“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick…”
Book of Numbers : 11.v.
Such an evocative passage from the Old Testament. How acutely these ancient texts show up the unchanging resonance of human nature! How well we can imagine the Children of Israel recollecting the bursting fruits and piquant vegetables as they wandered in the scrubby desert of Sinai; in “the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran”. All that flavour, appetising smell and juicy texture – the cool luscious melons and cucumbers; the hot tang of the roots. “But now” they said to Moses, “..now there is nothing at all: we have nought save this manna to look to.”¤ You can hear them now, with a derisive emphasis on the word “manna”.
Thousands of years later those lost dinners of Egypt continue to emit a distinct and pungent aroma. We judge the ripeness of a melon by its warm, earthy succulent scent. Garlic cleans the blood and brightens up almost any vegetarian dish. As to cucumbers, I share in a family trait of finding them indigestible. My grandfather – quoting some Edwardian wit? – used to say that the best way of preparing a cucumber was to cut it in half and put in the dustbin. But, well watered – drought makes them horribly bitter – cucumbers can taste and smell wonderful. Cucumber waters and flesh whiten and tone the skin, bleach out freckles and soothe swelling and puffiness beneath the eyes. In perfumery, cucumber brings to fragrances such as EN PASSANT and 24 OCTOBRE 1985 a glassy translucent coolth, a green watery subtlety and a sense of light wholesome fraicheur. (Woods of Windsor used to make an exquisite cucumber cologne – and a cucumber blended with roses). Cucumber smells wonderful in food too: as in Marlene Dietrich’s recipe which serves it with with sour cream and masses of chopped dill¤¤. Or, again, inhale the summer delicacy of pure and simple cucumber sandwiches – on brown bread with plenty of butter, salt and black pepper.
As to leeks : the oldest vegetable on earth. The root that nourished the pyramid builders; the medicine that cured medieval lepers (was their disease actually scurvy?); the badge of Wales. I am currently enjoying a near-mania for them. You see, I was reared on leeks but enjoyed them then only with reservations. My father grew leeks but – as with all vegetables – he would never allow them to be culled when young and tender. Eventually great tough things were dug and the everlasting problem was, how to clean them of the grit, dirt and soil which penetrated every one of their hundred skins. So the leeks were put under the hose, washed in the drain, soaked in a bucket, scrubbed, trimmed and peeled before coming to table well boiled. Tasty – though still gritty – but the whole house smelled of them: especially the laundry, hanging like a Coronation canopy below the kitchen ceiling.
Jane Grigson remarks in her wonderful Vegetable Book that it was partly because of their smell that leeks fell from favour for centuries, as British society became more genteel. Root vegetables were despised as the food of the poor; and the fashionable worried about the taint of leeks and onions on their breath.
Now here’s a recipe that I must share with you; something you can photograph and Instagram, and bring to table with pride. A credit to any occasion! My Director originally brought it to my attention and I have since somewhat developed and expanded it. It smells of sweet summer, health, efficiency and vigour.
Take a few leeks and chop them into thick rings. If you buy them at the supermarket you will gasp and stretch your eyes at how clean, how pearly white and smooth they are: like the arms of Norse goddesses. No grit at all. How do they do it? You tell me. Some kind of power-shower?
Rinse the rings in a colander, drain and chuck into a saucepan. That will be enough water. Add a dash of olive oil, another of tomato ketchup; a pinch of salt and a lot of ground black pepper. Inhale deeply. Then cover, and cook very slowly on a low heat until soft: no more than 15 minutes. Stir from time to time. If you desire, throw in a few whole cumin seeds and a little chopped dried fruit – the sort of mixture that’s sold for fruit cakes. Serve alone, with poached eggs, smoked fish or what you will.
* Shakespeare, HENRY V
¤ “and the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium…the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil”. The Book of Exodus agrees with the coriander likeness but says that “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey”. In either case – one would imagine – very toothsome. How ideas of fragrance permeate the entire Bible and indeed so many other religious texts. And no wonder: the origins of perfume lie in worship.
¤¤ See her unique “ABC”. Marlene calls for the cucumber to be peeled; and then drained of its juices overnight. You weight down the slices in a covered dish so that the water pours out. This precautionary procedure seems to obviate the indigestion.