JEWISH ALCHEMY – or how to make schmaltz and grieven…

Many posts ago (in https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/01/08/an-illustrated-guide-to-making-gedempte-chicken/) I promised to do a piece on schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and its delicious byproduct, grieven (or gribenes), and at last, a couple of years late, here it is.

I should point out that now that poultry fats are once again in vogue, and have even been declared healthy (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-j-wurtman-phd/saturated-fat_b_5107298.html ) one can purchase ready-rendered duck and goose fat in most supermarkets and grocery stores. But unless one has access to a kosher butcher, rendered chicken fat remains mysteriously elusive. This is a shame, for when made properly it is not only lighter and every bit as useful and tasty as its “posher” cousins, but also indispensable to genuine Ashkenazi (central and eastern European Jewish) cookery.

Fortunately, making schmaltz is as simple as it is rewarding. Turning a heap of chicken fat and skin into a refined golden liquid is as close as a cook can come to culinary alchemy.

When we’re in Spain, our market butcher Pepe, gives me bags full of skin and fat which would otherwise end up in the stomachs of the local pigs. This saves me the work of butchering a chicken myself and means that I can make months worth of schmaltz at a time. When in the UK however I normally do everything myself from scratch.

The kind of schmaltz one ends up with depends entirely on the type of chicken the skin and the fat originates from. The best quality schmaltz comes from old boiling hens, but these days, in Spain and England at least, these are hard to get hold of, and extortionately expensive when available. The rendered fat they yield has a mildly gamey quality, ideal for cooking things like gedempte beef, while the grieven (resultant pieces of fried chicken skin) is slightly chewy. The next best choice would be any kind of free range chicken, and corn-fed birds produce an especially golden schmaltz. But, if one is economising, then a large, fat supermarket broiler will do the job just fine, with the added bonus of a light grieven that melts in the mouth.

The illustrated recipe below was made using the latter variety of bird, but is applicable to all types of chicken – although with an old hen you will need a cleaver in addition to a very sharp knife. If shopping from a proper butcher, one could of course ask him/her to prepare the bird for you and proceed with the rest of the process from there.

The small amount of effort required to make schmaltz is more than worth it, and its uses are almost limitless. From humble egg and onion, to chopped liver, to kneidlach, to chicken blintzers, to latkes and potato kugel and all kinds of ein-gedempte meats and fowl, or just scraped on your breakfast toast with a little salt, schmaltz is to Ashkanazi cuisine what butter is to Belgian and olive oil is to Spanish. It is the essential  flavour constant that gives Yiddisher cooking its distinct, and moor-ish character.

My mother and grandmother only used koshered chickens and would drop finely sliced onion into the grieven for the last few minutes of the rendering. While this resulted in a salty and rich flavoured grieven, it also made the grieven slightly soft and greasy and in addition gave the schmaltz a salty, oniony taste. I, on the other hand use non-koshered chickens and omit the onion, giving a more neutral tasting schmaltz (similar to unsalted versus salted butter) and a lighter, dryer and crispier grieven. It’s all a matter of taste, and completely dependent upon the whim of the cook, though I would suggest, if using a koshered chicken do be careful about adding extra salt.

Finally, once made, one can store the schmaltz for months, either in the fridge (where it will become opaque and solidify) or in a cool, dark pantry.

ILLUSTRATED RECIPE:

Schmaltz 1
1) Make sure to buy a large chicken, at least 4 lbs (about 2 kilos) in weight, to be certain of having sufficient fat and skin for a decent amount of schmaltz…
Schmaltz 2
2) Retrieve every last piece of skin (even from the wings) and every trace of fat from the bird. Skinned chicken is brilliant for things like schnitzel (in the case of the breasts), southern fried chicken, and Indian dishes, such as tandoori, tikka and lime and lemon chicken curries. The bones make an excellent stock or broth…
Schmaltz 3
3) Roughly chop up the fat and the skin…
Schmaltz 5
3) Put the chopped fat and skin into a heavy based (preferably non-stick) saucepan and cover with water. Put over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil, then turn the heat to medium-low…
Schmaltz 6
4) Boil gently until all the water has evaporated from the pan and the skin is crisp and golden. Some sticking is inevitable but stirring towards the end of the cooking keeps most of the skin free. Once the skin is golden and crisp remove the pan from the heat. It’s important not to overcook the skin as this will ruin the grieven and give the schmaltz a burnt taint…
Schmaltz 7
5) Strain the fat thoroughly into a heatproof bowl…
Schmaltz 9
6) Allow the fat – the schmaltz – and the skin – the grieven – to cool. Once cooled, refrigerate the schmaltz and enjoy the grieven with a cold beer or a glass of scotch. For non-Jewish people and non-observant Jews reading this who have never tasted grieven, you’ll wonder why grieven has never become a beer snack staple like pork scratchings (rinds). They’re twice as delicious and so much easier on the teeth…
Schmaltz 10
7) Once fully chilled, the schmaltz solidifies like lard and takes on an ivory opacity. Before you use it in cooking, as a first taste, try it for breakfast, scraped on toast, with a light sprinkling of salt.

