Monday, December 03, 2007


I was invited to Estonia recently. My mate Marny is a tutor in European Rural Tourism at nearby Radstock College and she asked me along to do a workshop with a local food network in South Eastern Estonia. Near the Russian border. A place called Voru. Once you’ve found Estonia on a map, and then find Voru, you discover it’s actually nearer to Riga in Latvia than to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. And you can now fly direct to Riga from Bristol Airport. So off we went.

As we drove towards Voru through the flat birch wood countryside the snow started to fall, lightly at first and then more thickly. By the time we reached our destination it was a foot deep. In Estonia they don’t grit the roads, or sweep the snow from them. The cars just have snow tyres with studs in them. For some reason our car didn’t have snow tyres and we tobogganed our way down the country roads at the end of the journey.

The workshops were held in a log cabin, well equipped technically and cosy – they do know how to do cold. It perched above a freezing lake, the ice growing as we watched. We had about sixteen participants, all involved in local tourism and interested in food.

It’s hard to know what to tell such people. In this part of the world we are all eschewing processed foods and buying locally. Even, heaven forbid, actually growing some of our own vegetables. Local food festivals are multiplying, there are farm shops everywhere, and each town has its own farmers’ market. But isn’t that what they have been doing for centuries in Estonia?

Well, no, surprisingly. Which is when you realise what being under the heel of the Russians, then the Nazis, then the Soviets does to the character of a nation. Estonia was a sovereign country for only a couple of decades in the early part of the twentieth century. For the rest of the time, until 1991, it was part of somebody else’s hegemony. So, apart from the regional costumes and the national pastime of choral singing they have hardly any traditions left.

We ate good black bread, made locally from rye, and sometimes it had raisins in it. Main courses were invariably pork and potatoes. The local supermarkets were well stocked, with oranges from Spain and the usual range of vegetables. I liked the vodka a lot, also made from rye. It was smooth and faintly fruity. Local beers included one with honey. The wine was called Old Tbilisi and it was recommended but I gave it a miss!

We took with us the pride of Somerset – West Country Farmhouse Cheddar from Westcombe Dairy – see previous post. We also took some chutney, Real Ale chutney. Some translating problems with the words Real Ale, never mind chutney. It’s amazing what you take for granted about your own culture.

In return they gave us goats’ cheese, a multiplicity of grains including spelt, and some wonderful berry products, juiced and dried, from the virgin woods and forests of Estonia. Had it not been for the whiteout we would have foraged further.

As the bargain airlines fly planeloads of hen and stag parties ever further into foreign territory, places like Voru – quiet oases of peace and solitude – will have their chance to bid for tourists who don’t want to party all night. I’m just not quite sure how you tell the difference between all these new arrivals on our eastern horizons.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Westcombe Cheddar

Anyone can make Cheddar. The word ‘cheddaring’ describes the process of cutting and turning the curd. There’s a place in Somerset that is called Cheddar, but cheddar cheese is made all over the world.

However, the best Cheddar is West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, which is a PDO (Product of Designated Origin) recognised by the EU, and to meet this standard the cheese must be made in the traditional manner using local ingredients in one of the 4 designated counties of SW England: Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall.

Westcombe Dairy in Somerset produces one of the three great West Country Farmhouse Cheddars, recognised by Slow Food and part of a distinguished Presidium, Slow Food’s mark of quality.

The little village of Westcombe is tiny and rural and cheese has been made there since 1890. The fortunes of cheesemakers have fluctuated over the years, and fashion suggested for a while that block cheddar was the way to go, but lately the Calver family has returned to the big cloth wrapped rounds that are the traditional cheddar shape, and the cheese is flying out the door.

Richard Calver owns the farm, and things really picked up when Tom, his son, came back to Somerset after training as a chef with Prue Leith. Together with the cheesemaker, Bob Bramley, they are making cheddar of an exceptional quality. The milk, from herds grazing locally, is unpasteurised. The cows are fed on grass in the summer and in the winter 85% of their diet is grown on the farm.

Cheese is a truly ancient food. Milk has always turned sour, but at some point in history artisans deliberately caused milk to coagulate, and when the resulting product was particularly successful samples of the original starter were handed on to other dairies. For a long time all cheese was made from these starter cultures - wild, adventitious bacteria present in the milk, probably from vegetation, that grew and produced acid as they consumed the lactose in the milk. This acid aided the action of rennet in the coagulation of the curds and gave the product flavour, structure and longevity.

