Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paste of Success



THE MOTHER of invention has several names. Some identify her as necessity, others war. I have just added another moniker to her list – stupidity, or more specifically, forgetfulness.

My wife wanted to make a tarte Tatin, the wonderful upside-down fruit pie so justifiably a staple French dessert. Happy to speed the arrival of what would be a lunchtime treat, I trundled down to the corner shop to buy the butter it demanded. While there I spotted a pack of pork liver paté, reduced in price to just 60 pence.

I adore meat paté. It has everything on its side, being portable, spreadable and usually tasty. It’s a fantastic core element in sandwich-making, but is equally good at packing flavour and texture into a meat sauce, casserole or stew. If you throw some into the soffrito stage and heat it gently along with whatever combination of onions, carrot and celery your vegetable drawer throws up, the paté will render down into nothing but richness and underlying flavour. Finely-diced chorizo and salami has a similar effect, by the way.

The redoubtable Elizabeth David writes rather sniffily back in 1960 that “with the excepton of the incomparable pâté de foie gras, bought pâtés in England are seldom very satisfactory, and it is not difficult to make your own”. Indeed it isn’t, and I predict further publication on this matter very soon, pending some experiments to be carried out in conjunction with my ex-butcher-and-obsessive-cook mate Lee. But in the half century since David compiled the first edition of her seminal French Provincial Cooking there has been a bought paté revolution in the UK. Both delicatessens and supermarkets have brought us an array of mass-produced-but-delicious patés and terrines, which for me have firmly laid the ghost of the borderline-revolting ‘sandwich spread’ that for a while (during the early 1980s, I think) featured in my school-years packed lunches. You can even find decent, basic pork liver paté on offer in Sheffield corner shops. For 60 pence.

My surprise bonus lunch, however, threw up two issues as I trudged the snowy length of my street. Pretty quickly I realised that what was really required in wintry weather was something warm to eat. I was almost home when I also recalled that we were out of bread, which really is far and away the best stodge I have ever paired with paté. I had two choices: ditch the whole idea and put some leftovers in the microwave or think on my feet. Situational analysis, a military type might call it. There is a saying in our household inspired by Jack Reacher, the leading character in author Lee Child’s excellent range of thrillers. A former military investigator turned drifter, Reacher finds himself in situations that require accurate assessment of situations, and swift action. Usually involving the demise of a character on the wrong side of his faultless moral compass. “What would Jack do?” we ask ourselves when something arises that requires us to act.

My survey threw up several key factors: the shop was a long way away (I’m not turning all fat and lazy – it is a distinctly long street); it was cold; my wife was about to fire up the oven to create her tarte tatin; I might have lacked actual bread at home, but I did have flour, bicarbonate of soda and yoghurt. The plan dictated by these was simple but beautifully efficient: wait for her pie to cook, use the hot oven to bake a loaf of soda bread, and while that heated through, invent a way to serve a large slice of smooth pork liver paté piping hot. Chuck the whole lot on the table with a pot of fresh tea, and gorge. Mrs White and I could be in lunchtime Nirvana within the hour.

Soda bread is a lazy or disorganized cook’s very best friend. Done right, it has lovely flavour and texture, is best eaten straight from the oven, and can be brought together within half an hour. It involves no leavening, so one needs not engage in the faff of raising, knocking back and general loafing around while yeasts have sugar-fuelled orgies of not-quite sex. I have for years used the no-nonsense recipe given in Delia Smith’s Cookery Course for sour cream soda bread, adapted to use live yoghurt instead of soured cream because that’s what we generally have a pot of malingering on a fridge shelf. Reaching for it, I realised with horror that this was the one cookbook I left in our old kitchen in Italy, when we returned recently to make Sheffield our main home. What would Jack do? Assess. And recall that thankfully my friend Simon gave me Delia’s recessionary cash-in of a recompilation, Frugal Food, a couple of Christmases ago. Such a book would surely contain a soda bread recipe.

As it turned out it features one better than the original. Acceding to the request of my friend and regular reader Duncan, I will from today include recipes in this blog. Listed below is my adaption of Delia’s fine work. Reading through it, I became a little worried that there was nothing biological in it to help the bicarbonate of soda create air bubbles. So I substituted yoghurt, water and a dash of full-fat milk for the semi-skimmed milk Ms Smith stipulates. She also called for a little cream of tartar to be added, but I had none. So I added a little olive oil and extra salt for flavour instead.

Creating the loaf couldn’t be easier: simply throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, mix it into a dough, knead it for a short while and shape it into a flat, rounded form of your choosing. I favour a circle for use at table, but you can do what you like. Years ago I worked in an Italian restaurant where the chef would cook bread in the shape of male genitalia, to amuse lady customers on their birthdays. Once placed on a baking sheet, there are a few formalities required. It isn’t strictly necessary, but I like a loaf to have a little colour. So I put a little milk in the now-empty yoghurt container and mixed it with any remaining yoghurt using a brush. I painted the top of the loaf with this ad-hoc glaze. I happened to have both black and white sesame seeds in stock, so I sprinkled some over the loaf. You can use sesame, sunflower, hemp, pumpkin or pretty much any seeds to top a loaf, if you like. Then I cut the top with a sharp knife. This lets heat into the centre while baking, but can also prove functional once baking is complete. I wanted to plop the loaf onto the table, tear off chunks of it and spread them with paté. So I cut halfway through the loaf in a close grid pattern. After ten minutes or so the loaf was risen enough to open out these cuts. Half an hour of baking later, it was ready.

