Food and Drink

The particular and the peculiar

Geoffrey Grigson

I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)

I found this on the web (linked to from Wikipedia’s entry on Geoffrey Grigson):

His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.

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You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:

In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.

I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.

I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.

Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:

Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.

And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)

I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.


Prospect Books and La Varenne

Light blogging of late (but plenty still going through to del.icio.us) — so much on at school and elsewhere. Many things have had to go on hold. Cooking is one.

Returning home on Saturday, I found a fat parcel waiting for me: Prospect Books' newly published translation of La Varenne's three books, The French Cook, The French Pastry Chef, The French Confectioner. (You can get the index here as a pdf file.)

These three books by François Pierre de la Varenne (c. 1615–1678), who was chef to the Marquis d’Uxelles, are the most important French cookery books of the seventeenth century. It was the first French cookery book of any substance since Le Viandier almost 300 years before, and it ran to thirty editions in 75 years. The reason for its success was simply it was the first book to record and embody the immense advances which French cooking had made, largely under the influence (of) Italy and the Renaissance, since the fifteenth century. Some characteristics of medieval cookery are still visible, but many have disappeared. New World ingredients make their entrance. A surprising number of recipes for dishes still made in modern times (omelettes, beignets, even pumpkin pie) are given. The watershed from medieval to modern times is being crossed under our eyes in La Varenne’s pages.

So important was this book that English cooks of the time immediately bought copies and one (anonymous) even translated it into English in the middle of the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. This translation, as is the original, is extremely difficult to understand: there are difficult words, omissions, mistranslations, and other opacities. Terence Scully has solved all modern readers’ problems by undertaking a modern translation with detailed commentary of the original French texts. His work takes cognisance of the early English translation, as well as not ignoring contemporary works available to those early cooks for purposes of comparison and contrast. Even French people will want to buy it for what he tells us of the workings of the French kitchen in the seventeenth century.

That's from the publisher's website. It's a tome and a half (628pp):

So, definitely another holiday job pleasure.

It's a (characteristically) beautifully produced book — kudos to Tom Jaine. If you don't know Prospect Books, you can read about Tom and the history of this independent publisher here. And don't miss the Telegraph's profile of him:

Prospect publishes between six and 12 books a year. "We are not talking Grub Street, we're talking micro-publishing. I never expect to sell more than 1,000 books, and some only sell 50. I edit, re-write, typeset, design; the authors get no advances, only royalties. We just keep afloat."

Alan Davidson's entertaining account of the inception of Prospect Books is here — worth reading for the story of Richard Olney's involvement alone.

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Cooking

After several years of heavyish commuting and split-site living, it's good at last to be getting back into cooking. Today, it's also a pleasure to see Simon Hopkinson being singled out for star treatment now that his first book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, has been chosen by his peers as 'the most useful cookery book of all time':

Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine had lined up a panel of more than 40 leading chefs, restaurateurs and food writers and asked them to consider 100 cookbooks, then choose the most indispensable one of all. Hopkinson's 1994 work, which is separated into chapters by ingredient headings such as Almonds, Duck, Lemons and so forth, was the outright winner.

It's my favourite modern work by an English cook. In it, Hopkinson praises and thanks a number of friends and influences who have shaped him as a cook. There's a wonderful tribute to Richard Olney (alive when Hopkinson's book appeared): 'Richard Olney is not a professional cook in the normal way of things. However, he is, in my opinion, the greatest living writer on food and wine today. … it is his writing on food that has given me the most pleasure and inspiration. Both the French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food are classics and compulsory reading for all. Methodic descriptions are told in such a gentle and prosaic way that the result and taste of the final dish becomes perfectly obvious to the reader. He nudges you along so that you get it right.'  Hopkinson also has a wonderful description of lunch with Olney (pages 125–6 in the original edition).

I've enjoyed recently making blackcurrant jam using Raymond Blanc's innovative recipe (in Cooking for Friends), with much less sugar content than is usual (perhaps 55% rather than 70–80) — sweet enough to enjoy, but not so sweet as to bury the natural edge of the fruit's own tartness.

Finally, I came across some good postings about sushi last week, five in all. Here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Update (13.8.05): there's a piece on Hopkinson in today's Independent.


QI

This is a bookshop designed for browsing. The shelves don't follow the usual classifications. Instead they collect books together thematically, so a novel or biography might end up next to a work of popular science, or a reference book. The selection criteria are simple: they are either the best books on a subject or a book one of us feels strongly about recommending. The selection and the categories are designed to stimulate thought and discussion. …

'Besides the libraries of Radcliffe and Bodley and the Colleges, there have been of late years many libraries founded in our coffee houses … in these instruction and pleasure go hand in hand; and we may pronounce, in a literal sense, that learning no longer remains a dry pursuit.' Thomas Warton (1728–1790)

So runs the card that you can pick up at the QI bookshop (16 Turl Street, Oxford OX1 3DH). A number of friends have asked me about QI and I said I'd post a few notes, beginning with the bookshop. Last time I was there I took a few photos and the one I'd intended to serve as illustration of the unusual classification system only gives a suggestion of what it's like to browse shelves where books are grouped by themes: Informed Rants, Obsession, Revenge, Desire, Betrayal, Addiction, Experience, Innocence, First Love, Last Love … It's a great bookshop, with personality, run by Claudia FitzHerbert and her small team of enthusiastic, informed and intellectually alive assistants. Support it! Oxford has many bookshops already — but this one is different. We have thousands of books at home and yet this is a place where I am always discovering new authors, new books … new ideas to follow up — not least through chatting with Claudia and her team.

There's also a QI bar behind the bookshop. It's a cosy place for a drink with friends, relaxed and very sociable. It serves food and coffee, too, throughout opening hours. Upstairs is the club: this is private — members only. But it's the only club I've come across that I feel I'd like to join: two elegant Georgian rooms to relax in with drinks, light food and coffee always available, and a dining room and library where lunch and dinner is served every day. Taken with the bookshop and bar, it offers 'an eclectic mix of people, a place to meet, talk, shop, eat and drink in the centre of Oxford. It's a new version of the salon or the coffee house: a place you pop into regularly to buy books, read the paper, eat lunch, celebrate, argue, escape the office and listen to, or start conversations with, other quite interesting people.'

QI. Quite interesting. (Common code: 01865. Bookshop: 261507. Bar: 261508. Club: 261500.)

*****

Updates

(1) this from Claudia FitzHerbert's column in the Daily Telegraph, 9 August:

Dons don't come into my shop, much. Michael Gearin-Tosh, who died last week, was an exception. A distinguished English tutor at St Catherine's, who acquired a wider audience with Living Proof (2002) - an account of his long (and, for a long time, startlingly successful) battle against myeloma and conventional medicine - he was an irregular regular. On his first visit, I tried to pick his brains over which editions of Chekhov to stock, and where to put them. Chekhov, a doctor as well as a dramatist, saw a "dull-wittedness and tyranny" in medicine which he compared to Tsarist police. His genius hovers over Living Proof.

Gearin-Tosh seemed to get the shop categories at once. "He would," said my Fellow fellow, when I put it to him that a scholar had been in the shop and not fainted in disgust. "Contradiction and creative disorder are at the heart of Gearin-Tosh's talent. Your shop is just the retail version of his room in college." He said he'd think about the Chekhov before responding with feline courtesy to the placing of Living Proof. I don't think he was overly pleased to find it in Informed Rants, wedged in between Francis Wheen on mumbo-jumbo and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication. He would, I think, have preferred to be in The Big Picture, along with War and Peace and The Selfish Gene.

(2) jinty (livejournal):

Harry Potter is filed under Revenge, and the assistant, Thomasz, spoke interestingly of how one particular book had been placed by him under one category -- let's say Desire -- but then consistently moved by someone else to another category -- let's assume Ha Ha. In the end Thomasz moved it to Turbulence.


Food, creativity and play

The meal at QI last night (previous posting) was excellent. The menu was composed by Paul as a tribute to the part that food played in Lytton Strachey's life: he enjoyed his food and had a prodigious appetite.

Frisée, bacon and poached egg salad

Temple Farm 'Label Anglais' chicken, risotto of almond, onion, red pepper

Sack cream

*****

Château Beranger, Picpoul de Pinet, Languedoc 2003

Château Guilhem, Côtes de la Malapère 2000


Richard Olney (1927–1999) is my culinary hero. Paul knew him and speaks warmly of their friendship. We talked last night about Olney's originality as a cook. (Originality in cooking is surely very rare; indeed, Paul recalls Jane Grigson saying no cook is original.) That he was also a perfectionist is well known; his memoirs, Reflexions, would alone establish that — if you haven't the time or wish to study the 27 volumes of the out of print Time-Life Good Cook series. The stories I've heard or read of Olney keeping the Time-Life camera crew working late into the night as he sought to capture the intricacies of each step of a recipe … (The most photographed hands in the world? Probably!) I know of no better manual for learning to cook than this series and it is far, far cheaper (second-hand) than going off on any course.

Olney famously remarked, 'I don't like recipes. They keep cooks from using their intuition, and intuition is precisely what so much of cooking is about.' He was an artist and a cook (reflecting on his experience of both: 'The painter-cook analogy does not seem too far flung to me') and doesn't fall into that category of false witnesses that Anil Dash and Maciej Ceglowski have written about recently.

