Friday, 21 July 2017

Massimo at Osteria Francescana, Modena

The Robinsons watched Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ few days ago. It was very interesting in parts. Very. What was particularly interesting was watching the episode on Massimo Bottura, an Italian born chef, working in Modena. There he is head chef for his restaurant called Osteria Francescana.

This restaurant was, during the early stages of its existence, so quiet that it sometimes fed no one. It now has three Michelin stars and is, as expected, fully booked for months. This is despite its home being a small and extremely traditional Italian village. Now, most will assume that it being in a small and traditional village is a challenge to its success because it is out of the way and populated with the non-cognoscenti one expects to find in rural areas. But, in fact, the reason why it is a wonder that it exists despite its surroundings is because the people of Modena, for a very long time after the opening of it, judged its extravagant and lawless reproduction of traditional Italian cuisine as unacceptable. What were those splotches, broken pastries and strange compositions which only remotely represented what they were used to eating? From where the audacity to mess with what has been firmly established and is, evidently, the food people have grown up on?

Of course, the Netflix ‘Chef’s Table’ sings the praises of Massimo’s self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision; one which flies in the face of tradition. The Glenwood Restaurant too sings his praises for his self-belief, determination and his commitment to his vision. But we do not share his actual vision. We found ourselves strangely siding with tradition – with the people of Modena and not with the bedazzled Milanese making their way to Osteria Francescana to eat deconstructed tortellini en brodo. We found ourselves very sympathetic to the fact that there should be ten tortellini for every mouthful and not six marching on a piece of slate towards something which merely represents the brodo. Call us old fashioned, but we think the people of Modena have been robbed.

There are indeed many, many traditions which must go. Such as expensive wedding dresses and American movies with a Christmas theme. But do not mess with tortellini en brodo. Nor with lemon tart. So, if The Glenwood Restaurant ever closes its doors due to a lack of comprehension it will be because the supposed cognoscenti are looking for pieces of slate carrying food that looks like Jackson Pollock paintings (note, we are fans of Pollock paintings when done in oils on canvas). Such food, for good reason, will never, ever be found across our threshold.

Nevertheless, we genuinely love Massimo for his commitment to, and revelry in, cooking. Also for his evident skill. But we looked in wonderment, with much real entertainment and with not just a little horror at what emerges from his kitchen. Viva la cuisine!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

How to make risotto nero. Or, once more, unto the breach.

How does one make risotto nero? It depends on where it is being made. Cooking risotto nero can either be done in an hour holding a glass of wine, or it can take many days, as part of a violent battle. Cooking it in a restaurant makes it akin to waging war.

We know very little about each other’s professions. And why should we know more? We are, naturally, more interested in ourselves than in others. Some of us, however, have created a little soapbox to speak from. Here is that soapbox, and this is that speech. It is the speech that answers what it takes to make very simple, good food for restaurant patrons. It takes much, much more than what most people think. Any person who actually cooks, and by this we mean a person who takes in hand stuff that grows, walks, swims and flies, knows that to produce a plate of food which is good, even if it has seemingly only one thing on it, often requires many steps. Sometimes, but not always, it also requires a lot of time. But to make good food in a restaurant is never a case of combining pre-existing ready-made components in novel, or not novel, ways. Good food does not manifest from dabs of this, slices of those or splashes of that unless the dabs, slices and splashes were first made under a very watchful eye.

These steps include finding the raw ingredients. Thus, much time is spent holding a phone with a chin speaking to the butcher, the baker, farmers and grocers whilst bringing to the boil two or three stocks. Lists, which have been written at the end of the previous night’s service, over a glass of wine while high on adrenaline, are now studied and soberly executed. These lists are based on what has been used up and needs to be replaced – and this depends also on what will change on the menu that day and what remains the same. So the list is not simply a ‘stock’ take, it involves menu planning at the same time.

Any restaurant which actually engages real cooking, and The Glenwood Restaurant is sadly one of only a few in Durban, will have such lists. At The Glenwood Restaurant this includes instructions to make certain types of pasta doughs – things like herb tagliatelle, linguini, mezzaluna – butter, ricotta, tart pastries, butchering, poaching and reducing. Whilst three people attend to these lists as from 8 am, the head chef, if he is also the owner, will meet with managers, work out the cost of goods, determine the margins, look for better suppliers of better ingredients and fire bad ones. In the afternoons, wines must be tasted, wine lists updated to remain in keeping with the menu and the general ethos of the particular restaurant. This includes the decisions which have been made around the pricing of items on the menu. In short, a day running and cooking for even a small restaurant, which offers a certain type of menu, is a fourteen hour non-stop affair, if one is lucky.

