……………. absurdly expensive jewellry should come equipped with thorns…..
……………. absurdly expensive jewellry should come equipped with thorns…..
As an archivist I would make an excellent document shredder. I have been a professional photographer for 50 years yet, from the paucity of hard evidence confirming that boast, it would be easier to believe that there is intelligent life in the White House. It was only after writing yesterday’s post, in which I recounted my après-photography antics in a darkened room that left me well lit but severely over exposed, that I had a dim memory of seeing one of the “outs” from that shoot which accounts for the image above and which suggests that I was not always a food photographer ….doesn’t it? We left on the Sloop John something or other which was in fact a beautiful old wooden ketch. On board were the skipper and mate, the model and me and my assistant. On the near horizon was a huge motor yacht that the agency had also wisely hired on board of which were the art director, copy writer and other important folk together with much of the production of Reims and Cognac which they had wisely mixed together in order to create clarity in decision making. Those on the motor yacht would watch over us and send us messages indicating what they thought would look good. As this was many years before mobile phones I can only image this was done with flags or bottles with messages within. The flags would not have worked as the skipper of our yacht was blind, which would also render useless the messages in bottles, and so, as in wars and politics, we just blindly buggered on. The point of the shot was indeed very finely honed….in concept. The picture was to be part of a campaign to launch Femail, a supplement to that beacon of truth and honesty, The Daily M…can’t bring myself to write it. My particular endeavour was to portray a fab young lady in yellow gumboots as a hoary old sea dog in sole charge of her own destiny…..there she was at the helm of a 36ft sailing boat, eyes fixed on the distant shore which was good as the skipper behind had seen his last distant shore some time ago and I personally felt that we were in deep shit. I, in fact, was in a black rubber suit strapped to the gunwhale which is no more technical than it is painful and just kept taking pictures and dreaming of the day when I would be food photographer.
Eating outside at night is clear evidence of summer; being comfortable and warm whilst eating outside is clear evidence of a perfect summer night. It only takes one forgetful old man repeating a well worn story for the umpteenth time to bring such a night to its knees, begging for mercy. So here I go. It was a warm and gentle night and the photographer said to his assistant “come for a swim, assistant” and the assistant said “but I have no swimmers” to which the photographer said “bollocks, you can swim in your pants and I know a secret route to the swimming pool through the maze of corridors in this very expensive and exclusive hotel”, where we were staying because we’d been shooting a highly paid advertising job and the client was paying, “enabling us to reach the pool unseen” and so saying walked boldly through an unmarked door into the heart of the packed restaurant whose clientele were now like frozen figures from a Bateman cartoon as they looked in amazement at the man in smart black underpants with a folded white towel over one arm, starkly lit by a flaming crepe Suzette, like a disturbed waiter who had spent his tips on drugs. By this point I am alone at the table, Jenny and our friends having left out of fear that I might remember some other oft repeated tale……so it was left to me to eat the best part of a perfectly ripe Reblochon with a bunch of sweet, dark skinned grapes and good bread…..a very good night, I thought.
I dislike fridge door stickers a lot. They, like limpets on a boat’s bottom, appear out of nowhere and multiply. Fridge door stickers, limpets and flies may well come from the same family. Summer time is indeed here and the living is easy but it is not little babies that are spreading their wings it’s a monstrous horde of flies and I….I am bored of the flies. Keeping flies off the food while cooking demands the skills of a retiarius …I enter the kitchen to the roar of the extractor and washing machine to be confronted by a host of flies…. moving silently on the balls of my feet around the
arena kitchen, armed with nothing but a fly swat and net, I relentlessly dispatch winged opponents one after another yet on they come: mine not to question why, mine but to kill a fly. There is an edge to cooking with, should I say in the company of, flies; an edge that does not allow an unguarded moment, an edge that demands that one forgoes the pleasure of self congratulation on taking a shimmering gold frittata from the oven, an edge that demands that a lid be put on it at once, an edge that says that nothing edible may be left uncovered for a moment. My summer kitchen has become a culinary seraglio wherein reside warm tarts and frittatas, veiled odalisques beneath their protective nets which reveal to the inquisitive eye but a diffused and featureless image save for those unguarded moments when a net is left carelessly drawn aside as in the lewd picture above.
Frittatas are much of a muchness meaning that their muchness depends on how well balanced were the ingredients and seasonings, how good were the eggs and how patient was the cook. The frittata that is the subject of this piece would not have seen the light of that summer’s evening but for our neighbour’s generous and unexpected gift of six fresh eggs, an extraordinarily favourable exchange rate, in return for our donation of a bag of stale bread to be gnawed on and pecked at by her, soon to be dinner, rabbits and chickens.
