Friday, 27 January 2012

My Mum's Marmalade

Seville oranges are in the market. It’s time to make marmalade. The season is short so it’s now or next year. I’m not a big fan of marmalade – or any jam – on toast, but Dot is, and I think it’s cool so I like to make it. This attitude has got me into trouble in work before now. When I was a pastry chef in Liverpool I ordered a case of bitter oranges for no other reason than that they were in season. The next day a staggeringly large box appeared. The biggest batch I could reasonably muster in a day, and still get my other work done, didn’t nearly use half: I ran out of sugar; it took hours chopping up the rind as finely as possible, getting all sticky with pulp...

The Chef said I needed to get my priorities straight. He pointed out all the other things I should have been doing rather than “having a nice time making marmalade!”
– And what are you going to use it for?

– Um...

I hadn’t really thought about that... Of course there are plenty of ways to use it: steamed sponge puddings with custard; ice cream; sorbet; stuff with dribbles of dark chocolate sauce and bittersweet orange syrup intermingled; toast... Orangey dessert combos were created. I had a nice time. When I ought to have been doing something else...

When I bought my oranges, the lady at the stall trilled Qu’est-ce que c’est bon, la confiture d’oranges amères!* . And I thought I was the only marmalader in town! Clearly not. Although the British definitely love it more. We've invented a much cooler name...

As with most preserving escapades, the tricky bit is finding enough jars. The rest is a piece of... well, it’s easy.

Don’t forget to sterilize the jars. Wash in hot soapy water, rinse well and drain, upside-down, on a rack in the oven set to 140°C. They’ll be fine in there till you’re ready for them.

I bought just over a kilo of oranges – 7 fruit – for every 4 or 5 you’ll need a lemon. Unwaxed. Chuck in a pan with a thick base, large enough to comfortably accommodate all at once. Cover generously with water and boil for a couple of hours, till the fruit is soft and soggy. (You might need a weight to stop them from bobbing above the level of the water).

Put a few small plates or saucers in the fridge to cool.

How much sugar?! I had enough. Just.
Once soft, remove all the fruit, drain a bit, and weigh. Reserve the liquor. You will need 2lb of sugar and 1 pint of liquor for every lb of fruit. This seems like a lot of sugar. It is. But it is necessary. Dissolve your sugar in your measured liquor (if you don’t have enough, add water).

Meanwhile prepare the oranges and lemons: chop into quarters and scoop out the seeds and flesh into a bowl. These citrus innards contain the pectin that will set your marmalade so they need tying up in a tea towel or muslin, then adding to the sugary liquid. Next, scrape your petals of fruit to reduce the amount of pith on your ‘bits’. This should also be reserved, chopped up a little, and added to the mix. Then slice the skins as finely as possible – or in big bits, if you’re bold or lazy – and into the pot too.
Weigh. Quarter. Scoop. Depith. Chop. Chop. Chop. Sticky.

The jam should be boiled fairly fiercely until it reaches around 104° (obviously, be careful – don’t walk off). I have recently acquired a thermometer to give me an idea but you can tell by looking; it starts to appear jammy. It could take between 10 mins to half an hour. In spite of my thermometer, I still do the grannies’ jam trick with saucers: when you think the mix looks right spoon a blob onto a cold plate, return to the fridge for a minute to cool properly, then push a line through the syrup with your finger. If the surface crinkles, the marmalade is done. If not, boil a midge’s longer, and try with the next plate...

The marmalade will be cloudy, because we included the pith. If this is upsetting to you, omit the pith. Don’t leave out the bits of skin though. That’s just wrong. I have seen recipes with whisky thrown in at the end; this seems unnecessary to me. Try it if you want, but I’d rather drink the wee dram to perk me up for potting!

When ready, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly before filling your jars – still hot from the oven. Fill right to the top with your mix. It should look like proper marmalade already! Don’t be tempted though, to stick your finger in and have a lick! Ouch! Sugar burns are amongst the very worst. Screw or clamp the lids on and turn upside-down to sterilise completely. Put a little label on to remind yourself when you made it – you’ll probably be eating this stuff for years!

And don’t forget to make sponge pudding! Yum... And custard! Mix half-and-half with golden syrup so the Victoria sponge’s lava cascade is not too bitter. Mmmm... I might make that next...
1 kilo of oranges makes this many jars of marmalade. Mum know's best!

What she said. ↓

* Golly! Marmalade/bitter orange jam is nice!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Woke up this mornin...

