Saturday 19 April 2008


On reflection, I would definitely have to include Almonds in my Desert Island 'Eight Top Foodstuffs'. Increasingly, I find they feature in my cooking: roast with paprika and coarse salt, to serve with aperitifs; slivered and sprinkled between sheets of phyllo pastry when making tart shells (the almonds give a good crunch to the shell, and the flavour of almonds goes with absolutely everything, from cheese to chocolate to shellfish...) ; as the basis for praline, and every dessert that stems from that; and increasingly, as the predominant ingredient within marzipan, which is creeping ever more frequently into my kitchen, these days - most recently, as the secret layer of extra flavour concealed within rich fruit cake. Marzipan combines particularly well with fruit of any kind, and for years I've been using discs of the stuff as the base for a simple apple tart, where the marriage of the concentrated flavour of slices of roast apple with the intense almond sweetness of marzipan is incomparable!

It's one of the few foodstuffs that can readily be traced back effectively unchanged for the last millenium, so it certainly presses all the buttons concerned with 'food from times past' that so often give particular foodstuffs or finished dishes that extra element of travel-through-time and connection with other ages . Certainly, as far back as the end of the fifteenth century, it is possible in european writing to find references to marzipan as an element in most banquets and lavish feasts, where it tended to be used in its basic form, but transformed three-dimensionally into fantastic reliefs or sculptures, to be marvelled at before being eaten. Not only is it delicious, but it lends itself to being used as a kind of modelling clay, and the awe-inspiring creations from sixteenth century banquets survive today in a simplified form as marzipan sweets, shaped and painted with food-colouring to look like pieces of fruit, or in other more unfortunately kitsch 'works of art' .

Frustratingly, the origins of the stuff are impossible to pin down, and - depending on your preferred reference source - it came originally either from Persia, or from China, or from the Arabs. Take your pick. There appear to be references to something like marzipan being around in Toledo, in the tenth or eleventh centuries - when Spain was firmly in the control of the Moors - so that would tie in with an Arab provenance, maybe.....The Romans definitely didn't have marzipan - we can state this both on the basis of the roman food writers whom we are still able to consult, but more fundamentally because they couldn't have had marzipan, since they didn't have refined sugar (but relied instead on honey as a sweetening agent in cooking). That last point rather begs the question about when refined sugar itself first appeared, and this again is a rather vague area of knowledge - the OED first cites references in English to refined sugar at the start of the fifteenth century, although the Arabs, at some point between the eighth and twelfth centuries A.D., appear to have imported the knowledge of the process of refining sugar from India, where the practice can be dated back to the eighth century B.C. So, again, the idea of marzipan first having appeared in Europe in tenth century Spain is entirely possible.
And frankly, for the purposes of 'did you know?' dinner table conversation, that's probably quite sufficient for our needs....

In trying to track down its earliest manifestation, though, I was fascinated to come across a reference from Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C (he of the famous oath) which was for a cough cure, in which all sorts of beneficial (but not necessarily delicious) things were wrapped inside a coating made from pounded almonds combined with honey. Who would have thought that the spoonful of sugar had been helping the medicine to go down all that time ago.....or that Mary Poppins was only one stage removed from Classical Greece!

Tonight's Dinner:

Gorgonzola and Cherry Tomato Tarts, in Puff Pastry Shells.

Blanquette d'Agneau; steamed Purple-Sprouting Broccoli.

Baked Apples, with Hazelnut-Ratafia stuffing

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Recipe: Excellent Fruit Cake

I've been exploring fruit cake recipes recently, in search of the wonderfully moist and fruit-laden version that I remember from my childhood. To my surprise, actual recipes are a little thin on the ground, and I've found I've had to cast my net quite wide. I found one flourless version from New Zealand which involved soaking all the fruit in quantities of Orange Juice, and which emerged from the oven looking like a large muesli bar (although, to be fair, it tasted better than it looked) ; another one which included vast amounts of demerara sugar, and which used mincemeat rather than dried fruit - the end result was light and delicious, but was consumed in its entirety in twenty minutes flat! There was a recipe from the Scottish Tourist Board which - rather pointlessly, I thought - included a couple of tablespoons of whisky, and the end result was good, but somehow a little two-dimensional. And then, there's this one. Seriously delicious - and with the unexpected bonus of a layer of white marzipan in the centre, which really kicks the whole thing up into a class of its own....

