…an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine...
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
There's something incredibly gratifying about serving up a dish that's taken days to make. Time is such a luxury - one that no one ever seems to have enough of. When I am working, recipes that demand daily attention are often tended to after midnight, when I inevitably arrive home later than planned. It means that when I have weeks like this one between Christmas and New Year - with time for lazy breakfasts, board games, a kick about in the local park and a long bath with a book - I value more than ever the time to cook. To commit myself to recipes that take time: yeasted breads, stews, puff pastry, soups.
A lengthy recipe does not necessarily suggest a complicated or difficult one. In fact, the one below is terrifically simple in terms of technique. Instead, it's time you must give here. Time spent chopping and layering, and an evening with half an eye on your pot in the oven. You'll be mightily rewarded for this time. This is a rich, glossy stew, the saltiness of the olives and anchovies working magic to cut through the fatty meat. After a long, slow five hours in the oven, the chunks of beef can be 'cut' with a wooden spoon.
Virginia Woolf is very clear about the success of the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse - Mr Bankes labels it a triumph, rich and tender. It's the meal served at a dinner party that brings many of the characters together, a dish they continue to mention and think about for pages. So I had to try and live up to that, especially given Mrs Ramsey's opinions on English cooking ("what passes for cookery in England is an abomination"). The term boeuf en daube comes from the daubière, a terracotta pot that the dish is traditionally cooked in. There are countless recipes for it, and many regions in France have their own variation. The olives in the dish suggest that Mrs Ramsay’s grandmother, whose recipe it is, may have hailed from Provence. And so I turned, as I so often do when it comes to French dishes, to Julia Child. I've adapted her recipe à La Provençal below.
Finally, a little note a Mrs Ramsey. Her frustration at people running late is because she claims that the dish needs to be served on time. Ignore her, and remember that she’s not the one who cooked it – her cook is. The stew will only benefit from sitting around a bit.
I hope you find time for some slow cooking this year. A very happy 2016 to you.
Boeuf en Daube à La Provençal
1.5kg shin beef*
600ml red wine (a full bodied French red would be ideal)
2tsp sea salt flakes
1tsp fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
4 thinly sliced white onions
3 thinly sliced carrots
250g unsmoked back (lean) bacon
150g sliced mushrooms
600g red tomatoes
Beef stock (if you need more liquid)
1 tin anchovy fillets (8-10 fillets) in oil
2 cloves garlic
3tbsp red wine vinegar
2tbsp olive oil
250g pitted black olives
Parsley (to serve)
*You can substitute shin beef for another stewing cut if you like.
Large cast iron/terracotta/ovenproof casserole dish - with a tight fitting lid
Stab mixer or food processor (optional)
1. Slice the beef into 2.5cm square chunks. Place it in the large bowl, along with the thyme, bay leaves, two crushed cloves of garlic, the sliced onions and carrots, pepper, salt, and wine. Squidge it around with your hands, cover and leave for six hours to marinate.
2. Just before the beef has finished marinating, prepare the other ingredients for the stew. Slice the mushrooms very finely. Fry the bacon in the frying pan until cooked but not crispy. Chop into 1cm strips.
3. Put a pan of water on to boil. Place a large cross into the base of each tomato, plunge them into the boiling water for a minute then drop into a bowl of cold water. Peel off their skins, then slice open and remove the seeds. Slice the tomato flesh into wedges.
4. Spread the flour onto the plate. Pull the pieces of beef out of the marinating bowl, draining them over the bowl before tossing them in flour. Shake off any excess flour and set them aside.
5. Heat the oven to 150C. In the casserole dish, layer up all the ingredients. Start with a third of the bacon, then half the slices of mushrooms and tomato flesh. Put a tight layer of beef on top - about a third of it. Top with a third of the vegetables from the marinating liquid. Repeat with the same layers again - bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, beef, vegetables. Finally, finish with the final layer of beef, the last of the vegetables and the bacon. Pour the marinating wine into the pot. If this comes almost to the top of the other ingredients, that's great. If not, add more wine, or some beef stock.
6. Fit the lid onto the casserole dish and place it in the oven for two and a half hours. Check it after this time. If the stew seems quite wet, leave the lid off for the next half hour. If it seems thick, return the stew to the oven for half an hour, but with the lid on. This is a personal taste thing - I wanted ours to be quite thick, so kept the lid off. Just before the stew comes out again, blitz or finely chop the anchovies, capers and garlic cloves, then mix with the oil from the anchovy tin, the olive oil and the red wine vinegar. Pit the olives, if they aren't pitted already.
7. Remove the pot from the oven again and stir in the anchovy mixture and the olives. Return to the oven for a final two hours.
8. Take the pot out of the oven and allow the stew to cool. Place it in the fridge for 24 hours. This isn't a compulsory step, but the flavour really does improve if you leave it overnight. When you're ready to eat the stew, heat it at 150C for an hour. Sprinkle with parsley and eat with bread, pasta, rice or on its own.