Monday, 29 February 2016


"I had seen a sailor who had visited that very island, and he told me that it was the custom, when a great battle had been gained there, to barbecue all the slain in the yard or garden of the victor; and then, one by one, they were placed in great wooden trenches, and garnished round like a pilau, with breadfruit and coconuts; and with some parsley in their mouths, were sent round with the victor's compliments to all his friends, just as though these presents were so many Christmas turkeys."

(From Moby-Dick)

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Bacon and waffles

Certain combinations of sweet and savoury can be disgusting. I am thinking of raisins or pineapple in curry. On the other hand, I was quickly converted to the combination of bacon and maple syrup, served with potato waffles. The combination of the soft, bland potato, the salty crispy bacon and the unctuous sweet syrup. I first learned of waffles in Susan Coolidge's "What Katy Did at School" when one of the characters orders them with alacrity. They are less popular in an episode of "Rentaghost" when one of the spooks asks his colleague "What is a waffle?" Warning him off them - ghosts cannot eat - the other replies: "It's a sort of heavy duty biscuit, with a non-skin tread."

Maple syrup I encountered in another work of Americam children's fiction - "Little House in the Big Woods" when there is a chapter about sugar snow and numerous ways of handling and eating maple syrup described.

Whale meat again

It came from a boy at school who I didn't know well but seemed quite touched that I rather relished the dried meat he used to bring to school as a playground snack and asserted was whale meat. It tasted sweet.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Speck and lardo

Jack Spratt could eat no fat. Nor could the vet James Herriott. There is a wonderful account of his being fed by a kindly farmer's wife a cold slice of bacon consisting of pure fat and only managing to force it down by eating it with copious amounts of Picallili. I think I, too, would have struggled to get through it. On the other hand, I am very fond of the thin salty slices from Italy called "Lardo". Delicious on slices of toast. I rediscovered lardo in an Italian restaurant in Sheffield. In Germany, it is known as Speck.

Friday, 26 February 2016


I read recently that one of the larger supermarkets has abandoned selling crescent-shaped croissants and will henceforth only be selling straight ones. It sounds rather like one of those outraged articles about EU madness: you know the kind of thing - straight bananas, straight bangers etc etc.

Be that as it may (and I do think that making croissants straight in part misses their point), I am keen on the idea of alternative uses for croissants, such as filling them with clotted cream and jam. Even better than the British scone. Another favourite snack would be croissant with egg mayonnaise and crispy bacon.

Then there is the following delightful moment in the children's book Street Fair:

"Anna sat down and finished her breakfast, taking up the last bit of yellow of egg with the tip of her crescent roll; it looked delicious and John hadn't thought of that."

Thursday, 11 February 2016


To my slight surprise, I found on Wikipedia that there was no article on Sopocka. So I created one. I await its deletion or serious editing...

I plagiarised the entry on Kassler to produce my article. What I did not say (as Wikipedia editors are not supposed to include opinion) is that Sopocka is a slightly moist and delicately flavoured ham. I can imagine stuffing a well-buttered baguette with it together with cucumber and mayonnaise.

English ham

It seems slightly bizarre to start this entry with a reference to "Jambon de Paris", but this was a term I first heard my mother use with a contemptuous tone of voice to refer to plasticky ham of any kind.

Even worse than plasticky ham, though, I reckon, is tinned ham. Once a luxury - imagine receiving it from the Americans in World War II! - I associate it with impoverished old ladies. I recall a school friend and I being given it for supper and heating it on a candle which gave it an interesting grilled edge.

Finally, I must confess that although I may receive a rocketing for saying so, I find it difficult to distinguish our various regional hams: Wiltshire ham, Yorkshire ham, Northampton ham for goodness' sake? That is not to say that British ham is a bad thing. Think of a ham sandwich with granary bread, unsalted butter, wholegrain mustard and gherkins for lunch. One of my breakfasts of choice would be poached eggs on ham, the home-cooked, crumbly variety, like my grandmother used to make. She once cautioned me shortly before some guests arrived not to offer them ham, because they were Jewish.

French supermarkets

I love French markets. I love tiny shops in small French villages, selling charcuterie. But, banal though the concept may seem, I adore French supermarkets. Géant Casino, E Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefour, Intermarché...

It is probably down to the fact that they signified we were on holiday: the ritual of our first visit, on our first day, would tell us we had arrived.

