Category Archives: Meat

Saltpetre and Salt Prunella

On my Jane Grigson blog I recently completed a recipe, the 441st, Smoking Meat. It wasn’t so much a recipe, more a bit of advice, and the advice was: don’t bother. However, I wanted to have a go at curing and smoking my own bacon, so took this as an opportunity, and because there was no recipe in English Food, I could do my own thing with respect to the recipe (see The Premise). All of Jane’s cured meats contain a combination of salt and saltpetre – also known as potassium nitrate – which has a bad rep these days because it has been implicated as a causative agent in diseases associated with eating processed meat products (more on that later). So, with my bacon, I thought it a good opportunity to see if leaving out the saltpetre would have any observable detrimental effects. SPOILER ALERT! My bacon is still completely fine three months after making it, stored at room temperature – there isn’t the merest trace of mould – and it got me thinking about its use in meat curing and processing and whether it needs to be included.

Pure Potassium chloride

Just what is the function of saltpetre? Everyone does agree that the pink colour saltpetre gives the meat is attractive. However, there is certainly disagreement out there as to its efficacy in preservation. According to Jane Grigson saltpetre ‘no preservative value’1 and Elizabeth David is of the belief that it is simply ‘the cosmetic of the preserved meat industry.’2

On the other side of the argument Larousse Gastronomique reckons it a ‘powerful bactericide [that] has been used since ancient times to preserve food.’3 Harold McGee concurs, adding that it is particularly effective against the bacteria that causes botulism.4

In conclusion: I don’t know what to think.

It seems that it hasn’t been used since ‘ancient times’ either; according to Peter Brears, ‘there appears to be no evidence for the use of saltpetre, sugar or smoking in medieval meat preparation, only salt.’5

Natural deposits of saltpetre pic: William Haun

Saltpetre can be found deposited naturally as veins in rocks – indeed, saltpetre literally means salt stone. Houses built on foundations dug into rocks containing the mineral sometimes find saltpetre can be found in crystalline forms in damp cellars. It is relatively rare, but it was in demand in the Middle Ages, not for its preserving powers but as an ingredient in gunpowder. In the sixteenth century a method of production was devised after an alchemist found that after boiling the water from urine the crystalline material left behind was highly flammable.6 With further refining of the process, urine was combined with faeces and lime on an industrial scale. It was said that the best urine for the job was ‘Bishops’ piss’; not because it was the urine of a holy man, but because of the large volume of wine that Bishops drank. The process even makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales:

Chalk, quicklime, ashes and the white of eggs,

Various powders, clay, piss, dung and dregs,

Waxed bags, saltpetre, vitriol and a whole

Variety of fires of wood and coal.7

Everyone was well aware how saltpetre was made, and people – as you might expect – did not want to use a product derived from human waste in their food and continued to use saltpetre from natural sources at great expense. Today it is made from ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride.

An engraving showing equipment used to extract saltpetrefrom ‘soil’. From The Laws of Art and Nature, in Knowing, Judging, Assaying, Fining, Refining and Inlarging Bodies of Confin’d Metals (1683) by Lazarus Erckern (pic: science photo library)

When saltpetre comes into contact with meat, the nitrate part of the molecule reacts with haemoglobin (in the blood) and myoglobin (in the muscle) to form a nitrite, which reacts further to form nitric oxide. It is the nitrite and globin molecules reacting that form the pink colour. The products of reduction are stable away from oxygen in the air, however if one takes a slice from the meat to reveal the pink meat within, the nitrites oxidise back into nitrates and the meat loses its rosy tinge.

Some recipes ask for salt prunella, which is simply saltpetre that’s been formed into little balls and dissolve at a slower rate that regular saltpetre. It also contains a small proportion of potassium nitrite to help kick-start the chemical processes in the meat. Again sources disagree as to the truth of this.

Saltpetre is used in very small amounts – when I used it in the past, I used approximately a teaspoon or two to every 500 g salt. You can purchase it on the internet, but it is much better to buy salt mixes for curing that contain salt and nitrates already mixed and measured.

Pre-mixed pink curing salt

This brings us to health – this chemical which is added in small amounts is getting the blame for causing heart disease and bowel cancer in those who eat processed meat products. Well, there is certainly a correlation between consumption of processed meats and cancer. But let’s not jump on nitrates as the causative agent: correlation is not causation, after all. Remember when red wine was supposedly good for your heart? It wasn’t true – there was a correlation, sure, but only because folk who drink red wine tend to be middle class, and therefore tend to also exercise regularly and eat a heathier diet. Nothing to do with wine.* I suspect there is something similar going on with nitrates: they are used in processed meats, which are cheap and much more likely to be consumed by poorer families, who in turn, are less likely to eat fewer fresh fruit and vegetables, and less likely to own a gym membership. As it turns out, nitrates may actually be beneficial in that they help lower blood pressure.

