In search of lost time

Conversing with one who has recently returned to the UK from many years en France, our discourse turned to the state of British television and its reliance on soaps, reality shows, American comedy, and the food programme.  To a fresh pair of eyes we appear obsessed with food, and I can see why; a trip through the weekly schedule of just one channel reveals The Great British Bake Off, James Martin’s Food Map of Britain,The Incredible Spice Men, Great British Menu, Floyd on Food, The Hairy Bikers‘ Bakeation  and Tom Kerridge‘s Proper Pub Food.  What’s more those came from just two days.

For a nation once embarrassed by the standard of its cuisine, we have certainly turned a corner, and whether your preference is for Jamie Oliver’s no-nonsense style or Heston Blumenthal‘s molecular gastronomy there is a chef out there for everyone, and not just on TV, because for every successful TV show, there’s a book out there for Christmas.  We are so gripped that I recently discovered that a team working in a heavy engineering plant nearby were competing in making custard tarts a la Bake Off.

That someone who has lived in France for so long should notice the obsession is very telling.  Traditionally the French have been seen as the greatest cooks; names like Pierre Koffman, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Ducasse and Marie-Antoine Carême  have inspired awe across the culinary world, and the French have played their part in our development too.  The contributions of Raymond Blanc and the Roux dynasty should  not be overlooked.

APW_0198But against this background there was one thing that seemed to be a distillation of all that was English.  The afternoon tea.  Supposedly conceived in the 1840’s by a friend of Queen Victoria, as a late afternoon meal to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner; it includes both our national drink (though there are half a dozen nations who consume even more than we do) and another English invention; the sandwich.

But then there are the cakes.  Scones with jam and cream (Devon or Cornwall method ma’am?) undoubtedly have an Englishness, but everything else is patisserie.  Choux pastries, Paris-Brest, mille-feuille?  The influence is obvious, but what I didn’t realise until recently is that the French have a similar approach to an afternoon cake break!  Listening to From Our Own Correspondent, I heard Joanna Robertson’s report on the love of Gouter (I’m sure there must be an accent missing in there somewhere!) the consumption of sweet treats by children on their way home from school, and its more sophisticated equivalent for adults.

Inevitably her report on the significance of this culinary fine art made reference to Proust’s  À la recherche du temps perdu,  a seven volume novel containing the famous madeleine episode, where this simple cake triggers a powerful flashback.  Inspired by this I decided to make my own, though I lack the appropriate shell mould tray.  With no exotic ingredients I had everything I required to hand.  No great technical skills were required and they don’t take long to make.

A shame then that when making a cake that will forever be associated with memory, I should forget to include the baking powder!  Ah well, at least I have the memories of afternoon teas.APW_0209


You Only Bake Twice

Britain has taken baking to its heart again, a fact due in no small part to the phenomenal success of The Great British Bake Off presented by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.  Mary Berry has been synonymous  with baking for decades but Hollywood has come from seemingly from nowhere to become a TV “personality”; granted his own series on bread making here, and fronting the US version of Bake Off in the states.  Dubbed the George Clooney of TV chefs he and Mary have inspired many to reach for the flour again.  Including me.

I’m not a bad cook.  At times I can be very good, but bread in particular has always been my Achilles heel.  The few loaves I have produced over the years (including one baked in a plant pot!) have been heavy, stodgy, and completed unrelated to bread as we know it.  With time and space at my disposal now it was inevitable that I should give it another go to see if Mr Hollywood knew what he was talking about.  (As former Head Baker at Cliveden and The Dorchester, he should)

My first attempt was pretty decent.  The trouble was I started it one evening, and so didn’t have enough time for the proving and rushed it a little.  Colour and taste were good, excellent crust, but the crumb was just a little reminiscent of cake.  No matter, I enjoyed every slice.

With my second attempt, I went out during the second proving, and mistakenly had slashed the loaf too soon.  I returned to find a much larger loaf, though one that had grown laterally rather than vertically.  It just about stayed on the baking tray so I slipped it into the oven before it made its escape.  Half an hour later and we have a first; a crusty Stottie!  Still delicious though.

Think it’s going to be third time lucky?

Food photography is a very specialised art and one in some demand.  Books, magazines and websites call out for food that makes us salivate the moment our eyes fall upon it.  The trouble is that the food in those pictures is likely to be completely inedible.  Read any book on the techniques used and you will learn that the food is often skewered together to aid composition and garnished with oils, paints and detergents to give it shine and colour.  It’s not just inedible, it may even be toxic!

For any visitors I may want to impress this week, I baked something safer yesterday; chocolate and almond biscotti.  Biscotti is the source of our word biscuit, and means twice (bis) cooked (cotti).  Twice as many opportunities for error?  Not a chance and no additives for the photographs?  My younger daughter Holly is coming to stay this week which is why I made a chocolate version.  Eat anything with a chocolate flavour?  Holly would.  (See what I did there 😉 )