Stew: An Appreciation

Meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, maybe a bit of cabbage if you're feeling fruity. Stew is ace, and should be celebrated above the ubiquitous Pasta that has taken over Britain. Get cooking...
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They were not impressed. “It’s pink” they said. “It’s supposed to be pink” I replied. “But we’ve never heard of it”. Slowly, fatigued by the effort of cooking in a hot kitchen, I began to lose patience... My dinner guests had been served one of my finest offerings to date, an approximation of the North German delicacy Labskaus, a remarkable stew composed of salted meat, potatoes, onions and copious amounts of beetroot. Lovingly cooked for just under an hour, I’d gently fried the base and was serving it with the essential accompaniments of a fried egg, rollmop herrings, pickles and vodka to what seemed to be utter confusion.

Now my friends are not particularly ‘foodie’ people. But then nor, as many of them will attest, am I. Though their failure to appreciate what had been put in front of them, a simple well-cooked dish, unspectacular save for its colour, was very telling indeed of some of the strange thinking that has come to permeate our taste in food.

The British have come, relatively recently, to believe that in matters of food they are Italians who like the odd curry or piece of sushi. Like all the biggest changes, this delusion that we are culinary cousins of the Mediterranean is infrequently acknowledged and often ignored. But there can’t be many people left who eat pasta and cook with olive oil and view both as foreign products, alien to our shores. This is no bad thing, but it seems to have been to our detriment that we have replaced many of the traditional dishes of our country with those of others, rather than complementing them.

But hang on a minute, aren’t I simply condemning your overuse of Arborio rice and ricotta whilst praising the merits of another foreign cuisine? For all Labskaus is a foreign dish, its numerous cousins aren’t. Popular legend has it that sailors from Hamburg brought the dish to Liverpool where, give or take a few ingredients, it became known as Scouse - a name both for the food and the people who ate it. Just like the precise ingredients, the precise history of stews isn’t important or exciting.

The country can be divided into a fascinating map where Scouse turns to Lobbies turns to North Staffordshire Lobby to Lobscows to Caw

What is interesting is the way that stews have colonised Britain by migrant and movement, by road and canal; the way the industrial working day led to the slow cooking that produces the marvellous golden crust of hotpot. Like alternative postal districts, the country can be divided into a fascinating map where Scouse turns to Lobbies turns to North Staffordshire Lobby to Lobscows to Cawl according to what people had in the larder two hundred years ago. For all that regional differences get played up, it’s all much the same food, a cucina povera (Italian!) born of what was available when and what needed to be eaten. The approximate nature of stews mean they’re still great for this, perhaps even greater given that British households are estimated to throw out around a fifth of all their food, and can always take advantage of what’s available locally. But too often, we seem nowadays to find the once mundane somewhat esoteric.

One of the charges levelled at me in the kangaroo court of my Labskaus dodgers was that I had not followed any recipe. As we have come to regard food more as an event than mere fuel – a good thing I might add – so too have we become enslaved to following recipes, more often than not written by one of the ever-increasing proliferation of celebrity chefs. The extent to which their recipes dominate dinner parties and the like nowadays is quite frightening. It is a scientifically-proven fact that people cannot eat a meal made according to one of the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi without mentioning every three minutes that it has been made according to one of the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi. This is pretty weird behaviour, like listening to a Beatles album and saying after every track “that was produced by George Martin”.

The originator of and process behind a dish has come to be venerated much more than its resultant taste – a kind of spooky opposite to modern-day football with its obsession with results and results alone. But in the field of taste, stews rarely fail to play anything less than a blinder. Stews are impossible to get wrong. Too liquid and you call it a soup. Overdone and you claim to have been aiming for hotpot. One of the few ‘recipes’ for hotpot I’ve ever followed is that of the polymathic Lancastrian novelist Anthony Burgess (he never forgave Auberon Waugh for calling it ‘disgusting’). Always so precise in his choice of language, the recipe is brilliant in its refusal to supply anything as specific as definitive ingredients or cooking time. Always serve with pickled cabbage, mind.

The slow cooking that stews suit will tenderise the cheapest cuts of meat, somehow rendering the contents of the butcher’s dustbin into the gastronome’s best offal. For all this may seem deceitful, stews are often the most honest of dishes with the cheapest and simplest of ingredients (carrots, cabbage, leeks, spuds) realising their full potential. Their smoky, stodgy texture accompanies the British weather perfectly, the Italian summer being one of the few things along with piazzas (remember squares?) that we’ve failed to import successfully. So perhaps next time you’re in the kitchen why not ditch fashion and formula, stick a load of meat and veg in the pan and see what you come up with. I guarantee it will be brilliant.

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