A mere trifle

Trifle with my heart
booze-soaked cake, fruit and custard
sweet labour of love.

I started this Year of the Ox writing haiku. I actually prefer another Japanese poetic form, tanka, which has five lines and thirty-one syllables to haiku’s three and seventeen—but that’s a post for a different blogsite. Anyway, my haiku-writing took a culinary turn and up popped trifle.

About the trifle
classic, chocolate, break the rules
no one-size-fits-all.

January moved into February and I loved into experimenting with trifles. Inspired by a wonderful book in the English Kitchen series: Trifle by Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson. Their book contains scores of trifle recipes spanning more than five-hundred years, and is a real celebration of this versatile dish whose variations seem ‘as infinite as stars inthe sky’.

Tasmanian trifle, temperance trifle. Inexpensive, exotic, summer and strawberry trifles. A trifle old-fashioned, a trifle on the familiar side, a trifle too much. Although its name suggests something trivial, something of no consequence and little value, there’s a school of thought that says trifle is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to the global dessert trolly. A trifle can be a sophisticated indulgence; it can be a showy concoction whose appearance belies the simpleness of its making. That’s the beauty of trifle: it’s incredibly easy to make, mostly assemblage, in fact.

When it comes to trifle, jelly is controversial. Does it belong? Yes, no, maybe occasionally. I’m in the ‘Just Say No’ to jelly camp, but if other cooks wish to include it, that’s their choice. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to trifle. You make it to suit your own taste. Because my partner follows a low cholesterol diet I hold the whipped cream, and I’ve come to prefer my classic, quick and easy trifle (swiss roll, sherry, mixed berries, vanilla custard) minus cream. When it comes to my chocolate trifle though, I favour a splash or two of pouring cream.

I make my chocolate trifle with slices of shop-bought chocolate cake soaked in amaretto. Then a layer of cherries, stones removed, and chopped pears. You could use good quality canned or bottled pears, but this time I’ve poached fresh pears to the desired softness. Top that with dark, velvety chocolate custard. Put it in the fridge to set and scatter with flaked almonds before serving. It tastes a bit like a gooey black forest gateau with a hint of tiramisu.

Yes, the trifle has travelled. Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson’s book contains recipes not only from Britain, but from places further afield: Trinidad, North America, Scandinavia, Australia, and India, where it was a feature of the Anglo-Indian menu. Trifle prints a recipe from the wonderfully titled Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book …  comprising numerous directions for plain wholesome cookery, both Oriental and English, with much miscellaneous matter, answering all general purposes of reference connected with household affairs likely to be immediately required by families, messes, and private individuals, residing at the presidencies or out-stations. The author was one Dr R Riddell and as far as I can tell it was first published circa 1853.

I began this post on a literary note, so I shall end on one. This is from E M Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India. Miss Adela Quested travels to the subcontinent expecting to become engaged to a British magistrate in the city of Chandrapore. During the meal described below, she begins to have second thoughts …

… to dinner came Miss Derek and the McBrydes, and the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale … but the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants.

The suet inheritance

The surprise
in my mother’s pantry
    six boxes of Atora suet

and a drawerful
of cutlery
    bent out of shape.

None of it
will ever be used again
    by its owner.

There’s a violence to this
tidying away of a woman
    not yet cremated.

Little white maggots
in their primary coloured
    cardboard box

suet is hard fat
that surrounds cow kidneys.
    If you can stomach the idea

suet makes excellent pastry,
works a treat
    in jam roly-poly,

steamed puddings and pies—
British stodge
    at its best.

My mother was old school
believed all sickness
    could be cured

with water
and will power.
    Until it couldn’t.

I remember this kitchen
The Archers on the radio;
    licking out bowls and spoons.

My mother’s cookbooks
loose spines and recipes that crowd
    untasted between the pages.

The fit of old aprons
the shape of a family
    swallowed into other lives.

Memory is a fine ingredient in any dish
and that afternoon
    I feasted on it.

