Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cookbook: Sumerian Garlic Butter


Being a man of many unsuspected passions and interests, dear reader, one of my favourite pastimes is Linguistic Archeology, i.e. the scholarly hobby which digs for charming historical anecdotes in the hidden layers and timeless stratifications of language. Of course you still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, but I can illustrate. Here we go for a fun one: guess how we know that Basque is one of the very oldest languages still spoken today? Well, we know so because the Basque word for Axe (Aizkora) goes back to the word for Stone (Aitz). Which implies that the language in its present form was already well developed and (nunca mejor dicho) petrified, in the good old days when axes were still generally made from stone. And that is, as you all know, a while ago…

Even in the kitchen we can enjoy this fascinating line of study. One of the oldest words which we still use today corresponds to one of the most humble seed crops known to gastronomy: Sesame. Yes, indeed, I am talking of those tiny little seeds which you regularly find on your Sunday morning bun and on top of the Abominable Hamburgers you order in fast food restaurants. Few people are aware of this, but sesame is the oldest oilseed crop known to humankind. Remains of the gorgeous little grain have been found in Mesopotamian excavations dated tentatively to 3,500 BC. And not only that, but the word itself has been in use for at least 4,000 years. It goes back, by way of many linguistic loans and permutations, to the Babylonian shamash-shammu, meaning ‘oil seed’, which in those happy days was written with the same cuneiform characters as the even older Sumerian Shi-gish-i. Now ain’t that something?

Nothing in nature or culture happens without reason. Hence there are good grounds for the timeless popularity of this tiny little seed, because – in the kitchen as in other departments of human activity – it is not the size that matters, but what you do with it (and in the case of cooking, that cliché is actually true…). Sesame is one of the most precious victuals mankind ever discovered. When pressed it produces a precious, tasty oil; it is decorative on buns and burgers; it can be turned into exquisite pastry; it gives us tahini paste which is all at once rich and healthy, it… Aah, I could go on forever! But let me not waste more time than strictly necessary.

Today I merely want to teach you how to improve your everyday garlic butter by means of sesame seeds. It is a magic trick, which nevertheless corresponds wholeheartedly to the well-known slogan of this cookblog, i.e. ‘Please through Ease and Impress by Simplicity’, and which – giving honour where it is due to the distant ancestors who bequeathed this prize to us – I have decided to dub

Sumerian Garlic Butter

About an hour before you plan to mix it, take the butter out of the fridge so that it may soften up a little. I find that 25 grams per person is usually sufficient, but since this fine spread does not spoil all that quickly, you may wish to make a little more for the day after. Put the butter immediately in the bowl you mean to mix it in. It will save you some unnecessary fumbling with soft, sticky butter and paper napkins.

Once you set to work, toss into the bowl a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper. Then locate the smallest clove in a bulb of garlic, cut it in half, and peel and pound only one of the halves. I cannot stress this enough. Raw garlic was first invented by the Goths who took Rome; it is extremely sturdy, aggressive, and indomitable. And once it is within the walls, so to speak, you will never get rid of it again. So when it comes to garlic butter, you must always aim to err on the parsimonious side with the garlic. There must be a hint of the famous taste, not a tsunami of the forceful flavour.

Once you have shoved the pounded garlic from the cutting board into the butter, it is time to add the green herbs. Here the rules are rather simple. You can toss in whatever you have available, in whatever shape it comes. Naturally, fresh herbs are always to be preferred, but dried will do just as well (and garlic butter is a fine occasion to clean up the herb cabinet and get rid of the jars that have been sitting there, unused, forever!) As for quantities, observe this golden rule: the stronger the taste, the less you add. Thus you must be extremely careful with thyme and sage; you ought to be cautious with oregano and basil; dill and tarragon may be used freely; and you cannot go wrong with parsley and chives. I’m sure you get the idea.

Now for the sesame seeds. Whether you bought them white and raw or pre-roasted and tan, you have to roast them before use. This is not difficult, but it is delicate. Get a small, clean frying pan. Put it on a low flame. Now put in roughly two tablespoons of sesame seeds. NEVER EVER put oil into the pan!!! We are toasting here, not frying; and if you do add oil, the seeds will stick to the bottom and to each other and to the stirring spoon and before you know it the whole bundle becomes a sticky mud of dirty overcooked bird feed.

