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Sybil Kapoor on our enduring love of terrines and pâtés, and why this is one group of foods where buying in makes perfect sense

There was a time when no British bistro or wine bar menu was complete without its very own ‘pâté maison’. As soon as the reader’s eyes caught sight of those two words in the glimmering candlelight, they felt themselves transported to France, sampling the delights of the local charcuterie with a crusty baguette and a robust local wine. Grander restaurants, their menus written in French, replaced the simple pâté maison with luxurious sounding parfaits, galantines, ballotines and terrines.

Such dishes captured the British imagination, forming an important part of our long-standing love affair with French food. For many years, to understand a French menu, let alone cook Gallic dishes, was to assume a certain sophistication denied to those who only enjoyed (equally delicious) English sausage rolls and Melton Mowbray pork pies.

As access to and understanding of European food has broadened, the social one-upmanship associated with French cuisine has long since dissipated, replaced by a genuine pleasure in eating good food regardless of its nationality, but our love of pâtés and terrines has continued unabated.

Terrine slices

A Cornish pasty
“What is a terrine, what is a pâté?” asked Jane Grigson in her esoteric Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery (1967). Her answer was not straightforward. “A meat loaf is a terrine, a pork pie is a pâté,” she stated, rather surprisingly, before helpfully explaining that the word terrine means ‘of the earth’, referring to the terracotta dish used to bake it in, while pâté originally meant something baked in pastry, which could be served either hot or cold. Thus, technically, even the filling of a Cornish pasty is a pâté. The origins of pâtés date back to medieval times when meat, fish or vegetables were encased in pastry coffins to keep them tender and juicy as they slowly cooked.

Aided in no small part by Mrs Grigson and the recipes of the charismatic chef Robert Carrier, enthusiastic British cooks started to experiment with making their own pâtés and terrines. Food mixers were sold with a ‘must-have’ mincer attachment so that aspiring cooks could grind the correct balance of fat to lean meat for their chosen terrine. Specially imported French terracotta dishes were lined with finely-sliced back fat or, more often than not, thinly-stretched streaky bacon.

The cook would then alternately layer their highly flavoured, roughly minced meat with macerated duck or chicken livers and pale game bird breasts. Brilliant green pistachios or pink cubes of diced ham were added for splashes of colour, before the terrine was gently baked in a bain-marie, then weighted overnight and sliced as an elegant starter.

French roots
Elizabeth David, meanwhile, helped to revive the popularity of British potted meats and fish pastes, such as kipper paste and potted chicken livers. Soon, despite their lack of French roots, these too were being referred to as pâtés and became a favourite party food, no doubt partly because they were much easier to make than a terrine. For a while, no celebration was complete without a bowl of lemony smoked mackerel pâté, where the flesh had been beaten into butter and seasoned with cayenne pepper, before being accompanied by plates heaped high with thick slices of crusty French bread.

As is always the case with cooking, culinary boundaries blur and different interpretations emerge. Today, a more sophisticated smoked mackerel pâté might be made by folding the flaked mackerel flesh into fluffy cream cheese flavoured with lemon, dill and horseradish (there’s a beautiful version available from Oak and Smoke), then spooned onto rye bread and decorated with fronds of dill or wisps of lemon zest.

Some of these terrines and pâtés can be extremely time-consuming to create. Should you feel tempted to make rillettes, for example, you will have to allow a good five hours for the slow cooking of your chosen meat, aside from the actual butchery, melting of pork fat, final beating or chopping, seasoning, and chilling of the silken soft cooked meat. Parfaits—a smooth style of pâté—also take time to prepare: macerating the ingredients, cooking, pureeing, seasoning, gently baking in a bain-marie, and finally chilling.

Mushroom pate

Your local charcutier
So, however much you love cooking, terrines and pâtés are often worth buying from specialist producers rather than slaving over in the kitchen. After all, it’s entirely natural in France to step into your local charcutier and choose a selection of cold meats, pâtés and terrines to serve for lunch or dinner, preferably accompanied by cornichons and tiny pickled cocktail onions, along with some suitable bread or toast.

Happily, at Borough Market terrines and pâtés come in all manner of flavours and textures. They range from the robust, grab-a-pint-of-stout type of English terrine, such as The Ginger Pig’s smoked pig’s cheek, to the incredibly light, little-black-dress style of parfait, such as Tartufaia’s rossini calf’s liver and white truffle.

The former needs piccalilli; the latter melba toast. The former can be tucked into a hearty sandwich for a long country walk, to be followed by a mince pie or a thick slice of Christmas cake, whereas the latter is best reserved for an elegant pre- or post-theatre supper, possibly accompanied by a glass of fine madeira and followed by a refreshing clementine and mango salad.

Utterly spoilt
Or, who would not enjoy some ready-made ultra-smooth smoked duck pâté or rich-textured goose rillette with the aforementioned pickles as part of a relaxed lunch over Christmas and the New Year? Make a fragrant French onion soup, add some good bread and perhaps a bitter mustard-dressed curly endive salad, and your guests will feel utterly spoilt.

Those in party mode will need to ensure that their vegetarian friends feel equally spoilt. Over the years, French chefs have created beautiful pressed vegetable terrines, layered with blanched leeks, truffles and roasted peppers. Although these can be 100 per cent vegetable, many include a jellified meat stock or fine white forcemeat with herbs to bind them together, reflecting a uniquely French outlook on vegetarianism.

In Britain, meanwhile, smooth textured mushroom pâtés (the apogee of which can be found at Pâté Moi) have become a useful standby for domestic cooks. With their intense umami mushroom flavours, often with sweet notes, they are best accompanied by bright, crisp carrots, fennel and spring onions, as well as olives and salty breads.

Pâté maison
With such riches on offer at the Market, you don’t need to break a sweat to dish up your own delicious-tasting pâté maison. As every sensible chef knows, in certain areas of cooking, buying in can be just as good as making your own.