Sunday, March 15, 2009

A recipe for chiles rellenos for the chile poblano-deprived amongst us

Living in Alsace, close to Basel, I can mostly manage to make do with the raw materials on offer hereabouts when I get one of those cravings for real Mexican food. Any French or Swiss supermarket has avocados, limes, good free-range chickens and decent enough pork; over the border at El Sol in Basel I can get dried chiles, frijoles, chiles chipotles en adobo and Maseca for making tortillas. The only thing I really, really miss are fresh chiles poblanos, those glorious, glossy green chiles about the size of green peppers with an unmistakeable/unrepeatable flavour, and which can pack a real punch. They're indispensable for making chiles rellenos. Or at least that's what I thought, until I started messing around with some chubby little red peppers (tastier and sweeter than green), and putting a bit of punch into the marinade with some fresh green chile. This is a recipe for the chiles rellenos en frío type - in other words to be served cold, none of that dipping in batter and deep frying which is a bit messy and laborious. Here the chiles (sorry, peppers) are seared on a gas flame, peeled and marinated a day ahead with some chopped fresh chile to supply the punch lacking in the peppers, then filled with guacamole and St Moret cream cheese. They look handsome on a buffet table - and they're practical too, as the peppers must be prepared a day ahead.

Serves 12 as part of a mixed buffet

12 small or 6 large red peppers

2 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

2 fresh green chiles (peperoncini/piments verts over here), seeded and cut in thin strips

250ml water

125ml white wine vinegar or lemon juice

a pinch of salt

a pinch of dried oregano

1 tsp crushed coriander seeds


1 clove garlic, peeled

1 tsp salt

1-2 fresh green chiles (peperoncini), seeded and finely chopped

a good handful of cilantro/coriander

3 avocados

1 pack St Moret cheese (150g)

2 tomatoes, finely chopped

1 red onion, finely chopped

juice of 2 limes

garnish: cilantro/coriander leaves and chopped spring onion

  • Sear the peppers over a gas flame or under a grill/broiler, turning often until blackened
  • Put them in a plastic bag and leave them to sweat for about 10 minutes
  • For the marinade, heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to take all the peppers in one layer and soften the onion, garlic and chile strips
  • Add water, vinegar or lemon juice and oregano, coriander seeds, salt and pepper to taste and simmer gently for about 10 minutes
  • Rub the skins off the peppers under running water, make a cut down one side, leave stalks intact but pull out the seeds, trying not to damage the peppers
  • Add them to the simmering marinade, cook for 5’, turn peppers and cook 5’ more
  • Lift out peppers with a slotted spoon and put in a dish; turn up the heat, reduce the marinade to just a few tablespoons, pour it over the peppers and leave them cool
  • For the guacamole, mash (in a pestle and mortar) or chop finely together the garlic, salt, cilantro/coriander and chile until in a paste
  • Add the avocados and cream cheese, mashing it all together till smooth
  • Stir in the tomatoes and red onion and sharpen with lime juice
  • Stuff the cool peppers with the guacamole (and cut large ones in half lengthwise)
  • Arrange them decoratively on a big platter, sprinkle with cilantro/coriander leaves and chopped spring onion


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dumplings, Dampfnudeln - and Dampflings

A recent discussion on Eat Words had a few of us wondering about the etymology of the word dumpling. I got rather carried away with the idea that our English word is related to the German Dampfnudeln and practised saying Dumpfnoodler to myself experimentally, under my breath, for a long time. However, no-one (except me) seemed too impressed with this theory - oh well. Anyway, by then I'd got completely hooked on the idea of these billowing, dumpling-like, yeasty, steam-baked rolls and realised I just had to make some - and I've christened them Dampflings:


The recipe:

Makes 9-10 Dampfnudeln

250g flour

25g sugar

a pinch of salt

10g fresh yeast, crumbled in small flakes

125ml milk

50g butter, cut in pieces

2 egg yolks

butter for greasing the casserole/tin

  • Put flour, sugar, salt and crumbled yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer with the dough hook fitted; mix well
  • Put milk and butter in a microwave-safe cup and heat to lukewarm in the microwave
  • Add egg yolks, mix well and add to flour etc. in the bowl
  • Mix to a smooth dough and knead till the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl and feels thoroughly silky and no longer sticky to the touch - I needed to add 3-4 teaspoons flour in sprinkles to achieve this
  • Encase the bowl in a big plastic bag, leave at room temperature (about 20 degrees in my kitchen at the moment) till dough has doubled in bulk
  • Tip out dough onto a board (or better still, a marble slab) and deflate. Roll it up like a fat bolster and cut into 9-10 equal-sized pieces with a dough scraper or knife
  • Roll each piece of dough round and round under your cupped hand till it plumps up nicely - don't add any flour to the board or the dough will skitter around too much - you want a bit of grip so it plumps up nicely, but of course it shouldn't stick to the board so you may need to add a dusting of flour
  • Arrange rolled out/plumped up balls of dough in a generously buttered, heavy, ovenproof casserole 26 cm diameter (I used an enamelled cast-iron one, which worked a treat - must have a lid) in a flower formation. They can be quite well spaced apart as they billow up most satisfactorily to fill the space
  • Brush dough with melted butter, cover pan with a lid (glass is ideal, so you can keep checking and glowing with pleasure at how they're doing/fretting because they're not rising) and leave on the counter while you heat the oven to 190 C
  • After about 15 minutes, put casserole (with lid) in preheated oven and steam-bake the Dampfnudeln for 30-35 minutes or until plump, golden brown and fragrant
  • Around here (Alsace, Black Forest, Switzerland) they're served with creme anglaise/vanilla sauce, but we're not pudding people so we had them with cheese - disgrrrrrracefully delishus

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Cheesy Celebration for September

Sue Style
As the days shorten and autumn approaches, numerous festivals in Switzerland celebrate the end of summer as the cows wend their wistful way down from their alpine meadows. One such is the annual Chästeilet which takes place in the Justistal above lake Thun in central Switzerland each September. Here, the cheeses that have been made on the alp during the summer months are divvied up amongst the farmers whose cows have grazed there.

One sunny September day we set off from Beatenberg high above the lake, joining the throngs of people heading up the mountain track to a flat, wide open clearing where the cheese distribution would take place. Most were on foot, some travelled in tractors or little Aebi trucks pulling trailers full of happy, shiny people perched on straw bales and dressed in Swiss local costume.

Up on the plateau, a real Volksfest was getting underway – reminiscent of a British point-to-point event, complete with all the same smells of musty tents, damp grass and dogs but without the horses. Farmers in short-sleeved black broidered smocks, white shirts and snappy black needlecord trousers milled around waiting for something to happen. There was the sound of alphorns, piano accordions, and the occasional burst of yodelling.

At 11 o’clock punctually, the doors of the ancient, wooden storage huts were unlocked with great stout keys and the cheeses (of varying dates and dimensions, 270 of them from ‘our’ hut) were passed out hand to hand along the line, and stacked up neatly on wooden planks. Our host for the day, Herr von Allmen, made an elegant speech to thank the dairyman and explained the (arcane) distribution system of cheeses.

One by one the farmers came forward to claim their pile, staggered away with the cheeses and stowed them in the back of pickup trucks. Some would be sold down in the valley, but most would be stored in the farmhouse cellars, to be used in raclettes, fondues and sundry cheese dishes throughout the year. At the end of the day the cows set off down into the valley once more to regain their winter quarters.

For more information on the Chästeilet, contact Gunten-Sigriswil Tourismus, 3655 Sigriswil, Switzerland, Tel. +41 (0)33 251 1235,

Monday, February 19, 2007

Not Just a Bunch of Old Onions

Calçotadas in Catalunya
Sue Style

Put together a bunch of green onions, a roaring fire made from vine clippings, a wicked sauce based broadly on almonds/hazelnuts/tomatoes/olive oil/garlic, and a large group of Catalans bent on having a good time and you have the makings of a calçotada. I'd been haunted by images of this classic Catalan midwinter onion feast ever since my (Catalan) son-in-law Jordi told me about it some time ago. This year I finally got a glimpse of what all the fuss is about.

Of course a calçotada is much more than just an onion feast. It has Saturnalian/Bacchanalian elements for banishing the late-winter blues, it's an antidote to the excesses of Christmas and a last blast before the once-customary privations of Lent, and as the season advances (calçotadas happen any time between January and April), it becomes an early spring ritual that answers the body's craving for sharp, bitter flavours after the stodge and tedium of winter. Above all, it's the perfect excuse for Catalans to get their knees under the table with a (generally huge and boisterous) group of friends, tuck into some robust food, throw back some local wine and put the world to rights.

Just as the calçotada is no ordinary feast, so too the calçot is a special kind of vegetable - a sort of cross between a spring onion and a leek. To find out more about the secret life of the calçot I called up Raimón, a green-fingered friend of my son's who lives in Palafrugell where he raises a riot of organic veg. to sell through box schemes and at the town market. The real specialists, he says, produce calçots from seed. They get started in late winter or early spring, and the whole process takes about a year.

