30th June 2016
When it comes to summer fruits, nothing really comes close to a sweet
and succulent cherry
'Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote of the blackberry: ‘summer’s blood was in it’. This blood provokes a ‘lust for picking’ that compels children to set off with jam pots and milk cans to plunder the hedges. But, of all the berries, it is the cherry that has summer’s blood in its flesh. Every year it surprises me. Turkish cherries are starting to arrive in the shop near my home. They are so dark they make me think of another era (when women and cardinals wore clothes so rich you could almost drown in the colour); the juice is so copious I’m not sure whether to eat or drink them. I find my appetite increases as I make my way through a bag. To taste ripe cherries – perfectly balanced between sweetness and tartness – is to experience a lust for eating.
I’m sure I must have had cherries before I was 16, but I have no memory of them until on holiday in Portugal. On a hellishly hot day in Lisbon, we came across a truck selling them – a truck so vast it looked as if it held an orchard’s worth. Cherries stretched like a black sea. Scooped into paper cartons, they were better than anything you could cook, better than the finest patisserie, the most exquisite confiserie.
‘The best thing you can do with good cherries, really, is put them in a bowl, set them on the table and eat them. Good cooks know this’
Perhaps that’s why my repertoire of cherry recipes is quite small. To do anything complicated with the very best specimens is to diminish them. I do make a simple cherry and almond cake – you need fruit with a bit of tartness for this to work well – and love a bowlful chilled in a red wine syrup. I have a few savoury dishes too. Cherries are surprisingly good with tarragon. A chicken salad made with cherries, almonds and a creamy tarragon dressing is one of the best summer dishes (and cherries are good in a tarragon-rich stu ng for roast chicken too). And who doesn’t love them in a pan full of rich, spicy-sweet lamb kofta or a cinnamon-scented pilaff? In savoury dishes, even more than sweet ones, they are one of the glories of Turkish cooking.
The best thing you can do with good cherries, really, is put them in a bowl, set them on the table and eat them. Good cooks know this. In a celebrated Parisian bistro I’ve eaten creamy rice pudding with nothing fancier than a big bowl of the crimson fruit brought to the table for everyone to share. One of the first menus I read in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook by Alice Waters (the mother of Californian cooking) listed fresh cherries and almond cookies as pudding. In Greece I’ve had them served scattered over ice for dessert.
Now is the time to enjoy them. Life is rarely a bowl of cherries. But a bowl of cherries is one of life’s great pleasures.'
23rd June 2016
There’s no greater joy than slurping on a refreshing ice lolly on a hot summer’s day
'Some things, thankfully, don’t change. I still hang over the freezer cabinet in the newsagents with my children, just as I did when I was small, the air cooling our brows, excited at the prospect of something cold and delicious. I bet you can remember the ice lollies of your childhood. Wall’s Lemonade Sparkle, Lyons Maid’s Fab, HB’s Fiesta.
Although I spent ages deciding, I nearly always had the same thing. When very young, my choice was a little restrained. There was no such thing as a Feast (those big, fat, nut-and- chocolate coated ice-cream lollies) then. My favourite was – very prosaically – a Frostie, basically sweet frozen milk. Later, I moved onto Orange Maids which were unbelievably thirst- quenching (orange juice on a stick). Then Strawberry Mivvies came along. Vanilla ice cream with a strawberry sorbet-like coating, they tasted of pure summer (and are still one of the foods that can give me a Proustian moment. They don’t just taste of strawberries, cream and vanilla, they taste of 1974).
The year Mum bought Tupperware lolly moulds was landmark. I was already keen on cooking, but that summer we all ‘cooked’. At first my siblings and I made lollies with fruit juice, then I thought freezing raspberry yogurt would be a good idea. Soon we were creating stripy lollies, waiting for each band of juice to set before we added the next.
‘The year Mum bought Tupperware lolly moulds was landmark. I was already keen on cooking, but that summer, we all “cooked”’
Soon we were creating stripy lollies, waiting for each band of juice to set before we added the next. Were summers hotter then? They seemed to be. Certainly the summer of 1976 was the summer of endless sun and homemade lollies. They melted so fast we had to suck the dribbles from round the base, as well as licking the top.
