Cioppino — ‘The Whole Mess… Almost’

The the­ory is this: go to Cali­for­nia and mar­vel at the fresh pro­duce, the cre­at­ive cook­ing, the invent­ive com­bin­a­tions. But some the­or­ies dis­ap­point; ask the Amer­ican women per­suaded to wear wooden-slat bathing cos­tumes in the 1920s — they could have told you a thing or two about dashed expect­a­tions. Aside from mar­vel­ling at a plate­ful of ched­dar tapioca in Yosemite — not in a good way — I didn’t encounter any­thing that struck me as par­tic­u­larly deli­cious or ori­ginal. It seemed that eat­ing on the West Coast was more of a roller­coaster than a dead cert.

By the time we reached Los Angeles, we’d schooled ourselves to mar­vel at the views rather than the plates.

There were, how­ever, two major excep­tions: oysters in Mar­shall, and ciop­pino in San Fran­cisco. We were intro­duced to both by a very old friend who now lives in the city and whom I hadn’t seen for more than twenty years.

The rules at The Hog Island Oyster Com­pany in Mar­shall are charm­ingly simple: heap oysters on plastic tray, request com­ical left-handed or right-handed rub­ber glove, find table, start shuck­ing, eat. Order some more. (There will always be more — a team of work­ers armed with base­ball bats bash away at oyster frames all after­noon, knock­ing new sup­plies into trays ready to be tipped into the mouths of greedy customers.)

The second excep­tion to the rule of Cali­for­nian food was a bowl­ful of ciop­pino at San Francisco’s McCormick & Kuleto’s sea­food res­taur­ant. Sud­denly, the city wasn’t just about the Golden Gate Bridge and Alc­a­t­raz — it was about the food too.

Ciop­pino is messy to make and messy to eat, but noth­ing that a large plastic bib and a relaxed atti­tude to stain-removal can’t solve. Ciop­pino is as closely iden­ti­fied with San Fran­cisco as the Beat poets, and both defy con­ven­tion. As Her­ac­litus might have said, you can’t eat the same bowl of ciop­pino twice — it will taste dif­fer­ent every time, depend­ing on what you have to hand. Ciop­pino was the early twentieth-century cre­ation of Italian-American fish­er­men in San Francisco’s Bay Area, who simply added the trim­mings of their daily catch to a pan of tomato and gar­lic broth.

I like to think that Gregory Corso, the Italian-American Beat poet, would have enjoyed ciop­pino. Corso had a child­hood and adoles­cence that should have wrung all humour out of him, like water from a dish­cloth: aban­doned by his mother, lied to by his father, beaten by foster par­ents, imprisoned sev­eral times, abused — and all before the age of twenty one. But, inspired by Shel­ley, he began writ­ing poetry in his prison cell, and he never lost his sense of life’s comedic qual­it­ies. The title of his poem ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’ could so eas­ily describe try­ing to wade through a giant-sized bowl of ciop­pino but admit­ting defeat before the spoon quite hits the bot­tom. (It’s abso­lutely noth­ing to do with ciop­pino by the way, but I like the asso­ci­ation.) In the poem, Corso aban­dons everything: Truth, God, Love, Faith, Hope, Char­ity, Beauty, Money, Death — but he holds on to Humour.

Went back up those six flights

Went to the money

there was no money to throw out.

The only thing left in the room was Death

hid­ing behind the kit­chen sink:

I’m not real!” It cried

I’m just a rumor spread by life…”

Laugh­ing I threw it out, kit­chen sink and all

and sud­denly real­ized Humor

was all that was left–

All I could do with Humor was to say:

Out the win­dow with the window!”

Extract from ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’, Her­ald of the Autoch­thonic Spirit, 1981, Gregory Corso

And in his poem ‘Columbia U Poesy Read­ing –1975′, Corso attrib­utes the Beat poets’ suc­cess, in part, to that ‘divine butcher’, humour. You could do worse in life than arm your­self with a bowl of ciop­pino and a will­ing­ness to laugh.

’16 years ago, born of ourselves,

ours was a his­tory with a future

And from our Pet­roni­us­ian view of society

a sub­ter­ranean poesy of the streets

enhanced by the divine butcher: humor,

did climb the towers of the Big Lie

and boot the ivory apple-cart of tyr­an­nical values

into illus­ory oblivion

without spill­ing a drop of blood

…blessed be Revolu­tion­ar­ies of the Spirit!’

