Local Apples

I can’t think of a better example of the need for local food supplies than apples.

As I write, in October 2021, we are experiencing a number of issues with the supply of different food types that make a mockery of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which claimed that our supermarket dominated food chain had proved its resilience during the Covid pandemic.  Lack of workers to pick crops and process meats means that we have been warned to expect shortages of such “essentials” as Pig in Blankets this Christmas. Writing in the Telegraph, Xanthe Clay has helpfully given instructions for self-assembly.  What is the world coming to?

The supermarkets are further struggling with the shortage of lorry drivers and the just-in-time supply chain has resulted in many gaps on the shelves.  No wonder they have had little time to worry about the British apple season, now at its peak, which currently has no representation in Tesco’s, and plastic bags of imported Gala hiding behind the Duchy Organic label in Waitrose.

The website of The British Apples and Pears association is one of the saddest examples of promoting British fruit that I have ever seen.  Try looking at www.britishapplesandpears.co.uk/apple-varieties.  Seventeen varieties are illustrated – all as highly polished as something the Evil Queen might have given to Snow White to tempt her to eat the poisoned apple.  Looking at these pictures of apples is like looking at someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery – it gives me the creeps!  Finding a basket of these fruits in a hotel room is anything but welcoming, it generates immediate homesickness.

With the exception of Worcester Pearmain, the varieties fall into three main categories: the same old commercial favourites (e.g., Cox/Bramley/Egremont Russet); non-native varieties (e.g., Braeburn/Gala) or new (and trademarked) varieties (e.g., Zari/Rubens/Kanzi).  This is what happens if you have to supply the whole country.  The treasures in our 2300+ strong repertoire are as if they never existed.

This rock-bottom commercial situation ought, surely, to signal a resurgence in home-grown apples and short, local supply chains?  No-one who has ever eaten an apple straight from the tree would think of looking in a supermarket to buy apples.  With the added impetus of improving carbon storage and air quality everyone is aware of the need to plant trees, and why shouldn’t many of these be fruit trees?

With the caution that you don’t buy fruit trees in a garden centre any more than you would buy apples in a supermarket, there are many options for planting an apple tree.  Growing on half-standard rootstock is now the norm, you actually have to seek hard if you want to plant a tree that will grow to the traditional full height.  Half-standard trees are perfect in a garden setting.  They have turned out to be much longer lived than originally feared, and their reduced height makes them easier to prune and to harvest.

Which variety to choose?

This is where my caution against buying from a garden centre shouts loudest.  They will be stocked with a very limited range of varieties.  First, I would suggest you research which varieties are local to you.  They have proved themselves to be suited to your soil and climate.  Now is the perfect time to taste some local varieties as smaller orchards may well be hosting Apple Day events.  “Apple Day” was an initiative begun in 1990 by Common Ground and their website continues to provide a wealth of information about orchards, varieties and nurseries on a regional basis – https://www.commonground.org.uk/an-apples-orchards-gazetteer

There is another reason I hesitate to recommend specific varieties to plant, and that reason is biodiversity – we have over 2300 to chose from so why would I single out just a handful?  The reason that many older varieties have been abandoned is purely that they don’t fit the commercial model – they may not look perfect, be medium sized, or be prone to biennial cropping, but we can live with these things at a domestic level, especially if the compensation is better flavour.  Instead, below I give the general characteristics of types of apples to help you decide on your needs.

  • Dual-purpose apple

Britain is unique in having bred a range of apples specifically for cooking, other countries use dessert apples for everything.  Pretty much any apple can be cooked when it is under-ripe then eaten as it ripens but some are especially known for this.  They tend to come into season in September and then ripen sufficiently for eating in October.  If you can only plant one tree a dual-purpose apple might be useful.  If the apple contains some tannin too it might also be used for cider.  Tom Putt is one such example, known as a “cottagers apple” because it fulfils three purposes.  Dual purpose apples work well when eaten raw in savoury dishes like a salad.

  • Cooking apples

Bramley dominates the market; in fact many people would struggle to name another cooking apple.  Bramley apples are very high in acidity, which means that when cooked the flesh disintegrates to a fluffy pulp.  This is great for something like apple sauce, but not so good if you are trying to hold it intact, either whole when baked or in slices on a tart.  For this you need less acidity.  The dual-purpose apples work well here early in the season, but what about later?  Try Catshead, Annie Elizabeth or Newton Wonder to name just a few.

If you want the acidity of a Bramley (and it does mean the apple taste comes through no matter what you add to it) the Dumelow’s Seedling is an older alternative.

  • Keepers

Whilst an apple eaten straight from the tree is a wonderful thing, as a general rule the best keepers are those that ripen very late.  This means you will probably need to pick them sometime in October, before the winds bring them down, as you cannot keep an apple that has fallen.

Picked and stored carefully in an unheated room (e.g., shed or garage) you should be happily eating apples until the end of January by which time the texture is likely to be going soft and you will probably want to cook them up to finish.

Practically all cooking apples store well, and you might still be happily using these in March.

  • Dessert Apples

If you have plenty of room, you will probably want to plant more than one so that you can stagger eating across the full season.  Otherwise consider when you will be most likely to want to eat them.

Early season – the earliest apples ripen in August but be aware that their season is very short and early apples do not keep so it is possible to go on holiday and return to find every apple already fallen and rotting under the tree!  If you are around to catch them at their brief point of perfection you will need to be able to use the entire crop quickly.  Juicing is a common use of early apples.

