Saturday, 1 February 2014

Twelfth Night Feast

I have, of late, rather missed the challenge of Alphabet Soup. Especially the cooking and hosting part (the writing is yet to be published on here in the hope of a future book deal). That's not to say I haven't had other challenges to keep me busy in the meantime. I've written two books and am currently writing my third, but there was something really special about those nights. Something electric, which charged those letter-themed evenings with a peculiar air of excitement and silliness, sprinkled with just the slightest touch of fear. Perhaps it was the secrecy of the menus. Perhaps it was the special musical playlists. Perhaps it was all the booze. Whatever it was, I have missed those wonderful nights and felt hungry for a new culinary challenge.

With this in mind, I decided to host a Twelfth Night dinner party, with a 12 course menu based on the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some guests thought it was just a dinner party on the night of epiphany, but those who know me better missed lunch in preparation. Our lovely epiphany diners were Sous Chef founders, Nicola and Nick Carter-Lando, fiction writer, Sophie Ranald, political commentator, Hopi Sen and the marvellous Andrea Binfor.

Initially, my plans included making the correct number of things (mostly birds it seems) to serve each person for each course; so, if seven swans are a-swimming, seven swans they would get on their plates. But, after talking this idea through with the ever rational Richard, and agreeing with him that this course of action would only be sensible if my intention was to kill my guests in a dramatic Mr Creosote fashion, I reluctantly reined it in a bit.

As is my usual wont, I left the food shopping and prep work until the eleventh hour. This, coupled with the fact that Richard ended up working late, all the pre-party tasks of throwing the hoover around, table laying, candle lighting and loo cleaning were still yet to be done at 7.30pm. Luckily, our friends are a lovely bunch, so they kindly offered to pop over the road for a pint while the final prep was done.

After a quick glug of fizz, the guests sat down for the first course: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. This comprised of confit of partridge mixed with spiced pickled pears, stuffed into hollowed out savoury poached pear halves.  These were served on a reduced partridge and beef stock “tree” adorned with leaves plucked from a packet of fresh oregano.


Next up, Two Turtle Doves. The closest match I could find for doves (without shooting my own) were pigeons. So, I made individual pigeon hand pies. I had bought a little silicone mould to create two pastry turtle doves on top, but forgot about it until the blasted things had already gone in the oven. The best laid plans and all that... Still, the guests didn't seem to notice.



Post-pie came Three French Hens. I breadcrumbed three chicken wing lollipops each and served them with sauce à la Française, which is a lemon and caper buttery sauce. After watching this video, I decided doing all my own butchering would be a piece of piss. I was wrong. These lollipops (about 30 in total, just to be on the safe side) took me two and a half hours to make and I was almost weeping with boredom by the end. Still, they tasted good and that was the main aim.


There was more butchery still, in the name of Four Calling Birds. My initial plan was to make a four bird roast, but after Richard asked if I'd invited Mr Creosote after all, I thought better of it. Instead, I made ballotines from the leg meat of a duck, a guinea fowl, a chicken and a pheasant. I paired the duck with the guinea fowl and the chicken with the pheasant. After boning all eight legs and discarding the sinew, it was a simple matter of making two stuffings (one with livers and mushrooms and the other with garlic and spinach), leaving them to cool and rolling them up in streaky bacon. I wrapped them tightly in cling film and poached them for twenty minutes, before discarding the cling and roasting for a further 15 - 20 minutes. I served my ballotines with cauliflower puree and a game bird and red wine reduction. This was many people's favourite course of the night, despite the photo being one of the worst.


Next came the most memorable verse of the song: Five Gold Rings. For this, I gave each guest five squid rings in a crisp and golden turmeric and gram flour batter, which I served with saffron aioli.


I left the sixth course to Richard, while I put my feet up and tried to catch up with how drunk the others were. For Six Geese-a-Laying, my idea had been to get in some goose eggs (obvs), but, it turns out you can't get goose eggs for love nor money in early January. Instead, Richard swapped the goose eggs for duck's and scrambled them with white truffle butter and goose rillettes and served them in the washed out hollowed duck eggs.



Seven Swans-a-Swimming were next. I made Parmesan choux swans and filled them with a mixture of seasoned mascarpone, paprika and more Parmesan, before setting them on pea and mint soup for a swim. They were rather larger than I had initially intended, which may, in part, have been responsible for what happened next.


