Friday, 27 April 2012

There Will be Time

Back to Eliot’s procrastinating Prufrock,

“… time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

What else do you need on your tea table, alongside the cruet, the milk jug and the sugar bowl? Why, a toast rack, of course.

I bought this one on eBay for a mere £3.20 + £2.83 p&p. It is EPNS (Electro-plated Nickel Silver), with five-bars and a circular handle.

The marks tell me that it was made by Robert Pringle of London in about 1882, (after that date, it became Robert Pringle & Co., Robert Pringle & Sons in 1899, and Robert Pringle & Sons (London) Ltd. in 1931). The 02195 stamp is the pattern number.

Toast racks are, of course, used to keep the toast crisp, by separating the slices and stopping the moisture that evaporates from them making them soggy. They can also be used as a letter rack.

The thing is, what do you spread on your toast? Do you go sweet or savoury? Sweet – is it jam, marmalade or honey? If you go for jam, what flavour? My favourite jams are made by Wilkin and Sons, Tiptree. If you can find it, I recommend their Little Scarlet strawberry jam – I say if you can find it, as they only make a limited amount each year. Wilkins are the only makers to grow, and make jam from, the Little Scarlet variety of strawberry, a tiny berry but full of intense flavour. They are picked during a three-week period in mid-June and cooked in small batches before bottling. The firm reckon that they can produce enough for four or five months supply, and after that – well, you just have to wait until next year. Or you can do what I did – go for their Morello Cherry preserve.

I only hesitate from recommending Little Scarlet for one reason. In From Russia, With Love (1957), Ian Fleming writes: - Breakfast was Bond's favourite meal of the day. When he was stationed in London it was always the same. It consisted of very strong coffee . . . two slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter and three squat glass jars containing Tiptree 'Little Scarlet' strawberry jam; Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum's.

James Bond is one of the most boorish characters in English fiction. He is a horrible, horrible creation. But that said, his taste of breakfast is exquisite. Wholewheat toast – yes, please. Jersey butter – absolutely. Little Scarlet – see above. Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade – undoubtedly. Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s – well, now you’re just being silly.

Frank Cooper’s marmalade has been made since 1874. It is the Queen’s marmalade of choice, Captain Scott took Cooper’s with him on his ill-fated 1911 Antarctic expedition, and Sir Edmund Hillary took it to Everest in 1953.
‘Marmalade’ comes from the Portuguese marmelo – ‘quince’, and was first imported into England in 1495. It deserves a separate post of its own.

You could go savoury, though. There are only two real options here – Marmite or Gentlemen’s Relish. Marmite sells itself on the ‘love it or hate it’ idea, which is fair enough. A soft boiled egg without Marmite soldiers is unthinkable. Marmite is a by-product of the brewing industry – it is made from the spent yeast that has been used to make beer, and takes its name from the French marmite cooking pot, the shape of which the jar echoes and a picture of which appears on the label.

Patum Peperium, or Gentlemen’s Relish, is an anchovy paste, made to a secret recipe from 1828, by Elsenhams. It contains 60% anchovies, salt, spices, herbs and butter and is another acquired taste. It has a very strong flavour but spread thinly on hot, buttered toast is delicious. You can pick up a small plastic pot for just over £1.50 in many supermarkets, or lash out £15.00 for a porcelain jar. What is not often realised is that it can also be used to flavour other foods. The fishy taste of the anchovies breaks down whilst cooking, and it adds a welcome umami tang to cottage pie or grilled chops.

Talking of fishy food, it’s back to the Romans. An essential ingredient in Roman cookery was garum, a condiment made from fermented fish intestines. It sounds disgusting, but apparently the finished product was mild and tasty, and not at all fishy. Romans added garum to almost everything, sweet and savoury, and good quality garum brought high prices. Fish sauces remain popular to this day – nam pla is widely used in Thai cooking, oyster sauce from Cantonese cuisine, saeujeot in Korean food. What is not often realised is that the English Worcestershire sauce is a variety of fish sauce – it too is fermented and contains anchovies. I must use gallons of the stuff – try it in stews, casseroles, ragus and chillis, or add a splash to either cheese or beans on toast.

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