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.