Tuesday, 30 September 2014

New season, new kitchen

Counts as 'cooker porn'?
If there was one thing – apart from seeing our cats again – that made the return from holiday worth while, it was coming back to a new kitchen, just in time for a new season.

In the last week, a number of people have commented, of our having been away while the work was done in our home, that we were very ‘trusting’.

The implication being that they would be reluctant to leave their own homes in the hands of “contractors”.

It’s difficult, though, to know how they’d continue to live in a home while a room such as a bathroom or kitchen is being gutted and completely re-fitted.

That Tardis carousel
Three weeks using a bucket instead of a loo – unless they get workmen to spend time refitting one every day at the end of the work? Take-away meals for the duration? Yuk!

We’re incredibly fortunate to have Ian, a local, old-fashioned tradesman, has done a wonderful job yet again. And it not only all looks great, but works so much better too.

We have, in the last week, been able to get pretty much everything sorted out and into its new place.

As explained previously, it was an excellent opportunity to cull and clear. Now, though, I have one cupboard that must be the Tardis in disguise – it’s so big, with a carousel inside, that it stores every single pan, casserole, oven dish, earthenware pot, tagine, jug and large serving bowl that I have!

One very deep drawer now takes all my bakeware – which used to take a whole cupboard and a drawer – while another substantial drawer takes ladles, serving spoons, most of which had been hung on the wall, and another cupboard easily hosts all the slightly less-used gadgets, such as the mandolin and the potato ricer.

Neat and tidy – and so much more work space!
Pull-out sections bookending the cooker hold all the tea and coffee-making kit on one side, and all my herbs, spices, salts, vinegars and oils on the other.

The crockery is now displayed in the shelf unit/dresser, while all the cups, mugs and glassware are in further cupboards.

The entire effect is one of far less clutter, while it’s all so much lighter, too.

The butler sink came into its own on the first day back, as it allowed us to soak and wash out the big, retro, enamel bread bin, that previously would not go in a sink.

And of course, although I’m still getting used to the cooker – it has had me purring since day one – while the splashback that we made of features tiles from Casa Latina in Collioure, and the drawer and cupboard handles from the same source, looks lovely.

After just a brace of hobs on this trip to France, the Rangemaster is a big step up!

I should add that the new fridge – the old one was dying on us and would have needed replacing anyway – is a piece of magnificent Bosch. We took account of width and nothing else when planning, but this is another massive step up.

And it provides far more fridge magnet space too – I had a joyous task at the weekend curating our personal art gallery!

I had been told, in conversation with a friend, that when buying white goods, the best – and most simple – advice is: “Go to John Lewis and buy as much Bosch as you can afford!”

Our washing machine for the past two years has been Bosch and I can easily see the wisdom in that advice. The fridge-freezer merely confirms it.

But all of this has had me thinking about how our cooking areas and facilities have been reduced in the last three decades.

Not a posh cooker – just an old one
Back in the 1970s, it would hardly have been a luxury to have a cooker that had both an oven and a separate grill.

However, the years since, and the advent of built-in cookers, have seen this end as the norm.

More recently, we’ve moved to new homes being built with, in some cases, only enough room for a microwave.

As food journalist Joanna Blythman relates in one of her books, a developer who planned holiday homes with just a microwave found themselves having to re-do kitchens when Continental visitors complained at the lack of proper cooking equipment.

And as Blythman also uncovered, the UK accounts for more than half the European ready-meals market, while the figure for snack products is similar.

There’s an interweaving of things here, but as I’ve also said many times, there is also a poor culture when it comes to how we see food in the UK.

A few weeks ago, I happened to overhear a ‘conversation’ between a mother and child, the latter having only recently turned three.

“What do you want for your dinner?”

“Dippy chips.”

“You can’t have dippy chips every night!”

The conversation did not, you probably won’t be surprised to know, take place in France.

When and how did it become considered sensible or appropriate to ask a small child what they want to eat? When did it somehow become bad parenting to deploy the old ‘you eat what’s in front of you’ routine?

The glories of a Bosch fridge
For the record, the mother in question is not particularly young and is a working professional.

Having said that, on the subject of school meals, I’ve heard otherwise apparently intelligent adults arguing that choice is good for young children – precisely because it teaches them to choose.

Which is idiotic reasoning. You teach them about proper food – and then, when they’re a lot more grown up and they have some of the food skills required to make choices, they can start choosing.

Why would making choices – without experience and knowledge – be a positive thing? And especially when they are, in effect, up against companies, including big corporates, that are out to make a profit that may be increased by providing less-than-healthy options?

It’s like David v Goliath where people are suddenly rooting for the giant.

‘Choice’ can mean a salad over there and the lasagna and chips over here. How many six or seven-year olds do you know who won’t choose the latter, with all the sugars and salts and fats made to make it attractive?

I spent a day in a school canteen a couple of years ago – and it was far from being a bad canteen, with all food made from scratch by a dedicated team – but because they have to offer ‘choice’, there are children who happily (and apparently regularly) just choose a plate of stodge. And I heard the dinner ladies trying to encourage them to try something different.

The artiest Bosch fridge in town?
There’s a substantial part of the issue with that overheard mother, though, of sheer laziness.

Of course it’s difficult when both parents are working, but is copping out on what you actually feed your child really the only option?

Why does the myth persist that it is ‘difficult’ or too time consuming to cook a meal properly, from scratch, in the evening?

What you eat is one of the most important factors in your life – and if you’re nurturing a child, it should be even more important.

And you don’t need a double oven and a butler sink. But what the gradual reduction of kitchen spaces in homes does do is to shore up the attitudes that then lead to this kind of behavior.

They lead to the decline in sales of dining tables – and the seven-year-old who cannot use a knife and fork properly.

That’s another example where the parents were white-collar, full-time workers who couldn’t be arsed to feed their child properly after a day at work, so relied on finger food, takeaways and frozen pizzas while they concentrated on the important things in life, such as what’s on the telly.

It does beg the question of how much this syndrome is a question of both partners having to work or the ‘conveniencing’ of our diet.

I’d suggest it’s primarily the latter, since women in working-class communities have had to work for centuries. The textile mills didn’t run on unmarried, childless female labour, for instance.

The difference now is the vast development, in the last 40 years, of ready-meals, microwaves and the takeaway culture.

It has denuded our collective culinary skill level and the result is a culture where increasing numbers of people feed themselves – and their children – badly.

And when you see food as fuel, and all fuel as having the same value, then you’re well on the way down this route.

The examples I’ve given are far from unique. This morning, the BBC online included a report that 12% of UK three-year-olds have tooth decay.

It came a day after I saw a mother on a bus with three small children, explaining to her partner that one of them had had chocolate, a sausage roll and crisps to eat that day – and was still hungry.

And it was only last Friday that I happened to see another small child in a pushchair complaining to his mother that he’d finished the large tube of Pringles and wanted something else.

Laziness, ignorance – and, of course, lack of money, all feed into this, along with the (partly mythical) cheapness of ultra-processed junk food.

A big tube of Pringles is well over £2. You can buy a 500g bag of pasta for comfortably under 50p, a 400g of tinned tomatoes for well under 40p, an onion and some garlic for next to nowt.

Even allowing for a little oil and seasonings that you’ll need from the cupboard, that will create a simple meal that’ll take 30 minutes at most, in one pan on one hob, and will be infinitely cheaper and better for up to four people eating it than that single tube of Pringles for one small child.

So, irrespective of the cooker – let’s take autumn as the opportunity to get cooking proper, real food for ourselves and our families!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Tamara de Lempicka – painting the Jazz Age

Auto-Portrait (1925)
Art Deco and decadence – a lovely, stylish combination. And when you throw in a spot of debauchery, it comes close to perfection.

Back in July, during a ramble around the Pompidou in Paris, we came across works by Tamara de Lempicka in the flesh (so to speak) for the first time.

While the style of her portraits is familiar – how many of them have been used as set decorations for film and TV because they instantly scream out the period? – the selection on view also included Still Life With Arums and Mirror from 1938, providing a further insight.

A few weeks later, I spotted a biography of the artist by Laura Claridge, which promised to be not just about the woman who put the art in Art Deco, but also the aforementioned debauchery, which winning combination marked it out as potentially excellent holiday reading.

It is indeed a very interesting read about an intriguing character who, a tad like Garbo – who she adored and was acquainted with – managed to keep the details of her personal life largely hidden, leaving Claridge with the mammoth task of digging around for evidence.

The nature of de Lempicka’s life also means that there’s a good deal of reliance on newspaper society reports.

Even the year of her birth was difficult to uncover, but is now believed to be 1898. Although a Pole, she lived for some time in her early life in St Petersburg and was there, married to Tadeusz Łempicki and living it up among the upper echelons of that society, utterly unaware of the suffering of millions, when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917.

Fleeing to Paris, de Lempicka decided that she could make a living as an artist and, by 1925, had her first major solo show in Milan.

Tutored by André Lhote, she developed what has been described as ‘soft cubism’, which she combined with vivid colour (although her portraits work within a deliberately limited palette), an intriguing framing of her subjects and a textural finish that was straight out of her beloved Italian Quattrocento.

Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflito (1925)
It was a style that perfectly suited the Jazz Age and has come to exemplify it, combining both a measured coolness and a very direct sexuality.

Indeed, she made full use of the sort of direct gaze that we see in Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (both 1863) and if, by de Lempicka’s time, it was not as likely to cause offense, it still acts as a challenge to the viewer.

It’s present perhaps most famously in Auto-Portrait (1925) – a self-portrait in a Bugatti – which has become an icon of Deco.

But even when the gaze is elsewhere, that hardly changes the sexual nature of many of the pictures, such as in Andromeda (1929), which makes a rather nod toward bondage.

And when, as in The Model (1925), the central figure is actually hiding her face, there can still be no doubting the sexual nature of the picture.

The likes of Perspective (1923) and Group of Four Nudes (1925) are unambiguously sexual in nature, from the facial expressions to the position of the hand on thigh in the former.

But de Lempicka was not just a portraitist – society or otherwise – or a painter of nudes, as her still lives and later, her surrealist and abstract works, show.

Group of Four Nudes (1925)
She went out of fashion for a number of reasons. Partly, because in the post-war world, living in the US, her style didn’t suit the new art climate of abstraction, and in part too, because her position as a socialite was out of touch with the mood.

The latter was absolutely her own fault. Late in her life, Claridge quotes her as regretting all the socialising, which reduced the time she spent painting.

When she was covered in the papers later in her life, it was more for what she served at her parties than for what she served up on canvas, while even decades after leaving for the States, she was almost blanked in Paris by women who remembered the tales of her debauchery.

And a linking in the popular mind of her style of paintings with fascism, however unfairly, didn’t help either.

Some of the post-Jazz Age works – including a famous portrait of a crying Mother Superior (1935) – lapse into a mawkish sentimentality, although La Fuite (1939), featuring a distraught mother with child as storm clouds gather, at least shows not only that she was aware of the coming war but of the impending human tragedy that it would mean.

But the Deco works are superb, and the still lives are excellent too.

Claridge does well with the limited factual information about de Lempicka’s life, in more than one case avoiding the temptation to simply accept established stories in favour of digging deeper.

But there are also times when she makes generalised statements that are simply opinions.

Still Life With a Chair (1942)
For instance, Claridge rightly points out that female artists in the Paris of the early 20th century were regarded highly by and accepted within the art circles of the day – and achieved wider critical success too.

But in terms of that acceptance, she suggests that female artists were expected to engage in the Bohemian life of that community in the city at that time.

Now it might sound rather minor, but the idea – however slight a suggestion it is – that female artists in general had their sexual behavior guided by a desire to be accepted by men rather than by their own desires and the opportunity to enjoy sexual adventures in a much more liberated atmosphere than elsewhere in the society of the day, falls into the trap of attempting to see everything through a certain type of feminist lens.

Some may have felt obliged; others may not.

In the case of de Lempicka – and that is who this book is about – there is no doubt that, sexually, she was entirely her own woman.

She was also undoubtedly a difficult personality – and an absolute bitch to her daughter, Kizette – but then how many great artists or geniuses are ‘normal’?

Claridge’s book is an engaging, informative read. My major complaint is that, although the pages are liberally peppered with black and white illustrations of de Lempicka and her family, there is only a very small section of colour plates, giving only a very small idea of her actual work.

It’s almost as though the author and publishers have fallen into the same kind of reporting of their subject as Claridge notes in the text. And with a lack of titles for whole stages of her work, it’s not easy to track down images online.

So I recommended reading this alongside the Taschen large format De Lempicka, by Gilles Néret, since the pre-Claridge text is accompanied by a mass of beautifully reproduced pictures.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

My kingdom for a knife that cuts!

A knife – that cuts
A knife that cuts, a knife that cuts – my kingdom for a knife that cuts!

It is a mystery – albeit not, perhaps, one of Earth’s greatest – how some people view self catering.

We are, as we have been for the past six summers, in a self-catering cottage in Collioure.

On Saturday, after our overnight sleeper from Paris had pulled to a halt at the little station above the ville, we wandered down into the village, found our abode for the duration and dumped the cases, and headed out to Delice Catalans for breakfast.

A quick stock-up of basics in the little Carrefour followed – water, bog roll, kitchen paper, oil, vinegar, fromage frais and rhubarb compote (the last two combine for my breakfast) – and then it was off to the beach.

