Why Borough Market Makes the World a Better Place

LoveBoroughlogoFour days after the attacks on London Bridge and at Borough Market, the Market is still cordoned off. This beautiful public space, at the heart of my local community – and the global food community – with its huge population of residents, workers and visitors, remains at the epicentre of the painstaking and important work that needs to be done after these terrible events.

My friends at Borough Market have generously commissioned me to write some pieces for their website over the last year or two, most recently on the theme of Utopia. That series has only just started, but it in the current circumstances it feels like even more of a gift, and an even more powerful concept, than it did before. For me (and lots of very brilliant scholars – I can’t claim to have thought of this all by myself), Utopia doesn’t mean a descent into unbending ideology or an impossibly perfect design for living. On the contrary, Utopia represents an unfolding, flexible journey of the imagination and a desire to make things better. It’s a constant, pleasurable striving for more humane ways of organising our world and living in it together. Given where we are today, it feels more  important than ever to recognise, celebrate and continue to build on all the aspects of food, place, community and shared culture that Borough Market so consistently and brilliantly brings to us.

It’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of such events, but there are always ways to do something. The Red Cross has designed a particularly brilliant campaign called ‘A Saturday Night for London‘. It’s come up with a way for everyone to raise money, remember those who died and support those suffering in the aftermath by participating in mass acts of public conviviality: exactly the kinds of sociable shared activity we associate with Borough Market, and one of the ways we celebrate our city every day.

The Market and its people are having an incredibly tough and upsetting time, so let’s try to support them however we can. We can all keep in touch using #LoveBorough.  Join this very special community – whether in person or virtually – on its voyage into the future.

To read more on Borough Market as Utopia, go to this page on the Borough Market website.

Space food anniversaries: the first sandwich in space

Commemorative corned-beef sandwich on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum (image courtesy of colllectspace.com)

Last week the world commemorated fifty years since the first space walk. Today we should be rejoicing in the less known – but for space food enthusiasts far more significant – 50th anniversary of the very first Earth food-as-we-know-it to appear in the United States’ space programme: a corned beef sandwich.

On 23rd March 1965 Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Pilot John Young spent almost 5 hours in orbit in Gemini 3, successfully testing various aspects of manned space flight, including the food. Yet they came down to Earth with a bump, becoming the subject of excited news headlines and furious discussion at a US Congress House Subcommittee hearing that resulted in an official reprimand for John Young. What could possibly have happened?

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop, Cocoa Beach, Florida (image courtesy of collectspace.com)

At least part of the answer lay in the food.The astronauts obediently sampled the securely packaged ‘official’ hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce they had been provided with, washed down with germicide-protected water and orange juice. But then, to Gus Gissom’s surprise, John Young produced from his pocket some illegal contraband – a fresh corned-beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, smuggled to him immediately pre-flight by Walter Schirra (another astronaut who was not flying that day). They gave it a taste, commented on the food smell (notably absent from the ‘real’ space food), and shoved it back in a pocket as it started to crumble. It was over in less than half a minute. The repercussions were felt all the way through the Apollo missions.

There were lots of reasons given for all the fuss. The US space programme was notoriously paranoid about crumbs, making a bread-clad sandwich seem the height of irresponsibility. It also seems to have been a question of control: in a billion-dollar mission with the eyes of the world upon it, there wasn’t much room for a sense of humour, and individuals simply couldn’t be allowed to introduce additional, unauthorised ‘human’ risks. If sanctioned, a contraband sandwich could be just the tip of a very significant iceberg. Most of all, perhaps, it was the contrast in the Cold War era headlines. There is a wide gulf between the heroic potential in “Cosmonaut (USSR) achieves first space walk” versus “Astronaut (USA) eats first space sandwich” – despite its subsequent significance to food historians.

For more on this incident see my 2010 article for Endeavour, on this site under ‘Publications’, and at Academia.edu.

 

Irn bru sorbet for Burns night

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Irn bru may be one of those things you have to enjoy as a child – like marmite – to really develop a taste for it. Happily for me, I did, and in the right circumstances there’s little better than a cold, rusty orange, sweet, fizzy glass of it. It’s impossible to describe the taste. When I was growing up, the adverts told us it was “made from girders”, and that remains a good enough explanation for me.

