I first came across potted meat in one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventure stories. Potted meat sandwiches. What were they? I had no idea and could not Google it, but I imagined buttery white bread filled with something resembling mashed up luncheon meat.
It was only when I read Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine that I found out what potted meat was. My introduction to Ms David was a little book published to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Penguin. I’ll Be With You in the Squeezing of a Lemon (named after a chapter in Omelette) collected excerpts from several of her books. It was also my introduction to food and cookery writing in general — David’s books remain my favourite in the genre.
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is collection of the writer’s articles that were originally published in The Spectator, Gourmet magazine, Vogue, and The (London) Sunday Times. It contains a recipe for mayonnaise that makes me want to eat mayonnaise, never mind that I actually hate the stuff.
So, anyway, Omelette also features an article called ‘English Potted Meats and Fish Pastes’. By the way, I never did try potted meat when living in England. I can’t remember why I never tried looking for it at delis or supermarkets. Just as well because I would probably have been disappointed. Best I live in blissful ignorance, my imagination, aided by Blyton and David’s descriptions, conjuring the most delicious of sandwich fillings.
Here is David in a sub-section of the potted meat chapter:
When and How to Serve Potted Foods and Pastes
‘A noble breakfast,’ says George Borrow of the morning meal offered
him at an inn at Bala in North Wales, ‘there was tea and coffee, a goodly
white loaf and butter, there were a couple of eggs and two mutton chops – there was boiled and pickled salmon – fried trout … also potted trout and
potted shrimps …’ A few weeks later he returns in search of more country
delicacies. He is not disappointed. ‘What a breakfast! Pot of hare; ditto of
trout; pot of prepared shrimps; dish of plain shrimps; tin of sardines; beautiful
beef-steak; eggs, muffins, large loaf, and butter, not forgetting capital tea…’
George Borrow was writing of Wild Wales in the eighteen-fifties. When
you come to analyse his splendid breakfasts you find that with slight changes
he might almost be describing a nineteen-sixties, chop-house revival period,
West End restaurant lunch. The potted shrimps, the trout, the steak, the pot of
hare (now the chef’s terrine de lièvre), the mutton chops (now lamb cutlets),
the salmon, now smoked rather than pickled, are very much with us still. The
March of Progress has alas transformed the goodly white bread into that
unique substance, restaurateur’s toast, while tea and coffee are replaced by
gin-and-tonic or a bottle of white wine, and for my part I would say none the
worse for that. Tea with a fish breakfast or coffee with beefsteaks have never
been my own great favourites in the game of what to drink with what.
Here we are then with plenty of ideas for an easy and simple English lunch; potted tongue or game followed by a simple hot egg dish; or smoked salmon paste with butter and brown bread to precede grilled lamb chops, or oven-baked sole, or fillet steak if you are rich. For a high-tea or supper meal spread smoked haddock paste on fingers of hot toast and arrange them in a circle around a dish of scrambled eggs. For cocktail parties, use smoked salmon butter, fresh salmon paste, sardine or tunny fish butter, potted cheese, as fillings for the smallest of small sandwiches. Fish, meat and cheese pastes do not combine successfully with vol-au-vent cases, pastry or biscuits, but in sandwiches or spread on fingers of coarse brown bread they will be greeted as a blessed change from sticky canapés and messy dips. Stir a spoonful or two of potted crab or lobster (minus the butter covering) into fresh cream for eggs en cocotte, into a béchamel sauce to go over poached eggs or a gratin of sole fillets. And as Mrs Johnstone, alias Meg Dods, author of the admirable Housewife’s Manual of 1826 wrote, ‘What is left of the clarified butter (from potted lobster or crab) will be very relishing for sauces’ while ‘any butter from potted tongue or chicken remaining uneaten will afterwards be useful for frying meat and for pastry for pies’.
And here is a recipe:
RILLETTES OR POTTED PORK IN THE FRENCH MANNER
This very famous charcutiers’ or pork butchers’ speciality is native to
Southern Brittany, Anjou and Touraine. It could be described as the French
equivalent of our potted meat – although it is very different in texture and
2 lb. of a cheap and fat cut of pork such as neck or belly; 1 lb. of back
pork fat; salt; 1 clove of garlic; 2 or 3 sprigs of dried wild thyme on the stalk;
a couple of bay leaves; freshly milled black pepper.
Ask your butcher to remove the rind and the bones from the piece of pork
meat (the bones can be added to stock and the rind will enrich a beef dish for
the next course) and if he will, to cut the back pork fat into cubes.
Rub the meat with salt (about a couple of tablespoonsful) and let it stand
overnight or at least a few hours before cutting it into 1 ½-inch thick strips –
along the grooves left by the bones. Put these strips, and the fat, into an
earthenware or other oven dish. In the centre put the crushed clove of garlic,
the bay leaf and twig of thyme; mill a little black pepper over the meat and
add about half a pint of cold water. Cover the pot. Place it in a very cool
oven, gas no. 1, 290°F., and leave for about 4 hours.
Now place a sieve over a big bowl. Turn meat and fat out into the sieve,
so that all the liquid drips through. With two forks, pull apart the meat and fat
(which should be soft as butter) so that the rillettes are shredded rather than
in a paste/Pack the rillettes lightly into a glazed earthenware or stoneware jar
of about ¾ pint capacity (or into two or three smaller jars). Taste for
seasoning. Pour over the rillettes (taking care to leave the sediment) enough
strained fat to fill the jar. Cool, cover and store in the refrigerator until
Rillettes should be soft enough to spoon out, so remember to remove the
jar several hours before dinner. Serve with bread or toast, with or without
butter, as you please.
Perhaps I shall attempt to make potted meat from scratch one day. Until then, I will read and imagine and salivate.