Saturday, August 09, 2008


Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol 1) is the first serious cook book I ever owned and I know I have mentioned it elsewhere on this blog. A couple of years ago I found myself at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery and in one session I spoke up from the audience in defence of this book and its authors, two French and one American, the American being the incredibly famous Julia Child.

I can't really remember why I thought it necessary to defend these three, but I've got a feeling the presentation was something to do with soufflés and feminism and the soufflé wasn't coming out of it too well.

This was the book that told us where we could leave off slaving over a hot stove, let the food rest, for an hour, for a day, until we were ready to take up cooking again. With nary a colour photograph, this was the book that painted a picture of culinary glory for the faint hearted. This was the book that said “you can do this…just read these six pages on how to make a soufflé and you’ll be fine.” And we were empowered.

The first time I came spoon to spoon with MAFC was when I was working for Terence Conran’s Design Group in London and a colleague told me she was going out to buy what she needed to make a cassoulet. “For tonight?” said I, having no idea what a cassoulet was. “For Saturday” she said. It was Wednesday.

I had never come across a dish that took three days to make. Read MAFC and you will understand why. I bought the book on the spot.

I then proceeded to cook my way through it, starting with a spinach soufflé. Not that easy, but with the six pages of soufflé instructions that preceded it I felt someone was on my side.

Lately I have been reading “Julie and Julia” by Julie Powell, who, approaching the watershed of 30 years and with her biological clock ticking, decided to cook her way through the entire canon of MAFC in one year, in a tiny New York flat, with a heroic husband. Now, I have to admit that I did not cook every single thing in the book when I was starting out. Anything involving kidneys, rice and mushrooms was to me hors de combat. As was anything that required making a difficult sauce only to reduce it and turn it into something completely different.

I’m always sorry that Julia Child seems to have filched all the plaudits for the book, despite the fact that there were two perfectly good Frenchwomen involved in it, but there you go. So, here I am reading the bit where Julie is making braised beef a la Julia Child, and here’s me with a bit of rather indifferent beef in the fridge waiting to be cooked. Julie prepares hers; I prepare mine.

How long is it since I actually marinated a chunk of not great beef in thinly sliced carrots, onions and celery, with garlic, herbs, red wine and olive oil? Too long, I tell you. I even sliced the vegetables on a mandolin, such was my enthusiasm.

The scent of the marinading beef floated through the house, scenting the damp August air, but that was nothing to the perfume that trilled about the place once the dish went into the oven.

I re–read the recipe; and I re-read Julie’s commentary on her own efforts; and I suddenly remembered the last time I made it myself.

My in-laws were coming. Julia Child calls for a veal knuckle, or a calf’s foot, split, to go into the braise to unctuate (is that a word?) the sauce. I spent a fortune in time and petrol finding a calf’s foot in Soho, getting them to split it, then scrubbing the silken hairs more or less clean. I say more or less, because throughout the cooking there was just the faintest scent of, how can I put it, the byre. And, as Julie has it, at the end of the evening, a fleeting zephyr of hoof. My in-laws were worryingly polite.

This time I didn’t even bother to go and look for a bovine metatarsal, but in deference to my current rather poor quality piece of beef I was generous with the aromatics and the seasoning. It was winey and herby and garlicky and the outer garments were just great. Unfortunately no amount of gussying up can really disguise an indifferent raw ingredient. I’m sure that Julia Child, in her Parisian garret, newly married and in love, would have had the good fortune to start off with better stuff. Revenons a nos moutons, or, as they say in France, let’s get ourselves some decent beef.

The jus, however, was fab!

Meanwhile...back at the soufflé...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Glastonbury Festival 2008 – Sunday

On Saturday several good things happened. Firstly it didn’t rain, despite the forecast. The sun came out and dried up all the mud leaving the walkways feeling a bit like a rubber mat though not quite so sweet smelling. Secondly Amy Winehouse made it to the Festival, opened on time, and sort of made it through the set, although at one point she got down among the crowd and gave her minders a heart attack.

