People who know me know that I talk balls a lot. Meatballs, that is! Why? Because I just love them. Who doesn't and can they be trusted? While I grudgingly allow that they probably can, I will keep looking askance at them when they offer any opinion…
The mighty meatball is so versatile – serve with pasta; in a curry; bobbing cheerily in a broth; grilled on sticks; in a tin; deep fried; steamed; roasted; barbecued; flattened; elongated – you name it.
The Americans have even managed to get them into a supremely messy sub sandwich. I reckon every nation has their take on them. It's a way of making something simple but delicious for rich and poor alike, using up chopped or minced cheaper cuts of meat and adding value and your own spin on them.
Meatballs have history. The Romans enjoyed them in many forms (as evidenced by the Roman cookbook of Apicius in the 1st century AD), and they probably got them from the Greeks who in turn may have snaffled the idea from the Persians. Doubtless a Cro-Magnon once sat wondering what to do with the tough cuts of mammoth he had left over after a particularly strenuous hunt and community butchering session. Almost certainly, I'm sure, he (or more likely, she) would have come up with meatballs.
I can recall with infantile amusement a pub menu in Suffolk that had a selection of medieval English dishes alongside its standard fish and chips and lasagne, which included 'pumpes of beef'. Fortunately this dish turned out to be spiced meatballs in wonderful gravy that were duly ordered and wolfed with gusto. From a side-on view I may have looked like an ostrich swallowing a succession of tennis balls such was my eagerness to devour such meaty delights.
It is surely no coincidence that meatballs, rather like convergent evolutionary traits, have come to the same point of development almost everywhere, give or take one or two backwater branches, and give or take a change in the herbs and spices here and there, across the globe… which it should be pointed out is meatball shaped!
From Scandinavia's frikadellen to Italy's polpette, the Greeks' keftédes, and Russia's kotleti and all points between in Europe; over to the Middle and Near East and their koftes and the sub-continent's koftas; China's lion's heads or wanzis, the gogi wanja of Korea, South America's various albondigas and the frikkadel of South Africa, you will find people chowing down on some version of a meatball.
Five billion people can't be wrong can they? After all, the hamburger is absolutely everywhere and that probably started as a meatball that someone dropped and accidentally stood on before invoking the five-second-rule and slapping it on the grill. It could have happened. I'd have eaten it.
I think I may there rest my case for the evangelists, m'lud.
On to the meat of it – the recipe!
So at the end of this rather relentless paean, I have a recipe that takes a quirky approach to making meatballs. I crushed and added ginger nut biscuits in place of the breadcrumbs to lighten the texture of the meatballs. When I first had this flavour combination I was dubious, worried about the sweetness it suggested, though the kitchen credentials of the lady who first made them for me were unimpeachable. A German, she called the dish Bavarian Meatballs so that is what I have done, but when I spoke to her about it recently she revealed that she got the recipe from some American ladies at a US Air Force base near her home town in the Pfalz, and that the recipe had about as much to do with Bavaria as I do (we won't mention my penchant for leather shorts and slapping).
Nevertheless, there was a gentle sweetly gingery spice to the dish that was delicious and not in the least overpowering. I have tweaked the recipe because in the version I was served it was the sauce that contained crushed ginger biscuits rather than the meatballs (a very Germanic thing with ginger biccies and lebkuchen), and I thought that the crumbs might be better off giving their flavour to the meat, acting as leavening, and I think I was right, big-headed as it sounds. It is a more subtle flavour than you think and very moreish, and the meatballs have a yielding quality when you bite into them that is very pleasurable.
- 150g minced pork
- 150g minced beef
- 5 ginger nut biscuits, crushed to a fine crumb (use more if you like, or use a tsp of ground ginger if that's your bag)
- 1 onion finely diced
- 1 clove garlic finely diced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 heaped tsp ground black pepper
- ½ tsp ground white pepper
- ½ tsp mixed spice
- 1 small egg, beaten
- 2 tbsp chopped chives
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- A good, thick and glossy onion gravy to serve, or if you prefer, a mushroom sauce
Over a low heat sauté the onions until softened and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool.
Put the minced meats, crushed ginger nuts, softened onion, 1 tablespoon of chives, garlic, spice, salt and peppers and the beaten egg in to a mixing bowl and amalgamate them thoroughly together.
With wet hands roll walnut sized balls of the mixture and put on a plate or tray and put in the fridge to set up for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a pan over a moderate heat and fry the meatballs until they are deeply golden all over, turning them regularly to get an even colouring. Put into a clean, warmed bowl.
Heat the onion gravy and pour it over the meatballs and gently manoeuvre them so that they are all nicely coated in the gravy. Serve scattered with the remaining tablespoon of chives (and with toothpicks), or straight onto a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. I like to add a tangle of shredded, steamed spring greens tossed with butter and toasted caraway seeds to go that extra Mittel-European mile.
Most of the reds in our Wine Without Fuss cases will match well with the Bavarian meatballs but I particularly recommend Pepp Weinviertel Blauer Zweigelt for its brightly juicy berry-fruit flavours and freshness which cuts through the gentle spice and succulence of the meatballs.
The cherry-fruited Avaniel, Ribera del Duero, the berry and spice licked Corse Rouge, Terra Nostra Niellucciu, and the riper, darker Meerlust Estate Red, Stellenbosch will all work very well indeed. For something denser and weightier but nonetheless vibrant, the Saint-Chinian, Château La Dournie has spice and fruit enough to embrace the meatiness and very gentle sweetness of the dish.
If you desire a white wine the dish is not so heavy, the beef being leavened by the pork, that it can't be done and you could do worse than give the Costières de Nîmes, Tradition Blanc, Mas des Bressades a try for its full flavours and bold texture, Three Terraces Marlborough Pinot Gris for its generosity of fruit to carry the soft spicing of the dish, similarly the peachy Atma White Malagousia and Xinomavro, Thymiopoulos. Finally, you could try the Esporão Monte Velho Branco, Alentejano for the savoury note in the depths of the ripe fruit and freshness.