I remember brutal exchanges with my mother over the eating of cabbage, when I was maybe nine years old. It was a power struggle to the death (or bedtime, which always came first). I thought I would never learn to love cabbage, but I was wrong.
Many years ago in Paris I had an evening meal, alone, at a little restaurant off the main drag, somewhere north of centre. What always strikes me about restaurants in France is that waiting at tables is seen as a respectable profession, with mature, knowledgeable, and capable people at your service. On this occasion I was trying to decipher the menu and needed to know the meaning of a certain word. My waitress was short, dark, aged and wiry, and when I asked her for a translation, she unhesitatingly pulled up her skirt and made a stabbing gesture towards her knee – ‘genou! Madame, c’est genou!’ So I figured out the dish I was interested in contained pigs’ knees, otherwise known as pork knuckle. I went on and ordered the choucroute garni and it was a feast in every way – a huge plateful and utterly delicious. Choucroute is pickled cabbage, probably better known as sauerkraut. The French serve it with several different kinds of pig meat – the pork knuckle but also some bits of bacon and lean ham and sausage. The sweetness of the meat offsets the sharpness of the choucroute. It’s a substantial and economical meal, and like so many dishes born of thrift, a delight.
I have often wondered about making sauerkraut from scratch but it seems to be a bit of a palaver. The quantities recommended in the recipes I’ve seen are huge, and of course since it’s basically a preserving method, that makes sense. But nowadays when I’m usually cooking for one, it seems a bit excessive.
However I was given a lovely book for my birthday recently – Elizabeth David on Veg – and she provides a lovely little recipe on a domestic scale for something which to my mind captures the unctuous yet piquant combination of pickled cabbage and ham. My oldest (as in, longest) friend was visiting me on Saturday and she it was who gifted me the book. So I cooked up the recipe, which involved Savoy cabbage, butter, cream, a splash of wine vinegar, nutmeg and pepper. (Yes I know, butter and cream – all I can say is I substituted half-fat creme fraiche, but still…) I then topped it with sliced ham, warmed through in a tin foil packet in the oven, and it was great. The vinegar sharpened the whole thing up beautifully. I’ll definitely make this again. Possibly even tonight, since Lieutenant Wunderkind is due home…