Home Cooking 2020

I am always firm in describing myself as a “Home Cook” rather than a chef.  There is a world of difference as the latter cooks to earn a living whilst the former cooks to nourish and cherish themselves and their family.  Pre Covid-19 I had felt increasingly alone in the role cooking played in my life.  It is, nowadays, considered a luxury to be at home full time with the time to cook.  My husband works from home and I see the provision of three meals a day as my responsibility but also my pleasure.  He does treat us to a restaurant meal once a week, a luxury that a previous generation of home cooks would almost certainly not have enjoyed.  But aside from this, planning meals, shopping and cooking are things that I do day in day out.

We live in the country, so having a takeaway is not actually an easy option, nor is popping out for a forgotten ingredient.  I make a weekly trip to the farmers market, and have several foods delivered, but a well-stocked larder and a productive vegetable garden are essential.  Which stood me in good stead when the lockdown came, although garden wise it could not have come at a worse time of year – the period between last years crop running to seed and this year’s yet to be planted let alone ready to harvest.

Suddenly everyone found themselves in the role of home cook.  The scale of the challenge was summed up in one tweet I read in which a mother reported her five-year old’s worried words “you do know that we have a pudding at school every day, don’t you?”.  Not just three meals a day then, but a pudding and other treats to keep the spirits up, were now required of people who had perhaps previously cooked as an occasional form of relaxation.  Another tweet commented on the tedium of the cooking/washing up treadmill when they were supposed to be working from home whilst home schooling as well!

In these first three weeks of lockdown I have posted only what I hope are seen as words of encouragement.  No-one needs any more pressure at this time.  However, I have been thrilled to see an increasing number of people taking up gardening and making bread – sourdough starters seem to be a particular preserve of men who apparently talk of little else!

Establishing a routine in cooking is the first thing that one needs to do to make things easier.  I have already pre-ordered Nigella Lawson’s newest book, not out until October, because I love the title – “Cook, Eat, Repeat”, and its promise to discuss the rhythms that become the essence of a home cook’s life.

Of course, some people may already have vowed never to cook again once this pandemic is over, but I hope that many more will have seized the opportunity to get at least a week’s worth of dishes off pat so that they can confidently return to them whenever the need arises.  In the past, when everyone cooked at home, many existed on a very limited repertoire.  The following extract from Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England illustrates the point:

 

 

 

VICARAGE MUTTON

 

Hot on Sunday,

Cold on Monday,

Hashed on Tuesday,

Minced on Wednesday,

Curried on Thursday,

Broth on Friday,

Cottage Pie on Saturday.

 

 

Using the Sunday Roast as a starting point is very good practice indeed.  Pretty much everyone in Britain loves the tradition of a Sunday Roast as evidenced by how heavily booked pubs are for this event.  Bringing everyone together around the table is the essence of home cooking so how sad it is that this now more rarely happens at home. The central ingredient can be varied, and thus often the traditional accompaniments, but the Vicarage Mutton template can stand up to any meat.

Turning the bones into stock is the logical next step, then using this to make soup.  Note that “cold on Monday” is a perfectly acceptable option.  You don’t have to bust a gut for every meal and as putting a potato in the oven might be all that is required on this day, turning the bones into stock is then easily incorporated.  Depending on the size of your joint of meat, and the number of people in your family, a selection of “reheated leftover” dishes could come next on the list of skills you add to your repertoire.

I rarely cook one dish without having a follow-on in mind.  The follow-on is not always immediate because I have decent sized freezer which helps prevent things becoming too monotonous, and it is always comforting to know that there is something to hand in emergencies – the freezer rather than a take away would be my go-to when I am too busy to cook a meal from scratch. Any casserole would be a candidate for freezing, but a Bolognese sauce would be my top priority as it is so versatile.  It may just be a sign of gluttony, but I always think about the next day’s meals the moment I have finished supper, because then you will remember to remove what you need from the freezer or to soak those beans, etc.  Not planning what to eat until the family is screaming with hunger is a tough call for anyone!

Thus far, everything I have suggested has been based around meat.  Our lunch is usually our meat-free, or meat-light, meal.  One day is soup, usually the same day that I make bread.  I make one batch of overnight risen dough a week and freeze some bread sliced for toast.  This overnight dough is an essential routine, which once established becomes second nature, so use this time to work out how it would fit into your normal routine.  Perhaps make the dough on a Friday night for baking for Saturday lunch?  I also make sourdough, which is just as well now that I can’t get out to buy fresh yeast.  I use the dough for Pizza, one of our lunchtime staples.  Pasta is another lunch staple – quick and easy, with an infinite variety of sauces.

Once you have a week’s meals under your belt it is surprisingly easy to extend your repertoire.  The fundamental techniques don’t change that much although the ingredients might.  My inspiration has always been nature.

The rhythms of cooking echo the rhythms of the seasons.  I learnt to cook this way (The Reader’s Digest Cookery Year was a much-loved early reference).  Ever since, it has been instinctive to record recipes according to the time of year in which I might be likely to eat them.  You will see that my Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website is organised in this way.  By now, I have a massive database that exceeds the number of meals I could eat in a year, and there are a number of dishes that punctuate the seasons in such a way that life would not feel complete if they weren’t present when their season comes around.

