Sunday, 3 July 2011

Let it burn. let it burn, let it burn

It's difficult to imagine any form of cooking that is so inherently masculine - in terms of gender stereotypes at least - as the barbecue. Or the braai, as we know it at the home of The Voluptuous Manifesto, where The Other Half spent a decade of his youth in South Africa.

But cooking over a real fire goes far beyond the masculine. It goes into something far deeper, and something that is part of a much more universal cultural heritage.

And I suspect that that is why, when we smell a certain type of cooking, it calls to us so deeply.

If you've ever walked past a take away (which most of you will have, regularly) you'll know what I mean: it's attractive even when you wouldn't actually dream of trying the fodder because you know that:

a) it'll be full of crap;

b) the taste will never, ever live up to the expectation created by the smell.

The latter is, of course, sometimes true of perfectly good food and drink. Does coffee ever taste quite as good as it smells, for instance? It's a question that always makes me think of Arthur Miller's wonderful A View From the Bridge, where Eddie Carbone tells how unloading coffee sacks is one of the joys of a longshoreman's working life.

Bacon is another such smell, and I blame it for luring me away from vegetarians - years before I became a foodie. Although I am hardly unique in succumbing to meat again under such temptation.

I remember too, the bonfires of my youth: 5 November, just outside Manchester, when we'd go as a family to one or other of my father's churches. There'd be potatoes, wrapped in foil and cooked in the fire itself, to be eaten with meat and potato pies and black peas. I remember them with relish - not least for the excitement of eating food so fresh from something as basic and unconquered as the flames.

But that's rather by the by. The reality is that The Other Half does this cooking rather well – and it's improved because I don't see it (and neither does he, to be fair) as an excuse to use poor produce.

A week ago, I'd spotted boar steaks on Andy's game stall on Broadway Market. Since the date was for 6 July, and since game improves with keeping anyway, I bought them them then and there.

Opening them up, they were very lean. The Other Half wondered about cooking them, but got on with the job. We added venison sausages, since I'd decided to make this our first serious game braai.

So, first of all, he lit the fire.

Don't be fooled. It's excitable to start, but you need to wait a bit. Even if you have to blow it a little to really get it going.

To start with, make the fire from some twists of paper (the Saturday Guardian, which works perfectly well, and the Morning Star, which is also perfectly adequate. Has anyone ever previously suggested such a perfectly left-wing braai?

Then add some wood if you have it and some charcoal. Then light.

But whatever else you do, let the fire burn down. The biggest British mistake is to assume that you have to cook over actual flames.

What you want is the hot coals.

This is the stage at which you might seriously be contemplating putting the food on the rack.

The salad was chopped, pickled beetroot with segements of fresh orange – a great compliment to the richness of the game and incredibly easy.

You can garnish it with a dollop of créme frïche and a shower of cut chives, but it's also perfectly good on its own, for exactly the reasons mentioned above. The original recipe I spotted called for raw beets, that you then had too cook and cool. But however unsophisticated it might be, I like pickled baby beets – and it works beautifully here..

The point is not to allow yourself to do something you don't like.

But what is also clear, is that we shouldn't imagine that the most earthy cooking that we can do is bad just because it carries echoes of our unsophisticated ancestors.

I many not know very much about food, but I know that what The Other Hal;f cooked tonight was very good indeed – and that wasn't just because I'd bought good meat in the first place.

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