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.

Hypochondria

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.

Melancholia

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.

Courage

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’.


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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 )

Caroline Davidson on character and cloth in Émile Zola’s sensational novel

The grisly tale that is Thérèse Raquin caused quite a stir when it was published in 1867, its vivid scenes of adultery denounced as pornographic. The outcry did the novel no harm. A year later, in a long article published in Le Figaro, the critic Louis Ulbach described Thérèse Raquin as ‘littérature putride‘. The mud stuck and sales of the book went further up. But for its author, the 27-year-old Émile Zola, the critical failure of Thérèse Raquin was bruising. In a superbly unguarded, uppity preface to the second edition, Zola defended his book against attacks, maintaining that the ‘modest journalists who blushed’ when they read Thérèse Raquin had failed to understand it.

Grim scenes of betrayal, murder, torture and suicide were, explained Zola, not prurient imaginings but scientific outcomes. In Thérèse Raquin, Zola said his aim was to act the meticulous, analytical scientist – to study temperaments and not characters; to cut through the flesh of Thérèse and her lover Laurent to expose only blood, nerves and animal instincts. ‘There is a complete absence of soul, I freely admit, since that is how I meant it to be’, said Zola in the famously defensive preface.

Maybe this casting aside of soul as if it is some irksome intervening variable explains why, in spite of being set in a haberdashery, Thérèse Raquin is almost entirely devoid of references to threads, fabric and clothes. Literally superficial and often regarded as trivial, clothes are nevertheless – in books and in life – a route to, if not an expression of, soul and character. But in Thérèse Raquin the body of the eponymous villainess is ‘lost in shadow’ while her face, ‘a flat white shape pierced by one wide-open dark eye’, is described as little more than a mask. Men occasionally put down a hat; once, shortly after murdering her husband Camille, we know Thérèse is in a black dress. But characters are more likely to be wrapped in ‘sacred egotistical tranquility’, as is poor Camille, than anything with folds in it.

Zola does on one occasion refer at relative length to clothing – when describing the hoards of women and young girls who visit the morgue to gaze at corpses. They are fresh and rosy in white linen and neat skirts; they are fashionably dressed in silk dresses. One veiled and gloved lady wearing a ‘fine grey silk skirt and flowing mantle of black lace’ holds a cambric handkerchief to her nose. While Laurent visits the morgue to see the body of his victim, this lady visits the corpse of a stonemason who fell from scaffolding. Perhaps these fleeting characters, dressed, innocent and smelling of violets, Zola awards clothes as a means of giving life. It is not their natures on which he scores his scalpel.

The book visits very little else than the wretched inhabitants of Madame Raquin’s dingy haberdashery and the tiny flat above it. And so, for the most part, Zola resists applying symbolic treatment in his study of temperament. Existing in an early work of Naturalism, Thérèse and Laurent are merely organisms without reason or free will. Or so the young Zola would have his critics believe.

Perhaps Thérèse Raquin, in which both character and cloth are thin on the ground, is a curious book with which to start a series exploring the representation of character through cloth. Yet could Zola’s ‘scientific’ novel be the litmus test? If where there is no character there is no material, there may be much linen, lace and leather to ponder in the vast swathe of literature whose very fabric is the study of character. That’s one hypothesis. Let’s see.


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by TOAST ( 02.05.14 )

Orlando Gough

Whoa! Seven a day! And I’m not talking about Shane Warne. The new 5-2 diet: 5 portions of vegetables and 2 of fruit. It’s a tough one. Like most middle-class people I feel instinctively that my diet is fairly healthy (despite what is surely an addiction to plain chocolate Kit-Kats – must remember to check into the Priory, I’m sure they can sort me out), but I can’t claim to achieve seven a day more often than once in a blue moon. These are good times for vegetarians. We always suspected they might be morally right; then they turned out to be ecologically right; now they’re nutritionally right. How much righter can you be? At the same time fruit is taking a bit of a hammering; fruit juice, in particular, is the turkey twizzler of the moment, about to be hounded out of town (until the day that some bright spark discovers that it prevents Alzheimers, hangovers etc.).

