Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

Chop Chop

April 28, 2014


Emilybooks has arrived in Lucca! Here she will stay for the next two glorious months – reading a great deal, writing – let’s hope – something, gazing at the many beautiful old buildings (while the architect husband sketches and is inspired by their brilliance), eating a colossal amount of pasta, and trying her hardest to speak Italian.

So far the attempts at the latter have met with a mixture of bemused smiles, answers in English, and occasional kind efforts to help. Yesterday morning, we stumbled into a café for a quick coffee before getting the train to Florence. I was busy eyeing up the croissant selection, so it fell to the husband to order his own coffee.

‘Caffe … con … um … what’s milk again Ems?’


‘Caffe con latte … oh yeah, caffe latte.’

The man laughed, concocted a powerful coffee, and then said, as he gave it to him, ‘anche, cappuccino’.

‘Caffe latte,’ the husband repeated, bewildered.

‘Si, anche cappuccino.’

‘He says it’s also called cappuccino,’ I translated.

The husband smiled vaguely, ‘Si, grazie.’

I tried to explain that he was ‘stanco’, tired, and the man looked non-comprehending so I wonder what I actually said. Then I said that my chocolate croissant was ‘delicioso’ and he looked rather fond of us, I thought. He must have realised we were English as he tried to talk to us about the weather, but unfortunately my vocabulary doesn’t stretch far in that direction. If only he’d got me on pizza toppings.

As we hurried to the train station, the husband woefully rubbed his head and said, ‘I’ve got to get some Italian in there.’

‘Well caffe latte is definitely a good start.’

‘That’s French anyway. He said it’s cappuccino.’

So we have a long way to go. I am determined that by the end of our trip, we will go into that same café, and have a lovely, fluent conversation with the kind man which goes beyond different names for a white coffee.

Italy books

We drove here through France, which meant that we could bring rather a lot of stuff. When I say stuff, I mean books. A huge box of them clogged up the boot, promising many happy hours spent with my head between their covers, and, on arriving, you can see I swiftly colonised a bookcase. I thought this the perfect opportunity to re-read some classics; I long to go back to various EM Forsters, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady. I’ve also brought a few of those books that I’ve long meant to read and never quite found the time: The Sound and the Fury, The Rings of Saturn, The Grass is Singing (swapped for The Golden Notebook on a dear colleague’s fulsome recommendation), plus of course a couple of Persephone Books and a few other novels that look promising. We also have a great many guidebooks and then there are all the husband’s big architecture books. (When I say ‘we’ drove, I mean the husband did, while I ‘map-read’.)

Really, I suppose my first post should be about something like A Room with a View. I certainly felt a little like I’d stepped out of it, when we went to Florence yesterday to meet a couple of friends who happened to be staying there, at the end of their holiday. We met in Piazza della Signoria, and I had to stop myself from exclaiming, ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.’ I suppose the hordes of tourists somewhat lessened the feeling of being quite so grand, but no matter.

Chop Chop

But no, my first post is a week overdue (apologies…) and is in fact about the last book I read in England, over the Easter Weekend, which I spent with friends, including its author. Chop Chop is Simon Wroe’s first novel. He is a former chef – which was an added treat for the weekend – and has written this darkly funny book about what goes on in a Camden gastropub’s kitchen. I think the weekend was a rather unnerving experience for Simon, as Chop Chop seemed to be the only book that people were reading (apart from, coincidentally, A Room with a View, which someone else had brought along); I counted five copies on the go in total… We tried to persuade him to give us a little reading, but to no avail.

So now, as I think back to reading Chop Chop, I leave the domes and towers of Tuscany behind and am transported back to seedy Camden Town. I have to say it does make me feel rather smug to be away from it.

What struck me as most impressive about the book is its energy. It is so punchy, grabbing you by your jacket collar and mouthing off in your face. It’s full of banter, rough jokes, loud voices, noise, heat … Essentially Simon does a stupendously good job of capturing the atmosphere of a busy kitchen in the very texture of his prose.

