And did those feet in ancient time. Walk upon England’s mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen! William Blake, Preface to Milton: a Poem Unofficial English National Anthem Emerson Lake & Palmer, “Jerusalem”
For a writer there are few better places to be than England. The history of the literature of our language is all around. You can feel it in the streets. You can taste it in the air. For a lawyer, journalist or historian (amateur or otherwise) there is something special about England too. Walking in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson and Rumpole, Clement Atlee and Charles Dickens is something of a thrill. Traversing the alleys and byways around the Inns of Court and Fleet Street you can taste the living past in an almost tangible way.
For the foodie, or so it has been said, England is not so much. Featuring dishes such as “Mushy Peas” and “Spotted Dick” English food has been the traditional butt of jokes; enough that an internet project was dedicated to proving that English food is not a joke: http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2007/03/is-english-food-joke.html. Even a generation of great English super chefs such as Marco Pierre White, Fergus Henderson, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal has not managed to change the perception of supposedly traditional English fare away from one of boiled meats, overcooked vegetables and bland fat in fat sauce. The reputation of British Cuisine remains terrible despite the highest levels of its culinary achievements rivaling the best in the world.
What this generation of celebrity English chefs has managed to do, however, is return the focus of English cuisine to the country’s natural bounty: wonderful meats and fish, locally crafted cheeses and high quality natural produce and other wonderful ingredients. In other words, they have brought attention back to where it comes from: the land.
In truth, much of England’s poor culinary reputation may have less to do with traditional English cuisine and far more to do with two World Wars and the disrupting years surrounding them. With several successive generations growing up during extended periods of war-time rationing, interrupted only by a Depression and following hot on the heels of the massive dislocations of first generation industrialization, the food of England changed substantially. By the time the war rationing and hardship had passed, the lifestyles – and the connection to the land – had seemingly passed with them. Nor were the years following the Second World War much kinder. With a nation dealing with lost Empire and the reality that by “winning” the World Wars they’d lost a perhaps-more-important economic war, England was a nation finding comfort wherever it could, quite specifically including bad food.
Prior to the disorienting 20th Century, England’s food was always based on its natural bounty – based on what any other country’s food was based upon: what was available from the nearby fields, forests and streams. Still, there is no doubt that Mushy Peas might be a hard sell on a high end menu. And Spotted Dick sounds a lot more like something to be dealt with at a medical center than served at a restaurant. And Haggis? Don’t ask. Aside from the fact that its Scottish rather than English – and it really is quite tasty — you really don’t want to know what it is.
But prepared of its traditional sources – England’s wonderful livestock and vegetable bounty – a dish such as traditional Steak and Kidney Pie can be a special treat. On our trip we had it twice. First we ate it at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in London (Samuel Johnson’s old haunt), in a cellar dining area that nearly wrote itself. On our last night in England we ate it again at the Red Lion Pub in Avebury Henge – a town inside three stone circles only miles from its more famous cousin, Stonehenge.
Of course one thing that seemed strange to me in England was that as much glorious beef as one could find on the menus there were always far more sheep in the countryside than cows. So, I ask, why steak rather than lamb?
And that was the genesis of the following dish:
For the Duxelles:
- 1 pound of button mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup fino (or dry) sherry
For the Filling:
- 2 lamb kidneys
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 large carrot, finely chopped
- 1 bulb fennel, finely chopped
- ½ leg of lamb, boned and diced into 1 inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 (17.25 ounce) package frozen puff pastry, thawed
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
- 4 tablespoons, good quality unsalted butter
- Branston Pickles for garnish
1. Make the Duxelles. Place the mushrooms in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the “S” blade and process to a gravelly texture. Do not go beyond that texture as it will ruin the final product. While many recipes call for more exotic (and expensive) varieties of mushroom the added cost adds nothing to the quality of the duxelles. Sweat the shallots in the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. Turn the heat to medium, add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the give up their water. Add the sherry to the pan and continue cooking until the liquid evaporates.
2. Prep the Kidneys. Cut the kidneys in half, lengthwise, removing the tubes and skins. Rinse well under cold running water. Pat the kidneys dry and cut them into ½ inch dice.
3. Prepare the Stew. Sweat the onions, carrots and fennel in a sauté pan until the onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper as you work. Remove the vegetables from the pan. Toss the kidney and lamb meat in the flour and shake off the excess. Sear the meat in the hot oil until well browned. Add stock and wine; bring to a boil stirring constantly until the mixture starts to thicken, about 5 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low, and simmer 1 ½ to 2 hours, until meat is tender. Separate the solids from the liquids in the stew. Remove solids from the heat, and cool to room temperature.
4. Assemble the Pies. Put a layer of the Duxelles in the bottom of a cold pie dish, large ramekin or other heat proof dish (a large Spanish cazuela would work). Top the layer with a much thicker layer of the stew. Top that layer with a thin coating of the Duxelles. Line the edge of the pie dish with a strip of pastry and brush with beaten egg before putting on the lid. Press the lid firmly with a finger all the way round before trimming the lid (leave a half centimeter overhang to allow for shrinkage). Make two to three holes in the top to allow air to escape, add any pastry decorations and brush all the pastry with beaten egg, olive oil or a bit of both. Bake in the centre of the oven at 375° F for 20 minutes and then increase the heat to 400° F for 10 minutes to brown the top.
5. Make the Sauce. Sweat the shallots in a sauce pan, add the stewing liquid and reduce to about a third of a cup. Swirl in the butter to thicken, one tablespoon at a time over low heat.
6. Assemble the Plates. Place the pie dish on a plate along with several spoonfuls of the sauce and a quenelles of the Branston Pickles.