Prove it

Twin hobs, toaster and an un-proven cupboard. Ever since I moved in to this apartment I’ve been intrigued by a certain fitting in the kitchen. The cupboard beneath the principal chopping area, usually used to house saucepans and most of my crockery, has behind it a radiator. Now I should say that I have no input in the heating situation in my apartment, as it is centrally controlled throughout the entire building. It is turned on in mid-November and switched off mid-March, virtually regardless of the outside temperatures. Beginning of the third month and the weather is getting milder, yet the heating pulses on.

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Said cupboard, in its usual state

Well. The idea occurred to me relatively early in my tenancy this cupboard, as well as an invaluable storage space, could at times double as a kind of proving drawer for bread products, such as one finds in some ovens. The temperature within is consistently warm, about that of a disappointing bath. Never mind it’s taken me over two years to try this out (lack of oven a key factor), my enthusiasm for this blogging project has given me the oomph – aided by the dull weather on a day off – necessary for the experiment.

Waking up I was initially sceptical of being able to easily locate yeast within the environs  of my apartment. I live in a quiet and unfashionable district, well away from the expat communities who might have better access to better-stocked western-style supermarkets, and I didn’t fancy my chances of finding said raising agent in the local shops – although, thinking about it, that was shortsighted given its presence in various bread products, including these.

Never mind. I got to cycle down to my favourite local, run by a woman I will call Twin, and found a sachet. Bonus exercise. Recipes I read for bread call for, variously, strong, or hard flour. I bought a packet of something called all-purpose flour and, obviously, the proof will be in the eating….

Actually I had no idea what kind of bread I was going to make. My preoccupations lay virtually solely with the aforementioned experiment meaning, typically, I was more concerned with the process than the result. And yet. As I went about the morning, doing laundry, tidying up, ideas began to formulate, as they will. I thought about what I had in my other cupboards, and in the freezer, and eventually I had a picture in my mind. A picture of beef stew and flatbreads. Slow Saturday cooking.

The scene was set. Not only did I have the ingredients, the time and the methodology, I also had things to listen to. One of these days I will publish a post about the things I have on in the background while I am cooking. At the stove and the train window are my favourite places to listen, to music or other. Today I had albums by these old favourites and this marvellous new discovery as a soundtrack but, best of all, piping in from sunny climes over eleven thousand kilometres to the south-east, this. If there’s anything better than cricket commentary on the radio I don’t want to know about it.

Baking calls for some precise measuring. That’s what the baking people will have you think. I found a basic recipe and adjusted the quantities to fit a smaller amount because as much as I wanted to try this out I didn’t want to be eating flatbreads for the next seven days. Not having any scales I wasn’t sure of the flour-yeast-water ratios so improvised by using measuring spoons my mother had thoughtfully given me at Christmas – figuring out that 1 millilitre equals 1 gram.

To make the flatbreads a bit more funky I augmented the dough mixture with a good couple of teaspoonfuls of za’atar, and once everything was combined I placed it, covered, in the un-proven drawer….

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….approximately an hour later, or could have been less, or more (I fell asleep), the dough looked like this….

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A proven success!

Buoyed by my small triumph I set about the stew with zeal. The beef was cubed and sprinkled with smoked paprika, salt and pepper, before being quickly browned then removed so that the carrots, red onions, garlic, star anise, thyme and rosemary could jostle for flavour favour in the pan. Once these had softened I added a tin of tomatoes, some stock (a cube) and the beef again. Lid on, heat to a simmer. I rinsed and chopped some kale in preparation as obligatory green addition.

I still had to cook the bread. After a bit more kneading – I don’t mind that – I oiled up the baking tray and set the oven dials for fifteen minutes on the highest heat. Rolling the bread out proved (ha!) to be interesting. I used, first, a bicycle pump and then a hand mixer to achieve the desired stretched flatness. The pump gave a more even roll but was basically inadequate because of its appendages which didn’t permit a direct contact with the bread surface after the initial roll. The mixer did not roll evenly but was more generally efficacious.

While the bread puffed up in the oven I cooked the kale in salted boiling water and threw in with the stew, now ready. The flatbread turned out to resemble a piece of driftwood but, fortunately, tasted pretty good – crisp exterior and soft inside, with the za’atar taste nice and mellow throughout. A grating of clementine peel over the stew was a perky afterthought.