It is impossible not to be caught up in this hot whirlwind, as we follow the fate of our naïve bookish protagonist, nicknamed ‘Monocle’, as he attempts to survive in the brutal world of the kitchen, replete with vile characters, for whom one ends up feeling a surprising amount of affection.

Beneath all the noise, heat and pressure of the kitchen, are rather more sinister undertones. Gradually we piece together Monocle’s past … We also venture into the seedy underworld of Camden Town, through the unforgettable character of The Fat Man:

The Fat Man eclipsed all else as he ate. And how he could eat! Three or four starters, and every main going. Tremendous amounts were consumed, seemingly without limit or pleasure. Despite his booming bonhomie and the sharp smiles he flashed at Bob or the nervous front-of-house staff, his face bore no trace of joy or appreciation as he ate … Yet every morsel was devoured, every plate wiped clean. He treated food as billionaires treat money, as showgirls treat presents from admirers. An entitlement he claimed even though it disgusted him

There are rumours that The Fat Man controls the Camden underworld. He is a man who commands a certain disgusted respect, a man to whom one cannot say no. He seems peripheral to the plot – just one of many well-drawn Camden characters – until Monocle, finds himself having to sous chef at a special dinner at his residence. The money is good, the task awful, as becomes clear as soon as they ask what they’re cooking:

‘A special something, my boys. A special something.’ He leaned in, eyes wide. ‘Have you ever heard of the ortalan?’

We had not.

‘It’s a tiny, rare songbird,’ The Fat Man explained. ‘You drown them in brandy and roast them in a clay pot. They’re so little you can crunch the bones.’

So the poor chefs must drown twenty songbirds, pluck them, and roast them. They are instructed to bring them to the diners when the bell is rung three times. Then, on carrying the birds into the dining room:

Five figures sat around the table, the head of each one bowed and covered by a sheet of black silk. Their faces were hidden, from God or from us, from both. They neither moved nor spoke. Fun or fulfillment was not their intent. Pleasant company had not brought them here. Theirs was a grimmer ceremony: of blood letting, of sin, of guilt and taking away.

Even in Italy, I am still haunted by this image of silk-draped sin. This is just the beginning of our view into The Fat Man’s sinister world – I will leave it there for fear of spoilers… I still shudder to think of it, this horrific man with so many people in his thrall, guzzling his food ‘as showgirls treat presents from admirers’. It’s almost enough to put me off my huge plates of pasta. (Although Simon, being a very well-informed foodie, has kindly sent me a list of restaurants in and around Lucca which sound so delicious that they are sure to eclipse the ghost of The Fat Man…)

Chop Chop is a terrific book. Its energetic prose pulls you into the fast, tough world of the kitchen, then reveals the dark secrets behind the bravado and banter, what lies beneath all the steam and the smoke. It’s exciting to discover a new voice, especially one so fresh that packs such a punch … I can’t wait to discover what he might write next.


How to cook – canals and novels

May 17, 2010

When I was cycling home at the weekend, my back wheel suddenly went clonk. It was completely bent out of shape, jammed against the brake, and I had to half-carry half-drag it the rest of the way home, which luckily wasn’t too far.

I took it into the marvellous Lock 7 bike shop where they said they’d fit a new wheel and I could pick it up later on. Incidentally, I cannot recommend Lock 7 enough.

A couple of hours later, I walked over to pick up my bike. I went along the Regent’s canal, a quiet, secluded path, lined by water on the one side, wild foliaged fence on the other. There was near silence except for the occasional tinkle of a bicycle bell, the rush of water as a lock filled up, an occasional pant of a lycraed jogger, an overheard snippet of conversation as people wandered past.

There were no decisions about which way to go, whether it would be quicker to go right and then left, or straight on and then the next right. The canal is a set route and takes all of those decisions out of one’s hands. I just got on the towpath and walked, knowing that it would lead me, eventually, to the bike shop.

