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A Note from the Edge (of the Forest of Dean) about austerity in Gloucestershire.

Regular readers will know that I planned a gastronomic tour of England. It was all going to happen until the car packed up and Stroud District Council discovered that they had been undercharging me rent and Council Tax. I checked the municipal arithmetic, agreed and paid up. The car doesn't need a mechanic, it needs somebody to read it the last rites. It has only got a month before it inevitably fails its annual inspection. Don't you love it when a plan comes together?

The tour is on hold until my wallet is sufficiently replenished and I have reliable wheels.

So, rather than sit around here all day contemplating my navel, I decided to narrow my sights and stick to the locality. The idea is that, once a month I shall visit a town or city, find the ingredients for dinner, go home, cook and tell you all about it. There are some interesting places around here. We have quite a few cities and towns that date from Roman times: Gloucester (Glevum), Bath (Aquae Sulis), Cirencester (Corinium) and Swindon (Anus Mundi). I made the last one up.

Postcard bus

I've also self-imposed some rules:

I will go by bus. The pass costs about the same as a gallon of juice but will enable me to get right into the bigger towns without having to pay rip-off parking charges. It will also enable me to visit Public Houses.

The budget for dinner will not exceed £10 (currently around $14.40) and there will be three courses for two people. All of the ingredients must be fresh and, where possible, local. I am allowed to use the basic contents of my larder (milk, flour, butter, herbs etc.). If I do not have a guest I will also allow myself to be greedy or save stuff for another day.

I'd start with the nearest town, Dursley. It is about six miles away, I wasn't taking any chances. It's a funny old place. Originally yet another Cotswold wool town, it had a major heavy engineering company and has a lot of social housing (projects in American usage). The town was dominated by the engineering works, which has long since gone. The site was derelict for years, but has gradually been built on. Firstly a swimming pool, then some housing and finally a supermarket. As a consequence, the place has looked like a building site for as long as I've been down here.

The high street has been “pedestrianised” and is definitely down-market. The baker is pretty good, however, and there is a greengrocer who has branches in several local towns and is very cheap. My favourite shop is the butcher.

Butcher in Tangiers

A butcher (in Tangiers, not Dursley).

There are trestle tables in front of the shop with various pre-packed bargains, bags of bones and wrapped chickens. Depending on the time of year, there are hooks with rabbits, pheasants and turkeys. There are legs of lamb, shoulders of pork and ribs of beef hanging up in the window. Inside, on top of the counter, there are trays with huge mounds of sausages. There are piles of mince, liver, hearts and kidneys. You can buy ham hocks, ox-tails and breasts of lamb. At the rear of the shop there are cold meats and pies. Behind the counter one of the butchers was attacking a side of beef with a saw. There are pigs hanging up on a rail. At one end of the counter was a massive pile of bacon bits, which never seems to completely disappear. The stuff at the bottom of the pile could be quite interesting. I come here quite often.

Butcher Shop

I looked at an ox heart. It was very cheap and would probably feed me for a fortnight. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I asked the assistant. "Feed it to the dog" was his reply. I haven't got a dog. When I got home I looked for a recipe and found myself listening to an old Captain Beefheart track. Funny things, search engines. Funny thing, Captain Beefheart.

I could have spent a fortune, but settled for a half shoulder of lamb. It was local lamb, technically out of season and on the verge of becoming hogget, which in turn becomes mutton. It looked OK and was £2.99. Enough for two meals for me. The ham hocks were big and cheap, so I bought one. Oh, and I'll have a couple of those pig’s kidneys. I like pig’s kidneys. I had enough meat to keep me going for the rest of the week. I was only supposed to be shopping for dinner.

In the greengrocers, I bought half a cabbage, a couple of carrots, an onion, some garlic, two flat mushrooms, two cooking apples and the biggest potato I could find. I came across some Peruvian white asparagus in the bargain bin. Two massive bunches for 50p. I'd never had it before and there was a lot of it going manky in that bin. Dursley doesn't look like the sort of place where they eat a lot of white asparagus. At any price.


Lunchtime. The café looked uninspiring and the baker’s only has seats outside, nice in the sunny part of summer but no good on a wet, cold Tuesday at the end of winter. It would have to be lunch in the pub. Oh dear, what a shame. I nipped into the supermarket and bought a small carton of cream.

On the way to the pub, I found this shop called Bargain Booze. I went in to see if they had any, purely in the interests of consumer research.

They clearly like their alcopops and cider in Dursley, mainly in 2 litre plastic bottles. For the “connoisseurs”, there was red wine in one litre bottles. The label said “Produce of EU”. That covers a lot of territory where they make really bad wine and some places where they commit atrocities with grapes. Best for laying down. And avoiding. For the first time ever, I came out of a Licensed Premises without spending any money.

To “The Old Spot”, a pub named after the county's favourite pig. A species that manages to be ubiquitous and rare at the same time. This is a wonderful boozer. The Old Spot has been the Campaign for Real Ale's Pub of the Year on a couple of occasions and has won numerous awards. It always has at least six real ales and a real cider. Sometimes they sell perry, cider made with pears (or lunatic soup as it's known round here).

Pig in Profile

They do a nice bit of lunch in the Old Spot. Bangers and mash, steak and ale pie, shepherds pie, that sort of thing. I had the Ploughman's Lunch. A nice lump of mature Cheddar cheese, crusty bread and butter, a couple of pickled onions, sweet pickle and some salad. I read the pub’s newspapers and made friends with a greyhound who, like me, was retired. I wanted to take him home and feed him ox heart, but he already had an owner. I also drank a pint of stout. You rarely see draught stout (Guinness doesn't count). Brewed in a small brewery in South Gloucestershire, it had liquorice and chocolate tastes and was dark and full-bodied. This was followed by another one.

