4.1 Saltwater Fish – Completed!

It’s always fun looking back after I have cooked all the recipes over a chapter or section of English Food. The Saltwater Fish section contained just 16 recipes (see the full list below), but Jane manages to pack in a decent variety of both dishes and fishes. Having variety in there was important to her, because: ‘[w]e live in islands surrounded by a sea that teems with fish, yet we eat fewer and fewer kinds, and those that are not always the best.’1

That said, she doesn’t shy away from focussing upon certain species, and she gives a very big nod to the herring – and the mackerel too – recognising its importance, both culturally and economically, to English history. Recipes for this oily fish range from the simple and sublime such as #386 Herrings in Oatmeal, #380 Gooseberry Sauce for Mackerel or #159 Creamed Roe Loaves. However, that’s where the enjoyment stops; of the 18 recipes in this section 10 are for either herring or mackerel, 4 were good and the rest mediocre at best. Overcooked fish with stewed apples and onions, with #390 Isle of Man Herring Pie being the worst, scoring a rare 1/10.

Conspicuous by their absence are the other historically important fish: cod and haddock (and the rest of the cod family too). There is no grilled cod steak and no haddock in parsley sauce – there is no fish and chips! Perhaps she omitted them because of her disapproval in the English focussing too much on these fish, and therefore did not require representation. It would be fair enough, but why put in all the bad herring recipes? It makes no sense: I wish I could ask her.

There is variety in the remaining recipes: whitebait, turbot, halibut, skate and sole are represented, but where are the sardines, pilchards, John Dory, mullet, monkfish and bass? Where is the star-gazy pie for goodness sake? She certainly cooked with them all – she even wrote a massive cookery book on fish2 – maybe she held back, knowing that a saltwater fish section would be largely ignored by her readership?

#386 Herrings in Oatmeal

I am being overly harsh perhaps, because in this relatively small selection of recipes, I feel like I have cooked a variety of sea fish in a variety of ways, enough now to be confident in cooking anything I might come across at the fishmonger’s shop; after all, you can never be sure exactly what will be there, as Rick Stein has pointed out: ‘Don’t be too dogmatic about what you mean to buy at a fishmonger. If another fish looks fresher and shinier than the one you came in for, buy that.’ We forget that, ‘[sea fish] is wild food; you have to take what you can get, not necessarily what you want.’3

Much has happened since Jane wrote English Food: right now fish – or, rather, fishing – is being used as a political pawn by the British and the French post-Brexit. Since the first edition of the book was written, fish has been caught unsustainably, without regard to the animals caught and killed in what was regarded as collateral damage: today, the veil has been lifted and in response we can buy line-caught mackerel and dolphin-friendly tuna, and my fishmonger (Out of the Blue in Chorlton, Manchester) only sells fresh fish that has been caught sustainably. Not all fishing is ethical, but at least there is now a choice.

#376 Eliza Acton’s Sole Stewed in Cream

This section of the book was a real mixed bag, with as many poor ones as delicious ones. No dish scored 10/10, but one – the aforementioned #386 Herrings in Oatmeal – scored a 9. There was too the discovery of the fact that mackerel can be paired very well with gooseberries, and that herring roes are surprisingly delicious.

Of the non-oily fish recipes, #218 Whitebait was great, ending up on a pop-up restaurant menu, though I avoid them these days now they are off the sustainable list after it was discovered that these fish are the fry of several species, rather than a single species in their own right as previously thought. It was great to eat fish like turbot and halibut, fish I would never have dared cook before I started the blog. I was surprised – and very much delighted – to see #302 Caveach of Sole, fish cured with citrus juice or fruity vinegar, something rather trendy these days, and not considered English at all.

#342 Halibut with Anchovies

Because of the high proportion of underwhelming recipes, this section score a mean of just 6.63/10, making it the second worst so far – only 7.3 Griddle Cakes & Pancakes score less. That said, these data should really be analysed with the median or mode. Looking at the data this way, we get a median of 8 and a mode of 8.5/10 – the cluster of bad recipes just small enough to be ignored. Looking at it this way, it comes out as one of the best chapters: that’s statistics for you.


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As usual, I have listed the recipes below in the order they appear in the book with links to my posts and their individual scores, so have a gander. It is worth pointing out, that my posts are no substitute for Jane’s wonderful writing, so if you don’t own a copy of English Food, I suggest you get yourself one.

#386 Herrings in Oatmeal 9/10

#355 Devilled Herring or Mackerel 5.5/10

#406 Soused Herrings 4.5/10

#133 Welsh Supper Herrings 3.5/10

#390 Isle of Man Herring Pie 1/10

#372 Soft Roe Tart 6.5/10

#159 Creamed Roe Loaves 7.5/10

#391 Soft Roe Paste 5.5/10

#380 Gooseberry Sauce for Mackerel 8.5/10

#158 Gooseberry Stuffing for Mackerel 8/10

#218 Whitebait 8.5/10

#444 Poached Turbot with Shrimp Sauce 8.5/10

#342 Halibut with Anchovies 8.5/10

#141 Warm Skate Salad with Shan Hill’s Dressing 5/10

#376 Eliza Acton’s Sole Stewed in Cream 8/10

#302 Caveach of Sole 8/10

References

1.           Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).

