A Cause for Celebration

photoIn spite – because of? – its name and the national range of its contributors, Petits Propos Culinaires is one of those preposterous, brilliant, unmistakably English publications. It is, according to the press release that unfurled on my desk last week, ‘the longest-running English-language journal devoted to food and food studies in the world’. Considering that it only comes out three times a year, this is a significant achievement in itself.

Alan and Jane Davidson, Elizabeth David and Richard Olney founded it in 1979. Sadly none of those founding fathers and mothers is still with us. However, their idiosyncratic editorial mix of erudite curiosity and sober-sided historicity and bonkers scholarship has been nobly carried on by the irrepressible Tom Jaine, backed by a formidable list of Editorial Advisors. Is there any other publication likely to run articles with such titles as ‘Seasonings and Flavourings in Canada before 1840’, ‘The Question of Dog Meat’, and Almonds along the Silk Road: The Exchange and Adaptation of Ideas from West to East’?

And now Tom has edited PPC 100, the hundredth edition of this great publication. It is as erudite, sober-sided and bonkers as ever, thank the Lord. So you can choose between The Rippingille T.G.I. 740 Portable Oven by David Burnett, Archestratus: Naughty Poet, Good Cook by John Wilkins and To What Extent did People Eat Vegetables in the Early Eighteenth Century by Malcolm Thick; and a Life in the Day of Alan Davidson by Helen Saberi. If I didn’t know PPC better, I might have thought these were parodies of a particular variety of food writing.

Splendid though these are, for me the keenest pleasure of reading PPC comes from the interventions of the Editor. In this 100th edition, up front there’s a splendidly bellicose biff at British Telecom; generous celebration of another learned publication, Gastronomica; and kindly recognition for those shorter-lived publications, Fire & Knives and Gin & It. Best of all, at the back are book reviews, some times waspish, sometimes generous, never boring, of which the most waspish and generous and least boring are Tom’s own. This is him coming to a ringing conclusion of his assessment of ‘Queen Bea of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross’ by Ben Downing ‘Expecting a whole lot of knockabout rumpy-pumpy (think of Norman Douglas, or Walter Savage Landor from an earlier period) it was surprisingly dry.’ I mean, who have even heard of Walter Savage Landor these days, let alone read him?

PCC is a glittering oasis of intelligent individuality in a sea of mediocrity. Each edition is beautifully produced, with a black and white illustration here and there. Each edition is a pleasure to hold in the hand, a pleasure to look at, a pleasure to ramble through. Of course, its ethos is snobbish, in the best sense of the word. Of course, there’s something preposterous about it. Of course, there are a good many that would be frankly baffled by it. But anyone who treasures intelligence, individuality and learning, anyone who is interested in the odd corners of the food diaspora, anyone who takes pleasure is reading firmly held, firmly expressed opinions, should rejoice; and take out a subscription to Petits Propos Culinaires to ensure the next 100 issues.

Petits Propos Culinaires, Alleleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL,

6 issues £40
3 issues £21
Back numbers £7

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Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon

photoThere are rare restaurants where you know that everything is going to be all
right the moment you walk in. There’s something about the manner of the
greeting, calm, warm, confident. There’s something about the way the place is
decked out – not too smart, not too flashy, accommodating. There’s a
comfortable chair to settle on, a table with fine glass and polished cutlery.
A drink materialises with calming rapidity. Most of all, best of all, there is
a sense OF steadiness, of rhythm. You know you won’t be hurried or fussed,
that lunch will take a bit of time, but that no matter how long it takes, you will
be looked after with the affectionate, measured consideration. There’s the
quiet reassurance that this is a place dedicated to pleasure and eating. You
just know that you will be well fed and well cared for. That’s the feeling I
had when I went into the Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon.

It doesn’t look much from the outside, just a long, solid, white, two-storey
building set above the road, and looking out over the sodden valley of the
Asinari, not far from the Langhe hills. Cesare Pavese country, for the literate.
Inside a cosy feeling settled on me, much like the sensation of slipping on an
old jacket or pair of shoes. Nothing looked new. Nothing looked out of place.
It all felt vaguely familiar. There were amber shadows here and there, and the
murmur and laughter of people settled to lunch. There was the calm, reassuring presence of the family in the shape of Gino Bardon, and the necessary leavening of eccentricity of our waiter, Antonio, a man who confessed to have been converted to vegetarianism through the medium of roast lamb. In short here was a restaurant with character, pedigree and a sense of purpose. Its purpose was what it had always been, to give pleasure, to fill people with food they expected to eat.

There was nothing remotely contemporary about the dishes that issued
from the kitchen with that measured tempo, the product of long experience.
Three cold antipasti: vitello tonnato; insalata russa; pepperoni quadrati ripieni di tonno. Two hot antipasti: cotechino con purea di patate; cardo
gobbi con fonduta. Primo piatto: taglierini con porri. Secondo piatto: quaglie
al forno con sancrau; cheeses; mattone. Nothing much to get excited about, you
might think.

But, taken all in all, it was exemplary, the food of long practice, of
implicit understanding, of finely honed skill. Top-quality tinned tuna linked
those first three antipasti, in the slithery sauce with the slices of veal like
linen handkerchiefs; in the refulgent filling inside the sweet, fleshy peppers
and binding the mayonnaise in the insalata russa – Russian salad, to you and
me, chopped veg and mayo, that stand-by for mass catering and buffets. You
find it all over Italy for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom. In this
version, the vegetables were crunchy not mushy. Among the hot antipasti, the
cotechino was simply the finest example of its kind I’ve ever eaten, salty,
burly, oozing fat-rich juices. And the hunch-backed cardoon – cardo gobbo – is
a speciality of the region, and it’s slightly bitter nuttiness carried the
cloak of cheesy fonduta with grace.

The taglierini were as elegant as strands of silk, dressed in a shimmering
sauce of leeks. To be honest, the quail was a touch over-roasted, but still
produced enough robust flavour to stand up to sancrau, a pungent mulch of
cabbage, anchovy and vinegar. It may sound a bit challenging, but it works.
The cheeses were all classics from Piedmont, and in limber condition. The only
serious disappointment was the pudding, mattone. The name means brick, which
is just about what it was – a brick of chocolate, crème patissiere and pastry,
decent enough in its way, but not a serious contender. But then Italians don’t
understand the concept of pudding in the same way we do.

The time by now was about 4pm. The conversation had ranged over football and
food, cricket and Paolo Conte, politics and Parade’s End, wine and why not?
The three of us had done a bottle of fizz, a bottle of brilliant Barbera, a bottle
of so-so Barolo. There was time for a nip of rum and a short, sharp coffee
before heading back to base, replete and suffused with that sense of
well-being, warmth for one’s fellow man, cheerfulness and all-round moral
uplift that only comes from having lunch very well indeed.

16.5/20

Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon, Valle Asinari 25, 14050 San Marzano Oliveto
AT. Tel: 00 39 (0)141 831340. Email: ristorantedabardon@alice.it

Posted in Eating Out | 3 Comments

Lie of the Land

P1000806I came across this statement in a wine catalogue the other day – ‘Made from 55% (by volume) terres blanches, where the marl gives pretty, floral, spicy aromas with freshness and lift, and 45% terres rouges, where more clay gives a firmer-fleshed wine, with more tannin and grip’. Does it? Does it, really?
Is there scientific evidence that the medium in which fruits and vegetables are grown, or the foods on which animals feed, actually affects their flavour?

Instinctively and anecdotally, I would say ‘yes. I remember a Sri Lankan taxi driver telling me that bananas picked in the dry season were better that bananas picked in the wet season because, he said, that trees absorbed more water during the wet season, and this diluted the flavour of the bananas. And then there was the 5-yr old ewe that I ate on a hillside in Dumfries some years ago. This was mutton by any standards, but it was quite unlike the mutton I remembered of my youth, mutton produced on the rich grasslands of southern England, rich, fatty, loose textured, beguiling, with the smell of boiled wool and lanolin. This mutton had a fine-woven texture, with little fat, and a much more delicate, spicy, herbal flavour, the result, so I was persuaded, of having a lived a lively outdoor life, marching up and down the Dumfries hills in all weathers, living on blueberries, heather and hill grasses.

