Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A little bit of pork

Late on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with the oven having finally condescended to hit the proper temperature – and stay there – a piece of pork was gently laid on the rack of the roasting tray, scored fat thoroughly seasoned, and placed into 220˚C of heat.

It had been bought the previous day on Broadway Market as a rolled, boned joint. But since this was English Food à la Jane Grigson’s book, I’d cut the string that bound it, stretched it out and seasoned it all over – paying particular attention to the boned side. Then it was covered in foil on a plate and popped back into the fridge.

The meat got 20 minutes at that temperature, before it was lowered to 160˚C (or the fan oven equivalent). At just over a kilo in weight, it was due to have another hour cooking.

In the event, after spearing the joint with a skewer after that hour, and finding the juices running pink, I gave it another 15 minutes.

But for that hour, it was accompanied by two Cox apples, skin scored near the top to prevent them from bursting.

In the meantime, a peeled, quartered parsnip was also roasting away in some lard, on the basis (a bit of a guess, this) that since the temperature was on the low side, it would need longer.

Small potatoes had been peeled carefully, then boiled for 20 minutes (they’re so solid, they don’t fall apart), and were then tipped into a small gratin dish with some melted lard and roasted in an oven that had been whacked back to really hot after the meat (and apples) had been taken out to rest.

I had wondered about adding Yorkshire pudding, after The Other Half pointed out that there really is nothing that says it can only be served with beef. But I decided that the temperatures worked against me on that count – 20 minutes resting time was enough to finish the potatoes decently, but wouldn’t be enough for a pud.

In that last stage, sliced leek was sautéed and then steamed, while gravy was made in the roasting dish, with the fat poured away and flour added to the meat residues, before a brief deglaze with white wine and then a little stock.

The parsnip was overdone – my guesswork really hadn’t worked – but that was the only downside. The pork – although the rind hadn’t crackled – was delicious and moist. The leek was a perfect – if clichéd – compliment, and the roasted apples were a really pleasant change from the more usual sauce.

If I’d thought more and planned better, I’d have got some cider in for the gravy. But there you go.

That’s probably the first time I’ve done a roast dinner on successive Sundays – and by the end of it, I was dripping with sweat! This cooking malarkey probably makes you lose weight!

Let's have a bit of a harvest festival

Since we’re in the midst of British Food Fortnight, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do some serious British cooking – and also to consider just what 'British food' means in the 21st century.

Since I did roast beef just over a week ago – and what could be more British than that? – a portion of last Friday evening was given over to the question of what to cook this time around.

It was a football Saturday – and an early start – so there could be no sitting up with a coffee in the morning. The list had to be ready in advance for The Other Half to head to Broadway Market.

Jane Grigson’s English Food is, on such occasions, a fascinating read, with dishes from around the country – many of which you’ve never heard of in the first place and a substantial number of which have probably been all but forgotten.

You see the regional ingredients reflected in recipe after recipe – lamb in Cumbria, for instance, where sheep graze the hills from the rolling Lake District to the bleakness of the utterly inappropriately named Eden Valley.

British Food Fortnight was started, 10 years ago, by two vicars, who wanted to revive the tradition of the harvest festival. I've always relished the ripeness of the season, its fecundity, its sensuality and voluptuousness – and it was one of the parts of the religious year that most appealed too when I was growing up.

The fortnight itself, though, has changed since those early days and come to represent something more, but very much with a sense of the celebration of what we produce on these islands.

It was no surprise, though, to see food writer Matthew Fort tweet that supermarkets weren't supporting it or to read, in a column by Oliver Thring, that a Morrison's, sitting right next door to the orchards of Kent, is selling Chinese apples – although one suspects that even if they’d been selling apples from the garden of England, the fruit would probably have been halfway around the UK and back, such is the crackpottery of the centralised supermarket distribution system.

Living in urban areas, it’s all too easy to forget just what an agricultural heritage we have. The journey north by train is always an enjoyable reminder.

The sky above was as pale blue as my shirt on a beautiful morning. At times, the scenery could have been an almost chocolate box vision of England in the early autumn. Sheep and cattle rested in fields. Green hills rolled gently and an increasing number of the trees were wearing the signs of seasonal change.

Narrow boats dotted the landscape as the canals wound their way between the industrial conurbations, with ribbons of smoke drifting upward from slender chimneys.

There were signs of ploughing: bare soil marked with the patterns of agricultural machinery; stubble elsewhere, spiky in the morning light, like an unshaved chin. The occasional small, square church squatted amid neatly arranged gravestones.

Not that this is the only England visible from the train: there’s the manicured golf course that sits incongruously alongside a vast, belching power station, and cloned, modern rabbit-hutch homes within sight of the tracks too. Depending on the route, there is industrial dereliction: buildings with jagged, broken windows like screaming mouths, as forgotten as the productivity they once housed.

