Don’t be a pet shop boy (or girl) if you’re planning on cooking with hay. That’s my advice and for decades I’ve been sourcing the finest sweet meadow hay for the pot. Scents of herbs and wild flowers to the fore. Not what you get from dusty, mousy dried grass in a packet from the pet store. And, beware, urban dwellers, straw (nutritionally worthless cereal stalks) won’t do at all. Fit only for rabbit hutch bedding.
Of course, I‘m lucky enough to have always had access to top quality hay thanks to a horse-mad family and stable connections. The aromas of a Lamb Leg roasting in the stuff wafted enticingly from the Aga as I lifted it out to let it rest before serving. Tip: scrupulously remove every hay wisp before slicing.
Ever wondered about the origins of ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’? It’s all about judging the age of a nag by its teeth. Culinary hay, in contrast is the gift that keeps on giving. From my leftover batch I whistled up Hay ice Cream, using Christoffer Hruskova’s fool-proof recipe (see below). The London-based baker is from Denmark – the Scandinavians have a particular affinity for hay-based cuisine, it seems. Back in the eight century the Vikings employed dried grass and leaves from birch trees to smoke and preserve meat and fish. In ancient Ireland, early settlers wrapped meats like a wild game in hay or straw before cooking in the ‘Fulacht Fiadh’, a cooking pit in use since the Bronze Age.
Plus ca change. Over a decade ago when Rene Redzepi’s NOMA restaurant first brought foodies flocking to Copenhagen hay was one of the less challenging staples. NOMA’s menu has offered a butter and hay parfait, hay cream with lingonberries, celeriac rubbed in hay ash before being baked in a salt crust pastry and, the pick, a dish of Jerusalem artichokes and truffles drizzled with toasted hay oil.
All this may have novelty value, but hay has recurrently been ‘rediscovered’ as a cooking mode over the centuries. In Historic Heston Blumenthal (2013) the gastronomic egghead reveals the secrets of hay smoking. He wrote: “In the early days at The Fat Duck I use to wet hay, set light to it, then pack the charred remains around a leg of lamb before putting it in a salt crust and baking it, which added a wonderful farmyard flavour to the meat. Later I did something similar with calves’ sweetbreads and served them with chicken roasting juices and cockles.”
Later he progressed to hay smoking fish, placing halibut in a squirrel cage trap over a barbecue, dramatic flames ensuing yet producing a more delicate smokiness than a long slow process. Long-time Blumenthal acolyte Ashley Palmer Watts eventually became chef director at Dinner by HB at London’s Mandarin Oriental, where those historic dishes were showcased. Industry bible Staff Canteen attributed Hay-Smoked Mackerel, Lemon Salad and Gentleman’s Relish to him. The recipe is definitely on my bucket list.
Leaving culinary bliss aside, there is a sustainable advantage to cooking with a ‘hay box’. Conserving the heat you initially put into the pot and subsequent slow cooking is environmentally sound. Especially in those parts of the world where wood is scarce. Nearer home, hay box use was recommended to UK households as part of World War II rationing. My employment of hay today is purely sensuous. Here are recipes for Lamb Roasted in Hay and Hay Ice Cream.
LAMB IN HAY
- 1kg lamb roasting joint
- A few handfuls of hay
- 125g butter, softened
- A few sprigs rosemary, chopped (use thyme or a mixture of both if you wish, or try lavender)
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 190°C/Gas 5. Soak the hay in water for about 15 minutes, then drain. In a bowl mix the butter, chopped herbs and garlic. Line a roasting tin large enough to take your meat joint with a layer of hay about 5cm thick. Place your lamb on the hay, then smear the lamb all over with the butter mixture. Season.
Cover the lamb with the rest of the hay. Then either cover with a lid if you have one for the tin or make one with a double layer of foil. Seal the foil all around the tin. Make sure there are no loose bits of hay emerging from the tin – it all needs to be contained so it does not smoulder or catch fire when cooking.
Roast in the oven for 30 minutes per 500g for a medium cooked roast (adjust for slightly pinker lamb if preferred). Remove from the oven and leave to stand for 15 minutes. Take off the lid, remove the lamb and carve. Use the juices from the pan for the gravy
HAY ICE CREAM
- 50g fresh hay
- 250ml double cream
- 250ml whole milk
- 90g of caster sugar
- 6 egg yolks
To start the infusion, mix the cream, milk and sugar in a medium sized pan. Bring the liquid to the boil so that the sugar dissolves. Stir the hot mixture in with the 6 egg yolks in a bowl to create a custard. Add the hay and leave aside for 30 minutes. Strain the liquid and place it back on the stove over a medium to high heat. Place a thermometer in the pan and bring the liquid slowly up to 76°C. Once the temperature has been reached, remove from the heat and allow the liquid to cool down in a bowl over ice. Churn in an ice cream maker until set and serve.