I'd gone out with a £20 note, spent over half of it in the pub and a few pence change; within budget and with more food than I really needed.

Dinner time, and I had a bag of goodies. I could have given a banquet with this lot. In fact I got ten dishes:

Simmered buttered asparagus

Roast shoulder of lamb cooked over potatoes and stock

Baked apples and custard (2 portions)

Lamb curry

Asparagus Soup (about 10 portions!)

Boiled bacon and pease pudding

Cold ham hock

Ham hock soup (about 4 portions)

Pig’s kidneys

Stuffed mushrooms (2 portions as starters, 1 as a main)

I had some of the asparagus as an appetiser, which I noshed while I was cooking. It was fine, but nowhere near as good as the local asparagus which will be along soon. I wondered what to do with the rest of it. I had only eaten 10% of my supplies. I spent the next half an hour making white asparagus soup.

It ended up in the freezer and, with a swirl of cream and a sprig of parsley, will make an exotic start to my next dinner party.

Unless I've got company, I always get two meals out of half a shoulder of lamb. It is a cheap cut and can be fatty, but remember: Fat equals flavour. I prefer the blade end. If I have a guest, I will bone, stuff, roll and string it and it produces a great joint for two or three people. If I'm alone, I tend to roast over potatoes, carve slices for one meal and use the remainder for a shepherd’s pie, rissoles or a curry.

Lamb Cuts

Of course, the traditional British accompaniment to roast lamb is mint sauce. Chopped garden mint, malt vinegar and a little sugar. Grow your own mint, but in a container as it spreads rapidly. It may go well with roast lamb, but it doesn't go with red wine. Red wine goes even better with roast lamb. But not the stuff they flog in Bargain Booze.

This time I roasted the meat over potatoes. I sliced and parboiled my big potato and used a nonstick roasting dish. I put the potato and some sliced onion on the bottom of the dish and covered with a pint of stock. The lamb was spiked with small slivers of garlic inserted into cuts, a little olive oil was rubbed into the skin and it was sprinkled with dried rosemary. I use sprigs of fresh rosemary when I can. I'll find it growing wild sooner or later.

I cooked the lamb on a rack placed on top of the dish--all the fat and meat juices go into the stock, potatoes and onions. While the meat was resting, I fished out the potatoes and used the stock, meat juices and the cabbage water to make some gravy. I cheated and thickened it with cornflour [corn starch]. It was all served up with cabbage and carrots. Indigenous fresh vegetables are a bit limited at this time of year. Let’s hear it for food miles.

I'd bought the cream with the intention of making baked apples and custard. I make a pretty good custard using double [heavy] cream, egg yolks, a tiny amount of sugar and the scrapings of a vanilla pod. It will all keep for another day. Two apples equals two desserts.

The ham hock went into a bowl of water in the fridge. It could stay there and desalinate while I worked out a plan of attack.

So, dinner consisted of a veggie starter and roast shoulder of lamb with rosemary and garlic. Served up with potatoes cooked with onions, stock and meat juices, cabbage, carrots and gravy. Not bad for a Tuesday.

The following day I made a curry with the remaining lamb and some vegetables and froze it.

For next day's lunch, I had the kidneys. I love the flavour of pig’s kidneys. Slice them lengthwise and all the white, gristly bits will be exposed. They won't do you any harm but they are a bit chewy and spoil the texture of the actual kidney.

I've tried knives and kitchen scissors, but to remove the white bits (I'm sure they have a proper name), a surgical scalpel is the best instrument. I fry the halves in a little olive oil and a dash of Worcester Sauce. Yum yum.

Mushrooms on a plate

That evening, I found a good use for the mushrooms; I stuffed them with couscous flavoured with herbs and garlic, sprinkled a little cheese on top, greased the exposed parts of the mushroom with olive oil and bunged them in a medium oven for ten minutes.

On the third day, there was this ham hock. I remembered to change the water every twelve hours so that it was not too salty. I had a large pot with a lid, filled it with water, put in a bay leaf and a few peppercorns and added a chopped onion, a cubed potato and some swede (turnip). I brought the lot to the boil, turned the heat down and let it simmer for about two and a half hours.

Boiled bacon, pease pudding and cabbage. Now that is a traditional English winter dish, made out of stuff that has been preserved and one of the few green vegetables that will survive an English winter. Pease pudding consists of dried yellow split peas boiled to a pulp. I didn't have any yellow split peas and you have to soak them overnight, so I went out and bought some in a can.

I took the ham hock out of the broth and removed the skin and the fat. The meat looked succulent and there was far too much for one person. I took a very generous portion off the bone, made a gravy with some of the stock and served it with some cabbage. Wow... one of the best meals I'd had for ages. The rest provided a cold supper for the following day. I also had a good quantity of ham and vegetable stock, which I used to make soup.

Cabbage and Vegetables

It is amazing what you can do with a bag of shopping and a few added, but cheap, ingredients. And I'd done it at the worst time of the year for fresh English produce.

As winter becomes spring, the variety and availability of local produce increases. I'm quite looking forward to it, especially the asparagus. So next month, like Dr Foster, I'm off to Gloucester or Glevum as it used to be called.

© Charlie Burling, 2010