Sunday, 24 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 4


A pause between the food in the three previous posts and whatever’s coming next.

So I asked writers published by CBe writers to send me recipes, and almost without exception the ones they sent could have come in anonymously and I’d have still known who sent them. Everyone’s cooking has their fingerprint. Food is class and sex and history and childhood and heredity and politics and everything else.

Most of what I cook tastes same-ish, because it’s me cooking it. The versions I’ve cooked of the recipes I’ve been sent have often been a bit sloppy. (See the previous posts for the results so far.) That’s fine; your versions will be even more sloppy, or neater.

In the house I grew up in, food was mostly functional: eat to live, not live to eat. When I moved out of home, aged 17, my mum taught me how to cook an omelette. Roughly around then, an exotic place opened in the local market town in Yorkshire that served spaghetti. In my early 20s, someone asked me to chop garlic and I’d never done this before.

I didn’t really learn anything about food until I had people to cook for. Nor did my mother: when she married in 1948, her own mother gave her a book titled Essentials of Modern Cookery, which includes instructions on how to roast a heart (above). Jump a generation and I have photos of my sons at work on the cakes for their second birthday. This is so important. They know how to make things and not just for themselves.

(The great thing about baking, by the way, is that it usually doesn’t have to be timed for a particular point in a meal, and you can do it at 3 in the morning if that’s what you feel like doing. I have big anxiety about when to take cakes out of the oven, and err on the side of leaving them in too long. Black crusts and apologies and everyone says it’s lovely but it’s not.)

Most of the recipes that have come in are simple fare. In literature, plain cooking (like Orwell’s ‘plain style’) has a perceived moral value – you can tell the goodies from the baddies by what they eat. Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina make jam and pick mushrooms while Oblonsky in Moscow swills down oysters from Germany with French champagne. On the other hand there’s Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, in which an austere Puritanical community in Jutland come to experience the joy, both physical and spiritual, that cooking as a form of art can bring.

The point being made in Anna Karenina about food is not just about keeping it simple but about its production and its sharing. Since March last year a Lockdown Subscription has been offered from the home page of the website – 10 books of your choice (actually I send at least a dozen, plus extras) for £65, post-free in the UK – and because of Covid restrictions this has been a main means of getting the books to readers. New (and repeat) subscribers are very welcome. Help me along here.

The mulberry tree in the photo below is in the back garden of Wiesiek Powaga, translator of Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa, in a village in Hungary. Each village in that region has its own distillery, in the way many villages had (and in many places still have) communal ovens, and Wiesiek translated the mulberries gathered in that net into palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy. The photographs I don’t want to show are those of the food parcels sent out by catering companies in the UK to families whose children qualify for free school meals, because those photos are obscene: tinned baked beans for the poor despatched in one of the richest countries in the world by a political class (it includes me) that pores over the inventive and often very wonderful recipes in cookery books and magazine supplements. We can do better.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 3

Recipes from CBe authors, part 3 of a series. Parts 1 and 2 are the previous posts.

9 Crêpes filled with Spinach and Goat’s Cheese from Wiesiek Powaga (translator of Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa and In Sarah’s House by Stefan Grabinski, the latter out of print). Make the crêpes (flour, eggs, milk, water; or you can buy them ready-made, I’m told). The filling: spinach (lots of it, the big-leafed kind, not ‘baby’ spinach) blanched and chopped, goat’s cheese mixed with yogurt, garlic. Roll the crêpes into ‘pipes’ and fry gently in olive oil and butter. Adjustments: I put mine in the oven rather than re-frying. And, stupidly, I forgot all about the yogurt (but was generous with the goat’s cheese). (People do forget things in the kitchen, where it’s easy to get distracted. I once went to a supper where the host forgot to serve the soup; we eventually had it after the pudding.)

10< Highland Pie from J. O. Morgan (Natural Mechanical; Long Cuts; At Maldon; other titles from Cape). A version of shepherd’s pie or cottage pie but the shepherd and his cottage are Scottish so the meat element is haggis. Shop-bought haggis (vegetarian versions available), microwaved as the label tells you (10 minutes-ish), topped with mashed veg (here, potatoes, carrots, parsnips), plus optional grated cheese, then into the oven ‘for an unspecified time’, maybe half an hour. Haggis is fine but I still suspect that as with any food that insists on a certain day of the year (haggis on Burns Night, 25 January; turkey on Christmas Day), most people don’t much bother with it otherwise.

11 Lemon Pudding from Jack Robinson (An Overcoat; Robinson; Good Morning, Mr Crusoe). At last, a pudding. The recipe for this in Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries (page 353: ‘Aunt Daisy’s Lemon Pudding’) is exactly as cooked by my mother; I was surprised to see my mother’s recipe in a novel, then realised that this has been cooked for generations by all mothers in the Western world, and this was Shields’s point. Butter, sugar, eggs, flour, lemon zest and rind, milk. In the oven for 40 minutes, during which it which it separates into cake-ish on top and something much more slippery underneath. Plus single cream to serve.


