Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Washed three times so you don’t have to

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Years ago, in London, I discovered an amusing game to play on the underground escalators. You have to keep the full list of the Seven Deadly Sins in mind but I’ll help you out with that right now – the list goes: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

So imagine if you will, as the escalator is taking you past all the advertisements, you have committed those seven to mind and are ready to identify the Deadly Sin represented in each advertisement. So, for example, an ad for an electrical appliance that actually comes with its own plug (they didn’t used to have those automatically in the UK) – that’s clearly sloth. An ad for a pizza chock full of every delicious filling imaginable: gluttony. Or greed. Or maybe both, especially if there’s a special price offer on the pizzas that appeals to greed. And so on. I haven’t played it for years, but remembering it now I intend to play it again when I’m back in London. I used to love sliding past all that display of excess, muttering “sloth, lust, envy, envy, sloth, gluttony” to myself.

I’ve remembered that game because I’m presently shopping in American supermarkets, those temples of consumer power. I’m especially amused by the slogan on the boxes of organic salad: “Washed three times so you don’t have to” – a perfect example of an appeal to sloth. I’m slightly bemused by tubs of pre-crumbled feta (I reckon I could probably crumble my own feta, slothful or not) but the winner of the slothful competition was the pre-prepped carrots.

I wanted to make a gluten-free carrot cake for my sister in law, and the only thing that made me hesitate was not having a food processor here, to grate the carrots. I contemplated borrowing one for the job but that was a more complicated endeavour than I wanted. And yes of course I could grate them by hand – but grating a pound of carrots is a thankless task and usually involves grating your own fingers as well as the carrots. So I was browsing through the veggie section in the chilled cabinet, vaguely wondering if I could make a banana cake instead, or at the least try to buy bigger carrots which would be easier to grate – when, yes! You guessed it! I found packets of pre-shredded organic carrots.

Sloth, be my friend. The carrot cake was truly delicious.

Anzac Biscuits: an analysis of substance

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Some weeks ago I decided to make Anzac biscuits, inspired by a kind neighbour and friend who’d brought me a batch of them in aid of my recovery. Glen isn’t an Australian or a New Zealander, but her Anzac biscuits are nevertheless truly excellent. They are slightly resistant to the bite, but not too resistant, and not too crisp. Not exactly crunchy, either: crunchy is wrong for an Anzac. Not too much dessicated coconut (I don’t really like the taste of that but you can’t leave it out, it’s part of the Great Tradition). A little bit chewy, but not too chewy – more lively than chewy, actually. And that authentic deep background flavour of buttery golden syrup. Altogether excellent: thank you Glen!

(And here for a moment I digress, in case you don’t know about Anzac biscuits. Their origin is yet another historical food disagreement between New Zealand and Australia, like Pavlova, which both countries claim as their own invention. The invented Anzac biscuit history which both countries share is that the biscuits were sent to soldiers in the First World War, ‘ANZAC’ being an acronym for the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ who fought at Gallipoli. But it seems that those original and brave men had to make do with rock hard ships’ biscuits, and never got any Anzac biscuits at all. Read all about it here.) Maybe the Anzac biscuit already existed, and then had the name of the ANZACs attached to it. Digression ends.)

So, inspired by their deliciousness, I got out my Edmonds Classics recipe book. (Another digression is now required. The Edmunds recipe book is the biggest selling book ever published in New Zealand: over four million copies have been sold since the first edition of 1908. The book I have, though, is a relatively recent publication: my elder sister has possession of our mother’s edition of the original Edmunds book from the 1950s.)

Then I assembled the ingredients. I had to fight for the last tin of golden syrup in the supermarket aisle, too, grabbing it just ahead of a young man. “Flapjacks!” he offered as his excuse; “Anzacs,” I replied firmly, and he gave way. So then, as the triumphant owner of a tin of golden syrup as well as all the other ingredients, I made the biscuits. And blow me down, if the Anzacs from the Edmonds recipe weren’t classics at all: not in my view. They’re good, I don’t pretend they weren’t, but they did not – could not – match my idea of proper Anzacs.

Too plump.

Too soft.

Too close to the whole look and feel of an American oatmeal cookie.

How confusing is that?

We ate them, of course, and I even made a second batch and gave those away to two Australian friends, who loved them. (Maybe a soft, plump Anzac is an Australian speciality?)  And then I gave in, and asked Glen for her recipe. But when I read it – well, blow me down all over again, Glen’s recipe doesn’t have any bicarb in it!

No bicarb at all? In an Anzac biscuit true to the Great Tradition? Surely that’s not possible?

By this stage of the saga I’d put out a more general call for recipes, and now – for pity’s sake – I have four recipes, all subtly yet significantly different, one from another.

  1. One without bicarb, which I know tastes delicious even though it surely couldn’t be called a true Anzac.
  2. One that produced a soft, cookie-like result. Close– very close – but no cigar.
  3. One that was alluringly close to my memory of a true Anzac, but which veered just a tad too close to an over-crisp result for complete authenticity.
  4. One that had the relative balance of oatmeal and coconut wrong.

So I plan to spend at least some of the holidays testing batches of Anzacs. If I discover perfection (and the true Anzac) along that delicious path, I’ll let you know. And if not? Well, I’ll just start all over again with date loaf recipes, say I smugly, secure in the secret knowledge that I already have the perfect date loaf recipe… Oh, OK, secret no longer, huh? But still perfect.

Appley dapply, or how do you like them apples?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Today I am not going to moan about the British summer, with more rain and floods and general gloom than ever before recorded, nor about the collapse of the western world’s economy. I’m not going to protest about the greedy deceitful banking crisis, described yesterday by the deputy governor of the Bank of England as a cesspit. Even today’s unseemly spectacle of the House of Commons shooting itself in its collective well-shod foot over reforms to the House of Lords is not my subject.

Oh no. This morning, I’m going to complain about apples.

I try to be a locavor, and I mostly succeed. This often means eating local fresh produce to excess when it’s available, which is generally no hardship, although I can’t extend that point very far because it will bring me straight back to this season’s sad effects of the first thing I said I wouldn’t moan about (see above). But honestly, who minds eating asparagus for six weeks straight? Or cherries? Who minds having broad beans on the menu every day, making room only for runner beans? Not I.

But here’s the thing. The UK apple season is generally well and truly finished by early May – which allows for apples which store well to still be available as well as pleasingly edible. And in my house at that stage, all eyes turn to the imminent shipment of Cox’s Orange apples from New Zealand. Cox’s Orange are, to my taste, the absolute king of apples: crisp, tart with just enough sweetness to develop on your tongue. They’re pretty, too, with their stripes and their translucent skins. I eat UK ones in season, natch, but these apples don’t store well over time so they’re not really a long-term viable option here.

And I have been trying to buy New Zealand Cox’s Orange apples. Believe me, I have been trying. Every supermarket, every greengrocer, within shouting distance. I’ve tried ‘em loose, I’ve tried ‘em in packs of four. I’ve tried sniffing them, weighing them in my hand, and holding them up to the light. But this year – for the first time ever – many of them are complete rubbish. Mealy. Brown at the core. Soft. Flavourless. And here’s the ultimate insult: you don’t know any of that until you bite into one. It’s enough to make you weep.

What has happened? Who will rid me of these unsatisfactory fruits and replace them with the genuine article?

Until that happens, I’m back on the Kentish cherries.

Loving things as long as you can

Friday, May 25th, 2012

In 1998 the great Adam Gopnik wrote a wonderful article in the New Yorker about his campaign to save his favourite Parisian restaurant, after a chain had bought it, and he feared it would be changed in ways he didn’t want to accept or tolerate. I can’t give you a link to the full article because the New Yorker has a pay wall, even for subscribers, but if you can access it some other way you should search for the edition of 3rd August 1998, and ‘Saving the Balzar’. Here’s the quote I want to talk about.

“… as I helped to organise the occupation I felt exhilarated, though I recognised in my exhilaration a certain hypocrisy. Like every American in France I had spent a fair amount of time being exasperated by the French because of their inability to accept change, their refusal to accept the inevitable logic of the market, and their tendency to blame Americans for everything. As I raged against the changes at the Balzar I began to hear people repeating to me the same tiresome and sensible logic that I had been preaching for so long myself: that nothing stays the same; that change must be welcomed; one must choose to live in the world as it is or live in a museum whose walls increasingly recede inward … It was all true, and when it came to the Balzar, I didn’t care.”

Mr Gopnik also reminds us that Jay Gatsby memorably said: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Americans are taught that Gatsby’s tragedy is rooted in that mistaken belief but Mr Gopnik argues that the idea isn’t absurd. We repeat the past every day, he points out: we build a life, or try to, of pleasures and duties that will become routine.

But this blog post isn’t so much about the shock of the new, as Robert Hughes characterised modern art, but more about the shock of the changed, of the ‘no never no more’. My particular recent sadness is the disappearance of my favourite stall at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. Yeah, go on, sneer if you will; accuse me of elitist whinging if you like. I’m still going to explain why I think it matters.

Sunnyfields has been the best stall at the market since it opened. There are other strong competitors: the fish man, the potato man, the goat milk woman, and in season, the flower stall that sells old-fashioned scented roses. But the range and quality of Sunnyfields’ organic produce has always been exceptional: fresh, delicious seasonal veggies that aren’t over-priced. The generous bunches of parsley last for weeks if you need them to; the beetroot tops are as crisp and lively as the roots, the young carrots drip with juice when you try to snap them in half. Later in the season Sunnyfields’ broad beans are among the best I’ve ever eaten, and as fresh as our own. We always start our weekly shopping at Sunnyfields and go on from there, happily and automatically repeating the past in Gatsby fashion.

Or rather, we always started at Sunnyfields until the other week, but now it’s no never no more, because Sunnyfields have stopped attending any of the London markets. They can’t sustain their presence in any sensible economic way any more – it’s become too expensive and time-consuming to drive there and back from their Hampshire operation, and it makes better sense for them to concentrate on farming and marketing their produce locally – especially in their own shop. (They’re also developing a partnership scheme, which is an interesting idea.) So if we ever want their produce again, we’ll have to drive to them – and in broad bean season, let me tell you, that might very well happen.

There were other distressed customers wandering the Marylebone car park the day that Sunnyfields disappeared, unhappy about the loss of such a resource. Organic producers of that range and quality are fast disappearing in the UK; the one that has replaced Sunnyfields seems to be the kind that gives organic farming a bad name. (Soft slightly mouldy onions that cost £1 for four when you wouldn’t want to be given one for nothing. That kind of thing, known to disappointed shoppers the world over.)

I miss the eastern European farm worker who most recently ran the stall at the market; I miss Ian Nelson and his son Tom, who used to do it together back in the day. Yeah yeah, things change. Change is good: you have to believe that; you have to learn to welcome it, even if – perhaps especially if – you didn’t want it in the first place. And as Adam Gopnik says at the end of his article you have to love things as long as you can. And I did. But it doesn’t stop me missing Andreas, and Ian and Tom, and that parsley.

