Baking Classics

So, Great British Bake Off returns tonight but now on Channel 4 and with only Paul Hollywood remaining of the original BBC presenters.  Am I going to watch it?  Probably not, it always annoyed me anyway, but there is no denying that it has had considerable influence in actually getting people to bake, not just watching.  The Westwood Show that I attended yesterday demonstrated as much enthusiasm for baking competitions as for the gardening and crafts.

The Sunday Telegraph ran a big feature to promote the new series including recipes for “ten classics you need to master to earn your place in the tent”.  That got my attention.  Before learning that she was to become the new judge, Prue Leith had previously criticised the programme for encouraging unhealthy eating, and I hope that she might bring it back to basics and away from the presentational emphasis on creating “show-stoppers”.  There was no suggestion that the “10 classics” were of her devising, and thank God, as very few are what I would consider classic, nor British, and every single one of them is sweet – very sweet.  Given that there are two judges, one specialising in bread, I have always wondered why this is so under-represented in the programme.  Anyway, it gave me the opportunity to consider what would make my Top 10 (Great British) Baking Classics, so here they are:

  1. 1. Overnight Risen London Bloomer

Why? Sandwiches are the nation’s favourite lunch.  They are a British invention (the Earl of Sandwich, who didn’t want to leave the gaming table to eat) and their popularity spread nationwide. A proper Afternoon Tea would always include sandwiches, dainty ones with the crusts removed.  Being able to bake the sort of bread that can be cut thinly enough for this must surely be an essential skill of the British baker.  There is no reason why overnight rises (so much more healthy, digestible and traditional than modern fast-risen loaves) could not be incorporated into the programme schedule.

  1. 2. Regional Yeasted Bun

Why? All over the UK people added something sweet to a piece of their standard bread dough before taking it to the bakers and thus arose hundreds of localised specialities.  A Chelsea Bun and Bath Bun became nationally famous (so much so in the case of the Bath Bun that it came to be a pale reflection of the original).  Many others remained specialities of their area and everyone should know how to make their local speciality bun.

  1. 3. Crumpets

Why? Before people had ovens at home they either took their dough to a baker or cooked on a griddle directly over the fire.  There are numerous recipes cooked in this way and I toyed between choosing English Breakfast Muffins and Crumpets for my classic recipe.  It would be good to remember that English Muffins have nothing in common with the American version that is now so ubiquitous.  However, whilst it used to be possible to buy some quite acceptable commercial crumpets, I haven’t found any for a few years now so making your own is a must if this winter treat is not to be lost.

  1. 4. Scones

Why? Essential for a cream tea.  I did consider whether the older, yeasted, version known as Cut Rounds in Devon and still popular in many parts of the West Country was more classic than the modern version that relies on baking powder as a raising agent.  However, modern scones are so quick to make that if you have these “off pat” you can whip them up for unexpected visitors in the time it takes to heat the oven.

  1. 5. Shortbread

Why? If I had to choose one biscuit for the rest of my life it would be shortbread.  In fact, I’m not too bothered about any other type.  Buttery, crumbly delicious home-made shortbread.  It is also a great accompaniment to fools and other soft desserts.  I even allow some flavour additions in these cases!

  1. 6. Suet Pastry

Why? We have become so afraid of animal fats when they are actually healthier than vegetable substitutes.  Suet puddings, both sweet and savoury, are classic British fare and I would love to see fresh suet become readily available again.

  1. 7. Hot-water crust pie

Why? Pork Pie is the most famous version although once you have mastered hot-water crust pastry you can make beautiful raised Game Pies too and you can’t get much showier than that!

  1. 8. Teabread

Why? These are so useful – they actually improve on keeping.  There are so many variations based on this technique e.g. malted fruitbread, sticky gingerbread, date and banana loaf (useful for using up over-ripe bananas).

  1. 9. Eccles Cakes

Why? I admit that it might seems bizarre to single out one regional speciality above others but I have chosen Eccles Cakes for the following reasons: the use a rough puff or flaky pastry that is useful in other classics, e.g. sausage rolls; the fruit content makes them high energy but high in natural sugar; although a regional speciality they are popular nationwide, there is even an acceptable commercial product, and they are also good with cheese.

  1. 10. Trifle

Why? A British classic that involves many elements and is a genuine show-stopper.  Forget packet custard or jelly and think instead of syllabub, homemade trifle sponge, biscuits and jam.

I further justified my Top Ten selection in that I have deemed them all sufficiently important to have covered previously in my articles and recipes for The Campaign for Real Farming so just click on the links to get more information.

Plums, Damsons and Gages

Mirabelle Plums

August and September are the months for Plums and their close relations such as the wild Bullace and Myrobalan.  Without getting too hung up about the differences, they might first be divided into two categories – those good for eating raw and those whose sharpness dictates that they need to be cooked. Secondly, they could be divided into those which grow wild and those that have been cultivated, although the categories are interlinked.  Those that grow in the wild are seldom sweet enough to eat raw and tend to be smaller than cultivated varieties, mainly stone with very little flesh. Yet it is these wild plums that are the most interesting from our culinary history point of view.

In The last food of England Marwood Yeatman notes…‟One of the more curious aspects of the English countryside is the use of plums as windbreaks and field margins, up to a quarter of a mile long: hundreds of trees that could provide tons of food, planted so as to economise on land that could be used for other crops…. Many people know they have a local apple even if they do not know what it is: they also have local plums.  There are hundreds of heritage, self-fertile and other varieties, which need little looking after unless fan-trained…”

Some of the plums used as hedging were of the Damson family.  The Lythe Valley in Cumbria is famous for them, but there is also the Shropshire Prune and a Godshill Damson.  Regional heritage plums include the Kea plum in Cornwall, Dittisham Plum in south Devon, and the golden Warwickshire Drooper.

Also popular as hedging are cherry plums, which might be of the Prunus avium family as in Landkey, near Barnstaple on the north Devon coast.  Here a number of varieties, known collectively as Mazzards, are grown; or the Prunus cerasifera family (Myrobalans), which can be traced back to the 1700s and were often grown as windbreaks for orchards.

This wild fruit is particularly good for flavouring alcohol.  Sloe Gin is the template, but Damson Gin (or Vodka) is currently more fashionable.  One family firm, Bramley and Gage, has built their reputation from making fruit liqueurs using wild fruits.  Their plum liqueur, for example, is made from two heritage varieties – the Dittisham Plum and Blaisdon Red (from Gloucestershire).

In the past, these hedgerow fruits would also have been preserved for the winter by bottling.  This old domestic technique, where the fruit is preserved by heat sterilisation, was largely superseded by commercial canning and that probably contributed to the degradation of the culinary status of plums – or maybe it was the blandness of the fruit grown for this process.  The Victoria plum established itself as the dominant commercial variety in the Victorian era and, as Jane Grigson wrote in 1982, “Victorias are for canning.  Victorias are for plums and custard, that crowning moment of the school, hospital, prison and boarding house midday meal: I reflect that Mr Bird invented his powder round about the time that Victoria plums were beginning their career.”.

