Viennese café culture, and the magnificent apple strudel

Food & drink
Apple strudel

It’s said of Vienna’s cafés that you consume time and space, but only coffee appears on the bill. These are places to think and contemplate, to sit and read, to discuss the weighty matters of the day over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.

One cup is enough.

The waiter will not hurry you, will not bring the bill until you ask for it. Sit here all afternoon, among the shabby, romantic grandeur, next to the billiard table, surrounded by the world’s newspapers and nobody will notice.

Dream, discuss, write, plot, conspire, just as Freud, Mozart, Stalin, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Schubert and the rest did before you, many in the same cafés, in the same booths, eating the same food and drinking the same coffee.

There’s a very real sense in Vienna that the course of world history, particularly in the twentieth century, pivoted around those streets. I feel this in Berlin, too, where a glance downwards catches a brass plaque bearing the names of Jewish people who used to live at that address, sent to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. In Vienna, the same thing happens, a scene feels familiar, too familiar, and a quick Google reveals that you’re standing under the balcony from which Hitler addressed 200,000 people in 1938, a time when things fell apart.

There’s an eternal quality to Vienna. It’s seen horror and bloodshed, but it’s also shaped some of the world’s greatest thinkers and artists, a creative catalyst fueled by the murky grey waters of the Danube, and fermented in those wonderful cafés.

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Char sui pork

Food & drink
Chinese char sui pork

I like to be ready.

Normally, this translates into having something versatile in the fridge, some sort of ‘mothership’ that could turn into a couple of meals in those situations where everybody’s forgotten about eating, but suddenly become really hungry.

For this reason, I tend to over-order, to buy a slightly bigger joint than strictly necessary, with one eye on the leftovers. I bought a rib of beef the other day from the butcher’s, and got a choice of where the line of the knife should go … tight up against the rib, or further over towards the next one. I opted for as much meat on the cut as possible, causing the butcher to note that he needed more customers like me … he mused that when he cooked rib of beef, nothing went to waste anyway, so he saw where I was coming from.

This pork is another of those ‘fridge recipes’, something I make in quantities far larger than is strictly necessary, simply because having char sui pork sat in the fridge is the very definition of A Good Thing, huge, glistening chunks of belly, red from the marinade and charred from the grill, just ready to be sliced and carved and secretly eaten in the middle of the night.

Many parts of the noble pig can be char sui-ed, but my cut of choice is belly. I slice away the skin and cook that separately as crackling (wasting it would be a crime against gastronomy), and leave as much fat behind as possible, fat that will sear and blacken under the grill, melting and keeping the meat moist and succulent. If the cut of belly you choose comes on the bone, cut these away too, but follow the steps here and get them marinaded for a small number of some astonishingly good spare ribs.

Those are for the cook. More…

Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, by Sumayya Usmani

Books
Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, by Sumayya Usmani

There’s a quote on the front cover of Sumayya Usmani’s book, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and memories from Pakistan, from Madhur Jaffrey that states simply that “this book is a treasure”.

It’s placed front and centre, right at the top, a badge of some considerable honour.

It’s difficult to comprehend the thrill Usmani must have felt on first reading an endorsement like that from a cook and writer of Jaffrey’s stature. I learnt to cook Asian food from Jaffrey’s books, and of all the food writers out there, I perhaps owe her the greatest debt.

So, yes, an endorsement influenced me. It made me take notice, made me wonder if this book was something special, something different. It signalled promise.

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Tomato mutton curry

Food & drink
Tomato mutton curry

This is a first for me. It’s the first time I’ve cooked a curry that doesn’t have any chilli in it at all. Not one single bit. None.

Instead, this is a simple dish that relies on the delicate depth of its spicing for character and body. This is an excellent dish for those times when you’re trying to introduce people who don’t normally eat spicy food to something a little more adventurous … our kids in particular loved this dish, because it’s rich and tasty, but lacks that stringent kick that comes with a lot of heavily chilli-laden Asian food.

This is a Maharastrian Hindu recipe from vast Western central province of India, and it traditionally uses mutton or goat, but lamb is a suitable substitute if you can;t get hold of either. Goat, in particular, is very good prepared in this way.

To start, fry four cloves and a green cardamom  pod in a good slug of vegetable oil until they become fragrant and start to sizzle, then add 500g of ripe tomatoes, quartered, to the pan, and reduce the heat. Cover the pan and cook the tomatoes for about half an hour, nudging them around every now and again to help them break down.

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Ferment Your Vegetables, by Amanda Feifer

Books
Ferment Your Vegetables, by Amanda Feifer

I’m a big fan of rotting vegetables.

Perhaps i should rephrase that.

I’m a big fan of vegetables that have been allowed to decompose in a controlled and safe way, that is, to ferment.

Fermentation is a wonderful thing, a chemical reaction that changes matter from one state into another. It’s at the heart of bread making, brewing, winemaking, cheesemaking, and much more. When things go ‘bad’, they often become very good indeed. Fermentation is one of the most glorious discoveries ever made.

Vegetable fermentation is older than civilisation itself, with hints that our Neolithic ancestors practised the art. That first fermentation was probably an accident, with some salt getting mixed into some sort of organic matter which was then left alone for a while. The salt protected the food and allowed certain bacteria or microorganisms the space to kick off the process of fermentation.  The result must have been a surprise, and a complete mystery.

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