encounters in history

A certain chef burnt some pine nuts the other day, as occasionally happens when the one timer you have in the kitchen is temperamental at best. Not wanting to waste them, I put the nuts in a jug and covered them with water with the intention of making a pine nut milk – I’ve been experimenting with making nut sorbets. The jug went on a shelf and I went home, forgetting to put it in the fridge before I did so, and when I came into work the next day, I found that the contents had begun to ferment; I did what anyone would do in the circumstances – left it to see what happened.

The folklore of food is full of happy accidents. The Chinese, for example, have an improbable tale of a swineherd who, setting his hut ablaze, accidentally discovered roast pork and crackling; this story runs counter to the popular belief that folklore is the repository of ancient truths by being clearly false in every particular. Our view of the origins of cooking is murky at best, but we can, I think, safely say that houses do not pre-date cooking and that the keeping of pigs did not come before their eating. Other stories are perhaps a little more probable, especially when they deal with fermentation, the slow works of enzyme, bacterium and yeast.

Most foodstuffs, after all, have a certain inbuilt tendency or what we might call an intent to ferment, a process which is after all only one leg of the journey towards rot; ripe grapes, for example, crushed under their own weight, will begin to bubble and change in a matter of hours. The story of cheese being discovered when milk was carried inside a pouch made of rennet-rich stomach is distinctly probable, at least next to the tale of the swineherd; rennet intends to coagulate milk, it is what that enzyme is for. Still, we can draw a distinction between simply leaving things to themselves and leaving them to see what happens. Piles of cabbage will rot, but if you salt them and leave them to see what happens, you get sauerkraut.

When I tasted the bubbling pine nut water and found it had a distinct umami, reminiscent of soy sauce, the obvious thing to do was to blitz it, add 2% of its weight in salt, and put it in a jar; I had, now, some idea of what the result might be, but I was still just leaving it to see what happened, which is often what I do in the kitchen. There are, really, two ways of going about cooking. You can start with a clear idea, gleaned perhaps from a recipe, a memory, or simply your imagination, of what you want your food to look and taste like, in which case you may well have to go shopping; on the other hand, you can see what you have, combine it in some way, and see what happens. As the process continues and your food begins to take shape, you might seem to act with a little more purpose, but really you are just doing what your ingredients want you to do.

I never intended to become a maker of non-pork charcuterie, for example; I certainly don’t do so from a dislike of pork. It’s just, you see, that someone sold me a couple of sheep; at the time I wasn’t aware of the Scandinavian tradition of cured ovine meats, so I just decided to salt up the legs, and see what happened. That I now have four legs of hogget ham hanging in the breeze and two more boned legs of mutton salting quietly in the dark is something of a shock, when I stop and think about it. Come to mention it, I never really intended to become a chef, and the fact that I am one, an apparently adult one living in Suffolk, and not, for example, an academic, an astronaut, an archaeologist or an Ostrogoth, is still a source of surprise and delight to me.

Stop and drink

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Cooking is simple, in the ways that it is simple, because it is predictable; ingredients rarely lie, prevaricate, dissemble, or even change their minds. Two eggs, mixed correctly with the equivalent weight each of fat, sugar, and flour, make a cake, and if they don’t turn out to behave as you expect, the fault lies with you and with a failure of your technique. You can’t blame the butter because you didn’t cream it for long enough; it did what it was bound, as it were, to do, and what it in fact told you it was going to do, if you had been paying attention. If the butter turned out, on closer inspection, to be margarine, then you might be angry at yourself, for somehow not having realised that it was margarine, or you might be angry at your partner or housemate, for deliberately bringing margarine into your home; you might be angry that margarine, that greasy parody of authenticity, even exists. You can’t say that it only just became margarine, though, or that it hid its true nature until you had bought it and had it out of the packet; it was always margarine, and it says so on the label, which screams I can’t believe it, even though it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about butter, or margarine, that it is not the one and is the other.

If, on the other hand, cooking is difficult, then it is difficult to the extent that it is complicated, whether obviously, as in a baking recipe which might use forty ingredients in as many steps over four days, or more esoterically, as in cooking something like a steak, say, a process which involves so many variables, the cut, thickness and temperature of the meat, the exact heat and conductivity of your pan or grill, the exact age and physical condition of the original animal, that they are usually glossed over altogether, perhaps with the instruction simply to cook it to your liking, which isn’t, when it comes down to it, very helpful.You can, as a cook, either take this rather disingenuous instruction as it is, or you can attempt to understand every invisible step, every variable involved, in which case you will very probably get worse at cooking before you get better; you will, on the other hand, have the knowledge to see the occasional cooking disaster not as a blind act of fate or coincidence, but the direct result of actions taken or not taken; you can do better next time.