Now stay where you are and be patient. Every so often, toss the seeds around by moving the pan in a circle by the handle. You can even make the ‘pancake’ movement in a modest way. Very slowly (if the heat is not too high) you will see the colour of the seeds change from pale to ochre. If a lot of seeds start to pop your fire is too high. If no seeds pop at all, you may want to turn the heat up a notch. Do not cover the pan with a lid. You will lose visual control if you do. Before you know it, you’ll be burning the seeds. Note that, if many of the seeds turn black, you must immediately remove the pan from the fire. You’ve gone too far too fast.

Now, to know when the seeds are properly toasted takes a little experience. But the idea is that the colour turns to a nice hue between red and dark brown, and that there will be that chestnutty smell hovering in the air, emanating from the pan. Once you think you’re done, empty the pan onto a saucer, let the roasted seeds cool down, then add them to the butter, setting a small pile aside for decoration if you wish.

We are practically done. Take a sturdy fork, and start mashing and mixing the butter. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl! Once everything is well mixed, put your Sesame Garlic Butter into a nice bowl, drop the remaining seeds on top, cover and put in the fridge until two hours before serving. I promise you will be most pleasantly surprised.

This Sumerian Garlic Butter may be used for many purposes, but my two favourites are simply to spread it on slices of French Baguette, as an appetiser, or to put a nice spoonful on top of a fried steak (but better let your guests do so themselves, it’s fun!)

PS: the Sumerians probably made this yummie dish with goat butter. If you want to be authentic, go right ahead. I must warn you, however, that this is an ‘acquired taste’.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Grave of Henry Fielding

[Explicatory Note: the below excerpt is from an old article which describes a visit to the Lisbon British Cemetery of many years ago, and is republished here as an addition to the shockingly inadequate remarks recently published by Colin Davies on his blog Thoughts from Galicia. The text of the full article – called ‘The Father of the Novel and the Mother of the Waters’ - may of course be seen in volume xviii, pp. 1,039-1,072 of The Collected Works of Alfred B. Mittington, (Kriem & DeStraffe: Louvaine 1956), available in any library worth its salt; or by picking up a back copy of the George Borrow Bulletin nº 35, which contains an adapted version. Click HERE for details.]

The sign on the massive iron gate reads, in faultless English: ‘British Cemetery. Visiting Hours 09.00-13.00. Please ring and wait.’ It is an imperfect message. What it ought to say is: ‘Our gate-keeper is over eighty. Kindly ring the bell and return in twenty minutes.’ Fortunately, our profound disappointment stops us from giving up at once. We have come such a long way to visit the site – Ronald all the way from Holland by plane; myself nine hours in a shaky Portuguese bus – that we are loath to relinquish our quest on the spur of a moment. And this is our salvation.

After some ten minutes, as we stand pouting indecisively on the sun-burnt Lisbon side-walk, not knowing what to do and why the door isn’t open at 11.15, we suddenly hear the rumbling and grumbling of rusty locks being forced against their will, and the gate swings open at a snail’s pace to show us, against a backdrop of moss-covered tombstones and blooming shrubbery, a very aged Portuguese lady, who seems to have walked straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She stands no taller than four feet three, leans most unsteadily on a cane even older than herself, and despite the heat comes wrapped in a thick coating of shawls, blankets and what seem to be heavy damask curtains ripped from a theatre stage. I don’t think I ever saw a face more wrinkled, or eyes more squinting against the light of day; and when she speaks, in a rasping voice which miraculously preserves the crystal tones of youth in the last syllables of each clause, I cannot help but remember that “elderly female” whom George Borrow says he met in an Elvas tavern late in 1835, and who assured him that it was ‘more than a hundred years since I was a girl, and sported with the daughters of the town on the hillside’. And it turns out that I am only a decade or so off the mark: for - seeing that she was over 30 when the Great Earthquake struck in 1755 - Borrow computed the age of his Lady Methuselah at some 110 years; and this here old girl is Adelina Pires, aged 98, lifelong caretaker of Lisbon’s British Cemetery, who only recently was awarded a Royal MBE for 70 years of loyal, dedicated and uninterrupted service to the graveyard.

Will she let us in? It seems, at first, that she will not. But it is hard to grasp the reason why. Even Ronald, whose Portuguese is fluent, cannot make heads or tails of what she says; as if this Sybil spoke in oracle tongues impenetrable to the 21st century ear. Only after five or six sentences we begin to make some sense of it. It seems there is a service going on in the St. George chapel, and at such times nosey sightseers are not, on the average, welcome. ‘I really should not ….’, she mumbles. But then she smiles, a broad and toothless smile which bobs on her neck like a cork on a rough sea. She quickly throws a glance over her right shoulder, looks us over once again, seems to give us a wink of the eye, and puts a twiggish finger to her lips. With a long and almost naughty shhhhhht she begs us in. If we promise to be silent like mice and do not steal into the church… We vow to be our very best behaviour, and enter Lisbon’s Protestant graveyard on tiptoe.