Our local supermarket’s male employees tend not to be slim, suntanned and, above all, smiling; nor do they wear their hair in the mini ponytail once popular with hipsters and now de rigueur with rugby players but yet there he was….the man from Marseille, purveyor of olives, chillies, pistou, tapenade and confit d’ail, illuminating that bleak nether world that lies between the checkouts and the exits, a purgatory where souls become aware of what they have just spent and that they themselves are spent and yet the day stretches out before them still. In this heart of greyness stood a wooden table laden with so many huge glass bowls in which lay piled the most beautiful fruits of the Mediterranean indolently bathing in golden olive oil. When confronted by a plethora of good things, good things in the way that Jane Grigson wrote of things that she thought to be good, I try to carefully consider which of them I greedily want and which of them I need and, if I conclude that I do indeed need one or some of them, I painstakingly assess which one or ones they may be. Then I take them all….or I would if I could. Shopping for food, be it in a shop, market or, sadly and more usually, in a supermarket, is one of my great pleasures and, as with all my great pleasures, financial probity is my watchword; it might be worth mentioning at this point that in my working life I would regularly receive compliments from my bank and my many suppliers mentioning my “outstanding balance”, indeed, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that few people, apart from the Great Blondin, would have received more.
After several seconds of deep reflection I had narrowed down my selection to but a couple of dozen essential larder items and a few other frivolities…which I quickly rejected on mentally assessing the worth of the loose change in my hand..”be sensible, Roger,” I said to myself “olives and stuff like that can’t cost much” went my thought process ” they grow on trees..and this isn’t a shop, it’s a table, but still, leave out the frivolities, stick to essentials”.
“How much will that be?” I asked, confidently holding out my hand in the palm of which nestled the equivalent of a six year old’s weekly pocket money. Odd how fast a smile can disappear….and how fast I became a mind reader capable of understanding “daft old cunt” in one of the more obscure Marseille patois.
When I returned from the cash machine I handed over a king’s ransom ( not a very important or well loved king it must be said) and left with three little bags of essentials. There is a happy ending to this story and here it is:
A small tart of tapenade, mozzarella and tomatoes by me
For tarts like this I always use a pate brisée from Patricia Wells’ “Bistro Cooking”…but use what you like, although I definitely would advise shortcrust over puff pastry for this tart.
175gms ordinary flour
105gms cold butter, cut into pieces
pinch of sea salt
3 tbsps of iced water
Put the flour and butter in a food processor and process for about 10 secs until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the iced water and then pulse 6-8 times until it starts to come together. Do not let it form a ball. Remove from the processor and place on grease proof paper. Flatten the dough to a disc, wrap and refrigerate.
For the filling:
I just made a small tart with some left over pastry so it’s up to you to decide on quantities for the filling. The idea is to line a tart tin with the pastry and chill it for 30 mins. Then spread tapenade over the base of the tart. Take some creme fraiche, beat grated Parmesan into it and spread a layer over the tapenade. Scatter torn lumps of mozzarella over this, season with black pepper, and then add a layer of slices of real tomatoes, by which I mean tomatoes with good flavour that are not full of seeds. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Cook in a preheated oven of 200C for approximately 45 minutes.
In the words of Edward Izzard “…pears can fuck off..”; so often, as with apricots, who can also fuck off, this advice proves to be invaluable to the shopper who yearns to be satisfied by one fruit or another. How often have I arrived home from market, hopelessly aroused by the thought of sinking my teeth into the bum cheeks of a soft golden fruit that will spurt juice over my face and make me shout aloud that indeed I can get some satisfaction which climactic moment is denied me by the realisation that the mouthful of mealy mush that is activating my gag reflex is due to my foolish apprehension of incurring the wrath of the stall holder which prevented me from palpating the seductively curvaceous bottom of each and every apricot to confirm condition….and, the apricot having a flirtatious nature, even this test can so easily fail. The noble pear, bearer of such reputable names as Bon Chretien or Joséphine de Malines, is no less capable of delivering crushing disillusionment. As Professor Izzard so wisely noted ” the fucker is only ripe for 30 seconds” which is why, much as I relish the idea of biting on a fresh and perfect pear, I tend to cook them.
