Everyone remembers how that excellent clergy-man the Rev Sydney Smith (1771-1845) described Heaven as a destination restaurant where you get to eat ‘pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets’. Fewer folk remember his description of Hell: ‘1,000 years of tough mutton or a little eternity of family dinners.’
My, how times have changed. Foie gras is looked upon as a moral slur and invites condemnation on a scary scale. I don’t serve it in my restaurant for various reasons-we try and stick to meats born and raised in Suffolk and Norfolk-and we’re on a mission to introduce diners to the charms of terrines made from squirrel and rabbit, pesky but delicious creatures that marry well with hazelnuts and sweet and sour figs. I still make my own foie gras frais at Christmas with duck livers from a friend in Burgundy who doesn’t funnel corn into her ducks, but lets them give into their natural greed.
It’s not as cholesterol-laden and unctuous as the real thing, but it’s pretty good. We eat it en famille, preferably to the sound of cellos, as trumpets can be rather distracting at table. But foie gras is no longer one of life’s rare treasures. Once you know the details of the forced-feeding, you lose your appetite for it. It’s so cruel that it’s been banned in most of Europe and the UK. It’s even banned in Israel, once the world’s third-largest producer of (goose) foie gras, which, together with salmon fishing in the Yemen, was a global step too far for me. But back to my point: what is truly rare and precious in life nowadays is Rev Smith’s vision of Hell: mutton and family dinners.
I’ll start with mutton. A few years ago, The Prince of Wales started the Mutton Renaissance to help sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals. There was a grand dinner at The Ritz and famous chefs described the meat as a national asset and opined that it was our moral duty to sustain our muttonous heritage. Prince Charles described the meat as ‘mouthwatering’. He admitted that a renaissance of mutton wouldn’t change the world, but as it just might make the difference between survival and disappearance of sheep farmers, it was enough for him.
What they didn’t dwell on was the fact that spring lamb is rather dull in taste. Redcurrant jelly and mint sauce were concocted to make the tougher (and stinkier) pieces of mutton more palatable in the days before refrigeration, but are now served with tender young lamb because it lacks flavour. I learned this by chance.
We start lambing here late and the vision of gambolling lambs in the meadow outside the restaurant and spring lamb on the menu was hard to swallow. We tended to wait, then we would lose track of time, and only get round to eating the young ram lambs when they were technically hoggets-between nine and 18 months old or have cut two teeth. We discovered that, at 18 months, they were still tender, but had wonderful flavour. It also made it easier to enjoy Easter when the lambs are playing lamb games on the fallen oaks.
Then there is the other half of the Reverend’s vision: family dinners. I do remember a few when the teetotal Baptist great-uncles came for Sunday lunch and conversation was an exegesis of the Book of Acts. But a family dinner now seems as precious to me as gold and I wish I could revisit some of those gatherings of years past. I think I’d be more tolerant of the old uncles (there were five) and I’d be more grateful of the cooks (my grandmother and Cleo, who, as The Help reminded me, left her own family to come and fix Sunday lunch for us). But one souvenir of those dinners gone by lives on. It’s my father’s favourite grace. I think even the Rev Smith would have liked it: ‘Dear God, Thank you for this good life, and please forgive us if we do not love it enough.’
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