Can you learn to be a food writer?
By editor Karen Barnes
Last year I was invited to teach a course in food writing at All Hallows cookery school in Dorset. My first reaction was to say no. Although I come from a line of teachers (mother and both grandmothers), it was never something I’d considered. Yet when I gave it more thought, I realised so many people ask advice on how to get into food writing, how to develop their style or how to write a recipe well and I’ve always been keen to pass on knowledge and encourage people in whatever way I can. Teaching a proper structured course seemed the logical next step.
I was spurred on even more after chatting to a well known food writer at an event who said, rather smugly, ‘Surely you can either write or you can’t – and if you can’t, a course won’t be able to teach you.’ I reacted against that fiercely, and my instincts were validated by a teacher friend who told me how some pupils shine from the start (often those from more privileged backgrounds, with more attentive parents), yet others do themselves down and their lack of confidence has a radical effect on their level of achievement. “Create a safe environment where a person’s talents have permission to flourish,” he said, “and the results can be remarkable.”
I said yes to teaching the course.
What I didn’t anticipate was the joy of seeing the students discover their voice and spread their writing wings – the privilege of helping people to grow in confidence and lose their reticence to read their work aloud. It’s a national malaise in Britain for us to be convinced we can’t do something until someone shows us we can.
At the end of a full-on first day, I gave the students an overnight challenge: to write a piece about a food-related experience that had moved them in some way. It could be the first taste of something remarkable, a memorable food experience on a holiday, a moment in childhood where something had sparked an interest in them – anything, as long as the theme had something to do with food. Armed with a few newly learned strategies for finding their inner voice and getting it down on paper, the students went off, armed with sharpened pencils and notepads.
The next morning, as we gathered around the table and each student in turn read their piece aloud, I was impressed by (and proud of) the emotive quality and flow of the writing. There were a few tears, there was laughter… It was a pretty magical Sunday-morning moment, actually. I’m delighted to say some of the coursegoers agreed to let me put their very personal pieces on the delicious. blog. Here they are…
Order out of chaos
There are three big street markets in Palermo, all of them exceedingly good but all of them a little scary. One of them is dirty but is in all the guidebooks, and you will occasionally see a brave little band of British or Scandinavian visitors picking their way among the fish heads and discarded onions. One is vast and unmanageable, and sells not only food but every imaginable domestic necessity and cleaning product. That is where the housewives of Ballaro buy their loo roll along with their aubergines and pine nuts and sardines.
Then there is Mercato di Capo, where no tourists go and the Sicilian ladies do not shop for men’s briefs in packets of three. The stallholders speak Palermitano dialect, so even other Sicilians will have some trouble understanding them, let alone an Americana with a phrasebook. But this is not a problem, for at the Capo food is everything.
If you’ve spent any time in Sicily you’ll know that the people there are lavishly friendly, despite all the Mafia and omerta stereotypes. So it’s no surprise when a lady selling tomatoes smiles widely and starts chatting away when she hears a poor attempt to order in Italian. What is a surprise is that she apologises for the quality of her produce. You see, her tomatoes – beautiful, enormous, fragrant – are from Corleone, 25 miles down the road. They are not from Palermo, so they are not local, and she is very sorry. She pops an extra one in the bag by way of compensation, and a cloud of fresh, leafy tomato scent follows you around for the rest of the day.
At the next stall there is a man with an entire swordfish on a tray of ice. Nothing else. The fish is a monster – at least eight feet long – with the razor-sharp snout tied to its tail to avoid spearing any innocent passers-by. The man has a knife like a machete, and he is slicing steaks to order for a little gaggle of ladies wearing black. The fish man is not tall, but he’s young and has strong arms and bright blue eyes, and the ladies elbow each other and wink a bit. They’ll take the steaks home and make involtini for lunch – swordfish pounded until thin, rolled up and stuffed with breadcrumbs, capers, olives and raisins.
A bit further on is the snail man. For those of a weak disposition, look away now. Sicilians love to eat snails and old men will go up in the hills on cool mornings, pick hundreds of them and bring them to market. Alive. The snails know what is coming and every last one is trying to make a run for it. The table is covered with tiny little snail bodies crawling in every direction, and every once in a while their vendor will lean over and lazily scoop them back into the plastic boxes. The snail man says they are a delicacy and you should never serve them with pasta, as that would dilute the flavour. What you do is simmer them in a piquant tomato sauce with garlic, onion and celery, then pick them out of the shells with a toothpick. They are small enough to be tender and savoury, not at all rubbery like you sometimes find when ordering les escargots.
Sicilians don’t really shop much in supermarkets. Things of course are changing and the big Euro-chains have made inroads with ipermercati ringing the city centres. But in the heart of Palermo, where families still live, there is only one rather sad and empty Carrefour. People prefer to go to the markets, even though they are noisy and crowded and smell of fish and fresh blood. They also, however, smell of strong coffee and lemons and black olives and white peaches.
In Palermo you can stand near a butcher chopping up the head of a pig, and have a soft roll stuffed with boiled calves’ spleen and caciocavallo. Or a delicate pastry cannolo filled with sweet almond cream, next to a table piled with boxes of tiny, floral-scented strawberries. It is visceral, but you will know exactly what you are eating and where it came from. It will taste of sun or saltwater or farm or vine. It is wonderful, but it is also a shame, because from now on nothing else you eat will taste quite as good ever again.
Ancient buildings, dusted with a flouring of chestnut harvests… magnificent stands of trees coating the upper contours and caps of the hills… the faint tang of crushed chestnut in the air, drawing us towards the Tuscan village hidden in the folds of the landscape.
We are handed thick chestnut flour pancakes, dripping in chestnut honey… fingers ripe for the licking.
For me the memory of late summer in Tuscany will forever remain entwined with the lime green prickle casing, the fresh polished skin, smooth creamy core and the novel nutty tones and aromas of chestnut in a multitude of guises.
Hotel de France 1998
Following instructions, we had joined the throng of locals on the narrow pavement just before 8pm on a chilly evening. As the town clock struck the hour, Grandmother drew back the bolts, opened the door and her son showed each group to crowded tables in the gloomy interior.
An inauspicious start, perhaps, but what caught us by surprise was the warmth of fellow-feeling from all around, who welcomed these interlopers into their village restaurant with open hearts. Before long, glasses were raised in toasts to our daughters, shared jokes bounced around the room, conversation in two languages flowed. It became clear that there was not an effort being made to include us – simply a natural desire that we should feel genuinely at home.
As the meal progressed, Grandfather shakily brought the soup, his granddaughter efficiently ladled the rustic stew and her mother produced an enormous rotating rickety cheese board at the end. It was left to Auntie to sit by the door to deal with the payments. She insisted we should only pay for three as our younger daughter had been too full for cheese. We had the distinct impression that you don’t argue with Auntie.
The precise detail of the meal remains slightly hazy in the memory, but it is the unexpected familial warmth of that evening that stays with me 17 years on.
A 22-year love affair with socca
It was May 1993 and France’s fifth city, Nice (Côte d’Azur), had just become home. Itching to get to know this vibrant place, we would often be seen mooching down to the old town, Vieux Nice. By day its narrow streets shielded us from the sun, while at night they would come alive with noisy tourists and patient locals spilling out from the buzzing restaurants. It was here, beneath the tall terracotta and honey coloured buildings, that we first discovered socca.
A comforting chickpea flour pancake known as farinata over the border in Liguria, socca is cooked in the streets of Vieux Nice in large copper pans. Once the favourite mid-morning snack of city workers, it would be transported around on barrows with a cry of ‘Socca, socca caouda qué bullié!’ (‘Piping hot socca for sale.’), to announce its arrival in the vicinity.
