A Tin of Biscuits: Petit Beurres in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929)

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England has been swept by a real heat wave in the last couple of weeks; today, it seems like autumn is finally settling in – the sky has taken grey tinges, the trees are putting up their best colours, and one feels the need of putting an extra layer of clothes on, and using the oven. Today’s recipe comes from France, but is somehow linked to an Irish novel and an Irish author who has recently re-gained her popularity after a period of neglection: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).

Over the summer, I (Nico) have been re-thinking my Irish culinary experiences as one of my students asked for my advice on how to best render ‘Kimberley biscuits’ mentioned in an Irish short story for an Italian audience. We soon started discussing the context where the reference to the biscuits was to be found. Were those biscuits essential to the story? In other words, would a non-Irish audience need to realize what kind of biscuits they are, or they could be effectively any kind of biscuits and the story would work anyway? When it comes to food and translating literature, I am always somehow reticent to let the reference go in the target text; especially as, after a quick Google search, it turns out that Kimberley biscuits are a typically Irish biscuit, produced by Jacob’s, comprising two variants, one with two gingery layers enclosing a marshmallow centre and a chocolate-covered one. I was surprised to hear that, as having lived in Ireland (and being a huge biscuit lover – I may say no to chocolate cake but I would never say no to a good biscuit) I had never come across those before, and so I have never tried them. Inevitably, we decided that the reference to those biscuits had to stay, as it appeared to pertain specifically to Irish culture and cooking.

Going back nearly a hundred years, I was intrigued to find a reference to French biscuits in Bowen’s The Last September (1929). As if using a magnifying lens, the novel looks in detail at the decline of a “big house” in early 1920s South of Ireland, something which Bowen would have known herself as she belonged to an upper-class Anglo-Irish family from co. Cork: the idiosyncrasies of the English visiting Ireland for the Irish themselves; the uncertain times before Irish independence; the social pretences and snobberies of the Irish upper class; finally, the story of Lois, a young Irish woman coming of age and making (or, in fact, letting other make) important decisions regarding her future and her love life. Lois, half-engaged with Gerald, a union which is strongly opposed by her family, ultimately turns him down under her aunt’s pressure, with surprisingly (at least, for me) little resentment. The expectation of her family is that she should educate herself, rather than marry so early (and someone of an inferior social class), go to an art school, and learn foreign languages. She is all affectation and confusion: Gerald, throughout the novel, is unable to really understand her feelings for him, something which often stirs Lois’ irritation.

Towards the end of the novel, just before we learn of Gerald’s death, two lady friends of his pay a visit to Lois and her family after their “break-up”. Lois seems not to want to engage with these ladies, and so finds excuses not to let them into the house. Ultimately, though, so as not to result too inhospitable, she goes in and fetches a tin of biscuits:

 

‘It’s locked and I’ve lost the key. I feel quite an outcast. That’s what has been the matter the whole morning. Do have something to eat – have some biscuits?’

‘Unless we just come into the drawing-room for one moment?’

‘I always think drawing-rooms in the morning are so depressing.’

Denise said she did not see how the same room could be much different, but it was no good; Lois seemed determined to keep them out. From the way she shifted her feet and stared round, you would have said she was expecting bad news momentarily: she talked so much that they hadn’t a chance to express themselves. She went in for a tin of petit beurres and offered it with an odd air, rather propitiatory. Lady Naylor called from an upstairs window that this was too bad, that she was so much distressed, she would be down immediately. ‘She spends whole mornings with the cook,’ said Lois. ‘I cannot think what they do. I believe they fence verbally. More biscuits?’

‘No, we shall spoil our din-dins. Denise, we must come. […] Any messages in Clonmore, Lois? Any message to Gerald?’  (p. 197)

 

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For some reason, I find this scene rather odd: the two ladies visiting unexpectedly (a very bad manner typical of the English in Ireland, apparently), Lois refusing to even let them into the drawing room as it is too “depressing”, the general sense of the end of summer (they are not sure when they’ll play tennis anymore, and English tourists and visitors are returning to England), and the tin of biscuits – which have to be petit beurres – and not butter biscuits or shortbread. Petit beurres are French butter biscuits still produced today and with a long baking history, as they were first produced by Jean-Romain Lefèvre and his wife Pauline-Isabelle Utile in their patisserie called “biscuit factory” (“La fabrique de biscuits”) in Nantes in 1846, which would later become the famous French industry LU (from the two initials of their surnames). The biscuits were supposed to represent, with their rectangular yet curvy shape, the 4 seasons (with their 4 sides), the 52 weeks of the year (with their 52 dents), and the 24 hours in a day (with their 24 holes). The petit beurres then gained steady popularity by the end of the nineteenth century and are still very popular today. In 1897, famous actress of the time Sarah Bernhardt is said to have declared: “What is better than one Petit Beurre LU? Two Petit Beurres LU”. These words sounded already almost as a modern advertisement for the biscuits, and somehow testify their incredible popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, up to today. Their appearance in the Irish big house of the Naylors should perhaps be no wonder, as French biscuits would have been considered as the heights of sophistication (unlike current Kimberley biscuits today perhaps). The big house may be in decline in its failed hospitality and reception of guests, but the standard of the biscuits provided is far from crumbling.

 

Reference

Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. London: Vintage Books, 2008.

‘LU: la grande histoire du petit beurre’, Le Parisien http://www.leparisien.fr/economie/business/en-images-lu-la-grande-histoire-du-petit-beurre-22-02-2016-5566485.php .

