Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering

The cone of corporate creepiness

Plums in cone 2
Zwetschgenpflaume in market cone

STALLHOLDERS AT THE weekly Lister Meile street market here in Hannover (Germany) sell fruit and vegetables in brown paper cones. At the last market, we picked up highly seasonal plums. As the photo shows, they are a type of damson.

We knew that Zwetschgenpflaume had just arrived on the market, because they featured on the specials board the night before at restaurant 11A Küche mit Garten (11A Kitchen with Garden). The name derives from its address, being in the square that translates as Kitchen Garden.

(Horror alert: creepiness coming).

My mobile phone has taken to opening with a YouTube suggestion, and when we returned from the market, it proposed a demonstration of how to use the plums.

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Renias Backwelt demonstrates how to use Zwetschgenpflaume

How did it know? I can think of three possibilities: that it was coincidental, that google tracked us at the market and the plums are in season, or that google had eavesdropped, and heard the word.

That was so creepy that, as soon as I showed Marion the video running, I turned it off. To be correct, I thought I turned it off, because it disappeared from my phone and started on a television in the next room. We’d last turned on the tv the previous evening, making our way through dvds of the wondrous 1982 series of Heimat.

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The finished product (taken from Renias Backwelt)

Adding to the horror, Mozilla had only just sent a blog item about how you can’t believe even baking videos any more, with a link to Sydney dessert-influencer Ann Reardon showing how so-called “content farms” are crueling the internet.

A “content farm”, such as So Yummy, creates low-grade “how to” videos to game the algorithms and drag in advertising dollars. That reduces the income of more serious posters, such as “Renias Backwelt” (Renia’s Baking World) with her plums, or Ann with “How to Cook That”. While I cannot imagine who would make Ann’s novelty dessert items, including a Prince Harry chocolate sculpture that took her three days to make, So Yummy has more than 100 million views a month with videos that merely look like cooking videos with their boring bits speeded up. As Ann demonstrates, So Yummy’s cooking instructions are way post-fact. The recipes she attempts don’t merely fail, they plainly would never work.

Incidentally, I have retained quotes around “content farms” as maligning farms; they are content production lines.

The monolith at the top of surveillance capitalism, Google owns YouTube and so much more, but does it really listen in through microphones in homes, cafes, offices and therapists’ rooms?

The next day, I received another Mozilla post:

“Hi Michael,

“If you have a voice assistant in your home or on your phone, have you ever been concerned that someone from the company could listen to your voice recordings?

“Recent news coverage confirms that suspicion.”

According to the quoted sources (Mozilla Foundation, “What can you trust on the internet?“), eavesdropping is now banned in the EU, but I still worry.

Returning to humour might distract from the creepiness. The secret agent comedy series Get Smart had a device called the “cone of silence” – those inside the bubble couldn’t hear; those outside could.

Or I might also cheer us up by turning to a second highly seasonal German phenomenon on the streets the past day or two: the two-century-old tradition of the Schultüte (school cone). A Schultüte is sometimes also called a Zuckertüte (sugar cone), because it is a large cone, almost as big as a small child, that contains sweets, toys and school items.

School cone

The cone marks an important rite of passage – a child’s first day at school. Parents have made or purchased a cone, filled it with the items, and hung it on a tree at the school. The child carries it home to open at a family party.

We saw children carrying them home yesterday, and I snapped an illustration of one, in a line-up of first-day-of-school children’s books, each showing cones, in the window of the nearby library.

 

Borrowed kitchens

Toaster tongs

Restaurant dining teaches new dishes, and how much better ingredients can be than we thought. And civil behaviour. Working in someone else’s kitchen – perhaps house-sitting, leasing an apartment or just contributing a course – teaches about equipment.

A borrowed kitchen can show that other people don’t cook or, if they do, put up with thin saucepans and ineffective knives. But we often learn useful tips.

No doubt you have lifted out toast without burning your fingers using toaster tongs all your life. I only discovered them in a sunny apartment in Le Marais a few years ago.

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Couvercle

Our present Latin Quarter studio provides more basic kitchen equipment. No toaster tongs, but why no ordinary kitchen tongs? I don’t really miss a microwave oven; the small, bench-top oven is handier.

We do have  “1 Couvercle (petit)” and “1 Couvercle (moyen)“, which translate on the inventory as “Cover (small)” and “Cover (big)”. These are interchangeable lids for the three sizes of “Casserole” (saucepan).

