Triple ginger cake

Triple ginger cake

Last week, I made a batch of khobz for my friend Alex, who has started up a market stall. His operation (Kabak, named after a place he loves in Turkey) specialises in Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North Africa inspired foods and very fine they are too. In you’re in Lewes, look out for him Friday mornings at the market.

Coming home from helping Alex break-down the stall, I got to thinking about sweets inspired by similar cuisine. The classics are baklava and suchlike pastries, as well as cakes like the syrupy basbousa/revani. But I wanted to try something new, so reached for the cookbooks.

Arabesque* by Melbourne-based Greg and Lucy Malouf is subtitled “Modern Middle Eastern Food”, which is a good way of saying it’s not trying to be slavishly traditional or authentic. I’m not sure if his sticky ginger cake relates to any specific sweet the Middle East at all, but it’s a pleasing concoction that uses both powdered and fresh ginger. I like crystallised/candied ginger, so I added some of that too, hence the name.

Golden syrup

Golden age
It also uses golden syrup, arguably a quintessentially British ingredient and one I love, from a childhood of ginger biscuits and steamed syrup puddings.

It was invented in the late 19th century as a by-product of sugar refining. In Britain, we still mostly use the Lyle’s brand in the green and gold tin. The tin still bears an image of a (dead) lion and a swarm of bees, with the Biblical slogan “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, as it did when it was first marketed in 1885. (See Judges 14 for the full peculiar, gruesome yarn.)

Lyle’s golden syrup became a popular product in early 20th century Britain. This is in large part, I suspect, as with two world wars and food shortages it was a cheaper, more available alternative to refined sugar and a sweeter, less bitter alternative to molasses and black treacle.

So golden syrup isn’t a terribly Middle Eastern ingredient, but I suspect Greg Malouf uses it as a way of emulating or echoing the stickiness many more traditional sweets from that area achieve with a syrup poured on after baking.

220g golden syrup
170g sour cream, or yogurt (I used a half-half mix of double cream and yogurt)
2 eggs
100g soft brown sugar
About 50mm of fresh ginger, finely grated
80g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
Zest of one lemon
280g unsalted butter
130g plain (all-purpose) flour
130g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp powdered ginger

1. Grease and base line a 20cm tin, ideally spring-form.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Warm together the butter and golden syrup until the former is melted then beat this with the cream or yogurt, sugar, eggs, grated ginger, crystallised ginger and lemon zest.
4. Sieve together the flours, baking powder and powdered ginger then sieve again, into the mix, and fold to combine. Try to mix in any lumps of flour but don’t beat it.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about minutes. Test to see if it’s baked with a skewer – does it come out clean? If not, return to the oven for a bit longer. If it’s starting to get too brown on top, cover with foil.
6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin, then turn onto a rack to continue cooling.

Arabesque suggests serving it with what they call ginger cream – which is really a ginger custard. It doesn’t look that appetizing in the pic, but – it’s custard! With ginger!

About 30mm section of fresh ginger, finely grated
150g double cream
1/2 tsp powdered ginger
40g soft brown sugar
2 egg yolks

1. Whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar.
2. Warm up the cream and gingers in a saucepan, and heat to scald – ie just as bubbles appear, but don’t boil.
3. Pour the cream over the egg and sugar mix, whisking.
4. Put the mixture back in the pan and continue whisking, over a low heat, until it thickens.
5. Put in a clean bowl and allow to cool.
6. When ready to serve, whisk (or indeed whip) to increase the volume a bit.

Serve with the custard. It’s also very nice with clotted cream. But then everything is.

Anyway, this was good, but when it comes to Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern-inspired baking and sweets, what I really need on my bookshelf is the new The Baking Book from Honey and Co. Hopefully it will be there soon.

 

 

* Not to be confused with Claudia Roden’s book with the same title and similar theme.

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Sardinian holiday – dinners and despair

Fishing boats and Il Ghiottone (centre rear), La Maddalena

Talking about the evening meals we had on our holiday in La Maddalena, Sardinia, probably isn’t quite in the bread, cakes, ale purview, but it connects with something that troubles me deeply. And, well, we did eat bread. There’s always bread with Italian meals.

Whenever we go to Italy, I despair somewhat getting home and looking at our eating scene here in England. Now, I’m in small-town England, but it is a fairly affluent small town, not far from London – yet even here it’s hard to eat well at a reasonable price.

I’m not suggesting that Italy doesn’t have bad food. There are plenty of terrible restaurants in Rome, plenty of junk ready meals in the supermarket, plenty of engagement with the pervasive corporate-industrial food complex. But on our trip to Sardinia we were able to stay in a small town and still find places serving real food, made with fresh, local ingredients, at a reasonable price.

Geezers outside Il Ghiottone

The big gourmand
We had a few average meals in Sardinia, but we also had three excellent ones, two in the same place. This was Il Ghiottone, a tiny bunker of a restaurant with just 15 seats, on Via Guglielmo Oberdan, the quayside. You almost certainly have to book.

The name, I believe, means the “The big gourmand”, and it’s definitely a place for people who enjoy food – real food. The main emphasis, understandably, is on seafood. The restaurant faces the harbour, and Giorgio the co-owner with chef Paola, even offered to point out the fishing boat that supplied them, a small vessel moored about 10 metres away from where we were eating.

Giving thanks to the gods of food

The first time we stuck with antipasti (starters) and secondi (main, “meat”, courses), the second time we went for the primi (pasta or stodge courses – Italians generally don’t like their meat and potatoes on the same plate). We had a brilliant mixed seafood starter, the highlight of which was probably mussels served with a small amount of pickled or macerated red onion on top. Now, normally, we both dislike mussels, but these were great. I also had paranza – deep-friend whole small-medium fish. The sort of fish that in many places (eg here) would be by-catch, thrown back into the sea dead. It was great. The tails were the best bit.

