Anything but sheepish at Meat Club Manchester #4

Butcher Lee Frost at Meat Club Manchester #4

Meat Club Manchester. I’ll be honest… they got me at the name… combining a no-nonsense northern sensibility with a degree of intrigue. It conjures up mental images of Brad Pitt and Ed Norton bound by secrecy, or a group of meat traders at New Smithfield Market getting together for a few beers. Conflate the two, add a splash of civility and a heady mix of cooked meat and good booze, and you’ve got some idea of what goes on at Meat Club.

Chef and local food authority Deanna Thomas and her husband Patrick started Meat Club at the start of this year, and it’s grown steadily from a small group in intimate beginnings to this, the fourth in the series. The premise is gloriously simple: invite a local butcher to demonstrate breaking down and preparing the meat of choice, cook and serve it there and then, paired with some great drinks and a heavy dose on conviviality. No standing on ceremony, and every chance to get one’s hands dirty. In one fell swoop it helps banish inhibitions, serves up a double whammy of education and entertainment and showcases great food and drink. All on a school night.

Deanna & Patrick Thomas from Meat Club Manchester

Meat Club #4 was held at the award-winning The Parlour on Beech Road in Chorlton. We arrived early but the venue quickly filled up for this private event, with around 50 guests there to enjoy the hottest carnivorous ticket in town that night… Chorlton butcher Lee Frost introducing us to the pleasures of spring lamb. As it was St George’s Day, the whole evening was themed around quality English fare, with drinks and expertise also on hand from Michael Bush of Nyetimber, and Toby McKenzie of Macclefield’s Redwillow.

If you don’t know him, Lee Frost (Frosty) is a staple on the Manchester food scene. W H Frost’s have an enviable reputation as a supplier of quality meat to many of the best-known restaurants in and around Manchester, and also from their shop in Chorlton. Frosty himself’s a larger than life character, and never one to miss a well-placed pun when it comes to meat, or indeed a well-deserved dig at the major supermarkets. If there was a local meat advocacy badge in the Scouts, Frosty would’ve had it… along with another for meat-based smut. He makes for a highly engaging and entertaining compere.

Frosty the Butcher cuts up cutlets and chops at Meat Club Manchester

For a bunch of reasons, life conspired against me going to either Meat Club #1 or #3, but I made it to #2, which was venison-themed and wonderful, again featured Frosty and his knife skills and razor-sharp, smut-edged banter. My better half had to duck out at short notice last time, so I was excited she was able to experience Meat Club herself this time. I reassured her the butchery was not terribly gory, it wasn’t a male-only preserve by any means, and the food would be delicious. Within half an hour of arriving, she was questioning that assertion as the offal flowed.

We enjoyed our first beer from Redwillow, a crisp and refreshing Headless Pale Ale, as the venue engorged like one of Frosty’s metaphors. Outside, faces pressed up to the plate glass windows, obviously curious as to what kind of private function had closed the venue for the evening and involved a sheep’s cadaver in the centre of the room.

Deanna gave a quick introduction, and then out came the offal. I’m a confirmed offal lover and enjoyed the trio of offally canapés: liver with a boozy red onion marmalade on pastry; gloriously spiced devilled kidneys on toast; and bacon-wrapped sweetbreads (glands in blankets?) paired with cauliflower purée. Mrs North is less convinced of the merits of variety meats. She took a short break and paced herself for the less icky bits. Meanwhile Frosty expertly broke down the lamb with his chopper, regaling the crowd with bon mots, impromptu sales pitches and a maelstrom of interesting facts about bits and cuts. Did you know lambs don’t have bellies (at least not as a cut of meat)? Instead, they have breasts, which extend down to their nethers. Insert punchline here…

Michael Bush from Nyetimber

After some audience participation butchery, it was time for a touch of sophistication with a glass of Nyetimber’s sparkling wine – in this case a glass of their 2008 Classic Cuvee – and an introductory talk from Mike about the history and ethos of the vineyard. The bubbles in the wine added to the general levity in the room, and reinforced the revelation that there’s a lot more to English sparkling wine than cheap jokes, cheap fizz, and episodes of The Apprentice. This was dry, fresh, crisp, held a hint of meadow fragrance, and was very refreshing. This wine would be ideally suited to a summer’s afternoon, accompanying the sounds of cricket or tennis and some freshly-picked fruit and cream… though we were more than happy to enjoy it in a crowded room in front of a half-dismembered carcass instead.

