Monthly Archives: January 2013

Ham hock and onion rarebit

Over the last twelve months or so I’ve become rather enamoured of ham hock; a cheap, tasty cut of meat that needs some work but which is amazingly rewarding. It’s basically a pig’s front shins, I gather, and not the most sophisticated purchase; even our local, award-winning, reputationally expensive butcher sells them for only £3.50 each – I got about 450g of meat off the last one we bought after I’d stripped it off the bone, which makes it cheaper than any sliced ham or bacon you’d get, pretty much.

Because hock’s on the bone, and fatty too, it needs some serious cooking. I’ve taken to parceling it in tinfoil with a splash of olive oil, some bay leaves, sage and thyme, a few cloves of garlic, a shake or two of allspice, half an onion, and whatever else I might have laying around, plus half a cup of water. I roughly seal the parcel, and put it in a roasting tray in the oven for about 4 hours at 160 degrees; after two hours, I check it and maybe add a splash more water (I’d use cider if we had any around).

After time’s up, take the ham hock out of the oven, let it cool for 30-45 minutes, and then have at it with a couple of robust forks and your fingers – tear the meat off the bone and pull it out of the fat, get into all the joints between the bones with your fingers and make sure you waste absolutely none of the incredibly tasty, deep-red flesh. (If you’re feeling lazy, you can buy little trays of ready-pulled ham hock from the supermarket; it’ll cost you more, but save you time. Will it be as tasty? Not quite.)

You can use the pulled ham hock for whatever you want – it works well in sandwiches, though it’s more value, I think, in a puff-pastry-lidded pie with some seriously sweated leeks, or in a quiche with yet more leeks and a savoury custard and mature cheddar, or added to a sage and onion stuffing mix for a turkey. But my favourite thing to do with a ham hock was decided a couple of weeks ago; put it in a rarebit.

Now rarebit always seemed a little pointless to me; cheese on toast is so simple and so good, why would you want to fart around with roux and mustard and a tiny splash of beer? Then one day, for some unknown reason, I decided to try a recipe for onion rarebit (I think by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, although I can’t find which book it might be from right now), which seemed a little more substantial and therefore more worthwhile spending some time on. So I browned some onions, made a roux of some melted butter and flour, added milk, grated cheese, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a hint of nutmeg and a splash of beer…

Sure enough, I found it absolutely delicious, and, as Emma had no interest in trying it, it made enough to leave some in a pot in the fridge for the next day (and even the day after that). Since then I’ve made it a number of times, and, as with any recipe, have got confident enough to mess around with it if every ingredient isn’t to hand in exactly the right quantities; red onions instead of white, no onions at all, baby leeks instead of onions, no beer, etcetera etcetera.

So it seemed almost painfully obvious to combine ham hock with beautifully browned onions in a rarebit the other week, especially when I had the last dregs of my Christmas keg of Doom Bar to hand. It was, if I say so myself, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Ingredients
a knob of butter
a finely-chopped white onion
another knob of butter
a tablespoon of plain flour
a big glug of milk
a handful of grated mature cheddar cheese
a handful of pulled ham hock
a teaspoon of Dijon mustard
a shake of ground nutmeg
a couple of slices of bread, lightly toasted on the underside

What to do
Get a medium-sized pan on the hob at a low-to-medium heat, and melt the first knob of butter. Add the finely chopped onion, and keep it moving in the pan with a wooden spoon until it goes translucent and golden with flecks of brown. Professional recipe books will pretend that this take 5 minutes, but it doesn’t; it takes more like 15 or 20, but it’s worth it. There are few things finer in the world than slowly cooked onions that have gone properly golden-brown. Just making them go translucent white isn’t good enough – you want the sugars to caramelize and add amazing depth to the flavour.

When the onions are ready, add the second knob of butter, and when it’s melted quickly stir in the flour. Melted butter and flour makes a roux, which is the basis for pretty much any sauce. It’ll make a yellow-y paste around the onions, and bubble a little.

