Celeriac

Jamie Oliver calls it ‘the most underrated vegetable in the whole of the United Kingdom’. Others call it an unsung hero and the frog prince of vegetables. In 1960 Elizabeth David said it was ‘on the way up’.

I’m talking about celeriac, also known as knob celery or turnip-rooted celery. Its Latin moniker is Apium graveolens var. rapaceum.

Celery has a long history, celeriac a shorter one. Homer mentions the former in the Odyssey. This description of Calypso’s cave is from Emily Wilson’s lean and luminous 2017 translation. (Wilson is the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English—shocking but true.)

A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
was stretched to coil around her cave. Four springs
spurted with sparkling water as they laced
with crisscross currents intertwined together.
The meadow softly bloomed with celery
and violets. He gazed around in wonder
and joy, at sights to please even a god.

For a long time celery root and upright celery were one and the same. The idea of developing a variety with really large roots arose in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and today celery and celeriac aren’t grown from the same plant.

A popular ingredient in northern and central Europe. Not so much in the English-speaking world. Which is a pity. Yes, it’s a scruffy beast of a vegetable. Yes, it goes brown in a heartbeat unless you immediately plunge it into cold, acidulated water. But celeriac is full of character and let’s face it, looks aren’t everything. Pare off its gnarled, whiskery exterior and uncover the ivory-fleshed deliciousness within.

It was fennel that turned me on to cooking with celeriac. I dislike fennel so when a recipe asked for it, I used celeriac instead. (Celeriac and fennel are both members of the Apiaceae or carrot family.)

Celeriac is mellow and walnutty and earthy. Like stalk celery you can eat it raw, but it softens beautifully, and I prefer it cooked. It’s a great mixer too. I add celeriac to winter soups. I roast chunks of it brushed with olive oil and harissa and serve it with cannellini or butter beans and baked red capsicum. And it forms the basis of root vegetable stews and gratins. Slice thinly with carrots, parsnips, a generous layer of potatoes and spike with black pepper, garlic, nutmeg or thyme.

From The Book of Rarer Vegetables by George Wythes and Harry Roberts, 1906

Footnote.
Two varieties of Apium prostratum, known as wild celery or sea celery (and in some historical texts as smallage) are native to coastal Australia and New Zealand. Commonly eaten by Māori for whom it’s known as Tutae Koau, wild celery was also a survival food for explorers and early colonists. Captain Cook ate wild celery at Botany Bay and gathered boatloads of it at Poverty Bay (NZ). In 1770 Joseph Banks noted: ‘We indeed as people who had been long at sea found great benefit in the article of health by eating plentifully of wild Celery, and a kind of Cresses which grew every where abundantly near the sea side.’

The plant looks like a miniature form of regular celery and tastes much the same. Leaves and stems are both edible and dried leaves are sometimes used in spice mixes.

Rhubarb—a vegetable masquerading as fruit

Ruby, Honeyred, Grandad’s Favourite
Victoria, Livingstone, Hogan’s Shillelagh
Irish Giant …

Crimson Winter, Scarlet Defiance
Dawe’s Challenge, Moore’s Red-Right-Thru
Reed’s Early Superb …

Hawke’s Champagne, German Wine,
Harbinger, Timperley, Tobolsk,
Kershaw’s Paragon …

I love the vernacular poetry of common names. Of thistles, plums—or in this case—rhubarb. Those stanzas are all varieties and cultivars of rhubarb.

Plant names have more influence with gardeners than is generally supposed; thus in the case of rhubarb, Champagne and Early Scarlet find more favour than the Sutton (a very good sort), although this is certainly a name which should inspire confidence.’
Daily News (Perth, WA), July 1911

AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) garden fete, 1944. Photo from the State Library of NSW

Does size matter? It certainly seems to at fetes and agricultural shows. And I’ve read a number of articles about the giant rhubarb of Alaska. The plant was likely brought there by Russian traders in the 1700s. And once there it grew big. Long days of summer sunlight apparently produce monster plants. Leaves the size of small satellite dishes and stalks as thick as a man’s arm.

Stalks posing as fruit. The Cinderella of the kitchen garden. A cut-and-come-again character. A vegetable struggling to find its place in a fruit world. The basis of a comfort food classic.

Botanically speaking rhubarb is a vegetable. Culturally speaking it’s fruit, and in 1947 a US Customs court in Buffalo NY ruled that it was indeed a fruit. And so it has remained.