This is, I feel, a bit harsh on Victoria plums, still our most widely grown variety and useful both for cooking and eating.  However, I do prefer the improved variety, Avalon, which was bred at Long Ashton Research station and gives larger and fuller flavoured fruit which are easy to part from their stone.

The Vale of Evesham became famous for its asparagus, but this was grown as an under-crop in plum orchards – the area was first known for the Purple Pershore Plum, at harvest time you could smell the canning factories cooking it.  The canning industry was not confined to Worcestershire.  Cambridge, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire all had huge areas of plum orchards primarily for this purpose.

What else can you do to preserve plums?  Being high in pectin, they make excellent jam, often suggested as the ideal beginners’ jam because obtaining a set is so easy.  However, jam is not eaten anything like as often as it was in the past, and it does rely on copious amounts of sugar as the preservation agent.

Damson cheese has become popular I the last decade or so, made in the same way as the more famous Spanish Membrillo (quince cheese).  I have, however, found the pectin content more of a problem than a benefit here as it often sets too firmly, although doubtless with practice one would find the correct point at which to halt the cooking process.

Pickled damsons are another favoured preservation method.  Just a spoonful makes a delightful accompaniment to cold meats.

I don’t freeze plums, it adversely affects their texture.  However, the freezer does give me the option of making ice cream or sorbet, both of which are delicious when made with damsons.  Although as the texture deteriorates over time, these are best eaten quickly.  The preserving option I am currently experimenting with is drying.  I haven’t yet bought myself a dehydrator, although I think that is the next step.  Dried plums are, of course, prunes.  Those from Agen being the most famous, but there are other dried and semi-dried (mi-cuit) options.

I have concentrated above on preserving the fruit because the season for eating them fresh is relatively short, although a great filler whilst we wait for the main crop of apples.  The earliest plums – Czar an early cooking plum, and Opal which has the flavour of a gage and the size and colour of a plum, can both be ready to eat by late July.  Most damsons are early August, with Victoria and Avalon plums coming in the second half of the month.  A later damson variety is Damson Farleigh, which dates from the 1800s and is very hardy, so often grown as a windbreak, usually ripening in mid-September.  Gages, which incidentally only Britain distinguishes from plums, are considered to be better flavoured than most plums, with a delicious honey note when fully ripe – wait until they have turned from green to yellow.  The latest of these is Coe’s Golden Drop, an C18th variety for which it is well worth waiting until the end of September.

In their season, I devour the fruit fresh, bake some to serve as a compote at breakfast, with just the occasional pudding as a treat.  I can’t resist one annual plum crumble, including some cobnuts in the topping and, if there are enough to spare, one greengage tart or Clafoutis leaves me satisfied for another year.  See Recipes.

Bilberries

Britain’s reliance on immigrant labour to pick fruit is a concern to farmers who fear that our decision to leave the EU will deter them in future (although a points-based immigration system is intended to ensure our immigration needs are catered for).  However, the British reluctance to pick fruit does puzzle me.  It used to be a great way for students to earn money during the summer holidays, but now they don’t appear to need the money.  And although there does seem to be a growing interest in foraging for wild food, I can find almost no-one else picking Bilberries – a fantastically tasty and healthy fruit that used to be harvested commercially and still widely picked in Scandinavia.  Yes, they are time consuming to pick, although I’d rather pick them than Sea Buckthorn berries, so fashionable at the moment. Have we just become “too posh to pick” or is the wonderful flavour of bilberries something that most people, including foragers, have yet to discover?  I hope to inspire you to try them.

What is a Bilberry?

A Bilberry is the most widespread name for the fruit of the low, scrubby plants Vaccinium myrtillus but they are known by many different regional names including whortleberry and hurtleberry (West Country), blaeberry and whinberry (Scotland) and myrtille (France).  Myrtleberry is the most confusing name as what is commonly known as a myrtle is the fruit of Myrtus communis, which grows in the Mediterranean, especially Sardinia and Corsica, and is a sweet but spicy berry similar to juniper. The Vaccinium genus includes cranberries and blueberries and grows on acidic soils in the northern part of the northern hemisphere.

Bilberries outside the UK

Bilberries grow all over Scandinavia and are still gathered in enormous quantities.  There, they also have a northern bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) but prefer the superior intensity of flavour of Vaccinium myrtillus.  I fell in love with bilberries in Alsace, a region of France renowned for its fruit tarts, of which I consider bilberry to be the finest.  But it was in Italy that I found my bilberry comb – I recognised it having previously only seen one in a museum here in the UK.  Bilberries are, evidently, still picked in the northern Italian hills although in decreasing numbers.  In Ireland, Lammas Sunday, the last in July, is also known as Bilberry Sunday, marking the beginning of the harvest.

Exmoor’s Bilberry History

All of Britain’s moors grow bilberries, as well as the acidic heaths of Surrey, and whilst I am sure all of those regions have their own memories, it is in Somerset, particularly Exmoor, that I have learnt about its history.

On Exmoor, the permission of the landowner used to be required for picking, even on common land. The landowner would be pressured by locals to give this early, before gypsies arrived, and it was common for children to play truant from school to pick berries if the summer holidays had not yet started. Picking would continue “every fine day except Sunday’s” throughout August, moving to higher ground as the season progressed.

The pickers were usually paid by those who had transport to take the fruit to market – from Exmoor the fruit went mainly to Birmingham and Manchester, but they were also popular with the miners of Wales and North Yorkshire. Typically about one ton of bilberries would leave Minehead station each day.  The price varied depending on the quality of berries that year, and also the varying demands, because bilberries were also used to dye cloth, including RAF uniforms.  Fighter pilots swore that eating bilberry jam before a night flight helped their vision.  The income from picking bilberries was often used to buy school clothes, giving some idea of our comparative wealth today.  American soldiers stationed here loved them because of their similarity to their native cultivated blueberry, and whenever the Australian cricket team played in Somerset, it was traditional for The Castle Hotel to make them Whortleberry Pie. The fruit was also preserved, by bottling and in jam, to last throughout the year. You can still find whortleberry jam for sale on Exmoor, although gathering the berries in sufficient quantity makes even this rare.

Blueberry Cultivation

Bilberries would be very difficult to cultivate, they grow only above an altitude of around 1000ft on acid soil, living in symbiosis with a fungus.  Heather moorland is an ideal habitat in which to find them.  The American highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosom) can however be cultivated in any acid, peaty or sandy soil.  The berries are much larger, and together with the higher bushes, this makes them much easier to pick.  Their health-giving properties have earnt them a reputation as a “superfood” and thus increased their popularity.

About a decade ago, one Exmoor farmer, blessed with the perfect growing conditions and mindful of the local whortleberry heritage, began cultivating blueberries.  The project has been only moderately successful.  When, and if, you can employ anyone to pick them the price of the berries is one that locals, surrounded by the free and much tastier bilberries, baulk at paying it.  Blueberries are, after all, only sold in fairly small punnets, so if you are only adding a handful to your breakfast or dessert, it would not be too onerous to pick them.  To buy them in sufficient quantity to be the dominant ingredient in a dish is not financially viable for the pubs, hotels and guest houses in the area.  The farm now operates mainly on a pick-your-own basis and this has some appeal for tourists.