The second visit we had their pasta. They called it manccaroni, a word that’s presumably avariation on macaroni. To most Anglophones, this just refers to small tubular pasta shapes used for macaroni cheese (aka mac ’n’ cheese). I’m not going to go there with the etymology of the word (see Wikipedia if you’re interested), but historically it was used more generally for various pasta shapes. In the essential book on Italian food history Delizia, John Dickie says, “Maccheroni, spelled in a variety of ways, was the most popular medieval pasta term.” In this case the freah, pasta was in little ear shapes – orechiette. These were freshly made and served with mixed seafood. It was stupendous. I want more right now. I’m suffering as that’s not possible. The crappy phone photo doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.

Il Ghiottone pasta

We also tried our first seadas at Il Ghiottone. I’d not encountered this Sardinian dessert pastry fritter, or fried sweet pasta, before. It’s a palm-sized concoction, with a crimped edge, citrusy cheese filling and honey drizzle. It’s good. Not sure I could eat it every day, but I’d definitely eat it again. In fact, I did, a few days later at an otherwise very inferior meal in Olbia.

Looking up seadas now, many recipes use “pecorino” for the filling, but this is such a broad family of sheep milk cheeses – not just the salty parmesan equivalent you get here. I asked Giorgio about the cheese and he said “vaccina” – cow’s milk cheese, more specifically a young, unsalted curd type cheese. I had this corroborated later on an ingredients list on a packet in the surprisingly good airport shop – cagliata vaccina, cow’s milk curd cheese. I’ll have to scratch my head about sourcing that before I try making it at home.

Seadas

The pleasure of these meals was completed by being given a digestivo on both occasions – firstly mirto, then what Giorgio called “acqua sarda” – literally “Sardinian water”, but used in the same sense as eau de vie, the potent French “water of life”, or the Latin aqua vitae. Serious xenomorph blood, like grappa. Yowza.

Street barbeque
The other great meal we had was just round the corner. We’d walked past Da Ninì, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, several times and I’d been intrigued. I was particularly drawn by the brief whiff of a menu – a few scribblings on a board on the roadside, another on the frontage.

A small menu is generally a very good sign. A long, long menu can be the exact opposite – indicating no consideration, no variation and a dubious relationship with the industrialised food chain. With the implications of the latter a prioritising of cheap-as-possible over quality or seasonality.

Basically they were just serving fish, caught a few miles away, unloaded down the road, and cooked on barbeque set up on the road-side. The best seafood I’ve eaten in my life has had this sort of immediacy – mackerel we caught ourselves in Devon as kids; prawns in a Hong Kong night market that we alive moments before; the first tuna steak I ever ate in Bali; mussels straight from the rocks in New Zealand. OK, maybe not the latter. We weren’t experts and, well, see above.

Barbeque and Fran at Nini'

We had orata (bream; Sparus aurata) and spigola (seabass; Dicentrarchus labrax).* They had a salt crust and, well, that’s it. Fresh, simple, delicious. We also had some large prawns, which I doubt were local or sustainable. They’re among my fave foods, but I try not to eat prawns too much as they’re probably the most environmentally problematic seafood. Never mind the recent reports of slavery in the trade. I wish I’d asked, but it’s done now.**

These three meals were all excellent and frankly the ethical issue of a few prawns at Ninì is arguably minor in comparison to the ethical issues related to the large scale industrial food supply chain that most British restaurants and pubs engage with. I was about to rant about this issue more here, but I don’t want to sully my holiday memories, so I’ll save it for a later post.

* If you’re on holiday in Italy and want to know what fish you’re eating, check out my list here.
** I won’t go into my attitudes to seafood here. I’ve done that before: here.

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Sardinian holiday – snacks and sweets

Picnic with durum roll

Considering we only had about five days on this holiday, we did manage to do a pretty impressive amount of eating, drinking, sampling and culinary exploration.

I didn’t really know what to expect food-wise of not just Sardinia, which is culturally distinct from the mainland regions of Italy, but also the small port town of La Maddalena, on the island of the same name, off the northeast coast. But as I was very gratified to find some Sardinian craft beers, I was also very pleased to encounter some snacks and treats I’d never even heard of before.

La Maddalena is a town of about 20,000 people, yet it had at least half a dozen bakeries and pasticcierie. Compare that to a British town of a similar size – it might have one dreadful chain bakery stinking of powdered cheese and onion mix, and perhaps a fake bakery (where pre-made dough is simply baked off) inside a supermarket.

Needing picnics for our days at the beach, we went to the small market and stocked up on local salami and pecorino Sardo (various local variations on sheep’s milk cheese) then bought breads and biscuits from a bakery on Via Vittorio Emanuele, down by the port. Called La Panetteria del Porto. (Love the Street View here, with a dog wandering around in the middle of the road.)

Biscuits

It was a small, gloomy bakery with a padrona who seemed determined to sell us more than we asked for or needed. But hey, I’m a glutton for baked goods, so was an easy mark. There was a display cabinet packed with biscuits, sold by weight, and breads in niches against the back wall. We bought rolls – notably yellowy ones made with grano duro (durum wheat, semolina) and dark, grainy ones she simply called pane nero (black bread). Our picnics, tweaked slightly every day, were completed by Sardinian-grown melon.

Acciuleddi

From the biscuits, I chose the twisty ones – unfamiliar looking, unfamiliar sounding. These were acciuleddi – a word with that distinctive “dd”, which seems to be not just Sardinian, but even specifically gallurese, a language spoken in the north of Sardinia and the south of Corsica. Eating them, I discovered they’re not unlike frappe, the deep-fried sweet pasta I gorge on during Carnevale in Rome, but with the added bonus of being drizzled in honey. I will make some at home at some stage, as there are recipes available.

