Through a small window…


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,
Douce­ment tinte.
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.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut into squares approx­im­ately 15cm square. Divide the cold fish between the squares, brush the edges with beaten egg and seal the par­cels togeth­er. Brush more egg on top of each pasty and chill in the fridge for an hour or so.

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.

PS. The close-up images were: nut­meg, leeks, bay leaves, fresh thyme, and black pep­per­corns. You prob­ably guessed them all, apart from the bay leaves which look like traffic on the M25 viewed from the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion.
PPS. If you haven’t had enough win­dows yet, I recom­mend Ian Patterson’s super­lat­ive poem ‘Sixty Win­dows for Jenny’. He con­struc­ted it by find­ing sixty books each of which men­tioned win­dows on the six­tieth page, and then incor­por­ated each phrase, unaltered, into his poem.


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