Cucina povera? who’s kidding who?

Field mushrooms harvested near St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

Madame was sitting in bed this morning reading recipes aloud. She does it quite often and every now and again she’ll mention something that makes me really sit up. On this occasion it was the mention of a recipe for making a cold tomato soup which ended with the suggestion that it should be served with slivers of Serrano ham. I immediately set to wondering about such weighty issues as authenticity in cooking. Regional cooking is all the rage, and in many ways the slow cooking movement and so-called cucina povera might be an ideal resource in a time of constriction and shortages, but there’s a big proviso.

When I first started learning to cook I was quite obsessive about getting the “correct” ingredients – I was an absolute slave to the recipe. It was wilfully stupid. I once visited half dozen greengrocers in Tunstall Market trying to buy twenty small onions of exactly the same size – so forty odd years ago I would have thought it impossible to cook any dish containing Serrano ham because no-one in Stoke on Trent would have even known what it was.

So if we’re to explore what local and sustainable really means for cooks we might take notice of the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. It was a constant menu item at Culinaria; Stephen and Judy Markwick’s small restaurant in Bristol. Let’s be clear, we wouldn’t normally have anything to do with such luminaries but one of our sons was lucky enough to train under him and someone else also paid for an eye opening meal at their previous restaurant in Corn Street. Stephen’s cooking was absolutely simple but his obsessive attention to detail meant that when he finally took to writing he even offered a recipe for mushrooms on toast. Typically, of course, the recipe demands field mushrooms. Wild, field mushrooms freshly harvested and cooked as simply as possible are food for the gods. Knowing where to find them is a closely guarded secret – in our previous house there was a school playing field, just the other side of the fence, where they grew abundantly but rather erratically. The only other person who knew was the retired local milkman who became school caretaker and so for years we competed silently and entirely without rancour to get there first in order to harvest as many as we needed. Over time I’ve found a number of places, not least a clifftop on the Lleyn Peninsula where – at this time of the year – they can often be found, and they are completely irreplaceable. Nothing you can buy could ever, possibly be as good. The very definition of cucina povera would involve cooking what is to hand – that’s to say not Serrano ham when you live in the Disunited Kingdom. There’s often a local substitute and if there isn’t you could maybe set up a small business to fit into the niche.

The purpose of this excursus on field mushrooms and Stephen Markwick was to lead back to fish soup and a kind of culinary dynasty. Fifty odd years ago, here in Bath, George Perry Smith (much inspired by Elizabeth David) ran a restaurant called The Hole In the Wall. It was one of the best in the country and completely innovative in its references to Mediterranean dishes. However, George learned to cook in times of rationing and shortages and evolved a way of doing things where, for instance, nothing was ever wasted. George Perry Smith taught Joyce Molyneux to cook and she in turn taught Stephen Markwick who taught our son. If I were writing about Tai Chi or Buddhism, the question of who taught the teacher would be the most natural thing in the world because it really matters. In cooking it’s rarely if ever asked.

So George Perry Smith, confronted by food shortages took a very different path with ingredients; a path which ultimately led to the best fish soup I’ve ever tasted. I should confess immediately that I absolutely love fish soup and whenever we get the chance to eat it I’ll order it. We’ve eaten it in France, Corsica and all over the place but nothing comes close to fish soup that has passed through the dynastic hands of Elizabeth David, George Perry Smith, Joyce Molyneux and Stephen Markwick. The recipe – published in his brilliant self published book “A very Honest Cook” is almost bafflingly simple. The takeaway point is that there’s no mention of any exotic fish such as might feature in a grander and more ‘authentic’ recipe. For goodness sake it even includes smoked haddock and refuses to specify the other fish except to say it would include white fish and any other fish scraps from the kitchen. No more unobtainable Rascasse or any other bony monsters. This Provencal soup is the most “at hand” soup you’ve ever seen.

The so-called secret is of course using superb and locally available ingredients in the most thoughtful way possible. Truly great cooking is most creative and thoughtful when it asks of an unavailable recipe item – “what does this ingredient bring to the dish? and how could I achieve the same authentic balance and flavour using something else?”

And if you ask how, in this time of shortage of both ingredients and the money to buy them, we would do well to follow George Perry Smith’s doctrine of waste not want not. There’s an abundance of locally produced food here in the UK. What’s lacking are the skills to make the most of them. Today at the Saturday Farmers’ Market I overheard a wonderfully instructive conversation between the stallholder and what must have been an extremely wealthy customer. She was insisting on buying a hideously expensive rib of beef joint (organic grass fed etc) to barbecue. He didn’t think this was a good idea at all and I overheard him say to her “I’m a farmer not butcher” as he discouraged a profitable sale in favour of making sure she wouldn’t be disappointed with her expensive purchase. When I read how we should all give up eating meat because it’s so impactful on climate change, I wonder if it wouldn’t be much better to less meat, but eat much more of the animals rather than insist on the most expensive cuts.

A lifetime of Potwell Inn finances has taught us that sometimes the cheapest cuts are much better flavoured. Pork fillet, for instance is much more expensive than shoulder, which is more expensive than belly or any of the offal cuts. Even a humble pig’s trotter can add a marvellous silky texture to slow cooked beans. There’s no need at all for cucina povera or slow cooking to feel like second best. We should maybe get over our obsessive compulsion to buy the rarest, most expensive and showy ingredients. Perhaps we should address the problem of food security by stopping being so precious and insecure about impressing other diners with our wealthy and cosmopolitan tastes; and if we’re vegetarians maybe we could seek out the best and freshest vegetables or – even better – grow them ourselves.

Heaven is kitchen shaped

Thankfully, glass milk bottles are at last popping up in Bath!

More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.

Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.

As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.

I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.

Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.

And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.

Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas

Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.

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