The name, “ouvreboîte camping“, puts the familiar can-opener in its place, as does the translation, “Military can-opener”.

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Clef universelle

The item, “1 Clef universelle” (shown left), translates as “Sardine tin key”. I recognised its purpose immediately, having grown up with smaller versions welded to such tins. Searching the supermarkets, we are yet to find a tin without its own ring-pull. We’ll hunt the specialty shops.

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.

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The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.

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How many kitchens in the world?

My estimate is approximately 1.5 billion kitchens. That is simply by assuming a world population of 7.4 billion, and dividing by 5.

Looking up statistics leaves me frustrated by endless notes and qualifications, and odd categories in strange spreadsheets.

To think that the slogan for World Statistics Day recently was “Better data. Better lives”.

But from some dedicated searching, mine might be the first-ever published estimate of world kitchen numbers.

People do speak on the internet about 1.4 billion households worldwide – so 1.5b kitchens is probably in the general vicinity.

Hospital food

IMAG0863The things people will do for a story … war reporters are one-sidedly “embedded” with troops; bloggers cook their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking

As a food columnist for Australian Society magazine, I once hosted a dinner party using supermarket “gourmet” items. Not a successful night. Not even funny, despite our best efforts. Factory fanciness was a downer.

Undaunted, my latest project has been to test hospital food (and also, now that you ask, to fix a body part). Again, the succession of trays was not funny. Hospital food remains proverbially drear.

Why is it barely edible? With the underlying question: why can’t our society accept that meals matter – in particular, that table-pleasure is recuperative?

Soups seemed to work best. Sweet Corn Chowder reminded me of creamed sweetcorn from a can, when I was a child. Orange-coloured vegetables – pumpkin, kumara (sweet potato) and carrots – almost survived. The “Fish with Hollandaise Sauce” was a surprisingly edible, although from low expectations.

But chicken lost far too much taste and texture. Overly soft beans, zucchini, broccoli, potatoes and cauliflower all gained the same taint. I just had to leave much aside.

The food was brought to the ward in insulated trollies, with one side of each tray kept cold and the other warm, making the metal cutlery cold at the weekend (“recyclable” wooden cutlery was used on weekdays). The items mixed packaged foods (fruit juice, yoghurt, dessert), and previously packaged foods (meats, gravies and vegetables).

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A demonstration of eezy-squeezy margarine

Berri Apple Juice No Added Sugar was “reconstituted” from imported juice; the yoghurt was “lid lickingly good”; and the “handeepax, eezy squeezy margarine” had faint echoes of molecular gastronomy. Maple flavoured syrup was “batch” made, but still “maple flavoured”.

The biscuits with morning and afternoon tea or coffee came in wrappers boasting, not reassuringly, “Nut Free, Seed Free, Egg Free”. The claim, “Easy to Open”, was “certified” by Arthritis Australia. Struggling to open the “Tear Here” cylinders of margarine, I welcomed such certification. But why no “attentively cooked” boasts?2015-05-21 21.33.48 (2)

My book, One Continuous Picnic, sought to comprehend the striking contrast between eating in Italy and industrial Australia, even more pronounced in the 1970s and 1980s. I found Italian freshness, care, taste and pride, and our detachment from the soil – Australia was a “land without peasants”. A recurring theme in the twentieth century was the “Great God Cheap”, as money trumped meals.

Likewise, expensive drugs and medical equipment presumably push kitchen cost-cutting. More doctors and nurses seem more essential than cooks.

My books have studied anti-gastronomic rationalism, but can some good cook out there get beyond the generalities and explain the core culinary problem here? Cheap ingredients? Inappropriate menus? Corner cutting? Too much freezing? Over-cooking? Standing around? Can anyone provide hospital caterers with one good tip, or is it all-the-above, and so the furthering of a grand revolution?

I sought out the wisdom of intellectual Sydney cook, Gay Bilson (Tony’s Bon Goût, Berowra Waters Inn, author of Plenty: Digressions on food). As associate director of the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2002, she organised “Nourish”, bringing in chefs and volunteers to an un-ergonomically “monstrous” kitchen at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She sent me an unpublished article about her experiences.

The team served dukkah, olives, olive oil and sourdough bread; chilled tomato soup; chicken salad, rice and chutney; and colourful trifle in a proper glass.

