Why do gingerbread recipes call for ground ginger, not fresh ginger? N. Cooke
There's a line in Leonard Cohen's Suzanne that goes, "And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China". Those words, for me, always exemplified the special, precious nature we impart to goods that arrive on the waves, but also the great value we place on them when passed on by someone significant. Gingerbread, made with dried bread, honey and spices, has its roots in medieval cookery. Fresh ginger would never have lasted the journey all the way from India. It arrived preserved in sugar or dried and powdered. Carried on the backs of pack animals by foreigners with different languages, cultures and even skin colour, the exotic narrative of the origin formed part of the spice's allure, like an early form of marketing. Over the centuries the recipes have changed but the taste for ground ginger has remained.
I have a recipe for lavender, orange and almond cake that uses fresh lavender flowers. I am told some lavender varieties are poisonous. The internet was no help. Which varieties do you recommend? J. Padget
You know what happens when you rely on the internet for information? You elect an orange-tinted shouty truth-dodger. For some people, lavender acts as a relaxant and because of this people taking sedatives or pain medication should ask their doctor about using lavender aromatically. The New England Journal of Medicine has concluded that lavender oils in body products may cause gynaecomastia, known colloquially as man boobs. One person who knows a thing or two about cooking with lavender is chef Sid Murthy from Lavandula Swiss Italian Farm near Daylesford in central Victoria. His team grows and dries flowers from an English lavender variety called Lavandula angustifolia 'Miss Donnington', which they use in scones, jams and even combine with rosemary and mustard to smother over a leg of lamb before slow roasting. French lavender (L. dentata) and Spanish (L. stoechas) have a camphor or pine overtone that, while not poisonous, is often too strong and bitter to be used in cooking.
Can I make a Christmas pudding without suet? F. Mallin
Goodness gracious me! You're still making pudding with suet? Where do you get it? It's harder to find than Clive Palmer's waistband. The pale fat surrounding beef kidneys makes incredibly good puddings but many people can't stomach the idea. You can use vegetarian suet, made in Herefordshire, Britain, called Atora. You'll find it online. Unsalted but not cultured butter is my preference. Make sure it is ultrafresh because the cooking and storing of the pud will exacerbate rancid odours in tainted butter. Suet is pure fat. Butter is 85 per cent fat. So add an extra tablespoon or so of flour to absorb the extra water you're adding from the butter.
Letters, corrections and apologies
Thanks to L. Mori who wrote, "I just read your response to T. John regarding the correlation between successful chefs and tattoos. Where are the successful female chefs and female chefs with tatts?" I did contact Alice Waters, Stephanie Alexander and Alla Wolf-Tasker, among many others, asking whether they had tattoos. They did not, and quite rightly, respond to my glib query. For that I respect them even more than I do already.