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Preservation society: potting

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and historian Angela Clutton explores the art of potting

There are days between Christmas and New Year when I know I’m going to want the pleasures of home cooking without having to do very much at all. That’s when I’ll get the payback for having put in the hours in the kitchen beforehand prepping a larder of good stuff to reach for, including all kinds of things from this Preservation Society series. The pears that have been steeping in calvados since September will be just perfect for a scoop of ice-cream. Candied peel will be wrapped in dark chocolate. And there will very definitely be a stash of jars of potted meat ready to serve on walnut bread with a few pickles on the side.

Please: any of you old enough for the words ‘potted meat’ to bring on shiver-inducing memories of jars of meat paste should force those aside now. What I mean here is goose or rabbit or any game meat that has been slowly cooked with herbs and spices into richly flavoured, coarse yet meltingly moist, slightly spiced fabulousness. A very different prospect.

Road or rail journeys
No wonder sailors going back 500 years used to make sure their vessels were stacked up with potted meats before travelling. Sealed with clarified butter to keep out the air and with sprigs of aromatic herbs over the top to keep the flies away they were like little ready-meals. As time went on, pottings also became popular to take on long road or rail journeys, and at hunts or picnics.

All of which makes potting rather different from the other ways of preserving food previously covered in this series, the origins of which are firmly in storing food to avoid produce being wasted and to ensure supplies through the year. Which isn’t to say potting wasn’t—and isn’t—important for doing that too. Household recipes from the late 17th century Restoration period show just how much those families emerging from civil war valued being able to lay in a store of potted meats.

There’s a long history of potting cheese, too, to avoid any offcuts going to waste. Think of that as you emerge the other side of Christmas with some of your cheeseboard still around but when you can’t quite face eating another slice. Potting is a great way to give leftover cheese a lift. Simply crumble or process it, mix with sherry, marsala or port (again, use up whatever is still around and open), then add mustard, cayenne or Worcestershire sauce for a flavour hit.

Horse and cart
As a born and bred Lancastrian, I’d be stricken off the county log-books if I failed to mention our regional delicacy: potted shrimps. The shrimps used to sometimes be fished for by horse and cart in waters the boats couldn’t get to, and when the shrimps made it ashore they’d be potted straight away with the mace-imbued butter that still now nobody should think of having potted shrimps without.

Mace also works well in potted meat recipes but in mine here for rabbit potted with pork and flavours of amontillado sherry, juniper and thyme I have gone for allspice and nutmeg instead. Use a pair of forks to shred the very tender rabbit flesh after it has been cooked and you will be emulating the method of making rillettes which this kind of slightly rough potted meat is similar too. 

It’s been cooking on the stove all the while I’ve been writing this; my flat gradually filling with the smells of potted rabbit cooking and the anticipation of what a treat of flavour and ease it is going to be on my mid-Christmas journeys… all the way from the sofa or backgammon table to the kitchen.