Monday, May 18, 2009


Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own begins with lunch. Novelists, she observes, might write about meals, but “seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” So she furnishes her meditation on education and living in the margin with an extended description of dining at a men’s college. She revels in the radiant, animating provisions set before the men, the serenity of the fish dish, the poise of the sauces, the rise and sparkling fall of desert. Good food fuels a casual, naturalised intellectual bonhomie amongst the fellows:

“And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself . . . how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as, lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.”

But Woolf, of course, must rouse herself from the upholstery of male fellowship and trudge her way back to the women’s college. And the dinner that awaits her there casts a pall. Set on obtuse china, the fare is dull and muddy – insipid soup, yellowed vegetables, dry beef and biscuits. The final insult is the pudding:

“Prunes and custard followed. And if anyone complains that prunes, even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser's heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers' veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are people whose charity embraces even the prune . . . One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

Most outcast fruit, the prune! Woolf assaults it with a scorn borrowed from the boniest schoolmistress. The fricatives and plosives of her derision – the same mouth shapes as spitting out pits – are saved for this fruit, as an emblem of the dried and withered place of women in education. Girls are fed on dreary food and drearier thought, both provided by women – governesses and headmistresses – who themselves are overlooked, overcooked, overripe – spinsters, maiden aunts. They are Prunes. Educated women are cut off – cut themselves off! - from the succulent, the affable, the luminous dining table. Virginia Woolf is right: privilege smells, feels and tastes different to privation. She is right, too, that our very being is formed from within our gut: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” But is she right that “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes?”

It is certainly no easy task to rescue the prune, for its degradation has been a long time in the making. Stewed prunes have suffered from a forced association with institutions of discipline. Their affiliation is with the thick-lipped – but somehow always chipped – china bowls of the school, the boarding house and the nursing home. These houses of shrivel stored prunes in dusty tins the size of Gladstone bags. When finally released, the prunes were the colour of cockroaches and smelled thinly of death and dustballs. They leaked their embalming fluids into the thin, livid yellow custard in which they were always served. And worst of all, we who were served these prunes knew, with precision, that they were sent to discipline us. From the inside, out.

For it has to be admitted: the stewed prune was conscripted by the regiment of women who knew “what's best for you” and had seized on the bowel as their territory. These enforcers– the nurse, the nanny, the sports mistress, the hair-netted dinner lady – took charge of your insides with a noxious mix of no-nonsense affect and shaming euphemism. Accompanied by the whiff of disinfectant, brusque insinuations of “regularity” and “movements” turned the poor prune into a purgative.

The prune, then, is prim and it is puckered. In Little Dorrit, de facto governess Mrs General recommends that her charge says “papa” rather than “father,” augmenting her advice with a little elocution exercise: “Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company or on entering a room, ‘Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, prunes and prism.’” This is Dickens engaging in the ready sport of governess-baiting. Mrs General’s advice on how to properly pronounce the name of the father, inadvertently shapes the girls’ lips into pursed and pretty sphincters – her lessons in prunish prudery turn her girls into kissable (if nuttily muttering) bits of skirt. And so it was that the banal prune was yoked to the flashing prism, all under the sign of propriety. In the twinkling of a bedpost “prunes and prisms” passed into literary idiom, an easy way to catch women between the rock of sedimented virginity and the hard place of harlotry. D.H. Lawrence – scholarship boy and one-time junior clerk at a surgical appliances factory – mocks a character for her “‘prunes-and-prisms’ manner” and when Jo in Little Women yearns to be a boy and run away with Teddy and “have a capital time,” she breaks off and moans “’Prunes and prisms’ are my doom.” Since she is a girl, she must be “proper” and “stop at home.” Oscar Wilde’s governess Miss Prism may be missing her prunes (and her 3-volume novel), but her easily mocked high-tones remain.

Dickens – that rag and bone man – didn’t invent the prunish woman. The old maid was a figure of fun long before he steamed into print. And if we unflinchingly follow the history of the prune, it turns out that it was once associated with the oldest of “maids.” Behind the prune-wielding disciplined ranks of the governess, the nurse and the headmistress, lounges the most venerable professional woman of them all: the whore. We still sometimes call a brothel a “stew” and it is because of the innocuous stewed prune. A 1612 collection of satirical poems called The Knave of Hearts features a whoring knave who takes “Burnt wine, stew’d prunes, a punk to solace him.” And in a similar collection published a year earlier, The Knave of Spades, a wanton entices a young man into her house of vice:

“—He to his liquor falls
While she unto her maids for cakes,
Stew’d prunes, and pippins, calls.

Some scholars claim that dried cakes and stewed prunes were considered prophylactic against the pox and used as prescriptions for syphilitics. But whatever the reason, most scholars who interest themselves in Ladies of the Night agree that a bowl of prunes was the trading sign of a brothel. In Wit’s Miserie, or the World’s Madnesse (1596), Thomas Lodge says of a bawd, "you shall know her dwelling by a dish of stewd pruins in the window, and two or three fleering wenches sit knitting or sewing in her shop.” And Shakespeare goes to town on prunes and brothels. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Master Slender pleads lack of appetite for food and women, claiming sexual mishap has put him out of action: “I bruised my shin th' other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence; three veneys for a dish of stewed prunes; and, by my troth, I cannot abide the smell of hot meat since.” And in Measure for Measure, a play which gleefully compromises attempts at astringent morality, Shakespeare gets right to it and relishes the visual pun between the creased, globular fruit and a pair of bollocks nestled in a certain kind of “dish” – Elbow’s wife is led into a brothel by her craving for prunes. Pompey explains to the law that she was “great with child, and longing,—saving your honour’s reverence,—for stewed prunes. Sir, we had but two in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit-dish, a dish of some three-pence; your honours have seen such dishes; they are not China dishes, but very good dishes.”

Our post-industrial association of the prune with dour desiccation is a mean-spirited corruption of earlier ages’ earthy and bawdy prune play. A prune can be more than a faded plum. Juicy and vital and a little sultry with fruit-sugars, it might never intend you to remember the plum. This prune is bold, not grudging or grasping. Preserved into opulence, it pleases itself. It doesn’t mourn or imitate its juvenile state, but, flashing black as the pupil of your eye, transforms it into something else again. It is as scented and reflective as tobacco, and it takes you from the schoolroom to the brothel and all regions between and beyond.

This prune, the prune of my dreams, met me recently in France. I had been happily invited along on a women’s college alumnae tour of the Dordogne Valley. These were women reconvening after time in the full glow of life, and together we spent an idyllic week of food, wine and conversation. The Dordogne lays an expansive, seasoned table for its guests. Its culinary specialties are mostly dark and unctuous: duck, goose, foie gras, truffles and walnut oil. It is food that takes time to prepare, and time to eat; it eases the clockworks of conversation back to a sauntering pace, and doctors, lawyers, senators and novelists found themselves suffused in the lamplight of conviviality. A linguist gnawed on yet another leg of duck confit as she explained to an enthralled audience the symbolism of the string skirts worn by such well-fed prehistoric beauties as the Venus of Willendorf; a casual mention of lace elicited an impromptu lesson on “death bobbins,” whittled by the makers of filigree to commemorate the execution of bloodthirsty murderers; a porcelain expert, class of 1950, fois gras trembling on the end of her fork, described how she once landed a distressed hot air balloon on a boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. By day, our bus wove across a region made of castles and cliff-dwellings, rich furrowed soil and corrugated precipices. We trekked into painted caves where tens of thousands of years ago bears bedded down together and, upon waking, flexed and sharpened their claws on the walls, carving a tally of another year. The folds and creases of the landscape accommodated this group brought together by friendship and education, by plenty, by loss, and by the diverse pleasures of society of one’s kind.

