Rachel Bennett

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Vicks VapoRub

In Food on December 28, 2010 at 19:48

I tried all the tricks: steaming mugs of lemon, honey, and ginger, Echinacea, vitamin C, large hot toddies. . . the usual panoply of cranky cold cures, without success. I awoke this morning with streaming nose and angry throat, and that foggy, distant feeling that envelopes body and mind in the grip of a full blown cold.

It is a particularly irritating malady; it beats you up but leaves you standing, swaying yet vertical. Not serious enough to warrant a day in bed, a cold pesters you, persistent and depressing.

And then it plays games with your appetite. A proper flu or other illness steals the appetite so that you don’t think of food for days. A simple head cold on the other hand does nothing to curb the body’s hunger. But then, when you eagerly dig into a stew or rip off a hunk of bread, it is a thorough disappointment: not only are you obliged to eat awkwardly, alternately chewing and breathing stertorously through the mouth, but the solid concrete in your nose crushes all flavor from your food. And it is during these disgruntling times that you realize how large a role the olfactory sense plays in the enjoyment of food and how miserable eating is without it.

Under such circumstances, I turn to one constant for comfort, one product that reeks of warmth and succor and sustenance. My mum’s jar of Vicks VapoRub must be at least 30 years old. The label is stained and torn, the jar, rusting delicately, is covered with a layer of gradually accumulated grime. Yet none of this wear and tear interferes with the potency of this product. Unscrew the lid and it reveals the same luminescent green goo as always. And despite the years it has the same soothing effect on my nerves. The thick aroma packs enough punch to battle through the concrete in my nose and transport me back to a little bedroom and my hot little forehead, slightly sweaty hands and mum, gently rubbing Vicks onto my chest. It comforts me bodily, the way bread and chocolate and coffee comfort me at other times.

Once I had a boyfriend who loved Vicks. Often, we would be lying in bed in that delicious thoughtless silent way that only couples can achieve, he would reach over for his jar of the vaporous rub and massage a liberal quantity onto his chest. The first time I thought he was sick, but on questioning he shrugged. “I like the smell. My mom used to rub it onto my chest.”

When he said this I felt a strange mixture of affinity and faint distress. Affinity because I too had those memories and it is lovely to discover those odd small similarities in another, and faint distress because suddenly his mother was in the room, conjured through that powerful scent, and nobody wants to be confronted with a mother, albeit a phantom mother, at such times.

So when I smell Vicks it is now thick with layers: First the little bedroom, hot water bottles, blankets and eucalyptus, and then that grownup boy, lying on his back with his blond hair and his beautiful face, and how lovable and exasperating I found his sweetness and the soft world he wove around himself.


How To Boil An Egg

In Food on December 16, 2010 at 10:28

If the mince pie is an edible encapsulation of Christmas, it is not the only food with distinct associative power. Each of us hold a different compendium of culinary symbols. For me toast is home, chocolate is desire, carrot cake is Easter, ice cream is a hot, breathless Pennsylvania summer, and the list continues.  Foods symbolize different things at different times, some have stronger, more permanent associations while others are weak or nebulous.

Eggs are not, in my own treasury of gastronomic symbolism, particularly evocative in themselves. Yet a boiled egg is nothing more or less than purity itself. Think about it. When you crack open and eat an egg you are imbibing potentiality, the unborn expression of life itself. Perhaps this is why eggs have long been associated with Easter.  Before this vernal festival was appropriated by Christians, it signified similar notions of rebirth in many parts of the northern hemisphere. The English word “Easter” is derived from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring. The earth softens, shoots push above the soil, and birds brood over newly laid eggs.

Considered in this light, the thought of eating an egg quivers between the horrific and the beautiful. You are eating life before it has lived, body before it is born. It is a simultaneously terrible and sacred act. And on a busy morning as you scrabble towards work, it’s just an egg.

Yet no matter how frenetic my early morning dash, the wholeness and purity of a boiled egg is always a pleasure. It injects a sort of saintliness into my day, that fragile, sand brown orb. You must sink it gently into the spitting water and then watch to make sure it hasn’t cracked. Leave it boiling for five minutes (four minutes for a small egg and five and a half for an extra large one) and then fish it out and run it under cold water for a few seconds to prevent further cooking.

I discovered the virtues of the five minute egg while living in the home of a wonderful Swedish woman called Fanny. One morning I was pottering about with my usual fare of toast and coffee, when she stopped, a plump orb in hand. “Would you like a five minute egg?” she asked in her lilting Swedish accent. I nodded, intrigued.

