Sunday, 19 December 2010

The time for peasant cuisine is now

A couple of days ago, a copy of European Peasant Cookery by Elisabeth Luard landed on my doormat, courtesy of m’friend George.

Peasant cuisine has provided the roots of what we now think of as rather posher food; dishes that we choose when we dine out, spending good money in smart restaurants.

But of course the UK hasn’t had a peasantry for centuries, since Enclosure and the deliberate de-forestation of the country, which were carried out with the intention of driving people off the land and into the industrialising urban areas.

Which doesn’t mean that Luard neglects the UK. She includes, for instance, Lancashire hot pot, as well as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Welsh cawl, Scotch broth and many more.

In other words, traditional dishes of the British working class.

As it happens, she doesn’t include a recipe for pea and ham soup – which I decided would be perfect fodder for the weekend, for a number of reasons.

Both The Other Half and I, along with assorted colleagues at work, have come down with coughs and colds. In my case, yesterday afternoon I coughed so much that it felt as though a herd of baby elephants had stampeded across my torso. And back again.

But we’re also in the middle of another ‘cold snap’. With snow already lying thinly on the ground overnight, yesterday began with a gentle flurry of the white stuff drifting down. As I shopped, however, it turned into the closest thing I’ve seen to a blizzard since living on the edge of the Pennines over 30 years ago. The Other Half, looking out from the comfort of our living room, donned outer clothing and headed up to find and help me. Most welcome it was too.

A week earlier, I’d seen that the Longwood Butchers van on Broadway Market had ham shanks for £4. And in the intervening days, I’d found an old family recipe that, a long time ago, I’d faithfully and neatly copied onto the back of one of my father’s used orders of service, then folded away and popped into a notebook.

Now I’ve cooked Erwtensoep, the Dutch version, before, but never the English version, and now seemed the perfect moment to break that culinary duck. As it happens, I altered it a bit. But then again, there are no absolutes for cooking such dishes – simply as many different versions as there are people who have cooked them.

I soaked the ham for a couple of hours, together with a box of quick-soak peas.

Then it was into the pot with everything and water to cover. Well, not quite. Given the size of pots I have, plus the size of the ham itself, that would have meant a lot of water and probably nowhere near enough peas. So I lidded the pot and allowed the top of the meat to start off by steaming, turning it occasionally.

It needs to be cooked gently anyway or the peas will stick to the bottom of the pan and make a dreadful mess.

After a couple of hours, I added sliced carrot and parsnip. The recipe had said a grated carrot, but this was what I felt in the mood for.

It had another long, slow cook, so that the veg were pretty much broken down. And then we had big bowls of the stuff.

Hearty and warm and hardly unhealthy.

And you remember the price of the ham? £4. One 250g packet of Batchelors Quick Soak Dried Peas was a whopping 35p. I’m afraid I cannot recall the cost of two carrots and two parsnips or the water. But we'd barely be looking at a fiver in total.

We both had a good bowl last night. We have also had a good bowl tonight (the colds are not leaving us feeling ambitious, from a culinary point of view) and anyway, as might be expected, it had actually improved with keeping.

There’s still enough left for lunch tomorrow.

This is not expensive food. It is good food; it is real food. But it is not expensive food.

Out of interest, four 400g cans of Heinz pea and ham soup from Tesco are currently on offer for £3 (usual price 82p per can). Mind, for that money, you’re actually getting:

    “Water, Split Green Peas (21%), Peas (5%), Potatoes, Reformed Ham (3%, Pork (72%, Water, Whey Powder (from Milk), Salt, Emulsifiers – Tri, Poly and Diphosphates, Dextrose, Preservative – Sodium Nitrite), Onions, Carrots, Cornflour, Modified Cornflour, Celery, Salt, Flavourings (contain Wheat, Barley), Vegetable Oil, Sugar, Cream, Dried Skimmed Milk, Spice, Colour – Beta-carotene, Stabiliser – Polyphosphates and Sodium Phosphates.”

Damn. My recipe missed out most of those. But trust me, a can of soup like that is not a substantial meal – no, not even at one can per person. I had a can of Baxter’s pea and ham soup earlier this month during my previous chill/cold – these colds seem to have induced a bout of nostalgia – so I do speak with the benefit of recent experience.