Slag heaps are slowly returning to nature. And at Watford, the journey passes by one of England’s new cathedrals, a vast shopping mall in which to worship the buying of things (except food, usually).

So what about the food?

Well, however many of the dishes from Mrs Grigson’s book might have gone out of fashion, one of the staples of British food remains abidingly popular – the banger.

Not, of course, that a love of sausages is limited to these shores. But unlike our Germanic cousins, for instance, we have managed to reduce the banger to a shadow of what it can be.

Things have improved a little since reluctant producers were dragged kicking and screaming into revealing on packets just what percentage of proper meat was in a sausage – as opposed to the delightfully euphemistic ‘meat derivatives’, which now have to be labeled as such.

But that’s not solved the whole problem.

Industrially made sausages are difficult to brown properly because the sheer scale of the production process means that the machines that make them have to be constantly cooled by water, which finds its way into the finished product along with the listed ingredients.

And that’s another big question – what’s in your mass-produced sausage?

Checking Ocado’s website, even the ingredients list for Daylesford’s ‘organic pork chipolatas’, we find: “Antioxidant: Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid”, plus sugar and sunflower oil.

Then there’s the matter of the right balance of quality meat to fat: yes, you need proper fat and no, sunflower oil does not count.

So there’s more than one reason for buying the best butcher's sausages you can find.

Sausages can be magnificent – but all too often we seem to forget this and treat them as ‘fast food’ in the worst sense of the word; as not being seriously good food that’s worth investing a little time and care in.

So when you’re ready to cook, don’t prick them – you’ll actually lose all those valuable juices that keep the sausage moist.

Heat some fat – lard is brilliant, dripping would be perfect for beef sausages – in a heavy pan and then cook on gently on a low heat, checking frequently. This helps to prevent the skins bursting.

It can easily take 30 minutes, so don’t expect to rush.

There were pork and leek sausages in the fridge when I got back from the football – and I cooked them as described, in the Le Crueset casserole, with a sliced red onion.

On the side – simple boiled spuds and carrot, with good butter. Nothing complicated – but it really doesn’t have to be.

I did, though, have a bit of a revelation the other week, realising that potatoes bought from the organic stall on Broadway Market actually had a different, discernible taste. So too did some new potatoes from the not-quite-organic stall that I’d tried a few days before.

It’s a surprise, because – like so many other people, I suspect – I’ve accepted, over many years, a sense of potato being potato being potato and, generally speaking, just padding. Well, with the exception of Jersey Royals. But I’d certainly never been so conscious of a particular flavour in a maincrop spud.

So the next time I’m on the market, I’ll have to check just what they are.

And in the meantime, I'll contemplate further how to celebrate the joys of the British harvest season.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Good tools can make the job easier

They say that a good workman never blames his tools – but that doesn’t mean that the quality of your tools isn’t important.

And if I had ever been in any doubts about that, it has been brought home to me in the last week.

A fortnight or so ago, I was cooking a casserole dish in one of my stainless steel pots. We bought them at least 15 years ago, ordered from a Sunday supplement.

They weren’t cheap and they were advertised as being of professional standard.

To be honest, I can’t remember why on Earth we opted for such a set: 12 pieces, comprising four saucepans, two casseroles (one with a steamer insert), two frying pans and a large sauté pan, a sauce pan and a colander. It was before I got remotely interested in food, let alone actual cooking.

Still, we invested and they have been used ever since.

But back to the casserole I was cooking. It dawned on me that this was exactly the sort of dish that yearned for one of the curved, shallow casseroles from Le Creuset.

Now, I'm going to make an admission. I’ve been trying to convince myself for some time that an odd piece of the iconic ironware from that French company would be worthwhile – but the attraction was primarily aesthetic.

But finally, I went out and bought the dish mentioned – a seriously solid piece of kit. And then I waited until last weekend and the chicken chasseur that I mentioned the other day.

What struck me then, however, was not simply how nice it was – but it was also a better cooking experience. Where I have struggled to really brown meat for some time – even since learning a lot more about it from Raymond Blanc – suddenly the chicken really did caramelise beautifully.

Either my own technique had enjoyed a blip or had improved overnight – or something else had made a difference.

With exactly this question in mind, I started experimenting.

The following day, when I made a French onion soup, it was in the same casserole – and sure enough, caramelising the onion was easier.

A couple of days later, I used the dish again for a risotto – it didn’t need caramelisation, but it did improve the cooking experience.

The only possible conclusion, by this stage, was that the ability of my piece of cast iron Le Creuset to conduct heat was better than that of the pans I’d been using for years.

That was clarified during a fag-break conversation with the head chef at the office canteen later in the week, who told me that, over time, the steel pans would have changed chemically – and with that, the ability of them to conduct heat would have changed too.

I was delighted to discover that it wasn’t my imagination or some wishful thinking.

And it struck me then that I should already have known this lesson. A few years ago, I bought an omelette pan in France.

