Raspberry Debacle

9 August, 2007

Colours, disguises, and two-pepper soup

Filed under: gluten-free, main, spring, vegetables, vegetarian — Holly @ 8:17 am

Two-pepper soup on a dinner table

The way food looks affects the way food tastes. At school, I used to put green food colouring in my common-room-fridge milk, and although it meant I drank blue hot chocolate for a year, it also meant it was usually someone else’s milk that got stolen. On a World War II ship, the cook once found he’d run out of cherry-flavoured jelly; to still the complaints of the crew, he put red food colouring into the lemon jelly, and everyone was happy. If you give someone chocolate yoghurt in the dark and tell them it’s strawberry, experiments show they’ll believe you.

Where this gets really interesting is when the appearance of food begins to completely overwhelm the taste. Mediaeval cooks would sew half a pig to half a chicken and call it a cockatrice; their Victorian followers would make carefully-coloured ice-cream in asparagus moulds (”to produce this fancy ice you will require at least eighteen asparagus moulds made in pewter, and procurable at most ironmongers”, the instructions read).

Wedding cakes come at the modern peak of food-for-show. They’re rarely cheap, often massively expensive, and they usually taste, well, pretty nasty. This is where the cake rental companies that have been in the news lately come in. They provide a fake wedding cake with a tiny portion of real cake in a drawer, and a slit you can put a knife through for the ceremonial slicing. The bride and groom pretend to cut the cake together; they pull the little real slice out; and then the cake as a whole is wheeled off to be surreptitiously replaced in the kitchen with “here’s one I prepared earlier”-style slices of another cake entirely.

This seems, on the face of it, a pretty ridiculous idea, but fake cakes aren’t new. The rulesets (pdf) of cake-decorating competitions often allow the use of a styrofoam “cake dummy” instead of a real cake base; and if you’re more concerned with appearance than taste, why not? In fact, I almost want one, just to have lying around the house (”what’s that?” “oh, it’s just my cake dummy”). I’m not, however, convinced by the idea that “a fake cake displayed on a kitchen counter or dining room table is especially appealing when a home is for sale and on display for potential buyers”. The recommended cake in this version is papier-mache and uniced, and I can’t imagine it would stand up to close inspection, or that most people wouldn’t find it quite creepy (though perhaps a papier-mache oak tree and/or third bedroom would add to the resale value).

I lack the patience and skill for cake decorating; the closest I get to food whose appearance overwhelms its content is a two-pepper soup (where “pepper” in this context means “bell pepper” or “capsicum”). At first it just looks pretty, but give everyone a skewer and they’ll happily draw patterns until it’s gone cold. If you can manage to persuade them to stop drawing for a few minutes and eat it, they’ll find it tastes pretty good as well.

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30 March, 2007

Vegan Potato Salad and food colouring

Filed under: gluten-free, salad, spring, vegan, vegetables, vegetarian — Holly @ 1:15 pm

A kale-and-chickpea salad.

Salad is just rubbish, isn’t it? In the past five years I’ve shared a house with two vegans, two vegetarians, and three meat-eaters, and in all that time I’ve had one salad that tasted nice. I keep trying: I use recipes, I use “these vegetables all taste nice” logic, I order meals with salad in restaurants, and it just doesn’t work. I get a perfectly nice pasta dish… that somebody’s left to go cold and manky. Some delightful lettuces and tomato… that someone’s covered with a greasy slick of oil. Chickpeas and lemon and a load of crunchy stuff is still fundamentally going to taste like lemony chickpeas, and one mouthful of lemony chickpeas is enough for me.

Salad is the one food where almost every recipe includes something that you’re supposed to add “for colour”. There’s nothing wrong with colour; it might not affect the taste, but it affects our experience of the taste, and that’s the important thing. Fifty percent of us assume our cordial is lime-flavoured if it’s coloured green. The semi-arbitrary association of “blue” with “raspberry” developed partly because customers just couldn’t tell the difference between strawberry and raspberry flavourings without some sort of colour cue. I’ll put food colouring in orange cakes, and it does make them taste more orangey to me, even though there’s no flavour in it.

At the end of the nineteenth century the burgeoning margarine industry was famously kept in check by legislation controlling not the sale of margarine but its colour (which is naturally white); in the US, margarine that had been coloured an attractive yellow was taxed at forty times the rate of its uncoloured equivalent. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, West Virginia and South Dakota, margarine could only be sold at all if it was coloured pink (at least until the Supreme Court demurred). Even the packaging had to be unattractive, predating similar “smoking may cause lung cancer” labelling laws by decades:

In this connection, one state requires that a black band at least three inches wide be painted around the container. Another state requires the use of labels painted with lamp black and oil on all containers of butter substitutes.

