Saturday 27 December 2008
Those of you with memories which pre-date Marketing, will know that England, like most other countries, doesn't actually produce many sorts of cheese. By the time you have ticked off Cheddar, Cheshire, Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Double Gloucester (at a pinch) and Stilton you have about exhausted the canon. For this reason alone, cheese by itself never played much part in a traditional English menu until French cheese became widely available. Cheese might be offered with biscuits at lunch, after pudding, but was never offered at dinner. More normally it was something for a light snack to be had with a glass of beer...
The exception to this was Stilton, which became a big hit at the turn of the 19th century. The cheese was particularly associated with Christmas. Whole Stiltons were given as gifts, and Grocers started to give them to their customers as a Christmas 'thank you' for the year's business. How much of this was astute marketing by the Stilton producers, how much the effect of the new railways and how much a genuine love of the cheese is hard to tell - but before long a whole Stilton became as much part of the Christmas decorations in grand country houses as a fir tree. The cheese sat in the dining room - generally a sepulchrally chilly space - from Christmas until New Year and - rather atypically - was available to be eaten scooped from the shell with a specially made silver cheese scoop whenever one felt like it. (Most large houses were run with an iron hand on the food supply, and outside meal times there was simply nothing to eat. The Stilton became in a way, a chink in the armour, a sign of generous plenty, something edible that wasn't actually under lock and key).
So it was that as rationing was reduced in the 1950's, the Stilton reappeared once more as part of English Christmas. Smaller cheeses were made but served in the same way in the centrally-heated dining rooms of the flats and terraced houses of those who recalled the grander days between the wars. The cheeses were very expensive. Unfortunately the inevitable happened, the cheese met the heating and dried out horribly, long before they'd been finished off. They were too big to fit into tiny British post-war refrigerators, and a cold larder was not to be had in Dolphin Square, Ashley Gardens or Camden Terrace. After years of food shortage the sight of a dried out cheese which had cost a small fortune was something close to tragedy. Some suggested leaving a damp napkin over the cheese, but this didn't have much effect. The final desperate move was to chuck a glass of port into the mess hoping to soften it enough to eat. The cheese makers were mortified, and the gourmets shuddered ...but for a while the habit caught on. The unattractive blue-red slurry was served and eaten. Eventually the unhappy cheese-makers counter-attacked and in a massive marketing campaign persuaded the Fanny Craddocks and the Marguerite Pattens to lecture their readers and viewers about the iniquity of treating Stilton in this way. The practice died out. Everyone dutifully learnt to slice the cheese in wedges, and it was the last blast of the trumpet for the cheese scoops, which disappeared like the dinosaur, having lost their place in evolution. The last tarnished few can still be found in bric à brac shops or as curiosities on Ebay.
The story really should end here. But like the ghastly moment in many horror movies when the cry of 'Oh my God, It's Alive!" can be heard, the habit is back! Even now there are pictures on the web of a perfectly formed Stilton being cut open, scooped out with what looks like an ordinary tablespoon, pierced all over with a skewer and then, with the aid of a funnel, made soggy with a whole bottle of port. It sounds like food-abuse; it looks like food-abuse. The inhabitants of Melton Mowbray, and those of a nervous disposition should turn away now, the others may look here.
To quote Conrad "The horror, the horror!".
Moules Marinières au Cresson
Roast Quails with Potato Mashed in Walnut Oil
Friday 26 December 2008
Loosely based on Bruno Loubet's recipe for roast Saddle of Rabbit, this dish is absolutely delicious. No one of the various strongly-flavoured ingredients which goes into the Croute dominates, and in fact it's hard even to identify them individually within the finished dish - but the marriage of flavours is first class, and the overall result is undeniably a winner.
As ever, you can use commercially produced pastry here - but the flavour won't be as good as if you make your own; and the work involved in doing so is negligible.
Puff pastry, made* with 2 cups '00' Flour, 1.5 teaspoons Salt, 130g softened Butter, 0.5 cup of water, 130g chilled Butter; 1 Rabbit, boned; 2 sun-dried Tomatoes (soaked in warm water for an hour or so, to soften them); scant tsp Green peppercorns; 1 tsp White Truffle Oil; 6 slices Prosciutto; 1 cup Flat Leaf Parlsey, chopped. Salt. Beaten Egg, to brush on the croute.
*Process all ingredients together, apart from the Chilled Butter, to ensure all are well blended; wrap and chill for one hour; roll on a floured surface into a strip approx 15" x 6 ", then dot 2/3 of this with the diced chilled Butter before folding into a package 5" x 6". Turn through 90 degrees, then roll out again; fold twice into the centre (so making a four-layer thickness of pastry) and turn and roll again. Repeat once more and leave to rest for an hour, then repeat the folding and rolliing stages twice, before leaving to rest for one more hour. The pastry is then ready to use.
1. Lay the boned Rabbit out on the work surface; thinly slice the sun-dried Tomato, and lightly crush the Peppercorns. Arrange these on the Rabbit, pushing down into creases in the meat, and then sprinkle the Truffle Oil over the top. Lightly salt, and then loosely roll the carcasse up, head-to-tail.
