JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Pedant in the Kitchen

There are too many books about food in this house. Another one - two, actually - arrived yesterday: The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes. I've already read it from cover to cover (it's a series of short essays, only 136 pages, not much type on each page, and lots of illustrations).

The recommendation to read it came from Pomiane, a blog I've recommended before. The combination of Pomiane and Julian Barnes was too much to resist: have you read Arthur & George, or Flaubert's Parrot, or Letters from London? You're only ever a click away from Abe, where books cost from 50p (plus a huge lot more for postage). That was Tuesday; it came in Wednesday's post.

Barnes describes the trouble he has with cookery books. His cooking is surprisingly tentative, and this is the dilemma: Nigel Slater's too vague, Delia's too dull, if reassuringly didactic, River Cafe too cheffy, none of them there, in his kitchen, to answer his inevitable queries. When he was corresponding with Jane Grigson about another matter, he casually threw in his dilemma over one of her recipes, and was surprised, indeed slightly indignant, that she had moved on to a different method of preparation.

Here's his conclusion about what makes good cooking: You choose a loaf. You are reckless with the butter. You reduce the kitchen to chaos. You try not to waste scraps. You feed your friends and family. You sit around a table engaged in the irreducible social act of sharing food with others ... It is a moral act. It is an affair of sanity. Let (Joseph Conrad) have the last word. "The intimate influence of conscientious cookery," he wrote, "promotes the serenity of mind, the graciousness of thought, and that indulgent view of our neighbour's failings which is the only genuine form of optimism. Those are its titles to our reverence." ... there's something boiling over. I must go. I have an idle feast to prepare.

I was going to stop there, but, leafing through trying to track down the exact query he had with Jane Grigson, I found this story; wonderful, laugh-out-loud stuff:

I once made Hare in Chocolate Sauce for a retired admiral. Does that sound like a good menu selection to you or not? It was certainly a questionable call in that I'd never tried the dish out on anyone else before. The Admiral was in his seventies, a fierce and personable man with a certain amorous back-story. From the supper table he looked around him and noted that there were pictures on the wall.

"My father used to do a bit of this ... art stuff," he remarked.

I knew - and he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew that I knew - that his father had been about the most famous British painter of his day. Some sort of marker was being put down. When it became clear that the Pedant was in charge of the galley that evening, and, moreover, was proposing a main course that sounded like plain cooking mucked around with, I felt myself the object of a less than entirely dispassionate gaze.

The recipe came from Jane Grigson's
Good Things. When the stew is cooked, you start preparing the sauce by melting sugar in a saucepan until it turns pale brown, and then adding some wine vinegar. It is meant to fuse into a rich syrup, to which chocolate, pine kernels, candied peel, and so on are added. Instead, with violent insubordination, it let off a broadside of flash and fizzle and turned on the spot into some sort of sour caramel crunch. There was no bluffing my way out of this one. The hare was waiting on one side, the final ingredients on another; they could only meet with the help of this facilitating sauce.

I got out a new pan and was apprehensively melting the sugar when I heard the Admiral declaring his passion for She For Whom the Pedant Cooks. This was somewhat unexpected to me, and to her, and by the sound of it, to the Admiral himself. His voice was loud and exact, as befits someone used to giving orders.

"What does one do when one falls in love?" he was asking in a non-rhetorical way, words that have somehow stuck with me ever since.

The sugar began to melt just as my heart, I have to confess, was hardening a little. My nose was in the cookbook, but my ears were aimed towards the dining room, so maybe my concentration wasn't at its fullest. I arrived again at the key moment of gastro-fusion, and exactly the same violent explosion took place all over again. Was this some sort of goddamned metaphor? Well, I'm sorry, Admiral, but the menu has changed. We're having Hare with Chocolate but without Proper Sauce. The sauce is in the bilges. Oh, and do be sure to watch out for any dangerous bones that might lodge in the throat.

And since that night I've never once been tempted to make Hare in Chocolate Sauce again. Though I have from time to time found myself wondering what roast admiral might taste like ...

Barnes may not want to cook hare in chocolate sauce again, but I'm now longing to try it for the first time, to give me the excuse to get out The Pedant in the Kitchen, and read the story out loud.

I loved it. A bargain for 50p - ex-library stock, the borrowers of Kirklees Council don't know what they're missing (it looks as if none of them bothered to read it).


David Hall said...

Thats a great story about the hare and chocolate sauce. I'm a massive fan of Jane Grigson's writing mind, English Food is a work of art in my house I met Sophie at the food festival last week and I was a little starstruck. Lovely down to earth woman.


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MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I don't think it temps me to make Hare in Chocolate sause but it does prompt a trip to the library. Fun.