The ways of watercress

I like watercress. I like it in sandwiches, sometimes as a single filling, sometimes with Wensleydale or Cheshire cheese. I put it in stir-fries and salads—it plays well with beetroot. I make watercress lasagne, and of course, soup.

‘Watercress is a leafy paradox,’ says a 2006 Australian Government report into the potential for its production. ‘Cool when first experienced and then hot, when chewed.’

As that report points out, watercress is not widely used in this country. In Europe and Asia it’s a popular vegetable sold in shops and markets, but in Australia and New Zealand we’re more likely to encounter it as a weed.

Yet watercress has been part of the culinary repertoire for a long time. It was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s mentioned in a play by Aristophanes (Clouds). The Romans ate it with oil and vinegar and believed its consumption promoted clarity of thought and bold decision-making.

Although watercress was first cultivated in Germany during the sixteenth century, it wasn’t farmed commercially in Britain until the nineteenth. The development of the railway system made it possible to transport carriage-loads of the plant from beds in England’s southern counties to London’s Covent Garden Market. A food of the poor, watercress helped at least one poor girl make her fortune. Eliza James, who earned the nickname the Watercress Queen, began her business career at the age of five hawking bunches of the wild stuff to factory workers. She ended up with a near monopoly supplying the vegetable to London’s restaurants and hotels.

‘I am sorry I cannot give the name of the public benefactor who introduced this wholesome and useful plant [watercress] into our Queensland streams,’ said Mr F M Bayley in a paper read at the Linnaean Society in 1879. ‘But I may take the opportunity of stating that it was propagated in the South Australian watercourses in about 1842 by Mrs S Davenport, a lady who took great interest in horticulture, and to whom the colony is indebted for the introduction of many useful plants.’

A decade later, in another paper, this one entitled Blunders in Acclimatisation, horticulturalist William Clarson wrote ‘Many years ago, seeds of the common watercress were given away from several of the botanic gardens in the colonies, to induce settlers to sow the banks of the creeks and rivers.’

‘Watercress stands alone. It is not quite so individual as celery, but there is nothing to rival it in its own domain.’ In 1896 the Maitland Daily Mercury waxed lyrical. ‘It is eloquent of the charm of its native environment. Nothing else … speaks or sings to the eater, as watercress does, of cool streams and overhanging banks and lush herbage … The spirit of the rivulet abides in its heart.’

How watercress arrived in Australia remains open to debate. Likewise whether it was a deliberate or accidental introduction—or some combination of both. A member of the mustard family Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, also known as Nasturtium officinale, is found in waterways, wetlands, drains and irrigation channels—pretty much anywhere damp and not too hot, in fact. At one stage it was declared a noxious weed in Queensland and it’s listed here in my 2011 edition of Weeds of the South East as widespread in all states.

In many parts of Australia the spread of watercress was curbed by periodic drought. But in cooler, rainier New Zealand watercress thrived unchecked. Such an obstruction did it become that the Province of Canterbury passed the Watercress Ordinance, 1864. Despite stiff penalties for people who ‘wilfully cut loosen or dislodge watercresses or other weeds in or from any river or stream or the banks of any river or stream’ the plant remained a huge problem. Its ‘leaves growing as large as those of a water lily, and the stems as thick as those of a man’s wrist,’ according to Wellington’s Evening Post. While another newspaper complained: ‘The watercress of our breakfast tables, in Europe a mere casual brook-side plant, chokes the New Zealand rivers with stems twelve feet long, and costs the colonists of Christchurch alone £300 a year in dredging their Avon free from it.’

Unlike those nineteenth century New Zealanders I don’t see watercress as a breakfast food. For me it’s a lunchtime sandwich. Or Alexandre Dumas’s winter salad. The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, by all accounts a fine cook, also penned a Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cooking). ‘Le cresson de fontaine est aussi une salade d’hiver, et on l’assaisonne habituellement avec des tranches de betteraves et quelques filets d’olives tournés.’ Watercress is also a winter salad, and is usually seasoned with slices of beetroot and some pitted olives.

