We are in the Rodopi Mountains in southern Bulgaria, pondering why it is people here are said to live longer than anywhere else. The fresh air and clean spring water? The famous yoghurt (or “sour milk”, as it is classified here)? Or perhaps what must be Bulgaria’s national dish – fresh salad piled high with excellent tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers – consumed in vast quantities.
Having driven to Sofia for Matt to attend a conference, we decided to hang around afterwards to explore the mountains south and east of the capital. Our previous experience of this country was limited, to say the least, and this needed rectifying. Surely not everyone subsisted on green salad, rakia and cigarettes?
Some nerdy facts about some of the spices used in Indian cooking, such as in this delicious tarka dal…
Nigella seeds, otherwise known as ‘black cumin’ despite being nothing to do with cumin, are from a flower closely related to love-in-the-mist. The Egyptians were some of the first to cultivate it, and must have valued it highly as some seeds were found in Tutankhamen’s grave. Two teaspoons of crushed seeds taken twice a day is said to boost the immune system. (Didn’t seem to work for young Tutankhamen though.)
Fenugreek seeds come from a bean plant. In some countries they are cooked up as a staple like dal or used to make a milk substitute for babies. Tutankhamen liked them as well, apparently. Used as a spice fenugreek has a distinctive aroma – a sweet savouriness reminiscent of maple syrup. In fact, it’s used to flavour artificial maple syrup.
Cumin seeds crop up in all sorts of recipes all over the world, from North African tagines, to Indian curries, East European soups, Mexican burritos and a few European cheeses and breads. The ancient Greeks loved it so much they kept it on the dining table in its own special box.
Fennel seeds are anise-flavoured, like the stems and leaves of the plant. Star anise is chewed in China, and fennel seeds in India, to ‘sweeten the breath’ – literally – the distinctive chemical compound common to both spices is 13 times as sweet as regular sugar, by weight.
Asafoetida powder, charmingly nick-named ‘devil’s dung’, is made from the sap of the root of a member of the carrot family. The sap is aged until resinous, sometimes in goat or sheepskin to enhance its naturally sweaty, sulphurous, stinky cheese scent. Don’t let this put you off, some claim the smell reminds them of white truffles. The vegetarian Jains in India use asafoetida in place of onions and garlic, which they avoid as uprooting them kills the future plant and disturbs the little bugs in the soil.
Cayenne powder is derived from the Cayenne variety of chilli pepper, which is approximately 3 times ‘hotter’ than the Serrano, at least 15 times hotter than Paprika, and over 100 times hotter than the Bell pepper (in Scoville pungency units). So beware how much you use.
Turmeric powder comes from the dried rhizome of a plant in the ginger family. It has been used since prehistoric times to colour skin, clothing and foods yellow, for ceremonial purposes and as a medicine and preservative. It’s still popular today – India produces some 350,000 tonnes each year.
Mustard seeds are usually added at the end of cooking as prolonged exposure to heat reduces their pungency and leaves behind a generic cabbage-family aroma. Black mustard seeds are the strongest, then brown, then yellow. On the global scale of trade, black pepper is the only spice to outdo mustard in monetary terms. The word ‘mustard’ comes from its use in the popular condiment – ‘must’-‘ardens’, ie ‘piquant must’, as prepared mustard used to be made with grape must.
Curry leaves come from a small citrus tree and are used widely in Indian and Malaysian cuisine. ‘Curry’ probably hails from the word ‘kari’, which means ‘spicy sauce’ in many languages in those regions. Most local names for the plant include the word ‘kari’, however there are no kari leaves in the usual curry spice mixes, and ‘kari’ can also mean ‘black’ it seems, referring to the colour of the leaves of a similar looking bush. Which would mean that the stupid Brits just called them ‘curry leaves’ because they heard a word that sounded similar – ‘kari’. To complicate matters further there is some evidence that the word ‘curry’ was used for stews in Britain before the first traders arrived in the subcontinent. A great etymological mystery that I will assign to my linguist husband for further research… Anyway, the leaves are usually added whole to dishes, like bay leaves, and often fried briefly in butter before being added, as in this recipe. They’re much better fresh than dried, and can be stored in the fridge or freezer for a week or two before they lose their flavour. Buy them on the branch if possible. It’s antidiabetic qualities are supported by scientific research.