Of course the sun makes a huge difference to the day, and it was lovely to see people swap the rain ponchos for – well, see for yourself!

Up at the Acoustic Tent where I listened to Thea Gilmore, Andy Fairweather Low and Seth Lakeman (who did a stormin’ set) people were singing the praises of Pilton Pasta, a bunch of local people who were offering a bowl of fresh cooked penne with simple but tasty home made sauces for a fiver. I tried the fresh vegetable sauce with mine and it was pretty delicious. And the fiver would have been well spent because, as we know, pasta keeps you going. What nobody ever tells you is that Glastonbury is a tremendously physical event – you have to trudge for miles to get where you want to go, and that includes the loo! After a couple of days I’m beginning to feel the benefit of all this walking, but I am by no means match fit!

This morning there are more dark clouds sailing overhead, but they just keep moving on so maybe we will be lucky and have another dry day.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


This is unmissable! Somerset and Avon Police have horse patrols at Glastonbury and this is the view from their riders.

Glastonbury 2008 - Saturday

Right. So this was the Glastonbury Festival 2008 on Thursday…

And this was the Glastonbury Festival 2008 on Friday. A little spot of overnight rain turned the hard baked earth into a sticky mire. But only on the well tramped thoroughfares so it could be worse. Still, it makes walking and staying upright quite a challenge and you work out muscles you didn’t know you have.

The scale of the thing is just phenomenal. There are 150,000 people here. The population of Bath is only 90,000, and Bath covers a lot more than the 1000 acres of this peaceful valley. I watched everyone arriving on Wednesday and Thursday and I was so impressed. They parked their cars and then trudged patiently for what seems like miles to get to their camping ground. The must-have accessory is a wheelbarrow and I plan to snap up one of the leftover ones at the end for my allotment!

There is food everywhere. I don’t know how people have time to listen to the music they’re so busy chomping, and that doesn’t count all the biscuits in the tents. Chomp, chomp, squelch, squelch…that’s the soundtrack to Glastonbury. Huge queues formed around the falafel stalls – my thinking is vegetarian, deep fried, comfort food and probably safe! I was glad to find a free range chicken stand that was using local chicken, and Yeo Valley is here with local organic yogs and ices.

The best apple and pear juice on the park is from my favourite The Orchard Pig, who are here with their own Gloucester Old Spot sausages and bacon as well. From Dorset there is Hall’s Smokehouse, offering smoked salmon and smoked mackerel in a wrap. Delicious, if pricey at £5.50.

I liked the look of the Chimichurri Argentinian steak sandwiches with chimichurri sauce, again around the £5 - £6 mark and someone is doing gourmet fish and chips – haddock only – cooked to order.

Some kids from Leeds are here with really excellent home-made lemonade, and you have to try a Welsh Oggie – Welsh steak, Welsh veggies, in a puff pastry crust so nice you can eat the whole thing.

More rain is forecast for Saturday, but Sunday looks clear, which is when Neil Diamond and Leonard Cohen are rattling their Zimmers on the main Pyramid Stage. Today we have Crowded House, British Sea Power, Seth Lakeman and Buddy Guy. Tonight we are all several gogs to see if Amy Winehouse actually makes it. Last night in Hyde Park for Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert she seemed a bit, er, distracted. What that girl needs is a decent Welsh Oggie…

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Glastonbury Festival

Well, the countdown is definitely under way. Next week sees the start of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. I live less than four miles away from the entrance gate and if I opened the window at my house the noise would be palpable, so I decided perhaps I had better attend in person! I’m thinking of my grandchildren. If I don’t go they will say “You lived less than four miles away and you didn’t go??? What was the matter with you???”

The last time I was at Glastonbury was 1973. There were a few people in a field. Now it has grown into the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world. Over the past few weeks the signs have been going up and the lanes have been filled with snorting screaming lorries loaded with fencing and portable loos. The big tents have been going up for companies like Orange Mobile where everyone will be able to recharge their phones, and up on a hill there is a bunch of tipis which will house the richer Festival goers.

