FEASTS & FANCIES: Of Chocolate and Chestnuts

My mother didn’t particularly care for food.  She seldom expressed any joy towards it and made sure I was trained to show no more than polite enthusiasm when praising a dish.

One of my early childhood memories is of being taken to audition for a voice-over job for Nutella, soon to be exported to the USSR.  I was supposed to provide the Russian voice for a commercial.

I remember watching on a cinema-size screen a documentary about how Nutella was made.  There were shots of machines stirring huge vats of glossy, creamy chocolate spread, of conveyor belts carrying empty jars that were then filled at regular intervals.  Then I recall a tiring, laborious scene, off-screen, in which a man was asking me in Russian, over and over again, if I liked chocolate.

“Yes, I quite like it”, “It’s not bad” and “It’s nice enough” (in their Russian equivalents) were the most passionate responses he managed to drag out of me.  Not because I didn’t like Nutella – I couldn’t wait to grow up and move out of the family home, so nobody would raise an eyebrow if I devoured it by the tablespoon straight out of the economy-size jar, instead of thinly spread on bread.  Only my mother had taught me that it wasn’t refined or ladylike to express strong emotions about anything, let alone food.  Food was to be appreciated with a je ne sais quoi that was a blend of remoteness and quasi indifference bordering on ennui.  You never ever let on that you were hungry and, above all, you always gave the impression that your interests lay far, far higher than food.

Once, when the school child psychologist asked me, then age seven, what I’d had for dinner the night before, I responded coldly that I could not remember and that, if I might say so, I found his question rather personal. 

And so, as the assistant or casting director or whoever was desperately trying to elicit a bright, Mmm… I love it! response, unquestionably loyal to my mother’s teachings, I maintained my I-can-take-it-or-leave-it, aloof, Grace-Kelly-playing-in-The-Swan poise, aristocratically unaware that I was sabotaging a rare opportunity to generate money for my financially-challenged family.

Predictably, as an adult, I did for a time eat Nutella with a spoon (a teaspoon, admittedly) straight from the jar.  It was my go-to remedy for romantic disappointment, professional frustration and, very often, a reward for just about anything.  That was as far as my sweet tooth went.  Recently, though, I have developed a liking for unsweetened, 100% dark chocolate.  It’s chocolate with attitude, that commands respect.  I tell myself it’s not for the faint hearted.  Like a doppio ristretto or a shot of grappa.   Watch out, I’m a black chocolate eater: I’m tough, me.

Chocolate and chestnuts are perfect allies.  My favourite ice-cream combination is gianduia and marrons glacés, only found, to my knowledge, in my favourite ice-cream parlour, Giolitti’s, in Rome, where it is served with a panache of whipped cream, in a tall glass, which the waiter in a white jacket places on the gleaming marble table.  

Back in Norwich, however, I still like to combine chestnuts and chocolate in various recipes, this being one I improvised yesterday afternoon…

Chocolate & Chestnut Cakes

Your associates for twelve small cakes:

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

❧  200 g pre-cooked chestnuts 

❧ 175 g chestnut flour

❧ 2 eggs

❧ 2 tablespoons date syrup

❧ 50 g buckwheat flour

❧ 200 ml goat’s milk (or full-fat cow’s milk)

❧ 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil + enough to grease cake tin

❧ Grated rind of 1 orange

Whisk the eggs, then stir in the chestnut and buckwheat flours before adding the milk and the date syrup.

Chop the chestnuts and the chocolate coarsely and stir into the mixture.

Add the grated orange rind.

Spoon the mixture into a muffin/Yorkshire pudding tray.  Bake at 200-220ºC for about 20 minutes.  

A few notes: 

I add the buckwheat flour only to make the chestnut flour go further.  Traditionally the food of poor Italian peasants who could not afford wheat, chestnut flour in England is absurdly expensive.  I mix it with buckwheat flour because the latter has a mild, unobtrusive taste, but wheat flour or rice flour would work just as well, though please note that wheat flour will make the consistency much heavier.

I often use olive oil in baking for only one reason: I am too lazy to beat the butter until it’s soft enough, and melting it on the stove would mean an extra saucepan to wash.  Besides, olive oil gives the cake a je ne sais quoi I like.  I used to keep sunflower oil for these purposes, but it kept going rancid, so I decided to stick to the green liquid gold.

Basically, I like cooking to be as effortless as possible.

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FEASTS & FANCIES: Reblochon & Asparagus Sandwich

“Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity,” says the ageing Belle Époque courtesan to the niece she is training in the MGM musical based on Colette’s novella.

When I was six years old, I was poked fun at at my first primary school for refusing to eat my frankfurter without a knife.  It was finally handed to me with a huff.  Why couldn’t I just spear the sausage with my fork and bite it off, like the other children?

My mother and grandmother valued good table manners almost on a par with the knowledge of languages.  “You never know where life may take you,” they would say, “good table manners are an extra passport”.  And the more passports you had, the more doors would open to you, and that would give you more choices in life.  

My grandmother was content with my eating performance being discreet, while my mother insisted I learn to use all the cutlery and glasses as illustrated in our copy of Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners.  For all my protestations that her social ambitions for me were way above our financial possibilities – why learn to eat at an aristocratic dinner party when we could never have afforded to buy me a dress that would allow me to attend it? – my mother would not relent.  “You may never have the need to eat an apple with a knife and fork,” she’d say, “but there’s nothing worse than finding yourself in a situation, whatever it may be, and being unable to cope with it because you lack the appropriate skills.”

And so I learnt to eat an apple with a knife and fork, remembered to dab my lips with the napkin before reaching out for my glass, made sure I didn’t help myself to the communal butter with my own knife, but from the small piece on the side of my plate, which I’d served myself at the beginning of the meal, and kept pace with the other guests so as neither to wolf my food down before anyone else nor lag behind, etc., etc.

