Rachel Bennett

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Digestives for Thought

In Food on March 29, 2011 at 16:33

17,000 words. I stared at the scrap of paper in disbelief and checked my calculations. Yes, the number was 17,000 and a conservative estimate at that. Panic began forming itself into a knot in my stomach, twisting and squirming. I had to produce 17,000 words of coherent writing in the next month. 13,000 of these words required solid research, 3,000 required fieldwork* and the final 1,000 required comedy. For the love of Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, I thought desperately, I’m screwed.

Let me explain. I am taking a master’s degree in the anthropology of food in London. The English higher education system is different from the States. First, a master’s is only one year-long. Second, there are two terms during which you are expected to do little else but read till you’re eyes fall out. This is followed by Easter ‘break,’ during which you write essays for each class and study for exams which take place in May and June. Finally, you write a dissertation over the summer.

Last week I finished my second term. Classes were over and I spent Friday night carousing with my  classmates. Naturally, we ate. A lot. Then I woke up Saturday morning and realized, after listing all the essays I had to write and all the articles I’d agreed to produce, that I was in over my head. 17,000 words over to be precise.

When this realisation dawned, I did what I usually do in moments of panic, I boiled the kettle for coffee. Then, not sufficiently reassured, I ate a piece of chocolate. This gave me confidence and I sat down in front of my computer, a mound of books to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa. There’s no time like the present, right? Everything is going to be alright, I reminded myself, watching the screen of my laptop flicker to life. I opened a blank document. Alright, this was a start. I typed my name in the top left hand corner. It looked smart, official. Unsure of a title, I typed the word ‘Title’ in bold at the top of the page, as a reminder. Then I paused, fingers poised over the key pad, my mind as blank as the bright white page.

There should be a name for this moment, the one all writers know and dread. My mother calls it ‘The Crucifixion,’ to my mind an apt description of the unadulterated hell of that vertiginous border where you stare at a blank page. Suddenly all those brilliant thoughts you had, all those sharp insights and profound reflections disperse like a morning mist, leaving you naked and lost.

Perhaps a cup of tea will help. So I walk to the kitchen and lean against the kettle as it warms. I hate writing, I declare untruthfully to myself. I hate it. Come to that I hate reading as well. Why am I even a student? Why the hell did I decide to do this program. Masters in the anthropology of food, what?

 

There’s a copy of Lonely Planet magazine on the kitchen table. I flick through: Paris, Venice, Istanbul. I’m heading east. It looks like heaven. “I’m soon walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Tünel and Karaköy to my favorite place for breakfast, Karaköy Güllüoglu, where I order a freshly baked spinach börek (fried pastry) and a glass of tea”. . .Bitch, I think, glaring at a little box to the side of the article in which the author smiles above her bio. Why does she get to eat spinach pastry in Istanbul while I sit facing 17,000 words.

I sigh, grab a packet of digestives, and shuffle back to my computer. Realizing that it might be a good idea to do some research before tackling ‘the policy implications of the weak correlation between per capita calorie availability and undernutrition,’ I open a book and the packet of digestives.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized my propensity to nibble biscuits while writing is common. In fact, it seems to be an English ritual. No sooner had I told my woeful tale of 17,000 words to a handful of people than they’d responded with curious accord.

“That’s a lot of tea and biscuits,” said one.

“My daughter used to munch biscuits all night while she was writing,” said another.

It was a relief to discover that I’m not alone in this wheaten ritual, to know that I’m not exceptionally greedy or lacking in moral fibre. Somehow a packet of biscuits makes the ordeal of tackling a mound of difficult writing more bearable.  Plain digestives are my sustenance of choice although I will make my own knobby oaten rounds if it’s a particularly horrid day. I turn to biscuits for moral support; they are a solid bolster of carbohydrates against the emptiness of the page. Perhaps it is because biscuits are such an unobtrusive food. Like toast or porridge or muesli. They are there, dense and stalwart, requiring no attention yet offering maximum comfort. And so I sit, reading and reading till my eyes lose grip of the words. Then I pause, taking stock of my thoughts and the still blank page. In desperation I break off another corner of biscuit.