Now, both of these explanations seemed quite reasonable to me, but to what point is this supposition or hogwash, and to what point is it supported by hard fact? Robert K Wolke, emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburg, has no doubts. In What Einstein Told His Cook 2, he wrote ‘ A multitude of environmental factors such as the amounts of various nutrients in the soil; the soil’s texture and drainage; its micro-flora and –fauna; its proportions of sand, rock and clay; the land’s slope; the growing temperatures; the amounts of rain, wind and sun – in sum, the plant’s entire micro-milieu, short of phases of the moon at planting time – can lead to subtle differences in the ultimate fruit or vegetable.’

A study by the Oregon State University showed that ‘Irrigation and/or the presence of water in food may dramatically affect the quality of a fruit or vegetable.’ Well, yes, absolutely. The flavour of hydroponically grown vegetables is inverse proportion to their physical perfection. The more beautiful they look, the less they taste, or as the Geelong Advertiser of 1850 puts it ‘The excellence of fruit is, stupidly enough, to he decided by its size in almost all cases, when in nine cases out of ten, nay ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it loses flavour according to its beauty.’

On the other hand, logic would dictate that organic fruit and vegetables, grown at their own pace, and without the benefit of chemical or other intervention, should taste better than those which are forced and liberally dowsed with chemicals of every kind. However, as anyone who has ever been involved in comprehensive tasting of organic will bear our, organic is not a guarantee of flavour. Some times it is. Oft times it isn’t.

The truth is while we may be happy to accept the general principle that land, wind, rain and sun affect the raw materials of the food we eat, the actual basis of verifiable date into specific relationship between flavour and terroir is tiny.

I have a three raised vegetable beds in front of my house, in which every year I experiment with different varieties, in the hope of moments of flavour revelation. And each year, my efforts are a triumph of hope over experience. Still, I can feel excitement beginning to bubble at the new growing season hurries near. I’ve got some innovations that I’m sure will transform last year’s disasters. To quote the admirable Geelong Advertiser again ‘There is a vast difference between the productions of the garden, according to the mode of treating them, the size of everything always affecting its flavour.’ How true, how very true.

NB. This article first appeared in http://www.flavourfirst.org/

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Good intentions

P1000882You know what it’s like. At least, I hope you do. I started off this blog with the best in intentions. I was going to keep at it weekly if not daily. Then there was a bit of slippage. The weekly entries turned into monthly entries. And then then the intentions slipped a bit more, and suddenly I realised that I hadn’t posted a blog since October 2013. That’s shocking. Appalling in fact.

I can but apologise and promise to try to do better. Note that ‘try to do better’. I fear I may be too like Dr Johnson who at the beginning of each year prayed to God to give him the strength to abjure ‘meat and strong drink’, but who, at the end of each year was forced to recognise ruefully that he was no better than he had been the year before.

Anyway, here goes.

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In search of the new ciabatta

photoIt all began with ciabatta. In the mid-1980s, quite suddenly, ciabatta became the bread of choice for all smart, gastronomically aware households. You couldn’t go out for dinner without finding loafs of ciabatta sitting pertly on the bread board, torn up for dunking into small bowls of olive oil, sliced and piled high with chopped tomato and basil. A ciabatta loaf was elongated but plump, but not thin like a baguette. It was vaguely artisanal. It was sexy. Ciabatta signaled the dominance of Italian food and cooking in Britain.

Oddly, ciabatta was unknown in Italy, certainly in the form with which we became familiar in the UK. It was devised by an ingenious American lady, Peggy Dannenbaum, aka La Fornaia, when she was asked to develop a number of Continental breads for Marks & Spencer in 1985. The irony is, of course, that so successful was the invention, that you can find ciabattas all over Italy. Talk about coals to Newcastle.

But ciabatta was only the beginning. It heralded our fascination with, and dependence on, certain ingredients, usually Italian in origin, to pep up our domestic cooking. You could argue that this had already begun with garlic and olive oil, and while the whole culture of olive oil (extra virgin; regional; single estate; stone pressed; specific varietals or single-estate-specific-varietal-stone-pressed-extra-virgin) has taken on its own momentum) it was with ciabatta that the food-as-fashion-accessory movement got really underway.

After ciabatta, of course, came rocket. There was a time when you practically couldn’t find a plate of anything that wasn’t also heaped or strewn with those peppery green leaves. Quickly there developed two sub-classes, wild rocket, with its sharply pointed, sharply indented, lanceolate leaves and fiercer flavour, and the milder cultivated rocket with its rounded lobes. In recent years mizuna, mustard leaves and red-veined sorrel have all threatened rocket’s primacy, without ever really replacing it.