This seven a day decree is a challenge – but not as much of a challenge as it must be in Chukotka, the far north-eastern region of Russia. Sarah Wheeler, in her wonderful book The Magnetic North, writes of a visit to Anadyr, the capital. In 1995, in one of the most profitable privatizations of a decade of profitable privatizations, Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky bought the national conglomerate Sibneft. Abramovich registered his companies in Chukotka to take advantage of the generous tax laws. He was a fairy godfather for Anadyr, investing in buses and street lighting. In 2000 he was elected governor with a convincing 99% of the vote. Upset by the lack of decent restaurants, and being a fan of Bavarian food, he built a restaurant and flew in a Bavarian chef. Wheeler goes to eat in the restaurant, which features home-brewed beer and a live oompah band. She orders sauerkraut “with a Russian twist, the twist being an absence of cabbage”. A bit like playing cricket without a bat. Scurvy is still a problem in rural Chukotka.

What to do?

Last week I stayed at Klosterhagen, a delightful small hotel in Bergen, Norway. It’s in a square full of exquisite colourful 19th century houses, most of them built of wood. The hotel is on the site of an old convent. My room was in the eaves. It was the first hotel room I’ve stayed in which is roughly the same size as its bathroom. The overhead velux window didn’t want to stay open, so I propped it open with the remote control for the TV. When I woke in the morning there had been a ferocious rainstorm and the whole of the bottom half of the bed was soaked. The remote control, amazingly, still worked. The breakfast was the best breakfast I have ever had, as well as being the most nutritious. Absolutely everything is home-made: granola, yoghurt, bread, smoked salmon, cured trout, spiced trout, soused herring, tomato herring, semi-dried tomatoes, roasted beetroot with balsamic vinegar, pickled vegetables… My friend Olivia, with whom I’m working on a choral project in Bergen, came down to breakfast, and said, right let’s get to work. We tried everything, including a weird goat’s cheese which is shit-coloured all the way through, served with honeycomb – hardcore but delicious. Wafer-thin crispbread made entirely with seeds – lovely. Fresh orange juice. Fresh fruit. A cold breakfast in a cold climate – curious. But seven a day was suddenly a doddle. We were pretty much done and dusted by 10am.

I came back thinking this was surely the solution: the mighty nutritional breakfast. But of course there are two problems. One is cultural – in Blighty most of us are only slowly moving away from Sugar Puffs and toast (I’ve got as far as granola and toast, i.e. not very far); and the other is practical – the Klosterhagen breakfast is dependent on an army of people working their socks off. Are we going to start doing this for ourselves? Probably not.

But if you do fancy going Norwegian for breakfast, try this:

Take about 1kg of herring fillets, and soak them in white wine vinegar overnight. Drain them well. Make a mixture of 200g sea salt, 100g caster sugar, a few bay leaves, 10g each of peppercorns and allspice berries, slightly crushed. Pack the herrings between layers of this mixture. Put a plate on top to keep them submerged in the brine that forms. Keep them in a cool, dry place. They’ll be ready after a week, and will keep for several.

When you’re ready to go Norwegian, remove some of the fillets, and soak them in a half-and-half mixture of water and milk. Taste them after a couple of hours. (The soaking time will, obviously, depend on how long they’ve been in the brine.) Drain them and slice them up.

Mix them with some rings of fennel bulb, sliced as thinly as possible, some chopped parsley and a mustardy vinaigrette.

(There are many other excellent ways to use salted herrings. Jane Grigson is particularly good on the subject in her Fish Cookery.)

And this:

Take the leaves and stalks off a couple of bunches of beetroot. Put them in an oven-proof dish, sprinkle with olive oil, and add some fresh thyme and a few whole cloves of garlic. Season. Cover loosely with foil and bake for an insanely long time, two hours or more, in a 180C oven. Remove the beetroot, and cut them into chunks. Put in a dish and sprinkle over some balsamic vinegar and a little extra olive oil. Allow to cool.

Neither of these dishes are exactly instantaneous, but they might revolutionise your life – er, well, let’s not overstate it, they might make a minor difference.

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


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by TOAST ( 25.04.14 )

Jamie Seaton

Leaving the bustle of the medina, through the jostling traffic around the rosy city walls – and eventually out into the quiet, shaded lanes of the Palmeraie. Dappled light, birdsong.

A garden, several acres, lost behind high walls; and, within the garden, adrift among the untended palms and shimmering eucalypts, a perfect Art Deco villa – three storeys high, unrestored. Curved glass, wide planes of white stucco, broad verandahs, all sharp in the morning light. High ceilings and floors of cool, figured, grey marble. A staircase in the same material sweeping up to lofty heights. Serene – and feeling a thousand miles from our home deep within the maze of the medina.