Personally, if I wanted to use bilberries in larger quantities, for example to make jam or a pie, I would cut them with whitecurrants, but then I have plenty in my garden, if I had to buy them, they also would be too expensive.  The taste of blueberries is bland in comparison to their wild counterpart.

How to forage for bilberries

If you are now tempted to pick your own bilberries what is involved?  Wellington boots and a stick are essential for me – everywhere that bilberries grow in Somerset is also prime habitat for adders.  Wear old clothes that you don’t care too much about getting stained.  Once home, I somehow always manage to walk one around the house before spotting the stains – but lemon juice does work wonders for removing the colour.  Try to find bushes that are growing on a bank or hummock so that you don’t have to bend so far.  As long as you are on common land there is no need to get the landowners permission to pick for your own consumption. Take punnets with secure handles – if you drop them it takes just as long to retrieve them up as to pick fresh ones.  Once you have caught the bug you will probably want to buy a comb, although I think the ones sold in the UK are really for larger berries than bilberries.  Whilst a comb is quicker you will get leaves and other debris that will need to be removed at some stage, although the right amount of breeze can help separate the leaves if you lay your crop out on an old tea-towel.  I don’t wash the berries – they are too delicate.

Recipe

For those harvesting a few ounces by hand for their own consumption, one of the best ways to eat them is to make a compote to top cheesecake or lemon posset. Only since I have bought a comb have I been able to pick more than a pound at a time to recreate the tart that I enjoyed in Alsace and which is my favourite recipe for them.

Fancy being a Cherry Grower?

It has been another great year for British Cherries. An estimated 4,500 tonnes were harvested this year, an 11% increase on the 4000 tonnes picked in 2014, which itself represented a 20% increase over 2013.

This is a fantastic turnaround when you consider that it was only in 2009 that Henrietta Green, concerned at the loss of a once thriving sector, launched the Cherry Aid campaign.  At that time commercial production had all but died out in the UK with the vast majority of cherries being imported from Turkey and most of the rest being air-freighted from the USA.

The biggest factor in this turnaround was the development of dwarfing rootstock.  Traditional cherry trees grow up to about 60 feet high, making the crop almost impossible to protect from birds and very difficult to harvest.

The man responsible for breeding the rootstock Gisela 5 is Dr Werner Gruppe, a German scientist, who then licensed Gisela in the USA so that every nurseryman who wants to use it must pay royalties.  Whilst other dwarfing rootstocks have subsequently been developed Gisela 5 remains the most popular for consistent cropping.  Dr Gruppe must now be a very wealthy man, having perhaps learnt by Britain’s previous failure to register and protect the rootstock bred here that are now used worldwide in apple growing.

Commercially, the far smaller trees are usually grown in polytunnels in the UK, which protect the fruit not only from birds but also the weather – one hail storm can completely destroy the crop.  The costs of setting up are high – in addition to the cost of the rootstock and polytunnels add the installation of drip irrigation and the fact that the trees will not bear fruit for the first couple of years – five before they reach their full cropping potential.  However, this is a vast improvement on the time it took on traditional rootstock.

An audit carried out by a British cherry industry body reports that the average age of cherry growers is around a decade younger than the average age for farmers generally, so the future looks promising.

Domestically, or on a smaller commercial scale, the dwarf trees are usually netted rather than grown under polythene.  Whilst this does leave them at the mercy of the weather it still protects the fruit from birds.

Whilst this year’s season is over (it runs from around the end of June until the beginning of August) now is the time to order trees for planting in the New Year.  Before deciding which varieties to order, a little bit of background:

A Brief History

Wild cherries are found all over Western Europe; however these are mostly the native “Bird Cherry”, Prunus avium, so-called of course because the birds got most of the fruit.   In Britain, Devon was the county best known for these wild cherries, or “Mazzards” as they are called here, (“Geans” elsewhere in the UK or “Guines” in France).  A mother Mazzard orchard has been established at Landkey, near Barnstaple, in North Devon to preserve these ancient varieties and they can still be purchased via Thornhayes Nursery.   Wild cherries are small (a high proportion of stone to flesh) and sour and usually bottled or made into jam.   It is probable that farmers once planted them as a decoy for their other crops so they may still have a part to play in Agroforestry or Permaculture.

In the East, on the shores of the Black Sea, another variety, Prunus cerasus, grew wild and it was this, when cultivated, that gave the sour Morello cherry that is so esteemed when cooked.  Cultivated cherries, both sweet and sour, were probably brought to Britain with the Romans and, by the Middle-Ages, were widely grown in Monastic and private gardens.  Kent was at the centre of British commercial cherry growing right from the start, both because of its proximity to London and also because the well-drained sandy soil there suited the cherry.

Although cherries were evidently popular from early times, it was not until the mid-seventeenth century that some unknown grower had the bright idea of crossing the sweet and sour varieties to produce something special of our own.   They were called Dukes although the French called them Anglais in recognition of their origins.  Dukes are sharp enough to cook but sweet enough to eat fresh, the variety May Duke is still available today.

Subsequent cherry breeding in the UK was really dominated by one man, Thomas Andrew Knight from near Ludlow, who developed such varieties as Waterloo, widely regarded as the finest flavoured dessert cherry of all.   Throughout the 19th century commercial cherry growing expanded throughout the UK.  The orchards around the Tamar provided such a wonderful display of blossom that special boat trips were organised at blossom time, with repeat trips later in the year for the harvest.

Although many modern cultivars are now available, for example the ubiquitous Stella, it would be a shame for some of the well flavoured older varieties to die out.  When choosing which to plant you will of course want to cover the full growing period but will also need to ensure you have varieties that will cross-pollinate according to their flowering period.  All cherries do best in sheltered south-facing positions although Morello cherries can be grown against a north-facing wall, and are reasonably self-fertile.  Buy from a grower with a good range who can advise on your situation.

A Short-list of Heritage Varieties

Although this article is aimed predominantly at those who might wish to grow cherries commercially, that does leave a gap to be filled by home growers.  From my observation, commercial growers seem to be concentrating almost entirely on black dessert cherries.  Whilst I have seen the occasional “cooking” cherry for sale, most of these have actually been dessert cherries that didn’t quite make the grade visually.  This is not at all the same as a sour cherry, which has a much better flavour when cooked.  The best is Morello, which has the added advantage that it can be grown on a north-facing wall.  Montmorency is another heritage cooking variety, which makes excellent jam.

Duke Cherries are a cross between sweet and sour cherries, you can cook with them but when fully ripe they can also be eaten straight from the tree.  May Duke is the best example of this category, and although pollination will be improved if you have another tree with which to cross-pollinate it is semi self fertile.  Birds seem to leave it alone.

The second gap in the commercial market is for the white dessert cherries, of finer flavour than the black ones but more difficult to transport, hence the reason commercial growers leave them alone.  Consider the traditional variety Napoleon which retains a crisp bite and has a not overly sweet flesh.  Knights Bigarreau is similar and Merton Glory another good example, but quite soft.