During that half hour I thought fast. My paté was made of pork, so the obvious accompaniment would be an apple flavour. Thankfully I had a bottle of cider brandy lurking on the kitchen top. I resolved to sear the paté in a little very hot fat, then pour on some brandy. The alcohol would evaporate rapidly, leaving a lingering cidery, brandyish aroma to complement the meat. At least, it would had not some unnamed, accursed drunkard drained the bottle previously. Assessment time again. Jack, I decided, would check the larder, which in a Sheffield terraced house is known as the ‘cellar head’ – the shelves at the top of the basement steps. A swift reconnaissance of this yielded some cherry vodka I made last year. I swept the fruit bowl and discovered an orange. Working on the logic that it gets very hot and so makes great roast potatoes, I heated goose fat in a thick-bottomed frying pan. I added a little vegetable oil too, in case my logic proved flawed. The paté would have to cook fast, and without sticking to the bottom, for this to work. Once the fat began to smoke I turned the block of paté into the pan and seared it on both sides, keeping it moving. Then I squeezed orange juice on and around it, followed by a decent amount of cherry vodka. The result was wonderful – a nicely-browned piece of paté, and a deep-fruity reduction with a bit of bite. I guess a chef might call this a jus, but I feel more comfortable with the term sauce, for such a quotidian dish.

Tea was poured, bread was pulled from the oven and the table set. We simply yanked lumps of it from the loaf, spread them with paté, swept them through the sauce and consumed. The combination of savoury meat flavour, fruit sweetness, warmth, melt-in-mouth texture and sturdy soda bread was fantastic – real winter food. And by the time we had finished the tarte tatin was at a perfect temperature for devouring. It’s a dish that needs to cool for a little before being attacked, to avoid sustaining oral burns from red-hot caramelised sugar. By chance, we had happened upon a wonderful combination for a two-course meal, so I shall include a recipe below. There are many versions of this, but the one we use is to be found in the exquisite France, the beautiful cookbook, published by Merehurst Press in 1989.

Seared paté

    Pork liver paté, sliced into portions or just straight from the pack
    4 tablespoons cherry vodka (damson vodka or sloe gin would possibly work well, too)
    Juice of one orange
    About a dessert spoon of goose fat, and/or vegetable oil

Heat the fat and/or oil until smoking slightly in a thick-bottomed skillet or frying pan. Place the block of paté in as gently as possible to avoid setting the fat off spitting. Sear quickly on both sides, then allow to heat most of the way through, which should take about three minutes. The outside should brown, and the paté change colour. When there is a line of pink left in the centre, pour the orange juice and cherry vodka over the paté. Cook both sides to let some of the flavour seep in. Turn off the heat before the sugars in the liqueur start to burn. Turn onto a plate and serve.

Irish soda bread

    225g/8oz wholemeal flour
    225g/8oz plain flour
    1 tsp salt
    1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
    1 tsp sugar
    50g/2oz butter
    275ml/½pint live yoghurt mixed with water, slightly more water than yoghurt
    A dash of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/gas mark 5. Sift the flours, salt, bicarbonate of soda and sugar into a large bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until thoroughly blended. Mix in the olive oil. Gradually mix in the milk, first with a spoon and then with your hands, to make a soft dough. Knead this for a minute or two, either in the bowl or on a flour-dusted surface. Shape it neatly into a shape of your choice. Place on a greased or floured baking sheet or wide, flat tin. Glaze with milk or yoghurt if you fancy and sprinkle on some seeds if you fancy. Score the top of the loaf in a pattern that suits your purposes, then leave the loaf to rise a little for 10 minutes. Place in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Serve as soon as it is cool enough to eat. Soda bread rarely keeps long, but to give it a fighting chance store it wrapped in tinfoil. If you have any left, that is.

Tarte Tatin

    90g/3oz butter
    90g/3oz sugar
    1.5kg/3lb apples. Eating apples give a better flavour.
    Block of puff pastry. You could bother making your own, but the bought stuff is just fine

Preheat the oven to 215˚C/425˚F. Grease a skillet, if you have one, or a round cake tin if not, with ⅔ of the butter, then sprinkle over ⅔ of the sugar. Core and peel the apples, then cut in two. Set the halves upright, tightly-packed in the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar and butter (cut into small pieces). Place the pan over medium heat and cook for 20 minutes or so, or until a light caramel forms on the bottom.

Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for five minutes in order to cook the top of the apples. Then remove from the oven. Roll out the pastry dough and place it on top of the pan. Run the rolling pin round the pan rim to remove any overmatter. The dough will drop onto the tops of the apples. Return to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned. Remove from the oven. Place a plate on top of the pan and press it there. Gently tip the pan to pour any excessive juice into a mug or bowl. Then turn the whole lot over. The tarte should drop obediently onto the plate. If any fruit sticks to the pan, don’t panic. Just work it free and put it into place on the pie. If any juice did come out before, pour it onto the top of the tarte. Let it cool for a short while. Serve hot or cold, on its own or with cream.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ship-shape and rissole fashion

“THE SEAFOOD of Venice and the Adriatic coast,” reckons renowned food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, “is easily the best I have ever tasted.” I have no reason to dispute this claim, although personally I also rate the piscine residents of the Cornish coast and whatever delights my mother-in-law’s fish man brings to her home most days, freshly pulled from the Philippine Sea. Steingarten, having been at the top of the food journalism tree for the best part of three decades, knows his stuff. Any claim he makes should be taken fairly seriously.

Besides, I have a strong memory of two amazing hours in Rimini, spent eating the freshest, most wonderful seafood I had ever tasted. I had arrived early on the train, equipped with two pretty, English female friends – fellow exchange students at the University of Bologna. At the same time the local fishing fleet was docking, and largely thanks to the girls I breakfasted with the boatmen, who set up a brazier on the dock, topped it with a paella pan and threw in morsels as they cleaned their catch, plus garlic, onion, stock and white wine, to create first a stir-fry and then a fish stew. Hooked out of the fire on bits of bread it was ambrosial, and promptly spawned in me the kind of hankering for frutti di mare an upbringing in the landlocked hills of Worcestershire had done little to prepare me for.

