Tag Archives: liver

Savouries

About five years ago, a reader asked if I could write about savouries, that now forgotten course served up towards the end of a Victorian or Edwardian meal. Well I’ve finally pulled my finger out and written one, so here we go:

The savoury course used to be extremely popular; a delicious morsel, which was salty, creamy and spicy, serving as a digestive after a rich meal, either as a final course, or before a sweet. What often happened was that the gentlemen ate their savouries and went off to drink whiskey and play bar billiards, and the ladies had their sweets and swished off to the withdrawing room for cards, chats and sherry; there were no non-binary genders allowed here, let me tell you.

I’m a big fan of the savoury course and I often include one in my supper clubs and pop-ups. They had gone out of fashion by the mid-twentieth century, the only real survivor being the cheeseboard.

Potted chicken livers

Savouries have of course lived on as first courses, canapés, teatime snacks and light lunches, and you will have eaten some of them, and many have already appeared on the blog. Delicious morsels like devilled kidneys, Welsh rarebit, potted chicken livers, potted cheese, Patum peperium, rillettes, angels & devils on horseback and sardines on toast have all been served up by Yours Truly at some point. Two of my favourites are Scotch woodcock – a spiced anchovy butter served on toast covered with a creamy, savoury custard – and Locket’s savoury, a slice of toast topped with ripe sliced pears, wilted watercress, and a thick blue cheese sauce which is then grilled, rather like Welsh rarebit. Delicious! It was nice to see Nigella Lawson championing the devilled egg recently; a woman after my own heart.

Angels & devils on horseback

Savouries are often served on toast, fried bread or some kind of biscuit or cracker. In Eliza Action’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, there is just one recipe for savouries which appears to be a proto-croque monsieur, with a small footnote. She doesn’t seem to approve. In the twentieth century, however, you get entire books of the subject, the best being Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath (1934).

What makes a good savoury?

  1. Size matters: it must be one or two mouthfuls, so the best vehicles are toast, fried bread or crackers. However, boiled eggs work well as do oysters in the shell. As long as you can eat it without cutlery, you’re doing good.
  2. Salt: savouries are almost always highly seasoned with salt. This is apparently the digestive part, but it also functioned to give people a good thirst ready for a boozy evening ahead. Salt itself was rarely used, it’s much better to use more interesting ingredients such as anchovies, cured meat and fish, cheese and relishes such as mushroom ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, etc.
  3. Heat & spice: quite a lot of the ingredients served more that one purpose, so most of those listed above fit into this category too, but there was also good old black pepper, English mustard, Cayenne pepper, curry powder and Tabasco sauce.
  4. Strong flavours: other strong flavoured things were used, such as blue Stilton, kidney, liver, game and smoked meats and fish like ham, bloaters and even red herrings.
  5. Creaminess: all that salt, spice, richness and heat was often tempered with something bland and creamy and a variety of things were used for this purpose, such as cream (obviously), egg yolks, savoury custards, béchamel sauces, soft cheeses, brains, sweetbreads, lambs’ fries, fish roes, oysters and left-over poultry meat.

Devilled Chicken Livers

Probably the most infamous savoury is the devilled kidney, but you can devil lots of things. I pride myself on my devil sauce, and at The Buttery devilled chicken livers on toast became a rather unlikely signature dish. This recipe can be easily adapted if livers aren’t your thing: fish roes, kidney, brain, lambs’ fries, left over roasted poultry, mushrooms and even tofu can all be devilled with great success. My favourite is chicken liver because it has all of the qualities listed above in abundance. It’s a good idea to make extra devil sauce as it keeps in the fridge for a good ten days or so, and I can guarantee, you’ll be wanting to devil everything you eat from now on! Here’s how to make it.

Serves 2 as a light lunch or snack, or three as a first course, or six as a savoury course.

For the devil sauce:

2 tbs English mustard

2 tbs Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup, or a mixture of the two

1 tbs vinegar

good pinch of Cayenne pepper

dash of Tabasco sauce

freshly ground black pepper

Simply beat all the ingredients together – taste and add more Tabasco and pepper if you like. There’s no need to add salt.

For the livers:

6 chicken livers

a decent knob of salted butter

the devil sauce

3 or 4 tbs double cream

1 slice of crisp toast per person

chopped parsley

First of all, check the livers for any bitter green gall sacks, which are often accidentally left on. If you sport one, snip it off with scissors.

