there was the oiliness of the fish, contrasted with the sharpness of the lemon (presented as a half of a fruit, wrapped in muslin and tied with a bow, which meant you could squeeze all you liked, but it wasn’t going to spit pips onto your fish. And it looked lovely too). A sense of the muscularity of the fish – having been farmed in an environment where tides were at play.

This was a very special experience – like seeing in technicolour or 3D for the first time: dizzying, almost. Magnificent produce, superbly prepared and then combined with a sense of really learning; of progressing.

I had, however, made the mistake of ordering the fish of the day for my main, a fresh water trout with vermouth butter. The sauce was wonderful, but the fish seemed a little dry and flavourless. It suffered, I think, by comparison with the salmon – a fight it was never going to win.

There were only quite heavy desserts on the menu, so I asked if they’d got ice cream. They had. It was hardly spectacular, but it would be churlish to whinge. They were gracious enough to find what I needed at that exact juncture.

The setting was wonderful. The service was its equal: young staff, almost all from Scotland; attentive and helpful and friendly. And I was allowed to create a little bubble around myself to relish the food.

It’s not cheap – but then the main issue on this score is the wine. It's a fine list, but little that I could see by the glass. I had a small bottle of 2008 Gewurztraminer from Gustave Lorentz in Alsace and it was very nice indeed, but it did the most damage to my purse.

However, finally we were really on track. I returned to my hotel a happy bunny.

The next morning, I awoke to freezing fog on the Clyde and a greater variety of food products at breakfast than I have ever seen, including haggis, black pudding and square sausage. And no, I am not making the latter up.

I pigged out at breakfast (it saves money at lunchtime). I settled for haggis, bacon, black pudding and square sausage. The pudding was crozzled pretty much beyond eating. The ‘square’ sausage (which was rectangular) was rather heavy. The haggis was over spicy for me.

Lunch was a skimped affair – two choc chip shortbread biscuits in my room as I did some work.

Then, in the evening, it was off to Rab Ha’s. It started in chaos. The hotel said there was no need to book a cab – there’d always be one outside. Come the hour, there was a distinct absence of any cab. They had to order. I was 10 minutes late (having rung to advise). Then it simply seemed like a crowded and noisy pub before I was finally guided to the restaurant downstairs.

Once there, it was time to relax. The décor might be tartan wallpaper, but it’s remarkably subtly done and feels incredibly snug and welcoming.

Indeed, by and large, Rab Ha’s might not be big, but it is clever.

I made the ‘mistake’ of choosing cullen skink as my starter – an absolutely delightful classic Scottish soup of smoked haddock, onion, potato and cream. Really rustic stuff. Soothing (see the smoked haddock risotto at Brasserie Blanc in Bristol) and, of course, rather filling.

Given my notoriously small capacity, it was a mistake, but not in any other way – and indeed, it was on my list of specific dishes that I wanted to taste while here. I was not disappointed.

But it did ruin my appetite for a second course, for which I’d selected venison on a rooty mash, with a deep, dark gravy.

The meat seemed rather grainy in texture and was a tad over-cooked – hardly any remaining pink, even in the middle – and the mash was odd really, being smooth in places and rather chunky and stringy in others.

But they had decent wine by the glass. Which avoided the issues of the night before. And given that I couldn’t get through anywhere near all my venison, I skipped dessert entirely – partly in shame from not having been able to eat as much of the venison as I would have liked.

However, night two and in essence, we’re doing well. I will remember the cullen skink at Rab Ha's. I will remember the smoked salmon at Rogano for a very long time as, I think, a seminal moment in my understanding of food (and thanks to Mary for the recommendation).

This Scottish food odyssey is certainly not a disaster. And hopefully, there’s plenty more to come.

Monday, 17 January 2011

A right old kitchen binge

As this week draws to its close, I’ll be in the midst of four days (and nights) in Glasgow for work. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Four days and four nights of no cooking. That’s the sort of very simple stat that makes me realise just how much I enjoy my weekends in the kitchen these days.

And so it was with that at least partly in mind that I planned the weekend just gone to be a downright kitchen binge.

The first thing on the agenda was a spot of preserving. Specifically, since it’s January and the season of Seville oranges, a spot of marmalade making.

My mother used to make marmalade: when very young, I considered it quite clever to alliterate madly and describe it as ‘mummy-made marmalade’, which also flowed rather nicely. Well, as I said – I was very young.

But with it being the time of year for Seville oranges, my mind had been turning that way for some time.

It seems to be some sort of modern seasonal disorder. No, not making marmalade.

But for the last two Januaries at least, someone has been predicting the impending death of marmalade. Put it another way: some supermarket has been predicting the demise of that lovely stuff.

Through various searches, I found Dan Lepard’s 2010 Guardian article on the subject, in which he rather adroitly responds to this annual hysteria – and then offers up a recipe for Seville oranges.

But then my eye was caught by his footnote about other flavours. I have long liked lemon marmalade – even though, as far as I can recall, my sole experience of it has been the mass-produced stuff. My mind started moving in that direction.

So, on Saturday morning, off I went to Broadway Market – a visit that included a lovely chat with Andy at the game stall about Scottish food in general and Glasgow restaurants specifically; a passionate exchange with Richard at Wild Dartmoor Beef about proposed mass factory dairy farms; a conversation with Vicki about the prospect of David Beckham actually playing for Tottenham, and a gab with Max at La Bouche about … well, about all sorts of things.

At the organic stall, the lemons had some pale green splotches, so I asked the man whose stall it is (I’m afraid I don’t know his name, even though we’ve chatted many times and he's been enormously helpful), whether they’d be good for marmalade.

With a stony face, he informed me that they would be wonderful for lemon curd but that if I wanted to make marmalade, then the Seville oranges were there (pointing). Suitably chastised, I bought 540g of the oranges and a large lemon, and made my way home.

It takes little time to peel all the fruit using one of those y-shaped potato peelers. Then the fruit is roughly chopped and bunged in a large pot with a litre of water. Simmer gently for two hours, then pop a colander on top of a bowl, line with muslin and tip all your fruit and liquid into it.

The recipe says to leave for an hour – and not to squeeze. I didn’t squeeze, but I did leave it overnight. Tasting the liquid the following morning – I don’t think I’d realised just how bitter Seville oranges are.

First thing on Sunday (by “first thing”, I do mean when I eventually got up and after I’d had coffee – this was Sunday, after all) I measured the liquid and topped it up to 750ml. I weighed out 800g ordinary granulated sugar, popped this and the liquid into a big pan and brought to the boil.

As per the instructions, I watched for a temperature of 104˚ – oh, the joys of finally having a jam thermometer! – and gave it five minutes. Then, while I was waiting to see if a splodge set on a chilled saucer, it got another five minutes and, using the same method, another five as I tested a second dollop.

It was beginning to wrinkle, so the hob was switched off. You leave the pan for 20 minutes and then decant into sterilised jars. This really isn’t difficult stuff.

By the evening, it had cooled completely and set softly. I spread a bit of bread with some butter and tried a bit. Absolutely scrummy.

But man cannot lived by marmalade-making alone. So on Saturday afternoon, continuing my heavy-duty kitchen weekend theme, I made petits pots de crème. One of that vast range of French set custards, I flavoured this with chocolate.

For our main course in the evening, I’d bought some cod and grilled that: a good 10cm from a hot element and brushed with butter (that had been melted in one of those miniature copper pans – so there, Other Half: they have a use) and given about 10 minutes.

By that time, I’d taken three anchovies from a pack, dried and then blitzed them in my little Cuisinart, then added softened butter, mixed it all together and rolled it in foil to go back in the fridge to chill.

Grilled cod with anchovy butter: sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet the idea was from The Complete Escoffier, which makes it sounds considerably posier! Sticking with Escoffier, I served it with plain boiled potatoes, and then added some sautéed/steamed leeks on the side.

After I’d set the marmalade cooking on Sunday, it was back to desserts. This time, to celebrate the year's first forced rhubarb from Yorkshire’s ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, three sticks were cut into thumb-length pieces and gently cooked in orange juice, with star anise and cardamom pods until soft but still holding together.

These were popped into glasses and the remaining liquid boiled to a syrup, which was poured over. Leave to chill.

Later, some double cream was whipped with caster sugar and a glug of the remaining Banyuls until stiff, then popped on top of the rhubarb mix and put back into the fridge. This is a Sarah Raven recipe from her Garden Cookbook (apart from the Banyuls, fairly obviously), and I’m rather fond of it.

Our main course was shoulder of lamb, roasted with olive oil, garlic and lashings of thyme. When the meat is resting, decant a drained and dried tin of new potatoes (it’s a cheat, I admit – when the real new potatoes are out, I’d use them, par-boiling first), a tin of cannellini beans and four halved artichoke hearts into the oil, lamb fat, garlic and thyme. Pop back into the oven, turn the temperature up a tad and then leave until the meat is rested and carved.

Phew! But before that, there’d been lunch.

Ever since I’d got that batch of Michel Roux books over the festive season, I’d been building myself up to trying one of his pastry dishes. More to the point – trying some of his pastry.

Roux gives details for a flan pastry – but also for a pâte brisée, which he describes as more delicate and slightly harder to use than the other form of shortcrust. But I wanted to give this a go, since it sounded wonderful and was a new challenge: something slightly beyond what I’d done before in the pastry realm.

It was easy enough to mix with the Kenwood (which really is already coming into its own – thanks, Other Half). Plain flour, diced and lightly softened butter, an egg, a little fine salt and a pinch of sugar are creamed, before a very little milk is added to bring it together.

Once that's happened, you use your palms to push it forward just four or five times to smooth it. Then either use – or wrap in cling film and pop in the fridge or freezer. It'll keep for a week in the former and three months in the latter.

I rolled it carefully, nice and thin, and lined my tart dish, carefully pushing the pastry into each indentation on the side. That was then lined with scrunched parchment paper and filled with baking beans, before chilling in the freezer while the oven heated.

Blind baking done, the beads and paper are removed and it’s returned to the oven for a few minutes more for the base to dry out and cook.

At this point, I realised that it had shrunk a little and I had to patch at one point where I had clumsily managed to put my finger through into the space behind caused by the shrinkage. This needs to be remembered for future attempts. I trimmed the excess pastry from the rim of the dish at this point.

For the filling, I thinly sliced a large onion – the mandolin got another workout – and cut up some streaky bacon. These were cooked together and then spread carefully in the pastry case. A couple of eggs and some double cream were mixed up with seasoning and poured over the bacon and onion mix.

It had around 25 minutes in the oven. Tasty in general, the pastry was a dream of buttery crumbliness. Wikipedia may claim that pâte brisée is ‘just’ shortcrust pastry by another name, but on the basis of this, that’s far short of the point.

One thing that the weekend also illustrated was that it’s no wonder that I struggle with my oven at times. I’ve also got an oven thermometer after such a thing was recommended in the Roux brothers’ French Country Cooking.

It made its debut for the lamb – and I discovered that the temperature barely came actually close to what I had set it for.

I’ll keep testing – if only to make sure that I was not misreading something – but it does explain a great deal.

But that was the one ‘downside’ on a weekend that, if it didn’t quite leave me ready for my Glasgow adventure, did leave me with a very great deal of satisfaction and achievement.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Cooking as therapy

It's been a funny old week in various ways (a funeral and snapping my glasses being but two), but the working week culminated yesterday in a sort of shit-almost-hitting-the-fan sort of moment, which left me gnashing my new teeth and contemplating an evening in the bar by way of dealing with it.

The Other Half, however, tactfully coaxed me away from my desk and down the road toward Waitrose – the direction I'd originally intended to take – to buy bread, milk, cream, mushrooms and some packet puff pastry. And then it was off home.

The final remains of last weekend's roast chicken awaited. It had occurred to me, sometime in the early hours of Friday morning, in that half-sleep, half-awake state, that one possibility for finishing it up would be to make pies.

Now, while I've made cottage pies (and shepherd's pies) and fish pies before, I've hardly even dabbled in the realms of pies that involve pastry.

Having made a few notes on temperature and time, I set the oven to 200˚ and got down to business. Doing all my measurements by eye, I poured some semi-skimmed milk (it was the end of a jug) into a small pan and put it on a low heat, with some dried porcini mushrooms in it.

Next up: a finely chopped shallot went into some butter to soften, followed after around five minutes by the button mushrooms, either halved or quartered, depending on size. Cook gently for a little longer and then add the chicken, that's been roughly chopped up into bite-size pieces.