Twenty years later and living just two hours down the same coast from Rimini, I have somehow managed to visit not a single restaurant in my home town. I’m not quite sure how this has happened, although to be fair, most places have been shut for much of the winter. Still, all that changed today. I arrived home from Abruzzo at one o’clock, starving, and was overjoyed to find that my wife had booked us and visiting friends into a local place for lunch. The Chalet San Marco is famous locally for its seafood, supplied by the proprietor’s very own fishing vessel. Even better, it is about 200 metres from our front door. Our visit was epiphanic. We had fish antipasti cold and hot, frittata and arrosto misti, mussels, clams, a plate of pasta and beautifully-fried curls of potato. Lord knows how, but the children even managed ice cream as we bolted espresso coffee in an attempt to jump-start our digestive systems. We staggered back along the beach nearly three hours later, vowing to return at the earliest opportunity.

Under my arm was a foil-wrapped box containing quite a bit of roasted fish, the overspill from our feast. Adriatic fish tends to be smaller than most, but the species variation is incredible. Not one of the pieces in our doggy bag was the same, ranging from bits of large flat fish to entire, smaller, ugly things. They were fried in breadcrumbs, which rather hampered identification.

But what did I care? The flesh, I had already decided, was destined to become fish cakes. This is a delicacy that occupies a peculiarly divided place in my heart. On the one hand I have become a complete fan of Thai food in recent years, thanks to several brilliant restaurants in the UK and a period of cohabitation with a British/Thai couple. The Thai half was the better cook, and I learned a great deal from watching her at work. Of course, a staple starter at any Thai joint is the fish cake, a light, spicy creation combining herbs, spice and fish in an incredibly satisfying way.





A survey of my life reveals a 15-year, on-off relationship with the marvellous city of Sheffield. I have lived in several other places during that time, but have always maintained some form of reason to either visit Steel City or call it home. I love the place for its easygoing – if a tad morose – locals, its position at the epicentre of the British rock climbing scene and a cosy, villagey feel completely at odds with its status as one of the biggest cities in Britain. These and the fact that many of my mates live there. What fails to draw me is Sheffield’s unique take – it has a unique take on many things, and this isn’t one of its better ones – on the fishcake.

To most Brits a fishcake is pretty much a de-orientalised version of the Thai one, having as its principle component, well, fish. There may be a disguise of breadcrumbs on the outside, but you know that within lies a soft core of fish flesh and seasoning. It is simple, effective and goes really rather well with salt ’n vinegary chips. Stroll into a Sheffield chippie and demand a fish cake, and the hapless outsider will receive what can only be described as two massive slabs of potato, sandwiching a smear of fish and deep fried in batter. If you want a fishcake as the civilised world knows it, you have to use the word “rissole”. You will be regarded as a deviant by all your fellow fish supper shoppers, but at least you won't have to endure what has to be one of the vilest creations in all gastronomy.

I pried open my laptop to see what the Web might have to say on the matter of the Sheffield Fishcake and its foreign rival, as the home of The Full Monty is notoriously happy to give its two pennorth when its culinary peculiarities are under discussion. The best available comes from Sheffield Forum, allegedly the busiest community forum in the country. I quote it in its entirety:

Remember when they used to write on the chip shop windows in something that goes white? probably Windowleen. Well I was in my local chippie one night when somebody had been messing about rubbing some of the writing off. A man asked for chips and a pissole. The woman behind the counter said " That P is supposed to be an R". "OK" said the man "Chips and an Rsole".

Armed as I was with the wonders of the Adriatic and a deep-seated horror of South Yorkshire’s version, I determined that my fishcakes would tend towards the Thai way of thinking.  Besides, there are no potatoes in the house today. I stripped the leftovers of flesh, then paused for a moment. What exactly goes into a fishcake? I wondered. Delia Smith is an obvious initial point of enquiry It’s interesting to chart Delia’s evolution, as it provides a fine barometer for that of the British palate. She started writing cookery books in 1971, and her all-time classic Cookery Course first turned up seven years later. It has evolved and updated itself constantly since, and has a central place in my kitchen. I rarely actually use a Delia recipe in its entirety, but tend to consult her for basics. Can’t remember the proportion of egg to flour in a crèpe? Ask Delia. Need an idea of the fundamental ingredients in a fish cake? You know where to look. The current (I’ve got through three) Delia on my shelf is the 1989 edition, reprinted in 2000. Fish cakes are obviously on Delia’s radar as it contains two recipes – kipper and salmon-based, with capers enlivening the latter. But for a Thai version I need to come forward a few years and delve into her Internet output.

Delia’s shopping list includes: fish, which I obviously have; Thai red curry paste, also present in the fridge; lime juice and green chillis, which I don’t possess. As usual, it’s time to improvise a little. Into the liquidizer goes the fish, bulked out by some tuna as our dogs look resentfully on. They love tuna, and assume instantly that opening a tin heralds a feast for them. Then I added a tablespoonful of red curry paste, four of my Thai friend Kannika’s mother’s ferocious home-grown red chillis – a bag of which lives in the freezer, a good shake of freeze-dried lemongrass (the fresh version is impossible to find on the Adriatic Coast, for reasons of culinary patrimony that are discussed elsewhere in this blog), the juice of several Sicilian lemons (plentifully available for reasons of culinary patrimony…), some fresh coriander which improbably survived the winter in pots on our rear balcony and a tablespoonful or so of nam pla, the South-East Asian fish sauce which I tend to throw into dishes with abandon.

The mix doesn’t need to be incredibly smooth, so after just a little liquidizer action it was formed into patties, which I rolled in breadcrumbs and a dangerously generous shake of lemon chilli powder – found by my friend Neil in a Pakistani-run shop in Leicester. The result was fried in hot vegetable oil. In case the centres needed a little extra cooking, I threw the cakes into the oven for ten minutes while I cooked some rice and steamed matchstick-shaped chippings of courghette above it. When the latter were nearly done I gave them a  quick fry in the pan vacated by the fishcakes. Perhaps they would catch a little Thai flavour that way, I thought.

