Croeso i Cymru: learning to cook my mum’s Welsh cakes

Welsh cakes coolingOne of my fondest childhood food memories is of eating freshly baked Welsh cakes straight from the cooling rack, after my mum had made up a fresh batch. Her Welsh cakes are always delicious, but especially so, when still warm from the pan. Today, mum taught me how to make them myself – a major rite of passage, in Lewis family terms.

  • Ingredients:
  • 8oz self-raising flour
  • 2oz margarine
  • 2oz lard
  • 4oz castor sugar
  • 2oz currants
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 1/3tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • Splash milk.

First, slice the lard and margarine into small cubes and rub it into the flour. A light touch is required, to achieve a mixture with the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Next, add the sugar, currants, mixed spice and salt and mix in well. Beat the egg, stir it into the mix with a fork, then use your hands to continue mixing, once the egg has soaked in. The mixture should reach the consistency of short patry. If it is too dry to form a ball, add just a dribble of milk.

On a surface dusted with flour, form the pastry into a flat circle, then roll out until it is a half-centimetre thick. Use a cake cutter to cut out individual rounds. Take a strip of the lard’s wrapping paper and smear a tiny amount of lard around a heavy pan set on a medium heat. Add the cakes and adjust heat so you can hear a very quiet sizzle.

Three minutes on each side should suffice. Once cooked, the cakes will be a rich gold on both sides. Et voila!

See below for the various stages of the process.

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Culinary PleasuresI’ve just started reading a book that aims to trace Britain’s culinary evolution through the lens of its cookbooks. It’s called Culinary Pleasures, and is by Nicola Humble. Already, having only read the introduction, I’m hooked.

The other day I wrote about the introductions to Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. Cook books, I argued, “can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written”. In the case of David’s introductions, I pointed out how readers can discern the longing for good food caused by the effects of rationing and the war; and the excitement felt by the general public, as shops and supermarkets broadened their culinary product base.

But Humble expresses the link between cookbooks, culture, society and history for more eloquently than I did in my post. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

This is not primarily a history of food, many excellent examples of which already exist; it is rather a cultural history of the cook book, examining it in both its most typical and its most outlandish forms to see what it has totell us about the hopes and fears, the tastes and aspirations, the fantasies and paranoias, and the changing social roles of its particular historical moment.

Already, I’m compiling a list of cook books that sound worth seeking out, from reading Humble Pleasures. These include:

  • The Constance Spry Cookery Book
  • Marcel Boulestin’s The Conduct of the Kitchen
  • Beeton’s Book of Household Management
  • Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families
  • Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cookery

Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document

olivesgarlicCulinary aids they may ultimately be, but cook books can also can also reward readers who have no intention of attempting their recipes. They can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written.

This last aspect was at the forefront of my mind as I read the prefaces and introductions to the various editions published of Elizabeth David’s first book, a Book of Mediterranean Food, which was first published in 1950 by John Lehmann.

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores”, the book’s introduction begins, “endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans … ‘it is not really an exaggeration’, wrote Marcel Boulestin, ‘to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'”.

By the time she came to write the preface to the first Penguin edition of the book, in 1955, David admitted that when the book was first released, “almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.” In other words, the book has been published as pure food escapism, as a culinary aide memoire for those individuals lucky enough to have toured the Mediterranean before the start of the Second World War. “Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described”, David wrote, “it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations”.

For a generation of shoppers used to buying olive oil, olives, garlic, saffron and basil in their local supermarket, it’s amazing to read David exhorting cooks to make expeditions to Soho or “the region of Tottenham Court Road” for their tahina paste, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella, as if these places were themselves foreign and far-flung.

