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  • Foie gras on the wane

    November 10, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | by Tom

    I’ve never been a great lover of foie gras. Yes, I can see the appeal, especially when it’s properly trimmed and cooked to the precise nanosecond of perfection but, on the other hand, I have never told myself that I could murder a piece of fatty goose liver. The production process, if not exactly murder, is not very pleasant for the goose. The unfortunate bird is force fed grain through a pipe, way beyond the requirements of its normal appetite.

    Foie gras apologists claim that this is fine. It’s not like doing the same to humans, they say, because geese don’t have a gag reflex. Hmm… I still don’t think it’s a nice thing to do to a bird that has not offended us in any way. Or even to a bird that has. When I was watching a friend of mine salivating over an impeccable and very expensive slice of the stuff I casually mentioned the cruelty is issue. “Ah yes,” he said, dreamily. “But you can’t taste the cruelty”.

    There’s an amusing piece on foie gras on the blog called Stuff Rich People Love (which, at first, I thought was more pungently titled “Stuff Rich People”).

    In any case, I am told by many chefs that foie gras is on the decline. For a start, they say, it’s so dear that it really pushes up menu prices at a time when the impetus is in the other direction and, just as important, a lot of diners, especially younger ones, have ethical issues with eating the stuff.

    The City of Chicago banned foie gras a few years ago, causing ructions in the restaurant industry, but repealed by the by-law in 2008.

    The ethics of eating foie gras has been explored in at least one recent book but I sometimes wonder if a lot of people who avoid the stuff on moral grounds find themselves eating intensively reared chicken. Not much to choose between the two if you ask me. Except that foie gras tastes a great deal better.

  • An Bord…Bia?

    November 6, 2009 @ 3:20 am | by Tom

    The annual Bord Bia Food and Drinks Awards were presented yesterday. And the Bord took the opportunity to tell us that more people are cooking stuff at home. Which, I suppose, is good news.

    But it was the following passage in the report of the event that really caught my eye:

    “The born global award, recognising outstanding achievement in the challenging export market, went to Kerry Foods for its Cheestrings product and Oak Park Foods, Cahir, Co Tipperary won the consumer focus award, recognising product innovation, for its pre-packed bacon rib product launched earlier this year.”

    Cheesestrings and bacon ribs? Outstanding? Worthy of a gong from – let’s be clear here – An Bord BIA? Here in the “Food Island”?

    This isn’t food as I know it. I don’t know – to my shame – what the Irish for “industrial food processing” is, but I’m starting to think that “An Bord Bia” needs a new name.

  • Dying pubs: do not stand at their graves and weep

    November 5, 2009 @ 2:19 am | by Tom

    There is much money to be made in predicting trends, and in the US a firm of consultants has recently posted their clairvoyant notions (this is a pdf file) of what will be big next year.

    In the US, if they are to believed, fried chicken (in various guises and borrowing from South-East Asia) is the Next Big Thing. It will, they say, replace belly pork, which can’t be a bad thing. And they say that “organic” is becoming a bit debased, so “local” and “artisan” will be the new trigger words for the well-heeled.

    The following is their list of “buzz words” for food in 2010:

    Authentic Neapolitan pizza. Lamb riblets. Too many food
    trucks, not enough curb space. Latino street food. Farmed trout creeps up on farmed
    salmon. Curry- and Indian-spiced fried chicken. Vietnamese sandwiches (bahn mi).
    Gelati. Global comfort food. Artisan hot dogs. Made-to-order ice cream. Chefs turned
    butchers. Casual comfort. Touch-screen kiosks and home delivery in fast food outlets.
    Latino street food. Wood oven cooking. More energy drinks and adulterated waters.
    Mood food. Backyard and rooftop bee hives. Stevia. Kimchee. Urban farms. Griddled
    burgers. Free food. House-made everything, especially in sandwiches.