It’s a heavy beast and copper coated. A really traditional one – and not cheap. And it transformed my ability to cook an omelette – and also pancakes.

The great chef, Escoffier, couldn’t believe that people tried to make omelettes without a proper pan. So it's not simply a case of gadgets that do jobs that can be done just as effectively with an 'ordinary' pan.

Last night, I used the same casserole to cook some sliced red onion and good butcher's sausages. Again, good results.

While it's true that tools can't make up for sloppiness or lack of technique, it seems that they can also hinder you.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Food to welcome the autumn

A grouse bobbed among the stubble. Small birds of prey hovered over fields. A pheasant stalked alongside a hedge. Cotton wool clouds scudded across the blue and a canal wended its way though the countryside like a silver ribbon.

It was a snapshot of the English countryside in September, as my train rushed south from a day’s work in Manchester.

There, on a glorious day, the trees had been showing off their new autumn colours – some way ahead of their southern counterparts.

It was the sort of weather and scenery that sends the mind – and the appetite – on a seasonal journey.

And harvest festivals are not the only festivals around, celebrating the season’s abundance: the 10th British Food Fortnight, which was initially intended to coincide with harvest and revive the celebration of it, is now under way.

And if you fancy something a tad more exotic, then the Sud de France festival is up and running again too, with many events in London promoting the food – and particularly the excellent wine – of the Languedoc-Roussillon.

A football free weekend meant time in the kitchen – indeed, Sunday was the most intensive kitchen day for some months, with a flour-free squidgy chocolate cake, à la Jane Asher, on the agenda as a Monday tonic for hard-working colleagues.

It’s a dark, rich – but texturally surprisingly light – treat, from a lovely, easy recipe that can be found here.

Saturday evening saw a chicken chasseur: for just two of us, four chicken thighs browned in butter, followed by onion and mushroom.

Plain flour is added and cooked through for a minute, before the pan is deglazed with a couple of teaspoons of brandy and then some white wine. It’s at times like this that the smell of cooking is intoxicating.

Add tomato purée, chicken stock and chopped tarragon. Season to taste. Pop the chicken back in, bring to the boil and then cover and reduce the heat.

Cook for around 40-40 minutes – or when the meat is cooked. Serve with freshly chopped parsley and either rice or big croutons.

It’s a great dish and can also be done with game. Indeed, since the ‘chasseur’ refers to hunting, that would be even more traditional.

On Sunday, it was time for a French onion soup for lunch – and then a proper roast dinner in the evening, after baking.

In this case, a rib of beef (more than enough for two), which not only had the bone in, but also plenty of fat.

I don’t think it had ever struck me before, as it did on Saturday, just how much beef is sold for roasting with next to no fat in it. Most seems to be boned and rolled, with a layer of fat wrapped around it.

Since fat carries the flavour – and lubricates the meat – this seems absurd. But then again, British farmers, given the market, have also been rearing pigs with decreasing amounts of fat, as the terror of fat has overtaken the desire for flavour.

The piece I found might not have looked as neat or been as easy to cut as those rolled ones, but it had plenty of fat, cooked very nicely and had no shortage of flavour.

Roast dinners are simple on one level – but require a degree in quantum mechanics on the other.

You need reams of paper to note down the times and temperatures for the joint, for the roast potatoes and for the Yorkshire pudding, together with reminders for when your veg need to go on.

I used beef dripping for both the potatoes and pudding this time – for the latter I might have used too much, although the single pudding, made in a small gratin dish, worked fairly well (I’d have liked it crisper) – but for the former, it was perfect, helping to produce a fabulously crisp but thin outside.

And using the Le Creuset roasting tray that I’d been fortunate enough to win earlier this year meant that, once the meat was resting, I could whack it on the hob, add some sliced onions I’d been cooking, then some flour, a little red wine to deglaze and then water as needed, to produce a decent enough gravy to honour the pud and meat.

Sliced carrots on the side, simply boiled in minimum water, was as complex as I wanted to be after that.

With the nights drawing in and an increasing chill in the air, it was the ideal way to comfort against the impending winter.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Of tinned potatoes and balti pies

Generally speaking, I think it's fair to say that I have a reasonable knowledge of food matters - I wouldn't want an unreasonable knowledge, that's certain.

Frankly, I'd rather be thought of as something of a bon viveur or a gourmand or even a gourmet.

Choices, choices: which one?

There are intriguing differences in those latter two words. A gourmet is someone who relishes fine food and drink. A gourmand, on the other hand, is someone who simply enjoys food and drink: there's no suggestion here of it having to be haute cuisine.

The latter has seen it's meaning change over the years, initially having been a synonym for a glutton - and one of the Seven Deadly Sins. As that older definition has altered, culinary proponents in France have, apparently, appealed to the Vatican to change the word to gloutonnerie rather than gourmandise.

