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
- 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.