I’ve known some flakes in my time. (Haven’t we all?) I don’t mean mad. I mean eccentric. And before I say another word I should add some context: I approve of eccentrics. I love eccentrics. They’re often more interesting than the random people on the streets, in the shops and chattering away at the other restaurant tables.
Flaky people tend to be more intelligent than the rest. There’s all this stuff going on in your head, all of that creativity jangling together like Tubular Bells. And no one does flake better than the Brits. Okay, maybe the French. Almost. But add a good dollop of eccentricity to a Brit and you have the makings of entertainment drawn in broad, dayglo strokes.
No other nation could have given us the line-up on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Only a Londoner could have given us the many guises of David Bowie — the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars et al. No other nation is mad enough to invent Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Peter Sellers, Mr Bean, Billy Connolly, The Goon Show, Rowan Atkinson, Spike Milligan, John Cleese or the entire cast of Little Britain. Not to mention Catherine Tate and all of the profanely batty stuff going on in her head.
Nobody but a Brit could have played any of the roles Maggie Smith or Judi Dench have played in their immensely rich careers with quite the supremely British humour and characterisation they manage to pull out of the hat every single time. Or almost anything John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier did.
Nobody but a Brit could have conceived and written Downton Abbey, or for that matter any of the Dickens yarns, and almost every character he invented was as eccentric as any of the cast of wonders mentioned above.
And nobody but a Brit could have come up with the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last Friday night. I mean, really: Would any other nation on earth make their National Health Service a part of the Olympic Games opening spectacular? Put scores of children in hospital beds all over a sports field? Turn said sports field into the Industrial Revolution? Have Mary Poppins come down in multiples of herself, on umbrellas, from the sky? (Or have invented Mary Poppins in the first place? I mean, think about it: a governess who flies around suspended from a brolly, with a handbag containing a household of goods?) Nobody but a Brit could have invented a governess, or a missionary, or the missionary position.
Or persuaded their monarch, their 86-year-old queen, to agree to be filmed being escorted by James Bond (who doesn’t exist, being another British invention) in a helicopter to the Olympic stadium, seemingly with her corgis in tow.
Or persuade their leading actor of the day, God’s Own Answer to Laurence Olivier and Gift to Those who Miss Him, Kenneth Branagh, to star at centre field as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man with a name as eccentrically British —with a good tinge of Empire thrown in — as the Industrial Revolution he invented. And then to have the inventor of the worldwide web, Tim Berners-Lee, appear from beneath a house.
And amid all the madness (the only surprise being that the band was not actually brought on), what Danny Boyle and his legions of creative madmen were doing was saying, ‘We, the Brits — the ones you all laugh at because we’re so bloody eccentric — we gave you all this. Not the Yanks. The Brits.’ And sure, Bill Gates and many others might beg to differ, but to claim something controversially is eccentric too.
I’ve heard all the criticism of the Games opener, and I understand the whinges, but I wouldn’t have had the opening ceremony any way but as madly eccentric as it was. It was inevitable, even unavoidable. They’re all quite mad, and you have to be one (well, half one in my case) to know that and love it.
Which is why I decided to invent a similarly eccentric —and, yes, flaky — dessert in honour of all that marvellous madness. It’s a dessert to set before a monarch who has had the patience to sit through 60 years on the throne, watching all this lot unfold before her, without batting an eyelid. It’s a dessert that’s just a tad cheesy (entirely in keeping, then, with that opening ceremony), which has bits of brightly coloured things in it, and is sprinkled liberally with, dare I say it, flakes. And here it is…
Ricotta with orange, almonds and coconut
2 ripe oranges (zest and juice)
100g flaked almonds
100g coconut flakes
1 cup (250ml) cold water
1 cup sugar
Maraschino cherries for garnish
12 red, green and yellow glacé cherries
Zest the orange and put the strips in a saucepan with the juice, discarding the rest. Do not use the pith as it is bitter. Add the cold water and sugar, stir, bring to a boil and then simmer gently until reduced by a half to two-thirds. It should be a nice runny orange syrup. Leave to cool, and chill.
Toast the almond flakes until lightly golden, remove, and then toast the coconut flakes similarly. Finely chop the cherries.
Crumble the ricotta in a bowl, using a fork. Stir in the chopped cherries and 3 Tbs of the chilled orange syrup and half of the coconut and almond flakes. Dip ramekins in cold water, empty and shake out any drops, and fill with the ricotta. Chill to let it set a little. Turn out on to plates. Drizzle the remaining orange syrup over, and sprinkle with almond and coconut flakes.
Serve it to your flakiest, maddest friends.
First published in Weekend Argus August 2012