However, rocket established a secondary theme to the foreign-ingredient worship in both professional and domestic fashion-conscious kitchens. Ciabatta charmed with its crunchy crust and airy, resilient crumb. Rocket provided a sharp injection of flavour that has become a defining characteristic of the fashionable flavourings subsequently.

Sun-dried tomatoes enjoyed a few years as the socially defining ingredient. It was easy to use, colourful, and punched above its weight. In other words, you didn’t need many sun-dried tomatoes to add oomph to dull dishes.

But the reign of sun-dried tomatoes was cut short by balsamic vinegar. In its proper, traditional form, which I don’t think I have ever come across in this country, it is the distilled essence of at least 18 years of slow evaporation in smaller and smaller barrels, each of different wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, mulberry, juniper). This process results in elegant syrup of almost divine purity, intensity, balance and length. What we have got used to is an industrially produced liquid with a crude, but potent, sweet and sour force that is used indiscriminately to jolly up vinaigrettes, boiled down to viscous fluids for blobbing on plates or added to sauces to give them some kind of vigor and definition. Balsamic vinegar, incidentally, fits neatly with our long-held native passion for pungent and/or sweet and sour condiments (18th and 19th century ketchups, relishes, Worcestershire Sauce, HP Sauce, chutneys, piccalilli).

I fear that the dominion of balsamic vinegar is on the wane. It has become so ubiquitous that it is now deemed common. Its place has been taken by chorizo. Chorizo, with its porky sweetness and differing, but polite, levels of chilli, is used in precisely the same way. It provides a bracing jolt of flavour to dishes that otherwise might seem dull. It’s splendidly versatile, with the added advantage of bringing a bright colour to the proceedings, be it bunged into fishcakes, stews, salads, pizzas, chopped and fried and scattered over veg.

There have been plenty of other flavorings that have played minor roles along the way – chilli sauces, nam pla, the Vietnamese fish sauce, caperberries, onion jam, harissa, gremolata, dukkah to name a few, but none have really gained the wider following of ciabatta, rocket, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and chorizo.

And what will come after chorizo? What will be the new ciabatta? Animal, vegetable or condiment? Heaven only knows. If I could divine that, I might be less poor than I am.

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The Year of the Tomato

photoAs far as I’m concerned, tomatoes are an autumn fruit in this country. I know there are those masters of nature who manage to produce their own magnificent crops in time for summer, but I’m not among them. My tomatoes always begin to ripen about halfway through September. Thanks to the genial nature of autumn this year, they’re still coming thick and fast. No green tomato chutney for me this year.

As with all my veg, I’m mix old favourites with new varieties in the constant search for a better flavoured tomato. Of course, when I say better flavoured, it rather depends on what flavour you’re looking for. In my various jeremiads against the words ‘heirloom’ and ‘heritage’, I have pointed out their general uselessness. They’re lazy menu marketing-speak because they tell you nothing about the qualities of the foods they’re used to qualitfy.

The fact is that different varieties of tomatoes have very different thicknesses of skin, levels of acidity, levels of sweetness, ratio of flash to jelly surrounding the seeds, juiciness and flavour. Some are good for frying or grilling, others are better in salads, some are destined for sauce.

I don’t run a full agricultural experimental station, just small front garden, and my gardening technique is very basic, marked more by benign neglect than knowledgeable intervention. That said, I’m pretty chuffed with this year’s various crops, and of my tomatoes in particular. Those appearing in the photo at the top of this blog are John Baer (top left), Costelluto Genovese (bottom left); Sungold (centre); Brandywine (top right); Marmande (bottom right)

John Baer ((my current favourite tomato)
Raw: medium skinned; firm and fleshy; beautiful sweetness/acidity ratio fruity; elegant; long
Fried: loses some sweetness and elegance; gains a meaty note meaty.
Uses: salads & bruschetta

Costelluto Genovese
Raw: thick skinned; not very fleshy; sharp, clean; meaty
Fried: sharp; short
Uses: salads, bruschetta, fried with bacon

Brandywine:
Raw: thick skinned; medium fleshy; tangy, juicy, mild
Fried: intensifies flavour and sweetness; holds its textur
Uses: frying and sauces

Super Marmande
Raw: medium skinned; fleshy; woolly, tasteless
Fried: soft, sweet, full
Uses: frying and sauces

Sungold
Raw: small, thickish skinned; sweet, explosive, brilliant frui.t
Cooked: sweet, acid, fruity
Uses: eat on their own like sweets; salads.

