Many of us enjoy visiting food markets when we are on holiday or travelling. The best account I have read of what appeals to us about markets is by US chef and food writer James Beard in his book, Delights and Pleasures. But I also take great pleasure in visiting small, local grocery stores when I am on holiday, especially in more rural areas or in less prosperous parts of cities. The smell of side-street grocery stores the world over is a mixture of washing powder plus local food staples and in some regions, one dominant staple turns this into a signature whiff. Nowhere is this more true than in Portugal, where off-white, crusty boards of bacalhao – dried salt cod – are often stacked high on open shelves.
I’m not sure if it would be right to call it a “national dish” but when I asked a Portuguese colleague recently what is typical of her nation’s cooking, she grinned and gasped “bacalhao!” in a mixture of weary groan and dreamy fondness, rolling her eyes to the heavens. The Portugeuse have an unimaginable repertoire of salt cod dishes. Cod, salted and/or dried in varying degrees, is a common produce across many regions from Scandinavia, through Italy, Spain, Portugal, southern France, to the Caribbean (Ackee and salt fish!) and Alaska and probably other places besides. Naturally, it has its origins in northern climates as a way to preserve fish when catches were good and as winter protein. There aren’t many cod in the Med, but preservation helps food to travel and to survive in hotter climates as an exotic delicacy. It is telling that in Portuguese, cod in its unpreserved form must be distinguished as “bacalhao fresco”. In Italy, salt cod may have originally been an import via Portugal but there is also a story of a Venetian shipwreck at Lofoton island, off Norway, where the nobleman Piero Querini and his crew were so enamoured of the local dried cod that they returned it to Venice as a delicacy. There are regional confusions in Italy of the terms baccala and stoccafisso meaning variously salted or dried cod. On a recent trip to Venice I tasted Baccala Mantecato di Venezia, a dish of creamed cod similar to Provencal brandade and effectively mayonnaise made with fish instead of eggs. Two fluffy, pearlescent dollops arrived with toasts and a slice of lemon – a fatty, fibrous texture like rillettes, with the distinctive salt-cod taste, so familiar from Spanish croquetas. I have been desperate to try it again ever since, intrigued by trying to reproduce it, with a fillet of salt cod sitting in the fridge waiting for its chance! I am not sure whether Venetians most normally use salt cod or stockfish for this dish – perhaps someone will set me straight? – but it seems to have worked fine. What was satisfying about making this dish was that the dynamic was similar to beating egg white or cream but in reverse: you pummel and beat away at it for about half an hour, and only when it is broken down enough and loosened with enough oil and water does it get loose enough to whip air into it and it suddenly jumps into its final form.
Where else in the world is preserved cod a delicacy or staple and what do they do with it?
Strangely, I have always thought of globe artichoke as a hazard food…occupying the same place in my mind as, say, durian fruit or puffer fish. With the durian fruit, it’s a hideous smell and with the puffer fish it’s the poison but what these all have in common, is that the gourmet’s prize is supposed to be worth the hazard. Err, yes and with the artichoke? Well, having parents of the ‘modern’ variety, I was encouraged to eat grown up foods from very early on. Children were rarely served up something different and we now adopt the same policy with our own children. When I was a child growing up in the North of England, artichokes were an uncommon delicacy from continental Europe. Those that were available were the large, full grown heads. Whether expensive or not, they were certainly a treat. So they were usually boiled whole. That way, we made the most of it by tearing the leaves off one by one, sometimes sharing. The sense of delicacy attained by that mode of eating was immense: Dipping each morsel in vinaigrette, then turning the leaf to scrape the tender smear of flesh from its root with your bottom teeth, then savouring the unusual flavour. Both the act of dipping and of extracting with the teeth are actions we naturally associate with delicacy. They appeal to the human animal in us all, and to children especially, with their enviable lack of self consciousness. But that is just the beginning, because eating an artichoke like this is so much more; it is a religious allegory! Those who are humble as they climb the Hill Difficulty will be rewarded with a joyous abundance in the Delectable Mountains…but not before they endure one more test in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for Beelzebub shoots arrows! Enough butchering of Bunyan. As a child I was instructed how to remove the hairy core cleanly from the heart before slicing up this prize. But I did not have the dexterity to do this and remember the horror of these irritant hairs stuck in my throat. These days I can dodge the arrows. Home alone last Monday night, I cut my first home grown artichoke of the season and trotted confidently up the Hill.
It’s bluebell time. Which means we’re late for wild garlic. For me, wild garlic is the easiest and most worthwhile of foraged foods. It is almost a family tradition for us to collect wild garlic at Easter but due to some sad events in the family, we didn’t get out. Today we did and, although the garlic was blooming away as prettily as the bluebells, the recent wet weather meant the leaves were still juicy and plentiful.