The jury then is still out. And in the case of my own homemade, nitrate-free bacon, leaving out the nitrates hasn’t caused the meat to go bad, and it stayed relatively pink too. Removing it might not improve the nation’s health, but at least it removes a chemical that’s been produced from nasty chemicals which can only be good for the environment.

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Let me know them in the comments.


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My home-made bacon

*In fact it has been demonstrated that there is no safe minimum alcohol levels – it’s all bad, sorry!

References

1.           Grigson, J. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. (Grub Street, 1969).

2.           David, E. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. (Penguin, 1970).

3.           Larousse Gastronomique. (Hamlyn, 2001 edition).

4.           McGee, H. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (Allen and Unwin, 1984).

5.           Brears, P. Cooking & Dining in Medieval England. (Prospect Books, 2012).

6.           Beach, H. By the Sword Sundered. (Authorhouse, 2014).

7.           Chaucer, G. The Canterbury Tales. (Translated by Nevill Coghill, Penguin, 1951).

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Pie-Style Pressure Cooker Pigeon

Last post I told you all about the origins of the pressure cooker, and how it was invented by Frenchman Denis Papin in the seventeenth century. One part of his story really struck a chord with me, and that was an almost throwaway comment made by diarist John Evelyn. He attended the ‘philosophical supper’ where Papin cooked for the members of the Royal Society, everything pressure-cooked in his “Digester”. Evelyn wrote about in his diary and described how deliciously tender everything was, but noted that the pigeons were particularly delicious:

We ate pike and other fish, bones and all, without impediment; but nothing exceeded the pigeons, which tasted just as if baked in a pie, all these being stewed in their own juice, without any addition of water save what swam about the digestor

As soon as read that, I knew I had to try it.

I don’t know what your mind conjures up when you imagine what a pigeon pie was like in days of yore, but I always think of Dorothy Hartley’s illustration and description in her wonderful book Food in England. Hers has a double crust and a layer of suet dumpling dough inside, but it was the interior of the pie that I was interested in here.

Dorothy Hartley’s pigeon pie

After a pie dish is lined with the pastry, a slice of braising steak is laid inside with the pigeons on top, then there is a sprinkling of bacon pieces and mushrooms. Stock or gravy is poured over them before the dumpling layer and second pastry layer are added on top. This recipe is for old pigeons that require long cooking, but if young pigeons (squabs) were used, the pies were cooked quickly and at a high temperature, the shortcrust pastry swapped for flaky or puff pastry and the stewing steak swapped for sirloin or veal. There is no definitive recipe, and there are recipes for pigeon pie from the seventeenth century that contain oysters, bone marrow, pistachio nuts and cockerels’ stones (testes). However they are cooked, pigeon pies were well regarded because of their tenderness.


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In my interpretation of pie-style pressure cooker pigeon, I stuck quite closely to Hartley’s description, though I added a few aromatic herbs and vegetables and good glug of red wine. I heartily recommend it, and the pigeons do come out exceedingly tender:

Serves 4

1 good knob of butter or bacon fat, around 30 g

4 cloves of garlic

1 leek, trimmed and sliced

2 sticks of celery, chopped

3 bay leaves

12 sprigs thyme

2 portobello mushrooms, sliced

Salt and pepper

2 tbs plain flour

6 rashers dry cured streaky bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

2 oven ready woodpigeons

400 g piece of braising steak (I used top rib)

125 ml red wine

250 ml beef stock

2 tbs chopped parsley

Melt the butter or fat over a medium high heat and add the garlic, leek and celery. Tie the bay leaves and thyme with some string and toss into the mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Fry and brown the vegetables for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further 5 minutes.

Meanwhile season the flour and scatter it over a plate. Give the steak a good coating of seasoned flour by pressing it down so that it gets a good covering of flour: make sure you do both sides.

Lay out 3 bacon rashers side by side on a board, sit a pigeon at one end and roll up, tucking the rashers underneath. Repeat with the other pigeon.

Take the pan off the heat, sit the beef on top of the vegetables, sprinkling in any flour that refused the stick to the beef. Sit the pigeons on top and pour over the wine and stock. The liquid should cover the beef, but only go up around a third of the pigeons. Add more stock – or plain water – if necessary. Add the parsley and then close the pressure cooker lid.

Bring up to full pressure and then turn down to a quiet hiss for 1 hour. Turn the heat off and allow to cool enough so that the lid can be removed safely.

To serve, remove the pigeons from the cooker, take off the bacon and return it to the vegetables, then remove the pigeon breasts – you should be able to do this with a spoon – and divide the beef into four pieces.

Just look how clean the meat comes from the bone. Deliciousness.

Mash the very soft bacon into the vegetables. Place a piece of beef in the centre of a plate or deep bowl, sit a pigeon breast on top and spoon over the vegetables and gravy.

