Arcimboldo’s Summer

Arcimboldo’s Summer
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was the master of these pre-surrealist paintings of figures formed of grouped objects (not always food).

Monday, 30 December 2013

A (Somewhat Too?) Spicy Heston Xmas

I'm rather fond of Heston Blumenthal, the Nutty Professor of modern British cuisine and I'm delighted that the good folks at Waitrose are collaborating with him to bring some of his madcap creations within reach of ordinary mortals like you and I. (They still ain't cheap, but keep your eyes peeled for those special offers, folks.)

This Christmas I had the pleasure of sampling four of Heston's Waitrose seasonal specials, designed for Yuletide parties and dinners, two savoury and two sweet: the mini chicken, leek and ham hock pies (I love the fact that it's the hock), the equally-mini chilli con carne muffins, the chocolate caramel and ginger swirl (that reminds me, I'm going to have a slice of this for breakfast. Yum) and the spiced shortcrust minced pies.

They were all good, and particularly tasty if you went to the trouble of following the serving suggestions — adding wholegrain mustard and mayonnaise to the pies and tarting up the muffins with grated lime zest, chopped coriander and sour cream (or "soured" cream as it's called in Britain, the element of intentionality being intended to reassure people there's nothing wrong with the stuff).

But three out of four of these dishes were over-spiced for my taste. In particular, the ginger in the chocolate caramel etc swirl is so intense that it dances on the edge of rankness. I love spicy food, but it seems to me that these three were all over done. So much so that I actually wondered if Heston is secretly a chain smoker. That would account for the heavy handedness of the flavourings.

I hasten to add that the desserts are not overly sweet, a much graver culinary sin and one I would find much more off-putting.

And the chicken, leek and ham hick pies were terrific, with a wholesome home-made taste.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Banana Appeal

Have you ever been impatient to eat a banana and selected a fruit that you knew wasn't quite ripe yet? And then, when you peel it and bite into it, you discover what you knew would happen all along: the flavour lacks sweetness and is chalky and disappointing.

Well, there was a time when that would not have happened. Up until the mid 20th Century the variety of banana consumed all over the world was called Gros Michel, and these little rascals were as delicious when eaten green as they were ripe.

Unfortunately Gros Michel (which I'll loosely translate as Fat Michael or Big Mike) was wiped out, completely in commercial terms, by a plague of fungus (Fusarium oxysporum commonly known as Panama disease — a relative of Dutch Elm disease).

So the second best variety stepped up and came into commercial use. This is called the AAA Cavendish and it is the variety that you (and I) are eating today,

The "AAA" isn't a designation of quality. Rather it refers to the fact that the Cavendish is a hybrid with three sets of chromosomes (instead of the usual two). It is called a triploid. The A stands for "acuminata" because all three of the Cavendish's ancestors come from the Musa acuminata subspecies. 

The other subspecies of the banana family is Musa balbisiana and cross pollination with M. acuminata has led to the AAB triploids which represent the Pacific plantains.

Enough science. Now for the dramatic bit.

Just as Gros Michel was wiped out by a fungus, Cavendish is now under threat, by a villain called black Sigatoka. (If ever there was a villainous name, that's one.)

Experiments are under way to make Cavendish resistant to the fungus, either by genetic engineering or through breeding in resistance by recreating it from its wild ancestors.

Neither line of research is showing much success. 

So keep your fingers crossed, or we may not have any  bananas, even inferior Cavendish bananas to eat, green or ripe.

However it's worth noting that the superior tasting Gros Michel variety still exists. It's a rarity, but it's out there...

Maybe it's time for Big Mike to make a comeback.
(Most of the information for this post derives from an excellent article in the 20 April 2013 New Scientist 'Go Bananas' by Bob Holmes.)

(Image credits: the green and yellow bananas are from Boing Boing. The heaped bananas are from Wikipedia. The stages of ripening bananas 1-7 are from Carla Golden Wellness. The close up of a pile of bananas is from Scientific American. All these sites provide some interesting reading on the subject. The Velvet Underground cover is from Trending Trademarks, which has some interesting reading on a copyright dispute between the Velvets and the Warhol estate.)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

You're a Cute Tomato

It’s not easy getting a decent tomato in this country. I haven't had a regular supply since my neighbours who grew their own moved away (how thoughtless).

Tomatoes sold still on the vine sometimes have more flavour than the pre-picked kind. Sometimes. 
But the standard of taste is so generally low that I usually just buy on the basis of cost.

Tomatoes in the UK are pricey. Just how pricey was hammered home the other day when I needed a couple of tomatoes for a recipe. (All right, to tart up a potato dish before serving it, actually.)

So I splashed out on a couple of speciality Marmonde tomatoes from Waitrose.

They certainly looked nice. Unfortunately they didn't really have any flavour.

And these two modest sized tomatoes cost more (£1) than a punnet of my usual tomatoes: Sainsbury’s Basics All Shapes, All Sizes, which are presently retailing at 81p for 450g.

The Sainsbury’s tomatoes are my current tip for the best deal. They make a splendid pasta and pizza sauce (recipe here).

Their flavour isn’t exactly superb, but they are about as good as the expensive Marmonde ones from Waitrose, at least on this occasion.

Maybe I can get my new neighbours to start growing them...

(Image credits: The groovy looking tomatoes at the top (actually Marinda) are from Natoora; the Sainsbury’s punnet is from My Supermarket. The Waitrose Marmonde is from the Waitrose website.)