It was genius. Five minutes in boiling water produces an egg that is a rainbow of texture. The outer rim of white is hard without being rubbery, and as you move towards the center it becomes gradually softer until you reach a molten golden core. It is important to note, however, that virtually all beauty, both visual and gastronomic, that an egg possesses relies on it being free-range and of very high quality. Most eggs you buy at the supermarket are vacuous, with pale, anemic yolks and little flavor. They require dousing with salt or dunking with soldiers to be made palatable. A good egg, on the other hand, is utterly lovely on its own. I eat mine slowly, with a tiny spoon so as to prolong that delicious, dark necessity of nourishment.

Mince Pies and a Drunken Lamb

In Food on December 12, 2010 at 23:34

If there is one item with the power to collect and distill my associations of Christmas it is the mince pie. Each year my British mother, not generally a nostalgic cook, made them with religious, even fanatical devotion. From the first of December till New Year we were fed a seemingly endless stream of mince pies, piping hot from the oven and fat with a melting dollop of brandy butter. We’d eat them after dinner, when friends came around for tea, and even for breakfast.

Sometimes I would gleefully discover a mince pie or two tucked into my December lunch boxes along with a small pot of brandy butter.

“What have you got there,” my teacher asked one day, squinting over my little meal.

“It’s brandy butter, Mr. Lehman,” I replied and watched with satisfaction as his expression became doubtful. I was about ten years old and dimly aware that brandy was something very grown up indeed. Sometimes, to prove my maturity, I didn’t bother with the pies but simply ate the heady butter straight from its pot, a pudding in its own right.

Perhaps it was the drawn-out, rhythmical process of preparing mince pies that so branded them into my sense memory. It began months before Christmas, after the torpor of a Pennsylvania summer had lifted. With a renewed vigor Mum set out her gargantuan mixing bowl and piled in dark and golden raisins, apples and almonds. This was combined with brandy, spices, sugar and butter and then heaped into jars and shoved to the back of the fridge. As December dawned the jars were extracted again and the contents spooned into tiny pastry-lined muffin tins. Mellowed by age the mincemeat transformed into a deep, potent conglomeration. Biting through its flaky, butter-rich cocoon, each mouthful reverberated not just around your taste buds but throughout your whole body.

Such is my continuing obsession with good quality mince pies that I confess to a severe case of snobbery on the subject. The store bought version simply won’t do. Over sugared and generally encased in a thick, leaden crust, they might look flashy but leave me feeling cranky and cheated. As a friend once complained of a bad meal, it’s all very well to imbibe a mountain of calories in an orgy of gastronomic pleasure, but to add chichos to your hips and not enjoy it—a horrific thought!

And mince pies are certainly not low in fat. The fruit mixture is coated in suet; the pastry is folded with butter; and the pie is finished with further lashings of brandy butter. Yet all this fat is unsurprising when you remember that it is an old recipe, growing out of a time when the struggle was to put flesh on the bones rather than take it off and butter a luxury item, well-suited to the conspicuous extravagance of Christmas.

We had several dozen mince pies for my Christmas party last night. And to wash down them down I made an equally archaic drink called lamb’s wool. Sources differ on the authentic ingredients for this wintry warmer, but all include hard cider or ale, spices, and the flesh of roasted apples. This last curious addition is what creates the lamb’s wool effect, as the tender chunks of apples float to the top and form a layer reminiscent of a sheep’s coat. Unsatisfied after an exploratory sip, I added a wallop of brandy and an extra pinch of ginger. This did the trick, producing a hot and powerful punch. If anyone had the beginnings of a cold before the party, this potion must had asphyxiated any conspiring germs on contact.

So here is my variation on lamb’s wool. I’ve decided to christen it . . .

The Drunken Lamb

Makes enough for an enthusiastic crowd

3 liters of hard cider
300 grams of sugar
350 milliliters of brandy
12 bramleys or other cooking apples
1 whole nutmeg, grated
1 stick cinnamon
3 cloves
2 teaspoons ground ginger

Preheat the oven to 125C. Quarter the apples, cut out the cores, and arrange on a baking tray. Cook for about 30 – 45 minutes or until tender and puffy. Allow to cool a little and then scrape the flesh into a bowl, discarding the skins.

Heat the sugar with a little of the cider until dissolved. Add the spices along with the rest of the cider and heat very gently until hot. Add the brandy. Finally whisk in the roasted apple fluff and ladle into mugs.

