I really am back at work now. You can tell I mean it because I have updated my website, which is always the first thing on the list. Take a look at my updated copywriting and portfolio pages. If you know anyone who needs a freelance copywriter, here I am.
This time he is called Tom and he is now a strapping nine-month old, which means it is time for me to come back to work.
Much excitement – I am told that the latest Fire and Knives has come out, with my article on Jack Drummond and Elizabeth David in it. I know it is available at Books for Cooks and Foyles, but I’m not sure who else stocks it. It hasn’t reached Youghal yet, so I shall have to wait till I’m home for the great excitement of seeing my name in print.
Imagine you are a lone traveller in an uncharted land. You find yourself amongst a tribe who seem to be broadly friendly, though you do not speak each other’s languages and have no certain way of communicating. One day, the head of the tribe straps you down and starts to feed you something from a bowl. You’re scared – at best it might be disgusting, at worst poisonous. Perhaps they’re not so friendly and are going to kill you after all?
Now imagine a slightly different scenario. Night falls, and the tribe gathers to eat. Everyone takes food from the same pot, and everyone eats the same thing. You watch them for a bit. They seem to be enjoying it, and so far no-one had keeled over. You’re hungry. You take a risk. Perhaps you can eat this food too?
As our funny English friend calls Jerez de la Frontera. It’s a literal translation – the Arabs called it Siris, the Spanish pronounced it Jerez, the French spell it Xeres, and we English, with our talent for foreign languages, turned it into sherry.
In Jerez, the streets are planted with orange trees for decoration, the equivalent of our municipal beds of clashing geraniums. The last of the oranges are on the trees now and, as they fall on to the pavements, the children use them for practising their football skills. Only English visitors scurry about collecting unblemished specimens to turn into marmalade, a habit the Jerezanas entirely lack.
There is a brief lull in the Jerez calendar at the moment. Semana Santa (Holy Week) has just finished, and in the main plaza they are still dismantling the stands that were used to watch the various processions go by. In a few weeks it will be Feria, the gypsy festival of horses and flamenco, eating and drinking. We saw a vast acreage of tents being erected on the outskirts of town in preparation.
I gazed with longing and wonder, not for the first time, at the beautiful Eiffel-designed fish market in the centre of town. This city, with about 200,000 inhabitants, supports a market with around 40 separate fishmongers. Some had specialities – hake, or tuna, or sardines, for example – but many sold a bit of everything. We bought prawns, small clams, dogfish and cuttlefish for a seafood rice. The fishmongers were complaining that trade was down because the bus service into the Plaza had stopped running. The city of Jerez is, apparently, 1bn Euros in debt. Teams of economists and documentary makers from all over the world come to Jerez to study the southern European debt crisis – just how do you rack up a debt of 1bn Euros? But the upshot is the bus drivers and the cleaning ladies haven’t been paid, so they have gone on strike. The man who sold us the dogfish said the good news was the bus drivers had all been sacked (so that’s alright then) and new ones recruited, so the buses should be running again soon. But how will they be paid?
So I was looking up the recipe for Rillettes de Tours in the complete Delia and I came across this in the intro to the section on Starters (p85 of my edition):
“Hors-d’oeuvre means literally ‘outside work’, which reflects the attitude of most nineteenth-century French chefs, who preferred to sub-contract the tedious job of preparing it.”
After my musings a few weeks ago about this phrase – Before the Eggs – I now realise I should of course have consulted Delia straight away. Are there any of life’s questions to which she doesn’t have the definitive answer?
The rillettes turned out pretty well too.
In 1963, Elizabeth David was recalling the writing of her first book: “Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement. Later I came to realise that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words I was putting down.”
Now, if those words were shocking when they were first published in the early 1950s, consider this. Last week I was looking for a lamb recipe in Jane Grigson’s English Food (1974) and I came across this at the start of a recipe for a saddle of lamb: “The butcher will have prepared the saddle by slitting the tail and curving it over, with the two kidneys between the tail pieces and the saddle, the whole thing skewered in place with a couple of wooden cocktail sticks. One warning – for this kind of high-class butchery it is wise to go to an experienced man of mature years, and if his father was a butcher before him, so much the better.”
This sounds as exotic and unlikely to me today as all those lemons and almonds would have done back in 1947. We have gained and lost so much in 65 years. I long to go into a supermarket and ask one of the young men stacking styrofoam trays of mince into a chiller cabinet whether his father did the same job before him.
I cannot stop laughing at this story on the BBC: Queen and Duke in Parliamentary lift surprise. I mean, really. This doesn’t qualify as a story. The lift went up and then it came down again. This must be the low point of James Landale’s career as a political journalist. Well done to the House of Lords and Buckingham Palace for refusing to comment.
When I was little and came across the phrase hors d’oeuvre for the first time, I asked someone what it meant and they told me: before the eggs. The reasoning was that the dishes marked hors d’oeuvre came at the start of the menu, and were followed by egg dishes, such as omelettes and the like.
Even when I began French and learned that eggs were oeuf(s), I reasoned that oeuvre must be an antiquated form of the plural, preserved only in this particular phrase. The fact that the French for before (avant) bears no relation to hors (without) didn’t put me off either.
Many years later I finally worked out that hors d’oeuvre were, literally, without work: little dishes requiring less effort to prepare than the main courses of the meal. Since then, I’ve always found this the most helpful culinary designation. Starters should be low-effort: some cured meat, a little cheese, olives, some sliced or salad vegetables, possibly some bread.
But also isn’t it interesting how you persist in believing something when all evidence points to the contrary?