Pineapple upside-down cake—the backstory

Baking isn’t something I do regularly and, as I’ve mentioned before, my baking playlist is a short one, so I don’t know why I was suddenly overtaken by a desire for pineapple upside-down cake. Was it mentioned by a character in a novel I was reading? Did it pop into my head when I bought a whole pineapple last week? Or was it prompted by an ad for tinned pineapple spotted during the course of archival research?

The first time I made a pineapple upside-down cake was forever ago. I recall a student dinner party circa 1980. A bit past the cake’s heyday, but in grey, overcast England it still oozed tropical sophistication—laughable as that now seems.

This time though, I not only wanted to make pineapple upside-down cake, I wanted to know its origin story. There were questions and I wanted answers.

I had a hunch it all began in America. I followed that hunch and my investigation took me into the kitchens, newspapers and not-so-mean streets of suburbia. From there I followed leads in archives and databases. It soon became apparent that the upside-down cake had form, a history that predated its US appearance. From as far back as the Middle Ages, Europeans made cakes by pouring a basic batter over a layer of fruit and sugar, cooking the whole thing over a fire, then flipping it to serve. The tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart created by two sisters in the 1880s, is probably the best-known example of France’s many gâteaux renversés.

The term ‘upside-down cake’ appeared sometime in the early 1920s in regional America and featured plums and pome fruits rather than pineapple. Who was the first person to swap those for pineapple? The trail goes cold. But worth noting that although tinned pineapple was available in post World War I America, it was still a relatively exotic item.

In 1925 the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a contest calling for (canned) pineapple recipes. They received a flood of 60,000 submissions of which an alleged 2,500 were for pineapple upside-down cake. No surprise then that the winning entry was—yes, a pineapple upside-down cake! The company built a major advertising campaign around the winning recipe and by the mid-1930s pineapple upside-down cake was probably the most popular home-baked cake in America. It was easy. It was comfort food, it worked as a fundraiser or school fete offering. It was a potluck staple and a dinner party dessert.

Pineapple with Cockroaches by Maria Sibylla Merian, circa 1703

Cultivated pineapple (Ananas comosus) belongs to the family Bromeliaceae and it’s native to the Orinoco basin in South America. I’m imagining sun-filled days of heat, stagnant air and violent storms. Dragonflies cruising up and downriver. A litter of bougainvillea.

The first European to encounter a pineapple was Christopher Columbus in 1493. Apparently only a single pineapple made the return trip to Spain intact. The others rotted. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, who knows, but it is true that by the eighteenth-century pineapple pits were all the fashion among the well-to-do of Europe. Theatrical centrepieces for banquets and symbols of the hosts’ wealth and social standing.

Who first managed to grow a pineapple in a northern climate remains an open case. But the most likely contender is Dutch horticulturalist and woman-of-many-talents, Agneta Block in about 1685.

Pineapples were first introduced to Queensland by Lutheran missionaries who imported plants from India in 1838. Or maybe not. There’s evidence that the first Ananas comosus plants arrived in 1824 and five years later the Colonial Botanist counted thirty-four flourishing in Brisbane’s government garden.

Initially farmers serviced the market demand for fresh fruit, but as production blossomed, attention turned to processing. A retired sailor first canned pineapples in Malaysia in 1888 with exports from Singapore soon following. In Hawaii a large-scale canning industry developed thanks to the invention of a machine that could peel, core and slice pineapples automatically, and at speed.

Golden Circle began as a growers’ cooperative. The pineapple cannery commenced production in 1947. That same year, to celebrate the marriage of the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queensland State Government shipped five-hundred cases of tinned pineapple to London.The company’s advertising took a practical, recipe-based approach. Housewives were encouraged to keep their menfolk happy with canned pineapple—Glazed Pineapple & Sausages; Pineapple Atolls; Macaroni Cheese Tropical; Frozen Pineapple Crunch, and many more culinary gems. In the 1950s and 60s the Australian Women’s Weekly ran the brand’s colourful ads in just about every issue. Like this one from October 1964 which features the alarmingly-named ‘Busy Housewife Salad’.

