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168 Year Old Christmas Pudding

I have never made a traditional Christmas pudding before. Why? I have no answer to that suffice to say that it is something that I have had on a cooking to do list since I can remember. I am sure for many, at least those from the ol’ country that is England, there are fond childhood memories of Christmas pudding finishing off Christmas dinner (lunch). I remember the smell of spices, the brandy, the delectable fruit, and the sweet steaming, and often alcohol laced, custard. For me it was the pinnacle of all food at Christmas. I remember being incredibly excited at my primary school Christmas lunch, as hidden within the pudding were foil covered coins – and 1 lucky recipient would find the only hidden pound note – it was a most marvellous time, and one that wasn’t clouded by the need for public liability insurance (or whatnot) in case a kid choked – which never happened in my time at the school. No, we just all loved it.

The school I went to was over a century old, having been built in 1876. I remember the old dark stone building which just exuded Victorian character. I remember the smell; it smelt old. I recall the smells of mustiness, ink, wooden pencil shavings, mashed potato and meat pie at lunch time, and of horse chestnuts (conkers) in summer as the boys and girls vied to be the top dog – it smelt only of what I can describe as a school smell. But the greatest smell of all was at Christmas.

I was recently thinking about what a Christmas pudding would have been like at that school back in the 19th century, and from there I started to research recipes from that era. One cook in particular stood out; Eliza Acton.

 

Modern Cookery - Eliza Acton

Modern Cookery – Eliza Acton

 

Eliza Acton was an amazing woman, who was first a poet, but became more famously know as a cook. Her book Modern Cooking for Private Families, published in 1845, was her most accomplished effort (as well as her book about bread making). Contemporary chef Delia Smith is quoted as having called Eliza Acton, “the best writer of recipes in the English language”. Eliza’s book long survived her, remaining in print until 1914, with her recipes still in wide circulation today.  You can see how many modern chefs have derived recipes from works such as hers. There’s a Mock Turtle soup in there, which in the last few years has been made famous by Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck.

If you have any interest in food, in particular historical recipes, I can’t recommend highly enough reading this book. The book is now in the public domain, and I found its availability as a free download via Google – this is the link http://books.google.com.au/books?output=acs_help&id=kXsCAAAAYAAJ.

After being absorbed by the text of this book for the last couple of weeks, I came across Eliza’s recipe for Christmas pudding (or Ingoldsby Pudding as it is in the book). It just exuded simplicity, but contained all those lovely rich ingredients that I associate with Christmas pudding, including the calorie rich beef suet. This is the recipe and method as written in the cookbook (revised edition published in 1860):

 

INGOLDSBY CHRISTMAS PUDDINGS.

Mix very thoroughly one pound of finely grated bread with the same quantity of flour, two pounds of raisins stoned, two of currants, two of suet minced small, one of sugar, half a pound of candied peel, one nutmeg, half an ounce of mixed spice, and the grated rinds of two lemons; mix the whole with sixteen eggs well beaten and strained, and add four glasses of brandy. These proportions will make three puddings of good size, each of which should be boiled six hours.

Bread-crumbs, 1 lb.; flour, 1 lb.; suet, 2 lbs.; currants, 2 lbs.; raisins, 2 lbs.; sugar, 1lb.; candied peel, ½lb.; rinds of lemons, 2; nutmegs, 1 ; mixed spice, ½ oz. : salt, ¼ teaspoonsful; eggs, 16 ; brandy, 4 glassesful: 6 hours.

Obs. – A fourth part of the ingredients given above, will make a pudding of sufficient size for a small party: to render this very rich, half the flour and bread-crumbs may be omitted, and a few spoonsful of apricot marmalade well blended with the remainder of the mixture.*

* Rather less liquid will be required to moisten the pudding when this is done, and four hours and a quarter will boil it.

 

I have added/ amended a couple of ingredients to add a little more fruitiness to the pudding, as well as adjusted the breadcrumbs and flour. I have yet to eat the pudding, of course, but should it turn out to be the spectacular one that I am hoping for I will post my variations and a modern day recipe after Christmas day.

 

Christmas Pudding Mixture

Christmas Pudding Mixture

Indian Bus Ride – Agra to Jaipur

This is a true story and one of many from my travels in India over a decade ago. There is a loose food connection.

The word nightmare by definition is a stressful, anxious or other emotionally painful dream during sleep. Change the night for day and the dream for reality and the definition would have been apt for my first real test as a traveller in India.

I was in Agra, a city 4½ hours by bus south of Delhi and more famously known as the home of the wondrous Taj Mahal and the magnificent Red Fort.

 

Red Fort at Agra

Red Fort at Agra

 

I had spent the last two days there, sightseeing amongst the infinite number of tourists that there seemed to be. Agra, apart from the obvious, had little to offer other than dark, dank hotels, poison laced food (as was reported in the Lonely planet – more perception than fact) and a real knack for squeezing that ever dwindling rupee from one’s back pocket. Based on this, I was ready to head for brighter horizons.

“So, if I arrive at this place tomorrow morning I will catch the bus to Jaipur?”

“Oh yes sir!” was the agent’s reply.

“And how long does the bus take to reach Jaipur?”

“Only five hours sir” was the confident yet decidedly unconvincing reply.

The agent also doubled up as a gem retailer, and I was therefore unsure of where his area of expertise lay – in bus timetables or precious stones? The bus, I was told, departed from the other end of town on Fatehpur Sikri Road. Having only ever spent two days of my whole life in Agra I was in no position to argue the toss. So, with this in mind and an indecipherable ticket in hand I headed back to my hotel in order to pack for the next day’s exciting journey. To Rajahstan, to Jaipur, to the Indian desert…to a calamitous day!

The day had started well; I was up at seven, had taken a cold yet refreshing shower (not by choice), and put on my other set of clean clothes. They were clean in so much that the fume particles from Calcutta’s environmentally friendly oil and diesel works (also known as transport) had left their mark on my Woodland pants and the ‘genuine’ 60 rupee Calvin Hilfiger T-shirt I had bought there. The morning was cool and crisp as I consumed a hearty breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and coffee on the outside porch of the ‘hotel’ I was staying in. My aim was to be at the bus stop by 8.30am. So, at eight o’clock I decided to head out towards the main road to catch an auto-rickshaw. My approximation was that an auto would take about twenty minutes to reach the bus stop. Now, my experience of India to this point was of a continuous flux of auto-rickshaws with drivers desperately vying for your business. Bearing this in mind, then why, when I really needed one, when I would have paid double the reasonable rate for one were there absolutely none in sight – Sod’s Law? I was beginning to think that when, like a shining light from the abyss of darkness I saw one on the road’s horizon and it was coming my way. Five minutes later it was still heading my way, and as the silhouette became more focused a black mop of greased curly hair came into view, then a David Soul type patterned brown shirt, jeans that were more hole than denim and then…a bicycle – No! Not a bicycle rickshaw!

