Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Celebration Wines and A Very Quick Cucumber Pickle

Happy Christmas! It really is that time again - how does that happen? It's a good time of year for the sociable and the greedy in equal measure, definitely something to be celebrated. I am an endless fan of the shiny and the sparkly bits of the world especially at this time of  year when most of the light and warmth has leaked from the northern world, seemingly never to return. Delightful company, luscious food and good wines are a proper riposte to winter.

I had some wines from the Loire to sample, all whites in this case though due to its enormous reach the river winds through a multiplicity of landscapes offering such diverse conditions for the cultivation of grapes that every possible style of wine can be produced.We had people we like coming for lunch Saturday to catch up before Christmas so a perfect chance to treat ourselves and share nicely at the same time.

First up was this lovely sparkly Monmousseau, not as dry as some champagnes instead with a subtle richness, was perfect with an elegant plate of smoked salmon and soda bread. I made a quick pickle of cucumber with ginger that brought all the elements together to be even greater than the sum of their - very considerable - parts.

We had a Japanese influenced duck and clementine dish with noodles as the main, which I paired with a red from Douro - different river, good wine!

Then there was my favourite wine of the day - La Noé, the name of the grape not the producer - a very fine Muscadet from Eric Chevalier. It was fresh and rich and deliciously creamy. Its subtle delicacy has won the heart of Jancis Robinson, she notes that the effect of a slow fermentation using ambient yeasts and then seven months ageing on the yeast lees has given La Noë a marked and delicious creamy texture that beautifully complements the freshness and high tension delivered by crisp acidity. Subtle, refreshing, satifying and long.

I normally serve Muscadet with fish or a light chicken dish - it always seems to work - but M Chevalier suggests too that it has the depth to pair with cheeses so we drank it with a fine stilton - it's not Christmas if there's no stilton! - and it was a very good match.


We finished - much later - with sweet white Raisins Nobles, Jasnières 2009, gorgeous with warm mince pies but it would work too as a decadent aperitif with goose rillettes or foie gras and a garnish of pruneaux.

Most of lunch was a simple put together of bits and pieces and very little cooking involved. Mostly just the cucumber pickle, I shall add the recipe here if you are looking for something to go with smoked salmon or indeed cold pork or poultry. It only takes minutes to prepare.

Quick Cucumber Ginger Pickle

1 long cucumber
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup white wine or rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon  very finely grated ginger

Peel, halve lengthways and deseed the cucumber then slice very thinly. Put the slices into a colander, mix with the salt and leave to drain for about 15 minutes. Rinse briefly under cold water and pat dry with kitchen paper.

In a pretty bowl whisk together the rest of the ingredients then add the cucumber and give it a stir. Cover with clingfilm and fridge it for an hour or so before serving. If there's any left it will keep happily in the fridge for a few days.

Here's to a great Christmas and a happy 2014. Cheers!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Halloween Chocolate & Prune Cake

I am fat fingered, cack handed, inept - useless basically - when it comes to doing fiddly things. Paint skirting boards? More on floor, walls and me than ever goes onto those strips of wood. Pretty cards with sprinkles, glitter and sticky on hearts and flowers? Fingers stuck together, glittery face, smudged card. Sew on a button? I once sewed a button onto the waistband of a pair of trousers, having lined it up with the hole - who says I never learn - and finished it without a single knot or tangle in the sewing thread. Can't tell you how thrilled I was till I tried them on and found the button was on the wrong side of the fabric.

So I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why I decided this week to decorate a cake.

I had some Agen prunes that I wanted to use, having opened the pack last week. I fancied cake and wanted chocolate, hoping for something dark and unctuous. I searched the internet for inspiration and was astounded how little there is to do with prunes. They have so little *love* that even the California Prunes site calls them ugly and acknowledges they're the butt of  many many jokes. Really guys? That is one odd marketing pitch. They are lovely things, richly flavoured, great texture, perfect amount of chewy, and they soak up liquids to replump into glorious fruit any time of  year. When I was a kid my mother made dessert pretty much every day and a regular one (snicker) was prunes soaked in cold tea and brown sugar overnight then served with cream or custard next evening that I just loved. A good starting point, I decided and set about adapting a couple of recipes I found till I arrived at this fab mousse like, brownie like, chocolate delight.

