In Eating Heaven, I tried to say something about the café and the role its tables play in our cities and our lives. Then I find the collected poems of Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail, and discover he says it with more beauty and fewer words. I tip my hat.
Lunchtime in a London Café
Table by table the café fills
till talk and the clap of plates
bulge with well-being; a dark
waitress’s patchwork skirt
hurries behind the counter;
every face under the sun peers
at the window menu, more
voices join the steamy pentecost.
Here in the metropolis nothing
shocks. Out of its huge anonymity
worlds of strange gossip crowd
this lunch-time café. And I’m in love
with its mystery, the peculiar rapture
of life à la carte. The window mists;
after wine, the Basque in the corner
turns his smokey eyes on the waitress.
Outside the door, the buses shriek,
rush and judder; a city’s jamboree,
hope and haphazard, limitless
chances, choices wait. Sitting
here I know I’ve felt the throb
of Jerusalem or Rome or any city
yet to come, where there’s a café
and we, citizens all, break bread.
Michael O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013, 183.
My dad came for dinner tonight. He’s not fussy, but he’s a proud meat-and-potatoes man. No pastas or risottos, and certainly no ancient grain salads for him; not by choice anyway. Dad likes his food simple: a good roast dinner with crispy spuds and gravy, or a slow-cooked lamb stew.
His taste for lamb is no surprise. Raised on a sheep farm in the Mallee, dad remembers a lamb butchered every fortnight and shared with the neighbours. On the alternate week the neighbours reciprocated. It was a good arrangement for a place with no refrigeration. He also tells me of the large cast iron pot that simmered constantly on the wood stove. What began as a hearty lamb soup would last for days, reducing to a thick stew in the bottom of the pot.
So, tonight it was dad’s lamb stew.
The only complication was, my beloved and I are off fat and carbs for a bit. This meant a few provisos: the lamb had to be lean; the oil for browning had to be coconut oil; the usual roux (flour and butter) for thickening was off limits; and the potatoes (essential to a good Mallee stew) had to be added whole so they could be fished out by the purists. Regardless, it turned out ok. Better than ok, in fact. It was good. Even dad said so.
Here’s what you need:
- 1 kg diced lamb
- 1 dessert spoon of coconut oil
- 1 lean rasher of bacon (finely diced)
- 12 small brown onions (peeled but left whole)
- 2 carrots (peeled and diced)
- 2 celery sticks (diced)
- ½ red capsicum (diced)
- 5 cloves of garlic (peeled and finely sliced)
- 4 medium sized ripe tomatoes (peeled and roughly chopped) or 1 can peeled tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
- ¼ cup of worcestershire sauce
- I litre of stock
- Salt and pepper
- 12 small washed potatoes
For a bouquet garni: with a short length of kitchen string, tie together 2 stems of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme, 1 sprig of rosemary and 2 bay leaves.
Here’s what you do:
- In a large, heavy-based cooking pot (preferably cast iron), heat the oil over high heat.
- Add handfuls of the diced lamb, browning the pieces so as to seal in the juices. Don’t do too many pieces at once. You don’t want the meat to stew, but to brown quickly. You’ll need to do several batches. Once it’s all browned, set the meat aside.
- In the same pot with whatever oil remains, and still on high heat, brown the onions all over and then set aside.
- Still on high, add the diced bacon to the pot and brown the bacon until its crispy and ready to pop. Set aside.
- Add the carrots, celery, capsicum and garlic to the pot and saute over high heat for a few minutes.
- Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, worcestershire, salt and pepper, and continue cooking for another five minutes.
- Add the stock and bring it all to a slow boil then lower the heat and maintain at a simmer.
- Add the lamb, onions and potatoes.
- Add the bouquet garni to the pot with the string draped over the side.
- Cover and keep the stew on a low simmer for approximately 1½ hours.
- Remove the pot from the heat, discard the bouquet, add the bacon, and let the stew rest for 10 minutes.
Serve the stew in generous bowls along with some crusty bread. Though no bread for the purists. And no potatoes either. But the rest is good.