Thursday, 29 November 2012

Claudia Roden on the roots of Spanish Food

A few days ago I attended a Birkbeck Food Group event with one of my food heroes, Claudia Roden.  It took Claudia 5 years to research her most recent book The Food of SpainSixty minutes was never going to be enough for this whistle-stop tour of the country in its cuisine.

Each visit Claudia made to Spain unearthed more food memories than she could have hoped for.  Each contact came up with yet another person to meet.  She would talk food favourites, festivals and folk history in kitchens as "people open up in the kitchen, not in the living room".  Most, be they workers or nobility, spoke of peasant cuisine being central to their food memories.  

Claudia's thesis is that Spain's history of conquering armies meant a population on the move and tastes were, by necessity, unsophisticated. The aristocrats despised vegetables and ate meats, mostly game, though rabbits were left to the lower orders.  In Bourbon and Habsburg times the Spanish nobility ate French cuisine.  They followed the lead of King Philip V who employed cooks trained in the French court at Versailles.  The current haute cuisine in Spain, she was assured, was a cuisine of "today", though chefs claim to look to the roots of Spanish food for inspiration.

A quote from the Catalan writer Josep Pia "A country's cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot" was apt.  The diversity of the landscape of Spain has led to three styles of cooking: the sea; the plain; and, the mountains.  Claudia pointed out that, unlike Italy, dishes are not contained within regional borders.

The food of the wet, mountainous north was influenced by early French pilgrims walking the pathways of St. James, and by the maize, potatoes, beans and peppers brought back from South America by returning priests. The Visigoths introduced cider apples and pigs leading to dishes such as the Asturian roast pork with apples and cider.  The ebb and flow of religious intolerance can be seen in the foods of Jews who arrived in northern Spain to escape the rule of the Berbers in the 12-13th centuries.  To Claudia's mind, the famous Tarta di Santiago is a good example.  In this sweet dish of almonds, eggs, sugar, butter and citrus she can see the Jewish Passover cake.

The hot, interior Plain was perfect for ranching and pastoral farming, feeding the rich on roast meats and the poor on "spoon" dishes.  After 1492, the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) remained in the region until the 17th century leaving a legacy of Moorish dishes which we learnt exceeded that of Andalucia.  The fried breadcrumb dish 'migas', now widespread in Spain, came about when the Moors were banned from eating couscous.

The coast and Balearic Islands shared the mild climate and cuisine of other Mediterranean countries.  In Cordoba, on the the Route de Caliphate, Claudia had enjoyed aubergine soaked in milk, floured, fried and drizzled with honey.  Having eaten a very similar dish in Morocco, it was difficult to argue its origins did not lie in Moorish rule.  Later, Catalans re-populated these Arab-taken areas and brought their cuisine to the mix.

In all regions the clergy exerted a powerful influence over food.  The Catholic decree that fish be eaten on Fridays resulted in salt cod being named as the preferred fish of many Spanish people today, even those living near the sea.  Pork was a tool of the inquisition.  This can be seen in some areas of the country where the sheer number of dishes containing a little pork is a clear sign that the Inquisition was active.  On Saturdays the clergy would check for smoke from the chimneys of homes to prove both Muslims and Jews were compliant in their conversions.

As in many European countries, the monasteries were famous for the quality of their cooking and in the convents pastries were baked for benefactors.  Attempting to extract recipes, Claudia was frustrated to find the convent visited was that of a ‘closed order’, with only Sister Immaculata having dispensation to speak.  This significant problem was later resolved by an unintended invitation to the Sisters to become Friends on Facebook where they happily 'conversed'.

Talk based on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
Pubished by Michael Joseph
A version of this piece can be found on the Birkbeck University of London Events Blog

Here is the recipe for Claudia Roden's version of that Tarta de Santiago almond cake.  
Serves 10

250g blanched almonds 
6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar 
Grated zes of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 drops almond extract
butter to grease the cake tin
flour to dust the cake tin 
icing sugar to dust the cake

Grease a spring-form cake tin, around 28cm in diameter (preferably non-stick) with butter and dust with flour.  Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4.

Grind the almonds finely in a food processor.  Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a pale cream then best in the orange and lemon zest and almond extract.  Add the ground almonds and mix very well.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold gently into the egg yolk and almond mixture.  Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the top.  Bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until it feels firm.

Cool then turn out.  Dust the top with icing sugar - if you like, cut the shape of a Santiago cross out of the paper and place it in the middle of the cake first, then carefully remove the paper shape.

