EVERYONE the world over recognizes the tall white toque of the professional chef, but the small black cap of a few special cooks is not so familiar. For the past century the cooking profession in England has bestowed this traditional honor on just a few master cooks. At present only Joe Curley, master cook at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, wears this designation of professional expertise.
Mr. Curley is an admirable ambassador for English food, and also for English humor and hospitality. He has earned the right to wear the black cap through professional expertise and dedication to the finest English food traditions. But to Curley, it signifies more than expertise.
``The black cap is a purely English tradition. Its origin lies in the English wayside inns, which not only offered food and a bed for the night, but a unique measure of English hospitality and warmth.
``I would like to see the black cap bestowed on more English cooks who maintain not only the highest standards in the kitchen but who also further this unique and essential philosophy toward the visitor,'' he says. Origins of black cap
Traditional English cooking has always placed highest regard on the perfect roasting of meats, even in medieval times, when whole sides or barons of beef, wild boar, sheep, venison, and other meats were cooked on a turning spit above the huge fire in the kitchen.
The black cap originated years ago for the master chef whose responsibility has long been that of tending the roasting of meats. This was the most skilled and critical task of the English kitchen, even in medieval times, but while tending the meats, a hat naturally collected a great deal of soot and debris from the chimney. Thus it evolved that the master cook always wore a short black cap rather than a tall white toque.
Today, as in the past, the cornerstone of fine English cooking remains those roast meats and accompaniments for which the country is so famous.
At Simpson's, whole sirloins of Aberdeen Angus beef, carved from a silver trolley at the diner's table, are accompanied with puffy Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. Early 1900s charm
Saddles of Southdown lamb, pork roasted with a layer of crispy crackling, Aylesbury duckling, pheasant, and chickens are all served in sedate dining rooms that have changed little since the restaurant was reopened in 1902, after the widening of the Strand, a well-known London street.
Curley oversees a army of cooks and kitchen staff in the vast, hot underground kitchens of Simpson's. Each day 800 to 1,000 meals are served, and the logistics of organizing the foodstuffs required daily is staggering.
Each morning, the beef for which Simpson's is so renowned must be trimmed of fat, losing one-fifth of the total weight, but providing fresh beef suet for traditional English puddings. The hanging of the meat is also critical: To be moist and tender and retain its color, the beef must be hung for up to 13 days at the correct temperature and humidity.
``The selection of ingredients is the key to fine English cooking,'' Curley explains. Roasts and vegetables may be served simply and with classic, traditional accompaniments. Yet precisely because of their simplicity, they must stand or fall on their own merits. According to Curley, it's far easier to disguise inferior ingredients under a blanket of sauces. Know-how of a master
Watching the master cook at work, one gains a sense of the intuitive nature of the art. Curley can lift a 30-pound sirloin of beef from the oven and tell, simply by its feel and wobble (which indicates moisture content) whether or not it is done. The appearance of fat on a saddle of lamb also indicates whether that joint is fully cooked.
``I had the ovens designed specially,'' says Curley, ``so that by placing the thick end of the sirloin of beef in the hotter corner, the meat is so cooked that the carver is then able to offer well-done, medium, and rare beef all from the same joint.''
Moreover, for those who think English cooking consists of only roast meats, Curley is quick to set the record straight.
``We have a rich heritage of regional foods which are marvelously original and innovative. How many have ever tried Sussex Pond pudding or Cumberland Nicky? Steak and kidney pie, yes, but steamed steak, kidney and mushroom pudding? And what about Toad-in-the-Hole or Bubble and Squeak?''
This cook is against the general catering practice of calling English foods by French names. Indeed, he has enjoyed a bit of mischievous fun when demonstrating English cooking abroad.
A harassed French assistant chef, for example, was once at his wits end when trying to purchase ingredients for Toad-in-the-Hole, an old English dish made of sausages and Yorkshire pudding. Another chef wanted to know how much the bubbles would cost for Bubble and Squeak.