Of the black dessert cherries a traditional variety to consider growing is Waterloo, bred by Thomas Knight by crossing May Duke with Bigarreau.  It has a firm dark flesh, fine flavour and is known not to split in wet weather.

Serving Cherries

  • Dessert Cherries

Dessert cherries are best eaten raw.  Whilst chilling deadens the flavour of most soft fruit it actually improves cherries by tightening their skins.  In Turkey, or Greece, you might be served cherries on a bed of ice, an idea you might like to replicate.

Cherries with Chocolate Dipping Sauce

I was absolutely delighted to see local cherries on a restaurant menu this year served with just a chocolate dipping sauce.  This type of simplicity is something you usually only see abroad – for example in Italy, where you might be offered a perfectly ripe pear with Pecorino cheese.  It shows confidence on the part of the chef to be this restrained; confidence both in the quality of the ingredients and in not needing to show off their cooking skills.   In France cherries accompany fresh goat’s cheese – another simple pairing that works wonderfully well.

  • Cooking Cherries

The British used to be very good at understanding the need for some acidity in fruit that is to be cooked, for example, the breeding of specific cooking apples is uniquely British and of course the Dukes – a cross between a dessert and the sour Morello cherry, were also developed here.  I am not however claiming that we are the only ones to recognise the culinary value of sour cherries – in their dried form they are frequently used in Middle Eastern cookery.  Perhaps such classics as Duck with Cherries tastes good with sour cherries but they are in such limited supply that I haven’t had the opportunity to try.

Sour cherries are more easily found bottled than fresh and of course if you are lucky enough to grow your own preserving them will be essential.

The best and easiest way of preserving cherries is in Brandy – then you get both alcoholic fruit and the liquor to drink.  Although Brandy is the traditional spirit with cherries, you can use others but remember that in order to act as a preservative in their own right the alcohol needs to be 40˚ proof.  If you use anything weaker you will need to preserve the whole by sterilising in a water bath (88˚C for 10 minutes or 82˚C for 15 minutes).  By this method a light sugar syrup will suffice.

I can recommend the bottled cherries sold by The Somerset Cider Brandy Company – Morello Cherries preserved in Apple eau-de-vie and popularised in a cocktail by restaurateur Mark Hix, known as the “Hix Fix”.

What else can you do with bottled cherries? Black Forest Gateau comes to mind and when properly made this ceases to be a cliché and you understand why it became popular in the first place.  It was interesting to see this challenge set recently in Great British Bake Off because it cemented in my mind what makes it “properly made” – fresh cream filling, Morello cherries, and a dark, “mirror finish” chocolate coating.   Here is the link to the recipe from former Bake Off winner John Waite, I’m sure I can’t do better than him! http://www.johnwhaite.com/homebaking/2014/8/8/black-forest-gateau

What I usually do with bottled cherries is serve them with ice cream – my version of Leche Merengada with its subtle cinnamon note is perfect.  If you really want to go to town you could add broken up chocolate brownie and chocolate sauce to make a very special Knickerbocker Glory.

Tiptree make a Morello Cherry jam, which you can use instead of raspberry jam in a Bakewell Tart – the combination of cherries and almonds is classic.

Pickled cherries are good with cold meat, especially tongue and rabbit.  They are easy to make and I give the recipe here.

If you are cooking with fresh cherries, I wouldn’t bother stoning them first.  Not only is it a lot of faff but also the stones add something of their almond flavour to the dish.  I have given a recipe for Cherry Clafoutis, with a lightly spiced batter, using whole cherries but if you want to make it with pitted remember to use more as they will take up less space in the batter.

Recipes

Pickled Cherries

Almond Tart

Clafoutis

Leche Merengada (Ice Cream)

Cherries with chocolate sauce

Reference

The Origins of Gisela Rootstock  http://www.fruitforum.net/the-origins-of-the-gisela-rootstocks.htm

English Cherry Production  http://www.fruitforum.net/english-cherry-production.htm

Heritage Cherries http://www.bernwodefruittrees.co.uk/descriptions/cherry3.htm

Mazzards http://www.thornhayes-nursery.co.uk/

What next for Artisan British Cheese?

Raw Milk Goat's Cheese

Artisan cheese was at the vanguard of the renaissance of British Food with Neal’s Yard Dairy a central player in this success.  Now that the renaissance is in full flow, with even our sparkling wine giving Champagne a good run for its money, are things still moving on for those early cheese pioneers?  You bet they are.

On 19th/20th August Neal’s Yard Dairy has organised their second conference for farmhouse cheese makers to explore the latest scientific theories and develop practical solutions to ensure that their businesses remain sustainable.  The programme is impressive, with speakers from around the world, but the topic that is exciting more interest than any other is the potential role of microbes in raw milk to creating a safer product.

Artisan cheese makers have long known that these microbes contribute hugely to the flavour and character of raw milk cheeses, but up until now this had to be weighed against a potential risk to human health.  The general approach has therefore been to produce milk that is as “clean” as possible, i.e. to reduce the total number of microbes present.  Now it appears that scientists in France have found that some microbes in raw milk benefit not only the flavour of the cheese but also the safety by forming a natural barrier to pathogens.  This makes perfect sense to me when we consider the human gut and the belief that we have interfered with the body’s own natural defence system with excessive “cleanliness”.   Furthermore, these scientists have been able to pin point which microbes are responsible for what and from where, within the production process, each microbe arises.  So it should be possible to be more selective about which are desirable.  Different methods of animal husbandry, breed characteristics, and feed are just some of the variables that have been more scientifically assessed for their microbial contribution.

This information is contained within a book, written in French.  Now Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy has instigated a Kickstarter project to have the book translated into English.  A pledge of £40 will entitle you to a copy of the book although pledges from just £1 are welcomed, see https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1032957974/raw-milk-microbiology-for-cheesemakers for further information.

Herb of the Month – Basil

For those committed to eating seasonal and local food, August marks that point in the year when we stand the best chance of eating foods more suited to warmer climes.  They may have required the assistance of an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel, but at last we might be able to eat home grown tomatoes, peppers, chillies, and perhaps, if where you live is warm enough, even aubergine.  The herb that best suits these foods, and has similar growing requirements, is Basil.

In a year such as this has been it is unlikely that anywhere in the UK might have succeeded in growing Basil outdoors, although in better summers you can keep a pot in sheltered sun-traps, especially in the south-east of England.  For the most part though, it is grown in greenhouses in the UK – never quite as hearty as that grown outdoors in the sun, such as in Italy, the country that made this herb famous and now pretty indispensible for any cook.

Because we are never going to achieve the same vigour from Basil here, it is the one herb that I do not entirely dismiss buying from a supermarket.  You need to buy it in season, and as a growing plant, but then there are good sized pots to be had quite cheaply, so if you have not grown your own you can still join in the fun.  Growing from seed is however easy and worth doing – it will be more robust and flavoursome as well as cheaper and ecologically more sound.  You don’t need a greenhouse – a windowsill will do, just use a reasonably large container.  I make several sowings throughout the summer because it is easy to use a whole pot full of basil in one go.  Although you can keep one plant growing for a good while, pinching out the top leaves on a regular basis for tomato salads, it is lovely to have a real abundance available.   And if you do have a sunny patio you can start the pots off indoors in the spring and then move them outside when the weather gets really warm.  Summer sowings can be ready to pick in only a month.

