Archive for the ‘food & drink’ Category

Shrub – it might grow on you.   Leave a comment

marc1.jpg

We get seasons here. We may be 40 minutes from the Mediterranean but the pool has already had its first thin sheet of ice. The fruit and vegetables follow the seasons too : right now it’s the orange that rules. This New Year’s Eve we’re going to open up the Big House for the occasion : but even with log fires in all the rooms the guests will need further warming, so I shall try this old winter recipe – though I’ll probably save the Eau de Vie de Marc de Languedoc and stick with the brandy. I found this bottle in the cave beneath the house and judging by the label, it was made by the local distillary for the previous owner Monsieur de Longueval, from the skins and pips of his own grapes.

THE IDEAL BARTENDER
by Tom Bullock 1917

Dedicated to those who enjoy snug club rooms, that they may learn the art of preparing for themselves what is good. sepia-tom-bullock.jpg

Is it any wonder that Mankind stands open-mouthed before the Bartender, considering the Mysteries & Marvels of an Art that borders on Magic?


Recipes found in this Book have been composed & collected, tried & tested, in a quarter-century of experience, by Tom Bullock of the St. Louis Country Club.

BRANDY SHRUB (2-gallon mixture for 40 people)

Into a Punch bowl put the Peeled Rinds of 5 Lemons and the Juice of 12 Lemons and add 5 quarts of Brandy. Make the bowl airtight and set it aside. At the expiration of 6 days add 3 quarts of Sherry wine and 6 pounds of Loaf Sugar, which has been dissolved in 1 quart of plain Soda. Strain through a bag and bottle.

The English Housekeeper, 1851 Anne Cobbett who wrote ‘for the person of moderate income’ is well worth reading for contemporary values and ideals, and her belief that the daughters of ‘the poor’ should be taught domestic skills rather than to read and write. From the 1850s onwards, cookery books proliferated as part of the huge expansion in book publishing that followed the removal of the tax on paper, and improvements in production technology. Eighteenth-century cookery and household books were issued in short print-runs of 1000 – 2500 copies. Such books in the later nineteenth century sold in tens of thousands.

Shrub Serves 6

This was a popular drink among the ladies as it is ‘dangerously pleasant to drink’. The original recipe suggests preparing the drink at least five days in advance. But you will find that it is quite a tasty punch almost immediately after it is mixed. It is likely that oranges were less sweet in those days, and you may wish to reduce the amount of sugar in this recipe.

5-6 juice oranges
2 cups (or less) sugar
1 quart rum or brandy
Squeeze the oranges until you have 2 cups of juice. Reserve half of the skins. Strain the juice to remove the pith and pits.
Combine the juice, sugar and liquor in a large bottle. Coarsely chop the orange peels and add them. Cover and shake the mixture.
About 8 hours later, strain out the peels. Cover and shake the mixture about 4 times daily for the next 4 days. Reserve for use.
To serve, pour into a small punch bowl and chill with ice either in the bowl or in individual glasses.
To 1 quart of strained orange juice, put 2 lbs. loaf sugar, and 9 pints of rum or brandy; also the peels of half the oranges. Let it stand one night, then strain, pour into a cask, and shake it four times a day for four days. Let it stand till fine, then bottle it.

Arabic shurb ‘beverage’

Posted December 27, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink

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Parsnips are evil   2 comments

The train of thought has just pulled in to a station called Non Sequitur.
Out steps – a parsnip. Alone on the platform, and looking round anxiously for a context.

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Well – I am able to provide it with one, but that’s all this lonely stranger is going to find in France. It will not be greeted by eager cooks or consumers. It’s not out of favour. It’s not out of season. It’s an unter-vegetable – fit only for ruminants of the most unthinking kind. And what was once deemed suitable only for cattle, can never grace the plate of a proper Frenchman élévé dans la tradition.

