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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Gareth's Bird

We spend every Christmas at the lovely country home of Sid’s sister Su and husband Gareth. He hasn’t always been “Husband Gareth” by the way – he’s just earned that coveted little title this past November. He’s been many things before that: (in reverse chronological order) “Fiancé Gareth”, “Boyfriend Gareth”, and “Weird-white-boy-who lingers-awfully-close-to-my-sister Gareth.”

In each of these roles, however, Gareth has always been the epitome of sweetness, kindness and grace. And it’s really no wonder that they say opposites attract…

I’m teasing, I’m teasing. I love Su. And Su knows it. In fact, I rather think the affection is mutual. Because not that long ago, in a state of deep inebriation (or extreme lucidity, whichever you prefer), she declared, “If you were a guy, and not my brother’s wife, I would have married you.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s just about the best compliment I’ve ever got. So yes, she’s a barrel of laughs and one of the (few) reasons I keep her brother around. And if you think I’m joking about that one, you’re the only one laughing.

But, I digress.

So, Su and Gareth graciously invite us over every Christmas. Which – call me a sentimental fool – is perhaps the only time of year where it irks me to be alone. It’s just much more fun to spend Christmas with family – talking deep into the night, giggling like little children, getting quite unacceptably drunk, exchanging juicy bits of gossip about the usual people, and stuffing our faces (quite literally) like we’ve never seen food before. And the best part of it all is that this is the norm at Christmas time. You’re supposed to do nothing except eat, drink, and be merry. I love it.

Now, to make this all the more exciting is the fact that while food is the highlight of my life (in general), it is the high-estlight of my life during Christmas at the Werrens. Because the cooking is absolutely top-notch.
Simply, Smashingly, “Santa”stic.

There’s a long and luscious list of goodies that this lovely pair chef up over the course of the evening; in fact, the dishes come out, thick and fast, like a series of surprises that have no end. And although each one is better than the last, leaving me in an interminable state of rapturous suspended animation – there is one clear winner.

And that is Gareth’s Bird.

Now, Gareth’s Bird is, in fact, a bird in the traditional sense. And not one in the non-traditional one. Which is just as well because if it were, it would be Sid’s sister, Su. Who, as much as I like, I’d really prefer not to eat.

This bird, very much of the edible kind, is a Roast Chicken with Lemon and Sage Stuffing, conceived, crafted and created by – as you may have guessed – Gareth.

(Tip your hat, please, Gareth)

I have my own version of Roast Chicken that my Didima taught me that you can read about here – it’s bastardised Anglo-Bengali and I adore it – but Gareth’s is delectably different. And so, I can safely conclude that:
A Roast chicken is not a Roast Chicken is not a Roast Chicken. Just a small tweak in the ingredients, a different cooking process, the length of time it cooks for – and the end product is completely unique. This one certainly is nothing like I’ve ever tasted before and it leaves me in an ambrosial trance-like state for many days after. See for yourself!

Here’s what you need:

- 1 small whole chicken, about 1.5 – 2.5 kg
- 180g fresh bread crumbled
- 1 small red onion – chopped finely
- 1 small garlic clove – minced
- 3/4cup parsley
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh/dried sage
- Rind and juice of 1 lemon – don't throw the lemon away! (you can do 1.5 lemons if you like!!)
- 25g melted butter
- 1 egg – well beaten
- Salt and pepper, to taste

Here’s how you do it:
Mix all the stuffing ingredients up in a bowl, and shove it all into the cavity of the chicken. Then stuff in the squeezed lemon halves, and you’re ready to cook the bird!

Preheat oven to 160C/gas 4
Remember to rub some salt on the skin of the chicken, and cover it with either foil and/or bacon to avoid the bird drying out. Baste every 10 to 15mins. The foil can be removed for the last 20mins of cooking.

Cooking time for whole chicken:
1-1.5kg – 45 to 60min
1.5-2.5kg – 60 to 90min

Now, I know I’ve said the Bird is a Christmas tradition, and yes, I know we are nearing the end of May. But:
A) I’m not (as you know) the conventional type.
B) This stuff is just brilliant and now that the thought’s entered my head, it’s driving me to distraction. It’s simply got to be made.
C) I am still (if you care to know) wearing my winter coat and want to ask all the tank-top clad mannequins at shop windows if they’ve all gone stark-raving mad
D) Tasty things deserve to be cooked (and eaten) year-round.

And I think that’s reason enough.

