For those who have never known a British summer, the experience can be a bit of a curiosity. The first thing to take on board is that the weather is totally, but TOTALLY unpredictable. So forget 4-6 months of more or less warm, balmy days, and recalibrate your expectations to temperatures that can, and I’m using this year’s highs and lows, range from 11 degrees C to over 30 in the space of a few weeks. Despite that, we approach the season with a curious mixture of blind optimism and crushing disappointment. However, none of this has dimmed the British enthusiasm for a barbeque.
Don’t get me wrong, when the sun is shining and the thermometer rests in the upper twenties, there is nothing quite as special as an English summer afternoon- there is that wonderful lush green (born from months and months of rain) and long, long days. It’s just that it all goes a bit sour when you plan to start cooking and eating al fresco. Misery is trying to feign pleasure whilst eating a singed sausage in conditions that would send southern Europeans to break out their winter clothes. So an invitation to a barbeque has to be approached with mixed expectations; the truly fantastic thing is that when things are right, they are 100% more than alright. So surprisingly, when we’ve got the perfect weather… let’s look at what’s going on the grill.
Let’s face it, cooking over an open fire is not an easy thing – it takes experience to get just the right combination of glowing coals and intense heat…without a raging inferno. It requires good preparation and concentration during the cooking. And that can be a big part of the problem with the British barbeque. In most homes, barbequing is handed over to the man of the house – like some sort of hunter-gatherer throwback. But if you’re only let loose cooking a few times a year, and using the trickiest means known to humanity, it’s inevitably going to have mixed results. Success as always comes down to expertise, knowledge and, above all, practice.
Next comes the food. Probably because perfect barbeque conditions are quite rare in this country when the opportunity arises, the tendency is to cook loads of different things – burgers, sausages, bits of chicken, kebabs and the rest. The supermarkets have of course cottoned on to this and, once May kicks in their fridges groan with all sorts of prepared ‘bbq’ offerings. Such delights as ‘Lemongrass, Chilli & Lime Pork Kebabs’ or ‘Spiced Lamb & Apricot Burgers’, and, honestly, it’s just all too much!
For me, the main rule for a good barbeque is to keep it simple. Just focus on doing one or two things, but cook them really, really well. And forget the supermarket stuff – prepare the meat or fish yourself – it makes all the difference. The success is in the grilling.
I consider myself fortunate to know some exceptional open-fire cooks – I include my husband of course. These men, despite having proper jobs, once in charge of some glowing embers, they turn into very accomplished chefs; this is serious cooking. One is a dab hand at top-notch pizza from a wood-fired oven – total skill. Another has for 30 years done an annual barbeque for around 100 people, the main dish consisting of several spit-roasted lambs – respect! The other makes possibly the best sheftaliés outside Cyprus – I am in awe.
For the uninitiated, sheftaliés are a cross between a meatball and a very meaty sausage. The recipe comes from Cyprus but they are known and lusted over throughout Greece. Their ‘sausagey’ characteristic comes from the minced meat being wrapped in a delicate sheet of ‘panna’ – caul fat – that lacy, layer of fat traditionally used in sausage making and to keep baked pâtés moist.
Undeniably, ‘panna’ is not easy to get hold of unless you have a tame butcher – it is however well worth the effort. The minced meat is pork – yet again scuppering the concept that Greeks only eat lamb – and the flavourings are diced onion, chopped parsley, and ground cinnamon.
So here’s the recipe and get those coals going.
I have explained here how to handle the ‘panna’ – the caul fat. If you can’t, or don’t want to use it, shape the mixture into small burgers and grill as normal. Having said that the ‘panna’ does keep the sheftaliés really moist and juicy and also stops them sticking to the grill. One source for pann that I have found is Baldwin’s butchers in North London. http://baldwinsbutchers.co.uk/
1 kg pork mince
1 white onion finely chopped
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste.
300 gm caul fat, rinsed under a cold tap.
Caul fat is a curious thing to cook with. When you first get it from the butcher it looks like a pack of scrunched up lard, and you can’t imagine how this is ever going to be useful as a sausage casing. The best thing to do is to put it in a bowl and rinse it with cold water. Now start to tease the caul fat apart. Quickly you will be able to see that it is made up of a thin membrane connected by strands of white fat. It does need to be handled carefully of course, though it is more resilient than you would imagine.
Once you have teased it apart, take a section and spread it out on a clean work surface and cut out small sheets about 10- 12 cm square. They really don’t have to be too regular – this is one of those techniques where you just have to use your eye and judgment. Practice really does make perfect!
In a large bowl mix together the minced pork, chopped onion, and chopped parsley and seasonings with your hands. Make sure that the ingredients are mixed evenly but don’t over-work it as the mixture needs to have some texture.
Now take a piece of the opened up caul fat, put about a tablespoonful of the pork mixture in the middle and wrap the rest of the fat around it until you have a short, dumpy sausage – these are the sheftaliés. Repeat this until you have used up the pork stuffing.
Allow the sheftaliés to rest for at least half an hour before cooking.
Grill them on a good hot barbecue, turning a few times to ensure that they don’t burn. Obviously, they can be grilled in a domestic oven too, but the flavour will not be quite the same.
Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice, warm pitta bread and a good dollop of tzatziki.