A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

It is a well-known source of jokes that the Scots ‘enjoy’ a very unhealthy diet, full of such delights as macaroon (not the dainty French variety, but a sweet made originally it is said from potatoes and sugar); deep fried Mars bars; Tunnocks tea cakes, meals never sullied by vegetables, and all liberally washed down with whisky and Irn Bru(a kind of brown lemonade, advertised as Made in Scotland, from girders.) Whereas there is very good food to be found in Scotland, there is as always a grain of truth behind these exaggerations. We do tend to have a very sweet tooth.

A Scottish delicacy, not available commercially and therefore highly sought after at school fetes and other fund raising events, is Scottish Tablet. This is a kind of hard fudge, not as soft as fudge. It should be crisp and dry as you bite into it, and then dissolve in your mouth. It is highly addictive, almost pure sugar, and extremely bad for you. It is also difficult to make. My mother made it occasionally. She had very few failures.

You need sugar, condensed milk, full cream milk, butter and vanilla essence. There are many variations on the recipe, but generally you heat the milk, sugar and butter. Then you add the condensed milk and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring all the time. You then take it off the heat and add the vanilla essence, when it boils up dangerously in the pan, and then you beat it for 20 minutes.

In addition to being time consuming and tiring, the potential for it going wrong is infinite.

It can be cooked too fast, and just taste and have the texture of boiled sugar. It can very easily burn. It can fail to set sufficiently, in any number of degrees from being a viscous gloop that you can put your finger in and suck, to being set and tasting OK but being too ‘wet’ and not crisp enough.

Once in a blue moon, (perhaps every few years) I get overcome by sugar lust and decide to make some. I have long since ceased to be able to beat for 20 minutes, so I have not attempted any batches since there were children at home to help with the beating. (They were always more than willing.)

But now I have the thermomix. Would it make tablet, I wondered. I looked it up on the internet and to my surprise, found several (quite different) recipes there. I picked one that vaguely resembled what I recalled of my mother’s and gingerly began. There were some additional hazards with the thermomix. If it boiled over when I added the vanilla, it would jam the works. If it set too fast, it would be like a concrete mixer where the contents have set in it.

In the event none of these disasters happened. It took almost 2 hours by thermomix. It tasted good. It set, and the pieces could be marked out. But it was one degree as it were off being crisp enough. Probably I should get a sugar thermometer. I think I should have cooked it for longer and to a higher temperature.

We ate the last pieces yesterday. As I said, it’s very bad for you.

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VORSPRUNG DURCH TECHNIK?

VORSPRUNG DURCH TECHNIK?

 

We decided recently – or rather, John generously decided – that for our 40th wedding anniversary later this year, we’d give ourselves what we call The Machine, but what its German manufacturers have named Thermomix.

This machine, which is slightly bigger than a Kenwood mixer, does every component part of cooking, except that it does not bake. You cannot buy it (in the UK anyway) over the counter. You have to attend a demonstration. My friend Anne had attended the wedding of her cousin in Australia and had come across this machine and she arranged for a few of us to see it. I was impressed.

Initially (for someone as useless with technology as I am) it is quite daunting, but John painstakingly went through the (long) manual, and I began tentatively to try it out. You receive a cookbook as part of your package, and I decided I would work my way through all the recipes as a way of learning the techniques. You can follow a preprogrammed recipe which will tell you step by step what to do, but this doesn’t suit me at all and I aim to understand the processes and proceed with matters under my own control.

You can get in a rut with your cooking, though I hope I am not as bad as what a newspaper article I recently read proclaimed as the average – ie nine dishes which the cook repeated. I fine that hard to believe, but then I found it hard to believe that some people had a seven day repeating menu – so if it was Thursday it would be macaroni. You’d die of boredom, if not of malnutrition.

The machine can cook an entire meal within its own resources – so I have experimented and made fish with potatoes, vegetables and hollandaise sauce, steaming the fish and vegetables, and it worked quite well although personally I do not like the taste of steamed vegetables.

Now that I am familiar with it, I enjoy using it. I have made hollandaise sauce, bechamel sauce and caramel. It makes quite difficult puddings (and great favourites of mine) zabaglione, and ills flottant, a doddle. You just put the ingredients in, set it for time, heat and speed, and then you come back in nine minutes and it’s ready. Its tirami su is so good that even I, who have disliked all coffee flavoured puddings since my flatmate in London used to make wagonloads of bread pudding made with coffee instead milk, have been converted to a devotee. John was feeling queasy the other day and fancied fish cakes, which of course I didn’t have, so I made them; and they were good. It also makes refreshing smoothies and a kind of squashy sorbet (which would become an ice if you froze it, but we always eat it first.) Recently I’ve made some cleaning creams and hand creams using only natural products. Another advantage is that we know exactly what we are eating,

I find we waste less fruit and vegetables, because fruit can become a smoothie, and you can quickly pop in vegetables that need using, chop them small, boil then, and return them to the Thermomix to chop again until it’s a smooth tasty soup. You can very easily rustle up some bread to enjoy with the soup.

