Midsummer is almost with us, and the food is coming off the allotment at speed now, and so the centre of action is moving back to the kitchen, egged on by Madame’s Mediterranean moment . I sometimes wonder what’s the point of growing all this lovely food without eating it? I’ve never understood why some allotmenteers seem to enjoy the growing more than the eating, and when I see a broad bean muscling its way out of the pod like a bodybuilder’s biceps I think what a waste! – and don’t try to kid me they’re next year’s seed, for goodness sake you have to eat some of them surely?
So yesterday after the perfume was ordered for Madame and tranquility was restored, we settled on a mushroom risotto with some asparagus off the allotment and a couple of pan fried duck breasts. My mind immediately turned to leftovers and the mention of the Montalbano series prompted me to think about making some arancini – which was a good idea because I don’t sleep very well on these long warm nights so I was up at six and baking.
I have made arancini before but it wasn’t always a great success because once, when I made them small and dropped them into a deep fat fryer, they all exploded! So today I made them much larger – tangerine size. They’re awfully easy to do – you make a half, make a dent in it and drop in a teaspoon of mozzarella and them put the ‘top’ on and form them in your hands like a small scotch egg. Then you roll them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and today I fried them in an inch of oil, turning them constantly – thereby avoiding explosions. We had them cold for lunch, with dollops of the fierce aioli I made yesterday. I’m quite sure the fictional detective would protest loudly because Adelina’s are a bit more of a performance; filled with a meat ragu in which the beef must absolutely not be minced or food processed but reverently chopped with a sharp mezzaluna; and somehow she manages to work some bechamel in too. Plus they’re the proper Sicilian conical shape. But – hey – life’s too short and one day when I’ve got all the ingredients to hand I might give them a try. They’re meant to be simple street food, not a Michelin workout.
When there are the freshest ingredients coming into the kitchen, cooking becomes an intense, contemplative pleasure; evoking memories of places we’ve visited and meals we’ve eaten. There does seem to be a strong link between cooking and the sense of belonging. Montalbano has the greatest difficulty in deciding between a weekend with Livia and the chance to scoff Adelina’s arancini. The arancini win, needless to say.
There’s something else about leftovers that came to mind today as I was cooking, and that’s the way that George Perry Smith who almost single handedly rescued restaurant cooking from its cordon bleu chains after the war, and trained some of today’s best – if not best known – chefs, (working as he did in the shadow of food rationing), would never waste any food. He was famous for the way he used leftovers creatively. Apparently the menu at the Hole in the Wall in Bath which he owned and in which he cooked had this sentence printed on it: –“Oddly enough, we are interested at least as much in doing our job well, that is to give you pleasure, as in making money out of it.”
When Madame talked me into making aioli on Monday, my first thoughts turned to bouillabaisse and other French fish stews. But actually, the gold standard fish soup for me was the one that Stephen Markwick produced almost every day in Bristol. We only ate it once in his Corn Street restaurant (when someone else was paying) but we frequently had it at the little bistro called Culinaria that he ran in Redland, later on. Stephen Markwick, and Joyce Molyneux both trained with George Perry Smith. Out middle son trained with Markwick as a commis chef and joined the succession of influence. He remembers when once he dropped an egg on the floor of the kitchen and Stephen threatened to dock the cost from his wages. But Markwick’s fish soup was made from the simplest ingredients, all of which you could buy in any local fishmonger. There were no rare and bony Mediterranean fish, no rascasse or unobtainable rarities, but I’d kill for a bowl of it any day and even now whenever I see fish soup on a menu I have to try it because I know it will immediately show the measure of the kitchen and the chefs who work in it.
Just as a Tai Chi teacher will advertise the lineage of their own teachers, so too chefs all come from somewhere if they’re any good. You’ve only got to look at a recipe by – say – Simon Hopkinson and you can feel his friendship with Elizabeth David. It was her books, almost certainly, that George Perry Smith learned from, he never trained formally himself. His pupils and the younger chefs that they influenced have been rather eclipsed by younger and showier media personalities who’ve often become wealthy and left the cooking to others.
So I’m profoundly grateful to the writers and cooks who gave me so much more than recipes; they gave me whole cultures, and when I’m in the kitchen they’re all in there with me – the cooks and the cultures; a whole world in a pan.