Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Blog...has gone to Barcelona

- and will tell you all about it when it gets back.

For the journey...

Back in the day, when in took about ten hours to drive from Scotland to London and there was a real chance you might break down on top of a fell in the middle of winter, we were always packed off with a flask of coffee and sandwiches with the crusts cut off and a slice of home made cake - for the journey. These days, with fast motorways and service stations, pit stops are a safety essential more than a sustenance issue, although the sustenance has improved out of all recognition lately. Some of the pit stops are turning into gourmet tourist destinations all by themselves, but that's for another post.

Tomorrow we are going on a little expedition. It involves getting up early and going to an airport. Airport sustenance is uniformly dreadful. Airline sustenance is criminal. I think we might need something for the journey.

I often imagine a little red checked kerchief on a stick, filled with goodies. This is one of the things that would be inside it.

Flakemeal shortbread
(In Northern Ireland they often call porridge oats flakemeal.)

Pre-heat oven to 325ºF 160ºC
6 ozs butter
41/2 ozs plain flour
3 ozs caster sugar
41/2 ozs flakemeal
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla essence
cold water to mix

Mix everything together with as little cold water as possible. Roll out to a thickness of 1/2". Prick all over with a fork. Mark out into fingers. Bake for about 1/2 hr until shortbread has coloured nicely.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hello boys!

Last week the drizzle fell softly and now and again the sun came out and by this last weekend the grass had grown by about a foot. The mower struggled valiantly and cut a heap of fresh green grass, which we emptied over the wall as usual into a big pile in the field on the other side. Look who came to the feast!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

St George's Day (and Shakespeare's birthday, and the Queen's eightieth, and the London Marathon...)

Gosh, quite a lot going on today.

Becks & Posh and Jam Faced are having a historic pudding event today, about English desserts. Not British, or Irish, Welsh or Scottish. Not French. Not Thai.

A bit more of a challenge than I realised actually. Traditional English desserts, well, puds, tend to fall either into the Eccles cake category - dried fruit and pastry - or the stodge and custard category - great if you have to run up and down a hockey pitch or play rugby. Each has its charm but not quite enough of it for me. It was Careme and co who brought light confections of sugar and cream to the English table, but no French puds allowed. Hmmm. What else did we used to eat that I actually loved? Ah ha! FOOL! Gooseberry fool is the best, but rhubarb runs it a close second. And rhubarb is in season. And clotted cream is never out of season. And we have excellent local cider. Hence my dessert for St George, which would not lie heavy on his tummy before he has to go out a-rescuing maidens from dragons.

Clotted Cream Rhubarb Fool with Cider Syrup.

Make a custard with

1/4 pint milk (scalded); mix 1 tsp arrowroot into three egg yolks and add to milk. Bring very slowly back to the boil, stirring constantly, and simmer until thick. Let cool a little and add two big spoonfuls of clotted cream. Mix until smooth.

Cook four sticks of rhubarb with a very little water and sugar to taste until soft but not destroyed. Drain liquid and reserve. Add half of rhubarb to custard.

Dissolve 1 tsp gelatine in reserved rhubarb juice and add to custard mixture. Fill moulds. Chill until set.

Make a syrup with dry cider and demarara sugar. Add to remaining rhubarb.

Any remaining clotted cream can be served on the side.

The colours are lovely on a spring day, pale primrose and rosy pink. The rhubarb has a fresh acidity balanced by the strong apple cider syrup. I think it makes a wonderfully refreshing end to a meal.

Should I mention that the word 'fool' comes from the French 'fou' or 'folle', as in trifle? Probably best not...

Friday, April 21, 2006

Montgomery's Cheddar

I was in the town of Somerton yesterday, not far from Glastonbury. There’s a very good delicatessen there called Emma B (+44 1458 273444) that sells a really good selection of local cheeses. The one that caught my eye immediately was Montgomery’s Cheddar. James Montgomery from Manor Farm, North Cadbury, Nr Yeovil makes a cheese that is regularly judged the best in the country, and recently the world.

Cheddar itself, with its limestone caves, and its awe inspiring gorge formed by the release of glacial meltwater after the last ice age, is also in Somerset, but some thirty miles north of Yeovil. Any cheese that is made by the ‘cheddaring’ process, where the curd is cut into large strips, and then turned by hand to allow the last remnants of whey to drain away, can be called Cheddar. But the best Cheddar comes from Somerset, and the best Somerset Cheddar is from James Montgomery.

His cheese is made from unpasteurised milk from his Friesian cows and he uses the same cultures that his family has worked with for over seventy years.

