Monday, 23 November 2015
Friday, 20 November 2015
'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.' - William Morris
'Buy cheap, buy twice.'
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that my own particular paraphilia is kitchenware. I can spend hours in cookware shops, hardware shops and peering in the 'everything for a pound' random box under the table at car boot sales, searching out a new kitchen gadget. I've bought lobster crackers although I don't eat lobster and wooden butter curls but I never curl my butter. I want to buy wooden butter pats which is ridiculous as I know I'll never use them. So you see, it is a real addiction.
The following list is in no particular order. Most are small items that are not necessarily the cheapest but are built to last. These will make life in the kitchen easier. This is a great Christmas gift list for cooks. You have everything here, from big spendy presents that should combine Christmas and birthday to stocking fillers.
1. Microplane grater (£18.99)
Buy two - a fine one and a coarse one.
I couldn't believe it when I met a chef who didn't know what they were. These are pricey when compared to cheaper graters, but won't graze your knuckles. And let's face it, as comedian James Acaster notes, most of us only ever use one side of our cheese graters. If you want it to last, buy the slightly more expensive, professional microplane with a metal handle. I broke my plastic handled one after only a year.
2. Silpat (£19.99)
This non-stick baking mat prevents anything from sticking to your baking tray and reduces washing up. Any silicon baking mat is good but Silpat is particularly heavy duty.
Any serious cook will already have these. If you haven't yet, you need to. They aren't expensive and will make you 'gram perfect'. Salter do a good brand.
Want to check if your meat or fish is properly cooked inside? Don't cut it open, check with a digital thermometer. Want to work with sugar, not sure of the difference between hard crack and soft crack? Buy a digital thermeter. Thermapen is a colourful, accurate, well designed brand.
5. Rubber spatula ($19.99)
I've got a few of these but I can always do with more. It's not just for doling out cake mix, it's for stirring, scraping down the sides. They are heat proof. Good Grips Spatulas (2007 design) are an attractive example of the genre.
6. Pyrex measuring jugs
Get a half litre (£2.65) and a litre (£3.30). I probably use one of these for every recipe I make. Good for rough measurements of liquid. Zero the jug on a digital scale to accurately weigh liquid. I've even eaten dinner in mine to save on washing up. Heat proof.
You need one of these. To fill bottles, to drain off stock into a jar. For stuff. I've got a couple of retro enamel ones. I'm always on the lookout for one. Try not to buy a plastic one, get stainless steel like this Lakeland one (£9.86 + £3.99 delivery)instead.8. Jam pot funnel (£3.50)
Sooo glad I bought one finally. Endlessly useful whether you make jam or not. Want to fill a jam jar full of beans without having them roll all over the floor? Use a jam pot funnel.
9. Rex model peeler
A good peeler shortens the job and saves fingers and knuckles. They have good ones at the Japan Centre. But the classic 1960s design Rex from Switzerland (£2.99) is a kitchen standby. If you don't want to invest in a spiraliser buy a Lakeland Julienne Y Peeler (£3.55) which will do the same thing for small amounts of vegetables at a fraction of the price.
I've been through so many nutcrackers and possessed so many that weren't up to the job. This type, pictured, works well and hasn't broken. I got mine in France and I can't find any online like it, but this Kitchen Craft one (£9.84) would do the job.
11. Cheese slicer
The Dutch and the Scandinavians love a cheese slicer. So do I. Great for thinly sliced cheese in sandwiches. Or shaving off slices of parmesan for a rocket salad or to top a pizza. Naturally a Norwegian invented the first in 1925. The delivery on this Boska slicer is quite steep, actually more expensive than the item itself (£9.95 + £12.95), but the short one (£9.50) seems to have no delivery cost for Prime members.
12. La Cafetiere
This is not a gadget really. But the simplicity of this design works for me. I'm not a coffee geek but the 'french press' produces good enough coffee. I have this one (£39.95), as pictured, but the retro one (£17.28) also by La Cafetiere is very attractive.
13. Zigzag corkscrew
Love these. Again, simple and classic, the ZigZag corkscrew works really well. You can get antique ones at French flea markets for around 35 euros if you are lucky. Here's a new one (£41.50).
You need thin slices? Some chefs recommend the Benriner mandolin (£16.32). I don't have one of these yet, I have an old fashioned antique wooden one, the Swiss Waefa slicer (£45), which is still being made.