First the little black onion seeds are scattered in a sheltered corner of the garden. Once they're a few centimetres high the seedlings are planted out in rows in the fertile, reddish sandy soil and left to grow on like regular onions. By midsummer they've done what onions generally do: they've formed a nice chubby bulb at the base. At this point they're pulled up and left in a cool dark place to dry out.

Under ordinary circumstances this would be the end of the onion’s short life and it would be pressed into service for a Catalan sofregit (a delectably jammy concoction of onions, tomatoes and other vegetables) or a samfaina (a classic stew of aubergines, peppers and onions). But - as we've seen - the calçot is no ordinary onion. At summer’s end, the tops of the bulbs are summarily sliced off and the onions are set in the earth again, not too deep and barely covered with soil. ‘They need to be able to hear the church bells ring!’ grins Raimón. Within a short time –about a week - they begin to sprout, 5 to 7 shoots from each decapitated onion bulb.

As the shoots continue to grow, they're repeatedly earthed up with a protective ‘boot’ of soil (calzar in Spanish means ‘to put your boots on’, hence calçots). This has the effect of blanching, tenderizing and sweetening the onion shoots - think celery or white asparagus. From each sawn-off onion you get a prolific bunch of thin-stemmed, pale green, tender calçots which are ready to eat by year’s end.

You can find calçotadas throughout Catalunya during the winter months, but the biggest and best known is the Festa de la Calçotada in the little town of Valls, the spiritual home and nerve centre of calçots which lies north of Tarragona and southwest of Barcelona, on the edge of the Penedés vineyards. It's here that the process of blanching onions was pioneered in 1896 by an enterprising market gardener named Xat de Benaiges. For about 50 years the calçot tradition remained a family one. Then in the 1940s a group of artists caught on and began to stage well-publicised calçot events for arty crowds in a number of venues and restaurants around Valls. The crowning recognition came when the Calçot de Valls gained its own IGP (Indicacion Geografica Protegida) in 2001, meaning that it must be grown in a certain delimited area around Valls and attain specific - and impressive - dimensions.

For the Festa the streets of Valls are thronged with people, there's oompapa music and drumming, processions and floats. But at the heart of it all are the calçots. We threaded our way through the crowded streets to the Plaza del Blat (Wheat Square) where we found a scene reminiscent of the village produce show, as proud growers set their winning calçots on trestle tables for all to marvel at.

Across the square groups of ladies in traditional costume pounded almonds, roasted tomatoes, garlic and olive oil to a smooth reddish-orange paste for the famous salsa per calçots and proffered samples on little crusts of bread.

In the middle of the square over a patch of sand, a gorgeous bonfire was being built from vine clippings. Once alight, they quickly reached a fearsome temperature - we gathered round gratefully in the pale winter sun. From the sidelines a four-legged rectangular grill arrangement resembling a metal bed frame emerged, completely covered with the trimmed green onions, neatly laid in rows. The grill was set down over the furnace and a great cloud of smoke went up.

In a few minutes the calçots were done on one side. The grill was lifted off by red-bonneted, white-shirted acolytes and the onions quickly turned, returned to the fire and left to complete the cooking. The butcher's shop on the square was doing a roaring trade in butifarra sausages and lamb cutlets. These would be grilled over the fire by seasoned festlers once the onions were done.

In yet another square a group of lean and hungry-looking young men equipped with capacious bibs stood ready at a horseshoe arrangement of tables, facing the expectant crowd. The Festa organiser grabbed the microphone and introduced the 16th Grand Competition of calçot-eating.

At a given signal, the competition began to see who could woof down the greatest number of calçots (and sauce). They went about their task methodically and rhythmically, gripping the onion by its top, stripping off its charred and grill-blackened sheath, dipping it into the sauce, tipping back their heads and munching down the length of the onion.

'You reckon you're in with a chance?' I asked one sauce-splattered, barbecue-smudged contestant when it was all over and the counting had begun. (To tell how much each competitor has eaten, their pile of grilled onions is weighed at the outset and the debris weighed at the end. The difference between the two is what they actually consumed.) 'No way!' he grinned cheerfully. 'I only managed to eat about 110 - last year's winner downed 198 - about 3 kilos of calçots! But it's good fun - now I'm off to have a spot of lunch!'

It was our turn for lunch too so we ducked into the nearest tavern, full of happy, shiny people all in festive mood. We donned our bibs and surgical gloves and awaited the feast. Soon a pile of blackened, frazzled calçots appeared, cradled in a curved roof tile which kept them warm. In time-honoured fashion we gripped the tops, stripped off the blackened bits, dunked them in the salsa per calçots, threw back our heads and chomped them down with gusto - though I have to admit that we only managed about a dozen each.

Definitely not just any old onion festival, but a feast to remember, a heart-warming, enriching experience in all senses, and the perfect way to brighten the winter days. I'm already booked in for next year.

SALSA PER CALÇOTS (from the official Festa recipe sheet)

Makes about 1 cup/250ml, enough for about 6 people - great with fish or chicken, as well as calçots

6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4-5 tomatoes
1 red or green chile, de-stemmed, halved lengthwise and de-seeded
1 chunky slice white bread from country-style loaf, crusts removed
1-2 tbsp vinegar
100g peeled almonds
30g hazelnuts
80ml olive oil

Put the garlic cloves, tomatoes and chile on a griddle or heavy ungreased frying pan and heat steadily till the garlic is soft and the skin blotchy, the tomatoes burnt in patches and the chile slightly blistered. Set these to one side.
Soak the bread in the vinegar.
Put the almonds and the hazelnuts in a small baking tin and toast in a 200 C/400 F oven for 8-10 minutes or until the almonds are golden and the hazelnuts toasty and fragrant, and the husks can be rubbed off easily.
Remove, allow to cool a little, then twizzle the hazelnuts between finger and thumb so that the husks rub off.
Put almonds and hazelnuts in the blender and blend (dry) till finely ground.
Quarter the tomatoes and slip the garlic cloves out of their skins.
Add the tomatoes, garlic and chile to the blender and blend again till smooth.
Add the soaked bread and blend again.
Through the hole in the funnel add the olive oil till the sauce emulsifies and turns a gorgeous pale orangey-red.
Season with salt to taste.
Serve with calçots or with fish, chicken or pasta.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Anna's Pebblebed Harvest Soup

Ebford, Devon October 22, 2006 As per Geoff Bowen's Pebblebed harvest report, the last of the Pebblebed grapes are all now in. Once picked, they were transported to Juliet White's Yearlstone winery, crushed and are now slowly fermenting as natural grape sugars are transformed into alcohol. In Piedmont, Mario Fontana's deeply coloured classic red wines of Le Langhe - Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Barolo - continue to slowly ferment. Soon it will be time to draw off the first jugs of tooth-staining Dolcetto, brought to the table direct from the cellar below, still foaming and raspingly acidic, to enjoy with bagna caoda, the pungent anchovy and garlic hot pot that is a characteristic and delicious autumn food of the region.

Last Sunday's harvest in Ebford, as harvests are everywhere, was a quite joyous event. The forecast was dire, with torrential rain and high winds set to pass through in the morning. A good turnout, however, ensured that the last of the Seyval grapes were harvested by mid-morning. Then, just as the last crates were loaded on to John Pyne's horse trailers for transport to Yearlstone, the heavens opened. Everyone huddled under the marquee as the rain lashed down. The weather may have been horrid, but there was a real feeling of satisfaction at a job well done. Harvesting grapes is hard physical labour, bending down or stretching up to carefully cut the bunches, carrying the heavy crates down the rows, back up to start all over again. Yet there are rewards: at the finish, hands sticky from the sweet grape juice that ran down our arms, Geoff passed around most welcome tumblers of of Pebblebed white 2005.

Now normally - Geoff I'm sure would concur - we consider Pebblebed white to be a light summer wine to enjoy on balmy evenings, perhaps beside the river. On this day, the weather by contrast was positively wintry as the rain, driven by the near gale force westerlies, lashed horizontally into the marquee, drenching and chilling us all. Yet that Pebblebed white, supped or glugged with gusto and real thirst worked up from labour and anticipation, enjoyed within the actual vineyard from which it was produced, tasted as full and delicious and as right for the occasion as any glass of wine you are ever likely to taste in your life.

And, finally, this year's much awaited Harvest Feast! Anna, Gail and friends carried out from the Leaders' house immense, steaming pots of the most delicious and warming soup, a real, hearty, rib-sticking affair, made with bacon, Savoy cabbage, beans, leeks, potatoes. It was awesomely good, piping hot, and it positively demanded a tumbler or two more of that delicious Pebblebed to wash it down. To finish, Bill Barnes then turned up with some schiacciata con le uve - a sort of Tuscan inspired flat pizza-like sourdough bread based topped with Seyval grapes from the vineyard, baked briefly in a very hot oven. The chewy, sourdough crust and the sweet, crushed grapes again demanded, well, what else, yet more Pebblebed white as the perfect accompaniment...

