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.

Just How Pink Can You Get?

It’s easier to see how bril­liant Charles Dick­ens is by read­ing a lesser rival. Just as it’s sim­pler to appre­ci­ate home by going away, silence by listen­ing to Sir Paul McCart­ney and freshly caught fish by eat­ing tinned tuna. For that reason here are some pink/crimson/red things eaten and enjoyed in my house in the past couple of days. All of them were delight­ful, but none comes close in start­ling pink­ness to what I have in store for you in a moment.

Maybe the beet­root gave the game away. I’ve just made sear­ingly pink beetroot-cured gravad­lax which takes the pinko­meter into new zones on the dial. As the Mayor of Lon­don Boris John­son might have said, ‘pink-omania is about to go zoink.’

BEETROOT CURED GRAVADLAX

There are vari­ous com­bin­a­tions of ingredi­ents that work well, but this is how I like it best:

  • 600 — 700g sal­mon fillet
  • 300g raw beet­root, peeled and roughly grated
  • 100g sea salt flakes
  • 90g sugar
  • A few turns of freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated horseradish — about 40g
  • 1 bunch of dill, chopped
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 50ml gin

You can leave the skin on, or remove it. It’s really up to you. Com­bine all the ingredi­ents in a bowl and mix well. Tip half the beet­root mix­ture onto an oval plate just a little bit big­ger than the fish and then place the sal­mon on top, mak­ing sure the under­side is com­pletely covered. A plastic con­tainer would also work, although you may find it dif­fi­cult to remove the pink stains later! Use the remain­ing beet­root mix­ture to cover the top of the fish. Cover the whole lot with a double layer of cling film and place weights on the top — I use another plate with a few tins stacked on it. Put the fish in the fridge and after 24 hours it will be ready. Wash off all the cur­ing ingredi­ents, pat the fish dry and then slice and eat. I like to serve it with a little thick nat­ural yoghurt into which I’ve grated some more fresh horseradish, along with some salt and pepper.

It will keep in the fridge, covered, for around a week.

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remem­ber my grandpa announ­cing proudly that he’d dec­or­ated the walls of his small front room with four wildly dif­fer­ent wall­pa­pers and picked out the wood­work in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhib­i­tion A Big­ger Pic­ture at the Royal Academy in Lon­don. The exhib­i­tion is vast and over­whelm­ing and throbs with wild col­ours and pat­terns. It’s gen­er­ous, showy and utterly inde­pend­ent in spirit and yet it’s metic­u­lous and some­how dogged too — qual­it­ies that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walk­ing through Oxford’s Uni­ver­sity Parks later that day, I felt some­how let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turn­ing 180 degrees so that the sun was shin­ing on the trunks, the col­ours jumped into life. I got a whole new per­spect­ive. And if that’s not a meta­phor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hock­ney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eat­ing a riot of col­our. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice — full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yel­low beet­roots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Whole­foods, along with a sil­ver foil hick­ory smoker from Fin­land for £2.29.

I have a dis­astrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evac­u­ate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey fla­vour, this bag will dis­ap­point you. But for a del­ic­ate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evac­u­ation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 table­spoons bal­samic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 table­spoons olive oil
  • Black­berry vin­egar — I bought mine from Womers­ley Foods
  • 1 dis­pos­able foil smoker — bought from Whole­foods for £2.29

Wash the beet­root, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beet­root, onions, whole head of gar­lic and thyme in the olive oil and bal­samic vin­egar, sea­son and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a fur­ther 45 minutes. Remove the pack­age from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cut­ting open the foil. Peel the beet­root and slice into thin­nish circles.

Make a salad dress­ing from a little olive oil, black­berry vin­egar and season­ing and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beet­root, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the bal­samic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of bak­ing, the gar­lic will be rich, sweet and unc­tu­ous — per­fect when spread on a little sour­dough bread.

I ate my riot­ous salad and bread with beet­root soup that I made by bak­ing beet­roots and apples for an hour and blend­ing with veget­able stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his col­our schemes but excep­tion­ally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.

Black garlic — fashion faux pas or design classic

It amuses me to see fash­ion stores from Zara to Benetton to Top­shop packed with rails of mil­it­ary capes this sea­son. How did the cape sur­vive its first out­ing, let alone get resur­rec­ted? I remem­ber plead­ing for one as a teen­ager, along with a pair of white pull-on wet-look knee-length boots. I even­tu­ally got the cape — still wait­ing for the boots.

The first thing I learned about wear­ing a cape is that the restrict­ive slits give you instant Dalek-arms. In fact, the whole sil­hou­ette is start­lingly Dalek-like. So, no, I won’t be buy­ing a cape this time round.

The food equi­val­ent of the over-rated cape has to be foam. To my mind, eat­ing foam is no tastier than lying on the beach, swill­ing the frothy water’s edge around your pal­ate like a whale siev­ing plank­ton. I’m not 100% con­vinced by any­thing ‘en croute’ either, since it’s little more than a posh pie with a swanky name.

I’ve just been to a food fair and I bought what was described as ‘the next big thing in food’. It’s black gar­lic — stand­ard white gar­lic fer­men­ted for three weeks and dried for another week. Black gar­lic tastes like liquorice crossed with rais­ins with a back fla­vour of cooked gar­lic. It has a con­sist­ency that reminds me of chest­nuts or even fruit pas­tilles. It’s reputed to have none of that fierce, pun­gent after­taste that lingers. My daugh­ter ate a whole clove and pro­nounced it to be like ‘eat­ing a candy’. And it turns out the man­u­fac­tur­ers are telling the truth — there’s abso­lutely no lingering.

But is black gar­lic just a mil­it­ary cape in dis­guise, or is it pure Chanel — eleg­ant, time­less and exquisite?

This was my fash­ion experiment.….

The Recipe: Beet­root and Black Gar­lic Bruschetta With Goat’s Cheese and Walnuts

Enough for 4

1 beet­root

4 slices sour­dough bread, toasted

8 cloves black garlic

150g goat’s cheese — the soft, creamy kind

Bal­samic vin­egar — the syr­upy kind

Hand­ful of chives

Hand­ful of wal­nuts broken up with your hands

Cut the stalk off the beet­root and place in a pan of sim­mer­ing water. Boil for half an hour or until tender. Remove from the water and once cool enough to handle, peel the outer skin off. Slice the beet­root and put to one side while you toast the sour­dough bread.

Rub one clove of black gar­lic onto each slice of toasted bread. It will dis­in­teg­rate as you rub it in. Spread each toast with the goat’s cheese fol­lowed by the beet­root. Slice the remain­ing four cloves of black gar­lic and heap onto the beet­root. Add the wal­nuts, a trickle of bal­samic and a drift of chopped chives.

The Ver­dict

I would def­in­itely buy black gar­lic again and I would cer­tainly pre­pare it like this again. It’s still not quite Chanel, but Chanel wasn’t Chanel in the beginning.