With this, they replaced the “re-hydrated dry goods” and sealed, single-serve portions “straight from a factory”. With feeding patients “an exercise in budget control”, the successful manager “spends as little as possible, ensures that prescribed dietary guidelines are adhered to … that there is no incidence of food poisoning.”

Bilson could scarcely conceal her anger at the local press’s treatment of any introduction of cooking into the Festival as a betrayal of the Arts and, further, entering a hospital as a mere foodie indulgence. The media reported, for example, that patients “volunteered” to take the festival menu, when, “in truth those who ate our food chose to eat it.” Good food was assumed to be expensive, when the team kept to a tight budget.

Bilson decided that the “Nourish” experience would have to prove valuable, if belief in “food in a gastronomic sense (that eating well nourishes the body and enhances well-being) is ever going to be taken seriously as part of caring for patients”.

A further issue, leaving aside the actual food, is the hospital meal as a social occasion, these days accepted as crucial for health. Normally, anonymous forces supply solitary diners, sitting up alone in their beds. No passing the salt, or exchanging chit-chat. Exacerbating that, I got stuck into my tray, cognizant that one man opposite was too nauseous to eat, while the other was classified “nil by mouth”, until he had passed wind (music to the ears of doctors and nurses).

Yet our separation did not feel as dire as the food, which set me pondering. Perhaps, in fact, we were otherwise unusually close. Sharing a room, we survived nights of cries and whimpers together; we saw the daytime trail of visitors (or lack of them); we commiserated about our states of precariousness (an aborted operation because unexpectedly-required equipment was unavailable; with cancer and young children …); we talked about our lives and fears.

A dear friend had advised, “think of everyone in the hospital, together, trying to get better”. At least in that general sense, we had joined some big, collaborative, health-giving meal.

Just a thought, but the expression “hospital food” overly stresses nutritive soundness, and cost-cutting, at the expense of companionship. Perhaps we could push improvements by demanding “hospital meals”?

Why do we cook?

IMG_0317 (2)Sure, many of us enjoy cooking, especially with excellent produce, and a glass of wine at hand. But why do human-beings cook in some basic, anthropological sense? Why could James Boswell call Homo sapiens the “cooking animal”?

For such a fundamental question, it has been left shockingly unanswered. Too often, cooking has been ignored as “women’s work”, “drudgery”, “leisure” or “indulgence”. For too long, scholars went along with Plato’s warning against cooking as pandering.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might have written about the “raw” and “cooked” in the 1960s, but somewhat mysteriously. Cooking expressed human cultural structure, or something. Still, he started gastronomic reflections on the slow road back to academic respectability.

In recent years, two books have promoted versions of what might be termed a “transformational” theory of cooking. Where Lévi-Strauss saw cooking as a “language”, evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham wrote about the energy advantages of cooking as a form of pre-digestion. His Catching Fire: How cooking made us human (2009) thus aligned with the dictionary meaning, “to prepare (food) by heating”. Heat transforms raw ingredients to make them more digestible in Wrangham’s case, or possibly also tastier or more expressive. As the subtitle indicates, Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013) went along with this importance of fire.

The flame is important for me, too, but not as basic as the knife – I often put down the glass of wine to pick up a knife. The knife fits another, and more basic, theory of cooking. This is distributional. According to this approach, the cook’s essential duty is dividing up the food among the diners. This makes the “cooking animal” much older than the fire-maker, taking cooking back to the beginning of the stone age, and the sharp flint.

The importance of food sharing for the human story was the topic of my book, originally published in 1998 and currently available under the title A History of Cooks and Cooking (http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/87xzf7wp9780252025808.html ). That’s where others found the Boswell’s “cooking animal” quote, without them always transmitting the beauty of the distributional theory.

The distributional foundations had already cropped up occasionally, and were touched on by Launcelot Sturgeon in his Essays, Moral, Philosophical, and Stomachical in 1822. I’ve since read a claim that Sturgeon might have been the nom-de-plume of Charles Lamb, but, whatever the case, look out for the clever pair of essays, “On the physical and political consequences of sauces” and “On the importance of forming good connexions; and on the moral qualities of the stomach”.

I can see how a transformational theory would appeal especially to anthropologists in their fascination with culture. The refinements are often highly civilising. However, the more social slant of distribution should attract sociologists, and also economists. That’s because the distribution of food at the meal is the concomitant of the distribution of labour. The often-quoted early section of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the division of labour could hardly by more gastronomic.

My next book is all about that.