Once it’s bubbling, turn the heat up a little and slowly add the milk – depending on the amount of butter and size of the onion and how much flour you use, it could take between a couple of hundred milliliters and a pint. Stir constantly, so that the roux absorbs the milk and it becomes a sauce.

When your milk is all in and you have a smooth, thick consistency, add the cheese, mustard, splash of beer, and nutmeg, stirring all the while. Then add the ham hock. Once the cheese is melted in and the ham hock is spread through nicely, it should be more like an emulsified paste than a runny sauce; it should be able to sit on top of toast and need to be spread out over it with a spatula, and it shouldn’t ooze or slip off the top.

So, obviously, spread it on the untoasted side of your bread, and stick it under a medium grill for a few minutes until it goes mottled and brown – it wont bubble like regular cheese on toast, so keep an eye on it and don’t let it burn. If you make enough or the rarebit topping, it’ll keep in a sealed container in the fridge for two or three days. Serve with a glass of chilled beer, and eat it standing up in the kitchen, or while wandering around the garden if the weather’s good. Honestly, there’s nothing better.

Fugazi – The Argument (2001)

fugazi-argumentMy first exposure to Fugazi was when someone at university lent me a copy of either Red Medicine or End Hits during my first year. The same person also lent me Metal Box, the CD edition that came in a miniature version of the actual metal box the original LP had come in. Both albums were handed over like illicit substances that we didn’t quite know how to imbibe; the Fugazi especially. Fugazi was a name I’d been aware of for years but only vaguely, and it was imbued with a strange otherness and power that scared me off, frankly.

The music press I read barely ever mentioned them – their albums would place in the latter halves of end-of-year polls but I’d never seen an interview or a live review, or read anything which gave me a potential way in. Hardcore, let alone post-hardcore, was alien territory to me, and the culture that existed around it, as far as I could tell, seemed exclusionary and gatekeeperish. I presumed, as an uncool kid from a small Devon town, that I wouldn’t be allowed in. I listened to Red Medicine or End Hits a couple of times and didn’t bite. I wasn’t ready. The first term at university was difficult, and it knocked my confidence in many ways.

Fast-forward two or three years, and The Argument became the first Fugazi record I bought myself. I picked it up in the CD shop (remember them?) that used to be at London Waterloo station. I can’t remember why I’d been in London that day, nor can I remember what confluence of circumstance and opinions made me buy it, given my previous misgivings.

But I’m glad I did, because it soon became a firm favourite. Where I was expecting something ferocious and exclusionary and pious and difficult I got something… that was still all of those things, in some ways, but which was also rich, and clever, and musical, and catchy. I was blindsided by handclaps and female backing vocals and cellos and pianos and acoustic guitars and subtle grooves as much as I was throttled by thunderous dual drum kits and lacerating electric guitars and hoarse-making vocals. I simply didn’t expect songs like “Life and Limb” or “Strangelight” or “Nightshop”, even though I’d vaguely anticipated the likes of “Cashout”.

Pretty quickly I realised that Fugazi didn’t quite fit the mental taxonomy I’d slotted them into, and I bought up chunks of their back catalogue; I loved the brutal minimalism of Repeater and 13 Songs, and the twitchy, catchy experimentalism of Red Medicine. But The Argument, a decade of time and a world of sound away from “Waiting Room” even if clearly the work of the same people with the same passions (albeit wearier, more pragmatic – but no less righteous), remains my favourite. It has a breadth, a scope, which makes it incredibly rewarding to me. I can listen to it anytime and find it thrilling, beautiful, and intriguing (even if I still have no idea what the words are unless I open the sleeve up).

We were lucky enough to get to see Fugazi play live at the Lemongrove (just yards from my workplace at the university) in October of 2002. They were, predictably, scintillating; I remember moving to the side of the stage as much as possible so I could see the twin drummers pounding away in unison, striking the same beats like some weird cybernetic percussion device. Some poor idiot tried stage-diving (as if he didn’t know who he was seeing) and got carried out covered in his own blood from a (minor) headwound when he landed on the floor. We didn’t know it at the time, but after that round of autumn gigs in the UK they would never play live again. I’m so glad I got to see them.

