Ayear ago today, I went to a dinner of Jane Grigson recipes cooked by the chef Anna Tobias. Mulligatawny soup, faggots, mash and buttered sprout tops, steamed ginger pudding and custard, eaten around a table the size of my bedroom by a fog of candlelight – it was, to steal a title from Jane, a very Good Thing. It was the starter, though, that stuck in my memory like a Post-it, which was partly to do with the fact it was the first thing I put in my mouth (starters have the unfair advantages of anticipation and hunger), but also because it was an anchovy matchstick.
Actually, “matchstick” is a bit misleading size-wise; it was more toast soldier size: two fingers of puff pastry, sandwiching hard-boiled egg cream and an anchovy fillet, baked until risen and golden brown. Like all fried and puffed things, the key to anchovy matchsticks is eating them as quickly as you can while they are hot, otherwise they lose their charm. That night, in the basement of Italo delicatessen in the middle of Vauxhall, south London, the matchsticks were a warm concertina with a salty, piquant heart that only anchovies can provide. Following that dinner, I made two batches of anchovy matchsticks, one with egg, one with just anchovy, at my parents’ over the Christmas holiday. While not quite as good as Anna’s, they established a new tradition of gathering around the oven door to eat hot, salty matchsticks and drinking home-measures of negronis – as if we don’t have enough traditions already.
You could make your own puff or ruff-puff pastry, or simply buy it… which transports me to the Waitrose on Finchley Road nearly 20 years ago, where I overheard a conversation between two elegant, elderly ladies, whom I imagined were sisters. “Will you get some puff pastry?” said one. “Fuck the puff pastry,” replied the other, calmly. “Let’s get ham.” At which they walked down the aisle, never to be seen again – by me, at least. Years on, and I can’t even read the words “puff pastry” without thinking of those two sisters.
Despite my warm hands, I am a keen shortcrust and ruff-puff maker. I am also a keen pastry buyer – especially the rectangles I can get from the supermarket here in Testaccio. My bedside read at the moment is Rowley Leigh’s new book, which celebrates the “long and messy business” of cooking; an antidote to a world fixated on speed and 10-minute meals. There is room, though, for both – the long and the messy; and the quick, shop-bought bake. With 250g of puff pastry rolled into two rectangles and two small tins of anchovies, you can have a tray full of matchsticks ready in about 16 minutes, the oven doing most of the work.
Cut the dough into 10cm-long, 2cm-wide soldiers, put half on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, lay an anchovy fillet on each, cover with the other half like a lid and press shut gently. Before baking, brush the matchsticks with beaten egg, sprinkle with salt and bake at 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 for 12 minutes, until they smell like toasted butter and are puffed up with salty, Christmas promise.