Then sprinkle with about a dessertspoon of plain flour. Stir and cook through for about a minute, then start slowly adding the milk. It stirred in easily and in helpfully lump-free fashion. You want it to thicken – but not too much. Once the milk had all gone in, the porcini joined it.

Add some thyme, taste and season. Then a good spoon of thick, thick cream.

I had considered adding some mustard to the sauce, but then, because I'd got some in and because I liked the idea of a third level of mushroominess, I grated a little black truffle in too. You can get small ones in small jars (usually two to a jar) and they keep in the fridge for quite a while, which as you don't need much, makes them far cheaper than one might imagine.

Sorted.

Butter some dishes (or a large one if you want) and pop the mix in.

I'd opted for pre-made pastry from the chiller cabinet because I wasn't going to use shortcrust and I wasn't going to make a first attempt at making my own puff pastry on a Friday night after work.

Beat an egg and brush some over the rim of the dishes. Take a square (or rectangle) of the pastry and pop it carefully on top. Press down gently around the rim and trim the edges with a sharp knife. Make a couple of slits in each pie and then brush the pastry with the remaining egg wash.

Put in the oven and leave for 30 minutes.

During that process, I realised that I was singing quietly to myself. When the little alarm went and I looked into the oven, the sight that met my eyes produced whoops of delight – although that wasn't apparently obvious from a room away: The Other Half wandered in looking concerned, assuming that it had all gone tits up.

Not only did they look wonderful, with sauce dripping down each dish and a beautifully risen and golden pastry top, but the taste was a triumph too.

Never mind that it was excellent comfort food, but it was also a perfect example of cooking as therapy. By the time I sat down to eat, the problems of the day had drifted away.

Could I sell this as an alternative health remedy? Cooking instead of Valium?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Adventures in the lunchbox department

After the start of the new year gave me more opportunities for whinging and whining about the standard of grub I can get during a working day, I finally hauled myself off my proverbial and did something about it this week. In fact, I did two things.

Frankly, I’m a bit bored with Pret. And I’ve made more than a few complaints here about what’s available in the ‘deli’ at work.

But back in December, a survey came winging it’s way to all of us in the building, asking our opinions on the catering.

I leant back in my chair, arms outstretched, hands linked, palms facing out, and prepared to respond.

Were I the sort of person who was lured into conspiracy theories, I would question whether what happened next was a pure accident.

I could not access the survey. It turned out that nobody else in our department could manage it either. Ah yes: someone forgets, yet again, that not everyone in the building is using PCs.

A colleague emailed the IT desk, explaining that we all having an issue. By the time she returned from her Christmas holiday, there had still been no reply.

She tried again – and at this stage, I also fired off an email.

Eventually, the technical issues were sorted out. Earlier this week, I was able to lean back in my chair, arms outstretched, hands linked, palms facing out, and prepare to respond.

One of the questions was whether we’d all eat in more often if they had a specific ‘healthy option’. Ah. So your other dishes are unhealthy, then?

Who decides what is “healthy” or not? And why patronise adults by assuming they’re not intelligent or educated enough to know what constitutes healthy food without a great signpost gesturing at it?

More generally: please stop trying to make over-complex dishes. That day, as it happens, there was a boeuf bourguignon on the menu.

As The Other Half (generally less cynical than me when it comes to the deli’s food) said: “I wonder how much red wine it’s seen – never mind how much Burgundy?”

I didn’t attempt to find out. And nor did I try it, a day later, when it turned up as the day’s star jacket potato filling.

There is nothing wrong with simple food – why not make something like pasta with a decent tomato sauce, for instance?

And I did mention that, when we move to the new building, the catering staff need better equipment: a single, solitary hob in a professional kitchen is ridiculous.

Anyway, I wait to see what their response is. But in the meantime, I have actually made my own packed lunches this week.

After Sunday’s roast chicken, I chucked some meat into a container, added some green olives stuffed with anchovies, a chopped, roasted red pepper and some couscous, and then a bit of seasoning, some oil and a little raspberry vinegar. That did for Monday and Tuesday.

Okay, but far from perfect. It was all a bit too dry and a bit too dominated by the bit too dry couscous.

On Wednesday, business took me away from the office and I didn’t have to cater for myself.

But on Wednesday night, I had a little mull. This time, I peeled and boiled three medium potatoes, then drained them well.

By this time, balanced rather precariously on my lunch box, was a just-open tin of sardines, with the fishy-flavoured olive oil dripping out. Once that had finished and the potatoes were fully drained, they went into the box and were gently tossed in the oil. Being floury ones, they broke up quite nicely, absorbing the oil.

I drained some pickled baby beets, cut them up roughly and added those, together with some more of the green olives with anchovies. The sardines went on top. Some seasoning and a bit more virgin oil finished the job.

Now it doesn't look very impressive, but it's been seriously tasty. And if we were to consider such things, it's pretty healthy too and not exactly expensive.

As it happens, I have an online order in for bulk stuff from Waitrose, which will arrive this weekend. It now includes loads of tins of sardines, including ones with chili and garlic olive oil. Yummy.

And I finally got around to finding out what the difference between waxy and floury potatoes is. You'd be shocked at the bloody great swathes of total culinary ignorance I have.

King Edwards, like the ones I used for my lunches, get a six on the floury scale, according to the Potato Council, which is high. As such, they're a great all-rounder and particularly good for chips, daupinoise potatoes, roasties and mash. Which makes sense when you do what I hadn't done previously – and think about it.

Waxy potatoes are idea for salads. So I've also ordered some Charlottes, which will be ideal for future lunch box adventures next week.

And it wasn't really difficult at all.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

French without tears

A change is as good as a rest, they say. So in that spirit, I haven't bothered with a great deal of serious cookery this evening.

Although to be honest, that's less to do with any need for a change or a rest, and more a sense that the deadline for my second Open University marked assessment is looming, with a cut-off time of noon tomorrow.

Eek.

This is for my French course, which I started in the autumn in the belief that it would be easy enough to organise my time, since The Other Half is doing the same course.

The aim is simple enough: to be able to speak better French when we're in the country – and also to be able to read more French generally. Frankly, it's a great excuse to read comic books and graphic novels – which the French consider an art form and are really quite good at.

