Ode to a Fish Finger Sandwich

tumblr_m4mvmvePe61qjcl1qThere are days sometimes when I have moments of calm clarity. Often on these days, I am hungover. Strange that these moments come when I’m feeling most detached mentally; perhaps those are real moments of me, and ironically I’m able to think clearly because the monkey mind has been momentarily put to bed with a headache.

At this moment, I am sat in the sun, in my garden, listening to the Smiths, and I don’t think today could get any better. There was a moment this morning that I thought maybe I was going to be non-functioning today but I seem to have been revived by two cups of tea and a fish finger sandwich.

I only discovered fish finger sandwiches via my lovely friend C, about 5 years ago. The first one she made for me was a revelation – warm, crunchy and slightly fishy, with a hint of tangy, sweet but savoury ketchup and fresh crunchy iceberg lettuce on toast. I had found the holy grail of hangover foods. See, our body craves sugar and carbs after drinking because it’s missing the sugar in the alcohol. That is why it is a dangerous thing to be wandering around a supermarket when you’re slightly worse for wear, lest you come back with donuts and a packet of crisps. And whilst there is little sugar in the sandwich, you can still get your carb hit with the bread. But a fish finger sandwich does more than just fill the sugar void left by 4 (ahem) glasses of wine. We all know fish is brain food and I have never once finished one without feeling a million times better, and since that point I have always defaulted to these after nights on the trot.

Food writing should be less about recipes and more about experiences and circumstances and I once heard it said that writing about food should really be writing about life, because food is really a metaphor for life. And whilst it may seem a bit silly to write an love letter to a sandwich, these little noshes are representative of nights out with people I love and one of the best things is devouring one of these babies whilst piecing together the events from the night before.

This morning was once such morning. I woke up in a dear friend’s flat in Hackney and after a few “urghs” we both drank pints of apple juice and began the assemblage of the sandwich whose sole job was going to make us feel more human. H had bought fresh bread from the bakery so there was some debate over leaving it fresh and soft or toasted. H went soft; I opted for toasted. I kept it simple: four fish fingers, some ketchup and some pea shoots to give it a freshness. H went for a more involved one which included cheese and mayo. Quel blasphème! But the heart wants what it wants, and I shan’t judge. And so we sat, ate, and laughed and talked about the night before. It was wonderful, and again, this little inconsequential sandwich finished off what was a remarkable Friday.

Have a great weekend everyone. Enjoy the sun. As someone said to me last night, there is no other city the world but London that is as confident and amazing despite its consistent lack of sun. But on the days when the sun does comes out, it truly becomes the greatest city in the world.

Photo courtesy of www.dicksdaily.co.uk

Letter

Spoiler alert. This post relates nothing to food whatsoever. It is more romantic reflection, shall we say, but I thought I’d write about it anyway because what happened made such an impression on me.

Yesterday, I nabbed a seat next to a woman on the Tube, probably in her early 70s, her kind and wrinkled face staring out patiently as she made her way to her destination, wherever it was. Of course, I thought nothing of it as she sat there, but as the train pulled away, she pulled out a letter and gently started to read it, seeming to savour every word. This instantly grabbed me. First, I thought, how lovely; someone still writes letters, even in this day and age. But then I noticed the yellowed quality of the paper and its scratched handwriting and realised this must be something else entirely. This woman and this letter, on this crowded Tube train, was so out of the ordinary, my interest piqued and I pretended to read my book but all the while tried to steal glances over her shoulder to see what letter said.

I caught descriptions of a driver and surroundings and words like ‘my darling’ and ‘I miss you’ and instantly I was ashamed of my invasion on this woman’s personal history. She finished the letter; I saw it end with ‘your lover’. She gently folded the letter into a similarly yellowed envelope, covered in stamps I didn’t recognise, and put it back in her bag. In it, I caught sight of other envelopes in similar states of age. She got off at Oval and of course I won’t see her again.

In situations like this, my imagination runs away with me and instantly, I imagine her, young and full of life, wistfully missing this lover, who was so far away from her. I imagine the longing they must have had for each other, the total emptiness that can only be filled by the proximity of the other person; these letters their only lifeline back to the other. I imagine that she married this lover when he came back from wherever he was and they were happy and shared a life together for many years until he died, maybe a year ago, maybe 10 years ago, I don’t know, but she misses him daily, sometimes to the point where she can’t breathe. And she carries his letters as a reminder of their love and their history.

Or perhaps it was documentation of a clandestine affair she had many years ago, which made an unhappy marriage slightly more bearable, and she reads them now just to remember how, for that period of time, she felt desired and longed for.

Or it could be nothing like that.

Memory and Taste

I have been happily making my way through MFK Fisher’s tome The Art of Eating and came across a small and delightful essay in Serve It Forth called “The Pale Yellow Glove”, which are anecdotal musings about memories ensconced with food. In it, she mentions that people are often loth to divulge stories of pure unadulterated gastronomic pleasure and only two or three times has she been successful in harvesting these stories. This I do not understand. Maybe it was the era she was living in, but in this day and age, with the immediacy of Twitter, every time I look at my feed there is someone talking about something amazing they had at some amazing restaurant. Even so, she rightly believes that “[o]nce in the life of every human, whether he be brute or trembling daffodil, comes a moment of complete gastronomic satisfaction.” For me, the many occurrences of gastronomic satisfaction, circumstantial and unforgettable, but impossible to recreate without transporting myself back in time. I now see this as the beginnings of my own food obsession.