Supermarkets have offered so much choice of what to eat, from all over the world, and catering to every different food intolerance, that it is no wonder that we can become too overwhelmed to decide what to cook.  A period of quiet reflection, with just the ingredients that are to hand, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.  Growing your own vegetables or foraging for food on your daily walk are both excellent ways to keep you in tune with nature.

I am largely a self-taught cook and nowadays if you are unsure about how to do something there is almost bound to be a video on YouTube that will show you how.  I hope my seasonal recipe collection on this website will provide some inspiration and please do contact me either via the website of @RealFoodSuzie on Twitter if you have any questions.  I hope that home cooking will become for you the pleasure that it is for me.

 

First Earlies

St George’s Mushrooms

In terms of vegetables, April is a transitional month.  The very last of the winter vegetables begin to shoot, a signal to use them up quickly and get the ground prepared for summer crops.  It will, of course, take some time for new plantings to reach an edible size and so we have the period known as “the hungry gap”.

The variations in climate dependent upon location are never more evident than at this time of year.  I live at 650 feet above sea level on the north facing slope of the Mendip hills.  Even a brief trip to the village 250 feet below provokes surprise at how much further advanced the season appears, but as the temperature is around 2°C warmer and sheltered by the hill it should not really come as a surprise.  I experience brief pangs of envy every time I read that someone (usually in the South-East of the country) has just picked the first of something – wild garlic, asparagus, broad beans.  Once a week I venture across to Wells on the southern foothills for the market.  The temperature here is about 4°C higher than at home and so this is where I will obtain the first of any new produce.

The term “First Earlies” is used for new potatoes and they are eagerly awaited.  So much so that I succumb to the temptation of imports from Majorca before the first British potatoes from Jersey and Cornwall appear.  From around the second week in May I look for the delicious Pembrokeshire Earlies, our own potatoes having been in the ground barely a month by this time as we waited for the soil to warm sufficiently.

The first of any early season crops have always attracted a premium price.  Whether they are genuinely better than what will come later is highly debatable, but it is the eagerness with which they are awaited that warrants the price if not the reputation.

In the past these early crops were a genuine example of terroir.  For example, Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes, which gained EU Protected Name status in 2015, make the following points regarding growing conditions in their Product Specification:

 

It is the mild climate of Pembrokeshire which enables Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes to be grown and harvested early in the year, their short growing time and freshness producing a distinctive taste which has historically, and is currently, in strong demand. Pembrokeshire has the earliest and longest growing season in Wales.

Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes require warmth to ensure successful growth. Being situated in the westernmost point of Wales, on the west coast of the UK and being surrounded by the sea on three sides, Pembrokeshire is in a unique position to benefit from the warmth generated by the sea which is warmed by the North Atlantic Drift of The Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic Ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida. The current helps keep the western coast of Great Britain a couple of degrees warmer than the eastern side. As such, Pembrokeshire has a more equitable and milder climate than inland areas due to the sea having a cooling effect in summer and a warmer tendency in winter relative to the interior. The warming effect of the sea on the county helps the soil to warm earlier than other parts of the UK, facilitating growth. It also minimises the risk of frosts damaging the emerged crop. Pembrokeshire has the earliest growing season in Wales. The equitability of the climate is hugely beneficial to plant growth.

The earliest of these earlies have to be hand-harvested, both because their skins have not yet hardened and because the earliest usually come from steeply sloping sites where machine harvesting would not be possible.  This mirrors the situation that used to exist in Jersey but where now the potatoes are more often grown on flat ground under polythene.  Interestingly, in Jersey the protection relates to the variety Jersey Royal, which must be called International Kidney if grown outside of the island, whilst in Pembrokeshire any variety from a long list of registered varieties may be used.  Terroir is clearly still critical here as this further extract from the Product Specification shows:

Dr Brian John notes in his book, The Geology of Pembrokeshire.

 “…..The soils of Pembrokeshire are famous for their crops of early potatoes, particularly close to the coast….. 

……The main distinguishing characteristic of the geology of Pembrokeshire is that it is made up of immensely old rocks.  Most of the rocks of which the county is composed are more than 280 million years old, with no young rock, such as those seen in England, represented at all.  The rocks of the North of the county are PreCambrian and Lower Palaeozoic (that is, more than 295 million years old), whereas the South of the county is made up rocks of the Upper Palaeozoic age (that is, less than 395 million years old but no more than 225 million years old)…..”

These ancient rocks and the distinct soils they generate help contribute to the uniqueness of Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes. Most Pembrokeshire Earlies/Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes are grown in Red Sandstone soils on south facing land close to the coast. This land is inherently fertile, free working and free draining. The soils dry quickly and are also quick to warm up in the spring and Pembrokeshire has a lower risk of frost than elsewhere in inland Wales.

 

The third week in May usually heralds the transition to new season produce.  My husband’s birthday falls during this week and I can normally obtain asparagus and strawberries for the occasion.

What both of these products have in common is that they are perennials rather than an annual crop.  They are not killed off by winter frosts but merely dormant and so ready to burst into life as soon as temperatures rise and the days lengthen.  The growing seasons for both have now been artificially lengthened, asparagus relatively innocuously so, mainly through the use of fleece to warm the soil.  The first British asparagus this year was being sold to restaurants around the third week in March, a full month earlier than usual.

