Friday, 19 October 2012

Judge the Butcher

The local butcher shop used to be an integral part of every town and village in Ireland and there was usually more than one.  In Northern Ireland very often there was one for each section of the community - The Protestant butcher and the Catholic one. The butcher shop was a monitor of how affluent the town and hinterland was. 

This changed somewhat with the arrival of big multinational supermarkets, particularly in more urban areas.  When I moved to a small rural village in county Meath over 20 years ago, virtually all meat was purchased in the local butcher shops.  I live equidistant between two small villages with a border dividing them.  Despite this the butchers were brothers-in-law and shared an abattoir.   Their meat was second to none.  Then along came all the EU regulations with the subsequent abolition of local abattoirs and the meat changed beyond belief.

Carcasses arrived into the shop all but cut. Suddenly they had no feet, hocks, heads or offal. In many cases it was almost impossible to get bones.  The butcher counter became "lean" literally. The cheaper cuts disappeared.  On display were diced up round steak pieces in place of stewing beef, strip loins at the expense of sirloin, mince without an ounce of fat, chicken breasts, loin lamb chops etc.  Fat was banished and the counter was red.

Red and lean

I judge the quality of a butcher shop by the selection of "cheap" cuts available and by this you have a fair idea of the food knowledge of the locals as well.  In a complete turn around, the butcher counters servicing the more affluent/food savvy populations have a better selection of cuts and it is here you will find hocks, shanks, skirts, cheeks and tongues. In "the country" you will also find them in areas where there are large immigrant populations.

In the English Market in Cork, the selection of every cut of every animal is second to none.  Tripe and drisheen are on display in almost every butcher counter.  As well as the English Market, the butcher shops in Moore Street in central Dublin have an amazing display of many old and forgotten cuts and even sell goat meat for the large African community.

Old cuts nestle with the battered
Cooking the cheaper cuts (it is only in Ireland they are cheap - in France they are the more expensive), requires a bit more skill, time and energy so when you analyze it in more detail they are probably not cheap.  However, they have the most flavour, the best texture and are deliciously moist.  You need to add more vegetables and herbs to make the meal, making them much more healthy than just slapping a load of protein on a barbeque.

I wish my now local butcher shops were not so boring.  I want meat with fat and bone and personality. After all it's time people woke up to the fact that fat is not the enemy we have all been led to believe.  We were rightly led up the garden path by the big food cartels in cahoots with government and even the medical profession.  We need to go back and open granny's old recipe book because in her day there was not half as much obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  They ate meat with personality because the butcher was a butcher and not a slicer.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bake the Blues Away

Is there anything more depressing than relentless rain?  So far this autumn has been glorious but when a day dawns like today, what's there to do but roll up your sleeves and start to cook.

My oven is knackered or at least it should be dispatched very soon to the knacker's yard; so I try to make the most of it while it isn't clicking.  The automatic lighter senses that the oven temperature is dropping due to the door seal being perished and this very annoying clicking starts.  Or so I have been told by the gas man.  But until I can afford to buy a super-duper, state-of-the-art replacement, it and me continue to rub along together. 

I was very pleased with myself recently, filling it up with a Cassoulet made with Toulouse sausage I brought back from France. Now I know the French around Carcassonne would probably have apoplexy at my version of the classic but it is really, really good.  Recipe can be found here.  I also roasted a big piece of pork belly sitting in a shallow baking tray on top of diced up celery, carrots, onions, garlic, fresh thyme and sage.  I covered it with foil after the crackling had become nicely browned and crispy and continued to roast it for 3 hours.

I made my beetroot and blue cheese tart using a piece of Bellingham Blue.  Bellingham Blue is a blue cheese made from raw milk and it is really creamy and delicious.

And then in a fit of madness last weekend when it was really warm and sunny I headed off down the lane where I used to walk the Big Boy and where I found Sarkozy the donkey.  I hadn't been back since the big Boy died as I couldn't bear to. I was hoping there would be a few blackberries left.  Amazingly there was.  Lots of big luscious ones.  So in no time I had 500g picked.

I made these lovely little muffin-style buns.