I’ll probably never get to the bottom of this tradition – it all seems tangled up with the transition from feudalism towards the emergence of the Nation State: it’s the need for all these newly-constructed ‘countries’ to assert their difference.
It involves Louis X1V – ‘le Roi Soleil’ – and the influence of his sumptuous & sophisticated court on all the other little tuppeny-ha’penny countries of Europe. And of course the Academie Française – its thoughtpolice – declaring what is, and is not proper & correct.
An example of its influence: spices. It declared that the strong spices that mediaeval Europe used to enliven its meat (and mask its gamey taste) were unfit for France: henceforth only herbs were acceptable in proper cuisine. The fact that France had lost control of the Spice Route, first to the Portuguese then to the navies of Holland, and later England – was dismissed as irrelevant . . . Naturellement the idea that France’s eating habits (and spending budget) could be held ransom to these uncouth foreigners, was insupportable.
It is worth noting that the dominant theme in English cooking is the use of spices for their own sake, especially in pursuit of effects that combine the sour and the sweet. The records of spice consumption, from the time of the amalgamation of the ‘Sopers Lane Pepperers’ and the ‘Cheap Spicers’ in 1345, shows a binge lasting nearly a millenium. [National dish of England? Chicken Tikka Massala. Somehow shameful? Not in the least : utterly traditional. Spices R Us !]

Pardonnez-moi. We must go back and save the puzzled parsnip on the platform – the whole point of this post. When asked for some panais at the supermarket, the manager had to be called: Non – never heard of it. Other people remembered some such thing – like a carrot? but bigger? and sweeter? and white, you say? C’est possible . . .
Our Larousse Chambers Advanced French-English dictionary is silent on the word panais – no entry at all. But says this for parsnip: ‘panais – légume courante dans l’alimentation britannique’ (‘an everyday vegetable of the British food-trade’) So – they have a tradition de cuisine  while we just eat off the back of trucks?
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David has just one entry: ‘Used in very small quantities as a flavouring in pot au feu.’

We finally tracked some down on a small market stall in Carcassonne last Christmas. An elderly farmer had grown them as a curiosity: he thought they might be mediaeval, but – hélas – he could not tell us how they should be cooked …

Now. At a dinner party given by an eminent medical man living in our village, we enjoyed classic cuisine du terroir (aka cuisine de grande-mère) and learnt that he could not abide curries. Moreover: curries, and anything sucré-salé (sweet&sour) was an abomination, and that no shelf-space should be given to spices in a right-thinking cook’s kitchen: they could only spoil the palette, and ruin a dish. This was a fairly young, fairly cultured modern Frenchman, who will never savour the joys of a parsnip, quartered and tossed in an emulsion of olive oil and shoyu, and roasted ’til meltingly caramelised. And most emphatically not steamed parsnips, mashed with butter and roast cumin seeds, with the Christmas turkey. ‘ Ah, non: Quel horreur!’

Posted December 23, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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cows and carp – eros and thanatos   Leave a comment

When Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein, she heard bells ring. They went on to have one of the happiest marriages of the 20th century. They agreed that a life worth living should include plenty of food and the company of artists and writers. For the 39 years that followed their first meeting, that is the life they lived.toklas1.jpg

Such bands of steel are forged by sex, and Gertrude wrote a great deal about the delights of it with Alice. Gertrude’s work included many private references to her love for Alice – “my delicious dish, my little wife” – as well as many references to cows, which Steinian scholars have suggested are orgasms, given that, according to Gertrude,” cows are between legs” and are given to wives:

I am fondest of all of lifting belly
Lifting belly is in bed
And the bed has been made comfortable
Lifting belly
So high
And aiming.
Exactly and making a cow come out.

Gertrude, who was the genius, stayed up all night writing her strange, lovely prose; while Alice, the mistress of the house, woke early to supervise the servants, collected recipes and typed Gertrude’s manuscripts.
While Gertrude proffered sex in prose, Alice prepared suggestive dishes. In the ‘Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, she writes, “In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice.”
Later in the book we come to : Murder In The Kitchen
‘ Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seem as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. They can’t, they can never become acceptable facts. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.
The only way to cook is to cook, and for me it suddenly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was then, that I learned to cook seriously. It was at this time, that murder in the kitchen began.
The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in it. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come to take me into custody. After another cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, and put it aside while I prepared . . .
Carp Stuffed With Chestnuts
For a 3-lb. carp, chop a medium-sized onion and cook it gently in 3 tablespoons butter. Add a 2-inch slice of bread cut into small cubes which have previously been soaked in dry, white wine and squeezed dry, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 2 chopped shallots, 1 clove pressed garlic, 1 teaspoon salt,1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 3/4 teaspoon powdered mace, the same laurel (bay) and of tyme and 12 peeled chestnuts.
Stuff the cavity and head of the fish, carefully snare with skewers, tie the head so that nothing will escape while cooking. Put aside for at least a couple hours. Put 2 cups dry white wine into an earthenware dish, place the fish in the dish, salt to taste. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes at 375 . Baste, and cover the fish with a thick coating of very fine cracker crumbs, dot with 3 tablespoons melted butter and cook for 20 minutes more. Serves 4. The head of a carp is enormous. Many continentals consider it the most delectable morsel. ‘