British Sea Power – Open Season (2005)

OpenSeasonCoverSince “Needles In My Eyes” by The Beta Band, I’ve loved the idea, and the sound, of songs recorded outside, where noises of the elements intrude into the soundstage and set the mood. A babbling stream, rustling leaves, crickets, thunder, wind, a distant birdcall. I’m not sure what it is that I like about this uncommon phenomenon.

The centrepiece, to my mind, of Open Season, is “North Hanging Rock”, which builds from absolutely nothing into a beatific tumult, and sounds as if it was recorded in a bird hide far from civilisation. As far as I can tell, it’s about nature photography or wanting to be buried in a biodegradable cardboard coffin or being so distraught at man’s inhumanity to nature or a friend who died young or something else that I can’t identify. It’s produced by Graham Sutton, the man behind Bark Psychosis, whose work I love. It’s one of my favourite things he’s been involved in.

(A reworked, more acoustic, instrumental version of “North Hanging Rock” appears on their soundtrack to the documentary Man of Arran, under the name “Boy Vertiginous”. Just so you know.)

My second favourite song on Open Season is the streaming, tectonic groove of “Oh Larsen B”, which tells, quite literally, the story of a collapsing arctic ice shelf. “Oh Larsen B” sings Yan, “desalinate the barren sea”, which is exactly what the Larsen B ice shelf did to the Weddell Sea when it collapsed and broke up in early 2002.

It took me months after Open Season came out, back in 2005, to realise that I was listening to it all the time, taking it out on my iPod and using it to soundtrack walks along the coastal paths of South Devon. It’s the… gentlest… perhaps, of Britiah Sea Power’s albums. It certainly features the least shouting, and tunes which insinuate themselves in your consciousness rather than try and batter their way in. Tunes like “Like A Honeycomb”, which have wandering pianos and slowly flowering choruses which swell like unkempt allotment weeds, but which are far more beautiful.

I wont make any great claims for British Sea Power; they’re a good band, blustery and passionate and sincere but also a little strange, promontorial, as isolationist as they are communal. People who know better than me say they’re in the lineage of Echo & The Bunneymen or The Chameleons. I cannot confirm or deny. Open Season is by far my favourite of their records, perhaps because it swoons more then it screams, or perhaps because it has the best songs, or, perhaps, simply just because it was the one that arrived in my life when I was most ready for it. Or perhaps because it has a bear on the cover.

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

In_RainbowsI’m not meant to like Radiohead much – I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 16 years moaning about them not being as good as people say they are – but I’ve come to realise over the last four or five years that I really quite like them, especially In Rainbows.

I was largely nonplussed by OK Computer way back when – some of my friends went gaga for it, but I was smitten by Spiritualized and Orbital and Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow and Björk, which made Radiohead’s 1997 output seem a little prosaic, even as it was lauded to the very highest heavens by people keen on canonical rock albums and desperate to anoint something of their own (remember that Q readers poll in 1998 which voted it the greatest album ever?). (I did, and still do, love “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android”, though.)

Three years later, at university, I’d fully embraced Miles Davis, been extraordinarily excited by XTRMNTR, explored Warp Records’ 90s output even further, tasted Fugazi, read Debord and Deleuze, and basically had my horizons stretched massively, which seriously diluted the impact that Kid A had on me, even as it seemed to seismically realign other people. Over a dozen years later, though I love “The National Anthem”, it still feels like a strange beast to me, neither fish nor fowl – nods to avant-garde and experimental music and electronica and jazz, but still sounding and feeling and touching and smelling like a rock record. (I’m convinced that, were it sequenced differently, without “Everything In Its Right Place” and the title track and “Treefingers” so frontloaded, that people wouldn’t think Kid A is quite as weird and radical as its reputation suggests.)

