The Matter of the Heart

  
One man’s (or woman’s, or culture’s) offal is another man’s premium cut; these things are as much about demand as about supply. A beef fillet may be prized partly because there is only one of it, but its status, still, as an expensive piece of meat comes as much from its giving tenderness – a texture which, coming as it does at the expense of flavour, many (yes, myself included) find if not unpleasantly then at least indifferently soft – at least when raw or extremely rare. Overcook it, of course, and it will be as dry and grainy as a minute steak.

 

Premium cuts often follow a French ideal of quality, and as such are rated by their edibility when sanguine; the cheaper ends of animals, either fatty or sinewy, tend to need much longer cooking – This is one of the things which defines their cheapness, despite the fact that a slow-cooked piece of belly pork is infinitely more delicious than a tenderloin cooked any way at all – unless you’re talking really cheap, in which case, things having come full circle, a quick sear in a very hot pan is often the best course of action. These cuts – skirt, flatiron, whatever – have long been enjoyed as steaks by the French (at a bistro level, perhaps, rather than haute cuisine) but are only now making their way out of our mincers and diced mixed stewing steak and onto waiting coals. Not premium, perhaps, but no longer as cheap as they were.

 

Heart, though, and despite its uniqueness in the animal, is still very cheap – in fact, our butcher gave us one for free, along with the tongue, kidneys, and some scraps of skirt, when we bought some excellent veal chops from him. He had the whole bullock, you see, and they were only going in the pet mix. Well, when life gives you offal, make a Fergus Henderson recipe, that’s what I say; and it turns out quickly cooked calf heart is a wonderful thing. I’d only ever braised hearts before, which takes bloody hours. I had a willing commis to do the wibbly bits for me, but even if you don’t, preparing hearts is pretty straightforward, should a jolly butcher ever give you his.

 

Essentially, you want to remove from this strange, muscular organ anything which is not in fact muscle; the top is surrounded by hard, suety fat, which you trim off; inside there are tubes, which you cut out; slicing the heart lengthways and opening it like a book, you will find the heartstrings, which it turns out are both real and extremely strong. Cut them off at each end. When you have a more-or-less homogenous pound of flesh, cut it into steaks. There’ll be a couple of triangular flaps which can be sliced off as is; as for the rest, it depends on your needs and appetite. You’ll want, though, to cut the thicker sections lengthways, so that everything is roughly of a muchness.

 

Now, following Fergus, toss the steaks with a splash of vinegar, a good pinch each of salt and pepper, some oil, some rosemary or whatever seems appropriate. The vinegar, I think, performs vital tenderisation, but the herbs, I suppose, are fairly optional. Leave in the fridge til tomorrow.

 

Now, get an appropriately sized pan screaming hot, lightly oil it, and add your steaks, pushing down on them to discourage curling; season a bit more if you feel it necessary. Cook until you get a good brown crust, (say 2-3 minutes) then flip and cook a minute or so more. Remove to rest.

 

While it rests, shave some fennel and sweet white onion as thinly as your mandolin will allow you, then dress heavily in a lemon vinaigrette and finely chopped parsley. Slice the heart, which should be pink and gently weeping, and serve with a little fennel and onion. This is true love.

Act Natural

I’ve been reading a lot about natural wines recently. This style, as distinct from organic winemaking, which bars chemical intervention in the vineyard, requires a more or less additive-free approach to the brewing process itself, barring added yeasts, sugars, and various other chemicals and techniques which have become standard in the industrial wine trade. While I wouldn’t call myself a fanatical convert – for one thing, I’ve barely tried any natural wines – it’s certainly been interesting to learn about the various practices which are allowed, and frequently used, in even very high-end wine making.

