I was pretty excited to find my name in the Guardian this week. Food and wine writer Fiona Beckett, who also wrote the student cookbook 'Beyond Baked Beans' and has a website of the same name devoted to student cooking, featured me and Nutmegs, seven in the article 'A new generation of student cooks?' You can read it here if you're interested.
I enjoyed both the article and - even more so - reading the comments underneath, to hear about others' experiences of the world of student cookery. Some of them sounded truly disastrous, and make my minor incidents (freezer left open, pan left full of used oil for days on end, rancid rotten fish smell coming from my sodden teatowel, washing up never done) pale in comparison.
Actually no. Nothing pales in comparison to that towel incident. Lord only knows what hideous atrocities were inflicted upon my poor teatowel to make it smell like that. Had it been left inside the festering innards of a dead whale for three months?
I always kind of forget that I learned most of my cooking skills as a student. I didn't think student food bloggers were few and far between, and certainly never thought of myself as special because I was both a student and could cook. I think I was just incredibly lucky to have had several like-minded friends, whose interest in food went beyond the kebab van and the tub of microwaveable Dolmio sauce. Like the friend who spattered the kitchen in mammalian blood while attempting jugged hare. Or the friend who actually suggested we go to a farmers' market together (most students never having contemplated such a thing, and certainly not prepared to cycle across town for farm-fresh eggs and smoked rapeseed oil). I'm pretty sure all of my friends knew how to boil an egg. Although that may not just be coincidence - if they hadn't been able to boil an egg, they probably wouldn't have passed my stringent friendship vetting process.
Because I can barely remember pre-student life, I feel like I've always been a student. I keep forgetting that I'm not any more. Today I bought some pears off a man at the market, and he looked at me earnestly and said "I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you a student by any chance?" It took me a few seconds of sad contemplation before I had to admit "No, no I'm not". Desperately trying to make myself still feel young and cool, I added "any more". As if, from those two words, he'd know that I am practically still a student - it's only three months since I handed in my Masters dissertation, and technically term hasn't started yet so I could still be a student, just waiting to go back to university.
It's kind of tragic, really, that I am now desperate for total strangers to perceive me as a fresh-faced graduate, barely out of university, still in touch with that hip student lifestyle.
As if. I don't think I was ever your typical cool student (I just used the word 'hip', for example). The last time I went clubbing was in my first year. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been drunk at university. Instead of an alcohol budget, I had a budget for fruit and fresh flowers. Yes, really. (Lilies are my favourite, though I do like a nice bunch of tulips. Preferably a reddish pink colour with yellow tips.) I rarely went to bed after 1am, I rarely lay in past 9am. I never ate a single kebab, ready meal or takeaway pizza. My idea of heaven was an evening in with a cup of tea, some chocolate and some food TV on iPlayer. I spent more time in the kitchen than I did in the pub. I spent more time in the swimming pool than I did in the pub.
I kind of feel I need a disclaimer at this point announcing that I did, in fact, have some friends. Maybe if they're reading this, they could leave a comment. Just to prove their existence.
It's interesting to look at those comments on Fiona's article. I do think the image of students who can't even make toast is horribly outdated now. At least, I really like to think it is, because the idea of anyone not being able to effect the most basic of kitchen skills makes me a bit depressed. I suppose I just assume that everyone knows how to cook pasta, eggs, toast, stews, stir-fries, bacon sandwiches (no, you don't put the raw bacon between the slices of bread and then chuck the whole thing in a sandwich toaster). To me it just seems like common sense. But I suppose if you've never had anyone teach you those things, nor have never needed to learn because your parents did it all for you, then why would you know?
I also assume that everyone knows not to put metal in the microwave. However, this was sadly disproven to me when I witnessed my housemate last year standing by calmly while the metal takeaway tray she'd put in the microwave sizzled and sparked like a bolt of lightning. I leapt up from the table and turned the microwave off, and she looked most displeased. "Don't you know you can't put metal in a microwave?!" I asked in disbelief. "Really? Oh...I've been doing it for weeks and it's been fine..."
Readers, you are very lucky that I am actually alive, and was not burned in my bed some time over the past year.
What nobody seems to realise is that the enemy of student cooking is not money. It is logistics. Cooking for yourself is, as has been said time and time again, usually cheaper than buying ready meals or takeaways in the long run, especially if you cook in bulk and freeze it for later meals, or cook for large groups and share the cost. Most students have been given this advice on repeat; I'm pretty sure they're aware of the benefits.
