Monday, January 26, 2015


On a Small Scale.

 It’s time for our first jam session! he cried, clapping his hands together. I had never made a jar of confiture in my life yet he had such faith in me and my skills. He had been making jars and jars of the stuff, more than anyone would ever be able to count, in the dozen years he had owned and run the hotel, creating and building a reputation on those jams, upwards of sixty different flavors over the course of a year. On a scale of one to ten? His jams were a definite twelve.

 As I followed him up the stairs, climbing one step at a time, slowly, nervously, it was as if I was scaling a mountain, the summit of which was beyond my visual field, up in the clouds. Dizzying. I slipped into the apartment, the kitchen piled with cartons ready for their move, the kitchen a smoky color of yellow, a brown the color of dead leaves. He pulled me towards a big, old white plastic bucket filled with misshapen clumps of fruit salad, saved and frozen from the dining room. Not only does it not go to waste, he explained, but it makes a delicious jam, flavored with a bit of finely chopped candied ginger and a splash of rum! But first, as it thawed, that fruit would macerate overnight in sugar, measured out to scale.

 His sister hefted the huge white bucket filled with frozen fruit across the kitchen, sidestepping stacks of moving cartons, and placed it on one platform of a rusty old scale. This old set of scales of wood and cast iron, was the biggest I had ever seen, big enough to support a big, white plastic bucket on one of its pans, and the blackest I had ever seen, black with age, black with time and use. She hefted the bucket onto one side and the scale dipped, clunking down as the other plateau swung up. She placed a selection of weights, large and small, on the free side, the scales swinging this way and that, up and down like a seesaw, a teeter-totter. Until the right balance. She then removed the bucket and adjusted the weights for 650 grams. She then placed a bowl on the other side and began pouring in sugar until the pans were more or less even, then adding the sugar to the fruit, pushing the bucket to the back of the kitchen counter to work its magic overnight.

 I’ll leave the bucket, the copper pot – he pointed to the battered old, otherwise gleaming copper basin hooked to the wall – and the scales for you until you have the time to purchase your own. And my jam-making profession had officially begun.

 My husband has one small but heavy weight – brass or cast iron? – that he uses for a paper weight, the only thing remaining from the old scales his parents once used in their shop, scales used for weighing fruit and vegetables, butter and cheese.

Of the things that are in the waters, you may eat anything that has fins and scales. - Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9 

 Although I grew up on the ocean coast of Florida, a few minutes’ walk from the beach, minutes to the river, a stone’s throw from so many fishing piers, I did not learn how to choose and purchase fish until I moved to Europe. Fishmongers group together at one end of the market space hawking their wares; stalls groaning under mountains of ice, whole fish and slabs of filets lined up, piled up, glistening silver, blue, white, pink and red.

 The flesh should be supple, I was taught, shiny and elastic, the eyes bright, l’oeil vif, as my husband says, in French. The gills, when poked at, your fingertips brushing over them, then pulled apart and peered at, the gills, should be clear and pink. The fish should have no smell, like three-day old guests. And the scales. Tight, firm, glistening scales. Like gemstones, diamonds, those scales.

 Scales. Thin, flat and horny, like slender, transparent bone, like fingernails shiny with silvery, pink-tinted polish, they are lovely things, a wonder of nature, yet awful in the mouth, like bits of minuscule plastic tiddlywinks.

 Ask the fishmonger to clean and prepare the fish. A sharp snap as the fins are clipped off. The knife slides effortlessly up the front, the head is lopped off, the bones removed in the twinkling of an eye. The fish is gutted, a brutal word for a brutal action, over before you have the time to recoil in horror. Eviscerated. But before this ceremony, the fish is scaled. A special tool, a scaler, is rubbed, scrubbed back and forth, back and forth, almost violently, the tiny scales scattering, spitting across wet, slimy work surface, then brushed quickly away. Scaled. 

 Swimmingly. To scale.

Tip the Scales

 I see the bathroom scale hiding under the sink cabinet, a fine coating of dust and dirt witness to our abandonment of this bathroom accessory. Alone except for the company of dust bunnies and flip-flops or slippers that occasionally, thoughtlessly get kicked underneath the cabinet into the dark wasteland where the bathroom scale lives.

 The last I stepped onto a scale was at the doctor’s office, naked as a jaybird, naked as the day I was born, the doctor sitting behind her desk in the adjoining room demanding I yell out to her my weight, the numbers on the scale, hearing my own voice admitting my own caloric downfall, my lack of self-control. She then compares to last year’s numbers. Thus revealing the reason that my own bathroom scale lies disregarded, jilted and forsaken, victim of its own candor and impartiality, like a husband saying, in the midst of a warm embrace, “you have put on a touch of weight, haven’t you?”

