“She thought food was the key to unlocking life,” Sophie Grigson
This is one of my First Recipe posts - the book in question being Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, and I begin it with this photograph of Jane Grigson taken in the 60s when she would have been in her late forties, early 50s. And she doesn't look it. I love this photograph because it is so very different from her image as a warm and cuddly housewife cooking homely meals for her family in a rustic kitchen. It looks almost as if she is wearing some exotic, almost Elizabethan furry coat, but it is of course the chair she sits on and perhaps a warm scarf.
I dithered over photographs to begin this post. An apple - for I shall be talking about apples, the book cover, another picture of Jane, fortuitously with fruit, including apples, with her daughter Sophie - also a food writer. See below. It's a nice picture and more like the general perception of this wonderful lady, but not quite as arresting.
"Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book is like Mary Poppins’ bottomless bag. Every time you plunge in, there is always more unexpected treasure."
So says Rachel Roddy in a short article she wrote about Jane Grigson 25 years after her death at the relatively early age of 62. And what she says is absolutely true. I have made many recipes from this book and because this is a First Recipe book I have reacquainted myself with that first recipe - Consommé Indienne, and not normally something I would have even considered looking at. I also reread her introduction to the whole book and the introduction to this section on apples - and how appropriate it is, is it not, that the first fruit that should be considered is the apple - the fruit that supposedly began the journey of man to independence from his home with God the Father.
And that illustration on the cover and the drawing on the Frontispiece, just shout abundance and joy do they not? In her introduction she acknowledges 'the burden of it being good for us' but goes on to say:
"An apple a day, an orange a day have not spoilt our feelings. We respond to strawberry fields or cherry orchards with a delight that a cabbage patch or even an elegant vegetable garden cannot provoke.
Such feelings towards fruit have made this book more fun to write than any of the others."
The book has no glossy photographs. It is a simple paperback with small line drawings that illustrate each fruit as it is encountered - in alphabetical order. Some more exotic fruits have been left out - they were simply not available to her back then. If it was written today I am sure she would have included them for she regrets their omission. So, although, in a way old-fashioned, the recipes are treasures. It's the first place I go to when I want to find something new to do with apples say, or when I want to know what to do with a fruit with which I am unfamiliar. I may not choose one of her suggestions, although I often do, but it's certainly my starting point.
It's also more than simply a collection of recipes. It's one of those books you can read as an actual book not a cookbook. You learn stuff and enjoy as you learn.
"Recipes aside, her food books are dense with history, geography, literature, the natural world and poetry. They’re readable, too, her scholarship woven with personal history – always necessary, never indulgent – reflections on life, humour, curiosity and gleeful irreverence." Rachel Roddy
As in this paragraph in the introduction:
"As with vegetables, what moved me about fruit was the centuries of patient work that have built up the repertoire of apple, pear and strawberry varieties, that have developed cherries, peaches, plums and citrus fruit for different tastes and places. Before farming began, people cleared space round certain trees so that their fruit could grow in better light with less competition. Later soldiers, travellers and explorers brought new fruit, or better versions of familiar fruit home with them. The excitement of the Renaissance extended to gardening too, which is something that historians leave out of their accounts."
She probably lived at the time when fresh produce was at its worst - when quantity and shelf-life was valued over flavour. And many times she poured out her scorn of these practices, although she had many clever ways of dealing with things like flavourless tough tomatoes.
"The food trade makes the egalitarian mistake, which is also a convenience for itself, of thinking that every food has to be as cheap and inoffensive as every other similar food. This mistake has ruined chicken and potatoes and bread. No wine merchant sells only plonk, no flower shop sticks to daisies. In the matter of vegetables and fruit, we seem often to be reduced to a steady bottom of horticultural plonk."
Today we are more fortunate I think as growers seem to be ever more adventurous in finding new varieties that please as well as last. Add to that the Organic movement, farmers' markets et al. Provenance is key and almost anything is available, although, alas, generally to the wealthier amongst us. But progress it is. There are many more varieties of apple in our supermarkets these days than when I first arrived on these shores, and even more in those farmer's markets and specialist greengrocers.
