Sunday, 14 June 2015

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome
by Rachel Roddy

I've watched Rachel Roddy's writing develop from her Rachel Eats blog, which she started in 2008, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on her first book.  As always,  I endeavour to be objective in my review and I loved the writing which feels so familiar.

Five Quarters may seem a strange title but it's easily explained.  The number five recurs as the book goes along but Quinto Quarto (the Fifth Quarter) is the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers at the Testaccio slaughterhouse towards the end of the 19th century.  Wages were partly paid in-kind with offal.  This being a quarter of the animals weight, it was known as the 'fifth quarter'.  The slaughterhouse is long gone and, no, this is not a book about offal, but it is firmly rooted in the Testaccio quarter of the city of Rome which this Englishwoman calls home.

The "notes" referred to in the sub-title are as delicious as the "recipes".  Arriving in Rome, almost by accident, the tourist decided to stay a while in a tiny flat above a bakery, next to the "coarse and chaotic" old food market.  As she began to get under the skin of this "straightforward, traditional, ordinary" part of Rome, a sense of guilt that she was part of the gentrification taking place in the area led her to resolve to buy local and truly embrace the life of this quarter and its "fierce sense of community".  A daily presence at the next-door market with its families of traders, negotiating the "clusters of chattering signore" in the streets she drinks coffee in the same bar every morning.  And then she fell in love with Vincenzo, a Sicilian with beautiful, strong hands.  A golden-haired baby boy, Luca, arrived in 2012, anchoring her ever more strongly as she became truly a Testaccio local.

This is not a book about 'my beautiful life in Rome'.  The reality is, life is as messy as the food market at the heart of the book.  Certainly it's about hauling bags of produce home to cook in a tiny apartment kitchen. It's also about the life of Testaccio, particularly the market, and the people who make it possible to live in the chaos of a city. There's the Sartor family butchery, Mauro the fishmonger, Gianluca and Giancarlo the fruit and veg sellers, Augusto at Trattoria La Torricella and the numerous independent shop-owners of the quarter.  Friends, neighbours, acquaintances, and even strangers are ever-willing to offer advice. It's about forgetting what you thought you knew about 'Italian' food and watching, listening, questioning and cooking dishes again and again to re-learn how to cook it, here, in this extraordinary place.  For nine years she gradually gathered understanding along with ingredients.  She began to notice the differences, and the similarities, with English food; particularly with the simply prepared food of her roots in Northern England - slow braising of cheaper cuts of meat, the use of offal and the love of jam tarts and of spiced fruit cakes.

Cooked and photographed in real time, the recipes are based on a year in this "Kitchen in Rome". Pleasingly, there are five chapters, just as there should be five course to an Italian meal.  Each chapter is enticingly seasoned with helpful advice, observation and anecdote and spiced with a little Roman history.  There's also a generous sprinkling of good sense.  Advice and useful information, which can only come from someone who has cooked the same recipes over and over again, comes thick and fast yet it feels like a two-way conversation.  It's far from 'preachy' or 'know-it-all' but is generous and sharing.

Linguine con zucchine (Linguine with courgettes, eggs and parmesan)
cooked from Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome

The Italian names for the dishes in the book are far more poetic, but here I use English titles for brevity.  Chapter 1 - Antipasti - starts, as the Romans frequently do, with Broad Beans and Pecorino, simply a pile of young fresh beans to be podded at the table alongside a chunk of, preferably, sharp sheep's milk cheese.  There's Deep Fried Artichokes, Ricotta and Spinach Fritters and Panzanella.  Octopus and potato salad features with instructions for how to cook your octopus - and how, based on much advice, trial and error, not to cook your octopus!

Chapter 2 covers Soup & Pasta.  We learn that the soup, or minestre can be simple or complex and is one of the few foods that Romans do not have a definitive recipe for, rather minestre is a dish you make your own; "the embodiment of childhood nourishment and comfort".   Here is Fettucine with rich meat sauce, Spaghetti with clams and how to make Potato dumplings (Gnocchi).

A chapter on Meat & Fish reminds that "Good Roman cooking, like any good, popular cooking, is homely and rooted in tradition..... makes virtue out of necessity and makes things taste as good as they possibly can".  Making a little go a long way, particularly when it comes to meat, is a Northern England virtue as well as a Roman one.  There's Meatballs in tomato sauce or Roman-style tripe. Fish is introduced by a story familiar to most of us, the quest for a good fishmonger.  There's a Pot of musselsSalt cod with tomatoes, raisins and pine nuts, and a Roman Jewish dish of Miriam's bream baked with potatoes.

