Like all families we have favourites – we have dishes that come around week after week because we love them. One which we feast on only a few times a year came about by inspiration.
Here’s the link. I once was invited to lunch by a fallen businessman and his wife – she was Austrian and a chef, a heady combination. As understood it, this was a man who’d fallen from owning a string of businesses across the North West to renovating old stone cottages, one at a time, in a beautiful valley close to the English border. In the fall from grace he’d salted away what little he could – including some fine wines and a red Alfa-Romeo Guilia which sat up on bricks under two tarpaulins in the lean-to barn.
Lunch that day was as follows. A bottle of Irish whisky, served on the rocks as apèritif – very chic in 60s St Germain where I’d taken to the habit like a good ‘un. Then to table – a long scrubbed wood affair with a huge inglenook fireplace set with burning logs at the one end of the room. Set before each guest was just this - a sharp knife, a glass and an open bottle of Nuits St Georges with a late 50s vintage, pulled corks corrrectly placed by each bottle’s side.
Each of us was brought a plate carrying simply a roast pheasant, nothing more, nothing less - shot locally and well aged. Home made bread and roasted potatoes were there too – maybe something green from her garden or the hedgrow - my memory is not that sharp. Foraging Welsh hedgrows has become smart trade for suppliers to London restaurants - back then they maybe didn’t bother so much.
Simple Food and Noisy Chat
We ate our pheasants with our knives and fingers – we drank our fine Burgundy. Conversation was good – jokes and tales flowed – there were 10 or more at the lunch, our only linking being Ma Boyle’s Oyster Bar, a short walk up from Liverpool’s Liver Building(that’s another story for another time of lentil soup, oysters, men of the cloth, black velvet and treats of Crystal on the house on occasion – they were a client after all).
I remember picking at crisp, golden roast potatoes and the warm bread – Anna was famed for both – Austrians are bakers and confectioners as if by birth. The pheasants were followed by a grouse each – shot an hour or so away on the Denbigh moors. There were a few mallards too – not enough for all – most likely shot flighting on the pools above the valley and with no taint of fish, unlike estuarine wild fowl - my grandfather who lived over the hills in the next valley was a master at duck flighting. He taught me about the countryside.
I remember, as if yesterday, the birds being juicy and strong tasting as game birds always seemed to be in those times.
Slow Roast the Shoulder
Years on, I have replayed this service for our boys and their friends – sans Le Grand Vin de Bourgogne. Most popular is a slow roasted shoulder of lamb. I insist on the blade bone being removed, or take it out myself. By slow roasted I mean +5-6 hours at just 100C. The meat is ceremonially carried to table surrounded by sharp knives. Fingers will be the forks.
When pheasants were plentiful from the shoot, we’d eat whole birds – one each – like this. Somehow it doesn’t work for too many other meat cuts. I am too precious about how I plate roast chicken or duck – and roast beef on the bone or a leg of lamb is again too splendid to hack at. The lamb shoulder is about perfect, as can be a hand & spring of good pork – still one of the least expensive joints you can buy. There has to be some bone element in the cut.
Good butchers will remove the blade from the lamb shoulder - just don’t ask a supermarket ‘butcher’ to officiate because he’ll be lost, even though he’s listed as a ‘butcher’ in most stores. Better to teach yourself the simple procedure – using a sharp boning knife, trace around the blade bone. It’s triangular and you can feel it as you work around it’s shape. One twist at the top and the blade is removed. Use it as a natural trivet in the roasting pan – this will help the meat cook ‘in the round’.
We serve the joint with masses of cooked garlic. We stuff fresh thyme into the space left by the bone. During roasting baste frequently with fresh lemon juice and wine, discard the spent half lemons into the pan for added depth to the basting juices. Unwaxed lemons are obviously best – the shiny wax can’t be washed off – but don’t fuss if waxed is all you have.
Broad beans are at their best right now – so these came too. Haricots Blancs or Flageolets Verts too are must-have with lamb.
Joy has perfected the dish a stage further – taking inspiration from her travels in China in the 80s. The following day, assuming there’s still meat on the bone, she briefly roasts the joint again and double forks it as for crispy and aromatic duck. This she serves as is, or with Chinese pancakes and their trimmings. One joint, two meals.
I feel I am drifting towards my passion for left overs. That lunch party in Wales stayed with me. Thank you Anna, thank you Charles – my hosts that day in that old grey stone cottage’s long room. I wonder who lives there now? I wonder how they eat? Like it’s been said over and over, if only the stones could talk.