Serve with mashed potatoes and garden peas.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22790

The Diary of John Evelyn Volume II (1665-1706) by John Evelyn. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42081

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) by Eliza Acton

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Christmas Pottage


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It’s getting close to Christmas and I am sure that many of you are starting to plan what food you will making for the big day. I try and give you a Christmas recipe every year and I narrowed things down to four, and then asked Twitter which I should post and Twitter answered: the traditional Christmas pottage, the forerunner to the more familiar Christmas pudding.

Then, in a strange coincidence, Channel 5 asked me to take part in their Christmas special for their Cakes & Bakes show, asking if I would do a bit on the history Christmas pottage/pudding/cake. It won’t be broadcast until Christmas 2021, but it can be viewed on their streaming service to watch right now, just follow this link. As usual it was great fun to film, though – as always – rather nerve-racking.

Pottages were thick soups – stews really – made from meat and vegetables, made thick with grains or breadcrumbs. The meat was omitted if it was a fast day of course. Everyone ate them; if you were poor it wasn’t much more than a thin gruel. If you were rich it was packed with meat, boose, dried fruits and spices, and at Christmas they really went overboard.

As far as I know this pottage was made from at least the Late (or, if you prefer, ‘High’) Middle Ages and it was eaten either on Christmas Day, or even better on Christmas Eve: a big steaming bowlful of it would be the perfect way to mark the end the 24-day fast that was Advent and start of the 12-day piss-up that was Christmastide.

And as all the people in the neighbourhood dine with [my uncle] at Christmas, he takes care to place those who are married at the upper end of the table with himself, and to provide them each with a silver spoon to eat his plumb-porridge, which is generally very good, while the batchelors and maidens, at the lower end of the table, are furnished only with wooden spoons, and have their plumb-porridge serv’d up in a wooden bowl.

From ‘Excursion of an Oxonian into the Country’ in The Student, Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750)

Here’s the eighteenth century recipe I based mine on:

Plum-Pottage, or Christmas-Pottage.
Take a Leg of Beef, and boil it till it is tender in a sufficient quantity of Water, add two Quarts of red Wine, and two Quarts of old strong Beer; put to these some Cloves, Mace, and Nutmegs, enough to season it, and boil some Apples, pared and freed from the Cores into it, and boil them tender, and break them; and to every Quart of Liquor, put half a Pound of Currans pick’d clean, and rubb’d with a coarse Cloth, without washing. Then add a Pound of Raisins of the Sun, to a Gallon of Liquor, and half a Pound of Prunes. Take out the Beef, and the Broth or Pottage will be fit for use.

Prof. R Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728)

It really was quite the dish.

Often pottages were cooked in a hot water pastry instead of expensive earthenware or iron pots; these were given the name ‘coffins’ and overtime pastry and baking became more refined and produced for us the mince pie. Sometimes the pottage (or porridge) was cooked in a bag and boiled (see Cauldron Cooking). It had to be less soupy and bound with eggs but cooking it this way provided us with the Dickensian cannonball-shaped Christmas pudding.

I took a look in the excellent University of Leeds Special Collections and found that they cite this fifteenth century recipe as the first example of the dish. It is more savoury, packed with onions and herbs and died red with saunders (a dye made from cedarwood).

My recipe will feed the whole family, including the “batchelors and maidens” that’s for sure. If you don’t want whole spices you can use ground ones and if you don’t want to use beef (or don’t have the time) just swap the water for beef stock:

500 g shin beef, sliced

1 litre cold water

1 tsp salt

400 ml red wine

400 ml stout

2 nutmegs, cracked, or 1 tsp ground nutmeg

6 blades of mace, or 1 tsp ground mace

1 heaped teaspoon whole cloves, or ½ tsp ground cloves

2 medium-sized Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced

200 g currants

100 g raisins

100 g prunes

2 or 3 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs (optional, see recipe)

Place the beef shin in a large saucepan with the salt and pour in the water. Heat over a medium flame – take your time – until the wate begins to just simmer. Skim away and scum, cover and leave to simmer very gently 2 ½ to 3 hours or until tender.

Add the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs, bring back to a simmer and cook until the apples are tender, and the fruit has plumped up nicely, around 30 minutes.

Break up the beef (if it hasn’t already fallen apart on its own) with the back of your spoon and then add enough breadcrumbs to achieve the desired consistency: you can leave it soupy if you like and add none, though I think it was better thickened slightly. Start by adding 2 handfuls and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, and then add more if you think it needs it.

Taste, adding more salt if you think it needs it and serve.