The history and botany of rhubarb are complicated, but fall into two broad categories. More or less. Medicinal rhubarb and culinary rhubarb. The medicinal kind was well known in Europe by the seventeenth century, but its culinary sibling didn’t appear in cookbooks until the latter part of the eighteenth.

Rhubarb made its journey west via a circuitous route from northern Asia to the banks of the Volga, and then from Russia to Europe—and from Britain to North America, New Zealand and Australia. It’s a well-travelled plant. For a detailed account of rhubarb’s peregrinations Clifford Foust’s Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, is the go-to book.

Rhubarb arrived in Australia in the early-mid 1800s. The rhubarb we use here, whether cultivated in back yards or bought from shops and farmers’ markets, is grown outside. Recipes from England though, often refer to forced rhubarb. The forcing process, which originated in West Yorkshire, involves bringing two-year-old plants into dark sheds where the only light they’ll see will come from the flicker of candles at harvest time. Under these blackout conditions, the plants grow pinker, sweeter stalks instead of the leaves required for photosynthesis. Rhubarb produced this way is less fibrous and has a more delicate flavour than its field-raised counterparts. Does anyone force rhubarb in Australia?

Rhubarb goes in and out of fashion. Although unpopular in the decades following World War II, in the twenty-first century rhubarb has enjoyed a renaissance and is now firmly back on the menu.

Come the cooler weather, rhubarb comes into its own—in pies, muffins, poached with your breakfast porridge and in crumbles. Heaps of recipes for rhubarb crumble on the internet, and it’s a very forgiving dish. Not one to impress Instagram or Masterchef judges, but one to be enjoyed at home on a winter evening with the accompaniment of your choice: custard, cream, yoghourt, crème anglaise, ice-cream—or my personal favourite, evaporated milk.

Crab apples

Genesis tells us that the world’s first fruit was the apple. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, it wouldn’t have been a Golden Delicious or any of the varieties you see for sale in supermarkets. It would have been the tart-tasting crab apple.

Crab apples are found wild and occasionally cultivated across a wide geography. Several species in the genus Malus. Botanists and horticulturalists trace the origin of our domesticated apple to the crab apple. The original wilding from which all varieties derive. But it’s an origin story with gaps and ambiguity. (Aren’t they all?) Exactly when this small, sour fruit transformed into the sweet eating apple is unknown. A crab apple native to the Caucasus and Central Asia (an area of extraordinary biodiversity) is considered the main progenitor, but other species, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris) contributed their DNA.

Malus sylvestris has been found in Bronze Age remains and—as wergulu—it appears in an Anglo-Saxon collection of remedies and invocations from the tenth- and eleventh-century. While Shakespeare, a man who knew his apples and wild plants, refers to crab apples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear, and in Love’s Labour Lost he mentions roasted crab apples hissing in a bowl.

Crab apples hybridise freely with other Malus species. Australia’s Granny Smith came about when Maria Ann Smith dumped some crab apples on her Eastwood property. Only to discover, sometime later, the seedling of the green apple that now bears her name.

For the most part, gardeners plant crab apple trees for their spectacular spring blossom. The fruit gets thrown into the compost bin or left to rot. Which is a pity because crab apple jelly is a delicious thing. And it’s not the fruit’s only culinary option. In Korea I’ve eaten crab apples roasted and also drunk a tea made with their strained and sweetened juice. There are recipes for wines and ciders, and my mother’s friend Vi, originally from Lithuania, served crab apples with roast pork and pheasant.

Commercially produced crab apple jelly is hard to find. Farmers’ markets and CWA (Country Women’s Association of Australia) stalls are probably your best bet. Much as I love it, I haven’t made crab apple jelly for years. Malus sylvestris and its close relatives are classified as environmental weeds in parts of Australia. Picking them is risky because they may have been sprayed with something toxic. But in England trees push up from hedgerows and overhang fences. Come autumn kids dare each other to eat ‘a crabby-apple’ while adults retrieve wide-necked jars from sheds and cupboards and prepare them to receive the year’s stash.

