Monthly Archives: November 2010

partridge, swede, liver trencher & a good soup

The snow came today. It makes me feel sensitive, and gives me a false sense of profundity. So serene, isn’t it? Sunny and gleaming, not uplifting, not depressing, just the white guise of a familiar outline that makes you see it differently. This morning as I jogged round the park, I felt and liked its eye-aching brilliance, its crunch, the warm sun it threw onto my face, its cool progressive melt through the toes of my plimsolls.

There’s something, too, about the virgin, fictional whiteness of snow that makes me like to imagine it marred, trampled by a recalcitrant Barbour-clad man, splattered with pheasant’s blood, littered with cartridges. There’s something about the way it covers the earth that makes me want the earthiest things. Something about its otherworldliness that makes me want to see something die. So I want game and I want the tubers and rhizomes from latent soil – vegetables densely coloured, woodsy, mineral, and all the sweeter for the first exquisite bite of winter.

After my run, I went to town to sit in Savino’s to have a coffee, perhaps read for a bit. (I’m currently in love with MFK Fisher.) I ate a pain au raisin and smoked a cigarette and thought about what I’d cook. An old lady asked me if I could fix her mobile phone. We got talking, somehow quite naturally, about depression and how she found cigarettes such a boost. I said I found so too, but, I’m lucky, only sometimes, and almost always after coffee and sweet pastries, or when I’ve had a glass of the right kind of rough wine. She was a jolly and affirming sort of person, easy to talk to in a way that I never find strangers truly to be, but only stable, she told me, because of cigarettes, the bright sun and amitriptyline. She also said she’d been confirmed at Ely last week.

I went to the market, picked out some good-looking gnarly jerusalem artichokes and a beautiful swede, dirty, blushing orb. I bought some walnuts and, because I couldn’t resist, some clementines festooned with leaves. Last year I got so fat on walnuts and clementines I resolved not to buy them together. But the trouble is that I love them too much, both their natural festivity and the way the fragrances and textures go so well, one nutty, oily and brown, the other so citric, bright and sweet.

On the way back I bought a partridge from the butcher on Mill Road, as well as a couple of chicken livers.

Supper would be soup. The jerusalem artichokes would be scraped, softened in butter with a chopped onion, seasoned heavily, blitzed, dashed with cream and funked with truffle oil, too much of a good thing. I drank a glass of oloroso and ate a few walnuts and I got going on my soup. It was marvellous to eat: silky, sexy – snowy of hue! – and tasting very much of the ground.

I put the swede on to boil in well salted water, in even chunks. The partridge I seasoned, stuck a sprig of bay in its cavity, and browned it in some lard. I turned a slice of sourdough bread in the fat and balanced the bird breast-down on top. I put the raw livers and a handful of sage leaves in the pan and slid the lot into a scorching oven for 10 minutes.

I took the pan out, turned the bird breast-up, removed the livers to a warm plate, and gave the bread, partridge and sage two or three minutes longer in the hot oven. Then I removed the lot to the warm plate and made a gravy by rinsing the pan with some oloroso, a bit of the water from cooking the swede, and a spoonful of the medlar cheese I made last week. (I’m looking for excuses to use it, as I made too much. But it’s just right here: sweet, sour and bosky.)

I mashed the swede with a slab of butter, a good amount of pepper and a generous grating of nutmeg. I squashed the livers and bloody juices into the bread,  like a sort of trencher-cum-crouton, and put the bird on top on a nice white plate. I slathered a good deal of the rich, fragrant, peppery swede on the plate, trickled over the treacly gravy and stuck a few crisp sage leaves on the side for robust and well-flavoured prettiness.

the Ross Street starter

Here goes. Time to heave flabby, undisciplined fingers back to the keyboard and get blogging. I’ve used the excuse that work is too much for too long. I’ve got to find a way to work and to do other things.

I want to find time to cook, eat and write about it all properly. I want to find time to exercise and to read things, give time to my mind and body. I’ve put on a few (four) pounds the last couple of months. There has been too much wine, too much irregular eating, too much indolence.

So, chest muscles reeling from the effort of typing –  testament to too many push-ups and a new enthusiasm – I’m making a new start.  I have a couple of resolutions I thought I’d put down here as a sort of reminder to myself. This is a public confessional, flagellation, a resolution to be better.  Reader, you are my priest. I’ll drink only a couple of bottles of wine a week, less than half what I have been drinking. I’ll try to swallow less or no wine at work. I’m sure that what Lizzie said to me is right. My superadded flesh has more to do with wine than anything else – and not only drinking too much wine (though isn’t alcohol terribly, gruesomely calorific?), but wine’s encouragement to appetite and recklessness. It’s been hard to reconcile a love of wine and a job in wine. There’s so much good stuff to taste! – Not only because you want to – I do – but because you ought to. This is something I’ve got to get control of, too many excuses.

It’s taken a while, as well, to settle into our house. Perhaps I could blame this unsettled feeling, this drudgery of everyday life, for the eating and drinking, such reliable consolations and affections. I think we all feel the house’s disadvantages quite acutely, its grimy walls and chipped paintwork, its situation far from town, its ghastly furniture, its heating which struggles to heat. We’re accumulating our own things, and not only filling rooms with objects, but rooms which reeked of mildew and stale curries with smells of our own, of nag champa, a reminder of college, and of our own cooking and baking.

We’ve had to sell this place to ourselves. Fresh bread and coffee imperatives. One of the first things I did on moving in was to get a sourdough starter on the go. It’s one of the strongest ties I feel I can make between the place I’m in and the food I’m eating – without digging up the garden and planting things. We’re not allowed to, in any case.

I’m sure natural yeasts have thrived in the air of this damp old Victorian terrace, and sure enough, within a week or so, I had a frothing, bubbling sourdough starter, full of life and promise, the Ross Street starter.

I’m getting used to our oven. The saving grace of this house is its kitchen, decent surfaces, good gas hobs and an oven – something I missed terribly in college residence. After a few goes, I’m pretty happy with my sourdough and I’m feeling more settled at the same time. I’ve always made this kind of bread by feel and by eye. But I always feel safer under petty little regimes and patterns I create for myself. That’s one of the reasons I like recipes, I suppose. This is my own. I hope you like its rhythm and balance.

Sourdough bread

or, “A half and three quarters; a quarter and three halves!”

Make a sponge using half a pound of water, a quarter each of strong white and rye flour and a quarter of a pound of starter. Leave it for as many hours as you need, perhaps until you get back from work, or until you wake up. Like you, your sponge should have got to work, got a bit frothy, arisen! Now add a quarter of a pound of water, half a pound of strong white, half a pound of plain flour and half an ounce of salt and bring together in the bowl. Oil a surface, scrape the dough out and knead for half a minute. Put it back in the bowl and set it to rise for as long as you need, again perhaps your dough can wait until you get back from work or until you wake up. Knock down, oil a surface, scrape out and knead the dough for half a minute. Shape into a ball: roll it into itself so that the outer layer of gluten is taut and holds your dough together. Leave to rise in a proving basket or bowl for a couple of hours. Carefully tumble your tenderly risen dough onto a floured baking sheet, flour the top and slash with a lethally sharp knife. Bake for forty minutes in a hot oven in which you have placed a little dariole or ramekin of boiling water. Behold your sourdough.

Ross Street starter to follow