The few disadvantages are that it is quite heavy to hold in one hand while spooning out the contents with the other, and if you get the timing wrong, out by just a few seconds, your fricassee of vegetables has degenerated into mush.

I bought an extra jug, which is extremely handy.

I would recommend it. There’s no doubt it’s prodigiously expensive, but since I’ve got it, I use it several times a day,

So, a lovely present for our 4oth. You can keep your rubies. What use are they anyway?

BURNING BLACK

BAKING BLACK

My previous cooker gave up the ghost a week or so before last Christmas, its oven ceasing to function in the middle of my cooking roast lamb and potatoes for a meal with Rory and Sarah. The food was nearly ready and Rory salvaged the situation by heating the lamb on top of the stove and frying the potatoes.

Subsequently, we had to choose a new model. It had to fit the existing space – I was not about to remodel my kitchen. I wanted a gas hob, and I thought I would manage with a gas oven as well. I didn’t want anything fancy – no timers to put it on when I was out. The deceased model offered all these services and I had never got the hang of them. I wanted four hob spaces, a grill, and an oven – just a cooker that cooked, basically,

I was astounded at what you could pay for a cooker, but we found a Hotpoint (I’m not a brand snob but I would like a name that I’ve heard before and can pronounce). It was black, but it met all my requirements and was a modest enough price. John said we’d need to replace the (white) extractor fan; I thought it would do, but it turned out he was right.

We ordered the cooker before Christmas, for delivery on 5 January, checking that if they reduced it n the sales we would be refunded the difference. John kept an eye on the website, and in due course it was reduced by £50, with a further £25 off orders on a particular day. So on that day we returned to the store and spoke with the manager (a charmless oaf, as it happened.)

I had expected there might be a bit of negotiation, perhaps an elegant bout of fencing, but it turned out to be more of a brutal   how-to-shoot-somebody-who-outdrew-ya exchange. No, said the oaf, we couldn’t have the £50 off; we had bought prior to the sale; and we couldn’t have the £25 off because we weren’t buying on that day. John turned to me. Could I tolerate it if he cancelled this order and we bought the cooker elsewhere? I smilingly agreed. At this point the hobgoblin we were dealing with suddenly remembered some extenuating circumstances which made it possible for him to give us the full £75 off the original price – just this once only, mind! We became agreeable and thanked him for his kind help and consideration.

Anyway, on the due date, two men arrived, who removed the defunct cooker with surprising speed and installed the new one. It’s amazing how attached to one’s (old) cooker one discovers one was.

However so far I have made Onion soup, potatoes and croutons mince and potatoes, mince and pasta, an oatmeal apple crumble, and John has made a loaf of bread. All have turned out just as you would hope.

It looks very smart; black and shiny with chrome handles.

My washing machine will no longer wash woollens reliably – it cooks them. So I wash them by hand, rinsing and spinning in the machine. It’s no big deal. It’s not that difficult. But today I find myself looking at it and wondering, Do they make those in black?

SUGAR SWEET

SUGAR SWEET

One of the most difficult symptoms of Parkinson’s disease as it affects me (everyone is different) is the sudden periods of violent, uncontrolled movements that can occur. These are tiring and become painful. They prevent you doing anything. They disturb your balance and you have to be careful not to fall. They are socially embarrassing and though I have to say people are very kind and tolerant, if these happen in, say, a lecture hall, I get very stressed at being a source of distraction and irritation to everyone, which only makes the problem worse. It can last for 10 minutes or several hours and I never have any idea why it ceases.

Since these bouts do not invariably occur, it would be useful to discover what caused them in order to avoid them or minimise their effect. No-one has been able to shed any light on this or suggest any preventative measures. Some people feel it is a nervous reaction and suggest tranquilisers, but I do not feel that I am invariably nervous when it occurs (though stress will obviously make anything worse.) It appears to be more likely in the evening when one is tired. Being in a noisy environment can set it off. And it appears to have some connection with food. Too long a gap between meals, eating meals that are too large or rich, not eating enough in the day – these can all be triggers. Drinking some of a glass of wine before eating food causes an almost immediate bad reaction. It’s a complex business.

Over the last few days I’ve been following recipes from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s new cook book, Light and Easy (£25, but on sale at W H Smith’s for £6). He’s avoiding sugar and dairy produce. I noticed that my twitching phase, while still present, was much shorter. Then the other day Anne came at fairly short notice for lunch, and I made Eve’s Pudding to liven up an otherwise dull meal. Two tablespoonsful of sugar went into the apples, and four ounces into the sponge topping. Over the day I had two large helpings,so I estimate I consumed about 2 oz of extra sugar. Twitching was much worse than on the previous days.

