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”!

Camping

Those of us following the Roman model find ourselves enjoying/enduring the first day of a new year, with all the promise and/or horror that might entail.  Of course, any moment could be considered the start of a new year – but the degree of alcoholic excess that such an approach would entail doesn’t bear thinking about – so I stick with the convention that is just one of the many things the Romans did for us.

Given that I am writing at the cusp of two years, readers might be anticipating a review of 2014 or perhaps my resolutions or hopes for 2015.  Such readers had best prepare themselves for disappointment – as a sometime consultant, I have learnt the importance of managing a client’s expectations downwards early doors (as I believe the young people might say).  Instead, this post will be carelessly hung on the inadequate superstructure of my own passage from last year into this one – expect some sagging or at least a rather poor fit with the potential for creasing.

In recent years, myself and a couple of Sussex-based friends have alternated hosting duties  as we mark the passage from one year into the next.  This seems vastly preferable to “going out”, which whilst it can be fun is best avoided when every one else has exactly the same plan and prices rise to reflect the (un)favourable operation of supply and demand.  This year it was my turn to host, for the first time in my new – and modestly proportioned, verging on deceptively spacious – south coast abode.

Hosting, as performed by the author, does require a fair amount of preparation – for a start, the flat must be converted from its normal condition to something that approximates at least one (and preferably both) of spick and span.  There is also planning the menu, acquiring the ingredients and then a degree of prep before the guests arrive.  This year’s menu ran to roughly six courses: starter, fish, meat (which makes me a very bad vegetarian, but a better host), cheese, cold dessert and hot dessert.  I have yet to start making my own cheese (though it is a blessèd occupation), but the rest I tend to construct from scratch (that most versatile of ingredients).  If I am honest, I probably rather overdo the whole cooking side of things – which I blame on (a) genetics and (b) the fact that hosting is (at least in some ways) a performance and am forced to admit that I may be a frustrated performer.  (Given that there is some history of am-dram in the family, item (b) may also have a genetic component).  I fear I do have a tendency to overact somewhat in the kitchen (and elsewhere) – even when alone, but worse in company – which may be explained by exposure to the late, great Keith Floyd at an impressionable age.

Anyway, last night went off very well, after a delayed start following an expected corpse in the Barnham area which delayed my guests’ arrival by almost two hours.   There was excellent company, wide ranging conversation, good wine and my attempts at cooking all came out rather well (if I says so as shouldn’t).  The evening even yielded a few insights.

Firstly, the introduction of a few agar crystals to my port and blackberry sauce (or jus, should I ever be tempted by the prospect of social climbing) yielded that critical extra viscosity that previous attempts have always lacked – not sure why I’d not thought of this before, though the imbibing of a glass (or several) of champagne may have helped shake a new or two idea free.

Secondly, just after midnight it became clear that more is not always better when it comes to fireworks.  The New Year firework display broadcast from London was just an incoherent mess as there were just too many in the sky at once – either fewer fireworks or the same number spread over a much longer period would have been a more sensible option.  I fear there may be a metaphor for wider issues relating to London struggling to burst free from this paragraph, but it will receive no help from me!

Finally, it became clear that I whip cream in rather a camp manner (I also did it with a pleasing – to me – degree of insouciance).  Unlike many today, I do not use an electric device for my whipping (or beating needs) but prefer to use brute force – aided by a balloon whisk (or spoon) – as it is important to keep these ancient crafts alive in these debased modern times.  I’ve just realised that 2/3 of my insights relate to thickening, though I suspect this may not be significant.

As my flat has but one bedroom (and only three rooms – plus tiny hall – all told), hosting guests overnight brings additional challenges.  On the FHB-principle, the guests were granted the bedroom and its associated bed – and so I had to make alternative arrangements.  I do not have a sofa-bed, nor the space for one to be honest, and decided to craft my sleeping arrangements from stuff that I already owned, rather than buying an inflatable bed (or similar temporary option).  As a result, I found myself “camping” at home – using the rug in the lounge, with my pilates mat and then a Ridge Rest and sleeping bag I used when a camped my way across the US of A a quarter of a century-or-so ago.  On top of this makeshift camping mattress I lay swaddled in my duvet – and very comfy I was too, perhaps even more so than in the bed I had ceded to my visitors.  I didn’t bother with a tent as my flat provided a perfectly adequate roof without the need for canvas and affixing the guy ropes to the shag-pile would have been rather a challenge.  Actually, in the southwest of the US (where desert skies promised little risk of rain and balmy conditions), I forwent the tent and enjoyed sleeping out under the stars (though these were absent from the ceiling of my flat – perhaps something to fix for next time?).  Anyway, after last night I can thoroughly recommend camping at home – which involves so much less hassle and risk of unwanted dampness than doing it out of doors.

Perhaps inspired by my cream whipping, we started the morning with Sondheim excerpts from the 2010 Sondheim 80th birthday Prom, and in particular Everybody Ought to have a Maid from A Thing Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum – which was probably even more camp than my thickening of a dairy product.  Still, a good way to start New Year’s Day and fine preparation for the Craster kippers that were to follow.  Frankly, 2015 has been somewhat downhill from there, but I guess there is still quite a ways to go – so I’ll avoid leaping to judgement for now.

Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!