At this point in the evening, Nick (designated driver of the evening and the only sober one at the table) declared that he was too full to carry on. Temporarily deflated, I imagined having to toss the puddings I'd made in the bin with one hand, while grasping a bottle of the ready chilled dessert wine in the other. Thankfully, a better suggestion was made. They all wanted to come back the next evening to finish what they'd started.

I've never before spread a dinner party over two consecutive nights (especially on a Monday and Tuesday), but it was so much fun, I might just start making a habit of it.

Beginning an evening with multiple puddings seemed too deranged to cope with. Besides, I had a fridge-full of semi-butchered game birds to use up, so I decided a game bird stew and mash served with greens would be a welcome beginning to night 2 and, as Richard said, it provided something of a catch-up for the courses of the evening before. I got as far as getting a chopping board out and then decided I'd had enough of butchering birds for one week, so barked instructions at Richard for the stew instead, while I cleaned up from the night before.

Our guests arrived, slightly bruised from the night before, but still eager. Game stew demolished and more corks popped, it was time to get back to the Eight Maids-a-Milking. For this, I had made dainty little eight milk panna cottas topped with milk chocolate soil. The eight milks were Jersey cow's, coconut, buttermilk, rice, soya, almond milk, evaporated and condensed. Everyone agreed it had just the right amount of wobble, moments before it wobbled off my spoon and down my top.



Not one to cry over spilt milk, it was onwards and upwards for Nine Ladies Dancing. Individual Pink Lady Apple Charlottes constructed with homemade Lady Fingers made up the ninth verse. I also chucked in some deliciously fresh-tasting apple liqueur for a little extra sparkle too.


Worried the evening had become too sober and having decided against frogs legs or leaping salmons (who wants their puddings to be suddenly interrupted by either of those? and besides, Richard is allergic to fish), the Ten Lords-a-Leaping came in the shape of a cocktail of the same name. Richard got the shaker out for these whisky based cocktails with added pimento rum liqueur, honey, lime, bitters and nutmeg. They were fragrant with Christmas spice and a welcome hiatus from solid food.


For the penultimate course, my Eleven Pipers Piping came in the shape of berries poached in pipe tobacco and star anise syrup, served in a chocolate pipe on a Maris Piper potato sponge cake. I made chocolate pipes with tempered chocolate and acetate sheets, poached some berries in a pipe tobacco and star anise syrup and balanced it all on Maris Piper potato sponge cake. It was light and fragrant and, despite the fears of some that the tobacco syrup would make the whole dish taste like an overused ashtray, it received unanimous thumbs up from all.



And, finally, we reached the end of the meal with a cheese course. Twelve Drummers Drumming
came in the guise of a whole 2 kilo Dorset Denhay Drum, served with celery carved into drumsticks, biscuits and chutney and to the soundtrack of our collective dulcet tones singing the full twelve verses with raised glasses.


All in all, my Twelfth Night feast was a total hoot. Until my next food-related challenge, there's a lot of cheese left to get through...




Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Wasorbet




It can often be tricky to make a do-ahead starter that is elegant, appetising and gluten and dairy free, but I think this Japanese-inspired plateful of goodness makes the perfect kick off to any meal.

With my fairly newfound acceptance of sorbet (I used to proudly describe them as a cold, wet yawn), I thought it was time to move on from citrus and berries and crack on to the savoury. Sweet, fruity sorbets can be refreshing and zingy (especially when pepped up with a slug of booze), but I wanted something that could happily stand up to protein. I’ve already tried my hand at Bloody Mary sorbet to serve with cheese, and I’d definitely recommend you have a go yourselves at that one, but this week I wanted to try something a little bit different.

The whole creation of this dish came about from a pun. We may have been overtired, we may have finished most of a bottle of wine, but the fusion of the words wasabi and sorbet to make “wasorbet” made my boyfriend and I giggle enough to know I had to turn this pun into a reality. And, delightfully silly name aside, who can resist the idea of creating something ice cold that gives off residual heat?



For my savoury wasorbet, I was concerned that using classic sugar stock syrup would make the final result too sweet. Liquid glucose is 20% less sweet than sugar, so I decided to use it as a sugar substitute. It also gives a smoother result, because the process of creating liquid glucose (inverting sugar) breaks down the molecules in a way that means they cannot reform and crystallise. This is great news for ice creams and sorbets, as the goal is to make them as smooth and grain-free as possible, by ensuring no crystals form during the freezing process.