Second early – you have a little longer to enjoy these apples, perhaps throughout the month of September, depending on how far north you live.  For example, James Grieve is a second early of Scottish origin which is quickly ripe enough for eating when grown in the South but is almost always considered a cooking apple on its home ground.  Worcester Pearmain is another old variety with a wonderful strawberry note and colouration to the flesh.

Mid-season – in addition to the dual-purpose apples already mentioned above, late September heralds some dessert apples for eating in early autumn.  Lord Lambourne and Sunset are two of my favourites.

Peak season – the apples are becoming longer lasting and fuller in flavour as October progresses.  Blenheim Orange is an old favourite that is too variable in its cropping for commercial growers.  The nuttiness of russeted apples makes them perfect for eating with cheese and there are far more to choose from than the commercial Egremont.

Late season/keepers – these are the apples that rarely ripen sufficiently for eating straight from the tree but will see you through to January.  Ashmead’s Kernel, Claygate Pearmain, D’Arcy Spicy and Cornish Gillyflower are just some of the names that fall into this category.

No garden?

The concept of Community Orchards was championed by Common Ground and the time is ripe to plant some more.

The Community Orchard in our village was planted 25 years ago, and these are some of the points we have learnt:

  • What is the purpose of the orchard? It can, and probably will, fulfil more than one purpose, but stating and prioritising these at the outset is useful if uses conflict in the future. Here are some possibilities: Wildlife (best served by planting a traditional orchard of full-sized trees with the orchard floor grazed by sheep); Community Events; Local Food/Drink (perhaps a mother orchard for local varieties)
  • Ongoing maintenance: there needs to be a long-term body to manage the orchard, but the costs are on-going, and you need to consider how to cover this, e.g., a memorial garden where people to pay for a tree and its future maintenance, sale of fruit or produce from the fruit.
  • How will the harvest be allocated? If it is not all to be used to cover on-going costs, how will it be shared? It can be difficult to strike a balance that is fair and ensures that fruit is not wasted. It may affect you decision about which varieties to plant.
  • Longevity – if you have planted a traditional orchard, it will be 10 years before there is really much fruit to harvest. Those who were originally involved in its planting may no longer be around and you will need to plan how you will maintain interest for decades to come.

In Blagdon, the Community Orchard is owned and managed by the Parish Council and we have a separate group, Blagdon Orchard Group, for promoting and using orchard fruit generally.  After our first decade, we were amazed at the wide range of interests that were encompassed by this umbrella and decided to publish a book documenting this.  You can buy a copy (£9.95) by contacting me via this website.

Hedgerow Fruit

One of the projects undertaken by Blagdon Orchard Group was the planting of an edible hedgerow.  Farmers are now being “rewarded” to plant new hedges, although the reward is minimal.  Nonetheless, new hedges are being planted, and it might be possible to ensure that these include fruit and or nut trees by donating the trees where the hedge will have public access.  There are local varieties of plums, damsons and cherries throughout the U.K. so if you have a local speciality this makes and obvious choice.  As with Community Orchards, bear in mind that these trees will take a long time to bear fruit, but the maintenance will be covered by the owner/farmer.

 

Local Supply

To return to the issue of local supply, remember that you can still achieve this before any new planting bears fruit simply by taking an active interest in what is already being grown.  There are still independent orchards producing with minimal spraying and these need support.  Additionally, some people have more fruit growing in their garden than they can use and may actually be grateful for someone offering to pick it.  We raised some money for our group this way, just picking fruit and taking it to be sold via a local shop.

The future of our apples is very much local – resolve never to buy them from a supermarket again!

 

Truly Seasonal Blackberries

Today, 1st October is Devil Spit Day, the day when the Devil spits on blackberries making them no longer fit for eating.

These arbitrary dates are becoming even more irrelevant as the climate changes.  Actually, this particular tradition predates the Gregorian calendar and the comparative date would now be 11th October.  But my point is, that true seasonality can’t be tied to any date but depends instead on being able to read all the signs in nature.  As the following extract from Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path puts it – the blackbirds know the moment.

He held out the Tupperware box, half full with glistening, ripe purple fruits.  “Do you want a blackberry?”

The blackberries we’d picked along the way had been small, tart and sharp, so I took one only out of politeness, but when I put it in my mouth it was like no blackberry I’d ever tasted.  Smooth, sweet, and a burst of rich claret autumnal flavour, and in the background, faintly, faintly, salt.

“You thought blackberries had passed, didn’t you?  Or you’ve eaten them and thought you didn’t like them.  No, you need to wait until the last moment between perfect and spoilt.  The blackbirds know the moment.  And if the mist comes right then, laying the salt air gently on the fruit, you have something that money can’t buy and chefs can’t create.  A perfect, lightly salted blackberry.  You can’t make them; it has to come with time and nature.  They’re a gift, when you think summer’s over and the good stuff has all gone.  They’re a gift.

From The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

You can see my recipes for blackberries here but if you find the perfect, lightly salted blackberry – just eat and enjoy!

Currant Recipes

From article Currants – black, red and white

Redcurrant Jelly

Currants are high in pectin and so will form a gel even when diluted.  Recipes for Redcurrant Jelly differ tremendously in the amount of water added, from none to 400ml per kilogram of fruit.  The yield can be almost doubled by adding the full quantity of water but obviously the flavour will be less intense and the set slightly less firm, and if you add more water than necessary you will have to boil until to drive it off and achieve a set.

