Pastry sarcophagi

You can’t imagine how close those post came to being named “Pies!” but, when push came to shove, I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t abandon my role as a very low rent Araucaria.  This could have been my big chance to connect with the “common man” on a topic of broad interest, but I’ve blown it (yet again).

With my honey trap unbaited, I shall just inform the reading elite that for my lunch today I ate a pie.  “So what?” comes the swift riposte.  Well, I was at home at the time and I hardly ever eat pies at home (except of the mince variety in the run up to Christmas, and, for the sake of the argument, they do not count).  I have not eaten a pie in my primary domicile (other than exceptions previously noted) this millenium – and perhaps not since the 1980s.  It is not that I have anything against pies – there is no vendetta involved nor have I been dissed by a bridie – no, it is the pastry where I draw the line.  Unlike other carbohydrate-heavy augmentations to a meal (e.g. crumble, sponge, cobbler), the making of pastry requires the forced breaching of mixing bowl containment: it is the mess caused by rolling out (and the use of my limited work surface area) to which I object.  As a result, my rolling pin rarely sees the light of day – but should come in handy as a defensive weapon should I ever need to confront an intruder (it’s a toss up between that and a Le Creuset frying pan – but I think the rolling pin better satisfies the requirement for “reasonable force”).

So why did I relent?  Well, I didn’t: the pie was obtained last Sunday from the annual, local farmer’s market (which I feel is a sub-optimal frequency for such an event).  The original plan was to consume it on my journey to Brighton to hear the Esterhazy Chamber Choir sing in celebration of 500 years having elapsed since John Sheppard’s birth (well, probably – record keeping was not to a modern standard in, or around, 1515).  An anniversary which I am quite certain has been widely honoured by GofaDM readers: I’m sure performances of his Media Vita have been a vital part of everyone’s 2015.  So little did I know about pies that this plan was doomed to failure by the need to cook the proto-pie at 180°C for twenty five minutes.  I had plenty of cooking time available on my journey, but sadly Southern Railways do not even provide the option to charge your phone let alone run a small oven.  A very short-sighted policy, if you ask me.

So, anyway today the pie and its primary contents, of shiitake mushrooms and asparagus, were consumed in a single sitting (appetite is author’s own).  The cardboard box which once housed the pie is rather beautiful when fully unfolded: a partially-stellated dodecagon.  It also carries a very detailed list of ingredients, including the exact balance between pastry and filling (9:16) and the percentage share of its various high-value contents.  I’d not seen this before – though it may have been common for years – but feel it is a very welcome development in food labelling.  Without this level of detail, one can easily be fobbed off with a pie which is mostly pastry or, for example, a chicken and ham pie with almost no ham (unless one is willing to perform the pie-equivalent of an autopsy at the time of purchase, and few retailers allow a potential buyer to insert his scalpel before money has changed hands).

The pie itself wasn’t at all bad and the ratio of filling to pastry well within the Goldilocks zone.  However, it wasn’t a patch on the amazing pies I have sampled at 10 Greek Street where, by some arcane method unknown to me, the filling to pastry ratio must be nearer 90:10 (and the pastry itself is simply divine).  Perhaps this is another reason why I rarely attempt a pie at home: having been exposed to such perfection, my own tawdry efforts will always fall short.

Apple carnage

Yesterday, I went up to London for a little theatrical fun.  Partly because this may soon become trickier with rail strikes on the cards, but mostly because Southwest Trains were offering a special offer fare: £12 return rather than the usual nearly £40 (I could also have taken some children for £1 each, but I lack my own and felt that abducting someone else’s would probably cause problems down the line†).  Southampton may only be 50% further from London than Sawston, but rail fares are approaching 200% higher – so this was quite a good deal (or the normal fare is quite a poor deal – and, on balance, the latter statement may be the more apposite).  The special offer does not include access to the services of TfL, so in the spirit of thrift I chose venues within easy (for me) walking distance of Waterloo.

