Sunday, 7 March 2010

Oral history in film

Fresh lime and chipotle Popcorn in movie magazine paper cones...

It's funny how some professions are seen as more intelligent or more artistic. Making food is difficult. You have to concentrate. Sometimes when people come to help me I say "I can't talk". And I mean it, I'm not just being grumpy. I need to focus. Especially if, as I often do nowadays, I'm making dishes I've never made before. Following recipes takes brain power, managing several tasks at once requires no distractions.
Cooking is seen as a low art or even, merely a craft (that old debate). Perhaps because it never endures. We can never taste the dishes of the great chefs, we can only, as with that other transient sense, 'sound', follow the music, the recipe and hope to reproduce something of the flavour. The visual arts are elevated, the end result is tangible and lasting. You can hang it on a wall. Recipes are oral history in every sense of the word, passed on through families, every bite containing nostalgia.

A visual art I'm addicted to is film. I studied cinema at the Sorbonne. I wanted to make films but mostly we analysed the work of Jean Luc Godard. In France, Godard is a god, they hang on to his every word. Most of his films are unwatchable, I've always been more of a Truffaut gal when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. Les Quatre Cents Coups is one of my favourite films. In B&W, it follows the childhood of Antoine Doinel, supposedly based on Truffaut's own early years. Like Truffaut, unloved by his mother, Doinel lives in a tiny cramped Parisian flat (as so many families do even now in Paris, it's common to have 2 parents and 2 children living in a one bedroom flat with no garden). It ends in a freeze frame of Antoine running away from the children's home where he has been placed by his mother. Les Quatre Cents Coups was the first of the Doinel cycle, the others being Baisers Volés, Domicile Conjugal (about his marriage) and L'amour en fuite.
Looking over my list of films preferés, I realise that the films that most affect me are about children: Jeux Interdits, The Wizard of Oz, The Bad Seed, Buddha collasped out of Shame, The Sixth Sense, Au revoir les enfants, Kes.

On Friday night I made a dinner with courses that 'quoted' dishes from celebrated foodie films. Here is the menu:

Californian Pinot Noir from Sideways
Popcorn...a movie classic (but with fresh lime, chipotle and butter)
Bruschetta from Julie/Julia (How can one go wrong with this? Especially with sourdough from Bread and Wine... olive oil, garlic, salt, tomatoes, fresh basil and good bread are my desert island ingredients, just add pasta and wine to complete the list)
Aubergines with chillis en nogada sauce and rose petals from Like Water for Chocolate. (Unable to obtain chillis at this time of the year, I amalgamated two dishes from the film; quail in rose petal sauce and chillis en nogado, stuffed poblano chillis with a walnut and goat's cheese sauce. I added rehydrated ancho and chipotle chillis and nora peppers to the sauce, giving it a pinkish tinge. Very pleased with this sauce!)
Il Timpano from Big Night
Kugelhopf from Babette's Feast covered with chantilly cream, glacé cherries and chocolate
Nipples of Venus from Chocolat
Coffee from Douwe Egberts (velvet blend) to evoke Big Screen glamour

and a bit of product placement( just like in the movies) I played the soundtrack of chocolat on my new Sonos dockless docks...eventually, once I get used to it, guests can also play their songlists on the system via an iphone app.

Pinot Noir: I love the way they talk about wine in the movie Sideways. Here, Miles explains why he likes Pinot Noir:

Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

Miles Raymond: Sure.

Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?

Miles Raymond: [laughs softly]

Maya: I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Miles Raymond: [continues laughing softly]

Miles Raymond: Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

Il Timpano turned out to be quite easy once I'd figured out all the steps. Although what the fuck is 'ziti' pasta when it's at home? Actually I found out it was 'penne'. Once baked, il timpano was turned out and the 'drum' presented to the guests. I kissed it just like in the movie.
There is a special 'timpano' dish which would be worth investing in, for the dish I had was probably too deep which added to the difficulties of keeping this pasta pie intact when serving it up.

Kugelhopf is a combination of bread and cake, like Panettone. I used a recipe from Julie Duff's excellent book Cakes from around the world in the trial. I adjusted her recipe however as it didn't rise as well as hoped. The rising action of yeast is inhibited by fat and her recipe asks for yeast to be added to the buttery cake dough. It worked better if you allow the yeast to be dissolved in the scalded milk (cooled to body temperature so as not to kill the yeast) prior to adding it to the cake mix. I also, as a habit nowadays, soak my raisins and sultanas in either whisky or sherry to make them plump, juicy and...alcoholic!
In the film the Kugelhopf is decorated, pre-French revolutionary style (for Babette was a cook in Paris' legendary Cafe Anglais prior to the revolution) with cream and glacéed fruit. I went more over the top with the decoration than Babette and displayed it to the guests prior to plating up.

