Been following my “Moss Reid” crime novels? Then you may have noticed how Moss Reid’s kitchen cupboards (“presses” we also call them in Ireland) resemble Schrödinger’s cat.
They are always in one of two distinct and opposite states: either (a) depleted and near empty, or (b) recently stocked up with bounteous goodies. There is no in-between.
This is an essential part of Moss Reid’s backstory. This either/or state of his larder reflects the ups and downs (aka cashflow, clients) of life at Wilde & Reid Investigations (a one-man operation despite the name; there is no Wilde). Some might say that it’s also a metaphor for a boom-bust society, or for…
OK, at least Moss Reid will always have something to fall back on at the back of the press; a tin, a jar or packet, in among the kitchen essentials and emergency supplies. In my latest book Black Marigolds these fallback items happen to include a jar of French honey.
The Italian larder
Moss Reid is Irish. His best friend is a chef and half French. Yet Mossie’s store cupboard is essentially Italian. He has soy sauce too of course, and udon noodles, baked beans and porridge oats, but his main starting point is basically Italian. Great ingredients, ready at all times, to go into anything from a platter of antipasti appetizers to a full meal. Everything from the occasional deluxe treat to the makings of an everyday supper.
Let’s zoom in on a few of his Italian larder essentials, letting the camera linger for a few seconds on a few of these foodstuffs one by one – the kind of items you can leave at the back of a press for months (rather than fresh fruit and veg, prosciutto or Parmigiano Reggiano)…
- Amaretti biscuits. A luxury of course. Amaretti di Saronno are biscuits individually wrapped in special paper – when you light the paper, it lifts into the air. All very romantic, but this isn’t a romance novel. For better value Moss would have amaretti that aren’t individually wrapped. He could of course make his own, in which case he’d make sure to have the almond kick of…
- Amaretto liqueur. Possibly the best way to disguise the almond smell of cyanide?
- Anchovies, tins and jars of. Useful in everything from tapenade to pizzas and focaccia bread, for stuffing into a roast lamb, or for giving a salsa verde or salad dressing an extra kick. Moss Reid would go for the ones in olive oil not vegetable oil
- Artichokes – earthy, gorgeous, not to everyone’s taste, and a lot easier to buy in a jar than “de-choking” and cooking your own. Life’s too short, particularly in a crime novel
- Balsamic vinegar – as in “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”
- Beans and pulses – such as cannellini, borlotti. Usually dried but sometimes canned, essential or everything from pasta e fagioli to stews or minestrone
- Capers. Instead of the ones preserved in vinegar and brine, try the big flavour of capers jarred in sea salt. Just rinse and soak in cold water before using
- Coffee – Moss Reid’s preferred brand is Lavazza Rossa. Good flavour, keenly priced. I should get paid by Lavazza for the number of times I mention their brand in my books. Mind you, for such a classy coffee they have a horribly naff “Only good coffee goes to heaven” ad series in Italy
- Flour – extra-fine ’00’ flour (‘doppio zero’) for making pizza dough, bread or pasta
- Frutti di mare – jars of cooked seafood in oil, from crab to squid. Bit of a treat, an acquired taste
- Limoncello – a liqueur (which you can make yourself) in which lemon peel has been soaked in a mixture of alcohol, sugar and water for a prolonged period
- Mushrooms – as in the dried porcini/ceps, which make an intense broth or stock when reconstituted. Moss is also a huge fan of the porcini stock cubes you find in Italian shops under the Knorr or Star brands
- Oregano – among the store cupboard supply of dried herbs (but dried basil or dried parsley is plain daft)
- Olive oil. See important note below. A mild or fruity extra virgin for salads and dressings, and a plain (and cheaper) olive oil for cooking
- Olives – tins or jars of black and green, half a meal in themselves: simply add bread, cheese and a good wine
- Pasta – from short dried pasta (tubettini or farfalline) for soups or minestrone, to spaghetti and larger shapes, lasagne and stuffed ravioli and tortellini (or “tortelloni” if larger again). Moss would look for pasta made from hard durum wheat
- Peppers. Yeah, you could roast your own (put in oven till the skins are black, allow to cool in a plastic bag, rub skin off, drizzle with olive oil). But the ones in jars are a good substitute. The ones in olive oil, not brine
- Pesto – once again you could make your own, but it takes half an acre of plants for a few spoonfuls – a bit extravagant for Irish gardeners. Besides, the readymade stuff is instant and often rather good. An alternative in Ireland is to make a non-basil pesto with more plentiful ingredients from the garden (wild garlic, nettles, rocket)
- Polenta. The standard traditional stuff used to take 40 minutes of stirring, but supermarkets have ‘quick’ varieties that are ready (at least in terms of the initial boil-and-simmer stage) in five minutes or so
- Risotto rice – carnaroli and vialone nano. You may have noticed a seriously large quantity of risotto being cooked in the “Moss Reid” mystery Another Case in Cowtown
- Semolina – not for making semolina puddings per se, but for adding to dough, dusting pizza bases, sprinkling on roast potatoes before they go in the oven
- Tomatoes – in store cupboard terms, these are either tinned plum tomatoes or sun-dried. Or Moss will have the occasional jar or carton of polpa di pomodoro or passata for sauces. What better letter and foodstuff to end an A-Z on?
Where he shops
Many of these store cupboard staples are available in supermarkets nowadays. But sometimes it pays to shop locally, at more specialist shops. Again, if you follow the “Moss Reid” series you’ll have a good idea of where he does his shopping around Stoneybatter and Smithfield in Dublin.
If Moss Reid were to come across a litre bottle of oil in a discount supermarket and it claimed to be “extra virgin” at the bargain price of €2.50 or €3.50, he wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. You wouldn’t buy a litre of wine at that price, would you? He’d suspect a fake, and would rather spend €8 or €9 in a good specialist store on a litre of a respected brand such as Le Fratte or Filippo Berio. Which are both sold by Little Italy of course.
The Little Italy chain started by serving the local Italian community and restaurants in Dublin and further afield; in 1993 they expanded into their current premises in Smithfield. A big shop run by lovely people – and don’t be put off by having to ring a buzzer to be let in. Inside are great treasures and hidden jewels.
And, of course, there’s the Lilliput Stores. This tiny but charming shop on Arbour Hill is crammed from floor to ceiling with artisan food. It opened in 2007 just as the recession began to kick in, yet has managed to survive and thrive.