Chapter 4 is the Vegetable course.  Mostly treated as a separate course in Rome, though, served in larger portions, they can also take the place of the meat or fish course.  Many of the dishes can be prepared ahead, and some benefit from doing so, and with the addition of bread, eggs or cheese, they become a meal in themselves.  If I'd had this book a few weeks ago I would not have been confused by the large, hairy green Italian leaves at my London market that turned out to be borage - so different from our English borage which we tend to value more for its electric blue flowers.  It's in this chapter that Rachel's favourite English writers continue to influence her cooking in Rome, but when it's the likes of Jane Grigson and Simon Hopkinson, it's no wonder.  There are recipes for Greens with garlic and chilli, adaptable to whatever greens you can get; Eggs in sauce, Roman-style artichokes; and Fennel baked with Parmesan.

To finish with there's Dolci.  Often it's seasonal fruit.  Wedges of pellucid, ruby-red,  watermelon; Pale green figs with, "if you're lucky, a teardrop of nectar at the tip of the stalk"; fragrant cantaloupe melons; apricots, peaches, nespole or cherries and plums.  Here you'll find a recipe for Spiced quinces in syrup, wobbly Panna Cotta; slushy, coarse-textured Granita di melone; Kitty's vanilla ice-cream scented with citrus; and Cherry jam tart.  If you're hungry for more, there are delicious crisp little Ring biscuits with wine and fennel seeds and Angel Wings and much, much more.

Pangiallo (Spiced fruit cake with saffron)
cooked from Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome

I have already cooked four recipes from this book.  There is, mercifully, no striving for novelty in them.  If you are looking for innovation, you are missing the point of the book.  Instead, expect tried and tested dishes, recipes that really work and dishes that are delicious to eat.  You'll learn a lot along the way and enjoy a damn fine read.  This is a book which will stay in my kitchen.

Most of the photography in the book is by the author.  This reinforces its authenticity as the cooking and photography was done in real time - shop, cook, eat.  The photographs are also very, very good. Additional photography by Nicholas Seaton beautifully captures the atmosphere of the Testaccio quarter and its inhabitants.

2015 is already proving to be a very good year for food writing, and this book is right up there with the best.  Now, I'm off to make Linguine con zucchine again, just to make sure I really have unlearned what I thought I knew, and because it's a delicious recipe.


Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy

Book courtesy of Salt Yard Books

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve

Rhubarb & grapefruit

I've previously mentioned Jane Grigson's declaration that only "pink" rhubarb is worth eating. She was, of course, referring to the 'forced' kind where the plant is grown under cover of a pot or in the gloom of a candlelit forcing shed.  Forced rhubarb is very different from outdoor grown rhubarb and, generally, I have agreed with Jane Grigson's sentiments.  Certainly if you are looking for a beautifully evenly coloured compote with delicate flavour it's worth buying the early, forced, kind. However, this growing-year has made me appreciate the merits of the more robust and vigorous form of the plant.

A member of the Rheum genus of plants, rhubarb is related to both sorrel and buckwheat.  We add sugar to rhubarb to make its natural astringency more palatable and it's easy to forget it's actually a vegetable.  In Persian cooking, rhubarb is used in lamb dishes as a tenderiser.  In Europe, barely sweetened, it's used as a foil for oily fish like mackerel or fatty meats like pork.  In the UK in particular, rhubarb is enjoyed in compotes, crumbles and pies, in much the same way as we use gooseberries.  Both share a mouth-puckering sourness before tempering with sugars and flavourings.    

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve
Batch 1

I felt like the laughing-stock of the allotment group, as the only person unable to get a decent crop of rhubarb.  Then, last year, I split the crown of my plant into four sections.  Replanting each in a new location has rewarded me this year with a spectacularly good crop.  There's nothing so guaranteed to make you appreciate a vegetable as a bumper harvest.  So what to do with all that bounty?  Personally I find rhubarb releases far too much water to ever make a good pie but, thanks to the Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen, we've been enjoying bowls of Rhubarb custard fool and bottling up Rhubarb cordial for summer's promise of glasses of Rhubarb gin fizz, Pink lemonade and Rhubarb Bellini.

But it's a recipe for jam I want to share with you here.  A recipe for Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Fruit book (no, not the Chez Panisse Vegetable book).  It's not a combination that would normally have caught my attention.  Maybe it was because I'm in the midst of reading Bitter by Jennifer McLagan, which goes into the subject of bitter foods in forensic detail.  Though grapefruit is clearly a "bitter" food in her view, indeed the fruit was the starting point for her taking on the subject, opinions she sought were divided as to whether the flavour is bitter or merely sour.  Personally, I go with bitter and the idea of pairing grapefruit with sour rhubarb seemed a bit of a leap of faith.  Maybe it's something about the British palate, as inhabitants of the North American continent seem to have a taste for citrus with their rhubarb.  And then I looked at Grigson again - "... with citrus fruits it makes a delightful jam".  Sugar can transform the bitterest citrus into delectable marmalade, and the sourest rhubarb into luscious compote, so I swallowed my scepticism and I'm so glad I did.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve
Batch 2

The first time I made this preserve, I took it a degree or two over jam set-point.  The colour changed from jewel-like to reddish-brown in the blink of an eye.  If this happens to you, what you lose in colour you'll gain in a delicious marmalade quality to the taste.  Stopping the cooking at exactly jam set point will give you a ruby-red preserve with the rhubarb flavour to the fore.  I'm still not sure which batch I prefer, so really you can't go wrong in my view.

