"Everything tastes better outdoors." Claudia Roden
It's such a beautiful day - you can almost imagine that summer is actually on its way, and sitting on my desk is my next first recipe book - Picnic - by Claudia Roden, so I thought I would tackle it. I know I've mentioned it before because it's my very favourite Claudia Roden book, indeed one of my very favourite cookbooks. Which is demonstrated by the fact that it's one of those that is falling apart. Its popularity is such that it has been revised and republished a couple of times under the title Picnics: and other outdoor feasts - the latest in 2010.
It's not really a recipe book although there are heaps of recipes in it, but they are mostly short and really just outlines to get you started.
"The object of the book is to inspire those who like to eat well and who love to be out among the trees. it is for those who travel all over the world, who camp and sail and carve, who enjoy good food and cannot always afford the prices of restaurants and prefer to pack a picnic meal or cook on the spot. It is not a primer, nor a textbook; nor is it a cooking school and it assumes a certain knowledge of basic cooking skills." Claudia Roden
It's divided into four main sections and within those are a varying number of small chapters. Like all those old paperback cookbooks there are no glossy pictures but this one has delightful line drawings by Linda Kitson, scattered throughout. This one is the frontispiece and how perfectly in just a few lines it sums up the joys of eating outdoors.
The sections are Eating in the Garden; Food to Take Out; Cooking in the Open and Suggestions for the Traveller. The first Garden section is the shortest and has three mini chapters - Tea on the Lawn; A Table in the Garden and A Wedding Party.
But before I get to eating in the garden - which I really should be doing today - although, sadly it is a day of fasting for me - a brief word about how she equates the idea of eating outside with our views of Paradise. For Paradise is almost always a garden full of lush greenery, water and food. Indeed the book is opened with an extract from Paradise Lost by Milton, and in her introduction she describes her own personal Paradise in the Seychelles, long ago:
"Indian Ocean Creole food, amid the trees and the birds, was an assault on all the senses; I had to hold my breath to eat. Today the smell is still in my nostrils, the taste still on my tongue." Claudia Roden
Food and memory again. Nostalgic and romanticised memory perhaps, but memory that sustains. And it is often memories of these outdoor meals that are the strongest.
"There is something about fresh air and the liberating effect of nature which sharpens the appetite and heightens the quality and intensity of sensations. It is enough to see the contented expression of someone sitting at a sunny outdoor café to realise it. The sense of smell especially is extraordinarily keen and every little perfume from a nearby blossom or resinous bark adds to the flavour the most banal sandwich filling." Claudia Roden
Not a sunny outdoor café, but a nostalgic outdoor meal in France with wonderful friends - I couldn't find a suitable café picture. She didn't mention the hugely important component - the company.
But this is a first recipe post and the first section of the book in which it will be found is Eating in the Garden.
"to be served tea in the garden is still one of the joys of England." Claudia Roden
And Tea on the Lawn - is the first mini section although it goes for quite a few pages. She begins with these words:
"An illustration in a Cairo schoolbook of my childhood showed a daintily set tea-table on a well-mown lawn. tea-caddy, silver teapot, cream and milk jugs,sugar bowl slop basin with silver strainer and fine bone china service were laid out on a light Chantilly lace cloth. They symbolised the mystique of Englishness."
There follows a brief history of tea in the open air, which began in the eighteenth century, a paragraph or two on tea, and then she moves on to sandwiches - with a long list and brief instructions of the varying kinds: - an anchovy filling that keeps, cucumber, tomato, sardine, mushrooms, ham, cress, chicken, and finally, egg. All so very, very English. So I thought I would concentrate on just one - and perhaps the quintessentially English one - cucumber. And this is her recipe - brief and to the point, and so very typical of a huge number of 'recipes' within the book.