Most of my mother’s instructions were aimed at helping me be accepted wherever I might venture.  “Always observe how the other people present eat before you start,” she’d say, “and, to a certain extent, do as they do.  If you’re invited to a household where everyone eats sitting cross-legged on the carpet, you don’t ask for a chair.”

Looking back on my family’s teachings, I realise that all were ultimately aimed at avoiding at all costs sticking out or offending.  

Table etiquette is far less prescriptive now than it was when I was a child, and I cannot remember the last time I used a fork to eat an apple.  Perhaps I don’t revolve in high enough circles.  I find it sad that table manners have become synonymous with class and wealth, when I feel they should be associated with a form of aesthetics instead.  Why not eat beautifully, when you can, just as you would write beautifully, or walk beautifully, play a musical instrument beautifully or do anything else beautifully for that matter? 

And, on that note, I dare you to eat the following beautifully…

Reblochon & Asparagus Sandwich

Your treats for one serving:

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

❧  French or sourdough baguette (white) 

❧ Fresh asparagus

❧ Reblochon (or, if wary of unpasteurised cheese, brie – or if you live in Norfolk, smoked Dapple works, too, but then leave out the dill)

❧ Fresh dill (herb)

❧ Extra virgin olive oil

❧ A large napkin (or two)

Wash the asparagus and break off the tough end of the stalks, then steam them (boiling takes away their flavour) until just soft enough to remain crisp: you don’t want mushy asparagus.

Cut the baguette either in long slices or down the middle and drizzle with a few drops of olive oil.

Wash and dry the fresh dill.

Heap a generous amount of reblochon (or brie) on the bread, arrange as many asparagus stalks on it as will fit and add a little dill.

Bite into the sandwich, avoiding any breadcrumbs, bits of cheese, threads of dill or drops of olive oil falling anywhere.  Ha!

PS – Thank you to all those who wrote to me, asking why I hadn’t posted for the past couple of Sundays.  I was very touched.  The truth is I was in France for two weeks and, for once, didn’t take my laptop with me.  Predictably, I shall soon be writing about la Douce France.

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FEASTS & FANCIES: Borsch for Easter

Easter brings back memories of my Armenian grandmother perhaps more than the other Christian Festivals.  The large bowl with the dough for the kulich resting on a warm hot water bottle on her bed, wrapped in her grey woollen shawl, until it had tripled in volume.  Later that day, the sweet fragrance of the tall kulich filling our flat as soon as she took it out of the oven.  I would watch her rub two sugar cubes over it, powdering the top of the dome-shaped cake.  I always thought it looked like snow falling on a mountain. Then there was the boiling, cooling and colouring of the eggs.  We would sit at the kitchen table with my water colours and paint swirls on the shells, trying to obtain a marble effect.  Sometimes, my grandmother would grow a plateful of grass by soaking lentils in wet cotton wool, to decorate the Easter table.  She would fast on Easter Saturday until dinner, when she’d traditionally serve herring marinated in oil, onion and mustard as a starter. The main course varied.  We did not go to church.  Instead, my grandmother would tell me about her early childhood memories of Russian Easters in Rostov-on-the-Don, before the Revolution outlawed religion.  She told me about the Orthodox priest chanting in a deep, stern bass and the congregation walking around the outside of the church, about the bells peeling joyfully after midnight, about how you wished happy Easter by saying Christ is risen.

Only once, so far, have I experienced this celebration in the Eastern Orthodox style: not in Russia, but in Athens, when I was nine years old.  I vaguely remember the tone of lament in the Orthodox plainchant, the sea of candles warming the air, the fog of fragrant incense, then, after midnight, all the church bells in the city ringing with unbridled cheer, children tapping red-dyed eggs together to see whose egg would crack, people exchanging good wishes in the night, fireworks lighting up the sky, their roaring explosion competing with the church bells.  What I remember clearly is my overwhelming sense of wonder.

I have never made marinated herring or kulich. My traditional Easter meal is often borsch.  It’s my way of honouring my grandmother, as it was her favourite dish.  She made it often.  It reminded her of the much-loved family she had lost in the Soviet Union, of her happy early childhood, of her roots.  In her nineties, in the nursing home, she was lucky enough to have borsch occasionally prepared for her by the resident Moldovian doctor, who was very fond of my grandmother and so spoilt her when she could.  When I think of my grandmother’s cooking, borsch is the first thing that comes to mind.

My Grandmother Yekaterina’s Borsch

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

You need:

❧  1 white cabbage (the leaves must be as tight as possible)

❧  Beetroots 

❧ Carrots

❧ 1 large onion

❧ Potatoes

❧ 1-2 bay leaves

❧ Water

❧ Vegetable oil (I use olive oil)

❧ Tomato purée

❧ Salt, black pepper

❧ Crème fraîche

Since I do not own a large enough frying pan, I tend to fry all the vegetables separately and put them into a large saucepan as I go along, then add the raw potatoes, water and bay leaves before bringing it all to boil and cooking.

Chop the cabbage as finely as your knife and patience allows.  Bear in mind that the intended dish is a soup to be eaten with a spoon, and not a stew.

Peel, wash and dice the carrots – I grate them, as it’s quicker.

Peel, wash and dice the beetroot – don’t grate it unless you want a Jackson Pollock effect on every surface in your kitchen including the walls.

Chop the onion(s) very finely.  Tears running down your cheeks comes with the territory.  Just think of it as a thorough eyewash.

Gently fry the cabbage, carrot, onion and beetroot (either separately or together) and transfer them into a large saucepan or stockpot.  Peel, wash and dice the potatoes, then add them to the cooked vegetables.  