    Lamb riblets? Er… I can’t see a whole lot of these catching on in good ole Yerp. Stevia… yeah, right. But I think they are right about “local” and “artisan”. Good restaurants in Ireland have been thinking along these lines for over a year at this stage.

    According to a recent study, 2000 Irish pubs will close over the next ten years. This should not be a cause for much grief. We are not talking about the classic, old Irish pub, the likes of Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street or The Gravediggers or (I hope) my local (when in Dublin), Locky’s (aka O’Loughlin’s) which is opposite St Michael’s Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. These are honest, old-fashioned boozers with a period charm. They may be relics of a past age but I would hope that this particular quality – and the very personal service, sensitive to the locality -is what will save them.

    No, the kind of pubs that I want to see vanishing are those soul-less, characterless, charmless establishments which provide merely drink and Sky TV and damn all else, complacent, wildly over-valued establishments that have traditionally commanded a commercial value way beyond their contribution to the sum of human happiness. If they provide food it’s a ham and cheese sandwich (both of the plastic sort) which can be toasted in a cellophane bag. And if they provide wine, it’s 185ml bottles of Chilean plonk. They are the kind of places in which the few remaining customers must surely ask themselves if they would be better off (in every sense) at home.

    The publicans still wield considerable political power. They scuppered Michael McDowell’s plans for an Irish “cafe society”. But their economic power is waning and let us hope that soon they will be irrelevant. I don’t think any tears should be shed.

    The pubs that will survive are the ones that innovate. The pubs that serve micro-brewed beer, real food, proper wine. And, of course, the ones with real character and personality, to which food (beyond a bag of peanuts, if you’re lucky) is as alien as a wine-of-the-week, and which have not innovated since, at the very least, 1945. All the dross in the middle will go, praise the Lord!

    The big new trend in Irish eating, I’m pretty sure, will be pubs that do real food. We have already seen what Olivier Quenet (formerly of Guilbaud’s) is doing in Vaughan’s of Terenure (and now above O’Brien’s on Leeson Street) and a new pub restaurant is opening this week at The Arches in Churchtown. I hear that the Exchequer Bar is doing potted crab… The trend has started and we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing. Pubs have the space, the licence (don’t get me started) and the economic imperative (aka the overdraft) to look at food in a different way. Farewell the toasted sandwich and the carvery. Hello the gastropub.

  • Getting in the garlic

    November 3, 2009 @ 2:50 am | by Tom

    It seems particularly appropriate that we learned of Brian Lenihan‘s enthusiasm for raw garlic over the Hallow’een weekend when vampires are traditionally pretty busy. It was also the weekend when we – or I should say Johann – planted our annual crop of good old Allium sativum, something that we would advise doing now as garlic benefits from a chilling period. So, if you want to grow your own, don’t hang around until Spring. Get it in now, ideally in pretty rich but well-drained soil (sandy is best), making sure that the tip of each clove is an inch or a little more below the surface. By next June you should have a decent crop and will be able to enjoy the pleasures of so-called “wet” garlic, the fleshy new season bulbs which you can simply bake in foil with a dash of olive oil. When they are tender, you just squeeze out the molten flesh and mop it up with crusty bread, even more olive oil and some sea salt flakes.

    Eating the stuff raw, as the Minister seems to do, is the best way to get all the manifold health benefits (the most significant of which seems to be a fairly potent anticoagulant effect) but it’s best done between consenting adults in private. The pong can be moderated by chewing parsley and I have a vague idea that I once heard that caraway seeds too are good in this respect. If you grow your own caraway you can enjoy the fleshy little seeds before they shrivel, go hard and start to resemble, in a rather alarming fashion, mouse droppings. But I digress.

    Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a lot of uses for garlic and, apparently, the stuff is only lousy with warm yang energy – which is probably something that every Minister for Finance can use on a regular basis. According to a Chinese news story from May of this year, TCM doctors advise people who chew raw garlic or mash it into their morning congee to gargle with wine. Which gives a new meaning to being on the gargle, I suppose.

