Min­eral magic

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - from res­i­dent chef Jack­son Boxer

Ev­ery sum­mer of my child­hood my par­ents would de­camp to the Outer He­brides. It seems a cu­ri­ous move in ret­ro­spect, to wait un­til the one part of the year the south of Eng­land was guar­an­teed to be warm and sunny, and elect to re­lo­cate some­where cer­tain to be much colder and wet­ter. But any­one who’s stood on dunes above the He­bridean machair look­ing out over grey waves crash­ing against those long beaches of white sands, de­posited over mil­lions of years from the Gulf of Mex­ico, will un­der­stand the ir­re­sistible call of that wild, un­spoiled beauty.

One of the cu­ri­ous idio­syn­cra­sies of the Outer He­brides is that, while the weather is of­ten typ­i­fied by the cold winds and lash­ing rain, in­ter­spersed with oc­ca­sional re­mark­able heat and baro­met­ric calm, the Gulf Stream along the is­lands’ west coasts makes the sea re­mark­ably warm, rel­a­tively speak­ing. As a re­sult, we spent an aw­ful lot of time in it ... and it spent an aw­ful lot of time in us: sea­wa­ter, once it has got in your mouth, your ears, up your nose, is re­mark­ably per­sis­tent, and the mem­ory of the mouth-fill­ing taste of that wa­ter, so burst­ing with life, and also some­how the sug­ges­tion of death, is one I can re­call with ab­so­lute clar­ity.

I adore min­eral wa­ter. Noth­ing ex­cites me on ar­riv­ing some­where hot and ex­otic as much a bot­tle of sparkling wa­ter. We never drank it at home grow­ing up, and the taste and tex­ture of the hard, saline fizz in my mouth feels, as a re­sult, dis­tinctly glam­orous and in­nately thrilling. It is pre­cisely the same sen­sual shock as div­ing into the cold sea, and the more pro­found the min­er­al­ity, the more I en­joy it.

Min­er­al­ity is a mer­cu­rial con­cept in cui­sine, and peo­ple of­ten mean very dif­fer­ent things by it. In wine, it can re­fer to a stony qual­ity with lit­tle fruit and brac­ingly acidic pro­files, which of­ten leave you with the pleas­ant sen­sa­tion of hav­ing re­freshed your­self by run­ning your tongue over the cool rocks of a river bed. I love this style of wine, for the very rea­son that I love min­eral wa­ter, swim­ming in the sea, and eat­ing fish.

It is also a qual­ity I find traces of in grass-fed meat. I may as well lay my cards on the ta­ble and say that I have never en­joyed a sin­gle ex­am­ple of corn-fat­tened flesh I’ve ever tasted. I find even Ja­panese wagyu, sup­pos­edly the deca­dent peak of lux­u­ri­ant steak, to be flabby, flac­cid, and faintly nau­se­at­ing. Grass-fed an­i­mals, which have spent their lives study­ing the ground, sniff­ing and lick­ing, roam­ing about to look for the choic­est clumps, ul­ti­mately of­fer meat that’s leaner and – let’s face it – tougher. But they also show, to my mind, in­fin­itely more depth, char­ac­ter and flavour. There is a sub­tle el­e­men­tal clar­ity, a way of fill­ing the mouth with a flavour not just of meat, but of ev­ery var­ied green shoot and blade they’ve ever chewed, which to me makes the fraught ethics of slaugh­ter­ing an­other crea­ture for sus­te­nance just about worth­while.

On top of work­ing only with grass-fed an­i­mals, I gen­er­ally look for ex­ag­ger­ated ex­am­ples of the above qual­i­ties by sourc­ing hardy, slow-grow­ing and ma­ture live­stock to butcher. The Herd­wick breed of sheep, which can be dated back to the 12th cen­tury, and which was al­most an­ni­hi­lated by foot-and-mouth in the 1990s, is a won­der­ful ex­am­ple, ca­pa­ble of living out on the Cum­brian hills year round, sus­tain­ing it­self en­tirely on for­age, and tast­ing most mag­nif­i­cently wild and pro­found. Try it in the recipe be­low.