Bravo, Geoff, brava, Anna, bravo Bill. Let's raise a glass to Geoff and to all our winemaker friends, Mario of Cascina Fontana, Giuditta of Loretello, Donatella of Casato Prime Donne, Gianluca of Prosecco Bisol and others. Your considerable efforts bring great pleasure to us all!

Anna's Pebblebed harvest soup

Last Sunday, Anna made enough soup to feed an army of hungry grape pickers. This recipe is scaled down to feed just a hungry family or two.

4 large onions, roughly chopped
4 leeks, cleaned and roughly chopped
8 slices thick cut smoked bacon, diced into cubes
1 large glass Pebblebed white wine
2 tbs tomato puree
1 tin baked beans (!)
1/2 Savoy cabbage
500 g new potatoes
Generous dash of Tabasco sauce

In a separate pan, par-boil the new potatoes until just tender.

Fry the onions and leeks in a generous knob of butter. Add the bacon and cook for five minutes or so. Add a glass of white wine (one for the pot, one for the cook), stir in well and let bubble for a couple of minutes. Add tomato puree, baked beans, new potatoes and cabbage and top up with water so that all the contents are just covered. Bring to the boil and simmer until the cabbage is well cooked. Add a generous splosh of Tabasco to give that final Pebblebed kick. Enjoy - either around the table or, if you really want to be authentic, standing outside in the pouring rain.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Lunns and Bunns

Order a Bath Bun in the Pump Room for your “elevenses” and you’ll receive a glazed, sugary, slightly flattened English tea bread. Slip round the corner to a tearooms in Lilliput Alley, “the oldest house in Bath” (except that it isn’t quite as old as it’s often claimed to be) and you can sample its rival, the Sally Lunn, softer, paler, more like an outsize bap, possibly an adjusted brioche— or another kind of tea bread. Partisans of each will claim that theirs is an authentic recipe, adjusted to suit modern taste, but going back in a direct line into the mists and fumes of a distant past.
The Sally Lunn walks the walk. It can supply no less than four possible sources as to its origins, one with the conviction of an urban myth, another based on hearsay, a third founded on gastronomic assertions and a fourth, well, an outlandish possibility.
Let’s consider the last of these. Whitsun 1914: suffragettes set fire to St Mary’s Church, Wargrave, Berkshire. A register, dated 1537 is saved from the flames. Examined it reveals the name of a hamlet that has since vanished called Sally Lunn. From this snippet a variety of scenarios may be inferred that would account for the cake’s emergence at a fashionable spa two centuries later.
The popular story is of a Huguenot refugee, Sally Louan or Luyon, fleeing France some time after the Restoration of Charles II (1660) and baking brioches for a baker in the town. This tale has the inconvenience that no record of her exists. At any event Sally isn’t a French name (could she have been a Solange?).
Also lacking corroboration is the mythical, eponymous maiden (beautiful, of course) hawking her wares about town in Beau Nash’s day.
Quite a bit of scholarship, however, has gone into showing that the name is a deformation of “Sol et Lune” [sun and moon] a breakfast cake that’s golden on top, pale beneath the surface. This passed into the patisserie of Alsace as Solileme or Solimeme and wound its way back into Victorian books as such.
What is certain is that the name was familiar to Georgian society. In one of his many scribblings Philip Thicknesse [see chapter xx} lamented: “I had the misfortune to lose a beloved brother in the prime of life, who dropt down dead as he was playing on the fiddle at Sir Robert Throgmorton’s, after drinking a large quantity of Bath Waters, and eating a hearty breakfast of spungy hot rolls, or Sally Luns.”
Still in the 18th century the Bath Chonicle, October 1796, carried a verse receipt:
No more I heed the muffin’s zest
The yeast cake or the bun.
Sweet muse of pastry teach me how
To make a Sally Lunn.
It’s attributed, all eleven verses of it, to a musician-baker, William Dalmer who delivered them warm to the gentry via a mobile oven, carted through the streets.
The strands of the stories, some of them, do tie loosely together. Workmen restoring what was already known as Sally Lunn’s house in Lilliput Lane in 1930, found a cache behind some wood panelling that had concealed two dolls, trinkets and a variant recipe.
It suggests that each baker added a personal touch. Nor, as the poem made clear was it a specific shape:
And now let fancy revel free
By no stern rule confin’d
On glittering tin in varied form
Each Sally Lunn be twined.
If anything, this gives the impression of plaited rolls, similar to the Jewish Hallah, rather than the current habit of moulding them, putting them in hoops and baking them so that a golden-brown dome balloons over the edges.
Bath buns don’t slip into the English language until a young Jane Austen writes a typically mischievous letter about “disordering my stomach with Bath bunns.” The extra letter ‘n’ may not be an accidental slip. She could be referring to Sally Lunns. Nor is she criticising their indigestibility, simply implying that she liked pigging out on them as a form of comfort eating.
Until then, cookery writers had always referred to “Bath Cakes” that were eaten at the endless round of breakfast parties. Like brioches, they were eaten hot if possible, split open and liberally doused with melted butter. Bakers made them in different sizes that could either be cut up or eaten as individual portions.
Eliza Smith’s “A French cake to eat hot”(1753) comes closest to what I imagine the Company enjoying:
“Take a dozen of eggs, a quart of cream and as much of flour as will make it into a thick batter; put to it a pound of melted butter, half a pint of sack (sherry), and one nutmeg grated ; mix it well, and let it stand for four hours; then bake it in a quick oven, and when you take it out, slit it in two and pour a pound of butter on it melted with rose-water; cover it with the other half, and serve up hot.”
By itself, this won’t work. Add fresh yeast or a natural leaven and it might.
From high status specialities enjoyed by the wealthy, to local curiosities both Lunns and “Bunns” have endured as many shifts in fortune as they have in the ways bakers prepare them.
The popularity of Bath Buns soon spread throughout Britain, preferred to its rival the sticky Chelsea bun that was rolled up similar to a Swiss roll before baking, the currant bun and the penny bun. Meg Dod’s The Cook’s Manual, a classic Scottish cookery book published at the end of the 1820s gives a clue as to what they were really like. “They are almost,” she said “the same preparation as the brioche cake so much eaten and talked of in Paris.” She proceeds to a recipe for Bath cakes –they should rise very light- and then observes, that the buns are moulded by hand rather than cut out with stamps and decorated on top with sugared caraway seeds.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, caterers sold 870,027 buns, along with 33,456lbs meat pies, 37.300lbs biscuits, 36,000lbs potted meats, 33 tonnes ham and 36 tonnes potatoes to accompany 14,299lbs of coffee and more than a million bottles of soda, lemonade and ginger.
George Augustus Sala, the journalist who collaborated with Dickens mused: “To the end of time little princesses will ask their governesses why the people need starve for want of bread; when there are such nice Bath buns in confectioners’ shop windows,”
By then they had already undergone a kind of evolutionary split that created an extra rich London variety as well as the original. Rather than the smooth surfaced, neat buns that are stencilled out by mechanical means, these had a rocky unfinished surface, but there was little to complain about in the ingredients: half as much butter as flour, eggs, yolks, lemon zests and chopped citrus peel.
Not everyone was so lucky as to afford these. 19 children were poisoned eating Bath buns that had been adulterated with a yellow arsenic dye, rather than the approved “chromate of lead.” The magistrate refused any redress to one of the survivors on the grounds that he hadn’t been poison’d outright. “Who among us are safe?” fumed the Times. It accused doctors of conniving with poisonmongers, so that it could charge for treating the sick.
The downward qualitative spiral continued so that during the Edwardian era it had been reduced to “a sweet bun of a somewhat stodgy type, and is supposed to constitute with a little milk, the average form of luncheon taken by a mild curate.” Its quality grew worse. The author Max Beerbohm gave this impression of an empty railway station between the two World Wars: “A solitary porter shuffles along the platform. Yonder, those are the lights of the refreshment room, where all night long, a barmaid is keeping her lonely vigil over the beer-handles and the Bath buns in a glass case.”
Sally Lunns too, like Icarus, were spreading their wings. A writer to the prestigious journal Notes and Queries (1852) who, “Partial to my sweet teacake…I often think of the pretty, pastrycook of Bath” , inquired for details of their creator’s existence. He received the Dalmer story as an answer with the comment: “To this day the Sally Lunn cake claims pre-eminence in all the cities of England.”
In his short story The Chimes, Charles Dickens describes a dismal evening as: “the sort of night that's meant for muffins. . . Likewise crumpets. Also Sally Lunns."
Gilbert and Sullivan managed to combine both it and a bun, presumably from Bath, in a chorus of their first full length operetta where villagers that are about, unwittingly, to drink a magic potion at an engagement party anticipate tucking into:
The rollicking bun, and the gay Sally Lunn!