References

The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728) by Prof. R Bradley

‘The Festival of Christmas’ by Joan P Alcock in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1990: Feasting and Fasting: Proceedings (1991)

‘Stewet of Beef to Potage’ in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary. Also receipts in ancient cookery (1790) by the Society of Antiquaries of London; University of Leeds Special Collections: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/view/811

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Forgotten Foods #8: The Grey Heron

When we think of the meat that was eaten at mediaeval feasts, we conjure up images of huge pieces of roast ox, venison or wild boar’s head. There was, in fact, a wide variety of meats, especially wild birds. One of these was the grey heron and its meat was regarded very highly, only fit to serve at the top tables of a banquet; the only other waterfowl with a higher status was the regal swan. According to the late, great Clarissa Dickson-Wright, heron tastes like swan too: “it was very fishy”, she tells us, “rather stringy and reminiscent of moorhen…” It’s quite odd to think they were eaten at all; they’re such a lanky things – all neck, legs and wings. There can’t be that much meat on one.

Grey Heron (RSBP)

So how does one prepare and cook a heron fit for a top table? If we look in Forme of Cury – the earliest cookbook in the English language, dating from around 1400 – and it tells us: “Cranes and herouns shul be armed with lardes of swyne, and eaten with ginger.” The “lardes of swyne” are strips of backfat or fatty bacon that are threaded through the meat so that as the lean meat cooks, the fat melts and bastes it. That’s all we get though.

Wynkyn de Worde (National Portrait Gallery)

We can glean more information from another book, The Boke of Keruynge or, The Book of Carving, which was written in 1513 by the splendidly named Wynkyn de Worde. He provides a long list of different animals, along with instructions on how to carve them for the table. Curiously, there are many words for carving – a specific word for each type of animal, so for a heron, you don’t just carve it, no, you “dysmembre” it:

“Dysmembre that heron.

Take an heron, and rayse his legges and his wynges as a crane, and sauce hym with vynegre, mustarde, poudre of ginger, and salte.”

(And to “Displaye” a crane, simply “unfolde his legges, and cut of his winges by the Joints.”)

So, we get am extra modicum of information: a piquant mustard sauce or glaze, but we still don’t know how it was cooked.

To get any detailed information, we need to go to 1660 and look at the classic tome The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, and he had obviously read Mr de Worde’s book, because he uses the same words for carving:

“Dismember that Hern.

Take off both the legs, and lace it down to the breast with your knife on both sides, raise up the flesh, and take it clean off with the pinion; then stick the head in the breast, set the pinion on the contrary side of the carcase, and the leg on the other side, so that the bones ends may meet cross over the carcase, and the other wings cross over upon the top of the carcase.”

He also tells us that herons are not simply hunted and brought to the dinner table, but stolen from nests before they have fledged and kept in special barns

“…where there is many high cross beams for them to pearch on; then to have on the flour divers square boards with rings in them, and between every board which should be two yards square, to place round shallow tubs full of water… and be sure to keep the house sweet, and shift the water often, only the house must be made so, that it may rain in now and then, in which the hern will take much delight.”

The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May (British Library)

In these sheds, the herons were not fed fish, as one might expect, but “livers, and the entrails of beasts, and such like cut in great gobbits [bite-sized pieces].” They were not just kept for the table either, many were kept for “Noblemens sports”, specifically for training their hawks. When raised for sport, they were instead fed on “great gobbits of dogs flesh, cut from the bones”

Why dogs’ flesh? Well, this was a time when Bubonic Plague was common, and at the time it was thought that dogs carried the disease, and so any strays would be routinely caught and killed. But why catch and kill an animal that you thought had plague and then feed it your own hawks? I would have thought they’d be taken to the edge of town and burned them or something, but that’s seventeenth century logic for you. CDW makes a further point: “It’s ironic when you consider that the dogs might very well have killed the rats whose fleas did carry the plague and therefore might have prevented it.”

Indeed.


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May also provides us with some recipes. In general, they are boned and filled with a minced meat and suet stuffing, seasoned with spices and oysters, then poached. Sometimes they are baked in ovens.

Herons do seem to drop out of the cookbooks after that, but they were still being eaten. The most recent reference I could find is from the 1914 book Pot Luck; or The British home cookery book by May Byron and is for Heron Pudding. It uses chunks of meat taken off the bone, and the reason why is very interesting:

“Before cooking it must be ascertained that no bones of the heron are broken. These bones are filled with a fishy fluid, which, if allowed to come in contact with the flesh, make the whole bird taste of fish.”

This may explain CDW’s issue with roast waterfowl like swan and moorhen. I wonder if they boned before cooking and if that would make them taste better?

Byron goes on:

“This fluid however, should be always extracted from the bones, and kept in a medicine cupboard, for it is excellent applied to all sorts of cuts and cracks.”

You heard it here first folks.

Heron is no longer legal game and therefore no longer eaten – as far as I know. However, if you have any stories to prove me wrong, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.