I adore beetroot, and it is incredibly quick and easy to pickle, especially if you don’t faff about trying to carve out perfect circles (like I did). Beetroot is in season right now, and this jewel-bright root makes for a gloriously colourful summer plate, especially against the minty green of the wasorbet. The final component to my dish was seared beef sashimi, which I marinated in ginger, garlic, chilli, spring onions, Tamari (gluten free Japanese soy sauce), mirin and a splash of sesame oil for a few hours, before quickly searing. I love the ferrous tang and silky, yielding flesh of a raw fillet, but make sure you neither cook it, nor serve it, straight from the fridge.

Although expensive, serving beef fillet in paper-thin slices makes it go a long way. I bought a piece of meat that was about two steaks’ thick and it served seven people, with a few cook’s treat offcuts leftover. I passed the marinating liquor through a sieve and reduced it in a saucepan and left it to cool before spooning a little over the sashimi. If raw beef turns you off, you can substitute it for seared marinated tuna or even just smoked salmon, which wouldn’t even require the effort of marinating or searing. Serve with hot sake.

Wasorbet




125g liquid glucose
200ml water
1 large cucumber, topped and tailed and cut into chunks (don’t peel it)
½ small clove of garlic, finely chopped - or you can just Microplane it into straight into the food processor (optional)
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp. salt
2 – 3 tsp. wasabi paste (wasabi powder mixed with water)
1 egg white

Measure the liquid glucose straight into a saucepan (if you’re using digital scales) or warm a tablespoon in hot water and measure out 6 and ½ tablespoons into the saucepan – this stuff is too sticky to pour easily from one vessel to another. Pour the water on top and heat gently until melted and smooth. In the meantime, blitz the cucumber in a food processor to a liquid. Add the citrus zest and juice and salt and blitz again. Push the whole lot through a fine meshed sieve and add the liquid to the water and glucose. Discard the contents of the sieve. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the wasabi paste. Taste for heat – you want it to be quite fiery – adding more if you wish. Leave to cool to room temperature. Whisk the egg white until soft peaks form and fold it into the liquid until fully incorporated. Transfer the mixture into an ice cream machine and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve on a shiso leaf (available in Japanese and Asian supermarkets. I bought mine from the Japan Centre) with a few slices of beetroot, which has been pickled for 4 hours in 250ml of rice vinegar, 125g sugar, 250ml water and 30g of salt. Finally, arrange a few thin slices of your room temperature sashimi and drizzle with the reduced marinating juices.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Cooking With Kids


The great folks at Great British Chefs (who I regularly write for) have recently launched a Cooking With Kids campaign. They have created a fabulous collection of recipes to tempt your charming children into cooking and eating a balanced and exciting diet. Dishes include aubergine parmigiana, bacon stuffed spuds and baked cod in tomato sauce. As well as catering to the tastes of the under 10s, these recipes sound more than a little appealing to this almost-33 year old too.

Recently, Great British Chefs conducted a survey with over 1300 parents on how children are cooking. They've agreed to give my readers a sneak peak at some of the highlights of their survey results with a fun infographic. So here it is!



The full results will be published over on the GBC site tomorrow afternoon, but these preview results certainly make for interesting reading - especially that shocking 7% statistic about how much influence we've taken from our Dads in the kitchen. Tsk tsk. Let's hope the next generation of British adults will have more kitchen-based memories to share with their fathers.

I must admit, my Dad rarely entered the kitchen other than to slice another lemon wedge for a gin and tonic or raid the back of the cupboards hunting down crisps. He made a mean fry up though and always wielded the pan on Pancake Day and you couldn't keep him away from the barbecue on a hot, sunny day, however much you tried. I was definitely more influenced by my mum, who was pretty adventurous and bold compared to most of my friends' parents.

As kids, my sisters and I always ate the same food as our parents - there were no cheap sausage and chip dinners for us, while the grown-ups had chicken jalfrezi and pilau rice. My mum always cooked from scratch and never made a big deal out of it, so I just naturally assumed the same attitude to food as I grew up.