It was uninhabited but only a little neglected. Here and there paint was flaking. No water came from the nickel taps to wash the dust from the basins. But the salon still held its furniture, paintings, ornaments, keepsakes – and tabletops of framed photographs in black and white or faded colour: glamorous travels and glittering dinners and fêtes champêtres with family and the once famous: couturiers, ship-owners, politicians, opera singers.

The pond in the garden – geometric, aligned with the façade and quartered by walkways – had turned violent green, choked with a waterweed on which a hundred frogs sat and, left undisturbed, sang their croaky songs. The trees in the garden rustled in the breeze. Shadows moved with slow, geometric precision across the planes and curves of the house as the sun followed its arc. Sitting alone by the pond, I could hear the voices of my companions, distant in the high rooms.


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by TOAST ( 08.04.14 )

Michael Smith

I remember noticing the style beginning to coagulate a little while before the financial crash, in the tail end of that age of aspiration, when it still seemed perfectly normal to eat out every night and go shopping in New York for the weekend. It was around the time the enclave around Broadway Market in Hackney had become the discreet epicentre of East End alternative cool; you could people-watch the early shoots of a sartorial change in the bohemian trendies who’d begun congregating there, going up and down the canal on their old fashioned bicycles, wearing Barbours, brogues, and an increasing number of beards. Not just the stubbly kind we were used to, these were full blown, horticultural, big bushy Bloomsbury Group beards, beards that evoked Eric Gill’s sandal-wearing utopianism, beards from an era before the baby boomers had set the template of post-war pop culture. Nowadays the world and his wife might have one, but these chaps stood out like sore thumbs, looked funny, even a bit lunatic fringe.

But the longer I looked, the more cool types I saw riding those trad bikes with the Brookes saddles, wearing those lovely heritage brands that used to be the preserve of Tory farmers. I’d been scratching my head for some time, disappointed by the era’s seemingly pathetic inability to produce any original style movements, in the way the previous century had done, time and time again, from Elvis and the Teddy Boys onwards. In my youth in the 90s, the most virulent strain of pop culture had a strong future-bound trajectory – new drugs, new music with electronic basslines and rhythms that seemed to be engaged in a kind of space race, hi-tech waterproofs and combats, air-bubbled trainers, a culture with such a strong forward thrust it seemed to be trying to achieve escape velocity.

But then that was a style from an era that believed in the future, a window of opportunity between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers when it seemed like the laissez-faire Anglo-American model had triumphed against all the alternatives, and the future was bright, the future was orange.

We’re no longer living in such times. It gradually occurred to me that waiting for a similar style shift was maybe waiting for the wrong thing. Maybe the beards and the Brookes saddles signified a shift in attitude and lifestyle that was quieter, more modest, but no less interesting, in the sense it had moved the goalposts expected of such style “revolutions” away from variations on the themes of youth, drugs, loud music, and the forward-looking tendencies of an increasingly prosperous society. This early 21st century style seemed to be concerned with things outside these narrow parameters, concerned with things from before and after youth culture. Craft Beards and their associated style began as a shot across the bows of the crass, vapid aspirationalism of the Noughties boom years, a rejection of that shiny bubble culture some of us vaguely sensed must be heading towards a sharp pin. I remember, as the pin drew ever nearer, the visual arts stopped being flashy one-liners made with dead sharks or diamond skulls and started to look hand-drawn again, design started feeling less shiny, more domestic and even home made, food started telling us which farm it was from. But if this all had a distinctly fringe feel in the Noughties, then the crash and its continuing fallout has brought this style and mindset from the fringes into the mainstream, with Tesco and McDonalds adopting hand-carved typefaces on their packaging, and adverts for banks using folkey acoustic guitars to coax you further into debt.

But if the baddies have hijacked and appropriated these stylings, it’s because these stylings resonate so strongly with a sea change in our attitudes. We now appear to be living in a culture that has outlived its former ideologies. If the era of Neoliberal excess was ushered in by the collapse of Communism, then these days, like a car crash in slow motion, belief in the Last System Standing seems to be crumbling too.

In a culture where our trust in the bigger picture and the people who paint it has all but fallen away, beleaguered citizens of the contemporary conundrum are trying to short circuit the need for it; the crafty, beardy style is one symptom of this, an attempt to re-negotiate our basic and immediate social and economic exchanges, re-negotiate our consumerism, attempt to de-scale and humanise our consumerism from within.

