Monday, 18 February 2013

Kill the Pig!

Friends have a couple of pigs. They’ve plunged into life in France head-first; a tumbledown, do-er-up-er farm house in the middle of nowhere; kids, chickens, veg plot, pigs. It’s good to have a challenge...

I’ve volunteered to help them dispose of the bodies – I’ve spent three years as a charcutier after all.

I don’t have a clue what I’m doing...

Tuer le cochon is an old fashioned winter tradition that is still prevalent in this neck of the woods – I dare say all over rural France – though it does appear to be on the wane. I come across plenty of people whose parents do it, or used to, but I’ve never yet found anyone in the position to show me the ropes. Hence my problem – what the fuck am I going to do with two whole dead pigs?!

Mercifully (perhaps not for the animals themselves) they’re not too big. Though not till arrival at the abattoir do I discover quite how youthful they are. There’s a queue of trailers waiting in line for the one day in the week allotted to amateurs like us. I’m shocked at the size of the other piggies. Not little. More like pink cows. The uncomfortable truth about meat eating is fairly unavoidable at a place like this, but I feel bad because our pigs are so small – though not much younger than a butcher’s cochon. It seems a shame to not let them carry on their happy life, scoffing acorns and chestnuts, rolling in mud, steering clear, with luck, of the neighbour’s petunias. Another six or eight months seems wisest...  

Reality bites; the decision is made. It’s the end of the winter and this year’s opportunity to butcher hygienically without a walk-in fridge is about to close. This, along with the pigs’ proclivity for escapology, plus the financial pressures of my friends’ growing family, means their time is nigh. They were bought to feed the family. They have to be killed sometime, and that’s dictated by what best suits man – not beast.

I collect them two days later. Here the disparity between my cargo and others is even more glaring. One man covers the entire floor of his van with a single carcass, split in two lengthways. My two piggies fit in the back of our Fiesta... The abattoir has done a sterling job: I take home meat.  The uncomfortableness of death fades with the familiar appearance of my load. I’m already looking forward to dinner.


There’s no rain so we work outside. Winter has kept its side of the bargain – though it’s hard to say the weather’s been kind. Working with bare hands at 2 degrees is more than a little nipsville. Healthy, mind. And the beer’s nicely chilled! Without the guiding hand of a butcher or experienced pig weekendeur, we turn to our only reliable alternative: youtube. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, or rather his butcher friend Ray Smith and their Pig in a Day video* do us proud. Not as romantic as a pinard-guzzling, be-bereted campagnard showing us his grandfather’s tricks, but you can’t have it all. Maybe next year...In spite of our lack of heritage, breaking the carcasses down into constituent parts is really quite straightforward. Well done us!
*Also available to buy, for those who are sufficiently organised. Well worth the money I’d say.


It did get a little nippy...

A lot of the meat is destined for the freezer, to feed my friends’ family for the best part of the year. Some goes into brine to make country-style boiling hams, or a dry cure for bacon. We judge the legs too small and lean to bother air drying. A pity, but also a relief. While undoubtedly spectacular, this is the most precarious means of preserving such a precious home-grown commodity*. The rest goes towards sausages, confit, paté and rather a mean pork pie! Not forgetting black pudding – I am not a completely useless charcutier and, if there is one thing I have learnt to love making above all others, it is this. Frugal, a bit stinky and very messy in the making (combining the head, the heart, the lungs and the blood and guts with some simple veg and spices), the Boudin Noir Béarnais is as glorious a tribute to the noble piggy-wig and his patient keeper as I could choose.

* Here in the South-West, there are systems in place to help out the one-weekend-a-year charcutier: you can pay a Jambon de Bayonne producer to salt and air-dry your own pork leg, and pick it up again, fully matured and guaranteed un-rotten, a year or more later. This strikes me as a nice compromise for those without the magic lieu de séchage on which success or failure seems to depend.