Another upside will be being able to read French cookery books. I already have a couple on the shelves (on Catalan cuisine) and I can just about work my way slowly through recipes, but it will be so much better if I can reach a point of being able to do it with less effort and reaching for a dictionary every few sentences.

Anyway, the assessment has now gone, after we had to fumble our way around downloading and then using software to compress the files, since this assessment included a first spoken test.

Gulp.

The OU has a recording system on its website, but you still have to send it from your own computer.

Speaking French is by far and away my biggest weakness – I panic if it's much more than restaurant French (which for some reason or other I'm not bad at).

When I realised that this assessment's spoken test won't be marked (but simply used to give feedback), that lifted some apprehension, but the trauma of school language lessons lives on, while the situation isn't helped because it's the least easy thing to practice by yourself and neither The Other Half nor I are quite at conversation level yet.

Well, The Other Half is a lot, lot closer to it, but I'm certainly not.

Fortunately, the subject for the test helped. You had to record an answerphone message to a fictional hotel, giving your details, saying what sort of a room you wanted, for how long, from when and for how many people, give your breakfast requirements and ask a question about some aspect of hotel facilities. The finished message had to be between 30 seconds and a minute.

I wrote out what I was going to say – and realised while I was doing it that, while I haven't actually made a hotel booking in French, I have gone into hotels in the country and explained who I am and that I have a reservation online etc. So I felt as though I was halfway there.

Mind, it still took at least eight efforts to record the thing – not least to time it so that it wasn't 28 seconds but just within the required timeframe. But in the end, no major traumas.

After all that, the most I felt like doing was getting a bit eggy and rustling up a quick omelette in my nice copper omelette pan that was bought in Paris, since you struggle to find such a thing over here.

Talking of French copper pans, I was teased somewhat at work earlier today when a delivery arrived: two miniature ones for sauce, melting butter etc. They're only 7cm diameter each – so in other words, both will fit on one hob at the same time, which will be perfect for some things.

And yes, they look gorgeous, so they'll also make lovely props for my food photography.

But no photography tonight: for now, it's off for a spot of slouched relaxation. That's entirely enough brain work for one day!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Mad about macarons

The quest for the perfect macaron looks set to take rather longer than I had over-confidently expected.

Not that I’m not heading in the right direction – I think (and fervently hope!).

Or let’s put it another way: Sunday’s experience was not the complete disaster that New Year’s Eve would have been had I not been intending to use what I produced then as the base for trifle.

And oh, they might look such dainty, pretty little things, and they might taste so light and fresh, but that completely belies the effort required to actually make them.

However, after separating the eggs in advance on Saturday, I took the whites out of the fridge on Sunday morning and left them to come back to room temperature.

As per the book I’m using, I took measured out ground almonds and icing sugar – and thank goodness for Google: I had to work out translations for ‘confectioners’ sugar (although I was able to hazard a vaguely educated guess) and ‘superfine sugar’, which turned out to be caster. This is a book by a Frenchwoman, which was apparently published by Larousse originally, but has clearly been translated to take account of Canadian and US markets as well as that in the UK.

Anyway, once those are measured, you sift together and bake for around seven minutes on a baking sheet, then allow to cool.

Next up, make the filling. Loads of lovely dark chocolate, melted slowly over simmering water before unctuous double cream is gently mixed into it in marble-like prettiness. Let cool and then chill.

And so to using my lovely mixer again. There’s an alchemy about parts of culinary endeavour that fascinates me. In this case, it was the first time I’d watched as egg whites metamorphosed from a clear, sticky gel to a snowy white foam with little peaks.

No, I’ve never made meringues before. That awaits.

As it’s stiffening, you gradually add the caster sugar. Now I was making chocolate macarons, so in went some 100% cocoa powder too. Finally, fold in the sugar and almond mix.

Then comes the great piping moment. This time, it stayed in the piping bag while I filled it – and then I managed to create a series of not entirely round and not entirely all a set size circles on a lined baking sheet.

Leave for an hour to allow a crust to start to form. Well, I couldn’t see anything resembling a crust after the allotted time, but decided to go ahead and bake anyway.

The book said 10-12 minutes. Knowing my oven, after pre-heating it for a long time in the hope of stabilising the temperature, I gave them 12. They seemed very soft when I looked at them, so I gave them another three minutes.

Let them cool a bit, then drip a little water between the parchment paper and tray and, with a spatula, ease off the macaron halves and let them cool completely.

When done, spread the chocolate ganache on one half and pop another half on top.

There. Easy. And the business of five minutes. Not.

They’re certainly tasty – so that’s quite a lot of the battle.

However, the texture of the biscuit itself is grainy. That, I assume, is the almonds. But they were ground. Now, I know that the book said to put the icing sugar and ground almonds in a blender or grinder and pulse them, but I’m struggling to see what I’ve got that would achieve a finer result than you get when you buy ground almonds in the first place.

I also suspect that I might not have beaten the egg whites quite enough. Okay, that’s something I’ll learn to be able to judge with practice.

So further testing and investigation is required. And it won’t be longer before that happens. There was so much ganache left over that I have to use it within the next few days – so I’ll look at making another batch during the week.

Still, as a friend used to say to me: “Living is learning”. Indeed, I wonder why I always seem to assume that something new will perfectly the first time I try it. Perhaps it’s that recipe culture that Nigel Slater talks about – and if we follow a recipe closely, surely it’ll come out perfect?

But to think – what a tragedy to think that I’m absolutely going to have to make more macarons!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A sauce of pride

It was the first Broadway Market of 2011 this year – and a real pleasure it was too, as regulars, producers and retailers alike all greeted each other for the first time since the festivities.

There was a really enjoyable sense of freshness in the air – and that wasn’t just the blustery wind and the wannabe rain that kept trying to fall.

It was also a successful trip – and the results weren’t stored away for long before the cooking began.

All that caramelisation and Maillard reaction business that I mentioned yesterday cropped up again straight away.

For various reasons, I couldn’t see myself having the opportunity to try Bruno Loubet’s recipe for daube for some weeks, and that rather peeved me.

It needs a 48-hour marinade and, because I’d always simply assumed it was a dish to cook at the weekend, that sort of complicated matters. Or put another way, it meant that I’d have to do the initial preparation on a Friday.

But that’s further complicated by the question of where and when I’d be able to get the beef.

