Fig and Walnut Tarte Tatin

GUARDSMAN: Here is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness’ presence.
He brings you figs. 
CLEOPATRA:        Let him come in. 
                              (William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra)

Usually the book comes first, and then the recipes – that was the founding idea behind this blog.  In my attempt to trace the way food has been written about in English literature over time, I have been picking up and rereading (or skimming through) key texts in a chronological order (more or less), finding interesting references to food and then devising recipes inspired by them.

But sometimes the food comes first, usually as a result of seasonal pressures.  When the trees in the garden are bowing down with quinces or damsons, then something needs to be done with them.  And if that means skipping around a bit in literature and losing my chronological path, so be it.


And so it was the other week when my organic delivery provided me with a box of fresh figs.  I’m ashamed to admit that I had never bought or cooked fresh figs before, but now there was no excuse.   And as I’ve just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra to my A Level students – where the poisonous asp that will deprive Cleopatra of her life is smuggled into her chambers concealed in a basket of figs – I knew that there was at least one literary reference I could investigate.

But with a short shelf-life, the recipe had to come first… and the literature will come later.
This recipe really showcases the figs, both aesthetically and in taste terms – cooked with honey, vanilla and lemon they become meltingly soft and deliciously sweet, and the walnuts add a variation in texture.

FIG AND WALNUT TARTE TATIN 

Ingredients (serves 4):
250g all-butter puff pastry
8-10 fresh figs, halved lengthways
75g unsalted butter
75g clear honey
juice of half a lemon
1 vanilla pod – or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
a handful of walnuts

Method: 
Preheat the oven to 200C / 190C fan / Gas mark 6.
Melt the butter and honey in a small (20cm) frying pan.  Add the seeds from the vanilla pod – or the vanilla bean paste – to the honey and butter mixture.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the mixture begins to caramelise.
Add the lemon juice, then place the halved figs in the pan carefully, cut side down.  Cook gently until they are just beginning to soften, then remove from the heat.
If your frying pan is ovenproof then you can continue using it; if, like mine, it isn’t, then you will need to carefully transfer the contents of the frying pan to a shallow ovenproof dish; make sure the figs remain cut side down.
Add the walnuts to the mixture in the pan, placing them wherever you have spaces between the figs.
Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly larger than the diameter of the frying pan or ovenproof dish.  Carefully slide the pastry circle over the fig mixture, tucking the edges down inside the pan or dish.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.  Allow to stand for 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate, fruit-side up.  Serve warm with creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

Damson cheese

In my last post I wrote about Mr Glegg in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss who loyally admires his wife’s questionable culinary talents.  Amongst her ‘renowned’ delicacies, the narrator mentions the ‘venerable hardness’ of Mrs Glegg’s damson cheese.

Recipes for fruit cheeses – quince, apples, blackberries and gooseberries can also be used – date back to the 13th century; like jam, they are made by cooking fruit and sugar over a low heat until the mixture thickens – once cool, it will set.  However, fruit cheeses use less sugar than jam, and are traditionally eaten – in slices – as an accompaniment to savoury food – e.g. meat or cheese.  In Delightes for Ladies, a book of recipes and household hints published in 1609, Sir Hugh Plat includes a recipe for damson cheese in which the damsons are cooked to a pulp with rosewater or wine, before adding sugar.


In her encyclopaedic compilation of recipes, The Book of Household Management, published in 1860, one year before The Mill on the Floss, Isabella Beeton also includes a recipe for damson cheese, very similar to the one I used below.  She notes the large quantities of fruit needed to produce a small quantity of cheese – “1 pint of damsons to make a very small pot of cheese” – and the length of time needed to cook the damsons – “1 hour to boil the damsons without the sugar; 2 hours to simmer them slowly, 1/2 hour quickly.”

Mrs Beeton, a photographic portrait from c. 1860-65

So, I made my damson cheese, using the plethora of damsons in my landlady’s garden: it was simple to make, but time-consuming, and the result was delicious and far from ‘hard’.