Immediately I knew that this would probably mean a forty-minute hike to the bus stop. By now it was ten past eight and I was beginning to feel decidedly uneasy about the whole situation. I was in a dilemma as to whether to take the cycle rickshaw or chance it that an auto would come by. Given the immense velocity at which the cyclist had reached me from the horizon, waiting for an auto was starting to look the favourite.

“Lubbly jubbly mista, where you go?”

“Ermm, yes, umm to Fatehpur Sikri Road”

“Ohh to catch bus! Ohh lubbly jubbly – I take you mista, 30 rupees”

“How long will it take?” I said, expecting the answer to depict his cycle as one that could travel supersonic.

“15 minutes, lubbly jubbly” was the reply. I was right.

“15 rupees if you put your foot on it”

“Lubbly jubbly, 20 rupees”.

 

Attribution: Marcin Białek - Cycle Rickshaw in India

Attribution: Marcin Białek – Cycle Rickshaw in India

 

The price was eventually settled at fifteen rupees with the condition that we made it before nine o’clock – a.m. that was. As you probably would be aware at this point I was none too confident of catching the bus to Jaipur. In response to this I had started to make alternative plans in my mind for such an eventuality when something hit me. I was immediately distracted from the panic laden thoughts as to whether we would make our destination in time, and hence the possibility of spending another night in Agra. What hit me was how on this Earth did the Indian cyclist, from the midst of nowhere, know the term ‘lubbly jubbly’? For those unaware, there was a BBC comedy series that ran for fifteen years or so based upon two cockney ‘independent traders’ i.e. no box, no receipt. Del Boy the main character would say “lovely jubbly” in a fit of exhilaration if a deal had been successful, or similarly if he was faced with a large English fry-up.

“What is your good country sir?”

“England” I hesitantly replied.

“Ohh, England lubbly jubbly – are you married dear sir?”

“No”

“Ohh no wife, big life, lubbly jubbly – you like cricket?”

“Yes, do you?”

“Ohh cricket lubbly jubbly, Tendulkar lubbly jubbly, Dravid lubbly jubbly…”

I interjected.

“Excuse me, why do you keep saying lovely jubbly?”

“Ohh England lubbly jubbly, Only Fool and Horse lubbly jubbly”

We arrived at 8.50am, lubbly jubbly.

I entered the travel agent’s small office. Inside was an old rickety wooden chair and matching desk, another dubious looking chair adorned in flaked red paint, a heavy grinding fan obviously from the colonial days, and a few randomly scattered papers. It was 8.50am and by the process of elimination and the ingenuity of maths I had calculated a ten-minute wait until the bus arrived. Maybe other travellers would turn up soon I thought.

“Can I help you dear sir?” said the agent from behind his desk. He was a slight man dressed in a faded blue striped cotton shirt and longhi. I showed him my ticket.

“Yes, I’m here to catch the nine o’clock bus to Jaipur – shall I wait here?”

“Ohh dear sir, I’m telling you that the bus leaves at 8-30 but I can get you on another for eleven”.

Now, in situations like this it is very easy to lose ones self-control, especially when you have followed to the letter of the law another person’s instructions and you have consequently been tricked or misinformed. However, in this situation the wrong man would have been accused and whatsmore I was quickly learning that chaos was the Indian way. Start to worry if things look as if they are going right because somewhere something is wrong. I showed the agent my ticket and with a sideways nod and expressionless smile he asked me to take a seat – the red flaky one – and he disappeared outside.

It was now five past nine and apparent that no bus was going to turn up. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky and the day was turning hot and sticky. A cockroach scurried from beneath my chair and diminished into a crevice of the cracked plaster wall. As I sat in daydream I was called in a frantic manner.

“Dear sir, dear sir please come with me!”

He had hailed an auto-rickshaw and advised me that a bus to Jaipur was leaving at ten thirty from another part of town. Hesitantly, I followed him wondering at the back of my mind: where am I going? How much extra am I going to be stung for? And will I ever leave Agra? I only had four months left on my visa! We arrived at yet another agent, but this time there were a number of people seemingly waiting for a bus. A positive sign I thought. A burly man, in stark contrast to the agent I was with, approached us and there followed some Hindi dialogue. The agent showed him my ticket and I was then directed to sit on a concrete ledge and wait for the ten thirty bus to Jaipur. OK, an hour to wait and finally I would head for Jaipur. I could handle that I thought. I asked the agent how much the driver of the auto wanted. Inside I was kicking myself because in my confusion I had forgotten rule number one – always barter and set the price before travelling. I was expecting to be squeezed dry, but surprisingly the agent side nodded, gave a warming smile and then left in the auto. Always be prepared to be surprised.

By now I was in some discomfort from the heat. With me I had my backpack and a smaller rucksack. I did not want to lose my place on the concrete ledge neither did I want to leave my possessions unattended. However, I was at the point of forfeiting one of the two so that I could go and purchase a cold glass bottle of Coke or Sprite. My throat was like a rasp. And then, suddenly, amidst a deluge of black diesel fumes a bus emerged. I looked at my watch and to my surprise it was only ten o’clock. The bus was early! I eagerly picked up my belongings and pushed my way to the luggage hold at the side of the bus. The eagerness was firstly in expectation of leaving Agra, and secondly to avoid the dreaded back seat. Unlike the school days I remember where it was ‘cool’ to be the first to the back seat on a school trip, India turns you full circle so much so that the back seat must be avoided at all costs. This time, unfortunately, there was not even to be a back seat.

“No sir, no sir, no Jaipur, sit down!” screamed the burly Indian as he ran from within the agents office.

The queue of vociferous Indians immediately muted and they all turned and watched me desolately and embarrassingly walk back to the concrete ledge before they all boarded the bus.  So, the bus was not going to Jaipur, and was therefore certainly not early. As I reclaimed my place on the concrete ledge very disheartened I realised that I was alone. All those that had been waiting had gone. A dark cloud of panic once again enveloped me. Maybe there was no bus to Jaipur; maybe there was no Jaipur. How would I contact my family to let them know that I was to be stuck in Agra indefinitely? For months, years, forever. Help!

“Good morning I am Sajid what is your dear name sir?”

Sat next to me was a young Indian man, no more than 18 years of age. He had a dark complexion, a wave of thick black hair and was dressed in leather sandals, faded jeans and a loose cotton shirt.

“Hi, yes, umm I’m Nick”. There was a slight pause “Are you here to catch the bus?” I continued.

He gave a side nod and smiled. I was not yet expert enough to understand whether this meant ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It was an infuriating part of the Indian culture, but that was more down to my lack of education then a problem of India’s.

“Yes, my family and I are to travel to Jaipur on the bus that is next”.