Add enough water to make a soup of the consistency you prefer and bring to boil.  When you remember, add salt, pepper, a couple of bay leaves and a generous tablespoonful (or two, depending on your preference) of tomato purée.  The tomato is supposed to bring out the other flavours, not dominate them.  If you’re lucky enough to live in a country where fresh tomatoes are flavoursome, use those instead of the paste.

Simmer until the potatoes are soft.

When serving, you can add a dollop of crème fraîche or, if you prefer, some sour cream.

Tip: borscht tastes much, much better on the second day, so I recommend preparing it a good twenty-four hours before you plan to eat it.

Happy Easter!

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FEASTS & FANCIES: Sometimes, you just need a subterfuge…

It was always the same pattern.  

“Dearest, what vegetables would you like?”

“I don’t know.”

“We need some greens… they’re good for us.”


“You never have any greens.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I do, sometimes!”

This weekend, too, she sat in her study, filling in the online order form for the organic fruit and vegetables delivery.  This weekend, too, he was in his study, across the corridor, busy on his own computer.  

“Shall I read you what they have available?”

Click, click, tap, tap, clickety-tap, tappety-click.

“Dearest? Hello?”


“Shall I order us some then? Will you eat them?”

“Order what?”

“Two dozen oysters!”


“For crying out loud! What have we been talking about for the past five minutes?!”

“Right, sorry, sweetheart – vegetables.  Yes.”

“Yes – what? Will you eat green leafy vegetables if I buy them?”


“Spinach or kale?”

“Not mad about either.”

“You don’t have to be ‘mad’ about them.  Shall I order some curly kale?”

Click, tap, click, tap, tappety-clickety-tap.

“For Heaven’s sake – it’s like drawing wisdom teeth! How about you do the ordering this time?! Then you can buy whatever you like.”

“Sorry, sweetheart… No, kale is fine.  I love kale. Kale rocks.”

He was taking out the water glasses from the cupboard and folding the napkins, while she served the food.  The main dish and the side of potatoes and steamed curly kale.

“That’s enough kale for me, thanks.”

“That’s hardly anything – I can’t eat all the kale myself!”

“I’m not mad about kale…”

“Add some olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar.”

He made a face.

“You told me to buy it! ‘Kale rocks’ were your exact words. It’s the same thing every time.  You say you’ll eat it and then I have to finish most of it. You don’t like kale, you don’t like spinach, you don’t like Savoy cabbage… What is your problem with greens, anyway? You’re not a child –”

“I like broccoli!”

“I’ve got broccoli coming out of my ears. It’s always broccoli –”

“Not always.”

“Look, it’s not like I don’t have a full-time job, too! How about you cook for the rest of the week?”

“Okay. Sure. What shall we have?”


This weekend, as she clicked on the online order form, just as she was about to call out to her husband across the corridor, she suddenly stopped herself and listened to the sounds from his study.

Click, click, tap, tap, clickety-tap, tappety-click.

She filled in the form and pressed Save.

A few days later, they sat having lunch at the kitchen table, listening to a concert broadcast from Wigmore Hall on BBC Radio 3.

“This is delicious,” he said.  “Truly delicious.”

“Good.  I’m glad you like it.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever made this before.  It’s really yummy.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to have some more.”

“Help yourself.”

“Would you like another helping? If not, I’ll…”

“I’ve had enough, thank you.  You go ahead and finish what’s left.”

He heaped his plate with food.

“Gosh, I’ve given myself quite a lot… Never mind, it’s just too scrumptious.”

“Eat to your heart’s content.”

“Yum.  Can you make this again sometime soon?”


“I especially like this green sauce you’ve made for the pasta… What is it, some kind of pesto?”

“Sort of.”


(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

Your accomplices:

❧  Green curly kale

❧  Pea flour fusilli 

❧ A small handful of dried porcini mushrooms

❧ 1 clove of garlic

❧ Parmigiano Reggiano (freshly grated)

❧ Extra-virgin olive oil

❧ Salt, pepper

Soak the porcini mushrooms in about 400 ml of boiling water for about half an hour.

Wash the curly kale thoroughly.

Pour the porcini and the water they have been soaked in into a large saucepan, add all the kale and the clove of garlic and bring to boil.  Simmer until the kale is soft but not mushy.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Let the kale mixture cool down, then put everything into a blender.  The result should be liquid enough for pasta to be cooked in.  Alternatively, you can make the sauce a little thicker and part-boil the pea pasta.

Put all the pea pasta into an ovenproof dish and pour the kale, porcini and garlic sauce over it.  Mix it gently, to make sure the fusilli are coated nicely.  Add a generous drizzling of olive oil. 

Sprinkle a generous amount of Parmigiano over the top.

Bake in oven until the pasta is cooked and and the cheese has browned.

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FEASTS & FANCIES: Spaghetti with Artichokes – my favourite comfort food.

There is something about pasta that warms the cockles of my heart.  I reach out for pasta the way some people reach out for chocolate or a glass of wine.  I eat pasta when I’m feeling sad or vulnerable, when I am dissatisfied with my life, when I miss my grandmother telling me that everything will be all right.  When I need a hug at cellular level.  I also make pasta when I want to celebrate: the end of a translation, the beginning of a new writing project, the joy of treasured friends at our table; or to celebrate for the sake of celebrating.  Pasta to me is synonymous with abundance, with pleasure, with hospitality.  It’s the culinary equivalent of the opening bars of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

As you know, there are dozens of varieties of pasta.  It comes in all shapes and sizes, different kinds suitable for different sauces or accompaniments.  I am no connaisseur.  For your pasta guide, refer to my betters, experts like Giorgio Locatelli and Stanley Tucci.  My choices are guided entirely by my personal preference and my whim.  When it comes to food, I believe in freedom and reject all convention.  I drink red wine even if I’m having fish, and add milk into my cup of Earl Grey tea.  I snack on slices of apple with peanut butter and brazenly order a cup of plain hot water in restaurants.  

