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.
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
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.