Later, Amnesiac struck me as the outtakes record many criticised it as being (albeit quite decent outtakes), and though Hail To The Thief contained some songs I loved instantly (“Where I End And You Begin”) and others I grew to love (“There There”), it felt long and unfocused, oddly sequenced and incomplete.

So I wasn’t excited when Radiohead announced the imminent “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows in the autumn of 2007. I’d been swept up in Caribou and LCD Soundsystem and Battles and Patrick Wolf and Spoon and a dozen other things that year, and so I paid 1p for the Radiohead album, gave it a cursory listen, picked up the CD out of a sense of obligation when it arrived, and put it to one side.

I liked “Reckoner” from the off, heard it as a compressed, consumable version of Talk Talk’s mystically beautiful “New Grass”, and I enjoyed the rush and push of the opening pair of tracks, which felt physical and enervated and almost, for once, vital, which Radiohead had never felt to me before. The rest of it, I didn’t much care for at all. But slowly, over the years, I’ve found myself going back to it a lot, often picking it up as I walked out of the door to play in the car. Which isn’t my usual optimum listening situation, but, y’know. It’s practical.

And In Rainbows is a very practical album, somehow. It’s very listenable, very functional. Utilitarian? Possibly. I’ve often daydreamed about finding a ‘perfect album’, which would obviate the need (the desire?) to ever listen to anything else ever again. This is a crazy, pointless daydream, but occasionally, I wonder if In Rainbows might almost be that record – it has a little bit of almost everything I like about music, its songs and structures are listenable and rewarding without ever seeming to become predictable or over-exposed.

I never feel like I get tired of or fed up with In Rainbows. I can put it on regardless of my own mood, and enjoy where it takes me; which is nowhere, almost, in some ways. I don’t get transported by it like I might by, say, The Seer, but I do get distracted by it, in a good way – I want it to distract me, to involve me, but maybe not too much. I don’t love In Rainbows, it doesn’t strike me as a radical and amazing piece of art, or even as a catchy and appealing piece of entertainment; but it is a rewarding and compelling thing in its own right, somewhere in between. Neither fish nor fowl again, but in a good way.

In terms of the actual music, I haven’t a clue what Thom Yorke is singing about here, and don’t really care – he uses his voice much more effectively and with greater understanding here than he has before, layering it beatifically on “Nude”, finding jitteringly compelling space on “15 Step”, edging towards sublimation on “Reckoner”. The influence of electronic music melds truly symbiotically, at last, with more organic approaches; songs and textures and rhythms are in pretty equal balance, and it works amazingly well.

And oh, those rhythms – Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are the stars of this album, for me. In fact, it’s on the tracks they’re not overtly (or at all) present on (“Faust Arp”, “Videotape”) that I feel the record wanes. On the other eight songs, though, Selway plays almost jazz-y, nervously ticking hi-hat patterns and propulsive motifs, and Colin Greenwood smashes huge waves of bass through the foundations of the songs.

For a long time I think I objected to Radiohead on the ideological grounds that they got more attention, despite making less interesting music, than a lot of the artists and musicians that they talked about, many of whom I adored. As I get older and more pragmatic, I’m starting to think that, actually, what they’re able to do is take the music they love, and build something different and accessible with it; that they act like both a gateway drug to and publicist for (rather than exploiter of) their own influences. Getting Four Tet to remix them, dragging Caribou on tour, sounding a bit like Talk Talk, name-dropping DJ Shadow… it’s not who you steal from, it’s how you steal?

So I might not love In Rainbows the way I love Laughing Stock or Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, or Ege Bamyasi, or In Sides, or any of many other albums I could name, but I do almost certainly listen to it a hell of a lot more frequently these days, which has to count for something.

The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)

silentshoutI bought Silent Shout not long after it came out in February 2006, enticed by the rabid hyperbole being thrown its way on messageboards and blogs. The idea of atmospheric, intriguing Scandinavian dance music seemed like it would be right up my street, and, indeed, I loved the opening title track from the off. But it stopped there. Something about Silent Shout rubbed me up the wrong way, and I took against it vehemently, and cast it out. Or, at least, let it gather dust on the bottom-shelf.

