Friday, April 5, 2024

THE CHEEK OF IT

 


I asked my local butcher (with whom I like to think I’ve ‘made friends’) if he could order pig cheeks for me.  He could but, he said, he didn’t have to: he had a couple in the freezer.  They looked like this when defrosted:

 

All photos - Gannon-Nicholson Studios

Now, I had never cooked pig cheeks before, though I had cooked ox cheeks – low and slow is obviously the way to go with both/either.

 

I hunted around for pig cheek recipes, even though I’m constitutionally incapable of following the whole of a recipe, and they all said much the same – sear the outside, then cook low and slow in some kind of liquid. I chose red wine and stock, though I thought about using cider.

 

Come the bewitching hour I heated up oil in a frying pan, did the searing, 

 




Then I placed the cheeks in a casserole with the liquid, chopped onion and carrot.  

 



And it was only then it occurred to me that a good half the mass of the pig cheeks was fat and skin.  Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with pig fat or pig skin in their place but I thought eating a large casseroled chunk of it might be going a bit far.  None of the recipes I’d consulted had said anything about this, because maybe they expected me to know, so out they came, the skin was sliced off and the meaty part returned for more lowness and slowness.  It was a good decision.  

 


Just a few hours later they were ready to serve, and if I say so myself, they were pretty darn good.

 


As I set the plates on the table, I was thinking how very nose to tail, very Fergus Henderson, very St. John, all this was, but I realized I’d used a garnish of parsley.  I had in fact been following at least that of a recipe, and I suddenly recalled the St John mantra: no garnishes, no art on the walls, no music.  But I do have art on my walls and I at the time I was playing some music – Cometary Orbital Drive by Acid Mother’s Temple, in honour of their forthcoming UK tour.



It’s true.  I can’t live up to Fergus Henderson’s standards, but then few can.



This is how the meal looked after the Acid Mothers Temple kicked in:




Thursday, March 28, 2024

SALTY DOGS

 


The Price of Salt 
is a novel by Patricia Highsmith, published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, later published under Highsmith’s own name. This is a book you can make certain judgements about by looking at it’s cover.

 


The book was filmed in 2015 as Carol starring Cate Blanchett – martinis were drunk, though I cannot say whether or not they’re ‘dirty’ (i.e. salty) martinis.

 


This has only a tangential relevance to the kilogram of Himalayan pink salt I bought in the TK Maxx in Southend , in October 2020.  It cost £2.99 which I thought was a very fair price at the time.

 



The label on the plastic jar said it was mined in the Salt Range mountains of Pakistan, so that’s the very western end of the Himalayas, and that the product 'takes you one step closer to Mother Nature every time these beautiful crystals are being used.’  Bit of oversell there I’d say but fair enough.

 



Now, I know I’m not one of the great salt eaters but even so I’m surprised how long it lasted – it ran out just last week.  So I went to a different TK Maxx – the one in Oxford Street - and they’re still selling the salt; no longer in the plastic tub but just in a plastic pack. Otherwise everything seemed to be the same except for the price.  It had gone down!  Three and a half years later it’s a mere £2.49.  What does that say about the state of the world's salt markets?  I have no idea.

 


It's worth noting that a 570 gram tub of Malden sea salt on Amazon is going for £5.50 which works out at £9.65 a kilo, and Malden is a lot nearer than the Himalayas.  



On the other hand the kind of salt you put on your driveway to melt ice costs about 17 quid for 25 kilos – less than a pound per kilo, but maybe you wouldn’t want to put that around the rim of your margarita.

 



And I did start to wonder if we’re in any danger of running out of salt. Surely salt mines get exhausted just like any other mine.  The oceans may be rising, but are they getting diluted as the icebergs melt?

Well apparently not.  If you want something new to worry about there’s an article on the Popular Mechanics website telling us that ‘new research’ has shown that humans are disrupting the planet’s 'salt cycle.'  Soil, air, and water are all showing signs of increased salt content, which can apparently affect everything from ecological processes to sources of drinking water.  Well, what you gonna do?  Have a ready salted crisp to cheer yourself up?

 

 As fate would have it, last year I went to an Open House day at Salters’ Hall, home of the Salters’ Company who’ve been a Livery Company since 1394, so they’re people who know their salt. They didn’t seem worried but then I suppose they wouldn’t. And they displayed some mighty lumps of their product in Salters’ Hall – good for interior d├ęcor as well as seasoning.