    My preferred method of ingesting raw garlic is in the form of pesto and in my version of the Ligurian classic sauce I have been known to increase the recommended dosage by a factor of three. It is true, by the way, that making pesto by hand with a mortar and pestle produces a particularly wonderful version but I don’t think we should be ashamed of using a hand-held blender with a degree of delicacy. The kind of people who use a mortar and pestle are very often unbearably smug – which, added to a pungent aroma of garlic about their persons is just too much.

  • Taking pleasure in not eating things

    October 30, 2009 @ 12:36 pm | by Tom

    Some of the most sensible – and concise – comments about vegetarianism have been made by omnivores. I recall Oliver Peyton saying to Pat Kenny that while we go to lots of trouble to cook vegetarian foood for our vegetarian friends “do they ever cook us meat when we go to their houses?” But my favourite is AA Gill’s declaration that vegetarians are people who “take pleasure in not eating things.”

    Not that we should underestimate the pleasure involved in occupying the high moral ground. I’ve no doubt it beats a McDonald’s Big Mac any day.

    Now, just as there are thoughtful, contemplative, well-informed omnivores (no, not carnivores: we eat more than meat), there are the same amongst vegetarians. But a lot of vegetarians, wanting to eschew factory farming and industrial meat processing, throw the baby out with the bath water. I hate the idea of factory farming but I salivate with an easy conscience at the thought of a roast of free-range, organic rare-breed pork. There is no connection between the two.

    But, then again, that rare-breed pig will almost certainly have been fed some grain. And you can argue that growing grain to feed animals is morally dodgy in a world where there doesn’t seem to be enough grain to feed human beings. When this is taken into consideration, the conscience is not so easy. A more persuasive example would be Irish beef which is largely (some of it wholly?) grass fed. So, there you have it: guilt-free salivation at the thought of a medium-rare rib-eye steak with garlic butter.

    And it’s relatively cruelty free, eh? Those cattle are dispatched with…er…such such dispatch that there is no pain, as far as we can gather. Not that we want to be there when the deed is being done. Appetite and hypocrisy make great companions. But what about the butter? If you have ever heard cattle mourning their separation from their calves – and this is how dairy farming works – I can tell you it’s a pitiful sound. But then again, as a friend of mine says of foie gras, “you can’t taste the cruelty”.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that (a) if you have concerns about eating meat vis-a-vis the fate of the Third World and/or the planet you don’t have to give it up entirely and that (b) it’s hard to think of an animal-derived food that is entirely devoid of cruelty.

    However, there is a huge amount of complete cobblers spouted about vegetarianism and, in particular, veganism. Actress Natalie Portman recently treated readers of The Huffington Post to her views on how eating meat and animal-derived produce is simply wrong. Her sweeping generalisations and very peculiar logic strike me as being part and parcel of the extremists’ mindset and I’m glad to see she has been taken to task for some of her more barking mad assertions.

    Perhaps, like me, you missed the news that Heather Mills (who she?) has gone vegan and is opening a vegan restaurant to which she has given the name VBites, which sounds like a supplement you have to take when on a vegan diet. “My vegan meals will taste like meat,” she told Now magazine before the opening. If this is true, surely most true vegans would be horrified? Or am I just confused?

    Vegetarians are understandably browned off when ignorant omnivores do the “You know Hitler was a vegetarian?” schtick. “You know Heather Mills is a vegan?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

  • First, bake your stinky cheese…

    October 28, 2009 @ 11:49 am | by Tom

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    I know that food miles are a complex issue but, broadly speaking, I’m not keen on encouraging the consumption of food that has to travel long distances. But there are exceptions, of course. At the decadent, peel-me-a-grape end of the scale are truffles. Have you ever tried to buy an Irish truffle? They exist, I believe and I have heard of one man who lies on the ground and watches the almost microscopic truffle flies as they seek out the mysterious subterranean tubers. But I suspect he doesn’t do this on a commercial basis. Indeed, he may be confined for his own safety at this stage.