The rollicking, rollicking bun!
The twentieth century showed less enthusiasm, partly because craft bakers’ shops were closing down, partly because it was time consuming to produce, partly because it was costly and relied on lavish amounts of expensive ingredients. It did survive in unexpected corners of the country. When the food writer Jane Grigson toured Britain for her unique account of British food in the 1980s she found ones which were “more fun than the so-called originals in Bath” in Carlisle.
The tearooms in Lilliput Alley have continued to flourish as a “Refreshment House and Museum” or more recently, plain Sally Lunns. Its kitchens bake a modern all-purpose bun that reflects the food fashions of the day. A decade ago its menu offered chicken supreme, egg mayonnaise or baked beans à la bun. Things have moved on — scrambled eggs on bun for breakfast; toasted bun with lemon curd and clotted cream for tea and for dinner, sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and a Sally Lunn trencher.
Its own bun recipe is a secret. The colour and the texture seem to place it among milk breads. That isn’t necessarily a heresy. An authority on folk cookery, Florence White argued that the dough was better made with cream than butter. For better or worse it does have a texture that’s much softer than brioche, closer, dare I say it, to the kind of bun designed for wrapping burgers.
The Bath bun has undergone even more changes. James Cobb opened a bakery in 1866. This family business supplied the Pump Room until it was bought by a Bristol firm Mount Stevens in 1990. Mr Cobb owned a recipe that was over 200 years old then, for caraway seed cakes “the size of a pippin”, sweetened with sugar and treacle which he believed to be a forerunner of the Bath bun that became his family’s speciality.
By the standards of modern British baking practices, his was an expensive item. The dough was rich, initially containing butter for which pastry shortening was later substituted. It was unusual in that it had a chunk of cube sugar pressed to its underbelly. Hand-crafted, it didn’t always leave the ovens as the baker had intended. Sometimes it would be nicely rounded. Often it was flatter and half-collapsed. It was always recognizable by the nibbed sugar and currants scattered over the top. The latter were an anomaly, not really necessary, often carbonised.
It may not be tragic, but it is regrettable that two genuine local specialities once so popular that they became a familiar part of the British culinary heritage, should survive more on the strength of their past history than any intrinsic merit. According to a respected professional baking textbook Bath Buns are no different from any other buns except for a little chopped peel and extra sugar used to decorate them. That’s not saying very much in their favour. What’s worse, it’s a form of vandalism not so different from, say, building a leisure centre on top of the Roman baths.
Maybe the root cause for the declining reputation of the city’s one-time favourites lies not with its own but with the London bakers. It was said, during the Great Exhibition, that the refreshments served were sloppy and unappetizing. Bath buns were an early casualty of mass catering
Copyright Michael Raffael, Curiosities of Bath [Birlinn 2006

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sicilian Vespas

Well it wasn't actually a Vespa, it was a BMW but I couldn't resist the title. The story begins on a fine morning in Catania, where Roberta and I had just checked out the fabulous vegetable market and wished - not for the first time when visiting a strange city - that we'd rented a little apartment so we could scoop up all that wonderful produce and cook up a storm.

There were great pale green zucchini that looked like writhing snakes, wild strawberries like little splashes of blood, apricots with sunset streaks, polychrome peppers artfully arranged on wire trays in fours and fives, olives in all colours, shapes, sizes and marinades - and venerable scales with brass pans and weights.

The fish market, under the viaduct with trains rumbling overhead, went one better: we marvelled at massive gleaming tuna, coveted calamari at 7 euros a kilo (the week before in L'Escala, Catalunya, I'd baulked at paying 33 euros), saw shrimp of all conceivable sizes (only raw) and fancied mackerel with iridescent, hologram-like skin - all at prices so absurdly low by any standards that it must almost be worth packing your chill bag and boarding a low-cost flight to Catania just to stock up on some of the best, most succulent, freshest fish ever.

By now we were getting peckish. We called up Claudio, a local journalist contact, for tips on where to eat. 'How many of you - just 2?' he asked. 'Meet me at the Piazza Mazzini in 20 minutes, I'll be on my bike - it's a BMW.'

We hung around trying to look nonchalant, discreetly scanning the horizon for every potential journo on a bike with room for two more. Claudio (shaved head à la Agassi, brilliant smile, mwam mwam) hove into view, a single spare helmet on his arm. 'Hop on', he ordered. We clambered aboard, Claudio leading from the front, me in the middle like the prosciutto in the panino (senza helmet - I figured I was safely sandwiched), helmeted Roberta bringing up the rear. We sped off. My stomach stayed in Piazza Mazzini for a few blocks, then caught up with me and I began to enjoy the ride.

Twenty minutes later, after weaving our way through the labyrinthine Catanian streets, we ground to a halt before an anonymous doorway fringed by a beaded curtain. We dismounted and pushed through the beads to find a tumultuous greeting (for Claudio, a regular) and a courteous welcome (for us two hangers-on).

In the kitchen was a bevy of women cooks - la nonna, her daughter and granddaughter and lots of other smiling ladies. We joined our fellow workers (painters in overalls, builders with dusty shoes, businessmen in ties), already tucking into their lunch, at a huge refectory table. At a word from Claudio it started raining antipasti: raw anchovies with herbs and olive oil to which we were permitted to add a squirt of lemon - 'lemon only at table', admonished Claudio, 'otherwise you lose the taste of the sea.'

There were flash-fried fresh sardines, infant red mullet not much bigger than the sardines, shrimp so sweet and succulent that they've certainly spoiled me for shellfish ever after, roasted green peppers in fruity oil, a toothsome caponata with aubergines, potatoes and peppers, all of it served with hunky bread.

Claudio warned us off the brutal house wine ('there are great wines in Sicily, but not here') but when glasses of Zibibbo were pressed upon us by our table neighbours (to go with some of those sunset-streaked fresh apricots), it seemed churlish to refuse. The naturally sweet, pale amber wine was nectar: fruity but not cloying, with wonderful marmalade-y overtones. A real discovery.

I couldn't tell you where we ate - and besides, Claudio swore us to secrecy - beyond the fact that it was flanked by a horse meat butcher and a bathroom fittings shop, opposite a place where they fix punctures and in a 'quartiere molto popolare'. I'd go back tomorrow if I could find it, if only to try the bean soup, or the the fusilli with capers, or even the garlic-laden chunks of roast meat. They'll have to be just a memory, a promise unfulfilled. Better that way.


copyright Sue Style 2006

Thursday, May 04, 2006

It's That Time of Year Again

All over Europe in late spring and early summer, countless sheep, goats and cows perform a sort of carefully choreographed dance routine as they move northwards from parched plains to lusher, greener pastures in kinder climates, or from tired winter quarters up to alpine meadows where the grass is just emerging from its snow-covered sleep. The annual transhumance has begun.

Around the Mediterranean it’s mainly sheep that are moved. In Provence, huge flocks are driven from the harsh, stony landscape of the Crau plain between the Camargue and Aix-en-Provence high up into the Provençal Alps and as far north as Savoie. Tens of thousands of sheep and goats domiciled in Languedoc-Roussillon head for the Cevennes, while for the flocks of Ariège in southwestern France the favoured summer destination is the Pyrenees.

Over the other side in Spain, sheep have been moved for centuries along the ancient Vias Pecuarias that criss-cross the peninsula from north to south and east to west, as they exchange the baked earth of the plains for cooler pastures up high. In Italy it’s the same story with successive waves of animals from the parched areas of Puglia and Lazio to the Abruzzi mountains.

In the more northerly, dairying areas of Europe, the cows are on the move and the distances covered are shorter. In Switzerland and Austria the classic Heidi scene is played out in valley after valley, as café au lait-coloured beasts take joyfully to the alp for their summer grazing.

At the end of May in the Massif Central region of France, herds of toffee-coloured Aubrac cows will be decked out with mellifluous cowbells, festooned with spring flowers and escorted up to St Chély d’Aubrac for the annual Fête de la Transhumance. From there they will proceed to their wild and wonderful Aubrac plateau where a feast of fresh green grass garnished with wild narcissus and jonquils awaits them.

Later, as summer draws to a close and the days shorten and the temperatures start to drop, the same stately dance begins once more as the beasts prepare to regain their winter pastures.

Transhumance has been practised for thousands of years – estimates vary, but it seems logical to date it back to the domestication of the animals themselves. To most of us, safely settled in our urban and suburban environments, it seems like a romantic anachronism, the last vestiges of a nomadic tradition which must surely be doomed to extinction. Romance, in fact, has little to do with it. Transhumance is a tough, demanding way of life that requires specialist training and an ability to work independently in difficult, uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous situations.

As far as the future is concerned, though transhumance seemed doomed a few decades ago, all of a sudden - thanks to the commitment of a number of dedicated players as well as support from people in high places (the EU, Slow Food) – it looks like it’s due for a reprieve.

A key player in the transhumance revival is Roberto Rubino of ANFOSC, an Italian organisation devoted to quality cheeses made from the milk of animals that live outdoors (‘sotto il cielo’). They graze on ancient pastures rich with hundreds of different grasses, wild flowers and herbs instead of being shut up in stables and pumped with artificial food. For his work Rubino has received a Slow Food award for the Defence of Biodiversity.

