Monday, 5 October 2015

Book Review: The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning by Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine

Reviewed by Dee
Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine’s ‘The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey’ arrived with us unexpectedly one morning.  Neither of us had ever heard of it before, and I initially thought that it would be a fictional work speculating over perceived challenges and hazards of living in what must be one of the least hospitable places on Earth.  In fact it is a thoroughly factual work bringing together two accounts of a series of expeditions to the Bellingshausen Research Station on the South Shetland Islands which are located off the Antarctic Peninsula.  The first account covers a project to dispose of rubbish which had accumulated at the station over nearly 30 years, while the second is a catalogue of recipes which were used during the expeditions to feed the team members.
Prior to embarking on the project, the two authors had distinct skill sets; Carol being the Environmentalist and Wendy the Cook, but as the story progresses, the narrative is shared out more evenly.  This interweaving of recipes and stories is not unfamiliar to me, reminding me of both Anna Del Conte’s ‘Risotto with Nettles’ and Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s ‘The Settler’s Cook Book’, both of which I enjoyed reading and still have in my collection.  However, this book is distinct in that it is presented as a diary running from the birth of the project through to the return home.  I won’t go into any more detail about the clean-up operation as this is a food blog and I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the daily entries are concise enough for the book to be read in short sessions.
As for the food and the recipes, well, this was quite a surprise for me.  I didn’t have much of an idea about what the occupants of an Antarctic research station would have done for food and prior to reading the book would have hazarded a vague guess at a combination of dehydrated Ready-Meals and Kendal Mint Cake, but that turned out to be quite wide of the mark.  What the book delivers instead is a selection of recipes inspired by Canadian, South American and Eastern European cuisines, in line with the nationalities of the team members at the research station.  Ingredients were delivered by ship from Argentina, allowing for simple, tasty home-cooked meals to be prepared.  Some of the recipes, as Wendy freely points out, were donated by colleagues on the expeditions, providing a sense of commonality and I found myself thinking of them collectively in the context of a miniature fusion cuisine.
The recipes were all easy to follow and for the most part were made up from easy-to-obtain ingredients, making it difficult to select the recipes for the review.  We finally chose a salad and a pate with a small amount of cooking, and a fully-cooked stew.

King George Island Salad
Asparagus Pate
The pate recipe in the book called for jarred white asparagus but unfortunately only the green variety was available.  We could have chosen something else but I quite fancied this so decided to see how it would taste with the substituted green asparagus.  The soft texture of asparagus from a jar is frankly unpleasant but it was fine to use as an ingredient for the pate, where it was blended together with garlic, parmesan, cream cheese, lemon juice and a little mayonnaise.  We used less than the whole cup of mayonnaise in out recipe, as we wanted a less creamy taste.  It was simple to make and the baking time specified in the book was about right, with no burning of the parmesan coating on top of the pate bowl.
The salad is named after the largest of the South Shetland Islands and the location of the Bellingshausen Research Station.  It was another simple recipe to prepare, with the only cooking being to fry the bacon bits.  The other ingredients were asparagus, cumin seeds, avocado, and a dressing of Balsamic Vinegar.  The book again called for white asparagus spears but instead of the jarred asparagus we went for fresh green asparagus instead.  Although this did sacrifice authenticity somewhat, it made for a great tasting salad, with each ingredient being easily recognisable in the overall taste.  If we’d been able to source white asparagus we would of course have used it.  That’s our defence and we’re sticking to it.
The photo above shows how we enjoyed the salad and the pate; for lunch with some crispbreads, which we assumed would have been a store cupboard staple at the research station.  Also, the commentary for the pate recipe recommended it be served with crackers or flatbreads so we were close enough to be in keeping with the spirit of the book.

Roasted Red Pepper Goulash with Smoked Paprika
The commentary for this recipe mentioned the availability of good quality Argentine beef, so we too chose the best quality that we could afford.  The ingredient list was for eight to ten servings, but even after halving the quantities, we were still able to eke out six servings.
I especially liked the roasting of the peppers and keeping them on one side before being stirred into the stew at the last minute.  This enabled them to retain their sweetness and some of their colour rather than losing too early on in the process.  As the recipe commentary stated, there was no need for wine to add depth of flavour, or flour for thickening.  The slow cooking of the stew, and patience, added both of these qualities to it.
I also loved the accompaniment of noodles tossed with caraway seeds.  Although it sounds incongruous, certain types of pasta and dumplings are not unfamiliar in Eastern European cuisine and the caraway seeds are of course commonly used.
Taken together, this was a very hearty and tasty meal, and one which I imagine would have been very popular in the evenings.

There has been some speculation in the media recently about the future of the cook book and while I personally will continue to buy and use them right to the bitter end (if indeed it comes to that), I think that this book will weather the storm.  The reason is that it can be enjoyed by home cooks but also by people who don’t wish to cook the recipes from it.  It is nicely laid out, with good photography and content which would make for an interesting television documentary.
The final word must be about the food though:  The Antarctic setting makes this an ideal Winter recipe book and we are sure to be cooking from it again.

Thanks to Jay’s parents for buying us this great book.

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