Checkout Workers, I Salute You (with cranberry sauce)

This post is dedicated to everybody who worked on supermarket tills over Christmas, and maintained their good humour while all around them lost their cool at the crowded aisles, the effort and the expense. In particular this post is dedicated to the woman with bronze-coloured cornrows and a Caribbean accent the absolute opposite of winter, who was working at the local Tesco when I did my Christmas shop.

She put my fresh cranberries through the scanner and asked me what I do with them. Thinking they looked delicious she had bought a punnet for lunch and tried eating them raw. Of course they were hard, sour and an all round disappointment. It’s a natural mistake to make. They look gorgeous: redder than strawberries, shiny as cherries, bite-size as blueberries. The fruit that combined all those qualities would be a wonderful thing.

raw cranberries

Sweet to behold, sour on the tongue.

I explained I had bought the cranberries to make a sauce with sugar and orange peel and… but there was a big queue of shoppers inching their trolleys towards me in a menacing fashion and I couldn’t go into detail. So here’s the full version. Too late for Christmas Day, but not too late to have with turkey left-overs, or cheese on toast, or ham, or cold venison, or even porridge – I had it with porridge this morning along with a dollop of cream and some golden syrup. Greedy, but it’s only the third day of Christmas…

IMPORTANT: this is a sour, tangy sauce and nowhere near as sweet as the sauce you get in jars. If you want something that sweet you will need to double or even triple the sugar. Which might be spoiling good cranberries.

300g fresh cranberries
2 small eating apples
1 large orange
75g golden caster sugar*
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice

cranberry sauce ingredients

Raw sauce. Those chunks of apple are bigger than they ought to be.

Wash the fruit. Peel and core the apples and chop them into cranberry-sized pieces. Carefully peel the orange with a vegetable parer so you end up with one long, thin strip.

Squeeze the orange juice into a pan, and add the orange peel, apple pieces and cranberries. Stir in the sugar and spice.

Heat gently until the mixture is just simmering and cover. Heat, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop at uneven intervals like slow-motion popcorn. The sauce is ready when the apples are soft and all the cranberries have popped.

Fish out the orange peel and transfer the sauce to a serving dish. Let it cool, then keep it in the fridge. If you keep it covered it should be good for the rest of the Christmas season.

cranberry sauce.

Sauce. Good with all manner of things cooked and raw. Spoon it on.

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If you love her… say it with oysters

When you’re planning, or hoping, to spend the night with someone, do you also plan breakfast?

Roy does. Roy works at Whitstable fish market, shucking oysters for greedy tourists like me. I met him last summer when a friend and I were at the market buying crab sandwiches. The sandwiches were sold from a utilitarian glazed counter by a stone-faced woman in a gingham overall and a paper hat. Roy’s stall opposite was a brightly painted wooden cart topped with an elaborate display of ice, lemons and shellfish. Roy himself was in an apron and baseball cap (and T-shirt and trousers) and had a big grin. We were drawn in.

It was July and I asked Roy about the rule that says “Never eat oysters if there isn’t an R in the name of the month”. According to him when it comes to Irish oysters the rule doesn’t really apply. Also according to him the famous Whitstable oysters are pitifully small and nothing special. So we ordered an oyster chaser to the crab sandwiches.

While Roy shucked the oysters – without looking at the oysters or the knife – he shared a surprising amount of information. He grew up in London. He had worked in the hotel industry for forty years. This was the first time in his life he had lived by the sea. He had retired but gone back to work because he was bored. And this was the best breakfast he knew for impressing a ‘lady’:

Roy’s oyster breakfast
Serves 2

fresh (i.e. baked that morning) baguette
butter
1 dozen fresh oysters
lemon
port
Guinness

Cut chunks of bread and spread with butter.

Cut the lemon into wedges.

Shuck the oysters.

Put a small glass of port into each of two pint glasses. Fill to the brim with Guinness.

