Monday, April 30, 2007

How to pot a shrimp

The North Atlantic brown shrimps (Crangon crangon) are in season now. They are not overfished, stocks are at safe levels, and they are absolutely delicious - tiny pinky brown morsels that are an expensive delicacy when you can find them. (In America they are represented by C. franciscorum, the California, grey or bay shrimp.) They are estuarine creatures, coming from Morecambe Bay in the North of England, and from the mudflats of the Bristol Channel, and also from the flat coastal regions of Holland, Belgium and Denmark. Potted shrimps, wedged into a lightly spiced butter, are a traditional English luxury. You can get them already packed into little plastic pots in Fortnum & Mason, Waitrose and the like. Or you can make your own. Like this:

Drain the shrimps in a sieve

Clarify about 4ozs butter and return clarified butter to pan.

Add a large pinch of mace, a large pinch of cayenne and a pinch of nutmeg

Swirl spices in butter and add shrimps

Warm gently through but do not allow to boil

Pour into clean dry jar/pot/ramekin and allow to cool.

Chill in fridge.

Remove from fridge long enough before needed for the butter to soften and serve with toast.

In the middle of writing this I remembered that I had seen a big patch of watercress growing in a stream nearby, and I thought it would go nicely with the potted shrimps, so I rushed off to see if I could get some. Sadly the flow of the stream makes it just out of reach without waders so the watercress will have to wait for another day and more equipment!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bread Matters

I have been absolutely delighted to see that this book, Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley, has been in the bestseller lists for non-fiction in the UK for a couple of weeks. It is a scholarly work for our times and a revelation to read.

Andrew Whitley started The Village Bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria, in 1976, because all that was available in nearby Penrith was supermarket white sliced bread. Melmerby is a tiny place, frequented by walkers and climbers, with the fells rising immediately behind the houses. The Village Bakery is the largest employer in the area.

Over the past thirty years Andrew Whitley has almost single handedly changed the taste of supermarket bread in Britain. His sourdough loaves, boules de campagne and Russian rye breads now jostle for space on the shelves with steamy white sliced. He produces 20,000 loaves and buns a week, using organic flour from Shipton Mills, and each batch can take up to 24 hours, depending on the weather.

I have a number of bread books of which, until now, only one
was pre-eminent. Elizabeth David’s classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery was first published by Allan Lane in 1977, one year after Andrew opened for business in Cumbria. Two years later Penguin brought out the paperback version and I still have mine, completely stained and fallen to pieces. It is a book about breadmaking, its constituents and its history, and I read it through from cover to cover when I bought it. I was fascinated by the erudite nature of the writing, her enquiries into meal and fat and salt, and shocked to read, for the first time, of the Chorleywood Bread Process. Developed in 1961, at Chorleywood in Hertfordshire, this process meant that a loaf was mixed, proved and ready for the oven inside one hour. Supermarket bread still uses this method.

In his excellent and informative book Andrew Whitley notes that coincidentally it is from round about the same period that people first started reporting allergies or intolerances to bread, specifically wheat bread. Now nearly everybody remarks on, if not full-blown wheat allergies, at the very least a feeling of bloatedness after eating supermarket bread. There are even products on the market targeted at the condition!

Bread Matters describes the complex, and scandalous, adulterations that have led to this completely unnecessary situation; the additives – some admitted and some not – the huge amounts of yeast, the wheat hybrids bred to take advantage of intensive modern chemical agriculture, the unseemly rush from flour bag to shelf, all of which force onto the public a superficially attractive product that is doing most of us active harm. The book offers a thought-provoking explanation of this state of affairs and a detailed guide to producing your own bread. He is particularly good on the Russian ryes, spelt and sourdough, and, as Elizabeth David is completely hopeless on the last, and many contemporary writers overcomplicate the business, this is extremely welcome.

My own breadmaking skills are in a constant state of evolution. I remember vividly the first loaf I ever made, inspired by Mrs David; it consisted of heavy 100% wholemeal flour, dried yeast, water, olive oil ( I was in my early Mediterranean phase, it wasn’t her fault) and six teaspoonfuls of salt (she had had a stroke and lost her sense of taste, it wasn’t my fault). It baked like a house brick.

But one thing she did mention, and it stuck in my mind. She said that she often used a very small quantity of yeast – half a teaspoonful of the dried kind – and left the dough overnight on the kitchen table.

Over the years I practised and, speed equalling desirability, I could eventually produce a fairly creditable loaf, i.e. one that looked as if it had come from Tesco, in about four hours from start to finish. It tasted sort of all right, on the day, but frankly it still didn’t really taste of very much. And up to this point I have to admit that ‘boughten’ bread was still a better choice than mine, unsliced of course to give the illusion of rusticity.