This is certainly not a complaint. This type of work is self-inflicted, of course. And it is chosen as an occupation by people of a certain type. Given the chances of receiving criticism on a daily basis, because food and eating is a very emotional thing for most of us, often whilst under pressure and barking orders at others, makes for a nerve wracking work day. Like actors, cooks, have tomatoes thrown at them. As they should have. No, kitchens are not pretty. They are stages, bared to scrutiny. One either becomes an actor, soldier or a cook. Turning on the first flames and sharpening your knives when the sun has just risen, so as to feed people when the sun sets, is a case of ‘unto the breach, once more’. And the battle is won in systematic layers; each, time consuming and, all, indispensable. That is how one makes risotto nero with squid tentacles and mussels. It has very little to do with the tentacles and mussels, except that someone must be certain that they are very, very fresh. But it really starts early in the morning with a good stock and ends, before plating, with copious amounts of hand-made butter.

Important notices:

The Glenwood Restaurant now serves lunch all week, from 12 am to 3 pm, in the form of a harvest table. We are making beautiful salads, tarts and warm dishes. You may help yourself to what you want. Take-aways are possible. Weekend lunches, and all dinners (Wednesday to Saturday) remain menu based, as they always have been.

The Glenwood Bakery now serves breakfast all day.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I love you, Thomas Mann.

I have recently discovered Thomas Mann. I am not sure how I would have turned out had I discovered Mann in my youth. But there is no doubt that my character would have been significantly, and permanently, altered on reading his work. Even after just two novels.

I first read The confessions of Felix Krull, confidence man. And then I read The Holy Sinner. Presently, for me, if a novel cannot make me laugh out loud – preferably bitterly – it is doomed at the outset. Profundity, as a rule, is ruled out. If, however, profundity, is an absolute must for the author, it should present itself properly armed with satire, or it should invoke personal embarrassment in the reader, or it should make you want to meet the author and spend a whole night holding them very tightly. When it does all three, whilst firmly prohibiting any saccharin and exalted delusions of wisdom in the reader, it is safe to call the author a genius. Thomas Mann is such a genius.

He manages to consistently make me feel as if he has seen humanity naked, finds it often wanting and just as often beautiful, but never commits himself to an opinion. But this lack of commitment does not take the same form as J. M. Coetzee’s refusal to offer a moral exemplar. It is not nearly as self-consciously detached and objective (please note, I am a fan of Coetzee’s too). Unlike Coetzee, Mann often comments through his narrators. He judges, he approves, he fears for them, he puts his reader at ease about them. But his narrators (at least, in these two novels) are themselves characters like confidence men or Catholic monks. Objectivity is thus instantly thwarted. What I have loved about them both, the confidence man narrating himself into existence and the monk narrating a very holy man, is that through their respective biases there is a sort of fictionally tempered objectivity. I suspect Mann’s reasonableness, his clarity about people, is simply a feature beyond his control. He cannot help but see things like they are. His humour is surely an extension of this reason.

But, granted, love is blind. And I am in love with Thomas Mann. How is one when one is in love with Thomas Mann? You first tread carefully to see if it is appropriate to express this love. One does not simply fall at his feet. That would be madness. A path to self-ruin. If one wants the love to be reciprocated (figuratively, of course), one investigates, plans and then approaches head on. To love Thomas Mann is to approach confidently, but be ready to retreat should his gaze begin to, as they say, ‘go right through’. That would make one invisible – the death knell to a hopeful lover. Unless one’s flaws are interesting, sophisticated and even glamorous – in the broadest sense of the word – one should rather simply be Mann-perfect. Either way, it is very evident to me that what he wants from his lover is a person who is able to temporarily bend the path of his gaze. I’ll probably never be ready, but I will declare it in this very, very private place: I love you, Thomas Mann. Also for your politics. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The meaning of a white table cloth

What does the object, a white table cloth, mean? What does it symbolise, conjure up or denote? In terms of denotation, of course, a white table cloth is a white table cloth. Since there are no words involved here, the thing denotes itself. But what it conjures up and symbolises is as varied as the cultural milieus in which this item might be put to use. It is as complex as the societies which eat from its pressed linen surfaces. There are those who flagrantly spill wine on it, those who revere it, those who regard it as an indication of their excellent choice in eating place or those who regard it as an artefact, minimally, required for civilised eating. Does the reader find this hard to believe; the claim that white table cloths mean different things to different people? Can anything be a more unassuming object than a plain of white cloth? Bear with me.

