Friday, 16 September 2011

What we did on our holidays (woodfire grilled pork ribs)

Becca and I just returned from a week away, up a mountain in Andalucia.  The same mountain, or its immediate neighbour, that appears in the background of the photo of me up a mountain in Andalucia, taken last year and featured in my post on wrapping fish in ham back in March of this year.  We had returned to – or near to, we were actually staying in a converted shepherd’s hut about 4km out of town - Trevelez, the village in the Sierra Nevada where jamon is sent to become Serrano, to enjoy more of their ham, and other delights.

A typical shop window in Trevelez
One day it is my firm intention to travel to a place like Trevelez with its wealth of pork products, or, say to Catania, with its fabulous fish market that Becca and I visited a couple of years ago, in sufficient style, for long enough and/or with enough people along for the trip, to do some serious cooking – and, in the case of Trevelez, to purchase a whole leg of jamon, which you can do for as little as around €40 (!).  As it was, this time, we were in a hovel – very lovely, but a hovel, nonetheless, with a three ring stove fired by gas from a bottle, and no oven.  Plus the usual selection of blunt, battered edged knives that you find in holiday rentals (I know they start off as cheap knives, which is a big chunk of the problem, but what do people do with them to put the kinks and unintended serrations into their blades that you always find?  I’m at a loss).

and another...
Travelling in sufficient style here means not only spending more on the accommodation, but also NOT flying Ryanair, and checking your bags into the hold so you can actually take your own knives.  Although surely there’s a market out their for foodie holiday lets – properties that are advertised, and can charge premium rents, on the basis of having well equipped kitchens and a set of decent knives (I wouldn’t mind paying an extra deposit on the knives).  Even a properly stocked spice rack, and basics like oils and vinegars laid on, because it’s a pain in the arse, not to mention an unnecessary cost, and one fears a horrible waste, to have to go and stock yourself up with these items for a week, knowing full well that you’ll use only a fraction of what you buy and will then have to leave them behind for the same kind of people who’d left you a six pack of energy drinks and a tin of frankfurters and beans…

I daresay such places already exist, just not in the price bracket Becca and I do our holiday shopping.  So 3 rings, no oven and blunt knives it was, then.  Not even a pepper grinder, for crying out loud (although fortunately the mountain sides round Trevelez are covered in loose scree from which we were able to forage a remarkably effective pestle/mortar combo).  So a certain amount of improvisation became all part of the culinary fun.  On the considerable upside we had free access to fruiting plum and almond trees, strawberry beds and a fecund veg patch that was effectively a ratatouille jungle, with tomatoes and peppers growing in tremendous variety and profusion, more courgettes than two people could possibly hope to deal with, and just a bare sufficiency of aubergine.  And although we had no oven, we did have a fine brick and stone built barbecue, and as much dry wood as we could carry back off the mountain to fuel it, which I guess makes it a South African style Braai, as much as a barbecue.

Beautiful but innefective.  My first attempt at building a cooking fire (perhaps not a braai)...

With cooking over a wood fire in mind I got a rack of pork ribs from the Supermercado & Carniceria in the village down the hill (which was no kind of a fancy shop but did have a selection of fresh and cured meats - mainly pork and pork products, but also chicken and a little beef - that would be pretty much unimaginable in the general store of any British village of comparable size, let alone remoteness), and had the nice lady split it with her big, sharp cleaver. 

On getting the ribs home I improvised a marinade from the somewhat random cupboard stores that were to hand.  Fortunately, and this was clearly dependent on luck, with nobody’s judgement entering into it, what was to hand consisted of dried garlic, cumin powder, hot paprika (pimenton picante), dried chillies and cinnamon, plus the sherry vinegar that I added to the general store, and several jars of the fantastic, richly herbal, local honey – the miel de Alpujarras – that we remembered well from our last trip to this neck of the woods.  This, along with salt, pepper (once I’d found the appropriate grinding stones) and good local olive oil, made the basis of a fine, sweet/hot dryish rub for the meat.  The only thing I probably would have done differently if at home would have been to use fresh garlic and chilli (pasted together in the garlic crusher) rather than dried, maybe added crushed fennel seed, aniseed and star anise, and probably left out the cinnamon – but I’m not so sure that last omission would necessarily have been an improvement.  And I know a lot of serious BBQ aficionados would argue that the best marinade for your meat is a dry one - but then some of them might also advocate the inclusion of ingredients like Dr Pepper, so we can pick and choose which elements of BBQ lore to follow.  If a BBQ aficionado told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?  With or without a Dr Pepper…?

My first attempt at building a wood fire to cook over was an abject failure.  A perfectly good fire of the kind you’d happily snuggle into an armchair in front of with a good glass of red wine, or maybe port of a winter’s evening, or even sing songs round of a midsummer night, but just nowhere near enough heat to cook over.  That night I retreated to the kitchen and cooked up some patatas pobres with fried chorizo and morcilla on the three ring gas hob, which was quick and delicious, and put the ribs back in the fridge to marinate for another twenty four hours – so no loss at all, if anything a net gain…

Emergency patatas pobres with chorizo & morcilla.  Disaster  pleasantly averted...
The second fire was much more effective.  First time round I think my mistake had been to build it up with small branches and then get a good big log going as the smaller branches burnt out, just as you would for a fire in a hearth at home.  The problem with that is that it’s actually hot embers you want to cook over not flaming wood, and the big log just burns too long and slow.  The second time, I started earlier, which was a big, basic step forward, used several small to medium sized logs as the core of my fire and kept adding smaller branches to burn faster and more fiercely, building up the heat and creating a greater mass of hotter ember.  This meant going through a lot of these smaller branches, but fortunately the hillsides around our cortijo provided a limitless supply of bone dry deadwood.

Once the wood was burning down to charcoal and ash, we lowered the grill over the fire to get good and hot before any meat came into contact with it.  And when we had a good heat going over glowing embers – hot enough that I could just about hold my hand 10 centimetres over grill level for 5 seconds without it actually starting to cook – then we were ready to go.  The well marinated ribs had been out of the fridge an hour now, so as not to hit the grill cold, the marinade itself contained plenty of olive oil so there was no need to add any to either meat or grill, it was just a case of whacking the ribs on, hearing that sizzle, smelling the flesh sear and the honey caramelise.

I gave them about ten minutes a side.  I wasn’t timing it, and there’s no point giving definitive cooking times for barbeque cooking anyway, because there are simply too many variables - how hot your coals are, how high above them is your grill, and how confident are you about eating your pork pink.  With regards to the last, in this case I think a lot of people would have gone a good couple of minutes a side over my ten, but I think my ribs would have been tastier, juicier, more tender and just generally more satisfyingly carnal than theirs.  I’ve talked about this before:  If your pig meats good, you can serve it pink – maybe not raw and bleeding like you might the flesh of cow, but distinctly pink.  If you think your pig meat might not be good, you really shouldn’t be eating it anyway.

Lunch on the terrace.  Not a bad view for a hovel...

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is absolutely right, but please don’t all follow his advice at once…

A new potato and caulifower curry, just to prove I do vegetables too (even if I never did get round to writing up the recipe...)

In last Saturday’s Guardian Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall wrote about how he has drastically reduced his consumption of meat, and fish, and made vegetables the mainstay of his diet.  And urged us all to follow his lead, for the sake of our own well being, that of the animals we would otherwise be eating, and, most of all, the well being of the planet itself.

I have to say, even speaking as one who, as regular readers will know, does like their meat, that I cannot fault his argument: scientifically, ethically and logically, it’s pretty unimpeachable; his conclusion, therefore, becomes pretty unavoidable.  Frankly he’s absolutely right: we will all be better off if we all consume less meat.  The only effective way each of us as individuals can contribute to that is by eating less meat ourselves.  I cannot disagree.  No, more than that, I positively agree.  I do however, have one considerable concern with his position.

Not a concern, oddly enough that anyone seemed to raise in the comments attached to his piece in the Guardian online.  A tedious number of those – presumably, I’m afraid, from vegetarians (I say ‘afraid’ because this really isn’t a veggie vs. carnivore issue, and although HFW is not advocating vegetarianism, he doesn’t dismiss it either, indeed acknowledges it as the logical endpoint of his argument) – start off by praising him for his new found passion for veg, then sarcastically point out that, oh, he just happens to have a book on the subject to plug.  As if that undermines his argument.  Which rather overlooks the fact that the man’s a professional food writer.  And if he felt sufficiently passionate about any food related issue we would surely, therefore, expect him to write a book about it.  Wouldn’t we?  Or am I being na├»ve?

Personally I’m not worried in the slightest about the advocacy or otherwise of vegetarianism, nor the naked cynicism of a food writer having the brass neck to write a book about food, what concerns me is the potential consequences of too many people following Hugh’s lead.  Because, let’s face it, it’s not McDonalds, or Bernard Matthews turkey farms that’ll feel the impact, is it? 

For many years HFW has campaigned tirelessly (some would no doubt say cynically, what with him having a book to sell and all…) for a more ethical meat industry and sustainable fisheries, with better standards of welfare for the animals and less harm done to the environment.  He is far from alone in this, but his is one of the best known and most influential voices in the movement.  That influence though, surely, does not extend far beyond that intersection of the demographic Venn diagram where foodie and Guardian reader cross.  And while this demographic makes up no more than a tiny fraction of the global meat market, they undoubtedly make up a sizeable chunk if not, frankly, all, of the market for just the kind of ethical, sustainable, high welfare, low environmental impact British meat and fish producers he has previously championed.  It seems to me that if ALL of Hugh’s readers heed his advice, and drastically reduce their meat consumption, while it will make no statistically significant difference to global meat consumption (and therefore neither on the welfare of any of the beasts processed by the industry that feeds that consumption, nor on its environmental impact) it would have direct and dire consequences for the meat and fish industries good guys.  So much so that when we came to seek out organic, high welfare meat for our occasional meat treats, we might just find that all the suppliers of it have gone out of business, and all that is left available to us is factory farmed, antibiotic and steroid pumped, low welfare, water injected, shrink wrapped supermarket pap.  Or organic, high welfare meat at prices only the super wealthy could afford.

HFW’s current advocacy of reduced meat/increased veg consumption is not, in truth, as dramatic a U-turn is it may seem for a self described ‘notorious carnivore’.  His position has always been that the ethical meat eater should be responsible for the killing of fewer animals, well cared for while alive, and made the most extensive use possible of once dead (the ‘nose to tail’ philosophy).  His current position is simply a shift further along the same line of thought.  I would urge caution in everyone who cares about the ethics of meat rushing to follow Hugh to the logical endpoint of that line.  Otherwise we might just be the unwitting instruments of the destruction of all that Hugh, and many others, some of whom have sunk their life’s work into it, have been striving for these past ten years or so.  Please, let’s not allow that to happen.  Reduce your meat consumption by all means, most of us could probably do with doing that, I know I could, and have long intended to, without ever really getting round to it.  But let’s not leave the good meat producers entirely without a market.

That said, we did do a version of Hugh’s aubergine and green bean curry, substituting runner beans from the garden for the green beans, and very nice it was too.  We added the juice of a lime to the curry paste recipe as given, and reduced the quantity of water accordingly.  Not having had a control sample of the lime free paste to directly compare, I can’t categorically say it was an improvement, but I think it probably was.