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Bread, Water, Salt, Oil...

an occasional journal from Somerset, England, about food and cookery

Updated: 2017-08-15T15:44:06.296+01:00




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[...]

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) (image) 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.



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…[...]

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!

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. Ingredients4 lbs Bramleys3 pints water2 pounds sugar6-8 heads elderflowers3-4 tbsp lemon juice MethodWash, 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.[...]

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.

(image) 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!

(image) 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

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.[...]

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.

(image) 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?

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 absen[...]

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. PattulloEassie FarmEassieForfarAngusDD8 1SG01307 840303[...]

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! [...]

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. [...]



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 BirnbaumEmail: [...]

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 peopleIngredientsChard – about 4 washed and sliced handfulsRicotta – about three dessertspoons1 eggNutmegSeasoning(You can add some chopped pine nuts too if you like.) MethodWilt the chard in a tiny bit of water with the lid onDrain, and press out extra waterWhen cool enough to handle chop finelyAdd ricotta and egg to make a pasteSeason 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! [...]

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 isI can listen to the radio and drink a glass of wine as I peelA child can do it and it is an excellent introduction to food for themI put the peelings on the compost heap and they nourish the ground Any more reasons for peeling your own potato are welcome! [...]

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.

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

A woodcock



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

(image) 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.

In Defence of Food


Michael Pollan’s new book In Defence of Food describes in detail how food, our food, real food, has been stolen from us, commercialised by the business of nutritionism. Not nutrition, he points out, but nutritionism, a pseudo science that insists that food can be reduced to its component parts and then synthesised, recombined and sold back to us at enormously inflated prices. Food, he says, is something that our grandmothers would have recognised as such. It is the whole carrot, not the beta-carotene supplement. It is the simple version of yoghurt, not the fat reduced, gelled, bulked, flavoured omega-3 substance with the corn syrup sweetener. It is real bread, made with whole grains, fresh yeast, salt and water and NOTHING ELSE. And on the day when my newspaper announced a study by scientists at Oxford University into the links between eating junk food and violent behaviour he also makes the connection between this reductionist approach to eating and the fashionable and very very scary condition known as metabolic syndrome. Last Tuesday 22 January BBC Radio 4 devoted its Case Notes programme to this disorder. You can hear what was said here. The rocketing rates for obesity and diabetes are, says Pollan, a direct result of our Western Diet, which has allowed commercial interests and nutritionism – sponsored by those same interests – to hijack what we eat and in the process make a lot of us very ill indeed. But capitalism is also able to turn these problems to its advantage and sell us diet pills, diet books, spa treatments and heart bypass operations. Pollan estimates the cost to society in health care costs to be in the region of $250 billion a year for America alone. I have an interest in all this because ten years ago I had bowel cancer and I had a good look at my diet to see what I thought could have caused it. A few years later a good friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and again we found ourselves scrutinising what was in the fridge. We are coming down with studies about what we should eat, or drink, and every time a new one comes out we have to throw out the butter, or the red wine, or the margarine, or the chocolate, and start all over again. You would think they could get it right, but maybe, just maybe, there is more to food than the sum of its constituent parts. Maybe a carrot is more than beta-carotene, maybe it's its inherent carrotiness that makes it good for us. A major culprit is the way we eat, or should I say consume, our calories. In front of the tv, in front of the computer, in the car, who knows what goes into their mouth? Could be cornflakes, could be the packet…and the less time we spend eating the more obese we seem to get, whereas people who spend two hours eating their lunch actually consume fewer calories. Go figure. Pollan offers some advice; don’t eat anything your grandmother would not have recognised as food. Don’t buy supplements, buy the whole food. Eat more plants than meat (and if you have read his previous book The Omnivore’s Dilemma you will know why this is a good idea), and eat a bit less of everything. Personally I find I’m becoming extremely narrow minded about food. I eat seasonal vegetables, some of which I grow myself. I never buy ready meals – because I find my teeth banging together in the middle in search of some integrity – and I don’t buy things with unpronounceable ingredients like ethoxylated diglycerides. I make my own bread so I know what goes into it and I try to ensure that my vodka is the purest I can find. W[...]