Mixing Redwillow ale & Nyetimber wine at Meat Club Manchester

As a local lad, Lee Frost made the case that Cheshire lamb (in this case the wonderfully-coiffured Texel, originally a Dutch breed) is perhaps the finest in the country. As a Northern Irishman now living in the Pennines, and having eaten some superb Cumbrian Herdwick lamb only the evening before, I’d hedge my bets, though there’s no denying this was one seriously tasty animal. I’d be hard-pushed to select a single best breed or location for lamb in this country, but we live in probably the best country in the world to enjoy this wonderful meat.

Lamb (and mutton) is possibly my favourite meat, and although I know its sometimes strong taste is divisive for more finicky eaters, it’s both a versatile dish and a very natural product. The mere thought of Barnsley chops and Scotch pies make my heart beat a little quicker. Unlike some other ‘farmyard’ meats, it’s hard to intensively rear lamb: if they go beyond suckling they’re naturally free range, and stay healthy and well-toned. Farming sheep is a good way of taking advantage of less productive land, and thus using the meat and wool is an excellent option to support local producers. It’s also part of our country’s shared history: from the upland landscapes, shaped by many hundreds of years of sheep farming, to the symbolic nature of the woolsack in parliament, the British Isles are defined at least as much by our ovine as bovine heritage.

Pink sheep near Livingston, Scotland

Living in Todmorden, astride the Lancs/Yorks border and the the middle of the Pennines, one is never far from the impact that the lowly sheep’s had on the social and cultural landscape of the north. It’s Lancashire hotpot to the west, and to the east is the rich legacy of the wool trade, on which Yorkshire’s wealth was largely founded before the Industrial Revolution. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of sheep in the UK, we don’t embrace how lucky we are to have such good produce on hand. These sceptr’d isles provide such a broad range of breeds and pastures that, if you’re able to source decent local lamb, it reflects the characteristics of the land it was raised in… the breed, the minerals in the soil, the grasses and herbs they graze on, and topography itself. That’s why a good piece of salt marsh lamb from Wales, Cumbria or Dungeness is a truly exquisite and uniquely British delight, as is the wilder flavour of a rare breed from an upland farm or croft. Why people buy New Zeland lamb, shipped halfway around the world, when they could enjoy superlative English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish lamb instead, is beyond me. Support local farmers and butchers, please… and take time to rediscover both the cheap cuts and posh joints which can come from a good bit of lamb.

Frosty the butcher cuts up lamb at Meat Club Manchester

As the main meat cuts were transformed into delicious morsels by The Parlour’s chef Paul and his team in the kitchen, it was hard to dispute this was a superb tasting beast. Delicate slivers of cannon, paired with parsnip purée; chargrilled herb and garlic cutlets, and nut-stuffed breast (not belly, as we now know) provided the meaty accompaniment to the central section of the evening. After nattering about the pleasures of tartare, and how good raw minced lamb can be in Lebanese dishes, Frosty finely diced up some Texel and let me try it. Even unenhanced by seasoning there was a beautifully light grassy flavour, and a sweet note to the meat without any metallic tang you might expect from raw meat. Bloody great.

As we quaffed an introductory bottle of the delightful and very moreable Wreckless Pale Ale, Toby from Redwillow stood up and gave an insight into their beers (I finally found out why they all have names with particular relevance to each type) and how to build an award-winning brewery almost by accident (although I think he’s rather self-effacing… from branding to product quality, this is a seriously professional outfit and they know exactly what they’re doing). We enjoyed a bottle of their Sleepless ale whilst scoffing cute little lamb kebabs and burgers at the close of the evening, before slightly squiffily chatting to others as the crowd dispersed contentedly into the cool night air.

A rapt audience at Meat Club Manchester

Incidentally, ram’s balls (or fries, as they’re more delicately known) were originally due to make an appearance on the menu, but Frosty explained the abattoir had dropped a bollock, so to speak, and so there was nothing testicular to accompany this young female lamb on the night. An audible ripple of relief resonated round the room upon this news…

I’d highly recommend Meat Club: you might never see as many cameraphones in action in one place as you will here, but it’s a great way to find out more about the journey from field to plate, taste great local food and drink, and to share those experiences with a bunch of others. It’s also getting more popular every month, and spaces go quickly. Wild boar’s next on the menu on the 29th at the Yard in Alderley Edge… more details on their website if you fancy some very boss hog…

Too good to stop eating

Feijoada – the ultimate pork and pulses dish?

feijoada-19

Ah, Feijoada: the national dish of Brazil, straddling the culinary and cultural tectonic plate boundaries of Africa, Europe and South America. Possibly the stoutest meal you’re likely to encounter, and enough to give any vegetarian a dose of the cold shivers.

