Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Taramasalata is a lovely word. I used to pronounce it stressing the RAMA bit (to rhyme with farmer) and the LATA bit (rhyming with starter). Sounded like the name of a glamorous Russian villainess.

Anyway, I was wrong in my pronunciation. The woman in the shop opposite my school - Maggie her name was - insisted that it was in fact TA-rama, the stress on the first syllable and ram as in the animal.

A little more about "Maggie". She called all of us schoolboys "Darling" and had no objection to our doing the same to her in return. Tough, feisty, heavily made-up, a heavy smoker and, I suspect, baggage-laden lady, who probably thought we all had plums in our mouths.

Taramasalata, then, was one of my luxuries at school in Canterbury. Fifty pence for a quarter of a pound, it came in a white polystyrene tub into which Maggie had scooped it from a larger bowl of the stuff. Some years before I arrived at the school, they had stopped providing tea in the afternoons and, as a sop, there was a twice-weekly bread delivery to our dormitory or study. So, sitting on my bed, I would eat the salty, granular, ice-cream pink taramasalata on white sliced bread.

It was on the island of Skopelos that I tasted the best taramasalata I have ever eaten. Patrick Leigh Fermor called the island "a lobster's song" (did the name remind him of the noise a lobster makes?) and it was a glorious place. No airport, so you had to get there from the neighbouring island of Skiathos by hydrofoil. It was on the island that I tasted the bitterest cucumbers I have ever eaten: someone told me vaguely that it had probably been fertilised incorrectly. Happily, the rest of the food I ate was memorable for quite different reasons. Including the taramasalata, on the menu in a restaurant in Glossa, on the other side of the island from where we were staying. Not pink but white and served with pitta. Much better than caviar. The photo below was taken not in Skopelos, but in Crete, fourteen years later. Trying to recreate an earlier dish rarely works...

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Clare Allfree's chocolate sauce

Clare told me that this recipe was handed down to her by someone, handed on in turn by somebody else. There's a godmother in the story somewhere. There is something oh so smugly satisfying about such recipes, preferably written in fading blue ink on yellowed pages. This is how it goes and you will see that proportions only are given. Quantities are up to you.

1/3 plain chocolate.
1/3 golden syrup.
1/3 butter.

Melt in a saucepan. Stir and mix well. When it bubbles, it's ready. Spoon or pour over ice cream. I have a little ladle from Arundel that fits the purpose perfectly. If there's any left, it keeps in the fridge for ages.

Simple to serve at supper parties. Can be warmed up. Although I'm suspicious of the mantra "Everyone likes...", reactions are predictable and enthusiastic - especially when the sauce freezes on to the ice cream and becomes toffee-like.

Monday, 29 October 2012


I first visited Italy on 11 September 2001. Cousin Pen took us there by motorway from Lorgues in Provence to just over the border: Ventimiglia. The purpose of the trip was to go to the post office to pay a parking fine that one of my other cousins had incurred. It was a good excuse.

As we drove through the tunnel at the border, I concentrated, hard, on the fact that we were entering Italy. On the other side, we descended into the town.

The so-called purpose of going, the post office, was quickly over. Of much greater interest to us all was Pen's favourite food shop.

You know how many supermarkets in England have a cheerful "Try before you buy" sign at the delicatessen counter. I always feel slightly guilty for asking and, when I do, it becomes such a big deal to produce a wafer thin fragment of ham or whatever, presented to me on a cocktail stick, that I end up buying some. Possibly the point.

The lady behind the counter in Pen's shop had a different approach. I would express the vaguest interest in a particular salami or some Parma ham and she would immediately seize the article, rush to the slicing machine and produce enough for all three of us to have a large mouthful. Of course, we would end up buying some. A lot. Possibly the point. But the feeling in that shop was one of generosity. (Later, Pen would reveal that the woman running the shop may in fact have, dishonestly or otherwise, charged us incorrectly and in the shop’s favour – but let me give the shopkeeper the benefit of the doubt. I warmed to her.)