 

Recipe

 

Ingredients

80gr unsalted butter

200gr plain, white flour (or a mixture of plain and strong white flour)

80gr white sugar

2gr baking powder

50ml whole milk

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Directions

  1. Place the butter, milk, and sugar in a saucepan and melt slowly on a low heat stirring with a wooden spoon until all melted and smooth.
  2. Let the melted butter, milk, and sugar cool.
  3. Sieve flour and baking powder in a bowl, and add the melted batter to the dry ingredients. Stir until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
  4. Take the dough out of your bowl and place on a surface dusted with flour. Knead quickly and shape into a ball.
  5. Cover your dough with cling film and place it in the fridge to set for at least four hours. Because the dough is (as you’ll see) is rather soft, it needs some time to set in the fridge.
  6. Take the dough out of the fridge, knead and lay out on a dusted surface and roll it out so that it is roughly 3-4 millimetres high. Ideally, you would have a typical petit beurre rectangular cutter to cut your biscuits with, but any other shape is also fine. (I didn’t have that either, so I went for an oval-shaped cutter)
  7. Move your cut-out dough onto a baking tray previously lined with paper and put them again back in the fridge – this time for one hour only.
  8. The biscuits are now ready to go in the oven, at 160°C for 12 minutes (or fan 140°C for 6-8 minutes). Be careful they don’t get too brown on the outside – only the borders should become golden.
  9. Once baked, let the biscuits cool down and they are ready to eat! You can keep them in a tin for up to 5 days.

Michael Longley: Lost For Words

As our Northern Irish readers will know, stoically eating ice cream in the drizzle is something of a local tradition. If drizzle is not available, then usually a heavy downpour means that ice cream can be consumed in the car. I am privileged that my parents now live within 10 minutes’ drive of a fabled ice cream shop – The Cabin in Donaghadee. It’s a wonderful place to go for a poke (Norn Irish for an ice cream cone) and you should visit it if you’re in the area.

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Whilst being true to my roots by eating ice cream in a car at North Tyneside, England, the convergence of thoughts led me to think of Michael Longley’s great elegy, ‘The Ice Cream Man’, published in 1992 and set in Belfast. I recommend that you look this poem up online to experience the beauty and simplicity which is the hallmark of Longley’s poetry.

Perhaps it would be better not to call this poem a great elegy, but rather a great apology for an elegy. Longley begins by offering the reader a list of ice cream flavours which, as Naomi Marklew has pointed out, are inspired by traditional Christmas ingredients. This compounds the feeling that – as Marklew tells us – we are reading of an ‘idealised past’. We are reminded of childhood flavours and idyllic Christmas mornings unwrapping presents by an open fire.  

The poem has other connotations too. Surely the title alludes to Wallace Stevens’ better known elegy: ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’. The repetition of the title phrase in Stevens’s masterpiece conveys an overriding sense that nothing is stable or certain: everything melts like ice cream on a hot day. The echo of Stevens at the beginning of Longley’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ should prepare the reader (although in my case, it does not) for the contrast between the gentle lilt of Longley’s list of flavours and the stark statement that the ice cream seller has been murdered during the Northern Irish Troubles. In response to this, the speaker cannot find the words either to communicate the information about the event, nor to assuage the grief of those who lost a friend and family member. In place of an elegy, then, the speaker gives his readers a list of healing herbs and plants which echo in the silence of the uncompromising white space surrounding the poem.

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The debate surrounding this poem is whether or not the list of plants is sufficient to signal the regeneration and hope which is a traditional ingredient of the conclusion of an elegy. Is Longley admitting the failure of words to provide comfort? Or does he remake the elegiac genre to fit the demands of a new conflict and communicate hope in new beginnings? I would like to think the latter. 

There is no recipe today because I haven’t been successful in remaking an ice cream cone at home! I don’t think anything would taste the same as an ice cream bought from  a van.

References

Naomi Marklew, Northern Irish Elegy, PhD Thesis (University of Durham, 2011), p. 71.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape, 1992).

 

Yogurt’s Ancestor: Mezzorado, or Soured Milk in Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (1963)

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Kislo mleko on Šmarna gora

As I (Nico) was hiking in the mountains of beautiful Slovenia this summer, I came across one interesting dish: soured milk, or kislo mleko as they call it on the sunny side of the Alps. Made with one main simple ingredient (milk), it is nevertheless complex to make as it can easily go wrong – on one occasion, a farmer had to regretfully deny us soured milk, since that morning it just did not come out right.

Earlier this year, I re-read Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings in English) in preparation for a class. In this fascinating depiction of a Jewish-Italian family during the interwar and World War II periods, Natalia Ginzburg invites us to experience the everyday life of her family members, the Levis. Reading it now, I could not help spotting the various foods that are mentioned throughout the novel. A middle-class family, the Levis even in their liveliest and wealthiest moments always eat what we would find today as incredibly simple food: a clear soup (made with Liebig beef stock), an omelette, and of course soured milk or, as she calls it, mezzorado.

‘My father always got up at four in the morning. His first thought on waking was to go and see if the mezzorado had turned out well. Mezzorado was a kind of sour milk which he had learned how to make from some shepherds in Sardinia. It was in fact just yoghurt. In those days yoghurt was not yet the fashion. It was not sold as it is nowadays, in dairies and bars. In eating yoghurt, as in many other things, my father was a pioneer.’ (p. 31)

Mezzorado is, in Natalia Ginzburg’s memory, closely associated with her father. Giuseppe Levi, an Italian Jew, a professor of Human Anatomy at the University of Sassari, then Palermo, and finally of Turin, was obsessed with two things: mountains and soured milk. As Ginzburg describes it in the novel, he was truly a pioneer of yogurt as we know it today: often in the morning, with oats and dried fruits. Ginzburg remembers the difficulty of making the mezzorado through genuine descriptions of the interactions between Professor Levi and his wife, Natalia Ginzburg’s parents:

‘[…] the mezzorado was never as it should be, and always seemed to be to watery or too thick.