Recipes for crab apple jelly are whispered down through generations, hand-written in pencil on slips of paper and tucked inside old cookery books. First tip: Don’t gather the fruit until it has a red blush or it’ll be so sharp it’ll strip the moisture from your tongue. Divide the fruit at its equator and chop roughly. Second tip: immerse in water as soon as it’s cut open to prevent browning. In our house the crab apples were cooked in a big pan reserved for making jams and preserves. Once softened to near mushiness the fruit and any residual liquid was tipped into a length of muslin and tied. A kitchen chair was upended and the muslin balloon suspended over a large bowl. It would hang there overnight. I remember falling asleep to the drip, drip of jelly in progress.

David Mabey and Rose Mabey, authors of the wonderfully comprehensive Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys, advise patience. Apple-based jelly mixtures, they write, take a long time to strain.

Once strained, the rosé-coloured juice was boiled with sugar. Test spoonfuls of the syrup drizzled onto a cold saucer until it set to a glaze. Some recipes call for spices, liquor or orange, but in our house such additions were never countenanced. I think the jelly is better left to itself, full and fragrant with hints of sourness.

‘Don’t throw away the apple pulp left in the jelly bag, but use it to make crab apple cheese,’ suggest David and Rose Mabey. It was apparently ‘a feature of the Victorian dinner table’. The Penguin Book of Jams, Pickles and Chutneys has a recipe—and no doubt there are others on the internet. I’m not familiar with fruit cheeses, but I imagine this one would be something like quince paste.

Back to jelly. The end preserve should be transparent not cloudy. Tip number three: Don’t squeeze the muslin pouch while the fruit is straining or you’ll encourage cloudiness. After the jelly was decanted into jars and cooled they’d be held up to the light to check its clarity. If everything had gone according to plan it would be clear and shine like stained glass.

One September a few years ago I witnessed a spectacular harvest of Malus sylvestris. Or rather potential harvest because the fruit was still on the trees. Great bunches ripe for the picking hung from branches. And I thought, an autumn profusion of crab apples is one of those public events which are private events because, although people may notice this abundance, each of us notices it alone. You’re not going to see news headlines announcing that this was a brilliant year for crab apples. The cornucopia passes unrecorded. Which, in a world where so much is recorded, is perhaps no bad thing.

 

Hardship cookery

The recommendation is to limit shopping trips for groceries during social distancing. So we’re looking for ways to use every last bit of what’s in our cupboards or freezers. Yesterday, as I made a tray of fail-safe flapjacks and fried whole spices for dahl, I was reminded that although the COVID-19 pandemic feels like uncharted territory, history is filled with examples of cooks getting creative in times of hardship.

Fail-safe flapjacks

This crisis has spawned a lot of culinary advice. Podcasts, websites, social media and newspapers offer tips and tell you how to throw together a quick and easy meal from whatever you’ve got lying around. There’s Jamie’s Keep Cooking and Carry On serving up what he calls ‘bendy recipes’—a term I like. Don’t worry if you can’t lay your hands on an ingredient, leave it out or use a substitute.

Because of the lockdown, issues with supply chains and restrictions on the purchase of certain staples, we’ve had to get inventive with the ingredients we do have. And while this isn’t a real food crisis, there is nevertheless a faint wartime echo, and that got me thinking about how people dealt with shortages in the past.

Among my library of cookbooks and volumes on culinary and horticultural history is War-Time Cookery by Mrs Arthur Webb, published in London in 1939. It has chapter titles like The War-time Larder, Friendly Food in Cans, Puddings to Please—and this is a curious one: Haybox Cookery. A way of saving fuel by part-cooking food then packing it into a box thickly lined with hay and leaving it for hours to slow-cook in its own heat. War-Time Cookery features several ‘mock’ things, a lot of dripping, and a surprising range of vegetables—New Zealand spinach, Jerusalem artichoke, scorzonera and celeriac, for example.

During World War II the UK Ministry of Food circulated a lot of culinary guidance pamphlets: Hedgerow Harvest, The Garden Front, Fruit Bottling, Meals Without Meat and many more. I looked into some of these publications when I was researching The Book of Thistles (UWA Publishing, 2017)

‘In 1942 the UK Ministry of Food issued the Emergency Powers Defence (Food) Carrots Order, and tried to persuade the public that carrots were a delicious, nutritious, easy-to-grow substitute for rationed goods. Radio programs, competitions, leaflets and cartoon characters were deployed to sell the message.
Carrot scramble, anyone?’