If you’re really loaded you’ll be staying at Camp Kerala and hobnobbing with supermodels and would-be royals. I actually know someone who’ll be up there and I’m hoping the party will be at her’s!

I’ve bought a tent, which I haven’t tried to put up yet. I’ve bought an inflatable mattress with a built-in foot pump, and I’ve bought a lantern. The lantern comes with a key fob so that when you’re staggering back to your tent in the dark and you know it’s around here somewhere you can press the key fob and your tent will light up, like a beacon in the night! Isn’t technology marvellous! (I have a friend who takes a very dim view of anything that improves the Glastonbury experience. I think he thinks that suffering and getting lost is part of the magic.)

I plan to write about the food on offer, in the hope that I’ll find something delicious and tasty among the pot noodles and burgers. You never know!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Elderflower jelly

Everybody seems to be making jelly these days, jellies for cheese, jellies with herbs, jellies with and for everything. And as the hedgerows are frothing with elderflowers I thought I’d have a go at making elderflower jelly.

The base is a Bramley apple jelly, left to drip overnight and then flavoured with elderflowers. For this you will need a jelly bag, but if you don’t have one, or, like me, can’t find it because you use it so infrequently, just use a pillowcase. Support it on a sturdy coat hanger and hang it from something over a large bowl.

4 lbs Bramleys
3 pints water
2 pounds sugar
6-8 heads elderflowers
3-4 tbsp lemon juice

Wash, core and chop the apples roughly. Put in a pan with the water, bring to the boil and simmer until very soft. Pour into a jelly bag and allow to drip overnight.

Next day measure the juice and add one pound of sugar for every pint of juice. Dissolve the sugar over a gentle heat. Add the elderflowers tied in muslin. Bring to the boil and boil vigorously until the setting point is reached.

Remove flowers. Add the lemon juice and allow to cool slightly.

Pour into clean sterilised jars and seal.

This is lovely with cold chicken, or to deglaze a pan that you have cooked chicken in. It’s also great with lamb.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Apple Blossom Day

May is Apple Blossom Time in Somerset. This is when the harvest to come in the autumn starts out on its annual journey. Never an easy time as wind and rain and frost can wreak havoc on the crop, but somehow the trees make it through and when the blossom comes it’s like a snowstorm in May.

This year one of the Somerset orchards – The Orchard Pig near Glastonbury – opened its orchards to the public for the first time on Mayday Bank Holiday. The different varieties of tree come into blossom at different times, and the flowers last for no more than about a week but during that time it is a breathtaking sight. People said it was like being on a different planet for the afternoon!

The Orchard Pig has 45 acres of trees at its main home at West Bradley. In the autumn the apples will be hand-graded and farm-pressed to make five different single variety apple juices and dry and medium cider made in the French style.

The Orchard Pig
West Bradley Orchard
West Bradley
Nr Glastonbury

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Real Food Festival, London

Another food festival to add to the growing calendar. I liked it. I’ve been to a lot of food festivals in the last couple of years and I’m often disappointed, because the big boys always seem to crowd out the little producers, and it’s nearly always the latter that I find most interesting.

This time the stallholders were handpicked by an advisory team with impressive credentials, and attendance was subsidised. You can tell immediately if the person on the other side of the stall has had any involvement in the production of the thing they are selling, and these people were there in abundance.

There were Master Classes from chefs like Barney Haughton from Bordeaux Quay in Bristol – everybody learned how to make ailloli – and tastings aplenty. I got there at 10.30 in the morning and by 11.00 I had eaten cheese, oysters, chilli chocolate chip cookies, red wine, an ice lolly, rum and olives. Oh and a monster brownie. I had to have a little sit down and an Alka Seltzer.

