Black beauties: Liquorice, seaweed, leek ash - and good old black pudding - bring drama to the dinner table
Thursday 11 April 2013
Once, the nearest we got to gastronomic black was dripping-drenched breakfast black pudding, daily prunes that kept one's parents regular, or the little black number we slipped on for a romantic dinner. Then gastropubs and restaurants swapped plates for rustic slabs of black slate. Now chefs are adding drama to their dishes with a striking array of inky foods, from seaweed to black rice, or spooky trumpets of death mushrooms. For tea, there are sinister-looking liquorice macarons washed down with black tea – or a Black Russian if you're feeling frisky.
An intriguing black newcomer is leek ash (from leeks that are charred then pulverised), a trend started by René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen. I first stumbled across it at David Everitt-Matthias's two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage, a dainty deposit on the side of the plate accompanying a masterful centerpiece of turkey, prosciutto and buffalo curd. David recently took leek ash on to the BBC's Saturday Kitchen, so presumably we'll soon all be grilling and grinding leftover leek tops to impress our guests. "It's terribly easy," David assures me. "It adds a nice smokiness, especially to creamy things like goat's cheese. You don't want it too black though, or it'll taste bitter."
Another new black kid on the block is fermented garlic, prized for its toffee texture, slightly aniseed flavour and the fact that, unlike normal garlic, it doesn't give you bad breath. Traditionally a speciality from Korea, fermented garlic is now being produced in special ovens in Bedfordshire and the result will be launched in UK supermarkets this month. It's great for adding flavour to almost any dish and who knows, chewy black garlic cloves may become the next school lunchbox must-have.
Black sesame, also striking for both flavour and colour, is adding panache to our dinner plates, too. Feng Sushi's restaurants, for instance, serve black sesame ice cream and black sesame macarons. "We're currently working on a popcorn with black sesame and dark chocolate – a play on rice cakes and black sesame rice crackers," says co-founder Silla Bjerrum.
Meanwhile, chefs are putting new spins on dark traditional British favourites such as black pudding. Its happy partnering with scallops is well known, but David Everitt-Matthias also purées it with duck fat and cream as an earthy accompaniment to game. Charcutiers such as Trealy Farm, Castellano's and Native Breeds are now producing French-style, smooth-textured boudin noirs, too, and Native Breeds has also gone a step further by creating what it believes to be Britain's first black chorizo – chorizo with added blood. Black as pitch, the chorizos look like fun-sized witches' wands.
If blood and garlic seem hard to stomach, how about wholegrain black rice? Whether you throw it into a mixed-grain salad, eat it in the form of black rice noodles, or cook it with coconut milk to create an eye-catching pud, it's guaranteed to startle. Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi's black rice with coconut milk, banana and mango has been a firm favourite on the breakfast menu at his Soho restaurant Nopi since it opened. "It's a take on a Thai street food dish that I always have when I'm there," he tells me. "People order it for novelty's sake first time around, become hooked, then return to it again and again. A few flights of stairs up from the more anaemic-looking rice pudding, black rice looks striking, tastes divinely nutty and has a texture which is at once al dente, starchy and soft."
Another master of the black culinary arts is Michael Wignall, the two-Michelin-starred hotshot at Pennyhill Park in Surrey. Having noticed a range of intriguing black foods on his good tasting menu, I approached him to cook a dinner that's completely black. Surprisingly, he agreed.
We begin with a starter of lightly salted cod poached in olive oil, served with a charcoal and scallop paste that looks as black and sinister as the sludge in your gutter but tastes like heaven. You make it the same way as mayonnaise but with the addition of cuttlefish or squid ink – which Michael also uses in his signature cassoulet of clams with cuttlefish gnocchi. The paste gets an amazing smokiness from the addition of a few drops of a mixture composed of oil and morsels of charcoal, a technique pioneered by Ferran Adrià at el Bulli. But the pièce de résistance is without doubt the black tapioca and cuttlefish ink wafer crowning it all. It looks like a scrap of black crumpled polystyrene. But if ever there was a party piece, this is it.
The English rose veal main course is an exquisite black nod to spring with its sprinklings of leek ash (yay!), morel mushrooms and shavings of black truffle, and with it there's a crumble of black pudding and walnuts. Although the result looks, as you'd expect, cheffy, it's a dish that can easily be adapted to make at home. That dark crumble is a winner.
Just as I'm wondering how Michael could outblack that, out comes a recipe for black olive sponge pudding on a delicate bed of olive sauce. A dusky version of spotted dick if you like. For seasonality we serve it with poached Yorkshire rhubarb, but it's even better, says Michael, with strawberries, whose acidity cuts beautifully into the olives which start to take on the flavour of liquorice. Just in case the dish isn't dark enough, we sprinkle on shavings of dried olive and vanilla pod, both black as the midnight sky. With its black and pink brushstrokes and ink-blots, the result resembles a painting by Jackson Pollock.
At home, such a feast might sound like gastro-gothic gimmickry. But don't dismiss black food as a fad – if only for one reason: it's amazingly nutritious. Food that's naturally black is being hailed as the "new green", so parents may soon be chivying their children to "eat your blacks".
Take wholegrain black rice, for instance. The plant pigments that makes it black are anthocyanin antioxidants – also found in blueberries, grapes and acai – that have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Black beans, lentils and garlic are also antioxidant powerhouses as well as great sources of fibre. Black pudding contains three times more iron than steak. Next time you're cooking, remember: a little black number can work wonders. On the plate at least.
Michael Wignall at The Latymer, Pennyhill Park Hotel, London Road, Bagshot, Surrey, GU19 5EU, 01276 486150. pennyhillpark.co.uk
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