With modern production methods, particularly the demand for standard and repeatable flavours and textures, nearly all cheese is now made with the addition of a dose of freeze dried or deep-frozen culture, straight from the packet. It’s a ‘use once only’ product – you can’t hand on a sample of the culture to start off another batch of cheese – and the cell numbers are concentrated by filtration or centrifugation. Only a small proportion of the lactic acid bacteria is robust enough to survive this treatment.

Five miles away from Westcombe is Ditcheat, where the Barber family has a big cheesemaking operation. They were dismayed to realise that the old traditional Cheddar cheese starter cultures were in danger of dying out, superseded by direct inoculation cultures. They determined to do what they could to save them and now all the great West Country cheesemakers use these traditional starter cultures to make their cheese.

Nothing is easy though; there are good bacteria, which are to be encouraged, and there are bad bacteria, known as ‘phages, which, if not controlled, will overwhelm the good bacteria and spoil the cheese. All cheesemakers are constantly on the lookout for the point at which the ‘phages start to get the upper hand. The price of your after-dinner treat is constant vigilance.

After the rennet and the curds and the whey and the cheddaring and the milling and the salting comes the moulding of the cheese, which is then pressed, sealed with lard and wrapped in cloth before being pressed one last time and stored.

At Westcombe they make 18-20 cheeses a day, 5 days a week, with family friendly sociable hours. The big rounds will be matured for up to 18 months, tested from time to time by plunging a cheese iron into their centres, and checked for flavour and acidity. You never quite know when a cheese will be ready – it just takes as long as it takes. Typical Westcombe cheeses will display a rounded sweetness with a good long finish and perhaps a hint of butterscotch.

They sell as many as they make, and if you want to watch one of their cheeses maturing you can do so at You can watch a timelapse video of the life of the cheese; and so far over 1,600,000 people have checked its progress!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Quince and Pheasant

This time last year there were quince in the market, small versions of the big French ones you can sometimes buy, and I bought them and made an effort at membrillo. The fruits were hard, difficult to peel, impossible to core and chop, and splashes of boiling conserve kept stinging my forearm as I stirred the paste. It was sort of ok, a mellow terracotta colour, but not great.

This year someone gave me a whole bag of little quince from their tree. They don’t look at all like the usual fruit and, small and knobbly, I knew there would be nothing left if I started in to peel, core, etc. So I put them in the pan whole, half covered with water on a low heat and, knowing it would take ages for them to soften, went about my business elsewhere. Less than half an hour later the house was filling with a rich perfume and I bounded into the kitchen to find the whole fruits blossoming soft in a reducing liquid. I put them through a sieve, leaving behind the pips and the skins and the gritty bits that feel like toe nail clippings, and found I had a wonderful sunny puree. As I hadn’t added anything to the poaching liquid I added sugar to taste, and some lemon juice, which may preserve the colour, or may not, I don’t know.

I’m amazed. This puree is tart and fruity and would make a lovely sorbet, or a stunning ice cream, or a filling for little tiny tartlets, or…just about anything. But tonight it is going to add zing to a newly shot pheasant (mind your fillings).

The pheasant recipe is embarrassingly easy:

Preheat the oven to 200ºC

Liberally cover the base of a shallow, lidded casserole dish with olive oil, herbs (fresh or dried, but lots) and seasoning.
Half or quarter some waxy potatoes and turn them in the oil.
Joint your pheasant, musing on how you might have been a damn good surgeon.
Season the joints and place on top of the potatoes.
Chop an onion roughly, chop a couple of cloves of garlic finely, scatter over pheasant.
Season again, add more herbs, splash on some more oil.
Cover and cook in the oven for an hour.
Uncover for last ten minutes to allow to brown.

Serve with something green and a spoonful of the fabulous quince puree.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Doy Bags

I read about this collective of women in the Philippines, and when I saw their website I was immediately taken with what they do. They collect and recycle the plastic drinks sachets that are so popular in Asia, the non-biodegradable foil and plastic packaging that would otherwise go into landfill sites and incinerators, and they make bags from them. Amazing!

Almost all the women are their family's main breadwinners, most of the husbands being unable to find work due to the poor economy of the area. The women have an average of 4-6 children, thus working for the cooperative makes a real difference, elevating families from extreme poverty to a decent life.