I started at the National and a matinée of George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.  This was huge fun – a comedy from more than 300 years ago, written by a man who was both destitute and dying, which is still laugh-out-loud funny.  I can’t even manage that today, whilst enjoying both good health and reasonable economic circumstances.  It also boasts some decent female roles – something many a more modern piece lacks.  The Olivier has a number of advantages as a venue, including excellent sight-lines which allows one to go for a cheaper seat without loss of amenity.  Even better, it’s economics do allow a play to run with a larger cast than my usual more fringe or regional haunts permit – and, very pleasingly, the production ran to five live musicians (for the avoidance of doubt, they were not discussing the football).  Finally, the refreshing of the NT’s public spaces – whilst incomplete – does seem to have made it feel rather more welcoming, which I think may be down to improved upholstery.  This did lead me to wonder if we, as a society, have under-estimated the importance of the upholsterer’s art?  Another possible future career for the author?

I then strolled up to 10 Greek Street for sustenance and to pick up some more recipe and cooking tips.  It seems I may need to experiment with passion fruit curd – assuming I can find the ingredients – as its partnership with Gariguette strawberries is simply divine.  Given the limited offerings in the typical supermarket, I may be stuck pairing it with an Elsanta (who, I presume, is the Spanish counterpart to our Father Christmas).

10GS is very handy for the Soho Theatre where I took my second dose of theatre for the day.  The production of The Harvest by Pavel Pryazhko had been recommended by one of my fellow “actors” (actually, he really was an actor) at the Glass Menagerie Playdate (he played Jim, and I’m still not worried).  Screen-based entertainment is often preceded by dire warnings as to its likely content, just in case you are unable to handle infrequent, mild slapstick (to choose but one example).  However, this was the first time I’d seen warnings when booking tickets for the theatre – though they were just as weird.  Before booking, I was warned that this production contained “large amounts of feathers and fresh apples”.  Is a phobia of fresh apples widespread in the populace?  Are apples, like nuts, prone to send the unwary into anaphylactic shock?  Suffice it to say, I was expecting apples – though was prepared to be disappointed – but the show certainly delivers on the apple front!  They are there in quantity both in wooden crates and hanging by strings from above: the last time I saw so many apples in one place was at Cam Valley Orchards (one of the things I miss following my move to the south coast).  According to the play, these were Queen Reinette, also known as Reine de Reinettes or (confusingly) King of the Pippins – this suggests both an unexpected degree of hemaphroditism and a surprisingly close link between Madame de Pompadour and Peregrin Took (one for the geeks, there).  For practical reasons (as will become clear), I would say that the apples used in the production were Bramleys – I suspect sourcing the number of Queen Reinette would have been a challenge (and significantly upped ticket prices).

The play is a pretty dark comedy, and whilst things start happily enough as time goes on an increasing number of the apples are bruised.  Later, apples are entirely destroyed in a number of increasingly violent ways.  One can sometimes forget what a visceral experience theatre can be (even when the viscera in question come from the fruit of Malus domestica) – certainly when compared to screen-based entertainment – and sitting in the front row I jumped more than once and was struck by a few flakes of Bramley (though was missed by more complete examples) – and could certainly have grabbed a few “windfalls” to take home (some residual sense of propriety just about held me back).  Once again, the Nuffield’s outreach had done me proud: the play was well worth-seeing and at an hour long didn’t overstay its welcome and meant I was delivered back to my coastal eyrie at a reasonable hour.  I must admit I am now very keen to source a Reine de Reinettes – and they do keep well (both according to the play and subsequent internet research by yours truly) – but I fear the illusion of choice offered by our supermarkets will deny me my fix.

† Weak pun fully intended.

From the castle east

Where, (un)naturally, I have sited my laboratory, my experiments on the very stuff of life continue.  Given that I have no current desire to restore a semblance of life to the flesh of the dead – either to sate my o’erweening ego or to furnish myself with an obedient minion to do my bidding (a desire which in both cases could probably be better provided by the living – and would you trust one of the undead with the complexities of Acol and Blackwood?) – my experiments remain confined to the culinary sphere (for the time being).  As a result, dear readers, you can leave your pitchforks and brands (unlit) in the shed where they belong.

