The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

Cool as a …

Cool as a …

In this hot weather cucumber soup is an easy, cheap, delicious and cooling lunch or starter. You can control the calorie count easily by adjusting the cream or yoghurt quotient as you serve it. Cucumber on its own produces a pale green soup but if you want the colour to be a bit more vibrant add some raw baby spinach leaves at the blending stage. The more spinach you add the better from a nutritional point of view since it is chock full of vitamins and minerals. You can use cooked spinach but it won’t give you that lovely bright green. This is a painless way for the non-spinach eater to get the benefits of eating spinach! And remember that making your own food from scratch is super nutritious for your self-esteem as well.

Cucumber Soup

2 x medium to large green cucumbers

1 x large onion

handful of baby spinach leaves or more (optional)

single cream or yoghurt to taste (optional)

1 litre Marigold vegetable stock or home-made vegetable or chicken stock

 

Chop up your cucumbers and onion – this doesn’t have to be a work of art because it’s all going in the blender – and sweat in a tablespoonful of olive oil in a heavy pan with a lid.

Be careful not to let the onions catch as it will affect the colour of the soup, turning it brown.

When the onions are transparent add the stock and bring to the boil.

Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.

Allow to cool and the liquidise completely adding the raw baby spinach leaves if you have them.

Chill for six hours and then taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper as needed.

At this stage you can freeze the soup or put in back in the fridge until needed. When you come to serving you can add a whole carton of cream or just a splash, or a spoonful of yoghurt in each dish and the beauty of it is each person can have it how they need it. For those of us watching the calories and feeding others this is a great boon.

A few thin slices of cucumber as a garnish and some fabulous bowls can make this a dinner party soup you can prepare two to four days in advance.

Hot hot hot

Hot hot hot

The heat wave continues in the UK and I wanted to share one of my all-time favourite hot weather recipes, good for lunch or dinner at the table, on the terrace or in picnic form. It is my version of Coronation Chicken and fair to say I have never had it anywhere else since I pinched the recipe from a friend back in 1982 so unless Annie’s coming to supper you will take your guests by surprise. It is a sure-fire winner and the left-overs are possibly even better next day.

 

Chicken and Almond Salad

1 chicken breast fillet per person or maybe 3 between 3, remove the skin and slice into generous slices.

A small handful of toasted whole almonds (for 2) or more to taste

A small handful of raisins soaked in hot water and drained.

A mayonnaise sauce made from mayonnaise itself (I use Hellman’s) and reduced fat sour cream (or yoghurt, or fromage frais or double cream depending on your taste and waistline). Proportions about half and half.

Cos lettuce or your favourite crispy lettuce.

Method

Toast the whole blanched almonds in a dry frying pan until they are toasty golden brown at least in places.

Poach the chicken slices in water with peppercorns, fresh herbs if you have them, half a carrot and a little salt. When the chicken goes white it is cooked through and you can turn the heat off.

Soak and drain the raisins to plump them up.

Cool the chicken and remove from the water. Cut the slices into chunks.

In a large bowl combine the chicken chunks, almonds and raisins. Add the chilled mayonnaise and grate a little raw onion on top. Add black pepper and combine all gently. Keep in a tupperware in the fridge until needed. It keeps well for 48 hours.

When the salad is needed arrange the lettuce leaves beautifully on a large white plate or in a large white bowl and then tip the chicken mixture on top leaving much of the lovely green lettuce leaves showing around the edge. The picture below is only in a picnic box but it can look rather elegant!

chicken and almondIf you don’t eat chicken you can make quite a nice Waldorf salad with walnuts and apple and if you want to bulk it out add some cooked vegetables of chunks of raw courgette or newly podded broad beans.

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

 

flags

These islanders are proud of their water entrance which is always a priority for Venetians however little used.

My first day back in Venice and I am on a day trip out into the Lagoon. I change boat at Treporti where my feet briefly touch the mainland, albeit an outpost of Italy which is still clearly Venice. A brioche and a cappuccino in the ten minutes waiting for the next boat is breakfast and an exquisite reminder of the sweet tooth of the early morning Venetian. On the number 13 boat I have only a small German family and the boatman for company. Like me they are going to explore Sant’Erasmo. I know this because this is the only place this boat is going. Three stops, all on Sant’Erasmo. The boat sits low in the water as we hum out further into the lagoon, surrounded only by pieces of land at water level covered in scrub. I get an idea of what Venice looked like before they built it. With every moment we grow further away from Venice itself and the profiles of islands I know. Burano is a distant memory.

The German father wears strange orange trousers with the seat and knees reinforced in brown tweed as though he might be going to crawl everywhere or shuffle on his bottom. On his feet are crocs and on his head a brown wool beret complete with tiny stalk. The mother carries a large rucksack with all the necessary, some of it strapped on the outside including a change of socks for the little girl who is dressed like Pippi Longstocking. In fact they are all so colourfully dressed I wonder whether they are in fact Dutch not German. The rhythms of their conversation sound German but above the steady thrum of the boat’s engine it is difficult to be certain. The boatman mutters Venetian dialect into his phone.

fort

The Fort at Sant’Erasmo built after Napoleon’s defeat was used as late as World War One by Italian soldiers. It is now an occasional exhibition centre.