That’s from The Book of Thistles, and so is this:

‘When Yugoslavia broke apart it created a food crisis, something not experienced in the West since the Second World War. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s Bosnian botanist Sulejman Redžić documented the use of emergency biota (including Scotch and sow thistles) and ran programs explaining how to recognise and cook a range of plants generally dismissed as weeds. Prior to the conflict, the inhabitants knew next to nothing about the many palatable species growing rough on their doorstep. But they learned fast and those wildings helped avert nutritional catastrophe.’

I wonder how the women of Hanoi dealt with scarcity during the Vietnam War? How home cooking changed in the course of the Korean War? I wonder what’s being dished up today in refugee camps in Turkey, Kenya, Bangladesh and elsewhere?

Of course I’m not in a position anything remotely like those asylum-seekers or wartime cooks. In the inner-city suburb where I live we have the Sydney Fish Market and two supermarkets. Hand sanitizer may be impossible to find but there’s plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of lentils, grains and tofu.

My other World War II cookbook is an Australian one. Also called Wartime Cookery, it’s by journalist Sarah Dunne and was published by the Herald (Melbourne) in 1945. Ninety-six pages of hints and recipes to help you with your rationing problems and cooking challenges. Phosphate as a raising agent, ‘Friendly Ways With Suet’, instructions for ‘Red Flannel Hash’ and ‘Moonshine Mould’. According to the publicity blurb waste was a subtle form of treason. And as guardians of the Home Front, housewives should be prepared for ‘strange forages and unusual adventures’ of the kind offered by this collection of recipes where familiar ingredients are made to do unfamiliar things.

While rationing was not as severe as it was in Britain and Europe, many foods, such as tea, eggs, butter and meat were rationed in Australia. Like its English counterpart, Wartime Cookery contains recipes for a number of mock foods—substitutes for the real thing or a means of eking out precious ingredients. Concoctions like ‘Cream without Cream’ which involves whipping cornflour into milk with sugar, a knob of butter and a drop of vanilla essence. Add a stiffly whisked egg white before serving.

We can’t congregate but we can still cook. Still connect via the kitchen. Cooking helps us weather difficult and uncertain times. When I plan a meal and prepare food I’m keeping anxiety at bay. To help counter fears sparked by COVID-19, we also need stories—not a single over-arching Hollywood narrative of rescue by a larger-than-life hero—we need multiple small stories, multiple culinary interventions. In the absence of a quick fix, we need stories and dishes of resilience and slow-simmering hope.

Cooking in a crisis

We won’t be eating in restaurants and cafés anytime soon. We’ll be cooking at home with the the occasional take-away dinner. As we proceed through the various stages of lockdown, we’ll be limiting the number of supermarket visits, and looking to stock our pantries—for however long it takes us to get on top of this virus. I’ve been asking friends what they’re cooking, and comfort food is the overwhelming response. Pasta bakes seem particularly popular. Penne with sauce the first night then turn the extra pasta into a bake the next.

My mother was the queen of leftovers. A resourceful cook (and forager), used to rationing and scarcity, she lived through World War II and the frugal ways she learnt stayed with her all her life. She passed some of that economy on to me—don’t throw away parmesan rinds, chuck them into the stock pot with a bay leaf, withered carrots and other vegetables past their use-by-dates. I’ve been remembering Mum’s culinary tricks and tips as I make my way though my own comfort menu—soups, dahls, pilafs, ginger tea, stewed plums, fruit crumbles—and my adaptation of arroz doce, Portuguese rice pudding. For me this is the ultimate (sweet) comfort dish.

Cook about 2 cups of medium-grain or short-grain rice with a pinch of salt and a couple of curls of lemon rind. Since coronavirus-induced panic buying I haven’t been able to replenish my jar of medium-grain rice, so the last time I made this dish I used arborio rice. Which works OK. To a litre of full-cream milk add a cinnamon stick and a few curls of lemon rind and bring to a near boil. Remove from heat and allow the lemon and spice to steep. In a small bowl beat one large egg with 2 additional yolks. Return milk to heat bring to a boil then stir in the cooked rice. Add the grated zest of a lemon and a scant cup of caster sugar. Cook a further minute or two on a low heat, then remove the pan from the heat. Pour in the beaten egg mixture and mix thoroughly. Bring back to the boil just enough to cook the eggs, but without allowing further boiling—if that makes sense. Add powdered cinnamon to taste. Spoon the rice into a dish and refrigerate. Serve on its own or with fruit—fresh or stewed—of your choice. I like it with stewed plums.

