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.
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.