My life in food: How a plate of shellfish set Christopher Hirst on course to become the nation's finest food writer
The Independent and Independent on Sunday's Christopher Hirst was recently voted Food Writer of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason Food & Drink Awards. Here, he reveals how he first discovered a taste for his profession…
It may sound strange, but my life was changed by shellfish. It happened during my first stay in Paris when friends of friends generously invited me to supper at La Coupole. Once we were installed in this Art Deco temple to gastronomy, they ordered a plateau of fruits de mer.
In fact, it turned out to be two or three storeys bearing glistening heaps of lobsters, crabs, oysters, mussels, langoustines, crevettes and whelks (smaller and more appealing as French bulots). Momentarily mesmerised, I tucked in ecstatically. I can pin down the date of this life-changing moment with some accuracy. When we came out on to Boulevard du Montparnasse, the newspaper placards read: "MAO EST MORT". It was 9 September 1976 and I was 27.
If this seems late for an enthusiasm for food (I was never a shrinking violet at the table) to become a passion, you have to consider the circumstances. Like other children in the 1950s, I was brought up on food that was filling rather than interesting. Bread was white, cheese was (by government edict) mostly undistinguished cheddar and fruit (aside from oranges and bananas) came in tins. Likewise cream. We were palmed off with Carnation milk (the label's insistence "From contented cows" did not exactly explain its gooey sweetness) or Nestlé's Cream, which tasted of chalk. God knows what happened to the real stuff, since the milk of the era was good. On winter days, the frozen cream would protrude phallically from the bottle, wearing the foil top like a little hat.
At least in Yorkshire we enjoyed excellent Sunday beef, though I preferred the preceding course. This was my mother's miraculously light Yorkshire pudding filled with rivulets of steaming gravy. I still can't see the point of Yorkshire pudding eaten any other way. Though the notion might not hold the same appeal for many, I've happy memories of accompanying my father to a stall in Bradford market that sold little plates of cubed tripe ("Honeycomb or thick seam?") spattered with malt vinegar and thin, searing mustard. Later, when we moved to Rochdale, Lancashire, we enjoyed the same delicacy at branches of the sadly departed chain known as UCP (United Cow Products). Higher up the culinary ladder, a rare meal out in Manchester was memorable for a dessert of fresh pineapple drizzled with kirsch, which remains a favourite.
From university days at Lancaster, the only gastronomic stand-outs were creamy rounds of Lancashire cheese (the stuck-in label identified it as "Tasty") in the town market and great juicy breasts of roast duck at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. (Befitting the faded glamour of this Art Deco masterpiece, the beer arrived in shiny, if rather battered, pewter tankards.) The idea of making anything more elaborate than a stew never occurred to me. When invited to an impromptu supper with about a dozen others, I was astonished that a fellow student could produce a subtle and tasty dish of chicken cooked in garlic-laden cream sauce.
Moving to London, I spent my twenties in the pub. The food was variable. Bulgingly generous ham rolls in the Anchor; terrible, tasteless sausages in the Plough, as bereft of flavour as anything I have ever eaten with the exception of grits (ground white corn) in the American South. In my shared flat (like Withnail & I, without the style), the solitary cookbook was French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David.
It has since become a favourite – one of the very few cookbooks you can take to bed – but back then we used it only once. It must have been an excess of testosterone that prompted us to try the atypical inclusion sauce au vin de Médoc containing a rabbit, pork, beef, a bottle of red wine and dark chocolate. The great Elizabeth insists that this concoction should be "as rich and vulgarly hearty savoury stew as possible", but I doubt if she'd have liked it quite so "vulgarly hearty" as we contrived. If only we'd stuck to Escoffier's motto, "Faites simple," admiringly quoted in David's introduction.
My sole encounter with fine dining during this period was a meal at the Hole in the Wall, Bath. If I had have known that the chef was George Perry-Smith, a key figure in the British food revival, I would have taken more interest. As it is, all I can remember is a revelatory chocolate mousse.
If these rare, memorable mouthfuls were the seeds of my fascination with food, the gardener was my wife Alison, who, luckily for me, turned out to be an accomplished cook. I met her in the nick of time to enjoy the tail end of 1970s culinary fashion: beef Stroganoff, snails in garlic butter (enjoying a revival at London's current hot spot Balthazar) and kidneys in mustard sauce. Cheese fondue made in a big Le Creuset pan remains, for arterial reasons, a once-a-year treat.
Alison showed me that barbecued food did not have to be carbonised, curries could be subtly spiced rather than a trial by ordeal, and, most valuable of all, how to make scrambled eggs that did not become a desiccated, crumbling lump: pan on as low a heat as possible, big dob of butter, four or five eggs gently whisked, salt, pepper, constant patient stirring, more butter at the end. In return, I introduced her to the pork pie and the rhubarb tart. The latter, which was an attempt to re-create another great childhood pleasure, was an accurate rendition at the bottom, deliciously infused with rhubarb juice, though the top looked a bit odd. "Do they always look like patchwork quilts in Yorkshire?" my wife enquired. I assured her that this was regarded as a great bonus in God's own county.
Subsequently, Alison might have regretted her encouragement of my culinary activities when various oddities entered the house. "What's that terrible smell?" she asked one night. Someone once said that durian fruit (below left) was like "eating ice-cream in the toilet". When you got past the cloacal whiff, the taste was not too bad, rather like very ripe, sweetened avocado. Unfortunately, the durian had more to give. Three gargles with Listerine failed to vanquish its garlicky aftermath.