I’ll say it again: I like watercress. I like its reliable pepperiness and I like its link with southeast England where I grew up. My mother was an avid forager and I have fond memories of wading into streams with her to gather wild watercress. (If you do pick it wild be careful. If cattle and sheep graze nearby it may host a parasite known as liver fluke and will need cooking or very thorough washing. Mum put vinegar in the water and soaked her wild cress for 10-15 minutes.)

I think my favourite way of eating watercress is as a soup. A lot of recipes use flour and cream or other dairy products. I thicken mine with potatoes. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil and a little butter (omit the butter for a vegan version), add a crushed clove of garlic. While the onions cook, cut up 2 large potatoes and put them into the pot. Add vegetable stock, some parsley, salt, lots of pepper, nutmeg to taste, and cook until the potatoes are soft. Rinse your watercress (you need a couple of bunches) and discard any thick stems. Long cooking robs watercress of its punchy bite, so I blanche it then add it to the pot for just a couple of minutes’ cooking. I use a stick blender to liquidise it—but not too much, I like my watercress soup with a bit of texture.

Catering blends …

There’s something intriguing, slightly mysterious even, about those brands you find only in bulk order places—or hotel rooms.

Years ago as students we schlepped out to this cash and carry barn which sold large quantities at discount prices. Amongst our purchases was a huge tin of catering blend instant coffee. Back then ‘real coffee’ was for special occasions, take away was just taking off and the online marketplace a dot on the horizon. As for that tin of powdery catering blend, it sat on the shelf for months, slowly drying to a hard brown gravel.

Coffee culture has come a long way since that share house instant experience. ‘Real coffee’ is now the norm—and not only in restaurants. In fact, ordering a cappuccino or a short black in a café is usually a safer bet than ordering tea. Café tea can be a hit or miss affair, anything and everything from fragrant loose leaves to a no brand tea bag with a cup of hot water.

Which brings me to Pickwick. Pickwick is a brand I encounter in hotels. There it is next to the kettle—a selection of Pickwick tea bags: English Breakfast, Earl Grey, something green or herbal—alongside packets of sugar, sweeteners and stale biscuits. So I’ve come to equate Pickwick tea with catering blend tea. Although ‘catering blend’ is a label you don’t see so much these days. I’m sure it still exists but it’s probably called something less off-putting.

‘The monthly meetings of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association were held in a large room … Previous to the commencement of business, the ladies sat upon forms, and drank tea, till such time as they considered it expedient to leave off … On this particular occasion the women drank tea to a most alarming extent.’ Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers.

The last time I drank Pickwick it was an English Breakfast blend in a pale blue sleeve. Described as ‘a full-bodied lively and brisk black tea … to recharge your body at any time of the day.’ It tasted neither awful nor particularly good. But I was curious about the brand—and why I only ever happened on it in hotels. I discovered that …

Pickwick is part of the Douwe Egberts’ empire. The Dutch company has been selling tea since 1753, but the name Pickwick didn’t appear on the scene until 1937. It was apparently chosen by the wife of the then director; she was a fan of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. No doubt the PR machine thought the name would conjure positive images of Victorian firesides and Merrie Olde England—which as Dickens so vividly showed, wasn’t so merry if you were poor.

The Pickwick Papers was published in 1837. It’s the loosely related adventures of Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, as he travels through the English countryside with his companions. Dickens knew hunger, and his first novel revels in eating and drinking. Pigeon pie, broiled ham, oysters, cheese, hot buttered toast, wine, coffee—and tea.

I remember discussing food in literature during a writing workshop. Food as metaphor, overcooked adjectives, whether recipes belong in fictional texts. The tea provided by the organiser was a catering brew rather than deluxe Assam but the conversation was rich and malty.

