It’s Christmas Eve and, by custom, a time for tall tales. So refill your glasses, draw your chair over right here by the fireplace and its flickering mild, and I shall inform you a Christmas story that may chill your marrow.
It was a few years in the past, after I was nonetheless a younger and enthusiastic cook dinner. Again then, I likely referred to as myself a “foodie”. They have been wonderful instances, when movie star cooks nonetheless really cooked, when fermenting was to be prevented and earlier than anybody sitting in a restaurant had heard the phrases: “If I can clarify. We’re a Small Plate Idea. The meals will come out within the order the kitchen cooks it.” Aaaah. I develop misty-eyed, simply serious about it. In these years, we might afford flats large enough to have a eating desk, and typically we’d invite mates spherical.
It was a chilly, coal-black Christmas, and I wished to heat my mates with hospitality, to create a meal that will reside lengthy of their reminiscences. The principle course was to be an excellent fish, however I pored over my cookery books searching for a worthy starter. I had lately occurred upon Richard Olney, an expat American who lived in France most of his life, writing exact recipes for provincial French dishes. Essentially the most legendary recipe in his e book Easy French Meals (roughly 33 per cent incorrectly titled) was for Queue de Boeuf Farcie Braisée and it was this that I selected. It’s alleged to serve 4, however he notes leftovers might be packed into “an oval cocotte”, coated with the sauce and served chilly. A “type of terrine” and a witty and stylish starter.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Olney begins, “The preparation is comparatively lengthy, requiring a few hours’ preliminary work and, in all, some six hours’ consideration on the next day, the final two of which needs to be roughly undivided.” (Sure, again then, we have been ready to be talked to love that.) So I started, days upfront.
Olney solely calls for you bone the biggest six joints so, arriving house from work, I laid the tail out on the desk and sharpened my smallest knife. Two hours later, I used to be a few joints in, however it’s the nature of a tail that it tapers towards the tip, so issues wouldn’t get simpler. I opened the bottle of mid-quality Côtes du Rhône that I’d meant for the marinade and seemed out a scalpel from my toolbox.
Midnight discovered me hunched during the last bone. The wine, gone. A number of the blood on the desk got here from the oxtail. I used to be sporting a head torch, a thousand-yard stare and twitching like a person who’d simply cleared out an enemy tunnel community, armed solely with, properly, pink wine and a scalpel. In entrance of me have been six bare vertebrae and a tough quadrilateral of bruised, slashed, pierced and dishonoured flesh — the type of factor Hannibal Lecter would possibly use as a masks. I opened one other bottle for the marinade. Then one other as a result of there’s no different option to sleep after 5 hours of surgical procedure.
The subsequent day, I dug the marrow from the chilled bones with the tip of a filleting knife, eradicating the top of my thumb. I bandaged it elaborately whereas I reworked the tail tip, bones, greens and marinade right into a poaching inventory and assembled the stuffing. Breadcrumbs, minced beef, truffles and the bone marrow. That night, as soon as once more fogged with drink, I fashioned the farce right into a sausage, wrapped the meat round it and sutured it closed — which might have been OK if I hadn’t sewn the bloody factor to my thumb. Within the early hours, I woke to my solely momentary flash of doubt. It was little surprise that the final time anybody tried something like this, they’d buried it underneath a pyramid in Giza.
I braised it by a hangover that might have slain a preventing bull, decreased the braise to glaze, packed the lot into the “small oval cocotte” and chilled it. That evening, I bore it into the eating room with the pleasure of a brand new father and nothing might undermine the joys of turning it out and reducing good slices. Nothing. Not even my mates, the politest and kindest of whom referred to as it “A Jellied Turd”, for it was, I can not deny it, inedible.
I remind myself of Olney’s Oxtail each Christmas Eve, as I’m getting issues prepared for the large day. I test the wines, chosen for his or her concord with the meal and the person tastes of the visitors. I have a look at the cheeses I’ve chosen, gently coming to temperature. I have a look at the fowl, broad-chested star of the present, that’s principally been by a month-long casting course of and, alongside, the gravy I’ve been engaged on for 2 weeks. All favourites are lined. Everybody can be delighted. I’ll have put in hours, days of labor, effort and care . . . however no one will give a toss.
I have no idea if Eliot was any good within the kitchen, however when he wrote, “The journey, not the vacation spot issues . . . ”, he spoke for all cooks, significantly at Christmas. We experience creating the final vital feast in our peculiarly joyless tradition. Our family and friends, the non-foodie “civilians” . . . they attempt to care however, while you’re rationalising your explicit alternative of potato-roasting fats for the third, Madeira-fuelled time, their eyes will inevitably glaze over. All they need is a good meal, good firm and, what they nonetheless insist on referring to as, “all of the trimmings”.
My mates, we cooks are fortunate. My battle with The Cursed Tail of Olney introduced me uncomplicated pleasure — my solely mistake was serving it — but additionally a deeper understanding. Tomorrow we are able to all look throughout the desk in any respect these individuals we’ve made completely happy. We will test that they’re totally having fun with the vacation spot, then we relaxation straightforward, understanding that the journey was our present to ourselves.