At Gastronomy Domine, the sidebar divides by sweet, savoury, drinks and restaurants. Oh, that’s nice, I thought. She makes little lists, like me. Then I clicked on sweet, and it was enormous – a massive list - like tumbling down the sugared rabbit hole. Savoury – good lord, same thing! She’s a writer/editor in Cambridge, England, and Liz – our first Simmer guest from across the pond – doesn’t blog because she likes food and travel; more slurps it, inhales it, cleanly embracing all the table’s pleasures at home and abroad. She’s a girl after my own heart…and maybe, my own fork.
How often do you think about eating?
To my eternal shame, almost constantly. Fortunately for my waistline, I have an iron will, so I never eat in-between meals, and I sublimate most of my food cravings by writing about them, wandering around shops gazing sadly at cheeses, planning in extravagant detail which restaurants I need to check out, or cooking for other people. I travel a lot, but I still get very antsy if I’m away from the kitchen for more than about three days – cooking’s fantastically therapeutic.
If I’m awake, it means I’m probably highly caffeinated – coffee’s totally essential if I want to use my brain before about 11 in the morning. Recently I’ve been buying Lavazza’s lovely Tierra, which is a lovely, round, Italian-style blend which also makes me feel deliciously smug with the eco-econo-socio-consciousness stickers slapped all over the pot. For my money, though, the UK’s best cup of coffee (I try to drop in whenever I’m in London) is at Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho.
Favorite hometown food?
I grew up in Bedfordshire, whose sole contribution to the culinary landscape is something called the Bedfordshire Clanger, a suet roll with jam at one end and minced beef at the other. It is not my favourite anything.
Happily, my Dad’s family lives in Malaysia, where we spent a lot of time when I was a kid, so I think that the Kong/Gong Pian from Sitiawan, my grandparents’ town, fit the bill. Sitiawan is a town full of Chinese people from Foochow, where lunch is taken very seriously. These Foochow biscuits, full of sweet onions and pork fat, are cooked by slapping them on the inner walls of a tandoor-type oven, and there are always long queues outside the stall that sells them. They’re sublime, especially if you get them when they’re hot.
While I’m on Sitiawan specialities, I should also mention the crispy omelettes (Or Chien) made with tiny, tiny oysters. It’s been four years since I last managed to visit Malaysia, and I really miss it.
Ever been served breakfast in bed?
I have horrible memories of a childhood bout of measles, when I had to eat in bed because I couldn’t stand up, and all I could keep down was mashed potatoes and my Mum’s gravy. Outside that…only in hotels, I’m afraid! The best hotel breakfast in bed I’ve ever had was at Le Grand Ecuyer in Cordes, France, where I ate in the privacy of a four-poster. Perfectly romantic; there was a big silver pot of hot chocolate, some world-beating Vienoisseries (including canellés made the old-fashioned way, with beeswax) and my lovely husband to eat it all with. Ordinarily, though, I really don’t like eating in bed. It’s fear of having to clear up the crumbs.
Your absolutely reliable, go-to dish for entertaining is:
I don’t think I’ve ever cooked the same thing twice for a party, variety being the spice of life and all that. Last week, I made a few Moroccan dishes for friends, and we’ve a party this weekend, which I’m planning some Malaysian bits and pieces for. If I’m entertaining more people than will fit round the table, I’ll barbecue or do a giant casserole or curry, depending on the time of year – but it’s always something different.
Food that makes you gag?
I accidentally ate the ovaries of a snow frog once. And I saw a pig’s uterus in the freezer in a Chinese restaurant in Luton a few years ago – while it sparked off some really rather sick ideas about suckling pig stuffing, I’m pretty sure it’s one of the few things I’d have trouble eating. Otherwise, I’m pretty omnivorous.
Worst kitchen disaster:
The Ginger Beer Episode was a bad one. We’d had a party for which I’d made several bottles of home-fermented ginger beer, and afterwards some kind guests helped to clear up, putting an unfinished bottle at the back of a cupboard next to a radiator. I thought we’d drunk it all, until about a week and a half later we were woken by an extraordinarily powerful explosion in the night.
I learned several things. Yeast is fearsome stuff, not to be taken lightly; ginger beer is quite amazingly sticky, especially when aerosolised all over your kitchen (the force of the explosion pushed the cupboard doors wide open); and my husband appears to have fantasies that Bin Laden’s cave might be in the cupboard under the sink.
Three things in your refrigerator right now:
Only three? There’s beef dripping from the butcher, lots of bags of fresh herbs from the supermarket (I get through far more than I can grow), and a big jug of maple syrup I bought in Canada last month. I’m mostly using it on porridge and for pouding chomeur, which is fast becoming one of my favourite desserts.
Your idea of a romantic meal is:
It’s all in the company. I’ve had romantic hamburgers, romantic bar meals, romantic things-on-sticks in the street and romantic meals in Economy Class. (Admittedly, I don’t eat airline food – you can add it to ‘things that make you gag’ above – but there is something fabulously romantic about sharing the sandwich you bought at a New York deli a few hours ago while everyone else is eating something pale and unusual in a wet British Airways sauce.)
All that said, our wedding anniversary meal this year at Toqué in Montreal was pretty darned romantic. Great food, great service, great lighting (there is a lot to be said for a dining room that makes everyone in it look attractive), a beautiful room, fantastic wine and, once again, great company. I seem to be wittering on about my husband an awful lot here. Apologies.
Secret snack of shame?
There is a cupboard in our kitchen called Liz’s Disgusting Things Cupboard. I’m a freelance writer and have a home office, so I can make my own lunch from things in LDTC, and it’s full of the things I like that my fastidious husband wouldn’t touch – dried Malaysian fish spackled with a sweet satay seasoning, tinned sardines (there are lots of those – sardines on toast is a favourite lunch), peanut butter and grape jelly, XO-flavoured ramen - you know, there’s lots to be said for a lunch that costs 30p.
My Dad used to make us ramen as – get this – a treat when we were kids. He’d stir in an egg and some shredded iceberg lettuce (this was the 1970s, before every British supermarket was groaning under the weight of bushels of pak choi), and we’d eat it from soup bowls with Chinese spoons. Heaven.
Most ambitious thing you’ve ever done in the kitchen:
Hard to say, really; I’m a great believer in producing recipes which people can actually make in a real-life, family kitchen, rather than fiddly picturesque stuff, which is better done in restaurants. I had a really lovely comment last week from a man who had only cooked twice in his life before, and had made my Fisherman’s Pie (the hardest thing here is making a white sauce and mashing some potatoes) for his wife as his third attempt. If Gastronomy Domine gets people who aren’t totally confident in the kitchen cooking and enjoying it, I consider it a job well done.
Best restaurant if you’re not paying:
One day, I’ll get to El Bulli. And I’d love to go to Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, the French Laundry…and would you believe I’ve still not made it to the Fat Duck? One of my publishers is trying to set up an interview with Heston Blumenthal (it’s meant to be a piece on aromachems in food for Basenotes, a perfume website I write for) – I’m praying he agrees to it, because he’s one of my food heroes.
In London, my favourite restaurant’s probably Le Gavroche. Although evening dining is serious expense-account stuff, the lunch menu’s not crippingly expensive, and lordy, it’s good. I should really get round to writing about the place, shouldn’t I?
If you were a cocktail, what would you be, and why?
What is this, Blind Date? A Dirty Martini. Salty and slightly difficult.
Extra Credit: Where is the world’s best pizza?
This is incredibly cheesy (no pun intended), but I love Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon and crème fraîche pizza. The crème fraîche is dilly, and there’s caviar slopped all over the top. God, I need to get back to Vegas!