Gone (back) to seed cake

‘Anything further I can get you, my lady? Cake of any kind?’
‘Cake?’ Lady Selina thought about it, was doubtful.
‘We are serving very good seed cake, my lady. I can recommend it.’
‘Seed cake? I haven’t eaten seed cake for years. It is real seed cake?’
‘Oh, yes, my lady. The cook has had the recipe for years. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.’
Henry gave a glance at one of his retinue, and the lad departed in search of seed cake.

That exchange is from Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. Although seed cake was a teatime staple in Victorian literature—it’s mentioned in Jane Eyre and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, to give but two examples—it had fallen off the menu by 1965 when At Bertram’s Hotel was published.

Caraway isn’t a romantic spice like vanilla. Nor an exotic one like nutmeg or cardamom. It’s a workaday flavour, a home-grown plant found in gardens, fields, and wild across Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. One of the world’s oldest seasonings, it was described by Dioscorides in the third volume of his pharmacopoeia; the roots were eaten in Roman times; it is named in the writings of Arabic scholars al-Idrisi and Ibn al-Baitar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and its use as a culinary spice probably dates from around that time.

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Tunisian harissa recipes often list caraway, and I’ve heard of its occasional use in Indian dishes, but for me it’s the quintessential taste of central and northern Europe. Infused in vodka. Adding depth to classic stews like goulash and bigos. Paired with rye bread, farmer’s cheese, root vegetables, pork, potatoes, cauliflower, apples and cabbage. Especially cabbage. Red, white, curly and flat.

The Polish word for caraway, kminek, also translates as cumin, and these two spices are often mixed up—linguistically. (I disagree with the authors of Polish Heritage Cookery who claim the two are ‘almost identical in taste and may be used interchangeably’.) In French caraway is called carvi as well as meadow cumin (cumin de prés) and sometimes mountain cumin. Online I’ve seen it referred to as Persian cumin. In point of fact, caraway doesn’t play nicely with a number of ingredients, and it really dislikes fennel. Both plants may be members of the same botanic family, but in the kitchen garden their mutual antipathy means they each hinder the growth of the other.

In Latin, caraway is Carum carvi. It belongs to the Umbelliferae or Apiaceae family—a.k.a. the parsley or carrot family in common parlance. A large entity of some 3,000 species found mostly in northern hemisphere temperate regions. Their defining characteristic—to the layperson—is the inflorescence, which is typically a number of short flower stalks which splay out from a common point like the ribs of an umbrella. Hence Umbelliferae.

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Some species are toxic, the most famous example being the hemlock that killed Socrates, but others are popular vegetables (carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel) and herbs (parsley, chervil, dill, coriander). And a few have been valued as folk remedies and ornamentals.

Carum carvi likes sun but is otherwise an easy-going plant and will thrive in most soils. Unlike some of its relatives, it isn’t a declared weed in Australia.

We call them seeds, but technically they are the dried fruit of the plant. Beautiful to look at: striped, crescent-shaped, in subtle shades of dun and brown. But caraway is a polarising spice, disagreeable to some, delectable to others. Me, I like its complexity, its aniseedy, vaguely citrusy aroma.

Caraway may be a key flavour of Mitteleuropa, but it’s also the signature ingredient in that old-fashioned English staple, the seed cake. According to Andrea Broomfield’s Food and Cooking In Victorian England, seed cakes originated in East Anglia during the sixteenth century. They were traditionally served by farmers’ wives to the labourers at harvest and seeding times. And not only cake. Shakespeare refers to caraway in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 when small-time landowner Shallow offers Falstaff

‘ … a last year’s pippin [a variety of apple] of my own graffing,
with a dish of caraways, and so forth … ’

My parents and other grown-ups liked seed cake. Children didn’t. I remember them—the cakes not our parents—hanging around in the cupboard for weeks, dry as dust and just about as exciting. English respectability in a cake tin.

Why were they always so dry?

Call it nostalgia, but seed cake has hit the comeback trail. Last month I decided to give it another try; as an adult I’ve come to like those plainer cakes that go so well with cups of tea. I researched a few recipes in older cookbooks and in newspaper archives—looking in particular at publications from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—and picked up a few tips along the way. A West Australian newspaper from 1924 suggests that before you introduce caraway seeds into your cake mixture, you bruise them to release their flavour. My own tip is to remember that when it comes caraway seeds, less is definitely more.