Once we remove that understanding of the word, then we're left with something expresses a more general pleasure in food - and frankly, while the posh stuff can be very, very good, food doesn't have to be flashy and complicated to be worth eating and taking the greatest amount of pleasure in.

So it's gourmand for me.

But I'm probably something of a food geekette too: years of reading diet 'advice', followed by years of reading why the diet advice was crap, together with goodness knows what other food information in the last couple of years has left me with a certain knowledge.

And so it came as something of a surprise to see, in one of my local shops, a tin of baby new potatoes from French tinned veg specialists Bonduelle.

It seems that, according to the label, potatoes count as one of your five a day. This wasn't just news to me - it'll be news to the NHS when our national treasure finds out.

Because although potatoes are a great source of vitamin C, they are also a starchy or complex carbohydrate and, as such, they don't count as one or your five a day.

I have emailed Bonduelle and queried this, but have thus far only had an automated response - in French. Your food detective is on the case - and will report if she ever hears anything.

But while we're on the subject, there is a perfectly gourmand use for tinned potatoes.

Drain, rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Heat some duck or goose fat - or lard - in a high-sided pan. Pop the potatoes in carefully and cook until turning golden, shaking frequently to help prevent them sticking.

Serve with good sea salt.

With such sophistication in mind, I want to report that I had a new culinary experience the other night: a chicken balti pie, that legendary Manchester City treat.

One bite and my eyes had crossed while I was fanning my mouth desperately.

The packet claimed that it was 'diced' chicken. It wasn't. The filling was a small amount of shredded chicken, some veg, some very hot sauce and a large portion of empty space. The pastry wasn't bad.

Chips, with skin on, were rather better.

The beer that a friend and I discovered after the match, with the somewhat unexpected name of Dizzy Blonde, was better yet. Brewed in Stockport by Robinson's, it was light and almost fruity, at 3.8, less strong than many other beers, and a pleasant surprise.

The Voluptuous Manifesto - now offering a testing service so that you don't have to take the risk!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The unhealthiest shopping basket?

After the debacle of the missing lard, I needed a few bits and pieces in a midweek shop and decided, for a change, to head to Waitrose – a somewhat more acceptable supermarket than assorted other options, if only on the basis that staff are partners.

There, I found Kerrygold lard – although that's slightly confusing, since as far as I know, Kerrygold produce butter from cows, which doesn’t really suggest piggy products. But hey ho, I’m not complaining.

I did, however, decide that, as a response to all the obsessive, joyless – and downright inaccurate – emphasis on so-called ‘healthy’ eating, I would see just how ‘unhealthy’ a shopping basket I could stomach.

Thus a second block of lard, beef dripping – I’ve never used it before and don’t know when or how I will, but I will – French butter with salt crystals, potato farls (to be grilled and then drenched in butter), cream cheese with garlic (Otto loves this too), nacarons and chocolate, although I did nearly leave that out given positive health reports.

Cooking a French dish at the weekend, I was happily able to employ some of the lard.

The dish was a boeuf à la gardiane – essentially, beef of the cowboys of the Camargue.

Using a recipe from Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc by Angela Murrills, The Other Half had set out to cook this one weekend last year when I was away.

You start by marinading beef that’s been cut into smallish cubes – skirt or a similar cut.

The marinade is based on red wine and includes the usual sort of aromatics.

He told me later that one of the hardest things was being able to tell whether you’ve browned the meat after the marinade has so changed the colour.

I had decided to use a different recipe from Flavours of Provence by Clare Ferguson. Murrills’s book is a delight, but I think that the recipes have been simplified a tad. Ferguson’s version was a little more complex.

It began in the same fashion, although with 50ml of cognac as well as 250ml of robust red wine ion the marinade. I used a couple of onions, peeled and then slashed across the top, with a bay leaf inserted. Two cloves were also pressed into each onion.

These, together with plenty of sprigs of thyme, were added to the marinade, together with salt, pepper and crushed garlic.

It stayed like that for around three hours, before the liquid was strained into a jug and the meat dried off with kitchen paper.

Now the recipe then called for some slices of unsmoked bacon, rind removed and the slices quartered, to be sizzled in a dry pan until there’s enough liquid to cook the beef in two batches.

It occurred to me, as I was waiting for even remotely enough liquid to emerge, that this was bonkers. There was no bacon in the dish we ate last year in Nîmes.

The only reason this bacon was here, I concluded, was to create fat. In the Murrills book, olive oil is used.

The more I start thinking about this, though, the more I see it as unlikely. Why not just use a little lard? It’s difficult not to believe that the French themselves would use duck or goose fat, if not lard.

And where The Other Half had had some difficulty getting the meat properly brown when he’d cooked the dish previously, it’s much easier when you can safely get the fat as hot as is possible with lard.

I could, of course, be entirely wrong. But when you realise just how much the French do use natural fats – and their nose to tail philosophy too – then it’s difficult to imagine whole regional cuisines without such fat.

