Mostly plants

Strange though it might seem to the long-term reader of these pages, I don’t actually eat very much meat. I’ll eat it when I’m out, because that is a treat, and because I generally go to restaurants I trust to source well-raised and -slaughtered animals; the last time I bought any to cook at home was for my birthday in April when, unable to find any coq, I got a couple of the large, slow-grown Sutton Hoo chickens to braise au vin, with buttered fresh pasta on the side and radishes to start. I don’t shop at supermarkets and I can’t afford to buy meat from the butcher anything more than occasionally – and rightly so. By meat, I should say, I mean chunks of skeletal muscle. I eat a fair amount of other animal products.

When I lived in Suffolk, I ate a lot of eggs, because I knew the chickens. I don’t drink milk, in part because the dairy industry is a dreadful thing but largely because I prefer oat milk; I find it less intrusive in coffee and it obviously has a greater affinity with cereal and porridge than does the milk of cows or other ungulates. I choose oat milk over other plant-based alternatives because it is readily available unadulterated with sugar or with emulsifiers and because the alternatives are disastrous environmentally. To pick almond over cow’s milk is to weigh the ravages of the Californian drought against the mass death of newborn calves; ultimately, I suppose, everything we do is destructive to the face and the depths of the earth, and the puzzle is to find some sort of balance.

For me the answer lies in a sort of economics of death. How much can you wring from each animal, and do you need to? Fish sauce is brewed from entrails and bycatch, and a few drops transforms a meal; a chunk of salt pork enriches a whole mess of beans. If you’re going to eat something like a burger, sandwich ham or chicken nuggets, which bears little resemblance to its original form, I think you may as well eat seitan or Quorn or whatever. A cow might provide vast quantities of meat but the point is that it does so inefficiently and largely unnecessarily. Nobody needs to eat the amount of protein that huge steaks provide and in any case steaks are boring. Even a really good steak just tastes like a steak. To grill a rump or a porterhouse is to close it in on itself; the more economical cook allows meat to give itself up. Even so, I like to save it for moderately special occasions.

The cliche, of course, is that vegetarians and especially vegans are evangelical about their dietary choices, and will aggressively bore anyone nearby about, say, the exploitation of bees in the Chinese honey industry; while I have no doubt this is true of some, I find evangelical carnivores far worse. There is a certain type of person who takes the fact that you don’t eat very much meat, actually, as a personal affront not just to them but to their ancestors, their family, their beliefs; I’m not sure why this should be. The economic ability to consume meat, actual pieces of meat, three times a day has come very recently to most of Western society, and the vast majority of the world does not possess it. It is never presented as a hard-won privilege jealously guarded, though, more as a divine law flouted only by heretics and fools. The fact, as I say, that the vast majority of the human diet throughout its history has been composed of plants in various forms makes this all the stranger. I can only imagine how these people must react to actual self-declared vegans; luckily, I suppose, I like cheese too much to ever become one.

The Matter of the Heart

  
One man’s (or woman’s, or culture’s) offal is another man’s premium cut; these things are as much about demand as about supply. A beef fillet may be prized partly because there is only one of it, but its status, still, as an expensive piece of meat comes as much from its giving tenderness – a texture which, coming as it does at the expense of flavour, many (yes, myself included) find if not unpleasantly then at least indifferently soft – at least when raw or extremely rare. Overcook it, of course, and it will be as dry and grainy as a minute steak.

 

Premium cuts often follow a French ideal of quality, and as such are rated by their edibility when sanguine; the cheaper ends of animals, either fatty or sinewy, tend to need much longer cooking – This is one of the things which defines their cheapness, despite the fact that a slow-cooked piece of belly pork is infinitely more delicious than a tenderloin cooked any way at all – unless you’re talking really cheap, in which case, things having come full circle, a quick sear in a very hot pan is often the best course of action. These cuts – skirt, flatiron, whatever – have long been enjoyed as steaks by the French (at a bistro level, perhaps, rather than haute cuisine) but are only now making their way out of our mincers and diced mixed stewing steak and onto waiting coals. Not premium, perhaps, but no longer as cheap as they were.