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Sample given to the Science Museum of Victoria by the Indian Government in 1887

The recipe I like most is Nigel Slater’s ‘delightfully understated cake’. His addition of ground almonds keeps it moist without overwhelming the caraway which is after all seed cake’s main game. And although he advises readers not to fiddle with the basics, I favour the addition of half a glass of Madeira or other fortified wine.

Meanwhile back At Bertram’s Hotel:

‘Another day,’ said Miss Marple to herself, greeting the fact with her usual gentle pleasure. Another day—and who knew what it might bring forth?
She relaxed, and abandoning her knitting, let thoughts pass in an idle stream through her head … fancy serving old-fashioned seed cake! She had never expected, not for a moment, that things would be as much like they used to be … because, after all, Time didn’t stand still …

Mists, mellow fruitfulness—and mushrooms

Autumn has been and gone in the northern hemisphere, and here in Australia we’ve got what’s forecast to be a dry and fiery summer to get though before Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ rolls in. (I’m not a fan of the antipodean summer with its convergence of hot weather and Christmas rah-rah.) So this is an odd time to be writing about mushrooms.

What got me thinking about them was the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang. I visited the city at the tail end of the 1990s, and I’ve kept an eye on the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) ever since. According to the skinniest book in my collection, Best Recipes of Pyongyang by the Cooks Association of the DPRK, ‘The speciality foods of Pyongyang where the immemorial history and brilliant culture are prouding themselves show the advantage of the Korean dishes for their taste, nutrient and pharmaceutical value.’ This, let’s call it culinary nationalism, was a feature of my trip. And it’s culinary nationalism that echoes through press releases from the state-run news agency (KCNA) about the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang, which opened last year.

All manner of rumours and fantastical tales emanate from North Korea. I read somewhere that a farmer is breeding giant mushrooms weighing up to 20 kilos apiece! No photos alas, but the story reminds me of the creepy 1963 Japanese horror film Matango, a.k.a. Fungus of Terror or Attack of the Mushroom People. As does this widely circulated picture of Kim Jong-un at a mushroom plant built by Korean People’s Army Unit #534.

Kim Jong-un gets up close with mushrooms

Kim Jong-un gets up close with mushrooms. Photo: Rodong Sinmum (Workers’ Newspaper)

While nation-building narratives of fungal development and prowess feature scientists and technical staff, their roles are secondary. It’s Kim Jong-un who is the undisputed hero, urging farmers to make North Korea a ‘mushroom kingdom’.

Yet the Marshal’s curious passion for mushrooms is perhaps not so curious when you consider that Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel have a long history of gathering, cultivating and cooking mushrooms.

When I lived in Seoul in 1998/9 I’d finish teaching my 8:00 am class at the university and head downhill to the local Huksok-dong market. It was an old-fashioned place; a professor once told me it reminded him of the markets of his childhood before the Korean War. I imagine it’s now gone—or been modernised. This description of it comes from my notebook of the time:

Huksok-dong Market is narrow alleys, uneven flagstones and puddles. Improvised lighting of a wattage that could make everything seem romantic and sometimes does. It’s higgledy-piggledy, plastic bowls of kimch’i, stalls pumping steam and dishing up dumplings to schoolgirls in navy blue uniforms. It’s dim and dank. It’s warm and vivid. It smells of pancakes, toasted sesame, doughnuts, bean paste, fish and drains. Paths disappear around corners and into shadow. It’s old women squatting beside household wares stacked high and windows streaked with the memory of a thousand cigarettes. Hard sell, hard work, hands red-raw. It’s a female domain in a very male-centred country. (The glass ceiling is still very thick in Korea.) It’s how much? Watch your step! What’s that? 갑 사함니다 (Thank you). Brass kettles boil atop paraffin heaters. Voices rise. Operas of both the soap and high art variety play out. It’s gills that have only just breathed their last, it’s a sea of greens, and clouds of mushrooms …

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Huksok-dong market, 1998/9

I’d buy large paper bagfuls of shiitake and king oyster mushrooms for a couple of dollars. And in the grotty flat where I was living I’d get the rice cooker going, and on one of my 2 hotplates cook up a stir-fry of mixed mushrooms with garlic and ginger, spring onions and tofu.

