Saturday, 31 May 2008

Watercress: No River Required

Hot and peppery, juicy and crunchy, that’s how I like my watercress, and it would seem that the only way it’s going to be good is if it’s picked fresh and eaten straight away.
Supermarkets have the rather nasty knack of separating it into little pieces and squashing it into a plastic bag. This has the undesirable effect of bruising and ruining the flavour as well as the texture.

Now I’ve discovered that my local Sainbury’s has seen some sense and is supplying it living and growing in a pot. What a brilliant idea – if they can do it with herbs and lettuces, then why not watercress?
The one I found was even grown in my home county, so that proved to be an added delight.

Then it struck me. If it’s alive then why can’t I keep it going beyond it’s little container, so that it can provide a continous plentiful supply of its leaves and stems?
I promptly went in to the garden and filled a terracotta pot with compost and then eased the plant out of its plastic pot and divided it into three clumps. I planted them in the compost and then poured some gravel over and around. Next I put the whole pot into another container so that it could stand in water to keep it nice and moist.

As watercress normally grows in its natural habitat near to flowing streams I’ve been making sure that the water is changed regularly so that it doesn’t go stagnant.
The plants seem to be doing very well, especially after all the rain we've had (what happened to summer?) and have recovered well each time, after me snipping off their leaves.
For information about watercress and some recipe ideas visit: watercress.co.uk

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

"It's Puddings, Not Tarts!"

We found ourselves in Bakewell by accident, much like the famed puddings made in the town. The day trip to the Derbyshire Peak District, yes, I did say day trip, had another purpose – to meet up with family members, on a visit from abroad, whom we hadn’t seen for quite sometime.

We would have been perfectly happy to wander around Ashbourne, the town in which they were staying, but suggestions for some kind of day trip were made. Not exactly high on our agenda, as we’d already got up at stupid o’clock and driven for nearly three hours, much of it on the M1, through torrential rain and mucky spray.
Thankfully, the weather did not follow us all the way and it was dry, although very windy by the time we got there.

Not wanting to cause a fuss by making protests against any planned gallivanting, it was back in the car for the 17-mile drive, taking about 40 minutes, to Bakewell.
Don’t feel sorry for me; direct your sympathies towards my poor husband. I can’t drive, you see. I have tried a couple of times and taken tests, but I don’t think it’s for me – neither does the examiner.

We’ve been to this part of Derbyshire on a number of occasions and I still love the countryside with its lush rolling hills with fields full of rugged sheep and multi coloured cattle, and the rocky crags, valleys and rivers. But what I find most refreshing is that nearly all of the houses are built of stone. I find red brick so uninspiring and there’s a lot of it where I come from.

Bakewell seems to have been scrubbed up since our last visit, more than five years ago and a few things have changed, but despite it being a touristy town it still has plenty of old character and remains faithful to its historical roots. Around 924AD Edward the Elder who was the son of Alfred the Great established a military post or burgh at Badecanwyllan (bath well). This was probably the true beginning of the town. In the Domesday Book of 1085 the settlement was described as Badequella, from which the current name of Bakewell has evolved.
Obviously not only has the town evolved by name but by nature too as it grew over the centuries to become the Bakewell of today.

Access to the main car parks took us over the 13th century bridge that crosses the river Wye. It’s fine mediaeval arches reflected in the clear water where ducks, swans and geese were paddling, and if you looked closely you could even see huge trout swimming against the current – amazing! Why is it when I should be marvelling at the wonders of nature that a tasty fish recipe pops into my head? Seeing that trout hovering in the shallow water, almost made me want to jump in and catch it with my bare hands. The idea works in my head, but I doubt it would in reality! Slippery things, fish.