It's nearly Halloween, an event it's impossible to ignore these days with lots of creepy crawlies and fake spiders and ghoulies and goodness knows what adorning pretty much everything, and I suddenly thought I want to make it a creepy cake.So off I went  to buy black food colouring and something that could be legs or fangs or hairy appendages and came home with ready to roll black icing and a packet of Oreos. I was thinking I could crush the Oreos to make  a dirt topping then decided I didn't like the flavour of them enough to ruin my cake. I started to roll out long strips of icing - a fabulously messy process especially if you're me - and realised I could make worms to look like they were emerging from the holes I'd make testing the doneness of the cake. Deciding it looked brilliant - very life like - I made little bugs, like scarab beetles, cutting patterns into their backs with the blunt end of a butter knife. By this point my palms are black and sticky from rolling icing, the knife is black and sticky too and there's bits of discarded icing on the bench and stuck to the outside of my left elbow.

Has to be said I was having a lot of fun, really enjoying the way my 'design' was evolving. I had been thinking of making spiders entirely from icing but, in a flash of inspiration, remembered a half jar of rum soaked prunes in the cupboard from quite some time ago. Pure alcohol, basically. I melted a bit more dark chocolate and, using a couple of toothpicks, rolled my boozy prunes in it till they were well coated. I put a little pile of  popping candy (Waitrose sell it, Heston makes it) onto a sheet of baking parchment alongside another pile of those tiny coloured sticks and rolled my prunes around using increasingly encrusted toothpicks and sticky fingers everything - and I mean everything - was pretty much covered. Decidedly cack handed by now, I cut out some very unconvincing legs from a bit more of the icing and added them and some 'feelers' to my bugs. Didn't have enough legs so you'll have to believe there was some kind of terrible industrial accident in creepy crawly land and these were the lucky survivors. Dropped them onto the cake and - voila!

Be afraid....

Prune & Chocolate Cake

If the cake is to be eaten only by the grown ups, you can always soak the prunes in 5 tablespoons of rum or brandy rather than tea and sugar for an afternoon tea treat.

175g pitted prunes
1 tea bag
1 tablespoon brown sugar
100g butter, diced
150g dark chocolate
50g soft light brown sugar
100g caster sugar
4 eggs, 2 separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
100g ground almonds
1 tablespoon plain flour
2 tablespoons cocoa
50g soft black icing
50g dark chocolate, extra
2 tablespoons brown and coloured edible popping candy

Put the prunes into a heatproof bowl with the teabag and the tablespoon of brown sugar and cover with boiling water. Leave to soak for a couple of hours or overnight then drain away any remaining liquid, set 3 whole prunes to one side, and then roughly chop the rest using a stick blender.

Preheat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Line the base of a 23cm springform pan with baking parchment and grease the sides with butter. Break the chocolate into large chunks and put it into a heatproof bowl with the diced butter and heat over a pan of just simmering water. When it’s all melted take off the heat and add the chopped prunes.

In a separate bowl beat the 2 sugars with 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks for about 5 minutes till the mixture is pale and doubled in volume. Fold in the chocolate prune mixture and then add the combined ground almonds, plain flour and cocoa and fold in gently till just mixed.

Whisk the remaining 2 egg whites till stiff and lightly fold those through the cake mixture. Pour it into the prepared tin and bake for 25 minutes till the cake is just set. Leave it in the tin on a cooling rack till cold.

Decorate as described above, or simply eat unadorned, it's still fabulous.

 Eat more prunes.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Hungary Pig

This little piggy weighs in at about 160 kilos and was raised on a small farm in north eastern Hungary to provide food, particularly lard, for the winter
A couple of months ago there was an email from Opentrips about an adventure to Hungary, specifically to a place called Mád. One pleasure of subscribing to this site is the momentary fantasy of going - trying new places, food, drink - cooking and eating in the company of  a bunch of others who also define this as pleasure.  

Full of things I didn't know - local wines to try - Aszu and  Furmint, fishing for perch pike and carp, cooking Hungarian food using local ingredients. At its centre was the killing and processing of a pig. I eat meat, am careful about where it comes from but I'd never been there at the death of  anything larger than a few fish and a lot of yabbies in the year we lived in Bourke. I wanted to know how the pig changes from animal to meat

The day started early - we all met up before 7am for a shot of Palinka - the local brandy, the traditional way to start.

There were about 15 of us all together, a ragtag assortment of people - curious foodies, bloggers, wine merchants, a journalist commissioned to write about the day, and a raw food chef who wanted to know if he would still eat meat occasionally  after seeing a pig killed for consumption.

