Aside

At the heart of the Hollies stood a crooked wooden column, splitting and hunched under a thousand years (it seemed to me) of weight. To it were pinned postcards from all over the world, sent to this corner of Essex by friends of my grandparents. The column marked an invisible line – on one side of it sat a constellation of over-stuffed armchairs and a deeply resonant grandfather clock that made me shiver with apprehension, whilst the other was open floor leading to the staircase and a dark, formal dining room.

The Tendring Hundred. Not pictured - the soul-wrenching reek of a thousand cows farting

The Tendring Hundred. Not pictured – the soul-wrenching reek of a thousand cows farting

There were the outdoor coal cellars full of black dust and cobwebs, where my dad and I rediscovered an old steam-powered toy train, a freezing pantry packed to the rafters with mysterious jars and homemade jams, the orchard out front where I first shot a gun and a bright conservatory full of the smell of orange zest and tea. It was from this base – this old tumbledown country pile where my father had been born in 1948 and my grandparents had lived ever since – that we’d venture out to the Tendring Hundred Show.

The Tendring Hundred is a farmer’s club in Essex and their show is a celebration of heavy machinery, prize livestock and overjoyed, muddy city children revelling in their one or two days of agricultural exposure. My grandfather would walk, slightly stooped and to me impossibly aged, amongst the stallholders, still wearing his bowler hat and a burgundy shield badge that marked him out as some Tendring Hundred dignitary. He’d taste cheeses, examine gnarled bovine teeth and pat giant tyres, though I could never understand quite what he was looking for.

It’s the smell of the place that stays with me – that wet dirt stink of 500 men and a thousand animals in one field, the heavy reek of diesel. But, curling through the agricultural and industrial murk, the sweet-sharp smell of real apple juice cut the air, one day from the tree and full of spine and heart. It’s that smell and that taste that I’m trying to evoke here, in an Essex tarte tatin.

Essex Tarte Tatin

  • 6 sharp-ish eating apples, cored and sliced
  • 75g salted butter
  • 60g (ish) golden caster sugar or brown sugar. Not muscovado.
  • A healthy glug of calvados or brandy
  • A little lemon zest
  • A few leaves of fresh mint
  • 1/4tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2tsp cinnamon
  • One pack shop bought puff pastry
  • One egg

Preheat the oven to 220ºc.

Melt the butter in a non stick, oven proof frying pan over a medium heat. When it starts to bubble and foam, add the sugar and stir – be careful, the butter and sugar combo is hotter than the heart of the sun and it will spit sometimes. Stir constantly, until the mixture is smooth and turning dark. Add the glug of brandy, followed by all the apples – it will look like too much but as they cook the apples release their juices, shrinking and creating a sauce simultaneously. Add the lemon, mint and the spices.

Stir, ensuring that all the apples are properly coated in the sticky, apple-y, boozey caramel. Cook down, stirring frequently, until the apples are soft and dark and the sauce – which will have become more liquid as the apples released their juices – has boiled back down to a thick caramel. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.

Drape the pastry across the pan, then tuck the sides down into the pan, forming a tight seal around the mound of apples. Trim any excess, but make sure there is still pastry coming up the sides of the pan – this forms a delicious, crispy lip. Brush with beaten egg and prick all over, otherwise the pastry will steam rather than going crisp.

Bake in the center of the oven for 25 minutes or until crisp and golden all over. Turn out onto a plate and serve with ice cream.

Advertisements

Toad in the Hole (Medicinal)

What does Autumn taste like? It looks buttery red and like brown leaves turning soft on dew drop lawns. It smells like damp earth and apple juice. It sounds like a breeze ruffling what’s left on the trees. Or, if you live in London, it sounds like leaf blowers at 9am, the cockwombles.