References

The Accomplisht Cook (1660) by Robert May

The Boke of Keruynge (1513) by Wyknyn de Worde in Early English Meals and Manners (1868) edited by Frederick James Furnivall

Forme of Cury (c.1400) in Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (1985) edited by Constance B Hieatt and Sharon Butler

Heron Pudding, Foods of England website: http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/Heron_Pudding.htm

A History of English Food (2011) Clarissa Dickson-Wright

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To Roast a Chicken

For centuries, the British were famous for their roast meat, attached to a spit before being hand-turned by some poor soul in front of a devilishly hot fire. We no longer do this, today we cook them in the oven, so technically they are baked meats not roasted ones. Searching for historical recipes for roast chicken is rather tricky: they were rarely roasted – they were a dependable source of eggs after all – so only chickens that stopped laying were eaten, those so-called ‘old boilers’. Instead, capons provided tender meat; these castrated cockerels were put to good, being otherwise surplus to requirement. Unfortunately, in today’s mass production of eggs, male chicks are killed as soon as they can be sexed.

When you do find a recipe, there is little focus on the roasting itself. Check out this recipe for ‘Chicken Endored’ from around 1450:

Take a chicken, draw it and roast it; let the feet be on and take away the head. Then make a batter of egg yolks and flour, and add to it ground ginger and pepper, saffron and salt, and spread it over until it is roasted enough.

Mediaeval manuscript c.1300-1350 showing poultry spit-roasting (image via http://www.larsdatter.com/)

By the eighteenth century, there is little more instruction, but we do at least get a cooking time:

To roast young chickens, pluck them very carefully, draw them, only cut off the claws, truss them, and put them down to a good fire. Singe, dust and baste them with butter, they will take a quarter of an hour roasting. Then…lay them on your dish.

We can only assume that the roasting part of the process was already in the readers’ skill set.

My recipe is below, but there are a few things I should mention first: First, never wash your chicken! It’s unhygienic and it will stop the skin crisping up. Second, do not overcook and don’t fear the salmonella; follow the times and temperatures precisely and you will be grand. Thirdly, use plenty of butter and bacon to season the bird and keep moist. I make a flavoured butter for the roasting, but using just butter will still produce great results.


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1 free-range chicken

100 g butter, softened

Salt and pepper

Any flavourings you like: e.g. 1 to 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic, 1 tsp chopped thyme or lemon thyme, truffle trimmings, chopped rosemary, grated zest half a lemon, chopped olives, anchovies or capers, ½ tsp smoked paprika. The list really is endless.

8 rashers of dry cured bacon, smoked or unsmoked

100 ml white wine

300 ml chicken stock

1 tbs cornflour

Remove the chicken from the fridge and hour before you want to roast it. Untruss it and preheat the oven to 190°C.

Mash the butter with the salt and pepper using a fork and stir in the flavouring ingredients, if using. Set aside.

Sit the chicken on a board, untruss it and turn it so that the cavity is facing you and carefully lift the skin away from the breasts. The technique is to insert the tips of your middle three fingers gingerly underneath the skin lifting it away from one breast, using your other hand to keep the skin taught, lest it tears. Repeat for the other breast

Next, place the flavoured butter under the skin, massaging it so to evenly distribute it over the breasts.

Make sure there is plenty under there, but reserve around a quarter of it to spread it over the legs. Next, lay the rashers of bacon over the bird so they overlap only slightly.

Weigh the chicken then pop it on a roasting tin. Don’t be tempted to truss it. Calculate the cooking time: 45 minutes per kilo plus 15 minutes and place in the oven.

Leave undisturbed for 30 minutes, and then baste with any butter that has melted and leaked from the bird. Tip to one side, so that buttery juices come out of the chicken. Baste with the juices every 20 minutes or so, and when the bacon is sufficiently crisp, remove it and let the bird roast without its porky jacket for the remaining time.

Remove and check its cooked all of the way through by easing the leg away from the body, it should be filled with delicious, clear juices. If unsure, use a sharp knife to test the juices are clear in thickest part of the leg. If they are tinged with pink, roast ten more minutes.

Remove the tender chicken – be careful it may start to collapse a bit, so be swift and use a fish slice and a pair of tongs to help you guide it to a board safely and all in one piece. Cover with foil to rest while you make the gravy.

Tip the juices into a jug and allow to settle for a few minutes. Place the roasting tin over a medium-high heat and brown any delicious detritus that remains in the roasting tin. Deglaze with the wine, scraping off any brown bits with a wooden spoon, then tip the whole lot into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile skim away most of the fat from the chicken juices and pour them into the pan along with the stock. Bring to a boil and let it bubble away for ten minutes so it reduces a little.

Now slake the cornflour with a few tablespoons of cold water and whisk it briskly into the gravy. Give it a couple of minutes to thicken, and if it seems on the thin side, slake a little more; it’s all down to preference, I prefer a thin gravy.

Check for seasoning and leave on a low heat whilst you get everything ready.

To carve the chicken I find it easiest to remove the legs first, cutting them at the knee to give two thighs and two drumsticks, and then cutting each breast away in one piece, cutting them into four or five thick pieces.