Nice and mellow sums up the day.

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Cheddar stands for comfort

Just got back from the Land of Smiles. I did a lot of that while I was there, and other people reciprocated. I also, unsurprisingly, ate a lot of food. Despite its proliferation, also depressingly at times paired with beer as a kind of backpacker ‘meal deal’, I only had Pad Thai twice. The first time on my first night in Bangkok’s Chinatown, at a streetside stall on plastic chairs with a large cold Chang beer. On this occasion they folded the noodle mixture up into a kind of omelette and served it so. The peanuts and accompanying sauces were on the side, to be added at one’s discretion. The second time was at Yam’s Kitchen on Koh Phangan, and this was a more sprawling, but perhaps more delicious, affair, with all the trimmings artfully arranged around the side of the plate. Contrasting atmospheres too: the first was a vibrant night scene, with vendors and pedestrians jostling alike for alley-space and the scent of fish sauce in the air; the second was a calmer affair, alone, with a glorious pink sunset and the dusky breeze hushing over the waves. Chang beer the only constant.

Other culinary highlights included the barbecued tilapia fish at Lert Ros in Chiang Mai – a literal step away from the front of my hotel – a Beef Pha Naeng at the same Yam’s which was all sweet and sour liquid deliciousness, the food made by ‘Mom’ at the resort where I stayed on the island and, my final meal enjoyed with the boon of unexpected companionship, Khao Soi, a northern curry topped with crisply-fried onions on Ram Buttri road in Bangkok.

All these flavours of red and green chilli, fish sauce, coconut, peanut and lime, could have influenced my palate to the extent I might have been craving more of the same on my return. And yet. I believe in more transitory experiences, as a certain piece of music heard at a particular time cannot have the same effect when re-listened to, so the my eating experience in Thailand shall, for now, stay there too, elbow to elbow on fold-up tables, before a collide-oscope of colour, under the sinking salmon sun.

When I arrived yesterday late morning I was weary, having managed only a restless pair of hours on a lightly padded set of chairs at Macau Airport while screaming children ran amok around the deserted departures lounge. In this instance I fall back on an old favourite, something that requires little thought or imagination, that can be prepared more or less eyes closed which was, more or less, how I was anyway. I have no desire to go into pointless discussions concerning how this simple dish can be served and, apparently, the best way to eat it, on what type of bread, grate the cheese or slice the cheese, what make of cheese, cha cha cha.

Suffice to say: some sort of cheese. I had some in my fridge, bearing a colour that should make a man such as myself, from the home of Cheddar, ashamed. I had bread too, cheap stuff that toasts poorly. And I had chutney, brought back from the Christmas holidays. An unpromising set of ingredients. And yet. The bread toasted the best it could, the cheese melted sloppily: I ate it in less time it’s taken me to write this paragraph.

I lay on my bed with the early afternoon sun slanting in over me and slept like the proverbial.

I Am The Hero

Leaving tomorrow for ten days so a quick inventory of my fridge’s contents: a potato; some old celery; herbs – dried bay, thyme, rosemary; palmful of button mushrooms; half a large onion; a third of a stale-ish baguette; one egg; block of cheddar cheese.

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Nothing much to do with the egg unless I make a large potato cake and have a fried egg on top. There’s the issue then of keeping it for when I return. It seems to me that it won’t freeze well and, anyway, I don’t much fancy a big potato tablet today. The egg can wait.

It’ll be another soup then and, to this end, I have augmented my solid if unspectacular set of fridge-bottom staples with a leek from the greengrocer’s around the corner and a large clove of garlic from beside the stove. My one reservation in making soup is the lack of any handy stock. One of the reasons why my previous effort was so successful was the chicken broth used; I had the foresight to use the bones of a roast I had made for that purpose. I have learned how to make a scratch chicken stock, and I’ll include the features of that in a future post, but for now it will be a reliance on the flavours I already have, some careful seasoning and judicious use of a stock cube.

All this weighing up of what I have to hand, working out what it can be used for, puts me in mind of one thing, and then another.