2.           Grigson, J. Jane Grigson’s Fish Book. (Penguin, 1993).

3.           Stein, R. English Seafood Cookery. (Penguin, 1988).

#444 Poached Turbot with Shrimp Sauce

This simple-looking recipe has been a long time coming. Why? It’s not the turbot, they’re quite easy to find and not too expensive, no it is the shrimps that have been causing the problem. Brown shrimps are required for this recipe – again, easy to find as potted shrimps or frozen in bags – but this recipe required them unshelled. This has proven nigh-on impossible; in fact I was imagining having to go out to Morecambe Bay with a shrimp fisherman to get them or something. There are only 2 left; the history surrounding shrimp is very interesting, but I have little space to go into it in this post, but I have added it to my list of future podcast episodes.

The reason it’s so difficult to buy them in the shell is they have become rather a niche food (their hey-day was the 1920s), they have also dropped in population size, and have become more expensive. They are also very fiddly to shell. The shrimpers need to be sure to sell their catch, so they prepare them in the way most desirable: potted in butter, and a few frozen. None are ever left intact.

Or, that’s what I thought until one day last month, walking around Didsbury, Manchester, I walked past Evan’s fishmonger’s shop and there they were, a big pile of them in the shop widow. In I walked and purchased an approximate half-pint’s worth – that’s the amount needed for the recipe.

When I got home I popped them in the freezer and last weekend I invited some friends over who I hadn’t seen in ages, and used to come to my early ‘blog dinners’ back when I was doing my PhD at Manchester University.

The best place to begin this one is with the shrimp sauce; Jane makes out that shelling them takes a matter of minutes. Well it doesn’t, it takes ages. I was sure there is a knack to shelling the tiny blighters quickly, but I couldn’t work it out, though I was sure that I had seen footage on TV showing people shelling them using a pin to draw them out, but found nothing on the web to support this so I might have misremembered.

Anyway, you need enough unshelled brown shrimp to fill a half pint glass, remove the shells and then pop the shrimp meat in the fridge as you make a simple stock from the shells by placing them in a saucepan along with half a pint of water. Bring the whole thing to a boil and simmer for just 10 minutes, pass the liquid through a sieve into a measuring jug, squeezing the shells with the back of a spoon. Top back up to half a pint with more water.

Now it’s time for the turbot. Jane asks for one 3 pound in size. Ask the fishmonger to gut and trim it. Before poaching make a cut all down the length of the spine of the knobbly (upper) side of the fish and place in knobbly side down a large deep pan. I used a large wok. Fill the pan with a mixture of half milk, half water so it just covered the fish. Season well with plenty of salt and pepper and add a slice of lemon. Bring to a simmer and poach ‘for 10 minutes or until the flesh loses its transparency and the bones can be raised from the bone very slightly’. Not having cooked a turbot before, I wasn’t sure if Jane’s description would be very helpful, but in the end it was! I use the blunt side of a knife to inspect the meat close to the back bone and it was easy to see it was cooked. It took my turbot about 12 minutes to cook through.

As the turbot poaches, make the sauce. Measure a tablespoon of plain flour in a cup and pour in around 2 tablespoons of the made stock to form a smooth paste, then tip the rest of the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Once simmering, whisk in the flour paste, allow it to come back to the simmer. Now the butter: cut 6 ounces of butter (I used slightly salted) into cubes and whisk them in a couple at a time. You should end up with a nice smooth sauce. Don’t let the sauce boil or the butter will split; keep that heat very low. Season with salt (if it needs it), black pepper, cayenne pepper, mace and nutmeg.

When the fish is cooked gingerly lift it from the pan and onto a large serving plate. Jane recommends those ones with a strainer at the bottom. I didn’t have one of those, so I made sure the plate was quite deep, so it was easy to pour away any poaching liquor. Before you serve take a knob of butter and spread it over the top of the fish to give it a nice sheen, then sprinkle over some chopped parsley.

I served it with simple steamed potatoes and green beans.

Don’t throw away the poaching liquor by the way – simmer the bones and skin left over and make a stock. I used leftover sauce, potatoes, beans and turbot meat to make a chowder the next day and it was great.

#444 Poached Turbot with Shrimp Sauce. What a great recipe to finish off the Saltwater Fish section of the book. I’m still a little nervous cooking fish like this because it happens so rarely, but it was really good: delicate meat that was just at the right point between firm and tender. The shrimp butter sauce was delicious, so glad after waiting all these years to make it. I’ll be making it again, but next time, I’ll make the sauce from small prawns instead. Excellent stuff 8.5/10


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5.5 Poultry – Completed!

Well another milestone has been reached: with the cooking up of a vegetarian tri-gourd garnish I have completed the Poultry section of the Meat, Poultry & Game chapter of English Food by Jane Grigson. In just 18 recipes, Jane manages to cram in a surprising variety and runs the full gamut of poultry: chicken and capon, turkey, goose, duck and guineafowl are all represented(quail is covered in Game). On top of that she includes lesser used parts of birds too: neck, liver and giblets all get a mention, as do boiling fowls.

It might not surprise you that the majority of the recipes are chicken-based. I am working from her 1992 third edition a time when chicken is ubiquitous, but when she wrote the first edition in 1974, the battery ‘farms’ was in its infancy. Prior to the 1970s, chicken was an expensive meat, saved for special occasions, but with the great ‘success’ of the factory bird, it took over the world. Today there are 23 billion chickens on the planet. Jane muses: ‘Poultry and game are, for very different reasons, the mavericks of the meat trade, representing its worst – frozen battery chicken – and its best – woodcock and grouse.’ Of chicken in the 1990s she despairs: ‘I didn’t realize quite how far we had lost flavour in poultry’. What would she say now in a Britain threatened by imports of chlorinated chickens and lab-grown chicken meat?