The title of this piece is Mortadella and that is one thing I did not buy at that shop in Ventimiglia. But I saw it for the first time I can remember. Not surprisingly. It was the largest sausage I have ever seen. Slightly off-putting.

Since then, though, I have grown to love it. As cousin Pen told me later, it is great picnic food. Folded into good bread, with slices of tomato, lettuce and a little mayonnaise , its moist slightly bland saltiness is welcome at the edge of the road on the way, say, from Rome to Lorgues.

But be warned: there is plenty of rogue Mortadella out there. I would say as general rules:

Only buy it loose, never in packets.
The bigger the better.
It should be studded with peppercorns and either pistachios or pieces of truffle. If not, avoid it.
If it looks particularly dry, don't bother - one of the exceptions to the rule of dryness in sausages. Having said that, once the outer slice has been removed, it may be better within. It will be a good test of the integrity of the person trying to sell it to you: does that person try and include the first slice in what you're being sold, or discard it?
Ask for it to be sliced thinly.
Eat it quickly.
If you are disappointed, don't give up on it. It is variable.

Part 2 of the trip to Ventimiglia to follow.


When Coleridge wrote about "a witch's oils", was he thinking of something like Grenadine mixed with Sirop de Menthe? For a long time, I was uncertain of what was in Grenadine: passion fruit, said my mother. Pomegranate, suggested my French dictionary. When, many years later, I looked at the bottle, it seemed to be a concoction of various red fruits.

It was my great aunt who introduced me to the drink at her house in Lorgues. She also introduced me to brandy at a similar age but that is another story. She will crop up again, I suspect, in relation to Oranzini and chicken with tarragon.

Although I remain fond of Grenadine, sugary drink though it is, I was very nearly put off it for life when given a glass of it by Mademoiselle Sagnier, an old lady in St Pons de Mauchiens, the village in the South of France where my parents owned a house. She lived next door and invited my mother and I in for a drink. There was mould growing on the grenadine - presumably attracted to the sugar - and out of politeness, I sipped the drink but through closed lips.


There is something in this word that conjures up contradiction. Let me do some explaining.

Think of a few leaves of peppermint in a jug of Pimms. To my own complete satisfaction, I once pulled some leaves fresh from the cracks between the paving stones in my back garden and added them straight to the jug.

Then imagine someone breathing spearmint over you on the tube.

Fresh mint chopped into a saucepan of boiled potatoes with a dab of butter: my grandmother had a clever little metal device into which you fed in the mint, held the machine over the hot potatoes and wound a wooden handle. Out would come the mint: battered, bruised and shredded.

On holiday in France, some friends had been sitting outside a bar and seen someone drinking something bright green. "Menthe a l'eau", the waiter explained when they pointed to it and asked. "Like toothpaste water", my friend Kate said. I insisted on trying ot for myself and grew a taste for it, very cold in a tall glass with ice, the syrup curling oilily around the water.

Sunday, 28 October 2012


My friend Anne-Marie convinced me that this crisp contained an image of Munch's "The Scream". What could be more natural than to take its picture before eating it? The only question was whether I should, instead, have sold it on eBay.

Canapés in Great Malvern

I ought to find canapés pretentious and annoying but I don't. Bites of deliciousness or so they should be. Here are some I made in Great Malvern, staying with my brother and sister-in-law, Will and Antonia. If I were to critique them, I'm not convinced by the blinis: risk of being cold and soggy. Would have been better on croutons.

Roasted grouse

If it's on the menu, I will have it. Enough said.

Tomato salad

The photograph is authentic but doesn't reflect the point of the dish. A mustardy vinaigrette is all very well but good tomatoes demand nothing more than good olive oil, salt and a few shavings of shallot. The mustard and vinegar only becomes essential if the tomatoes are disappointing: I recommend Dutch if you truly want to experience the fourth state of water.

It is those misshapen tomatoes, almost pumpkin-like, with a taste that burns the back of the throat that are required here. I found some once, in Montagnac market. The friend who had taken me insisted on whisking me past all the stalls until we reached the man at the end who had what appeared to be the contents of his (small) garden on the plastic table. About eight years ago and never forgotten. Lunch of those tomatoes, olive oil and bread to mop the juices.