Borrow, who visited the site in November 1835, called it ‘a Père-la-chaise in miniature’. It is apt description; but he might better have said that was a ‘Père-la-Chaise in camouflage’. For this is a Protestant cemetery in a deeply Catholic land, and everything has been done to keep this plot, robbed from the Holy Soil of Portugal for the benefit of heretics who will only contaminate it with their vile dead bodies, perfectly inconspicuous and out of sight of the faithful. That is why the gates are kept hermetically closed at all times; why a blind, towering wall of nearly three meters surrounds the site; and why the trees are allowed to cover the whole of the area with an impenetrable blanket of foliage (just imagine that those who live in the top stories of the houses up the hill were to feast their innocent eyes on these pagan graves!)

The effect is slightly claustrophobic. This is not so much in a garden of the slumbering dead, but a dense, antediluvian forest of the sort where Robin Hood might take cover from the Sheriff of Nottingham or druids might celebrate their most lugubrious rites. The tombstones – inscribed in English, Portuguese, German and Dutch, Cyrillic Russian and Biblical Hebrew for the few discreet Jewish graves in a distant corner - lie as thickly on the ground as leaves in autumn; and the whole of the terrain is jam-packed with hedges, cypresses, dwarf-oaks, myrtle-bushes and a variety of flamboyantly blossoming trees unknown to my city-boy’s botany. We are in fact lucky to visit on such a splendidly sunny day. Even now – with sheets of sunlight breaking through the foliage - there is an undeniable, almost subterranean gloominess to the place, which would surely turn outright depressing if the usual Atlantic fog drifted in and covered the skies above.

Courtesy of C. Davies

This desolate atmosphere would almost be enough to reconsider if we really wish to spend a full hour here. But just twenty steps into the grounds proper, we come upon a signboard of immaculate black letters on a spotless white background, which reads “Henry Fielding”, and points us to the only true tourist attraction – if that is the word for it – which the British Cemetery offers: the sepulchre of Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, Amelia and many other works, who was not only ‘the most singular genius which [England] ever produced’, as Borrow formulated it, but has even been called ‘the father of the English novel’ by no one less than Sir Walter Scott. 

The reason why the famous author rests here is, to put it mildly, a little ironic. Fielding – exhausted by his taxing legal work and troubled by a small host of ailments such as gout, dropsy, jaundice and asthma - had come south to fix his failing health. Why in the world he would have picked Lisbon for the purpose is a mystery. By the looks of it, the city was mainly chosen because it could be reached by boat. Aix-en-Provence, Fielding’s preference, was out of the question, because, being perfectly bed-ridden, he could not travel overland, and he lacked the funds to be carried all the way. Then – making a mistake which many have made since – he imagined that Lisbon, which lay hundreds of miles south of Toscane, ‘must be more mild and warm, and the winter shorter and less piercing’.

But Lisbon, then as now, lies on the windward side of the Atlantic, and enjoys the corresponding foul climate. On top of that the city at that time was one of the most crammed, one of the most populated, one of the filthiest and certainly one of the most unhygienic on the face of the earth. Even half a century later – after both urban and human room had been made by the Great Earthquake which killed a fifth of the population and flattened half the town – we still hear stories of how chamber pots got emptied enthusiastically into the street from the top story windows, with a fleeting, euphemistic warning of ‘Agoa Vai!!’ (‘Water Coming!!’) to warn pedestrians to step away from the sidewalk or ‘put up their umbrellas’! Indoor plumbing there was none; the street was the public bathroom. Beyond a few mud-carts of the very poor, and the packs of wild dogs scavenging for forage, garbage collection did not exist. Ocean shipping brought as many bugs and bacilli as cargoes to the Tagus quays. English travellers observed that it was home to ‘a race of fleas more venomous and hungry than any to be met with in England’; and odd to say, even fireplaces were unknown until deep into the 19th century…

Fielding, an observant fellow, hated this hell house from the moment he laid eyes on her, and in the parting words of his posthumously published ‘Voyage to Lisbon’ stated bluntly that Lisbon was ‘the nastiest city in the world’. One should never so rudely defy the Lares of the dwelling that welcomes you. The city was quick to take revenge. On 8 October of 1754, soon after he had penned that line and a mere two months after he had landed, Henry Fielding passed away.

