Caroline Davidson

My copy of Anna Karenina looks a little as if it’s been hit by a train. Pages around the 500 mark are liberated entirely from the mangled spine, while others are torn at the point of turning. The title pages are yellowed and the cover is badly disfigured. Its edges bear the mark of Taylor’s Hot Lava Java. Thanks to a meeting with the Celtic sea, the book billows like a Russian concertina.

Anna Karenina took me an age. It was by my side, or stuffed into my bag, or balanced on my stomach for so long that we gave it a nickname. It’s not that I couldn’t get along with A.K., it’s that I’d regularly read pages over a few times before I turned them. Tolstoy’s observations made me giddy. They rang so true I could barely believe it.

My godmother, who actually is not my godmother, but my mother’s, but whom I adopted because she is perfect, has read A.K. some 10 times. Bella is a 96-year-old Russian girl of Jewish descent who grew up in Paris and Palestine and married first an Irishman and then a cockney called Charles – a newspaper man she met in Egypt. Together, Charles and Bella lived in Kenya, where they met my young parents, before retiring, of course, to Tunbridge Wells.

I suspect that Bella, who answers few questions about herself, has read A.K. time and again because she is, a little bit, Anna Karenina. Happier and more straightforward than Anna, Bella nevertheless shares with Anna a confidence betrayed by the things she wears. It’s a quiet confidence inspired by not only physical beauty, but an accurate sense of her intrinsic exoticism.

The writer James Meek wrote a memorable article a couple of years ago in which he imagined Anna’s brother, the charming but shallow Stiva Oblonsky, “as a tanned guy called Steve in a pink open-necked shirt”. If I were to apply the same treatment to Anna, she’d come out in Bella’s uniform: a cashmere jumper. She’d read The Daily Telegraph cover to cover out of boredom and she’d talk about Facebook as if she knows what it is.

Of course, there is darkness to Anna, which is where Bella leaves the page. For all his empathy with the characters he draws, Tolstoy is suspicious of Anna’s sophistication – as if its misuse is an inevitable conclusion.

When early in the book Anna turns up at a ball in a black velvet dress, her riding roughshod over Kitty is a sure thing. Tolstoy makes much of Kitty’s prior entrance into the ballroom wearing a “complicated dress of white net over a pink slip”. With a rose-adorned high coiffure made of thick curls of fake hair, Kitty is a loo roll holder blushing in bows and laces. Anna’s simple dress, meanwhile, is set off with an unobtrusive hair-do decorated with a modest crop of pansies. The award for Belle of the Ball goes to Anna, who in seeming not to care less, totally smashes it.

Tolstoy refers regularly to Anna’s understated dress. Never overdressed, her frocks are often plain and muted, if top notch. As the sweet, guileless Kitty realises at the ball, Anna’s “charm lay precisely in the fact that her personality stood out from her dress”. Anna’s downfall lay precisely in knowing it. A woman intelligent to the point of danger, it was not her skirts but her complicated inner life that would ultimately trip her up. Or was it hubris?

Perhaps it was her choice of men. While Kitty came to her senses and married a thoughtful man in search of a simple life, Anna left her husband for a simple man in search of a thought. To vacuous Vronsky, Anna was but one of his prizewinning racehorses. If her clothes betray anything but self-assurance, it’s a desire to be taken seriously. ‘Trophy girl’ is not a role Anna set out to play. The day she sees “clearly in the piercing light” that Vronsky found in her “not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity” is the day she throws her red handbag to the wind before jumping in front of a train.

For all she brought down herself and those around her, Anna is a rich, knotty character that, like the book about her, can’t be read in a single sitting. Bella, for whom I think Anna is just the tragic, exaggerated self we all look for in books, once told me that ‘Tolstoy’ means ‘fat’. Photos suggest the man was of medium build, but his books are pleasingly rounded.

Pictured: Levin and Kitty in a copy of Anna Karenina, with thanks to A Beautiful Mess.

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by TOAST ( 18.07.14 )

Kate O’Brien

The shoe fits when it comes to collective nouns. Consider a flock of predictable sheep or a murder of watchful crows. Owls are solitary birds but when they come together they do so in parliament, perching no doubt in the upper house, their peers donned in crimson robes and horse hair wigs. While an army of caterpillars conjures a bright fuzzy image with thousands of paired feet on the move, chubby legged alligators congregate and pigs drift.