#235 Lisanne’s Chicken with Mussels

It isn’t news to anyone that the vast majority of chickens are raised in filth and squalor, but it’s not all bad, and there still places where chickens are raised free range – and I mean truly free range, not technically. Such fowls can be found at farmers’ markets across the country. Personally, I worry about the freedom of the bird other whether it is organic. A good example of this is Packington who farm their chickens (and cockerels) the traditional way. They are more expensive, and therefore I eat chicken less. It should be the way of things, after all. They have an excellent flavour that is essential for when a chicken is to be poached, say, for example, when preparing #225 Cockie-Leekie.

Only on the rare occasion I buy a chicken from a supermarket, do I insist upon it being organically farmed; for animals, being certified organic does not just mean it has been fed organic grain etc., but has received a higher standard of husbandry than for a regular farmed animal.

I am in the minority with this view. Chickens – or maybe birds in general – simply do not provoke the same empathy us that mammals do. Some possibly don’t even consider them animals at all. Maybe we would care more if they had more expressive faces, paws not claws, and fur instead of feathers.

The chapter is about more than chickens though, though Jane does make the point that our farmed poultry – especially ducks – don’t resemble the old traditional breeds either:

We know and are told too little. Wool is pulled over our eyes to the point of blindness. Take Aylesbury duck. Sounds nice and historical. It was once the preferred breed for its rich, fine deliciousness. Don’t be fooled. What you have on your plate has barely an Aylesbury gene in its body…

#399 Duck Stewed with Green Peas

She opines too for the breeds lost because they do not fit with today’s capitalistic farming systems. Perhaps we should all buy goose – they stubbornly resist mass farming methods.

Cooking the recipes in this part of the book introduced me to a whole new world of poultry: I had never ‘boiled’ a whole turkey or eaten a capon, nor had I really cooked with poultry offal or made my own (#276) Giblet Gravy. One of the best discoveries was the delicious combination of mussels and chicken, and the deliciousness of guineafowl was a revelation.

Several recipes are now part of my repertoire, both at home and professionally, and there have been some high scorers and memorable meals. #147 Devilled Chicken Livers was the only one to score full marks, though #100 Roast Turkey with Lemon Stuffing is now a Christmas standard as is #298 Pulled and Devilled Turkey on Boxing Day. The most cooked recipe though is #225 Cockie-Leekie. I make it at home, but also cooked it up regularly when The Buttery was open. It is sublime and containing only chicken, beef, prunes and leeks, it is simplicity itself. The medieval stuffing from #405 Turkey Neck Pudding and #399 Duck Braised with Green Peas have also turned up on past menus. Lastly #442 Smoked Chicken with Three-Melon Salad simply must be attempted by anyone who owns a cold-smoker (skip the salad though).

An oven ready cold-smoked chicken

There were only a couple of duds: #443 Three-Gourd Garnish was two thirds underwhelming and one third unpalatable, the bitter gourd being so bitter, just a tiny piece was completely inedible – I, or Jane, must have got something wrong there. And then there was #339 Hindle Wakes, the bizarre cold, prune-stuffed chicken, painted with a congealed lemon sauce. In my little review of the meal, I described it as a monster, ‘a cross between something from Fanny Cradock’s 1970s repertoire and the centrepiece of a medieval feast.’ Why it would be included, and a traditional roast chicken or goose missed out, I don’t know.

#339 Hindle Wakes

Due to a minority of poor recipes, the 18 recipes of the Poultry section scored a mean of 7.56/10, putting it in second place after Pork (8.06/10). For who like their stats, Poultry had a median and mode of 7.5. Measuring averages this, actually puts Beef & Veal at the top of the meat sections thus far, though Poultry remains in second place.


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As usual, I have listed the recipes below in the order they appear in the book with links to my posts and their individual scores, so have a gander. It is worth pointing out, that my posts are no substitute for Jane’s wonderful writing, so if you don’t own a copy of English Food, I suggest you get yourself one.

#335 Boiled Capon with Sugar Peas 5.5/10

#334 Salmagundi for a Middle Dish at Supper 6.5/10

#235 Lisanne’s Chicken with Mussels 7.5/10

#339 Hindle Wakes 5/10

#225 Cockie-Leekie 7.5/10

#442 Smoked Chicken with Three-Melon Salad 7.5/10

#443 Three-Gourd Garnish 3/10

#147 Devilled Chicken Livers 10/10

#210 Coarse Chicken Liver Pâté 8.5/10

#100 Roast Turkey with Parsley and Lemon Stuffing 9.5/10

#276 Giblet Gravy 9/10

#405 Capon, Goose or Turkey Neck Pudding/Poddyng of Capoun Necke (1430) 7/10

#298 Pulled and Devilled Turkey, Chicken or Pheasant 9.5/10

#314 Boiled Turkey with Celery Sauce 7/10

#399 Duck Stewed with Green Peas 9/10

#178 Duck with Mint 7.5/10

#427 Roast Guineafowl 9/10

#222 Guineafowl Braised with Mushrooms 8/10

#443 Three-Gourd Garnish

This is a recipe that has been put off simply because I thought that it had to be served with the (#441) Smoked Chicken with Three-Melon Salad. Once I finally made the smoked chicken and was ready to make this one, I spotted that Jane actually wrote a ‘good accompaniment to smoked chicken, roast duck or lamb…’, so I could have cooked it ages ago. It’s a vegetarian recipe, but appears in the Poultry section of the Meat, Poultry and Game chapter, which is disappointing because it’s the final poultry recipe in the book, so a bit of a damp squib.