Ice lollies weren’t o cially around until 1923. Frank Epperson from California, patented his idea of a ‘frozen ice on a stick’ and called it the Epsicle. It became known as the ‘popsicle’ (and that’s how they’re still called in America today) and he eventually sold the Popsicle brand to a company in New York.
Commercial ice lollies don’t have the appeal of ones in the 70s and 80s, but homemade ones have been on the rise again. Gin and tonics on a stick are great at drinks parties, and cocktail- based lollies make good desserts. Fruit juices, diluted fruit purées (sometimes with the addition of cream), yogurt and iced coffee all make excellent lollies, you just have to remember a few things: freezing mutes flavour, so your lolly mixture has to be more intense and sweeter than you think it needs to be; lemon or lime juice and even a pinch of salt ‘heightens’ the flavour; don’t fill the moulds to the top because it expands as it freezes.
I wonder how hard it’d be to make my own strawberry Mivvi? 1974 beckons… '
16th June 2016
Here’s to Dad, who taught me that the world is my oyster – and a tasty one
'It’s hard for me to listen to Van Morrison’s song Coney Island. It’s not about Coney Island in New York, but about a little island in Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. It tells the story of a Sunday spent driving round that area in autumn sunshine, picking up the Sunday papers, doing a bit of birdwatching. As Van says, ‘the craic was good’. The line which gets me is this: ‘Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings, in case we get famished before dinner.’ Van growls through this – half-singing, half- speaking – in his untouched Northern Irish accent. And there, summed up in a song, is my father.
Most years we went to Dublin on holiday, and the first stopping point was a place where Dad bought cockles and mussels. He ate them in the car from little paper cartons. The shellfish stop indicated that we were really on holidays, and that Dad was happy. Food marked the holiday excitement, but also a joy taken in life. ‘Here, try it!’ he would often command, holding out a forkful of some new flavour and texture, willing us to be more adventurous. My dad is only 77 – not old – but one day I will listen to Coney Island and weep.
‘It seems unfair that my dad’s attitude to and love for food influenced me even more than my mum’s cooking – but it did’
My mum was the cook in our family. I am of the generation when that was the woman’s job. When Dad cooked – flipping marinated chicken thighs on the barbecue, messing up the entire kitchen making pâté – it stood out, it was something special. It seems unfair that my dad’s attitude to and love for food influenced me perhaps more than my mum’s cooking – but it did. When he went away on a trip it was always food he brought back: jars of Scandinavian herrings, silver captured in glass; fat sausages from Buckley’s in Dublin, which he would bring out of his briefcase (we always had those on Christmas morning); silky smoked salmon, although he picked up wild stuff too from friends; and pheasants (though I hated the pheasants, with their beady eyes and soft small-boned bodies).
When we went on our first foreign holiday – to Portugal – we had one night in a ‘posh’ restaurant. The rest of us ordered dishes we recognised. Dad ordered salt cod fritters and cataplana. We marvelled at this big copper spaceship of pork and clams (what an odd combination, what a dish) which he emptied, tackling every last clam with his big hands. At every turn, he urged us to try the new, the unusual.
I don’t have advice about what dads, as opposed to mums, should do for their children. But I know that my dad’s love of food really formed me. From my mother I learnt skills. From my father I learnt to taste the world.
9th June 2016
Upgrade these jewels of the Earth to star of the show
'If new potatoes were as expensive as trues they might be just as sought after. We think of potatoes too much as something that you have ‘on the side’, rather than a food to be savoured. Potatoes have long been regarded as a food for the poor – plentiful, cheap, filling. But just look at how perfect new potatoes are: as beautifully shaped as pebbles, as smooth as babies’ heels. The skin is thin and can either be left on or rubbed off before cooking. I tend to think new potatoes are better steamed than boiled – that way the flavour stays intact – and I like them with butter, sea salt and raw salad onions. I suppose that’s a kind of summer version of champ, the buttery salad onion and potato mash for which Ireland is famous. I thought my liking for potatoes served as the main event was because I’m Irish but Germans will make new potatoes into a meal as well, serving them warm with curd cheese, a soft herb such as chervil and linseed oil. A similar idea – though it’s Californian – is to have warm new potatoes with a soft goat’s cheese and a whole head of roasted garlic. And the French eat warm new potatoes with radishes and sarasson – a thick fromage blanc – mixed with crumbled goat’s cheese, chives, garlic and olive oil.