In the plant kingdom, the family Cactaceae is split into three collectives known as tribes. Each share a kinship for sun worship, independent living against the odds and an impressive capacity for water retention, but vary madly in looks from clan to clan. The totem of all cacti, that which populates the landscape of Speedy Gonzales cartoons and springs to mind when you think ‘cactus’, belongs to Tribe Cereeae and bears no resemblance whatsoever to flowering Peireskieae. The plant found on the Mexican flag is called the prickly pear cactus, the Opuntieae tribe’s mascot which also happens to be edible.

Last year I spent some time on a smallholding on the northeastern fringes of Mexico City. Dry white clay that marks the Atizapan region also happens to be particularly hospitable for prickly pear cactus (or nopal). Sometimes used as fencing (the ‘cactus curtain’ in Cuba prevented escape to the US) nopales are more often served sandwiched between tacos or scattered loose in salad. It was the promise of huevos con nopales for breakfast that set me along a rocky hillside in my pyjamas one morning, dutifully following five members of the Bonilla family, who owned a small field full of nopales plants. They had convinced me that harvesting nopales would be fun and rewarding. Having tried tinned nopales once before (bland slimy shoots mixed with corn) I can’t say I relished the idea, but with very poor Spanish all I could do was nod enthusiastically, politeness pushing me along a rocky ravine in pursuit of the prickly pear.

In slippered feet I gained foothold onto a field lined with Mexican cypress where hundreds of nopal trees were huddled together in long curving rows. We tread carefully past a pack of mean looking watch dogs, snoozing soundly in the shadow of cacti over 10 feet tall. Prickly pear cacti have large, flat pincushion pads that sprout baby pads which look like mini mouse hats. Juicy baby buds curiously known as ‘tuna’ are cut easily from the adult bud and stuffed inside older pads, then grilled on the BBQ.

It was lunchtime by the time we returned home. My harvest was declawed of their ‘espinas’, boiled with salt and an onion bulb, then served in the most common and delicious way – long thin slices cut and tossed with chilli, fresh tomato, onion, coriander and a generous squeeze of lime served in what is collectively known as Ensalada de Nopalitos.

Kate O’Brien is the editor of The Plant.

Pictured: a cyanotype of Opuntia (prickly pear), created for Toast Travels by Holly Mitchell.

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by TOAST ( 11.07.14 )

Michael Smith

I was happily lost in Cambridge, enchanted by its gothic backstreets and Georgian terraces of dainty yellow brick, taken by a college green with an apple tree in the middle, which turned out to be the spot where Isaac Newton first imagined gravity after the famous apple bounced off his head, which gave some inkling as to the enormous significance this place has played in the history of human thought.

I wandered over the River Cam and its sighing bridges, over to the other bank, which immediately assumed a far more quiet, residential feel, and ended up stumbling on Kettle’s Yard, the personal art collection of a former director of the Tate, housed in his old home, which he bequeathed to the university on condition it was left exactly as is, which to me is what really makes the place such an intriguing treasure. It may be one of the key collections of British Modernism, but I love the place more because it seems like a manifesto on the art of domestic living.

Inside it feels cottagey, cosy, intimate. Gentle light pours through Venetian blinds onto whitewashed walls, with art dotted around the decidedly homely interior: a Ben Nicholson sits humbly on a shallow ledge above the spare single bed with its brown woollen cover and sheets of raw unbleached cotton; an Alfred Wallace painting of a boat hangs quietly above the bathroom sink, again, a sink of plain white enamel, no frills, just the lovely, minimal clutter of the pictures, every single one of them in the plainest wooden frame. The grain and wear of wood is everywhere, so much beautiful wood – wooden tables, wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden chairs that invite you to sit in them, which you’re happy to discover you’re allowed to, and then quietly ponder an arrangement of pebbles on a wooden table.

There are lots of little clusters of pebbles in Kettle’s Yard, all arranged so precisely, in simple spirals on the plainest empty table, pebbles raised to aesthetic objects by the simple and profound act of placing them deliberately in space, and through some transformation of the act of looking; this idea’s made explicit by the placing of a tiny, matchbox-sized Ben Nicholson oil painting of simplified circular shapes on the window ledge next to a series of similar shaped shells, as if to say the pebbles and shells should be seen in equivalent terms. Continuing this theme, a big plexiglass lens hovers in front of a row of plants by window and skylight, revealing their enlarged details – again, it’s all about the experience of looking, this time through a big magnifying glass.

The house is like a meditational exercise designed to put you in a simple present moment, through the calmness and clarity and mindfulness of this basic, fundamental human act. The house seems to be telling us that the important part of the artistic experience is precisely this kind of looking, rather than the particular paintings one happens to be in front of. I’m inclined to agree.

