Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The One Where They Would Not Allow A Kettle

Moving house has many advantages, one of them the discovery of Things Thought Lost. (A disadvantage is the recovery of Things Deliberately Forgotten - but don't let's go into that). I could not help but blog this follow-up to a previous post, which detailed how American Bureaucracy stood between Me and a Decent Cup Of Tea.

Much to my glee, I found the evidence (a printout of my email asking, for the third time, to bring in my own electric kettle to make tea in the office).

(I removed my name at the top and the spoiltea's name at the bottom,
but yep, that was all I got as a reply in my pigeonhole).

I tell you two things:

1. This was worth the story - never mind my initial bafflement about the whole situation.

2. My next cup of tea at Tchai Ovna will taste even better - I'm back in a country of like-minded teaple!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Of Mess and Men

This post is about recipe books. Wait, wait, don't yawn already! I assume that most of you think I'm talking about those things that you get in a bookshop, under the impression that they will boost your cooking prowess and spice up your culinary life, then all too often end up sitting on your counter gathering splashes of you default pancake batter?

But no - I'm talking about proper recipe books: handwritten compilations of recipes that were carefully selected and copied with much finger grease into previously extra virgin notebooks, to be used and then passed on to the next generation. And they all have one thing in common: if they are really good, loved and useful, they are messy...

Exhibit 1: Alchemical recipe books
Ever been to a manuscript exhibition? Do illuminations and freakishly neat script come to mind? Then I'll have to disappoint you: not all manuscripts look like that. In fact, most manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were quite different, rather akin to your trusted Moleskine diary - practical, plain, and often just plain illegible.

Unfortunately, most of them were discarded at some stage (why keep them when there are, ooh, printed books around and so much neater, prettier copies of texts without mistakes?). But let me let you into a secret: any alchemical historian's heart will work itself up to a whirligig whenever a scruffy, everyday notebook turns up on a library desk.

Exhibit 2: The perfect housewarming gift
While alchemists debated the perfect combination of substances for the perfect recipe, they were, true to their trade, rather secretive about any specifics and changed their minds quite often. If this was the case for modern cooking today, the home cook could be scared into repeating trusted recipes over and over... oh wait! That's what most of us do!

Think about it: there are some foods and flavours that are clearly made for each other (chocolate and caramel; onion and garlic) and others which disgust even as a possibility (meat and anything for yours truly - but you know what I mean). Celebrity chefs tap into the common consensus and add a twist here and there; or, in the case of Heston Blumenthal and peers, deliberately set out to shock and amaze with unusual ideas. But even then, it is often hard to move beyond one's comfort zone in one's own kitchen. One finds. If one is the writer of this blog.

Niki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus, a house warming gift from a dear friend, is the cure for all the flavourally challenged. It brings structure, history, new ideas and background info for 99 different flavours and their combinations. It brings order, yet creativity, to kitchens of any state of messiness. And rather than reviewing it here in detail, I refer the reader to the Guardian's review and move straight on to today's recipe, which I concocted, inspired by this publication, for my kind moving helpers a couple of weeks ago.

Exhibit 3: The recipe (now copied into my own messy handwritten recipe book)

Lemon Pasta
-ingredients for 2 portions-

Soften 1 shallot, finely chopped, in 2 tbsp olive oil. Add 2tbsp white wine and cook a little longer. Then add the juice and zest of 1 lemon, some fresh basil, generously season with salt and pepper. Stir through 200g freshly cooked linguine (fresh pasta is best for this purpose), with a good knob of butter. Top with grated parmesan.

Eat with friends. Follow up with ice cream and hours of good conversation.

Now you may yawn.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Home Sweet Ditto

Good news everyone! The pinching continues from its new headquarters.

Looking on the bright side (out of my new living room window).

Ready to cook up a storm.

So, watch this space for food and fun - more to come this weekend.

And if you feel bored in the meantime, do check out the most comprehensive resource on alchemy and alchemical art, put together over the decades in painstaking labour by a fellow-Glaswegian, the Alchemy Website. Enjoy with a philosophers' scone.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Letter and the Gooseberry

Dear faithful reader of this writ,

I do apologise for the delay in posting. You see, last weekend I gave a sad final pat to Her Cattiness, and moved my self into a new abode (aided by dear friends whom I would give a kidney any time now). Consequently, yours truly found herself truly knackered and was going to skip a blog post. What happened (I imagine you saying with anticipation and relief)?

