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.

Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot

It can be use­ful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sit­ting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, ima­gin­ing his frus­tra­tion at hav­ing his exper­i­mental nov­els widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfor­tu­nates, pub­lished in 1969, involves per­muta­tions — so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole after­noon to work out the number.

The Unfor­tu­nates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere para­graph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full ver­sion in a life­time, how­ever pre­co­ciously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved exper­i­ment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the lin­ear restric­tions of the con­ven­tional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfor­tu­nates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disin­genu­ous instruc­tion that ‘if read­ers prefer not to accept the ran­dom order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sec­tions into any other ran­dom order before read­ing’. I’ve cal­cu­lated all the pos­sible per­muta­tions of those twenty five inter­change­able chapters and the num­ber I’m left with is:

15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000

which is oth­er­wise known as fif­teen sep­til­lion, five hun­dred and eleven sex­til­lion, two hun­dred and ten quin­til­lion, forty three quad­ril­lion, three hun­dred and thirty tril­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty five bil­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty four mil­lion dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­it­ies. You can never hope to read them all and it’s pos­sible that the ver­sion you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a dif­fer­ent angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘under­stand without gen­er­al­isa­tion, to see each piece of received truth, or gen­er­al­isa­tion, as true only if is true for me’. To gen­er­al­ise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthu­si­astic about avoid­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions while embra­cing the extraordin­ary pos­sib­il­it­ies thrown up by per­muta­tions, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beet­root in vin­egar, crumbly Lan­cashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with but­ter so thick that she could take an impres­sion of her teeth from the indent­a­tions they left, and a mug of tea the col­our of an old penny. By cal­cu­lat­ing the per­muta­tions, I made a beet­root salad for lunch today that is both spe­cific­ally Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a vari­ation on her theme.

BEETROOT, GOAT’S CURD AND WALNUT SALAD WITH MAPLE DRESSING

  • Bunch of smallish raw beet­root (big­ger than snooker, smal­ler than hockey), leaves still attached — around one per person
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Hand­ful of walnuts
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Maple syrup

Cut the leaves and roots off the beet­root. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beet­root, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil par­cel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beet­root and arrange on a plate with spoon­fuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beet­root leaves and scat­ter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the wal­nuts and a scat­ter­ing of chives. Make a dress­ing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup — four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Sea­son to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad out­side, sit­ting in someone’s else’s seat and star­ing at someone else’s view.

I ima­gine that B. S. John­son would have been a good lunch com­pan­ion. Sadly, he lost heart, gave up on his ignored exper­i­ments and com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treas­ure it too.

The Unjustified Quince

My praise for the sooth­ing, reg­u­lar, oblong qual­it­ies of jus­ti­fied text in my last post, The Jus­ti­fied Green­gage, pro­voked some people to ques­tion my san­ity and judge­ment. Appar­ently, only jus­ti­fied left, raggedy right, will do. In my defence, I’m teach­ing myself the art of let­ter­press on my dad’s Vic­torian print­ing press, so it’s only in blog posts that I like slabs of type to look like Swedish crispbread.

If you were hor­ri­fied by my taste for uni­form lines, this post is for you. Its raggedy, ram­shackle right-hand edge will, I hope, soothe your raggedy nerves. If your nerves are still raggedy, jus­ti­fied text not­with­stand­ing, the glor­i­ous, per­fumed qual­it­ies of the quince will help no end. In my case, cre­at­ing sorbets, cor­di­als and jel­lies from my har­vest of quince, came at the end of a week in which I saw Ibsen’s Ghosts, Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. For three nights in a row, I wal­lowed in hypo­crisy, tor­ment, murder, tyranny and pints and pints of blood. (I’d always thought that Titus Andronicus was un-performable, but Michael Fentiman’s pro­duc­tion at the RSC proved me wrong. It was start­lingly, shock­ingly funny and very, very messy.)