This is a pastry-less version of Tarta de Santiago.  For my favourite pastry-line version, and more information on the cake, look here

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The importance of shopping local

The East End Trades Guild
Inaugural Meeting

I love my life in London, for so many reasons, but every now and then stories from the lives of others stops me in my tracks.  So it was on Monday evening when I attended an event which reinforced my commitment to shopping independent and local.

I was proud to bear witness to the inaugural meeting of the East End Trades Guild (EETG).  The very first guilds were characterised by their binding oaths sworn among artisans to support one another in adversity and back one another in feuds or in business ventures.  On Monday some 200 independent traders from the East End and the City formalised their own Guild. The guilds of the 1400s tended to be specific to a craft and here EETG differs in being an organisation made up of a disparate group of traders - cafe owners, book sellers, shoe repairers, newsagents, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, - the businesses that make up a typical High Street.  Except in this case there is a paper bag trader and a Ukulele seller, which may not be quite your average mix.

So, why had they decided to come together.  The EETG banner - designed by a trade member and printed by another member - makes their statement: "We are the beating heart of the East End" and their motif makes clear its intent "Together we are stronger".  The members of this Guild are the people who serve their communities, often they are the glue that holds them together, and they are under attack.  Of course they are battling the invidious creep of the supermarkets but rent rises and bureaucracy are threatening their survival too.

The event at Christ Church Spitalfields was a time for celebration. Photographs, a short film, and music lent a slightly euphoric air to the proceedings.  The speeches were heartfelt; Dairyman Henry Jones whose family had served Londoners for 135 years; Nevio Pellicci of E Pellicci's cafe whose Italian ancestors set up the cafe in 1900; Shanaz Khan of restaurant Chaat in Bethnal Green who was a passionate and eloquent voice of the members; and then there was Paul Gardner  of Gardners' Market Sundriesmen fourth generation supplier of essential paper bags to local businesses.  His fight against a rent rise which would have put him out of business was the seed, planted by organiser Krissie Nicolson, for the formation of the EETG.  

Then, as so often happens at gatherings, we all milled together to eat and drink.  A Brick Lane beigel, some curried potatoes, a hunk of cheddar cheese with bread, fruit, cakes and ale, all supplied by members of the Guild.  Then the serious talk began.  The revitalisation of East London comes at a price in the form of rent rises for the existing traders and early pioneers.  Clearly this is top of the agenda for most members, but they are also battling bureaucracy.  I spoke to a fishmonger about the parking charges he now faces when bringing his fish from Billingsgate;  the parking nightmare for his customers as they fight for the handful of spaces; the charge he has to pay for Council rubbish bags and the fine he'd had to pay because the last sack of rubbish wouldn't fit in the over-full Council bin.  Then there were his Kafkaesque discussions with the Council after a nearby bus stop was extended to accommodate the soon to be decommissioned 'bendy-buses', and the consequent parking fines he'd incurred for unloading outside his shop.

So, when you're chasing after the next shiny new thing, and I'm as likely to do that as anyone, remember your local, independent  traders.  They are the beating heart of your city.

The EETG seeks "to keep the streets of the east end vibrant and diverse, and to demonstrate the cultural, social and economic significance of independents in the East End."  07910 966738

Spitalfields Life  - The Founding of the East End Trades Guild

Friday, 16 November 2012

Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding

OK, we've passed mid-November which means even I have to start thinking about Christmas now. Well, at least what food I'm going to serve.  We're talking dried fruit without which, for most of us, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas.

'Stir-up Sunday' falls on 25th November this year.  The last Sunday before Advent is the date when families are meant to get together to take turns in stirring the Christmas cake, pudding or mincemeat which will be eaten over the Christmas period.  Whether you indulge in 'Stir-up Sunday' or not, now is the time to decide which of them you're going to make - and for me it is a choice as you really can have too much of a good thing - because you need to get ahead for a good result.

This year I'm making pudding.  Actually, it was my preferred choice last year too, hence the photograph above.  I was really pleased with the result but by the time it was sampled over Christmas it was too late to, so to speak, share it.

Just a brief bit of history for you if you don't want to look it up - and why would you when you've a pressing engagement with a mixing bowl.  Christmas Pudding is sometimes referred to as Plum Pudding or Plum Duff. It probably evolved from Pottage, a loose textured dish eaten in Roman Britain and containing meat, vegetables, dried fruits, sugar and spices.  By the 15th century it had become a firmer pudding and was a way of keeping meat which was slaughtered in the autumn, the dried fruit acting as a preserving agent. By the 19th century the dessert Christmas pudding as we now know it had arrived, with only shredded suet tying the recipe to its meaty origins. Relatively recently I was presented with a jar of sweet mincemeat by an Alaskan friend.  It contained reindeer meat, so the practice of preserving meat with dried fruits is still alive and well in some communities.