Extract from ‘Columbia U Poesy Read­ing –1975′, Her­ald of the Autoch­thonic Spirit, Gregory Corso, 1981

The Beat poets devised two lit­er­ary devices which, if you’ve read my post about lit­er­at­ure and maths, you’ll know are exactly my cup of tea: the cut-up and the fold-in. The cut-up is the pro­cess of chop­ping up poems, either your own or a com­bin­a­tion of yours and someone else’s, and then reas­sembling them to make a dif­fer­ent piece of work alto­gether. The fold-in entails fold­ing two prin­ted pages down the middle, align­ing the type, join­ing the two halves together, and read­ing across the line. Ciop­pino is a bit like that: take a little of someone else’s recipe, add a bit of your own, guess, and see what hap­pens. This is my cut-up, folded-in version.

Cut-up, folded-in Ciop­pino for Gregory Corso

Serves 4

  • 2 car­rots chopped finely
  • 2 sticks cel­ery chopped finely
  • 1 medium onion chopped finely (no need to get too nerdy about any of this — it’s a fisherman’s stew we’re talk­ing about)
  • 6 cloves gar­lic — again, it is a fisherman’s stew
  • Large tea­spoon fen­nel seeds ground in a pestle and mortar
  • 300ml white wine
  • 500g fish stock
  • 700g pas­sata
  • 50g tomato puree
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 500g raw firm white fish
  • 500g clams
  • 500g raw tiger prawns
Saute the onion, gar­lic, cel­ery and car­rot in extra vir­gin olive oil on a medium heat for around ten minutes with a little salt and black pep­per. Once the veget­ables have taken on a little col­our, add the ground fen­nels seeds. Pour in the white wine and scrape any residue from the bot­tom of the pan. Sim­mer gently for around fif­teen minutes to reduce the wine. Add the stock, pas­sata, tomato puree and bay leaves and sim­mer for another ten minutes to reduce the liquid a little. Add all the fish and allow it to cook in the sim­mer­ing broth — around ten minutes is about right. Just before serving, check the season­ing and add hand­fuls of torn up basil leaves — the idea is to add an extra hint of ani­seed to take the stew back to its Italian roots.

Eat star­ing out to sea if you can, but really a blank wall and a bit of ima­gin­a­tion will do.

Reversing Oxymandias

I met a trav­el­ler from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunk­less legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered vis­age lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those pas­sions read

Which yet sur­vive, stamped on these life­less things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed,

And on the ped­es­tal these words appear -

My name is Ozy­man­dias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Noth­ing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, bound­less and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s admon­it­ory son­net ‘Ozy­man­dias’ was pub­lished in 1818, the same year as Mary Shelley’s pro­to­type science-fiction novel Franken­stein. Feel free to abide by the warn­ings of each, that if we over-reach ourselves we’ll be slapped down by the large, podgy hand of retri­bu­tion. But hav­ing just returned from a trip to the Suf­folk sea­side, via the dilap­id­a­tion and decay of London’s mag­ni­fi­cent Gun­ners­bury Park, I feel like cel­eb­rat­ing the beauty of the rus­ted sculp­ture, the decayed build­ing, the half-finished paint­ing and the slightly wonky sandwich.

Aldeburgh’s Mar­tello Tower, built to fend off coastal attack by Napo­leon, is a vast, dumpy affair, con­struc­ted of more than a mil­lion bricks and a huge dose of defi­ant chutzpah. The chilly waters of the North Sea crash onto the pebbles and stones of the beach below. The sculptor Sir Ant­ony Gorm­ley has just installed a suit­ably defi­ant cast iron man to sit atop the tower’s strident form, with the instruc­tion that it and its four sib­lings should be “cata­lysts for reflec­tion”. I can only think that if Mar­tello man had been around in Ozy­man­dias’ day he would have told the ‘shattered vis­age’ and ‘trunk­less legs’ to pull them­selves together and stop being defeatist.

Just a mile along the Suf­folk coast­line, I mar­velled at Maggi Hambling’s vast sculp­ture Scal­lop, its frilled metal edge punc­tured with words from Ben­jamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. As I stood on the beach, my first encounter with the words was like this:

Voices that will be owned”? I don’t like the idea of that at all. But tramp a little fur­ther around the shell and the words are like this:

I hear those voices that will not be drowned” — that’s more like it. I had driven to Alde­burgh via London’s Gun­ners­bury, pos­sibly the capital’s least cel­eb­rated but most start­ling orna­mental park. Its Pal­la­dian build­ings are decayed, its orna­mental trees marooned and its veget­able garden merely cling­ing to its old form­al­ity. But the park’s Gothic grandeur has a mag­ni­fi­cent beauty that lifts the spirits.

