Saturday, 26 June 2010


Pretzels and Nutella. Cheese and jam. Marmite and... anything, really - there are just some things that don't seem to go together. But we all know people who like them, which means at least one person was sitting in a kitchen one day, or perhaps rather standing in front of a fridge, and thinking silently, "Let's try something different. Something outrageous. Something that might make me gag but... ooooh... I wonder...". I am certain that's how Marks and Spencer's cheese and celery sandwiches were born, anyway.

The same self-fashioned gourmet-inventor must then have convinced others to try these unlikely creations, and slowly built up a following. We all know families with weird family recipes, no? And say what you like, but Auntie Agatha's accidentally-on-purpose burnt veggies, when presented and re-created with confidence, will always taste better than something fool proof out of a package, slopped onto a plate with a sigh.
Paracelsus, from Aureum Vellus (1708)
at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia

The Gordon Ramsey of alchemy, Paracelsus, was a sixteenth-century genius with a temper. He flat out refused to follow tradition. But his motivation was not so much the attempt to create something unheard of, but rather, to make more sense of alchemy. He had developed a new set of principles, an adapted alchemical theory, loosely comparable to previous models as, say, any new diet is to the uninhibited foodie's munchinations. For Paracelsus, some alchemical materials were taboo; others were miracle ingredients; and the methods for their preparation were complicated.

Of course, people were sceptical: who was he to propose that everything that had gone before him was rubbish? How could you take a man who dubbed himself "greater than Celsus" seriously? And wasn't the man a swearing drunk who had broken with academics all over Germany (and beyond)? He refused to write or teach in Latin, for goodness sake! But only shortly after his death Paracelsus' methods proved themselves worthy of all his boasting, and he is still credited as the founder of modern pharmacy, leaving all others who were toiling away in his oversized shadow behind.

It is difficult to say what we should learn from the curious life of a single megalomaniac, but one thing is certain: he dared to be different. And like any alchemist, he was fascinated by experimentation. Invention, whether in the form of Marmite and pickles, modern medicine or just a plain old dinner that turns out unexpectedly well, happens only where we dare to mess up, and enjoy throwing together the unlikely. Go on, give it a go!

This recipe is a very recent creation of my own. These tasty little biscuits are called 'Whatnots', because they are perfect with a cup of coffee. "Would you like a cappuccino and whatnot?" - very Jeeves & Woosterian. But they are also perfect, because the throwing in of spices, the choice of nuts and the nature of sweetness can all be adapted and mucked around with to your hearts' desires.

1 cup walnut pieces
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup porridge oats
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
100g butter
1 egg
chocolate for wild drizzling action

Roast the walnut pieces in a pan. Right towards the end, when they smell nice already, add a third of the sugar and stir like mad, so that the sugar coats the walnuts as it caramelises.

Then mix all other ingredients together with the remaining sugar. Add dashes of cinnamon, ginger or cloves, or indeed anything else you fancy. You might need to drip in a bit of milk to get a nice homogeneous mass that still holds its form.

Place on a baking tray with the help of two teaspoons, in the form of heaps the size of a walnut. Bake at medium heat for 15-20 minutes. Finally, drizzle with melted chocolate. Alchemy! (I mean: Magic!)

Next time, try replacing things with others - and let me know if you find a perfect combination! If not, don't worry: these are pretty darn good, and very medicinal for sore hearts, aching heads and empty tummies.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Midsommar Murders

The longest day of the year is almost upon us: a special day without any Christian connotation whatsoever. I therefore applaud the countries in which midsummer is marked with traditional celebrations - what better excuse to see family, dance yourself dizzy and enjoy good food and drink at the mid-point between Christmasses?
Sweden has particularly beautiful ways of partying until the sun goes down. Mind you: even up here in Scotland, which is on the same latitude as southern Sweden, the sun does not fully set these days, but bathes the world in a milky-pink stripe surrounded by blue haze until the birds twitter in the new day. But somehow there does not seem to be a Caledonian Summer Extravaganza on par with the Swedish custom, which involves a ginormously jolly pole around which to jig. There are bowls full of new potatoes, served with herring, sour cream and chives. And there's a flock of prettied-up maidens who collect seven types of flowers from seven different meadows, in absolute silence, so that they may dream of the man who is going to dance around the maypole with them until the end of their lives. If they tell anyone who it is, legend has it the dream won't come true - a handy way out if it happens to be the village idiot...