We look for meaning in the imagined honesty and transparency of the locally sourced, the crafted, in things that bare the trace of the human hand – heritage brands, craft beers, or single estate, artisan coffee become more and more invested with ideas of integrity, authenticity and nobility in a larger society that seems to have lost these qualities. We have the romantic sense these things might just help to anchor our lives in some simpler sense of meaning, a basic transaction with nature, and also the rest of society, rooting us in both, an umbilical cord to the world in a rudderless society that seems to be heading for the rapids. And so the act of manual labour is also invested with a renewed sense of nobility and honesty. A Norwegian bloke who smokes his own salmon in Hackney is the stuff of East End urban legend. The ex-art students making the coffee have become barristas in those minimal, wooden and distressed brick coffee shops where all the information is hand written on blackboards in chalk, pouring the froth on the flat whites like it was Renaissance marbled paper.

The sparse beauty of these wooden flat white cafes is a good visual shorthand for this style of the era we’re in. It’d be doing it a disservice to imagine it’s an entirely retro style fixated with heritage: it’s not just a pastiche of some vague period before World War II, but with olives and Apple Macs – there’s a strand of modernism in the honesty-with-materials interwoven into this sensibility: I’ve noticed with enjoyment the recent vogue for showing off shit building materials like chipboard or breeze block in fashionable galleries and style bars. The Scandinavian version of this trend seems to cleave to a Calvinist’s invigorating and ennobling sense of a hard-won clarity through austerity, and there’s a beautiful purity in the precise and deliberate design aesthetic of their craft denim and crew neck sweaters which never threatens to descend into anything remotely twee. I have meetings with people I respect, and notice they have the same Muji notepads and pens as me, pens that look like chopsticks, clean, minimal design with a zen-like, sashimi-like purity. I tend to read a lot into all this.

This aesthetic seems like a valid and important expression of where we are and what we want out of the world these days. Our hopes and fears are embodied somewhere within it. Whether this style, or any style, has futurist or heritage-fixated tendencies is sort of missing the important bit: style embodies the spirit of the times, and this style embodies ours.


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by TOAST ( 04.04.14 )

Katherine May is an artist for whom the aesthetic qualities of textiles are just a thread in the fabric of their life cycle. Through research, design and navigation Katherine unspools the stories behind and ahead of textiles, revealing the links between raw materials, objects and their producers. Here, Katherine gives us an insight into her work and one of the raw materials with which she works intimately: real indigo.

Textiles are our everyday and yet they are much overlooked. They are our clothing, our interiors and our building structures. They wrap our wounds. They are part of our identity.

My studio is a small attic room where I do weaving, sampling and designing and where I collect and store. Nooks and crannies are stuffed with thread, piles of fabric, sewing tools and bits of pencil. The room has lots of natural light and access to a roof garden where I grow my dye plants.

My interest in plant-based dyes deepened when I spent some time with the biodynamic grower, Jane Scotter. Working with Jane on her market stall, Fern Verrow, in Spa Terminus I got close to the plant cycles of the produce she grew and sold. I wanted to make links between plants and colouring textiles.

Indigo, often described as the ‘true blue‘ of natural textiles dyes, is associated in many cultures with magical and spiritual rituals – probably because of the processes of change it goes through. The leaves of the Indigofera plant are harvested and, after a series of steps, the compound indica is extracted. Even the dye vat goes through a process of fermentation, with the green water producing blue bubbles on its surface. Fabric dipped into the water turns blue as it passes through the bubbles and oxidises with the air. The process has spellbound people the world over. There is something beautiful about that.

Indigo connects me to the environment. If I am dyeing I go on the roof or into the garden. And because it’s a plant it connects me to a different element in the eco system.

For the London Design Festival I designed an installation called Water – Colour, with the aim of tackling water wastage in the textile industry. In the atrium of Hackney’s Arthaus Building, a former laundry, I dyed around 100metres of cloth over 12 days, recycling vat and rinse water as I went and hanging the cloth on washing lines through the five-storey building. The colour of the cloth went from dark indigo at the bottom of the building to almost white at the top. When the dyeing was done, the dye baths were replaced with sewing machines and I quilted the cloth. The project had a life cycle.