The UK’s food culture had moved on apace by the time David penned her introduction to the 1988 edition of the book. Now, she pinpointed the “spirit of defiance” in which she had written her recipes – defiance at a system of rationing that had left “lemons, oranges and tomatoes as rare as diamonds, commodities such as olive oil, rice and imported pasta no more than exotic memories, and fresh fish something you stood in a queue for …”

Given all this, it’s easy to look back on Elizabeth David and her peers as early food activists, stirring up a demand for unusual ingredients that has spawned a ‘foods of the world’ aisle in every supermarket. I suspect David herself would be amused to have pointed out to her the direct lineage from her post-war writings to the shelves of miso soup, Thai paste and tajine spices  we can choose from today. Afterall, her intention was only to take “refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years”.

How Michelin stardom killed Bernard Loiseau (II)

bernard-loiseauRecently I described how the first half of  The Perfectionist introduces three Michelin-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau within the context of the great French chefs of the past fifty years.

In the second half, the author cements the image of a chef whose gastronomic confidence and lack of personal self-confidence seem to flourish in tandem. We learn of his invention of a system of binding sauces with vegetable purées; and one of his defining creations, frogs’ legs with garlic purée and parsley juice, is described in enlightening detail. But at the same time we witness him working ever harder to hone his offering, becoming overly embroiled in building works at his restaurant and incurring mounting debts.

Much is made of the friendly service Loiseau drew from his team. Bernard exhorted his front of house staff to “just be yourselves”, and the resulting delivery and presentation of dishes was refreshingly straightforward: “There would be no convoluted terms on the menu, no “secret” ingredients, no precious, poetical language that made clients wish they had a dictionary at the table. Each dish would be presented simply and clearly as what it was, and when we delivered it to the client we would simply announce it without going into further detail. If you spend a minute going into lyrical descriptions of the dish and its recipe, it’s just getting cold while you talk, and the client has already forgotten what you’ve said by the time you’re finished. Eating here is for pleasure, not for education.” Loiseau was similarly single-minded when it came to the sourcing of ingredients: “I do sauces, but their role is just to let the ingredients express themselves and really taste of what they are … sixty per cent of my work is finding the best providers of my ingredients”.

Great food, ambience and service conspired, in 1991, to win Loiseau his coveted third star – a source of huge pride to a chef who, in his own words, arrived at his restaurant “with nothing but my cock and my knives”. But now his problems really started. An economic downturn, Bernard’s ongoing insecurities and high stress levels led to a bout of depression while in Japan. He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and prescribed Prozac. By now, more experimental chefs were attempting fusions of world cuisines and the likes of Ferran Adria were emerging to threaten the cosy world of classical cuisine. Loiseau rejected their faddish work, but his increasing paranoia and lack of confidence made him increasingly withdrawn, stressed, even phobic about hygiene.

The fallout from September 11 exacerbated his worries by robbing him of the healthy US customer base he previously enjoyed. And then rumours emerged that Michelin were considering downgrading him from three to two stars. Despite all the problems beyond his control that beset him, Chelminski suggests that Loiseau was arguably the architect of his own downfall. True, there was a meeting in 2002 between Loiseau and the then head of Michelin, Derek Brown, at which Brown passed on readers’ criticisms of Loiseau’s sauces. But Chelminski asserts that the subsequent predictions that circulated in the French press that Loiseau might be about to lose a star gathered pace only after Bernard himself called lots of his contacts to tell them of Brown’s comments. As it turned out, Bernard maintained his three stars in early 2003; but his GaultMillau rating dropped by two points to 17 out of 20 – a crushing blow. By now he was a man haunted by the ambitions he had set himself, and in February 2003 he killed himself with a gunshot to the head, burnt out and unable to bear his worries any longer. 

The book’s message in a nutshell? Be careful what you wish for.

Alexanders: a clarification

I posted last week about a strange vegetable, known as Alexanders, I had just tasted at the Goring Hotel. The Goring’s chef, Derek Quelch, was kind enough to provide a little detail on them:

Alexanders is actually part of the celery family. It tends to grow in coastal areas from early spring and it is said in some early cookbooks (Mrs Beeton ‘s household management 1907) that it was used instead of celery. It has a very bitter taste that can be counteracted with a little bit of sugar when cooked in butter.