In the end I did little more than sample this dish. Still replete from the Chalet San Marco, my wife and I had a small plate each. Friend Neil however, had been toiling through house-restoration duties as we frolicked on the beach. He had cycled 15 kilometres home and was ravenous. He finished the lot in lip-smacking style, giving a huge thumbs-up to this fusion of Italian and Asian flavours. I’m thinking of sending the recipe round to San Marco, although culinary patrimony means it is sadly unlikely to find house room there. Should anybody in Sheffield fancy printing it out and pasting it to the door of their local chippy, be my guest.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hic Transit Gloria: Oddbins – a love poem

THE MANAGER brightened visibly. Not only was the pretty girl buying champagne, but she was also asking if he had any jobs available. He did, it seems. “Not for me,” she declared, tossing her head in my direction. “For him.” Girlfriend was light-years ahead of me. I was twisted backwards, surveying a ceiling made entirely of advertising posters, stapled in fantastic disarray on top of each other. Fortunately, Oddbins managers are unfazed by contortionism. “Come in tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll have a chat.”

Never having undergone a job interview before, I had no real expectations of this encounter. The manager however, was highly experienced in these matters. He had honed his appraisal technique to two main questions: “do you take sugar?” and “when can you start?”. My career in wine retail was underway.

This was around 1995, and it turned out that I had joined a remarkable British institution enjoying what was pretty much its heyday. Oddbins was started in 1963 by one Ahmed Pochee, who had the wizard wheeze of buying the remnants of wine shipments – odd bins – and selling them, at the beginning quite literally out of the back of a van. It passed into other hands during the 1970s, and a few years before I got there had become the property of Canadian drinks giant Seagram.

Normally, corporate ownership is a death sentence for maverick retail, but Seagram had a remarkable approach to Oddbins. As long as it turned some kind of profit, and provided a funky shop window for Seagram product, it was allowed to do pretty much what it liked. This gave its buyers freedom to stock some truly brilliant products, alongside well-known brands. In many ways, Oddbins invented eclectic British wine retail, providing a model that the supermarkets were wise to follow.

The company at that point had some 200 stores, each of which operated autonomously. There was a core stock list, but in addition the managers could order things they thought customers locally would buy, or which they just fancied having in. Some point-of-sale material would be sent by Head Office, but most of the labels and all of the displays were created individually by the staff at each shop. The result was that no Oddbins was quite like any other. What I didn’t know was that the one I had stumbled into was already notorious, both locally and within the company. How many wine shops do you know that have a rowing boat in one corner, filled with sand and bottles?

Whether by accident or design, retail companies tend to attract staff that reflect their attitudes and values. Oddbins at this point seemed to be a kind of career beach, upon which would wash up shoals of overqualified, talented yet directionless young people. Most of us in my shop had at least one degree. One bloke had a PhD, for crying out loud. Whatever our academic resume we all shared two core skills: drinking and learning. A great many tasks awaited us when we opened up the shop, including keeping it stocked, getting orders out for delivery, actually serving customers and keeping the place clean and tidy. We tended to eschew the latter for reading about wine and spirits. This was an age before wi-fi Internet, so we had a library of reference books in one corner.

As a result, the place was unbelievably filthy, but we really knew our stuff. The aim of the place was to match the product with a customer’s needs and price expectations, and we were very good at this. We weren’t so talented at dusting and tidying, but few of the customers seemed to mind. They were too busy reading the talkers.

Talkers are those labels that hang around the neck of bottles on the shelf, bearing important information such as the name and price of the product. They were also supposed to contain a nicely-reasoned description of how it tastes, who made it, what one might find interesting about it. Often though, our talkers would feature cartoons, limericks or not-hugely-helpful comments. The dreadful, generic Liebfraumilch for instance, bore a talker on which one clown was shooting another with a pistol. The word “cak!” burst forth from the gun’s muzzle, and as a cork flew out it was followed by the word “whine”. Cack wine, £1.99. Marvellous. Or not, depending upon your palate.

What customers didn’t get to read was the Witticism Books, a series of at least ten small notebooks in which we recorded our shop life in cartoons and poems rather more scatalogical than the talkers. It was like being back at school, a hot-house environment where we developed and portrayed our own world, by and for ourselves. That sort of madness takes hold when you spend successions of twelve-hour days with the same few people, then go out drinking with them afterwards.

But then there was much to put down. The shop occupied a corner plot, with a counter opposite the door. There were two large windows, but these were obscured by shelving, so the outside world was viewed mainly through the door frame. This created a theatre of the absurd, into which those who lived out there would stroll to perform for our entertainment. This cast of characters was enormous and ever-changing, but some of them tread the boards of my memory to this day.

Brian
Brian was a large man in his Sixties. He had evident learning difficulties, and rather than being an actual customer used Oddbins as a telephone kiosk to coordinate his love life. He would loom up to counter and ask to use the phone. He didn’t know the number for the local care home, but we had it on speed dial for him. “Is Mary there?” he would ask. “Aye, it’s me. I’m in Ogdens. I’ll be round.” Brian would replace the receiver, always upside-down, then loom away to meet his paramour. As he whisked her by the door a few minutes later in her wheelchair, the couple would wave cheerily. The manager once caught them in flagrante delicto, on a Sunday afternoon, propped on the bumper of his Land Rover outside the shop. He walked home that day.

