Bird or game, it’s all about carving against the grain, writes Edythe Preet, Irish Heritage Kitchen chef and Sláinte columnist.
An old Irish saying has it that “A dinner is not a dinner at all but only an excuse for one if it does not contain a plate of meat.” And meals starring meat have a long history.
From tales of the saints’ lives and heraldic sagas we know that wealth was determined by one’s cattle holdings. Tain Bo Culainge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) relates how a war erupted over the theft of a great black bull. Tributes to rulers were paid in cattle. Records show that the king of Leinster delivered a hundred head of each kind of cattle to his Munster overlord. Church tithes called “First-fruits” included the first calf born to every cow. Cattle also served as financial barter exchanges. The Brehon Laws stipulated that tenants pay their landholders an annual rent of two cows. Culdee monks charged a yearly fee for tuition, bed and board, of one calf, several hogs, three sacks of malt and a sack of wheat.
Herding provided much of the protein that was eaten in ancient Ireland, but it was not the only source of the meat that came to the table. Hunting was not an occasional pastime but a productive pursuit.
From drawings in illuminated manuscripts such as The Book of Kells we know that the domestic cock and hen were dietary mainstays, but unusual fowl such as the purple eagle, wild peacock and the barnacle goose also found their way to the table. Wrens, ducks, cuckoos, ravens, partridge, kites, hawks, sparrows, and storks are mentioned in Lives of the Saints. In his 12th-century Topography of Ireland Giraldo Cambrensis wrote of falcons, snipe, woodcock, pheasant, nightingales, flocks of cranes, and “clouds of larks singing the praises of God.”
When the Normans arrived, hunting took on new dimensions. Like the Tudors after them, they hawked for birds, coursed hare, and hunted deer and wild boar. To ensure there would be sufficient game to support their passion, new animals were introduced to the environment and new meats to the Irish table. Pigeons were bred in large dovecotes, then stewed, spit-roasted, pot-roasted, or baked in pies. The native deer population had dwindled to a fraction of its original size and fallow deer were imported to augment the herds.
In an ordinance decreed sometime around the 3rd century by the most famous of the ancient Irish High Kings, Cormac mac Art, which stayed in force until the death of Brian Boru in 1014, the Ard-ri was granted a retinue of at least ten persons: a flaith (noble), a brehon (judge), a druid (in Christian times a bishop), a sai (doctor), a poet, a historian, a musician, and three servants. That member of the royal household who demonstrated an aptitude to wield a blade at table was as valued as one who could deftly slice and dice on the battlefield.
No medieval carver worth his salt cut meat on a dish. He speared the entire haunch or bird on the tines of a massive carving fork held in the left hand, lifted it in the air, and with an acrobat’s agility and a juggler’s timing, adroitly sliced away with a deadly sharp blade held in his right. The best could dismiss the use of a fork entirely and cut with two knives, simultaneously slicing with one blade and then the other as the meat appeared to hang magically suspended in the air. Diners watched the performance intently, loudly criticizing ineptitude and heartily applauding flamboyance.
The carver’s role was a serious matter. Students practiced on wooden forms simulating all manner of meat and fowl, with different verbs assigned to carving each. One might alay a pheasant, unbrace a duck, unlace a rabbit, disfigure a peacock, break a deer, spoil a hen, unmail a crayfish, splat a bream, or gobbet a trout. A hot meat pie was cut from the top edge, but a knife was inserted into the middle if the pie was cold. There were even requisite procedures for cutting fruit.
The carver was one of the most important officers of the royal retinue. He wore a leather case much like a sword scabbard in which were stored the tools of his trade: two large knives, one each for bread and meat, plus smaller table knives for his lord’s exclusive use. And the knives were no ordinary blades. The handles were ornamented with precious metals, horn, ivory, and sometimes faceted jewels.
While a carver’s dexterity and showmanship were of great importance, his true worth lay in whether he could make the toughest cuts of meat tooth tender, a most important skill at a time when even a king’s dentition was probably poor. The key was cutting the meat ‘against the grain,’ which transformed a dry fire-roasted haunch of wild game from tough-as-nails into an easily chewed delicious morsel.
Finding any meat’s ‘grain’ is no easier today than it was a thousand years ago. For years, I sought this ‘holy grain’ to no avail. Inevitably my gorgeous roast turkeys, roast beefs and baked hams morphed into ragged slabs and showers of crumbles on the serving platter.
Then one day at the gym I solved the mystery. My trainer had explained that muscles are composed of long strings of tissue. While trodding the treadmill, planning an upcoming holiday meal, and dreading the prospect of yet another carving trial, I suddenly had the answer. The reason sliced meat can be a chewing challenge is that it has been cut parallel to a stringy muscle! Pursuing the thought a bit further I deduced that cutting ‘against’ the grain meant I had to hold the blade at a right angle to the muscle. Then my cuts would sever the long strings into short little bits my teeth would have no difficulty whatsoever masticating into the mouthy mush required for swallowing. In a flash my carving skill was raised to a height that in the Middle Ages would have earned me a royal reward.
The next time you serve a roast haunch or fowl – say at one of the many winter feasts fast approaching – remember this: stringy slices or crumbles are clues that the angle you’re carving from is wrong. Once you find the grain, every slice you carve will be pure chewing joy. Not only will meat be the starring element on your table, your fellow diners may even give you a standing ovation.
Holiday Standing Rib Roast (personal recipe)
(Note: There’s no need to search for the ‘holy grain’ on a standing rib roast. Cutting slices through the ribs automatically cuts ‘across the grain’.)
Rib Roast (7-8 pounds) w/ 3-4 ribs, trimmed of excess fat
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
coarse salt & black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups beef stock
If your butcher has not already done so, cut through the ribs and tie together again with kitchen twine. In a small bowl, combine dry mustard, sugar, and Dijon mustard. Brush mixture over the fat and cut surfaces of the roast. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Set the roast, fat side up, in a heavy, shallow roasting pan. Let stand until it comes to room temperature, 30 minutes to 1 hour. Score the fat with a paring knife. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes. (Add potatoes – see potato recipe) Roast another 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to roast (basting with pan juices every 15 minutes), until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 115 degrees for rare (or 125 for medium rare) on an instant-read thermometer (about 1 hour). Remove roast to a platter. Cover with tin foil and let rest for 20 minutes before carving.
While roast is resting, pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the roasting pan. To make gravy, set pan on stove over medium heat. Simmer until juices begin to darken, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in flour and cook, scraping up caramelized bits, until flour is deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil, stirring until thickened. It should very lightly coat the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Strain gravy and serve with oven roasted potatoes, horseradish sauce, and your choice of vegetables.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Oven Roasted Potatoes (personal recipe)
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and halved lengthwise
1⁄2 teaspoon salt (scant)
Put potatoes into a large pot of water. Bring to a boil, add salt. Cook 5 minutes. Drain. Score lines lengthwise in potatoes using a fork.
Add potatoes to roasting pan after meat has been cooking for 15 minutes and continue cooking according to Rib Roast recipe. Turn potatoes every 30 minutes so they will brown evenly all over. When golden brown, remove to a serving platter and keep warm while roast is resting and gravy is cooking.
Horseradish Sauce (personal recipe)
2 cups sour cream
1⁄2 cup grated peeled fresh horseradish, or prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
salt & pepper
In a small bowl, stir together sour cream, horseradish, lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Makes 2 1/2 cups. Refrigerate any left over sauce as it’s excellent on cold roast beef sandwiches. Note: Use more horseradish if you prefer a spicier sauce.