15. KitchenAid mixer
Most bakers prefer Kenwood and certainly I grew up on a Kenwood mixer. But I love the retro look of the KitchenAid (1937), the curves, the enamel, the colours, the sturdy Americana of it. There is the classic white (£301.06), which is cheaper but perhaps not as pretty as the Artisan range with a variety of colours (£369 - £449.95). In terms of functioning, I find the fact that the speed is on the left and the lifting up mechanism is on the right side rather counter-intuitive. Does anyone else?
I have used a Vitamix for years. It's dependable and my latest one, the cream-coloured Professional G-Series (£499), pictured above, is pretty and also comes in red and black. It grinds things so finely, you can even make your own icing sugar and rice flour. I made gooseberry curd in it, which took 5 minutes rather than half an hour.
17. A Dutch oven
This is a cast iron, sturdy lidded saucepan. The nearest equivalent for a domestic kitchen rather than on a dusty cowboy trail is Le Creuset casseroles (£128) which are beautiful, made of cast iron and enamel, and a favourite of Elizabeth David. I only have small one which I found in a bin in the street. Maybe one day I'll get some more.
18. Ice cream maker
I have a Cuisinart ice cream maker (£232.89). I'm serving lots more ice cream at my supperclubs these days because I can now make it in an hour! It doesn't take up too much room and it's easy to clean and use.
This is deffo not a gadget. In fact if you possess one, you don't need many gadgets at all. You don't need an electric kettle, a toaster, a sandwich toaster or an iron. I have a classic 3 oven Aga in cream. Worth the investment, I've never regretted it.
20. Big Green Egg (£761.84)
This barbecue is certainly an investment - a worthwhile one, quite like my Aga. In fact, you could say the Egg is an outdoor version of the Aga. It's a smoker as well as a barbecue, so you can also use it in the winter. Since getting my own BGE, I have smoked fish and mozzarella to make a salad, made peshawri naan, baked plantain, bbq'd stuffed mini peppers, corn on the cob, baked potatoes and used the BGE for a supperclub with Linn Soderstrom.
21. Mauviel 1830 Copper Sauteuse (£265)
I got one of these earlier this year. It's ridiculously expensive. But... I've used it every single day since I bought it. It's my go-to pan for stir fries, sauces, even soups (it's deep). I bloody love it. I want it next to me in my coffin to take into the afterlife, like Tutankhamun.
22. Pizza Peel (£16.29)
Sooo useful if you like to make pizza and bread. I use it for baking on my Aga floor but also handy for a pizza oven outside.
23. Wooden Tofu Box (from £25.99)
It's much easier to make tofu at home than you think. I've been looking for a wooden tofu press for ages. Most of them are plastic, but this is a thing of beauty, handmade in London by The Tofu Box. Recipe in my book V is for Vegan. Hell, get both!
Part 2: favourite food gifts for cooks...
Tuesday, 17 November 2015
There is a crisis in the olive belt, the Mediterranean fertile crescent which spreads from the Lebanon, via Israel, through Greece, Southern Spain and Portugal, the South of France and Southern Italy, which could destroy olive oil production. The bacteria 'Xylella fastidious', which admittedly sounds like a spell from Harry Potter, is spreading rapidly through Italy, starting from Puglia, the largest olive oil producing area, where they are having to chop down trees that are hundreds of years old. The first symptoms started in Europe in 2013, but this year, in 2015, the disease has literally gone viral.
The bug doesn't just affect olive trees, it ravages citrus groves, vineyards, almond, palm and fruit trees, leaving them dessicated and withered. It has led to the destruction of a million olive trees in Italy so far. There is no cure, only containment, cutting down the infected trees and all those alongside them. The landscape of Southern Europe could be changed for generations, not to mention the economic, cultural destruction. As Asia is a rice culture, the Mediterranean is an olive oil culture, this historic product, mentioned in the bible, is essential to the food.
This past week I visited Sicily, which as an island off the toe of Italy, remains unaffected so far, to find out about Pomora, a start-up food business initiated by two British men, Alun Johns and Paul McGuigan, which aims to produce and distribute high quality olive oil. These guys are not your horny-handed sons of the soil but soft-pawed office types hailing from the world of IT and digital marketing. Alun worked for Amazon.co.uk and Paul for online sports merchandisers, their business experience is the detached and laundered world of online. But they wanted to get their hands dirty so together with two farmers - Carmelo Scalia, who lives in Catania, huddling under the rich mineral soil of Mount Etna, and Antonio from Campania, inland- Pomora form an interesting mash-up of the ancient and the sparkling new. Johns and McGuigan were inspired during a trip to Sicily by the quality of the olive oil, "you can't get olive oil like this in the supermarket in the UK" Alun exclaimed. They work in tandem with their olive farmers, ensuring a fair trade, sustainable market for the product, using an 'adopt a tree' system.