Mr Smelly, the man shunned by skunks
It took a short while to become aware of Mr Smelly, a raincoat-wearing gentleman who would slide unobtrusively into the shop and head for the Bulgarian wine section. If he was spotted, long-serving staff would melt away, leaving the newest arrival alone to approach the customer and help him choose his wine. Little did I know, when my turn came, that my colleagues were bunched round the CCTV monitor in the back room, sniggering. Mr Smelly really only drank cheap Bulgarian red, but any new assistant would at first earnestly try to get him to spend his £2.99 on something slightly less toxic. They would only do it once however, because up close a terrible, fetid, deathlike stench would steal into their nostrils and begin to burn all their senses to a crisp. To watch the newbie paralysed, torn between the obligation to assist and the desire to run out into the street to heave into the gutter was a delicious pleasure for old hands. Eventually the £2.99 Bulgarian bore a talker featuring simply the name, the price and a drawing of a skunk, saying “Oh Christ, I’m off!”

Mrs Drool
A cohabitee with Brian’s Mary at the local care home, Mrs Drool would come for our expert advice on cigarette selection. She had arthritic hands and usually-unworn false teeth, which proved an unfortunate combination. Mrs Drool would frequently drop her change. When she bent down to pick it up large quantities of dribble would escape from her unshod mouth. This in itself was no great problem, unless you happened to be closing a large champagne deal further down the counter. It did cause us to mop the floor afterwards, however, something that was usually long overdue.

Underage drinkers
Friday night would bring entertainment to Oddbins. The inebriated and plainly unentitled to buy alchohol legally would stop by on their way between the pubs of the suburbs and the nightclubs of the city centre. Their requirements were simple: a pack of cigarettes and a couple of alcopops – which were invented around that time – to make the walk into town bearable. Most under-age customers would accept our message that without proof of age they were unlikely to become Oddbins customers, but my favourite would-be wino had different ideas. He may have been nearly six and a half feet tall, but he lacked the necessary paperwork to get pissed on my watch. His response was to lean over the counter and pat me paternally on the head. “I mean,” he asked, illogically, “how tall are you, eh?” The air was thin, aloft.

Those of felonious intent
Naturally, things would occasionally go missing from a store rammed with boozy goodies. We loathed thieves, especially those known to carry weapons. We were advised that in most cases of theft we were not to apprehend the suspect, instead leaving CCTV and the local police to do their work. A report would have to be issued to the long-suffering officers. The best of these read: “the man picked up a bottle of sparkling wine and asked me ‘is this any good?’ I replied that it was exceptional at the price, and that I had enjoyed it myself just two nights before. ‘Brilliant,’ he replied, ‘I’ll take two.’ At which point he picked up another and ran out into the night.” A robbery is no more than a robbery unless done with style.

Street-fighting man
Alchohol and pugilistic desire go hand in glove, so fights in off-licences are not unexpected. After one particularly nasty Friday night encounter, the manager made a tactically brilliant move. He gave a part-time contract to Psycho Sam, a well-constructed student with borderline bipolar tendencies and significant anger issues. From then, if you wanted to start a fight in the shop you were invited to leave. Should you refuse, you would be shoved bodily out into the street and again invited to leave. Should you wish to take things further you would be thrown around like a sack of potatoes until Sam had swayed you towards his point of view. Oddbins was known for being a cut above the rest. In our case it was an upper-cut.

Deluded people
Once a month she would bustle into Oddbins, stare wildly around, fix her gimlet eye on the person behind the counter and yell: “used to be a pet shop this, you know.” She would then leave, as suddenly as she arrived. Odd. We never did know this lady’s name, but her sporadic insights into local history served as a timely reminder that Things Change. Still, at least she recognised what the shop was all about at that point. Others found it hard to grasp the concept of a decent wine and spirits retailer. With depressing frequency we would be asked “where do you keep the right cheap wine?” The answer of course, was “Threshers, sir”. Not stocking a wide range of snacks was also held by many as a failing on our part. “If you just sold crisps and pies I’d come in here more often,” barked one flammably-clad member of the public, blind to the fact that we omitted these things from our retail proposition precisely because we didn’t want him among our client base. Public expectations are sometimes downright unfathomable. “Do you not sell cheap babbies’ nappies?” demanded one man, looking up and down the serried ranks of bottles on our shelves. We did not.

The customer may always be right, but if you were in my Oddbins between 1995 and 1997 and were in any way pompous, stupid or annoying, know this: while the dishevelled fellow behind the counter might have been outwardly pleasant to you he was glancing occasionally below it for inspiration. Taped to the middle shelf was a motivational message which read: “oh F***k right off, you painful t**t”. It worked for us. Suffering fools is no easy task.

Time, tide and liver condition wait for no man, and after two years I swapped wine retail for another enjoyable job on mediocre pay. Motoring journalism was light on opportunities to gorge on the greatest booze on the planet, but offered pleasure of a different kind. It turned out also to be about the right time to quit Oddbins, as its glory years were soon to be over. A French company took it over in 2002, and it entered an uneasy alliance with its counterpart brand Nicholas. The manager left a few months after I did, and our shop became gradually cleaner, lighter, blander. Cartoons, customer abuse and borderline swearing disappeared from talkers and the life seemed gradually to ebb out of the place. I gradually ceased to feel wistful about my days there.

I myself have a curious legacy of my Oddbins years, even 15 years on. I still find myself facing up – bringing a bottle to the front of the shelf – when I buy wine, even in supermarkets. I still find myself selling decent booze to innocent bystanders. Two weeks ago I was to be found in a West Country Waitrose, explaining to a Romanian why a Bowmore single malt on offer would make a much better souvenir of his trip to Britain than a bottle of generic Irish whisky. I still seek out work that is pleasurable rather than hugely remunerative.

Today we hear that Oddbins is to enter administration, having had a large contratemps with the Inland Revenue over its debts. This is a terrible shame, and the landscape of the British high street will be distinctly poorer for its departure. However, I would like you all to raise a glass to the memory of this once-great icon of left-field retail. The good ship Oddbins steered an unsteady course, but I for one am tremendously glad of the time I spent aboard.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Olive, olive-oh

 HARASSED-LOOKING men jostled for their turn to park haphazardly by the entrance. Solid women accosted them, jabbing clinking carrier bags into their chests and demanding that they lift 25-litre drums of cooking oil into the tiny, groaning cars, two or three at a time. “Jesus,” I thought. “So this is shopping?”