Internally my panic transformed into relief and then adulation. It was as if I had been imprisoned and against all the odds had made parole for good behaviour. Eventually Agra was to be just a distant memory.

“Me too!” I replied. The beaming smile on my face must have been apparent to all.

“My family are buying Coca-Cola, would you like a Coca-Cola?”

The adulation was complete. Not only was Jaipur becoming a reality but that deep throated yearning for a cold Coke was to end. Sajid handed to me a cold bottle of Coke and as I took a ten-rupee note from my pocket he gave a side nod and a huge smile. This time I knew that he was indicating ‘no’.

I was introduced to Sajid’s family and was to learn that their dark complexions were native to the Southern regions of India and in particular Kerala. Sajid was the elder of three siblings, the other two being brother and sister. Sajid’s father had brought the family, including aunts and uncles, on a tour of Delhi, Agra, Rajahstan and Gujarat before finally heading back to Kerala. These were the first people I had ever met from the south of India and it amazed me as to how different they were in their looks, mannerisms and attitude to life. Having survived the intense chaos of Northern India’s Delhi and Calcutta, here I was witnessing the calming presence of a family that would have made even the most laid back of people look as if they were on the pulse. My travelling itinerary would now include Kerala.

The bus arrived. It was 11-30 and an hour late. I hadn’t noticed.

The interior of the bus was shabby. What would have once been a white imitation leather trim was now greyish in appearance. The front half of the bus was full, mainly of smartly presented Indian travellers. The men were in black or brown scuffed leather shoes or thongs, wearing matching pants and the now famous cotton shirts. The women on the other hand were adorned in an array of brightly coloured saris accompanied by eye catching gold and silver accessories. The jewellery that they wore was painted with a kaleidoscope of intricately cut gemstones. The ambience on the bus was jovial, made more so as the festival of light, Diwali, had reached a crescendo the previous night. Sajid led me to the rear of the bus. It was the second to last seat, the seat that I did not want to endure for a five-hour journey. Reluctantly I took my place by the window, not wanting to rescind the kindness that had already been shown to me. Fortunately the window could be opened and, therefore, I would be able to dry the sweat on my brow with the ensuing breeze once the journey was underway. At eleven forty five the bus departed and we were on our way to Jaipur!

Agra itself has in recent years had to re-invent itself, especially when all power was lost to Delhi. It has funnelled a proportion of the income from tourists into a smoggy industrial development. Covering an area of approximately 25 square kilometres it is much smaller in size than say Delhi or Calcutta. However, when I was told that it was only “five hours sir” to Jaipur I was beginning to wonder whether the two hours it took to get out of this harsh and tightly knit city was included or not. Even the softly spoken words of Sajid could not distract me from the frustration of still being in Agra. The acrid diesel fumes and sweltering heat was beginning to take its toll on my now fragile body. My only comfort was a bottle of tepid water and the fact that the bus was not full to the rafters. At least there were no goats or chickens on there, yet. I continued to converse with Sajid. He was curious to know in an excited way how many rupees equivalent I was earning in England before I left to travel. This was something I felt uncomfortable in sharing. Firstly, it was all relative. And secondly, it would have been far greater than any of these poor people could have earned in India. I did work it out in the quiet of my mind and estimated that after tax I would have earned 1.4million rupees in a year. Sajid told me that he earned 350 rupees per month. Even though I was prepared for an answer like that it still hit me hard. However, in the same instance it seemed wholly irrelevant. Why? Because although I was struggling with the current situation of the bus journey I had started to feel free inside. My travels through India and Nepal had somehow tossed aside the daily concerns of money and possessions and I was now aware that living each day to the full was paramount.

I could sense that we were now reaching the outskirts of Agra and ready to make some serious inroads into the highway to Jaipur. Again, the bus stopped, surely for the last time in Agra? Before this stop there were two empty seats on the opposite side of the aisle to Sajid and me, and the whole length of the back seat. Sajid’s family was located in the midst of the bus. A young couple hopped aboard, dressed in similar attire to the majority of the travellers on the bus. Obviously from a mid-caste, if such a phrase exists. Following the couple were a family that looked as if they were from the lower echelons of Indian society. The couple seated themselves, as expected, in the two empty seats and the family to the back. Sajid was still chatting away, but my attention had now focused on the family on the back seat.

There were four men, one of which looked to be a grandfather or older uncle, accompanied by two women in tatty looking saris and also two children. One of the children was approximately six years old, a boy. He wore a long white tunic and thongs but what really struck me though were the thick black charcoal highlights around his eyes. During Diwali prayers are said to the image Devi, the mother goddess. From the images that I had previously seen it was apparent that the boy had been celebrating Devi’s fanatic popularity as part of the previous night’s celebration. It is said that Devi adopts two forms; Durga her benevolent form and Kali, the one to be dreaded. I was overcome with uneasiness as to how sinister this probably innocent little boy looked. I could see why Indian people succumb to such fear and awe regarding these powerful images. In contrast the younger child, who I assumed to be the boys little sister, was a very cute looking little Indian girl.

 

Ok, not quite as bad as this!

Attribution: Biswarup Ganguly – Ok, not quite as bad as this!

 

I could feel that the bus was gathering speed and this meant one thing; we were eventually heading for Jaipur. At last the breeze began to fill the bus, the tepid water was beginning to taste sweet, and the industrial Indian architecture was being replaced with greenery and wooden shacks. India, again, was a wonderful place to travel in. I reclined my seat slightly, closed my eyes and started to dream of horizons new. I took in a deep breath of air. And then, like a bullet in the chest it hit me. My nostrils started to flare and contort. A pang of nausea overcame me. The rancid and putrid odours shook the depth of my being. The nightmares that I had previously had about the back seat and Indian buses had suddenly emerged as reality – somebody was throwing up. And it was Devi’s little follower!

I turned to Sajid and already he was covering his nose and mouth with a shabby looking handkerchief. I turned backwards to peer through the gap between the back of our seats. I could see the little boy retching into his father’s handkerchief. He had already been de-robed down to a pair of white underpants. My whole body began to convulse so I quickly faced forwards and then, with the risk of being hit by oncoming traffic, I stuck my head out of the window. A minute’s respite. Or so I thought. As I looked backward one of the women had her head out of the window and was regurgitating breakfast. I pulled my head back in and noticed that at the opposite end of the back seat the other woman was throwing up…and then the little girl was. It was almost orchestrated. I covered my face with the front neck rim of my T-shirt as my nose hunted for the scent of the deodorant that I was wearing. Although this by now was unpleasant in its own right it seemed as refreshing as fields of lavender in comparison. Through all this commotion the four men on the back seat remained calm, chatty and were still smiling, almost oblivious to what was happening. The extent of their worries was a mop here and a wipe there. In contrast, I thought that I was going to die. Once more I turned to Sajid. He had removed his handkerchief and was laid back in his seat, eyes closed, gently sleeping. I had no escape.

