Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scotch Broth - Old School Soup

There are some flavours that are so utterly hard-wired into my food consciousness that the recipe becomes more than just a collection of ingredients. Like a sort of emotional alchemy, a few key combinations of otherwise unremarkable tastes and smells can create an excedingly pleasurable, even sentimental, eating experience. Scotch broth is one such potent elixir.

There is an inherent 'old fashioned-ness' to Scotch broth. This type of recipe was common a mere generation ago, and yet to make it today would be all but impossible with the scant offerings of modern grocery stores. Mutton, the key ingredient of Scotch broth, was one of the most popular meats in the English speaking world during the nineteenth century. In actuality, mutton is a by-product of the wool industry. In the past, raw wool was an extremely valuable commodity, but given the sheer volume of animals, wool farmers would be fools not to fatten up ewes near the end of their wool-producing lives and sell them for the pot. Thus, mutton graced most butcher shops and stove tops. Enjoyed across the English empire (including Canada) and notably adored by the Victorians, mutton is an important footnote in our culinary history. My own father recalls eating mutton; though perhaps not with the fondness of the Victorians. Especially given my Scottish grandmother's reputation for thrift, it was likely a common ingredient to be found on the Maxwell table of yore. Having had little personal exposure to this meat in my life, it is a bit of a head-scratcher why the taste of it is so reminiscent and sentimental to me. Perhaps my fondness for it is simply pre-programmed from the past generations of mutton-munchers that came before me. Either way, I'm sure my old man would have a wonderful jaunt down memory lane if I served him this Scotch broth.

Indeed, as Ivan Day, a British food historian remarks,

"One of the classic combinations that everyone knows in this country is the iconic roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But if you delve a little bit into the history of this dish, you find out that 250-300 years ago, when it first evolved, it wasn't roast beef, but roast mutton and Yorkshire pudding. 

Sometime in the 1950's, man-made textiles started to catch on, and soon after, the inevitable happened. While warm and sensible, wool became quaint and difficult to mass produce. The collapse of the wool industry lead to a major shift in how we process sheep. Milder, more tender and much quicker to reach eating-size, lamb became the meat of choice. With no point in raising large amounts of adult animals beyond a small breeding stock, Mutton, as a major meat source became ancient history. Of course, this only describes English cuisine (and by extension Anglo-Canadian cooking). Mutton is still alive and well and eaten in great quantities by Toronto's South Asian and Caribbean communities. Its strong, unmistakable flavour makes for an excellent foil to spicy curries and fiery Caribbean chillies. Nevertheless, because it has fallen out of favour with the mainstream grocery stores, I had a heck of a time finding fresh, locally reared mutton.

Courtesy of the Woodstock Fleece Festival
So what is mutton anyway? The most common definition of mutton is a sheep that is at least two years old. A sheep that is younger than two years, but older than six months is called a hogget - unheard of in Canadian butcher shops, but terribly popular in the U.K. Anything younger than that is lamb. In this country, there is plenty of lamb around, especially the type that has been shipped half way around the world from New Zealand. From a business perspective, it would seem dealing in mutton just doesn't make sense anymore. However, across the pond in England, they are experiencing what can be best be described as a "mutton renaissance". In fact, there is an organization with just that name that was founded by Prince Charles himself. Perhaps it will catch on here. In the mean time, I had to find my mutton in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall butcher shop called Kensington Meats. My original thought was to turn the mutton shoulder into shepherd's pie, but the butcher sold me the shoulder with the vertebrae still attached, which meant that I paid for more bone than meat. So bones means soup. As I mentioned above, the soup is Scotch broth. As the name suggests, there is likely a Scottish origin to this soup which means it should have turnips in it. I'm not a big fan of the turnip, so I've left it out. Feel free to reintroduce it if you wish. This is a hardy, country recipe that will take you two days to make. It's best to start it on a Saturday, and eat it on Sunday for lunch - it's worth it! Here's how I did it:

Scotch Broth

2 onions, chopped
3 ribs of celery, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 juniper berries
1 cup of tomato passatta or crushed, skinned tomatoes
3/4 cup pearl barley
1 bunch of fresh parsley
1 shot of fine Canadian whisky
Salt, pepper, and oil for searing
3 to 4 pounds of shoulder of mutton, on the bone, cut into chunks that can best be described as 'twice as big as bite sized'. Given the amount of bones, get the butcher to do this with their saw

First, you need to let the chunks of mutton come to room temperature and dab them with paper towel so that they are nice and dry. Then season them very generously and brown them off in batches in an oiled heavy bottomed vessel. Once all the meat has been seared, you'll notice quite a bit of fat in the pan. Pour off three-quarters of it, get it back on the heat and then get all of the onions, half the carrots and half the celery into the pan (hold back half the carrots and celery for the final soup). Sweat the veg down until the onions are starting to go translucent, then get your mutton chunk back in there. Pour in the whisky and flambe the works. When the fire has died down, pour in your tomato and cook it down a little bit. Then pour in enough water so that its volume is twice as high in the pot as all the meat and veg (remember we're making soup, not a pot roast - you'll need a lot of liquid). This measure is obviously a bit inexact, but you can always add water, or reduce the liquid through heat - you have wiggle room here. Take all your herbs, juniper berries and a couple of peppercorns and either put them in a cheese cloth bouquet garni, or just toss 'em into the water as they are (we'll be straining everything out later). Anyway, bring the water up to a boil and then dial back to a gentle simmer. You will need to skim the foam and scum for the first hour or so, but after that you'll only be skimming fat. Mutton takes a looong time to cook. This broth will need to blip away, partially covered for at least four hours, possibly five. Mutton produces a lot of fat, so skim as you can, but also, because we will be resting the stock overnight in the fridge, you don't have to be too pedantic about fat skimming. Taste the broth periodically with a bit of salt in it. You'll be surprised at how quickly and completely the plain H2O takes on such a robust and meaty flavour. Periodically check the meat. When it is starting to fall off the bones, you can take it off the heat. Now, strain the broth through a sieve into a clean vessel. Remove the meat from the vegetables. The vegetables have done their job and can be discarded. Next, pull the meat off the bones, taking care to discard any obvious gristly bits. Cut any larger pieces of meat into bite size chunks.  Let everything cool, and then get it all into the fridge for at least four hours (meat and stock separated), or more preferably over night. This allows the fat to gather at the top of the broth (there will be plenty of it) and the sediments to drift to the bottom. Once this process is completely, skim the thick layer of fat off the top of the stock and pour it into a clean sauce pan (leaving behind the last few tablespoons which will contain sediment). Bring the stock up to a simmer and then add your barley and the chopped carrot and celery you had reserved from the beginning. Simmer the stock, allowing it reduce slightly until the barley and vegetables are soft. Check for seasoning, and adjust. Then at the last minute, stir your meat back in. Allow the meat to warm through and steep a little bit. Then add some chopped parsley and serve hot. This soup is a meal in and of itself. It needs little more than some craggy torn bread to sop up the thin shimmering slick of tomato-stained mutton broth that lingers at the bottom of your bowl.   

I would hope it would make my grandmother proud.

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