If in doubt, my go-to pasta is spaghettiI enjoy winding them (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use spaghetti as a singular), around my fork on the side of my plate, taking care to avoid long bits dangling.  I like their silkiness, their honest taste of grain.  Whether it was Marco Polo who taught the Chinese about noodles or – most likely – brought them back to Venice from Cathay, I think a monument should be erected to the human who invented them.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce (watch this space), with tuna, with vegetables, or simply with a drizzling of truffle oil and a dusting of parmigiano… it’s important, if you can, to buy good quality pasta.  No sauce, however tasty, can redeem flavourless, bland, limp, overprocessed pasta.  It has to be strong enough to hold its own with whatever you add to it.

My favourite spaghetti dish is one I often make myself either when Howard is out, or when he makes his own plans for a meal.  He doesn’t care for it.  For one thing, he fails to appreciate my all-time favourite vegetable and empress of all thistles: the globe artichoke.  Moreover, he isn’t very keen on chilies.  So, when he is out at a jazz jam session, or making himself my all-time hated food, steak, I spoil myself with this scrumptuous composition.   

Spaghetti with Artichokes

Your treats for one serving:

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/

❧  Spaghetti made from hard durum wheat semolina 

❧ 1 tin of artichoke hearts in brine

❧ 3 sun-dried tomatoes

❧ 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves

❧ Your favourite olives

❧ Pine nuts

❧ Fresh oregano

❧ Chili flakes

❧ Dried capers

❧ Parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated

❧ Extra-virgin olive oil

❧ Salt, black pepper

❧ Water for boiling the pasta

Start by pouring some boiling water over the sun-dried tomatoes and letting them soak for twenty minutes or so, then slice them into small slivers.

Cut each tinned artichoke heart into four.

Wash the fresh oregano and tear the leaves off the stem.

Chop or crush the garlic. 

Fry the artichokes in the olive oil on a gentle heat, so that they brown without spitting scalding drops of oil and moisture at you.  You don’t want food to swear at you while you’re cooking it.  Once they have turned golden, add the garlic, sundried tomatoes, olives, capers, chili flakes, capers, oregano leaves, and, a couple of minutes later, the pine nuts.  Season to taste. 

Bring to boil a copious amount of water (with however much salt you deem proper) in a large pan (spaghetti mustn’t be crammed together – each spaghetto needs room to express itself).  Ease the spaghetti into the boiling water gently and stir with a long-handled, two-pronged fork, separating the pasta so it doesn’t clump together.

While waiting for the pasta to reach its optimum cooking point, grate a small mound of parmigiano.  

Drain the pasta, slide it onto a plate and spoon artichokes & co. over it.  At this stage, I like to add a dash of cold olive oil, just because I like the taste.  Add the grated parmigiano.

Take a few seconds to enjoy the sight of this bounty, smell its inviting fragrance, then tease your fork into a couple of spaghetti, wind them around it, spear a piece of artichoke and and an olive, and enjoy that first mouthful, which will be unique, as will be all the ones that follow.  Taste the discreet tanginess of the tomato, the humorous sharpness of the garlic, the eartly saltiness of the olives, the cheekiness of the capers.  Chew the pine nuts and think of the umbrella pines lining the cobbled roads that lead to and from Rome. Inhale the scent of the oregano and picture yourself on a hillside bathed in afternoon sunshine, listening to cicadas.

Then let me know how you like it.  And if you do like it, please share this post.

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It sounds unmistakeably early Franco-Flemish, but as I am nearer the ignorance end of the musical knowledge gamut, I hesitate to hazard a guess that might land me not only in the wrong country, but the wrong century all together.  Instead, as I step into the welcoming warmth of Chocolate Notes*, I stop abruptly, rooted to the white floor decorated with jet-black, curly clefs and notes, and translucent fragments of scores, waiting to catch Jan’s eye. He is sitting on the stool behind the counter, frowning into a large book.  

“One of your favourites,” he says, looking up and seeing me theatrically narrow my eyes  and bite my lip.  He turns up the volume slightly.

“… Dufay?” I blurt out.

“Yes.  Sung by…?”

I release my grimace and raise an eyebrow.  “No, not this morning.  My brain’s too cold.”

“You have this CD, Katia – I sold it to you last summer.”

“Of course!” I say, knowing the confidence instilled into my voice won’t fool Jan for a minute.  “Huelgas Ensemble.”

I leave my spot, where I’ve left a small puddle of melted snow, remove my coat, mittens and the sheepskin hat with ear flaps that makes me look like a Cocker Spaniel, and head to my usual table by the window.  It’s available today, as are all the other tables. “Where is everybody?”

“There hasn’t been a soul for over an hour,” Jan says, his almost imperceptible over-pronuciation of the diphtongue in “hour” hinting at his mother tongue.  He gestures at the glass door, outside which the snow is falling in soft, fat flakes.

“I’ve known it to snow in March in Norwich once before,” I say, spreading my duck down quilted coat over the backs of two chairs.  “In 2013, when I first came to Norwich to see if I wanted to live here.  In fact, it snowed on my birthday.”

“And you decided to stay?” 

“No – yes – long story.” 

Jan closes his book, apparently glad to have a customer to chat to this morning.  Not that “chat” is the right word for Jan, Fiamma’s part-time barista.  The most one can have with him is an exchange of a few anodyne words or else a lengthy, highbrow and always enjoyable conversation.  Today doesn’t feel like one of those occasions.  I feel too sheepish at not recognising the music on a CD I bought here not eight months ago and have played many times.  Maybe I have too many CDs.  Yes, that’s it.