With wood shavings on the floor which reflected the light and made the cavernous exhibition centre feel like the biggest farmer’s market in the world, and hundreds of quality stalls it was certainly a foodie’s delight. The arrangement of stalls, however, with stalls all grouped together according to product, will have disappointed some producers. And with all that free tasting the people who were there to sell snacks may have felt a bit left out. Four days of festival and a setting up day means that people were away from their businesses for a long time and the first couple of days were badly attended. I think a lot of producers may stay away next year, which will be a pity as the advance publicity will be better. But the quality really was good and that is something that the more regional festivals could learn from.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The heart of a tomato

This is one of the little tomato seedlings which are currently reaching for the sky on my windowsill. If April is, as T S Eliot wrote, the cruellest month, one of the reasons is because some of these little ones will make it, and some just won’t. All the tiny shoots basking in the hot spring sunshine are about to have a horrid weekend – snow is forecast across the country.

But maybe this will be one of the lucky ones. It’s an old variety called Harrison’s First in the Field and I’m going to grow it outside and cross my fingers. If it turns into a tomato plant, and if there is enough sunshine in Somerset, I may get some good round healthy fruits, and then I can test out the conclusions of Heston Blumenthal's first published scientific paper.

The paper, published with academics from the University of Reading last year, observes that the pulp of the tomato, which contains the seeds, has more umami taste than the outer flesh. Umami is a Japanese word meaning "savoury" or "deliciousness", and is a proposed addition to the currently accepted four basic tastes sensed by specialised receptor cells present on the human tongue (Wikipedia). There's a whole web site devoted to this one word.

The interesting thing about this discovery is that, as you will have figured out, most recipes tell you to squeeze out the tomato seeds and throw away the centre pulp. Apparently, according to Heston et al if you do that you will be throwing out the tastiest bit of the tomato. So…not just a pretty face eh?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rapeseed oil: the next big (yellow) thing

Stand by for two things. The first is the explosion of acid yellow rapeseed flowers that will dazzle the eyes in fields across the country in early summer. The second is the explosion of locally grown, cold pressed rapeseed oil that is going to migrate from the plastic bottles on the bottom shelf to the fancy bottles on the top shelf, where the olive oil sits.

We’ve been growing rapeseed in this country for years, thanks to EEC subsidies, and the EU interest in biofuels is going to see to it that those glaring fields of yellow continue to shock. I don’t mind them; they put me in mind of French impressionists and I quite like the scent although I believe it gives some people a headache. All the oilseed rape grown in the UK is GM free, which is nice, but I bet you didn’t know that 85-95% of it goes into the food chain. And most of the stuff in plastic bottles that is labelled ‘vegetable oil’ is actually rapeseed oil. I don’t think I would like to know about the processes the large scale manufacturers use to recover the oil, but then I wouldn’t like to know about what they do to make ordinary olive oil either.

No. We are now talking about a high end product. Cold pressed, low in saturated fat, ten times more Omega 3 than olive oil, and a natural source of Vitamin E, rapeseed oil is locally produced in an increasing number of locations in the UK. Arable farmers who previously took little interest in what happened to their product are now keenly aware of consumers’ concerns about food miles and a market has opened up. I sampled oil from two producers; Mellow Yellow from Farringtons in Northants, and Oleifera from right up in Northumberland, on the Scottish borders.

Mellow Yellow is a virgin cold pressed oil with an unfiltered cloudy look in the bottle. Grown by Duncan Farrington on his LEAF marque farm (Linking Environment And Farming) it is one of the leaders in this new move from commodity product to a competitor to olive oil. The seeds are planted in August and the pods are harvested at the end of July. You can plant a variety of rape in the spring, but it tends to have a bitter taste. The seeds are pressed gently, at temperatures which never rise above 31ºC, thereby retaining all the health giving properties.

