A Golden October in the Kitchen
Posted: 3rd November 2020
At the beginning of month there was a proper ‘Oktoberfest’ here as I harvested my grapes. They were not easy to get at, as the vines are ‘trained’ à la romaine up a bay and an olive tree. I had to detach the blue-black bunches with a lopper, fish them out of the roses and gather them up into a yellow plastic tub.
Once I had warmed them up to below blood heat in a big pot, I added a kilo of sugar. It is the process known as ‘chaptalisation’ after the baron Chaptal, sometime Interior Minister to Napoleon, so we’ve been doing it for at least 200 years. The sugar made up for their obvious lack of ripeness and gave the yeast something to feed on. There is plenty of yeast flying around and I was grateful to see a few bubbles appear after two or three days, signalling the beginning a slow and not very tumultuous fermentation.
Once the bubbles became rare, I decanted the liquid into a big glass jar and loosely stoppered it. Not only did I want to allow the fermentation to begin again when it got warmer, I intended the odd, intrepid fruit fly to visit the wine. Fruit flies bring the bacteria that turn bad wine into useful vinegar. Our grapes would not be good enough to make anything else. Such is wine, in its rawest, earthiest manifestation. Once upon a time people drank this. Thank God we have not been reduced to that yet. Only time will tell.
October wasn’t such a bad month. Although we had been sad to see one child leave for university, the other one came home and I actually went out to FOUR restaurants! There was the Seashell in Lisson Grove – London’s premier fish and chippie.
I went to Le Café du Marché in Charterhouse Square for fish soup and a lovely Châteaubriand and our best local restaurant, Anima e Cuore in the Kentish Town Road for its exquisite homemade pasta. Anima e Cuore has no wine list, and as it was a family birthday we drank some very mature non-vintage Perrier Jouët at home and took down a bottle of the 1996 Michaele Chiarlo Barolo. It was my last, but in peak form.
I had a truly memorable meal at Bentley’s in Swallow Street. In a way it couldn’t have been simpler: we kicked off with oysters, pacifics from Carlingford Lough and some wonderful natives from West Mersea (the most palatable things in Essex); followed by half a lobster thermidor; ditto a grilled sole with Béarnaise sauce; and finished with some rice pudding ‘brûlée’ (well, not literally, but you know what I mean).
And I have been busy at home too. I am amazed at how unnecessarily complicated recipes can be. On several occasions I have had some mackerel fillets and turned them into a paste that makes a perfect snack lunch. Look the recipe up and all sorts of silly flourishes are added. All you really need is the mackerel, a fork, some soft butter, a bit of Dijon mustard (maybe horseradish if there is some to hand) and a teaspoonful of capers.
Anima e Cuore inspired me to stuff some courgette flowers. The Italian grocer Lo Sfizio, which is owned by them, had the flowers in stock and a lovely organic ricotta, which combined with an egg, nutmeg and some grated parmesan makes the perfect filling. The trick seems to be to bake them at quite a low temperature to maintain the pretty patterns in the petals.
Garlic has been a bit of a theme, as its chief opponent has been away in the north it has figured in rather more recipes than before. I felt sure it was good for our antibodies. I made a new version of my deboned chicken dish pollo alla corona, stuffing it with some garlicky salsa verde and mozzarella. Garlic is the soul of a proper gratin dauphinois, so I was able to abandon all restraint there too. Garlic was an important part of the gremolata sauce I made for an osso bucco – of beef this time – the appropriate veal vertebrae being unavailable.
My wife found a recipe for Lapin chasseur in Le Monde attached to a wine column written by my old friend Antoine Gerbelle. There was also a smidgen of garlic in the rabbit. My daughter has also been making pasta with her new machine, and we had some very seasonal pumpkin ravioli. This is one of my favourite things when I go to northern Italy (I wonder if I shall ever see the Po Valley again?). For the first time in years I made a proper Bolognese ragú using three broken meats, in this case pheasant, brisket and gammon.
Of course most people make a ‘Bolognese’ from mince and I have not neglected mince either: I have created a new dish I call ‘Scotch bonnet’ as a tribute to the Caledonian partiality to it. In this instance I use pork, an onion and a few cherry tomatoes. I add a little home-made stock to this and two serving spoonfuls of Calabrian nduja. This last ingredient gives the dish its name. It is hot enough to send your tam-o-shanter flying sky-high.
And pears, there are plentiful cheap pears at about £1 for six. That means lots cooked à la normande, in butter and sugar, or in red wine with orange zest, cloves and cinnamon. With the latest news from Downing Street announcing a fresh lockdown, cooking is set to continue throughout November.