With strawberries growing methods have been significantly altered.  The high southern slopes of Mendip, above the village of Cheddar, used to be famed for their early strawberries, whose favourable position on thin soil over limestone warmed up quickly.  Such was their popularity that every inch of this ground was covered until it became diseased.  Growing then moved onto the gentle slopes below the village and then to growbags at easy picking height in polytunnels.  Terroir is totally irrelevant to them now – even the soil in the growbags is not British and they are now usually grown as an annual crop.  It is a much more reliable income stream for the growers, but less environmentally friendly and certainly not a patch on the flavour of strawberries grown in open ground.

Seasonal manipulation can be even more extreme.  I was astounded to receive a newsletter from a local community farm stating that the vegetable of the month in their delivery boxes was courgettes!  These, it went on to state, were British grown in greenhouses heated to 18°C during the day and kept at a constant 16°C overnight.  I don’t even want to eat a courgette in April, and certainly not one produced in this way.

Growing some perennial produce, e.g. rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, is one way to ensure you have something to pick before your annual crops get going.  Harvesting from the wild is another important source as here too the plants are established and the first to spring into new life.  An understanding of terroir is essential in knowing where to look when foraging.  St George’s Mushrooms are so named because they usually make their appearance around St George’s Day on 23rd April.  In the recent past I most often found them about a week to 10 days later, but this year I picked my first on 9th April, the earliest ever, beating last year’s, bang on St George’s Day, by a fortnight.  Without any modern technology coming into the equation, I can only assume that this is an example of global warming.

As the summer progresses the early geographical differences become less pronounced.  I have a friend living on Orkney and have visited her several times in May.  Their daffodils are still flowering then and absolutely nothing is yet growing in the garden, but she assures me that it does catch up, and this I assume is owing to the incredible amount of daylight they see in the summer – in June it barely gets dark.  Though I am sure that there are some things they can’t grow on Orkney just as there are some that I don’t bother with at 650 feet, it is all about understanding your particular terroir and what suits it.  People too are the product of their environment.  Whilst I may feel that twinge of envy for South-Eastern growing conditions at this time of year, I will later be happy to have our ever-present cooling breeze and lush greenery I’m sure!

Herb of the month – Sorrel

Young Broad Leaf Sorrel

By April there is more choice of herbs in the garden but Sorrel is the first around which I can deliver the “dinner of herbs” promised at the outset of this series.

The Latin name for the sorrel family is Rumex meaning “I suck”, as Roman soldiers apparently used to suck the leaves to relieve thirst, as did, at least in some works of literature, field workers.  The name sorrel comes from the French “surelle” meaning “sour”, which accurately describes the taste, the flavour being somewhat lemony.  In fact sorrel is so acidic that its juice can be used instead of rennet to curdle milk.

There are three varieties of the Rumex family.  Rumex Acetosa is the most commonly cultivated of the three and also found growing wild, it is known as Broad Leafed Sorrel, Common Sorrel or Garden Sorrel.  Rumex Scutatus is more popular in France hence one of its names is French Sorrel, however, confusingly this name is also sometimes given to Rumex Acetosa.  The more common name for it in England is Buckler Leaf Sorrel.  It has much smaller leaves and a milder flavour making it more suitable for eating raw – a lovely addition to salads.   Rumex Acetosella grows wild on heaths and fields, its common name is Sheep’s sorrel.

Wild Sheeps Sorrel

Wood Sorrel, which has pretty white flowers and heart shaped leaves, is actually a member of the Oxalis family, its Latin name being Oxalis Acetosella.

All the sorrels contain high levels of oxalic acid, which in large doses is poisonous, causing severe kidney damage.  It should not be eaten by those who suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or gastric hyperacidity.  The positive effects of small quantities of sorrel are the cleansing and improving effects on blood.  It works in a similar way to spinach by improving the haemoglobin content of the blood.

Sorrel quickly turns from a fresh green to a sludgy khaki colour when cooked so it is best added at the end and heated only briefly.  For example in the classic French sorrel omelette sliced strips of sorrel leaves should be added just before the eggs set.  Other classic uses include sorrel sauce to serve with oily fish, and sorrel soup.  The lemony flavour also works well with tomatoes and most cooked fungi dishes, in fact sorrel was used as a substitute for lemon in many dishes including sweet ones such as apple fritters.

But the dish that turns sorrel into a main course comes from chef, Gennaro Contaldo, who included a risotto with sorrel on his very first menu when he opened Passione and found it so popular that it was very hard to leave it off!  The restaurant, sadly, is now closed but do make it at home and I’m sure it will soon become a favourite.  It’s certainly a handy standby to know.  My British version uses pearl barley rather than rice.

Regional Baking for Easter

In Easter Biscuits we can see some of the clearly defined regional preferences that have largely been blurred by commercial food production and countrywide distribution.