Loubet recommends either beef cheek or blade. Now strangely enough, those are not the sort of cuts that supermarkets sell, so it would pretty much have to be either a Broadway or Borough Market purchase.

Then I had a radical idea. If I could get the meat today, then I could do the initial prep after I’d done my shopping – and cook it on Monday evening.

As luck would have it, Richard of Wild Dartmoor Beef had one piece of cheek on the stall this morning.

I’ve not cooked cheek before, but you see at a glance why chefs would like it. It was a beautifully marbled piece of meat and, at just a fiver for 500g, hardly an assault on the pocket.

The recipe I’m using, which appeared at caterersearch.com, is more like brief notes than what most of us would consider a recipe.

Having got my ingredients ready, I found myself having to start filling in the gaps.

For instance, it doesn’t give an instruction for cutting up the meat or chopping the vegetables. And when it says: “Sauté the vegetables for the daube in oil until golden brown”, it doesn’t actually tell you whether that includes the tomatoes (and whether to skin them or not) or the bouquet garni.

On the other hand, when it says to cook the vegetables until they’re “golden brown”, I now have a better clue about why and how to do precisely that.

So, opting to include the tomatoes in that instruction, I prepared the vegetables, made up a bouquet garni, cut the meat into large pieces, put everything in a large bowl and then covered it all with the white and red wines, and added the Worcestershire Sauce too. It’s now sitting in the fridge, topped with cling film.

This really was a day of early prep. I also split eggs for making macarons tomorrow – apparently the whites age over 24 hours, helping make these delicate little gems.

Which left me with the question of what to do with the yolks.

There was some salmon in the fridge that needed using. It crossed my mind that a hollandaise sauce goes rather well with fish. Here was the big moment.

I roasted garlic and did crushed, garlicky potatoes. Then, feeling that I should make the effort to use the griddle pan more often, hauled that out for the fish and some thick slices of courgette, which were pre-boiled and then dried.

For the sauce, it occurred to me to use Delia – or even John Tovey’s very quick ‘cheat’ that she also includes in the Complete Cookery Course.

But no. If you’re going to do it, then follow the instructions in that Sauces book that you bought by Michel Roux for exactly this sort of thing.

Okay, it meant playing around a little with the amounts, since I didn’t want to use four, as per the book.

After finding that the end of my bottle of white wine vinegar was full of sediment (do I really use so little?) I reduced tarragon wine vinegar and water (ration of one to four tablespoons), with some ground white pepper in it.

That went into a bowl and was allowed to cool, before the yolks were added and whisked in. Then the bowl went on a pan with just a little water simmering away in it, and was whisked until it changed into a lovely thick, velvety texture.

You take it off the heat and start adding the clarified butter. It soon became clear that I hadn’t prepared enough butter. I rapidly melted some more and gave up being too concerned at clarifying it.

Aware that everything else was about ready, I decided that, for today, it would have to be too thick to pour. I gave it a squeeze of lemon juice and served up.

You really do have to keep whisking away as it heats – which is a little dodgy when you’re on your own in a kitchen and trying to do loads of other things. Amazingly, I’d just about managed to plan stuff that didn’t require too much time away from the whisk.

It might have been thick, but it didn’t split – and it tasted lovely.

Okay, the sense of achievement isn’t perhaps quite as high as after Christmas Day’s consommé, but it’s not far off.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve just about cracked another of the French mother sauces. I am seriously chuffed. And knackered!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Getting pie eyed about detail

In his first Food for Fort answers to foodie questions column of the new year, Guardian columnist Matthew Fort was presented with the following query by a reader: “I make lots of stews like boeuf bourguignon, but never sear the meat first; I just add it to the pot. Is it really necessary to sear the meat?”

“Necessary, as in will the dish be an utter failure if you don’t?" he began in response.

“Probably not. Necessary, as in will the searing add another layer of flavour? Yes. The searing causes caramelisation, which adds sweetness and fruitiness and the Maillard reaction. I checked the recipe in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, as close to a divine text as you can get, which adds the flour after browning the meat. I think boeuf bourguignon deserves that attention to detail.”

That is precisely why reading stuff about food is worthwhile. It’s those technical things that, otherwise, you don’t know.

Personally, I’d have seared meat if a recipe calls for it – and boeuf bourguignon is certainly not on the limited list of dishes that I can whip up with reference to the written word.

But I would have done so without really comprehending what the process was intended to achieve. Caramelisation is easy enough to understand, but as for “the Maillard reaction”, I had to check out Wikipedia for an explanation.

Yet once you know that, even if you can’t quite get your head around the actual chemistry, it gives you a reason for the searing – and that helps you understand exactly what is required.

The Fort answer also encouraged me to look up the book that he had described as being “a divine text”. It was written by Julia Child and published in 1961.

Having trained at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and gone on to study privately with a number of chefs, Child wanted to introduce audiences in her native US to French cuisine. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the result. She went on to become a hugely important figure in US culinary life.

According to Wikipedia, her “use of ingredients like butter and cream has been questioned by food critics and modern-day nutritionists.

“She addressed these criticisms throughout her career, predicting that a ‘fanatical fear of food’ would take over the country’s dining habits, and that focusing too much on nutrition takes the pleasure from enjoying food.

“In a 1990 interview, Child said, ‘Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don’t suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”

All that butter and cream and enjoyment of food sent her to her grave at the age of 91.

We seem to be between editions of the book – books, actually: there are two volumes –so I haven’t ordered them yet. I have, however, got hold of Julie & Julia, a recent film based on her life and career, and the attempt by a blogger to cook all of the recipes in the book in a year. I might watch it over the weekend.

In the meantime, wondering what to cook for last night’s dinner, I had pulled out a packet of frozen mince before pottering off to work, and left it thaw out.

What I’d decided to do was a cottage pie. Nothing ambitious in that, you say. And quite right you’d be.

But what I wanted to attempt was to pay a little more attention to detail when cooking it – and see if that made any difference.

First up – chop an onion and soften it in olive oil. Nothing different here.

Add the mince – after turning up the heat a bit. Although I’m not as bad as I used to be, I can still be a bit tentative about heat when cooking. But having caramelisation in my mind as the desired outcome helped and I made sure I’d got the pan and oil far hotter than in my previous efforts at cooking mince.

After browning the meat – and the noise and smell tell you it’s cooking differently – I sprinkled a heaped teaspoon of plain flour on the meat, stirred that around to cook through and then deglazed with a little red wine that was conveniently lying around. These were two of my new ‘details’.