Across the course of seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven dinners, no one ever set a prune before us. Virginia Woolf’s algorithm of food and education and sex had been inverted, and I had eaten her boys’ meal with girls. But I wasn’t happy about the still sacrificed prune, that third sex. So on Saturday morning I said a quick goodbye to the breakfasting sisterhood and set out with an empty bag and my dubious French at the ready. It was market day in Sarlat and I found the glorious Agen pruneaux, outside the hotel doors, in the bustle of narrow cobbled streets. A valley away from the Dordogne, Agen is the cradle of prune civilization. The jet-black fruits are made from the Ente plum, and their sweetness comes from being tree-matured and carefully dried to preserve their sugars. I had heard of these prunes – even tasted what I knew to be an over-dried specimen in England – and I was determined to load my suitcase with the genuine fleshy gems. I made my way between stalls groaning with sausages, fish, mustards, oils, vegetables, cheeses, strawberries . . . until finally I found, in the shadow of the old church, a stand full of the treasured prunes – ranked in size, labeled by humidity. They glistened under the quiet husbandry of a gentleman dressed in a plum coloured stripy sweater and plum coloured corduroy trousers, his scholarly face tilted over his produce, as if listening to them. I bought many bags from Monsieur Pruneaux, and then sought out a quiet stretch of medieval wall to sit on.

Solemnly, I dipped into my treasure. The prunes were so tender that the pits slid silkily from the flesh, and the flesh itself was almost cucumber green against the purple-turned-to-carbon- skins. They were tense and then yielding to the teeth, and they tasted of seasons turned, of nightfall. The flavour was as broad as a thumb, but bright too. Each small parcel had enfolded its sugars and its sunlight, and compressed them like coal. I brought the prunes back to the hotel and fed some to my new friends, and then watched as their faces registered the marvel: this is a prune?!

B and I ate most of the prunes straight from the bag across that week and on the long train ride back north, a thoughtful chew and an archaic smile their only condiment. But once back in London I wanted to make a prunes and custard dish that both redeemed and paid homage to the ridiculed genre of prunishness. I began with the idea of a clafoutis – a simple French dish of baked custard and fruit. The name of this dish might, some think, find its origin in the word meaning “to fill up, to stuff.” But other sources suggest a root meaning “to affix with nails.” Since clafoutis is most commonly made with cherries which film over with a skin of custard and bleed slightly as they cook, I’m convinced of the latter meaning – surely the dish acquired its name because it looks like stigmata? But mine would be made with prunes, and there is a Breton version of the clafoutis, slightly sturdier in consistency, made with prunes. It is called a “far Breton.” I decided to follow a “far” recipe, but borrow a little something from the clafoutis, too. In a clafoutis, it is traditional to leave the stones in the cherries, to impart a hint of almond flavour to the pudding. I thought I could mimic this, and get something of a brothelly “to stuff” meaning in my prunes – by removing their pits and replacing them with a nub of marzipan. In Far Breton and similar dishes, the prunes are sometimes soaked in tea or Armagnac to plump them up. My prunes had no need of such hydration, but it would be a shame to spurn spirits altogether, especially since I had taken care to procure a small bottle of Prune D’Ente eau de vie from the Sarlat market. So I added a generous tablespoon to my batter.

My final ingredient was a smuggled one. Before taking the train down to the Dordogne, B and I had eaten in a small Paris bistro. The crème brûlée we ate was scented, our menu said, with “Tonka.” The caramelized custard had a warm, round flavour, brown as leather. When we asked what “Tonka” is, the chef emerged from the kitchen (in a natty track suit) and presented us with a dark, hard, wrinkled bean. He left us the tactile little stone, which B put in her pocket and brought back to our London kitchen. It was an illicit trafficking. The tonka seed is toxic in large doses and is banned in England. Most compelling for my purposes of helping my prunes masquerade as cherries whose stones masquerade as almond, tonka is sometimes used in place of another forbidden flavour – bitter almond, favoured by suicides. We risked our livers, but tonka added the flavour of defection to my prunes and custard. You have to transgress, masquerade as what you might become, and damage yourself a little or maybe even a lot in order to steal the lighted lamp.


3 large eggs
2 cups (475ml) whole milk
½ cup (113g) sugar
½ grated tonka bean, or seeds from ½ a vanilla pod, or ¼ tsp vanilla essence
1/8 tsp salt
1 tablespoon prune eau de vie, or Armagnac
5 tblsp (71g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¾ cup (94g) flour
1 ½ cup (300g) pitted prunes
enough marzipan (or brandied marzipan) to stuff prunes – about 150g
If necessary, 1 cup hot tea, or ¼ cup Armagnac plus ¼ cup water for soaking liquid
Icing/confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Put eggs, milk, sugar, tonka/vanilla, salt and melted butter in a blender or food processor and whiz to blend for about 1 min. Sift in the flour and pulse the batter several times. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably 3, overnight even better. (The batter should last several nights in a fridge.)

If soaking your prunes, put in heatproof bowl and pour over the hot tea or the Armagnac and water mix that you’ve warmed together. Cover and let stand.

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 375F/190C. Butter an 8x2 inch round cake pan or deep quiche dish and dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. Do not use a loose-bottomed pan. Put pan on baking sheet.

Drain prunes from their soaking liquid, discarding the remaining liquid (or better still, drinking it). If your prunes have pits, slice them open with a small sharp knife and remove pit. Tear off enough marzipan to roll into a nugget that will fit inside the prune. Tuck the marzipan inside the prune, closing the skin over it. Repeat until you have a plateful of stuffed prunes.

Remove batter from fridge, add the eau de vie or Armagnac, and whisk it lightly to reblend, then rap the pitcher against the counter to break the top bubbles. Pour batter slowly and gently into the pan, trying not to incorporate more air, and then drop in the prunes, distributing them evenly.

Bake for 50-60 mins or until top of cake is puffed quite high, has turned brown and a knife comes out clean. If the pudding browns too quickly, turn the oven down or even off and leave inside for the full cooking time. Transfer to cooling rack and cool to room temp.

You can now serve this straight from its dish, or attempt to unmould it. It will be fragile – only unmould if you have baked it in the right depth of pan, and if the bottom doesn’t seem to have stuck. Have a serving plate at hand. Run a blunt knife around the edges to loosen. Dust the top of the pudding with confectioner’s/icing sugar, then cover with a piece of parchment or wax paper. Place an upside down rack over the paper and invert the whole thing to turn the cake out onto the rack. Then quickly re-invert onto the serving plate. Redust with confectioner’s/icing sugar if necessary.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

A is for Apple

A is for Apple. B is for Burgle. C is for Chomp. And D – consequently – is for Do a Runner. I recently visited an English Stately Home and I acquired a small souvenir. Englishness and stateliness tend to make my fingers itch . . . and so, ever so rarely, I am the agent of just a little misappropriation.

It was a long-legged sort of Sunday afternoon, and B and I drifted into a plan to take the kind of walk that has a grand old house at the end of it. Poking around the houses of people richer than yourself is a pastime beloved by the English; we are a persistently evaluative people, and we have a peculiar attachment to being hushed, to hushing others, to peering at while being peered upon. We pay good money to make Sunday visits to the houses that most of us, in another age, would have spent our lives working in and around.

In another time, serving the warp and weft of wealth upholstered the conviction that the steward can be as sovereign (in his own way) as the lord of the manor. We tell lots of stories in which the butler or the valet not only waits on but quietly compensates for the failings of his boorish betters, and these stories seed the English belief that service is the best way of knowing (and thereby upholding) refinement. It was the draper who really understood quality cloth, a housekeeper was more au fait than anyone with good china and the chambermaid most intimately knew the literal underpinnings of the better classes. These workers were granted their own domains; and they believed they had a kind of dustcloth ownership that lightly overlay the real tenacities of English property rights. The cook of long-standing, born on the estate, raised up through its servile ranks, may have been said to rule the roost, and be deferred to; she even recreated the hierarchies of upstairs in her downstairs world. Now her descendants, myself included, enjoy a little snoop around the old architectures of a class-system that haunts us, with that particular combination of thrill and horror that constitutes all desires, good and bad, including hunger.

Although few cooks or gardeners or maids serve estates these days, the roots of that culture still entangle the soil, and its hoary old stumps are putting up new shoots. New shoots that make my fingers itch. In England, His Majesty, the monarch-in-waiting, will famously neither smile on modern architects, nor eat asparagus out of season. The excellencies of smallholding are lucratively championed by a mop-haired toff with the kind of double-barreled surname derived not from experiments in gender equity, but from age-old practices of estate preservation. The “domestic goddess” who sheds her grace upon all Yummy Mummies is the daughter of the Tory who held the purse strings under Margaret Thatcher. Though the Iron Lady herself is not really a lady but an eagle-eyed server - a grocer’s daughter. At some point during the 11 bleak years of her reign, I heard a radio interview with a woman who had grown up alongside Thatcher in Grantham, and because I only truly understand anything when it is described culinarily, the story has stayed with me as the most succinct explanation of Thatcher’s particular Will to Power. Back in the day, the interviewee’s mother would send her round to the Thatcher grocery. “Make sure the other sister serves you,” her mother would warn as the child set off with the string bag, “Margaret always keeps one finger on the scales.”