Partly I think my antipathy was to do with the thickness and density of the sound; in early 2006 I was at the height of my anti-compression campaigning (I’m much more pragmatic these days), and I think I was looking for spacious, intricate, architectural sounds more akin to “The Box” by Orbital than what Silent Shout actually offered. Something nagged me about it; I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, to catch a glimpse of what I was missing and worm my way in. When I loved the Fever Ray album from the off, my desire to get Silent Shout only intensified.

Though it’s just as creepy and strange as “The Box”, Silent Shout gets there by different means; by and large it’s an album of direct, thumping, dancefloor-focussed electropop, irresistible beats and synth riffs (just get a load of the crazy, hook-laden opening to “Like A Pen”, which could be off Debut by Björk), but that thick production allows an array of startlingly cold, unnerving, and edgy textures and melodies in almost by the back door.

And then there are the voices; processed, performative, unrecognisable and alien. Both Karin and Olof sing, but it’s often hard to tell who is who, or if either of them are even human, let alone what the actual words they’re enunciating are. But when you do start to notice the words (or, you know, look at them in the sleeve), and you realise that you’ve been dancing to a song about domestic abuse or tapping your steering wheel to a song about childhood alienation. It’s… discomforting, to say the least.

But that’s Silent Shout’s genius, like a lot of great music; it has the push-me/pull-you dynamic that so much great music has (Public Enemy always being my instant example; the grooves to capture you, the sirens to push you away), beats and hooks to lure you in, textures and atmospheres to make you feel uncomfortable. Finally, half a dozen years later, the crazy synth arpeggios, alien delivery, and emotional tundra made sense to me.

As an aside; when The Knife released Tomorrow, In A Year, their bizarre, collaborative electronic-opera about Charles Darwin in 2010, I was, by contrast to Silent Shout yet again, immediately taken with its disquietingly ululating choral arrangements and cavernous drum sounds; here, straight away, was the architectural quality to their sound that I’d wanted. The songs aren’t as singular as those on its predecessor (as an opera / soundtrack, rather than a pop record, I doubt they’re intended to be), and listening to its vast expanses in one sitting is a demanding, draining experience, but it offered yet another way in for me.

Bloc Party – Silent Alarm (2005)

silent_alarmBloc Party’s management was done by the same people who managed Embrace, so, after being intrigued by hyperbole and early singles, I got sent Silent Alarm pre-release, and listened to it over Christmas 2004. Played quietly, late at night, it reminded me of Disco Inferno somehow, shorn of the sample-crazy genius which marked that band out as something utterly extraordinary. Played louder, the rhythm section revealed themselves as a hell of a unit, the guitarist as something a little more textural than the common-or-garden ‘angular’ post-punk revival numpties who were popular with NME at the time. And the singer? He reminded me of Luke Sutherland from Long Fin Killie; at his best, a sensual centre of the maelstrom.

Looking back from eight years on, Silent Alarm now feels flawed; over-stuffed, over-long, a victim of its own self-importance, as manifested in Kele Okereke’s lyrics, which somehow became even more pompous and ridiculous on the band’s second record, A Weekend in the City. (Their website at the time described them not as a band, but as an “autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day.” Of course.) But there’s still an excitement that manifests when I put it on these days; a memory of youth, of urgency, or feeling that something is desperately, hopelessly important eve though you don’t know exactly what. I think, at the time, as a 25-year-old, I was already a little too old to be taken in fully, but the memory of past passions is a powerful thing.

So despite the fact that it’s about three songs too long and ludicrously self-serious in tone, Silent Alarm is also thrilling; as well as the obvious post-punk and mid 00s indie signposts, there’s a big bite of “Airbag” by Radiohead running through Bloc Party’s sonic aesthetic of cacophonous, tumbling drums, tactile basslines and lightning guitars, pushing them further into genuine modernism than many of their unashamedly retro peers. So Russell Lissack’s guitars swerve from the spiky signature of post-punk to a keenly emotional, effects-laden futurism, while Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong together make a furiously propulsive and hysterical rhythm section which prevents Silent Alarm from ever seeming anything less than utterly contemporary.