On the way back home, I decided not to cycle along the canal. It’s a bit slow, a bit too meandering, too many pedestrians in the way, I thought. No, I’ll go on the streets, it’ll be much quicker. There were cars, speed-bumps, traffic lights, decisions about which turning would be best. I had to concentrate rather hard on everything that was going on, rather than just enjoying the journey. Yes, it was quicker, but far less pleasant.

I think that these two different journeys can be used to explain many things. Not least why I don’t cook properly.

You see, people who cook the right way decide they’re going to cook something, don’t worry about it taking a while, begin at the beginning of the recipe and then end up with the finished dish. Essentially they go along the canal. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no decisions; they follow the steps set out for them and everything goes smoothly.

People like me, who cook the wrong way, go along the streets. They skim over the recipe and then decide to cook it their own way. They look for shortcuts, ways to make it quicker, and the process is filled with interruptions and distractions – other things that need some concentration while they’re cooking.

So, for instance, they begin chopping onions while on the telephone and then decide, impatiently, that it doesn’t need to be fried for ten minutes but that five will do. Later on, another shortcut can be made by not bothering to leave the mixture to sit and infuse for twenty minutes. They decide, while they’re in the kitchen, they might as put a wash on and unload the dishwasher. They cut as much time out of the recipe as possible, try to multi-task, forget where they’ve got to, and end up with a not particularly good dish, but prepared in less time, with a washing machine going full tilt and a dishwasher half-unloaded.

Why do I follow this second, worse, way of cooking? Why do I not decide, right, this evening I’m going to cook and not do anything else, and I will follow the recipe very carefully and not take any shortcuts? Why don’t I decide to enjoy the meanderings, the little moments of watching onions soften, patiently letting things infuse, the careful browning of the meat, the sudden smell of a burst of herbs?

The problem lies in treating recipes as directions rather than respectable pieces of text. Reading a recipe should be enjoyable, like following a plot, digesting a novel.

A recipe has its own special plot devices, structure, intrigue. Ingredients are brought together, mixed, left to simmer, transferred to a different environment. Adding chilli to onions shouldn’t just mean ‘make it spicy’, but should be more like introducing a fiery love interest to someone with many layers (to adapt a line from Shrek). When reading a book, it’s unthinkable to skip a few pages, add in one’s own bits, miss out a vital character. Now I can see, when I interfere with recipes, I’m bastardising the plot.

As soon as one thinks of recipes as mini novels, it’s clear that cooking isn’t about the final outcome, the end scene, whatever it is that has resulted from the mixing together of ingredients. Cooking is like reading. It’s about enjoying the mixing process, seeing what happens when something new is introduced, when things are left to simmer or, indeed, when everything gets rather overheated.

So perhaps it was wrong of me to think about cooking when I was going to and from the bike shop. Recipes aren’t merely ways of getting from A to B. If that’s how I think of them, then I’ll always be tempted to take a shortcut. But, luckily, I’ll never choose to miss a chunk of a good novel.

Easter Eggs, Passover Eggs … and Claudia Roden

April 2, 2010

Happy Easter! A time for many things, not least the eating of Easter Eggs.

But Easter Eggs aren’t the only eggs to be eaten at this time of year. Coinciding with Easter is the Jewish festival of Passover. Eggs are part of that too. Rather than celebrating the rebirth of Christ (a classic case of ironic, neurotic guilt – if we allegedly killed him in the first place), Passover celebrates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. It lasts for eight days but the main event is a big dinner on the first night – which was on Monday – Seder Night. That’s when the eggs are eaten.