Tracing the exact origin of these biscuits is not easy as they are similar in many aspects to Shrewsbury biscuits, i.e. of a widely found shortbread type studded with dried fruit.  However, I believe the origins of the Easter speciality may lie in an area of Somerset known as Sedgemoor.  Here, as in Shrewsbury, the biscuits were often called cakes – Sedgemoor Easter Cakes.  So the inspiration may stem from Shrewsbury, but what made these biscuits peculiar to the Sedgemoor area?  The answer lies in the additional flavouring.  In Sedgemoor, Brandy was the defining flavour although cinnamon was also included.  Not far away in Bristol, which has a tremendous baking heritage owing to its position as a dock where spices, dried fruit and sugar would first have been landed, Easter Biscuits are still very popular but here the defining flavouring is oil of cassia.  Cassia was the poor man’s alternative to the more costly cinnamon, to which it is, loosely, related.  Nowadays it is a lot harder to find oil of cassia than it is cinnamon, and certainly no cheaper, but you will find it on the internet – don’t worry if it says that the essential oil is not for consumption, this is standard advice and the small quantity used in Easter Biscuits is fine.  However do take care not to get the undiluted oil on your skin.  Personally, I don’t like it’s strident, rather bitter, flavour much, but, for my husband and his family, brought up in Bristol, an Easter Biscuit is not an Easter Biscuit without it.  Others it seems may share my opinion, because in London the defining flavour is lemon zest.  Commercially made Easter Biscuits, rather predictably,  cop out of these regional preferences by using mixed spice.

The recipe I have given is the Bristol one that my mother-in-law has bakes, but by all means, do replace the oil of cassia if you prefer with one of the other regional flavourings.  There is a recipe for the Sedgemoor version on Baking for Britain blogspot, which also provides the following information vis-à-vis the Easter connection…

Traditionally they are served after church on Easter Sunday, and are presented in a bundle of three biscuits to represent the Holy Trinity. They are eaten alongside hot cross buns, simnel cake and copious quantities of chocolate eggs as part of our Easter festivities.

The Grass Beneath Your Feet

I have just returned home from Sicily where I spent time learning about the influence different soils and climates have on wine.  Planeta own vineyards in five distinctly different areas of Sicily and demonstrate a profound understanding of “terroir” as their website explains…  ‘It is a new way of thinking about the journey through Sicily; after Menfi, Vittoria, then Noto, then Etna, then Milazzo. Not a random route, but one strongly linked to the variety of countryside, to the winds, to the character of the people and thus of their wine…’  Diego Planeta

It is not only wine to which terroir applies, pretty much every food that is produced in Sicily has a village that is recognised as being the best, e.g. Bronte for pistachios, Pachino for tomatoes, Avola for almonds, to name just a few.

As we flew home I had fantastic views of Mount Etna, the Aeolian islands, Corsica, the French Alps and then finally, after we had crossed the channel, the richest green fields greeted me.  Here was what the UK grows best – grass.  It may not immediately strike you as food, but that is exactly what it will become, first for the sheep and cows that graze upon it, and then ultimately in their meat or the dairy products produced from their milk.  There is nothing like being away to make you appreciate home!  I couldn’t wait to eat my creamy yoghurt in the morning, to spread butter on my bread, and then cook some meat for dinner!

We of course usually take all this for granted, but in Sicily, not far off the coast of Africa, the heat is too great to produce beef.  They do have a native breed of cattle, the Modicana, a sturdy breed that can withstand the heat and rocky terrain.  There are however only around 1000 of these cows remaining on 14 farms in the Modica area.  Their milk is used to make Rugusano cheese.  Some veal is sold, usually beaten out very thinly, but if left to become beef it would be too tough for anything other than long slow cooking.

The quality of grass may not be something that you have ever really considered yet this is the main determinant of the quality of the meat or dairy we eat.  Next time you walk through a field, look closely and see how many different grasses and wild flowers you can count. A field that has only recently been ploughed and sown will have very few but permanent pasture may have hundreds.  This variety is good not only for the animals that graze it, as they can instinctively search out their own “medicine”, but it is also great for wildlife.  Follow Jonty Brunyee @ConygreeFarm on Twitter for examples of wild plants found throughout the year.

The Pasture Fed Livestock Association was formed in 2012 for those farmers who care about their pasture and who are committed to rearing their animals 100% from this means.  I have written about the benefits to human health from eating 100% pasture-fed meat before here.

Since they formed, I have been fortunate to attend several of their events such as tastings of meat from comparative pastures and farm visits. You can read about the hogget tasting here.  Having begun by looking at the importance of pasture for meat they have now begun to widen their remit to consider dairy.  As one top cheese producer once told me, “the only way to continue to improve my cheese is to grow better grass”.  The subject is an endlessly fascinating one in which we should all be showing an interest.  Pasture for Life will be featured on BBC’s Countryfile this Sunday and you can find out more from their website

No need to travel abroad to understand “terroir” it has been under our feet all along!

Seasonality

Matthew Fort, writing for Flavour First, asks whether we have become too obsessive about seasonality and whether in fact…” the relentless drive to eat everything in season isn’t always for the best when it comes to flavour”.

I have a feeling that his tongue is firmly in cheek when he asks these questions, but I’m going to play along, because I think the concept of seasonality is frequently misunderstood.

A quick glance at Wikipedia should be enough to clarify the situation, it provides the following definition:

Seasonality of food refers to the times of year when a given type food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour. This is usually the time when the item is the cheapest and the freshest on the market. The food’s peak time in terms of harvest usually coincides with when its flavour is at its best. There are some exceptions; an example being sweet potatoes which are best eaten quite a while after harvest…

So, by definition, eating food “in season” certainly should be best for flavour.  The sweet potato example of when the peak in flavour terms does not coincide with the peak of harvesting could equally be applied to the apples mentioned in Matthew Fort’s article.  Some, usually the first to ripen in the harvesting period (late July/early August), taste best immediately they have been picked, whilst at the end of the harvesting period, late October/early November, many benefit from a further period of storage before they reach their peak in terms of flavour.  But, Matthew asks, when then is “the season” for eating apples?  – It depends on the variety, but certainly we can say that it is not now (April).  If we are looking for the cheapest apples, it will be at the peak of harvest, October.  Those apples that ripen fully in that month will also be at their best in respect of flavour, whilst those that need to be stored until they reach their optimum flavour will, quite rightly, cost a little more.  What Matthew is perhaps pointing out is that it is a complex matter, requiring knowledge of varieties and growing methods (as he mentions with regard to asparagus) and above all, a matter that cannot be tied to a specific date in the calendar but which will vary with the growing conditions in any given year.