Monday, 24 September 2012


It’s hot in North Africa in August. The month of Ramadan, while interesting and impressive to witness, is perhaps not the best time to travel to the Maghreb in search of foodist inspiration. A sunny day on the Andalucía coast, a broken car window and a missing bag (handily filled with all the steal-worthy stuff) is a tiresome way to discover that travel insurance isn’t worth the paperless ether it’s written on... Ah, the pearls of wisdom we uncovered this summer!

Of course we still had a great time: holidays are brilliant! The car was granted convalescence in a posh car park in Algeciras and we dithered around Morocco via boat, train, taxi, bus and smellybus, getting into as many adventures as 45° would allow.

I was excited about the prospect of revisiting the food-stalls at the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh. At first it was very disappointing: a massive tourist trap; fun but frustrating. Later, though, we found a little adventure in the shape of a sheep’s head. They’re genuinely delicious. Really. We tried cow’s titty, which was a bit strange but perfectly okay. It was dense and not overly interesting – it reminded me of the time I cooked lamb’s fries*... The mutton face was great though. Like a lamby pig’s trotter. Not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps, but if you can cope with a pig’s foot for your tea then you should find something to love...** The heads have the brains removed and are then boiled. They come straight from the pot onto your plate, so dispelling any worries about bad hygiene, and are topped with some sultry juices from the other item on sale:  Beef Tanjia. The sauce was beefy and bold, but also delicate with saffron and preserved lemon. Yumity-Yum! Grouped in the centre of the market, the guys who sold this stuff were ten times more chilled than the barbecue merchants who clawed at us for custom. Clearly not too many tourists bothered them - and with their gruesome displays it is no little wonder - but even if you’re not a weirdo offal fetishist, go see them to try the beef stew; it’s not a bit scary and it’s the real deal.

 *That’s bollocks to me and you.  I’ve only tried it once... But to be fair I don’t think I nailed it.
**That sentence could be read as a philosophical statement. Harsh, I’d say.

Tanjia is peculiar to Marrakesh. The man who told us about it made it sound cool so we stayed another day and found someone to show us how it’s done. The sneak preview at the market came by chance and now we knew it would be worth the effort!

Like plenty of others, the dish is named after the dish – a terracotta urn, tall and with handles and a lip at the top which ready it for its rather particular cooking method. Tanjia is cooking for boys – when women make it, it doesn’t taste right, Brahim says. Young men in Marrakesh, perhaps at the stage before they have a wife with a stove to cook them their tea, have developed a pretty fancy alternative to a dirty keebab.  Ingredients to a simple stew are plonked in a pot, sealed tight shut, and then carried to the Hammam where they spend the day gently braising in a bath of hot embers from the wood-fired oven that powers the steamy local wash house. Bread and a bowl, and maybe a chum or two, are all that are needed in the evening to complement the finished dish, carried, piffling and steaming through the back streets of town and back home, for a baddass bachelor beast of a feast!

Brahim got me a pot for about 2 quid, and set it to soak overnight, as, when new, the tanjia has a tendency to drink all your gravy. We did a spot of morning shopping: a kilo of beef on the bone, shin or suchlike, pickled lemons, garlic and some Smen (now, now... it’s salty fermented butter. Oh...). I’d already been charmed by a spice vendor, so we didn’t need any more of the two remaining ingredients: cumin and (proper, pungent) saffron. Back to our hotel kitchen to put it all together. This was almost alarmingly simple. The meat had been chopped into large chunks by the butcher; we gave it a rinse in fresh water and stuffed it in the pot. Six or seven cloves of garlic were vaguely chopped and went in too; about ¾ preserved lemon, some of its innards discarded, the rest roughly torn and into the mix; 1 ½ tsp cumin; a small pinch of my saffron was infused in ¼ pint of water, that went in, along with the same amount of olive oil and a good blob of salty Smen. No salt, there’s enough in the lemon and butter. Three or four layers of brown paper, supplied by the butcher, were tied over the top to provide a tight-fitting lid, and we were ready to roll! I walked rather proudly, pot in hand, through the little maze of alleyways to the hammam. Brahim explained that this type of cooking was infinitely variable; it is quite normal to cook tanjias of chicken, rabbit, lamb or fish (conger eel works well), with or without vegetables, with just a little variation on the amount of water (none for chicken), the cooking time, and maybe the spicing.

