As the days shorten and temperature drops here in Sydney, I’ve taken a week’s leave from work to hibernate (and alas, get cracking on some uni assignments). Those commitments aside, I’m sure to enjoy long bouts of uninterrupted reading in the next few days.
My recent reading has been a good mix of old favourites (Andrea Camilleri, Alice Munro, Ian Rankin and Deanna Raybourn) and new (Julian Barnes, Sloane Crosley and Sonya Hartnett). The two stand-outs:
1. The pedant in the kitchen by Julian Barnes, a collection of food columns originally published in The Guardian. At one point, Barnes writes that “the best books persuade readers who do not even know the author that they are friends of hers as well”. In his entertaining exploration of the dilemmas of the home cook, Barnes successfully persuaded me he was, if not a friend, a kindred spirit when it comes to cooking. A taster:
“the relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced than the other; and either party should have the right, at any moment, to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’
The professional might- like Elizabeth David, for instance- refuse to hand-hold or sweet-talk the punter. While from the punter’s point of view, the refusal is more likely to come from (where else?) the gut. For instance, you buy a chicken, take it home, run your hand along the kitchen bookshelf, and decide today is the day for River Cafe Blue. First recipe: Pollo Alla Griglia. Sounds about right: Marinated Grilled Chicken, You read the recipe carefully and discover that the first three-quarters of it are devoted to boning the fowl. And you think: No, I’m not going to do that. Perhaps if they’d called it ‘cutting the flesh off the chicken’ I might have been up for it. But first, I don’t trust my skill. Second, I doubt there’s anything in the kitchen drawer which qualifies as a boning knife. And third and conclusively, I’ve only got one sodding chicken and I don’t want to find myself an hour from now faced with something that looks as if a fox has got at it. So that’s decided. Turn the page and look at the other River Cafe Blue Recipes for chicken. There are two of them. Both start by telling you to bone the damn thing. Well, Hello Delia again.
Lesson Two, Part Two. It’s not just difficulty, it’s also time. River Cafe Green has a terrific recipe for Penne with Tomato and Nutmeg (and basil, garlic, and pecorino), which I make regularly; the nutmeg is the key surprise element. But I did first have to overcome the recipe’s opening sentence: ‘2.5 kg ripe cherry vine tomatoes, halved and seeded.’ So that’s well over five pounds of tomatoes. And how many of the little buggers do you think you get to the pound? I’ll tell you: I’ve just weighed fifteen and they came to four ounces. That’s sixty to the pound. So we’re talking 300, cut in half, 600 halves, juice all over the pace, flicking out the seeds 600 times with a knife, worrying about not extracting every single one. All together now: NO, WE’RE NOT GOING TO DO THAT. Leave the seeds in and call it extra roughage. “
2. Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett. Hartnett’s latest novel is a painfully close-to-the-bone tale focusing on almost fourteen-year-old Plum Coyle and neighbouring housewife Maureen Wilks who befriends her. Different to Of a Boy but equally affecting, Hartnett writes with compassion and humour but above all clarity of “commonplace horrors.” (As Hartnett described her work in conversation with Sandra Yates at the SWF last Thursday). An author worth seeking out if you haven’t heard of or read her work.