Ten things to miss about Waiheke Island

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012


  1. The crisp top layer of sand on Onetangi beach and the way your feet sink through its slight resistance into the soft sand underneath. It reminds me of the sensation of biting into a genuine Italian semifreddo ice cream; it’s that kind of feeling – but on your feet instead of in your mouth. Sweet.
  2. The saltiness of seawater. I always forget about that because I spend most of my swimming life in indoor pools, but the sea is very salty in the nicest possible way.  Buoyant. Tangy.  Delightful.
  3. Watching the ever-changing patterns that wind and tide make across the surface of the sea. It produces mysterious and entirely transient layers and streaks of colour, from bright teal to soft silvery grey. I could watch moving water for hours at a time. And sometimes I almost do.
  4. The call of the tui  – Woodside Bay tui don’t imitate the sound of microwaves or car alarms, they only produce that characteristic liquid gurgle.  It’s lovely. They splash around in our birdbath in the late afternoon, too, which is even lovelier.
  5. Pukeko. I know: farmers hate them and they can be a general rural nuisance, but they have a firm place in my heart: the sheer absurdity of them. And oh! baby pukeko, all fluffy feathers and staggering on unreliable and uncontrolled long red legs.
  6. Kumera. Not any of the recent varieties, please – only the old fashioned purple kind that my Uncle Clive used to grow which are a taste and texture sensation. You can sometimes buy kumera at the shop under New Zealand House in London – the word goes out when a shipment arrives. But sometimes isn’t really enough.
  7. Hand-reared cattle in the field next to the house, all turning their heads in synchrony when they hear the farmer’s truck bumping down the track. They look like Wimbledon spectators.
  8. The view.
  9. The view.
  10. The view.

    Arrowtown: the Denis Glover version

    Saturday, December 17th, 2011

    Denis Glover

    Gold in the hills, gold in the rocks,
    Gold in the river gravel,
    Gold as yellow as Chinamen
    In the bottom of the shovel.

    Gold built the bank its sham facade;
    Behind that studded door
    Gold dribbled over the counter
    Into the cracks of the floor.

    Gold pollinated the whole town;
    But the golden bees are gone –
    Now round a country butcher’s shop
    The sullen blowflies drone.

    Now paved with common clay
    Are the roads of Arrowtown;
    And the silt of the river is grey
    In the golden sun.

    It was gratifying to discover this poem again, courtesy of the NZ National Library Service and Lizzie, who’s the librarian here in Arrowtown. I don’t think it’s one of Glover’s best –the Sings Harry sequence must be the top of his particular mountain of great work – but there are characteristically lovely images, even so: like the “golden bees” pollinating the town, and the gold dribbling over the counter at the bank.

    But I think the “yellow as Chinamen” is a curiously lazy image, and even for the times (I believe this was written in the early 1960s) oddly offensive for such an emotionally astute writer. And yes, I do know that the 1960s are a long way from Helen Clark’s 2003 apology for the anti-Chinese sentiments of earlier years (when she paid tribute to “the unique identity, history and strength of the original Chinese New Zealanders”) but weren’t we mostly beyond all that knee-jerk racist stuff back then? Or is that a false memory distorted by time and wishfulness?

    One pleasing update: I don’t know where the butcher’s shop was in the 1960s but I do know where the butcher and his family lived, because there’s an historical plaque on the building. And guess what? It’s now home to the excellent, award-winning Provisions shop and café – no blowflies there!

    Anyway, thank you National Library Service, and Lizzie, and Denis Glover.

    Who’s Sori now?

    Sunday, September 4th, 2011

    We are the happy owners of something we call the Yellow Book: its official name is Osteria d’Italia. It’s the best possible food guidebook for Italy and it’s helped us find delicious and comparatively simple meals in places we’d never have discovered by ourselves – a basement enoteca in Arezzo (an amazing layered onion soup); a few tables in the side room of a deli in Fiesole (fresh tortelli with a walnut sauce) and a taverna deep in the Umbrian countryside (the best chicken I’ve ever eaten and a fresh strawberry pannacotta that I still dream about).

    So when we drove down from the Fréjus Tunnel to have dinner with a friend in Siena we consulted the Yellow Book to find a simple but delicious lunch along the way. ‘Da Drin’ in Sori seemed a good choice and their special stuffed veggies sounded lovely. Yes, it was open for lunch on Fridays; no, it wasn’t too far from the motorway.

    Result? Well, not really. ‘Da Drin’ isn’t actually in Sori; it’s in a frazione of Sori that was very hard to find and we missed many turnings, even after asking for directions along the way. And I admit that my heart fell when we finally found the right road up to Capreno: the name should have given us a clue although I think even the most intrepid goat would blench at the camber and gradient. Still, we persisted – well, I say “we”; I mean Bruce did; by then I was in my award-winning state of unhelpfulness offering only high-anxiety comments like “aaaah, look out!” and “yikes, can this be right?” and “oh no!”. I freely admit that I would not like to be the driver with that going on beside me. Especially the bit that involves high-pitched shuddering gasps on hairpin bends.