When I was done looking and it felt like time to leave, I wandered by some rose bushes that emerged on a modest path running round the back of a row of houses, like emerging from a secret garden, where I left this treasure trove of quiet mindfulness and wandered back to look intently at bustling, dignified Cambridge.

Pictured: Cottage Droom at Kettle’s Yard (top) and the main house. With many thanks to the kind people at Kettle’s Yard.

To see Toast’s House&Home collection, click here.

posted in: Do, Explore, See
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by TOAST ( 04.07.14 )

Orlando Gough

The other day in the Grauniad, under the headline DON’T KNOCK FAST FOOD (I confess to having immediately thought: I shall knock fast food if I want), was an article by the journalist Kathryn Hughes. Fast food is an interesting subject, with its inevitable class war connotations – chavs eating junk food while the fragrant middle classes pickle their own herrings; but her argument was strange: the middle classes, for example Mrs Beaton, originally promoted slow cooking as a way of encouraging attributes – patience mainly – which would make them good entrepreneurs. And now people who eat fast food are similarly upholding the capitalist system, so they’re doing an equally useful job. Er… what? (And what a bizarre argument to find in the Grauniad of all newspapers.) According to Hughes, a large section of the population doesn’t even have the wherewithal to cook slow food (really?); they’re more likely to have a microwave oven than an Aga (well, yes).

For a time we lived in the village of Southwick, just outside Brighton. It had originally been next to the sea, but a large part had been bulldozed in the 50s to make way for a spanking new road which was never built. So it had a strange lopsided feeling, despite being arranged around a charming green where our dog Nell once won Best Bitch. We rented a beautiful Georgian rectory from local self-made man and Harley Davidson fanatic Dennis Clark, owner of several lucrative care homes.

The Old Rectory, tick, with an Aga, tick.

My relationship with this cast iron behemoth was – to borrow a phrase from Gandhi describing his relationship with the British government in India – not a happy one. Cooking on it was as easy as navigating using a sextant. It was good, as you might expect, for extremely slow cooking and extremely fast cooking, but anything between those extremes, i.e. almost everything, was fantastically difficult – unnecessarily difficult given the invention of that splendid gadget the cooker. Baking a cake or cooking a soufflé involved a complex process of oven swapping, inserting and removing plates which might or might not have been sprinkled with water etc. To an Aga afficionado this is all doubtless a piece of cake, but I never got the hang of it, partly due to the fact that it’s impossible to smell anything that’s cooking in an Aga oven, so it’s correspondingly easy to incinerate it. Consequently the hot oven was like an ancient blacksmith’s forge, caked in unidentifiable carbon-rich slurry.

In the winter the Aga admittedly warmed the house, lovely; in summer the kitchen was like the engine room of a ship. Before cooking one needed to throw the windows open and strip to the waist. But the main problem was that the damn thing kept breaking down. In principle the solution was to ring up a specialist company in Horsham or somewhere, but their call-out fee was about £10,000, so Dennis, who was both thrifty and a handyman, would come round and futz around for several hours with screwdrivers and thermostats. And the Aga would either work or not work. If it did work there was then a frustrating fallow period of several weeks (or maybe it was a few hours?) while it heated up again.

For Dennis these sessions were surprisingly fruitful – they gave him a chance to infiltrate his house and check that we were treating it properly. Actually we treated it much better than he did. He once tried to dig up the beautiful floor of the back passage because he needed some bricks, and we more or less had to lie down in the passage, like protesters on the site of a proposed motorway, to stop him desecrating his own house.

After the Aga had broken down for the nth time and Dennis had put in the mth new thermostat, unsuccessfully, he lent us a microwave oven as a substitute. This was surely a category error, like lending a hockey stick to someone whose cricket bat has broken, or a hamster to someone whose dog has died. We completely failed to come to terms with this mysterious machine. We obligingly went out and bought a Marks and Spencer take-away Chinese meal, but made a complete balls-up of heating it up. I think we were afraid of a mini-Hiroshima, so the food never made it to more than a couple of degrees above room temperature. It tasted absolutely dismal, and we were probably lucky it didn’t poison us. As enthusiastic cooks this was a staggering level of failure, on the scale of a research scientist not being able to change a plug. We didn’t use the microwave again, and gratefully returned to the warm embrace of the Aga when it was finally mended.