Could it be that it is sugar that causes this reaction to worsen? Although I confess I do like cake and sweet things, to be free of these periods of excessive mobility, or even to reduce their time length would be sufficient of an incentive to cut back drastically. I think I’ll follow Hugh F-W’s book for a few months, because even if there is no improvement with this particular problem, I think the diet would be a good one. I find if you stop eating sugar, you don’t want it so much.

Life is still sweet but maybe it shouldn’t be sugary!

THE ORANGE PIG

THE ORANGE PIG

I reported recently that when in France we’d had some good meals, and we sampled (in part anyway) two extremes of examples of 2 starred Michelin restaurants.

The first, entirely satisfactory experience was in a luxurious conservatory type room in an expensive hotel in one of their coastal towns. While the men were parking the cars, Elisabeth and I were climbing a short flight of stairs at the entrance, she carrying the folded wheelchair and me walking. The front door opened, and someone relieved Elisabeth of the wheelchair, and advised me that if I found stairs difficult, they had a lift at the side. Our name was taken, our reservation confirmed, the men arrived, and we were shown in to the elegant restaurant which had a beautiful view of the bay. The linen, china, glassware and flowers were all a delight to examine. To our amusement, we ladies were brought a kind of hook and shelf that fitted to our chair on which you could place your handbag.

We decided we would have the most modest menu, which had 2 or 3 choices for each course and included a bottle of wine. The men had pastis and we had champagne as an aperitif. There was delicious home-baked bread and an amuse-bouche. I am ashamed to admit that out of the plethora of meals we ate, I cannot recall what exactly we ate here, but it was all very good. There was no feeling of disapproval that we had chosen a less expensive choice (it was still quite pricey you understand), and the service was impeccable – it was attentive without being tiresome; it proceeded at exactly the right pace – show enough that you felt you could relax, but not so slow that you became impatient. This kind of service, which you barely notice, is difficult to deliver.

There was only one wrong note. A waitress from another table, a middle-aged woman in black, came to our table. ”You have a Princess, called Charlotte.” she declared in tones of great excitement. “Ah, yes,” we said, “We’d heard that on the news.” We smiled at her. But this was not apparently what was expected. “Are you not pleased?” By this time I’m reflecting that I’m not required to hold a random conversation with a waitress on a topic of her choosing, and her not even our waitress, but we reply politely that yes, of course we’re pleased. It is good that the child has been delivered safely; the mother is well; and they must be pleased to have a boy and a girl. I don’t know what raptures she is expecting – they got rid of their monarchy but if they feel they need one, they’re welcome to ours so far as I’m concerned, but the waitress stomps off, clearly in a huff, delivering her coup de grace over her shoulder. ‘And it is good for England as well!’

The maitre d, one of these unobtrusive chaps who just appears out of nowhere when he’s required, (and hence the excellent service) materialises at our elbow soothingly and the meal proceeds.

But discussing this later with Elisabeth, we think it is significant that neither of us can remember anything we ate here. We can remember that it was all very pleasant; that the service was superb; the occasion enjoyable; and the food was very good – but we wonder if a Michelin star is worth what it used to be.

I considered complaining about the impertinent waitress but the maitre d was so competent I reckon he had dealt with it anyway.

Another starred Mchelin restaurant on our last day. Elisabeth and I approach the restaurant while the men park the cars and settle Milo. We try various doors around the building but cannot gain admittance. A chef emerges from some hidden door and opens a gate and directs us into a car park from which (if we’re lucky) we can enter the building. As we approach the doors we pass a plastic life sized orange pig. Inside, the place smells of spa and three ladies in dressing-gowns are consulting the receptionist. We wait. When they finish, the receptionist looks us over, and then decides there is something more urgent requiring her attention elsewhere and walks off, leaving the reception empty. After some time, a young male receptionist arrives. Elisabeth says we have a reservation. He denies this. She insists. He finds it, but does not apologise. I say I wish to visit the ladies’ room but this request is ignored. Although the dining room is empty, we are ushered to an unprepossessing table far from the window and with a lot of passing traffic. Worst of all, above this table is a giant photo of an unattractive man in chef’s uniform. I take even more exception to him than I did to the pig, The men arrive and we are presented with the menu. There are three prices of menu printed, but we are informed that only one is available today, (the most expensive) which costs 90 Euros per person. I have already decided (at about the point where we passed the pig) that I do not care for this establishment, so I shut my menu decidedly, and the decision is made that we will leave. The waitress says, “We can propose for you a simpler menu.” But I think, and will you also remove the photograph of the chef, and we sweep out, passing more people in dressing gowns.