This is the long and knavish way around the short and brutish fact that I stole an apple. B and I had tramped across London to visit a gracious house, one that was built in the country, but now finds itself in the city. The magma of new growth encroaches on its space, held back only by some sturdy railings and the even sturdier intent of several elderly volunteer ladies sporting sprigged outfits and accents to match. B and I slipped into the seeming requisite of restrained, intentional gestures and we padded through the house progressively more dazed by room after room of glassed-in hoards of porcelain miniatures, then were startled from our torpor by other rooms peopled with life–sized muslin-faced manikins dressed as Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Finally the house gently excreted us into the garden. It was walled, its high brick walls host to much green clambering, thick wisteria trunks like bandy avuncular legs supporting a tumbling scramble of nieces and nephews. The garden had elevated walkways, lined with lavender bushes, roses turned to hips, and deep, dark green banks of leaves sexy with the promise of peonies in the summer. This formal space raised and lowered you, depositing you at benches with views and suggested a circuit through its loveliness. In one of its walls was a small doorframe and if you ducked through it, another vegetal plane opened out before you. This was the kitchen garden, and the working garden, too. It held the mulch piles, the greenhouses and the potting areas. Its vegetable beds were perfect operas of bulb and foliage: full-chested leeks with cavalier greenery, tremulous forests of dill, unearthed onions looking indolent and faintly lewd, carrots poking up just enough to see what was going on, and then signs of tragic decline all around – asparagus beds gone to full late-season battiness, the overlooked courgettes turning to bloated, basso marrows. It was a glory.

But beyond this again was the true temptation. Yet another little door opened into a small music-box of an orchard. Just about a dozen apple trees, of a dozen or so varieties, all agreeably short and all ornamented with fruit. Each one was carefully labeled with varietal and the date that the apples would be ripe for picking, and each and every one had its own stern sign that said “DO NOT PICK THE FRUIT.” The torture! I lost myself walking between them, heavy boughs nudging their pendant crop against my shoulders. Wandering in a sun and apple-spangled daze, I bumped into B salivating under an “early picking Discovery.” Its hundred happy red apples were clearly perfect that day, that very moment, that second and that second alone they were at their best. It was TIME. We discussed the exact wording of the signs – what would constitute “picking,” exactly? If we clasped our hands behind our backs and simply bobbed for the apples, could we - in all fairness - be stopped? If one of us stumbled against the tree, and the other was lying underneath that tree with her mouth – at that moment – happening to be wide open, would any Newtonian consequences be held against us?

Such pussy footing around the problem was all very pleasurable, but no substitute for the real thing. So I plucked an apple, popped it into my bag and quickly led B away from stateliness and the no-doubt swift-footed justice of the volunteer ladies. Out of the orchard, through the walled graciousness, emerging onto the street through a tradesman’s entrance, we trotted down the hill to the wail of London traffic.

There is a definite relation between the apple specifically and such theft. There is a kind of obviousness to it, and even a name for it: scrumping. You can probably scrump all kinds of fruit and veg, but scrump is a West Country name for a small or scrubby apple and “scrumpy” is the name given to cider pressed from foraged apples. The apple is portable enough to be downfall and salvation too. There is always Eve, bless her, and then John Clare remembered the redeeming virtues of the fruit when he recalled the Golden Russet that grew in his father’s garden: “the tree is an old favourite with my father and stood his friend many a year in the days of adversity by producing an abundance of fruit which always met with ready sale and paid his rent.” But what if the apple in question grows in someone else’s walled garden? What if it is not for sale or rent but simply comes to hand? . . . well, as Clare said:

All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes.

My petty theft made no dent to law and its enclosures. I am not a bona fide poacher nor a leveler, sad to say. Nevertheless, I was set on honouring the pilfered apple. I have always been wary of recipes that ask you to actually heat apples, feeling that a fresh apple is the most perfectly hand-ready fruit, best when shockingly crisp.
Why do anything at all to it? A friend and I recently confessed our mutual contempt for the baked apple as a form, and the way it renders the handsome sphere to a secret and miserable mush within its own jacket. And as for the habit of hurling huge quantities of cinnamon at any apple that moves – I throw my hands up in horror. I have many exceptions to my own rule: tarts, charlottes and dutch apple pies. In fact, I admit (with the exception of the cinnamon bit) it’s no rule at all. But still, when you’ve slyly pocketed an apple at its peak, contravened the pleas of its mindful gardeners, misbehaved in a “lawful orchard” – that’s the time to institute your own edict, lay it down as law inviolable, and defend it vigorously. This apple would not be cooked. It would instead be met by its equal – a mature and friable cheddar. A cheese like this might be subject to the same kind of law that I apply to the apple: best left unmolested, its musty, woody tang the perfect complement to the apple’s bright snap. But contrarily I was in the mood for something baked, something flaky, something that left a buttery, guilty residue on my fingertips.

I wanted something like a cheese straw, only more robust and less pointy. Something with simple ingredients, but an able foil to the fruit. When you cut an apple the wrong way, along its equator, it reveals five carpels arranged in a five-point star, each containing a few mahogany pips. It’s a queer sort of compass, and one I thought I could carry over into my pastry by using nigella – the onion seed, not the goddess. I folded these angular black kernels into my rich pastry, then rolled it thinly and cut it into leaves, as a vague and stylised reuniting, a return of the apple to the tree.

Makes about 18

100g very cold, unsalted butter, cut into chunks
100g plain flour
A hefty pinch of salt
1⁄2 tsp mustard powder
50g mature cheddar, coarsely grated
50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1-2 tablespoons of black onion seeds
1 egg yolk, beaten

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Place the butter and flour in the bowl of a food processor, together with the salt, mustard, the two cheeses and the egg yolk. Pulse in short spurts. Once the texture is clumpy, tip it all out on to some plastic wrap and knead it through the plastic (to prevent melting the fats) until blended and smooth. With the plastic wrap holding it all together, roll into a log. Then shape the log into a teardrop about 4-5cm diameter and press the ends flat. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes – you could leave it overnight.

When you are ready to bake them, grease a baking sheet, or line with a Silpat. Dip a sharp knife into a mug of hot water and slice thin biscuits from the log. Place on a baking tray about 2cm apart and use a knife to score veins into each leaf. Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Lift off the tray using a pallet knife and cool on a rack.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Brandy Snaps

I've decided to apprentice myself to the arts of pliancy. Quiet habits of severity have edged into my life. Which is not to say that all severe habits are bad. I expressly cultivate some, like teatime, and I find them to be sources of great pleasure. Strong tea, made of just boiling water and steeped for precisely four minutes in a pre-warmed pot, then consumed at 5 o’clock along with one too many biscuits, makes a happy moratorium to the workday. But there are other, perhaps equally English habits of judgment or complaint, that can turn a life just a little bit brittle. Institutions and corporations – both the labours of inhabiting them and the labours of avoiding them – have taken the bend straight out of me. I want to restore the pleasures and the ethics of laxity. So I made Brandy Snaps.

It might be objected that anything snappish is the exact opposite of anything pliant. True. But the glossy honeycombed tube known as the Brandy Snap, which shatters under the edge of a fork, paradoxically springs from viscous ingredients, and owes its rigid shape to a phase of lollopy malleability. Brandy Snap batter is made from a melt of butter and sugar and syrup, and the tunnel shapes are formed by wrapping warm-from-the-oven tuiles around the handle of a wooden spoon. And anyway, I have a peculiar association of this treat with bendability. As a child I loved the Brandy Snap, and would watch eagerly for the slim, cellophaned box of them to be lodged in a high-up cupboard, “in case,” my mother said, “of guests.” But the goodies bestowed upon guests did not always trickle down the food chain to me. So after what seemed like weeks of waiting for the occasion when I might taste a Snap, I decided to hasten things along a bit. I reasoned that if I breached the cupboard, and sabotaged the wrapping on the box, the row of crisp Snaps inside would go soft. Ruined, the softened Snaps were more likely to be put into my, as opposed to adult, hands. My plan worked perfectly, and more than once. Having successfully clambered up onto a counter and effected some quiet perforations a couple of times, I developed a taste for the toffeed suppleness of the snapless Snap. Being an agent of wilt in my otherwise regulated household taught me something about manipulating the passing point between two opposed states – and the pleasures of riding exactly that crest.

