‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater——’
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Last weekend, I found myself walking along a canal in the English countryside. Pastel-hued blossoms covered the trees, the hills smelt of wild garlic, and summer was undeniably on its way. My woollen socks are still coming out at night but, on that walk, with faces turned towards the sun, it was good to feel that winter had retreated.
I have long been a fan of the cooler months. I have written often of my love for the cold, the grey skies, the sartorial options. But, as Virginia Woolf said about spring: “I enjoy the spring more than the autumn now. One does, I think, as one gets older.” I feel, this year, as though this may be true. I have welcomed the brighter days and warmer weather with more enthusiasm than before. I realise, of course, that it's early days, but I'm excited about the months to come.
This summer, my book will be spending time in the darkness, in boxes, as it makes its slow way back across the sea to England. Unable to tinker with it any further, I have taken on catering commissions, planned supper clubs, and am going to write new things. I'm also going to picnic, along canals, and in parks. I spent far too much of last summer indoors; this summer, I am going to soak up the sun while I can.
With the Easter holidays still in full swing this week, I've been spending my days supervising maths projects, play dates, gymnastics routines, epic games of Hide & Seek, and mocktail experimentation. It's called for the sort of cooking that can be done with almost no effort at all; a roasting dish placed in a low oven as the breakfast pancakes are being flipped, the contents merely pulled at with forks hours later, before being served in the garden for lunch. This is the way I like to eat in the summer - a collection of things on a board: little jars of pickles, a wedge of cheese, a twisted parcel of rich, salty butter. Perfect partners for rich, full-flavoured beef. It makes me think of long afternoons in the park, of luxuriating over lunch in the dappled light. I'll be making this again, many times, in the months to come.
Serves 4 on a picnic
450g shin beef, in 2cm chunks
10 sprigs thyme
1tbsp mustard seeds
8 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Generous grinding of black pepper
Good salted butter
Jar of cornichon
Roasting dish that fits your beef in one closely packed layer
Mortar and pestle
Jar, for storage
1. Preheat the oven to 150C. Line the tin and lay the beef in a single layer over it. Pull the thyme leaves from the stalks and crush the mustard seeds. Sprinkle them over the beef, then add the whole anchovies and the garlic, and season with pepper.
2. Cut the butter into thin slices, and cover the beef with it. Tightly seal the top of the roasting dish with foil, and place in the oven.
3. Roast for at least four hours, checking occasionally to ensure the beef is not drying out. Add a splash of water, wine, or stock if it is browning on top at any point. Continue cooking until the meat pulls apart with gentle pressure from a fork.
4. Allow the beef to cool a little, then remove the pieces to a bowl, and pull apart. Lubricate the meat with a little of the buttery, anchovy-rich liquid from the roasting tray, and squash the meat into a jar. If you're going to eat on a picnic within the next day, you can store it like this. Alternatively, it will keep for a few days in the fridge, with a layer of clarified butter on top.