What Basil particularly hates is being damp and it rots from the root if this occurs.  Therefore water at mid-day or in the morning rather than evening so that the plant does not sit damp overnight when the temperature cools.  Also thin plants if you find you have sown them too thickly, so that the sun and warm air can circulate around the stems.

With the aforementioned cautions out of the way, Basil is actually so easy and rewarding to grow that it is the one I use to first introduce young people to growing herbs.  The smell is so wonderful just brushing past it that it absolutely begs to be eaten.

Basil in the kitchen

As well as being a “starter herb” for encouraging people to grow their own, teaching them how to use it is also a great starting lesson in cooking.  I spent a day teaching young people about to leave the care system, and was able to supply each with their own mortar and pestle as well as a pot of growing basil – they loved the process of making pesto and felt like real chefs.

Bought jars of pesto are a complete abomination – not just a pale imitation of the real thing but downright disgusting in flavour.  I read recently that Sacla, the main producer of this product, has now decided that the way to boost sales is to put this disgusting flavour in a tube:

http://www.thegrocer.co.uk/fmcg/ambient/top-sacla-flavours-get-squeezy-tubes-to-boost-pesto-sales/230648.article

Yet making your own is really simple and although a mortar and pestle is the best way, a food processor does speed up the process and is still infinitely better than anything bought in a jar (or tube).  You can make the sauce in the time it takes to cook the pasta – how’s that for fast real food.

In addition to Pesto how else do I use basil in the kitchen?

It has such an affinity with tomatoes that they almost seem incomplete without it.  Of course, getting flavoursome tomatoes is another issue, but if you grow your own you simply must grow basil alongside.  Literally alongside is no bad thing as they require similar growing conditions and the basil can help keep all manner of flying insects off the tomatoes.

Tear the leaves rather than chop them with a knife – they will tear along their natural break points, releasing the aromatic flavours much better.  A knife cut pinches the edges together and also causes oxidisation (blackening).  This is really the reason why crushing basil with a pestle is preferable to chopping it in a food processor.

Roasting tomatoes concentrates their flavour and improves even those grown without much sun.  Cut them in half, season the surface with salt and pepper, and place on an oiled tray, cut side down, so that excess juice drains out.  Cook at 120˚C for about an hour.  If the tomatoes are small there is no need to cut them, just cook on the vine.  Serve with a little balsamic vinegar and plenty of freshly torn basil.  Roasted tomatoes are the starting point for making Tomato and Basil soup, see recipe here.

Pesto is a very pungent flavour and is best added to dishes just before serving.  Rather than cooking the basil it should just be warmed by the heat of the food, releasing the maximum aroma.  Pasta is the classic food to dress with pasta, the traditional Ligurian dish also includes a couple of ingredients that hardly every feature here – green beans and potatoes.  It sounds very odd to add another carbohydrate, i.e. potato, to pasta but having first tried it when I had a couple of leftover cold potatoes in the fridge I found it actually worked very well.  Now I slice some in whenever I have them to hand.  Runner beans work brilliantly as the green bean in this dish – they can be sliced finely so that they are easy to wind around the fork together with the pasta.  See Basil Recipes for full instructions including how to make pesto.

As well as being the herb for tomatoes, basil is strongly linked with garlic.  The classic Provençal vegetable stew of Ratatouille cries out for both.

Less familiar is the use of basil with cream, but I first came across this in a Rick Stein book as a sauce to serve with John Dory and it has remained my favourite accompaniment for this wonderful fish.  The sauce uses a sweet white wine to deglaze the pan followed by a quick reduction of fish stock and double cream, with the basil being torn into the sauce at the last moment, just before serving.

Why do the French make the best butter?

Whilst following the current dispute over milk prices it surprised me to learn that one of the reasons/excuses given was the falling value of cream.  It seems amazing to one who grew up squabbling over who was going to get the top of the milk on their cereal that what was once considered the best part is now virtually valueless because so many people buy their milk skimmed or semi-skimmed.

Before I continue with this topic a disclaimer; I am not a dairy farmer, just a consumer who loves good food and deeply respects those who make it.  I know that there are farmers who resent those who are not, and so struggle to understand all of the issues, even expressing their opinions, but let me say that I am happily paying £1.80 a litre for milk, i.e. six times what most farmers are receiving, albeit this includes delivery to my door.

If I have understood correctly, the general view seems to be that farmers cannot be blamed if the processors, to whom most farmers sell their milk, are not finding alternative outlets for the excess cream.  Meanwhile we continue to import a third of all our butter, which is made from cream.  I’m not looking to apportion blame here, but surely butter represents a business opportunity?  And when I examine my own buying habits I find that despite my commitment to buying local, I too am guilty of buying imported (French) butter.  The reason?  It is difficult to find British butter of the same quality.  This applies at all price levels, from the top, artisan-made, Echire for spreading on your toast, to the factory-made President butter that I use for making pastry.  There are some exceptions, good enough for general purpose, and a handful of handmade butters from top Cheddar cheesemakers’ Montgomery’s and Keen’s as well as Priors Clotted Cream Butter.  But these artisan butters are hard to find.

The quality of French butter, particularly that from Normandy, is usually attributed to superior, species rich, grazing but I can’t believe that we don’t have grazing to match that.  From speaking to those who do hand-make butter, including those who have judged it at agricultural shows, the most common pitfall is failing to remove all of the buttermilk, as this contains most of the lactic acid which, if retained, tastes bitter and quickly turns rancid.  It also adversely affects the texture, which should break cleanly.  Adding salt improves the keeping qualities as well as enhancing flavour.  But whilst we seem to have grasped the fact that quality sea-salt tastes best, we don’t seem to be able to incorporate it as evenly as the French.

I appreciate that not all the butter that is imported is done so for reasons of quality.  Cost comes into the equation for many people but I repeat my assertion that there are quality differences across the pricing structure.

We import an even larger percentage of our cheese (50%) and here there is really no excuse. Whilst there are outstanding cheeses from many countries around the world, and I wouldn’t want to exclude them from my diet entirely, British cheeses can more than hold their own and I am proud to serve an entirely British cheeseboard on any occasion.

There are also an increasing number of dairy farmers who make their own ice cream, and whilst little of this is at a truly artisan level it certainly beats any imported mass-produced ice cream.  This reinforces my belief that we should be capable of making good butter if we put our minds to it.  I don’t think farmers can, or should, rely on the processors to do this.  In my humble opinion the only future for dairy farming in this country is for farmers to take control of the entire production chain, right through to selling direct to customers.  The place I would recommend to anyone wishing to take this step is the School of Artisan Food http://www.schoolofartisanfood.org, but interestingly I note that whilst there are several cheese making courses and a couple for ice cream, there are none for butter.  But I am sure that if the demand is there they will find the people who can teach you how to make it well.

