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.
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.