Steldene Wild Boar in Rowan-Berry Brandy

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In the Middle Kingdoms, as in lands native to many other known alternate Earths, the meat of the domesticated pig (Sus scrofa domesticus sp.) is a huge favorite in rural economies—and the larger urban communities they support. This is mostly due to the speed with which pigs reproduce, and (compared to many other meat sources) how cheap they are to rear. However, the presence of domesticated pigs inevitably implies the presence of non-domesticated ones, either in the form of feral pigs or of the true originator species, Sus scrofa, the wild boar.

S. scrofa’s range stretches straight across the Four Realms from the westernmost regions of Arlen and North Arlen to the eastern Darthene seacoast, the Brightwood, and the Peakside borders of Steldin in the furthest southeast. Until the end of the Great War they were unknown in the lands the Ladha ranged south of the Highpeaks. But with the postwar changes in some of these regions’ terrain, and the beginnings of Ladhain migration into southern Arlen at the invitation of the returned King, this condition may well shift in decades to come.

The wild boar’s relationship with rural communities in the Kingdoms is routinely problematic to a greater or lesser degree. It helps that in Darthen and Arlen, wild boar populations are mostly kept under control by both the white and tan breeds of lion (Leo medioregna arlenis, Panthera leo). Bear, corkindrill, and other similar predators take their toll in northerly and southerly regions. So did Fyrd, when they were more common than they’ve since become in the wake of the restoration of the Arlene monarchy, and of the royal magics that operate to keep the Arlene-Darthene ecologies in balance. But in areas where predators’ presence (for good or ill) is less felt, wild boar are incredibly invasive and destructive of human agriculture. A single sounder of boar (boar, sow, five or six boarlets or more…) can devastate a whole cropland of part-grown vegetables, or completely destroy a long-established fruiting vineyard, in a matter of hours.

So it’s understandable that boar that get too close to the Kingdoms’ human habitations are enthusiastically hunted all year round. Meat sourced this way is prized and does not go to waste, even if farmers in a given area routinely raise their own pork. In fact there are regions where the wild boar is a major supplement of the winter-to-spring diet, adding fresh/uncured pork at a time when domesticated sows would naturally not be in farrow, and the only other pork available would be what had been cured by smoking or brining in the autumn.

There are literally thousands of recipes for wild boar across the Four Realms, and such a significant number of them begin with the local-language version of the phrase “First kill your pig…” that it’s fallen into general idiom—sort of a Middle Kingdoms version of the English-language saying about not counting your chickens until they’ve hatched. But beyond that initial similarity, the recipes differ wildly—a reflection of the fact that you’re never really going to be sure when you’ll have some wild boar; and (when you do, and after you’ve split it up with the hunter and your neighbors) there’s no telling what cut of meat (or indeed type of offal) you’re going to wind up with after the dust has settled.

Most well-known treatments for wild boar are therefore closer to “methods” than to our sort of tightly-delineated recipes—adjustable to account for how much cooking (and what kind) is required for the cut of pork you’ve got. The cook then concentrates on how to make the most out of the meat’s unique flavor, and boost or augment it with local seasonal produce.

The Steldene approach featured here is a favorite cold-weather dish in the southern part of the realm (though there’s also a warm-weather version), and quickly recognizable as such by inhabitants of the other three kingdoms. There would, after all, be people who’d say that the only fruit as much loved in Steldene cooking as whitefruit is “the red fruit”—which is to say, the berries of the rowan tree, Sorbus aucuparia (also known on our Earth as “service tree”, a straightforward corruption of Lat. sorbus, or “mountain ash”. Rowan is hardy and climate-forgiving enough to do well across most of its range in the Four Realms. But it thrives particularly well in the somewhat acidic and stony soils of the Steldene Highpeak regions. In the neighborhood of Dra’Mincarrath there are several fairly large forests made up almost exclusively of redfruit trees and those species of conifer (such as yew and cypress) that favor similarly acid soil.