“Lydia! The mezzorado has not set,” my father bellowed down the passage. The mezzorado was in the kitchen, inside a soup-tureen, covered by a plate, and wrapped in a salmon-pink shawl that had belonged at one time to my mother. Sometimes in fact there was only a greenish watery mess with some lumps of marbly white stuff which had to be thrown away. The mezzorado was very tricky, and the smallest thing was enough to spoil it. It was enough if the shawl was a bit out of position and allowed a little air to seep in. “It has not set again today. It is all your Natalina’s fault,” my father bellowed from the passage to my mother who was still half-asleep, and answered rather incoherently from her bed. When we went away for our holiday, we had to remember to take with us the “mother” of the mezzorado which was a small cupful, wrapped in paper and tied with string.

“Where is the mother? Have you brought the mother?” my father would ask on the train, rummaging in the rucksack. “It’s not here, it’s not here,” he would cry, and sometimes it had actually been forgotten, and it was necessary to start again from scratch, with beer yeast.

My father had a cold shower in the morning. Under the lash of the water he let out a shout like a long roar, then he dressed and swallowed large cupfuls of freezing cold mezzorado with several spoonfuls of sugar.’

Natalia Ginzburg often records this type of exchanges between her family members in a way which is peculiar to her style of writing: she is a silent listener, reporting everything, yet hardly ever making judgements about her family; she is simply recreating a lost scene of former family warmth and affection. In the idiosyncrasies of Ginzburg’s family, we sense the daughter’s unconditional affection for her family: even the simplest dishes and the barest dialogues retain a deeper significance within the framework of her family world.

The mezzorado, as the author’s father correctly remarks, cannot be made without the “mother”: a bit like sour dough bread cannot be made without a starter (in Italian “madre”, mother), similarly milk should be soured with a starter (I have used yogurt, but you could use yeast, or leftover mezzorado). The mezzorado’s starter thus becomes almost a living component of the Levi family, with its “mother” status; it contains a bit of all the previous mezzorados and so we could extend the metaphor further, also containing a bit of all the members of this incredible family. After all, Professor Levi learnt this yogurt-making techinque in Sardinia, and brought it with him to Sicily and then Turin. Ginzburg’s family resembles mezzorado, where each and every one of its members become active parts of this unifying, yet lumpy texture that is soured milk.

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500 ml full fat (whole) milk
  • 125 ml full fat yogurt

Directions

  1. If milk is cold, you will need to warm it up in a saucepan for a couple of minutes and then let it cool down so that it reaches room temperature (or slightly above room temperature).
  2. Place yogurt in a large bowl and mix with half of the lukewarm milk. Then add the rest of the milk and keep stirring until it looks quite smooth.
  3. Wrap bowl with a towel (it is hot in Italy now – you’ll need a woollen shawl in the UK, or in the winter) so that bowl surface is completely covered.
  4. Leave to rest for 12 hours at least, then uncover and you should have your primordial yogurt, your soured milk or Ginzburg’s mezzorado!
  5. Keep a bit of mezzorado and put it aside to start mezzorado without using fresh yogurt. We are sure you’ll love it and want to make it over and over again!

References

Natalia Ginzburg. Family Sayings. Trans. D. M. Low. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989.

Updating Miss Havisham

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Summer is the time when my (Amy’s) social media feeds fill up with pictures of weddings and everyone seems to be talking about the bride & groom’s choice of venue, colours, food, music… This summer the theme seems to be DIY weddings involving hand-crafted invitations, favours, decorations and – of course – cakes. I can now write that I have made my first cake for a wedding celebration, and that there are only a few crumbs of it left. Fortunately, this particular celebration was much happier than the aborted wedding I am writing about today: that is, Miss Havisham’s unsuccessful engagement to Mr Compeyson in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

As a beautifully decorated cake is at the centre of any wedding feast, it is to this that Dickens immediately draws the reader’s attention when they enter the gothic decay of Miss Havisham’s banqueting-chamber.

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.

[…]

“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again point with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

As Great Expectations progresses, the “rotted bride-cake” comes to represent Miss Havisham’s rotted, ruined heart. Although inanimate, the cake is brought into a dreadful, fungoid life, whilst its owner, although still alive, approaches the condition of a corpse. The hint of Dickensian humour (‘greatest public importance’) does little to alleviate the horror Pip describes as he witnesses this ghoulish object. Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is a travesty of the many other cakes which we find at the centre of Dickensian festivities (such as the Twelfth cake in A Christmas Carol), whilst the jilted bride is a tortured echo of the happy couples at the conclusions of David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House (to name just a few).

In a blog post on cakes in fiction, the Guardian’s John Dugdale takes the symbolism of the “rotted bride-cake” one step further: “the way Dickens dwells on the grotesque details of decay implies that it depicts more than just Havisham herself, conceivably encompassing a Victorian Britain paralysed and made rotten by its sexual taboos”.  To these taboos can be added the rusted machinery of the social hierarchy Miss Havisham is trapped within. It is the same social, patriarchal structure which condemns Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock to face a similar fate of death-in-life.

I’m sure many parallels can be made between Dickens’s England and our current post-referendum UK – but I’ve had enough of politics in the last week to clearly formulate or articulate such links. Instead, I want to celebrate the many marriages of my friends which have taken or are going to take place in 2016. And for that reason, the recipe below is for decorating an updated, modern wedding-cake which will replace any memories of Miss Havisham’s decaying feast. Marriage, of course, is Dickens’s ultimate symbol for the resolution of social tensions, the eradication of past mistakes, and a positive outlook on the future.

References

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

John Dugdale, ‘Books best bakes: cakes in fiction from Dickens to George RR Martin’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/oct/08/baking-in-books-cakes-in-literature

 

Recipe

Below I am only going to give instructions for icing a 20cm diameter wedding cake. This is an extremely easy method and does not require any specialist equipment beyond a few cutters. If you want to see a recipe for the fruitcake itself, visit this blogpost.

