Anthony on That Old Chestnut

I went for a drive through the central highlands of Victoria over the Easter and was struck by the many roadside offers of fresh chestnuts for sale. Reader, we drove by.

I had a memory that fresh chestnuts take some wrangling: scoring the base of each nut, roasting, then getting the skins off by rubbing with a tea towel and so on. I was obviously having a Shirley Conran-esque “life’s too short…” moment.

But another part of me was heralding chestnuts as the harbinger of winter. My first trip to Europe nearly twenty years ago took place over the northern hemisphere winter, and the smell of roasting chestnuts in Rome, Paris and Barcelona was a revelation. When a few years later roasted chestnut vendors appeared on the wintry streets of Melbourne’s CBD, initially the scent was a part evocation of those European cities.

By way of aside: because of Melbourne’s reliance on trams, not that many buses pass through the CBD. Occasionally I do get a whiff of diesel as buses pass down some streets, and I’m immediately transported to those metropolises that make greater use of buses: London, Sydney, Rome, Paris. Tragic, really, that the intake of diesel fumes can make me feel I’m on holiday. Now if only those roasted chestnut vendors set up
shop nest to Melbourne’s prime bus routes, my vicarious tourism would be complete.

Anyhoo, one aspect of the chestnut I now embrace is chestnut flour. Since I started to cook for myself, I’ve collected, borrowed and browsed Italian cookbooks, and many of them have a recipe for “castagnaccio” – a chestnut flour cake that hails from Tuscany. The recipes generally describe a cake made of chestnut flour, water, olive oil, rosemary and pine nuts. That’s it. Sometimes it’s sweetened with honey. It’s invariably described as “rustic”, which hardly begins to sum up the absolute peasant austerity of the recipe. And, strange as it may seem, on perusing these recipes, I was never ever tempted to bake a castagnaccio.

Until, until… I had the pleasure of working near Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne several years ago and a wonderful café that fronted onto Elizabeth Street with all sorts of delights offered “castagnaccio”: a lovely plump, honey-coloured slice which, when tasted, was the perfect mid-morning coffee accompaniment, the chestnut flour and honey combining to evoke the flavour of exotic spices, the rosemary adding an incredible floral yet savoury moment, the sultanas being bursts of fruity sweetness, whilst the pine nuts referenced a Neolithic past.

So this is what I had been missing out on?

I raced home, dug out my recipes for castagnaccio, whipped up this frugal concoction of chestnut flour, oil, water, rosemary, pine nuts and sultanas and… well, it tasted exactly like you would imagine such a concoction to taste: bleagh!

So my mission was to replicate this café castagnaccio. Them at the café gave nothing away, but eventually the fantastic Karen Martini published a recipe for “Chestnut, honey and rosemary cake with pine nuts” in the Sunday Age (it now appears in her second cookbook, Cooking at Home). This was what I was after: not the taste of Tuscan peasant winters with their frugal ingredients, but a lovely cake enriched with eggs, butter, sugar and milk.

So here is the Karen Martini recipe, which whilst a homage to “castagnaccio” she has the good grace not to call castagnaccio, but which I urge you all to bake

(Check the use-by on any chestnut flour you purchase: it doesn’t keep too long, and is milled in the northern hemisphere and so is out-of-season come our winter)

200g chestnut flour
100g self-raising flour
185g unsalted butter
160g brown sugar
185ml water
185ml milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4tbsp honey
80g sultanas
1 sprig of rosemary
50g pine nuts
2tbsp olive oil

Heat oven to 180C and grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin
Combine flours and butter to form something resembling coarse breadcrumbs. Add sugar.
Combine bicarb of soda, water, milk, egg, egg yolk and honey and whisk well. Add sultanas and half the rosemary and stir.
Add the flour mixture and mix well, then pour batter into the tin. Scatter with pine nuts and remaining rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil and bake 35-45 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a skewer (natch).