I’ve writ­ten before about the truc­u­lence of the quince, but over time I’ve come to think of it as hav­ing Pollyanna-like qual­it­ies, des­pite its unyield­ing, concrete-like flesh. Once cajoled out of its raw state, the quince’s perky eagerness-to-please puts it in a cat­egory all of its own. The fruit looks beau­ti­ful on the tree, per­fumes the house when it’s brought inside, yields gen­er­ous amounts of cor­dial while it cooks and, hav­ing done that, it’s still there, at the ready, to be turned into some­thing else. This year, hav­ing grown over one hun­dred fruit, I’ve made jelly, mem­brillo, quince brandy, cor­dial and, per­haps my favour­ite of all, sorbet. Like Mrs Beeton’s instruc­tion, when mak­ing pie, to ‘first catch your rab­bit’, to make sorbet, first make your cor­dial. Like this:

QUINCE CORDIAL

  • 12 quince, whole and unpeeled
  • 850 ml water
  • 350g caster sugar

I’ve writ­ten the recipe for this before, but to make life easier, here it is again. Pre­heat the oven to 150 degrees C. Wash the fruit, rub­bing off its fluff with your fin­gers. Pack the quince snugly into a bak­ing dish that is approx­im­ately the same height as the fruit. Tip in the sugar and water and place a piece of sil­ver foil over the top, tuck­ing it in around the fruit. Bake in the oven for three hours and then remove and allow to cool before pour­ing the liquid into a jug. (Reserve the fruit and I will tell you how to use it for mem­brillo.) The amount of cor­dial you will get var­ies from between 500 to 700 ml, depend­ing on the size of the fruit. I freeze mine in small bottles, to pluck out, slightly show­ily, dur­ing the year. Serve it topped up with spark­ling water or pro­secco. Or, move onto phase 2.…. sorbet.

QUINCE SORBET IN PARMESAN CUPS

  • Home-made quince cordial
  • Finely grated parmesan

The point of com­bin­ing the sorbet with parmesan is to drag it in the dir­ec­tion of the savoury. But if you wish to nudge it back into the safe con­fines of a famil­iar har­bour, match it with mango and black­cur­rant sorbet instead.

Pour the cooled, undi­luted cor­dial straight into an ice-cream maker and churn until frozen. It will turn a rather soppy Ger­moline pink, but has its charms. To make the parmesan cups, heap mounds of grated cheese on bak­ing parch­ment — about two table­spoons for each cup — and bake in the oven for two to three minutes. When melted into golden discs, remove and shape them over the bot­tom of an espresso cup imme­di­ately. Allow to cool and then assemble.

MEMBRILLO

Next, the com­pli­ant quince is ready for phase three — mem­brillo.

  • Cooked quince left over from the cor­dial experiment
  • Caster sugar

Like the cor­dial and the sorbet, this recipe is ridicu­lously easy. Squish the cooked fruit through a sieve. It’s easier to do this one at a time, dis­card­ing the pips and skin from the sieve and then mov­ing on to the next fruit. Weigh the pulp and add it, with an identical quant­ity of caster sugar, to a pan. Bring the mix­ture to the boil and then allow to sim­mer very gently for around one and a half hours. It will become a dark, rich red and is ready when you can draw a wooden spoon across the bot­tom of the pan, leav­ing the two sides to stand huffily apart from each other, before reluct­antly creep­ing back over the pan to reunite.

Serve with a hard, salty cheese and crisp­bread. For those of us who’ve aban­doned beau­ti­fully uni­form jus­ti­fied text for the sake of other people, use nice, sooth­ingly oblong, reg­u­lar, plank-shaped crisp­bread, to calm those raggedy nerves. My favour­ite sour­dough crisp­bread from Peter’s Yard is cir­cu­lar, not oblong. So I’ll cut my cheese into oblongs instead.

The Justified Greengage

Like a sum­mer dah­lia frozen in ice, this post is pos­sibly slightly per­verse (the flower-freezing thing isn’t always daft - some­times it’s edible.) I have a slightly sink­ing feel­ing that what I’m about to embark on may repel before it entices. But, as with my posts on Fermat’s Last The­orem and the French writer Ray­mond Queneau, it may be worth stick­ing with until the end, when at least there’ll be cake.