I loved cooking so much as a child, that I was making chocolate profiteroles for my parents' dinner parties when I was 7 or 8 and getting out the silverware and posh napkins for elaborate breakfasts for the whole family on weekends. I might have made a terrible mess and I might have turned out the odd inedible dinner (carrots and minced beef in a whole bottle of soy sauce being one such example), but I knew how to knock up a salad dressing, whip up a Victoria sponge, stuff a tomato and cook a Sunday roast before I left primary school. And what's more, I loved it. It really stood me in good stead for my future and now, I'm proud to say, building on those early days in the kitchen, I can dish up a decent dinner and certainly know my artichokes from my zebra.

Cooking with kids is not only fun for you and them, it helps set them up for a lifetime of good food. What greater gift is there to give them?


Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Café de Mort


Photo from www.rememberacharity.org.uk


Nobody likes to think about death. Let alone our own. But you know what they say about death and taxes…

I went to Café de Mort and I survived. Organised by Remember A Charity, this two day pop-up restaurant was figure-headed by (an absent) Gregg Wallace and developed by food writer Matt Day and chef Errol Defoe. The potentially deadly menu aimed to make diners consider the fragile transience of life. What better way to ponder the legacy you’d like to leave after you’ve died, than while sitting down to eat what could very well be your last meal. Once you’ve looked after your loved ones, please think about leaving a gift to your favourite charity in your Will. I was a guest of Dogs Trust, so for all you dog lovers out there, you can still help out our furry friends even after you’ve kicked the bucket. 

Photo from www.rememberacharity.org.uk

Already feeling on death’s door with a bad cold coupled with a hangover, I trudged over to The Crypt at St Andrew’s in Holborn Circus, ready to face my mortality in meal form. I knew the venue well, having acted in a play called Warcrime down in the crypt a few years ago. They’ve poshed the place up since then – the floor is now even and it doesn’t feel quite as damp as it once did. 

When Michael Billington came to review us, he was keen to meet the final remaining unburied body (still unidentified after the enforced excavation of the crypt after the ceiling collapsed), wrapped in blue plastic, who lived just round the corner from our underground dressing room. And I’m delighted to report (sort of) that “Bob” was still there (or so we were told, I didn’t visit him this time round), adding an extra deathly atmosphere to the night’s proceedings. 

The Crypt really is a dramatically macabre venue, perfect for a night promising the deadliest feast known to man. We kicked off the evening with a nod from a serious-looking St John’s ambulance man, before signing a waiver in case any of us died. Then, I was led, in the gloomy half-light, towards a glass of Absinthe and Champagne, to get the juices flowing for what was to come. 

Green tea and sake Martini. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

We sat round black tablecloth-covered tables, sipping the next potentially lethal drink of the evening: sake and green tea Martini. These sounded fairly tame to me, but apparently the Polyphenols found in green tea may cause liver and kidney damage. The Martinis tasted strangely bitter and musty. More exciting was the first course: Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Yes, that’s right, I ate puffer fish and I survived! The gastronomic equivalent to Russian roulette, fugu contains lethal levels of Tetrodotoxin, and, if not prepared expertly, can result in painful and certain death. 

Fugu sashimi with ponzu. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

The taste of the fish itself isn’t particularly extraordinary. In fact, it just tastes like very slightly rubbery textured and delicate flavoured white fish. The dish was prettily presented with what tasted and looked like delicious seaweed flavoured Quavers

I respected the fact that we were thrown right into the deep end with the deadliest dish as the first course. Facing fugu led us all to ponder the precariousness of our own mortality, which was exactly what the evening aimed to do. 

Bloody Hell Mary. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up, we were presented with Bloody Hell Mary cocktails, containing Poitin - aka Irish moonshine. It was outlawed in 1661 due to its adverse health effects, which included blindness, but they stopped worrying about that by the mid 1990s and it was made legal again in ‘97. I can’t say I enjoyed this strangely tangy drink, but the curried ackee patties with ghost chilli washed the bloody awful taste of the Bloody Hell Marys away. Officially the world’s hottest chilli, the Ghost chilli is currently being developed into a self-defence weapon. 

Curries ackee pattie with ghost chilli. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

I was expecting my mind to be well and truly blown, but I was surprised when I found the heat fairly mild. Sitting opposite another diner who was mopping his sweaty brow and knocking back as much water as he could reach, I wondered if I might, in actual fact, be some kind of hardcore chilli ninja, deserving of some kind of red hot medal. There’s no doubt I was finding the whole transience of life stuff quite exhilarating. Either that or the Poitin had kicked in.

Kluwak nut pasta with false morels. Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*

Next up came a bowl of what looked like a hearty bovine broth with bits in it, but in actual fact, was kluwak nut pasta with false morels. It turns out this earthy soup potentially contained lethal doses of Hydrogen Cyanide.  To wash down the tasty soup, we were each handed a Champagne flute with a liquid that looked like old-fashioned lemonade with backwash in it. Turns out it was a snake wine cocktail and, by God, it was rancid. It was like a glass of Sarson’s with the added sour twang of a fungal foot infection. I tried to get used it, tried to drain the glass, but I think I’d rather have taken a fanging from the snake who’d drowned in it. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
They brought round the bottle of neat snake wine next, to see who was brave enough to take a tipple. I couldn’t say no, when else would I get the chance to drink from a bottle containing a steeped venomous snake clutching a scorpion in its jaws? I knocked it back in one and, for a moment, desperately scanned the room in search of the St John’s Ambulance man. It felt almost like a sting, an allergic reaction. My tongue felt pinched and my mouth tingled unpleasantly, before the effects of the venom subsided and left behind the aftertaste of oily fish. Drinking snake wine is like someone snapping an elastic band on your tongue before slapping you round the face with a mackerel. I’m glad I’ve tried it, if only so that I know never to try it again. 

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The first of two puddings came in the shape of enormous macaroons with unpasteurised bitter almond cream and elderberry coulis. Although each bitter almond contains between 4 and 9mg of Hydrogen Cyanide, after the snake wine I knew nothing short of a live cobra picking its teeth with the rib of a clown could scare me. Light, creamy and sweet, this pud was the perfect antidote to the fishy snake drink and could only worry a pregnant woman due to the unpasteurised milk. We washed it down with a glass of equally unfrightening Amaretto, which can apparently induce symptoms of Cyanide poisoning. Whatevs.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
For the final course of the night, we ate peanut, cacao and nutmeg sweetmeats, which was billed as “a most tempting trio of potential toxins – Aflatoxin, Theobromine and Myristicin” which can cause vomiting, wild hallucinations and even death. For a moment I thought I could see Gregg Wallace in the distance, but it must have been a wild hallucination brought on by the pudding, or possibly the 84.5% proof rum I’d just necked. They’d swirled it about with cream and nutmeg so that it tasted like really boozy custard, and I do really love custard. And booze.

Photograph courtesy of Urvashi Roe*
The evening was a blast - the gothic atmosphere, the nervous and giggly camaraderie it induced between diners, “Bob” in the other room and the possibility of someone carking it at any moment. Alright, so the sense of danger wasn’t genuinely palpable, but it did bring home the message of the night clearly and in a fun and original way. It was a meal I won’t quickly forget, not least because the snake wine was still repeating on me for several days afterwards. But you don’t need to drink snake wine to remember a charity in your Will. Go on, do something nice from the grave.


* Huge thanks to Urvashi Roe for allowing me to her amazing photos from the night. Visit her brilliant blog here

Monday, 18 February 2013

"Roobarb" and Custard (RIP Richard Briers)

Vanilla rhubarb with custard panna cotta

Have you ever played that game where you have to pick a collection of famous people you'd like to invite over for Sunday lunch? It's usually the game you find yourself playing at a party which wound down an hour ago, but there's still 45 minutes before your cab's arriving. It's the kind of game that reignites the fun into a tired evening, without being in the least bit taxing. It's entirely uncompetitive, but everyone really wants to get it right. 

What I like best is that it genuinely celebrates people and the reasons we adore them. Humour, intelligence and talent win over money and power every time. I've never come across a player who would choose a Kardashion sister over Judi Dench, or Donald Trump over Spike Milligan. For my table, I sometimes include Christopher Biggins, but never leave out Richard Briers.


Rhubarb and custard panna cotta

Richard Briers died today at the age of 79. Best known to most as Tom from The Good Life, he was first known to me as the voice behind my favourite childhood programme, Roobarb and Custard.

Richard Briers

Although Roobarb and Custard was a 1970s show, it was still regularly on the telly when I was a child in the 80s and still holds up today. My nephews (aged 6 and 9) love it and I'm looking forward to my one year old niece being old enough to be converted, so I can have an excuse to giggle through the series all over again. It really is that good. In fact, the title music has been my ringtone for as long as I can remember.