“What are you reading?” I ask, so as not to retreat into too antisocial a silence.

Jan holds up the bulky, hardback volume.  There is an illustration of Vermeer’s Geographer on the glossy dust jacket.    

“Fascinating,” I say politely, although the title, three lines long, doesn’t convince me.

“It would be if it weren’t written by an academic,” Jan replies with a scowl.

“I guess you have to read it for your work, right?”

Jan nods slowly, suppressing a yawn.

“Fiamma not in today?” 

“She’s in London, attending a couple of concerts.”

I open my rucksack and take out my notebook, fountain pens and glasses case, all the time glancing at the large blackboard above Jan’s head, and the twenty or so hot chocolate options.  “I can’t make up my mind this morning…” I say.

“Do you want to leave it to me?” he offers, a twinkle in his eye.

I can’t help grinning.  “Yes. Choose something for me.”

“What are you writing this morning?”

“I thought I’d start a novel.”

“Right – I know just the thing.”

Jan turns the volume down to how it was when I first came in.  I like the fact that neither he nor Fiamma ever play the music too loud, unlike in other places.  I take the chrome cap off my Faber Castell and jot a few words on the lined  A4 page, while Jan busies himself behind the counter.

I am lulled by the comforting, gentle polyphony of Dufay’s isorhythmic motets. The ethereal voices of the Huelgas Ensemble throw a sound like gossamer over the air, the perfect soundtrack to the snow outside.  They remind me of the diaphanous, absent Flanders sky.  Of its soft, grey-white translucency.  Of its shy, hazy light.

Jan places on my table a sparkling white saucer with a small glass filled two-thirds with chocolate and capped with peaks of whipped cream that look like mini Alps.  He has sprinkled a dusting of what smells like nutmeg on top.

“Wow.  I don’t think I’ve had this one yet.  What is it?”

“It’s my Chocolat à l’Orange,” Jan says, his eyes narrowing knowingly.  “Let me know how you like it.”

(To be continued.)

* Please see https://scribedoll.com/2023/02/12/feasts-fancies-chocolate-notes/

Chocolat à l’Orange

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)

Makes two 150 ml glasses:

❧  2 teaspoons of raw organic cacao (100%)

❧ Grated rind of half an orange

❧ Whipping cream (oat or dairy)

❧ ½ teaspoon of honey

❧ A little grated nutmeg to taste

❧ Boiling water

Boil the kettle and let it stand for 20-30 seconds or so before pouring the hot water into a glass where you have already spooned the cacao and the grated orange rind mixed with the honey.  Stir thoroughly, then let stand for a few seconds.  Carefully spoon dollops of whipped cream so it floats on top of the hot chocolate.  Add a dusting of powdered nutmeg and, if you wish, you can decorate with a little more grated orange rind.  

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My acupuncturist  takes a quick look at my tongue. “You’ve got a low blood count,” she says. 

I smile with admiration: my GP had to draw blood, bruise my arm and have the lab process the sample for a whole week before working that out.

The acupuncturist carries on her diagnosis with remarkable accuracy.  As part of her list of suggestions, she advises me to have chicken soup. 

“I very seldom eat meat – I haven’t liked it since I was a baby,” I reply.

“Well, try it,” she says, “and see how you get on.  Only make sure you boil a whole chicken, to get all its goodness.”

“Dearest, will you make us some chicken soup, please?” I say to Howard – a meat eater – as soon as I’m back home.

Once he’s processed his surprise at my request for meat and my explanation for it, he stares at me, his eyes momentarily blank behind his glasses.  “Why can’t we just buy some ready-made?” he suggests, clearly trying to be helpful.

“Because this is supposed to be for my health, so not something from a plastic tub, full of additives and preservatives.  In fact, we’d better get an organic chicken.  So will you make us some chicken soup, please? You keep talking about the one your mother used to make, with Kneidel –”

I don’t know how to make chicken soup!”

It’s my turn to look blank, then I reply, “Your family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland – how can you not know how to make chicken soup?!”

“My mother was the one who made it.”

“And didn’t you ever watch her in the kitchen and learn?” I say and immediately realise the futility of my question when addressed to a man.  I remember, not without resentment, the hours spent – under duress – in our family kitchen.  My Armenian grandmother would say, in a self-satisfied tone, “Watch, Katia.  Watch and learn.”  Being a girl can be so unfair.

“Where can I buy an organic chicken?” I ask no one in particular.

Howard gives a constructive shrug.  He’s too much of a gentleman to point out that I couldn’t make filo pastry if you paid me, even though I am of Armenian heritage.

“Okay, I’ll go and find one – and a recipe – but I’ve never handled raw meat, so you’ll cook it, right?”

Howard nods with deliberate obligingness.

Before my irritation degenerates into an accusatory rant, I grab the shopping bag and venture to the largest supermarket.

An hour later, there’s a small, allegedly organic chicken on our kitchen counter.  I’m on the phone to my friend Sue.  

“Now whatever you do, don’t wash it first,” she says.

“Oh, but my grandmother always used to wash meat thoroughly before cooking it.”

“So did my mother.”

“Then why?–”

“They’re now saying it’s safer not to.”


“Yes.  They tell you to cover every surface with clingfilm, and if any raw chicken touches anything at all, then make sure you clean it with anti-bacterial detergent.”

I suddenly remember stories of the extraordinary precautions taken by my mother, when giving me the polio vaccine when I was a baby.  Holding my hands to prevent me from putting them in my mouth.  Boiling or burning any contaminated bibs, towels or kitchen utensils.