Just at the moment I'm thinking about Christmas and there's a real chance everyone in my family will get one of these. Do have a look at www, read about the women and what they are doing, and reach for your credit card. Spread the word!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sloe vodka

We have had a ground frost twice this last week. And some patient soul has been out gathering sloes. I found them in the farm shop and, feeling I should have got out and picked them myself I dithered, and then gave in. You are supposed to wait until after the first frost to collect sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn, but sometimes the frost comes late and the birds get them all, so luck is on our side this year.

I had it in mind to make sloe gin, which is what you do, but I don’t really like gin. And then I came across a little presentation in the farm shop from Godminster, who make vintage organic cheddar in Bruton, Somerset, and who have lately started making flavoured vodkas too, and it gave me an idea.

I love the Godminster cheddar, with its rich purple wax coat, and recently I had some of their absolutely stunning horseradish flavoured vodka, which is glorious in a Bloody Mary. They started making the vodkas with bought-in spirit to use up some of the fruits and vegetables that grow on their organic farm, and the range now includes cucumber (a star in Pimms), elderflower, the horseradish, and the more traditional blackcurrant as well as sloe. Next year they are going to do rhubarb and ginger. Taking on the Scandinavians from Somerset!

So this is my sloe vodka.

450g/1lb sloes
225g/8oz caster sugar
1 bottle vodka

Prick the skin of the sloes all over with a clean needle and put in a large sterilised jar.
Pour in the sugar and the vodka, seal tightly and shake well.
Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for two months. The sugar will slowly dissolve and the sloe vodka will turn a beautiful dark red and be ready to drink.

Decant into clean bottles.

Just in time for Christmas I think!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I have just been through my second house move in two years and am unpacking things that have been sitting in boxes for quite a while. I remember that when I packed them up in the first place I got rid of tons of stuff, keeping only the things that really meant a lot to me. Now, as I unwrap the paper and discover the contents again, I do find myself wondering why I chose these things to keep. The tangible sense of belonging that I know I once felt has somehow rubbed off a lot of them. I look at them and the attachment has vanished. I don’t think there are many that I will actually dispose of yet, but a lot that I will wrap and box up again, ready for the mighty car boot sale to come. It’s quite a relief. No matter how hard I try I am still greatly overburdened with stuff, and at the time it all seems so redolent of importance and nostalgia that there is no way it can be disposed of. It’s nearly impossible to know which little thing has struck so deep into the psyche that its disappearance will be a cause for regret for years. So you keep them all.

Here’s a carving from Kenya, found in the back of a dusty shop. I think it’s supposed to be a hippopotamus, but it seems to have been carved by someone who usually carved elephants, and I do wonder if he had ever seen a hippo. Maybe it’s a baby hippo. Maybe it’s a child’s toy. But it is carved with such love that it cannot be for the tourist trade and I treasure it.

Here’s a silver nautilus shell. You fill it with hot water. It’s to warm your ice cream spoons. Those Victorians eh?

Here’s a big lump of flint that stops my papers from flying about. Actually it’s a Mesolithic handaxe from a little hill outside Petra in Jordan – which proves that early man enjoyed a good view and a nice breeze while he sat knapping.

And here’s a really pretty mug made by an American potter called John Glick. I love his deep dark vibrant colours.

Next time – all the kitchen stuff I can’t throw out but for which I have no room either!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Freshly dug carrots

If I’ve been a bit quiet lately it’s because I have been moving house. All the pots and pans and the batterie de cuisine have been boxed up and moved a few miles down the road to a market town called Shepton Mallet. It has a market cross, winding streets and cobbles. It has been badly neglected for about twenty years, but an enormous Tesco has just landed in the turnip field and things look set for a big change. I shall document the goings on as they occur.

Meanwhile there were fourteen boxes to unpack into the kitchen and much heartache and weeping because it wouldn’t all fit. The charity shops have benefited, but I have kept all the strange and battered things that I think look great. So many I could go into business.

And the best thing was that my name came to the top of the allotment waiting list, so I am now the proud guardian of a piece of the earth, and today I planted a row of spring cabbage. Somebody kindly lent me their wheelbarrow to move a bag of horse manure (yes, that serious!) and gave me a bunch of carrots he had grown. So we will have them for dinner, with a good free range chicken, all with their funny rude shapes and wonderful carroty smell.

