After Dinner Drinking

You know how it is: you've had a lovely dinner and a fine selection of wines; you're not ready to finish just yet as you're enjoying the company and want to relax a little before everyone's on their way, but you're not sure more wine has the right feel about it.Just as the aperitif developed to "open up" the appetite to the dinner that follows, so many countries have created "digestive" drinks to relax the body and aid digestion, so that diners aren't waddling home uncomfortably full. One for the road needs to be a small one, and small ones are often strong ones. A friend coined the term "sippy-sippy drinks," which I think gleefully captures the style of these strong, sometimes very sweet drinks that are not to be approached lightly. Many cultures serve neat spirit at the end of the evening. It's certainly true that brandy, whiskey and such have a warming, relaxing effect on the way down. Whether they make any difference to you…


" He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." Jonathan Swift
I wrote last week about preparing octopus for the table. I'm quite convinced that more people would eat cephalopods like octopus and squid if they knew how to prepare and cook them. I'm less sure that's the case with oysters. For all their aphrodisiac reputation, they're not the prettiest thing; not the sort of thing you would look on and assume to be delicious. I suspect the first person to eat an oyster was not so much bold as hungry, and willing to try anything for the sake of filling their belly. Oysters were once so plentiful in British waters that they were eaten only by the poor, having little or no value. It is only with over-fishing and habitat destruction that they have become rare enough to entice the rich.One mistake people make when they first try oysters is they imagine they must be served raw. We all know this is the popular way to serve them, but there are many delicious recipes for…

Help! What do I do with an octopus???

Octopus dishes are delicious. The meat is sweet and delicate and, if properly cooked, it ranges from firm to tender, but should not be tough or rubbery. It is usually boiled to tenderise it and can then be grilled, barbecued, served simply in salad or pickled as part of a meze table. It is relatively plentiful in British waters and not uncommon in restaurants, but home cooks tend to shy away from it. The main reason seems to be squeamishness about preparing it, or nervousness about getting it wrong. Any good fishmonger (including the in-store ones in the supermarket) will clean and gut it for you if asked. I tend not to ask, as it's not a difficult task and allows you to get the 'feel' of your octopus before you cook it.Your first task is to give it a really good rinse in cold water. There's every chance the fish has released ink as it was caught, and you're going to need several changes of water to get that off. Octopus ink isn't harmful in any way, but it'…

Autumn in the orchard

I love this time of year. I love the colours on the trees and the way the wind sweeps leaves around you while you're out walking. I love sitting quietly, watching the sunsets and saying my goodbyes to swifts and pipistrelles. Maybe it's the romantic in me, but the elegiac mood of early autumn makes me feel rather thankful for my life. There's something of the Harvest Festival in every moment - the culmination of spring and summer activity before nature goes dormant for the winter. "All is safely gathered in." It's the time when all my favourite foods become available, all of a sudden: wild mushrooms, oysters, game birds and orchard fruits.The apple is the king of the orchard, and European cultures have found myriad uses for them. Obviously, we can eat them as they are; we also cook them in hundreds of dishes. We ferment them into cider, convert the cider to vinegar or distil it into brandy. We preserve foods with smoke from the prunings, and when the trees ar…

Italian ideas for Ferragosto

Italy marks 15th August with a holiday. Strictly speaking, it's the feast of the Assumption, an important religious festival for Catholics. However, you'd be hard pushed to find an Italian who uses that name for it. Throughout the country it's known as Ferragosto - the feasts of Augustus. Romans have been enjoying a summer break since the very first emperor provided games and other entertainments at this time of year to maintain his popularity. Nowadays the word applies to both the Assumption day holiday and the fortnight's break that most locals take following it.
The Beloved and I love visiting Italy. Being lovers of good food and wine, it’s natural that much of our holidays (and cash) are spent enjoying the local cuisine. Over the years, I’ve started to notice something in the Italian approach to food that you don’t spot at first. Every good cook knows that you’re supposed to take quality ingredients and let them shine, but nobody really tells you what that means. O…

Barbecue entertaining

The British summer is doing its best to surprise us, with its usual mixture of rain, gales and glorious sunshine all in one day. In many parts of the UK, Coronavirus restrictions are gradually being eased, and we're getting used to socialising outdoors and at a distance. The traditional British barbecue of burgers and hotdogs with a range of unmatched salads and plenty to drink doesn't hold the same attraction in the circumstances. Do not leave your barbie to gather dust, though. There is so much you can cook on it, and our current circumstances provide just the opportunity to experiment.
A barbecue - charcoal or gas - is nothing more than a fire and a wire rack. It's just a heat source. That's it. And anything you would normally cook under a grill, in the oven or even things you'd do on the hob, can be cooked on a barbecue. All the flash gadgetry of a top-of-the-range gas barbecue is designed to make the heat more controllable, but you can achieve great results on …

Writer's block and happy accidents

Every now and again, my imagination crashes. Just like when your computer does it, it freezes half way through a task and refuses to get going again, no matter what I do to try to re-engage it. It happened to me last week when I wanted to plan this post.Nothing. You may have noticed it, not sitting there at the foot of the page. No "next time..." Usually, by the time I'm posting a piece, I know what I want to write about next time. I might struggle to get the words together in the right order, but I'll have a fairly clear idea of what I want to say. This was different; I didn't have a clue what I wanted to write. I started to feel some solidarity with Old Mother Hubbard, staring into the cavernous void of her nursery-rhyme larder and finding only anxiety about what to do next.
Entertaining can be a bit like that, too. You've invited friends over and you're deciding what to serve, but nothing seems quite right. One thing's a bit heavy for the season, anoth…