A Taste of Britain-on Sea

Statistics from the ONS show the biggest drop in holidays abroad (down 15%) since records began in the 1970s. The British Resorts Association figures show that the 30 million a year heading for the British seaside for four nights or more is the same number as in 1965 and one third will have taken their main holiday in the UK this year according to an Opinium Research poll.

The reasons behind this are varied, the recession being the most commonly cited, with concerns about financial instability abroad, the Icelandic ash cloud and air strikes also playing their part.  Past experience has shown that the weather in the UK will have a significant bearing on holiday decisions the following year, but it does seem that there is a very pleasing growth in interest in discovering our own country.

Personally speaking, good food is essential to a good holiday. Finding places in the UK where you can eat good British food is no easy task.  Taking that a step further, to get a real sense of place, is even harder.   Foreign visitors (down this year) might also be pleasantly surprised to discover good British food and my own experience has been that this is easier by the sea than anywhere else in the UK.

Specifically I am talking about fish, so the probable reason for this is the difficulty in transporting it.  Larger fishing ports are geared up for transporting because 75% of the UK commercial catch is actually exported, with Spain being the biggest buyer, but in smaller harbours and estuaries it is possible to eat fish fresh from the sea.

For an island we have been surprisingly indifferent towards fish, a fact that enabled Edward Heath to give away our rights to British fishing waters as part of the price of joining the EU in 1973.  The history behind our indifference is widely regarded to be a consequence of the number of meat free days that were enforced in the past, although as this was also the case in other Catholic countries without the same consequences I’m not convinced by this reasoning.

Despite our general indifference towards eating fish, Fish and Chips are firmly embedded in our culture and now moving beyond the Fish and Chip shop to reach improved heights of culinary achievement in pubs and restaurants.  The only trouble is that the fish that is served in batter along with chips is usually a trawler caught deep sea variety – Cod being the top seller with Haddock the preference in Scotland, and these white fish are the ones most in danger of being over-fished.   Shellfish on the other hand are still relatively plentiful and can also be farmed with minimal environmental impact as they require no feed inputs or chemical treatment.

For the same reasons that The Campaign for Real Farming recommends small-scale mixed farming as the sustainable way forward for agriculture, this also has to be the route to a sustainable future for fishing.   During the warmer summer month’s fish will come in close to the shore, some of which may even be caught from there, but usually from small day boats.  Smaller catches are more likely to be sold close to where they are landed providing us with some of the finest food you will find in Britain.  All around our coast, especially in places popular with tourists, simple eateries have sprung up that give you the opportunity to eat the freshest fish in sight of the sea where it was caught.   And although fish will move around, they have their preferred habitats, so that different resorts will have their own specialities.   Below are a list of places and their fishy specialities which I have enjoyed and I invite you to add your own finds to this.

WEST COUNTRY

Dorset

There is excellent fishing to be had around Portland and Chesil beach.  The Isle of Portland itself provides deep sea, rocks and wrecks and is particularly known for Bass fishing.  From Portland to Abbotsbury lies a great shingle bank, which shelves steeply, providing great fishing from the shore.  Along its length all manner of fish are caught, mackerel are perhaps the most prolific although during the summer month’s spider crabs are considered a pest.  Behind Chesil lies a salt water lagoon known as The Fleet and it is here that pacific oysters are farmed.

The Crab House Café, Weymouth. www.crabhousecafe.co.uk

Idiosyncratic, perhaps even slightly eccentric, this simple café is located beside the Portland end of The Fleet, where they have their own oyster farm.  Cracking fresh crab, accompanied by nothing more complicated than a salad grown on the premises, was one of my food highlights this summer.

Hive Beach Café, Burton Bradstock www.hivebeachcafe.co.uk and The Riverside Restaurant, West Bay, Bridport. www.thefishrestaurant-westbay.co.uk

Both close to Bridport, between Weymouth and Lyme Regis, so sharing many of the same specialities including hand dived scallops, brown crabs and spider crabs.

Hix Oyster and Fish House, Lyme Regis www.hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk

The most expensive of these Dorset eateries, and with less direct connection to the fishermen who provide the mainstay of the menu, but making plenty of use of lesser known, sustainable species and specialising in oysters including those farmed on the Fleet and also at Brownsea Island.

South Devon

Brixham is the main fishing harbour on this coast, with day boats providing a wide variety of fish.  The wild and unspoilt Exe estuary produces excellent mussels.  The South Devon Tourist Board has this year begun a campaign to promote South Devon crabs, which are of excellent quality but also in plentiful supply – 2000 tonnes are landed each year of which 60% are currently exported to France and Spain.  Pacific Oysters are farmed at Bigbury Bay and can be sampled there, or in Salcombe at The Oyster Shack www.oystershack.co.uk .  Mitch Tonks seems intent on doing for Dartmouth what Rick Stein has done for Padstow.  Having first opened the Seahorse Restaurant he has followed with the more informal Rockfish Seafood and Chips.  Both can be relied upon to provide local, sustainable fish.

The Seahorse Restaurant and Rockfish Seafood and Chips, Dartmouth www.seahorserestaurant.co.uk and www.rockfishdevon.co.uk

Cornwall

Newlyn fish market lands some of the best fish in Britain, but much of this will make its way out of Cornwall.  Surprisingly, given the amount of excellent fish that comes from Cornwall, eating it at its source is not as easy as one might hope.  Having already mentioned Rick Stein above, it would be churlish to talk about Cornish seafood without repeating his name here.  Whilst I have suffered less than perfect service and incidentals on visits to his Padstow Seafood Restaurant, the fish itself has always been exemplary:  www.rickstein.com

Two things in particular say Cornwall to me with regard to fish: Native Oysters and Pilchards.  Having already identified places to eat farmed Pacific oysters (also called Rock Oysters or Gigas) in both Dorset and Devon I should explain here how rare and special our native oysters are.  There are only three places where they are still found in the UK – in the Fal estuary Cornwall and on either side of the Thames at Colchester and Whitstable.  Of these three, only in the Fal are they entirely wild and fished by traditional sail boats as no motors are allowed.   The taste of a native oyster will vary dependent on the waters in which it was grown.  In the Fal they take on colour and a faintly metallic taste from copper in the water.  They should never be cooked but cherished raw and ideally in comparison with other native oysters, although the only place you are likely to do this in the UK is in London at the Wright Brothers oyster bar in Borough Market.   These same brothers have recently taken over The Ferryboat Inn at Helford, close to where they run the Duchy Oyster Farm: www.ferryboatinnhelford.com .  Whilst this does include the cultivation of some native oysters, re-laid from their home of the Fal, they also farm the Pacific oyster there.  This has been somewhat controversial, as many fear that they will over-run the native oysters (Helford being a tributary of the Fal).  The wild native oyster is found around an area known as the Carrick Roads on the Fal, but frustratingly most seem destined for London or elsewhere.  The reason for this is probably because, unlike Pacific oysters which can be farmed all year round, the Natives are in season only when there is an “R” in the month, i.e. outside of the tourist season.