Whitecurrants can be used in place of, or in equal proportion to, redcurrants.    As whitecurrants ripen they develop a pink colouration although the jelly will not be quite so deep in colour as when redcurrants are used in isolation.  This can however have the advantage when showing off added ingredients.  I particularly like to use whitecurrants to make a mint jelly, which is exquisite with lamb and /or young spring vegetables.

I do not believe the currants require long cooking to extract their juice.  Provided they are reasonably ripe when picked, 5-10 minutes should suffice rather than the three quarters of an hour stipulated in many recipes.  The yield may possibly be slightly lower but the flavour will be fresher.  Do lightly press the fruit with a wooden spoon before turning into a jelly bag for overnight straining but do not be tempted to squeeze the bag again or the juice will be cloudy.  Actually, the straining does not take all night, it will have stopped dripping after a couple of hours.  Measure the strained juice and then return to a clean pan and bring back to the boil.  Only when boiling point has been reached add sugar – at the rate of 450g for every 600ml of juice and then continue boiling until setting point is reached.  If adding mint (or other herbs) briefly blanche them in white wine vinegar  before adding them to the jelly once setting point has been reached – 1 tablespoonful of chopped herbs blanched in 2 tablespoonfuls of wine vinegar for every 600ml of juice.

 

 

Currant Shrub

The following recipe is taken from River Cottage Handbook No.2 – Preserves by Pam Corbin.

A shrub is an old-fashioned kind of drink: essentially a delightfully fruity, alcoholic cordial.  Based on sweetened rum or brandy, it is traditionally flavoured with acidic fruit such as Seville oranges, lemons or redcurrants.  Keep back some of the juice after straining redcurrants to make jelly and you will find this lovely tipple very simple to make.

Serve as an aperitif, either on its own or mixed half and half with dry martini and finished with a splash of fresh orange juice. (Or warm, as we did at the shoot.)

Makes about 1 litre

300ml strained redcurrant juice *see note below

600ml rum or brandy

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1 tsp grated nutmeg

300g granulated sugar

 

*When making redcurrant juice add 400ml of water to 1 kg of redcurrants.  This dilution is important because the pectin in the redcurrants reacts with alcohol to form a gel.  This jelly does dissolve on heating (hence the reason we served the shrub warm!).

Mix the redcurrant juice, rum or brandy, orange zest and nutmeg together in a large, wide-necked jar.  (The wide neck is important as, even diluted, you may get a gel before the sugar is added).  Seal the jar tightly and leave for 7-10 days in a cool, dark place.

Transfer the currant and alcohol mixture to a pan, add the sugar and heat gently to about 60˚C.  When the sugar has dissolved, strain the liqueur into a sterilised bottle and seal with a cap.

Store for several months in a cool dark place so the shrub can fully mature before you take the first tipple.  Use within 2 years.

My Note: I find this rather sweet and am happy to dilute it with an equal volume of water when serving.

 

Raw Blackcurrant Ice Cream (or Fool)

 

Serves 6

1 vanilla pod

10 fl oz single cream

4 egg yolks

5 oz caster sugar (vanilla sugar if available)

10 fl oz double cream

2 lb blackcurrants

light muscovado sugar (to taste)

lemon juice

2 tbsps crème de cassis (optional)

 

Heat the single cream and vanilla pod to just below boiling point, leave to infuse for 15 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks and caster sugar together until pale and fluffy then pour on the warm cream, removing the vanilla pod.  Return the mixture to the cleaned pan and heat gently, stirring all the time, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Whisk the double cream and fold through the custard mixture, cover and put in the fridge.

Process the raw blackcurrants in a food processor until puréed and then pass through a nylon sieve to remove the pips.  Add the crème de cassis and sweeten to taste with muscovado sugar.  Add a good squeeze of lemon juice to sharpen.  Stir the purée into the ice cream mixture.

Leave until thoroughly chilled before transferring to the ice cream maker, or, if serving as a fool, chill in serving glasses for 6 hours.

 

 

Blackcurrant Leaf Sorbet

Serves 6

8 oz caster sugar

1 pint water

3 good handfuls of small blackcurrant leaves

grated rind and juice of a lemon

1 egg white

 

 

Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat and boil for 10 minutes.  Add the blackcurrant leaves and lemon rind and leave until cool.

Pour the cold liquid through a sieve into a bowl and add the lemon juice.

Lightly whisk the egg white to loosen it then and fold through the mixture before freezing in an ice cream maker.  If you are not using an ice cream maker, it will be easier to part freeze the mixture before adding the egg white, this time whisked to soft peaks.

 

Summer Pudding

Elizabeth David says …”Although nearly everybody knows of this wonderful pudding, authentic recipes for it are rare”. She goes on to give the following:

For four people stew 1lb of raspberries and ¼ lb of redcurrants with about ¼lb of sugar.  No water.  Cook them only 2 or 3 minutes, and leave to cool.  Line a round, fairly deep dish (a soufflé dish does very well) with slices of one-day-old white bread with the crust removed.  The bread should be of the usual thickness for sandwiches.  The dish must be completely lined, bottom and sides, with no space through which the juice can escape.  Fill up with the fruit, but reserve some of the juice.  Cover the fruit with a complete layer of bread.  On top put a plate that fits exactly inside the dish, and on the plate put a 2 or 3 lb weight.  Leave the pudding in a very cold larder or fridge.  When ready to serve turn the pudding out onto a dish (not a completely flat one, or the juices will overflow) and pour over it the reserved juice.  Some people put strawberries into summer pudding.  To me that’s a waste of strawberries.  They don’t go well with raspberries and redcurrants.