It would be easy to take Bloc Party as all aesthetic, all bluster, and little heart. But that bluster combines with something beautiful on three occasions – “Blue Light”, “This Modern Love”, and “So Here We Are” offer tantalising glimpses of genuine emotion (still driven by too-fast rhythms which prevent that emotion ever seeping into the kind of mawkish sentimentality of Coldplay, for instance), but the likes of “Price of Gas”, “Plans”, and “She’s Hearing Voices”, whilst exciting to me all those years ago, now seem gauche and clumsy. Such is the folly of youth, I suppose.

Caribou – Up In Flames (2003) / The Milk of Human Kindness (2005) / Andorra (2007)

cariboucoversI give algorithms a tough time, but they can be useful: it was a “Like this? Try these!” suggestion from Amazon that introduced me to Caribou’s music (then released under the moniker Manitoba); I’d rated Four Tet’s second album (Pause) and because of this the rainforest kindly thought I might like Start Breaking My Heart. Following that algorithmic introduction, Dan Snaith, as his mum calls him, went on to consistently make just about my favourite music of the noughties.

I liked Start Breaking My Heart, a sequence of gently glitching, sweetly melodic, jazz-inflected laptronica vignettes, well enough, but two years later I was absolutely blown away by Up In Flames. I’d practically forgotten Manitoba, but I saw an early review in a music magazine (I don’t remember which one) which got me excited. I can still remember my first listen to it, in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house which I used as a listening den; my hi-fi set up at one end, CDs down either wall, a crappy sofabed knackering my spine as I listened. From the moment it started I was squirming in my chair with delight, as excited, clattering drum rolls, jazzy skronks of brass, washes of shoegazey noise, and floaty, whimsical vocals tumbled out of the speakers in a fabulous psychedelic mess. There are only about five albums I can vividly remember my very first listen to, loving them utterly on first contact, and this is one. (The others? That’d be telling.)

Follow-up The Milk Of Human Kindness took a lot longer to appreciate – it probably wasn’t until a year or more after its release that I realised it had wormed its way into my brain, and that Em and I would both use it as a go-to record. It was, very deliberately, the first record we played in the flat when we moved in, and we bought a vinyl copy to keep in a frame on the wall too. In contrast to Up In Flames, which reveals its hectic charms quickly but is a little too chaotic for me to play often, … Human Kindness seeps into your affections slowly; all the same ingredients are still there, but balanced with an evolutionary subtlety, space between the elements, songs happy just to groove for a moment rather than explode ostentatiously.

And then came Andorra, where all the previous elements of Dan Snaith’s music came together perfectly. Part summery 60s psyche-pop homage (think Zombies, Beach Boys, Nuggets), part laptop jazz-rock soundscapes, part edge-of-chaos digital excursions, it boasted ‘proper’ ‘songs’ (“Melody Day”, “She’s The One”, “Sandy”), delicious (in)organic jams (“Eli”, “Sundialling”), and hints of the electronic head-dance music that lay in Snaith’s future with Swim and Daphni (“Irene”, “Niobe”.) Bar the closing two tracks, it’s a seamless experiment in making a record that sounds like a band playing, but which, on closer inspection, couldn’t possibly be; something in the impossible drum fills, the intricate layering of sound, the subtle noises that simply couldn’t emanate from a traditional “rock” instrument.

I’m not keen on picking all-time ‘favourite’ records, because my mind changes almost constantly, but Andorra is up there. I’ve played it to death, and it didn’t die. It works on headphones as well as through speakers. It also works, bizarrely, when played live, Snaith and his band recreating these machine-tooled, software-composed, sounds-like-a-band-but-couldn’t-be-played-by-one tunes with a traditional four-piece band (and a laptop, and a synthesizer). Sometimes, I get joy just from thinking about listening to it and being glad that someone made it.

And just for the record, yes, if this list was taking in 2010, I’d be including Swim here too.