I was given the perfect going-home present last night, after supper with friends; two plump, mottled, ever so slightly misshapen and exquisitely perfumed quinces. They fulfilled everything you could wish for in a gift: taste, touch, scent and rarity, with a sprinkling of eccentricity.
My visit to Tate Modern in London to see Ai Weiwei’s new Sunflower Seeds exhibit was anything but fulfilling. Now that we’ve been banned from walking, ankle-deep, through the one hundred million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, the work has been stripped of a dimension. The snootier art critics claim the work is the same whether we walk through it or not. But that’s just wrong. Sunflower Seeds was supposed to be a work to experience not just with the eyes, but with our ears, our hands and our feet. Roping it off with the kind of prosaic black barrier you would find at an airport has stripped it of its democratic power – and its glory too, for that matter.
I stomped grumpily away from Sunflower Seeds to join the line for the new Gauguin exhibition. That was possibly even worse as an artistic experience. Ducking and dodging around the crowds, I saw more shoulders, elbows and necks than I saw paintings.
My disappointing day got me thinking about what happens when our senses are cheated. Biting into a tasteless, scarlet tomato. Smelling a bunch of hothouse flowers devoid of scent. Slicing a downy, blushing peach and finding it has the texture of moss. And even when all five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are fulfilled, there’s still a little something missing. Shouldn’t we add the sense of moving to the list? Trailing through the sea-shore with the salt water frothing at our ankles; picking blackberries while zig-zagging along a shaded lane with thorns snagging at our sleeves; eating a perfect apple on a climb up one of Dorset’s highest hills. Or following the curve of the hedgerow while hunting for sloes to add to gin.
The slightly tricky thing about sloe gin is when to drink it and what to drink it with. Lunch time? Not really. In the evening, before dinner? Not sure about that. And then it struck me. It needs that extra dimension. Just as the Italians drink sweet Vin Santo while eating biscotti, why not pair sloe gin with spiced ginger biscuits? Ginger goes perfectly with the plummy-ness of sloes, and if you invite a friend to share your feast and you pick the sloes yourself you will have fulfilled all six senses by the time you’ve finished. Sight, sound, touch, taste, scent and movement. Better than Tate Modern can manage as it turns out.
Spiced Ginger Biscuits
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C
80 g butter
80g light brown caster sugar
2 desert spoons black treacle or molasses
250g plain flour
Half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 rounded teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 rounded teaspoons ground ginger
1 egg yolk
2 or 3 tablespoons milk
Icing sugar to dust
This is a variation on Nigel Slater’s ginger biscuits, but it’s slightly more suited to sloe gin. Beat the butter and sugar together until it is light and well mixed. Add the treacle, followed by all the other ingredients apart from the milk. Add the milk gradually until the consistency is perfect for rolling but not too soft. Cut into shapes and bake in the oven for ten minutes. Sprinkle the biscuits with icing sugar and pour the sloe gin.