HAGIS AND BACON – in the Black Forest…

Before my uncle Sidney became one of the star commercial photographers of “swinging sixties” London, he qualified as a dentist. He had wanted to be a doctor, but despite his stellar exam marks, as a Jew, he fell victim of the wicked anti-Jewish quota that was (quite incredibly, given the historical post-WWII context) still in force in 1950’s Britain, so he had to settle for a career in dentistry.

Funnily enough, there was no such quota when it came to National Service. As far as the recruiters for Her Majesty’s armed forces were concerned, so long as you weren’t flat-footed, just about anyone would do, including criminals – and even Jews. Fortunately for Sidney, as a recently qualified medic – though a humble dentist – he was assured a highly enjoyable and adventurous two years, that were to enrich his life in many unforeseen ways.

In Sidney’s case, he was drafted into the medical corps at the rank of lieutenant, and following some very basic military training, was soon promoted to captain, before receiving a dream posting, to a grand schloss, in the Black Forest (in Germany), as part of a medical team.

When not examining mouths, which was not all that much, Sidney’s “onerous” existence included hardships such as learning to drive, and being taught to ski in the nearby Bernese Oberland (across the border in Switzerland), and perhaps worst of all, being put in charge of the schloss’s vast wine cellar. But perhaps the biggest change in Captain Pizan’s life – a seismic change in fact – was to his diet; from that of an observant, kosher, North London Jewish household, to that of a British Army officer’s mess; and thereby hangs an amusing and delicious little tale…

Sidney’s schloss-full of medical officers was commanded by a Colonel (let’s call him) Mackenzie, who happened to be an extremely proud Edinburgh Scot. And like all proud Scots, he loved his Scottish traditions, the most important of which was the piping in of the haggis on Burns Night. However, having little trust in the Sassenach mess cook’s abilities to produce the genuine article, Colonel Mackenzie had his mother’s haggis flown over from Scotland.

And thus, on this particular Burns Night 1954, the entire medical team, in full dress uniform – Mackenzie in his kilt, lined the lavishly presented long dining table. The company then stood to attention, as two squaddies carried in the steaming haggis, born upon their shoulders, on a large silver salver, preceded by a finely regaled Scots Guard piper playing the stirring strains of A Man’s A Man For A’ That. Then, after coronating the delicacy with a dash of flaming whiskey, the colonel himself cut up the haggis which was then distributed among the diners.

But, as a waiter approached him with his portion of sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal and oatmeal, a wary Sidney declined his serving, thus triggering the following exchange between Colonel and captain…

“Captain Pizan” said the colonel.

“Yes Colonel?” replied Sidney.

“Are ye nay gonna eat me mother’s ‘aggis?” asked Mackenzie in his heavy Edinburgh brogue.

“I apologise sir, but my religion forbids me from eating it.”

“So ye say Captain Pizan.”

“Yes Colonel.”

“Captain Pizan.”

“Yes Colonel?”

“Had I nay seen ye tuckin’ into yer bacon and eggs this mornin’ with such relish, I would nay insist ye eat me mother’s ‘aggis. But as I did see ye tuckin’ into yer bacon and eggs this mornin’ with such relish, ye will not only eat me mother’s ‘aggis, you will like me mother’s ‘aggis!”

And so Sidney was involuntarily introduced to the delights of Scottish cuisine, which turned out to be a very good thing indeed, as not only did he indeed like the haggis; he loved it.

Somewhere in all of this there might be a moral lurking, but I can’t quite put my finger on it?

A “full English” (including the American baked beans interloper) 2020’s style. I doubt that baked beans were served in Sidney’s officer’s mess – at least not with breakfast. In their place, there would have been additions such as black pudding (blood sausage – morcilla, for my Spanish readers), devilled kidneys, and perhaps minute steaks too.
The traditional piping in of the haggis on Burns Night.

AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO MAKING – OXTAIL CHOLENT

This is presented with the presumption that people looking in are familiar with the concept of cholent. For those of you who may not know anything about this Sabbath staple of Ashkenazi Jewish winter cuisine (not to be confused with the Sephardic chamin) I would direct you to here, for a fairly concise explanation of its history and development.