Although I concur entirely with her view on strawberries I do like to include a few blackcurrants – not too many or they will overpower.  It is also perfectly fine to include some whitecurrants but the predominant fruit must remain as raspberries.  The proportion of fruit to bread is also an issue – I like my summer pudding to be predominantly fruit so always make a large version – double the above – small or individual puddings always seem overly “bready”.

 

Currant and Raspberry Compôte

Less of a recipe but more a plea not to overcook fruit for this refreshing fruit salad, which I love to eat for breakfast with yoghurt.  Cook only the currants, with as little sugar as you can take (start with 100g of sugar to a kilo of fruit).  When the currants have started to release their juices remove them from the heat, taste again and adjust the sugar then stir in the raspberries.

 

 

Currants – black, red and white

This article is very much for gardeners as you will find it difficult to buy redcurrants and nigh impossible to buy the white variant.  Blackcurrants used to be easier to find but, as we recently discovered when taking some of our surplus to our local greengrocer to sell, they seem to be as rare as their red and white cousins now.  If you do find currants for sale, their price is likely to make many of these recipes prohibitive, but the good news is that they are easy to grow, don’t take up too much space and lend themselves to a surprising number of recipes as I discovered when faced with a surplus.

Leave the currants on the bush for as long as possible to eat raw, or semi-raw, for the most intense flavour.  Earlier in the season they can be made into a jelly – they are very high in pectin.  Redcurrants marry very well with raspberries as in the classic dish Summer Pudding, but also consider using a handful or more of red or white currant when making raspberry jam for a better set.  That said, soft-set raspberry jam is also good.  You can even use the young leaves of a blackcurrant bush for a deliciously scented sorbet, pick just the tips whilst they are still fresh green in colour – this will be before the fruit has ripened.

Whitecurrants are slightly sharper but otherwise very similar to the redcurrant that has more or less replaced them but, as you will see from the photograph above, they are actually pink rather than white when fully ripe.  An advantage over redcurrants is that when used to make jelly the lighter colour allows any added ingredients to be seen more clearly – they are my preferred choice for Mint Jelly.

Varieties – Modern blackcurrant varieties mostly originate from Scotland and will be called Ben something or other.  An old Somerset variety, which is reputedly very good although I have never tasted it, is called Mendip Cross.  White Versailles is the most commonly grown variety of Whitecurrant and is over 150 years old.

Recipes:

Blackcurrants: Raw blackcurrant ice cream or Raw Blackcurrant mousse, Blackcurrants with Crème Brûlée, Blackcurrant Leaf Sorbet

Redcurrants: Redcurrant Jelly

Whitecurrants: Mint jelly

Mix: Currant and Raspberry Compôte, Currant Shrub, Summer Pudding

Fresh and Simple Salads

1st June heralds the start of summer and fresh new season produce.  It means a real shift in cooking too.  During the long hungry gap, skills and innovation are needed to make the limited ingredients inviting.  What a relief to be able to pluck something fresh from the garden and revel in just its perfect freshness and newness with minimal effort.  Much of what I serve during the summer barely warrants a recipe.

Of course, there is nowhere to hide with this sort of food.  Everyone who grows their own knows the incomparable flavour that comes, for example, from freshly dug potatoes compared to any you can buy.  But not everyone has the space to grow their own food; and finding sources where you can buy freshly harvested produce can be just as challenging.

If you have very limited space, my top food growing priority would be herbs, even if it is just a few pots on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential seasoning; and the fresh growth immediately transforms a dish into a taste of summer.   I have featured a different herb each month for those who want to grow their own.

My next priority for growing your own food in a limited space would be salad leaves.  You can grow a mix of cut and come again leaves in a pot, but if you have room for a cold frame, you could become self-sufficient in salad for the whole year.  Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding, the expert in no-dig gardening, is a fantastic book that will teach you all you need to know to achieve that self-sufficiently.  Charles himself quickly realised that the only horticulture from which he could make a living from a small plot was salad leaves.  He began by picking and delivering bags of fresh leaves to local restaurants.

Salad leaves are quick to grow and so some of the first of the new year’s planting to be ready for harvest.  Radishes are similarly early to harvest, but despite their name, Spring Onions are a little later, and this year, a bit later than usual.  Mine are just about ready to begin picking now (mid-June).

A food writer in our local paper alerted me to the fact that “Spring” onions are now sold in supermarkets all year round.  The UK’s main commercial grower is in Worcestershire and can apparently supply them from March to November, but I noted that this week, in June, those in Waitrose came from Egypt.  The switch in supply may well be owing to the previously documented trouble with trafficking and child labour for spring onion picking in Worcestershire.  The year-round supply is down to their use as an ingredient in Far-eastern cookery.

However, as a traditional British salad ingredient, I would say that freshness is essential and urge you to grow your own.  Following this year’s late frosts, which are expected to become a more recurrent consequence of climate change, I intend to try planting a “winter hardy” version of the popular White Lisbon variety for overwintering this year in the hope of achieving an earlier supply.

