Beef, bacon and ale stew

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Before I talk about the stew, I need to have a rant. About those expensive shops that purport to be selling the notion of comforting nostalgia, fine craftsmanship and warm, old fashioned values…at a whacking great price. Yes you, SCP. Yes you, Labour and Wait. And others that I can’t be bothered to mention, but have seen lurking on streets all across London, from Shoreditch to Westbourne Grove.

These are the kind of shops where rustic and ‘careworn’ items are on offer to those with banker-level salaries. Labour and Wait peddles its aesthetic of ‘grandparents’ cupboards’ – flogging long-forgotten items that they might have used back in wartime days when there was no choice of anything else, now repackaged as super desirable. For example: enamelware, natural bristle washing up brushes, stern-smelling soaps – and, my favourite – eye wateringly expensive balls of rustic twine. That’ll be six pounds fifty pence, if you please. It’s very lovely – all waxed and sleek – but come on, it’s just bloody string! I have no truck with any of these items as they stand alone – true, they are all useful and purposeful, if you like things that are dour, straightforward and in shades of mud and slate – but, oh! The prices! The only people who can buy into this kind of ‘make do and mend’ philosophy are the rich middle classes. And if you want the oak stand to place your posh twine on, that’ll be £20.

What about shops like SCP? Well. I had a browse around their Shoreditch outpost yesterday and the whole experience made a thunderous mood rise up inside me. I left depressed. For sure, they sell VERY beautiful things. Anglepoise lamps, tasteful Scandinavian chairs in salvaged wood, ironic designer plates, very pure looking cosmetics and candles in utilitarian packaging. I would happily give a home to some of their Donna Wilson beanbags (ahem, £445) and cushions. But HELLO? The cost of all this well sourced, lovingly crafted lifestyle? You need a banker’s bonus to kit out your living room in items that recall the bygone age of slow, careful craftsmanship. Sure enough, to kit your home out to look as though you found the items at a vintage market, but with none of the bother, you had better be working for something big and bad, or have a massive trust fund. Splurge away on reclaimed vintage milk bottles, £40 organic candles (even though they are very lovely and made in tasteful small batches at a Welsh hillside farm), reconditioned beautiful circus lights. Oh, and the nail in the coffin? Old-school brown paper parcel labels, tied up in tasteful little bundles, re-branded as ‘vintage luggage tags’. Their website describes their ‘scrapwood furniture’ as being a ‘quintessential vocabulary of recycled wood collage’. It’s all so UPTIGHT.

And the children’s toys? Don’t get me bloody started. These are mostly beautifully made wooden items, but all so repressed and lacking in fun. More for the Eames-chair-loving aesthete parent than any rampaging toddler. I have yet to meet any child that would choose a wooden spinning top in shades of turquoise and ochre over some bright, noisy plastic tat. SCP (and other shops in its ilk) is selling its children’s range entirely based on projection – whatever will go nicely in the living room next to the Scandi furnishings for mother and father. It’s all so bloody poe-faced. I admit I started out buying wooden toys for my daughter (from Ikea if you must know) and the interest she has shown in any of it has been zilch. Same goes for her friends.

What really gets my goat about all of this is that if you kitted your home out in all of this stuff, people might assume that you’d put some hard work into rooting out items in a secondhand market, that you genuinely cared about finding ‘that’ special old plate. Or that maybe you had got some of your grandparents’ things dotted around your home – items that genuinely meant something, with a personal history. But no – what we see in these shops is the illusion of ‘one off’ and ‘special’ on a mass produced scale (albeit not of the sweatshop variety). Items that are stuffy, tedious and lacking in humour – plus you are charged a king’s ransom for them. Just shove over your gold card, past the Rococo chocolate quail’s eggs on the counter.

Just make sure you send your au pair out to lug the items home for you. Vintage child’s leather shoes, anyone? I actually saw a pair of sad little brown leather shoes in a glass case for £40. Very strange and depressing. I hate the idea of the person that would buy these ‘ironically’ and I hope they are haunted by the shoes when they take them home. Still with me? Hang on in there, I’m nearly done…

I’m definitely not an advocate of buying cheap tat either. Sweat shops are evil, obviously. I think a far more satisfying and YES AFFORDABLE retail experience for Christmas this year is to go and browse around a local secondhand market and pick up something truly original – and 100% less contrived – for a fraction of the cost. Or make something yourself – nobody ever turned their nose up at a bag of homemade fudge, did they.

Anyone with me on this? Do you love or hate the SCP/Labour & Wait retail experience?  Please let me know in the comments below.

There, rant over. Still with me? Good effort! Now to the stew.

This makes a good old bear hug of a dinner which will handsomely serve 6 atop whacking great big baked potatoes.

You will need:

500g beef stewing steak cut into large cubes (try and get some nice aged stuff from a butcher, it’s good value too)
A few nuggets of oxtail (not essential, but most butchers will have it – adds a lovely richness and glossy texture to the stew)
Plain flour
4 rashers smoked back bacon snipped into chunks (try and get some nice bacon from a butcher, it’s much less watery than supermarket stuff)
2 sticks celery, cut into small dice
4 medium carrots, cut into chunky rounds
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large punnet chestnut mushrooms, sliced
Optional: small handful each dried porcini mushrooms and/or shitake mushrooms, soaked in small amount of boiling water. Reserve the soaking water.
1 500ml bottle of dark ale – we used Poacher’s Choice by Badger
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 fresh bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme

If you have a slow cooker, hurrah. If you don’t, not to worry – you can do this at a low temp in the oven or a v low heat on the hob for several hours.

First of all, fry off the bacon bits in a frying pan until starting to crisp. Put to one side, reserve the fat. Shake the beef and oxtail pieces in flour in a plastic bag – this ensures they get a nice light even coating. Then fry them all in small batches in the bacon fat, until seared on all sides. Put to one side. Fry the onions until softened then add the garlic quickly for no more than a minute, making sure it sizzles nicely without burning.

Browning the meat is ESSENTIAL for getting flavour into the stew:

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If you have a slow cooker, tip in the cooked beef, bacon, oxtail, onions and garlic into the bowl. Follow with all of the rest of the ingredients – raw veg, ale, porcini mushrooms and their soaking water. Perhaps add a bit more water if you think your ingredients look a bit dry. Do NOT add the fresh mushrooms yet. Leave everything to cook overnight.

If you don’t have a slow cooker, cook everything in the same order as before, then put all the ingredients (bar the fresh mushrooms) together in a casserole, cook on a very low heat simmering gently for about 3 hours until the meat is tender and everything has gone all rich and intense.

Just before you eat the stew (have your baked potatoes, mash, or rice at the ready) fry up the fresh mushrooms and add them to the dish at the last minute to avoid them becoming really soggy and slimy.

We used this ale, it was all chocolatey:

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Good old slow cooker – uses just the energy of one lightbulb and cooks stews to die for! I highly recommend owning one.

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Raaaaah stew, in your face!

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One comment

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