Raise your glasses please…


Yes, it’s Burns Night. All over the world people with only the faintest claim to Scots nationality will be getting in touch with their inner celt. People who never normally drink whisky, and wouldn’t dream of drinking it throughout a meal, are downing tots of expensive single malt and tucking into haggis and neeps as if it were a gourmet dish. Haggis, like Christmas Pudding, is one of those once-a-year, whether-you-feel-like-it-or- not dishes. And every year I think to myself “You know, this is not bad. I should eat this more often.” It helps that I really like neeps, or swede if you’re from the south of England, or turnip if you’re from the north of England. Very confusing. Robert Burns has been getting a makeover recently, and not entirely to his advantage. Out goes the dreaming romantic at the plough, breaking his heart over a harvest mouse. In comes the upwardly mobile philanderer, loving and leaving endless maidens, usually pregnant. He supplemented his meagre farming income with a proper job as an exciseman and seriously thought about emigrating to the West Indies to manage a sugar plantation, complete with slaves. But I used to live just down the road from the Burns farm, and a low miserable place it was, along with all its neighbours. Annan, on the Solway, was a place where they built clippers until the early part of the twentieth century, and those ships must have whispered to him of faraway places with much better opportunities, and weather. The dialect in which he wrote is another reason why folk love him; he holds up two fingers to the swanky language of more acceptable poets, and if you can understand his lines that makes you a bit of a rebel, along with him. When I arrived in the South of Scotland it was 1960. We had nuclear power stations and everything. My first day in school the rest of the class stood up and, one by one, recited the poem they had learnt. “The bairnies cuddle doon at nichtWi muckle focht and din.O try and sleep, ye waukrife bairnsYer faither’s comin in…” I had only moved about seventy miles north from England, but it felt like a different planet.For the following week we all had to learn a Burns poem, To a Mouse, and all this time later it is still etched in my memory, the language lilting and strange, and even to my ears then a cut above the bairns above. “Wee, sleekit cowerin timorous beastie,Oh what a power’s in thy breastieThou need nae run awa sae hastieWi bickerin brattleI would be laith to run and chase theeWi murderin pattle. I’m truly sorry man’s dominionHas broken nature’s social unionAnd justifies that ill opinionWhich makes thee startle at meThy poor earth born companionAnd fellow mortal.” Robert Burns may have died because he drank foul water from the Brow Well, or because he had a heart complaint, or from the excesses of alcohol, it isn’t really clear, but 50,000 people came out onto the streets of Dumfries in July 1796 to see his funeral cortege pass by. He was 37 years old. Nobody in their right mind would think of making a haggis from scratch, but if you are really that way inclined you might find this article interesting.[...]

Hot pot


I’m sure everyone knows the background to the famous Lancashire hotpot; it’s one of those dishes that was prepared in the morning and put into the baker’s oven after the bread came out to cook long and slow and be ready at the end of the day. It’s a hearty warming dish for a cold day and maybe the men took it down the mine wrapped in a blanket as I have read, or maybe the mill women with their shawls around their shoulders and their clogs sparking on the cobbles collected it from the baker on their way home to feed hungry families. I always thought it was the latter actually but it could be both. I looked up various recipes for Lancashire Hotpot, which I remember from my childhood in Cumbria where we had it for school lunch (yup, those were the days!) and I’m interested to see that the early 20th century recipes mention oysters, tucked under the final potato layer, as well as kidneys. But the surprise was that there was a special pot in which to cook the hotpot, a tall straight sided crock, in which the long boned mutton chops were stood on end to cook slowly all day with onions and maybe a carrot or two. The only illustration I can find comes from Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, published in 1954. She describes how the vegetables are packed in around the chops and the lid put on to cover everything until 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time when you take it off to let the potato topping brown. If you haven’t got chops that will stand on their ends any other manageable cut of lamb or mutton will do fine. And this is a hearty dish so you shouldn’t be using your best olive oil for it – dripping is the thing. Melt the dripping in a pan and fry a sliced onion until soft. Put the onion in the bottom of a crock with a bay leaf.Brown the meat on either side and add to the crock.Add kidney if you are using it, then a sliced carrot and some sliced mushrooms. Season as you go.Make a gravy by adding a spoonful of flour to the fat in the pan and stirring in about a pint of brown stock.Arrange sliced potatoes over the top of the meat and vegetables and pour the gravy over. Finally sprinkle a teaspoonful of sugar over the potatoes and put to cook slowly in a medium oven for a couple of hours.15 minutes before the end of the cooking time take the lid off and allow the potatoes to brown. I don’t know why this dish works so well cooked this way, but it does. Mutton would be better than lamb but lamb is good. Don’t be tempted to do anything any more fancy than the above – no garlic, no rosemary, just salt and pepper, and that final scatter of sugar. The correct thing to serve with it is a dish or a glass jar of pickled red cabbage. Which I don't happen to have about me. [...]