Back in March, Bee Wilson wrote about spring onions in the Financial Times.  She included some lovely simple recipes from an Edna Lewis of the USA, including the following:

Take the freshest spring onions and lettuce, wash, and then dress with sugar, vinegar, and salt. This, Edna Lewis says, is the taste of her childhood.  I tried it, using the best white wine vinegar to dissolve a pinch each of salt and sugar, no oil, and it was indeed delicious.  I didn’t mention to my husband that I was trying a different dressing but observed that when I offered him the last of the salad, he carefully tipped the bowl to get the remaining dressing – a result!

The taste of your childhood salads may not be one you are eager to recreate, but if you look back far enough into our history you will find that British salads do have a creditable heritage and there are no end of unusual ingredients that could be included as I wrote here.  So, whether you are looking for a main course perfect for lunch, a side salad, or something to refresh the palate between courses, the inspiration will start with your own fresh produce.

British Asparagus

It seems astonishing that only 15 years ago asparagus was something of a rarity in the UK, eaten by less than 10% of the population.   It was mostly consumed in restaurants, as a starter, or, as I vividly remember from one holiday in Scotland, a regulation three spears appeared alongside the main course.  Yet it is thanks to these restaurants that asparagus consumption has become popular in the UK again.

The history of asparagus growing in the UK is a long one which centred on the area in Worcestershire known as the Vale of Evesham.  At its peak in 1938, the area had 1200 acres planted with asparagus.  I am interested to see that literally at the 11th hour of us leaving the European Union on 31st December 2020, Vale of Evesham Asparagus was recognised as a Protected Food Name with PGI status.  Lord only knows what value this will confer; however, it does provide us with a well-documented history and a protocol that growers in the area must abide by if they wish to receive this protected status.

The protocol tells us that the microclimate surrounding the Vale of Evesham ensures the crops warm quickly in the spring, but only where the soil is sandy and free draining.  The protocol maintains that land outside the Evesham area is heavier, slow to warm and prone to being water-logged; although others claim that asparagus does, inexplicably, grow happily on these heavier clay soils.  Evesham is a long way from the sea (about 70 miles from Weston-super-Mare) and most of the other areas that are notable for growing asparagus are the sandy soils of the coast.  The dunes of Formby, near Liverpool, for example, also have a strong historical connection although hardly any is grown there now.   Another seaside location with a great reputation for its asparagus is St Enodoc in Cornwall.  It is popular with chefs with overnight deliveries three times a week.  Their website notes that

the salt deposits on the soil improve the flavour as the spears break ground. We don’t use artificial polytunnels to warm the soil to bring them up prematurely but wait until the air and soil temperatures are optimum for bringing the crowns back to life.

When you consider the difference that salt laden air lends to the grapes that are destined for a Manzanilla sherry compared with the further inland Fino, or if you have read the description of eating blackberries from the clifftops in west Cornwall contained in the book The Salt Path, it is entirely credible that the salty sea air might contribute much to the flavour.

The Second World War heralded the decline in asparagus growing in the Vale of Evesham from its heyday in 1938.  During the Second World War it was forbidden to plant any new asparagus beds and although the existing crowns could continue to produce for up to 20 years if carefully managed, after the war there was a shortage of the labour that had previously been employed in market gardens.  Our move towards centralised food production began with the war but has continued ever since and asparagus growing, and harvesting, is both labour intensive and also unsuited to lengthy distribution chains.

In my opinion it is this latter point that has the most bearing on the quality of asparagus – it must be eaten FRESH, that is within hours of picking rather than days.  The natural sugars begin turning to starch from the moment it is cut, and I find that the best asparagus comes from roadside stalls right beside the fields where it has grown.

The Vale of Evesham Asparagus protocol does make some other useful points about the expertise that develops in an area.  The sort of expertise that has learnt which field will be best suited to growing and knows exactly how to harvest to protect the life of the crowns.  Once spent the same ground will not be suitable for replanting with asparagus for 30 years, which is why places like Formby ran out of fresh ground.

All of this explains why asparagus is always going to be too pricy to regard it as a mainstream vegetable, although it is an extremely welcome herald of summer, appearing at a time when precious little else is growing.  If you do have the right soil and microclimate and are prepared to view it as a long-term investment (it will be 3 years after planting your crowns before you begin to take your first cut), asparagus would make a good choice for small growers who plan to sell to a local market.

Most growers don’t cut from any crown for more than 6 weeks so that it recovers well for the next year.  The asparagus season traditionally runs from St George’s Day until Midsummer on 21st June.  That is 8 weeks although if you have enough crowns, you could stagger cutting throughout this period.  The price tends to be highest at the start of the season but once it gets going the asparagus can grow up to 10cm a day and quickly grown asparagus will be straight and tender.  However, if the temperature is too low the asparagus will stop growing, or grow very slowly, giving crooked stems.  April 2021 has been the coldest, frostiest, and driest for at least 60 years so the asparagus season was late to start but cutting should now continue right through to midsummer.*

Asparagus makes an ideal meat free meal because the main ingredient is still considered such a treat.  As a main meal I would probably serve it in a risotto, although its affinity with eggs leads to several possibilities here – asparagus and goats’ cheese tart, omelette or just a simple softly boiled egg for dipping the spears.  Jamie Oliver’s recipe for minted asparagus ravioli takes a little bit of work but remains a favourite that I must eat at least once in the season.  When I do find somewhere to buy fresh asparagus, I tend to buy some of the cheaper sprue (thinner spears) or mis-shapes as well as perfect bundles.  I will cook it all on the day I buy it but use the mis-shapes for soup which can be reheated the next day.  This is also a good idea for the start of the season when all of the spears may be sprue and the weather perhaps more suited to soup than a salad.

