Thursday, 3 September 2009

Beware the friendly stranger

 With a flourish of deranged abandon, a crazed pheasant flung itself across the windscreen of the car last night. My initial horror at its scant regard for the Highway Code was quickly replaced by the need to inspect the rear view mirror; both for signs of a jam sandwich in our wake, and the glint of steel in the shadows.

 As times get harder and the cost of food rises, poaching is becoming increasingly common throughout the countryside and urban fringes. Dorset police have reported cases of bread and jam being used to lure unsuspecting deer in front of cars; with subsequent, vehicle-dispatched venison stolen into the night after motorists leave the scene.

 In acknowledging the genuine seriousness of the situation, it’s hard not to be sidetracked by flickers of surrealism. Jam sandwich bait? It’s almost cartoon-like in its conception, as if Wile E. Coyote has been brought in as a consultant. A silhouetted figure leafing through the pages of a well-thumbed ‘Acme Poacher’s Compendium’, thin spirals of cigarette smoke twisting through low branches. Trout, hare, chickens, pheasants and (almost as bizarrely) bees, the rise in poaching is a reflection of the times - one that dustily echoes much older ways of life.

 Game abounds at the village butcher. I’m busy contemplating the venison steaks when a quietly spoken exchange at the far end of the shop spills into laughter. “Don’t bring too many in, I’ll never shift ‘em” smirks the man in bloodstained white, his acquaintance nodding in agreement before trudging up the high street. The butcher knows I’m onto him, there’s a shimmer of malevolence in his eyes as he slides my venison across the counter. That, or he forgot to take an antihistamine this morning. It’s hard to tell really. I grab a box of farm eggs and faux-nonchalantly enquire about the locality of his wild meat. “We get allsorts in ‘ere, I’ve a man who helps me out – clean shot to the head is the best way.” Heading back to the car, it’s still not clear if he was referring to the deer or those who ask too many questions.

 A handful of raisins and chips in a paper cone feel like an appropriate, Dahl-inspired addition to my game stew, the former swelling gently as they simmer away in the thick sauce. Hazy memories of the ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ school of poaching seem a million miles away in this day and age; poaching is a lucrative and large-scale business. Watch out for preserve-laden snacks in the headlights.

Posted on 14th September 2009

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The heart of the matter

 I was ill-inclined to rekindle the ashes of what had been a brief and tempestuous relationship with the globe artichoke. Last year’s debacle - an event that quickly imploded into a spectacle of profanity and vegetable abuse, was blighted from the outset and resulted in an oversized thistle making a prompt, window facilitated exit from my life.

 Simple start this time: cut the stalk off, trim the top and boil for 35-45 minutes. After draining and resting the artichoke on a board I begin to peel off the outer scales - they fall away easily, my fingertips quickly pointing out that the inner layers remain hotter than the surface of the sun. A generous slab of butter over the steaming leaves prompts an unusual development - scraping the smooth, pulpy inside of a scale into the mouth with your teeth feels odd yet strangely satisfying. Still, not one to order on a first date. A recipe I’ve found in an old book enthuses the merits of chewing on the tough outer scales too, an opinion that upon reflection, seems misguided. They’re horrid. Spooning out the furry choke is the final step en route to the heart.

 “Is that it?” remarks a visibly disgruntled girlfriend, eyeing the heart suspiciously while offering a cusory glance at the heap of debris on the board. Nonplussed, I quarter the heart before adding a sprinkle of salt and few grinds of black pepper - it’s a brief but tasty affair.

 Having spent the best part of an hour unravelling its babushka doll exterior, I’ll concede that the resultant volume of ‘choke heart matter appears less than impressive. In its uncooked form an artichoke has a fantastic sculptural beauty; the aesthetic transition is the equivalent of arriving at the Albert Hall to find Dick Van Dyke on stage performing ‘The Planets’ solo on a nose flute. No actually, I’d pay good money to see that. Maybe it is worth the effort.

Posted on 24th April 2009