If I was to choose a flower that perfectly evokes the past, I would pick the mocked and reviled dahlia. It’s so ridiculously, frothily retro and has been out of fashion for so long. And yet doggedly and resiliently it’s hung on in the shadows, waiting for its chance to creep back onto the stage. This year I’ve grown dahlias for the first time — if truth be told, they pretty much grew themselves, actually. And look how beautiful they are — like miniature wedding hats from the 1950s.
In Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-nominated novel The Sense of an Ending, we’re warned that ‘what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’ I thought of that phrase when buying a birthday card for a friend, to go with the dahlias. I found one in an antiques shop in Oxford; clipped to its front is an old black and white photograph that must have been taken eighty years ago. I’d like to think the picture was taken on the couple’s honeymoon, but since I neither remember not witnessed, it’s impossible to be sure. And yet there they are, trapped on a card, with a fragment of ribbon, some shreds of initialled tape and a large black button; a whole new present tense created out of their past. I hope they’d be pleased.
I thought again of the past in creating this recipe. It’s a re-imagining of the dish I always chose as a child from the menu of a small candle-lit bistro on the south coast of England. I have no idea how they made it, but I thought it was the height of sophistication. This is what I remember, even if it’s not what I witnessed. But, like the card, I’ve made a new present tense out of the past.
Pan-Roasted Chicken With Pears, Hazelnuts and Apple Brandy
- 4 chicken breasts, skin on
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 ripe, firm pears such as Comice, cored, peeled, quartered and cut into slices 1–2 mm thick
- 1 knob butter
- 1/4 cup Calvados — brandy will do if you can’t find Calvados
- 100 g blanched hazelnuts, toasted until light brown in a dry frying pan and then crushed
- 200 g creme fraiche
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan until very hot and starting to smoke. Place the chicken breasts, skin-side down in the pan and leave for 4 minutes without moving them at all — don’t be tempted to turn them over. Remove the chicken to an oven-proof dish and, still skin-side down, place in the preheated oven for 9 to 10 minutes until cooked through. Remove from the oven and rest the chicken, before slicing each piece into 4. Reserve the unwashed frying pan for the sauce.
Return the unwashed frying pan to the heat and once hot again, add the brandy. Stir to deglaze the pan and to let the alcohol evaporate. After three minutes, add the knob of butter and once it has melted, add the sliced pears. Bubble in the pan for 5 minutes until very slightly brown at the edges. Add the crushed hazelnuts and stir gently for a further 3 minutes. Add the creme fraiche, stir in, and then add the white wine, plus plenty of salt and black pepper. Cook for a further 5 minutes or until the pears are soft. Check the seasoning and then spoon the sauce around the chicken. Serve with mashed potatoes and cavolo nero cabbage.
I served the chicken-I-remember-but-may-not-have-witnessed, on the clock plates given to me thirty years ago by a great friend called Brian. He died a long time ago, but I love using his plates — the perfect way to think of the past while watching the long hand of the clock tick around the rim.