I’ve now come across a comprehensive definition in a learned tome called Traditional Foods of Britain: a Inventory, which runs from Aberdeen Angus cattle to yule spice cake (surely the British Isles must have produced at least one foodstuff beginning with “Z”?) and looks like a prime candidate for a bedside read, if ever I saw one.

It corroborates Derek’s comment, describing Alexanders as a large umbelliferous plant, growing to about 1.5 metres, which looks like celery, has a soft texture when cooked and tastes a little like celery and parsley. Also known as black lovage andhorse parsley, it was brought here by the Romans, and was still being eaten in Italy in Renaissance times.

So now you know.

[This blog was brought to you by the setting sun and a hot cup of coffee.]

How Michelin stardom killed Bernard Loiseau (pt I)

chelminski-the-perfectionistHave you read a book called The Perfectionist, by Rudolph Chelminski? It’s about the life of three Michelin-starred French chef, Bernard Loiseau, and it’s fascinating.

Loiseau’s life story was defined by his suicide, in 2003. The owner of the Côte d’Or restaurant in Burgundy put a shotgun to his own head, rather than continue to bear the constant pressure of retaining his three Michelin stars. for me, the Perfectionist is at least a hundred pages too long and the prose can be overworked (“the black truffle … does for French cuisine what a Wonder Bra does for an ambitious ingénue …”!) But as an insight into the world of French haute gastronomie in the second half of the twentieth century, and, in particular, Loiseau’s complex world, Chelminski’s book works both as history lesson and cautionary tale.

To tell Loiseau’s story, Chelminski sets the scene by introducing the Godfathers of French cuisine, whose traditions Loiseau would uphold. We hear of Fernand Point, legendary chef-patron of La Pyramide in Vienne, whose “cuisine du moment” – the art of cooking the best produce available at the day’s market – set a template so many French chefs would follow. Chelminski traces the “sophisticated simplicity” of Point’s cooking through the work of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Claude Peyrot and the Troisgros brothers – all of whom worked under him. He goes on to introduce Alexandre Dumaine, whose restaurant Loiseau would one day purchase. (The Perfectionist yields many recipes, though none more extravagant than Dumaine’s oreiller de la Belle Aurore – a pillow-shaped pâté of hare, partidge, chicken, duck, ham, veal, pork, fois gras, truffles and pistachio that took three days to make. Chelminski reports that dinners at Dumaine’s restaurant would close the windows rather than lose any of the dish’s aroma).

Even as Point’s disciples were graduating to owning their own restaurants, France was entering the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of economic development from the sixties to the nineties, when an emergent nouveau riche with money to burn and cars to drive shared their wealth around the great provincial restaurants. This happy period was well underway when Bernard Loiseau was apprenticed to work at the Troisgros brothers’ restaurant in Roanne, in 1968. Three months later, the brothers had won their third star, and Bernard had identified his life’s purpose: to do the same. At this point, Chelminski makes an detour to the city of Clermont-Ferrand, where André Michelin, son of a family of runner ball-makers, patented the idea of a tire and inner tube for car wheels in 1891. Having helped mobilise the French, in 1900 he published a guide that would help them find hotels and meals on their travels. (We learn that these guides were given out free to motorists until 1919, when André saw one being used to prop up a wobbly table in a garage.) In 1933, stars were introduced to rate restaurants and they quickly became the yardstick of high cuisine – so much so, that chef, Marc Meneau referred to his demotion from three to two stars in 1999 as a “bereavement”.

Loiseau comes acros as hard-working, loyal, good-natured, generous and entertaining. His apprenticeship with the Troisgros brothers is worth a read – all carrying coal, peeling and turning potatoes, scaling and gutting fish, tending the stocks, killing and skinning frogs, plucking ortolans … Despite setbacks, he qualifies as a certified cook in 1971, and is soon working under Claude Verger in Paris. Chelminski is interesting on Verger, who was untrained but had a clear vision of how food should be prepared. Verger questioned the complication of French cooking with its overworked sauces and favoured “top-quality ingredients treated quickly, lightly and at the last minute”. He shared this philosophy with his friend, Michel Guérard, whose Parisian restaurant, the Pot au Feu, he admired greatly.

