"I'm a sucker for brandy butter."
It sounds like a catchphrase, doesn't it? Not that Oliver Gladwin needs one. With a booming smile and ruffle-friendly hair, the jolly chef—one of a three-brother team championing field-to-fork-food and English tapas at West London establishments Rabbit and The Shed—is already audience friendly. And I'm hoping the same can be said of his mince pies, which I'm going to help him cook today.
"A mince pie is very Christmas-y, obviously and we do so many Christmas parties here that instead of just having a mince pie that you can get from Waitrose, it's more fun for me to give it a slant," Gladwin says, as I step into Rabbit out of the cold. "Instead, I wanted to make it magical so I made up this weird and wonderful thing called a Mince Dodger."
The Mince Dodger might sound modern—it's a take on the Jammie Dodger, of course—but as with so many of the dishes at Rabbit, it actually has its roots in the past, specifically the 1800s. In fact, Gladwin uses his Great Grandmother's recipe to make the core of the pie: the mincemeat.
"There was never hundreds of fast food joints selling popcorn chicken and now, for some generations, that's all that they know. So much of food in England is lost over time so it's nice to be reminded of what food used to be," he says. "This recipe is nearly 200 years old. We're using ingredients that are still around today and bringing back old flavours to our narrowing palate."
Great Grandma's mince meat recipe is pretty lengthy: raisins, sultanas, currents, mixed peel, brandy, Demerara sugar, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, grated orange zest, and the main—traditional—event: veal suet fat.
"Using suet was very common because cows back then were a luxury. You couldn't eat beef like you can now and back in the olden days, they wanted to use absolutely every single gram of the animal," he explains, an ethos that the Gladwins follow today.
"The veal fat, the suet, is from the diaphragm of the animal," Gladwin adds. "My younger brother [the farming member of the trio, Gregory] shoots all the meat at the family farm [Nutbourne in West Sussex] and I want to use every single part of that animal—so finding these recipes that use the suet is really important as it brings preservation, flavour, and tradition to the dish."
Curiously, the mincemeat is prepped ("blitzed so it holds itself together") a whole year in advance and left to mature from one year to the next year "like a sourdough" to bring "a mature flavour." It's the only thing that "lives in The Shed fridge" for the entire year.
Fat? In a sweet pie?
There was a time when mincemeat always featured animal fat, hence the name. Shredded suet was included in original mincemeat recipes, most notably in the 1861 Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. But these days, it hardly ever features. The mass market—I muse and Gladwin nods—is just far too squeamish.
When it comes to cooking with top-notch chefs, I'm certainly anything but. Wisely though, Gladwin has decided that we skip the pastry making part of the recipe (which follows standards guidelines of 100 percent flour, 50 percent butter, and 1 percent salt, with eggs to "enrich and bind"), instead jumping straight to the rolling out, with Gladwin taking the reigns.
When it's time to cut the circles out of the pastry to form the bases of the pies (i.e. the part of the recipe that even a child could do), it's my turn to steal the limelight. Predictably, I fuck it up. Whereas Gladwin's demo cuts look precise and deliberate, mine look like the work of a serial killing axe-man.
And to make matters worse, we're positioned right at the front of the restaurant, so every single soul that wanders along the King's Road is peering through the window and presumably thinking they're witnessing the baking education of a man-child.
Next up, it's the brandy butter.
There's one thing I soon realise about Gladwin—the man likes his booze. As he trickles the liquor into the food processor, massaging the butter to sun tan lotion lushness, his eyes are pierced with glee. He tastes. Pauses and reaches for another bottle. A 10-year-old Somerset brandy. Why? Because "the first one didn't give him the boom" he wanted. The sweetness, but not "the boom."
By now we're having a jolly and—dare I say it—Christmas-y time. At one stage, one of the passing Christmas shopping hordes pops his head in to see what's going on and Gladwin kindly offers him one of the pies he's already made. "Mmm," the chap says, before disappearing into the TV static rain.
Soon enough, we're sharing anecdotes. The time Greg Wallace wore a tight nipple-showing purple shirt. Coming home after a night out only to find Aldo Zilli asleep on the sofa. And my rather measly addition: doing Jägerbombs on Saturday night.
It's at this point that I start to think the brandy that Gladwin poured into the butter has permeated into the air and we're all getting pissed just by breathing.
Once the pies are baked (for 20 minutes until "dry and crispy, but not coloured"), it's time to assemble, piping the matured mincemeat on to each bottom pastry biscuit, popping the round pastry on top of the mincemeat, adding some brandy butter, then putting the final top on the biscuit and a sprinkle of icing sugar. Done. The Mince Pie Dodger.
Within seconds, one is in my mouth. Wow. The base is incredibly crumbly and instantly capitulates into a caramel-y biscuit the minute it hits the tongue. The mincemeat then takes centre stage, a wet and hearty splodge of mulled Christmas flavours. And the butter arrives next, its creaminess filling the mouth with soft pillows of flavour, before the brandy turns up, almost shyly, not wishing to steal the limelight but sending a warm, carol-singing glow to the depth of the throat.
Great Grandma Gladwin would be proud.