On a clear blue mid-November day, warm enough to wear a summer dress, I visited the Sicilian oil mill owned by Carmelo Scalia. The floor was bustling with farmers and crates of olives. Smallholders drove up with shopping bags of olives in the back of their car while bigger farmers emptied trucks of green and purple olives into crates. One man turned up with just two buckets of olives - the fruit of half a day's work, enough for perhaps just a couple of litres of olive oil. No matter, the important thing is that it's your oil, from your trees. Almost every family has their own olive patch. The farmers give 50% of their oil to Carmelo in exchange for using the mill for free.
Two of the rules for labelling olive oil as extra virgin is: 1) you must harvest and press the olives within 24 hours; 2) the weather must not be above 27ºC Today is perfect at 23ºC, dry and sunny after two weeks of rain. Hence the industrious atmosphere with farmers queuing up, huddling in groups, sucking on cigarettes as they wait to get their olives pressed during this fair weather window of opportunity.
The smell as you enter the mill knocks you back off your feet: it's the classic profile of good olive oil, fruity grassy scents in your nose and the front of your palate followed by the peppery bitterness, the characteric polyphenols as it hits the back of your throat.
The olive oil process:
- The olives are weighed. An average crate is around 200 kilos. This year, most of the olives are green with the odd purple one. Last year, due to the wet weather, almost the whole crop was purple, for they had ripened, having been left on the trees till later in the year. Olive oil from purple or black olives has a different flavour profile; it's smoother, less bitter, fruitier.
- The olives are put into a huge hopper where most of the leaves are sifted out.
- The olives are lifted onto a machine which washes them and further separates out any leaves.
- Then the olives are crushed, spitting out the gravel-like stones, separated out to use as fuel to power the machine.
- The olives are 'malaxed', massaged, allowing tiny oil droplets to coalesce into slightly bigger droplets, which makes it easier to extract the oil and increases yields. It looks like a foliate green tapenade swivelling on huge metal screws. In this part of the process, which takes 20 minutes, the olives are covered with a thin gas layer of nitrogen or carbon dioxide to prevent oxidisation. Oxygen is the enemy of good olive oil. This is a delicate operation, for the machine must not heat up the oil or the olives in order to retain the benefits of cold pressing.
- Then the olives go through two centrifuges. The first, a horizontal centrifuge, dehusks the olives creating pomace as a side product, which is used as a fertiliser. The second centrifuge is faster and vertical, separating oil and water. Some olives are more watery than others, it depends on the variety and on which side of the slope they are grown. How much sun do they get? How ripe are the olives?
- Lastly, the oil oozes from a tap into bottles or steel churns - thick, syrupy and verdant. The farmers then weigh how much oil they have extracted. From 200 kilos of olives, you get approximately 20 litres of olive oil. Once the oil has been collected at the end of the pressing process, it is put into large storage tanks (with any empty space in the tank filled with nitrogen rather than air to prevent oxidation) and allowed to settle (it's not filtered). The longer you leave it to stand, the more of the tiny particles drop to the bottom and the clearer the oil becomes. You then bottle from a tap hole slightly above the bottom of the tank.
Sometimes there are fights between farmers (I saw a bit of a spat between two farmers' wives) about when their oil starts and the other finishes. But each farmer's olive batch is carefully labelled, the labels following the process along the machine route and there are gaps between each new farmer's lot.
We tasted the latest Pomora batch at the mill; unctuous leaf-green ooze lubricating rough triangles of sourdough with a sprinkling of sea salt. Like all good olive oils there is a simultaneous bitterness and butteryness, fullness and astringency, it's no surprise that olive oil is good for you, the flavour verges on the medicinal.
If you are interested in getting quarterly deliveries of olive oil, you can sign up for a minimum of £58. This is two quarters, for which you will recieve 6 x 250ml of olive oil. You will get the newest olive oil, flavoured olive oil or extra virgin olive oil, depending on the quarters that you choose - olive oil is a seasonal product when it's this fresh. You can even go and visit your adopted tree. Strikes me that this would make a rather nice Christmas gift for a keen cook. Check out Pomora here.