Cooking is predictable, you might say, because it is banal; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking is complicated because it has deep roots; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. On the one hand it seems trivial, when every breaking news alert is seasoned with the sense that America, and perhaps the rest of the world with it, is swiftly approaching some final catastrophe, to attempt to sit down and write about dinner, or worse, brunch; on the other, what else is there to write about? Whatever else happens, we all have to eat, and February is grim enough anyway without this extra burden. I seem, unconsciously, to have been focusing recently on cooking skills which might be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland – canning, preserving, foraging, cooking over open fire, butchery, and so on; these ferments I have stored against my ruin. Less bleakly, it seems reasonable, at such times, to bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.

Panacea

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Whatever some might say about the roast beef of old England, the pig is, in religiously amenable areas at least, the indisputed king of the eating animals. Although it arguably deserves this accolade for its belly meat alone, not to mention the succulent beauty of its shoulder, cheek, and plump double chins, a large part of the utility and therefore the beauty of the pig comes from its suitability for curing of all kinds, in nitrate-protected salamis, salted raw hams, chunks of smoked bacon and jowl, dry-cures and Suffolk-cures, treacle and beer and vinegar; its ability, in other words, to be charcuterised. Since time immemorial, or at least a short time after that, the pig has lent itself, from snotter to trotter, to the sausage-maker’s trade – and we should all be very glad of that.

Still, there are hams beyond the porcine. Turkey, which has a pickle culture to rival that of Poland, has the meats to match, the best known here being suçuk and pastirma, both made from beef, the latter related in etymology if not technique to pastrami, which has in recent years overtaken the simpler salt beef as the most famous cured meat product of the Ashkenazi Jewish deli culture which has brought dill pickles to so many disparate parts of this world. The beef being cured here is generally brisket, sometimes fillet; the parsimonious celebration of flesh gifted to the pig is, for the cow, mainly expressed in the search for ever-more niche cuts of steak, possessed of either odd French or quaint English names and cooked bloody as hell, bavette, onglet, hanger, butler’s, butcher’s, baker’s , and candle-stick-maker’s, though an honourable mention should go to the salted and pressed ox tongue, one of the few pieces of world charcuterie which requires its own, specialist device.

Where, though, is the cured lamb? Perhaps the climates where lamb is the main protein are ill-suited to the curing of meat; perhaps I am just extremely ignorant on the subject. Either way, I know of few traditional recipes for cured lamb. This is a shame, as it can be extremely delicious. I have made a Serrano-style ham with the leg of a hogget, which was a thing of beauty; you had the squidge and edge of a good raw ham, but with an almost overbearing sheepiness, not quite edging into rancidity … I can taste it now. It did, however, apart from the whole leg, take several kilograms of salt, besides space and time and probably, I suppose, quite a lot of luck; a charcutier of my acquaintance was surprised and jealous that I had managed to make a bone-in cured lamb leg without rot or mould. I suppose the chimney in which I hung it must have been a particularly hospitable environment.

Whatever the reason, it is not a recipe suited to repeating at home, and, indeed, I never have. We should be getting another sheep soon, so I will try again; until then, this is an excellent, and extremely easy, cured lamb dish. Lamb fillet can be pale and unappetizing, but a couple of days makes it as dark as a Carpaccio; if it looks like a Caravaggio, it’s gone off.

CURED LAMB, BROAD BEANS AND FENNEL

2kg lamb fillet

600g coarse sea salt

400g granulated sugar

zest of 4 lemons

2 tbsp fennel seeds

Mix the salt, sugar, lemon and fennel together, and spread a layer in a plastic or otherwise non-metallic tub. Nestle in the lamb, and cover completely with the cure. Leave in the fridge for two or three days, then rinse and dry. Slice thinly and top with

a handful of raw broad beans, from however many pods it takes to get a handful

2 bulbs fennel, sliced wafer-thin

dressed with

juice of two lemons

200ml extra virgin olive oil

a pinch of salt

a good 6 grinds of pepper

whisked together.