A time to gather

I know this blog primarily centres on taste but, in terms of memories and associations, smells are equally evocative, if not more so. How appropriate that wood smoke, a breath of it lacing the evening mist as we arrived in Norfolk on Friday, is for me a comforting scent of home. It transports me to countless afternoons spent clearing (ragging about in) woods as children, building huge bonfires with Dad and Grandpa and watching them crackle. Then if we were very lucky we’d wave a marshmallow on a stick at the embers until the doughy white skin blistered brown and started to ooze. This was usually the stage at which we lost them to the fire, making the eating all the more pleasurable.

Despite recent Indian Summer-like days, those damp mushroomy notes of autumn have returned to the countryside; the perfect accompaniment to the spike of smoke, pricking our nostrils and calling to our olfactory gear just as the springtime called Mr. Mole out of his burrow in The Wind in the Willows. It makes you want to wrap up and get outside for walks, to light the fire and be cosy. On Friday we ate at our warm and welcoming local pub, The Dabbling Duck, which was celebrating British Food Fortnight with some very British dishes, steak and kidney puddings and crumble with custard among them. The BSG’s Lancashire Hotpot didn’t touch the sides. I plumped for fish in a golden batter, with enormous chips and minted mushy peas – it was Friday after all!

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Each season brings its own welcome scents; one of the roses in the garden smells so sweet, like the most delicate cup of tea imaginable, its petal-packed heads flower twice a year. At the height of summer, the swathes of lavender under the windows exude a heady fragrance, as they heave with bees (which incidentally have a very keen sense of smell – honeybees have been trained to detect landmines), clamouring for their hit, and as the heads are warmed by the sun, by the evening it is intoxicating. However there is a power to autumn’s earthy aromas, when evidence of nature’s industry is in such abundance, and something deeper, winter, waits beneath the surface. The hedgerows heave with berries, fruits and seedpods, furnishing their occupants with storable riches before they close down for the year.

Thoughts drift to mushroom-hunting excursions amongst the leaf litter – until you realise that Nature being Nature doesn’t make any one thing that looks like the photo in the fungi book, but rather several of them. Which is it; the ‘slow agonising death on ingestion’ one or the ‘very nice with toast’? The ensuing 45 minutes is spent flicking though the book several times to make absolutely sure, then abandon the mission in favour of the more hazardous in appearance but far lower fatal-seizure-risk chestnut (nut allergy sufferers excepted). As I write this I am lunching on a velvety mushroom soup: I am sure that the very nice person who picked these enjoys the fact that their patch isn’t full of idiots keeling over every half hour, so I’d say its definitely something best left to people who know, save perhaps a couple of flat field mushrooms from a damp pasture – and you know what they grow out of…

red cabbage

Feeling guilty at the drifts of apples littering the garden, uneaten and neglected, the BSG and I decided to bring them back and make them into a chutney or 20. And we didn’t stop there – at his Mum’s house we took pity on some unripe green peaches and he ploughed through the cookery books until he found a pickle to include them. Our kitchen has become a job-centre for unemployed fruit. Thank goodness we take in homeless jars, too. While we were at it, why not pickle some red cabbage too? Speaking of smells, the eye-watering sting of malt vinegar is not something I miss once it’s gone…

chutney raw

I am not averse to the odd present, and when the BSG returned from a recent work trip he gave me a pot of gold. Wow. A proper giant’s jar of French moutarde, in a rustic-looking (read more expensive) ceramic pot – which I’ll hang on to for storing salt – it has a very pleasing sulphur colour and a sharp tang. Even luckier for me then, that the BSG served up a perfect rare steak, served on sliced beetroot slicked in horseradish and a crisp green salad to celebrate its first outing. I hear you say that horseradish AND mustard is a belt and braces approach to a steak, but I couldn’t resist.

steak mustard salad

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Where’s the culinary alchemy?

You may have noticed that the BSG has not been featured much lately, he has been too busy riding tandem bicycles, getting hit by booms on sailing boats and visiting physios as a result. I have asked him to stop shouting at Masterchef: The Professionals on the telly, to put down Nigel Slater’s new book and to get back into the kitchen.
He is enjoying (if that is the right word) the copper pan I bought him at an antiques fair – something to do with good heat? Simple pleasures I suppose.

Pork you pine for

paper

The other day, whilst minding my own business, I stumbled across this bombshell, and chose to take it entirely out of context. It was, after all, a headline on a discarded newspaper lying on the pavement, between a grubby chewing-gum mark and a cigarette butt: obviously whoever else had read this didn’t believe it either and had chucked the offending article away in disgust, without even waiting for a bin to come into view. I am pretty sure that in the unwritten rulebook of autumn, Sunday lunches are near the top. The one that we had at Tam’s house in Suffolk was a case in point.

