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Food #12: Victorian mince pies

Everyone thinks Victorian mince pies sound nice until you tell them what they actually are. I’m not sure what it is about the word ‘Victorian’ that does it but it makes boring old mince pies into bouncy-castle-style thrill-fests for those who hear the name.

Almost every conversation I’ve had about them has gone the same way. You see that bright-eyed excitement as they take their shoes off and prepare to enter the inflatable moshpit, their little minds teeming with the possibilities created by PVC, air and violent children. They couldn’t be any more in their element, desperate to jump on in there and enjoy what is no doubt going to be the ‘funnest’ day of their lives.

And then you, being an utter bastard, take out a big pin and pop their dreams.*

(I’m only exaggerating a little bit.)

“Ooooh, Victorian mince pies sound lovely! How are they different from normal ones?”

“Well, they’re exactly the same really. The only difference is that the mincemeat contains real meat.”

“Oh… that sounds disgusting! Ewww!!”

And they look at you like you’ve just raped their world and you wish you’d never mentioned them in the first place.

Fortunately for me, not everyone reacts in the same way. When I declared that I’d be ticking this particular item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list over Christmas, my good friend Andy volunteered to help taste test. Wives were drafted in** and the stage was set for a food I’ve been eager to try for as long as I can remember.

Mincemeat with real meat

There are various recipes for Victorian mince pies out there – some using lamb, some using beef. Mine, a sirloin steak variety, was written 160 years ago by the fabulously-named Mrs Rundle, and you can read it here (or watch the video).

Now, in my head, a Victorian mince pie would be exactly the same as a normal mince pie, except instead of currants you’d have beef mince. That this mixture sounds so bizarre and revolting is what made me put it on The List in the first place – it’s the sort of interesting experience I feel I have to try.

So imagine my raging disappointment when I realised after all these years that the amount of beef in this thing could be measured in quantities of bugger all. A 450g steak seems decent enough until you see the recipe also calls for 450g of sugar, and 450g of suet, and 4 large apples, and 1.35kg of currants, and a whole host of similarly heavy ingredients. For every pound of beef in the mix, there were eight or nine pounds of everything else!

When the mixture was cooked down and ready to be put into the pastry, my wife came into the kitchen and asked whether I’d put the meat in yet. She couldn’t even see it for how little there was in there. And there were no other clues to the presence of real meat either. The mix smelled beautiful – a purer fragrance of Christmas you will not find – but there were no beefy odours emanating from the pot. It was just the standard aroma of mincemeat.

By the time the pies had been through the oven and we sat down to eat them, I was starting to think we wouldn’t even be able to taste the steak at all. I’m still wondering whether I made up the fact that I could.

Mince pies with real meat

The mince pies were excellent, as good as any others I’ve made from scratch. They tasted exactly like normal mince pies with just a couple of tiny differences, the first of which was so subtle it might well have been a figment of my imagination.

There was a hint of extra richness in there which I’ve not come across in a mince pie before. My tastebuds couldn’t pick it out specifically, but they just had this little flavour tone running through them that I couldn’t match up to anything other than the steak. “You’re clutching at straws” read the expression on everyone else’s face when I suggested this was the case, but I stand by it.

Less debatable was the difference in texture. The meat had been finely chopped but of course it doesn’t break down like the fruit does, so every couple of bites I’d come across a little chewy lump of beef. This was reasonably pleasant although it added little more than novelty to the dish. Certainly, it could’ve easily done without it.

And really, that was it. Nothing amazing, nothing disgusting, nothing particularly different at all. The only significant impact the inclusion of steak had was on the bill, which it more or less trebled.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Verdict: A waste of time and money, though if ignore the steak part, the rest of the recipe’s well worth following.

NEXT UP: Rose veal

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*It’s important to note that, on occasion, I have been accused of having an overactive imagination.

**I should specify that’s ‘our’ wives, as opposed to a selection of random married women. I imagine I would have got into some trouble if the latter scenario had transpired, and no doubt I would’ve had to go through the bouncy castle story all over again.

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Christmas dinner success!