Ingredients
500g marzipan
2 tbsp apricot jam
800g shop-bought fondant icing
A range of food colourings, preferably gel rather than liquid
Icing sugar for dusting
 
Method
1.       Turn the fruitcake upside down to give a flat surface for icing. I prefer to ice in-situ – so I put my cake on the cake stand.
2.       Heat the apricot jam in a pan with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to brush onto the outside of the cake – this is the glue that will hold on the marzipan.
3.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead the marzipan to soften, then roll it out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the marzipan round your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Press the marzipan into place, using a knife to smooth any ripples, and cut to size. (Eat the spare marzipan😉 .)
4.       If possible, leave the cake to sit for a day so that the jam has cooled and the marzipan dried out.
5.       Lightly moisten the surface of the marzipan with water.
6.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead 600g of the fondant icing until soft, then roll out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the icing onto your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Smooth into place and cut off the excess.
7.       Divide the remaining fondant icing into 4 blocks of about 50g each. Knead your selected food colourings into each block until even colours are reached. You should have 4 different coloured blocks.
8.       Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar and roll out your 4 colours. Using the cutters, cut your desired shapes (I used the cutters in the pictures above).
9.       I cut my icing into different sizes of flowers. I then layered the flowers, using a bit of water mixed with icing sugar as glue to hold them together. Let these dry for about 10 minutes.
10.   To attach the flowers around the base of the cake, mix a little water and icing sugar to act as glue. Put some of this mixture on the back of each flower and stick onto the cake.
11.   Add more flowers to the top of the cake to complete the decoration.

 

 

 

 

Not Quite Scones, Not Quite Biscuits: Welsh Cakes! From Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (1954)

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I (Nico) have never been to Wales. So far, my only points of “contact” with Wales have been:

  • Dylan Thomas
  • a few Welsh people met in England (mainly students)
  • the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (which may or may not have been popular in Italy during my childhood because of a very young and very charming Hugh Grant!)

Now, I understand this cannot mean I know a lot about Wales – I also have to admit, I have never eaten welsh cakes made by a Welsh person, whether in Wales or outside Wales. So, I am really not the best person to talk about Dylan Thomas or welsh cakes, and so I hope you’ll forgive me. But Wales has always summoned idyllic images in my head, and not because of Hugh Grant (who is not from Wales anyway), but because of the Welsh accent: it is softer, even softer than the English spoken on the Atlantic coast of Ireland or in certain parts of the south of England; much, much softer, lulling the listener to a land of dreams.

Dylan Thomas knew well how to make the most of the subtle powers of the English language, and, even though he never uses the Welsh language itself, he makes use of Welsh English, and elements of “Welsh-ness” abound in his works. It was first when reading Under Milk Wood that I came across the notorious welsh cakes; and only much later I would find them in their actual physical form in a Marks & Spencer’s, or Tesco’s, in the UK. The addition of the sweet-sounding adjective “Welsh” itself already lures us into a world of sugar and butter, softness and caresses. Welsh cakes do not have the same solid structure and the hidden texture of English scones, but their thinness (they are way “slimmer” than scones, or American biscuits) is indeed deceitful, as they are packed with even more flavour, and comforting butter, than their English counterparts. After all, Wales is the land of “cwtches”: a cwtch is for the Welsh a cupboard (!), but also (and most commonly) a hug, or a cuddle. The word was voted in 2007 the nation’s favourite word, and we can hardly wonder why: the sounds of the word itself summons up closeness, proximity, embrace, with its near-impossible combination of consonants and the hushed sound of the Welsh “w”. And, according to one Welsh person that I know, a cwtch is “more” than an English “hug”.

And effectively Under Milk Wood is a play of affections. A hymn of love for Wales, and replete with all things Welsh, from laverbread to Welsh wool and beer, this radio drama revolves around a small, imaginary yet very realistic, community in a long-gone Wales, and the (at times, arrested) developments of their inhabitants. In the Welsh village of Llaregub, frozen in time as recreated by Thomas’ imagination, the villagers dream of their dead beloved, and welsh cakes make their appearance when Evans “the Death” (what other name for an undertaker?) remembers his mother preparing these simple, delicious sweets in the snow:

 

FIRST VOICE

 

Evans the Death, the undertaker,

 

SECOND VOICE

 

laughs high and aloud in his sleep and curls up his toes as he sees, upon waking fifty years ago, snow lie deep on the goosefield behind the sleeping house; and he runs out into the field where his mother is making welsh-cakes in the snow, and steals a fistful of snowflakes and currants and climbs back to bed to eat them cold and sweet under the warm, white clothes while his mother dances in the snow kitchen crying out for her lost currants.

 

We can hardly imagine undertakers to have been young once, let alone small children, and so the picture of a cheeky child stealing snowflakes and currants from his mother is particularly moving. Like welsh cakes would have to be eaten with icing sugar on top, indeed perhaps the snowflakes of Wales or Snowdonia, cover and preserve everything and everyone for ever in Dylan Thomas’ memory. Since I have learnt how to make welsh cakes this year, I have completely fallen in love with them: smooth on the palate, buttery in their texture, and just that tad spicy. Try and make them for breakfast and surprise your loved ones! But remember: they are best enjoyed with a “cwtch”.