I always had a fascination with taste, even as a child, when our palates are rudimentary and untrusting. At the age of 8, I used to take dried pasta from our larder, pour hot water over it to soften it, then I would chew it. It had a faint nutty taste and I genuinely liked it; in fact writing about it now I can distinctly remember the flavour (though I have no desire to recreate it, you’ll be happy to hear). Or when I used to take bitter chocolate and dip it in sugar. If I grew tired of it, I’d leave it to dry out in a cup under my bed for my health-obsessed mother to discover several days later, much to her horror.

These are not things I remember with the same golden memory as, say, the time I first tried grilled portobello mushrooms at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in Napa. For the first time, surrounded by my family, the sunshine and the grape vines, I had the realisation that a fungus could take on the guise of sirloin and it totally blew my mind. But this memory is nothing without the clinking of glasses, my aunt’s laugh and the surrounding California countryside.

Memory and food are clearly emotional. Think of the silent meals with soon-to-be ex-lovers, the distressing green vegetables your mothers made you eat before you were allowed to get down from the table to go play, or even the late night kebabs which we remember with headachey shame. We feel the meal; we remember it because we are emotionally tied to it. Well, maybe not the kebab as we normally don’t remember it and are only reminded that it existed by the discovery of its remains the next morning.

MFK Fisher was a devoted follower of Brillat-Savarin and his writings are often intertwined with anecdotal musings about meals he had and the circumstances around them, so I am not surprised this little chapter made it in to Serve It Forth. However, in my experience, much of today’s food writing and blogging is more about making things and telling people how to do it. Or, taking photos of food on one’s dining experiences and talking about what it tasted like. To me, this is a waste. How do these writers feel about what they were making and why did they choose to blog about it? Why do these bloggers choose to take a photo of their meal instead of describing how it made them feel to eat what they did, where they did? Perhaps that is not what the masses like. 

These ‘souvenirs of eating’ should be relished and remembered, if only for our own pleasure. Just as Keats did a letter to his friend from 1819, quoted in Fisher’s essay. “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine – good God how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.”

Now there’s a memory in the making, surely.

Adventures in Baking: Pâte Brisée

Adventures in Baking: Pâte BriséeIts been a little over a week since my last proper post, so apologies. Its been a bit crazy for me lately (mostly in my own head), so I’m trying to get myself back into a state of normality and sensibility and what other way to do that than the therapeutic act of putting your thoughts out into the world… ahem.

If you’ve been following the photos I posted over the last few weeks, you will see that I’m spending a fair amount of my time these days baking. In fact, what I am trying to do is teach myself pâtisserie. Those that know me personally know I have a slightly unhealthy interest in France and the French, which borders on obsession. This is especially weird for an American. The average Yank has kind of a sniffy attitude towards the French in the same way geeky school girls roll their eyes at the popular girls. We kind of hate them, but we secretly wish to be a bit like them too.

However, I unabashedly love France. I love its joie de vivre, its art, its towns and villages, its language and its people (yes, even in Paris). But what I love more than anything is its food. My god. The food. It has always bothered me, with this mass influx of low-fat/low-calorie/gluten-free eating that has infiltrated our culture, that people seem to forget that the French live on butter, cream, wine, red meat, white sugar and bread and they are healthy. It is because they treat eating with respect and moderation. It is because to them, food is about more than filling a hole; it is about lifestyle, it compliments friendships and to those with an innate sense of taste, gives true pleasure. And really, is there anything better than sitting in a café on a nice day (they do exist!), with a cherished friend or partner, eating some wonderful concoction made of butter, eggs, sugar and flour, complete with a cup of coffee, and just being together and enjoying it and each other. Lovely.

But this isn’t wholly a romantic obsession, you see. The cook in me is fascinated with the technicality of pâtisserie, which is why I have started down this self-educating path. I am following the advice of Ginette Mathiot via her book The Art of French Baking and I’m not going to lie: it’s tricky. Well, it’s tricky for me, because I am a kinaesthetic learner; I learn by doing. Just reading about something doesn’t work for me; I have to do it with my hands to really get it.

So lesson one is a rhubarb tart. Those lovely stalks are now in season, and thus begins the attempt at Mathiot’s recipe for pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry). Oh how I have fussed in the past about making pastry. Will it be flaky enough? Does it have the right mouth feel? Please god, don’t let it go soggy! Everyone says the trick is to keep the butter and your hands cold, and that is true, but the usual advice of rubbing the butter and flour together until they look like porridge oats is unnecessary. Leave a few larger pieces of butter in there; it won’t matter because as it turns out, the more butter there is, the finer the pastry. Her recipe also adds a tablespoon of sunflower oil to the cold butter, flour and salt. This was something I’d not done before. Wasn’t pastry just supposed to be flour, butter, a bit of salt and some water? I felt a bit naughty deviating from this holy grouping. But in the quest to learn, I followed the master’s instructions.

Another widely accepted piece advice is to not over work the ingredients, so may I advise you to use your hands when bringing your ingredients together. I gave up using a food processor to make dough a few years ago because I liked having the power in my hands to really feel it; to know via touch when it had got to just the right point. The food processor moves too quickly and you greatly risk pushing the butter/flour mixture further than it should be before adding the water.

Once everything is mixed together, let the dough chill for as long as possible. Mathiot recommends over night, but as us busy London folk have little time, I only let it rest an hour in the fridge before rolling it out and filling it with fat chunks of rhubarb and a crème fraîche-based custard. Turns out, the master is called thus for a reason. The results were stunning. The pastry was pliable when rolling it out; light and flaky after it was baked. A perfect support for the tangy and marginally sweet filling.

With this technique now burned on my brain, I must fight the urge to make everything with shortcrust. In true French style, moderation is key, and it does me no good to stick with the one thing out of this book I can now make with ease and confidence, which leads me on my next adventure in my tiny kitchen: choux… but more on that at another time.

Enjoy the weekend. Happy pastry making everyone.