Ten minutes or so later, the vomiting stopped and those fetid odours began to dissipate. I convinced myself to relax. Slowly, I began to return to the contented soul that I had been. Twenty minutes later the retching once again started and this was promptly followed by the sweet smelling hedonics. This time it was just the little boy and the same sequence of events would happen until the bus stopped four and a half hours after leaving the agent’s office in Agra. Completely exhausted by the day so far I asked the driver as we alighted from the bus how far we had to go before reaching Jaipur. In broken English he replied. In broken English he broke my heart “We half way sir!”

I was in the middle of nowhere bar a few shacks and wandering cows, and of course people. There are people wherever you go in India. The short of it was I had to continue with the journey. The bus had stopped outside what would be India’s equivalent of a roadside café. It consisted of a large suspended tarpaulin under which were a series of flimsy looking wooden tables supporting metal trays of food, metal utensils and jugs of water. Behind each table stood two or three servers each dressed in the hygienic and customary uniform of vest, shorts and thongs. Sajid and his family had seated themselves at a long table with attached benches. I was invited to join them. Sajid’s father welcomed me with an open gesture, and even though not hungry I thought that out of courtesy I would join them. As a traveller in India you have to be very careful as to where and what you eat. As a consequence I had avoided any outside eateries in favour of classier looking restaurants. In Calcutta I had seen what a sick backpacker looked like and believe me it was not a pretty sight. Couple this with my already fragile stomach and disposition I was in no mood to be eating. Imagine then, to my horror, when put before me was a metal plate piled high with rice, dhal (lentil soup), watery curry, pickles and greasy roti bread. What made it worse was that the whole family had stopped talking, had turned towards me and was staring at me with expectant smiles. It felt as if the whole world had stopped. I had visions of a king waiting for the taster to give the approval that the food was worthy of consumption. In reality this was genuine Indian kindness and friendship. I had to brace myself and take a mouthful. If I were to die from parasitic ridden food then at least it would have been in respect to those that had shown me endearing kindness. I clenched the muscles in my stomach. With my right hand I scooped a ball of cold rice, dipped it into the dhal and curry and moved it towards my mouth. Their eyes were now even more transfixed. I could feel my throat congealing. I opened my mouth and with a push of the thumb the rice mixture left my fingertips and landed on my tongue. I chewed and then swallowed. With a nervous smile I waited for the food to be thrown back on to the table. Instead, my body craved for more. In fact, I even thought that it tasted good. I repeated the process and realised that this food was great. My energy levels started to increase and my stomach was saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I hadn’t even noticed that Sajid’s family’s eyes were no longer on me. They had side nodded in approval and continued on with their meal. Even the retching that was still emanating from the bus could not dissuade me from finishing my meal. Another one of those surprises. Afterwards I pulled a few rupees from my pocket and Sajid’s father looked at me and said “No! We are your friends!”

The bus eventually arrived in Jaipur at 7-30pm, eight hours after departing from Agra. The three and a half hours after the meal stop seemed to fly past. The poor little boy did not stop retching for the whole journey and in the end I was feeling sympathetic rather than thinking of my own needs. India does that to you. At one point during the journey I listened to my personal CD player, which eventually ended up being listened to by the sick boy’s father. As he listened he seemed mesmerised by the dance music and wore a smile that would have extended from Mumbai to Chennai. At the journey’s end I said farewell to Sajid and his family. I felt as if I had known them for many years and felt quite emotional as we went our separate ways. They will probably never know the comfort that they brought to me that day. Sajid’s final words were:

“Hopefully we see you in Kerala my friend”

“Lubbly jubbly” I replied.

The Day My Starter Died

Recently my sourdough starter passed away. Through neglect and circumstance it grew beyond a sourdough starter in to a kaleidoscopic collection of seemingly extra-terrestrial life forms. Here is an ode to the sourdough starter to the tune of that MClean classic American Pie:

 

A Long, long time ago
I can still remember that growing starter making me smile
And I knew that it had a chance
To make a sourdough bread romance
That I would be ecstatic for a while

The first loaf we had for dinner
It sure was a sourdough winner
Cut thick and by the slice
Just one would not suffice

But one day I smelt and nearly cried
When that starter burnt my nose inside
No more sourdough for us, I sighed
The day my starter died

(Chorus)
So bye bye to my starter from I
I loved you then I left you to go mouldy and die
And now all we eat is shop bought wholemeal and rye
Singin’, why’d I let my old starter die?
Why’d I let me old starter die

(Verse)
Did you make a starter with love?
Did you look after it with kid gloves?
Like the experts told you so
Do you believe in sourdough rolls?
Great with jam or just butter you know
You can eat it quick or eat it real slow

Well I eat it with cheese and double smoked ham
Because that’s the funky guy that I am
You know I couldn’t lose
Man, that starter you can re-use

But I neglected the starter, oh what a schmuck
And that starter turned in to a heap of muck
And I knew I was out of luck
The day my starter died

(Chorus)
So bye bye to my starter from I
I loved you then I left you to go mouldy and die
And now all we eat is shop bought wholemeal and rye
Singin’, “Why’d I let my old starter die”
“Why’d I let me old starter die”

But as one must, I have moved on. And the marvellous thing about the starter is that in just seven days a new one is born (see here for how to).

 

Sourdough Starter

Sourdough Starter

 

And so this week I welcomed a new addition to the family; an all new, living and sour sourdough starter. Today it was christened and in to existence came its first offspring; a white sourdough loaf. Recipe coming soon.

Umami – A Taste for All

“I don’t know, zhey are my grandfather’s”, was the reply, in an Australianised eastern European accent. The stare was intent and piercing as the expectation of my next words consumed this most unlikely of characters. There was silence; uneasy, but necessary. I then looked him in the eye as my head oscillated; a left turn and then a right.

“Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Umami”

“My name is Nicolaos, not Umami. Is everything ok?”

“Oh just fantastic” I said. “I cannot believe the flavour and taste in these – the umami, the taste, around the mouth is incredible” I continued whilst gesticulating madly in a very Gallic manner.

It was just a nondescript stall in a farmers market, with a mountain of tomatoes and a price. No business card, no business name displaying the purveyor or even a brochure to explain what variety of tomatoes they were. The only clue was a discreet sign that read “Grandpa’s tomatoes”. Yet, this understated stall was making its mark on this culinary aficionado. As I found out from an awkward, yet friendly, conversation these tomatoes had only ever been known as Grandpa’s tomatoes, having been grown in Australia for two generations since being plucked from the rolling hills of Macedonia. They were large, soft and ripe, and had an incredible savoury taste sensation in the mouth. I really had discovered umami and wanted to know more.

