Monday, 16 September 2013

North and south on a plate

Boles de picolat
It seems almost impossible that only just over a week ago, the days were still sunny and hot, with humid nights.

It’s perfectly possible that such weather could return to grant us an Indian summer, but at present, it feels very much autumnal.

The nights are lengthening and the days shortening. The tipping point cannot be far away.

As we emerged from the British Museum on Friday evening at around 7.20pm, it was already pretty much dark, and rain was pitching down.

It didn’t stop until the following morning, yet there was something comforting in hearing the rhythmic pattering outside as I curled up in bed later.

The temperature has dropped and, while it’s not actually cold, it’s a lot cooler. The weekend saw more rain and some pretty blustery wind, largely grey skies, and the first signs of yellowing leaves on the two tall, slender silver birches in the carpark.

When all this is happening, the last thing you want to eat is salad.

I had already contacted Longwood Farm early last week, deciding that a slow Sunday afternoon cook was perfect and could easily be done again.

This time, it was shin of beef and beef kidney for a Vlaamse Stoverij, the Flemish dish that we first ate in Bruges 18 months ago.

The meats are diced and sautéed, followed by onion, carrot and celery. Everything goes into the big Le Creuset pot and is topped with three bay leaves, a sprig of thyme and a slice of bread, spread on one side with mustard.

Then it’s all covered with beer, lidded, and popped into the oven.

I stuck with the 160˚C (fan) from last week’s casserole and cooked it for approximately four hours.

Shin has to be cooked for a long time so that all the connective tissue beaks down, but it’s a cheap and tasty cut – and not one you’ll easily find in a supermarket.

And that was pretty much that.

But if Sunday’s dish evoked northern Europe, and that fluid region where the northernmost part of France meets the south of Belgium, Saturday’s food was all of the south.

I have cooked Boles de Picolat before, but only from that sort of point where you’ve never tasted a dish and are, ultimately, guessing what it should be like.

After our experience at Le Marinade, I decided to give it another whirl.

As with so much traditional food, there is no one cast-in-stone way of doing it.

Between French-language Catalan recipe books and a recipe postcard, I have five recipes – and all are different. One even calls for a small cup of coffee to be added.

The nearest coffee came to my version was the mug beside me as I spent an amiable hour or so studying the recipes on Saturday morning. After that, the books were put away and I worked from the memory of that meal in Collioure, taking a general sense of all the written recipes I’d looked at and combining it with the fact that meatballs are something I consider myself rather good at.

Figs, raspberries, blackberries, cream
So, for two of us, I used 400g of mince.

Now it should have been a mixture of beef and pork (some recipes also use sausage meat or substitute it for the pork), but since no pork mince was forthcoming, I stuck with beef, without too much sense of major loss.

Two small slices of bread were soaked in a small amount of milk and then added to the meat, together with an egg.

Normally, I don't add milky bread or eggs to meatballs – they do not need it to bind – but these ingredients do help to make a particularly light meatball, and the Le Marinade experience suggested that this is what you want for Boles de Picolat.

The flavourings that were added were a good shake of smoky paprika, a little cinnamon and slightly less ginger. You just want a hint of spice to come through.

Once thoroughly mixed together and shaped into balls, these are rolled in plain flour and browned in olive oil.

Okay, I don’t usually flour my meatballs either, but when the mixture is this soft, it helps with the initial cooking. One of the recipes, clearly aimed at rather inexperienced cooks, offered a ‘tip’ in a sidebar, explaining how to four your meatballs by rolling them on a plate of flour. Rocket science.

Once browned, set the balls to one side.

Add a little more oil if you need, and soften a diced onion and some finely chopped garlic. I added a stick of finely chopped celery too.

Give it a very, very large squeeze of tomato purée – we’re probably talking half a 100g tube here – and stir gently into a little warm stock (I had a small jar of defrosted homemade chicken stock that was perfectly okay).

To all that, add some dried mushrooms, a cinnamon stick, some ground black pepper and some finely-chopped flat leaf parsley. Pop the meatballs back, lid it and cook gently for about half an hour.

At this point, test for seasoning and add salt if needed, then add a drained and rinsed tin of haricot or cannellini beans, and some drained green olives. Pop the lid back on and give it a further 30 minutes.

Serve in bowls with the broth, and top with more finely-chopped flat leaf parsley.

And that is that: easy and very tasty.

I might not seem as obviously ‘southern’ as, say, a ratatouille or a bourride, but it is every bit as much indicative of a region that includes mountain country as well as the coast and the plain.

Perfect Sunday brunch
As a fusion of north and south though, a quick Nigel Slater dessert of figs, served with clotted cream and a scatter of raspberries would take some beating – perfect at this time of year, and you could easily substitute blackberries for the raspberries depending on taste and availability.

The final food note for an autumnal weekend that is worth a mention is the joys of a decent home-cooked English brunch late on a Sunday morning, after a delicious doze snuggled beneath the covers.

Downland’s marmalade sausages and a huge, halved tomato were grilled, while tinned (sorry) mushrooms were cooked in butter.

Three eggs were scrambled in more butter and were served on real fried bread – cooked in lard, in other words.

The only other addition was HP sauce.

North or south, it’s good to remember that, even as you mourn the passing of summer, autumn has many glories and pleasures to offer.

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