About six weeks ago, I wrote on this blog: “There are times when I like to tell myself that I could’ve been a chef.”

As I sit here writing this post, cowering from the apocalyptic wasteland that is my kitchen after I’ve spent a full day cooking in it, I feel the restaurant industry should be very glad I’ve never bothered to try.

But in my house, the bigger the mess, the better the food – and the carnage I’m trying so hard to avoid is merely proof that yesterday’s Christmas dinner was a huge success.

We were forced to make a few last-minute changes to the Christmas dinner plan, as originally outlined here. Tesco, which had no sage or duck fat and delivered us chipolatas on the 23rd that had just two and a half hours left on their used-by date, was responsible for several. I, who stupidly thought it’d be possible to buy samphire months and months out of season, am responsible for the rest.

The revised menu with pictures is below:

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CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU

Nibbles

Christmas canapes - Smoked Salmon, Ham and Porcini, Brown Shrimp

Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter

Warm Toasted Cold Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire White Cabbage a la Fergus Henderson*

Cold Canapé of Cep a Salpicon of Porcini Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika

Louis Chaurey Champagne

*

Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings

Roast Christmas Turkey

I roasted the turkey very simply following the instructions on the Copas website. The only change I made was to stick clementines up it, instead of an apple.

 5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Goose Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, [Shop bought] Pigs in Blankets, [Shop bought] Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy

Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010

 *

Christmas Pudding

Delia Smith Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding, pre-whisky flambé

 Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream

Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009

*

Cheeseboard

Christmas Cheese - Brie, Blacksticks, Goat's, Cranberry Stilton, Applewood Smoked Cheddar

Dad’s selection

Blacksticks Blue, Cranberry and Stilton, Applewood Smoked Cheddar, Goat’s Cheese, Brie w/ Onion Chutney, Manchester Relish and Quince Jelly

Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994

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I was really pleased with the meal from start to finish. All the canapés were good, the Copas turkey was beautiful and my wife’s Christmas pudding was a million miles better than any version I’d had before. Other highlights were the faultless roasties, the bread sauce, and the cranberry sauce, which was a real knockout.

I loved the cheeseboard my dad put together and along with a glass of port – which blew me away actually; I would never have expected such quality from a supermarket bottle – it provided a fitting end to the day.

The only things I’d like to have done differently are the wine and the stuffing. The wine was perfectly serviceable, but aside from the port, wasn’t in the same league as the food. And the stuffing was rubbish; Tesco’s finest my arse! If ever there was a ringing endorsement for making your own, this was it. Next year if I can’t get any sage, I’ll make sure I’ve got a back-up plan.

I hope you all had as enjoyable a Christmas dinner as I did and are looking forward to days of leftovers. I can’t wait to fry up that Christmas pudding in some goose fat!

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the foodie gifts my family gave me this year:

Global Flexible Boning Knife, 16cm

Le Creuset Stoneware Pie Dish, Volcanic, 24cm

Le Creuset Cast Iron Satin Black Interior Omelette Pan, Volcanic, 20cm

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*Thanks to Xanthe Clay (@XantheClay) for suggesting this alternative to the samphire recipe which got me out of trouble at the eleventh hour.

Best of 2011: Restaurant Meal of the Year

2011 has been a pretty amazing year for me in terms of food. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be recapping the very best (and worst) of it, starting with Restaurant Meal of the Year.

I’ve experienced five of the six best meals of my life during the last 12 months. In an incredible four-week period following my late-July wedding, I had fabulous dinners at Hibiscus (2 Michelin stars), Goodman Mayfair, The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars) and Northcote Manor (1 Michelin star).

However, one meal from the same period stood out above all the rest to be the best of the year, and indeed, the best I’ve ever had. That was the meal at 3-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester logo and dining room

I’ve spoken at some length about my beef Rossini main course and rum baba dessert, but I haven’t gone into much detail about the rest of my dinner, which was brilliant from start to finish. Seared foie gras was served in the most perfect duck blood sauce; sumptuously rich and smooth as velvet. A stunning piece of sea bass had its own wondrous adornment; a delicate citrus sauce which balanced like Nadia Comăneci in 1976.