The wine industry, more, perhaps, than any other part of the food industry, is a large, efficient, modernised engine which still masquerades as small-scale, artisanal, somehow, in essence, natural. Much is made of terroir, of vintages, of the vast differences which aspect and soil and wind make to each bottle; but when yeast can be added to practically guarantee a certain body and mouthfeel, when wine can be physically ripped into its component parts to correct levels of sugar, water, alcohol, how much can terroir matter? The various DOP groups exist more to guarantee a certain quality and adherence to a sort of imagined local style than to actually ensure local individualism.

The real triumph, in fact, of modern winemaking – as with industrially brewed beer – has been the slow annihilation of variance from the norm, the sad reliance on weather and air – in other words, quality control. Even bad wines, now, aren’t really bad. They might be bad for you – the high levels of sulphites allowed in industrial wine can cause health problems – and they are certainly bad for the environment, especially in France, where their natural tendency to shoot or poison anything that moves is given free rein in vineyards; then again, they never claim not to be. The assumed ‘natural’ component of winemaking is much more nebulous than that.

Part of the current ‘clean’ ‘natural’ eating movement is a railing against processed foods, which is patently ridiculous. Nearly everything which ensures the continued existence of our species is processed in some way. As yer man (citation needed) found when he tried to live like a chimpanzee, we simply aren’t good enough at chewing to live off raw foods; without cooking and further processing, we would die. Bread, for example, is heavily processed, the base ingredient dried, ground, fermented, and held at various temperatures before consumption; because of this, it is pretty much a complete food, the staff of life, rightly holy to various cultures. The problem with industrially-produced bread is not that it has been processed, but that it has been processed very badly, with little reference to taste or nutrition.

The same could be said of wine, of cured meats, of cheese and of pickles. All of them have undergone a heavy process of industrialisation, resulting in a product which is much worse for you than it should be; but I don’t think that necessarily means the idea of industrialisation is bad. Cheaper, larger scale food production can only be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s inevitable that industrialisation throws out the good parts, the ferment, the yeast, the bacteria; perhaps, though, the success of natural winemakers, of raw-milk cheesemakers, who combine traditional techniques with a scientific understanding entirely born of industrial food processing, points a way for today’s artisans to feed us all.

Cheek to Cheek

One of the best things about moving to coastal Suffolk (and working with a curious, conscientious fish supplier) is the real variety of seafood on offer. Up to last year I’d barely cooked more than mackerel, bass and bream, with the seasonal additions of mussels or sardines; now we regularly use sand soles, gurnard, cod and monkfish cheeks, octopus and clams, thick slices of dogfish or turbot, our own salted hake and ling. Not, of course, that these are all from round these parts – cephalapods might come from Cornwall, salmon from Scotland, while the vast shoals of herring which sustained Lowestoft and Yarmouth have moved on to other waters – but the interest which people have in seafood, and the extent to which it has formed part of the local cuisine, is always evident; there is, for example, a biennial herring festival in Halesworth – a small inland town on a trickle of a river.

People, as I think I’ve mentioned before, make a lot of fuss about cooking fish. The angst of a crispy skin & juicy flesh! Rick Stein, with his hot pokers and his face, only helps to obscure the point, which is that all you have to do to cook fish is cook it – until it’s cooked. Fish skin, like potatoes and totally unlike the muscle of land animals, has the capacity to be taken gently from cold to brown without suffering for it. Do that to a steak and you will have a weeping grey mass – you will be a weeping grey mass; do it to a neatly-trimmed fillet of good, fresh sea bream and you will have a perfectly cooked piece of fish which only needs a brief rest on its cut side before proceeding to the plate, with the added bonus that you can, in the intervening time, see exactly what is happening to that flaked white muscle. I’m repeating myself, however.