Herd­wick neck, yeasted cau­li­flower and pur­ple sprout­ing broc­coli

Ask your butcher for the neck fil­let of a ma­ture lamb, or hogget if mut­ton is un­avail­able. The cau­li­flower has the same com­fort­ing depth of flavour as a well-made cau­li­flower cheese, but is less cloy­ing or heavy, and won­der­fully quick and easy to make. I make cau­li­flower cheese with co­pi­ous

amounts of mus­tard and tongue-blis­ter­ing ched­dar, but I’ve come to pre­fer this puree, es­pe­cially with lamb.

Serves 4

1.6kg cau­li­flower (roughly 2 heads) 150g but­ter, plus more for fry­ing 20g dry yeast 150ml milk 1 tsp salt, plus a lit­tle ex­tra 2 mut­ton or hogget neck fil­lets 250g pur­ple sprout­ing broc­coli Rape­seed oil

1 Heat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Trim the cau­li­flower of leaves, then break it down by hand by tear­ing off the flo­rets and pulling them apart, till they’re in roughly 1cm pieces. Chop the stems into slices of sim­i­lar size, or use a grater.

2 Dice the but­ter, add it to a heavy pan on a high heat, and add the cau­li­flower, the yeast, and around 1 tsp salt. Stir con­stantly as the cau­li­flower first sweats, then browns, then col­lapses en­tirely. At this point some of the but­ter will sep­a­rate out, and can be poured away. Add the milk, and keep stir­ring as it re­turns to tem­per­a­ture, then trans­fer it to a blen­der for blitz­ing, or a chi­nois for pass­ing. It should have the tex­ture of very smooth mashed potato. The brown­ing process brings out the cau­li­flower’s be­guil­ing sweet­ness and nut­ti­ness, and the yeast bal­ances this with a pro­nounced savour and an ap­petis­ing sug­ges­tion of bit­ter­ness.

3 Salt the fil­lets all over, put them in a fry­ing pan with 50g foam­ing but­ter, and slowly roll them to brown on all sides for 5 min­utes or so. When thor­oughly brown, put them in the oven for 5 min­utes, re­move, and rest.

4 Heat a dry skil­let over a hot flame till hazy. Toss the broc­coli in oil and a pinch of salt, then de­posit in a pan. It should start to soften and char af­ter 10 sec­onds or so. Toss it around the pan for 30 sec­onds, and re­move.

Car­rots, kohlrabi tops, an­chovy

I cook a lot with an­chovy: I use it at home like one might use a stock cube. I think an­chovies’ savoury prop­er­ties are once again as highly re­garded here as they have been in many other cul­tures th­ese past mil­len­nia: take, for ex­am­ple, the fer­mented fish sauces of South-east Asia and the Ro­man garum. I also like their al­chem­i­cal magic – they trans­form from a wa­tery, marine el­e­ment to a rich, earthy one when cooked with fruits of the soil.

Serves 4 as a side

500g but­ter 50g high-qual­ity, salted an­chovies (not the aw­ful chewy, whiskery lit­tle slugs you find in do­mes­tic tins) 25g peeled fresh gar­lic, pasted 1 large bunch of fresh car­rots 1 large bunch/10 kohlrabi tops 100g sour­dough crumbs Olive oil or cold­pressed rape­seed oil, enough to coat the crumbs - about 50ml 5g lemon zest

1 Melt the but­ter in a gratin dish. Mean­while, mince the an­chovies and gar­lic. Stir into the molten but­ter. Pre­heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Top, trim and rinse car­rots. Add to your dish and coat in the but­ter, then put in the oven for 15 min­utes.

2 Blanch the tops of kohlrabi, beet­root, or chard (or any dark leaf not so del­i­cate as spinach nor ro­bust at kale) in salted wa­ter for 2 min­utes.

3 Toss some sour­dough crumbs in oil, and put on a flat tray in the oven with the car­rots. Check af­ter 10 min­utes to en­sure even brown­ing – no more than golden and nutty. You want to re­tain some bite to the car­rots.

4 Re­move the car­rots to a warm bowl, toss through with the tops. Whisk the but­ter, an­chovy and gar­lic to break up and dis­perse the soft­ened sed­i­ment, then pour it over the con­tents of the bowl. Fin­ish with the warm crumbs.

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