Book Review: Catching Fire, How Cooking Made us Human

It’s the cooking stupid.

Stop worrying about what you’re eating and listen up to Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, who hypothesizes that we evolved as humans once we started cooking our food.

Catching Fire, How Cooking Made us Human is not another fright book about our food, another wacko diet book, nor is it one of those unintelligible scientific studies. Wrangham writes the way a stream flows, inserting information without stopping for a lecture. Best of all he has a sense of humour.

He lays out his thesis without fanfare. In the fifties, eating meat was accepted as the impetus that pushed humans ahead of animals. In the sixties, the French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss described cooking as providing humans with a psychological edge over animals. Now Wrangham provides the biological view: “cooking (food ) increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from from our food.”

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Women Chefs: Don’t Grumble!

aAngela Hartnett

grumble, grumble, grumble go North American female chefs — the airwaves buzz with complaints about sexism, how women are overlooked as chefs, that men get all the awards etc…

Angela Hartnett, one of Britain’s top chefs, says it’s not true in today’s Guardian.

As a female chef, I’ve been asked about sexism so many times I’m almost bored with the question. And to be honest, in over 20 years in the industry I’ve never experienced any kind of sexism. The male chefs I know are happy to have women in their kitchen.

Anyway, there’s inequality everywhere. Last year I filmed a TV show, and there was only one woman on the crew. The idea that it’s just catering, or it’s worse in this industry, is not right.”

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Michelin star lunches in London: The Ledbury, Helene Darroze at the Connaught, Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley

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Notting Hill, London

The waiter comes to the table with a baked potato on a board. Oh yeah? Is this what I’ve come to The Ledbury for?  Is this what chef and co-owner Brett Graham thinks is worth the two stars recently bestowed by Michelin? Is this why The Ledbury has been named Britain’s restaurant of the year by Restaurant magazine…the credits roll on in Star Wars style.

I experience familiar tourist remorse. I read the reviews and can’t resist. But then I note how deadpan the server is. He’s standing poised with a knife. He slices the potato and out pops a potato shaped celeriac rolled in hay ash. Celeriac?  Traditionally, the celery root has been hidden away in puree or julienned in mayonnaise. No decent family wants to actually see it.   A celeriac looks like the innards of an antique explosive, a mass of grubby wires erupting from a pallid ball;  viewed differently, it is a homicidal veg out to kill a human. But Graham  has transformed this ugly sister of a root into an enchanting Cinderella. a half dozen delicate slices of the subtlest translucent celery   are accompanied by a deepfried croquette of wild boar with a garnish of acidic  wood sorrel, looks like shamrocks, and hazelnuts.

This is the Graham story: a cheeky Ozzie, still under thirty, with some of Adria’s smoke and mirrors, a confident grasp of French technique, Pacific Rim flavours, and a larky sense of humour. The tasting menu here runs well over $100 but I’m getting a bargain, the $48 (all prices approximate)  prix fixe lunch of three courses. A great lunch is one of the charms of eating out in London, a way to sample a great chef without a crise de plastique. We eat promiscuously from everywhere.  French butter of course to go with a chestnut roll or onion brioche. Then a sampling of the other starter. Gosh is no food local any more  – now they’re making mozzarella in Hampshire and very good it is too served with semi-hard St-Nectaire and truffles on toast with a broth of grilled onions.  Silken poached turbot –  European turbot is a much subtler fish than the North Atlantic variety , and is paired with buttered langoustine claws, pumpkin foam, chanterelles  and powdered ginger.  The pressed suckling pig is as crisp as PekinG duck with white carrot, toasted grains and a glossily melting pork cheek cooked in Pedro Ximinez’ powerfully sweet sherry.  Sounds like a mishmash doesn’t it. But it isn’t. Graham delicately separates each flavour from the other for maximum enjoyment.

We nibble away at a creamy vanilla and date tart set off by Clementine Leaf ice cream. As we parse the taste of clementine leaf, we look around at our fellow eaters. The Ledbury is a handsome well-windowed square,  elegant but unpretentious. It may be off the beaten track in Notting Hill, trendy among young city types, but it’s a destination restaurant, drawing all kinds of people.