There’s a bit of conflict going on about the use of unpasteurised milk in cheese making, ever since a scare several years ago about the listeria bacterium L. monocytogenes.

L monocytogenes is widespread in the environment. It can be found in soil, dust, mud, vegetation, silage, sewage and most of the animals that have been tested. It has been found in up to five per cent or more of normal healthy people usually in the gut. For this reason exposure to this bacterium is unavoidable. It’s everywhere, including the organic salads we eat, and it has the unusual characteristic of being able to grow, albeit slowly, at temperatures as low as 0oC. So refrigeration does not kill it. It can cause a variety of infections ranging from minor chills to serious illness, affecting pregnant women, infants, and people whose immune response is compromised, but commonly only affects 1-3 cases per million of the population per year. Soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert and blue veined cheeses seem to be most suspect, and hard cheeses like Cheddar have given less cause for concern.

Cheese made with care and with due consideration for hygiene should never cause problems, but the cautious areas of government would prefer all milk for cheese to be pasteurised. This involves heating the milk to 72 degrees for 15 seconds and effectively kills off any lurking bacteria.

This also suits the producers of bland, soap-like slab cheese that line the supermarket shelves because large cheese producers, selling to the mass market, are interested in shelf life, price and, above all, uniformity of flavour, and that uniformity is what pasteurisation gives to the cheese. The artisan cheese maker, on the other hand, is interested in preserving the flavour given to him by the elements which make up his milk. The breed of animal, its age and feeding routine, good hygiene, the soil and the season all have a bearing on the quality and flavour of the milk. The artisan cheese maker does not try to standardise those elements and, as a result, he can produce a cheese with character which is full of flavour. He knows that to blend the milk and, in particular, to pasteurise it, destroys many of the elements which give the cheese its unique character.

This may not matter to you if what you want is some dairy protein for a sandwich or a cooking ingredient, but if you want a cheese to savour on its own the complexity of the flavours of the unpasteurised version opens up a whole new palette of tastes. Montgomery’s Cheddar has clean balanced acid flavours, with the pronounced nuttiness of aged Cheddar, rounded and full. A perfect English cheese.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Zephyr of roasted tomatoes

I'm not posting this because I think anyone wants to know how to roast tomatoes in the oven with garlic and parsley and olive oil, but just to remind them of the fantastic scent that wafts through the house when they are cooking. It winds through all the rooms and drifts past your questing nostrils and makes you remember good meals. Who could not be stirred by that smell? It reminds me of being in France in the middle of a hot July day and sniffing the air as I passed by open windows where lunch was cooking. Hot food on a hot day. Tomatoes and garlic and herbs. Mmmmm.

As they cool down to the room temperature at which I want them they will collapse slightly, so it's best to remember that and take them out of the oven while they still have a good shape. I am serving them with cold roast lamb, the remains of the boned and stuffed leg of lamb we had for Sunday lunch. The lamb was wonderful, from
The Somerset Meat Company, which sells locally reared 'stress free' meat. The lamb pretty much gambolled along the road and on to my table.

Fruit (well, fish) of labour

The gravadlax turned out really well I'm delighted to say. It sat in the fridge happily for three days following its briny vodka bath and came out firm and fresh. When I tasted a morsel I thought it might be a bit salty, but it was just right. I think the salty taste was just near the surface. The dill flavour was subtle and not overwhelming and of course as vodka doesn't taste of anything at all there was no taste of the alcohol. I think it would be interesting with one of the flavoured spirits - one could even get quite adventurous. Gin and juniper berries would be good I would think...

I served it with a choice of dill mustard or wasabi. The wasabi made the eyes water but a tiny touch was good with the fish in a sashimi sort of way. Personally I think I prefer the hint of sweetness from the dill sauce.

Anyway, the whole side disappeared and it was, in the end, a very easy start to a long lunch.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Happy Easter everyone!

Today the skies cleared and the sun shone and we all felt uplifted. We blew eggs and painted them. It turns out I am very bad at this. My daughter, on the other hand, is very good at this.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Gravadlax for Easter 3

I took the salmon out of the fridge this morning and it is coming along nicely. It had given out more liquid during the night and still smelt fresh and clean. It is flatter (not surprisingly) and denser, as the flesh contracts to account for the lost liquid. I cut off a small piece near the tail to taste. A rather overwhelming taste of pepper. (Have adjusted original recipe in previous post accordingly.) Rinsed off both fillets under the tap and got rid of the brine completely. Dried the fish very carefully before salting again and adding a big splosh of vodka. Strewed more chopped dill over one fillet and placed t'other over it. Wrapped in clingfilm and put back in fridge with weight for about six hours.

