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In early April an army of white-toothed and curious buyers, sellers and commentators descend on the grapey trading town of Bordeaux to sup and suck at wines which won’t be drunk for many years but will make fortunes for or paupers of many of us by the time we are finished our speculations and cogitations. 2011 was ‘a return to normal’ year. For those buried up to their necks in wet sand and with cotton wool in their ears, the past two vintages – 2009 and 2010 – were miracles. Rarely does the foreign God of the French grant them such undeserved favours. On our shores, we rail against their blessings as undeserved, unearned, unjustified and overappreciated. We assume our relative and now fiercely-debated native absence in the field of wine gives us an inherent superiority of assessment when it comes to tasting the wares that Bordeaux lays out each spring. And so it has been since the first En Primeur (‘Firsts’) campaign which started more or less with the unexpected 1982 vintage. The Brits have played an important role as arbiters and middlemen and consumers of fine Bordeaux for centuries. Our native wit at trading has spread this love to corners of the globe which now pander to markets all too eager to snaffle luxuries at any price to make a point. Short-sighted greed has fueled this obvious source of revenue but the pipe-smokers will suck on their briars and wonder if all this really is the New World they dreamt of.

As a commentator and buyer I am short in the tooth but benefit from surrounding myself with wiser humans who have trodden this path for long enough to have earnt a high colour and a cellar that even without inheriting has put many infants through the rigours of cold showers and exile at various boarding schools. Blessed as I am with natural warmth and a love of my own off-spring I intend to keep them close and save a fortune and have never made much on gambling on wine futures. I hope my litter forgive me when we leave the capital for the benefit of acres of free schools and outdoor joys.

So in context, recent vintages – 2009 and 2010 – saw an explosion in interest from Asian investors who took sharp advice on quick returns and have ended up with Egg Foo Yung on their faces. The two best vintages of recent years were marketed high and have not risen at all. My pig-minded instinct avoided both vintages as overpriced though dream-boat vintages to drink and cherish and bought a bit of 2008 where I gained enough money to re-inforce the gate posts and buy Miss Pigsy some pearls.

The above picture is a sunny miracle of the lawns at Chateau Pichon-Lalande. The dinner that followed reminded this pig of the intellectual thrill of Bordeaux rather than the spiritual and emotional charm of Burgundy. It is hard to describe as the flavours of mature Bordeaux are so rigorous. To the extent that I would ever offer advice, I would listen to your favourite merchant. If rich buy in top years either as investment or pleasure. If a true lover consider lesser years as they can offer great surprises and great pleasure. Always do your homework because pleasure is one of those things that is made up largely of anticipation.

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With a name like Bonaparte O’Coonassa, you may feel, like me, that you really ought to know him.

Was he a Corsican-Irish footballer that once played for Charlton Athletic? Was he a sinister offshoot of Eamon De Valera’s political family? Was he not a comic-book hero that bestrode the Dingle Peninsula?

No, he was not.

I recently came across a well-thumbed and curiously annotated copy of his biography whilst rooting through the shelves of a fine second hand bookstore.

A great observer and biographer of the life of the Irish, Myles na Gopaleen wrote his book on the poor Bonaparte O’Coonassa to further our understanding of the weather systems that plagued his part of the world during his infancy and onwards through his growth to adulthood and inevitable imprisonment as an unfortunate and inevitable Irishman.

God, what a family curse they had. And not just a family one. A regional one. A national one. The title of the biography – when taken in the English – is The Poor Mouth. I like potatoes a great deal and supplement my acorn and apple Wednesdays with a good amount of their washy starches and so I was happy with the many chapters devoted to their getting and their having. You cannot pass over these chapters and it is a short book in any case so it is worth reading through so that you may be wiser about how it all ended up.

It also features an unfortunate pig whose life and death were for me the height of pathos and native tragedy. More so than the very Irish who fill the tale from the preface to the afterword. Who have in fact no one but themselves to blame for their delusional and deceitful notion of the way God runs the world to their peril and dis-ease.

‘Horror and misfortune will come on the world tonight; the evil thing and sea-cat will be a-foot in the darkness and, if tis true for me, no good destiny is ever in store for either of us again’.

The like of potatoes aside, can you see the Old-Grey-Fellow above in the picture and what he seems about to do to my very pig-skull. I bellowed myself to be rescued by The Sea-Cat.