“Why do people eat chicken if it’s so dangerous?” I inevitably ask.

“Oh, it’s perfectly safe.  They just tell you to be very careful because of the bacteria.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

“The experts.”

After half an hour on the phone, I read out all the health and safety instructions to Howard. “Oh, yes, everybody knows that!” he says, casually.

I briefly consider hurling the chicken at him, then remember that, at all other times, I do love my husband.

I watch him at work.  As he cuts the string that holds the dead bird together, its limbs suddenly pop apart.  I gasp and jump back.  Perhaps I should leave the kitchen… No, I’d better watch and learn.

We take our largest pot but even that doesn’t look big enough to contain the chicken.  Howard stuffs it in with difficulty.  I hear something crack and feel nauseous.  I struggle to remember why I suggested all of this in the first place.  We cover it with water.  As it starts boiling, some disgusting-looking froth forms on the surface.  Neither of us knows what to do with it, so we take the executive decision of skimming it off with a spoon and throwing it down the sink.

Then something unexpected and terrifying happens.  The chicken, the dead chicken, slowly starts to move of its own accord.  It spreads its wings, its legs rise over the edge of the pan, and the whole carcass floats up.  

“What the hell is that?” I say, wondering if I should reach out for the rolling pin.

Howard is very calm.  “I don’t know,” he replies, “but I definitely think we should add some pearl barley.”

An hour later, the flat is heavy with the smell of fat, the sick ward in a hospital, the sour, musty smell of a second-hand clothes shop.  We sit down to eat.  I stare into the swirls of fat forming paisley patterns in my bowl, stir the slippery barley, keep telling myself this is good for me.  I finally muster the courage to lift the spoon to my lips.

Howard beams as he wolfs down his second bowl of soup and reaches out for a third helping.  “Mmm… Just like the soup my mother used to make,” he says, dewy-eyed.  

I push my bowl away.  The yellowish, viscous liquid has gone cold. 

I go and raid the kitchen for bread, cheese, olive oil and olives. 


That was seven years ago.  We have since perfected the science of chicken soup to a version we both enjoy thanks to mushrooms, which both like, and a leafy green plant that often provokes strong disagreements in our household: spinach.  I could eat it morning, noon and night.  Howard dislikes it intensely unless its flavour is toned down by other ingredients.  The following chicken soup is our current happy compromise.



❧ Chicken broth 

(I make ours by boiling leftover bones and skin after Howard has made his superb  roast chicken.)

❧ Spinach

❧ Mushrooms

❧ Haricot beans

❧ Butter

❧ Salt, pepper

❧ Oat (or dairy single) cream

Soak the haricot beans overnight, then boil in salted water until soft.

Wash the mushrooms thoroughly, cutting off the very ends of the stalks, slice them, then fry them gently in a little butter, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Wash the spinach thoroughly, drain the excess water, stew for a few minutes until wilted, then cut into tiny pieces with a knife and fork (or put into a blender).

Add the cooked spinach, mushrooms and haricot beans to the chicken broth, bring to boil and simmer gently for a little while (I usually leave it for 20 or so minutes), to allow the soup to come into its own.  

When serving, add cream to taste.

I like to make this soup the day before I need it, because I find that it always tastes better the next day (needless to say, this soup has to be kept refrigerated once cooled).  I sometimes add potatoes or a little brown rice, to make it thicker.

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In Lasse Hallström’s heartwarming film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Helen Mirren plays Mme Mallory, a Michelin-star restaurant owner with very definite ideas about what cooking should be.  Before she decides whether or not to employ a new cook, she sets them a task: to make her an omelette.  Just one mouthful and she knows whether the cook has the required talent to become a chef. 

One of the best omelettes I’ve ever had was in Paris, in a family restaurant in the Marais district, called Robert et Louise. It was a mushroom omelette: simple yet rich in flavour. But then everything there, even the house red, was a caress to the palate, a pleasurable rub to the belly.

At this stage I must confess something which would no doubt immediately disqualify me in Mme Mallory’s eyes – it certainly disappointed my husband early in our relationship: in general, I don’t like omelette cooked in butter.  Olive oil, please.  Extra virgin, dark green, deep with a note of bitterness.  Oh, and I don’t like my omelette folded while cooking either, to produce that fluffy centre.  I prefer it cooked evenly on both sides, enough to for it to be a dark golden-brown. 

Despite the current much-covered fresh food shortages in England, something we have so far in abundance in good supermarkets is packets of fresh herbs.  I love herbs.  My dream is to have a herb garden.  I did try starting one on our balcony, but our roof is the Norwich centre for feral pigeons, who dig up anything I sow and crap on the rest.  After four years of creative negotiations, trying to persuade them to move their headquarters to a different location, we’ve had to accept cohabitation with the flying creatures.  Apparently, we should take their presence as a great compliment, since pigeons roost only where they feel safe.

A herb garden is like a French parfumerie, only much better.  It’s like a garden full of fairies, each with its own spirit, its own personality, ready to cast its own individual spell.  Next time you walk past a rosemary bush, stroke it then lift your fingers to your nose and breathe in its smell of home, of cosiness, of safety.  The leaves of fresh oregano are like velvet, and smell like pizza, like the Trevi Fountain on a spring evening, like a Roman love song sung by a gravelly mezzo-soprano.  Basil is brash, bright, uncompromising.  Have you ever drunk a glass of cool water after chewing fresh tarragon? It tastes silvery, irridescent, like a glassful of moonlight.  I could (and at some point will) go on.

