05 May 2009

Culinary Alchemy

When I was a little boy my grandmother taught me about alchemy although she might have gently whapped me with her ever-present handtowel for using such an uppity way of talking about what she did. Grandma simply took two wonderful things, her husband's honey and fresh butter, and made something new: Honeybutter. This new synthesis of the old theses of cow and bee became the morning spread used around her place. A small, bright bowl of it generally sat on her sunstruck kitchen table, parked in the middle as a centerpiece on the red and white checkered table cloth, a jolly sentinel.

I was recently exposed to another alchemical experience while travelling in the U.K. with Stephanie. She wanted to visit the Borough Market in London off Borough High St., and so we went.

The market was a festival of visual and olfactory stimuli. The aromas of cooking sausages, fish, and cheeses were like persistent, skilled barkers, drawing wanderers-by into nearby home stands and booths. I could write a separate post about the market itself. Toward the southwest area of the Stoney St. perimeter near Park St. we smelled the glorious fusion of onion and cheese, cooking.

I've never processed anything quite like the aroma that eventually helped sell us the sandwich. The owner of Kappacasein Toasted Cheese Sandwiches & Raclette, Bill Oglethorpe, was happy to share his recipe: Gorgeous dark French sourdough made especially for their sandwiches, a local hardish cheddar made by the Montomerys of Somerset, a chopped combination of onions, leeks, mustard greens, garlic, all of this finished off with a good pressing.

Bill went into some of the nuances of his particular components, the particular acidity of the bread, the extra maturing of the cheese he purchased, the local acquisition of the vegetables, etc. He directed us the hundred or so yards down Park St. to the manufacturer of his cheese. Taking one of his sandwiches, off we went.

The informed and friendly man selling the cheese we were eating in the sandwich told us that his cheddar is aged for two years. He gave us samples and ended up making a sale as Stephanie picked up a substantial wedge. We picked up some nice apples to go with at least a portion of the cheese later.

Stephanie and I finished our sandwiches and talked about the experience off and on for the next several days as we nibbled at the Montgomery cheese, polishing off the apples in Freefolk, Hampshire. It was simply, at the risk of sounding trite and too romantic, the best cheese sandwich I've ever had. The combination of the cheese, bread, and vegetables was fused by the pressing process into a New Thing, and it was glorious. We later learned that Ruth Reichl had crowned Oglethorpe's product the "Platonic ideal" of a cheese sandwich.

Was this a complex interaction of acids, bases, savory cheese, and vegetable sugars, or was it something more simple? Maybe the miracle in this new thesis, the epitome of "cheese sandwich," was in its simplicity. Stephanie and I talked about trying to duplicate the sandwich someday. By the time we finished our trip we still had a little cheese and decided to see if we could get home with it.

A long plane trip, short bus ride, and minor subway adventure later, we were back in Lower Manhattan. As I completed my final packing at Stephanie's house, she did something quite marvelous. She was very tired, but went out, purchased some ingredients, took the last of our Montgomery cheddar, chopped up some aromatic and appropriate vegetables, added a dose or two of love, and made us a meal of sausages and pressed cheese sandwiches. I don't have any photos to share here. I did take some with my mind.

That was twenty-four hours ago. I've since wandered back to Utah from where I am typing this. But the effects of the last ingredient persist. This is particularly interesting, because my first experience with culinary alchemy took that ingredient for granted. I shall try not to make that mistake again.


Flying Mermaid said...

Ohhh, you're killing me! That sounds agonizingly delicious!

Mark Lee said...

It was a pleasure that bordered on pain of a sort when it was over, FM. Memories are the ointment that soothe the ache.

mary(Crone) said...

Oh man, I'm tearing up. And it isn't hormones. That's just so sweet.

Mark Lee said...

Hi Mary. Most of the best food in my experience is shared, seems to have a strong component of personal involvement, and even sometimes is flavored by "sacrifice."

Flying Mermaid said...

I'm sure, like me, you can bring a particular taste (or smell) to mind. I can nearly taste YOUR memory!

El said...

That sounds delicious, Mark. Yum. Now, are you going to blog about your trip? Of course you are, with pictures, I'm sure. ;^) Can't wait to hear about this latest adventure. What fun!

The Commonwealth of Laura said...

If I ever get to England, I now know exactly what to do first.

Mark Lee said...

FM, that's at least as much credit to your imagination as my writing. Regardless, I'm happy that you were able to "taste" along with us. And you're right; that taste is still fresh in my mind.

I've got a few photos, El, that I was going to put up on Facebook. I'll send you a link to the album when it's up.

It was the the most memorable place we visited in London, Laura. Go hungry.

Andrew said...

Hi Mark

did you go to the Borough Market on a Friday or Saturday? I am thinking to try the grilled Sandwich at Kappacasein but I don't know if it is open on Fridays.

Mark Lee said...

Howdy, Andrew. We were there on a Thursday, so you should be in luck! I hope you're able to enjoy a sandwich (and report back, of course). :-)