Friday, June 26, 2020

Summer's Lease - Thom Eagle

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I haven't read the universally lauded 'First, Catch' yet - though I do now have a copy which is near the top of my to be read pile. 'Summer's Lease' was my personal celebration that my local Waterstone's is open again and I can once more buy or order books locally with ease.

It's all to easy with books bought like this to never quite get round to reading them (I have shelves full of things bought with giddy enthusiasm but not yet read to prove the point) but fortunately the combination of weather so hot that all I've been able to muster any enthusiasm for is reading and actually opening the book, meant that I read it over two days. Which is why I've now bought 'First, Catch' - because 'Summer's Lease' is brilliant.

I might have read it a week before but that the first few pages sent me off to bake bread (in those days when it was raining a lot and cold enough to make that attractive) which distracted me, but there's no force on earth that would have made turning the oven on seem like a good idea in my little flat this week. Reading those pages again did make me wish for a really good bakery in Leicester city centre though. An M&S baguette (which I'm not knocking) is as good as I can find locally, it's not always enough.

'Summer's Lease' does have recipes in it, but in a whilst we're on the subject you could try this sort of way that is almost incidental to the main point of the book, which is to talk about the why and how you can make something of summer's glut whilst cooking without heat. It's a mix of philosophy, notes, opinions, memories, observations, and experience, it's also a page turner.

There are four chapters which discuss breaking, salting, souring, and ageing. It was a couple of pages into breaking that I went off to make bread, overcome by a want to hear the crust crackle as it came out the oven. I hadn't thought of the importance of breaking things apart, or breaking them down, in cooking but now that I have I feel like everything has changed. Simple things like why it's better to tear some herbs apart rather than chop them, or the advantage in tearing apart ripe fruit or tomatoes for a salad - the better to interact with the dressing, now make a lot more sense.

I hadn't much though about the best time to add salt to a salad either, but testing the theory on some ripe tomatoes last night has convinced me that it does make a difference. It's also convinced me that I really need to be prepared to get my hands dirty more, especially handling meat. The way Eagle talks about it you can feel the changes in texture that tell you something is happening, and also when something is ready. Again, I'm not sure that I've ever really seen this explained so clearly before, although that's possibly because I've never particularly wanted to make something like a steak tartar so it just hasn't come up. It might be that I'm still not interested in steak tartar, anymore than I am in raw oysters (I've tried, but I just can't), but that doesn't diminish the lightbulb moment of understanding why things work together, and what they're doing.

The big thing here though is just what good company Thom Eagle is in this book. He encourages experimentation in the kitchen, but also cautions against the desire to try and make everything yourself (whilst acknowledging how seductive the lure to do so is). There are plenty of fermenting and curing projects which would be both distinctly antisocial, and eventually yield results that won't be as good as the product you can buy. Instead the focus is on things that there's a genuine benefit for the home cook in tackling, along with an admission that things will go wrong and turn out badly from time to time.

As fermenting becomes increasingly fashionable this is a particularly useful thing to read and understand - I would have been happy to see a brief discussion about whether it's yeast or mold expanded on, but at least I have somewhere to start researching from (something nasty happened to previous sourdough starters that I'd very much like to avoid in future). I really enjoyed reading this, and expect to refer to it a lot more in the future - my moment of enthusiasm in Waterstones served me well.