If I hadn’t been kneeling on the ground fumbling for my lost earring, I wouldn’t have noticed the low, drystone wall made of leftovers. Parsimonious builders, restoring a fourteenth-century chateau in Provence, had scooped up all the spare bits and turned them into something else. The elegant arch, which once graced the front door, is now trapped at ankle-level with every reason to feel aggrieved.
That’s the trouble with leftovers; on a plate they often equate to way less than the sum of their parts – I can’t help thinking of a disgusting cold soup my mum once made out of a stick of rhubarb and half a pint of milk. The opposite of leftovers is of course leftouts and these can be just as problematic. I love the idea that George Perec wrote La Disparition (translated into English as A Void) deliberating missing out the letter e throughout. The snag is that it’s not a very good novel.
But then there are the left-ins and these can be very, very good: battered old spoons attached to a kitchen wall become more installation than cutlery.
Or pebbles left in wet concrete – an inventive garden wall on the Isle of Wight.
I’d been on the Isle of Wight, looking for the house where Charles Dickens stayed in 1849 and where he wrote part of David Copperfield. While descending treacherous, mossy steps I found a mysterious rusty key on the ground – left out by whom and to which door?
I found Dickens’ house – though not the door to which the key belonged – and by accident, I also discovered a stone memorial to a man called Thomas Prickett who died at the age of thirty in 1811. His epitaph is a stunning piece of elegant, economical prose: in dying he apparently ‘closed a life of extensive usefulness.’ I still haven’t made my mind up whether that’s a mournful epitaph for someone whom life left out or a celebratory tribute to a man who always joined in.
My two personal favourite leftovers are my cello and my Victorian printing press. My cello is mainly battered, nineteenth-century Bohemian but with extras bits added to get it all to hang together. And my printing press – exactly the same age as the cello – was found in rusting pieces in a Somerset field by my dad in the nineteen seventies. Cello and press are leftovers which have been invited back in again.
Edible leftovers can of course sometimes be delicious, rhubarb soup aside. This salad is only part-leftovers because who on earth opens their fridge to find only fennel, samphire and capers in there? But the samphire part was a leftover and the other ingredients just made it better.
SAMPHIRE, FENNEL AND CAPER SALAD
- One fennel bulb
- About 100g of samphire
- One tablespoon of salted capers (vinegar-soaked ones just don’t work here)
- One lemon
- Extra virgin olive oil
Remove any twiggy ends from the samphire and blanch it in boiling, unsalted water for one minute; transfer it to a bowl of ice-cold water. When it’s cold, mop it dry. Chop out the woody triangle at the base of the raw fennel and slice it across as thinly as you can manage. (Save the feathery green bits for later.) Rinse the capers well in hot water to get rid of much of the salt. Strew the fennel, samphire and capers on a dish and dress with plenty of olive oil and the juice of the lemon. Add black pepper and sprinkle over the fennel fronds. At no stage does this recipe need salt.
This salad is perfect with grilled fish, making it a leftover joined-in – or on its own, making it a leftover, leftout.