Some years ago, I discovered something. That all vegetables and almost all fruit last better just left somewhere cool and airy and maybe covered with something - a tea towel perhaps. I only keep lettuce and cucumber in the fridge. And more recently, I have discovered something else which is that the CEO of Sainsburys and also some food standards expert (in the wake of the recent debate about our profligate use of plastic as food packaging) were talking nonsense when they said that vacuum sealed cucumbers give them longer life. The real reason they pack them like that is below. Anyway, to test this claim, I bought two vacuum-sealed cucumbers at the same time in the same supermarket, took them home, unwrapped one, put them both in the fridge and left them for a week. After a week the unwrapped one got a bit floppy and the wrapped one had begun to rot at one end. I have done similar less rigorous experiments since - just to see if that was an accident or if I had cheated in some way. I might have put the end of the sealed cucumber in some boiling water for a minute. I’m not above cheating in pursuit of the truth. But it was clear; cucumbers keep better unsealed. And just for the record the floppy unwrapped one tasted a bit better too and was crunchier than you might have thought.
Not that either tasted of much at all. Apart from the cucumbers my friend Michelle grows on her allotment and whom I help from time to time and they are those creamy coloured small egg shaped ones, the best cucumbers are those small prickly ones most organic growers grow and which you can get in almost any decent organic veg store. And of course you don’t keep them for weeks but you eat them: sliced with tarragon, peeled with dill, pickled with a little lemon or white wine vinegar, in a sandwich with black pepper and marmite and butter, peeled and finely diced with tomato, mint and couscous and feta… And it’s all gone in a couple days.
What reminded me of this is that this evening I made a baked eggs Florentine dish. I helped myself to spinach and eggs from the farm shop here at Coleshill. It’s one of those honesty farm shops. It’s a joy to not know what you are going to cook and go in such a place and be able to make up a supper just looking at everything. Chard, sweet corn, carrots, black and green French beans, spinach, three different varieties of tomato, two of beetroot, potatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, cucumbers, squash, courgettes, apples…..I’m sitting here in the wagon trying now to remember what was on the shelves and in the boxes. Like pelmanism. I know there was more than that but this will do. The point is that you will never get better produce than this. Anywhere. And the reason supermarket cucumbers are vacuum-sealed is to make them travel to the supermarket from wherever they have been grown , so they don’t bruise as much. I get that. Up to a point. A bit of imagination and a bit more valuing of a product, someone might be bothered to find another way to transport them safely so they didn’t bruise. And if they tasted like anything and we spent a little more time using our imagination about what to do with them, we might eat them more and the shelf-life issue would become the fairy tale that it is. And I know not everyone can wander up the garden and help themselves to lovely organic produce either. Just making a point is all. If we want change - to the use of plastic etc, then we have to think differently and stop being lazy and indifferent. Anyway, have a go at this one; Fresh organic eggs, proper (not baby) fresh spinach and some decent floury potatoes. But here’s a story first.
Baked eggs Florentine
The old man stood with his back to the fire, his tall figure slightly stooped, its weight on one leg, head forward. He was looking into his gin and tonic. As if it might bring something else to mind than the thing he was thinking. Something happier. The fire hissed and spat as it gathered heat into itself. The logs which the boy had brought into to the house were not properly dried out. Some of them still had moss on them. They were a mixture of birch, elm and oak. At the beginning of the summer the boy had cut these logs over a saw-horse with a bow-saw whose blade had been sharpened by the old man, one tooth at a time, with a thin pencil-like file. The boy and the old man had stacked the logs by the workshop and covered them with a tarpaulin against the rain. And on sunny days the old man or the boy would take the tarpaulin off.
Eventually the fire settled, began to blaze and allowed heat into the room. It was early October and still warm, barely the weather for a fire, but the boy knew the old man well enough and had lit one anyway.
While the old man was standing in front of the fire, the boy was preparing supper in the kitchen. For such a large house (it had a flower room and a library in it as well as many bedrooms), it was a very small kitchen. Many years before this time the old man had made a seat, fitting it into the wall, a seat with 2 foot high sides on which two children could sit in together. The seat had a maroon coloured cushion on it which just fitted. And because of this seat, the pine kitchen table took up less space in the room. Already though, the boy knew that small spaces work well for cooks. You could turn round and what you needed would be there or only a step away by the sink. He also knew how to gather together everything you needed first. On the table were eggs, butter, potatoes, an onion and some spinach. The boy washed the potatoes clean under running cold water, looking out of the low kitchen window from time to time, imagining the sun setting behind the poplar trees. And then he put the potatoes in a saucepan with some more cold water, lifted the lid of the Rayburn, put the saucepan on the ring for the potatoes to cook, sat down at the table and looked at the recipe in the cookery book.
It was for baked eggs Florentine and had some scribbled writing down the margin: 1 onion, ½ pound spinach, nutmeg, make feesh. Make dish? Make something anyway. The boy couldn’t read the writing. The cookery book had belonged to the old man’s wife. As he was reading the recipe, the boy suddenly remembered her cooking egg noodles, draining them over this same sink and tossing them in butter in the saucepan and adding pepper and he remembered the smell of it. He also remembered her laughing. She seemed to have found life endlessly amusing and entertaining but also found it annoying and she flew to rage quite often.
She was dead now though and the old man couldn’t cook and the boy could. Or rather he was learning. Through having watched and tasted and listened. Not just to voices but to the sounds of cooking; of a knife through an apple or the noisy juddering of water captured on the bottom of a saucepan as you put it on the flat cast iron of a stove ring.
So the boy made baked eggs Florentine for the first time. The eggs were over-cooked and rubbery and there was too much nutmeg. But they were good all the same. The spinach was soft and tasted of iron and butter and earth and the old man and the boy drank red wine and talked about the next day’s work in the garden.
Baked eggs Florentine
This recipe is adapted from my grandmother’s 1959 Good Housekeeping Cookery Book. It could be a high tea or a light supper. It’s also a great dish to make for someone who is feeling a bit miserable. Eggs Florentine proper (see below) are also good for this condition.
700g potatoes, scrubbed or peeled
1 onion finely sliced
50ml crème fraiche
2 tsp Dijon mustard
500g spinach, washed
Cut the potatoes into ½ cm thick slices and cook them in as little lightly seasoned water as you can or steam them until soft. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add the butter and then the sliced onion and cook gently till soft and just coloured. Add the crème fraiche and mustard, stir well, add back the potatoes, toss gently and then transfer the whole to a suitably sized baking dish.
In the same pan, cook the spinach; just a splash of water, high heat, stirring occasionally, lid on occasionally, until cooked. There should only be just a little liquor; drain it into the baking dish.
Spread the spinach over the potatoes. Make four wells for the eggs, put a nob of butter into each and then the eggs. Bake at about 160 for 20 minutes or until the whites have just set and the yolk is still running.