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Cumberland sauce and gravy

"The best of all sauces for cold meat." Elizabeth David

Now why am I writing this? Well I am working my way through my Christmas cookbooks, and saw this picture in my 'focus' book of the moment, Nigella's At my table, and it rang Christmas bells, and yes I know I said I had finished with Christmas, but I had forgotten about this one.

However, when I started looking into Cumberland sauce, I found that although lots of people said that it was a Christmas essential, also lots of people seemed to think it was actually a sauce for cold meats - ham, pork, tongue were frequently mentioned.

Yes tongue. One of the more repulsive thoughts when it comes to food is it not? And yet I remember a friend who was, I'm sure still is, the most wonderful cook, serving us tongue once. I think David and I quaked in our seats as we saw her take it out of whatever pot it had been cooked in and peel it - yes peel it - there's a thick skin on tongue - I think this would have been ox tongue. But then it was sliced and served with perfectly boiled small new potatoes, and maybe, though I don't remember this, Cumberland sauce. It was actually delicious but nevertheless I have never tried it myself. The idea of tongue is still a bit repugnant. I think I probably ate tongue in the form of some kind of potted meat as a child - probably from a tin, but I honestly can't remember whether I did or not.

I'm also not sure where I got the idea of Cumberland sauce as a Christmas thing because we certainly didn't have it. It's made with oranges, lemon, redcurrant jelly, mustard and port as far as I can see. Delia's recipe is probably a pretty reliable source if you want to try it. The main thing she stipulates is that the redcurrant jelly should not be too sweet. But redcurrant jelly is the star of the show, which is perhaps why most of us just have pure redcurrant jelly instead. The other reason is that Cumberland sauce definitely has an aristocratic whiff about it. One pictures it being served in silver at long tables after the hunting party has returned. And I also picture it with aristocratic eats such as venison and goose and pheasant. But I do admit that this could be a completely wrong assumption.

Mind you one of the possible origin stories - well not even a story - just a reason for the name, is that it could be named after a Duke of Cumberland, but nobody knows why, or even which one. Or it could be named for the county - but again nobody knows why or when. Nobody even really knows where it comes from - Germany is perhaps the hot favourite but maybe even America for this sauce that is so English.

As well as sweet redcurrant jelly to avoid you should also avoid any kind of thickening, Elizabeth David is adamant about this:

"On no account should cornflour, gelatine or any other stiffening be added to Cumberland sauce. The mixture thickens as it cools, and the sauce is invariably served cold, even with a hot ham or tongue."

Various cooks rave about it but it's not a really big thing is it? No I think the aristocratic and English ring to it is bringing it down. People still denigrate English food.

Nigella's gravy - as shown at the top of the page is not Cumberland sauce - it's "an onion gravy, infused with the flavours of a Cumberland sauce" - those flavours being the redcurrant jelly, the orange, lemon and port. But horror of horrors she thickens it with flour and the main focus is onions. She doesn't seem to have a recipe for the actual original sauce.

Not a very interesting post I know - clutching at straws here and there - but it is interesting to me to wonder how I have this notion in my head, a very fixed notion, that this is for the nobility. It's also interesting that such a tempting sounding sauce, so sweet and sour and therefore fashionable should not be a hot item. And why Christmas? Nobody seems to have the answer to that one either. You would think that all those food historians out there - there are quite a lot - would have pursued this. I'm probably not being quite fair as there were a couple of people who referenced various nineteenth century recipes, but they had no origin answers.

Anyway - I promise this is the last of Christmas. Next time you have half a jar of reducurrant jelly in your fridge or pantry give it a go. Maybe with some ham, - even venison or kangaroo - after all these are not just for the aristocrats these days. Deer are a pest.

"It remains the very best use of redcurrant jelly." Jeremy Lee - The Guardian


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