It is this attempt to tie the seasonality of food to given dates within the calendar that causes the most confusion about the whole concept.  Of course it is understandable, we remember when we ate things last year and, quite reasonably, expect to eat them at the same time the following year.  But nature doesn’t always work that way and who knows what fluctuations climate change might bring.  Yet we all do it, food writers most especially, because letting people know when to expect an ingredient to be in season helps them to plan their menus and helps us plan what to write about.  During the long “Hungry Gap” we are desperate for something new, and yes, we may even resort to buying something that is “in season” elsewhere.  Within our relatively small country the difference in the dates on which something will ripen varies quite considerably, and is especially pronounced in the spring.  Take a non-food item like daffodils for example; there can be literally months of difference between them opening on the Isles of Scilly and the time they will flower way up on Orkney.  With the dominance of our capital city in publishing, even now that much is published on-line, I am sure that those in the north of the country will have got used to putting aside the advice about what to plant or cook this weekend until several weeks have passed.

Does this make the advice, or the concept of seasonality, worthless?  I don’t think so.  It is the foundation of sustainable eating and all part of the process of linking people, especially those who live in cities, with what is going on in the countryside.  Whilst they may feel tempted to give up on trying to understand the complexities of when something may be “in season”, just like the weather itself, it gives us something to talk about and talking about when our food will be at its best is a massive step forward for the UK’s food culture.

2020 Update

The above article, which I wrote in 2013, remains totally relevant today but I just wanted to add a couple more observations:

I write this update on 23rd April, St George’s Day, which has become for me a key barometer of seasonal change.  St. George’s Mushrooms are so named because they are found on this day.  In the past I have tended to find them a week to 10 days later.  Just a couple of years ago they began appearing on 23rd or even a little earlier.  This year I went to look in my usual spot about a week ago, and found that they had been up so long, in warm sunny weather, that they were almost dried.  Other people have confirmed that they have been picking for weeks and that they are now almost over.

Secondly, I re-read the chapter in Tim Parks book Italian Neighbours entitled La stagione è finita.  It talks about the difference between those who have learnt about seasonality from their peasant culture and those without such a background to draw upon and so learn from books.  The former have such fixed notions of the seasons that they will dig up an only partially harvested crop when “the season is over”.  The latter however have very little success in growing anything.  It reminded me of times when I have ordered something from a menu in Italy only to be met with a disparaging La stagione è finita response.  Foreigners are supposed to know when things are in season, even though they are not familiar with the local climate.

Seasonality is ever changing but the concept endures.  It should be a source of pleasure – not a rule book by which to catch the unaware!

Suzanne Wynn

23rd April 2020

Watercress – a herald of Spring

Watercress is now available all year round, so why do I associate it with Spring?  We should remember that watercress used to be harvested as a wild plant and as such would have been one of the first wild greens of the year.  It does not grow much in the extreme cold of winter, but as soon as the days grow warmer the acclimatised plant will burst into action, so March until November is its natural season.  To secure year-round supplies several British growers have purchased land abroad – in Spain for example, but also as far away as the USA.

The first attempts at commercial cultivation are reported to have been in Germany in the 16th century, whilst the first British watercress farm was opened in 1808 at Springhead in Northfleet, Kent.   The key to growing quality watercress is in the quality of the water in which it is grown.  As the name of that first farm, Springhead, indicates the water must me pure and springs, particularly arising from chalk land, ensured this purity.  However even clear looking streams can be host to the parasite Liver Fluke, which predominantly arrives via sheep but also cattle and even snails.  So whilst cultivation might initially have been intended to supplement the wild supply today we know better than to pick it from untested sources, although cooking will kill Liver Fluke.

The development of the railways in Victorian times allowed tons of watercress to be transported up to Covent Garden from the main growing area of Hampshire.  The industry continued to thrive during the two World Wars when we were dependent on home grown produce and the high nutritional content of watercress was greatly valued.  During the wars watercress sandwiches became an absolute staple.  In the 1940s more than 1000 acres of watercress were under cultivation but following the closure of many branch railways and a growing interest in a wider range of salad leaves, watercress beds now cover only about 150 acres of the UK.

