Saturday, 28 August 2010

Let Down Your Nets: Seasonal Food, the Sea, and the Unexpected

A constant theme of recent writing on food sustainability, slow food, local eating, and the low-carbon diet, is the disruption of traditional ties between our food and the seasons. With the modern Western diet, especially in urban areas, the supply of food is constant and almost everything is available at any time of year. The majority of people under the age of 30, we are told, cannot identify the months during which certain key vegetables are harvested. Tropical fruits are readily available in January, and flash-frozen seafood from distant oceans has largely changed the old axiom that one should never eat shellfish in months without the letter "R."

But, as with most tales of woe and decline, the "death" of the seasonal diet is much exaggerated. In British Columbia the seasonal diet has several major resonances, particularly the berry seasons (June-July for strawberries, July-August for blueberries). Farmers' Markets proliferate and individual farm stalls prosper in the busy summer months. Even though Richmond, the city where I reside across the bridge from "Vancouver proper," has more than doubled in population in the last twenty years, the ties to farming and the land remain strong. Perhaps as a function of the rise of the bourgeois that has accompanied soaring real estate prices and increased wealth, the ritual of buying local has retained its place in regular grocery shopping.

This is slow, steady, and largely unremarkable, but now and then a spectacular event occurs that really brings home how dependent we are on nature for our sustenance, and our insignificance in its mysterious workings. This past week in British Columbia a stunning announcement was made out of the blue; fisheries officials declared that the Sockeye salmon returns to the Fraser River are the largest in nearly a century (interestingly, around the end of the Edwardian era). This Globe and Mail story, rightly, describes the event as "one of Canada’s great scientific mysteries." A mystery because for the past several years the Sockeye fishery has been in great distress, with a recent moratorium on Sockeye fishing and despair over the future. The sudden bounty, and announcement of a 32-hour opening of the fishery, had local people almost giddy with excitement. Thousands of people have flocked to Steveston Village, just a short distance from my home and at the mouth of the Fraser River, to buy fresh fish straight from the boats - on which fisherman had worked through the night to take advantage of the opening. It is difficult to convey what West Coast Salmon means to British Columbians. It was and is an integral part of the diets of the First Nations population of our Coast, and a symbol of the natural bounty of our Province. The suffering of the fishery seemingly caused a bit of an emotional "funk" for the Province as a whole. This year, it seems, has been our year - the coming of age represented by the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the revival of one of our cherished industries.

I myself stood at the mouth of the Fraser River last night as the sun descended on a choppy sea. One could see fish jumping, beginning their journey upstream - if not first caught by the hundreds of anglers lining the shore. The event, like many unexpected streaks of good luck, was nevertheless tinged with a hint of sadness. For many years an event of this magnitude had failed to materialize. And now, with no explanation, no preparation, and contrary to the predictions of the experts, it had. But we all know it is as transitory as the seasons. What the future of the fishery holds is as mysterious as this year's 30 million Sockeye bounty. It reminds us of the changing of the seasons, the earth and the sea as sources of our food, and how in fundamental ways these connections have changed little since the Edwardian Era.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Cream Tea: Not Just For the Middle-Aged Fuddy Duddy

The cream tea. A classic repast for tourist afternoons in picture-postcard British towns. When there is scarcely time for anything else, there seems to always be time for a cream tea. This very touristic activity often conjures up a certain stereotypical participant - a plump, graying, safe, and predictable clientele. This is, at least, according to the more pugnacious and jaded observers. I have in the past read several who derided country tea rooms in places prefixed with "Stow-in-the" and decorated like a Beatrix Potter story that got out of hand. But even they cannot fault the dish itself.

Nigel Slater of The Guardian bears tribute to the simple and elegant cream tea here. His recipes, of course, are pure Devonshire. He begins with a reference to the vegetative richness of the hedgerows in that Western county. I recall that as one ventures into the farther reaches of the English countryside - removed from railways, motorways, and suburbs - the hedgerows become almost impossibly lush and verdant, stretching endlessly on either side of country lanes, higher than even the tallest among us. It is bucolic "England" right out of a Second World War poster, a fitting county to produce the ideal cream tea.

My fondness for the cream tea is undiminished with passing years and even after exposure to the missives of the jaded critics. In the civilized days of aeroplane travel, during my youth, return flights from London to Canada always served afternoon tea, with scones and clotted cream, soon before landing. It marginally alleviated the pain of leaving England. Alas, no more (at least, not in economy class). A victim of our brutal utilitarian times, the in-flight cream tea remains a fond memory, an emptied miniature pot of jam sitting in the sideboard along with other relics of happy times.