Arrange bread, oysters and Guinnes on a tray and eat in bed.

If anyone served me this breakfast I would be seriously impressed. Quite apart from the effort it would take to get all the ingredients together if you didn’t happen to be a professional oyster shucker who lives down the road from a good French bakery, and apart from the fact it would taste good and be fun to eat, it has, to me, a really attractive combination of qualities: simple sophistication (oysters!) contrasted with outrageously earthy hedonism (Guinness and port! for breakfast!). I suspect Roy made a few ladies very happy in his youth. Perhaps he still does. Good on him.

oyster shells

The Hungarian Mangalica pig: a love-eat relationship

Though brought up in England I am genetically 75% Eastern European and thus have an innate love of pork. Shopping for ham the other day my eye was drawn instead to a rack of cured sausages. And then to the red-white-and-green Pick logo on a Mangalica Hungarian Paprika Sausage at the back. I bought it, of course.

Pick label

Mangalica Paprika Sausage

It was completely delicious but not the sausage I have always associated with Pick.

Every year throughout my childhood, just before Christmas my Hungarian great-grandmother sent my family a case of red wine, several boxes of chocolate, and one large Pick salami. My father gorged happily on the chocolate. The wine was saved for visitors. The salami, for my sister, my mother, the dachshunds and I, was an object of desire.

Hungarian winter salami

The salami was over a metre long. It came wrapped in cellophane, boldly decorated with the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag. Stapled at the top was a loop of sturdy string and this was used to hang the salami, reverently, on one of the higher hooks on the dresser. Here it could be admired by everyone at the dining table, and the dogs, who lay gazing up at it with wide, moist eyes.

Unwrapping and first tasting usually took place in the week before Christmas, on a day when my mother had brought home poppy seed rolls. We sat around the table with rolls broken and thickly buttered. I stood on a chair, brought the salami down from its hook and laid it on the sacrificial table alongside a large wooden board and a sharp knife. At this point there was some debate between my sister and me over the unwrapping of the cellophane. She favoured removing it in strips to preserve the festive colours for as long as possible. I, guided by a wholly imaginary mental image of a Hungarian farmhouse kitchen, felt it would be more correct to remove the cellophane altogether. Usually my mother tore it off while we were still discussing it.

Now came the first slice, through the dusty papery skin, and into the deep red meat, evenly flecked with clean white fat. This slice was important. It was too thick to put on bread and included the twisted chewy end. It was a desirable prize and one my sister and I argued over. The only consolation for the loser was that if they kept their wits about them they would have a strong claim on the other end, a metre and roughly a fortnight away. The first slice, whether it was the end slice or not, was an intense experience. When you slice salami yourself you can’t help creating a slice ten or even twenty times the thickness of a supermarket slice. Our slices were so thick and chewy that they induced a contemplative state. This was always one of the most peaceful moments in the run-up to Christmas.

Unwrapping never took place at a regular mealtime. It could happen after a particularly long dog walk, a tiresome shopping trip, or on a Saturday morning for ‘second breakfast’. Throughout the life of the salami we continued to eat it in this ad hoc fashion. At that time our living room was on the first floor, so my sister or I would go on mad gallops downstairs during TV ad breaks to fulfil each other’s orders: “one piece of toast with butter and two slices”, “two pieces of toast with no butter and three slices”, or “just some slices, four or six, with the paper left on”. I think the reason the salami never became part of regular meal-times was that it just tasted too good. Nothing really goes with it, or to put it another way, there’s almost nothing you can eat with it that improves the flavour*. Bread has some practical advantages though. Chewy rolls and butter slow you down, and toast gently warms the salami, softening the fat and releasing more flavour.

The Hungarian name for this particular style of salami is téliszalámi, meaning ‘winter salami’. This is because the salami was traditionally cold-cured – that is hung in cold air while being gently smoked. The filling is finely chopped Mangalica meat and fat mixed with white pepper, allspice and garlic. What my sister and I thought of as ‘the paper’ is actually sausage casing which grows a white, powdery mould during the curing process. The fact you ideally make this salami in winter when the air is cool gives a new resonance to the fact we were given it as a Christmas present. Perhaps my great-grandmother was continuing a family tradition.