The best gherkins...

...are from Borough Market. You can buy them in tubs from a stall called "A Taste of Turkey". They are crisp and, not unexpectedly perhaps, salted rather than in vinegar. For about two years, they stopped being available and I would make a thorough nuisance of myself by asking the stallholder on every visit whether there were any prospects of their return. At last, they returned, slightly differently flavoured (a chilli in the brine gave them even more of a bite) but truly welcome. For eating with little cubes of Iberico ham.

Fish on a plate

I associate this dish with my father being ill. Fish baked on a plate in the oven. It was all he would eat - in bed! This version is probably a little less plain than what he wanted to eat at the time. It was his mother, my grandmother, who taught me the idea of sprinkling a little curry powder on to the fish.

Here's how it's put together:
Fish (try River Cobbler - although I have some doubts about the fish miles).
Chopped sticks of carrot.
A little celery.
Cherry tomatoes, chopped in half.
Slices of onion.
A glug of olive oil.
A teaspoon of Bolst's curry powder.
A dash of double cream. For once, natural yoghurt is an acceptable alternative.
Salt and pepper.

Lay the fish on to a baking dish. Surround it with the vegetables. Sprinkle the curry powder on to the fish. Olive oil goes on to the vegetables. Cream goes on to the fish. Salt and pepper on it all. Into the oven. Out fifteen or so minutes later.

Wartime economy fudge

No salt in this recipe, I know, but it is the best version I have ever encountered with a flavour that hits your tastebuds like no other. I have heard others say it's more "tablet" than "fudge" but I am not convinced.

The recipe, taken from my book (with the timings inserted by me while making it), then its story:

1 lb granulated sugar
1 1/2 oz marge
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence (I prefer extract)
5 fl oz evaporated milk
5 fl oz cold water

Mix sugar, milk and water. Heat gently stirring with wooden spoon until sugar melts (5 minutes?). Add marge (cut into small pieces). Bring to rapid boil (10 mins). Stir all time. Wipe down sides of pan (don't let residue stick). Boil until soft ball stage (10 mins). Moment comes much sooner than you'd think! Remove from heat. Add vanilla. Cool for 5 mins. Using wooden spoon, beat it, stirring frantically until changes colour and looks creamy (10 mins), pour into greased mould (lined with foil).

I recommend AGAINST chocolate versions, rum 'n' raisin versions or whatever. Gilding the lily.

Mum's commentary on the recipe in my book:

"This came from a book in Bedworth Library. During World War II my mother swapped tea and other rations for the ingreedience and made something similar."

Bedworth Library was our local library in the first house where I ever lived, in Windmill Road, Exhall. I had always assumed the recipe my mother had recorded in her book - from which this is copied - was the very same that her mother had used, recorded in copperplate handwriting on faded yellow paper. Not so, it would seem. Mum would make this and then bag it for Christmas presents. Once she had made some shortly before halloween and some trick-or-treaters came round. She presented each of them with a piece and they went away not looking altogether impressed. I like to think that they would have changed their minds on tasting.

There was another occasion when, as her contribution to my nursery school's Christmas sale, she presented me with a polystyrene cup of fudge. Someone else had been more ambitious in terms of quantity and variety and had donated several bags of, if I remember correctly, rum and raisin flavoured fudge. My mother's contribution was rather lost in the array. Whether as a gesture of annoyance or otherwise, another boy and I stole some of the fudge from its table and were caught. Our punishment was to miss the showing of the school cine film. But later Justice relented and we were allowed in to see the second showing. I remember looking guiltily at the headmistress, Mrs Hartley, as we sat down in the darkened room. But that was the end of the incident.

The closest I have ever got to finding my mother's fudge on sale commercially was in a shop, now closed, in Canterbury. It had been recommended by my rather splendid landlady, Maureen de Sausmarez. I once brought some home. Having tried a bit, my mother claimed it was not of the best but then undermined her argument, repeatedly signalling she wanted more by mimicking a bird making high-pitched shrieks. Until the bag was empty.

