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.


Anonymous said...

Looks lovely! Does "porridge oat" mean "oatmeal"?

Paracelsa said...

Yes, indeed. Rolled oats are also very good - you can even toast the oats with the walnuts for extra oomph.