Wassailing, Somerset 2008


In the days when Christmas Day was celebrated on 5 January Twelfth Night was celebrated twelve days later on 17 January. This date is now known as Old Twelfth Night and is a traditional date for festivities throughout the cider making counties of England. Glastonbury holds its celebration in the wonderful fourteenth-century Abbey Barn which is part of the Somerset Rural Life Museum. The fun involves drinking cider, eating cake, and trudging out to the apple orchard to make a libation and to scare away the evil spirits. So everyone turns up on a cold damp evening wearing wellies and warm jackets. The really nice thing about this event is that there was a real whiff of authenticity about it. The Master of Ceremonies was Bernard Coulter of the Somerset Levellers Band who swept us through the history and evidence and the claims for tradition with a healthy and scholarly scepticism and then launched us into some of the old wassailing songs with gusto. When I tell you that one of them is about the time when the Danes were a menace locally and how King Alfred got rid of them you will understand that we are going back a bit! We have long memories in Somerset! First comes the cake, Somerset Apple Cake, handed round to everyone. It is moist with apple and spiced with cinnamon and crackling with brown sugar. Someone will find a bean in their piece, and they will become the King or Queen of the Wassail and be crowned with a wreath of green leaves. They are entitled to issue an edict – our King wished everyone to be happy for the night – and their reign lasts until midnight. Led by the King, holding a triple handled wassail cup filled with cider and a two pronged fork with a piece of toast soaked in cider, we process out to the orchard. The cider is sprinkled around the base of the apple tree, for a good harvest to come; the toast is placed in the boughs, for the robin; and a shot is fired into the branches, to ward off evil spirits. Then we all go back into the barn, for mulled cider and dancing and you’d be amazed how light footed you can be with wellies on your feet and cider in your belly! Somerset Apple Cake Ingredients:12 oz self-raising floura pinch of salt8 oz margarine/butter½ teaspoon cinnamon6 oz caster sugar4 oz sultanas1 lb cooking apples, finely chopped3 eggsa little milka little demerara sugar Method:Rub the fat into the flour and salt. Add the sugar and cinnamon. Make a well in the mixture and drop in the egg and fruit. Mix well; if the dough is a little too stiff, add some milk. Place in an eight-inch greased cake tin, and sprinkle a little demerara sugar on the top. Bake for one-and-a-half hours, in a moderate oven (Gas Mark 4/180°C/350°F). Allow to cool slightly before turning out onto a cooling rack. This cake is better if you wrap it up in foil or waxed paper for a day or two. [...]

Marmalade – a long cut


I usually avoid any recipe that tells me its method is easy. Easy generally means short cuts; easy like as not means dried, packaged, microwaved, deep frozen and processed; garlic granules, tinned potatoes, frozen mixed veg are easy, and none of them improve a meal. For years I have used the same old marmalade recipe, and now the page is so stained it is becoming impossible to read, so I looked for an alternative. I don’t want to make a different marmalade – I want to stick to my favourite dark coarse cut – and I don’t want grapefruit or ginger or whisky in it, but I’m prepared to try another method, just this once. Very rarely does easy offer a genuine benefit by suggesting a long rather than a short cut, but this marmalade recipe, from the blessed Delia Smith, does exactly that. The fragrance of the house during marmalade making is a once a year pleasure, as are, I suppose, the windows streaming with condensation and the general chaos of pips and fruit and stickiness. But it does take quite a long time, and you do need to pay attention. Start it in the evening, after work, and you’ll still be there at three in the morning. Delia has devised a method which fits in well with ‘our busy modern lives’ and can be taken up and paused and dovetailed with other things in a leisurely way. A long cut. In summary, you don’t juice the oranges and then cut up the peel, you poach them whole, let them cool and then scrape out the insides. Then you cut up the peel. See what I mean. Easy. The insides come away with all the pith and pips, which is the pectin bearing bit, and the skins are left thin and tender and won’t go all hard when you add the sugar. (I do have one complaint; she tells you to boil the stuff for far too long once the sugar is in, but you can be the judge of that. I will tell you my version.) Ingredients:1 kg Seville oranges1 unwaxed lemon5 pints water2kg granulated sugar Put the fruit into a preserving pan with the water and bring slowly up to simmering point. Cover the pan with a double thickness of foil and reduce heat so that the fruit poaches very gently without the liquid evaporating. This will take about three hours. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool. When fruit is cool enough to handle (I left it overnight) remove from liquid with a slotted spoon. Cut fruit in half. With a spoon scoop out the flesh, the pips and the pith and put into a medium saucepan. Discard the lemon peel but keep the orange. Add 1 pint of the poaching liquid to the saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to cool a little, then put into a sieve lined with a large square of muslin. Allow to drain. Meanwhile, cut up the orange peel as thin or thick as you like and put back into the remaining poaching liquid in the preserving pan. If you feel you lost a lot of the liquid during the poaching now is the moment to redress the balance. When the fruit and pips mixture has drained take up the corners of the muslin and twist really really tightly so that the pectin is squeezed out. Discard the detritus. Add the liquid to the preserving pan. Leave for several hours or overnight. When you are ready to take up the cooking again, warm the sugar through in a low oven for about 10 mins, then place the preserving pan on the stove, start heating it and pour in the warmed sugar all in one go. Let the sugar dissolve slowly and completely, then boil hard until[...]