Economy packs, generics, home brands, phantom brands, catering blend …

Perhaps the hotel industry is Pickwick’s niche? Its target clientele? I’ve not seen it for sale in any of my local supermarkets or grocery stores. But you can order it from Officeworks, under Catering Supplies (Tea, Coffee & Beverages) at a bulk buy price. Which kind of proves my point.

‘”You’ll take some tea, Mr. Pickwick?” said the old lady, with irresistible sweetness.
“Thank you, I would rather not,” replied that gentleman.’ Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers.

Eating New Zealand—tinned spaghetti and meat, meat, meat

New Zealand’s (then) Prime Minister opened a can of worms when he opened a can of spaghetti and put it on top of his homespun pizza. Back in April this year, Bill English cooked dinner for his family and posted photos of his creation on social media. Culinary uproar ensued. Some people said a pizza topped with bacon, pineapple chunks and tinned spaghetti was an abomination. Others said no, it was a South Island classic, quick to concoct and budget-friendly to boot. Cynics suggested it was an attempt to divert public attention from more serious political issues.

Yes, frozen pizzas and ready-meal spaghetti bear scant relation to their Italian origins, but the New Zealand PM’s effort was—let’s say in a class of its own. To me it was kiddie food. I remember spaghetti on toast served up on school camping trips, and there was a time when my brother and I considered Heinz tinned ravioli the height of sophistication and were forever pestering our mother to buy it.

I was in new Zealand last month on a research trip, and I have to say I found it a very meaty place. I eat fish and some seafood, but if you didn’t, or were vegan, eating out would be tricky. Across a range of eateries, meatless options were scarce. Menus often had just a single vegetarian offering, while dishes that are traditionally meatless—or could easily be made so—included meat. A Wellington restaurant, for example, had French onion soup—with added bacon bits. Why? I make this soup quite often, sometimes using a light vegetable stock, sometimes not. Bacon is not only totally unnecessary, it actually detracts from the delicious economy of the dish—a peasant recipe composed of onions, stale bread, cheese, and water.

There’s always tinned spaghetti …

I flew into Christchurch and early next morning boarded the bus to Dunedin. The trip took over five hours and in Oamaru we stopped for a thirty-minute lunch break. The driver directed us to the Lagonda Tea Rooms on Thames Street. It was a Sunday, and the Tea Rooms was one of the few places open. Inside were cabinets of cakes and slices, of sandwiches, pies (most featuring meat of some description) and a variety of things on toast. One of the few vegetarian possibilities was white bread spread with canned spaghetti and grilled cheese. I passed on the savoury options and went instead for half a piece of ginger crunch and a cup of tea.

In between working in the University of Otago library, I walked and caught local buses around Dunedin and out to nearby towns. I took note of the extensive range of old-fashioned bakery products (louise cake, lolly cake, Russian fudge, coconut ice and more) and the region’s fantastic secondhand shops. It was in one of those shops that I bought a copy of the 1952 publication The Hostess Cook Book by Helen Cox, a popular New Zealand food writer and broadcaster. On page 91 she has a recipe for ‘Spaghetti en casserole with bacon’. It goes like this:

‘(1) Open a 1-lb. tin of spaghetti and an 11-oz. tin of peas.
(2) Cook 2 eggs until hard (about 15 minutes).
(3) Place half the spaghetti in an oven dish then cover with the peas (well drained from liquid) and the eggs (sliced). Cover with the rest of the spaghetti.
(4) Cut think slices of bread into little triangles and place al over the dish, Cover with bacon rashers (rinds removed). Bake in a moderate over for 20-30 minutes until piping hot and the bacon is cooked and sizzling ..

Is cooking with tinned spaghetti a specifically New Zealand thing? I thought perhaps it was, but no, the Internet—where else?—has a plethora of dishes to make with tinned spaghetti. Everything from omelettes, pies and toasties to chicken spaghetti casserole.

So now you know.

