I enjoyed listening to Angela Hartnett’s Desert Island Discs last week, mostly because she played some Bobby Womack and Burt Bacharach. Her opinion that Britain has no food culture is one that I share and given the lack of any storm on social media, it appears that many people would agree.
The things I like most about food are cultural. If the meaning of cultural is “of a time and place” then it’s this kind of food that interests me. Because after I’ve finished eating, I’m left with something more than just the experience of having done so. An interest in any kind of culture is essentially an interest in learning so I suppose that if there’s nothing you can learn from the food your eating then it doesn’t have much cultural significance. Which doesn’t stop it from being good food though.
Take for example a pork curry from which I learnt that Goa was once a Portuguese colony. Demolishing a steaming plate of choucroute garnie with a bottle of Riesling provided tangible evidence that Germany once extended well to the east of Strasbourg. These are all useful things to know and learning them through eating makes the whole thing much more satisfying.
There are lots of reasons why Britain lost its food culture and I don’t want to detail them as I’m not an expert. But I should at least try and substantiate my claim. Two of my favourite cookery books are Jane Grigson’s English Food and Elisabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. They are very similar books but the first is about food that nobody eats anymore and which has largely become a historical curiosity. The other is full of recipes for dishes that can still be found on the shelves of Auchan and Carrefour as well as on the plates and in the memories of the French.
A couple of examples drawn at random from Grigson are kidney soup and tea cream, a kind of jellied sweetened cream flavoured with green gunpowder tea. Although they both sound excellent, these are relics from a forgotten past. Maybe some chef or other has resurrected them in recent years but they needed to be resurrected because they weren’t part of any living tradition. David’s book by comparison is full of recipes for things like ratatouille, boeuf bourguignonne and choucroute garnie. Stuff people still eat.
It seems a bit ironic that the USA does have a food culture whilst Britain doesn’t. Burgers from Hamburg and hotdogs from Vienna. But then American culture is an immigrant culture and the battle for food cultural hegemony in the US was won by the Germans, presumably on penalties. For some reason kidney soup and tea cream just didn’t catch on.
We’re somewhat blessed at Aron’s because everything we put on a plate is steeped in a culture of both time and place.
I remember reading somewhere once that there’s an imaginary line that can be draw from west to east across Europe that divides the continent along a cooking fat fault line. The line passes through the middle of France with Normandy butter to the north and Provencal olive oil to the south.
Whilst this line has also become a historical curiosity it doesn’t take into consideration another fat fault line that extends north to south from the Baltic to the Balkans. The continental climate of Eastern Europe isn’t conducive to either olive groves or dairy farming. Here the people used animal fat for their cooking and the pig was the animal of choice, which isn’t very helpful if you’re restricted from eating it. So Ashkenazi Jews cooked with goose fat and raising geese became a defining cultural characteristic.
In some places the goose is still very much part of a living Jewish food culture.
When I arrived in Budapest in 1996 I started to look about for a football team to support. One of the options available to me was MTK a very old Budapest club which is synonymous with Jews, just like Tottenham and Ajax.
I attended a few MTK matches and heard opposition supporters singing “Gá Gá Gá buzi MTK”, Gá Gá Gá I discovered, is the noise that geese make in Hungarian. The song is definitely something that western European liberals would say lacks political correctness. But in my opinion it’s not much worse than singing “Does your rabbi know you’re here?” at White Hart Lane. Which is I suppose, something that we’ve all been guilty of? I know I have.
We use industrial quantities of goose fat in our cooking. Even the meatless recipes contain goose fat. So for our vegetarian guests we serve a meze from the Jewish Sephardim of Spain and the Mediterranean – olive oil land.
All of which is by way of an introduction to our first dinner of 2018. The menu for next Friday 26th January (see below) is the usual combination of traditional Jewish dishes from Central & Eastern Europe by way of Britain and New York City.
There’s a choice of four starters the first of which is chopped liver with gribenes, otherwise known as chicken crackling.
When Ashkenazi Jews arrived in London and New York from the shtetls of Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century they found keeping geese somewhat problematical. Geese need water and plenty of room to run about in. The slums of Whitechapel and the Lower East Side didn’t offer much of either and so they switched to chickens (which you can almost keep under the bed) and began rendering chicken fat to use in their cooking. And so goose crackling by necessity became chicken crackling. Fat is called schmaltz in Yiddish, hence the name of this (very occasional) blog, schmaltz and cider.
Zsidó tojás, literally Jewish eggs, is a spread made with paprika, chives, mustard and (yes you guessed it) goose fat. Along with chopped herring and cream cheese this is one of the less popular beigel fillings to be found at Beigel Bake in Brick Lane, although it has morphed into something that resembles egg mayonnaise. Ours is somewhat more authentic.
Chicken soup with matzo balls hopefully doesn’t require much by way of introduction. Suffice to say that we did finally find a butcher who sells hens rather than chickens, which gives the straw yellow broth a more intense flavour. It’s served with matzo balls, kreplach a triangular ravioli filled with chicken liver and garlic, home made noodles and soup mandel which are little crisp baked pasta crackers.
Pickled herring with kichel – we use Cornish sardines in place of herring. Salted, filleted and pickled in Burrow Hill Somerset cider vinegar flavoured with onions, mustard seeds and cloves. Kichel are little egg glazed biscuits. This combination of pickled herring and kichel served with an optional shot of fruit schnapps is a dish that became popular with the Jewish diaspora in South Africa.
The first main course offering is ludaskása. Kása is a kind of porridge made from grains like buckwheat, millet or wheat. It must be a slavic word as the Poles and especially the Russians eat a lot of kasza. Ludaskása is a made with rice, goose and vegetables and so essentially it’s a goose risotto. A rich gelatinous stock made from the wings, neck, feet, liver, and gizzards is absorbed by the rice. In Hungary it’s served with the feet but because our goose didn’t possess any, it won’t be quite so authentic.
Hake goujons and confit of beef spare ribs are both dishes that I’ve taken from Tibor Rosenstein’s eponymous restaurant in Budapest.
This months NYC Deli sandwich is our favourite Chicken Salad. It wasn’t a big seller, perhaps because so many people chose the salt beef, nevertheless this is a killer sandwich. Taken from the Mile End Deli in Brooklyn (thanks people), made with free range chicken meat in lemon mayonnaise and diced spring onions and celery. Served between toasted slices of our home made challah and garnished with cucumber, pickled cherry paprika and chicken crackling (gribenes) little crunchy salt bombs. Lots of flavour, contrasting textures, stacked high NYC style and served with pickles, slaw and potato salad.
Finally onto the desserts and this month we have NYC baked cheesecake, walnut rugelach (little crescent pastries), sour cherry pie and lokshen pudding a quintessentially Ashkenazi dish made from noodles baked with curd cheese, eggs and dried fruit.
We host dinner once a month at our premises in Chandos Rd, Bristol BS6. To receive a monthly invitation and a menu please scroll to the bottom of the homepage and subscribe to our mailing list.