In our earlier family holidays, though, we would eat food brought from home: shredded wheat, Fray Bentos pies, meatballs, powdered ice cream.

But later, we opted for a "big shop" in the big supermarket near to where we were staying, on the first day or so of our holiday.

There was Petit Suisse, from which you would peel the paper oh so carefully to keep the shape and then eat with apricot jam and sugar on the side. Flavoured Petit Suisses: pink, orange, yellow... Olive oil (La Fruitée) on "promotion". Huge mountain hams. Meaty sausages. Frisée lettuce. Tins of flageolets. Tubes of mayonnaise. 

Not everything we bought was French. Mini Mars Bars, condensed milk, to be eaten with plain chocolate in bread.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Mountain ham

Jambon de Montagne or mountain ham is unlike some of the other cured hams I identified in a previous piece, because it does not come from a particular location (such as Parma ham, Iberico ham and Bayonne ham, the last of which I do not recall ever having eaten). On the other hand, as I have just discovered, it means precisely the same thing as Jamon de Serrano. I rather like it in Spanish omelettes. Delicious.
French mountain ham, though, is in my view different to its Spanish counterpart. Definitely more robust, less delicate but none the worse for that. My mother occasionally bought an entire mountain ham in the suparket when we were on holiday and there would always be enough remaining on the bone to smuggle home. Delicious. I recall taking a baguette with olive oil and mountain ham - nothing else - which I took on a walk with my mother to an old ruin on a hilltop while my father waited patiently with the car, not fancying the climb.
Less pleasantly but as memorable was the occasion when my aunt CeCe who had brought home the remains of an entire mountain ham and planned to chop some into some pasta discovered to her horror little things wriggling inside which turned out to be maggots feasting away. She placed the entire bone in the middle of the lawn and sprayed it liberally with insect repellent. What a waste. But it has made a good family story - you just have to mention maggots or ham - and for my fortieth birthday, CeCe presented me with a large quantity of packets of mountain ham...into which she had introduced a collection of plastic flies.

Starting to cook

I first began to cook regularly for myself at York University. My mother gave me a crash course. I fear that some of the early efforts I inflicted on friends did not go down well. I presented a beef curry to one such friend and he later dined out (in my presence) on a description of carrots in water. He also slept on the floor of my room and was distinctly unimpressed by the British Rail posters and sleeping bag which I had promised him was extra warm. Unfulfilled expectations, I fear, but we are still on speaking terms.

Although my own early cooking efforts may have been less than adequate, I did at least make an effort to cook things from scratch. Unlike a girl in a nearby corridor who told me proudly of her nightly meal: "tinned mince, tinned potatoes and tinned peas". She would consume half a tin each evening and save the remainder for the next day. Yuck.

Saturday, 6 February 2016


Let me begin with the villains. First, so-called French mustard which I say is so-called because I doubt it has ever been anywhere near France. Brown, slimy and sweet-tasting, it will often be brought to the table in a pub following a request for "French mustard".

Then there is the sweet American mustard. Just about acceptable on a bad hotdog if one wishes to eat one.

Next, pointlessly flavoured mustard. Whisky-flavoured mustard or, even worse, truffle-flavoured. A waste of good ingredients, one strong flavour overpowering the other.

Although I find English mustard far too fiery, I will give it cupboard room because some of my friends insist upon it as their mustard of choice and also because the powdered version works well for the purposes of dusting a joint of beef before cooking it. And I quite enjoy the ritual of making the mustard up with a teaspoon of powder and a teaspoon of water.

Wholegrain mustard is another matter: it is splendid exotic-tasting stuff and I like the way the mustard seeds dissolve in the mouth. My mother once cut her hand trying to force open one of those large grey jars of Pommeroy mustard which end up as pen holders or useful pots to put things in.

But best of all, and most versatile, is straightforward Dijon mustard. Milder and tastier than English, it is what I tend to eat with a sausage or roast beef. It also works well in a vinaigrette. Yum.

Grandfather's barbecue chicken

Black on the outside contrasting with the white breast, in a sticky, salty-sweet sauce, wrapped in foil and served with rice, stained with the sauce: not a dish my mother particularly liked.

Although I am fairly confident he took it from Delia's Complete Cookery Course, I failed when I attempted to reproduce it as he had made it.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

More butter

Butter, like milk, is one of the earliest foodstuffs to enter anyone's consciousness.

"Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?"

wrote A A Milne.

Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her mother's strawberry mould into which the butter would go; apparently, it was white in winter, but "Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty" so she would add carrot juice to turn it yellow. Curious.

I also remember a marvellous book called the Giant Jam Sandwich in which a town was plagued with wasps and eventually the citizens made a gigantic jam sandwich, using spades to spread the butter and jam and eventually trapping the wasps in the middle of the sandwich by dropping the second slice on to it. Splat!

Butter, of course, has many different consistencies. How is one expected to spread it when it comes straight from the fridge? To scrape little chunks off and placing them strategically around the slice of bread is so unsatisfactory and contrary to the principle in How Green was my valley that butter should always be spread "tidily". Putting it in the microwave never quite works: unless one is very very careful, it ends with the butter seeping into a pool.

Italian and Spanish ham

I have already mentioned what must be the most well-known of the dried jams: Parma ham. San Daniele ham is less ubiquitous but, in my opinion, as splendid. Returning for a moment to Parma, I discovered there something called Culatello, which is similar to Parma ham but aged in a bladder. I ate it in Parma accompanied by a doughnut like bread called gnoccho fritto into which you were supposed to stuff the meat. In passing, I note that the English, encouraged by supermarkets attempting to make something sound more exotic, often refer to cured Italian ham as prosciutto which is correct but incomplete. Prosciutto is merely the Italian for ham which could equally well be cured or cooked.

Second to Italian cured hams, in my view, come Spanish. Serrano ham is lovely but best of all is the Iberico ham which melts in the mouth. I recall visiting the Goods Shed near Canterbury West station which used to be, as you might expect, the goods shed, but which is now a food market and a restaurant. I asked for some Iberico ham to have as a snack on the way back on the train. I blenched when the stallholder gave me the price - about £12.00. I resolved not to scoff the ham on the train but to have it on white china with a glass of white wine.

Jambon de Bayonne is not a ham I recall ever having eaten although it has the distinction of being mentioned in an early English novel - Tom Jones. It reminds me of the rhyme which begins:
Who signed Magna Carta? King John.
Where do bayonets come from? Bayonne.
I will write more about French cured ham in another piece.


Gingerbread house

Hansel and Gretel has, as long as I can remember, been one of my favourite stories. It is the gingerbread cottage that is, as far as I know, the unique component in that fairy tale. A Judge I used to appear before reminded me of the inhabitant of the gingerbread cottage. "Good morning", this benign-looking old lady would coo to everyone as we walked in. The moment we had all sat down, it was as though the cage had descended on Hansel's head...

Once upon a time, my mother suggested making a house of sweets similar to that in Hansel and Gretel...or I begged her to do so. I must have been aged about five. We were staying at Granny's house and walked to the local newsagent's, Fayne's, where my mother bought the ingredients. A photograph of the work in progress appears below. The roof was made of milk chocolate. The windows were glacier mints. Initially, she put a stick of "Rainbow Rock" in the garden but then removed it (I suspect for aesthetic reasons) and allowed me eat it. I do not recall whether we ever got round to eating the rest of the house...

German ham

"They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious ham."

I have long thought that the ham in Hillaire Belloc's Jim would have been “kasseler rippenspeer” which I first ate as a child in South London. The first and only time I have eaten it in Germany was in Aachen. I later discovered that a butcher called Cassel who lived and worked in Berlin in the nineteenth century invented the "Kasseler"  process. After smoking a large loin of pork, he then placed it in brine, drawing moisture out of the meat and preventing the bacteria from spreading. Not only did it preserve the meat but it gave it a distinctive taste. It is unlike other dried hams, such as Parma ham or Serrano ham, I think because it still contains more moisture than those kinds.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016


I once ate caviar for breakfast in Mahabilapuram, India, courtesy of a Dutchman and a Canadian who had bought it the day before from a party of Russians: there was a limit to the amount of hard currency they could export and, to supplement the feeble amount they were allowed to bring, they also brought vodka and best Beluga caviar which they sold for a pittance. The tin needed finishing and so I did my best to polish off as much of the grey pearls as I could. With freshly-squeezed lime juice on top, it was a memorable and tasty breakfast. But I must confess that I much prefer taramasalata. As a contrast to the salty caviar, I finished with some Bombay Toast.