Pilchards are about as Cornish as you can get – think Stargazey Pie, but they have undergone rebranding as Cornish Sardines in recent years as Pilchards apparently have too strong an association with wartime fare.  Pilchards are in fact just large sardines and perfect for cooking on a barbeque.  As far as I know there is no fishmonger travelling around the campsites in Cornwall as there is in North Devon but I think they would do a roaring trade with sardines.  Sardinus sardinus are pelagic in nature but a couple of decades ago the large shoals appeared to have abandoned the Cornish shores – or perhaps the fisherman had just stopped actively fishing for them.  They are now relatively plentiful and an excellent source of vitamin D.  Whilst this article is really about eating fresh fish close to their source, for the reasons just mentioned I will take this opportunity to commend the canned sardine.  However, my recipe for this article puts an up to date twist on sardines on toast – in this instance with fresh sardines, a simple enough recipe to cook over the camp fire.  See Seasonal Recipes – Sardines on Toast

On the north coast of Cornwall, acclaimed chef Nathan Outlaw has now established his restaurant at the St Enedoc Hotel www.stenedoc.co.uk and www.nathan-outlaw.co.uk .  In addition to fine dining in the restaurant this also includes a simpler Seafood and Grill bar overlooking the Camel Estuary, where Rock Shellfish farm pacific oysters, mussels and clams.  These can be found on the menu here, along with Cornish sardines and other seafood, accompanied by local and prize winning Camel Valley sparkling wines.

North Devon

The North Devon coast was famed for its lobster, crabs and herring.  Clovelly is a beautiful old harbour from which more than 100 herring boats once operated.  Nowadays it holds festivals to support sustainable fishing and traditional methods.  In September it celebrates lobster and crab with all funds going to the National Lobster Hatchery at Padstow, then, in November, it hosts a Herring festival.  Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, became England’s first Marine Conservation Zone earlier this year and fishing for lobster has been banned there for five years now, resulting in a rapid increase in stocks in the immediate area but not, as yet spreading out to the surrounding waters.

Against the backdrop of these encouraging initiatives, European Lobster are considered relatively sustainable providing they are of caught in pots and are of adequate size.  The Walrus, operating out of Ilfracombe, is a member of the Responsible Fishing Scheme and aims to provide sustainably caught shellfish within the local area.  You can find a list of restaurants that they supply with live lobster and crab on their website: www.walrusfisheries.co.uk .  They have also teamed up with Mortehoe Shellfish, who cook the lobster and crab for consumption either at their home in Mortehoe or via their delivery van, which visits the many campsites in the area: www.moretehoeshellfish.co.uk .

SCOTLAND

Around 60% of the UK’s coastline is in Scotland.  With all its islands and sea lochs the opportunities to enjoy seafood in sight of the waters where it was caught are tremendous.  More than just in sight of water, many of these hotels and restaurants are situated in the most stunning scenery imaginable.

The fishing industry, which has always played a huge part in feeding the Scots and now much further afield is not so promising.  The deep, cold, waters of the North Sea provided the cod, plaice and haddock beloved by fish shops, whilst the rivers provided Salmon.  All are now in short supply and farmed Salmon, with its associated environmental concerns, has all but replaced the wild.

The inshore fisheries, capable of providing high quality direct to local restaurants and markets, are the ones that provide the hope of a sustainable future for fishing in Scotland.  From Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics in 2007 we learn that there were some 1494 Scottish boats under 10m in length making up the bulk of the inshore day boats.  Compared with areas like Cornwall, what is striking is the lack of variety in their catch.  1292 of the 1494 small day boats are creel boats, fishing for langoustine, crab and lobster.  There were also 35 diver boats, mainly scallopers.  Shellfish is what to eat when in Scotland, with langoustine being the jewel in the crown.  It must however be creel caught as langoustine trawling is associated with some of the worst environmental concerns: by-catch of immature whitefish, seabed damage and high fuel use.  Some 40% of the world’s langoustine stocks are caught in Scotland, with Spain being the largest buyer.

Below is a selection of places to eat, based on my personal experience or recommendations, but I am sure there are many other “finds” waiting to be discovered.

West Coast and Islands

Crinan Hotel www.crinanhotel.com Overlooking Jura – a beautiful location.  Langoustine are landed daily.

Seafood Temple, Oban www.templeseafood.co.uk for 25 years what was affectionately known as the Seafood Shack on Oban Pier sold simply cooked fish direct from their own boats.  Following 3 years painstaking renovation, the owners now also have a restaurant just along the way.

The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye www.threechimneys.co.uk .  The seven course tasting menu showcases a local ingredient in each course – fish features heavily.

Lochs Torridon and Gairloch are the only ones to have MCS certified creel fishing for langoustine.  On Loch Torridon the Torridon and Tigh an Eilean both serve these langoustine: www.thetorridon.com and www.tighaneilean.com (site under construction, call 01520 755251).

Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant, Tarbet, Sutherland www.seafoodrestaurant-tarbet.co.uk.  A family run restaurant at a remote cove on the west coast.  Julian Pearce and his son, Adam, fish for prawns, crab and lobster from their boat, the Fulmar whilst Julian’s wife Jackie runs the restaurant.

The Captain’s Gallery, Scrabster www.captainsgallery.co.uk Scrabster is the ferry departure point for the islands of Orkney and Shetland as well as the most northerly fish market. The Captain’s Gallery is situated on the harbour and therefore has the pick of fish so fresh that sushi and sashimi are specialities of the restaurant.

The Creel, St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney www.thecreel.co.uk .  Alan Craigie showcases the best of Orcadian food, which of course includes fish from the surrounding waters.  Creel caught lobsters, crab and the Orcadian speciality Spoots (razor clam) are regulars on the menu.  Long before others were switching to lesser known fish species, Alan made a point of introducing them to diners by pairing them with popular favourites.

EAST ANGLIA

Britain’s east coast, on the North Sea, was once the primary location for our fishing industry but those days are long gone and the old fishing ports have something of a ghostly air about them.  The number of large trawlers has been decimated, but hopefully in time we will see an inshore fishery grow up to take its place.  From Norfolk to London this has already started to happen, thanks largely to the farming of shellfish.

Norfolk

The north Norfolk coast with its tidal marshes and sandy beaches is a Designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, rich in wildlife and with ideal waters for farming shellfish.  Brancaster Staithe is known for the farming of Pacific Oysters ( or Gigas as they are often known) and mussels.  You can eat these at The White Horse whilst watching the mussel fishermen cleaning their nets or local boats returning with their catch. www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk

A little further along the coast lie the Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey) marshes.  These are famous for Stewkey Blues, a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour.

These might well appear on the menu at nearby Morston Hall, north Norfolk’s only Michelin starred restaurant – www.morstonhall.com .  What you are assured of is locally caught fish, much of it landed at Morston Quay, just a few hundred yards away.  Expect cockles, shrimps, mussels, oysters, crab, lobsters and marsh samphire when in season.

Just along from Morston is Blakeney where Andy Rendall catches crab and lobster to sell from Blakeney Crab Shed (01263 740988).  You can buy these shellfish ready cooked and dressed to take away but if you want to buy them to “eat in” Cookies Crab Shop at Salthouse, near Blakeney can oblige.  Weather permitting you can eat outside, otherwise you will definitely need to book one of the few tables in the garden shed!  Bring your own wine.  (Tel: 01263 740352 of see www.salthouse.org.uk ).