So, here's my little tribute to the very wonderful, funny and talented, Richard Briers: a lovely pudding of rhubarb and custard for a much loved actor.


Rhubarb and custard pannacotta with ginger crumble

"Roobarb" and Custard

This is a light and refreshing take on the classic British combination of forced rhubarb and custard. I've made a custard panna cotta - which essentially means that I've set it with gelatine instead of baking it - and served it with rhubarb which I cooked with vanilla and sugar in the sous vide. You can just as easily bake it, but if there's any excuse to play with my new toy, I'll take it. I made my custard with single cream, but you can use double cream if you're after something richer or whole milk for something less so. But please don't do anything as perverse as trying this with skimmed. If you're unfortunate enough to have skimmed milk in your fridge, my advice would be to simply pour it down the sink. It will be better for everyone that way. 

If you are as much of a custard lover as me, you'll find other delicious custardy recipes over on Domestic Sluttery. Their Just Desserts club is all about custard this month, so do check them out.


Serves 6

"Roobarb"

150g forced rhubarb - the pinker the better
35g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
35g water or the same weight in ice cubes if sous vide-ing

Vacuum pack all the ingredients in a single layer (it's best to use two bags) and drop them into the water bath at 61°C for 45 minutes. Fish out the bags and plunge them into ice water and then into the fridge until you want it.

Alternatively you can bake the rhubarb with the water and sugar at 180°C for about half an hour or until soft, but not squidgy. Leave to cool.

Custard Panna cotta

4 large egg yolks
100g caster sugar or, better still, vanilla caster sugar
350ml single cream
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
3 leaves of gelatine, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes

Place the cream/milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and gently bring to the boil. In the meantime, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until pale and creamy and pop a sieve over the bowl ready. Once the cream has come to the boil, pour it through the sieve over the eggs to strain off the vanilla pod and any woody bits that have come off it in the cream. Whisk it all together and pour back into the saucepan. Place the saucepan over a gentle heat and whisk constantly until the custard thickens enough so that it can coat the back of a spoon and if you draw a line through the custard with your finger, the line remains. Transfer to a jug. Squeeze any excess water out of the gelatine and whisk into the hot custard until it has completely melted.

I poured my custard into oiled ring moulds with their bases covered tightly with cling film to set, but you can use ramekins or just set it in glasses. Whatever your chosen vessels, once cool, pop them into the fridge for at least 6 hours - overnight is easiest.

If using ring moulds, remove the cling film before placing one on a serving plate and blasting round the edges with a blowtorch to make sliding off the mould easy. A hairdryer will do the same job, or you can simply run a knife round the inside edge. For ramekins, dunk them quickly in boiling water to release and upturn on to a plate.

I served mine with a scattering of cold ginger-spiced crumble topping, cooked simply spread on a baking tray for ten minutes at 180°C before cooling. 


Rhubarb and custard panna cotta with ginger crumble

Monday, 21 January 2013

I Could Eat A Horse


Horsemeat

Horsemeat has been put in the spotlight due to the discovery of horse DNA in frozen burgers sold as beef in Tesco, Lidl, Iceland and Aldi. Although widely eaten in Europe, horsemeat has long tipped the controversy scales in the UK, but is our beef with eating equines ultimately hurting our horses?


Free range, sustainable and healthy: these are the words we all most want to hear when sourcing food for our tables, but when it comes to the meat we eat, not all animals are equal.

Horses are having a complicated time of it in the UK. Farm work has largely been overshadowed by modern machinery, there are only a select number of elite horses fit for the racecourse and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more expensive pet. Because of their depleting uses, equine numbers are steadily dropping. In fact, so critical are their numbers, that they are the group most worrying the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The Cleveland Bay, Eriskay, Suffolk and Hackney horse and pony are all on their critical watch list (fewer than 300), with more breeds still on their endangered, vulnerable and at risk lists. Claire Barber at RBST, explained the problems the charity is facing in trying to conserve our native breeds:
“People are not buying horses because they’re too expensive to keep and breed, and without a productive purpose, they continue to lose market value”.