They say a watched pot never boils; for me a watched page never fills. And yet at some point it happens. I forget myself, the 17,000 words cease to exist, and out of the morass a thread appears. And then the words begin to come, trickling not flowing, but filling the page bit by bit. Digestives abandoned and tea tepid I lean into them, finding my balance like an inexpert surfer into the arc of  a wave.

When I look up it is getting dark and I think about Istanbul again, mosaics and the meeting of seas. But it’s alright. I don’t hate writing. And anyway, who needs spinach pastries when you’ve got digestives and a page half full.

*Admittedly this ‘fieldwork’ consists of, ehem, visiting chocolatiers, bakers, farmers markets, and attending food festivals. Such is life.

Latium

In Food on March 19, 2011 at 12:17

My heart sank; this wasn’t what I had in mind while trawling the web for central London Italian food. My vision had been of a warm establishment, it’s walls and floors flushed with a Tuscan terra cotta hue, a pleasant, sentimental and noisy place, slightly rough around the edges. Instead we stepped across Latium’s threshold to be greeted by a swath of cool black and white, a demure dining room, and the kind of service that make you clutch your wallet in apprehension. (Always beware when referred to in the third person, i. e. ‘can I take Madam’s coat. . . . if Madam would like to step this way.’) Fortunately, I was having dinner with my dad so my wallet could rest easy.

Once we were seated and equipped with bread and menus, I began to warm to the place. The olive oil was mellow and silky smooth, decidedly not rough around the edges. Examining the menu I could see why Chef Maurizio Morelli had a reputation for ravioli. The man was clearly obsessed, with an entire menu given over to these diminutive parcels, from a selection of four fish ravioli with sea bass bottarga to ox tail ravioli with celery sauce. We ordered and within moments were presented with a bowl of olives and plate of little morsels arranged on thin rounds of bread. Exhausted and hungry after a long week I popped a salmon topped specimen into my mouth.

Now admittedly, I’m a bit of a bread geek—a nerd on the subject of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and a critic of crumb and crust. After all, I am writing a masters dissertation on the subject. However, when it comes to an empty stomach, to daily hunger and the need for sustenance, I’m not unreasonable. Yet it is thoroughly disappointing to be given a luscious slice of salami or succulent sliver of fish a top a piece of dry, tasteless, crustless crap. Why do restaurants do this? Why do so many otherwise laudable chefs focus their passion and skill on gorgeous creations and then ruin the effect with bad bread? Why skimp of such a fundamental food? Unfortunately Latium was another example of this depressing phenomenon.

From this low point however, our experience shot skyward. My starter, ravioli stuffed with swiss chard, walnuts, taleggio, and marjoram, was utterly lovely. The pasta was as delicate as fine lace, cocooning its sumptuous filling. Too often ravioli is heavy, oozing gut clogging gobs of cheese. Not so at Latium: biting into the center of pale envelop, the center was mysterious, its components distinct yet dancing harmoniously together with just enough taleggio to leave your appetite undimmed. My dad’s starter was equally impressive: an invigorating and intricate salad of raw wild sea bass, Sardinian artichoke, blood orange, and chives.

For mains I chose the sea bass, pan fried with eggplant, ginger sauce, and olives ensconced on a bed of tangled monk’s beard (a relative of chicory whose green shoots make a brief and glamourous appearance each spring). The fish looked structured and fleshy on the plate, yet flaked into tender layers on the tongue. And I could have eaten a whole bowlful of the monks beard, so full of vim and vigour gathered from it’s dense, early spring soil.

We hadn’t intended to have dessert, yet when we eat together, my dad and I are know known for restraint. So when the menus arrived we gave in. “Apparently,” I mused speculatively, “Apparently it’s a sin not to try the tiramisu in a good Italian restaurant.”

“Well then,” Dad grinned, “I’ll have the selezione di formaggi. Don’t tell Mum.”

“Our secret,” I promised, conveniently forgetting that Mum had told me specifically not to let Dad eat cheese.”

