Comfort food has taken on a whole new meaning for me over the Christmas festival. 2013 was a difficult year and 2014 looks set to be rocky too. In 2013 we lost two members of the family it’s just that generational thing when you suddenly realise your own mortality as those you looked up to leave you.

My Aunty (known to the world as Aunty Jo) who brought my brother and me up was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. She has always been such a lover of food and a great cake baker so I have much to thank her for along with my mother and my grandmother. At the weekends I cook meals to see her through the week and as the time has gone on cooking and tasting this food has become a comfort not only for her but for me. This week I thought that, as treatments have been a bit rough, I’d make an old family stew that my grandmother (her mother) used to make; scragg.

I’ll give you the recipe as we go so you can have a go; it’s honest simple food but tastes like home for me. Given the lack of high street butchers these days you’ll probably have to order in advance some neck end of lamb, neck end is also known as Scragg. There are no quantities with this just go with the flow but I’d recommend 6 to 8 pieces of neck end. It looks a little like oxtail, a lot of bone but that’s where all the flavour comes from. Chop up about 4 large onions, 6 carrots, 2 leeks, dice up a swede and sauté them all off with a little oil. Add a good sprig of rosemary and a couple of cloves of garlic – you can leave them whole as they melt away – cover with twice as much water. Take your pieces of neck end and coat in plain flour seasoned well with salt and pepper. Seal in a hot, thick based, pan and add to the vegetables and water. You can cook this on the top of the oven on a low heat for several hours and it will get better and better.

Here is where the family way if doing it comes into play. To this day I still remember watching this happening as a child. The cooked stew is left overnight to settle, (in a fridge these days but then it was the stone floor of the pantry). The following day I’d watch my gran, my mother and my aunt get to work taking off the fat layer which had settled and hardened in the top (keep this fat for roast potatoes) then came the stripping of the scragg bones. Each piece picked out of the stew and the tender meat taken off the bone and thrown back into the stew, it was like a scene from Macbeth! The stew was then brought back to a simmer and it was finished off. Finishing off comprised of adding tinned baked beans and some pre-cooked cut up potatoes. The beans might seem an odd addition but really it’s just a sweetened tomato sauce and some pulse beans which, when you put it like that sound very on-trend! Season with salt and pepper and finally add raw dumplings for the cooking. Pop the lid on and let simmer for 20 minutes until cooked and there you have it.

A bowl of this for my aunt was like time travel. The smells and flavours transported her back to comforting times but so did preparing it for me. The time involved in chopping, stirring, seasoning, tasting took me back to a kitchen table in 1972. You can almost taste the love. Have a go at this scragg it’s a beautiful meal and ideal for winter months; the ultimate in comfort food. Here’s health and happiness to you and those you love this year ahead.

David James
Director of Food and service, bartlett mitchell

My earliest food memories are of my mum’s baking; coconut pyramid cakes were my favourite.

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