This is a homily about the hom­onym, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pro­nun­ci­ation, but have dif­fer­ent mean­ings. The word that star­ted all this off is the hom­onym jus­ti­fied, which can be typo­graph­ical or simply excusable. And the reason I’m going on about it is because of the lay­out of this page. I don’t much like text that’s

flush on the left but ragged on the right

or ragged on the left but flush on the right

And, even worse, text that hov­ers some­where in the middle of the page, without any real clue what it’s doing there

What I try to use is jus­ti­fied text — it’s so sooth­ingly square and sym­met­rical. But there’s some­thing bossily sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous about the other mean­ing of the word jus­ti­fied, that I really don’t like; boast­ing that it, and only it, is right (not as in left, but as in cor­rect, which is of course another hom­onym). We tend to use the word jus­ti­fied when we want to bol­ster our slightly flag­ging defences. Think of the 19th Cen­tury novel The Private Mem­oirs and Con­fes­sions of a Jus­ti­fied Sin­ner by James Hogg, if you want to find an example of just such a usage. Mem­oirs they may be, con­fes­sions they could be, but jus­ti­fied they cer­tainly are not.

So this is a post about jus­ti­fied in a typo­graph­ical sense, but not in a sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous sense. The green­gage of my title is jus­ti­fied in that it stops the cake from being ragged left, ragged right or simply all over the place. It’s an addi­tion that makes the cake right (as in per­fect, not as in left.)

JUSTIFIED GREENGAGE CAKE

  • 180 grams unsalted butter
  • 180 grams caster sugar plus extra tablespoon
  • 180 grams self-raising flour
  • 100 grams ground almonds
  • 3 medium eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tea­spoon vanilla essence
  • Hand­ful ripe green­gages, halved and stoned
  • Hand­ful ripe blueberries
  • Hand­ful flaked almonds

Pre­heat the oven to 175 C. But­ter a 25 cm cake tin and line the bot­tom with parch­ment. Beat the but­ter and sugar together until pale and fluffy look­ing. Whisk the eggs with a fork and mix them in, a little at a time. Sieve the flour to add a little air and fold it in, along with the ground almonds, the vanilla essence and a pinch of salt.

Tip the mix­ture into the cake tin and push the green­gage halves into the mix­ture, cut side up, until semi-submerged, but still vis­ible. Do the same with the blue­ber­ries and then sprinkle the extra table­spoon of sugar over the lot. Place in the middle of the oven. After half an hour, pull the tin out briefly so that you can sprinkle the top of the cake with the flaked, blanched almonds (add them any earlier than this and the nuts will burn). Place the tin back in the oven for another half and hour.

Take the cake out of the oven and, after half an hour, remove from the tin. This is one of those cakes that, without ques­tion, tastes bet­ter the next day. So you can be an entirely Jus­ti­fied Sin­ner by eat­ing the entire thing, single-handed, in two days.

p.s. To leaven this mix­ture a little, I will leave you with an example of what hap­pens if you muddle up your homonyms:

The thief tripped as he tried to make his get­away and landed in a cement mixer. He became a hardened criminal.

The Minutiae of Broad Beans

There’s a paint­ing by the sixteenth-century artist Titian in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gal­lery that seems to tell its entire story at a glance. Sup­per at Emmaus depicts the moment Jesus reveals his iden­tity to his fol­low­ers, after the Cru­ci­fix­ion and Resur­rec­tion. The dis­ciple on the left of the paint­ing looks suit­ably startled to dis­cover who his din­ing com­pan­ion is, while the fol­lower on the right seems to be mak­ing up his mind whether to offer apo­lo­gies or con­grat­u­la­tions. But look at the table­cloth, in front of the loaf of bread. There, oddly and even a little pro­sa­ic­ally, is a little heap of broad beans. What can they be doing there? And where are the mounds of grapes, flagons of wine and plat­ters of roast meats that we’ve come to expect from such reli­gious paintings?

Caravaggio’s Sup­per at Emmaus, painted in 1601, goes for a much grander menu to mark the solem­nity of the occa­sion: a slightly comic roast chicken, grapes, pomegranates and figs. In his 1620 ver­sion, Bar­to­lomeo Cav­arozzi plumps for a decanter of wine and enough grapes to fill a grocer’s shelves. So why Titian’s broad beans? The pos­sible answer is that broad beans were once thought to embody the soul of the dead (the Greek math­em­atician Pythagoras issued an injunc­tion for­bid­ding any­one to eat beans, ever). Per­haps to coun­ter­bal­ance the note of mel­an­choly intro­duced by the beans, Titian scattered a few bor­age flowers over the table­cloth, since these were thought to chase away sadness.