Emptiness has come into my life. I saw it coming. Maybe for the rest of the world it’s been over for years, but I kept my head in the clouds – I’m pleased I managed to... But what do I do now?

We’ve just watched the final episode of The Sopranos on DVD.  A bittersweet moment... the end of an era. Tony Soprano will be forever linked to the South West of France. Perhaps we should give French telly another go*... But, then again, this year Father Christmas brought me the first series of The Wire. How did he know?

The Marché Victor Hugo in Toulouse is reckoned to be among the best in Europe. This was our second visit, on a rare Saturday off. On the back of last year’s experience**, we got a room for the night: on a trip like this, lunch should flow into dinner via little more than a digestif, a snooze and an aperitif...

The market is worth celebrating. It heaves with people and produce. Under one giant, unbeautiful roof, traders group according to speciality: cheese; poultry; piggy stuff – mountains of rillettes, anaconda coils of Toulouse sausage, teams of suspended hams; piles of lamb; great slabs of cow; a whole section of bibbly-bobbly offally bits; and a collection of the most abundant and varied fish counters I’ve ever seen. Abundance is the key word – a hangar-sized cornucopia of fresh, good stuff. Sensibly, there are a number of small bars scattered around the edge of the hall for those who encounter bewilderment in the face of so much shopping, and need a moment to restore equilibrium. We bimbled about, gazed at the buxom displays, intimidated by the opulence, and by the business. Trying not to dribble.
All photos are click-on-able, if you want to get a better look.
A bee-line for the fish. It way surpasses anything we can get in our local market (which, in turn, way surpasses most English fish stalls). We joined a vaguely orderly queue and struggled to decide what to buy: 

Rascasse (Scorpionfish), Lemon Sole, Red Bream
un comme ça... 

un comme ça,

deux comme ça...

Merci. Brilliant! Now bring on the most expensive ham we’ve ever tasted!
100g cost 22 quid! But by crikey it was worth it. Jamon Ibérico Pata Negra de Bellota, 36 months maturation. The guy carved it by hand in front of us and advised us to serve it on a slightly warm plate. We had a bit of a chat, agreed to perform a small personal errand, and he spoilt us with 20g lobbo for our troubles! Glad to be of service! We’ll be back...

All this bustle is thirsty work and the bars were calling, but it was lunchtime already and we were holding out for something more substantial.

The entrance; the b&w photo at
the top of my blog was
taken inside here.
Lunch is served in a corridor of buzzing, interconnected joints which runs the length of the first floor of the market hall. You reach it via a grotty stairway in one corner – perhaps a ploy to keep the tourists out. It’s jam-packed with locals, and it rocks your socks off! There are four or five places, each specialising in a particular market product. Last time we had beef; this time we went for fish. We ate a simple, fresh lunch of grilled bream. Razor clams to start and a chocolate mousse at the end, with a fruity white to relax us into the noisy atmosphere. A proper French lunch.

Next, we planned to revisit a bar that we’d liked last time – but post-lunch sleepiness paired with a flair for getting lost had us on a tour of town. Toulouse is a mixed bag of scruffiness and grandeur; they seem to be doing the place up, but perhaps they’re too skint (or can’t be arsed) to finish. It was a pleasant change from small-town life, though: self-confident, friendly, multicultural and busy. We had a nice time. Eventually, I admitted defeat and we asked for directions. The couple we spoke to had never heard of the place but found it for us on a much posher phone than ours and our feet were saved.  (This was one of a number of examples of friendliness we encountered. Earlier, a lady led us right across town so we could find the market. Then she pottered off back the way we’d come: she wasn’t in a rush, she said!)

The place we had been prepared to struggle to find is called Au Père Louis – brought to our attention by Rick Stein in his FrenchOdyssey series†.  It’s a tiny wine bar with an on-the-face-of-it grumpy old barman, who was actually rather jolly. Perhaps he became jolly as we stayed in his bar grazing on a plate of delicate ham and drinking an enthusiastic quantity of Côtes du Rhône and Quinquina†† before we decided we needed a kebab.

We’d stumbled across O’Saj earlier and I’d had half a mind on it since. It’s a kebab shop with cookers shaped like big bin lids. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? It turns out the bin lid itself is the saj, a Lebanese flatbread griddle – like an inside-out tandoor. Bread dough rolled thin is slapped onto the surface, a filling spread on top like a pizza, and it all cooks from just one side. It was folded up, wrapped in a hankie and presented to us. Our lamb farce, scented with coriander and friends‡, was delicately cooked by the heat coming through the bread. Crunchy, chewy, fresh and spicy, a very sophisticated kebab.  We tried another, this time the simplest filling – just zataar. Now, I actually knew what this was thanks to the Moro books – a paste of olive oil, thyme, sesame and sumac‡‡ – but I’d never tried it. The first bite was weird; the second had me hooked – sour, scenty, dry and sweet. In that order. Complicated and good. Grown-up food for people who like eating.
The cushion is used to thwack the bread onto the saj. Great stuff!