Eating a Solas

In Food on December 7, 2010 at 23:44

Yesterday some friends and I took a day trip to the attractive town of Bath. It was a wonderfully wintry experience. The air was unyielding and bitter, and a thick mist shrouding the building and seeping through the streets.We wandered around a twisting Christmas Market, little wooden booths brimming with jewelry, toys, and pottery. These were for the most part curiously uninspiring, often hideous to a degree only craft fairs can achieve. But there were also enticing booths overflowing with cheeses, great wheels of Stitchelton and Cheddar. Others sold locally distilled spirits, liqueurs, cider and beer. We nibbled and sipped and used the cold as an excuse to indulge in mulled wine before noon.

Lunch was a letdown as we were too cold to care and stumbled into the first cafe sighted. So while we revived lifeless toes and fingers, we did what those with any interest in food tend to do: eat one meal while discussing the next. After some deliberation we decided to opt for a place called The Moon and Sixpence. I was sold on the name alone.

The room was warm and candlelit with chunky wood and bold slabs of stone everywhere. It felt strangely out of place in Bath, better suited to Aspen or Vail. We sat down with menus and I thought about M. F. K. Fisher. In her autobiographical classic The Gastronomical Me she writes that she “learned for the first time that a menu is not something to be looked at with hasty and often completely phony nonchalance.” And at that moment she began to concentrate on the words. The writer Peter Mayle would agree. He eulogizes about that moment during a Sunday lunch when everyone has received a menu and is examining it as though it contained the key to eternal youth. Glancing around the table I felt in good company; my friends were silent, brows furrowed and heads bowed.  But for the surroundings it looked like we were sitting an exam.

My eyes moved over the room to where, not far from our table, the waitress was seating a man. People watching is the best of restaurant pastimes, especially when you need distraction from a growling stomach. As usual I wondered about him. Tall, middle aged, and out to dinner all alone. Years ago I would have felt immediately sorry for him, blinded by my own insecurities into thinking it utterly impossible to be happy eating alone in public.

That was before I went to Spain when I was eighteen. I arrived with a week to spare before starting the flamenco dance course. Those first few days were interminable and as lonely as any I’ve known since. I knew no one in Granada. And in that most social of cities, where everyone moved about in great gaggling groups of grandmothers and shrieking babies and handsome men, my loneliness was thrown into miserable relief. I lost pounds, to my great satisfaction, in those few days, because I couldn’t bring myself to sit down a solas to a meal in the harsh light of public. So I wandered interminably around the city, up to the white washed Albyzin and down to the plaza again, subsisting on baguettes and coffee, and few of those because of the ashes in my stomach.

Then, on about the fourth day, I became very angry. Suddenly I couldn’t stand Spaniards and their dense, riotous sociality. I was sick of venturing into a bar only to have the six men laughing together turn and stare. Above all I was hungry. Never one to suffer diets with grace, I shoved my pride into my suitcase, threw my head back in defiance, and hurled into a restaurant.

It was a turning point, that first meal alone. Perhaps I was lucky because my waiter was a sweet, clean-cut boy, not much older than myself. When he came to take my order I burned at first, wondering what he thought. But he smiled and handed me the menu with a flourish. He was impressed with my Spanish and asked chattily where I was from. Relaxing into the chair, I chose the cheap yet copious menu del dia, with wine thank you, such was my defiant mood. Somewhere around dessert I realized I was enjoying myself. An hour later I swanned out, waving merrily to my waiter and feeling, aided by wine, like a chic and worldly woman, drunk with the fullness of my stomach and infused with an unfamiliar confidence.

As we left The Moon and Sixpence, I smiled at the man on his own. He smiled back and in that brief exchange I felt I’d been right. It was a quiet contented smile, a solitude without loneliness.

Pop-Up Appeal

In Food on December 5, 2010 at 12:35

It was 6:30 pm, dark and cold, on an unkempt street in Hackney. We stood shivering and peering around. “Where is it?” I wondered aloud.

Then, as we stood there perplexed, a man with a shopping bag scuttled up to a door on the other side of the street and slipped through. Elisabeth nodded, “it must be there . . . yes, yes, I remember that name.” Above the door a faded sign announced, in that brassy lettering so beloved by English pubs, “Towner & Horton.”

We crossed the street and rang the bell. Rebecca giggled and whispered, “it’s like being part of some secret society.” We waited, still shivering in the bitter air. The windows were obscured by a sheet of paper so we couldn’t see inside. Even so, it looked a promising, suitably cryptic location for a pop-up.

*     *     *

The pop-up restaurant is a recent foodie phenomenon. With roots in various traditions from across the world, it is only a few years old as an established trend in Britain. The concept is an exciting departure from the typical dining out experience: They are small, elusive, and often fleeting. And they barely announce their existence, let alone advertise through traditional media. In order to book dinner at one of these oracular places you have to keep eyes open and ears pricked. Sometimes you can catch one flitting across a blog before vanishing. Otherwise it’s a matter of getting your name on the right email list, or good old-fashioned word of mouth.