So while our chicken’s cooking, and for a little taster of what you’re about to create, I take you back to the first time that Gareth’s Bird ever touched my lips…

It’s a cold winter’s evening in December, the smell of snow in the air. Inside, the fire is roaring, all golden embers and warmth. The tree is lit with fairy lights. The table is set, white linen, sparkling glass, shimmering silver...
We wait in anticipation.
The side dishes are in place. There is a space created for her in the very centre of the table; she is the indisputable star of the show. We clink our glasses together and blow on paper trumpets. And finally, sat majestically atop a huge platter, she glistens her way to the table. It is a dramatic appearance. Conversation stops. We ooh and we aah. It’s been worth the wait – she is gorgeous.

Crisp, caramel-coloured, skin. Burnished gold. Juices dripping. Heaving with flavour. Begging to be devoured.

She is Gareth’s Bird.
I want to just pick her up, all of her in her full glorious entirety, with my bare hands and stuff her in my mouth. But I think perhaps it’s not worth tarnishing my reputation with these lovely folk who live in this lovely house where such splendidness is created. Who knows, they might deem me quite, quite mad and never invite me again for fear of contagion.

And so – with great anguish – I hold myself back.

And instead, push my chair back, and do the Chicken Dance all around the dining table.
Somehow it seems appropriate.

Anyway, the Bird is served alongside a rather stunning collection of accompaniments – all of which I shall produce recipes for shortly, since after many months of endless pestering, Su has finally sent them my way (yay!) (thank you!) The chestnut and cranberry stuffing is pure sin in a roll. The slow cooked red cabbage is good enough to convert even the staunchest of vegetable haters. I’m not a fan of Brussels sprouts – I usually find them insipid and rather distressing –but these are roasted until nearly caramelised and I actually find them very, very tasty. More about these later. Because our Bird is just about to be carved.

Gareth stands up, wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, and ceremoniously does the honours. He is masterful with the knife, like a skilled surgeon, he knows exactly what he’s doing, which parts to hack and in what order. On the table, there is one platter for the white meat – the lighter, healthier bit, another for the dark meat – the bits on the bone. That’s me. I’m a dark meat girl.

I cannot wait to dig in.
I’ve got dibs on the legs. I love the legs.

Gareth won’t eat the meat on the bone.
“I’m a breast person,” he declares.
“A chicken breast person” he clarifies quickly.
Fair enough (either way =)

And that’s great news for me, cause there’s one less person to share with.
I hate sharing.
Just kidding.

So, I take a bite.
Savoury succulence engulfs me.
And I actually want to cry.

The meat is so tender, it straightaway pulls away from the bone and melts in my mouth. The flesh is deep and rich and bursting with flavour. There’s a sultry smokiness to it, an unexpected taste on the tongue; it’s a thrilling sensation, like bumping into an old friend when you least expect to. (I learn later that this comes from the bacon he uses to baste the chicken while in the oven.)

I surrender to the lemon infused Bird. And attain Nirvana.

In a somewhat emotional state, I ask Gareth how he’s managed to create such magnificence.

I expect (in my head) a somewhat speedy reply. Top of my list of possible answers is “Oh, it was nothing” (or something like that.)

But I realise (too late) that I am painting him with a stereotypically Indian paintbrush. 
It’s the sort of thing my mother would say.
When we’d have a party, she’d cook forty dishes for four straight days and then when a gobsmacked guest would gape at all the food and ask how on earth she’d managed it, she’d smile and shrug and say, “Oh, it was nothing”

But not Gareth.
Oh no.

He takes it all very seriously.

So he witters on endlessly about this and that. And I feign polite interest and pretend like I’m listening, but I’m not. I’m too distracted by the chicken. I can’t help myself. It’s just that good.

It’s only later, when the intoxication has worn off and I am dying to make it myself because I simply must taste it again, that I wish I’d paid a bit more attention.

But I do (I think) catch the most important bit. Which is, his take on British cooking. “British food,” he tells me (rather cryptically), “is all about what is actually being cooked.”

When I stare back with him with a blank look, he pauses thoughtfully, then explains. “You see, with British food – when it’s chicken, it needs to be all about the chicken. When it’s beef, it needs to be all about the beef. Whatever it is, it needs to be fresh and it needs to be of the highest quality. We don’t get a lot of help from spices and things you see, the ingredient list is really rather brief. So for British food to be good, the ingredients you do use need to accentuate, rather than disguise, the flavour of the main component of the dish.”

And he’s really absolutely right. There really was nothing fancy, fussy or exotic about the food we were served. And yet, it was one of the best meals I’ve had.

And suddenly, just from that little insight, I think about the entire evening in a way that I never thought about before. And I know why we come back here, year after year (apart from the fact that they continue to invite us, that is). And that’s because Su and Gareth’s food is unpretentious and large-hearted and honest and classy – much like the pair of them.

The realisation fills me with a warm and comforting glow.

I applaud you, Gareth Werren.
Finest Bird Maker in all of Britain.

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