Huksok-dong market 1998-9

Huksok-dong market, 1998/9

Scientifically speaking, mushrooms belong to a kingdom all their own. One that includes edible mushrooms, the toadstools of fairytales (the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools is cultural rather than biological), moulds, yeasts, smuts and mildews. Unlike plants, fungi don’t photosynthesise. They feed off organic matter made by other living things.

Looking beyond mushrooms, fungi make bread rise, ferment beer, ripen cheese and produce antibiotics. They’re also agents of plant diseases like Dutch elm, leaf curl, rust and cankers. And indirectly responsible for one of the great migrations of the nineteenth century. We can trace the Irish diaspora back via the great famine and the blight that devastated the potato harvest to a fungus called Phytophthora infestans—albeit one now reclassified as fungus-like rather than a true fungus.

Call me sceptical, but when I see a restaurant offering ‘wild mushrooms’ I think it’s a fair bet they were cultivated. A more accurate translation of menuspeak’s ‘wild mushrooms’ would be ‘includes other varieties besides the usual buttons’. I don’t actually have a problem with this. In fact, given the difficulty of identification—and the risks if you get it wrong—it’s a much safer option.

No wonder murder by mushroom is popular with writers of crime fiction. The best-known book is probably the 1930 epistolary novel The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers and Robert Eustace. There was also an episode of TV’s Midsomer Murders where someone is poisoned with Amanita virosa, a mushroom commonly known destroying angel. A close relative of Amanita phalloides or the death cap.

My mother knew her mushrooms and autumn mornings, especially after overnight rain, she’d head off with a basket and a sharp knife. If the expedition was successful, we’d have soups and omelettes and pies the size of a child’s fist. But my father, who was a conservative eater, always refused them. If the mushrooms weren’t shop-bought, he wasn’t going near them. Eating wild mushrooms, he said, was like playing with fire.

Unlike the foragers of yesteryear we can get fresh mushrooms all year round. Most of those we buy are Agaricus bisporus given different names according to their age and character. Buttons are the youngest, and have been bred for their soft texture and white colour. The portobello (or portabella) is the most mature: a regular mushroom left to grow until it spreads into that big, meaty cap. Swiss browns (known variously as cremini and chestnut mushrooms) are a slightly different strain of the same species, which develops a thin layer of coffee-coloured cells on its cap. Swiss browns have a slightly firmer texture and a richer, earthier flavour than their white relatives.

But it’s not only members of the Agaricus bisporus family. City-dwellers can usually obtain enoki, shiitake, oyster, shimeji and others. In autumn you might also find saffron milk caps and slippery Jacks or boletes at growers’ markets or speciality stores. Yes, Australia’s come a long way from those tinned mushrooms that recipes of the 1960s often call for.

Saffron milk caps and slippery Jacks grow in the coniferous forests around Oberon, about 180 kilometres west of Sydney. The spores came originally from Europe along with the pine seedlings. Even out of (mushroom) season, to step into these forests with their distinctive scent and silence, is like stepping into a fairytale, or into the world of Tolstoy and Mickiewicz. This is a photo I took in the Oberon State Forest of that quintessential toadstool the fly agaric.

Fly agaric at Oberon

The appeal of mushrooms goes beyond the culinary. Quite apart from the hallucinogenic properties of a few species, there is something mysterious, a bit otherworldly about them. David Henry Thoreau compared them to ‘a successful poem,’ Adam Mickiewicz to ‘goblets that all kinds of liquor hold,’ while in the mid-twentieth century the mushroom clouds that billowed from atomic bombs became part of our visual lexicon.

The wild European mushroom I miss most is the chanterelle. I’ve bought them dried, but they’re not the same. Not even close. Boletus edulis and chanterelle have been called the king and queen of fungal life. Although relatively common in deciduous woodland where their apricot trumpets are easy to spot, chanterelles are rare or non-existent in Australia.

In Poland and Russia, foraging for mushrooms is a national craze. During the Second World War and the subsequent communist era, when food shortages were the norm, wild mushrooms added nutrition and much-needed flavour to a dreary diet. But mushrooming parties were popular way before then. You’ll find a lot of mushrooms in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Take this example: the intellectual Koznyshev wants to ask Varenka to marry him, but loses his nerve and asks her instead … about mushrooms.