Although the RBST are doing stellar conservation work, they are all too aware that economic realities can’t be ignored.  Hill farmers are making as little as £5 for a Welsh Mountain Pony (a native breed on RBST’s vulnerable list) and it would be unethical to promote breeding when they have so little economic value. So, what exactly can be done?

Horse and horseradish scotch quails eggs

I spoke to Ruth, a smallholder in Cumbria, who is passionate about feral breeds staying on the fell, but understands the financial difficulties faced by farmers:
“The only way to keep them is to eat them.  They would have greater financial value if horses were used for meat, and if they had a value, they would be bred and cared for”.
Ruth believes that the conservation of rare breeds is being held back by our conservative eating habits and perception prejudice. She has dreams of starting her own horsemeat charcuterie business, so she can help preserve our native breeds and personally ensure a high standard of welfare.

Although horsemeat is not illegal in the UK (although it’s certainly illegal not to label it as such), there is currently no legislation for codes of welfare for horses, other than as companion animals. There is the added complication that horses are flight animals, prone to stress, so they would require careful handling and specialist abattoirs, but this issue would cease to be a complication if horsemeat became standard in the British diet, as it already is in some parts of Europe and Asia.

New EU regulations to protect animals at the time of killing came into force on the 1st of January this year, which has overhauled welfare mandates in slaughterhouses. The new regulations impose a stricter duty of care and specify that “a person who is responsible for an animal must ensure the animal’s needs are met”, which includes “the ability to behave normally” and “to be kept with other animals or alone according to the needs and requirements of that species”. If the special requirements of equines at slaughter are already safeguarded under The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2013 (WATOK), these arguments for not eating horsemeat become moot and the creation of licensed equine abattoirs seems the logical next step. But whether the public are ready to embrace this new red meat in their diet is another matter.

Horse tartare
Horsemeat naysayer, Marcus Wareing, publicly damned the eating of horses as “absolutely unthinkable” after Gordon Ramsay promoted it on the F Word in 2007, stating “I would never eat horse and I certainly wouldn't serve it in my restaurants”. Wareing’s argument that “it's not part of our food culture” may be true currently, but horsemeat has certainly played its part in British food history. In fact, the Brits were eating horse as recently as the 1930s. Ramsay’s attempts may have fallen flat (PETA protested by dumping a tonne of horse manure on the doorstep of his restaurant at Claridges), but six years on, is it finally time put our sentimentality out to pasture?

The argument for horses having a special status as companion animals is certainly an emotive one. Who doesn’t fondly remember Saturday afternoons watching Black Beauty on the telly? But it’s a cop out to compare horsemeat to stir-frying your pet dog or cat. Labradors and Tabbies aren’t in danger of extinction. There’s no denying that equines are beautiful and majestic beasts, but this ingrained taboo is ultimately short-sighted.

When I discovered that UK based exotic meat suppliers, Kezie, have recently started stocking horsemeat “from producers who reach [their] high welfare standards”, I was champing at the bit to try horsemeat for myself.  I spoke to managing director, Walter Murray, about the public reaction to their controversial stock and, aside from an angry letter from a young teenage girl with a pet pony, the reaction has been largely positive. I ordered a variety of cuts for a “Horses Four Courses” supper for six to find out if horsemeat is tasty enough to get off our moral high horse for.

Horse braised in red wine with a mash potato top.

We started with horseradish-spiked horsemeat Scotch quails eggs, which were excellent and much less gamey than I had imagined. These were followed by a deliciously tender horse tartare, which left the table silent in gratitude. Next we tucked into a hearty and succulent one pot warmer of horse braised in red wine before finally carving a horse rump roast, which was the only dud note of the evening. Roast horse excluded (it was as tough as an old riding boot), horsemeat is moist and moreish, with a similar character to beef, only slightly sweeter and with an extra subtle gaminess.  Because the meat is so lean, you need to treat it more like venison than beef. Rare or slow cooked seems to be the way to go to prevent it drying out, but with a little care and attention, horsemeat can certainly rival other traditional red meats.

Packed with protein, rich in iron and Omega 3 and with half the fat of beef, horsemeat is delicious, nutritious and inexpensive. I’m certainly game for going back for more.  If eating well and cheaply can go even a little way in helping to protect our native breeds from extinction, the ethical debate looks set to swing in horsemeat’s favour.