Bubble and Squeak, as every English schoolboy knows, is the sound of Sunday's leftover meat and vegetables sizzling as they cook in the pan on Monday. Steak, Kidney, and Mushroom Pudding 450 g (1 pound) suet crust pastry (see below) 900 g (2 pounds) stewing steak 225 g (8 ounces) ox kidney Seasoned flour 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped 225 g (8 ounces) button mushrooms, cleaned 12 oysters, optional Salt Freshly ground black pepper 300 ml (1/2) pint or 1 1/4 cups) water
Line a 1.8-litre ( 3-pint) greased pudding basin with suet crust pastry, reserving 1/3 to make lid.
Trim beef and cut into small cubes. Remove skin and core from kidney and dice. Pat steak and kidney in seasoned flour, then layer in lined basin with onions, mushrooms, and oysters.
Season well with salt and pepper and add water. Moisten edges of pastry with water and top with pastry lid, pressing edges together well. Cover with a circle of foil pleated in middle and tie securely with string.
Place basin in a large saucepan of simmering water that comes halfway up sides. Steam, covered, about 3 to 4 hours, adding more boiling water when necessary.
Serve pudding from basin, removing foil first and wrapping basin with clean cloth. Serve with sprouts, cabbage, or carrots and mashed or boiled potatoes. Serves 8. Suet Pastry 225 g (1/2 pound) plain flour Pinch of salt 2 teaspoons baking powder 100 g (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) shredded suet 150 ml (1/4 pint or 2/3 cup) water
Sift flour, salt, and baking powder into large mixing bowl. Mix in shredded suet and make a well in center. Gradually add sufficient water to make soft dough.
Turn pastry on floured board and roll into large circle. With sharp knife cut out a third of the segment and set aside as lid. Use remaining pastry to line a well-greased pudding basin. Yorkshire Pudding 75 g (3 ounces or 3/5 cup) plain flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 egg 300 ml (1/2 pint or 1 1/4 cups) milk
Sift flour and salt into large mixing bowl. Make a well in center and add egg. Gradually stir in flour and slowly add milk. Beat until batter is smooth. Cover and set aside in cool place 1 hour.
Pour a little roast beef dripping into a large tin and place in hot oven 5 minutes until sizzling hot. Remove and add batter.
Bake in hot oven 220 C. (425 degrees F. or Gas Mark 7) without opening door 35 to 40 minutes or until well-risen and golden brown. Serve first with gravy, or as an accompaniment to roast beef. Serves 4.
Toad-in-the-Hole -- without the toad, but with lamb chops and kidneys instead of the more usual sausages -- is splendid traditional fare, the type of food that once was served in London chophouses and dining clubs. Toad-in-the-Hole Yorkshire Pudding batter (see above) Knob (about 4 tablespoons) of lamb or beef dripping 8 lamb chops 4 lamb kidneys, cleaned and chopped Salt Freshly ground black pepper
Make batter and let stand. Melt dripping in a frying pan. Brown seasoned chops and kidneys briefly.
Transfer chops, kidneys, and dripping to a flat, ovenproof dish. Place in a preheated moderately hot oven, 190 C. (375 degrees F. or Gas Mark 5) for a minute or 2 until sizzling. Remove and pour in batter. Return to oven and cook 1 hour, without opening door, until batter has risen and chops are cooked through. Serve immediately. Serves 4. Bubble and Squeak 50 g (2 ounces or 1/4 cup) beef dripping 350 g (12 ounces) cold roast beef, cut into chunks 450 g (1 pound) cooked mashed potato 225 g (8 ounces) cooked green vegetables, such as cabbage or sprouts 1 large onion, peeled, finely sliced Salt Freshly ground black pepper Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Heat beef dripping in large heavy-based frying pan; add beef, brown well. Add mashed potato, cooked green vegetables, and onion.
Mix well and fry until brown and crisp on both sides. Season well and add Worcestershire sauce to taste. Serve at once. Serves 4.