I was following my list religiously. The washing tabs, washing up liquid and several other household items were in the trolley, their names dutifully ticked off on my list which is less of an aide memoire and more of a memoire replacement. I think I first heard the voices as I was searching for soda crystals: had Joan of Arc heard these voices it would have saved a lot of trouble because they were the voices of American comedians saying “fuck” quite a lot and the voices were coming from the PA system and not from Heaven. Old Britpop and trashy Europop, which I love, are the usual fare for background shopping musak in this supermarché ( I added the accent to work up the French atmosphere) so the change to aggressively funny New York comedians was a surprise. Owing to the current allied invasion of France it is not unusual to hear announcements in English but the manager’s decision to go for an edgy comedy show could be thought of as innovative but history, or his boss, would call it insane and show him the door. My list was long and I can’t remember being conscious of the voices for the full duration of my shopping but each time I heard an expletive followed by canned laughter I was surprised that only I seemed surprised. And then I was pushing my trolley through the car park and unloading it into the boot of the car. As I headed for the trolley parking station my surprise turned to disbelief that any management would decide to pump out what seemed like Richard Pryor on meths in the car park of their establishment as though a cheery “fuck off” would be a excellent bonjour or aurevoir to their regular clients. Sitting in the peace of the car, it being electric there is very little noise, I thought I’d ring Jenny to let her know I was on my way home and it was then that I noticed my phone was talking American to me….loudly. I now know how Podcasts work and I hope everyone at Super U enjoyed the show,
I have recently been reading a novel by William Boyd in which one of the protagonists, a brilliant piano tuner, speaks of a certain sequence of chords and harmonies which, when played by a virtuoso, would, without fail, bring tears to the eyes of a listener. Certain combinations of tastes and textures have a similar effect on me save that I internalise my tears saving the ” I must have something in my eye” for moments such as this piece by Michael Kamen that always does it ….https://youtu.be/GA2FOVlNb6Q…..I’m blubbing at 1 minute 6 secs into the music.
Anchovies, capers and olive oil are tastes that create a gustatory chord that leaves not a dry eye in the house. Yesterday, flicking through images on Instagram, a simple shot of anchovy fillets on buttered bread had the “tears” welling up and before you could say ” I could really do with a plate of that stuff, maybe on buttered toast and with something else to kick the flavour button a little bit more” I was in the kitchen slicing bread and thinking. This is where “toast” came into the equation and where it was soundly rejected, despite the success of the book and the show, in favour of a small black frying pan and a spoonful of olive oil. Bread quickly fried in olive oil is as good as a plate on which to lay anchovy fillets and capers but, for the sake of a good picture, I weakened and used a traditional ceramic one. The addition of slivers of preserved lemons, which I’d just bought for a tagine that I’m about to make, was a good move and, after a couple of mouthfuls, I realised that I’d need my handkerchief as I appeared to have got something in my eye.
With the arrival of “summer” I’ve started drawing again. In previous summers I have found that the simple pleasure of being in the garden, warmed by the sun and surrounded by colour has made me want to draw. This year’s pale imitation of a summer has been enervating but, to my surprise, despite the cold and rain, the pleasure of making drawings has, like the rest of nature, returned from its winter migration.
If anyone should be interested. prints of these images are available on canvas or as giclée prints.
I’m one of the easiest people in the world to talk to which means that it’s a rare waking moment when I and I are not chewing the fat which term is far from apposite as I and I is vegetarian. It’s not a question of advancing years or retreating sanity that brings me into such close communication with myself as I’ve talked to myself for as long as I can remember which is an unreliable time frame with regard to memory as I instantly forget the names of people to whom I’ve just been introduced. That aside, there’s no one I would rather cook with than myself as it precludes any criticism or I told you so’s which are disheartening when I’m clearly fucking up as was the case when recently making Creme Caramel. I say “clearly” but what is now clear is that the clear errors were not apparent to I and I at the time although we were congratulating each other on a job well done as we unwittingly sank deeper and deeper into the moving sands of the dessert.
“If you’re feeling brave, tip the sugar directly into a thick bottomed pan and let it melt over a low heat”…challenged the author of the chosen recipe. Madness, I said to myself, and myself replied “If this is madness then I am a friend of folly” and tipped the sugar directly into the pan. Gently swirling the pan from time to time produced a warm brown bubbling caramel, as you can see from the picture above, and both I and I were confident that it was right…….boiling sugar does not lend itself to tasting and I was sure that once upon a time I had had a sugar thermometer by I couldn’t remember where I or I had put it so the caramel was tipped into the waiting dish where it quickly set into a perfect dark mirror. To my and I’s mind the difficult part was over. All that was left to do was pour a rich, vanilla flavoured custard over the dark mirror, put the dish in a bain marie and thence to the oven for an hour.