I’ve had mixed feelings about this recipe to be honest; I have a great dislike of pointless garnishes. Some foods just don’t need them. Chopped parsley is good with most British foods – but not all – and don’t get me started on the mint spring on a dessert, or as someone pointed out on Twitter recently, the single physalis fruit. Some foods are best on their own. What’s putting me off with this recipe is that it runs the risk of being a big, pointless faff.

One good thing, however, is that it introduces us a new ingredient, the bitter gourd – also known as bitter melon – those knobbly verdant green torpedoes you see in Asian grocery stores. Jane is surprised they are not used more often seeing as we have been a nation of Indian food lovers since the eighteenth century. Why hasn’t the nation taken to this delicious vegetable? Jane reckons it’s the bitterness: ‘Europeans’, she says ‘are not skilful with bitterness in food though we take it well enough in drink.’ Well, I’m game for something bitter.

The other two gourds are the more familiar courgette and cucumber.


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Gourd #1: bitter gourds

You need four small to medium bitter gourds here. Begin by removing sharp the knobbly edges with a vegetable peeler. Halve them lengthways and deseed, taking any pith away at the same time. Keep a couple of teaspoons of the seeds for later. Slice very thinly, place in a bowl with a good, heaped teaspoon of salt. Leave around three hours before rinsing and blanching in boiling water for three minutes. Fry the slices in about a tablespoon of butter to just soften for two or three minutes. Season with pepper, they may not need salt. Place in a pile on a warmed serving plate.

Gourd #2: courgettes

Jane asks for 10 to 12 small courgettes. If you can’t find small ones, then buy the equivalent in regular ones. I guessed at three. If you can find small ones, halve them, if they’re a bit bigger quarter them lengthways and in half crossways. Fry them gently in a tablespoon of butter and a small, finely chopped clove of garlic (we are looking for a suspicion of garlic here). Season with black pepper. Place the courgettes in a pile beside the bitter gourds.

Gourd #3: cucumber

Peel and thinly slice half a cucumber and fry gently in butter to just soften – two or three minutes is all you need. Pile up on the dish.

Increase the heat add a little more butter and cook through the reserved bitter seeds with a tablespoon each of parsley, coriander and chives. Cook for two minutes more and then scatter over the cooked gourds.

#442 Three-Gourd Garnish. Okay; what to say about this one? Well, the cucumber and courgettes were okay, and I like the herb combination. BUT the bitter gourds were so fantastically bitter they were totally inedible. There is only one way they could be used, in my opinion, and that’s very sparingly mixed in with the cucumbers, and by sparingly, I mean just a dozen or so thin slices. What I’m saying, I suppose, is a two-gourd garnish would have been bland, but at least you could have eaten it all. No thank you Jane. Unnecessary mint sprig: all is forgiven 3/10.

#442 Smoked Chicken with Three-Melon Salad

When I first leafed through my (original) copy of Jane Grigson’s English Food, I would never have expected this recipe to cause me much bother. The problem here is Jane’s insistence on a particular type of smoked chicken. This recipe calls for a cold-smoked chicken, which then gets roasted, cooled and then sliced up. The alternative option, of course, is to simply buy a hot-smoked chicken and allow it to cool, a product available in almost every supermarket in the country. However, these chickens have ‘flabby’ flesh and do not make for good eating apparently. According to Jane, cold-smoked chickens are much superior but ‘more difficult to find’.1 No, they are impossible to find. I’ve looked and looked, and I have never found one. Therefore, I had to resort to cold-smoking one myself, something made possible by the fact I now own my own little cold-smoker, which I used last post to make my own smoked bacon.

There is scant information on how one should go about such an endeavour; I think it is considered dangerous, but this isn’t smoked salmon and I will be cooking the beast. Eventually I did find some guidance in smoking and appropriately curing poultry in Keith Erlandson’s very handy little book Home Curing and Smoking.2

To cure and smoke the chicken:

As suggested in Erlandson’s book I made up a strong brine solution:

3 L cold water

800 g sea salt

160 g soft dark brown sugar

5 bay leaves

1 tsp cracked black peppercorns

Bunch of thyme

1 roasting chicken

Pour the water into a large pan with the other ingredients except the chicken. Put over a medium-high heat and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar, bring to a simmer and let it tick away for 10 minutes before turning off the heat and allowing it to cool down.

Prick the chicken breasts and legs with a fork to aid penetration of the brine and place it in a closely-fitting tub (I used a 4 L ice cream tub). Pour in the brine, placing an appropriate ramekin or similar between bird and lid to keep it immersed in the brine and leave for 6 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry, then leave to air day for a couple of hours; I sat mine on its bottom so that the cavity could drip dry.

When it is dry to the touch, cold-smoke your chicken for anything between 8 hours and 4 days. I went for the former, using my ProQ Eco Smoker (see previous post on how to use one).

Once smoked, the chicken needs to be cooked – either by roasting (see below) or a two-hour hot smoking, should you have access to a cold-smoking device.

To roast the chicken:

This is what Jane tells us to do: “Rub the chicken over with salt and pepper, roast in the manner you prefer, basting with the sherry.”

To roast the chicken, I followed my usual method. I have written about my method of roasting a chicken on my other blog, so I shan’t repeat myself. The only difference being that I didn’t put butter under the breasts, just over them, and the legs. I used about 50 g, then seasoned it and basted it with 6 tablespoons of dry sherry after 40 minutes and then every 30 minutes thereafter.

Then, ‘[r]emove the bird and allow to cool. Skim as much fat as possible from the juices [I found there were barely any juices so and I had to add a little hot water to dissolve the delicious dried juice deposits], pour the rest into a glass and leave to cool. When the chicken is cold, cut away the meat and slice it up.’