Buying watercress

How do you choose the best watercress?  The water purity issue now taken care of (the NFU has a code of practice guaranteeing this) unless you are lucky enough to live in the growing areas, where I am sure you might taste a difference between waters, freshness becomes my top priority.  When sold in Covent Garden, watercress used to be held in cones, in bunches, and eaten in the street rather as one might eat ice-cream.  Bunched watercress is still the best way to buy even if you later discard some of the stem, so ignore the bags of cut leaves.  My favourite grower, John Hurd, was the first to be certified organic although it has to be said that fertiliser additions are minimal in all production and no pesticides are used because of the water purity issues.  Bunches of John Hurd watercress, sold at my local farmers market, simply look the freshest with good sized, dark green leaves.  His watercress is also sold in Waitrose, bunched but bagged, and so presumably with the usual gas additions you find in any bagged salads.  Watercress remains a regional speciality, being grown only in the chalk stream areas of the south and even via this supermarket distribution, is still primarily available in the south.  The key differentiation between small traditional production and the largest producers is mechanisation.  Large producers use machines to harvest; propagate seed in greenhouses, at which point fungicides may be used; and restock beds several times a year.  Those cutting bunches by hand can be more selective about what they cut, taking only the mature leaves that will have developed the mustard oils that give watercress its distinctive peppery flavour, leaving the smaller leaves to continue growing.

How to use

The wartime habit of using watercress in sandwiches remains one of its most effective uses, although now we can add other ingredients to the sandwich.  A sandwich of rare roast beef and horseradish, very fine on its own, is sublime with the addition of watercress and I must admit to being partial to the French sandwich variation of Brie in a Baguette when it is accompanied by watercress.

A natural partner in its original habitat of chalk land streams would be trout, although finding a worthy trout today is somewhat harder than of old.  Watercress is however a perfect partner for many other fish, particularly smoked and/or oily fish.

Although the hot peppery flavour is most pronounced when eaten raw, watercress can be cooked, and becomes the star ingredient in soup.  Use my basic recipe for any Green Soup, adding two bunches of watercress right at the end.  It also makes a fine sauce to serve with poached chicken, moving us away from winter roasts to a more delicate springtime feel – perfect with the first Jersey Royal potatoes.  See Recipe.

Easter Menu

For Easter this year the overwhelmingly obvious choice of meat is upland mutton.  I say obvious because it is the only way I can think of to show some tangible support for the upland farmers who are struggling in several feet of snow this Easter.  The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton was one of the first articles I wrote for The Campaign for Real Farming, the importance having diminished not one jot since that time.  Of course lamb is the traditional symbol of Spring  – but they are only just being born.  Hopefully, before the snow fell, last year’s lambs got a taste of fresh grass, and some were fattened sufficiently to send to slaughter.  Those that have just passed their first birthday are called hogget, over the age of two they become mutton.  Interest in this older meat, cooked long and slow, has, I think, been aided by a pub food favourite – braised lamb shanks.  These, usually taken from the lower end of the rear leg, but also sometimes from the smaller front leg (shoulder), make handy single portion servings.  As their popularity has increased so too has the price.  A whole leg, or shoulder, can be cooked in exactly the same way to serve the entire family.  Shoulder is the more economical joint, its additional fat melting away and basting the meat as it cooks.  The Greeks call slow-roast lamb Kleftiko and by sealing potatoes and vegetables in the same parcel you have an easy one-pot meal.   However, if you choose to do this remember that fat will be absorbed by the vegetables, so you might prefer the leaner leg joint.

So what are the other essential ingredients for Easter?  Well the new grass also heralds the arrival of fresh young cheeses.  I normally make the Russian curd cheese dessert, Paskha, for Easter but now that Westcombe Dairy have begun making Ricotta I think I will make a Sicilian variation on the same theme of fresh cheese and candied fruit, this time stuffed into deep-fried pastry tubes, called Cannoli.

Ricotta also comes into play when using the third essential Easter ingredients – wild greens.  With Easter falling early this year, and spring arriving late, the best chance of fresh green leaves comes in the wild (unless they are buried under snow!).  Wild Garlic and Nettles are easily recognised and, combined with ricotta, make a sophisticated looking soufflé or can be used to fill pasta, or pastry for a tart.  If you want to use a cultivated leaf, substitute chard or spinach.

Happy Easter!

Related Articles:

Easter Menu Recipes

http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/06/the-absolute-importance-of-upland-mutton

http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/06/the-home-dairy (for curd cheese, ricotta and Honey & Saffron Cheesecake recipes)

The Warminster Malt-Stars

On a recent visit to Warminster Maltings as part of my research for an article on Barley, I was particularly struck by the obvious commitment and apparent enjoyment of their job shown by the young men carrying out the extremely physical job of malting.  Given that farming is struggling to attract young people, I pondered on this success.  Some of the key factors that I identified, which I believe can be equally applied across the entire agricultural sector, were:

  • A sense of the history and importance of what they are doing
  • A pride in, and enjoyment of, the final product
  • A family feel to the enterprise
  • Forward thinking as regards the future of the whole industry

A sense of history and the importance of what they are doing

Warminster Maltings, in addition to being a working malt house, is also something of museum of the history of barley breeding and malting.  An 18th century building in origin, it was completely remodelled in 1879 by Edwin Sloper Beaven, a farmers son who left school at the age of 13 with only a leavers certificate.  Under his direction, Warminster Maltings became something of an academy and his outstanding achievements in the field of barley breeding earned him an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.  Most notably he bred the barley variety Plumage Archer, the first genetically true variety which became the mainstay of UK malting barley for the next 50 years.

Guinness acquired the business in 1941 but in 1994 the malting was scheduled for closure and saved only by a management buyout led by Chris Garratt, the Head Maltser.  He then of course had to establish a completely new portfolio of brewery customers outside of Guinness.  Chris continues as Head Maltster today, but sold the business to Robin Appel, owner of Maris Otter, which is now the most revered malting barley in the world.  Robin was able to inject the capital necessary for a serious programme of reinvestment, enabling the malting to establish itself as a leading supplier to the brewing sector.

