Lemon Posset with fresh raspberries and one (only one) home-grown Cape Gooseberry (Physalis), served in minute, harlequin-coloured demi-tasse coffee cups (c. 1958 Arzberg), the tablecloth a delicious pale green - my mother's (pre WWII - French). A tiny, sweet finish for when you've really had enough.
(Lemon Posset - an old-fashioned "pudding" of cream, sweetened and "set" with fresh lemon juice.
THE TABLE HAS BEEN EMPTY
The first dinner after "lockdown" was at this very sparse table, with a favourite cousin; three of us still social distancing at a table opened up for eight. Fortunately, all three of us are quite vocal.
We're beginning to see normal again in Australia (at least), while aware that stillness and solitude continue for friends and relatives in America, France, Britain and Denmark.
I've taken up the keyboard again, at last. For many months, as well as suffering from a general numbness, it seemed irrelevant to talk about, even with a wry smile, the placing of cheese on a plate, getting children to eat their greens and holding their cutlery "correctly" , the trials of feeding the sour dough starter.
But I continue to obsess, to cringe, to observe and to be moved. I'll be working on...
During"lockdown", we've followed the trends - tidying, preserving, bread...
Left: a superb sour dough loaf made by a friend who has seriously taken it to heart. His results are perfection. What a crackle to that crust! He wants me to adopt a "starter". Not sure if this means I'll have to set the alarm to get up at four hourly intervals to feed it. Cats are bad enough.
Left: Cutting Roger Haden's bread with the old Danish bread cutter.
Left: Dealing with an overwhelming daily avalanche of guavas - guava jelly.
Right: Painstaking work for pomegranate syrup, made by friends Pauline & Jen. Could only happen in "lockdown". What bliss.
Basically I've been fine; in fact I've loved the calm. I've handled with poise the on-line and newspaper overload of recipes, overload of books to read, films to watch, nostalgia, "confected outrage" and attempts to make me feel I'm not as scared, worried or depressed as I should be.
I'm fine - but after nine weeks, there was an underlying restlessness. Perhaps it's little wonder that I was in the right haywire-frame of mind to be tempted by a totally whacky recipe I found during my constant reading and "research" .
Consider Flygande Jakob (or Flying Jacob, in English), a warming Swedish casserole of chicken, cream and banana.
When you consider Sweden, what comes to mind? Clean, natural landscapes, glaciers, sensible cars, equality, democracy, happiness, the wholesome voices of ABBA, sleek, modern furniture, a sensible royal family, Ikea, - and an unconventional approach to social distancing.
With my inner-Scandi ruffled, I needed to verify the claim that the dish actually existed. I consulted The Nordic Cook Book, a massive, meticulously researched work by Magnus Nilsson, a long-haired young Viking*. And there it was.
"Few dishes are as emblemetic and unique to the contemporary food culture of Sweden than this."
In 1976, pilot Ove Jacobsen, arrived home and remembered he was due at a "pot-luck" dinner. He threw together what he had on hand. It was a huge success and the recipe was printed in the Swedish magazine, All om Mat (All about Food). The meat of a roast chicken was pulled apart and seasoned with commercial Italian dressing. Bananas were sliced and arranged, cream whipped and enhanced by a generous slurp of Heinz tomato and chilli ketchup. Once baked the casserole was topped with crisp bacon pieces and roasted peanuts. The rest as they say, is history.
Reader, I made it. Surprisingly, it was delicious and perfect for that stormy evening - very **"hygge". Furthermore, we decided to serve it to the first friends invited when "lockdown" eased.
I went to our butcher. It's a real butcher shop, no white polystyrene trays, two enthusiastic young guys who will cut to order and even get you stuff, like brains and sweetbreads. I could even call it a "boutique" butcher's shop. We like a chat. I explained I was trying out an unusual dish, chicken with banana.
Danny looked grim. "Not that Jacob thing?"