Feijoada marries the southern European / Romance tradition of slow-cooked pork cuts and beans, but with the addition of west African and Amerindian flavours and techniques. It’s often described as originating from slave fare (the story being it was made up of scraps and offcuts of meat that plantation owners disregarded), but like many classic dishes comes loaded with myths and romanticised stories of its origin. Regardless, it reflects the melting pot culture of modern Brazil, which perhaps explains its extraordinary popularity across generation, class, race and region.

I vaguely remember reading about feijoada many years ago, amongst a glut of facts about Brazil gleaned from geography schoolbooks. At the time it didn’t really register…as a teenage boy I was focusing more on images of the impossibly gaudy and glamorous Carnaval and sugar cane-fuelled cars than meat-heavy dishes. A few years ago, as part of an impromptu South American-themed meal, a good friend brought her own version of feijoada, and that sparked my interest. Ever since I’ve resolved to make my own.

Regular readers are probably spotting a pattern here: yet another dish pairing pork products and pulses, and another opportunity to indulge in the joys of black pudding. Well yes, guilty as charged. And having access to some superb rare-breed pork from our friends at Porcus, I’m inclined to work my way through the world’s greatest pig ‘n’ bean dishes, one by one.

When it comes to feijoada there are a plethora of recipes out there. My well-thumbed go-to-guide for South American recipes, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi’s ‘The Art of South American Cooking‘, suggested one needs at least five types of pork in there, including the snout. Others suggest a bit of pork belly and sausage is enough. In the end I ploughed my own furrow, referencing recipes from the ever-enjoyable Flavours of Brazil blog and a smattering of others.

I’d previously procured a Tamworth tail and trotters (being able to source a pig tail generally points to it being raised ethically, as sadly most intensively-farmed pigs have their tails cut off) and had also set aside some artisan chorizo from the fabulous folk at Levanter Fine Foods. After visiting Miss South in Brixton, allowing me to pick up some genuine morcela de lamego from the wonderful Continental Deli on Atlantic Road, I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Here’s the final recipe: it took a day of preparation and cooking, but believe me, it was worth every minute.

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Keep taking the tablet…

dime tablet-2

Last weekend I found myself in the slightly retro experience of finding myself with half a can of evaporated milk needing used up. I haven’t eaten the stuff neat since childhood and even then I never particularly liked the slightly metallic taste. I generally prefer the toffee-ish tones of condensed milk and its sticky sweetness, and as a topping, I always preferred cream, so it seemed for a minute like I’d either be throwing it down the sink or finding out if squirrels like a spot of Carnation.

But then a conversation with the Lovely Scotsman reminded both of us about that peculiarly Scottish delicacy of tablet. Harder than fudge, sweeter than falling in a bag of pure caster sugar after being dipped in syrup and utterly lovely, it seemed like the perfect solution to my evaporated milk* dilemma. I prepared to roll up my sleeves and beat some molten sugar into submission when I espied that you can magic this sweetmeat up the modern way and do it in the microwave making it perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Tablet is usually served simply. Some even suggest that the addition of vanilla extract is too newfangled, but I’m no stickler for tradition so it seemed like a marvellous idea to add a Scandinavian twist and add some crunch to the tablet in the shape of some crushed up Daim bar. I thought the saltiness of it would work here without just copying the salted caramel trend.

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Brazilian wild duck à l’orange

Wild duck with forced rhubarb, blood orange, carrots and mash

Actually, this is a slightly misleading title. The duck wasn’t from Brazil (it was however, pretty wild, coming as it did from near Preston*), and it’s not your classic duck à l’orange either. But hey,  it was absolutely delicious, and as smooth and fluff-free as any Brazilian you’re likely to find in this country. Let me explain…

The game season somewhat passed me by this year: I’ve placed a few bits and pieces in the freezer which will make an appearance for a special occasion, but have been lacking in feathered friends to feast upon. So when a friend contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in a wild duck, I jumped at the chance. I’d have been quackers not to…

He explained once of his colleagues is a wildfowler, so at this time of year he often comes into work with a bunch of mallards in the back of his car. This particular specimen was a very fine fellow… a good weight, beautiful plumage, cleanly shot. I was very grateful, but after taking receipt realised I’d have to pluck the bugger. I left it hanging for a couple of days in a cool place, and put the plucking to the back of my mind as a busy working week flew by.