Summer Reading: The DVD
No matter whether you see family this coming week or have the man or woman of your dreams tied to a maypole, this time of the year is certainly one for summery joys: rose wine (I recomment Pinot Grigio blush); light suppers (see below) and... some shivers down the spine with a local twist?

I just acquired Ian Rankin's Rebus series on DVD, an archetypal example of the Tartan Noir genre. I've been enjoying its aural incarnation on the BBC, and am keen to see how the TV version will fare. Thank goodness it's set in Edinburgh, far, far away from my current abode.

Vegetarian dinner (phew!)
Even if you are a meatarian, you may want to go veggie while you are reading or watching some Rankin. Here is a little something I have from a new cookbook which I cannot reveal right now, because it will be a present for at least one of my faithful readers in the near future. Suffice to say it is so good the cat started to drool when looking at the photos. And here's the gist of the absolutely stunning

Caper & Almond Pesto
250g almonds, lightly toasted
250g capers in brine, drained
1 small red chilli
2 cloves garlic
250ml olive oil

Whizz up pesto. Done! Easy to eat while you're hiding behind the sofa, too.

PS: More serious posts on alchemy and its perils soon - but the weather is just too gorgeous at the moment to be sitting inside blogging!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Teas, the Quease and the Alchemist

"Why does tea make me feel naseous? And what can I do about it?" asks faithful blog reader D. Before answering his question, and finding surprising parallels with alchemists' queasiness and a literary tummy soother, here's a little

The British love of tea is often belaboured by other cultures when they have exhausted all the other traits that make this people so distinct from any other. And it is not even exaggerated that man an Englishman's cup of tea is what a bottle of wine or glue, a fag or a large box of chocolates is to others: tea helps. There's the breakuppa tea; the brew that beats the blues; the pick-me-cup; even if you've lost your sense of smell or taste, a cup of tea is in order. But seriously: putting on the kettle gives your hands something familiar to do when your mind is racing. And the taste of tea is strangely reassuring. Whatever happens, we'll always have tea.
Actually, dear reader, there was a time when I almost did not have tea. Upon arrival in the United States and induction to my work place, I noticed that the generally accepted method of making 'tea' was using the hot water dispenser at the sink to dump hot, old water onto something resembling a tea bag (containing - oh, better not ask...) in a mug, then putting everything into the nukomizer (microwave) for a minute, and finally sipping along (without taking out the bag-o-tea) as a thin film of scum forms at the surface. Adding coffee creamer (mmmh, so deliciously artificial, and look, it's best before 2025!) optional.

I was willing to bring in tea, milk and a kettle of my own, but since the powers-that-fancied-themselves were not familiar with the marvellous institution that is the electric kettle, my request to put it up beside the communal toaster was refused 'for fire safety reasons', and with a note scribbled onto my written request: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". I did as the Germans do - and got permission to use an old-fashioned kettle on the office kitchen's stove. The electric kettle was introduced when an older colleague forgot to turn the stove off while heating up water for hot chocolate (!) one day, producing a rather inadvertently alchemical glob of metal and plastic that had once been a kettle. Be all that as it may (and it does make a good story now, doesn't it?), the point is, not all cultures have a natural affinity to the comforts of tea. And I used this knowledge for a lot of really, really bad tea puns.

Tea, tummies and alchemists
Back to D and his tealemma. It is true that tea without the addition of milk can be rough on one's stomach lining. I find that particularly acidic concoctions like green gunpowder are jarring, whereas many herbal teas do not offend. This is due to the tannins in black tea - and if you have ever seen a traditional tea pot, which is only swished with water but never washed, so that it acquires a thick layer on the inside, you can imagine why. Much has been written about tannins in the media, so there is no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say, they're nasty buggers for the delicate tea drinker.

