Humblebrag

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It seems to have become the thing, when receiving an award, achieving some ambition long-worked-for or completely out of the blue, to declare yourself ‘humbled’. I’m not really sure what this means. I am humbled by the sublime majesty of the Adirondack peaks, the wild Atlantic, or the North Norfolk coast; I am humbled when I eat the food, say, of James Lowe or Stephen Harris, or read W.G Sebald or MFK Fisher, and realize I may never work with such simple grace. When, on the other hand, the restaurant at which I work is named the 80th best in the UK in a prestigious and well-respected list, I am far from bloody humbled. Why should I be? I am QUANTIFIABLY better than you – or at least most of you. I don’t know why it’s not considered acceptable to instead declare yourself ‘distended with drunken pride’, but there it is; etiquette, I suppose.

Another thing about which I find myself decidedly un-humble is that I have finally, two years after seriously starting, succeeded in making sourdough bread good enough – with that crust which crackles just-so as you squeeze it – to sell in the restaurant. Two years is just about as long as I’ve ever worked at anything (well, apart from my degree, but I’m not sure I count reading Jack London as work; he certainly wouldn’t have), so I consider this a justified result for my effort, which consisted largely of doing the same thing over and over again until I got good at it – the final step missing from all pastry and bread recipes – as well, of course, as stealing advice and techniques from whoever I could, including monks, Prussian princes, long-dead writers, and, on occasion, bakers.

As the adoption of these techniques, and the various pieces of equipment they require, which demands a certain amount of time, money, and practical experience, would form the bulk of any recipe, it would be largely pointless for me to write one down here; the only changes I have made from my last bread post, anyway, have been to adapt the flours, to add a secret improver, to alter the constituents of the starter, to make a wetter dough, and to change the equipment and therefore the process I use in almost every respect, so you might as well just follow that one.

I think, anyway, that it does’t much matter which recipe you follow. The important thing is to stick to one, and to stubbornly follow it again and again until the bread which comes out of the oven is perfect in every respect. Feel humble if you like, but it makes me feel alive.

Europa

I am a European cook. So many of my favourite cookery writers, constant inspirations in my professional life – Elizabeth David, Fergus Henderson, Diana Henry – in turn found inspiration in the food of continental Europe and used that inspiration to change British food very much for the better. Whenever I go abroad, ranging freely around Europe, it is largely to eat, collecting recipes and ingredients and imbibing a more general sense of a food culture that is still largely unmoderated by supermarkets – clear and direct.

I use European ingredients, such as Spanish olive oil; everybody does, including the Italians. It is the best – the ancient Romans used it too. There is much to be gained from the free movement of the best things. I use local ingredients too, of course; often extremely local, grown for us at work – from European seeds. Almost no-one uses exclusively local ingredients, though. If you are looking for quality  you might get Datterini tomatoes and blood oranges from Sicily, good French mushrooms and that lovely purple garlic, Spanish anchovies and chorizo; if you are cooking in quantity most of your ingredients – tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, salads – will come from the vast fields and polytunnels of Holland or Spain. Potatoes are usually British, but only because they’re so heavy that it works out cheaper. We don’t know what’s going to happen to these supply chains.

At the moment, with a farming industry that is heavily reliant on European labour and subsidies, we grow less than 60% of our own food; we don’t know what’s going to happen to that, either. If we grow more, prices will have to rise; if not, we keep on importing and shoulder the inevitable extra costs.

Like all good Europeans, I love to eat and cook with local, regional cheeses, of which Britain has a huge number and diversity, many of them protected and therefore rendered profitable by the EU PDO system, which also covers Yorkshire rhubarb, Jersey Royal potatoes and suchlike, defending these short-seasoned, high-quality products from the unscrupulous machinations of big business; these things might otherwise have disappeared or at least become bland and unreliable. We could, of course, legislate to protect these industries; we could equally end up like America, with sawdust in the Parmesan, calling piss Champagne.

Civilisations come together to feed people; the EU came together to feed people, to make sure that we grew and raised and caught enough food to go round. It hasn’t been an unmitigated success, but it has muddled along. Now, with some of the poorest people in Great Britannia starving to death, we have severed ourselves from that safety blanket and taken a step forward into the dark. We don’t know what is going to happen to our farms, to our fisheries, to the huge network which allows us to eat, to the people who grow and pick and prepare our food.

I am a European cook, and I am scared.

White Flannel Trousers

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I heard, the other day, of someone who doesn’t like strawberries. Not “could take them or leave them” or even “obviously they’re nice but I prefer raspberries”, you understand; actively dislikes them. Who knows what such a person might be capable of? I always preferred raspberries myself, as it happens. Easier to eat, which should count for something, and less likely, in my experience (which covers many of the PYOs and markets of East Kent) to disappoint than a strawberry, which, when bad (underripe, cold, et cetera) can serve more as a reminder of the essential purposelessness of life than as a berry, which, in fact, they are not. (Like everyone else, I have always assumed that strawberries are so-called because of the beds of straw they are coddled in; this is, apparently, also untrue). Still, if a bad strawberry has an upside it is that it reminds you that strawberries, when good, can be very good indeed; anyone who dislikes them is clearly under suspicion, but so is anyone who declares them their favourite fruit – at least past the age of eight. (Anyone who says their favourite fruit is tomato should be removed from your social circle).