Earlier this month there was an excellent and—for those of us dealing with soaring anxiety—very reassuring article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Living by Jill Dupleix: The non-panicky guide to cooking your way through quarantine.

Desperately seeking bulgur wheat and cocoa

Bit of a gripe, bit of a rant … I was after bulgur wheat and cocoa powder. Not for the same dish, I hasten to add. I thought both would be relatively easy to find in one or other of my two local supermarkets. I was wrong. Totally wrong. Neither had any bulgur, let alone a choice of fine or coarse. They had pre-mixed combinations of grains, gluten-free this and that, packets of seeds, quinoa, flavoured cereals and rows of so-called health bars—but no bulgur. Yet bulgur is a staple of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, used in salads, stuffed into capsicums, made into pilaf, and much more.

It was the same story with cocoa. A pantry essential for anyone who bakes. On the shelves six, seven, eight varieties of drinking chocolate—whose main ingredient was sugar—but 100% cocoa powder was nowhere to be found.

I live in Pyrmont on the western edge of downtown Sydney. An area of about one square kilometre it is one of, if not the, most densely populated suburb in Australia. We have two supermarkets: Coles and a Woolworths Metro. Until recently we had an excellent IGA supermarket that as well as the big brands, also carried lines from smaller and independent producers. The Woolworth’s Metro that’s replaced the IGA is, to be blunt, a pretty crappy supermarket. Heavy on instant salads and ready-meals and low on single ingredient foods.

As I stood in the supermarket aisle, I realised that the kind of shop I wanted was one that no longer seems to exist. Wholefood stores and food co-ops with their sacks of loose beans and chick peas, lentils, buckwheat flour weighed to order, organic sultanas and unadulterated peanut butter, have gone. In their place shops selling canisters of vitamin supplements and protein powders.

Kurdish style pilaf with tomatoes, thyme and capsicum

A lot of what’s marketed as health food is heavily processed. Vegan ‘meat’ is an obvious example, but check the fine print on the back of products in the ‘health’ sections of supermarkets and see what that low-calorie, no added sugar snack actually contains. There’s a great article about the rise and rise of ultra-processed food in The Guardian: How Ultra-processed Food Took Over Your Shopping Basket by by culinary journalist Bee Wilson. Highly recommended.

‘Ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed—and on sale in supermarkets everywhere.’

BTW I did eventually obtain both products. I ordered Dutch cocoa powder online and bought bulgur wheat from Harris Farm in the nearby Broadway shopping centre. I wanted the cocoa for chocolate and almond ricotta to accompany poached pears, and the bulgur for a Kurdish pilaf with tomatoes—a recipe I picked up forever ago from an anthropologist friend who’d done fieldwork in eastern Turkey.

Ginger crunch, smoked tomatoes & cookbooks for singles

The beginning of this month I made a research trip to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. It was primarily fieldwork for a new script, but along the way I sampled some of Southland’s and Otago’s culinary offerings—and acquired a couple of local cookbooks. In Queenstown I bought a copy of the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book, described on page 4 as ‘a constant, reliable companion in Kiwi kitchens for over 100 years’. First issued as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908, a promotional tool for Edmonds’ baking powders, it’s been revised multiple times since and is now up to its sixty-ninth edition.

From one of Invercargill’s many charity shops—I’ve forgotten which—I purchased Food for Flatters. Another Edmonds publication. I bought it to add to my growing collection of (mostly retro) cookbooks for students, singles and small spaces.

In the 1960s and 70s the patterns of the past were changing. More young people were moving out of the parental home, not because they were all getting married, but because they were off to university or off to the city in search of independence—especially the freedom that was difficult to have with Mum and Dad in the adjoining bedroom. Bachelors, it was always assumed, led racy, carefree lives. Spinsters, by contrast, were objects of scorn or pity. That changed—well, sort of. Singledom became an adventurous lifestyle choice—for women as well as men. Cookbooks cashed in, and a subgenre emerged: the singles’ cookbook.

It’s worth noting however, that before Katharine Whitehorn (Cooking in a Bedsitter, 1963) and Helen Gurley Brown (Single Girl’s Cookbook, 1969) appeared on the scene, Marjorie Hillis was providing ideas for solitary suppers and budget-friendly entertaining to ‘bachelor ladies’ in Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner (1937). Joanna Scutt’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It colours in the social context and is an absorbing read.