    While we have truffles in Ireland, they remain infuriatingly unseen. I can’t pass an oak tree in the Autumn without wondering would it be worthwhile spending a day digging small random holes around its roots but so far sanity has prevailed.

    What we don’t have in Ireland is a native equivalent to the cheese known as Vacherin Mont d’Or (although I realise that making a bald statement like this will mean that I will soon know about someone who is trying to produce an experimental version, using bark from trees on the slopes of Lugnaquillia – in which case I shall let you know).

    They say that truffles and Vacherin Mont d’Or go very well together but I’ve never had both together at the same time so I can’t say if it’s true. I have, however, been told, that it’s a good way to ruin two very lovely things. On balance, I’d keep them separate.

    The thing about this soft, runny and often distinctly stinky cheese, the zone of production of which straddles the Swiss-French border, is that it makes the most glorious meal when put into a hot oven until it is thoroughly heated through and is even more molten than at room temperature. You then tear up lots of crusty bread and dunk until you have removed every last scrap, right down to the bare birch wood that forms the cheese’s wrapper. Actually, the cheese comes in a little box made of pine, while the cheese itself is contained with a circle of birch. All in all, quite woody stuff

    Strictly speaking, you’re supposed to punch holes in the cheese and drizzle with white wine. The trouble is, if the cheese is ripe, the holes close up as soon as they’re made and the wine seeps out of the wooden container. Some people like to sprinkle on a finely chopped clove of garlic (something I’ve yet to do) but I prefer a lot of coarsely crushed black peppercorns and a splash of wine just for luck. The Swiss, being a terribly organised people, put some foil around the box to keep everything inside, which is a good idea. Don’t forget to put the lid back on before putting it in the oven. (Our Vacherin Mont d’Or came from Iago in Cork’s English Market, but you can get it from all serious cheesemongers; people argue about the French versus the Swiss version but this is way beyond me; the bread was Declan Ryan’s Arbutus sourdough).

    One small Vacherin, a loaf of good bread and a simple green salad makes one of the best meals you can have. And it’s not exactly cooking. It’s a seasonal treat, because this is, essentially, a Winter cheese. Next time, I think I’ll try it with thyme.

    Strictly speaking, of course, this should be drunk a wine from Jura or Vaud but neither is easy to get in Ireland. And the celebrated Vin Jaune of Jura, which smells and tastes like fino sherry that has been left open in the sun for a few years, is not the sort of thing that I want to drink at all. I’d be inclined to go with the Rhone, ideally a white, odd as it may seem. The cheese should cost you between €7 and €9, so it’s not a hugely expensive treat even if it does simply drip with decadence. The only flaw in this lovely little meal is the fact suspicion that it gave the Swiss the notion of inventing the fondue.

  • Irish beef is better…but watch those omega-3s

    @ 12:48 am | by Tom

    At last, confirmation that Irish beef, which is largely grass-fed, produces better meat than the stuff that is fed cereal in feedlots (as in most of the EU and pretty much all of the US). Grass-fed beef has a higher omega-3 content than the rival product and Bord Bia is planning a promotional campaign based on this fact (about time, if you ask me). Mind you, we must be vigilant. A lot of people think that all Irish beef is 100% grass-fed thanks to our grass-friendly climate but this is not true.

    It seems that some Irish beef is sold in the UK as being from “the British Isles” which will cause apoplexy in certain quarters. But I am assured that “British Isles” is an ancient geographical description, not a political one. The more politically correct “Product of These Islands” is probably a bit too vague.

    Have a listen to this week’s Food Programme from BBC Radio 4 – all about omega-3, 6 and 9 and how we need to keep a very strict and informed eye on food labels. Can we trust the claims? And are plant-derived omega-3s all they are cracked up to be? Fascinating stuff. This is the best kind of radio.