Rhubarb Grapefruit Preserve (adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters)
(makes 40 oz/1.125 kg)

2 lbs (900g) Rhubarb, washed, dried and cut into 1cm dice
2 grapefruit (I use red)
4 cups (900g) granulated sugar

Place the rhubarb in a large heavy-based stainless steel pan.
Peel the grapefruits, slice the peel thinly and juice the flesh.  Add the zest and juice to the pan of rhubarb along with the sugar.
Let the mixture stand for at least 30 minutes for the rhubarb to release its juices and the sugar to dissolve.
Sterilise your jars and lids.  Put a small plate in the freezer for testing the jam.
Over a high heat, bring the pan of mixture to the boil, stirring to make sure it doesn't stick.  The mixture will bubble high up the pan.  Skim off any foam around the edges.  Soon the mixture will subside and bubble thickly.  Stir frequently and start testing with a sugar thermometer and/or by using the cold plate for the 'wrinkle' test.  When it has reached set point, take the pan off the heat and pot up the jam.  Will keep for up to 1 year in properly sterilised jars.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes
from a farm and its kitchen

Let me say from the outset that I know the authors of this book, in as much as I've bought produce grown on their farm ever since they started to load up a van and bring it down to London for sale most Saturdays.  Last Saturday they slipped some copies of the book on the back of the van so I was able to buy a copy a few days before publication date.  I grow some of my own fruit and veg so I know a little bit about where this book is coming from. I'm an enthusiast, but that's not the reason I found this book difficult to put down.   The Fern Verrow land is farmed  biodynamically, but this is not a book only for those of us who embrace the methods of Rudolf Steiner.  If you care about how your food is grown and how it's cooked you'll love how this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for simple seasonal food that honours the ingredients.  This is food that you really want to eat.

'Verrow' comes from an old French term for a split in the land around which water flows.  It describes perfectly the lie-of-the-land on the Herefordshire border with Wales in which the farm, Fern Verrow, sits.  Lindsay Sekulowicz's hand-drawn map at the front of the book gives the reader a wonderful orientation to the land being described.  Here is the acreage where Jane Scotter and Harry Astley raised a family while turning the land into the farm of their dreams.  Here, in one of the most unspoiled areas of England, they have laboured long and hard, learning "to adapt and to live with the rhythms and cycles of the year" working in "partnership" with the land.  This book concentrates on how they work and cook from "the engine room of the farm", the kitchen, where every day starts and ends and where they always find time for cooking.  Many books of recipes claim to be 'seasonal'.  The writers of this book know the true meaning of the word.  In their words, this book "is a place to pass on our recipes, as well as the understanding of food and its cultivation that we have developed over the years.  It is a celebration of what nature provides.  It encourages imagination and consideration in the kitchen, and the pleasures of cooking well, with an appreciation of the different vegetables, fruit and meat as they arrive at our tables throughout the course of the year."

Fern Verrow, the book, like the farm is tied to the 4 seasons, here represented by the classical elements of Earth - Winter, where everything starts, from the ground up; Water - Spring, bringing the sprouting of life; Air Summer, light and flowering; and Fire -Autumn, fruiting and transformation.  The book gives you insights into 'Working with the soil' "our most valuable resource"; 'Working with the sun', which dictates the pattern of the day; 'Working with the moon', whose effects on water and tides and on reproductive cycles is well known, and 'Building fertility' of the soil.  There's just enough about biodynamics to spark your interest, and there's a Further Reading section at the back if you want to know more.

Fern Verrow
Working with the soil

Winter, for Jane and Harry is a time to think and plan for the coming twelve months.  Recipes for this time include Braised chicory and bacon enriched with double cream, Beef stew with parsley dumplings, to make the most of what is around and counter the season's icy blasts.  There's Apple and lemon crumble, Carrot and almond cake and Parsnip and hazelnut oat biscuits.  Spring brings birdsong, light and colour, along with new life in the greenhouse, the barn, the fields and the woodlands.  For those of us who grow it also brings the 'hungry gap' when winter brassicas have gone to seed and 'spring' veg is slow to get going.  But there are herbs, foraged leaves and flowers. There's wild garlic, dandelion, Jack-by-the-hedge and buttercup - heat and pungency, needing only a simple dressing to make a bowlful sing.  Here are recipes for Lovage and potato soup, Spring fritters with wild garlic mayonnaise, Herb butters and Rhubarb puddings.  For later in Spring there's Fried duck egg with asparagus, sage and parmesan and then Elderflower cake.