Until broadband gets plugged in I am on wind-up internet, so things will be short, but I am definitely back in touch and have lots to write about as the mellow mists of autumn sweep in.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Overfed, oversexed and over here

35 years ago the red clawed American Signal crayfish was introduced to our rivers and streams. Since then it has made itself at home and pretty much wiped out our smaller native, white clawed crayfish, which is now a protected species. The Signal crayfish is a bit of a bully, and it also carries a fungus which is lethal to the native variety. In large numbers they can be a threat to spawning salmon by taking fish eggs. They have been known to wipe out whole areas of aquatic plants and, by burrowing into banks, they can damage the habitat of endangered species like water voles.

So what to do? Well… eat ‘em!

The fishmonger in Shepton Mallet market this morning had a whole bunch of them, from the clear waters of Mells, just up the road. He very generously gave me far more than I needed, and even he treated them with extreme respect.

When I tipped them out of their double bag to take their photograph while the water came to the boil they went crazy, charging around and escaping over the edge of the dish. What is it about snapping claws and numerous legs and waving antennae that reaches deep into the recesses of the subconscious and scares you to death? They are only a few inches long but they’re terrifying. Half my photographs were out of focus because I jumped every time one of them waved at me.

Jane Grigson suggests removing the intestine by pulling out the middle tail fin, before you put them in the pan. She must be joking. I’ll deal with that later.

Rinsed in plenty of water and drained, I plunged them into a big pan of boiling water with a good splash of white wine, half a stick of celery and a generous pinch of salt. I must say, unlike lobster (see post passim) I felt no qualms about sending them to their doom. When they come back to the boil give them four or five minutes and drain. Even in their cooked and pillar box red condition I found myself checking them cautiously for signs of life – just in case. Leave to cool.

The market also yielded a big head of rosy garlic fresh from Normandy, so I think aïoli is in order. And if you want to know how to make aïoli the recipe is here.

Of course, one thing leads to another, and the new season’s crop of Anya potatoes is just in from Cornwall, and they would be so delicious with aïoli too, so…here’s to a little garlic fest!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Get out of jail free dessert

Lemon posset with twice poached raspberries.

The lemon posset is an Allegra McEvedy pudding and it is she that describes it as a get out of jail free dessert. It is absolutely delicious, if not for the figure conscious. Incredibly simple, it uses lemon juice to thicken the double cream instead of eggs.

For four

420 ml double cream
150g granulated sugar
Zest of 3 lemons, unwaxed
Juice of 2 lemons (about 5 tbsp)

Put the cream, zest and sugar in a pan and bring to the boil, stirring constantly as the sugar dissolves. Boil for three minutes, making sure the cream does not overflow, which it is wont to do. Take off the heat, allow to sit for 10 minutes, then stir in the juice and watch it start to thicken.

Strain to remove zest. Fill ramekins, or one larger dish, allow to cool and then chill in the fridge for several hours or overnight.

Twice poached raspberries
This is my own recipe, an invention born of necessity.

It’s very difficult to get raspberries to stay whole if you poach them. The first lot I tried, poached in sugar syrup, came to pieces. So I sieved them, brought the coulis to the boil and poured it over another batch of raspberries in a jar. Bingo! Intact berries in a satiny coulis.

50g granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
500g raspberries
Another 500g raspberries

Heat the sugar and water slowly until the sugar dissolves. Tip in the first lot of raspberries, put a lid on the pan and poach slowly for about five minutes. Sieve the coulis. Return to the pan and bring slowly up to simmering point. Meanwhile fill a jar with the remaining 500g of raspberries and when the coulis is simmering pour it into the jar to cover the berries. Allow to cool.

The raspberries are quite tart, which goes well with the sharp/sweet lemony posset.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Supper with Mrs Noah

Half the country seems to be flooded. Thousands of people are camped out in church halls contemplating the misery of the destruction. The water rose so fast in most cases that they could save very little. People have lost everything. The RAF has been airlifting stranded citizens to safety and sometimes it has been touch and go – the biggest lifesaving exercise in peacetime Britain.

I know we go on a lot about the weather - being an island we are constantly subject to its whims - but this year has been particularly whimsical. All that stuff in the supermarkets for barbequing is a bit of a joke as the clouds darken and the lightning flashes. I started thinking about the Ark and how Mrs Noah doesn’t get a namecheck. Noah does, as do Ham, Shem and Japheth, but we don’t know the names of their wives. Bet they had to do all the cooking though. So when they were fed up with pulses and the odd giraffeburger I was wondering what they might have had for supper.