The Book of Thistles

The Book of Thistles is coming …

From the wonderful UWA Publishing, the book will be released this October. More information here.

It fuses essay, monologue, poetry, digressions and archival collage. And there’s a section specifically on thistles as food.

Some plants have sustained empires and sparked wars. Some have ignited public outrage. Think tea, opium, tulips—and thistles. Yes, thistles. In 1852 South Australia passed its Thistle Act, probably the first weed control legislation anywhere in the world.

The word ‘thistle’ refers to a large and widespread group of plants. Several hundred species within the Asteraceae family, plus a bunch of other plants we call thistles—even though technically, botanically, they’re not. Google ‘thistles’ and many of the sites will tell you how to get rid of them. Dig a little deeper, however, and from this weedy territory other narratives begin to emerge.

Part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page, The Book of Thistles is about the cultural and social life of this group of plants we call thistles.

My plaice

I love fish. Sardines, sashimi, smoked haddock chowder, Portuguese bacalhau, Bengali fish curry … but most of all I love plaice. Baked or grilled with a smudge of butter, salt, abundant white pepper, parsley and a lemon wedge. Jazzed up with leeks or a light scattering of chopped olives and anchovies.

‘In the seas of Europe the Plaice is found considerably toward the north, so that it is known along the coasts of Sweden, and in the Baltic. It is also met with in the Mediterranean; but it is nowhere in greater plenty than in a moderate depth of water round the British Islands, where it forms an important object of the trawl fishery.’

That’s from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch. It was published in the 1860s, before warming sea temperatures drove plaice and other species further north.

Plaice from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch, 1862-5

The European plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) is a Northern Hemisphere flatfish. You don’t find it in southern waters or for sale in Australia. So I try to eat my fill on visits to England. When my mother was alive I’d cook fresh fillets or whole fish and serve them with a reduced fat rémoulade (one-third mayonnaise, two-thirds yoghourt, capers and fine-diced pickled gherkin).

More recent trips to England I’ve usually been staying in places with minimal kitchen facilities, so I’ve had to get my plaice-fix ready cooked. Before I discovered the rather wonderful North Sea Fish restaurant and take away during my last visit to London, this usually meant a fish and chip shop.

Grilled plaice at London’s North Sea Fish restaurant, March 2017

Popular fish cooking in the UK has traditionally involved a lot of frying, battering and bread-crumbing. While batter works for end-of-the-pier fish and chips eaten out of newspaper, when it comes to plaice I prefer mine batter-free. Its flesh is soft and delicate, its taste subtle, almost milky. A light, barely-there tempura-type batter might be OK, but thick batter overwhelms the fish. I also like plaice served cold in a Danish style open sandwich with shavings of cucumber.

Plaice is often eclipsed by its rich relatives, sole and turbot. For Jane Grigson ‘the sole is the darling of the sea. Of all the things we eat the greatest stimulus to chefly lyricism’. Plaice she regards as inferior in every respect. It belongs to a Britain of corner chippies, brass bands, Victorian brickwork and laundrettes.

Last month in London I used a laundrette for the first time in years—because along with no means of cooking, the place I was staying had no laundry either. While the dryers tumbled pocket dramas played out. Over the fabric conditioner an Aussie backpacker chatted up an American exchange student. An ex-soldier explained how PTSD made it impossible for him to travel on the underground.

I live a ten-minute walk from Sydney’s fish market. The largest market of its kind in the southern hemisphere, it moved to its current Pyrmont site in 1966. Billingsgate has been London’s fish market since 1699. We went there on a school excursion. Rendezvoused in the pre-dawn dark, climbed aboard the coach and headed to the Italianate building that housed the market before it relocated to the Isle of Dogs in 1982. Inside the slang was Cockney, the light murky and everything smelt fishy. Miss pointed out crates of glistening plaice, cod from the Arctic and boxes of exotica from distant oceans.