Because so many of the ingredients in this dish can be hard to come by, we’re spinning a number of them off into their own tabs on this page. In this way, readers can deal separately with ingredients they can’t source locally, or need to fake, before coming back to the main recipes (see below).

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"...And the food was good, as Andaethen had promised. The wild boar in rowan brandy almost made [Herewiss] ruin his manners..."

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This recipe mostly flavors its pork, wild or domestic, with a combination of dried/reconstituted rowan berries, dried or fresh cranberries (close to the Steldene variant of Vaccinium oxococcos, which likes the same acid conditions that rowan does), and reconstituted prunes (on its home ground, these usually come from a congener of Prunus septentrionus x cerasifera, the “Northern plum”, a hybrid of the North Arlene damson and the Arlene myrobalan cherry-plum). Some other Steldene versions of this dish include reconstituted dried sour cherries (Prunus cerasus, a local variant of which is widespread along the eastern Darst south of Pherra). The rowan brandy serves as a finishing gracenote.

After a couple of hours of low-&-slow cooking with the fruits and some stock (or stock and marinade), the pork is removed to rest. The cooking sauce is then reduced and strained, some whole fruits being retained if desired for a final garnish. The dish is then finished with a local rowan-berry spirit (sometimes flamed first, but this is the cook’s call, and is more often done with the fresh-fruit summer versions of the dish) and thickened with several spoonsful of a rowanberry or apple jelly.

The dish is then normally served forth with a palette of side dishes featuring local dumpling types (some of them closely resembling German-style flour or semolina dumplings) and breads designed to help soak up the sweet-and-savory gravy.

When getting to grips with this dish, the (non-)availability of wild boar is routinely a frustration... especially when the species is so widespread (particularly in Europe). Even where it’s farmed, there are routinely complaints from purists that the people raising wild boar are hybridizing S. scrofa with domesticated “heritage” pig strains to make the species more tractable. So the question of “how wild is this boar, really?” keeps coming up, with its associated questions about whether the rich, dark, nutty quality of true wild boar meat is being compromised.

And where it’s not farmed—if it’s to be found at all—wild boar routinely has to be sourced from countries where it’s already loose in the environment and making enough of a nuisance of itself in agricultural areas that there’s no “closed season” on it. In such places, local hunters working as protection for local vineyards are readily able to sell any given day’s “bag” to local butchers, or even direct to restaurants in their area. (We were lucky enough to have some this way, years back, at a small rural inn in southwestern Germany's Kaiserstuhl. The inn's restaurant went so far as to specify on their menu, "Our hunter this week is Herr [X], and he has provided us with...". It turned out that the local licensed hunters' society deployed its members in rotation to protect the vineyards on which most of their area's business income depended. ...Anyway,  it was a memorable dinner.*)

For the cook who just can't get wild boar either through commercial channels or via the local (possibly "dark") economy, there’s not much choice but to fall back on regular pork. If good quality heritage pork such as Tamworth or similar is available, that would certainly be an excellent way to go. The recipe we’re discussing would work well with most “big” pork cuts such as rump, or smaller, finer ones like pork loin or fillet. Only the cooking times need to be varied.

There are many, many marinade recipes intended to help domestic pork taste like wild boar. This one is fairly simple and definitely gets the job done.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups red wine
  • 0.25 cup red wine vinegar
  • 4 chopped garlic cloves
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 crushed juniper berries
  • 6 crushed black peppercorns
  • 0.5 tsp salt

Directions

Combine all the above ingredients in a large nonreactive bowl.

Prick your chosen cut of pork well all over with a sharp fork or small sharp knife. Place it in the marinade and turn a few times to wet it all over: then cover the bowl and refrigerate it.

You should leave your pork in the marinade for at least 24 hours. 48 hours would be better still. (A quirk of local household timing meant we wound up leaving ours in the marinade for nearly three days, and it didn't hurt it a bit.) ...But however long you marinate the pork, make sure to turn it in the pork in the marinade every twelve to eighteen hours. 

When your chosen marinating period is done, remove the pork and dry it well all over; then allow it enough time to come up to room temperature before you begin cooking it. Reserve the marinade, as (if you choose to) you can use it in both versions of this recipe. (To get it ready for that process: strain it, and keep as much of the vegetable content as you like, for addition to the dish in its later stages.)

You might be tempted to use this marinade even if you've got real wild boar to work with. Go right ahead! It won’t hurt the pork, and will most likely deepen the flavor, not mask it.

Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) on the bough

The fruit of Sorbus aucuparia, the rowan tree (also often called "service tree", "mountain ash" and "quickbeam" in English), might easily enough be mistaken for holly berries by someone previously unfamiliar with them. The berries of the rowan grow in downhanging clusters that gradually come to fruit in the autumn—later, in warmer regions.

Rowan berries have a very tart, astringent, near-metallic flavor that (as @neilhimself has correctly suggested on Twitter) is sharply autumnal. Not everyone likes it at first encounter, but sweetening preparations in which it appears can make the flavor of rowan berry much more attractive. In any case, it has appeared in game cooking frequently over recent centuries.

When making this dish, rowan berry ideally comes into the cooking process in two different ways: as the berries themselves (fresh or dried) and as a spirit distilled from them.  Let's deal with the berries first.

Here and in the Kingdoms, people interested in using rowan berries for cooking usually start picking them late in the autumn or early in the winter (ideally, before the birds have eaten them all). After that the berries are usually either airdried or pickled for cooking purposes, where they're often used in game cookery in general or pork dishes featuring pork. (Other fruits are also routinely teamed with them, especially plums, cherries, and apricots.)

For this dish to turn out best, you need to have (at the very least) dried rowan berries. On its home turf the dish is preferably made with newly-picked rowan berries—ideally ones that have been through a frost or so, which improves their flavor, rendering them less sour and bitter. But whether they've been through frosts or not, the rowan berries are always well cooked either before going into the dish, or during its making. This is because the polysorbutic acid contained in fresh rowan berries is toxic. Heating converts this acid to sorbutic acid, and renders it safe.

Meanwhile, if you don't have access to fresh rowan berries, dried ones (which will normally have been heat-treated during their drying process, also rendering the polysorbutic acid safe) are readily available from such varied sources as health food stores, magical-goods suppliers, and (again) Amazon. They can easily be reconstituted with anything from hot water to hot wine, or in syrup, before adding to the dish. Or you may like to source a rowan berry jelly instead of the berries proper, and spare yourself having to deal with this issue at all. It's your call.

(When we cooked this dish for ourselves, we went for both options. We sent for dried rowan berries from an Etsy supplier in Greece. Then we made homemade apple-and-rowan jelly using the dried berries, and also sourced "rowanberry pot", a single-fruit jelly, from a local maker a couple of counties away from us in Ireland.)

At the distilling end—since, as with almost every other fruit on the planet, humans have made alcohol out of them—rowan berries are often distilled by themselves, or in combination with other fruits—again, plum and cherry being favored.)  See the "Rowan-berry Brandy" tab for more information.

First of all: the term "rowan-berry brandy" is a misnomer, more or less forced on us at the moment by the lack of a commonly used term for the kind of fruit distillate that this dish calls for.

To begin with, it's not at all sweet—so banish any thought of something similar to the "cherry brandy" available in some parts of North America. Rowan spirit is clear, highly alcoholic, and not sweet at all. It tastes intensely of nothing but rowan berry. ("Schnapps" would be a common enough casual name for this kind of alcohol, but I quickly found it impossible to discuss "Steldene rowan-berry schnapps" without running into repeated spells of cognitive dissonance. So there we are.)

...Anyway: as regards this ingredient, there are two basic ways to come at this problem: buy it or fake it.

Buying rowan-berry brandy (or indeed any rowan-berry spirit) is challenging, but not impossible. In Europe, a fair number of small distillers produceg it. The more exciting aspect of this situation, though, can be finding a distiller that will ship to wherever you are.