A sad story on which to end. My grandmother - referred to in my mother's commentary above - had Alzheimer's Disease and in its early stages, she gave my brother and I a few coins with which to buy "Henley fudge" which, she told us, could be found in the shop at the bottom of her road. It may have existed decades before but the only fudge my brother and I could find was Cadbury's ("a finger of fudge is just enough...") and that is what we ended up buying, supplementing the money we'd been given with our own.

Avocado puree

My recipe book; Mum's handwriting.

Avocado puree (Mum's "nicer than guac.")

1 soft avocado, 1/2 finely chopped onion, salt, pepper, tabasco to taste and a glug of olive oil.

Mash avocado, mix in other ingreedience.

Some commentary. Simple. The final word of the recipe demands further explanation, which will be for another day.

Alan Miller's heart attack on a plate

This is from my own recipe book, with some comments added, I discovered recently, by my mother. I'll set out the (terse) recipe, followed by her commentary.

1 onion, chopped.
Chopped ham.
Chopped potatoes.
Herbs (eg rosemary).
Olive oil.
Salt and peppper.
Egg yolk.
1. Heat oil in large frying pan.
2. Add onion; fry until soft; add herbs.
3. Add ham; fry until browned (don't let onion burn).
4. Add potatoes; fry until crisp.
5. Add salt and pepper. Serve.
6. Raw egg yolk in middle of plate. Allow to cook. Eat.

"Alan Miller", wrote my mother, "worked for the BBC and was from Scotland. He stayed with us for several months and made this. Ali's version is different; she uses butter and a tiny bit of olive oil to stop it browning and she doesn't add any herbs. And the potatoes must be pre-cooked and cut into tiny cubes. The egg yolk should be settled into the mound of potatoes like an egg in a nest. You could make a less delicate version with chorizo."

My own commentary: this is, I think, originally a Swiss dish, introduced to us by Alan Miller, who gave me my first ride on the back of a motorcycle: I can still remember the raw terror. I agree that the potatoes should be pre-cooked and cut into tiny cubes. The idea of a raw egg yolk puts many people off. Don't let it. Because provided you are organised, the egg yolk cooks in the middle of the potatoes. Having nested the egg yolk, I then pile potatoes around it (carefully so it does not break) and then start eating from around the edges before attacking the egg yolk. I have been known to add a dash of tabasco and even a squeeze of lemon juice to this.

Country vegetable soup

Some background. This is the very first recipe in my mother's family recipe book, a red, leatherbound, hardback volume, simple entitled on the cover "Recipes". Inside, the title page reads: "Walker's PRIVATE RECIPE BOOK", followed by "A HANDY BOOK FOR THE HOUSEWIFE" and then the publishers: "JOHN WALKER & Co. LTD., 12, HANOVER SQUARE, LONDON, W.I." All the addresses where my mother lived in her married - and post-married - life are there, most in her handwriting, some in mine.

There is then a list of the various sections of the book:

Meat, Game and Poultry.
Vegetables and Sauces.
Omelets [sic], Puddings and Sweets. (My mother has added PASTA here.)
Cakes and Pastry.
Jellies, Creams, Ices, etc.

This first recipe for "Country vegetable soup" appears to have been written before she was married, though, because it is signed in red ink in her maiden name: "A Weiss (Patent pending)". That is, unless the "A Weiss" refers to her brother, which I think is a little unlikely but not impossible. This is probably a soup of which he would approve and he's a scientist so "Patent pending" sounds like him.

Here are the ingredients:
3 large potatoes
4 large carrots
4 large tomatoes
2 large onions
3 pints stock
mixed herbs

The method:

Heat stock and add coarsly grated potato, carrot and onion. Bring to boil and allow to simmer for 1/2 hour. Add sliced tomatoes and mixed herbs. Any suitable leftovers may be added.

There's much more to be written on the topic of soup - but my only caveat would be the words "Any suitable leftovers may be added". I would want to add the words: "if you're an expert", because this simple soup could very very easily be ruined. I think I might also want to be careful about the "mixed herbs". For another day.

Lemon pickle (2)

A second attempt. See the previous entry for what this is NOT.

