Tuesday, 22 December 2009

‘Cumbersome treats

Whilst the BSG is adventurous with food, I would say that I will try most things once (except brain and heart, there’s something too fundamental about those organs for me). No, there aren’t many food places I wouldn’t go. However, when I was small I would crumple up my face in disgust at the thought of three rather watery and embarrassingly inoffensive foodstuffs: celery, cucumber and melon. They scared the life out of me.

Since childhood, I have grown to first to tolerate and later enjoy the first two, but strangely (with the exception of watermelon) the last still confounds my palate. There are no doubt far stronger and more extreme tastes and ingredients to worry about, but for me melon has a taste that sneaks up behind me, like water from a glass that’s just been through a dishwasher with an eggy plate. Eurgh. All wrong. I am fully aware that this is pretty outrageous as people love melon, so I’m the accepting responsibility as my own failing; my palate is simply not sophisticated enough. You won’t be finding any melon recipes here.

spices close

The cucumbers we know are perhaps not regular visitors to the shopping basket at this time of year when we are searching out darker colours and clunky flavours. Like strawberries, they are linked to a very specific time and place, be they floating in your Pimm’s, sliced in crustless white sandwiches or layered over a poached salmon. Think The Cookery Year, stopping just short of the aspic – brilliantly retro. They scream (or rather: gently insinuate) British summertime. This was very much my train of thought this week as we were drawing and quartering our slender green victims - we spared them the hanging. Ironically I think these are more robust gutless; their flavour becomes more profound.

Being a fan of all things sharp I have always looked for a handy snack solution in cornichons and gherkins, and now we’ve found a recipe that perhaps exceeds even their sweet tangy hit, using the humble English cucumber. There are many nationalities of cucumber (who knew?), which predominantly fall into two categories: the smooth slicing variety and the nubbly pickling variety. The Romans introduced the vines to Europe (the Emperor Tiberius was rather partial to a cucumber a day and ladies used to wear them hanging around their waists for fertility...hope they changed them once in a while.) Just to confuse, this recipe breaks the rule and pickles the slicers.

snozcumbers Our helpless prey, disembowelled and cut into finger-lengths, was pared with a peeler into fairylike translucent ribbons, glistening with moisture, unaware of the imminent parching, salting and smothering in a towel with sweet onions for a day, which doesn’t sound like fun if you’re a cucumber (or the towel). Being over 90% water, so many fruits shrink to so few jarfuls. As we packed them tightly and covered them with spiced vinegar, thoughts turned to the barbequed meats they’ll accompany in 2010. Wishful thinking: I shouldn’t think they’ll make it past January. With these nestling amongst pickled red cabbage and preserved lemons the cupboard is bursting with bright Christmas baubles; our special tree of treats.

The BSG was out one evening and I arranged a rendez-vous with my culinary nemesis: sugar syrup. How something so simple in essence has become a dreaded silvery foe is a mystery – it has a sly habit of waiting until my back is turned and then burning (it never misbehaves for the BSG). On a pipe-dreamy trip through Fortnum & Mason yesterday, I lost myself amongst the turquoise towers of Turkish Delight, Florentines and those thoroughly grown-up-sounding treats: Marrons Glacés. Having seen our guardian angel Hugh F-W demonstrate these on his bumper River Cottage Christmas programme, I felt confident enough to attempt them for our homemade hampers, alongside some very successful chocolate-covered orange peel (yup, the BSG made that).

pickeld cuc 2

Anyway, back to the sugar syrup. Last night it had my full attention. Sugar and water: two basic ingredients for goodness sake! How hard could it be? (Going on that theory, I should have mastered poached eggs many years ago, yet they have only just stopped being an ordeal). The process of peeling the skin and astringent membrane off the freshly-boiled chestnuts was certainly more time-consuming than I’d first envisaged, so there was a bit of juggling between them and the syrup, just to check it was behaving itself. Not relaxing, despite a soundtrack of Classic FM carols to keep away the Scrooge-like thoughts. I very much enjoyed singing through the pain to every carol ever written but, in fact, if I were to repeat the process I’d try ready-cooked and peeled numbers next time, to save my raw thumbs and husk-embedded nails – not a perfect look for Christmas parties.

This morning I wake up to a light dusting of snow on the wall outside and a crisp sugar-frost enrobes the chestnuts drying on the rack. Yip! I am definitely on a sugar high. Now all they need is a twist in greaseproof paper.

marrons glaces Happy Christmas!

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