Quietly Shining

When you step outside to dump yesterday’s coffee grounds, to relieve the dog, to squeeze your curing hams or to otherwise do whatever it is you do first thing in the morning, and you find that the grass crunches underneath your feet and the sharp air catches in your nostril – when, in short, there is every sign that the ministry of frost has been busily fulfilling its duties overnight, it is time to think about boiling bones.

Although the health claims made for bone broth are dubious at best, the Jay Rayners of this world are wrong about one thing – it is not the same as stock. Not at all. A properly made stock has never risen above a simmer; it has been skimmed and pampered its whole life through, and the end result is eerily clear. A soup made with stock, with neatly diced vegetables cooked just-so in it, might be right for a summer day; a good bone broth, never.

I have some pork bones boiling up right now, in with a good smoked gammon hock – and they will be boiled. They will be cooked until the collagen and the fat breaks down and emulsifies with the water, which will be cloudy but glistening and almost tacky to the touch, like the pellicle on the skin of a drying mackerel. You can see, when you make broth, how bones become glue.

Personally, I rarely put in vegetables when I’m boiling ham and bones, though the skins of brown onions give a satisfying colour. As you’re normally doing something else with it, you can add the vegetables then, and give them a fighting chance to retain their integrity; not much outlasts the smoke and salt of a boiling ham hock. Today, when the broth is done I will sweat diced onion and carrots, add some pickled cucumber and its brine, then buckwheat and the broth and finally parsley, great handfuls of parsley and dill, and maybe some soured cream. I’ll share it with some good friends and some good beer, and we will know in our bones that it is cold outside and we are warm.

Alternate Kitchens

You probably don’t remember, but my first ever post on here was on the subject of imaginary cuisines. What if, I asked, what if amongst those washing up in America fleeing war, poverty, oppressions and famine there had been a significant number from Turkey, whose meyhanes and grills now formed as much a part of the New York cityscape as red sauce joints and Ashkenazi delis? That such alternate cuisines are easy to conjure up demonstrates how food cultures spring not only from landscape, from quirks of geology and weather, but from the various movements of humanity, from immigration, from trade and from war. What would the cuisine look like of an island stuck between Africa and Italy’s boot, ruled at times by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, polenta-eaters and mafiosi? It would look Sicilian, and its real glory would come not from the scorching hills of the interior but from the alleys of Palermo; it would be easier, if it were imaginary, to understand.

It strikes me occasionally that anyone engaged in trying to cook what is called Modern British cuisine is engaged in a similar act of creation. Even the most ardent defender of the food of this country would admit that there is a crack in our culinary heritage, a break between then and now; blame it on industrial urbanisation, on Victorian puritanism, on the privations of rationing, but there it is. The apparently fervent embrace of the cuisines of former colonial subjects and various immigrants seems an attempt to fill that gap, a search for the authentic in sweet-and-sour sauce and tikka masala. The irony, of course, is that these cuisines had already changed, adapted to the ingredients they had to hand and to the palates they had to satisfy; they are part of the patchwork of British cuisine.

It has always been a patchwork, of course. Everything has. Medieval kings gorged themselves on the spoils of the Crusades; recipes for curries and pilafs and pasta go back further than you think. Ketchup on everything? That worked its way here from Indonesia, I believe. The Romans taught us how to make sausages, and they brought cabbages and onions to go with them. Back to Modern British; this supposed break with some imaginary peasant Golden Age means we can, essentially, do what the hell we like. People in Italy argue over their ‘genuine’ cuisine, which was mainly invented by Mussolini; we’re still appropriating from everywhere, this time with an added handful of what-ifs. What if Britain had discarded its frankly baffling fear of culinary decay and embraced fermentation and air-drying, alongside its Northern European cousins, if we pressed our herring, dry-cured our sheep, desiccated our cod in the bitter North Sea winds? We don’t have to always-have-done, luckily. We can just start now. Do your bit for an inclusive Britain – nail a fish to a tree.

By Any Other Name

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Sometimes the hardest step in the journey of a dish from brain to plate is deciding what to call the damn thing – a comparatively recent problem. Back in the day, of course, even the finest of chefs would have cooked a menu of the classics, and the names as well as the recipes and presentation would have come straight from Escoffier; now originality is expected everywhere, and if high-flung menuese and its attendant plague of adjectives has (thankfully) become a thing of the past, then the current style of [ingredient, ingredient, ingredient] or [ingredient & ingredient] can be just as demanding. Commas or ampersand? What order? In such a sparse form, the scanty information you do give away becomes vital. Do you acknowledge the artichoke is raw, the mackerel is cured, the chilli is fermented, the yoghurt is seasoned, the chickpeas are spiced, the croutons are absent? Or do you leave the nitty-gritty to front of house, who will (probably) get everything wrong anyway?

This gets even harder when you start making things up. A chicken breast is a chicken breast, no matter what combination of cured and fermented items you put it on a plate with. What to call boiled pigs’ lungs, minced with onion and stuffed into intestine? This is a similar preparation to a haggis, of course, but the chieftain of the pudding race is made with sheep offal (the whole pluck, ideally) and stuffed into a stomach; I think you could get away with one change to this formula, but not two. Pig offal stuffed in a stomach, I’d happily call a pork haggis. Conversely, lamb offal in sausage form would make a good haggis sausage. A pork haggis sausage, though, is just silly. A pork light sausage? A pork offal sausage? I’d expect some liver in that, personally. A pork lung sausage? These get less appetising. I find myself wishing I’d put some blood in the mix so I could call it black pudding and have done. Pudding might be the way to go – by the time the things are grilled they’re barely sausage-shaped anyway – but I’m not sure the term is generally understood in that way, black and white puddings as well as the aforementioned chieftain notwithstanding. Offal pudding? Light pudding? You see my problem. The things are sitting in the freezer now, awaiting only a name.

THE UNNAMED SAUSAGE

I am 90% sure that no-one will ever follow this recipe.

the lungs and windpipe of two medium pigs

stock vegetables (onion, carrot and co)

4 sweet white onions

a little oil

250g toasted buckwheat groats

sausage casings

copious salt and pepper

 

Put the lights in a big pot with the stock vegetables and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and leave there for several hours, skimming the scum off from time to time, until the windpipes are very soft. Fish out the lights with a spider or similar and leave to cool a little, then pick through them, tearing the lungs into chunks and discarding the hard parts of the windpipe.

At some point during this, slice the onions and cook them with a pinch of salt in a little oil until very soft and golden, which will, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, take a while. Add the cooked onion to the offal, weigh the lot and add 2% salt by weight. If you have a kilo, for example, add 20g of salt. Add a good teaspoon or so of ground pepper, then blitz until fairly smooth and stir in the buckwheat. Chill overnight.

Stuff into sausage skins (or get your friendly butcher to do it), then place the whole link in a pan, cover with cold water, and poach very gently for 15 minutes. They can now be kept in the fridge or used immediately; either way, oil them a bit and grill, turning a couple of times, until the skins are shiny and starting to brown. Eat with fermented tomato ketchup and maybe a hash brown or two.

A Pretty Pickle

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If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, I might think that the above TripAdvisor user and self-described customer of Darsham Nurseries Cafe were an old-fashioned racist, the kind who thinks Turkish food begins and ends with dubious kebab shops, just as the sum total of Chinese cuisine can be found within the walls of the Golden Dragon; as it is, I will confine myself to the observation that he doesn’t know a huge amount about the food of the Eastern Mediterranean. If he did, he might join the dots between the plate of largely Stamboulite vegetable preparations he was served and the origins of the kebab, and figure out the bizarre reason why such a chilli might have adorned his plate; either way, he is certainly a snob, as anyone who professes a dislike for those “chillies you get in kebab shops” must be. For one thing, what he was actually served was Spanish guindillas, similar to those chillies you get in kebab shops, and for another, those chillies you get in kebab shops (CYGIKSs, from now on) are one of the finest of all pickles, a standout even in the impressive pickling world of Turkey.

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A good pickled chilli needs crunch, heat – but not too much heat – sweetness and sharpness and salt; it should be edible by itself with only a slight wince, so it can be eaten with abandon as a counterpoint to rich, fatty meats or sharp cheeses and nuts. The CYGIKS is a perfect expression of these qualities, and the Spanish guindillas we used to use at work are one of the closest equivalents that don’t come in 10l tins, for delivery, presumably, to kebab shops. I say ‘used to use’ not because the above review showed us the error of our ways but because we have started making our own, which, if anything, are even more like those CYGIKSs. We grow a huge number of sweet and chilli peppers at Darsham, among them the two main varieties used for CYGIKSs, the short stubby pale green ones and the long curly pale green ones. They probably have names, but I’m no expert. As it happens, I have spent a decent portion of the past four years perfecting my chilli-pickling method, starting with a frankly useless Jamie Oliver recipe and a box of generic greens and ending with a major breakthrough just as this year’s plants started seriously fruiting. We now have jar upon jar upon jar of the things, and they will be proudly adorning our mezze for many months to come.

CYGIKSs

This is more of a method than a recipe. As a general-ish rule, a 1l jar will take about 500g or so of chillies, which will need about 500ml of liquid to cover them. You’ll want to make loads, anyway, because they’re delicious.