12 Polenta from Elise Valmorbida (whose novel The TV President was published by CBe in 2008, now out of print, and who introduced the screenplay Saxon, CBe, 2008; Faber published her novel The Madonna of the Mountains in 2018). Polenta: ‘The smell is nostalgia, so it is the past, but it is also hunger, so it is the future.’ A bit of a fudge here: Elise uses coarse-ground cornmeal, slowly raining it into a very big pan of boiling roiling water until the consistency feels right, stirring all the time over low heat until the polenta starts detaching from the sides of the pan, ‘usually in 40 minutes to an hour’. Elise has strong arms. Pour ‘with an energetic shove’ onto a large wooden board and let settle ‘into a nice soft round form, ready to cut’. I’m lazier: fine-ground polenta so less stirring; I mix in milk and/or cream and parmesan and a few chili flakes, and I’m happy with a sludge (think lava flow) rather than anything cut-able. Elise’s grandmother won’t speak to me. Here, with a sauce of broccoli and mushrooms; olive oil drizzled over, and lots of lemon juice.

Can we pack in another one? Remember rush hour on the Tube when passengers were packed in like sardines?

13 Sardine Butter from Paul Bailey (Inheritance). From a writer who at Christmas cooked a partridge inside a pheasant inside a duck inside a capon, layered with two kinds of stuffing, this may appear a little ridiculous. But it has pedigree: included in a book of recipes by Marcel Boulestin in the 1930s, it was thoroughly approved by Elizabeth David. It’s probably not original to Boulestin: for as long as sardines have been sold in cans people have likely been doing this to them – mashing them to a paste with an equivalent weight of good unsalted butter, adding a little seasoning, keeping them in a jar in the fridge and spreading them on hot bread when hungry. Before mashing, take off the skin (if you want to) and pick out the bones (unless you are Scott, the boy I sat next to at school in the 1960s who ate his breakfast kippers bones and all, not just the tiny ones but the thick one down the middle).

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 2

Lockdown recipes (not for mass gatherings) from CBe authors. For Part 1, see here; further episodes will follow. Exact weights and timings not given: most writers appear to cook ‘by eye’.

Here again (see recipe 8), after Stephen Knight’s Schnitzel in the previous post, is a handed-down recipe, this one not from a mother but a grandmother. What survives of us are recipes? Food is a form of love. Or can be, and should be. The photographs circulating this week of school-meal parcels sent out by catering companies express nothing but contempt for those in need: they speak not just of incompetence but of arrogance, greed, corruption, the complete opposite of love. A grace to be said before every meal: Lord, help rid us of this awful, awful government.

Commercial break: the CBe Lockdown Subscription, running since last March, is still available from the website home page. 10 books (+ extras: pamphlets, extra books) for £65 (post free, UK only). In an email today from a subscriber approaching book 10: ‘It’s been one of the best £60s I’ve spent.’


5 Northern Polish Fish and Chips from Natalia Zagorska-Thomas (co-author of Blush): ‘We had this at a fish stand on the side of the road in a small coastal town and it has a life-changing effect. We settled on this version after several tries.’ White fish (haddock as here, or cod or monkfish), oven-cooked potato cubes, boczek wedony (or if you’re not lucky enough to live near a Polish supermarket, pancetta ‘will do at a stretch’), girolle mushrooms fried with half an onion, single cream. Other than a light touch with salt and pepper, no spices. You know when the guard comes into your cell and takes your order for your last meal? This.


6 Rosemary and Sea-salt Flapjacks, a light-bulb idea that came to Carmel Doohan (whose novel Seesaw will be coming from CBe later in the year) as she was ‘walking down Church Street, Stoke Newington, and absently picking a sprig of rosemary as I ate a flapjack’. Oats, butter, brown sugar, golden syrup, sea salt and ‘at least a dozen large sprigs of rosemary’. I think I last ate a flapjack when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister – I get the concept of ‘snacks’, like I get the concept of science fiction, I just haven’t been around them much. I like that these are semi-savoury. Serving suggestion 1: cut in narrow slices and use for a game of Jenga (each player keeps the pieces they successfully remove, but surrenders their loot to the others if they bring the tower down). Serving suggestion 2: on your permitted daily outing for exercise, take a thermos of mulled wine and these.


7 Inauthentic Linguine from Christopher Reid (whose The Song of Lunch was first published by CBe in 2009, before it was filmed and went to Faber) – ‘inauthentic’ because for many Italians your choice of pasta determines your choice of sauce, and any skipping around or fancy stuff can have you ostracised from polite society. Avocado and tomato have long been boon companions in salads, so there’s nothing especially fancy here, but having them cohabit in a hot sauce was new to me. The tomatoes are oven-roasted before being added with the avocado to sizzled spring onions, garlic, ginger, plus chili flakes and fresh oregano. Plus grated pecorino or parmegiano. Simple and carefree and summery – oh I wish, I wish.


8 Grated Potato Pancakes from Roy Watkins (Simple Annals), whose grandma made these in the 1940s: ‘I would be enlisted to gather necessities together and even to join in the hard work of gratering the potatoes. The result was always delicious.’ (Back then, grandma used egg powder from a tin, eggs being severely rationed. Watkins recalls his Uncle Hugh finding a duck egg on the farm where he worked and swapping it for 10 Woodbines on the bus back home; Aunt Mary wasn’t best pleased, ‘and she drove him out to smoke his Woodbines in the back garden’.)

