I heard my first Christmas jingle a couple of weeks ago. It was still October and I was whisked back in time to a fairly hideous, squirm making early career in hotel management. It was the 1980’s. I was the Operations Manager of the largest leisure hotel in the country. To this day, I can’t think why I took the job. Seems I always relished the almost vertical learning curve opportunity.
A leisure hotel is quite different from your touristy hotel. Their whole business relies on ‘all day entertainment’ and high volume, low cost accommodation. A cabaret team performed seven nights a week; there were three ballrooms; swimming pool complex, a nightclub and four bars, not to mention conference and dining facilities. Most of the guests went ‘full board’ in high season, which meant producing 3,500 meals a day. A big, exhausting operation. Much like Butlins, with 500 rooms stacked up over thirteen floors. To top it all, the hotel was shaped like a boat and the lift didn’t go to the 13th floor!
The hotel specialised in short breaks, theme weekends or in the case of ‘Country & Western’ a whole tedious week. On these occasions we would be overwhelmed by literally hundreds of people in cowboy hats and boots, line dancing and thigh slapping at unnerving frequency. When you do this sort of thing in small numbers its fun and fine, but we regularly had over a thousand people staying in the hotel at any one time. Christmas wasn’t wasted as a single annual event either. Every weekend from the start of October through to the real thing, the hotel celebrated Christmas and New Year – over four days. So, for at least 10 consecutive Fridays it was Christmas Eve with carols and mince pies. Saturdays, Christmas day. And oh, how we had fun, celebrating with Santa, turkey, crackers, funny hats – the full works. Sunday was Boxing Day that morphed into New Years Eve by the time it went dark, and no one seemed to go to bed. We bundled them into their coaches on the Monday – New Years day of course, to get ready to do it all over again. When the real thing came, the true message of Christmas was completely lost.
In contrast, with excellent memories I have chosen a recipe that is just perfect for the chilly weather to come. It tastes wonderful and benefits from being made a day or two in advance, or frozen, which works beautifully. Some people are wary of buying venison in case it is very strong in taste. Some is, but check with the butcher – supermarket venison wont be strong. Buttling’s is selling excellent venison this month, but if you can't get venison or would prefer beef, stewing beef or rump is a good substitute. Enjoy your celebrations, however and how often you like! aif
Venison (or beef) Ragout with Chestnuts, Port and Orange (serves 5-6)
Around £2.46 for venison or £2.00 for beef, per portion when all ingredients purchased in the Donheads.
900g Diced venison or beef
2 medium onions, sliced – or 225g small whole onions - skinned
1 tbsp plain flour seasoned with salt and lots of ground black pepper
600ml vegetable stock (you could use chicken stock at a push – cubes run the risk of too much salt)
140 ml Port*
A few drops of balsamic vinegar
2 tsp redcurrant jelly
1orange – grated rind and juice
Sunflower oil (for browning the meat)
200g Vacuum-packed / tinned whole chestnuts (NOT dried, pureed or sweetened)
* Sorry, no comparable non-alcoholic substitute for this – the alcohol will all have been cooked out however. The dish benefits enormously by the flavour it helps create, but leave it out if you really need to.
Oven 180°C / Gas Mark 4 / AGA – grid shelf on floor of roasting oven or mid shelf Baking oven (4 door AGA)
1. Coat the meat chunks in the flour mix, reserving approx 2 tsp for later.
2. Using a heavy casserole dish, brown the meat in the hot oil, in small amounts keeping the pan hot (too much meat at a time will make for a grey, soggy mess!) Keep the batches of browned meat warm.
3. In a small pan, melt the redcurrant jelly in the port and set aside.
4. When all the meat is browned and put aside, add a little more oil to the pan and lower the heat a little. Add the onions and cook for 10 minutes, scraping the wonderfully sticky brown bits off the bottom of the pan as you go. Stir the onions occasionally so they cook evenly.
5. Dust in the reserved 2 tsp of seasoned flour and cook for a further minute, before gradually adding the (hot) vegetable stock and the balsamic vinegar, stirring continually as the sauce boils.
6. Stir in the orange rind and juice, port & jelly mix and the chestnuts.
7. Replace the meat back in the pan, stir well and cover with a lid.
8. Cook in a moderate oven for 2 hours.
9. Cool completely and either refrigerate or freeze at this stage.
10. Before serving, give the casserole a further 90 minutes, simmering in a moderate oven. (Increase to 2 hours if straight from the fridge)
Delicious served with creamy mashed potatoes and braised leeks or carrots.