 

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 225g plain flour
  • 100g butter
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 50g raisins (the original recipe would say currants, but I think it is really up to you!)
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp allspice (or mixed spice if you prefer a more spiced flavour)
  • 1 egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • A little milk

 

Directions

  1. Place flour, baking powder and the spices in one bowl.
  2. Cut the butter (room temperature) in small pieces and rub it into the dry ingredients. It has to have a sand-like texture.
  3. Stir in the sugar and dried fruit.
  4. Add the egg and then mix to form a dough.
  5. Add a little milk to make the texture less dry.
  6. Roll the dough out on a floured surface so that it is a couple of centimetres thick.
  7. Use a pastry cutter (or a glass!) to cut out round welsh cakes.
  8. Cook the welsh cakes on a lightly greased frying pan (or a bake stone if you have one!) until golden. (You may need to flip the welsh cakes so that both sides become golden, and also make sure the heat is not too high or the cakes will not cook inside)
  9. Serve hot with butter and sprinkled with sugar – the Welsh way. Equally delicious with jam or any other sweet spread you like!

 

 

References

Recipe adapted from website www.visitwales.com.

 

Celebrating Summer?: William Atkins’s ‘The Moor’

Now that spring has arrived (despite the rain and cold in Durham over the past week or so I am defiantly eating ice-cream and refusing to wear my coat), your thoughts, like mine, may be turning to the outdoors. Of course, my plans to undertake an expedition to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall will probably remain just that – plans – for quite a while. Although the romanticism of such a journey – free from the shackles of modern life and at one with nature – is attractive, the reality of lugging a trangea stove and tent around the damp muddiness of the north of England is enough to make one pull the duvet over one’s head. Writer and editor William Atkins clearly has more stoicism than I, as he both planned and succeeded in walking across England’s moorlands. He recorded his journey in the exquisitely written book, The Moor: Lives, Landscapes, Literature (2014). This is a skilful interweaving of travelogue, natural history, political commentary, and literary meditation. in it, Atkins presents England’s moors as inhospitable, hauntingly beautiful, and absolutely vital to our society. Progressing northwards from Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, Atkins stops at the location of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and the famed Yorkshire ‘setting’ for Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. He is an observer during grouse shooting season and a visitor to Dartmoor Prison, which maintains an eerie background presence in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Atkins’ walking boots must have been well worn from wading through waterlogged, acidic soil by the time he reaches his final destination, Spaunton Moor. From the beginning, the story of Britain’s moorland is one of human exploitation, intensifying with increased wealth and technology. Atkins is committed not just to literary pilgrimage but to elegising this declining landscape. Refusing to see the moors through the monochrome glasses most of us wear, he finds surprising flashes of colour in the flowering heather and the glimpse of red grouse. DSC_0148 (2) It may be ironic, then, that Atkins when Atkins tucks into a humble Cornish pasty it is one produced for a national supermarket chain rather than made from scratch in a local kitchen. Unlike the moors, the Cornish pasty is far from being threatened. The pasty has been a central part of British food culture since the thirteenth century; justifiably so, since the rich buttery flavour of the slightly flaky pastry is absolutely delicious. Skilfully made pastry transforms the humble swede, onion and potato into a delectable feast. Originally baked without meat, the pastry is cheap to make and robust enough to transport. It was therefore the ideal food of Cornish miners, who ate the shell barehanded and threw away the grimy thick braid along the spine of the D-shaped pie. For those Cornish pasty purists among you, my recipe is hardly authentic. However, I have found that it produces more reliable results in my kitchen than a 100% traditional recipe. It’s easier than it looks, so give it a go. Recipe

Ingredients
400g plain flour
200g butter
175ml very cold water
150g potatoes
150g beef
1 onion
100g swede
Seasoning
Beaten egg
 
Method
1.       Mixed the flour and salt in a large bowl. Grate the butter into the bowl. Mix roughly.
2.       Add the water and bring together to a rough ball. Do not overknead as this may make the butter melt. By keeping the pastry cold you will ensure that it produces a flaky case for the filling.
3.       Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for around 30 minutes.
4.       Slice the vegetables into small cubes.
5.       Divide the pastry into about 5 portions, depending on the size you want. Shape each portion into a ball and then roll out into circles. I find using a cereal bowl as a template helps here.
6.       Place the filling on each circle, working from one side to the other so that the ingredients are in rows.
7.       Brush a little beaten egg around the circumference of the circles, and then fold them over like a calzone pizza. Crimp the edges to make sure the pastries remain shut.
8.       Place each pastry on a greased baking tray. Brush with more beaten egg.
9.       Bake for 40 minutes at 180 degrees centigrade.

Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Today – the 23rd April 2016 – is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Recently, I went to see the amazing National Theatre Live performance of As You Like It (starring Rosalie Craig as Rosalind). The imaginative and daring staging of the forest did full justice to the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s vision of the Forest of Arden. The dim lighting, the sharp angles of the trees, and the ominous sounds of woodland animals evoked a strong sense of the anti-pastoral within which the characters celebrated their pastoral freedom from the court. Within this indeterminate space  – where the “winter wind” bites sharply – a group of lords fleeing the urban world gather for a meal of wild fruit. This meal is both a recognition of nature’s provision and of the difficulty of surviving only on what can be scavenged. This is one of the reasons why I love Shakespeare – he can never be pinned down within a neat web of interpretation. There is always something to debate and discover about his imaginative worlds.

There is no recipe this week. Instead, we have a quick quiz to test your knowledge of Shakespearean sustenance. Which of these foods actually appear in his plays?

1. Peacock and swan stew
2. An ill roasted egg
3. Cheese and garlic
4. Fish with chickpeas
5. Dormice
6. Pigeons, hens and mutton – in one meal!
7. Sea urchins
8. Dates and quince in pastry
9. Saffron pies
10. Ostrich, cumin and honey

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Answers: all these foods were eaten in the Renaissance period, but they don’t all appear in Shakespeare’s plays. The ones which do are: an ill roasted egg; cheese and garlic; pigeons, hens and mutton; dates and quince in pastry; and saffron pies.

