Clare couldn’t have been happier to see the back of my biltong machine, at the old flat it sat by the front door and, when not in use, had become a handy dumping ground for keys and coats or anything that you were carrying as soon as you got in. Useful…yes. Unsightly, I suppose… but then again, the enormous tungsten carbide drill used to bore the Euro tunnel was an equally ugly behemoth, and look what that achieved.
When we moved into my Brother’s flat last year, the addition of a cellar was a godsend for all the unwanted garb that we, sorry I, had accumulated in the last residence. I admit it, I am a hoarder, be it shoeboxes, jam jars, rocks, sand, wood, pointless leaflets, string, rubber bands and pens: at least if the world comes to an end I have stacks of useful ‘stuff’. As a child my pockets were laden with rubbish, but what my mother didn’t know every time she emptied them before washing, was that what she thought was rubbish, was in fact a rudimentary Survival kit.
The other day I popped down to the cellar to get all my brewing paraphernalia, so I could lay down 5 gallons of cider (more on that later…) and noticed my biltong machine sitting behind a cupboard looking like an imprisoned, abused animal. I felt pangs of guilt for the neglect of this wonderful part of my kitchen arsenal, it was time to blow off the dust and put it to work.
I wanted to do something different this time, not beef, its good but it is pretty standard. I wanted to get my hand on some strange flesh not used to the rigours of biltong-age. As I had little else pending on this particular Thursday, it was a perfect excuse to pop down to Borough market.
Borough Market is generally a place I tend to avoid. That may sound strange, coming from a person with an obvious interest in food, but come the weekend it is packed to the hilt with pretentious foodie know-it-alls groping vegetables in a state of pre-orgasmic tension and coughing up obscene amounts of money simply because it is Borough market, but if you want something special sometimes you have to go that little bit further. So as a word of advice: a Thursday or Friday is relatively free of the Olive/Bon appétit subscribers.
There is no denying it is certainly a wondrous place and has been feeding Londoners, be they invaders or locals for around 2000 years. It had once moved onto London bridge itself for some bizarre reason, but the congestion became a nightmare and Edward the Confessor confessed it was best to move it to it’s present location to prevent further bloodshed in what could only be described as horse & cart road rage.
I did notice the market was more confined than it is at weekends; all the regular stallholders were there, pimping their goods to the slightly less enthusiastic weekend shoppers. The place has a faint sniff of bygone days, chaps in bowler hats peddling wild boar, the fishmongers chucking ice across their slabs. There is no doubt the place has a certain energy that faintly touches upon Victorian times, I was disappointed by the lack of barrow boys- although I’m sure Gregg Wallace was lurking somewhere close, taking enormous mouthfuls of something or other.
As I meandered through the metal cages of stalls I noticed how vibrant and fresh the produce on offer looked, but with a price tag to match it damned well should be: I bought a couple of fat bulbs of garlic at £1.30 a head! A couple of artichokes later, a huge platter of mushrooms caught my eye. The hedgehogs were a rip off and so were the ceps, I felt obliged to purchase a few chanterelles for a late afternoon omelette when I got home, so I chucked some in a brown paper bag and paid the man.
The main reason for being here was flesh. I needed something to feed the biltong machine and I had no shortage of possible meaty contenders. Being a sucker for a bit of fur and feather strung up on display, Furness butchers immediately caught my eye. I was after some game, having eaten up my pheasant and partridge freezer stock from this season so far, I suddenly felt quite annoyed that I was going to have to pay through the teeth for something I am so used to getting for free.
After picking up a pack of pigeon breasts and a pack of mixed game (venison, rabbit, pheasant and turkey), I decided to see if there was anything up for grabs at the fishmongers. Whilst taking a shot of a small shoal of sea bass amongst some crushed ice, I saw out of the corner of my eye a rather plump, 40-something women taking a few snaps of the slab on a small digital camera. In the same way I had seen her, she had obviously seen me and grinned at me in a rather smug manner.
“For my food blog!” she said excitedly.
I couldn’t help grinning back, although, more like someone who has just lost a lot of money at the poker table. Shit! I thought. Am I one of these people? I hastily put away my camera and moved on pretty sharpish. On my tube journey home I tried to justify my purpose for taking photos and suddenly felt like a bit of a hypocrite, but then this is a means to and end, and an end that will be very different to old snappy-snaps at the fish counter. Saved by my own train of thought, if you can’t convince yourself, how are you ever going to convince anyone else.
Back at home, I laid out my meat on the chopping board and tried to divide up the mixed game: the pigeon wasn’t a problem as it was in its own packet, the others were a right pain in the backside. Despite sniffing each piece and scrutinising the fat that dangled off, the futile game of ‘guess who?’ came to an abrupt end. I would treat each one slightly different, both in the traditional preparation of biltong (see how to make Biltong), but with a few tweaks. The pigeon got a sprinkle of chilli flakes and a pinch of cumin and the mixed game, a few ground juniper berries. Experimental for sure, but whether they would come to fruition was an entirely different matter
After struggling up the narrow cellar stairs with the my biltong machine, I took stock of the huge glut of meat I had to process; this machine was going to have to work its bollocks off this time to make my dreams come true. Not every experiment goes to plan; otherwise they just wouldn’t be experiments. Some you fluke with a huge amount of jammyness, others are the cause of a mistake that miraculously works out for the better. In the comfort that Heston probably spends hours specked up in his ‘kitchen-lab’ swotting through the finer points of gastronomic perfection, I felt that if things did go wrong, it was all in the name of research…or science?
48 hours later, allowing for some of the fatter chunks to get well dehydrated, I decided it was the moment of truth. Gingerly reaching for the pigeon first, I took my first bite. It was actually quite pleasant: a slight hint of gamey flavour, a little heat from the chilli flakes and a good input from both the sugar and vinegar used in the preparation. Yes! Pigeon was a keeper.
The Game mix. Oh the game mix! Apart from the fact I didn’t really know which was which it was a bit of a lucky dip as to the animal I would try first. Some were actually quite good from the start, but after a bit of mastication, the meat slowly began to dissolve on the palate, I began to feel familiar sensation rising through my body from the stomach, commonly known as retching.
I don’t know if it was the cut of meat, the juniper berries, or even just the dried out gamey flavour that made me feel like I was chewing on an old sock worn by a trench foot victim, but it was quite unpleasant.
Experimental cooking is all about trial and error, in this case there were mixed results some good, some bad. But know I can tick a few other things off the list for both you and me: game doesn’t make great biltong. Beef is a fine staple and one I think I will stick to when it comes to biltonging stuff, I cant help but wonder what lamb might be like with a subtle minty edge to it…I will have to report back on that one. For now, all I can say is that I might have to get rid of that botched batch of biltong (not the pigeon, I’ve almost finished that), woe betide the next people that come round here for supper…