To make the salad:

Take your melons – I went for cantaloupe, Galia and watermelon – halve, deseed and cut into wedges, cut away the rind and dice into large chunks and place in a bowl. I didn’t bother deseeding the watermelon, as the seeds don’t really bother me and life’s too short. I only used half each of the cantaloupe and Galia melons and a quarter of a watermelon. Then ‘arrang[e] them on a large shallow dish, with the sliced chicken.’

Now make the dressing: Check the reserved roasting juices and remove any fat. It should be very concentrated, but if not, boil it down and reduce further. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of hazelnut oil and 5 tablespoons of sunflower oil (or if you can’t get hazelnut oil, use 8 tablespoons of olive oil only), then sharpen it with either cider vinegar or lemon juice. Jane doesn’t say how much to use, so do it to your tastes. I used vinegar and added 2 tablespoons. Taste and check the seasoning and sharpness and adjust accordingly.

Pour the dressing over the melon and chicken, but don’t swamp them, keep any remainder of it in a separate jug if anyone wants more. Lastly, sprinkle over the chopped leaves of a small bunch of coriander and serve.

#442 Smoked Chicken with Three-Melon Salad. This was a very 1970s-looking dish, and I am not sure the combination worked particularly well. However, the chicken itself was absolutely delicious and next time I use my smoker, I will certainly brine another chicken to pop in there. The meat was close textured, rather like a tender ham, and it melted in the mouth. The melon salad, too, was delicious, I liked the hazelnut dressing. Though whole thing lacked texture and the addition of some chopped roasted hazelnuts would have been an improvement. If they were served in separate courses; melon salad as a starter and the chicken as a main, I would be giving high scores, but taking it as a dish in itself the two jarred a little for me. Still, worth a good score because of the revelation that is roasted cold-smoked chicken! 7.5/10.

References

1.           Grigson, J. English Food. (Third Edition, Penguin, 1992).

2.           Erlandson, K. Home Smoking and Curing. (Ebury Press, 1977).

#441 Smoking Meat

Hello folks! Did you know its been almost a year since I wrote my last post proper on the blog? I do apologise; I’m down to the final ten recipes and each one has been eluding me in one way or another – that is until now. In fact I’ve lined up a few so that there will be a steady stream of posts for the remainder of the year.

This one, oddly, is not really a recipe because smoking meat, says Jane, ‘is something that few people care to undertake now’, and rather than providing us with a method, advises us against having a go; that is, unless you have ‘an experienced friend to guide.’1

My intentions were to have a go at constructing my own cold-smoker and installing it my backyard, but I never seemed to have the time or wherewithal, then I moved to an apartment and assumed it just wasn’t going to happen. However, home smoking has moved on a bit since Jane’s day, and it can be both simple and inexpensive simply, as I found when I stumbled upon the ProQ Eco Smoker Box online; essentially a cardboard box with metal shelves. I immediately purchased one along with some oak wood dust. Exciting times.

The ProQ Eco Smoker Box (pic: ProQ)

I was soon eager to be tasting some proper home-cured-and-smoked foods that would preserve whatever meat I decided to cure properly: today, smoking is purely ‘cosmetic’1 because we like the flavour, but our refrigerators are doing the preserving for us these days. (For the same reason, less salt is used in the curing process too.) Indeed, the whole process of smoking is sidestepped; many ‘smoked’ meats in today’s supermarkets are merely injected with a woodsmoke ‘flavouring’, a far cry from what our recent ancestors were tucking into.

When smoking was done at home, a smokehouse was not typically used. The housewife of a medieval home hung her salt pork in the rafters above the central chimney. Then, when stone chimneys were built in dwellings, a recess was made so that hams would benefit from a good smoking with being cooked. According to Dorothy Hartley, these recesses are discovered in old houses and are ‘often mistaken for “priest-holes”’.2 In other buildings an external wooden hatch was built in the highest section of the chimney so that year’s hams could safely cold smoke. Hartley also gives us a lovely illustration of a home-made smoker made from a hogshead, which essentially works exactly like the ProQ smoker I bought. Very pleasing.

Illustration from Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

If you want to try and smoke your own meat you need to cure it first, and there are many examples of that in the blog/book. However, I decided upon making my own smoked bacon, which I could either fry in rashers or cook a large piece as an accompaniment to #374 Pease Pudding or in a nice #98 Cawl. Oddly, there is no recipe for a bacon cure in English Food, so I had to look to others for help.

For the bacon I used a 2 kilogram piece of pork belly because it looked like it would fit just right in my smoker. I adapted a recipe given in River Cottage Handbook No.13: Curing & Smoking by Steven Lamb.3 I changed a few things: I used dark brown sugar and the tried-and-tested Jane Grigson cure combo of crushed juniper berries, allspice berries and black peppercorns, just like one of my favourite recipes #228 Spiced Salt Beef, though I toned down the amount of spice somewhat. I avoided using nitrates and I’m sure Jane would agree with me on that today, even though she used ample amounts of it in her Cured Meat recipes.

For a 2 kg piece of pork belly (skin on and bone in):

750 g fine sea salt

750 g soft dark brown sugar

2 heaped tsp each juniper and allspice berries, crushed

1 tbs black peppercorns, crushed

6 or 7 bay leaves, crushed or roughly chopped

Mix all of the cure ingredients together, then scatter a handful of the mix over the base of a container large enough to fit your piece of pork, then scatter a second handful over the pork.

Now rub the mix into the underside, skin and edges of the pork, making sure you work it into any holes or flaps in the meat.

