Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The last day of my week as cook (Sunday)

 I got up around 6 o'clock, glanced at the studio work in progress, dealt with ablutions and prepared breakfast before walking down the road to buy the paper.

I took breakfast, a dish which might vary from day to day, to Margreet in bed, where we read some of the paper and discuss the forthcoming day. If I haven't a new idea for breakfast, or leftovers to manipulate, we generally have toasted, home-made bread with butter and Marmite.

I go back upstairs to make a mark or two with pastel, then go down to do the washing up from the day before or even longer. This washing up will be of plates, glasses and bowls that will have been soaking in detergent water and thus almost clean already.

I peel potatoes for lunch and boil them for 10 minutes before adding them to the baking tin in which already lies half a free-range chicken coated in yoghurt, garlic and turmeric. The spuds are coated in oil (I use groundnut oil) and pepper and salted to be ready to be cooked in the oven later for lunch.

In the garden I take another look at the sport section of the paper and watch unseen zephyrs of wind moving individual vine leaves, and feel the draught from a bumblebee's wings. We both admire the runner beans - large, no longer for eating, but growing still for next year's seed and, in their dried form, for stews and finger-eating when boiled and coated with garlic and olive oil for "bites" with drinks. 

Margreet had returned the day before with lots of apples from her sister's garden which she peeled before I cut off the "meat". This went into a saucepan to be heated down to pulp with sugar and lemon juice. The pips, cores and skins went into another saucepan to be heated down with brown sugar and sieved to form a coating for the  pies.

Then I made the short crust pastry to line three tins (one pie to eat and two to give away). Into them went the white pulp, and on it was poured the brown, sieved juice. 

Actually I shouldn't have added any baking powder or sodium bicarbonate to the pastry as it rose too much when cooking, which forced up the pulp when hot and absorbed moisture from the pulp when cooling.

I peeled some home-grown shallots, given by Margreet's niece, and added them to the potatoes around the chicken.

It was time for a cold beer in the hot garden.

Oven on. the pies came out after 25 minutes to cool down, and the chicken later in time for Sunday lunch.

After lunch it was snooze time, before watering the plant pots that were suffering in the heat and take the kitchen compost bin down to empty into the large garden bin. To be emptied the following spring, the nicely smelling compost will improve soil quality and provide nourishment to plants.

I tried minimal heat under a frying pan to sear the green part of chard leaves in garlic and olive oil as "bites" for evening aperitifs, but without great success. I'll try again.

In the evening warmth we enjoyed a glass of cold white wine from Eastern Australia and tested an ordinary Rioja. Both were adequate, but not special.

Our supper dish was complicated. It started earlier in my week as a lovely beef stew with tomato juice as its liquid, became a curry, and finally for this evening a stew with stuffed vine leaves added. It was excellent although the vine leaves that I had stuffed a few days before were a little on the chewy side, being made with older, summer leaves. The stuffing was good, using Arborio rice, minced lamb, lemon zest, lemon juice and chopped mint.

We ate some of the apple pie, which was better than I thought it would be.

It was time for bed. I wanted to watch a Formula 1 Grand Prix on television, but racing cars just going around and around send me to sleep. And 95 years olds do need rest.

Tomorrow it will be Margreet's week  to cook. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Toad-in-the-Hole

Historically, toad-in-the-hole is an ancient British dish. My Dutch wife had never even heard of it and, I imagine the French would turn up their noses at the very thought of toad-in-the-hole (despite relishing frogs' legs) because it is connected with that dreadful reputation of culinary ineptitude in Britain that was once the butt of international jokes. 

Toad-in-the-hole was a favourite of my youth.Now, because of a recently established tradition, it has become the expected main course when a friend is invited to dine with us each year on Christmas Eve.

The snag is that trying many varieties of sausage every year and not being as I really wanted it to be, it is only recently that this hearty dish of sausages in batter has become a total success.

This success is partly due to a piece in one of those coloured newspaper supplements where the cook/author had made a simple dish of it far too elaborately and time-consuming in preparation. But it had a most useful tip concerning the batter.

