946 Socca

The word “conviviality” derives from the Latin word for “feast” and hints at the Latin words for “living with”. In French the word for “friend” is “copain”, derived from the Latin words for eating bread together. The recent troubling events in France, the home of gastronomic excellence and inevitably consequent conviviality, make us want no more threats to the French people’s ability to continue to feast and live together in comfort and harmony with their friends and neighbours. If anyone is contemplating starting up a Feasting For Peace movement I shall, with alacrity, apply to be considered for the post of local Branch Membership Secretary.

After years of looking out for “chick pea flour” I have discovered that it is marketed under other names (yes, all right, I could have tried harder) and I have purchased a bag of “gram flour”. At last I can attempt to bring back those fragrant holiday memories of the street market in Nice on the Côte d’Azur, where from a wide cast iron pan set over a wood fire in a tin drum comes forth the fastest and best of fast foods, the “socca”, a tasty chick pea flour pancake folded into a crisp-edged floppy cone, to take the edge, and more, off an appetite whipped up by the sea breeze sweeping the sunlit length of the Promenade des Anglais.

“Cuisine Niçoise” (first published in English in 1983) is an engaging compendium of culture and cookery compiled by allegedly crooked politician and former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin. He tells us that socca used to sustain the builders constructing the city’s fine buildings. It was the job of the site’s “bochou” (gofer) to listen for the cry of the itinerant socca vendor and to ensure his hungry co-workers got some before it cooled.

Simply combine equal volumes of chick pea flour and water, add some olive oil and some salt, mix to a smooth batter, leave it to stand for 15 minutes, then pour a ladleful into your hot frying pan that is already sizzling with a little olive oil.

I used 250ml of flour with 250ml of water plus 25ml of olive oil (additional oil is needed for frying the pancakes) and a teaspoon of salt. This amount made about six dinner-plate sized thin pancakes.

Jacques Médecin proposes, if there be no wood fire readily available, pouring the mixture into an oiled baking tin to a depth of 2-3mm and placing it under a hot grill, piercing blisters as they form, until it is well browned, almost burnt in parts, and then cutting it into 5cm squares and serving while still hot, with pepper. I will try this method next time, because frying pancakes has its tense moments, but I was after the floppy cone experience this time.

And yes it did bring back those holiday memories, on a sunny British winter lunchtime. Lovely just naked, plain and simple, but I note that there are a number of suggestions, from various parts of the world, on offer if you search for “chick pea pancake”, the only limit being the horizons of your own imagination.

Salut les copains!


Waiting, Christmas Eve

935 Manger

In countless churches this morning there’s a nativity tableau with an empty manger awaiting the baby. By the end of this Christmas night the gap will have been filled and the scene will be complete.

For hundreds of years craftsmen have offered painstaking examples of their humble wood and plaster work to their churches, dusted down each December and set on freshly gathered straw, to become an act of community prayer, understood by the smallest child, recognised by the forgetful elderly, soliciting memories in all of us of Christmases gone by, and lives gone by, and awakening hopeful beginnings and promises of what is to come.

A very special moment, that pause of reflection before the new baby on Christmas morning.

Peace + hope = joy …

Beetroot and Chocolate Cake (wheat-free)

932 Beetroot Cake

“Be true to me” my father would sing in a mock romantic tenor voice when welcoming the vivid root vegetable to the table. The bold duplicitousness of this cake might however cause the most ardent admirer’s trust in the cook to wobble: it simply doesn’t taste of beetroot, but it does possess a sophisticated and complex range of flavours which are most beguiling.

I started with a recipe from a health food store magazine (beetroot earning plaudits for antioxidants, potassium, folic acid and lots more), trawled through a number of other recipes for cakes and brownies, and, having experimented with a couple of ideas, am now pleased with the smooth and moist texture of this easy-to-make version. It is wheat-free and dairy-free.


  1. Pair of rubber gloves
  2. 200g grated raw beetroot – Some recipes propose boiling or roasting the beetroot first, and then grating it or making a puree. I put on the rubber gloves, peel the raw vegetable and cut it up to fit it into the food processor, with the fine grater attached. I poke about and discard any stringy or woody bits, not least because they would give the game away in the finished cake. I make sure I have 200g of grated product, and then I put it back in the food processor, having replaced the grater attachment with the mixing blade.