Sources: On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, 2004 Food Plants of the World, Ben-Erik van Wyk, 2005 www.wikipedia.org www.plantcultures.org.uk www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl
Some notes on that store-cupboard staple we take for granted…
There are over 800 different named pasta shapes. Some of these are just regional names for pretty much the same thing though. Some of their names translate as ‘small bulls’, ‘little muffs’, ‘scruffy hats’, ‘pot bellied’, ‘little worms’, ‘bridegrooms’ or ‘little moustaches’.
That Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China is a plain fabrication. Nobody knows who first made it. The Ancient Romans, Greeks and Etruscans were enjoying pasta long before Marco came along, and the Arabs probably invented the kind of dried pastas we are used to today. They are thought to have introduced it to Sicily in the 12th century.
But pasta was not commonly found on Italian dining tables until the second half of the 19th century. Its proliferation then seems to be due to a combination of factors – Neapolitan influence carried north by Garibaldi’s returning army, new strains of wheat becoming available, and the industrial revolution which mechanised production. And it was in America that the idea of pasta as a main course developed. Italian immigrants generated the demand in the US which fuelled the mechanisation back home in Italy.
The word ‘noodle’, sometimes used to refer to pasta, comes from the Latin nodellus (‘little knot’), describing the tangles of pasta on the plate.
Contrary to what some say, pasta cooked al dente is better for you than well-cooked pasta. If it’s slightly tough you chew, which breaks the pasta down and mixes it with digestive enzymes in your saliva.
My favourite brand for dry pasta, fairly commonly available, is De Cecco. Look out for the blue bags and boxes. Their pasta is made using bronze die-cuts, which have irregular surfaces. The defects in the bronze make loads of minuscule cuts in the pasta, leaving the surface rough and able to absorb sauces better than that left smooth and shiny by nylon moulds. De Cecco also dries their pasta at low temperatures which leaves the pasta better able to retain its shape and strength during cooking.
Hubbub is a fantastic idea. As more people abandon their local shops in favour of the convenience of supermarkets, Hubbub has stepped in to fix the missing link. The lovely Hubbub people go to all the best local shops near me in north London (butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, deli…) and bring their goodies to your door. So shopping is kept convenient, while supporting independent shops and top quality food, most of which is sustainably grown/fished/produced.
Hubbub and I have teamed up to offer courses and workshops using their ingredients – open to everyone who loves good food! Check my class list for dates.
Blackheath Cooks is a wonderful new cookware shop and cooking school in Blackheath, southeast London, run by my friend Joy Neal. They offer a wide range of cooking classes for children, young people and adults in their teaching kitchen behind the shop. Blackheath Cooks is the home of Munchkins, which offers super after-school cooking classes and cooking parties for children. I regularly teach (adult) classes at Blackheath Cooks, so do come and find me there too! See their schedule of upcoming classes on their website.
Riverford delivers delicious veg boxes from its network of sister organic farms across England. I have been a customer for some time and greatly admire their business ethics and the high quality of their produce. I wrote about them in my book Eat Slow Britain – see here for an excerpt.
Riverford Cooks is their initiative to get everyone cooking more vegetables. As one of their network of Cooks, I give classes for customers and their friends, in homes, at my teaching kitchen and at Riverford HQ in Devon. It’s all about getting excited about seasonal vegetables and learning new ways to cook them. Some of my Riverford classes are open to non-customers too (although we hope to persuade you of the joys of a veg box!) – so look out for dates. And check out the Riverford Cooks website for more events and my Cook’s profile.