There are few months of the year which I don’t consider to be the very best time for cooking as I’m more than content to cook with each season’s offerings. On reflection, the only times when I am not happy to cook are those times when I am not happy and the long sunny days of June, when night is an after thought, are not such a time. It might be that summer food is less demanding, that summer cooking demands less cooking, less sturm und drang because the kitchen gardens and the orchards are filling the shops and markets with the fastest of fast foods which, for their short lives, are full of their intended flavour unlike their bland doppelgangers who are miraculously on display for the full twelve months of each year and whose lives appear to be without end or point…..which brings me to remember why I started writing this piece. Yesterday evening I turned on the television to find myself looking into the eyes of a man who stood immobile, perspiration running down his face, whilst the voice of a female martinet demanded that the next thing she wanted to hear him say was a number and nothing more. The perspiring man’s eyes suggested that he didn’t know the number that would satisfy her but settled on £2,o00,000 which can normally be counted on to please the angriest of martinets. It transpired that he was being questioned about his business plans by possible financial backers and that his business was a chain of fast food restaurants. It was the intervention of another of the grand inquisitors that caught my attention. His opening address was to tell the dripping victim, while brandishing a copy of the restaurant’s menu like a damning piece of evidence, that not only was his plan rubbish but even his own children could have designed a better looking menu than the one in his hand which statement produced a flicker of hope in the prisoner’s eyes as he considered asking how much they would charge for such a commission but thought better of it, much to my disappointment. The tirade of abuse moved on to the descriptions of the food on offer and the fact that there were only twelve options of fast food dishes on the “badly designed menu”and if he, the grand inquisitor, was going to eat out somewhere he would expect more variety to which the beggar in the dock replied “but there are over 12,ooo possible combinations that you could order from the crap on my menu ” ( I added “crap” in the spirit of Gerald Ratner who was doing very well selling crap until he advised his clientele that what he was selling them was indeed crap). Breath taking. The show was over for me at this point and undoubtedly over for him but I could just press a button to end the pain. What interested me was the inquisitors’ condemnation of a plan that seemed identical to the main fast food outlets in the world who all have “badly designed menus” and who all sell a drearily limited range of foodstuffs that can be ordered in a multitude of combinations and that are loved by the majority of living beings ( dogs will eat Mac whatevers but I fucking won’t) and which, more to the point if you are a putative financial backer, make unbelievable fortunes for the purveyors. But, as I have successfully remained unencumbered with a fortune I’m probably not the right man to question their judgement…..and so back to fast food.
The dish in the picture, which comes from a feature on Summer Anitpasti written by Rachel Roddy, is as fast as a dish can be save eating a pea from the pod. Courgettes are are cut into long strips, with a potato peeler or mandolin, seasoned and marinated in lemon juice with torn basil leaves. We ate it as a side dish with a very good baked omelette, stuffed with rocket, and served at room temperature more of which at another time.
A very depressing aphorism suggests that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it which seems contradictory to me as the sole chance of eating one’s cake is indeed to have it, if only for that short time until it has been eaten, thoroughly enjoyed and all that remains is a memory: as with life itself. Making cake myself allows me to prolong that enjoyment through the look of and feel of the stuff with which I make it, through the warmth of the oven, the scent of cooking and the anticipation of how good it may be : as with life. This sunny morning reminded me of yesterday’s cake, the remains of which, both yesterday and the cake, are pictured above whilst at the same time bringing to mind a piece from Henry Thoreau’s “Walden”…..which wonderful book, if you haven’t yet read, please do.
“Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or
flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.”
Raspberry and Amaretti Cake . a BBC Good Food recipe
175g soft butter
175g golden caster sugar
140g self raising flour
85g ground almonds
140g amaretti biscuits, roughly broken
1.Preheat oven to 160C. Butter and line a 20cm loose bottomed cake tin. Put the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and ground almonds into a large bowl and beat them with an electric hand whisk until all are well blended.
2.Spread half the cake mix on the base of the cake tin and scatter over half of the amaretti biscuits followed by a third of the raspberries. Very lightly press into the cake mixture.
3.Dollop dessert spoonfuls of the remaining cake mixture over the amaretti biscuits and raspberries and spread evenly. Scatter the remaining biscuits and half the remaining raspberries over the top. Bake for 55-60mins or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
4.Cool for 15mins in the tin then run a knife around the edge and turn out…..sprinkle with icing sugar and scatter the remaining raspberries over the cake when serving.
This morning I awoke to the scent of wood smoke; a scent so filled with memories that I wished it could somehow be preserved. On inspection it was clear that some red hot ashes, all that remained of last night’s log fire, had metamorphosed the wood burner into a thurible. Quiet mornings scented with coffee and wood smoke are things of literary imagination, so I count myself fortunate each time that I live one. Silence always surprises me by its enveloping noise; a mesmerising comforting hissing in my head…walking on a soft wool rug and then cool tiles to the kitchen to turn on the radio and end it……and I’m back in the noise and talking back to presenters and callers alike whilst wondering what sort of person is moved to pick up a phone at this most peaceful time in the mistaken belief that whatever he has to say will have any effect on anything save for relieving his irritable phone bile. The kitchen is a good starting place for the day, for my day; my thoughts about food start early even if eating doesn’t as, against all given opinion, my breakfast has always been continental in nature: coffee…which somehow takes me back some 50 years to chill grey early morning Paris streets, wet and empty save for street cleaners and other survivors of a night at Castel’s or New Jimmy’s waiting for somewhere, anywhere, to open its doors and offer the sustenance of a café Calva, or several…..now unimaginable, now barely remembered. But the taste of and for Calvados remains. Fruit based alcools blancs are not only singularly good digestifs but, as an ingredient, they have the sorcerer’s ability to enchant, to change a dessert from very good to, I would like to say ethereal, but memorable. Pears and Poire William, apples and Calvados, plums and Quetsche, mirabelles ( how I love these little golden fuckers which, in our house, never last long enough to become part of a dessert) with Mirabelle, raspberries with Framboise and cherries with Kirsch….when there’s fruit on the trees and bushes and alcools blancs in the larder then there’s pudding in the house.