At this point I attempt to make the work surface look a little less like a forensic science investigation, and I remove the rubber gloves.

Now I add all of the remaining ingredients to the food processor. If I were to mix the cake by hand I would thoroughly mix items 3 to 6 together first, gently warm and stir the sugar and treacle together, whisk the eggs together, mix the oil, liqueur and zest together, and then combine everything.

  1. 175g flour – I have been using spelt flour but wheat flour will be fine when there are no tolerance concerns.
  2. 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  3. 50g cocoa powder – I like to use Fairtrade organic cocoa.
  4. 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  5. 75g sugar – The browner the sugar the deeper the flavour – I like Fairtade muscovado sugar, although it demands attentive mixing to achieve full amalgamation.
  6. 75g black treacle – Having recently borrowed, for a chocolate sponge cake, the whizzo idea from of substituting some treacle for some of the sugar, I am hooked on the treacle/chocolate combination, and here it seems both to mask and to complement the earthiness of the beetroot, in rather a cunning fashion.
  7. 3 eggs
  8. 200ml oil – Sunflower oil or rapeseed oil, for example.
  9. Grated zest of 1 orange – After scrubbing it to remove any preservatives.
  10. 1 tablespoon of orange liqueur

The combined mixture will look decidedly peculiar, but after about 45 minutes in a greased 20cm cake tin at about 170 degrees in a fan oven (you’ll need to rely on your experience with your own oven) something truly beetreautiful emerges. I invert it to get a nice level top, which can be dusted with icing sugar before serving. I feel that icing or frosting would interfere with the high-end bitter-chocolate vibe, but the cake would make a scrumptious dessert served warm, with good Madagascan vanilla ice cream, or with whipped cream flavoured with orange liqueur, or with creme fraiche, and then dusted with cocoa powder, or scattered with shavings of the darkest chocolate.

Another recipe I noted had coffee granules (which would replace the orange zest) and coffee (instead of orange) liqueur, which I will try, and I am further toying with the notion of chopped tea-soaked prunes or dates.


Frederick Gibberd in Leamington Spa

887 Spa Centre

I picture the 16 year old Fred Gibberd sauntering through the streets of Royal Leamington Spa in 1925, the jeune flaneur, an insouciant whistle on his lips, hands in pockets, though only lightly resting there, respecting the workmanship of his father, tailor to the burghers of nearby Coventry, and conscious of those pockets’ onward destiny, to pass to some or all of his four younger brothers. Fred’s artistic sensibility and his sociability will have drawn him with his coterie to the town’s pleasure gardens, passing, and may we imagine, (his head already then full of Le Corbusier’s ideas) darting a critical glance at, a certain imposing mansion with generous views of the park before it.

More than forty years later the pioneering architect, landscape designer and award-winning town planner Sir Frederick Gibberd CBE RA would return to design, for the site of that demolished mansion, a modernist building to house a theatre and a cinema, the Royal Spa Centre, which opened in 1972.

The dignified lines of this building contribute to an imaginative charm that makes the material seem more subtle than the actual brutality of its concrete. Outlook, sight lines and setting were of particular concern to Gibberd: he had turned up with a spade on the building site of his first block of flats (The Lawn) in Harlow first thing one morning to help to ensure that the seven existing oak trees would not be affected by that day’s work; and the consequence of that small but purposeful investment of effort is the delightful effect of that building in its matured setting today. The Royal Spa Centre sits, buffered by its own carefully shaped tree-shaded green lawn, in happy proximity to the luxuriance of the surprisingly wide range of mature trees in Jephson Gardens.

Gibberd, architect of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (“Paddy’s wigwam”), the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, and Harlow New Town, was here designing an iconic building for a place he knew and for a community to which he belonged.

Cooking Squash

856 Squashes

Ten quid well spent for a cardboard box laden with these squashes, tenderly nurtured in a local smallholding, followed by an outlay of quite some thought given to each of the meals they have furnished.

