A little while ago I got a lovely e-mail from Richard Johnson (who writes food columns in 'The Guardian') asking if I would like to do some reviews on Street food in my area for British Street food. The brief was as open and as wide as I want to make it....but I could immediately see a few flaws in the fabric.
Richard's writing was full of glowing testaments about cutting edge creativity and wonderful new eating venues popping up in the city and at festivals, and I could feel a small knot developing in my stomach with every sentence I read. Wonderful this, fantastic that - Amazing! What Richard had failed to appreciate was how difficult a project this was going to be in an area like this. You have to understand that this is a highly traditional area - people vote the way their parents did, (some even appear to still be wearing their clothes), and trying something new that Grandma never made is for some a step too far.
So trying to set up a small business in an area like this is going to be an uphill battle. Added to that the current climate (which can't help anyone), seasonal difficulties - most of the big fairs and events here are held in the Summer, and the problem of trying to trace tiny sites on the Internet, and I could see that I was going to have my work cut out before I even started.
But start I have, and my first visits have been to Farmers markets in Wirksworth and Buxton. And in Buxton I found Maxine.
Maxine has a wonderful pot-bellied stove with a quirky chimney, which sits on a little mobile trailer. She visits farmers markets, festivals and weddings, making wonderful freshly prepared home made pizzas and cooking them on the base of her wood-fired clay pizza oven. All the ingredients are locally sourced and the flour for the pizzas comes from nearby Caudwell's mill (which I can testify makes a superb range of flours). Even the wood for the oven comes from local sustainable forests.
I chose my own mix of Ham, Courgette ribbons and black olives and the pizza was exactly like the simple charred and crispy pizzas Christopher and I bought from the back of a little bakery in Rome many years ago when we were on an art tour and struggling to find anywhere to have a cheap supper. Like Maxine, the very kind Italian baker took my ten year old son and I into the back of his bakery and let us watch as he slid the fine dough pizzas onto an iron peel and into the wood-fired oven. We were hot and weary, with barely enough money left for food, and the simple kindness of a stranger probably holds a stronger memory for us both than the Sistine chapel ceiling.
So I wrote my review and e-mailed it off for approval. After a couple of tweaks to the opening paragraph Richard was satisfied.
'Nice!' he wrote,'...what's next on your list?'
'Next on my list is to go to bed and read a book for a change,' I replied. It was almost 10 o'clock. Do you food writers stay up all night?
One of the most heartening things about your writing are the human touches and admissions that make us feel, 'Ah, Nigel..he's just one of us'. Like the Mars bar in bed or Beans on Toast for a quick satisfying supper, we feel alright admitting to the same, away from the food snobs who would deride our simple pleasures. With beans on toast you 'like the sweet commercial sauce and the thick toast, which, just for the record, I always butter'. (Quite right.) Being you, of course, there is always further invention - perhaps with cans of beans in your own sauce,'stirring in bacon, mushrooms or whatever is to hand (chorizo and black pudding are favourite additions).'
This recipe for 'Beans on Toast' (page 107) sits on a lump of sourdough loaf, to which I am completely addicted. It is a straightforward midweek supper using cans of pinto, haricot or butter beans in a sauce made with chopped tomatoes, bacon and onion. The magic ingredient is a teaspoon of treacle. I always think tinned tomatoes need the addition of a tiny bit of sugar to give that taste of sun-ripened tomato. There is an almost bitter unripe taste in most tins of tomatoes. Lucy Boyd ( daughter of Rose Gray) urges us to use tins of whole instead of chopped tomatoes as she thinks they taste less watery as better tomatoes are used.
You are very partial to a jar of capers '(which) are without doubt one of the most used seasonings in my kitchen.' This reminds me of a time when I used to pickle the seeds of nasturtium plants, which have a very similar flavour to that of a caper. Of course you are free to disagree with this. But I used to add them to the tops of home made pizza as piquancy offsetting the anchovies and olives. You are also using capers against fish in your 'Sea bass with rosemary and capers' (page 111). Along with lemon, 'the two have almost magical powers when they appear with fish' - allowing you to use that rather flaccid term 'mouthwatering' - 'that over-used term that I have banned from any piece of writing or programme that bears my name.' Few culinary partnerships, like caper and lemon, have the power to make you salivate. The sea bass is baked under a layer of browned potato slices and a lovely dressing made of rosemary, chilli, sherry vinegar, capers, lemon juice and black pepper.
I will have to visit my fish man on Tuesday, but the Beans on Toast is a good store-cupboard standby for any cold windy day when the stomach needs more a trench than a lining. Thank you for that.