Saturday 22 October 2011

Trafalgar Pudding

Captain Haddock bids us raise a glass to Freedom and the Men who fought for it at the Battle of Trafalgar- and won - on 21 October 1805.

I wonder what the cook did on the night before the battle. The fire will have to be doused. Do you reserve some food for the battle but use the rest of the stores as far as possible? If men might see only one more sunrise there's no point denying them what comfort there is. On the other hand, what if you win? People would want something to keep them going on the way home.

One thing I am clear about. The youngest crew member, Thomas Twitchett aged 12 - the same age at which Nelson went to sea - should not have faced battle without a sweet to eat, even if it meant stealing somebody else's treacle. This is the night to remind the purser that we do not bind the mouth of the beast which treads the corn.

The general pudding was duff, which might have meant anything from a boiled rich pudding with dried fruits, suet, spices and treacle, to a dough of stale biscuit with currants to disguise the insects.

On land, then, an interpretation of plum duff which cheats by using buttermilk which they certainly wouldn't have had for more than a day or two out of port, and a controllable oven, but cooking in a basin of water to simulate a steamed pudding sitting on the great iron range on the galley.

This plum duff uses plums because they are English - the finest cooking plum being Kea plums which grow along the Fal estuary in Cornwall - and dates in remembrance of Nelson's earlier 1798 victory at the Battle of the Nile. History is full of dates. The date palm is properly called Phoenix Dactylifera - the Phoenix tree which bears fruits like little fingers. I prefer to believe this is a reference to the Immortal Egyptian Fire Bird rather than any of the other explanations for how the Phoenix name was chosen for these palms.


You will need a large pudding basin or two smaller ones to speed up the cooking time . The pudding rises so don't fill them much more than half-way.

2oz dried plums, chopped. Kea plums already made in to jam would also work and produce a sweeter pudding rather than the sherbet-sharp finish.
2oz dates, stoned and chopped. These are Halawi dates so do your own puns.
Soak the fruits together in a good gill of rum and the juice of half a lemon.
Add about a teaspoon full of mixed spice to taste. I'm using nutmeg and cinnamon.
A"good gill" is as much rum as suffices to wet and swell the fruit. When the fruit - but not the cook - has soaked up the liquor, continue:

Butter a large pudding basin well and cover the bottom with a layer of the fruit mix, reserving the most of it. Put the liquor in the bottom to make a syrup, if there is any.

Cream together 2oz butter and 2 oz sugar.
On the ship this would be salted butter and possibly treacle, but I'm using unsalted butter and plain granulated sugar.
Add 1 egg, beat in well, and stir in 4oz of self-raising flour. Many recipies use half-flour and half-breadcrumbs so this is a way to use up crusts.
Add buttermilk until the mix is soft like a sponge and almost ready to drop off the spoon. Use plain yoghurt if you can't lay your hands on butter milk. This helps to raise the pudding.
Stir in the reserved fruit - it may loosen the mixture slightly, so don't go mad with the buttermilk. You can always add a drop more.

Spoon the mixture on top of the fruit already in the basin. Put a cover of foil on it to stop the top getting wet.

Place the basin in a bigger pan of hot water - a deep baking tin, for example - so that the water rises half-way up the basin. Set the pair in a medium-hot oven, about gas mark 6, although you could simmer it on the hob if you prefer.

Keep the water topped up for two hours, then check if the pudding is done by taking off the foil carefully and sliding a knife it to see if it comes out clean. If it needs longer, and perhaps to dry out, then take the foil off.

Of course, if you are spreading this over two smaller pudding basins it will set faster, best check after an hour.

When a knife comes out clean, run a knife round the sides of the pudding, wait about five minutes for it to be less likely to split, turn out without burning your fingers, and serve.

On land we can use custard or cream but unless someone had managed to hide Daisy the milk cow aboard as well as Henny Penny who laid the egg, you will have to improvise with a dressing of butter, rum and sugar. The pudding is rich because of the butter and buttermilk so it is not essential to put anything else on.

Plum and Date Rum Duff

Note: if you used a lot of rum it may not all convert in the cooking. Therefore be aware that it might not be suitable for a modern 12 year old, or if driving or operating machinery.

All Seeing Eye invites anyone in Gibraltar to the Trafalgar Cemetery at 12 noon on Sunday 23 October, where there will be an act of remembrance. The Immortal Memory

Those in the East of England might like to visit Nelson's birthplace, Burnham Thorpe, which is still substantially as Nelson saw it.