Whether transhumance is long-distance or local, Rubino is emphatic about the benefits it brings. First there’s the environment. Transhumance strikes a chord today, believes Rubino, because of its genuinely green credentials. By definition it is a form of extensive (rather than intensive) agriculture, a small-scale, sympathetic sort of ‘development’ that is truly sustainable. Without it, the high pastures would revert to scrub with an attendant increased risk of fire, while biodiversity – particularly the flora that flourish in pastures untouched by herbicides and fertilized only by natural manures - would decrease sharply.

Patrick Fabre of the Maison de la Transhumance in St Martin de Crau (Provence) is singing from the same hymn sheet. Like Rubino, he notes that animals fed naturally and grazing out in the open are healthier, while the meat (and/or cheese) they produce is of superior quality and distinctive flavour. Some of these regional products (Sisteron lamb, fromage d’alpage) enjoy Label Rouge and/or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, and command a corresponding premium. For the future there’s talk of a Mountain Label.

Such quality products are the main reason why transhumance is still a viable proposition. While Fabre acknowledges that this is no easy way to make a living, it pays to move animals around in step with the seasons. In the distant past, wool was the point – think only of Florence’s Duomo, funded by the Arte della Lana, the city’s wool guild. Today the value of the fleeces barely covers the cost of shearing; it’s the high-quality meat and dairy products that make it worthwhile.

Fabre also mentions patrimoine – a term he uses to describe a range of centuries’-old traditions and practices associated with transhumance. More than simply an economically viable and eco-friendly way of farming and certainly more than just a job, transhumance is part and parcel of a whole way of life. Without it, isolated mountain villages would wither and die, the mountain cabins would crumble (along with their graffiti, a rich primary source for anthropologists). Disappearance of the drove roads (many of them Roman in origin) would accelerate, cow and sheep bells would no longer be cast and burnished, sticks and crooks no longer carved. Breeds of rustic sheep like the Provençal Merino d’Arles with their superb fleeces and corkscrew horns, which have been selected over centuries for their nomadic suitability and for their fine meat, would be lost.

I admit I’ve always been a bit of a soft touch where transhumance is concerned. But after a couple of hours in a sunlit village café in the foothills of the Provençal Alps listening to Fabre talking with simple fervour about all the things that make this age-old practice so worthwhile, I was totally sold. If a shepherd had happened to stray through the village with his 1500 head of sheep bound for Castellane and the pastures beyond, I’d have been after him like a shot, no questions asked.

It’s not as unlikely a proposition as it may sound - and it seems that my passion for transhumance is shared by plenty of others. Fabre has regular requests via the website ( from people interested in accompanying the sheep or cattle for all or part of their journey to or from the hills. There’s even an enterprising tour operator, a retired shepherd, who is offering specialized tours.

If you’re not up for an 8-hour daily hike over 10-14 days, helping to keep the sheep on track by day and sleeping out under the stars to the sound of howling wolves by night (because protected, these are increasing), there is a soft option. Try one of the countless village-based Fêtes de la Transhumance and alpine cheese festivals where you can meet and talk to the shepherds (like the ones pictured at the annual Chästeilet in Switzerland's Justistal) and tuck into a robust meal with lashings of local wine, probably to the strains of accordions and alphorns.

These initiatives, which help to raise awareness and to preserve the public face of transhumance, are essential. Part of the problem is that transhumance, in Fabre’s words, has become somewhat ‘furtive’. In the past when the whole journey was done on foot, it was visible, celebrated all along the route and at the animals’ final destination. Nowadays the animals are moved largely by truck, travelling at night to stay in the cool and to avoid causing jams on the steep, narrow mountain roads.

Another problem is that use of the high pastures is increasingly contested by several different interest groups (walkers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, hunters), not all of whom are as convinced as you or I that the nomadic way of life is valid but fragile, and in need of support.

At a time when few of us are even aware of the seasons, with little idea of how, when or where our food is produced, transhumance may indeed seem like a relic of bygone days, a throwback to an almost-forgotten rhythm of life when food production was dominated not by spreadsheets and automated feedlots, but by the lengthening and shortening of the days and the waxing and waning of the grass. Yet we should treasure it as a fabulous, timeless practice that preserves our landscape, provides small-scale rural employment, enhances our food, and reminds us of better, slower times.

Copyright Sue Style

Monday, January 16, 2006

Turning grapes into . . . bread?!

Bill's sourdough loaf, hot from the oven, with a glass of Mario Fontana's Dolcetto d'Alba (photo by Kim Millon)

Topsham, Devon 16 January 2006 The annual transformation of grapes into wine is one that I consider little short of miraculous. But grapes into bread? Those who passed by the Vino Wine Cellar last Saturday may have had the chance to sample a rare treat: Bill Barnes' homebaked walnut sourdough loaf, kindly brought to us by Bill and Yolanda, straight out of the oven. It was sensational, with or without a dribble of Monte in Vito or Fattoria del Colle extra-virgin olive oil. And it was all the better for the fact that the sourdough starter had been made from grapes harvested from the Pebblebed Vineyard in Ebford!

Bill explains what he did:

"For the sourdough starter, I used a bunch of Geoff's grapes (Seyval I think!). I tried to follow the instructions an Italian friend from Turin gave me late one night in a restaurant in Cork (it turned out we both loved making bread - and he used a sourdough starter, something I had never tried). As he explained to me, the surface of unsprayed grapes have yeast organisms on them, and it is this that can be used for the starter. I squashed the grapes by hand over a bowl and then added the squashed grapes to the liquid, covered the lot with a tea-towel and left it for 2 - 3 days at room temperature.  The next step was to strain off the liquid through a sieve, discarding the bits, skins etc. and retaining the liquid. I then mixed in enough flour (plain organic flour from Otterton Mill) to make a runny paste and again left the whole lot with a lid over it for a couple of days (a big empty jam jar will do - but make sure the lid is only on very loosely - as the yeast multiplies gas (carbon dioxide) is given off.  After that I poured away half of the mixture each day and replaced the lost volume with a mixture of water and more flour.  Every day, before pouring half of the mixture away I would check what it looked like, and the smell.  The smell is a key indicator - it should smell slightly sour, it should also look as though it has been developing bubbles (it won't look anything like the wonderful Vino champagnes though).  If it has worked it should have these characteristics after about 5 days.  Nothing is precise here - that's one of the things I love about it!  If it doesn't work just try again.  No grapes? No problem - you could try organic raisins but frankly, I have found just leaving a bowl of flour mixed with water, covered by a tea-towel, will often work - the mixture picks up yeasts floating in the air in your kitchen!

"As for the bread, I blended together 100g of walnuts with a spoon of honey, a spoon of butter and a spoon of flour and enough water to make a paste.  I then mixed in 150g of sourdough starter (that leaves enough to add some flour and water and build up the starter again), 300g plain flour, 100g wholemeal flour and 100g of rye flour, and added a teaspoon of salt and finally a really big handful of walnut halves. I kneaded this lot for maybe 1 minute, put it back in a bowl and left it over night to rise.  The next morning I kneaded it again, probably only 30 seconds this time (it really doesn't need more) and put it on a metal sheet, placing it on the back of my ancient gas oven for an hour to rise a little.  I then slashed the surface with a sharp knife and baked to loaf for 1 hour at gas mark 7.  Next step - off to see if Geoff and Marc like it....."

Thanks again, Bill. We most certainly did! It was absolutely awesome, possibly the best homemade bread I've ever had. Bravissimo. (When are you going to open a Topsham bakery?!)

Marc Millon

Monday, December 19, 2005

Down on the Foie Gras Farm

Barbary ducks at the Domaine de la Schleif, Soultz-les-Bains, Alsace.
Photograph by John Miller

I’d better come clean right away: I rather like foie gras. Actually, that’s a lie - I love it. I adore its extreme unctuousness and its complex flavours. I seldom pass up a chance to eat it, and I get a definite frisson from the realisation that about 14 billion calories are contained in every slice.

I’m not alone in appreciating this delicacy. Charles Gérard in l’Ancienne Alsace à Table described the goose as ‘that admirable machine which elaborates and produces the succulent substance known as foie gras’, and could clearly conceive of no other reason for the bird’s existence. Sydney Smith, the eighteenth-century gourmet parson, famously favoured eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. More recently, Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, has labelled it the ultimate guilty pleasure.

The pleasure part is easy to explain – it’s just so disgracefully delicious. And we’re not discussing anything that comes out of a tin here, we’re talking fresh foie gras, barely cooked or perhaps pan-fried. The guilt bit is more insidious, partly due to the calorie question, and partly to unease about the fattening process. It was the latter that led me to decide that if I eat and appreciate the stuff, I ought to go and see how it’s arrived at.

Monsieur Lucien Doriath of the Domaine de la Schleif at the northern end of the route des Vins, near Strasbourg, agreed to take me in hand. Doriath is a man on a mission. His brief is to educate the public on the subject of foie gras and he receives busloads of visitors each week. On guided tours he brooks no interruptions. Giggling in the back row is absolutely not tolerated; we are here to learn.