Click on any photo to get a better look
We got in through the back door and were led into the dark cellar – cluttered with sawdust and bits of kindling – that housed the oven. It was blazing, of course, so that the patrons upstairs could sweat out and scrub away the filth of the day, or the week or whatever*. Adjacent to the fire was a hump of ash, nestled within which were several pots of different sizes from my brother bachelors of the neighbourhood. The boy who tended the fire took my tanjia, gave it a connoisseur’s shake, snuggled it into the embers and handed me a small metal ticket with which to retrieve my dinner in six hour’s time. Shockran. Ya la!

* or a lifetime, if you’re like me. These places are a humiliating lesson in how dirty we are all the time – the layers and layers of filth that came off me... But, by crikey, I was clean when I left!

When we returned, the fire boy had tidied up. Our urn was sputtering along nicely with the others in their smoky lair. He picked it up and gave it another shake, pronounced that it was indeed done, and rigged us up a wire handle with which to carry it home. He got a lobbo for his sterling work and we got a pot full of feast!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Grande Randonée

Holidays have come at last and I need a break to take a deep breath before the self-employment adventure.

The GR10 is an epic footpath through the valleys, villages and mountain passes of the French Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls on the Mediterranean. Sixty very dedicated and determined days walking. We have six days. We're told some have completed the Spanish version, the GR11 in 8. Well done to those people. We content ourselves with a walk across our adopted kingdom, the Béarn.

There are a number of ways to tackle a trek of this kind. In a (perhaps misguided) attempt to be HARD CORE we have opted for wild camping. In contrast to similar expeditions in Britain, there is a noticeable lack of nice pubs along our route. These are replaced with mountaineers refuges which offer food and lodgings to walkers with the foresight to book ahead. We have eschewed these centres of warmth and conviviality in favour of carrying tents around on our backs. Some refuges allow camping, another option are the soothingly/worryingly remote shepherd’s cabanes, which tend to have a fresh water source and room for a tent or two nearby. Of course this decision also means humping food along the trail; my rather predictable solution is pasta n rice.

On an organised trek in an underdeveloped adventurer’s country the food can be startlingly good. On the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu in Peru, me and the other white dudes would sweat all day, trailing up and down amongst breathtaking scenery with our heavy packs to arrive with our guides at an agreed camping place. Dinner would be almost ready, Indian porters having legged it past us, often more than once, with a super non-lightweight kitchen or dining tent or giant gas-canister-and-stove combos, tied to their shoulders with a bit of string. There would be soup to start, a tasty stew and some fruit. Plus coca leaf brews to ward off altitude sickness. I seem to remember there being booze too, but maybe this is just rose-tinted memory... In Scotland we had Pasta’n’Sauce, Rice’n’Sauce and Pot Noodle – and a trip to the ale house most nights. Anticipating a total lack of alcoholic sweetener, I hope for some success with Peruvian-inspired ambition.

We start along the Chemin de la Mature, an ancient path riven into sheer rock face. We hump our way in the heat of the day, along and up, through the Vallée d’Aspe. (Rather excitingly*, the next day we discover that while we were there – perhaps eating our fat homemade paté butties – a bear had munched on a couple of brebis** amongst the dainty mountain flowers of the open valley.) We struggle, but manage to peep above the fog as evening approaches. The tough-loving pass into the next valley rewards us with our first view of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, Béarn’s most iconic alp. Before it is the largest of the very beautiful Lacs d’Ayous. Golly... Better now, it’s a skip down to the lake and our camping ground, near the mountaineer’s refuge which astounds us by having not just water – but beer!