Ficareddi in window

Another biscuit-type treat we bought from another bakery, doesn’t seem to have any online traces. So it may not just be specific to this part of Sardinia, it may be a speciality of this one pasticceria, Abat Jour on the pedestrian-only Via Giuseppe Garibaldi. These were ficareddi – a kind of figgy macaron concoction with a peaked form. They’re made with ground almonds and liquore di mirto, the quintessential Sardinian digestivo made from the berries of common myrtle (Myrtus communis), a shrub we’d passed regularly on our walks in the macchia scrub.

Ficareddu bite

We also bought some bastone di cardinale (“cardinal’s staff” or “cardinal’s stick”), a kind of sweet salami made with dried and candied fruits and nuts. It’s a gift for our friend who looked after our cats and tomatoes so the padrona wrapped it up beautifully. Again – compare this with the experience you’d have in your local Greggs. It makes me weep for our impoverished food culture and culinary self-respect here in England.

Bastone di cardinale

The morning we were catching the ferry back to the mainland, we thought we’d better get a snack for the journey, so went to Paposceria L’ Isola che non c’é on Piazza XXIII Febbraio. No, I’d not heard of a paposceria either, and I get the impression I’m not the only one as they have a big sign outside explaining the meaning of the word paposcia. Basically, they’re another variation on the theme of snack flatbreads, related to pizza. The paposcia was the piece of dough used to test if a wood-fired oven was hot enough to start baking the bread. If the oven was ready, the paposcia would rise and bake well. “Per non sprecare nulla” – to not waste anything – it was then used to make a sandwich.

Paposcia

It’s not specifically Sardo, but neither is it something I’d ever encountered in Rome. Indeed, I’m not even sure where the word paposcia is from, possibly Puglia or Naples. It may well be a dialect version of babbuccia (babouche in French) and, like ciabatta, also means slipper, for obvious reasons.

It was only 11am when we went in, and L’isola che non c’é (“the island that isn’t”) was pretty quiet, but the guys were friendly and the mozzarella and tomato toasty served us well, sitting on deck in the sunshine as we made the short crossing back to Palau on mainland Sardinia.

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Sardinian holiday – sun, scrub and craft beer

A beach on Isola Caprera, Sardinia. Pic: Fran Hortop

Last week we went to Sardinia for a holiday. During our two years in Rome we tried to explore Italy, but it’s a disparate, varied and not always easily connected country so we left with a long list of places we’d failed to reach. Sardinia was high on that list.

Our friend Annely recommended Maddalena archipelago in northeastern Sardinia. We plumped for it without too much agonising as it seemed to fit the bill for us – beach, some wilds, and a fairly easy journey.

The islands have a long historical association with the Italian navy, and even NATO (a US nuclear sub ran aground there in 2003; oops). There is still a navy presence there, but mostly the archipelago is defined by being a national park, and a destination for people who like to play about in boats. We don’t do the latter – instead we stuck with buses and hiking on Caprera, a largely unpopulated island to the east of La Maddalena island itself. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great unifier, had a house there, and indeed we saw his deathbed on a tour. I was more interested in seeing his windmill and forno (oven), both perched on a rocky hilltop.

Garibaldi's forno (under tree on right) and mill (left,without sails)

Pleasant surprises
After our days wandering the scrubby, aromatic macchia*, with its thickets of wild lavender, helichrysum, juniper, myrtle and cork oak and lying around reading by turquoise seas, we went back to La Maddalena port. There, we were very happy to find that one bar had beers from a couple of Sardinian craft breweries. Funny really, as this place – Bar Fiume di Serra Francesco – looked very ordinary but had the interesting beers, while a hip bar a stone’s throw away just had industrial crap beer.

One of these is Ichnusa – a lager that pertains to be Sardinian, and brewed since 1912. Thing is, these days it’s owned by Heineken, and I’d challenge anyone to really distinguish between the two, or a dozen other best-selling industrial lagers, in a blind tasting.

Macchia scrub on Isola Caprera. Pic: Fran Hortop

Real Sardo beer
The real beers we tried were from Marduk Brewery and P3 Brewing Company. All the ones we tried were excellent, and a great reminder of how exciting Italian craft beer is.

I’m enjoying being back in Britain, and having access to our dual cultures of traditional, CAMRA-endorsed, cask-dispensed real ale and lively US-influenced craft beer, but I really miss Italian craft beer. It’s such a dynamic scene, partly influenced by Italy’s food and drink great traditions, partly free of them and able to be experimental.

I love how I can drink something like P3’s 50 Nodi (“50 knots”) and not only get a whiff of the heady juniper macchia we’ve just been walking in but also get a whole long trail of heritage. It’s an Italian beer that’s called an India Pale Ale, but really it’s an IPA in part inspired by US IPAs, which have themselves evolved from the less intense older British IPAs.

The spiel on these beers is such fun too. This one says it has “high notes of caramel and intense floral, citrus and exotic fruit perfumes”. Me and Fran got pineapple and Parma Violets, among other things. Furthermore, “Il suo carattere forte deriva da una miscela di luppoli inglesi, americani e neozelandesi che vi accompagneranno in un viaggio sensoriale ineguagliabile” – “It’s strong character derives from a mix of English, America and New Zealand hops that accompany you on an incomparable sensory voyage”! Love it. (Those hops are Simcoe, Pacific Jade, Citra, Goldings.)

P3 Riff and Marduk American Pale Ale

We also enjoyed P3’s Riff, which they call a “Session White IPA” and, along with two (barley) malts also contains wheat malt, wheat flakes and oat flakes, along with four hops of US and English origin: Fuggle, Styrian Golding, Willamette and Citra. And coriander. And orange zest. All of which makes its presence felt, but in a neatly balanced mix.