I remember that once or twice we made, rather than bought, Brandy Snaps. The kitchen became deliciously fuddled by warm butter and sugar, and an assembly line – consisting of me and my younger brother – was arranged. The secret to a good brandy snap is timing, and you learn this timing through repetition. The batter should be spread thinly into as perfect a circle as possible, but not so thinly that there are any holes in the slick, raw surface. They should be baked until they bubble and just – only just – darken. As they cook, the smooth rounds become as lacy as doilies. Then you and your palate knife must wait until they are cool enough to hold together, but not so firm that they refuse to be curled. This can all be described at length, but there’s no substitute for making a large batch and learning as you go. Brandy Snaps demand knack from their cook, but unlike many a baked goody, they also offer the benevolence of a second chance: if you let them cool too long, you can pop them back in the oven for a few minutes and they will once again become game for all manner of shaping.

The Brandy Snap is tubular, but if you drape the warm rounds over a mould such as a drinking glass, or even (as I once did) a can of baked beans, they make excellent baskets for filling with ice-cream.
In my youth there was no such high falutin’ deviation: my brother and I lined up to turn the Snaps around the handles of wooden spoons, pressing our thumbs on the overlap to weld the join, then gently extracting the spoon handle. (That these same spoons were once or twice swatted against our bottoms for misbehaviour lent a little menace to the business – though to our great glee and eternal triumph, a spoon once snapped in two when it hit the doorframe instead of the small behind disappearing around it.) You had to then cradle the delicate Snap as if it were a cocoon, and transport it to a cooling rack to fully set. Soon every surface in the kitchen would be covered in piles of these vacant treats and they would be tucked away in old but airtight biscuit tins, waiting to be filled with piped cream - right before serving, of course, in case they softened.

My fondness for the Brandy Snap has much to do with its constitutive and reversible shifts of form. Now I learn that this trickery is part of its history as well as its physiognomy. The Brandy Snap has pulled the ultimate identity trick on us. In 1854 George Read published The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant, a charming little book furnished with an equally charming subtitle: Practical Directions for making all kinds of plain and fancy biscuits, buns, cakes, drops, muffins, crumpets, gingerbread, spice nuts, etc. Adapted for the trade or for private families. The only work exclusively on this subject. In a section that promises, among other things, to teach us about Brandy Snaps, Master Read instructs the trade or private family cook that “When they are baked and a little cool, cut them from the tins, by passing a thin knife under them; turn them, whilst warm, in the form of a cone, the same as the grocers make up their sugar papers, or turn them round a stick as the last. If they should get too cold to turn, put them again into the oven to warm.” So far, so good – all this had been passed down to me without benefit of book learning. But his last sentence in this entry is a shocker: “Brandy Snaps are the same as these, without being turned.” The Snap, it seems, was originally flat!

Theodore Francis Garrett, writing a little later in 1898 in his 12 volume Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, addresses the confusion: “Brandy Snaps are sometimes confounded with Jumbles, but these have a distinctive characteristic, in that they are curled round the finger or a stick before cooling, while Brandy Snaps are flat – a distinction that can only be appreciated by the young. See JUMBLES.” What we call Brandy Snaps were originally Jumbles, which we would know had we not yet again ignored the chubby-kneed vehemence of young persons. My guess is that the Brandy Snap was metamorphosed when it changed hands not only between young and old, but also between working and middle classes, and from street vendor to factory worker. Treats like snaps and gingerbreads – in the form of ginger nuts, or gingerbread people – were originally bought at fairs, bitten into in the street, or taken home as penny-cheap tokens of a day of fun. Garrett is both wistful and snobbish as he notes that “These delights of our youth were probably originally made with a Brandy flavouring as one of their ingredients; but with that lack of discriminative taste peculiar to uneducated palates, the presence of the Brandy flavour was not sufficiently appreciated to render its presence essential to the success of the manufacture; hence, as the “snaps” could be made cheaper without Brandy, and yielded more sweets for the same money, the spirituous prefix became but a name.” I, of course, would be adding the spirits right back in.

But if liquor can be abandoned, an absolutely key ingredient in Brandy Snaps (and the reason most Americans don’t make them) is one of the oldest industrial food products around: Golden Syrup. Alright, I suppose treacle would work, or even that abomination, corn syrup -- but Golden Syrup, with its mild caramel flavour, is just perfect. I recently unearthed a cache of Golden Syrup in my basement. One of the curious features of being expatriate is my tendency to hoard. I haul suitcases of food products back with me from the Mother Land, then cherish them in my basement until their expiration date looms (or passes). Then I subject my household to days on end of beans on toast, or pickled walnuts, or, in the case of a stash of Golden Syrup, endless puddings and biscuits of the sweetest, most nurseryish sort.

Like so many of its industrial descendants, Golden Syrup is a commercial product that mimics a natural one – it is a by-product of sugar refining, and was originally marketed as poor-man’s honey. The tin has not changed since the nineteenth century: amidst flourishes of green and gold, it bears a logo that confounds syrup with honey via the citation of a biblical riddle. This logo is a prostrate lion, over which hovers a swarm of bees. The inscription reads: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” It comes from a story about Samson, better known for his disastrous haircut. Before he was transformed from strong to weak with a wifely snip of the shears, Samson fancied a comely lass from the unsuitable, unsnipped (in another way) ranks of the Philistines. On his way to check out his ethnically troublesome girlfriend, he is attacked by a young lion, whom he rips apart as easily as if that lion were a kid goat. On a return visit, this time to marry the woman, Samson passes the now long-dead lion and sees that a swarm of bees have set up their hive in the carcass. The strong man snacks on the honey they are producing in that dark, satanic mill. Sweetness from strength, then, is honey from the lion. What proceeds from there in Samson’s story is an epic tangle of wedding feasting, in-law baiting, ethnic violence, wife-swapping and yet more ethnic violence, all rolled around Samson trying to score some nice wedding linens by using this riddle – how can sweetness come from strength? Despite the fact that he was clearly a prize ass, Samson always seemed an appealing figure to me. Perhaps it was his sweet tooth – for honey and foreign women – that pleased.

I thought I would blend a little Samsonian strength with the sweetness of Golden Syrup in my Brandy Snaps, so I added a fiery trace of black pepper. Visually too, I liked the idea of seeing flecks of pepper trapped in the caramel pores. When it came to it, there was no brandy in the house, but I had Grand Marnier in my sideboard. Since many Brandy Snap recipes use orange zest anyway, the citrus spirit would get two jobs done at once. To echo the Grand Marnier, I laced my filling – a mix of crème fraiche and marscapone – with some orange flower water.

But the colours were too bland, and the taste too harmonious. As a final touch, I reached for strawberries, just in season and perfectly red. The colour would gladden the eye, and the bright acidity would cut across the sweetness of the Snap, stinging the taste buds. Black pepper makes an excellent condiment for strawberries, and they blend with orange smoothly. The berries formed a thematic fit, too. Just as Samson’s encounter with honey on his way to visit his Philistine bit of skirt ends up destroying his marriage, strawberries centre another story of forbidden and ultimately tragic cross-racial passion. When jealous Iago sets Othello against Desdemona, he provides “ocular proof” of her supposed infidelity by producing her handkerchief. This handkerchief is the first gift Othello gave Desdemona, and it is “spotted” with strawberries. In choosing this design for the condemnatory linen, Shakespeare was drawing on a tradition of figuring the strawberry as akin to the snake - both are seductive denizens of the low-growing grass – and another tradition which associated the fruit with the Virgin Mary, as a symbol of purity and humility (again, the low grass). Othello, Desdemona and her handkerchief become players in the usual hopscotch of whether women should be voluptuous or virtuous, and of course tragic ends await everyone. Just like in the Samson story, all is lost to quick and brittle passions. In both tales wedding linens, misplaced rage, cross-racial desire, and political intrigue drive the heroes to - in each case - murder and suicide. And at the heart of each of these stories, sweet foods are riddles that twist and twist again - the strong men bait their traps with honey and strawberries, only to be caught in their own snares.

