Thursday, 2 December 2010

Mulling some Dickensian seasonal pleasures

With snow-filled clouds heading toward London, it was the perfect night for the staff social club to show Oliver! to a small but perfectly formed audience, for the purposes of some pre-Christmas singing practice.

Fortunately, the boss who referred to me, a month or so ago, as being "really a gay man" was not around to witness just how many of the lyrics I know without having to read any subtitles.

In an effort to get fully into the mood, eggnog and little mussels in brine were available – with the latter offering Colin the inevitable opportunity to see if he couldn't manage to make a new version of a retro snack by spearing a mussel and a ball of Butterkist popcorn onto the same cocktail stick. Well, it makes a change from cheese and pineapple.

Mulled wine was, un-fortunately, not on the menu for technical reasons (the lack of any obvious way to heat it in the staff bar), although it must be said that the stuff is never quite as good when supped indoors. I didn't use to think it any great shakes until visiting Amsterdam for new year in 2008. Then, sitting outside in glorious sunshine but freezing cold, glühwein metamorphosed into simply the most wonderful drink in the world.

I had a large paper cup full at Borough Market last Friday – it was the perfect weather for such a thoroughly Dickensian treat.

Like so many things, though, forms of mulled wine are popular around the world – and it pre-dates Dickens by some considerable margin. The oldest known glühwein tankard belonged to one Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen – the first Riesling grower in the world – in around 1420, but drinking heated wine dates back to ancient times, when spoilt plonk was made drinkable again by adding spices and honey and heating it.

Of course, if we'd had access to serious heating, we could have had jacket potatoes too.

For some reason or other, I was astonished to read, in Kate Colquhoun's Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking that baked spuds had been massively popular street food in the 19th century.

But probably not stuffed with the leftovers from the previous day's dinner, as is the wont of the staff canteen where I work.

Imagine it if you will: jacket potatoes, stuffed with the remnants of a 'beef bourguignon' that hasn't even seen any red wine, let alone a Burgundy; a dish that, in the reality of our self-styled 'deli bar', resembles a certain French classic about as much as I resemble Catherine Deneuve.

The Other Half perpetually describes jacket potatoes as "student food". And indeed, it's difficult sometimes to realise that they do pre-date microwaves. Which in turn makes you tend to forget just how good they can really be.

But not when stuffed with a faux bourguignon. Or baked beans and grated plastic cheese, for that matter.

The best method I've found for baking spuds is one from Delia, with a skewer adaptation from me (it doesn't only help the cooking, but makes them easier to handle and gives you the basis for testing if they're ready).

Preheat the oven to 190˚.

Take your spuds and make sure they’re clean and dry.

Prick them a few times with a skewer – and then skewer them all the way through, lengthways.

Brush them all over with some olive oil and then sprinkle salt over.

Balance the skewers over an oven-proof dish and stick in the oven to cook.

Depending on size, they'll need at least an hour and 15 minutes.

To test, if the skewer comes out easily, they're done.

Serve with nothing more than good butter, salt and pepper.

And this is the perfect season for real jacket potatoes, when you're all cooked out after Christmas and Boxing Day, and you've got loads of left-over meat to use up. With some chutneys and pickles on the side, you've got an easy and simple meal.

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