When I took it out again later and tasted I was pleased with the result. I discarded the resultant brine and blotted the fillets, then wrapped them tightly in clingfilm and then tinfoil and have left them to mature for a couple of days in the fridge. Had no difficulty finding the wasabi in Bath, and there was a little sourdough rye loaf in the market, so that's our first course. I am determined that this feast day is going to have less mad frantic last minute cooking involved than usual!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gravadlax for Easter 2

Here's what the salmon looks like today. I left it in the fridge overnight, under a weight. Today it has given up a fair amount of liquid. It smells cold and clean, not fishy at all. I basted the fillets with the brine and turned them over. Now they are back in the chiller under a brick. I think it's going quite well.

I have drawn a bit of a blank on the wasabi front and will have to venture further afield. In my local supermarket they sell seaweed sheets, but no wasabi. Very strange. Well no, not in Somerset actually.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Gravadlax for Easter

Easter arrives at the end of this week and Easter Sunday is a feast day. We will start lunch with a side of cured salmon and the process began today.

Once you have your salmon fillets you have to remove the pinbones. You really need tweezers for this and it is indeed one of those culinary labours of love. You know that if you don’t do your best your daughter will be the one that gets the bones – she always gets the bones, or the shot, or, with a bit of luck, the sixpence in the Christmas Pudding.
If you feel along between the backbone and the edge of the fillet, on the thick side, your fingers will find the little sharp bones and you can pull them out with the tweezers.


2 salmon fillets
100g salt
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp white pepper
4 tsp allspice
4 tbsp vodka (or brandy, or gin)
2 bunches dill - chopped

Take out the pinbones from the salmon as above. Mix all the other ingredients except the dill.
Strew the base of a glass or ceramic dish with dill, lay the first fillet on top and rub well with the brine mixture. Strew more dill on top and repeat process with second fillet, laying it on top of the first in the opposite direction. Scatter remaining dill over all.

Cover everything with plastic wrap, not aluminium foil, put a board on top and weight down. Refrigerate for two or three days, turning regularly and basting with the brine. Taste at end of second day and if the fish is bland increase the salt/vodka.

Finally, pour off the brine and either use the cured salmon or refrigerate until needed – the fish will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

You could serve this with dill mustard sauce, but I was thinking wasabi.

I’ll let you know how it comes along.

Monday, April 10, 2006


The first broad beans were in the shops today, tiny little things whispering the change of season. When I saw how far they had travelled I was a bit shocked, but by then it was too late. The sage bush is putting out new leaves too, and broad beans and sage go together like, well, broad beans and sage.

Cook the beans in boiling salted water for about 6 minutes. Refresh under cold running water and then slip off their skins. This is the best bit - it reminds me of popping bubble wrap! Out slide the bright green beans with their startling colour. Chop some sage and warm through with a squashed clove of garlic in some olive oil - don't let it do more than heat gently. Pour the oil and sage over the beans, leaving the garlic behind. Serve either warm, or chilled as an hors d'oeuvre or as part of a salad.

Friday, April 07, 2006


What an absolute delight it is when you make something for the first time and it turns out exactly the way it should! My daughter loves Tuscan cantuccini, those twice-baked jaw-breaking Italian biscuits that you dip into vin santo. I found a couple of recipes, each making more than I needed, so this is my own version. It relates to the size of the bag of whole almonds – size it up or down depending on how many almonds you have.

2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
200g caster sugar
250g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
100g whole, peeled almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 whole egg and both egg yolks with the vanilla and salt, and beat thoroughly. Add the sugar and whisk until fully incorporated. Sift together flour and baking powder, and add in stages to mixing bowl until you have a firm dough. Incorporate the almonds evenly. Set aside to rest for 10 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide the dough into two portions, and form each into a baguette-shaped loaf two inches wide on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until outside is hard and beginning to brown. Meanwhile, beat the remaining egg with a few drops of water. Remove the loaves from the oven but leave the oven on. Brush the loaves with the egg wash and sprinkle them with sugar. Cut them into diagonal slices about 3/4 inch thick, space them out on the baking sheet, and return the sheet to the oven for 10 – 15 minutes or until completely dry and golden brown at the edges. Cool completely on a rack. Makes about 20.

These store well in airtight containers, or in cellophane bags for presents.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ramsay's risotto

I have a very good friend that I don’t get to see very much, because he lives at the other end of the country. We chat on the phone about food and life. He has an allotment – I would love to have an allotment, but my Parish Council doesn’t own any. (Apparently there’s a very old law that states that if 6 people want allotments the council has to provide them, so I’m working on it.)

