Monday, 29 November 2010

Lancashire hotpot: a culinary treasure

It probably seems the most ridiculous link in culinary history, but in preparing to cook the first Lancashire hotpot of the season yesterday, Gordon Ramsay's name entered the equation.

'Gordon Ramsay?' you query, eyebrow rising à la Roger Moore. ‘And a Lancashire hotpot?'

Now stop looking like that – it was all for quite a good reason.

Rick Stein once opined that, were this France, hotpot would be a nationally hailed dish – and the French would seem to agree.

It even merits an individual mention in Larousse, where it’s described as "a classic British dish". There’s a second individual entry for the county in this bible of gastronomy, the other being "delicious" Lancashire cheese, plus a mention of hotpot and another Lancashire dish, Hindle Wakes, in the 'England' section, together with mentions in the 'Great Britain' section.

Yorkshire merits a solitary specific mention for the famous pudding, and nowhere near as many mentions in the GB and England sections.

You see – even on a culinary front, the Wars of the Roses went the way of the red rose.

Tragically – but perhaps unsurprisingly – a 2008 survey from Tesco revealed hotpot as being one of 10 traditional British dishes that were dying out.

The same Telegraph article also reported that high street butchers were dying at the rate of 23 a month. Not that the likes of Tesco has in any way affected that depressing statistic.

The rest of this sad list of endangered dishes was made up of spotted dick, beef Wellington, jam roly-poly, steak and kidney pie, coronation chicken (which hasn’t even been around very long), sherry trifle, bread and butter pudding, toad in the hole and fish pie.

That survey was almost three years ago: it's to be hoped that gastro pubs are increasingly keeping alive such cuisine, because there's a few classy dishes in that list that really do not deserve to go the way of all flesh.

I don't recall my mother ever cooking a hotpot – it may have happened, but it's not something that springs readily to mind when thinking of food in my childhood.

Indeed, when I start to think about it, I don't really remember there being much in the way of casserole dishes in her repertoire.

She used to make a stew occasionally – I remember little about it, except that we'd have slices of white bread to mop up the juices.

The recipe I've always used for hotpot comes from Catherine Rothwell's Lancashire Cookbook, a volume that George gave me some years ago.

For the meat, it specifies lamb chops, which work fine. But in somewhat more ambitious mode last week, I decided to see what would have been a more traditional cut.

Even with Google, this wasn’t quite as obvious as one might imagine. But then I came across not one but two recipes from the shouty one in the Times.

Both had been published within four months of each other – 14 June 2007 and 3 Oct 2007 – and both had Ramsay saying that they were originally from Lanky lad and fellow chef Marcus Wareing.

There are, remarkably, quite a few differences between. One opts for chops, but the second mentions middle neck. The latter seems more traditional.

It also suggests getting the meat boned, but then using the bones to make a lamb stock, which seemed like an excellent and authentic idea. After all, in the days when women made a hotpot and took it to the local baker to cook, long and slow after the bread had finished baking, while they did a shift in the local cotton mill, the stock probably wouldn’t have been made from a cube.

Although the invention is attributed to Nicolas Appert in 1831, bouillon cubes were first commercially produced by Maggi in 1908, with Oxo coming up with a meat extract one a couple of years later. By 1913, there were apparently at least 10 brands available – containing an astonishing 59-72% of salt, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry – which seems like another good reason to make your own stock.

And then there's the flavour issue – and indeed, the whole thing of not wasting anything.

So yesterday morning, I roasted the bones for 25 minutes (the recipe said 15, but then Gordon doesn't have to deal with my oven) and simmered stock for an hour and a half. That provided enough for two hotpots.

The recipes also differ as to whether they include lambs' kidneys: for me, this is an absolute essential. At one time, oysters were included, but it’s some years since they were ‘poor people's' food. Gordon also suggests red wine in one version – but that's a step too far in my book.

Of course, there are probably as many different versions of Lancashire hotpot as there are people who have cooked it. An intriguing recipe from 1937, which is apparently based one in Elizabeth Craig’s 1936 Cookery Illustrated and Household Management, uses both oysters and kidneys for the dish, together with best end neck of mutton cutlets.

It’s difficult, then, to say that there’s ever been a single ‘authentic' recipe.

So my Lancashire hotpot this time was really a mix of versions.

If you can't get middle neck of lamb because you haven't got access to one of those proper butchers that concerned-for-our-culinary-heritage Tesco and co have helped drive into the ground, then lamb chops will do just fine.

Ms Rothwell says to set the oven to a "moderate” heat – I go for around 150˚ in my fan-assisted (and awkward) one.

For two people, I used around 500g of boned middle neck and five kidneys. If someone doesn’t like kidneys (as The Other Half doesn’t), then adjust the amounts accordingly and just give the kidneys to those who like them – but don't cut them out: they really add an important richness to the dish.

Halve and core the kidneys, remove any excess fat from the meat and chop it into largish pieces, then brown everything in some oil. Remove from the pan.

Pop in some herbs – could be bouquet garni or just some dried rosemary and/or thyme.

Put the meat back in. Arrange sliced onion and chopped carrot on top.

Then pour in around 300ml of stock – it should come about half way up.

Peel some potatoes and slice (around the thickness of a pound coin). Layer these on top and then dot with butter. Cover and pop into the oven for around two hours.

Remove the lid and give it another 20 minutes.

Serve – if you want to be really traditional, with some pickled red cabbage on the side.

It's perfect food for this weather – even the aromas from the kitchen are warming and comforting while it simmers away gently.

I was really pleased with this version: the meat was lovely – almost melting but still holding together. It was worth the effort of finding such a cut – and it wasn’t expensive.

This isn't a dish that should need saving. But then again, as Rick Stein effectively said: this isn't France.

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