Mayfair. Follow that! I say  to the Connaught Hotel. For my second lunch, I’m checking up on the grande dame of Mayfair hotels. For many years, the Connaught was famous  for its French chef who, during the long rationing years after World War II, continued serving wonderful food while the rest of London starved. Now I’m anxious to see how well it’s kept its reputation. Well, the  $55 prix fixe is a bit of all right – a couple of glasses of potable wine thrown in. A raft of sleek servers with thick menus glide over a well padded room stuffed with bank directors and gilded youth; a seventeen year old is lunching a dazzling Asian model. Helene Darroze, who has a single Michelin Star, is a petit point cook, an expert in precise effects and steamy  emollient sauces, a lobster veloute scented with wild mushrooms, tiny ricotta gnocchi, little roasted pieces of lobster, tarragon cream, and the carrot and confit citrus mousseline that lightly bathes roasted scallops with Tandoori spices. I’ve never tried a spring onion reduction with fresh coriander but I challenge any blogger of I Hate Cilantro to hate it. Anyone who can make a carrot and confit citrus mousseline so it doesn’t taste like regular carrot and orange soup gets my vote too. And the tiny gently sweetened pear among the seasonal fruit and veg add piquancy to the venison roasted in Lampong Pepper.

The flavours are light and fragrant as in a passion fruit, lime and Malibu (coconut) jelly, not like jello at all, with candied ginger mousse, lime meringue and mango arranged on the plate.

BelgraviaTwo great lunches, now for the third. Marcus Wareing, along with Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, was a pioneering chef in the renaissance of London restaurants. Now he’s at the Berkeley Hotel in Belgravia and still rates a couple of Michelin stars.  It is my niece’s birthday and I’m springing for the $48 prix fix lunch. Now a New Yorker, she scans the menu on line, eager to eat Franglais. Imagine our horror when we arrive at the restaurant to be told that the prix fixe has risen by $30! Moreover the new lunch is uninviting – turkey and cranberry sauce ! Falafel! But if we want to eat Wareing’s famous daquoise of layers of prune jelly and pate de foie gras, we must go for the 145 buck menu. Hijacked, we mutter over a  glass of Champagne. But what can we do? We ask about eating a la carte. The waiter sniffs.  Several courses are very good indeed,  Dorset crab, herb-stamped pappardelle with fresh truffles ground over it,  but overall, we begin to feel like geese being forcefed – at what’s worse, a highly inflated price.  Of course it isn’t the chef’s fault that there is a toddlers’ teaparty in the bar next door. Still it turns what was intended as a posh lunch into a pumpkin.

For more on eating out in London, go to ginamallet.com

The Bolter: Wildlife in Kenya (National Post Book Review)

Hollywood of course.

In the twenties and thirties,  British nobs were doing exactly the same thing in Happy Valley, Kenya, a place so notorious that people used to ask “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”

Happy Valley is the titillating terrain of The Bolter, Frances Osborne’s tale of her great grandmother Lady Idina Sackville, an icon of debauchery, who tore through five marriages, and set her own standards of eyewidening behaviour. She welcomed guests as she lay in a green onyx bath, then dressed in front of them.  Guests were made to swap partners, often ending up in her bed which was called “the battleground.” Although there was no People magazine or a 7/24 news cycle, word of mouth among the privileged classes dribbled down and  made Idina infamous. She was credited with inspiring a series of dissolute heroines from the poet Nancy Cunard to Iris March in Michael Arlen’s twenties’ bestseller, The Green Hat, which was made into a movie with Greta Garbo. Add countless bright young things of the Lost Generation,   Hemingway’s Brett Ashley, to Nancy Mitford’s The Bolter, a woman who no sooner married than moved on.

Idina grew up with a tarnished spoon in her mouth. Her father came from an ancient family, her mother from  rich industrialists. But after two children were born, Gilbert Sackville skipped off with a cancan dancer. Such affairs were common enough among the gentry who blinked and carried on. But Muriel Sackville decided to divorce him. Now this was breaking the upperclass code, a broken family undermined the stability of society. It also diminished a daughter’s chances of making a good marriage at a time when women’s survival depended on a male meal ticket. Idina, a chinless woman with a clotheshorse figure and lots of what used to be called “come on” might have found herself as marginalized as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth –  damned for her outsider status.  But she was lucky. She caught the roving eye of rich-rich Euan Wallace, a playboy with an inexhaustible bank balance.