Whilst making my case about white table cloths I would like the reader to extrapolate the moral expounded here to other physical features of eating places; such as tables (with or without white table cloths) set up with wine glasses and cutlery, the absence of brightly coloured menus with seasonal, uplifting messages on them, waiters in black and white, cut flowers, cloth napkins and many more. All these features, these moments of creating an identity for an eating place, have the potential for meaning different things to different people. Sometimes, they evidently mean different things to the Patrons and the owners.

In France something called a bistro or even a café can have starched white table cloths and waiters dressed in black and white. And that is not because a café in France is like a posh restaurant in South Africa. Cafés in France are what they say they are; places where people drink coffee during the day and have light meals, and perhaps a glass of wine. To eat in a café in France is to not plan one’s outfit, gather a group of friends and secure a booking. It is a place where one arrives, perhaps, in the middle of a working day, asks for a sandwich, pastry or bowl of soup and have that, perhaps, alone over a white table cloth served by a waiter dressed in black and white. One might do so in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Why is this? Why are the French not intimidated by the same things that we see as formal and demanding? I am not sure. Perhaps it was their revolution that changed things. This is not the seminal question though. The point is simply to show that white table cloths and other artefacts, mean different things in different contexts.

To others a white table cloth, or tables set with wine glasses, or cloth napkins means a show.  A show of pomp and ceremony; of finery and formality. But my suggestion is that to think of a white table cloth – and any of the other artefacts mentioned – as necessarily signifying formality is either a sad petit bourgeois hangover or it is an unresolved childhood fear of bed linen and going to sleep at night. White table cloths, wine glasses, rows of cutlery, cut flowers are beautiful, and beauty is supposed to bring succour to the artistic soul, the unconstrained soul, in pursuit of finer things. This is surely the only way to think of such things. Beyond social demarcations and etiquette – into a meritocratic world. A world where a beautifully arranged space can simply be there to form a backdrop to a quick bowl of soup and a glass of wine.  

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Dreams of farming, part 2

And so the successes lead to greater ambitions, greater disasters and greater successes.  Our neighbouring farmers’ patience was tried by escaping goats, pigs and cows.  At least I got to meet my neighbours, even though in their justifiably, irate state relations weren’t improved. 

Being the completely naïve and ignorant country person that I was, however much reading I did and however many short courses I went on, I only saw the problems after they had happened.  The need to administer worming medicine to the goats, the challenge of castration, the importance of fencing, housing and corals, the struggle to brand (and yes I did once wrestle a calf to the ground), the difficulty of getting a pig to the slaughter house (those intelligent and affectionate animals will not follow you on slaughter day) etc. etc. 

The only farming that I did start sensibly was bee-keeping.  I helped out a fellow bee-keeper for a month or two before getting my first hive.  And then started with only two hives.  Even so, when I felt that I was half competent, the swarming I engendered and attacks that I suffered were quite something.  It didn’t help that the local bees were Apis mellifera scutellata or African Killer Bees as the Americans, in their histrionic way, know of them.
Nevertheless by the time I left our lovely farm, I had 35 cattle, 40 goats, 40 bee hives, serial pigs, serial broiler chickens, the odd couple of sheep (too thick for my taste), 6 old and not so old layers and a vegetable garden that could meet about 75% of our vegetable needs.  What I did learn, and quickly, was, that if Armageddon comes while I am still alive, and I have to rely on my skills to feed myself and my family, we would all starve and pretty quickly.

Asparagus with beurre fondue

It took a while for our asparagus patch to take off, but when it did………..
There is no such thing as a glut of asparagus, there is only a feast of asparagus. My favourite way of eating those delicious stalks is probably the simplest way.

Pick and cook them as if it was one operation.  You cut the stalks with a small serrated knife on or just below the ground.  If you have cut them young enough there shouldn’t be too much of a woody base. Bring them into the kitchen and snap off what woody base there is, if any. Throw your grass into a capacious pan of boiling, salted water.

While they are boiling, take a tablespoon of their water and put it into a small pan.  Whisk cold, unsalted butter into the water piece by piece.  This is an emulsified sauce, not the classical English greasy condiment of unseasoned drawn butter.

As one piece of the butter is whisked into the water add another.  Then season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Pour over the cooked, drained asparagus. You can tell when asparagus is cooked by pressing at the base of the stalk.  If it is easily squashable, it is done.  No al dente, half cooked asparagus please.

At least 12 good spears per portion and 50 gms of butter

Tagliatelle with saffron milk caps, parsley and garlic

Like a many farms in our area, there were a number of pines trees planted about the place, some as decorative and some as a plantation.  I don’t know when they were planted or when the rootstock came out, but, with the rootstock came out spores of European wild mushrooms. We had boletus, both birch and slippery jacks, though unfortunately, I never found ceps. We also had a very productive patch of saffron milk caps.  A most delicious mushroom as its taxonomic name would indicate – lactarius deliciosus.  Like many mushrooms, great with all eggy things.

