Thirty-five years ago I knew what a dog was, and had even come across a few, but that was as far as it went.
Then I met my wife Jo, and a slow, patient education started.
Ten years ago we went to stay with our friends Tim and Patti in Toronto. Moseying around their rather lovely neighbourhood we found it hilarious to find not just one dog bakery, but several. Yes, bread and biscuits and, oh my god, patisserie for dogs. Of course, we thought, Americans are so weird, whoops, Canadians are so weird, ridiculously sentimental, totally over the top.
This year Jo decided to organise, no, curate an Open House as part of the Brighton Festival: The Dog Show, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures of dogs by ten artists – a natural extension of her voracious accumulation of dog art over the last twenty years. As we had been warned, this was quite an undertaking. It entailed the complete redecoration of the ground floor of our house, and the clearance of Jo’s workroom. The contents expanded like Crazyfoam and filled most of the rest of house, including my workroom (ha!), and our bedroom, making it necessary to leap from the doorway straight on to the bed. Assembling the artists was easier; everyone said yes, including the redoubtable Dee McCracken, a.k.a. Felted Fido, who makes unbelievably lifelike dog sculptures by poking a needle repeatedly into a blob of sheep’s fleece. (Voodoo she calls it.)
The public arrived, some to take a look at dog art, some to take a closer look at our house. At times, it felt like being an estate agent with nothing to sell. People were equally enthusiastic about the show and the house. The visiting dogs behaved immaculately. I was on teas – ‘teas for dogs and their owners’, as Jo advertised them - an apparently essential component of an Open House. The atmosphere in the kitchen was frisky, dog owners with their dogs finding common ground and chatting over tea and cake. The most interesting cakes were:
Orange and Almond Cake, a gorgeously simple Sephardic cake, which is, substantially, from Claudia Roden’s marvellous A Book of Middle Eastern Food. This is pre-Yotam Middle Eastern cooking – only five ingredients…..
2 large oranges
200g caster sugar
250g ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
Boil the oranges for an hour and a half. Cut them open, remove any pips, and turn them to a pulp in an electric blender. Heat the oven to 180°C. Beat the eggs with the sugar, add the ground almonds and baking powder, and finally the orange pulp. Mix well, and pour into a lined, buttered springform cake tin. Bake, checking after 40 minutes. A skewer should come out clean – just about. Cool in the tin, and turn out.
Castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake from Tuscany and Liguria, which is, substantially, from Roden’s equally marvellous The Food of Italy.
The traditional version of this cake has no sugar. It’s pretty severe.
75g raisins or sultanas
350g chestnut flour
50g light brown sugar
A pinch of salt
Zest and juice of 1 orange
50ml olive oil
30g pine puts
The leaves of a sprig of rosemary
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Cover the raisins in hot tea, and soak for 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the tea.
Mix together the flour, the sugar and the salt, and add the orange zest. Add the orange juice to the tea, and make up to 350ml with water. Beat this liquid, and the olive oil, into the flour and sugar. Add the raisins, and pour into a lined, oiled springform cake tin. The tin should be large enough so that the cake is no more than 2cm thick. Sprinkle the pine nuts and rosemary leaves over the top, and bake for 40 minutes. Cool in the tin, and lift out. Easiest not to try to take the paper off the bottom.
Both of these cakes, by the way, make good puddings.
Meanwhile, an idea had crept up upon us….‘teas for dogs and their owners’ – what do the dogs get? Well of course, they get homemade dog biscuits, we can’t just go out and buy them…… And so it was that I found myself, to my utter astonishment, making dog biscuits. How could my life have come to this? We bought bone-shaped biscuit cutters, and I took the recipe from a vast range on the internet, a recipe based, curiously, on peanut butter, not a product I would have associated with dogs. It produced some charmingly rough-hewn biscuits which looked as if they might have been excavated on an archaeological dig.
And then, the final degradation – or the final triumph, it was difficult to tell – the local radio station turns up, in the person of their Food and Drink expert, and, sure enough, I capitulate to being interviewed on the subject of dog biscuits. I’ve spent my life trying to make it as a composer, and here I am, famous for making dog biscuits – well, let’s not get carried away here, as famous as one can be from brief exposure on Radio Reverb.
On the last night of festival we go to see a Laurie Anderson gig. She tells some mildly entertaining stories about animals, shows footage of her blind dog Lolabel playing the piano (classic YouTube stuff), and finishes the frankly disappointing show by describing a concert she once did in Sidney, a concert for dogs. This makes me feel better. Suddenly, by comparison, making dog biscuits doesn’t seem quite so weird after all.
PS The Dog Show is a creditable, though frustrating runner-up in the Best Open House Competition.
Words by composer and keen cook Orlando Gough