Sourer Wine

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It used to be thought that standing wine was turned into vinegar by vinegar flies; or perhaps it was that these little insects were bred spontaneously out of vinegar, or maybe both, at different times – I don’t remember when or where I read this fact, these facts. Leave a cup of vinegar uncovered for an hour or two, anyway, and you’ll see why this possibly fictional belief persisted – flies you never knew were there will have suicided within it. I don’t know why they do this.
We now know, of course, that wine (or beer, cider, or fruit wine) is turned into vinegar by a helpful bacterium, the acetobacter, which – as far as I understand the matter (about as far as I could throw a gallon of barrel-aged sweet Modena) – consumes alcohol and pisses acid; vinegar-making is a process of controlled decay, whereby leftovers, left to rot, turn eventually into a preservative, without which British cuisine would be particularly bereft. The cured items, tracklements, chutneys, ketchups and sauces with which our food is scattered – roll-mops, pickled onions, pickled red cabbage, brown sauce, mint sauce, Branston, and so on – all rely heavily on the clanging collision of sugar and vinegar, with little recourse to simple salting and lactofermentation, as is found in other pickle-heavy cultures (Germany, Turkey, the US); and where would the chip-shop be without vinegar?
My brother, who has always had a love of extreme tastes, used to use malt vinegar, or possibly non-brewed condiment, as a universal seasoning, for which he was roundly mocked, and rightly so; pasta doesn’t need to be drowned in it. Still, he was on to something. A splash of vinegar works wonders on a long-cooked stew, revivifying what was lost in the murk; the magic that chilli sauce works on simply cooked eggs comes as much from the vinegar as from the heat, that welcome touch of sweet and sour. To my mind, seasoning a dish – that final adjustment, as it’s often called in recipes – means not just intensifying our apprehension of flavour with salt, but a balancing of all the basic tastes on the tongue. To a simple tomato sauce, already rich in umami, we might add a pinch of sugar, a little lemon juice or vinegar; bitterness comes from pepper and olive oil, which also contributes the pleasing taste of rich fats.
Come to think of it, forget that tomato sauce – make a salad dressing, one with a little anchovy in it, designed to perk up gentle, buttery salad leaves. Dissolve sugar and salt in good vinegar, add pounded garlic and anchovy, whisk in grassy oil – you have sweetness, salt, a sour kick, heat and deep savour, and a cleansing, fatty bitterness – you have, in other words, a powerful hit of all tastes, which is why (some) salad dressings are so delicious to drink by themselves. Taste, as distinct from aroma, is a real bodily pleasure that puts you firmly in the present. On the other hand, we are told – we know – that smell is the sense most hard-wired into our memories, to the point where it might have been designed for the express purpose of recollection.
Everyone must have had that feeling when, walking along entirely in the here-and-now, you smell an ex-girlfriend’s perfume, or the sweet, submerged scent of chervil and jump back five or fifteen years into the past, which slices through the present like a good knife through sweating fat. Flavour, then, although we experience it as one thing, is a combination of two very different sensations which dance around each other like two pigeons on a tiled roof, tending first one way and then the other, hopefully, in the end, to meet somewhere in the middle. The goal is that the taste lives up to the promises made by the first drifting smells.
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his can be particularly hard to achieve when the smell is one happily remembered from childhood, which is why the trend for house-made ketchups, baked beans and so on can be such a minefield – they have such intense early sense-memories to live up to that they must nearly always fall short. The goal is that the opposite happens; that the new, fresher version retroactively transforms your childhood meals, making them seem daring, original and tantalising, in the same way that the most innocuous 50s ballad becomes, after its use in a David Lynch movie, haunting, rich and strange.
I don’t know if this version of brown sauce achieves this universally, but it does for me. HP sauce is a fine thing, the perfect foil to a heavy full English, and a good riposte to anyone who would insult the national palate; how can a country where a spiced date and tamarind sauce is eaten with dry-cured pork as a breakfast item be accused of dullness of cuisine?
BROWN SAUCE
This makes rather a lot, but it seems to keep indefinitely (sugar and vinegar there) in the fridge. You could bottle it properly if that’s your thing. It goes extremely well with black pudding, as well as bringing the bacon sandwich one step closer to perfection.
700g chopped onion
800g chopped fresh tomato
500g dates
500g prunes
250g dried sour cherries
500g light muscovado sugar
2tbsp salt
1l white wine vinegar
a pint of porter
1tbsp peppercorns
1 dried chilli
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp cloves
2 star anise
an optional splash of sherry vinegar
Tie up the spices in a little bag or resign yourself to sudden breakfast crunches. Put everything in a big pan, bring to a simmer, and let it putter for two or three hours until soft, cooked and dark. It’ll need some attention to stop it sticking.
Remove the spice bag and blend smooth in batches, adding an optional dash of sherry vinegar to each batch (it perks it up a little). Bottle or fridge, and leave for a week to get to know itself. Apply liberally to cured pork items.