Monday 17 October 2011

English Ethnic Dress (1)

This is English Fancy Dress rather than ethnic dress but it is based on real clothes. It is the coming thing for the age of austerity, combining craft and practicality. The male dress is interesting because it allows a display of individuality we haven't seen for many years.

Elements: boots, cord or plain trousers tied at the knee with twine. There's a terrible fear in all English male dress of attacks via the knees: adders, eels, mice, the devil, ferrets (never sure if the string is to keep them out or in) so trousers have to be bound there. Straw looks good; string if not. Not that horrible bright pink plastic twine - the green or brown hairy hemp is fine.

Shirts are of small checks, preferably smudgy ones where the colours are barely differentiated. Bright, high-contrast checks are not the thing. Neckerchief is optional but very useful so most men will have them. You cannot really beat the cotton, red and white spotted neckerchief and they are so useful that there should be spare ones in the pockets of the capacious jacket.

The jacket is not tailored in the sense of fitting. It's tailored in the sense that it might fit somebody and will come and find that person. It will be made of good wool of the tweedy variety and here the customizing comes in. Strips of fabric and maybe feathers are lightly sewn on in rows to create padded contours and crests which emphasize movement and protect the jacket if you have to shove something with your shoulder, perhaps a car or a gate. It isn't necessary to cover the entire jacket although some people like to. Pads can be replaced if they get oily.

The hat is either a tweedy trilby or some favour canvas and leather versions of stockman hats. The trilby is neat, can easily be re-dressed with new feathers and blends in. The overall look should be owlish, not like a peacock. A flat hat, if worn, should not get over-large or it looks like it escaped from Top Of The Pops in 1973.

Accessories are whatever you think best in your pockets, plus a broom. This is not so much for sweeping as beating time like the tap dancers in Stomp do.

The Lincolnshire Poacher look is practical without being reminiscent of hospital scrubs or pyjamas, and suggests one has been up since sunrise conducting delicate business which one is not at liberty to discuss.

Female ethnic dress will be discussed later.

Friday 14 October 2011

Apple Day 2011

There are events all over the country this month for Apple Day. The festival is a modern marketing creation but it has been well-attended as there are few things more beautiful than orchards. The loveliest tree of all is the golden pear, the quince, which reigns like a queen over the other trees, decked in magnificence.

Magic quince tree, Corpus Christi, Oxford

A little quince is good for flavouring but they take a lot of processing. It is much easier to eat apples and you can make many more things with them. Plus, you get cider from apples and that's what I'm hoping to be testing on Saturday. If I'm lucky with the weather I'll be wandering around in an absurd haze of bonhomie with a pie in one hand and a beaker of hot spiced cider punch in the other, laughing at the wolf winter which is loping towards us. If I'm not lucky with the weather I shall do just the same but pull the hood of my mac over the cider punch so the rain doesn't get in it.

Toffee Apple Cake.

Heat the oven to medium-hot, about gas mark 5
Have 2 x 1lb loaf tins or your choice of bakeware handy. I use the paper liners but I understand that silicon bakeware is very popular these days.

Fruit compote:
4 smallish apples, cored and sliced and cubed
A lemon, squeezed, to stop them oxidising
About 2 good tablespoons of honey
Cinnamon - some, how much you like, if you like like it. I'm having at least two good teaspoonsful.
Cook briefly together to soften them, leave to cool. The cubes of apple should now be covered in a syrup like toffee so don't burn them or they'll taste bitter. The need to cool down or they'll coagulate the cake mixture when they go in.

Cake batter of:
8oz self-raising flour
4oz unsalted butter or margarine
2 eggs
2 oz sugar, brown if you have it but any is fine.
A little milk if the batter is too stiff, but it probably won't be when you add the fruit.

Mix up the batter using any protocol you like, including the one where you separate the eggs, whip up the whites, then fold them in to the rest of the mixture later. This is a lot of mucking about but it does give puffier results. However, I'm doing sugar and butter, then eggs, then flour. The batter is stiff, more like a scone, but it will soften as you put the apple in. It is easier to do this by pouring the cool syrup in first.

Stir the apples in to the cake mixture which will be like rich cream - not hard but not runny - and cook in a medium-hot oven, around gas mark 5. If you are using two loaf tins this will take about 50 mins, longer if you use a deep tin, less if you are wise and spread the mixture in a wider tin. At any rate, cook until a knife-blade slides out cleanly and not covered in raw cake mix. The oven needs to be hot to get the reaction going and puff up the cake, but it can burn the top. Turn the oven down and leave it longer if it is a problem getting the centres to set. This happens with cakes using fresh fruit.