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Treading the Olive Line

The Italian town of Bellagio sits at the tip of a peninsula that perfectly bisects the south part of Lake Como into two picturesque arms. I had the privilege in September of spending a fortnight staying there and living la vita Como. When I stood on the tip of the peninsula at la punta di spartiventi (“the place where the winds separate”) I noticed an olive tree a couple of metres out from the shore, its feet entirely submerged in the waters of Lake Como. Surely, I thought, this must be the northernmost olive tree in the world. After all, the Swiss border was only ten or so kilometres to the north and west.

But strictly speaking, I wasn’t correct. When I visited the town of Varenna on the eastern shore of the Lake and a kilometre or so further to the north, I found olive trees growing on the mountain side facing the Lake, even while alpine vegetation dominated the north side of the slopes.

The “olive line” is something to conjure with. That point north of which the olive tree won’t prosper serves, ideally, as the boundary of Mediterranean cuisine: beyond which, the cooking becomes butter-dominated.

Recently, UNESCO announced that the Mediterranean diet is going to be given world heritage status, joining a list of “intangible” cultural heritage that already includes the tango and Croatian lace-making.

But what is this thing called the Mediterranean diet? Most of us foodies would easily recognise the distinctions between, say, Moroccan cooking and Greek cooking and Italian cooking. There are parts of the Mediterranean coast where fresh and cured pork dominate the diet, and other areas of the coast where its consumption is nearly non-existent. Wine will be served in just about any Spanish café, but will rarely make an appearance across the Straits of Gibraltar in a Moroccan counterpart. What is it that could possibly link these cuisines?

It was Elizabeth David, I think, who was the first to popularise the idea of Mediterranean food as an ensemble, although the first edition of her A Book of Mediterranean Food was overwhelmingly a collection of French recipes, with a few Levantine ones thrown in from her wartime sojourns in the Greek Isles and Cairo. Other Mediterranean cuisines didn’t fair too well; she introduced paella with the observation that “it is the Spanish version of risotto”, which suggests a certain thoughtlessness as regards either Spanish cuisine or Italian cuisine, or both.

The origins of the “Mediterranean Diet” as some nutritional shibboleth lie in a study of the island of Crete after the Second World War by epidemiologist Lelan Allbaugh. But whilst his survey of the Cretan diet showed that vegetables and pulses were overwhelmingly eaten over meat and fish, most of those Cretans surveyed indicated this was more a matter of necessity than choice and that their favourite food was meat — particularly pork products — and they couldn’t get enough of it. Yet what we today evoke as the “Mediterranean Diet” probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. As I observed in an earlier post, up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine. Much of the Mediterranean makes for poor farming and the sea itself is comparatively poor in fish. Remember that a staple of the historical “Mediterranean diet” was air dried cod, imported from Norway.

Historically, as Clifford Wright observes, there were many Mediterraneans – at least two: east and west, Turkish and Spanish, Islamic and Christian. As he says, there is the Mediterranean defined by climate, another defined by sea, another defined by history. And there is the human Mediterranean defined by the movements of its people, which counters any static picture of the Mediterranean, including its diet. Since the fifth century the Mediterranean has seen the rise of Islamic civilisation, has shifted from feudalism to capitalism, and embarked on an age of exploration and conquest. Each transition has fundamentally altered the diet of those around the Mediterranean, especially the introduction of foods we now think of as quintessentially Mediterranean, such as oranges, lemons, eggplants and spinach by Arab agriculturalists, and tomatoes, capsicums and squash after Columbus’s footfall in America, with tomatoes making a particular late appearance in southern Italian cuisine.

But today a platonic “Mediterranean Diet” is ubiquitous, not just in cookery books but also in health promotion. It is merely one example of how, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz has observed in the North American context, every localised taste opportunity is taken by commercial enterprise and turned into some new national fad, made available without regard to place or season.

In 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to introduce the Mediterranean diet to an American audience. They organized a conference to present the science, and unveiled a graphic – the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – to make this approach easy to understand.

Oldways is a non-profit education organization. It founded the Mediterranean Food Alliance (MFA) to “improve public health by raising consumer awareness about the health benefits of following the Mediterranean Diet”. The Oldways website goes on to explain, “companies that manufacture, import, and sell healthy Mediterranean products underwrite some of the MFA’s educational programs. A number of these companies also apply to use the easily-recognizable Oldways Med Mark on their qualifying products…The MFA benefits a company’s bottom line while it also benefits consumer health. Dues are low and on a sliding scale, so companies of all sizes can participate”.

