Iteration 2: Thom Eagle cooks Elisabeth Luard
Rollmops, herring and Sebald
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Ok, it may just be the chefs I’ve chosen and the ones who could file their copy the quickest, but it’s amusing that two iterations into this cookbook season and there is already a pattern emerging of acclaimed chefs reverting back to peasant cooking. Or maybe they just thought who else but Vittles will publish recipes as untrendy as beans and weeds, and rollmops? Of course, everything is cyclical and everything comes back on trend eventually. Twenty, thirty years ago and it was just common knowledge that John Lennon was the best Beatle, and you felt his influence on his swaggering imitators. Now, we all know that the correct answer is actually Paul, and the music changes accordingly. I happily await the Ringo era in anticipation.
It’s no mistake that it took a whole generation for the ideas of Patience Gray and Elisabeth Luard to be fully absorbed. Both released their most famous cookbooks in 1986, coincidentally around the same time both the chefs writing about them were born. In those 30 or so years there has been a reckoning in British food culture, or rather a series of reckonings. The first was the rising influence of the ‘simpler’ food from Italy and Spain, and an appreciation (veering on fetishisation) of their food cultures. The second was the realisation that much of Britain’s own peasant traditions were lying dormant, and needed to be picked up again. Many ascribe the awakening to Fergus Henderson’s first St. John book, but I would posit another writer whose first book was also written in 1986. Was Brian Jacques and his Redwall series actually the most influential food writing of our generation? I would say: look at the children who grew up reading them.
That, however, is another newsletter for another time.
Iteration 2: Thom Eagle cooks Elisabeth Luard
Elisabeth Luard’s European Peasant Cookery is the same age as me, although it feels older. All text and line drawings and equipment lists, flicking through it looks like an Elizabeth David or a Patience Gray, although lacking perhaps the patrician tone of one, the witchiness of the other; like both, it is, above all, practical. A little recipe for Provençal devilled peppers nestles alongside one for making 25 kilograms of sauerkraut in a well-scrubbed wooden barrel, and the way they sit there, each clearly described, makes either equally possible – as soon as you have bought a barrel, of course. Although short, bright essays dot the text – on bouillabaisse, on pig slaughter, on mushroom picking – the real poetry of the book comes in the recipes, in unexpected juxtapositions. They are arranged by ingredient and technique rather than by country, with recipes jumping across borders of nationality and time. Greek trahana pasta – one of the earliest known in Europe, with dried remains in ancient Knossos – follows the Hungarian tarhonya, and you see they are the same.
Before she was a food writer, Luard was, among other things, a wildlife artist, producing rapid watercolour sketches of birds on the wing, a habit she still continues. I have a portrait of myself cooking that she drew when she came into Littleduck a few years ago, and gifted me by way of a tip. If I say that the recipes in EPC have something of this sketch-like quality it is not to say that they are imprecise but rather that they are made to be worked with, to engage the reader as an active participant in the folk process of cooking with as little interference as possible. Some looseness, of course, is inevitable; as Luard says in her introduction, “one might say that as soon as a recipe has been written down it has … been compromised, that the fixing of what is of necessity fluid and adaptable has already changed its nature”. Try telling an Italian that their recipes are fluid and adaptable, you might think, but the fact of the matter is that writing a recipe is a form of translation, from a physical act to a verbal record. Something might always be lost in that process, but just the fact of acknowledging that loss – the imprecision of our technical language, the allowance for differences in ingredient and utensil – can let us find it again, or something new.
One of the appealing things about EPC as a collection is that it gives as much of its time to northern Europe as it does to the more fashionably rustic Mediterranean countries. A section on ‘small fish’ dealing exclusively with the various grilled, fried and pickled preparations of Greece and of the Iberian Peninsula is immediately preceded by a number of recipes for herring drawn from the cooking of Holland, of Sweden, of Scotland and of Germany. Plump, oily and in their abundant season as I write this, herring are a fish which have long held a special fascination for me (I have one tattooed on my left arm), largely I think due to a lengthy passage on them in WG Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn. I read it while living and working in the East Anglian landscape he travels in and describes, and where until the last century a vast herring industry prevailed through cycles of astonishing gluts and poverty. The fish are transient, pelagic. “The routes the herring take through the sea have not been ascertained to this day”, Sebald writes, and so folk knowledge has played a huge part in this industrial enterprise, which involved an equal effort on land as sea to gut and prepare the fish. The freshness of herring is transient too, its flesh prone more than most to decay, and so it is almost always eaten preserved in one way or another: dry-salted, brined or pickled.
When I decided to try pickling some into rollmops, it was EPC I naturally turned to first. It’s that kind of book, although I think even on that first attempt I didn’t follow the recipe properly. In fact, I didn’t even make rollmops at all. Motivated by a number of reasons, but chiefly by an unwillingness to fillet a box of herring, I pickled the fish cleaned and beheaded but left whole on the bone, which made the process take twice as long with and made them impossible to roll into mops, mops referring in German to a pug dog, presumably in allusion to their roly-poly appearance. I did follow Luard’s instructions, as almost every old cookbook will tell you and almost no contemporary one will, to soak the fish in a strong wet brine before its immersion in vinegar, left pure and unsweetened. The result was reminiscent of the herrings you get in delis and in the Polish sections of supermarkets, as of course it should be. The recipe is in that sense correct. To my mouth, though, the bloating effect of the brine gave the pickled flesh a too-pappy texture, which alongside the strong taste of the herring’s oils and of sharp white vinegar is simply not pleasant to eat in quantity. An overnight cure of dry salt and sugar, I found, kept the flesh firm even after a week or more in sweetened vinegar, a method tallying almost exactly with that of the St John cookbook, which I wrote down in Summer’s Lease.
Now, a year after testing that recipe, I have changed my mind again. Through our first lockdown and now again I have been with the Goods Shed farmers’ market in Canterbury as they try to keep their supply chains open, preserving, fermenting and pickling the produce the restaurant could no longer sell. This includes, now especially, a great number of herrings. I use a pure cure of grey sea salt now, and sit the fillets in them for just an hour before rinsing, drying, rolling and pickling the little fish in cider vinegar alongside slices of onion and carrot, coriander, mustard and lovage seeds, sometimes a little fresh chilli. They last better like this, I think, and the contrast between the firmly cured flesh and the sweet vinegar is very pleasing. Only the fish and the salt, really, remain from Luard’s recipe, which is just as it should be; it was never hers to begin with.
some cocktail sticks.
8 herrings (or sardines if you can’t get them), butterflied (get the fishmonger to do this)
100g fine sea salt
500ml cider vinegar
A couple of tablespoons of mixed pickling spices, like mustard seed, coriander seed, celery seed and pepper
1 white onion, halved and sliced in thin half-moons
1 carrot, peeled and sliced very thinly
1 red chilli, finely sliced
2 bay leaves
Sprinkle half the salt in a container, lay the herring fillets over it, and sprinkle over the other half. Give them a little rub and roll to make sure they’re well coated. Put in the fridge for an hour and a half.
Meanwhile, heat the vinegar, sugar and spices gently together, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring briefly to the boil and let cool completely.
Rinse the salt off the herring and pat dry. If you have time, leave them uncovered in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight: it really helps the texture.
When you’re ready, roll each herring round a slice or two of onion and secure with a cocktail stick. Layer them up in a tub or jar with the carrot, chilli and bay leaves, then pour over the cold vinegar and tuck over a piece of baking parchment to keep it all tidy. Leave to pickle in the fridge for a week, then eat at your leisure.