I make a big pot of sticky, spicy, garlicky rice. An austere meal ordinarily, but calm and comforting† and tasty. And lightweight. Some merguez and left-over liver paté provide some protein. A startling sunset. Knackered. Bed.
*Terrifyingly, dot might interject. There's no pleasing some folk!

**A dairy sheep.

† ©™ Nigel Slater.

A refuge in the next village supplies a hearty meal of carbs and a buggered-but-tasty confit sausage. And another beer! Detox? Bollocks to it...
Third day initially splooshes us with a storm, but it passes and leaves just fog. There is a hairy corniche, again riven into the sheer rock, that might be a little more worrisome were we able to see the bottom, lost in the murk. We arrive at a shepherdess’ cabane on the plain of Cézy. We can’t see ten yards in front of us. Sometimes you can’t see your own feet, she says. She’s been living here making sheep’s cheese in the middle of the arse end of nowhere for ten years. Quite right. We are wimps. She says it’s fine for us to pitch our tent – watch out for the pigs though, they’re big buggers.

We have a very jolly and very French apéro*, minus the booze, with the three others who are camping here tonight. It’s all very convivial this wilderness lark. Dried cèpe risotto and saucisson fill us up.
*Nibbles and booze –sometimes preceding, sometimes replacing dinner.

Dot dreams of the various disasters waiting for us in the night: who will devour us first? The bear or the pigs? And will we be eaten raw or cooked to a frazzle by a great bolt of lightning?..

The morning lifts the fog, and then it resettles. We have just enough time to realise the majesty of our backdrop. Is it dangerous to attempt the 2400m Hourquette d'Arre? Stuff and nonsense! says the shepherdess. Righto. Pruney porridge fires us as we pick our way up and back down to the ski resort of Gourette.

Our last night is a belter of a spot in a tight green valley near the Col de Soulor. We spend a relaxed evening joined only by big bonging cows and their bells. Supplies from Gourette include tomatoes, chorizo and pasta. Tomato and chorizo pasta, then. Onion sweated in olive oil with a few fennel and cumin seeds picked out from my spice mix. Chorizo fried and rough-chopped tomatoes added. Plenty of pepper and some mountain savoury* in flower. We washed it down with my stashed hip flask of scotch AND Marcus’ stashed bottle of wine! This is the life...
* Like thyme. In fact, so much like thyme, that it might actually be thyme...

We had lunch with a couple who were waymarking the route. Two little pots of paint
 and a network of sixty volunteers keeps the entire 866km route startlingly well signposted.
 Dot's souvenir is an official GR10 tatoo on her troosers.
These people are our heros! 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Rock

I've given up the day job. Three years as a Charcutier and it's time for a new challenge. I'm a businessman now!

I’ve decided to launch myself as a cuisinier à domicile – a private chef. My plan is to cook for other people like I cook for myself. On a classy day. I’ve been doing it for a while, actually. My monthly soirées in the local wine shop have introduced me to a section of the foodist community of Pau, a small, posh town in South-West France. I have been gently developing a reputation; it’s now my actual job to dive in and tap it. Gulp...

