Food: Taking stock

Why bother with fancy ingredients and fancier names? True gravy should come from the joint and that's all it should taste of. Illustration by Paul Blow

I had a delicious Sunday lunch at the Tate Gallery Restaurant recently, which included a generous plate of traditional roast beef. One caveat: the horseradish was Frank Cooper's, or some such other bottled variety. Why, now that it is so easy for chefs to find ingredients from all over the world, every day of the week, is a simple stick of fresh horseradish rarely grated of a Sunday morning to accompany one of our few traditional feasts? I mean, everyone - and that's everyone - knows that home-made horseradish sauce is simply marvellous stuff.

Now I know it makes you weep a bit when you grate it - and believe me, it must be grated, and by hand, as anyone who has tried short cuts with the food processor will know full well that the resultant fibrous mess turns out as bitter as any gall. This was one particular job I would never give to a commis to do, when I toiled in the kitchens of Bibendum. Apart from the fact that I made it better than anyone else (I did, I did!), it was a sorry sight to see a keen young lad crying in a corner of the kitchen.

Now I know that horseradish is nothing new to Scandinavian countries and in traditional middle-European cookery, particularly in Austria: a slice of tafelspitz (a boiled cut of beef) would feel quite nude without its tracklement of grated root. However, the Sunday beef relish, that is nothing more than finely grated horseradish, double cream, salt, sugar and lemon juice, is particularly British. And there is no cooking, for heaven's sake. It just needs stirring together until thick - an enzyme in the root together with the lemon juice coagulates the mixture in minutes. Until you have made it for the first time, you will not be able to judge how nose-runningly fiery you wish the sauce to be. Cookery is all about learning how to taste. Your taste.

Now the Tate gravy was very good. It indeed tasted of the roast. An obvious observation, maybe, but a rarity in these days of le jus abominable. In fact, upon mentioning this to our charming waitress, she was most emphatic that in her dining room, it was always referred to as "jus". You see what I mean? And although she may not have been English speaking - and therefore unfamiliar with "gravy" - she most definitely felt happier with that other word.

I remember choosing roast beef for Sunday lunch once in the village of Lower Slaughter, in the very English Cotswolds. It was chef's final Sunday lunch on that unfortunate day. We - and everyone else in the dining room - soon became aware that his departure was not amicable as he circulated the dining room after lunch.

But chef had recently been awarded a Michelin star. Ah, I thought, so that's why the gravy on the traditional roast beef resembled thinned Marmite. No horseradish was offered at all here; well, that is, until I asked for some. A sorry smear appeared later as if scraped from the very bottom of a large catering jar, and to make matters worse, it had also unpleasantly oxidised in the ferocious heat of his stellar kitchen. I felt quite pleased that this arrogant young fellow was on his way, and although sympathetic to his ex-employers over their loss, one could only think that he was never the right man for the job in the first place. If he did not even know how to make decent beef gravy, in a comfortable country house hotel, on a Sunday, he was probably the kind of chef who would be happier plaiting green beans.

Of course, the reason why most restaurant gravies (well, masquerading as) turn out like this so often, is because all chefs rely far too much these days on buckets and buckets of the ubiquitous veal stock, in varying stages of reduction. Sure, it is all right to include a boost from this cure-all to add body and soul, but essentially, true gravy is something that comes from the joint, tastes of it and should only act as lubrication to the meat, once sliced. Gravy is nothing at all to do with sauce.

Naturally, it doesn't now help one jot that beef may not be roasted with bones attached. But even when that was possible, I would always add chopped nuggets from a very cheap cut (shin, brisket or any off-cuts that your butcher might usually use for mince) and arrange them around the roast until, by the time the beef is done, will have become dreadful dried-up little lumps. But they give enormously to the gravy, once reconstituted by the addition of various liquids. With pork I use bits of belly; a leg of lamb I surround with strips of breast; chicken simply needs a few chopped wing tips.

For good gravy, I never include any vegetables, though I will often use the water in which they were cooked (particularly potato water, but without the starchy sediment). A collection of the usual chopped stock vegetables - carrot, leek, onion, celery - muddles a good gravy, turning it into quite something else: sauce. Gravy does not want to taste of much more than the meat you are cooking, allowing any attendant vegetables to taste of themselves. This is why these days when a roast is cooked by a chef who only knows how to make a lamb jus, a veal jus or, heaven forbid, a venison or ostrich jus, it just tastes of "chef" - an absurd remark maybe, but I think you get my drift. These so-called jus are not gravy, because they are made totally separate from the cooking meat.

When making gravy, never be ashamed of using the sticky black bottle of gravy browning - although sooner or later this will, I am sure, vanish from the supermarket shelf along with anchovy essence, mushroom ketchup and pickled walnuts which, as far as I am concerned, remain a trio of treasured ingredients. Though a friend recently enlightened me with the good news that the latter three had suddenly reappeared in his local branch of Sainsbury's. And about time too. After all, gravy browning is nothing more than burnt sugar; I mean, if one is simply doing one's best to obtain as many natural carbon and caramel deposits from underneath the roast as it cooks, a drip or two of browning into the finished gravy, if necessary, is as insignificant a tweak as a sprig of mint on a ball of vanilla ice - and a hell of a lot more useful.

I roasted a duck recently, and jolly nice it was too. It was a perfectly ordinary, mass-produced Jemima, horribly wrapped in a plastic bag, damp within and its packaging neatly stamped with the information that it was a "Norfolk duckling". This, of course, means nothing at all. It might well have lived its short life in Runcorn, Coventry or Oldham, for all I knew. In other words, it was just a duck. It did, however, have a neat bag of giblets stuffed inside its cavity. So why, pray, do all factory produced chickens now come without giblets? What is the difference between the giblets of a duck and a chicken? More insane sproutings from the loonies in Brussels no doubt.

Just to give you some idea of how this jus thing is spiralling out of control, here is a quote from a recent food article in a popular trade weekly referring to " ... a rack of lamb (served) with a palate-cleansing juniper jus, rather than one based on the more traditional rosemary". How, pray, does juniper cleanse the palate? And does rosemary have difficulty performing this service? It also occurs to me, that the one thing you most remember after eating a particularly lip-sticking jus, is how efficiently it coats your palate. It is hardly a cleansing lotion, however it is perfumed

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