But (and this digression continues only because I am apprenticing myself to elasticity), I take particular pleasure in Desdemona’s handkerchief, because it is a wonderful portrait of the torment of the lost item. As someone who was once sent to school with a large sign pinned to her jumper that read “FIND LOST MITTEN,” I feel catharsis in following the guilt trip that Othello lays on Desdemona about the mislaid handkerchief. Othello pretends to have the sniffles and casually asks Desdemona if he can borrow her hankie. Desdemona clearly has no idea where the hankie is, and starts bluffing furiously about having it safe and sound somewhere. Othello then launches into a description of the thumping preciousness of the thing. He begins by describing how this first love-gift of his is in fact a re-gifting. And here is where the story gets good. It was given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian woman of mystical powers, who had said that if Mum ever lost it or gave it away, her marriage would crumple and her husband would stray. When Othello’s mother (clearly having kept her hankie drawer and her marriage safe and sound all her living days) is dying, she bequeaths it to Othello, telling him to pass it on to his own wife. Not only is the hankie his dead mother's – a burden of guilt overwhelming enough – but the very warp and weft of the thing is saturated with the sweet smoky scent of generations of women who have smugly immolated themselves upon the altar of marital fidelity and domestic rectitude. Othello invokes the guilt trip, but the guilt itself is stitched and restitched in scarlet thread by women, against women, and there ain’t nothing like it:

'Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

Losing your husband’s dead mother’s handkerchief, a handkerchief sewn by a 200-year old prophetess, of silk spun by holy silkworms, and coloured with a dye wrung from the mummified hearts of virgins – that all puts a lost-and-never-found mitten into perspective. Though my mother did knit it . . .

And so I curl around the wooden spoon, back to where I began. It is all a lesson, literary and culinary, in the course of pliancy I have set myself. I lost a mitten once, and there are many other things I have lost – squandered, even. I am very good at counting wrongs and losses, wrongs and losses as sticky as Golden Syrup, and as plentiful as the seeds in a strawberry. I am good at it, but I am trying to bend – or maybe snap? – away from that particular talent. If you want to keep counting, you may. But if you want to wave aside infidelities and transgressions real or imagined, and taste instead the sweetness that is released by shatter, and seasoned by pliancy, you may rather.


Makes approximately 30 biscuits


100g/4oz butter
100g/4oz caster sugar
100g/4oz golden syrup
100g/4oz plain flour, sifted
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of salt

150g/6oz mascarpone
150g/6oz crème fraiche
orange flower water to taste
one pint strawberries
mint sprigs for decoration

Heat the butter, sugar, syrup, lemon juice and Grand Marnier gently together in a saucepan until the butter melts and the sugar has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat, mix in the flour and leave to cool.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350F/Gas 4, line 2 baking trays with non-stick baking paper with 6 circles of about 5 cm marked on them, with good space between each. Alternatively, place this template under a Silpat – the circles will show through and you can slide the template out and reuse it. Place a teaspoon of the mixture in the centre of each circle and smooth out to the edges of the circle with a wet flat knife or back of a spoon. Spread them thinly, but not so thin that there are holes. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until lightly browned. To ensure enough time to roll the brandy snaps, put one tray into the oven 5 minutes before the other.

Remove the brandy snaps from the oven and cool on the baking tray for a few seconds, then lift the biscuits off with a palette knife and roll around wooden spoon handles. Don’t wrap them tightly around the handle – the snap will dangle off it, and the only bit of the snap that needs to be held tightly against the handle is the overlap: press that join firmly to seal. Then slide off the handle and place on a wire rack. If the snaps become too hard to roll, pop them back in the oven for a few seconds. Repeat with the remaining mixture.

Dice the strawberries and taste: add a little sugar if they are not sweet and juicy enough. Let them sit while you fill the snaps, so that they release a little juice.

To fill the brandy snaps, stir together the filling ingredients and spoon into a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle and pipe into each end of the biscuits.

Top with a spoon or two of strawberries, and a sprig of mint if available. Serve as soon as they are filled.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Egg

Humpty Dumpty is not an egg. At least, he is not necessarily an egg. The rhyming riddle documenting his accident never specifies his species. An early illustrator decided the matter, and since then it has been taken for granted that the answer to the conundrum is not that Humpty is, as some suggest, a gun, or Richard III, or Cardinal Woolsey, but that he is a dapper, hapless egg. Perhaps we persistently depict this punch line because it so satisfyingly represents the permanent shattering that solving a mystery produces: look! We’ve cracked the code! Revealed the secret! Like a smashed egg, there’s no use in trying to pack a cracked code up again.

Eggs and secrets seem to go together. I was raised on tales of the jewel-encrusted Easter eggs made by Fabergé for the Empress of Russia across the years that turned the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Under the theme of “Things I Will Never be Given, but Should, Because I Would Know How to Appreciate Them,” my mother talked wistfully about those carved, jeweled eggs and their pricelessness. “The Violent Loss of Imperial Grandeur” was another favourite theme, so the Fabergé eggs got jumbled in with thrilling, blood-spattered allusions to Romanov executions, hemophiliac sons and the missing Princess Anastasia. The case of the woman claiming to be Anastasia, the one survivor, was of particular and abiding interest in our household.

I’m not sure if my mother was more attached to the idea of remnant royalty, or to the possibility of passing as that remnant. The woman who called herself Grand Duchess Anastasia was finally revealed to be a Polish factory worker: a posthumous DNA test betrayed the secrets of her bones. She was a peasant who tried on the crown. She made herself princess by piecing together shards of knowledge, etiquette and deportment, leading several royals to declare that whoever she was, she was no commoner. But childhood friends remembered her putting on airs and graces: she had cast the die for a royal life early on – history merely filled the cavity. At least she forced the race-obsessed Duke of Edinburgh to the indignity of rolling up his sleeve and having his Grade A cells sized up against hers.

It turns out that many of the recovered Fabergé eggs have given up their secrets, too. The first one, made in 1885, is an egg of plain white enameled gold, which cracks open to release a full, matte, golden yolk. This yolk splits in half to reveal a suede-lined nest edged with stippled gold “straw.” In this nest is a tiny hen, her feathers crafted from white and yellow gold. She is timid-looking, made nervous perhaps by the faint fissure running from her beak to her tail. This hinged incision gave access to the final “secret” of the egg – a diamond replica of the imperial crown that itself concealed a ruby pendant in the shape of an egg. As Fabergé wrote to the Emperor, the secret egg pendant “symbolises the Empress’ autocracy.” The secret and the autocracy are both long gone. Somewhere between governments, auction houses and collectors, the crown and its ruby egg vanished. The hen is relieved of her stony innards, her barrenness a welcome pause to the riddling, reiterative reproductions of eggs within eggs. And, of course, to crowns within crowns. These losses comfort me.

And yet, I know that my own daydreams expanded to fill the negative spaces of my mother’s. As she rehearsed how one might escape from Bolshevik bullets while stuffing as many Fabergé eggs as possible into a handbag, I mused on the ways and means of turning Bolshevik. I wasn’t sure if there were any Bolshevik hangouts in my hometown of Orpington. If so, they were not in evidence amongst the ironmongers and tobacconists on the High Street. So instead, I bought a man’s old, black overcoat from a charity shop and slouched around in it, trailing after my mother through Marks and Spencer’s. I thought some Bolsheviks, out for a Sunday afternoon down the shops, might recognize me as one of their own. They would take me in and train me. Thin, fiery-eyed intellectuals with ruined smoky voices. But they never turned up. Instead, my youth was apprenticed in other ways, one of which involved extreme egg crafts.

