31 March 2014

The Modern Peasant

Patience Gray may not be a household name, but to many cooking enthusiasts, she is a god. In 1957 she wrote her first cookbook, Plats du Jour with Primrose Boyd.  She wrote a collection of recipes for the Blue Funnel Shipping Line, which was published posthumously in 2005 as The Centaur's Kitchen. Her most famous cookbook, Honey from a Weed, was one of the most influential and beloved cookbooks of the last century.  Gray fell in love with the Belgian artist and sculptor Norman Mommens and the pair set off touring the Mediterranean.  They settled in Puglia in southern Italy in 1970.   Their farmhouse, Spigolizzi, was famous for what it did not have; no refrigerator, no telephone, no electricity.  Yet Gray produced the most wonderful food -- seasonal, farm-to-table when farm-to-table was called simply, dinner.  It was rustic and self-sufficient and intoxicating.

Jojo Tulloh was intoxicated and she happened to know Patience Gray's son, Nick.  Before long, she had arranged a visit -- more of a pilgrimage to Spigolizzi. When Nick and his wife arrived to care for Gray in her last years, they had the sheer audacity to add electricity for lights and refrigerator, though they never installed hot water.  Tulloh was granted the gift of cooking in Patience Gray's kitchen.  She was transformed.  She returned to England with Gray's mantra of "eat more weeds" directing her.  While she would not give up her refrigerator nor her electricity, Tulloch set out to embrace the peasant within and learn to forage and ferment and can and cook  and bake and smoke with the same passion that Patience Gray wrote about.  The Modern Peasant: Adventures in City Food is the accounting of her quest.

The Modern Peasant is a fine DIY book.  It is not some sort of definitive "survivalist" tome to keep you going in the remote regions of the world, but rather a way to put bread and yogurt  on the table, especially if you live in a city. You won't learn butcher a whole hog, but you will be able to turn out a fine sausage.  The most important thing you will get from the book is a new way to look at the food around us.  A willingness to pay a bit more for a handcrafted loaf of bread.  A hesitation at throwing away scraps that can go in a stock.  A joy in growing vegetables.  Not everyone is going to travel the Mediterranean with a sculptor and cook on an open fire, but there are so many things that can be done every day to live like a peasant. I came to this book as a fan of Patience Gray but I stayed because Tulloh's journey was a common one, told in beautiful prose.

Tulloh admits that she is not much of a baker.  She does love to make these honey flapjacks, a sort of granola bar that is a great way to use up a crystallized honey.

Honey Flapjacks

3 tbsp honey
150g butter
a pinch of sea salt
75g unbleached granulated sugar
250g porridge oats

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Line a 20 x 25cm tin with baking parchment; or use a circular tin, if that's what you have to hand.

Place a small, heavy -based pan over a medium heat and melt the honey, butter, salt and sugar together until bubbling.  Pour the mixture into a bowl with the oats and stir well, until the whole mass is well amalgamated. Tip it into the prepared tin and, using a spatula,  press the mixture down quite hard, until flat and smooth.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is slightly browned at the edges -- a good flapjacky smell will probably alert you to this moment.   Using  a  sharp knife, score the flapjack into squares or rectangles in the tin, but leave until cool before turning out.  They keep well in a cake tin for several days.
Your very own honey from the weeds in your cupboard.

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