‘What is the difference between a white boletus and a birch mushroom?’
Varenka’s lips trembled with agitation as she replied:
‘There is hardly any difference in the top part, but the stalks are different.’
As soon as these words were out of her mouth, both he and she understood that it was all over, that what was to have been said would not be said.

Mushrooming is also a popular pastime in Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz’s epic poem about the country life of the Polish and Lithuanian gentry in the early nineteenth century. And mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa) is a Polish classic. My recipe contains a few unorthodox ingredients, but hey, it’s a peasant dish, everyone’s got their own version. And I like to spice up Polish cooking, which is often a bit bland for my taste.

I’ve cut back on the butter and sour cream to make a healthier version of the traditional recipe.

1½ cups of dried mushrooms (chanterelles or porcini)
1 cup fresh mushrooms

Mushroom soup can easily become a rather unappetising sludge-grey colour. If possible I use chanterelles and button mushrooms to minimise this.

About 1½—1¾ litres chicken or beef stock. Or vegetable stock if you want a vegetarian soup
2 x bay leaves
1 x level tablespoon butter
1-2 x tablespoons olive oil (a light–tasting variety works best)
1 x yellow onion, finely diced
2 x tablespoons of flour or cornflour

Sometimes I thicken the soup with potatoes instead of flour.

Pinch of nutmeg
2-3 tablespoons of sour cream (optional)
Salt and lots of white pepper to taste
Chopped dill or parsley and freshly-ground black pepper to serve

Soak dried mushrooms in cold water for several hours. Chop fresh and soaked mushrooms into slices or small pieces. Put mushrooms, bay leaves, stock and a cup of the soaking liquid into a pot. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer for a good couple of hours to get that intense mushroom flavour. If you’re thickening with potatoes, add them about half way though the cooking and encourage them to break up. Sauté onions in the butter and oil until golden and tender. Add to the pot. Along with the nutmeg and seasoning. (In a small bowl, mix cornflour with a ladle or two of the hot soup and whisk until smooth—if thickening this way. Stir it into the soup.) Remove from heat and add the sour cream if you’re using it. Garnish with chopped dill or parsley and some freshly-ground black pepper.

Back in Pyongyang scientists and mycological researchers have apparently developed a fortifying mushroom drink. According to the KCNA ‘This natural drink is very effective in enhancing physical ability of sports persons and recovering from their fatigues.’ The state news agency previously informed us that North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, both ‘worked heart and soul to provide the people with tasty nutritious mushroom’. So now you know.

My Life in Cookbooks—again

Last Friday my radio feature My Life in Cookbooks won the 2014 AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild) Award for Best Original Radio Script. It’s always a special honour to have work recognised by your fellow writers. Plus I have a soft spot for My Life in Cookbooks; I’d like to parlay it into a book at some point …

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My Life in Cookbooks was produced by Leah Redfern for ABC RN’s 360documentaries program. The sound engineer was Russell Stapleton and it was first broadcast in August 2013. Perhaps this win means it will get another broadcast? In the meantime, you can download My Life in Cookbooks here.

I like my leaves cooked

Café spinach is tricky. I’ve learnt to ask now before ordering: is the spinach cooked or raw? Because I love it cooked but dislike it raw. I agree a hundred per cent with Mark Bittman, who wrote in The New York Times a couple of years ago, that Spinach is a Dish Best Served Cooked.

Spinach: does anyone really love eating it raw?

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I imagine those mixed leaf salads every café and bistro seems to serve—at least in Sydney—are cheap and easy to throw together. No cooking skill required, and here’s hoping half a plate of miscellaneous leaves will disguise the smallness of the accompanying quiche or pie or whatever. One café lunch—before I got wise to the raw spinach thing—I ordered smoked salmon. When it arrived you needed a search party to find it amongst the acres of salad leaves.

It would be a real pity if this preponderance of raw leaves put people off spinach because it’s a wonderfully versatile and tasty vegetable. As well as a nutritious one. And it’s so quick to cook. Stir-fry it with garlic and chilli; steam it and serve with pepper, nutmeg, grated Parmesan and the merest dash of butter or light cream; steam and serve cold as a Korean style side-dish with drizzles of sesame oil and soy. Mix it with cheese, egg and parsley in a Turkish börek or a Greek spanakopita. And saag aloo, a dry spinach and potato recipe from northern India is simple to make and a sure-fire favourite.