I know that my blogging, from the start, has been dilatory at best, but recently my rigid schedule has gone a little mushy. Sorry folks. I’ve just had too much work. Plans to open a new business have coincided with The Wedding Season. We did a big one last week. 250 guests in a fancy chateau for four courses preceded by a two-hour apéritif (all sent from an unfurnished kitchen) equals a nineteen-hour day. Woohoo!... Uurgh... I enjoy these functions though, we’re good at them and it makes a pleasant change from the daily drudge. I stuck around just long enough to experience my boss’ latest toy: an old-school, hand-cranked, artisanally-made, insanely expensive, bugger-to-clean Berkel ham slicer. This thing is a work of art. I’d seen one once before in a restaurant in Paris, but to put this spanking-new machine through its paces was a pretty good leaving present. The novelty only slightly waned after two hours of spinning the back-bending wheel and politely placing jamón ibérico on guests’ plates whilst wearing a silly hat. It just works so well. The mechanic who perfected the design at the turn of last century may have justifiably died a very smug man. The blade is like a razor, of course, and it turns just fast enough to slice a bit of bellota to within an inch of its life. Crucially though, it doesn’t impart any heat on the slivers of champion meat, as would an electric slicer. I’ve always thought that Spanish ham should be cut with a knife, like the nice manfrom Toulouse market, but maybe not... Carving an entire ham by hand is no joke. For a served party like a wedding, there is always a queue a mile long for the delicious ham, cut (almost) expertly by the divvy English chef in the daft hat. While it’s absorbing work to gradually see how the various muscles in a ham look, taste and cut differently, it’s impossible to keep up with demand. A serving platter is redundant – the punters literally snaffle/snatch/pluck pieces off your knife.

The beast of Berkel*
It might be a little while before my business can afford such a beautiful behemoth, but then Rolls Royce isn’t really my style... The knife is an even more ancient elegant machine... Old-school is the New School!

*Berkel stopped production in the 60's, they're now exclusively made by a small producer in Italy, it seems Berkel then add a fancy insignia and price tag.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gone Veggie

Vegetarian friends have come to stay for the week, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian. For the week. They’ve picked a good time to come. We’re into late spring and there’s plenty of nice stuff about. The asparagus has already peaked, but there’s been a trickle of broad beans for a fortnight now, and the peas are about to explode. Young and green and fresh and sweet is the thing. Some crisp radishes, kohlrabi, baby fennel – in a raw salad: sliced fine, except for the peppery radishes which are more juicy whole or in half, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and thyme flowers. People who are morally opposed to bread won’t enjoy this as much as me.

Last night we had a risotto with the broad beans and peas from the market. The veggie stock was given a bit more oomph from their pods and the result was lighter and fresher than it would have been had I used the ham broth that’s sulking in the fridge. Some parmesan or brebis might have been good, but we had neither. Butter added richness on its own instead. It’s more critical than cheese if you ask me.

I had been hoping to share a real favourite of mine: Moroccan eggs from the Casa Moro book – fried with tomatoes, garlic, cumin and corriander. They’re really a top treat which turns a sunny-side-up into a proper meal. I only didn’t because Rory beat me to it. His eggs were Tunisian, and almost identical to what I’d had in mind. Bloody know-it-all veggies... It was delicious.

Vegetarianism is a strange concept to the French. Bad animal husbandry seems more of a concern with regard to health risks that might be passed on to consumers than the welfare of the animals themselves. They certainly have some wonderful vegetable dishes, but they tend to cry out for a pork chop, a magret or a nice bit of cod to make sense of them... I have to admit this is my own default setting and it’s good to be forced to think differently. Turning veggie doesn’t tempt me either, but there is something very satisfying about a meal that doesn’t happen to involve meat.

Plenty of my prefered Indian and Arab dishes are meat-free; pulses and spices and tomatoes and meaty veg. Even from the carnivore’s perspective, greengrocer dishes have to be the backbone of cooking and eating well. They offer contrast to meat – either on the same plate, or on their own, providing relief from other days where the emphasis is on meat or fish. Rick Stein commented how the glorious variety of simple vegetable dishes was what he had most enjoyed while filming his tour of the Mediterranean. That boy knows his stuff. This time of year is the start of the glut of fresh young vegetables which so enhances this kind of eating. Down here we are deprived of our Liverpool allotment, but are fortunate to have a thriving local farmer’s market which is at least the next best thing – especially when you bear in mind our unglorious battle with the slugs...

I’ve raved about Manjula’s kitchen before. She provided me with the instructions to make Moong Dhal Dosa - pankakes made from ground mung beans stuffed with spicy potatoes. A winner. Particularly good with the crunchy salad described above.