For more cooking tips and recipes see here.

  • Update – it is now nearly the end of May and there has been very little asparagus cut, apart from under polytunnels, owing now to heavy rain and continuing cold.  So it will be an exceptionally late season, but the forecast is better for June.

Further reading:

https://www.explorethepast.co.uk/2020/06/asparagus-the-vale-of-evesham/

May Fairs

May 1 used to have far more significance than it does nowadays.  The Celts called it Beltane and celebrated with hilltop fires, around which they danced “sunwise”.  Greeting the dawn on 1st May stems back to those Pagan Beltane celebrations, young women believed that bathing their face in the early morning dew on this day was good for their complexion.  Dews are common at this time of year as the earth is only just warming up.

Tall, straight trees were cut for maypoles, they were decorated with flowers and coloured ribbons, and raised on village greens as the focal point for the celebrations.  The flowers and foliage were often gathered at midnight, an activity known as “bringing in the May” and it gave good cover for other human interactions.  The link between May Day and fertility was so strong that in Charles I’s time the Puritans banned the erection of Maypoles and generally tried to supress the celebration.  When Charles II returned to the throne on 29 May 1660 some places moved their May Day celebrations to that date and others to Rogationtide.

Rogationtide is not a fixed date but determined by Easter, which in itself is determined by the full moon.  The four days from the fifth Sunday after Easter are the Rogation Days, the last of which is Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).  The earliest date on which it could occur is 30th April and the latest 3rd June, so essentially it is a May festival.  (In Western Churches – Eastern Orthodox churches usually use the old Gregorian calendar).

Ascension Day marks Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven and is the end of the Easter Season.  In C5th France, following a series of natural disasters, this day was marked by blessing the fields, animals and people.  It later became customary to walk the boundaries of the village to do this, a procession known as “Beating the Bounds”.

In Britain today we have two Bank Holidays in May, one at the beginning to coincide with May Day and one at the end, the “Spring Bank Holiday”.  May Day was formally adopted as International Workers Day in 1889, which has sadly overshadowed its earlier purpose, but whatever they now mark, the fact remains that the two long weekends in May provide opportunities for festivities and fairs.

Fairs (or fayres) were traditionally important not only as an occasion for relaxation and entertainment but also for business.  Many of the oldest relate to agricultural sales (Priddy Sheep Fair was the longest running having moved from Wells in 1348 because of the Black Death).  Hiring Fairs were also common on the quarter days.  Several foods are associated with fairs – a sort of porridge known as Frumenty was often served laced with rum.  Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, was always found at fairs but in Florence White’s Good Things in England a complete “fairing” was described as including:

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway Comfits

Candied Sticks of Angelica

Almond Comfits

Macaroons

 

The history of gingerbread goes back a long way (see Ginger and Gingerbread) and the biscuits known as Cornish Fairings, which have been made commercially since 1886 are actually one of the most modern examples as evidenced by the inclusion of raising agents.  Miss Rogers of Marazion in Cornwall who contributed the list of a traditional fairing also noted of the macaroons that they are “quite different from the English variety, much thicker and softer and crumbly, not tough”.  I’m not entirely certain what these may have been like as today we distinguish the English Macaroon from the more modern (1900) French Macaron which is a pastel-coloured sandwich of something more akin to a meringue.  I doubt these were being served at Cornish Fairs but perhaps they were!  Anyway, Florence White’s Macaroon recipe is the English version of the almond biscuit that came from Italy.

Fairing Recipes

Fairing Recipes

Cornish Fairings

 

Although the name harks back to the oldest form of Gingerbread, the biscuit recipe below is more modern with raising agents being a significant ingredient. These have been made commercially by Furniss of Truro since 1886 although their recipe is a trade secret.

A rough, irregular surface is a distinguishing feature and, containing raising agent, they are left to spread creating a less precise round somewhat thicker, and therefore less crisp, biscuit than the Ormskirk type above.

 

8 oz plain flour

½ tsp salt

2 level tsps baking powder

2 level tsps bicarbonate soda

3 level tsps ground ginger

2 level tsps mixed spice

1 level tsp cinnamon

4 oz butter

4 oz caster sugar

4 tbsps golden syrup

 

Sieve together the dry ingredients then rub in the butter (as you would for pastry).  Stir in the sugar.  Heat the syrup gently and then pour in sufficient to bind the mixture, which will be fairly stiff.

With floured hands, take walnut sized pieces of the mixture, roll into a ball and place on a greased baking sheet. Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 5-7 minutes or until the biscuits are beginning to brown then turn out the heat and leave to cook for a further 5 minutes.

 

 

Macaroons

 

These are the old-fashioned type traditionally served in the UK, crisp on the outside but chewy in the centre, as opposed to the modern macaroons, pronounced macaron, which were developed in France in 1900.