Spinacia oleracea originated in Persia and the name ‘spinach’ comes via Arabic from an old Persian word aspanākh.

When I was first in Australia, what’s called English spinach wasn’t widely available. I had to substitute silver beet, which is fine in itself (I like all leafy greens if they’re cooked) but it has its own taste and texture and they’re not the same as Spinacia oleracea. Luckily the spinach called English is now in ready supply. Is it Asian cooks and market gardeners we have to thank for this? I bet it is.

The only other thing to say about spinach is that it’s a terrible shrinker. When you cook it, it reduces to less than 15% of its original volume. Which may be why so many restaurants and cafés opt to serve it raw—no shrinkage.

More cheese in art

I was in Amsterdam for a couple of weeks in July. It reminded me how much I’ve always liked the city—although July is not the best time to visit. I was last in the Netherlands about 6 or 7 years ago, and my culinary memories of that stay are packed with bread and sandwiches. This time I wanted to go to town with the cuisines of former Dutch colonies—Indonesia and Surinam in particular. The food and cooking of the Indian subcontinent is everywhere in Britain, so I assumed it would be easy to find plenty of what I was looking for in Amsterdam. Not so. Maybe I was in the wrong part of the city? Maybe the cuisines of its ex colonies haven’t had much impact on Dutch eating and food culture? Maybe I need to do more research before any future trip?

So I more or less gave up on that quest and resigned myself to a fortnight of bread, bread, and more bread. Look, the Dutch do bread well, especially fruit breads, but there really are only so many sandwiches a girl can eat.

Prayer without End

I went to the Rijksmuseum to look at their still lives. Early to avoid the crowds and queues. I found less cheese on the walls this time. This painting of an elderly woman at prayer by Nicolaes Maes is titled Prayer without End. Hmm … could she be praying for a meal that doesn’t involve a lot of bread?

The only other ‘cheese painting’ on display was one from about 1615 by Floris Claesz van Dijk. More generally, I noticed that as well as peel, cracked nuts and half apples, all manner of hungry insects populated these seventeenth century still lives. Reminders of the propinquity of death and decay.

After slim pickings on the cheese in art front I turned my attention to the artistry of cheese shops. The produce on offer was green, red, orange, brownish, almost white, and every shade of yellow. Row upon row of Edam and Gouda flavoured with different herbs, spices and weeds. Given my interest in edible weeds, of course I had to try what was described as a farmhouse lunch cheese made with nettles. And yes, it did taste very good.

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In the absence of Indonesian or Surinamese dishes, I organised my culinary itinerary around fruit breads and cheeses.

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Hazel nuts

In my hierarchy of nuts, hazels are top. Followed by almonds, walnuts, and Brazils—after eating them in Brazil and realising they’re poor travellers. Macadamias are also good, but pecans and pistachios I can take or leave.

Although hazelnuts seem made for chocolate, gelato, praline and all things sweet, they also work well in savoury dishes—with pork, zucchini, green beans or mushrooms. Add a drizzle of hazelnut oil to mushroom risotto just before serving. Stuff zucchini with crushed hazels, breadcrumbs, ricotta and herbs.

Corylus is a genus of about a dozen-plus deciduous trees all native to the Northern Hemisphere. Corylus avellana, the common hazel (or filbert or cob nut) is an understorey tree found from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. One of the first trees to colonise the land after the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, it is a hardy plant, well-adapted to life in colder climates. The trees don’t have a single trunk, but instead a number of branching shoots, which can make them look more like a shrub than a tree. Unless coppiced, they last around 70 years—that’s short-lived by tree standards.

We have a long relationship with the hazel. Norse, Celtic and Roman mythologies identified it as the Tree of Knowledge. Elsewhere it variously aided fertility, warded off evil spirits and divined water. The wood of Corylus avellana is pliant; it could be bent into wattle walls and fences, woven into baskets and planted as hedgerows. While the nuts are a good source of protein and rich in unsaturated fat—one of humankind’s survival foods. In the enlarged and amended 1636 edition of Gerarde’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, he writes that ‘this kernell is sweet and pleasant unto the taste.’ But warns that ‘Hasell Nuts newly gathered, and not as yet dry, containe in them a certaine superfluous moisture, by reason whereof they are windy.’ And not only digestive problems, but also headaches ‘when they be eaten in too great a quantity.’