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Verbiage

The Roman Catholic Church used to have an Index of books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) that the powers that be thought the world would be better off not reading. It was abolished in 1966.

Although such censorship might not be seen consistent with contemporary freedom of thought and expression, I think the Catholic Church was onto something when it comes to today’s food writing and TV commentaries.

So I propose that certain words and phrases that have seeped into many articles and most TV commentaries should be banned forthwith. It may be that I’ve become more curmudgeonly with age, but I find myself less able tolerate verbal laziness, intellectual indolence, failure of imagination and general feeble-mindedness the use of these words and phrases reveals.

Ok, I know, I know. There are those who have taken issue with my careless spelling, sloppy grammar and all-round lack of attention to linguistic precision. It was ever thus. ‘Carelessness spoils his work’ has been the cry from the beginning of my schooldays. I have wrestled with it ever since, and I have not won.

But there is a difference between an inability to spell properly (something I share with John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, incidentally), and a feckless reliance on meaningless cliché.

So here is my own list of words that should be banned from ever appearing in print or on the lips of chefs, judges and presenters on TV. No doubt you have your own. Please feel free to add them.

Cooked to perfection – What does this actually mean? Used it in place of knowledge or thought. Not even God can cook things to perfection.

Crispy – the word is crisp. Crispy is an abject contemporary aberration.

Cuisine – Pernicious Frenchism. What on earth is wrong with the English word ‘cooking’? [Incidentally, there’s also an irritating tendency to pronounce ‘homage’ as if it were French (i.e. hom-arge), when there’s a perfectly sound word in English, ‘homage’ pronounced ‘homage’ (i.e. hom-idge)].

Decadent – Why is pleasure in food considered decadent? It’s a pathetic Protestant puritan fallacy

Drizzle – Drizzle is fine rain that falls from the sky. Olive or any other oil or liquid can’t drizzle because the viscosity is all wrong for drizzling. Dribble yes, Drizzle, no.

Heavenly – Slovenly, pointless phrase making. What does this tell us about the nature of the food being eaten?

Heritage/heirloom – meaningless menu marketing-speak (see earlier blog).

The Humble (carrot, onion, potato etc) – why should anyone of sound mind think of vegetables or fruits as humble? Laziness at its most lazy. Vegetables and fruits may be badly or indifferently treated, but in themselves they are noble, splendid, magnificent, remarkable, potent, life-supporting, life-enhancing, never, ever humble.

Melt-in-the-mouth – Almost invariably used to describe meat. Invariably inaccurate. If meat melts in the mouth, see a doctor immediately. See earlier blog on this subject.

Moreish – tedious cliché. The meaning has been drained out of it like water out of a bog.

Mouthwatering – See heavenly.

Nice – Nice! Nice!! Nice!!!. I don’t want ‘nice’. I want a word that tells me something about the food being described as nice.

Nom nom nom – this really is a remarkable combination of the infantile and the barbaric.

Pan-fried – Twaddle. What else do you fry in? A kettle? There’s frying or deep-frying, that’s all.

Scrumptious/Scrummy – The sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Not to be used even as a joke.

Tasty – The product of contemptible mental idleness

To die for – A self-evident absurdity. No food is worth dying for.

Unctuous – I’m uneasy about this. My friend Bob Granleese wants it in, but he probably sees many more unctuouses than I do; and I have been known to use it myself (vide. Pork ‘as unctuous as an undertaker’).

Foodie – I’m tired of this expression. You’re tired of this expression. We’re all tired of this expression. So why do we use it? And why do we think that someone weird because they’re interested in food and are happy to express it? The Italians don’t seem to thinks so. Neither do the French, Spanish, Poles or Portuguese.

NB. Moist is almost universally execrated. However, I have a soft spot for moist. What is a really good fruit cake if not moist?

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