Wild duck, hanging

I’d picked up a handful of wonderful blood oranges from Bill the greengrocer in Todmorden Market in late January, along with my perennial local favourite, Yorkshire forced rhubarb. These wonderfully seasonal delights sat for a few days at home, teasing me as I mulled over what they’d be best used with. I really fancied pairing the two of them for something lip-smackingly tart and sweet, inspired by Miss South’s award-winning Bloody Old Lady marmalade from last year (which, despite rationing, I sadly finished last month).

Beautiful blood oranges

So when the mallard popped up I thought a simple compote would provide the perfect foil its wild gamey flavour. All I did was to roughly chop the rhubarb stalks, halve the orange segments, add a tablespoon or two of Demerara sugar and a splash of cloudy apple juice, then heat for a couple of hours with a cinnamon stick and a couple of star anise. After some gentle cooking the fruit fell apart into pastel strands, its sharpness balanced by the spices and a touch of sweetness. That made for a lovely dessert with some natural yoghurt

Cue Saturday night, when I’d promised to cook for my better half, and I suddenly realised I needed a foolproof method to denude the bird. Not fancying a messy pluck in the darkness outside, I stumbled on a video of this unconventional technique from the ever-reliable Hank Shaw from Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.

Rather than describing the technique in great detail, I recommend watching the video. But in brief, once you’ve removed the main feathers from the duck, rather than getting caught up in a maelstrom of down, you dip the carcass in a cocktail of hot water  and melted paraffin wax.  I had to improvise a bit (using half a bar of my favourite Fjällräven Greenland wax… is this the first time it’s been used in the kitchen, or does that proud Swedish hunting tradition mean it’s a regular culinary assistant in the frozen north?) but the whole process was dead easy.

Once the down was coated in a thin film of wax I yanked it straight out and plonked it into a bucket of icy water. Like magic (in fact, like Ice Magic, if anyone remembers that) the whole thing sets into a hard shell around the carcass. Removing the final shell of wax and down was as easy as peeling an orange… and it left skin as clean and dimpled as one too. A DIY wildfowl Brazilian… plucking brilliant!

I only used the breasts, which I delicately removed and rubbed with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, before sealing and searing it in my newly seasoned Mermaid** skillet. I’d had wild duck breasts a couple of weeks before at El Gato Negro Tapas, where the head chef, Simon Shaw, had recommended they needed to be treated with a delicate touch so they wouldn’t overcook and lose their flavour and texture. As we like our meat rare, I flashed them for a couple of minutes in the pan, then rested them for at least twice as long.

There was just time to plate up the veg – a simple selection of creamy parsley mash and some Vichyssoise carrot batons – then I sliced the duck. The deep magenta meat quivered almost as much as I did as I spooned the spiced winter fruit over it… the aroma was stunning and it looked as pretty as a picture. Thankfully the taste was equally good… incredibly tender, rich duck was given a light kick from the sharp, spiced notes of the rhubarb and blood orange. Accompanied by a bottle of Spanish red (a delightful Quinta Milú Ribera del Duero from Hangingditch) this was the perfect dish for a freezing cold January night… seasonal, (mostly) local, and bursting with wonderfully rich, complimentary flavours. I can’t recommend it highly enough; indeed I might open a salon to wax the local wildfowl population on a more regular basis…

* Wild? I was absolutely livid
*
* Disclosure: I unexpectedly won this in a Christmas Blogger’s Challenge for my Tongue’n’Cheek pudding… hurray!

toad in the hole

Tadpoles in the Hole

toad in the hole

It’s been cold and grey recently with even snow on the ground and a chill in the air and I’ve wanted warm, filling food, rich with carbs and comfort to see me through. A recent trip to Waitrose to get ox cheek from their butchery counter to make Mister North’s famous tongue and cheek pudding also resulted in the purchase of a lovely jar of beef dripping and so my mind immediately thought of Yorkshire puddings or a proper toad in the hole. But sadly my house was sausage-less and I thought such delights would have to wait for another day when I suddenly thought ‘could you make it with meatballs instead?’