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. . . and would Madame prefer camel, or wolf ?   1 comment

At this time of the year many French supermarkets offer a choice of ready-prepared menus, for the host who lacks the time (or the confidence) to cook the all-important Christmas Eve feast.

take-away xmas meals

During the winter of 1870 Paris was beseiged for 130 days. (The damned Prussians this time.)
While other foods may have run out, their reserves of gastronomic panache still permitted some extraordinary menus. On Christmas Day (99th. Day of Siege) a top restaurant excelled itself with this offering, which should be filed under Necessity/Invention :-

siege of Paris menu

You may need some help with the vocabulary. Or you might simply want to turn away at this point.
tête d’âne farcie =
stuffed donkey’s head, ours = bear, chameau = camel chevreuil = deer, loup = wolf
un chat flanqué de rats is indeed a cat on a bed of rats. And while you won’t want any help with antilope or kangourou, you may feel the need for a seltzer, or counselling.

I was delighted to find that, a week or so later, the American ambassador was gracious enough to accept the invitation to this fine feast:

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‘The whole of the animals and birds of the Jardin Acclimitation were bought by an English butcher of the Faubourg St. Honoré just before the siege, and were all sold by him during the siege at the rate of 25 francs per pound. He is said to have realised a very large fortune by the transaction.’
O ! Perfidious shopkeepers of Albion !

Posted December 19, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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Interesting vintages   Leave a comment

I found this the other day, and took it up to our vigneron friends in the village. I expected it to be vinegar – but with a hard wax seal around the cork, Charles was hopeful. It was bliss. Delicate nectar – smooth with a faint sweet/sour finish.
It simply says on the ‘etiquette‘ Tokay, and vin de pays de l’Aude. Tokay is known as a sweet white wine from Hungary‘s Tokay region, which is made primarily from the Furmint grape, in a similar style to Sauternes. Wineries make Tokaji with semi-dry grapes that have had ‘noble rot’ take hold. The grapes in this state are called Aszu. Charles had never heard of this stuff having been made in the region – but Monsieur de Longueval had a reputation for eccentricity.

The house had stood empy for 30 years when we bought it in 1999 – so we reckoned it was 40 years old. They came from the cellars which extend the fullsize of the house. There are four ‘tonneaux’ or ‘foudres’ on each side. They contained over 2000 litres each, and must have been constructed in situ, when the Maison de Maitre was built in 1863 – as the doorways are too low & narrow.

Next is a 1943 vintage. Charles had heard of similar finds – usually bricked into walls. What better place for la résistance to hide its ammunition – in this case, rifle bullets – than in among the Boss’s wine?
The German army did in fact occupy the village – and spent many an evening enjoying Pierre de Longueval’s hospitality.

However two young maquisards from the village were shot in reprisal for an ambush, in the last days of the war.

German reprisals

Taboo – to you too?   Leave a comment

Back when Ireland was bombing itself and the Brits to bloody bits, when convicted IRA gunrunner CJ Haughey was Taoiseach and the President was a Gaelic Football hero, back when Ireland’s banks shut for two months and ran only on punts and promises of payment, back when priests preyed on children, contraceptives were sinful, and divorce the devil’s doing, back when Ireland was broke and backward and a land full of lushes not luxuries –
I opened southern Ireland’s first Natural Food shop. I named it PAN Wholefoods after a randy little dancer, or after an all-embracing concept, I can’t remember.
I was an oddity in Cork, there not being many Englishmen keen to live in the IRA’s southern support-camp – but the food was even odder. I sold nothing recognisably ‘Healthfoody’ in the way of bottled supplements – merely shapeless sacks of dried stuff from strange corners of the world : dirty brown rice and wierd black beans from India, evil mounds of miso and suspicious seaweeds from Japan. I was a posh-sounding Brit pontificating about macrobiotics. I never really got the hang of yin ‘n’ yang – but we stuck to the basic idea that the less you mess with food, the better. We never stocked supplements or remedies and we never made much money.
It seemed a clear idea to me at the time, and still does – and the science behind it seemed straightforward too : refined foods with additives and preservatives and colourants were recent and complex inventions that might not work best with a digestive system that evolved aeons back to deal with the simple foodstuffs we could gather or grow or kill. But it was during those years that I began to learn a little about the taboos people carried with them about food.