Dare I say it, we had all slightly overdone the Moscow Mules (not to mention the wine and champagne) the night before, and her herb-rubbed shoulder of lamb, roasted directly on the Aga rack, its juices dripping over silky boulangère potatoes, was the edible equivalent of an almighty hangover-busting hug. To follow, a couple of dark plums plucked straight from the tree, some squares of dark chocolate and some velvety coffee took the Sunday blues far away, for a little while at least.

taters 2

But where am I?

This was Suffolk, where it’s all about pigs and apples.

What luck to find, having cycled through the leafy tunnels to the local farm shop, that Saturday was Apple Day; cooked, pressed, toffee-d, brewed, these versatile and seemingly uncomplex fruits were presented and celebrated every which way. This chance to peruse was welcome as the day had started unseasonably warm. Each variety displayed differences in the look of its skin, perhaps due to how much the sun had touched it, which branch it had been on or leaf it had resided under: from emeralds to neon-greens, russets to coral pinks; sweet, tart, pink-fleshed, smooth or nobbly, these were all there for the tasting. The crisp acidity of the Lord Lambourne made it my favourite on the day, but I suspect that, rather like wine, it depends upon your mood and what you are going to accompany it with, if anything at all, that is.

apples crates (3)

So here it is: the pig section. And greedily on Saturday I had it twice. Lunch at the pub after a good morning’s activities had to be pub-like, if you know what I mean. So I opted for a ham sandwich with crisps and a salad, (well, an onion and tomato wedge, on the side). Boring? Not at all – for this wasn’t something you would apply the word ‘wafer’ or ‘value’ to, or perhaps even the word ‘slice’. Every uneven hunk looked like it had been shaved off with a chainsaw, dwarfing the bread that was trying desperately to contain it – the kind of meat worthy to be included in a ploughman’s lunch. Salty pink and delicious, I am afraid it had to be adulterated with the obligatory smudge of hot yellow English mustard.

This was a simple example of the sheer gloriousness of British fare which surrounds us throughout the year, and it is British Food Fortnight now until the 4th October so we must celebrate it now!

The second porcine delight of the day was slow braised pork belly, taken from that sweary Ramsay man’s book Secrets, and it has prompted me to do more cooking from books. I would probably get into all sorts of trouble for reproducing it word for word here, so go and track down the recipe – this is the kind of dish you cook for someone who will then instantly fall in love with you. After cooking for a few hours in a mixture of soy sauce, sherry vinegar, stock and aromatics the meat only needed to be looked at to fall apart in a melting, treacly mass, atop a pillow of the creamiest mash you can imagine (the BSG’s heart soared at the discovery of a potato-ricer in the house). Alongside these glistened leaves of squeaky forest green chard, its rhubarb-hued veins a sharp contrast, its iron taste a welcome palate cleanser between shovelfuls.

Completely sublime are two words that fall embarrassingly short of doing this dish justice. I took no photos of it – there was no time to waste – but suffice it to say we all fell just a little bit in love with Tam on the spot.

Oh, and we (notably the BSG) couldn’t let perfectly good crackling go uncrackled…

crackling

No one puts Baby in a corner*

A little bird told me recently that, though indeniably delectable and certainly pleasurable, there is no nutritional benefit to sweet corn. Whilst I am not absolutely religious when it comes to healthy eating (in fact I am very much a believer in the ‘little bit of what you fancy does you good’ mantra) this made me feel a little bit sad about it. Surely something so redolent of sunlight and basic wholesomeness had something going for it? It is a vegetable, weren’t they all supposed to be good for us?

So, I decided to do some research on behalf of this long-loved hunk; I felt I owed it. My favourite food as a child, it was always reliable, slathered in butter, great fun, even when in haste you burned your mouth to get to it. When we were small, Mum and Dad would offer the luxury ‘on or off the cob’ service, dependant on our moods, or how many milk teeth were loose at time of eating (between the four of us kids, a few came out this way).

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The BSG and I have had a hankering for the husks recently, so I was absolutely delighted to find that they provide good amounts of vitamins A, B3 and C, fibre and folic acid, though as the name suggests there’s a fair amount of sweet starch too. We will keep crunching, guilt free. Purists may say that melted butter is the only way to have corn, but my favourite is how they served maïs on the street in Chiapas in Mexico – boiled, slathered with a slick of mayonnaise, powdered with red cayenne pepper and some lime juice squeezed over. Extraordinary. Their season is right now so go and get them!