I volunteered to help my niece (the macaroon niece) with a Burns supper she was working on. We chatted about mini macaroons and deep fried mars bars as the ideal follow up to the obligatory haggis, neeps and tatties, and then it came to me: irn bru sorbet! Perfectly combining the roles of palate cleanser and sugar hit, it seems like the obvious missing link between main course and dessert. No Burns supper need be deprived of this Scottish equivalent of the trou Normande ever again. It wouldn’t do any harm to add a slug of vodka to it, either.

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Recipe
This recipe is an adaptation of the wonderful Robin Weir’s (much more sophisticated) cider sorbet recipe. His brilliant book with Caroline Weir, Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati is my definitive guide to frozen desserts.

Ingredients
300ml cold water
200g sugar
600ml irn bru, chilled
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 egg white

Method
Dissolve the sugar in the cold water, stirring until there are no grains left. Measure out the chilled irn bru and combine with the sugar syrups lemon juice. Refrigerate, if it isn’t completely cold. Start the ice cream machine, and pour in the bright orange liquid. After about 10 minutes, when the mixture is beginning to freeze, take your egg white, very lightly break it up with a fork (don’t make it frothy), and add it to the mixture in the machine.

Continue churning until the sorbet is a light and fluffy snow. You will be amazed at how strongly it smells of irn bru! The sorbet gets paler and paler as it churns, ending up a pretty pale orange. If you want to retain the aggressive rusty hue of the original ‘bru, you could add some food colouring, but I don’t think this is essential.

Serve immediately. If keeping for later, pour straight into a clean plastic container, cover the surface with greaseproof or waxed paper, seal with a lid, and freeze. Depending how hard it is when fully frozen, allow to soften slightly in the fridge for 10-20 minutes before serving from the freezer.

Bitter with bits in: my ideal marmalade

IMG_2247When I was growing up marmalade meant one thing: a citrussy concoction with bits of peel in it, related to jam but somehow more complicated in flavour and less obviously sweet. It was also one of the only things my father ever cooked – it still is – and although he comes up with all sorts of variations on the theme, one or more members of the citrus family are always the star ingredients, and perfectly sliced peel an essential element. I think this is generally the case in the UK today, though the earliest origins of the name lie with a smooth Portuguese quince concoction and over centuries the word has applied itself to many different kinds of fruit jam in other European countries (for full marmalade history and lots of recipes see my friend Elizabeth Field’s wonderful work).

Of course I am so conditioned by citrus that oranges are always the first fruit that spring to mind when I read the word, and I’ve been reading it a lot recently as I continue my pursuit of Charles Fourier’s gastrosophic (or truly gastronomic) vision – and his sweet tooth. Fourier seems to love marmelades, and constantly suggests them as one of the ideal and economical foods of Harmony, especially for women and children. The Néo-Physiologie du Gout par Ordre Alphabétique (1839) confirms that in France in this period a marmelade was simply the type of jam that uses the whole of the fruit, as opposed to a jelly, made with only the juice. Its marmelade section discusses everything but citrus, and although there is a brief, all inclusive description of citrus marmelade under the citron entry, this requires passing the cooked peel through a sieve to produce a smooth preparation – sacrilege on my breakfast table!

Although I know some people chop their marmalade peel finely with a food processor, and Fourier himself was expecting an un-bitty preserve, I’m afraid I simply can’t bring myself to make you a puréed or strained marmalade, especially not while Seville oranges are in season. You can click here for a basic recipe for a very British orange marmalade, passing on as many tips from my father as I could glean. It might not be what Fourier had in mind for his Harmonians, but as far as I’m concerned it brings you as close as you can get to marmalade perfection.

Rediscovering the Mirliton – Charles Fourier’s favourite tart

 

IMG_7482When you read any of Charles Fourier’s utopian tracts you can’t help noticing what an important part sugar plays in his idea of the perfect world. He constantly refers delicious cakes, jams and sweets, and does it with such relish that it feels obvious that his future world, Harmony, was the perfect place for anyone – like him – with a very sweet tooth.

