Tag Archives: food and drink

Reading, watching, eating

 

Cookery has been a growth area in publishing for many years. As soon as an amateur cook does well on one of the numerous television competitions or through a website, or as soon as a professional’s restaurant becomes successful, a personal cookery book is rarely far behind.

I admit to being part of that inflating audience. While I have read many fewer books in the past 20 years than in the previous 20, one subject which I have definitely read about more often is food and drink and cooking.

 

Rural France – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, photographed in 2005.

 

Urban France – Paris, probably photographed from the Eiffel Tower, in 1995.

 

In the 1970s, the highest status cooking in the UK was influenced by France, although the most commonly eaten food was probably Italian, or even Asian. Around that time my father did a good deal of the weekend cooking in our house, and consulted in particular two books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book and French Provincial Cookery by the more famous Elizabeth David.

My own first cookery book in the mid-1980s was a Delia Smith. One is Fun was on TV and much publicised but I remember it wasn’t that title, so it must have been one of the volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. It was a valuable source of particular recipes although soon enough I did gain enough basic knowledge not to have to refer to it regularly. I do remember her almost coy description of mackerel which seemed to betray the period in which she had grown up: “it has a strong taste which men like”.

Another TV programme which provided cooking ideas around that time was the first Master Chef – lower budget, less cool than the current version, with its Sunday tea-time scheduling and including some restaurant chefs as judges.

We were entering the era of the Celebrity Chef. Expert and/or professional cooks had been on TV for a while but this was the time when the term was coined and they were now more likely to be male. An episode of the Gary Rhodes series Rhodes Around Britain encouraged my wife and me to visit the wonderful area of St Ives.

 

St Ives, Cornwall, in 1994.

 

Soon after came the very first Jamie Oliver series The Naked Chef, with its pretend bijou city centre apartment, and for a long time after I copied a recipe of his for baked salmon wrapped in parma ham.

My biggest influence over the past twenty years has probably been Nigel Slater through his regular columns in The Observer newspaper. His recipe for a spicy aubergine stew, first suggested as an informal Christmas Eve dish for a large group, is perhaps the single recipe which I have used, adapted and shared the most often.

 

A few Nigel Slater recipes from over the years.

 

(Tangentially, I do miss the passing of the classic design of The Observer newspaper, once so weighty and authoritative, as it has moved significantly in the tabloid direction over many years, with many more and bigger photos and more light-weight stories in the front half of the paper. Its coverage of food and drink has definitely been one part of that “tabloid-isation”, with the Observer Food Monthly magazine and other frequent recipes supplements adding to the regular pages. But a modest periodic coverage of food and drink with accompanying photographs is hard to dislike).

As if there were not enough recipes already in books and newspapers and magazines along came the internet, full of more ideas and pictures from professionals and amateurs. Food and recipes are actually what directly led to the creation of Leaf Collecting: one particular piece of cooking research drew my attention to how many weblogs documented other areas of people’s domestic life and interests alongside the recipes and prompted me to think that I might do no worse!

Middle East food and drink has definitely become my most interesting experiment in recent years. Arto der Haroutunian’s book Middle Eastern Cookery (London: Grub Street 2010) is as informative on the history and culture of the region as on individual dishes.

Belatedly I came across the name of Claudia Roden, the Egyptian writer who was one of the first to introduce the British audience to Middle Eastern food in the 1960s. A recent article by Bee Wilson article opened with Roden’s discussion about how something she ate as a child in Cairo appeared in Australia later as “dukkah”  – which was clearly the same snack I was offered  myself at Ayers Rock last year, with its chunky bread, dry spice mix, olive oil and sparkling wine. That combination of taste and place was something I would count as one my own most memorable food experiences in recent years.

 

Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, at dusk.

 

 

 

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Culinary/cultural adventures

 

To our grandparents,  eating and drinking would not have been judged as cultural activities in the same sense as was reading books or listening to music, but certainly they are to many of their descendants. A visit to continental Europe or beyond will for most people involve sampling the local cuisine just as much as more familiar historic buildings or museums. Any arts establishment  worth its salt in the UK will have a café or restaurant which is worth at least a look after an exhibition or performance.  Some places even make a particular effort to link the two together. For example, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has an oriental-themed café to complement its collection of Far East and Middle East arts and artefacts.

When I first discovered the joys of eating in restaurants more than 30 years ago, French and Italian cuisines were definitely the most prominent, and that, then, was fine by me.  Occasionally, depending on your area, Spanish, Eastern European and vegetarian restaurants could be found.

 

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The Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a restaurant in Barcelona which boasts artistic history as well as present-day culinary excellence.

 

 

Most recently, for me, Middle Eastern food has been the great discovery.  Perhaps because it uses so many of the same ingredients as other countries do, yet the end result looks and tastes so totally different.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was in the aforementioned Dublin that my wife and I first discovered Middle Eastern cuisine, on a visit there in 1993. Happily, The Cedar Tree, owned by a Lebanese family, is still thriving. There we were also introduced to Lebanese wine, which is more widely available now than then, and was even the subject of a Radio 4 documentary by Jeremy Bowen.