Neither Gun­ners­bury nor Alde­burgh are places for per­fectly con­struc­ted food, dainty sand­wiches or small mouth­fuls. You will, by now, know my love for pic­nics. To Gun­ners­bury and Alde­burgh I would take my wonky avo­cado sand­wich. In Alde­burgh, as the wild wind com­presses face to skull, I would tuck both a wonky sand­wich and a flask of hot mulled wine into my pocket. (If I could, I would also take a box of the most deli­cious gar­lic fries I’ve just been treated to in San Fran­cisco, at a Giants base­ball game — a card­board tray of plump chips scattered with enough shreds of snipped-up wild gar­lic leaves to fight off an attack by Ozy­man­dias himself.)


  • Slices of brown spelt bread, toasted — without ques­tion, this needs to be the kind of bread which goes into attri­tional battle with your teeth. You shouldn’t be quite sure who’s going to win until the end.
  • I very ripe avo­cado for each 2 slices of bread
  • Grated lemon zest and a little juice
  • Hand­fuls of chopped lemon ver­bena, chives, mint and oregano
  • Best olive oil
  • A few slices of chilli, if you feel like it
Trickle a little olive oil over the toast and mash the avo­cado roughly on top. Don’t scat­ter, so much as car­pet, the toast with the herbs, the lemon zest and a little juice, plus the chilli if you’re using it. Wrap the sand­wich in a par­cel of sil­ver foil, and stick in your pocket, along with a flask of mulled wine. Sit on the beach and, in the absence of a Gorm­ley iron man to look at, use the wonky sand­wich as a “cata­lyst for reflec­tion”. It should pro­duce thoughts which are benign at worst, soar­ingly jolly at best.

What’s Hidden Within

The former Amer­ican Poet Laur­eate Billy Collins once played a trick on me. I inter­viewed him for a BBC Radio 4 books pro­gramme about his lumin­ous poetry col­lec­tion Tak­ing Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. But one of the poems, ‘Paradelle for Susan’, seemed to occupy the embar­rass­ing ter­rit­ory that sits between the exper­i­mental and the disastrous:

‘Paradelle for Susan’

I remem­ber the quick, nervous bird of your love.

I remem­ber the quick, nervous bird of your love.

Always perched on the thin­nest, highest branch.

Always perched on the thin­nest, highest branch.

Thin­nest love, remem­ber the quick branch.

Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.


It is time for me to cross the mountain.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.

And find another shore to darken with my pain.

And find another shore to darken with my pain.

Another pain for me to darken the mountain.

And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.


The weather warm, the hand­writ­ing familiar.

The weather warm, the hand­writ­ing familiar.

Your let­ter flies from my hand into the waters below.

Your let­ter flies from my hand into the waters below.

The famil­iar waters below my warm hand.

Into hand­writ­ing your weather flies you let­ter the from the.


I always cross the highest let­ter, the thin­nest bird.

Below the water of my warm famil­iar pain,

Another hand to remem­ber your handwriting.

The weather perched for me on the shore.

Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.

Darken the moun­tain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

What kind of poem ends with the words ‘to to’, for good­ness sake? Billy explained that the ‘paradelle is one of the more demand­ing French fixed forms, first appear­ing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the elev­enth cen­tury. It is a poem of four six-line stan­zas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stan­zas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which tra­di­tion­ally resolve these stan­zas, must use all the words from the pre­ced­ing lines and only those words. Sim­il­arly, the final stanza must use every word from all the pre­ced­ing stan­zas and only those words.’

So it wasn’t bad poetry, it was fixed form. I was entranced, hav­ing never encountered this eleventh-century form before, and launched a poetry com­pet­i­tion, ask­ing for the finest paradelles that listen­ers could cre­ate. They sent in their best efforts, some more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers, and a win­ner was chosen. It was only much later that Billy admit­ted that he’d made the whole thing up. He’d inven­ted the paradelle. But the odd thing is that the paradelle now has a cult fol­low­ing, with poets all over the world chal­len­ging them­selves to cre­ate verse fol­low­ing rules that were inven­ted by an Amer­ican poet hav­ing a laugh. So when I gave a lec­ture recently about the role that num­bers, topo­logy and math­em­at­ics play in the cre­ation of lit­er­at­ure, Billy Collins’ par­od­ied paradelle had to make an appear­ance. I admire his cre­ativ­ity and his chutzpah, even if it made me look slightly daft.

