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Food has been de­picted in one art form or an­other since man first drew or painted images. Like­wise, ever since he could write, a ma­jor lit­er­ary topic has al­ways been the foods that sus­tain us. The Ro­mans, Greeks, Per­sians, Egyp­tians, Chi­nese, In­di­ans and many oth­ers of an­cient times com­mit­ted gas­tro­nomic thoughts to stone, wood or metal, pa­pyrus… and ul­ti­mately to pa­per. Not too many ex­am­ples have sur­vived – but enough for us to see the his­tory and grad­ual devel­op­ment of our mod­ern ap­proach to food. What I call “proper food writ­ing” re­ally started when the pop­u­lace had ac­cess to a wider range of in­gre­di­ents or food­stuffs, ei­ther to cook at home or eat at a “restau­rant”. And the man who was a great in­flu­ence on this branch of lit­er­a­ture was (sur­prise!) a French­man, by the name of Jean-An­thelme Bril­lat-Savarin.

Pub­lished in 1825, his “The Philoso­pher in the Kitchen” has never been out of print. It is a won­der­ful pot­pourri of anec­dote, in­for­ma­tion and enlightenment re­lat­ing to man’s de­sire for tastes and flavours. I wish I’d read it when I was young.

At a cham­ber of com­merce lunch in Birm­ing­ham a long time ago, when I was pretty green gas­tro­nom­i­cally, as­para­gus was put in front of me for the first time. I didn’t know how to eat it (many oth­ers around me didn’t ei­ther!) and I didn’t like it. Now I love it. Back then, of course it was not the everyday veg­etable it is now – it was quite rare, and ex­pen­sive. But in the early nine­teenth cen­tury, it was very costly in­deed as this ex­tract from “ demon­strates.

“One fine day in the month of Fe­bru­ary, walk­ing through the Palais-Royal, I stopped be­fore the shop of Madame Chevet, the most fa­mous pro­vi­sion-mer­chant in Paris, who has al­ways been ex­tremely kind to me; and notic­ing a bun­dle of as­para­gus, the thinnest of which was fat­ter than my in­dex fin­ger, I asked her the price of it. ‘Forty francs, Mon­sieur,’ she replied. ‘ They are cer­tainly very fine, but at such a price no one but the King or some prince will be able to eat them.’

‘You are mis­taken; such lux­u­ries never find their way into palaces; what kings and princes want is good­ness, not mag­nif­i­cence but for all that, my bun­dle of as­para­gus will sell, and this is how it will hap­pen.

At the present mo­ment there are at least three hun­dred rich men in Paris, bankers, cap­i­tal­ists, mer­chants, and oth­ers, who are kept- at home by gout, fear of catch­ing cold, doc­tor’s or­ders, or other causes which do not pre­vent them from eat­ing; they sit by the fire, rack­ing their brains to think of some­thing to tempt their ap­petite, and when they have tired them­selves out to no pur­pose, they send their valet out on the same quest. The valet will come to me, see the as­para­gus, and re­turn with his re­port; and they will be sent for at once no mat­ter what the price. Or per­haps a pretty woman will pass this way with her lover, and say to him: “Look, my dear, what lovely as­para­gus! Do let us buy them! You know what de­li­cious sauce my maid makes for them!” Well, in such a case no lover worth his salt will refuse or bar­gain. Or it may be a wa­ger, or a bap­tism, or a sud­den rise in Gov­ern­ment stock. How am I to tell? In a word, the dear­est things go more quickly than any­thing else, be­cause in Paris the course of life brings about so many ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances that there is al­ways some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for them’.”

“As she was talk­ing, two fat English­men, who were strolling by arm in arm, stopped in front of us, and im­me­di­ately their faces lit up with ad­mi­ra­tion. One of them had the mirac­u­lous bun­dle wrapped up with­out so much as ask­ing the price, paid for it, tucked it un­der his arm, and car­ried it off, whistling ‘God Save the King’. ‘There, Mon­sieur,’ said Madame Chevet with a laugh, ‘there you have a pos­si­bil­ity which I hadn’t men­tioned, but which is as com­mon as any of the oth­ers’.”

