This post is also in conjunction with my friend Ariadne’s run-down of food in novels at her funny and literary blog Ariadne’s World of Awesomeness. This post relates to her discussion of Joanne Harris’ trio of food-related books: Chocolat (the most famous); Blackberry Wine, and Five Quarters of the Orange. Blackberry Wine is sort of related to Chocolat in that some of the same characters crop up, but they basically function as stand-alone novels.
In all three books, food is actually a gateway for nostalgia. Blackberry Wine is narrated by a bottle of blackberry wine, and frequent references are made to how wines capture a moment, a particular year, and how drinking them can bring you back to that year. I’m not really a wine drinker and remain unconvinced, but I definitely agree that eating certain foods can transport you back to childhood, or other periods. Like cheese-and-tomato sandwiches inevitably remind me of school lunchboxes, slightly damp and crushed. As I wrote to Ariadne I planned to make blackberry cordial – recipes abound, though I was intrigued by this blackberry and orange one which I saw on Cook Yourself Thin – but the eye-watering expense of blackberries put me off the idea. Still, someone – someone with access to a blackberry bush – should try it. I loved blackberrying as a child (with my grand-dad), but the closest I got to it in London was pulling a few berries off a high bush near Holland Park.
Chocolat is a lovely book. I can understand why it’s the most popular and well-known of Harris’ food trilogy. It’s about chocolate, and it has romance and mystery as well. Still, compared to Five Quarters of the Orange, I find it a little bland and lacking depth. The descriptions of food are superlative, however. Since the whole point of the book is chocolate and its seductions, I made chocolate ginger-chunk cookies. Chocolate and ginger plays off deliciously and this recipe, based on one of Nigella Lawson’s, showcases the richness of chocolate and spicy heat of ginger to perfection. The trick is not to chop the crystallised ginger too finely. It seems a bit perverse to make something as all-American as a large, soft cookie in honour of a book which is all about France and sophisticated chocolate-eating habits, but such cookies are the perfect treat to nibble on while reading a good book (I may have eaten an entire batch of gingersnaps while reading Harry Potter book 5 as a teenager…but only maybe).
Soft chocolate biscuits to eat while reading
Slightly adapted from Nigella Express
125g dark chocolate, melted in a bowl over a pan of simmering water
135g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
Large pinch salt
125g unsalted butter, softened
75g dark muscovado sugar
50g golden caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract or paste
1 egg, cold from the fridge
85g crystallised/candied ginger, excess sugar dusted off, cut into large chunks (if you like lots of ginger, add more – you could even double it. I just used what was in the cupboard)
1) Preheat oven to 170C
2) Cream together the butter and both sugars until fluffy. Gently mix in the cooled melted chocolate until combined
3) Mix in the vanilla and egg (on a very low setting if using an electric mixer). Sift together the flour, bicarb of soda, salt and cocoa, and stir into the mixture (I actually always sift dry ingredients straight into the mixing bowl). Mix until thoroughly combined – the mixture will be quite stiff. Stir in the ginger chunks.
4) Using a heaped tablespoon measure or ice cream scoop, scoop out portions of the dough onto a lined baking sheet. Place about 6cm apart and do not flatten. Bake for 15 – 18 minutes, until the tops look dry and they are firmer. Let cool on the baking sheet 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely
Five Quarters of the Orange is my favourite Harris book. Blackberry Wine and Chocolat had dark edges – in Chocolat, Harris shows that pleasure can involve pain and sacrifice, symbolised by one character’s love for chocolate and sweets despite the diabetes which is causing her to go blind. Five Quarters, though, is genuinely dark, set partly in Nazi-occupied France. The story of the occupation is told through a child’s eyes, and adult readers can imagine the pain and fear felt by the other adults, which the children are so cavalier about.
Oranges are obviously an important motif in the book. They are sweet and exotic, yet the scent of oranges drives the narrator’s mother mad, a fact that she exploits mercilessly. Harris is unflinching in describing the way children, especially young teenagers, can hate their parents. She is also unsparing in describing how adults can be bitterly disappointed by the children they have brought into the world. Although I thought of dishes involving oranges, at the end of the day the book is most concerned with the simple food of rural France and particularly the Loire.
Nostalgia comes in the form of preserved cherries: narrator Framboise describes the process of steeping cherries in alcohol and sugar and letting them sit for years, until they’re bled white and the stones are soft enough to bite into. “Remember that time the river ran dry?”.
I made a cherry clafoutis, a French dessert involving cherries, using a recipe from Delicious magazine which was contributed by Debbie Major, a home economist who has worked regularly with Rick Stein. It was described as an untraditional clafoutis, as it involved separating the egg and beating the egg white, whereas usually the eggs are just beaten and poured into the pan, resulting in a custardy set. I thought the texture of this version was absolutely lovely, silky and tender and not too eggy. Also, you make a sauce by cooking the cherries in butter at first. I love butter, but the 50g suggested in the recipe for was far, far too much, completely overpowering the taste of the cherries and leaving an oily sheen, so I suggest halving it below. I also used frozen cherries, which were fine, and substituted sherry for the suggested kirsch. It was delicious and a beautiful dessert for company. It is a very fine, slim, elegant cake. I served it swimming in the buttery cherry sauce and spoonfuls of double cream.
Cherry clafoutis for company
Very slightly adapted from Delicious magazine, July 2011
25g unsalted butter
500g cherries, pitted, or 480g packet pitted frozen cherries
150g caster sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon (i.e. 3 teaspoons) sherry (I used dry Amontillado)
2 eggs, separated
135ml double cream
40g plain flour
15g ground almonds/almond flour
1) Preheat oven to 180C
2) Melt butter in a 20cm cast-iron frying pan (mine is 25cm but needs must – it was fine) or flameproof baking dish. Add the cherries, 100g of the sugar, the lemon zest and 2 teaspoons of the sherry. Let bubble on a medium-low heat for about 15 mins, stirring occasionally.
3) Pour the syrup into a small pan; set aside. Distribute the cooked cherries evenly over the base of the frying pan or baking dish
4) Whisk together egg yolks and remaining 50g caster sugar in a small bowl for about five minutes until thick and pale (doing it by hand was fine). Stir in the cream, sift over the flour and gently stir in the ground almonds and remaining teaspoon sherry.
5) Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks and gently fold them into the batter
6) Pour batter evenly over the cherries and bake 20 minutes until slightly puffed up and golden brown. An inserted skewer should come up clean. (Note: I didn’t serve mine immediately and it collapsed slightly, but it wasn’t noticeable unless, like me, you’d actually seen the thing in the oven
7) Reheat the cherry syrup (I brought it to a boil and reduced it for a minute or so). Serve clafoutis with syrup and double cream
To serve: more double cream