    Well, we got to Capreno in one piece and clambered up more verticality to the trattoria, where they had just closed the kitchen, at 1.45pm. No, they couldn’t serve us any food, and yes, they were slightly sorry about that but not, it seems, quite sorry enough to whip up some pasta and a salad to reward us for our perseverance. So we lurched back down the impossible hill and got back on the motorway.

    But yesterday the Yellow Book came good again with a perfect trattoria in a little village close to our homeward road: ‘Da Gagliano’ in Sarteano.  I had this to start:

    grilled pecorino and  slice of prosciutto with fresh fig sauce. It was ottimo. So was everything else.

    So we’re not Sori.

    The end of the golden weather – not!

    Sunday, August 28th, 2011

    Our climbing beans have slowed down their remarkable production skills and the leaves on our squash vines are tinged with yellow. I’ve given up swimming at the Hampstead Heath Lido and have moved to the heated indoor pools in Kentish Town. Hot soup suddenly seems a sensible choice for lunch instead of salads, and last night I needed an extra layer on the bed.

    But we haven’t given up on summer – not yet – and so it’s time to chase the sun south for a few weeks. We’re heading off again next week, driving down through France to Italy and then into Umbria where this glorious organic farm awaits us in all its beauty, along with projected temperatures that make you gasp and stretch your eyes, and imagine that you remember how summers used to be exactly like this in the Good Old Days (yeah, right).

    Tomatoes. Figs. Plums. Peaches. Fresh mozzarella. Eggs from the farm’s hens, olive oil from their trees, and wine from their grapes. Salami made in the local salumeria. Breakfast on the front terrace watching the swifts and swallows gather on the power lines and have chirruping conversations about their coming journeys – I imagine them swapping route advice like the worst travel bores in the world.

    Swimming in a pleasingly warm but unheated pool.

    Walking up to Montegabbione in the late afternoon when everything’s turning pink and gold in the sun.

    Drinking prosecco bellinis on the back terrace in the evening and watching the sun set behind Monte Amiata.

    How wonderful is that?


    Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

    The runner beans! The climbing beans! Both of these have only just begun their great work, with months of pleasure yet to come, and although the broad beans have finished our early potatoes are still delighting us. Oh, the joys of a veggie garden. I have taken this largesse as licence to buy roses instead of vegetables in the farmers’ market which is inarguably a rather shocking indulgence, but the glorious rose scent distracts me from all but the slightest whiff of guilt.

    Look at the latest bunch!

    They look almost as beautiful as one of Fantin-Latour’s rose paintings.

    Next time I photograph one of my bunches of roses I’m going to add a pear to the arrangement. And are those nuts in the foreground, do you think?

    Beans, beans beans – and a poem

    Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

    Baked beans,
    Butter beans,
    Big fat lima beans,
    Long thin string beans –
    Those are just a few.

    Green beans,
    Black beans,
    Big fat kidney beans,
    Red hot chili beans,
    Jumping beans too.

    Last year I posted a photo of the first of our runner beans on 11 July; this year the first baby beans had begun to set by 25th June, although I only got around to taking their picture last Sunday. It’s not surprising that they’re earlier this year; we had such a warm and sunny spring.

    This year, rather by accident, we planted a whole lot of different climbers – Goliath and Painted Lady runner beans, and Zebra, Violetta and Neckargold climbing beans. The seeds were delightfully decorative and the flowers are wonderfully varied too – and now we can’t wait to see how the beans taste. We haven’t managed to keep track of which plant is which, though, so if one of the varieties is a star we won’t know what it is, other than delicious.

    Does anyone know who wrote the bean poem that I’ve quoted above? I can’t find an attribution for it – it’s one that’s often used with children in classrooms, especially when they’re growing, um, beans.