I shall confess, true to my persona as a animal fat-immune Edwardian, that the clotted cream, with just a dab of preserves and scone, really is the point of the exercise. On a recent trip to England a friend opined that the last half of scone is always the best, since beforehand one must conserve the jam and clotted cream - unsure of exactly how much is in the pot, worried about apportioning it correctly, terrified that one should run out before the scone is finished. The last portion, therefore, can be slathered with abandon. How true.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Mrs. Beeton and the Tyranny of the Household

One of the first things I remember about an individual who has since become a great friend is an enthusiastic reference in a graduate tutorial on British history to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management as a symbol of Victorian domesticity. At the time I myself had never heard of Mrs. Beeton. I did not know that familiarity with Mrs. Beeton at so tender an age almost invariably indicated a rare refinement of intellect.

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management is a classic piece of Victorian literature, and although it was published 40 years before the Edwardian age began in 1901, the domestic world reflected in its pages very much continued into the twentieth century. Mrs. Beeton herself did not live to see the lasting impact of her guide to domesticity, dying at age 28 following the birth of her fourth child - one peril of contemporary womanhood that perhaps put the constant tyranny of the household into a bit of perspective.

The Victorian and Edwardian households of the type envisioned by Isabella Beeton relied entirely on the presence of many full-time servants that came very cheap and worked very hard. Her guide, at the very least, enumerated tasks for: "Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and under house-maids, Lady’s-maid, Maid-of-all-work, Laundry-maid, [and Nurses as required]." Everything about this lifestyle was labour-intensive.

The eating habits of the middle, and most especially upper-middle and upper classes, represented this expense of labour perhaps more than any other aspect of the house. Brush-scrubbed front stairs stayed clean for at least a short period of time. Household linens starched to immaculate whiteness by the laundry-maid supplied use for at least a few days. But elaborately conceived suppers consisting of multiple courses were consumed in a matter of hours. Or perhaps not consumed, at least at the main table - even the strongest Edwardian was no doubt taxed by the sheer amount of food on offer.

Grand meals in the Victorian and Edwardian eras were heavy on meat, animal fats, and impressive presentation, following French culinary trends that were imported to Britain following the French Revolution and popularized by "celebrity" French chefs such as Antonin Careme (1784-1833) and Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).

There were game birds to be plucked and skinned and trussed. Whole hogs to be roasted. Sweets to be carefully created to look and taste as light as air. Jellies to be crafted into impossible shapes in improbable colours [Illustrated in the plate featured above]. The Edwardians loved their jellies and aspics and any cuisine that involved great effort and skill, all the better to show off the worth of the cook and, by extension, the wealth of the household. Many of these tasks required reproduction day after day, whether the meals were "simple" repasts for the members of the household or a grand foray into social climbing on the part of the hostess.

And so the era was built on the hard work of many, the leisure of some, and a surfeit of the culinary bounty of the nation for the plates of the fortunate.

[Illustrations from later editions of Mrs. Beeton's book.]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 16 August 2010

How to Travel in Culinary Style

It is commonplace to lament the passing of the golden age of travel, although it is the very "commonness" of travel itself that has allowed many more of us to experience it. But who can help but yearn for the days of long, luxurious ocean journeys or civilized aeroplane experiences?

Certainly travel has always had its travails but there was a time, for an elite few, when an expedition to the corners of the British Empire included a full compliment of the culinary comforts of home. Because it must be said that for all the positive aspects of travel abroad, eating food a person is unaccustomed to is unfortunately not always one of them. Travel is said to broaden the mind, but too often wreaks havoc with another rather precious organ, the stomach.

The supplier of choice was, of course, Fortnum and Mason of Piccadilly. The history section of the F & M website (F & M as it is now known, following the modern belief in the two letter corporate institution: M & S, H & M) details the extraordinary fact that in the early 1900s it was the only store to have a department dedicated to "Expeditions":
... at a time when huge consignments of home comforts accompanied the English into the heart of Africa and up the Himalayas, right down to such essentials as butter knives and sauce boats. The 1922 Everest expedition, for example, simply couldn't start without 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne (the appropriately-named Montebello 1915). The 1933 team, including a young Tensing Norgay, was dismayed to find several of the delicacies replaced by stones - presumably by inquisitive customs officers. Only the Stiltons remained - their covers pierced but the fragrant contents, clearly not to the Nepalese nose, left untouched. In warmer climes Howard Carter's Tutankhamun expedition used Fortnum's wine boxes to help catalogue the rare antiquities, including a statue of the boy-king as Aten, the Sun - representing tacit approval from yet another monarch.
How wonderful, how eminently pleasurable. I raise a toast to a well-supplied expedition.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Puddings and Custards

And now to some actual food, and, contrary to modern custom, I shall start with pudding. Pudding is the British word for the North American word "dessert," but in this particular case is interchangeable between the two usages. It is something all its own. I am referring not to the creamy mixture, such as "vanilla pudding," but the cake-like pudding steamed slowly in boiling water. Sticky toffee pudding. Plum pudding. Figgy pudding, even if as only part of an antiquated Christmas carol. We won't go until we get some.

