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.

Not A Fig

One of the best things about growing your own food (or rather, working somewhere where someone does it for you) is that you get to use parts of the plants that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t even see. Pinched-out broad bean tops make a fine salad; artichoke leaves can be infused into cynar; rosemary flowers have a vagrant fragrance, more delicate by far than the bruising aromatics of the leaves. The basic rule, which seems very obvious once you realise it, is that all or most of the plant carries flavour. We usually use just the fruit, or the leaf, or the root, but the rest is full of untapped potential.

 

Of course, we have to exercise some restraint in this. Broad bean flowers are very good, but if you use them all you won’t get any broad beans – a bit of a waste of a plant. Leaves are less finite, but strip too many off and your tree will die. Luckily, in most cases you only need a few to bring a strong flavour to your recipe – in this case, your ice-cream. The leaves of fruit trees or bushes lend themselves very well to this. The bursting fragrance of fresh fruit is beautiful in a water- or buttermilk-ice, but the added acidity and liquid can be difficult to handle in a proper creamy ice-cream; the leaves give a lot of the former with none of the latter. You just need to plan a little in advance.

 

Although a lot of recipes for fig leaf ice-cream cook the leaves, I prefer not to. Broadly speaking, leaves of all kinds contain two strands of flavour. There are the oils and aromas particular to the plant itself, redolent of mintiness or blackcurrantness or whatever; then there is a more generic leafiness or grassiness, common to most greenery, which is in fact a defence mechanism against violence, and is brought out by physical insult or by heat. Sometimes, as in a chlorophyllic chimmichurri, you want this latter quality, which is why you smash the leaves in mortar or in magimix; more often, you don’t. In these cases, careful chopping or cold maceration are the way to go.

 

FIG LEAF ICE-CREAM

You’ll need, obviously, some fig leaves. We have a tree growing against the wall of the cafe, which is handy. Without this luxury, you’ll have to hunt one down. There’re a couple in the ground of Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m reliably informed there’s one in Vauxhall Park. Just don’t take too many.

300ml full-fat milk

4-5 fig leaves

300ml double cream

200g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

a pinch of salt

Scrunch or slap the leaves lightly, so they smell strongly of figs; put them in the milk and leave for two or three days, then squeeze them out and discard them. Add the milk to the cream in a saucepan.

Whisk together the sugar, yolks and salt (preferably in a free-standing mixer; it takes ages) until really fluffy and pale. A sort of wan lemon should be your guide, but it obviously depends on the eggs.

Meanwhile, scald the milk mix, and when the eggs are right, pour the hot liquid over them, still whisking, and then pour the lot back into the pan.

Heat very gently, stirring the whole time, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of whatever utensil you are using. If you overcook it, it will scramble, and you’ll have to start the whole three-day process all over again.

Decant into a container and cool completely, preferably overnight in the fridge, then churn in your ice-cream machine or whatever charmingly old-fashioned arrangement you have. Eat it now as a soft-serve or freeze overnight for a more traditional scoop. Some little biscuits would not go amiss.