I was horrified. "How on earth do you know about Flying Jacob?" Had I been pipped at the post by Vogue Living or by Gourmet? I thought I was to be the one to introduce this wonderful curiosity to Australian foodie taste-buds.
"Geez - about twelve years ago I met this girl in Cooper Pedy whose parents were Swedish. It was bloody awful."
Reader, he married her. I told him he should allow her to make it again, perhaps using my "elevated" recipe below. (I have exchanged peanuts for almonds, for example, and if not using bacon, try crispy shallots.)
Incidentally, my friends loved it.
I must warn that it defies a wine match.
Flying Jacob (or Flygande Jakob, pronounced Flew-gan-der Yacob)
For 4, (perhaps with rice, green beens or salad)
480 gm chicken thigh fillet
1 tbsp chopped herbs (oregano, parsley, thyme)
2 spring onions, finely chopped, white part and half of the green
2 bananas, "ready to eat" ripeness
100ml tomato passata or 60 ml concentrated tomato purée
1/4 tsp dry chilli flakes (to taste) or 1 tsp smoked paprika
150 gm bacon
1/2 cup flaked almonds
Seasoning to taste.
If you don't wish to eat meat, this also works well with a mix of root vegetables cut into chunks and pre-roasted (carrots, turnips, sweet potato, beetroot) in place of the chicken. (Allow 150gm all up per person.) Top with crisp, cooked shallots & almonds.
I haven't tried with fish. Let me know. Snapper could be good (it needs big flakes) but salmon might be too rich.
STOP PRESS - I have just been reminded of Whiting Caprice, (crumbed whiting with banana, circa 1965). It was served to President Lyndon Baines Johnson at an official dinner in Canberra in October 1966.
Fillet of Whiting Caprice with tartare sauce
White Burgundy - Lindeman's Private Bin 77
*Magnus Nilsson is no slouch. His restaurant Fäviken had two Michelin stars and was listed at 67 in the Pellegrini 100 world's best restaurants. Closed in 2017 after 12 years, it was open 30 weeks a year, seated 24, and was situated in the deep interior of Sweden. (Lots of foraging!)
**Hygge-(Hoo-ger) - a Swedish concept of comfort, cosiness and candles in winter.
Let me know your feelings/experiences with Flying Jacob.
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This pasta is a show-stopper (and delicious). It's extravagant in that it requires one bottle of drinkable red wine for about four serves. Details below.
During the 'Lockdown", I have been part of an on-line group (mainly as observer) that connects by posting a daily photo of dinner on FaceBook. These are not professional cooks but an international, mixed bunch of people, staying/working from home. At the beginning, some were quick to point out that they did not cook; they were too busy, their jobs, their social lives and net-working obligations were so intense that they just had to eat out most nights of the week. I didn't buy it.
In amongst the happy choppers there were also those who were rather startled to find they were enjoying themselves. I've always said cooking was better than yoga.
It was interesting to watch the group grow, not just in number but in confidence and range. At first hesitant and apologetic, as the same names came up over and over, they showed more flair, more adventurous techniques.
But some thumbs down...
Left: Deliciously juicy
Right: "Healthy" variety but some dressing please, some juiciness please.
And it seems that baking is the new status symbol, the new "power" activity. We have the time to make something that is a luxury in that it is not totally necessary. And there was good baking and sad baking, the worst being a pumpkin and apple tart made without sugar or butter so that it was "healthy". No image recommended.
Left: - a bun to be proud of.
Right: "breaking bad" with rhubarb.
The most controversial observation I make is there is "too much pasta". There is too much pasta being prepared/eaten/ordered - a carbohydrate overload. Pasta is not a meat or fish substitute, pasta is not a vegetable substitute. It's a filler. It's a carbohydrate. It's a flavour carrier; part of a course, not something to build a meal on. (A potato is in fact more nutritious.) Kids are leaving home and getting used to living on the stuff, the only thing they have been taught to prepare.