 

Heart, though, and despite its uniqueness in the animal, is still very cheap – in fact, our butcher gave us one for free, along with the tongue, kidneys, and some scraps of skirt, when we bought some excellent veal chops from him. He had the whole bullock, you see, and they were only going in the pet mix. Well, when life gives you offal, make a Fergus Henderson recipe, that’s what I say; and it turns out quickly cooked calf heart is a wonderful thing. I’d only ever braised hearts before, which takes bloody hours. I had a willing commis to do the wibbly bits for me, but even if you don’t, preparing hearts is pretty straightforward, should a jolly butcher ever give you his.

 

Essentially, you want to remove from this strange, muscular organ anything which is not in fact muscle; the top is surrounded by hard, suety fat, which you trim off; inside there are tubes, which you cut out; slicing the heart lengthways and opening it like a book, you will find the heartstrings, which it turns out are both real and extremely strong. Cut them off at each end. When you have a more-or-less homogenous pound of flesh, cut it into steaks. There’ll be a couple of triangular flaps which can be sliced off as is; as for the rest, it depends on your needs and appetite. You’ll want, though, to cut the thicker sections lengthways, so that everything is roughly of a muchness.

 

Now, following Fergus, toss the steaks with a splash of vinegar, a good pinch each of salt and pepper, some oil, some rosemary or whatever seems appropriate. The vinegar, I think, performs vital tenderisation, but the herbs, I suppose, are fairly optional. Leave in the fridge til tomorrow.

 

Now, get an appropriately sized pan screaming hot, lightly oil it, and add your steaks, pushing down on them to discourage curling; season a bit more if you feel it necessary. Cook until you get a good brown crust, (say 2-3 minutes) then flip and cook a minute or so more. Remove to rest.

 

While it rests, shave some fennel and sweet white onion as thinly as your mandolin will allow you, then dress heavily in a lemon vinaigrette and finely chopped parsley. Slice the heart, which should be pink and gently weeping, and serve with a little fennel and onion. This is true love.

Invisible City pt. 2


“When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets … how many kinds of pavement cover the ground” – Calvino, trans. William Weaver
So much of Venice reaches up and away from the water, from the intricate canals and from the lagoon itself. The long needle of the Campanile, and the squares of Paul and the Magdalene, where, if you stand in the middle, you can pretend you are in a solid, everyday city, are the most successful; all of the buildings, though, all of the warehouses and palazzos and the elaborate bridges, do their best to reach away from the seaweed which purrs at their foundations.
These days the canals are reserved for richer tourists, who the gondolas, still black-clad for shadowy assignations and espionage, ferry around a largely forgotten city. The trattorias, with their lace curtains, batteries of hanging pots and their poorly-rendered aquatic scenes, sell endless processions of cuttlefish and calamari, while the still-living markets heave with the terrestrial products of the Veneto, with puntarelle, with radicchios of all kinds – curled, spotted, delicately pink – with honey-sweet apples, large and baby and carved artichokes, cardoons and celery and cauliflowers and all of the other favourites of the vegetable-loving Italians.
Here, though, in the richest part of the country, leaves don’t carry quite the same respectability as they do in the poor, dried-up south; here, the restaurants which offer an alternative to seafood tend to do so in the form of elaborate dishes of meat. These days we tend to think of Italian cuisine as all cucina povera, breadcrumbs and strange fish and offal; liver and onions, of course, is a favourite of Venice, and I saw tripe, tongue and the like in various butchers windows and on the bars of smaller eateries. In a restaurant, though, you might get half a duck, roasted and drenched in a quite astonishingly rich ragu of chicken livers; fricassees of veal, both sweet and deeply savoury; and, of course, the famous carpaccio, a fairly recent invention of the upmarket Harry’s Bar.
Apart from the latter, a distinctly urban dish, this might get described as ‘mountain food’; aware, perhaps, that their amphibious city has become a playground for tourists, the Venetians look inland and up for a different taste of home. Even here, though, they can’t escape the water. If you wander about the houses between the Accademia bridge and the Grand Canal, you might find a strange replica of an Alpine hut, hung about with straw hands and opening on to a boat yard; it is a gondola workshop, and the people who build and pilot them are often, themselves, sons of the Dolomites and beyond, far from their solid mountain homes.