The grey Barbary ducks, specially bred for foie gras production, are raised on farms in the Saone-et-Loire region and arrive at the Domaine at the age of 14 weeks, weighing an average of 4 kilos. (Doriath only does ducks, no geese. Geese are more delicate animals to raise and fatten and he prefers the more assertive flavour of duck livers.) They spend the final fourteen days of their life in a special, temperature-controlled shed, where the visit starts.

The temperature is agreeably warm, the lighting is dim. Twice a day Doriath climbs into each of the pens with his stool and a bucket of lightly cooked maize, grown to special order by a local farmer. The ducks seem unbothered by his arrival, and allow themselves to be taken on his knee without fuss. He reaches up and pulls down a contraption about the size and shape of a jam funnel, suspended from the ceiling by a pulley arrangement. The duck opens its beak expectantly and the prescribed quantity (which can vary slightly for each animal, depending on its body weight) clatters down through the funnel into the animal’s gullet. The duck swallows a couple of times, and Doriath massages its neck to ease it down. He pushes the animal off his lap and another bird takes its place.

After 12-16 days of force-feeding (the term ‘cramming’ is also used in English), the ducks have gained up to 2 kilos in weight. Their livers weigh about 400 grams. Depending on the time of year – the run-up to Christmas is always the busiest period – between 30 and 60 birds are slaughtered each day. Everything is used: the feathers go to make duvets and pillows (1,300 kilos of feathers per year), the fat is rendered and canned.

The legs are sold fresh or as confits, the breasts are marketed as magrets or (if skinned) as steaks. Some are smoked and finely sliced, to be eaten raw. The fattened livers – about 6 tonnes a year are produced - are offered either fresh or as semi-conserves; a few are put up in tins for longer keeping. Out at the front there’s a seductive selling space called Le Comptoir des Saveurs which does a brisk trade from Monday to Saturday (Sundays too, during December). Products are also sold by mail order. At the back there’s an in-house restaurant where by special order at lunch-time you can feast on poelée de foie gras frais du jour. For this delectable dish of pan-fried foie gras, the ducks have been slaughtered at 11 a.m. and the dish is on the table by 12.30. It would be difficult to have food fresher than this. Traceability is assured.

Doriath’s strategy is to commercialise his entire production himself, through the shop, restaurant and mail order. He prefers not to sell to supermarkets or intermediaries. He seems puzzled at my queries about cruelty, observing that ducks and geese have a natural propensity to stuff themselves, even in the wild. ‘If you want to see cruelty and intensive husbandry, go and have a look at an industrial chicken unit [where Doriath spent ten years before starting his foie gras business]. My ducks get the best possible treatment – if they didn’t, I couldn’t make the best possible product – and quality is what I’m after.’

So how was the guilt, after my trip? A little assuaged – at least as far as Doriath’s production is concerned. And the quality of the product? Fabulous. And my liver? Better not ask.


copyright Sue Style 2005

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mexican Breakfasts

Marc's timely tomatillo posting had me pining once more for real Mexican food - we're just planning our next trip to Mexico. (Come to think of it, we're always planning our next trip there, mainly to visit Ol down in Chiapas but also to get that necessary fix of real Mexican food that's dismally lacking in Europe.) BTW it's been a brilliant year for tomates verdes here in Alsace too. I had a freak harvest this summer and autumn, all of them self-seeded from a load of compost cast carelessly over the herb garden last year. I managed to get most of them in before the recent frosts laid waste to them (and to my epazote, also self-seeded). They've gone into salsas, both raw and cooked, and a fabulously fragrant pipian verde, and they've helped to keep the yearnings at bay - at least till February when we're off again. We'll be in Mexico City for a couple of days, then we'll take ourselves down to Oaxaca and do breakfast the Mexican way.

Breakfast in Mexico can, in truth, be brilliant, or it can be a bit of a minefield. You have to rule out right away the desayuno continental served in modest hotels, consisting of boiled acorns (euphemistically called café americano), barely toasted Pan Bimbo and a smear of margarine. It would be an insult to dignify Pan Bimbo with the name ‘bread’. Flabby and sweet, it’s like a piece of warm flannel, designed for people who have no teeth and even less taste.

Once in Oaxaca, we take a deep breath, square our shoulders and remind ourselves that this is a coffee- and cocoa-producing country with some of the best bakeries in the world, a country where tropical fruits abound, the tortilla reigns supreme, where salsas are nothing to do with dancing and beans are de rigueur.

The city’s central food market on 20 de noviembre is a great place to begin. Long before we ever get near the mercado (which occupies two full blocks), nostrils develop a distinct twitch at the bewitching aromas of roasting cocoa beans, caramelised sugar, toasted almonds and cinnamon. We pause at La Soledad in Calle Mina to see (and smell) the beans being roasted, ground, liquefied and rendered to a paste successively with cinnamon, sugar and almonds. Then we choose between amargo (so-called ‘bitter’, though it’s achingly sweet), especial (sweeter still) and almendrado (with almonds and loads more sugar).

Ducking inside the market past the jeans, leather belts, pink plastic shoes and cockatoos we spot the rows of local women selling tablecloth-sized tortillas called clayudas and virginal white mounds of Oaxaca ‘string’ cheese. Some urge us to taste fried grasshoppers for a crunchy, spicy little early morning snack. Once inside, we blink to get used to the relative gloom. Gradually the serried ranks of comedores or dining rooms come into focus. Here people of all ages and sizes are starting on their first breakfast of the day.

A short, plump lady with jet-black braided hair and liquid brown eyes is whisking up the sweet, almond- and cinnamon-laden chocolate in a huge pan of milk. Backwards and forwards between her palms she rolls the handle of the characteristic chocolate whisk (which looks like a cross between a wooden spoon and a baby’s rattle).

The steaming chocolate, smooth and thick as velvet is served in deep soup bowls with pan de yema, a soft, sweet, yolk-laden bread for dunking. A young man with a huge wooden plank laden with more freshly baked breads balanced on his head sways into the next-door booth and lowers the plank gently and skilfully onto the counter without losing a single shiny golden bun. All around, the marchantas chant their litany of wares – chocolate con agua, chocolate con leche, café con leche, champurrado.

This is just a gentle breaking of the fast, taken early in the morning. Mexicans also do brunch (almuerzo) any time up until about midday. For this weadjourn to La Merced market a little way from the centre (ask any taxi driver). Inside the market at the Fonda la Florecita, a beaming waiter is ready to recite by heart the entire menu of brunch dishes. ‘If I’d been half as good at remembering stuff at school, I might have really gone places!’ he grins.

Mexicans take brunch seriously. First comes fruit – slivers of sunset-coloured papaya, half moon slices of ruby watermelon framed in lacquered green skin and flecked with shiny black seeds; yellow, red and green bananas ranging in size from a stubby finger to a positive paddle; or the delectable Manila mangoes, pale primrose-yellow with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. With the fruit comes a saucer of brilliant green limes cut in ‘cheeks’ (never quarters, or slices) – for these the limes are placed stalks upwards and cloven into four neat pieces, leaving behind a central core of pith and pips.

Brunch revolves largely around the tortilla in any number of guises, shapes and sizes. We feast on empanadas stuffed with the silvery-black huitlacoche corn fungus, or with squash blossoms. Quesadillas are filled with the lightly acidic local white cheese that comes rolled up and wound round on itself like a ball of string. On the fierce heat of the clay griddle, the cheese inside the turned-over tortilla fuses gently with leaves of the pungent, bitter herb epazote (Mexican wormseed). With all of them there's the classic salsa verde or salsa mexicana.

Eggs Oaxaca-style are another option, gently scrambled into a tomato-based sauce with a terrific kick from shiny dried red chiles and flavoured with the ubiquitous epazote herb . In most Mexican regions, tamales are wrapped in corn husks; in Oaxaca they come steamed in fragrant banana leaves.

Thus fortified, we can move on to a day of archaeological explorations, or hop on the gas-fired minibus-special up over the sierra to the coast, or head south on the overnight bus to Ol in Chiapas.

Copyright Sue Style 2005

Tomatillos and Chilies (from Devon!)

(clockwise from top) tomatillos, jalapeños, Hungarian chilies,
aji limons (fresh and dried), chipotles, anaheim

Topsham, Devon 1 December 2005 The first of December arrives here in Devon: wet, blustery, cold and miserable, as you'd expect. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that tomatillos and chillies, grown under polytunnels in the nearby South Hams, are still flourishing. Steve from the South Devon Chili Farm emailed me a few days ago to say that the tomatillos have finally ripened (they were, apparently, planted late this season). He was happy to drop off a crate to me after he finished the Thursday Farmers Market in Exeter, and so he came around today. And now here they sit, in a little crate, wafting scents of the exotic and the far-off, and promising flavours from my childhood past.