Maybe some fat silver sardines hot pickled and flecked with chilli, to cheer up those dreich and streaming days while they waited for the dove to return with the olive branch. This dish from Valencia in Spain which adds a little shelf life to the sardines would be perfect.

Escabeche de Sardinas
Serves 4 as a starter
Preheat the oven to 170ºC/325ºF

900g/2 lbs fresh sardines, filleted
2-3 garlic cloves, skinned and sliced finely
1-2 bay leaves, crumbled
Salt and pepper
150 ml/¼ pint white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
6 tbsp olive oil
1 dried chilli, de-seeded and torn into small pieces

Layer the sardine fillets in a shallow dish, sprinkling with garlic, salt and pepper and crumbled bay leaf as you go.

Bring the vinegar to the boil with the same volume of water and pour around the fish. Drizzle with the oil, sprinkle over the chilli, cover with lid or foil shiny side down and bake for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the fish. Serve at room temperature with a plain potato salad and some fresh leaves.

This recipe is from a lovely book about Iberian food
The Food of Spain and Portugal: A Regional Celebration By Elisabeth Luard
Kyle Cathie Ltd

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


In between the thunder and the lightning and the torrential downpours I made my way to the Pick Your Own farm to get fruit for jam. Tom Phippen’s wife Jean stopped her little tractor between the rows of blackcurrants for a chat. We have had the wettest June practically since records began and it has been cold too, so the crops are all a couple of weeks late. But worse is the fact that people don’t come out of their cosy houses in this sort of weather. If nobody picks the fruit it will be destroyed, and if that happens the farm will not survive. Chosen Hill Farm is the only Pick Your Own around here, and they don’t sell to retailers, it’s just for folk like me who come and get their own. It would be a tragedy if we lost it.

I was getting fruit for jam, strawberries and blackcurrants. I don’t know why I make strawberry jam – I don’t really like it, I find it very sweet. I think it’s the challenge, because it isn’t that easy to make. If it sets, which doesn’t always happen, it can set like toffee, and then it sits like rubber on your bread. But it’s quite quick to make, because it doesn’t involve a great deal of liquid and boiling. This is my recipe.

1 kg hulled strawberries
Zest and juice of l large unwaxed lemon
1 kg sugar

Try to get just ripe fruit, because it has the most pectin. Small strawberries can stay whole, but big ones will need to be halved or quartered.

You can get jam sugar with added pectin, and I think it’s worth the little extra expense for strawberry jam. Some recipes only use the juice of the lemon, but I put in the zest as well because it cuts the sweetness a bit.

Heat the strawberries and lemon juice gently in the pan, stirring to reduce the volume. Add the sugar, stir till dissolved and boil until setting point is reached. What you absolutely must have is a jam thermometer. It’s amazing how long it takes to creep the last few micrometers to the right temperature, and it saves a lot of testing. When you get up to temperature start to test the jam by dropping a blob on to a chilled saucer. Push the blob with your finger, and if the surface wrinkles you’ve got a set.

Leave the jam undisturbed for about ten minutes, skimming off any scum that has formed. This resting allows the fruit to sink and means that you have more evenly distributed fruit in the finished jam. The idea is to get a jar full of fruit held in a syrupy suspension, not a jar full of red mush.

My absolutely most favourite jam is blackcurrant. This is jam for grown-ups I always think. This is jam for a flaky croissant, with a good cup of coffee, rumpled bedclothes, Sunday newspapers…


1 kg blackcurrants
1 ½ pints water
1 ½ kg sugar

Try to get good plump blackcurrants and pick over to remove stalks.

Stew slowly with the water until the skins are soft, which will take at least half an hour. If you don’t do this properly you will end up with hard ‘boot button’ currants in your jam.

Add the sugar, stirring over a low heat until dissolved and then boil rapidly until setting point is reached.

If you figure out how much it costs you to make your own jam it doesn’t work out particularly cheap. But there is simply no comparison between what you make yourself and the rubbish sold in shops. It’s quite a soothing thing to do, standing in the kitchen listening to the radio. And I love the Waltons moment of putting the gleaming jars into the cupboard with pride!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Annual Lobster

There are some things in life that are worth waiting for; English asparagus, local strawberries, new potatoes and LOBSTER. You can get them frozen, you can get them from warmer climes, but as my birthday coincides with the height of the native lobster season it is my traditional present to myself. Our colder waters, like those of Maine, produce the sweetest, tenderest, tastiest lobsters in the world. They are also fantastically expensive.