Dried fruit

Commercial Christmas Puddings are often a bit stodgy.  If that kind of pudding was your first experience I can understand you wouldn't want to repeat it.  It really doesn't have to be like that.  A good pudding should be full of a wide mixture of dried fruit which are in sympathy with each other.  It should be a little on the tart side, citrusy rather than overly sweet, held together by as little flour as possible, and boozy if your partial.  Get this right and it will emerge juicy and surprisingly vibrant when steamed prior to serving.

Many recipes have been passed down through families and I wouldn't want to mess with them.  I didn't inherit a Christmas Pudding recipe so I've begged, borrowed, stolen and tweaked mine over the years and I'm finally satisfied with it.  I'm not saying it's better than anyone else's version but, if you don't have a recipe you're happy with, you should give this one a go.  It's worth buying good quality dried fruit - currants in particular, as they can be gritty.  I don't particularly like glacĂ© cherries but I love dried sour cherries so I sometimes pop a few in to this recipe.  If you haven't made Christmas Pudding before, don't be put off by the long list of ingredients.  It's a simple process of mixing everything together, popping it in a bowl and steaming it.

As soon as I start weighing out the ingredients, those familiar smells of Christmas start to hit me and turn this most 'bah-humbug' Christmas-denier into an enthusiastic Cratchet.  Well almost, let's not get too carried away with Christmas spirit here.

Christmas Pudding
(Makes 1 x 1.5 litre pudding - enough for 8 people)

175g sultanas
125g raisins
50g currants
75g dried figs, chopped roughly
50g dried apricots, chopped roughly
50g candied peel
50g dried prunes, chopped roughly (or 25g chopped dried prunes + 25g chopped dried sour cherries
80ml brandy or rum

3 eggs, briefly beaten
175 Muscovado sugar
125g shredded suet (vegetable, rather than animal, if you prefer)
125g fresh breadcrumbs
100g self-raising flour
2-3 tsp mixed spice
1 cored and grated quince or cooking apple (no need to peel)
1 orange, zest and juice

Put the first 7 ingredients in a bowl.  Pour in the brandy, stir, and leave to steep overnight.  The next day, give it another stir. 

In a large bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients.  Add the soaked dried fruit and mix well.

Butter a 1.5 litre pudding basin.  Pour in the mixture, flattening the top.  If your basin doesn't have a lid (plastic ones often do, in which case pop the lid on) take a square of greaseproof paper and fold a pleat into it.  Place on top of the basin and tie around with string to secure.  Secure a piece of kitchen foil, with a pleat folded in to it, on top of the greaseproof paper to keep the moisture out.  Steam your pudding over simmering water for about 4 hours.  Allow to cool completely, then remove the foil and greaseproof paper caps and cover with a fresh piece of greaseproof.  Store in a cool dark place until needed, then steam again for about 3 hours before eating.  

If you want to reduce the quantities, a 1 litre size will take about 3 hours plus 2 hours on the day.  I think it's best served with double cream, but some will prefer rum sauce or brandy butter.  Leftover pudding is lovely sliced and fried briefly in a little butter.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Green Man and French Horn

Tarte Vigneron at
The Green Man and French Horn

I normally write about a place I like after a couple of visits but in the case of The Green Man and French Horn I've been a little selfish.  Having been quietly enjoying this place for several weeks I really must share my view of it.  First thing to know is it comes out of the same stable as Terroirs, Brawn and Soif so expect rustic French food and interesting natural wines.  The owners - Ed Wilson and Oli Barker - have a proven formula but if you're expecting the full roll-call of French wines, you need to be aware that this particular stablemate is focused on the Loire Valley.  For me, this doesn't limit my enjoyment, particularly as they keep some delicious organic and biodynamic examples of the region.  An unfiltered crisp appley Sauvignon Primeur the colour of blushed apricots has captured my heart, along with a spicy, red fruit Le Tel Quel Pinot Noir, both £5.75 a glass.