Cool on wire rack. The cake should not be over-sweet. Fresh fruit cakes count as health food if the council sends a spy round to 'test' your buns. You need to eat them quicker than other cakes because they only have a limited shelf life of a few days. This should not be a problem.

Aha! Found some spare cream. Yes, this all works.

If you enjoyed the apples, save the pips from the cores and shove them in the ground somewhere. Who knows, but one day there may be tree. All the instructions are in there.

A note on honey: this cake used rapeflower honey. Be aware that rapeflower honey is bland which makes it adaptable for cooking but that - in my opinion - it lacks the depth of flavour you might like in a table honey.

Cluck cluck CL*CK

That's what the noise was about.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Sunday 9 October 2011

Harvest Home 2011

The moon nearest the Autumn equinox (around September 23) is known as the Harvest Moon, but that was back on 12 September. The coming moon on October 11 is known as the Hunter's Moon although it can be called the Harvest Moon if the moon phase falls closest to the equinox in a given year.

It didn't this year but never mind; the harvest comes in from August onwards and is still going on, so this was a good weekend for a Harvest festival. Given the burst of hot days last week it worked out well. Besides, the children have been back at school for just over a month so they've had time to do projects on Where Our Food Comes From.

The modern consumer parade of seasonal food doesn't catch what we know is the deeper psychological truth; there isn't going to be any food made for months. People want, profoundly, to store life against the depths of the winter, near the solstice, when we will need captive sunshine. Maybe there should be more tinned food in the displays, or more exhibitions of salting, drying and preserving in sugar. It is one thing to produce food, quite another to be able to shift it forward, each jar a tiny time capsule.

The bees do it best with their immortal honey and beautiful wax but they are in great danger and nobody knows quite why their numbers are dropping and colonies are crashing. The British Beekeeper's Association asks that in the meantime, please could everyone put in bee-friendly plants, especially for May and June where the bees need all the help they can get.

Plants I've found are robust and take hardly any looking-after are foxgloves, hollyhocks, lavender and thyme. They might need a trim when the bees are finished with them but otherwise they just get on with it. As the hollyhock flowers tend to drop off and lay around on the path it's best to plant them at the back of the border where you don't have to sweep them up.

The Anglo-Saxons had a charm for bees and St Benedict had a Catholic prayer for them. As we are largely dependent on the bees for pollination or there won't be a next harvest, it is urgent to discover what is causing the colonies to collapse. A prayer on the side never does any harm, though. Other practical advice from the British Bee Keepers Association.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Desserts - Michel Roux

Inland to Toppings Bookshop in Ely for the book launch of Michel Roux's latest work, Desserts.

A gust of oestrogen knocked me over as I walked in to the hall they were using for the event. You can keep your interfering hyper-active bully-boys with their pukka pasta. If you want to see a babe-magnet in operation and grown women going giggly - and I'm talking about from 18 year olds to 80 year olds - Michel is your exemplar.

He doesn't appear immediately as there is a lunch first. Substantial quiches, salads, wine or elderflower presse are balanced on knees while people pre-buy books and browse through a selection of his other titles. Roux has a regular editorial team, including his wife who does the proof reading, and they are all credited. He produces books with the same values with which he cooks - just as he wouldn't ask someone to eat food he wouldn't eat himself, so the book has to satisfy him as an object, as a work in its own right. Later he emphasizes that he knows every page number for every recipe - it's his book, his name is on the cover.

Eventually Mr Topping - who has been toting boxes for days now and is nearly melting in the lunchtime sunshine - stands up and begins to tell of his joy at hearing someone say the bookshop was 'just like the one in Notting Hill'. Ha! That means he is equivalent to Hugh Grant. However, the bookshop in Notting Hill has just closed, as have dozens of others.

Toppings in Bath and Ely has bucked that trend by adding value as a retailer. They hold a book club each month and well-organized events where the authors are expected to turn up and perform. They also offer you fresh tea or coffee - for free - and don't mind browsers, so it's rare that you get out of there without something you didn't know you wanted. The lunch is to develop a trading relationship with the customers, so for £15 you get lunch, a literary cabaret, and a signed copy of the book.

