Friday, 4 March 2011

For want of a butter knife...

In my kitchen’s space, I’d looked far and wide. Drawers - ransacked, cupboards - scanned, fridge - scoured, dishwasher - emptied. Where had it got to? My favourite piece of cutlery. Part of my kitchen family since Christmas 2004. Star of so many blog postings. So elegant and perfectly formed that a friend of mine thought it French – I can’t remember whether I informed her of its more humble origins: from BHS as part of a cheese and chutney set bought for me by my mother.  A woman’s instinct whispered in my ear and led me to her husband. That very same husband who had worked through an entire collection of dainty pink Laura Ashley wine glasses managing to crack each in turn. The very same life-partner who had pulled the sink unit door from its hinges just by leaning against it. Yes and wasn’t it he who chipped a hole in our granite hearth? The voice continued to nag.  And how can I forget the perfect circle of singe on the mantelpiece, left by a conflagration of candle flame. Not to mention the gaping hole in the bathroom sink – the aftermath of his (note the masculine pronoun) tumbling pot of night cream.
“What has happened to my favourite butter knife?”
“Oh, that. Sorry, I forgot to mention – it came apart when I was washing it. I threw it away.”
It was a good enough reason for embarking on our thrice-yearly trip to Bygone Times. A gigantic warehouse crammed full of just about anything: from wonky-keyed pianos to West German pottery; from naked baby dolls with drooping eyelids to aged macramé hanging baskets.  A veritable cornucopia of clutter awaits you (and us) as we began our journey, on a mist-filled rainy Sunday, in search of a replacement butter knife.
I take my camera with me today. I must add here that I harbour neither the boldness nor casualness required to capture those truly dynamic snapshots of urban life. Indeed, the subject-ready hustle bustle of shoppers and eagle-eyed stall-holders only serve to douse the tiny bit of camera-confidence I may hold and so, surreptitiously, I unpick my lens cap – look cautiously from left to right and then up and down before pointing and shooting at a beautifully wrought fat lava jug just an eye-blink away from being sold.  What should only happen in episodes of Mr Benn descends upon me and as if by magic the shopkeeper appears. He is intrigued and asks why I am taking shots of his beloved West German pottery. I am pleased I have been caught, as I find him an entertaining promoter of his wares. As I learn of its origins I respectfully put on my reading glasses and take a closer look at the pictured jug with its heavy glaze and pleasingly pitted surface. The magnified price tag tells me the jug cost £27.50 not the £7.00 I thought I’d read in my un-spectacled state. And so I must save my pennies for I do so love that little speckled jug.

Stuart’s stall is the first you see as you pass the entrance desk; his gaudily coloured pots stand out against the drab and ramshackle displays of his fellow stall-holders. Yet on these dusty shelves, among the cracked teapots and long-ago-loved china, I know I will find what I’m looking for. I always do. And for the loss of one, I gain six: taped carelessly to the fragile ochre silk cushioning of a tatty dark case lie a set of modest dark green-handled butter knives. Their plainness and therefore functionality suggests they began life in the 1930s but this notion only derives from impressions I may hold of that dark and frugal decade wherein my mother was born.

Satisfied with my find, we make our way to Martin’s favourite stall where, amid the scent of days gone by, you can be intoxicated by the new age waft of incense and perfumed oils. This stall is strewn with packets of joss sticks, miniature bottles of essential oils, crystals and beads, tarot cards and runes. Martin is as predictable in his choice of incense as he is in his choice of underpants. He reaches for three packets of patchouli and ignores my requests for the more sensual ylang-ylang or invigorating clove. I do not argue. There is an unspoken rule in our house that man shall be master of his own groovy vibes.

Books. There are more books than you can waft a joss stick at in Bygone Times: from antiquated folios to Haynes manuals; from The Complete Works of Shakespeare to The Viz Bumper Book of Shite; poetry and prose; fact and fiction – it’s all here in varying states of newness and decay. Although I do love the look and feel of books brand new: their creaseless jackets and hot-off-the-press perfume and that sense of discovering uncharted territory – there are equal pleasures to be found in their pre-owned condition. This is particularly so with cookery books. Open any second-hand Delia and the spirit of the cook spills out, an eager and reassuring kitchen companion in the guise of a food splodge: a streak of tomato juice, a smear of butter and all those fading teardrops of a good red wine – each are whispering secrets for a perfect recipe.
Before we make our way to the purchase desk I see another kitchen must-have: the ubiquitous Mason Cash stoneware mixing bowl – so ubiquitous in fact, that I (a so-called veteran cook), have never owned one. A fine web of cracks decorates the bowl’s interior but the butterscotch-beige sides are unblemished. A perfect baking heirloom. I take it to the till.

And home I go with my husband, his incense, a small canteen of cutlery and a universally-loved mixing bowl.  
Irish Soda Bread   
For want of a single butter knife I now have no fewer than six - accompanied by a well-used mixing bowl. It goes without saying that I’m inspired to cook. Or rather bake. And what better way to utilise these nascent treasures than to produce a steeped-in-tradition loaf ready to slice and spread thickly with salted butter. Nigel Slater’s Lazy Loaf seems perfect. The following recipe was featured on BBC TV’s Simple Suppers and I recall watching with delight as Nigel patted his dough into a neat cushion before placing it tenderly inside a pre-heated casserole pot. Snug and warm like a sleeping kitten.  I was eager to try out this well-petted soda bread and have made it many times since. Nigel admits to throwing his first loaf away – a brittle mound dropped on the lawn for 'daws to peck at. I would like to announce (rather smugly) that the rooftop jackdaws squawked in temper the first time I baked this bread. I shared not one crumb.
225g (8oz) Wholemeal flour
225g (8oz) Plain flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
350ml (12fl oz buttermilk)
1-2 tablespoons of oats (optional)

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F (gas 8). Place a large casserole dish (cast iron works perfectly) and its lid into the oven.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flours, oats (if using), salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda together with your fingers. Pour in the buttermilk, bringing the mixture together as a soft dough. Working quickly, shape the dough into a shallow round loaf about 4cm/1½in thick. The recipe asks for haste as the bicarbonate of soda starts to react with the buttermilk immediately. However, don’t worry if it takes a little time to extract the sticky dough from your fingers and amalgamate it with the rest of the flour.
Remove the heated casserole dish from the oven and dust the inside lightly with flour. Sprinkle the top of the loaf with a few oats (if using) then lower the dough into the pot. Cover with the lid and return to the oven.
Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it stand in place for 5 minutes before turning out and leaving to cool slightly before eating.

Once the lid is lifted and as the steam heats your face you may introduce yourself to a perfectly baked soda bread. And although the original recipe does not call for oats I think their addition today adds a deeper bygone charm to an already rustic bread. I slice into the thick nutty loaf, spread it with an obscene amount of butter and savour its grainy chewiness.

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