The following recipe is about as simple as recipes get - that is, in terms of ingredients: lemons and salt. BUT it is relatively time-consuming to get it right, and I don't recommend cutting corners.

You also need a large chopping board, a sharp knife (kitchen devil, serrated is what I recommend) and one of those large storage jars with a lever and a rubber seal.

Here are the steps. You need about six lemons to make this worthwhile but there is no reason for not adding more lemons (and salt) if you decide to make vast amounts of this. No need to double quantities; just a lemon, a couple of lemons...etc.

First, wash your lemons, then set one aside.

With each lemon (except for the one set aside), slice off the very ends, then chop it into quarters.

Remove all the pips. This is absolutely essential because if you don't, they will end up as bits of sliminess in your pickle.

Having removed the pips, get the lemons into even smaller pieces. Sixteenths or even thirty-seconds - but no need to be exact. Chop the lemon as though you were chopping an onion finely. Check for stray pips as you go along.

So you will end up with a pile of bits of lemon, peel and everything, on your chopping board.

When you finish chopping each lemon, tip it into your storage jar, scraping all the lemony stuff off the board into the jar, then add a layer of salt (table salt, not salt crystals).

Stir the whole mixture around and start work on the next lemon, repeating the above process.

The final step involves the lemon that you have NOT so far chopped.

Halve it and then juice it, ideally using one of those glass juicer things, because, again, the pips are definitely not wanted.

Pour the juice into the jar, then chop the squeezed lemon halves into similar sizes to the rest of the lemons already in the jar and add them.

Add some more salt and give it a stir.

Then put the lid on, label the jar with the date and put in the fridge.

Now it's a waiting game. Check the pickle about once a week. Stir it. May be worth adding more lemon juice if it's a little dry. Possibly even a little more salt.

Worth eating after about a month and it lasts indefinitely.

Mum once tried adding the remains of some Patak's lime pickle to it which chillified it but I was not convinced...

This is the only pickle I know that really can be eaten with just about anything: Shepherd's pie, casserole of any kind. "Can't go wrong", as my mother would say.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Lemon pickle

You know those jars of preserved lemons that you can buy fairly easily? Whole pickled lemons. In brine, I think. Slightly browned like an overripe banana. I am probably not making them sound appealing and that is the intention. Next post (I started writing this one and got side-tracked) will be about an alternative suggestion.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Introduction to Salty Food

Let me do some explaining. So far, two potato recipes, each taken from a family recipe book. Potatoes are not going to be the theme although I will almost certainly return to them. Nor is everything going to have salt in it, despite the title.

The purpose of all this is to try to pull together a collection of family recipes, photographs, and memories of family celebrations. It is, among other things, an amalgamation of three unfinished books. First, my own recipe book. Then there is my mother's, a book known as the “Foster Family Cook Book” for as long as I can remember. And finally, my mother's "Christmas Book" which, as well as Christmases past, includes accounts of other celebrations. There are other scraps from diaries, letters, photographs and other bits and pieces that would otherwise get lost or buried. As Philip Pullman wrote in "Lyra's Oxford" (2003): "The world is full of things like that: old postcards, theatre programmes, leaflets about bomb-proofing your cellar, greetings cards, photograph albums, holiday brochures, instruction booklets for machine tools, maps, catalogues, railway timetables, menu cards from long-gone cruise liners - all kinds of things that once served a real and usefu purpose, but have now become cut adrift from the things and the people they relate to."

Among other things, I am trying to capture some of my mother’s main principles when cooking and eating. She often referred to “good, honest food”: a term first used, I think, by Elizabeth David. Certainly Elizabeth David says the following in an article called 'Eating out in Provincial France 1965 - 1977': "The food was good honest food, honestly cooked". That lengthily-titled article is reprinted in "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", possibly the greatest ever anthology of writing about food.

"Peasant food" was another favourite descriptor of my mother's: always a compliment. At more than one family supper, we would have something slightly unusual on our plates and would be told it was a staple in China or wherever. On such occasions, my father was known to say, rather plaintively, "But we're not in China".

