Anyone for a take-away?: Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’

Pizza mix

My favourite bookshop in England is Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland ( It is a magical emporium of second hand books, which are stashed in every nook and cranny of a converted railway station. My love for this shop may have something to do with the copy of Louis MacNeice’s poem, ‘Posterity’, emblazoned on one of the walls (!!!) and the lines from T.S. Eliot which snake their way around the tops of the wooden bookcases. Amongst the more typical titles found in any second hand book shop (including The Da Vinci Code, which I recently heard that certain charity shops are asking people not to donate) the dedicated bibliophile can find untold literary gems.

On a whim, this particular bibliophile (having sent her husband to the train-carriage-themed coffee shop for an hour or two) purchased a copy of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Born in India, journalist and novelist Adiga migrated to Australia and studied in the USA and in England. The White Tiger was his first novel and won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

It’s a risky thing to give away the ending of a novel at its beginning, but Adiga takes this plunge – and so I’m not worried about any spoilers here! Written in the form of letters from a Bangalore-based entrepreneur to the Chinese Premier, this novel tells a narrative of modern India moving from ‘the darkness into the light’. The (probably unreliable) narrator – Balram – doesn’t balk at describing the seediness and deception he experiences and participates in as he makes his way from a life as the son of a rickshaw-puller to that of an international businessman. ‘I am tomorrow’, Balram declares in the opening pages (p.6).


And tomorrow, according to this novel, has a lot to do with America. In food terms, pizza replaces curry in Balram’s culinary preferences. For most of the novel, Balram describes his life as a chauffeur to a rich Indian businessman, who has lived in America and has recently returned to Delhi with his American wife. Both of them love pizza. But the first mention of pizza in the novel caught me unawares. Balram explains how he had to serve his employers ‘some of that stinking stuff that comes in cardboard boxes’. It was only later in the chapter when Ashok and Pinky Madam tease their servant for his pronunciation of ‘pizza’ (‘It’s not piJJa. It’s pizza. Say it properly.’) that I realised what they were eating (p.155). To become the international entrepreneur he wants to be, Balram has to embrace this imported foodstuff, as well as the new language that comes with it. Adiga shows us that, having once been colonised by Britain, this suburb of Delhi is now being culturally colonised by the USA.

Although he never quite gets the hang of pronouncing ‘pizza’ with a double ‘z’, Balram tells us of his adopted son’s success in this – ‘He can say “pizza” the way Mr Ashok said it. And doesn’t he love eating pizza – that nasty stuff?’ (p.316).  The next generation completes the transition from ‘a nice hot curry with juicy chunks of dark meat’ (p.158) to pizza; from ‘darkness to light’; from independent India to Americanised India. There is a mixture of pride and repulsion in Balram’s tone as he describes his adopted son, a product of his own desires and manipulation.

Today’s recipe is, of course, for pizza. This recipe is not for the take-away style meal Balram both desires and hates – but it was taught to me by an American! Enjoy!


Ingredients: makes 2 medium pizzas
500g strong white bread flour (or 250g strong white bread flour and 250g strong wholemeal bread flour)
1 tsp yeast
300 ml water
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp oil
Tomato puree
4 tomatoes
1 onion
Choose your own toppings – I used a yellow pepper and mushrooms
Grated cheese – again, use your favourite. I used cheddar.
Herbs and seasoning to taste – I used oregano, chives, pepper, salt
1.       Mix the ingredients for the base in a large bowl until they come together into a claggy dough.
2.       Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes. Or pop the dough in a mixer with a dough hook for 5 minutes.
3.       Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a damp teatowel. Leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
4.       Knead the dough for 5 minutes and then shape on 2 greased metal trays. Cover and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes – 1 hour.
5.       In the meantime, prepare the topping. Fry the onion and then add the rest of the veg and tomato puree.
6.       Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
7.       When the dough is risen, add the topping to the pizza and scatter with grated cheese.
8.       Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes.


‘There is Always The Other Side’: Fried Plantains in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Until last month, I had never been to the Caribbean. Or the Tropics. Or something that could be vaguely classified as either, except perhaps the North-East of Australia. Then, a few weeks ago I had the chance to go to one of the Canary Islands for a short holiday and its beauty struck me with the strength of a long-awaited revelation. I have to say, when it comes to the sea, I am a Mediterranean snob, and I never thought much of the Canary Islands for their reputation of resorts, colonies for the Northerners, etcetera. Instead, while the resorts are indeed there, they can be fairly easily avoided, and make room for a beauty which feels, indeed, almost savage. Nothing like the rather more harmonious sensuality of a Mediterranean island, the Canary Islands are jewels of biodiversity, spanning from beautiful volcanic landscape inland to dramatic cliffs, constellated by banana plantations. Yes – bananas! The sign that I was so close to the Tropic of Cancer as never before.