  • Read before you grow

    October 27, 2009 @ 1:23 pm | by Tom

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    Everything in the garden has a season. Soon we will be sitting beside the fire poring over seed catalogues, wondering if the new varieties can be nearly as good as their descriptions and making a mental note not to order too much lettuce seed. And some of us will be reading gardening books – in much the same way as musicians read scores (for the pleasure without the effort). There are some very well written gardening books, by which I mean books which actually give a degree of pleasure in addition to the instruction, but we consult most of them just to help us get a job done.

    Isn’t strange how new, glossy books about gardening, with their colour photographs and step-by-step instructions tend to end up being curiously unsatisfying? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found the old gardening books much more useful, in the end, and much more interesting to read, than the contemporary stuff.

    Mind you, Joy Larkcom’s Grow your own Vegetables (Frances Lincoln, 2002) is an exception in some respects. It’s not glossy and it has no colour pictures; in fact, it’s a very chunky paperback; but it is very up-to-date and it’s probably the best manual for would-be vegetable growers. It’s not currently in print but is still around. Joy lives in West Cork and is the doyenne of British veg writers. A particular fan of salad crops and Oriental brassicas, she is a polymath (I think she graduated from Cambridge in Chinese) and lively company. Her style of writing is concise; she simply wants to cram as much useful information into each sentence as possible and she uses lots of abbreviations in order to keep things neat. Don’t expect lyricism but you can depend on the advice. Her classic book on Oriental vegetables is still in print.

    The book that really got me going when I became an allotmenteer was not in print even then. This was the ambitiously titled The Complete Vegetable Grower (Faber 1975) by the amazingly prolific W.E. Shewell-Cooper of whom I know virtually nothing. It’s dated, the varieties mentioned are, by and large, no longer available and style is often a hoot (there are frequent references to the need to “consult the housewife” but the advice is sound and if you had no other book to hand you would do fine. He was also a great enthusiast for the “no dig” gardening method (which relies on vast amounts of mulching) which remains, for many the Holy Grail.

    I can’t find out much about Shewell-Cooper, other than a list of his appointments at various horticultural colleges in Britain, but he seems to have an Irish connection. Of cardoons (the close relative of the globe artichoke in which the blanched stems are eaten), he says “The author used to grow this vegetable well when he used to live at Queenstown in the south of Ireland. It seems to love the climate of that country…” (I tried growing cardoons near Cobh, as Queenstown is now called, a few years ago and the slugs loved them).

    Quite a few years ago, Johann bought me the first volume of The Gardener’s Assistant edited by William Watson (Gresham Pubishing Co Ltd., 1925) which crams a huge amount of information between its scuffed green covers. The suggestions for kitchen garden design take no account of World War I and are firmly rooted in the Edwardian halcyon days (you must have a vinery and a peach house along the south-facing wall, for example). However, the advice on growing vegetables is very sound if rather dogmatic (you know the way books of that era tend to thunder things like “double trenching is imperative in the cultivation of…”?). And there are few gardening books that tell you how to grow potatoes and onions, on the one hand, and licquorice, skirret and samphire on the other. It seems to be easy enough to find on sites websites like abebooks

    Eleanour Sinclair Rohde’s Vegetable Cultivation and Cookery (Medici Society, 1938) is another volume from another era that somehow stands the test of time. She was a very prolific and scholarly writer on plant matters (The Old English Herbals is quite a classic and The Scented Garden is still valid in a lot of ways). Here she really gets her hands dirty and you can see that she did actually do the gardening (although I’m sure it was with the assistance of her staff). My only complaint about Eleanour is that she cooked a lot of things to a mush. Purple sprouting broccoli was to be boiled for half an hour! On the other hand, leeks were to be put in “as little water as possible” and stewed until tender. Not bad advice. She also tells us how to grow and cook all manner of unusual stuff from asparagus peas (which I recommend with melted butter) and rocambole (which is a kind of onion) to scolymus (a bit like a cardoon, apparently) and New Zealand spinach. Eleanour must have been quite a character and I would love to know more about her but I have pretty much drawn a blank.