Now right here the title of the book trips up the author. How much jollier it would have been if Idina had been Nancy Mitford’s babytalking flapper throwing husbands away like Kleenex. In fact, Idina’s life is one long slide into oblivion – she was rejected by her most of her husbands, she ran through her fortune, her sister betrayed her,  her children were lost to her,  her sons died in World War II. The wastrels of Happy Valley enabled her self destruction along with their own. Her best friend was the American heiress Alice de Janze who cuddled a lion cub in her lap, shot her lover, then shot herself, and that was before they got married. Joss Erroll, Idina’s second husband, went through life with an open fly and was murdered by one of the many men h e had cuckolded.

Osborne’s take on her ancester is that Idina was an early feminist, struggling to find herself. Perhaps. But the central fact of Idina’s life was her addiction to sex  to which Osborne makes only fleeting references.  Apart from the single reference to Idina welcoming guests in her bath, specifics are wanting on the bed as battleground.  Addiction is obsession, and without any exploration of  the need for sex that shaped her character, Idina remains elusive. I had hopes for full disclosure after being told that the newly wed Idina “completed her introduction to sex: an activity not only  for which she discovered she had a talent, but which she clearly found so intensely enjoyable that it rapidly became impossible for her to resist any opportunity for it.” A mouthful for one word: nymphomaniac. That’s what Idina’s second husband called her.  Did Euan abandon her because she was too sexually demanding?

Euan’s diary, often quoted, reveals nothing. I don’t suppose it’s pleasant to rummage in an ancestor’s dirty laundry but I think the reader is owed a few juicy details from a life lived for sex. Was Idina versatile? Of the high romantic school “Would you like to Sin/With Elinor Glyn/on a tiger skin?”

Idina is upstaged by Euan’s second wife, Barbie, a socially ambitious woman  with a calculator for a heart who took over Idina’s sons. Now there’s a novel: Barbie and Euan bought a haunted property with a curse which said no heir would live to inherit. Between them they had five sons: four were lost in World War II while one died too young.

A loose end. While her brothers are accounted for, Diana, the child of Joss and Idina vanishes at the end, her early death unrecorded. I wonder why.

Osborne prefers to dwell on Idina’s need for love, the kind encountered in a Harlequin Romance,  kiss but no grope. Style is Barbara Cartland  “At the beginning of 1917 Euan and Idina were dangerously in love. Dangerously because at any moment Euan might ride into a hail of bullets…” I’ve never read about so many  handsome rich men and beautiful women.  Joss Erroll was the goldenest of golden men, Barbie was glamourous the way women never again were.  You’d  sure never know it from the small smudgy pictures of women in bosomless dresses and men in plus fours. But then times change, styles change, cameras change…

Something else. The story’s creepy. Happy Valley denizens are as attractive as frog spawn.  An earlier book, White Mischief by James Fox which was  about Joss Erroll’s murder, was  also creepy and so was the movie made from it. I think it’s because the people are so stubbornly willful.  They never reveal their vulnerabilities. I suppose it’s the old devil stiff upper lip.  Victorian morality may have been necessary to maintain the empire and keep the Windsors on the throne, but it also crushed the happy sensuality which redeems the shabbiest story and makes the most wayward people alluring.

The Bolter by Frances Osborne. 300 pages. Knopf Canada $35

The Scandal Behind the Portrait….

Luisa Casati, Augustus John portrait in the Art Gallery of Ontario

Another crazy lady.  Luisa  Casati (d. 1957), featured in a lush picturebook The Marchesa Casati:Portraits of a Muse , is described as  ”possibly the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra, the portraits, sculptures and photographs of her would fill a gallery. In a quest for immortality, she had herself painted by Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks and Ignacio Zuloaga; sketched by Drian, Alberto Martini and Alastair; sculpted by Giacomo Balla, Catherine Barjansky and Jacob Epstein; and photographed by Man Ray….”

I remember her differently.  In the lush green Thames Valley where I lived as a child, there was quite a buzz when it was known that we had our first commie nobs in the neighbourhood, an heir to a peerage and his wife Cristina – the daughter it was breathed of the scandalous Marchesa di Casati.  ”Surely you remember,” a neighbour said over a glass of sherry and over the childrens’ heads ” she’s the woman who gave that ball and painted the gardener’s boys gold. “All over?’ “Yes”  ”Oh No, what happened?” “Of course they died. “