I confess a soft spot for Cooking in a Bedsitter with its Shrimp Wiggle (page 168 in my 1974 Penguin edition) and its ghastly casseroles assembled from condensed soup, mince and a tin of celery. Just as well then that in 2020 it’s more likely to be Jamie Oliver accompanying sons and daughters to halls of residence or share houses.

When I got home from New Zealand, I discovered that about a quarter of the pages had been ripped out of Food for Flatters. Hmm. Disappointing, but look, it only cost $2, the money went to a good cause, and I wasn’t buying it for its recipes. Of course I wasn’t. Crumbed sausages or cheese rolls made with packet soup mix are not appealing. Although I was told several times that cheese rolls are a regional speciality, I wasn’t game enough to try them. Cheese scones, on the other hand—when I could find them without bacon bits—were invariably delicious.

Some of the meals I ate in New Zealand were excellent. Fish pie and Sauvignon Blanc on the terrace of a Queenstown pup, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Discovering the delights of smoked tomatoes thanks to the fabulous Batch café in Invercargill. And on the snack and treat front, I reacquainted myself with that classic NZ slice: ginger crunch. A slightly crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread base topped with a thick layer of ginger icing.

According to the Edmonds Cookery Book New Zealanders have always been partial to slices and squares—a taste that continues if the number of bakeries and cafés selling them is anything to go by.

This recipe for ginger crunch is based on the one in Edmonds Cookery Book.

For the base
125g butter softened
½ cup caster sugar
1½ cups plain flour
1 x teaspoons baking powder
1½ x teaspoons ground ginger

For a thick layer of icing
110g butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 x tablespoons golden syrup
4 x teaspoons ground ginger

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin.

Mix dry ingredients, rub in the butter, then lightly knead the mixture until it comes together. It will be fairly dry and crumbly at this stage. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and press it down.

Bake about 20-25 minutes until it’s a light, golden brown.

While the base is cooking put the butter, golden syrup and ginger into a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the butter is melted. Add the sifted icing sugar and mix it into the melted ingredients. Once everything is satisfactorily combined, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the icing over the slice as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cut into fingers and leave to cool before indulging.

Gone to marzipan

It’s that time of year: bushfires, barbecues, shops window-dressed with tinsel, fairy lights and fake snow, with chocolates, glacé fruits and marzipan. It’s the season for marzipan. I’m not a fan of white icing, but a festive fruit cake without marzipan is missing something essential. And I can’t imagine Swedish princess cake without its distinctive, green-tinted coat.

The story starts in the Middle East, probably in Persia. Traders or maybe returning crusaders brought the confection west to Europe. One of marzipan’s many origin stories claims it was born in Venice during a great famine. Without flour to make bread, Venetian bakers used ​​ground almonds instead, adding sugar and honey to their dough. Presumably—despite the famine—there was no shortage of nuts or sweeteners? Or is it a case of never let logic get in way of a good legend?

Another marzipan story, very likely apocryphal, takes place during the Wars of Religion (1562-98). Huguenot leader, Gaspard II de Coligny, loved marzipan and the day before an important battle he over-indulged in his favourite delicacy. This gave him such terrible indigestion, he was unable to lead his troops, and the Protestants were defeated.

Marzipan also gets served up in literature. It’s mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Act I Scene V opens with a bit of domestic business:

‘First Servant:
Away with the joint-stools, remove the
court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save
me a piece of marchpane …

And, à la recherche du massepain … Food and the rituals of the table play a large part in the work of prolific, nineteenth-century writer Honoré de Balzac. (As well as fiction, he co-edited a collection of gastronomic texts.) It was during a stay with friends that Balzac, collecting material for his 1842 novel La Rabouilleuse, discovered Issoudun’s famous marzipan:

Elle tirait d’une armoire une fiole contenant du cassis, une liqueur de ménage faite par elle, car elle en avait eu la recette de ces célèbres religieuses auxquelles on doit le «Massepain d’ Issoudun. Le gâteau d’Issoudun est l’une des plus grandes créations de la confiturerie française et qu’aucun chef d’office, cuisinier, pâtissier ou confiturier n’a pu contrefaire. M. de Rivière, ambassadeur à Constantinople, en demandait tous les ans d’énormes quantités pour le sérail de Mahmoud.