For three

To make the pasta, mix 300 gms strong (or bread) flour with 3 large eggs and a teaspoonful of salt.  Mix until you have a stiff dough; if necessary add another egg yolk or entire egg, but you don’t want a wet dough that will be hard to roll out.

Wrap the dough and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or so (or a day).   Assuming you have a pasta machine, roll out the dough to the penultimate setting (this does depend on what machine you have, but too fine a pasta sheet might well make soggy eating).  Hang it on a drying rack or leave lying on a floured surface until dry enough to cut. 

Wipe your mushrooms – about 400gms – and slice thickly.  Sautee the mushrooms in butter quite gently as they are not usually very watery. Season with salt and pepper and, when cooked, remove from heat and throw in a generous amount of coarsely chopped parsley and finely chopped garlic, about 2 tablespoonfuls.  Then add another tablespoon of butter

Cut into tagliatelle strips and blanch briefly in plenty of boiling salted water. Drain, but not too well. A certain amount of the cooking liquid helps lubricate and enrich your sauce.  Mix the pasta with the mushrooms and serve.  Add grated parmesan to each plate and pout ore parmesan on the table (with a grater of course).

Parsley.  Generally, you either have curly (English) or flat (continental).  It has been recherché amongst some to praise the virtues of the old fashioned English variety.  The chauvinist in me wants to agree, but unfortunately the flat variety is not only much tastier but also a million times easier to grow.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Dreams of Farming.

Like all foodie urban dwellers, I had fantasized for many years of living the life of a self-sufficient peasant.  Of course, thinking about the possibilities soberly, I knew that I didn’t want to be imprisoned by poverty, that I didn’t want the monotony of life that true peasant toil brings and, mostly, I didn’t want my existence to be threatened by the failure of one crop or another. So no true, and hence unromantic, peasant living for me.  But what about a smallholder with a private income?  Now that’s an attractive proposition. 

In my early 40’s after the adventure of the restaurants in London, we emigrated to rural South Africa and bought a smallholding.  Well it was more a tract of virgin, indigenous forest with a smallholding attached.  Our kids were 6 and 11 and emigration was quite a change from urbane West London.

We had a large established garden with plenty of fruit trees and the bones of an erstwhile vegie patch.  There was grazing aplenty and space, space, space.  I had dreams of self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens.  Well they all came true plus a herd of about forty beautiful local cows – the Nguni breed.  But it came about by lurching from accident to mistake to disaster and back.  The neighbouring farmers could have been less helpful, but that would have difficult.  So for advice I turned to the local, non-landowning folk, some of whose practices, I found somewhat eccentric.  Apart from the obvious fact that we couldn’t understand each other, even if we had spoken the same language.

I started trying to plant onions by putting seeds in an unprepared bed and assuming the sporadic rainfall would do the rest.  Needless to say nothing happened.  But I got some gentle and not so gentle coaching from a Zulu gardener, John Seymour’s books (the granddaddy of the UK self-sufficiency movement) and a retired environmentalist neighbour.  In the modern city, one calls in skills – at least I did.  Be it a plumber, roofer etc.  To have to discover these things oneself is either a source of serious frustration or great pleasure, or, more likely, both.

So the first thing I learnt is that nothing happens without a compost heap – and not just a heap but a creation of an environment where rotting can be controlled and accelerated.  Next came serious watering and some laid down irrigation.  Then some collecting of some cast off planks and terracing in our sloping vegetable garden.  I had never even hung a shelf in my life and here I was with chainsaw, nails and stakes.  I even learnt the difference between a spade and a shovel.  And found that the difference is as marked as that between a fillet sole and a paring knife.  It was going well.  Of course, I started with the quick and easy stuff – lettuces, spinach and herbs.  Then came the root vegetables.  Always a bit anxious making as you can’t see what’s going on under the ground. Often half the crop would be wasted by my preliminary investigations. Mary, Mary you should have seen how my garden grew.  Asparagus, artichokes galore, soft fruit, stone fruit, potatoes for months (not quite 12, but hey). So what next? Eggs.