"Peel the cucumber, slice very thinly, sprinkle with salt and allow the juices to be drawn out for at least an hour. Dry on paper towels if you like, lay on buttered bread with a squeeze of lemon and a little freshly ground pepper, and cover. Alternatively, spread the cucumber slices with thick double or sour cream mixed with finely chopped parsley or chives." Claudia Roden
But here I turn to Felicity Cloake who has a go at making perfect ones. Why bother you might wonder with something so fundamentally, dare I say, tasteless? And certainly not nutritious. After all cucumber is 96% water, and white bread - well say no more. Felicity's reasoning is quite simple:
"The whole point about cucumber sandwiches is that, unless done really well, they're as dull as the sum of their ingredients. They glory in their own delicacy"
Actually though I discovered by a little wider reading that they began as a kind of thing to demonstrate class superiority because:
"they were not filling, like a meal a laborer would need, but merely delicately delicious." Good Food Stories
And they were pretty too - as witness these modern fancy versions - probably aimed at Instagram:
Back to Felicity though and why you should (a) delight in them and (b) how you should make them. She even finds some justification health-wise:
"Should you need any further persuading of the merits of this excellent dish, the cucumber sandwich was last year lauded by American scientists as the best thing to eat to regulate body temperature and stave off dehydration during a heatwave. Admittedly, their formulation recommends wholemeal bread, crusts left intact, and spread with mayonnaise, but hey, what do they know? They're American"
In typical fashion Felicity goes on to analyse each component of the sandwich beginning with the bread:
"this is definitely not the place for chewy sourdough or wholesome wholemeal. It should almost melt in your mouth once you cut the crusts off, but not quite." Felicity Cloake
Not sliced white supermarket bread though - just good quality white bread which you get the baker to slice so that it is uniformly sliced to just the right thickness. Butter - unsalted of course - and spread all the way to the edges of the bread so that liquid from the cucumber does not leak through into the bread. Although you get rid of most of that liquid by salting it as Claudia Roden explains. And that's it really - no crusts of course. And no cream cheese which seems to be an American thing. No mayonnaise either or herbs or onions or even watercress. Maybe a squeeze of lemon and tiny bit of white pepper. And apparently the late Queen liked mint and lemon in hers.
Of course you can do whatever you like though and this is one of the things that Claudia Roden is keen on promoting with this wonderful book:
"True gastronomy is making the most of what is available, however modest. It has little to do with the following recipes. And the leisurely atmosphere of holiday cooking is the best time to learn to trust your own taste and common sense, to weigh with eyes and hands, to feel and taste and dream a little. I have given precise measures only where they are required and when the preparations is likely to be done in the kitchen. Otherwise I have given enough information for a moderately accomplished cook, with encouragement towards self-assurance."
Hence the almost precise instructions on how to make a cucumber sandwich. She goes on to describe other sandwiches from times past, and to give recipes for a couple of cakes, finishing with that very English dish - strawberries and cream. So simple and yet so hard to get right. And she adds a few suggestions for making it a tiny bit more complicated. Suggestions only though.
Reading about cucumber sandwiches has made my mouth water, because, yes they are delicious even though they really shouldn't be. Not today though - fasting.
This is Melbourne and the sun has gone. The rain has just been pouring down and thunder is rumbling in the distance. Which is all very apt when it comes to the English and picnics and here Claudia Roden quotes Georgina Battiscombe, although I'm not sure how much of the following quote is Claudia Roden as well:
"The English picnicker is a hardy species, above the vagaries of the weather. It does require stoicism to defy fate and bring out knives and forks at the risk of being rained and blown upon. But it is also true that the gastronomic rigours of British hotels and restaurants are usually worse than those of the British climate, and there seems to be a particular, grim, English pleasure in a cold, wet, uncomfortable picnic."
She was writing way back in 1981 and I have no doubt that the standard of English hotels and restaurants has risen since then but it's certainly true that the English are not daunted by the weather.
Mind you this year's Melbourne Cup was subject to downpours, which didn't seem to slow the Australian picnickers either. Disasters end up as funny dinner party stories don't they? Such is the human ability to forget the bad and remember the good.
Anyway a wonderful book. And so much more than cucumber sandwiches. There are pages of information about marinades for example, and recipes for various dips and snacks from around the world. If you ever see it on a bookshop shelf buy it.
It's going to be 29 degrees on Wednesday. Perhaps I should look through the rest of the book and find something else - and more substantial to eat in the garden as the sun goes down.
With thanks to my friend Sue who has just returned to England from her trip to Catalonia, visiting her son and family. Today she has sent me a whole lot of photographs of Spanish food which I shall be looking to use in future posts. However one of the photographs was of a sort of do it yourself pan con tomate - taken to an extreme I have to say - from one restaurant. And I forgot to say that the pan con tomate that she sent me recently and which I have already featured just came for free as it were. It was not ordered. Anyway here is DIY pan con tomate as found in a Catalonia restaurant, and I think the plate in the middle of the table at her son's home, is also pan con tomate. It looks like 'real' Catalonians go for the unembellished version rather than the pretty ones. Like cucumber sandwiches really in their way.
And a final word - today I reached 3000 views of my blog page. A mere trifle in the blogosphere but huge for me! Thank you for reading.