2. Roll half of the Pastry into a rectangle about 12" x 6" and place on a greased baking tray. In the centre of the rectangle lay three slices of Prosciutto and cover with half of the chopped Parsley, to make a bed on which to place the rolled Rabbit. Once in place, cover with the remaining Parsley and then the remaining Prosciutto. Roll out the remaining pastry, dampen the edges of the lower piece of Pastry and cover the Rabbit, pressing down to seal the edges.
3. Trim excess Pastry away and tidy up the edges of the Croute. Make three holes in the surface of the pastry, and brush all over with beaten Egg. Bake for forty minutes in a 200 degree C oven, and let rest for 15 minutes or so outside the oven before slicing to serve.
And not a moment too soon, having just lost an entire week to flu-induced dozing beside the fire, and in using all available energy merely in getting through the day. The Christmas Tree was eventually installed in the Library - where it had spent three days leaning disconsolately against a wall, whilst neither of us could get our heads round the idea of climbing on ladders and dealing with fiddly little glass ornaments...and, as it was, the Technical Department nearly succumbed to vertigo as he fixed the top-knot to the three-metre extremity... and all things considered it was a bit of a close-run thing.
That done, it was possible to turn our attention to the real Christmas agenda, which this year is Bruno Loubet. Working through as many items as possible in 'Cuisine Courante' that haven't yet been tried (as well as some that have, but which merit a seasonal re-visit). The main attraction for Christmas Dinner was a rabbit en croute, which in fact was an adaptation from a Loubet recipe rather than a faithful rendition of his version. I expect I'll blog the recipe in full later on, but essentially, it comprises a whole rabbit, boned, and then rolled up, having been seasoned with green peppercorns and slivers of sun-dried tomato, along with a generous dribble of white-truffle oil; some layers of chopped parsley and a wrapping of prosciutto, and then the whole thing is encased in puff pastry and baked for forty minutes or so. Seriously delicious, both at the time, and when served cold as leftovers the next day.
Fortunately, Christmas here extends over several weeks, as the Italians only finish the holiday period at Ebufana, on January 6th, and the period in between is like an extension of Sundays, one day after another. Town meanders along at half-speed, and there's a generally relaxed air to the place. Which means there's plenty of opportunity to work our way well and truly through the recipe list between now and Twelfth Night.
Tarte au Chou-fleur & Gorgonzola
Fiorentina, topped with Confit of Shallots & coarse-grain Mustard; Cabbage 'Grand Mère' (with a chicken and garlic stuffing)
Pan-fried Brioche and Pear with Ginger.
Sunday 21 December 2008
....by which I don't mean the Queen-Victoria-we-are-not-amused or the Mrs-Thatcher-we-are-a grandmother type of 'we' - just straightforward common-or-garden first person plural 'we'. Both the Technical Department and I have been stricken; which, in a two-person household, is a pretty thorough epidemic. He started first, as we were leaving London at six o'clock on Tuesday morning, to drive the four-footeds down to Italy... and by the time we'd shared the confines of a packed car for the two day trip, the germs had had ample opportunity to get their claws into me as well. I have to say, having subsequently discovered quite how grim this bug is, it was truly heroic that TD struggled with it for the entire journey, including the snow and ice on the approach to Mont Blanc ...through all of which the four-footeds maintained their usual air of sang-froid, and took the whole experience entirely in their stride.
It's a thoroughly nasty virus - bone-achingly debilitating, where a sneeze or cough can leave the system racked with pain for several minutes afterwards, and deep lassitude is the order of the day. Bolstered by industrial quantities of Sudafed, we're trying to plough on as much as normal as is possible...but with each of us having to stop very regularly for a quiet sit-down after doing something as strenuous as - for example - having a shower, or emptying the dishwasher.
The four-footeds are sensitive that all isn't as it should be, and they're being very good about curling up companianably at one's feet for hours on end...but then they still have to be taken out regularly in the course of the day, which probably doesn't greatly help the recovery process. Oh, well...
Of course, we're both significantly over the worst. If we weren't, then I wouldn't be sitting and writing this right now...
There's a gap in the recipe book market, though: menus for cooks who are distinctly under the weather. I'm not sure what circumstances short of fire or flood would justify in the Technical Dept's eyes the idea that we might not have three courses for dinner...actually, thinking about it, there aren't any circumstances which would justify such a drop in standards, I suspect. Truly, The End Of Civilisation As We Know It. So, in the past few days, I've been dredging my memory for the least physically demanding recipes I can think of...Pears in Butterscotch-Marsala Cream (two minutes prep and forty minutes in the oven); spit roast chicken (no prep, just light the grill and carve at the appropriate time); hasselback potatoes (peel, slice, roast); carrots in Marsala (alcohol carries a lot of the burden when there's been only limited human input, I find). Jamie, Nigella, Gordon....where are you? There's money to be made!
Enough. I need to go and have a quiet sit-down.
Tonight's easy dinner:
Chicken in a parsley-flavoured veloute( I was going to make a pie, but haven't got the energy); Fagiolini.