Thursday, March 21, 2024

GEOFF DREAMS OF CROQUETTES

 Somebody (was it Giles Coren? AA Gill? Brillat-Savarin?) said somewhere that the ‘secret’ of a good restaurant is that the people running it know what they want to do and then they do it as well as they possibly can. Which of course means it’s no secret at all, though a lot of restaurant managements seem not to know it.

 


So if you’re a proper English pub you don’t start serving fried silk worms and duck fetus – you serve steak pies and ploughmen’s lunches.  If you’re a Bangladeshi restaurant you don’t serve steak pies and ploughmen’s lunches. And so on.  It’s not about authenticity, it’s about understanding the mission.

 

On Sunday afternoon I was in Dirty Dick’s in Spitalfields, and saw there were ox cheek croquettes on the menu, and I was slightly thrown.  In one sense that’s not standard pub fare, on the other hand pig cheeks are surely an ancient and noble British tradition, even if croquettes aren’t.  Well, I’d have taken a chance on them but they were off, so a sausage roll was had instead: that’s Bloody Mary ketchup on the side.

 

PHOTOS BY GANNON STUDIOS

And so to Taro in Walthamstow, a newish Japanese restaurant, part of a small chain that knows what it’s about and delivers as promised.  It may not be the sushi that Jiro dreamed off, but it seemed everything a small local Japanese restaurant ought to be.

 


There was sashimi of tuna, salmon, mackerel, and shrimp

 


tempura vegetables (which actually weren’t that fabulous but I think I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t really like tempura vegetables)

 


octopus balls - takoyaki



There were Japanese pickles too but we didn’t photograph them.  And here’s the beauty part: the premises used to be an eel and pie shop, and most of the relevant features, especially the tiles, have been retained. 


 



Taro do in fact serve eel, and I might like to think that’s a nod to local culture but then any good Japanese restaurant would serve eel anyway.  So that’s a double win.




 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

CANNY EATING



 I’ve been reading The Uncanny Gastronomic: Strange Tales of the Edible Weird, an anthology edited by Zara-Louise Stubbs for the British Library. I think I understand what’s meant by ‘the uncanny gastronomic’ but I’m not sure I’d know how to use it in a sentence, apart from this one.

There are some big names in the anthology including Saki, Mark Twain, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Roald Dahl, but it’s not just the usual suspects. I was delighted to find the story ‘To Serve Man’ by Damon Knight, which was the basis for the classic episode of the Twilight Zone.  Spoiler alert: It’s a cookbook!




There’s Kafka’s “A Fasting Artist,” which I’ve always known as “A Hunger Artist” and always thought was a bit of the cheat – the reason why the hunger artist can fast for so long is because he’s never found anything he likes to eat, or maybe that's the point.

 



I think my favorite story in the book is O. Henry’s “Witches’ Loaves.”  O. Henry is the king of the fictional twist.  You know the twist is coming but when it arrives it’s still surprising because it’s not the twist you were anticipating, which in this case is perhaps to say that it turns out not to be so weird or uncanny as expected.

 

A significant percentage of the stories involve cannibalism one way or another. I suppose most of us these days, if we’re not psychopathic anthropophagi, wouldn’t choose to eat human flesh, unless we really had to, but if history has proved anything it’s that when people really have to, they seem to get over their objections without too much difficulty.

 



And I started to wonder how I’d feel about being eaten.  I certainly wouldn’t like to be eaten while I’m alive but after I’m dead, what does it matter?  As we’re told by the song "On Ilkla Moor Baht'at" (Baht’at is supposedly Yorkshire dialect for “without a hat” though I think you could spend a great deal of your life in Yorkshire and never hear the expression) once we’re buried we’re eaten by worms, the worms will then be eaten by ducks, and then humans will eat the ducks, and so we’ll have eaten “thee.”  It’s cannibalism with three degrees of separation. I’m not sure if this is an absolute argument for cremation but it’ll do well enough.

Monday, March 11, 2024

SANDWICH MEN (AND WOMEN)


I used to say, and it’s become an ever less impressive boast as the years have gone by, that I thought I’d read every word Jack Kerouac ever published. Unfortunately, at a certain point, if your reading career has been as long as mine has, you start to forget as much as you remember.  

 



Even so, picking up Jack’s Book: an oral biography of Jack Kerouacby Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, I was surprised to see an interview with Carolyn Cassady, wife of Neal Cassady and lover of Kerouac, who appears in On the Road as"Camille,"and she was talking about sandwiches.