I would advise anyone intending on a trip to Bakewell that they plan to get there early, if visiting at weekends and especially so on Bank Holidays. It was Sunday and there were lots of people, which for me doesn’t seem quite right, in what I think should be a sleepy town. The place does tend to fill up very quickly with cars too, and on the downside, that makes for a lot of noise and dust. I imagine the source of the dust to be from the many nearby limestone quarries. Bikers can also be seen gathering and zipping up and down the main street in preparation for their blast up Snake Pass further into the Peak.
What’s with all the dogs too? I’ve never seen so many in one town all at the same time! To amuse myself I took a few sneaky photos of said pooches and hounds. . .

As I mentioned earlier Bakewell is famed for its puddings. The Bakewell pudding (please note NOT tart) was created by way of a culinary mistake and is nothing like what Mr Kipling will have you believe. It’s not spongy, there’s no icing and definitely no cherry!
The story goes (there are many versions) that the pudding was invented by accident, over 200 years ago. Mrs Greaves, landlady of The White Lion Inn in 1860, (now the site of The Rutland Arms) asked one of her kitchen maids to make a strawberry tart. The maid, instead of making a sweet pastry base, using eggs and sugar, left them out and instead, she mixed them together to fill the plain pastry case which was coated with strawberry jam. Apparently there was also reported to be a 'secret ingredient'! My guess is that it may have something to do with the almond flavouring. There doesn't seem to be a record of the maid’s name, so Mrs Greaves takes the credit for inventing the dish! Mrs Greaves left the recipe to a Mr Radford, who in turn passed the 'secret recipe' to a Mr Bloomer.
I rather like this version from the author Alison Uttley, mostly known for her Little Grey Rabbit books – I enjoyed her stories as a child too. This is taken from Recipes from an Old Farmhouse: “Cover a wide shallow dish with thin puff paste. Put in it a layer of jam, preferably raspberry, but any kind will do. It should be half an inch thick. Take the yolks of eight eggs and beat the whites of two. Add half a pound of melted butter and half a pound each of sugar and ground bitter almonds. Mix all well together, and pour into the pastry case over the jam. Bake for half an hour and serve nearly cold." There are three establishments in the town claiming to be the home of the original pudding but I think this shop really is the one: Bloomers, in Water Street.
Piled right up to the old low ceiling beams are cakes, puddings, pies and various other delectable pastries made from good local ingredients with no undesirable unnatural additives. Meats, cheeses and preserves are available too.
We bought two traditional Bakewell Puddings and a jar of local organic honey, which we later enjoyed on spelt bread toast. I can never resist buying a pot of good honey wherever I go! Although we didn’t buy one this time, I can highly recommend their pork pies too. On our last holiday visit, we had one and no other pork pie has been able to stand up to it since*. Oh and their lamb and mint pasties are incredible.
It may have been a whirlwind visit, but somehow it almost seems worth it to travel half way up England just for the puddings! I think we’ll be going back when the one in the freezer is finally devoured! In the meantime I found my little book of Favourite Peak District Recipes, that I bought on our last visit, so that will keep me busy in the kitchen testing out the delights of Derbyshire. * Since writing this post I discovered another pork pie which has won me over – sorry folks in Bakewell!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Refreshment Down to a Tea: Leaf

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.  ~JAPANESE PROVERB

I’m British and I don’t like tea. I should, us Brits are well known in the western world for our tea drinking habits. But I still don’t like it.

Last year, I would have upheld my strong opinion and practiced being anti-tea, but now I’m converted!

After years of being subjected to inferior cuppas, and trying to develop a taste for the stewed orangey-brown, bitter, tannin laden liquid, invariably on the overly milky side, I have finally had an epiphany on the tea front.

Whilst at The Real Food Festival, back in April, I was offered a tasting of some tea from Leaf. Memories of tongue curling, face cringing tastes came flooding back, and I almost refused.
My husband accepted the sample on offer (he’s not usually a tea drinker either) so I couldn’t really turn it down.
I took a sip and my taste buds beheld a refreshing and fragrant flavour that was smooth and an absolute joy to drink. We tried various other types and flavours, and that was it – we were hooked!

We bought a selection of taster tins enabling us to sample the delights of all their varieties – nice packaging too.
There are two sets – one of traditional tea and the other of herbal (no caffeine) infusions.