Saturday dawned powdery blue and bright, and the BSG and I had the perfect day. London was in a good mood, full again after the holidays and at its bustly best. A trot around Borough Market slapped our senses awake, followed by a walk along the river and turn around Tate Modern, before lunch at our favourite tapas place, Barrafina in Soho. There was a short queue so, to pass the time, we opted for a Cruzcampo, a welcome quencher and in a frozen glass no less, and some emerald pimientos de padron, charred and sprinkled with generous flakes of salt. Of these, one in every ten or so is a hot one – has queuing ever been so much fun? Don’t be deterred, the wait never lasts long, or, in this case, long enough.

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Our friend and fellow food adventurer G joined us for lunch. If skiing were eating, he is far more of an ‘off-piste’ person than I am. Perhaps it has something to do with having resided in Japan; he and the BSG encourage one another. This time, however, we stuck mostly to the piste (there was some octopus), with gloriously oozy ham and cheese croquetas, pan con tomate, chorizo and watercress, and an utter mouth party; morcilla, a blood sausage, with piquillo peppers topped with a quail’s egg. You couldn’t eat a lot of these, but this size they are hugely memorable. We lucked out with an outside table, but sitting inside at the bar you can see how beautifully these simple dishes come together in the kitchen, each chef knowing their own role…they even have one devoted entirely to the tortillas, done in tiny pans, little wonder then that they are so delicious.

The lazy late afternoon was passed in the lovely Albion pub in Islington, followed by the pizza competition to end them all. We bought our (yes a bit white and ugly) bread machine last year amidst much doubt that it’d get used – not only does it churn out delicious crusty loaves on a regular basis, but it makes the springiest pizza dough you could wish for. I am not knocking the many fine pizza establishments in this city, but to my mind nothing beats a homemade one….I don’t think we have been out for a pizza since.

Three days on from the sun and it feels like a different season altogether; there is a chill in the air and today the sky is slate grey, the rain coming down in rods. Last night the BSG knocked up the first autumnal supper, a risotto made with bacon and radicchio finished with parmesan and sage, the result was pink and beautiful like a leafy woodland floor. Possibly the best risotto I have ever had…

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Watching him with a glass of wine in one hand as he stirred away, had we known then the sad news that the legendary Keith Floyd was gone I would have insisted that the BSG cook it out on the balcony in a high wind and a bow tie. My photography skills don’t yet run to risottos, so I will have to practice in order to do them justice. “A loving close-up on this please, Clive…”

(*A tenuous title perhaps with regards to corn, but it is a very sad day and Patrick Swayze’s death cannot go without a mention: it is hard to get him into a food blog. I’m off to watch Dirty Dancing…)

Devon knows…

Last weekend it was off to the edge of Dartmoor with some girlfriends, to a little white house with primrose yellow windows and a red tin roof, tucked between green water meadows at the end of a steep-sided river valley…no, this is not a children’s story. My maternal grandparents bought this as a holiday cottage in the 1970’s, and the minimum has been done since to improve it – much to the benefit of its character (the second loo is outside and looks exclusively onto the river).

You can rent it!

And joy of joys, what treasures awaited us in the garden! There were apple trees laden with rosy fruits which had not yet surrendered to the insects, jewel-fleshed figs growing on the front of the house, even raspberry bushes at the foot of the mossy garden wall, not to mention the blackberries peeping from every hedgerow – perfect porridge toppers. A rise at dawn on Saturday was trout-less (we hooked a lot of trees), but Caz and I kept away the chill with mugs of tea, marvelling at the dew-drenched surroundings glittering in glorious golden sunlight – gone by lunchtime. Was it worth it? You bet, especially if you ask the trout, they are probably still laughing. We’ll be back…

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There were some unforgettable Devon capers too. Ok, so maybe they aren’t exactly from Devon, but I bought them in Newton Abbot if that counts… These being a rather decadent item to buy in for a two-day stay (though an essential BSG store-cupboard staple,) I had to make sure these piquant buds were put to good use. Flavour-wise, they pack a punch way above their tiny weight. Any excuse for a salsa verde and I jump, so we had this with barbequed chicken thighs. I chopped the aforementioned capers, handfuls of flat leafed parsley and mint, added lemon juice, an addict’s dollop of Dijon mustard plus some coarse sea salt to make up for the fact that I’d forgotten to buy anchovies. Drenched in a convincing slug of green olive oil, we were ready to go. This goes with pretty much anything, especially as so many combinations of leafy herbs will do. I am so mad about this tangy hit, just give me a spoon and I’m off.