Some people enthuse about the bulbs but it is the improbable greenness of the leaves that impresses me…and they are hardly lacking in flavour or aroma. As children my sister and I would regularly play with friends in the woods below our house in County Durham. In season, the floor of these woods was infested with endless mops of wild garlic. Their waxy but succulent leaves easily sheared, smearing children with an oily garlic sap. The slightest whiff of wild garlic at 50 paces these days takes me straight back to childhood and, I fancy, the stench of us returning home from those woods at tea time.
I never ate it until I was grown up. Out of curiosity – and ignorance – I chose something called baerlauchsuppe off a menu in a strand hotel at Usedom on the Baltic coast of Germany. I knew what I’d ordered as soon as it arrived at the table, despite the decoy of a pealed crevette sailing a toast boat across the deep green sea. This touch was both beautiful and a stroke of genius in flavour.
Attempts to recreate the intensity of colour and flavour in that soup fell frustratingly short but the key factors seem to be large volumes of the leaves, perhaps blended with some watercress for a deeper flavour and a good hearty stock. Using light fish stock might be a pleasing twist…might even be the missing factor…perhaps to be tried this year.
With our busy lives, we usually end up cutting some finely and folding into cream cheese or goats cheese. A wild garlic risotto is an easy midweek delight. The fresh leaves keep in the fridge for some days.
It’s so much softer a taste than bulb garlic and garlic does go well with so much. Is there any other seasonal ingredient that we have so badly failed to use to it’s full potential?
Juniper is a taste of fire and ice. It is also somehow emblematic of scarce sufficiency. Do you associate it most with warm desert scrub or frozen northern mountains? For me it would mostly make me think of biblical lands…there was a story of Elijah going into the wilderness o have a good think and lying down to die under a juniper bush but then (“lo!”) an angel conjures up some cake and water… This was until a recent trip to the Cairngorms in Scotland; this great, volcanic blister, swelling up from (more or less) sea level to heights of 1200 meters, creating one of the most unforgiving natural environments in the British Isles. The plateau is a sparse place where, yes, juniper eeks out an existence and down below, so do people. On the way home, I read Nan Shepherd’s sensuous, poetic reckoning of these mountains – The Living Mountain. Somewhere in this diced-and-sorted stream of consciousness she describes juniper as being “secretive with it’s scent“ and remembers carrying a juniper twig and “breaking it afresh now and then to renew it’s spice“. She goes on:
“In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden, the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat. There’s nothing better under the girdle when scones are baking – unless perhaps…”
Reading this I imagined that those scones must be scented with the juniper. In a puerile attempt to get a sense of it, I made some sodabread farls on a griddle with some juniper berries thrown on to the pan and used a lid to trap their urgent streaks of incense. All I can say is the farls did have a pleasant, scented taste and the house smelt great. Seriously, throw some juniper berries on a hot pan.
The cavalo has bolted. Our cavalo nero has kept on cropping throughout the winter. In the last weeks it gave us its best. Kale is supposed to be better after some frost…do you find so? It certainly seems more tender. But this march, the warm days and cold nights have seen it flowering early while getting frosted at night.
As with most brassicas, the flower buds are fabulous. We tried them both stir-fried and simmered in dashi – both great. The leaves have been an easy, home grown winter staple that give some striking, architectural interest to the garden in the bleakest months. This is what kale is for…to bridge the end-of-winter gap when nothing else is left. That’s why one popular variety is called “Hungry Gap”. Try sowing some in your plot or tubs this summer.
Citrus makes winter bearable. Just back from a week high in the Austrian Alps, London seemed gloomy. Until I stopped by at my regular fruit stand in Warren Street to find sunny blush oranges at 4 to the pound. Now, it used to be that a £2 coin was like a piece of treasure. Even relatively recently it was at least a satisfying, brassy-ringed beer token. Sadly those days are no more but in exchange for 8 balls of sweet sunshine, I felt I should be drawing that coin from a velvet bag with draw string of braided silk.
Friday evening saw a pair of blush orange martinis:
-2 parts freshly squeezed blush orange
-3 parts good vodka
-Simple syrup to take the edge off tartness (or a little sugar)
-A few dashes of Angostura (or other) bitters.