And to convince MFA members and other Oldways financial supporters — which include the International Olive Council — that they’re getting value for money, Oldways points to “increased sales of Mediterranean foods” as its first KPI, noting that since its Mediterranean Diet campaign took off in the mid-1990s, U.S. olive oil imports rose more than 137%.

And let’s face it, the one thing that could possibly link the disparate, diverse and ever changing worlds of Mediterranean cuisine I referred to earlier is olive oil. So perhaps promoting the “olive line” is important in ways I hadn’t begun to imagine.

Anthony’s Authentic™ Soupe ou Pistou

Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.

<img src="https://progressivedinnerparty.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/borlottibeans.jpg&quot; class="center frame"

I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.

The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.

Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.

One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.

Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.

Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.

So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.

Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:

If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.

Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.

In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.

Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.

Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup

Pistou:

For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.

Anthony: Everyone’s a critic.

That was the slogan of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It got me thinking about food critics, and what they do. We tend to only reflect on the role of food critics when they’re in extremis: Leo Schofield getting sued for defamation; the French chef Bernard Loiseau and the loss of a Michelin star; or – horror of horrors – the Australian’s John Lethlean laying into Cheong Liew.

But what is restaurant reviewing all about? Nowadays, for most of us, if we want an opinion on a new restaurant in our neighbourhood, we’d probably go to some online site where diners rate the reasturant and offer their opinions. There’s a lot of debate about whether we’ve yet reached the age of the citizen journalist, but surely we’ve reached the age of the citizen critic? When it comes to something as quotidian as dining out, or a film, or a brand of whitegood or hi-fi, surely everyone is a critic. Do we really expect a food critic to add to this? Do we expect a restaurant critic to approach the task in the same way as a music critic will approach a recital, or a drama critic a play? Did they ever? Do we need a ‘specialist’ to interpret the dining experience to us in the same way as, for example, an art critic interprets art? What does it mean to a ‘specialist’ when it comes to consuming food in a restaurant?

I lived in Toronto in the first half of last year, in a neighbourhood at the west end of Queen Street West (that is, west Queen Street West). Queens St West runs from downtown, but the wester it goes the more it becomes like an extended version of Gertrude St Melbourne: a motley mix of convenience stores, pawn shops, second hand dealers, ethnic eateries, independent avant-garde art galleries, trendy cafes, social service providers and boutique hotels.

Gentrification Street West

The area, like Gertrude St, is bordered by public housing – or what they call ‘project housing’ – and a local performance artist, Darren O’Donnell (no relation), worked with kids from the local Parkdale High School on a project called ‘Eat the Street’, glossed as Parkdale Public School versus Queen Street West (Darren likes working with kids: one of his earlier projects was to offer passing adults ‘haircuts by kids’ – under the supervision of a stylist of course).

O’Donnell took a group of students from Parkdale to review eleven restaurants in the Queen Street West area, over a month and a half, culminating in an awards ceremony. Here are examples of what some of the schoolkids-turned-restaurant reviewers had to say about some of the restaurants on the project’s blog:

‘The washroom is too small, smells bad and it dirty. Atmosphere is good. Pretty room colours. Good outfit. I like the music’ – Tenzin Paldon

‘Very good chicken curry with rice. Okay service’ – Tenzin Chokden

‘Service was pretty fast for a big group. There was a hair in my food’- Anh

‘It was very good and spicy’ – Tenzin Choesang

‘Bathroom = 8/10. Small, but feels good, isn’t dirty. Although small, feels nice and comfy. Sorta loud. Deer Burger: I feel really disturbed and disgusted. Wonder how it’ll end up like… Burger good and all but the sauce and ingredients on top are too overwhelming and strong. Doesn’t quite fit in well’ – Ann

‘Talihun threw up some food in a toilet because it tasted like his hair’ – Monlan

(You may have noted the apparent surfeit of kids named Tenzin: the area is home to one of the largest expat Tibetan communities outside of Asia)

