Friday, 5 June 2015

Ragu and authenticity

I think about authenticity quite a lot. It tends to haunt me when I'm thinking about wine lists, I want the wines I list to speak of the places from which they come. I want to show grapes that belong, made by people that understand them. I feel similarly about cooking, I've been to so many wonderful places and eaten food made by people who've lived there for generations cooking the things that they grew up with. It's while eating food like this that one tastes the authenticity that comes from the marriage of product and place, season and style, and yes I'll accept that much of this may well be entirely of my own imagining it's still very satisfying.

This tends to cause me concern when cooking at home. How ever can one hope to emulate this on a daily basis? Instead, I fall back on the kinds of dishes I like. No I don't live in the Eastern Med, however I'm quite happy to get very liberal with my sumac application. Nope I'm not in Dhaka (never been, sadly) but that's not going to stop me playing with panch phoron when I'm grilling a chicken, however that lack of authenticity does still linger in the back of my mind.

Anyway, Sam, one of my old friends from Pony Club (yes I did write that, and yes you can fuck right off if you have an issue with it) posted to facebook that they were slaughtering some of their one year old sheep. I was actually slightly slow off the mark as my sister had already bagsied one, needless to say several weeks later we were in possession of about half a hogget and a bag of offal bits because 'I figured you'd find something to do with them'. Nothing quite like a fun challenge based around somewhat unidentifiable frozen bits of sheep in plastic bags.

Now I'm quite an adventurous cook, though this does come with a degree of worry. I guess I'm consciously torn between my principles and what I've actually had experience cooking with. Suffice to say I didn't really know what I was going to do with several lamb hearts. I've cooked with ox heart before, but I didn't really know to what extent lamb's heart was going to be a) tough, b) gamey, c) tasty. So I went for the easy option and decided (courtesy of a suggestion by @siepert) to make a ragu with it.

It was here that I hit against the issue of authenticity, ragu is essentially an Italian peasants dish, I'm guessing made from whatever was around with the glut of ripe tomatoes that arrived in the summer. I'm neither Italian, nor is it the height of summer in my groaning kitchen garden (I don't have one) so this left me with several options. I could find the best ragu recipe I knew of and follow it word for word (with obvious offaly substitutions) or I could wing it. Naturally I started with the best intentions, did all sorts of research, then drank half a bottle of cheap white wine, went shopping, forgot to pick up various things and ended up winging it.

A ragu starts with a good soffritto, that is finely diced onion, carrot and celery, two parts of the first, to one part each of the second and third. I forgot to buy celery so my aromatic base was left to resemble a castrated Toulouse Lautrec. Still, I added a shit load of garlic instead, after all I like garlic and for various reasons there's a sack of it in my hall way. This was left to sweat and turn all tanned and golden while I fortified myself with the remaining half bottle of cheap white and turned my attentions to the lamb offal.

What I had thought was going to be two lamb hearts turned out to be one lamb heart and a lamb's liver, no harm no foul I figured, liver's got great flavour and will be equally delicious if somewhat more frustrating to dice finely and neatly. The heart was actually quite beautiful, much more human in scale than that of an ox and oddly reminded me of something one might see in a piece of devotional stained glass, the fat around the top appearing almost like mother of pearl or loosely applied cake icing. On slicing it in half I was stuck by the mechanical functionality of it, something you don't really see when cutting more prosaic pieces of meat. Ventricles and atria, muscles stretched at angles ready to pump. I was genuinely quite taken aback by it's elegance. Still it was nothing that a couple of minutes with a sharp blade couldn't reduce to neatish chunks.

Offal sorted, and by this time my veg base approaching readiness, it was browned off in a hot pan, added to the soffritto, swiftly followed by similarly browned beef and pork mince and five cans of plum tomatoes (aisle three of Morisson's being Camberwell's equivalent of a bounteous tomato crop),  several bay leaves, two smallish sprigs of rosemary, some water, some soy sauce and fish sauce for authenticity (to any raised eye brows I counter you with several texts pertaining to garum and its ubiquity in Roman cuisine) and a healthy slug of wine.

This was then left for a period of time, roughly equivalent to the time it took me to get on a bus to Euston, meet several friends from Manchester to catch up over a few pints before catching a somewhat delayed bus back home.

Duly fortified with both grape and grain I arrived back at my house to be welcomed by the scent of long slow cooking, whatever it was I'd made had worked to some degree, indeed on tasting it'd acquired the umami richness of long cooked tomatoes and meat and I'd go so far as to say it was delicious. Also, possibly as a result of my hearty fortification I felt able to pronounce on its authenticity. I'd made a version of a classic dish, without any particular adhesion to instruction in a way that I felt at least matched the spirit of someone needing to feed a family whilst faced with a set of basic ingredients and a source of heat. In which I found at least a temporary respite from nagging doubts as to my worthiness to cook/play with other cultures heritages.

Indeed I'm happy to say that it was magnificent with linguine and a gremolata (@foodstories suggestion, and one that really completed the dish by adding the requisite freshness and top notes that its bass heavy meatiness required). Also, the four tubs that I froze sated my latent desire to attempt some sort of frugality with regards to my food expenditure.
An all round success.
Quite possibly the lamb whose heart and liver I cooked, if not then one of its kin.


Alicia Foodycat said...

Surely the most persnickity of nationalists couldn't take issue with you calling it a ragu? You didn't call it a Bolognese, which is where they really seem to get stuck in.

Kerstin Rodgers aka MsMarmiteLover said...

Beautifully written Donald x

Joe from Reading said...

If you had paid more attention during your fourth form biology lessons, the mechanical beauty of a heart would not have come as a shock.

Donald Edwards said...

Thank you Dad, I have fond memories of A level biology, however it's been some time since I was so intimately acquainted with an actual heart of human size.