STAGE ONE

chillies, preferably green curly mild ones

salt

sugar

water

Slit each chilli through one side of its flesh, all the way from stalk to tip, and pack them into a jar or crock. Pour water over them, then pour it off into a measuring jug – just to see how much brine you’ll need.

The brine is 3.5%, which is to say you’ll need 35g of salt and the same of sugar for each litre of water, so make this up, pour into a pan and bring to a boil, just to dissolve the solids. Let it cool to room temperature or thereabouts and pour over the chillies. Weight them down with something and leave to ferment for a week.

STAGE TWO

brined chillies

white wine vinegar

sugar

By now the brine should be cloudy with lactobacteria and the chillies should be crunchy and well flavoured. Drain them well and pack back into the jar.

For the pickle, you want 400g of sugar for each litre of vinegar – it helps to make a little extra up, to top up the chillies as necessary. Bring this mixture to a boil and pour straight over the chillies, remembering that hot acid hitting chilli seeds can sting the eyes a little (quite a lot, actually). Seal and leave for a week, then eat with your mezze or kebab.

Sweet-Meats

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It’s fascinating, the things people leave in books. I volunteered at Oxfam Books for a couple of months, and in that time amassed a folder (which I still have, somewhere) full of various items found between the pages of donations. I dog-ear, personally, having little respect for the ‘book’ as a totemic object, so the breadth of things used as bookmarks surprised me. Flyers and train tickets, yes, lots of them, but also very personal pieces, postcards, letters, photographs, and so on. Are these the things nearest to hand in the urgency of bookmarking, or are they saved for that purpose, a little memento kept always close by?

Inserts in practical non-fiction (gardening and cookery especially) tend towards the useful. For every copy of Mrs Beeton with all the colour plates cut out there’s an old Delia bristling with newspaper clippings, supermarket recipe pamphlets, old shopping lists … and maybe, if you’re lucky, some original recipes, carefully recorded in neat pencil. I found this one between the pages of an American book on game cookery, from 1945; some newspaper pieces within (on cooking with coon and reindeer) are of a similar vintage – a column on the back of one of them railing against socialism – so I assume this recipe is too. More research, as they say, is needed.

So. The recipe – which, as you can see, is a list of ingredients with no method or yield given – is untitled, but looks, from the sugar, the fruit, the adding of alcohol to each jar, like a recipe for mincemeat, of the old English and it seems the American kind which actually contains meat. (I was always dubious about the existence of such a thing, as ‘meat’ in some contexts [sweetmeat] just means ‘food’, and it seemed to go hand-in-hand with the preposterous assertion that spices were used to mask rotten meat, but it seems I was wrong.) When I shared the ‘recipe’ on Twitter, Dan Lepard came to the same conclusion, and proffered the helpful fact that Wellington is a variety of cooking apple, similar to our Bramley.

The final piece of the puzzle came from the fine Penguin Handbook¬†The American Heritage Cookbook, dating from the 60s but collating rather older dishes, which features a recipe for Sunnyside Mincemeat Pie, with a strikingly similar list of ingredients – only beef instead of venison. I had assumed that a meat-containing mincemeat, unlike the usual British variety, must require cooking prior to jarring, and here was confirmation! I had a method – and my neighbour was giving away bags of windfall Bramleys. Isn’t it nice when things work out?

VENISON MINCEMEAT

With apologies to the original cook, I have streamlined the amounts somewhat in converting to metric. That half an ounce of venison might have seemed very important – or maybe it’s just what she happened to have. Either way, I’ve kept things simpler. I’ve also gone with the original mix of dates and prunes, because I like prunes. Do as you like – dried cherries are nice.

You can see that the original recipe called for meat and fat to be marinated, but not in what; I’ve skipped this altogether. Unless it means heavily brined (possible), I can’t see that you’d get much of the marinade through the blanket of fruit and spice.

DISCLAIMER: This involves cooking meat in what seems like an insufficiency of salt or acid and leaving it in the fridge for a month. Make sure you cook it thoroughly when you make it into pies. If I get botulism, I’ll let you know.

Makes 3 1l jars, which is far too much mincemeat.

500g venison, minced

200g suet, shredded (preferably deer, but that’s quite hard to get hold of. I used sheep, but beef will do)

1.25kg cooking apples, chopped

500g light muscovado sugar

500g dates, chopped

500g prunes, chopped

300ml nice apple juice

150 mixed candied peel, chopped

.25 t ground cloves

.25 t ground mace

.25 t ground ginger

.5 t ground nutmeg

2 t salt

1 t ground cinnamon

some booze (I don’t drink rum, so I used bramble whisky)

Put everything except the booze in a big pan, and bring to a slight simmer. Leave it there with a lid on for two hours, stirring occasionally, then pack into sterilised jars, adding a couple of tablespoons of booze to each jar. Put in the fridge and leave for a month.