Today, inspired by a recent trip to 10 Greek Street, I have turned to my retorts and alembics and the wise words of Hermes Trismegistus to transmute base cornmeal into polenta.  Actually, my raw material was organic maize flour – which is a slightly more ground state of cornmeal which I figured would react more rapidly.  Maize, of course, we owe to the hard work of generations of ancient Mexicans taming the wild teosinte at great personal risk.  Given their lack of imperial presence in the new world, the Italians do seem to have adopted much of its plant produce in their cuisine (OK then, at least two examples spring to mind: maize and tomatoes) – still, I suppose Columbus was Italian by birth so maybe he smuggled a few dainties back to his homeland.

The educational remit of this post fulfilled, I shall now return to the nonsense.  The advice from the followers of Paracelsus suggested that I should add my flour slowly to a boiling admixture of milk and water, whisking all the while.  I should then continuously stir the resultant suspension (colloid?) widdershins for 35-45 minutes – which I did (providing you are willing to assume time is substantially more granular than is currently in vogue among serious scientists).  As if by magic, this process did indeed produce a substance which looks, quacks and, indeed, tastes very much like polenta – and so I think I am going to call the experiment a success.

I wanted to be able to slice my polenta for later frying or grilling and was expecting the default product of my labours to be rather runny (not unlike semolina to which it is related – just a different grass seed).  To help combat this situation, I once again visited the haberdashery department of John Lewis and returned with half-a-metre of muslin.  As it has transpired this was unnecessary, even during production the proto-polenta was pretty viscous and its stirring provided a surprisingly decent workout for my right arm.  Upon cooling it quickly achieved a state of apparent solidity: it may, like pitch, flow if given enough time – but the set was more than sufficient for my purposes.   As a result I have learned an important lesson: I should decant the fully-formed polenta into a vessel from which slices can easily be obtained whilst its viscosity (μ) still permits pouring – so probably immediately.

Despite this minor hiccough, the polenta when placed atop some freshly baked asparagus, grilled with a decent lump of burrata and sprinkled with fried mushrooms and black pepper made a very satisfactory lunch.  Todd (of 10GS) probably doesn’t need to fear for his position just yet (at least partly because the career of professional chef holds rather limited appeal for me), but I think with my second attempt I should be approaching a condign mastery of polenta manufacture.  Maybe it is time to prepare my slab, sewing kit and electrodes – all I need is a passing thunderstorm and a suitable “volunteer”!

Revenge is a dish best served hot…

… with white beans and chorizo.

Longer term readers of GofaDM (who have also looked at straitjackets and padded wallpaper) will (I hope) recall my long standing vendetta against rabbit-kind.  As an aide-memoire to the older reader, let me just say that rabbits – along with motorists, pedestrians and most other cyclists – are the natural enemy of the bicycle user.  Bunnies, in common with the other non-motorised road users mentioned, attempt to use my bicycle to immolate themselves (motorists, on the other hand, try to immolate me) and I feel the need to swerve to avoid them for fear of the damage which might be caused to me (and my bike) should I allow the desired consummation of their life’s journey to be achieved at my wheels.

I will admit that since moving to Southampton, rabbits are less of a hazard in my daily life than in the rural idyll of South Cambs – but GofaDM neither forgives nor forgets!

Yesterday, I went to London for pleasure – a rare occurrence in recent months due to a combination of work, fatigue (not unrelated to work) and rail replacement bus services.  My ostensible purpose was (as you might have guessed) theatrical.  I took in a matinée of Hope at the Royal Court – which I would say was Jack Thorne’s finest work yet, and was as close to my perfect play (as of early December 2014) as I could hope to see.  My visit (and purchase of the playtext/programme) also means that, at times of extremis, I can now always find Hope in my bookcase!

Before the play, I availed myself of the little (and crowded) artisan food market which had appeared near to the Saatchi Gallery.  For no more than the cost of a generic sandwich-based meal available from a Pret, Simply M&S (or similar), I had a hefty chunk of filo, spinach and feta quiche (as already established, I am at best a virtual man) followed by a similarly generous and even more delicious lump of date and walnut cake.  These I ate on an entirely deserted bench just a short stroll away from the point of purchase, but clearly beyond the walking capability of my fellow humans, who were all crowded together on a low wall a few yards closer to the food stalls (or perhaps they were huddling together for warmth – but I come from hardier stock!).

