Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.

Yes We Can

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The Italians, who, despite their supposed reverence for the ingredient have as much of an interest in cooking techniques as do anybody else, express a certain penchant for extremes when it comes to the application of heat. A sauce is cooked for either five minutes or five hours, beef either raw or collapsing to the touch; when something is to be overcooked, as in that rather lovely broccoli cream used to dress pasta, they will overcook the hell out of it – which is just as it should be. If something is not at the extreme end of what you are trying to do to it, then it is not, to my mind, as good as it could be. The correct amount of salt in any food is nearly-too-much; anything less is not enough.

The thing with overcooking is that it comes in circles. The most obvious example is one of the cheaper cuts of steak, hanger or some other kind of skirt. Cook it fresh and bloody, and it cuts like butter under a questing knife; cook it medium-well, and your diners will think you have grilled them one of your worn-out Crocs. Cook it for three hours, perhaps with some sweet onion, some anchovy and a bosky Pinot Noir, and there it is again, melting to tenderness, just the thing to spread onto a piece of almost-burnt toast and eat, standing up, with some nearly-too-sharp pickles on the side. This is true, broadly speaking, of almost any sort of protein. You wouldn’t do it to a fillet steak, but then who eats a fillet steak in this day and age? Hamine eggs, to take another example, boil through grey rubber and on into soft cream, and are all the better for it.

We might not, perhaps, think of doing this to fish. Cephalopods, of course, demand the all-or-nothing treatment, with cuttlefish especially demanding a cooking time of either three hours or close to zero; even the apparently intractable octopus can, with a little judicious preparation (freeze / defrost / brine / dry / marinate) be successfully flash-fried. Your actual backboned swimming fish, though, would seem to be another matter, with even a fish stew only including the fish for the last few minutes of cooking – except, that is, for tinned fish. I’ve written before about the luscious texture, reminiscent of tinned tuna, you can get by slowly poaching fish in olive oil; since then I have also become enamoured with a Japanese preparation, involving entire mackerel cooking in a deeply flavoured marinade. The true, melting nature of actual tinned fish, though, requires the extra heat available from a pressure cooker; as luck would have it, I got one for Christmas.

I’m aiming to get hold of some tin cans to try this with, but for now I am canning fish in screw-topped Kilner jars; the principle is the same. Oily fish (it needs that fat, I think) and some strongly flavoured things go into a sealed jar, and are cooked at pressure until rendered delicious; conveniently, this also kills off botulinum spores. I wanted to try this with the pomegranate mackerel recipe, but I could get neither mackerel nor pomegranate molasses; instead, I’m trying chunks of salmon with fermented pepper paste, blood orange juice, and a few other things. I have high hopes.

Nothing Is Lost

When I was going to sleep, I think the night before last, I had a really good idea for a piece. Today I need to write it, and I have not the slightest idea what it was. Gone. Possibly it was in fact quite a bad idea for a piece, or, it might be, a few lines from a song or a book, the memory of a smile from an imaginary film, which became entwined in my nearly-dreaming brain with, say, a discussion of the relative methods of octopus preparation, complete with recipes. I remember once, in the drifting minutes between the first alarm and the final waking, composing a song which was also a pie, a very fine pie, and am still rather disappointed that I have forgotten the details, which, come to think of it, are probably non-existent and at any rate impossible.

The problem is that, between work, a demanding puppy, and the cold and the dark, I am really quite exhausted, and I can see why most food writers confine themselves, in December, to the production of lists of various kinds, or to a retread of festive tropes providing twists on seasonal classics. Now, I can see why these are useful, if you have a lot of parties in December (as apparently people do), or indeed if you work in a restaurant, and wish to serve people something other than a bulked-up Sunday roast, over and over again. Personally, though, I feel a little sorry for anyone who feels that they need to constantly change the Christmas meal itself, to fall in with fashion or diets or simply for variety’s sake. Surely the point of such meals is that they are always, by and large, the same – like listening to the Fall, or reading PG Wodehouse.

If I was at home for Christmas (‘home’ in this context always being where your parents or the majority of your family live) I know that on Christmas Eve there would be shepherd’s pie with braised red cabbage and mulled, perhaps blackberry wine, with a treacle tart to follow (or is that New Year? Maybe it’s warm mince pies), a warm hug after standing in the cold for the carol service; Christmas dinner means soup, a leg of pork, long chipolatas wrapped in good bacon, stuffing balls, slightly overdone sprouts, sneaky parsnips to be picked out of the roast potatoes, proper gravy and all the rest; it means Christmas pudding and ice cream, mint chocolates, nuts, fruit, the yearly indulgence of coffee with cream in it, and the rest of the day spent dipping bread in gravy every time you walk through the kitchen. The soup might change from year to year; an extra piece of meat might come out, or the veg vary depending on what is left of the allotment in the freezer, but the essentials remain.