This new practice of tea drinking has meant purchasing a suitable teapot. My husband found a nice glass one from Bodum, with an integral, yet removable infuser compartment.
This is perfect, as you can see the water taking on the colour and the leaves unfurling. When the tea has finished infusing (and I am following the instructions on the labels to the letter) you can lift out the infuser to prevent any stewing from taking place and spoiling the taste of the tea.
We always use filtered water too, as suggested by the producers. It’s important for the water to be pure to make good tea.

Leaf teas are proving to be quite addictive (in a good way) in our household, that we now look forward to trying yet another flavour.
When all the little tins have given up their contents, I’m going to have to buy some more – and quick!
The teas seem expensive at first glance but when you work out how much they are per cup (probably fifty pence, at the most) it puts everything into perspective.
I can justify the cost, because the quality far surpasses any ordinary supermarket tea and the farmers/pickers get a decent living too… and what’s more – I love it!

For more information about Leaf tea, visit www.leafshop.co.uk
To read about The Real Food Festival click here

Lead product image from leaf website

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Tasty Crispbreads

I couldn't not write something about these, and before anyone dismisses them as dull, tasteless and akin to chewing on a piece of cardboard, you'd be wrong. Crispbreads of old, have had a bad press. Whilst they are healthful, they're generally not very interesting, but these two varieties I've found lurking in the cracker and wholefood aisles of the supermarket, have made such an impression.

Firstly, Dr Karg's Emmental Cheese and Pumpkin Seed. Yes, the name Karg may conjure up images of strange health spa practices of the 19th century, but I can assure you that these are very delicious and crisp and go well with a thin piece of cheddar on top – or maybe nothing at all – they're so good.

Next is Amisa Organic Spelt and Poppyseed. I'm having an affair with anything made with spelt at the moment, and I'm currently experimenting with a muffin recipe, using it – but more about that another time! As I was saying, these are made from wholesome spelt flour and encrusted with poppy seeds and sunflower seeds, which give a rich nutty flavour. They're very crisp almost to the point of being maybe just a little too hard, so I advise against biting straight into them, otherwise a dental bill could follow! It's best to break off bite-size pieces, that is if you don't mind showering yourself and everywhere with seeds!

We ate both with a variety of cheeses from the local deli and found that the texture and flavour complimented the Manchego, Cornish Yarg and Gruth Dhu cheeses, that we chose, very well.

If you see these in your local shop, I'd suggest trying them as they're quite sophisticated and may change your opinion of healthy crackers.   I certainly wouldn't be adverse to putting them out with the cheese course.

For more information about the crispbreads and their ingredients visit:

Product photos from Dr Karg and Amisa websites

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Warm Crotin Toasts and Figs Roasted with Honey and Thyme

I'm a bit of a fan of goat's cheese and was lucky enough to pick up a pair of little Crotin cheeses in Lidl when they were having  a 'French Week'. 
The cheese is soft in texture and has a nutty full flavour, but not at all sour. The rind is quite edible as it's not long matured.

I decided that it would be good warm, accompanied by something sweet yet savoury on a nice slice of crunchy toast.
For two people I took four fresh ripe figs and cut a cross through the stalk end, being careful not to go all the way to the bottom and place them in an oven proof dish. I then liberally drizzled them with runny honey and then sprinkled on some fresh thyme leaves. I baked them in a moderate oven until they became quite soft.

The toast had to be quite special, so I used sour dough bread for its depth of flavour. I cut four slices (my loaf was quite small) and then toasted them lightly on both sides. I put these on a baking tray and then sliced each Crotin into four pieces and lay two bits per piece of toast and put in the oven for a few minutes until the cheese was warm and soft.
While they were cooking I made a simple dressing with balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and Dijon mustard.

I then removed the toasts from the oven and put on to plates, spooned the figs, along with their sweet juices on top of the cheese. All it took to finish of was to add some mixed salad leaves with the dressing drizzled over.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Eat Squirrel? You Must Be Nuts!