I went to a friend’s wedding with blue hands. After Water – Colour they were blue for a long time. But I wore a blue dress and painted my nails red. I’ve since invested in much thicker gloves.

Today real indigo is used only on a small, craft based level – by people like me. I grow some of the plants myself to help understand the process, but I produce only tiny amounts of indica from them. So, for projects like Water – Colour, I source the powder from an organic farm in South America. Synthetic indigo is widely used as it produces much quicker results than real indigo. But the chemicals used in processing it can be harmful to humans and the environments into which waste water runs.

I’m currently reading Indigo: The Colour that Changed the World, by Catherine Legrand, which is teaching me a lot about China’s indigo culture. Some 2000 years BC, there was a Chinese emperor who thought everyone should dress the colour of the sky. Indigo dye plants grew among vegetable plots, and dyeing occurred in the everyday – a family’s entire wardrobe ended up in the dye vat! The idea was that this connection with the sky would lead them to live peacefully.

There is something peaceful about dyeing cloth in the garden and hanging it on the line. I do it a lot and find it a particularly pleasing experience. It’s having that connectivity with the plant. The ground beneath your feet. The sky above.

www.katherinemay.com

Katherine May wearing the Fine Stripe Apron.


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by TOAST ( 03.04.14 )

Orlando Gough

When my wife Jo and her partner Sally were running their knitwear business from a shop in Clapham in the 1980s, next door was a fish and chip shop run by Fanos Theofanos, or Frank the Fish. His parents had emigrated to England in the sixties. They spoke no English, and lived in a self-imposed ghetto. Frank, on the other hand, despite flaunting his Greekness, was an honorary Brit. His assimilation encompassed even the cooking of our national dish. He was an excellent neighbour, able to offer a range of services, from a plate of chips to the harassment of one’s enemies, a kind, thoughtful and essentially decent version of Reggie Kray. Every day a battered saveloy (a battered saveloy! Heck!) was posted through the letterbox. Jo and Sally would peel off the batter and serve the saveloy to their dogs. An indelible greasy mark appeared on the carpet, which was a worry when posh clients – even occasionally royalty – visited to buy the upmarket knitwear.

Since that time, fish ‘n’ chips, that quintessentially English dish, has just about survived the onslaught of a thousand competing foods – hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, curry, chow mien, pho, Cornish pasties, falafels, sushi… It has even survived its own miniaturization into poncey canapés.

It’s a difficult dish to get right – the freshness of the fish, the composition of the batter, the nature of the fat, the temperature of the fat, the age of the fat, the kind of potato, the size of the chips, the cooking of the chips. Personally I’m almost always disappointed – the idea is better than the reality; except in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where having queued for several weeks you can eat your meal on the sea wall, and in Padstow, Cornwall, where you queue for several weeks just to get into the town. Since the town on the opposite side of the river is called Rock, surely Padstow should be renamed Rick, or perhaps St Rick (more Cornish).

Fish and chips a quintessentially English dish? Maybe not, actually. It testifies to the British ability to absorb an enormous range of foreign influences (Kevin Pietersen, the cappuccino, bhangra) while ferociously spitting out stuff that we’re suspicious of (Abu Qatada, Lithuanians). Peter Gabriel versus Nigel Farage. At the moment Nigel Farage seems to be winning the battle.

Fried fish is a Jewish dish, possible Sephardic, possibly Ashkenasi, brought to Britain by Portuguese immigrants in the early 19th century. The obvious similarity to Japanese tempura is surely a coincidence, since Japan was severely isolationist at that time. Chips are from Belgium. Tomato ketchup? It might appear to be 100% American, but it was one of a myriad of catsups that were an important part of the British middle classes in the 19th century. They were a means of preserving perishable ingredients – mushrooms, tomatoes, lemons, walnuts, oysters, anchovies – while concentrating the taste by prolonged cooking in sugar, vinegar and spices. HP Sauce and Lea and Perrins are part of this lineage. The sweet-sour method and the spices surely suggest origins in the Far East, a result of the British mercantile adventure of the 17th and 18th centuries. Tartare Sauce? French, of course. Mushy peas, pickled onions? Our own invention.