This is one of my favourite omelettes.  It’s not Michelin-star standard, but if you like fresh herbs, you may find it to your taste.  Howard asked me what it’s called, and I said flippantly –

OMELETTE à la Gregoryan

Your fairy assistants: 

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)

❧ 3 Eggs

❧ Basil

❧ Flat leaf parsley

❧ Sage

❧ Oregano

❧ Tarragon

❧ Rosemary (just a tiny amount)

❧ Thyme

❧ Dried capers

❧ 2 Sundried tomatoes

❧ 1 -2 Cloves of garlic

❧ Olive oil

❧ Salt, pepper  

Soak the sundried tomatoes in a cup of boiling water for twenty minutes or so, to soften them a little.  Sundried tomatoes lift the overall tone of a meal and, if used very sparingly, do not overwhelm it like fresh tomatoes.  Besides, if, like me, you live in a cold climate, sundried tomatoes are at least an assurance of flavour fresh tomatoes can’t always give, since they’re either grown under plastic, picked while still green to be shipped across the Channel or seriously deficient in sunlight. 

Chop all the herbs as finely as you can, mix them all together on your board and chop them some more.  Allow them to produce a perfume symphony, a togetherness with each individual scent discernable, complementing the others.  Add finely chopped or crushed garlic.  Garlic is the strong personality you invite to your table to ensure the conversation is bubbly.  

Drain the sundried tomatoes and slice them into tiny strips. 

Break the eggs into a bowl, then whisk them until slightly frothy.  Add all the herbal mixture and the sundried tomatoes, as well as a small tablespoon of dried capers (please note that if these are already salted, you will not need to add salt to the omelette – I learnt that the hard way).  If you like, add just a couple of twists of freshly milled black pepper – just a couple of twists, black pepper can be a bully if allowed free rein.  Let the concoction rest for five minutes, so the ingredients get acquainted enough to make a good team.

Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and once it’s warm enough to emit its fruity smell, pour in the mixture.  Turn down the heat to medium so it cajoles your omelette into frying instead of attacking it.  Once one side is a nice golden-brown, turn the omelette over and wait for the other side to cook till golden.  

Serve.  Eat slowly, with respect and wonder, allowing each ingredient to sing its solo to you, each flavour to whisper something beautiful.  

If you have enjoyed this post a little, please leave a comment.  If you have enjoyed it more than just a little, please share it.  I will appreciate it. 

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Another thing that never ceases to surprise me in England is the amount of processed food consumed.  I remember that it struck me even when I first arrived here, nearly forty years ago.  In most homes, the world-famous English custard was made up from powder, meat gravy from granules.  When people proudly served home made mince pies, I discovered that these were generally filled with shop-bought mincemeat.  I also realised that most people buy tinned pulses instead of a packet of dried ones to soak overnight, come Dio comanda*, as the Italians would say.  I’m told it’s a hassle to have to soak beans overnight.  What’s easier than covering them with water and doing nothing for 10-12 hours?

Convenience and pre-packaged foods were and still are very popular.  My personal bête noire is pre-peeled, frozen potatoes, ready to stick in the oven.  I mean pulleeease… Yes, people work and food preparation is very time consuming. Moreover, the proportion between preparation and eating time is frustratingly uneven, and unfair.  You spend at least half an hour or even an hour crafting a dish you then eat in fifteen minutes.  That’s not counting washing up time.  But, surely, isn’t it better, healthier, to have a freshly-made, plain omelette than something out of a plastic tub covered in clingfilm you have to pierce in several spots then stick in a microwave? 

Sadly – and to the shame of our Government – the popularity of processed foods is largely due to poverty.  Perversely, the more processed, the more filled with additives and chemicals, the cheaper it is.   Cooking from scratch is expensive.  Eating natural, fresh produce is becoming more and more costly.  It used to be the case that only the rich could afford sophisticated, refined foods, while the poor fed on wholesome, even if scarce, fruit and vegetables.  It is now the other way around. 

Taking this important, unforgivable reality of 21st-century Britain into account, it is perhaps also true that, unlike in France and Italy, cooking from scratch is not exactly part of British culture.

I have a full-time job that all too often stands in the way, preventing me access to my life, so I certainly don’t cook elaborate meals every day.  Spaghetti drizzled with olive oil with roughly flaked parmesan (because I am too lazy to grate it) and fried eggs on toast or with half an avocado frequently feature on our table.  As are scrambled eggs with rice. During our long, cold winters, hearty soups are always popular, since I can make enough to last three days… so – yippee! – no cooking required for two of them.  The washing up is also minimal: only 1 bowl + 1 spoon per person.

Sometimes, a simple soup, stew and even sauce can be vastly improved with good stock.  Here again, it sounds complicated but making vegetable stock from scratch is one of the simplest things in the world… and the most pleasing to your olfaction.

* As God ordains.


Your allies: 

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)

❧ Parsley

❧ Rosemary

❧ Bay leaves

❧ Thyme

❧ Sage

❧ Oregano

❧ Dried porcini mushrooms

❧ Sundried tomatoes

❧ Celery

❧ Carrot

❧ Onion

❧ Garlic

❧ Peppercorns

❧ Salt (just a pinch)

❧ 1 litre of water

The above ingredients are what I used to make my own batch of stock a couple of weeks ago.  It will last us at least six months, and next time I make it, the components may be different.  Making vegetable stock is an exercise in improvisation and using up whatever you may have left in your fridge vegetable drawer and herb rack.  In this case, I used fresh herbs because I happened to have some.  Usually, I use dried ones.  They are, of course, stronger, so for 1 litre of water, I would recommend 1 teaspoon of each herb, a couple of bay leaves, and three peppercorns.  Tweak as you see fit.  Have fun with it.