In this regard, we got lucky early. We managed to acquire a bottle of Vogelbeerengeist (the German word for rowan spirit, derived from one local dialect name, "bird berry") that's made by a northern Italian / Tyrolean firm called Pircher. While the distiller itself doesn't ship to us, after a little digging around we found a supplier in Sudtirol that carries a broad range of Pircher's products (and also ships EU-wide, which is nice).

Amazon also holds out some possibilities, such as this one.  Another interesting variant is this rowan berry gin (and frankly, what with the gin-culture craze for unusual botanicals, it's surprising it took this long for rowan to wind up in gin)... There is also a Styrian-made apple-and-rowan liqueur called, for some reason, "Soulfire."

And this is all very well. But there may come a point where you're just not that interested in sourcing an actual distillate, and would prefer to simply fake it. (And who could blame you!) Fortunately, faking it is pretty straightforward.

The best way to proceed is to reconstitute several tablespoons (at least) of rowan berries in some warm water). When they've softened a bit, drop them into a small container that will close tightly, fill the container with the spirit of your choice (brandy, whisky, vodka, gin...) and close it all up. Then put the container somewhere cool and quiet and (ideally) dark, and leave it there for a while. A week... a month. (Ours sat for two months at least, while we repeatedly tried to find locally-sourced wild boar, and failed.)

Over time the booze will acquire a surprising amount of the rowan berries' sharp, semi-metallic taste, as well as the color. (Which is why you may prefer using a clear spirit like gin or vodka rather than one like brandy or whisky that already has color of its own.)

When your faked rowan-berry spirit is ready (or you're ready to cook), pour it off and use it in one of the recipes as described. You can also use the booze-soaked berries in the recipe. (In fact, we recommend it). 

This is the "store-cupboard" version of the recipe, made with dried or otherwise preserved fruit during the months when no fresh fruit would be available. (There are parts of western Steldin and southeastern Darthen where brine-pickled fruit is popular, and sometimes makes an appearance in their local versions of this dish.)

Ingredients:

For 500g-1000g / approximately a pound to two pounds of pork fillet or pork loin:

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 0.25 cup dried cranberries or dried sour Morello cherries*
  • 0.25 cup prunes, chopped (leaving one or two whole for later garnishing purposes)*
  • *In both cases, if possible, previously soaked in 1/4 cup each of the spirit of your choice: ideally brandy, kirschwasser or a rowan spirit, but gin, whiskey or vodka would also be just fine. ...If you haven't had much time to do any soaking of dried fruit, microwave them with a little water for a minute or so (or dump a little boiling water on them to start them softening: then drain that off and add the spirit of your choice.) Also, fresh cranberries are just fine if dried ones aren't handy. Bear in mind that you may need to cook these a little longer to be sure they're tender at the end of the cooking process.
  • 2-3 tablespoons dried rowan berries (again, ideally soaked for as many hours or days as you can spare in the spirit of your choice: ideally a brandy, but grain-based spirits are okay too). If you can't source the berries, that's a pain, but don't sweat it: if you have a rowanberry-based spirit on hand, that will take up the slack. At the end of the cooking, just add a little more spirit to make up for the lack of the berries proper.
    • 1 liter / 1 quart pork or beef stock (and making this from a stock cube or similar preparation is just fine)
    • 4-5 crushed juniper berries
    • Enough lard or bacon fat (or butter if lard is hard to fine) to brown your pork
    • 0.25 cup rowanberry spirit
    • 2-4 tablespoons rowanberry preserve, apple-and-rowanberry jelly, or (lacking these) cranberry or apple jelly
    • Salt, fresh-ground pepper, [optional: ground long pepper,] 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons herbes de provence, and several grinds of ground allspice

Directions:

First of all: if you have been marinating your pork, remove it from the marinade, dry it well, and set the marinade aside for the moment. Whether or not you have omitted the marinade, carefully dry the meat and bring it to room temperature before starting to heat your cooking fats.

If you have soaked your dried fruits and/or your rowan berries in spirits, pour the spirit off and reserve it, and drain the fruits.