Let’s get some layers.  The local farm and pet shop, staffed by the caste of Deliverance, sold all sorts of useful animals – not just those of the stroking variety.  Off we went and got four Rhode Island reds (big red egg laying chickens to you and me).  ‘Give them six weeks and they’ll start laying one a day’. Sounds easy.
Two and a half months later, two chickens and an egg a week - sometimes.  Back to the shop.  ‘What are you feeding them?’ ‘What sort of housing do you have for them?’  Food, housing?  Don’t they just peck and forage around the place and sort themselves out at night?  What, gymnogenes, civets, servals, adders?  What nature of unspeakable, wild and crepuscular creatures are these?  Just part of the hugely rich and interesting place in which we had chosen to live.  So a small hen house was built and I discovered the feed shop where I could buy some boffins’ mix that enabled our thoroughbreds to lay an egg a day each.  I still wonder what exactly goes into those feeds.

Good eggs and happy chickens. Your first herb omelette with baby potatoes and salad from your garden is a moment of joy.  Of course it’s also a moment of deep self-deception as the butter, the wheat for the bread, the oil, the salt and the bottle of wine are from elsewhere.  Nevertheless, we all live for those very moments and there are times when the cynic should be left in his cellar.

Good eggs and happy hens.  But these were chickens bred for laying and after two or three years of laying, even I knew that they weren’t going to make the Sunday roast.  So let’s get some meat chickens.  These are a completely different breed, stupid and dull beyond belief and ready after only seven weeks.  So off I went to get twenty day old chicks.  Pretty little yellow things.  They had a cozy, straw covered secure (I thought) dedicated hut.  I was a proud farmer in my gun boots, muddy jeans and pitchfork.  They next day I rose to inspect the overnight growth of these wonders.  Well I should say ten had died of cold and another eight of being smothered.  At night, they climb on top of each other to keep warm and smother their fellows with complete compunction.  Of course, incubator lights.  So now I was running electrical cords through the garden, installing incubator lights, gathering more straw.  Another twenty to add to the hardy two and…………

Yes, the next day there were still twenty-two. I was yet to deal with the determination of jackals and the athleticism of the caracal.  Nevertheless, we raised brood after brood of these animals and got to fifty chicks a time and losing only about five.  Of course, it took much longer than seven weeks to raise them as I wanted them larger and to grow slower.  I was raising them for taste, not profit.  Slaughtering them (which we did ourselves) was never much fun but one can become inured quite rapidly. It helped that I never developed the affection for them as I did for our layers.

To be continued.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bernadette's Face

Bernadette’s mother, imminent scholar and great intellectual, had relentlessly cautioned Bernadette about the vagaries of social networking. But Bernadette was always more her father’s daughter; a girl with a propensity for the fickleness of fashion and capriciousness of social success. However, it would be a mistake to, therefore, think that she was not capable of the sort of scholarly gravitas that her mother was. Lo! not in the least. Bernadette was prodigiously talented. She simply did not think that book learning would bring her any joy. And Bernadette believed everything she thought. This was an ongoing luxury, which she had gifted herself on her sixth birthday.

Social networking is something she indulged in several times a week. Many times her social networking engagement consisted of finding interesting photographs to illustrate some thought she was compelled to share. Mostly the search for the photograph, illustration or digital representation of a renaissance or medieval painting ended in a choice which was completely unrelated to her initial thought. But Bernadette was unperturbed by the absence of an overt relationship between the thought and the illustration thereof. She always believed that rationality is overrated. As with self-criticism.

However, despite her own penchant for the wistful and vapid in herself, Bernadette could not tolerate such qualities in others. (This should come as no surprise to the Reader; that Bernadette permits herself to hold inconsistent views was explained in the previous paragraph.) It was her aversion for the vulgar immediacy of venting feelings, ill-considered and subjective, and of articulating thoughts, uncritical and messy, that made her her mother’s child. And such venting and articulating was a singular function of social networking. She would sit, wrapped in emerald green silks (if on Wednesday, fuchsia lambs’ wool if on Friday), and let her warm tears flow, as she read the upbraiding by those who thought they finally have reason to hate her. She listened to them find the petty flaws among her many perfections, and watched her enemies turn them inside out, expose them to the world or simply whisper tiny poisons in her ear. She would listen as they make her failings louder and uglier than they really are and then felt them discarding her, their social networking victim, slowly palpitating like a dying heart in the wet drains of her own despair. Left for dead.

It was always at this point (being left for dead) that Bernadette would turn her face, the epitome of pre-Raphaelite perfection, towards a cold, small glass of Vodka on her table. She would drink deeply. She would turn off the life of that garish, uncouth world, knowing it would nevertheless unrelentingly continue. But she would feel bravery and clear headedness saturate her being with another cold, small glass of Vodka. She would dress in an armour of silver and gold satin, with a helmet of pearls, take up her Vorpal Sword (thanks to Lewis Carol), and dance with Only Everyone Who Loves Her, until the sun comes up.