The Discerning Pig’s first post examines the morality of an even-toed ungulate (a pig) consuming – combined in the form of a cheese and cream-drenched pie – aquatic vertebrates (fish).

Let us leave the finer morality of this question to one side until after supper.

But here I am, having got no further than the first few words and I am guilty of making a large assumption on your behalf. A pig of a discerning nature – I sincerely hope – would wish to wash down its supper with a wine suited to the meal laid before it. We shall also come to that; perhaps sooner than the morality part, as thirst can be a more insistent master than thought itself.

‘What about a nice fish for our supper?’

Unable to handle fishing rods, and ill-equipped as I am to a Life-At-Sea, I acted upon these words from she-who-must-be-obeyed and went to our local fishmonger. I snuffled at the bright-eyed grey-scaled fishies laid out on the ice. For fish pies – particularly in the winter months – my snout leans towards a combination of firm white fish topped up with a fish that has undergone the alchemical infusion of smoke.

Mindful as one creature must be of another – lest their fate become one’s own – I lean towards my finned friends who hail from one of the larger clans.

Were there more of them, I would opt for cod but until they are left unmolested long enough to recover their collective mojos, I cast my porcine eyes favourably at the likes of pollock or coley. Although we are blessed with waters that thrive with many other wonderful fishes to choose from, these are in plentiful supply and won’t ruin the old exchequer.

Pollachius pollachius may very well sound like a Middle-European-Arch-Villain such as one might encounter in the pages of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. And yes his flesh may also share some of the greyness associated with that region, but as fishes go, he is a strongly flavoured and useful one. I would cast a piggy wager that many a fish finger consumed in this fast food age is made more ample by the padding out of a certain Mister Pollock.

So now we have our whiteish-greyish fish in the sack, let us seek out his smoke-infused sister.

Melanogrammus aeglefin – see the lovely picture below – is a fish of thoroughly earned reputation. A deep sea, cold-loving fish who craves to bathe at a temperature just above freezing. A favourite of the inhabitants of countries and regions far to the north of us. Who could pass by the offer of a steaming bowl of Finnan Haddie? Or, who, turn his snout up at the unadorned bonfire thrill of an Arbroath smokie at breakfast time.

But already I am being betrayed by my porky belly away from my fishy pie.

Look at this picture below. You see that tell-tale splotch on our haddock, just below the dark lateral line you see running along the body? Well that is not, as I was accused by she-who-must-be-obeyed, the result of my manhoofling manhandling the poor thing. Quite the contrary, it is entirely natural. It is known by some as the Devil’s Thumbprint. Lord, I think the fish in the picture just winked at me. Fill my glass.

So back to the splotch. On account of my appearance, I have been refused the use of a library card in every public lending library so have not been able to look it up and I remain untutored as to why the devil had an interest in the poor fish or how he reached into the ocean to grab it in the first place without finding his fiery self being quenched by the waters. If you know better, please submit comments in the appropriate box provided.

An aside. Another aside, I should say. Before I could leave the chilly iodine air of the fishmonger my bristle-admiring attention was inexorably drawn to the shaggy appeal of the byssal threads – the beards, the beards – hanging out of a games’-bag sized cluster of bivalvia mollusca – mussels.

These, combined with the pollock and the haddock, will end their existence tucked up beneath a duvet of mashed potato and incarcerated in an oven set at 230 degrees centrigrade for half an hour.

Back at the sty, I felt a terrific thirst after my tour of the market. A proper piggy hankering for a glass of something that would do honour to the fillets before me left me with strength only to ask she-who-must-be-obeyed to ease the cork off a little of what I like.

So to the outdoor shed she went and returned with a fresh bottle of the wine whose purchase had been a source of some confusion. When last in my local wine merchant’s I had explained what I was looking for and was met with polite incomprehension. ‘I own a vineyard’, I repeated for the umpteenth time to the increasing bafflement of the merchant. After much pointing of trotters at maps of wine regions it was finally understood that what I in fact wanted was a wine from ‘Iona Vineyard’. That is Iona in the Elgin Valley of South Africa not the island where the Vikings spent their downtime from sailing slaughtering defenseless monks and nicking their baubles.

With a couple of cases of this life-giving Sauvignon Blanc in tow, I was ushered from the shop. We shall hear more about this wine presently. Needless to say I wish I did own a vineyard as it would save endless trips to the shops to refill what must be one of the leakiest cellar in London.