As the growing season gets into gear I am getting bulletins from my friend about the state of his seedlings and the warmth of the soil, and yesterday he sent me a parcel of wonderful Jerusalem artichokes, of which he has a glut.

Jerusalem artichokes are the root of the sunflower (girasol = Jerusalem) and are often known as sunchokes to distinguish them from the other thistly kind. Here’s what he has to say about them:

“Jerusalem artichokes (the ones you have are called Fuseau) are a very underrated vegetable. They are really easy and trouble free to grow. They have almost no natural predators and are generally disease free. They multiply year on year and will take over your garden if you’re not careful.

Plant in March; if you want large tubers enrich the soil with manure/compost and plant the tubers 5 inches deep and about 18 inches apart. The plants grow to about six feet so may need some support otherwise do nothing except begin to dig up in October till February.

Prepare and cook like potatoes (when peeled or scraped they should be placed in water with some lemon or vinegar as the flesh discolours quickly). They can be boiled baked flaked just like spuds but they have a distinctive nutty taste. They make excellent soup - very creamy so don't add strong stock or cream as some of the celeb chefs suggest.”

(I’m going to try and get him to write a regular allotment bulletin for this blog so we can all stay in touch with the soil.)

Meanwhile, here’s a signature dish from one celebrity chef, the great Gordon Ramsay. (I considered leaving out the scallops, but just the thought of the mighty Ramsay, ex football player for Glasgow Rangers, bearing down upon me made me change my mind…but I did leave out the truffle) Take a look at the menu from his Claridge’s restaurant and salivate – even if they don’t know how to spell radish!

Jerusalem artichoke risotto with scallops
Serves 2
Olive oil
200g risotto rice
500ml hot chicken stock
200g Jerusalem artichokes, washed and sliced
100g butter
100ml cream
25g parmesan cheese,
grated Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 large scallops, sliced
50g sugar
50ml sherry vinegar

1 Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, add the rice, and stir for 2-3 minutes so the rice absorbs the oil. Add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly, until it has all been absorbed and the rice is cooked - around 25-30 minutes.
2 Meanwhile, cook the artichokes in 50g of the butter until soft. Add the cream. Reduce down until the cream has almost evaporated and the artichokes are velvety in texture, stirring every now and then to make sure it’s not catching on the bottom of the pan. Purée in a food processor. Mix the artichoke purée into the rice and add the remaining 50g of butter and the parmesan. Check for seasoning.
3 Slice each scallop into three pieces and sauté in hot oil for 1 minute on each side until they’re medium-rare. Place on top of the risotto. In a heavy-based pan, heat the sugar until it’s a dark golden colour. Carefully add the sherry vinegar and reduce until you have a thick syrup. Drizzle this over the risotto, and serve.

from Kitchen Heaven by Gordon Ramsay

When I was making this I really did feel like I was working in a restaurant kitchen – everything happens at once and you use every pan you own. The sink stacks up with pots and pans and wooden spoons. I forgot to heat the plates. I forgot the parmesan (which I think would have given the missing salty taste), and I would not like to cook this for six people. It’s good though, and the sherry caramel is a real surprise.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A toast to Toast

Lindy, who lives in Pittsburgh, has a blog called Toast, and when she was in Somerset last year she noticed this 'intriguing cookshop' which was unfortunately closed. Well today it was open (actually it's very rarely closed) and its manager, Sally, is sorry she missed you Lindy! Kitchenmonger is at 17 Market Place, Wells, Somerset, or telephone +44 1749 676044. And they have everything.

Toast has just hosted a 'Something out of Nothing' event which has been a spectacular success, due to the hard work put in by Lindy. Do check out the recipes for skint wallets and empty larders, there are some wonderful treats.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

(Not) exploding fish

This was the extraordinary headline in my newspaper yesterday. I checked the date - April 3, not April 1 - and then I checked out the source, one Jan Lindqvist, and he definitely exists. So I guess it is true. The Swedes are banning surstromming (fermented herring) from the shops at Arlanda airport in Stockholm because they are concerned that the swollen tins of the delicacy may explode mid flight and shower their pungent and noxious contents all over passengers.

Fermented herring bombs? As if air travel isn't scary enough...

But it was a very good excuse to head off to IKEA and make some enquiries.

(I don't have to tell you that I got a bit side tracked in the Big Blue Box. I found these excellent storage jars and some really good value zipped hanging bags for clothes. But I digress.)

