Like for many women around the world, Christmas is usually a stressful time for me. What is it with this persistent search for perfection? I am not an A type organised homemaker by any means but as soon as Christmas comes around, my nurturing instincts go into overdrive. I become momentarily convinced that orchestrating a perfectly varied menu means a memorable time will be had by all. The truth is, having a good time means actually being relaxed enough to enjoy the occasion.
If there was one thing that my mother taught me how to do, it was how to make salad dressing. Just like me, she is super controlling in the kitchen – she never taught me how to cook. It was all instinctive, all I learned was from eating and observing, and discovering things for myself. Of course, there was always that niggling obsession with food that made itself known from very early on.
I love how some books take a long time to find you. Ever since seeing the Peter Greenaway film The Pillow Book in 1996 it has remained as entrancing as the first time I saw it. Then, as you watch the credits roll right till the end, you discover that it’s inspired by an actual text- The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.
Sei was a courtesan living in 15th century Japan and her journal (which she kept in a hidden inside her wooden neck rest, or pillow) is one of only two texts that survive from this era. I recently found the Penguin edition in my favourite charity bookshop and it felt like something had come full circle.
It is a complete rarity to find unpasteurised milk in this world. I was lucky to stumble across a small shop that sells local raw milk in the small Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet. The Karoo is a mythical place. Encompassing a vast area of semi-arid landscape dotted with ant-hills and thorn trees, is known for its cloudless skies, extreme temperatures and fossils, some of which have been recently discovered to be whole new species that have never been seen before. A primarily agrarian area, the Karoo is known for rearing sheep for mutton, goats for mohair and game. In prehistoric times it was a vast inland sea and, prior to colonialisation the 1700s, it was the home of indigenous peoples, the Nama and Khoi-San (formerly known as Bushmen). In fact, the last time I was there I read a fascinating article about how some of their almost extinct languages are being brought back to life through a series of workshops organised by the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb). And thus, I digress!
With all the recent focus on fermented foods it is all too easy to ignore the oldest of these: vinegar. It is my favourite fermented foodstuff, which I naturally gravitate towards using to add a sour note to savoury dishes. It was only after giving it some thought that I realised the reason: all great dishes contain a balance between sweet, salty, fragrant and sour – with the added magical note of umami. The latter is of course enhanced when the right balance is struck.
The tradition of making pâté is as old as the hills. Throughout Europe, pâtés, terrines and potted meats are still widely eaten today. Potted shrimp is such an easy favourite, you gently fry and season the shrimp before sealing it in a delicate blanket of melted butter so that it can be kept in a cold larder or still room for a lot longer than if left untended.
It was a bucolic time when The Two Fat Ladies burst onto our screens in a puff of cartoon smoke and bravado. And burst they certainly did, with Jennifer Paterson driving pell-mell through the British countryside in a glorious Triumph Thunderbird while Clarissa Dickson-Wright grinned benignly at us from the sidecar. In one fell swoop, they made the world realise that English food may have the reputation for being boring but it sure as hell doesn’t have to be. Echoing the devil-may-care eccentricity of Julia Child and the generous verbosity of Keith Floyed, these two friends made British TV cooks famous, paving the way for Jamie and Nigella to follow in their wake.
As much I love a good salad, in winter it becomes a chore to eat. The quality of fresh ingredients declines, tomatoes don’t ripen and it feels like your hands may develop frostbite while you rinse lettuce in that icy water. I find I am inclined to turn my greens into a luscious dip which I slather over roasted vegetables hot out the oven.