Grow your own
While P3 is in Sassari, Sardinia’s second-largest city, located in the northwest, Marduk, meanwhile, is in Irgoli, in the east. Their tagline says they’re a Birrificio agricolo – a farm-brewery, or words to that effect. Another blurb in Il Fiume’s menu about Marduk says, “Le nostre birre nascono da un’accurata selezione delle materie prime che produciamo direttamente in azienda” – that is, “Our beers are born from a careful selection of ingredients produced directly within the farm/business.”

Marduk label

They grow their own barley and “diverse varietà di luppolo” (“various types of hop”) to maintain a close control on the process – and food miles. I mean, we were about 60 miles (92km) away but it was the closest craft brewery. We tried their American Pale Ale and American IPA, which were both great, though surely an APA segues into an AIPA? And surely these are uniquely Italian pale ales now anyway?

My local brewery here in Lewes, Harveys, similarly sources its ingredients locally, but this is something fairly new in Italian brewing, as hops weren’t grown there. When we left La Maddalena we had one night in Olbia, and found a bar that claimed online to sell local craft beers. They didn’t, but they did have a bottle of Nazionale from Baladin.

Baladin is the brewery that both started the Italian craft brewing scene, and the owner of the bar in Rome that introduced me to it, so it was nice to have a Nazionale – which Baladin developed to be the “first 100% Italian beer made with Italian ingredients.”

Marduk American IPA aperitivo snack

So all in all, very pleasing beer drinking on holiday. Even more so as we were back in the land of the aperitivo snack. Now back in England, we went out for a few drinks for Fran’s birthday yesterday at the Brighton Beer Dispensary and while the beers were great, the table did seem a bit bare without a plate of cheeses, salumi and breads. While Fran loved the cured meat products, I enjoyed the local Sardinian crispbread, pane carasau, sprinkled with Sardinian pecorino and melted. So civilised.

 

 

 

* In English, we use the related French word maquis for this kind of scrub. Not much point us having a word for it I suppose, as we don’t have any – it’s specifically a Mediterranean environment.

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Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and palaeo-romanticism

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri is one of those grand, sweeping books that skips deftly between disciplines and gets you thinking in equal measure. Its title may recall Hawking’s Brief History of Time but a more salient comparison might be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, Steel.

The book is subtitled ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, but it’s Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution that really interests me – not unsurprisingly given my interest in grain-based foods.

In my Anglo-centric education, the term “The Agricultural Revolution” was used to refer to the changes in British farming in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Harari is looking at a much bigger picture though: the Neolithic (new stone age) Agricultural Revolution. The period when Homo sapiens made the transition from hunter gatherers, foragers, to cultivators, agriculturalists.

The received wisdom is that learning to farm freed up humanity from the dirty primitivism of the forager lifestyle. Harari, thrillingly, turns this on its head. It wasn’t a liberation, he posits, but an enslavement. Most specifically an enslavement to Triticum, the wheat genus. This includes that dietary bogeyman modern wheat, as well durum and their forebears spelt, emmer and einkorn.

“Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity,” he writes. “They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced even more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.”

“That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time… Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. … The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Not being an accomplished archaeo-anthropologist, I can’t contest this. It’s certainly a compelling theory.

Feeding humanity
Humans – the whole Homo genus – had been hunter gatherers for about 2.5 million years. Then, around 12,000 years ago, it all changed: “The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.” Wheat and goats came first, around 9000BC, then peas and lentils, then olive trees, horses and by around 3500BC, grapevines.

“Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity [my italics] come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500BC – wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley”. For all our culinary flamboyance and seeming diversity today, he writes that “If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.”

Unnatural selection
If you think of living things as repositories of DNA, which they are designed to simply pass on as much as possible, then Triticum, other food grains and farmed animals, have overcome the literal process of natural selection and been given huge, unnatural leg-ups by modern humans.

In a nice little exercise Hariri says, “Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria… wheat has become one of the most successful plans in the history of the earth…. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?”

No turning back
How indeed? Well, by the aforementioned enslavement. “Wheat did it by manipulating Home sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering… but then began to invest more and more effort into cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn till dusk.”

Homo sapiens shifted from a wandering lifestyle and an omnivorous diet to a hard-working settled lifestyle and a grain-based diet. “By 8500BC, the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species,” he says. “The average person in Jericho of 8500BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500BC of 13,000 BC.”

We may have invented writing (in Sumeria and Egypt by around 2500BC, China by 1200BC, Central America 1000-500BC) and culture, but, he suggests, Homo sapiens has been trapped ever since, with the escalation of commitments of the early agriculturalists still echoed today in the habit of needing to work more to earn more to afford more.

It’s fascinating, but the theory does seem to have a certain inherent palaeo-romanticism. Indeed, many people who feel stressed or adrift or lost in the rush that is modern life, the idea of sitting around chatting with your tribe, spending a few hours foraging, then sitting around some more, before moving on to a new spot where you’ve previously had good fortune with the foodstuffs is potentially appealing. I certainly do, despite my love of grain-based foods.

Thing is, we’re somewhat committed now.

Palaeo-schmalaeo
Arguably people today do indeed try to act out palaeo-romantic fantasies, notably with the so-called “paleo diet”. It really bugs me. I’m sorry, but Stone Age man didn’t have a shopping bag filled with chia berries, and lemons, and avocado, and beef, quinoa and kaniwa, stevia powder and fresh tomatoes. All that stuff’s from different continents and different seasons and, indeed, mostly wasn’t even available as a foodstuff yet in the Stone Age. He would have had a load of starchy roots one day, stripped a tree of fruit another, ground up some wild grains another, then maybe had a pig-out on mammoth or giant elk or a giant flightless bird, depending on where he lived, the season, knowledge and luck.