I’d been curious about pop-ups ever since hearing about them a year or so ago, but since moving to London I’d been too absorbed  by the overwhelming profusion of normal restaurants to search beneath the surface. So when one of my foodie friends suggested a trip to this Hackney pop-up, I jumped at the opportunity.

*     *     *

The door opened and a girl sporting a jaunty fedora swung her head around the corner. “Welcome,” she beamed and ushered us through.

Inside, the Poacher’s Pocket was strange and magical. The room was candlelit and a handful of tables jostled for space. For seats there were a mismatched collection ranging from armchairs to cloth-covered hay bales. More hay was strewn across a floor of Astroturf and the walls were hung with curious, mythic paintings—dancing minotaur-like creatures wearing top hats and smoking pipes. In the far corner there was a makeshift bar and behind this the girl who’d let us in was nonchalantly concocting drinks. Mellow tunes emanated from speakers and taken all round the scene was cozy and cheerful.

Except for one thing: after taking off our jackets and settling around the table, we realized that the room wasn’t very warm, in fact it was approaching the arctic. We ordered hot cider in a bid to encourage circulation and wrapped numb fingered around the steaming mugs. These again were mismatched, some of them chipped. For the time being however, we had the menu to distract us from bodily discomfort. It was short, just two choices of starters, mains, and desserts, and after brief discussion we decided to share the starters, a three game terrine with spiced pear chutney  and a parsnip and mushroom Wellington with a spinach sauce. For the main course, we all leapt for the venison and port stew.

Having established what to eat, we nursed our ciders, chatting and waiting for someone to take our order. There didn’t seem to be much activity in the kitchen, which worried me since the growling of my stomach was growing ferocious, but this was a pop-up, I told myself. You couldn’t expect the usual prompt, commercial service. Eventually a cheery guy sauntered over to our table and started chatting to us. The chef would be here soon, he promised, and in the meantime, he’d take our order. And did we want more drinks while we waited?

Panicking at the revelation that chef wasn’t even in the kitchen, I decided alcohol was to only way to keep warm and ordered a “hedgerow sling,” a cocktail featuring slow gin and blackberries, and then concentrated on wriggling my toes back to life.

The room slowly filled with people as we waited, and waited . . . and waited. After an hour or so a couple were seated at our table and after nodding a greeting to us began discussing the menu. “No,” said the man firmly to the woman. “I want the venison all to myself. I don’t love you that much.” We giggled. What is it with men and sharing food, I wondered for the hundredth time.  Now and then our waiter came over, solicitously inquiring into our well-being, assuring us that food was on its way. He did is best to keep us amused, launching into curious stories about hay bales and misbehaving friends, liberally peppering his narrative with profanities and shaking his head in disbelief at the general state of affairs.

Eventually the food arrived. It was good, fairly interesting, but nothing to rhapsodize over. I’d been eagerly awaiting the venison stew, especially after the waiter had mentioned that it contained chocolate. When it finally arrived it was rich, dark and warming, but a bit too salty. I could barely tell it was venison.

The couple at our table finished and left, and in their place we were joined by two men. The hostess came over and whispered conspiratorially: “I hope you don’t mind,” she smiled and raised an impish eyebrow, “I’ve put some boys at your table. Is this okay? Sure?”

As we finished our meal, I wondered about the appeal of pop-up restaurants. This was my first experience and I hesitate to make sweeping conclusions. There will have to be further research. However, looking around the room at the animated faces, at people squeezed together, balancing on hay bales, at our swearing waiter making the rounds and the fedora crowned hostess pouring drinks, I felt I grasped part of the pull. Pop-ups aren’t really about the food. Or at least not primarily. Critics say they appeal because they’re trendy and cultivate a sense of the secretive and exclusive. This wasn’t my experience at all. There was no pretension or self-consciousness, and the atmosphere was down-to-earth, relaxed, and welcoming. In a sense pop-ups are part of a larger rejection of the generic modern food experience. Whereas the trend towards local, seasonal products is a rejection of commodified food itself, pop-ups seek an alternative to the homogenized dining experience, characterized by formality, false smiles and endless choice. Instead it is about intimacy and originality. The Poacher’s Pocket delivered abundantly on these two features.  And I’m sure when this delightful personality is tempered with adequate heating and a slightly more organized kitchen, it could be a supremely rewarding experience.