Madeleines and white chocolate teaspoons

After last weekend’s disastrous visit to Tate Modern in London, it was reassuring to discover that La Musee Rodin in Paris is as wonderful as ever. The house on Rue de Varenne, lived in by the sculptor Auguste Rodin until his death, is wearily beautiful, like an aging French film star. It’s not so much ‘eyes and teeth’ as creaking joints and wrinkles – and I adore it.

There’s so much to love about Paris but I’m still perturbed by the city’s restaurants. They take dull, predictable and snooty to a whole new level – the ghastly Brasserie Lipp has all those qualities and more.

We had a perfectly good dinner at Bouillon Racine, but the service bordered on the comical. We ordered snails and a crab salad followed by scallops and sea bass. Moments later the waiter came back to say that he had ‘absolutely no memory’ of what we had asked for.

At La Coupole on Boulevard du Montparnasse we had already started eating our filet de boeuf when the waiter returned to the table, snatched our plates away and swept into the kitchen without a word. We were left holding our cutlery in mid-air, helpless victims of a cartoon food robbery.

What a relief then to find that La Grande Epicerie is as glorious as ever. The wonderful food store offers the best alternative to the erratic restaurants in France’s capital city; simply buy a picnic and eat it in the park. And if you can, buy a box of white chocolate teaspoons to take home with you, serve them with mini madeleines and eat with an espresso while you remember all that’s great about Paris.

Madeleines

Makes around 15 mini cakes

60g unsalted butter

1 large egg

50g caster sugar

50g plain white flour

Finely grated zest of an orange

Icing sugar to dust

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees c. Melt the butter and, using a pastry brush, lightly grease the moulds. Allow the remaining butter to cool. Whisk the eggs and caster sugar vigorously until the mixture is thick, pale and foamy. Sift the flour into the egg and sugar. Fold it in, along with the orange zest and the cool melted butter. Fill each mould and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Dust with icing sugar.

The sixth sense and an extra dimension…

I was given the perfect going-home present last night, after supper with friends; two plump, mottled, ever so slightly misshapen and exquisitely perfumed quinces. They fulfilled everything you could wish for in a gift: taste, touch, scent and rarity, with a sprinkling of eccentricity.

My visit to Tate Modern in London to see Ai Weiwei’s new Sunflower Seeds exhibit was anything but fulfilling. Now that we’ve been banned from walking, ankle-deep, through the one hundred million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, the work has been stripped of a dimension. The snootier art critics claim the work is the same whether we walk through it or not. But that’s just wrong. Sunflower Seeds was supposed to be a work to experience not just with the eyes, but with our ears, our hands and our feet. Roping it off with the kind of prosaic black barrier you would find at an airport has stripped it of its democratic power – and its glory too, for that matter.

I stomped grumpily away from Sunflower Seeds to join the line for the new Gauguin exhibition. That was possibly even worse as an artistic experience. Ducking and dodging around the crowds, I saw more shoulders, elbows and necks than I saw paintings.

My disappointing day got me thinking about what happens when our senses are cheated. Biting into a tasteless, scarlet tomato. Smelling a bunch of hothouse flowers devoid of scent. Slicing a downy, blushing peach and finding it has the texture of moss. And even when all five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are fulfilled, there’s still a little something missing. Shouldn’t we add the sense of moving to the list? Trailing through the sea-shore with the salt water frothing at our ankles; picking blackberries while zig-zagging along a shaded lane with thorns snagging at our sleeves; eating a perfect apple on a climb up one of Dorset’s highest hills. Or following the curve of the hedgerow while hunting for sloes to add to gin.

The slightly tricky thing about sloe gin is when to drink it and what to drink it with. Lunch time? Not really. In the evening, before dinner? Not sure about that. And then it struck me. It needs that extra dimension. Just as the Italians drink sweet Vin Santo while eating biscotti, why not pair sloe gin with spiced ginger biscuits? Ginger goes perfectly with the plummy-ness of sloes, and if you invite a friend to share your feast and you pick the sloes yourself you will have fulfilled all six senses by the time you’ve finished. Sight, sound, touch, taste, scent and movement. Better than Tate Modern can manage as it turns out.

Spiced Ginger Biscuits

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C

80 g butter

80g light brown caster sugar

2 desert spoons black treacle or molasses

250g plain flour

Half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2 rounded teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 rounded teaspoons ground ginger

1 egg yolk

2 or 3 tablespoons milk

Icing sugar to dust

This is a variation on Nigel Slater’s ginger biscuits, but it’s slightly more suited to sloe gin. Beat the butter and sugar together until it is light and well mixed. Add the treacle, followed by all the other ingredients apart from the milk. Add the milk gradually until the consistency is perfect for rolling but not too soft. Cut into shapes and bake in the oven for ten minutes. Sprinkle the biscuits with icing sugar and pour the sloe gin.

In full colour…

It’s the start of another week. Note to self: less monochrome, more colour.

This week I’m going to be Pollyanna, Eleanor H Porter’s eponymous character who always found the best in everything. Pollyanna played the ‘glad game’ so brilliantly that she even managed to be pleased when she was knocked over by a car. My Pollyanna impersonation isn’t going to take me that far. But a little more Pollyanna in our lives can’t be a bad thing, can it?

The reason for my Pollyanna tribute act is that, when I look back over the past seven days, I realise I’ve been downright gloomy. Everything has been monochrome. Frankenstein is partly to blame for that. I’m writing a lecture about Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein to be given later this month. Sharing my life with Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation isn’t a laugh a minute. As the monster picked off yet another of Victor’s relatives I could feel my spirits sinking.

The week has also been peppered with small instances of sheer bloody-mindedness. This morning I walked past a woman shrieking at an elderly couple who’d dared to complain that she was blocking their driveway with her huge 4 x 4. Pollyanna would have sorted her out. I was just left feeling part appalled and part embarrassed at my failure to do anything about it.

So, here we go. Where better to start than with food?

Full Colour Red Rice With Squash and Tahini

Butternut squash – 1 should be enough for 4 people

Teaspoon cumin powder

Rice – 80 g per person

1 teaspoon of tahini per person

1 dessert spoon thick Greek yoghurt per person

1 teaspoon pomegranate seeds per person

1 teaspoon spring onions/red chillies per person

Coriander/cilantro leaves

I used red rice from the Camargue, although basmati rice cooked with a dessert spoon of turmeric in the water is both beautiful and delicious too.

Peel, de-seed and cube the squash. I happened to use acorn squash because it appeared in my organic vegetable box this week, but butternut squash has a stronger flavour and colour. Rub with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a little cumin over the cubes and bake for half an hour at 170 degrees C or until soft and starting to turn golden at the edges.

Cook the rice and stir a teaspoon of tahini into each serving. Top the rice with the baked butternut squash. Next, a spoonful of Greek yoghurt per person, followed by a spoonful of pomegranate seeds, followed by some spring onions/scallions that you have fried in olive oil with some finely chopped red chillies. Last of all, a sprinkling of coriander/cilantro leaves.

And there you have it – food in full colour.