My eagerness to visit Palestine had originated in childhood from my Christianity and increased through my later interest  in the region’s 20th century politics, but, by the time I was able to visit in 2012, another extra attraction was certainly the sampling of its food and drink.

Middle Eastern cooking is a significant feature in the restaurants and cafés of many UK arts and performance venues. Falafel, chickpeas, olives, hummus and pitta bread are regularly seen on their menus.  Although unfortunately not usually the fish couscous dish which is central to the narrative of La Graine et le Mulet, alternatively titled Couscous. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film also contains a great family drama and a powerful scene of dancing.

 

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The joys of non-alcoholic drink

 

James Boswell, a man who liked his food and drink, once put on record his preference for tea over wine. “ (Tea) comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant on spirituous liquors ,” he wrote in his London Diary. “ Gentle herb! Let the florid grape yield to thee. Thy soft influence is a more safe inspirer of social joy.”

The former Czech President Vaclav Havel agreed.  Not only was tea valuable as both a physical stimulant and relaxation, he wrote to his wife Olga while in prison;  the habits and rituals which he and his fellow prisoners created around the making and drinking of tea were essential survival techniques. First, because “when and how I make it is entirely up to me…I realize myself as a free being…capable of looking after myself”. Second, it encouraged “private contemplation” and therefore “inner freedom”. Third, because “sitting down to a cup of tea here is a substitute for the world of bars, wine rooms, parties”, it is the way “in which you realize your freedom in social terms”.

Around the time I first came across the name of James Boswell, I was still paying close attention to Marvel Comics. I remember a scene (in an issue of, possibly, The Fantastic Four or The X-Men) where a character had invented a drink called the Vibra-Broth. (This memory, however, cannot be confirmed, exasperatingly, anywhere on the comics- and fantasy-obsessed internet!)  Another character, sampling this, said, “It makes it seem as if my troubles are just melting away”. In my innocent pre-alcohol youth, this sounded like an amazing innovation, but, a few years later, I appreciated that this was an attractive characteristic already available in wine or spirits.

The problem of how to balance the advantages and disadvantages of alcohol is supernaturally solved in the wonderful Christmas film The Bishop’s Wife. The angel Dudley has cast a spell, or perhaps a blessing, over the sherry decanter of Professor Wutheridge – and the latter finds to his astonishment that now the drink “warms but does not inebriate”.

 

Reference :

Boswell, James (1950)  Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763  ed. Frederick A. Pottle   London : Heinemann

 

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Some memorable meals on reels

 

The first time I formed the idea that cinema films might feature some insightful depictions of the sensual pleasure of food and drink was by the end of my second or third viewing of Coppola’s The Godfather . I was beginning to realise that this might actually now be one of my favourite films, and I was able to explain why. “It has everything,” I said to a work colleague, “politics, history, geography, religion, great drama and great acting – it even has a cookery lesson”.

The lesson in question takes place when the Corleone clan are barricaded in their Long Island redoubt, and Clemenza shows the restless Michael how to cook a Bolognese sauce.  “You start with a little bit of oil, and you fry some garlic, then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste” – pronounced tom-ay-to of course – “you fry it, make sure it doesn’t stick, you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs, then a little bit of wine and a little bit of sugar…”

Scorsese’s  Goodfellas  features a similar scene, where  a group of mobsters in prison collect contraband ingredients from various unspecified sources for regular meals. One snippet teaches the viewer how to slice garlic finely using a razor-blade. Nice to see the culinary elements of this film acknowledged in a food-film collaboration at the recent Glasgow Film Festival.

Because the Italian-American experience features so heavily in US cinema, Italian food probably gets a higher prominence than other cuisines.  When the success of Babette’s Feast , directed by the recently deceased Gabriel Axel, led to its meal being recreated by various fancy restaurants, that probably reinforced the stereotype of French food being expensive and exclusive. Turtle soup, caviar, quail, cheeses, accompanying wines: even though in the film the meal is prepared by a single French housekeeper cooking for a small family group.

Just as the French Catholic character is the purveyor of earthly delights to the Scandinavian Protestants in Babette’s Feast, French Catholic monks are shown able to appreciate such pleasures in Of Gods and Men drinking wine while listening to Tchaikovsky’s music to Swan Lake.

A Spanish compañera of Babette is Raimunda in Almodovar’s Volver , whom we see cooking an unexpected meal for a film crew of 30, buying pork and sausages from her neighbours and vegetables from the local market.

A couple of British examples. One from the days when British men were just beginning to cook for leisure and pleasure appears in  The Ipcress File. Spy Harry Palmer is well-known among colleagues as a food lover, expressing a wish to spend a salary increase on kitchen equipment and discussing brands of mushrooms in a supermarket with his boss.  The meal which he cooks for his female colleague Courtney consists, I think, only of omelettes, but it is previewed by that famous Michael Caine impressionists’ line, “Courtney.. I am going to cook you… the best meal you ‘ave ever ‘ad.” Interesting to discover that this aspect of Palmer’s character derived from the cooking interests of his creator Len Deighton.

Less attractive from a culinary and hygiene perspective but both dramatically significant and an instructive sign of 1930s practice is the scene of Richard Hannay poaching haddock still while wearing his overcoat and while a cigarette still dangles above the pan from his lips in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps .

 

 

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