Not many of us live in rural communities, and of those who do not all are dependent on farming and agriculture for their livelihoods as they would have been in times gone by. Round here in Somerset, the end of August beginning of September is the time for Harvest Homes where villages organize a big end of harvest celebration and knees-up – even if there is no longer a harvest to celebrate! However, thanks to the pleasing increase in cider production in the west country, there is a real surge in new orchards, which means more jobs!
In the past, when harvesting began, villagers would rally round and as soon as the cutting of the corn, whether in the old days by hand and scythe, or whether with more modern agricultural machinery, everyone would be there; the stooks would be bound and built into stacks, and then after a few weeks of drying out it would be the turn of the threshers – in the old day by hand, these days by machine.
To feed and refresh the workers there would be communal meals and beer or cider sometimes in big barrels set up in the barns or sheds, would be drunk and either big roast joints and mountains of vegetables, or huge cauldrons of stew would be there for the sharing cooked by some of the women who stayed in the kitchen, doing their part by cooking.
In Ireland great joints of roast meats and mountains of roast potatoes would be served with boiled vegetables; less affluent farmers might be eating a pig’s head, ‘Irish’ stew, or bacon and cabbage, and also mountains of potatoes boiled and served with butter. Whatever the main fare there would be fruit pies and tarts and mugs of tea.
Coooking would sometimes have been done over an open fire, no doubt fuelled by peat, and certainly a stew would be made in a big black iron pot. I guess every farmer’s wife and every town wife had her own recipe, no doubt handed down through the generations, and apparently it has been a controversial topic as to whether carrots should be added or not. Some people would bulk out the meat with other root vegetables such as turnip or swede.
Here is a recipe I came across for 4 hungry people or to allow for some left over for the next day, or 6 people:
- 2 – 3 lb mutton if you can get it, or lamb chops cut to at least an inch thick, and cut in half
- as many carrots as your family like
- about 3 large onion, or 6 medium sized onions, or 12 baby onions, or more or less to taste
- parsnip and/or swede depending on whether you like it
- 8+ potatoes, peeled and sliced, or if they are small cut in half
- 1 pint mutton/lamb or other stock
- fresh thyme to go in the stew, parsley and chives to garnish
- alittle flour and butter mixed to a roux if you want to thicken your stew – or thicken it as you like, or don’t thicken it at all!
- salt and pepper
- trim off as much of the excess fat as your family would like (my family don’t like fatty meat so I might trim off most of it for them) and render it down on a very, very low heat
- cut carrots into chunks, unless they are young and small and you like to leave them whole, and ditto the other root vegetables if you are using them
- take some of the rendered fat and brown the meat in it, then do the same for the vegetables (if you don’t fancy that or think meat fat is too greasy or strongly flavoured, use your preferred cooking oil)
- take a large casserole and put in layers of meat, then vegetables, meat then vegetables until they are all used up, adding salt and pepper as you do so, insert your sprig or sprigs of thyme in among the layers – I am not very keen on the flavour so would only just add a little so it isn’t overpowering; if you like a really herby flavour, add more
- deglaze the pan with the stock and pour it over the meat and vegetables
- lay the potatoes across the top to form a potatoey lid to the meal ( I have sometimes found potatoes don’t cook through in the allotted time so I sometimes par-boil them first, before slicing them)
- slowly and carefully bring the casserole to boiling point, cover and then leave it to simmer… I have had too many things stick to the bottom of casseroles over the heat, so I would put mine in eh oven at about gas mark 5, 190ºC, 375ºF; leave it to cook for 1-1½ hours, depending on how quickly the meat cooks… I might actually turn it right down to my slow-cook setting and leave it for about 3 hours.
- When everything is cooked and tender, VERY CAREFULLY pour off the liquid and skim off as much of the fat as you can,, or use a fat separater. Reheat this gravy and check whether you need to add more salt and pepper – I like a peppery stew and would use white not black pepper. Carefully pour it back over the stew, sprinkle with your chopped herbs, and serve to appreciative cries from all your friends and family