"I hope your day is a gentle one." Belinda Jeffery
Continuing with my mission to clear my desk, I am turning to one of my Christmas gifts, this beautiful small book from one of my favourite Australian cooks. Belinda Jeffery - the cake and tart lady as I like to think of her. In one of her introductory pieces in this book, she even says of herself, "I'm a pastry cook at heart."
In some ways she typifies a sort of caricature of Australian country cooks - The Country Women's Association, Agricultural shows and all that, and it's probably easy to mock her - as some people mock Delia Smith in England. Old-fashioned, homey and just too sweet for this world, as the quote at the top of the page epitomises.
However, look beyond that - and yes, the words are sometime a bit cloying, but honestly - what's wrong with being just - well - nice. Look beyond that and actually you find that she actually epitomises all those foodie things that are so current, that everybody seems to be doing and saying, and that I have been talking about of late.
To illustrate this let's take a look at her one page introduction.
She begins with Instagram which, it seems to me is getting ever closer to me taking the plunge. And like me it was curiosity that started her thinking about Instagram:
"For me, Instagram was initially a space to dip my toe in the waters of social media, but as time passed, I realised it was becoming much more. ... I noticed that I was getting more and more comments from people ... These have continued to grow over time, and I've been surprised, touched, and more than a little overwhelmed by the extraordinary response my posts receive."
And if you are already on Instagram you can check her site out here.
Instagram is the first thing she talks about for this book is collated from her Instagram Sunday postings, illustrating perfectly that publisher's question of the other day, as to whether Petrina Tinslay the photographer, was on social media because this would guarantee sales. In this case it's currently 38.4 thousand for Belinda Jeffery! Now how would you be able to read comments from that number of followers, even if only a small percentage actually comment? No doubt this would have been uppermost in Belinda Jeffery's publisher's mind, but possibly hers as well, although she says:
"the idea that these posts could be brought together in a book initially came from my followers, as so many have written and suggested I should do so. The seed was planted and after niggling away at me for quite some time, I finally found things falling into place like a giant jigsaw puzzle."
In times gone by that impetus would have been newspaper columns. Robert Carrier's first books were partly compiled from his columns for example. With Nigel Slater I'm not sure which comes first - his Observer columns, or the books, but they are definitely related. Today it's your blog, your TV show, or your Instagram or Facebook posts. Tik-tok too, and all the other ones I don't even know the name of.
So chalk one up to being completely with the trend in the digital world.
Then we move on to provenance.
"I talk about simple, everyday life - the farmers I know and the markets I visit."
Throughout the book she bangs on - yes bangs on and on a bit - about the local producers who provide her with the ingredients which inspire her recipes. An increasing number of cooks, and following their example - the major supermarkets as well have joined in. They are all keen to tell you all about the producers who provide them with their ingredients. Witness Woolworths' podcasts and supermarket signs naming their farmers and telling their stories. The celebrity chefs exhort you to be aware of where your food comes from and to only buy the freshest and the best. Not always possible for the poor I have to say, but still it's a trend that she embraces completely and which she claims to be her inspiration.
"I feel so very fortunate to be able to cook beautiful fresh produce like this, grown locally by people I know and admire. Their efforts and work inform and inspire everything I do in my writing and my classes and I'm so very grateful to them."
Those classes are obviously a very important part of her life and she writes frequently of preparations for them and the joy she gets from them. However, she is not quite as evangelical as Jamie, say, in why she runs these classes. They are small after all - the one illustrated below has just 8 participants, and I'm guessing they are expensive - yes $380.00 I just checked - although that is for a whole day and includes substantial amounts of food. However, it seems to be more of a feel-good thing to do rather than a way of getting those who don't normally cook to cook.
"I make observations about the extraordinary world of nature that is so much part of my daily life ... There's a sense of ... a return to a simpler life around what I do and what I share."
And so she does - here and there there ar comments about the birds in her garden, the animals on the farms, the beauty of the countryside and the photographs in this book share that. In this she is very like Maggie Beer whose home in the Barossa Valley plays a very large role in her books and TV shows.
And like Maggie Beer she is very much up to date with new ingredients, and with little twists to her food that makes it special. Below are some examples of this - Black garlic butter - how very Ottolenghi; Roasted pineapple with hazelnut crumb and cardamom yoghurt cream - how trendy is that! - and she loves hazelnuts - they pop up with great frequency it seems to me; Caramelised fennel; Gigantes plaki (Greek-style baked beans) and finally Slow-cooked star anise beef, which I plan to have a go at some time soon. Slow-cooked, caramelised, star anise, beans - also very of the moment. All the fashionable bases are covered.
And finally at the end of her introduction she says this:
"It's a cross between a cookbook, a journal, a conversation, and reflections on the world around me. I see it being as much a bedside book just to read, as a cookbook, although I'd love to think that the pages become spotted and smudged from constant use."
I think it's extraordinary that COVID seems to have focussed the attention of so many cooks on to many of the same things - a return to the simpler things of life, family and community, yet at the same time exploring new foods, new cuisines whilst focussing on health, sustainability and waste management - all in direct contradiction to what our current politicians are all about I might say.
A final word though. I said at the start that to me Belinda Jeffery is the cake and tart lady. Having read this book though I see that she is also the fruit and vegetable lady - though not vegan. That's perhaps the only trend she doesn't embrace, although there are, of course, some recipes that are vegan. But there are only 7 meat and fish recipes in the book.
So here are three cakes and tarts - Tomato, herb and goat's cheese tart in no-roll cheese pastry; Dark chocolate, caramelised date and hazelnut brownie; Classic ginger petticoat tails and Lumberjack cake. Alas you will have to buy the book to find the recipes - until one of her fans has a go at making the recipes in her book.
I suppose the writing is a bit gooey, but I feel that it is sincere. Many will mock the style though I'm sure - well it's not as accomplished as Nigel Slater's - but it's a great pity is it not, that we have become cynical in the human race's old age so that feelings of joy in the world around us, the simple pleasure we derive from homely things like cooking and watching the birds in your garden are despised. But you don't have to read the words. You can simply make just about every recipe in this book. I know I could.
And tomorrow I plan to make an older recipe of hers for my vegetarian dish of the week - A very simple upside-down tomato pie - which is a sort of savoury cake really and is just wonderful. I can guarantee that lots more recipes in this book will become family favourites soon.
Thank you so much Nic.