Friday, 5 April 2013

More about food and drink

My post about Portuguese wines continues to be very popular, so I thought I would write something more general about food and drink.

Having lived in several countries my wife and I have had the opportunity to discover a variety of dishes that are popular in certain parts of each country even though they may not be common across the whole country, and often never heard of or known internationally. This applies even more so to table and fortified wines.

I will begin with a dish that, to me, was the worst I have ever eaten. I have been presented with, and failed to eat, tripe boiled in milk, but I did manage to consume a Buckie Whelk. Now in case you are not familiar with the term Buckie Whelk, Buckie is a Scottish word for the common whelk Buccinum undatum. That is only the beginning. Buckie is a town on the Moray Firth coast of Scotland. So, combining the fact that the town is named after a whelk, and this particular species of whelk is named after the town, one can begin to imagine the size of these things. One of my idols, Max Boyce, talks about a pig coming in three sizes - big, huge and…. Duw! Well, these Buckie whelks are, as Max would say, Duw, Duw whelks. They were a gift, along with a lobster and some crabs from a Moray Firth fisherman.

We prefer crabmeat to lobster, but only just, and there is a lot more on a lobster than a crab so I am quite happy to eat them, and this one was delicious, but the Whelks (there were two on my plate) were a different matter, and I only managed to down one, and that with copious amounts of Chablis. To me Chablis is the wine of choice with all shell and white fish, and essential with lobster. My wife prefers Champagne. We very rarely drink either, simply because both are expensive. For more oily fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel I prefer a red wine – not too powerful otherwise it will outcompete the flavour of the fish, but there is a very extensive suitable range in most countries.

Second worst is a particular Portuguese sausage. It is an anaemic white before and after cooking because it is made only of pig fat and cornflour. It tastes every bit as bad as it sounds and looks. I admit to not being a great fan of sausages, but I quite like all the other of the vast array of Portuguese ones I have tried. As with southern Europe generally these sausages are mainly eaten raw, but the white one is cooked. I doubt if there is any wine that would make it acceptable.

Although I failed to eat the tripe on its own, I do enjoy a dish local to the immediate area where I live and very slightly further north in Oleiros and Pampilhosa. It is called maranho and uses tripe. It is similar to haggis, except that goat meat and rice are used instead of sheep and oatmeal. Presunto (Portuguese dried ham) is also included, along with the usual onions and some flavourings, with parsley often included. The bag containing the maranho is made of the goat’s stomach lining (i.e. tripe), replacing the sheep’s in a haggis. I do not eat the bag. Note: Ready made haggis as bought in butchers’ shops is bagged in synthetic skins. Recipes for maranho vary slightly from household to household, but in the immediate locality mint is included. Several species of mint grow wild here, and there is only one that is chosen for the maranho. I am no botanist and have been unable to identify it with certainty.

Just to add a bit to probably most readers’ knowledge, the four different chambers of a ruminant’s stomach – the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum have different types of lining and this give rise to different styles of tripe. In many cultures only the linings of the rumen and reticulum are used for human food, and very few use the abomasum lining. The river that runs as my boundary and very close to my house is called the Tripeiro. The origin of the name is said to be because the river is so clean that people washed their animals’ tripes in it. They still do and it is still that clean. Some still do their laundry in it too. The people of Oporto are sometimes known as tripeiros, or tripe eaters, because that was all they had left to eat after they had supplied Christopher Columbus’ 1492 journey with meat. It is then possible that the river is so named because the people on its banks have always been tripe eaters too.

I am aware of a meal that two of my cousins and their mother were to have but could not. My eldest brother called to visit them one day and on the way up the garden path was met by their pet, a very old, very fat, three-legged dog, and my brother said it was running flat out. Now this dog only moved when it was absolutely necessary, and waddled with difficulty. He knew there was something not quite right. He entered the house to find the occupants sitting shocked in the kitchen/living room. The reason for this was that the old fashioned range – a fireplace and oven, were totally demolished and there were pieces of food, debris and soot all over the room walls, floor and ceiling, as well as coating the occupants. Miraculously none of them were injured. It seemed that they had intended to have a few vegetables to accompany a pie. Somehow, the instructions on cooking the pie had not been followed. It was in a tin, and the tin had been put in the oven. The lid of the tin should first have been removed.

My mother was renowned by friends and relatives as a superlative cook of “afternoon tea” dishes. Of course I could never understand the raptures of other people at our always very large Sunday afternoon gatherings (never less than a dozen people) because I had the same things for tea every day of the week. Meals at home were breakfast, lunch (the main meal of the day), tea and supper shortly before bed-time, and supper always just a snack. Father worked permanent night-shift down the pit so that he could run the smallholding during the day and needed his main meal when he was at home to eat it.

Probably mother’s best was her Girdle Scones, similar things being known as Griddle Cakes in other places. Following my usual system of giving recipes, I assume that the lady who is to make these already has some cooking knowledge. Plain flour, butter and currants in the ratio of 4:2:1; baking powder (bought as a propriety product that is a mixture of Bicarbonate of Soda, Cream of Tartar and some starch), the smallest amount of salt you are comfortable with, and enough milk to make a crumbly dough. The girdle is a flat plate of iron that is heated from underneath, either an open fire or modern means. The Australian style of barbecue that has such plates, and not these silly grilled bars of metal that others use, would be ideal. Roll out the dough to three-quarters of an inch (20mm) thick and no thicker! Cut into rounds. Butter the girdle to stop the scones sticking and cook quickly on each side, turning only once. How well done you like them is up to you, father liked his as the outsides were beginning to go black, whilst others seemed to prefer mid to dark brown. I liked the lot. Some prefer them warm and whole, others split them and butter the insides of both halves. I liked them cold and split because I could put more butter on. Strawberry jam is good – on top of the butter of course.

I have eaten in an enormous number of restaurants and hotels in quite a few countries of the world. Ownership and management of these places change through time, and chefs even more quickly, but places worthy of mention are Canberra International, Australia; Morangie House Hotel, Scotland and the Buçaco Palace Hotel, Portugal.

The Buçaco is the most recent we have visited, and I am sure the standard of the hotel will have been maintained, its own aged wines (although expensive) will still be in top class order, and the surroundings are magnificent. Napoleon’s troops suffered their first defeat in the Iberian Peninsula at the Battle of Buçaco. The Canberra International is remembered for its extensive menu, the quality of the food and the fact that the Head Waiter and Chef both went out of their way to provide for a seven year old boy who liked his food, knew what he wanted, and had what the Head Waiter said were “sophisticated tastes”. In fact it was him who suggested that the boy try a strawberry flambé and cooked it with great flair at the table. When we returned six weeks later the waiter said to him “I remember you sir.”  

Morangie House is situated in a beautiful part of Scotland not far from my favourite whisky distillery of Dalmore, and very close to my second favourite, Glenmorangie. There had recently been a fire in the kitchens when we were there and rented field kitchens were in use, but the food was still superb. The thing I remember most was that the hotel offered several of the better wines from their list as single glasses at the equivalent of the bottle price. I know most places offer wine by the glass but that is the only place where I have seen the better ones offered, and nowhere with such a wide choice. In the room was a bowl of fresh fruit, a carafe of sherry and some mints. The usual chocolate on the pillow too. Not a lot of extra cost to the hotel, and undoubtedly that cost is allowed for in the room charge, but just those little additional touches that all hotels could provide, but fail to do so.

I sometimes wonder if my wife and I are alone in enjoying our meals so much. I hear so often about people eating whilst watching TV or “eating on the go”. What a way to live, or more likely to cease living at a much younger age than necessary. Proper food is cheap, time for preparing and cooking it is minimal, enjoying eating it takes a little longer. It is possible to have a top rate meal on the table in under half an hour from entering the kitchen. Obviously you need the ingredients in the cupboards and/or refrigerator, but it really is that quick. Even urbanites would be hard pushed to pick up their car keys, go to the local takeaway and have the food on the table in less time.

Something else I have noticed in recent years is that people have stopped eating butter. On the rare occasion we have visited other people who know the way we eat, there is normally cheese and biscuits provided after dinner. At home we never have less than four cheeses nor six different biscuits. This is never reciprocated. I can live with that (provided there is a reasonable quantity of Port) but I cannot live without my butter. I sometimes just butter a piece of cheese and forego the biscuit. At other times I enjoy a piece of butter, placed under my tongue, and then draw Port through it. Delicious. People generally nowadays fail to eat enough animal fat and consume industrialised vegetable fats instead. Definitely not the way to live a long and happy life.