“Will the birds eat these?” asked the good wife…..”Will they what ? “,says I ,in response. Ten minutes later the bun -worry to end all bun worries was in progress across the garden ,as first the starlings tore into the bag of seeded rolls that the wife thought might be out of date by an hour or so. Then the magpie flew in as the starlings scattered breadcrumbs across the lawn.A dull, taupe -coloured pigeon dropped by too, startled by a large chicken-sized glossy crow, which balanced like a trapeze artist on the fence and finally that sneaky wee black cat arrived on his rounds, too late to dine .It all took about ten minutes and nothing….not a scrap…was left as evidence.The birds had gone momentarily too. The wee cat paused for a short while , pretending that he could blend into the dying blooms of the fuschia but eventually gave up his subterfuge and wandered off to continue his rounds.
JERKING THAT OLD HAM
It had seemed like a good idea before I actually carried the ham for a considerable distance.It was hanging from my deadened fingers like a small child swinging back and forth on a playpark swing….and you know they never want you to stop pushing them back and forth no matter how knackered you might feel. I suppose it swung , in that bag, at about five kilos total weight .An impressive enough beastie .Had it been much bigger I’d need a different kind of much larger oven.The butcher sliced it especially for me because there was nothing available on the counter big enough and I planned to “jerk” it the way all the family , except the vegetarians seem to like it best. Hot, sweet and zesty…It was a two-day process, but more of that presently.Why had I decided to walk across town , leaving the car?.Ah well ,it was a pleasant enough winter’s day and it is the kind of thing I usually enjoy doing .It wasn’t raining and it was mild and bright and as long as I can still use my legs , that’s exactly what I like to do .There’s even the offchance that you might actually meet someone you might know who hasn’t already dropped off this mortal coil while you were otherwise engaged .
That’s usually a topic of conversation after a few ales, or a a glass or two of Malbec or a glass or three of Bordeaux…Who’s left from the old days? As you get older the figures begin to stack up.The pool becomes shallower. Old friends…old girlfriends….How many are gone now? We play a game and remind each other again of almost- forgotten characters . Old school -friends that have been tucked away in a cobwebbed corner of memory.A name , not encountered in maybe fifty years , suddenly revived ,anew as a recollection tumbles out.Is he still alive? What’s he doing with himself now? Y’know , I’d forgotten all about him completely. He was in our class at school ? Eh? Was he? He must have left early on, though , surely? Dear sweet sufferin’ sassafras, what a trickster memory really can be . After a few years a name can lie , all but forgotten. It could be a little frightening but then you can never really believe that you’ll ever be part of that number of long-gone…forgotten ,”John’s”……deaths? Me, Die? …No way! I’ve no intention of dying ! What ? Not a chance! Isn’t that the way we all think? Death is for everybody else .Death is always for someone else….anybody but yourself. It’s ….unthinkable !
I always think of my uncle Paddy’s expression of astonishment when he told me he had cancer. Frankly , he couldn’t believe it at first. It amazed him that this was the thing that was about to end his tenure some ten months hence.He thought he’d get another twenty years or so. To think …This is it ! This bloody year! No it didn’t make a pick of sense at all.He was hoping for a secret exit door to the very last breath.He didn’t let go in an easy manner ,either. He still looked around for any way out he could find,even thought there wasn’t much left of him to take to town .Still…he knew he’d never get out of that last bed.
I was reminded of all of that while again watching that film about Wilko Johnston last night. It is called “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnston” and it was made by Julien Temple as a sort of companion- piece to his previously excellent “Oil City Confidential” , ostensibly masquerading as a film about the Rythmn and Blues band , Doctor Feelgood ,but it was actually a truly great piece of social commentary, a dream of life and a meditation on the unknowingness of existing. It was very funny and droll too ,of course, otherwise I’d have left it as some pretentious tosh after five minutes.. You could do worse things than spending an hour or two of your precious time watching these sublime films.With a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” ,Wilko has seemingly cheated Death in a cheeky chess-match mirroring that much -copied sequence in the fore-mentioned film and was there in what he thought, and was previously told, were his final months of life , to record his thoughts whilst Temple stitched together this wonderful filmic poem to his contribution and place in the world. Wilko did not die, of course, because he was reprieved by a surgeon who removed a growth , something of the mass and weight of a large watermelon or ,possibly something similar to my huge , pre-jerked ham…hanging as it was from my stiff little fingers.No , Wilko wasn’t going anywhere just yet, judging by the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. In fact he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate for his contribution to music,just yesterday ,in Cambridge.I have a notion he also got it for cheating the celestial hangman one more time.