Pudding is one of the most elemental of dishes, the ultimate "comfort food." It has the ability to transport us back to childhood, to cold winter afternoons eating "nursery food" of sorts. Pudding is a quintessentially British dish. Medieval versions of pudding continued developing until the nineteenth century; since then notions of the dish have remained virtually unchanged. There are both savory and sweet puddings, each deriving unique flavour from the way they are cooked. It is highly adaptable, and can be varied as to seasonal ingredients such as fruit (fresh or preserved) on hand. It is a sturdy, solid indulgence that has a decent shelf life (sometimes months) - think of pudding as the anti-souffle, the anti-mousse, the anti-dainty end to the meal.

My most recent pudding experiment was with blueberries, using the "big blue" variety that is the summer pride of the Lower Mainland in British Columbia. I used a recipe found on page 184 of Ed Baines' cookbook Best of British, which he proclaims as his "all-time favourite English pud." I'm certain I did not quite make it according to his standard but, whatever turned out onto my plate, it was heavenly.

A good pudding requires a good custard. Real custards have somewhat fallen out of favour. Part of the reason for this, it would seem, is that real custard is little more than a condensed generous helping of boiled cream and sugar mixed with egg yolks, not exactly a foodstuff to be approved of by the contemporary nutrition police. The recipe I most recently made contained FIVE egg yolks. But there is little to surpass a real custard. The solution, as always, is simply to have less of a good thing. Instead of buying some bland, joyless, dairy-like flavoured substance in a plastic container labelled "low fat" and containing ingredients you cannot pronounce, and then eating it by the quick spoonful so as to bring the experience to an end as soon as possible, make yourself a five egg-yolk custard. Eat it judiciously. And savour.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 14 August 2010

On British Food: From A.A. Gill's Table Talk

From time to time one encounters a writer, on any given subject, whose work is so piercing and insightful that it permanently affects one's outlook. A.A. Gill is such a writer. Though he is usually described as a "restaurant critic," this moniker does not begin to cover the length of human experience he is able to convey in a single column in The Times. He is also a sensitive travel writer, and an observer of television and culture. Extremely witty, thought by some to be intensely spiteful, even reprehensible, he invariably pushes many buttons and has engendered great controversy - none of which I will relate or address, as the purpose of this post is not to defend A.A. Gill the man, as to discuss A.A. Gill, the man of intriguing ideas about food.

In this case, a section that appears in his book Table Talk serves as an unapologetic defense of "British food," that much maligned commodity. His argument, in short, is that the dreariness of wartime shortages, and the ensuing generation that became accustomed to making do with sub-par ingredients, made British food permanently stuck in a narrow culinary loop of brown sauces and overboiled veg. As Gill states in his article "Elizabeth David" (on the famous food writer who is usually credited with bringing the taste for southern French and Italian food, with exotic new ingredients, to postwar Britain): "...wasn't British food always disgusting and unhealthy? Wasn't it all boiled to death and swimming in fat? The answer to the last question is a resounding no. British food was as unique and diverse as any in Europe. But our memories of it are collective and only stretch back to the time when food was poor and in short supply."

He looks back to the roots of an authentic cuisine full of flavour and influenced by Britain's maritime trading, position as a colonial nation, and the weather:

Trade meant that from the Roman invasion the British have made foreign ingredients indigenous from chickens to rabbits, from apples to tea. The climate has meant that we have incomparably good grazing for livestock. Because we are so far north, there is a very long period between harvest and new season crops. This dictates that an awful lot of typically British food is preserved: ham, bacon, salt beef and mutton, smoked fish, pickles, jam, dried fruit, fruit cakes and potted meat and fish. The dishes we used to eat did not come down to us from the court or up to us from the peasantry, as they did in France or Italy, but from the country house and manor farm. British food is essentially middle-class, squire and parsons' food, deceptively simple, filling and almost always unpretentious... Every country has an indigenous fat that is the key to its cooking. Fat is the base taste. In Britain our fats were always animal: lard, dripping, goose fat, suet and butter. More than anything else, their loss in favour of oil for spurious reasons of health and snobbery has changed the taste of what we eat. [Table Talk, p. 193]
He bemoans the depressing lack of traditional cuts and organ meats at neighbourhood butchers (partially the fault of EU regulations which, for example, make real suet hard to come by), and the fact that modern British cooks use recipes, rather than traditional cooking being an ingrained practice: "Cuisine needs to be eaten and cooked as a matter of course, or it becomes a self-conscious exercise, like speaking a dead language."