Seder Night is essentially a really big meal, with a long preamble, during which everybody joins in to tell the story of the Exodus. There are a great many symbolic moments during this preamble – the spilling of ten drops of wine as the ten plagues God brought upon the Egyptians are recounted; the repeated chorus of ‘Dayenu’ (‘it would have been enough’) as God’s actions when he got us out of Egypt are listed; and, of course, the food. There are matzos, a bit like crackers, eaten because no leavened bread is to be eaten over Passover – the Israelites fleeing from Egypt had to leave in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. But there are other symbolic foods too … including eggs. Passover eggs, however, rather than being delicious and chocolatey, usually accompanied by a chocolate bar or two, are just normal chicken eggs, served in salt water.

Eggs are one of those things that are symbolic pretty much everywhere. In fact I can’t think of anything more symbolic. Much more so than Geoff Dyer’s take on hats. Eggs mean birth, new life, and they’re perfect for Spring, when everything comes into bud, and baby animals are born etc. etc. My understanding of the Easter Egg symbolism – having done a spot of googling to check – is that they are an adaptation of the egg = new life symbol, and are meant to represent Christ’s resurrection, his new life.

At Seder Night, when eggs in salt water were duly distributed before we got to Granny’s chicken soup (perhaps answering the eternal ‘which came first?’ question), one of my cousins asked me why we always eat eggs in salt water at Passover. I told her what I thought was the correct answer – the eggs symbolise the birth of the nation of Israel and new hope, and the salt water represents the tears shed when we were suffering as slaves in Egypt.

I had a different question. Having almost given up on getting the chicken soup recipe out of my Granny (after years of trying) I asked her how to make haroset. Haroset is a yummy sweet fruity, nutty paste, which is another of the symbolic foods eaten on Passover. I always thought the reason behind it was something to do with balancing out the maror, the bitter herbs (usually horseradish for us), which are eaten to symbolise the bitterness of being slaves. A kind of – oh it was so awful and bitter and terrible (maror) but then God saved us so it became full of sweetness and hope (haroset). I suppose it’s a bit like my interpretation of eggs and salt water.

Nobody really knew how to make the haroset – buy it from Panzers (a Jewish deli) was Granny’s advice. Undeterred, when I got home that evening I looked it up in one of my favourite books, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

This book is completely wonderful. Not only does it tell you how to make absolutely any Jewish food you can imagine – including all the yummy Sephardic Middle-Eastern stuff – it is also a beautifully-written social history of Jewish food, full of interesting titbits. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Polish Jews had a taste for sweet foods, adding sugar to their pickled herring, whereas Lithuanian ones were particularly keen on peppery and sour foods, such as fermented pickled cabbage (yuk)? And there are some food-related jokes scattered through the pages, which always make me want to say ‘oy’. Here’s one:

A man orders a five-course meal at Soli’s. He stuffs himself, and everyone wonders how much else he can eat. When the bill comes, he says he has no money at all and can’t pay. Soli is furious: he wants to call the police. Then he says, ‘I will let you go if you do one thing – if you go tomorrow and do the same thing across the road at Sam’s Deli.’ The man replies, ‘I already ate there yesterday and they told me to come here today.

So, when I picked up this enormous wonderful book the other night, aware of the feast of brilliance laid out in the pages, it would have been a sin to go straight to the index to look up the recipe for haroset. Instead, I leafed through the book, glancing at page after page, until I happened to reach the section on Jewish festivals and found the entry for Passover. Here, clear, concise and elegant, was an explanation of the symbolism of all the Passover foods. And I was shocked to find that I’d been wrong about the egg in salt water.

According to Claudia Roden, the egg should be roasted, not hard-boiled. The roasted egg symbolises the sacrificial offering to God of a roasted animal, which apparently used to happen at festivals in biblical Jerusalem. The salt water isn’t supposed to accompany the egg, it’s supposed to go with the green vegetable (karpas). Although, at least I was right about the salt water symbolising the tears of the slaves.