Hazels from Gerarde's Herball, 1636

Hazels from Gerarde’s Herball, 1636

I grew up with hazelnuts. Kids’ stories about dormice hoarding them for their winter hibernation; picking bunches of yellow catkins (the hazel’s male flowers) to compliment the first snowdrops of spring; roasting the nuts on trays in the oven before grinding them to meal for baking, or to sprinkle on porridge (something I still do); fighting a losing battle with grey squirrels. Trying to gather wild hazelnuts you had to move fast. If you were lucky you might get a handful, but more often than not you’d find grey squirrels had got there first and taken the lot. Oliver Rackham (The History of the Countryside) writes that because of these animals: ‘Hazel, which has shaped our civilisation from prehistoric times, is the most seriously threatened British tree except elms.’ That makes me think of Wordsworth’s Nutting, a blank-verse narrative about a young man’s trek through the woods in search of hazelnuts—written around 1800 before the introduction of grey squirrels to the UK. The poem has a kind of fairytale, Brothers Grimm, quality. After thorns and brambles and ‘pathless rocks’ the young adventurer finds the treasure he’s after.

‘ … the hazels rose
Tall and erect, with milk-white clusters hung,’

Hazelnuts were brought to Australia by early settlers and by returning soldiers and travellers, and planted in a pretty ad hoc manner. The nuts they produced were unsuitable for commercial farming, and for a long time our (modest) domestic demand was met by imported nuts. It was the enthusiasm and pioneering work of a Hungarian immigrant that changed the nuts’ Australian profile. Imre Tokolyi arrived in Melbourne in 1957. To earn a living, he and his wife started baking and selling biscuits. He could find almonds and walnuts to flavour them, but not his favourite hazelnuts—so he decided to grow his own. And in 1981 The Age reported that ‘after 25 years of experiments and dedication, Imre Tokolyi’s dream—to develop hazel nuts as a significant crop in Victoria—is about to come true.’

Here the competition isn’t from squirrels, but nut-loving cockatoos and possums.

A couple of weeks ago I bought some Victorian-grown hazelnuts from The Nut Shop in Sydney’s Strand Arcade. Complex, mellow and very moreish. Plus there’s something I love about those pocket-sized, CBD dried fruit and nut shops—it was a sad day when the Ditters store in Adelaide’s Gawler Place closed.

Of course it’s hard to discuss hazels without mentioning Nutella. Last month I read that the makers of Nutella, the Italian chocolate and confectionary company Ferrero, are investing in a huge hazelnut plantation in the Riverina—sweet news for struggling citrus farmers. I was a fan of Nutella until I checked its ingredients and realised that for all the marketing of it as a healthy breakfast option, it’s about 70% fat and sugar.

I wanted a chocolate hazelnut spread that was lower in sugar, higher in nuts, and with fewer nasties like palm oil. There are heaps of homemade ‘Nutella’ recipes on the internet, but this is what I came up with:

About 170 grams hazelnut butter or spread—one that’s 100% hazels.
50 grams good quality chocolate. I use Green & Black’s organic milk.
1 tablespoon of pure cocoa.

Melt the chocolate, mix well with the hazelnut butter and cocoa. Store in the fridge, but remove about half an hour before you want to eat it.

Let them eat kale

Foods go in and out of fashion. Right now kale and salted caramel are cool—cool being the operative word, because kale thrives in cold weather. It relishes overnight frosts; chilly conditions only strengthen its resistance (to pests) and improve its flavour.

No surprise then that it’s so closely associated with Scotland. There kale, or kail as the Scots usually spell it, not only denotes the vegetable itself, but is also a synonym for broth, or even supper. Not to mention the literary movement dubbed the ‘kail-yard school’. This refers to a group of late nineteenth century novelists, the best-known of whom is J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame, who wrote stories of lowland life in Scots dialect.

Originally from the Mediterranean, grown by the Romans and likely spread by them during the course of their imperial conquests, according to Samuel Johnson, kale wasn’t actually introduced to Scotland until the latter half of the seventeenth century:

‘I was told at Aberdeen that the people learned from Cromwell’s soldiers to make shoes and to plant kail. How they lived without kail, it is not easy to guess; they cultivate hardly any other plant for common tables, and when they had not kail they probably had nothing.’ (Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775)

‘There’s cauld kail in Aberdeen
And castocks in Strathbogie … ’

‘Cauld kail’ is cold soup and ‘castocks’ are cabbage stalks, and those lines are from a song collected by Robert Burns in the latter half of the eighteenth century. A keen collector of lyrics, Burns often revised and extended them with verses of his own.