Oleifera, in its elegant tall bottle which won’t fit into my cupboard, is clear and bright golden. Grown by a group of farmers in the borders the crop seems to like the climate and thrives. It settles naturally to give a bright sparkling oil which, aside from all its healthy properties, has a high burning point of around 230ºC, making it ideal for frying and for roast potatoes to which it imparts its wonderful golden colour. From first pressing to bottling takes about six weeks and if you’re wondering about the name – Oleifera is latin for ‘oil-bearing seed’, and as the Romans brought the seed to Britain it is an appropriate name.

So – what does it taste like? Both oils look bright and clean, with the Oleifera bright in the bottle and Mellow Yellow cloudy and unfiltered – good in my book. Mellow Yellow has a bit more scent than Oleifera when you sniff it. When I tasted the Oleifera my first thought was ‘buttery’. It has a warm, clean taste, very light and with a trace of sweetness. Mellow Yellow – my first thought was ‘new mown hay’. A definite but quite pleasant vegetal taste, sweet and clean. Both producers describe their product as having a ‘nutty’ taste, but when I think ‘nutty’ I think of walnuts and hazelnuts and there is no comparison.

But if, like me, you really like olive oil, I think you will be disappointed. The complexity of olive oil, the pepper, the hit at the back of the throat, the bitterness or lack of it, the acid freshness green or golden, those notes are absent. I don’t honestly think you could offer your guests a pool of rapeseed oil to dandle their bread in and expect coos of delight.

But, on the other hand, you know how cook books are always telling you not to use your best olive oil for such and a thing, and you end up using your best olive oil because you only have one bottle? Well, for roasting potatoes instead of goose fat, for massaging the roast chicken before it goes into the oven, for mayonnaise when you don’t want the strength of the olive flavour to dominate, and for a light salad dressing – this will be ideal. And it hasn’t travelled very far to get to you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sea kale

I grew up in the North West of England, on the shores of the Irish Sea. We had a flat golden strand where lunatics went sand yachting, and a cinder track that ran along between the dunes and the golf links. Strange blue glaucous plants grew among the sand and the shingle; sea holly with its blue spiky globes, and sea kale with its mass of tiny white flowers in the summer. I didn’t know then what I know now about sea kale. Although the tough green foliage is almost inedible when it is at its height you can force it like rhubarb early in the year, and then you have an entirely different thing.

I have a friend who grew up the son of a greengrocer in London; he has been explaining to me how certain vegetables, like chicory, were so delicate and so sought after that they came into the shop in special boxes, wrapped closely in waxed paper. That’s how the early forced shoots of sea kale arrived, a high priced vegetable with a delicate nutty flavour, brightening the winter diet of root veg and cabbage. It was known as winter asparagus.

They used to force the stems by piling up sand and shingle around them, but now you aren’t allowed to pick sea kale from the wild because it was overpicked in the twentieth century and a ban was enforced. Sandy Patullo at Eassie Farm near Forfar in Angus, Scotland, grows a crop commercially in polytunnels, and is now about the only grower producing sea kale on any scale in the UK.

You can grow it from seed, but it takes forever and is a bit hit and miss. You can however, occasionally, find someone who will sell you a plant. And I found someone just around the corner! Dinah Lindon-Critchley at Blooming Hill Plants in Shepton Mallet, Somerset,grows an eclectic selection of vegetable plants – 42 different varieties of tomato just for a start, plus all sorts of other interesting things, and she is one of the few places in the country that you can get sea kale.

The tiny shoots are dark purple at the moment. I will let them get on with it for a while and see what happens when I force them next year.

A.H. Pattullo
Eassie Farm
01307 840303

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How to make butter

George Keen is one of the great Somerset cheesemakers; his family has been making traditional farmhouse cheddar for over a hundred years and Keen’s cheddar is one of the three great artisan cheddars in the Slow Food presidia.

Keen’s cheese is made with unpasteurised milk from their own herds, hand cheddared, cloth bound and sealed with lard, and left to mature for at least ten months.