Substantial as my lunch was, food does not last for long in the furnace of my metabolism and so after the play, hunger once again came knocking (and gurgling).  So, I hopped on a number 19 bus and headed toward Greek Street.  It must be almost six months since I last visited number 10 – but I was still remembered: the prodigal customer returning (as it were).  As I often mention, I am mostly vegetarian – but I do make exceptions.  Usually, this is for venison – to make up for the fact that our ancestors removed all their natural predators from these lands – but I always stand ready to make an exception for members of family Leporidae.  Over the last few years, this last exception has never been invoked for rabbit had never appeared on a menu – but yesterday, Todd informed that that rabbit was to be the key constituents of one of the specials (so still not on the menu) – and so I jumped at it!  Let me say that revenge is absolutely delicious.  Rabbit is a white meat, and delivers a very decent drumstick and I would heartily recommend anyone who is not already committed to a North American bird (genus Meleagris) should consider a rabbit (or several) as the centrepiece of their Christmas feasting.  The rabbit was followed by a simply divine date pudding – moist and light, a trick I have never mastered.

I finished the day off with (i feel fine) at the New Diorama Theatre – a venue whose existence I had only discovered on Tuesday.  A curious play – a rom-com (ish) where the rom starts on the first day of the end of the world – but enjoyable and complete in a very respectable 75 minutes.

Oddly, rabbits had made a not insubstantial appearance in Hope earlier than afternoon – an omen perhaps?  Or merely coincidence?  You decide!  (Hint: the second answer is the right one).  Nonetheless, a very satisfactory and tasty day (of rabbit, theatre and double-date) – though any long-eared readers should not imagine that my revenge is complete.  Certainly not now I have a taste for their kind.  Mwahahahaha!

Dining Alone

Dining alone is considered anathema by many – well, it is when in the relatively public space of the more formal class of restaurant.  So far as I know, little stigma attaches to the single fella (or lass) dining alone in the comfort (or otherwise) of their own domicile – or, indeed, in a fast food joint of the kind that has so successfully colonised these shores from across the Atlantic.

So traumatic can the mere prospect of dining alone be that the internet (that bastion of sound advice) is brimming with suggestions for the terrified solo diner.  I must admit that this particular activity has never held any fears for me, and have partaken of solo meals in restaurants across the globe (well, on at least four continents – which coincidentally, are all the continents that have e’er been graced with my presence).

I embrace solo dining – and as I have probably mentioned before – will always sit over-looking the bar and/or kitchen if at all possible.  This provides a free floor show for the diner (thus preserving his novel for a little longer) and an opportunity to converse with – and even distract (and occasionally assist) – the staff and fellow “bar”-flies.  I have learned a number of new skills and a whole range of interesting facts and fun anecdotes through my activities.

I have come to suspect that places where the staff are willing to interact with me (rather than running screaming from my sight – and more importantly for them, conversational gambits) have a tendency to become favourites (though I may struggle to prove statistical significance to an appropriate number of sigmas for some readers).  I visited two of these favourites as part of my recent excursion to Cambridge – visits which share another thematic link.

When in Cambridge, which thanks to the Interval Study happens exactly every 10 weeks, I try and fit in a visit to Fitzbillies for dinner.  This tradition started (more-or-less) by accident as they start serving early enough to allow a subsequent trip to a concert (or other gig) and have always been able to furnish me with a table at the short notice which tends to characterise my “plans” to dine out.  Whilst it started by accident, it continues by dint of the excellent food and service.  I feel I have written before about just how dapper the Maitre d’ is (or est) – but on this last visit I also discovered that he is very good with small children.  He also remembers me, my usual table and preferred red wine (and I’m sure this is not entirely down to the menu-burning incident).  On this particular visit, I found myself needing a table on a Friday night – and they could fit me in.  Not so surprising perhaps, except that the Friday in question was the 14th – not unlucky, but apparently in February an unusually popular evening to dine out (go figure?!).  Also (it would seem), an exceptionally poor choice of day to dine alone – but luckily I am brazen in my solitude (and was the only diner making this particular lifestyle choice).  Anyway, my main course was particularly excellent and brings us on to the second theme of this post (yes, I am trying to move all my posts into a formal sonata form).