Pasta is not a meal, it's a course. (I've written this and Krakatoa has not erupted!)
I'm not being culturally insensitive. Living on pasta is like living on cake or bread and dripping. Fine every now and again but... Any self-respecting Italian will tell you it's part of a fuller meal.
That said, I've become obsessed with the red pasta below and perfected the quantities enough to pass it on..
Share what you're thinking.
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Our Gastronomy Book Club was humming along nicely when the "Lockdown" happened. Yes, we should have zoomed. We might have to look into this but nonetheless, we're still reading. The book for 25th May is The Umbrian Supper Club - Marlena de Blasi. It's nomination had a mixed reception, so we hope for some lively comments.
I am not too sure about this book but it did introduce me to the idea of cooking pasta in red wine. (In fact, the Umbrians seem to cook with wine as though it were water! I must investigate.) I've played with this and I'm now confident I can pass on the method.
Left: Have everything ready
Right: Red wine pasta with figs and blue cheese
Pasta Cooked in Red Wine
For 2 people as a course within a meal. (Until you have the hang of this, don't try more than four serves at a time).
120 gm pasta (penne)
500 ml (2 cups) red wine
20 gm (1/4 cup) finely grated pecorino
30 gm butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp chilli flakes
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Either 50 gm cubed pancetta (or bacon) or 30 gm chopped walnuts
This is not so much a recipe as a technique. Be patient.
I like to use scales. Once you've made this you may like to adapt to cup measures.
Choose a drinkable (cask is fine) full-bodied red - Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz rather than Pinot.
Choose either pancetta or walnuts, not both IMO.
I've chosen to served it with figs, halved, topped with some blue cheese and grilled, to start a meal, but it could also accompany a main course. Any ideas?
How did you go?
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The new home page - a reminder that soon we might have a nice cup of tea and a madeleine together. Royal Doulton (De Luxe c.1935) tea set I've been too careful to use. That attitude stops now!
Not not my pantry. I wish. I did do a yearly clear up, sort and tidy a few weeks before we had to lie low. It's been said, derisively, that it's about control. You betcha it's about control. Feeling in control (and knowing where things are) is my rod, my safety net, my security blanket.
We have our demons and we deal with them how we can. We have our personal way of getting through. If you're a messer, that's fine. But to quote Dr Phil, "And how's that working for you?"
Above a tidy drawer (for a tidy mind, haha).
While some in the community were tackling their pantry and kitchen shelves I got to work on my stationery drawers, all five of them. They were certainly the result of hoarding or rather years of tossing something, to simply get it out of sight. As well as an embarrassing number of systems and boxes that had promised to finally get stuff in order, there were enough biros, pencils, staplers, rubbers, batteries, paper clips, sharpeners, tape rolls, bluetack and homeless keys to last until 2050.
While throwing out dried-out biros and rock-hard erasers, I re-discovered various fountain pens, including a 1960s streamlined Parker from a mixed auction box. A satisfying hour was spent "servicing" them all and filling them with various coloured inks, (more than enough ink to transcribe the complete works of Proust.) Best of all, I was re-aquainted with my lovely Montblanc pen. We made friends and it will now never leave my side.
So you have hundreds of postcards. You collected them (as essentials) while travelling, checking out the museum shop, at the craft shop of that small sea-side town. You know you'll get to send them, one day. Well now is the time.
Resist sorting them (unless you have absolutely nothing else to do). Just take the first from the top. (This could turn into an ironic, zany joke; the Madonna in Assumption for a devout atheist, coffee pots through the ages for a friend missing her Tall Decaf Soy Skinny Vanilla Latte Frappé.)
Let's keep the solitude but still connect. Bring joy. Don't Zoom. Send a card. There's not much room for writing; just a "Hi! Thinking of you. Hope you're well " will suffice. And you get to clear out a few cards. (You will have to find a pen, find the address and brave the outside world to buy stamps. But you'll manage.)