I came upon cold soups one very hot sum­mer in the1960s. The first was in Spain and it was the fa­mous chilled “Salad” soup called Gaz­pa­cho. In those days, the olive oil in Spain was green and very strong and it over-flavoured the soup I thought. Then chefs used re­fined olive or other oils and let the flavours of the toma­toes and cu­cum­ber shine through. The se­cond was very dif­fer­ent – lit­er­ally a cold cream of potato and leek soup with chives, called Vichysoisse. A restau­rant I fre­quented served it one day – from a can. I guessed this be­cause the chopped chives es­sen­tial to the soup were not the bright green of fresh and the taste was,

The ori­gins of Vichys­soise are a sub­ject of de­bate among culi­nary his­to­ri­ans. Famed Amer­i­can food writer Ju­lia Child claimed it for the U.S.A., whereas oth­ers think it ques­tion­able in whether it’s gen­uinely French or an Amer­i­can cre­ation.

Louis Diat, a French chef at the Ritz-Carl­ton in New York City, is most of­ten cred­ited with its (re)in­ven­tion. In 1950, Diat told New Yorker mag­a­zine:

“In the sum­mer of 1917, when I had been at the Ritz seven years, I re­flected upon the potato and leek soup of my child­hood which my mother and grand­mother used to make. I re­called how dur­ing the sum­mer my older brother and I used to cool it off by pour­ing in cold milk and how de­li­cious it was. I re­solved to make some­thing of the sort for the pa­trons of the Ritz”. You can try this at home. 15g but­ter 3medium leeks, white part only, sliced into rings 1 onion, peeled and chopped 5 medium pota­toes, peeled and thinly sliced Salt and pep­per to taste 1 1/4 litres chicken stock 4 ta­ble­spoons whip­ping cream 2 ta­ble­spoons finely cut chives 1. Melt the 4 ta­ble­spoons of but­ter very slowly in a large, heavy fry­ing pan. 2. As soon as it dis­solves, mix into it the chopped onion and the care­fully washed and chopped leeks. 3. Cook slowly for about 20 min­utes, stir­ring care­fully now and then. Don’t brown. 4. When they are soft and translu­cent, trans­fer them to a medium-large saucepan. 5. Pour in the stock, add the sliced pota­toes, and bring to a boil. Re­duce the heat at once, par­tially cover the pan, and sim­mer un­til the pota­toes are soft and crum­ble eas­ily when pierced with a fork. 6. You want a fairly coarse, grainy soup, so put a colan­der over a large bowl, pour the soup slowly into it and “push” the bits through the colan­der. If you have a “Mouli”, you may use this. 7. Leave to cool. When ready to serve, pour into bowls and add a gen­er­ous squirt of cream – stir to make a nice creamy “swirl” and sprin­kle the chopped chives over to com­plete. Note: if you can’t find chives, use some very finely sliced bits of salad onion tops.

In­gre­di­ents for six serv­ings

750g car­rots, prefer­ably long slim ones, with the green­ery still on 1 lemon, very finely sliced and de­seeded, plus the juice of lemon 2 tbsp harissa 2 tsp honey 2 tsp cumin seeds 4 tbsp olive oil 2 cloves gar­lic, crushed

In­gre­di­ents for the Purée

2 tbsp olive oil 1/2 onion, roughly chopped 1 clove gar­lic, crushed 2 x 400g cans of can­nellini beans, drained and rinsed 150ml chicken stock, veg­etable stock or water 4 tbsp ex­tra-vir­gin olive oil Good squeeze of lemon 1 pack/bunch of fresh dill, stalks re­moved, leaves chopped



sea­son­ing. You can




hot, warm

let them go 1. Preheat the oven to 200C 2. Clean the car­rots, trim­ming the tops but leav­ing a car­rots are very chunky, halve them along their length. 3. Put them into a roast­ing tin large enough to hold in a sin­gle layer. Add the lemon slices. 4. Mix the lemon juice, harissa, honey, cumin, olive oil and gar­lic in a bowl and pour this over the car­rots and lemon, toss­ing them with your hands. 5. Roast for 30 to 35 min­utes (de­pend­ing on the thick­ness of the car­rots), un­til ten­der. Turn them over half­way through. 6. For the bean puree, heat the olive oil in a saucepan and gen­tly cook the onion un­til soft but not coloured. 7. Add the gar­lic, beans, stock or water and sea­son­ing. Cook over a medium heat for about four min­utes. 8. Process the beans and their cook­ing liq­uid in a blender or food pro­ces­sor with the ex­travir­gin oil and lemon juice. 9. Stir in the dill. 10. Taste and ad­just tem­per­a­ture.

lit­tle green tuft on each one.


If the

at room

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