Tuesday, October 31, 2006

All Hallows Eve

To be perfectly honest I hadn't really thought about writing a post for Halloween, what with the kid being in Barcelona. Then I saw Asha's site - and I thought maybe I should. Then I thought, Asha's site is so damn fabulous that I will just tell everyone to go look at it, and wish they were a kid themselves again. Spook yourselves silly!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The best cooking apple in the WORLD!

This has been a great year for apples. Trees everywhere are laden with them and they litter the sides of the road in great golden heaps. I can never understand why the British just leave them there to rot – anywhere else in Europe this bounty would be snatched up and turned into something delicious.

Common Ground is a charity working to encourage people to value and enjoy their own familiar surroundings. As part of the Local Distinctiveness Campaign, Common Ground publishes books and leaflets about apples and co-ordinates National Apple Day in October.

It was great to see the enthusiasm with which people turned up at local orchards, bringing old varieties for identification, and admiring the number of apple varieties still being grown commercially in Somerset.

The tree in my garden has been producing huge fruits, with a rosy blush and red striations, which turned out to be a Bramley clone. Novice that I am, I thought Bramleys were always green and I got what can only be described as an old-fashioned look from the apple expert at the orchard.

The food lover’s romance with Bramley apples seems to be an on-off affair. There are times when nothing but an eating apple will do because it retains its shape when cooked, and there are times, and now seems to be one of them, when the frothy, foaming, explosive qualities of the Bramley are suddenly the flavour of the month.

The UK is the only country that grows apples especially for cooking. More than 140,000 tonnes (£78M) of Bramley apples are sold annually, with the fresh market (65%) still dominating supplies to the consumer.They contain high levels of malic acid and so remain tart and "appley" in flavour when cooked, unlike eating apples which tend to lose their natural flavour during cooking. This type of apple also contains more vitamin C than other varieties.

The history of Malus domestica - ‘Bramley's Seedling’ – is documented in a pub called The Bramley Apple in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.

In the garden of a nearby cottage in the year 1805, the lady of the house sat eating an apple. She enjoyed it so much that she set two or three pips in a plant pot. One seedling flourished and was planted in the garden. So began the life of an apple tree of great historical interest.

By the time Matthew Bramley purchased the cottage, in 1846, the tree was bearing a good crop of apples. One day, Henry Merryweather met a gardener carrying a basket of these apples. Asked where he had got them the gardener replied, “It is the Bramley’s apple; and a very fine one too.” Henry went to see Matthew who said that he had named the apple Bramley’s Seedling and agreed that Henry might take what grafts he liked.

The apple first appeared to have been exhibited in 1876 at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit Committee, where it was highly commended. While it may have been possible to count the apples that grew on that first tree, nobody knows the number of trees that have originated from the apple a lady of Southwell ate in the year of Trafalgar.”

So the Bramley is two hundred years old, and still the mainstay of apple pies throughout the country. In Somerset we use them to make a cake, Somerset Apple Cake. Of all the various recipes I think this one is the best:


For the cake:
225g/8oz Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced
½ tsp ground cinnamon
25g/1oz demerara sugar
350g/12oz self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
150g/5oz butter or margarine
150-170g/5-6oz caster sugar
2 eggs
120ml/8 tbsp milk

For the topping:
25g/1oz demerara sugar
pinch ground cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

2. Line 20cm/8in cake tin with baking parchment or greased greaseproof paper.

3. Blend cinnamon and demerara sugar and coat diced apple with mixture.

4. Sift flour and baking powder into mixing bowl.

5. Rub in butter or margarine, add caster sugar, beaten eggs, milk and apples.

6. Blend thoroughly then beat with a wooden spoon.

7. Spoon into a cake tin, spread flat on top and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.

8. Bake for approximately 1¼hours/75 minutes, or until firm to touch.

9. If the cake is becoming too brown on top, reduce heat to 160C/325F/Gas 3 after 1 hour.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

World Bread Day

I fear I have not been paying attention. I completely failed to notice that yesterday was World Bread Day. So I thought I would try and do some catching up. Hmmm. Easier said than done. The fresh yeast in the fridge was a little the worse for wear, but hey, what have we here? My goodness, it’s a Bread-in-a-Box kit.

Courtesy of IKEA, where the weird food is half the fun, this is a box containing the ingredients for what looks like my kind of wholegrain rye loaf. They include wheat flakes, rye flakes, various seeds, malt and dried yeast. And of course a couple of other things that may or may not be doubtful but I don’t have them in my larder. However I put my faith in IKEA.

