Food from Home

In June 1948 - The SS Empire Windrush docked just outside London. She had sailed 8000 miles from the Caribbean carrying 492 passengers from Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica. These voyagers were invited in order to combat post war labour shortages. The majority of the men had fought on behalf of Britain in World War II. This seminal event marked the start of migration from the Caribbean and was later dubbed the 'Windrush Generation'.

Living in sunless reaches under rain,
how do the exiles from enchanted isles
tend and sustain their rich nostalgic blaze

Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-1986)

The role of food in our lives is complex.  Survival, obviously,  pleasure, certainly.  If you have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, food becomes an expression of love, a demonstration of skill, sometimes a display of wealth.

I have always been interested in the role of food in memory which has to do with pleasure, but the pleasure of happy memories rather than the immediate taste of the food. For me the taste of a Lyons lemon cupcake, industrial icing clagging my jaws together and, with drone-like efficiency, finding every minor cavity, takes me back instantly to Sunday teatime, the smell of wax polish on the old mahogany table, the whiff of the dog under the chairs and the sheer achievement of having eaten enough tinned salmon sandwiches with a side salad of pickled beetroot and defeated lettuce to be allowed one.

Tunnocks teacakes have a similar role, though I note it’s less and less acceptable for a grown up to attack them from the top and eat down to the base which, as aficionados know, is the only way.

earl-blog

By 11 in the morning a queue of about 30 is snaking round the park demonstrating a dedication to lunch that I’ve not seen outside France.

But the journey over a few decades of my own culture’s history is tiny compared to the enormous distance, culturally and climatically covered by immigrants to the UK.

The terrible stories of the Windrush passengers, filled with hope of a bright future and dumped, in summer clothes and sandals in a country which they had thought of as their own, quickly apprised by the natives that that was not the case at all. No sun, no light, no heat, no comfort in the vast damp greyness of the place. Food takes on a role far greater than nourishment, it is a link to all that was good and all that was left behind. In the 1960s and 70s nobody who was not from the Caribbean was interested in eating the food (unlike immigrants from India and Pakistan who had come specifically to open restaurants where, politely transfixed, they observed the British order “the hottest thing on the menu” which bore no resemblance at all to anything you would find in India.)

But now, in Caribbean food, just as in other cuisines in London, quality will out, and while the tumbleweed whistles round the flocked halls of the Khyber Pass, Jamaican food is out and proud.

A revelation, certainly as it is done chez Earl who, with his wife Diane, run a stall opposite the Old Vic Theatre. It is reputedly the best jerk chicken in London. By 11 in the morning a queue of about 30 is snaking round the park demonstrating a dedication to lunch that I’ve not seen outside France. Smoke is billowing enthusiastically from the two wheel hubs which he uses as the charcoal base. His customers are certainly the grandchildren of the Windrush generation, but they are also from mainland Europe, Africa and Britain. Chicken, of course, but also jerk lamb, red bream stewed with onions, oxtail, rastaman coleslaw (no mayo), yams, sweet potato, callaloo and, of course, rice and peas, the ‘peas’ being dried kidney beans which are boiled for about five hours in stock, before the rice is added. And, to top it all,  Earl’s ‘dangerous’ pickle. The reason for this adjective is best left hanging in the imagination.

The glory that is London eating at the moment is much trumpeted, and it is true that we are currently blessed with some wonderful restaurants, at every price level, but for me, one of the great joys of this city is the endless cultural mix, and, to sit in the sun, opposite Lilian Baylis’s theatre, chatting with a group of Polish builders and eating jerk chicken is about as good as it gets.

Penny Averill. Photographs courtesy of the author.

The Glorious Twelfth

There are hunters and there are those who enjoy a day’s shooting. I was brought up to carry a gun as a country sport which led to the table.

The grouse is a truly wild species. Their numbers rise and fall by the year.

I learned to load for my grandfather when he would have us crawl in silence and on all fours to a pond on his shoot to catch the early evening flighting mallard. Mallard shot inland taste best as they have no trace of fish and mud. For him to take down two birds with one cartridge was not unusual. Imagine then my surprise to meet wild fowlers who had shot over 100 duck on the Thames Estuary early one morning. I asked them about how they would be eating their quarry. One man looked at me as if I was crazy – ‘Eat a wild duck? No mate, I just like shooting them’.

Game shooting has been special to me since my early teenage years in 1960’s Wales and yet, all these years later, I have never been on a grouse moor to shoot. The grouse is a truly wild species. Their numbers rise and fall by the year. Their diet is mainly heather shoots and the best grouse come off managed moorland such as in Yorkshire and Scotland. Grouse shooting is for the very rich – at £180 a brace to shoot them, days can cost several thousands of pounds. The season begins in style on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ – August 12th – and ends on December 10th (or in Northern Ireland, November 30th – possibly because their grouse moors are less popular and the bird numbers can be smaller per season). By mid-November the birds may be good sport, but their taste has become too strong.