Since then I’ve discovered that there are many beautiful uses of a microwave oven:

- for heating milk
- for cooking vegetables without compromising their nutritional value
- for fusing together the broken crepe soles of shoes (have to be careful with the temperature here I’d imagine)
- for exploding eggs (I think our friend Boyd was trying to cook the egg)
- for storing cheese (my father-in-law, who like us never got the hang of his microwave, used it as a larder – odd, since a microwave has no ventilation, and, you could argue, is basically the opposite of a larder)
- as a percussion instrument – it works as a complete drum kit, and the bell is useful too.

Meanwhile we have moved house, and use a completely standard cooker. I’m extremely happy with it. And continue to knock fast food without compunction.

Pictured: Salt baked veg, cooked in an Aga

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal.


Nat Lucas

Elderflower blooms herald the arrival of picnic season, granting them the welcome of a whistled refrain in a songless city. Picnics are thought to have their origins in the practice of groups of women meeting in taverns, each bringing some solid food to contribute to a feast. I prefer to leave the conjuring of quiches in more capable hands and instead focus on providing the drinks. An aunt and uncle return from a walk with a wicker basket full of elderflowers gathered in Nunhead Cemetery. A few days later I am presented with a bottle of pale pink cordial. Immediately I face a dilemma. Should I construct a picnic friendly elderflower Collins, or should I stay true to my personal preference of avoiding longer drinks, and instead provide an elderflower martini? Unable to decide I try both.

Premixed elderflower Collins drinks are now so readily available that I saw one on offer in a metal-look ‘shaker’ while I was strapped into what I trust was a slightly less synthetic metal tube, on a no frills hop over the channel. I base my recipe on Diffords ‘Elderflower Collins No. 2’ which is distinguished from the ‘No. 1’ version principally by the exchange of gin for vodka. The most appealing part of making this for me is the inclusion of the Luxardo maraschino liqueur as of course, once you have the jar open, it is vital to check that the cherries have not gone off. I manage to restrict myself to just two. For many people, the inclusion of the lemon juice, the sinew of the drink that binds the elderflower to the spine of the vodka, makes this perfect picnic refreshment. Made of softer stuff, I find that the lemon slices through the drink like a cymbal in a string quartet and so move on to the martini.

In these times of austerity* I decide to make use of what I have readily available and create my elderflower martini with Black Cow vodka. Described as a ‘milk vodka’ because it is made from whey, this Dorset distilled spirit has a gentle roundness to it which does not lessen its impact. Sipping it neat is like easing a finger into a suede glove stitched by retired elves. To this I add Carpano Antica Formula – the bittersweet Italian vermouth, instead of the more usual dry vermouth. The resulting drink, dressed with a single floating rose petal, tastes of summer – grassy and with a hint of peaches.

Elderflower Collins No. 2:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
3 teaspoons Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1 shot elderflower cordial
1 shot freshly squeezed lemon

Shake with ice and strain into an ice filled glass. Top up with soda water and garnish with a lemon slice.

Elderflower Martini:

2 shots Black Cow vodka
1 shot Carpano Antica Formula
2 shots elderflower cordial

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a rose petal.

*Austerity used here in the sense of ‘without luxury’ of space. My drinks cabinet is a just-slightly-larger-than-A4-sized gap on the work surface between the refrigerator and the draining board.

Pictured: Elderflower by Barbara Agnew


Kate O’Brien

My interest in seaweed was reawakened last month, a madeleine moment with a seaweed chip summoning salty sea air, concrete jetties, weathered hands and brown paper bags filled with dulse. Rather than the evasion of the senses Proust so keenly describes, my memories were more like speech bubbles: Mrs Beaton’s seaweed soup, jellied carrageen, marbled laverbread and, most prominent among them, a dulse pâté sandwich elegantly undressed on a white plate. How I longed for that sandwich!

The very next week, I found myself in a small cottage by the Atlantic Ocean on the north-west coast of Ireland. Dependably soaked through with rain, the scene was lit by May’s first moon and an altogether new feeling – I happened to be in the right place at the right time. This was seaweed country, the moon was full and the tides were at their lowest. According to local lore, rock pools along Downpatrick head are among the finest spots for wild seaweed in the world. In oversize wellingtons the following day, with an eye on the tide table, scissors aloft and nothing more than a plastic bag to hold my loot, I rushed to the rocks for that dulse sandwich. My mother, hands-on as ever, came with extra bags and invited an experienced forager and the local chef to join us.