If you’re using fresh herbs, chop them very roughly – not forgetting to breathe in the aroma they leave on your fingertips – and put them into a saucepan.  Peel 1 medium-sized carrot, 1 onion (cut it in half) and three large cloves of garlic and add these to the pan, together with two small bay leaves, 3 or 4 celery sticks (ideally with the leaves left on), a few dried porcini mushrooms and a couple of sundried tomatoes.  3 peppercorns and just a small pinch of salt will help bring out all the flavours even more.  

Cover with 1 litre of water, bring to boil and simmer on a very low heat for 15-20 minutes, taking care the water doesn’t evaporate too much.  Then turn off the heat, cover the pan.  I then let it stand either overnight or all day, to allow all the fragrances and flavours to perform their alchemy.  Of course, if your kitchen is warm, you will need to refrigerate the stock as soon as it has cooled down.

Once cold, strain into a jug, discarding the herbs, peppercorns and vegetables, and decant the broth into ice-cube trays.  Once the liquid is frozen, store in an appropriate container in the freezer compartment of your fridge.  

Whenever you need to add stock to your recipe, just use 1 or 2 (or more) iced stock cubes.

It’s as easy as that.

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Feasts & Fancies: Chocolate Notes

One of my favourite haunts is Chocolate Notes.  

Norwich, where we live, could possibly be described as the city that always sleeps, in that – unless you resort to a chain (and I prefer independent cafés) – it’s near impossible to have breakfast before about 8 a.m. because everywhere is still closed, and quite a challenge to have afternoon tea after 4 p.m., because most places close around about then.  The beauty of Chocolate Notes is that you can enjoy a steaming bol of chocolate with a freshly baked, buttered baguette as early as 7 a.m., while being gently woken up by a cello suite by J. S. Bach, and pop in for a late night malted cocoa just before midnight, lulled by soft madrigals by Byrd or Gibbons, before a slow stroll home across a ghost town where you can hear your footsteps tip-tap on the flint cobblestones and meet only the odd prowling cat.  During the day, I often pop in for a “choc-express”: a large thimble-size shot of black, 100% raw cacao, knocked back while standing at the counter, the way Italians get their fix of coffee in bars in Rome.  It is also the only place in town where you can sit and read all the main international broadsheets. They even have the literary supplements.  Consequently, the café area is like a miniature version of London, where you can hear several languages being spoken at any one time. 

Chocolate Notes is a hot chocolate and classical CD shop in one.  The owner, Fiamma, a viol player, lived in about twenty different countries and on at least three continents before moving to Norwich.  “I fell in love with the dramatic, shapeshifting skies,” she says, brushing her mane of wavy, pre-Raphaelite red hair over one shoulder. “I like having 180º of sky when I step out of the house.” 

Whether you’re a fan of concertos, symphonies, opera, lieder or Early Music, Fiamma either stocks it or can order it for the following week.

As well as being one the very, very few shops in the UK where you can not only purchase real, physical CDs, but also listen to a couple of tracks on state-of-the-art heaphones before buying them, Chocolate Notes is probably the world’s only hot chocolate café – and what a café.  The board behind the bar lists about twenty different options, all made from 100% organic cacao beans.  White chocolate with ginger or nutmeg; thick dark chocolate with a soupçon of cayenne and a dollop of crème fraîche; dark, bitter chocolate with a twist of mint; rich, medium brown chocolate perfumed with orange peel;  the “choc-express” mentioned earlier: 100% raw cacao and water, served in small espresso cups.  These are just a few and let’s not forget the “Guest Hot Chocolate of the Month”, which has included “HazelChoc”, “Morello Cherry Velvet” and “Coconut Fancy”.  Of course, there also the liqueur versions.    Like Belgian beers, every hot chocolate comes in its own special signature mug, cup or glass.

Most drinks are unsugared, unsweetened.  “You’d never dream of serving pre-sweetened coffee,” Fiamma says, raising an eyebrow, “so why not equally leave people the freedom to add sweetness to their hot chocolate if they wish to – or let them have it black if they choose?” 

On this front, there is a wide range of options available: golden sugar, dark moscovado sugar, date syrup, honey and maple syrup.  

I am a chocolate lover who never used to order hot chocolate because I always found it too sweet, so for me Chocolate Notes is a dream come true*.  I often go there in the evening, after dinner, and sit at a corner table and write.  “Just pick a drink for me,” I tell Fiamma.  She’ll ask me what I’m writing, and usually bring me my favourite:

Hot Chocolate with Cardamom   

(this one is for my dear friends Lee and Jane, who love hot chocolate)

Your essentials for one mug of hot chocolate:

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)

❧ Either goat’s or full-fat milk 

❧ 1 heaped teaspoon of raw, preferably organic cacao

❧ 1 teaspoon of date syrup

❧ 3 or 4 cardamom pods

❧ a non-stick milk pan

❧ a non-scratch whisk

❧ a little patience

Crush the cardamom pods with a pestle in a mortar.  I tend to remove the shells before putting the seeds into the pan because I like chewing them, but if you’re planning on straining the drink before serving it, then you can throw everything into the pan, although I recommend crushing the cardamom first to release the fragrance.

Once the cardamom is in the pan, add the cacao and the date syrup.  Cover with milk and let it stand for five or ten minutes.  Give the ingredients time to get acquainted.

Put the pan on a medium-low heat and start stirring slowly with the whisk.  Don’t rush, let the milk warm in its own time, the cardamom release its flavour, the cacao blend in, the date syrup give the brownness a hint of red.  Heat it for about ten minutes, stirring slowly, rhythmically, respectfully.  Watch for the first bubble (don’t let the milk boil – it will impair the flavour) and remove from the hob.  Strain if you don’t want the cardamom in your cup.  

Serve this hot chocolate in the kind of mug or cup you want to curl your fingers around, your palms to hug.

* Err…. not yet.

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