Next up, a little celery salt and some diced carrot (these two, with the onion, seemed to represent the vital flavours of a mirepoix that’s the base of so much), a squeeze of tomato purée, a shot of Lea & Perrins (which I cannot remember buying but which I had discovered when clearing a cupboard before Christmas), a small glug of sherry vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and pepper and some beef stock.

I’d have added stock previously, with the carrot and possibly a little Magi, plus the seasoning. The others mentioned here were more of the evening’s ‘details’.

Now the other thing that had struck me as I’d started thinking about the dish in this way was the question of peas. There’s nothing wrong with frozen peas and I have usually just chucked a few straight out of the freezer into the cooking meat mix.

But hang on, if you do that, you’re adding water and you’re also lowering the temperature of what’s cooking, because you’re putting in something that’s effectively ice.

So I decanted a few peas into a saucepan of boiling water, gave them a minute and then drained them well before adding them to the mix.

Whack the lid on, turn the heat right down and leave it all to cook for around half an hour.

When I came back to it, I decided that I wanted to make it a little thicker. Helpfully, I had some beurre manié in a bit of foil in the fridge from something I’d done last week. It was easy to stir some in, little by little, until I was satisfied with the consistency.

Then it was all decanted into a dish and left to cool while The Other Half, the cats and I got on with putting Christmas back in to assorted boxes.

Next stage: peel, cut up and cook some potatoes. Easy. Then, with my nice new potato ricer, purée the potato, add butter, double cream and seasoning, and spread on to the cooled meat mix. Mark it with a fork and dot with more butter.

Shove into an oven that’s been preheated to 200˚C and leave for around 25 minutes, until the potato is beginning to brown at the edges.

As it happens, I also took account of something I’d read on a forum about fan ovens – that you need to give them longer to pre-heat because they fluctuate quite wildly for a while after you put them on, before the temperature stabilises. Sure enough, I noticed the little indicator light going on and off and on again quite a few times before I was ready to put the finished dish in.

The result was really pleasing. Certainly more flavour than my previous efforts with the same culinary staple.

Cottage pie is hardly haute cuisine, but made properly, it’s good and enjoyable fodder. It isn’t particularly quick to cook, but I think that the extra attention to those few little details really boosted the finished dish.

And hopefully, the technical lesson of caramelisation and Maillard reaction will have stuck and, next time I need to sear meat, I really will sear it and not just vaguely let it near some moderate heat.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Company that owns Piccolino responds

Some of you may remember reading about the nightmare that was Piccolino Bristol. A couple of days later, I explained that I had decided to print off my post and send it to the company that owns the entire chain. And I promised to let you know if I received a response.

Well, a response has arrived – delayed by the snow and and glut of bank holidays.

The company's guest communications manager has asked me to call her so that she can "personally apologise" to me. All my comments have been passed on to the restaurant's general manager and operations manager for "further investigation".

And I have been invited to enjoy a complimentary meal for two at one of the Piccolino restaurants in London.

There's a side of me that wants to refuse the complimentary meal. Not out of some sort of bad grace or anything, but partly because I was hardly the only one who was affected by the Bristol experience and also because, when I wrote that piece and when I sent it to the company, it wasn't because I wanted some sort of compensation beyond what the manageress had given us the day after.

I wanted – I hoped – that I could have some small impact; that they would perhaps rethink what they're doing and see if there are not improvements that they can make so that those problems don't occur again.

If I take up their offer, does that compromise this blog? That might sound a bit daft, but as much as I can, I want this to be an honest and up-front endeavour. There's really no point in doing it otherwise.

On the other hand, let's see if they can do better on the food front. In terms of the letter from the company, I was impressed with the attitude shown. That's certainly a good start.

But the moral of this little story is that complaining works.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Inspect a gadget

In the general spirit of newness that charges into view with the passing of a year and the start of that re-energised upswing toward the end of winter, I have ordered a number of bits and pieces to help in my kitchen endeavours.

I’m not normally a gadget sort of person, but I finally decided to get myself a mandolin, after realising that it wouldn’t just slice spuds for potatoes boulangerie or dauphinoise, but would also be able to julienne other vegetables.

Given that I’ve now cracked mayonnaise, it was a case of: ‘roll on my own, homemade celeriac remoulade!’

The item in question arrived yesterday from ProCook and the evening’s dinner was entirely re-arranged around a dauphinoise.

I unpacked it and opened the plastic box that contains the “seven interchangeable”, which include “three different width cutters for juliennes vegetables, sticks & French fries which are used in conjunction with the straight or crinkle horizontal blades.”

How exciting is that? But wouldn’t you think it might have crossed someone’s mind to include an instruction manual – if only to show just how you put more than one blade into the frame itself for the said julienning?

I Googled. Nothing. Although I have subsequently found YouTube footage of someone demonstrating how to use a mandolin that looks very similar. And it gives me an idea of how two blades might fit into the frame at the same time.

Now I don’t think I’m a complete dummkopf – and I did manage to work out how to use it at the most basic level. Getting proficient with it will take a little longer: I had a nice mix of potato slices, with some that were quite thick, some that were wafer thin and some that managed to be a combination of both.

Mind, even the thickest ones were still thinner than anything I’ve previously achieved with a knife, so we are already on to a winner.

For all my new year talk of lightening up, dauphinoise is a winner and the mandolin was simply the perfect excuse.

Layers of (really) thin potato, interspersed with grushed garlic and seasoning, and then drowned in cream and milk, dotted with butter and baked for an hour and half at 160˚ – this is a just glorious.

A celeriac remoulade, once I have mastered fitting the blades, will be far healthier. Well, it’s a salad thing, isn’t it?

Another arrival in my burst of gadgetary acquisition is a pair of rings. Now, I know that it describes them as “rösti rings”, but that would be very deep röstis.

Christmas convinced me that it’s ridiculously easy to improve presentation – and my two rings helped enormously. Two much deeper ones will give me oodles more options.

Two miniature copper saucepans are on the way too – idea for melting a small amount of butter or making a small amount of sauce. And I’ll be able to perch both on one hob at the same time, which is also with definite benefits.