The hour passed reasonably quickly as one of us danced embarrassingly to jazz music from a French radio station whilst the other hid his face in his hands wishing he was with anyone but himself. The timer thankfully blew full time and the Creme Caramel saw its first moment of daylight and, without question, it was a ringer for the dog’s bollocks….why do I say things like that I said to myself who in turn said ” you’ve got fucking Tourette’s, that’s why”. At this point you may wonder what could be wrong with this paragon of a pudding and it was only after the recommended 12 hours chilling in the fridge that its true character came to light. The Rothko like surface of the pudding, as seen in the picture above, had become a pale, wrinkled covering and a spoon dug in revealed a far too thin layer of custard and a rather bitter caramel…..an altogether acquired taste. Our post mortem concluded that the caramel had cooked for a couple of minutes too long and it also dragged out another couple of truths which I thought I had safely hidden from myself. First of these was the sin of halving a recipe under the belief that it will work as normal and, adding injury to insult, only halving certain parts of the recipe. ….and there was no vanilla sugar in the custard as one of me had forgotten that there was no more in the cupboard.
I have talked myself into a replay next week once I have found the thermometer ( or me or myself chooses to make the caramel the easy way with water) and when the vanilla sugar cupboard is fully restocked.
There is an incremental development in both success and pleasure, when cooking on open wood fires, that depends on the near divine alignment of fair weather, the freshest and finest of ingredients and, above all, on the design, construction and viability of the installation upon which one will be cooking. Last Thursday, the last day of February, was as a perfect day in June although the arc of the sun was that little bit lower and the softer light created long shadows with deeply saturated colour. Therefore, the first of the suggested trinity, the weather, was beyond reproach and, if the February weather was June, the ingredients were July: Chateaubriand, épaule d’agneau, shortrib, aile de raie, cod, poussins, quails, fennel, beetroot, green radish, kohlrabi, shallots, bok choy, aubergines ….we were submerged in a sea of mouthwatering possibility. The extensive and brutalist outdoor kitchen, furnished with fire pits and grills, perched on a hill overlooking a patchwork of forest and farmland which is the Vendéen bocage, completed the trinity.
And then the fires are burning, the fat is spitting and the spits are turning. We, in the words of Mr Tarantino, are getting mediaeval on, if not the asses, then the shoulders, fillets and ribs of a variety of meat and fishes. There is something very visceral and stimulating in this style of cooking. The various dishes being prepared are not concealed in lidded pans nor hidden behind closed oven doors; they are twisting and turning, charring and caramelising behind a curtain of flames and smoke: this is beyond theatre, this is an eruption. The surprise is that such delicate cooking emerges from this sizzling, smokefilled maelstrom.
This is world without egg timers and oven gloves. this is a world where looking, smelling and tasting are the yardsticks. Everything is hot and fingers act as thermometers while the words of Marco Pierre White ring in our ears “God would not have given you fingers if he didn’t intend them to be burned”. Down in the fire pit, away to the side and clear of the flames, sit large foil wrapped packages filled with beetroots and heavily spiced cauliflowers.
As the fires die down, after a long day of photography and cooking, and the dishes that were created in the fire and the smoke are served on simple white plates on the long oak table in the cool of the house, it takes a leap of faith to remember that this delicacy was forged in a raging inferno.
The man behind the pans and in front of the flames is Matt Clark who, together with his wife Emily, runs an exciting outfit called Big in France which offers a multitude of cookery, photography and yoga course from their properties in the Sud Vendée, near to the Atlantic coast of France. I think you’d enjoy it.
An irresistible play on words that was not resisted. It would seem so, but there is some small piece of reasoning behind the word play. The etymology of the word onion reveals the Latin noun “unio, unionis” as a possible derivation and the Latin noun “unio” translates into English as “a single large pearl”. With that in mind, together with the blue of the string and strands of “hair”, I was drawn inexorably to choose “The Pearl with an Onion Earring” as the title of this, the third in my new series of Kitchen Art giclée prints.
All the details and prices can be found at The French Print House.