At the beginning of many fantasy role-play gamebook series, most notably Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy line and the Lone Wolf sequence, the protagonist, the YOU, is given a run-down of what possessions he/she already has and what others, within certain and changing limitations, might be added at the outset of any particular quest as suitable supplements determined by their potential usefulness.

Typically, at least in the early Fighting Fantasy books, it was along the lines of ‘leather armour, sword and backpack’, plus provisions, and the adventurer got to choose one of three potions for boosting either of the Luck, Skill or Stamina values which made up YOUR profile. As the series grew, and different authors involved, so elements such as spells and other special features were included, depending on the type of adventure about to take place and the hero profile required. Early example of adventure sheet below, something of a blank canvas:

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Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf was different in that the protagonist was always the same character, the titular hero no less, and so a progression through the books, which followed a linear narrative of sorts, meant a gradual acquisition (and therefore casting off) of various pieces of equipment, items, disciplines and skills. The books differed also in the sense they specified where the various pieces of equipment and items could be carried: in the hand, in the belt-pouch, in the backpack, and so on.

Cooking is a kind of journey, as is this blog, and it’s natural before embarking on any meal preparation to take stock of firstly, what one has, and, then, what one needs. Sometimes I wear an apron, and I carry a wooden spoon in one hand, knife to chop and slice in the other. Like today I size up what is available and make a dish on that basis, adding as appropriate.

This moreover is a new adventure, a new quest. In the recent past I might have been tempted to look contemptuously at the contents of my fridge and decide there was nothing worth using, or nothing I could be bothered to use. I may well have gone shopping, purchasing sundry other ingredients – the point is, this conglomeration of objects is what I have, so I should make the best of them. Just as I possess various skills and disciplines of my own that, in the past, I have not fully appreciated or utilised. In the gamebooks you learn to use what you have wisely, whether it be in your hand, in your belt-pouch, or even in your head; such care and respect does not necessarily mean a positive outcome, because some things are out of your control – the dice rolls against you, for instance – but, by arming yourself in the best way possible, by recognising what you have, you are at least better able to deal with things.

In the past few years interest in the Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy series, to name but two, has been resurgent, leading to reprints, greater discussion (especially online), electronic versions of the books for iOS and android, and much more. Joe Dever allowed almost the entire back catalogue of Lone Wolf to be republished online, here, to create a ‘lasting legacy.’ For Fighting Fantasy there have been various print runs, containing some, but not all, of the original set. The most recent seems to be dumbing down slightly, especially in terms of the artwork (an index of the original artists can be found here), and in if you have a mind it is worth scouring charity bookshops across the UK for the original series, some editions of which fetch a pretty penny.

Failing that there are now quite a few blogs dedicated to playthroughs of one or both series, of which the most readable and dedicated can be found here, here and here.

But I was making soup. To maximise flavour I make sure to give each ingredient enough cooking time before adding anything else. So I cook the potatoes, seasoned, gently in olive oil to brown slightly, then every other component in turn: the leeks and celery, washed and rinsed; onion and mushrooms, coarsely chopped; rosemary and thyme, finely: bay leaves, cast in. Water to cover with half a chicken stock cube crumbled in. I simmer until the potatoes have more or less dissolved then blend, before cooking down potentially to thicken more.

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As in many of my attempts at the role-play adventures, I make a mistake, in this case forgetting to remove the bay before blending. This error has not led to instant death, I am pleased to say, and the results would have been worse had the herb been of the fresh variety, yet I am concerned the soup will be overpowered by its taste nonetheless.

The result is a light green and grey, gently bay-flavoured mellow soup which, jazzed up by some quickly-fried croutons and a grating of cheddar makes a more than satisfactory meal. The absence of proper stock is evident, as the overall savour is mild rather than robust. What I started with appeared a meagre selection yet, with some dedication and care, I was able to transform the ingredients into a tasty and hearty soup. Lunch made and a lesson learned (and barely a flicker of meat). Also, the day drab, an atmosphere more befitting to the making.

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Day of the Soup

Almost the perfect day for making soup. Many of the ingredients necessary for this most Sunday of Sunday activities, along with a long laundry cycle and a second cup of tea, were present: indolence of a day with nothing particular to do; cold symptoms – the muzzy head like some good hangovers; the afternoon drear outside and perhaps chilly too, dissuading any plans for a long walk.