It’s equally easy to see the likes of Murrills and Ferguson as being persuaded that either such fats aren’t healthy or, more likely, I think, that publishers or readers in North America and the UK just won’t swallow the use of such saturated fats in their cooking.

As for the rest of the dish, I discarded the bacon, added the marinade to the browned meat, then some beef stock (enough to cover) and simmered it away for two hours before adding black olives and cooking for a further half hour.

You then take 50ml of cognac and beat into it a good couple of tablespoons of plain flour, and then add that to the pot, stirring until it’s all melted and gives you a thicker, glossy sauce.

Well, that’s the theory.

It wasn’t bad, but it still wasn’t a patch on the dish we had in Nîmes. I’ve got some way to go to find out just how they make something so fabulous.

And as for that unhealthy shopping basket, I’m now working on a scheme to create a dish that uses all those ingredients.

Because obviously, when people go on about how unhealthy those things are, they presumably imagine that everybody wants to eat nothing but those things, and in copious quantities, all together and all at once.

When did common sense go so out of fashion?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Beauty in different places

It was just gone 11.20am on Saturday morning and the train was hauling itself out of London. There was Wembley on the right, with Norman Foster's already-iconic arch towering over the skyline.

All those times I passed it and uttered a silent prayer to the gods of football for City to make it there. There was no need for the same prayer on Saturday: we have been, seen and conquered and, if I couldn't get a ticket for last May's FA Cup final victory, at least I was there for the semi win over United.

Saturday itself was the first act of live worship this season, with the visit of Wigan. It continued a mightily impressive start to the term – with a brand of football that really is beautiful on the eye and likely, on occasion, to take the breath away.

I’m still expecting someone to wake me up – and I’ll be on a train to somewhere like Scunthorpe.

So I'm long enough in the tooth as a City fan not to take anything for granted. Things have changed enormously, but there is still a little niggle in the back of my mind, a tiny gnawing doubt that says that we, the club that was famously described as being able to win cups for cock ups, can still do exactly that.

As the train got under way I listened to Beethoven's sonatas for piano and violin. Beautiful.

It's probably ridiculously juvenile, but the juxtaposition of football and 'culture' always tickles me.

It's amused me to wonder what people have thought when, after clocking my football shirt, they'd notice the title of a book that was slightly beyond Janet & John.

Not, I hasten to add, that anyone can hear the Beethoven.

I'm not the only one who has such thoughts, either. A colleague, who is a season ticket holder at Arsenal, was telling me only the other day that she regularly used to go to a match on a Saturday afternoon and then to the English National Opera to see whatever was on there.

And it amused her to wonder how many other people enjoyed such a combination of entertainments.

Even in the 21st century, it seems that we compartmentalise culture - so that we find the idea of a football fan loving opera too as rather odd.

In Italy, of course, opera has long been popular across society's boundaries - not least Verdi, who has long been linked with the Risorgimento, that country's unification movement.

And opera there was also accessible across the social spectrum, unlike in the UK, where it's still often viewed as an elitist form of culture.

Back in 1996, when England was hosting the European Football Championships, I had travelled to Liverpool to report the match between Italy and Russia. My main memory of a less than scintillating encounter was seeing Gianfranco Zola for the first time; the little man getting his foot impossibly high to bring down the ball that then seemed utterly glued to his boot. Such instant control.

But the journey back to London was memorable for being chaotic. One train had been cancelled, so most of the fans were backed into a single train.

Seat reservations were useless unless you were lucky enough to find your seat before someone else with the same number.

I was ticked off by a very young policeman for swearing at one point, and I started the journey standing until doing something very unusual for me and flashing my press card at the train manager (who was trying to hide from the chaos) and demanding that I sit in first class, together with the half a dozen fans whi were also standing in the same corridor.

Press cards have their uses.

But in the coming days, it emerged that a train from Glyndebourne, bound for the capital one night, had been held in order to wait for a business bigwig or two who had been at the opera.

Football has long been known as ‘working man’s ballet’ – the apotheosis of male working-class culture in a country that effectively kept the plebs well away from high art – just as the cult of amateurism in sport was simply a way of keeping working people away from many other sports.

Now, it’s not been quite as simple as that for some time: in the north, for instance, women have attended football for a long time.

And post-war equality opened up opportunities not simply to see art, but also to participate in it. A blossoming of film, theatre, music and architecture all benefitted from the greater social mobility for working people.

But football’s audience has changed again in recent years, as the cost of going to matches has risen. There are good and bad points about this: personally, while I can look back on going to matches in run-down stadia with only one loo for women, I don’t have any sense of rose-tinted, misty-eyed longing to stand at the bottom of a terrace (me being a short arse) and see streams of piss bubbling down between my feet.

The view I have when I go to City games allows me to really be able to watch the game, unhindered.