Each of the extras gave me so much pleasure: the charming little cheese puffs that began the evening; the immaculate broccoli purée that followed. I’d struggle to fault the bread selection – every piece lovely in texture and full of flavour. Ducasse supposedly refuses to serve his bread warm as he doesn’t want his diners to fill up on it and spoil the rest of their meal, so I was surprised and delighted to find these specimens still hot from the oven. Strikingly good butter from Neal’s Yard and an interesting cream cheese provided fitting accompaniments.

But the best of the nibbles were saved until last. Flawless macaroons and chocolates were merely preamble to the treasure trove of treats that awaited on the bonbon trolley. Marshmellows, nougats, caramels, pastries, cakes – it was a feast fit for a fat kid with the most discerning of tastes.

Petits fours from Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester

I was too full at this stage so I got my waiter to fill a bag for me. I was able to gorge on it for the next three days and still had plenty left to give to friends.

Away from the food, things were just as special. The waiters gave a masterclass in service, effortlessly juggling attentiveness, efficiency and professionalism with enthusiasm, friendliness and charm. Along with the marvel that is the Alain Ducasse dining room – far prettier than it looks in pictures – and the palatial luxury of The Dorchester itself, the staff provided the backdrop and ambience to an evening I’ll never, ever forget.

Below is everything I ate in full. Regrettably, aside from Alain Ducasse’s signature champagne, I cannot remember what we drank with the meal, other than it being quite outstanding; equal to the food and setting in both quality and price.

Even more regrettable is the fact that I’m not able to add these orange cakes on at the end. They were presented to us as a gift as we left the restaurant and the following day my wife scoffed both in secret, not allowing me a single crumb.

If that’s not grounds enough for divorce, I don’t know what is!

A gift of orange cakes from Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester

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A LA CARTE

Amuse Bouche 1

Gruyère Gougéres, Paprika Gougéres

*

Les Pains

Sourdough, Black Olive Bread, Fougasse with Bacon

*

Amuse Bouche 2

Royale of Broccoli with Crispy Vegetables

*

1st Course

Foie Gras de Canard Poelé, Cerises, Amandes Fraiches

Seared Duck Foie Gras, Cherries, Green Almonds

*

2nd Course

Bar de Ligne aux Agrumes, Verts et Blancs de Blette

Wild Sea Bass, Citrus and Swiss Chards

*

3rd Course

Tournedos de Boeuf Rossini, Beau Quartier de Romaine, Sacristain de Pommes de Terre

Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes

*

Pre-Dessert

Macaroons, Chocolates

*

4th Course
Baba au Rhum de Votre Choix, comme a Monte-Carlo

Baba like in Monte-Carlo

*

Mignardises & Gourmandises

The Bonbon Trolley

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Not by any stretch worth the same number of words, but perhaps worth a bit of a laugh, is my Worst Restaurant Meal of the Year – a truly traumatic experience.

Cafe Rouge logo

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Café Rouge after an awful meal at one of its branches in 2005, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the bile served at my work’s Christmas Party. Food is always pretty terrible at Christmas dos, and indeed it’s part of the fun, but this was a serious ordeal; one that conjured up images of Vietnam War movies and Colonel Kurtz whispering “the horror, the horror”.

Unless you were there and had the parsnip and chestnut soup, roast turkey, and Christmas pudding, you’ll never be able to understand just what I and others had to go through that night. But I hope my descriptions of what I imagine made up each dish will at least give some insight into the tragedy that befell my senses and digestive system on that cold December evening.

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CHRISTMAS PARTY MENU

Soup de Panais

Diarrhoea of Polly Filler-Fed Dog, Essence of Chip Shop Curry, Tree Bark

*

Dinde Rôtie

Reconstituted Turkey and Woodchip, Mould of Soup de Panais, Memory of School Dinner Sprouts, Assortment of Miniature Rubber Dildos, Raw and Nuked

*

Pudding de Noël

Dried Guinness Poo, Cat Vomit

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The Christmas dinner plan is set

Christmas tree with decorations

The tree’s up, mince pies are in the oven, Nigella’s about to burn her roast potatoes in that Christmas special again, and a month since I started planning Christmas dinner, I’m more or less set.

