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The sweet, amber liquid melted with a bite of chocolate in my mouth, creating a symphony of complementary flavors. Somehow the avocado honey combined with the earthy dark chocolate made for an ethereal combination.
I was at a tasting hosted by the National Honey Board, led by Marie Simmons, award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Simmons, whose latest book is “Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking With 40 Varietals,” had already talked the group through three samples of honey, going from lightest in color to darkest. Each type was paired with a food that complemented it: alfalfa with a slice of cheddar, tupelo with a buttered cracker, and dark, bold buckwheat with a roasted sweet potato, creating a flavor explosion.
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By Marie Simmons
Somehow, the sum of the two ingredients of each pairing exceeded the parts, demonstrating the versatility and nuances of honey. With more than 300 varieties in the United States today, the uses and pairings are seemingly boundless, which is what Simmons said inspired her to write the book.
Honey more versatile than people realize
” ‘Taste of Honey,’ the book, exists because an editor who lives in Kansas City, Mo., was flummoxed by the array of different varietal honey at her local farmers market and called me to ask me which one she should buy and that there should be a book on the subject,” Simmons said. “After her call I went to my files — yes, I’m a paper person — and found an inches-thick mess of many dog-eared clippings about honey and lots of old honey recipes.”
The book is an ode to all things bees and honey. Simmons, a prolific writer with upward of 20 cookbooks under her belt, touches on every aspect of beekeeping, production, varieties, tastings and pairings along with 60 recipes. At the end of each chapter is a “quick hits” section with creative, simple suggestions for ways to use honey in every meal of the day.
As she led the tasting, her passion for the topic was palpable. Someone from the audience asked what to do when honey crystallizes, and she said, “I spread it on a warm piece of buttered toast and let it melt, then pop it in my mouth!” She told us that using honey in sweets and baked goods is a natural, but she was most inspired when cooking with it in savory recipes.
The book is chock full of interesting main dishes trotting around the globe, from a tagine with lamb and figs to a Vietnamese-style beef stew to Chinese stir-fry with cabbage and peanuts. Honey tempers the heat of spices, balances the salt and acid and complements aromatics like garlic, elevating savory dishes to heavenly heights.
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Simmons devotes a section in the beginning of the book to in-depth descriptions of honey varieties, how-tos for hosting a comparison tasting, and cheese and honey pairings. She sat with a cheese expert, and together they sampled platters of different cheeses with types of honey. Here is some of Simmons’ advice on the topic:
“Colors of honey: Notice the colors play into the flavor notes. Orange blossom honey, for instance, is a delicate floral honey and like other more lightly colored, floral honeys. It goes best with full-fat dairy: whole-milk yogurt, heavy cream; I love orange or lemon blossom honey with a sweet rich fresh goat cheese. It tastes like lemon meringue pie. Also cream cheese cake with orange blossom honey is amazing.
“As the color of honey darkens, the flavors become more pronounced. Wildflower honey with its spectrum of flavors from fennel to rosemary to goldenrod to fruit blossom to spice notes can be fabulous with a mildly salty/fatty cheese. I like it especially with the buttery and nutty notes in Comte or Gruyere cheese.
“The only cheeses that can be challenging with honey are the bloomy rind type: Camembert, Brie, etc., although there are some bright lights in that arena as well.”
As part of her research, Simmons traveled around visiting beekeepers and learning about their craft. One such interesting character is Earl Flewellen, an apiarist and restaurateur in Port Costa, Calif., who used a Kickstarter campaign to launch his bee farm. He serves his honey and other goodies at the Honey House Cafe in this village perched on the Carquinez Strait of San Francisco Bay. His recipe for caramel-like Honey Butter Sauce is included in the book.
Simmons’ journey of writing “Taste of Honey” taught her about unusual honeys, how they are sourced and collected, and the myriad ways this miracle of nature can be used for eating and health. Ultimately, it led her to her sweet spot, an urban farmstead in Eugene, Ore., where she has a small garden plot and raises chickens for eggs and, of course, bees for honey.
Here is an easy, delicious recipe from the book. Simmons suggests an everyday honey variety, such as clover or orange blossom, for the brittle.
Adapted from “Taste of Honey” by Marie Simmons.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing foil
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
- 1½ cups dry-roasted, lightly salted peanuts
- Line a sheet pan with lightly buttered foil.
- Combine the butter, sugar, honey, cream and 1 teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Heat over medium-low, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil.
- Boil, stirring frequently, over medium to medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady boil and stir to keep the mixture from boiling over or scorching.
- Stir in the peanuts. Immediately scrape the mixture onto the prepared pan, spreading it in a single layer with a rubber spatula.
- Sprinkle the surface evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
- Cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. Lift from the pan. Break into irregularly shaped pieces. Stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place, the brittle keeps indefinitely.
Main photo: Earl Flewellen’s Honey Butter Sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson
When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.
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By Douglas Gayeton
The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.
Defining the lexicon of sustainability
In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?
We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.
Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.
Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community. Who knew food had so much attached to it?
New food movement has no center or single leader
Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.
To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.
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The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.
Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.
Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok
Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.
My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:
The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.
As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste – le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.
The gastronomy of the eye
Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.
Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.
Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.
The cook as artist
If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.
Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.
Back at Picasso’s palace
The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.
The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.
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The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.
I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.