Am I being too literal? Yes. But gah, food faddism drives me mad, especially so in the paleo case as it’s so much the product of a pampered, wealthy, western culture. Sure, I agree wholehearted that one should avoid industrially processed foods and artificial sweeteners and beef from drug-pumped cattle standing in their own faeces in concentrated feed lots. But really – what happens when all 7.3 billion (World population clock) of us want to live on beef and seafood and year-round avocado? A serious acceleration of the environment crisis, that’s what, as such diets are heavily predicated on an inefficient oil economy.

We could not feed humanity without staples: grains and legumes. There’s still a place for whole grains and legumes – the staples of the Agricultural Revolution – in a balanced, realistic, healthy, minimally industrial diet.

That said, if we do destroy our own civilisation with greed and overconsumption, maybe Homo sapiens will be able to go back to being hunter-gatherers after all (if if we survive at all). Something for your grand-children to look forward to perhaps?

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Galettes aux vin blanc with Tom Hunt’s strawberry ice cream

Galettes aux vin blanc with strawberry ice cream

Me and Fran got married at this time of year, six years ago. June is the height of strawberry season in England, and three days before our wedding we got nicely sun-burned at a pick-your-own. It was 26C and beautiful. Three days later it was 8C and raining. And our skins matched the strawberries in the huge bowls of Eton mess made by my mother, Helen.*

This June is shaping up pretty similarly. Summer one day, winter the next. But the strawberries are still good. I got a big tray at reduced price the other day. That same week, the Guardian’s Saturday Cook section featured recipes from Tom Hunt. Tom, who I met at Rachel’s book launch last week, is the chef, founder of Poco restaurant in Bristol and author of Guardian The Natural Cook. His ethos is one of combating waste and encouraging sustainability and seasonality. Hence the strawberries recipes right now.

There was a fruit and veg stall in the precinct the other day and their strawberries were imported from Holland. Why? Are there none from Sussex or the southeast of England? Does it really economic sense to ship them across the channel? Possibly with our skewy economics, but it doesn’t seem to make environmental sense.

Fellow Brits – enjoy British strawberries why you can! The more local the better. Then enjoy them again next year, when they’ll taste even better for being a seasonal treat.

Or make big batches of ice cream and preserves to spin out the pleasure.

Tom’s ice cream recipe is wonderfully simple: strawberries, macerated and quickly boiled with some sugar, whipped cream, some mascarpone. Best of all, it doesn’t call for an ice cream maker. I know you can make most ice creams by hand-churning, without a machine, but it always puts me off when the recipe stipulates a machine, one piece of kitchen kit I don’t have.

I served it with a puree made from some of the other strawberries, which I macerated in some blackberry gin made by our friend Becky in 2010, and with galettes aux vin blanc. These could be called “white wine biscuits” and are another recipe from the 2011 edition of The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot, which I talked about in the previous post.

The galettes are not unlike a type of shortbread, -ish, and as strawberries and shortbread are a classic combo, it seemed to make sense. (In all honesty they’re not as delicates and short as shortbread; they’ve got more body.) I also had some white plonk that needed using up.

200g plain (all-purpose) flour
100g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of fine sea salt
45g white wine (3 tbsp)
1 egg yolk, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 200C and grease a couple of baking sheets.
2. Put the flour in a roomy bowl.
3. Stir in the sugar and salt, pour in the wine then add the butter, cut into small pieces.
4. Get your hands in there and squidge it all together to form a dough.
5. Lightly flour the work surface and turn out the dough. Knead lightly to homogenize but don’t over-work it.
6. Roll out the dough to 5mm thick.

Cutting galettes aux vin blanc
7. Cut circles with a round pastry cutter. One with a diameter of about 5cm (2″) is good.
8. Put on the baking sheets, brush with beaten egg yolk to glaze and bake for about 15 minutes until nicely golden.
9. Allow to cool.

Galettes aux vin blanc with strawberry ice cream

Serve with strawberry ice cream. I’m not sure this is how the French would eat galettes aux vin blanc. They would probably add some actual wine consumption to the mix – quite possibly a dessert wine. French-speaking Francophile Fran can give me no further information on this issue. Any French who read this, please do let me know.

 

 

* We were a little burned, but not really strawberry coloured. That was a joke. I’m lucky as I’m fairly dark skinned for an Anglo-Saxon-British mongrel, Fran not so much. Kids – don’t forget that sun-block, especially if you’re fair-skinned.

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Reminiscences and butter biscuits

Petits beurres biscuits

I’ve just spent a great long weekend with Rachel Roddy, helping out with the food for the party celebrating the launch of her book, Five Quarters, catching up with Rome friends and meeting lots of interesting new people.

Given the theme of Rachel’s book and the fact that we met there, inevitably Rome was a big topic of conversation at the party. There’s a lot I’m missing about Rome. We know why we moved back in December 2013 – to try and adopt. But that doesn’t mean I’m not pining for certain things, especially food-related things: a six-days-a-week food (etc) market on the next block; a great gelateria two blocks away on our street; restaurants and cafés where you can get good food and drink for a sensible price (a fairly elusive concept in much of England); checking out the latest birra artigianale; going to the Città dell altra Economia in Testaccio to meet friends and buy huge, affordable chunks of local cheese on a Sunday. I could go on, but I won’t.

As I said in my post about Rachel’s book, I have to avoid the rose-coloured specs. But it’s hard, especially now while we’re at a difficult stage in the adoption process. We’ve been approved, but there don’t seem to be any children that are a suitable match for us. It’s a form of limbo – and as such all too conducive to drifting memories, reminiscing.

So much in our life now re-connects us to Rome. Even all the recipes I’m currently trying from The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot. My sister – another Rachel – gave me this book just as we moved to Rome in August 2011 and in my mind’s eye I can still see it sitting on the shelf in our kitchen there, alongside a few I’d brought with me – Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, Bertinet’s Dough – and some we acquired there – The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita, La Cucina di Roma e del Lazio (ie the same title) by di Marco and Ferré, Cucina Romana by Sara Manuelli, er, Cooking Apicius by Sally Grainger etc.