Browning seafood without that nice, protective skin, is to be fair, a slightly more difficult proposition – but that’s only to say it’s slightly more difficult than shooting sleepy sea urchins in a wide-topped bucket. In the case, say, of scallops or of cod cheeks, you should put on a frying pan, wide enough to take the seafood in a single layer with about a centimetre in between each piece, and leave it to get extremely hot – slightly hotter than you think is sensible. Make sure each cheeky little nugget is nice and dry. Add some oil, add some coarse sea salt, add the (for the sake of argument) cod cheeks, and then leave them where they are; leave them until they are pretty much cooked through, which you can tell by the pearlescent sheen and beads of moisture which appear on top of the cheeks. Flip each cheek, one by one, then take off the heat and add a spoon of butter. When it stops sizzling, they’re done. See! That was easy. Serve with a salsa verde AND some aioli, if you’re feeling frivolous. Very cold white wine, good bread and butter – dinner.

Invisible City pt. 3


“In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

They drink quite a lot, in Venice. In the south of Italy, alcohol seems confined mainly to the aperitivo and the wine with dinner; too hot, too sluggish perhaps to drink your way round the dusty streets of Naples or through the shadows of Palermo, especially filled with spaghetti or the fat doughy pizza of Sicily. The south runs more on their oily thimbles of coffee than anything else.

That’s not to say that Venice is constantly sloshed, awash with binge-drinking gondoliers, fishmongers, restaurateurs, wine merchants, sellers of glass and tat, although the pre-Lenten carnival presumably affords some opportunities for public drunkenness; although (relatively) northern and seafarers to boot, their drinking is restrained in comparison to your Dane, your German, and your Swagbellied Hollander, let alone our own fair nation.

It’s more that Venice affords so many different opportunities for drinking; every hour of the day and of the night seems to have its own particular drink, whether a little shadow of wine, a good, cooling beer, an expansively refreshing spritz or a glass of medicinal bitters. At one or two in the afternoon the bars around the Rialto market are full to bursting; the butchers, the fishermen and the greengrocers have all been up since the very early hours of the morning, and they need a drink.

This is good; obviously, it’s good, but it’s especially so because a lot of the best (and certainly some of the best value) food in Venice is found in bars, in the form of cicheti, little snacks on toothpicks or rounds of toasted baguette or, very often, squares of grilled white polenta; more substantially, you might have slices of good, dense sausage or halves of sandwiches, with tuna, egg, creamed radicchio, salami or bresaola stuffed between the cheapest white bread.

You finally see where all those artichokes from the market go; they end up here, trimmed and simply cooked, between the frittata and the crostini, in the glass case on this small bar in this long, narrow room, hung about with pots and lined with barrels and bottles, which contain sweet honeyed whites, inscrutable reds, and, of course, the abundant and quite surprisingly cheap prosecco. Apparently it even comes defizzed.

Although expensive, crowded, prone to flooding, trashy, smelly, labyrinthine and the rest, it is hard not to love a place which revolves so closely around this daily cycle of eating and drinking; where Fernet Branca is an acceptable breakfast food, and where there is always time for a snack and a little glass of something, out of the shade.