I wanted to taste the cheeses. But when the tiramisu arrived, I lost track. In fact, for the time it took me to eat the tiramisu, I forgot about everything else in the universe. It was just me and this round circle of perfection beaming ardently up from its bowl. First there was a layer of bitter cocoa like ebony snow blanketing a fragile, faintly sweet cream. Excavating below that was the espresso soaked sponge, shooting through the cream and chocolate with it elegantly boozy bite, wrapping the whole into one outrageous blossom of a taste. Perhaps there was another layer, but I can’t be sure. By the time I dug that deep into my tiramisu I’d lost my reason.  It was a good way to end the evening.

Latium – 21 Berners Street, W1T 3LP. 0207 3239 123. info@latiumrestaurant.com. Map.

Sap and Herbs

In Food on March 12, 2011 at 14:51

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

Spring is elusive on this shrouded island. One moment she peeks from the earth in a scatter of golden daffodils, the next she withdraws to sulk behind a leaden, leaking sky. At this time of year, worn out by months of bolstering myself against a grey drizzle, I am particularly susceptible to this capricious climate: A sun break sends me into giddy abandon so that I throw on an optimistic tee-shirt and scamper outside, content and at ease with the world. But then the skies turn and the wind rips at my cheeks; mood darkening I succumb to a restless melancholy. In spring, flowers burst into bloom admonishing us to ‘be happy,’ yet meanwhile and unseen the tree sap is rising, fighting upwards against gravity—an exhausting journey towards the sun.

A few days ago I decided to make salsa verde. It is without a doubt the best cure for a case of this springtime, existential restlessness. Fling open the kitchen window and chop great handfuls of herbs, their fragrance like a deep aromatic affirmation of good things to come: Basil, soft and spicy; parsley, grassy and fresh; and mint, so bright it makes your body quiver. Together they mingle, pounded with pestle and mortar and seasoned with garlic, anchovies, and capers. The green plants merge into a heady spring tonic, a remedy against gravity and the cloying, insistent fertility of Spring. They rise, like sap to the sun.

Salsa Verde

Salsa verde makes a bright, refreshing complement to a variety of dishes. At this time of year, try serving it alongside a leg of Spring lamb.

2 bunches parsley
1 bunch basil
1 bunch mint
1 clove garlic
coarse sea salt
3-4 anchovy fillets
capers
a dollop of Dijon mustard
red wine vinegar
olive oil
lemon juice

Finely chop the herbs and set aside. Using a mortar and pestle (or a food processor if you lack one of these wonderful medieval gadgets) combine the garlic, anchovies, a dash of salt, and a scattering of capers and mash into a smooth paste. Add the herbs, a dollop of Dijon mustard, and a generous portion of olive oil and whisk together well. Adjust the acid with vinegar and lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Olney Report

In Food on March 12, 2011 at 14:29

Owing to my utter incompetence in navigating London traffic, we missed the race. By 10 minutes.

On the bright side we spent the day eating and drinking, devoured the entire rosemary lemon cake between the four of us, (without finding the bean), and returned home bearing mini-casks of Brainstorm, a local Olney beer from the new Hopping Mad Brewery.

On the Way to Olney

In Food on March 8, 2011 at 08:48

Happy Shrove Tuesday!

Yes, it’s here folks. Otherwise known as Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday, it is the day on which (in case you haven’t figured it out by now) those of a Christian persuasion traditionally gorged themselves silly on pancakes slathered no doubt with butter and cream. As dairy products were forbidden during the 40 day lenten fast, this was the feast before the famine, the last opportunity for a religiously sanctioned binge on all that luscious milk-rich bovine goodness.

To celebrate, some friends an I are heading northwest of London to Olney, Buckinghamshire to watch an enduring, typically eccentric tradition that takes place annually in this village. Full details of this delightful absurdity will follow.

For the trip we need provisions. So I’ve baked a highly unorthodox kings cake, demonstrably not of Luisiana origin. But it contains the requisite bean, so there.

It is a lemon rosemary olive oil cake. Vegan, for my friend.