The good news is that adding milk to tea cuts through the tannins (which then attack the milk rather than your mouth or tummy), although this changes the taste of tea completely. By the way, if you have trouble with black tea, coffee (and particularly filter coffee) will also be trying on your inner life, both the physical and the psychological: there seems to be some connection between sensitivity to acidity and caffeine. Unfortunately, there is no rule when it comes to picking a nice blend: there's nothing but trying out different kinds of tea. A good reason to visit teatotal friends and work one's way through their infusions! Organic tea without artificial flavourings has a higher chance of making the cut than their cheaper equivalents.

Another option is eating something with your tea: a biscuit, a little scone or sandwich, or just some bread and butter. The power of bread and butter was also believed by alchemists to protect them from toxic fumes in the alchemical workshop. Alchemical notebooks show that a quick nibble of this kind was advised when alchemists felt faint and queasy in front of their furnaces. Of course, they'd still get mercury poisoning and other nasty experimentally transmitted diseases, but I say, a bit of bread and butter has never hurt anyone. Except when the bread is bad (Wonder Bread, anyone?). But that is a matter for another blog post.

Mysteriously soothing novels
Suppose you had an ill-advised mug of cheap gunpowder tea, or were too passionate about that mercury-copper alloy, and now need some time to recover and a hug? I recommend Martha Grimes' mystery novels to sweeten the convalescence period. These little masterpieces of entertainment feature inspector Richard Jury, reluctant Lord Melrose Plant, London, and the English countryside. Although (or perhaps because) written by an American master of the genre, this series is so English that you'll rush to make cucumber sandwiches after reading the first few pages, washed down with pots of tea-cum-milk and co-read by a cat on your shoulder. Each novel is named after a pub; each one sees lovable characters sitting in pubs doing the crossword, cream teas, red phone boxes and buses, and anything else you imagine when thinking 'England circa nineteen-oh-fairytale'. True, they become darker as the series continues. True also, if one is not in the mood for escapism mixed with grisly crime, this experiment could go wrong. But much like a lapsang souchong, or a strawberry-vanilla flavoured black tea, there is a time when Martha Grimes wants to entertain you, and you are oh, so ready to sink into the arms of your favourite character...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Crackle-Scrape-Boink: Sound Recipes

Food writing is the new novelising: everyone thinks they've got a food book/blog inside them (oops... um, moving on swiftly...). You really cannot swing a dead pan without hitting the umpteenth variation of spaghetti carbonara in a glossy yet uninspired foody publication. No wonder Oxfam bookshops are awash with tepid foodery. But every once in a while there is a book which is enjoyable for its knowledge about food, its creativity with ingredients and its way with words. Among them is Jeremy Round's The Independent Cook, which inspired today's blog post.
In his seasonal recipes for May, Round finishes off his 'Spinach with Eggs' (perhaps best described as an English take on huevos rancheros) with the instruction:
To serve, hot or warm, scrape up each egg with its spinach base to plonk on the plates in a single wodge.
Apart from inducing a smile (sans spinach teeth), this sentence makes me want to pick up my favourite spatula and make the dish, just to hear onomatopoeia and food noises join forces in the kitchen. Scrape! Plonk! Wodge! Kapow!

(From Robert Sabuda's America the Beautiful)

On a recent trip to the USA I could not help but muse about the distinct soundscapes of different national cuisines. There is the crisp crunch of a proper French baguette; the satisfying slow globbing of Italian pasta sauce; the sizzle of American Barbeque; the dry squish of a German dumpling; and I could go on! But have you ever noticed that the same dishes, when wonkily prepared, not only dissatisfy because they taste funny, but also because they do not sound the same? And even if Heston Blumenthal's sound experiments (cue microphone near mouth that turns a crunchy carrot into an earsplitting snack) seem a bit over-the-top to many of us, can you deny that your mouth starts watering when you think of the delicious snap of a newly opened chocolate bar?

I was going to write more, about the sounds of alchemical laboratories. But I get distracted by my slurping, smacking lips and 'aaaaaaah!' sigh that accompany the consumption of an iced coffee. I wonder if I could rustle up some chewy-yet-crispy biscuit to go with it...