We ate out that evening: a pleasant – if not stunning – meal at Saffran Bleu, where we’d first tasted dorade some summers ago.

So why bother with self-catering? There are plenty of reasons: not least, that it is ultimately far more relaxing than having to abide by a hotel’s schedules and, of course, there is the food.

With a twice-weekly market as good as the one here, who wouldn’t want to cater for themselves – at least for part of the time?

Sunday marked this year’s first visit for produce.

First up was the usually grumpy man at the organic tomato stall, who grinned broadly, reached over the orange, green, striped, yellow and red tomatoes to shake my hand and ask how I was.

A bag of these divine fruits in hand – I really do dream about them for 13 months of the year – I headed to find Caro, who sells lovely charcuterie and regional cheeses. Fruit was added, and a campagne gris from the nearest boulangerie.

That done, it was back to the house and, with everything neatly stashed in it’s proper place, off to the beach, where Cyril had transats waiting for us.

Lunch brought with it our second chance to eat out.

This was, as per annual ritual, at St Elme, which is right behind the beach. It’s rather touristy, and I get bored of it very quickly, but for the first few days, it hits the spot.

We had steak haché with a fried egg and chips.

But it was in the evening, after we’d returned from sunning ourselves, that the problem hit: where oh where was there a knife that would cut charcuterie and tomato and fruit?

Last year, we had the lunacy of an electric bin: this year, there is not a knife in the place that will cut anything other than hot butter.

There is lashings of cutlery, a plethora of glasses and plenty of plates – but just two paring knives that could be safely given to a toddler, a small serrated knife that is hardly razor sharp, and a bread knife for ... well, bread.

Fortunately, the oversight does not extend to a bottle opener.

What sort of self-catering does that represent?

That night, we muddled through. On Monday, however, with no obvious kitchenware shop in the village, I headed to a local shop that specialises in knives and the odd samurai sword jobby; so sharp it could split a hair. I even managed a conversation with the man in the shop after he asked if it was for a present, using my pigeon French to explain the situation.

He indicated that it was a similar issue in many of the houses that are let.

Later, The Other Half put it to me that, if I was letting for the summer months, I wouldn’t leave my knives out for just anyone.

“Well no,” I observed. “My Sabatiers and Zwilling-Henckels would be under lock and key. But I’d equally make damned sure that were still solid, sharp knives around, together with something with which to sharpen them, other than a steel or the doorstep”.

I’d also ensure, come to that, that chopping boards were labeled – there’s no way of knowing which one has been used for what in previous weeks and months.

Just two hobs (and a microwave)
However, the Opinel allowed us to continue with our simple evening repasts of charcuterie, tomato and bread (plus rosé, of course) with much increased ease.

For lunch on Monday, we returned to St Elme, where I joyfully wolfed a plate of gambas with persillade, aïoli and frites.

On Tuesday, doing so little that the nearest we got to the beach was lunching at the back of one, we hit my beloved Au Casot, where I wolfed baby squid, with persillade, aïoli, tiny tomatoes and wafer-thin slices of roasted potato.

I haven’t relished food so much for a long time – both meals were as perfect as they could be.

And so as it turned out, Wednesday was my first night of actual cooking.

There is no oven, but just two rings on a tiny hob.

I had bought boudin Catalan – the regional, lightly spiced  version of black pudding; always a treat – a tin of potatoes, a jar of haricots blanc and an onion.

The thinking was that I could cook the onion in the pan to which would, late on, be added the sliced boudin, while the beans and spuds could be cooked in another pan, in some olive oil.

That, however, had been based on an absurd assumption that a reasonably large saucepan and a frying pan would fit on the aforementioned dinky hob. Fat chance.

As I confided to The Other Half: thank goodness this hadn’t happened five years ago, because I’d have been flummoxed.

The onion thinly sliced – thanks to that rather fabulous Opinel – I let it soften gently in olive oil for some time, before adding some of the haricot blanc, drained and dried.

Heating a generous amount of olive oil in a saucepan, I drained and dried some of the potatoes and then added them to the hot oil.

After around 15 minutes, sliced boudin joined the onion and beans, and was warmed through gently for a further 10 minutes, turning the pudding slices once.

All was served with a generous dollop of sweet, grainy French mustard.

I must say, it was perfectly fine fodder – but bugger me sideways with last year’s Christmas tree, this was cooking as a challenge, in the face of ridiculous obstacles!

So I ask – what do some people imagine ‘self-catering’ means? And this in France, of all places – sacredieu!