Cooking proper fish and chips at home seems out of the question; you really don’t want to be futzing around with a deep fat fryer. St Heston gives a recipe which probably tastes marvelous but takes about 12 hours of ferociously hard work, as well as an investment in several hundred pounds worth of kitchen equipment (usual problem). Cheaper to take the train to Padstow. So in our household we follow St Hugh with his pesky domestic version:

Make roast potatoes, cutting them as small and parboiling them as long as you dare, roasting them in what seems to be an unnecessarily large pan. Ten minutes from the end, make space in the pan and put in a few bay leaves (an excellent addition) and some fish fillets – sea bream works well here.

This is accompanied by a pea puree: cook the peas in boiling salted water, drain them, and then whizz them up with mint leaves, pepper, and as much butter as you can absorb without artery breakdown; and tartare sauce: for four people, make a mayonnaise with 2 egg yolks, a teaspoonful of Dijon mustard, a tablespoonful of white wine vinegar and 300ml oil – a mixture of groundnut and olive oil works well. Add a scant tablespoonful of chopped tarragon, and a tablespoonful each of chopped parsley, chopped capers and finely chopped gherkins.

Serve this wrapped in yesterday’s Daily Mail, so that you can eat while reading HATE PREACHER LEAVES TAXPAYER FUNDED LIFE IN BRITAIN. WE SAY GOOD RIDDANCE etc.

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


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by TOAST ( 19.03.14 )

TOAST co-founder Jamie Seaton tells Elle Decoration what he is reading, watching and downloading this month.

My favourite piece of music is (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? by Nick Cave, for its capture of those pure, amazing, transcendental moments of new love. I’d like to add Schubert’s last three piano sonatas, which seem to weave their threads around our existence and render it gorgeous.

The music I am currently listening to a lot is rebetika – the wild, keening Balkan blues of the 1920s, often played on a bouzouki. A great modern take on this can be heard on Çiğdem Aslan’s album Mortissa.

One of the wonderful things about books is less that they influence one but rather that they seem to coax into the light ideas that one is already groping for. It’s almost a magical process by which one finds oneself led to just the right book, making manifest inchoate feelings or ideas, at just the right moment. Here are two: The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, which my father read to me when I was four or five years old and opening doors on the magic possibilities of the imagination; and Living by Zen by DT Suzuki, which I read when I was in my mid-twenties.

At the moment I’m reading The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, £25). It’s the last book in the trilogy that tells of his walk from London to Istanbul between wars and was put together posthumously by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron. It’s romantic, elegiac, erudite and very entertaining.

If I had a free day in London, I would spend it going around the galleries. There’s a favourite Velázquez and a favourite Rembrandt in the Wallace Collection that I visit again and again. I love Sam Fogg’s gallery, on the corner of Cork Street, which shows Gothic and medieval art. Or, for a really indulgent free day, I would have a long lunch with my wife and friends at Locanda Locatelli.

My favourite destination in the world is Kyoto. I love to go to one of the Zen temple gardens in the morning before any crowds arrive.

The app I love and use most is, boringly, Chambers Dictionary. I love words, their derivations, their resonances, their various uses and what they reveal of the cultures and times that use them.

This interview appears in the April 2014 edition of Elle Decoration.


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by TOAST ( 10.03.14 )

Michael Smith

The French swear that the secret to understanding the mysteries of wine lies in understanding its terroir. As an Englishman you can’t even pronounce the word without feeling pretentious; and terroir is just as tricky to get your head round as it is to get your tongue round. It’s a concept that’s alien to the English mindset – we haven’t really got a word you can translate it into – yet it’s a cornerstone of the French understanding of how wine works, and why good wine is good.

It boils down to the belief that a glass of wine is ultimately the expression and distillation of the entire sweep of factors that give birth to it, from the type of grape to the geology, soil and climate that feed it, through to the historical and cultural climate affecting the human hands that navigate that process. In this way, a glass of Burgundy is perceived to have a fractal quality, in the sense that it is an image of the whole “world” that has produced it, and the finer the wine, the richer the picture. The clue’s always in the name with French wines – Champagne, Burgundy or Bordeaux are all places too, and in a sense, so are the wines. It’s a profound, even mystical idea, something close to “As Above, So Below,” with roots in the mindset of the medieval monks who first tended the vines – a very ancient idea that’s come round again, with the prevalence of current holistic, biodynamic ideas, and our recent obsessions with the provenance of our food and drink.