Café René Socca at 2 rue Miralheti, a few blocks in from the Promenade des Anglais, is where we were initiated into the socca fan club. Queueing for our first portion of this nutty-flavoured snack, we were mesmerised by the fast-paced service and tantalising aromas that wafted into the crowd on a warm breeze. As we edged to the front of the line, excitement building, we watched intently as the server scraped slabs of socca from the pan, revealing the crispy underside that so perfectly complimented the thick, almost stodgy pillow of cooked batter. A quick turn of the peppermill and we were ready to eat, but not before ordering the recommended glass of cold rosé. Amidst the comings and goings of an Old Town summer afternoon, we lingered over our plates of salty, oily socca, knowing we would return.
Back in the UK we’ve tried to re-create socca for friends with some success, yet it seems that people who have never experienced this wonderful dish in situ don’t quite get it. Luckily we know some like-minded souls. It’s a strange coincidence that four of our friends who also spent time on the Còte d’Azur in the 1990s, have become similarly addicted to socca. So now, when any of us takes a trip to the Riviera we take great delight in heading down the narrow alleyways of Antibes or into the chaos of Ventimiglia market to search out takeaway socca. And when we’ve found it we send a photo home. Just to rub it in.
Of course there are other types of simple street food on sale along this now glamorous stretch of coastline. You can tuck into pissaladière from Marseille to Menton, and focaccia, with or without cheese, from Bordighera to Recco, but as much as I enjoy all these things, my first love is and will always be socca.
Watching my father climbing the rickety wobbly step ladder to reach his neighbour’s roof. Armed with a tray of red ripe tomatoes. Lacking in breath. His heart zip on full display. This man was not to be deterred from the minor issue of breathing.
Juan was how he was known in Alfarnate (John to you, Dad to me), a traditional white village high in the granite grey mountains in Andalucia.
Lovingly, carefully and with great precision he has taken these bursting red beauties and sliced them.
“We’re making sundried tomatoes, Lizzie.”
“That’s great, Dad. Could we make them faster?”
No. They will be slowly dried. Over many days in the sun. It’s Spain. We’ll eat them slowly too.
My late father and I shared a passion. Food.
In truth we rarely genuinely shared it together.
Ours was a prickly relationship but united around cooking and eating. I was his assistant – the hander of the beloved Global knife.
“Handle first, Lizzie.”
I was the dispenser of salt but not to be trusted to sprinkle the grey grains of sea salt or to drizzle the thick dark green peppery olive oil.
He sliced, halved and deseeded the elongated fruit with surgical precision.
Steadily each naked piece of tomato, aligned in military rows, was drizzled with oil and sprinkled, possibly with exactly 10 grains of salt, and one grind of black pepper.
My stepmother and I formed a short but respectful procession behind the tomatoes held aloft by Juan.
“Get the ladder, Lizzie.”
I propped said ladder against the whitewashed wall.
Reverently the battered and blackened tray holding Juan’s red treasure was held in the right hand, the left hand used to steady the progress up the dodgy ladder.
The tray tips.
He turns and looks at me.
I watch the tomatoes wobbling up each tread as he pauses each time for breath.
“Shall I do it, Dad?”
Not a flicker.
Up they go. Step by step.
The tray reaches its resting place and the tomatoes are adjusted to make sure the sun hits them at the correct angle.
Their position will be altered many times over the coming days before the sun-dried beauties are packed in jars and covered with more of the pungent local olive oil.
That was the last summer that Juan dried the tomatoes.
On arrival at the cottage the following year my stepmother and I caught sight of the jars, resplendent on the shelves, lined up with labels facing forward. And we wondered if we would ever dare open them…
My Kougelhopf obsession
For those of you who have never had the joy of tasting a slice of Kougelhopf with your grande crème, let me describe this brioche style, off-sweet breadlike cake that spans at least three nations, all making the recipe their own.
I lived deep in Roman Provence when I was 18, yet our neighbours worked in Strasbourg and the ever kindly, softly spoken Marie would slowly explain recipes to me over weekend feasts so I could try them out later. However, the Kougelhopf escaped me. We didn’t have the right mould. I could never get yeast…the list went on, so I perfected my boeuf bourguignon and brought home memories of sitting outside late on a warm Saturday evening, having consumed many merguez sausages all the time waiting for la piece de resistance – the Kougelhopf. It was usually served with a coup de Champagne or my preferred Gewürztraminer – yes, I had become an Alsatian.
