Cowboy Dreamin’

I became fascinated by cooking at the same time I fell in love with Westerns. Not film-buff Sergio Leone movies, but low-budget, lone cowboys on the run. I still cling to the image of the rugged hero wandering on his horse, and bedding down for the night, accompanied perhaps by a silent bare-chested Indian brave and having only the creek to wash in. He’d settle down beside a campfire, brew up some coffee and cook up a jackrabbit over the flames. These egregious mavericks beguiled me. 

Mine was a youthful imagination in constant flux and I saw myself as a handsome young buck, pert and courageous; ready to take on any foe that presented itself. But my childhood was far from this daydream. Though I was lonesome, my plains were the fields and hills around a Scottish farm, minus the horse, brave and of course, the cowboy. And my only foe took the form of a hare snared in the hawthorn or an occasional pheasant knocked out of a tree at dusk with a catapult and steel ball bearing.

I’m not sure what signs of my future sexuality you could identify at that time but in my heart I yearned to exchange the constraints of my family for simple companionship and the warm sun on my skin. And there were other signs; like the action man Lone Ranger who spent his nights undressed in my bed, a bare-chested plastic eunuch. There were other more obvious signals, like lingering over the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica covering life in ancient Athens and Sparta. And I fell in love with the shepherd’s son at my primary school. And he a little with me, I later discovered.

I don’t think I really understood why I was fascinated by the lustrous physiques of these alabaster boy-gods or the hardy cowboys but it turned me on, even before I knew what that meant. And when I later came to partake in real physical pleasures, the fantasies were well engrained.

My adopted father, all tweed and propriety, wasn’t prepared for a wayward boy who showed such signs of outlandish precocity and self-determination. He had really hoped for a well-schooled, polite child, with whom he could converse in Latin. Instead I spent every waking hour attempting escape him, wild in the fields with the ferrets the farm foreman’s son kept in a cage outside his cottage or stoning the glass windows of unused farm buildings with the aforementioned catapult. There was a constant battle between us. I grasped fleeting moments of childish pleasures only to be reprimanded for them. My eyes were always red hot with stinging tears. He used to tell me that I was only sorry for being caught not for the misdemeanour. He was right.  

While I loved the sense of freedom and adventure, for me the best bit was to get the journey over with and create a camp. I would find a den in a copse of trees or somewhere hidden in one of the farm’s disused buildings, a chicken coop, once even an old pig sty. And there I would create a palace fit for my wanderer. Somewhere he could lay down his head on a hessian mat stuffed with wild grass. There I would make a small camp fire to warm his weary limbs and boil up water in a billy can. 

The constant lighting of these fires got me into trouble. Graham had me marked as a potential arsonist after an incident where my cat got his whiskers too close to the rabbit I had managed to skin and was cooking on a fire. But when things settled, I soon fled again with my Observer books. With their help, I would eventually be able to identify a whole host of wild delicacies,  proudly bringing home wild watercress, sorrel, thyme, brambles, raspberries and field mushrooms, with plans to concoct amazing stews and dishes. I learned to fish for trout in the hill burns and net sea-trout under the bridges of the villages around the farm. But these ramblings and nature’s offerings were usually dismissed. I should be making more effort in my hapless study of mathematics and the Classics. 

I never did become that cowboy. But I have met a few on the way. And those well-trodden rural trails and refuges were where I began to understand food in a very pragmatic, camp-fire kind of way.

Summer Picnics

There is only one pleasure that surpasses a picnic in these fleeting British summer days. Skinny-dipping. But paradise regained is surely both. The smell of crushed grass, the hum of darting insects and the splosh and drip of water, as you dry in the sun, are the boon companions of a tinkling glass of chilled wine and a plate of fine food. These are the dream days of life, when the cold silk of river waters and the gentle warmth of the sun on our skin renders back to us all, our childhood selves.

Those halcyon years are nowhere evoked more strongly than in the mouth-watering description of the picnic, provided by the endearing water rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows:

“There’s cold chicken…,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwiches pottedmeatginger beerlemonadesodawater—”

And with the unfolding of a small chequered tablecloth, good china and glasses, the perfect lunch for two new chums ensues.

I’m not a great enthusiast for the ‘pot-luck’ approach to modern picnics, where everybody brings something different. A picnic should be organised like any other meal, with timing, balance, poise and companionable guests. And given the potential style of a picnic, an eye for detail. Simply sitting down to a muddle of unrelated tupperware and pre-packed vinegary supermarket dishes bears no significant pleasure. The flavours, textures and colours of the summer picnic need to match the perfection of our natural surroundings.

Because of the weather, picnics can’t be planned too far ahead. But as the balmy evenings become likely, invite a couple of friends to join you for dinner and if a heatwave seems likely, surprise them with a change of venue to Primrose Hill or the Botanical Gardens, Central or Richmond Park, the Lammermuirs or the South Downs. One of your favourite spots, where a river runs. Dress up and pack the car with some decent tableware, cutlery, napkins, glasses and candlesticks. And bring a collection of rugs and cushions too. Imagine you are going on a foreign expedition. You want it to look like a front cover of Kinfolk magazine.