In common with most traditional “family dishes” there are as many nuances of the basic recipe as there are people who cook it. The one I present here is based on the very plain cholent recipe my booba (my grandmother) used to cook and which we all loved, but with several embellishments which I’ll explain as we go along.

By using oxtail, rather than one of the normal cuts of beef – typically from the forequarters of the animal – I am going against all tradition, even my own! My reason for using oxtail though, was purely pragmatic in that I wanted to make a cholent, and oxtail was the only thing I had in the freezer. And although not traditional, oxtail has all the basic qualities required for this long, slow cooking process, in that it is a fat and sinuous meat.

Sadly, for most observant Jewish readers of this post – unless you reside in Israel and perhaps certain parts of the States, you probably won’t be able to get your hands on kosher oxtail. If that is the case, use a cut of fat beef on the bone; a meaty piece of shin would work well or a large top rib.

It also helps to have a wood burning stove such as I have here in Spain – perfect for slow cooking at low temperatures – but any real oven will do. Avoid however, electric slow cookers and dutch ovens (so sadly prevalent now in Israel) as you’ll end up with all the flavour escaping from the ingredients into the liquid: Fantastic if you want a brilliant soup, but not if you want a rich, unctuous hotpot where each component is packed with flavour.

Anyhow, the proof of the cholent is in the cooking, and this turned out the best cholent I have tasted in years. Whether or not my booba would have approved of my embellishments is open to question…

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

2 cups – butter (Lima) beans – soaked overnight in several changes of spring water (or filter water – chlorinated tap water tends to toughen beans and impairs their flavour)

1 cup – pearl barley – rinsed thoroughly and soaked for 1 hour (again, in spring water)

4 – large carrots – pealed and left whole

1 – large onion – pealed and sliced thickly

1 – large oxtail – cut into 6 or 7 pieces

2 – bay leaves

12 – white and black pepper corns

4 – large potatoes – pealed and cut in half

1 – large head of garlic – with the outer “paper” removed

16 – small kneidlach (matzo meal dumplings) – with their cooking stock reserved

salt to taste

(Optional additions include a large stuffed chicken neck (helzel) and / or 4 shelled hard boiled eggs)

METHOD

Preheat the oven to  200°c

1) Choose a large deep cooking pot or casserole with a tight fitting lid(any cast-iron or heavy enameled pot will do)…

This is my grandmother's old cholent pot - and probably her grandmother's before her -perfect for the task.
This is my grandmother’s old cholent pot – and probably her grandmother’s before her -perfect for the task.

2) Place the butter beans at the base of the pot…

Spanish butter beans are wonderful - plump and sweet
Spanish butter beans are wonderful – plump and sweet

3) Place the pearl barley on the beans (my grandmother only used the beans)…

Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it
Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it

4) Next, put in the carrots and onion…

The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted
The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted

5) Place the meat on the “bed” of vegetables and pulses…

Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better
Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better it will cook

6) Add the spices (Booba never used bay leaves – just salt and ground white pepper)…

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7) Place the potatoes around the meat (remember – large pieces)…

It's essential to use waxy spuds which won't disintegrate during the long cooking
It’s essential to use waxy spuds which won’t disintegrate during the long cooking

8) Scorch the garlic and then place it on the meat (yup! You guessed it – Booba would never have used garlic!)…

This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks - only they would drop it into a white chicken broth - it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic.
This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks here in Spain – only they would drop it into a white chicken broth – it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic
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9) Remove the kneidlach from their cooking stock and place around the meat and potatoes (no – Booba didn’t put kneidlach in her cholent either)

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10) Pour a pint (or more if required) of the kneidlach cooking stock over the cholent (Booba used water – but whichever liquid you use, the more you use the wetter the cholent will be. I prefer it drier with all the juices absorbed into the ingredients)…

11) Finally, seal the lid of the pot with a piece of baking parchment or tinfoil….

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12) Put the pot into the preheated oven and cook at 200°c (180° fan) for two hours, then turn the heat down to about 110°c (90° fan) and cook for a further 6 hours – or longer if preferred.

At no time during the cooking be tempted to lift off the lid.

When you do finally open the pot you want to be confronted by something like this (note how the kneidlach and edges of the potatoes have become slightly caramelised …

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And finally you want to serve it with a good heavyweight red with plenty of complementary  “beef” of its own – betey avon!!

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