Every Easter my mother brought out a Tupperware full of white plastic moulds in different egg sizes, patterned like the crazy paving favoured for driveways and patios in the suburbs. My job was to polish the insides of these moulds scrupulously, until the plastic became glossy. Then we melted bars of “cake cover” chocolate over a double boiler, and using a child’s paintbrush, we coated the inside of the moulds with chocolate and left them to dry. If my glossing had been sufficiently diligent, the brittle half shells would pop out of the moulds. If I’d missed a spot, the resulting chocolate rubble went back into the double-boiler for another go around. The mimics of eggs were lined up to undergo secondary transformations into other Easter characters. My mother’s pièce de résistance was a chocolate egg cradle complete with chocolate bunny baby. One half of the egg was placed on its rounded back and tucked, attached with a dab of melted chocolate, inside its upright other half, which was hoisted to form a canopy. A flat bunny, pressed out from another glossed plastic mould, was tucked inside the cradle, its bunny ears resting on a fondant pillow, its bunny body draped with a fondant blanket. The edges of everything were then piped with icing and trimmed with sugar flowers. There was also a 3-dimensional rabbit, with a body made from a large egg, topped with a head made from a small egg, balanced sideways. This gentleman was given a piped orange carrot, some spectacles and a pair of splayed chocolate feet. Other eggs were simply piped together, a name iced on the outside and a flat bunny trapped inside – another doomed “secret,” revealed only when its recipient smashed their gift.

These chocolate bunnies and eggs were always dried on a designated window ledge to harden them up, until one year the sun broke uncharacteristically through grey English skies and we woke to find twenty-five slumped and sagging egg-creatures, cradles akimbo and secret bunnies half protruding from egg bellies. I was in favour of distributing that batch - driving around and knocking on doors, smilingly handing over the grotesque, faintly phylogenic revelations as our meaning of Easter. I was over-ruled.

This year, however, another opportunity for egg wonders (and perhaps horrors) presented itself. My local Fair Foods market announced that they would, for two weeks only, be selling Emu eggs. The first week I fell afoul of stiff competition to secure one of the first 40 eggs. I was told I would have to wait for the emus to lay some more. I waited. And thought of those enormous top-heavy birds with their knock-kneed bare legs folded under them. The next week, I got to market early enough to have my pick of the crop. In a round wicker basket, lined with wispy white and brown feathers, lolled a clutch of huge and wondrous eggs. Glorious in two-tone stipple of aquamarine overlaid with teal, they were the shape of a rugby ball and the size of a newborn’s head. I selected my egg. The shell felt as reassuringly thick as a teapot. Wrapped in brown paper, I carried it home.

Apparently emu eggs have less water content than other eggs, making them a little fluffier when cooked, and one emu egg is equal to about 10 chicken eggs in volume. I decided that scrambling my egg would showcase its fluffiness and allow us to taste its idiosyncrasies. I also thought I should retain a little greenness to the breakfast, to memorialize the shell and Dr. Seuss too. So I baked a batch of rosemary olive oil bread, and procured some parsley. The size and strangeness of the breakfast demanded a guest and delightfully, one arrived in the form of a friend who had undergone a small medical unpleasantness and needed recuperation in our guest room. On waking, we greeted her tartan pajama-d self with a real rise-and-shine plan: drilling two holes in an emu egg, blowing out its viscous contents, and then eating them! Post-operatively delicate though she may have been, our guest was game.

B fetched a hammer and a small brass nail. Balancing the egg in a drinking glass, I tapped a hole in both of its ends, and then B began. Blowing out an emu egg requires two hands, and two full cheeks of air. B looked like the north wind, and blew so hard her eyeballs hurt. We passed the task back and forth, partly because it was such hard work, and partly because watching the results was so disgusting and so compelling. The viscous drip from the egg’s other end soon became a gelatinous torrent that delighted and appalled the audience. Whenever the blower stopped to take a breath, a bubble or two would emerge at the blowing end and respirate slightly. We three looked on asquint. Eggs, we were forcibly reminded, are strange. They hint at prehistoric monstrosities and futuristic invasions. They bulge with vile potential and tell again exactly how brutal our eating habits are.

Although foundational to much cooking as an agent of rise and an efficient protein, an egg is also an implausible gustatory proposal, hated by many. It is too premature, too mucosal. A friend of mine was once forced by her primary school teacher, who hated her Gujarati vegetarianism, to stand in front of the entire class and choke down an egg. An egg is well cast as an instrument of such hateful regime-formation. Those of us who overlook or relish the grisly aspects of our animal-product diets speak of how “I like my egg.” We are particular about eggs and hold on to how those particularities define us. Perhaps this is because, in England and the U.S., we encounter eggs in the morning, when we have a chance to reinvent ourselves – but most mornings this is a chance we dismiss. The nameless, bewhiskered Everyman of Green Eggs and Ham, when invited by Sam I Am to taste a new egg dish, doesn’t welcome it. Indeed, he resists most strenuously and across many miles of uncomfortable travel before exhaustedly altering his tastes.

Perhaps that pestered, droopy-eared creature in his battered top hat is an Englishman. I say this because, in my land, we are made uncomfortable by joyous Sam I Am-ish expressions of choice and liberty such as “Sunny Side Up!” or “Over Easy!” When I first moved to the U.S., I listened, amazed, to these happily, openly coded exchanges in diners. The customer announced himself to the waitress, who then relayed his identity without judgment to the line cook: “Over Easy!” In England, we have opinions about eggs. Englishmen look askew if you peel, rather than slice open your boiled egg . . . or vice versa. There are camps, not choices. Nevertheless, there are delightful variations, once you’ve gotten through the shell. I had a fastidious uncle (a dyed-in-the-wool egg peeler) who introduced my brother and me to a magical supper called Egg in a Cup. Easily prepared by little fingers, Egg in a Cup consists of filling a large and amiable mug with torn up pieces of bread, small knobs of butter, a splash of milk, salt and pepper and the scooped out contents of a soft boiled egg. The elements are less important than the joy of the jumbled form, and the pleasure of the meal having a handle.

Eggs must be treated gently. I very lightly whisked my emu egg, incorporating its pale yolk with its water-clear “white, ” salted and peppered it, and then splashed in a little Jersey milk. In my largest sauté pan, I melted some butter over not much heat and then poured in my voluminous, single egg. All proteins benefit from slow cooking. So I cooked the egg lazily, allowing large curds to form without any agitation, occupying myself instead by slicing up the herb-flecked bread and toasting it.
Towards the end of the cooking, the curds broke up into smaller scrambles, and it felt like stirring porridge. Once plated and tasted, we all agreed that there was something gluey about it – which B spurned outright, but our invalided guest and I found compelling. I had expected a strong and savoury flavour, like a duck egg, but this egg was mild and determinedly creamy. It had a lounging, debauched quality and was so rich that it could have served 20. It seemed like the kind of thing to be fed to the survivors of an all-night party – mangled by drink and dancing and compromising situations, we awaken – a bleary Lumpenpolitik – to the grand nourishment of one green egg, sans ham. Put together again by a shared breakfast: no need for king’s horses nor king’s men.

Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degr és te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit d’un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes

Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames
Discovered, edited and annotated by Luis d’Antin Van Rooten

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Port Meadow is a large and ancient grazing ground in Oxfordshire. It is a floodmeadow, flanked by a thin, brambled-over stretch of the Thames, and no matter the season it is hung with a sense of the sodden. Mud and mists linger above, but there is also the feeling, as you make your way across the soft – ominously soft – ground, of something congressional below. Obscure half-paths emerge from out of the turf, criss-cross briefly, then disappear. The enameled colours of the narrow boats that sidle up against the abrupt riverbanks are the only real brightness anywhere. Cows, sometimes ponies, happen alongside you – sudden companions, made of meat and vapour.

“Freemen” and “Commoners of Wolvercote” have grazing rights on this wide, flat ground that has never once been ploughed, and it is a place where peripatetics become dwellers, and the more conventionally lodged – briskly out for walks in their green wellies - are the transients. One November day on the meadow I stumbled across a small and straggly television crew interviewing a group of Travellers. The water-proofed interviewer asked his wrap-up question: “So what’s the one thing most necessary in life?” Clearly bored by this quest for three seconds of nomadic wisdom, no one answered. Then a young freeman, a dreadlocked girl, leaned close in to the microphone and said, flat as a penny, “Cake.”

