And so, 17 months and 25½k words after it was begun, The Travelling Lady’s Cookbook (a Grand Tour in Twenty Recipes) is complete. Well, the first draft anyway, and as Hemingway tells us, all first drafts are shit.
Plough back through the previous 19 blogs, if you really want to check out the whole thing and I’ll stick a pdf of it on my website maybe in time for next week (when I will also present an index to the foods within).
Now the food porn is out the way, it’s time to get back to the funny book about football.
Departing is Such Black Risotto
—This last supper had long been intended. A small sachet of squid ink had accompanied Epifanea since leaving home, though, as she had hoped, the better fish markets on the Continent sold them complete with ink sacs. The sachet could go home tomorrow, virgo intacta. She chose a small, plump squid from the dockside stall and impressed the seller with her insistence she would prepare it herself. Once, years ago, someone had mentioned that cleaning out a squid was like emptying a used condom of some vintage variety. Ever since that time, this distasteful image was one she could not keep out of her mind when preparing the slippery cephalopods, but she wasn’t going to let that be a deterrent.
—Garlic was in the kitchen of her apartment overlooking the harbour, and tomato puree, parsley from the window box and butter, she was allowed to use for a small consideration. So a small onion, a pot of fish stock and a bag of risotto rice, the remainder of which she could donate to the host or future guests, was all she required to complete the evening.
—Well, that and petit pain and a nice tarte au citron from the boulangerie. And a rather good bottle of Entre-Deux-Mers, which she could donate to the cooking — and to herself. Tomorrow’s flight was not so early that she couldn’t afford to overindulge tonight.
—With food and wine in her bag, she sat outside the bistrot and watched the locals at play. She sent a short video home, though she knew he’d be at work and unavailable for extended communication. Longer chats could wait until the evening.
—She smiled as his reply identified the game correctly. Not just boules, as most Brits would say, but the version with ‘planted feet’.
—For such a simple sport, she found it rather hypnotic. The friendly arguments, the teasing laughter at flunked shots, the general bonhomie, behind which lurked an intense desire to win. As one shot sent an opponent’s ball flying smartly from the field of play, she even applauded, earning a deep bow and an elegantly blown kiss from the victorious player.
—She raised her glass of red to him in salute and turned her attention back to her baguette au fromage.
—She was ending her peregrinations in a small town, as she had no more desire for sightseeing and only a little for shopping, for esoteric souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. A quiet day and exceeding lazy was what the doctor ordered. She would cook, eat, sit on her balcony, finish that awful book and have one last stroll before turning in for her last European mainland night.
—And Skype with him, of course. But not for long. Lengthy last long distance conversations could turn edgy with impatience and tomorrow’s reunion should not be spoiled. She knew he’d feel the same, but plans did have to be finalised and fond goodnights exchanged.
—But first the squid.
—Eppy opened the doors onto the balcony, standing there in a reverie as she took in the scene and the sea air. Two young men walking a pair of bichons saw her, waved and saluted her with hands on hearts and walked on, laughing cheerily. With a shake of her head and a sigh of contentment, she turned back into the bijou kitchen area, where the squid lay on a nylon chopping board, ready for dissection.
—She removed the head and tentacles and peeled the fine, speckled outer skin from the body. With a grimace she inserted a couple of fingers and pulled out the slender quill and the ink sac. Then she filled the body with water and squeezed most of the remaining gloop out with it into the sink.
—After disposing of the skin and innards, she cut the body in two lengthwise to finish cleaning the flesh, which she then chopped up along with the head parts (removing and discarding the beak of course), and placed in a dish
—She chopped the onion and smacked a knife blade down on a clove of garlic. She chopped some of the parsley and put the stock with water in a pan over a medium heat.
—That bean and pancetta risotto on a Mediterranean island seemed so long ago now. Epifanea Tredwell’s procedure for this Venetian black version required a slightly different sequence of events.
—In this case, the rice was started separately — and not yet. In a small but deep frying pan the garlic and onion were first softened in a little butter and olive oil, joined soon after by the chopped up squid. In a cup she mixed the ink squeezed from its sac with a little warm water and added this to the pan, stirring to colour the vegetables until the liquid was just about evaporated.
—She added half a glass of the wine and a spoon of puree, increasing the heat and stirring until the wine was reduced by about half. Once this was achieved the heat was reduced and the pan covered. Over the next ten minutes or so, she would tidy up, set the table, slice the bread and prepare a side salad with a light vinaigrette dressing, stopping now and then to stir the contents of the pan and check the squid was cooking nicely staying moist. When it looked like it might be drying out, she added a little water to the pan and a glass of wine to herself.
—And now the rice. In another skillet Eppy melted some butter, added a little oil to prevent burning, and added a half a coffee mug of finest arborio. She stirred it into the butter and cooked it until the grains became translucent and gave off a fragrant odour, at which point she drowned them in another half glass of dry white. Once this had all but evaporated, she started to add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring gently to break up the grains and release the starch into the increasingly creamy mélange.
—After ten patient minutes of this, she judged it time for the components of her dish to come together. She spooned the black mixture into the rice and stirred it tenderly, watching the darkness slowly overwhelm the creamy, white grains, until the whole pan was ‘dark as Erebus’. She tasted a little, spitting out the still-too-crunchy rice, and added salt and pepper along with the chopped parsley and a last ladle of stock.
—A few more minutes of stirring and she could ‘plate up’. She filled a small bowl with the finished risotto and upended that neatly onto a large, white plate. After sprinkling a little more parsley on top of the black dome, she took a photograph to send home, captioned, as black as my own dark soul, lol! and settled down to enjoy.
—Dark soul indeed. An enjoyable repast and a whole bottle of wine left her in a playful and teasing mood, so he too was only too pleased that their last long-distance communication be kept brief, with expressions of fond anticipation and hopes for but the slightest of hangovers and the smoothest of journeys on the morrow.
—Even her last evening stroll was short and erratic. and she had no desire, not that concentration would have been possible anyway, to share in any more of Janey Gower’s Picnics of Passion. A good nights’ sleep and a light early breakfast in the café with its view of fishing boats and the squat towers guarding the harbour would be a pleasingly peaceful postlude to a life-enhancing few weeks of novel sights, gastronomic delights, sleazy reading and introspective deliberation. On the whole, Epifanea thought the whole experience a success. She had a fair idea of her life and where she wanted it to be heading. Who knew if it would go as expected? Just now, she didn’t really care, and the room was gently spinning her to sleep.
—In the cool light of dawn, the North Sea slapped against the harbour wall. She almost wished she was returning by ferry. She liked the thought of standing on the deck alone, her silk scarf suspended behind her on the breeze as she waved farewell to the Continent and anticipated her homecoming.
—But she had an aeroplane ticket.
—And she had no silk scarf.
—But for all the airport hassle and the queuing and the waiting, she knew she’d be home with less haste and less nausea and he’d be waiting there to meet her with her name in large letters on an unnecessary piece of card clutched in one hand, and maybe a bunch of roses in the other. And he’d drive her home and they’d have a pizza at Piccolo’s as their very own picnic of passion, followed by a supper of sex and a lifetime of … what? Time would tell. She felt sure she’d enjoy finding out.
I’m just a station on your way…