Sunday, February 24, 2013

On Crayfish and Cucumbers

Algernon: (Picking up empty plate in horror) Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.
Lane: (Gravely) There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.
Algernon: No cucumbers!
Lane: No, sir. Not even for ready money.  

- Oscar Wilde - The Importance of Being Earnest   -

If you've never tried a cucumber sandwich you should. When made properly (fresh thinly sliced bread, no crusts; good quality butter, thinly but not stingily spread; cucumber cut fine, laid close; a sprinkle of just-cracked pepper) they are one of those mysterious culinary miracles which are so much more than the sum of their parts. Somehow, the twin triangles of delicate spongy bread, the salty touch of butter and the inbetween wafer of crisp, fresh cucumber, combine in a savory morsel that is all at once refreshingly simple, deliciously satisfying and delightfully moreish. It's no wonder Algernon scoffed them all before his Aunt arrived.

But deliciousness aside, cucumber sandwiches, have a special place in my heart. I went to see the above play, years ago, with two dear friends of mine. At the time, they were my housemates. One, Kim, now lives, with her lovely husband and two dear children nearby in Brunswick. The other, Ellisha, now lives in San Francisco with her lovely husband and her one, brand new, darling baby. Back in the day we were all living together in North Fitzroy and the three of us went to see a wonderful, uproariously funny, highly unconventional version of the The Importance of Being Earnest which had a cast of just two blokes. These men played every single character in the three act play, complete with ridiculous and increasingly chaotic costume changes. Sounds silly, it was wonderful.

We loved the play and Wilde's infectious sense of the ridiculous became a running joke in our household. Cucumber sandwiches became a regular feature at parties we hosted and elegant platefuls of them even made an appearance at Kim's 30th birthday bash. When Kim's chef husband came home with a crayfish, rescued from the menu of the restaurant in which he works, it became a household pet. Various names were thrown around, until we hit on Algernon, the name of Wilde's eccentric, cucumber sandwich loving hero.  It was, somehow, a perfect fit.

Algernon in his glory days

After a while, we moved to the Far North, to East Brunswick; all of us, including Algernon, into my current abode. We continued along happily but eventually we went our separate ways, Ellisha and Kim moved out (Kim taking her husband, of course). Algernon and I stayed put. He was a well loved crayfish, living to a ripe old age. He dined on all sorts of delicaices including fat caterpillars from the pots out the back, fennel (his favourite) and, of course, the odd slice of cucumber. Eventually, after four or so years of happy pet-hood, he succumbed to old age. By that time I had come into possession of my (first) plot down at the garden and Algernon was buried, with ceremony (John and Kim in attendance), on a rainy Sunday, under the teepee in the corner of my plot.
Since then, I have moved plots but not far, and I like to think that on stormy nights, Algernon's ghost, still stalks through my lettuces, waving his claws and gobbling up unwary caterpillars head first like little squishy green mars bars. In the new plot, we have put up a cucumber frame. I've never grown cucumbers before but I know they like to go vertical. To keep them happy in this regard, we mounted a gorgeous old cast iron door frame, found many years ago, by Kim's husband, on the side of the road. It's perfect for the job, but in actual fact it belongs to Kim. She left it when she moved out but has always planned on using it in her own garden.

Fortunately for us, and the cucumbers, Kim was willing to let us use the door frame in our garden until she finds a place for it in hers. In return, I promised her a share of the cucurbit spoils. Our cucumbers have done well and when we came back from the beach there was a pile for the picking, the choicest of which I dutifully delivered to Kim's kitchen. Since then we have had a steady flow of cukes, all of which, I'm ashamed to say I've used myself. Like Oscar Wilde's insouciant hero Algernon, I've gobbled them all up completely without sparing a thought for anyone else. I've made cucumber salads, Thai cucumber relish, cucumber sandwiches (thick cut sourdough and goat's cheese this time) and three batches of cucumber pickles. 

The first two batches of pickles turned out just ok. One lot were very salty and the other batch super sour. The third batch I made last weekend, using a bread and butter pickle recipe sourced from the internet. I studied hard before I made them, followed the recipe carefully and I'm full of hope that they'll turn out well. Mostly because I can't wait to give a jar to Kim. I'm also hoping they'll live up to their name and can be enjoyed on thin little sandwiches, with just a dab of butter and sprinkle of just-cracked pepper. Maybe there'll still be some pickles left for sandwiches when Ellisha next comes to visit, but I don't know that I'd bet on it... not even for ready money.

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