The food too is focused on the Loire area of France, but given how far this extends, again it's far from limiting.  Portions are generous, even the Plat du Jour which includes a glass of wine for £10 is a hearty plateful.  Vendee Ham with mogette beans is typical and delivers a creamy bowl of white beans topped with slices of salty ham.  The full menu offers simply prepared dishes such as exemplary rillette & cornichons, tranches of terrine, rillons, endive and mustard, crisply fried whitebait or a comforting dish of girolles and artichoke topped with a warm egg yolk.  Meats follow the seasons so, at the moment, you can expect maybe partridge with celeriac, ceps and pickled walnuts or rabbit cooked in cider.  Seasonal fish dishes might include a bowl of mussels with fennel and dill, grilled sardines with garlic and parsley or even the Loire freshwater fish, Zander, served with a traditional beurre blanc.  The pudding section is equally strong, from an irresistible boozy apple Tarte Vigneron to white wine poached pear with salted butter caramel and sable biscuit.  Expect to pay around £80 for two including wine and service.

The Green Man & French Horn was, you will not be surprised to learn, formerly a pub.  I've lost count of the number of people who have told me they have fond memories of it.  Smack bang in the heart of theatreland, the pub has gone but you'll get good wine and honest French food very well made from top quality ingredients.  I honestly can't think where this sort of thing is done better in London.  The staff are very good, particularly Laura behind the bar with her knowledge of wines, and the cosy pub atmosphere has been retained.  For me it's a very welcome find and not only because it's in a street of otherwise nondescript food.

The Green Man and French Horn
54 St Martin's Lane
London WC2N 4EA
Tel: 020 7836 2645

MARCH 2015 UPDATE: Sadly, now closed -  go around the corner to Terroirs at 5 William IV Street WC2N 4DW

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pumpkin with beetroot? Alain Passard gets it right

Chioggia and Burpees Golden Beetroots

Having an allotment or kitchen garden means there is almost always a glut of some fruit or vegetable to  challenge the imagination.  In February-March we are pulling leeks and parsnips from the frozen ground.  Come April we're planting seeds for the coming season but also feasting on purple sprouting broccoli.  Early summer sees us tentatively probing the autumn-planted garlic for the, hopefully, fat swollen bulbs and starting to pick the soft fruits.  By mid-summer we are scurrying to the plot every other day to deal with an embarrassment of riches from the raspberry canes.

Late summer into autumn is all about scarlet, yellow and white stemmed Ruby chard, earthy, sweet beetroot, squash and pumpkin.  Although growing pumpkins and squash has been a dispiriting affair for most of us this year, beetroot hasn't suffered much from the strange weather conditions in the UK. Right now, I can use as many good recipes for beetroot as I can get - there are only so many beetroot salads we can take.

A present of Alain Passard's book, The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, arrived at just the right time.  Though approached with trepidation (well, this is a 3 Michelin starred chef we're talking about here), the recipes are proving to be very simple, interesting and delicious.

Pumpkin & Beetroot Bake

Being so over-burdened with beetroot, I went straight to the page 'A tale of pumpkin and beetroot'. It's a perfect recipe for this time of year so, although I was doubtful about the combination, I tried it out.  Even Passard had his reservations when he considered the pairing - "... it is an encounter I did not really believe could work ..."  The firm, juicy earthiness of the red beetroot goes with the soft, sweet pumpkin wonderfully well.  A sharp burst of lime and mint cuts through the rich butter and cheese elements of the dish.  Visually it's a stunner too.  The recipe below is slightly adapted from the original, but when the original is so good you really don't want to mess with it too much. Passard does not instruct you to peel the pumpkin.  If you use butternut squash, peeling isn't necessary (though personally I prefer to), but with a hard-skinned pumpkin you will need to peel it.

A Dish of Pumpkin & Beetroot
(Generously serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course)
300g (11oz)  peeled butternut squash, or favourite pumpkin, cut into large crescent shaped wedges.
Uncooked red beetroot weighing at least 700g (1lb 10oz)
100g (4oz) lightly salted butter, preferably clarified
Juice of 1 lime
A small handful of mint leaves
200g (7 oz) Emmental cheese cut into thin slices
Salt & pepper

Cook the beetroots in lightly salted simmering water, in a covered pan, for up to an hour depending on size.  Leave to cool in the cooking water for 30 minutes, then peel and cut it into large dice.
Set a large pan over low heat (if it's one that can take all the ingredients and go under the grill at the end, so much the better), melt the butter and add the pumpkin wedges.  Sweat the pumpkin gently, partially covered, for 40 minutes or until tender and lightly coloured, turning it occasionally.  Remove from the heat.
If you need to change to a pan which can go under the grill, now is the time.  Arrange the crescents of pumpkin so that they are lying as flat as possible and distribute the diced beetroot in between, making a fairly level layer.  Add the lime juice and mint leaves and top with the slices of Emmental.
Place the pan under a hot grill for several minutes until the cheese melts.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve immediately.
Salad leaves and crusty bread turn this into a substantial main course dish.