Saturday, May 15, 2010


I have just had a cocoa revelation. Not all cocoas are equal.

I have to admit to blithely ignoring Nigella’s instructions to use the best quality cocoa in her recipes for years. Not because I didn’t think it would be better, but when feeding a family on a budget it seemed to be wanton extravagance. After all if my standard Nestle cocoa will do the job, why spend a whole lot more on another variety?

This parsimonious attitude was helped by the fact that our local supermarket only stocked two basic cocoas anyway, so in my once-a-week whisk round the shelves there was no temptation to splash out… until recently. Our Spar has been creeping up in the world. Exotic items have been finding their way onto the shelves over the last year, upmarket brands with understated packaging politely inviting the garish mass-produced goods to 'shove over, make room for your betters'. It has been harder and harder to resist impulse buys of gourmet food-stuffs. I've done pretty well, until today... when my usual brand of cocoa seemed to have run out and sitting next to its empty space there was a cool and trendy tin of Nomu cocoa. More expensive of course.

If you’re forced to try a new brand what can you do. Buy the one that is even cheaper (undoubtedly nastier) than your trusted standard brand, or buy the quality alternative that promises to be even more chocolatey? I succumbed to the lure of the good stuff. It was for my sister-in-law’s birthday cake so the choice was doubly justified. But would we be able to taste the difference?

I am proud to announce that we could. The cocoa itself was darker, finer and denser than the usual stuff. Even the cake mix of my favourite chocolate birthday cake recipe taster deeper and richer. The cake had a different texture, more crust to it and a bigger crumb, it wasn’t as sweet as usual, but deeper in flavour, much more of a grown up chocolate cake, (though the kids devoured it happily as usual) and the butter icing made with the cocoa was a chocoholic’s addiction in itself.

I’m afraid my budgeting habits are blown. I’m going to have to upgrade myself to Nomu cocoa on a permanent basis, or else start shopping in a less tempting supermarket.

Disclaimer: I wasn't asked to review this product, paid my own hard-earned cash for it in fact, so the views expressed here are completely genuine... but I'd more than happy to receive free cocoa, chocolate or other delicious goods to review here at any time in the future.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Cook Books, Chefs and Fridges

We finally watched Julie and Julia a couple of weeks ago and loved the story of Julia Child. Meryl Streep portrayed all her quirks, warmth and life so fantastically that we were left wanting to know more. I was left with no desire at all to emulate Julie and blog through a seminal cookery book, but the movie did push me to explore some of the long neglected books on my kitchen shelf.

I was given the Constance Spry Cookery Book when, in my early twenties, I asked for a proper cookery book. I’d outgrown Delia’s One is Fun and wanted a point of reference. In the end I dipped into it but rarely, its old-fashioned insistence on doing things properly and cordon bleu methodology sending me thankfully into the arms of Nigel Slater who promised a good meal in 30 minutes.

On Sunday I found myself leafing through its pristine pages, unsplattered by flour and sauce, not so much for the recipes themselves, but reading all the introductions and prefaces. Her voice was so reminiscent of Julia Child’s, that I realised they were probably contemporaries, Constance Spry grappling with the shortages of everything after the Second World War in an England only just letting go of rationing, at the same time as Julia explored the cuisine of a France that seemed far less worried about lavish use of butter, eggs and cream than dreary old post-war England.

Constance was a flower arranger with a renowned school before the war – her knowledge of cooking was limited to the domestic, but after the war she teamed up with Rosemary Hume, who headed the Cordon Bleu cookery school, to write this book and she took on the role of making the recipes and methods accessible to the British domestic cook, just as Julia did for American cooks. Their book is an encyclopedia of the British take on cordon bleu, with over 1000 pages of recipes and advice all aimed at de-mystifying good food after many years of palates dulled by war-time austerity.

One thing that must have lodged in my subconscious was a passage about fridges quoted from a letter from a Frenchwoman to a new chef entering the service of friends of hers:

“A good cook is economical. He goes to endless trouble to turn out his best efforts without wasting a crumb… To make sure of using up everything to good effect it is absolutely essential for him to plan ahead.
As soon as the washing up is done each evening he should run his eye over his provisions. Opening the door of his Frigidaire, he stands in front of it and thinks. He thinks rapidly, but that moment’s reflection is absolutely necessary…. His kitchen companions should be made to understand that he is the absolute master of the Frigidaire, and he must insist that everything in it shall be kept in absolute order. A chef proves his worth by the scrupulous order in which he keeps his refrigerator, for which he is solely responsible…”

Today I opened the fridge and was dismayed at the state of my sole domain. Usually the week’s shopping fills it to capacity: five or six 2 litre bottles of milk cram the top shelf, yoghurt crowds into another, bowls of leftovers tussle with half filled jars of olives for the best place on the shelf. It is only when the next weekly shop looms that the true state of the realm is revealed. Thriftily saved butter papers crammed in corners, out-of date medicines stuffed in the door, build-ups of gunge threatening the condensation drain thing… nothing was actually threatening to walk out by itself, no blue fluffiness breeding new strains of antibiotic, but still way short of the chef’s nirvana pictured above.

So instead of making bread and doing the laundry, as planned in my self-inflicted hour of housework before approaching the computer, I micro-cleaned the fridge, and realized that never in its life had I actually removed the shelves to clean properly, they were still firmly attached with sticky tape, just as when it was delivered.

Slightly horrified by this proof of neglect, I did manage to conjure up some memories of cleaning it in the past, just not in quite such saintly detail as I was now attempting. I wielded the vinegar spray liberally and made sure my husband was aware of these unprecedented goings on, so that my halo could be acknowledged. Not to be outdone, he got out the gaffer tape (duct tape - fixer of all things, from tents to fridges) and stuck together the plastic shelf in the door that is threatening to resign its position as holder of full milk and juice bottles.

So now I have righted my fridge in the eyes of Constance Spry’s French friend, I wonder if I dare approach some of her recipes. Flipping through now I see a recipe for croissants that looks manageable… mmmm… tempting.