 

Roasted Truss Cherry Tomatoes

Roasted Truss Cherry Tomatoes

 

The umami discovery took me to a darkened land, a place that is still taboo amongst those that want to believe it. But it’s a land that is not as bad as it has historically been reported, and has only been darkened by one less than rigorous scientific study; and this place? It’s called Glutamic acid, an amino acid which is more commonly known in its concentrated form as monosodium glutamate (MSG). As legend goes, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda was investigating the properties of dried konbu and its surface crystals back in old Tokyo of 1908 when he isolated the glutamate molecule. He marvelled at its unique savoury, taste sensation and decided that it was distinctly different from the then four accepted tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. And by that decree named this new sensation umami, which roughly translates as ‘delicious’.

Scepticism was rife for many years about this new taste, and as a consequence it was dismissed as a new ‘taste’ sense. However, in 2001 scientists discovered the umami receptor on the tongue and it is now accepted as the fifth taste. Since its discovery in 1908, two other umami substances have been found; inosine monophosphate, which was first discovered in cured skipjack tuna, and guanosine monophosphate, which was isolated in shiitake mushrooms. It was found that the three umami substances worked in synergy together to enhance the flavour of food. The value when cooking is that umami rich foods containing different umami substances when brought together magnify the taste providing the cook/ chef with fantastic possibilities.

One year after Ikeda’s discovery, MSG was developed commercially and used to enhance or introduce the umami flavour in many foods. The 1960s was when the dreaded ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ was coined, and MSG was isolated as the main culprit. Apparently, the effects of consuming MSG were headaches, chest pains, heart palpitations and burning on the skin. The mystery is that many properly controlled scientific tests since have found no evidence of these effects, and moreover the same molecule in MSG is that which contributes to the magic of Parmesan cheese, potatoes, anchovies, fish sauce, mushrooms, olives, tuna, squid, prawns, soy sauce and of course Grandpa’s tomatoes.

Personally, I have never cooked with pure MSG as a flavour enhancer, simply because I try and use ingredients and produce that contains it naturally. I have no qualms in adding it to a dish from a health perspective, and I had been in the anti-MSG camp for many years until I started to understand more about it, but I think the test of a cook’s or chef’s mettle is to be able to cleverly craft ingredients without needing to add it. I think umami is sensational, but it is sad how commercial MSG is being used to create quick, cheap and often inferior food. In her book on Szechuan cooking, Land of Plenty, Fuschia Dunlop writes:

It is a bitter irony that in China of all places, where chefs have spent centuries developing the most sophisticated culinary techniques, this mass-produced white powder should have been given the name wei jing, ‘the essence of flavour’.

As for my journey with umami, that continued as I took home one of Grandpa’s very large tomatoes, cut it up into bite sized pieces and just ate it au naturel, with a nice crusty pane di casa. Taste and simplicity personified.

Just as an aside, roast some dried shiitake mushrooms for about ten minutes in a medium hot oven, grind them to a powder, and use as an umami seasoning for soups and steak; the flavour enhancement is quite super.

 

Dinner for 8 Anyone?

My neighbour and good friend and I have been waxing on for the last few months on how it would be great to cook together. This Saturday all that hot air and ideas of grandeur will indeed become reality as we are going to prepare a feast for eight. The occasion is the departure of our good friends and other close neighbours that are flying the nest of our street and moving to another area…ok about ½ kilometre away but that’s still some distance.

Not one for diatribe and idle banter I will not burden you with comedy of errors that has enforced this move, suffice to say that we will be sad to see our friends leave the street, and therefore Saturday night is going to be some culinary send off.

I have never worked in a professional kitchen, or indeed had the perverse pleasure of being battered and bruised in one of those reality cooking shows; which for some is less about cooking and more about how to throw a hotchpotch of countercultural personalities in to a room in which they proceed to throw metaphorical custard pies at each other. So, to share a kitchen with another is new territory for me. I think it’s a great opportunity to learn as well as impart any knowledge I have. Of course the key is how well we work together and if compromises can be made.

It’s quite amazing what the power of the grape does to your creativity. After a couple of glasses of a cracking cabernet merlot the creative juices were flowing, and after four hours of umming and ahhing, cogitating and gesticulating, we finally came up with a menu. And whatsmore we were at one in who would do what and when and how etc.. This is going to be a superb night I can feel it in my bones.

Yesterday we went shopping for the comprehensive list of ingredients. It’s fantastic when two people that love food go shopping for food. You get caught up in the whole experience of it; there’s no rush because every tomato, pepper, micro-herb, leek, pea, bean, apple is carefully prodded and smelt and conversed over; often with “wouldn’t it be great to make this out of that”. And then, where possible, sampling is a necessity; from cheese such as the aged Comte reserve to cured meat such as double smoked pancetta. When the sampling has finished it’s of course then time for lunch!

The first port of call was the fruit and vegetable purveyors, a 60+ years establishment here in Melbourne. Their appeal is that the produce is always wonderfully fresh and eclectic, with a focus on local ingredients that are in season, rather than just imported produce (which is also great). As winter is upon this antipodean land the emphasis is on produce such as peas, broad beans, Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts, celery, cauliflower, spinach, turnips, apples, lemons, limes, and pears to name a few.

Next was the really fun bit; the ‘special’ ingredients. We are talking about ripe French and Italian cheese, apple-wood smoked meat, couverture chocolate, pasta made in the outhouse of a master pasta maker in the hills of Italy, wild dried mushrooms, cultured butter from the Charentes-Poitou family in France…I think you get the drift.

I am from England, and the one thing that really has saddened me over the years is the decline of the butcher, in favour of the behemoths that are supermarket chains (horsemeat definitely not on the menu). I am, therefore, immensely honoured and grateful to have three butchers in our local street, one of which will go to the ends of the Earth to get what you need. I needed a few kilos of lamb bones for lamb stock, and in no time at all the butcher had collated a variety of lamb bones from different carcasses, chopped them all up in to stock sized pieces and packaged them – not a service I am familiar with in Tesco’s (UK supermarket chain if you’re not from those parts). An early visit to the butcher usually means that I can get everything I need; which in this case I did.

So, with the shopping mission accomplished today will be the mis-en-place (posh way for saying preparation) and then the final cooking will take place tomorrow, the day of the dinner party. If there is one snippet of advice I can give you, whether you are working in tandem or on your own, it is to plan your cooking. Make a list of everything you need, even if you already have it.  And really importantly, create a time line (pencil and paper is the best) of when you need to prepare and cook different components. I guarantee that once you do this the whole process of creating and cooking really will be immensely pleasurable.

I will share the menu with you after the event, as we have shrouded it in secrecy, and of course there will some recipes. Stay tuned…

Is it Possible to Cook from Scratch?

