Monday, 24 September 2012

Dear Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1989),

How the heck have I been writing a literary food blog for all this time, and haven't mentioned you? Daphne, I apologise for the horrendous oversight. You should have been featured long ago. Your books are filled with so many richly described, lavish, drool-inducing treats that I could practically eat the pages.

Perhaps it's because you wrote of people who weren't short of a dollar, at a time when many were. When you wrote Rebecca, for instance, the world was in recovery from the Great Depression. The food, like other fashions, was simple, in deference to the times, yet quietly rather comforting. (Spam notwithstanding.) Even the afternoon teas of the wealthy de Winters in Rebecca were hearty and unpretentious:

"Those dripping crumpets, I can see them now. Tiny crisp wedges of toast, and piping-hot, floury scones. Sandwiches of unknown nature, mysteriously flavoured and quite delectable, and that very special gingerbread. Angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins. There was enough food there to keep a starving family for a week."

Perhaps the thought of those starving families is why the food, though plentiful, was kept plain and satisfying. The 1% of just about every other generation have gone overboard with their food, to the point where you could eat impeccably-prepared feasts for hours, and never feed the soul. The aristocracy of the Regency era ate roasted boar's heads. The rich of the Roman Empire ate peacock brains. (And on the baffling flipside, Marie Antoinette, despite her reputed fondness for delicate pastries, actually lived on boiled chicken and water and never told anyone to eat cake.) The bottom line is, no matter how well resourced any generation has been, they've never perfected the art of eating for satisfaction over fashion.

But something seemed to happen to the eaters of the late '30s. Maybe when you have the memory of breadlines fresh on the mind, you seek out soul food. The characters in Rebecca are not poor - yet they eat things that are baked, and hot, and simple, and don't involve foams or spheres of things that are not naturally foamy or spherical. Every morsel is an opportunity for the kind of voluptuous, unctuous, soul-warming pleasure that only comes from the thorough satisfaction of one's appetite. Take note Masterchefs: you can craft little florets of flambéed quails' necks all you want, but I'll pick a dripping crumpet every time.

They also don't eat as much as they make available to themselves, so perhaps they shouldn't be our model of ethical eating. But one way or another, I can relate to the narrator of Rebecca - having married into the unfamiliar wealthy world of an older man, she can focus, as I often do, on the simple pleasures of a laden table. (Can't relate to the marrying-an-older-man bit so much. Despite many stalkerish letters to Noam Chomsky, I didn't marry any older men in my early twenties.)

So now, as I read Rebecca, I'm spoilt for choice as to what to cook. Except that the choice is easy, because the words 'piping,' 'hot,' and 'scones' are sitting there on the page. And since it's just turned spring here at the bottom of the world, my scones must be hollowed out and stuffed with fresh gardeny things. Because if I've learned anything from your writing, Daphne, it's the value of luxurious simplicity.

Stuffed Scones

Makes 8

Ingredients

1 3/4 C flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
100g butter
3/4 C grated parmesan
3/4 C grated cheddar
2 eggs
3 tbsp greek yoghurt
3 tbsp milk
4 spring onions
1 1/2 C assorted chopped tomatoes
100g haloumi
Handful of flat leaf parsley 

Method

Preheat oven to 200C.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and paprika. Add the butter in small cubes, and rub between your fingertips until it's well-mixed and looks like a sandpit after a rainstorm. Mix through the grated cheeses, eggs, yoghurt, and milk until just combined. Slice the spring onions very thinly. Add half of the diced onions to the scone mix and set the other half aside.

Knead the scone mix until it's springy, around 3-4 minutes. Form an amorphous batter-blob, of roughly even thickness, and cut out shapes. Arrange them on a baking sheet, along with the chopped tomatoes.* Bake for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool.

Using a paring knife and a teaspoon, carve a section out of the top of each scone to form a bowl. (The scooped-out bits would make flavoursome breadcrumbs... I guess... they didn't make it that far, in my case.) Slice the haloumi and fry in a medium-hot pan until golden. Fill the scone bowls with the tomatoes, remaining half of the sliced spring onions, parsley, and top each with a slice of haloumi. 

Serve with tea in front of a Hitchcock film.

*It's not strictly speaking necessary to bake the tomatoes. I did it because my scones were going to travel with me quite a ways, and I didn't want the tomatoes leaching liquid into the scones. As it happened, they leached liquid onto the baking tray and then into the scones, achieving much the same semi-sodden effect. Their flavour was intensified though, so I think baking them is the lesser of the two evils. You could bake them on a separate tray if you don't mind washing dishes for the rest of your life.

1 comment:

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