Out of copyright, La Rabouilleuse is available (in French) online. This is my translation of the above passage:

She took a flask containing her homemade blackcurrant liqueur from a cupboard; she had obtained the recipe from those famous nuns to whom we owe credit for ‘Issoudun Marzipan’. This local sweetmeat is one of the greatest creations of French confectionary and one which no chef, cook, pâtissier or confectioner has been able to copy. Monsieur de Rivière, our ambassador in Constantinople, would order enormous quantities of it every year for Mahmoud II’s harem.

Not long after the publication of Balzac’s novel, an enterprising Parisian distributed leaflets announcing that he’d opened opened a shop a selling Issoudon marzipan. His circulars  contained what purported to be an extract or endorsement from Balzac. It wasn’t, but the PR plot paid off. Rumours spread through the capital that Balzac had become a pastry chef and people flocked to the shop on rue Vivienne.

The production of this sweetness flourished across the cities and regional towns of Europe. Eventually spreading further afield to the Americas, Australasia and elsewhere.

Recipes vary. In India marzipan is sometimes made with cashew nuts which are cheaper and more readily obtained than almonds. But the majority of recipes contain three basic ingredients: almond meal, sugar and egg or egg white.

The Green and Gold Cookery Book published in Adelaide in 1923 and reprinted multiple times since, has this recipe for what it calls ‘almond icing’, a term you find in a lot of older English language cookbooks:

One lb. icing sugar, 6-8 ozs. almond meal, yolks of eggs, I tablespoon sherry or orange flower water, 2 tablespoons strained orange or lemon juice. Sift the icing sugar and add it to the almond meal. When well mixed add the yolks of the eggs, the orange flower water, or sherry, and sufficient of the fruit juice to form a firm paste. Turn onto a board well sprinkled with icing sugar and knead it thoroughly.

For me, marzipan is all about the almonds. So I don’t find fruit juice, orange flower water and sherry appealing additions.

Marzipan became a speciality of the German Baltic ports of Lübeck and Königsberg (now Kalingrad and part of Russia). As port cities they were trading hubs with ready access to the necessary ingredients. My preferred marzipan is the kind that comes from Lübeck. It’s made with more almonds, less sugar and no egg.

Yet another origin story says marzipan was invented in Lübeck at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Again during a famine when the only foodstuffs available were sugar and a handful of almonds. Another story that speaks of the hunger and scarcity that haunted medieval life.

Unlike a lot of home-made versions, German (and Danish) marzipan is generally made with the meal of sweet almonds—and a tiny amount of bitter almond, which deepens the flavour.

Almonds come in two kinds, sweet and bitter. Bitter almonds aren’t eaten like the regular nuts, they’re used as a flavouring, more like a spice. In amaretti biscuits, in amaretto liqueur and in a number of traditional dishes. In Australia we grow sweet almonds along the Murray River in Victoria and South Australia. Vast irrigated orchards of densely planted trees. Seas of blossom and stormy debates about water allocation to farmers. Long before the wellness industry seized on all things almond, thereby encouraging a thirsty monoculture, marzipan was a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions.

Botanically speaking, the almond is a peach in disguise. And bitter almonds contain a form of cyanide. Although cooking destroys the poison, the nuts’ sinister reputation persists. Fuelled in part by crime fiction. All those scenes where the detective points out the odour of bitter almonds on a murder victim’s breath.

Back to Lüback where there’s a Museum of Marzipan. Its display includes life-size figures made from marzipan, including one of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann who was apparently very fond of the confection. Madame Tussauds eat your heart out! Who wants wax figures when you can have edible ones? Now, would Thomas Mann miss a finger or two … ?

Risotto rant

I missed the beginning and it’s quite some time ago, so unfortunately I can’t tell you either the name of the radio program or the specific project it was reporting. I can tell you it was a story from a town in northern England about a public education scheme to encourage disadvantaged residents to improve their diet. When I tuned in the group was being taught how to cook risotto.

Ah, risotto … The cook teaching them was adamant that the stock be kept at a steady simmer, and that said stock should be home-made from scratch. No supermarket shortcuts. After the class, the radio producer asked the participants if they would be making that risotto again. The responses were a polite but unequivocal No. Why not? Because it was fiddly and involved a lot of preparation.

Risotto is one of my go-to, quick suppers. This probably makes me sound a bit OCD, but I once road-tested two versions of the same mushroom risotto recipe. One made adding stock kept at a gentle simmer, and one version where I added the same stock but cold. Perhaps I have an unsophisticated palate, but I couldn’t taste any difference. If that cooking teacher had offered her class a simpler option would the participants have tried making risotto at home? Maybe.

