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Got the cooking blues?

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How do you feel about being in your kitchen this weekend? Are you looking forward to creating another tasty family meal or perhaps an extravagant dinner party menu? Or do you have the cooking tedium blues I seem to run in to every now and then?

Sometimes deciding on, shopping for, and cooking yet another meal makes me want to scream… or at least grumble and whinge loudly. But a recent visit to a National Trust property in Cornwall helped put things in perspective!

Lanhydrock’s fascinating history has been beautifully recreated in interiors fashioned by its former Victorian/Edwardian owners, so we were able to immerse ourselves in the family’s storyline. But after traipsing through room after room dedicated solely to the production of food – nine in total – my other half queried incredulously: “So, how many people were they cooking for?”

The upstairs/downstairs divide

It was a pertinent question. This family of two parents and nine children, along with innumerable ‘downstairs’ servants, all needed to be fed. Actually, ‘fed’ is something of a misnomer. Wealthy Edwardian families feasted on several huge meals a day, interrupted only by teatimes, evening appetisers and late suppers.

And the implications of such output for the cook (and her helpers, if she had any) were staggering. Everything had to be made by hand. Every can (oops, sorry – no cans in those days), jar, bottle, tub, tray or dish of anything used in the kitchens was produced by her, down to the butter, jam and clotted cream in those gloriously-indulgent Cornish cream teas!

Little wonder servants were up before dawn, retired to bed only after the last family member, and were treated to just one afternoon off a week.

Modern technology

After a devastating fire in 1881, Lanhydrock’s owner commissioned repairs that incorporated the latest technology for the times, including new range ovens, heated cupboards (connected to central heating pipes) for warming the food and plates, and a high-gabled kitchen roof with louvre windows to remove hot air. The massive roasting spit was particularly impressive, with the rotisserie being turned by a fan located in the flue above the fire.

But the mod-cons don’t appear to have made life any easier for those toiling in the extensive kitchens, which comprised a scullery (with yet another, smaller range oven); a bake-house for a constant supply of biscuits and cakes (the oven took four days to bring to temperature); a pastry room; a still room for making jams, chutneys, jellies and broths; and a meat larder.

For ‘refrigeration’ there was a pantry room with cool slate slabs for storing cooked foods and an ice chest for making ice cream; a dairy scullery where butter and clotted cream were made and the milk kept in pans in cold water; and finally a dairy room where jellies, mousses, cold puddings, soups, custards, milk puddings and the cream and butter were all stored on marble slabs and over slate runnels cooled by spring water piped from outside the house.

Whew! I’ll think about that next time I sit down for a quick cup of coffee and a warm scone oozing jam and cream! And tonight, if I don’t feel like spending time in the kitchen, I’ll open a can, throw its contents into a pot with some other ready-prepared item, perhaps add a little chopped this and that, and dinner will be on the table.

For that I’m immensely grateful.


Of bakers and bikers

The Hairy Bikers' chocolate & hazelnut cake (pic from:

When I first heard about the Hairy Bikers, the mental image of portly, leather-clad motorbike riders with excess facial hair was not something I wanted to associate with cooking. Actually, if I’m truthful, the thought slightly turned my stomach.

But I can now cheerfully confess that Tuesday evenings in the Koeksister household have been particularly agreeable since the Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation cookery series began airing on BBC Two. Since being introduced to Dave Myers and Si King, I’ve discovered how surprisingly enjoyable they are to watch.

What makes Bakeation a gem in the plethora of cookery shows out there, I believe, is the successful combination of four elements: interesting multicultural dishes that are accessible to regular cooks like me, beautiful European scenery (with bits of historical background info thrown in), the light-hearted repartee between the two down-to-earth northerners, and the friendly chats they have with some of the best artisan bakers on the continent.

My baking skills are only just passable… in fact, pastry and I have a rather hostile relationship, so I will not be attempting all the recipes Dave and Si have demonstrated!

But being able to experience beautiful and diverse destinations while being introduced to the delectable culinary delights of these nations (and potentially recreating some of them for my own table) is immensely appealing to me. And that probably goes for most of us.

Last week I was ooh-ing and ah-ing over the glorious French sunshine under which the bikers cooked fresh, ripe apricots into a delicious tarte tatin. In another episode I drooled over a Belgian chocolate truffle cheesecake made in the heart of chocolate-laden Bruges. And after the Germany show Mr Koeksister pleaded for homemade ‘bierocks’ – meat and cabbage filling inside a dough casing, brushed with melted butter and served with Bavarian beer. Could it get much better than that?

The last episode of the Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation flights this Tuesday, 1 May 2012, and features their ride through Spain. For recipes from the shows, go to the BBC’s website here.

Do you follow any television cooks or chefs? Do they inspire you in your cooking? Who do you enjoy watching and why?