You can, of course, buy your lobster ready cooked, but unless you know your lobstermonger well, and know how and when he cooks his crustaceans, it is infinitely better to buy it live and cook it yourself. I usually have a bit of a tussle with the beast, but that is nothing to the struggle I have with my conscience. Other seafoods go live into the pot, but none gives you pause for thought quite like a lobster.

Mine was a female, about 1.5 lbs, an ideal weight and plenty for two. Don’t be persuaded to buy bigger creatures – you will be disappointed.

I have in the past cooked lobster by putting it in a pot of cold water and bringing it slowly to the boil. The idea is that the lobster gets sleepy as the water warms up, and quietly expires at around 80ºC. The last time I did that she struggled and clattered and banged around in the pot and I felt truly dreadful.

So this time I tried another technique. My girl was pretty lively and I put her in the freezer for half an hour. At the end of that time the water had come to the boil and she was frosty and slow. I muttered an apology as I held her over the steam and then dropped her in and slammed on the lid. Twenty minutes later she had turned from a lively navy with ocelot spots to a brilliant lipstick red. I left her to cool.

If I ate as much lobster as I would like to eat I would probably do something different with it from time to time, but as I eat it so rarely my appetite for plain cold lobster with potato salad and cucumber has not yet abated. Worth making a bit of an effort with the cucumber though, so I peeled it, sliced it thinly on a mandolin, salted it and set it to drain for half an hour. Patted dry and checked to make sure it isn’t too saline, it only needed some chopped parsley and a splash of elderflower vinegar – which I must say worked a treat.

It’s a bit personal between me and the lobster, but it was absolutely delicious.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Plate of Summer

When I saw Stuart Gillies cook this Pea and Leek Tart with Glazed Asparagus and Herb Salad on The Great British Menu tv programme I thought it looked so pretty, and so seasonal. A simple vegetable tart on a plate with a little clump of salad. Beneath the soft quilt of parmesan cream is asparagus, cushioned on a plump green mattress of pea and leek.

When he baked his pastry case blind he lined it with clingfilm filled with beans. Clingfilm? In the oven? Surely not. I have seen this done once before, and I thought maybe there is special cheffy clingfilm that is different from mine, but nothing showed up on Google. So I decided to cook the tart and follow the instructions exactly to see what happened. And the answer is - nothing. Nothing happened. You can put clingfilm in the oven. It’s a good idea actually, because the film moulds easily to the pastry and you don’t get the sharp edges that dig into the cooked pastry when you try to remove it.

Stuart Gillies’ pastry may be the best I have ever made. It is generous with the butter. Try to keep your hands as cool as possible, and maybe even put the bowl back in the fridge a couple of times during the rubbing in. It makes the lightest, most delicate and fragile pastry. When he says add half a beaten egg to the mixture to bind it he means it. You probably won’t need the whole thing.

Keep tasting the mixture – the amount of parmesan and seasoning is critical. And when I was in the middle of making the glaze, whisking the egg yolks over simmering water, I suddenly remembered that one of the judges on the programme – Prue Leith I think – had said that it was deceptively simple looking, but actually quite difficult to make. How true! This little tart really tests quite a lot of techniques. Things you know how to do but haven’t bothered with in a while. Quite a little triumph to pull it off.

The other thing I wanted to make from The Great British Menu Cookbook was Richard Corrigan’s Wheaten Bread.

Just to be clear, in Ireland, soda bread is raised with bicarbonate of soda and made with white flour; wheaten bread is raised in the same way but made with a mixture of meals, white, wholemeal and, often, oatmeal. Corrigan adds honey and a teaspoonful of treacle, just enough to deepen the edge of the sweetness. Now this is what my grandmother’s wheaten bread used to taste like although I looked up her recipe and it’s a ‘handful’ of this and a ‘handful’ of that!

Above you see one loaf, in four 'farls' or quarters (fourths actually). Corrigan’s recipe makes four loaves; you need to eat the bread on the day you make it but it freezes well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Great British Menu Cookbook

I will get to the cookbook presently, and my praise will be fulsome, but before that, some background.