Then comes the treat. The ladies come in with trays of desserts made by Michel's very own hand. On each white plate is a slice of chocolate raspberry roulade (roule marquis, page 168) and a shot-glass sized fig and honey pannacotta (page 76). There is cat-like purr of five dozen women simultaneously licking vanilla ambrosia and forgetting there is a world outside.

The audience is now as pliable as a sheet of soaked gelatin and the star comes out of his kitchen to great applause.

Time has been kind to Michel Roux. It's been more than kind; he is a Frenchman with a big nose and he's 70 so it isn't fair that he looks better now than he did twenty four years ago when he and his older brother Albert bickered their way across the nation's TV screens to challenge the worthy approaches of the kitchen divas such as Delia Smith. Michel remains slim and obviously active, no stoop, tanned, with white teeth and blue eyes. Even his hair has swept itself back in to a chic silver bardic mane which he certainly didn't have in 1988. I have the picture here - in those days he had to make do with an ordinary mousey fuzz of a barnett.

Being French he feels there is an obligation to show Italian men how It Is Done. There has to be a quality of casual effortless grace which leaves the Italians looking over-polished and fussy. "'Ow to understand a woman?" he shrugs Gallically, and the Italians would seethe because they know he does. The Brits nod sagely, interpreting it as a shared take-my-wife joke. There, right there, you have Europe on a plate.

There are barely a handful of men at the launch, which is strange when you consider how Roux's work is either neutral or masculine, grounded in the professional kitchen and the concepts of aristocratic food, not peasant pottage. It can't only be women who manage to get away from the office or the home at lunchtime.

Michel opens with a cautionary tale. He had hoped to show the signature fruit meringues he is proud of but they turn out to be very sensitive to air humidity and the quality of the oven. He waves one, explaining how disappointed he was with the texture and uneven quality. The encouraging moral is: even Michel Roux has disasters. None the less, he urges us to give plum meringue, page 150, a whirl. "Plums are cheap, you must dry them well, meringues are cheap if you have just made something with egg yokes".

Considering his name is linked with expensive food and he's obviously not short of a bob or two being domiciled now in Switzerland, it is surprising how many times he refers to the cost of food. It is preying on his mind - but then, being born in 1941 and growing up in the austerity years after the war with an unreliable father, he must have experienced what it means to be worried about food and its price. Perhaps that's why he cares so much about every mouthful; the ghost haunting him is not bad food, but no food.

He advises not starting with the book, but to go to a market, find what's cheap, then go back and look up a way to cook it. There's nothing special about that advice but it cuts through the marketing nonsense about wandering round a supermarket with the recipe their celebrity chef has suggested which just so happens to require five of their premium pre-packed ingredients.

The advice goes on. An omelette takes between 1 minute and 90 seconds. He advises scrambled eggs with a scoop of cream, Albert says two scoops. If you use milk the eggs will be a little wet but that may be the best way for you, if you don't want to use cream. Do not mix spices in desserts - stick to only one - two if you must - to avoid confusing the flavour. Fresh fish is a live food and very good for you. Meat is already very dead and if you cook it wrong, it can be twice as dead. A Christmas pudding is a wonderful thing and he believes that his own are the best in the world. (Although it doesn't appear to have made it in to this book). Don't use more than about six ingredients in a dish, unless you have a special reason - it is too much, too confusing. A cook must have a glass of wine while working, or at least water if you are not a wine drinker. Despite this being a book about desserts and therefore not without calories, the use of fruit and a reduced quantity of sugar and fat has been recommended . The trend is for lighter desserts, he says.

There is a lively exchange of views about the storage of eggs resulting in Michel being exasperated about too-low storage temperatures and the lack of larders in the modern house due to the EU. It's not clear to me precisely how they are responsible for that but sometimes his French accent is still hard to understand, even after all these years. "I'm in favour of the common market" he said, echoing so many people over the years "but not this EU".

Neither I nor any other lady there cares tuppence about understanding every word - he can read out the phone book as far as we are concerned, and it will still sound like ginger creme brulee (page 75), but it brings an interesting thought about the book. Roux writes in French because he says it is still quicker for him. The translator, Sally Somers, then puts this in to crystal-clear English, but in doing so it is impossible to avoid rinsing out some of the warmth and poetry of his Franglais phrasing.

One day he should write a book with the French on one page and the translation opposite, perhaps a considered guide to shopping and stocking a kitchen without over-spending or wastage, but getting value for money. If that's where good cookery starts, it is time he addressed the subject directly in his own signature grammar.