Seaweeds, which attach themselves to rock with their holdfasts, comprise a stipe (stem) and fronds (leaves). At Downpatrick, black volcanic rock dashed with vibrant lichen, limpets and periwinkles share their home with 600 seaweed varieties, identified by colour (brown, red or green), habitat and, in our case, whether or not we could eat them.

Bladderwrack and bright green sea lettuce along the upper shores were the first cut, harvested sustainably leaving the holdfast intact for regrowth. Sandpipers whizzed by and we carried on to low tide where rocks fringed with duileasc (dulse), were covered on their upper surfaces in precious sleabhac (nori) which glistened like slimy black plastic. I found Nori to be the most tricky to cut and handle, and most satisfying to eat later. Farther towards the sub-tidal zone brown leaved varieties like kelp (Japanese dasai) grew in long, tough ribbons (sugar kelp) or frilly alaria (wakame), which is also found in miso soup. It seemed there was an endless supply of sea spaghetti and I got carried away. My bag sprang a leak from the weight of my greed.

Over the days that followed I prepared seaweed for travel on board a Ryanair flight to London. Sugar kelp slung to dry over the backs of chairs and sea spaghetti dangling from the rack on the ceiling, I gently teased sand from nori and dulse. Nori and carraigeen pinched delicately between wooden pegs and hung on a clothes line were brought indoors from the rain. Everything in the cottage smelt faintly of the sea. The dog loved it. I barely slept that last night, speed drying seaweeds in small batches in the oven (why didn’t I think of it sooner!).

Luggage restrictions forced me to abandon books, toiletries and bulky clothing for two dozen vacuum packed bags. The sweet smell of success was shaped by the Atlantic Ocean and is still drying in my kitchen back in London, where dulse pâté trials have begun. If you happen to know the secret recipe please get in touch – I would appreciate the short cut.

Kate O’Brien is the editor of The Plant.

Pictured: a sarcodiotheca (red string seaweed) cyanotype created by Holly Mitchell especially for Toast Travels.


Andie Cusick

I saw him pacing through the bedroom and the lofts – like those sailors who can never shake off the habit of keeping watch and in the heart of some Breton retreat get up and dress at regular intervals to inspect an earthly horizon. Alain Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes.

Twenty-one stripes, a boat-shaped neckline, three-quarter-length sleeves, in navy and cream… The traditional Breton shirt has spectacularly stood the test of time from its inception in 1858. Originally worn by French sailors in Brittany, the garment was designed as workwear – each element serving a functional purpose. The wide neck permitted sailors to dress quickly (as Fournier describes) and the horizontal stripes darting from arm to arm across the chest stood out against rough seas, allowing any overboard sailor to be hastily spotted. The length of the sleeves ensured no cloth would get caught up in the riggings of the ship, while the woven cotton could stand the inclement wind and salt water, at the same time retaining a lightness and ease of movement. To add a dash more historical context to this distinctive item, the 21 stripes on a Breton top also bear significance – representing each of Napoleon’s victories.

This sea-faring apparel didn’t become a fashionable item, however, until much later – around 1920. Its transition from utility garment to style staple began with the glamorous American couple Gerald and Sara Murphy who, having been introduced to the area by Cole Porter, spent their summers in the French Riviera. As fashion historian Amber Butchart recently explained on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, ‘The story goes that one day they went shopping in Marseille for supplies for their boat and found these striped sailor tops and distributed them amongst their friends. This sounds quite ordinary but when you think their friends were people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso – obviously real trendsetters – it took off from there.’

At the same time Coco Chanel, who often wore Breton stripes to Ballet Russes rehearsals, made them part of her fashion collection. ‘By the early 1930s it was really becoming a fashion staple, even donning the cover of French Vogue,’ added Butchart.

Since then the shirt the French call la Marinière has been de rigueur in every decade, gracing not just French artists and intellectuals but style icons across the globe, from Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Jean Seberg to James Dean, Patti Smith and Kate Moss.

The versatility of the Breton shirt makes it not just a classic piece but a garment that, for all its ubiquity, can be made one’s own. It can be bohemian, prim and pretty, slightly punk or pared down, while the colours, too, are no longer uniform: vivid red and white and aqua stripes are as recognisable today as navy and cream. Worn with a cropped trouser and ballet flats the Breton assumes a gamine air. Paired with belted, wide-legged trousers it channels Chanel. A boxy Breton with a boy jean is a lazy, insouciant ensemble that means, even when far from the Côte d’Azur, you can still make like a French ingénue.