(Shake with ice cubes. Strain and poor into chilled martini glasses)
Sometimes things just float into place. We’ve had Indian tejpat in stock for months – I bought some when trying to put a more complex and authentic taste into home-cooked curries. A subtle bay-like leaf, it has been lending a cinnamon warmth to many a dahl and sauce in our house this autumn. And at some point I clocked that this was the stuff -Malabathrum – that Apicius uses over and over again in his cookery book of ancient Rome. I hadn’t found much reference to its use in modern western cooking but had resolved to experiment anyway.
Making rich, smokey venison stew for Boxing Day this morning, the time came. Looking through the cupboard for suitable seasoning…marjoram, juniper, clove, black pepper, parsley, bay leaf…I came face to face with cinnamon. We have German relatives staying for Christmas and it would not be unusual to find this type of goulash being laced with cinnamon in Germany but cinnamon in savoury dishes has never strongly appealed to me, except for in Eastern food. With that thought in mind, the bay leaves sailed down to lick the bubbling surface of the stew…and were joined moments later by their stripy-veined eastern cousins. The result: Truly perfect and suited to all tastes of the household.
As a northerner, I’ve never felt completely at home in the home counties, where we now live. But it’s not that I’m not fond of this part of the world and one thing that truly endears it to me is Kentish cobnuts.
Do you use fennel seed? How often? I think I must use it somehow most weeks. Using, and then growing fennel seed is where my own curiosity about food ingredients first really took off.
It’s hard to be precise about how I came to be such a fennel seed junkie. I think it was the realisation of what an important role it played in my enjoyment of both Italian and Indian food. I’d been going back for more and more of a sublime creation at Glasgow’s fabulous Wee Curry Shop – chicken simmered in ginger with okra. This lovely dish of chicken melting from the bone in an aromatic, amber liquor was certainly gingery but was also beaded with a powerfully flavoured seed, which I’d initialy taken to be cumin. Around the same time we’d developed a mid-week, easy supper at home – a sauce for fusilli pasta. It’s preparation is so Philistine, it’s embarassing to describe but I’ll still happily put away a large plate full. We’d peel open english pork sausages (good ones, mind) and disintegrate them into a frying pan with a big glug of olive oil, garlic and diced onion. Then season and apply a puff of smoked paprika and….a generous splutter of fennel seed…and then add tomato puree to make it saucy. The result: A hot, red, peppery, smokey sausage ragu crowned with that flavour that so well complements Italian pork dishes.
How would you describe that flavour? It’s one of those flavours that is often confused with others; I’ve overheard friends notice aniseed in Italian charcuterie and not set them straight, just because they aren’t far wrong in terms of flavour. Its also difficult to describe the flavour without likening it to others – liquorice, aniseed….cumin? Cumin. There’s a continuum in seeds: Caraway, cumin, fennel…all related flavours, triggering various sensory connections for me but all somehow slightly edgy. Cumin: Spicy, sweaty…a haggle turning ugly in the Khan el-Khalili? Caraway: Wistful, bohemian…a mysterious encounter in a September field? Fennel…I can’t quite place this one but my head’s half way from Tuscany to Glasgow. What about you?
Food ingredients are fascinating. Here’s an enigma: What was silphium and does it still exist? In the culinary world, silphium is a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.
It was traded across the known world and commanded high prices. Prized in ancient cooking it had a status perhaps even higher than luxury foodstuffs of today like saffron and vanilla. But the plant that gave it up – probably a type of giant fennel – was only known in Cyrene (now part of Libya) and was never successfully domesticated.
Although guarded jealously, in the end supply was exhausted and the species is generally thought to have been extinct from some time in the first century. Trade switched to an inferior alternative from the east, asafoetida – still commonly used in India. (Both products were a dried gum tapped from the root)
But could it be that the silphium plant survives today? Some people would like to think that it does. Although the Roman emperor Nero was reportedly presented with the last known stem, there are tantalizing suggestions in letters written much later of cuttings being sent to friends as gifts. Wouldn’t it be fun to go searching for it? People have. Some think that growth recovered but its production and use simply never returned. A plant still rampant in certain valleys in Libya (cachrys ferulacea) might just be it. Or it might not.
But if this stuff was that great, surely we’d know it if we found it? Perhaps, but there are many ancient food ingredients that have waned from popular taste or at least narrowed in their geography. Look at garum, for example, or verjus, or common wild herbs like meadowsweet and mallow.
All food ingredients have history and culture that can amaze as much as their flavour and artful uses. The most familiar ingredients to some may be less so to others or familiar in different forms and combinations. There is an almost limitless range of food ingredients around the world. What ingredients or delightful combinations have you “discovered” recently? What gets used unusually frequently in your kitchen? What do you grow or make yourself because you can’t buy it in the shops?
As I get interested in particular ingredients, I increasingly want to research their history and explore their uses.