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7 posts from May 2005

31 May 2005


Well there goes one significant part of the MoS.  Work commitments mean that a meal at Anthony's has had to be cancelled and I'm not very happy about it.  I've had the table booked for months and the room at 42 The Calls, and to find out only 48 hours before tucking-in that I can't make it is not nice.  I'm off to sulk.

30 May 2005

Soft, pink and meaty

SausagesI eventually got round to making my sausages - and if I say so myself, they're not too bad at all.  I'd had various detractors: some said that I'd have no chance of stuffing the meat into the collagen casing - wrong; others said that you can't get the right cuts of beef - wrong; and yet others felt you can't make a really good all beef sausage - again wrong.

My interest in making sausages started with a dull day at the office and clicking on vaguely interesting looking links, one in particular was www.sausagemaking.org.  It does what you'd expect and it got me thinking that I've never tasted a really good kosher sausage, not of the same quality that you can get in decent non-kosher butchers.  So I did some digging and confirmed my suspicions that none was available.  Amazingly I couldn't find a single kosher butcher in London that makes its own sausages, they all buy them in from larger commercial outfits.  It became pretty obvious that I needed to redress this balance.

In a rash moment I decided to buy the equipment before bothering to check that I could get the ingredients.  The only available kosher sausage casings you can get are made by an Australian company called Devro that are shipped into the UK.  As I've posted previously it is as far as I can gather impossible to get hold of kosher natural sausage casings, so Devro's collagen ones had to do.  As a quick aside, whilst researching this I had a very interesting chat with the technical director of a leading kosher processed meat supplier, who like me, lamented the kosher community's unwillingness to spend a bit more money for better quality (and more interesting) meat products.  Anyway, back to my sausage making.  It turned out that the only place I could get hold of these collagen sausage casings was from an ingredients supplier, Alderson Ingredients, based in Milton Keynes.  Jct 13 of M1 and £56 later, I owned a caddy (makes about 1,000 sausages) of sausage casings. 

Now for the meat.  The friendly people at sausagemaking.org were a bit stumped by my request for a 100% beef sausage with no pork product, but they put me in touch with Len Poli, who's website I strongly recommend visiting and who I gather, from his emails to me at least, is a thoroughly nice chap.  He sent me some recipes and gave me a piece of advice that was crucial: make sure that at least 30% of the meat content in a beef sausage is fat.  This is considerably higher than for pork sausages, often the fat accounts for 10-20% of the meat.  Beef is a lot drier than pork and so needs the fat for moisture.  So I got hold of my 500g of bola (beef shoulder) and 150g of fat and got mincing.

My first mistake was not to combine the meat and fat together in mincer, it was only after grinding half the meat I realised I was supposed to be combining in the fat quickly rectified my error.  When I'd minced the lot I decided to keep the additional ingredients limited to salt and pepper and a pinch of garam masala.  I cooked up a patty to check for flavour and was more or less happy.  Afterall, this was an experiment on whether I could make them, rather than whether they tasted any good. 

Sausage_mincerSo came the fun of stuffing.  I have to admit that it took me a few attempts to fully appreciate that the way you stuff them is by running the casing along the stuffing tube and then playing it out from there.  Initially I tried to hold the casings over the tip of the tube and stuff that way.  After much mess I realised where I was going wrong and things became significantly easier.  I used 22mm casings that were enormously long - I couldn't begin to guess how long - and so they needed to be cut down to a manageable size, but once that was done it was all pretty straightforward.  And so, I had my own home made sausages.

I cooked a few of them for lunch and my conclusion is that they were rather good but a bit dry.  Len was right about the fat content and I reckon next time I'll use more than 30% fat, maybe 35-40%.  Other than that I was pretty happy.  They looked like sausages, despite being a bit dry they tasted better than the stuff you buy at the butchers and with some tweaking I have no doubt they'll improve considerably.  A barbecue is in the diary for this weekend so I think Friday might be another sausage making day.

26 May 2005


Rye_bread Well I promised I'd make some and did.  I used Dan Lepard's recipe for Cucumber pickle juice rye loaf, however due to a lack of ingredients I left out the cucumber pickle juice, so basically it's a rye loaf.  The twist to this rye is that the recipe requires the rye flour to be toasted which gives the loaf quite a sweet/nutty taste and is responsible I believe, for the bread being brown.  I can tell that if I had bothered to get some pickled cucumbers (my home made supplier has not been replenished, oops) it would make this a truly outstanding loaf.  The vinegary sharpness of the cucumbers would have balanced out the nuttiness of the rye perfectly.

Nonetheless, it's great bread and only confirms my opinion that Dan's book, The Handmade Loaf, is fantastic if you've got the slightest interest in baking.  The only thing I'm slightly peeved about is that my leaven is looking a bit flat - it's getting a lot of TLC, but so far fermentation is pretty limited which means that sourdough making is off the agenda for the next couple of days.