And in the next few days, I might slip to John Lewis to get myself some new oven gloves – the current pair are threadbare on one hand now.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Food and sex *

One thing I didn’t mention in yesterday’s blog about Christmas foodie telly was the link between sex and food.

The same interview with Nigel Slater that I mentioned yesterday also has the cook and writer declaring that: “People who are good cooks are often good in bed.”

Now, it’s not for me to boast, but he may be onto something. But I wouldn’t think it’s a question of how good a cook you are, but rather of how much you enjoy food.

When I’ve written, occasionally, about having a ‘food orgasm’ (and here’s an example) over something or other that I’ve eaten, I’m not trying to be pointlessly smutty (not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of smut, you understand).

But there are times when it’s difficult to know how else to indicate the stunning impact of something on your tastebuds. And not just on your tastebuds, but on every realm of your being – spiritual as well as physical.

Those sardines will stay with me for a long time – they already have – as will a number of meals I ate in Barcelona four and five years ago and can still remember in great detail.

And there was definitely a moment like this at Bistrot Bruno Loubet last month, when I had my first taste of the hare royale.

So it’s not about how fancy the food is. Or rather, fanciness is not a measure of how good food is and what you’re response will be.

I remember sitting outside Le Bosquet, a very nice bistro in Paris, enjoying a meal of foie gras on toast, followed by sea bass stuffed with thyme and crème brûlee to finish.

At the table next to me sat a young woman who had just arrived from the States. She’d been met by a New Zealander, who was looking after her for an evening as a favour for a friend.

While he ate three courses, she picked at a bowl of salad leaves and, when it came time to ask for the bill, the bowl was still half full (or half empty, depending on your point of view).

Now it takes all kinds etc, but if you took someone out for a meal, would you think that the relationship with food that was suggested by her behaviour was indicative of a sensual person?

So yes, I think Mr Slater is on the right lines.

And perhaps therein lies the key as to why some people expend so much energy worrying about others enjoying food ‘too much’?

HL Mencken, who came up with quite a few good quotes in his time, described puritanism as: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and immorality as: “The morality of those who are having a better time.”

I’ve heard the former used to describe the core philosophy of the Daily Mail. This is the same publication that famously carries in its pages a toxic combination of faddy diets and pictures of female celebrities where they point out the cellulite etc.

Pleasure is not conducive to the Mail’s agenda – guilt and insecurity are what matters.

Not that the Mail maintains such attitudes in splendid isolation. There’s a Puritanism, one way or another, in pretty much all the news media in this country.

Some years ago, there was a short-lived TV magazine programme for people in the media. In one edition, a senior journalist with Le Monde was being interviewed about the late François Mitterrand and his extra-marital affairs.

He explained that, in France, having affairs was considered simply a part of life – the questions that were being asked were about whether the former president had funded his mistresses from public money.

And he went on to note that the French thought that Britain was like a teenager that had only just discovered sex.

Thinking about newspaper coverage of sexual affairs in the UK – and not just that in the tabloids – you can see what he meant. And this is also a country with a very mixed relationship with food.

Going back to Mitterrand, he also enjoyed his food. Knowing that he was close to death, he invited close friends for a last meal at which he ate two ortolan – a tiny songbird that is consumed whole, having been drowned in Armagnac and which, because it's an endangered species, is illegal to eat.

I don't know whether I could eat one – not because of sentiment: I eat plenty of other birds – but as much as anything because I don't like the idea of crunching the bones.

But traditionally, it is also eaten with a napkin over the head. That is said to intensify the aroma and taste, but it is also described as a way of hiding the sight from God.

It was the last thing Mitterrand ate. Refusing food thereafter, some days later, he died.

There is something that I admire in that; in the control, in the appreciation of food, in the understanding of pleasure.

Pleasure is liberation. And controlling pleasure – whether it’s what we eat or who and how we shag – is power.

It was the first day back at work today after the Christmas break.

Over the last 12 months, I've occasionally baked cakes and made chocolates to take into the office. This is enormously popular, for some reason or other.

Today, one of the first things that a particular colleague asked me was how the baking was going. A little while later, she sneaked over to my desk with a little plastic tub.

In it, she'd put a few little pastries that her mother had made for the festivities. She'd carried them back from the Continent as a special gift for me; a way of thanking me for the chocolates and cakes; of returning the gift.

There was something so deliciously nefarious, so delightfully conspiratorial and so completely flirtatious about the exchange around this that, even if these morsels of sweetness had not been tasty and light and quite perfect, I would have been walking around with a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Pleasure. The French understand and embrace it. One is left to wonder just why we seem so very scared of it.



* How many hits will this headline gain?

Food for thought on the telly

Before Christmas, BBC4 advertised a burst of nostalgia TV, with episodes of Fanny Craddock cooking Christmas food.

One review suggested that it offered a ‘nightmare before Christmas’ – although after watching just a few minutes, I prefer the Tim Burton version of that title.

She used cornflour in Christmas cakes, for goodness sake. Cornflour …

In a cold sweat, I scurried into the kitchen and leafed through various volumes in need of reassurance that cornflour was not a normal substitute for ‘proper’ flour.

And that’s without discussing her hyper-bossy persona (or the way she treated a host of people, including her husband Johnny).

Fortunately, this wasn’t the only foody offering on TV over the Christmas holiday. And nor was it the only culinary nostalgia.

Nigel Slater’s Toast, an autobiography of his first 18 years, was dramatised by the BBC and shown over Christmas.

Now I’m intending to read the book first, so didn’t watch it all. But there was enough to make an impression – and enough to produce a sense of horror not dissimilar to that created by Craddock and cornflour.

His mother apparently popped unopened cans into a pan to heat through. The toast of the title was often the only thing available after another culinary failure. Not that those were the only things that could do your head in.

And in a rare interview, published when the book was first published in 2003, Slater discussed his childhood.

“We were very second generation middle class,” Slater told the interviewer. “I had been brought up with all these things you did and did not do. You don’t talk at mealtimes, you don’t put your elbows on the table and so on.”

Dingalingalingalong!

Can you hear the bells ringing too? Decades before I made my first soup, I knew how to tip the bowl away from me and elegantly scoop up a little of the liquid, moving the spoon from front to back and then sipping. Quietly.

And what is it with elbows? Is that a peculiarly British thing or something more universal?