Opening a Tetra Pak is always a bit of a challenge, but I did that successfully and poured in the requisite 20 ozs of water. That seemed rather a lot to me. Could they have meant to say fluid ozs? Do you know, I rather think they did. So now I have rye soup. I pour it into a big bowl and add about six or eight handfuls of wholemeal flour until it is the consistency of thick mud. The original instructions say to shake the contents for 45 seconds and empty the dough into the tin. Would that have made what I know as dough? Or would it have made a thick mud pie? Trying to deduct the extra water and compensate with extra flour is difficult when you don’t know how doughy the dough was supposed to be. I end up with not one but two tins full to the brim with mud pie.

Now the instructions say wait 45 mins for it to rise. But I have doubled the quantity of water, flour, dough and therefore halved the quantity of yeast so that may be 90 mins. If the dough rises at all it will dribble over the tops of the tins. I spend the morning running anxiously into the kitchen every ten minutes to see what it happening. After half an hour – absolutely nothing.

I read the instructions again and notice that the baking time, at 200ÂșC, is 60 mins. 60 mins – for a little tin like this? Maybe that’s to allow all the water time to evaporate. I wish I knew a bit more about chemistry. 45 secs shaking, no kneading. How is that going to make the whatsit molecules bind together and form gluten? If the raising agent was bicarbonate of soda, maybe. But it’s yeast. I’m baffled.

Another scoot into the kitchen to peer at the tins. Can’t see any difference. Not a micron.

Maybe the yeast has turned up its toes. What does the sell-by date say? 290607. So, still got a while to go then.

I start to bargain with myself –

“I’ll leave it for another half an hour and that’s tops. Then it goes in the oven. If it ends up as hot muesli I can have it for breakfast.”

“But suppose it boils, and billows up, and explodes all over the oven which I have just, as it happens, cleaned?”

(Exploding muesli – there’s a thought…)

“Surely the fierce heat will make a crust, and the mixture will be contained within it, so the worst that will happen is it will be a very soggy loaf.”

(Maybe the birds will like it…)

"But I want it to look like the picture on the packet. Ohhhh, bratwurst…"

The half an hour is up. No movement upwards, sideways, any way at all from the muddy mixture. Into the oven with you then.

(I wonder if this tale will have a happy ending?)

Well, not really. Looks like a brick, feels like a brick and tastes like – actually it tastes not bad, pretty stodgy and not enough salt but, if sliced thinly enough it might be good with smoked salmon…

Oh for goodness sake, who am I kidding?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Absolute Winners!

I like cheese. Or at least, I like cheese that tastes of something. One of my memories of France when I was on an early exchange is of the local cheese – Brie de Melun – and the way it was displayed in the shop. It sat on a little rattan or cane mat, fairly oozing. At dinner that night the smell was pungent. With a sheltered upbringing I always thought of rotting cauliflower, and after the steaming cauldron of ox’s heart that we had just been served I wondered about the wisdom of this runaway cheese. After a childhood of Dairylea triangles it was a bit of a challenge. But smeared on a crust of good French bread and in the mouth – what an explosion. Al dente rind, a slight whiff of ammonia in the nostrils, and the creamy curd, liquid in the centre…I can still taste it in my memory.

French cheese came to English supermarkets on the backs of English holidaymakers. Little cane boxes of Camembert which got deep fried and served with cranberry sauce for a while, strangely. And dreadful white chalky triangles that were specially made to taste of absolutely nothing. Then, as if this was not insult enough to Gallic culture, we ourselves started to make something we had the nerve to call Brie. I am despondent to say we attach the good name of Somerset to it, and call it Somerset Brie. It’s like eating a blotting paper sandwich filled with Dunlopillo.

So I stayed well away from English people purporting to make French cheese – leave it to the experts I thought.

And THEN I went to the Great British Cheese Festival in Cheltenham the other day. O frabjous day, kalloo, kallay! Simon and Carol Weaver’s organic farm is in the Cotswolds, halfway between Lower Slaughter and Lower Swell (really) and they make really wonderful, wonderful Brie. Brie lovers should moan with pleasure. I tried the plain Brie there and walked, well, skipped, off with a whole Blue Brie. There’s another one too with a mix of organic herbs. I didn’t know we could do this, and my heart is bursting with pride! The cheeses are eye-catchingly packaged, in classy white with a black and gold band.