One of the problems I have with these cakes is the patience required to let them mature sufficiently in order to do themselves justice. This one really does need three days minimum - if you broach it any earlier, then the cherries are somehow just cloyingly sweet, and the cake itself hasn't yet acquired the general moistness that a good fruit cake should have. Leave it for three days, though, and it is stellar!

Makes one cake, 8" in diameter.

Ingredients:8 oz Plain Flour; 1.5 teaspoons of Baking Powder; 6 oz unsalted Butter; 6oz Muscovado Sugar; 4 Eggs; 2 oz Ground Almonds; 12oz mixed Dried Fruit; 4 oz halved Glacé Cherries; 1.5 tablespoons Milk; 8 oz White Marzipan; 1.5 oz Flaked Almonds.


1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Sift the Flour with the Baking Powder, and put to one side.

3. With a hand beater, cream the Butter with the Sugar, then beat in the Eggs, one by one. With each of the last two Eggs add a tablespoon of sifted Flour.

4. Fold into the creamed mixture the Flour & Baking Powder, along with the Ground Almonds.

5. Into this mixture, fold the Dried Fruit and Cherries, then mix in the Milk. It should be the right consistency just to drop gently from an upturned spoon.

6. Grease an 8" false-bottomed cake tin, and spoon half of the cake mixture into the tin. Roll the Marzipan into a circle the same diameter as the tin, and place it on the cake mixture in the tin; spoon the remainder of the mixture over the top and sprinkle the surface with the Flaked Almonds.

7. Bake half an hour in the pre-heated oven, then reduce the temperature to 170 degrees C, and bake for a further hour and a half.

After removing from the oven, leave it to cool completely, then turn it out and keep it in an airtight container for three days before cutting into it.

Enjoy - it is sensational!

Tuesday 15 April 2008

It's a Sad Fact...

....but, when it comes to the British National Cuisine, there isn't in practice a great deal to write home about. I've always been aware, to a degree, of this fact - but I suppose some innate sense of patriotism has generally dredged up happy memories of the delicious Jugged Hare or Spotted Dick that used to be served in days of old in The Hungry Horse in Fulham Road, and I would persuade myself that these were just the tip of a gastronomic iceberg, and that a cornucopia of mouth-watering regional delicacies exists just out of sight ...........all that's needed is a bit of effort to remember exactly what they all are.

Well.......not so, it seems. Not really.

Over the past few days, I've been picking at an intriguing volume that the Brancolis dropped off when they came for dinner at the weekend, called The Taste of Britain. At first, I couldn't quite get to grips with it: encyclopaedic lists of regional food specialities, interspersed very occasionally with a recipe from one or other of the usual celeb-chef suspects: I noticed input on this basis from, amongst others, Gordon Ramsay, Rose Prince, and even Galton Blackiston. The main body of the text, though, stops short of recipes, and is frankly pretty dry stuff - nothing of the personality of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food shines through, or the practical and informative treasure trove that is Larousse Gastronomique. Without wanting to be too damning, picking through its pages is a little like discovering a gastro-version of the phone directory, and I couldn't fathom why anybody had actually bothered to produce it in the first place.

So, I dug a little further, and was rewarded in my search. It transpires that the origin of the book was a Brussels-inspired project early in the nineties, the point of which was to list all regional culinary specialities within the EU - and one can only assume that this in turn was to provide a basis on which regional trademarks could be awarded in order to protect against slippage and copying from opportunistic manufacturers elsewhere across the continent. Shades of Parmesan from Parma, Champagne from Champagne, and Cheddar from....well....Cheddar. All well and good, and I can imagine that the French and Italian equivalents of the same thing are bursting with references to Cognac and Limoncello and Mortadella and Paris-Brest ...and I'm really getting quite hungry just thinking about it.