One of the cakes he mentions most often is the mirliton, and everyone who has written on Fourier’s theory of gastrosophy mentions them too, equally casually. But one day I asked myself – what exactly IS a mirliton? And where can I get one? In fact, why am I not eating one right now as an essential element in my research? I started to ask for them in bakeries all over Paris, and other towns I visited in the south, and made the not entirely original discovery that the best way to feel extremely foolish about your apparent lack of mastery of the French language is to ask a pâtissier about a cake he’s never heard of: rest assured that it’s never him, it’s you!

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It became clear that if I wanted this essential taste of Harmony in my life I had to find a recipe and make one myself. The Néo-physiologie du gout par ordre alphabétique, ou Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne (Paris: 1839) obliged, with not just one recipe, but a basic recipe and two variations. This in itself was very exciting, as one variation was for Mirlitons de Rouen and one for Mirlitons à la parisienne. If you have read about Charles Fourier’s formative years you will know that in 1789 he made his first trip to Paris, via Rouen, at the age of 18. Clearly this visit, at such a significant time in his own development and in the social and political history of France, had a major influence on the rest of his life, thought and writing. For me, it’s intriguing also to wonder if the mirliton was another significant yet somehow hidden discovery on that trip, and speculate that the lighter, puffier mirliton of the Parisian recipe only added to his enchantment with that city.

So, what are they like? I’d say, with Fourier, they are miraculous, and a true taste of paradise: fluffy, dainty, light as air, beautiful to look at, delicious to eat. Watching them through the oven door as they rise at unlikely speed to an impossible height completely explains their name – a non-edible mirliton being somewhere between a kazoo and one of those party blowers that hoots as it unfurls a long flat tongue when you blow into it. For every reason I reckon the mirliton, baked to be as light and sweet as Harmony demands it, is long overdue for a major comeback.

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RECIPE

Ingredients (for about 30)
4 eggs – 2 whole, 2 separated
120g (4 oz) icing sugar
90g (3 oz) meringues (hazelnut is very good) – crushed
½ tbsp orange flower water
pinch of salt
60g (2 oz) butter – melted
800g (1¾lb) fine puff pastry
Icing sugar and Demerara sugar for finishing

Equipment
Pastry moulds/tart tins 5cm wide and 2cm deep
Fluted pastry cutter 7cm diameter.

Method
Pre-heat oven to medium hot, 180°C-200°C / 350°F-400°F.

IMG_2372Melt the butter and allow it to cool. In a bowl mix together the two whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and stir in the icing sugar, crushed nut meringues, orange flower water and the pinch of salt. Mix in the cooled melted butter. Beat the 2 egg whites into soft peaks and fold them in to the rest of the mixture.

IMG_2366Roll out the puff pastry to a thickness of 6mm (2/8”), and cut into 30 or so pieces with a 7cm (2 6/8”) fluted pastry cutter.

IMG_2367Gently place them in lightly buttered moulds 5cm (2”) wide and 2cm (6/8”) deep.

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IMG_2375Fill the pastry cases with the mixture.

IMG_2377Sift icing sugar over them to give a light dusting over the whole surface, and sprinkle a few grains of Demerara sugar on each one.

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IMG_2379Bake in a medium to hot oven, with even bottom heat, for about 10-15 minutes. The pastry and the filling will puff up to an unlikely-seeming height – if they don’t, adjust the oven temperature and stand your filled trays on a hot metal tray or baking stone.

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Serve hot or cooled on the day of baking. They don’t really need any embellishment but if you want to plate them as a dessert they are good with some fruit coulis (raspberry or blackberry) on the side.

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For a more printable version of the recipe, look on the Recipes page.

Bread in Kazakhstan – Taba Nan baked in a dung fire

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At any market in southern Kazakhstan you will see piles of the most beautiful big round breads, called nan or non. All of them have a raised edge and some kind of decoration on the central dough, though there are many variations on the theme, and they are priced accordingly. Some are plain (taba nan, or lepeshka in Russian), others enriched with egg (salma nan); some Uzbek-influenced version have fried onion rolled into the rim or mixed into the dough, while others are strewn with sesame or nigella seeds. In a restaurant, you might be served smaller and highly decorated versions of any of these breads, damdy nan.