Next, a happy memory from West African travels: Red-Red, a spicy pauper’s bean stew with plantains. It’s all about the garish red palm oil which provides a very distinctive taste as well as colour. Having been far too timid to ask for the recipe from one of the Ghanaian ladies who would sell it on street stalls and spot cafes, I eventually found it courtesy of a fellow blogger.I changed the recipe a bit so include it below. And of course I would never have dreamed of including the optional shrimp paste for our vegetarian guests!

Broad Bean and Pea Risotto (to serve 4) I forgot to take a photo. Soz.

This recipe is for a late-spring risotto. It is very easy to change it to suit whatever ingredients you have to hand. The most important element is a tasty stock.

A small onion or 2 – 3 shallots, finely diced
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
A celery stick, finely chopped
4 fat handfuls of Arborio or Carnaroli rice
A glass of white wine (optional)
Vegetable stock (from a cube is fine) or some ham or chicken stock (ideally not from a cube)
A couple of good handfuls each of broad beans and peas in their pods
Lardons (bacon bits – optional)
Olive oil
A generous amount of herbs - parsley, mint, chives, celery leaves, 4 or 5 lovage leaves (use some or all – whatever you can get)
Parmesan or some hard sheep’s cheese (such as croglin, from Cumbria, or a Pyrenean Brebis – optional)

Pod the peas and broad beans. Reserve the pods as they will give a flavour boost to your stock.
With a good glug of oil and a blob of butter, gently sweat onions, garlic and celery in a heavy based pan that is broad enough to easily take all the ingredients in a fairly shallow layer. Add bacon now, if you like. (If it appeals, you can fry a little bacon separately and keep to use as a crispy garnish at the end. Whatever floats your boat.)

Heat up the stock in a separate pan. If the broad beans are large blanch them in the stock for a few minutes, fish them out and refresh in cold water. Add the pea and bean pods to the stock.
After a little while, turn up the heat a notch and add the rice. Fry briefly, coating the rice in the oil. Add a little salt.

Pour in a glug or two of wine. Not too much. Feel free to start drinking. It’s not a big deal if you have no wine to cook with.
When the alcohol has burnt off, add a ladle of hot pod stock. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer. Stir regularly.

Continue adding the stock as it is absorbed by the rice. But don’t feel you have to let it dry out completely.

If you want, take a few of your peas and sweat separately in a little butter (or bacon fat) and a drop of water. Roughly mash when tender.

The rice will swell and the starch will come into the stock and make the whole affair creamy and pleasant and relaxing to stir with a wooden spoon. Have you poured yourself a glass of wine?
When it starts to look done, taste some rice. Is it done? It should have a bit of bite. Is the seasoning ok? Sort it out if not. Plenty of pepper.

When happy with your rice add the broad beans and peas (and mashed peas if you’ve gone for that option). One final ladle of stock, a generous blob or three of butter and some grated cheese if you have it. Remove from the heat, chuck in the chopped herbs, and cover. Leave for 5 minutes to rest. This stage is very important.
After the rice has rested, give it a gentle stir. It should be a little soupy, not claggy stodge. Spoon onto warm plates, drizzle with some fancy olive oil. Chuck on the crispy bacon, if you have it, and/or some grated or shaved cheese.

Eat with bread that has character.


So called because of the Red oil, and also the ‘Red’ fried ripe plantains. Well, that’s what the internet said...
Thanks to the very entertaining for the original recipe, which I have adapted slightly.
The palm oil makes all the difference. I’m sure it’d be nice with normal oil, but it wouldn’t taste the same...