My wife liked the monster lemons known as citrons (you eat the peel and throw away the fruit) but refused point-blank to touch some curious bivalves I brought back from Billingsgate (all will be explained if you tap "geoduck clams" into Google images). Though even these phallic monstrosities did not produce the shriek induced by the souvenir I brought back from Lisbon. Before you can eat a salted octopus tentacle, you have to leave it to soak for some hours in the sink. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake not to warn Alison before she went into the darkened kitchen.
The explanation for the arrival of such bizarre items, often on the cusp of edibility, was that I started writing "The Weasel", a humorous column in The Independent. Almost without my being aware of it, food and drink became a running joke. My ineptitude helped – setting fire to the kitchen when trying to resuscitate damp Ryvita under the grill, causing an impressive explosion in the fuse box when installing a fridge – but chance encounters with such items as illicit ormers (limpet-related sea snails) in Guernsey, aphrodisiac jam in Paris ("It's guaranteed!") and musk-rat in a restaurant called Virus in Ghent naturally lent themselves to humour.
"Can't he write about anything else?" an editor once groaned, although the diet seemed to go down well with readers. He did not seem aware that there is a tradition of humorous food writing, particularly strong in the US. I urge you to seek out Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin, With Bold k Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher, Far Flung and Well Fed by RW Apple and, perhaps best of all, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by AJ Liebling: "No ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man." Alas, this admirable dictum came from a writer who ate himself to death.
As my food writing overflowed into features, our gastronomic library ate up more and more shelf space. I've just done a quick count on one shelf: nine books on oysters, seven on cheese, three on rhubarb and two on eels. The stupendous quantity of cookbooks published each year is mainly due to our eyes being bigger than our belly. There's a strong tendency to do just one or two recipes in a cookbook and move on. In Rick Stein's Taste of the Sea, it was hot shellfish with garlic and lemon juice.
In Antonio Carluccio's Invitation to Italian Cooking, it was gnocchetti with broccoli. In the first River Café Cook Book, it was pumpkin soup and ribollita. Tackling Katie Caldesi's Italian Cookery Course, I got no further than focaccia al rosmarino (right), though I was very proud of the result. Implanting the dimples into the dough with my stiffened fingers, I felt that there would not be a more professional focaccia in all Tuscany. It was only when reading the River Cottage Handbook No.3: Bread by Daniel Stevens that I discovered that, "Focaccia is quite forgiving – perfect for less experienced bakers."
A sweet variant is schiacciata all'uva, a focaccia made with small black grapes and fennel seeds. Nibbling the crunchy, juice-imbued crust whizzes me back, like Proust's madeleine, to Fiesole, the town outside Florence where I was introduced to this grape-harvest celebration. If it sounds as though I spend a good deal of time making ever-more rarified breads, I should explain that my only other loaf is no-knead bread invented by New York baker Jim Lahey. Perfect for the lazy show-off, it involves no work and a certain amount of danger. The loaf is baked in an oven within an oven – in other words, a superheated cast-iron casserole. If you can plan ahead (the dough has to rise for 18 hours), the result is a deeply tasty loaf with a crunchy crust. Why go any further? Faites simple.
The same principle applies to other items in my repertoire. Learning that I am a food writer (of sorts), some people ask, what are my favourites things to cook? They inevitably look disappointed when I reply, "Soups and pasta sauces, I'm afraid." Owing much to the stick blender (by some distance my favourite kitchen gadget), my rendition of chilled vichyssoise is surpassed, according to Alison, only by my spaghettini alla puttanesca (or, as it came to be dubbed in our house, "whore's drawers"). An amalgamation of tiny taste bombs, the sauce combines capers, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, black olives and tinned tomatoes, not forgetting a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Actually, I often do forget. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be a recipe for puttanesca sauce.
I tend not to forget capers and anchovies since they figure among my favourite foods. There's no rationale to the list; it's just stuff that speaks to my soul: oysters, globe artichokes, watercress, all forms of cephalopod (especially cuttlefish), asparagus, sea urchins, Parma ham (culatello, if I ever see it), raspberries, eels, limes, blackcurrant jam, smoked cod roe, snails, home-made marmalade, Montgomery cheddar and, oh yes, tripe – especially Italian. The spicy tripe stew sold by a street vendor outside the Mercato Centrale in Florence is the stuff of heaven.
The list got a boost when I inherited a bolthole near Filey on the Yorkshire coast. The sensational quality of the local surf and turf is a major reason why we decided to hang on to it. Pheasant and partridge, those succulent by-products of plutocratic pleasure, are as cheap as farmed chicken, at £4.50 per brace. But we mainly eat another kind of wild food. As the year progresses, the catch steadily changes in the window of our local fishmonger: hake, Dover sole and turbot are glorious and remarkably affordable.
A recent discovery is John Dory – if you get them big enough, no fish is more satisfying. Except wild salmon-trout (currently selling for £9 a kilo) and, of course, crabs and lobsters. Insanely, the British let most of the latter go to France, where lovers of crustacea are willing to pay a premium. Possibly they were Filey lobsters that I ate in La Coupole. You can take the boy out of Yorkshire…
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