Much like the pained strains of the bagpipe, some leniency must be given to the leaf blower - indigenous instrument of the disgruntled council worker

Much like the pained strains of the bagpipe, some leniency must be given to the leaf blower – indigenous instrument of the disgruntled council worker

But what does it taste like? It needs to be something that warms from the inside, redolent with black pepper to make your lips tingle. It needs to act as a shield against the snivels and sniffs that those first foot stamping days bring on. In short, it’s got to be proper comfort food – the sort that comes out of agas in Grandmothers’ kitchens to appreciative sighs.

Call me a traditionalist, but this isn’t a season for extravagances or for experimentation. Flambés and fermentation and all the various exotica of the summer and spring kitchen have had their fun. This is a time for old-fashioned English stodge, a proper hug in a hot pan.

There’s really only one dish that could ever fit the bill – Toad in the Hole (Medicinal version). I can’t think of anything more English, more comforting, more autumnal or more utterly, completely and totally satisfying than toad in the hole and this version – with its heavy hand on the pepper and the crispy roasted sage leaves floating in the clouds of Yorkshire pudding – this version cures all ills.

Toad in the Hole (Medicinal)

Ingredients:

Equal quantities (I generally use around a pint when cooking for 6, and this really is a sharing thing) of –

  • Flour
  • Beaten egg
  • Milk
  • Eight good quality sausages. I like the sage and black pepper flavour of Cumberlands, but the rich red wine of Toulouse sausages work nicely too.
  • Six or seven fresh sage leaves.
  • Three red onions, one and a half finely sliced and one and a half chopped into eighths.
  • Chicken or beef stock
  • A big glass of dry white wine, and an extra one for you
  • A dash of balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 225ºc.

In a metal roasting tin, scatter the sage leaves, the chunks of red onion (keep back the sliced red onion) and your sausages. Drizzle with a good quantity of vegetable oil – you’ll need a fair bit if the pudding’s going to puff up like you want.

Roast the sausages, onion and sage for a good 15 minutes. You want colour on the sausages and the onion to darken and sweeten. Whilst they’re cooking, get your sliced onions into a heavy bottomed saucepan over a low to medium heat with a big pinch of sea salt. Sweat them down and keep stirring them. If they stick, turn the heat down.

Make your batter – start with the flour, and make a well in the centre of your mixing bowl. Chuck in the eggs and whisk as you slowly add the milk. You want it completely smooth. Add a very healthy dose of salt and particularly black pepper – it’s best if the batter has a bit of a kick. It clears the tubes.

Once your sausages and onion have had a good fifteen minute blast, get them out and quickly close the door of the oven. As fast as possible, pour the batter over the lot and get it back in the hot oven. Whatever you do, leave that oven door closed for the next 25-30 minutes or your toad in the hole will sag disappointingly on serving.

The onions in the saucepan should be starting to take on a bit of colour and look really soft by now. Stir in about half a tablespoon of flour and cook for a few more minutes. Now turn up the heat and add your glass of white wine. Simmer until almost evaporated and add about a pint and a half of stock with a timid little splash of balsamic vinegar. Simmer until velvety smooth and reduced by about a quarter. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve with your toad in the hole, which should be looking brown and crisp atop by now.

If I were you, I’d also take Baudelaire’s very wise advice – “let us not be the martyred slaves of time. Be drunk. Continually drunk.” And that is what Autumn tastes like.

Bacon, kale and cannellini bean stew

I’m woken most mornings by a foghorn. It starts quietly, a sort of subtle parp in my sub-conscience, and builds inexorably towards a blaring, deafening need. It drowns out groggy thoughts of painkillers, Evian and hot water bottles. My foghorn, as for so many others, is bacon.

Image

A subtle parp

My personal preference is for the smoky, fatty type either cut thin and cooked to shattering point or, as in this case, thick lardons layered saltpetre pink and creamy, unctuous white. With the soft orange buzz of pimenton picante, sweetly fried garlic and the slight bitter bite of kale, this makes for a restorative, satisfying and, I suspect, rather healthy lunch.