Thanks to the label on the sausage that caught my eye at the supermarket I have now realised it wasn’t just the curing and flavouring of the salami that made it good, so much as the meat (and fat) itself. The pig that went into the sausage and the winter salami was a “curly haired Mangalica pig”. The label went on to explain that “there are relatively few registered Mangalica livestock which means a limited number of these special sausages are produced”. I spent twenty minutes this morning (over breakfast of thickly-sliced paprika sausage on toast) looking up the Mangalica online, and to my horror and delight found out that this is not only a very delicious animal but also very charming. I am a committed meat-eater – I think meat-eating is human nature, or to put it another way something most people will do when they get the chance and can afford it – but this animal made me question my position for a few minutes at least.

They have curly woolly coats:

Lovely curls

They have intelligent, cheerful faces:

Louie the eunuch

They really love mud:

Mangalica (Mangalitza) pigs

The piglets can be spotted:

Spotted piglet

Or, like wild boar piglets, even striped:

Redhead baby piggy

Of course, the Mangalica would not exist if pork-loving Hungarians had not bred it in the first place. That spotty boar-like piglet coat made me wonder if they might be quite an ancient breed. The answer is yes and no. The wild boar is not a very distant ancestor of the Mangalica but it is a grandparent, or great-grandparent rather than a parent.

Until the nineteenth century Hungarian pigs lived much like their wild boar ancestors. They ranged semi-wild and semi-free over the unimproved pasture, forests and marshes of the great Hungarian plain and up into the Carpathians, chomping on undergrowth, acorns and beech mast until they were two years old.

Fotothek df tg 0007816 Jagdwesen ^ Jagd ^ Schwein

At this point they were rounded up and brought back to the farm to be slaughtered. The meat was free-range and organic, and no doubt tasty but also tough and lean. There was a market for a fattier, faster-growing pig, more suited to curing and sausage-making and the royal Archduke József set out to create one at his Kisjenõ estate. József crossed the tough and hardy native Bakonyi (I don’t speak Hungarian but that name is surely no coincidence) and Szalontai pigs with a lardier Serbian breed called the Sumadija.

The resulting Mangalica was a pig with a prodigious capacity for putting on fat. Mangalicas were grazed outdoors on grass and stubble for about a year, then put on an intensive diet of barley and maize. Fed in this way, by the time they were two years old and ready to be slaughtered they could weigh up to 200kg. That’s a lot of lard. One of the biggest fattening farms was in Szeged, and it was there, with the help of migrant workers from Italy that the Pick salami-making business was set up in 1869. The Mangalica was first choice for salami-making for the next sixty years at least.

But times and tastes change and in the 1950s Mangalica numbers dropped. I haven’t been able to find a clear explanation of this. Maybe more alternative fats to lard became available. Maybe Mangalica pigs didn’t do as well in collective farms as other breeds. Or maybe people were more interested in obtaining fresh meat than preserved, lard-rich meat. But whatever the reason for the decline there is no need to panic – the Mangalica is on the rise again. It has been imported to the US and the UK to be kept as a pet and as livestock but more importantly it’s having a Hungarian renaissance which supplies the Pick factory and smaller producers too.

I’m strongly considering attending next February’s Mangalica Festival in Budapest, where you can see prize-winning pigs, buy gigantic pork steaks from outdoor barbecues and buy hundreds of different salamis . While I’m there I might also pop to the Pick Museum at Szeged. But that will all have to wait for next year. This year I will mostly be eating thick slices of salami on buttered toast and hardening my heart against the delightful Mangalica pig.

NOTE: the information about the history of the Mangalica comes from an entertaining, informative and charmingly translated article by Dr. Radnóczi László. Read it here.