I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table – salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
I am a cake person. For people who know me, this is as irrefutable a fact as the Earth orbiting the sun. Given that, when I picked up Diana Henry’s new cookbook, “A Change of Appetite” (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), and it fell open to a recipe for Pistachio and Lemon Cake, I felt the book and I were destined to become true friends.
And so we have.
If you read my review of her previous book, “Salt Sugar Smoke,” you know that Henry is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers. She was twice named Cookery Journalist of the Year by The Guild of Food Writers.
I have enjoyed all eight of her books — particularly “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” — filled with winter recipes that make me long for frigid temperatures — and “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” — for the name of the book and the Middle Eastern Orange Cake, among other things — but “A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious” is timely because, like her, I have realized a change of appetite is in order.
Although I don’t eat an unhealthy diet (yes, I am a bit too fond of sweets), it could do with some tweaking — less meat, more vegetables and grains and different flavors. Still, I don’t want to sacrifice taste in pursuit of healthier eating, and, as the title attests, I don’t have to.
‘A Change of Appetite’ suggests seasonal eating
The book is divided into seasons, and the Pistachio and Lemon Cake is one of the spring recipes. About eating in spring Henry notes, “We find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavors.”
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A Feta and Orange Salad with Honeyed Almonds certainly provides sprightlier flavors, as does White Fish, Saffron and Dill Couscous Pilaf, a dinner that takes 15 minutes to prepare and is a delicious reward at the end of the day.
In summer the “appetite is fickle,” but even the most fickle will likely find something to enjoy here. Two summer recipes stood out for me.
The first, Turkish Spoon Salad with Haydari (a yogurt dip), involves much chopping of chilies, tomatoes, cucumbers and other ingredients, but you are rewarded with a lovely looking salad that is also delicious. For me, fine dicing promotes patience. It also reminds me of my father, who had abundant patience and always diced vegetables in this precise manner for his soups and salads, and they always tasted better because of the care he took in preparing the ingredients.
The second summer recipe, Shaken Currants with Yogurt and Rye Crumbs, was a lovely surprise. Given the addition of rye crumbs, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate this dish. Happily, I was wrong. Although other summer berries can be substituted, I loved the currants’ tartness, which complemented the earthy rye. I grew up eating currants because my maternal grandmother picked them from her garden and fed them to me with thick, fresh cream. When I complained that raspberries and blueberries, also abundant in her garden, were sweeter, she reminded me that life was not made up of sweetness only, so I should set my mind to other flavors too. I was 5 at the time, but the lesson must have taken hold because I’ve always relished other flavors, almost as much as sweetness.
“I love the pull toward the kitchen that cooler weather engenders,” Henry writes about fall. For me, that pull is a pull toward soup, and her Eastern Broth with Shallots, Lime and Cilantro will be a great addition to my fall lineup. A lovely broth on its own, it becomes a soothing and filling meal with the addition of tofu or chicken and vegetables.
Roasted Tomatoes, Hummus, and Spinach on Toast is filling as well, especially when a quick Watercress and Carrot Salad is added. Spiced Pork Chops with Ginger and Mango Relish are hearty, while Citrus Compote with Ginger Snow is a light and refreshing end to any fall meal.
Like her previous books, “A Change of Appetite” is stylish. Interesting food essays (“Japanese Lessons,” especially so) are interspersed with clear and easy-to-follow recipes, often accompanied by gorgeous photographs that inspire rather than intimidate. They draw you into the kitchen.
Cool weather cooking and sweet treats
When winter descends, the instinct to eat for survival, carried with us over eons, takes hold despite the fact that many of us are now blessed with the certainty of our next meal. Winter cooking, perhaps more than cooking in any other season, is for sharing, and a dish like Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce and Hot Grated Beet offers warmth and comfort against the harshness beyond our windows.
The recipes in “A Change of Appetite” reinforce the truth that healthy eating does not require depriving yourself of flavor and pleasure at the table. Far from it. And although cutting back on sugar is never a bad idea, you can still have dessert. When it is made a special treat, it will be enjoyed even more.
Returning to the special treat that began my friendship with this cookbook, Pistachio and Lemon Cake may well be a “perfect cake for spring,” but I won’t limit it to this season. It’s made with olive oil instead of the butter I so liberally use in my cakes, stale breadcrumbs instead of flour, and finished with lemon syrup that makes the cake even more moist and delicious.
My grandmother may have taught me that life will not be made up of sweetness only, but at times there will and must be some, so I will slice the Pistachio and Lemon Cake just a little thinner. Delicious.
Main composite photo: “A Change of Appetite” by Diana Henry. Credits: Book cover image courtesy of publisher Mitchell Beazley and author photo by Chris Terry
Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.
In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.
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By Ruth Reichl
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As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)
The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.
In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.
Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.
But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.
The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?
Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history
“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.
We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”
The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).
There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”
When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”
And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”
Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud
We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.
One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.
Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.
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She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.
They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.
That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.
Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.
She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.
A magnet for controversy
She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”
Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.
Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.
She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.
Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett
The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture, including:
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Something’s fishy here
There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.
But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.
The gastronomic reach of Paris
It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.
You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.
The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”
Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.
Forks and rakes
Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)
The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.
There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.
Historical rakes and rascals
Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.
The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.
I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.
Meanwhile, back at the café
Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”
Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?
Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press