Click here to view Toast’s range of Bretons

Pictured: Coco Chanel

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by TOAST ( 05.06.14 )

In his new column Michael Smith responds to the essence of a place

Escaping the Big Smoke for the weekend, we drove to Dungeness, a world away. I first stumbled upon the place 10 years ago, and it’s haunted my imagination ever since. Dungeness is England’s only desert, an arid spit of shingle jutting out from the Kentish coast, an enchanted wasteland at the ends of England that meets the endless blue. It feels like the England that’s left over, left behind; in the words of Derek Jarman, who came here to see out his dying days, ‘Dungeness is set apart, it is the fifth quarter, the end of the globe’.

We parked up by the side of the only road into the Ness – a scattering of ramshackle fishermen’s shacks and prefab bungalows raised up on breezeblocks peppered the emptiness. Chicken wire fences staked to rickety wooden poles delineated scrubby shingle front gardens that looked indistinguishable from the desolate beach in front of them: it all seems a bit of a folly, a bit King Canute, trying to claim your square of the wilderness. In the back gardens, by derelict caravans and big red butane gas canisters, washing lines from a Steinbeck novel flapped in the wind, with the nuclear power station brooding in the distance behind them, the only structure that doesn’t look provisional or home made, a monolithic cuboid that dominates the surrounding landscape, its sinister low-level hum permeating everything… it’s an end of the world place, Dungeness. The desolate beach is littered with the odd boat wincher with rusted iron ropes and cogs, strange machines left over from an age whose meaning has become obscure to us. It feels like man versus nature here, and nature, no contest, has the upper hand.

But this has drawn a certain sophisticated, marginal cast of mind to the place – among the bleached out St George Crosses flapping ragged in the sun, we came across a high-design contemporary beach house in the best possible taste: small, clean, precise, a shoebox-shaped beach house with the sea-facing side half window and half sliding glass door, with Eames chairs and a dining table inside, the beach house that will always be better than yours…

But before the maddeningly tasteful people turned up, and before the gawpers like me, there was Derek Jarman’s garden, the thing that made the Ness a site of curious pilgrimage, a strange garden built of driftwood, bits of land mines laid for the Germans, the detritus of our heritage, transformed into a desolate and transcendent beauty: rusty spokes and spiral shells become magically, mysteriously symbolic, circular grooves in the shingle laid out as if to harness the mystical energies of the landscape, as our ancestors laid out Stonehenge or Glastonbury: ‘They thought I was a white witch out to get the power station,’ Derek Jarman joked.

I’ve read scraps Jarman wrote about his garden as a dying man who found his paradise here in this fifth quarter, in this excluded, other England. And standing at this garden now, it seems like the embodiment of an old spirit of liberty, the freedom to do things your way, to make it up as you go along – to build your own Jerusalem in England’s only desert.

Pictured: Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s former home in Dungeness

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by TOAST ( 30.05.14 )

Orlando Gough

Centenary fever! We’re facing a fusillade of First World War commemoration. And there are four years to go… Meanwhile, next month sees the centenary of an admittedly rather more minor fiasco – a series of 12 performances at the London Coliseum by the Italian Futurists Luigi Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909 – an intentionally provocative mixture of anarchism, fascism, disdain for the past, misogyny and glorification of machines. ‘Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice… We will destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy… We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.’ Eek.

Soon after they celebrated with a backwards banquet in Trieste:
Sweet Memories on Ice
Marmalade of Defunct Glories
Mummified Roast with Professorial Liver
Archeological Salad
Goulash of The Past
Explosive Peas with a Sauce of History
Dead Sea Fish
Clotted Blood Soup
Entrée of Demolition

According to the Futurists, existing Italian music was ‘mediocre, rickety, vulgar’. They wanted to introduce experimental sounds inspired by machinery. Luigi Russolo invented The Art of Noises – music made by intonarumori, acoustic noise generators, including The Gurgler, the Crackler, the Hummer, the Burster, the Whistler, the Rumbler. The first concert, in April 1914 in Milan, apparently caused a riot. This was followed by 12 performances at the Coliseum in June 1914, bizarrely as part of a variety evening which also included a routine by Vesta Tilley, the singing recruiting sergeant. Marinetti and Russolo’s contribution was a single work, in four parts, or ‘noise-spirals’. Audience and critics were profoundly underwhelmed. ‘The first of the ‘noise-spirals’ performed, The Awakening of a Great City… resembled the sounds heard in the rigging of a Channel-steamer during a bad crossing…’ Ironically, for a project called The Art of Noises, the main problem seemed to be that the music was almost inaudible.