This is the second year that the guys from South Devon have supplied me with tomatillos. They (the tomatillos) look absolutely gorgeous in their delicate, papery husks, firm and sticky. In addition to these beauts, I also take a few handfuls of jalapeños, some aji limons, some waxy hungarian chilies that Steve says are delicious simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, some big, meaty anaheims, some dried and smoked chipotles and some dried aji limons, my favorite all purpose dried chili to crush or crumble on just about everything.

"Look!" I say to Bella when she returns home from school. "More fresh chillies! And dried, too."

"Great, Dad," she replies, but without enthusiasm. Do I glance a roll of the eyes to her mother?

"But Bella, I thought you loved chilies," I say, trying not to sound reproachful.

"Yes-s-s-s," she answers, with thirteen-year-old exasperation, "only not in EVERYTHING, Dad."

OK OK, Bella, I get the message and will try and control myself (though it will be difficult with all these beautiful fresh and dried varieties to play with).

Right now, I'm going to slip the husks off the tomatillos and simply cook them up with the jalapeños. Allow to cool. Liquidize roughly and season with salt and lots of freshly chopped cilantro. Perhaps mix a bit of this tangy salsa verde with mashed avocado to spoon into warm corn tortillas. And I can't resist frying some of those Hungarian chilies - apparently they are like pimientos del Padròn, mainly mild except for the odd blow-your-head-off rogue! And the chipotles - oh, smell that deep, smoky, gorgeous, warm and comforting aroma! - they'll be delicious simply crumbled into some scrambled eggs with a bit of chopped chorizo, and topped with the salsa verde of course...


Post-dinner PS: Right now I'm sweating mighty heavily. I couldn't resist frying up not only the Hungarian chilies but also some of the aji limons and the jalapeños. Fried until crispy, then patted in kitchen towel and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Nada mas. Big mistake. These chilies were just too darn hot to eat this way. The Hungarians were unpredictable, and the aji limons sort of crept up on you - you take a nibble and think, hey, that's OK, then you have a bigger munch and all of a sudden you're totally on fire, gulping water, gulping wine, still on fire. Never again. Well, not until tomorrow, at least. Actually those ajis had a wonderful flavour, bloody hot, but with a waxy, lemony character that is very attractive. The jalapeños by contrast had a more green pepper heat, far less subtle. The Hungarians, well, as I said, they were just ridiculously variable, from so mild to blow-your-head-off-totally. The tomatillos cooked down with simply jalapeños were amazing, the resulting salsa verde delicious sour and hot and green and pungent. Steve will bring me out another batch next Wednesday, and also some genuine pimientos del Padròn.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Mummy Mackerel, King Bass

2 September 2005 Topsham, Devon Dammit, for the fourth year running Kim has whooped the pants off me. It’s been a great year for boating and that means we’ve spent a lot of time at sea, fishing. Or in my case, trying to. And while I’ve struggled to catch a single thing, Kim meanwhile has been pulling in mackerel by the dozen.

It just doesn’t make sense. We purchased two identical mackerel lines this summer, we go a couple of miles off shore, turn off the engine, and throw the lines overboard. Kim invariable gets a bite, almost immediately, and hauls in a silvery, glistening, slippery, shiny, yes, dammit, beautiful fish. Then another. And another. And another. Me: not even a nibble.

“Let’s change sides,” I say sulkily, certain that the shadow of the boat, or some other significant factor, is the cause of my lack of success. But no, as soon as we have switched over, she twitches in excitement as she feels the catch, and then begins hauling in a fish! Meanwhile, I sit stupidly dangling the bloody line overboard, bobbing my arm up and down like a bozo, pointlessly and fruitlessly.

“There’s absolutely no skill in mackerel fishing,” I comment, to no one in particular. “They are such stupid fish, they will go for anything at all.” This is true: we are fishing off hand lines with no more than brightly coloured feathers attached to a string of hooks. Why then, do they always go for hers and not mine?

The really annoying thing about it, I’m afraid I have to say, is Kim’s attitude. Now anyone who knows Kim would agree that she is the least self-congratulatory, triumphal, yee-high, aren’t-I-great sort of person you’ll ever meet. She is modest in the extreme. But not when it comes to fishing. She has become, well, unbearably, objectionably smug about her prowess. Every time she catches a bloody fish, she puffs up with the most extreme pleasure; every time I pull in an empty line, she can hardly stifle the guffaws of mirth as she says, very unconvincingly, choking back tears of laughter, ‘Bad luck’.

Bad luck? Perhaps. But in fact, it’s reached the point where I have finally if reluctantly had to concede that yes, she is a better mackerel fisherperson than me. There is no shame in admitting it. I mean, it doesn’t signify that I am any less of a person, does it? She simply seems to have the knack and fish are for some inexplicable reason attracted to her line above all others. It’s probably genetic. Nature not nurture.

‘Mummy Mackerel’ we’ve taken to calling her, every time she pulls in a fish. It is name she wears with the utmost pride. It’s now accepted in this family that when it comes to fishing, I am a dismal failure, while Kim is nothing less than a champion, a world beater: Mummy Mackerel.

Today is our anniversary. We have been married 27 years. I wonder what to give her as a present. I go shopping with Bella and in a local art gallery we find just the perfect thing: a beautifully handcrafted and painted ceramic mackerel. This is the ideal offering in homage to her greatness, to her fishing prowess: Mummy Mackerel.

Kim loves the ceramic fish, and I can tell that she is quite touched by my acknowledgement (finally if grudgingly) of her superiority, something that has been blatantly obvious to everyone but me for the past several years.

She then gives me my anniversary present, or presents. Lots of little packages all wrapped up nicely. I open the first little package. A pair of lead weights. Next a lure shaped like a little fish, with vicious three-prong hooks. A packet of swivels. A fishing reel. And finally, a long boat rod.

“For bass fishing!” she says, handing me a book, ‘How to catch bass’ (it wasn't sub-titled 'For dummies' but it might as well have been).

I speed read the whole 215 pages in, what, fifteen minutes or so flat and feel intuitively that I already have a very good understanding of the task in hand. Now let’s be honest (as we must be): mackerel may be very tasty, but as every schoolboy knows, they are as common as muck, aren’t they? And as we’d all agree, just about anyone can catch them, right? But sea bass, the emperor of the sea, the tastiest and most prized fish of all, the most demanding to catch (so says the book), requiring skill, cunning, courage, local knowledge and, yes, perhaps a touch of luck.

Already I begin licking my lips in anticipation, thinking about bar au beurre blanc, branzino arrosto, sea bass fillets deep-fried in tempura batter (with such treatment the fish takes on the creamiest and sweetest flavour), steamed sea bass Chinese style with spring onions and ginger…

Mummy Mackerel indeed: I am soon to become…King Bass!

So I take Guy and Bella into school and return home in a great state of excitement and agitation. The sun is shining and we shall go out immediately on the boat to spend our anniversary together catching sea bass. What could be finer? Only first I have to somehow put all the fishing tackle together. How to do it? Where to begin? Does the weight go above the lure? Or vice versa? How long a line between each? Where to put the swivels? How the hell to tie them on?

I call up the Exeter Angling Centre and come clean, confess my utter and profound ignorance. “My wife just bought me a fishing rod and reel, and I don’t know too much about it. Can you give me some advice, please?”

In fairness, the chap at the end of the phone manages mainly to suppress his mirth. “What are you hoping to catch?” he asks, “Bass?”

Well of course I am trying to catch bass, what else would I be trying to catch? As everybody knows, the bass is the emperor of the sea! But somehow, under such direct cross-examination, it feels presumptuous even to admit to such a lofty goal. “Anything at all but mackerel,” I stammer, “But yeah, I wouldn’t mind catching a bass or two,” I add casually.

So he talks me through what to do, and with the help of Kim’s nimble fingers (and the fact that she somehow knows how to tie a blood knot) we manage to cobble the whole kit together, up and ready to go. So off on the boat, down the Exe as the tide ebbs, along the Exmouth front, and out to sea. It’s a beautiful, clear day, and we can see down the coast as far as Start Point, and east, beyond the red cliffs of Devon and past the chalk white cliffs of Dorset and Lyme Regis, all the way across even to Portland Bill. A beautiful day for bass fishing!

The plan is to trawl slowly at no more than one to two knots with the line behind the boat (Kim driving of course – well, I’m sure not going to let her get her mitts on all this fishing tackle, am I?)

Almost immediately I get a bite! No kidding! And this isn’t the sort of twitch that you get when you hook a mackerel. No, this is a definite aggressive strike, and then a strong pull. I had read in the book that you must strike sharply back in return to make sure the hook takes well, and so I do just as instructed, pulling the rod back with a decisive snap. The fish clearly does not like this and begins to fight like hell (as you’d expect from the emperor of the sea). I play with it expertly, like a professional, swinging the rod up high, then pointing it down and reeling in like a madman to take up the slack, swinging high, then reeling like a madman.