The turkey’s been ordered, the wine’s been bought, the last minute Tesco shop is already booked in. And most importantly, I’ve finally decided on the menu (see below).

I’ve not pushed the boat out quite as much as I’d like this year. There’s going to be six of us, we’re on a budget and my refusal to scrimp on the turkey means making cutbacks elsewhere – mostly, with the wine.

So if you’re wondering why I’ve gone Tesco Finest trigger happy, it’s not because I’m too lazy or lack the knowledge to shop elsewhere, it’s because the Double Rewards scheme enabled me to pick up all the below, plus three other bottles, without having to spend a penny. Every little helps!

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CHRISTMAS DINNER MENU

Nibbles

Cold Canapé of Smoked Salmon, Salmon Roe, Horseradish Butter

Warm Toasted Canapé of Brown Shrimp, Samphire

Cold Canapé of Cep Mushrooms, Lean Ham, Shallot Butter, Paprika

*

Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings

5kg Copas Bronze Turkey, Duck Fat Roast Potatoes, Honey-Roast Parsnips, Glazed Carrots, Chestnut and Pancetta-tossed Sprouts, Pigs in Blankets, Sage and Onion Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Bread Sauce, Gravy

Tesco Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2010

 *

Christmas Pudding

Home-made Christmas Pudding, Brandy Cream

Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009

*

Cheeseboard

Dad’s selection

Tesco Finest Vintage Port, 1994

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Recipes

I don’t tend to use recipes much on Christmas Day – it’s enough hassle as it is without overcomplicating things by doing stuff you don’t already know how to do. But in the run up I like to look at some for inspiration, and it’s always good to have a point of reference just in case something goes wrong.

These are my points of reference this year:

 

You can read the follow up post to this one below:

Christmas dinner success!

Planning Christmas dinner

Christmas tree

This year will be the fourth time that I’ve been responsible for cooking Christmas dinner.*

My first bash at it in 2007, when I made it for seven people at my parents’ house, was a reasonable success. The turkey, an organic bronze from the Marks & Spencer catalogue, turned out pretty well under the watchful eye of a Good Housekeeping recipe. The gravy my wife threw together using a Delia Smith-assisted stock of neckbone and giblets, remains the best I’ve ever had.

The only thing that didn’t quite hit the mark was the roast potatoes. My mum had peeled and cut them on Christmas Eve after seeing Brian Turner on TV saying that they’ll be fine as long you put them in air-tight bags. The mangy, greeny-black colour they had turned disappeared during the roasting process, but they didn’t taste quite right.

The following year, when it was just the two of us, we decided to kick things up a notch with better quality ingredients, expensive wine and a much more ambitious menu. Roast quail with a pork, truffle and cognac stuffing was brilliant** and a lot of fun to make – even if we did have to visit five different shops to get hold of pork mince on Christmas Eve. The £25 Chilean red, recommended by a nice bloke in Oddbins who I’d tasked with finding something to match such a rich dish, was incredible.

None of the veg hit the mark this time though. The greengrocers had prepared us a box and we foolishly didn’t inspect it until we got home. Everything was a long way past its best and by that stage it was too late to do anything about it.

Copas turkeys in autumn

Copas turkeys have a reputation for being the very best the UK has to offer.

After having 2009 off, it was back to me cooking again last year, this time for five and in my own kitchen. I’d bought what was meant to be the best turkey in the country, the Copas, which Rick Stein had raved about in one of his TV programmes. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the bird looked when I first opened its box. You could tell from its appearance that it had lived a very healthy life and that it was going to knock spots off anything you’d get in the supermarket. Interestingly, it cost about the same as the turkey my mum had ordered from M&S three years before.

I didn’t want to let such beautiful produce down, so I looked long and hard for a recipe equal to the task. I eventually settled on Matthew Fort’s method, which involved slow-cooking the turkey on a very low temperature for more than 10 hours.

Of course, I’d forgotten that my rubbish oven runs on a timer, and regretted every minute of it as I had to wake up at three-hour intervals throughout the night to turn it back on, rotate the turkey and stab it with a temperature probe.