Yet you may have all these good intentions about cooking for yourself, making your own bread, whipping up vast quantities of homemade pasta sauces and soups for the freezer, learning how to stir-fry...but if you share a tiny kitchenette comprising two hob rings and a microwave with twenty other students, as is a common scenario, then you may as well kiss those dreams goodbye. I struggled to share a perfectly decent and well-equipped kitchen with only eight other people in my second and third years. There just isn't enough space, it's impossible to have more than two people cooking at the same time, and there are bound to be fights for space at the six-chaired dinner table, especially if two people have both invited friends over.
I was lucky with my last kitchen as a graduate, because in our house of six I was the only person who used it. I think I had to share the kitchen twice in my entire year, and even then my boisterous, spoon-wielding, apron-clad presence was apparently so intimidating to one of my housemates that he felt the need to approach me timidly and ask in a tiny voice, "Is it OK for me to use your kitchen?" (in the same sort of way you might ask Lord Voldemort if it would be OK to throw a Harry Potter appreciation party) before daring to even take a pan out of the cupboard.
If universities really are serious about wanting students to cook, they need to give them better facilities. But that is unlikely to happen, especially at Oxford, because the colleges want the students to eat in hall and thereby increase their profits. I was lucky to have had a kitchen at all; there are several colleges who don't offer any in their accommodation. While to most students, at Oxford at least, this seems to be the norm, now that I think about it it's really quite shocking. Obviously I feel this way because food is my entire life, but being deprived of a kitchen seems to me akin to being deprived of running water or access to daylight; it's a basic human necessity and it seems outrageous that some students can't even make themselves a piece of toast if they've missed dinner in hall, or don't fancy the menu that night.
We can lament the state of student cooking until we're blue in the face, but until students are provided with decent facilities in which to cook, I can't see how we can expect them to start whipping up gourmet feasts. A George Foreman grill, toaster and microwave do not a kitchen make, though I've seen such set-ups described as "fully-equipped kitchen" in accommodation blurbs. Outrageous.
If that was all I was given to cook with, I'd damn well go to the kebab van too.
Off my soapbox and back to the things that really matter: crumbly buttery pastry; sticky warm figs; sweet tart raspberries; crunchy demerara sugar. I've never made a galette before but have always loved the idea: it's pie or tart for the lazy person. You make pastry, roll it out into a pleasingly uneven circle, stick some fruit in the middle, fold the edges up to partially enclose the fruit, sprinkle on some sugar and bake in the oven. The pastry turns golden and crisp, the fruit cooks down to a delightful warm juiciness, and the end result is mouthwateringly delicious.
I love the rusticity of the galette (or crostata, as I think they call them in Italy): the uneven folds of the pastry over the filling, the action of tucking your precious fruity treasure inside its little blanket of butter and flour, to slumber peacefully in the oven for thirty minutes. I love the versatility; almost any fruit would work in this recipe, and still look delightful. The problem with pie is that, until you slice it, you have no idea what's in it. It doesn't have that wow factor. Here, the fruit is boldly on display, to be marvelled at and salivated over.
The combination of figs and raspberries is heavenly. I've never tried it before, but there's something about the aroma of a cooked raspberry that is just irresistible. They smell like a sweet shop, somehow, taking on a wonderful candied scent as they emerge from the oven. The flavour is heightened, the sweetness intensified, and they make an excellent partner to the subtle flavour of a ripe fig. The combination just works. Add to that a pastry made from spelt flour, which tastes gorgeously nutty and is as buttery and crumbly as you could possibly desire, and you have a really easy but sublime dessert. The best part is the crispy pastry crust with its scattering of sugar, where the fruit has melted into it slightly and softened it. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and devour the whole lot with a big smile on your face. It really is wonderful.
Fig and raspberry galette (serves 4 - recipe easily doubled):
- 125g spelt flour (or normal flour)
- 75g very cold butter, cubed
- 25g light brown sugar
- Very cold water
- 5 figs, quartered
- A handful of raspberries
- 1 tbsp demerara sugar
- Icing sugar
Put the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (don't overblend it though, as this will make it too hot). Pour in a little water and blitz again until the mixture just starts to come together - I used about 2 tbsp water. Bring the pastry into a ball and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for an hour in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Dust a worktop with icing sugar and roll the pastry out into a rough circle, about 5mm thick. Place on a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray.
Arrange the figs and raspberries in the centre of the circle, then bring the pastry edges up around the fruit and fold over each other in a sort of pleated fashion. Sprinkle the crust with demerara sugar, then bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is crispy and golden, and the fruit soft. Allow to cool slightly, then dust with icing sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream.