Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Brief History of ...

Shall I begin with 'Abstract'?

This may be the first thing I've written in years not directly related to my work, which is scientific research, specifically in the field of cosmology via radio astronomy. I'm currently finishing a postdoctoral contract at the University of Cambridge, having completed an MSci at the University of Bristol in Physics with Astrophysics, and worked at Jodrell Bank in Manchester, searching for pulsars. I might mention a little radio astronomy from time to time, but as the title of the blog suggests, I intend a rather different emphasis.

This is something that I've been thinking of creating for months. As I found my time here in the UK drawing to a close, I realised that some things in my life were going to disappear, kept alive only by memories and photographs. While my fairly extensive photographic archive of the last decade provides a lovely record of good times with friends and family, one ephemeral phenomenon that forms such an important part of my life can barely be recorded by the digital CCD: food.

So, as I might say in a paper, to the 'Introduction'.

I began my culinary career when I first moved out of university halls, in the second year of my undergraduate degree. Prior to this I had subsisted on packet salads (containing a nested packet of astringent artificial dressing), and considered pasta with pesto to be the highest feat of savory cooking. My kitchen experiments were mainly confined to improving the art of the pancake, and my storecupboard was no more extensive than a pint of milk hung out of my bedroom window in a plastic bag, so that thirsty students wouldn't nick it from the communal fridge.

After a year of halls food and pancake nights, I moved out into a tiny, damp, garden flat, just opposite Sainsbury's, with a group of friends who would politely refrain from killing each other for an entire stressful communal year. As always, we started with the best of intentions, sharing cheese, milk and bread. This strategy slowly deflated into a dull equilibrium, for as any game theorist could tell you, those looking to save a bit of cash could entirely subsist on cheese, milk and bread, and it would be magically replaced by the communal pot.

I tired of this. I started buying slightly less-prepared food than I was used to. I tried each of the ready-chopped stir fry packets, read the ingredients, researched online to find out which were more 'authentic', and eventually realised the supermarkets can put any old mixture of vegetables in a packet and call it 'stir fry'. So - I could too!

I expanded my range of filled pastas. Bought unfilled pastas. Went through each pot of prepared pasta-sauces and read the ingredients, then made my own. Stopped buying salad-in-a-packet and thought more about what I wanted in a salad. Though I might barely shop there now, the supermarket provided me with a way to experience and experiment with different cuisines, all safely marked with labels, use-by dates and ingredients, just begging to be modified on the next iteration.

Of course, it is no surprise that this coincided with my first year dating my now-fiancee. Previously I had no real motive to improve my cooking, beyond perhaps a desire to keep the calories down and the nutrients up. Now food could be an experience to enjoy together. And with our tiny student budgets, spending time preparing food could be a surprisingly rewarding yet cheap way of having fun.

The biggest breakthrough came when I moved house in my third year, and the significant other spent less time with me, and more time with his thesis, now entering its fourth year of gestation. I was further out of town, further from the supermarket. The kitchen was larger, and my housemates more interested in food. I started buying good bread, good ingredients, and for the first time, building up a storecupboard. When I altered my route home to take in the local greengrocer's, and realised the vast number of vegetables I had no idea how to cook, I saw this as a challenge to be overcome. Every week, for around a year, I'd buy a new kind of vegetable, and work out how to cook it.

Kale, parsnips, cauliflower, leeks, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, swede, carrots, artichokes (Jerusalem and otherwise), mooli, peas, green beans, runner beans, white, red, pink, pickling, shallot, and spring onions. Fruit! Blueberries, strawberries, pears, oranges, physalis, clementines, satsumas, pineapples, melons, grapefruits, rhubarb! Not to mention learning that the UK grows hundreds of varieties of apple, coming and out of season, and yet the average consumer buys their New Zealand Pink Ladies and French Galas year-round, while orchards here close every year. Apples were my first taste of seasonality, surprising me with such intensity of flavour compared to the supermarket blandness I'd come to expect.

When I'd figured out how to cook vegetables, I moved on to meat, and eventually fish. I figured out how to create a decent vegetarian meal, saving money and perhaps a little tranche of the environment. Lentils, beans, mushrooms and tofu stopped being alien species and became substances to be savoured. I learned about the balance of flavours: bitter, sour, spicy, sweet, salty and umame. My palate matured; I stopped taking my tea with sugar and my coffee with chocolate. The world of herbs opened to me as I bought my first bay tree, then a foot high and now a tree almost as tall as I am. I spent hours in the local scoop-shop, loading up plastic tubs with cheap flour and muesli, then spending the same money again on a delectable scoop of chocolate-covered crystalline ginger or a pack of herbal tea.

I met my first butcher, first baker, first fishmonger. I spent too much on olives in a local deli and thereafter memorised the per-kilo prices of every olive vendor in Clifton. I borrowed a shaving of parmesan from a housemate - I did ask! - and was told I would have to replace the amount that I had used. Asking the deli counter to cut that 25 gram slice left me blushing then, but laughing now. I cooked for friends, family, my lovely boyfriend, and began to assemble my first set of cooking equipment; suddenly these things were perfect gifts, and I've always been difficult to buy for.

As I entered the fourth year of my degree, stress levels within my house rose, as almost all of us were in the top bracket of the same year, studying the same subject. The SO moved back to Wales to finish his thesis, then to Cambridge to start a new job. I commuted twice a week between Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge, juggling my thesis on pulsar astronomy at Jodrell with astrophysics lectures in Bristol and weekends in Cambridge. I took to running at 5am when the stress got too much - then overused my knee and had to stop. Cooking became my favourite form of stress-relief, though that became more and more difficult with ratty housemates all wishing to cook individual meals in the narrow, grimy kitchen.

Visiting Cambridge was always a relief; I'd catch welcome sleep on the long train journey, then arrive looking forward to food cooked for me, for a change. Once I arrived in the late evening, and the SO had not even started cooking. Exhausted from the long travel, I'm sure I was not very forgiving. Then and now, I have always eaten to a timetable: breakfast before 10, lunch at 1, and dinner between 6 and 8. Upsetting this timetable is a sure way to upset me, habitual creature that I am!

After I finished my degree, I moved to Cambridge and began my PhD in radio astronomy; I completed this almost a year and half ago, which still seems surreal to me. Finally moving in with the SO, I have been free to experiment with food, iterate on recipes and even create entirely new dishes. I've learned to appreciate the seasons, and besides the internet, have a very few but very precious print sources that I turn to regularly: Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, The Joy of Cooking, and an enormous collection of rigorously-collected issues of Observer Food Monthly.

Recently, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Perth, Australia. And all of a sudden, my decade of living and working in UK universities is almost over. While I'm tremendously excited to be moving to a new city and spending more time on outdoor activities, not to mention a new radio astronomy project, I realise now I will be changing my cooking and eating habits. And if I don't record some of the things I have learned now, I will slowly forget some quintessentially English recipes: like how to make elderberry cordial, roast a quince, pot-roast a pheasant and bottle my own chutney. I've also been surprised how many people are interested to hear what I have been cooking, and share recipes. This little blog gives me another way to do that, which in days to come, won't be upset by the separation of time zones.

Typically at the end of the Introduction, I would make some comment on the Cosmology in which I shall be operating. But these recipes will likely be influenced by the anthropic principle: if you are here to read this, then you have the means and ability to replicate these results. While the chemistry is not cosmology-independent, I hope the message is: the recipes are here to share, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in creating them.

Henceforth... I will be combining 'Methods' and 'Results'. Enjoy :)

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