I had the first two but the day itself was wonderfully clear and filled with sunshine, the air clean and fresh, the route around the park beckoning. I had a walk, to get the items I needed, indeed, the ingredients I had woken up thinking about. As the shop which sells fresh thyme, generic Italian-style cured ham and any kind of cream is a fair trek away, 8860 steps round trip my doting mobile app informs me, I now no longer felt guilty spending the rest of the day indoors, involved largely in the preparing, cooking and consumption of soup.

So I shlepped about the apartment, making soup in stages. It was always going to be a squash or pumpkin-based affair, though still not sure of the difference. In the greengrocer I pointed to what looked like a huge squash, certainly not the classic pumpkin shape one recognises from the commercialised approximation of the ancient and mysterious celebrations at Winter’s Eve. My translation app had it down as that, however, rather than squash, and so, after some inter-linguistic kerfuffle, I got the man to slice off a large portion with his shiny cleaver.

I had in my fridge a nice dirt-bejewelled carrot which would give depth to the orange colour and the aforementioned ham would add the required saltiness. The soup would work equally well without any meat and indeed, for some months now, I have been conscious of the amount of meat I consume, after reading an article by George Monbiot. His take is that the amount of land given over to grazing is disproportionate to the amount of meat actually consumed, at least in the UK. It is a phenomenal waste of resources, he argues, a needless ruination of countryside areas which could be left to their natural wild states, thus encouraging micro-systems to thrive and endangered species to return.

Not to mention the ethical questions regarding meat production. It seems as though more questions are being asked of meat’s place on our tables, with many meat-eaters going through trials of abstention, including a friend of mine, here. I’m still playing around with the issues, wondering where I stand. Certainly I think for now an awarenesscan lead to a gradual reduction in meat consumption and I am pleasantly surprised that, so far on this blog, I have included no recipes which have meat as the main focus.

In the meantime I mooched. The squash was to be roasted with three cloves of garlic (added halfway through the cooking) and added to a pan-cooked conglomeration of carrot, rosemary, thyme and ham. What? Roasted? But how….It’s here I have to admit to leading you a little up the garden path. When I started this blog and decided on its name, describing the mean amenities to hand, I did not possess an oven. Now I do. It’s a portable affair, limited in its scope but more than handy. It sits on top of the fridge in place of the microwave which came with the apartment and which I used but once.

The squash took about an hour to soften and colour sufficiently. Mixed with the other cooked ingredients, the garlic squeezed sluggishly from its crackly skin, I poured in a Tupperware-tubful of chicken stock I had prepared some days previously and brought all to the boil then simmer with a lid for about twenty minutes.

When I felt things should be ready I had a taste and decided I was right. Last but one addition was about 25ml of cream to thicken and then I smoothed it all gently with the whirring of a hand blender. Chopped parsley and trickle of olive oil to finish and there it was. Immensely satisfying to both make and eat, it brought the day together, from concept to conclusion. I have enough for three large bowlfuls.

Becoming

The most interesting part of cooking is the way abstraction becomes concrete. One starts with a jumble of ingredients and perhaps half an idea, the idea based on one’s instincts born from experience. That experience may be first, second, or even third-hand; it may have come from one’s own previous cooking attempts, whether successful or less so, or it might have derived from a witnessing of a dish being created, or the discovery of a recipe in a forgotten magazine. The experience may have been passed down from another in the form of tips, or other half-formed ideas and inspirations. Whatever, experience comes as the instillation of eye-drops: blink and you’ll miss it.

So, with eyes opened, the process begins. And it begins with uncertainty. The what to do and maybe the how too. We have the raw materials and yet there is the lingering feeling that, despite whatever experience we bring to the chopping board, we have little idea how the dish will turn out. It is at this point a good idea to do one crucial thing: abandon all expectations. The glossy pictures in cookbooks are an ideal, but only that. Written recipes, too, are not infallible. There are many variables in the kitchen and one will do well to become familiar with the immediate environment and the tools therein. Whatever we end up producing will only be an approximation of that image or that set of instructions. Moreover that projection of an idea that became that picture is someone else’s ideal.