On the other hand, as with an increasing amount of things, many ordinary people are being priced out of attending. That’s not just about football, though, but about a far wider cultural change that’s been taking place in Britain – and England particularly – for the last 30 years, and to even skate the surface would take a lot more words than you want to read here and now.

But for me at least, to be a football fan doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate opera (or Beethoven) – and visa versa.

In Amadeus, Peter Schaffer portrays Mozart as a musical genius with more in common with Sid Vicious than was entirely in keeping with the polite society of his day. I have little problem imagining Mozart attending football matches as an Ultra.

Beethoven was an awkward sod. So were many other composers – and countless authors and painters and sculptors etc.

For their work to be co-opted by respectable society is rather amusing really. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but I wonder sometimes how much some of those who spend small fortunes to be seen at, say, the Royal Opera House, really get of what they see.

And sometimes it’s difficult not to feel that art has, in the UK at least, been largely neutered to make it polite.

A couple of years ago, I saw Daniel Barenboim play some Beethoven piano sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. All alone on the stage with his piano, it was Beethoven as I’d never seen or heard preformed before – but Beethoven as I suspect it was meant to be: wild and angry and full of Romantic passion and energy.

The vast auditorium flashed away and it was as though I was the only one there, watching something that was as close to its original intent as to suggest I'd been thrown into some time flux and the pianist and composer had become one. It was magnetic and magnificent and deeply intense.

Like music, football is the personal and the public combined. And on Saturday, what I saw was art made flesh. And like the Beethoven, it took my breath away and left me with a sense of awe.

They are not so far apart as some would suppose and as some would like to suppose.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The case of the missing lard

With the last of a block of lard shrinking gradually, and a very real danger of running out altogether, action was needed.

There’s only one place locally that I’ve been able to buy lard, in one of my close-by grocers. But in the last month or so, they don’t seem to have had any in.

Finally, with the proprietor back from holiday, I was able to check when they would have some in.

There is, it seems, a problem. From what I could gather, trade publication Independent Retail Magazine had carried some sort of item on the subject a number of weeks ago, which was linked to difficulties in getting/supplying the stuff.

The reason, apparently, was that it’s ‘unhealthy’.

Now I’m long enough in the tooth, sceptical enough and a good enough hackette not to simply accept this as gospel – although I do trust my source.

Google, of course, is your friend. So I looked up Independent Retail Magazine and searched that.

A big fat (lardy) nothing.

Metaphorically donning the old deerstalker, I rang the editorial desk. A very helpful gentleman took my call. He couldn’t remember anything, but asked in the office.

Nobody could recall specifics, but it “rang a bell”.

I looked at The Grocer too, but to no obvious avail – although there was plenty of other food for thought.

Via an advert, according to Unilever, those friends of the government and the public health, customers decide to buy a spread – “ie butter, healthy spreads” – “depending on their attitudes to taste and health”.

Don't you just love rocket science?

Now I can’t answer for anyone else, but personally, I choose on the basis of both criteria – hence butter every time. But note that, to Unilever, butter is not healthy.

The myths about fats are widespread even in the retail trade press. In The Grocer, a columnist talked about “calorie porn” in an article that also seemed to believe that we “mortals” had no chance of recreating actual recipes from a TV programme.

And, of course, it enabled a throwaway comment about one dish “looking as healthy as a lard enema”. Because lard is inherently unhealthy.

Mind, you get the feeling that The Grocer really does it have in for poor old lard. In a regular column, one Titania Touché had penned a few comments about producers’ covert attempts to decrease package sizes, while still retaining the same price.

All well and good, but in the context of this, the writer – who understandably is so ashamed of themselves that they hide behind the name of a Shakespearean fairy – notes: “As the momentum behind teeny tiny groceries grows, so our Calories Don’t Count campaign, a covert initiative for long-standing client United Lard, is hitting its stride.

“The Express out-Mailed the Mail this week by reporting that dieting gives you cancer. A fine fillip for the fuller lard-fuelled figure.”

The “lard-fuelled” figure. Because lard, as we know, is the reason behind rising obesity.

Now it strikes me that there are a few possible explanations for all this.

One is because however much some researchers have realised the counterproductive nature of dietery advice on fats (and complex carbohydrates), it really has not sunk through to most of the rest of the populace – including those linked to the food industry itself.

But would it also be entirely cynical of me to point out that lard is considerably cheaper than any of the other fats out there? The one pack available from Ocado, for instance, is just 40p for a standard 250g.

With profitable markets among both foodies for butter and those thinking it’s a healthy choice for marg, both of these have the opportunity for greater profit, particularly in the top ranges – be that for gourmet butters or, say, margarines that have felt the whisper of an olive, thus allowing producers to market them in such a way as to suggest a direct link it to the wonderfully healthy Mediterranean diet.

I am presently no closer to finding out why small retailers are having difficulties getting hold of lard. But I won’t be giving up.

