Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Let's have a bit of a harvest festival

Since we’re in the midst of British Food Fortnight, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do some serious British cooking – and also to consider just what 'British food' means in the 21st century.

Since I did roast beef just over a week ago – and what could be more British than that? – a portion of last Friday evening was given over to the question of what to cook this time around.

It was a football Saturday – and an early start – so there could be no sitting up with a coffee in the morning. The list had to be ready in advance for The Other Half to head to Broadway Market.

Jane Grigson’s English Food is, on such occasions, a fascinating read, with dishes from around the country – many of which you’ve never heard of in the first place and a substantial number of which have probably been all but forgotten.

You see the regional ingredients reflected in recipe after recipe – lamb in Cumbria, for instance, where sheep graze the hills from the rolling Lake District to the bleakness of the utterly inappropriately named Eden Valley.

British Food Fortnight was started, 10 years ago, by two vicars, who wanted to revive the tradition of the harvest festival. I've always relished the ripeness of the season, its fecundity, its sensuality and voluptuousness – and it was one of the parts of the religious year that most appealed too when I was growing up.

The fortnight itself, though, has changed since those early days and come to represent something more, but very much with a sense of the celebration of what we produce on these islands.

It was no surprise, though, to see food writer Matthew Fort tweet that supermarkets weren't supporting it or to read, in a column by Oliver Thring, that a Morrison's, sitting right next door to the orchards of Kent, is selling Chinese apples – although one suspects that even if they’d been selling apples from the garden of England, the fruit would probably have been halfway around the UK and back, such is the crackpottery of the centralised supermarket distribution system.

Living in urban areas, it’s all too easy to forget just what an agricultural heritage we have. The journey north by train is always an enjoyable reminder.

The sky above was as pale blue as my shirt on a beautiful morning. At times, the scenery could have been an almost chocolate box vision of England in the early autumn. Sheep and cattle rested in fields. Green hills rolled gently and an increasing number of the trees were wearing the signs of seasonal change.

Narrow boats dotted the landscape as the canals wound their way between the industrial conurbations, with ribbons of smoke drifting upward from slender chimneys.

There were signs of ploughing: bare soil marked with the patterns of agricultural machinery; stubble elsewhere, spiky in the morning light, like an unshaved chin. The occasional small, square church squatted amid neatly arranged gravestones.

Not that this is the only England visible from the train: there’s the manicured golf course that sits incongruously alongside a vast, belching power station, and cloned, modern rabbit-hutch homes within sight of the tracks too. Depending on the route, there is industrial dereliction: buildings with jagged, broken windows like screaming mouths, as forgotten as the productivity they once housed.

Slag heaps are slowly returning to nature. And at Watford, the journey passes by one of England’s new cathedrals, a vast shopping mall in which to worship the buying of things (except food, usually).

So what about the food?

Well, however many of the dishes from Mrs Grigson’s book might have gone out of fashion, one of the staples of British food remains abidingly popular – the banger.

Not, of course, that a love of sausages is limited to these shores. But unlike our Germanic cousins, for instance, we have managed to reduce the banger to a shadow of what it can be.

Things have improved a little since reluctant producers were dragged kicking and screaming into revealing on packets just what percentage of proper meat was in a sausage – as opposed to the delightfully euphemistic ‘meat derivatives’, which now have to be labeled as such.

But that’s not solved the whole problem.

Industrially made sausages are difficult to brown properly because the sheer scale of the production process means that the machines that make them have to be constantly cooled by water, which finds its way into the finished product along with the listed ingredients.

And that’s another big question – what’s in your mass-produced sausage?

Checking Ocado’s website, even the ingredients list for Daylesford’s ‘organic pork chipolatas’, we find: “Antioxidant: Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid”, plus sugar and sunflower oil.

Then there’s the matter of the right balance of quality meat to fat: yes, you need proper fat and no, sunflower oil does not count.

So there’s more than one reason for buying the best butcher's sausages you can find.

Sausages can be magnificent – but all too often we seem to forget this and treat them as ‘fast food’ in the worst sense of the word; as not being seriously good food that’s worth investing a little time and care in.

So when you’re ready to cook, don’t prick them – you’ll actually lose all those valuable juices that keep the sausage moist.

Heat some fat – lard is brilliant, dripping would be perfect for beef sausages – in a heavy pan and then cook on gently on a low heat, checking frequently. This helps to prevent the skins bursting.

It can easily take 30 minutes, so don’t expect to rush.

There were pork and leek sausages in the fridge when I got back from the football – and I cooked them as described, in the Le Crueset casserole, with a sliced red onion.

On the side – simple boiled spuds and carrot, with good butter. Nothing complicated – but it really doesn’t have to be.

I did, though, have a bit of a revelation the other week, realising that potatoes bought from the organic stall on Broadway Market actually had a different, discernible taste. So too did some new potatoes from the not-quite-organic stall that I’d tried a few days before.

It’s a surprise, because – like so many other people, I suspect – I’ve accepted, over many years, a sense of potato being potato being potato and, generally speaking, just padding. Well, with the exception of Jersey Royals. But I’d certainly never been so conscious of a particular flavour in a maincrop spud.

So the next time I’m on the market, I’ll have to check just what they are.

And in the meantime, I'll contemplate further how to celebrate the joys of the British harvest season.

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