Today is market day in nearby Lezignan. The trestles are laden with fresh produce, and there are queues at favourite stalls, including the two selling horse meat.
Food is often the subject of taboo or disgust because it is internalized. Any revulsion we have for food is magnified by the thought it will become part of us. The driving forces are cultural or religious, or sentimental : they are rarely – if ever – based on rationality or science.
The eating of horse meat is a food taboo to most people in the United Kingdom, the US, and Australia, and its supply is sometimes even illegal. The English language has no widely-used term for horse meat. In the UK, this strong taboo includes banning horsemeat from commercial pet food and DNA testing of some types of salami suspected of containing donkey meat. Like lobster and camel, it is forbidden in Judaism since under Mosaic Law the horse is not a ruminant. The people of Iceland allegedly expressed reluctance to embrace Christianity for some time largely over the issue of giving up horse meat.
During World War II, due to the low supply and high price of beef, the state of New Jersey legalised the sale of horse meat. At war’s end, the state again prohibited such sale, possibly in response to pressure from the beef lobby. Although people in the United States rarely eat horse meat, around 50,000 horses are slaughtered each year in two abbatoirs in Texas for export to Europe, Mexico, or Japan. Horse meat produced in the U.S. is also sold to zoos for carnivore feeding, due to its high protein content.
In Sweden horse meat outsells lamb and mutton combined. Horse meat is generally available in Slovenia. In the Netherlands, a popular breakfast sliced meat is smoked horsemeat (paardenrookvlees). In Italy, it used in a stew called Pastissada, served as horse or colt steaks, Carpaccio or made into Bresaola. In Germany, horse meat is traditionally used in Sauerbraten, a strongly marinated type of sweet-sour braised meat dish. There is a thriving horse meat business in Québec, and horse meat is frequently available at supermarkets. In Belgium, horse meat or viande chevaline is highly prized, and is used in steak tartare. Kare is an Austrian stew made with horse meat and a variety of vegetables. In Chile it is used in charqui. In Iceland it is used for fondue, but it is mostly used for stews. In Japanese cuisine, raw horse meat is called sakura or sakuranik, and is considered a delicacy, eaten raw as a type of sashimi (basashi).
Horse meat gained widespread acceptance in French cuisine during the later years of the Second French Empire. The high cost of living in Paris prevented many working-class citizens from buying meat such as pork or beef, and in 1886 the first butcher’s shop specialising in horse meat opened in eastern Paris, providing quality meat at lower prices. During the Siege of Paris of 1870-71, horse meat was eaten by all citizens of Paris due to a shortage of fresh meat in the blockaded city, and also because live horses were eating vast quantities of grain which was needed by the human populace. Many Parisians gained a taste for horse meat during the siege, and after the war ended, horse meat remained popular amongst Parisian citizens.
On our walks in the Pyrenees we have come across many herds of free-roaming horses, stocky and massive of girth. They live and breed in a state of freedom unknown by most other animals bred for slaughter. Only the cattle of Ireland – and few other European countries – experience this degree of untrammeled existence. And even there, if it is a dairy herd, it necessitates the early separation of mother from calf, so that we may benefit from milk and cream, cheese and yoghurt. It is very difficult for people to straighten out their thinking – or feeling – about food. Most of us are a muddle of contradictions and hypocricies : our arguments being nothing of the sort, merely self-serving justifications.
The only logical, rational, defensible position to take with regard to food is vegan and fruitarian. All else involves the use/misuse of living creatures. No religious or cultural or sentimental factors need apply – it is simply a choice that few are prepared to think through and apply to every aspect of their life.
I am an omnivore and have blood on my hands.

Posted December 8, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink