How preserving food led to a culinary explosionBy Paul Clerehugh
November 26, 2012
When The Beatles were getting together, just 10 per cent of us had a fridge. So how did we preserve our food?
Here, food monthly contributing editor Paul Clerehugh tells us how to get by with a little help from our friends, saltpetre and Nana
You’re sitting in a restaurant contemplating the starters. Gravadlax of salmon? Charcuterie and cornichons? Parma ham, blushed tomatoes and black olive tapenade?
Perhaps confit de canard, smoked haddock or cassoulet for main (although ham hock, black pudding and sauerkraut with a greedy dollop of Colman’s looks sexy).
Toss-up between treacle pudding or the cheese board?
Funny, these and many other dishes have nothing to do with chefology but exist because historically – before chilled distribution, decent roads and health inspectors – this is how we preserved ingredients.
In their craziest drug-fuelled eureka moment no 21st Century chef would think it delicious to pack a dead rabbit in salt for a week, poach it in pig fat, then seal it in the same lard for six months (the principle of confit de canard or in this case ‘du lapin’).
When the Beatles first practised in Ringo’s back bedroom only 10 per cent of Britain had a fridge. No weekly trip to Tesco’s: we shopped frequently in little shops on high streets. Because so few households had a fridge, food was designed to last.
Preserving history is why so many of today’s ingredients exist: Cheddar cheese and pickle, chocolate, bacon and ham, smoked salmon and kippers, roll mops, fish paste, corned beef, currants and sultanas, jam and marmalade. Pickled, potted, smoked and cured.
Christmas 1975 Nana Clerehugh was finally cajoled into having a fridge. Slade knocked Gary Glitter off the Christmas Number One spot. Pillow case, end of my bed: Hot Wheels, The Persuaders! annual, a little record player from Woolworths, a tank top a membership to the Brady Bunch fan club (had serious crush on Marsha Brady).
Nana only used the fridge for Grandpa’s ulcer medicine, gold top and lard. She kept meat and groceries in the pantry – they couldn’t breathe in a fridge.
History minded – I delve into 1,000 year old cures and preserves, to share some favourite recipes – in my book nothing surpasses salt beef.
Brick Lane salt beef café, East End London. Bagel packed with steaming pink fleshy salt beef, on rye, smear of mustard dill pickle.
New York Jewish deli – salt beef on rye, French’s yellow mustard. Food of the Gods.
Popular in Jewish circles because beef brisket comes from the front end – we’re not keen on the back end.
Brisket is the classic salt beef cut (human anatomy from the chest) you can use other joints. Plenty of fat in the brisket – slow cooked, very delicious, tender and gelatinous.
I favour silverside from the rear end, a busy muscle that sits under the rump. The Caversham/Henley cut – less fatty – no less scrumptious.
Corned beef is derived from salt beef. Flake salt beef with plenty of dripping; pack it into a terrine, a Kilner (or a tin).
Corned beef hash at London Street Brasserie uses the scraggly rillettes off-cuts from our salt beef joints. Mixed with sauté shallot, bashed potato, pushed into a chefy ring – delicious crowned with a fried egg and a drizzle of HP Sauce.
Saltpetre (potassium nitrate) gives the appetising ham pink hew. As Guy Fawkes established, it’s a predominant ingredient in gun powder. Shop keepers have a reluctance to sell it – ask for a kilo over the counter and you’ll be in Guantanamo Bay quicker than you can say haute cuisine.
Chat up a traditional butcher, they use it.
Sodium nitrate will also do the job.
You can Saltpetre from www.sausagemaking.org (could try searching for bombmaking on Google, but then you’re back in Guantanamo Bay).
For the brine:
5 litres water
1kg course sea salt
500g brown sugar
1 sprig of bay leaves, rosemary and thyme
1tbsp juniper berries
1tbsp potassium nitrate or saltpetre if you can get it (try an old fashioned butchers – it will keep you brisket pink or get from www.sausagemaking.org)
2 carrots, halved
1 onion, halved
1 leek, halved
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
To make the brine: bring the ingredients to the boil in the water until the sugar has dissolved – then allow to cool. Once cool, add the brisket – sink it down with something – a plate perhaps. Leave to soak for six days in the fridge or cold place. Take the meat from the brine and soak it in clean water for a good six hours, keep refrigerated.
Put the meat in a large saucepan with the vegetables, bay and pepper. Cover with water and simmer for three hours. Don’t vigorously boil it. Enjoy it whilst it is hot – I love it in a rye and caraway seed sandwich with sliced gherkin and American mustard.
You can gently re-heat slices of salt beef in a little of the cooking liquor – we often serve it with young carrots, parsley mash and a chopped cornichon jus.
All the scraggly bitty bits are great fried up with bashed potatoes as a corned beef hash. A fried egg and HP sauce go well.
Knackered Flip Flop
Fish, particularly cod, has been preserved in salt since year dot. This is how middle England managed to have fish on Fridays and other meatless days in the religious calendar. Locally we are blessed with Frosts fishmongers, Smelly Alley (Union St) Reading who stock salt cod – two types: I think the skinless single fillets are best.
Whilst salt cod looks as appetising as a knackered flip flop, stiff as a board, it can be delicious soaked for 24hrs in plenty of cold water (change the water twice during soaking) then washed off thoroughly for 15 minutes under a running cold tap. Pat dry then it’s ready for poaching and braising.
For “Brandade”, try poaching the soaked cod in milk, then blitzing it in a food processor, whilst drizzling in a slow steady stream of olive oil. Add finely chopped raw garlic if you fancy.
British fisherman nicked the principle of salting fish from the Vikings who crucified their catch in the ships rigging – air dried in the salty sea air. British fisherman split open their cod removed head and guts, stacked the cod between layers of salt.
Nothing was wasted – tongues, pickled, a delicacy, liver made into oil, even swim bladders were dried and used to make finings – a powder used to clear sediment from beer & wine. How many vegetarians and vegans know!
Salt cod became a currency. Navy’s evolved as a result of. Populations relocated. Cities were established. British fisherman returned from Icelandic waters landing their catch near the Humber estuary, at Hull harbour, which became a village, a town, a busy port, a city.
In the Seventeenth century sugar production in the West Indies was growing so rapidly there was no spare land to grow food for the slaves. The plantation owners relied on provisions sent from mother countries.
England quickly seized the opportunity to sell inferior salt cod to the West Indies. This “refuse fish” was salt burnt, spotted and rotten. British ships set sail first to Africa, their holds packed with thousands of tons of salt cod. When they arrived in Africa they bought slaves with some of the cargo, shipped the slaves to the Caribbean, those who survived were fed salt cod. Having off loaded the new slaves and remaining salt cod they returned to Britain with sugar, molasses, tobacco, cotton salt and rum, completing their ‘trade triangle’
The following salt cod recipe first appeared at the Crooked Billet menu in 1989 in more recent years I’ve “scotch egg’d” the fish cake. If you can’t source traditional dried cod, try my lighter salt cure marinade.
Salt Cod Scotch Eggs with Red Pepper Sauce and Salami Crisps
For the Scotch eggs
50g Maldon salt
50g caster sugar
1 tsp saffron
2 tbsp Pernod
4 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to cover
2 tbsp white wine
750g fresh cod, pin-boned and skinned
4 baking potatoes (approx. 300g)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
12 quails eggs
Plain flour for dredging, 2 beaten eggs and breadcrumbs to coat
Oil for deep frying
For the Salami Crisps
12 slices salami
For the red pepper sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
3 red peppers, sliced
1 fresh red chilli, halved de-seeded and sliced
2 shallots, chopped
½ tbsp saffron threads
50g caster sugar
50ml white wine vinegar
100ml dry white wine
Combine the salt, sugar, saffron, Pernod, olive oil and white wine and pour over the cod. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
To make the pepper sauce, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and sweat the peppers, chilli and shallots over a medium heat until soft then add the saffron, sugar, vinegar and wine. Bring to the boil then simmer for 15 minutes. Blend and pass through a sieve. Set aside until ready to serve.
Preheat the oven to 140°C. Rinse the cod under cold water to remove the marinade and pat dry. Place the cod in a snug fitting roasting tin & completely cover with olive oil. Put foil over the tin and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove and leave to cool.
Bake the potatoes until they are completely soft, remove the skins and put the potato flesh through a sieve or potato ricer. Mix the cod and garlic into the potato.
Crack the quails eggs into a 50/50 spilt solution of water and white wine vinegar. You will notice the raw egg re-forms into a perfect egg shape – thanks to the acidity of the water.
Carefully lift the eggs out of the vinegar water and carefully place into a pan of simmering water; poach them for 45 seconds for the perfect “boiled egg” shape, runny yolk. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and refresh immediately in ice cold water.
Shape the cod and potato mixture around the egg and form into a ball. Roll the balls in flour, then in the beaten egg and then coat in breadcrumbs.
Heat the oil to 180°C & deep-fry the balls for 2 minutes until golden brown. While they are cooking, make the salami crisps. Put a non-stick frying pan on the hob, moderate heat. Place a slice of salami in the pan, turn it after about 60 seconds as it crisps up, do the other side for 30 seconds. Remove and pat dry on kitchen paper to remove excess oil.
Re-heat the pepper sauce and serve with the salt cod scotch eggs and salami crisps.
Aunty Yed’s Chicken Schmaltz
The popularity of anything with the words “crispy” and “duck” on any menu is a winner. At London Street Brasserie and the Crooked Billet I don’t follow the traditional Chinese route of slow roasting whole ducks; we confit duck legs, then crisp them up.
Confit is one of the oldest forms of preserving food. Hermetically sealed in fat, confit enjoys fantastic longevity, certainly up to at least six months. Confit literally means “preserve”, confiture we take to mean preserved in sugar not fat.
Traditional confit preparation starts by packing meat with salt and thyme for upwards of 12 hours. The salt cures with a bacon effect, thyme flavours. For oriental confits I favour a cure including oriental aromas, star anise and cinnamon (see Paul’s recipe).
After 48 hours marinade in this oriental rub, the duck legs are thoroughly washed off and dried before being completely submerged in oil, brought to simmer then placed in a pre-heated 100° oven for 6 hours. I use a roasting tin, no lid, don’t cover. Job done. Low temperature slow cooking in fat will render the toughest muscle of meat drop dead tender.
Some chefs leave the meat to cool and “ripen” in the cooking fat for several days. We allow the duck legs to cool in the fat, then lift them out refrigerate. Recycle the fat for the next confit. I use a quality vegetable oil, you can use lard, dripping, goose fat. Nana Clerehugh kept all dripping from her roasts: great for Yorkshires and roasties. Kept it in the fridge… tea cup with the broken handle. That prized amber jelly beneath the fat. Chefs gold – rubbery instant stock cube – brilliant flavouring for warm dressings and vinaigrettes.
Aunty Yedida, the most frugal of cooks, wasted NOTHING from a chicken. Every morsel of meat was wielded from the bone before the carcass, skin and gizzard was boiled up for clear chicken soup. Jewish Penicillin. She let the stock cool then refrigerated it where all the fat rose to the surface. This lardy disc of solidified chicken fat she called schmaltz. Great confit fat.
As with salt cods impact on the British Navy, confit and our nautical history go hand in hand. Meat and vegetables were confit preserved for long sea voyages. Navy beans a direct result of this process. Pork and beans were preserved together – cassoulet. 2012, a tin of baked beans and baby sausages has its roots in Navy beans, cassoulet and long sea voyages.
Warm Duck and Watermelon, Beansprout and Roast Peanut
Confit Duck, Oriental Cure
6 duck legs
2 star anise, ground to a powder
Pinch ground cinnamon
6 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
Thumb fresh ginger, finely chopped
Zest of grated orange
Freshly ground black pepper
100ml rendered duck fat or lard
Sprinkle the duck with the salt. Distribute the remaining ingredients evenly on the duck, cover, refrigerate overnight or up to 48 hours.
Rinse the duck well, wiping off all the seasoning. Pat dry on kitchen paper.
Pre-heat the oven to 100°C. Put the duck legs in a roasting tin; the legs can be on one or two layers, the only critical factor is that you have enough fat to completely cover the duck.
Cover the duck legs with duck, goose or pork fat and bring to the boil in the roasting tin on the hob.
Then place, uncovered, in the oven and cook for six hours or until the legs are completely tender. At first they float in the fat; you know they are done when they sink to the bottom of the tin.
Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature in the tin.
Transfer duck legs to suitably fridge sized storage containers, pour fat over legs, make sure duck is completely submerged in the fat.
Store covered in the refrigerator for up to a month.
To serve the confit, remove from the fridge several hours ahead to allow the fat to soften. Preheat the oven to 220°C.
Remove the legs from the fat. Place them on a baking sheet & roast until the meat is hot and the skin is crispy.
Warm Duck & Watermelon, Beansprout and Roast Peanut
1 large duck leg
1 red chilli pepper, seeded & finely chopped
50g brown sugar
100g chopped unsalted peanuts
200g watermelon, seeded, cut into 1cm chunks
Handful coriander leaves
Handful mint leaves
2tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
Confit cook the duck leg in advance (see separate cooking method). When you’re ready to serve the warm duck and watermelon salad, follow the re-heating instructions in the confit duck recipe.
Place the peanuts, chillies, sugar and water in a frying pan over a high heat and cook, stirring frequently until the peanuts are sticky and coated. Set aside.
Put the watermelon, beansprouts, coriander & mint into a large mixing bowl. Shred the hot duck into the salad, including the crispy skin.
Mix the soy and lemon juice together and dress the salad. Add the sticky chilli peanuts. Divide the salad between a couple of plates and get stuck in.