What IS the matter with Mary Jane? She’s perfectly well and she hasn’t a pain..

Rice Pud

For R.C. who has it to perfection.

Rice pudding seems to be one of those totems of life which you either love or loathe – rather like Marmite, Christmas and David Walliams. Or the smell of rose geranium: which a friend of mine in the retail was never able to stomach after being told by a prostitute’s maid (who bought lots) that this the only scent that reliably masks the smell of sex. I suppose the main problem with rice pud is that because it’s cheap and filling it has become a staple of lazy loveless school, hospital and prison cooking: unappetising stodge but handy for keeping body and soul together. Easy to throw together and choke down but so dismal that you might be better off lying on the bed all day to conserve energy, with a bottle of milk for the day’s sustenance, as unemployed ballerinas used to do: that, or chew paper tissues.

Properly cooked rice pudding is an art and a delicacy. There used to be an area of the back streets of Leicester which at certain times of day smelled overpoweringly and warmly of rice pudding. I have no idea what caused it, there was no Ambrosia plant handy,no soup kitchens or restaurants but this glutinous sweet starchy odour would fill the car as one beetled through to school or dentist. It manifested regularly for a good 30 years then abruptly vanished without apparent reason. Then I met it again, in a Rigaud scented candle of all things. It’s the red one if you fancy trying it, Cythere. A name I love as it recollects the voyage of Capt Cook and Joseph Banks to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus (what a perfect unused name for a scent by the way) and the scents of la nouvelle Cythere wafting across the lagoon to the men of the Endeavour: coconut oil, tiare blossom, fresh water, sun-bursting bitter oranges and the appetising sizzle of sweet porky roasting flesh – wild pig or human?

And fragrant nutmeg, which is what makes the candle and the pudding so special. Nutmeg taken in quantity induces euphoria and hallucinations which is apparently one of the reasons why those huge Edwardian tea parties (“tea-fights”) were so uproarious with people drunk on food: chocolate, buttered muffins, spices, tea and masses of sugar. Afterwards came the Blue Hour (L’Heure Bleue, you see) when the guests paired off, and as Nancy Mitford put it lived together before dinner.

Nutmeg is the spice of life to a decent rice pudding so that the end result imbues the lucky eater with a sense of fully realised well-being, besides fragrancing the rice with that aromatic, sweet piercing aroma. Here’s how to make a perfect pudding which smells as good as it tastes. Like Jean Brodie, be generous.

Get yourself a shallow oven-proof dish and butter it lavishly. This imparts a delicious rich savour besides preventing sticking, and so makes the washing-up a breeze. Pour in 2 tablespoonfuls of pudding rice, a pint of milk, a tablespoonful of sugar and a pinch or two of fresh ground nutmeg. Cinnamon too, if you will. Give it 2 hours in a slow oven, while you sit there in a stupor of infantile Arcadian comfort as it cooks and exudes its delicious redolence. Not for nothing is the canned version named after the food of the gods. If you care to give it a stir from time to time it will enhance the creaminess; if you consider the golden-brown skin or mackintosh a delicacy, just let it alone to thicken and coat over. An added refinement and variation is Riz a l’Imperatrice, stirred very slowly continuously in a saucepan, with a drop of rosewater or orange flower essence. It takes hours, but is one of the most divine dishes imaginable: you can tart it up with fruit and whipped cream, turn it out in a mould even, but there’s no real need for such elaboration as you’ll be fine with just the basic simple version as above.

As a climactic topping many rice pudding fanciers recommend a spoonful of raspberry jam – it’s visually exciting: think of Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow or the striking complexion of Snow White. The senses of taste and smell are gratified by the contrast of crimson tartness with milky tranquillity; and there’s the textural excitement of the occasional grit of a raspberry seed complementing the slight graininess perfectly cooked rice.

If you’re still pursuing your olfactory dreams of old Otahiti, you might complete the picture with a spray of Sandrine Videault’s lushly feral Manoumalia, a memory of her youth in the South Seas – a serpent in Eden, exploding with tuberose, ylang ylang, frangipani, orange blossom and the darkest, swampiest vetiver. A perfume so intricate and dense that it might even have (initially) defied even Joseph Bank’s botanical classification.

‘ …and It’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!’

Image from creativeneesh.com

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