This is an exercise in looking at things in extreme close-up. It’s meant to give you a refreshing new perspective, although it’s perfectly possible that you won’t have a clue what I’m on about.
There’s a vivid, yellow landscape in Amsterdam’s magnificent Van Gogh Museum called Wheatfield with Reaper. Its particular pathos comes from the fact that Van Gogh painted it, in all its golden radiance, while staring out of the locked window of his hospital room in St Rémy. As he told his brother, it amused him that he should see something so vibrant ‘through the iron bars of a cell’.
There’s something about seeing a view through a small window that focuses the mind. Poet Paul Verlaine, imprisoned for shooting his lover Arthur Rimbaud, found a mournful, soothing rhythm in the view from his Brussels prison-cell window. It’s hard to reconcile the regretful but calm melancholy of the poem he wrote while staring at the view with his more familiar persona as a drug-addicted, abusive alcoholic — the restraining effect of the window may have had something to do with it, as well as the temporary lack of access to absinthe.
Le ciel est, par-dessous le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.
La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit,
Chante sa plainte.
Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.
- Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà
De ta jeunesse?
A view framed by a window makes the observer look more closely, with more intent. I love the fact that the citizens of Königsberg watched at their windows for Immanuel Kant to walk past at exactly the same moment each day, knowing that they could reset any errant clocks when they saw his hat bob by. (They certainly weren’t waiting at the windows for a chat; a guest once arrived while Kant was eating his breakfast and was asked to leave until the routine slice of toast had been consumed — Kant couldn’t cope with the break in his routine.)
Since today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I feel honour-bound to include him when looking at things in close-up. Examine Shakespeare’s writing minutely and you’ll find a hapax legomenon - the term to define a word that appears only once in an author’s complete works. Shakespeare’s hapax legomenon turns out to be honorificabilitudinitatibus from Love’s Labour’s Lost. I can put my hand on my heart and say with total conviction that my own hapax legomenon is VanGoghHaddockPasty, since I feel sure that it’s never, ever going to arise again. (I’m fairly certain that a VanGoghHaddock-thingey is not just my own hapax legomenon but the entire world’s.) The pictures I’ve forced you to look at in close-up are, in fact, the ingredients for a VanGoghHaddock-youknowwhat.
This is a variation on a recipe from Sally Clarke’s excellent book 30 Ingredients, one of my favourite cookery books.
- 600ml milk
- Fresh thyme
- 3 bay leaves
- I teaspoon black peppercorns
- Some freshly grated nutmeg
- 600g undyed, smoked haddock
- 100g butter
- 2 very finely sliced leeks
- 2 very finely sliced sticks celery (the thinner stalks)
- 30g flour
- 500g puff pastry
- 1 beaten egg
Add the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns to the milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the haddock to the pan and poach for around 8 minutes until the fish is cooked. Take off the heat and leave the fish to cool in the pan. While it’s cooling, sauté the celery and leek in 50g of butter until soft but uncoloured. Remove the vegetables and put on one side. Take the cooked fish out of the cooled milk and reserve both. Strain the cooking milk and save. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and and, once melted, stir in the flour. Cook for a minute or so to get rid of the raw flour taste and then slowly add the poaching milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps forming. Take off the heat and very gently stir the sauce into the fish and vegetable mixture. Adjust the seasoning, finely grate over some nutmeg, and allow the mixture to go cold.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C and bake for twenty minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 degrees C and cook for a further ten minutes.