Food: Stewed in my own juices
Irish, French or, best of all, Spanish, you just can't beat a good stew
Sunday 03 January 1999
We know that a good stew is a defence against the world, fortifying our body and mind against the cold and impolite winds of winter. We know that the time it takes to stew is quality time rather than down time. Every little plop and bubble adds another extra dimension for our taste buds to play with. Grill a steak for another hour or two and you can make a shoe out of it. Stew a stew for another hour or two, and you get richer, deeper flavour. Leave it to rest for a day or two, and you are close to greatness.
We also know that an honest-to-goodness Irish stew does not have carrots in it, and no correspondence will be entered into on the subject.
We even know that some stews aren't stews at all, but casseroles, and we don't care. If we cared, we wouldn't be able to enjoy a Lancashire hot pot, with its lamb neck, kidneys and potatoes, because it is cooked in a slow oven instead of over a flame. The same semantic technicality knocks out France's iconic cassoulet, a magnificent beast of a casserole, with its golden crust, molten juices and chunks of smoked sausage, pork and duck confit. The French novelist Anatole France, one of your 19th-century Prats, once described it as "a taste which one finds in the paintings of Old Venetian masters, in the amber flesh-tints of their women". (This was in the days before it was decided that men and women referring to each other's body parts was demeaning, rather than celebratory.)
For once, Great Britain gets a good look in, if not for the Irish stew, a glorious monument to the never-ending bond between lamb and potatoes, then for its rib-sticking beef stew and dumplings and its dark, unctuous, glistening ox-tail stew. Not for the Brits all those funny things the French put in their stews, the "bull-frogs, old gloves, old wigs or old shoes" of RH Barham's little 19th-century ditty. But a French stew is a marvellous thing, shoes aside. Beef, red wine, mushrooms, onions and bacon all add up to a boeuf bourguignon. Stew a little veal in some good stock, then make a sauce with cream and egg yolks, and you have a blanquette to keep you warm all winter. The names alone are enough to make you feel better: hochepot, coq au vin, pot au feu, navarin, and carbonnade.
Boston does baked beans, Louisiana does gumbo, India does rogan josh, and Italy does osso buco. But for me, the finest of stews is Spanish. The mighty cocido Madrilenos, of chick peas, stewing beef, and spicy sausages. Cocido (correctly pronounced "kotheedo") is traditionally made by the housewives of Madrid on Monday nights, when there's not much else on. It doesn't sound very special, admittedly, but have it at the famous La Bola Taberna in Madrid, where little has changed since it opened in 1873; neither the old-fashioned politeness of the waiters, nor the porcelain chandelier, nor even the family who run it. And especially not the daily cocido, still cooked in big earthenware crocks over a wood fire, and served only at lunch.
La Bola was once the home away from home to the Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, during her tempestuous bullfighter period. Or was it her cocido period?
First, you are served with broth strained from the earthenware crocks by old-retainer waiters who skilfully manage to get as much soup on their customers as they get into the bowls. A large table napkin is provided, but a canvas marquee may be more to the point. Then the second course, of gently cooked meats, sausages, vegetables and chick peas, is served with its natural companion, the excellent Valdepenas local wine.
By the time you've finished the very last spoonful (and you will always finish the very last spoonful) it's easy to understand why the cocido was the only stew ever to carry a royal decree, as given by King Alfonso XIII - obviously one of the great Prats of all time.
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