It was reading Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton & Sinikka Elliott that reminded me of that risotto episode. Pressure Cooker is a survey of home cooking and it’s a fascinating and engaging read. The book tells the food-stories of nine families, and draws on the researcher-authors’ interviews with over a hundred-and-fifty mothers and grandmothers living in North Carolina. The women were mostly working-class. Time-poor mothers and just plain poor mothers—not the people who generally feature in books about the delights of home cooking and the honeyed past. When housewives spent their afternoons baking and set the table every evening. A past, as Bowen, Brenton and Elliott so deftly point out, that was never one-size-fits-all.

That’s one of the things I particularly like about Pressure Cooker: the way it debunks popular myths, exposes gastronomic magical thinking. Family dinners aren’t a panacea for social ills. Ditto cooking healthy meals at home. Yes, it’s great if we all learn to cook cheap, nutritious dishes, learn to grow our own herbs and shop for in-season vegetables. But let’s not overlook the deeper issues of inequality. There are people who struggle to afford any food, let alone whole ingredients, artisan bread and organic fruit. Not everyone has access to a workable kitchen. How do you prepare supper for your kids with only a single hotplate? What about people working shifts who don’t have control over their schedules? Whose only shop within walking distance is a convenience store selling chips, chocolate and close-to-expiry-date yoghurt?

OK, home cooking alone won’t solve our problems, so what else can we do to improve things? Pressure Cooker’s authors are clear: ‘We need collective solutions that will benefit people across the income spectrum.’ Community gardens, food co-ops, local canteens where you pay what you can, food rescue projects (like OzHarvest), free cooking workshops and more.

Which brings me back to that risotto they were making on the radio and my simmering stock comparison. An experiment that proved—to me at least—that you can make a risotto easily and simply using a single pan. The method may not be chef-approved but you still end up with a dish that’s tasty, inexpensive and not too time consuming.

Working to bring about true food justice starts by trying to understand people and communities … what works for one neighbourhood may not work for another.’

No scones for us

No scones for us—sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, doesn’t it?

A bright idea came into Alice’s head. “Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it,” said the Hatter with a sigh: “it’s always tea-time … ”

Wednesday afternoon in downtown Sydney we were after a pot of tea and scones. Neither a difficult nor an unusual quest. But it was not to be. At the Westin in Martin Place the only way to obtain a scone was to order their set afternoon tea at (a minimum) $54 per person. Unimpressed with their brazen upselling, we left the Westin and tried the Sheraton on the Park where we’d had tea and scones before. But we were out of luck there as well. Although scones were on the menu, there were none today. The waitress told us we should have phoned ahead. For a pot of tea and a scone at 2:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon! What’s going on here? Isn’t peak scone-eating time 3:00-5:00 pm? How long would it take to rustle up a batch?

That’s the thing about scones. They’re easy to make, quick to cook—and cheap. Recipes for scones are in every beginners’ cookbook and older cookbooks frequently offer several recipes—plain, date, fruit, savoury, pumpkin and other varieties. When I make them I use a recipe from an early edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly Basic Cookbook. I don’t do a lot of baking, but if you follow the instructions, there’s not much that can go wrong with scones.

The scone is described in culinary references as a quick bread (i.e. breads and bread-like products leavened with agents other than yeast or eggs—namely baking powder or bi-carbonate of soda.) Quick breads are popular with cooks because they can be made quickly and reliably. Unlike traditional yeast breads which involve a measure of waiting.

Traditionally cooked on a griddle, the scone is thought to have originated in Scotland and migrated south. That may be true. Who knows? What we do know is that, as Elizabeth David wrote in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, ‘once you start on scones, where do you stop?’ She recommends anyone interested in such recipes consult The Scots Kitchen (1929) by Miss F Marian McNeill which devotes some fifteen pages to the subject.

Oatcakes, puftaloons, Australian damper—there’s a huge range of breads and scone-like cakes made without yeast.

Whatever its origins, the scone has become the quintessential afternoon tea accompaniment, perfect with a cup of Assam or Darjeeling. I like my scones hot from the oven with butter and either a thin slice of cheese or a generous dollop of jam—blackcurrant and blackberry are my go-to preserves when it comes to scones.