They are just a basic Victoria sponge mix with 150g each of butter, sugar and flour (with a teaspoon of raising agent) and 3 eggs.  I sliced about a quarter of a cooking apple into the little silicon bun moulds and added a few blackberries.  Spooned some of the sponge mix on top and baked in a moderate oven until browned, risen and firm to touch, about 15 minutes.

This mix made 12 buns comfortably. 

They would be delicious served warm with some homemade custard or whipped cream or just on their own with a nice pot of tea.

When you next switch on your oven, make the most of it and utilise all the space.  It makes sense.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Reduce the Balsamic

Let me warn you this is a rant.

And a plea.

To every chef who thinks it's acceptable to decorate a plate with squiggles, lines, blobs of the viscous stuff - you know the one that comes in a squidgy bottle?

I have vague recollections of when balsamic vinegar first made an appearance in my life.  My mother very proudly pronounced it - "good for you".  She used to read those free health magazines distributed by the health food shop she haunted.  When I heard the words "good for you," it immediately put my hackles up. 

We were subjected to lots of food items that were supposedly "good for you". Actually some were reasonably okay but as a teenager I was determined to hate them.  I remember thinking this balsamic vinegar that replaced normal vinegar in our salad dressing was something I could take or leave.  Then I decided I would leave it altogether.

Years later my brother, (a confirmed Italophile) true to form arrived back with the Rolls Royce of balsamic and convinced me to taste it.  It was passable served on strawberries but at the price €16 for about 2ml it would probably want to be.

Anyway, to cut to the chase.  I returned recently from a short break in France.  My overwhelming memory will be balsamic vinegar.  Why? Because every middle of the road brasserie decorated their plates with it.

The above crêpe had in a really good little crêperie was spoiled completely, by not only having the stuff liberally dressing the salad leaves, but even dribbled over the egg for heaven's sake.  Served with Normandy cider it clashed like Bay City Roller tartan with pink ribbons dangling from it.

A duck breast cooked to perfection (very pink) and tasty had a vile balsamic reduction jus fighting nine rounds with it.  The balsamic won.

A starter of deep fried goat's cheese (yes this was the starter common to almost every restaurant) had not only balsamic decor but orange segments to boot.  And they say France is the culinary capital of the world.

So if you are a chef dump the balsamic in the same place as white pepper, salad creme, hundreds and thousands and every other naff 70's type food condiment.  Because let's face it to use the stuff that costs more per litre than Chateau Petrus is unlikely to happen and the rest of it is a vast EU pile of acidic mediocrity .

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Two Star Lunch

I was so excited to have lunch recently in Le Parc, a 2 star Michelin restaurant owned by Franck Putelat while visiting my son in France.  We flew into Carcassonne in the south and by the time we landed were more than ready to eat.

The restaurant is very chic with minimalist decor but they are currently building on rooms, so there was a bit of disturbance for which they had a sign apologising.

The lunch menu was €35 including a glass of wine.

We enjoyed a glass of rosé while the amuse buche were brought out.  They included foie gras macarons, crisped chorizo and pear, a carrot pureé gel and a type of savoury brioche with ham and cheese.  I am not a fan of foie gras and could not get excited about the combination of salty, savoury in a sweet macaron. Nor was I keen on the carrot pureé.  However, I loved the crispy chorizo and pear combination and the brioche.

Carrot, macaron and pear chorizo

Savoury brioche

The starter was a yellow courgette topped with an aubergine pâté and crispy prawns.  It was really delicious - light, tasty and a surprisingly generous portion. 

Crispy prawns on yellow courgette

The main, a slow cooked veal hock that had the texture of really tender, pulled pork with some of the marrow.  It was topped with a crispy pastry.  The potatoes and a selection of root vegetables had been slow cooked in the veal stock. The vegetables had a slightly "overcooked" flavour in my opinion. 

Jarret de veau

Pear crumble

The dessert -  pear crumble was sublime with poached pear and a really crunchy, tasty crumble served with vanilla ice cream - simple but oh so delicious.

Coffee was served in very funky if slightly impractical cups along with petit fours, more macarons, fudge, strawberry shortbreads and almond cups.

I enjoyed the experience immensely, the food was good but not great.  However, it was very reasonable and I would love to go back and have a tasting menu in the evening.

Leaving the restaurant the boys were very excited to see this parked beside my son's car.  Needless to say it was the BMW they were excited about!