The Mathiot was a newly published Phaidon edition of the 1938 book Je sais faire la pâtisserie (“I know how to make patisserie”), translated and adapted by Clotilde Dusoulier. The book provides, in Dusoulier’s words, “the elemental components of French baking”: pastries, biscuits, cakes and puddings.

I used it a bit, but in all honestly I didn’t embrace it at the time. Why? Well – because Rome was all around us and I was somewhat distracted by all the pasticcerie (patisseries), biscotterie (biscuit bakeries), forni and panifici (bread or general bakeries) had to offer. I ate, I found favourites, I learned to make them at home. I got a bit obsessed with Italian baked goods. We have French-style patisseries in England, but Italian ones are considerably less common, so there was a lot to learn. (And still is1.)

I’m enjoying the Mathiot a lot now. I used it during my puff pastry experiments back in January, and I’ve been trying a lot of the biscuit and galette2; recipes, and musing over the brioche recipes. All eight of them. Eight. Rachel’s been talking about brioche too – they’re a common product in Sicily and Naples – so I plan to test them all, as well as the others in my cookbook collection. In the meantime, however, some biscuits.

Twice the fat, twice the pleasure
If Italian food is synonymous with olive oil3, French food is synonymous with butter. Petits beurres4 – for those who don’t have spectacular school French like mine – simply means “little butters”, or little butter biscuits. But not only do they have a good proportion of butter, they have the same proportion of double cream too. The result is a rich, light, crumbly biscuit. I make mine with a small, rectangular cutter that’s 40x75mm, so each one is a perfect size for a couple of bites.

I love this cutter. The result is not unlike the famous French industrial biscuit the “Petit Beurre LU” or “Véritable Petit Beurre” from Lefèvre-Utile. There isn’t much about it online in English, but French Wikipedia gives the story. It says the 1886 recipe by Louis Lefèvre-Utile was originally inspirant des productions anglaises de l’époque. “It was inspired by English products of the era”. That’s not something you hear the French admit very often. It’s also officially 65x54mm so slightly different proportions to mine.

These petits beurre are – unsurprisingly – considerably richer than the LU factory version, which doesn’t have half as much butter and no cream, instead being made with milk powder. Bugger that. Butter + cream = pleasure. As many chefs will tell you: “fat is flavour”. It’s something I heard often from Chris Behr, chef at the American Academy in Rome, when I did an internship there.

100g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
50g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g double cream

1. Put the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
2. Add the sugar and salt and combine.

Petits beurres - add the creamPetits beurres - form a dough

4. Pour in the cream then combine to form a dough, working it by hand. Work it enough to clear and form a smooth dough. Don’t overwork it. It’s basically a rich, sweet pastry paste, without raising agents, and overworking it can toughen it up.
5. Form a ball, squash it into a disk, wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for least half an hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 180C and grease your baking sheets.
7. Dust the work surface with flour then roll out the dough to about 5mm.

Petits beurres - cutting out

8. Cut out rectangles. If you don’t have a rectangular cutter you’ll have to do it by hand.
9. Place the biscuits on the sheets and prick them in diagonal pattern with a fork.
10. Bake for 15-20 minutes until starting to turn golden.
11. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. I got 24 from this batch, but it depends on how big you cut them.

Enjoy. With a cup of tea or even alongside a nice strawberry dessert – as they’re in season here in England now. You should always seize British produce seasons as they’re not half so long as those in Italy. Damn it, there’s me reminiscing again!

Petits beurres

Notes
1 Italy, as you probably know, is a country of regions with strong local, cultural and culinary identities. Each region has dozens of food specialities, even when it comes to baked goods, breads and pastries etc. My two years in Italy were just a start really. It would be a lifelong project to learn them all.
2 Galette is a French word that doesn’t have an immediate equivalent in English. Sometimes it refers to something we’d translate as a pancake (eg Breton buckwheat pancakes), other times things we’d call a pastry, and others it’s more like a cookie. I looked at the etymology over in my post about galette des rois.
3 Despite that being a more historically southern Italian thing, with strutto – lard – arguably a more common fat in the mountains and the north.
4 Should they be called petits beurres or petits-beurre? They can’t seem to agree on the agreement. The English is just petit beurre biscuits.

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Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters

Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters

In the front porch this morning were a couple of bills, a wedding anniversary card and a large padded envelope. The card was nice, but it was latter that really got me excited. It contained a copy of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy, a must-have food book published today by Saltyard Books.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know Fran and I lived in Rome for a few years, moving there in August 2011. Recently, as we’ve struggled with the adoption process and a cold English spring, it’s been tempting to reminisce about Rome – the sunshine, the food,  friends, the fascinating city itself. But I have to keep reminding myself to not don the rose-coloured spectacles. Our first year in Rome was hard. Fran’s job was challenging, I was floundering around on various writing projects, I didn’t speak Italian, I missed my own house, I didn’t know what I was doing there, we felt a long way from friends and family. And it took five flippin’ months to connect the internet in the mausoleum-like Roman flat we were renting.

A marked improvement to our lives in Rome came one day in Autumn 2012, while me and Fran were walking through Testaccio. We had stopped to use an ATM when an English voice mentioned that it was dodgy, and recommended we use the other one across the piazza. We mumbled some very English thanks while a tall woman with a small child strapped to her chest strode away. Something passed between me and Fran along the lines of “she looked cool, let’s say hello.” Fran says we stalked her, I like to think we just overcame our English reserve.

This was Rachel Roddy. We became friends outside Volpetti on the corner of Via Alessandro Volta and Via Marmorata in what, we would learn, was the heart of Rachel’s turf. She was even living on Via Marmorata at the time, and took us to her local cafe, Barberini. It was a friendly and gracious gesture and the start of a new stage of our life in Rome.