Whilst we’re on the subject – and only half a jar down – our small green friends are also the magic ingredient in a homemade burger. Into minced beef went a generous handful, chopped, with a finely diced red onion, mustard, one beaten egg, cumin, Worcestershire sauce, and a couple of cracks of salt and pepper, shortly followed by two hands, the best mixing tools for burgers. Pure and unadulterated, homemade burgers are a hug of a food in themselves, but a torn-off piece of mozzarella packed into the middle of the patty melts as the burger cooks for an oozy extra. The next question is: ketchup, mustard, mayo, salsa verde..?

With them we crunched on corn on the cob, sweet and starchy, boiled first and then lightly charred over the coals, getting it all over our chins and stuck between our teeth, thank goodness for kitchen roll! Then for the last act, a masterpiece of a crumble, using fruit from the garden and hedgerow (plus a few bugs for interest) and topped with porridge oats and raisins carefully picked from the Dorset cereals packet. Such sustainable enterprise, truly worthy of the likes of Mr. Fearnley Whittingstall, the fruit was even washed in the river! Hot pink, hot hot pud, Becca!

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Keeping the wolf from the door

Almost as soon as I had yelped yes in reply to the BSG’s proposal, I had chosen my bridesmaids. They are, as Tina would sing, Simply the Best, and to demonstrate how much I love them I had to take them to a suitable restaurant for our first group session – the first of many I hope. Very keen that I get this right, and hugely excited at the prospect of sharing his love of the place with me, the BSG suggested Bocca di Lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), in Soho.

We walked in from the cold September wind (what’s going on?) and were greeted with a buzzing, warmly-lit interior, an honest-looking place that made me think of New York. Small and large plate options for each dish meant that our indecision was truly catered for, and between us we explored a large part of the varied regional Italian fare on the menu. We joyfully chomped our way through juicy sardines, crunchy shaved radish and salty pecorino salads, Italian sausages on wet buttery polenta and wolfed (sorry) down rich pigeon ragu clinging to perfectly al dente pasta. If you feel up to pudding, then brave the Sanguinaccio, a chocolate paté with a special ingredient, with sourdough bread. Highly recommended for a gathering of good friends – but don’t let yourselves be hurried.

Steep hills and sloe business

The BSG’s ‘motherland’ is the Isle of Wight, so what better place to spend the August bank holiday than on its beaches in the sun – during those ‘sunny intervals’, at least.
And this is exactly what we did, along with his mum and some of our great friends.

Steephill Cove in the south coast of the island is like a scene plucked from a Blyton-esque seaside adventure. Reached solely by a path or two (anything big comes down in a wheelbarrow apparently), there stands a small cluster of houses, beach huts and shacks. As you pick your way along the seafront around the lobster pots and gaily coloured buoys, small cafes and restaurants become distinct among the nooks and crannies in the weather-worn wood – it couldn’t be more quintessential had a film set-dresser gone wild on it.

At the café at the end, and out of the cool south-westerly wind that had, I discovered, acted as the burning sun’s accomplice that morning as I lolled idly in my deckchair, we feasted upon shocking pink prawns (to match our sunburn) and fresh crab baguettes. Completing the spread were doorstop slices of brown bread and butter, which would have been oh so Milly-Molly-Mandy if it hadn’t all been rather decadently washed down with a lovely sparkling wine. All very jolly, which absolutely has to be the right word, and although the allergic BSG had to make do with coronation chicken, there were no complaints from him.

It being a UK bank holiday, the weather then set in slightly, so we embarked on another mission, to be completed in May next year, at our wedding. We had been thinking for ages about putting our own stamp on the reception as we love making things, so sloe gin seemed the perfect answer. Ruby coloured and syrupy, it always strikes a festive note, and goes well with cake and cheese.

The BSG makes much of the island’s special ‘microclimate’, so when his 101-year old great aunt – still going strong and as sharp as Paxman – told us that sloes would be out and where to find them, I could well believe that she’d be right. As their location must remain secret for posterity I am stopping here, but needless to say Auntie Pad hasn’t lost her magic – the crop was abundant, and there is still a lot more for picking later on, if you know where to look. We soldiered through the bushes as they did their best to fight us off – ouch.

Once frozen overnight, pricked (sweet revenge), sugared and sloshed, those 5 kilos (!) of sloes are working their jewelled magic. As a bonus, we have found another use for them, once they are out of the bottle in a few months’ time. Flicking through a book on preserves, we came across a recipe for a sloe gin and juniper jelly – great with game apparently. It’s all feeling rather rich and autumn-y to me. Surely summer’s not packed its bags just yet?