SUMMER FOOD…. SOME THOUGHTS
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
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.