I’ve been making stew. It’s hard to fathom why in the almost ten years since I started writing this blog I have not written about stew before. Stewed prunes don’t count. Also, pressure cooked stews don’t really count either, because you don’t have anything to do once it’s on the hob. And I have too many memories of holding the screaming pot under a cold tap, the way it all suddenly went wrong, the lid clamped shut, steam billowing into my face. I can’t do pressure cookers.
This is a French stew, one where you need to stand over it or nearby. I watched my friend Pippa (above) make it, in her kitchen the other day, under a low ceiling, in the Teign Valley, in Devon, on the western edge of Dartmoor. I could give you the postcode, but it wouldn’t conjure up the feeling. And what was that feeling? The feeling of slowness, of the juice of meat, of onions. Of chats, of being away for the first time in two years, properly away, no internet signal, no service on my phone, with friends. Friends! We didn’t watch that show, but we did watch Frasier in the mornings, as a kind of primer for the day. It made me think of Cheers, and also how sexy chinos are on a woman, particularly on Roz in Frasier, who wore them high and belted. I have forgotten to watch comedy, and it is a good idea, during these weird times to do that, and in the morning.
I grew up in Devon. East Devon; Ottery St. Mary, then Exeter. I lived in this county almost from birth until I was sixteen years old. I had an Exeter accent, which is not cute and cuddly, but rather flat and know-it-all, but also lovely in its way. You need to speak as if you are world weary, your arms crossed under a plinth-like bosom, eyes closing against the injustices of the world. I did this at 13. Where’s it to? instead of Where is it? And Bugger me, dun’ee fret? Instead of, Gosh, you’re a worrier, aren’t you?
Because stress is sort of alien here, not in Exeter so much, but out in the country, with the dense folds of trees, sessile oak mainly, and the swooping valley that opens out in front of you, and the red earth, red sand, the burbling of the river Teign and its mineral coldness, its red funghi and green coverings, the moss, the sharp stones under bare feet. No one is on time, strictly speaking. My last morning there was spent looking out over the great swathes of trees in February sunshine, and listening to Mark the builder’s radio – Aerosmith pounding into the clean high-up air, and none of it mattered. I didn’t sit there thinking, oh, if only it was still and quiet. I sat thinking, it is perfect, like this. A person nearby fixing something and me with a cup of tea not thinking about the train I was about to catch.
Lastly, Pippa told me about a woman at a recent festival who sat on a chair up on a hill and listened to people’s problems. She was not professionally trained, but she was a good enough listener. People came to her with a problem and she listened and then delivered her verdict. She called it Just Stop It. The queues for this were round the block, apparently. So just stop it, stop the worrying. Start watching comedy in the morning, drinking cider, seeing people, at a distance if necessary. But go. Stop it and go. And maybe cut down on the peanut butter.
A simple stew
Adapted from Nigel Slater, Tender Volume 1 – and with inspiration taken from Pippa and Ralph.
I used cider instead of beer – which is what NS calls for here and Trappist beer at that – but it worked well. I added shredded Brussel sprouts too. NS recommends as the ideal accompaniment, ‘boiled potatoes as big as your fist, their edges bruised and floury.’ The inclusion of apple sauce is optional, but it works well together: ‘the point where the sharp apple sauce oozes into the onion gravy‘.
Butter, a thick slice
Stewing beef – approx 750g
Large onions – 2
Thyme – a few sprigs
Plain flour – 2 tbs (you could use cornstarch if you’re GF)
Beer or cider – 2 bottles (500ml approx)
Bay leaves – 2 or 3, torn
Redcurrant or apple jelly – 2 tbs
Apple sauce (optional)
Apples 5 or 6, the sharper the better
Butter, a walnut-sized knob
Sugar, a little to taste
Ground cinnamon, a knifepoint
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Melt the butter in a large casserole to which you have a lid. The heat should be ‘quite sprightly’. Cut the beef into four pieces, each nicely seasoned with salt and black pepper, then introduce to the sizzling butter. Let the meat colour on one side, then turn it over. Peel, halve, and thinly slice the onions while the meat browns. Once coloured, remove the meat to a plate and turn down the heat. Add the onions to the pan, with the thyme sprigs, and cook over low to medium heat until the onions are soft and golden. Stir in the flour and cook until it is the palest gold colour, then pour in the beer/cider and add the torn bay leaves. Once the sizzling has subsided and it is approaching the boiling point, return the beef and its juices to the pan and turn down the heat. Season with salt and black pepper, cover with a lid, and place in the oven. Bake for a good hour to an hour and a half. Check it once or twice.
Apple sauce, if using: Peel the apples, core them, and cut into coarse chunks. Put them into a pan with a little water and the butter and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat, cover with a lid, and let cook to a sloppy mess. However, this will only happen with cooking apples. Eating apples will retain their shape. Sweeten with a little sugar and ground cinnamon, then beat with a fork or wooden spoon until smooth (for cookers). Once the stew is done, lift the lid from the stew-pot and stir in the jelly. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and jelly as you go. Serve with the apple sauce.
Stew is unphotographable. This is the best I could do.
If you are interested, Oliver Burkeman’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Imperfectionist is really helpful for sorting stuff out. His most recent one is here.