Get a frying really good and hot and melt the butter. As soon is stops foaming, add your livers. Try not to disturb them. After 2 minutes, turn them over and cook for one more minute. Next, add most of the devil sauce and fry a further minute, making sure the livers get coated in it. Add the cream and let form a lovely rich sauce, turning the livers over in it. Have your toast ready on plates so you can top it with the livers and then the sauce. Scatter over some parsley and serve immediately.

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Potted Chicken Livers

Now I know you’re thinking that I am dressing up something French as British by saying ‘potted chicken livers’ instead of pâté but the British have been potting meats like beef, game and salmon, and also liver, for a long time now. Potting helps preserve meat if covered with an airtight layer of clarified butter and kept in a cool place. I am going to write a post very soon on potting meats as well as some other methods of meat preservation soon; the point of this post was for me to write a little diatribe about how the word pâté has the same roots as pot so I could feel a little smug and say that I was right. You know like those people who say raspberry coulis, when they just mean sauce. It turns out that I was a little wrong: my French is worse than pidgin and I just assumed the two words had the same root. I am blaming Elizabeth David for this gaff: she talks of potted chicken livers as though that’s what everyone calls them down her way.

Pot or pâté? Ms David knew which side of her toast was buttered

So as it turns out that the word pâté has the same roots as the words pastry and pasta, coming from Greek words meaning ‘small particles and fine textures’ according Harold McGee in his tome On Food and Cooking. So potted livers have a fine texture as they are a mixture of butter and liver, and pastry is made up of particles of flour and butter. Actually, pâté started life more as a chopped assemblage of meats, rather than the refined smoothness we think of today. Oddly enough pâté and pie eventually became interchangeable words in medieval times because chopped meat was often cooked in pastry on both sides of the English Channel. As I have said before, the food histories of Britain and France blend so much there is sometimes no point in trying to discern between the two.

Anyway, I have chuntered on enough now so I shall give you two recipes for potted chicken livers. First, a couple of mentions on preparation and storage: in this recipe the livers are fried in butter until pink, about 4 or 5 minutes on a high heat. It is very important that they should be cooked through and only slightly pink, not just seared and bloody and rare. I don’t want you coming down with Campylobacter or some other nasty food poisoning microbe. The other thing is to cover your potted livers with a good layer of clarified butter along with a lid or a covering of cling film, especially if being kept in a cold larder. The butter isn’t necessary if you are keeping them in the fridge, but they should be covered with something; butter is best though as it stops the livers from oxidising and turning from rich brown to muddy gray (oxidising is harmless, they’re still good to eat).

To make clarified butter, slowly melt some butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Skim off any froth or foam with a spoon and then decant the butter into a jug making sure none of the butter solids get poured out with it.

Potted chicken livers with brandy and peppercorns

This is the classic recipe for potted chicken livers, though I find that there is never enough brandy. I use quite a lot compared to many recipes because I like to be able to taste it; brandy is very rich and it can be a bit too much, especially with all that liver and butter too. To counteract this is I add a good dose of piquant pickled green peppercorns which are available at delicatessen’s shops or online. You can of course omit the peppercorns and reduce the amount of brandy if you’d rather.

Ingredients

8 oz chicken livers

6 oz butter

2 to 4 tbs brandy

3 tsp rinsed and drained pickled green peppercorns

salt and black pepper

clarified butter (optional)

Pick over the chicken livers, removing any large pieces of gristle, carefully removing any little green bile ducts that may be left on them. Get a frying pan nice and hot and add 2 ounces of the butter. When the butter stops foaming, add the livers and fry for a total of 4 or 5 minutes, turning them half-way through.

The idea is for the livers to be cooked, but still a little pink, so cut inside one to check after 4 minutes of frying. Tip the livers and butter into a blender or food processor and return the pan to the heat whilst you deglaze it with the brandy. Tip the brandy and burnt bits into the blender along with the rest of the butter and blitz until the required smoothness (I like mine very smooth). Mix in the peppercorns and the seasoning before potting in one large earthenware pot of several smaller ones. Pour over the clarified butter to form an airtight seal.

Potted chicken livers with gin, rosemary and thyme

My attempt at a recipe rather more Scottish in its flavours, which I think works very well. These livers are much more savoury and less rich than in the recipe above: a good shot of gin provides a subtle aromatic bitter hit of juniper, and the fresh herbs mellow it nicely.

The method is exactly the same as the above except 2 teaspoons each of finely chopped rosemary and thyme are fried along with the livers. Of course exchange the brandy for the gin and omit the pickled peppercorns.

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Filed under Britain, food, French Cookery, history, Meat, Preserving, Recipes