Invisible City pt. 2


“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets … how many kinds of pavement cover the ground” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver
So much of Venice reaches up and away from the water, from the intricate canals and from the lagoon itself. The long needle of the Campanile, and the squares of Paul and the Magdalene, where, if you stand in the middle, you can pretend you are in a solid, everyday city, are the most successful; all of the buildings, though, all of the warehouses and palazzos and the elaborate bridges, do their best to reach away from the seaweed which purrs at their foundations.
These days the canals are reserved for richer tourists, who the gondolas, still black-clad for shadowy assignations and espionage, ferry around a largely forgotten city. The trattorias, with their lace curtains, batteries of hanging pots and their poorly-rendered aquatic scenes, sell endless processions of cuttlefish and calamari, while the still-living markets heave with the terrestrial products of the Veneto, with puntarelle, with radicchios of all kinds – curled, spotted, delicately pink – with honey-sweet apples, large and baby and carved artichokes, cardoons and celery and cauliflowers and all of the other favourites of the vegetable-loving Italians.
Here, though, in the richest part of the country, leaves don’t carry quite the same respectability as they do in the poor, dried-up south; here, the restaurants which offer an alternative to seafood tend to do so in the form of elaborate dishes of meat. These days we tend to think of Italian cuisine as all cucina povera, breadcrumbs and strange fish and offal; liver and onions, of course, is a favourite of Venice, and I saw tripe, tongue and the like in various butchers windows and on the bars of smaller eateries. In a restaurant, though, you might get half a duck, roasted and drenched in a quite astonishingly rich ragu of chicken livers; fricassees of veal, both sweet and deeply savoury; and, of course, the famous carpaccio, a fairly recent invention of the upmarket Harry’s Bar.
Apart from the latter, a distinctly urban dish, this might get described as ‘mountain food’; aware, perhaps, that their amphibious city has become a playground for tourists, the Venetians look inland and up for a different taste of home. Even here, though, they can’t escape the water. If you wander about the houses between the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal, you might find a strange replica of an Alpine hut, hung about with straw hands and opening on to a boat yard; it is a gondola workshop, and the people who build and pilot them are often, themselves, sons of the Dolomites and beyond, far from their solid mountain homes.

Invisible City pt. 1

“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver

 

Venice, it’s fair to say, is a city mainly composed of bridges and water, a fact emphasised when you enter it, by vaporetta, on a chilly, rainy day in late February, the kind of day when the sky and the water seem composed of the same great sheet of grey. The canals lap at the seaweed-bearded streets; bridges appear out of nowhere, and any alley might lead equally to a church or to the sea. Why anyone chose to build a city there is beyond me, but I suppose they made a good go of it, becoming “excellently amphibious” in response to their waterlogged, sinking surroundings, bringing, for a while, large parts of the Mediterranean under the control of their largely mercantile empire.

 

I always find it fascinating to trace the history of a place through its cuisine; part of what I love about Sicilian food is the little touches of Arab and Spanish flavour, the faint whispers, even, of Roman and Greek – seemingly un-Italian spicings, sweet fruit and meat, the absolute ubiquity of the anchovy – but apart from the occasional flourish of cinnamon, little seems to remain of La Serenissima’s once-vital place on the spice route. Apart from a few remnants of later occupations – the cream doughnuts and the peculiar Venetian lust for strudel – their cuisine is as amphibious as them, entirely a product of the lagoon and its immediate surrounds; which is to say that they eat a hell of a lot of fish.

 

Apart from breakfast, which for Venetians means an espresso and a cornetto and for us meant the bountiful purgatory of the Continental buffet, almost every meal we had was largely aquatic. The first night was cuttlefish in sticky ink, thick bigoli pasta in a dense sauce of anchovies, sardines in their beautiful sweet-sour bath, and simply boiled king crab; the next, tiny, toy-like octopus and spaghetti vongole; for lunch, the little soft-shelled local crabs, no bigger than the palm of your hand, which stuff themselves with Parmesan batter in a morbid frenzy before a quick end in hot oil. In between, very often, there was baccala. Although, as far as I can gather, this is made with stockfish rather than salt cod – that is to say, dried without being salted, giving it all the hairy texture without the sometimes overpowering flavour – it shares a lot, in its most common preparation, with the Catalan brandada and the French brandade.

 

Although all these (and salt cod in general) seem totemically Mediterranean dishes, they are essentially a product of trade, early fusion cuisine. The fish, from cold and teeming northern waters, was salted and dried on cold Scandinavian beaches, in dry Scandinavian winds, travelling almost to the other end of the known world to be revived and mixed with good southern olive oil and cracked eastern pepper – and, for the last few hundred years, served on grilled cakes of ground Mexican corn.

 

I make my own salt fish (normally with hake or ling, for various reasons) but don’t generally dry it; I’ll give that a go, and work on a recipe for baccala mantecato. In the meantime, look for Russell Norman’s POLPO recipe; or go and eat it at Polpetto, where it is perfect.