Union snacks: Forget hotdogs and burgers - classic British savouries are ripe for revival
Though burgers, pizzas and even hotdogs have improved out of all recognition at certain specialist outlets, my snack of choice remains an item that would have been recognised by Dr Johnson. Welsh rarebit, specifically the one that seethes under the grill at St John restaurant in Smithfield, hits the bull's eye with its tempting aroma, golden good looks and reasonable cost (£5.20).
A pungent amalgam of cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce and strong, mature cheddar, it merits a detour at any hour but as Fergus Henderson points out in The Complete Nose to Tail, "it makes a splendid savoury at the end of your meal, washed down with a glass of port". You will note that the genial guv'nor of St John says "at the end". Yes, Welsh rarebit (or rabbit) works surprisingly well as an alternative to the customary dessert (Henderson's rendition is so plump and generous that you might want to share it). Indeed, it can be a happier conclusion than a pud, which particularly in the case of chocolatey affairs, tends to obliterate all that goes before.
If this sounds a particularly male approach, I might point out that if my wife spots it on a restaurant menu, she makes a terrier-like dash for the rarebit, planning her meal round the bubbling finale. London restaurants that serve Welsh rarebit among their offerings range from the stoutly traditional Sweetings in the City to the hip Rivington in Shoreditch and the glossy Caprice In Mayfair. Bettys in York also serves a substantial version.
At the culinary lighthouse of Quo Vadis in Soho, Jeremy Lee offers a tempting variant in the form of grilled Ogleshield sandwich. "It is a rather extravagant use of an amazing cheese made from unpasteurised Jersey milk," Lee admits. "You subject the Ogleshield to a prolonged pounding with mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cut bread in very thin slices, make sandwiches and grill slowly for a long time. When people get the little sandwich served on a tiny white tray, they say, 'Is that it?', but when they have a nibble they say, 'Oh, point taken.' It's quite rich, very delicious."
There is no obligation for savouries to be of a cheesy nature. St John's devilled lambs' kidneys on toast (cayenne, mustard and Worcestershire sauce supply the infernal heat) gives Welsh rarebit a good run for its money, The fashionable fishy haunt of J Sheekey, in London, offers the option of soft herring roes on toast. This comforting combination has made a regular appearance in our house since the recent appearance of Canadian herring roes on the fish counter at Waitrose.
Many may think that these items function better as snacks rather than end-of-meal savouries but previous generations had no such qualms. In the 1934 recipe collection Good Savouries, picked by Tom Parker Bowles as one of his top five cookbooks, Ambrose Heath insists that the savoury "makes an admirable ending to a meal, like some unexpected witticism or amusing epigram at the end of a pleasant conversation". In fact, the savoury was not quite the last word, since diners subsequently tackled "the frivolities of dessert".
Ranging from anchovy and chicken-liver toasts (a highly successful nibble) to devilled prawns on toast and fried Camembert, these savouries must have been fairly modest in size if they were to be an entr'acte between main course and pud. You can see this with angels on horseback (Heath maintained that oysters wrapped in "very thin rashers of streaky bacon" then skewered, grilled and served on small pieces of buttered toast resulted in "the finest savoury of all"), but it is hard to see how more substantial combinations such as cheese artichokes (boiled globe artichoke bottoms on toast topped with Béchamel sauce, egg yolk and grated cheese) could be made small. Oddly, Heath omitted Welsh rarebit and its cousin buck rarebit (topped with a poached egg) because "we are only too familiar through their constant reoccurrence at table".
However, he does include the French equivalent, croque monsieur. The most popular of French savouries, it was invented around 1910 and mentioned by Proust a decade later. Finally gaining traction on this side of the Channel, the croque monsieur is a very protean nibble. Heath insists it is a small sandwich containing cheese-ham-cheese layers (the cheese is Gruyère) that is quick-fried in butter so the cheese doesn't melt.
In his authoritative book, Classic Cheese Cookery, Peter Graham agrees on the content but says the bread should be buttered and the sandwich grilled until the cheese begins to ooze out. "The breed of croque monsieur widely available today in French cafés," he adds severely, "is generally but a pale imitation of the genuine dish." Certainly, the version you usually get in Paris – a single, limp slice with a grilled topping of Gruyère béchamel over ham – does not accord with the name of the dish. Croque means crunch.
St John's Welsh rarebit
Since you make the topping in advance, it is worthwhile making enough for two or three snacks. The following amount is sufficient for six slices.
Melt a knob of butter in a saucepan and stir in 1 tablespoon of flour. Cook until it "smells biscuity but is not browning". Add 1 teaspoon of English mustard powder and half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Stir in 200ml Guinness and "a very long splash of Worcestershire sauce". Slowly add 450g grated mature Cheddar. Stir until creamy and pour into a shallow container to set. When you want to make the Welsh rarebit, lightly toast as many slices as you want, then spread the mixture about 1cm thick. Grill until bubbling and golden brown.
Soft herring roe on toast
Wash 225g of soft herring roe, then drain and pat dry with kitchen towel. In a small bowl, prepare 100g of seasoned flour by adding salt, pepper and a quarter- teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Lightly coat pieces of roe in flour. Fry in butter for 3-4 minutes until crispy on the outside (you might want to do this in batches). Serve on buttered toast with finely chopped parsley on top.
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