    Now, here’s a book that is as beautiful as it is practical and helpful: The Book of Apples by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards with stunning illustrations by Elisabeth Dowle (Ebury Press, 1993). This bible for apple enthusiasts was published in association with the Brogdale Horticultural Trust which keeps the UK’s national fruit collection near Faversham in Kent. This wonderful book will either inspire you to plant a whole orchard of wide and varied sorts of apple or you will just gaze, entranced, at the superb watercolour illustrations of Sturmer Pippin, Norfolk Beefing and Egremont Russet. There’s a lengthy history of the apple and a very detailed directory of varieties.

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    Spuds don’t have quite the same romance to them as apples, somehow. But Alan Romans’ The Potato Book (Frances Lincoln, 2005) is worth having if you take these tubers seriously. What you get is a slim volume with a history of how the humble spud (why are they always humble?) found its way from the Andes to McDonald’s (if you see what I mean) and a directory, with colour photographs, of lots of varieties. Each potato is also rated for blight resistance (Sarpo Mira scores a staggering 9 out of 10 in this respect, something to bear in mind when choosing a maincrop). Alan Romans is not only one of the world’s greatest authorities on potatoes, he also sells seeds.

    Finally, if you want a book that tells you about the history of edible plants and how they have come to be like they are today, try to get hold of The Kitchen Garden by David Stuart (Alan Sutton, 1987) which is both a great reference work but also a darn good read. It does for vegetables, herbs and fruit what Geoffrey Grigson’s An Englishman’s Flora did for wild flowers and sadly has been out of print for years. Mr Stuart is (was?) clearly a great scholar but he also demonstrates a hands-on appreciation of what it’s like to grow most of the plants of which he writes.

    I have not counted recently, but I reckon our collection of gardening books must stand at around 400 at this stage. These are just a few of the landmark ones, the ones to which I keep returning even if, as in the case of Shewell-Cooper, I can probably recite passages from memory).

    Does anyone have any suggestions for books that really inspire, get you itching to be digging and sowing and planting? Or that contain descriptions of the gardening life that are particularly real and vivid. Heaven knows, there’s plenty of gardening prose that is as heavy and as unyielding as compacted clay…

  • Following the recipe…for a change

    October 23, 2009 @ 12:48 pm | by Tom

    It’s not that I am totally averse to following recipes. When it comes to any form of baking I’m happy to do so, in almost laboratory-like detail. But in most other cooking, I’m a bit slapdash (although I like, in my deluded way, to think of it as “instinctive”) and I rarely if ever follow step-by-step instructions when producing, say, a casserole. I suspect that a lot of people are in the same boat: we know the basics, the principles and the rest is easy, using what we have to hand and maybe adding our own little flourishes.

    And so it was unusual for me to take a book – Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (the 1972 Penguin single volume edition) – and proceed to…er…follow a recipe in almost forensic detail. At least, that was the idea. But could I break with my old habits? And what would the resulting dish be like? Would it be sufficiently different from my “instinctive version”?

    There was a time when “marketing” didn’t mean persuading people to buy stuff that they may not need and don’t want. In the EF Benson Lucia novels (and if you have yet to read them, you have a luscious treat in store) “marketing” is what the women of the town did with their baskets in the morning: going from greengrocer to butcher to poulterer in search of food for the day. I like the idea of “marketing” in this sense. Shopping suggests a list of things that you’re going to buy, whether they are good or not. “Marketing” is about seeing what’s good on the day.