Smithfield market

Smithfield Following a very unslothful few days of going to the gym and practising my golf swing the sloth/gluttony got into full swing today.  I decided I'd ease myself into my food fest by simply sitting back and watching.  So I set the alarm for 4.30 this morning, slept in by twenty minutes, but eventually dragged myself down to Smithfield meat market.  Frankly, the best part of the day was the fact that at 5am this morning it was 20 degrees and a gorgeous sunrise, it was also gloriously easy driving through London.  Other than that, Smithfield was pretty underwhelming.

I'd had romantic visions that it was a bustling market of high quality meat with lots of porters in dirty white coats lugging around carcasses.  The dirty white coat, carcass lugging bit is spot on, however, the porters were just as likely to be lugging boxes of frozen chips, tomato ketchup or industrial size blocks of cheese as a lamb.  From the look of most of those buying food there they generally looked like small restauranteurs, caterers and butchers from mom and pop outfits, rather than agents for the better establishments.  Basically, it was all a bit more down-at-heel than I'd expected.

I decided the only way to lift my disappointment was to go to one of the greasy spoons frequented by the market workers that are open all night.  Frankly, they were another disappointment.  I walked in to four, all of them had surly staff and the food looked rank, this was not the salt-of-the-earth experience I'd been after. 

If I'm honest I think my expectations for Smithfield might have been misplaced.  I was hoping for something slightly less commercial, basically something like a town square market in Italy, but writ much larger.  Instead, Smithfield is basically London's central butcher and on that basis alone is impressive.  The fact that it still exists in its original location is even more impressive especially when one considers the fates of Spitalfields market, Billingsgate and the original Covent Garden.

Anyway, I've ticked the first of my experiences off the list and was not impressed, I hope that Billingsgate is a bit more of an experience.  I think that to restore my faith I need to add another market to my list, step forward New Covent Garden.

19 May 2005

The plan

The Month of Sloth has been compromised.  It now looks as if my new employer wants me to start sooner than expected so we might well be looking at the fortnight or three weeks of sloth, which is a shame because neither of these are quite as poetic as the Month of Sloth.

Nonetheless, I will not be downtrodden by such unexpected turns of fate.  Instead I've come up with a plan of action to ensure that I maximise my time doing nothing and really, really focus on food.  So here's the plan:

  1. Visit Smithfield meat market in the middle of the night and have breakfast in one of the local cafs - yes I know I'm kosher and yes, I know I can't actually buy anything at the market, but I'm embarrassed to say that as a born and bred Londoner (let alone with a food obsession) I've never actually been to Smithfield when it's been in full flow.
  2. Visit Billingsgate fish market - a bit easier for me to buy produce there.  It's slightly less surprising I've never been there as it's beyond Canary Wharf (to the east of London), which for most Londoners is the badlands and generally off the map.
  3. Go to Paris - this is for a day of pure gluttony.  I'll be there for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snacks in between.  Apart from just eating, my aim is to also do some buying, in particular of saucisses and foie gras.  As I've said in a previous post the selection of kosher meat in the UK is parlous, so a trip across La Manche is necessary.
  4. Make sausages - very closely linked ('scuse the pun) to the issue of going to Paris to buy some stuffed goose, I've decided that I should try to make my own sausages - I can't buy decent kosher sausages.  I've got the mincer and stuffer, all I need now is the meat and the sausage casings.  I think I've tracked down the only kosher sausage casings in the UK, imported from Australia, my only problem with them is that they're collagen, not natural.  One item on the Parisian shopping list is natural (sheep/cow) casings.
  5. Eat at Anthony's - this place has received some stonking reviews and seeing as I've got all the time in the world (sort of) I decided it would be rude not to try it.  So the table's booked, as is the hotel and the Deus, already a favourite, is on ice.
  6. A stage at a restaurant - this has been a dream for some time and may or may not be fulfilled.  I've written to a couple of places and for the moment want to keep my powder dry on this until I know one way or the other.  If it doesn't come off this time I'm definitely going to try and sort it out for some time in the future.
  7. Make more bread - having read the egullet lesson on bread baking, then buying Dan Lepard's book, I decided I should give this a go.  I've been cultivating my own leaven for some time and have baked some sourdough with varying degrees of success.  The Month of Sloth provides me the opportunity to get this down to pat, I'm also planning on tackling other breads, chelsea buns in particular - mmmm buns.
  8. Cooking more - basically doing what it says on the tin.  I've got the opportunity to cook and prep and will use it.  I need to sort out the barbecue (I wouldn't mind buying one of these to replace the rusting hulk currently in the garden); I need to refresh my pickled cucumbers and generally spend more time in the kitchen.

The question is, can I do it all?  I bloody hope so.

12 May 2005

Some thoughts on food

Over the past five years, I've become increasingly focused on the sort of food I eat and cook, this has coincided with living in places where swinging a cat has become a reality.