BETAYAVON!!!

 

THE “WILD MAN”, “THE HEALER” AND THE STOLEN PAINTINGS

Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.

We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?

A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.

After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.

And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftknR1gf9qw). My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.

I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.

All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…

To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…

Hell! Is that Elle?

Essentially, photography is a form of visual, space-time distillation and isolation, especially when the subject matter is a person and / or people.

Painters such as Vermeer and Hopper achieved a similar effect in paint; that magical isolation of an instant and framing it for posterity.

Here is a small selection of my enhanced photographic examples of the “effect” from all over the place – but mainly Australia. And talking of Oz, is that Elle Macpherson, or her doppelganger I caught having a sneaky ciggy in Melbourne?

JOHN’S SHOPPING, BUT NOT COPING…

If you ever wondered what all those dots and dashes are for on Scandinavian words then the name of the town in Sweden Dido and I are soon to move to might help.

Jönköping without its umlauts (or “umplaghs” as Dido refers to them) looks fairly straightforward to the English eye. Jonkoping instinctively, phonetically looks like it should be pronounced “John-coping”, but the presence of the umlauts immediately sets alarm bells ringing. You just know that “John-coping” is wrong with the result that you find yourself instinctively “accenting” the word. However, unless you are familiar with “Northern Germanic” languages the chances are that instinctive accenting will be wide of the mark.

In my case for instance, before I knew better, I found myself pronouncing it something like “Jern-kerping” whereas after being corrected by a helpful Swede I was told to pronounce it more like “John-shopping”. Of course, “John-shopping” is only an approximation of the correct Swedish pronunciation, but it does at least indicate the effect of the umlauts.  Moreover, since I’ve been using it, the constant stream of polite corrections from dismayed Swedes has ceased.

The one thing all our new Swedish acquaintances have told us is that our ability to pronounce Swedish words correctly, including Jönköping will improve over time.

Whether or not we have sufficient time in Sweden to master Swedish enunciation will depend upon how well Dido’s new tenure at Jönköping University works out. As things stand she’s planning on this being her professional swansong, but even at 57 this still leaves us with plenty of time – potentially…

Far more accessible than Jönköping’s correct pronunciation is its pleasant geography. The town is situated on the banks of Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern (yes, another umlaut, and no, I haven’t been informed yet and all guidance welcome) and during our recent visit I manged to get some striking images of it, and the natives enjoying themselves along its beach.

One of the things that I’m falling in love with in Sweden, and something I already miss when I’m not there is the astonishing crystalline light and the startlingly vivid colours and tones it produces on everything it touches. These pictures illustrate this pretty well…

 

MASTERPIECE – or merely a collection of successful daubs?

Occasionally; very occasionally I miss painting huge canvases.

Not drawing – I really don’t miss drawing at all – nor watercolouring, or working with gouache or pen and ink, or even small and regular size oil painting. But once in a while I miss the thrill of that rarest of moments, when I almost felt like a genius, and for some reason this only happened to me when I was working on an epic scale.

I experienced the feeling just a handful of times in the thirty years of painting big canvases. It was normally sparked off by a single brushstroke when, just for a millisecond the brain achieved total control over the brush with the resulting daub a near-perfect expression of the thought behind the action.

Normally, these experiences and daubs occurred toward the completion of a painting, and were all the more satisfying for underlying the fact of conclusion – something rarely guaranteed when making any work of art.

I remember one such daub being a fleck of white light on the shoulder of a girl walking into a heat-hazed distance, and another being a splash of red, of a Coke can littering a pavement.

But of all the special daubs I ever applied to canvas, only one painting contained more than one, and this is that picture below, called Bormio 3000.

It’s particularly remarkable because unlike all the others which were “free works”, Bormio 3000 was a commission, and because of who it was for, and what they were paying me, it was painted under considerable pressure.

