How a well-roasted joint is sliced will affect how it looks and tastes. Nick Hammond leaves no whetstone unturned to discover the best way to carve meat.
In the gloom of a blustery autumnal afternoon, the amber glow from the wall lamps of The Ritz restaurant soothes the soul. A soft, contented buzz lifts and swells to the cupola and, everywhere you look, attentive waiters and waitresses flit about, some pushing silver-domed perambulators like proud new parents, one of which is trundling my way.
The art of guéridon service finds its pinnacle in this fabulous, flouncy hotel on Piccadilly, in its Arts de la Table menu. Here, a diligent waiter finishes and serves your food at the table, with a wonderful flourish of theatre. You can sit back with a glass of something appropriate and watch as your grouse is delicately sliced or your Bresse duck carved, and the air is filled with its perfume of smouldering herbs.
‘Guests of The Ritz Restaurant are able to enjoy their entire menu prepared tableside,’ Simon Girling, the hotel’s director of food and beverage, says, proudly. ‘The guéridon style of service showcases the very highest level of technical expertise and, on Sunday afternoons, we teach masterclasses with the team and duplicate restaurant scenarios in order to develop knowledge and skills. There are also regular tastings with the kitchen.’
These days, we’re bombarded by televised cooking programmes and jaw-dropping images of dripping, sizzling haunches of meat. However, it’s one thing to know how to cook a joint and quite another to know how to carve it.
‘It’s hugely overlooked,’ chef Charlie Hodson tells me, in between serving customers at his eponymous cheese shop and delicatessen in Aylsham, Norfolk. ‘You can ruin a beautifully cooked piece of meat by having the wrong tools to hand and not knowing what to do with them. You need to get the basics right: knives, board and technique.’
As Johnny Scott writes in the peerless Sunday Roast tome of 2002, co-authored with the late Clarissa Dickson Wright: ‘If your knife is sharp, the meat properly cooked, and you keep your head, you can’t go wrong.’ It all sounds so deceptively simple.
Natalie Clifton, who founded the British firm I.O.Shen Knives with her late father more than 20 years ago and became a devotee of all things sharp, is positively elegiac when talking of knives, carving and slicing. The blades she designs, lovingly crafted with precision by masters in Japan, are found on chef’s blocks the world over.
‘We spent years finding out why good knives were good knives,’ she explains. ‘And many places in the world make outstanding examples. But I could tear my hair out when I watch people go at a piece of meat with the wrong knife or attack their beautiful blade with a sharpening steel.’
Many of us have been doing it wrong all these years, but where to start? ‘A big joint of meat needs a big knife,’ recommends Mrs Clifton.
‘Fit the knife to the job. If you’re cutting through bark or pork crackling, you need a serrated blade to break through the tough exterior or you’ll simply blunt your knife. A sharp knife of the correct size should slip easily through well-cooked and rested meat — always against the grain — and you can use the tip to flick off your slices.
‘And if you don’t know how to properly use a whetstone, invest in a good machine sharpener — it’ll keep your blade in perfect condition for years. Avoid a sharpening steel; the technique required to guide the blade down it at precisely the correct angle over and over again is nearly impossible to re-create and all you’ll do is produce minute imperfections all over the blade.’
A good carving knife will be gently curved to emphasise the cut (not saw) of the blade through meat and have an appropriate weight/length/strength ratio for the job in hand. Wipe your knife — and the accompanying carving fork — with a soft cloth and hot, soapy water and store it safely where its blade won’t get nicked or scraped; securely wrapped, in a block or on a magnet.
‘The balance of the knife is crucial,’ maintains Mr Hodson. ‘It must have enough heft and strength to enable you to wield it with confidence, as well as being easy to handle and capable of delicate slicing.’
A carving board is also a crucial part of your kit, as Paul Williams of Woods World Wide, stresses: ‘You’re looking for a single piece of wood with no knots or gaps where bacteria can hide, whether oak, beech or perhaps elm,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s round or rectangular is down to personal preference, but it should have channels for capturing the juices. I find spikes get in the way and can blunt your blade — if they’re really needed to pin down your joint, the detachable strips of running spikes are really useful.’
Again, make sure the board is cleaned in plenty of hot water, with care taken to remove meat scraps, juices and congealed fat from gullies and crevices. Air dry and occasionally oil with a suitable (and non-toxic) wood oil.
Among other meat-carving essentials is a good pinny. Although a novelty apron may amuse for a moment, if you’re serious about your cooking, you need something appropriate for the occasion. Whether you prefer a waist apron or a full-length covering (if there’s splatter, it’ll zone in on my crisp new shirt every time), pockets are endlessly useful for that box of matches, bottle opener or corkscrew, as are loops for the tea towel we perennially abandon around the kitchen.
Leather is hard-wearing and heavy, but, although you may appreciate the blacksmith look, they’re best suited to outdoor ovens and barbecuing. Stick to something made from hard-wearing and washable cloth.
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Back in the The Ritz, my glazed and steaming Anjou pigeon (feet intact!) is revealed and superbly carved in front of me, with delicate slices of mauve meat laid aside, the legs deftly removed to help make more of that unctuous gravy.
As an added ‘ta da!’, the remains of the bird — organs et al — are placed into a solid silver presse, its London Dungeonesque wheel grindingly turned and the rivulet of garnet juices collected in a pan, then flambèed with butter and brandy in a pyrotechnic roar of flame and poured over the warm slices of pigeon.
Perhaps not one to try at home with your granny on a Sunday, but an elaborate and delicate display of the art of guéridon table service. Have a go yourself at home — on a more modest scale — and carve out your own little slice of culinary heaven.
The Ritz London, 150, Piccadilly, London W1 (020–7493 8181; www.theritzlondon.com)
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