Early Summer on the farm brings cultivated salad leaves and the first of the soft fruit in the form of gooseberries.  These are swiftly followed by currants, strawberries, raspberries, jostaberries and more.  The bees are busy and the farm is looking its best.  Weather becomes an obsession - too hot, too wet, too something - and can make for testing times.  The table is laid with Fresh pea and mint soup, Barbecued chicken with sweetcorn and lime leaf relish, a Blackcurrant pie or a spectacular Summer fruit trifle.  Come Autumn outward growth slows and activities turn more often to preserving late berries, plums, apples, pears and quince.  Then the kitchen table bears Borlotti bean, chorizo and tomato stew, Red Florence onion Tatin, and Braised rabbit with juniper berries. Desserts are fragrant Quince and ginger upside-down cake and Steamed greengage pudding.

And, all too soon, the twelve month cycle is over.


"Our relationship with the farm continues to feed us, 
the work never ceases, our lives are played out on this plot of land".  
... "The gifts of the year have come full circle, 
transforming the  past into the seeds of the future".  
Jane Scotter and Harry Astley

The book benefits hugely from the stunning photography of Tessa Traeger.  But, most of all, it's the pictures painted by the prose that stay with you.  I found the book difficult to put down.  Some of us paddle around the edges of biodynamics, never fully getting our feet wet - it's not for the faint-hearted.  A few hard working people, like Jane Scotter and Harry Astley, live the life.  Caution -  reading this book may make you want to go in search of your own acreage.

As is my way with book reviews, I had to try at least one recipe.  It had to be seasonal, of course, and, having pulled some sticks of rhubarb this morning, I chose Rhubarb and custard fool.  Silky, creamy custard and sweet/tart fruit.  Ringing the changes with a little fresh ginger root or orange zest is suggested.  I added a little rosewater to the rhubarb at the end of cooking.  A perfect Spring recipe.  If you want to see it beautifully styled and photographed, go to page 124.  Meanwhile, here's a serving:

Rhubarb and custard fool
from a recipe in
Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen


Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley
First published by Quadrille 21 May 2015

Friday, 15 May 2015

Brawn for lunch (or dinner)

A glass of VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe
at Brawn

Everyone knows Columbia Road for its Sunday morning flower market where traders line the Road specialising in bulbs, herbs, cut flowers or potted plants.  It's quite a sight but if you suffer from claustrophobia, get there early or you'll find yourself shuffling along toe to heel with what feels like half of London.  There are some good individual shops on the Road, though many of them are only open from late in the week to catch the busy weekend trade.  This means, early in the week, Columbia Road is quiet and leafy and, well, a bit of a haven of peace really.  The draw at this time is lunch or dinner at Brawn.

Torta Fritta, Parma Ham
at Brawn

Occupying a corner site in what was a wood-turning workshop, it's a lovely light-filled space furnished with reclaimed tables and chairs.  Brawn opened not long before I wrote about it here in early 2011.  The restaurant garnered a host of positive reviews then quietly got on with its job as the perfect neighbourhood restaurant in a largely residential area of Bethnal Green.  Being part of the much admired 'Terroirs' small group of restaurants, the food and wine at Brawn were, reliably good.  So, why am I writing about it again now?  Because in this notable restaurant things just went up a few notches.  A re-think amongst the original owners of the Group has resulted in chef/owner, Ed Wilson, splitting off Brawn and taking over in the kitchen.  Those of us who loved the Green Man and French Horn on St Martin's Lane knew Ed Wilson's skill.  We briefly mourned the closure of the Green Man  earlier this year in the restructuring of the Terroirs Group. Now we are re-acquainted with Ed's skills.

Raw Scallop, Celery & Bottarga
at Brawn

Lunch on a perfect Spring day this week began with glasses of gently fizzed, palest Loire rosé VdF "Moussamoussettes" Dne Moshe.  A plate of Torta Fritta with Parma Ham was the perfect appetite stimulator.  The literal translation of 'fried cake' is not particularly helpful.  Think, at least in this case, featherlight crispy dough pillows draped with slices of the very best Parma ham.  A starter of Salt Cod Salad "Esquiexada", the classic Catalan dish, was here executed with seasonal Marinda tomatoes, sweet Tropea onions and small purple olives, possibly Andalucian coquilles nicoises.  The cod was salted in-house and made for a juicy and aromatic plateful. Raw Scallop, Celery and Bottarga, came in a shallow pool of fish broth made from the scallop skirt and dressed with good olive oil.  A perfect balance of sweet seafood and bitter celery leaf and olive oil, it tasted of the sea and had us fighting for the last morsel.


Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette
at Brawn

When we thought it couldn't get any better, out came Black Pudding, Squid & Erbette.  'Surf n Turf' is really not my thing but I would have happily eaten all of this.  Soft, sweet blood cake, tender cephalopod and earthy leaf-beet, the whole simply dressed with a vinaigrette.  A glass of Saumur Champigny Piak from Bobinet was suggested and was a good match.  My perfectly cooked fillet of Turbot came with sweet, fat mussels and a helping of still crunchy Monk's Beard in a clear fish broth along with the suggested well-judged glass of mineral Soave.  

Turbot, Monk's Beard & Mussels
at Brawn

We really didn't need it but managed to share a portion of Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange.  As top-notch as it looks.  Expect to pay £40 per head including a couple of glasses of wine and service.

Dark Chocolate, Olive Oil, Sea Salt & Orange
at Brawn

Brawn is a relaxing kind of place.  The staff know their stuff and you can expect a genuinely warm welcome.  The food and drink are seriously good and the restaurant draws on some of the best suppliers in London.  Cooking is seasonal and, as they put it themselves, "The food is honest and simple with a respect for tradition".  Most of the wines are natural, sourced from small growers who work sustainably, organically or bio-dynamically.  There are a few seats at the small bar if you only want to pop in for a drink and a small plate.

If you do want to brave Columbia Road flower market and its surrounding shops on a Sunday and combine it with lunch at Brawn, the restaurant offers Sunday lunch for £28 a head, but you'd probably be well-advised to book.

Brawn
49 Columbia Road
Bethnal Green
London E2 7RG

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Taking the sting out of Nettles

Urtica dioica - common nettle

The nettle spread from Eurasia and now it's a weed common throughout the Northern hemisphere.  But, as Jane Grigson observed, nettles are "not to be despised, especially at a season of the year when greenery is scarce".  Revered by today's foragers, nettles have long been considered of value to "purify the blood" when eaten in April-May.  Nettles are stocked with a cocktail of irritant chemicals, including histamine.  Their tiny hairs act as effective needles to deliver a sting to unprotected flesh.

Grigson suggests topping a slice of fried bread with nettles and a poached egg or egg mollet, or pairing them with brains and a creamy sauce.  Her suggestion of a take on that comforting dish, Champ, certainly appeals as does her nettle soup and nettle broth.  If you exclude early season European imports, right now "greenery" is still scarce in the UK. Broccoli, the last of Spring's greens, is now rapidly going to flower, spinach and chard are hardly getting going and asparagus has all but come to a stop in the return to cool weather.  I can see why the earthy mineral, quality of nettles was so valued.  Last week I harvested the remainder of my sprouting broccoli, pulled some spectacular rhubarb and then looked around for what else was available.  The strawberry patch was being over-run by a thick carpet of nettles so the answer was clear.  A bag of weeds it was.  Somewhere in the depths of my memory I remembered a recommendation to take only the top 6 leaves of the plant and these were duly, and respectfully, plucked with gloved hands.

In Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray mentions the Southern Italian taste for nettles in a dish of Pasta colle Ortiche, though it's a recipe for Nettle Soup she chose to share.  Soup is an excellent way to harness all the goodness this "weed" has to offer.  It's good plainly served, just thickened with potato, or enriched with a little cream.  The addition of a salty contrast of bacon or meaty snail is a good idea for the carnivore.

Arriving home, top of my agenda was the need to preserve the plant before it lost all rigour, so I decided on a nettle butter. This way I could buy some time to decide on a recipe.  Half the resultant verdant butter went into the fridge and the other half in the freezer.   With all of these influences floating around in my head and with little time, I decided on a pairing of potato, egg and nettle butter and created a lunch dish that worked a treat.

Baked potato, nettle butter, poached egg

Baked Potato with Nettle Butter & Poached Egg
(Serves 4)

110g (4oz) unsalted butter, softened
2 good (gloved!) handfuls of nettle tops
4 eggs
2 large (or 4 small) baking potatoes
A little olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan 160C)/Gas mark 4.
Wash the nettles carefully.  Cook in a covered pan with a splash of water and a pinch of salt for 2 minutes.  Drain the blanched leaves, squeeze out excess water, dry well on kitchen paper and chop roughly.  Mix the chopped nettles into the softened butter.  Turn out onto greaseproof paper and roll the nettle butter into a sausage.  Keep in the fridge until ready to use (or freeze it for another day).
Rub the potatoes with a little olive oil and salt and bake in the oven for about 45-60 minutes.
Poach the eggs and whilst they are cooking, split the potatoes and spread with the nettle butter before topping with the eggs