Pineapples were the heart of Golden Circle, and the fruit remains important in Queensland. On the state’s Sunshine Coast you can visit The Big Pineapple, opened in 1971 and now a heritage-listed tourist attraction. More obliquely, I retrieved a lengthy article from the Queensland Agricultural Journal of August 1953. Primarily information about farming pineapples, it’s the specialist vocabulary that captures my attention. I’m talking tops, slips, suckers and butts, not to mention references to ‘undesirable types’ and ‘off-types [that] should be rogued from the plantation.’ Read that language and I can’t help but see animated pineapples creating havoc as cartoon characters do.

In the England of my childhood, pineapple came ringed or ready chunked—I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture. Now if you trawl the internet for pineapple upside-down cake recipes, many call for fresh pineapple. When I make my cake however, I opt for tinned pineapple and glacé cherries not fresh ones. Because ironically, they seem the more authentic choice. And anyway, Nigella says it’s OK to make this cake with canned fruit and who am I to argue with Nigella? The only alterations to the basic recipe that I consider are a teaspoon of cinnamon and nutmeg (as per a 1953 recipe from Pacific Islands Monthly) or adding ground ginger to the batter and dark rum to the caramel sauce as did a long-ago housemate’s Trinidadian mother.

I want the following word: splendour, splendour is fruit in all its succulence, fruit without sadness. I want vast distances.’ Whenever I read that quote from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, I always think of pineapple: fruit without sadness.

The Kobe Women’s Club Favorite Recipes

Even if you could find an outward flight, because of Covid-19 we can’t leave the country without a special exemption. So with actual travel off the agenda for the foreseeable future I’m visiting other places through my collection of cookbooks and culinary literature.

Where to start this journey? The Basque country? India? Britain? Korea? I’ve got a fair number of books from these regions—recipes, kitchen tales, horticultural and food histories.

How about Kobe?

Favorite Recipes Kobe Women’s Club, 1953. I found this book in a charity shop in Brisbane, paid $2, took it back to the apartment I was staying in and Googled the title. As you do.

Originally known as the Saturday Morning Club, the Kobe Women’s Club was established in 1914 by a group of expat women who recognised ‘a strong community need for an organisation that would offer English-speaking women of all nationalities an opportunity to socialise on a regular basis’. Eight years later the Saturday Morning Club became the Kobe Women’s Club—and it’s still going strong …

Back to the book. It has no introduction and is entirely composed of recipes contributed by individual members. Measures are imperial or in American cups and the dishes are divided into the usual categories of the period. Chapters entitled ‘Cookies’ and ‘Cakes and Frostings’ indicate the book’s American leaning. Perhaps reflecting this—or the make-up of the club’s membership—the offerings are more culturally diverse than many community cookbooks of the 1950s. There are recipes for beef stroganoff, sardines Swedish style, pizza, linzertorte, an unpleasant-sounding veal scallopini and from Mrs Harry Witt, ‘Chief of Dixie Mission’ chili con carne. 

I’ve got a few cookbooks like this one. Compilations put out by clubs, community associations and specific groups—often as fundraisers. The Kobe Women’s Club Favorite Recipes, like others of its ilk, has a mix of recipes, some quite appealing, others not so much. Baking powder biscuits, anyone?

Although the authors were living in Kobe, there’s little mention of Japanese ingredients or culinary techniques. The final chapter is called ‘Oriental Dishes’ and as well as sweet and sour pork, nassi goring (sub-headed ‘fried chili rice with meat’) and samosas (‘minced meat pastry’) from Mrs J S Wadia, there are two specifically Japanese recipes. Tempura and chawanmushi, which is a savoury egg custard, made in this case with chicken.