My themes for the lec­ture were demand­ing ones — and I also planned to ask every­one to write a fixed form poem as part of the exper­i­ence — so I cal­cu­lated that bis­cuits would help. The rules were that every­one would have to write either a son­net, a vil­lan­elle, an acrostic poem, a paradelle, a piece of chain verse or a ron­deau redoublé. And their instruc­tions would be found inside a for­tune cookie of their choos­ing. I wrote a list, feel­ing sorry for the poor per­son who got saddled with the paradelle.

List of fortunes

You may think that writ­ing lit­er­ary for­tunes, and bury­ing them inside bis­cuits, is way too com­plic­ated for a lec­ture about poetic form. But it enter­tained me to do it, and per­haps stu­dents who’re fed bis­cuits con­tain­ing Mis­sion Impossible instruc­tions may just remem­ber the rules gov­ern­ing a vil­lan­elle for a little longer than stu­dents for whom the cup­board is bare.

Cut up slips for fortune cookies

And quite aside from all that, I love the idea of a hid­den clue, a bur­ied instruc­tion, like the best kind of hand-written diary that con­tains shreds of secret inform­a­tion only avail­able to some, or per­haps to no-one but the writer. The Private Life of the Diary, by Sally Bay­ley, being pub­lished next year, will cel­eb­rate exactly that instinct. It’s what’s hid­den within that usu­ally counts, and a diary can often be the place to find it. As Billy Collins so wisely put it: “I think ‘find­ing your voice’ is a false concept. It leads you to believe that it’s out there some­where, like it’s behind the sofa cush­ions. I think your voice is always inside of you, and you find it by releas­ing things into your work that you have inside.”

Single fortune cookie strip

In the mak­ing of my for­tune cook­ies, some cook­ies were harmed. But so much the bet­ter — I got to eat the duds as I went along. As did my daugh­ter, who wasn’t in any way sup­port­ive of my plan to teach poetic form via bis­cuits. She said she’d far rather none of the bis­cuits left the premises, so she could eat them all herself.


Ingredi­ents — makes about 40 biscuits

  • 3 egg whites
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 100g melted but­ter, cooled
  • 1 tea­spoon vanilla extract
  • 150g flour
  • 3 table­spoons water

Pre­heat the oven to 190 degrees C, or 170 degrees C fan. Pre­pare your for­tune slips in advance and roll them up into tight bundles.

Fortune cookie message

Whisk the egg whites and sugar in an elec­tric mixer on high speed for a couple of minutes. Slow the mixer down and add the fol­low­ing ingredi­ents, one at a time: but­ter, vanilla, flour, water.

The next part can be a high-octane pro­duc­tion line, or a long, slow relaxed kind of busi­ness; it all depends on your mood and your pro­cliv­it­ies. I like the high-speed kind of approach, but take your pick. Take two large bak­ing tins and line them with bak­ing parch­ment. Take a scant dessert spoon of mix­ture, slop it onto one corner of the bak­ing parch­ment and, with the back of the spoon, swirl it into a cir­cu­lar shape around 8cm in dia­meter. I got around six circles onto a large tin. Pre­pare two tins, but put just one in the oven. Set the timer for six minutes — I use the clock on my ‘phone. They should be golden on top, but with a def­in­ite car­a­mel tinge around the edges. Whip the tin out of the oven, stick the second one in to start cook­ing, reset the timer and start fold­ing your first batch. You will have to work at quite a lick, oth­er­wise you’ll find your­self work­ing with bis­cuits that are as hard as roof tiles. With a spat­ula, slide the first bis­cuit off the paper, stick a bundled-up for­tune inside, fold the bis­cuit in half, and then in half again. They’ll turn rigid inside five seconds flat, so be quick. Repeat the pro­cess with the next one and, with any luck, you’ll fold up six and slop another six dol­lops of mix­ture onto the tin, before the second batch is ready to remove from the oven. The quant­it­ies in the recipe should allow you to make around forty bis­cuits. But the thing to remem­ber is that some bis­cuits will shat­ter before you have time to fold them up — the only rem­edy is to devour them.

* Billy Collins, Tak­ing Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Lon­don: Pic­ador, 2000)

The Vision of Piers Plowman’s Lunch — otherwise known as tartiflette

It’s nearly three dec­ades since I stud­ied medi­eval lit­er­at­ure at uni­ver­sity. This after­noon I searched out my cop­ies of The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man, Le Morte Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to give to my son who’s about to go to uni­ver­sity to study Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure him­self. It’s a sober­ing reminder of time’s pas­sage. Or, to put it more bru­tally, a sure way for a mother to feel 103.

