Sour & Bitter

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 I’ve recently been discovering the joys of putting things in barrels. If you put neutral grain spirit in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get whisky; it’s easy, really, despite all the mystery and romance piled around the subject. I suppose that’s the Celtic way. Now, neutral grain spirit isn’t very nice, while whisky, of course, is. It follows, then (I suppose), that if you put something nice in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get something better than whisky. To really test this theory, I guess I’d have to leave the something in the barrel for a good ten years; I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the patience. However, putting things in smaller barrels sort-of speeds the ageing process, or at least some aspects of it (surface area, don’t you know); to cut a long story short, I’ve put a bottle of Morris Gin in a small oak barrel. It’s been in there for two months now, and is starting to get some colour and good whiskiness from the wood. I’m going to leave it a couple more months, I think. My next project is to barrel-age two litres of mixed Negroni; I can only imagine that this will be extremely delicious.

None of this is very useful unless you intend to fill your house with barrels. It reminded me, though, that flavours can leak from unlikely places, and that alcohol is very good at capturing them. If you read a recipe requiring you to macerate oak twigs in wine, you would be surprised, though that is essentially what happens when you age the stuff in barrels. I have, in fact, a recipe somewhere for an oak-branch aquavit; “this sounds disgusting”, I thought, before the penny dropped. I’ve never actually tried this sort of reverse barrel-ageing, though. Silly, really, when we’ve got an oak right outside the kitchen. One reason alcohol is such a good medium for capturing these flavours is that unlike, say, water, it is capable of dissolving flavours from fats and oils; this is the principle behind ‘washed’ spirits, which have become a thing recently. This basically involves mixing a fat with booze and leaving it for a few days, then skimming the fat off. Easy! The first I heard of it was with bacon-fat bourbon (tastes like bourbon with bacon in it) but I was reminded of the technique recently by the olive oil-washed gin in Sardine‘s dirty martini – a very fine aperitif cocktail. It so happened that at the same time I was looking for something to do with the cynar I had made. Cynar, if you’ve never had it, is an Italian bitter made chiefly of artichoke; it is truly, horrendously bitter – and I say this as a lover of Fernet Branca. Artichoke and olive oil, I thought – and so this drink was born. You may have heard it mentioned in passing on this Radio Four programme – I know the fig leaf wine was the star, but you can get the recipe there, so I thought I’d give you this.

ARTICHOKE SOUR

This takes ages and has several steps. Sorry!

CYNAR

about 20 artichoke leaves

a few angelica stalks

a bottle of vodka

Put everything in a jar and leave for at least a month, preferably two. Strain and bottle. Or buy some Cynar.

OLIVE OIL-WASHED GIN

a bottle of gin (I used Plymouth)

350g extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together in a big jar or bowl – something you can cover tightly. Leave for three days, whisking and re-covering every day, then put in the freezer overnight. Scoop off the solidified oil and strain the gin into a bottle.

SIMPLE SYRUP

equal weights of sugar and water

Boil together for five minutes, cool and bottle. Or buy some gomme.

LEMON JUICE

Juice some lemons. Or, yes, buy some pasteurised lemon juice in a squeezy lemon. You’ve got this far, though…

When you’d like to actually drink this, just mix equal quantities of everything. I assume you keep all of your booze in the freezer; if not, stir over ice. Enjoy! You’ve earned it.

Inglorious Bustards

There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and bosky wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which, broadly, we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated significantly, adapted itself around human settlement. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my back garden. The pig farms of Blythburgh have as much right to the land as Folkestone Warren.

Any radical conservation (if you’ll excuse the phrase), that is to say, any attempt to rebirth a truly wild British landscape, would require, ironically, a huge intervention, in the form of a vast holocaust. A near-total annihilation of the human population, not to mention of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, alpacas, horses, goats, elephants, wallabies, rheas, hares and so on, a final eradication of the mark of so-called civilisation from the map, would be followed by the reintroduction of wolves and of bears; the regular cull that our semi-wild deer population receives would be carried out more naturally. There are those who advocate for this, if not in such extreme terms – it is the logical conclusion of a certain strand of conservationism, but most people tread a more compromised path.

To return to total wildness, let’s say, is impossible or undesirable or both – what then? If you agree that we have some responsibility towards the rest of nature, to try and ensure we do as little harm as we can – well, it seems arbitrary to choose now or rather a rose-tinted recent past as the moment to conserve, but what else to do? Muddle along, I suppose. Even if we had the inclination to resurrect ecosystems past, we don’t have the ability or the knowledge. The culture in a pot of naturally fermented kimchi has still not been successfully modelled – imagine the complexity of the wild wood! So we tend to our garden, we manage and conserve, we farm the things we think are farmed, we hunt and forage the wild ones – and this, really, is the problem. Most of them are not wild.

The humane farming of animals for meat has taken huge strides in recent years. A loose coalition of chefs, farmers and consumers has made a huge positive change to animal welfare and to its importance in public discourse; everyone knows to at least pay lip service to happy hens, blissful cows, quietly ecstatic pigs. If there is still some distance to go, there is at least a general recognition that, quite apart from ethical issues, meat tastes better when it has spent its life outside, eaten a varied diet, had a gentle death. The quality of good meat in Britain now is really quite astonishing, and cooks both professional and amateur are right to insist on the good stuff; it is more expensive, but so it should be; it takes space and time to farm well, and these things cost money.

On the other hand, we have game. I have written a few times before about rabbit, and nothing’s changed since then; it is still, alongside pigeon, plentiful and generally healthy in its large feral populations, shot at by farmers as pest control. It is, I think, right to eat it for as long as these conditions attain. Although farmed in some places, the various types of deer which roam Britain are in a broadly similar situation – in the absence of their apex predators, they are regularly culled. I don’t especially like venison and, still treated as a meat of kings, it is pretty expensive, but I don’t have a problem with it; eat away!

Game birds (pigeon excepted) on the other hand, are very different. Most, like the rabbit, were introduced to be kept as a semi-wild food source, though lacking the rabbit’s capacity to breed, adaptability to various environments, and resilience to even horrific biological warfare, they need keeping, breeding and rearing as chicks, their environment heavily managed to the detriment of other species – all so they can be shot at. Are they wild or farmed? The huge pens called ‘grouse moors’ are kept solely for the benefit of these creatures. Foxes and stoats, which prey on them, are trapped and killed, as are hares, which can carry parasites harmful to grouse; the surface of the moor is burnt away. All of this, I think, is legal, but there are also many recorded instances of birds of prey trapped or poisoned, which is not. Higher ground is drained, to the detriment of lowland towns.

This is farming, free-range farming on a wastefully gigantic scale – but without the payoff. Where cows are herded into abattoirs one-by-one, unaware of the imminent blow of the bolt-gun, calmly led to euthanasia, semi-tame grouse and partridge and pheasants are released, hounded and flung into the air to be shot at, winged, dispatched, shoved into ‘the bag’. No wild meat should require such intervention; no farmed animal deserves such a death. Driven grouse shooting gives us the very worst of each world. The reason it is allowed to continue, of course, is that it is a hobby of the very rich, for whom nature is not red in tooth and claw but just another playground under their petulant command. It creates jobs, they cry, it is economically necessary – stop buying grouse, that cruelly half-farmed highland chicken, and it won’t be. Remember that when you cook with grouse, when you eat it, you are cooking not wild untrammelled nature but the discarded carrion of an aristocrat’s game.

 

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.