I have long been of the same opinion. An early and famous tantrum of mine was thrown over being removed from a café, and thus from the chance of cake, when the price list arrived at the small formica table. I am proud to report that my rage was so shattering, my aunt and uncle pledged then and there to remain childless for life. Since then, nothing much has changed. I happily rearrange my life, and the lives of others, around the pursuit of good cake and if I sniff such a cake on the wind, I am not to be deterred until I am sat down before it, fork in hand. But recently I realized – like the returning memory of a strange and portentous dream, hours later when the day is at its most raw and real – that I have been subduing a long dark craving for a particular kind of cake – a cake I rarely see anymore, a cake that lay submerged beneath my pursuit of other cakeish delights - fruitcake. As the winter months started closing in, I was gripped by the stubborn clutching upward of this old and betrayed taste. It had been, I calculated, seven years since I had made or tasted fruitcake. A week made of years. The need for fruitcake lay in me like a fallen clock weight.

A good fruitcake is made well ahead of itself. In my childhood, our Christmas fruitcakes were made by my Nana in Birmingham and fetched home to be iced by my mother in London. Nana made the cakes because no-one could make them like her. In her kitchen, pounds and ounces meant nothing – her cakes were made from handfuls. I called her recently – she has been eighty-three for at least ten years – hoping to reconstruct the gist of the recipe with her. But like the Travellers on the meadow, Nana was uninterested in passing along her knowledge. She denied that she had any knowledge. There was no recipe to be passed down, just a reminder, made in a thin voice over a crackling international phone call straddling time zones, to use brown sugar.

When Nana made the cakes, she made them a month in advance of Christmas and we drove up to get ours. We always seemed to make the drive at night. Sunk deep into the back seat of the car, I stared up and out of the window to catch the first sight of the illuminated city, promising myself that one day I would live in a high-rise and also be a bright window of light in a night sky. Once at Nana’s, my brother and I were layered into bunk beds. Leaning out a little, I could twitch the nylon lace curtain aside and watch the traffic go by. Double-decker buses satisfied me best. The towerblocks we’d driven past glowed with intimations of varied and sovereign lives. Now those lives roared past my brother and me, the buses glowing, their two decks packed with many faces alive with possibility. Later next day, we got ready to leave and make the drive back down in dreary daylight. I was told to retrieve a cake from where they were stashed under the sideboard, each one housed in a dented biscuit tin – the kind that had once held Christmas biscuit assortments. I pried open the lids to find the ones with cake - there was always one full of old keys.

Our cake came with us down south. We packed it into the car and waved our goodbyes. But that cake was headed south in more ways than one. It was bound for doom and damnation – in the form of Drink. My grandparents’ household was strictly teetotal. I was always told that Poppa’s years of war service on the submarines had shown him the evils of the bottle , and no-one was allowed to bring drink into his house. Herein lay a problem. A fruitcake is the most immortal of cakes, as weighty and mindful as a cheese. But its longevity must be procured through intoxicants. Sherry or rum, brandy or whisky: a fruitcake needs its tipple. So the removal of the cake from Nana’s to our kitchen was a smuggler’s run, and Poppa, who observed the handover in silence, must have known it.

Home again, I watched as the cake was unwrapped from its double-jacket of greaseproof paper and foil, revealing its pocked, seductive surface. The common practice, at this stage of things, is to stab the top of the cake with a skewer, or maybe a knitting needle, and then drizzle your liquor of choice over the holes, allowing it to sink in. Feeding the cake once a week or so renders it succulent and vivacious come Christmas. My mother, however, felt that this was doing things half-mast. Although there was many a knitting needle in our house – including a strange set of metal ones, sharpened to a renovated point by my teetotaler grandfather – my mother eschewed craft for science. She had a nurse friend, who wore starched white and navy uniforms, cinched with an affecting belt. This friend crept on regulation soles down a gleaming, squeaky corridor to a stock cupboard and acquired my mother a large hypodermic needle. Each week we undressed the cake and my mother drew a length of amber-coloured sherry into the syringe, then repeatedly pierced and incrementally released the liquid into the body of the cake, a drop welling up at the site of each puncture. I watched, entranced. Injections are particularly pertinent to the young, because they are such a definite encounter with state-sanctioned pain. They work in a phantasmal future, protecting you from diseases that others got before you, but from which your generation will be saved if you just – and you must! – surrender to the needle. And the fruitcake yielded, too, or perhaps it yielded on my behalf – accepting the slow slide of the long needle without sting, without complaint.

My family recipe, then, is for a brown sugar cake that betrays temperance and accuracies of inventory, and that gains its long life (as many of us do) with a little help from the medical profession. My first task, clearly, was to get hold of a large bottle of brandy. My second was to procure a hypodermic needle. And my third was to find a recipe with actual, measurable ingredients. The brandy and the recipe were easy – a well stocked drinks cabinet provided one and Nigel Slater stood gamely in for grandma, providing the other.

The second of my tasks stumped me for a while. I solicited a medical friend – a doctor. He cheerily agreed, but it turns out that doctors aren’t allowed in stockrooms, and after two abortive attempts to duck into one, he said my chances were slim. Nevertheless a few days later he was successful; a nurse sympathetic to the cause had been enlisted, I was now the owner of a sizeable syringe and a selection of sterile-packed needles – “We’re not trained what gauge to use for fruitcake,” he explained.

Furnished with contraband, I was ready to summon ingredients. A fruitcake must possess the gallantry of crumb, not be simply frenzied with fruit. And the fruits themselves – they should not be painted into living-dead charades of summer colour. They must be dark, they must not deny that they are aged, they must carry with them the signs of their survival. It seems to me that a fruitcake is indeed an audacious creature, but its audacity is a consequence of sly hoardings, dubious exchanges and shameless incongruities. A fruitcake is a brazen and aging hussy, tossing its head at strictures of season and locale, demanding indulgence, flaunting acquisition. It is an American southerner who tells it best; Truman Capote, who knew something about fruitcake, delivers a tale of the making of Christmas cakes that pairs an abandoned child and a simple, elderly cousin, raking ingredients out of the leaves of poverty and disavowal. The cakes are soaked in moonshine, bundled into a baby carriage and mailed to a president.

A fruitcake mixes fruits of the vine with those of the tree and the bush, all stolen from their own time, delayed into another. These fruits are picked at their peak of ripeness only to be dried, wizened for futurity, then revived again, swelled by alcohol itself aged and stored and fermented. A fruitcake violates generation and seasons and then revels in its own untimeliness – prepared in advance, preserved and often eaten long after the festival it marks. An aunt of mine was once at a wake where fruitcake was served. A nippy plate circulator observed my aunt's pleasure as she took the first bite and commented, “Good cake isn’t it? Corpse baked it herself.”

Cake thou art, and unto cake shalt thou return. Fruitcake is dyed with tannins, and it ingests its own avarice, starting to recall the blackest, earliest kinds of wealth, returning the cake to the sod that grew it. I therefore filled mine with the darker fruits - figs and prunes – fruits that saturate and irritate, and with the woodier, less prancing nuts – hazelnuts and walnuts. And my sugar was the most treacle brown I could find. I injected the cake over several weeks, and then I pressed the heavy blade of my largest knife to its firm crust and cut it like peat, its wet, half-ancient geology finally exposed.

Slightly adapted from Nigel Slater
This is a large cake, enough to feed 16.

350g unsalted butter
175g light muscovado sugar
175g dark muscovado sugar
1kg total weight of dried fruits - prunes, figs, candied peel, and dried rather than glace cherries if you can find them. I used an equal mix of Bing and Ranier dried cherries – delicious.
5 large free-range eggs
100g ground almonds
150g shelled hazelnuts
500g total weight vine fruits - raisins, sultanas, currants,
5 tbsps brandy
zest of 1 lemon
zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 tsp baking powder
350g plain flour

You will also need a 24-25cm cake tin with a removable base, fully lined with a double layer of lightly buttered greaseproof paper or nonstick baking paper, which should come at least 5cm above the top of the tin. If you skip this bit, the edges of the cake will burn.

Set the oven to 160 C/gas mark 3. Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spatula.

While the butter and sugars are beating to a light and fluffy texture, cut the dried fruits into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time - it will curdle but don't worry - then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, all the dried fruit, the brandy, the citrus zest and juice.

Now mix the baking powder and flour together and fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the top gently, and put it in the oven. Leave it for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn down the heat to 150 C/gas mark 2 and continue cooking for 2 hours.

