Friday, 23 October 2009

Schwarzwälder Schinken*

Emboldened by wearing my new carmine corduroy trousers, I am able to confess another culinary failure.

The other day I made another batch of meat stock. Now that we have moved to Buckingham this is easy, because Clays our butchers sells large packets of chicken and beef bones for only fifty pence each. Among the vegetables I got for the stock pot were a couple of leeks, of which only the top, green, part was used. The bottom, white, part I cooked slightly and put in the fridge for later in the week.

When preparing yesterday's dinner I took the leeks and split them lengthwise, then wrapped each bit in one and a half slices of *Black Forest ham from a packet given to us by a friend clearing out her fridge before going off on holiday. I laid the four rolls side by side in one of my copper gratin dishes, poured mornay sauce over them, put the dish in the oven for twenty minutes and finished it off with five minutes under the grill.

It was horrid. Perhaps the leeks were still slightly too al dente: but then, there is nothing more slimy than overcooked leeks. Perhaps it was because the ham was coarsely cut and was over-smoked. But probably it was because of the memories stirred of a fortnight's holiday spent hard by the Black Forest in the summer of 2004. The taste of it brought memories flooding back: it was a madeleine moment.

In those days we belonged to Intervac, an association which enables you to exchange houses for a period with people anywhere in the world. In 2003 we had had a splendid holiday in the Barrio Gotico in Barcelona, despite the flat being up 68 steps. That winter, before we had started looking for another such holiday, we received an exchange proposal from a woman from Freiburg im Breisgau in south western Germany. She ran a cultural outfit, the Deutsch-Japanischer Kulturverein, and I dreamed that she might be interested in the language-learning website I was then working on. I raised doubts about the proposal, saying that I preferred exchanges to countries where I spoke the language, but she countered by saying that this would be a splendid opportunity to acquire some German and, no, I was not too old to start: after all, we joked, Cato the Elder had started learning Greek at the age of 80.

So it was arranged; we went; we arrived at a narrow town house in a modern suburb: the interior was aseptic and austere. The terrace was 50 yards from a railway track, busy at night, about which we had not been told. The weather was very hot; we could not comfortably close the bedroom window to try to keep out the rumble of the goods trains; we spent as much time as possible during the day away from the house; the city itself, largely rebuilt since the war, held few attractions.

Two days before we were due to start for home there was a phone call. "Anthony, this is Pamela: we want to come back now." "That's fine, Pamela," I replied, "but may I ask why?" "Certainly, Anthony: your house is filthy."

There is little you can usefully say on the phone in response to a remark like that. I did not consider it helpful to bring Julia to the phone so I swiftly agreed that they could set off at once. We left straight away as well and crossed the Rhine into Alsace where we spent two blissful days before returning to Richmond.

We arrived to find our house festooned with Post-it notes.

"This mirror is dirty down here: it's got children's fingerprints on it"

"This dust could not have got on top of these books in a fortnight"

"This [bathroom scales] has got grime underneath"

And so, pettifoggingly, on. I suggested keeping all the notes to use as a party game at Christmas: "Find where each of these should go". Julia, understandably, was very angry with Pamela and destroyed them.

A week later we got an e-mail from Intervac saying that Pamela had lodged a formal complaint with them. There really was no point in trying to rebut her claims. We resigned from Intervac and I drafted an e-mail, to be sent on 30 November 2004. "Pamela, take great care tonight. Fifty years ago the Royal Air Force destroyed the centre of your city: tonight they come back to target Zähringen." I didn't send the e-mail.

The whole sorry incident was recalled yesterday evening by the horrid dish I had cooked. But, as the Italians say, la vendetta è un piatto che va servito freddo. This post on my blog now enables me to lance the boil and serve our dish five years very cold.

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