We have baked them whole, standing in a dish of water, either stuffed or filled later (chopped black pudding cooked with red onion went down well), included them in risotto, and roasted them in wedges with rosemary and bacon, but the favourite outcome this autumn has been the pilaf, based on 250g of rice (for four people) and 600ml of stock. Risotto rice maintains its identity under these conditions. In particular, the Spanish paella rice which I have been using recently has been ideal. I start off slowly cooking a finely chopped onion or leek, and maybe some garlic. When these are soft I add all the rice and hot stock, stir in small cubes of pumpkin, and a selection of spices and herbs, bring everything to the boil, cover and simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes.

I often treat recipes as guidelines rather than prescriptions, and have a preference for short lists of ingredients. I like to read a few recipes and then make my own way.

For one of the pilafs I put chopped chorizo in with the onion. Risotto and pilaf sometimes suffer from monochromaticity, which can be relieved by the addition of frozen peas about half way through or a liberal sprinkling of chopped spring onion, or fresh herbs from the garden, over the finished dish. One of my experimental versions leaned towards the eastern Mediterranean with cinnamon and nutmeg and thyme, and another went further south with turmeric and paprika.

Since the time it would take to peel a raw pumpkin could be passed more enjoyably reading a couple of New York Review of Books blog posts, if there is no kitchen slave available and willing to be harnessed, I steam or roast the well-scrubbed pumpkin cut into half or wedges, after which the skin comes away easily, or, in the case of a small tender squash, can be eaten with the flesh.

The box is empty but the ideas keep on coming …

Sweet Baby Crochet Blanket

873 yellow stripe blanket

There’s a sweet baby in the pipeline so here is an 80 cm square blanket I have just finished crocheting. Too early yet to know whether this sweet baby will require pink or blue accessories, and mummy-to-be likes yellow, so I have made it white with pale yellow stripes and a pale yellow edging, worked in a simple V stitch which gives a firm but pretty texture on both sides and a cosy warm depth.

After a few minutes of purposeful pushing and pulling a crochet hook  through soft yarn, in an easy sequence of moves, the brain slows down and produces a physical calm which lends itself to contemplative processes such as meditative reflection, or thinking through a problem, or preparing a new post. This straightforward repetitive pattern, with no counting involved, is also ideal for working at while watching my crime dramas (except for the Nordic ones where I need to read the sub-titles).

I used baby double knitting yarn and a size 3.50mm crochet hook. Tension and gauge do not matter as long as they are consistent all the way through. Sometimes on this kind of project I will use a smaller hook for the edging in order to neaten and firm up any slackness that may have eased into the tension (perhaps during a particularly complex episode of CSI, for example).

1. I started with a foundation chain, and then

2. a first row of treble crochet (known as double crochet in the US), then

3. starting the second row with 3 turning chains and a treble into the top of the first treble, then missing one stitch then continuing in this V stitch pattern (of two trebles in the top of every second treble and missing the stitch in between), then

4. the third row continuing the V stitch, with the two trebles inserted into the top of the second treble of each pair in the second row, then

5. repeating the third row (as long as you want, changing colour if and when you want to),

6. finishing with a row of trebles to match the first row, and

7. a row of trebles down each side, and

8. finally one row of single crochet in yellow round the whole blanket.

(teddy bear George likes it a lot)

Sarabande for an Autumn Walk

984 Batsford Arboretum

Listening to the Holberg Suite, written by the romantic Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in 1884, I felt that the lovely second movement, Sarabande, would be the most perfect soundtrack to an autumn stroll in the woods, peaceful, uplifting and gently paced to give every opportunity to absorb the changing colours and shapes of the trees and to step through the soft deep carpet of damp fallen leaves, as in this photo which I took at Batsford Arboretum.

Then I noticed that the tempo for this movement is marked as “andante” which is derived from the Latin word for “walk”, which I took as a further inducement to add it to my walking music store. In the various performances on YouTube, my preference is slightly more for the orchestral arrangement rather than the piano – for me stringed instruments, especially the cello, express so precisely the fading beauty of a sunlit autumn day.