You prob­ably wouldn’t thank me for a full ana­lysis of Wil­liam Langland’s The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man. But, in a game of medi­eval roul­ette, I closed my eyes and slapped my fore­finger down on a ran­dom line in the book, to see if I could still make sense of it:

And Mede is manered after hym, right as [asketh kynde]:

Qualis pater, talis filius. Bona arbor bonum fructum facit

A good tree pro­duces good fruit? Much as I love Piers Plow­man, I have to argue, if only in defence of the abominable-looking plum tree in my garden. It’s mis­shapen, wonky, stun­ted, ugly and has snapped branches — and yet it’s the pro­du­cer of the most deli­cious fruit you could ask for. Even our dog takes a detour round the tree at this time of year to grab a quick snack.

Plum tree with broken branch

Its neigh­bour, the green­gage tree, is twice as tall and is serenely eleg­ant …and the fruit is a dis­aster. If Lang­land had ever dropped by and tasted both plums and green­gages, Pas­sus II, line 27 of his poem could have been totally dif­fer­ent: ‘A bad tree can pro­duce real belters. A good tree can lie through its teeth’.

Langland’s poem argues trenchantly in favour of sim­pli­city and against desire. Which puts me in a tricky pos­i­tion yet again. What would he have made of today’s lunch of tar­tiflette? It was oh-so simple and yet oh-so desir­able. There’s prob­ably some Aris­totelean eth­ical defence for those who indulge in both sim­pli­city and lux­ury at the same time, but I don’t know what it is.

Tar­tiflette is a word that could have come straight from a medi­eval dic­tion­ary, although, sadly, it doesn’t. It’s a vari­ation on a French regional word for pota­toes and the dish is an extra­vag­ant advert­ise­ment for reb­lo­chon cheese. I’ll give you the clas­sic ver­sion here, but it’s just as nice made with other cheeses. Last week I made it with a com­bin­a­tion of brie, pecorino and Ched­dar and if that’s not an edible argu­ment for the European Union, I don’t know what is.


  • Half a reb­lo­chon cheese — some recipes spe­cify a whole cheese, but it has a very strong fla­vour. We’re look­ing for a for­ti­fy­ing breath of hearty, moun­tain air here, not a full-scale roll in the farmyard
  • 140g Char­lotte pota­toes — or another waxy variety
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 200g smoked, streaky bacon
  • 2 onions, sliced finely into rounds
  • 200 ml double or heavy cream
  • 200ml veget­able stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Hand­ful fresh thyme leaves

Cook the pota­toes in salted water until just, only just, cooked. Drain and leave to cool. Snip the bacon into 2 cen­ti­metre pieces and fry — there’s no need to add any extra oil — until crisp. (Many recipes sug­gest that you use lar­dons, but their plump, squat chew­iness seems all wrong to me.) Add the onion slices, thyme leaves and bay leaves and con­tinue to cook until the onions are soft, but not too col­oured. Add the white wine and reduce until only a little remains. Take off the heat.

Slice the pota­toes into rounds about half a cen­ti­metre thick and divide roughly into three piles. Line the cas­ser­ole dish with one layer of potato, then spoon over half the bacon and onion mix­ture. Barely trickle some cream over this — only enough for a miser to think it gen­er­ous. Grind black pep­per over and then repeat the potato/bacon/cream routine. (I don’t add salt because it’s so easy to overdo it, but simply add it at the table if neces­sary.) Finally, put the last layer of pota­toes on top and add the last trickle of cream. Pour the stock over the whole lot and add another grind of black pepper.

Take your half-moon shaped slab of reb­lo­chon and, instead of cut­ting down­wards, slice it hori­zont­ally, so that your knife is par­al­lel with the work sur­face. Then, open up the cheese to form a per­fect circle. Lay this circle on top of the pota­toes, so that the rind is upper­most, and cook in the oven for twenty minutes. Finally, place under the grill for another five. It’s often sug­ges­ted that a green salad goes well with it, which it does, but I like it just as much with spin­ach and a little grated lemon zest.

In truth, there’s no place in The Vis­ion of Piers Plow­man for tar­tiflette. But, con­tinu­ing to pull my old texts from the shelves, I found the per­fect cus­tomer for my lunch of rich cheese, salty bacon and hearty pota­toes: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Bould was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.

Bold, hearty, hand­some and rosy cheeked — the Wife of Bath and tar­tiflette could have been made for each other.