I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Jennifer Altman when I started out in my culinary career in San Francisco. Jennifer, originally from Glasgow, is the pastry chef at Bay Wolf restaurant – one of the top restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a highly experienced professional pastry chef and class instructor, having trained at San Francisco’s famed California Culinary Academy, taught professional level courses at Tante Marie’s Cooking School, and often attracted high prize for her delicious desserts in restaurant reviews.
Jennifer entered her first and last baking competition as a child – her towering multi-layered meringue cake was deemed too good for an eight-year-old to make and was disqualified! Her cakes, cookies, confections and desserts continue to astound and delight diners and students. As Jennifer is also a food scientist by training her classes are the perfect opportunity to learn about the fascinating chemistry of baking, pastry and confectionery.
In January 2011 Jennifer is flying over to London to run a series of very special masterclasses with me:
“People in Essex wanting good pasta or risotto come here,” says the Sun Inn’s proud Neapolitan chef, Ugo Simonelli. This fifteenth-century coaching inn may look quintessentially English, but the passion for good food and conviviality evoke an Italian trattoria. Owner Piers Baker says: “Sundays are mayhem: children dashing everywhere, parents reading the papers, grandparents nattering, and regulars at the bar laughing at us running around.” …
Ugo exudes enthusiasm for Italian cuisine and, encouraged by adventurous diners, has unearthed vanishing dishes. Hare with chocolate and rosemary sauce is a relic of times when boundaries between sweet and savoury were blurred, and cassuola, a Milanese cabbage and pork stew, was traditionally eaten at the end of pig slaughtering season. Pumpkin and mussel soup, raw fish marinated with smoked Maldon salt and pan-fried lamb hearts have their fans too. For more conservative palates, there is grilled salt marsh lamb with roast beetroot, pan-fried calf’s liver with melted onions and sage, and sea bass with saffron potatoes and samphire.
Between shifts Ugo tends his vegetable patch or experiments with bresaola and prosciutto curing in the cellar. He also teaches in the village school. “We make pasta, pizza and gnocchi, and the kids find they like garlic, parmesan and basil after all. I had them eating pesto by the spoonful!” he laughs …
If Tony Davies’ great-great-grandfather could see Henfron Farm now, he would hardly notice the difference. Here in the remote Elan Valley, in mid-Wales, seventeen-hundred acres of wind- and rain-swept moorland, peat bogs and heathered hillsides sustain the Davies’ resilient Welsh Mountain sheep, just as they have done for centuries …
Tony checks his flocks on horseback. “Other farmers use quad-bikes, but our men love their horses, that keep them warm, know every crease of the hillside and offer a better vantage point. On a foggy afternoon they make it back in time for tea while the quad-bikers are still going in circles,” says Angela.
Mutton was once one of Britain’s most loved meats. “Saddle of mutton … is a joint for an epicure,” wrote Dorothy Hartley, a food historian, in 1954. But around this time factors converged to start its decline: imported New Zealand lamb; working women with less time for slow-cooking; post-war affluence expanding the privilege of eating immature animals and expensive cuts. Recently, a niche market for the rich meat has appeared …
As a teenager, Sherri Singleton sold watermelon fruit cups on the beach in Los Angeles for pocket money. It was the first of a series of successful culinary enterprises, stretching from California to Essex, where she now runs two restaurants and a cooking school. “Food is in my blood: my great grandmother ran a gourmet food store, my grandmother had a restaurant, my mother cooked everything from scratch and grew vegetables, and our neighbour, a celebrated chef, roasted pigs in his garden. I was surrounded by people who adored food.”
Arriving in Essex in the eighties was a shock to Sherri’s culinary system – where were the bundles of fresh coriander and basil, the heirloom tomatoes? She found excellent meat, seafood and cheese, but couldn’t lay her hands on local fruit and vegetables. So Sherri persuaded smallholders to grow for her, something many other restaurateurs wouldn’t catch onto for years.
“Now it’s ridiculously easy. People pick samphire for me, grow asparagus in their gardens, leave boxes of quinces and squashes on my doorstep. And we grow artichokes, sprouting broccoli and blackcurrants ourselves.” …