The date was January 14, 1991, the place a supermarket near Bologna’s inner ring road. I had arrived in the city a few days before to begin a few months’ study at the university. I had neither much Italian at my command, nor much of a clue about Italian habits and characteristics. All I knew was that I needed to buy food, and so wandered innocently into a scene of pretty advanced chaos. Italy, it turned out, was staring down the barrels of a Very Serious Problem. The Civilised World was about to launch airborne Armageddon on Kuwait, in order to expel the Evil Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, who had invaded the place and was merrily committing human rights atrocities. Crucially though, he was also meddling with the balance of the carbon fuels trade. The political landscape of the Middle East was about to be savagely redrawn and there was much talk of a resulting global oil crisis. This had struck a chord deep in the Italian psyche. Without stopping to analyse the nature of the oil involved, the nation’s housewives took instant defensive action. They stripped every last container of olive oil from any retail outlet they could reach.

So two decades on I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself on hands and knees, groping at the back of a different supermarket’s shelves for the last few packets of salt. There is no war to threaten supplies of this kitchen essential, but it is open season on pickling and bottling round here. Much of the summer’s superabundant vegetables have already been put under oil and brine, literally salted away for winter use. But right now the olive harvest is in full swing.

Most olives, and this is about to be the case for the 38 trees on the plot we look after, end up being pressed to extract their precious oil. But before stripping the branches next week we have careful picking to do, selecting and preserving the olives we want for table and kitchen use. Personally, I am beside myself with excitement at this. Having lived in the UK since summer term ended at Bologna I have never had real, live olives to play with. This is a voyage of discovery, and some background reading is required.

The first principle to absorb is one of nomenclature. Most experts refuse to call Oliva Europea a tree, referring to it as a bush despite the fact that it looks and grows like, well, a tree. Italians generally refer to olives as piante, or plants, and as I’m here I’d better do the same. As to how to render the bitter, inedible fruit of this plant into the delicious, salty, mysterious wonder that is the table olive, an initial delve into the miasmic depths of the Internet suggests that there are several thousand ways. I put a pot of coffee on the stove, fire up suitable music (violin stuff by Genoa-born violin genius Nicolò Pagannini – explosively Italian), and get reading.

Salt water, or brine, seems to be the world-champion rendering agent for olives. That and its partner-in-alchemy, time. There are many very precise recipes available, but extracting an average from them gets the following result: immerse your olives in fresh water and change it daily, for between three and seven days. Then swap this for very salty water. Change this weekly for as many weeks as it takes for the olives to become edible. Green – unripe – olives may benefit from an alkalising agent being added to the water at some point early in the curing process. Oh, and if you slice or crush the fruit a bit before curing, it may or may not take less time.

Whoever planted our olives went for a mixture of varieties, which we’re told is a sure-fire way to a superior-quality olive oil. It also presents interesting possibilities for first-time curing experiments. We have small, green olives, fat brown examples and two sizes of glossy black fruit. I picked about 10 kilos of each. A trip to the nearest DIY store yields a trio of cheap, plastic bins with hinged lids. These are intended for recycling, so the lids come colour-coded conveniently in grey, green and brown.

As I write the three batches have passed through the freshwater stage and are skulking in the darkness of their first salt water immersion. Of course salt makes them float at the surface, where evil, oxidising air lurks. If you use a round vessel for your curing you can trap the fruit underwater with a plate. If you use recycling bins, which inconveniently are largely rectangular, you have to improvise with cling film. Noting the hint about alkalising green olives, I liberated a rather manky old box of sodium bicarbonate from the kitchen and emptied it into the green fruit's initial brine.

It was as I filled the bins with water for the first time that I recalled some amazing olives bought in Sainsbury’s last year. Moroccan in origin, they claimed to be salt-cured. They were dark, squidgy and required a desalinating dip in water before you ate them. This isn’t quite Morocco, but we have black olives. I picked a batch of both small and large black fruit and researched the matter. Packed in jars with sea salt around them, apparently these will keep on getting better. The salt leaches the excess moisture and bitterness from the olives, apparently.

Of course the only other ingredients in these recipes are a cool, dark place to keep the produce and what feels like almost infinite patience. The olives in brine might not be ready until around Christmas time, and I have absolutely no idea when those under salt might be at their peak. I will know, my Internet sources tell me cryptically. Once they are ready they can be stored in brine or salt respectively, or kept in jars under olive oil and flavourings such as bay and chilli. What stops me pacing the cantina floor until this point is exactly what keeps Italians from getting itchy fingers. Apart from those employed to restock supermarket shelves with salt. There are 38 piante out there that now need picking in order to provide the necessary oil.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Thai



“TO ACCUSE us of racism is outrageous,” declared councillor Filippo Candelise. “All we are doing is protecting the culinary patrimony of the town.” Mr Candelise is a councillor in the Tuscan town of Lucca, which early in 2009 became the epicentre of a small gastronomic earthquake when it declared a ban on new ethnic food outlets opening within its ancient city walls. As reported in the Sunday Times, this was the head-above-the-parapet moment for a growing movement within Italy to resist the increasing influence of global immigration on its most sacred institution, the kitchen. According to the newspaper this comes from the very top, “backed by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi” and underpinned by the rather further-right North-South separatist party Lega Nord. This latter supplies the then Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, who is reported as declaring that he had never consumed a kebab. “I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto,” he spits. “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”

Our Northern champion tragically ignores the glaring fact that the Italian cuisine so under threat is an ever-evolving thing of beauty, adorned with exotic foodstuffs brought here over milennia, by adventurers, conquerers, traders and immigrants of every hue. Once sown in Latin soil these somehow become Italian products, and with such profusion of wonderful home-grown ingredients who indeed would need to look beyond this nation’s 9226km of coast for inspiration?