In the Swedish food department I enquired about fermented herring. The Bristolian ladies had never heard of it. But they did offer me at least six other kinds of herring and I bought some with dill.

I also bought: Cloudberry jam, rye crispbread (loved the packaging), tinned anchovies, elderflower drink, lingonberry drink, elderflower cordial, oh and a bottle of swedish vodka (to put the elderflower cordial in, apparently).

But, sadly, no exploding fish.

Monday, April 03, 2006


We had so little rain over the winter that the South East of England is subject to hose pipe bans - no washing your car in the driveway, water the plants with the bath water. This is notwithstanding the fact that last week most of the Atlantic dumped itself on this little island - the West Country was practically washed away and there were flood alerts in South Wales. Then the sun came out and, overnight it seemed, the world turned yellow. The daffodils that had been lurking in the hedgerows gathered confidence and burst into bloom, white narcissi with orange eyes nod in the borders, huge yellow tulips with black centres, and the primroses - ahhh, my favourites.

Does anyone make lemon curd? I was going to buy some from an expensive shop, but it looked terribly anaemic and I thought it can't be that difficult. It isn't. Why have I never done this before? This recipe makes two jars of curd - which is quite enough as it has to live in the fridge and won't last forever - and when you open the fridge door the blast of colour almost hurts your eyes.

From "Mrs Beeton's all about Cookery" (1963) 'Designed to bring Mrs Beeton to the economic level of young housewives and mothers of larger families who have to watch their shopping allowance'

3 eggs

3oz butter
8oz sugar
rind and juice of 2 lemons

Whisk the eggs and put into a basin with the butter, sugar, finely-grated lemon rind and the juice. Place the basin over a pan of boiling water, stir until the mixture is thick and smooth. Pour into clean, warm jars and cover.

This makes a wonderful rich curd, the consistency of very thick cream. It has a sharp acid bite and a luxurious sweetness. I use it on its own, or as a flavouring for cheesecake, or as a filling for lemon meringue pie etc etc.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Yesterday I wrote about the little city of Wells and its bustling market. I should also mention that it has a quantity of great charity shops. In one of these I found a potato ricer. An Austrian lady beside me said "Excellent buy - they make vunderful potato cakes".

When checking out potato ricers elsewhere I came across this fantastic picture of Julia Child and her potato ricer - " the potato goes in and you go schoooom and out she comes!"

I come originally from Northern Ireland, and our potato cakes are called "farls", because they are shaped as quarters of a round when baked on a griddle. ("Farl" comes from the Scots "fardel", which means a fourth of something.) Potato farls are a vital constituent of the famous Ulster Fry, essential if you are about to spend all day cutting peat in a bog...

You don't really need a recipe for potato farls, but it goes something like this

2 lb/ 1 kg/ 2 cups freshly mashed potatoes
4 oz/ 125 g/ 1 cup plain flour
2 tbsp butter
Mix the butter into the potatoes with the salt. Work in the flour quickly but thoroughly and knead lightly. Divide in two and roll out each half on a floured board to form a circle about the size of a large dinner plate. Cut in quarters (farls) and cook for about 3 minutes on each side on a griddle or in a heavy frying pan in a little bacon fat.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

To market...for beetroot

Wells Market on a Saturday positively buzzes. Wells is technically a city because it has a cathedral, but it is more like a town on account of its tiny size. In these dark rainswept winter days the vegetable choice is confined to roots, which I do like,
and today my thoughts turned to jewel-like beetroots. Large beetroot take an age to cook, but little ones take no time at all.

But before I made it to the vegetables I lingered at the stall of Bruno, from Préaux in France, who sells cheese and paté and the most unctuous goose rillettes.

Then on to the beetroot, and fresh flat leaf parsley, and a big bunch of daffodils for the study window. After lunch (rillettes and toast - the toast made from the billowing dough from yesterday which amazingly made the best loaf ever) I turned the oven up high, chopped all but a tuft off the beetroot, put them in a dish with a little water and covered the dish with tinfoil. Into the oven for an hour while I write this.

After about an hour they can be pierced easily with a sharp knife. Leave them to cool a little and, while still warm, pour over some red wine or balsamic vinegar, maybe a little olive oil and herbs, perhaps some pine nuts, and serve with wild rocket and goats cheese. The little ruby baby beets are sweet and almost crunchy, the white goats cheese is tart and creamy, it's a lovely supper dish or a starter to give the appetite an edge.

Only thing I would add is don't do any of this on any surface that the juice will stain, but I bet you knew that.

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