If you have your own milk, like George, you also have access to your own cream, so a few of us gathered the other day, courtesy of Slow Food Somerset, for a lesson from George in butter making. As luck would have it the stainless steel butter churn, which would have hidden the whole process from view, had broken down, so it was back to old fashioned methods. We were each handed a screw topped jar half filled with two day old cream, and invited to shake. If you try this yourself, don’t use very fresh cream – it won’t work.

There’s a lot to be said for churning your own butter in a glass jar. You can see all the various processes as they happen.

The cream thickens quite quickly and then solidifies into a lump surrounded by thin buttermilk. When you take it out of the jar it is quite granular. This is just how it should be. The next step is to wash it. You wash the butter grains in cold fresh water, which washes out the excess proteins, and then you knead the mass, adding in salt if you want some salt in your butter. Having tasted the butter with absolutely no salt in it I do think that a very little salt is a good thing for taste purposes. And it does preserve the butter.

Next you want a pair of butter hands! These wooden paddles are soaked first in hot water, which opens the grain of the wood, and then in cold water, which closes the grain. The effect is to prevent the paddles from sticking to the butter, a bit like wetting your hands before you make meat balls. You then work the butter into pats, or blocks, or rolls.

I’m filled with pride to be able to say “I made this” – my butter, made under the tuition of one of the world’s greatest dairymen, unpasteurised, golden, and all my own work!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thomas Etty Esq, Heritage Seedsman

The small family firm of Thomas Etty, in Horton, Somerset, is the only heritage seedsman in the UK, quite possibly the only real heritage seedsman in the world. That’s quite a claim, but one that Ray Warner and his family (Mr Etty's representatives on earth) feel passionately about. Whilst other seed merchants number some heritage seeds in their catalogues, Thomas Etty sells only heritage seeds, 450 varieties at the last count. Everything listed in the catalogue has a history and a provenance, many going back to the originals listed by Philippe-Andre de Vilmorin in the 1880s. So if you want to make an fifteenth century flower garden you need to talk to Thomas Etty Esq.

The catalogue lists flowers and bulbs, but my main interest at the moment is the vegetables. The seed bank in this country has narrowed over the last few decades, firstly because large producers wanted a uniform product that all ripened at the same time, and secondly because the EU insisted that seed varieties should be tested and approved for our safety. Testing costs money and without it seeds cannot be listed. In the last 100 years, 90% of UK vegetable varieties have been lost from our soils and, as we know, large corporations now control a quarter of the world’s seed markets, raising issues of genetic modification and disease resistant F1 hybrids that do not breed true.

Many of the old varieties do have built in disease resistance but are a funny shape, and they ripen unevenly. But as a gardener, I’m concerned with flavour and the last thing I want is all my tomatoes to ripen on the same day! And I don’t mind if they are not a uniform size because I don’t have packaging issues. What I want is a wonderful taste, and perhaps some old fashioned beauty. It never really occurred to me before, but for a long time green was not necessarily the only colour for a French bean – it could be yellow, or purple, or maroon splashed with cream.

Ray and Jane Warner, and their son Dan, have their business in a small village near Ilminster, Somerset. They buy in from a small number of wholesalers and package the seeds in smaller quantities for sale mainly on the internet. This low cost high volume business was made for the web and they have as much business as they want at the moment, selling everything with no need to advertise. Last year they sold 32,000 packets of seeds from their cottage, to customers all over the world, although getting past the US regulations requires some skills.

I love the names of some of these old varieties – how did a lettuce called Fat Lazy Blonde get its name I wonder? Or the one called Drunken Woman? And what will my beans look like if they are called Coco Rouge de Prague? Can’t wait to find out!

The other source of heritage seeds is what used to be called the Henry Doubleday Research Association and has now become Garden Organic. Gardeners pay to become members of the seed library, and each year they are given a selection of six of the hundreds of varieties to grow.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


If you make your own bread you will have come across the proving baskets known as bannetons. Traditionally these baskets are made of wicker or cane, some sort of breathable material, and often they have a cloth liner made of calico to prevent sticking. For some reason the ones you can purchase for domestic use seem to be incredibly expensive. I have made my own from time to time, fashioned from a basket or a colander lined with a tea towel, and it didn’t work terribly well! A while ago I was given a couple of cane baskets by an artisan baker and I have been using them a lot. They give a lovely beehive finish to the loaf. But they do stick occasionally.