A final frontier - those cute miniature tubes of face-cream, the little gift with purchase or the complimentary airline "comfort" pouches. We love a gift and when we get home, we just dump it and forget it. But these small things can still cause a twinge of guilt when you spot them at the back of the drawer.
Gather them all together, and into a small jar squeeze them out, slit them open with nail scissors; the lotions that promised to resurrect, soothe, lift, hydrate, moisturise, detoxify, brighten, perfect, replenish, relax; the serums, the night, the day, the eye creams, the neck creams. Blend with a saté stick.
This will make a good hand-balm and with all the hand washing and alcohol sanitiser, you're going to need it. (And trust me, you won't grow eye lashes on your wrist by transporting eye cream to an alien area.)
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The supermarket - the choice is yours. Tins or Fresh.
I stand before you chastened. My comments in the post of 1/1/2020 mocked the over-use of hand sanitisers and house sprays. I talked of "lightening up" on the germ front, I suggested kids get into the dirt and play. Now, we are in lockdown, separated from each other, hounded by the universal spread of this rogue virus. We follow our daily dose of media because it all seems simply incomprehensible (and heart breaking). I'm taking the cautions seriously.
Personally, I have to admit, I'm fine. I don't associate boredom with solitude. The playwright Tom Stoppard is enjoying the peace, he says. "This is the life I’ve always wanted — social distancing without social disapproval".
I'm carefully avoiding the panic shopping, in fact it's fascinatingly humorous. Loo paper, bottled water, pasta (of that more later) leave behind mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. Butchers hold a healthy variety of good meat, fish is still swimming in the ocean and being caught. What are these panickers eating? There might be a shortage of latex gloves but there's no shortage of good, local food.
To paraphrase our government -
"Together, we can cook our way through this."
(Can we ask the media to stop paraphrasing - " Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985) unless they've read the book?")
Waiting is what we have at the moment, and if you need variety and innovation in your cooking, check the site “ckbk” (https://www.ckbk.com). It's offering 30 days free subscription.
“ckbk” is a digital collection of cook books, brought together through the expert advice of world-class chefs and food writers (including yours truly), sourced worldwide. It even ranks the most essential books of all time. See their list - 1000 top cook books and the list continues to grow. (And who doesn't love a list?) Incidentally, according to their poll, (https://app.1000cookbooks.com/books) the list begins as follows...
#1 Mastering the Art of French Cooking Julia Child
#2 Nose to Tail Eating Fergus Hendersen
#3 The French Laundry Cookbook Thomas Keller
#4 Larousse Gastronomique Prosper Montagné
#5 French Provincial Cooking Elizabeth David
#6 White Heat Marco Pierre White
Subscribers get unlimited access to the complete content of every book.
Left: Rosemary's perfect loaf
Friends are cooking. Most of all, they’re baking and preserving even though bread, jams and chutneys are not part of the stockpilers' booty. People who once boasted they were too busy (inferring not too subtly, that they were above it all, with better things to do) are making not only dinner but interesting breakfasts (which they now have time to eat) and are finding they are quite good at it.
So, if baking is to be your "boredom filler" of choice, take the humble Pavlova to new heights with Lorraine Elliot's blog, nicely named "Not Quite Nigella".
You'll never turn off the oven.
And treat yourself to the enthusiasm of young Gallic cutie Alex - The French Guy.
Random YouTubes will find him exploring methodically (and with a laugh) anything from pasta to pommes de terre in his workshop or cycling around Paris.
He's just finished a three part series on the perfect meatball, (just what you've always needed).
https://alex meatball youtube
His fridge magnets sold out too quickly, where he sensibly reminded us...
So finally, could self-isolating be just another name for self-improving?
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Just clearing the bits and pieces clogging my brain so I can fully embrace 2020.
These are the desserts that need only a spoon. The rest, fork and spoon please!