People wax in all kinds of directions about the peach; there is something about stone fruit which inspires food writers to a sort of erotic prose-poetry, especially when it is dripping and ripe, with a barely-perceptible down fuzzing its clefts and its curves, but peaches in particular don’t do much for me. Sweet, yes, soft, yes, perfumed, sometimes… perhaps my taste for them has been ruined by peach-flavoured sweets, which are, more often than not, absolutely foul. Give me a greengage, with its taut skin snapping over its fleshy cells! Give me, actually, a cherry. Cherries are obviously the best fruit. They are bite-sized, with a stone small enough to suck and then spit out; they are red, as fruit should be (except greengages); they are delicious. There is a reason why things come with a cherry on top, and not, say, a nectarine. The best thing about cherries is that they can be sour. Dried sour cherries are a magnificent thing, good with lamb or chicken or pork or baked into a tart. I have never, I am sorry to say, had the pleasure of a fresh one, but it is only a matter of time, and besides, the potential for sourness inherent in even the sweetest of cherries (they need each other, you see; the sour ones pollinate the sweet ones) means that you can happily add your own. Anything with cherry in will benefit from a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, or, indeed, a huge amount.

If you are in possession of a quantity of cherries and some good, preferably live vinegar, then you can (once you have eaten about half of the former) pit and crush the one and pour the other over it, leave to macerate overnight or for longer, then strain, mix with enough honey or other sugar to make it palatably sweet, and then dilute with sparkling or plain water; this is a shrub, and very tasty it is too. I have incorporated this ‘recipe’ as it were by stealth partly because the quantities I use are precisely that vague (although I could have easily made them up, and no-one would be any the wiser) but mainly because it is not the sort of thing you have to think about making, and set out your ingredients carefully; you just mix some nice things together, and then you have something different but also nice. Fill your kitchen with nice things, among them ripe cherries.

 

Pickle Prayer

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Put your faith in salt and time

and trust that pickles will result;

Put your faith in time and salt.

 

Put your faith in time and salt –

Age gives heft to more than wine –

Put your faith in salt and time.

 

In time and salt put all your trust

– the salt and sour will keep it safe –

time and salt deserve your faith.

 

In time and salt put all your faith

discard the failures when you must

but keep your faith, and time, and trust.

 

Panacea

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Whatever some might say about the roast beef of old England, the pig is, in religiously amenable areas at least, the indisputed king of the eating animals. Although it arguably deserves this accolade for its belly meat alone, not to mention the succulent beauty of its shoulder, cheek, and plump double chins, a large part of the utility and therefore the beauty of the pig comes from its suitability for curing of all kinds, in nitrate-protected salamis, salted raw hams, chunks of smoked bacon and jowl, dry-cures and Suffolk-cures, treacle and beer and vinegar; its ability, in other words, to be charcuterised. Since time immemorial, or at least a short time after that, the pig has lent itself, from snotter to trotter, to the sausage-maker’s trade – and we should all be very glad of that.

Still, there are hams beyond the porcine. Turkey, which has a pickle culture to rival that of Poland, has the meats to match, the best known here being suçuk and pastirma, both made from beef, the latter related in etymology if not technique to pastrami, which has in recent years overtaken the simpler salt beef as the most famous cured meat product of the Ashkenazi Jewish deli culture which has brought dill pickles to so many disparate parts of this world. The beef being cured here is generally brisket, sometimes fillet; the parsimonious celebration of flesh gifted to the pig is, for the cow, mainly expressed in the search for ever-more niche cuts of steak, possessed of either odd French or quaint English names and cooked bloody as hell, bavette, onglet, hanger, butler’s, butcher’s, baker’s , and candle-stick-maker’s, though an honourable mention should go to the salted and pressed ox tongue, one of the few pieces of world charcuterie which requires its own, specialist device.

Where, though, is the cured lamb? Perhaps the climates where lamb is the main protein are ill-suited to the curing of meat; perhaps I am just extremely ignorant on the subject. Either way, I know of few traditional recipes for cured lamb. This is a shame, as it can be extremely delicious. I have made a Serrano-style ham with the leg of a hogget, which was a thing of beauty; you had the squidge and edge of a good raw ham, but with an almost overbearing sheepiness, not quite edging into rancidity … I can taste it now. It did, however, apart from the whole leg, take several kilograms of salt, besides space and time and probably, I suppose, quite a lot of luck; a charcutier of my acquaintance was surprised and jealous that I had managed to make a bone-in cured lamb leg without rot or mould. I suppose the chimney in which I hung it must have been a particularly hospitable environment.

