For many people, food always connects to them emotionally. Whether it is a celebratory dinner, an outstanding dish, a simple snack or a raw ingredient, it will get under my skin and affect me.
It’s not always positive, but on the whole it creates a sixth synesthetic sense where taste, texture, aroma and aesthetic combine to stimulate an involuntary feeling – as if knitting together lost pathways in the brain. Comfort food in particular creates an emotional map leading straight home, where the log burner is radiating woody warmth and dancing shadows; where it is just fine to use your lap as a table and sink into a sofa, and where the only side dish can be warm bread and butter.
The comfort food dish that leads me back up the garden path is beef olives; a combination of smokey bacon off-cuts mixed together with seasoned fresh pork and wrapped in a thin beef topside steak before braising in boozy thick gravy. The gravy is essential in making it a complete comfort food because then it is necessary to soak it up with bread and butter cut so thick you need a stepladder to eat it. Proportions of portions matter in this type of specialist cooking.
This dish is historically made in advance and left to cook slowly while an outdoor pursuit is undertaken, typically in inappropriate weather conditions. Alternatively it is prepared, as it was in my family home growing up, as the dish that welcomes you back from an extended period away, with laundry bag in hand and slipstreaming a minor personal catastrophe. It is the equivalent of walking back into your childhood bedroom and seeing everything still in its place, or the warm glow of your own children’s faces while they hold the hand of their beautiful mother. The tasting notes for a dish like this could be “like City posters on top of Star Trek wallpaper” or “like bunk beds and beano albums”. A comforting meal is often eaten in silence because the dialogue is internalised – it isn’t words that spring to mind but memories and feelings.
The British philosopher Alan Wilson Watts said “the menu is not the meal”, meaning there is no connection to the words and that it is only by eating the food can it have real meaning. You cannot be satiated or nourished by reading a menu, and neither can you consider yourself well-travelled by looking at maps. But food that is personal, reflective, and relevant can transport you back to a place with a single bite. And that is why for me, beef olives are a first-class return ticket home.
Steve’s Beef olives recipe
- 4 topside steaks, seasoned and dusted with flour
- 300ml beef stock
- 300ml of red wine
For the stuffing
- 150g smoked bacon, finely diced
- 150g minced pork
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
- 1garlic clove, peeled and crushed
- 50g fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp finely chopped sage
- A good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For cooking the beef olives
- 1 tbsp beef dripping (or olive oil)
- 2 onions, peeled and sliced
- 4–5 large carrots, peeled, or 2 handfuls of chantenay carrots
Mix all the stuffing ingredients in a bowl until well combined. Shape into ‘sausages’ and place onto each steak. Roll up to make large hearty parcels and secure with wooden skewers or string to hold the stuffing in.
To cook, heat the dripping or oil in a cooking pot over a medium heat and brown off the beef olives. Once done, fry the onions, whole carrots until well coloured, then add the beef stock and wine. Cook gently, either on the hob or in the oven (preheated to 170°C/Gas mark 3), for 2½–3 hours until tender and giving. Serve hot, with creamy mash or just thick slices of bread and butter.