The uncertainty, the ‘not-knowing,’ is the game. When the lid goes on top of a pan filled with various textures and flavours and the flame adjusted to simmer mode one is left in the dark to some extent. What is happening under there? And the temptation of course is to tinker, to remove the lid and stir, stir relentlessly, disturbing the alchemy. A wiser man than me once said that trying to fight insecurity was like taking a flat-iron to the waves to smooth them down; doing that, you’re only going to rough them up some more. I’m learning to let the magic happen.

 

Today I took two apples. I mostly knew what I wanted to make, a kind of spicy apple sauce to go with a bowl of morning porridge. Cooking apples work best for this, because the flesh has that mealy quality which gives the final result a granita-like texture. However I didn’t have any, only two eaters I purloined from a hotel breakfast buffet, for this purpose. I chopped both finely and added to the pan: the juice and zest of a small orange; sprinkle of five-spice; two sticks of cinnamon; the grating of a toe-sized knob of ginger; star anise; a glass of water; sliver of butter; trickle of Chinese vinegar. Even when I make sweet things I want notes of sharpness, sourness or bitterness. On other occasions I have included rum, whisky, apple and/or cider vinegar, a lump of sugar and lemon peel. This is a recipe which changes constantly, depending what I have to hand and what comes to mind.

With a lid on I left it for about half an hour to reduce down and didn’t interfere at all. I decided it was ready once the entire apartment was suffused in a warm spicy fug. A  delicious spicy toffee-like sauce had pooled at the pan bottom beneath the fruit, which  had softened to the texture of mush yet still retained its form. I put it in a bowl and covered, to put it in the fridge for when I might need it, which, in the cold winter here, is often.

Everyone thinks it tastes daft

Today was a good example of how I go about things, kitchen-wise. A dollop of kitchen wisdom. How do I explain? It starts from when I wake up, or maybe even the day before, and I have a….taste…is too strong a word…an image, or, rather, a feeling….or, actually, it’s a combination of all these senses. Anyway, I know what it is I want to cook and eat and the idea possesses me to the extent I can think of virtually nothing else until the process is underway.

I sat down earlier to try and write. I wrote a bit. Then I got up and ironed some shirts, listening to The Wedding Present. I already had the notion of what lunch would involve, and yet, I needed a few things for the picture to be complete. Namely, some fresh coriander and some kind of greens. Bitterly cold outside but clear fresh air. There’s a large supermarket about fifteen minutes walk away which stocks a number of things I use regularly which otherwise might be difficult to obtain, like De Cecco pasta and properly sour yoghurt (A pot of which I threw into the basket, being unable to locate any coconut milk – the apron-wearing aisle monitor lady directed me to coconut water instead, although that might well have been because of my parlous grasp of the language).

Again, it’s one of those one-pot dishes I love. The kind of thing that needs equal amounts of adding, simmering and monitoring. This time it was a case of using up things almost festering away in the nebulous area of the fridge bottom. Where things get forgotten and rot. The half sweet potato I had intended to star had to be relegated to the role of something like a third-choice seamer, something to bolster rather than shine. Anyway I had celery as well, plus some oldish broccoli, courgette, carrot and a cupboard full of spices.

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I kept the veg chunky and threw things in as they were ready. With those browning away, I tossed in crushed coriander and cumin seeds and grated in a knob of ginger. Then added spices – smoked paprika, garam masala, medium curry powder, turmeric. Again, I don’t go for exact quantities, although that turmeric needs a careful hand. Chick peas were the final addition. Water with a crumble of stock cube, bring to the boil and let the thing simmer away. I had some spinach, coriander, lemon, tomato and yoghurt on hand to finish the dish. I reckoned half an hour.

I was more or less right. Thankfully the curry hadn’t boiled down to an indeterminate mush, as can happen, and the additions of the aforementioned handy stand-bys at the end – the spinach rinsed and chopped, tomato and coriander the same, lemon squeezed and yoghurt folded in –  actually elevated what might have been sort of dull, worthy fare into a light, citrus-heightened, fresh-tasting meal with a deep and piquant undertone. Rather like a sprinkling guitar line over a punchy bass and drum bottom.