The search for a successful batter and how to cook it is not the advice once given me by a Yorkshireman, who said that it should be put together just before the dish was to go in the oven. That it should rest beforehand, learned from this article, would seem now to be essential. So make the batter at least an hour or more before cooking the toad. Let's deal with the batter first, based on my own pancake mix. The volumes are enough for two people, with possibly some batter not consumed, which can be heated up and eaten later. 

In a bowl put three and a half dessert spoonfuls of plain flour, a pinch of turmeric (for colour only and not at all essential) and a little salt. Whisk it together. Make a well in the middle and into it break two eggs. Break up the eggs with the whisk and slowly add a quarter of a pint of milk as you whisk it. The batter will be formed. Make sure that you beat out all the lumps. Put this batter aside to rest and, should you pass by it, give it another whisk for good measure.

Now for the sausages. Before it became fashionable for sausages to be filled mostly with meat and be rather solid, the old British banger was harder to find, blander, and made of finely minced pork, plenty of fat (lard) a few spices and a lot of rusk. I buy a packet of Richmond 12 Thick Pork Sausages. These complement the batter as the batter complements the sausages.

Now you will need a baking tin in which to put plenty of oil (I use groundnut) and, if wanted and available, some lard (make sure that the sides of the tin are coated as well). Add and arrange the sausages (two a person) on the oil. To cook the dish you will need to remember only two numbers 

- 20 and 200. 

That's it. That's all. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Re-Cycling

We tend to think that re-cycling is suddenly of importance. In fact it was far more prevalent when I was younger.

In the late 1920s to early 1930s in the country, our bottles were always returned to the wine merchant who had delivered them beforehand. They were re-cycled.

After the war (WW2) I bought my wine from Berry's, Robert James, The Army and Navy Stores, but mostly from Lyons. These merchants chose their wines carefully, importing them in cask, as most did, and bottled them in the UK.  For example. Take J.Lyons (of Lyons Corner House fame) who had premises in The Hop Exchange, Southwark, London. They, like others, bottled from cask, corked, labelled and capsuled at this London headquarters. They had the knack, or expertise, of choosing extremely well. Their Chateau Cantanac Brown 1959 was the best red wine that I ever tasted, and, accordingly bought and stored as much as I could afford.

Those who dealt with these splendid people at The Hop Exchange, always returned the empty bottles. They had the labels soaked off and were washed in a great circular machine that made a lot of metallic, glass and water noises. The labels, usually supplied by the makers of the wine, were stuck on to the bottles by the hand of a lady who used cold water paste as glue (most did as bottles were used again, and the label thus came off easily). Capsules (tin/lead - this soft material prevented the bottle inadvertently chipping the rim of a glass), to cover the cork were, again, added by hand, before the bottles were stacked in readiness for sale.

The bottles were English heavyweight, with the diameter beneath the neck being greater than that near the punt. These had the disadvantage of having to be stacked one layer above another with a slip of wood beneath the lesser diameter end. This was to stop them from sliding forward and crashing to the floor. The cold water paste used for the labels enabled the wine's origins to be altered easily by just cooking them off in a bath of water. Then the bottles could be re-labelled (there were no rules then), as when plain Hock could lose its modest provenance and have the royal insignia label substituted for its grander consumption at the Palace. Hotels and restaurants did not have time for staff to select and re-cycle their empty bottles, so left them outside to be collected by an East End organisation, who sold the acceptable ones back to wine merchants and smashed the rest. They did quite well, as the bottles were free to them and they made good money by re-cycling those in demand.

I know this as I had imported a hogshead of Rioja from Bilbainas, in Spain, and needed 350 bottles. The re-cycling merchants wanted too much money for them. So I did what they did, and around 4 in the morning cruised the restaurants and hotels to select the bottles I wanted.

I was very lucky to have lived through the 1950s and 1960s before the wine departments at supermarkets really got going. It was a time when drinking the occasional bottle of really good Bordeaux from the most famous vineyards was within one's means, and minor chateaux claret was one's every day wine.

Then in came bulk wine, disposable lightweight bottles, supermarket abundance, and bottling abroad. 

As wine selling is now a major business, so the re-cycling of bottles for it no longer applies. Bottles are now just glass, possibly to be re-cycled but more probably buried as landfill.