Potatoes, onion, egg, flour, salt and pepper. Wring out excess liquid after grating the potatoes. Watkins: ‘Checking this recipe, we have found that one and a quarter pounds of potatoes gave 5 medium pancakes, all very good. We ate them as a side dish with a duck breast and a cabbage and apple accompaniment.’ I ate mine with a poached egg and Polish sausage, above.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 1

The story so far: on the first day of Lockdown 3, I received in the post a notebook for recipes along with an author’s corrected proofs. So, Lockdown project: I invited all CBe writers to send recipes. More will follow: squirrels, haggis, flapjacks … I’ll probably blog two or three at a time.

It’s fascinating, how could it not be. I’m getting recipes invented on the street – ‘absently picking on a sprig of rosemary as I ate a flapjack’ – and recipes as cooked by granny in the 1940s, using powdered egg. You could email to ask for the exact recipes and I’ll happily send those but in most cases you’re going to be none the wiser: most people are not calculating in teaspoons or precise timings (‘Put into the oven for an unspecified amount of time’). Except in the foundational sense that it is – how this thing reacts to that thing at a given temperature and for a given time – this isn’t science. It’s pleasure, and play.


1 Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist; The Inevitable Giftshop; Broken Consort; and Murmur, first from CBe but now with Canongate): Haddock and Cannellini Cassoulet. Leek, mushrooms, courgette, beans, veg stock, and haddock; paprika, turmeric, ‘a blast of Worcestershire sauce, a shake of balsamic vinegar and a splodge of tomato concentrate’. This is my regular kind of cooking, so an easy way in, but delicious, I’ll go here again. New to me, about the tin of beans: ‘Don’t bother draining them, or only drain them a little: the salty sludge is good’ – a line Nigella would be proud of.


2 Eric Mace-Tessler (translator of Gert Hofmann, Veilchenfeld): I’m out of my comfort zone here, not just because I’m not vegan but also because I don’t have a thing his recipe calls a ‘pressure cooker’. I have pans. (During the last lockdown, or was it the one before, I did acquire a skillet, for hob and oven both, but I’ve only used it once.) So this is a ‘version’, as free-wheeling translators sometimes say, of the original. My expectations were not high: how can bully-boy chickpeas be, as Eric promises, ‘subtle’? Turns out they can. A little salt, no other spices. Onion, chickpeas, ‘scallions’, buckwheat noodles, and the green bits are roasted nori.


3 and 4 Schnitzel from Stephen Knight (The Prince of Wails; Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge), pork not veal. Here, with red cabbage and from David Collard (About a Girl: a Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing), Leftover Roast Potatoes, as served (for free) by Rose in The George, Parkholme Road, Hackney, in the 1980s. Potatoes get the regular treatment (but the oil mustn’t be olive, ‘which smokes’, or goose fat, ‘which is an ostentation’); the only ‘difficult part’ is leaving them in a bowl (not in the fridge) for 24 hours: ‘They're best eaten cold the following day as leftovers, sprinkled with sea salt.’

The recipe for Stephen Knight’s Schnitzel is printed in the form of a letter from his mother at the end of his superb novel Mr Schnitzel (2000; long out of print but try AbeBooks). ‘PS If not clear please ring.’ The centrepiece of Knight’s Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge is an elegy of sorts for his mother, who died in 2019; it’s a poem of contained fury at the kind of poetry that offers itself as consolatory – ‘faced with this pabulum / who wouldn’t look glum’. Pabulum: ‘pap,’ says my online dictionary, adding: ‘mid 17th century (in the sense “food”): from Latin, from the stem of pascere “to feed”.’ This business of writing and food and mothers is complicated.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Bad weather, good books



1st January, late afternoon, cold sleety weather, the UK now un-moored from Europe and Covid rampant and the ship run by incompetent bastards and I overhear a drunk woman in the street ask a stranger if he knows someone called Mohammed and he replies: ‘Everyone does, don’t they?’ I love this city. This country too – which is not easy right now, but it needs love most when the times are hard.

Meanwhile, here’s a book, Spring Journal, that took on 2020 on directly, week by week, and was published in December: ‘The virus reveals the flaw / In our way of living: the rich fly it around the planet / And dump it on the doorsteps of the poor.’ Responding fast and honestly to the times we live in is one of the things writing and publishing are for.

Slow works too: Simple Annals by Roy Watkins, the first title from CBe in 2021, a memoir of childhood in Lancashire in the 1940s and early 50s, is short (around 120 pages) but was many years in the writing: the author remembers hearing an early version read aloud by Ted Hughes. The writing has an immediacy that belies the decades.

The Lockdown Subscription – 10 books (plus extras) for £65 – is still available: see the Home page of the website. It is a complete bargain (especially now that postage has just gone up by 10%). This Lockdown Subscription was first offered in late March last year; it is now even more relevant than it was then.