It is worth pinpointing the heart and soul of a dish and striving to get it right. Otherwise you might as well not bother. After years of cooking the Sunday roast, I now realise that it is neither the meat, tracklements (the mustard, redcurrant jelly and mint sauces) nor vegetables that is the crucial part, but the accompanying gravy. It is this savoury juice that holds the whole thing together. It is the gravy that makes the meal work.
The only gravy I want to know about is the one made with the pan drippings and meat juices of the roast it is to accompany. An 'integral' gravy whose heart and soul have come from the roast it is due to lubricate. To put it another way, I want my gravy to belong.
I have no doubt that we should make an impromptu 'sauce' to go with our roast. The fact that meat carves more easily and stays more juicy when given 15 minutes' rest between oven and table is surely evidence enough that we are supposed to make gravy to go with it. Fifteen minutes to hang around, tantalised by a glistening roast? Someone is trying to tell us something.
What doesn't quite get there is a sauce made without access to the caramelised juices and flavourings from the meat. A sauce whose heart is elsewhere.
One of my gripes with some (I say some) classical French cooking is that the meat and its sauce don't meet till they get to the plate. Yes, that sauce may well be flavoured and given depth with the reduced goodness from previous roasts - known as glace de viande - but this is rather like giving a newborn baby someone else's parents. There is much goodness there, but it is not quite the same.
Gravy is not a sauce. It is, or should be, a deeply savoury liquor made from the meat drippings and sediment that collects in the roasting tin. It may be let down with water, wine or stock to make it more palatable - not to mention making it go further - but the meat juices are its backbone. We introduce outside flavourings at our peril.
Dark and intriguing it may be, but there is little mystery to making gravy. A perfectly decent one (I might argue the best) can be made by pouring boiling water into a pan after removing the roasted meat, then stirring to dissolve the sticky goo that has accumulated during roasting. Voilà! But you can tinker with it to great effect, too, adding some appropriate wine or fortified spirit, or introducing some herbs or perhaps a little spice. The soul of the juice will still be there - all you have done is to introduce a little bonus.
Anything we add to a recipe should be appropriate, so with roast pork, for instance, we could add fennel seeds or maybe a squeeze of sharp Seville orange to the gravy. Either would flatter the meat. With lamb, you could add freshly chopped mint or some thyme. Neither would impose itself on the meat; they are natural partners. A mustard gravy for beef can be stunning, especially when you have a few spinach leaves to soften in its latent heat. It is simply a question of adding something that feels right, something that has an affinity and a history of working well with meat juices.
A great favourite of mine is to leave a few whole and unskinned garlic cloves in with the meat. As their skins brown, their insides become sweet and mild and can be squashed as easily as butter into the pan juices. This is a fine one to serve with a leg or shoulder of lamb. I have done the same with tomatoes too, crushing their flesh and juice into the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Good with chicken, that one.
As a country, we can be divided into those who put flour in their gravy and those who don't. It is not a north/south divide, but I have detected a liking for thicker, possibly more sustaining gravies wherever I have lived in the north. That, for the record, means Ilkley, Yorkshire and the Lake District. My late stepmother, born and bred in the Midlands, was a flour and gravy-browning woman, her point being that the result should be as dark and thick as possible. Modern thinking is that flour is unnecessary and gravy browning a sin only just short of cannibalism.
I cannot say I don't ever put a bit of flour in my sauces. I do think the mock-horror and raised eyebrows that inevitably follow the sprinkling of a spoonful of MacDougall's is nothing more than misplaced snobbery. Sometimes a thick gravy seems appropriate, say, when the weather is cold, and always with liver and onions or sausage and mash. It is not just a case of stirring in a spoonful of flour to thicken; the raw starch needs cooking, browning nuttily in the fat.
You can faff about with arrowroot or cornflour if you wish, but I find gravy thickened in this manner often more gloopy than luscious. What we are after is, whether as clear as amber or as voluptuous as a velvet throw, not simply a savoury lubricant, but something that brings our meal together, be it Sunday beef or Christmas turkey. As I said, the heart of a dish. Its soul and, I think, its point.
A simple gravy from the roasting tin
the roasting tin and its fat, debris and aromatics wine, stock or water
Lift the roast from the tin and set it aside to rest. If there is a thick layer of fat in the tin, then tip it off into a heatproof bowl and save it. You can use it to roast potatoes. Leave the thin layer of the dark juices that lie under the fat behind in the tin, then scoop out the bits of herbs, garlic and onion that may be in the pan and discard.
Put the tin over a low to moderate heat and pour in enough liquid to make a thin layer in the bottom. The amount you add will depend on how rich you want your gravy to be and how much meat juice you have to work with. As the liquid comes to the boil, stir it with a balloon whisk or wooden spoon, scraping away at the debris and crusty bits stuck to the pan until they dissolve.
Let the mixture bubble and reduce for a minute or two, then taste and add a little salt and some black pepper. It will not thicken, so take it off the heat once it has concentrated to a thin but aromatic liquor.
A thick gravy
This is the gravy I use when I want a rich, meaty sauce to eat with sausages or, especially, Yorkshire pudding.Remove the roast from the pan and set it to one side to rest. Now stir in 1 tbsp flour and place the pan over a moderate heat. Stir the flour into the juices left in the pan, and let it cook until it smells nutty. Take care that the flour does not burn. When you have a thin, biscuit-coloured paste, pour in a little stock or water and keep stirring until it thickens, adding more liquid as you go, thinning the gravy to the consistency you like. Let it bubble gently for a minute or two longer than you would for a thin gravy.
A mushroom and Madeira gravy
A fine, richly flavoured gravy for roast birds, especially game birds and turkey. I have chosen to use a little flour to enrich this, as it is less temperamental than a sauce thickened with arrowroot and, I think, less detectable. Enough for a large chicken or medium-sized turkey.
the roasting pan, and its juices, sticky debris and aromatics
500ml stock (preferably made from the giblets)
100g small brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tbsp plain flour
about 100ml Madeira
Pour off most of the fat in the roasting tin, leaving behind 3 or 4 tbsp of caramelised meat juices, the herbs and vegetables. Place it over a low to moderate heat, add the mushrooms and cook until they have coloured and softened, stirring them occasionally.
Sprinkle in 1 tbsp, no more, of flour and stir it in until the mushrooms are loosely bound together. Let the mixture cook for a few minutes, taking care it does not burn. You want the flour to cook so that there is no raw taste. Add a few tablespoons of the stock and stir until you have a thin paste, then continue adding the stock until you have a thinnish gravy. Bring towards the boil, adding salt and black pepper. Pour in the Madeira and continue cooking, at a low and leisurely bubble, for about 15 minutes. Pour the whole lot through a strainer, pushing hard with the back of a spoon to extract all the flavour from the mushrooms, into a small pan, bring back to the boil, check the seasoning and pour into a warmed gravy boat.