I won’t be at home for Christmas itself, this year, so we can do what we like. I think a salt cod and potato pie for the night before, and maybe a game-hung five year old hen, perhaps pot-roasted, for the main event. If it ends up tough and stringy, as well it might, considering I have never cooked one before, then at least we have the trimmings, which are after all the best bit.

The Genesis of Porridge

Whatever our romantic notions of European peasant cuisine might be, they almost certainly don’t include enough gruel. Those delightfully thrifty offal dishes you choke down at street stalls and in little backstreet diners? Before urbanisation and centralised slaughterhouses, they were once-a-year treats, the only freshly steaming meat you’d ever eat. Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables? Aside from the fact that raw fruit was once considered actively harmful to health, the juvenile state we eat most of our produce in is simply wasteful, a poor use of energy and time. A young pea straight from the pod is delightful, but that’s because it is mainly sugar; leave it on the plant long enough, and you have a suitably starchy pulse to see you through the winter, as a break from, yes, your gruel.

You can make gruel from any grain or pseudo-grain you like, ground or not, or even chestnuts. Before corn and therefore polenta came to Italy, and a long time before mechanisation made pasta a staple dish, the peasantry lived or at least survived on porridges of either buckwheat or chestnut flour; this is something you seldom see in modern temples to the cucina povera, for some reason. In Britain porridge tends to mean a sweet gruel, and it tends to mean oats, which collapse quite well into creaminess, especially with the addition of cream. The true Scottish way is to eat it with salt alone, of course – and maybe a tot of whisky. As I say, though, oats can take such meagre treatment; most other porridges need some sort of enlivening. I don’t know how long you could live on plain chestnut porridge alone, but it would certainly be long enough to wish you didn’t. Congee, the Chinese rice porridge, sounds a little more appetising, but that might be because the last recipe I read for it emphasised that it should be made with a good chicken stock; given that I would happily drink a good chicken stock by itself, this is hardly a fair comparison. A good white risotto is essentially a rice porridge, but again, that is enlivened with not just stock and wine but also large amounts of cheese and butter; given that I would happily … But I repeat myself.

I have always thought of porridge as quite a primitive thing, a slight misstep on the way to making bread, though I suppose it has just followed a parallel path. On the one hand, it is quick to make, and doesn’t need an oven; on the other, it requires  a good metal cooking pot, a comparatively advanced piece of technology.

The pernicious wheatphobia of the clean eating brigade has, anyway, led to a resurgence in the popularity of porridge, often made with so-called ancient grains, many of them varieties of wheat. I am currently eating a porridge made of buckwheat – which, despite the name, is actually a relative of rhubarb – not because I am avoiding gluten but because I like buckwheat, though not, it turns out, enough to enjoy eating it as a gruel, even with the addition of prunes and malt extract and various other favourite things of mine. Perhaps it needs a good chicken stock, or at least a slick of cream; perhaps eating gruel just isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Perhaps for lunch I will eat something crunchy, and thank the stars I am not a medieval peasant, eating three bowls a day.

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.

Clammy Cells

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I’m sure I say this every year, but autumn really is an extraordinary time for British food. We spend the height of summer eating greenhouse tomatoes and endless gluts of courgette, wishing we were south of the thick black coffee line drinking something cold and pale in a cafe by the sea; it’s a season that we are not fully equipped to deal with, and so we spend it semi-conscious, drifting between shore and field in a sort of gentle fever dream, punctuated by ice-cream. Autumn, on the other hand, is the time to wake up. The hedges are making good on the promise of the early blackberries, with damsons, crabapples and soon sloes weighing down the spindly branches; country roads are once again teeming with semi-wild game birds, running idiotically between their Scylla and Charybdis of front wheel and gun. On the days after the first shoots, the flattened corpses of young partridge carpet the roads.

At least partridge tastes quite nice. The strange situation with pheasant is that these birds are bred in protected environments (often to the detriment of other, perhaps more native creatures), then released into the wild to be shot at, in such numbers that ‘hunters’ give them away for free; no-one wants to eat as much pheasant as can be killed, because, finally, it’s just not very interesting. A sort of dark white meat which dries out easily, it has none of the bloody excitement of a duck or pigeon, it’s too big to tear apart with your hands … to make matters worse, people often don’t prepare them properly, so the legs are full of tough sinews which must be picked laboriously from the meat. All in all, a waste of everybody’s time. If you do get given one, best to brine it in salty tea and then joint it so you can roast the legs slowly, the breasts quickly. Like all game birds, it goes nicely with a jelly or compote of appropriate fruits.

The chickenish paleness of their flesh is, I assume, due to both their early captivity and to their lifelong habit of walking everywhere, even out of the way of oncoming cars; it is certainly shared by the similarly-raised partridge, though the meat of these latter birds is somewhat finer, capable, I’m sure, of a rewarding blush when carefully and delicately cooked; I like to brown them in hot oil and then pickle them. This is a treatment native to Andalusia, but it seems appropriate for an English autumn, and as a recipe it is about as simple as that – just make up a vinegary brine, flavoured appropriately, and pour it, hot, over the browned birds. You don’t need to worry too much about acidity and salinity unless you intend to put them up in a barrel for the winter, in which case you are on your own; fermentation is one thing, but the sterile preservation of protein is fraught with danger. Just put them in the fridge and eat over a few days, and no-one will get botulism.