Cover and leave in a cool place – a larder or fridge – for 24 hours.

Next day lift the pork out of the container and pour away the liquid brine, then repeat what you did yesterday: one handful of cure beneath and another on top of the meat and rub in.

Repeat this over the next 5 or 6 days – i.e. until you have run out of cure mix – then rinse away any spices under the tap, pat dry with a clean cloth or kitchen paper and rub in a little malt vinegar all over the meat.

Use two hooks to hang your meat in a cool airy place for 2 weeks – I used my garage which is very cool and dry, especially in the late winter/early spring here in the UK.

Now all you need to do is smoke it! Rather than type the process, I thought it quicker and easier if I showed you what I did next:

#441 Smoking Meat. Not a recipe, but it has forced me to dry cure and smoke my own meat, and my goodness, how delicious it is! You really should try it yourself – the Lamb-Grigson hybrid recipe worked like a dream and the smoker gave off so little smoke I doubt neighbours would notice it ticking away. The salt, butter and cheese worked a treat too. 10/10.

References:

1.           Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).

2.           Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).

3.           Lamb, S. River Cottage Handbook No.13: Curing & Smoking. (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Ten recipes to go!

I have reached a milestone in my unexpectedly long-running quest of attempting to cook every recipe in Jane Grigson’s magnificent book English Food; the last recipe was my 440th, and that means there are only ten recipes left! I hope that I can work through them fairly regularly, but they are getting fairly tricky to do now: the ingredients are either impossibly hard to get hold of, or are extremely expensive, though there are a couple of recipes that I think I can get done without a huge amount of trouble.

BUT the other issue is that a lot of the remaining recipes are quite large, too large for just myself and we are still social distancing – but hopefully someday soon I can cook the roast saddle of lamb that serves 12! Anyone who reads my food history blog will have noticed that I am cooking fairly simple and easy things on there at the moment. I don’t have that luxury on here, so the posts may dry up a little bit.

In the meantime, you guys might be able to help me out. Here’s a list of things that are causing me real bother. If you know of anyone who might be able to help me let me know:

  • Freshwater fish. Anyone know any fishermen who actually catch and taken their catch home to eat? I need to get my hands on some freshwater roach. They are a very common fish, but my goodness, they are hard to track down. I also need to find a responsible and sustainable elver fishermen who wouldn’t mind selling my some of his catch.
  • Cold smokers. I had always planned to build on in my back yard, but then I moved to an apartment. I need one so I can cold-smoke some chickens. No where sells them as far as I can see (there are lots of hot smoked chicken sold cold, but they are a different thing altogether!). Does anyone have one at home or know of a commercial one who might let me hang up a couple of them?
  • Ptarmigans.There’s a single bothersome recipe in the Game chapter I can’t tick off and it is roast ptarmigan. Though still technically legal game, but they are quite rare in the UK now, so I wouldn’t want to kill one. HOWEVER they do get shot by accident in grouse shoots, so they do turn up now and again. ALSO Canada is positively teeming with them, so if anyone fancies paying to send me over there, that would be simply marvellous.

So if you think you might be able to help me with any of these issues, please contact me on the blog, or email me at neil@britishfoodhistory.com

I’ll be back with a real post soon, I hope!

#440 Primitive Lamb with Blueberry Sauce

Here’s the second of the two recipes in English Food that uses primitive lamb. Regular followers will know that I acquired two legs of Hebridean hogget earlier this year. A hogget is a sheep that’s too old to be lamb, but not yet considered mutton. It was wonderful to go to the farm and chat with Helen, the farmer who works so hard to keep this rare and primitive breed alive and kicking. Here’s the episode of my Lent podcast that included my interview with her :

Primitive breeds such as the Hebridean need help: help from specialist farmers and help from us, because they won’t survive if there is no demand. Primitive breeds are excellent for the smallholder – they are small and easy lambers, meaning their husbandry is much less stressful than large commercial breeds with their giant lambs! They have great character too: they are brighter and are excellent foragers that display more natural behaviours. If I ever get a bit of land, I will definitely be getting myself a little flock.

In that episode we focus on the one breed, but I thought I’d give a mention to the other primitive breeds just in case you are thinking about getting hold of some. Aside from the Hebridean there are the Soay, Manx Loaghtan, Shetland, Boreray and North Ronaldsay. They all belong to the Northern European short-tailed group, and they were probably brought to the Outer Hebridean islands by Norse settlers. They are small, very woolly and extremely hardy sheep. The islands upon which they were found were the St Kilda archipelago, and had been there since the Iron Age. Some moved and adapted, the Manx Loaghtan obviously went to the Isle of Man, but some remained on the islands and adapted too. The North Ronaldsay, for example, lives on the small rocky northernmost islands and has become a seaweed-grazing specialist.

Of all the breeds, the Soay sheep are considered to be the most like their ancestors, and it is found on several islands in the archipelago. On the island of Herta, a feral population of around 1500 was discovered; their name is befitting because Soay is Norse for sheep island.

A plane’s view of the islands (pic: Flying Fish World)

This recipe is exactly the same as the other one except the lamb is served with a blueberry sauce rather than a gravy. Although we are at the tail-end of the blog, I actually made this sauce for my first ever pop up restaurant all the way back in 2013 which took place in my little terraced house – a lot has happened since then, that’s for sure! It sounded so delicious I couldn’t wait until I found some primitive lamb. The usual fruit to serve with lamb is of course the tart redcurrant, usually in jelly form. Blueberries are usually sweeter than currants, but Jane is not daft and makes up for it with the addition of a vinegar syrup.

