One of the blessings of 24 hour live streaming or semi-blessings of paying for Amazon Prime is that American foodies can come into contact with some of Britain’s finest cooks and chefs. Whether it is Gordon Ramsey cursing out prisoners toiling in the dank kitchens of Brixton, Rick Stein pretending to enjoy the food of the Mississippi Delta or Nigella creating yet another pavlova in a gown more complicated than Princess Diana’s wedding dress, we Yanks love to watch Brits cook. Our 330 public broadcasting stations have had an enormous love affair with the Great British Bake Off. PBS made Mary Berry a household name and launched Paul Hollywood – he of the startling blue eyes and tight jeans – into, well, Hollywood superstardom. His newest baking book has been translated into American English and is selling like hotcakes – served with maple syrup, of course, and not lemon juice and sugar.
Two fine cooks who have yet been discovered by The Food Network but easily found on You Tube are The Hairy Bikers. Now, they may not have an Officer of the Order of the British Empire such as Gordon Ramsey but they are faithful members of The Grand Order of Water Rats. (This refers not to the state of their kitchens but to their generous contributions to a theatrical charity.) Their names are Si King and Dave Myers. Like the late, lamented Two Fat Ladies, they travel around Great Britain on motorcycles investigating the various comestibles produced by city and country life. (They also share with them a lusty desire to plunge beringed fingers into innocent pastry dough, a sight that would make an American culinary instructor collapse into the mise en place.) And while The Two Fat Ladies were undoubtedly fun, they were also pretty intimidating. Si and Dave, on the other hand, are laid back and sweet-tempered. They didn’t blink an eye on their Mississippi Delta tour when served the deep south’s favorite vegetable: macaroni and cheese.
The Hairy Bikers, despite their amazing ability to turn out wonderful food, did not start out as trained chefs. Dave Myers was a film makeup artist and Si King was in film and television production and was the location manager for the Harry Potter movies. They met working behind the scenes on a television show. A friendship began when the two discovered their mutual love of motorcycles, Indian food and home cooking. This led to a contract with the BBC (who seem to lurk in every kitchen in Great Britain looking for new stars) that produced 25 television shows and 18 cookbooks. Sadly, I don’t believe any of the books have been published using Imperial measurements.
In their Best of British series, they visit pubs, farmer’s markets, poultry farms, supermarkets, Asian markets, cattle farms, gin and whiskey distillers and come back to the studio kitchen inspired to cook. As they work, they give a lighthearted historical overview of ingredients and techniques. So we get examples from medieval feasts, Georgian and Victorian banquets and modern 21st century trends.
The following Bikers’ recipe use that popular spring vegetable: rhubarb. Interestingly, rhubarb is descended from the word rheubarbarium. Barbarium means “foreigner” or in non-pc circles means “scary guys battering at your ramparts and swinging axes in your general direction.” The Romans and medieval Europeans discovered these ruby-colored stalks on their travels to cold, wet climates in which rhubarb flourished. It was believed that aside from their toxic green leaves, they had medicinal attributes that helped inflammation and constipation. It wasn’t consumed as a vegetable or fruit until much later. Because it is so tart, it is often paired with strawberries in season, creating bewitching rosy-hued desserts.
Rhubarb and Custard Tart adapted from the Hairy Bikers
250g/9 oz flour or 1 1/2-2 cups of flour
150g/5 1/2 oz cold butter, cut into cubes or 1 stick of unsalted butter, cubed
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon of cold water
Put flour and cubed butter in food processor and blitz until the butter has the texture of peas. Add egg and water and process until it comes together. Tip it out onto a floured board and roll out to the thickness of a 1/4 inch circle (or a 1 pound coin). Place in a 9 inch/23cm fluted tart tin with a removable bottom and trim appropriately, making sure to push the dough into the bottom and sides of the tin. Prick the base with a fork and chill dough for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 200C or approximately 400F. Place the tart tin, lined with parchment paper, on a baking tray. Pour dried beans or uncooked rice into the tin to blind bake for approximately 15-25 minutes. (The timing depends on the accuracy of the oven.) Remove and allow to cool. Reduce heat to 160C or approximately 350F.
Using a heatproof bowl, cook a standard custard of milk, cream, vanilla bean or essence (extract), eggs, egg yolks and sugar over a saucepan of hot water until thickened and smooth.* Pour the custard into the pastry case and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. The middle portion of the tart should be somewhat wobbly. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
For the rhubarb topping put 65g/2 1/4 oz of sugar and 1 tablespoon of water into a pan and heat until sugar dissolves. Add 400-500/14 oz – 17 oz or 2 to 2 1/2 cups of trimmed rhubarb. Cook gently until soft but not falling apart. Take off the heat, place in a heat-proof bowl and add more sugar if needed. Allow to cool and then refrigerate.
To serve, place the tin on something like a small coffee can and allow the sides to slide off. Transfer tart to a serving plate and spoon the rhubarb over the top. Add some extra cream for more luxuriousness.
*I suppose Bird’s Custard Powder can be used to make this dish but it won’t be nearly as nice as freshly made custard.
Old Yorkshire Pie
In Episode 1 of The Best of British, the boys join food historian Ivan Day who shows them how to make an Old Yorkshire Christmas Pie using a menacing locking mold straight out of The Man in the Iron Mask. The ingredients contain free-range hen, mallard, pigeon and partridge, forcemeat (in this case chopped turkey) and plenty of seasoning including nutmeg and salt. A type of hot water pastry is made, rolled out into a rectangle and placed along the sides of the mold. Lock it, stand it up and line the bottom with more dough and the forcemeat. Add all the other ingredients wrapped inside the chicken. Top with pastry and stick in the oven for 3 hours. (No temperature was given in the demonstration.) Allow to cool, remove mold and you are left with a stunning meat pie that would have brought a wolfish grin to a greedy Tudor and his grasping Lancastrian hangers-on .