The Venus nipple chocolates were the result of an afternoon's work with Patrick Carpenter of OstreaEdulis blog. Neither of us had much experience in tempering chocolate, although this is supposed to work well on the Aga.(1) Basically tempering is making chocolate shiny. There are two techniques: seeding and marble surface technique. Paul A Young explains it all pretty well in his book Adventures with Chocolate which is a must buy. (2)
Patrick and I attempted the 'seeding' technique: you melt the chocolate but keep a strict eye on the temperature so as not to scorch it. You then add some chopped unmelted chocolate, stirring it in until it melts, and you then wait until the chocolate mix drops to a temperature of about 88 degrees for dark chocolate, 86 for milk and white chocolate. (I really need a chocolate tempering thermometer.)
I made a ganache, let it freeze for a while to solidify it, then piped it into little circles on some baking parchment/bake-o-glide. These dollops were then hand rolled into balls and left to chill some more. Next, using a pickle fork (although there is apparently such a thing as a tempering fork) I dipped the chocolates into the tempered dark chocolate, let it cool, then did the same for tempered white chocolate for the nipple bit. Although they ended up looking like Venus' conkers.

And here are some pictures from the night:

Pretty salt and Himalayan salt and pink peppercorns...


Aubergines topped with walnut, goat cheese and chilli sauce with rose petals

Il timpano, the dish is lined with fresh pasta

Almost full to the top, then covered with pasta, tight like a drum.

Drum roll.....

Ta Daaa!


The finished article...decorated Kugelhopf

Nipples of Venus truffles

(1)In fact you don't even need to melt chocolate in a bain marie on the Aga, you just put a bowl of chopped chocolate on the black enamel between the hotplates and it does the job.
(2) Here is another, really anal post on tempering chocolate by an engineer. But I'm glad he did it. You need people like that in the world to compensate for all the lazy arse slapdash types like me.

At the end of the night, the shoes come off. I would say my greatest achievement is cooking in heels...


  1. oh my gosh, what gorgeous, gorgeous beauties you created! what a timpano! (many exclamation marks reqd) and thanks for posting the youtube clips, i think i am the only foodie on earth who has not seen babette's feast. shame on me. i love 400 blows too, my fave. also quite like godard's le mepris. youre so lucky to have studied at the sorbonne and to have studied such a fascinating subject. xx shayma

  2. Thanks Shayma. You've got to see Babettes Feast...
    Le Mepris I did like and A bout de souffle (which was scripted by Truffaut) but hours and hours analysing Godard's 'syntagmes' via Metz. This is an example of the sort of texts we had to write about (but in French):
    "In his research, Metz discovered that one of the structures for an autonomous segment is a single shot. The term plan-séquence (sequence shot) that Metz chose for this structure has subsequently been used untranslated in much theory written in English today. An example of a plan-séquence is any complete dialogue scene presented in an uninterrupted shot. A segment of film that contains only one shot does not, strictly speaking, qualify as a syntagma (which is Greek for “union”), as no montage causing a union has occurred within the segment. The other seven multiple-shot autonomous segments are, though, indisputably syntagmas."

    It ruined film for me. I don't mind analysing paintings till the cows come home but movies, i guess I just prefer to absorb it all, unconsciously, in the dark!

  3. Oh, thank goodness my French film class was nothing like that! We studied Les 400 coups too, I loved it.

  4. You are amazing!!! I am a huge fan and yet still not visited! Soon i hope!

  5. When I read that you studied at La sorbonne, you got my attention! Mu cousin studied at Assas (Law); I studied 6 months political science in Aix en Provence and then dropped out to study Turkish ! I was getting depressed reading Le monde for school! I love Truffaut and my favorite of his is " Vivement Dimanche" with JeanLouis Trintignant et Fanny Ardent. I love Babette's feast! saw it many times; I can confirm that scandinavian people tend to be puritan, as my aunt and cousins are Danish and they say it!
    Love your feast, every bit of it. Fun!

  6. Oh my! You're cooking goes from triumph to triumph - that pasta dish looks amazing! xxx

  7. Thanks everyone.
    I think my cooking will become more seasonal as spring and summer comes along but doing themes certainly livened up the winter.
    Taste of Beirut: I loved my time at the Sorbonne however and my favourite thing about Paris is how varied and cheap the cinema is.

  8. Brilliant! I've often wanted to make the timpano from Big Night. Absolutely fantastic. I'm not sure there's any one-upping that, unless someone does the meal from Babette's Feast.

  9. Whoops, the kugelhopf is from Babette's Feast. I see. Sorry. There was an article in the Guardian on best films featuring food, and I've been slowly working my way through them all.

    I don't recommend "Chocolate", the Thai Martial Arts movie. For a start it had no Chocolate in it. Pretty good fight scenes, though.

  10. Thanks charlie. What's the article in The Guardian?

  11. Don't forget "Antoine et Colette" from the Doinel series. It's a short film with Antoine as a young man in love and it is charmingly sweet. I am also a Truffaut fan and vastly prefer him to Godard. I've seen nearly most of his films from a film class on his works I took at Uni. Your film themed dinner sounds lovely and I wish it is one I could have attended!

  12. I follow you from Argentina, and have to congratulate for the ideas and the creativity, that is where art is!

  13. yes, i must watch babette's feast. i think it's awful that they made you analyse film like that. so pretentious, non? x shayma
    ps thankfully, it didnt kill your passion for food :)

  14. Hello again! Article from the Guardian was by Matthew Fort and is here:

    Thanks very much for the excellent blog, by the way. Love your work!


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