Tuesday, 1 November 2016

If music be the food of love: a journey from fry-ups to Freeform Jazz

Published in Shetland Life magazine in November 2016

During my stint as an electrician on Glaswegian building sites I was party to several conversations with colleagues who had an even shallower appreciation of food than I did. Debates included, “Why does milk hae a cow as a logo. Is there cows that live near the factory?” and  “Pork canae come fae a pig - it’s bacon that comes fae a pig. And does ham come fae turkeys? Y’know, that turkey ham?”

I was able to fill my colleagues in with the basics, but my culinary knowledge didn’t extend much beyond that. I’m still a relative newcomer to the pleasures of food and the satisfaction of cooking. Until fairly recently my diet was poor at best - it’s probable that I had early-stage scurvy due to the absence of fresh fruit and veg for a decade or two.

As a bairn, I was always well fed on good wholesome fayre - nothing too fancy though, as I was a bit of a fusspot. Mince and tatties and tomato soup (and of course Sassermaet Clatch) were the order of the day. But I can’t recall ever actually cooking anything during my childhood. I was too spoilt to have to do ‘chores’ like that.

When I cut the apron strings in my late teens, I degenerated into a skint student who had neither knowledge nor interest in food. My culinary goal was to spend as little as possible on grub so my budget could stretch to more days in the pub. I lived on ‘economy burgers’ (the distant relatives of meat) and 10p cans of soup. It was a pitiful attempt at sustenance, but I had a great time in the pub.


As I became flusher in my 30s and my tastes “developed”, curry and pizza dominated my evening intake, and rarely a day at work passed without having two or three rolls containing fried meat products.

A low point in my already bottomed out diet was about 5 years ago when I was living in a house which I was renovating (quick tip: don’t live in a house which you are renovating). The kitchen had been ripped out and my only cooking facilities were a toaster and a dodgy microwave balanced on some plywood and bricks. My evening meals usually comprised some sort of extemporaneous ready meal, and my dining room furniture comprised an upturned bucket seat and Black & Decker Workmate table. I did have real cutlery though. I wasn’t a complete savage.

During this period I learned that it’s possible to grill sassermaet in a toaster. For the record, it usually takes three “pops”.

The road to rehabilitation from malnutrition began when I had to design and install a kitchen. I realised I had no idea how a kitchen works. I knew I had to have a kitchen, but what goes in it? A fridge? Yes, that was a certainty. Some “rings”, erm yes. Induction, gas or electric? I didn’t know. And one of those food heater things… an oven. And cupboards to keep stuff in. And I knew I needed a sink. That was obvious too. But where should they all go? And what’s a “golden triangle”?

I got a layout together by reading articles on the “Good Housekeeping” website and asking people who had experience of actually cooking things. I managed to order the kitchen online and install it without incident, but once I stood back and looked at the shiny black and chrome installation, I realised I had no idea what to do next. Since I’d just spend £2,500 I thought I’d better learn to drive it.

So, first things first (after a few phonecalls to mam). Mince and tatties. No probs there. Bolognese. Check.

Then much to my own surprise, I started to enjoy cooking, then became mildly obsessed by it. I followed recipes to the letter, and would cook the same meal several times a week, changing the odd ingredient here and there and taking notes of the results. I realised I was treating cooking like a scientific experiment - my academic side had kicked in.

I practised techniques over and over. I’d watch YouTube videos on how to chop onions and repeat the process until it became instinctive in much the same way as I would practise a musical instrument. And I’d watch every cookery programme I could, much like I’d devoured albums as a teenager.

I began to develop my palate the same way I’d developed my musical tastes, like moving on from the bread and butter rock and roll of Bruce Springsteen to the acquired tastes of pungent Freeform Jazz. Balancing the flavours in a dish was akin to making a recording - add some bass with pasta, a few trumpet top notes with a chilli or two. Moving through the courses of a meal was comparable to writing the sections of a song. Intro with a starter, verse with a main course, chorus with a pudding and fade out with a peerie whiskey.

And now that I’d got the hang of the basics, I can make a stab at improvising. I’m far from the culinary equivalent of John Coltrane but I can knock out a reasonable blues solo from whatever is in the cupboards and fridge. But I do hit a bum note every now and then. Homemade fermented chutney and carrot green pesto anyone?

Here’s my tried and tested top tips for newbies
  • Get a basic set of good quality kitchen knives.
  • Start with something simple you already know well. Your taste buds telling you you’ve nailed a pretty good bolognese is a better start than trying a recipe from the internet and having no idea what it should taste like. And it never looks like the picture either.
  • Get some basic techniques under your belt. Learn to chop an onion, cook rice, make a salad dressing, onion gravy and a soup stock. These are things you’ll hopefully be doing regularly so watch a few YouTube videos to get them right.
  • Learn to make your favourite takeaway meals - you’ll find the recipes on the internet. It’ll save you a fortune in the long run and it’s good practice trying to figure out why your version tastes nothing like the “real thing”
  • Plan ahead. FInd a recipe you like the sound of and read it a couple of times to make sure you know the ingredients and equipment you’ll need and how long everything will take.
  • Keep a list of recipes you’ve used, or plan to use, and add notes about what worked and didn’t work.
  • And the single most important thing - actively enjoy your grub. Pay attention to the smells, tastes and textures, and think about how you could change or improve the recipe.

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