 

Good Food, Not Just Any Food: Andrea Camilleri’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’s Arancini’ (1999)

Not long ago, I was informed by a student in an essay that the word ‘arancini’ had made its way into Oxford Dictionaries in 2014. This made me smile, of course, because it means Italian can still influence other languages –albeit mainly through food items. Then again, I find it hard to believe that such a specific Italian word for one type of Sicilian street food could be added to a dictionary of the English language: yet, I remember seeing the local Zizzi’s (a most popular “Italian” restaurant chain in the UK) advertise their new arancini (which, I suspect, I am not going to try soon, as I have made mine own!), and I can imagine they can be occasionally spotted here and there in some Italian restaurants in the UK, although I have not seen them frequently in their menus. At the same time, how could “arancini” (little oranges) be otherwise translated in English? Their name is reminiscent of warm, sun-ripened Sicilian oranges, whilst being in the shape of this fruit, but occasionally of pears too, and their connotation makes most Italians’ mouths water immediately with the crispiness of their deep-fried, breadcrumb coating, the juiciness of their savoury filling (which, indeed, reminds one of blood oranges), and the comforting texture of risotto.

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The ‘original’ arancini from a shop

Apparently of legendary Arab and Norman origins, like most original Sicilian food otherwise (remember Joyce’s blancmange/biancomangiare?), arancini are now the most wanted Sicilian street food across Italy. Andrea Camilleri viscerally connects his genial literary creation, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, with food, and most specifically with arancini. Those of you who are familiar with his novels and collections of short stories, or maybe have watched the series as it was broadcasted on RAI and BBC, will be familiar with Montalbano’s obsession with food. Actually, his obsession with good food. Montalbano is not one to eat voraciously, or even frequently: Montalbano takes his time eating, and most importantly he is one of those that he would probably not eat at all if he were to eat bad food. This is importantly also symbolical of his own relationship with Livia, his long-term, long-distance girlfriend. Livia is from Northern Italy (she lives in Genoa, and often visits Montalbano at weekends where she is repeatedly neglected because of the Inspector’s job duties) and is “obviously” depicted as a bad cook, and is praised in the rare occasions when she manages to prepare something vaguely acceptable for Montalbano. In order to prevent her from cooking, Montalbano often suggests taking her out for dinner to his favourite restaurant (Calogero’s) in Vigata, the imaginary Sicilian town where all of his stories are set: their relationship always appears of the oscillating kind, partly and perhaps also because Montalbano ultimately fails to let Livia cook him food, and so feed him. While he is occasionally depicted as doing it for her, she is negated this possibility of making her love for Montalbano explicit by way of her culinary preparations. His taste and high ideals of food and cooking do not match with hers: while Camilleri here obviously hints at the never-ending suspicions of Southern Italians towards Northern Italian cuisine, he is also really trying to portray the relationship between Montalbano and his loved one as unstable and complex for their different personalities, their living far apart, but also because of their opposite conceptions of food. Montalbano, while disregarding Livia’s cooking skills, always praises his maid Adelina’s Sicilian skills as a cook.

And so, it is not by chance that in the short story ‘Gli arancini di Montalbano’ (‘Montalbano’s Arancinis’) Camilleri has Montalbano argue with Livia, reason why they will not spend New Year’s Eve together, and has him opt for a night with arancini instead, carefully prepared by his maid. But this won’t prove to be an easy task: Adelina’s criminal son will get in the way, and the circumstances will make him dread the idea that he might not taste those gorgeous savoury “oranges” on New Year’s Eve: but he is, after all, a most successful inspector…

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Arancini

Adelina’s Recipe (adapted and revised by Nico)

Ingredients

(Since Adelina’s recipe in Camilleri’s short story does not have an indication of measures etc. I have adapted those myself.)

  • 250gr beef mince (Camilleri’s Adelina actually says you should use a mixture of pork and veal mince, but I have used beef mince as that is easier to purchase in the UK, and also because the idea is that one should make a kind of Bolognese sauce, and I normally use beef mince for that)
  • 250ml tomato passata
  • ½ small onion
  • herbs (parsley, basil)
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 300gr Arborio rice
  • saffron (now, be very careful: Adelina does not use saffron – saffron risotto being typically Northern Italian, and not Southern Italian, but, to be entirely honest with you, I prefer the inside of my arancini to be yellow and lightly saffron flavoured)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ small tin of petit pois
  • béchamel sauce/cheese (now, I haven’t added either béchamel sauce or mozzarella because in my head typical beef arancini don’t contain either things, but Adelina says she adds a little béchamel. I have also seen cheese in beef arancini occasionally; more often, though, in cheese-and-ham arancini, which is another typically Sicilian variety)
  • flour and breadcrumbs for coating
  • sunflower/vegetable oil for deep-frying

Directions

First of all, as Camilleri says, good arancini are made very slowly. His Adelina apparently takes two whole days to make them. My recent attempt at making these went slightly wrong because I did not follow two major rules for successful arancini-making: 1- be patient, and 2- make risotto (I boiled rice instead, as I was in a hurry…). Whilst patience is a rather difficult virtue at times, making risotto is an inescapable step to make good arancini. And in fact, making risotto takes roughly the same amount of time as boiling rice (20 minutes), so I am not sure why I went for this rice preparation which reminded me very much of sushi making- maybe, in a moment of distraction, I thought I was going to make saffron-infused sushi rice balls (which I could try and make some other time, and maybe include them in some novel, or poem). But now, let’s start explaining how to make proper (hopefully Montalbano-approved) arancini!