And, if you are thinking this is some kind of American abomination, don’t be so sure: although all of the blueberries we buy in  shops are undoubtably American varieties, don’t forget its close relative, the more humble blaeberry, which I suspect is what the lamb would have been served with. It’s appeared in the blog before, and scored full marks: #xxx Blaeberry Pie

Anyway, enough waffle: here’s what to do:

Roast the lamb or hogget as described for #438 Plain Roast Primitive Lamb with Gravy, but instead of making the gravy start to make this blueberry sauce as it roasts:

In a saucepan simmer eight ounces of blueberries with ¼ pint of dry white wine, ¼ pint of lamb stock and a tablespoon of caster sugar. Remove a couple of dozen of the best berries for the garnish and blitz the remainder in a blender and pass through a sieve.

Dissolve 2 teaspoons of sugar in 6 tablespoons of white wine vinegar in a small saucepan and boil down until quite syrupy, then add to the blended berries along with some finely chopped mint or rosemary. Set aside and return to it when the roast had been taken out of the oven.

Skim any fat from the meat juices and pour them into the blueberry sauce. Reheat and add some lemon juice – I used a little shy of half a lemon here – and then season with salt and pepper, and even sugar if needed. When ready pour into a sauce boat, not forgetting to add in the reserved berries.

#440 Primitive Lamb with Blueberry Sauce. Well you won’t be surprised that this was, again, delicious, how could it not be? I did a better job of roasting it this time I feel. I really enjoyed the blueberry sauce and it went very well with the slightly gamey meat. I think I may have preferred the plain gravy to the blueberries though, but there’s not much in it. Because of this doubt, I am scoring it a very solid 9.5/10

P.S. The leftovers made an excellent #84 Shepherd’s Pie.

Refs:

‘British Rare & Traditional Sheep Breeds’ The Accidental Smallholder website: www.accidentalsmallholder.net/livestock/sheep/british-rare-and-traditional-sheep-breeds/

‘Soay’ RBST website www.rbst.org.uk/soay

‘Manx Loaghtan’ RBST website www.rbst.org.uk/manx-loaghtan

‘Hebridean Sheep Characteristics & Breeding Information’ Roy’s Farm website: www.roysfarm.com/hebridean-sheep

‘About Shetlands’ North American Shetland Sheepbreeders’ Association website: www.shetland-sheep.org/about-shetlands/

‘The Origins of Registered Boreray Sheep’, Sheep of St Kilda website: www.soayandboreraysheep.com/

‘Boreray’ RBST website: www.rbst.org.uk/boreray-sheep-25

‘North Ronaldsay’ RBST website: www.rbst.org.uk/north-ronaldsay

#439 Bavarois of Smoked Salmon

‘Why’, you may think ‘has this relatively straight-forward recipe taken me so long to get around to?’ The answer is very simple and is two-fold: it doesn’t sound that nice and it’s quite expensive to make. However, in this time of lockdown, I realised that I could buy all the ingredients for it quite easily from a local fishmonger whilst out doing my appropriately socially-distanced weekly shop, and so as a bit of procrastination I made it. The recipe is essentially smoked salmon with crème fraiche and salmon roe. It sounds very 1970s, though it may not be as old as that.

The Walnut Tree Inn (thewalnuttreeinn.com)

The recipe comes from Franco Taruschino who, at the time English Food was published, was chef at the Walnut Tree Inn at Llandewi Skirrid near Abergavenny. The place is described by Jane as “one of the nicest places to visit in the British Isles.” Today the kitchen’s head chef is the Michelin-starred Shaun Hill, another favourite of Jane’s who appears several times in English Food as well as her other tomes. In fact, he was one of the guests on the episode of the BBC’s Food Programme about Jane Grigson that Yours Truly also appeared in. Link to part 1 here and part 2 here.

This recipe serves ten, but it can be easily adapted to serve more or fewer people, which is lucky for me in these days of lockdown, as there was obviously no way I was going to be serving that many. The recipe below uses 1 ½ pounds of smoked salmon for 10 servings. I could only get hold of small packs and managed to get a third of what was required, enough to line 4 small ramekins. Anyway, multiply up or divide down as appropriate for you:

Swirl out your ramekins with water and line them with strips of salmon, making sure there is a little overhanging. Take any trimmings and place in a blender with 8 fluid ounces of crème fraiche (or half and half double and soured cream). Season with ½ teaspoon of Cayenne pepper and the juice of half a lemon. This stage was a disaster for me – because shelves were pretty bare, I could only get low fat crème fraiche (a very First World problem, I do realise) and so the whole thing was reduce to a thin liquid; blending had done away with the artificial structure given to it in the form of pectin or whatever. I attempted to remedy this by adding a couple of leaves of gelatine dissolved in a little boiling water to it, which I just got away with.

Fold through this mixture, 8 teaspoons of salted red salmon roe (or indeed any roe). Spoon into the lined ramekins, lay over the overhanging salmon, cover with cling film and place in the fridge to set (in my case overnight because of the gelatine).

Meanwhile, get on with the tomato sauce. Finely chop enough shallot to yield 2 tablespoons and fry it until golden in a little olive oil, then add 2 pounds of tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded and chopped*. Fry until the tomatoes turn pulpy, then season with salt, pepper and a teaspoon of red wine vinegar. Pass through a sieve to make a smooth sauce – you can use a hand blender first if your tomatoes do not seem pulpy enough to pass through one. Check for seasoning, remembering it will need to be slightly over-seasoned as it is served chilled. Place this in the fridge to cool down.

