dimanche 31 juillet 2011

The last of England

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My first model in the kitchen was, unsurprisingly, my mother. I grew up with the smell of warm bread drifting through the house, ready to be cut into slices and smeared thick with butter and lemon curd. There were the apple pies made with the fruit from our garden, neither too sweet nor too sharp, baked in the lightest, crispest pastry which everyone except me preferred warm with ice cream, whereas I would hang around for some served cold with a generous amount of single cream poured over. Cheese souffles came out of the oven tall and golden, stacks of mince pies awaited hungry Christmas visitors and there was even an English twist on a pizza, made with a pitta bread type dough and finished off under a hot grill. Yet ours was not a household centred around cooking; the things listed above were more for special occasions and weekends. Most of the time meals were made with frozen or packet foods, like fishfingers, vegetarian sausages and petits pois, alongside large portions of fresh fruit and vegetables. If today I prefer to cook differently, that's not to say I disapprove of what we had: reading Nigel Slater's wonderful Eating for England made me realise how fond I am of many staples of British cuisine. Dark chocolate digestives, custard creams, bread and butter pudding, steamed treacle pudding, fish and chips laced with salt and vinegar, large packs of the strongest cheddar and the crumbliest Wensleydale, sticks of rcok bought at the seaside which shatter into thousands of sugary splinters and rot your teeth, baked beans on toast and boiled eggs with soldiers.

Aside from some disastrous home economics courses at school, the idea never came to me of cooking anything myself. I can still recall the look of absolute horror on the teacher's face when she asked if anyone knew how to make hollandaise sauce and I described the process of pouring water over some powder. Then came the day when I opened the Chocolate Book and baked my first real cake with honey. Overcome by fascination at the endless possible variations with just a few ingredients and how each time you ended up with different results, the cake became my passion.

The first ever kitchen to myself was a coin cuisine in the corner of a one room studio on the top floor of a house in Annecy. The landlady lived directly underneath and spent her days worrying about my excessive water consumption, listening every time I had a shower or flushed the toilet to calculate. My cooking skills remained pretty basic though, endless meals of steamed vegetables with cottage cheese followed by a yoghurt and some fruit. In the shared flat in Lyon one day, my French flatmate E. burst out laughing while watching me boil some broccoli. "Alors ca, c'est le cliché anglais! Nous, les français on ne prépare pas des légumes de cette façon mais avec des épices ou avec une sauce." (We French would never cook vegetables like that, but with spices or a sauce). In most ways, he was pretty horrible but I have to admit that he had a good point here.

Quite a few years have gone by since then, my vegetables are no longer boiled or steamed and I cook for myself pretty much on a daily basis, taking the time to enjoy fresh, seasonal flavours. I would never claim to be a great cook; I have the tendency to fall into ruts, living off almost nothing but potatoes a few years back and until recently, a daily diet of pasta, I lack the courage and spontaneity to try different things out. Yet it's also a reflection of the cuisine I grew up with and the fact that I value simplicity. As much as I greatly admire those who have mastered the tricky art of macaroons or eclairs, I have no desire to follow in their footsteps because for me, life is too short for piping bags, spun sugar, homemade croissants and millefeuilles. I think back to the King Rollo books I read as a child, how he was offered the finest kinds of food in exchange for his humble loaf of bread but refused them all. I think I would have done the same.

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A walk by Cromford Canal

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Last week when I returned, I made Elise's wonderful cherry pie with a lattice crust in true Agent Cooper spirit. You can find the recipe here.

To finish, some more photos from my stay in Derbyshire and a favourite dessert. The recipe for Eton Mess below is one the easiest and best for summer. If you like you can make the meringues yourself but I prefer to buy a small pack to crumble.

Eton Mess (from Nigella Express)

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For 4 people

500g strawberries (raspberries also work well)
2 teaspoons caster or vanilla sugar
500ml double cream
4 small meringue nests from a packet

1. Wash, hull and halve the strawberries and then put them into a large bowl.
2. Whip the double cream until it starts to thicken then add the sugar and conitnue whipping until very thick but not too stiff (it should still be soft and a little runny). Spoon over the strawberries.
3. Crush the meringues with your fingers until you have small pieces as well as a little dust then sprinkle over the fruit and cream. With a large serving spoon, gently stir everything together. It doesn't have to be perfectly mixed though, that's the charm of it. Serve immediately.

16 commentaires:

  1. I miss Derbyshire/England so much. Thanks for sharing those lovely pictures with us.

    Like you, I am really fond of many staples of British cuisine... That Eaton Mess looks fabulouis and so does the pie.



  2. You make me miss my mother's cooking. It has nothing to do with the English food you're describing but the memories of you mother's kitchen, stir up memories of my own mom cooking my favorite foods for me. Thank god she's coming this month to visit!