But at least I did re-cycle wine bottles when it made sense and it really mattered. And there was something really nice about handling an English heavyweight bottle and knowing that something delicious was lying inside. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Dealing in Shares

 I am innumerate - so much so that almost anything involving a number goes into one ear, gets mangled and scrambled somewhere in my brain, and does not reappear in an intelligent form.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, numbers happening to be one of my major failings. But I am lucky by nature. 

Years ago an uncle started a factory that made hurricane lamps. I was told that he could flood the world’s markets with two weeks production.

The company had shares, and I must have been given or bequeathed some of them. I certainly never bought any. Once or twice we did get a modest dividend. So I viewed the shares as pretty well worthless and rather forgot about them.

I am told that private companies are run mainly for the good of the owners, so I never expected much from my holdings.

However, the present owner wanted to have all the shares held within his immediate family, and bought me out. With no skill whatsoever, I did well.

Robert Adeane, (later “Sir”) was a collector and patron of art and, I believe, Director of the Tate Gallery. He may have had a vote when the Tate bought one of my early dock landscapes for the Ministry of Works (now The National Collection) from the Leicester Gallery. He became a friend in Art School days, and when I told him that I was selling my ex-bombed-out house and going around the world to draw, he advised that I invest the money in certain shares, which I did. On my return a year later the shares had at least doubled in value. So I was able to build a studio house in the country. That very successful share dealing had nothing to do with MySky  skill in financial matters.

I had at least an hour or two to wait in a queue at Lord’s Cricket Ground to see a day’s play of a Test Match. Beside me was a man with whom I got on very well. As we were about to enter the ground, he said, in a loud voice: “I like the cut of your jib. Why don’t you buy some shares in my company?”

Something told me that the important part of dealing in shares was knowing when to sell. So I asked him and he told me.

A few years later when the target price had been reached, we sold and spent the money on a holiday in Sicily. We sent words of thanks to him from the magnificent open-air Greek theatre that overlooks the belching Etna volcano.

So, for someone with no ability whatsoever in dealing with numbers, I have, in a small way, done rather well with my share dealings - an occupation that I believe is best left to professionals.


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Blue Paint

Our front door in London is coated with Oxford Blue paint. It is good paint, and one to be used with great care because it is so penetratingly blue, and thus hard to be rid of if falling unwanted on any surface. For that reason I handle it in surgical rubber gloves and with apprehension.
With it I aim to obtain that lovely crusty surface that adorns the streetside woodwork of Berry Brothers and Rudd, those venerable wine merchants in St James' Street, London, where the paint and overpaint may have been applied since the 18th century.
On a summer's day, when watching cricket, I sat next to a house painter who gave me the great tip of how to prevent a dried surface from forming on the top of the contents of a tin of opened paint by simply storing the closed tin upside down. This has stood me in good stead, that was, until the following episode.
After I last painted my front door, I stored the blue paint, for some unknown reason, not right side up and next to my household tools as usual, but with other paints in the loft that were all stored upside down. 
It was springtime, and possibly after our 2019 red wine harvest had passed its malolactic fermentation
in our loft, we decided to bottle the modest vintage. After using a ladder to recover the demijohns behind the pots of paint, I found that the lid of the blue tin had not been closed adequately and that some of its contents had not only leaked out but almost glued the lid to the boards beneath. So, when moving the pot, the lid stayed behind where it had become stuck, allowing what paint remained in the tin to flow out and all around the place. I had to think quickly. 
Perched on the ladder it would have been almost impossible to tackle the disaster on my own. So Margreet brought me some surgical rubber gloves, a basket lined with a refuse bag liner and countless balls of crumpled newspaper. So the mopping up was under way. Tins were wiped and moved, a bag of painting kit put on newspaper to dry, and the paint mopped up.
Bottling the wine had to be abandoned until a later date when the spilled blue paint would be dry.
And we managed it all with only a dab of paint spilled on my wrist and another on Margreet's hand - both of which were dealt with using white spirit.
It was quite a colourful saga I can tell you. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Food from two cultures

