Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

Pasta the way it should be

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Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008

“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.

The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.

So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.

Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.

OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.

Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.

The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’

What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!

Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.

Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.

The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).

So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.