We made other friends, but I particularly clicked with Rachel, which was such a relief after a fairly lonely year. We had things in common – we’d left London for difficult or sad reasons and ended up in Rome; we both had family from the north of England but had grown up in the south; both had a speedy way of conversing; and – of course – both had an obsession with food. I was blogging at the time, a bit about my baking, a bit about my general experiences of living in Rome, but it was Rachel, with her successful Rachel Eats blog, who encouraged me to start a new blog, focussed on the baking and beer. This blog in fact, which I launched in November 2012.

Over the months until we left Rome in October 2013, we saw a lot of Rachel, hanging out a lot at Tram Depot, just over the road from Volpetti and a perfect place to rendezvous on warm evenings, with Fran getting off the train home from work at nearby Ostiense station. Rachel became a great friend. She helped us get to know Rome, empathised as we slogged through our attempting-to-start-a-family saga. She encouraged me to try for the internship in the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, I gave her the occasional baking lesson and raved at her about my latest favourite birra artigianale (“artisan beer”). We got to know her boyfriend Vincenzo, and watched the half-Roman Luca grow out of his baby-sling and start running around the piazze and mercato. And Rachel told us about her book deal, which we discussed enthusiastically as she poured energy into what would become Five Quarters.

Hand modelling

It’s been an exciting process, and I’ve been thrilled to be involved as a sounding board, occasional recipe tester and even, at one thrilling point in June 2014 (I believe), a hand model. Vincenzo’s hands appear fairly often in the book but those are mine on p358 holding a bowl of dough, and my wrist on p357, with a young Luca looking upwards with a mischievous sense of anticipation about the tray of proving maritozzi. These are Rome’s sweet breakfast rolls, which I blogged about here; Rachel includes a version of the recipe in Five Quarters. She also uses a version of my recipe for frappe, deep-fried sweet pasta treats eaten for Carnevale.

Although I read various bits and pieces of the book while Rachel was writing it, tried some of the recipes and talked about the progress, frequently via Skype, it’s a great to be holding the finished book. Blogs are all well and good, but a book, especially a handsomely bound book full of great photos and inviting text, is deeply pleasing.

I struggle with a lot of recipe books – they’re just recipes, and perhaps a photo of the dish, overly styled and not looking terribly like something you’d produce from your humble home kitchen. The recipes are often so lacking in context. Five Quarters, on the other hand, is a book all about context. It’s about the Testaccio quartiere, and Rachel connecting with that quarter. It’s about food, and Rachel learning about it, exploring it, interpreting it. It’s about real food, made in a real kitchen – and photographed in that kitchen. Rachel’s kitchen is nothing fancy, it’s small and modestly appointed; it’s not some fancy professional kitchen or cookery studio with disingenuous props. As such, it’s a built-in reassurance that you too can make these dishes, you too can learn about Roman food.

She covers a broad sweep of Roman food, so much of the things I crave now while living in small-town England. From the joys of the deep-fried antipasti, to the reassurance of the classic pulse-and-pasta dishes than span the gap between soup and stew, to vegetables and dolci (my area of obsession, obviously).

The book may also introduce readers to the food of Testaccio, which gives the book its name: the quinto quarto, “fifth quarter” – the meat and the offal dishes developed by the workers in the local slaughterhouse (used c1890-1975). Rachel doesn’t get too hardcore here, as such dishes are a far cry from the so-called Mediterranean diet people might expect of all Italian food (it’s an abiding misconception). But they do connect nicely not just with the nose-to-tail eating ethos, and also, as Rachel points out, with many traditional dishes of northern England. Rachel often makes these connections, or gives an anecdote – some context – for how she first encountered a dish.

As such Five Quarters is a book that’s a good read, a book that’s pleasure to learn about cooking from, a book that’s an aesthetically pleasing object, with Rachel’s own pictures of food production accompanied by pictures of Testaccio, the neighbourhood, its streets, shops, market, restaurants and denizens by Nick Seaton. I’m trying to keep on top of my sentiment, but it’s also a book that’s making me pine for Rome, and meeting Rachel to go for a grattachecca and an obessive rant about the latest recipe we’ve tried or foodstuff we’ve bought. *sigh*

In the meantime, I heartily recommend you buy Five Quarteres from your local independent bookshop. Failing that, here it is on Waterstones and Amazon.

 

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Burger buns and khobz variations

 

Aubergine and halloumi burger with khobz bun

Back in the old days, I’m sure we always ate burgers with a sesame bun. It wasn’t exactly the greatest bread, but at least it was savoury. These days, all the hip and wannabe burger joints sell theirs in brioche buns. I do not get this at all. Brioche is a sweet breakfast bread.* I don’t want a sweet burger bun, it’s just plain weird.

I was a vegetarian or pescatarian for about 20 years and although I’m more omnivorous these days I still don’t eat much red meat; in fact, I reckon I’ve only eaten beef about three times in the last 30 years, in part as I’m not a huge fan, in part as, in much mainstream modern industrial farming, beef can be reared in grim and environmentally unsustainable ways*. So meat burgers aren’t really my thing. But I do love the format, so when I saw this veggie option on Hermione’s Pantry for burgers with aubergine (eggplant, melanza) and halloumi – one of my desert island foodstuffs – I had to try it.

Khobz bun with aubergine halloumi 2

A month or so ago, I did a version of the khobz, an Arabic bread made with semolina and wholemeal wheat flour. I’ve been enjoying playing around with the recipe. I thought why not try the same dough for burger buns. I divided the same quantity of dough from my khobz recipe into eight and rather than making flatter, disc-shaped loaves, made balls for burger buns. I then used them for this aubergine and halloumi burger. I tweaked Hermione’s marinade and left it much longer than she says, but the result was great, with a juiciness that’s often lacking from veggie burgers and the khobz dough making for a good, suitably savoury, bun.