Marinetti formed the Futurist Party in 1918. In 1919 it merged with the Fascist party; Marinetti helped to write the Fascist Manifesto, and became more and more reactionary, increasingly seduced by the politics of Mussolini.

In 1930 he produced, in collaboration with Luigi Colombo, a Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, and in 1932 The Futurist Cookbook, part Fascist propaganda, part excellent common sense, part exuberant provocation, part nonsense. It contains a ferocious broadside against pasta. Pasta, according to Marinetti, causes lassititude, pessimism and lack of passion. Spaghetti is not proper food for Italian soldiers. This predictably caused a furore. The Mayor of Naples weighed in: ‘The angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli al pomodoro.’ Marinetti replied: ‘This confirms my suspicions about the monotony of Paradise.’ In fact it was nationalist propaganda designed to appeal to Mussolini; imports of wheat were on the rise, and Il Duce was looking to substitute it with a home-grown staple –
rice. Rice was ‘more virile, more patriotic, more suitable for fighters and heroes’.

A nasty nationalist thread, in fact, runs through the book. Marinetti wants Italians to stop eating foreign food, and he gives a glossary of specifically Italian culinary terms to replace insidious foreign ones, for example ‘polibibita’ instead of ‘cocktail’, ‘quisibeve’ for ‘bar’.

But then there’s a rather wonderful schtick about the future of food. Food must mainly appeal to the eye and the imagination; in fact some food should not be eaten, but only experienced with eyes and nose. (Shades of Satyricon…) Food should arrive rapidly and contain many flavours, but each course should consist of only a few mouthfuls. Remind you of anything? Nutrition is crucial. He rails against not only pasta but processed grains, the overcooking of vegetables, over-reliance on meat. Traditional kitchen equipment should be replaced by scientific equipment: ozonisers, ultraviolet ray lamps to activate vitamins, electrolysers to decompose ingredients into new forms, colloidal mills, autoclaves, dialysers, vacuum stills to cook food without destroying vitamins. Prophetic!

The actual recipes are quirky, but tend to be subversions of traditional recipes rather than genuinely visionary inventions: mortadella with nougat, pineapples with sardines, risotto with cape gooseberries, Italian Breasts in the Sunshine (almond paste topped with a strawberry, sprinkled with pepper). The most avant-garde recipe is for Chickenfiat: the taste of technology world is achieved by tucking a handful of ball bearings into the chicken’s shoulder. Elizabeth David, who approves of Marinetti’s common sense but is deeply suspicious of his politics, quotes several recipes in her Italian Cooking, including this one for Dolce Mafarka, a frisky but hardly radical rice pudding:

60g ground coffee
600ml milk
Sugar to taste
100g rice
The peel of a lemon
40ml orange-flower water
2 eggs

Cook the coffee in the milk, and sugar it to your taste; strain it, then pour in the rice and cook it (in a steamer) al dente. Remove from the fire; when it is cold grate into it the lemon peel, and stir in the orange-flower water and the eggs, mixing well. Pour into a mould and put it on ice. Serve with fresh biscuits.


Marinetti’s ideas prefigured many later developments, and it’s tempting to claim that they were influential. There’s a thread from the Art of Noises through Varese and Cage to Stockhausen and electronic music. But one from La Cucina Futurista to Michel Guérard and Heston? It’s difficult to detect. The ‘destructive gesture of freedom-bringers’? ‘Scorn for women’? Well, those ideas seem to have made it through.

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal. Click here to find out more.

Pictured, a detail from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Free Words, between 1914 and 1916


Nat Lucas toasts the month with a drink (and a sprig) of which Dickens would approve

Closer inspection of the plant setting the garden awash with blue flowers proves initially disappointing. It is not borage but its equally hairy ‘hounds tongue’ relative, green alkanet. In the spirit of adventure, the substitute is tested to see if it possesses any of the properties commonly associated with its better known cousin – as a curer of both hypochondria and melancholia and as a source of courage.


The gardener and diarist John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, who lived just a few minutes up the River Ravensbourne from where I sit, wrote of borage ‘the sprigs… are of known virtue to revive the hypochondriac and cheer the hard student.’ Being neither, but suffering from a spring cold, I try using some of the green alkanet leaves in an inhalation. The smell of rivers seeps into my encumbered nasal passages. On emerging from beneath the towel I find that the remedy has worked. Whether it was simply the effect of the steam or the alkanet is debatable.