Once the pollock and haddock have been suitably filleted and cut into quite plump strips I like to poach them in tart, cold buttermilk with a scattering of black peppercorns and a few torn bay leaves until they are just cooked. Once done hold on to that fishy milk. And also keep any bones, heads, fins and tails for a stock to make yourself a Finnan Haddie at some later date.

Cut into chunks half a dozen floury potatoes and steam them for 20 minutes, I put a few eggs in the boiling water below the steamer for 8 minutes until hard boiled then gingerly lift them out and plunge them into icy water to be peeled and chopped later without scalding oneself.

Set a finely chopped onion and a chopped carrot to fry in a few glugs of olive oil and move them around the pan on medium heat for about 5 minutes. A dusting of dried tarragon is a nice addition at this stage. By now, I confess I no longer care about not owning a vineyard as the one made for my pleasure in South Africa is proving quite an adequate thirst quencher. Add thick double cream (I use the whole tub) and some of the fishy milk to the onion and carrot. Grate Scottish or Canadian cheddar into 3 very ample hoof-fuls and add this along with the juice of a lime and a large teaspoon of proper English mustard for its sharpness which will help to offset the rich cheesy creaminess. Chop up a bunch of parsely and add this too. Lay spinach above the potatoes for a moment to wilt, squeeze the water out and set aside. Mash the potatoes with the aid of two good slabs of butter cut out of a pat and add some of the reserved fish-rich buttermilk. Season with salt and pepper.

Now build your pie. Scatter the de-byssal threaded (just pull them against the direction they are growing under a cool flow of water) and wine-steamed mussels (a lesser cool climate white like a Muscadet would be a good idea here) across the base of a buttered pie dish. Add the poached fish, chopped eggs and spinach and then pour over  your delectable creamy cheesy sauce. Tap a little from side to side to ensure the fish is well-covered. Dollop on the mashed potatoes and smooth out. You can be professional and create a pattern of scales or scallop shells in the potatoes but life is often too short and one’s hunger too pressing for such bother. Scatter more cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Inspect through the oven door and take out when it is bubbling over the side of the dish and it is golden and crunchy on top.

Equip yourselves with large spoons and do not abandon your mission until the pie platter is licked clean. You may wish to steam some garden peas to appease your guilty conscience.

Recipe for the Discerning Pig’s Favourite Fish Pie

Fish Element

  • 300 grams pollock/ coley
  • 200 grams smoked haddock (opt for the non-dyed one if available as the colour is just that, dye)
  • 300 ml buttermilk to poach fish above (4 mins until flakey)
  • 100 grams steamed debearded mussels (cup of inexpensive dry white wine such as Muscadet sur Lie, steam until all open about 3 mins. Discard closed ones)

Vegetable and Dairy Element

  • 5 large floury potatoes, peeled, chopped, steamed and mashed with butter and fishy milk for the topping
  • 4 eggs hard boiled, cooled, peeled and quartered
  • 2 large handfuls of spinach steamed  above potatoes until wilted and then squeezed of excess water when cool enough to handle
  • 1 onion, chopped quite finely
  • 1 carrot quartered and chopped quite finely
  • Olive oil to fry
  • Tub double cream
  • 2-3 (ok, 4) handfuls grated mature cheddar cheese (Scottish or Canadian)
  • Juice of one lime (roll it quite firmly on a hard surface to help release the juice before you cut it and squeeze it)
  • 1 heaped teaspoon hot English mustard
  • 1 large handful parsley chopped
  • Salt, peppercorns, ground black pepper, tarragon.

Wine

Andrew and Rozy Gunn do own a vineyard www.iona.co.za and so whenever they find themselves in wine merchants shops anywhere in the world they are fortunate enough to avoid the kind of embarrassment I endured. They are farmers and so I am always polite and circumspect with such people as the duration of my life and the timing of my death may depend upon their indulgence.

Less than an hour from Cape Town you find yourself immersed in vineyards, olive groves and gardens filled with roses. And blowing across this lovely valley are the cool winds from the cape which make this wine such a friend to our fish dish.

www.elginopengardens.co.za

www.elginwine.co.za

So retired now as I am to my reclining chair I can return to the morality of a pig eating a fish that we mentioned at the outset. With a full belly from my pie and a very satisfactory glow from my wine, I can now answer that. Yes, one may eat whatever one likes as long as it is done with love.