Bananas. Bananas everywhere. Not disclosed, but rather wrapped, to be protected from the sun and wind, and enclosed within the softly clay-coloured walls of the Canarian plantations, to be found at almost every corner—from the suburbs of the larger towns to the steep patches of land near the cliffs. This is, perhaps, what I found most charming of the Canarian landscape: the beauty of these half-hidden bananas inside the warmth of the plantations. The bananas, as well as the presence of various shops selling Latin American food, somehow contributed to my overall feeling that I was not so much off the African coasts, or under the Spanish crown, but rather in some tiny island off Central or South America.

This landscape, filled with bananas, reminded me of a novel I taught long ago and I read for the first time even longer ago: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Maybe this has got something to do with the fact that my copy of Wide Sargasso Sea has a cover picture of green bananas: unripe, and never to ripen, like Antoinette and her husband’s love; green, like Antoinette’s jealousy and her husband’s sickness but also green like the luxuriantly invasive Caribbean landscape, working as a backdrop for this story of hatred and passion.

In Spanish, bananas are surprisingly called plátanos, and so in fact the same word is used for both bananas and plantains (also called green bananas). The plantains are a recurrent feature in African, Caribbean, and South American literatures, and I heard about them from friends who visited South America, but I always put off trying them, as I was afraid of cooking them in the wrong way. In Wide Sargasso Sea, plantains make up a poor but nutritious diet for Antoinette and her friend Tia, since plantains contain more starch than bananas:


We boiled green bananas in an old iron pot and ate them with our fingers out of a calabash and after we had eaten [Tia] slept at once. I could not sleep, but I wasn’t quite awake as I lay in the shade looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun. (20)


The colour green comes back again throughout the novel, taking various forms: the flesh of plantains is of course not green, but here the colour is a helpful identifier for Antoinette’s complex sentiments towards her home. The shades of green, from the skin of plantains to the reflection in the pool, are a reminder of the green light which will continue to shine over the protagonists. Antoinette’s husband will perceive a ‘green hostile light’ as a sign of his distrust towards Antoinette, as well as his own disgust for the island (86).

Food, unsurprisingly, is connected with class in the novel: when Antoinette’s stepfather, Mr. Mason, takes care of her, the food eaten becomes English – pies, mutton, puddings, etc. – more respectable, however less tasty for mixed-blood Antoinette. Antoinette, the ‘white cockroach’, the white not quite white, misses the food prepared by her Martinican servant, Christophine. Throughout the novel, Antoinette will remember drinking arrowroot and chocolate as a child, and will serve cassava cakes and guava jelly with coffee to her guests. Her husband, however, does not seem to enjoy the local food in equal manner, and the discrepancies between English and Caribbean customs are often stressed and underlined as a division between the two main characters of Wide Sargasso Sea. While Jean Rhys tried to nostalgically recreate the flavours of her native Caribbean, some of these flavours (cassava cakes, guava jelly, arrowroot) still remain unknown to me.

For this month’s blog post, I have fried plantains the decadent way, and then sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon. However, they can also be boiled or baked in the oven, and their delicate flavour lends itself to be sprinkled with fine salt instead of sugar, to make a savoury snack. In whichever way you’ll decide to enjoy them, bon appétit!




  • frying oil of your choice
  • plantains (I have used ripened plantains, but I hear green plantains are good for frying too)
  • salt OR brown sugar and cinnamon


  1. Skin the plantains. Be careful as their skin is thicker and stickier than banana skin.
  2. Slice the plantains thinly or thickly, depending on your taste. If you slice them thinly they’ll be faster to fry.
  3. Place on kitchen paper to get part of the oil absorbed.
  4. Serve with salt if you like them savoury or with sugar and cinnamon for a sweet treat. Bon appétit!


Revisiting Fruit Tart: ‘The Woman in Black’

DSC_0112 (2)

Last year I wrote a blogpost about fruit tart in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White which you can read here. Now, it’s time to retrace my footsteps with apple tart in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Although the title and genre of Hill’s novel is a nod to Collins’s gothic romance, the narrative of The Woman in Black is significantly pared-back compared to its indulgent predecessor. Hill clearly subscribes to the idea that horror lies in how the imagination circulates around what is left unsaid. The echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are much in evidence in the nature of the narrative voice and the plot, something Hill herself acknowledged when writing about her novel.


