‘For the Sarakatsani, sheep and goats, men and women, are important and related oppositions with a moral reference. Sheep are peculiarly God’s animals, and their shepherds, made in His image, are essentially noble beings. Women through the particular sensuality of their natures are inherently more likely to have relations with the Devil; and goats were originally the animals of the Devil….’
Religion, Power and Protest in Local Communities: The Northern Shore of the Mediterranean – Eric R. Wolf
The penchant for nose-to-tail eating that hit London’s eateries two or three fads ago did little to imbue a taste for goat. In the culinary world, despite Dabbous, despite Brixton’s much-loved curry goat, the cloven-hoofed, horned beast stubbornly (and little in the world is more stubborn than a full-grown billy) stays off the list of favoured meats.
Ostrich, alligator, bear, sure. There are always the gastro-macho locales offering a gigglesome walk on the wild side of ‘extreme dining’ experiences, for those who savour the chemical tang of vacuum pack and whose readymeal-numbed tastebuds categorise every white meat in the ‘tastes like chicken’ column.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, champion of all that is traditional and overlooked in the realm of the edible, makes a solid case for the eating of billygoat kids in his Guardian column. Likening their meat to a dryer, herbier version of lamb, his argument for eating the feisty beastlings is sensible.
Nannygoats are experiencing a population boom in British agriculture due to a burgeoning acceptance of goat cheese and milk. As well they might – a chunk of chevre with a glass of Monbazillac (or similar sweet white wine) is as singular and luscious pleasure. Alas, unless HF-W can popularise kidmeat, those goats born male face summary execution, being too expensive to feed, and unable (as is their wont) to pay their way in milk.
Even so, for all that kid is an overlooked ingredient on our tables, fully-matured goatmeat fares even worse. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipes are for kid only. Food writers tend toward the throwaway cop-out used by Neneh Cherry in her short spell as a TV chef. For ‘curry goat’, she suggests to the viewer, ‘use mutton’.
But despite the Sarakatsani and their parallels between women, goats and the devil (a worldview almost as beloved by anthropologists as the Trobriand Islanders’ belief that chicken entrails fortell the future), there is much to recommend in goatmeat. Real goat: mature, stringy, tough, bony, and only redeemable by long, slow cooking, offers flavours that mutton can’t touch.
The gamey, almost rank notes of mutton are absent, replaced by a herby intensity that is testament to the goat’s more varied taste in fodder. Thistles, dandelions, anything that hangs from a washing line – all are far more productive of highly-flavoured flesh than the placid sheep’s dull insistence on grass.
Goat dishes abound in the Eastern Mediterranean regions, and the aforementioned Caribbean favorite Curry Goat (24 hours in dry spice-rub essential please) is as delicious as should be expected from a dark meat cooked slowly in fragrant spices. Nevertheless, there is one dish to rule them all: Chanfana.
Native to northern Portugal, specifically the mountainous Beira Alta region, and more specifically still, to a few towns and villages around the medieval University city of Coimbra, Chanfana is not a pretty sight. Cooked and served in a black earthenware pot, it is a stroke of luck that the actual appearance of the thing is obscured until it goes on the plate. The inky red wine it is cooked in turns the potatoes a queasy shade of pink, the fat a pallid grey and the meat itself the hue of Michael Gove’s putrid soul.
Forget that though. The visual fripperies of plating up are for restaurants sporting distressed brick walls and serving herb-scented pithevers with truffle oil. Chanfana’s roots are deeper, in the cobbled streets of Manueline Portugal, a down-home return to the soil amidst the faded grandeur of colonial architecture paid for with the filthy sweat of slavery and bloodlust. It’s a blameless dish amongst the less innocent Chicken Piri-Piris and Feijoadas.
And taste it. Just taste it. A warming hug of a stew, but with all of the ornery attitude, cunning, fastidiousness and bravado of the animal that went into it.
1.5kg goat meat (neck, shoulder or saddle. Keep the bones on, get it chopped into chunks the size of a tangerine)
4 tbsp olive oil (don’t stint on this, it keeps the stew moist)
5 crushed garlic cloves
1 teaspoon paprika
A sprig of parsley
Salt and pepper
An entire bottle of wine (maybe minus a small glass for yourself as you prepare the dish). Bairrada is a good local choice, although Chanfana is often made and served with Dao.
Marinate the meat in the wine, garlic, bay leaves, paprika for a night.
Using a lidded teracotta casserole dish, lay the meat at the bottom. You don’t need to brown the meat first. It ends up looking ugly, but tastes great. Add the olive oil, the clove, and everything else from the marinade.
With the lid on, place the casserole in a preheated oven at 145 degrees C. Leave it as long as you possibly can, but at least two hours. If it gets dry, add more wine, or a little water.
Peel and chop potatoes into large pieces. If there is still plenty of liquid left half an hour before you need the stew, put the potatoes directly into the pot. Otherwise, boil the spuds separately and add them 20 minutes before serving.
Chanfana is traditionally served with boiled spinach, but that can leave you yearning for a bit of crunch. Kale would be a good alternative, purple-sprouting broccoli even better.
Sidebar image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Chockphoto
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses.
Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers.