The Farm

Growing plants on our porch is basically an act of cruelty but we’ve been doing it for the past 3 years. “Porch” may be the wrong term, as its more like “the top of the downstairs neighbor’s roof”. Our space is railings and a black tar cover, no roof of our own to ward off the sun in what essentially becomes a killing field for tiny veg and flowers. Half a sunny day without water and the poor things shrivel up to nothing but W. has been working on a system to counteract this.

“Green” Black Seaman tomato

The first year something came and bit the tops off all the small tomato plants one night. All of them. It was a tough year in many ways and we never identified the culprit but the act served both as a warning and a metaphor. Do not leave your fragile side exposed or the hardened beings of the city will come and chomp it down. It was probably squirrels or possibly birds – something unchallenged by the lack of stairs – or maybe aliens.

This year we have 2 types of tomatoes, jalapenos, sage, and another type of pepper that will never bear fruit but which we cannot bear to throw away. There are chives which will last through anything and have been there for years, a thyme plant, basil, several types of orange flowers and geraniums. There are also 2 ceramic worms from England (highly cute), plastic luminescent mushrooms and butterflies, and a tiny stuffed-animal cat under a glass bowl.

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This morning we harvested the first “fruits” of our labor (the labor consisting of manic watering, plus some early pawing at the dirt to plant the things). We made a tomato, jalapeno, and basil salad and had it for breakfast. And I realized that one of the things about having a garden outside your door is that you can be completely impulsive: if you suddenly have an idea you can make it, as long as you have the ingredients. One day I will get a fig tree.

Tomato, jalapeno, and basil salad with olive oil and salt.

Our jalapenos.

Black Seaman tomato. Absolutely wonderful taste once we got rid of the bit of rot.

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English Food – part 2 (sweets)

Rabbit Jojo pastries at Selfridges

The English do a good job with sweets, and this includes desserts, jams, marmalades, and chocolates. The only (non-chocolatey) English candy I’ve had since I was about 10 are Licorice Allsorts, which are quite good as long as they haven’t been sitting on a ghost ship for the past 15 years waiting for just that perfect moment to round the Horn of Africa or passing the time while they put the finishing touches on the Suez canal. Of course the colors will never fade but your teeth will be in danger and the packaging will contain images of by-now immensely unpopular cartoon characters from five years ago, etc.

Don’t buy expensive chocolates at the duty free shops in Heathrow! I did that last summer and then found them to be pale and chalky when I brought them home. Too far a trip to return them, and they actually tasted ok. By all means purchase some of the huge Cadbury’s bars. If you run out of recipients you can store them for the armageddon or play a practical joke on your neighbors and put some on their roof.

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There’s a knowing conspiratorial air to the way English people pronounce “banoffee pie”: a sort of breathless evocation of awe and surprise, as if the object in question might also be a species of hedgehog or a famed 14th century illustrated psalter from the British Library. This is in part due to the fact that the object in question is very yummy. And because it sounds as if a Teletubby had named it. It is made from bananas and condensed milk toffee, and I’m sure bears would go crazy for it. Do not bring slices with you to the zoo.

Raspberry choux, also from Selfridges

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You won’t find banoffee pie at tea. Much too heavy. You will find an assortment of sweets and tiny sandwiches (depending on the level of “Tea” you have purchased, or the amount of prep time you have afforded your friends/relatives). Some of the sweets will be English, others English in emulation of foreign (see English food – part 1). With sweets, as with all else foodie, “English in emulation” (as well as “foreign”) is a positive thing. You can have pain au raisin for breakfast (not the dry kind we so often have in the US), macaroons for tea, Australian rose and almond coconut delight for a snack, or gelato whenever the fancy strikes you. Or you can stay true to your English roots and eat Jojo the rabbit (see image at top) after you’ve finished your Scotch egg and meat pie.

Ricotta, black pepper, and chocolate gelato from Geluppo

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If you fail to tile your neighbor’s roof with giant Cadbury bars you can spruce up their living room with some high-end chocolate boxes. This might actually be a kind gesture as most of the packaging is beautiful; I am particularly fond of Prestat’s vibrant solid colors stamped with gold. The flavors are celebratory and fruity: a bit like a culinary version of Laura Ashley or Cath Kidson, differing, thereby from their American cousins – hard edged complex bars from the Mast Brothers, for instance, wrapped in masculine browns and olives and flavored with salts and chillies. Prestat has a rose and violet creme box, and Rococo chocolates make a marvelous white chocolate and rasperry slabs: Bianco Fragole; its a bit like the difference between Glamping and going on a barebones hike through the Alaskan tundra. English chocolates are meant to be enjoyed, not toughed out, in a relationship to food and pleasure that is less defiant and apologetic. When it comes to sweets few apologies are needed.

English picnics

You can’t* actually have a picnic in England unless you have a gigantic custom-made plastic sphere (with air holes) fabricated to ward off the rain. A flame thrower may do in a pinch – aim it overhead so that it evaporates the moisture.

While you are waiting for the rain to cease you can spend lots of time online looking at picnic related merchandise**. Or you can take the train to France.

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* This does not stop most English people as hope springs eternal and they erupt like prairie dogs the second the sun peaks from behind the clouds. Blankets are spread, Marks and Spencer sandwiches unpacked, bags of Coronation Chicken crisps opened, and probably some of those nice (?) M&S cans of Gin and Tonic consumed.

** This for instance.

English Food – part 1

Just as I was preparing to take a surreptitious picture if it, someone bought the Ostrich egg.

The egg was at Selfridges Food Hall: the lone giant in a pink box, next to its smaller Clarence Court fellows: quail, turkey, goose, and Legbar Cotswold chicken eggs. Clarence Court is unassociated with Clarence House and yet it seems part of a new British food royalty composed of ambitious chefs and ancient bloodlines. Jamie Oliver’s image even leers from the Clarence Court homepage to endorse the rarified breeds, like a revised, PR inflected brand of Royal Warrant. The eggs come imprinted with a tiny inked crown, which reassuringly washes off in the boiling.

As with the class system, so in England there are roughly 3 types of food, with attendant nuanced variances within each strata. * The types are English, English in emulation of another culture, and foreign. The last 2 are at least always passable and the first will probably kill you only slowly, rather than speedily (always look on the bright side). Some English food is actually pretty good.

At La Fromagerie they have a cheese jail. Someone guards the door and they slam it shut after you. The little cheeses sit in state like Kobe cattle waiting for the slaughter, and this is all I can tell you as I was far too intimidated and a little repulsed to enter the sanctum. I bought a French yogurt in a glass jar and fled. The items on offer are a mix of foreign, English in emulation, and (new) English. No mushy peas. In all fairness, the yogurt was excellent. I’ve never before been so aware that I was eating a particular type of fruit with my yogurt (blueberry, in this case), in a mixture that was neither too sweet nor too challenging. Ah les français. The yogurt is from La Ferme de Treillebois.

On the other end of the spectrum (actually I’m sure it is possible to go far further) is the cafeteria at Bletchley Park. Nice people but horrible food. Remember what they did to Alan Turing, however, and consider yourself lucky. The pan of vegetable lasagna appeared to date from his time and seemed similarly tortured, despite any hints of (culinary) genius. W. had the all-ochre sausage roll, chips, and root veg meal, and I had a rather stale cheese and tomato sandwich. Definitely English (and old style, not by some revisionist celebrity chef), but you don’t go to Bletchley for the food.

A nice combination of English and foreign is to be found at the Euston Tap. English people actually make very good beer, as do the non-English, so it’s a win, win situation as some speakers of the English language might say. W. had a glass of  Weihenstephan from the world’s oldest brewery, I drank a super rich and boozy imperial stout (Nøgne ø, 9%), and we then shared glasses of raspberry and cherry flavored beer (Kirkstall I believe, but I forgot to write it down). Awesome flavor and color. The Euston tap building is beautiful and a perfect use of urban space. They have about 25 beers on tap at once, with constant and heavy rotation. Super yummy and no attitude. With the beer we ate pork scratchings in a bag, which were actually quite good.

* Discounting evaluations like good, bad, deplorable, disaster of massive proportions etc.

Franz West: Butter King

The first time I made butter it was dead easy except I got so excited I ended up cutting my finger on the blade of the food processor. (So dead painful too, but I did manage to keep the drips out of the bowl).

beet and orange butter, prior to "washing". by the author

I made red-pepper flake butter and also pink Himalayan salt butter. Again, really easy, but you have to wash the butter thoroughly and then squeeze all of the moisture out so it doesn’t start to go sour after a few days. Butter washing and squashing with a bandaged hand doesn’t work too well so the butter lasted only a week.

Making butter is a bit like working with plaster, except there’s less of a race against the clock. Plaster always astonishes me: its like magic the way it goes from liquid to solid, but usually magic with malevolence mixed in. I’m often stuck with a good chunk of hardened left-overs which the plaster fairies/angels/devils caused to seize up part-way through my project.

Not so with butter. The stuff that doesn’t solidify in the churning process remains as butter milk, which is surprisingly tasty. You can drink it or bake with it and revel in the duality of its nomenclature.

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Franz West - Element of the Environment "Alpenglühn". Papier-maché, plaster, gauze, paint, metal and wood on wheels, 2001

Franz West works with plaster and papier-mâché, or, possibly additionally the innards of tortured minotaurs, or the things left standing once a planet has condensed to pure dark matter. I love his work and defy anyone to argue the contrary. He’s one of several sculptors whose work I group together: Rebecca Warren, Siobhan Hapaska, and Rachel Harrison are additional names that spring to mind, although only some of Hapaska’s work fits my categorization: eccentric blob(s) coupled with thin rectilinear hard things. The contrast in materialities reminds me of the butter/butter milk divide and there’s an inherent violence and joy in the objects that reminds me of my butter blending mishap. West’s pieces can also have the look of giant mounds of tufted fat: the kind you get when you start playing with the trimmings of some uncooked beef.

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I’ve got some partially made blob sculptures that I need to get back to. I’d love to say I’m going to make them out of giant blocks of beef fat and keep them in a see-through fridge, but perhaps this is best imagined. And I’m going to make more butter. Formaggio Kitchen has crystallized violet petals for sale: I think I’d like to use some of them with some really really dark salt. Maybe I’ll finish the blob sculpture that’s got speakers in it and paint it purple and black. Or maybe I’ll do Himilayan pink salt again with crystallized rose petals; its almost Valentines.

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Rachel Harrison - Nose. Wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, rubber, cardboard, 2005

Butter really is about the fat. The fabrication is a simple process: take some nice heavy cream and agitate it. Shake it or beat it or blend it til you’ve made whipped cream* and then keep on going. Suddenly (see magic processes in paragraph 3) from the one substance you now have 2: the cream is replaced with solid butter and the liquid butter milk. Once you’ve stopped marvelling ***and the blade has stopped spinning*** remove the solid lump of butter. Wash it in cold water and then squeeze all of the liquid out. This is very important as any remaining liquid will sour. You can work in any flavorings at this point. I’m not sure but I imagine if your flavoring can rot it will; the butter will not preserve it so plan accordingly or use the butter quickly.

*a blender or other electronic device is absolutely not necessary to make whipped cream. Put some cream in a container with a tight cover, leaving plenty of room at the top. Shake it til you no longer hear the liquid sloshing around and you have whipped cream. It takes a minute or two. Apparently you can keep on shaking and eventually make butter, but I’m too much of a wuss.

Duality

They look like jam.

I’m referring, of course, to the films of Jordan Belson.

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Photographing percolating jam is actually rather difficult: the lens fogs immediately and there’s the risk of stabbing little splashes of hot bubbling preserves.

Achieving Samadhi, the title of Jordan Belsen’s abstract colour film from 1967 is of course, much tougher, as is the act of describing it by the uninitiated without gross copyright infringement. Essentially its a non-dualistic state of consciousness reached through advanced yogic practice.

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In making the jam I broke Petunia’s rule of triangulation. I used 4 ingredients in addition to sugar: blueberries, lime juice, tequila, and flakes of red pepper. During the cooking process W. commented that the mix smelled like old socks. I believe this was due to some sort of condensing action of the lime juice and the tequila. Or perhaps it was something to do with the neighbors. Gratifyingly the jam does not taste like Limburger (however you also can’t really taste the red pepper flakes; I thought of adding Sriracha sauce but restrained myself. Genius may have been snipped in the bud).

I also thought of adding bits of bacon, which lead me on a reverie linking Paula Deen, jam making, bacon, speck, class-based cultural critique, and late-stage-capitalist just-in-time breakfasting (all the ingredients in-one for greater expediency).

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I was thinking about bacon and Belson because I’m helping to curate a show and this weekend we looked at alot of proposed pieces (one of which made me think of bacon and another Belson; no jam though). Some really great work, but sadly we had to send out rejection notices because there just isn’t room for it all. I’d never sent a note rejecting someone’s art before and I came finally to understand the saying “this is going to hurt me more than you” (about spankings). Ultimately it doesn’t hurt more: its the difference between a splash of liquid and enlightenment, but its interesting to see things from the other side.

For more information about Jordan Belson see the Center for Visual Music’s website. A DVD of a selection of his films may be ordered from them: Jordan Belson – 5 Essential Films. The image at right is a still from Samahdi; its actually rather different from some of his other films. It also looks a bit like cotton candy.

Chestnuts

For some reason the idea of roasting chestnuts scares me.

I’m not afraid that they’ll explode from the heat. Rather, its that post-oven they’ll go whizzing around the kitchen in some snake-like airborne state, hissing and weaving and emitting odd steam.

This fear of roasting chestnuts may date from a childhood visit to New York where there were vendors selling roasted chestnuts and hot dogs outside the MoMA. For some reason I confused the logic behind the construction of their wheeled metal sales contraptions: large and solid to avoid damage and the elements and shiny to attract patrons. But I took the solidity as a barricade between humans and the dangerous materials heating within and thought the wheels might serve as a means of expedient removal in times of extra threat. Like a chestnut powered tank or perhaps a mobile anthrax culture lab . . .

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Eating chestnuts is another thing and I’m particularly fond of chestnut jam (Through the Eyes of French Design has some wonderful images of prepared chestnuts, including Confiture de Marrons. Many chestnut jams/spreads are from the Ardèche region of France). Chestnut flour is gluten-free and may be used to make desserts and even pasta. The first time I went to Coppa in Boston they had a delicious sounding chestnut pasta dish on the menu but I’ve unfortunately not yet tried it. I’m not sure if its always the same one; the current menu lists Fettuccine di Brambly (House made chestnut pasta with heritage pork and roasted chestnuts). Yum.

Coppa bills itself as an enoteca: an Italian term essentially meaning “wine bar” or “wine cellar”. Italy is a major producer of chestnuts, exporting them to France and the US among other destinations. Not surprisingly “European (sweet) chestnuts” are grown in Europe whereas a number of “American chestnut” species once grew in the US and Canada until they were almost eradicated by the chestnut blight of the early 20th century. You can however, buy domestically grown chestnuts in the US. One source is Allen Creek Farm, in Washington State who sell a variety of chestnut products. Their site has a page of Tuscan chestnut recipes, including the amazing sounding Crema con Fave e Cardi (Broad Beans and Cardoom Thistle Cream) which uses chestnut flour. They will not ship chestnuts outside the US due to the fact that unlike other nuts chestnuts must be kept chilled and spoil easily. Culinarily and evolutionarily this seems a mis-step on Nature’s part and I assume the squirrels are up in arms (about the rotting, not the shipping). I never refrigerated the chestnuts I bought a month ago so I assume something disgraceful has happened internally.

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All of this leads back to the other day’s entry on beer. Peeled roasted chestnuts are an optional flavoring. I bought new chestnuts and roasted them. Quite a mundane experience, except that the instructions with the beer state the wrong roasting temperature (far too cool). No explosions, snakes, or strange steam.

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If you acquire some chestnuts and then think better about roasting them you can watch this video for alternate suggestions. Its very cute but keep the volume turned down. . .