 That bathroom scale is proof of my gluttony, witness of my tendency to the gourmand. A beholder of my hedonism in the kitchen, is that scale. While my kitchen scale rejoices in being laden with flour, heaped with butter, weighted with sugar, lavished with cocoa powder, chunks of chocolate, recipients of cream, my bathroom scale seems to groan under the burden, its numbers sliding up and up, those numbers jeering their displeasure.

 As I slide open the bathroom door and go to leave, head off (most likely) to the kitchen, I give a firm, contemptuous kick to that scale with my foot, pushing it further under the cabinet, hidden just a bit more from view. No reminder of all the baking I do, no admonition for the weight I have put on for all the eating.

Musical Scales

 How did I come to have three digital kitchen scales, I find it difficult to remember. Did we think that the first was broken, only to discover that it was no such thing once the second was purchased, removed from the box, battery inserted, the top already speckled with flour and sugar, the on/off button just slightly sticky with whatever batter was on my fingertip when last used? One, I know was a gift, points collected from our bank, points used towards the purchase of something within the pages of a catalogue, a way to snag clients.

 My husband, flipping through the catalogue, weighing this gift against that, saw the kitchen scale and stabbed a finger at it. Never one to collect useless gadgets or knickknacks, constantly trying to scale back our belongings, eliminating the useless, scaling down our lifestyle to the bare necessities, he, nonetheless, paused at the image of the kitchen scales. Would you like this? Do you need a scale? he asked. And lovely scale it was, the base in shiny stainless steel, the plateau in clear glass. Ah, I replied, having a second scale on hand is very useful in case the battery of the first one dies in the middle of measuring ingredients for a cake or macarons! A second scale would be wonderful! I exclaimed, puffing up with joy!

 And as the second scale arrived at the house, I realized that I already had not one but two digital kitchen scales, and baby made three. And I love my scales. Oh, I hadn’t always weighed my baking ingredients on a scale, but rather measured in cups and tablespoons, scoop and level. Chocolate measured in squares, butter in sticks, yeast by the packet. Yet once I moved to France, I realized that this wasn’t practical; when I began following recipes from French magazines, or when my mother- or sister-in-law, or a friend offered me one of their recipes, I realized that I had to acclimate to a new culinary culture. And once I began weighing ingredients, in grams, mind you, I realized the accuracy, the magic, the ease, the precision.

 Scales worth their weight in gold. As smooth and harmonious as musical scales.

 What is art but life upon the larger scale, the higher. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Fish and herbs, the perfect marriage in my book. I really don't know what say more to than this, it is just so simple: you take a fish, stuff it with herbs, a few slices of lemon, salt, and drizzle white wine and a good olive oil over it all and push it into the oven. The fresh bay leaves give a wonderful sweet flavour to the meat.

ILVA'S HYPER HERBY OVEN FISH (a recipe sketch)

fresh herbs (I used bay leaves, thyme and sage)
white wine
extra-virgin olive oil

   Take the whole fish, scaled and gutted, and put them in a baking tray. If you like, you can line it with non-stick baking paper or you can trickle a little oil in it before you place the fish in the tray. 

   Stuff the fish with some salt, lemon slices and a few sprigs of thyme and put the sage leaves around it.  Now salt the fish and then cover it with bay leaves and lemon slices, drizzle white wine and olive oil over the fish and put it in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for about 35 - 40 minutes but that depends on how big the fish is; check if the meat is cooked before taking it out.

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  1. What a joy to read and watch this great, should I say - large-scale collaboration! Always indulging in this blog posts!

  2. I was late to coming to using a scale, and due to a move, I now have two. These photos are gorgeous, and now you are making me want to hunt for a old time scales.

  3. Just a lovely post all around, words and pictures. And a simple delicious recipe. We don't eat fish as often as we should at our house, mostly because the choice at the fish counter of our upSCALE supermarket is always slightly disappointing. I can't help comparing it to the fresh fish I get on the Adriatic coast, and it always falls short. Still, you've whetted my appetite and I'm going to see if I can find some good branzino to make this. Cheers, D

  4. Beautiful post and what stunning shots of the fish to scale in particular, Ilva! Haha, I remember the days of having to report my weight to the doc and even remember lying on a couple of occasions *shame*. As for the digital scales, three? How practical! I hear you on the adjusting to the grams like the French. But ever since we moved to digital scales, recipes actually come out right! Lovely writing as ever, Jamie.

  5. That large spring scale looks very similar to my mum's old scale! I used to love it when she hauled it out. It meant that my Godmother was coming over and there would be fruit cake being mixed in the plastic baby's bathtub when we got home from school for lunch.

    What great descriptions of various scales! Especially the confiture scales (and when you wrote "musical scales", I suddenly reeled back the tape in my mind and heard my sister's fingers whipping up and down the piano, playing contrary motion Dflat major scales, as the rest of us were in the kitchen peeling potatoes).