I have always prided myself on the ability, desire and, more to the point, the patience to cook from scratch; to take raw ingredients and turn them in to something delightfully edible. I also have a real inclination to avoid processed foods where I can, or so I thought. If you think about it a little deeper than perception sometimes allows, as I did one sunny day (maybe that was the light of eureka being turned on), then you start to ask the questions what is cooking from scratch and what are processed foods? (Maybe amongst the million or so other things to think about these questions may not be top of your list, but hey after reading this blog you may have a momentary lapse of reasoning and these questions will surface to the top of the pile).

 

Creme Fraiche, Dill and Lime

Creme Fraiche, Dill and Lime

 

I have a great book called ‘the kitchen as a laboratory’, a real geek cook’s/ chef’s paradise containing a number of essays that reflect on the science of food and cooking. One of the essays approaches, and sets to discuss, the fallacy of cooking from scratch; and it was this essay that got me thinking about the whole idea of what cooking from scratch means and what processed food is – yes, on that sunny day.

Regarding cooking from scratch, I am going to take as an example a recipe that I have already posted on this blog – the SMashing Lemon Drizzle Cake. The ingredients in this cake are unsalted butter, caster sugar, eggs, almond meal, baking powder, mashed potato, lemon zest, lemon juice. It becomes apparent that when looking at these ingredients the eggs, mashed potato, lemon zest and lemon juice could be considered as ‘scratch’ ingredients – ones that have been transformed from their rawest state in my kitchen. However, the butter, sugar, almond meal and baking powder have been through complex transformations from their rawest state before arriving in my kitchen. It is fair to say that I could have bought raw almonds, blanched them and then made the almond meal myself, but I certainly don’t have the time or facility to attempt to refine my own sugar, culture my own French butter or synthesise the chemicals that comprise baking powder. It’s fair to say then that my lemon drizzle cake, the one I would have previously claimed as being cooked from scratch, does indeed contain processed foods. In fact nearly everything we prepare will contain an element of processed food; for olive oil olives have been pressed, the resulting oil filtered,  deodorised to eliminate any bad odours and packaged; sea salt has been processed through the evaporation of water; milk, unless you have Daisy on hand in your back garden, is pasteurised to remove bacteria, homogenised to prevent it splitting and is available as full-fat, semi-skimmed, high taste low fat, low taste high fat, double milk, triple milk, milk with this, milk with that – I think you get my point; and also water, probably the most common ingredient of all has certainly been processed to make it safe for human consumption.

 

Pectin Powder - A Setting Agent

Pectin Powder – A Setting Agent

 

So what’s the point of this post? Well it’s just to think about processed food and the role that it plays in cooking. From the top of my head I can think of a number of instances, or categories for arguments sake, of processed foods that we encounter on a regular basis (this is not an exhaustive list, just one that magically appeared in the abundant space that whirlwinds around in my head):

  • The essential ingredients that we use as the basis for our ‘from scratch’ cooking e.g. flour, butter, sugar, oil, cheese (we’re talking the real stuff here, not the processed ‘processed’ cheese by the way).
  • Fresh produce that has been preserved e.g. frozen vegetables, freeze dried fruit, dried figs, mango and apricots, salted nuts.
  • The delicatessen based processed foods e.g. prosciutto, dolmades, cured salmon, bacon, Kalamata olives.
  • The foods that have added ingredients to help those that have an essential nutritional deficiency e.g. milk with added calcium helps those people with calcium deficiency, white flour enriched with minerals and vitamins has helped stave off many disease in certain countries.
  • The foods that we have accepted as ‘OK’ and are part of the establishment as it were e.g. Ketchup, baked beans, hot pepper sauce.
  • The foods that are just plainly bad for you e.g. many ready-made frozen meals, mass produced pasta sauces, cheap ‘plastic’ bread, supermarket jars of preserves and spreads, carbonated sugar water and fast food, to name a few.

Processed foods can traverse the plane from essential and wonderful to downright ugly and harmful, and for many of us it can be a minefield as companies promote, for example, ‘healthy’ foods which at face value are nothing more than mere marketing tricks. A good example is the promotion of a high sugar content drink containing essential vitamins. The perception of the ‘health’ positives of such a drink can be marketed to effectuate a purchase. But the overall detrimental effect to health due to the high calorific value of the drink would far outweigh any positives.

Cooking can be, and certainly is for me, a pleasurable, rewarding and nutritionally sound way of ensuring that the food I eat is wholesome (ish…nothing like a sticky golden syrup steamed pudding and cream), is packed with flavour, and the non-essential chemicals and nutrients in my diet are limited. It is bordering on impossible, however, to cook something from scratch, and unless cooking from scratch is redefined it is a fallacy. A life without processed foods today is not possible, and our use of processed foods and the types we use are determined by our propensity to cook.

My personal take on it is that I love to prepare as close to scratch as possible. For example I will make mayonnaise rather than buy a jar of mayonnaise from a supermarket. Now, my mayonnaise contains Dijon mustard (processed), rice wine vinegar (processed) and grapeseed oil (processed), but without these ingredients it would not be possible to get the flavour and texture even close to what it should be. The difference is that my mayonnaise does not contain the extra ingredients such as modified corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, xanthan gum, added colours, lactic acid, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta, phosphoric acid, or added flavours (this list is apparently some of the additional ingredients in a certain well-known brand of mayonnaise). However, as a cook (and chef in the making – one hopes ) I appreciate the role that processed food and food science has to play in our everyday lives both for pleasure and for health. It’s just a matter of being selective, I guess.

 

My Kingdom for a Macaron

I pass a bakery with its rows of cascading coloured and perfectly formed macarons and with admiration and envy am ready once again, like a lamb to the slaughter, to face my nemesis. I have tried a few times to make macarons and although there has been improvement from the sorry dried up mess of my first attempt I have still not managed to make one with a smooth domed, crispy and soft gooey shell. It’s not that I even want to perfect them, not for the moment anyway, I just want to be able to make one that’s edible and has some resemblance to the fine French patisserie classic*.

This time however, things are different – very different. I have at my side weaponry that will beat them in to submission and new found technique that will make them stand on their feet and rise to the occasion. I prepare for battle with instruction from French Chef José Maréchal, and at my side a KitchenAid and sugar thermometer. Oh yes you will be mine.

First off, the tant pour tant (mixture of almond meal and icing sugar), or translated the so much for so much. The first new technique: process the icing sugar and almond meal and then pass it through a fine sieve. I have never done that before, but I feel with this small improvement the macaron is getting nervous. All good so far. Now to beat the tant pour tant in to a paste. Egg-white is added and gently caressed into the almond meal mix – super, a paste. I feel like I have been here before though so do not lose focus. Next for the big guns; KitchenAid is whipping those egg whites and boy are they responding. Sugar and water now boiling, he pulls out from nowhere a sugar thermometer – At 115 deg C you will be mine. Temperature reached, off the heat with fervent veracity, into the peaky whites, slowly, cautiously, all in, now beat like crazy. 10 minutes and the whites are beaten “we love you oh meringue!”.