Left: Lemon posset with raspberries - 1960s demitasse, Arzberg
Right: Raspberry sorbet by C.M. - "custard cups" c.1910
Must accept that I can’t change the world. (Who’s listening?)
At restaurants, at check-outs, I'm still being asked, “So, how’s your day been so far?” Sorry, I don’t know you well enough to tell you. (Management training needed?)
Still not given a fork with my dessert cutlery, only a spoon, so I’m expected to use my thumb. (Surely this wouldn't increase staff wages.)
Cheese (festooned with garden debris and chocolate-coated strawberries) still being arranged on hefty boards that are too heavy to pass. Is this the idea? If it can't be passed, it won't be eaten. (It is OK to put cheese on a plate.)
I felt anger on receiving an invitation to celebrate International Women’s Day with Champagne and a decadent three course lunch. The fizz is nice but actually domestic (not Champagne) but a decadent lunch? Why is good food decadent? This is so puritan. Guilty pleasures? If you feel guilty, you shouldn’t be doing it.
It was easy to decline as I was asked to launch a new venue (fare) at the Whitmore Sparkke hotel and brew house run by women, the restaurant kitchen headed by the joyously talented Emma McCaskill.
What did I learn in 2019?
I learnt to save some pasta cooking water, re-adding it to the drained pasta, stirring for creaminess. (See cacio e pepe)
Where is the natural?
I am sick of labels, labels, labels on food; vegan, gluten free, lactose free, artisanal, hand-harvested, healthy, even no cholesterol. I thought “cholesterol” went out years ago. (Did you know that salt is gluten free, lactose free, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, sometimes hand-harvested, healthy and contains no cholesterol? No need for labels or even use-by dates.)
"Eat food, not too much, mainly plants" - Michael Pollan
Known Since the Dawn of Time
I’m suspicious of heirloom vegetables (and flowers). In the main, they are multi-coloured hybrids; carrots, tomatoes are the main culprits. Nothing wrong with them but they’re hybrids, not heirloom. They are not the carrots eaten since the dawn of time. I've tasted some ancient apples and pears in the "potagier" of Versailles, (I've never actually been to the palace). They were amazing in their variety, some tasting like a spritz in the mouth of Guerlain's Mitsouko. Sadly, both the fruit and Mitsouko have been "silenced" by market forces and the EU.
(David Austen roses are lovely but they are modern hybrids, grown to look “old-fashioned”.)
Not sure these will replace my Negroni (cucumber, kale & vodka, or kombucha & peach cooler)
P.R had just hosted one of the opening parties of Writers' Week. He had checked the drinks, chatted with guests, welcomed "names", spruiked for subscribers and thanked sponsors. Later ordering a pre-dinner drink, "wellness" was the last thing on his mind. That morning I had read that bartenders/mixologists are creating cocktails now to cater to the demand for "healthier" options, supposedly. You think I’m joking? Kombucha margaritas, açai mojitos and best (or worst) of all, cucumber, kale & vodka spritz; all are being trialled in a bar in our fair city. Who’s kidding whom?
Future Gourmets, Future Environmentalists
I worry where the next batch of gourmets will come from.
It could be a nice to take children to a restaurant. What a shame that the dreaded screen, phone or iPad is seen as the table “baby-sitter”. This defeats the purpose of sitting together, learning to chose what you want to eat, learning to hold your cutlery, learning to be part of a conversation and most of all, learning patience.
I have a great tip for kids. My brother and I learnt early that when we went out or when our parents’ friends came over, if we sat, listened, and stayed very, very, very quiet, we got to stay up very, very, very late and heard all the adult gossip. Bliss. I recommend it.
Left: Summer pudding - flavour and awesome technique - Alan Weiss, emeritus chef of distinction, not afraid to be perfect or simple.