Lionel Poilâne’s rugged country loaves became fantastically fashionable in the 1980s, just as I was getting serious about cooking. I lugged a couple back from Paris, paying overweight to BA. I learned about sourdough and tried my best, but honestly, my versions were dreadful.

However, this story does have a happy ending. My bread is pretty good now, edible for the entire week, and infinitely preferable, I think, to supermarket candyfloss. I let it prove for longer and it tastes a lot better, but it is still often a bit of a leap in the dark. Which is where we come back to Bread Matters. Andrew Whitley attempts, heroically in my view, to bring some order to the mysterious and somewhat chaotic process that is domestic breadmaking. Whilst stressing that the feel of the dough is something you achieve through experience – you just ‘know’ – he lays down some very exact rules for temperatures and weights which should, in a perfect world, produce a perfect loaf, perfectly risen, with a perfect crumb and crust.

Now if you want to start a bakery all this will be very important, but if you don’t, if you make one loaf at a time, perhaps only once a week and perhaps with varying meals, you will find that all the weights and timings in the world will not be enough to make a good loaf, because in the end you just have to ‘know’. And this much I know:

You can keep your sourdough starter in the fridge for two or three weeks and resurrect it – it will be fine.

Make your dough soft and somewhat sticky – it will be fine.

Try to do the same thing each time – you will not succeed and it will be fine.

Use less yeast, prove for longer – it will be fine.

Take no notice of printed proving times – poke the dough with your finger, it will be fine.

And wonder, as Elizabeth David does, at this quote:
“Do you mean to tell me that this thing is only flour and water? Then what on earth do they do to the bread in the shops?”

M. Vivian Hughes, A London Home in the Nineties, 1937 quoted by Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery Penguin 1979

Bread Matters
state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own
by Andrew Whitley
Fourth Estate

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


This is a quick post for Susan in Italy, who left a comment about this lovely weed. It's called Jack-by-the-hedge, or garlic mustard, and its latin name is alliaria petiolata. It springs into life along the hedgerow at this time of year, with fresh green leaves and tiny brilliant white flowers. The leaves taste mildly of garlic and are absolutely terrific in salads because they are a decent size and love a good dressing. The leaves are very delicate and you would think they would wilt quickly, but they last well if you put the stems in water. They make a good sauce for lamb, and there is a 17th Century tradition of eating them with fish. In my view they are a great deal nicer than ramsons, the wild garlic with the quite tough leaves that appears a couple of weeks before them. You might at first confuse Jack-by-the-hedge with young nettles, but they are a much fresher green than nettles and the flowers are quite different. In the picture above there are nettles on either side of Jack - a darker green and, oh, you know what nettles look like!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Cornish Early potatoes

The first new potatoes from Cornwall were in the market this morning. They are a good fortnight early, coinciding with the even earlier English asparagus.

As its name suggests, the Cornish Early is the earliest new potato to be lifted in all of Britain, and is known as a ‘short season delicacy’ because it’s in season for just three weeks. Grown only in Cornwall, where the mild winters enable farmers to plant the crop in late December or early January to ensure an early harvest, they have a rich, sweet, distinctive taste and get to the shops within hours of being harvested so they are really fresh.

The crop is relatively small, which means limited availability, and the potato can be recognised by its dust-like skin which rubs off easily. The taste is rich and sweet, as most of the natural sugar has yet to turn to starch, and the texture is floury.

When the first Cornish potatoes arrive I love to eat them just by themselves to enjoy the flavour, with just a dollop of unsalted butter and a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

And, as luck would have it, overnight it seems the hedgerows are full of a lovely delicate plant called Jack-by-the-hedge (alliaria petiolata), with tiny white flowers and fresh green, fine toothed leaves that taste mildly of garlic. Shredded they make a wonderful garnish for the spuds.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

George Perry-Smith's Salmon in Pastry

In Bath there used to be a very famous restaurant called the Hole in the Wall. Although it is still there, with the same name but different owners, I doubt if many of the visitors to Bath, or even the locals, know that it is the source of a great English cooking tradition.

If we are seeing a resurgence in English cooking, with a renewed emphasis on clear flavours and excellent ingredients, it is largely thanks to its owner in the 1950s, George Perry-Smith, who served “real food, prepared as a careful home cook would prepare it, with the best ingredients to be got and no short-cuts taken in its preparation”.

Paul Levy writes in his obituary of Perry-Smith, who died in 2003:
“People tend to think that there were no restaurants in Britain worth eating at before the food revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, but that is because they are too young or too London-
centred to remember the Hole in the Wall at Bath, which George Perry-Smith opened in 1952.”

