If Chefette were to tell you that there's been a renaissance in food in Britain since the 1970s, she probably wouldn't be telling you anything you didn't already know. Everyone who lived in or visited Britain during that time has their horror stories from the olden days. Of dry overcooked roasts and thin watery gravy. Of refried chicken and chips. Of reconstituted custard with a thick, unnatural skin. And of rope-like Christmas turkeys with soggy brussels sprouts, all washed down with Liebfraumilch.
Oh how far the mighty pendulum has swung. On Saturday I was at Borough Market, fighting my way through the hordes in search of a shoulder of wild boar, juniper berries and a free range chicken. The quality and variety of the food on display continues to improve, and was positively breathtaking. There were boxes of fresh morels graded into various sizes. Razor clams and octopus on the fishmongers slab. (I've no idea who took these pictures of the market, but I found them on Flikr they kind of capture the spirit of the place.)
Anyway, there are a lot of good things happening in British markets and kitchens today, for which I am truly thankful. But I am also coming to realise that there have always been Brits who knew and cared about food in Britain. Who tried to serve the best food they could, and were proud to bring it to you.
I got to meet two such gents last Tuesday. Two butchers -- Terry and Peter -- who have been coming to the school for years and years. They were doing the first of two Meat Appreciation days for our class. They brought in 3 gigantic cuts -- a whole lamb, a side of pork, and a forequarter of beef -- and proceeded to butcher them for us in succession on a massive table, explaining all the different cuts and showing us different ways to bone them out.
Terry was the real character. 82 years old, and full of enthusiasm for life. He didn't do any of the large butchery cuts, but he did do all the trimming, boning and dressing of the various joints. He worked at Smithfield meat market in London over four decades, and had the tales and the wisecracks to prove it. He also gave us insight into the typical margins & business methods of modern butchers.
His colleague Peter was also thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced. He had that effortless, flowing efficiency of a really skilled artisan as he slashed, cut and sawed. He described the attributes of the animals and the details of the various cuts really clearly, all the while giving us the butcher's insight into what he was doing. Such as different ways he would cut the belly of pork depending on whether or not it's summer barbecue season!
Anyway, as a result of these fellows we learned all sorts of useful things, like how to determine the sex of a lamb carcass, and the virtues of thick end belly pork. I bought a thick end belly off them after the demonstration for only Â£7.50, and when I cooked it off, it made a positively delicious roast that could easily have served 8, with loads of crisp and melting crackling. Even better, the leftovers have kept the Husband and I in pork stir fry and pork fried rice these past couple of days ...
The butchering theme continued on Thursday, when the Scotsman announced in his fish demonstration that -- although it was strictly voluntary -- for anyone who wanted to watch, he was going to demonstrate killing and skinning an eel at 1.30. Naturally, Chefette had to witness this. (You knew it was going to be interesting when you saw several of the other teachers come by to watch as well.)
He pulled out a live, but slightly groggy eel of just about a meter in length from a cardboard box, where it had been wrapped in a wet tea towel. He stunned it first, by giving it a strong chop with the blunt end of a cleaver just behind the vent on the belly. Then, while it was unconscious, he put a hook through its jaw up into it's skull to kill it instantly. The other end of the hook he attached to the tap above the sink. He then gutted and cleaned it, before proceeding to make very shallow cut around the circumference of the neck just behind the head. To finish, he loosened the thick neck skin, then grabbed a pair of pliers and using a very high degree of force proceeded to pull away the skin in one long inside-out piece, like removing a knee sock. Quite an impressive feat! (I asked him later how many eels he'd skinned, and he said at least a couple of dozen.)
Ciao for now.
PS: For those of you who asked for it, see comment for the Peter Gordon biscotti recipe.