“Get ready with the bucket,” I instruct Kim, “This baby’s enormous! It will feed a whole rugby team!” It was unspoken that when I landed my first bass, Kim of course would be the one to deal with the flapping beaut – well, she’s had so much practise landing mackerel that she now has a good knack for extracting hooks from wriggling, angry fish, doesn’t she? As I have said already, I fully concede her superiority in many matters.

The fish continues to fight, but I play it carefully, cunningly, skilfully: but then, suddenly and through no fault of my own (honest), I feel the line go slack, the rod straighten. The bloody thing has somehow, in spite of all my efforts and expertise, managed to slip the hook, just when I’d nearly landed it…

Oh well, early days, I think, and this most certainly proves that I know what I’m doing, doesn’t it?

So I carry on fishing, Kim driving. Soon I get another strike. I am even more cunning and careful this time, and gradually bring the fish in. A beautiful, really huge one, glistening, slippery, silver, and delicious: a mackerel as big - no bigger, much bigger - than a sea bass. Kim helps me to land it, and skilfully extracts the hook. And so we carry on. Before long, I’ve landed another whopper, and then another and another and another. Now, mackerel is, I consider, one of the most underrated fish in the sea. When just landed and consumed within hours of being expertly caught, it is superior in flavour and texture even to sea bass! I really do believe this. Don’t you?

On our return upriver, the seagulls are circling our boat (if you ever notice, all great fisherman's boats are circled by hungry gulls). All in all, I’d say it was a very successful day, and I can’t help but feel a little cocky, smug even, as I swagger off the boat, carrying my heavy bucket of fish.

When Bella returns from school, she runs down to see me.

“How was the fishing, Daddy?” she asks.

“Brilliant,” I answer, casually tipping the bucket to show her the mass of silvery fish.

She looks at me with the pride and love that only a twelve-year old daughter can give to a father, then nods her head and says, knowingly, “Daddy Mackerel.”

Marc Millon
Notes from a Devon Kitchen

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Smutty Story

The day I get around to writing my definitive work on wild food, I’m going to include a bit of smut.

We’re talking corn smut of course, a unique fungus that grows through corn kernels and invades the corn cob in an uncontrolled mass of silvery-black lobes.

Corn smut (Ustilago maydis) occurs on corn (maize) all over the world. For most farmers it’s a weird, undesirable parasite, to be destroyed or fed to the pigs. Syngenta, the Swiss-based multinational crop protection company, devotes time and money to researching how best to breed corn for resistance to the fungus. Only the Mexicans treasure it as a delicacy, a taste that originated with their ancient Mesoamerican peoples and one which has endured to this day.

If you’ve ever visited a Mexican market in the rainy season (Europe’s summer months), you’ll have spotted corn smut. It’s known as huitlacoche (sometimes spelt cuitlacoche), and it’s sold on vegetable stalls, along with the corn cobs that play host to it. A seasonal delicacy, it is shaved off the cobs, chopped up, fried with onion, garlic, green chiles and epazote (Mexican wormseed) and made into inky-black soups, or used to fill tortillas, crêpes or chiles poblanos. Margarita, who cooks memorable food for my friend in Cuernavaca, does a gorgeous baroque dish in which the creamed fungus is set in a nest of fine noodles.

When I came back to Europe after 7 years in Mexico, I’d resigned myself to the fact that certain familiar treats would no longer feature in our lives – piñatas at birthday parties, mariachis at dawn, and huitlacoche in the rainy season.

Imagine my delight when, back in suburban Switzerland, I found the fungus growing on the corn just up behind our house. I showed it to the farmer and checked that he didn’t mind if I helped myself. He eyed me with undisguised horror, shrugged his shoulders, then grunted his assent. I sliced it off the cobs with my Swiss Army penknife, bore it off home, chopped it up, softened some onion and garlic and fried the fungus till the black juices writhed. Then I rolled it up in some crêpes, sat back, closed my eyes and took a bite. I could almost have been back in Mexico.

Now we’re across the border in Alsace, the corn stands as high as an elephant’s eye and there’s my corn smut again. Today, out walking, I had a fabulous huitlacoche harvest and made another feast, fit for a Mesoamerican god.

copyright Sue Style 2005

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Let the fungi feast begin

by Sue Style

Some people say you need a dog to get you out walking. Not me. All I need is the promise of some fat fungi.

July is usually the month when the mushroom season opens here in Alsace, but this year, conditions have been especially promising: first, we've had spectuacularly steamy weather interspersed with spectacularly violent storms. The moon will soon be full, which always augurs well for the mushroom basket. Then, a couple of days ago my neighbour let drop the hint that it was certainly a good year for chanterelles. When my husband came back from the pharmacy muttering crossly that he'd had to wait ages while some fellow got his fungi checked out by the chemist, it was clear the season had opened.

Off I set into the forest, armed with my trusty mushrooming knife from the Design Museum in Weil, the star of my Christmas stocking. It comes beautifully to the hand and it's thoroughly practical, with a little brush at one end and a sharp blade at the other. The blade can be safely enclosed in a nifty little sheath so that if I take a header into the undergrowth, the chances of my committing (involuntary) hara-kiri are kept to a minimum.

I always wonder why it is that in Britain we're so suspicious of wild mushrooms. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the confidence - even the desire - to harvest wild foods. More than in any other European country, we've become creatures of the city. Land is intensively farmed and of the few forests that remain, most are privately owned, and thus off-limits to mushroomers.

Continental Europeans get a better deal of it. Though also increasingly urban animals, they've somehow retained their wild instincts, at least where mushrooms are concerned. Grazing pastures have been left relatively undisturbed and forests have been better preserved. And both pastures and forests, whether private or public property, are open to walkers and hopeful fungi-hunters alike. France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and – most especially – central European countries, all harbour plenty of practised fungi-foragers.

Numerous aids are provided in the form of illustrated pocket guidebooks, special knives (like mine) and baskets. In addition some of these countries offer mycological services, both formal and informal, to help fungi-hunters identify their finds. In France - as my husband found to his cost - you can take your promising-looking mushrooms to the pharmacy to have their credentials checked.

Switzerland has perfected the art of mushroom identification. This tiny country boasts a network of over 500 official Pilzkontrolleure (‘mushroom controllers’), all of them trained by VAPKO, the federal association responsible for fungi identification. At the end of their training, aspiring controllers face a terrifyingly rigorous exam. Within the space of 20 minutes, candidates must correctly identify 70 different fungi. They must also recognise all 12 of the most commonly encountered poisonous varieties. Once they’ve gone through all these hoops, controllers are permitted to offer their services under the auspices of the local parish council or Gemeinde. Their names are listed in the phone book, along with their ‘surgery’ hours. There is no charge to the consumer, though a battered old tin is usually on hand for tips.

It’s a terrific service and a real education in itself. Our local mushroom controller, Herr Peter Lang in Allschwil just across the border from here, is a mine of information. During the season, his surgeries are held in the village primary school. Propped up outside the door is a blackboard with a cheery looking mushroom chalked up on it, and a note of the opening hours. Standing in line are always lots of Italians, plenty of Swiss and some east Europeans (though not too many British). On the wall are displayed glorious technicolour pictures of the worst sorts of poisonous mushrooms with a note of how long it will take them to kill you, and a detailed description of how this will happen (so you can recognise the symptoms). There are also more reassuring illustrations of the best and most delicious kinds to be found in the area.

After my most recent foray, it was time to renew acquaintance and celebrate the opening of the season with Herr Lang. My basket contained sundry boletus, plenty of chanterelles and a couple of unidentified brilliant yellow specimens. In a separate container I had put a white one with a bulb-like end to its stem. I strongly suspected (even hoped, with a slight frisson) that it was an Amanita phalloides, the deadly Death Cap that will kill you at a hundred paces. Herr Lang briskly discarded the more luridly coloured boletus (‘46 different kinds in Switzerland!’, he reminded me), but gave a huge cep the thumbs-up and let the chanterelles through on the nod. The other yellow specimens, he said, were edible, but only the heads. The stalks were declared woody and unappetising and went in the bin.

Then he took his magnifying glass to the white one. I waited with bated breath. It came as a bit of a shock when he declared it to be an unusually delicious Speisepilz (edible mushroom) - an Amanita indeed, but one of the few virtuous members of that rather louche family that includes the fly agaric, the red and white spotted toadstool of fairy tale fame. ‘Most people don’t dare eat this one’, he admitted, ‘for fear of confusion with its poisonous look-alike.’ (We funked it too. I felt distinctly disloyal and waited till I got home to throw it away.)

Back over the border in Alsace, my neighbour was out in his veggie garden. I sauntered past with my spoils, observing nonchalantly that it seemed to be a good year not only for chanterelles, but for ceps too. He grinned conspiratorially. A mushrooming truce was tacitly declared. He didn't seem too impressed, however, when I announced my plan to make a little omelette aux cepes. ' Mais non, pas d'omelettes!', he cried, much better just to toss these treasures in a heavy pan with a generous glug of good olive oil, heaps of garlic with a final flurry of parsley and a parting shot of lemon juice. How right he was.

Copyright Sue Style 2005