When I was an undergraduate finishing my degree, I remember a PhD student in maths met his wife-to-be on the Internet. He was an odd sort of character, not just in terms of appearance -long, greasy hair scraped back into a shaggy ponytail, receding hairline, egg-shaped face - but mainly in terms of behaviour; he used to stay up all night playing Doom and other computer games and talking to strangers on line. We had barely heard of the Internet then and the news that this character had 'met' an American woman on the net and planned to marry her even though they had never clapped eyes on each other in real life (although admittedly they spoke to each other on the telephone, too) was a source of passing entertainment. We all wondered what this woman would make of him when they finally met, but we never found out because he finished his degree and departed and none of us liked him sufficiently as to stay in touch and discover what came of it. In any case we all assumed that the only people who might want to meet others on the Internet would be the sort of people we didn't really want to know. I tell this apparently irrelevant story mainly to indicate the prejudices that have underpinned my attitude towards the net; for years, my only cyber communication was e-mail with people I knew already. Then Simon set up his own music internet forum and got to know a few people on-line; two turned out to be veering on the psychopathic, but one has become a very close friend, was a witness at our wedding, and - although she purports not to like cooking, makes the most divine chocolate tart ever. It became clear that the Internet is pretty much like the world that invented it, that is, it harbours a huge variety of people, not all of whom you will get on with, some of whom might be dangerous but most of whom are just people like you. It is the last part of this sentence that makes the Internet a fertile source of new friends: that is, you are more likely to find like-minded people because you meet them via blogs and forums that reflect your interests. I am a member of a couple of cooking forums and through them have 'met' (none in real life, so to speak) a range of people who get what I mean when I am delirious over my new Kitchenaid (whereas my friends think I need my head checking) and can swap recipes and - even - food. I have come across some oddballs and some people passing themselves off as other people, but I don't let them spill over into my real life and can just ignore them in cyber space (it's the real beauty of cyberspace for polite British people like me, who tend to find it difficult to ignore people in real life) and carry on. Them aside, I have also encountered some intensely generous and fascinating people that I'd never have come across without the Internet. I have also, recently, experienced that generosity crossing over into my real life. I've swapped food parcels with people all over the world in the last few months, and these cyber cyphers have turned out to be very generous people off their keyboards as well as on them. Recently I taped Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, which was on television in Britain but not elsewhere, onto DVD for Internet friends all over the world - OK, well in Europe, the US and Japan! - and since then these recipients have sent lovely gifts back in return. I've had lots of chocolate from Norway and Finland (you won't believe how good Scandinavian chocolate is, but it really is!), saffron from Spain (very fitting), chopsticks and tea and cookies from Japan, magazines and chocolate from France, lots of spices from the US, including stuff from Dean and Deluca (fab packaging) and Tex Mex spices (Mmm), and most bravely cheese, hams and pancetta from Italy. Yesterday I also received a loaf of olive bread from Freya as part of a cake swap we decided to do (yes, she turned it into a bread/cake swap, well spotted). With my non-Internet friends, I can't imagine a cake swap, or any kind of food swap at all, really, and so I find all this quite exciting.
Last night, to go with Jamie's grilled peach and frisee salad, I used ham and cheese from Italy and Freya's bread.
The salad first, since it is in the title of the post: make a goat's cheese dressing by mixing goats cheese with olive oil, lemon juice, then Parmesan and walnut oil. The instructions read oddly here. Jamie explicitly instructs you to use a pestle and mortar, but keeps saying 'whiz the mixture up' - the word whiz doesn't go with a pestle and mortar in my mind. Bash it up, maybe, but whiz it up means a food processor to me, so I dithered a bit and then used the small bowl of the Magimix to whiz up the goat's cheese with the olive oil and lemon, then stirred in the walnut oil and Parmesan. I then grilled the peaches, drizzled over a little olive oil and seasoned lightly. To make the salad, use the inner leaves of a frisee or endive lettuce, and toss in the goat's cheese dressing, grate over a little Parmesan and then serve. Scatter with baby mint leaves.
The salad is very good. This is one of those dishes I wouldn't have bothered with if I wasn't doing the project - and I would have missed out! The peach goes so well with the crunchy lettuce and the creamy dressing.
The Italian cheese I was sent this week is called tomali, from Piedmont, and has to be cooked. The sender, Claudia, suggested wrapping it in parma ham and putting it in a very hot oven, so I did - it was delicious, the sort of thing it is dangerous to start eating because you might never stop. Below, the salad and the cheese wrapped in parma ham:
I served this with Freya's olive bread, which was dense and chewy and really good. I'm sure she will write how she made it in her blog - well, I hope so, so that I can have a go myself! It would definitely be worth repeating.
The whole dinner worked beautifully, and half of it was food I had been sent, which made it taste even better. It is true that the supermarkets sell foods from all over the world now; we can get pomegranate molasses and za'atar and miso paste, for instance, and I tend to take that facility for granted. But receiving food gifts from other parts of the world, from real people, is a world apart from standing in the 'exotic' aisle in Tesco buying the ingredients for a recipe derived from a cookbook. It is about finding out what real people eat, it's about cultural exchange of a real sort (as opposed to the abstract nonsense talked by most politicians) and it's about making connections, comparisons, and opening up your mind as well as your taste buds.
My mother-in-law remains highly suspicious of Internet-founded friendships; if she knew we'd been eating food sent by apparent strangers, she would probably warn us off in fear that we were being poisoned by Internet-dwelling serial killers (since she assumes that anyone who uses the net is a potential psychopath). I am sure that the Internet has its share of undesirables, but it's not so difficult to spot and steer clear of them - and in any case, I am more likely to be poisoned by the deep-frying fetishists who cater for all work events round here (the company who cater for us at work make turkey twizzlers. Go figure..). To all these disembodied Internet people who've made January into a second Christmas for me - thank you very much; you've enriched this dark, cold and most miserable month of the year immeasurably.