Sunday, 3 March 2013

March 2nd - In fine fiddle and a slow cooked shank

Dear Nigel,

Away from the chill night air, against a star-studded sky, the little road winds round into the village of Foolow. After  driving many miles around dark country lanes over the unlit Peak District hillside, I am always gladdened by the sight of two glowing china ducks on a bedroom windowsill of the first cottage leading into the village. Already my feet are starting to warm ( as Archie's heating system seems to have given up the ghost of late) and I think I hear the sound of glasses clinking, people laughing and feel the glow from inside.

I have been playing fiddle here at this pub for over ten years now. The landlady, Marilyn, retired and her son took over. She still turns up to sing. Various musicians have come and gone, new faces and old, but mostly the place remains the same. Other pubs may be quainter, more rustic in their appeal, more chic, more welcoming, but what this pub has is continuity.

 Over in the corner in deep conversation are Wendy and John who take groups potholing in the nearby limestone tunnels. Penny and Barry, who used to run the pub many years ago, come in later when the music is in full flow. (The last time I saw Barry outside the pub he was dressed as Sherlock Holmes and taking some Americans out shooting, narrowly missing shooting my dog.) And quiet Mike the drystone waller, over by the bar in his old checked shirt, who likes to come in for a pint and to listen to the music. He nods at me and smiles and returns to his pint. There seem to be drystone wallers everywhere at the moment repairing walls before lambing is well underway.

All these people somehow eke a living out of this beautiful countryside, dominated by farmers and the tourist industry.

The music is good tonight. Brendan Fergus is in fine form and his guitar, banjo and mandolin ripple effortlessly from his well-worn hands. Instruments are littered everywhere. I am sitting next to a bedside cabinet and, before I have time to contemplate this fact, its owner returns and sits down on it. Apparently the bedside cabinet is some kind of drum which the man, a stranger to me, has made himself. It sounds good for all that, and he plays along for an hour or so and then disappears into the night along with the bedside cabinet, without a word. There are a couple staying in the village sitting supping by the wall. He is an Irishman from Leeds and keen to get his hands on Brendan's cherished customised guitar with its mother-of-pearl inlaid initials. We play a few Irish numbers, him and me, and he tells me he is from Ballyclare.

But the best of the evening comes long after the witching hour when the bar is closed and only the hardcore locals remain. Then, after the last strains of a slide guitar disappear into the night, a few ballads. My fiddle and I have been together for many years now. Originally a lovely old English baroque violin, seeing me through my childhood exams, it now masquerades as a boxwood fiddle. It has a fine tone. And, in the wee hours, it has a chance to sing, of famine and loved ones gone to America. And there is total silence here  in the pub. The conversation peters out and all is still. I treasure the moment. They say entrainment is the power to hold people in the palm of your hand. Now that truly is a power worth having.

You are making 'Lamb shanks with black-eyed beans' (pg 103) in a cast iron casserole. It is rather heartening to find that your casseroles are rather like mine ie. 'scarred from bean-based recipes forgotten in the oven..chickpeas leave bubble wrap-type rings on the base; cannellini the sort of snow you get on an untuned television screen.' Thought I was the only forgetful cook with a set of less-than pristine Le Creuseut.

Lamb shanks have become a bit trendy of late, on the menu of every gastropub around, so not quite the cheap cut of meat they used to be. That said, they are delicious,  particularly because they are the hard-working cut from the top of the front leg, and as such have a wonderful deep flavour. But the cooking is everything and getting it right is a bit hit-and-miss. Better to have plenty of time to give the meat as long as it needs to fall off the bone than to try and hurry it to get it on the table. As you point out, 'with the lamb shank we must enter a different mindset, one where something is done when it feels like it, not when a recipe says it should be.'

Everything is done to add depth to this recipe. The lamb shanks are lightly browned, a thick oniony sauce made in their cooking fat, and the meat slowly cooked in the beans and oniony sauce until it 'can be persuaded to part company from its bones.' There is always something very satisfying for the cook about this point. Of course, if you are lucky to have a bottom oven in an Aga, you are probably well-versed in the making of this already.

Here is something new to me - the passion fruit. I know it well and love it, particularly wrapped in a meringue roulade, but I had no idea that I was probably using the fruit before it is properly ripe. Indeed, I don't think I have ever given it much thought at all. The fault lies with never having known what a ripe fruit is. You say that  ' the dark, spherical fruit is most usually sold unripe..smooth, a dull purple packs of four from the supermarket.' This is the way I have experienced it, never knowing what it is like to pluck one from a tree in some faraway climate. You say to 'keep them till the skin has thinned and its surface is covered with dimples, like a golf ball. Like us, the passion fruit is better for a few wrinkles.' (Bless you, Nigel. )

'Eaten too early, the passion fruit has an astringency that will remind you of the pomegranate'...(think I have known that taste), 'kept till ripe, it will give you intense fruit flavours and bright, clean, fresh-tasting juice and seeds.' I will take note of this and let my passion fruit breathe for a while next time. It is good to learn new things and to tighten up your knowledge.

The recipe is for 'Passion fruit creams' (page 106), each one an individual in its own little espresso cup - a lovely finish for a dinner with friends when anything heavier is just a little too much. 'Just before you serve the creams, spoon a little puddle of the passion fruit juice over the top. As each diner digs in with their teaspoon, the juice will trickle down into the depths of the cream.' Perfect.


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