Well, I was at my dressmaking class, sewing seams. And let’s be frank: there is only so long that sewing can entertain you (if you hum ‘On the Road Again’, imagining your right foot on the gas pedal of a car and pretending your needle is on an exciting road trip across vast deserts of plaid, perhaps – but no, the novelty wears off…). So, I sat back and came up with a few thoughts about England and letters.

From CELL, Centre for Editing Lives and Letters

Blogging, 16th-century style

A workshop on early modern letters a few suns ago not only exposed me to some very nice and interesting people and to rather marvellous food, but it also introduced the following thought: if 16th-century letters were often read by various people, commented upon, anticipated, picked up and circulated, could letter writing be considered an early form of blogging? Thought number two followed almost instantly: nah, of course not. Letters were not placed into a public sphere (unless they contained some dishy dirt and featured in a court case – but that is a completely different story that cannot be told here, because everyone knows most blog readers switch off after the first screen. Do stay with me, will ya?).
But the connection between letters and blogs is not as outrageous as some other thoughts of mine that never make it to the screen. Both step outside of the privacy of the own mind (or diary) and communicate with readers. And while letter writers censor their own writing in order to avoid offence even to accidental readers, bloggers with ambition select their topics with their readers in mind, too. And this is where we have to leave this topic for now, because I think I can read your mind as you glance at the title and theme of this blog:

‘What does this have to do with alchemy?’ I wish I could see an early alchemist’s letter!! My own work has not dug up any, perhaps because I concentrate on recipes by anonymous writers. If anyone out there has examples to share, please do leave a comment.

‘So, surely there is some mystery in letters, then??’ Again, I have to admit ignorance (or rather that curious failure of my brain to pull specific information out of a hat when quizzed): all I can come up with right now is Sophie’s World, that rather sorry book for young readers that became a Matrix-like phenomenon and seduced many a young person into studying philosophy at university. Yes, I am on my soapbox right now. And I just have to say it:

1. Sophie’s World is pants (that’s ‘trousers’ for the British among you);

2. Philosophy is not ‘thinking about things’.

There. I’m coming down now. But if you can recommend a good mysterious piece of writing involving letters, please do let us all know about it in a round robin.

‘Letters and nosh, then???’ Um, no, sorry – but England and nosh, re: English summer! ‘Tis the season of the gooseberry, a sadly underrated piece of fruit, which I recently served at my house cooling party. It’s a Delia recipe, which I care to share because of its marvelosity, in my usual shortcut style (but a more detailed set of instructions, for those who have never made custard from scratch, is just a hop, skip and google away).

Gooseberry elderflower ice cream

1. Make a custard from
  • - 275 ml whipping cream
  • - 3 large egg yolks
  • - 50 g sugar
  • - 1 tsp cornflour
2. While that is cooling, cook
  • - 1.5 lb gooseberries with
  • - 75 g sugar
for ca. 7 minutes, then remove the pips and skins with the help of a mesh sieve, and stir in
  • - 8 tbsp elderflower cordial
3. Combine both mixtures. If you are the lucky owner of an ice cream maker, you know what to do next. If not, pour everything into a Tupperware box with a lid, put into a freezer and stir every 2 hours to break up those nasty crystals that form. If you make the ice cream more than a few hours before serving, depending on the potency of your cooling device, it might be a good idea to take it out of the same a few minutes before serving to soften it up and stir a bit more.

'So, you didn’t really have anything to say in this blog post?' And that’s why I still like old-fashioned letters (my pen pal and I just celebrated our 18th anniversary) – it is fun to be talked back to by a real person, rather than talking to yourself, as demonstrated here. And yes, I did have something to say. Letters are wonderful. Blogging can be great, too. But as in anything, it helps to figure out what you want to say, how you want to say it, and who you are addressing. As for me, I’m still practising.

Yours faithfully,


PS: Sorry about the formatting - Blogger is slow and buggy today...
From the OED