Check to see whether the cake is done by inserting a skewer into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave it to cool before removing it from the tin.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bitter Orange

Weddings – pallid, repetitious – happen beneath the orange blossom, but bitter births, the ballads tell us, happen beneath the thorn. Bitter births, no two the same, stubborn shovings into the world, the sharp, bright reminders of forced or lost or hopeless love. We have a tree in our small, bricked garden, a tree of just such beginnings. Out of place, wrong, transplanted – it spites the odds, withstanding the wrong climate with a sort of belligerence. It is a gnomish orange tree, and it has blossom, thorn and fruit. The trunk is tripartite; it grows into and out of itself again, three separate trunks fused ominously together. And the leaves are three-part too. Poncirus trifoliata: a three-leaved citrus. The ghostly and scentless blossoms drift across the tree not once but twice a year, mistakenly, a way of coping with alien seasons. They come first in early spring, against the black mesh of thorny branches, then again in late spring, against a bright and poison green. The thorns are two inches long and dagger–sharp. And the fruit that comes – sometimes later, sometimes intermingled with its flower – is hard, round, sure and vehemently orange. But for all their hardness the oranges are covered in a light down – “pubescent,” say the botanists – and it’s true that they crowd the tree with a kind of adolescent feeling; social, often mottled, precipitate. The rush to fruit clutters the tree with eager masses and desperate outliers, and when they fall they rain down hard, careless of where they roll.

Most trees grow around us without benefit of narrative, but the strangeness of this tree has preserved the story of its origin. We bought our moody slice of house from a young French teacher named Michael, who had lived in the house for three years before he fell in love with a Montreal patriot who refused to come south, and demanded that Michael emigrate. With a certain urgency, Michael told us about the woman from whom he had bought - Miss Polly, who had been born in the house and lived there 90 years until she upped sticks to move in with the daughter-in-law widowed by her son. There were three things of Miss Polly’s that he was leaving with us, Michael said. The first two he had found in the attic crawlspace. A splintering frame containing a porous, elderly print of St. Anthony, the saint of lost things and lost causes. And another frame holding Miss Polly’s 1943 beauty school certificate. This diploma attests to Miss Polly’s training in “Scalp and Hair Treatment, and Beauty Culture.” Mary Pressley Norman, it declares in cursive, “is a competent operator in Marcel Waving, Water Waving, Finger Waving, Round Curling, Hair Dressing, Hand Moulding, Electrical Appliances, Sanitation and Sterilization, Anatomy and Skin Bleaching.” Miss Polly, Michael told us, didn’t care about the two framed guarantees. We could do with them as we wished. But the third thing – the third thing we must protect.

The third thing was the tree. No-one, she asked, should ever take an axe to her orange tree. From years of discipline, of Marcel and Water Waving, of Hand Moulding and Skin Bleaching, she had saved money for a trip to Jamaica. When she returned, she smuggled back in her hand luggage three small, green, thorny sproutings from her paradise. Somehow they reached toward the distant, cold Philadelphia sun, melded and survived. Old houses bear the marks of their travails. Our house is made of little rooms and passages that break the simple rectangle up into interlocking spaces, scarred from old leaks, the cracked paint of previous lives heaving beneath the clean new coats. Dark, textured by old paper, plaster, dented woodwork, bead and board and porcelain; our house has a whiff of the sinister. We hung Miss Polly’s certificate in the living room, its papery gold foil seal glinting in the dim light. In the dining room, St. Anthony clutches his heavy lilies and bends over the child Jesus. Their gloomy, glimmering halos blend together. And in the garden the tree lifts its crown of thorns, bright with oranges.

We have now lived alongside this tree for three years. Two Octobers came and went, twice the oranges hurled themselves like suicidal teenage lovers from their thorny branches. Twice I swept them in their hundreds under the garden door, where they were squashed by passing garbage trucks, or were batted down the alleyway by that year’s generation of lean and hungry feral kittens. Like the kittens, I am a scavenger. I fill my pockets with unidentifiable nuts found on walks, and have been known to steal the decorative kale out from under party platters, smuggle it home and feast upon it steamed,sautéed and stewed. But for two years these oranges in all their abundance failed to tempt me. I’d found some hints here and there that you could make marmalade out of them, but . . . you can make marmalade out of old boots if you smother them in sugar and boil til dead. Dry and hard, Miss Polly’s oranges were the bright emblem of her dedication to the sinewy goals of survival and beauty. There was none of the yielding effulgence, the lazy, juicy fulsomeness necessary for culinary pleasure.

But this year we enjoyed a long summer. The warm days stretched on and on. We went away for a month and, unobserved, the tree let down its guard. The oranges swelled beyond their usual clench, they ripened smooth and bright and taut with juice. When I stepped on one, it tore and its spill of seed and sap released a fresh, floral scent reminiscent of passion fruit. The tree was still in charge – in this year of lusciousness, it was commanding me to cook its crop.

It is the pucker of marmalade of which I am fond – there’s no point in marmalade slumped into sweetness. Marmalade is a sophisticated vice – half-kiss, half-bite. It grips the palate and pleases through severity. Which is why, of course, the English like it. It preserves the scold of the school dormitory on the breakfast plate of the civil servant. It encodes our sourness, our love of critique, our brutality, into a jar of brilliant orange. A friend of mine, a fellow-émigré, wears mostly marmalade-orange – her hair too – and I love her for it. She has plucked the English thorn from beneath the skin and learned to play with its point. For me, the thorn may be too deep. But a good marmalade reminds me that I owe a great deal to this bitterness that is both a taste and a feeling; it is a part of who I am. And making marmalade, boiling bitters, watching the bright brew quicken and shiver, watching for the setting point -- is an exercise in control and violence, in finding just that balance where the sharp limit of what is pleasing dissolves, stinging, upon the tongue.

It’s hard to explain Englishness here, in a country where a blind and saccharine Anglophilia makes idols of our worst selves. There will always be cruelties we cannot curb, so we suspend pith and peel, the orange’s protective shell, in the pressings of its own lost juices – reconvening the bitter and the sweet before we swallow it whole. Marmalade belongs to the slap of morning. Jam we use for comfort, at teatime, but marmalade hardly ever. Marmalade, along with coffee, breaks our fast through bitterness. Is this an exorcism of the night’s terrors? A hope to have faced the worst before the day begins? Or is it a philosophical affection for astringency? Astringents reassure us that we are feeling beings, let us feel the wound, but are styptic too – contracting our tissues, staunching loss.

The juice I wrung from Miss Polly’s oranges was a strange fluid. Tinged phosphor green and viscous, its scent was more flower than fruit. A waxy, lunar residue clung to my knife. I tasted a tiny sliver of rind, and even my hard-learned lessons in the benefit of bitterness failed me: it was pure wormwood and gall. Seville oranges, the traditional marmalade fruit, are prized for the particular bite of their rind, but these . . . my tongue recoiled and clove to the roof of my mouth. My source recommended repeatedly blanching the hemispheric rinds in boiling water. This, I was informed, would leach out the bitterness until its levels became tolerable. So I scalded the rinds over and over, discarding the water each time, and nibbling pieces to calibrate my progress. The bitterness, however, never even faded. It scorched my tongue and shook its fist at my efforts to quell it. Even when I became retaliatory, shredding it before submerging in the boiling water, it refused to give up its repellent powers. I’d laboured now for hours and my fingers itched to toss those iridescent shreds into my pan of hard won juice, but I knew that if I reintroduced that peel to the fragrant liquid, its charms would wither.

So I banished the peel and turned my marmalade into a jelly. It is delicious and strange, its flavour somewhat haunted – by both the tree’s sweet blossoms and the oranges' bitter rind. And its form, too, has something uncanny about it. Glassy, vapourish and possessed of a bewitching hint of the thorn.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

I do not guess his name
Who wrought my Mother's shame,
And gave me life forlorn,
But my Mother, Mother, Mother,
I know her from all other.
My Mother pale and mild,
Fair as ever was seen,
She was but scarce sixteen,
Little more than a child,
When I was born
To work her scorn.
With secret bitter throes,
In a passion of secret woes,
She bore me under the rose.

-- Christina Rossetti

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