Lately I came across a German company called Ernst Birnbaum who make proving baskets for the bread trade and will sell them to domestic breadbakers for a small additional cost. They have a very utilitarian web site which has an English version. Their range is astonishing and the prices are extremely reasonable. It took me a while to figure out the best way to pay for my order because my bank wanted to charge a huge amount for transferring the money, but eventually I used PayPal and I would urge anyone considering the exercise to do likewise.

I expected that the order would take a few weeks to arrive but four days after the PayPal instruction went through there was a knock on my front door and there they were. I was amazed.

These proving baskets are made of wood pulp and are very light but also sturdy. I suppose if commercial bakers are using them regularly they expect them to last. They do somehow remind you of something you might have seen in a hospital! I floured mine well before the dough went in and when I turned it out there was a satisfying sucking thunnckkk as it came out perfectly. The basket leaves tiny linen like indentations on the surface of the dough which stand out nicely when you slash the top.

I ordered seven pieces in different sizes for friends and myself and the total, including delivery charges from Germany, VAT and extras came to 45 euros. Impossibly little for something that really works well. I recommend them unhesitatingly.

Ernst Birnbaum

Friday, February 22, 2008

Chard labour

I acquired an allotment last autumn, or half an allotment to be exact. The day I heard about it I went down at sunset and looked at the huge piece of ground of which I had become the custodian. It seemed to stretch into the distance and I thought I would never fill it. I went home and sketched out my plans on paper. The next day I returned, looked at the plot, looked at the paper, and suddenly it was tiny!

I had to choose between asparagus and artichokes, between salsify and spinach, between brassicas and beets; I wanted a quince tree and a mulberry, an apricot, a peach… ohhhh and I wanted it NOW!

But you have to be sensible and get a grip. The microplot, as it now appeared, is just not big enough for everything, never mind a mulberry tree, but it is plenty big for my needs which are simple. I was however desperate to plant something there and then. I planted chard, that leafy green vegetable with the pale ribs. And surprisingly it grew and thrived. Oddly, I felt bad about picking it. It was growing along nicely and it seemed a shame to cut it off. But I got over that.

My chard doesn’t look like the kind you get in shops. To be honest it looks a bit manky, with some holes and some yellow leaves, but when you twist off the roots they come away with a satisfyingly juicy crunch that bodes well. The first batch I cooked was unbelievable – fresh fresh fresh.

What to make with it: the one thing I know about chard is that the Italians love it and put it into ravioli fillings.

I have just purchased The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley and others, and I know Gillian to be a fine writer and researcher and an authority on Italian art. This book is a monumental work, the first in a series that follows in the steps of Alan Davidson’s magnificent Oxford Companion to Food. But it has nothing on chard, or swiss chard, or biete which is the Italian for chard. Nothing under vegetables, or greenery, or ravioli. It is missing. It is not there. I think this is a bit of an omission in what is supposed to be a compendium.

But it’s not hard to find a recipe for a ravioli filling that uses chard, and they are all pretty much the same.
For two people

Chard – about 4 washed and sliced handfuls
Ricotta – about three dessertspoons
1 egg
(You can add some chopped pine nuts too if you like.)

Wilt the chard in a tiny bit of water with the lid on
Drain, and press out extra water
When cool enough to handle chop finely
Add ricotta and egg to make a paste
Season generously

If you are going to make your own ravioli you really need a pasta machine. I speak as someone who disdained the things for ages, until today actually. But it is very very difficult to roll out pasta dough thin enough to make acceptable ravioli without one despite what Gillian Riley says. I know. So once the chard idea took root the next thing was a pasta machine acquisition and lo, the Great God Argos had one in his sale half price. Sometimes you just know that a thing is meant to be and that pasta machine had my name on it.