Makes 20 – 36 (depending on whether you want to serve them as biscuits or a petit four)

2 egg whites

250 g caster sugar

125 g whole blanched almonds (+ flaked almonds for decoration)

30 g semolina flour (or rice flour)

1 tsp orange flower water

Edible wafer paper (or rice paper)

 

Pre-heat the oven to 140°C (Fan)

Put 4 sheets of rice paper, smooth side down, on a large baking sheet.

Process the almonds until finely ground.

Whisk the egg yolks until fairly stiff.  Add the orange flower water.

Combine the caster sugar and semolina flour with the almonds and fold into the egg whites.  It will make a stiff paste.

For petit fours use a teaspoonful of mixture or for biscuits a dessertspoon.  Place the heaps on the rice paper allowing room for them to spread out to about double the size.  For biscuits add a flaked almond in the middle of each.

Bake for 15 minutes for petit four size or 30 minutes for larger biscuits – until just lightly coloured.

As soon as the macaroons are cool enough to handle move them to a wire cooling rack tearing off the excess rice paper that surrounds them.

Store in an airtight tin for up to 10 days.

 

Lambing Time

Pasture for Life celebrated its 10th year this month.  Over those 10 years, the certification scheme has greatly advanced understanding of the benefits of pasture fed meat, yet as Easter approaches I am gnashing my teeth whilst reading all the articles in the press that recommend “Spring Lamb” as the centrepiece for your Easter celebrations.  Open your eyes and look around – or just look at the pictures on social media – in Britain lambs are just being born in the spring, they are not ready to eat!

A very defined breeding cycle exists for lamb, only the Dorset Horn (and its polled variant) can breed all year round.  The various breeds have developed to reflect their local climatic conditions, with the first lambs being born early in the year in warmer parts of the south, gradually being followed by the Scottish Lowlands, the Welsh hills and finally the Highlands. Each of these areas produces lamb with its own distinctive flavour,  due in part to the breed and partly to their forage.

Even lamb which is not reared to Pasture for Life standards remains relatively immune to intensive farming methods and is usually reared outdoors, after all grass is cheaper than buying sheep nuts, although it has become common practice to finish them on cereals.  This has a detrimental effect on its Omega 3 content as well fuelling the criticism that in place of animals we could grow crops for human consumption.  This criticism of course only bears weight if the land is suitable for growing crops which most upland areas are not.

So, what would be involved in producing a lamb that was ready to eat at Easter?  Well in Britain that would, as I have already mentioned, only be possible with the Dorset breed.  It would be born in the Autumn and would then spend most of its life indoors.  Initially it would drink its mother’s milk, and there is a market abroad for very young, milk fed lambs.  However, by introducing silage, cereals and protein (often soya) it might reach what is considered a marketable weight at around 5 months.  Waitrose does sell a limited amount of this Dorset breed lamb, although there was none available when I searched the internet this week.  What their website does say is “because English and Welsh lamb is seasonal, we source high quality [Spring Lamb] from trusted farmers in New Zealand until June when British Lamb comes into it’s prime”.  So, if you are buying Spring Lamb for Easter, if fresh it will probably have been imported from New Zealand, although it might be possible to buy British frozen.  The option I prefer if I want to serve sheep meat at this time of year is to serve Hogget, which is from a lamb that is slaughtered over a year old.  Pasture for Life certified lamb spends approximately 50% more time grazing (52 weeks on average) than those finished on cereals.  They enjoy a longer and more natural life that enables me to enjoy watching the newly born lambs frolicking in the fields in Spring.

 

See also The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton for more information about the characteristics of mutton from different locations and how to cook and serve it.

Slow Fermented Bread Recipes

Hot Cross Buns

All of the following recipes use the “Sponge and Dough” method described in the Food Culture Article Take Time to make Good Bread.  This may also be combined with cool overnight fermentation.

HOT CROSS BUNS

First class ingredients will make your homemade Hot Cross Buns better than any you have ever bought.  It really makes a difference to hand cut candied peel and grind spices just before using rather than buying ready prepared alternatives.  Likewise use organic stoneground flour if you can – it will give the buns more character, flavour and texture.  White stoneground flour is harder to come by than wholemeal so, if you can only find industrial roller-milled white flour, mixing it with a proportion of stoneground wholemeal flour is a good alternative.

Fresh yeast gives the best results, but if you are unable to find it, try to buy traditional dried yeast, such as that made by Allinsons, rather than “easy-blend” or “fast acting” alternatives, which include flour improvers.  Use half the quantity of dried yeast to fresh, and halve this again if you have to resort to an easy blend version.

Note that the ferment needs to be made a day in advance.

Makes 16

The Ferment:

140g strong white flour

20g fresh yeast

150ml water

The Dough:

 

310g stoneground strong white flour (or use 170g industrial white mixed with 140g stoneground wholemeal)

1 tsp salt

3 tsp mixed spice *¹

55g light muscovado sugar

55g butter, melted

1 egg, beaten

125ml milk

85g hand chopped candied lemon peel

85g sultanas

For the crosses:

 

50g plain white household flour

Pinch of baking powder

40 – 50ml water

1 tsp vegetable oil

For the glaze:

1 egg

2 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp boiling water

Mix up the ferment 12-18 hours before you want to make the hot cross buns.  Heat the water until it feels lukewarm to the touch then stir into the fresh yeast until it is smoothly blended.  Mix this liquid into the flour, cover the bowl with cling film and leave in a cool place to rise and drop again.

