Dabbler Diary: Happy Stew Year!


Last week I recalled a Scot from my local rugby club who – this was the late-‘70s – adopted the outward signs of being a Frenchman: Citroen DS, Gauloises, vin rouge, beret. An unusual obsession, but an understandable one. After all, has there been a better time and place for striking product design than mid-20th century France?

To a British eye, some of the classic products from that period look wonderfully eccentric but wonderfully functional; the design equivalent of the odd creatures found in the Burgess Shale Sands, filling the same niches as our own objects but in quite distinctive ways.

Three favourites: the Citroen DS, generally reckoned to be the most beautiful car ever made but surely with something of the jolie laide about it; a bit like Brigitte Bardot, incredibly sexy – but then the gap in her teeth and the slightly wall-eyed look gives you pause… (Beatrice Dalle is touched by this brush too).

Second, all-white Gauloises cigarettes in their soft pack, cornflower blue with logo in capitalised, block typeface. Here’s Robert Motherwell, New York artist, expressing what attracted him to incorporate these fag packets in some works of his from the late-60s:

I remember when in the last few years I made a series of aquatints with the Gauloises blue cigarette package—because I love that blue as part of the image—Helen Frankenthaler looking at me with stupefaction and saying, “I can’t imagine you being a Pop artist.” And certainly from the French point of view it must look like Pop Art. To me it looked as exotic as Tahiti must have looked to French travelers…

A certain ultramarine blue became for some people in New York … ‘Motherwell Blue’.

Finally, there’s those ceramic pastis-branded water jugs, which somehow manage to combine a modernist aesthetic – they’re almost aerodynamic – with a rustic tactility. I also like how they come up with so many solutions to reserving the ice when poured, from slits to spouts to holes. They overflow with character and, as with the DS, it’s one that looks slightly odd to us.

I can think of a few more items that have the same je ne sais quoi: there’s the 2CV, of course; then the motorised Solex Vélo, the Orangina bottle, the Duralex Picardie glass beaker. I wonder how such an aesthetic arose? It must have something to do with a characteristically French desire to be distinctive, original and innovative, l’exception Française. But I also wonder whether the look has something to do with the sensibility of a rapidly urbanising peasant society, one that was eager to fall in love with the fantastical possibilities of the modern?

There are probably a number of intriguing consumer designs emerging from some of the 21st century’s rapidly developing societies. China’s probably hobbled by its obsession with building factories and its accompanying reluctance to develop a consumer culture. Brazil is very interesting I hear and I look forward to learning more, which is bound to happen as Rio is hosting both the World Cup and the Olympics in the next four years. And I bet there’s lots bubbling away in Africa.

***

In her last post, Susan asked us what Christmas foods we enjoyed. I find the biggest satisfaction is in defeating the turkey. It’s a down and dirty struggle requiring stamina and a degree of resourcefulness. This year victory came relatively quickly, in just a week – the Christmas Day roast was followed on successive days by sandwiches (with all the usual trimmings), a curry, bagels, a pie (with ham), and, finally, the boiling up of about half-a-gallon of stock which was worked up into a huge stew (some of it destined for the freezer).

***

I happen to be a confirmed stew person, whilst my wife is more of a soup person. Did you know that preferences in this area happen to be an important and under-researched indicator of divergent approaches to life?

The stew person is a Romantic, who enjoys nature’s rough and tumble, revels in happenstance, seeks the serendipitous and spontaneous, with craft being preferred to technology. The soup person, on the other hand, is more refined, a Classicist who tends to adopt a careful and systematic approach, embracing technology and the rational and preferring a certain predictability and order to events. (The fact that you don’t have to wash the food mixer if you leave in the lumps is neither here not there.)

On reflection, the France of the 2CV was a stew society trying to become a soup one. This was interesting whilst it lasted.

***

In my family, the turkey traditionally meets its final end through being boiled up for stew. Whilst our French friends have nearly as many recipes for stew as they have varieties of cheese, we, being Welsh, only really have the one. The only variation is which animal’s bones you start with.

Anyway, what our methods lack in variety they gain in reliability. It really is consistently delicious stuff. So it would be unfair not to share it…

Boil up your stock using bones with a bit of meat still on them, tipping in any leftover gravy. Fish the bones out after a couple of hours and pick off the meat, which you should put aside (it breaks up if you simmer it too long off the bone)

Add a finely-chopped leek and a handful of split peas or red lentils to the liquid. Simmer for about twenty minutes – the leak should go translucent and the split peas almost disappear.

If the stew needs further thickening or has some fat floating on it sprinkle over a dessert spoonful of flour using a sieve, cover and simmer for ten minutes or so. Don’t stir until the flour has merged into the liquid.

Add carrots, potatoes and – if you like its nutty flavour, not everyone does – some parsnip. Season. After about five minutes add the meat and, if you feel the need, some dumplings (to make these just follow the instructions on a packet of suet or Knödel mix).