Hop, Spring

 

Another rabbit recipe, yes, but a really very different one. It used to be normal to give a lot more consideration to the age of the animal you were cooking with – a spring chicken needed a different approach than a boiling fowl; lamb, hogget, mutton, all required various strengths and lengths of marinade and cooking. Although a few luxury youths remain (veal, suckling pig, the yearly argument that is spring lamb) and some of the older animals are making a resurgence, by and large slaughtering age has become standardised somewhere at the lower limits of adulthood, or the minimum required to get a good return on the farmer’s investment. This is a shame.

Apart from any ethical argument over the accelerated growth and early deaths of industrially farmed animals, there is a great variety of cooking that comes from the use of different ages of meat, and the techniques needed to deal with them – coq au vin, for example, is pointless with a young chicken, the long cooking required for the dark, glossy sauce being badly suited to tender white meat. The whole rich tradition, in fact, of stews, daubes, ragus, etceteras, would probably not exist without the need to consume older animals – why spend hours braising an oxtail when you could roast a young, dripping slab of calf?
Curiously, a similar standardisation seems to have happened with game. Although old cookbooks are full of advice for how to treat an old rabbit, a young one, a new mother (feed it to the dogs, apparently) the ones you usually get from butchers are generally of a similar size and condition, and need fairly careful treatment, along the lines I set out before. Once in a while, though, if you live in the countryside, or hate your children’s pets, you might get your hands on some younger ones. If you do, I suggest you do the following –

RABBIT, BACON, SPRING VEGETABLES
For 2
1 young rabbit
A small handful of smoked bacon lardons
A bunch of asparagus
About 500 grams of fresh peas, in their pods
3 banana shallots
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp Dijon mustard
A small glass of white wine
Small handful of parsley
Zest of half a lemon
Salt and pepper
Since you’re unlikely to get a baby from the butcher, we’re going to start at the beginning this time. First thank whoever gave you the rabbit. Remember he has a gun. Take the rabbit, and with a small, very sharp knife, make a slit between one of its hamstrings and the muscle, and slide the other foot through this, making a handy loop. Use this to hang it over something (preferably outside). Cut just under the breastbone, and make a slit down the belly to the groin. Pull out all the bits, which will smell horrendous, keeping the liver and kidneys aside if you want them. (The gutting process, pleasingly, is known as ‘paunching’.) Cut two more slits from the groin, down (or rather up, given how he’s hanging) the inside of the legs to the ankle; you’ll find, with a combination of pulling and gentle scraping, that you can undress him down to the feet; cut the skin round here, leaving the furry slippers on, then pull the skin down over his head and repeat at the other end. (You won’t need the head for this recipe – I’m not a monster. Just hack it off and chuck it away.) Right. Give the carcass a good wash, and bring inside. (Young rabbits shouldn’t need hanging.) OR acquire a baby rabbit from a rural game dealer.
First, with a cleaver or mallet-and-knife arrangement, lop of the still-furry feet. Splay the rabbit out on its front, and dislocate the back legs – hold the body down, and grab each leg in turn, giving it a sharp twist towards you – then use your small sharp knife to cut round the hip joint, separating each leg from the body. Put them to one side, then turn the rabbit round so the front legs are towards you. These are easy to take off – get a good grip under the shoulder blade, where the skin is quite loose, and slice round and under. Finally, with your lopping tool(s), trim the saddle at each end. Keep the ribcage for stock if you’re that kind of person. Or just ask your rural game dealer for a jointed baby rabbit. Or just use chicken, for that matter.
Nearly there. Trim the asparagus and pod the peas, and put the stalk-ends and pods in a saucepan. Add one of the shallots, halved, and one of the cloves of garlic, lightly squished. Cover with water, bring to a simmer, and leave to get on while you start the cooking proper.
In a sauté pan big enough to fit the complete dish (sorry if you’ve got this far and don’t have one), gently heat the lardons – the aim is to render a decent amount of fat from them before they brown. Once you’re happy with this state of affairs, remove them from the pan, whack up the heat, and brown the rabbit (or chicken, if you insist) pieces in batches, giving them a merry salting as you go. Put these with the bacon and turn the heat back down.
Finely slice the remaining shallots and garlic and sweat these (you might need a bit more fat or oil) until nicely softened and starting to brown, putting the bacon back in towards the end of this process. Add the mustard, cook for a minute, turn up the heat, add the wine, let it reduce to almost nothing.
Arrange the rabbit pieces nicely on top (they’d better fit) and add a couple of ladles of that veg stock, which should be ready by now – enough to not-quite-cover the rabbit, bring to the boil, simmer for twenty minutes. Meanwhile, slice the asparagus into pea-ish sized bits. When the twenty minutes are up, add the peas and asparagus, cover with a lid and simmer for ten minutes more. Finely chop the parsley with the lemon and stir in. A swirl of cream would be appropriate, and some extra mustard is a good idea.