    I love how a dessert can be called a Mess :)

  3. Beautifully written and photographed. xo

  4. Lovely. I was just thinking of Eton Mess the other day. I had a mess of strawberries & the urge. Alas, not the urge to make anything. Though I did make some Nigella easy berry jams. So we're on the same page a bit. Wonderful photographs. And I still love all the British staples too (most of them anyway)...even though American I was brought up by a mess of English & Welsh maniacs. Not that their food makes one a maniac. They're just maniacs all on their own. :)


  5. I too enjoy simple seasonal meals. I'll attempt something a little more complicated once in a while. Lately I've been trying to simplify my food preparation even further. I love good food, but there are other things in life, as you so beautifully show in your photographs. Have you ever read The Cottagette?

  6. Lovely posts and amazing pictures, as always!
    Glad you're back to blogging!
    Hugs from Vienna!

  7. Another beautiful post. And all I can say is, "YUM!"

  8. @Rosa - I'm sure we share a passion for many of the same things. Loved that interview with you on the radio last weekend, to hear your voice and English accent sometimes.
    @Magda - I think when we live in a different country those memories get even more intense, especially related to food. Would love to read about the things your mother cooked, I'm sure they were amazing. It's typical of the English that they can even turn a mess into a pudding!
    @Lecia - Thanks so much. It's lovely to hear that.
    @Susan - I admire you for making anything at all in the heatwave I assume you still have. I wilt like a flower in the heat and can only find energy for granita. Berry jam sounds great though. I love the eccentricity that goes with British food and also have that myself.
    @Denise - One of my favourite posts was where you talked about simplfying and <our favourite cakes. That really inspired me. I love cooking but it's also important for get a balance between that and reading, walking, watching films, taking photos. I'd never heard of the Cottagette and had to look it up but it sounds really great and I'll try to get hold of a copy soon.
    @Kat - Thanks my lovely. Hope you're enjoying Vienna and thanks so much for your card. It was so charming.
    @Amber - Aw thanks ever so. Sorry for neglecting you and your blog but I'm gradually catching up and will drop by very soon.

  9. Thing is, I hate to be un-patriotic but I love the English countryside. Although American, I come with English roots (albeit pre-revolutionary war roots) that seem to dig in and flourish when I plant my feet on British soil. My last trip was fabulous. The cheeses and creams, well they just can't be beat.

    My mother had a career when I was young but still cooked... even though I was hellbent on fast food and TV dinners. That was no option with my Gram who made bread and so many other things. My memories are so clear of the smells and tastes of her kitchen... her glorious, huge kitchen with acres of glass doored cabinets and pantries... oh to have that again!

    Reading your post brought me back to both much loved memories and for that I thank you.

    PS also made me laugh about your first kitchen experiences... so much like my own.

  10. Just wanted to let you know that The Cottagette is just a tiny short story. You can find it by scrolling down a bit here: http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Forerunner-Volume-1-1909-1910-12.html

    Most know the author for The Yellow Wallpaper, which I love, but The Cottagette is far lighter.

    I have to try making this Eton Mess. It looks delicious, as does the cherry pie. You do know your sweets.

  11. Do you realize you've made the most perfect looking cherry pie that I've ever seen? My mother has an antique metal pie scoop—it's battered and without a handle (made that way). It would be the perfect tool for slicing and serving your pie.

  12. That Eton Mess looks delicious! Hope you had a lovely time in England. At least you missed all the rain.

  13. @Deana - I so love your anglophilia and have a real love of the English countryside. As much as I admire French and Italian formal gardens, there's something magical about the English style. That time with your Gram sounds simply wonderful.
    @Denise - Yep, I could specialise in desserts and there are plenty more to come. Thanks so much for the story link, I'm going to read it over the weekend.
    @Tracy - Oh thanks Tracy, that's really lovely to hear. I'd always wanted to make a lattice top for a pie but didn't know how till I read Elise's instructions and was amazed how easy it is. That pie scoop sounds so charming and I wish I had one too.
    @Christine - Thanks a lot. Berliners never believe me but we had much better weather in Derbyshire and I'm missing the weather there now. Warm and wet isn't my kinda summer but luckily there are films and museums.

  14. Ah, je savais bien que j'avais manqué plein de choses, à commencer par ce beau billet fleuri ! C'est très drôle ce que tu dis à propos de la pâtisserie car j'ai pensé la même chose au cours de ma formation : les meilleures choses sont souvent les plus simples ! D'ailleurs, si l'on m'offrait de choisir entre un millefeuille, un éclair, un macaron et un carrot cake, je prendrai le dernier sans hésiter ;-) Sauf si il reste une part de ta tarte aux cerises...

  15. Merci Julia de ton commentaire très gentil. Oui, c'Est très drôle ce que tu dis car étant incapable de faire de la vraie pâtisserie moi-même, je croyais que ceux qui savent faire des éclairs n'auraient pas envie d'un simple carrot cake mais je me trompe. Tu as tellement raison, ce qui compte, c'est simplement d'aimer les bonnes choses!

  16. just found your blog through Denise.
    Very interesting cozy photos. I am going to explore your post.
    thanks for sharing.