The patrons were a married couple who owned a successful commercial art gallery in London, and they wanted an extremely large skiing – themed oil painting to decorate the main room of their new chalet in Verbier. Moreover, they were paying me the largest sum of money I had ever been paid for my work – several thousands of pounds.

Somehow, and for whatever reason, the painting was a huge success, pleasing both the patrons and for once, the artist too.

Even more unusually, I like the painting as much now as I did then, when “special daub” after “special daub” seemed to flow from the brush as easily as breathing.

Bormio (unlike Swiss Alpine Verbier) is  in the Italian Alps, and “3000” refers to altitude (in meters) at the top of the run, pictured in the foreground. The painting was about 5 by 7 feet and when I look at it now, especially the portrayal of the far mountains and clouds I have not the faintest idea how I achieved it.

The term “masterpiece” is obviously a relative one and normally, highly subjective. However, based purely on Adam Green terms, so far as I am concerned, both in the summer of 1983 when I completed Bormio 3000, and now, 34 years later it remains the work of which I am most proud. It hits the mark in every department; tone and colour control; composition; light; drama; and near-perfect brush-work. All-in-all, not a bad conglomeration of “special daubs”…

(Bormio 3000 is available as a signed limited edition print – limited to 25 prints – about 32cm x 48cm / 13″ x 19″ size – at £150 each. See the purchasing and ordering artwork link above.)

Bormio 3000

 

 

POINTS AND VIEWS

Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.

Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…

Fellow Worker at Yiftach - Israel
In 1978 I was a volunteer for the summer on Kibbutz Yiftach on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. This is the view from the north east corner of the kibbutz towards Mount Herman…

Simon at Slee Head - Kerry Coast - Ireland

This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…

On Gilboa - Israel

Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…

Friend above Ein-Kerem - Jerusalem
In 1980 I spent the summer with a friend in west Jerusalem. Every day for about a fortnight we walked into the forest above Ein Kerem to draw and paint. the scent of pine needles roasting on the ancient terraced slopes was intoxicating…
Les 2 Alps Bench
One my first trips abroad with my then-girlfriend Dido was a skiing trip to Les Deux Alpes. The skiing wasn’t up to all that much but the walk into the neighbouring valley was some compensation…
Dido by San Pedro River (Chile)
Walking back to San Pedro de Atacama after visiting the pre-Inca ruins of  Pukara de Quitor – the mighty Volcan Lincancabur stands proud in the distance…
Friend Marvelling at the Atacama in Bloom (Chile)
Later during the same 1991 trip we were privileged to witness the first serious rains over the the southern Atacama desert in 40 years. The subsequent desert blooming  was regarded by some Chileans as nature celebrating the beginning of the post-Pinochet era…
Dido and Friend on Road to Santiago (Chile).jpg
Santiago’s de Chile’s curse and glory are the walls of mountains which surround it; a pollution trap on the one hand and on the other – as can be seen from this picture taken on the road back from Valparaiso – beautiful on the eye…
Coursegoule - South of France
Coursegoules in southern France…
Dido at Point Sublime - Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
We started travelling to Australia regularly from 2007 thanks to Dido’s work. Here she is at the aptly named “Point Sublime” at the edge of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales…
Dido at Cardona (Catalonia)
And here’s Dido at the castle of Cardona (now a delightful parador) in the Catalan countryside…
Dido Approaching the Small Crator
And, from some 30 years after my stay on Kibbutz Yiftach, a set of images from Israel taken in the early 2010’s. Here’s Dido again approaching the edge of one of the Negev craters…
Dido at the Great Crater - Negev
And sitting at the edge of that crater…
Timna - Negev Desert
The Wilderness of Zin…
Golan - Above the Yabock Valley
And finally, from the “biblical south” to the “biblical north” – Hereford cattle notwithstanding – looking down from the Golan Heights (biblical Bashan) towards the valley of the River Jabock, of Jacob and Esau fame.

WATER – Nature’s finest sculptor, colourist and impressionist

Wherever water merges with solid objects, either through light or physical interaction, or both, visual magic usually results. Without too much further ado, here is a series of images which reflect this fact perfectly (pun intended).

BEAUTY IN BLACK AND WHITE

I think the photographs shown here speak for themselves (they date from the 1980’s).

But for those of you interested in such things, they were shot originally on colour slide film (high-speed Ektachrome) on my trusty old Nikon FE, using the standard Nikor 50 mm lens. They were taken in a bedroom somewhere in Israel using the available electric side-lights for mood. I digitalised them about fifteen years ago (hence the slightly crude contrasts) and turned them into black and white images for this post.