The khobz recipe involves a very satisfying combination of flours, and has also proved itself suitable for large, tear-and-share breads. Rather than dividing the dough into six for small loaves, I divided it in two and made these for a meal with friends a few weeks ago:

Large khobz

 

 

 

* Just read up on concentrated animal feedlots (CAFOs), deeply messed-up arrangements involving cattle being crammed into fenced pens, with no grazing, and instead a diet of maize – something they’ve not evolved to eat. They stand around in their own excrement and get sick, necessitating intensive regimes of antibiotics. CAFOs, or at least similarly brutal intense operations, are creeping into Britain and, likely, will become increasingly common as countries like China become wealthier and more of the world’s seven billion start shifting to more heavily meat-based diets.

Although it’s a US-oriented book by California-based writer Michael Pollen, I’d recommend anyone, even in Britain, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It not only looks at meat (and, by extension, cheese) production in the food supply chain, it even evaluates the virtues, or otherwise, or locavorism, something that’s close to my heart but also something I’m happy to question and be further educated about.

In the meantime, I prefer my bovine products to come from cattle like this. Except for the one beast that isn’t a cow, but instead seems to be a fallow deer that has adopted the herd!

Cattle on the South Downs, Southerham, 30 May 2015

* Except when it’s not. I’ve got a few recipes for savoury brioche, eg the cheesy brioche de gannat.

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Wholemeal honey cake

Wholemeal honey cake

I love cakes made with ground almonds. And I love cakes with sweet syrups poured over them after baking. So this cake is a result – it has both.

It’s from a recipe by Gill Meller, now group head chef of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage operation. As with my last syrupy cake, revani, it’s a recipe I got from the paper several years ago. It’s one I strongly associate with my parents’ place in northwest Devon, as the original newspaper cutting lives in a file there, along with some notes about what’s not quite right with it. Notably, the version as it appeared in the Guardian had too much butter in it, which seriously leaked out on baking. The version on the River Cottage site reduces the butter and increases the oven temperatures. For our family version, we reduce the butter even more.

The original also uses self-raising wholemeal flour – something that’s not especially common, so you can replace it with plain wholemeal flour and a bit more raising agent. But watch it with the baking powder. See notes below. More specifically I use a low protein (less than 10%) wholemeal flour, as opposed to a higher-protein bread-making wholemeal flour (12% plus). It would work with bread flour, but might be slightly heftier. As it is, it’s surprisingly soft for something so brown and branny.

Plain wholemeal flour

Not gluten free… but it could be
On the flour note, anyone who reads my blog will know I don’t generally have problems with modern common wheat (Triticum aestivum) and gluten. I prefer locally grown and/or stoneground where possible, and I find that as long as I don’t eat industrially made wheat products – specifically that paragon of bad modern food, white sliced – I’m fine.  For those of you who like, or have to, avoid modern wheat, I suspect this cake could work pretty well with either older wheat such as spelt (Triticum spelta), which has less starchy endorsperm and less gluten.

It may even work with alternatives to grass/cereal flours (wheat, rye, barley, oats etc), such as pseudocereal buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). I’ve put the latter on my shopping list as it’s a foodstuff I enjoy for its own merits and want to try for this cake. Half-buckwheat, half-ground almonds sounds pretty good to me.

Wholemeal honey cake ingredients

250g unsalted butter, softened
250g caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
150g ground almonds
150g self-raising wholemeal flour*
2g baking powder [this is about a 1/3rd of tsp and has been a problematic aspect of this recipe, see below]
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
Pinch fine sea salt
40g flaked almonds
100g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Grease a 23cm (9″) diameter springform cake tin and line the bottom with baking parchment.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
4. Beat in the egg, a little at a time.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.

Bran

6. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and cinnamon, add a pinch of salt, then fold this in too. Sieving lightens and combines, but also removes the bran. The bran is good, rich in dietary fibre, protein, B vitamins and various minerals (including iron) – so chuck it into the mix too!
7. Put the mixture in the tin, scatter the 40g flaked almonds over the top. Place on a baking sheet (it may still leak some butter) then bake for about 1 hour, until a knife or skewer comes out clean. As long as the top’s not charring, it’s better to overbake this cake than underbake it. It’ll be more stable and the almonds and honey will keep it moist.
8. Warm the honey in a saucepan. I weigh mine straight into a pan, to avoid any sticky complications. Plus, if you only have set honey, heating it will make it runny, and if you’re using runny honey, it’ll make it runnier, so it’ll seep through the sponge better. While the cake’s hot, drizzle over the honey.
9. Place the tin on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm with cream, ideally clotted, for a pudding or at room temperature at teatime.

Wholemeal honey cake

Excuses excuses
I’m not going to deny I got some sinkage in the middle on the cake photographed here. It doesn’t affect the taste of course, but in terms of aesthetics, and perfectionism, it’s annoying. That said, if you look at F-W’s version on that Guardian page, it’s sunk in the middle too, so I’m in good company.

Potential causes of cakes sinking in the middle are:
1. Too much raising agent. It can cause cakes to over-rise then collapse.
2. Not baked quite long enough. However, if the cakes is pulling away from the edges of the tin and a skewer comes out clean, it generally means it’s done.
3. Overbeating the mixture.
4. Wholemeal flour is trickier than white flour. With all that (lovely, nutritious) bran and whatnot, it doesn’t lend itself to retaining a nice delicate structure.

I’m going with option 4, with a bit of option 1 on the side, for today’s excuses. I’ve made this cake again since this entry, and reduced the baking powder again and had much better results.

 

* Or 145g wholemeal flour with, total, 5g 0r 1 tsp baking powder.

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