  1. Make the sauce first, I would recommend making this the day/night before, so that it is already ready when you are making arancini.
  2. To make the sauce, follow Nico’s recipe for Italian tomato sauce (as in my earlier blogpost on E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread), only quickly fry beef mince after onions have got golden brown, and before putting in the tomato passata. Cook slowly for at least half an hour. Add petit pois at the end and cook for another 10 minutes or so.
  3. Leave the sauce to rest (it will taste even better the day after, when you will need it to make arancini), and get started on making risotto now.
  4. Chop half of a small onion and fry it with some olive oil and a clove of garlic. When the onion is golden brown, remove garlic clove and add rice, with a splash of white wine, and add boiling stock to the rice. Add hot water when needed, continue stirring the risotto so that it won’t stick to the pan, and rice will be cooked in about 20 minutes. As I mentioned before, I would add saffron (if you do, then after adding hot water), but it is not necessary.
  5. Leave the rice to cool.
  6. When the rice has got cold, add an egg so that the rice mixture will stick together more easily.
  7. Now the fun part begins – if you ever liked playing with PlayDo as a child, this is for you! Make balls (as big as oranges) with your risotto, and add a big spoonful of sauce in the middle of the rice ball. Make sure the sauce stays inside and is fully covered with rice.
  8. Heat the sunflower oil in a deep saucepan and prepare a mixture of flour and breadcrumbs on a plate. The oil will be hot enough and ready when you throw a breadcrumb in the oil, and it immediately starts frying. This is really important – if your oil is not hot enough, your arancini will start to crumble and your breadcrumbs will go everywhere in the pan!
  9. Roll your rice balls in the flour and breadcrumbs, and place them in the oil in the frying pan. After a couple of minutes turn them so that both sides become golden.
  10. When your arancini are of a nice golden brown colour on the whole of their surface, take them out of the pan (be careful not burning yourself as the oil will be very hot!) and place them on a plate with kitchen paper (to absorb the oil).
  11. To be served hot!
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Nico’s ‘slightly’ less-than-perfect arancini!

 

Endlessly Surprising: Spanish Omelette in Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” (1939)

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To read the poetry of Louis MacNeice is an endlessly rewarding activity. It can be intricately beautiful and philosophically insightful, but politically and culturally astute at the same time. Every time I come to write about MacNeice (which I have done often over the previous eight years), I am surprised again at the deft placement of a word, the freshness of an image, or his mastery over poetic form. (I make no apologies for being traditional in my poetic taste! I am yet to be entirely persuaded that free verse is a good idea!)

Born in Belfast in 1907, educated at Oxford, and later employed by the BBC, MacNeice has often been dismissed as one of the lesser poets of the nineteen thirties. W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot always seemed to stand in his way. In the nineteen seventies (Northern) Irish poets and literary critics began to salvage his reputation, drawn by MacNeice’s conflicted attitude towards his own Protestant Irish/English-educated identity. Since then, MacNeice’s fame has increased, so that Jonathan Allison can justly write that he is ‘increasingly recognised as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century’.

In the autumn of last year, I mentioned MacNeice in Nico and my Literary History of Chocolate. I wrote about the poet’s dislike for the industrialisation of chocolate production – factory produced chocolate becoming a symbol for the reduction of the variety of human existence to a series of identical experiences. In ‘Ode’ MacNeice preferred the continual movement and unpredictability of the open sea to the neat rows of factory chimneys. The most famous poem in MacNeice’s oeuvre is a celebration of the exact opposite: in ‘Snow’ he writes that the world is ‘crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’. The speaker delights in the surprising, energising richness of the sign of oranges and roses juxtaposed against a snowy day.

This complementary clash of opposites got me thinking about how variousness of experience – culinary and otherwise – is found most clearly in MacNeice’s travel writing. As many people have pointed out, MacNeice struggled to stay at home. Paris, Iceland, England, the USA, Scotland, Spain, Ireland north and south… In the late nineteen thirties MacNeice was one of the many left-wing Brits who travelled to Spain to fight, report on, or write about the Spanish Civil War. It was certainly the fashionable thing to do: as historian Paul Laity comments, left-wing books and ideas then had a ‘radical chic’. Socialist fever gripped many in the UK, who were terrified of the rising strength of Fascist powers in Spain, Japan, and Germany.

In the midst of all this, MacNeice famously remained rather politically uncommitted. He was vaguely ‘of the left’, but travelled to Spain to observe rather than actively help in the fight against Franco (as did Orwell and many others).

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All this seems to be getting rather far from the general theme of this blog. I promise I am coming to the point, albeit by a circuitous route! MacNeice recorded his experiences in Spain in his masterpiece – a long journalistic poem entitled Autumn Journal – and in his unfinished autobiography – The Strings are False. In the former, MacNeice indulges in many lists of compatible, contrasting, startling, heterogeneous things. At times it seems as if listing is the only way to capture the endless variety and surprise of life in words. One of these lists comes at the beginning of section VI of the poem and describes the food MacNeice ate in Spain on the eve of the civil war. There are plentiful supplies of coffee, sherry, shellfish, and omelette. However, this list contrasts starkly with the lack of food during the war itself.

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I find MacNeice’s descriptions of the conditions in which civilians found themselves more emotive than the propaganda images and texts of the time. This is partly because MacNeice was not writing to persuade others to weigh in to help; he was writing an honest, perceptive, and personal record. So if you choose to make the recipe for Spanish omelette below, remember the other side of the story that MacNeice tells too.

Spanish Omelette
Ingredients
400g potatoes
1 onion
6 eggs
A handful of parsley
Salt and pepper
Directions
1.      Peel the potatoes and slice thinly. Dice the onion.
2.      Fry the potatoes and onion for about 10 minutes, or until soft.
3.      Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt, pepper and parsley.
4.      Add to the pan and cook over a medium heat until the top of the omelette is no longer really runny.
5.      If you are brave, flip the omelette. Or, you could prepare another frying pan and turn the omelette over into it. Cook for a few minutes. Personally, I take the easy route and grill it for a few minutes until golden brown.