Roast horse with beetroot and horseradish gratin, carrots and cabbage (pre-gravy)

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Great British Chefs and Action Against Hunger


Pascal Aussignac's grilled lamb with ratatouille.

I'm going to break from the alphabetical write-ups just this once (or more if I like, it's my blog) to tell you about an amazing charity. Please keep reading, it won't be as boring as that might sound. Promise.

Action Against Hunger provides live saving assistance and restores self-sufficiency to millions of people all over the world. You probably know from reading this blog that I have quite a passion for food and eating, and as a reader of this blog (regular or otherwise), I'm guessing that you do too. Action Against Hunger/ ACF International are a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger, working to save the lives of malnourished children while providing communities with access to safe water and sustainable solutions to hunger. Now that sounds like something we could all get on board with, doesn't it?

A few weeks ago, I won the Nom Nom Noms - a Masterchef style competition for food bloggers held at the wonderful Cookery School on Little Portland Street in aid of Action Against Hunger. Amazing companies have donated prizes to a raffle that YOU CAN ENTER HERE. For just £10 you could win a set of Wusthof knives worth nearly £700 or a Cuisinart food processor worth £300. There are restaurant meals, hampers, equipment and other food-related goodies galore. Last year, Richard and I won a meal for two at The Avalon and a Brindisa paella kit. Not bad for £20's worth of raffle tickets. Please donate a tenner (or more, if you want to increase your prize-winning chances) so that you can be entered into the draw to win a fabulous prize while giving money to a fabulous charity.

And, while you're at it, why not download the Great British Chefs Summertime app. Not only is it full of 105 delicious recipes from 21 of the top chefs in the UK, it also boasts some of the most beautiful food photography you'll ever see. You get all of that for £1.99 and ALL PROCEEDS GO TO ACTION AGAINST HUNGER. Aren't the people at Great British Chefs a lovely bunch?!

I made Pascal Aussignac's grilled lamb rack with ratatouille, just one of the fabulous recipes on the app the other day and I'm looking forward to making more.

This is my food photography. The photos on the app are much lovelier.


I’ve always loved ratatouille, from first tasting it on a family holiday in France, to making it in my first Home Ec class at school. So in love with its charms, ratatouille was an absolute staple of mine as a student. It was simple, rustic, cheap and nourishing and I could make a big vat of it that would last over three or four days. Perfect on top of a jacket potato or turned into vegetable lasagne, ratatouille is a versatile beast. I liked it best served simply with roast chicken or, even better, a lamb chop. So, naturally, I leapt at the chance to try Pascal Aussignac’s recipe for ratatouille with grilled rack of lamb as soon as possible.

My partner’s family came over for Sunday lunch to celebrate his mum’s birthday, which felt like the perfect excuse to give it a go.  I doubled the quantities to allow for the extra guests and set to work peeling, roasting and chopping. This is certainly not your average one pot rustic fare. This recipe requires a lot of processes and a lot of pans, but don’t let that put you off from having a go. I really loved the idea of oven roasting the tomatoes first, but I ended up adding a few extras than the recipe states. I adore tomatoes and, because of this, I tend to buy them in bulk whenever they’re on offer. This often means I have to use them up unexpectedly quickly, after discovering the ones at the bottom of the bowl are suddenly “on the turn”.

In fact, I am such a tomato-head that rarely a day goes by during tomato season when I don’t gobble up at least one or two as part of my lunch. Tomatoes contain lycopene, which, studies report, acts as a natural sunblock for your skin – good news indeed in the glorious weather we’ve been having. The amount of lycopene increases when the tomatoes are cooked (so tinned toms and ketchup do the job too), which is bad news for people following raw food diets, but fantastic news for my ratatouille.

The only other tweak I made to the recipe was to chop up the sage and chuck it back in the pot when I reheated it, as it seemed a shame to throw it away. I also cooked the lamb for slightly longer, as our guests preferred their chops blushing pink rather than ruby rare. I made some crunchy roast potatoes cooked in duck fat (well, it was a special occasion) to go with it.

The combination of intensely aromatic and garlicky ratatouille with soft, juicy lamb is a real winner. I might try oven roasting all the veg next time to save on washing up, as the weather’s too nice to spend much time elbow deep in hot soapy water. Either that, or see if I can offload the dirty dishes onto some other sucker. I’d rather be sitting outside, sipping a Bloody Mary.