The problem with this version of the British list - tarted-up with an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the aforementioned media-kitchen-luvvies - is that one can sense the effort the authors have had to go to in order to cobble the whole thing together. For starters, they've included a whole lot of 'regional specialities' which I suspect would be fair game for pretty much any country within Europe: Gulls Eggs, for instance, and Blackberries. I had no idea that blackberries were an exclusively British thing, and those gulls had better be travelling on passports issued by HM's government! Goose - that was another thing which appears to have become strangely and exclusively British - as are nasturtiums.
And, moving beyond the dubious 'Britishness' of some of the things in the list, there's then the issue of the 'interest factor' of much of the stuff that they've dredged up. Truth be told, there are an awful lot of items which hale from some remote village deep in the provinces, where the recipe would have been insufficiently interesting even to make it to the next valley, let alone into the consciousness of the World at large. 'Cumnock Tart', for instance. No, I'd never heard of it, either. But then, why would I have done, since it appears to be merely a double-crust pie which is filled with either apple or rhubarb, and then brushed with a bit of sugar syrup during the process of baking.......probably perfectly palatable, but hardly deserving of four-square protection from serried ranks of lawyers in Brussels.

When all's said and done, I suspect that The Taste of Britain is probably all too accurate a reflection of what 'British' food is all about, and that of its 420-odd pages of entries, about 400 of them are in fact a damning indictment of the reality of British 'cuisine'. Oh, I expect it's all perfectly edible stuff......but there's an entirely practical reason why the drawing rooms of Paris and Milan are not graced with the presence of La Tarte Cumnockois, or Il Torte di Cumnock. It's just not that interesting.

So, I suppose that iceberg was all tip, in fact, and what you see is what you get....

Tonight's Dinner:

Tiger Prawns, sautéed with shallots and Paprika, in a sauce of Cream and Vermouth.

Beef & Pepper Burgers, with Green Beans.

Chocolate, Hazelnut & Cointreau Mousse, with (British!) Blackberries.

Monday 14 April 2008

Recipe: Lemon & Gin Syllabub

With thanks to John Tovey. This is a couple of steps on from the straightforward nursery-favourite lemon syllabub, where the lemon-flavoured cream is delicious......but is recognisably nothing more than just that: lemon-flavoured cream. In this version, the introduction of Gin does a very strange thing to the lemon, and in fact the end result doesn't taste obviously either of Gin or of Lemon. Possibly, it tastes of juniper? I'm not entirely sure....
Somehow, the Gin changes the shape of the lemon flavour on the tongue in a way which is difficult to describe, but the end result is quite tight and complex on the palate. Anyway, delicious, and definitely worth trying, if only to see what I mean.

It's very important to leave these syllabubs to chill for at least a couple of hours once they've been put into their serving glasses - not just to get the temperature right, but also to let the flavours intermingle and do to each other whatever it is that they do.

This goes very well served with two or three langue de chat egg-white and almond biscuits per person. An indulgent and languorous way to end a good dinner....

For four.

Ingredients: half a pint of Cream; 2 tablespoons of Icing Sugar (or Splenda) ; rind & juice of 1 Lemon; 75 ml Gin; 2 Egg Whites.


1. Beat the Egg whites until stiff.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the Cream, along with the Sugar and Lemon Rind, until firm enough to hold its shape in a spoon.

3. Gradually add the Gin and Lemon Juice to the whipped Cream, stirring it in as you do so. (Don't be tempted to beat it in with the electric whisk - for some reason, this just makes the whole thing seize)

4. Finally, fold in the beaten Egg-White, and divide the mixture between four serving glasses that can be put into the fridge. Chill for at least several hours.

I was tempted when making this to put toasted slivered almonds on top, to serve, but in fact I think it doesn't need it and presents better without.....