Nettle butter

Getting a little more up-to-date, and rather more refined, Giorgio Locatelli in his doorstop of a book, Made in Italy, offers a Risotto alle Ortiche.  In One, Florence Knight favours a Nettle Gnudi, describing Gnudi as a "stripped-back gnocchi".  Both recipes will definitely be getting an outing in this house soon.  I never thought I'd be looking forward to harvesting nettles from the allotment.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Chocolate connections

Åkesson's Cocoa Beans

A few days on the Suffolk coast set me thinking.  Not of oysters and smokehouses, though there are good things to be had from the black-painted shacks dotted around the quays and beaches of this lovely East-coast county.  My thoughts turned to, of all things, chocolate.  Here the climate could not be further from the humid, tropical environments of the equatorial belt best-suited to the growing of cacao but the connection is Pump Street Bakery.  In the short time the Bakery has been in existence, it has carved out a name for itself in turning out excellent bread and pastries.  Its Eccles Cakes, in particular, are so delicious that customers now order them on-line.  Buttery puff pastry, the very best Greek currants, sugar and spices make an irresistible combination.  Their foray into chocolate-making is proving equally successful.

Back in London, I've been enjoying Pump Street Bakery Single Origin  'Bean to Bar' chocolate for a while now.  Not all of the 'flavours' appeal to me but they produce a Venezuelan Patenemo 75% that tastes of gingerbread, molasses and dark fruits and a Madagascar Criolla 74% using beans from the Åkesson organic estate producing natural flavours of raspberry and membrillo.  Both bars are ones I'll walk the extra mile for.  Pump Street Bakery has quite a long list of stockists now so you shouldn't have too much trouble tracking some down.  If you're in London this week, they have a 6-day Pop-Up starting tomorrow (28 Apr-3 May) at In House, 67 Redchurch Street E2 7DJ.


Pump Street bakery
Venezuela 75% Patenemo chocolate

Coincidentally (or is it?), already on Redchurch Street (at Nos 19-29) is Mast Brothers.  Arriving from Brooklyn in February, the bearded brothers have not only opened a shop on this red-hot Shoreditch street but a 'factory' to produce their chocolate on site.  There's also a state-of-the-art brew-bar serving up hot and cold chocolate drinks, chocolate beer and sourdough bread with chocolate spread.  I confess I've not always found Mast Brothers chocolate easy to like.  Generally it's the flavoured chocolate like 'Vanilla & Smoke' that are just too strong for my taste.  There's a deliberate graininess about the production that I don't always appreciate but their Single Origin chocolate is more palatable to me and a bar of Single Origin Peru 75% doesn't go amiss now and then.

Mast Brothers London

The Chocolate Connection between these two makers is Bertil Åkesson, who recently opened a tiny Notting Hill shop at 15b Blenheim Crescent W11 2EE.  Both Pump Street Bakery and Mast Brothers source some of their Single Origin estate beans from Åkesson's.  With their own plantations in Madagascar, Brazil and Indonesia, Åkesson's are able to not only make their own Single Origin chocolate bars but also sell to other small bean-to-bar makers.  Åkesson's Bali Sukrama 75% Trinitarian and their Brazil Fazenda Sempre firme 75% Forester bars are both finding their way into my shopping bag whenever I'm in Notting Hill.

The British taste for chocolate developed in the 17th Century when cacao (cocoa) cultivation began on Jamaican plantations.  Given the times, inevitably, fortunes were made on the backs of slave labour.  Linnaeus named the plant Theobroma cacoa, or Food of the Gods.  Originating in Central-South America, the plant has spread naturally and by man.  The Mayans saw cacao as a symbol of commerce, wealth and prosperity.  When Cortez took the knowledge of how to use cacao back to Spain it remained a secret for 100 years and was a drink reserved for the Spanish elite. Today, around 70% of production comes from Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and the Republic of Cameroon, though most of the Africans working on today's plantations have never tasted cacao in its processed form of chocolate.

Raw cacao is high in cocoa butter, a fat which is removed during chocolate refining then added back in varying amounts during processing along with other fats, sugars and milk.  This results in a wildly different product all coming under the name of 'chocolate'.  There is no getting away from the fact that 'bulk' beans cacao production is mired in allegations of corrupt trading practices, at best, and child labour and slavery, at worst.  Personally, I'd rather eat a couple of squares of good chocolate several times a week than have a daily quick fix of the cheap stuff.  Better for my health and my conscience.

So, this week I'll be trying to make time to get down to Pump Street Bakery's Redchurch Street Pop-Up.  They may not be able to recreate the clean Suffolk air I appreciated so much last week, but a bar of chocolate and, maybe, an Eccles Cake will certainly bring back memories.