Kale and cavolo nero, 2013

Brassica at its most basic—that’s kale or borecole as it’s sometimes known. It’s descended from the same wild ancestor as cabbage, but of the two, kale is the more primitive expression. At school we learnt that European peasants of the Middle Ages had a pretty miserable existence and lived on roots and tough, bitter-tasting leaves. Now I’m older and more widely read in history and matters culinary, I know that the roots were root vegetables and the leaves were kale. Not only because kale survives whatever the elements throw at it, but because ‘headed’ or ‘hearted’ cabbages weren’t developed until the end of the Middle Ages.

I have a soft spot for those hardy, northern vegetables. Kale leads me down a dimly-lit path to a library of unusual Scottish words. As well as a hardcore fudge called tablet, there’s dreich which means dreary, as in: It was a grey, dreich November day. Drookit for soaking wet. And my favourite Scottish word, peely-wally, which means pale or off colour.

Dwarf curled Scotch; True Siberian; Red Russian; Winterbor. The names of some kale cultivars signal their cold climate provenance. There’s also a variety called Hungry Gap, the super tall Jersey Walking Stick (which can grow over 3 metres!) and Dinosaur Kale, better known as Cavolo Nero or Tuscan cabbage.

According to Jane Grigson, kale is one of ‘the nastier aspects of the cabbage clan.’ I don’t agree with her, but echoes of that parental refrain ‘eat up your greens’ do surround it. Or did before kale’s makeover. Championed by chefs, celebrities, and celebrity chefs, kale flipped from worthy to trendy. Now it’s everywhere: high end providores, local food fairs, farmers’ stalls, green grocers, even supermarkets.

Until kale’s recent narrative shift it reeked of institutional catering and poverty. Boiled cabbage together with stale air and piss were the signature smells of institution corridors. It was cattle fodder. Or belonged to the foodscapes of the poor: a cheap but nutritious ingredient in Irish colcannon, Portuguese caldo verde, or Dutch boerenkool met worst—kale mashed with potatoes and served with smoked sausage and mustard. It enjoyed a brief respite during the second world war’s Dig for Victory campaign when the public were encouraged to transform gardens, parks and sports fields into allotments to grow vegetables.

Dig for Victory image

With its frilly petticoat leaves, a bunch of curly kale is a tempting purchase. The first time I bought some I ended up not cooking it, but using it in a flower arrangement. The next time, I did some research. Because I found the idea of green shakes or raw salads unappealing, I went looking for older recipe ideas. In The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie from 1909 I found Sir John’s Luncheon Kale which pulverises the cooked leaves and blends them with butter and cream. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Recipes by F Marian McNeill (1929) was an informative read, but suggestions like this one I found as unappetising as Gwyneth Paltrow’s grassy-tasting breakfast juice:

‘Put half an ox head or cow heel into a goblet with three quarts of water. Boil til the fat floats on the top. Take a good stock of kail, wash it carefully and pick it down very small, and put it into the broth … ’

After some experimenting and adapting, I came up with Pasta With Red Hot Kale. It goes like this: Blanche your kale or boil it for a minute, stalks and spines removed. Then cut it up small, and while your pasta (I use rigatoni, fusilli, or penne) is cooking, fry a couple of finely chopped red chillies and 2-3 cloves of garlic in olive oil. Add the kale, and sauté for a few minutes. Stir in ½ teaspoon of paprika—more if you wish. Season. Drain the pasta and add it to the red hot kale. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in some halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, a tablespoon or 2 of crème fraîche and about the same amount of grated Grana Padano. Mix up and serve with shavings of Grana Padano to taste.

Kale for sale at Pyrmont market 2013

Charles Darwin was fascinated by cabbages and their kin. ‘Every one knows how greatly the various kinds of cabbage differ in appearance,’ he wrote inThe Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication. Later warning of their reckless promiscuity: ‘great care must be taken to prevent the crossing of the different kinds.’ If the pollen of the various brassicas intermixes centuries of selective breeding can come undone. Plant a cauliflower—get a load of kale.