A queue at the butcher's counter gives me time to think. The dithering of the shoppers in front offers me the opportunity to ponder the more unusual bits of burgundy flesh and creamy-white fat of the butcher's display. I get a few minutes longer to dream about sweetbreads with mustard sauce, rabbit stew with young carrots or the possibility of a piece of ham hock lovingly simmered and served with new broad beans and parsley sauce. It stops me asking for the knee-jerk pork chops or lamb cutlets and begs me to question my usual order of a nice bit of rib-eye for the grill. It is also how I came to return home clutching a bag of mince.
I almost never buy mince. I like to see the full, unbutchered shape of the meat I buy, its bones and the road map of fat that runs through its flesh. The days when hanging carcasses of meat disappeared from most butcher's shops was a sad one, forcing us to separate the meat on our plate from the animal it belonged to. I am rarely tempted by anything minced. It seems anonymous and a bit lost, somehow not part of the animal.
In anything but the best butcher's I would also consider its provenance somewhat questionable. But this is good stuff - bright and flecked with a little bit of fat, a shocking, glistening red, and it looks like it left the mincer barely minutes before - so why not?
Meatballs, possibly the least romantic term for the kofta, keftedes, frikadeller and albondiga enjoyed by the rest of Europe, appeal more to me than the many-layered thing that is the usual use for minced meat. The summit of the meatball mountain is, for me, one made from pork, seasoned with lime leaves, ripe chillies, ginger and nam pla. Close behind is the Italian version, with minced but quite discernible pancetta, grated pecorino and oregano. Even the plainer versions such as those passed over the marble counters in Sweden, with their tongue-prickling cucumber pickles and sweet-sour lingonberries, have much to commend them. But for some reason I cannot fathom, I have come home with minced lamb - the least inspiring mince of all. (That queue was obviously just a bit too long.)
Minced lamb is happiest in Greece. There it is given the opportunity to rub shoulders with wild marjoram, fresh mint and young garlic; it is where it can take a paddle in shallow pools of sun-scorched tomato sauces or be tucked up in bed with layers of aubergines and a duvet of white sauce. But I also believe Greek food is best eaten under the shade of a fig tree with sand between your toes. It's a bit early for that.
The shaping of a meatball is entirely pleasurable: a gentle squeeze of the seasoned flesh, then a slow rolling in the palms of your hands will produce spheres of flesh that you can shape or flatten at will. I do it with my fingers pointed upwards as if in prayer. What we are about to receive is a plate of sizzling balls rippled with a deep red of grated beetroot and fresh dill, glistening with a slick of yogurt, more dill and capers. An initial attempt at half meat, half young roots refused to hold together without egg, but I prefer not to bind meatballs, to keep them light and open-textured. So I find they work best with about two-thirds meat to grated beets.
I have given you my favourite European meatball recipe before, but several readers have asked for the pork, lemon and Parmesan one, too, so here it is. Happy rolling.
Pork and lemon meatballs
Delectable little balls, these. You probably wouldn't mind a few wide and slithery Italian noodles on the side, or perhaps some rice. Or maybe just a plate of greens, such as sprout tops or purple sprouting. Serves 4.
70g fresh white breadcrumbs
a large handful of parsley leaves, chopped
about 6 bushy sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
200ml chicken stock
Put the breadcrumbs and pork into a mixing bowl. Grate the lemon and add the zest to the pork, then halve and squeeze the lemon. Add the lemon juice to the pork with the parsley and the thyme leaves stripped from their stems. Tip in the Parmesan then the anchovy fillets. Season the mixture with a little salt, then more generously with black pepper. Mix thoroughly.
Make about 18 small balls of the mixture, using a generously heaped tablespoon of pork for each one. I shape them into a rough ball, flatten them slightly, then put each one on to a floured baking sheet.
Warm the oil and butter in a heavy-based non-stick pan. Roll the patties lightly in the flour then fry them, about eight at a time, for 4-5 minutes until they are crisply golden on each side. Lower the heat and leave to cook through to the middle - a matter of 6-8 minutes more. I tend to turn them no more than once or twice during cooking so they develop a crisp, slightly sticky exterior.
Tip the fat, or at least most of it, from the pan, then pour in the chicken stock. Leave to bubble for a good 2 or 3 minutes, scraping up and stirring in any pan stickings. Let the stock bubble down a bit, then divide the patties between four plates and spoon over the juices from the pan.
Lamb meatballs with beetroot and dill
Makes 12-16 (enough for 4 or more)
75g fine or medium cracked wheat
250g raw beetroot
a small to medium onion
400g minced lamb
2 large cloves, or even 3, of garlic
2 heaped tbsp of chopped dill
parsley - a small handful
for the dressing:
cucumber - about a third of a medium one
mint - the leaves from 4 or 5 sprigs of mint
1 tbsp capers
Put the cracked wheat in a bowl, pour over enough boiling water to cover, then set aside to swell. Peel the beetroot and the onion then grate them coarsely into a large bowl. Add the minced lamb, the peeled and crushed garlic, the dill, parsley and a generous grinding of salt and black pepper.
Squeeze any water from the cracked wheat with your hands and mix into the meat. Mix everything together thoroughly, then squidge the mince into little patties about the size of a flattened golf ball, cover with clingfilm (tight, to stop the garlic infusing the fridge!), then chill for at least an hour.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Make the dressing by grating the cucumber coarsely and leaving it in a colander, lightly sprinkled with salt, for half an hour. Squeeze it dry then mix it with the chopped mint, capers and yogurt. Season with salt and black pepper.
Heat a non-stick pan, brush the patties with a little groundnut oil and fry till golden on both sides. Try not to move the meatballs around very much when they are cooking, otherwise they may fall apart. Once they are lightly browned on each side, carefully lift them into a baking dish and finish in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes. (You can only tell if they are done by tasting one, as the beetroot gives them a rich red colour, making it impossible to gauge by sight whether they are cooked.) Drizzle with the cucumber dressing and eat.