Oven’s preheating, in preparation to break the nemesis. A little meringue into the almond paste – just a loosener. The rest carefully folded in – she’s providing some resistance but the air is safe. Lined baking sheet ready and piping bag filled  – pipe now, and pipe like the wind. Hand is shaking, expectation is now high, you’re nearly there. 30 minutes drying, new technique number 2. A crust has formed on each mound – the plan is working, but now for the biggest test of all. In to the 150 deg oven, it’s sink or swim; please, not sink again. Seven minutes pass, and it’s half time. Just a little look through the glass. Can’t see much, oh no. Ten minutes, and another look. Wow, is that a dome? And feet, they’re growing feet. Fourteen minutes and time’s up. Out of the oven, on to a dampened work top (still on the baking parchment) – new technique number 3. They look good, but will they hold. The pressure is too much. I back away, leaving the macaron with nobody to taunt. Twenty minutes later I return, to silence…not one heckle. I look down and see rows of macaron shells; domed and crisp with their characteristic ‘feet’. One last test – will they peel from the parchment. They didn’t peel – they slid off with ease. Thank you and goodnight; the nemesis is finally off my back.

It felt as dramatic as that. And such wonderful results deserved an equally fitting filling; salted caramel.

 

*The macaron was originally introduced to France from Italy in the 16th century. However, its evolution over the years has transformed it in to a patisserie treat.

Addendum: macaron or macaroon? There is a difference and I can’t put it more succinctly than Adriano Zumbo, a well-known Australian pastry chef from Sydney:

a macaron is characterised by a dome-shaped biscuit made of egg whites and almond meal, hard to the touch with a chewy interior. A macaroon is a small meringue cake, typically made of coconut and often dipped in chocolate.

The Thrill of the Chase

It’s 6am on Saturday morning, the alarm is playing, and guess what? bizarrely I am eager to get up. You see it is the fortnightly sojourn to the food markets here in Melbourne, and that means seafood, fish, meat and an infinite option of cheeses, charcuterie meats, breads, wines and anything else you can throw your hungry stick at. If someone had have told me in the past that I would be excited about getting up early and going food shopping, I would have said in my best cockney accent ‘you’rrrre ‘avin a larf me old china plate’, or something of that nature. But times have changed, mindsets have changed, and I am indeed chomping at the bit.

This last Saturday was a little special as we were having guests to dinner, which meant shopping early for fresh produce at the markets, cooking all day in the kitchen and then eating great food (one hopes on one’s ability) and downing a few glasses of the old  jumping grape. I had already planned an outline of the dinner, and this did include a magnificent charcuterie starter from my other half. I had always wanted to cook fish with vanilla butter, and a great way (according to H. Blumenthal) is with sea bass. However, sea bass is not available (well I’ve not found it yet) here in Melbourne, so that was going to be the first chase of the day – a great tasting fish that would be complemented by the butter. And it is for things like this that I am so excited to get to the markets so early in the morning – it’s the thrill of the chase, to find that thing that you have never had before, the thing that if you arrived too late you would not see again for some time. Usually at the markets you can tell exactly what has been caught in ample supply that morning, as all mongers are displaying the same fish or seafood – Atlantic salmon, Queensland banana prawns, barramundi, Coffin Bay oysters – magnificent produce, but usually in abundance every week. No, what I go for is to find out which fishmonger has managed to get that little gem, that something that everyone else didn’t get. And this Saturday I found it – Red Emperor. According to the wily old fishmonger “this is one of Australia’s greatest eating fish and is caught amongst the coral reefs”.

That sold me. Also, I had never eaten or filleted it before, so it looked and sounded ideal – and there were only 4 of them in the whole market. About 6 weeks ago I had a similar experience, but this time with sea urchins – they do not look like they are meant for human (or any other living thing) consumption – black spikes on the exterior and an orange coloured mushy mousse-like interior. They were for me the discovery of the year – I adore oysters, and this urchin was like a concentrated and intensely creamy oyster. Only one purveyor had them and they haven’t been seen since (the urchins not the purveyor).

So back to the dinner – I had the fish. I then procured some beautiful little quail and quail’s eggs, some lean and tender kangaroo, a bitey cheese from England –Gloucestershire Blue, some fantastic rhubarb, huge red Fuji apples, prosciutto, Spanish sopressa and a few other essential ingredients. A happy boy I was, indeed. As I said in the blog post Taking the PTH, the thrill of the chase is then accentuated with creatively working out what to do with this marvellous food. That’s what the next two weeks are for. But I highly recommend going and buying something that you’ve never eaten or bought before and go home and cook, eat and indulge yourself. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

 

The dinner by the way was a roaring success. I made chicken liver pate and nashi pear chutney to accompany the charcuterie plate of prosciutto, Spanish sopressa, the tenderest buffalo mozzarella, large caper berries and a selection of bread. This was then followed by the Red Emperor (I second the fishmongers astuteness in saying it was a great eating fish) with vanilla butter, duck fat chips (in disc shapes) and chilli broccoli. For desert I embarked on a Raymond Blanc classic, which was process heavy but truly wonderful, even if I say so myself; a vanilla soufflé presented in a carved out baked apple, caramelised apple balls and rhubarb sorbet, all on a calvados sabayon. Magic.

Taking a Recipe with a Pinch of Salt

During this wonderful journey of learning to cook there’s one thing that I have learnt – not all recipes work. In fact, I have been tearing out my hair over the years wondering why the results I have are nothing like the photograph in the recipe, and certainly nothing like the descriptions and ramblings the chef uses to introduce the dish. There was a saying that an old professor of Chemistry used to deliver at least once per week in his organic lectures: if it’s biology it breathes, if it’s physics it moves, and if it’s chemistry it doesn’t work. After a semester of fervent rib tickling with this gem of comedy genius I realised that there indeed may be some truth to it. Effectively, cooking is edible chemistry, and I know from my chemist days that to replicate an experimental result required the exact materials, ambient conditions, processes and energy (such as stirring or heating). Bearing this in mind, in a cooking context all these same principles apply.

Let’s take a really simple example. I want a soft boiled egg – nice and oozy yolk, with the white cooked properly. You are provided with one recipe that says place eggs in cold water, bring to the boil and then boil for three and a half minutes, after which immediately run the eggs under cold water for 20 seconds, and then serve. What could possibly go wrong? First off the egg type; is it small, medium small, medium, medium large, large or dinosaur? Is the egg free range, organic or from a caged bird?(Please whatever you do, if you are not already doing it, use free range eggs – the taste and texture is infinitely better). Is the egg at room temperature or cold straight from the fridge? How many eggs are you cooking at the one time? The choice and number of eggs has a huge influence on whether this recipe works.

Next, how cold is your water when you start? Is it iced, cold or tepid? What method of heating are you using? On a high gas powered ring the water will come to boiling point much quicker than on a small electric powered ring meaning the egg will be exposed to the warmer water for less time. If the heating method is really slow then the egg may be cooked before you even reach boiling point.  Have you ever heard of the 63 degree egg? This is almost a sous vide method where the egg cooks in its own shell for 45 minutes at 63 deg C. The story goes that in ancient Japan the ladies would take the eggs down to the hot springs where they would bathe with their eggs. The eggs would cook over a period of time until perfectly soft and luxuriously runny – ready in time for lunch. I have tried this as a cooking method and the result is quite astounding (note: I didn’t bathe like the Japanese ladies as the visions of me with half a dozen eggs in a bubble bath is not really that conducive to appetite). So back on track, the heating methods, the temperature of the water and the ambient conditions all have a part to play in determining whether the recipe will work.

What I am trying to convey here, is that there are so many variables and conditions when it comes to cooking that it is no wonder that recipes usually don’t work out the first time. The first failure should be inspiration to refine a recipe according to your produce, cooking equipment and environment. I try and get an understanding of what is happening when I cook so I can then best work out by judgement or experience a way to great results. For example, macarons are the most temperamental of existences, and still after 2 years of trying to perfect them I have still some way to go. However, over those two years I have learnt a lot about meringues, such as why they collapse (fat from any residual egg yolk, over working or humid environment) to understanding the levels of protein and sugar required to stabilise the meringue. As I say it’s still a work in progress, but the more we cook and understand about the produce and our own individual kitchens the greater the chance that recipes will work. And it gets to the point you are so culinary savvy that you end up creating the recipes!

One of the drivers behind Duck and Roses is to present recipes in a clear and concise way. There are some pretty badly written recipes on the internet – and I am not only talking of amateur or hobbyist cooks, I am talking about on the websites of very well-known chefs. This is not an indictment on those chefs, as most of the recipes are probably written and posted by a third party, but I have come across even in expensive books, a lack of detail here and there that has a profound effect on the outcome. I will endeavour to write out the recipes on this blog with clarity and in fullness. However, these are recipes that have worked in my kitchen with the particular produce I have used, so am sure that they will need tweaking to suit your environment and tools. A recipe should only be taken as a guide and not an absolute – the absolute is the exciting part of discovery and creativity. I am just off now to take a shower with my eggs.

Taking the PTH

I would like to think of myself as a soufflé prince (I have yet to have a flat soufflé, but the king I feel must be reserved for the likes of Messieurs Roux, Ducasse, Bocuse et al) however I have certainly fallen in to the category of toast burner, although if I ever do it these days I claim it’s in the name of food science, which of course it isn’t. Following recipes is a great way to self-teach the art of cooking, and repeatedly making the classics of French cuisine I believe will give most cooks/ chefs the armoury to go and create their own special masterpieces. However, my eyes have been opened recently to the simplified philosophy of creating great food, and it is in Nick Nairn’s book that I discovered the three basic principles behind this philosophy. In fact it seemed so simple that I thought at the time of reading that I had completely overlooked it in pursuit of perfecting existing recipes.

The first of the elements is [P]roduce. Now how simple is that. But when you think about it, it’s so true. The problem with following recipes is that unless you use them as a guide and not as an absolute, you limit yourself to what’s in a recipe and often overlook that wonderful produce out there, no matter where in the world we’re from. For example, let’s say I have seen a wonderful recipe for grilled pickled mackerel on a crispy, fresh fennel salad – which I have..mmm.. – and then head out to a fantastic fish and seafood market. All that is in my head is mackerel, no matter how scraggy looking or old it is, and as long as I find the mackerel then the recipe will work. But as I search for that mackerel I miss out on the freshly caught Morton Bay Bugs, the slimy shimmering fresh trout, banana prawns, deep pink snapper etc.. The point that Nick Nairn makes is that we should go out and select the produce based on what great produce is available, rather than stay within the constraints of a recipe. For me this was a real epiphany.

 

Double Smoked Ham Hock

Double Smoked Ham Hock

 

The next one is [T]echnique – you’ve got the great produce, now do something fantastic with it. Again that something fantastic need only be simple. For example, you have just found the most perfectly marbled Wagyu beef fillet – what would you do with it? Me, I would probably set it on the kitchen bench and marvel and drool – which is not really a great technique. Ok, really I would be looking to get those outer proteins really broken down (Maillard reaction) into beautiful caramelised meaty flavours, seasoned with sea salt and cracked black pepper – I certainly wouldn’t be poaching or stewing it. This is the importance of technique, and the importance of knowing (or sometimes just feeling) what to do with the great produce. I also now look at the importance of technique in the mis en place (posh way of saying food preparation) – what is the best way to whisk egg whites, how to cut vegetables into pieces of the same size, how to get the right consistency in sauces, when to sweat or caramelise onions etc..

The last one is [H]armony, and for me this is the really creative one. Choosing what complimentary and mouth shattering flavours will combine with the produce to take it to the highest level. But it’s not just limited to flavours; there are also textures to consider. Again some of the simplest harmonies are the best: chilli and mint just love each other; apple and crunch tell me about freshness; and lime and coriander always remind me of Thailand. I like watching the UK Masterchef series, and one of the common things I see is when a nest of some greenery is plonked on top of a delicately cooked game, meat or fish dish, or there are billions of different elements on a plate. Neither speaks of harmony, but more of trying to impress which ultimately it fails to do. Harmony is so important; it should be the reason that something is on a plate. Harmony will always be master to presentation.

So with my tail firmly between my legs, wandering around in a sorry state because after all these years I hadn’t realised these simple principles, I suddenly remembered an experience a few days before, and with the joy and verve of an over excited Jack-in-a-box I realised that I had just followed these principles to a tee – whoohoo. I was in the local fishmongers here in Melbourne, and staring at me was some wonderful Barramundi that had only been caught a few hours previously – its eyes were colourful and vibrant, the skin was glistening with slime (a good thing indicating freshness) and its body was firm to the touch. I bought two whole fish and on the journey home conjured up some potential dishes. Barramundi, by the way, is probably one of Australia’s greatest eating fish – that’s from a human perspective, not the fish’s. It comes mainly from the North of Australia (Queensland) and has a really earthy taste, one of which tickles my fancy. So after cleaning and filleting the fish I decided to use two of the fillets to make a tartare – I wanted something that was going to show off the fish in all its glory, and being quite impartial to raw fish I thought a tartare was the way to go. The key would be the harmony, picking complimentary flavours that would enhance the fish, but not overpower. I chose a combination of red onion, ginger, tart green apple and lime juice. The tartare was moulded in a circular stack and then fennel fronds (the aniseed complemented the dish) were placed on top of the stack. And hey presto – PTH!

Check out the recipe for Citrus Fresh Barramundi Tartare  – a classic technique