Badging this as Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West 2: Eat The Street is explicitly oppositional. But it highlights what is at stake here. When a street like Queen St West or Gertrude St starts to change and gets a reputation as a hip or cool or edgy place — whether for its food or its art or its clothing boutiques or whatever — it is because a group of people has interpreted it this way and sold that interpretation to the world. Sharon Zukin, an American scholar of gentrification, calls these people the ‘critical infrastructure’: they range from the museum curators to the art gallery staff; from the restaurant waiters through to the restaurant reviewers — and, we would now have to add, online reviewers and ‘subcultural guides’ and blogs and so on. As she says, they ‘establish and unify a new perspective for viewing and consuming the values of place’. And in this way, of course, they also establish market values. And for Zukin, what goes for the built landscape goes for the menu as well: that shift from place-defining to market-defining.

Yet although the group that is able to communicate information about new consumption opportunities is expanding thanks to the internet, the critical infrastructure is not a job for everyone: it requires people with the requisite cultural capital, if not financial capital. Those kids from Parkdale Public School do just what critics do: they visit restaurants and write up their reactions. But what they’re doing, in the context of the gentrification of west Queen St West, is also something totally different from what restaurant reviewers do.

Update: there has been an Australian version of Eat the Street in Launceston (with a photo blog and (pdf) awards), inspired and supported by the Toronto collective Mammalian Diving Reflex. There’s a lot to say about this phenomenon as performance art: the place of children in public dining; their empowerment and voice; being made to remember what was important to us as kids when dining out; and so on. In my post I’ve focused on a fairly narrow aspect of the Toronto example – the seeming opposition between Parkdale School and Queen St West – to make a point about gentrification and cuisine and the role of restaurant critics however broadly defined. I don’t know enough about the demographics of Mowbray Heights Primary School to say whether any of this is relevant to the experience in Launceston. Anyone? Anyone?

Anthony asks how can we Dig For Victory if the Council Inspectors get fussy?

The Australian Conservation Foundation has just released its From Paddock to Plate: Rethinking Food and Farming report. Along with lots of recommendations about how we should do food production in rural and peri-urban areas, it also contains a number of recommendations about food production in urban areas. For instance, it talks about food sensitive urban design, which includes how we might design new housing estates, but also, where urban planning calls for consolidation and medium-density housing, it might be useful to factor in community gardens, roof gardens and so on.

dig!

But this would surely require a change in the current approach of local councils and planning authorities. For example, a vibrant urban food production system directed at household self-provisioning would require some relaxation of current water restrictions. Here in Melbourne, water restrictions serve as a restriction on water use, rather than a restriction on water consumption, and water use for household provisioning rather than commercial profit is severely restricted.

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Introducing Anthony

I’m a lecturer in law who lives and works, cooks and gardens on Melbourne’s northern waterways. I write an occasional column, The Raw and the Cooked, for Arena Magazine, and have pontificated on matters culinary at various times for Overland, Eureka Street and the Australian’s Review of Books. My mum, a consumate cook in the Irish Catholic tradition, looks askance at my bloated collection of cookbooks.

Marmalade Today, Jam Tomorrow

I find that after a piece of fruit, some muesli and yoghurt and a milky coffee, I don’t have the appetite for toast at breakfast anymore. But today I made myself a mid-morning snack of toast with mandarin marmalade accompanied by a cup of black lapsang souchong tea. Half the pleasure came from the fact that I’d made the marmalade myself.

+ tea

I’m not much of a jam maker: it’s probably anxiety associated with figuring out when ‘setting’ stage has been reached, and the fiddliness of sterilising lots of jars. One solution to the jar issue would be to make smaller batches, but this seems a bit counterintuitive. I tend to associate making jam with making lots of jam. It’s partly because, as Gay Bilson has pointed out, we tend to make the error of thinking in terms of the fruit, when we should be thinking in terms of the fruit and sugar combined. It’s also about seeing preserving as a way of dealing with gluts and windfalls: you know, that box you got from the market near closing time. Or we make lots of jam because we want to move large amounts of it at the school fete.

Anyhow, the recipe, which is disarmingly simple, is below, but it got me thinking about the history of marmalade, and food history is always insightful, not least because it puts some of our current concerns about globalisation into some sort of perspective.

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