William Skidelsky takes stock of stock

Stock-making is a dying art, and may soon cease to exist altogether

I have long believed that the mark of a truly committed chef, as opposed to a mere dilettante in the kitchen, is a preparedness to make stock regularly. Stock-making is not particularly difficult, but it does take time and a degree of attentiveness. To begin with, you have to do a certain amount of foraging for suitable animal remains - which, if you're the kind of person who believes that all shopping can be done at the supermarket, may necessitate a dramatic change in your habits. Then, once your stock is on the boil (or, more properly, on the simmer), regular skimming of the liquid is desirable - which again is not difficult, but is liable to test the patience of anyone who gets itchy feet at the prospect of standing over a stove for more than a minute. And what does all this effort go towards producing? Something that will not, in all probability, even be detectable in the finished dish, but will exist in the background as a mere trace or essence. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that most people can't be doing with home-made stock. What, after all, is the point?

To the true chef, however, questioning the point of stock-making is a bit like asking the Queen why she bothers to dress up in her crown and robes on ceremonial occasions. Cooking for such people is all about doing as much as it takes to ensure that the finished article is as good as it can be. For them, merely avoiding the possibility of that one note of artificiality in a soup, sauce or risotto is enough to justify the labour of stock-making. It's a decision based not on some utilitarian trade-off between effort and reward, but on principle and precedent. As it is safe to say that such people go against the grain of modern life, it's reasonable to assume that domestic stock-making is a dying art and may, one day soon, cease to exist altogether.

The degree to which this would be a tragedy depends on the quality of the available stock substitutes. A few years ago, supermarkets started stocking a bouillon concentrate called Benedicta's Touch of Taste, which was available in chicken, beef, fish and vegetable flavours, and was considerably better than any manufactured stock cube. But then it seemed to disappear. What happened? Who can tell? I just hope it wasn't lack of demand that did for it. What are the alternatives now? Marigold's vegetable bouillon powder is the best vegetable stock on offer, and I'd recommend it for most uses (if you are going to buy stock, it's generally safer to use vegetable than chicken or meat). Fish stock is more difficult: you can't really use vegetable stock in its place, and most manufactured fish stocks are terrible. If you're lucky enough to live near a branch of Carluccio's, however, they do an imported Italian fish-stock cube, which costs a ridiculous amount, but is excellent.

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