But as much as there is to bemoan in the passing of some aspects of traditional British food, food is - like language or fashion or culture - not static. It is always changing, adapting new influences, adjusting to new tastes. In the new British food I can, as an outsider, discern the remnants of the "manor house" food as Gill described it, but mixed with new ingredients, means of preparation, and ways of distributing food to the overworked and hungry masses. The best of British food remains in modest and intensely savoured snippets: fantastic breakfasts, "pub grub" (in various forms), a hasty cup of tea and a biscuit, a tin of potted shrimp bought and eaten hastily on an oatcake. The ideal of a nation of sophisticated diners buying local market ingredients and slaving over gourmet multi-course dinners no longer exists in any form, not even in a great culinary country like France -- the one nation perpetually held to a higher standard (see Michael Steinberger's recent book Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France on how France is now one of the largest markets for Le McDonald's and how fine French wines and cheeses are kept alive by American customers). The way in which a nation eats changes and British food has likewise adapted quite admirably, rising out of the postwar doldrums to such an extent that London is now widely considered the food capital of the world. Vive la cuisine anglaise!

Reference: A.A. Gill, Table Talk: Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter (paperback version) (London: Phoenix, 2007). Essay "Elizabeth David," pp. 189-199.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Eating Like An Edwardian

A variety of influences have converged to create the impetus for this blog, general musings, and cookery experiment. One never knows from where such ideas filter, sorting random memories and images into some clear and definitive idea that calls out to be performed. Where did my notions of Edwardian food come from? They are, partially, from actual dining experiences that hearkened back to the period, such as Simpson's in the Strand, or even imaging a legendary restaurant I have not actually dined at, Rules of Covent Garden. Both, as their names suggest, evoke a strong sense of place. And even if the meals I have enjoyed in such milieux have not been, strictly speaking, Edwardian, they evoke feelings that are at once familiar and comforting, yet at the same time entirely distant from our contemporary relationship to food and dining. They form, for someone like myself, the "normal," the solid ideal to which all meals are measured.

I had also read, some time ago, in The Times of London and one or two other British publications, about contemporary food critics attempting to follow an Edwardian diet for the space of a week or so. Anything further might well endanger our modern stomachs, used to lighter and more varied fare, and certainly not adapted to the 5000+ calories that an Edwardian gentleman might well pack in during the course of an average day (much of which was from red meat and offal -- when washed down with large quantities of claret, port, and sherry, highly likely to bring on that most Edwardian of ailments: gout). I recently also watched the entire run of the excellent British television series "The Supersizers," with food critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins. The excellent initial episode, on the Edwardian period, particularly excited me.

The Edwardian era (1901-1910), was named after the reign of Edward VII, who finally ascended the throne in his early sixties after the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. The new King, not the most abstentious of men in any area, and especially when it came to feasting, was integrally associated with this lavish era of country house parties, grand state occasions, and the epitome of the British Empire. The brutal curtailment of these halcyon days (halcyon for some, in any case) by the First World War only served to heighten the nostalgia for a supposed golden age of fun, grandeur, but also "innocence" of a sort.

My original idea with this blog was, in essence, to attempt a version of the experiments to eat like an Edwardian. Not necessarily to go whole-hog (no pun intended) for the full 5000 calories, but to approximate this regime. But such is both an overly demanding task and, I realized, only a minor part of reconsidering food -- both as a historian and someone who intensely enjoys the act of both cooking and eating. It is the "nostalgia" for the Edwardian era that will inform my investigations into both past and present ideas about diet, eating, and why it is such a fraught, moral, and even political activity. But it is also an intensely individual and emotional activity -- as the recent trend for (often processed and expensive) "comfort food" demonstrates. Many of those nostalgic foods in unconscious ways remind us of childhood and home. They are foods that evoke some sense of permanence, of substance -- marmalade on toast, a side of beef, a warm casserole browned on the top with melted cheese, a pudding with custard.

And, yes, I will eat a lot along the way.

Why do I want to eat like an Edwardian? Perhaps it is a way in which to be an anglophile and incurable nostalgist. It is also likely a function of my contrarian nature, a wish to rebel against the terribly tiresome contemporary obsession and religion of health and wellness. A desire to be unashamed of good food, including cream, butter and 5-egg yolk custards. Perhaps I cannot countenance the idea of any more "fusion cuisine" or restaurants with "concepts" that need condescending explanation by the waiters. Or maybe it is just because it seems like it might be rather fun, which is above all what I hope it may be to any readers willing to give it a go.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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