All sorts of questions are thrown up by this discovery. Not least, how do you roast an egg?! (Boil it first, apparently.) But then, I suppose it’s not that surprising that I always assumed the egg was a symbol of new life rather than of an animal sacrifice. It seems to mean new life everywhere else. And eggs at our Seder Nights have never been roasted, and I doubt anyone would have hard-boiled an animal sacrifice …

But now I find myself in a quandary. What happens next year? Should we roast the eggs, following the gospel of Claudia Roden? Or should we stick to our own tradition of hard-boiling them and serving them in salt water? And what about the green vegetable? We normally pass around a few lettuce leaves extracted from an M&S bag of salad, but next year should they be dipped in salt water?

Judaism is a religion that’s full of traditions. That’s what I love about it. I love the apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (‘may your New Year be full of sweetness’), and I love Seder Night with all its fuss and symbolism, and I love the memories I have of all these festivals. Every Seder Night I remember my brother teaching me the Manish Tanah – the four questions that the youngest person present has to recite; I remember all of us running around the dining room year after year, excitedly hunting for the afikoman – a piece of matzos hidden by a grown-up earlier on; and I remember being a teenager and giggling hysterically with my cousins when we had to read out the bits about being in Egypt ‘in bondage’ or God using a ‘rod’. Gosh we were told off so many times.

And, part of that tradition, is being offered a hard-boiled egg in salt water just before Granny’s chicken soup is dished out. Every year some hands eagerly shoot up, while others politely decline, and then there is the inevitable discussion about whether egg in salt water is delicious or disgusting. It would be awful to lose this, just because the eggs are actually supposed to be roasted.

Perhaps it was like this when Easter Eggs started being yummy chocolate feasts rather than painted chicken eggs. Perhaps some people still think, ‘oh if only we still painted eggs rather than gorging on all this chocolate.’ But it seems unlikely; chocolate eggs are too delicious to regret the change in tradition. Sadly, I imagine that roasted eggs and hard-boiled eggs taste pretty similar.

I don’t know what to do about the egg situation. But I did, in the end, remember to look up how to make haroset. Again, I was surprised to find a new symbolism for it. The sweet paste isn’t just something to balance out the bitter herbs, maror, it is in fact supposed to symbolise the mortar that the Israelites made with Nile silt when building the Pyramids for the Pharaohs.

The really awful thing is – please all my Jewish friends don’t hate me for my ignorance – I didn’t even realise that the Israelites made the Pyramids. I always thought of the Pyramids as something that the Egyptians built. I hadn’t twigged that the Jews-as-slaves-in-Egypt period overlapped with the Pyramid-building period.

Perhaps I would have learnt all of this, and hence the egg dilemma would never have arisen, if I hadn’t been thrown out of Jewish Sunday school at a young age for repeatedly eating bacon-flavoured crisps. But, on a positive note, at least haroset looks pretty simple to make. All you need to do is grate apples, and mix them with chopped walnuts, cinnamon, sweet red wine and a little bit of sugar or honey to taste. No eggs at all.

Blub at the smug in Julie and Julia

March 15, 2010

I watched Julie and Julia last night. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but when I suggested it to my boyfriend, one wintry Sunday evening, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was too girly. We went to see District 9 instead. (Which was actually stupendously brilliant, not at all the rubbish sci-fi film about aliens I’d anticipated.)

So last night, knowing by now that yes the film is a bit trashy, a bit girly, but nonetheless gentle and heart-warming, I thought that, with the excuse of still recovering from my lost tonsils, I would settle down to watch it.

For those of you who don’t know, Julie and Julia tells the story of Julia Child – dotty American lady in Paris in the 1950s who then writes a seminal French cookbook for Americans – in parallel with the story of Julie Powell – a modern-day New Yorker, turning thirty, who gets over her mid-life crisis by writing a blog about cooking Julia Child’s recipes.

Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and she’s magnificent; I loved this half of the film. She totters eccentrically through Paris, gorging on oysters, pastries and fruit; she frantically practises chopping onions so as to be better than the men on the cooking course; and, of course, she cooks in stunning French kitchens. It’s escapist enjoyable fun, despite the sinister background of McCarthyism and the moments of sadness when it becomes clear that she wants, and can’t have, a baby.

