Tales of the Hunter-Gatherer: Marking Time
Posted: 6th April 2021
Marking time is never a good feeling, especially when you are getting on in life, but when I look at my children I note that it can’t be any fun at their age either and it is possibly even worse for my nonagenarian mother, for whom life now has no sense at all. Even the smallest things are banned while the plague lurks on every corner. Life is on hold for most of us but where she lives the pandemic is making new strides and claiming more lives.
I sit and wait for news of three or four things, just as I have waited for an upturn for months. Otherwise days slip by more or less unnoticed. I am reading the wrong book (which I am not enjoying and find any excuse to put it down), I pick up a gouge, a pen or a brush, then discard it. The pandemic is perfectly uncreative.
There is just the shopping to do, and then dinner to cook, a film and bed, and an awful lot of time wasted on social media in between.
So what do the shops yield? The pumpkins have gone. I was getting fond of pumpkin puree and it was popular with the troops. Abundant cauliflowers are still turned into fritters with lots of variant spicing and I have been making courgette fritters too using feta, but that is work in progress and the bore about courgettes is squeezing out the excess fluid. One thing I have discovered in the local ethnic markets is the Bavarian radish or ‘mouli’, which is delicious braised. For a quid I can get one about two feet long. There are fewer cheap pears, and the good oranges are over. So far no rhubarb has appeared in the local shops and it is far too early for soft fruits.
The butcher Paul continues to provide us with good cheap beef, and when roasted it is dressed up with homemade horseradish made from Styrian roots bought from the local Turks. Leftover beef goes into pies with onions and fresh ginger. Lamb on the other hand is getting hoggety and the price is way too high. There are 34 million four-legged sheep in this county and the carcasses have nowhere to go but the home market. What’s more lots of lambs were born at Christmas, so why is there no new season’s lamb about? Most of the stuff on offer is too old to be used for anything other than for highly spiced koftas, neck curries or Irish stew. Paul had some very good wigeon too, which were quite a delicacy, but these are now gone.
I have been pulling out recipes for Portuguese arroz and Catalan paella to vary the menu a bit, things I can cook in the paella pan my daughter gave me for Christmas a few years back. I have revived my blanquette de veau, which I can’t have made for thirty years. For a start it is hard to get the appropriate cut of veal here, but Paul had a lump of leftover escalope meat that was lean and tender. I used silverskin onions, a variation that I learned from my old friend Monique in the rue de Rennes. Once I experimented by using orange peel and scandalised that gourmand publisher, the late Eugene Braun-Munk so much that he was still complaining about it when I last saw him, issuing from the Aurum Press in Museum Street. Sans orange peel, I think that more traditional blanquette was the best thing we ate in the whole merry month of March.
I don’t generally do the puddings, but I made a drizzle cake for a family birthday (irrigated by my last bottle of 1995 Moët) and then I awarded myself the challenge of making a Breton kouign amann such as I ate in Saint Briac in the summer of 2019. The first attempt was a flop, but I persevered and the second at least tasted right (it never really looks like much). It is a cross between a loaf of bread and puff pastry, with lots of added butter and sugar, but a good one can be delicious.
March culminated in Holy Week and Easter. I was warned that Easter Eggs would be scarce, but warned too late. Over the years I have been used to buying Belgian chocolate, generally from Leonidas, which had a good half a dozen shops in London. It seems they have all gone bar one, in Kensington High Street. Neuhaus in St Pancras Station was boarded up, and I couldn’t make any sense out of Selfridges, where I bought my eggs last year. There is still Pierre Marcolini of course, but that is way beyond my means.
There used to be a good chocolate shop at the top of Highgate Hill which closed down a few years ago, but looking for wine recently I discovered Kokoa, which buys chocolates from British artisan producers and had up-market eggs too. That rather saved the day, as even the la-di-dah Waitrose was offering nothing better than a nationalistically triumphant Hôtel du Chocolat (name-change must be on the cards now – ‘Chocolate Hotel’?) and Lindt, which is a standard cheapie, scarcely better than Cadbury and made – I suspect – under license in Scunthorpe.
I bake a dozen Hot Cross buns on Maundy Thursday for use on Good Friday. Our venerable Italian deli Salvino is still on hand for the Paschal colomba from Bauli, even if they no longer have a number of other treats associated with our modest feast. We have the colomba for breakfast on the big day. I didn’t need lunch as I scoffed the chocolates from inside my Leonidas egg (my wife had got to Kensington High Street in time). Dinner was good: some Kalamata olives, a small leg of new season’s New Zealand lamb cooked so rare that was sopping with juice, together with some potatoes roasted in beef dripping, tiny, baby broad beans and mushrooms; some pecorino sardo and Montgomery cheddar and a green salad; and finally a lemon meringue pie. To drink with the lamb we had a 1989 Canon Fronsac from Château Mazaris. We had consumed its stablemate on March 10. Both bottles were at their peak with masses of vigour. Let’s hope that they might prove a metaphor for our resurrection, and spring.