I once read a science fiction story, whose name and author I have long forgotten, with the intriguing premise that the richer you were, the less you had to consume, and, so, the simpler became your life. At the bottom rung, you had to struggle and thrash your way through, say, two cars a year, four sets of golf clubs, ten suits. At the top, no car, a simple cotton toga, and a wooden chess set.
Does this explain why food writers yearn for the simple, the ordinary, the quotidian? A great part of my life is spent eating truffles, foie gras, caviar (there’s still a little left) Moroccan pigeon pie….. no more, no more - the belly screams out for the simplicity of - bangers and mash.
But here’s the rub. Because I am a food writer, it’s not that simple – nothing is when examined closely. What bangers? What mash? We’ll start with the relative ease of choosing a banger.
What is a sausage? The law (at least in the state of Australia where I live, others may and will differ) dictates that it must contain at least 50% and no more than 85% lean meat flesh, with no more than half the meat weight in fat. To this can be added herbs, salt, spices, MSG, water, phosphates, (to control texture and water holding capacity) sulphur dioxide (to slow down bacterial growth and oxidation) and fillers, mainly wheat rice or soy flour and breadcrumbs.
The casing can be natural – usually sheep intestines for standard and pig for the larger sizes - or manufactured from collagen extracted from the hide of beef cattle. Supermarket sausages use manufactured casings. Good butchers won’t touch them, saying they don’t ‘eat’ well. All you need to know is that you must prick the natural casing, but not the manufactured one. (Just to make you feel really good about all this, some Italian sausages are stuffed into pig’s rectums, the best casing of all)
All sausage fanciers have their favourites. Let me offer a few. Firstly, the delicate saucisse Toulouse (a saucisse is a small French sausage, a saucisson large), a basic peasant European sausage of coarsely minced pork shoulder, salt, pepper, garlic, a little back fat and nothing much else, variations of which you’ll find in Italy, from Abruzzi north and across to the Yugoslavian border, and all across France from the south west to the Italian border. Elizabeth David suggests this one be dipped into boiling water for a few minutes before frying or grilling, not a bad idea.
My own favourite comes from AC Butchery in Sydney’s Leichhardt, Joe Drago’s famous duck sausage, which contains, among other things (many secret) coarsely ground Muscovy duck meat, orange zest, nuts – mostly pistachio but often hazelnuts – and a slurp or two of brandy. Both these sausages are ground much coarser than your average Oz butcher sausage.
But if you fancy the English style, you’ll more than likely have your favourite butcher’s version. A good English pork will use 99% good pork trim, rice flour and selected seasonings encased, like all good sausages, naturally.
And now for the hard part. Mash. What’s hard about that you say? Just get a couple of spuds, boil ‘em and push ‘em about with a fork? Hah! The pedantic and amusing American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten spends eight pages of his book The Man Who Ate Everything looking for the perfect mashing method. You’ll get into heated arguments with cooks about the use of milk (no!) cream (yes! yes!) olive oil (si!) and butter (French chef Joel Robuchon uses 16 tablespoons of butter for every kilo of potatoes for his Puree de Pommes de Terre, the dish that made his reputation); about consistency – the French love a puree, we tend to like our mash a bit coarser; and finally, the variety of spud. Be grateful you don’t live in Peru – there’d you have a choice of 200.
What you want for mashing (as opposed to pureeing) is a dense, floury potato, high in starch, low in water, a spud that goes fluffy when you mash it, not gummy and sticky. Of the more usual varieties, try Nicola, Pink Eye, Pontiac, Desiree or Sebago.
Then there are disputes over whether to peel or not to peel (Robuchon doesn’t); whether, as Steingarten puts it, ‘retrogradation – cooking then cooling the spuds – retards gumminess.’ In recommending that, he flies in the face of all other cooks I have consulted. But the most important thing those in search of a magnificent mash should know is that because the potato is a starchy vegetable, cooking alters the starch granules (and not the cell membranes as with other cooked vegetables). When raw, these granules are hard and tightly packed. They don’t soften until the temperature reaches a ‘gelatinisation’ range – for the potato between 58°and 66°C - when the granules take up water, swell to many times their natural size and are very delicate and easily damaged. Nearer to boiling point, the pectic cement between the cells degrades, and the potato can be safely mashed. It’s important, then, that all parts of the potato are cooked – which is why you try to cut your spuds into relatively uniform pieces for boiling.
The recipe I’m using is adapted from one given me originally by Sydney chef Matthew Moran. Note the name. Moran. Not Morandi, or Mouran – but good old Moran. He knows from praties.
Sausages with garlic mash and pinot noir gravy
(Serves 4 hungry blokes)
8 sausages (omit the following gravy ingredients if using English style, sausages, you probably won’t get enough pan juices)
EVOO for frying.
1 finely sliced brown onion fried gently until soft.
1tblspn plain flour, sifted.
A slurp from a good bottle of Pinot Noir
2kgs floury potatoes (Moran prefers Sebago) peeled and cut into uniform pieces (say 3cm /1½inch)
4 cloves crushed garlic
ground white pepper
Prick and fry gently in a heavy bottomed (black iron) pan until firm and cooked. Cover with foil and place in a warming oven. Check the pan juices, if there seems to be far too much ‘fatty’ stuff, tip half out.
Turn up the heat under the remaining pan juices, and when they’re bubbling, slosh in a slurp of the Pinot Noir and with a wooden spoon stir vigorously and reduce by about half. Stir through the finely sliced fried onion
When reduced, turn the flame right down and stir in the flour until it amalgamates and thickens the gravy.
Put the peeled and cubed potatoes into a large saucepan with a lot of well salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until you can pierce them with a knife but they stay whole. Don’t overcook – they’ll go gluggy.
Meanwhile, put the cream on to heat just short of boiling.
When the potatoes are cooked, drain them, and put them back into the dry pot over a low flame to get rid of the last of the moisture. Do not leave the cooked potatoes to sit around – they’ll turn to glue (unless you’re following the Steingarten method).
Mash them through a vegetable mouli (moulin legume in French, passaverdura in Italian, a great kitchen tool and incredibly cheap) or just mash them firmly with a big fork or a masher. Do not put them through the food processor – more glue.
Whisk through the hot cream and the raw garlic (the heat of the cream and the potatoes will cook it) and season to taste with white pepper and salt.
Stir and re-heat the gravy and serve all together.
If you don’t believe in the French paradox (the French have the second lowest heart attack rate in the world after the Japanese in spite of guzzling mounds of butter and cream, a paradox to the medical profession) substitute olive oil for the cream. Just omit the cream and whisk through a good extra virgin (about 1 cup to 2kgs of spuds).