When ready to serve, place a couple of tablespoons of the sauce in centre of ten serving plates and gingerly release each bavarois from its ramekin onto your hand. A small palette knife came in very handy here, and it wasn’t too tricky: just don’t get hasty and shake the ramekin unless you want disaster to strike; the best things (and sometimes the worst, it seems) come to those who wait.

Place a bavarois in the centre of each circle, and scatter over some finely chopped chives to garnish.

#439 Bavarois of Smoked Salmon. This recipe seems so outdated now. I suppose it is no surprise that it is the contemporary recipes that have aged more quickly that the traditional or historical ones. Anyway, this was less horrible as expected and it all got eaten, but for the poor return it was a lot of faff and expense. Give me some good cold-smoked fish, some butter, brown bread and a wedge of lemon or blob of horseradish sauce any day of the week. Not one of her worst, but not good enough to even be average either: 3/10

*to do this, cut a cross on the underside of each tomato, place in a jug or bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Leave for 2 minutes, then fish out with a slotted spoon. The skin will come away from the flesh relatively easy if you use a good paring knife to aid you. Once removed, they can be halved and the watery centres and seeds scooped out and discarded (or popped into the vegetable trimmings stock bag in the freezer).

#438 Plain Roast Primitive Lamb with Gravy

This is a recipe I have been waiting over a decade to make, but patience is a virtue and I have finally been able to cook it; after years of searching farmers’ markets and emailing farmers’ websites, I finally found someone who farms primitive sheep breeds. Here’s what happened.

If you don’t follow the other blog, you might not realise that I have been making a podcast about Lent and for the final episode, I wanted to cook some lamb as it would be in keeping with the Lenten theme. So, I got it into my head that it had to be from a primitive breed of sheep. After a surprisingly short internet search and some inquiring emails, I found Helen Arthan, a farmer of rare breed sheep and cattle, and she kindly agreed to take part in the podcast, so off I went to her beautiful farm in the Cheshire countryside.

There are several primitive breeds of sheep still being farmed, and Helen kept one of the oldest – Hebridean sheep – which descend from Viking stocks. Rather than tell you about these beautiful and characterful animals here, I am going to send you in the direction of the podcast episode to hear about it yourself instead; so here it is:

There are two recipes that use primitive lamb in English Food, there’s this one where it is roasted and served with a simple gravy and the other is the same but served with a blueberry sauce. I had my heart set on the latter, but then thought I should cook it plain and simple the first time, so I could really appreciate the flavour of the meat. Luckily for me, Helen gave me two legs, so I shall be posting the other recipe soon. It’s just like buses isn’t it? You wait ten years for primitive lamb legs and then two come along at once.

I cooked up the hogget for my friends Kate and Pete who both helped me out in the first two episodes of the podcast and are long-time Grigson blog supporters. It seemed only right I should make it for them.

In Jane’s recipe, she roasts two lamb legs together because they are rather small. However, Helen gave me hogget – a slightly older and therefore larger animal – which is similar in weight to a regular lamb leg. In fact, one stocky hogget leg weighed more than Jane said two lamb legs would weigh.

I’m going to give two methods for cooking the meat: the lamb version that Jane gives for roasting two small lamb gigots (legs) weighing a total of 6 or 7 pounds, and another that I use for one large leg that is more typical in size, like you would get from a regular butcher.

Before you start, set the oven to 230°C and prepare the leg or legs – this stage is the same for either method.  Take a clove of garlic for each leg, peel and slice as thinly as possible. Then, using a small pointed knife, stab the legs, placing a slice of garlic in each one. If garlic isn’t your thing, you could just sit a sprig of rosemary on it. There’s nothing stopping you doing both of course.

Rub in plenty of coarse sea salt and black pepper, sit the leg or legs on a trivet sat inside a roasting pan. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before roasting.

If cooking two small legs: place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180°C and cook for 20 minutes more. Remove the lamb legs and check they are done by inserting a skewer or a temperature probe. The temperature should feel warm, around 55°C. Allow the meat to rest.

If cooking one larger hogget (or regular lamb) leg: weigh it before placing in the oven and calculate the cooking time. 12 minutes per pound/450 grams is what you want if you want rare meat, and 14 minutes per pound/450 grams if you want just pink, medium meat. Place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 160°C for the remainder of the cooking time. Remove the meat and allow to rest.

To make the gravy: skim off the fat from the pan juices; you don’t have to be too fastidious. Put the pan over a hob and scatter two teaspoons of plain flour or cornflour and stir in using a wooden spoon or small whisk, making sure you get the crusty bits from the bottom. You don’t have to add the flour if you prefer a thin gravy. Pour in a glass of wine – either red or white wine go well with lamb. If using red add half a pint of lamb (or beef) stock, if using white add the same amount of chicken stock. Allow to cook for a couple of minutes before straining into a gravy jug.

Serve the lamb with #306 Mint Sauce or #422 Peppered Redcurrant Jelly, says Jane. I decided on the former (because her recipe is excellent) as well as some roast potatoes, roast parsnips and some purple sprouting broccoli. For more guidance as to what is traditionally served with roast lamb, follow this link.

#438 Plain Roast Primitive Lamb with Gravy. This was sublime…the meat was so tender and well-flavoured, though not strong in lamby flavour as one might expect. The meat was so tender and was delicately flavoured from the garlic. I’m very glad I decided to cook it with just a gravy made from its own juices and some stock – I really got to appreciate the hogget without any blueberry distraction. As per usual when a dish is this good and I’m with friends, I completely forget to take decent photographs! I will make sure I do when I make the blueberry version. I cannot recommend highly enough, if you ever see some, buy it. 10/10.