    On this occasion, I can’t claim to have been “marketing”. I had a shrewd notion that I would get some excelent rump steak from Bart O’Donoghue in Tallow, and so it proved. But would this be transformed into Carbonades a la Flamande or Boeuf a la Catalane or Estouffade de Boeuf? No. As I browsed Julia’s recipes, the one that cried out to be cooked, on a leisurely Saturday afternoon) was Boeuf a la Bourguignonne (page 342). It has one great advantage over other versions (such as Elizabeth David’s, Elizabeth Luard’s, Hume and Downe’s, Mireille Johnson’s and Curnonsky’s) in that there’s no marinading. Another thing that caught my eye is the inclusion of some tomato puree in the mixture, something that hardly anyone else uses. Curnonsky is a rare exception in this respect; and, rather appropriately, his made-up surname is based on cur non?, the Latin for “why not?”

    The first step in Julia’s recipe involves a 6oz piece of streaky bacon; she tells you to remove the rind, slice the meat into lardons and to simmer these in water for 10 minutes.

    Well, I’m afraid I fell at the first hurdle. Life, I concluded, is too short, so I substituted a 125g packet of bacon pieces from Lidl. And yes, I can hear the shrieks of disapproval as I write this but wait, wait…

    As JC advises, I sauteed the bacon bits in a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy old Doufeu casserole (bright orange and probably the same age as the book) for two to three minutes, removed it with a slotted spoon and set aside. I then ensured that the bacon fat and olive oil mixture was “almost smoking” before browning the meat.

    Now, JC calls for 3lb of lean stewing steak cut into 2 inch cubes and that’s what I did when I got my rump steak home. But about a quarter of a pound was lost in trimming. “Dry the beef; it will not brown if it is damp”, says JC and this was to become something of a mantra with her (like “don’t crowd the mushrooms”. Bu it’s absolutely true. The kind of supermarket beef that erupts from its plastic bag with a splash of bloody fluid will be hopeless in this respect. Just don’t bother with it. Go to a good butcher. My rump steak was dry already (and aged a few weeks too) and it browned right away, especially as I did it in small batches. Then I put it with the bacon.

    JC then gets you to brown 1 sliced onion and 1 sliced carrot in the same fat/oil – and I did just that. The she says to pour away the fat/oil but there was only a trickle left at this stage.

    You now, according to JC, put your browned beef, the bacon and the vegetables back into the casserole and you season them with 1 teaspoon of salt and a quarter of a teaspoon of pepper. I put in exactly that amount of salt (level, not heaped) and ground in enough black pepper to approximate to a quarter of a teaspoon. Then, as directed, I sprinkled over an ounce of flour and tossed everything about before putting in the oven (which is meant to be hot – 230ºC/gas mark 8; our Aga was cooler than that on the day). You’re meant to take it out and toss again after 4 minutes but I gave it 6 to be on the safe side. “This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust,” according to Julia. I’m not sure it really did. Maybe I should have used the electric oven. Anyway, I gave it another 6 minutes rather than another 4 and proceeded.

    At this point you take the casserole out of the oven and turn the heat down to 150ºC/gas mark 2. Now comes the wine and I’m afraid I departed from the recipe once again at this point. JC calls for 1 1/4 pints of “a full-bodied, young red wine such as…a Chianti”. (They used to say that you needed a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin for the pot and another for the table, but that would be a very, very expensive beef stew). I used a Nero d’Avola from Sicily and I didn’t measure the quantity; I used all but a small glassful.

    In it went, followed by “enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered…” Here was another departure. The stock was, understandably, supposed to be beef stock. The only stock that we had, in the freezer, was duck stock. And in it went. Followed by a tablespoon of tomato paste (puree), 3 rather than the indicated 2 crushed cloves of garlic, a big sprig of fresh thyme in place of the 1/2 teaspoon (presumably dried?) in the recipe and, “a crumbled bay leaf”. My advice is to avoid crumbling bay leaves. If you crumble them you get little hard pieces of leaf that will stick like glue to your palate. And I read, years ago, in the British Medical Journal of all places, that swallowing bay leaves is not a good idea… No, next time I’m going to put in the whole bay leaf and fish it out at the end.