Right: - greatly appreciated (note spoon AND fork)
Cooking with Love
This year I’ll continue to love cooking but I’ll avoid the “cooking with love” syndrome. I'm gagging over books of syrupy memoirs; lazy lunches beneath flowering walnut trees, their nuts yielding the oil that bathes our foraged salad, crusty bread from the ancient village wood-oven, the artisanal goats cheese, the groaning platters of barely recognisable fruit charmingly dappled (à la Caravaggio) by coddling moth and hail, happy children to the left of me, nonnas to the right.
Love? I'll stick to good ingredients, knife skills, flavour balance, cultural expressions, invitations and conversation staging. I think along the way, there will be love generated.
Do the "love" cookers ever share with others and actually invite people?
There were tablecloths before there were dining tables. There were dining tables before there were dining rooms - but they were just called cloths, tables or trestles.
Above, a French damask, ecru cloth, and going by the monogram design, I'd say it was c.1930. When I found it, it had never been used.
At the end of the evening, the cloth has taken a beating. But it's only superficial. It will survive. It will be cleared the following day (we clear the next day in our household) and rejuvenated.
If you spill something, don't apologise. That puts me in an awkward position of having to reassure you that it doesn't matter. Trust me, it doesn't matter. I will be washing it later and ironing it before it's used again. (And please use your napkin, vigorously if you will, and discard it casually at the end. If it's still neatly folded, trust me, I won't be putting back in the drawer.)
A cri de cœur... Please don't sprinkle salt. It's a myth that it neutralises a stain. It just makes a nasty gritty surface for the rest of the meal. One time, a guest brought to dinner a new girlfriend who rose from her chair and poured salt on the wine spill of another guest!!! (They are no longer seeing each other.)
A cloth gives a nice warmth and softness under hand, especially if there's a spongy undercloth. It also deadens noise.
Over the years I've collected table cloths or rather, I've rescued them.
It's not a virtue, it's just what I do.
Sometimes, there have been small circular holes in them - cigarette burns, probably, and this adds to their mystery. I mend them and ponder the bad old days when people smoked (even at table, and that's another story).
"The past is another country: they do things differently there." ( L.P. Hartley- The Go-Between. )
Washing and Ironing
There are linens out there that are rustic and creased. Fine, it's a look, go for it.
Left: Banquet, Willem Claesz Heda, Dutch, 1635 (Nat. Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
Right: 21st century. Crumpled can be good.
History Of The Cloth
Left: Wedding Feast, Pieter Bruegel, 1556 - cloth, just covering trestles.
Centre: Friends' very elegant table, placemats, keeping us in place.
Right: Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943
Not every dining table has a cloth, especially if you're showing off some wood or marble. But the tablecloth is a signifier, it signifies the intention to eat.
The Romans started putting cloths under food around 2030 years ago. When there was food to be eaten, down went a cloth, be it on the ground or across a board or trestle. (Think board-room, chairman of the board, sideboard etc.)
Cloths weren't ironed but folded into presses. This lead to artfully creased cloths, the folds much prized. (See "The Last Supper", previous post.)
Place settings weren't delineated. Food was placed on the cloth for picking at. In Europe during the middle ages, seating began to be marked by a trencher, a piece of bread, but still spoons and drinking vessels were shared. 17th C Dutch paintings show rich, well dressed burghers or traders (i.e. business men) talking at tables, sharing from a few glasses, expensive items embellished in the Venetian style.
When knives started to be used to eat with, bread trenchers were replaced by metal or ceramic. Privacy became "a thing" and people chose to eat in smaller groups and the 18th C saw a drawing away into small eating or dining rooms - then to especially made tables. Cloths were ironed smooth. Gradually decorum ruled that each person be segregated, one from the other, with a place setting, our little section, our own little armoury of cutlery and a bevy of glassware.
(Incidentally, the Victorians did not cover their dining-table legs with a cloth because they looked too sexy. It was simply the fashion.)
You might never look at a tablecloth in the same way again.