If you roast or stew your partridges, remember that, as with all pale, wild flesh, they will need a good helping of fat, having very little of their own, either in layers or running through the meat. It’s traditional to roast such birds covered with little strips of streaky bacon, which the cook can then silently eat while preparing the accompaniments; another way is to wrap them in prosciutto or similar and pack them tightly into a casserole for pot-roasting. I once cooked this for Julian Assange, oddly, though I don’t know if he liked it. He certainly never came back. I don’t know if partridges traditionally hide in pear trees because they are themselves pleasingly pear-shaped, or even if they do so at all, but they certainly go nicely with pear, perhaps pickled; or possibly it is just the pleasure of the association. Either way, worth a try.

So much for these sort-of game birds. My own personal favourite is the pigeon, as I think I’ve said before, but as they are easily availably year-round, they don’t carry the seasonal thrill of, say, a nice mallard (smaller and neater than the fat, farmed Gressingham duck), which is what I happen to have in my fridge right now, next to the pot of pickled partridge. Duck is perfect with the sweet tartness of the season, the hedgerow fruits, the heavy, honeyed flavours; there are so many options that I’m not quite sure, having briefly considered Pekinese and Venetian treatments, what I should do with it. Duck and damsons sounds nice, but if you have any suggestions, I would be glad to hear them.

Quel Outrage!

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The best of summer requires so little in the way of human intervention on its way to the plate that it often seems, by the end of the season, as if I have almost forgotten how to cook. Tomatoes fall apart under the knife, providing their own dressing to soak into yesterday’s bread; slices of cured fish nestle just-so against piles of freshly-picked herbs; torn pieces of greengage and peach drip down the chin and onto the wrist. I’ve gone for months barely chopping an onion – I’m not ready for the endless peeling and dicing of squashes, roots, tubers and stalks, the slow building of flavour through sweating, stirring and braising.

Although the weather still thinks it’s high summer, however, the garden disagrees, and this time of year demands that you at least show willing, perhaps heating a few things together, boiling this, toasting that, moving slowly back from assembling towards cooking; it helps, in this situation, to have a well-stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer. It’s amazing what you can throw together when you’ve spent the last few months squirrelling things away. If you don’t spend your entire life in either a professional or amateur kitchen, then this recipe will take a little more time – in fact, it will become a whole series of recipes. All of them are worth making, though. Sit down with a bowl of this and a glass of rosé and you will have successfully extended summer by another hour.

FERMENTED TOMATO BOUILLABAISSE

To serve 4, or thereabouts

around 2.5 l of good fish stock

8 fermented tomatoes, plus 250ml of their brine

1 tbsp tomato puree

a long splash of absinthe or pernod

a small wine glass of good olive oil

some fish

Basically, you just put all of these things in a pan and boil them, hard. This is to force by violence the oil to emulsify with the other liquids, and is probably the only fish soup to require this treatment. You want to reduce the whole by about half.

I suppose the fish stock is the thing here. Any Marseillaise or probably any other Frenchman, and certainly anyone who has read Elizabeth David, will tell you that it is impossible to make a bouillabaisse outside of that fair port. The variety of fish is key, this soup originally being composed of the tiddlers too small to go to market; the only essential, we’re told, is that is contains scorpion fish, a peculiarly ugly creature which lends, I believe, a certain gelatinous quality to the broth.

To all this I offer an elaborate Gallic shrug. If the real thing is impossible to make, then so be it; we can do as we like. My stock was made with lobster carapaces (although I didn’t, it is quite fun, when making soup, to smash these up with a thumping pole) and cod cheek trimmings, along with several branches of flowering fennel and of sweet cicely. The cartilaginous frames of the various rays do very well in a stock, replacing, perhaps, the aforementioned horror; fishmongers, who normally sell the wings alone, often have several of these quasi-skeletons knocking around in their freezer. The carcasses of whatever fish you intend to use should probably go in, unless they are sardines, herrings or mackerel. What the hell are you doing, putting pelagic fish in a bouillabaisse? Salmon heads, on the other hand, turn the whole a rather lovely shade of coral. At this stage, you don’t want to boil your stock, and neither do you want to cook it for long – a gentle simmer for twenty minutes or so should do nicely.

That’s that, then. The fish depends on how much of a meal you intend to make of it – perhaps a fillet or two of white fish per person, a handful of mussels or clams, whatever. You have already offended the proud Provençal, you might as well carry on. Stick a whole bloody crab in it.

Oh, and you’ll need aioli, rouille, croutons and cheese. Carry on.

 

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.

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.