Sunday, 19 April 2015

Onward from 'Maltby Street 2011' - the strength of the Tintype image

Golden beets
Tintype photograph
© Tif Hunter

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for The Foodie Bugle magazine titled 'On Maltby Street' celebrating the work of photographer Tif Hunter.  It was a piece where my triumvirate of passions - food, photography and art - came together in one ideal package.  The recent release of the Toast menswear Lookbook Spring/Summer 2015, shot by Tif using the Tintype process, prompted me to review and update my earlier article and reproduce it here.  I hope you like it and that it stirs an interest in the medium for you too.

All images are the copyright of Tif Hunter.

My first sighting of Tif Hunter, the photographer, was in a dank alley alongside Victorian railway arches in South London.  Hunched over a wooden box set on a tripod, his concentration was total.  Clearly this was a camera but one belonging to another era.  He drew curious glances from a few early morning shoppers.  Over the following weeks I registered the man’s quiet presence as I worked my way around my regular Saturday morning haunts.  Intrigued but mindful of disturbing his concentration, I walked on by.  Then he was gone and I’d missed my chance to discover just what he was up to.
                 
Several months later a blog post from my favourite local social historian popped up on my computer screen.  ‘The Gentle Author’ blogs each and every day about life, past and present, in and around his beloved London borough of Spitalfields.  Photography is a favourite means of expression for him and once you discover this wonderful blog you become hooked on a daily dose of prose and, often haunting, images.   This particular day brought moody, arresting portraits.  Each subject held the eye with a strong, confident gaze; but were they contemporary or from a time past?  It was difficult to say at first glance.  Yet I recognised every single one of them, each captured in a pause in the working day.  They were the food traders I buy from every Saturday.

Elliott
Polaroid photograph
© Tif Hunter

These photographs were the work of my mystery man, Tif Hunter.  By talking to the traders I learned there were more wonderful portraits and they shyly shared some of them with me.  There was a quiet pride, shared vicariously by those of us who knew the subjects.  Appetite by now thoroughly stimulated, thankfully Tif Hunter opened his studio in Bermondsey to show all of the portraits.  Alongside these hangings was another of his enthusiasms, ‘still-lifes’ using the Tintype process employed by early photographic pioneers.  The show was called ‘On Maltby Street 2011’ and was a project documenting the Saturday morning shopping scene in this Bermondsey food haven.  Nigel Slater has described Maltby Street as “A slightly secret and hidden place, where supply goes with the ebb and flow of the seasons, where there is a constantly evolving group of traders bringing things to tempt and delight”.  For Tif this exactly describes the area and its inhabitants that he knows so well – his perfect High Street

The studio sits just in the unfashionable side of Bermondsey, away from the Fashion Museum and the hip White Cube Gallery.  A wonderfully understated space with grey plaster and exposed brick walls.  On entering, you can’t miss, centre stage, the beautiful 10x8 specially-made wooden camera with antique brass lens. This is the camera on which the Tintypes were shot.  Alongside, and sharing exactly the same overall technology,  is a 5x4 Sinar precision Swiss made, large format, camera with a Schneider lens dating from the 1970s.  This very different beast allowed Tif to achieve his striking portraits using scarce Polaroid Type 55 film. 

The Type 55 film produces an instant positive print and a fine-grained, long tonal range, extremely high resolution negative.  The negative needs to be dipped in fixer to protect it from scratching before the final prints can be made.  Tif rapidly got to know, intuitively, when he had the shot he wanted.  After a few attempts at carrying chemicals to do the fixing ‘in the field’, he began to dash back to his nearby studio.  By peeling back the film here, he was able to minimise damage to the negative image before fixing it in a more controlled manner. 

Katie
Polaroid photograph
© Tif Hunter

Begun in Spring 2011, the portraits on show included butchers, bakers and, yes, even a candlestick maker (Steve Benbow, otherwise known as The London Honeyman, who sells beeswax candles as well as honey).  Most subjects look intently and confidently straight into the camera, their faces full of character.  No instructions were given, other than to look into the lens and keep very still when asked.  Most of the faces register curiosity in what’s going on beyond that lens.   All are shot in natural light and the results are unsparing in their detail.  Tif talks passionately about the photograph of Emma – calm, self-contained, hair blowing in the breeze, her spotted dress echoed in the weather-pitted backdrop to the shot.

So what is it like being the subject of one of Tif’s portraits?  None of the sitters could imagine what the outcome of their few moments in front of the camera was to be.  There was a certain amount of reticence.  Lucie just remembers being “pulled outside” without any time to think about it.  Standing for a full 5 minutes gazing into the lens, Archie felt the nearness of the camera, a little too close for comfort, but was fascinated by the mystique of the old-style techniques. Harry recalls the cold and thinking he couldn’t really spare the time in his working day for this.  These portraits show the affection of the photographer for his subjects and a reciprocated admiration of traditional skills.

Green Tomatoes
Tintype photograph
© Tif Hunter

We move on to the Tintypes.  Dating from 1856, Tintypes are a variant on the wet-plate collodion method invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.  Although not used much in this country, tintypes were valued in the USA into the early 1900’s for their affordability and durability, and the fact you could create a unique photograph almost immediately.  We’ve all seen those images of American Civil War soldiers posing proudly in their uniforms.  Tintypes were the medium of choice where a blackened sheet of metal is coated with collodion, sensitised in silver nitrate, and, whilst still wet, the sheet is placed in the camera.  Developing and fixing follow immediately after the picture is taken and the image is then washed, dried and varnished.   

This is the process Tif used for his still-life photographs of the produce he was buying from these artisan traders.  Since the Tintype is a camera-original positive, all Tintype images appear reversed (left-to-right) from reality.  This is particularly evident in the writing on an oatmeal tin filled with fresh flowers, which is one of the still-life images.  From the Tintypes he produced, Tif made printed enlargements of some which proved a fascinating addition to the ‘On Maltby Street’ project. 

It was intriguing to find that a group of red tomatoes appear very dark with highlights provided by natural light, yet a similar group of under-ripe green tomatoes appear similarly dark.  This is because the camera picks up the red pigment which is also in the unripe fruit; it’s just that the eye cannot see it as it’s at the UV end of the spectrum, not the red.

Q&A

Q. You’re a professional photographer working with the latest equipment so what inspired you to go back to basics and shoot with a large format plate camera?
A.  After a number of years of shooting only digitally I felt that I needed to return to the magic of the analogue and the darkroom.  Embracing both the craft and the unexpected in these methods was how I had started in photography.  In the Tintype medium, the alchemy and physical textural qualities of the results is that much more amazing than the black and white methods that I had already known.

Q.  We’re now so used to being able to check immediately what the image we’ve taken looks like, but how much idea do you have of the result when you’ve taken the photograph?
 A. Polaroid 55 Film is very scarce so you can’t afford to waste it.  Consequently I limited myself to a maximum of 2 sheets per subject so I have to know by instinct when it’s right.

Q.  What drew you to the subject of food traders?
 A.  Obviously I have a love of good food.  I feel so lucky to be able to ‘shop local’ and have my own village High Street here in Bermondsey.  This project is very close to my heart and it was an opportunity to celebrate the artisans and the medium.

Q.  What, or who, influenced you to work with the tintype process?
A.  I came across Tintypes when doing some research on the Internet.  Finding John Coffer, the father of Tintypes, was the catalyst.  I’m now completely addicted.

Q.  I know artists are rarely completely satisfied with their work but how do you feel about this project and do you plan to continue with it?
 A.  You’re right, it’s hard to be completely satisfied but I’ve loved doing it.  I may add a few more portraits and will definitely shoot more food related still lifes but I regard the project as complete.

Q.  Do you have any other personal projects planned?
 A.  Yes, but they are only thoughts at the moment.  I do want to continue to shoot portraits but I’m interested in Tintypes this time.

Before I leave, Tif shows me a Tintype portrait he has taken of a fellow photographer.  With Tintypes the pose has to be held for longer so who better than a sympathetic fellow photographer to sit for you.  The subject is framed standing to the left of centre, as if he has just entered the room, paused, and is weighing up the situation.  Highly atmospheric, it’s a beautiful example of what can be achieved when you go back to basics.  Tif mentions the sitter, on seeing the result, commented “you’ve brought out the Irish in me”.  If these forays into Tintype portraits result in an exhibition, I for one will be first in line for a viewing.

Update on the traders ‘On Maltby Street 2011’ at April 2015:
Most of the original artisan traders ‘On Maltby Street’ have now moved 10 minutes East but can still be found occupying the Bermondsey railway arches in an area known as Spa Terminus


About Tif Hunter
Tif Hunter is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer who has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London. His extensive body of work includes a collaboration with Stephen Bayley on “Cars – Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything”.
In October 2012 Tif Hunter’s Tintype of a Romanesco vegetable won Best in Category for Non-Commissioned Object at the AOP (The Association of Photographers) Awards.  Tif Hunter was elected a member of The Art Workers’ Guild.  In 2014, as part of the Negativeless exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, he exhibited an intriguing piece called Rochambeau, a combination of skilled carpentry and inspired tintype images.  Among Tif Hunter’s latest work is the Toast Spring/Summer 2015 Lookbook employing the Tintype portrait methods I’ve been lucky enough to see him use at his studio. 

See also:

About The Gentle Author
The Gentle Author writes a daily blog ‘Spitalfields Life’ www.spitalfieldslife.com