I count myself lucky to have a Dutch wife. And as we take alternate weeks to cook, another culture's cuisine dominates our menu ideas every seven days.
Margreet's approach stems not from personal experience, as her past in the Dutch Foreign Service deemed that others did the cooking for her. So dishes are as she remembered them from childhood, when shortages were part of post-war Dutch life - difficult times, but very Dutch food.
However, like birds making the same kind of nest as their parents, and with no instructions, so types of national cooking would seem to be inbred.
My first experience of eating her kind of food was as a supernumerary on Dutch coasters. And very basic it was. The cook, sober or not, kept a sort of missionary's cauldron full of meat chunks in liquid ("jus"). This was served up in quantity with boiled potatoes combined with the liquor in which the meat was cooked. Sometimes another vegetable came as well. But whatever was served, it was covered in grated nutmeg. That was about it, and not very satisfactory if the sea was rough.
When briefly ashore in Holland, the crew and I savoured those specialities that can make eating there a wonderful experience. This trio of delights were - and are - raw herring (when in season), smoked eel, best in skin and both eaten in the fingers, and pancakes (bacon ones being my favourite).
Generally, though, plates of food are piled high, often mixed, as once in a restaurant when all three courses were served at one time and on one plate.
Quantity is the Dutch theme - I suppose to fill their large selves and keep out the cold and the rain.
So Margreet, probably without really knowing it, piles the food high, often in such quantity (and mixture) that leaves plenty over to chop up and add to our ever-changing and excellent soup.
My own upbringing in England was one where I took little notice of food. At home we had a blackened anthracite-fired range that supplied hot water and cooking facility for the house day and night. On it, Constance, our maid, turned out staid and solid English fare of roasts, pies, overcooked vegetables, suet puddings, dumplings and cakes - the latter made with many eggs as my father had a chicken farm. We children could have what we liked for our birthdays and always chose roast chicken. In those days chickens were all free-range, ours roaming around our fields. Our choice was sensible English. We did not know much about fancy foods anyhow.
RAF food in the war was substantial and plain, changing abruptly in the great post-war freeze-up of 1947 when anything to eat was scarce, so much so that I contracted TB, probably through lack of it.
But revelations in the enjoyment of food were just around the piecetime corner when we were allowed out of our severely rationed country to reach France and eat as though the war had never happened. Café fare was served separately in small quantities, varied, unadorned, delicious and simple - the style of which I have tried to adhere to ever since.
So, roughly speaking, for now it is hearty and filling one week and light and simple the next.
This could hardly be bettered. Vive la difference!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Brushes with Farming

I was the son of a sport-loving farmer. I inherited his love of sport, but was farming in my blood?
After agricultural college my father went to Egypt (then a British Protectorate) to, I believe but not know, to teach how to irrigate the desert with Nile water.
The evidence he left indicated that he spoke and wrote Arabic.
When the 1914-1918 war was about to break out, he returned to England, joined his territorial regiment, became an officer on Salisbury Plain and was sent to India. From there he fought in the very nasty Mesopotamia Campaign, was badly wounded, and returned to England to recover.
He started a chicken farm.
I was born in 1925 and spent, I suppose, an ideal childhood of countrypersuits on that farm.
The great depression descended upon us. Cheap eggs from Poland destroyed the chicken and eggs business. So he abandoned chickens for mushrooms - without success. He was unaware of successful business practice, so times were hard for us. He died through being given the cure-all of the time - radium.
The 1939-1945 war came. I went to America and returned when old enough to join the RAF as a potential pilot. Having been enrolled I had to wait for flying training. So, with the views I could help with food production in that time of rationing and that I wanted experience in farming, I took a job as a farm labourer. The constant worries of weather, dealing with cart-horses, rather primitive machinery, cattle and all the rest, convinced me that a post-war future in farming was not enticing.
I obtained a job as a prop-swinger and gained enough piloting experience to know that I would make a good pilot and a poor farmer.
The war over and, seeing the kind of person applying for permanency in the RAF and some of the bloodiness of returning aircrew from raids over Germany, I chose medicine. But two bouts of TB put an end to that.
Living now in the country, I was befriended by a farmer well known for his skill in making a fortune from hard-nosed farming combined with journalism. We would meet almost weekly to drink red wine and swap ideas. Through his auspices I wrote for a national newspaper and conducted a Gardeners' World programme on my garden and vineyard for the BBC.
The thought of farming never entered my head again, despite watching television programmes of lovely people with lovely farms and friendly animals making a farming life seem so pleasant.
I had not found it to be such, and glad that I never chose it as a career.