The Julie half of the film – well, I’m ashamed to say that it brought out a rather horrid, unattractive side of me.

The problem began at the beginning, when I instantly empathised with the Julie character. I have a bad habit of doing this in films and books. Whenever the main character has any of the following traits – writes, reads, plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair etc. – some part of me always thinks, ‘Ah, that’s just like me.’ And then it’s just a short progression to thinking, ‘Ah, this film is actually kind of about me.’ Other recent occurrences of this curse have been with An Education (plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair), and A Long Way to Verona (writes, reads, definitely has brown hair in my imagination even if it might not be specifically mentioned in the book).

In Julie and Julia I thought, ‘Oh, she’s just like me, she tried to write a novel and she’s writing a blog and she feels like all her friends are more successful than her.’ So I instantly had a loyalty towards Julie, I was on her side, I shared her anguish during the ghastly lunch where all her friends boast about getting promoted, talk on their mobiles and don’t understand what she’s doing at all. (Sorry friends – not all of you are like that.)

But this loyalty quickly came to be tested. Julie endlessly complains about her apartment above a pizzeria, coming across as a really spoilt brat. I’m sorry, it’s a 900 square foot huge open-plan flat in New York, and, if she weren’t so into cooking, being so close to a pizza place would be heaven. Somehow she’s lucky enough to be married to a handsome, successful man, who puts up with her endless tantrums and doesn’t mind the fact that she gets up at 5.30 a.m. to write her blog, and that all she seems to do, apart from work, is cook. But yet, to Julie, her life seems to be awful, and she strops around more like a teenager than someone turning thirty.

‘Woah, she looks pretty high-maintenance,’ said my boyfriend, after one of her early strops. No, I thought, feeling loyal towards her. After all, she’s just like me. It’s difficult being a misunderstood writer. But it doesn’t take very long for me to begin to think – oh, maybe she is quite high-maintenance, and spoilt, and actually rather annoying.

Now in films, of course there are characters whom one doesn’t like. These tend to be the baddies. But the problem in Julie and Julia was I found myself not liking one of the heroines, once I’d already decided (using my stupid inbuilt-identifying-with-mechanism) she was actually a version of me. Not ideal.

The situation got worse. Julie’s blog becomes very successful and she starts being hideously full-of-herself about it, showing off to people about how many comments she gets on a post (53!) and whining to her boyfriend about how all these readers depend on her. Obviously this is unbelievably annoying and conceited of her. But, crucially, this is where the identifying-with impulse begins to let me down. You see, I identified with her as a struggling writer/blogger, not as a successful one. The worst bit is when she has sixty-something messages on her answer-phone, mostly from literary agents and publishers, following an interview she’s had in the New York Times.

At this point I am filled with rage. I have been betrayed by sweet little hopeless Julie the struggling writer, who admittedly can be quite annoying but at least is no better than me. Now she has morphed into a smug brat, who is positively thriving. She is even more irritating and she is successful. Hundreds of people read her blog and now she’s going to get a book published after all. It’s not fair, I think, and find myself beginning to cry. Incidentally, crying when one has just lost one’s tonsils is so painful that one wants to stop crying straight away. I snivel and snuffle and try to pull myself together.

Boyfriend comes over and comforts me. I now feel akin to Julie – only a less successful version – I am having a tantrum and behaving like a spoilt brat and he is putting up with it. This is awful. Inexcusable. I feel even more full of rage. I am better than this, I tell myself. I must be better than her.

I sit there feeling glum and trying to be brave while the remainder of the film unfolds. It is only when Julie is down to cooking the final recipe in the book that I have an epiphany.

Frankly, who wants to bone a duck, fill it with disgusting-looking mucky mincey stuff, cover it in pastry and bake it? Why doesn’t she just get a pizza from the conveniently-located restaurant downstairs and get a life?

And no, I’m not bitter.