Historically borage has also been thought to dispel melancholy. Although I have no such malady I try some of the alkanet leaves as a tea infusion. There is none of the delicate cucumber flavour that would be expected of borage. Instead, I find the green alkanet to possess a soft taste more akin to under ripe galia melon. I sip the tea and gaze out of the window trying to remember lines of poetry. Nothing changes and I cannot recite anything appropriate beyond the first line. Perhaps I have shored up my defences against any future malaise.


Aside from its uses in gin, borage has commonly provided flavour and garnish to a ‘stirrup’ – a type of drink traditionally served to a hunting party prior to departure. Roman soldiers drank wine with borage to give them courage before battle. Being in possession of two cats instead of the prerequisite pack of hounds and disinclined to wear a toga, I decide to offer claret cup to my father in law.

Claret cup is essentially a punch and its precise ingredients may vary depending upon the maker. It has literary associations – Jane Austen uses it as a social enabler in Pride and Prejudice and it was famously a favourite drink of Charles Dickens.

Dickens’ recipe was as follows:

Put into a large jug four or six lumps of sugar; give the preference to six. The thin rind of a lemon, leave to stand for ten minutes and stir. Add a wine glass of brandy, then a bottle of claret, then half a bottle of soda water. Then stir well and grate in nutmeg. Then add ice. If borage be used for this cup, half a handful will be found quite sufficient. Stir well before serving.

I follow this recipe using the green alkanet flowers, ‘bright blue with white honey guides,’ as a garnish instead of the borage. Increasing the amount of brandy by another half a glass adds breadth to the flavour and moves it away from sangria territory. Serving in a tumbler instead of a stirrup cup allows the colour of the flowers to be appreciated. Refined sipping is recommended to navigate around the flowers, which the father in law declares ‘taste of fish’.


Michael Smith

As someone who’s always been keen on clothes, I like to imagine I’m stylish; imagining myself as fashionable, on the other hand, makes me feel distinctly uneasy. I enjoy patting myself on the back for being a stylish fellow, after reintroducing the cardigan into my wardrobe when no one else was wearing them, for example, or on discovering what seemed to be esoteric drinks like dry sherry or the Campari spritz; but three months later I’d inevitably end up feeling like a bit of a dick when I’d realise everyone was wearing cardigans or drinking spritzes – I wasn’t acting on any innate, distinctive sense of good taste after all, I was just obeying fashion ever so slightly ahead of the herd.

We invest a certain importance in these distinctions between style and fashion. I’m fond of a famous quote by Quentin Crisp on the subject, but on reflection I don’t think it’s right: ‘Fashion is a way of not having to decide who you are. Style is deciding who you are and being able to perpetuate it.’ It’s an attractive thought, but one that quickly unravels once you start to unpick it – the truth is perhaps less black and white, more yin and yang: the two exist in a dance with each other, each with a little bit of the other one in their hearts.

When we polarise the two into opposing corners like this, style becomes a kind of elusive, unattainable ideal we look up to but can never quite grasp. ‘Only great minds can afford a simple style,’ says Stendhal; Plato’s chair could just as easily become Plato’s white cotton plimsolls, Plato’s brushed indigo shirt – impossible, untouchable ideals that exist somewhere above the times and the fashions. But of course in reality our sense of classic or timeless style is itself ephemeral and follows fashion – my grandfather’s sense of what timeless style was would be a far shout from mine, and a shirt cut to Beau Brummel’s eminently stylish tastes would look positively pantomime on a present day gent.

Like a river polishes a pebble, style evolves over time – the ideal collar of a shirt, the ratio of fringe length to ‘short back & sides’ (‘short’ being an entirely arbitrary quantity here), an item like the aforementioned cardigan coming back in from the cold so ubiquitously you presumed it had never left, a new heritage brand performing the confidence trick of convincing you you’ve always worn it – all imperceptibly small shifts in our sense of what’s timelessly stylish that in aggregate add up to a kind of fashion in slow motion.

If we imagine style as the high ideal at one end of the spectrum, then fashion’s relegated to the shallows of the other. To the great modern wits, fashion always comes off worst: ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,’ quipped Oscar Wilde. I remember recently showing an old friend from up north round Shoreditch. He was unfamiliar with the silliness and excesses of this square mile of London; we found ourselves laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of the impromptu catwalk tottering up and down certain streets, at the rake-thin young men with raven black Joan of Arc bowl cuts in shit-catcher trousers MC Hammer would blush at.

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by TOAST ( 09.05.14 )
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