Chablis and Pelargoniums for Mrs Dalloway

Study­ing the nov­els of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre at uni­ver­sity, I inves­ted in a packet of Gitanes and listened to Juli­ette Greco on vinyl; mov­ing on to James Joyce, I took up Guin­ness and spoke in impossibly dense sen­tences. D. H. Lawrence was out of fash­ion then, or who knows where that could have led. And then came Vir­ginia Woolf. Obvi­ously, I clumped about in sturdy brogues for a while; I also developed a new-found interest in flowers. I can still remem­ber read­ing Mrs Dal­lo­way on a sunny park bench in London’s Regent’s Park and being deeply impressed by Sally Seton’s icon­o­clastic approach to flower-arranging. (When will I ever get the chance to com­bine icon­o­clasm and flor­istry in a single sen­tence again?)

  • Sally’s power was amaz­ing, her gift, her per­son­al­ity. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bour­ton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hol­ly­hocks, dah­lias — all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together — cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordin­ary — com­ing in to din­ner in the sunset.

I thought of Sally Seton and her cava­lier scis­sors, snip­ping wildly at never-before seen com­bin­a­tions of flowers, when I walked round my very clever friend’s newly-emergent wild­flower meadow today. If some gar­dens are in train­ing to be muni­cipal round­abouts, my friend’s garden is limber­ing up to be a Garden of Eden trib­ute act. As I trailed from one bil­low­ing mound of flowers to another, it was rain­ing that very Brit­ish kind of rain that stealth­ily adorns everything in a glossy mist, while every­one says brightly that “it’s hardly wet at all.”

Sally Seton would have had a field day with her scis­sors in that meadow. And both she and Vir­ginia Woolf would have loved the rose-scented cake, filled with whipped cream and Chab­lis and lemon jelly that I made after­wards. The extra­vag­ance and lux­uri­ous­ness of Chab­lis is included for Vir­ginia Woolf, whose poor rations inspired her to write A Room of One’s Own. The cake, infused with leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium or geranium, is for Sally Seton.

Leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium smell as good as any rose, per­haps even bet­ter, because their fra­grance is more sub­stan­tial, less eph­em­eral. George Eliot under­stood the rose pelargonium’s worth and made it a meta­phor for unselfish­ness in Scenes of Cler­ical Life:

  • But the sweet spring came to Milby not­with­stand­ing: the elm-tops were red with buds; the church­yard was starred with dais­ies; the lark showered his love-music on the flat fields; the rain­bows hung over the dingy town, cloth­ing the very roofs and chim­neys in a strange trans­fig­ur­ing beauty. And so it was with the human life there, which at first seemed a dis­mal mix­ture of grip­ing world­li­ness, van­ity, ostrich feath­ers, and the fumes of brandy: look­ing closer, you found some pur­ity, gen­tle­ness, and unselfish­ness, as you may have observed a scen­ted geranium giv­ing forth its whole­some odours amidst blas­phemy and gin in a noisy pot-house.

Tuck­ing a few rose pelar­gonium leaves into the tins, when mak­ing a sponge, infuses the cake with a floral fla­vour so subtle that it’s hard to know where it’s come from or if it’s really there at all. Adding the round, rich, but­tery fla­vour of Chab­lis to the lemon jelly makes it the ideal match for the cream.


  • 2 lem­ons — peel and juice
  • 95g caster sugar
  • 10g sheet gelatine
  • 275ml Chab­lis
  • 450ml water

Pare the rind thinly from the lem­ons — in one piece if you’re com­pet­it­ive, but it really doesn’t mat­ter — and place in a pan with the water, wine and the sugar. Heat gently until the liquid starts to sim­mer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the juice from both lem­ons. Allow to infuse. Soak the gelat­ine sheets in a bowl of cold water for five minutes. When the time is up, squeeze the sheets out as though ringing-out a dish­cloth and whisk them into the water, wine, sugar and lemon until dis­solved. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Cover with cling­film and place in the fridge. It will take around four hours to set. The con­sist­ency you’re look­ing for is that free­style, slightly unhinged wobble that looks as though it won’t be enough to keep the con­tents of the bowl under con­trol, until, at the last minute, its nat­ural sense of decorum reins it back in again — just. There will be more than enough for the cake, so save the rest to eat later with some fresh berries.


  • 8–10 fresh leaves from the Attar of Roses pelargonium
  • 230g plain flour
  • 4 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 230g caster sugar
  • 230g softened unsalted butter
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 150ml double cream for the filling
  • 2x20cm cake tins, greased with but­ter and lined at the bot­tom with bak­ing parchment

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Arrange four or five leaves on the base of each of the two greased and papered cake tins. Com­bine the flour, sugar, salt, bak­ing powder, but­ter and eggs, either by hand or in a mixer at a slow speed. Divide the mix­ture between the two cake tins, pour­ing it over the leaves. Bake for 25–30 minutes until golden brown. When cool, remove the sponges from the tins and peel the leaves off the base of each. Whip the cream. Spread the Chab­lis jelly on one half and top with the whipped cream. Place the second half of sponge on the top and dust with lib­eral amounts of icing sugar.