Perry-Smith came to cooking via a spell of teaching in Paris which enabled him to tour the country during the holidays. When he returned to England he brought with him a determination to offer the Brits the sort of food that Elizabeth David had written about, but which was nowhere to be found in the grey 1950s.

This famous signature dish of salmon in pastry has its roots in eighteenth century cookery, hence the currants and ginger. I found it in a file of cuttings dating back to the 1980s when, with a young child at my feet, I first started cooking in earnest. There are variations – some recipes say crystallised ginger, some say raisins, some say puff pastry – but the basics remain the same. It is a very simple recipe, easy to make and wondrously impressive to serve!


Two fillets of salmon, skinned and pin bones removed.
4 ozs butter, softened
4 knobs preserved ginger, chopped
1 heaped tbsp currants
1 tbsp chopped blanched almonds

Shortcrust pastry to enclose

Egg to glaze.


Cover a baking tray with clingfilm. Lay one fillet on it.
Add ginger, currants and almonds to butter and mix thoroughly.
Lay half of the butter mixture on the fillet
and cover with the other fillet.
Bring clingfilm up to cover fillets tightly and refrigerate to firm butter.
Roll out pastry thinly.
Unwrap fish and place on pastry. Season and cover with remaining butter mixture.
Enclose in the pastry, decorating with pastry trimmings, refrigerate until needed.

Preheat oven to 220ºC

Slash the pastry a few times to allow air to escape and brush with egg glaze.
Cook for 30-35 mins until golden.

Serve cold, hot or warm. It’s a very amenable dish and doesn’t mind waiting.

I prefer to serve this warm, with a watercress salad and some new English asparagus, but if you serve it hot the traditional sauce is Elizabeth David’s Sauce Messine from French Provincial Cooking (Michael Joseph, 1960).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Queen of Puddings

When I was writing yesterday about boarding school food I found myself remembering with delight the wonderful school puddings that nobody eats any more. All the chocolate stodge and custard, the lemon steamed puddings, the rice puddings… And oh god the sago, let’s not go there, and the semolina and the tapioca, only made palatable by the jam.

Queen of Puddings was a majestic dish. Served as they all were in dishes large enough to feed at least eight Queen’s Pud was a cut above the others. I recalled it as a soft custardy base with jam and meringue on top, the jam hot enough to burn your mouth under the crunching quaking meringue. I thought it might be nice to make one to see if it was as special as I remembered.

Apparently this pudding was developed from a 17th Century recipe by Queen Victoria’s chefs at Buckingham Palace – hence the name. Some recipes flavour the custard base with lemon and vanilla, which sounds about right, but I’m absolutely certain nobody wasted good vanilla on lumpy eleven year olds, so mine is made, as ours was, sans vanilla. It would of course be easy to posh up, with cream and vanilla seeds and brioche, but that was not my experience, and actually it’s quite delicious without any of that fancy stuff. Gave me a new respect for dinner ladies too.


7 ozs /200 g fresh white breadcrumbs
2 tbsp sugar
zest of a lemon
1 pint/600 ml milk
2 ozs/50 g butter
4 eggs, separated
4 tbsp raspberry jam, warmed
2 ozs/50 g caster sugar


Heat oven to 180 °C / 350 °F / Gas 4. Place the breadcrumbs, sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl. Scald the milk and butter and remove from heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs and leave for 10 minutes. Beat the egg yolks and add to the breadcrumbs. Grease an ovenproof serving dish which will hold 2½ pints/1.5 l or six individual ramekins. Pour in the mixture. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave for a few minutes and gently spread the jam over the top (be careful not to break the surface skin). Whisk the egg whites until stiff and slowly fold in the caster sugar reserving 1 teaspoon to the side. Pile the egg whites over the top of the jam, sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of sugar over the top and place back in the oven for 15 minutes until set.

The contrast in textures is wonderful; the crisp outer shell of the meringue hides a soft cloud of interior, the jam sharp and sweet and the base a pillow. It makes you feel loved.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Meme 2 & 7 Part II

(For what this is all about, see previous post.)

In 1962 I was at boarding school. On Sunday afternoons the rain thrummed down on the corrugated iron roof of the Common Room and we listened to Top of the Pops on the radio. Alan “Fluff” Freeman counted down the Top Ten pop records “And at Number One it’s Please Please Me From The Beatles” and signed off with a cheesy “All right, stay bright…” The Sixties were getting into full swing and I was reading Ian Fleming. James Bond heroines always had short cut fingernails and smelled of musk. We were rationed for sweets – 2ozs twice a week – and we learnt that marshmallows and chocolate buttons went a lot further than toffee.