Stuffed

Stuffed Pheasant

Don’t get me wrong, I love hands-on, elbows-on-the-table, sauce-on-the-face eating – wings, ribs, mussels, snails, whole crab, anything that goes well with lots of friends and napkins and beer – but it’s nice occasionally to have something a bit more, well, refined. Something where the hard work, the nuts and bolts and bones, is got out of the way long before dinner, and all you have to do at the table is sit and eat. This is especially true, I think, over Christmas, when you’ve got quite enough to eat without making it any harder for yourself, and when the tradition of carving at the table leads to unwanted scrutiny of your knives and skills.

 

Carving a bird isn’t the hardest of tasks, but there is something a bit silly about the whole affair; taking off the breasts before you can slice them, utensils wrestling with tasks better suited to hands, and then the whole question of stuffing. If you actually stuff the bird with it, it plays havoc with the cooking time, and of course you have to get it out again; if you don’t, well then it isn’t really stuffing, is it? Drastic as it may seem, de-boning the whole bird is really the best solution to all of these problems. To carve, you simply slice across, and the flesh becomes, really, a wrap for the stuffing, which after all is usually the best bit.

 

Against this, of course, is the work of actually boning the damn thing. Well, you could always ask your butcher to do it (I’d give him a little advance notice, though). Or you could (as I did) learn how to do it from this excellent video. It isn’t that hard, although it certainly isn’t quite as easy as he makes it look. Or, of course, you might already know how to do it! It’s incredibly satisfying, anyway. Here’s what I did with mine.

 

PHEASANT WITH BLACK PUDDING AND CITRUS STUFFING

serves 2, festively, or more in leaner times.

STAGE 1

1 pheasant, fully boned (keep the bones)

1 leek

1 fat carrot

1 onion

2 cloves of garlic

bay leaves

peppercorns

juniper berries

Roast the pheasant carcass in a hot oven, then make a stock with it and the rest of the ingredients, covered with water. It’ll need a good 2-3 hours of simmering. You could pop the pheasant in brine overnight, too.

STAGE 2

1 rasher of streaky bacon, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely diced

2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

2 good chunks of black pudding (about 100-150g)

a small handful of parsley, chopped

a small handful of dried breadcrumbs

1/2 tsp allspice

a grating of nutmeg

1 tbspn chopped candied citrus peel

1 small egg

lard, salt and pepper

Sweat the bacon, onion and garlic in a dollop of lard until soft and clear. Crumble in the black pudding, then stir through the rest of the ingredients. Season. When cooled slightly, beat the egg lightly and mix that in too.

STAGE 3

the pheasant

the stuffing

the stock

1 leek, sliced into chunks and washed

1 carrot, peeled and sliced into chunks

1 onion, peeled and sliced into chunks

5 rashers of streaky bacon

another onion, finely diced

1 tbspn flour

a little mustard, redcurrant jelly, and/or booze, as you will

lard, salt and pepper

string

Get the oven to Gas Mark 4/180C/350F. Lay your pheasant, skin side down, on a board or counter. If not brined, season enthusiastically. Rearrange any ragged bits of meat so there’s a good, even layer, then spoon over the stuffing. Spread it out, leaving a slight border, and work some right down into his trousers. When happy with your work, begin the reconstructive surgery. Fold over one side into the middle, and then the other, overlapping the skin slightly. Turn over onto the seam, cross the legs at a jaunty angle, and tie, again as shown here; finally, lay the rashers of bacon across the breast, then get his bed ready.

Melt a little lard in an appropriately sized (ie small) roasting tin, then toss in the vegetable chunks, making sure they get a good coating. Place your handsome pheasant sausage in the middle of this, then roast in the oven for about 45 minutes. As ever, you’re after clear juices and crispy bacon. Remove from the oven, remove the bacon, and wrap the bird up to rest. While this happens, make the gravy.

Sweat the onion in a little more lard, then stir in the flour, cook until it smells vaguely of biscuits, and add whichever of mustard, jelly and booze you see fit (I used all three). Gradually add the pheasant stock, stirring slightly manically, and simmer until thickened nicely. How much stock, and how much further liquid you add, depends on how you like your gravy. Pour in the vegetables and juices from the roasting tray too, and simmer some more. Strain into a jug.

Serve, sliced thickly, with the gravy, greens, perhaps tossed with hazelnuts and mustard dressing, and some sort of potato. As for the bacon, you could chop it and add to the greens, or just have as a treat on the side. Or eat it, while making the gravy, and pretend it never existed.