'Just look at how perfect new potatoes are: as beautifully shaped as pebbles, as smooth as babies’ heels'
I like baking new potatoes in paper, making a parcel out of baking parchment (leaving room around the potatoes so that the air can expand to puff up the paper). Just add salt and a tiny splash of water or vermouth – this produces soft potatoes with a rough, salty crust as the liquid evaporates during cooking – or you can bake them with baby leeks and a bit of white wine, or with black olive or anchovy butter. The smell is wonderful, and the flesh of the potatoes is imbued with whatever you’ve cooked alongside them.
New potatoes are exactly what you need for potato salads, the waxy texture is perfect (those monsters who make potato salads with floury potatoes and buckets of mayonnaise should be made to eat it with overcooked salmon all summer). Dress boiled new potatoes in vinaigrette while they’re still hot, then add sliced, sautéed shallots and drained capers. For a creamy salad, dress the warm potatoes in chicken or vegetable stock – not too much – then when cool, carefully fold in mayonnaise (thinned with a little single cream), lemon juice and chives or dill (gherkins are good too).
Waxy potatoes are now available all year round but it’s still lovely to take advantage of the proper new potatoes when they’re in season. There are Cornish new potatoes (with their sweet, nutty flesh) and new potatoes from Suffolk and Norfolk too. Just don’t forget – they can be the star of the show.'
2nd June 2016
Eating well abroad doesn't happen by magic, it requires careful - and often surreptitious - planning
'I’m sitting in a car by the piazza in a Tuscan village. My boyfriend has abandoned me. He’s gone to find a bar, leaving in a flurry of swearwords and door banging. He hasn’t parked the car, but left it in the middle of the road so I look and feel like a dork. What caused this lovers’ tiff? Prosciutto. I had – reasonably, I thought – suggested we drive 60 miles to dinner because I’d booked a farmhouse where they cured their own ham. It sounded enchanting. But the boyfriend was having none of it. We ended the evening hungry, in our hotel room, me studying the timetable of trains to Pisa. It wasn’t just dinner that was off.
I don’t do holidays in a ‘normal’ way. Long before I started to write about food, holidays weren’t something I went on to lie beside a pool, they were a way of grappling with a culinary culture. I wanted to eat a country. Serendipity doesn’t play a huge part in this. I don’t expect to stumble across a great little bistro or spot the perfect farm shop while belting through the countryside. I am a planner. Before the internet this meant scouring guidebooks and cross-referencing articles. Stacks of magazines used to be delivered to the house - Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveller - not to mention the weekend supplements. Entire trips were plotted - and still are - around great restaurants (and jam makers, charcutiers and cheese producers). I spend nights squinting at maps, trying to work out the distance between one great eating opportunity and the next.
'I spend nights squinting at maps, trying to work out the distance between one great eating opportunity and the next'
All this results in a schedule that I print out. This doesn’t just detail the restaurants I’ve booked but also the places to get the best pistachio ice cream/ hand-churned butter/flaky croissants/chicken piri piri.
I’m not bothered about Michelin-starred gaffs but about chefs and cooks who do things well. If you don’t care about food, you may think this approach is nuts. But it has led me to the sort of establishment that lifts your heart as soon as you walk through the door: a Norman farmhouse where we feasted on fried eggs, ham and homemade cider; an inn in Friuli where they smoked goose breast and made blackcurrant grappa; a lobster pound in Maine where they offered the sweetest shellfish, served on a jetty strung with fairy lights; a shack in Morocco where there was hot mint tea and spiced lamb wrapped in scorched flatbread.
But not all my family share my passion, so I keep the holiday ‘schedule’ to myself. They eat brilliantly and think it all happens by magic. The planning is my delicious secret. I’m just plotting how to eat Sicily. Would you like to have a peek at the schedule? It’s fairly ambitious. So you have to promise not to shout.'
Diana Henry is The Sunday Telegraph’s food writer.