Later, I made the first turbigo of the season: kidneys and sausages, with button mushrooms and baby onions in a velvety sauce of butter and flour and sherry, with beef stock and tomato purée, that becomes richer than ever during the cooking thanks to the kidneys.


As I cooked, I found myself musing on how well it would work using lard at the base. As you brown the meats in butter first, you often have to clean out the pan and melt more butter before browning the onions and starting to cook the mushrooms, because the butter has started to burn.

Unfortunately, that loses a lot of the flavours. But lard is a wonderful cooking fat precisely because it doesn’t burn.

Since you make the sauce by mixing the flour and sherry, before adding the purée and stock, you don’t have to worry about the butter making a roux.

However, since my supply of lard is currently so shrunken, that experiment is on hold.

But have no fear – the lard detective is on the case.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The joy of real food

It's late on Sunday afternoon: in the oven, a leg of lamb is roasting away, in olive oil, rosemary and garlic. A culinary cliché, chef Rowley Leigh argued recently in the FT, but there are reasons for clichés - and often because they work.

Potatoes are being par-boiled and will finish off in the juices while the meat is resting, along with some similarly par-boiled florets of cauliflower and a small tin of cannelloni beans.

The smell as I sit writing is wonderful, with the promise of magnificent tastes to come.

But this, to me, is not simply good eating in the taste stakes, but there's nothing unhealthy about it either.

I noticed this morning that the media is getting excited again about fat people - more to the point, the obesity epidemic. It helps that Jamie Oliver was involved in the story, thus giving a celebrity angle.

As so often before, the subject allowed space for a rush of bigotry as well as some staggering displays of ignorance in the online comments sections of at least one publication - and experience says that it will not have been unique.

Condemning the overweight has not only taken on the scale of a national obsession, it seems to be the one remaining bigotry that you're allowed. People who would object to racism or sexism or myriad other isms suddenly seem liberated from such squeamishness when the subject of fatties raises it's heavy head, and freely burst out into tirades of nastiness.

But the same people are staggeringly ignorant too. They seem to think that weight is a simple issue: in effect, that it's just a matter of calories in and calories out. That the overweight are simply lazy and greedy.

Well, it isn't that simple. As more and more researchers are discovering.

In fact, it's more complicated than anyone really knows.

We know now that telling people to cut all fat is unhealthy and counterproductive. We know now that the advice to fill up with complex carbohydrates like potatoes and bad and pasta is flawed and actually helped people to pack weight on.

The French, as so often, provide an interesting comparison and some probable pointers. They don't have the same widespread problem - and yet neither are they a nation of gym bunnies. But they do walk more and aren't so obsessed with taking the car on even the shortest journey.

They sit down to eat properly - they don't eat lunch at their desks or dinner in front of the TV, which probably doesn't do much for the digestion.

Although some changes have occurred, they still, by and large, eat proper food - far less processed and fast food. And in one intriguing piece of observation, it's apparently been noted that even with eating at McDonalds, the French actually sit down and eat properly.

They don't have the snacking culture that we do.

Generally speaking, their food is a great deal better than ours - bread is just one example of an area where we fill our food full of rubbish.

There are also question marks over artificial sweeteners - just as there are over artificial fats.

But one thing that struck me about the level of debate is how much there is also an assumption that healthy eating means eating 'health food'. We seem to have reached a point where many people would not consider the meal I described above as 'healthy'.

Now I'm not suggesting that we want to start thinking of food in such terms - quite the contrary. A bit of real joy in eating would be a move in the right direction.

There is a nasty puritanism to those who rant, from the anonymous safety of their keyboards, where their own bodies cannot be judged, about the bad fat people. Similarly, there is an unpleasant puritanism and life-denying joylessness to ideas that to eat healthily, you have to forego anything that's actually nice and take on the attributes of an aesthetic.

The absurdity of thinking that the alternative to a diet of junk food is, say, 'whole foods' and no fats (say bye bye to that mashed potato with butter and cream) seems to be a perfect illustration of just how messed up the food culture in the UK is.

Before the lamb went into the oven, there was plenty of other culinary activity of a distinctly joyful type.

As planned, it was time for chutney: I opted for a pear one from Lynda Brown's The Preserving Book, using pears, a couple of onions, three tomatoes, some sultanas (instead of raisins), ground ginger, chilli flakes (instead of cayenne pepper, which I didn't have in), demerara sugar and, instead of cider vinegar, the remains of a bottle of Breton cider.

The only other change I made to the recipe was to skin the tomatoes first.

It took well over the two and a half hours to cook, but the smell was stunning and it developed to a really rich, dark hue. Now it's all packed into a jar and has been put away to mature for that festival at the end of the year.

With that done, it was onto the blackcurrant jam. A simple matter of the fruit, washed, with a little water, the juice of a lemon and some sugar, all brought to a bubble and then cooked vigorously for a good 10 minutes.