A pride in, and enjoyment of, the final product

Set against this historical context, there is now a modern laboratory enabling grains to be scientifically analysed and there is no doubt that quality is paramount.  It helps, I’m sure, that the employees enjoy the end result of all their labour, i.e. the wonderful beers they have helped to produce.  I’m sure too that the respect and recognition which is shown for each person’s role in the process is a big part of this.  You will have read how this starts with hoardings showing the intended destination of the barley as it is grown, and at the malting the maltsters have been restyled as Malt Stars!  At first I apologised for taking photographs, it felt a little inappropriate when men were obviously working so hard, but it soon became apparent that they were happy to be identified and recognised for their important role in the process.

A family feel to the enterprise

Chris Garratt, who led the management buyout from Guinness, is still very much at the forefront of the business on a daily basis.  The input from Robin was however more than just financial.  As we walked through the delightful and unexpected gardens at the centre of the essentially industrial building, Robin explained that they had had a calming influence on the testosterone filled atmosphere that is inevitable in such a physically demanding job.  He found that many of the young men working there were doing so on either empty or junk filled stomachs, and so began the tradition of serving a proper cooked breakfast at work, in the gardens as often as the weather will allow.

Forward thinking as regards the future of the whole industry

As a leading grain merchant, Robin Appel has contacts throughout the industry and keeps abreast of all the developments, both within the industry and also those outside that will impact upon it.  This is not always easy to do when your nose is to the grindstone as most farmers will attest.  Taking some time out to get a clearer oversight does however appear to be an essential element of success. The linking of brewers with local growers (see barley article) is a wonderful example of Robin’s awareness of what is important to consumers.

For more information see www.warminster-malt.co.uk

Could we be making more of Barley?

Barley is the second largest arable crop in the UK (after wheat).  It remains an important cereal because of its ability to survive in cold and wet conditions, so although it is grown throughout most of the UK, in the north, where growing conditions are most difficult for wheat, it is often the dominant arable crop.

Of the 6.5 million tonnes produced in the UK each year approximately 2 million tonnes are malted by the brewing and distilling trades.  About 1.5 million tonnes are exported for the same purpose, often to countries like China that have developed the western taste for beer.  The remaining 3 tonnes, i.e. almost half of what we grow, is used for animal feed.  ₁

Malting Barley

The specifications for malting are high and usually only achieved by the lower yielding spring varieties.  It is difficult to obtain accurate information about the amount of malting barley that is imported into the UK, and a couple of years ago there was quite an issue when the predominantly foreign owned whisky distilleries were unwilling to offer any form of contract, making it too risky for Scottish farmers to sow spring Barley. This has apparently now been rectified, and Scottish whisky is again more frequently being made with Scottish Barley – but it is a question that we consumers need to be asking.

With regard to barley malted for beer, this has been a real success story in British agriculture.  Unlike whisky, which as a very exportable product has seen the small distillery become a thing of the past so that the majority are in the ownership of just a handful of large corporations, micro-breweries are thriving.  When I recently interviewed the owner of Warminster Maltings, Robin Appel, he estimated that about 300 of their 800 customers fell into the artisan category (40 of which are overseas).  He told me there are about 80 new breweries each year, many of which are being opened with the redundancy payouts of those who had previously been just hobby brewers.  True, there is quite a high fall out amongst these, but still a net gain of about 50-60 breweries per annum.

Warminster Maltings make a special point of matching growers of barley with brewers so that several beers can now claim to be truly local.   Robin had first-hand experience of how popular this is with drinkers when he arranged such a link-up in his own village of Droxford in Hampshire.  An integral part of stimulating interest was to put up signs in the fields where the barley was growing, so that locals walking their dogs might know that they were walking alongside Maris Otter barley destined for turning into beer by the village brewery, Bowman Beers.  The beer was named Bowman’s SHB (Stephen Horn’s Bitter) in honour of the farmer who had grown the barley.  The whole village were invited to come along for the first tasting in their pub, The Baker’s Arms and it was full to overflowing.

Robin is keen to continue to promote the link between farmer and brewery.  This year, if you holiday in Cornwall, look out for the signs telling you that fields of Maris Otter Barley are being grown for St. Austell’s Brewery – their sales of Tribute were up 20% last year.  Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire had seen a similar surge in sales following the placement of boards in barley fields alongside the A303.  Clearly this initiative is getting to the competitors, as last year one of those hoardings was sabotaged. Other breweries already linked to local farmers are Skinners in Cornwall, Hobson’s in Herefordshire and Stonehouse in Oswestry.

This linking of growers and brewers is not the only inspirational aspect of Warminster Maltings, as their story records, but let’s continue now with the role of Barley in British agriculture.

Barley for Culinary Use

If you have been doing the maths so far you will have noted that the use of barley for anything other than malting or animal feed is so negligible that it does not even register.  Yet barley was, and still should be, enjoyed for culinary purposes.  Pot barley has had its inedible outer casing removed, but still retains all of its bran and germ making it a highly nutritious alternative to brown rice and especially good for salads.  The more readily available pearled barley has been further processed to remove the bran making it much lighter in flavour and a good substituted for white rice or in the spelt recipes I have given previously.