I wouldn’t say we had a rule of no talking at mealtimes, but I cannot currently dredge up memories of family conversations. What I do remember are paternal sermons. Or descriptions of my father’s day – including one where he’d seen a particularly gruesome traffic accident on the way home (thus dinner was late) and proceeded to describe it in bloody detail, even as my mother hissed at him to shut up as my sister got increasingly upset.

Decapitation didn’t seem to have affected his appetite and it didn’t seem that he could comprehend why it would affect anyone else’s. Either that or he simply didn’t care.

But thinking of those things, an idea emerges of a world where a whole raft of measures were deliberately deployed to stop food being a pleasure by making the process of eating such a fuss, dominated by rules about this, that and the other.

At one of my primary schools I remember a peculiar obsession with stopping children stirring their dollop of jam into pretty patterns in their sago/semolina/rice pudding. Why? What difference did it make? Surely the important thing was to eat it?

Slater has more interesting observations.

“It’s still not part of our heart and soul,” he suggests. Hardly surprising if such joyless rules have been widespread.

“We still over-compensate for the fact that our food has always been a joke. The French or Italians think nothing of going to a patisserie and buying a pudding for a dinner party or a ready-made salad, but here we have to make every thing ourselves, every last sodding cake. I still think we are using food as a class thing, to put on a show, rather than because we love it.”

That old Protestant work ethic again, anyone?

Well, to a point, perhaps. But Slater’s example also brings to mind a recent survey of home cooks in both Britain and France, which focused on how many bake their own bread.

Far more Brits bake bread than did their French counterparts, which was then held up as some sort of national victory to boast about. But the only thing that I think that it indicates is that the overwhelming majority of British people do not have a proper baker two minutes away where they can buy a beautiful, freshly-baked baguette twice a day.

Similarly, I’ve been inside French shops – I’ve shopped inside French shops – and most foodies here don’t have access to somewhere that sells a salad or a dessert that you’d be happy to serve at a party.

The last few weeks have seen the commercial TV channels absolutely heaving with adverts for party food, from the working-class Iceland to the middle-class Marks and Sparks. And honestly, it all looks dire. Otto would narrow her eyes and give me such a look of disdain if I tried to serve that sort of fodder to the cats.

What appears to pass for perfection in supermarket eyes increasingly appears to mine like anemia. The little pies that have been advertised, for instance, look awful – utterly bland. Only last week, when shopping down at Borough Market, I found myself marveling at the pies on sale at the Ginger Pig butcher – no two alike, with gravy having dripped out between the seams of the handmade pastry. Just the thought makes me salivate.

And around the corner is the stall that sells Mrs King’s legendary Melton Mowbray pork pies – a business that was started in 1853 and producing food that is still prepared from traditional recipes.

Proper pies, in other words. Pie has come to mean something cheap and substandard. And good pies can be so, so much more than that.

So I don’t think that making everything and not buying it ready-made is about class – well, not in the way that Slater means the word in that interview.

He also says that: “The British are not passionate cooks. We are a nation of recipe followers.”

Well, I guess there’s some truth in that. Maybe it’s not just me who is wedded to recipes. But then you have to learn from somewhere. And slowly – very slowly – I am reaching a point where I have a few dishes that I can now cook without recourse to a written text. Tonight’s risotto will not require reference to anything. And sometimes, when I’m cooking like that, I can be found in the sort of humour that has me singing out loud: it might not be cooking with ‘passion’, but it is cooking with pleasure and not as a mind-numbing chore or as a sweat-inducing chellenge.

That no TV cook (I hope!) would any longer suggest cornflour for a Christmas cake is a sign that we have progressed, I think. It could be argued that the sheer number of cookery programmes (and books and magazines) is another indicator of the same thing – although perhaps that merely illustrates the reliance on recipes that Slater mentions?

At this point, I find myself asking myself why it matters what the rest of the country is doing in the kitchen – surely it’s enough to know what I do in my kitchen?

The problem is that you can’t separate the general from the individual. If local shops have been wiped out by the rise and rise of the supermarket, then that impacts on me too; on the choice of foods that I have available.

There are rumours that Borough Market is under threat, with rumblings of discontent from stall holders who are being constantly shunted around the place, never sure from one week to the next where they will be doing business on market days.

They fear that the people who own the land want to force many of the small businesses out, to be replaced by trendy coffee shops etc. Does that impact on me? Yes – and on anyone else who already has to make an extra effort to travel to Borough Market for the choice that is available there and which is not available in supermarkets.

It happened at Leadenhall Market in the City, where all the old businesses, including a poulterer and a butcher and a miracle of a wet fish stall were driven out by a landlord that only wanted richer chains and franchises in place, and ratcheted up the rents, again and again, until those small, independent businesses had no option but to close.

I was talking to Stephane from La Bouche a few weeks ago. He was explaining how he used to have a business in Stoke Newington – before it was trendy in the way it is now. It used to be full of independent businesses, all thriving. And then the landlords got an idea and started whacking up the rents and driving them all out, to be replaced by endless franchises of coffee shops and chain eateries. He thinks that, give it 10 years or so, the same thing will happen to Broadway Market. It’s a depressing view.

Anyway, that’s why all this matters to me, personally. Because what happens generally has a direct affect on me and on the choices that I am able to make.

But let’s get back to Toast. By way of a complete contrast to that stultifying attitude to food and eating, there was a short but nonetheless interesting piece in today’s Guardian about the Roux restaurant dynasty.

Apparently, the only family arguments that Michel Roux Jnr can remember from his childhood were about how to make omelettes.

How French is that? And I wonder whether Nigel Slater breathed a sigh of envy on reading such a piece. I know I did.

Which gives us a rather nice link to Cinémoi, a new French film channel on cable (Virgin 445 and Sky 343, and currently free to view until 31 January), which screened an intriguing 2006 documentary, Cinema Goes to Dinner, by Anne Andreu.

I’m hoping it’ll be on again, because there was so much to take in and it was intriguing – although I found myself disagreeing deeply with the interpretation of Babette’s Feast, which saw the response of Babette’s guests as much more positive than I did.

But featuring interviews and clips from such films as Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, Luis Bunuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie and Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, it’s fascinating because it also illustrates food and eating as an essential, vital part of life.

Somehow, all that stuff about elbows on the table and not speaking during a meal seems to be an effort to minimise the impact of that reality.

For Nigel Slater it failed. It took rather longer, but it failed for me too. Thank goodness.