In a medium-sized stovetop-proof casserole with a tight-fitting lid, bring your fat (or fats) up to sautéeing heat and color the meat, turning to make sure all sides are colored. Remove the meat and set aside for the moment. Sauté the onion, garlic, dried/soaked fruits, and the drained rowan berries (or the dry ones if you haven't soaked them) for ten minutes or so on a medium heat, until the onions go translucent. Add the pork or beef stock, season it with as many / as much of the above spices as suits your preference, and bring to a boil. (If you have marinated your pork in the "fake wild boar marinade", add about half of that to the stock as well. Reserve the rest, as you will want it later either to top up the cooking stock, or to finish the sauce.)

Return the meat to the casserole and add (or remove) as much stock (and/or marinade) as is necessary for the stock to reach about halfway up the meat. Cover the casserole with a sheet of foil or baking parchment, lid it, and put it into a 150C / 300F "slow oven" for at least two hours.

Here you must start the business of keeping an eye on your particular cut of meat so that you can stop the cooking process when it seems best to you. Leaner cuts like fillet and loin will not need much more than two hours to cook through completely and be tender. Fattier and less tender cuts will take more time. While it's true that (Herself be thanked) it's hard to overcook pork, the less fatty cuts will act and taste drier if allowed to cook too long... so you need to keep a weather eye on them. Don't be afraid to check frequently, and to top up the stock (or stock-and-marinade] combination) to keep it about halfway up your meat. 

When you feel the meat is done enough for your preferences, remove the casserole from the oven and remove the meat to a platter to rest. Pour the stock[/marinade] into a bowl through a sieve. Return it to the casserole, put it on the stovetop, and bring it to a boil. Boil until reduced by between a third and a half. 

When it's reduced enough, lower the heat and add the rowanberry jelly (or apple-and-rowanberry jelly, or apple or cranberry jelly), and stir well until it dissolves. Bring the heat up a little and reduce the sauce further until it pours relatively thickly off a spoon. When it seems almost a little too thick, add the rowanberry spirit and any other reserved spirits, stir well, and reduce just a little more. Taste to check the seasonings, and correct them if necessary.

Return the meat to the casserole and allow it to simmer in the sauce at very low heat for ten minutes or so. Then remove from the heat and allow the meat to rest in the sauce for at least twenty minutes, turning once or twice.

Remove the meat and slice it into small serving portions. Arrange on a serving platter, garnish with whatever whole fruits you saved earlier in the process, and drizzle with the sauce: serve the remaining sauce in a gravy boat or similar vessel alongside. If you like, grate a bit of allspice (or you could also use nutmeg) and/or black pepper over the top of the meat.

In the Kingdoms they tend to serve this version of the dish with little rich dumplings, sometimes sweet ones. Small egg-and-butter farmhouse soup dumplings would also work well, as would the kind of soft suet dumpling the recipe for which appears on Atora suet packages. (Scroll down their front page to see it.) Otherwise: mashed potatoes (not available in the Kingdoms) would also work well to sop up the fabulous gravy.

Soft red wines, or full-bodied rosés, work well with this dish.

Enjoy!

In this summertime or early-autumnal version of the recipe, fresh fruit replaces most of the dried fruits of the original, although prunes are still included to add depth to the fresher flavor of the plums.

Ingredients:

For 500g-1000g / approximately a pound to two pounds of pork fillet or pork loin:

  • 4-6 fresh plums
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 0.5 cup prunes, half chopped, half left whole (for later garnishing purposes)*
  • *In both cases, if possible, previously soaked in 0.25 cup of the spirit of your choice: ideally brandy, kirschwasser or a rowan spirit, but gin, whiskey or vodka would also be just fine. ...If you haven't had much time to do any soaking of dried fruit, microwave them with a little water for a minute or so (or dump a little boiling water on them to start them softening: then drain that off and add the spirit of your choice.)
  • 2-3 tablespoons dried rowan berries (again, ideally soaked for as many hours or days as you can spare in the spirit of your choice: ideally a brandy, but grain-based spirits are okay too). If you can't source the berries, that's a pain, but don't sweat it: if you have a rowan-based spirit on hand, that will take up the slack. At the end of the cooking, just add a little more spirit to make up for the lack of the berries proper.
    • 1 liter / 1 quart pork or beef stock (and making this from a stock cube or similar preparation is just fine)
    • 4-5 crushed juniper berries
    • Enough lard or bacon fat (or butter if lard is hard to fine) to brown your pork
    • 0.25 cup rowanberry spirit
    • 2-4 tablespoons rowan-berry preserve, apple-and-rowan berry jelly, or (lacking these) cranberry or apple jelly
    • Salt, fresh-ground pepper, [optional: ground long pepper,] 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons herbes de provence, and several grinds of ground allspice