Risotto has become a fairly staple dish in Britian and, if we are to move a little away from our “meat and two veg” meal structure, we do need something like it to enable vegetables to become a main course.  But even in Italy, the home of risotto, it is eaten predominantly in the regions in which the rice is grown.  Italians are far more attuned to making the best of the ingredients around them and remain fiercely regional in their cuisine.  Hence in the Friuli region of northern Italy, where like us they grow barley, they make a version of risotto using pearled barley, called Orzotto.  Cooked in the same manner as risotto, pearl barley retains some bite, although less than spelt, producing a creamy finish that is comparable to risotto rice.  To be fair, I have been served Orzotto in Scotland, but I think the dish is still relatively unknown here although pearled barley remains an essential thickening ingredient in traditional Scottish, Irish and Italian stews or broths and turns a soup into a complete, satisfying and nourishing, meal.   Perhaps all that is needed is a champion of barley to equal what Roger Saul of Sharpham Park has done for Spelt.

Barley in Bread

Despite its low gluten content barley was still the predominant grain used for making bread, often in the form of trenchers – flat loaves that served as plates, right up until the 16th century.  And although the majority of Britain switched to wheat as soon as they were able, barley remained popular for much longer in Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.  Whilst most modern varieties of barley are “two-rowed” an ancient “6-rowed” barley or Bere is still grown in the far north of Scotland.  In 2007 work by Cathy Southworth identified three distinct genetic groups of bere: one on Orkney, one on Shetland and a large and highly diverse group formed by the Hebrides.₂   The remoteness of these islands has helped preserve the purity of this ancient grain, remains of which were found at Skara Brae on Orkney dating back to 3100 BC.  Beremeal is used mainly for making bannocks – flat unleavened rounds baked on a girdle – a large round is usually cut into triangles, or farls, much like soda bread.  Beremeal Bannocks have a distinctive, slightly astringent taste, which is not to the liking of all southern palates but worth seeking out if you venture this far north as an ancient, regional, and very authentic taste experience.

Apart from griddle baked bannocks, which are lightened with bicarbonate of soda, if you want to use barley in yeast leavened bread you will need to mix it with twice its weight of wheat flour to get the gluten content. ₃.

Smaller amounts of barley are included in most granary breads, particularly the malted grains – bringing us back full circle to malting grain for beer-making.  The link between baking and brewing is ancient, brewer’s yeast or a beer barm having been the leavening agent before commercially manufactured baker’s yeast became widely available and remaining in use for longer in those parts of the country where barley is the predominant grain.

Malt in Baking

Although used in only very small quantities, it is perhaps relevant here to consider malted barley as used in baking.

Malt extract is also used by the baking industry for sweetening/flavouring and sometimes as a dough improver.  To understand these roles it is necessary to understand more about the malting process itself.

The Malt House emulates the conditions of warmth and moisture that the grain would encounter in nature that cause it to germinate.  It is at this point that the seed is richest in the starch it needs to feed the plant as it grows.  When the seeds have grown clearly discernible sprouts and softened to the extent that you can easily squash the grain between your thumb and forefinger, it is time to halt the process with heat.  This is done by roasting, which gives the malt its distinctive flavour.  Provided the heat is not taken too high, the natural enzyme diastase, which converts starch into sugar, will not be destroyed.  The sugar produced as a result of this enzyme is called maltose, and it is half as sweet as sucrose (table sugar).  In our bodies, maltose is the first step in the digestion of starchy foods.  It is then broken down into glucose.   However,  malt sugar, whilst in itself a much healthier sugar than sucrose, is metabolised by the body much faster, resulting in a sugar surge and then dip unless it is eaten in conjunction with other foods that will slow down this process.  Thus toast made from malted grains, if eaten with an egg, will provide energy throughout the morning whereas a breakfast cereal made with malted grains causes similar surges in blood glucose and insulin to sugar-coated cereals.

Maltose is a simple sugar that can easily metabolised by yeast.  Usually sufficient maltose is contained in the bread flour to feed the yeast throughout fermentation, but if either the flour is somewhat deficient in this aspect, or the fermentation time is very long (as is the case when wild yeasts are used to make a sourdough, the supply of maltose may be exhausted before the end of fermentation.  This would result a very pale crust and less well risen dough.  A very small amount of malt flour, say 0.1%, of the total is needed to correct this, but the malt flour must be diastatic (i.e. the heating process must not have destroyed the enzyme diastase).  Too much diastatic activity can make the dough gummy, leading to partial or even complete collapse.  If you want to add just the malty flavour, without the enzyme action, buy non-diastatic malts – these are the ones usually sold in health food shops, often in liquid form.  Both types and further information are available from www.bakerybits.co.uk .

Conclusion

The market for malting barley looks set to continue to expand with growing demand for western style beers.  This is a crop that ideally suits our climate and we have developed the expertise in malting and we should be net exporters.  At the very least we should be able to fulfil all of the demand for the home based breweries and distilleries.

Whilst barley for culinary use is a much smaller market, we seem so far to have completely overlooked the potential of this home grown, highly nutritious grain that in particular could reduce our import of rice.

Recipes

Orzotto with Sorrel

Beremeal Bannocks

Spelt Recipes where Barley could be substituted

Sources:

http://www.ukagriculture.com/crops/barley_uk.cfm

http://www.scri.ac.uk/news/berebarley

http://www.agronomy.uhi.ac.uk/html/Bere_research.htm