Me, that’s who. The brilliant autumn sunshine has recently been elbowed rudely aside by strong northerly winds and squally rain. It is hardly October UK-style, but I felt cold and miserable, suffused with the kind of heaviness best blown away by a good, warm Thai curry. Thanks to a recent UK visit there were pots of green and red curry paste in the fridge, while a recent forage round a budget German supermarket yielded a good supply of creamed coconut. None of these can be found in my local shops, because they are simply not Italian. There are of course Thais in Italy, and people originating from many other parts of what used to be called quaintly ‘the Orient’. These enterprising souls open food shops to deal with the local lack of what they deem essentials. They do have an annoying tendency to stick to large cities though, and my food hunting has yet to turn up a supply near to home.

I was faced with two choices: put up or shut up. Italy itself hardly lacks for ‘native’ warm, spiced comfort food. Its 1185km length puts its toes in Africa and its hoary head in Alpine territory, and this has a direct impact on cuisine. But the embers of obsession were swiftly being fanned into a raging inferno, the kind that only a Massaman curry would quench. This is a good candidate for Thai pretenders, being a bit of a mongrel. It hails from the southern end of Thailand but draws on influences brought to the region by traders from India and the Middle East. Bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg are cumin are all things found on my spice shelf, thanks to the excellent Asian-run shops in the UK. I got them out, along with a couple of onions, some garlic and some pickled sushi ginger which I thought would substitute for the fresh root variety.

What lovers of Thai cuisine are drawn to is its mingling of heat, sweet and sour, notes given depth by the richness of coconut yet sharp enough not to come over all lardy and indistinct. This balance of opposites is the secret of its global success. Thai cooks achieve the collection of flavour by a combination of fast cooking and careful, if unsubtle preparation. It is not uncommon for me to visit my friends Andy and Kannika at their UK home, finding the latter and Thai half of the couple sat on the kitchen floor, bashing ingredients into submission with a massive pestle and huge stone mortar. Apparently known as a kruk, this combination is a key part of the Thai kitchen and was imported by Kannika with catastrophic consequences for her baggage allowance. Scents of chilli, lemongrass, ginger and – sometimes but not always – garlic, float around the room, transporting it briefly to a patch of cleared jungle somewhere near the Thai border with Cambodia. Fortunately I once stayed for several months with this couple. I learned much, and every bit of the resource would be deployed now as I improvised. In painting terms I was aiming for impressionism rather than realism, but there lurked the ever-present danger of the whole enterprise taking a turn for the cubist.

This being a cold-weather dish, I sliced potatoes and set them to par-boil. Starch was called for. Then I set up my kruk. I haven’t got one of these stone-age marvels yet, so I settled for second-best and plugged in a liquidizer. The onions, garlic, sushi ginger, dried red Italian chilli (plus some of Kannika’s mother’s home-grown version for good luck) were reduced to a paste in short order. Normally I would add some Thai fish sauce, but one of the evening’s diners was to be a fish-hating vegetarian. So instead I added some vegetable stock. In a moment of inspiration, after wondering what to do about the sullen lump of grease that a block of coconut cream presents as, I threw that into the liquidiser, too. I also grated a lemon in, then added the juice. I didn’t have that delicate beauty lemongrass to hand, so this would have to do.

Actually making the curry from this point on was child’s play. I stir-fried finely-sliced bell peppers, carrot and green beans for a short while, then tipped in the curryish gloop from the electric kruk. The potatoes followed, with the assortment of sub-continental spices listed before. Once the vegetables were soft, my Massaman was ready to eat. Rice made an ideal accompaniment, steamed with some caraway seed to give it an aniseed tone.

In a land far, far away, a person sat on their kitchen floor. As monkeys screamed in tall trees outside they worked spices into a paste with hard wood on stone. They created something beautiful and literally reeking of authenticity, which was both nourishing and a huge pleasure to eat. In an Italian kitchen recently several people gathered to enjoy a translation of this, a warm, complex dish which brought cheer despite the downturn in the weather. Culinary patrimony remained outside in the cold.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I had a little nut tree







WALNUTS LOOK like rotting crab apples. Or at least, ours do. For this reason and because of a mental image of huge, spreading branches and elephant-hide bark, we had no idea that the little tree along the garden fence line was Juglans regia, as those of a horticultural persuasion might greet it.

Thinking back to long car journeys up Interstate 5 in California however and I recall acre upon acre of 15-foot-high trees around the Bakersfield area, which locals identified as walnuts. No massive spreading branches there, but the region produces nearly all the walnuts sold in the USA and a good proportion of the world export market.

Our corner of the Le Marche landscape is far from going head to head with central California, but the tree did produce half a bucket of walnuts. The nut itself has a fleshy outer cover, which had blackened and cracked. Within this is the shell, which must be cracked to reveal the flesh within. In truth, some of our crop was a tad past it, but we managed to end up with a reasonable mound of brain-like nuts on the kitchen worktop. At this point all we had to do was come up with something to do with the damn things.

Procrastination is always a good idea, so I fired up a popular Internet search engine and keyed in “preserving walnuts”. You can do all sorts of things to this nut, including freezing, drying it and pickling it in spiced white vinegar. None of these appealed particularly, sounding either bland, weird or plain unpleasant. Then a vague and distant memory surfaced, of somebody many years ago telling of the pleasure to be found from walnuts preserved in honey. The Internet backed this up, in terms so glowing my mouth began to water. This would be, I reflected, the perfect local treat to set before my parents should they venture over here at Christmas.

Of course, yuletide is a few months off, while lunch should by rights be but minutes away. It was no good – some of the crop would have to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate gratification. I selected about eight nuts as victims and squirreled the rest away.  Quite what to do next, I had no real idea. I keyed the search engine once more, this time pulling out the nutritional virtues of walnut. It’s a bit of a powerhouse, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B1, 2, 3 and 6, the antioxidant ellagic acid and minerals such as manganese, copper, magnesium and phosphorous. You could weigh walnuts in for money at a scrapyard. You’d be better to eat them however, as it seems they are low in cholesterol, good for cardiovascular function and can help control fluctuations in blood sugar.

