When I was a child, stews took all day to cook. I would watch my mother carefully chopping vegetables after breakfast. This was a delicate and precise operation. Carrots had to be the right width to slice on the diagonal, the green ends of leeks; perfectly edible but always thrown away; just the white thick bits used. Then the meat. It was often chicken, but some days, Mum would use a rabbit or even a Pheasant, shot by my father on his weekend jaunts to Guildford golf course. (I am talking about the nineteen fifties here. No-one would be allowed to shoot anything, not even Tiger Woods on a golf course these days). As my father was born in the north of Italy, he knew all about shooting birds. The Italians do seem to have a passion for killing things that fly!
Back to the stew. I would watch Mum skin the poor dead rabbit, gut it and wash it. I would stand on a stool and examine its innards and Mum would give me a short anatomy lesson, pointing out the liver, the heart, even the spleen. How she knew the names of all these unsavoury organs, I will never know. Then she would joint the rabbit, dip it in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary and fry each joint in olive oil till the pieces were brown and luscious. Then she would throw in a good wine glass full of Frascati or pale sherry or maybe even a bit of Port if she had any. The pan would sizzle and spit. The smell would assault your nostrils with a perfume made in heaven! She would then remove the rabbit and chuck in the vegetables. A quick stir, more seasoning and then the rabbit was put back, another larger glass of wine added, a thick lid put on the pan and the heat turned down to the gentlest simmer.
The meal would slowly cook until that night, when having covered the table with the white linen cloth, white napkins, silver cutlery, we would be called to eat the feast. It was often served with Polenta. Watching polenta cook was like watching yellow larva bubbling in the cauldron of a volcano. Fascinating! The yellow granules would be poured in to a pan holding pints of boiling water. Then the great stir would begin. Mum’s eyes would water at the effort. You needed muscles to stir polenta and great intelligence to judge the exact moment when it was ready. In between came the bubbling volcano.
Polenta and slow, slow cooked rabbit stew. Perfect! This meal was often cooked on a Saturday and when I wasn’t watching Saturday Morning Pictures at our local cinema, I would be involved in the process from the start. To this day I can remember the sights, scents, colours and tastes of those wonderful Saturday night meals. The joy that my Mum felt in creating each masterpiece was palpable. She loved slow cooking and the benefits it gave her. Once it was prepared and on the heat, she could do what she wanted for the rest of the day. That’s the beauty of slow food.
We seem to have lost the art of doing things slowly. To me, it’s one of the true pleasures of being alive! To take time, to savour, to create magic! There is no magic in opening a packet of pre-cooked, homogenized glue that pretends to be nourishing food. It is a betrayal. Yes, I know that people have less time these days, but our modern cookers are versatile. They will cook a fabulous stew on the lowest heat all day, while we slave in the office. There really is no excuse. You can buy diced rabbit in the supermarket, diced chicken is readily available, as are diced vegetables, although home grown ones make all the difference. Wine can be bought any time. So what is the problem? Have we just become lazy? Lulled into believing we have no time because the advertisers of fast food tell us that is how it is? No way!
Slow food makes you appreciate life. It enhances relationships, gives you something to look forward to, stops you pushing food into your mouth that you can’t even taste, because you are watching TV. Slow food is good for the soul, the body, your love life, your bank balance.
Go on – try it!