* While nothing goes with winter salami like another slice of winter salami, this is a great thing to do with the paprika sausage:

Paprika sausage and eggs

For two people:

butter
2 cooked cold potatoes, in small cubes
half a paprika sausage, cut into semi-circles
4 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced

Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a medium-sized frying pan. When it’s gently bubbling drop in the potato and sausage. Stir occasionally until the potato is hot and the fat in the sausage is starting to melt. Crack in the eggs. Add salt and pepper. Stir the eggs very gently, even half-heartedly (think of this as stirred eggs rather than scrambled) until the eggs are just barely cooked. Eat immediately with the sliced tomatoes and lots of strong coffee. A breakfast fit for an Archduke.

Banana bread for beginners

I enjoy baking too much to do it casually. I like to do it when I have  the mental and physical space to get it just right. I moved to the flat where I live in March this year and have finally put up enough shelves, painted enough walls and hung enough pictures to feel like I can spend a quiet afternoon baking (and start a blog).

Banana bread is one of the first things I ever learned to bake on my own (cutting out pastry your mother made and spooning jam into the rounds is fun but does not count as baking). So it seemed appropriate to go back to the beginning for this first post and the first baking session in my new place.

The recipe I based today’s banana bread on comes from a German book called Back Vergnugen Wie Noch Nie – Das grosse GU Bild-Backbuch in Farb (1987). The title means something like ‘Enjoy Baking As Never Before – the big GU colour-picture-baking- book’. While the banana bread recipe is fairly simple the book also contains some seriously advanced material: proper prezels, zwetschgendatschi (damsons baked in yeast dough), Sachertorte, brioches, croissants and about forty different styles of bread. The book belongs to my mother, and she has promised it to my sister, but in the meantime nobody seems to have noticed it’s on my shelves.

There’s actually nothing all that special about this banana bread. It’s more soothing than exciting. But sometimes that’s what you need.

Ingredients for one loaf
(I used a tin roughly 25cm x 15cm x 8cm)

150g spreadable butter (plus a tiny bit to grease the tin)*
160g soft dark brown sugar
3 eggs
4 very ripe small bananas
seeds of 1 vanilla pod
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
350g wholemeal flour
3 tsp baking powder
100g chopped walnuts
125ml milk

Put the oven shelf on the second level up from the bottom and pre-heat to 170C. Grease the baking tin.

In a big mixing bowl stir together the ‘butter’ and sugar as vigorously as you can. The sugar needs to dissolve into the fat completely. You’ll know you’ve stirred enough when the muscle on the top of your forearm aches and the mixture suddenly turns several shades paler.

Next stir in the eggs one at a time. Only add a new egg when the mixture is perfectly smooth.

Peel the bananas and put them in a separate bowl with the salt, vanilla and cinnamon. Mash them up with a fork. It’s OK to leave a few lumps as they give the banana bread a more varied and pleasing texture.

Stir the banana mash into the butter-sugar-egg mixture (there should be a name for this stuff – if there is let me know).

Now sieve the flour and baking powder into the bowl and throw in the nuts. Add the milk and stir one last time.

Spoon the mixture into your tin. Smooth off the top – not so much to make it flat as to make sure the mixture gets into all the corners of the tin.

Bake for 45 minutes before taking the loaf out and poking a skewer in to see if it’s done. If the skewer comes out clean and the loaf has come away from the edges of the tin turn it out onto a rack to cool. If it’s still  doughy put the loaf back in for ten minutes before trying again. The baking time for this loaf is likely to be variable depending on the size of your eggs and the juiciness of your bananas, but it should definitely be done after an hour and ten.

Good with coffee, tea, milk and also sherry.

* STRONG DISCLAIMER: Normally I would use good, honest, straightforward ordinary butter. I love butter and think margarine is the devil’s own ear wax. But the GU book is always right and they called for very soft margarine so I thought I’d better meet them half-way).