Since he was, British, broke and famous at the time of his death, the members of the British Factory of Lisbon allowed him to be buried in their private graveyard, this ‘leafy spot where the nightingales fill the still air with song’. But that was all. They did no more. Despite the fact that he was the only immortal celebrity who would sleep forever in their midst, they put up no great monument. Neither did his wife and children, who was so poor that Fielding’s brother had to provide for their livelihood on their return to England. Consequently the grave was a most scrawny affair: a plot of 2 yards by 1 in the hillside dirt, perhaps not even covered by a tombstone, only by a wooden board with his hand-painted name. Admirers who visited the grave throughout the following decades invariably came away scandalized to find it the victim of wanton neglect, ‘nearly concealed by weeds and nettles’. And the foreign devotees among them never failed to pour scorn on English indifference towards their greatest men. ‘Is this how the British honour their best and brightest?’ they asked with a sneer. How can it be that philistine merchants and money-men erected ‘marble monuments with long, pompous, flattering inscriptions’ to themselves and their vulgar wives, while a man of proven genius and fame was left to rot and be forgotten in a frosty hole? The most bloodthirsty of these Bloody Foreigners went even further, and threatened to raise a splendid monument paid for out of their own unworthy continental pockets, and chisel a mocking epitaph onto it! The cheek!

At long last embarrassment and foreign derision whipped the Lisbon British into action. In 1830, a supreme effort was made under the aegis of the Rev. Christopher Neville, British Chaplain of Lisbon, and the humble, unmarked plot in the dirt was replaced with a splendid, towering, heroic monument of epic stone which George Borrow visited five years later, and which may still be seen today. (1)

Whether this renovation was really an improvement is rather a matter of taste. The tomb is an all-time 18th century favourite: a heavy rectangular pedestal, heaved upon an altar of four bulky steps, topped with a heavy granite soup tureen, which itself is surmounted by a sculptured “urn and flame” of giant dimensions. It is austere and yet unbearably pompous, as if to proclaim to the world that celebrities should not so much be buried, as squashed beneath a pile of massive cenotaphs which embody their weighty deeds and fame. To add even more splendour to the whole, the base is inscribed with an interminable epitaph, which sets out with “Henrici Fielding a Somersetensibus apud Glastoniam oriundi” and goes on and on and on in that brick-layer’s Latin of the Baroque age, by which our ancestors hoped to ensure that, in saecula saeculorum and so long as the ages roll, the educated of the civilized world would be able to understand their meaning; and which, ironically, guarantees that nearly nobody today can read it.  

Just about the only thing I can make out in this bombastic brushwood of apothecaries’ jargon are the dates; and I shudder to see that Fielding, born in 1707, was exactly my own age when Lisbon finished him off.... Beset by a slight, superstitious discomfort, I quickly search my memory for verbal sins. Did I say anything offensive about the city since I got here? Did I call her names or make a jibe? To my horror I remember how, just yesterday evening, provoked by vinho verde and a particularly bad-mannered waiter, I also said some rather uncomplimentary things about the city… What if the Lares heard me? What if, at this very moment, they are deliberating what to do with me; how to punish another disrespectful pen-pusher who comes to a decent town only to insult her?

And that, then, is the main reason why I do not press a kiss onto this cold tomb, as Borrow claims he did and urges his readers to emulate.  One clearly cannot be too careful in one’s middle age… Least of all with a Jealous City whose very name proudly proclaims her Infinite Goodness. No, this is no time to embrace the grave.

(1) Note that there is some uncertainty whether the great author really sleeps in his own grave…  Wordsworth’s daughter, Mrs Dora Quillinan, who may have had some murky inside information, wrote in her 1847 Journal of a Few Months Residence in Portugal: ‘The exact spot where Fielding was buried in this inclosure is not known. His monument (…) is on a spot selected by guess. The bones it covers may possibly have belonged to an idiot.’

Monday, 12 November 2012

Cookblog: Anchovy Paste

Creation is unfortunately not perfect. A number of things are, or at least appear to be, rather inadequately designed; and I am still working on a firm, but respectful, Open Letter to Our Lord Creator, pointing out such minor facets of the universe which might be improved next time He decides to set up another Creation (to be frank: I would not blame Him if He did; we’ve made a pretty mess of the present one!) That is not, however, what I wanted to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about anchovies.