This was more or less a fridge slut thrown together for a Tuesday lunch following a surprise birthday party which I can remember until 1am and the third tequila. My back teeth were trying to escape and I had a twitch in both eyes, so as always you’ll have to forgive the lack of accuracy in measurements.

Bacon, kale and cannellini bean stew

  • A little olive oil
  • A handful of smoky bacon lardons, or three chopped bacon rashers
  • 1 tin of cannellini beans
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • A big handful of kale
  • Two fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon(ish) pimenton picante
  • Curly-leaf parsley to finish
  • Good meaty stock. I used about half a pint to three quarters of a pint.

I actually made this in a wok, because my kitchen remains woefully understocked, but really one should put a thick bottomed casserole over a medium heat. Add a good drizzle of olive oil – no need for the extra virgin stuff – before throwing in your lardons. Keep them moving and tumbling over one another for a minute or so.

Add your roughly chopped garlic cloves and around one teaspoon of pimenton picante. Keep stirring, ensuring that the the garlic does not burn. After five or six minutes, everything will be dark with pimenton and the fat on the lardons should start crisping up a little.

Add your tin of tomatoes and two thirds of your stock, season and turn the heat right down. Stir and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes or so, occasionally stirring to ensure the bacon and garlic doesn’t stick and burn. The sauce will thicken and reduce. Add your beans and kale, and a splash more stock. Stir and simmer until the kale wilts and darkens.

Garnish with curly-leaf parsley and serve with a piece of crusty bread, a glass of water and two paracetamol.

Italian sausage with a honey, clove and fennel sauce

On wine-soaked midnight forays to the back of my parents’ fridge there are two grails. The first is the occasional jar of chargrilled artichoke hearts set in fat, begging to be spooned into a frying pan with a liberal sprinkle of black pepper and a garlic clove wantonly, drunkenly mauled through the dreaded pewter crusher and served over a toasted slice from a granary loaf baked by the drag queen who mans (?) the ovens at the weird shop on the corner.

Image

A pint of sausages is more or less my equivalent of the Holy Grail, in as much as it’s a cup I really want.

 The second, in all its righteous glory, is the coiled flesh proboscis of the peppery, fennely Italian sausage, rich with red wine and little pellets of fat that bubble and squeak as they cook and send jets of purest molten FLAVOUR searing across the most alcohol pickled tongue. It squats, huge and emasculating in one corner of the fridge, half-hidden behind the fruit bowl, merely peeking its blotchy curves into view. With its vac-pack slit open over the sink, it slithers out and uncoils. Feel its heft, smell that fennel, get the fucking grill up to heat and STAT.

O’course, this wouldn’t be much of a recipe if it had just three steps (1. Grill. 2. Salivate. 3. Devour) so I feel compelled to pretty things up a little, and we will do it with a recipe loosely based on a month-long jaunt around the Greek islands with a vague notion of researching the first hints of a book. It was a largely fruitful experience, and I brought back with me the following:

  1. A new found and, as far as I can tell, entirely solitary love for the rocket-fuel raki.
  2. A trick with aforementioned rocket-fuel involving lighting cigarettes off my own flaming finger.
  3. A brief but rather lovely sense of inner peace.
  4. A tan.
  5. A head full of unusual Greek recipes so far removed from the limp facsimiles of British canteens and cafes as to seem not Greek at all.

Having fallen asleep on the Syros bus as we left Ermoupolis – a town which tumbles down three hills from three churches towards a typically Swarovski sea – we woke by some silent sandy beach and in panic clattered to our feet and off the bus. After a quick dip and brief, futile attempts to orientate ourselves, we collapsed into the soft white sand for a day of dedicated stillness under the huge Aegean sun. Hours later, and we were hungry, thirsty and discombobulated by over-exposure despite honest attempts at finding shade and comfort. No dust cloud and attendant bus crested the ridge that forms this natural bay, and we were forced to admit defeat. The unpromising taverna that makes up the resort seemed to be staffed solely by an ancient dog which lay immobile at the front step, needlessly tethered to a railing.