Plaice fillets on sale at Waitrose, March 2017

What does a plaice look like? This is William Yarrell’s description from 1836:

‘The character and appearance of the various species of Pleuronectidæ, or Flatfish … are so peculiar and so unique among vertebrated animals as to claim particular attention. The want of symmetry in the form of the head; both eyes placed on the same side, one higher than the other … ’

Yes, they look as if they’ve swum out of a painting by Picasso. One side is white, the other dark and freckled with spots the colour of orange cordial. This makes sense when you know that plaice spend most of their adult life lying sideways on the seabed. The fry resemble those of other fish with two eyes in the usual place, but as they grow, the left eye migrates the other side of their head. And the plaice spends the rest of its life with both eyes staring up at the roof of the ocean, and no way at all of looking down. How did this asymmetry evolve? Even Darwin was baffled.

In a North London charity shop I found a slim hardback The Plaice being the Buckland Lectures for 1949 by R S Wimpenny. It’s one of those old, odd publications you sometimes find on the dustier shelves of secondhand bookshops or under a pile of blankets at a garage sale. One-hundred and forty-five pages inside a green cover. A whole book about the plaice … Wow.

Blastula and gastrula, operculum and optic vessels … It’s too technical, too scientific to be an easy read, but I do learn that concern about overfishing and conservation efforts go back to the reign of King Edward III in the fourteenth century.

Cultures have built culinary mythologies and identities around the cooking and consumption of certain seafoods—Japanese sushi, the bouillabaisse of Marseille, kippers and wild salmon from Scotland. Not so for the plaice. Flat of face, plaice is considered an unremarkable, also-ran sort of fish. Unlike Mark Kurlansky’s cod (A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, 1997) and Donald S Murray’s herring (How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, 2015) plaice didn’t change the world or shape human history.

This recipe for fish soup from 1852’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes highlights Pleuronectes platessa’s lowly status:

‘Cod-fish cuttings, Dutch plaice, skate, dabs, haddocks, cod’s-heads, cod’s tails, or any fresh-water fish you may happen to catch when fishing, conger eels cut in slices, and almost any kind of fish which may come within your means are all more or less fit for making a good mess of soup for a meal … This kind of fish soup will prove the more advantageous near the sea-coast, where inferior kinds of fish are always very cheap.’

Overlooked and under-rated it may be, but plaice remains my number one fish.

Where do rum balls come from?

Proust is boring, but his cakes are memorable.

Marcel’s madeleine is famous. By far and away the best-known portion of his seven-volume novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The narrator/author tastes a petite madeleine steeped in lime-blossom tea and

‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me … this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence.’

The cake triggers an avalanche of memories—of childhood afternoons at his aunt’s house in the country and much else.

My Proustian moment was round and chocolate sprinkled.

A sudden flashback of my mother standing outside a bakery in Potters Bar looking for something she’d never find. Something continental among the rock buns, and sponges bright yellow like their distant bath-time cousins.

A rum ball was the closest thing circa 1969 in Potters Bar—
0utskirts of London
gingerbread houses
streets of—
with extensions over garages
and private hedges.

The rum ball, as its common British name of ‘rum truffle’ suggests, is a small cake that leans towards the chocolate box. They’re a truffle-like confection made from leftover cake, sometimes with a few stale biscuits thrown into the mix, which is crumbled up with melted dark chocolate and rum, rolled into balls, and coated with sprinkles or cocoa.

On my list of favourite spherical foods rum balls are in the top bracket—provided they have the requisite rich, boozy flavour, fudgy texture and aren’t too sweet. Some recipes include dried fruit, glacé cherries or ground nuts. Some eschew the rum to make a suitable-for-children adaptation. Although to my mind, a rum ball without the rum is—well, not a rum ball.

Because they aren’t baked, the alcoholic kick remains. To my nine-year-old self, rum balls were part of the grown-up taste-sphere, along with liqueur chocolates and prawn cocktails. That was their primary appeal.