For me, ingredients are the key.  I appreciate this is neither new nor revolutionary and that this is the choice refrain for virtually any chef (and don't get me wrong, I am by no means trying to give the impression I'm a chef).  By cooking more and more myself  I've realised how correct these chefs are.  But, it's not always as simple as just going out and getting great ingredients, what if they're totally inaccessible?  Some people will argue that it is always possible to get fantastic produce, there's always a niche supplier somewhere.  This is usually true, especially if you're a trade purchaser as opposed to a retail consumer.  However, there is one example where this is singularly untrue - the supply of quality kosher meat.

When it comes to the quality of food there has tended to be a race to the top, whether we’re talking Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign or even the fast food industry in the wake of Super Size Me.  Kosher food – and meat in particular - has been the exception.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has made much of his desire to “promote a better understanding of the nature and origins of what we eat” and his book The River Cottage Meat Book was a real attempt to convey the importance of excellent animal husbandry being the key to fantastic tasting meat. However, such revolutions have missed kosher meat.

An essential element to kosher food is that the animal has to be in good health immediately prior to its slaughter or shechita.  Unfortunately there are many interpretations of good health and generally it is taken to mean that the animal has to be disease free, with no broken bones or other health defects.  As such, it does not forbid the rearing of animals destined for the shochet, to be treated in a particularly humane way.  Therefore, in the UK at least, there is no regular supply of organic or free-range chickens, they are all raised in factory-like conditions.

In my view there are two reasons that there is no supply of good quality meat: the first is that the demand isn’t there, the second is because the market for kosher meat is too price sensitive.  I think the demand doesn’t exist because there is an assumption of quality: most people who buy kosher food believe the meat they are buying is of the highest quality because they know that the animal needs to be in good health when it is killed, the consumer is therefore blissfully ignorant.  The butchers and kosher food suppliers are happy to maintain this ignorance because of the difficulties around securing the certificate to provide kosher meat – a hechsher.  To cut a very long political story down to its essence, there are several different rabbinic authorities in the UK (and numerous in the US) that all certify meat to be kosher.  This gets more confusing because each authority can require different criteria to certify kosher meat, and consumers choose the rabbinic authority they accept, according to their own religious beliefs.  The upshot of this is that there's politicking and bureaucracy - and that all leads to higher costs.

In the UK for a large kosher meat supplier they pay the certification boards in the region of 30p/kg of meat.  If you're a smaller supplier and don't have the economies of scale, it can be over 40p/kg.  Now consider how that impacts on the retail cost.  If you go in to Waitrose (one of the better regarded UK supermarkets) and buy a whole free range chicken it will cost in the region of £4.20/kg, if you choose a pretty ordinary bird, that's not free range or organic it can be as little as £2.36/kg.  If you go to a decent kosher butchers it will cost anywhere between £3.20 - £4.80/kg.  And this is for a bog-standard factory reared chicken - no green pastures, no organic certification, no provenance.  If you try to add in the costs associated with organic or free range animals, it begins to be prohibitively expensive and consequently the kosher consumer gets turned off.  Given this, it is unsurprising but deeply unfortunate, that there is virtually no opportunity to buy kosher organic or free range chickens.  If these are the problems one has in getting hold of the most ubiquitous of kosher foods, you can imagine the difficulty in getting hold of other high quality kosher meat.

Therefore, I'm in a bind.  On the one hand I crave the best ingredients to produce the best results, on the other, its virtually impossible to get hold of them.  So, during the Month of Sloth one of my goals is to go in search of the best produce I can get my hands on, even if that means going abroad, and if I can't buy it, then I'll produce it myself.

06 May 2005

The Month of Sloth

This is my first post, so let me explain a few things.  I love anything to do with food, especially sourcing it, cooking it and eating it – fear not, it doesn’t get any more disturbing than that.

I’m in a fortunate position that from May 20 I’m off work for a month – I’ll be between jobs - and this period of time has been dubbed, The Month of Sloth (MoS).

I’ve never had such a long period off prior to this, so I’m intent on using the time to the full: I’ve just taken delivery of a sausage making machine to start making my own sausages; I’m going to Paris for the day to hunt down some foie gras; I’ve got a table booked at Anthony's in Leeds and a holiday booked in Puglia.  This is just the beginning.  I’m ready, now the countdown begins to May 20, two weeks today.  Bring it on.

Before we get too excited, there is one more thing I should make clear from the beginning:  I keep kosher, to an extent.  I'm not minded to go into too much detail of exactly what this means here but as the posts go on I will expand.  What I will say is that being kosher means many different things to many different people - I keep the level I'm comfortable with.  Some people might think I'm virtually a heathen, others may think I'm over the top, I think each to their own.  As a guide, my basic parameters are:

  • I only eat meat supplied by a kosher butcher
  • I only eat fish that is deemed to be kosher - not shellfish and only that which has scales and fins
  • I don't eat milk and meat together and I wait 3 hours if I've eaten something meaty, before I eat something milky
  • I do eat in restaurants that aren't kosher, but I only eat vegetarian or fish dishes that comply with rules above

There's so much more I could say, but I won't, for now.   For now, my focus is on maximising the Month of Sloth.