I thought it would be a bit of tin and it would fall to pieces immediately. But I was very wrong. Argos are selling a good heavy bit of chrome with a good solid clamp and I am absolutely delighted with it. But apparently they will not be stocking these things any more, which is why they are half price, so I take it that DIY pasta is now out of fashion.

Meanwhile I had a lot of fun making pasta so thin you could read the newspaper through it. I only used half of the pasta dough so tomorrow – the attachmenty thing for making tagliatelle!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Delia, for the love of God…

Last night I decided to rustle up some nice simple leek and potato soup because those were the ingredients to hand – a couple of leeks, an onion, some potatoes, some chicken stock and the remains of a tub of clotted cream.

Just in case there might have been a revolution in the recipe for leek and potato soup I had a look at Delia Online, the website of the sainted Delia Smith. I wasn’t expecting very much – I mean how complicated is it to chop a few leeks and a couple of potatoes?

Imagine my surprise when I find that she recommends using three discs of frozen mashed potato. Am I seeing things? No. The woman who had the public sweep the shelves clean of fresh cranberries a few years ago is recommending we buy frozen mashed potato. And not any old frozen mash either, but McCain’s frozen mash – she even spells it out. (Wonder how much that works out at per click?)

Honestly, how long does it take to peel a spud? Or to get someone else to do it for you?

I know that Delia’s new thing is that food has become too cheffy and programmes like Masterchef where budding cooks get their dishes trashed are off-putting to the inexperienced, but for goodness sake... there are times for cheating and a potato is not one of them.

Delia’s new book is full of this sort of stuff. It’s called How to Cheat at Cooking and it will go straight into the bestseller charts at No 1 on pre-orders alone. I don’t think Gordon Ramsay will be buying it, and neither will I.

Reasons for peeling my own potato:

I know where it came from and how far it travelled.
I know how it was raised and what its name is
I can listen to the radio and drink a glass of wine as I peel
A child can do it and it is an excellent introduction to food for them
I put the peelings on the compost heap and they nourish the ground

Any more reasons for peeling your own potato are welcome!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Potted pheasant

It’s a bit late this year, because the pheasant season has just ended, but if some time you find yourself cooking pheasants and you have some left over this is a really good way to use it up. The number of times I have carefully put the leftover legs in the fridge and never used them because by the time they are chilled they are tough and chewy and full of sinews, when I could have been making potted pheasant.

Remove as much of the flesh as you can from the leftovers and make stock with the rest. If the bird has got cold a good way is to reheat it in a low oven with the braising vegetables and a little wine, cider or water. When cool enough you can get quite a lot off the bones.

Clarify some butter by slowly heating the butter through and pouring off the clear liquid, leaving behind the milky fluid.

Whizz the pheasant in a processor with some of the reduced braising stock, some clarified butter and about half a teaspoonful of my favourite spice, mace, or the same of nutmeg, plus some black pepper.

Pack into a clean jar and pour clarified butter over the top to seal. Should keep in the fridge for several weeks.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A woodcock

Someone gave me something beautiful the other day. And I ate it.

A woodcock is a small game bird, with a wondrous long beak. Its plumage is designed more for camouflage than for showing off, but that beak is amazing. Long and slender, it is used to probe and search for earthworms, and the top half of it is flexible. You will never see them for sale so a gift from a hunter is a rare prize.

This is one of those birds that you can, apparently, eat insides and all. However the Orvis website suggests that you need to have three Martinis first – maybe to face up to the innards – and that you cook your bird for 25 minutes in a moderate oven. The Shooter said he wouldn’t eat the bits himself and I decided that neither would I. Roasted for twelve minutes in a hot oven it makes a meal for one person, with a taste that is rich and deep but not over gamey. Maybe the only time in my life I will get to taste it.

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