A truly, truly scrumptious, seasonal recipe.
With fresh, seasonal ingredients being at the core of all good cooking, I am hoping this and any future jottings and recipes will encourage you to enjoy with me, the pleasure to be had from local food. To be at ease with a mix of common readily available and seasonal ingredients, is all we need.
As the first regular recipe column (I believe) in the Donhead Digest, it’s going to be many years before we can build up a good variety and choice of recipes. Nonetheless I will try to keep a good balance of ideas, budget and skill levels. Primarily, ingredients will be sourced from our local Ludwell Stores, Buttlings butchers and the Greenacre Farm Shop or possibly have you scurrying to the vegetable bed, fruit cage or hedgerow.
Food has been a magnificent obsession of mine since my early twenties, and no doubt contributed to my ballooning waist line (the foodie’s occupations hazard.) This passion was not borne out of childhood memories of watching grandma bake bread or my mother’s jugged hare, although she did serve a spectacular ‘scrag-end’ stew, but rather from hunger and need for work. This all changed and the passion grew.
I’ve had twenty odd years working in the Hospitality industry and despite some grim early experiences (stories of which would make your hair curl…another issue maybe)… it’s been fantastic if hard on the feet. More than anything, I now appreciate entertaining at home, experimenting on friends who so far, seem happy to humour me when I have the odd disaster. It’s probably the doggie bags of successes they come for, as I still make enough for a restaurant full! It’s these ideas and recipes, together with some stories of the catering business, I hope to engage you with in future issues of the Donhead Digest.
My first recipe, of what I hope will be many, according to Nigella, is a pudding eaten in Britain since the late 1700’s, and when you’ve tried it, you’ll see why. Simple puddings are compelling, and this one offers a velvety apple puree with a hint of cinnamon. The sugary, crunchy but light casing just melts in the mouth. The soaked sultana’s and complimentary fruit, are both optional.
This wonderful pudding can be made in advance (on the day) and warmed through before serving, or even eaten cold. Perfect for Sunday Lunch as not too heavy and makes a great elevensees treat – especially when finishing up ‘leftovers’ alone with a cup of coffee the following day! Aif
Apple Charlotte (serves 6 - 8) Around 38p per portion when all ingredients purchased in the Donhead's. (Using windfalls; hedgerow fruits; store cupboard ingredients = about 15p pp)
1.35kg Apples (mix of eaters or cookers, not too tart)*
1 Brioche loaf or rolls (you will only use half)
200g Unsalted butter
3 Egg yolks (keep a little of the white)
75g Caster sugar
2-3 tbls Demerara sugar
1 Cinnamon stick (you can use ½ tsp grnd cinnamon if necessary)
Optional….but worth it.
75g Golden sultana’s soaked in 3 tbls of hot Calvados and left until plump
* Replace one third of the apple with any mix of hedgerow berries or currants. Blackberries work brilliantly at this time of year.
Oven 180°C / Gas Mark 4 / AGA – grid shelf on floor with cold shelf above
1. Peel, core and chop apples and add to pan with 30g butter, 600ml water, cinnamon stick and caster sugar.
2. Cook over medium high heat with lid on for about 10 minutes until soft, then beat until smooth and transfer to bowl to cool, removing the cinnamon stick.
3. Melt remaining butter and paint the bottom and sides of a 21/23 cm loose-based cake tin.
4. Line the bottom and sides with thin slices of the brioche, painting with butter as you go. Build up a jigsaw with no gaps whatsoever, and then paint the joins with a little egg white to seal.
5. Beat the egg yolks and soaked sultana’s if using, into the cooled apple mix and then fill the bread-lined cake tin.
6. Layer the top with buttered brioche slices, again forming a neat jigsaw. Paint generously with the remaining butter.
7. Sprinkle over the demerara sugar.
8. Cook on (preferably) a pre-heated baking sheet for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. (The baking sheet helps contain any dribbles).
9. Remove from the tin when cooled a little, to avoid subsidence!
10. Slice and serve with cream or ice-cream - see below.
Wonderful served with a scoop of Amaretto iced cream. Literally Iced cream. Whip whipping cream to soft peaks, fold in a little sieved icing sugar to taste, crushed Amaretti biscuits and a slug of Amaretto (or any liqueur – not essential) and freeze. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before scooping out to serve.
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.