Fly­ing in the face of Pythagoras’ instruc­tions, I bring you a broad bean con­fec­tion that is res­ol­utely cheer­ful and sunny, with or without the perky bor­age flowers. August is the height of the broad bean sea­son, so cast mel­an­choly aside and celebrate.

BROAD BEAN, PEA SHOOT AND RICOTTA BRUSCHETTA

  • Hand­ful of beans per person
  • Sour dough bread
  • Clove gar­lic
  • Ricotta
  • Hand­ful of pea shoots
  • Grated zest of lemon
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Season­ing
  • Hand­ful herb flowers — I used oregano this time, but thyme, rose­mary or chive would be good too
  • Hand­ful mint leaves

Pod the beans and boil in salted water for no more than two minutes. Allow to cool and then peel off the leath­ery jack­ets. Lightly toast the bread and rub with the cut side of a gar­lic clove. Spread each slice with ricotta cheese, sprinkled with a little salt and black pep­per. Tip the beans on top, fol­lowed by the pea shoots, torn mint leaves and a few herb flowers. Mix the lemon zest with the olive oil and drip a little on top of each toast.

Looking Up, Looking Down

Bril­liant con­cepts are often described in ris­ible ways: ‘push the envel­ope’, ‘wake up and smell the cof­fee’, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’, ‘let’s make a plan going for­ward’ and ‘blue-sky-thinking’. I aim to do all of those things most of the time, but never, ever will you get me to use any of those phrases. Take ‘blue-sky-thinking’ for example: the notion of devis­ing cre­at­ive ideas that are unfettered by the mundane or the ped­es­trian. The concept is per­fect, but the cliche-ridden pack­aging kills it stone dead. But then it struck me that per­haps ‘blue-sky-thinking’ would be bet­ter if I rever­ted to tak­ing it lit­er­ally rather than meta­phor­ic­ally. Lying on a forest floor and star­ing up through the can­opy of trees at the blue, wintry sky bey­ond is as good a way of think­ing new things as any and it cer­tainly took some of the sting out of the cliche.

To be abso­lutely truth­ful, the idea that came to me while I looked up through the can­opy of leaves wasn’t exactly revolu­tion­ary. All I kept think­ing as I stared up at the sky was that look­ing up is the same as look­ing down — it’s the simple action of tak­ing a dif­fer­ent view­point that counts. To prove my the­ory, I’ve been star­ing down into a pot of home-made orange curd to see what inspir­a­tion might come. My orange-pot-thinking pro­duced two and a half decent ideas — I will tell you about them in my next post. In the mean­time, here’s my recipe for orange curd to help you with a little orange-pot-thinking of your own.

ORANGE CURD

Makes four or five 200ml jars

  • 4 large oranges — finely grated zest and juice
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 400g caster sugar
  • 300g unsalted but­ter, chopped
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 3 extra yolks, beaten

Add the but­ter, sugar, lemon juice, orange zest and orange juice to a pan and heat gently until the but­ter has melted. Pour the mix­ture into a heat­proof bowl and place above a plan of sim­mer­ing water. Strain the eggs into the mix­ture and stir con­stantly until everything is com­bined. It will then take at least an hour to thicken. Stir it fre­quently and do not allow it to get too hot — it will sep­ar­ate if you do. If you’re cau­tious with the heat, the thick­en­ing will take longer, but you will avoid calam­ity. Once the mix­ture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, pour it into the ster­il­ised jars and cover with a circle of greased paper. It will keep for around 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge.

P.S. I have used the phrase ‘orange-pot-thinking’ three times in this post. It is now offi­cially a cliche and I prom­ise never to use it again — unless, of course, literally.