When you are ready to make the dough, mix together the flours, salt, sugar and spice then create a well in the centre.  Melt the butter and pour it into the well together with the beaten egg and 4 fl oz of milk.  Stir the liquid with your hand, gradually drawing in some of flour mixture.  When the centre is no longer liquid add the ferment from the day before and begin to knead to create a homogenous mixture.  Absorption rates vary from flour to flour so be prepared to add more water or flour to get the right consistency – quite moist but manageable.   It will take the yeast a little while to recover from these additions, so it pays to cover the dough and let it rest for half an hour or so before kneading in earnest.  Whilst the dough is resting you can chop the peel and, if you like, pour a couple of tablespoons of sweet sherry over the sultanas to plump them.

Once the dough is smooth and elastic, stretch it out, as far as it will go without tearing, into a rectangular shape.  Scatter the chopped peel over the dough and then fold the bottom third over, followed by the top third.  Now give the dough a quarter turn and stretch it out again.  This time scatter with the sultanas (minus any excess soaking liquid) and repeat the folding process.  Put the dough into a large bowl, cover with cling film and leave in a warm place, such as an airing cupboard, until the dough has doubled in size.  This will take about 2 hours at this temperature or see note*2 below for overnight fermentation.

Briefly knead the dough to knock out the air and then divide it into 4.  Further divide each quarter into four and shape each piece into a ball.  Place these onto greased baking sheets allowing a gap approximately the same size as each ball between them for the dough to rise.   It doesn’t matter if the buns just touch as they cook.  Cover and put back in a warm place for the dough to rise again, which this time will take about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients to make the crosses.  The mixture should be quite firm but just runny enough to pipe.  Put the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a broad plain nozzle.  Pre-heat the oven to 210ºC/190ºC (fan ovens)/Gas Mark 5.

Pipe a cross over each risen bun.  Put the buns into the oven and turn the heat up to 220ºC/200ºC (fan ovens)/Gas Mark 6.  Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden in colour.  Whilst the buns are baking mix together the ingredients for the glaze and brush over the buns immediately they are removed from the oven.

Notes

*¹ Mixed Spice is a blend of predominantly sweet spices that used to be known as Pudding Spice.  The exact blend varies but almost always includes cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.  Other additions might include: coriander seeds, allspice berries and ginger, these latter two providing heat as well as flavour.  Elizabeth David recommends: two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns (or substitute allspice berries for a milder blend), one part cinnamon bark, one part whole cloves, one part dried ginger root.  She further notes…To this mixture a fraction of freshly ground cumin seed can be added.  This is particularly successful for Hot Cross Buns.

*² If this rising time is inconvenient, for example if you wish to eat the buns in the morning, the dough can be put in a cold place to rise overnight.  The second rising, after the buns have been shaped, should be in a warm place and slightly longer should be allowed for the dough to warm up and begin to rise.

PANARY’S OVERNIGHT LONDON BLOOMER

This recipe is from Paul Merry’s Traditional British bread making course, which he runs from his cookery school Panary .  It is based at Cann Mills, near Shaftesbury in Dorset, from where I buy all my stoneground flour.  For further detail see www.panary.co.uk or email Paul at info@panary.co.uk

Paul Merry

Many traditional British loaves were based on this dough, the main differences being down to shape, which might, for example, give more or less crust.  On Paul’s course we made a Cottage Loaf from the same dough, using two thirds to form the base with the remaining third, also shaped into a ball, secured to the base by pushing a floured finger right through the middle.

First Stage – The Overnight Sponge

450g/1 lb strong white bread flour

300ml/½ pint cool or luke warm water  (depending on ambient temperature)

15g fresh yeast (note: I find 10g quite sufficient, or 5g traditional dried yeast – SW)

Disperse the yeast in the water and then mix in the flour.  Mix thoroughly then knead briefly.  Cover the bowl with a cloth or plastic sheet, ensuring there is plenty of room for the dough to expand.  Leave overnight at room temperature.   NB Overnight is a minimum of 6 hours, if more than 12 or if the weather is very hot, half the salt from the second stage can be included to slow down the fermentation.

Second Stage – The Bulk Fermentation

450g/1lb strong white flour

15-20g salt

250 – 300 ml/ approx ½pint water

The overnight sponge

Add the flour and salt to the overnight sponge together with sufficient water to bring it all together.  Knead vigorously to develop the gluten in the fresh flour.

The maturity of the overnight dough will ensure that the yeast works on the fresh flour of the second stage surprisingly quickly, and if the dough has finished reasonably warm it will probably only require about 1½ hours for its bulk rise.  Allow 2-3 hours to prove if the dough has finished cold.  To test whether it is properly proved and ready for the next stage, gently poke the dough with a floury finger tip.  If the cavity you make stays then it is ready, if it closes over as you withdraw your finger then it needs more time to mature.

Third Stage – Shaping and Final Proof

When you are satisfied that it has matured fully, shape the dough into one huge long loaf or two smaller ones.  The rounded ends are important to the look of a London Bloomer.  Place the loaves on a baking tray or, if you are baking them on a hot earthenware tile (which would be more authentic) prove them in floured cloths.  Once shaped the final proof will take about an hour.

Just before the loaves go into the oven (preheated to 220˚C/Gas Mark 7) make a dozen diagonal cuts across the loaf’s back.  Bake for about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of the loaves and the heat of the oven but the loaves should be well baked with a thick and crunchy crust.

©Paul Merry