Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother!' and 'O blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat."
It's finally spring in Boston, and I feel a little like the Mole myself. (Though it's more "Hang outlining!" in my case.) It should therefore come as no surprise that my literary selection for the Spring 2009 edition of Novel Food is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the classic British novel involving the adventures of Mole and Rat and Badger and Toad.
It’s a generally accepted fact that classic British children's literature is also some of the best food literature ever written. From Paddington Bear’s misadventures with bacon and marmalade and sticky buns, to the Pop Biscuits and Shock Toffees beloved by the inhabitants of the Faraway Tree, there’s an entire canon to capture the imaginations of the young and impressionable. The Wind in the Willows is full of food: there's an impromptu supper of sardines and ship’s biscuits after Mole and Rat rediscover Mole End, a lunch Rat shares with a seafaring stranger, and the gypsy stew Toad gorges himself upon after escaping from prison disguised as a washerwoman.
The meal that seems most fitting for spring, however, is the picnic mentioned right at the very beginning, when Mole, having bolted from his house, goes out to explore the world. His wandering leads him to the river, where he makes the acquaintance of Rat and his boat. Rat, upon hearing that Mole has never been on the river, is eager to show him the sights:
“Look here! If you've really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?"
The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leant back blissfully into the soft cushions. "What a day I'm having!" he said. "Let us start at once!"
"Hold hard a minute, then!" said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat wicker luncheon-basket.
"Shove that under your feet," he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
"What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
"There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly:
"O stop, stop!" cried the Mole in ecstasies. "This is too much!"
"Do you really think so?" enquired the Rat seriously. "It's only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!"
Just the idea of a lazy afternoon on the river with a picnic lunch is enough to make me hungry, and I originally wanted to replicate Rat's entire spread. Unfortunately, securing such delicacies as cold tongue and potted meat required a trip off my usual shopping route, and I was a little pressed for time. Worse, New England weather is a capricious beast, and a glorious Saturday was followed by a gloomy, wet Sunday.
And so I settled for a simple lunch indoors, involving a meal so simple that I’m almost embarrassed to offer the recipe. It is legitimate picnic food, however, and it's vegetarian too.
The legitimate picnic will follow as soon as the weather becomes more reliable.
Week-old eggs are best for hard-boiling; fresh eggs are a pain to peel.
(Makes one sandwich. Multiply as necessary.)
Place two eggs in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Put a lid on the pan, and place it on the stove over low heat. (If you want to set a timer, the eggs should boil for seven minutes or so.)
Meanwhile, take a small bunch of watercress, and pick the leaves off the stems. Chop the leaves roughly and place them in a small bowl.
Once the eggs are done, place them under running water to cool. When they’ve cooled off sufficiently, remove them from the water, and roll them back and forth gently on your counter to create lots of little cracks. Once you get hold of the skin that covers the egg, the shell will strip away in big pieces. (It goes much faster than tapping it against a hard surface and picking off the shell bit by bit.)
Cut the eggs into fine dice and add them to the bowl with the watercress. Add a spoonful or two of good-quality mayonnaise, just enough to hold the mixture together, and give everything a good stir. Season with salt and a sprinkling of black pepper.
Spread the egg mixture on a slice of thick-cut sandwich bread, and top with another. Cut in half. Serve with gherkins (cornichons) and old-fashioned ginger beer.
Note: If you’d prefer to make dainty tea sandwiches, use white bread with crusts trimmed, and after you’ve cut them into triangles, spread the outer edges with mayonnaise and dip them into finely chopped parsley.