Arrange them on a warmed serving plate and don’t forget to serve the bacon.

References

The Culinary Recipes of Medieval England (2013) compiled and translated by Constance B Hieatt

The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) Elizabeth Raffald

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Lent podcast episode 7: Figs & Lambs (ending Lent)

Helen’s Hebridean sheep

In the final episode of the series we look at how the last Sunday of Lent was marked in the past, focussing on Fig Sunday and Palm Sunday.

Neil cooks up some historical pax cakes to give out to shoppers and traders at Levenshulme Market so see how then would go down today.

Pax cakes

With Easter Sunday on his mind, Neil gets hold of some very special meat from a Hebridean sheep farm and has a chat with farmer Helen Arthan about what it’s like working with such characterful little sheep. On his return to Manchester, he cooks up some roast hogget for two friends of the show.
 


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Helen, Neil & Vicky

Links and extra bits:

The story of Holy Week: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/holy-week-and-easter/holy-week

Recipe for pax cakes:

200g icing sugar, plus extra

30 g cornflour, plus extra

1 tsp orange flower water

Zest half a lemon

1 medium egg white

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C.
  2. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk slowly to combine, then use an electric mixer to beat the mixture very smooth.
  3. Dust your worktop with icing sugar and cornflour and roll the mixture out to a thickness of around 3 mm.
  4. Cut into rectangles and prick with a fork, then arrange on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper and dusted with a little cornflour.
  5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly golden brown.
  6. Cool on a rack.

Levenshulme Market website: https://www.levymarket.com/

Hebridean Sheep Society website: https://www.hebrideansheep.org.uk/

‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ blog: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/

Rectangular livestock paintings: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-rectangular-cows-of-art-uk

Roast hogget/lamb, recipe number 438: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2020/04/04/438-plain-roast-primitive-lamb-with-gravy/

‘English Food’ by Jane Grigson: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/242/24292/english-food/9780140273243.html

Other primitive/ancient sheep breeds of the UK: https://www.accidentalsmallholder.net/livestock/sheep/british-rare-and-traditional-sheep-breeds/

Written and presented by Dr Neil Buttery
Produced by Beena Khetani
 
Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio

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Favourite Cook Books no.4: ‘Great British Classics’ by Gary Rhodes

I have been meaning to write a post on this excellent cookbook for quite a while, and it is such a shame that my prompt to pull my finger out was the sad and untimely death of Gary Rhodes at the end of last year.

When I was asked to submit my list of favourite cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project, I put New British Classics as my number one choice, my comment at the time being: “simply the best book on British food around. Everything from lowly haslet to lobster.”

Favourite recipes include salad cream, lardy cake, prawn cocktail, rhubarb and rack-on-black – lamb roasted with black pudding.

My favourite books on food tend to be by food writers rather than professional chefs because they write about their love of food and its importance in our culture and history. Chefs tend to be, well, cheffy; there’s no evocative description of the hustle and bustle of a French market, and they assume that you want to be cooking restaurant-level food at home. This is where Rhodes was different – sure there are cheffy dishes like the very complex rich pigeon faggot – but there are basics such as fried bread, porridge and jam roly-poly. Everything is represented and everything has equal billing, meaning that whatever your ability level there is a way in. You can start off with basics like scrambled eggs or go straight in at the deep end with pigs’ trotters Bourguignonne.

The full gamut of British food is here: fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, pork faggots, white pudding, Welsh rarebit, and the massive range of techniques contained within makes it the most comprehensive book of British recipes there is. What’s more, every single recipe works perfectly; he goes through every stage, assuming you know nothing but never patronises. If you don’t own a copy and you’re interested in cooking British food, it really is essential.

The secret to his success was his attention to detail. Every move made, and technique used was meticulous and done with deftness, even the way he picked up an ingredient to show to camera had an air of precision about it. Take a look at this clip from the accompanying BBC programme, where he shows us how to make cabbage and bacon soup, and you’ll see what I mean:

He was a classically trained chef who applied French techniques to classic British dishes, taking them to new heights while keeping them authentic. His approach definitely rubbed off on me when I was teaching myself to cook; use the best ingredients and don’t cut corners, every stage is there for a reason, so you need to understand why it is there. Only when that penny drops will you develop a cook’s intuition. This approach to cooking won him his first Michelin star at the age of 26, eventually receiving an OBE for services to the hospitality industry in 2006.

On television, he was very enthusiastic, polite and well-spoken; he seemed a little odd and socially awkward (as all the best people are), making him all the more endearing. He got me interested in cooking and wanting to spend my precious leisure time in the kitchen, learning new techniques and tackling novel ingredients.


