You just need to delve right in," says chef Tom Oldroyd, pointing to a bowl of ground duck with his meat-smeared fingers, "and give it a good long, thorough massage." He's teaching me the art of making the perfect meatball and apparently it's all in the way you mix it. "After I've massaged it," Oldroyd continues, "I like to drag my fingers through it, over and over to make sure it's really properly blended."
I reach into the bowl and give the cold, damp meat a good squeeze. It oozes up between my fingers and sticks to my hands like lumpy putty. The breadcrumbs go in. These, says Oldroyd, are the vital ingredient as they give the meatball its texture and soak up all the juices from the meat. We stand there together, up to our elbows in meat, pumping away. It has to be one of the most inelegant jobs in the kitchen. But the humble meatball is having something of a moment right now and, if you know where to look, you'll find them cropping up on all the most fashionable menus.
At Polpetto in Soho, where Oldroyd works, they offer two meatballs – duck and porcini or spicy pork and fennel. It's no coincidence that it is currently considered one of the most fashionable establishments in London. Meanwhile, Jonathan Downey's ultra-trendy Giant Robot in Clerkenwell and Tiny Robot in Westbourne Park both offer a classic version of the American favourite, spaghetti and meatballs. And last week Gallery Mess, the restaurant at the Saatchi Gallery, unveiled its latest enterprise – Meatball Monday – to lure punters in over the long winter months.
It's a trend that has made its way over here from the other side of the Atlantic. In the States the meatball is much loved and considered virtually a national dish. The appetite for them started hotting up recently when a group of chefs began battling it out to create the perfect meatball. "For the past few years restaurants on the east coast and on the west coast have been engaged in a competition to create the most delicious meatball," says Philip Owens, chef at the award-winning caterers Rhubarb Food Design and designer of the meatball menu at Gallery Mess. "It seems to have captured the public imagination and really caught on."
It is in New York, however, where competition has reached fever pitch and one of the most fashionable places to eat in the entire city right now is a little place called the Meatball Shop on the Lower East Side, which offers five different meatballs, matched with a sauce, for just a few dollars. "The world has never known a more perfect meatball hero," gushed The Village Voice when it opened earlier this year.
In July New York magazine ran a lavish story entitled "a year in meatballs" which featured beautifully photographed dishes including the pork and star anise offerings from the Northern Spy Food Co, grass-fed beef balls from Balaboosta and Mamma Maria's $5 version bought from the now famous meatball cart which sits outside the midtown restaurant Mia Dona. There are upscale versions, too. The plush Armani restaurant on Fifth Avenue recently introduced its diners to the delights of wild boar meatballs, which it serves with mushroom sauce and salad.
"Without a doubt there is a massive thing for meatballs in New York at the moment," says Polpetto owner Russell Norman. "I think it's because it's a really honest, back-to-basics dish. We are in the midst of a recession and it's the austerity foods that come back into vogue at times like this. People are looking for things that are simple and inexpensive." He clearly can't get enough of them. When he opened his first restaurant Polpo, Polpetto's big sister, a year ago, traditional pork and beef meatballs were a mainstay of the menu. Norman estimates that since opening, customers have devoured more than of 100,000 of them. He has plans to open a third restaurant, Spuntino, along with business partner Richard Beatty, as soon as they can find a venue. He promises the new venture will be rolling in meatballs.
"There are meatballs on the menu at Polpo," says Norman. "There are even more meatballs on the menu at Polpetto. And when we open Spuntino, there will be more meatballs than ever before."
At Spuntino Norman plans to introduce London to another American favourite called the slider. "A slider is basically a single meatball which comes served in a small bun, like a burger but smaller. We're not very familiar with them in this country but in the States they are really popular. They are doing sliders at Locanda Verde which is a very cool new restaurant in the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. It comes as a single, beautiful herby lamb ball served in a brioche bun."
Owens promises to introduce London to an array of meatballs from even further afield. On his Saatchi menu he promises Mexican-style meatballs with smoky tomato sauce, chicken and pork meatballs with cannellini beans based on an old Italian recipe and Spanish meatballs served in a sherry sauce. "The brilliant thing about meatballs is that everyone has got their own take on them," enthuses Owen. "I have come across versions in every country from China to India and Scandinavia to Japan. I see meatballs as a blank canvas. You can take them as a base from which to be really creative."
Meanwhile, the search for the perfect meatball recipe goes on. The whole team at Polpetto spend a lot of time tasting and trialling meatball recipes. Currently they are working on a lamb ball with walnuts, raisins and parsley but have yet to hit upon the right formula. And Oldroyd tells me about a lamb and rosemary ball with mozzarella centre that he is experimenting with, but can't quite get the cheese to melt just so.
"Sometimes we get it in one," says Norman. "With the duck and porcini it took just three or four attempts to get it right, but the lamb is proving more difficult. The secret is in getting exactly the right amount of breadcrumbs to lighten up the mixture so the meat doesn't just sit in your stomach."
Norman is preparing to fly off to New York for a tour of all the city's top meatball establishments. No doubt he'll come back with a few more clever recipe ideas up his sleeve. "I don't think you should ever blindly follow food trends," he says, "but I think in this case it's down to an interest in simple, honest, good food. And meatballs are the best example of that."
1kg minced pork
500g minced beef
Small pinch of dried chilli flakes
3 cloves of finely chopped garlic
Half a handful of chopped parsley
Combine (massage) the ingredients thoroughly and roll into 45g fat sausages, coat in flour, deep fry until golden brown and then poach in tomato sauce for 10 minutes.
You will have roughly 30 balls, which serves six as a main course.
Duck and porcini meatballs
8 boned duck legs, skin removed, keep fat on, reserve bones
2 boned confit duck leg, skin removed
160g dried porcini, soaked for hour and liquid strained and reserved
120g breadcrumbs per 1kg meat
Small glass red wine
1 small tin of chopped tomatoes
an onion, 1 carrot, 1 stick of celery and some parsley stalks (all roughly chopped)
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Start by making a duck stock; brown the bones in a large pan with a little oil, add the chopped vegetables and sweat for 5 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the porcini liquid and 2l of water, let this simmer gently for 1 hour.
Take your duck (both raw and confit) and grind on a medium grinder. In a mixing bowl add the breadcrumbs, finely chopped porcini and season generously. (You should not need eggs as the porcini will bind the mixture.)
Roll the mixture into small golf balls, roll in a little flour and fry in the oil until lightly browned all over.
In a pan that holds all the balls in a single layer; add the balls, the tin of tomatoes and half the porcini duck stock. Simmer gently for 1 hours or until the balls are soft and tender, adding stock as and when the balls stick to the bottom of the pan.
You will have roughly 30 balls, serves six as a main course.
Lamb and rosemary meatballs
1.5kg minced lamb
3 cloves of garlic finely crushed
Half a handful of finely chopped rosemary
Combine (massage) thoroughly and roll into 45g fat sausages, lay on a lined baking tray and place in oven preheated to 220c for 12-15 mins. Let them rest for 10 mins before devouring.
You will have roughly 30 balls, serves six as a main course.