Sic transit


Someone died. Someone I never met, and did not know beyond a couple of exchanges of emails, but someone who was part of a profound change in my life.How long ago was it exactly? Fourteen years or fifteen? I was married to a man who spent a lot of time in California. Life was tough for me and my daughter, left behind in the dank English climes while he spent his time beside the swimming pools. He was wheeling and dealing on our behalf, or so we thought; and we bided our time, waiting for the call to the sweet life. Instead we heard that he had just had a child with his Californian lover. Our family life was over. His idyll lasted long enough for her to bear him two girls; he lied about our marriage and tricked her out of thousands. She threw him out in the end. He returned to England and we haven’t spoken in years. We just heard that she has died. Her two girls are fourteen and twelve. It wasn’t her fault. None of it was her fault. Her daughters are the half sisters of my daughter, and, singleton that she is, she loves them as the sisters she never had. It would be too simple to say that had things been different we would not have lived such a frugal life for so long. Maybe it would have been even more limited. Certainly we became the authors of our own destiny, for better definitely, not for worse. But from a life of comparative luxury we certainly came to know how to make things go round. From that time I remember some things most strongly; there we were, in a gamekeeper’s cottage that would, under other circumstances, have been deemed romantic. Our heating came from a wood fired stove. Each morning in the winter I pulled wellingtons on under my dressing gown and trudged to the wood heap to keep the fire smouldering. Not very romantic. I daren’t let the car revs slow as I took my daughter to school, for fear it would stall, as it often did. Sometimes there was flooding, sometimes gales howled around the eaves of the little cottage, sometimes there was an evil black ice over all the roads.But the farming people hung braces of pheasant on our door handles for us to pluck and dress, and up the road was a house where they kept hens, and we got our eggs from them, fresh as you like. And one day we had new laid eggs and we found ceps in the wood, a whole lot of them. Next day we told rich friends about our omelette and their eyes grew great. I can’t really see her as the author of misfortune. Without her things would definitely have been different and it is not often that you can see so clearly the place where the road took a different turn. I never knew her, and I might not have liked her, but her girls are sisters to my girl, and they have lost her. And I have never had such eggs again.[...]



Today, Sunday, is a day about which stern weather warnings have been issued. I don’t think I have ever heard a weather forecaster actually tell me to stay indoors with a good book, but that is what they advised us to do today. Seems like a good day for a daube. I love the way the French use the name of the utensil in which a dish is cooked to describe it. Marmite, casserole, terrine, pot-au-feu come to mind, as does daube. Alan Davidson, in his monumental work The Oxford Companion to Food, tells us that the daube originated in 18th century Saint-Malo where they were a speciality and included artichokes, celery, pork cutlets, goose as well as beef, and the foodstuffs, once cooked, were removed to be eaten without the sauce and often cold, in the jelly. With the sauce the correct French name is en compote. So Boeuf en Daube, the one remaining familiar dish, should by rights be Boeuf en Compote. I will cook mine in the black oval cast iron cocotte that I use for just about everything. Next but one to Daube in Davidson’s fine book is David, Elizabeth, to whom I automatically turn first for recipes for this sort of thing. I have several of ED’s books, though not all by any means, and I was surprised to find that daube features at length in only one of them, French Provincial Cooking. She rightly says that there must be scores of different recipes for daubes in Provence alone, and how you make it is largely a matter of what you have. I chose to use topside, sliced and marinated overnight. Put the oven on at 290ºF.Into the pot goes:Olive oil to cover the surface of the potA couple of slices of streaky bacon, sliced1 onion, sliced finely1 carrot, sliced diagonally1 tomato, skinned and sliced Arrange the slices of meat on top, overlapping, and bury a flattened clove of garlic in the centre, plus a bouquet garni that includes a thin slice of orange peel. With the pan uncovered, start the cooking on top of the stove on a moderate heat. Strain the marinade into a small saucepan and add to it a large glass of red wine. Bring to the boil and simmer long enough to boil off some of the alcohol. Pour over the meat, cover the pot with foil and then a tight fitting lid and put into the oven for about 2 ½ hours. After no more than half an hour the scent of wine and oil and herbs and garlic starts to penetrate the house, bringing a delicious perfume of Provence to cold and windy old England. With the daube safely tucked up in the oven it is time to sit down to read, of which more anon. Serve the meat with a little of the sauce and perhaps, says ED, a persillade of finely chopped garlic and parsley, with an anchovy and a few capers. Or add some stoned black olives to the pot half an hour before the end of the cooking time. [...]