Last year, 2006, BBC tv presented a series in which justly famous British chefs competed against each other to represent the regions that begat them for the honour of cooking a course at a banquet to celebrate the birthday of HM The Queen. This year a second series culminated in a banquet at our embassy in Paris, where the guests were our old culinary enemies, the French.

The theme of both series has been that British cooking should be throwing off the shackles of haute cuisine and finding its own personality and brilliance. For too long, goes the mantra, we have been subservient to a French authority in the kitchen, for too long we have been judged by Gallic standards, for FAR too long our cooking has been dismissed as inferior with a languid wave of a whisk by our neighbours across the Channel (that would be the English Channel). Time to put that right.

The climax of the affair took place last week in Paris. One of the notable facts was that each of the three chef finalists (Mark Hix cooked two courses) actually cooked all the dishes themselves. Imagine that! There were some disasters and some cliff hanging moments, which made for good viewing, but in the end it all turned out fine.

We had been promised that the guests would include the grandees of French cuisine. In the event I could spot only two grandees: Pierre Gagnaire and Raymond Blanc. Raymond Blanc hardly qualifies as a Frenchman any longer, having spent a quarter of a century in England. Pierre Gagnaire is universally worshipped in the UK, and is associated with a London restaurant described as the most expensive in the capital, Sketch.

You might find it instructive to read part of a review of Sketch by Matthew Fort, one of the judges in the tv competition. Fort writes for The Guardian and rates restaurants out of 20. His meal cost £143 for one person in 2003. He gave Sketch 0/20.

“Food horizons in the UK have broadened in the past few years: one of the advantages of not valuing highly our own cooking traditions is that our chefs do not, perhaps, feel constrained by them. So I'd say that our food culture is being reinvigorated in a way that the French food culture is not. This may seem irrelevant in the scheme of daily life, but in terms of how we will eat in 10 or 15 years, it is immeasurably significant. Gagnaire nobly celebrates a culinary tradition that is, in effect, imperceptibly but surely, withering. It is simply too strong for even the most creative chef to break out of.

If £143 worries you in any way, you should not go to Sketch. You will spend too much time wondering if you're getting £143-worth of pleasure. Anyway, at this level, the price is irrelevant. Consequently, I have given Sketch nought out of 20 because it defies any, even notional, value-for-money judgment.”

Rachel Cooke, in The Observer, was similarly aghast. “The Lecture Room, whose menu is overseen by the great French chef Pierre Gagnaire, is Britain's most expensive restaurant. A starter of spider crab, milk-fed veal and caviar will set you back £70; a main course of Angus beef, Béarnaise sausage and aubergine cannelloni with snails costs £65. The critics went for it like meat cleavers on a butcher's block.”

I’ve been to Sketch, for tea and cake, and very nice it is too. A slightly hallucinogenic take on décor in a warren of rooms. (And you must check out the loos!) At any rate, I thought I would find out what Chef Gagnaire is currently offering, so I could compare it to our own presentations. I looked up the Starter Menu.

Langoustines {Addressed in Five Ways}
Tartar with Jellyfied Citrus Juice and Baby Fennel
As a Cold Spicy Broth
Mousseline Flavoured with Cardamom, Cubes of Green Apple and Cucumber
Skewer Cooked Meunière Style, Green Pepper Accra
Pan-fried with Girolles Mushrooms

I thought at first this was the Starter menu, but it turns out to be one dish on the Starter Menu

I think what I’m getting it here is - how on earth did we think we were going to impress the French if this is what they are turning out?

But, to be fair, our chefs were asked to cook for a banquet, not to serve up individual dishes for individual guests.

Anyway, go back to the Langoustines and work out how long it will take you just to get a rough idea of what is going to be on the plate.

So, now we know what we’re up against, how did we do?

The Great British Menu Cookbook profiles the chefs and details every dish cooked in the competition. The ingredients are the stars of the show; it is a matter of regional pride that they are sourced locally and of the finest quality. Presentations are simple, in some cases deceptively so. The idea is that the taste and quality will shine through. Richard Corrigan’s great salmon dishes exemplify this. There is wit and humour, in Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas and in Mark Hix’s Stargazy Pie. There are a lot of clingfilm rolled things simmered slowly in water baths (gadget du jour, no doubt about it). And an example of clingfilm lined tart cases filled with beans for baking blind (test case to come). And crab is definitely the featured ingredient – yippee, I love crab.

