Sharing Plates


However much people bang on about medical improbabilities, long journeys by donkey or by camel, an overstretched hospitality industry, symbolic vegetation or even just the steady movement of the earth around the sun, everybody knows that the real meaning of Christmas is the food – or rather, the feeding of it. The recent examples of (largely Turkish) restaurants opening their doors to the homeless and the lonely show that we know no-one should have to eat alone on Christmas Day, even those who have no particular reason to celebrate it; this is because we know that no-one should have to eat alone ever, unless they want to. Personally, I quite like eating by myself, especially at lunchtime – though not on Christmas Day.

No, the food is there to be fed, and feeding – that is to say sharing – is, whether done begrudgingly, lovingly, thoughtlessly as a natural right, or even at all, is a political act. The recent review of Donald Trump’s dreadful restaurant was hilarious, of course, and clearly well-deserved, but the reason it resonates is that someone who doesn’t give a damn about feeding people non-terrible food, and for whom hospitality is merely another opportunity for conspicuous consumption, is obviously unfit to run a country. If he’s going to operate a restaurant simply to extend his brand and to make money, why wouldn’t he operate his government in the same way?

I’ve never been sure if the remark of Lenin pictured above is intended to imply that government should be open to all, even a lowly cook, that the mechanisms of government should be so well-designed that even a cook could step in and run them, or that the particular multitasking-forward-planning-hard-working-selflessly-food-sharing skillset of the cook or chef makes them ideal for the job; if the latter, as I have always chosen to assume, then he must have meant ‘run’ in a bureaucratic, backroom, Mycroft Holmes sort of a way; no-one would want even the most talented and generous of cooks as the face of government. For that you want a maitre d’, or perhaps a world-weary barman. Imagine Trump as a maitre d’, throwing a tantrum when you didn’t order his ‘favourite’ special, ‘accidentally’ spilling wine over your date so he can wipe down her breasts. Imagine David Cameron as a maitre d’! He’d upsell you Champagne and then teabag your soup for a laugh. If Theresa May’s grim rictus greeted you at a restaurant door, you’d back out and settle in at the pub across the road, where it’s warmer, they keep the ale well, and they cook food with the intention to feed.

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.

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.

Bake Against The Dying Of The Light

10402798_10152785373432559_2727655711948833627_nI meant to write a post about autumn. Something about the wonderful, crackling transience of it, about the brief period of crisp, bright days, and, of course, about the food, fungi and wet nuts, the first of the year’s game, the last of the summer in hedgerow berries, orchard and stone fruits – the way it seems to be the most British of seasons, not having to borrow from other cuisines the way we do in summer, but able to fully express our ingredients and our heritage. Well, I missed autumn. It seems to have lasted about a week between Indian summer and early-onset winter.

The thing about our autumn is that it is really itself. We don’t really have an idealised autumn to hold it up against, the way we do with summer (Cornwall, the south of France, wherever) and winter (Christmas stories, the Alps). Is it dry and clear? Beautiful. Is it rainy? Good! All the better for splashing in the mud. Winter, on the other hand, rarely matches up to our desires. It’s never really that cold, and even decent snowfall soon turns into filthy slush. We want to sit huddled up with hot cocoa, scarves and mittens, and various arrangements of potato, meat and cheese, but that hardly seems justified when it’s 10 above freezing and drizzling.

As such, we don’t really have winter food as a distinct entity. We have the late autumn repetoire of soups and stews, and then we have the month-long tyranny of Christmas, which infects every meal in December. Even a quick supermarket sandwich becomes an opportunity to eat turkey, stuffing, and some cranberry-related concoction. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, turkey and cranberry are vile, unless prepared very carefully indeed; secondly, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration, a feast. No wonder people complain about Christmas Day, about the endless tedium of the family meal – they’ve already experienced the most important part of it, watered down and adulterated, about 20 times, at drunken office parties, in petrol stations, pubs, Pret a Manger. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate at Christmas, but do we have to do it for so long?

What we need is a new winter festival, one that hasn’t been corrupted by Americanism, commercialism, and Pret a Manger, a new way to rage against the dying of the light and bring back the setting sun. For much of European peasant history, the big event of the winter has been the pig-killing festival, the whole village coming together to slaughter and to create, curing and salting and hanging meat to see them through the dark days. I appreciate that most people don’t have a pig to slaughter; still, perhaps we could nod to the toils of our ancestors, and make black pudding. Besides being delicious, it is ridiculously cheap, although you’ll need a couple of specialist ingredients. This recipe is adapted from the excellent Nose To Tail iteration, and makes a flat, Yorkshire-style loaf.

BLACK PUDDING

Buy dried blood off the internet (here is good); you’ll have to ask a butcher for back fat. I got mine free, but we’re good pals. It shouldn’t be expensive, anyway. I guess you could use fat snipped off back bacon? Mr Henderson suggests salted lardo if you can’t find raw fat.

Serves 8-10

1 spanish onion, finely chopped

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

A chunk of lard

A small bunch of sage, finely chopped

Half a nutmeg, grated

1 tsp allspice

150g dried pig blood

150g fine polenta

250g back fat, chopped into little cubes

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3, and line a loaf tin with clingfilm.

Melt the lard in a big pan, then sweat the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, whisk the dried blood into a litre of blood-temperature water. When the onion is done, tip in the sage and spices, cook out for a minute, then add the polenta and blood. Turn the heat right down, and cook, stirring, until it starts to congeal and thicken. Blood is very like eggs, so imagine a custard. You don’t want it to set yet. Taste (this is gross, more because of the raw polenta than the semi-cooked blood), and season appropriately. It wants a surprising amount of salt, and a free hand with the pepper.

Take off the heat and stir in the back fat – you want it evenly spread through the bloody porridge. Pour into your loaf tin, which you cover with foil and place, on a folded tea towel, in a good deep oven tray. Pour boiling water to just under the lip of the tin, then carefully slide into the oven. Back for about 1 and a half to 2 hours, until a knife comes out cleanish, then leave to set overnight.

To eat, slice appropriately, and fry or bake until hot and crispy. Serve, perhaps, with black badger peas and black kale, on the shortest day of the year.