Given our common interest, it was appropriate that Mrs H (as she then wasn’t) and I met in a kitchen. It was at a party in south London – Darling Road to be precise – in 1982. When one thing happily led to another, food emerged as a joint passion. The first meal that I ever made for Mrs H was a pile of smoked salmon sandwiches. I noticed that they went down well. This was promising. I doubt if a longstanding relationship would have resulted if she had turned out to be one of those females whose main nutritional |intake is a breath of air.
The first meal she ever made for me was a Mongolian hotpot. This takes the form of a great plate of raw titbits – slivers of chicken breast, pork and steak, along with prawns, sliced |scallops, broccoli florets, mangetouts – that you cook piecemeal in a large pot of stock over a methylated spirit burner. When you’ve simmered a piece, you eat it. Mongolian hotpot is an ideal dish for a couple in the exploratory stages of courtship. Because you use chopsticks to fish out the various items, there is plenty of scope for intimacy. You might steer your companion towards a succulent piece of steak, while she hands over a juicy prawn. There might be a certain amount of light-hearted competition for a scallop. The culinary foreplay is prolonged but not so heavy on the stomach as to preclude subsequent activity. The meal was a revelation. My passion for food began when I became passionate about Mrs H.
After living in an all-male flat, where food was fuel rather than feast, I was astonished by the flair and generosity of her cooking and also the remarkable amount she spent on ingredients |for supper. Nibble by nibble, our relationship blossomed. We did a certain amount of the restaurant work that courting couples are supposed to go in for, but mostly we dined at home.
Since I spent most of my twenties in the pub, I missed out on the prawn cocktail era. Mrs H introduced me to a few delights of that distant time – snails in garlic butter (I was impressed that she owned snail tongs), kidneys in mustard sauce, chocolate mousse and cheese fondue. I’m still fond of her fondue made in a large Le Creuset pan, though we restrict our intake of this dish, which is of doubtful value for the arteries unless you have spent the day climbing an alp or two, to once or twice a year. In her turn, Mrs H had missed out on certain areas of gastronomy that I regard as essential. I brought pork pie, rhubarb tart and shellfish to her attention. This did not, however, prevent her from refining my technique for moules marinières. “You don’t need great big chunks of onion. Could you chop it finer?”
Through Mrs H, I discovered the difference between proper paella and the Vesta variety. I also enjoyed the revelation that curry could be a pleasure, where you tasted the ingredients, rather than a form of trial by ordeal. She acquainted me with homemade pâté, and salads that did not involve floppy lettuce. She even maintains that I didn’t like broccoli before we met. I find this hard to believe. I’ve always been a big fan. “You haven’t! YOU HAVE NOT!” Mrs H exploded when she read the last sentence. “And, it’s only in the last couple of years that you’ve eaten curly kale and spring greens.” Well, she may be right on the last point, though I can now see the point of such vegetation. Mrs H also recalls my eruption when she tried serving flowers in a salad, which was fashionable some years ago: “You objected very strongly and described it as ‘poncing it up’.”
I gained an additional impetus towards culinary matters when I began writing a weekly column called ‘The Weasel’ in this paper. Though its contents could be anything of a vaguely humorous nature, food and drink began to make a regular appearance. As with any habit, it started innocuously enough. You happen to write a piece about eating musk rat (dark, tough, springy meat not unlike Brillo pad) at a restaurant called Virus in Ghent. Soon after, you find yourself eating betel nut near Euston Station, aphrodisiac jam in Paris, illicit ormers in Guernsey…
This new direction for the column bemused some executives on the paper. Objections to the high gustatory content were passed from above (“Can’t he write about anything else?”), but I found it difficult to comprehend such griping. After all, what could be more interesting or amusing than food? Indeed, what else is there?
Maybe I did ease up on the nosh from time to time, but this only produced an even greater flow of food pieces when I turned the tap back on: setting fire to the kitchen when trying to crisp Ryvita under the grill (they curled and touched the electric element); blowing up the fuse box when I tried to put a fuse on the fridge; making frumenty, the alcoholic porridge that prompted Michael Henchard to sell his wife and child in The Mayor of Casterbridge (“Well, I’m not sold on it,” said Mrs H).