Anchovies suffer from one of the more lamentable shortcomings of this our present creation. To wit: rot. Even when properly preserved, salted and canned, anchovies putrefy at a rapid pace. Whereas you can keep canned salmon for half a dozen years, and tuna fish often for about a decade, anchovies must be eaten within a year after packing, and even that is supposing you stored the bloody tin can in the fridge! Who ever heard of such a thing? Three methods of conservation – salt, cold and can - and you still discover two times out of three that your emergency supply is way beyond its safe date for consumption when you finally want to serve it.

Surely you see where I am going, dear reader. Yes, indeed, this weekend I discovered a precious can of anchovies in my fridge, whose bottom screamed ‘Eat Me NOW!’ in its miniscule .6 font of blue printed letters. As I had no huge salads to make, and no spoiled gourmet cat in the house, I had to come up with an impromptu recipe so that this most expensive little delicacy would not go to waste. Waste, after all, is a Sin – the more so now that the victims of the Divine Euro, in Greece, Portugal and Spain, would kill for such a tiny can of minuscule sprats.

So I set to work, without too much hope or expectations, since the anchovy is a difficult fish to please… It is all at once oily, salty and of very strong taste… A delicacy which calls for the most delicate approach, the hand of a master, the undivided attention of a genius chef…

Well, it will surprise you none, dear reader, that Alfred B. Mittington Did It Again!! He created his own simple but impressive version of Anchovy Paste, a Divine Spread, if he says so himself, with whose creative design there is absolutely nothing wrong. Do try it one day when you find yourself in his… I mean: My Shoes.

Paste of Anchovies

Empty the contents of the can into the food processor with a fork. Take care to keep out as much of the canned oil as possible (the oil has a most dominant taste!) Add a tablespoon of chopped onions, another tablespoon of chopped tomato, a dash of lemon, a dash of good olive oil, and a dash of tomato ketchup. ADD NO SALT! Do add some pepper or green Tabasco if you must, but please note that this recipe can do perfectly well without. You do not need to pick out those irritating little fish bones, since you won’t find them again once the process is finished.

Run the food processor until the juice is smooth. Next add broken bread or boiled potato until – after running the food processor some more - you get a paste of the density of your liking. As this is meant to be a spread, the consistency should resemble that of a soft pate. Put the paste in a bowl, and let it sit for at least a couple of hours, so that the onion and the tomato can ripen.

Possible improvements include a small spoonful of mayonnaise, or replacing the olive oil with very soft butter. Also, if you want a truly luxurious version: add a chopped hard boiled egg at the very end of the process, and stir with a spoon (not with the food processor).

You can use this fine paste as a spread all by itself, on bread or toast, or as a base for more elaborate canapés. Since the taste is by now rather mild, it may even be eaten separately; but I would suggest small quantities, next to other side dishes such as Tzatziki Salata, Oeuf Mayonnaise, and Garottes Rapé.


Let it not go to waste
Make anchovies paste!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Homage to a Heroine

[The below text is not mine (as you can instantly see from the somewhat clumsy style). It was sent to me in one of those – often irritating – emails barrages that militant activists mount on the web. Since I do not wish to do to my friends what I abhor others doing to me, I never pass on such emails to the innocent folk in my @ddress book. But in the present instance, I admit the cause is righteous. So I copy its contents on Metis Meets Mittington for my readers to take note of. And if any of you wants to add his or her dime to the global campaign, as I do, he or she will surely know how to go about it. ABM.]

Irena Sendler  (15 February 1910 - 12 May 2008)

During World War II, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto, as a plumbing and sewer specialist. 

She had an 'ulterior motive'. 

She KNEW what the Nazi's plans were for the Jews (being German). 

Irena smuggled infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried and she carried in the back of her truck a burlap sack, (for larger  children).

She also had a dog in the back that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the  ghetto.

The soldiers of course wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the infants' noises.  

During her time of doing this, she managed to smuggle out and save 2,500 children and infants.

She was caught, and the Nazi's broke both her legs, arms and beat her severely.

Irena kept a record of the names of all the kids she smuggled out and kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her back yard.

After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived it and reunited the family. 

Most had been gassed. Those children she helped got placed into foster family homes or adopted. 

In 2007 Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was not selected. 

[More on Ms Sendler’s extraordinary deed may be seen on Wikipedia page: click HERE]

Alfred B Mittington adds:

Let us give this truly courageous lady the Real Peace Prize – rather than that moronic, politically inspired farce that the Oslo Nobel Prize Committee nowadays bestows on the most fashionable among their buddies. To wit: that every decent person on this earth remembers her deeds and speaks her name with awe whenever someone asks: have you ever heard of a hero?