The girl was a natural model and as you can see, the camera – if not the photographer (long painful story) – loved her.

“MARS ON EARTH” – Chile’s Incredible Desert

Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.

Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.

The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…

 

BOULOGNE BLUES – The story of how we became stranded for six months in the famous French Channel port

For reasons which will no doubt form the basis of a separate post, about six months after completing our house in southern Spain (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) we found ourselves living in a shabby rented apartment in a rundown part of Boulogne sur Mer on the north eastern tip of France.

Virtually penniless, we could not afford nor did we wish, to place our Maremma Sheepdog, Aura into the-then obligatory six-months of quarantine in Britain. We were in a pretty desperate situation, and if desperate situations require desperate measures, then the one we came up with was a genuine peach, although it did not seem so at the moment we conceived it.

Firstly, Dido took a job managing a paediatric occupational therapy department in Folkestone on the Kent coast, just a 40 minute Seacat (hydrofoil ferry) hop across the English Channel from Boulogne. Traveling as a foot passenger was cheap, and with a health-authority car provided at the English end, the daily journey would be both inexpensive and quicker than most commutes from the London suburbs into the City. It appeared to be totally reasonable solution to a tough problem; six months living frugally in a tatty loft then once we were more comfortably off, moving into a nicer flat in the charming old citadel above the port. Aura our dog was already 11 years old and towards the latter end of her life expectancy, and who was to know? Two or three years living in the charming quarter of an historic French town might actually be rather pleasant. The plan even seemed sufficiently fool proof that Dido need not disclose to her new bosses the fact she was living in France and risk their disapproval(the requirements for the post were that she lived within 30 miles of work… there were no stipulation as to whether the miles were measured across dry land or water).  But then, to paraphrase a famous remark of a late British prime minister, “events” intervened to devastate our plans.

Having committed ourselves to the minimum six-month rental contract, we moved into our dingy lodgings the week before Dido was to start her new job. The flat was unfurnished, without even a kitchen, and so we spent the whole of the first few days madly rushing around in a rented van, using our credit cards to purchase the basic essentials to make the place habitable. Amongst other things, we got a type of sofa-bed (known as a clic-clac in France) and a tiny Baby Belling oven with a double hob. We couldn’t afford luxuries like refrigerators then, and still couldn’t afford one by the time we eventually left the flat at the end of the six months. Nevertheless, after we had scrubbed the flat half-a-dozen times and got our few pieces of furniture set up (including a table improvised from a lacquered MDF board) the place seemed habitable. That, in addition to the fact it was only a five minute walk from the Seacat dock gave us reason to think the next six months would be reasonably tolerable. However, it must have been the Thursday or the Friday when we made that walk down to the port for the first time since settling in that the bottom fell out of our world.

Without notice of any kind the Seacat company had cancelled all runs to Folkestone with immediate effect. Dido had talked to the ferry people just a week earlier—days before we had signed the contract on the flat—and they had made no mention of their plans to cut back their service. It seemed like a sick joke. We were now tied into living in Boulogne for six months, and the only morning and evening transport across the Channel anywhere near practicable for Dido’s requirements was a 40 minute drive up the coast at Calais. Moreover, the only affordable foot passenger service was on the regular ferry boats, which took-one-and-a-half- hours to Dover. Suddenly, Dido’s easy two-hour daily return journey, now with the commute to Calais and the 20-minute drive from Dover to Folkestone added to the mix, had mutated horribly into a return journey taking five hours—on a good day.

But, with no money, and Dido’s job  starting on Monday she had no alternative but to do the Calais crossing.

As it happened, the commute turned out to be just one of the many grim and farcical components of what was to prove the most miserable period of our marriage—the details of which will be the subject of another future blog. Enough to say for now, that the France most people experience as tourists has little in common with the dingy, rough, criminal-infested street we inhabited during our sojourn in Boulogne sur Mer.

The origins of the pictures below lie in my numerous walks on Boulogne beach with Aura and apart from being a modest nod to great Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael, express both the blueness of my mood in Boulogne, and my ever-growing yearning to cross that 20-mile strip of water back to England…

Boulogne Beach 1Boulogne Beach 2Boulogne Beach 3Boulogne Beach 4Boulogne Beach 5Boulogne beach 6Boulogne beach 7Boulogne beach 8