Thursday, 10 December 2009


There is a buzzword that has been bandied about rather a lot throughout the foodie twitto-blogosphere over the last few months which has left me, in equal measures, both intrigued and confused. I am quite used to this state of mind as it is an everyday occurrence. But there is something about this concept that is bugging me over and above the usual flotsam and jetsam floating around in my cranium. I am starting to see it here, there, everywhere and every time I do the numbskulls start to hammer the processing unit that is my brain with a large stick, screaming all the while "What does it mean? What does it mean?" It is of course the word umami, Japanese in origin which has been thrust out there to describe the curious proposal of a fifth taste sensation along side the established salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Hoorah! The palate just got an upgrade! But what exactly is this fifth taste? Why its erm flavourful, yummy, tasty, meaty, brothy, delicious, savoury, yes savoury that's it! You know all that kind of stuff and best of all, it now comes in a tube! Yahoo!

Well call me a pedantic eejit if you like but didn't we always have these sensations? I mean don't the original four combine in some way to give us the same fireworks, the mouth-watering experiences you describe? Hasn't it always been like this? You mean my mum has been cooking with this stuff all the time? And who am I talking to anyway?

To be honest, maybe it's the science behind the idea of umami that scares me. You see I am a bit like the peasant farmer character who centuries past who would run screaming from field whenever there was an eclipse. "Aieeee! Bogrore The Mountain Cruncher is eating the sun! Aieeee!". And take what happened today when I read on Wikipedia that "Umami tastes are initiated by these specialized receptors, with subsequent steps involving secretion of neurotransmitters, including adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and serotonin". I tell you, shortly afterwards my eyes rolled back, my mouth dropped open and I collapsed to the floor with a nose bleed. However, after picking myself up half an hour later, I also discovered that umami has been tested on monkeys and showed that it "excites neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, showing spatially-specific characteristics" And I can kind of got some relation to that.

The monkeys I mean.

The long and the short of it is, although I think that some people probably do understand it better than I, like Sig of Scandilicious (check her post for a more academic take on the subject but beware of further nose bleeds) I can't help but think that there is an element of the Emperor's New Clothes about umami. Hell, even the word sounds comical to me. Another Essex-based eejit suggested to me a while ago that it reminded him of Vic Reeves' cry of "UVAVU" from Shooting Stars. With that in mind I have decided to go on an adventure to get to the core of umami, to try to understand it and to reach the next plane of culinary enlightenment. I have lots of things to taste along the way. The hardest part will be trying to get hold of breast milk (yes apparently it is full of umami flavour) but we shall see. Wish me luck.

Ingredient - Marmite

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Stir Up Sunday (Two Weeks Late)

Today I finally got around to making my Christmas puds after much dawdling about. If you didn't know, Stir Up Sunday was actually two weeks ago. This is the day that you should have pulled all your musty dried fruit, dessicated suet and flour containing weevils out from the back of the cupboard and set about creating your stodgy, gutbusting dessert that traditionally completes the marathon that is Christmas dinner. If your household is anything like mine, then a trip up to the off license would have been necessary. Newly purchased brandy seems to evaporate in our house. I don't know how, it just does. But why should you worry about making your puddings roughly six weeks prior to the main event? Well if you abide by the good ol' Anglican church (cake or death?) then Stir Up Sunday is the last Sunday before the season of Advent, with its origins in a prayer for the collect that day. It goes something like this "Stir up our puds Oh Lord, so that we shall faithfully overindulge and bring forth plenteous gas and heartburn, rewarding us with arguments over the remote control and physical violence because for the second year running, John has managed to get Mayfair and Park Lane, the b*****d". Or something like that, I didn't really pay attention in Sunday School.

I missed the boat that day, mainly for reasons of apathy and general stroppiness due to the fact that I wasn't quite ready to get into the Christmas spirit, not in the middle of November anyway. Also I think the actions of my neighbour put me in a sour mood too. The rain had been thundering down all morning with more than a touch of gale force winds buffeting trees and fences. It was truly a horrible day and yet as I looked out of my living room window onto the street, I spy this maniac (my neighbour) on his roof desperately trying to secure his Christmas lights to the front of his house. OK, each to their own, if you want to light up your property like a gaudy amusement park in some desperate attempt to show the world that you are fun and not the boring prat that you really are, then go ahead. Sod the planet and your electricity bill. But of all the days to do it, when nature is literally slinging it at us. AND in the middle of November. Retreating from the mask and security of our net curtains, I just shook my head and thought "well if you fall off, it'll bloody serve you right". Of course, I felt quite bad when an ambulance, two in fact, turned up an hour later but luckily they were attending another neighbour who had stupidly attempted some DIY, inside his house I should add and nearly put a drill through his head. Phew.

So after all that fun and excitement, I didn't really feel like making my Christmas puds that day, especially in the middle of November (have I mentioned this already?). Oh and I forgot to mention that I didn't have half the ingredients anyway but I was determined to make them this year using a recipe by St Nige. Last year we got our pud's from Aldi, they were good but not as good as my own previous efforts. It's from his Kitchen Diaries edition and I've used it a couple of times now over the years. It really is quite a good one, principally because the resulting pud is fairly light and digestible and you can find it here. I must admit there have been occasions in the past when Mum has approached the table, dining room lights out, holding the dark dome of doom on a plate, ablaze in flaming brandy and thought to myself "oh God, this is it, this is going to finish me, goodbye world". We did have a right result one year though when Mum tripped and split some of the roaring spirit on her person. For a couple of seconds with her hand on fire, she was doing a great impression of Johnny Storm out of the Fantastic Four before letting out a scream and dropping the pud on the carpet. Sorry Mum that you got a tangerine sized blister on your hand that year but hoorah! No Christmas pud! I should add here that Mum's pud is lovely but her Christmas dinners are ridiculously big, hence the fear. Like I said though, St Nige's version is light enough to attempt without any intredipation. Even if you have eaten all the brussels sprouts.

I bought all my ingredients with the intention of making this last Sunday but I was erm suffering from jet lag after a trip to Lille (which I shall post about soon) so it had to wait until today when I was finally compos mentis to simply mix together the ingredients and steam for 3 and half hours. I have, however, been soaking the mixed fruit in French brandy for quite a while, adding little extra tots throughout the week and leaving in the fridge. St Nige's recipe only calls for 150mls but I've managed to throw in the best part of a bottle so the sultanas, figs, apricots et al are now well and truly smashed. Every time I open the door, there has been a little chorus of "show me the way to go home..". Well in my imagination anyway. How this fairs for eating on Christmas Day remains to be seen. I can only hope I remember in order to report back.

Sloshed mixed fruit
Atora! (Beef Fat!)

Lighter than your average Christmas pud

Mummy, Daddy and Baby Pud

How to create a mixed spice sauna in your kitchen