December before last I was in Japan and visited Kobe. It’s an attractive and cosmopolitan port city. A maritime gateway from the earliest days of trade with China and home to one of the first foreign settlements after Japan reopened to the world in the mid-nineteenth-century. If you’re a meat-eater you may know Kobe for its famous marbled beef, but is is also known for its chocolate and for its Western-style cakes and confectionary. Not to mention okonomiyaki and sobameshi, a down-home local speciality of stir-fried noodles and rice.

The Kobe Women’s Club was one of several women’s clubs that emerged in the early twentieth century in Japan. The Tokyo Ladies’ Debating Society was founded in 1908 under the direction of Dr Marie Stopes. In 1910 it became the Tokyo Ladies’ Club until three years’ later when the ‘Ladies’ became ‘Women’ and the club was thereafter known as the Tokyo Women’s Club.

Tucked inside my copy of Favorite Recipes was a handwritten letter to ‘Dear Alfhild’. Two recipes, one a citrus-flavoured dessert, the other caramel pudding. ‘These sweets are rather nice for the hot weather, and sending them in case you haven’t them. Buy gelatine loose—is cheaper than done up in cartons, Mum.’

I find these old community cookbooks fascinating. For what they tell us about everyday eating, about home cooking and changing attitudes towards foreign fare. About what foods were affordable and readily available and what weren’t. And for the homesickness I read between the lines.

Barmbrack a.k.a. Irish tea loaf

If the depleted flour supplies at my local supermarket are anything to go by, people are still doing a lot of baking and bread-making. It’s forever since I made bread and my baking repertoire is limited. One thing I do often bake though is barmbrack a.k.a. Irish tea loaf or tea brack. Its Irish language name is báirín breac which translates as speckled bread. And it was once reserved for holidays and high days, especially Halloween.

A precursor to Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (the end of summer) marked the conclusion of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. During Samhain barriers between the physical world and the realm of the spirits became porous. It was a time of danger, a time charged with fear. And a time of rituals and practices designed to counter supernatural threats.

A rich, slightly moist fruit loaf that goes brilliantly with a cup of tea—or a tot of whisky—barmbrack recipes tend to be flexible. The one I use is from The Australian Women’s Weekly Best Ever Recipes, which I bought when I lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in the 1990s. That cookbook calls it Fruit Loaf, and as you can see from the photo, over the years I’ve added my own splotches, notes and alterations. I’ve reduced the quantity of sugar, for example, (dried fruit has its own sweetness) and swapped brandy for whisky.

Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea.’

The quote is from Clay by James Joyce, a short story from his collection Dubliners, published in 1914.

Barmbrack comes studded with surprises. Traditionally bakers mixed tokens into the batter. Discover the pea (or bean) in your slice and you’re heading for singledom, while the finder of the ring can expect to be married within the year. Find a coin and look forward to a prosperous future—unlike the person who bites into a piece of cloth. They face hard times.

Raisins and sultanas are essential, but otherwise it’s up to you. I like dates, mixed citrus peel and the tang of currants. Some recipes call for glacé cherries, which look pretty, but I prefer my loaf without. The recipe I use adds chopped walnuts, others chopped almonds. Again, up to you. The main thing with whatever dried fruit combination you go for, is that you soak it in strong black tea, preferably overnight.

I’m not much of a spirits drinker, but I’ve got a heavy hand when it comes to the whisky. My Women’s Weekly recipe lists one tablespoon of brandy. A few barmbracks ago, and with no brandy in the house, I turned to a long-unopened gift, a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky. Splashed in a generous ¼ cup. Given the loaf’s Irish ancestry I should probably use Irish whiskey (with its additional ‘e’) but once cooked, I doubt anyone will be able to tell the difference.

Before chemical raising agents were available, barmbracks would have been leavened with yeast. Modern recipes use baking powder or self-raising flour. Some recipes suggest nutmeg or a pinch of mixed spice. And happily for anyone on a low-cholesterol diet, this is a fatless cake. It contains no butter, margarine or oil, and only a single egg. Although slices are generally buttered, a good barmbrack is moist enough to enjoy plain.