You, the cook, must also be the artist, bringing understanding to mechanical formulas … for such is creativity, be it in the kitchen or in the studio: the application of personal expression to an intimate understanding of the rules. … Rules in cooking are not iron-cast (and, as in any medium of expression, they are often bent or broken by practitioners of talent — but to break rules, one must have rules). They are merely the expression of a well of experience formed and enriched over the centuries, re-examined, modified, or altered in terms of changing needs, habits and tastes. They are welded out of knowledge … One's own set of rules will form itself and become increasingly elaborate as one comes to understand the logic behind each detail, each step, to recognise the repetitions or variations of basic steps from one recipe to another; and the more elaborate the set of rules — that is to say, the better one understands and is able to define an intricate framework of limitations — the greater is the freedom lent one's creative imagination. Only a cookbook is needed to prepare a boeuf Bourguignon but, without rules, improvisation is impossible — and that is what cooking is all about. Simple French Food

The Independent concluded its obituary of Olney:

Richard Olney's writings may come to share the position bestowed upon A. Escoffier's 1903 Guide Culinaire as the international authoritative culinary text of the 20th century. A pair well-matched. Escoffier preached "Faites simple" and devoted his career to eradicating the excessive culinary follies invented by his predecessors. He was rigid in his belief that the fundamentals and principles of cooking should be adhered to in order to maintain quality and excellence. However, while Escoffier accepted modifications and adaptions, one senses a fear to deviate. Olney, similar in his lifelong campaign for simplicity and belief in solid foundations, departed from Escoffier's teachings in wholeheartedly encouraging the use of imagination and improvisation in the kitchen once the rules were mastered - a culinary evolution that only an artist could instigate.


Cooking sites

Cook's Illustrated:

America’s Test Kitchen is a real place: a no-nonsense, fully equipped test kitchen located just outside Boston, MA, where a team of highly qualified test cooks and editors perform thousands of tests every year. The goal? To develop the best recipes and cooking techniques, recommend the best cookware and equipment, and rate brand-name pantry staples for home cooks. America’s Test Kitchen is devoted to a collegial approach to cooking—teams of editors, writers, and cooks engage in side-by-side comparisons, blind taste tests, and rigorous equipment performance tests to determine which pans work and which ones don’t, which brand of ketchup tastes best, and so on.

America’s Test Kitchen accepts no advertising. We are a private company with no affiliations with large publishers, cookware manufacturers, or food purveyors, which means that our content is unbiased and objective.

Gastronomy for Geeks:

Pizza, Twinkies, and Jolt are geek haute cuisine for a stereotypical few. Many of you know the difference between au jus and baba ghanoush, and that Thai shish kabob isn't called sauté. So, you Geek Gourmets, come share your favorite recipes, or see what your peers are cooking by browsing the categories to the right.

(via Joi Ito)


Cook more … (posted from 43 Things)

A walnut and wild mushroom soup: not such a success. Somehow, the walnuts didn't come through (I'll re-heat the remainder for tonight, adding some walnut oil — this may do the trick). The mushrooms were only as wild as our local Waitrose (UK supermarket) could produce, so not very.

But, the main course was a winner, albeit something that is tried and tested in our house. I'm not a vegetarian, but my wife is. A nut loaf is something I'm usualy happy to leave to her to … enjoy. However, Joyce Molyneux's great book, The Carved Angel, contains a recipe for one (see page 122) that's very good. This is how she introduces it:

There's nut loaf and there's nut loaf. It can be, and all too often is, leaden and worthy. This is the other kind, light and delicious with a herb or vegetable filling at its heart.

To finish, left over from Christmas we had two ices: Rosemary Sorbet and (the half-off-puttingly entitled) Rice Ice Cream with Rum-Soaked Fruits — both from Liddell and Weir's, Ices: The Definitive Guide. Both are highly recommended.

So, that was that for New Year's Day evening, and one son now gets ready to go back to university, the other to start his gap year. Left to the two of us, we won't be eating like this every evening …

(See more progress on 43 Things, "Cook more"...)


Cook more … (posted from 43 Things)

Tonight, a mushroom risotto. A couple of years ago I read Pot on the Fire by John Thorne, and there (pp 68f) is the best guide to cooking a risotto I have ever come across. His recipe uses portobello mushrooms and he cites Jack Czarnecki who, in A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms, says ‘portobellos are the only (supermarket mushrooms) that possess the size and succulence of the larger wild mushrooms, such as porcini’.

It was John Thorne who taught me to let the rice cook a little before adding any stock: ‘sauté the rice until its coating of starch has turned clear and the rice itself releases a toasty aroma’.