My dinner companion assured me that would work very nicely indeed and because he’s wittier than me, named it Tadpoles in the Hole before I’d even rolled my sleeves up to roll the meatballs. How could you not want to eat a meal with a name like that? The oven went on to get lovely and hot to make sure my batter rose well and I turned my attention to the meatballs.

I used turkey mince for mine as it was the first draw on my game of freezer roulette, but any relatively lean meat would work well. I mixed the meat with some breadcrumbs and added lemon zest and tarragon as I had both to hand, but your seasonings here are only limited by your imagination. Some chilli would have been just the ticket here actually and I do love black olives and parmesan in a meatball. Whatever you go for, roll your meatballs nice and small so you get one in every bite of batter and chill for at least half an hour first. You’ll also need to leave your batter to sit for about this long so plan ahead slightly and then this is a very simple dish to assemble and cook.

It also works fabulously well with a caramelised onion gravy which if you have a bit of extra time to spare, but is extremely good served naked as well. I tend to slow cook a big batch of onions at a time and then freeze them in portions so you don’t need to wait on them turning sticky sweet and golden every time you need them.

Tadpoles in the Hole (serves 4)

For the meatballs:

  • 250g lean mince
  • 125g breadcrumbs
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 25g chopped tarragon
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten

For the batter:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 150ml milk
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 2 tablespoon beef dripping

For the gravy:

  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 25g butter
  • pinch demarara sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 300ml stock (vegetable or animal, depending on your meat choice)
  • 100ml vermouth or wine (replace with more stock if you don’t have any)
  • generous dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • seasoning

Start with your onions for the gravy. Slice them into half moons and cook in the butter on a low heat for about 30 minutes on a low heat or until soft and just starting to colour. If there is liquid coming off them, drain it and keep for the gravy as it’s pure onion flavour. Add in the sugar and leave to cook for about another 45 minutes. They need no attention (I went off and watched an episode of Breaking Bad which meant I wouldn’t have noticed the kitchen going on fire) but to properly caramelise an onion til jammy and golden takes time. If you do extra, they freeze well and take only a few seconds in a microwave to defrost.

Try not to become utterly fixated by the do it yourself meth trade while your onions are cooking, and start on your batter instead. Resting it really does make a difference, making it much lighter and fluffier and rise better. I presume this is something to do with the gluten. But I like to think it’s a reward for patience. The batter is easy, put everything but the beef dripping into a bowl and mix til the consistency of double cream. The odd slight bump in the batter doesn’t matter as mixing it too much can make it flop. Leave to rest on the worktop til needed.

Your meatballs also like a rest before dinner and are similarly simple. I love rolling them, I find it very relaxing and the longer you chill them for the less they fall apart when cooking. They are so easy to make, it’s also worth doing a freezer batch while you’re there. Basically put everything but the egg in a bowl and mash together well with your hands to combine everything. Then add the egg a bit at a time, making sure the mix isn’t too wet and mix well. Then roll about a fork’s worth at a time into a meatball and chill til needed. Doing them with this proportion of breadcrumbs makes them very light and stretches the meat a longer way making this great value.

raw meatballs

When you’re ready to eat, put the meatballs in your dish and add the dripping and heat for at least ten minutes or until it is smoking hot. Hot fat may be mildly terrifying, but it’s the secret of a pillowy billowing batter. Pour your batter in carefully from the edge so you don’t cause the meatballs to float and pop into the oven as fast as possible and leave it to cook for 40 minutes. On pain of death, don’t open your oven door again before then or you’ll end up with a giant pancake with meatballs poking out forlornly.

Make your gravy about 10 minutes before by adding the plain flour to the buttery onions and cook til quite dry. Then add in the warm stock, including those onion juices and the wine if using, and stir until it starts to thicken. Season and add the Worcestershire sauce. Add more liquid if you like it less thick. This gravy can be adapted to be veggie or vegan if you use oil and tamari instead if you need a meat free gravy at some point.

When your tadpoles are completely cooked and the hole is puffy and golden and slightly quivering with its own self importance, serve big slices of it with lashing of gravy and heaps of peas (garden or mushy) on the side and give fervent thanks for cold weather. As comforting as eating a hot water bottle, this is deliciously decadent with the meat to batter ratio and a great twist on a old favourite. It’s just as well we’ve got a north wind coming in…

portion