A belief in terroir is a belief that everything is part of an interconnected whole, that everything is bound by profound and subtle connections and correspondences that on the surface may seem to be arbitrary coincidence. It seems clear to me that clothes, a form of human culture and creativity as fundamental as cultivating the land with vines or cattle, have their roots in terroir as profoundly as food or wine does.

The fundamentals of the British wardrobe grew out of the landscape, out of the fishing village, the farm and the hunt. Wellies, waxed jackets and tweeds are inextricably tied to the muted, pearly skies, mossy river banks and damp slate roofs that are the textures of our lives on this island. The greens and browns and russets of a Gainsborough or a Constable are the same greens and browns and russets of Harris Tweed, Barbour Beadales or Oxford brogues.

We’d forgotten our native style a little over recent decades, fallen out of love with our climate and the clothes it gave us. The age of Easyjet convinced us that the sun is god, and we fell under the spell of a fake-tanned Mediterranean fantasy that is inappropriate and alien to our climate and our natural sensibilities. Thankfully, all that seems to be on the wane, we’re beginning to leave the bare immacked chests glaring out of low cut v-neck tee-shirts to the Latin blokes, and only the crassest Big Brother contestant wears ripped jeans and pointy leather estate agent shoes these days. Give me the subtlety and the modesty of a brushed indigo cotton shirt and woollen pullover, which suit a wander through the subtlety and poetry of an autumnal English riverscape best.

As a walker, a wanderer who invests great meaning in this daily communion with the world, I’m all for those grey skies that bring out the greens by the riverbank. I can say with certainty that a great glaring sun bearing down on you is the enemy of an ambling walk, turning it into more of a chore than a pleasure: all that squinting the eyes, sweating and ducking into the shade – give me gentle, grey jumper weather any day; the ideal weather for wandering and appreciating the world is the weather in between, that quiet, moderate, subtle weather that is the metaphor and midwife of the British sensibility.

And that sensibility has been as important as our climate in shaping the clothes we wear – as well as emerging from the landscape, the British wardrobe has been slowly shaped and honed by the history of the culture that crafted it, just as a river smoothes a pebble in its flow. We’ve inherited and re-worked the wardrobe of the first industrialised and truly urbanised culture. The cites of our grandfathers and their grandfathers were the sites our suits and ties and macs emerged from, to meet the demands of those new urban realities. But this civilisation of big brick and stone cities was a place with a lingering romantic attachment to its green and pleasant folk memories. The sports jacket and flat cap became ubiquitous among the urban millions partly because they expressed aspirations of respectability, having filtered down from the dress codes of their betters, which codified the sporting and hunting and country pursuits those landed gentry rulers enjoyed. The sports jacket and flat cap inferred on its huddling, terraced masses a sense of the dignity and nobility that came with the town and country lifestyle that these clothes were originally invented for. Our clothes are as much about imagination and yearning as they are about practical realities. Clothes provide psychic as well as physical shelter, and are an imaginative counterbalance for the all the things that are missing in our lives.

So are the beards, bicycles and Barbours ubiquitous in the gentrified inner cites today similarly the yearnings of a rootless digital culture lost in Twitter space? We yearn for an authenticity behind the 3G hall of mirrors, floating freely through the disjointed contemporary conundrum. Is this why, as we traipse the clothes shops of a shopping mall that could be anywhere, night or day, summer or snow, or the chilly aisles of another generic M&S Simply Food on the commute home, as disconnected from the source and reality of our clothing and our food as any British people have been since we urbanised and industrialised two hundred years ago, we’ve developed such strong yearnings for the organic, the authentic, the heritage, the locally specific? Maybe these yearnings offer our souls some anchor that will ground us as we float freely through modern life, and our Yorkshire rhubarb or Northamptonshire brogues are the looking glass fantasies and nostalgic yearnings that fill the holes in our current culture.

The British wardrobe is as much an expression of this psychic landscape, the hopes and needs of the sensibility that inhabits this land, that shapes and is shaped by it, as it is an expression of our climate or geology or botany. The French have always known that the haunting and elusive poetry of place that results from the marriage of all these things is somehow distilled into a good bottle of Burgundy, which unfolds and unravels from a glass onto the palate and the mind with all the resonance and suggestiveness of Proust’s madeleine. Just so with the textures and colours and cut of a Savile Row suit, a hunting jacket of Harris Tweed, or a mac in the rain that falls and glistens against the urbane stone of Edinburgh’s elegant New Town.

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by TOAST ( 24.02.14 )
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