To illustrate Guérard’s ability to transform unremarkable ingredients into memorable dishes, Chelminski details his ailerons de volaille aux concombres – chicken wings with the central bone removed to form a sort of lollipop effect, served with cucumbers tossed in butter with shallots, diced mushrooms, herbs, tomatoes, white wine and cream. Later in the book, Chelminski extensively covers Guérard’s development of cuisine minceur, with which he sought to produce dishes at once tasty and healthy by swapping vegetable-based sauces for butter and cream.

Loiseau’s quest for Michelin recognition began in earnest when he arrived at the Côte D’Or restaurant, in the mid-Seventies. It’s fascinating to track his development of a cooking style he thought would achieve the regularity, quality and personality required by inspectors. This style called for a perfectionism that would come to haunt him, as the commercial burden of his restaurant came to hinge increasingly around winning stars. At this stage, Loiseau’s menu was fairly derivative – I was fascinated to read the section where the author traces Bernard’s dishes to their origins. So, we learn that his mussel soup with saffron owed much to Paul Bocuse, that his tea-infused prunes were inspired by Alain Senderens, that his salade Côte d’Or was lifted from Michel Guérard, and that his salmon in sorrel sauce had the Troisgros brothers’ imprint all over it. Slowly, le style Loiseau emerges, first in dishes like turbot slices with sautéed cepe mushrooms, and bavaroise of artichokes with a puree of fresh tomatoes; then in his reinvention of the humble nettle soup with snails and in what is perhaps his signature dish, pike perch with beef marrow in a red wine sauce.

Despite his growing culinary confidence, Loiseau is depicted as suffering from deep-rooted insecurities, as a man whose need to be adored by his public was as overwhelming as his desire for three stars. As his development of the restaurant incurs mounting debts, and his work schedule becomes ever more gruelling, so the circumstances of his death become more understandable.

The legend of the Tarte Tatin

tarte-tatin-brotherhoodAin’t the Internet a marvel? One moment, I’m doing a quick search for a tarte tatin recipe so I can replicate the fantastic banana tarte tatin I had at the Capital Hotel this week; the next, I’m reading about an arcane French brotherhood created to safeguard the original recipe for tarte tatin, as made by the Tatin sisters in Lamotte-Beuvron in the late nineteenth century. The website of the Lichonneux Brotherhood tells how the dish was born when Stephanie Tatin, owner of l’Hotel Tatin with her sister Caroline, placed an caramelised apple tart into the oven upside down, by mistake. Each year, Les Lichonneux don traditional blue smocks and red scarves and meet to celebrate their famous locl dish. Below is the recipe they list on their site:

  1. Take a high-sided pie dish (24cm diameter).
  2. Butter it, using 150g of fine butter. Sprinkle 125g of icing sugar onto the butter.
  3. Peel 1kg of apples’ Cut them roughly into quarters and place them side by side with the curved side down then fill in the gaps with large slices.
  4. Start cooking on a low flame for 10-15 minutes, and monitor the beginning of caramelising to your taste. Then place in an oven at 180-200 for approximately 15 minutes.
  5. Take out and arrange on a base of flaky or short pastry, slightly larger than the diameter of the mould, then put back in the oven for approximately 15 minutes.
  6. Once cooking is over, take out of the oven and allow to stand for a few minutes. Place a serving dish over your mould and turn it out quickly.

I’ve found another recipe, this time from Alain Roux of the Waterside Inn. Rosie from Fifty Four Food Miles kindly sent me this, from Jamie Oliver. And here’s a Gordon Ramsay tarte tatin of pears recipe. There are bound to be others on our cook book shelf …