Menus were thrown in front of us with one word – “English?” – and we were left to our own devices. But the food…god, the food. Saganaki, cheese fried golden brown and served with thick syrup and lemon juice, recalled Sardinian salty white cheese tortelloni served with honey. Calamari was butter soft and perfectly crisp, whilst dry rusks form perfect vessels for a full-fat creamy feta-like cheese, startlingly bright red onion and plump, fresh mint and aromatic thyme. But pork chops with bubbled brown fat and soft, moist flesh was the main focus, drizzled with a sweet, spicy sauce of pork juices, clove, fennel seed and honey with a hint of oak and lavender. It is this sauce, deeply complex and a gauntlet laid to the naysayers to Greek cuisine, which caught the imagination and it is this sauce which I hope to emulate.

Italian sausage with a honey, clove and fennel sauce

  • One long, coiled Italian sausage, or four separate sausages
  • About half a pint pork broth, or chicken stock
  • About ten fennel seeds
  • One clove
  • One teaspoon good honey – acacia or lavender honey is best
  • Half a lemon
  • One clove of garlic
  • Black pepper
  • Salt
  • Olive oil

Heat a little olive oil in a medium sized, thick-bottomed saucepan over a low heat. With the flat side of a knife, squish the fennel seeds and clove and toss them in the warm oil. Don’t get too much of a sizzle on, but you should be getting a nice aroma out of the pan. Zest the half lemon into the oil – you’ll get a hit of that citric scent straight away. Smash the garlic clove with the flat of your knife, then grind it into something like a paste. Being the slovenly domestic disaster that I am, I prefer to just use the back of a knife with a little salt to provide the necessary rough surface and save on washing up, but a pestle and mortar will probably do the job a little more efficiently.

Chop your sausage into bitesize pieces, being careful not to squash the pieces too much. They should be about the size of your first thumb joint – any bigger and they won’t cook properly. Add the sausage and garlic to the pan and turn up to a medium heat. Stir regularly to avoid burning the garlic. Once the sausage is nicely browned on the outside, stir in the honey, the juice from the half lemon and black pepper. Once the lemon and honey are combined, add a little pork broth or stock at a time, topping up each time the liquid starts to bubble. Once all the liquid’s added, put on the lid and turn down the heat to simmer for around 15 minutes before removing the lid for another 10.

Serve with al dente rice studded with toasted pine nuts and a drink you should know better than to ingest.

Somewhere in the Balkans – 2009

“Drink. It is absolutely necessary that you drink.”

Yanni, the Hungarian train guard, is laughing as I stand atop a sticky formica table, trying to surf the queasily rocking train as it storms through some deep, wooded corner of the Balkans. His accent has become curiously less thick over the course of 3 bottles of harsh red wine and the restaurant car is empty but for us and an old Finnish couple who have been tossing back shots of homebrew rocket-fuel poured from a plastic iced tea bottle. I tried to engage them in conversation halfway through the second bottle, but they stayed stoney in the face of my opening gambit – a piece of trivia about cranberries learned from a Snapple cap.

I learned all I know from Snapple caps & reruns of the Simpsons. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the good men & women of the Snapple Research Institute

It’s 3am in limbo and I can’t sleep. The bunks on this Soviet-era locomoting hulk are barely big enough for a child, let alone my elongated frame. I was smoking a bootlegged Malboro out of the window when Yanni introduced himself. Smoking at 100mph in the Balkan penumbra is a queer experience as the thick plumes of oily smoke are snatched from rapidly numbing lips. He told me not to bother exhaling out of the window.

“I’m in charge. They only give me the night shift so I don’t scare the Americans.”

He’s undeniably disconcerting. Patchily shaved, he leers at every woman who passes the open door with unabashed lecherous intent. In the interests of preserving my drunkeness I say nothing but cringe inwardly at every inappropriate comment or glance. Dilute the distaste with more of that “rustic” red.