Be careful not to overbake or you’ll end up with a dry loaf. If the top looks to be going too dark towards the end of its time in the oven, cover it with foil. Once cool, resist—if you can—the temptation to eat it immediately. Wrap your barmbrack in layers of baking paper and foil and keep for a day or two before cutting into it.

A slice of Irish tea loaf, a cup of tea, a good book. One of life’s—and lockdown’s—deep pleasures.

Here’s James Joyce again:

When the cook told her everything was ready she went into the women’s room and began to pull the big bell. In a few minutes the women began to come in by twos and threes, wiping their steaming hands in their petticoats and pulling down the sleeves of their blouses over their red steaming arms. They settled down before their huge mugs which the cook and the dummy filled up with hot tea, already mixed with milk and sugar in huge tin cans. Maria superintended the distribution of the barmbrack and saw that every woman got her four slices. There was a great deal of laughing and joking during the meal …

Wow. Four slices!

Airline lounge food

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought out my Bossy Girl persona. On the bus last week I told a guy who repeatedly sneezed into his hand that he needed to get a mask and some tissues and use them.

That encounter with Mr Sneezy got me thinking about airport lounges where Bossy Girl has form. Specifically the etiquette of their food service and the many occasions I’ve asked men—and it is almost invariably men—to use tongs and not put their hands into the biscuit jar or the salad bowl.

Until coronavirus pretty much put an end to overseas and interstate travel I flew quite a lot—for work and for family reasons. Because I’m scared of flying I decided to try anything that might lessen my anxiety. Hence a Qantas Club membership. And yes, sitting in the lounge with a cup of tea or a glass of champagne does—did—help.

Emirates lounge, Dubai

Lounges are small—and sometimes not so small—oases away from the noise and bustle of busy airports. We don’t brandish our boarding passes hoping for haute cuisine. Just an OK coffee, a plate of something tasty and not too unhealthy, maybe some fresh fruit or a glass of wine. I think of it as stocking up before the onslaught of in-flight meals—some species of hot goo, mystery desserts, cheese and crackers, all to be negotiated with plastic cutlery and insufficient space.

Curiously, bizarrely, of all the things I could be missing because of changes brought about by the pandemic, my thoughts keep drifting to airline lounges. What’s that about? A longing for their DIY toasties and bite-sized squares of cake? A desire to fork slices of watermelon onto a saucer and peer into vats of soup? No, of course not. My nostalgia for airport lounge catering is about a deeper sense of loss. About an identity shift to a grounded self.

If you plan on taking a trip somewhere in the distant-possibly-never future, chances are the airport lounge will be a very different experience. No more pouring yourself juice from a communal jug. No more shared utensils. No more self-serve buffets. What will airline lounge food look like in a Covid-19 or (hopefully) post Covid-19 world? I’m seeing table service, boxed meals, packaged titbits and a lot of cling film.

Food offered in lounges serving overseas flights will still have to accommodate passengers whose body clocks are in different time zones. That means breakfast cereal at 7:00 pm, a selection of ‘any-time’ snacks, and again, everything dished up in individual, hermetically sealed portions.

Emirates lounge, Dubai

Here are my airport lounge culinary highlights: A freshly cooked, non-meat char kway teow in Singapore. Fragrant, almond stuffed dates from the Emirates lounge in Dubai. Barista-made flat whites in many a Qantas domestic lounge.

The lowlights: something ultra sweet with a sausage in it and tea made with tepid water in a lounge operated by an American carrier.

For a long time airline lounges with white napkins and curated wine lists let us hold on to the idea that there was still something glamorous and golden age about air travel. Even while you’re sitting there surrounded by crumbs and unidentified squashed things on the carpet, watching an old episode of Flight of the Conchords on your iPad.


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

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.