Whatever the reason, it is not a recipe suited to repeating at home, and, indeed, I never have. We should be getting another sheep soon, so I will try again; until then, this is an excellent, and extremely easy, cured lamb dish. Lamb fillet can be pale and unappetizing, but a couple of days makes it as dark as a Carpaccio; if it looks like a Caravaggio, it’s gone off.

CURED LAMB, BROAD BEANS AND FENNEL

2kg lamb fillet

600g coarse sea salt

400g granulated sugar

zest of 4 lemons

2 tbsp fennel seeds

Mix the salt, sugar, lemon and fennel together, and spread a layer in a plastic or otherwise non-metallic tub. Nestle in the lamb, and cover completely with the cure. Leave in the fridge for two or three days, then rinse and dry. Slice thinly and top with

a handful of raw broad beans, from however many pods it takes to get a handful

2 bulbs fennel, sliced wafer-thin

dressed with

juice of two lemons

200ml extra virgin olive oil

a pinch of salt

a good 6 grinds of pepper

whisked together.

Into Temptation

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If you pushed me to describe my style of cooking, or the food I most like to eat, I would, I think, after considering “nose to tail”, “vaguely Italianate” and “messing about”, settle with some hesitation on a long sentence involving the words “ingredient-led”, the hesitation being because the latter is such a popular, buzzy phrase that my gut assumption is that it is probably meaningless, or at least wildly overused; I think, though, that my gut is, on this occasion, wrong. All food is ingredient-led, my inner grumpy old man declares – it is, after all, made of the bloody things – and this is sort of true; you are always, at least, at their mercy. The implied dichotomy, I suppose, is between food that is ingredient-led and food that is technique-led, which could be rephrased as a debate between Italian food and French food, or at least the way those two cuisines are popularly understood.

The pinnacle of classical French cuisine is, of course, the sauce, without which no piece of protein can be considered a proper dish; the saucier is the master craftsperson of the brigade, and the so-called mother sauces, which certain food publications still seem to think we should know all about, are the Ten or rather Five Commandments of this dying religion. True to form, the defining features of these sauces are largely the techniques used, in each one, to thicken a selection of basic ingredients – the kind of ingredients that don’t get to lead. You’d get them all for free in the cupboard on Ready Steady Cook, with the possible exception of tomatoes, the sauce of which is at any rate a late and somewhat out-of-place addition to the canon. The technique most often used is the roux, one which I associate much more with Delia Smith and macaroni cheese, lasagne, gravies cooked up in the roasting tin than with French cuisine, partly because it has been superseded, as a thickening method, by various other techniques since the days of Escoffier; then it was everywhere. Imagine making a roux for a tomato sauce – in fact, that’s a good way to contrast these two imaginary styles of cuisine. The French cook takes fruit of any stripe, peels and purees them and thickens with a roux, seasoning to cover any indifference of flavour; your hearty Italian, on the other hand, simply cooks the best tomatoes she can find, reducing them to a delicious sauce.

It has often struck me, in fact, that culinary ages could be defined by their sauce-thickening techniques, from the breadcrumbs and crushed nuts of the Middle Ages through the various experiments with flours and fats which coalesced into the roux and into beurre manie, through the uses of egg yolk in combination with various substances and up to the late 20th century obsession with reduction, concentrating flavour into sticky near-solids which, often enough, make everything taste the same. Molecular gastronomy, I suppose, gave us not thickeners but lighteners; the emulsion, often now declared as such on otherwise sparse menus, remains extremely popular, having received a boost from the Spanishisms of original gastropub the Eagle and that institution’s alumnodes at Moro; aioli has become the default cold emulsion to the point where a certain chip shop of my acquaintance offers a so-called ‘garlic aioli’. So, as they say, it goes. Alongside these mayonnaises, which might contain wild garlic, Jack-by-the-hedge, fermented seaweed, fermented squid ink or fermented chilli (to take a short sample from our own menus) sits a newly-respectable style of sauce, that made of actual ingredients you would want, separately, to eat.

Broadly speaking, these can be split into yoghurt sauces and green sauces, the latter based not on the French sauce verte (another kind of mayonnaise) but on the Italian salsa verde, and both stand or fall on the quality of their ingredients. If your sauce consists of either harissa or tahini stirred into yoghurt, or of vast piles of herbs simply seasoned, then those few things had better be good. I once put a dish on the menu solely because the parsley we had was so good it deserved to be front and centre, a pungent hit of chlorophyll; that, I suppose, is ingredient-led cooking – it led me by th’ nose. Good thick Greek yoghurt is good enough to eat with just a little salt and pepper, with that dairy trick of a rich, sour blandness, so far from the thin, grainy, homogenised ‘natural’ stuff as to be a completely different product. Once you have it, there is very little that needs doing to it, and although such things are not short on technique – you will soon get bored of making salsa verde if you lack in knife skills – the technique and thus the recipe and indeed the final dish proceed with at least the natural logic of dreams directly from some quality inherent in the ingredient itself, or so, at any rate, you tell yourself while elbow-deep in mackerel viscera and wondering what the hell you are doing.