All this gave me plenty of leeway, so I pulled a mixture of vice and virtue from the fridge. On a plate went a healthy slew of sliced beetroot, balanced by a large bunch of rocket (iron, yet more metals, lots of antioxidant caratenoids, dietary fibre, vitamin C). Warm, sliced potatoes would accompany this nicely, I reckoned. Especially after boiling, frying up in olive oil and passing through the oven coated in salt, Parmesan and the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes (dietary starch, lard). The unhealthy slacker team still needed bolstering, so once the skillet was empty of spuds it received more olive oil. In this I soft-fried onion and thin slices of red pepper. I turned up the heat for a while and threw in balsamic vinegar (antioxidants, apparently), to boil quickly and sweeten the vegetables.

Because it was there, I added a little Hendersons Relish to this. There is an awful lot of hot air blown forth, especially in its home city of Sheffield (UK), about the unassailable superiority of this spicy sauce. Steel City bigots take note: Hendo’s is neither better nor worse than its rival Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It’s just a little different – a little heavier and less spicy, to be precise. As I grew up in Worcestershire and then transferred to Sheffield for quite some time, I have both on the shelf. I used the northern relish today because it was nearer to me on the shelf.

Besides, I was too busy considering what music to play as I cooked. Low-fi and laid-back would suit the mood, I decided, firing up the excellent It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water by The Microphones (K Records, Washington DC, USA). Perfect.

The balsamic and relish left a little moisture, so I threw in just a spoonful of tomato passata to enrich things. Then I cut the rind from a tag end of a sweet Gorgonzola that’s plentifully available here (sodium, protein, more lard) to leave the tangy inner. Any soft blue cheese would do just fine. It melted into the pan to turn the pepper and onion into a luscious, creamy sauce which I added chopped walnuts to, then lobbed onto the plate between the saladstuffs to remind them not to be so smug.

All in all this was an excellent lunch and a fine way to begin a tour of ways to enjoy walnuts. Once the shops open late this afternoon I shall take a much-needed constitutional in the direction of the supermarket, and buy a few jars of honey.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wild Fig Hunt



THIS IS a year of discoveries in Italy, and one of my most recent is the local superabundance of the fig. Ficus, cursory research tells me, is a genus of trees and shrubs with a good 850 species within it. What is of interest to me here is the common fig. With its distinctive big, waxy leaves and stems, it is a common sight in southern and central Italy. The fruit turns up in the UK in grocery shops, especially those run by people with their roots in sunnier latitudes.

These canny shopkeepers have a point. Dried figs may look as though they once hung from miniature billy goats, but their interior is a delight. Lots of seeds are surrounded by an amazing, sweet-and-sour flesh. Removing the moisture from the fruit only concentrates the flavours and sugars. We all should want, as the Christmas carol reminds us, some figgy pudding.

In my Internet quest for pub quiz fodder I discover that the fig is actually a multitude of inverted flower heads, each creating a seed in the damp darkness of the fruit. Far from the show and tell of normal fruit trees in flower, the ficus relies on the stealthy burrowings of egg-laden wasps to pollinate it. This seems to explain the extraordinary short life of fruit on the tree. Our garden contains several figs and I was dismayed by the narrow gap between nice, soft fruit and flabby, rotten, downward-falling one.

Figgy pudding was never my goal. Rather I had my sights set on that elusive delicacy, the fig roll. For some reason this peculiarly appetising biscuit is unavailable in Italy through regular shops. We can find a slightly odd French version for €2.50 a packet, in motorway service stations. Surrounded by fecund figs, I fancied making my own.

The Internet yielded a couple of promising-seeming recepies for fig paste, and feeling terribly scientific I decided to try them both. Having beaten the wasps to a bucket full of figs I divided my spoils into two piles and set to. Method one involved gently heating lemon juice, figs, sugar and cinnamon, until the resulting gloop becomes glazed. Alas, the only thing that glazed was my eyes, as fig soup bubbled discretely away for what seemed like hours. Only then did I notice that this recipe specifies dried figs as a starting point. Damn. A couple of fruitier expletives later I popped to the shop to buy vast quantities of sugar, turned up the heat and added some apple. The resulting jam is lovely.

Method number two was much more successful. For one thing it sounded exciting – ‘pecorino Toscano stagionato with fig paste’ sounds almost like a poem. I have one Rick Tramonto to thank for it, and a www.tastebook.com reference to it and his surely excellent book, Osteria. Pecorino could be set aside however – it was Rick’s spiced fig paste that I craved. Creation of it was utter simplicity. The figs are baked for a while until “dried and shrunk by about a quarter”. For my version, read: “shrunk and a smidge cremated due to the completely unregulated furnace that is our ancient, rescued-from-the-scrapman Smeg cooker”. A cup of port is boiled with rosemary to kill off the alcohol, reduce and season, then added to the baked figs, anointed with olive oil, salt, pepper and orange zest. A food processor reduces the lot to paste in short order. My version employed red wine and balsamic vinegar in the absence of port, plus a bit of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg to add Eastern mystique. A hand-held blender did the pasting perfectly well.

Rick advises rolling the paste into parchment paper and refrigerating, so I stuffed the lot into a clean jar. It comes out occasionally to accompany cheese, to be spread on toast or to be used like a pickle alongside savoury dishes. I haven’t quite got round to making fig rolls yet, because a friend derailed the express train of ficusian zeal by bringing a dozen packets back from the UK very recently. However, figs seem to fruit for ages and another crop is teetering on the branches, about to be nabbed by hymenoptera. I’m on a roll, and could be about to make one.