The dumplings should be ready in about 15-20 minutes by which time the meat will be piping and the veg nicely cooked.

Eat from a big bowl using the biggest spoon you have (this is important though I’m not entirely sure why). The experience is not unlike gorging on the nectar of the gods, ‘bloody ambrosia’ as my Dad would say (especially if made with neck of Welsh lamb). It must be jolly good for you too – it’s pretty much your recommended daily five portions of veg on a single plate. Bon appetit!

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

16 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary: Happy Stew Year!

  1. Perhaps the epic poncification of British cuisine is summarised by the replacement of the stew in pubs with the ‘cassoulet’.

    (Incidentally, we got a slow cooker last year and it makes even vegetarian stews delicious.)

    • I blame Masterchef Professional – just about every programme introduces one to a new ‘stew’ dish (though none of them look anything like one above).

  2. Sadly, I was forced to throw the remains of my turkey away before driving down to Cornwall. Your mention of the Citroen reminds me of a fun game we played driving back to London in the dark – guessing the make of the car in front according to the shape of the headlights. We didn’t have to specify the model, but there was no sighting of the Citroen DS. Though a Citroen is one of the easiest cars to identify in the dark, if that’s a good selling point?

  3. All stews are delicious! This post has made me hungry – and I just had a lovely home made soup for lunch…perhaps my equal love of both stew and soup indicates some form of split personality…

    • I like a soup, but given the option – liquidise or no – I will always choose to leave the dish intact. That’s probably the shibboleth.

  4. Used to smoke Disque Bleu and Balkan Sobranie, that must have made me a Russian emigre living on the west bank. Used to own a Citroen CX estate, guess that made me a Russian emigre living in Catford with little taste in motors.

    Citroen light Fifteen, the first traction avant, that’s French you know, for, sort of, front wheel stuff, a friend had one, the gearbox fell off. Maigret’s sergeant Lucas pronounced ‘Citroen’ in a very Gallic way, ‘seetrown’, Geordies say ‘sitrin’, peasants.

    Xmas nosh extraordinaire (that word might be French) das goose, reared in the Taunus, bought at Wiesbaden market, unforgettable, washed down with Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, left over from last October.

    • I remember the first time I gave up smoking I gave myself a couple of weeks to smoke everything I’d enjoyed over the previous years. I still recall the two or three days it took me to work through a pack of Gauloises. The unfiltered tobacco is really strong (Turkish I think) and, not being a big smoker, I felt quite high. Or at least I did until the wheezing kicked in.

      I’m thinking goose next Christmas. Or I may get one for Easter. I know it makes a superbly unctuous stew.

      • In the absence of the eternally lamented Boyards, I’ll have vingt Gitanes mais, s.v.p. Or will in Paris: they are banned in the UK. And even there they are made in Spain and and of course M. Ponty’s glorious cover (which originally came in all sorts of colours depending on what variety you chose) has been wholly debased. Disque bleu were a teen favourite but where are those fragrant snows of yesteryear. All gone. Can’t drive but the DS (‘déesse’) still to be seen over there. J. Meades obsesses about some Citroen/Maserati mashup but quite beyond me though I did see one in the yard of a brocante outside Boulogne.

        • Yes, I noticed that Gauloises were now owned by Imperial Tobacco (!), who bought Altadis, who indeed had moved production to Spain. It’s surprising the French allowed it, given how resistant they’ve been to foreign ownership of brands such as Danone.

          I did mean to look into what J Meades had to say about all this. Must do so.

  5. There is a special pleasure to being made a stew by someone else. It is as close as adults come to recapturing the spirit of the lucky dip.

    • I’m sorry, Ben, but I have to differ. For me the almost complete predictability of our stew is one of its pleasures. Once the meat is known, the only element of uncertainty is whether it contains any parsnip or not. This preference probably has something to do with stew being a childhood food for me. Almost every winter Saturday we’d have a bowl of stew for lunch before rugby. It’s like a large, lumpy, liquid madelaine.

    • There once was an aspiring cook called Joe
      Whose liquid lunch prep resulted in woe
      Having added a roux
      To his watery stew
      It went lumpy as he stirred it too slow.

      Sorry.

  6. Neebody listens tiv us, me and wor Dave, gannin all ower Yewrip tiv cook breed on the back of wor panyas. Me mam wance sez tiv is “nivva lisin tiv a Welshmin takin aboot food, it’s always aboot leeks” she telt is hoow tiv cook this stew for the bairns, mutton in tetties boiled in coal dust, just like them Ashington pitmatic wimmin. Me faatha hated it and ran off with that barmaid from the protestant conservative cluuub.

    The two hairy bikers, a programme dedicated to obesity and in direct competition with Greggs, the Geordies very own assisted suicide company.

    • Have the Hairy Bikers ever said anything interesting? It’s amazing how some leather, a hog and a regional accent is sufficient to get you a secure niche in TV chef-dom.