If your guests are people in whose company you might happily divest the cares of your daily routine on an evening skinny dip, take some towels along on the off chance. And naturally, if this is a romantic diner a deux, such childish pleasures might turn to more adult diversions.

Your dishes need to have fresh, rich flavours and stamina. Transportation can put a the crispest salad off its stride; basil leaves wilting into tomato juices and cucumber curling at the edges. The best thing is to keep anything uncooked separate and undressed until you arrive, mixing it in a bowl on arrival. You can keep these things in the cold box alongside the booze, butter and ice. Your other dishes will be fine at room temperature or covered in a wet dish cloth. Here is my summer picnic feast.

Langoustines & Brown Bread – cook the shellfish and allow to chill. Make homemade mayonnaise and decant into a nice glass jar that won’t tip over. Cut up some chunks of brown bread and lemons which you can serve on the plates and pass round the jar of mayo.

Chicken, Walnut & Watercress Salad – roast a chicken with lemon juice, honey and butter. When cool, shred the meat into a bowl. Season with capers, sea salt, fresh black pepper and cover. Toast walnuts under the grill on foil and wrap. Take a bag of fresh watercress with you. On arrival mix all the ingredients and toss in a dressing of mustard, lemon zest, honey, tarragon vinegar and olive oil.

Saffron Rice with Mint & Broad Beans – melt butter in a pan and when sizzling add Basmati rice (a generous handful per person and few extra for good measure). Stir fry for a few minutes adding a decent sprinkling of saffron. When the colour starts to merge into the rice, pour in about the equivalent water to rice and allow to simmer for five to 10 minutes. As the water is absorbed, spoon in some baby broad beans (frozen are often the best quality if you don’t grow your own), cover with a cloth and then a heavy lid. After another 10 minutes take off the lid, stir and cool. Just before you serve season and mix in a bunch of chopped mint.

Summer Pudding – you should make this with crust-less slices of stale white bread overnight but you can cheat by leaving slices of a cheap, white loaf out for a few hours. This dessert is the quintessence of summer fruits – gooseberries, red and blackcurrants and raspberries – inside a bread dome, oozing with sugary, tart juices and smoothed after serving with rich, yellow double cream. And it’s simply done. Put the berries in a pan and add sugar; 80:20 or to your liking. Let the juices run and if necessary add a little juice (or even water) to help them along. Let them bubble joyfully for a while but don’t let the fruits disintegrate. While this is going on, you want to cut the slices of bread to line a basin that will hold the pudding. Pour the juices in the pan over the bread first making sure it’s fully soaked and save some for the top. Then spoon in the fruit, finally adding more slices and juice to cover. Then squeeze a small plate over the whole and weigh it down with whatever you can find. Leave it overnight if possible. Transport it like this to your destination and when you arrive, turn it out of the basin on to your best china and light the candles.

Cheese – most cheese will sweat in the heat so you want to bring something small but with bags of flavour. A goat’s cheese crotine, a sheep’s Manchego or Lincolnshire Poacher. 

Drinks – I’m happy to say that you can’t beat a good vintage English Champagne on an English picnic. They just work. Otherwise try a Borage & Gin Fizz (gin, lemon juice, sugar, fizzy water and a sprig of borage). And what better than a lightly chilled Pinot Noir or Saumur to have with dinner. 

Toyboys & Tentacles

Like most people, my first taste of cephalopod was abroad. I think mine was 1985 and I arrived in Greece for the first time. Flown in to join a rather handsome and rich older man, determined to have his way with me. His house nestled in a bay amid that perfectly Aegean composition of white and blue.

The tiny harbour was lined with small fishing boats, each returning daily with their haul. And the tavernas along the front with their small square tables all served the same wonderful, simple dishes. They were a revelation to me: fava, skordalia, stifado, wild greens, spanakopita, sardines and of course octopus. These eight-armed monsters would hang on wires outside in the sun to become tender during the day, before being grilled over charcoal in the evening.

Those were the days before the food revolution had us in its grip; you might be lucky to get these tasty molluscs on holiday but it was pretty much off the menu back home. Until those pioneers of culinary simplicity, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers came up with the River Café and suddenly it seemed, all sorts of amazing ingredients, that we now take for granted, became commonplace.

There is only a small market for octopus in Britain, which makes it a cheap option to buy from the fishmonger. And though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend drying it in the sun on your balcony, as I did, sensational results are easily perfected.

A barbecue or a griddle plate will produce great results; I toss it in red wine vinegar, paprika and oregano, then literally place it over the heat and let it slowly cook. When it’s done, the red, encrusted, slightly burned exterior gives way to white fondant flesh. You can break off an arm and eat it with your fingers dipped in a lime mayo. The other easy way to cook it is to place the octopus whole in heavy pan and put the lid on, leaving it to cook in its own liquid on a low heat with bay leaves and dash of red wine, for an hour or so until it is shrunken, rust coloured and tender. Then slice it into mouth sized polpetto, mix with olive oil, lemon juice, potatoes, red onion, capers and chopped flat leaf parsley.