 


Kerouac and his girlfriend Luanne Henderson (Marylou in the novel) were in San Francisco and things weren’t going well between them, and Carolyn Cassady writes, “So then he went off on the bus with his fifteen sandwiches.”

Now, I’ve always been interested in literary depictions of food – “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls” and all that kind of thing, but I had no memory of Jack Kerouac and his sandwiches. 

 

And so I returned to On The Road and sure enough there are sandwiches galore.  This is in Part Two, Chapter 12,  “What I accomplished by coming to San Francisco I don’t know. Camille wanted me to leave; Dean didn’t care one way or the other. I bought a loaf of bread and meats and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country with again; they were all going to go rotten on me by the time I got to Dakota … 

“At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.” 


It does seem that Carolyn Cassidy miscounted the number of sandwiches.

 



And this is earlier, Part One, Chapter 13, when the fictionalized Kerouac is in Los Angeles, “With the bus leaving at ten, I had four hours to dig Hollywood alone. First I bought a loaf of bread and salami and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country on. I had a dollar left. I sat on the low cement wall in back of a Hollywood parking lot and made the sandwiches. As I labored at this absurd task, great Kleig lights of a Hollywood premiere stabbed in the sky, that humming West Coast sky. All around me were the noises of the crazy gold-coast city. And this was my Hollywood career-this was my last night in Hollywood, and I was spreading mustard on my lap in back of a parking-lot John.”

         I’m not sure I ever saw a public toilet in a parking lot in Los Angeles, but if I had I don’t think I’d have wanted to make sandwiches there.

 

There are various other mentions of sandwiches in On the Road, including hot roast beef sandwiches eaten in a diner in Denver, and also of course mentions of other food too, most of it all-American – hamburgers, cherry pie with ice cream, blue fish, popcorn - but it’s the sandwiches that stay with me now.


I’ve tried to find a picture of Kerouac with a sandwich, and I’ve failed, but there’s no shortage of pictures of him drinking. 


 

 

 

Thursday, March 7, 2024

NOSE TO TAIL, AND BACK AGAIN

 And speaking of artificial food, there’s currently an exhibition on at London’s Japan House titled “Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River.”  It’s about life and culture in Hokkaido, the island at the far northeastern end of Japan; and life and culture of course includes food.

 

So there are some representations of the local cuisine, including sito – that’s millet dumplings; irup - dried lily bulb cakes; and sipuskepmesi - millet and rice.



But far and away the most appealing, and something I might actually try doing myself, is ciporemo – that’s potato with salmon roe – how could you go wrong?

 



I’ve never been to Hokkaido but I have been to Tokyo where I ate some oysters from Hokkaido, the biggest and best I’ve ever tasted –  they looked like this .

 



Since the visit to the Japan Centre coincided with my birthday, we also had some actual food.  The inamorata (aka Caroline) took me to St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields.  

Naturally there were martinis to start

 



Then we ate Rollright cheese.

 



When it arrived I wasn’t quite sure about that spring onion, which was extremely strong, but the lads and lasses of St John know their business and it was great,  as right as it was surprising.

 

There were also sardines:




And top of the bill, nestled under the salad, was pressed pig’s head terrine (at least I think that’s what it was – the menu just said pig’s head).



 

And because Caroline had clued in the restaurant to the fact that it was my birthday they delivered a doughnut with a candle on the side, which was only marginally embarrassing.




Thursday, February 29, 2024

THE CHEESE AND I

 It takes a brave man to admit that he’s been inspired by the food at a Wetherspoons, but I am such a man.

 

After I had my cheesy chips at the Peter Cushing in Whitstable last week, which were perfectly good, I still thought more could be done.  Essentially I thought the chips could be cheesier and the cheese could be pokier – it tasted like fairly mild cheddar.

 


So I decided to do something very similar but using Godminster Red Chili Devil's Dance Organic Vintage Cheddar – a cheese sharp enough and hot enough to strip your carburetor and adjust your float level.  




And though I say so myself it was very good, and it looked like this (in an inappropriate bowl):




But this is interesting – and maybe everybody knows this already, the hotness of the chili cheese was much reduced. Now obviously any cheese is going to seem milder which eaten alongside a mound of fried potatoes rather than eaten on its own, but I did wonder whether the actual chemistry had been changed by a few minutes under a hot grill.  Further research may be required.