Our little town can be a pleasant enough place to walk through . It was very quiet and there were few people about on this morning , but there are some fine buildings to look at. They recently filmed that Sean Bean television series “The Chronicles of Frankenstein” here on the quiet Sunday streets .There are many beautiful Georgian houses to easily form a backdrop to another time and century. Thus Sean seemed to step out of the local Court House or the coach would come to a halt on a newly -muddied Russell Street, or some arcane workhouse horror would take place inside part of the old gaol on the Mall.Apparently Sean and the rest of the lads and lassies are due to return and repeat the process for a new and imminent Season Two.
The family and some friends were all mostly flying in for a weekend’s pre- Christmas bacchanal to celebrate once again ,on a more local scale, the marriage of Daughter Number One and my new son- in- law. They’d finally jumped the broomstick and gotten themselves hitched , so it was a good excuse for some serious family partying. We’d already done this in Liverpool and Wales on a more civilised scale , so it was now time to test the patience and good humour of our own neighbours, in face of a twenty -four hour technicolour dream and aural assault , within the confines of our own household.
There are many things to prepare for a party like this , but this “jerked” ham had to be confronted first .There are several processes to consider. There was the steeping of the ham to leech out much of the brine that it had been pickled in .Then the poaching liquor to make .Then the marinade to brew-up and the long marinading itself.Finally there was the slow baking and then the hour of slow-basting.
The “poach” is made from a list of ingredients including black peppercorns, red onions ,6 scotch bonnet chillies, halved , 2 teaspoons of whole cloves, one stick of celery roughly chopped, one leek, roughly chopped, 3 bay leaves, a bunch of thyme and a cinnamon stick.
The ham is placed in a large roasting tin with those ingredients , half-filled with water, loosely covered in foil and poached for about two hours at 180 degrees. Then ,when it is nicely pink , allowed to cool. I like to leave it in the liquid overnight until it is has soaked up all that flavour and is cooled and ready for the next stage.Now , after all that effort the lovely “poach” is thrown away. It seems like such a waste after all that effort , but you’re done with it anyway.
The next stage is the marinade .This is really the main event and it takes a lot of preparation and even more chopping, so it’s time to hone-up those knife -skills.You’ll need an even longer list of ingredients for this stage.These include 6 fresh bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of dry cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of allspice, one tablespoon of whole cloves, two tablespoons of freshly ground nutmeg, i tablespoon of good sea-salt flakes, 1 tablespoon of ground black pepper, 8 cloves of peeled garlic, 2 red onions, peeled and quartered, 8 more scotch bonnet chillies with the stalks removed, 250 mls of dark rum, 250mls. of malt vinegar and a small bunch of tyme with the leaves picked off.
You’ll need a jar of your favourite orange marmalade and another 125 ml of that dark rum for the finishing glaze but set those to one side for now.Take all those other ingredients and put them in a food processor and whizz them up until you’ve got a lovely gloopy , fiery paste that smells a bit like sweet apricots and which might bring a tear to your eye if you breathe in too much of that aroma. Your eyes might glaze over too.
You’ll understand by now that this is a “special” celebratory kind of dish for a special party occasion ,rather than a four- and -half- minute medium- rare steak , so it takes a bit of time and loving care to get the required result. Any fat that hasn’t melted off the outside of the ham can now be teased off and dumped as it cools and the ham surface can be scored slightly with a sharp knife. The marinade is spooned and patted onto the jerk ham and rubbed in until the mixture completely covers . You might like to wear some disposable gloves or risk rubbing your eye with a super-chillied finger, later on . You’ll not enjoy that experience too much. After that , put a glass or two of water into the pan with the ham and start the “bake”. You don’t have to worry too much but you’d be safer checking every twenty minutes to spoon on the marinade and maybe add a little water to stop the juices burning. It’ll take two hours before the next stage so sit back and have a glass or a nice cup of tea or two.At the end of the two-hour bake, get the beastie out of the oven, taking the weight without burning yourself and prepare to glaze it .This is simple enough but is the most time-consuming process of the lot. You’ll need to gradually spoon on your jar of orange marmalade and the remaining rum as you finesse a good dark crust. That means taking the roasting pan out every ten minutes to spoon on the running juices and jam as they melt around the ham, while all the while adding a little more of the marmalade and another sip or two of the lovely rum.This should take the best part of an hour and hopefully you’ll be left with a glossy, dark carapace as a result. Keep it moist with a little water in the pan as it evaporates , try not to burn it and you’ll be done.
At this point I try to leave it alone until the next day when it is cold enough to finely slice. It’ll really be ready by then and the flavour will be indescribable. Get a slice for yourself now just to test it out , because this kind of ham never sits around too long and the scavengers will descend and wolf it down .It’s the perfect “cold-cut”.
You could have it as your Christmas ham but it’s lovely for breakfast with a couple of poached eggs too……
After all that effort that ham was only one of many star dishes laid out for the guests who descending on the banquet locust-like and consumed the lot within scant hours. I believe i actually tasted a slice before the lot was scarfed away.
Those birds reminded me of this party almost a year ago as I write.In that time a long list of old acquaintances have since slipped away….dropping off this mortal coil.