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He was rarely off the telly during the late 1900s and early 2000s, his trademark spiky hair and over-enthusiasm caused many to pooh-pooh him as gimmicky. Eventually the fickle eye of entertainment focused upon other, younger chefs and so he stopped appearing so regularly. But his books and their accompanying TV shows are great; his Rhodes Around Britain and Cookery Year series are worth checking out too (his apple pie recipe from the latter is the best in world in my opinion).

He died on the 26 November 2019 at the age of 59 from head injuries after a fall – no way or age to go, I’m sure you’ll agree. Of course, when someone dies, there work is revaluated and I hope people recognise what he did for British cuisine, because he put it on a pedestal when everyone else was looking elsewhere.

Braised Oxtails

He was ‘discovered’ on the Keith Floyd programme Floyd on Britain & Ireland. On the segment he makes his signature dish: braised oxtails. Ironically, by the time New British Classics was published his most famous dish was illegal to eat – cooking beef on the bone was banned because of health fears surrounding the BSE crisis. Eventually the ban was lifted, and I could make it for myself. Back in my pop-up restaurant days it was the main course at my first ever Odd Bits offal evening.

This is my version of Gary’s signature dish; it’s slightly simplified but just as gutsy. It really is one of the most delicious things you will ever cook. Nothing else needs to be said – except ‘cook it’!

Enough for 6

2 oxtails, trimmed of excess fat

Salt and pepper

Beef dripping

Around 100 g each carrot, onion, celery and leek

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

2 tbs tomato purée

Small bunch thyme and rosemary

2 bay leaves

1 clove garlic, crushed

300ml red wine

1 litre beef stock

Season the oxtails and fry in dripping until well browned, transfer to an ovenproof pot, then fry the vegetables until nicely brown too. Tip those into the pot along with the tomatoes, garlic and herbs and bring to a simmer. Pour the wine into the original pan and reduce until almost dry. Add to the pot with the stock.

Simmer very gently on the hob or braise in an oven set to 160⁰C. Whichever you choose, it needs to tick away for 3 hours.

Remove the cooked meat and keep warm and pass the cooking liquor through a conical strainer, really pressing the vegetables hard to get all the flavour out.

Throw in a big handful of ice cubes, and stir so they freeze the fat; you should be able to lift out ice and fat in one nice big satisfying lump.

Reduce the liquor to a sauce and season with more salt and pepper, then add back the oxtails to heat through.

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Cornish Pasties

As promised, some Cornish recipes and I start with a classic. Cornish pasties are a simple combination of chopped (not minced) beef, potatoes, turnips and onions. It’s seasoned well – especially with black pepper and baked in shortcrust pastry. You can moisten it with a bit beef stock and season it further with some thyme leaves if there’s some hanging around, but you really don’t need to. Sometimes you may find some carrot in your pasty, if you do, thrown it back the face of the person who gave you it, because there is no place for carrot a Cornish pasty.

Cornish pasties were given to Cornish tin miners or field-workers so they could slip one into their pockets and eat them for lunch, the thick crimp being a useful handle protecting it from dirty fingers. The meat-to-vegetable ratio varied depending upon what folk could afford at the time. It don’t think it should be too meaty, but if you disagree simply alter my proportions in the recipe below.

Cornish tin miners, pasties in hand

Also, for a Cornish pasty the crimp must go down the side, not over the top, as you might see in some bakeries. That is a Devonshire pasty, I believe.

As discussed in the comments in my previous post, these pasties did not have a sweet filling at one end and a savoury one at the other. What you have there is Bedfordshire clanger, but I’m sure you knew that.

One final thing, some advice from Jane Grigson: “Cornish pasties are pronounced with a long a”. We use a short a Up North, and I refuse to change.

Pasties ready for the oven

If you’ve never made a pasty in your life, this is the one to start with; the ingredients are raw so there is no messy gravy and juices getting everywhere and making things difficult. It seems too simple to be delicious, but it is. The secret is in the seasoning. I use a rounded teaspoon of salt, but you can use less; be warned though, use no or little salt, and you will have a bland stodge-fest before you, my friend.

On the subject of salt, notice the crazy amount of salt in the egg wash – a good half-teaspoon of salt in your beaten egg provides a strong and appetising shine to the final product. I believe that is, as the kids say, a kitchen hack.

For 2 large or 4 medium-sized pasties:

For the shortcrust pastry:

400g plain flour

100g each salted butter and lard, diced

around 80g water

For the filling:

300g chuck, skirt or braising steak, gristle and fat removed

125g onion (a medium-sized one), chopped

125g turnip, peeled and thinly sliced

250g potato, peeled and thinly sliced

salt and freshy-ground black pepper

thyme, fresh or dried (optional)

4 tbs beef stock or water

Egg wash:

1 egg beaten with ½ tsp salt

Begin with the pastry. Place the flour, butter and lard in a mixing bowl. If you have an electric mixer, use the flat beater and turn on to a low speed until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If you are doing this by hand, rub the fat into the flour with the tips of fingers. It shouldn’t take longer than five minutes.