Yanni shared his lunchbox with me. Tupperwared macaroni swam in a salted white cheese sauce punctuated by crisp chunks of pig fat and skin. “Is this a Hungarian delicacy?” “Fuck Hungarian food. This is pure Italian.” I have my doubts, but hold my tongue. Admittedly, culinary Budapest had been less than inspiring – with the notable exception of astonishing golden tokaj served with dried strips of aromatic wild boar.

The train shudders to a halt and I tumble from my vantage point. Luckily my fall’s broken by Yanni who shouts something in Hungarian & gives me a look like murder.

“Are we here?”
“Bastard.”
“Sorry. Doesn’t answer my question though.”
“We’re not there yet. This is the border. Go get your passport.”

I nod and extricate myself from the tangle of limbs and overcoats. As I walk back to the cabin, furiously concentrating on avoiding the walls and windows, I can hear doors banging open behind me and boots clattering down linoleum corridors, a fact which injects some previously absent urgency and sobriety into the situation.  I hurry on past the window where Yanni and I had first made acquaintance and duck into our cramped cabin. Digging through my bags, I find my passport stuffed inside a shoe which has, in turn, become wedged in a skinny trouser leg. Ignoring the obvious questions, I turn and brandish it as the dull grey muzzle of a border patrol rifle pushes the sliding door open.

The border guard’s face is in shadow, but he’s enormous – at least my height, but twice as broad shouldered and swelling out of his sleeves as he pushes a mass of dark hair out of his eyes. He grunts “passport” and takes mine in a leathery paw. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he unholsters a torch from his hip at the same time and shines it into my face. I reel back a little and trip arse over elbow.

Sprawled on the cramped bunk, legs akimbo, I smile meekly up at him. He nods and tosses my passport into my lap.

Feature | Fast food goes Gourmet

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

International pizza delivery chain Domino’s last week started selling its new “gourmet” range – three pizzas which, according to a breathless press release have “been specially developed to appeal to a different type of pizza-eater who is looking for a lighter pizza and more distinctive flavours, which are akin to those you might find in a traditional pizzeria”. That is to say, the pizzas are an effort to appeal to those for whom Domino’s is usually only a last or drunken resort.

Domino's have fully embraced the trend for unusual and experimental cooking

For the majority of food lovers, high street fast food chains like Domino’s have become a byword for poorly-sourced, soulless and generally unpleasant food. Insipid burgers, rubbery cheese and Dead Sea levels of salt have all contributed to an overwhelmingly negative view of fast food. A request for one word descriptions of Britain’s fast food was met with a barrage of ire, ranging from “pointless” “unsatisfying” and “beige” to “greasy” “sticky” and, most damningly of all I reckon, “rancid“.

Continue reading →

Grilled Poussin

“Darling,” she said, and arced her back, pushing her belly button towards an imagined sun. I catch a glimpse of a small white breast and look away, concentrating fiercely on my wine. “It is really very difficult for those poor souls who are both beautiful AND intelligent. Rejected by both tribes. So sad.”
“I disagree.”
“You would. So contrary.”
“I think it’s like having the best from both tribes. Half eagle, half lion. Those ‘poor souls’, you included, might be a little more alone, but you’re griffins. Mythical beasts. Forgive me for not shedding a tear.”
“That may be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. But it will not offset you burning the poussin. Pay attention,” she smirks. And she’s right, of course. The skin is perhaps a little more than desirably charred already. I flip it and swig.

Griffins are the second best mythical animal

Lucy’s is the only mouth I know in which “darling” is not an unbearable affectation. She has a boyfriend called Pony and together they run a photographic studio in between forays to Essex and Middlesborough in search of trouble and life. She has been, by turns, a font of adventure, opportunity, mischief and solace. I owe her much. Right now I’m making a gesture of repayment by cooking her a meal, but she’s distracting me with statements absurd in their scale and scope.

Continue reading