Historian answers pressing questions about food i



by Annie Gray (BBC Books £16.99, 314 pp)

Here’s a handy tip if you have friends coming over for drinks this weekend: offer them sherry, gin or wine in the thickest glasses you can find.

Why? Because the chunkier your glassware, the more impressed your guests will be by the quality of your booze. For reasons no one can quite explain, alcohol in flimsy glasses tastes cheap.

This is the sort of esoteric but useful information which is the hallmark of BBC Radio 4 programme The Kitchen Cabinet. First broadcast nearly ten years ago, it was dreamed up as a foodie version of the long-running Gardeners’ Question Time, but is rather hipper and funnier, with panellists who include professional chefs, cookery writers, MasterChef winners and even a professor of philosophy.

Food historian Annie Gray, has compiled the first ever book for BBC Radio 4 programme The Kitchen Cabinet (file image)

Curiously, there has never been a Kitchen Cabinet book until now, but it’s been worth the wait for an almanac which answers such pressing questions as: why does lasagne always taste better the day after you’ve cooked it? Apparently it’s because the starch in the pasta gradually breaks down, releasing sugar, making the lasagne taste extra creamy and delicious when you heat it up the next day.

Should we feel guilty about carving pumpkins at Halloween, rather than eating them? No, since they are specially bred for size rather than taste, and if you go to the trouble of roasting one, you’ll be disappointed by the flavour.

Why is it a bad idea to put apples and bananas together in the fruit bowl? Apples give off ethylene, which speeds up the ripening process of other fruits, and your bananas will go black much faster.

And what’s the best way to deal with a pan which has burnt bits stuck to the bottom? Boil some rhubarb in the pan for ten minutes — the acid in the rhubarb will leave it sparkling clean.

Rather disappointingly, the book debunks the myth that marmalade was invented for Mary, Queen of Scots. Nor was she the inspiration for Dundee cake, a recipe rumoured to have been dreamed up to accommodate her dislike of glacé cherries. (As all cake-makers know, it’s still a terrible faux pas to put cherries in a Dundee cake.)

But who knew that Parmesan has been popular in England since Tudor times? Henry VIII got a taste for it in 1511 after the Pope sent him 100 wheels of the cheese as a Christmas gift.

In 1666, when the Great Fire of London was raging, Samuel Pepys buried his Parmesan (along with his wine) in the ground to save it from the flames. Sadly, he never recorded in his diary whether the cheese survived or not.

Expertly compiled by food historian Annie Gray, who is a panellist on the programme, this book has plenty of good stuff about the history of British food. Welsh laverbread, made by boiling seaweed until it’s reduced to a salty, blackish-green puree which is packed with protein, has optimistically been rebranded ‘Welshman’s caviar’, a name actor Richard Burton helped to popularise.

THE KITCHEN CABINET by Annie Gray (BBC Books £16.99, 314 pp)

THE KITCHEN CABINET by Annie Gray (BBC Books £16.99, 314 pp)

One of the earliest citrus fruits eaten in Britain was the citron, which looks like a thick, knobbly lemon. Although you’ll struggle to find it in shops, you’ve almost certainly eaten it — because it’s the main ingredient in mixed candied peel.

An endearing aspect of The Kitchen Cabinet is that it takes junk food every bit as seriously as haute cuisine. A discussion of how to make a crisp sandwich concludes that Hula Hoops work best, and that adding crushed-up crisps is a good way to improve a mediocre shop-bought sandwich.

As for the humble baked bean, try adding a tablespoon of salted butter when heating them: ‘The richness of the butter tempers the acidity of the beans for instant, never-go- back velvetiness.’

On a more elevated level, I was interested to read that the way to swiftly cool easily ruined vegetables such as asparagus, or stop scrambled eggs from continuing to cook when taken off the hob, is to add small cubes of very cold butter, in a technique chefs call monter au beurre.

However greedy your disposition, The Kitchen Cabinet is too rich to read in one go, as it leaps from the best way to cook kippers without too much of a pong (poach them in milk) to what to do with the inevitable leftover Christmas cake (crumble it into a bottle of vodka; it won’t look pretty but all the sweetness and dried fruit of the cake make a delicious drink).

A bit like the Christmas cake vodka, this appealing book is best savoured in small sips.  

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