Dried Black eyed beans, soaked overnight
A few cloves of garlic
Bay leaf, sprig of thyme

2 – 4 tbsp red palm oil (not too hard to find – go to an international or african grocer’s)
A couple of onions, chopped
Half a head of fennel, chopped - optional
4 – 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
A scotch bonnet pepper or two, diced. (one is likely to be plenty, but here in france they seem to be particularly mild...)
A piece of root ginger, the size of a fat man’s thumb, grated
A tin of tomatoes
A vegetable stock cube
A healthy blob of tomato purée
A sprinkle of dried shrimp powder/paste or, more likely, a subliminal shake of nam pla or nuoc mam (thai/viatnamese fish sauce) – optional
Fresh coriander leaves – optional

Ripe plantains – 1 per person
Vegetable oil for deep or shallow frying.

Boil the beans in plenty of water with the garlic and woody herbs until tender but not mushy. Add a little salt when cooked. Drain, but keep the liquor.
Fry the onions, garlic, and fennel in the palm oil over a medium heat for 10 minutes or so. Add the chilli and ginger, stir, then add the tomoatoes, crushing them between your fingers. Leave the tomato to simmer and sweeten a bit.

Crush around ¼ of the beans with a potato masher. Add this and the whole beans, the stock cube and some of the bean liquor – enough to keep it all fairly moist. Add fishy stuff now if you want to. Let it bubble happily for 15-20 minutes, until the flavours have got to know each other and the beans are soft, but with some bite. You may need to add a drop more bean juice or water if it starts to look a bit dry. Taste for seasoning. It should be lively. Add some more chilli if you are feeling double rugged!

Serve with some chopped coriander leaves and chunks of plantain, fried in hot oil (≈160°c if deep frying) till golden. And perhaps a crispy salad. Yum! It really is very good...

...and not a pig's stomach in sight! More on that next week maybe...

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Boudin Noir

Every so often, on my trudge to work in the half light, I remember to look up. The looming panorama of Pyrenees never fails to give a little surge of pleasure which sits giddily with my early morning grumpiness. Sometimes I remember that I mustn’t miss the view of the Pic du Midi just around the corner only to forget by the time I get there – perhaps put off by a cunningly-placed poodle poo. Bof! Never mind. It’s Boudin Noir day today!

Making black pudding is brilliant. A gruesome, stinky celebration of the art, perfected over generations, of turning something unpleasant into pure gold. There are myriad variations of the blood sausage, and the version from the Béarn is a different beast to neat horseshoes of Bury breakfast pudding. Ours is bulging with meat and ugly as a badger’s bottom.

I’ve eaten lungs several times, a mistake, generally - with the obvious exception of the heroic haggis - but they go in our black pudding, along with hearts and some blubbery necks. No doubt, the splendid application which has been devoted over the years to finding good use for every last scrap of pig is scant consolation to the individual involved for a pneumatic bullet in the brain. However, I am heartened by such miserly wastelessness. The meat is perfumed and padded out with hearty proportions of stock veg and generous seasoning, and the lot is hubbled and bubbled for hours before being chopped and mixed with a gallon or three of blood.

“Delightful,” you might be thinking. And you’d be right. It’s beautiful. Even raw. I haven’t mentioned the stinky bit yet. A pig’s colon is about as unpromising as it gets. It smells really bad. It has a double skin, the interior of which has had a lifetime of odour-eating and so is beyond the pale, even for the French. This fatty, fetid stocking must be painstakingly separated from the useful and tasty outer layer, before the sausage making can begin. Frankly, even the cleaned boyaus have some odour issues, and they are often full of annoying holes, but for me they are indispensible to the glorious end product that is Boudin Noir Béarnais.

Even cleaning up is fun. Think of the waves of blood in The Shining and you’re not far off the mark. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps – but I love it.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Steamed sponge pudding with my mum’s marmalade. And Custard!

I’ve finally got round to doing that sponge pudding with the marmalade I made in January. It turned out belter! Light, sticky, tangy and sweeeet.

I served it for a wine and food evening last week. The French guests apparently expressed concern that English patisserie wouldn’t be up to much. I won them over. It may not be common knowledge over here, but the British are very good at this kind of thing!