Perhaps the real theme, which steadily emerged in column after column, was the difference between men and women in the kitchen. Or, at any rate, the difference between Mrs H and me in the kitchen. Though I came to spend much time cooking in the kitchen – more, possibly than Mrs H – it remains her bailiwick. Never having been taught the essential rules of the kitchen, such as tidying up and putting the right thing in the right place, I came in for a certain amount of brusque character analysis. Recently, when I foolishly asked Mrs H to refresh my mind concerning my shortcomings in this milieu, it prompted a Niagara-like flow that proved hard to turn off.
Woman on men (i.e. her on me)
1. Men want a huge amount of praise for anything they do.
2. Whatever they do, men always create vast amount of washing-up, but they never think of washing up as they go along.
3. Men are reluctant to follow recipes, in the same way that they are reluctant to ask for directions when they are lost.
4. Men plunge into cooking without sorting out the ingredients and utensils they will need. Then they can’t find what they need. When things are found for them, they never put them away.
5. Men tend to over-season. They think that if a little is good, then a lot will be even better. This particularly applies to salt and Tabasco.
6. Men give up easily – eg, if they get a pain in their arm when whisking cakes.
7. Men disappear if they have to do some work (but they are quite handy for reaching things down from high shelves).
8. Men are not keen on washing burnt pans. [This is simply not true. I’m always washing up pans that Mrs H has managed to fuse food on to.]
9. Men always want to pinch a bit of a dish that is in the process of being made. They are very keen on eating between meals.
10. Men fill the dishwasher any old how, so it seems packed even though there aren’t many items in there.
Following these lacerating comments, it struck me that Mrs H might appreciate a few words of mild correction. Hence:
Man on women (i.e. me on her)
1. Women are very, very, very bossy.
2. Women tend to be excessively pedantic about recipes and timings.
3. Women are very keen on vegetables, even when old and fibrous. They have an inexplicable fondness for purple-sprouting broccoli that is too woody to eat.
4. Women take a lot of luring into eating oysters. When you finally manage to do this, they can often be sick and look at you reproachfully.
5. Women are very difficult to get out of kitchen shops. Their favourite reading tends to be the Lakeland catalogue. They spend money like water in such places. I would never spend £18.99 on a jelly strainer set, though Mrs H says: “It’s worth its weight in gold.”
6. Women always remember to put on a pinny when cooking. Despite consequent stains and splotches on clothes, I would never wear such an emasculating garment.
7. Women are obsessed with cleanliness to the extent that it imperils our natural resistance to bugs and germs.
8. When clearing cupboards, women have a tendency to chuck out perfectly good foodstuffs that are only a year or two past their sell-by date.
9. Women are very willing to eat lobsters and most forms of fish, but show a marked reluctance to kill, gut or scale these creatures.
10. Women constantly complain that they have not received an equal share of food. They are particularly assiduous in checking the level in their wine glass: “It’s not fair!”
The difference in our approach to food is exemplified by our behaviour in the super-|market. Though we go there as a couple, our paths diverge immediately we’re inside. Mrs H is more interested in vegetables than me. “I always follow my little routine,” she says. “Vegetables, coffee, cat food, milk, cleaning stuff.” Well, where’s the fun in that? No wonder I deviate for pleasure and excitement. My little routine goes: oysters, fish, pâté, salami, olive oil, cheese, baguettes, wine. It is a banquet that Lucullus might have envied. I bet you wouldn’t have found the great Roman gourmet deliberating over Whiskas and Vanish.
After following our well-worn paths like creatures in the forest, we then spend an amazing amount of time looking for each other. That bad-tempered man you’ve seen furiously stalking up and down the aisles is me. Curiously, Mrs H claims she does exactly the same. “When we shop together, it takes ages,” she moans. “I can always track you down eventually. You’re either fondling wine bottles or gazing dreamily at the fish counter.”
Though the process of shopping for food can provoke seething irritation with one’s partner, there is nothing to compare with a dinner party for the full-blown, 100-megaton cataclysm. Why is it that we have never had a dinner party that was not preceded by a massive eruption? It had been my intention to ponder this phenomenon silently, but I accidentally voiced my query within the hearing of Mrs H. This turned out to be a mistake. “I’ll tell you why,” she announced, after perhaps a thousandth of a second’s pause for meditation. “For some reason, I’ve got it in
my head that a dinner party should be a joint effort. But at the moment when there are a million things to do, you blithely announce that you’re going off for a swim or a little nap. This means I get into a dither. Maybe it’s because we’re not very good at planning. I’m always coming across recipes that say you should start two days ahead, but we usually start in the afternoon of the same day so there is a mad trot round the supermarket. And then you say you have an urgent appointment with the swimming pool or the bed and that’s why we have a row.”
“Other people don’t seem to have a terrific bust-up before their dinner parties,” I pointed out.
“I can’t work out how other people manage to greet you with a calm smile,” said Mrs H. “Usually we’ve just been screeching at one another when the door bell rings. I suppose we greet people with calm smiles. Except you don’t. You tell people, ‘It’s been sheer hell. Never again!’ ”
If you ask me – not that anyone does – the reason for the stormy atmosphere that boils up before our dinner parties has less to do with preparing the food than the cleaning and tidying that Mrs H requires. At other people’s dinner parties, I’m quite happy whatever the state of the surroundings as long as the food – and, oh yes, the wine – is OK and plentiful. I’ve been to fine dinner parties where it was necessary to clear the dining table of a thick accretion of news-papers and books before sitting down. Our house, however, has to be scrubbed, polished and burnished to within an inch of its life before the guests arrive.
Ironically, flowers can be a cause of dispute between Mrs H and me. “I like having flowers on the table, but you’re always moving them to odd places,” said Mrs H. “I’ve sometimes found them in the broom cupboard. And you always pick the wrong time to do things. At the very moment that I’m up to my ears in batter mix, you’ll say, ‘Have I to open the oysters?’ And you’re always putting the wrong cutlery out,” Mrs H recalled. “We’re just sitting down and I’ll notice that people have been given serving spoons instead of dessert spoons.”
“Well, you’re always forgetting vegetables. How many times have I found a terrine of celeriac mash or pommes dauphinoises in the oven when the meal is finished?”
“Ha! I don’t think that you’ve got much room to talk. How come the wine is ALWAYS at your end of the table? And you never make sure that everyone’s glass is filled – except your own, of course.”
So why did we decide to test our relationship further by cooking a wide variety of dishes for Love Bites? Lots of food books will give you the recipes, but this one tells you what it was |actually like to make these things, and where frustrations and cock-ups occurred. We tried a variety of methods and recipes for items ranging from pasta to raspberry jam, pizza to pancakes, Welsh rabbit to seed cake. While avoiding outré ingredients and complicated techniques, we aimed to produce versions that were, if not exactly perfect, pretty damn good and capable of being reproduced on the domestic range.
Most chapters involve the tutorage of Mrs H. |I suppose I could have gone to other authorities for instruction, but this would have caused problems. Having experienced several cookery schools over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not very good at being taught things in the kitchen. I claim this is because I’m too much of an anarchist to take orders. “Actually,” says Mrs H, “you don’t listen when people tell you things.” Well, yes, I do seem to have some kind of mental block when people try to teach me practical skills. Having lived with me for almost three decades, Mrs H was able to put up with this minor foible. Even so, several of the dishes were seasoned with salty language and peppery outbursts. But our flare-ups, both verbal and actual, were quickly extinguished. Mostly, it was a rewarding adventure. Some couples climb Kilimanjaro, we made a pork pie.
‘Love Bites’ by Christopher Hirst (£11.99) is published by Fourth Estate on 4 March. To order a copy for the special price of £13.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
Mr & Mrs H's Basic pizza dough
This is a recipe where you use your kitchen work-top for making the pizza dough. Using a specialised Italian '00' flour manufactured especially for pizzas will give you a dough with a super-smooth texture. It has a fine grind and high gluten content (12–14 per cent protein) and should be available from a good Italian delicatessen. The local Italian deli where we buy the flour also sells fresh yeast, which I prefer to dried (I think it has a faster fermentation).
Heat is everything for a pizza – so crank up your oven to its highest point, and if you use a pizza stone make sure you have a healthy bank balance if someone forgets to prove the stone before using.
15g fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
250ml lukewarm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
500g Italian pizza flour Tipo '00'
teaspoon sea salt
Set your oven temperature as high as it will go (250°C plus, if you can get it). Start making the pizza dough by first taking a small bowl and mixing the fresh yeast and sugar together until it liquefies, then adding the warm water and olive oil. Put it aside for a few minutes in order to set the fermentation process off. (If using dried yeast, follow the instructions on the packet or tin.) While you are waiting for the lovely yeasty smells to perfume your kitchen, sieve the flour and salt onto a clean work surface. Form it into a mound and make a well in the middle big enough to hold the liquid yeast.
When it is ready, pour the yeasty mix into the well in the flour, and either using your hands or a fork bring the flour gradually in from the sides. I quite like using my hands – using a twisty, swirling motion with my fingers rather like opening a door handle. If using the fork method, finish off by using your hands when the mixture starts to come together (you can dust them to prevent too much sticking).
Knead the dough fairly vigorously with both hands, using a stretch-and-fold method (good exercise for your shoulders), until you have a soft, springy dough. Transfer the dough into a large bowl. Sprinkle a little flour over the top to prevent a crust forming and cover the bowl with a damp tea towel. Leave the dough in a warm place until it has doubled in size. If the temperature is right this should take about 1–2 hours. When the dough is nicely risen, remove it to a flour-dusted surface and knead it a little more to push the air out (2 minutes). Then divide it up into small balls and roll, using a rolling pin, or hand form (better because it stretches the gluten) the pizza into a roughly circular shape about 0.5cm thick. Then you can get creative and add toppings of your choice, and cook.
Mr & Mrs H's Pizza Margherita
1 tin of good plum tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes, available at Italian delis, work best)
5–6 slices of fresh mozzarella (preferably buffalo)
a handful of fresh basil leaves
sea salt and black pepper
pizza base (see above)
Preheat your oven as high as it will go. Prove your pizza stone by dampening it with a wet cloth and placing it in the oven. (If you haven't a pizza stone, just use an oven tray, though there is no need to preheat it.)
Drain a tin of San Marzano tomatoes and crush them with your hand. Slice the mozzarella and tear the basil leaves. Assemble the pizza in the following order: spread the crushed drained tomatoes over the pizza base; arrange the sliced mozzarella over the tomatoes; top with a scattering of basil leaves, a scrunch of sea salt and black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
Slide the pizza on to the pizza stone (or oven tray) and bake in the oven until the cheese has melted, the edges are golden and the base has crisped up. Add more olive oil and basil before serving. Tip: dusting your work surface and the pizza stone with semolina acts as a non-stick agent and makes transferring the pizza easier.
Mr H’s Vichyssoise
500g peeled, chopped leeks
1 medium-sized floury potato (King Edward/Maris Piper), peeled and chopped into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
450ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon crème fraiche
50ml white vermouth
Salt and pepper
Fine chopped parsley
Put chopped leeks in large saucepan. Add olive oil and sauté over low heat until they are soft. Add potato and sauté for further 2 minutes. |Add stock and heat to simmer. When potato is cooked, blend with stick blender until soup is liquidised. Stir in crème fraiche and white vermouth. Season to taste. Vichysoisse is |traditionally served chilled, but also works well warm. Either way, ladle into soup bowls and sprinkle parsley on top before serving.
Mrs H’s Victoria Sponge Sandwich
‘Four, four, four and two eggs’ was the mantra learned from my school days, referring of course to ounces. However, since metrification I have had to learn ‘113g,113g,113g and two eggs’ which is a bit of a what-not to remember. The problem has been solved by doubling the recipe and using larger tins. I can do 225’s.
225g butter, softened, plus a little extra for greasing
225g caster sugar
4 large free-range eggs
225g self-raising flour, sifted
raspberry jam for the filling (homemade preferably)
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Since this recipe involves making two sponge cakes, you’ll need two 17.5–20cm cake tins. Grease them with butter and line the bottoms with a circle of non-stick baking parchment. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, using an electric whisk, a stand mixer or by hand with a wooden spoon. Beat well to get lots of air in. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour if the mixture curdles. Add a drop of vanilla extract to the beaten egg if you like. Fold in the sifted flour using a large metal spoon. Be careful not to |over-mix it. Pour the mixture equally between the two cake tins and level off with a spatula. Make a slight dip in the centre with the tip of the spatula if you don’t want your cake to be pointed in the middle. Place the tins in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cakes spring back when pressed gently and are pale gold in colour. Remove them from the oven and take them out of the tins after about 5–10 minutes. Place on a wire cooling rack, remove the greaseproof paper and leave to cool (about half an hour). Spread raspberry jam on one of the sponges, then sandwich together with the other one. Dust with icing sugar and serve.Reuse content