Directions:

If you have been marinating your pork, remove it from the marinade, dry it well, and set the marinade aside for the moment. Whether or not you have omitted the marinade, carefully dry the meat and bring it to room temperature before starting to heat your cooking fats.

Halve the plums and remove the pits. Slice the plums into quarters or sixths.

If you've soaked your prunes and/or your rowan berries in spirits, pour the spirit off and reserve it, and drain the fruits.

In a medium-sized stovetop-proof casserole with a tight-fitting lid, bring your fat (or fats) up to sautéeing heat and color the meat, turning to make sure all sides are colored. Remove the meat and set aside for the moment. Sauté the onion, garlic, sliced fresh fruits, prunes, and the drained rowan berries (or the dry ones if you haven't soaked them) for ten minutes or so on a medium heat, until the onions go translucent.

Add the pork or beef stock, season it with as many / as much of the above spices as suits your preference, and bring to a boil. (If you have marinated your pork in the "fake wild boar marinade", add about half of that to the stock as well. Reserve the rest, as you will want it later either to top up the cooking stock, or to finish the sauce.)

Return the meat to the casserole and add (or remove) as much stock (and/or marinade) as is necessary for the stock to reach about halfway up the meat. Cover the casserole with a sheet of foil or baking parchment, lid it, and put it into a 150C / 300F "slow oven" for at least two hours.

Here you must start the business of keeping an eye on your particular cut of meat so that you can stop the cooking process when it seems best to you. Leaner cuts like fillet and loin will not need much more than two hours to cook through completely and be tender. Fattier and less tender cuts will take more time. While it's true that (Herself be thanked) it's hard to overcook pork, the less fatty cuts will act and taste drier if allowed to cook too long... so you need to keep a weather eye on them. Don't be afraid to check frequently, and to top up the stock (or stock-and-marinade] combination) to keep it about halfway up your meat. 

When you feel the meat is done enough for your preferences, remove the casserole from the oven and remove the meat to a platter to rest. Pour the stock[/marinade] into a bowl through a sieve. Reserve the sauteed fruits and onions for the final stages of the dish.

Return the strained stock to the casserole, put it on the stovetop, and bring it to a boil. Boil until reduced by between a third and a half. 

When it's reduced enough, lower the heat and add the rowanberry jelly (or apple-and-rowanberry jelly, or apple or cranberry jelly), and stir well until it dissolves. Bring the heat up a little and reduce the sauce further until it pours relatively thickly off a spoon. When it seems almost a little too thick, add the rowan-berry spirit and any other reserved spirits, stir well, and reduce just a little more. Taste to check the seasonings, and correct them if necessary.

Return the meat and fruits/vegetables to the casserole and allow it to simmer in the sauce at very low heat for ten minutes or so. Then remove from the heat and allow the meat to rest in the sauce for at least twenty minutes, turning once or twice.

Remove the meat and slice it into small serving portions. Arrange on a serving platter, garnish with the reserved sautéed fruit and vegetables, and drizzle with the sauce: serve the remaining sauce in a gravy boat or similar vessel alongside. If you like, grate a bit of allspice (or you could also use nutmeg) and/or black pepper over the top of the meat.

Serve with roasted parsnips, buttered turnips, or other seasonal vegetables.

Soft red wines, or full-bodied rosés, work well with this dish.

Enjoy!