I meant to write a post about autumn. Something about the wonderful, crackling transience of it, about the brief period of crisp, bright days, and, of course, about the food, fungi and wet nuts, the first of the year’s game, the last of the summer in hedgerow berries, orchard and stone fruits – the way it seems to be the most British of seasons, not having to borrow from other cuisines the way we do in summer, but able to fully express our ingredients and our heritage. Well, I missed autumn. It seems to have lasted about a week between Indian summer and early-onset winter.
The thing about our autumn is that it is really itself. We don’t really have an idealised autumn to hold it up against, the way we do with summer (Cornwall, the south of France, wherever) and winter (Christmas stories, the Alps). Is it dry and clear? Beautiful. Is it rainy? Good! All the better for splashing in the mud. Winter, on the other hand, rarely matches up to our desires. It’s never really that cold, and even decent snowfall soon turns into filthy slush. We want to sit huddled up with hot cocoa, scarves and mittens, and various arrangements of potato, meat and cheese, but that hardly seems justified when it’s 10 above freezing and drizzling.
As such, we don’t really have winter food as a distinct entity. We have the late autumn repetoire of soups and stews, and then we have the month-long tyranny of Christmas, which infects every meal in December. Even a quick supermarket sandwich becomes an opportunity to eat turkey, stuffing, and some cranberry-related concoction. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, turkey and cranberry are vile, unless prepared very carefully indeed; secondly, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration, a feast. No wonder people complain about Christmas Day, about the endless tedium of the family meal – they’ve already experienced the most important part of it, watered down and adulterated, about 20 times, at drunken office parties, in petrol stations, pubs, Pret a Manger. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate at Christmas, but do we have to do it for so long?
What we need is a new winter festival, one that hasn’t been corrupted by Americanism, commercialism, and Pret a Manger, a new way to rage against the dying of the light and bring back the setting sun. For much of European peasant history, the big event of the winter has been the pig-killing festival, the whole village coming together to slaughter and to create, curing and salting and hanging meat to see them through the dark days. I appreciate that most people don’t have a pig to slaughter; still, perhaps we could nod to the toils of our ancestors, and make black pudding. Besides being delicious, it is ridiculously cheap, although you’ll need a couple of specialist ingredients. This recipe is adapted from the excellent Nose To Tail iteration, and makes a flat, Yorkshire-style loaf.
Buy dried blood off the internet (here is good); you’ll have to ask a butcher for back fat. I got mine free, but we’re good pals. It shouldn’t be expensive, anyway. I guess you could use fat snipped off back bacon? Mr Henderson suggests salted lardo if you can’t find raw fat.
1 spanish onion, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
A chunk of lard
A small bunch of sage, finely chopped
Half a nutmeg, grated
1 tsp allspice
150g dried pig blood
150g fine polenta
250g back fat, chopped into little cubes
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3, and line a loaf tin with clingfilm.
Melt the lard in a big pan, then sweat the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, whisk the dried blood into a litre of blood-temperature water. When the onion is done, tip in the sage and spices, cook out for a minute, then add the polenta and blood. Turn the heat right down, and cook, stirring, until it starts to congeal and thicken. Blood is very like eggs, so imagine a custard. You don’t want it to set yet. Taste (this is gross, more because of the raw polenta than the semi-cooked blood), and season appropriately. It wants a surprising amount of salt, and a free hand with the pepper.
Take off the heat and stir in the back fat – you want it evenly spread through the bloody porridge. Pour into your loaf tin, which you cover with foil and place, on a folded tea towel, in a good deep oven tray. Pour boiling water to just under the lip of the tin, then carefully slide into the oven. Back for about 1 and a half to 2 hours, until a knife comes out cleanish, then leave to set overnight.
To eat, slice appropriately, and fry or bake until hot and crispy. Serve, perhaps, with black badger peas and black kale, on the shortest day of the year.