Now, I’m lucky in that I have easy access to a butcher who will do things like suddenly have ham shank available – and for a damned decent price.

Most people are not so lucky: in that same post about Lancashire hot pot, I mentioned that Tesco itself, for all it has bemoaned the slow demise of classic English dishes, was also one of a number of supermarket chains that have helped to create a rate of local butchers dying out of rate of 23 a month (survey, reported in the Telegraph in 2008). Few people are as lucky as I am to have the choice.

Extending the research a bit, I did another little search on the Tesco site. I came up with the following result:

“We did not find any products to match 'ham shank'.”

Somehow, I’m not surprised. Nor, incidentally and in the interests of fairness, does Waitrose. Or Asda. Sainsbury's translates 'ham shank' into 'lamb shank'. I'm not registered with Morrison's and cannot check.

Carrying on with the research, I found that Tesco’s basic “Lancashire Hotpot” is £2.90 for 450g. So, that’d be around £11.60 for a family of four.

The list of ingredients is more complex than anything that Luard or my book of Lancashire recipes comes close to:

    “Marinated Lamb (28%), Potato, Carrot, Onion, Water, Vegetable Juices From Concentrate, Lamb Stock, Vegetable Oil, Cornflour, Wheat Flour, Tomato Purée, Garlic Purée, Salt, Pepper, Rosemary, Marinated Lamb contains, New Zealand Lamb, Water, Cornflour, Tomato Purée, Salt. Potato contains, Potato, Vegetable Oil. Vegetable Juices From Concentrate contains, Carrot, Celeriac, Lettuce, Beetroot, Spinach, Parsley. Lamb Stock contains, Lamb Stock, Yeast Extract, Sugar, Salt, Cornflour, Onion, Rosemary, Thyme.”

Those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now, because I am on the verge of a ‘what-the-fuck!?!?’ moment.

Actually, the hell with it. Let’s have some fun. Tesco also sell an own-brand “Finest" hot pot ("Finest" is that chain's top range). Again, this is 450g, but this time it retails for £4.25 per serving (so, £17 for the proverbial four-person family).

Let’s have a little look what all that extra moolah gets us:

    “Potato (38%), Lamb (36%), Carrot, Celery, Onion, White Wine (3.5%), Leek, Vegetable Oil, Lamb Stock, Cornflour, Redcurrant Jelly, Chicken Stock, Wheat Flour, Yeast Extract, Gelling Agent, Salt, Thyme, Rosemary, Black Pepper, Barley Malt Extract. Lamb Stock contains, Lamb, Salt, Sugar, Cornflour, Onion Concentrate, Rosemary Oil, Thyme Oil. Redcurrant Jelly contains, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Redcurrant Juice, Sugar, Gelling Agent. Chicken Stock contains, Chicken, Sugar, Water, Salt, Cornflour, Onion Concentrate, Chicken Fat. Yeast Extract contains, Yeast Extract, Salt. Gelling Agent, Pectin.”

Hey … look at that! More potato than in the cheap version – in fact, more potato than there is lamb (although there is more lamb than in the cheapo one)! No tomato purée, but loads of lovely cornflour and pectin. Pectin? What on Earth is pectin doing in a bloody hotpot – pectin is what occurs naturally in fruits and what is used to set jams. And who puts sugar in a stock?

Next time I make a Lanky hot pot, I’ll make a note, to the very last penny, of what it costs. But I make you a promise now: it will not come even close to £4.25 per serving. And it will have good meat and good kidneys in it. And it will be rather bigger servings than the amount mentioned above (which is only 50g more than a tin of soup).

And tomorrow, if you’re not bored to tears already, I’ll attempt to explore what I am coming to believe ‘peasant cuisine’ means in the UK today.

1 comment:

  1. Patrik BP Andersson29 November 2011 at 03:20

    Seems the time is getting ripe to start bullying our EU-MEPs until they take their heads out of the food industry's arses. Here in Sweden there's also more and more attention given to what the industry tries to sell us as the real deal.
    Explaining why the list of ingredients looks like it does is simple though.
    See, when YOU cook, you get the ingredients yourself, more or less in a fresh (as in unprocessed state). When the industrial soup is made, they don't use ingredients. They have standardized components that comes pre-packed from other companies. Since the components is used in a lot of different things they're given a load of additives to be multi-purpose and have a long shelf-life.