The day was a bit drizzly, the only rain we saw all week.

The pig was to be slaughtered outside and then the carcass is broken down inside where everything is laid out ready.

Opentrips organiser Florian kept the whole trip running smoothly all week,

it all seemed deceptively simple with the invaluable skills and local knowledge of Gergely.

Once we were set to go, the pig, which was never frightened at any point, was taken from the cage with a squeal of incredible outrage. That sound will stay with me forever.

Rapidly stunned then the pig's throat was cut while half a dozen strong men held it down, the whole thing took less than a minute.

The fresh blood is collected into bowls and started to coagulate almost immediately. It was soon cooked up into a blood stew for breakfast - nothing goes to waste.

Once the pig has been bled out, it is moved from the concrete onto grass - the half dozen strong men were back in action.

High flame is used to burn off all the hair, a surprising amount.

Then the blackened carcass is scraped and scrubbed clean with a stiff brush in a bucket of water.

This is the end of the pig being a complete animal.

The head is cut off to be used in a couple of dishes later in the morning

The work of breaking the carcass down begins once the intestines have been carefully removed

to be cooked up to make fresh offal sausage later

The caul fat is also kept for cooking, just like everything else.

The big red pan is water boiling with garlic to which the chef adds the lumps of coagulated blood, then stirs gently to make sure it doesn't all break up. Once the blood is cooked with some onions and the brains too, a generous dollop of  lard is added to finish.

Breakfast is served - it was incredibly good to eat and very rich. One of the world's most amazing breakfasts

The butcher and his assistant brought the carcass inside to break it down with impressive skill into the various cuts of meat.

Outside over a sort of kettle drum fire chef had lots of pans bubbling away, including one with all the bits from the head


it was chopped and mixed with lots of paprika it was stuffed into the pig's stomach

Then sewn up with needle and thread to safely encase all the meat.

It was boiled again for an hour or more and then, once cooled, it was pressed to make a sort of Hungarian brawn

The butchery was noticably different to the way pigs are broken down in England. All the meat is very lean - all fat is stripped off, including from the hams. Its kept to get the family through the winter - there is no other source of oil or fat available for cooking, so the primary purpose of raising pigs is for their fabulous lard.

There was plenty of it, though normally this pig would have been fattened further and then killed later in the year once winter was underway,

All the meat we didn't eat on the day was given to the local old people's home for the winter.

The hams were put to soak in water, salt and masses of garlic. They will be turned daily for three or four weeks till they are cured. Then - the vagaries of  Customs allowing - they will be shipped to Peckham to be served in some style at Peckham Bazaar.

Some of the fat was diced into sort of uber fatty lardon and then heated in a huge pan to be stirred with an enormous stick for a couple of hours.

The locals assured us this was the best thing about the day (the doctors call it cardiac soup) and it was amazing to catch a waft of that lovely pig fat melting and melting

till it reached a point of sort of hot confit - with about two thirds of the fat rendered and the rest hot fat salty crispy delights to go with beer.

The intestines were drained after boiling for a couple of hours, then minced

and added to rice and herbs and spices and turned  into liver sausage

that were then poached before being barbecued for dinne

All the bits and bobs of flesh - and there was a remarkable amount - were mushed together with shed loads of garlic and lots of paprika and dried herbs before mincing

and becoming big fat vibrant spicy sausage, also barbecued for our dinner.

Lunch was a surprisingly delicate soup made with some meat, bones and vegetables made amazing with a sprinkle of chopped pepper at the end

Then there was stew - all the gelatinous bits were boiled up together with quinces and peppers and things then finished with cabbage - both choucroute and finely shredded fresh - to make a gloriously hearty bowl of lunch accompanied by generous quantities of both dry and sweet furmint.

We all drifted off at that point for an hour before coming back for the final meal.

Had to be barbecue!!

We had lots of local pickles that were a great accompaniment to most of our meals, and the ones we had on the last night were made by a few from the group using veg we'd picked on the first day.

Perfect foil to the jerk spice ribs and the fab paprika sausages.

All that lard had one final use - hot lardy cakes fresh from the wood oven and served with raspberry coulis that had been cooked up earlier in the day. Lovely hot crunchy mouthfuls.

And this is what it is all about - look at this lovely pile of pig fat - it will keep the food rich and nourishing all through the cold winter.

Overall it was a most extraordinary day, I learnt a lot, ate some amazing food and will appreciate the meat I eat all the more.