Then there is the respect for the writers of the past. The penultimate paragraph of her Introduction is almost entirely a quotation from Jean-Baptiste de la Quntinie - the Sun King, Louis XIV's gardener, as translated by John Evelyn - a renowned 18th century English gardener, with interspersed comments from herself:
"To explain what they were about, they chose fruit - 'Fruit, as it was our primitive, and most excellent as well as most innocent food, whilst it grew in Paradise; a climate so benign, and a soil so richly impregnated with all that the influence of Heaven could communicate to it; so it has still preserved, and retained no small tincture of its original and celestial virtue.' Even in its fallen state, fruit is still the most 'agreeable closure' to a meal, however grand and princely. And so it is the gardener's labour 'to repair what the choicest and most delicious fruit has been despoiled of, since it grew in Paradise.' To aim, in other words, at recovering the original flavour of Eden, even if such transcendent perfection can never quite be achieved."
And so to the apple:
"The apple was the first fruit of the world, according to Genesis, but it was no Cox's orange pippin. God gave the crab apple and left the rest to man." Jane Grigson
The modest apple carries such a burden of symbolism does it not?
And yet it is spectacularly available all year round here in Australia. I think we are famous for our apples although I notice that now we are ranked no. 35 in world production terms. The orchards that clustered around our cities - two of our first Australian houses were built next to where orchards used to be, maybe on actual orchards - have disappeared, but there are still many, many orchards, and Victoria, I believe is top for apples here.
This is supposed to be a First Recipe post so I should at least briefly deal with Consommé Indienne, which in spite of its French name sounds to me like an Anglo-Indian thing. Mind you Escoffier - who was French - also had a recipe for a Consommé Indienne but it's not at all the same thing. It consisted of small dice of a coconut flavoured 'royales' whatever they may be - a coconut kind of cream perhaps? - added to some curry flavoured consommé. No apples are involved.
Jane Grigson's recipe is also not hers. It is a recipe from Ruth Lowinsky - a cook of the 1930's - of whom Jane Grigson says:
"It all seems quick, easy, smart. This recipe is given, ingredients and all in seven lines. Fast food, Yet, like fast food today, which is decidedly not of Mrs. Lowinsky's standard, it depends on labour or machinery or both, even if they are provided by somebody else. Mrs Lowinsky could go into her kitchen and expect that the cook would always keep stock in readiness."
As with growing our produce, we have also made great progress in the fast and easy category. These days there are many eminent celebrity chefs to give us amazingly fast, easy and, moreover tasty recipes to pursue. However, without people like Jane Grigson they may never have been able to achieve what they have.
But back to that consommé. I cannot find the recipe online, but this picture is probably close to what it should look like. Basically you make a chicken stock flavoured with onions, apple, desiccated coconut curry powder, clarified with egg whites. You strain this and add boiled rice and shredded chicken. Done. I'm not sure I'm particularly tempted by this. It's not really my kind of thing, but it's interesting - and different. There is no denying that. In the old days of curry dishes in England, apples often seemed to be added, although why? Surely they don't have apples in India? I suppose it's the English contribution to the Indian cuisine.
I suppose if you were looking for a recipe to suck you into a cookbook, this one wouldn't quite do it, in spite of the wry words about Ruth Lowinsky and her cook. But this doesn't matter to me, because I would have been sucked in already by the introduction - both to the book itself and to the chapter. Besides it's an easily navigable book. You just look up the fruit you are interested in - they are arranged in alphabetical order - and pick the recipe that appeals. There is sure to be at least one.
But even this particular recipe is not one of the best in the book, there are many more delicious recipes in this chapter, and just to demonstrate that her books are so much more than recipes, she ends the chapter with a poem - Kelmscott Crab Apples by William Morris.
Which is followed by many more delicious recipes for all those other fruits we love - there are forty six of them - from apples to water melon. If you come across this book in an op shop somewhere. Buy it.
“She reminds us that food is so much more than just food, that 'its quality, its origins, its preparation, is something to be studied and thought about in the same way as every other aspect of human existence'” Rachel Roddy
"It does what a good cookbook should, which is to lure you into the kitchen.” Jeremy Lee - Chef