Saturday, 27 October 2012

Dear Evelyn Waugh (1903 - 1966),


No, no no no, no, NO, no.

You had it all wrong.

As the author of Brideshead Revisited, a book whose most redeeming feature (some might say, its only redeeming feature)* is its descriptions of delicious feasts, you MUST not revise those away. If you're going to force us to sit through snobbish dinner conversations, you should at least make the dinners sound tasty.

And you did, at first:

I remember the dinner well—soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904.

Sounds sumptious! Thanks, Waugh old boy!** But you wrote that from hunger. From your sickbed in the Second World War, such richness was merely a memory. And when you revised the novel, you wrote: “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful”.

I'll say  again: NO.

What's distasteful is writing a novel glorifying the English nobility over the 'common man' at a time when Englishmen from all walks of life were fighting together. But to write of food? That's universal. We all take pleasure in the aromas and varieties of our national cuisines. If you are embarrassed about the wealth on the table, then surely that's only a symptom of a deeper embarrassment. Keep your red pen off the blinis! They never hurt anyone.

In fact, I'd like to rescue your blinis. For a lass of hardy Irish stock, that means just one thing: I'd like to take your blinis-and-caviar out of the English country estate and add potatoes!

Potatoes make everything better.
Because there is, in fact, a form of potato pancake, beloved in Ireland, called boxty. My Irish nana told me stories about boxty. (This is possibly a lie. I don't remember if she mentioned boxty. But in my head, I heard it from her.) Boxty is an Irish potato flatbread - somewhere between a pancake and a hash brown. As someone who loves pancakes and hash browns, this is a major selling point. You would normally serve boxty with soup or stew, but why not make 'em mini and top them with fancy brunchy toppings?

Beats trying to make a caneton a la presse or a lemon souffle, that's for sure.

* I could rant long and hard about Brideshead, but many left-leaning secular humanists have done that already. Suffice to say,  it was written towards the end of the Second World War, by an Oxford-educated Englishman, whose writing leave was arranged by the Minister for Information.*** In other words, it was enabled by the person responsible for encouraging patriotic writings. Shall we then read any ideological motives into the novel's valourisation of English nobility and (as Martin Amis put it) its rubbishing of post-war egalitarianism? Yes. Yes we shall.

** Yes, Evelyn Waugh was a man. Didn't stop the Times Literary Supplement calling him "Miss Waugh" though, in the days before he was famous.

*** The Minister was Brendan Bracken, a.k.a. Orwell's model for Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Says it all, really.


Brunchy Boxty Blinis

Makes approx 40-50


1kg potatoes, peeled & washed
3/4 C whole milk
2 tsp salt
1 egg
1/3 C plain flour
Ground pepper
Few small knobs of butter

Feta cream:
100g feta
100g aioli
Dash of milk

Toppings - choose from:
Asparagus tips
Halved cherry tomatoes
or anything else you can think of


To make the blinis:
Divide your potatoes into two even piles. Cut one pile into small chunks and boil until soft. Grate the other pile and transfer the gratings into a sieve over a bowl. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of salt over the gratings to help them release their juices. Let them sit for half an hour or so to drain. Once the gratings have dried out, the bowl below them will be filled with potato water, with a starchy layer at the bottom. Pour out the potato water, but leave the starchy layer in the bowl. Dump the dried gratings into the bowl with the starch. Next, mash the boiled potatoes with 1/4 cup of the milk. Add the mash to the bowl of grated potatoes, along with the rest of the milk, the egg, remaining salt, and pepper to taste. Mix together. Heat a pan on medium-high and melt some butter. Drop tablespoonfuls of the blini mix into the pan and cook until browned; about 5 minutes each side.

To make the feta cream:
Blend the feta with the aioli and enough milk to form a creamy sauce. For ease of daubing on the blinis later, it should be about the consistency of firm Greek yoghurt.

To make the toppings:
Fry some veges of your choice in butter or olive oil. I used mushrooms and asparagus tips.

To assemble:
Top each blini with a daub of feta cream and a piece of vegetable topping. Sprinkle the serving plate with a little parsley for extra colour.

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