And then, as luck would have it, there were quinces in the market. Fragrant, and with a
woolly fluff that wipes off, they seem to me to speak of the Middle Ages. Their golden warmth is like the last rays of summer, before we settle down to the russets and conker colours of autumn. Peel them and chop, with a very sharp knife because they are extremely firm, and put in acidulated water. And as I had wonderful cheese I made membrillo to eat with it.

Quince Paste (Membrillo)
2lb quince, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tsp cinammon

½ tsp salt

1.5lb sugar

Place the chopped quince and cinnamon in a preserving pan or large, wide stainless steel or lined aluminium saucepan.

Add the salt and pour in enough water to cover the chopped quince.

Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until t
he quince is tender.
In a food processor or blender process the quince mixture until completely smooth.
Return the quince puree to the pan and gradually add the sugar. Cook stirring over a low heat until the mixture thickens into a sticky paste and takes on a caramel colour.
Pour the quince paste into a lightly greased tray and let it cool and set.

I have left out timings because mine seemed to take much much longer than the original recipe. I didn’t quite have the courage to keep stirring until the colour was the rich dark caramel I was looking for, what with knowing it was about to burn on the bottom of the pan and having it spatter continually up my arm! So mine is a delicious rosy terracotta colour, not solid, but excellent all the same.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Barcelona for Beginners

I'm absolutely delighted to report the launch of Barcelona for Beginners, written by my wonderful daughter, currently residing in one of the coolest cities in Europe. Welcome to the blogerati, Sienna!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Tale of 12 Kitchens

Sometimes I look at the books about food and cooking that fill my shelves, and, knowing that they represent quite a small percentage of the vast number of volumes that have passed through my hands I ask myself why I chose to keep these few. Some, it is true, are recipe books, in the sense of being a list of recipes, ingredients, methods, divided into chapters on soups, meats, desserts etc. But in many the recipes are almost subservient to wonderful and passionate writing about food and colour and love. The secret inner adventure of planning a meal; the breath-quickening sashay through the aisles, eyes darting, mouth dry with hopeful anticipation; the moment when, cleaver in hand, the first downstroke of the preparation begins, like the start of a symphony. The whir and buzz and sizzle and blast of the cooking process that take me to a happy place of concentration where I only realise how long I have been standing on my feet when they start to protest. It’s lovely that other people enjoy what I have cooked; it’s wonderful to have that warm feeling of friends around a table with clinking glasses. I just hope they have got half as much out it as me, and the books that conjure these feelings are the ones I keep.

Jake Tilson’s book A Tale of 12 Kitchens. Family Cooking in Four Countries stokes the fires of an intense personal cooking experience like nothing I have read for ages. It is a book I didn’t want to reach the end of. Everything that we imagine in our culinary hearts is in this book. Everything that we remember from our youth, from our travels, from the clippings we hoard and the postcards friends send us, from celebrations, mistakes and triumphs, from the untried and the totally familiar.

Tilson is an artist and graphic designer; his wife is a ceramicist; his parents are artists. His life has been teeth-grindingly jealousy inducing – childhood surrounded by the artistic cream of a generation, a rambling country house with home produced beer and later regular trips to Tuscany where his parents settled. Sojourns in New York as a student and with his family, and the wild north of Scotland where his in-laws farm. Trips to the American desert with his wife and young daughter. The bare facts would be enough to fill a book, but everywhere he has been Tilson has collected food experiences and memories, recipes and packaging, memorabilia and produce.

In Italy he gathers the wild herbs of the maquis to cook with a duck, researches his recipes from a library of Italian cookbooks, makes fig conserves and lugs plane loads of local ingredients back to England. (In fact this latter, the importing of lavender from Italy, oatcakes from Aberdeen, chiles from Mexico, is a preoccupation. The two containers of vintage kitchen utensils from a shop in the Californian desert illustrate the obsession.)

In New York he celebrates the city and its amazing breakfasts in an homage that should have Woody Allen slapping his forehead. In Scotland the bakery culture is elevated to great art and the inclement tendency of the weather becomes a natural ingredient. In LA and Palm Springs we learn more about chiles than we are ever likely to need to know, and the Peckham area of London becomes a multicultural Aladdin’s gastrocave .

This book is a feast for the memory and the imagination and also for the eyes. Generously and impeccably illustrated by the author, even the typefaces and fonts are his own. (Some people give their publishers a manuscript; Tilson gave his publishers a Quark file.) And while the memories are undeniably his own, some of mine and some of yours are in there too somehow.

A Tale of 12 Kitchens. Family Cooking in Four Countries by Jake Tilson

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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