How do you view the Grey Squirrel? Is it a cute fluffy little creature, whose arboreal acrobatics, you admire, does it amaze you with its apparently, intelligent abilities to extract the peanuts from the bird feeder? Or is it merely a bushy-tailed vagabond tree rat? And more to the point, would you eat it in a pasty?

This subject is all over the news today and has split the public into separate camps. I’m finding myself in moral and culinary turmoil over this one. I eat meat without guilt, just as long as I know where it comes from and that the animal has had a decent life before it reaches my plate. Game beasts have at least roamed free in their natural habitat, and for all intents and purposes, squirrel is game.

So, for those people, who are meat-eaters, who say that it’s cruel to encase poor Mr Nutkins in pastry, I’m asking, why do they think it’s any different for the squirrel than for, let’s say, the pheasant?
Arguments against consuming it have been, that it’s nothing more than a rodent and we shouldn’t eat things like rats – although rabbits aren't rodents, they're quite similar and have been perfectly acceptable sources of protein and appear on the menus of the best restaurants.
That said, most of those people probably don’t, or won’t eat rabbit either…

I’m not advocating the mass slaughter of our fluffy little friends for the sake of a meal, but I’m certainly intrigued to find out what it tastes like. But no, I’m not rushing out to buy the aforementioned pasty, I mean, what if I don’t like it, or I bottle out just as I go to take the first bite!

If you wish to read the fully fleshed out stories from the press, with added reader comments:
The Guardian

Photo: everystockphoto.com

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Flavour Immersion: Adesso Marinades

Olive oil is known for its health giving benefits, so why not choose the best for a tasty marinade? Addesso certainly haven't skimped on quality here, the oil is of high calibre and the added flavours have been thoughtfully put together to create a range of delicious marinades in which to bathe a variety of foods.

Presently, there are four to choose from: Portuguese Inspired Hot – with muscovado sugar and chillies for something which is spicy and sweet; Lemon and Herb – it's zinginess and freshness bursting from real lemon peel, oregano, mint and basil; Chermoulla of Morocco – warm and musky from the cumin and coriander and added heat from some cayenne pepper.

Finally, Orange and Honey. 
I have already broken the seal on this one and used it to flavour some cod which I seared in a pan until everything took on an agreeable caramelisation. 
It works surprisingly well with the fish. The orange is not overpoweringly orangey, but it gives that nice background zing. The herbs took the form of rosemary and thyme, which, I think, complement fish very well.
I served this with fennel bulb, sliced and slow-cooked, confit-style, in olive oil with added fennel seeds. Cooked Jersey new potatoes, tossed in some butter with chopped parsley and capers completed the dish.

I'm looking forward to opening the rest and experimenting with other meats and vegetables, and maybe putting them on the barbeque. The Chermoulla variety is begging to be poured over some lamb and I can imagine chicken with the others…or maybe prawns.

For more information visit www.adessofoods.co.uk
Click here to read about The Real Food Festival

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Rich Buttermilk Fruit Scones

The month of May has arrived with a full flourish of summer weather (well it has in the south eastern part of the UK, apologies to those who live elsewhere!). Normally we wouldn't be expecting this amount of hot sunshine until June.
In honour of the promise of more great summer days to come, here is my scone recipe, ideal for eating out in the garden at teatime.
I even found some British strawberries, grown in Kent! These are very early by tradition, so I can only assume they are from protected crops, but they tasted just as good as the seasonal summer ones.
Clotted cream is also essential, I just love its almost toffee-like texture and the crusty bit on top. Yes, I know it's naughty, but as an occasional treat, it's just fine.

Makes approximately 8-10 scones

2-3 tablespoons buttermilk, plus a little extra for brushing
8 oz self-raising flour, plus a little extra for dusting
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
3 oz butter
1½ oz caster sugar
3 oz raisins or sultanas
1 large egg, beaten

To serve:
clotted cream
good quality strawberry jam
fresh strawberries

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7 / 425F / 220C.
Lightly grease a baking tray and lightly dust with flour.