Many years ago, at my mother's dictation, I started to make some notes on a pad of paper for a cookery book that one day she was going to write. The paper I was using, which must have been lying around at the time, advertised a Glucometer: something for diabetics to measure blood sugar? The book never materialised but the notes, mainly consisting of a list of recipes, remain.

Under the heading "Intro", the notes read as follows:

"Parents grew up in post-war Britain. Rationing. People starved of flavours and colours. Soho. Peppers in triumph. Crisp food."

The "Peppers in triumph" reference is particularly resonant. It relates to my grandfather, Roberto, who came over to England in the 1930s from Milan and married my grandmother, Eve. He would apparently visit Soho (he was a Professor of Italian at University College, London) and return home to Henley bearing peppers: Waitrose in Henley had yet to be built. The peppers would be fried in olive oil and eaten - by him alone, I am told.

Aloo Chat

From my mother's recipe book, in her italic hand

* 5 large potatoes cut in quarters - boil in salted water until still too firm for potato salad. Drain. Cool and then peel. Cut into bite sized pie
* 2 green peppers cut into 1 cm cubes.
* 2 large onions cut into 1 cm cubes.
* 4 tablespoons olive oil.
* 1 tin chopped tomatoes.
* 2 dessert spoons curry powder.
* 2 dessert spoons garam masala.
* Salt.
* Pepper.

Fry peppers and onion in two spoons olive oil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add curry powder and garam masala.

Stir until veg are evenly coated.

Fry gently for a couple of minutes.

Add rest of olive oil, potatoes and tin of tomatoes.

Simmer gently, uncovered, until liquid is absorbed.

Season to taste. Serve hot, warm or cold. (Don't stir too vigorously - keep the potato pieces intact.)

Now for the commentary. This is not a recipe I remember from childhood, but something from much later - perhaps even my early twenties. I think that Mum discovered it in our local Indian restaurant, the Viceroy, and attempted to recreate it at home. It is superb picnic food and it became traditional to take it in the car for the drive across France: each of us would have one of those sandwich bags full of the stuff and a fork. It was christened something other than aloo chat but I will not repeat it here because it might discourage the reader from attempting it.

Something to eat which, as the recipe says, is good whether hot, warm or cold. Although, as my mother would say, "it's even better cold ". Is there a name for such dishes?

I am, incidentally, assured by my friend, Nina Ali, that this is an utterly inauthentic recipe.

Potato Salad

I suspect that this is a topic to which I will return.

The following recipe is taken from the family recipe book, most of which was written by my mother but this particular entry is in my handwriting, and I calculate that I would have been aged about nine at the time.

"Peel 5 large potatoes, chop them up into quarters (or smaller if desired). Boil them for about 20 minutes. MAYONNAISE: Cup of olive oil, two eggs, salt, pepper in dish. Beat eggs while slowly putting olive oil in. Stir vigorously. When very thick, shake salt and pepper over then mix with potatoes."

Some sentimental commentary: in the original, I can't spell potatoes (like Vice-President Quayle), nor mayonnaise. I have forgotten to separate the eggs. The word "slowly" is double-underlined and I wonder how many times I had experienced curdling at the time I wrote that down.

The first time I remember eating potato salad of any description was in St Giles's Hospital in South London (now closed), at the age of about eight when I had a foot operation. I did not like hospital food, with the exception of the fish and chips which, I was told, was the best thing on the menu. Served on Friday. My operation was on a Friday so nil by mouth, and I was discharged on the following Thursday.

In the absence of the fish and chips or anything else I wanted to eat, my mother would bring in dishes of food from home: potato salad and curry were both things I asked for. The potato salad would arrive in a blue and white china rectangular dish. On one visit, it was left at home and I complained bitterly.

About twelve years later, when I was under the same surgeon but in a different hospital (King's College, in Camberwell), it was dishes of potato salad again, and something else which we had discovered in the intervening years, called Aloo Chat. For the next entry.

Much more to say about the many different versions of potato salad I know (ranging from the sublime to the truly disgusting). And mayonnaise is a separate topic in itself.