And because people like things to look the right colour, this set the stage for profitable dodges:

Another man who made a highly profitable find in the food field in recent years is Leo Peters, originator of the “Pak” margarine package, made out of plastic and containing a capsule for coloring. By merely kneading the “Pak,” a housewife can give a pound of margarine the appetizing hue of butter. It took Peters a long time to put the idea across, but once it was accepted by manufacturers he began collecting royalties estimated at $1,000,000 a year.

So adding something for colour: fine. But salads don’t just have ingredients added for colour. They seem to exist at all just for the sake of that colour, to throw a pie or a bit of meat or something else that actually tastes good into relief. They’re not a decent food that I’d want to eat anyway, with a bit of adornment to make them more enticing: they’re a food that I keep trying because it makes plates look better, and because other people seem to approve, but which there’s never any point in eating. Salads aren’t horrible, they’re just pointless and dreary. They take up space on the plate, but maybe it’s time to start getting smaller plates, or saving money by having reusable crumpled cellophane, instead of wasting five minutes a day chopping up spring onions and radishes, both of which, frankly, taste of nothing at all.

The only reason I haven’t given up on salad entirely is… well, d’you remember I said that I’ve had one salad, ever, that tasted nice? Yes, well, that one tastes really really nice. It has spring onions. It has radishes. I taste the spring onions and radishes as I chop them up, and they still taste of nothing, but then I put them in this salad and they’re delicious.

It doesn’t even look very pretty, which, since “looking pretty” is the one thing most salads are good for (you can’t even throw them, they just fall into their constituent parts and get on your clothes), puts it at a disadvantage. But it doesn’t need to look pretty. It stands around on street corners and sneers at the pretty salads as they go by, and the pretty salads drop their heads and rush onward because they know it’s better than they are.

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18 March, 2007

Delicious rabbit and Kensington High Street

Filed under: main, meat, rabbit, vegetables, winter — Holly @ 3:29 pm

Close-up of some delicious rabbit

Rabbits really shouldn’t be hard to find. They’re notorious for overbreeding, and they’re dreadful pests, vermin even: surely the problem should be getting rid of them, more and more rabbits appearing faster than anyone could possibly cook them.

“What was that?”

“What?”

“That noise in the freezer. Sort of… nibbly. Nibbly and cold.”

“Oh it can’t be… it is, it’s those bloody rabbits again. Get me the rabbit-poking stick, Germaine.”

But somehow they’re harder to get hold of than I’d expect. Rabbit-poachers are forced to resort to bulletproof cars:

The poachers had fitted a halogen lamp on the outside to blind their prey and shielded the car’s number plates with lead sheeting to avoid identification.

There was also a device to eject two old bicycles fixed on the back of the car on to the road.

The North Koreans are forced to resort to German breeders, hoping to bulk out the nation’s food supply with terrifying eight-kilogram super-rabbits.

And I’m forced to resort to… well:

In Battersea, it’s easy to convince yourself that you aren’t middle class. Middle-class people don’t have housemates, do they? They have multiple tablecloths instead, and matching cutlery. They have a solicitor, or at least a jug. They certainly don’t live in SW11, which the statistical analysis and glib generalisations of Up My Street characterise as “crowded flats in multi-ethnic areas”. SW is the area Alec Guinness’s disgraced mother moves to when, in Kind Hearts and Coronets, she is disowned by her aristocratic family; it has a history of gun crime stretching back to 1829, when the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchelsea fought a duel over Catholic emancipation, standing among asparagus fields in the marshes that would later become Battersea Park.

The trouble with crowded flats and gun crime, though, is that they aren’t very conducive to rabbit-hunting, so earlier this week I left SW11 (”unemployment levels are high, although given the large numbers of lone parents with children under school age, a high proportion of people are not on the job market at all”) for W8 (”in the winter, this type is the most likely to go skiing”). At High Street Kensington, a blonde woman tossed her hair: “If this bag gets stolen I’ll just cry, it has my Valentino dress and my fur coat”. Her friend looked up from a text message on her mobile phone: “She says they weren’t allowed to smoke at all, so you could just smell everyone’s bodies.” At the organic shop, the people’s rice was deepest red but the chocolate cost three pounds a bar… but ohh, this galangal stuff at last, and orange flower water across the road in Waitrose, and I don’t know what they taste like but don’t they sound exciting? And beyond, in the cold groceries section: where my local supermarket sells pork, beef chops, occasional pigs livers, and chicken, here there were shelves upon shelves of poussin! Osso buco! Rabbit!

I’ve only eaten rabbit once, and that was just a bite of somebody else’s main course in a restaurant, so I didn’t really know what to do with it, but most online sources seemed to agree on a few general points (put some wine on it, make it warm for twenty-five minutes), and everyone in the world has been urging me to put green leafy stuff in mashed potato lately; surely it would be hard to go wrong from there?

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