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A success, and also my second vegetarian meal in a row. I’m not a vegetarian but I do think at least a few meals a week without meat can only be a good thing, for many reasons. This, actually, is part of the overall motive for this blog, to be more aware of the food I’m eating. I’m aware I have DONE A GOOD THING here, and, moreover, the meal was delicious. Enough, again, for a second – generous – helping.

an egg is not an oeuf

I have, I think, become quite adept at one-pot or one-pan dishes. The kind of thing where everything gets gradually added to the same receptacle thus allowing levels of flavour to amalgamate and intensify. Ideally, the process is a relatively lengthy one with much simmering and reducing – a favourite method of mine, as I explained in the previous post – and the ingredients are always on hand, prepared in their own way, either chopped, diced, sliced or measured out. These dishes are invariably stove-top affairs, principally so I can monitor progress and augment and adjust as appropriate.

After the midwinter break I returned to my apartment carrying a suitcase filled with the kind of goods difficult – or, as far as I know, impossible – to find here. These included packets of diced chorizo and smoked pancetta, a jar of zingy za’tar, and, perhaps unnecessarily, a couple of those ready-vacuum-packed portions of smoked mackerel found in every supermarket across the UK. I’d decided wasn’t getting enough omega 3.

So far I’ve made two meals using the delicious fish. One light, healthy and flavoursome and the other, indeed the first of the new year, quite indulgent with a good rough sprinkling of grated cheddar and plenty of butter in the bargain. This one is intensely savoury, the kind of thing that goes very well with very cold beer or a chilled glass of wine or two. Sweet things ain’t my thing, really, and I rarely have the desire to make cakes, puddings or desserts. Pass me the salt please.

To make a good frittata two things are essential: courage to keep that gas flame as low as possible, so that it is a mere shiver, fragile in the invisible breezes; the other is a pan that will not stick – you want that egg-thing to slither out deliciously onto the plate.

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It started, as ever, with an onion. I used half a golden one, which I sliced and tipped into the pan with some dried bay leaves. More about this herb another time I think, but suffice to say I have always have some – something irresistible in their mellowness and their hue which always reminds me of autumn in England. I cooked everything down on a low heat with a big knob of butter until the onions were practically melting. No hurry here. I had the eggs – six – already beaten with the cheese, flaked mackerel and black pepper. I removed the bay and tipped in the egg mixture, moving the pan about to neatly accommodate it all. Then, I left it, although careful to keep an eye on that flickering flame.

Another who likes to be watchful, and likes his eggs, is Chief Inspector Maigret. Probably my second-favourite literary detective. He is a man who has hunches he does not question and instincts he follows, based on his vast experience in the work he does and his keen understanding of human nature:

‘”The evening before last,” he said, “I didn’t know yet that she was dead, or that she was your sister-in-law, and yet I was already interested in her.”‘

That’s from Maigret On Holiday. In another episode, based in a dreary coastal hotel, he fixes very early for no apparent reason on the sullen waitress, an inkling which proves decisive:

‘What was she watching for, with her restless glance?’

Essentially Maigret trusts his own intuition and he sees all his cases through with a dogged and, for the guilty parties, infuriating determination. Patience is a virtue indeed. I enjoy the books by Simenon especially, usually no more than a hundred-odd pages yet rich in subtle character observation and atmosphere – lighter in tone than his superlative romans durs, yet written in the same clipped and mannered prose which, like the hero, says always just enough.

I happened to watch a recent TV adaptation and found Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal wholly unlike the character I admire: physically, of course, bearing no resemblance yet it was the method of investigation which veered most I thought from the written original. There was too much confidence with his wife and colleagues, although I acknowledge allowances have to be made for the viewing public in order Maigret’s thought processes be made more explicit. Atkinson was also too morose (and one can say Michael Gambon over-jocular), too wearied by the job almost. By another name it would simply have been another good continental detective series but, as an adaptation of a classic, not in my mind cutting the moutarde. 

While I digressed, the frittata had been firming. I tend not to go for exact times and measurements, more on look, feel and taste. An exploratory prod revealed the sponge beneath the surface indicating its readiness. Flashed under a preheated grill and it was ready. In the end I had enough for two meals (it will keep in the fridge for a day or so) and consumed it with nothing other than a dollop of brown sauce.