For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, seen the theatre production, or the recent film, The Woman in Black begins with that established figure in gothic horror – the first-person narrator retrospectively recounting a terrifying experience which has profoundly impacted on his life. Lawyer Arthur Kipps was sent from London to a remote house to sort through the papers of a deceased lady. We can tick another item off our gothic checklist here – the house is isolated on an island in a marsh, which can only be crossed at certain times of the day due to the tide. And, of course, it is haunted.

DSC_0069 (2)

This blogpost’s edible example appears on Kipps’s dining table in the village inn, a liminal space between the safety of his home in London and the psychological and physical danger of the marshes-bound house. Kipps tucks into what sounds a delicious meal for the winter:

‘[The landlord’s] wife made my mouth water in anticipation of the supper she proposed – home-made broth, sirloin of beef, apple and raison tart with cream, and some Stilton cheese. … All in all, and with the half-bottle of claret that had accompanied my supper, I prepared to go up to bed in a warm glow of well-being and contentment.’ (pp.42-3)

The fact that in this lean, unembellished novel the narrator spends words on listing the components of his dinner draws our attention to them and gives them importance. This significance lies in the comforting solidity and earthliness that these items of food confer on the description of the village; I can imagine the apples being picked from a tree in the garden by the inn’s servant-boy and the beef being sent down by the local butcher. Kipps’s dinner also has a reassuringly long history in English cooking. For example, there is a recipe for apple tart dating from 1381. They provide a clear contrast (oh – another gothic feature) with the unearthliness, the ghostliness of the marshes.

But as in any ghost story, things may not be as they seem. As well as being quintessentially English and realistic, the apple has a long history as a literary symbol. Despite the Bible not mentioning the apple specifically in the story of the Fall, it is the fruit which is associated with sin, greed, deception and corruption. The story of the Trojan War also involves an apple which leads to downfall. Drawing on such narratives, more recent fairy-tales and legends focus on the apple as a symbol of deception. Snow White munches on one, only to fall into a death-like stupor and in Celtic mythology an apple gives Connla an insatiable taste for fairy-land. You can read a longer list of mystical apples at .

So Kipps’s innocuous dessert may not be so wholesome after all. I hope that the apple tart recipe below is quite the opposite!



Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (London: Vintage, 1998)

Susan Hill: Haunted by the Woman in Black, The Telegraph, 10 February 2013,




300g plain flour
2 tbsp. caster sugar
200g dairy-free spread (this is a vegan recipe)
Some cold tap water
3 large apples
3 tbsp. muscavado sugar
2 tbsp. apricot jam
Cinnamon, to taste
Flaked almonds


  1. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the caster sugar. Then rub in the butter. Gradually add the water and bring together into a dough.
  2. Grease a 30cm circular tin; roll out the pastry; line the tin with the pastry. Make sure the pastry overhands the edge of the tin; this can be trimmed after baking. Prick the pastry with a fork to prevent rising.
  3. Finely slice the apples, then toss in the muscavado and cinnamon. Lay the apple slices in a fan shape in the pastry.
  4. Heat the apricot jam with a little water, then use to glaze the apples.
  5. Finally, sprinkle the flaked almonds over the tart.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.

Frugal January: Victorian Gruel from Oliver Twist (1837)

Straight after the usual exuberance and abundance of the festive season one feels the urgency of going on some sort of detox diet, and my January has been particularly frugal. This month’s frugality has given new importance to breakfast in my daily routine and made me more creative in my re-thinking morning porridge: oats, rye flakes, quinoa, or buckwheat, are all the rage in my water-infused morning staple together with chia seeds, linseed, dried fruits, nuts and spices. And so, as I was re-reading Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, I was struck by the idea that gruel perhaps would not be so unappealing to contemporary porridge-eaters as it was to Oliver and his companions, and in fact to generations of readers afterwards.

Most of you will remember the scene in the 1960s musical Oliver!, where a multitude of kids sings ‘Food, Glorious Food’, craving for sausages whilst dreading their daily meal of gruel, which the kids are indeed about to receive: a grey, insipid-looking, disgusting broth. In the novel, the scene is not as fantastic of course, but indeed gruel makes up the main staple of the poor little orphans’ diet, hence connected with bad health and abominable taste. In Dickens’ own words:


So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative […] of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. (Chapter II, Part I)


The gruel offered to Oliver & co. is so watery and with so little flour or grain in it to be called ‘thin gruel’, indeed a soupy drink, rather than an actual meal! Later in the novel, Mr. Bumble remarks: “‘Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs of your jacket, and don’t cry into your gruel; that’s a very foolish action, Oliver.’”, with the narrator’s sneering that ‘It certainly was, for there was quite enough water in [the gruel] already.’ (Chapter III, Part II) Crying into Oliver’s own gruel would add even more misery to the already poor meal in front of him: gruel is the life of these little fatherless children — bland and unpalatable.


But what was gruel like anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occas. some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.’. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) by Charles Elmé Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, we find various recipes for gruel with different types of cereals. The first type suggested (plain gruel) is simply made with a mixture of various crushed grains (groats), mainly oats, but could have also included wheat, barley, and even maize:



Mix a table-spoonful of Robinson’s prepared groats or grits with a tea-cupful of cold water, pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, and stir it on the fire while it boils for ten minutes; strain the gruel through a sieve or colander into a basin, sweeten to taste, add a spoonful of any kind of spirits, or else season the gruel with salt and a bit of butter.’


Francatelli here makes direct reference to a popular brand of the time, as he does later on the same page, when he suggests using Brown & Polson’s Indian corn to prepare yet another kind of gruel (‘No. 184. Brown & Polson gruel’). He lists three more possibilities with oatmeal and pearl barley:


No. 185. Gruel made with oatmeal.

In the absence of groats, oatmeal furnishes the means of making excellent gruel. Mix two table-spoonfuls of oatmeal with a gill of cold water; pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, stir the gruel on the fire while it boils and a glass of wine; stir the arrow-root while it is boiling on the fire for a few minutes, and then give it to the patient.

Observe that it is essential to perfection in the preparation of arrow-root, and, indeed, of all farinaceous kinds of food, that the whole of the ingredients used in the preparation should be boiled together.


No. 189. How to make gruel with pearl barley.

Put four ounces of pearl barley in a saucepan with two quarts of cold water and a small stick of cinnamon, and set the whole to boil very gently by the side of the fire (partly covered with the lid) for two hours; then add the sugar and the wine, boil all together a few minutes longer, and then strain the gruel through a colander into a jug, to be kept in a cool place until required for use; when it can be warmed up in small quantities.

As this kind of gruel is a powerful cordial, it is to be borne in mind that it should never be administered unless ordered by a medical man.’


Francatelli also describes another gruel option, with rice, ‘for relaxed bowels’ (no. 187). Francatelli’s gruels are, however, generally intended as a remedy for the sick, something energizing and simultaneously easy on the stomach. The working class of which Francatelli is talking about twenty years later is also a slightly wealthier class than the destitute of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Barley gruel, as a powerful cordial, cooked in wine and with added sugar, would have been far from being handed out to Oliver Twist: the gruel meal he is offered every day is without any doubt a gruel made of the poorest oatmeal with more water than needed, and no sugar to give the kids energy and keep them quiet. Indeed, Dickens shows in the novel how the opposition meat/gruel is one of class management rather than one of mere taste (as it is for us today), as Mr Bumble reminds us:


‘Meat, ma’am, meat,’ replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. ‘You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a[n] artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am unbecoming a person of his condition […]. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.’ (Chapter VII, Part II)


Meat would elevate the poor well above their condition, both socially and morally. The prohibitive costs of meat in the Victorian times made it a food which was indeed longed for by everyone, yet only really consumed by the wealthier classes. By giving him more than just gruel, Mrs Sowerberry made Oliver believe he could aspire to more than what he has now: not only should he aspire to become a better-off individual, but also to become a truly moral being with a soul, like the rest. Funnily enough, for the early Victorians this condition seemed to be acquirable via meat rather than a vegetarian diet – indeed, quite the opposite of today’s dietary tendencies!


Cinnamon-scented gruel


This is an adaptation of Francatelli’s recipe for barley gruel. I love barley’s comforting texture and taste but it takes quite long to cook so it is not for rushed meals, although it can be cooked in advance. With the addition of wine, though, it makes more of a pudding or evening treat than anything consumable before 12 noon!



50g pearl barley

25ml water

1 cinnamon stick

½ glass of red wine

1 tsp of sugar



  • Rinse barley with cold water.
  • Place barley and cinnamon stick in a saucepan with 900ml water.
  • Bring to boil and then cook on a low heat for nearly two hours (or until water has been absorbed).
  • Add half a glass of red wine and a teaspoon of sugar to the barley and cook for ten more minutes.
  • Strain the barley and serve hot or leave aside to cool down and re-heat later.



Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.

‘Neither East nor West’: Chicken Tikka in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

As it often happens, it is not quite the best lines of poetry that are remembered in popular culture: rather, I sometimes think, the most awkward-sounding. Kipling’s phrases ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ (from ‘The Ballad of East and West’, 1899) have been heavily exploited over the years. Interestingly, the former phrase seems to have inspired a lot of restaurant owners across the globe, and both are also referred to in the tragicomic adventures of the Anglo-Pakistani Khan family in the film East is East and its sequel West is West. However, the ballad continues (and ends) on quite a different note: while ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ and they shall never meet (at least geographically), Kipling continues saying that when two equals meet, ‘there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ (l. 3, l. 95). Differences are intriguing, valuable, and ultimately enrich us. This blog post, in fact, would not have been possible without an ‘East meets West’ kind of collaboration (or ‘West meets East’, if you like):

  • Long ago, Franzi, from Germany, indicated Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a book she would like to see us make recipes from.
  • Much later (sorry!) I, Nico, originally from Italy, read it and much much later (very sorry!) made a recipe from this book.
  • Natasha, originally from India, gave me a beautiful box full of REAL Indian spices and ingredients (as opposed to what you get in the UK, or in Europe, for that matter), which have made my adventuring into further culinary fields possible.
  • Anum, originally from Pakistan, shared with me the recipe for her chicken tikka (which is the recipe I selected from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and is also a reader of Mohsin Hamid’s books (as well as a follower of our blog, like all the other characters of this story).


It is not just serendipity that both East and West should be involved in the reviewing of the bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The story told by Mohsin Hamid is one of an Eastern man’s failed dream of the West, and perhaps can also be one of the Western reader’s failed expectations of the East, too. As the reader subconsciously becomes the ‘you’, who the protagonist Changez is constantly referring to (an ‘American sir’), we are lured to listen to the story of Changez’s life in the United States, much like Odysseus’ mermaids, or the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s ballad. Changez’s tale is as unavoidable as it is compelling, as charming as it is sinister, and as carefully crafter as it strives to appear casual. Changez takes us through the ups and downs of his life in America as a muslim at the dawn of 9/11: his prestigious education, his dangerous beard, his failed, sick American lover, and his morally ambiguous job. As dusk comes down on Lahore and on Changez and the reader having tea, a meal is ordered, which is seen to cause immediate suspicion in our Western self as the silent listener of Changez’s eloquent yet extravagant talking. As opposed to Americans perhaps, Changez says:


‘[W]e Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali [a neighbourhood in Lahore] that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurateurs would consider placing a western dish on his menu. No, we are surrounded instead by the kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat, the spiced brain of sheep! These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon. Not for us the vegetarian recipes one finds across the border to the east, nor the sanitized, sterilized, processed meats so common in your homeland! Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.’ (p. 115)


In another occasion in the novel, the narrator half-ironically warns his companion against the local food, as he thinks the Westerner will fear it as ‘poisonous’. According to Changez, the “predatory” and “non-squeamish” nature of Pakistani cuisine is what distinguishes it from that of bordering India and of the familiar United States; and to fit all stereotypes, I had to select ‘the tikka of chicken’ as the dish to prepare for this blog post, indeed perhaps the least adventurous of all these, and the most common to the Westerner!

Enjoy our chicken tikka, and no reason to be squeamish about it!


Recipe (from our blog friend Anum, tried by Nico)

Ingredients (for 2 people):

2 chicken pieces (I used chicken breast, but even better would be chicken leg or thigh)

4tbsp plain (or Greek-style) yogurt

1/2 tsp garlic paste

1/2 tsp ginger paste

3 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp crushed black pepper

2tbsp single cream

1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp dried coriander leaves

1 tbsp sunflower/vegetable oil



  1. Place a few small cuts on the chicken.
  2. Whip the yogurt and cream together in a large bowl and add the chicken.
  3. Then add all the other ingredients together and marinate for up to 2 hours.
  4. Once the chicken is marinated, cook in the oven at a temperature of 200 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked (this may vary according to your oven). It may be that the chicken gives off water whilst cooking; if so, drain the water and continue baking in the oven.
  5. After the chicken is cooked, to give it the smoky flavour traditionally associated with chicken tikka, you can take a piece of charcoal and place it on the stove until it glows red. Then place it on the chicken and cover it with a lid or plate to infuse the smoke. I haven’t tried this as I didn’t have any charcoal, but it sounds exciting and it gives the chicken the smoky, barbecue flavour otherwise missed when using the oven to cook it.
  6. Anum recommends a mint or tamarind chutney to go with it if you like!



Mohsin Hamid. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

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


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)



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.



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

‘LU: la grande histoire du petit beurre’, Le Parisien .





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



  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.

DSC_0461 (2)

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.


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.


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)


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.



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


  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!


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

Updating Miss Havisham

DSC_0462 (2)

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.


Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

John Dugdale, ‘Books best bakes: cakes in fiction from Dickens to George RR Martin’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015,



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.

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
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.





Celebrating 400 Years of 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

shakespeare 2

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.