The Chab­lis, lemon and rose pelar­gonium cake has the beguil­ing fla­vours of Turk­ish Delight, the charm of a wild­flower meadow. Eat it out­side on a Brit­ish summer’s day and you won’t notice the rain. If there are wild­flowers to look at while you eat, so much the better.

The Tripartite Tri-Pie-Tart

Garden­ers, writers and artists have always under­stood the value of the num­ber three: less bor­ingly sym­met­rical than two, more com­plex than one. Where would Flaubert, Chek­hov or Con­stance Spry be without it? And scriptwriter Steven Mof­fat, whom I admire hugely, clearly loves it; he named one of his Doc­tor Who epis­odes ‘The Power of Three’ and one of his Sher­lock Holmes epis­odes ‘The Sign of Three’.

I’ve been afflic­ted by insom­nia again this week. Count­ing the hours until morn­ing is, apart from being exhaust­ing, extremely bor­ing. At times like these, the BBC World Ser­vice and Radio 4 are vital com­pan­ions. But when I even­tu­ally fall asleep and wake again, after what feels like only minutes, I find I’ve acquired very odd scraps of inform­a­tion from half-heard radio pro­grammes. (I woke recently with the crazy idea that there was a dead cow out­side, only to dis­cover that it wasn’t the leg­acy of a weird middle-of-the-night radio drama, but was in fact true. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time.)

One morn­ing this week I awoke with a com­pletely unfa­mil­iar word rack­et­ing around my brain. All I can remem­ber is hav­ing the radio on for most of the night and hear­ing someone, some­where say­ing ‘sizzi-jee’ and spelling it out very care­fully — ‘s-y-z-y-g-y’ — just as I finally dozed off. A three-syllable word com­pletely lack­ing in vow­els is worth look­ing up in the dic­tion­ary, if only for its Scrabble potential.

  • Syzygy: a straight-line con­fig­ur­a­tion of three celes­tial bod­ies, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, in a grav­it­a­tional system.

And, as so often, a frag­ment­ary idea, in this case about three celes­tial bod­ies, led me towards some­thing to cook. I’ve wanted to write about my tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart for a while, mainly because the name makes me laugh. The tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart is a pie that I thought-up dur­ing another bout of insom­nia. But I had to wait until the Eng­lish asparagus sea­son before I could make it. And now, of course, I can.

The tri-pie-tart is a three-part pie that com­bines my son’s, my daughter’s and my favour­ite tart ingredi­ents. My son prefers asparagus, my daugh­ter likes leeks and I love spin­ach. So this is the tri-pie-tart that com­bines them all. And, as with syzygy, if you line up three celes­tial ingredi­ents — in this case, asparagus, spin­ach and leeks — you’ll find there’s a grav­it­a­tional pull towards the kit­chen table.


For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 125g but­ter
  • 2 eggs yolks
  • 25cm loose-bottomed pie tin

Wrestle with it by hand if you prefer, but I use a mixer. Cut the cold but­ter into cubes and com­bine with the flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until you have a dry, crumbly tex­ture. Add three table­spoons of cold water to the egg yolks and whisk with a fork until com­bined. Pour half the egg mix­ture into the flour and con­tinue to add until the pastry forms a ball. Try to do this as quickly as pos­sible and don’t feel the need to use all of the eggs, if it doesn’t need it. Remove the ball, wrap in cling-film, flat­ten it down with the palm of your hand (it’s easier to roll later if it doesn’t emerge from the fridge as a massive, chilly globe) and place in the fridge for at least an hour. By the way, I’ve tried rolling pastry out straight­away, without rest­ing it, just to see what hap­pens. I ended up with a soft, string-vest of a thing that would no-more hold a pie filling than a sieve would. So now you know.

After at least an hour, roll the pastry out thinly. This is a nifty tip, if you dread man-handling your pastry into the tin. Roll it out onto the same piece of cling-film you used to wrap it in. That way, you won’t have to flour the sur­face on which you roll it which only adds a whole load of extra flour to the pastry which you don’t need or want. The added bene­fit of the cling-film method is that you can then pick up the cling-film, with its pastry disc attached and then just turn it upside down into the pie tin. None of that wrap­ping it round the rolling-pin and then unrolling it over the tin, which always sounds so much easier than it really is. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin and care­fully peel away the cling-film.