The food was pretty miserable. All the meat was grey and round and fatty, lambporkbeef all indistinguishable from each other. Hunks of gristle in the stew, and a clean plate de rigeur. Years later I was at a private banquet in Northern China, dining off silver with the Governor of the Province. He helped me to a choice morsel with his silver chopsticks. I slipped it into my mouth and froze. Blocking my throat was a huge lump of gristle. Instantly I was back in boarding school and the sweat broke out on my forehead. I reached for the water in my silver goblet but it would not be budged. At last, holding tight to the underside of my chair with both hands, I swallowed hard and felt it shunt down my gullet. Turning to my translator I whispered
“What on earth was that?”
She nodded sagely.
“Camel’s toes…”
Camel’s toes? Do you eat a lot of those?”
“I’ve never had them. Great delicacy. Come from Outer Mongolia

Puddings were what boarding school did really well. Lots of stodgy things with chocolate sauce or custard. Something called Queen of Puddings with jam and a meringue topping; spotted dick, syrup pud, and rice pudding, solid and sticky sometimes, and other times loose and creamy. We fought over the skin. And then we went and ran up and down a hockey pitch for two hours and worked it all off.

On Sundays we had coffee for breakfast. My grandmother was diabetic and maybe this was why she drank her coffee black, I don’t know, but I took to drinking mine without milk too. On my table sat Matron, wearing a wimple and a little upside down watch pinned to her chest and looking as if she had just landed from Sebastopol. Her accent was pure Edinburgh Morningside:

“It’ll stain your insides”

“Nobody is going to see my insides”


And one day at supper in 1963 the housemistress rang her little bell for silence, which was usually a prelude to telling us that someone had failed to clean their games boots. But this day she said simply

“I thought you would all like to know that President John F Kennedy of the United States has been shot and is not expected to live.”

Friday, April 06, 2007

Meme 2 & 7 Part I

If I haven’t put finger to keyboard for a while it’s largely because I have been feeling very guilty about this. Lindy, of Toast who I respect and care for a lot, tagged me for a meme. The best way to explain it is thusly, as she says: “Two of my favorite lovely and clever foodbloggers, Ximena of Lobstersquad and Melissa of The Travelers' Lunchbox, tagged me for this meme, which seems to have come from, maybe France? (Or maybe, like the Coneheads of yore, not so much.) Anyhow, the deal is-starting with the first year of your existence which ends with a "7" or "2", the tagee is to report on what s/he was up to, at 5 year intervals.”

So I got tagged for this and I’m only now getting to grips with it. And I may lie, and leave things out, like entire decades…

I was around in 1952, but I don’t remember it very well. Not much happened. The King died, long live the Queen. (Now the next year, 1953, that was a year…coronation, big frocks, tiaras, tiny televisions in shaky black and white, lots of oohs and aaahs…) So let’s fast forward and have a look at 1957.

In 1957 we moved from the North of England, where my Dad had been part of the team that built the world’s first atomic power station, to the South of Scotland, where they built the second one. I arrived at the local school to find that during the holidays the children had learned a poem – pronounced poyum – and they stood up one by one and recited the following:

“The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi muckle focht and din.
O try and sleep ye waukrife bairns
Yer faither’s comin in.
They never heed a word Ah say
Ah try tae gie a froon,
But aye Ah hae them up and cree
“O bairnies, cuddle doon.”

I thought I had landed on Mars.

The small town was grim and sad. But it did have two cafés run by immigrant Italians who made the most brilliant ice cream, which came in a cone with a slick of raspberry syrup dribbling down it. In those days the local salmon fishers had not yet acquired deep freezes, and in the fishing months the wild salmon was cheaper than cod, when cod was pretty cheap. Summers were cold salmon and strawberries – until you were sick of it! The rest of the time we ate Aberdeen Angus beef which was raised on the very green fields that rose up from the Solway Firth. Years later I discovered that not all beef tasted like that and it was a real shock.

Saturdays were for shopping, or, in my case, for trudging around shops or sitting in the car waiting and annoying my brother. On Saturday evening there was a huge fry-up, everything in sight went into the pan, things I never see now, like potato bread. Things that make me feel a bit queasy, like fried bread. And baked beans cooked in the pan after the bacon so they acquired the flavour of the streaky.

On Sundays throughout my childhood we had a proper Sunday lunch, which was most often roast chicken, with potatoes and frozen peas. The chicken tasted – of chicken - and the frozen peas were the height of modernity. I think the potatoes were mashed and buttered and creamed. We listened to family comedy shows on the radio before lunch and had proper trifle after the chicken. Proper trifle does not have jelly in it. Ask anyone from the North.

And now that I have pulled out the pin and rolled the trifle grenade into the arena I think I will retire quietly and maybe do a Part II with food news from the boarding school front. Not sure I want to recall that in too much detail. (But oh golly, I’ve just remembered the fabulous rice pudding…)

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