Tag Archive for: potatoes

It’s well over a year now since that ‘miracle on the moors’, The Moorcock Norland, closed its doors for good. Chef patron Al Brooke-Taylor is back in his adopted home of Australia pursuing his passion for pottery. I follow him from afar via @natural.ceramics on Instagram.   Yet, while I respect the ceramic side of his complex creativity, I do miss the food he put on the plate. Well even from the start it arrived on his own rustic bowls, crafted in part with the ashes from the wood-fired grill central to his culinary vision.

Back in April 2018 I wrote the first ever review of that groundbreaking menu, chalked up on a board alongside what remained a proper Yorkshire pub bar in the hills above Sowerby Bridge. Look beyond the hand-pulled Taylor’s Landlord to the printed drinks list and you discovered treats that set it way apart from any normal local – rare Belgian beers and cutting edge natural wines, curated by e[ic sommelier Aimee Tufford, Al’s then partner.

Aimee remains a presence in the north, still promoting the drinks she loves, sometimes in conjunction with natural wine pioneers Buon Vino, but she is also running supper clubs and tasting events with the talented Tom McManus, Al’s kitchen sidekick. For more details visit her Curve Wine website.

Through Aimee I discovered a lifeline back to my favourite Moorcock dishes. The Brooke-Taylor Natural Ceramics blog now features a handful of his signature recipes. He started on New Year’s Eve with his general philosophy on a well-stocked pantry, since when he has posted a sequence of recipes and, fascinatingly the reasons behind them. Yeast mayo was one, but that is forever bound in my mind with its accompanying the Moorcock’s incomparable Crispy Smoked Potatoes and, yes, that recipe is its blog neighbour. Apparently this longest running dish on the menu (the deep-fried herring bone debuted and then disappeared forever) sparked poems, even an erotic short story, from fans desperate to know the recipe’s secrets.

I have a print-out to go on but also a mole from the Moorcock camp. My daughter Emily was part of the kitchen brigade for a while. She was at my elbow as this week I attempted to recreate the dish. I bought the very suitable pink fir apple spuds and pre-roasted them in the Aga, but she was the one who gave each the squidgy massage to gently tear them before I smoked them with my Camerons stovetop device. A poor substitute for the Moorcock grill embers she once helped stoke, but it worked. Then a swift deep-frying and Voilà! as they say in these parts. In place of the yeast mayo or cultured butter I served them with wild garlic mayo and sprinkled with smoked sea salt. Did my spuds match up? Not quite. They lacked the deep wildness of the original. I shall pursue.

Genesis of the Crispy Smoked Potatoes

The idea was to mimic triple fried chips without all the repeated deep frying, explains the blog entry…

“In the first year I took them off the menu for 2 weeks when the variety of potatoes I liked to use went out of season, which came with a hard boycott. One of the few times my stubbornness in the kitchen was over-ruled. 

“The dish relies on the variety of the potato used, not all are created equal. We were constantly testing through out the year to find the perfect spud. Varieties we had the best success with were Mayan Gold, Pink Fir Apple, Wilja, Carolus, Maris Pipers and Russets. The key is finding a potato with earthy flavour with as little sugar and moisture as possible. Once the potatoes decide its time to get ready to sprout they convert to sugar, then they burn before they crisp and the search for the next talented variety continues. The same for a wet or waxy potato, they just stay soggy. The wild card in that list of potato varieties is the pink fir apple. They are a waxy potato, strong flavoured. Usually good for boiling and using in salads. Surprisingly they do make wonderful crispy smokes…

“So there are four stages – baking, massaging, smoking, frying. The baking stage gelatinises the starch, the massaging makes the centre of the potato fluffy and soft to mimic the over cooking second fry in triple cooked chips, the smoking dries the outside of the potato thickening the starch layer on the outside and frying crisps the potato.”

For a further deep dip into the whole process do visit the website. It’s a fascinating journey through what is now past, though young Tom ‘keeps the fires burning’ with his projects. On the shelves of the Moorcock one cookbook stood out – the mission statement of Kobe Desramualts, Al’s mentor at Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Flanders.

If the Moorcock had survived past its five year span who knows if a cookbook of its own might have sprung from such a fertile kitchen? There may yet be time.

I ought to be reassured by Richard Corrigan writing “there’s no such thing as a recipe for colcannon really,” but all he’s doing in The Clatter of Forks and Spoons is dismissing the need for exact measurements or debating whether you can substitute kale for Savoy cabbage. The great chef is not jettisoning the spuds, bedrock of this rustic Irish classic.

Both colcannon and its country cousin champ can be made using fresh or leftover potatoes, but they have to be the floury sort, boiled in their skins. The texture is all wrong with waxy varieties. Parsnips can be added but mustn’t be a puree.

My ‘Colcannon Royale’ with celeriac and pancetta gilding the cabbage lily

The champ mash variant is proof, though that dishes mutate with the times. Originally it was made with stinging nettles – peasant stuff indeed – but over the years spring onions, green and white parts, became the norm. The word colcannon is from the Gaelic term cal ceannann, which means white-headed cabbage while cainnenin can mean garlic, onion, or leek.

But does all this looseness give me carte blanche to make colcannon with mashed celeriac, albeit kept deliberately lumpy? After all, the Scots equivalent of an avenue for leftover mashed potatoes, rumbledethumps, can easily incorporate swede or turnip, while England’s own bubble and squeak has licence to use up a whole gallimaufry of fridge remnants.

In this company, celeriac is a class apart, especially when the mash (never a puree) is augmented with cream and butter, then stirred into lacy Savoy and young leek, braised but retaining a certain bite. Oh and I couldn’t resist adding crisp pancetta to the mix. I call it my Colcannon Royale.

My combination of traditional coq au vin and colcannon was wickedly delicious

It would have made a fine bowlful on its own, but I partnered it with an old school coq au vin, which made for a testingly rich lunch. Before I had a much-needed lie-down I continued some cursory research into the role of colcannon in Irish life and its curious association with Halloween.

Indeed the first written mention was a 1735 diary entry of one William Bulkely, a traveller from Wales who had the dish on October 31 in Dublin: “Dined at Cos. Wm. Parry, and also supped there upon a shoulder of mutton roasted and what they call there Coel Callen, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough, and is a dish always had in this kingdom on this night.”

Bulkely didn’t know the half of it. For Halloween the Celts developed their own souped up fortune telling equivalent of coins in Christmas pud. It all kicked off with a blindfolded spinster plucking from the garden the head of cabbage or kale that is to be cooked in the colcannon.  

Charms were mixed into the dish itself. Which charm you found was seen as a portent for the future. A button meant you would remain a bachelor and a thimble meant you would remain a spinster for the coming year. A ring meant you would get married and a coin meant you would come into wealth.

To seal the deal unmarried women would stick the first and last spoonfuls of Halloween colcannon into a stocking and hang it on their doors. Guaranteeing the first man who walked through the door would become their husband.

There’s even a 19th century folk song, ‘The Skillet Pot’ that celebrates the dish:

“Did you ever eat colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream,
And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
Of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?”

Time to consult Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion To Food, one of the greatest books in the English language. An immediate surprise in the colcannon entry is its adoption by the English upper classes in the late 18th century. According to one account: “A more elaborate mash was prepared of potatoes and Brussels sprouts, highly flavoured with ginger and moistened with generous amounts of milk and butter.” Now that is a ‘Royale rival’.

Caldo Verde is a distant Portuguese relative of colcannon and all the other cabbage/potato combos

Still for those lower down the social ranks it is so often a leftover dish. And I’ve still got three quarters of a Savoy cabbage and half a bag of Rooster potatoes. Onions, garlic and chorizo are yanked from the larder, chicken stock from the freezer and soon, small world, a big pot of Portuguese Caldo Verde is simmering on the hob. Shall we call it Sopa de Colcannon’?