To make the scones, sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl, lightly rub in the butter with your fingertips, into the mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add the sugar and raisins or sultanas.

In a jug, beat the egg and 2 tablespoons of the buttermilk together and gradually add this to the dry ingredients, mixing the dough with a fork. When it begins to come together, finish off with your hands – it should be soft but not sticky (if the dough seems too dry, add a little more buttermilk, a teaspoon at a time).

Form the dough into a ball and place it on to a lightly floured surface. Roll it out to at least 1 inch thick – try not to roll it any thinner. To make sure that your scones turn out to be well-risen you should make sure you start out with a thickness of no less than an inch.

Cut out the scones by placing a 2 inch cutter on to the dough and pushing down quickly – whatever you do, you must resist the urge to twist it, as this will compress the dough at the sides and will impede the rising process. Just lift it up and push the dough out. Keep going until you are left with the trimmings, then bring these back together, roll out again and repeat until you can cut out the last scone.

Place the scones on the baking tray and brush them lightly with the buttermilk. Now bake on the top shelf of the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until they are well risen and golden brown.

Remove them from the tray and place them on a wire rack to cool.

Serve the scones with generous amounts of strawberry jam, clotted cream and top them off with fresh strawberries.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Real Food Festival Find: Azorieblue Coffee

'Imagine a coffee that’s smoother than a tiger in a tuxedo and more luxurious than a cashmere codpiece…'

The producers of Azorieblue Coffee make this seemingly crazy claim, but it's a good, if not creative description of their 100% Brazilian Arabica beans.

I have tasted it as a short strong espresso and as a longer filter version, with milk and can say that it's smooth, rich and chocolatey with a pleasing citrus acidity. The fact that it works both ways makes it a versatile roast not often found in many other coffees.

The beans come from world-renowned estates, all with
BSCA accreditation. 
Not only does that mean it guarantees the quality of the beans, but it also assures us that it's ethical, so the estate workers get decent pay and working conditions.

The beans arrive in the UK and are then roasted to achieve a unique and special taste, which I could happily drink all day.

For more information about the coffee visit: azorieblue.com

Click here to read about The Real Food Festival

Product photo taken from Azorie Blue website

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Real Food Festival

A good few days have passed, and I'm still reeling from the experience.
Described by its promoters as being Britain's biggest producer's market all under one roof, the Real Food Festival at Earls Court proved to be a very good show.

Making sure we arrive early – before the doors open, in fact – we manage to get round fairly easily before the major crowds begin to swell.

On entering, we are greeted by two adorable little pigs in a pen, which are there to remind us that 'pigs are worth it' and we should support our British pig farmer.
Supporting your 'local' producer is very much the theme of this show. It's not just about eating amazing food, but it dutifully urges us to appreciate the small people out there, who have a lot of pride and care in what they do.
This is certainly evident, as everyone we meet and speak to, are enthusiastic and passionate about their produce.
Sampling is definitely the order of the day and it's getting difficult to refuse all those little morsels. We are being offered everything from cheese to chocolate, bread to sausage, pickles… chutneys… jam… coffee and tea… beer… wine… spirits… It's all very good, but our palates start to feel a little tired, and there's only so much you can nibble on before you start to feel queasy!

Plus, it makes us feel guilty, when there is no way we can buy everything, but as many of the producers have online shops it is worth taking note for a later date.

We sit to digest and deliberate over coffee, as to what will be best to buy and go on a tour again to make our purchases. These I will go into in more detail, in later posts, when we've tested them more thoroughly.
After five enjoyable hours, we go home with bags stuffed full of goodies waiting to be tried and leaflets to be read.

Just one thing – what was with all that sawdust on the floor? Yes, it played the part of rustic shops and markets very well, but made our shoes exceedingly dusty. Not a good look on the train on the way home!
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