We’d intended to eat on a park bench, but the staff were so friendly we ended up munching at the counter, chatting to the boys about food and music. And then we ordered the second one! Haha! Good times...

* No.

** Yup, very rare.

† In fact, old Rick’s researchers did us proud – the market and the restaurant upstairs are also mentioned. Splendid work Rick! He makes great programmes.

†† A sweet, bitter wine with quinine

‡ Erm... cumin? Sumac‡‡? Maybe a bit of fenugreek? We’d been drinking...

‡‡ This is a berry that is dried and crushed into a reddish-black powder. It has a lemony, sour taste and is used in middle eastern cooking. Apparently it used to stand in for lemons when they were out of season. It’s worth looking for. It’s lovely.


Monday, 2 January 2012

Ceviche for breakfast?

Day two of the hangover and we need to do something. I always look forward to a fishing trip, although the excitement is diluted by novice-nerves and the goading of rationality, which confidently predicts frustration – but hey, you never know!  

We have lived the dream. On almost my first trip, on the dingle peninsular, west coast of Ireland, we hit gold. My torchlight caught a silver flicker through the frothy shallows. It was an instant of intense adrenaline injection – I hadn’t even been sure there was anything on the line. Incredibly, a fat and most un-stinky fishy thing bounced onto the beach. A seabass! Crikey, crumbs and carruthers! A real one... A big one... And I had caught it! Blimey... It was truly one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life! Dot and I danced about, whooping and laughing in the black deserted bay. The tide had decided we start as the sun was setting, on a craggy wee cove down the road from our cottage. Pleasingly, the darkness had settled and camouflaged the cack-handedness of our efforts. We’d been there less than an hour.  It all seemed so unlikely. So much sea, a little half-dead worm: I’d made bacon stew for when we came back, cold and confused...
Bollocks to bacon stew! We skipped home early – why bother carry on? It was time for a feast!

The tail went for a ceviche starter, leaving two fat steaks, garnished with a bit of my stew. It was one of my Greatest Ever Moments! We got up early for the next high tide and caught two more!! We were the finest fishermen alive!!!
My brother in law is from Peru and a very good cook. He taught me how to make ceviche. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate really fresh fish. It’s dead easy, and (handily for the beach) doesn’t involve any cooking. In Peru they eat it for breakfast and use bass, as I rather smugly did that day. Bream is good too, but gurnard, and, a recent discovery, weever (vive in French) are my personal preference. Fresh-caught mackerel is another winner*.

Whatever your fish, it has to be filleted, skinned and pin-boned, and then chopped into healthy bite-sized pieces. Crush up a scrap of garlic with some salt, season your fish with this and some more salt and pepper, a sprinkle of ground cumin, plus a bit of finely chopped chilli (or cayenne, or piment d’espelette, but fresh and red is best). Give it all a mix and squeeze over the juice of a lemon or lime (not jiff!). Mix again and taste the juice. Add more of any ingredient, if need be, to make it zingy but balanced: sweet, spicy and delicious!

Put the lot on a nice plate and cover with thin slices of red onion or shallots (and celery if you like) and some barely-chopped coriander or parsley leaves (I prefer coriander).

Leave for 5 – 20 mins for the citrus to cook the fish. The fresher the fish, the nicer it is raw, and so the less time you will have to wait! Eat on wintery French beach** with plenty of bread to mop up the juices! Yum!

a memorable breakfast. cooked on driftwood on the beach where it was caught.
I've since been told that it was below the legal size. Ooops! We honestly didn't know...
France hasn’t been so kind. Numerous trips and not a sausage. My utter incompetence is embarrassing. I have no idea what I’m doing and can’t bring myself to advertise this by asking a local fisherman for help. I’m basically hoping for another dose of beginner’s luck...
Hope springs eternal though. Today, as always, my tackle box contains a lemon, a bag of salt and pepper, and some piment d’espelette. Be prepared, innit.

Happy new year! Tight lines...

* Basically, any very fresh fish is good. White and meaty, as a general rule. Mackerel has to be spanking fresh, or it might be a bit stinky...

** Hopefully, one day...