Place a circle of tin-foil over the pastry in the tin, fill with bak­ing beans, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C for ten minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake for a fur­ther seven minutes until the pastry case is golden in col­our and dry in tex­ture. If, when it emerges, there are any cracks, paint a little beaten egg over the cracks while the pastry is still hot and it will seal them. Lower the oven tem­per­at­ure to 140 degrees C.


  • 200g spin­ach
  • 2 leeks
  • 250g slim-ish asparagus
  • 2 eggs and an extra 3 yolks
  • 125g Mas­car­pone
  • 150ml double cream
  • 125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated. It doesn’t need to be that fine — you’re not aim­ing for cheese dust here

Cut the leeks finely, dis­card­ing the tougher dark green ends. Cook gently in a little but­ter for five minutes or so, until soft but not browned. Tip into a bowl, and, using the same pan, wilt the spin­ach briefly, adding a little more but­ter if neces­sary. Put the spin­ach in a second bowl. Finally, blanch the asparagus so that it is just, only just, cooked. Remove from the pan and run cold water over the asparagus to stop it cook­ing. All three of your celes­tial ingredi­ents should still be a bright green hue, rather than sid­ling off into the khaki or olive-green end of the paintbox.

Mix together the mas­car­pone, cream and eggs, whisk­ing in plenty of air. Spoon a quarter of the mix­ture over the tart base and spread it around. Layer on a quarter of the grated parmesan, fol­lowed by all the spin­ach, another layer of eggs and cream, a second layer of cheese, all the leeks, a third layer of eggs and cream, a third layer of cheese, the asparagus in a sun-burst effect and a final layer of eggs and cream. Bake in the oven, which should now be at 140 degrees C, for around twenty-five minutes, until the tri-pie-tart is a rich golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and a fine trickle of olive oil to give it some shine. Cast over some chive flowers if you like and eat the tri-pie-tart hot,cold or luke-warm. The syzygy is in the eating.

The Alumnae’s Lunch

Eat­ing with a book is one of the great pleas­ures. Eat­ing while talk­ing about books is another, and second to that comes talk­ing about books that have eat­ing in them. I once gave a lec­ture at Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge about Vir­ginia Woolf. Newnham was the venue for Woolf’s talks about women and fic­tion which formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own. In it, she con­trasts the grim, gravy soup that stu­dents at women’s col­leges sur­vived on and the plump part­ridge and sole that fuelled the men.

The lunch at Newn­ham on the day of my lec­ture bore no rela­tion to Woolf’s brown broth. I’d half-expected the kit­chen staff to tip a know­ing wink at A Room of One’s Own and give me a bowl of gravy. (I admit that I was in para­noid mood that day, hav­ing just been to the launch party for a new knit­ting book and been given blue-dyed spa­ghetti with bread-stick ‘needles’ poked in.) But the meal was as plen­ti­ful as it was deli­cious and I couldn’t help think­ing how pleased Vir­ginia Woolf would have been that the status of women, as meas­ured by our lunches at least, had soared.

I thought of Woolf, Newn­ham and brown soup today as I sat down to lunch with three female friends with whom I share a par­tic­u­lar bond. All four of us star­ted PhDs at the same time. Between us, we pro­duced doc­toral theses on Con­rad, Shakespeare, Vic­torian fem­in­ist poetry and con­tem­por­ary fic­tion. (One of the enter­tain­ments when doing a PhD is to mar­vel at the appar­ent insan­ity of every­one else’s choice of sub­ject; my favour­ite is still ‘the motif of decay­ing flesh in the works of J. M. Coet­zee.’) If there’d been a med­ical emer­gency in the res­taur­ant and someone had shouted out “Is there a doc­tor in the house?” we could have yelled back “Yes, four”.

Our lunch was a mil­lion miles from the parsi­mo­ni­ous meals of Vir­ginia Woolf’s exper­i­ence; the food wasn’t par­tic­u­larly spe­cial but we had more laughs than I’ve had all year. Laughter is a vital com­pon­ent of the PhD exper­i­ence, given that so much of it is gruelling, sol­it­ary, hard-dentistry and that it goes on for so, so long. Per­haps it was a lack of laughs that added to Woolf’s misery about her soup. Much as I love Woolf, her work is as thin on com­edy as her Cam­bridge meal was thin on part­ridge. If she’d had three good com­pan­ions to share her grue­some gravy with, she might not have noticed the food at all.