 

Jonathan Allison, abstract for The Letters of Louis MacNeice, http://www.academia.edu/232531/Letters_of_Louis_MacNeice

Paul Laity, ‘Introduction’, in Left Book Club Anthology, ed. by Paul Laity (London: Gollancz, 2001) pp. ix-xxxi, (p. ix).

 

The crème de la crème of afternoon tea: Chester cakes in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961)

I came to Muriel Spark by a rather odd route: through the poetry of Louis MacNeice. If you follow this blog regularly you will probably be slightly bored of the fact that I frequently mention my absolute passion for MacNeice’s writing. If you feel that thought brimming up inside your mind, just go and read MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and hopefully you will understand why my ideas circle back to him.

In the anxious days of 1944, Spark – stranded by a late train in the middle of blacked-out London and vulnerable to the flying doodlebug bombs – found shelter with MacNeice’s maid whilst the poet and his wife were away. Unaware of the identity of the house’s owner, Spark admired the ‘enterprising sort of library’ and pondered whether the eccentricity it displayed was the ‘expression of a new and living system of thought’. When she discovered that the house, in fact, belonged to one of the great poets of the time, Spark sought some transference of brilliance by touching his books and pens.

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Many of us have probably done that. I certainly did when reading writers’ manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (Tolkien!) and later in the Irish Writer’s Museum in Dublin (Yeats!). But Spark’s reverent contact with MacNeice’s possessions generated more success for her writing career than my sighting of James Joyce’s suitcase in the Martello Tower at Sandycove.

So perhaps part (a very small part!) of the credit for Spark’s renowned serio-comic novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), can go to MacNeice. Like her visit to his house, the novel is shadowed by the tumultuous political upheavals of the 1930s and World War Two. Miss Brodie, a teacher at a girl’s school in Edinburgh, combines a ‘progressive’ educational philosophy with a lot of sympathy for Mussolini’s Italy. At one moment Miss Brodie states that ‘education is a drawing out, not a putting in’, whilst in almost the next breath she suggests that one of her students becomes involved in the Spanish Civil War. Thus, the humorous satire of Miss Brodie’s character is constantly held in tension with a more troubling sense of menace.

Like Mussolini, Miss Brodie seeks to control the world around her, hand-picking a group of pupils – who come to be known as the Brodie Set – at the girl’s grammar school where she teaches. The aim: to transform them into the crème de la crème. She also seeks to control the male teachers at the school, approaching one man in particular (the eligible bachelor Gordon Lowther) through his stomach.

She shops and cooks for him, force-feeding him Chester cake so that he does not lose weight:

And she made him eat a Chester cake, and spoke to him in a slightly more Edinburgh way than usual, so as to make up to him by both means for the love she was giving to Teddy Lloyd instead of to him.

‘You must be fattened up, Gordon,’ she said. ‘You must be two stone the better before I go my holidays.’

He smiled as best he could at everyone in turn, with his drooped head and slowly moving jaws.

When I first read this I assumed that Chester cake was either English, as the name suggests, or a Scottish recipe. I was surprised to find that it is actually based on a traditional Irish traybake. I also realised that I had unknowingly eaten this in Northern Ireland, or seen it sitting quietly amongst the more flamboyant fifteens and malteaser traybakes which are ubiquitous in Belfast’s coffee shops. In Dublin, Chester cake is known as ‘gur’ (gutter) cake because of its cheap ingredients, which comprise mainly of leftovers. Irish food blogger Catriona (of wholesomeireland.com) tells us that the Irish name originally came from an old Dublin word for a young, mischievous, working-class boy – a gurrier – who would scrounge cake and bread remnants from bakeries in order to make this treat.

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The poor origins of the Chester cake seem far removed from Miss Brodie’s faux-upper-class airs and her fabricated Edinburgh accent. But, perhaps, her desire to fatten up Mr Lowther is tempered by a Scottish Presbyterian dislike for earthly indulgence and a horror of waste.

The delicate yet masterful pouring of tea and serving of cake seem to be the perfect setting for the exercise of power. Miss Brodie is not the only character who asserts herself through this simple ceremony: whoever has charge of the teapot and wields the cake-knife is in control of the tea-table (writer Gill Fyffe depicts a similar tea-time experience in another Scottish boarding house in her memoir LifeBlood). In her exquisite depiction of the tensions, allegiances and betrayals at each of these afternoon teas, Spark manages both to depict a segment of mid-century Edinburgh society and to gesture towards much more serious negotiations in the political realm.

So I advise caution when choosing who to invite round to share the recipe below! And make sure you are holding on to the teapot.

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References
Muriel Spark, ‘The Poet’s House’, in The Golden Fleece: Essays (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 2000).
Catriona, ‘Gur Cake’, http://wholesomeireland.com/gur-cake-2/.

 

Ingredients
300g plain flour
150g unsalted butter
Some ice-cold water
2tbsp sugar
1 egg
400g mincemeat (see our mince pie recipe for how to make this at home)
Breadcrumbs (from 3 slices of bread)
Method
1.      Rub the flour and butter together until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add in the egg and a little cold water. Bring together into a dough, adding more water if necessary. Try not to overwork the pastry.
2.      Wrap the pastry in clingfilm and put in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
3.      Mix the mincemeat with the breadcrumbs.
4.      Grease a 20cm square baking tray. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
5.      Remove the pastry from the fridge and separate into two portions. One portion should be 2/3 of the dough.
6.      Roll out the 2/3 portion and lay in the baking tray. Fill the pie with the mincemeat mixture.
7.      Roll out the 1/3 portion to make the lid for the pie. Put it on top, crimping the edges with a fork. Make a few holes in the lid to let the steam out.
8.      Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
9.      Cut into squares and serve cold.