The 2014/15 grouse season is well underway and the reports are of good bird numbers. Game dealers like London’s famous Allen’s of Mayfair are charging £15 a brace of birds – ask nicely and they’ll sell them undrawn, with head and feet intact. Allen’s buy their grouse from shoots in Yorkshire and expects to sell 2-3,000 brace of birds in a typical season. Unlike pheasant where a brace is a hen and a cock bird, with grouse and partridge it means a pair. You need one grouse per person and most on sale will be Red Grouse – the most common, if grouse can ever be common. Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Ptarmigan which live on higher ground are of the same family, but far rarer birds to source.

There are probably moors in northern Europe where the grouse can be shot – there certainly are in North America where they were originally mistaken for partridge. Their flight in hurried coveys is similar, but partridge were not introduced to the USA until after mention had been made of grouse by the largest Native American tribe, the Chippewa, whose lands spanned what we now know as the US and Canadian borders.

Allen’s of Mayfair is historic London and the firm is butcher to many of London’s top restaurants and clubs. I spied an invoice on the counter for the famous Saville Club when I was there recently – 10 brace to be collected by 12 noon. Being best enjoyed simply prepared, those birds would have been for the lunchtime service.

Grouse live mainly on new growth heather shoots so moorland is burned to encourage new growth. For perfect eating the new season birds are essential – September through to mid-November has them at their peak.

Do no more than this. Draw the birds if you bought them intact. Remove head and feathered feet. Bard with back fat – I am not for using green bacon or pancetta as both are cured and the salt can draw precious moisture from the breast. Trim out the wish bone to make carving the breast more elegant when cooked. This is a chef’s trick learned in France and it works for all birds, farmyard or wild.

Some say stuff the cavity with berries like bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), airelles or cranberries as if to exaggerate their wild status. I prefer a lightly crushed clove of garlic and a few juniper berries.

Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for 15 minutes. Remove, from oven, carve away the legs and roast on for further 5 minutes maximum. Richard Olney, writing in his ‘Time Life Good Cook’ series takes trouble to mention how grouse legs are bitter and best kept for sauce.

Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before carving the breasts – one bird, so two breasts, per person. Again I salute the chefs who say game skin is best removed as it too can be bitter.

Grouse are best hung intact and in the feather for 4-7 days after shooting. The hanging allows the bacteria to bring forward the full flavour of the meat. Fresh shot game birds, including grouse are pointless to the serious diner. The fuss made of having fresh shot grouse expressed to central London by light ‘plane, helicopter and train to be on lunchtime menu’s on August 12th is a pointless PR stunt. By August 20th they will eat better.

To enjoy grouse to the full, serve with a rich sauce based on a game or poultry and Port reduction – mashing the grouse livers into the sauce enriches it further. Breadcrumbs gently fried in butter add a texture too when served alongside the meat. A serving of a berry based confit or jelly (Rowan, Airelle, Black Cherry) is good. Savoy cabbage, rolled like a cigar and finely sliced before steaming sits well alongside grouse, as does roasted beetroot, or ‘punched neeps’ made from diced potato, carrot and swede which has been steamed, mashed with butter, seasoned with pepper and finished in the oven for 15 minutes.

In one of the Royal households when they de-camp to Scotland, I learn of how grouse was on the dinner menu every night bar Sundays. A favourite preparation was roasting the birds in a blistering hot oven for 12 minutes. Theirs were wrapped in streaky bacon so this was removed after the 12 minutes and the skin brushed with melted butter and whisky to roast on for a further 2 minutes to brown. The birds were then rested for 15 minutes before carving and serving on a croute spread with mashed grouse livers, butter and whisky.

Alongside were the classics like bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs, watercress, bacon rolls. Potato chips and peas (late season in Scotland) were also served.

As wild as the Grouse are, alongside Grey Leg English Partridge and Woodcock, none are being reared for release like Pheasant and Red Leg Partridge. They are more exclusive and special for that.

Grouse are to be celebrated at table for just another few weeks.

Gareth Jones

Pineapples of Charleston – delicious symbol of southern hospitality

Charleston, South Carolina, USA could be called the city of pineapples. Here, on the waterfront, a gigantic pineapple-shaped fountain burbles, murmuring in the summer heat, testifying to a truly American tale, one based on exploration and exploitation.

The truth is that around half of the slaves in antebellum America, probably passed through Charleston.

The clattering of horses’ hooves echo on the old cobblestone streets. In the City Market, the golden light of the sunset casts long shadows over piles of sweetgrass baskets. I close my eyes, feeling that I’d gone back in time, the smell of horse manure ripe in my nose, lulled by the sing-song cries of the vendors, their Gullah-accented tones bringing back a sense of the West Africa I once knew.

I turn and start down Church Street, passing Broad Street after several blocks, ending up on the waterfront, passing house after house with decorative pineapples adorning the gateways, mailboxes, and doors of immense mansions, a sense of the past emanating from every window, every staircase, every porch.