Trickle in the water with the mixer on its slowest speed and stop it as soon as the dough comes together. If doing by hand, add half the water and mix in with one hand, trickling in the rest of the water as you mix.

Either way the dough should some together and not feel sticky – it shouldn’t stick to your worktop, but it will feel a little tacky.

Lightly flour your work surface and knead the pastry briefly. This is where you may go wrong – over-kneading results in tough, shrinking pastry. The way to tell you are done kneading is to pinch some of the dough between your thumb and forefinger – it should just split around the edges when you pinch it hard (see pic).

Cover the dough and pop in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.*

Meanwhile, get the filling ready. Place all the vegetables and a good pinch of thyme if using in a large mixing bowl. Season and mix with your hand, then add the meat, season that and then mix in. Remember to be generous with the black pepper – add what you think is sufficient, then do a couple more twists of the milk.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and split into two or four equal pieces. Form into balls and roll each out on a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin. I rolled out two large dinner plate sized circles of dough to around 3mm thickness – that of a pound coin. Don’t worry if they are a little wonky, they get tidied up as we go. That said, if it’s looking more like a map of the Isle of Wight than a circle, you might want to neaten up a little.

Now heap up the filling in a line just slightly off centre, dividing equally between the circles of dough. Sprinkle with the beef stock or water. Brush a semi-circle of egg wash down the edge nearest to the filling and then fold the dough over leaving the dough beneath poking out by 5 or 10mm.

Next egg wash the side again and crimp down the edge –  this makes things extra-secure as the filling expands in the oven. To crimp, fold over one corner inwards with a finger, squidge down the next section of pastry and repeat until you have worked all your way around the pasty.

Place on a lined baking tray, egg wash the tops and poke in a couple of holes with a sharp knife. Bake for 1 hour at 200°C, turning down the temperature to 180°C once the pastry is golden brown, around 20-30 minutes into the bake.

Remove and eat hot or cold.

*I will write a more in-depth method for pastry at some point, honest!


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Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.

Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.

It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the richer folk of society.

Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:

For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese & boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche & serue yt forþe.

This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm; the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.


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I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!

The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger, cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’ foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.

Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.

The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.

The only thing I have done differently to the original recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out in the cooking process and flavour the dish.

1 L mediaeval almond milk flavoured with a few drops of almond extract

1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2 drumsticks, skin removed

3 tbs duck or goose fat

white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

1 ½ tsp salt

small handful slivered almonds

Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling

Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir just once more.

Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently for 25 minutes.

When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.

Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt and sugar sprinkled over.

There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict? Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then, cheerio!

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Suet – A Beginners’ Guide

Suet is the essential fat in many British puddings, both sweet and savoury, as well as stuffings and dumplings, mincemeat at Christmastime and – of – course suet pastry. It makes some of my most favourite British foods. It’s role is to enrich and lubricate mixtures, producing a good crust in steamed suet puddings.

Suet is the compacted, flaky and fairly homogenous fat that is found around animals’ kidneys, protecting them from damage. Here’s a very quick little guide to buying and using it in recipes.

snapseed-02Flaky fresh beef suet

Don’t be put off by suet – I served up Jam Roly-Poly to a group of 18 American undergraduates recently, and they’d never heard of a suet pudding before. They all came back for seconds!

Several recipes already on the blog use suet:

Fresh Suet

Fresh suet can be bought from your local butcher at a very low price. Most commonly available is beef suet and it can be used in any recipe in the book. You can also buy lamb and pork suet – and sometime venison – which are all great when using the meat of the same animal in the filling (e.g. Lamb & Mint Suet Pudding). Pork suet is sometimes called flead or flare fat. Sweet suet puddings, however, require beef because it is flavourless, whilst lamb is distinctly lamby; not great in a Jam Roly-Poly.

Fresh suet can be minced at home or by your butcher or can be grated. I prefer to do the latter, as it’s quick and easy. You must avoid food processors however, as you end up with a paste. Grater or mincer, you will need to remove any membranes and blood vessels – much easier to do as you grate, hence why it’s my preferred method.

snapseed-01Freshly-grated beef suet

I find it best to buy enough suet for several puddings, grate it and then freeze it. Fresh suet can be kept frozen for up to 3 months.

atora

Preparatory Suet

Although not as good as fresh, packet suet bought from a supermarket is a perfectly good product and store cupboard standby. Atora is the iconic brand producing a shredded beef suet as well as a vegan alternative; these vegetable suets are made from palm oil and are therefore somewhat environmentally unfriendly. However, Suma produce one that is made from sustainably sourced palm oil, so keep a look out for that in shops.

suma_vegetarian_suet

Preparatory suet can be switched weight-for-weight in any recipe unless otherwise indicated.

And that’s my very quick beginners’ guide to suet, have a go at cooking with it, you won’t be disappointed.


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