The turkey was divine – better than I could ever imagine it being. Perfectly moist and packed full of flavour, I would’ve loved to have forced it down the throat of anybody who says they don’t like turkey or complains that it’s always too dry.

Unfortunately the rest of the meal was a disaster. Jamie Oliver’s gravy, which looked brilliant on TV, was crap. Thin and weak and not at all worth the hours of hard work that went into making it.***

And then the oven broke. After half a day maintaining 80 degrees C, it refused point blank to get hot again. We just about managed to roast the veg, but the spuds were far from crisp. I spent Christmas dinner wondering when the hell we were going to be able to get a repair man out to fix it. It was January before we got it sorted.

And now here we are in November 2011, and it’s time to start planning for Christmas dinner all over again. There’ll be six of us this year and I’m part way towards deciding what to eat.

Choosing the animal was quite tricky. I didn’t think I could top last year’s turkey without using the same cooking method and I’m not going to do that in case it kills my oven again.

We ummed and ahhed about rib of beef; capon was mooted. Partridge was considered before being dismissed for no particular reason. Goose was discussed and lusted after, before we decided that oven size might be an issue. I contemplated poulet de bresse and figured I probably wouldn’t want to share it.

Eventually, we arrived back at turkey and my thought was: “Why the hell not?”

Evans fishmongers, Didsbury Village

Evans of Didsbury. An excellent fishmongers, and they do some really good game and poultry too.

I’m going to order the Copas this week from Evans of Didsbury. The recipe I’m not 100 per cent set on yet but I’m considering one from Gordon Ramsay that I saw him do on TV a few years back. The idea of removing the legs and stuffing them, and cooking them separately to the rest of the turkey to avoid them drying out, looked quite good.

Canapés will be a big decision and the one I’ll probably enjoy making the most. I find these to be much easier and interesting than starters, but I need to think long and hard about how I can top 2010’s batch. The mini-cheese and caramelised onion tarts, smoked salmon with chive and mustard butter on rye bread, and devils on horseback I made were all pretty awesome.

Christmas pudding is obviously already in the bag. But what should I drink with it? Sauternes as usual or something more interesting?

What about the wine to go with the roast? Pinot noir again or should I be adventurous? I saw a sparkling lambrusco recommended in the paper once; dare I try it? It’s pretty bizarre.

There’s the champagne to choose for Christmas breakfast. Then there’s the port to go with the cheese. Gravy will need some thought, none of which will involve Jamie Oliver.

The list is long, but I look forward to working my way through it.

What are you all doing for Christmas this year? Anybody have any good tips?

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*Well, fifth Christmas dinner if you count the one I made during second year at university. Iceland’s cook-from-frozen turkey surprisingly wasn’t that bad.

**Excellent though it was, I couldn’t quite help but think the quail wasn’t as good as the much simpler duck breast with mustard crushed potatoes and red wine reduction I’d made the night before.

***I know other people who have made Jamie’s gravy too and said exactly the same thing.

 

You can read the follow up post to this one below:

The Christmas dinner plan is set

Christmas pudding

Delia Smith Christmas Pudding

I’m back to a home-made Christmas pudding this year after buying one from the supermarket in 2010. It can be quite an expensive affair if you don’t already have the requisite booze in, and I’ve yet to have one sufficiently superior to what you can buy in the shop to convince me it’s worth the effort.

But it’s a helluva lot of fun putting it together and my wife just couldn’t resist. Let’s see if Delia’s recipe is better than the rest we’ve tried!

The picture above shows the pudding after it’s been steamed for the first time. It’s now going to sit in a dark room for the next 8 weeks until it’s ready for Christmas Day.

By the way, I’m sorry for the sparseness of posts in the last few weeks. Between a stomach bug, a dead laptop and busyness at work, I’ve not had a lot of time for writing, but things should be back to normal from next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some tweaking to the About page and I’ve also been working on the Best Restaurants in Manchester list, so that should be up fairly soon. My next Foods To Try Before You Die post on Beef Rossini is in the pipeline as well, so stay tuned!

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