NOT MRS GLEGG’S DAMSON CHEESE

Ingredients (makes enough to fill one shallow plastic container (12 x 18 x 4 cm)
1kg damsons
350g granulated sugar (approx)

Method: 
Wash the damsons and put them in a large, heavy saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Heat over a medium heat, stirring regularly as the damsons release their juices and come to a simmer.  Allow to simmer until the fruit is soft.  You may find – as I did – that you need to add more water if the damsons are very hard  (I probably added another 6 tablespoons in all).  The harder the damsons, the longer that this stage will take; many recipes say simmer the fruit for 25-30 minutes, but mine took about 1 hour to become soft.

Using the back of a spoon, rub the fruit through a sieve into a large measuring jug, leaving behind the stones, stalks and skin.  You will end up with a beautifully smooth rich dark red puree.

Measure the puree.  For every 500ml of puree (which in my experience is what 1kg damsons produces), you will need 350g granulated sugar.  Combine the damson puree and sugar in a large heavy-based saucepan.  Bring the puree to a low simmer over a gentle heat, stirring regularly so the mixture does not catch.  Allow the mixture to simmer gently and thicken – it is ready when you drag the spoon across the base of the pan and the base stays visible for a second or two.  According to recipes I consulted this can take up to one hour, but I found it only took 20 minutes.

Pour the puree into a lightly oiled shallow plastic container and leave to cool and set.  It can keep for ever in the fridge!

The Loyal Husband

Mr Glegg, being of a reflective turn, …had much wondering meditation on the peculiar constitution of the female mind as unfolded to him in his domestic life: and yet he thought Mrs Glegg’s household ways a model for her sex: it struck him as a pitiable irregularity in other women if they did not roll up their table-napkins with the same tightness and emphasis as Mrs Glegg did, if their pastry had a less leathery consistence, and their damson cheese a less venerable hardness than hers: nay, even the peculiar combination of grocery and drug-like odours in Mrs Glegg’s private cupboard impressed him as the only right thing in the way of cupboard smells.  
                                                                                            (George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
Mrs Glegg is the aunt, on the maternal side, of Maggie Tulliver, the high-spirited, rebellious heroine of George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss.  Mrs Glegg’s argument with her brother-in-law, Maggie’s father, about his son Tom’s education is a catalyst for a dispute over £500 that Mrs Glegg has lent the Tullivers, the first in a series of events that leads to Mr Tulliver’s financial downfall.
  
‘George Eliot at 30’ by Francois D’Albert Durade (1849)

Interested in the behaviour of others, simply so she can compare it unfavourably to her own, Mrs Glegg has ‘both a front and a back parlour in her excellent house … so that she had two points of view from which she could observe the weaknesses of her fellow-beings and reinforce her thankfulness for her own strength of mind.’  Even her husband is not free of her scrutiny: retired from his business as a wool-stapler he now takes delight in his garden, an activity Mrs Glegg regards as ‘folly’ for, as the narrator notes, one of a wife’s responsibilities is to be ‘a constituted check on her husband’s pleasures’.  


For his part, Mr Glegg is described as fascinated by two things:  the variety of insect and grub life he comes across as he gardens and ‘the contrariness of the female mind, as typically exhibited in Mrs Glegg’.  

But Mr Glegg is, above all, of an affectionate and loyal disposition so that, whatever their marital difficulties, he is able to ‘persuade himself that no other woman would have suited him so well.’  And nowhere is his loyalty demonstrated more clearly than in his belief that in her household practices Mrs Glegg is an arch exponent, even when her cooking is clearly far from edible:  ‘it struck [Mr Glegg] as a pitiable irregularity in other women … if their pastry had a less leathery consistence, and their damson cheese a less venerable hardness’.

Damson cheese was a completely new foodstuff to me – I hadn’t even eaten it, let alone made it, but with autumn approaching, the damson tree in the garden bowing down with the weight of these beautiful deep purple fruit and my landlady begging me to seek out their use in literature and cook with them, I was happy to oblige.  And I was delighted to discover that, whilst a not inconsiderable effort is required in the making of damson cheese, it is an effort that reaps dividends  Instead of Mrs Glegg’s ‘venerable hardness’, my damson cheese was a beautifully quivering deep-red jewelled jelly that, cut into thick slices, makes a delightful accompaniment to bread and cheese.  


Recipe to follow.