Back to Front Vintage Rice with Pomegranate

Research­ers have been por­ing over not the front but the back of the Bayeux tapestry, to prove that it wasn’t woven by dif­fer­ent teams of nuns in sev­eral sep­ar­ate pieces, but by the same group of people in one long length. After all, the back of a work of art says as much about its cre­ator as the front.

My Great Auntie Susie loved sew­ing, knit­ting and crochet of all kinds. But when I took her to the Vic­toria & Albert Museum to see the work of the great tapestry artist Kaffe Fas­sett, she had abso­lutely no interest at all in the beau­ti­ful artistry on dis­play. ‘I want to see the sew­ings’, she kept repeat­ing crossly. ‘I don’t want to see the front. I want to see the back.’ Her meas­ure of real crafts­man­ship was how beau­ti­fully Kaffe Fas­sett had fin­ished off his threads at the back of the can­vas. Sev­eral times, she tried to creep behind a dis­play to peer at the neat­ness of the ‘sew­ings’ and each time we were warned not to get too close. Finally, she could bear it no longer; she grabbed one of the canvases and lif­ted it up to get a bet­ter look. We were politely asked to leave, but not before she pro­claimed that, accord­ing to her stand­ards, Fas­sett had done a good job.

I love the work­ings of an object: the half-finished paint­ing with pen­cil marks show­ing through, the hand-thrown pot with the indent­a­tion of a thum­b­print or the drag of a fin­ger­nail. I even love the sound of an orches­tra as it tunes-up before a con­cert. It lays itself bare in all its ragged, dis­cord­ant imper­fec­tion, like a host­ess before the party starts, dressed in posh frock and high heels but hair still in curl­ers. An orches­tra tuning-up always makes me think of the great sitar player Ravi Shankar at the Con­cert for Bangladesh in 1971. ‘Thank you’, he said testily, as he fin­ished his pre­par­a­tions and the audi­ence star­ted to applaud. ‘If you appre­ci­ate the tuning-up so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the play­ing more.’

This is a dish in which all the sew­ings, the work­ings, the ingredi­ents and the method are laid bare. There’s no con­ceal­ment, no obfus­ca­tion, no trick­ery. It’s pure, simple, hon­est and above all deli­cious and every com­pon­ent can be seen clearly. And yet there is a mys­tery; the taste of the rice. It may look like per­fectly stand­ard bas­mati rice. But this is vin­tage bas­mati rice. Like Stra­di­vari viol­ins, the best har­vests of bas­mati rice become finer over time. This par­tic­u­lar Tilda vin­tage is from 2006 and the dif­fer­ence was appar­ent as soon as I bur­ied my nose in the packet. It has a stronger, more toasted aroma and the fla­vour, when cooked, is both nutty and del­ic­ate. It seemed cruel to plonk some­thing on top of it; hence my back to front rice salad that is both refresh­ing and refined and in which the rice is the star.

Back to Front Vin­tage Rice Salad

Serves 4

  • 40g of vin­tage bas­mati rice per person
  • 1 cucum­ber, peeled and cubed
  • 8 spring onions, finely sliced
  • Large hand­fuls of fresh flat leaf pars­ley, cori­ander and mint, chopped
  • Seeds of 3 pomegranates
  • 4 table­spoons clear rice vinegar
  • 4 level tea­spoons caster sugar
  • Salt and black pepper

I tried two dif­fer­ent meth­ods to cook the rice: first, soak­ing it in a bowl of cold water for half an hour before cook­ing it in a small amount of water with the lid on. My second method was to simply rinse the rice well and then sim­mer it very gently in an open pan. The second method pro­duced a more dis­tinct tex­ture and bet­ter sep­ar­ated grains.

When the rice is cool, add the herbs, cucum­ber, spring onions and seeds. Mix the vin­egar with the sugar and season­ing and then pour over the rice, stir­ring to coat it well.

This salad, with its zingy, sharp dress­ing, is per­fect with grilled sal­mon. It’s a dish that my Great Auntie Susie would have approved of, given that it reveals its ‘sew­ings’ so clearly and hon­estly. And she adored pomegranates. She would pull them apart and spear the seeds with a dressmaker’s pin from her sew­ing box. And so the post about the back to front salad that star­ted with the stitch­ing of the Bayeux tapestry comes full circle. It ends with a pin.