Wash and wipe the cherries. Cut the stems of the cherries in half with scissors and prick each cherry with a clean needle. Put the cherries and sugar into the clean jars and fill with Kirsch until the cherries are covered. Add half a vanilla pod to each jar. Leave the cherries to macerate in the jars for 3 months away from the daylight, preferably in a clean, dry cupboard. During the first week shake the bottles gently to help dissolve the sugar evenly.
Very good with coffee or with chocolate.
Manneken Pis, Pissenlit, Pisse-Dru, Tant Pis, Pissaladiere…there’s something very French about pissing; about not searching for a convenient bush or shady corner but just having a piss when the moment takes you. I should make it clear that this is singularly, to my knowledge, a male habit. The iconic circular pissoire, a form of communal metal mini skirt covering the unmentionables but leaving the head and legs revealed to the vulgar gaze, which were installed in towns and cities for the protection of tourists’ eyes from the unedifying sight of group male urination, is as defining of France as is the Eiffel Tower which, in all its phallic glory, surprisingly isn’t surmounted by a fountain. This is not the case in the French countryside where, on occasion, I have been in conversation with a French acquaintance or a neighbour who, in mid flow as it were, has decided to have a piss and without ado has had one. In our small farming community, where everything that moves is either pissing or shitting, I find the idea and the practice quite sane whereas Jenny thinks it is completely insane and yet another clear illustration of men having a problem of keeping it in their trousers. In defense of French males, I think it is linked to the lack of importance that they place on basic bodily functions which is illustrated in their choice of profanities. Body parts are not part of the local profane vocabulary whereas, in England, it would be nigh impossible to engage in a full blooded road or referee rage without running the full gamut of ersatz biological references.
All that withstanding, today we are solely concerned with the pleasure afforded by Pissaladière, a traditional Provencal tart of melted onions, which gains its name from its original seasoning with “pissalat” which was a form of the ancient Roman condiment known as “garum”. Back in the days when it was usual for local fishermen to sell their catch as their sole form of income, they would keep the smallest fish for themselves. These tiny anchovies and sardines, with their heads and tails removed, would be preserved in glass jars in layers alternating between salt, thyme and bay leaves and finally topped with a layer of salt. After several weeks this produced a purée which, when carefully sieved, was called “pissala” and this, with the addition of olive oil, was kept as a seasoning. “Pissalat”, if it still exists, is a rarity and, in the case of pissaladière, has been replaced by anchovies preserved in salt or oil. Aside from onions and anchovies, patience is the next most important ingredient in producing a worthy example of this traditional recipe. There is no short cut to the process of melting sliced onions, flavoured with olive oil, thyme and bay leaf, so that they slowly transmogrify into a soft, glistening mass of gold with no sign of catching or burning: only watchfulness and care will allow this to happen. My system is to slice the onions and put them directly into a heavy lidded pan, on a low heat, so that the onions slowly release their water. When this has happened, lift off the lid to evaporate the water and then add olive oil, herbs, a pinch of sugar and some anchovies. Then begins the slow melting process which may take 40 minutes or more; the anchovies will melt into the onions adding that extra layer of flavour that is essential in a good pissaladière. As for the base ……sometimes I will make one but in this case I used a ready made puff pastry which worked well for me but would be scorned by the aficionados who I hadn’t, and even if I knew any wouldn’t have, invited to share it with me. My second cardinal sin was to use capers rather than the small, bitter black olives de Nice….none of which I had in my store cupboard and because I like the sharp vinegary hit that capers offer and because I don’t shy away from cardinal sins as a great deal of pleasure lies in their direction. There is as much need for a recipe for pissaladiére as there is for cooking a baked potato as by making it often you will find out how you like it best, so for now….just put the onions on the pastry, garnish with anchovies and olives or capers and put it into a hot oven until the pastry is golden and a wonderful scent is filling the kitchen. At that point Jenny and I will drink a couple of glasses of very pale, chilled rosé while we talk and wait for the tart to cool.