Young, handsome, the Venetian is simply dressed in clean and ironed trousers, a blue pullover with grey collar and cuffs, sunglasses. I imagine he would smell delicious and it is delightful to watch him manoeuvre the boat with one hand as he talks on the phone with the other. Arriving at a stop he moors the craft and unchains the doorway still with one hand. Laid back does not begin to describe it. No-one gets on or off and the German makes a mime of looking for people, as in Why are we stopped? The Italian holds up two fingers – he has a timetable and we are two minutes early. Not a hundred feet away is a fisherman paddling up to his knees in the water, his boat rocking gently nearby in our wake.  Not a hundred feet away we could run aground and I realise that, laid back or not, our boatman really does know what he’s doing.

orto

Quite soon you pass the vineyards where they grow this local wine. Orto means vegetable plot and the wine is serenissimo like the republic Venice still takes itself to be.

Did I say it is sunny? And for an April day, very warm in the way that promises a certain summer. Back in England a sunny week in April can be all the summer we see. Not so here. What I love about Venice is that the seasons have more or less stuck to their guns. In Winter you will need a coat and maybe boots. In Summer the sand is so hot you cannot walk on it barefoot. In an unpredictable world these small certainties feel reassuring.

On this wonderful day with a blue sky I am taking a trip out into the lagoon to visit Sant’Erasmo where they grow many of the fruit and vegetables that feed Venice. When the local fruit-seller says the artichokes are ‘nostrana’ – ‘ours’ – this is what she means. In Erle Zwingler’s  lovely blog about living in Venice there’s lots more about the purple artichokes from Sant’Erasmo and all kinds of Venetian foibles. So I went to see this garden, second only in size to Venice itself, and found an entire island given over to cultivation and canals but also to birds, butterflies and bees.

flowers

I am jealous of the gardeners here. They seem to have no rabbits. No wire. No nibbled plants. Maybe being an island they have banished them. At home my globe artichokes are decimated by rabbits already this Spring. Walking the lovely canal-sides I am also struck by the no thistles and no nettles. Wherever drastic action is not taken at home, these become the foremost crop. So whether it is some generations of stamping them out or whether this is one more aspect of Italy’s charmed life I cannot say, but it is very lovely.

canal

One of the farms sitting in its own fields and canals

My guidebook to the invisible city describes Sant’Erasmo as a green mosaic and that is certainly what it looks like in the glorious sunshine. After a few hours walking I am hungry and my path has brought me back towards the boat stop where I landed. Knowing that Italians are never far from a bar and an aperitivo I’m not worried by the apparent lack of refreshments on offer. I know that round the next corner …. in the most idyllic spot … with its own private beach and some large shady trees – ah! there it is. The bar/restaurant that was bound to be there. It’s one of those places which could easily turn out to have a four language menu and a 100 euro price tag but I am in luck. It’s the local bar/pizzeria and I get a wonderful lunch of mussels and a view of the water.

restaurant

Mussels together with an Aperol Spritz and an espresso make the perfect lunch for another hour’s walk. The restaurant fills up while I am there. A pair of lovers, rolling each other’s cigarettes and stealing kisses between  mouthfuls. A trio of local working men, one wearing a gypsy bandana without a trace of self-consciousness. Gradually all the tables are full and the waitress moves faster and faster until they all have plates of food when she sits in the shade and lights her own cigarette.

mussels

I walk back up the island towards the church where there is another boat stop. On the way I see pomegranates from last year petrified on the trees.

pomegranates

In all my wanderings, apart from the German family who turn up here and there and the lunchtime crowd in the restaurant, I see no-one but some builders in a field renovating a house, a man walking his dog and a lady on a bike. I am gratified to be acknowledged by the lady on the bike with a slow ‘Buon giorno‘ and a nod of the head and I decide this is because I am dressed for April despite the hot weather. Venetians are never knowingly underdressed and would no more wear a T shirt in April than dance naked in the street. They are simply to discreet to see the happy tourists who make like summer in April with shorts and sunbathing.

church

The church, another boat stop (‘Chiesa‘)  and the local shop are clearly the hub of the island and there are about four islanders waiting for the boat as well as a young woman with small children and a dog taking the air. Nearby a duck submits to the attentions of her drake in an operation somewhere between mating and waterboarding. Seagulls comment in dialect and geese look the other way.

Time to take the boat home and here I am once more outwitted by the boat system. I get on the right boat going the wrong way when I change at Treporti and end up coming home via Torcello. The kindest thing I can say is that this is the scenic route. Nevertheless a grand day out.