‘Turn out the lights, the party’s over
They say that, ‘All good things must end’
Let’s call it a night, the party’s over
And tomorrow starts the same old thing again’
So sang Willie Nelson. One year ends and another begins – ‘Bonne Continuation’ say the French and they’re right. We cook and eat our lentils with cotechino – no zampone this year. We talk about the year past and the one ahead of us. Exciting times – what are our wishes and hopes?
Time has come to set some stuff straight on real food. Without See Woo’s weekly Thursday delivery of the Gascon poulets fermiers, we would be starved of chickens to cook.
We need a major retailer to take the challenge of an upgrade to a genuine chicken supply line – and Blue Collar Gastronomy will be campaigning that through 2015.
Dream 2 would be to return to an English supermarket and not have to compromise with hard come-by cash. Until that day comes, I’ll choose to stay away.
From the feasts of Christmas Eve and Day, onto New Year’s Eve, the season ends with Epiphany or King’s Night on January 6th. Researching over the years has never thrown up any typical savoury dishes, but spice seems to be right as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar came from the East. Some say that without the Magi we’d probably not exchange presents at Christmas time either.
Across Northern France, the Galette des Rois has its place at table. This Pithiviers filled with frangipane contains a ‘fève’ – literally a bean because in times gone by it would have been just that. I wrote around this time in 2011 about the Musée de la Fève in Blain – a little town I’ve never visited between St Nazaire and Nantes in Brittany - http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=346.
The Galette des Rois (King’s Cake) has Spanish and Portuguese equivalents – the Spanish have their Roscón de Reyes and in Portugal, theirs is a French-inspired sweet bread called Bolo Rei. In Southern France their King’s Night cake is a sweet brioche adorned with glacé fruits – a tradition that crosses the frontier into Italy. All have their ‘fèves’ hidden within. We’ll pass over the sad PC world of warnings from shop staff in England about the talisman hidden within the cakes. It’s as bad as being told chickens have bones, but such is the price to be paid for living in this dumbed down, litigious society.
Another tradition is the little cellophane bags of 12 white grapes (with seeds) at every place setting. In Spain around Alicante there are farmers who prune their vines so as to harvest a perfect 12 grape bunch. Bunched or loose, the 12 grapes must be consumed between the start and end of the 12 chimes of midnight. I know of family in Spain who’d be surreptitiously de-seeding and peeling theirs under the table in the run up to midnight.
The New Year lentils tradition stays with us at No 19. This I first experienced when cooked by a Milanese friend, Gioella, who’d returned from her Christmas in Italy with lentils and a fresh zampone. This large boned, stuffed and spiced pig’s foot was first swaddled in bandages before a long gentle simmer in hot water.
We ate slices of the Modenese zampone with lentils soon after midnight, as is the Italian tradition. Little did I know how important Italy would be so much part of my future back then.
It was Gioella who also taught me how to make the perfect Sugo where the tomato splits from the olive oil – and so dressing the pasta perfectly. My teacher would only ever use canned plum tomatoes from the south of Italy. This was long before we learned of San Marzano.
Ten or so years later I was to meet the Levoni family at a London food fair. They came from Mantova – and to this day I try and find a Levoni zampone or cotechino wherever possible (Partridge’s on King’s Road, Chelsea has been a loyal stockist of Levoni™ these past few years).
This is not content advertising which I violently disagree with – the Levoni’s have stayed friends since that first encounter. They have recently celebrated their centenary.
More on the Levoni’s when I talk of how their business blossomed from a chance encounter with Mr Peck in 1911 and soon after the Prosciutto di Praga came to be – and is still an anti-pasti in Harry’s Bar to this day.
For those over-faced at the thought of a graphic pig’s foot, cotechino or the Italian sausage option is perfectly acceptable. Find coarse-cut pork salsiccia flavoured with fennel and everyone will be happy – good Cypriot loukanico sausage make a good substitute and the Italians even have a pork sausage with a similar name, luganega.
My soon-to-come celebratory exclusive on the Queen of Soho Restaurants has had her telling me of her children’s favourite meal being salsiccia with polenta – a dish she still makes today for her grand children and great grand children at her home where she’s lived since the 1920s. My article will first appear in Italy’s premier food website – www.ditestaedigola.com
Like sun-dried tomatoes (seen here in Basilicata), polenta is all too often mistakenly credited as being part of the Granita Pact of summer 1994 when the hideous non-comedy duo of Blair and Brown cooked up the deal that brought New Labour to power and the country to its knees.
This is untrue. Bianchi’s on Frith Street (Soho) had both on the menu back in the late 1960s when I first arrived in London.
Polenta is much misunderstood outside the Italian community. White polenta, Veneto-style, is as far as I know unknown in England. Harry’s Bar will serve it dramatically with squids cooked in their ink for the perfect monochrome plate.
As Arrigo Cipriani said: “Harry’s Bar was the first luxury restaurant to serve polenta……it had long been despised by the wealthy as peasant food, but it now joined squid, baccalà and dried beans on menu’s of chic restaurants in Europe and the United States.
For some reason yellow polenta is still considered too humble, so most Italian restaurants (now) use the more refined white cornmeal.” I take this quote from ‘The Harry’s Bar Cookbook’ – first published in 1991 (ISBN 1-85685-046-3) – a bar and kitchen we must revisit in 2015. Jan Morris, writing the introduction, said of Harry’s: ‘I can immediately reconjure (the atmosphere), wherever I am in the world, simply by imagining myself opening those doors’. So very true.
Edging into 2015 I hope for all our food to stay true, honest and simple. Lentils with salsiccia or cottechino might be a start. Baked potatoes served with a slice of foie gras another.
A dish of trofie and potatoes dressed only with Roberto Panizza’s Pesto alla Genovese is another reminder of a good future and one where an English supermarket might choose to stock a real pesto rather than the crude ersatz pastes originating from nowhere near Genoa that they each have on their shelves right now – ‘privet hedge trimmings’ best described one we tasted.
The choucroute tradition has been maintained as it was served on Boxing Day – and was the reminder that Jeffrey Steingarten’s article in US Vogue in the late 1980s got me scribbling away about food these years later. Everything links – except the genuine Italian luganega which come without twists.
A soup of large French leeks and potato, creamy with pearl barley is on today’s menu as the Christmas ‘fridge winds down as the party’s over. No 19 is intrigued by the monastic – it was the route that took my partner from her travels and experiences in Japan and Asia, so leading to www.walkwithjoy.com and her book ‘Too Busy to Live Your Life?’ (£14.95 inc postage in Europe).
Without the Medieval monastic tradition, the chapon might not have stayed as popular as it remains in France.
The rich stock from our bird becomes our New Year risotto served only with farm butter and Pecorino.
Comes end-January and some celebrate Burn’s Night. Haggis is served whenever we have game birds or duck – why more people don’t serve the two together is a mystery. Carrot, swede and potato, mashed with butter and finished in the oven is another dish that carries game well.
I hope you enjoyed my sharing this ramble through to the conclusion of the wonderous Christmas Feast.
As the late Dave Allen, who continues to amuse us each Christmas, says: ‘May your God go with you’ through 2015.
From yesterday’s horror, ‘Je suis Charlie‘.
Order copies of ‘Too Busy to Live Your Life?’ by Joy Davies, £14.95 (inc P&P in Europe) from www.walkwithjoy.com – perfect timing, post- Christmas and with 28 days of February looming.