Surrounded by marshy land, which author Pat Conroy so poignantly describes in his novel, The Prince of Tides, Charleston – like many other port cities in the New World – thrived because of its ties to international shipping and trade. Charleston’s tenure as a port city began in 1670.

The truth is that around 50% of slaves in antebellum (pre Civil War) America, probably passed through Charleston after their terrifying trip across the Atlantic from Africa. It was their labour on the cotton, tobacco, and rice plantations of the American South that made the merchants and sea captains of Charleston rich, so rich that they built the very mansions I passed. Their plantations made their money, but when the planters wanted to party, unlike the story in Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett O’Hara ambles about in her hoop skirt at a party at the Wilkes’ plantation, they descended upon their properties in the Holy City – as Charlestonians call their beautiful metropolis.

So why is the pineapple (Ananas comosus) a seemingly universal symbol of hospitality?

The name comes from a Tupi word, na-na, meaning ‘excellent fruit’, its origins likely in Brazil.

Columbus first encountered the pineapple in 1493 on the Leeward island of Guadeloupe, where the local people placed pineapples in their doorways as a sign of welcome – and they also surrounded their houses with pineapple plants, the sharp serrated leaves acting as a natural wall, not unlike walls you’ll see today in parts of Latin America with jagged pieces of broken glass, haphazardly cemented in.

For a number of reasons, Europeans took up the same custom of placing pineapples in prominent places, attesting to the hospitality of the house.

Sea captains who returned from the Caribbean stuck pineapples on their gates, announcing their return. Since they were usually flush from the successful trade resulting from the voyage, they entertained their families and neighbours with treats and oddities only to be had from faraway places.

Pineapple motifs popped up everywhere.

In Historia General y Natural de las Indias (Natural History of the Indies), Spanish author Gonzalo de Oviedo y Valdés in 1535 described the pineapple as combining a heady mixture of flavours  similar to strawberry, melons, raspberry, and pippins, and “in taste, one of the best fruits in the world … . For those who are surfeited and do not want to eat, it is an excellent arouser of appetite.”

This King of Fruit – so called by Père du Tertre, French historian and missionary – became associated with the wealthy and noble classes – because only they could afford to buy them or grow them.

So enamoured of the taste of this fruit, the English cultivated the pineapple in greenhouses or ‘hothouses’ – invented in Holland by a French Huguenot – as well as pineapple pits. By 1642, the Duchess of Cleveland’s hothouse grew pineapples – the fruit can be propagated by pieces, even desiccated ones.

“Henry Telende’s method of pineapple cultivation was published in Richard Bradley’s A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening in 1721. Telende grew the young plants, called ‘succession plants’, in large cold frames called tan pits. The fruiting plants would subsequently be moved into the stove or hothouse to benefit from the additional heat provided by the hot-air flues.

The tan pits were lined with pebbles at the bottom followed by a layer of manure and then topped with a layer of tanners’ bark into which the pots were plunged. The last of these elements was the most important. Tanners’ bark (oak bark soaked in water and used in leather tanning) fermented slowly, steadily producing a constant temperature of 25ºC-30ºC  for two to three months and a further two if stirred. Manure alone was inferior, in that it heated violently at first but cooled more quickly. Stable bottom heat is essential for pineapple cultivation and tanners’ bark provided the first reliable source. It became one of the most fundamental resources for hothouse gardeners and remained in use until the end of the 19th century.”

A modern example is the pineapple pit at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, UK.

Barbados became a source of pineapples for the English, as well as the colonialists in America, and 19-year-old George Washington – the future president and ‘father of his country’ – wrote in his diary in 1751 that  “none pleases my taste as do’s the pines [pineapple].”

The story of the pineapple mirrors the global colonial story.

The beautiful houses, fountains, gates, and fences with their pineapple adornment testify to that, the ubiquitous presence of slavery or indentured servitude.

In the kitchens of cities like Charleston, as well as other parts of the United States, the pineapple made itself at home early on. When the canning process made it possible to preserve the fruit, the pineapple settled in for good, testifying to its long residence in that great city.

New Door

The story of the pineapple mirrors the global colonial story

Citron Cream, from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824):

Cut the finest citron melons, when perfectly ripe, take out the seeds and slice the nicest part into a China bowl, in small pieces, that will lie conveniently, cover them with powdered sugar, and let them stand several hours, then drain off the syrup they have made, and add as much cream as it will give a strong flavour to, and freeze it. Pine apples may be used in the same way.

Another recipe, this one from Godey’s Lady’s Book of March (1851), suggests how cooks preserved the fruit:

Preserved pineapple — cut off the rind, and divide the pine into tolerably thick slices; boil the rind in half a pint of water, with a pound of loaf sugar in powder, and the juice of a lemon, for twenty minutes. Strain this liquor, and boil the slices in it for a quarter of an hour; next day pour off the syrup; boil it, taking care to remove the scum as it rises, and pour the liquor quite hot over the fruit. Tie down the jar with bladder, having first placed brandied paper over the preserve.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Photographs – courtesy of the author