A meal brings people together and a good meal warms and nourishes our connectionsby Wendell Steavenson / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Over Easter weekend I went up to Norfolk to stay with my friends, Vaughan and Pranvera Smith. Vaughan was a Grenadier Guards officer and then a journalist who ran an agency of cameramen covering the Balkan and Caucasus wars of the 1990s. In 2003, he set up the Frontline Club in Paddington as a hub for foreign correspondents. “Like the hotel bars where we would gather in the evening on assignment,” as he likes to describe it, “the kind of place where you can get a good bottle of wine and talk, discuss, share ideas, vent, put the world to rights again.”
Norfolk was sunny but cold and blustery. The fields were striped with chrome yellow rape and blue-green sugar beet leaves; the green grass flowed in the wind and everywhere were rabbits and handsome pheasants promenading as proudly as lords at the Derby. We walked down lanes banked with primroses, wrapping our scarves tightly around our necks against the nipping breeze. Vaughan inherited several hundred acres of farmland and although most of it is rented out, the 50 acres around the house contain asparagus beds, fruit orchards, chickens and Norfolk Horn sheep. Much of the produce finds its way onto the menu at the Frontline Club restaurant; lamb and root-veg pie, rabbit with leeks.
Norfolk Horn sheep have white fleeces, black stocking legs, black faces and great curling horns. Their wool underpinned the wealth of East Anglia in the Middle Ages, when Norwich was the one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the land. It was lambing season. The lambs are born with black baby fuzz, until the white wool grows through, and with long tails which the shepherdess docks with an elastic band to cut off circulation. Their short horn-buds make them look like little devils. At feeding time the mothers stampeded across the field, leaving behind their lambs who ran off in a great pack like children in the playground.
So the cycle of life begins again, sticky buds on the trees, neon-green frills of oak leaflets lit up against a sudden thunderhead sky, returning Canada geese settling on the lake for a lay-over. And the new season must be marked with a feast. After all, Christ’s resurrection is only a modern iteration of the ancient celebration of the spring equinox, timed, according to pagan lore, by the phases of the moon.
On Sunday morning the children dashed around the garden hunting the shiny glimmer of foil wrapped chocolate: eggs, the symbol of beginning. Lulu, aged nine, was thrilled to find a real pheasant egg. It was smaller than a hen’s, pointy, and the oatmeal colour of a Jersey royal potato. She ran off to find a warm spot in the house, determined to try and hatch it. Clouds puffed overhead and I wondered if the rain would hold off long enough to get the barbecue going.
Easter lunch is lamb. Which seemed a bit mean, considering the proximity of the tots in the next field. But then again, Easter is a time of life, death, rebirth, communion. We got two legs of lamb out of the freezer.
I am a good cook, but I’m a magpie. I am always nicking other people’s ideas. I do however claim a couple of signature inventions and one is grilled butterflied lamb with marmalade and mustard and garlic and rosemary.
It’s easy. Stuff slivers of garlic and sprigs of rosemary in small pockets all over the lamb, rub on a good amount of marmalade and Dijon mustard, then grill. The boned leg of lamb, opened out flat, has an excellently uneven surface of fleshy mounds, knife-cut crevices and knobs of fat, all good for trapping the bitter-sweet-tangy jammy marinade. Edges catch and crisp and the interior remains juicy and pink, rare in some parts, more well done in narrower places. Char is good. No gravy or sauce is needed. I’ve cooked this lamb from Cairo to Beirut and the Alps; it’s always a crowd pleaser.
To go with the lamb, I conceived an idea of Norfolk mezze. I always like a table full of colourful dishes, a variety to entice, taste and mix. Grilled asparagus dotted with yellow buttons of soft-boiled quail eggs. Spring cabbage, gently wilted with butter and seasoned with celery seeds and poppy seeds. A vibrant green petit-pois salad tossed with watercress, parsley, chives and tarragon and prettied with slivers of pink radish. Grated carrots with an orange and lemon dressing, scattered with whole mint leaves and chunks of feta. New potatoes stirred with butter and wild garlic leaves. I made a hummus of fava beans with blitzed hazelnuts and hazelnut oil instead of the usual sesame tahini, and a little garlic and lemon juice to brighten.
It was a big family lunch, grandchildren, parents and grandparents, around a big round table under the oil portraits of several older generations. Everyone piled up their plates, the kids ate their chocolate eggs alongside their veg, and Opie the Norfolk terrier puppy was passed from lap to lap. Young and old groaned at each other’s table manners and jokes. We played wink murder and Vaughan’s mother, Margaret, killed everyone in a single, brilliantly played massacre.
I sat back with a giant slice of Margaret’s excellent simnel cake covered in homemade marchpane that was so rich and densely packed with fruit it could have sustained an expedition to the South Pole. Renewed, reminded, elemental and obvious, how a meal brings people together and a good meal warms and nourishes our connections. When I scrolled through my Instagram account later I saw a friend of mine in Lebanon had commented under my picture of lamb on the grill: “Ooooh the butterflied lamb!” She still remembered it from a great seaside lunch five years ago.
There’s no greater satisfaction for a cook.