We drive down the road and we find a rough building in a wood, practically a shack, where we can see the chef working (he is amusingly grumphy) and the waitress (perhaps his wife) is a beauty with a swan neck, and for some modest sum we have a delicious meal (there is very little choice) which includes kebabs of lamb and wonderful home made ice cream, served on mis matched china and surrounded by French families.

You can keep your orange pig.

COUP DE GRACE

The removal recently of Elisabeth and Robert across London reminded me of our own journey with three children from Scotland to England when we moved to the South.

It had been a long, tiring and emotional day with a very early start and John had promised us as a treat that we would eat at a good restaurant he used with his colleagues at Scotch Corner.   This was a big upgrade from the usual family type meal in a Little Chef or similar and everyone was looking forward to it.   The children were 9, 7 and 5 respectively, but we were all accustomed to dining in France so a formal meal was no problem for them.    John had booked a table for 5 to make sure we would be received.   We passed several suitable eating places on the way, getting hungrier and hungrier, and we had to detour off our path, but eventually and still within the serving hours we drew up in this much anticipated restaurant’s car park.

It was a handsome house with attractive approach and our spirits rose accordingly.   In we marched.    Imagine our disappointment when a waitress, a middle-aged, motherly-looking woman, stopped us in our tracks.   “I’m very sorry,” she said,  ‘but we do not serve children.’

We couldn’t believe our ears.   John explained he was a business customer;  we had had a long drive and had been looking forwards to their excellent food etc etc.   This charm offensive having failed, he promptly reverted to business mode, and informed her it was a misguided policy, and that he would not be patronising their establishment as a business customer in future.

“Come, children,” he gathered his chickens protectively, “We’ll go and find some place where we are welcome.”

As we walked past the unfortunate waitress, Joanna (9) looked her in the eye.   “We’re very hungry,” she said.   Elisabeth (7) came behind.      She too looked the woman in the face.   “We know how to behave.”   But it fell to Rory (5), smallest of all but even then deadly if provoked, to deliver the coup de grace.   He looked at the woman with all the disdain a five year old could muster.   “We’ve been in better places than this.”

For all my fatigue, hunger and irritation, I felt quite sorry for the poor woman, whose  feeble protestations that this wasn’t HER policy; she would gladly have fed us;  there was a nice place just down the road that might suit us, were utterly ignored by all of us as we sailed magnificently out.   Only when we reached the car did people start to cry!

The next place’s culinary standards were nothing special, but  their food was wholesome, hearty  and they welcomed us in with warmth and kindness.   Better a modest meal in peaceful surroundings where you are made welcome and your comfort and well being considered, than to dine at a pretentious establishment with ideas above its station and so taken up with its own grandeur that they had forgotten who they were.

Besides, businesses should treat children with respect.   Some bank that has patronised them, some restaurant that has refused to serve them, may not be viewed kindly in a few years when those same children may be in charge of major businesses themselves.   Our children have long memories!

PS   I’m taking a summer break:  talk to you in a few weeks.

YES CHEF

My husband has never been much interested in cooking.    Eating, yes…   though I don’t think he could be called a foodie.   Discussions  such as I enjoy having with my son and my brother as to whether the addition of a different herb or spice would add to the element of flavour – these refinements are not my husband’s forte.   But he enjoys his food and I like cooking, so we get along fine.   In fairness also, he never had much time to cook.   But now, in his retirement, I find him slowly and at his own pace taking up one or two specialities.

Two of his male friends are accomplished makers of marmalade.   My mother was a jam maker amd after I married she supplied my household as well as her own, so I never learned this art.   My father was a bee-keeper and provided  us with honey.   The most I ever did was occasionally make marmalade out of a tin.    So, a few years ago when John arrived home without any warning whatsoever with 2 kilos of Seville oranges, I was not at all pleased.   In fact, I felt like taking the oranges one by one and throwing them at him.   However, I decided this was his venture, so apart from helping him a little with the preparation, I refrained from worrying about the boil, the test for setting etc but cleared off and left him to it.   Much to my surprise, a batch of lovely, bitter marmalade, far better than anything I had ever made or could buy was the result.   He has made all our marmalade every year since.

Recently he decided to make bread by hand.   There followed a period of research;  reading and buying various cook books, researching and  buying tins etc.   (My tins, for some reason, were not deemed suitable.)   This process went on  for so long  that I despaired of any actual bread ever being produced.   But I held my tongue – John’s ways are mysterious.   One day I came upon him in occupation of my – I should now say ‘our’ – kitchen and realised that bread making was actually in progress.   Immediately I began to fret about temperature of liquids, amount of  salt, place of raising, and then I remembered – this is not your project – and again I took myself off and did something else and left him to it.

This morning I was served delicious wholemeal bread – the maestro thinks it could have risen a tad more but I have no complaints, topped with lovely home made marmalade.

Secrets of assisting husband to learn to cook?   Vacate kitchen.   Do not offer advice.   Enjoy results!