In a pickle

Food: Bottled, salted, cured or sun-dried - foods no longer kept for a rainy day
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I was wondering the other day about which preserved foods - those purely reserved for use at another time - are now actually eaten as such. Probably not too many. This is hardly surprising when you think of the ease of the freezer, coupled with our impatience and fickleness when it comes to eating unseasonal food.

The two most recent examples of this are "sun-dried" ingredients and others titled as a confit - or, more usually (lazily), as confit-something- or-other. The French word confit means preserved (confiture - jam or preserve). Some of you may possibly think confit is confined to being a way of cooking duck or goose. Well, yes, it is - up to a point. But the origins of this particular method were to preserve the duck for eating during the cold months - salted first with herbs and spice, then buried in duck or goose fat and slowly, slowly cooked at the merest of simmers for about two hours. These joints of tenderest fowl were then stored in stone jars and left to mature somewhere dark and cool, covered completely with their bath of fat. The longer the period in this insulation, the richer and more deeply flavoured the meat. Today, one wonders whether the restaurant confit gets much more than a week.

The same goes for those wrinkled little rust-coloured, sun-dried tomatoes. What did we ever do to deserve having these useless little leathery chaps thrust upon us in such a wave of nonsensical misplacement? It's not their fault, of course. Tomatoes were only sun-dried so that they - like the ubiquitous confit - could be used during the winter months in braises and stewed meats to add flavour and impart intense sweetness.

What other salted and preserved ingredients do we use without thinking about it? Anchovies, obviously, and pickled and salted herrings, such as the delicious Dutch matjes. Scandinavian sweet pickled herrings are now big business over here, and are available, ready to use, in various preparations. The texture is one of their most appealing points - almost fudgy and nicely slippery in whatever lotion you choose; sour cream is one of my favourites, along with dill and mustard, a Madeira-flavoured liquor and many others. Salted cod (baccala), too, is starting to make its mark here. See the following recipe for making your own - it's dead easy.

British bacon used to be one of our finest glories. At least, it was until we started to import that watery stuff from Denmark (stick to herrings, say I). It is now a rare thing to find a butcher, delicatessen or supermarket that will slice bacon to order.

I remember well as a kid shopping for Mum, cycling up to the local Co- op and asking for "half a pound of best back on number 5 please, and it's divi number 10"! - or some such. Dead grown up.

But there are still excellent bacon and ham curers around the country - particularly in counties such as Suffolk and Wiltshire - who use either a traditional dry cure or sweet and mysterious brines involving beers and stouts, molasses and spices ... These are often also smoked and turn out blackened and deeply scented. Marvellous. Henrietta Green's exhaustive research into this dying art - and other small provenders - can be found in her splendidly useful book The Food Lover's Guide To Britain (BBC Books pounds 12.99).

Home-made duck confit, serves 4

It is always best to make confit from the legs of the bird; it's not essential, but the meat here has a more muscular structure than the breast and consequently behaves better when it has to be over-cooked. Breast meat simply goes stringy and would be better cooked either with its original carcass, ie roasted on the bone, or removed from the bone raw to be grilled or fried. Duck or goose fat can be bought in jars from good food stores - or, if you are frequent duck or goose roasters, you may well have some already saved up.

4 rounded tsp good quality salt (Maldon, French sel gris, if you can get it)

4 rounded tsp sugar

6-7 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

10 black peppercorns

generous grating nutmeg

4 fatty duck legs

about 570-700ml/1-114 pints duck or goose fat, depending on the size of your cooking pot

6-8 cloves garlic, un-peeled and bruised

The day before:

Grind together, in a small food processor, the first six ingredients to a fine powder. Pour half into a shallow dish and place the duck legs, flesh-side down, upon this. Sprinkle over the rest, cover with cling film and put into the fridge, or in a cool place, for about 18-24 hours, turning the legs over at half-time.

Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1.

Melt the fat in a solid cast-iron pot over a low heat. Rinse the duck legs under running water and slide into the fat, together with the garlic. Bring the fat up to a gentle simmer and then place in the oven. Cook for about two hours, or until a metal skewer shows so little resistance to the meat that it might almost not be there.

Allow to cool and store in a suitable pot, stone jar or the dish you cooked the confit in, making sure the meat is completely covered by fat. Keep in the fridge for at least 3-4 weeks, please.

Home-made salt cod

I bought such a pile of spankingly fresh cod in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, earlier this year that I was forced to salt some of them. This is no bad reason for salting food, either: if the fish is of such quality and price, the process of salting and drying will simply mean you will have exceptionally fine salt cod. Stored in re-sealable plastic bags at the bottom of the fridge (it does smell a bit), the cod will keep for months.

NB: it is not really worth using a fish smaller than the size specified. Also, the fatter the fillets, the less dried-out the flesh will become from salting and drying.

1 large (about 4kg/81/2lb) whole cod, head removed and filleted by the fishmonger

500g/1lb 2oz coarse sea salt

Try to remove the last of all the bones from the fillets before salting (a pair of pliers is excellent for doing this), as it is much easier to do it now than when the fish is cooked at a later date. Cut each fillet into two roughly equal pieces and lay skin-side down in a deep tray. Pour the salt over and press lightly onto the fish. Leave for 24 hours, turning once half-way through this period. You will notice that a great deal of liquid comes out of the flesh; don't be alarmed - this is the point of salting and preserving.

When I salted my cod earlier this year, I first of all lifted the cod out of its briny liquid, hung each piece up to drain over the sink with the help of four butcher's hooks and left them there for an hour or two until the dripping stopped. I then hooked them to the edge of my empty window box frames (I live in a first-floor flat) and left them to dry in the sunshine for about 2-3 weeks until they resembled pieces of old board. Those of you who have a city garden or live in the country can easily make use of all sorts of breezy corners.

I must warn you that the fish will start to smell after a few days - but, then, all proper salt cod does. Mine did not seem to attract wasps or flies, but if you are worried about this, you could always wrap each piece in a scrap of muslin or suchlike at the beginning of the drying process. Once the fish has hardened up, remove the cladding so that air and sun - if any - can do their work.

I must stress that it is worth undertaking this period of air/sun drying, as the distinctive flavour of true salt cod will not otherwise develop. Simply salting the fish for a few days (as I have noticed in some recipes for in-house cod-salting) and then soaking in water achieves nothing significant: one might as well not bother.

When you come to use the salt fish, soak in cold water for about 12-18 hours, changing the water several times. Immerse a piece in cold water, bring to a simmer and switch off. Leave for 10 minutes to finish cooking, drain, remove skin and use in any manner of recipes suited to salt cod. The following one, which is quick and simple to prepare, is intensely savoury.

Salt cod hash, serves 2

1 tbsp olive oil

75g/3oz streaky bacon (pancetta is good), cut into slivers

1 medium-sized potato, peeled, cut into dice, boiled till tender and well drained

175g/6oz salt cod

1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped

3 spring onions, finely chopped

2 hard boiled eggs, shelled and grated

1 tbsp chopped parsley

1-2 tbsp red wine vinegar

freshly ground black pepper

Take a roomy, preferably non-stick frying pan and pour in the olive oil. Fry the bacon until crisp, and then add the potatoes. Continue cooking until the potatoes have also browned, and stir in the cod, garlic, onions and eggs. Stir-fry briskly for 3-4 minutes until all is well coloured and then, finally, mix in the parsley and vinegar. Tip onto a warmed serving dish and grind over the pepper. Eat at once

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