    Anyway, all was stirred together and at this stage you are told “bring to simmering point on the top of the stove. Then cover the casserole and place in lower part of the preheated oven.” Actually, I brought it to boiling point because the casserole was going into the bottom oven of the Aga which is cooler than 150ºC, so I wanted to give it a bit of a boost.

    As advised by JC, I left it there for between 3 and 4 hours (nearer 4, actually). “The meat is done,” she says, “when a fork pierces it easily.” The button mushrooms (browned in butter but a bit less of them than advised) and the baby onions, softened in stock, went in at the last minute.

    Well, it turned out to be the best version of this dish that I ever cooked and the tomato puree, which worried me a little, simply vanished into the dark, intense sauce and worked some kind of magic, albeit not in a tomatoey way. Overall, it was way better than my usual…er…”instinctive” version of this great old French classic.

    Julia advises, in that scatter-gun approach to wine that was so common in cookbooks from the ’60s and ’70s, to eat it with “Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Saint-Emillion claret, or Burgundy.” I don’t think the Beaujolais would be up to the job and it would need to be a pretty serious Cotes du Rhone. In the end, we had it with a chunky, nicely oaked Corbieres - not a wine region that would have been on JC’s radar when she was writing her magnum opus because it was widely known then, along with Minervois, for producing oceans of rather nasty, cheap reds. How times change.

    This is a terrific recipe. So good, in fact, that I’m now planning to cook Julia Child’s Coq au Vin. It looks like the same procedure, just with chicken instead of beef, which suits me fine. And I might even do as Julia says about the bacon. I’m off to find a 6oz piece which I shall then lovingly de-rind… But I have to say that the Lidl bacon pieces are very tempting.

  • Wise Child

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:57 pm | by Tom

    If you have not yet seen JULIE AND JULIA, which deals with the doyenne of American food writers and a young New Yorker who set herself the task of cooking every recipe in Child’s monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking, there is probably not much time left unless you want to settle for the DVD in due course.

    I would have enjoyed more Julia (a literally towering performance by Meryl Streep) and less Julie (the gamine Amy Adams) and none at all of her rather loutish husband but that’s just me. It’s a fun film and Julia Child comes across as wildly enthusiastic, intelligent, irreverent, eccentric and loveable. If this is to be believed – and I gather it is – she must have been a mighty contrast to Elizabeth David whose sole TV interview, with Jancis Robinson, made Dr Hastings Banda seem loquacious.

    Julia had a somewhat whooping voice and her cookery demonstrations had a gloriously unscripted character; watching an excerpt from her 1960s TV series, The French Chef, you can tell that she often finds herself not entirely sure of what she is going to say next. Jamie Oliver did not model his television persona on her. Meryl Streep’s take on the distinctive Child voice occasionally makes her sound a little squiffy but, then again, a lot of Martinis appear to be consumed.

    Here she gives some good advice on making omelettes.

    YouTube Preview Image

    I had a craving for poached eggs this afternoon, encouraged, no doubt, by the presence in the kitchen of a dozen very fresh, very mucky local free-range eggs, each devoid of an official stamp and therefore sold strictly under-the-counter. Julia Child has this to say about eggs for poaching:

    The most important requirement for poaching is that the eggs be very fresh; the yolk stands high, the white clings to it in a cohesive mass… A stale egg with a relaxed and watery white is unpoachable because the white trails off in wisps in the water, leaving the yolk exposed…

    I followed her advice and put my two eggs into barely simmering water (with a couple of teaspoons of vinegar to help the cohesion) for about three minutes and took them out with a slotted spoon. Then placed them on generously buttered toast. As Julia Child says, you can never have too much butter. This is not entirely true, of course, but you can certainly have too little.

    One of the more dramatic interludes in the Julie strand of the film concerns the making of what she calls boof Bourguignon and it inspired me to do something I rarely manage: to follow a particular recipe, in this instance Julia Child’s for boeuf Bourguignon, to the very letter. And I came pretty close to doing so. Of which more anon…

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