Steamed Marmalade sponge

8oz/225g butter, softened
6oz/175g sugar
2 lemon zest
1 orange zest
Seeds from a vanilla pod – if you have it. Don’t worry if not.
Fresh ginger, grated. The size of a fat man’s thumb. This is optional too (you can put in some all or none of the flavourings...)

4 eggs
8oz/225g Self-raising flour – or, if you live in france, 225g normal flour + ½ a packet of levure chimique (5g/1tsp baking powder)
A pincho salt
2 lemon juice

A big fat dollop of golden syrup
A big fat dollop of (ideally My Mum’s)Marmalade.

You will need a 2 pint pudding basin (or something which will approximate to one), and a pan or steamer with a lid, in which it will comfortably sit. And some foil (or baking parchment + muslin + string).

Before you forget, smear a bit of butter all over the inside of your pudding bowl, then tip in some flour and roll it around so as to entirely coat in a thin layer of white. Discard any excess. Spoon in a generous dollop of golden syrup and then the same of marmalade. Does it look like there will be plenty of syrupy lava splooging down the sides of the cake when it is cooked and unleashed? If not, add a bit more of both. Good work!

Now cream the butter, sugar and your chosen flavourings until white and fluffy. It’s important to get plenty of air in. And that your butter isn’t hard, or you’ll be there all day...

Mix in the eggs, one at a time.

Add sifted flour and salt. Mix gently until uniform.

Spoon on top of the syrup in your bowl. Try to ensure all the syrup is covered by the cake mix.

Butter the underside of a peice of foil and loosely cover the bowl. You can use a piece of greaseproof paper, buttered and with a pleat in, just hanging over the edge of the bowl. Next, a muslin covers that, also with a fold in it, which must be secured with string. This is the old fashioned way of doing things, but I’ve tried both, and the second method is just a lot more faff for no benefit at all...

Place in your steaming device for 1 ¼ - 1 ½ hours. Don’t let it boil dry! It’s cooked when it is springy to the touch, and a skewer inserted will come out clean.

Turn out while still hot and eat the glorious, steaming sponge, and it’s frankly dangerous molten lava topping, with a very generous puddle of custard. If you have the good fortune to be dining with abstemious types, eat theirs too!  

Proper Custard

This is a rich crème anglaise. If you’re feeling a bit more frugal, you could substitute the cream for more milk and perhaps change 4 of the egg yolks into a whole egg...

200ml/ pint Double cream (or milk, if frugal)
300ml/ ½ pint Milk (not skimmed! What’s the point in that?...)
A vanilla pod (use the one you scraped the seeds out of for the sponge – or a splash of vanilla extract)

5 egg yolks (or 1 if frugal)
1 whole egg (or 2 if frugal)
30g/1oz Sugar

Heat the milk and cream with the vanilla in a saucepan.

Rest a sieve on top of a bowl big enough to contain all the ingredients. Put it somewhere close to the stove. You will need it later.

When the milk is hot, reduce the heat and combine the sugar and eggs. Beat till light and a bit fluffy.

Pour half the hot liquid into the egg. Mix thoroughly. Don’t mess about – the eggs will cook in the milk so you need to be quick to avoid scrambling.

Pour your eggy mix into the remaining milk in the pan. Over a lowish heat whisk the custard diligently  till it starts to thicken. Make sure you scrape the whisk over every part of the pan bottom, especially the corners. You will start to see traces from the whisk in the thickening custard. Still whisking, remove from the heat and immediately pour through the sieve into your waiting cool bowl.

If, in spite of your best efforts, the custard has still split, fret not. Give it a good old blitz with a hand blender (the saviour of many a batch of crème brulée ) and it will come back, albeit a little less thick.

Serve hot and fresh-made or cold. Don’t try to reheat it, it will almost certainly split.

Sponge pudding and custard. If you don’t like this I pity you...