One rainy morning decades later, I’m eating a rum ball in a Pyrmont café. Remembering not only my mother gazing wistfully into that bakery window, but also Flury’s, Kolkata’s iconic tea-room—scene of another rum ball indulgence. Pondering the cake’s heritage and wondering where it sits in the Australian culinary landscape. Somewhere between the madeiras and shortbreads of England and the tortes of central Europe, perhaps?

Rum balls may be popular in Britain, but they’re also traditional fare in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Were they an ingredient in Australia’s continental shift? Think post-war delis, coffee lounges, pâtisserie and cookbooks featuring stroganoff, schnitzels, strudels and black forest gateau.

This is from 1955, from Maria Kozslik Donovan’s introduction to Continental Cookery in Australia:

‘I hope that this book will be regarded, not as another fancy cookery book destined for the gourmet or the collector, but as a good, down-to-earth companion for the Australian housewife … Most European countries are poor compared with America and Australia; consequently there is more imagination than money used in their cooking.’

What did that word ‘continental’ represent? Sophistication and worldliness? A generalised notion of Europe? Was it a way of acknowledging cultural difference? A more palatable view of migrants?

Rum balls are quick and easy to make and have the ‘no cooking’ advantage. Maybe that’s why they often appeared in those ‘How to Hostess a Party’ articles of the 1950s and 60s. September 1962 The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a five-page guide to ‘Entertaining at Home’. As well as mocha rum balls, recommended recipes included an awful lot of dishes made with packet soups, and advice like this:

‘If you don’t hire help for the occasion try to make sure you and your husband (or co-host friend) are not both out of the room at the same time.’

And

‘Discuss the menu with your husband or a man friend and let him select and order drinks and serve them during the party. It’s your job to see that he has plenty of bottle openers … and clean glasses, and to remove empty glasses unobtrusively for washing.’

A few chocolate sprinkles are all that’s left of my Pyrmont rum ball; my Proustian reverie winds up. I’m pretty sure the Flury’s offering had rum flavouring rather than actual rum, but the ones my mother bought that day from the Potters Bar bakery did have real rum in them. I remember the sales assistant laughing as she explained that no one would get drunk eating them. I remember her voice with its trace of accent—like the presence of a flavour you almost but can’t quite identify.

 

 

 

 

 

A lovely dish of thistles from the archive

I’ve been chasing themes through archives. Always interesting, but one of the things I particularly love about this kind of research is the serendipitous discoveries you make along the way.

Because of the project I’m working on at the moment, my culinary findings have a thistly focus.

Under the heading Lovely dish of thistles! The Australian Women’s Weekly of 7 December 1966 published correspondence from several readers who cooked with weeds and wild plants. My transcript of the two letters that mention thistles is below, and here’s the link to the whole column.

‘Like Mrs. Miller Foster, who cooks stinging nettles, I, too, like some of the natural foods. Some people steam milk-thistles, but I prefer the young leaves cut up and added to lettuce salad. Dock-weed pie was a favorite with the old pioneers when rhubarb was not available. The stems are cut up, boiled with a little water with the addition of sugar and lemon juice or tartaric acid, then put into a pie-dish and covered with a pastry crust. Stalks of rhubarb added give more flavour and colour.
$2 to Mrs. S. Campbell, Toowoomba, Qld.’

‘My item of free food is young milk-thistle leaves. Cut up like lettuce, with onion and apple added, it is a tasty salad dish. It is also good eaten in a sandwich with cheese.
$2 to Mrs. L. E. Collins, Wallangarra, Qld.’

Both women call the thistles they use ‘milk-thistles’. Variegated thistles (Silybum marianum) are often called milk-thistles, and while you could eat their young leaves, I suspect the thistles these Queensland cooks are collecting are sow thistles.

thistle-semoline-ad-nz-1919

Advertisement for Thistle Semolina from New Zealand’s Wanganui Herald of December 1919. If you’d like to read the text of the ad, here’s the link to it.