It’s a really excellent book, filled with classy recipes, witty takes on classic dishes, and most of them we could even do ourselves. There is some star dinner party stuff here. I do find myself reading through and mentally crossing out some of the ridiculous cheffy stuff but I know that the finely sliced oysters gracing the poached salmon were probably what aced the dish.

I could have done with more photographs. Sat Bains’ Ham, Egg and Peas was a winning dish, but there’s no photograph of it. If you didn’t see the series you would never know that it is a stunning idea. There are some recipes for dishes that, as far as I remember, never made an appearance on screen, but no explanation. And, the main omission, there is no record of the judges’ remarks at the time. I know for a fact that there were a couple of things that the judges described as perfectly awful. It would be good to have had a rating system.

My British reticence also slightly wishes that the cover didn’t feature the Union Jack quite so prominently, but you can certainly see this book from half a mile away.

Meanwhile, back at the banquet, the French were polite, although I don’t think they are shaking in their three star boots. But they had never heard of elderflower… or perry. Two up to us I think.

The Great British Menu Cookbook

Published by Dorling Kindersley

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

An evanescence of elderflowers

The recent TV competition to find a British menu to serve at a banquet in the British Embassy in Paris culminated last week as the feast was presented. The big hit was Mark Hix’s jelly and elderflower ice cream. I knew it would be. Didn’t I say it would be? And the amazing thing was that the French knew nothing about elderflowers. How can that be? They grow like weeds here and I’m sure they have them in France. The scent, a gooseberry fragrance like a Sauvignon Blanc, is fragile and fleeting and delicate. If you want to do anything with elderflowers you must gather them and use them immediately.

Elderflower cordial, which you will need to make the ice cream, is the easiest thing imaginable. This is a recipe from Jane Grigson, given to her by a neighbour.


Makes about 1½ litres
20 large heads of elderflower
4lb (1.8 kg) granulated sugar
2¾ oz (75g) citric acid (from chemists)
2 lemons


Put the elderflowers in a large basin
Place sugar in large pan with 2 pints water and bring slowly to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Pour over elderflowers, stir in citric acid, add grated zest of lemons, then slice lemons and add to the bowl.
Cover and leave for 24 hours
Strain through double muslin to catch lemon rind and any extraneous wildlife
Pour into sterilised bottles and store in a cool dark place.

Correctly stored this will keep for months. It’s great as a summer drink with fizzy water, or with fizzy water and vodka, or gin. You can add a splash to gooseberries too.

While the sugar is dissolving, make Elderflower Vinegar.

This is excellent for deglazing the pan after frying chicken, or pork.

Just cram as many heads of elderflower as will go into a preserving jar; cover with white wine vinegar and leave on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks. Strain through muslin and bottle.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tesco comes in for an awful lot of stick. Some of it is deserved. The supermarket is humungous; it holds a huge land bank, it drives uncompetitive small shops out of business, its requirements from producers tend to mitigate against artisans and small businesses and its treatment of dairy farmers was, until recently, appalling. Tesco is one of the things that people give up for Lent.

On the other hand…

It has a better stock of olive oil than any other supermarket, it gives yeast away free, it is beginning to source some of its produce locally and it already stocks a lot of organic stuff. All this in response, I would guess, to customer pressure.

Anybody who has worked in business knows that there’s a lot of lip service paid to customer satisfaction, but usually it comes from HR. Imagine my surprise therefore when, in response to an email, I got a real letter from Sir Terry Leahy, Chief Executive of Tesco. This man is one of, if not the, most important retail chiefs in the country. You don’t see much of him, although he does occasionally pop up in person on the Today programme, because he seems to spend all his time rushing around doing deals with China.

I had the misfortune to take a tumble in one of his stores. Usually people rush up and ask you if you are all right. We will gloss over what actually happened, but it wasn’t that. I came home seething and fired off an email. I took a guess at the address and lo it was right! Three days later he returned from China and I got a real letter, on real parchmenty type paper. Signed by the real person (I assume). And not the usual two line brush-off either, but a considered, grammatically correct reply that showed that my complaint had been understood and remedial action taken.

Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have been surprised and that it’s his job and that I’m a customer…I was ASTONISHED!

You can’t let these tiny moments pass unnoticed so…a round of applause for Sir Terry Leahy please.

And now let’s get back to the barricades.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.