As often mentioned, I am (mostly) vegetarian and there is one key area where the word “mostly” applies and that is with regard to venison.  I am all too aware that my ancestors were complicit in the elimination of all of the natural predators of the deer (and, indeed, introducing whole new species of the browsers to these isles).  As a result, Bambi’s relatives can grow in number, unchecked by predation and are becoming a destructive menace.  As a result, I feel it is my responsibility to eat them whenever the opportunity presents.  I do realise that much the same argument could be applied to anthropophagy, but I have yet to see “long pig” on a restaurant menu.  The venison at Fitzbillies was utterly divine and I thought I was never likely to taste its equal – though in this belief, as it transpired, I was quickly proved wrong.

As a result of geography and the nature of the UK rail network, I returned home for Cambridge via London.  This allowed my to fit in a trip to the Finborough Theatre to see the powerful and visceral Carthage: no mention of Phoenicia, Dido or Aeneas, but an incredible and at times terrifying play.  Theatre going requires a little fuel, and so I managed to sneak in a trip to 10 Greek Street beforehand (not exactly on the way, but close enough).  I was doubly glad that I did.  Firstly, because it was Yanni’s last shift before he returned to Greece and as the barman (probably not his actual job title) he was the employee of 10GS that I have most often distracted from his real duties.  He was also the reason why I have never had to read the wine list, I could always rely on his skill and judgment to pick an appropriate accompaniment to my food.  Secondly, I selected the venison pie from the menu and this was, if possible, even more divine than the previous night’s deer-based eating.  It was also an amazing feat of construction with the delicate pastry totally enclosing the meat contents of the pie, a little like a smaller and much more elegant pasty.  I have absolutely no idea how this could have been achieved – and no amount of dissection revealed its secrets.  Still, I suppose it’s good that there remains hidden knowledge yet to be learnt.

My haunting of the bar – like a latter-day Norm Peterson – also yielded an invitation to the opening of 10GS new sibling – also imaginatively named after its address: 10 Hoxton Square.  This was good fun and did mean I took my first exploratory steps into the centre of hip-ness that is Hoxton.  I found it surprisingly unhip (haw?) – rather more cheap sportswear adorned its denizens than I had been led to believe.  Or perhaps I just don’t understand what “hip” is in 2014?

Identification

Those producing drama often seem rather obsessed that the intended audience should be able to identify with the characters being portrayed.  So, for example, drama for young people must have young people as the main characters – or, especially in the US, actors clearly in their thirties playing teenagers.  I suspect this need for very simple-minded identification is far less true than is believed, though obviously I do focus on dramas where at least one principal character is a tall, thin glasses-wearing middle-aged and middle glass man who is more than usually gifted nasally.

Actually, I don’t think this is true for me at all – I can think of little more tedious than watching someone too like myself on stage and screen.  If I really wanted that, I could spend more time in front of the mirror – an activity I usually try and minimise as anyone who has seen my attempts at hair “styling” might readily believe (after about 10 seconds I work on the principle that it is (a) hair and (b) on my head and that is good enough).

At the theatre in particular, but also to an extent on the screen, I seek out dramas where the characters will be quite different from me and go through experiences quite unlike those that have informed my personal narrative.  Despite this, as a human being, it is rare that I cannot find some point of contact with a well-drawn character – whether they are male or female, positive or negative.  The plays that really stick with me are those that make me see a bigger world or learn something (often an uncomfortable truth) about myself.  Though, lest you think me even more pretentious than is in fact the case, I’m also more than happy to laugh my head off at a decent farce.  I am also a sucker for a bit of romance, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of romance within.

Last week, after a day in London for work, I took advantage of my location to visit 10 Greek Street and then head to the theatre – quelle surpise!  This taught me that I am even less mysterious than I thought – Cam, head honcho at 10GS, announced that he could predict exactly what I would order from the menu and (unfortunately) he was entirely correct in this assertion.  I really am turning into a thinner version of Norm Peterson (still could be worse, I could be Cliff Clavin).

Anyway, after filling my face I headed to the Arts Theatre to see Beautiful Thing, a revival of a play written and set in 1985: so I “got” all of the references, unlike some of the younger members of the audience who must have been mystified.  The play was brilliant and really sweet and, to a significant extent, revolves around two teenage lads finding love – with each other.  To somewhat contradict my earlier assertion about identification, an unusually large proportion of the audience was comprised of men – mostly in pairs.  So dominant were they, that I did feel slightly out of place not having brought a man of my own.  Actually, I suspect the audience may have been less there to identify with the protagonists and more for the sake of nostalgia as many seemed past the first flush of youth (or even middle age).