It was another lovely smell - and the taste is fine too. Blackcurrants have naturally high levels of pectin, so a jam sets really easily, while the lemon juice ensures that it's not too sweet.

Now I don't know about you, but that sounds a pretty healthy day's cooking to me.

Friday, 2 September 2011

It's a rum old game

Perhaps, in years to come, I’ll feel the same way about the arrival of autumn as I do about the arrival of spring, when I make a pilgrimage to find the earliest Jersey Royals and English asparagus, and sit there, grinning like a loon in celebration of this declaration of the end of winter.

In terms of food at least, autumn has plenty to offer – and not least among the pleasures of this time of year is the start of the new game season.

Game, as I mentioned last year, has become bogged down in England with ideas of class – it’s seen as posh food.

It’s different in Scotland, where – like golf – hunting has never been viewed as the sole preserve of the well-to-do. And it’s not just killing for sport either.

A move across the Channel, not just to France but beyond, north, south and east, offers a host of culinary cultures where hunting is far more egalitarian – and game an entirely democratic food.

But then again, most of these places still have ‘common’ land where people can hunt (and forage too): they never enclosed it and felled the forests in order to drive the people into the developing urban areas to become economically ‘active’.

Flying into Berlin takes my breath away with all the wooded areas so near to the city. No wonder the forest looms large in the German psyche. For me, I realise I’ve probably hardly even seen a wood worth the name.

But for the moment at least, let’s get back to game.

In an increasing spirit of welcoming the change in the year, I set about a midweek game dish to brighten the evening.

The game in question was pigeon breast, which isn’t seasonal – indeed, I’ve used it a number of times throughout the summer as the centre of a salad. But this was an attempt at a gutsier dish.

For two people, take a couple of medium onions and chop – not too finely, since you want to retain some texture.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and start to cook the onion gently. This is the time consuming part of the dish, but you want it to start to turn brown.

When it’s at that point, add a seriously generous glug of good, sweet sherry and (if you can get some) another of raspberry wine vinegar and continue to cook gently.

What you want is something that has the consistency of a marmalade. If it’s getting very dry too quickly. Add some more of your sherry and/or vinegar.

Taste – and season accordingly. And once it gets seriously thick, it’s very easy to pour off any excess oil that’s still visible from the start of the cooking process.

Cook the meat in a hot, dry pan – a minute and a half each side at most. Pigeon needs to be really quite rare or it gets very dry, but that’s a great contrast with a nicely caramelised outside.

Serve with the onion and sherry marmalade.

On the side, I added some simple basmati rice – and some shredded cabbage, sautéed in a little lard and then left to steam in the lidded pan for around eight minutes.

And that was not a bad way to welcome the season.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Bottle it up

After what can, at its most generous, be described as a somewhat erratic August, September made a point of stepping out, fresh and bright this morning.

It soon clouded over, of course, but there are pleasures aplenty to be found at this time of year and the thought of them can make even such grey days brighter.

I have most of Saturday to myself, with The Other Half Yorkshire bound for Castleford’s final home game of the ordinary season.

So what to do?

This is, surely, the season of putting things into jars – and indeed, it’s the perfect time to think about chutneys and so on for the end-of-the-year jollies – it might be September, but I refuse to mention ‘that’ festival by name this early.

Indeed, if I do make chutney, it’ll actually mean that I’ve managed to be more advanced in my culinary planning than at any time previously in my life.

Within the last year, I’ve picked up a copy of Lynda Brown’s The Preserving Book, which is a mouth-watering volume of ideas for a wide variety of preserving styles.

So right at this moment, I don’t know quite what I’ll make, but it will be a pleasure all of its own to spend a couple of evenings browsing and musing.

But continuing the theme, I know that I want to make blackcurrant jam, so Saturday morning will probably see a raid on the local Turkish grocers that has these glorious, grown-up fruits on sale.

And then there’s the possibility of a rather big challenge: for some years, I’ve been trying to get my hands on some crabapples.

My maternal grandmother had crab apple trees in her garden, and every year, we’d collect bags of the fruit, to be made into a beautiful, clear pink jelly by my mother.

These absolute gems make a magnificent savoury condiment that’s utterly divine with good sausages – and other thing, of course. Well, that’s certainly my memory.

Finally, after so long, Mark, the organic greengrocer on Broadway Market, thinks that he can get me some this year.

But on one condition – he’s promised to ‘do me a deal’, on the basis that I’ll make sure there’s a jar of the finished jelly for him too, since he says he’s too busy to make his own.

I’m tickled pink. There is something so gloriously old-fashioned about making such an arrangement. It’s a market working at its best, on a genuinely human scale.

There are one or two other things that tempt me: I know that The Other Half, for instance, is rather hoping that, if I carry out my threat to render pork fat at home and produce my own lard – so that, unlike most shop-available stuff, it hasn’t been pointlessly hydrogenated – I’ll do it when he’s away.

Or perhaps that’s already quite enough for one weekend!