Shall I Compare Thee to a Pan of Spelt?

This is a story of triumph against the odds; an account of a modest recipe and a tale of towering talent. Both the recipe and the person made infinitely less fuss than most, and yet achieved so much more. The recipe is Pumpkin Spelt Risotto, the perfect food for Autumn days. The person is Sophie Germain.

The mathematical quest to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem defeated us for more than 350 years. To put it perhaps ludicrously simply, the theorem stated that while the equation a² + b² = c² works just fine, the equation a³ + b³ = c³ , or any power greater, cannot be satisfied. One of those whose work proved crucial in proving Fermat right, was the French mathematician Sophie Germain, born in 1776. The fact that she learned Mathematics at all is a small miracle. As a child, she so craved to learn that she taught herself Latin and Greek in order to be able to read the works of Sir Isaac Newton and Leonhard Euler in her father’s library. Her parents were appalled by her desire to learn. At night they banned her from having either warm clothes or a fire in her room, thinking the cold and dark would stop any illicit studying. But, determined to learn, she wrapped herself in quilts and worked by the light of a candle.

It’s probably no surprise to hear that Germain was banned from attending university too. Her solution was to take a male pseudonym and to send in written notes to one of the lecturers. During her lifetime, Sophie Germain received little recognition for her work. The consensus was that she lacked the rigour needed to be truly brilliant. The rigour would, of course, have come with formal education, an education her critics and detractors had denied her.

To come back to earth with not so much a bump as a deafening crunch,  I was listening to a radio programme about Fermat and Sophie Germain, while stirring a pan of spelt risotto. Sophie deserves better poetry than ‘shall I compare thee to a pan of spelt’, but I’m afraid the allusion has stuck in my mind. Spelt risotto needs none of the nurturing, cajoling and flattering that its posh cousin rice demands.  Just like Sophie Germain, spelt risotto sorts itself out, gets on with the job and in the end is both triumphant and massively under-rated. So at a time when education for girls is still, tragically, a political and ideological battleground, let’s pay tribute to Sophie Germain and all those women who came before and after.

Pumpkin and Spelt Risotto

Serves 4

  • I small sugar pumpkin (around 2kg in weight, uncut)
  • I carrot
  • I stick celery
  • I medium yellow onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Handful thyme leaves
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • seasoning
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 250g pearled spelt
  • 1.5 litres vegetable stock
  • Scattering of freshly grated parmesan
  • Large knob butter
  • Fresh tarragon

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Don’t bother to peel the pumpkin. simply cut into smallish chunks, remove the seeds and place in a metal baking tray. I should say that I tried this recipe with both Crown Prince squash and with Harlequin squash. I advise you not to bother. This recipe needs the melting, vibrant, sweet texture and taste of a standard sugar pumpkin. Season the cut pieces with salt and black pepper and brush with olive oil over all the cut surfaces. Bake for half an hour until soft and slightly caramelised.

Chop the garlic, celery, carrot and onion as finely as you can manage. The idea is to cook with a little olive oil and seasoning at a low to medium heat for half an hour, so that the vegetables are soft, melting and tending towards the caramelised. The pale, demure translucency of onions demanded by a classic risotto is not what you’re aiming for here. The classic vegetable base of celery, carrot and onion is called sofritto – literally, ‘under-fried’. But I don’t like either the word or the concept, so I’d rather call it a mélange or a muddle instead.  

When the pumpkin flesh is soft and sweet, remove the tray from the oven and put it on one side while the pumpkin cools.

Tip the spelt into the vegetable mélange. Stir it around so that the grains are coated and then add 500 mls of stock into the pan. Unlike a classic risotto, you don’t need to add ladlefuls of hot stock a little at a time. A full 500 mls of stock – hot or cold – is absolutely fine. Neither does spelt need the careful nursing and nurturing of risotto, being far less temperamental and highly strung. Add the rest, as you need it.

The spelt takes around half an hour to cook. Ten minutes before it’s done, add the pumpkin flesh, using a spoon to scoop it out of the skin.

Just before serving, add a large knob of butter, some grated parmesan and a scattering of chopped tarragon. Any leftovers heat up very well the next day, with a little extra stock added if necessary.

Eat while studying Fermat’s Last Theorem. If it makes sense, congratulate yourself. If it doesn’t, eat your spelt risotto while marvelling even more at Sophie Germain. Not only did she teach herself Latin and Greek in order to then teach herself Mathematics, she endured ridicule and mockery for her endeavours.


A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reasons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who creates a magnificent dinner on which she lavishes her entire fortune is one I’ve always loved. The two elderly sisters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impoverished for the rest of her life. Her sanguine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morning I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Reading a slightly whimsical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I discovered that ‘Karen liked to combine old roses with cabbage leaves, or blossoms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morning to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for making my dinner guests feel cherished, but get up at five in the morning so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be joking. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exacting aesthetic sense that I nipped outside and gathered some rosemary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morning, which is practically mid afternoon by Karen Blixen’s standards – but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whisper of the flavour of the stems from which they came; a delicate, fragrant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby relatives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bouquets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rosemary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 garlic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre vegetable stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Handful rosemary flowers – chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of butter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Meanwhile heat the stock in a neighbouring pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stirring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boiling water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t overcook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of butter, check the seasoning, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rosemary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rosemary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the perfect lunch. I like to think the creator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.

Cousin Garlic

I have no talent for gardening, there’s no use pretending. But I’ve developed an obsession with my garden. That’s because my friends Non and Helen have actually planted something in it for me.

Each morning I check on my white aliums to see how fluffy and camp they’ve become. Here they were yesterday, bursting to get out of their jackets, like plump guests at a summer wedding….

…here they were last night, having almost wriggled free…..

And good grief, look at them today…..

Like most of us, frothy, etherial aliums have some uncouth relatives. In the case of the alium, the wild cousin that gets drunk and behaves badly but gives everyone a wonderful time is the garlic plant. What would a party be without the high-living, fun-loving, wise-cracking Cousin Garlic?

Just like humans, the garlic plant gets tougher, dryer and bossier as it gets older. Young garlic however is an altogether gentler creature. Delicate in flavour and sweet in aroma.

You can recognise it from its long stems and its juicier, plumper demeanour. Its name is wet garlic, but that just sounds revolting. The word ‘wet’ should never be attached to food – wet cheese, wet bread, wet ham, wet lettuce are all disgusting. So let’s call it new garlic, because that’s what it is …

New Garlic Risotto

50g butter

2tbsp olive oil

I onion

3 cloves old garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife and then chopped finely

3 new garlic bulbs sliced thinly across, leaves and all

250g arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine

About a litre of vegetable stock – keep it simmering in a pan so that you can keep adding it, hot, to your risotto

Handful fresh spinach leaves

50g freshly grated parmesan

Handful fresh chives and chive flowers

Melt 25g butter with the olive oil and add the old and new garlic and the onion. Cook gently so that they soften but don’t take on any colour. Season with salt and black pepper and after about ten minutes add the white wine. Once it’s been absorbed, keep adding a ladleful of hot stock at a time. Turn the heat down so that the risotto merely bubbles like a murky pond and keep adding the stock. Stick with this process for about fifteen minutes. Try to enter a trance-like state. Risotto and brisk, brittle efficiency don’t go together. When the rice is cooked, but only just, add the spinach leaves and stir through. It should be luxuriously soupy. (The best risotto I’ve ever eaten was in Venice and I ate it with a spoon.) Add the remaining butter and the cheese.

Serve with a scattering of finely chopped chives on top and the chive flowers. The chive is another relative of the alium and the garlic, so it will be very happy to join the party.