Back in Blighty I scoured the shops for recipes – this was pre internet and actually quite a lot of fun, as I couldn’t find many books that mentioned Kougelhopf at all. Memories blurred and life continued. It was only when I went to the School of Artisan Food up at Welbeck for a bread course with Emmanuelle Hartenstein that my Kougelhopf interest was re-kindled.
He mentioned Dan Leppard. I realised other people were bread obsessed too. At least two members of the course have gone on to start bakeries of their own or to work within one. I was in heaven.
I bought books. I downloaded recipes. I found a mould. I started experimenting.
My family became bored – they couldn’t quite see how all this time spent on a tired-looking turreted brioche thing was worth the stress.
Why did it matter if there were almonds on the top ? Rum in the raisins? Orange flower water.
‘Do what you want, Mum, you’re going to anyway!’
Friends were supportive – they were usually hungry. But as the years went by I managed to pass that kitchen shop in Bath without rushing in to check their expensive Nigella-esque display of metal bundt tins.
And I’ve perfected my brioche recipe.
But a visit to Alsace Lorraine is long overdue…
Footnote: I have found a friend as obsessed as myself: MsKouglehoph.ch. She lives in Switzerland, poor darling.
All the single women
Much is written about sharing food, the joyous life affirming pleasure that it is. Memories are made of meals with friends around the table, providing infinitely more sustenance than the food alone. Nothing turns my view of the world around more than a delicious meal shared with good company.
As a young food buyer I spent a lot of the time on the road visiting suppliers, often leaving the office too late and disappointingly spending dinner time in the all-to-common dreary plastic, motorway cafes, arriving at my destination just before bed. Occasionally lone men in the same situation, seeing me sitting on my own late in the evening, came and sat nearby when the place was virtually empty. This made me feel unsettled and a touch panicked and led me to dread the prospect of eating alone. That was until I stumbled upon a solution that scared them away in an instant…
At the time I was getting married and couldn’t decide on a dress or shoes or flowers. So I bought all the wedding magazines available and put them in the boot of my car, determined to put the solitary evenings to good use.
One evening, sitting in an almost empty service station cafe, a man walked close to my table. I put up my copy of Bride’s magazine and pretended to read it intently, at which point he turned on his heels and chose a table much further away. The same thing happened a week later. Was I possibly on to something here? The sight of a lone woman intently reading a (by now slightly dog-eared) copy of a wedding magazine maybe looked rather desperate – tragic, even – and the men seemed to run for the hills. Interesting.
Long after I married I still carried that old magazine with me for forays into lonely motorway cafes at night, but inside I nestled a copy of Marie Claire. Obsessed with food, I was drooling over Nigel Slater’s intoxicating prose and salivating at his evocative photographs, rather than looking at wedding dresses and bouquets. It was a wonderful solution.
After I moved on from that job, I tried to avoid dining alone – until one day at the Savoy Grill, eating out with a friend, I had a defining moment. Looking across the room I saw a well dressed gentleman relaxing, eating a special lunch with a glass of fine wine, against the backdrop of the Savoy’s iconic decor. He seemed to be celebrating food and life that Tuesday afternoon and his contentment was palpable. I was envious of his hedonistic pleasure and decided I must try dining alone again myself.
Why do I enjoy it so much? You can be entirely spontaneous; there’s no more waiting to go to an exciting new opening; you can satisfy your curiosity as soon as you want and maybe go back before it becomes too popular to get a table. The choice of food doesn’t have to be agreed with anyone: you can eat at Alan Ducasse, whose set lunch is one of the best value choices in London for the standard of food; or you can go to an inexpensive ramen bar. You can be frugal or lift your spirits with a treat.
Most of all, though, dining alone allows you to savour the food and concentrate on it fully, appreciating the flavours and textures in a way that might get overlooked when you’re deep in conversation. I’m now hooked, and I dine out alone almost as much as I do with friends.