The make-up of the audience did mean that at half-time, the shoe was very much on the other foot compared to usual theatrical events.  Those of the distaff persuasion could visit the Ladies without delay, but there was an enormous queue for the Gents.  For some reason I found this hugely amusing (perhaps aided by my incredibly strong and capacious bladder – something developed competitively in my younger days), but was sad that so few women could enjoy the experience (though this was obviously inevitable).  I feel there was an important lesson to be learnt here – though I am not quite sure what it is.

Finally, on the subject of relief, I found myself at a very fine restaurant in Edinburgh last night and was directed to the “rest rooms” (as our US cousins would say) by a member of staff.  I did think the facilities were rather more palatial than I am used to, and they were the pinkest think I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre of days gone by) but merely mentally commended Rhubarb for their breaking of gender stereotypes.  On trying to leave, the knob (to the door) did come off in my hand (oo, err, misses) and so I felt I should note this to a member of staff.  It was then I discovered that I had been directed to the Ladies: now, I like to think I am as in touch with my feminine side as any chap, but I really don’t make a very convincing woman (even when I am trying).  I think the member of staff doing the original directing was new and presumably had not been paying all that much attention when told were the facilities were located.  So, just to be absolutely clear, I am not taking any of the blame!  The food – you will be pleased to know – was truly excellent and included a very find rhubarb-based dessert.

Meat Roulette

News over the last few weeks has made the carnivorous lifestyle appear a rather more adventurous, even risky, option than might have hitherto been imagined.

Either you don’t know what you are eating and are inadvertently enjoying a facet of la vie Française or you do and are now doomed to an early grave (please note that I use the word “or” in its logical or Boolean sense, i.e. you could be doing both).  This leaves those of us living a (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle feeling even more smug than usual – which is not directly a life limiting condition, but could precipitate violence if not suitable masked.

Bacon, now identified as only slightly less deadly than the eponymous nightshade, is oft cited as the one item the newbie veggie finds hardest to eliminate from the diet – though, I can’t say that its lack has been an issue in my life.  However, I bring a message of hope to any wannabe vegetarians out there, as I believe I have found an alternative.  On a recent trip to 10 Greek Street I partook of a dish, which as part of its delicious whole contained capers which had been fried in brown butter.  I have never found capers particularly appealing or interesting in the past, but in this form they become one of the tastiest things I have ever had the pleasure to eat: they were like perfectly fried bacon only better (like the quintessence of the brown stuff you scrape from the pan after frying the bacon).  I have now come to believe fried bacon is but a pale shadow of its Platonic ideal: the brown-butter fried caper.  I would not want my readers to go away thinking this is necessarily a healthy option – well not for the eater, though it is rather healthier for the pig – but it does offer a vegetarian (though not vegan) alternative to the morning rasher.

Another recent 10GS discovery is the marvel that is roasted celeriac – a completely different animal to its boiled version and even more scrumptious (if only I had discovered this earlier in the season).  As I type this post, my first experiment in celeriac roasting is underway in the crypt of Fish Towers – it will then be crumbed, mixed with ricotta, chopped parsley and one egg (to bind it, in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie) and formed into patties and shallow fried.  I shall probably serve it with mushrooms and something green (a seasick mariner perhaps?).  I have high hopes for this experiment in biochemistry, but there are always risks in experimenting on one’s self, so if you don’t hear from me again then know I took one for the team and another will have to continue my vital work.

Still, I am not anticipating an early meeting with the Grim Reaper as this last week has already seen a new cooking triumph.  I have finally produced a properly decent risotto (well, speltetto if I’m honest as I use pearled spelt in lieu of rice) with the assistance of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who provided the basic recipe around which I riffed (10GS should also receive a credit as I’ve watched them make risotto and have become much bolder in my method as a result).  It may be the best use I’ve ever made of a leak and a couple of handfuls of kale.

So, come over to the (mostly) green side, it’s a lot more fun than most vegetarians would have you believe!