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Typically, the plain or seeded version is eaten at breakfast with thick sour cream or butter and fruit jam. Others accompany salads and meat dishes. Whichever variation you are served, it’s clear that these breads are closely related to the Uzbek non or patyr in form and ingredients. But one of the more interesting things about the Kazakh version is the way they are traditionally baked at home: not in an oven as we might understand it, or a clay tandoor as in Uzbekistan, but in a couple of metal dishes, put together to make a kind of mini oven for each individual bread. Presumably this entirely portable technique is tied to the nomadic roots of the Kazakhs. Using it allows anyone to make a perfect bread anywhere it’s possible to light a fire and unhook two pans from your luggage – and produce something that one might more usually asscoiate with a bakery, an oven, and settling in one place.

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Of course not many Kazakhs live this nomadic life any more, but this only makes it more interesting to find out how people make the bread today. Zubira Boranbayeva showed me how to do it first in the traditional way, on a dung fire; and then in the new way, on an electric stove, when I visited her in the village of Zhabagly in southern Kazakhstan. The different heat sources require slightly different techniques, which in turn subtly affect the flavour of the bread. It was a fascinating example of how recipes and dishes can adapt, and how the small changes and compromises needed to make a recipe work in new circumstances result in tiny but discernible changes in flavour, look and feel.

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The common factor in both versions is the dough. It’s a very wet, porridgey mixture, generally mixed in the morning and left wrapped up in a warm place for 8-9 hours. Above is the lively result we had to work with! The next step is to light the fire. We had a traditionally Kazakh fire made of dried dung, but you could use wood instead.

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The next step is to heat the pans as the fire takes. These must be heavy iron pans, safe for use over an open fire, of almost the same size. They need to fit together edge to edge, or with one very slightly smaller than the other fitting just inside the rim of the other.

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Once heated, the bottom pan should be rubbed with a piece of sheep tail fat to prevent the bread from sticking.

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Next, take a handful of dough and spread it on the bottom of the greased pan.

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Push it right out to the edges of the pan and make some marks in the surface of the dough with your knuckles.

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Cover the lower pan containing the dough with the warmed covering pan.

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Now it’s ready to go into the fire – a large set of tongs is a good idea, as the pans are already hot and will not get any cooler during the baking! Spread out your fire making a good flat bed of glowing embers for your pan to sit on. Put your pans in the middle of the fire and cover with some of the smouldering dung (or wood embers).

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Leave it to cook for about 5 minutes, then sweep everything off the lid, remove the lid, and check whether the bread is done.

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If it is golden on top, pull the pan out of the fire with your tongs and remove the bread. It should tip out easily thanks to the pre-greasing with sheep tail fat.

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The combination of direct top and bottom heat on a relatively small amount of dough makes this an incredibly quick bread to cook, and the wet dough makes for a light and springy texture. The fat, the smoke and the smell of the outdoors combine to make it an unbelievably delicious one.

Cured egg yolk: final chapter, first round

IMG_2313The experiment is at an end, and judged on looks alone it is a triumph – those grated golden curls couldn’t be more lovely.

But on flavour, we have a hung jury. The effect of these flecks of proteinous gorgeousness on pasta or in a salad is very good indeed, I just wish it was more umami, a lot less sweet. In my research I found that people who tweaked the traditional 50/50 advice tended to up the amount of sugar. Not me. Next time I’ll try it with no sugar at all and see how much better that is. And maybe a control specimen somewhere in between, say at 75/25.

So, perhaps the experiment isn’t at an end after all. There’s always a spare yolk around somewhere – and it has to be said there is something truly fabulous about being able to grate an ingredient I have always thought of as a liquid over my food, even if it is a tiny bit sweeter than I’d like. It’s definitely my new store cupboard staple.

For a full summary of the process, look at my recipe page for Cured Egg Yolk.

Cured egg yolk - finished - split