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A ball of string

I took the above photograph back in April. This week I decided to change the 'wallpaper' on my computer desktop which I do every few weeks or so, using photographs from my collection. And I chose this one. So I have been looking at it all week in close-up and enjoying its haphazard beauty, its almost joyful carelessness. It raised so many questions really. What is it? Who did it? Why? At first I thought it might be chewing gum - every now you come across places where chewing gum has been used to create a kind of street art. But no if you look closely you see that it is ordinary old string.

I found it on the fence alongside one of the little lanes I walk through on the way back from the shops. As you can see it extended beyond these few panels. It's just one of those small oddities you come across now and then and of course it's no longer there. Time and the weather have meant that it has fallen off. I must have a look next time I pass and see if there is anything left.

From this simple ball of string came a kind of work of art. Most likely it was the work of a child - the laneway joins two quiet courts, where I have occasionally seen children playing, and also found pieces of chalk work on the paving, so this is the most likely conclusion and demonstrates, how the youngest of us can see more artistic potential in everyday things, than adults.

Ok - enough of the marginally philosophical, because the photograph also got me to thinking about string in the kitchen I bet you have some tucked away in a drawer somewhere and that you never even think about it - just like the vegetable peeler, the glad wrap, the spatula - the cheap ordinary things that you use every day and never notice. So I started thinking, and also looking on the net of course which led to my first thought - how few people seem to have written about it. I mean it seems to me that whenever I think of something to write about I find that zillions of people have got there before me. Not in the case of string - just one article really from Amy Scattergood of the Los Angeles Times who begins by telling us all the things we can do with it - well just some I suppose.

"Think about it: With just a simple length of twine, you can tie roasts, wrap a bouquet garni or sachet, tie off sausage links, hang charcuterie, tie roulades, hang yogurt and other items in cheesecloth to drain, support stuffed meats or vegetables, reconstruct cuts of meat, and truss all manner of poultry." Amy Scattergood/Los Angeles Times

She also mentioned a chef who:

"suspends cheesecloth bags of roasted vegetable purées to drain, using the purée and the collected juices in recipes."

Which is perhaps a step too far for the ordinary cook. Even one who admires Yotam Ottolenghi.

Now I don't make my own sausages or salamis - also a step too far - and I suspect none of my readers do either, but I do indeed, when I think about it, do more with my ball of string than I thought, although it's possible that you don't. Labneh for example. So, so simple. Wrap your yoghurt in muslin or cheesecloth - or even a fine tea towel or a chux and leave it to drip over a bowl. Some people say you should do it in the fridge, but I just leave it in the laundry. The longer you leave it to drip the thicker it will become of course. You can add stuff to the yoghurt before draining, or afterwards too. Make a dip with it, roll it into balls and then into things like chopped nuts or sesame seeds. You will find it cropping up in all sorts of places from books by Stephanie Alexander to Yotam Ottolenghi. I confess I came to labneh fairly late in life, but it's something I do relatively often these days.

Then there's all those things that you can stuff or wrap stuff around or do both. You need string to keep the stuffing inside and the stuff on the outside in place. And the things you are stuffing, or the things you are wrapping can be an almost infinite choice of course.

Have you got a glut of herbs or chillies or anything that would respond to drying? Again just tie them in a bunch and hang somewhere until perfectly dry. Crumble - or not - and put in a jar.

There is also a classic French dish called Bouef à la ficelle. Apparently this began as a quite different dish - a beef roast strung up in front of a fire - it has been attributed to Alexandre Dumas - he of The Three Musketeers, but apart from Amy Scattergood's article I found no reference to this. So maybe it's one of those apocryphal stories. You can certainly imagine it over a camp fire though can't you. Although you would think that the string would burn.

But no - the classic dish is a rolled beef roast tied with string and then tied to some kind of suspension mechanism - most commonly a wooden spoon - and hung - half in and half out - in some flavoursome broth. So it's partially poached. I guess you do this in the oven, so that the top also cooks. Obviously it deserves a post all of its own some time. I have a very vague memory of trying this once, but without a great deal of success.

Which other of these things have I done? Well I've dried the herbs, I've made jelly, I've stuffed and poached chicken breasts; I've wrapped various things in various other things; When I've boned a leg of lamb (or pork) and then stuffed it (or not) I've tied it together with string whilst it's cooking; labneh, bouquets garnis.

Cheesecloth - if you really want to use some and you have a Spotlight store within reach (and you live in Melbourne) then you will find it there. Buy a couple of metres and it will last you for ages, because you can wash it and re-use. But as I say, many recommend chux instead, or also a fine tea towel. Maybe a baby wipe - if it's cotton not plastic of some kind and drenched in some chemical.

If you are clever with your hands you can make yourself a string bag, or some coasters - well the possibilities are endless I suppose. Some kind of wall art like my laneway inspiration.

Or just get a ball of string, a pot of glue and play. In the kitchen.


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