Cromer Crabs are reputedly the sweetest in the country and those caught in Cromer Bay justify their reputation.  This could be down to the chalk shelf below the bay or the fact that they are caught young (115cm is the legal selling size).  They also have a higher proportion of white meat to brown than crabs caught elsewhere.  However, their popularity could lead to their demise.   They are now fished all year round and what is sold commercially as Cromer Crab may in fact have been caught hundreds of miles away, frozen at sea and just processed in Cromer.  There are only 12 boats operating out of Cromer, looking after 200 pots in the bay.  If you can be sure that this is where the crab came from then its well worth buying – but I don’t know where to recommend for this .

Suffolk – Essex

The Suffolk coast features more marshland interspersed with pebble beaches, such as that at Southwold.  Oysters are the main speciality between here and Kent with famous oyster beds on both sides of the Thames Estuary.  Smokehouses are the other big thing – a remnant of the herring fishery.  Lowestoft was a centre for herring fishing on this coast.  Rare delicacies such as Buckling and Red Herring can be found at The Old Smokehouse and JT Cole.  What Lowestoft doesn’t have is a good restaurant serving these smoked fish.  For that head further south to Orford.

The oyster beds at Orford were abandoned in the 1900’s until in the late 1950’s when Richard Pinney began to resurrect the Butley Creek beds with oysters he imported from Portugal.  Today the Butley-Orford Oysterage has its own fish shop, smokehouse and restaurant.  In addition to their oysters they also use their own boats to supply these outlets, catching sole, mullet, lobster and crab from spring until autumn, cod and skate most of the year, and herrings and sprats in the winter months.  See www.butleyorfordoysterage.co.uk .  The Crown and Castle Hotel at Orford also includes local fish on the menu.

To get from Norfolk to Orford you will pass Aldeburgh with its pebbly banked beach and row of fish shacks selling fish landed here twice a day.  There’s a bit of a shortage of places to eat the fish though.  The best restaurant in probably The Lighthouse but the Aldeburgh Fish and Chip shop is well regarded and always has a long queue.

Heading on into Essex the highlight along this stretch of coast is The Company Shed at 129 Coast Road on the island of West Mersea.  Here, during the winter months, you will have the opportunity to eat the rare Native Oysters, but to make the business viable, Richard Haward farms Pacific Oysters all year round: www.richardhawardoysters.co.uk .  Richard’s wife, Heather runs The Company Shed, built in 1955 for cleaning oysters, it was converted in 1989 to enable them to be sold here.  It is a wonderful no-frills operation.  You cannot book a table, so be prepared to wait for half an hour and then to share with others.  You also need to bring your own bread and wine.  All that really matters here is the quality of the shellfish (crabs, cockles and other shellfish are brought in to join their own oysters).  Two people can eat for £18.  Who could complain at that?

Make hay whilst the sun shines

In this year in which spring arrived at least a month later than usual, everything caught up well and harvesting has generally been early with bumper crops of most fruit and vegetables.  Gardeners will now be dealing with the seasonal glut of courgettes and runner beans, but what does this mean to most people?

I am constantly being told that people can’t afford to eat real food.  I have taught people of all income levels to cook, including children in care who, at the tender age of 16, were about to be launched into the world to fend for themselves and usually on benefits.  So it is not without careful consideration that I give you my view that it is not true that they cannot afford to eat real food.  There are certainly many obstacles, cookery knowledge being just one of them, and they will need to go against the normal system in order to eat well, but it can be done.  I will come back to this subject many times over forthcoming articles, because today’s theme is not the entire answer, but let’s start with the relevance of a seasonal glut to most people.

If you are shopping in a supermarket you may have noticed that things like peaches are now being sold at “half price” or the dreaded “BOGOF”.  This leads you to believe that the supermarket is somehow offering you a special deal, not that the cost to peaches has come down as the fruit reaches the peak of its season.  The “normal” price will be shown so that you don’t get false expectations of what to pay in future.  Leaving aside for today the question of value for money, because these peaches are still likely to be rock hard, let’s just consider the saving you have made.  How much does your shopping bill vary from week to week, month to month?

Most people somehow seem to adjust their purchases so that they spend roughly the same each week, what they saved on the peaches they spent on something else.  This goes against the traditional rhythm set by nature.  Our ancestors would have been busily storing the surplus of today for the lean months ahead.  We can take this quite literally, by buying when the price is low and preserving for the future, but now that food is imported from all over the world throughout the year, few people have any real sense that there will be lean times ahead for which they should be preparing.  Less literally though, I recall a friend, who struggling to pay a mortgage that was originally meant to be shared between two, told me that he spent almost nothing on food throughout the summer.  During this time he ate fruit and vegetables from his garden and pigeons or rabbits that he shot.  It enabled him to put some money aside towards future mortgage payments.

Another example, this time from someone who doesn’t have his own garden but has learnt to benefit from the seasonal glut as a forager.  His full-time employment is as a hairdresser, not the best paid occupation in the world, but foraging has become an absorbing hobby that also pays quite well.  His foraging ground is the suburbs of Bristol, where he notes that most people remain oblivious to the rich produce around them.  He has just harvested, with full permission, kilo upon kilo of wonderful cherries, which he sold to restaurants and also preserved in spirit.  These cherries were growing on the edge of a golf course, but none of the golfers were in the least interested in them.

I had a similar experience myself whilst picking bilberries last weekend.  It has been an excellent year for them and instead of picking just enough for one tart, I was able to freeze enough for another two.  A couple of people stopped to ask what I was doing and were interested to taste the superior wild relative of the cultivated blueberry; but, as usual when I am out foraging, no-one else was picking in earnest.  At one time at least half the village would have been involved in gathering this particular harvest, yet today, when The Castle Hotel in Taunton needs them to fulfil the traditional request of the visiting Australian cricket team, they have the devil’s own job to persuade anyone to pick them.

All this seems proof to me that wealth not poverty is the obstacle to enjoying real food today.

So let’s use this glut positively.  Even if it is not exchanged for money, it might earn you some brownie points for the future.  I have already been given fish in return for excess garden produce this year, but when I give it away my main motivation is to give others the opportunity to taste really fresh produce.  It is reckoned that one of the main reasons why the standard of food in France and Italy has remained higher than in the UK is because there is still a sufficiently large proportion of people growing their own for almost everyone to encounter fresh food on a regular basis.  Once you have tasted the real thing you are less likely to be fobbed off with the third rate produce that is sold in supermarkets.

So the increased interest in vegetable gardening can be nothing but a positive influence on developing a good food culture, I believe.  But I should perhaps say that I am not, by any means, a natural gardener.  I tend towards the “plant it and see” mentality, and eight or nine times out of ten, something wonderful emerges.  When something doesn’t work I tend not to bother with it again, but the results of my “labours” are sufficient incentive to repeat the successes.

With the increased interest in vegetable gardening has come a resurgence in popularity for preserving.  Hurrah!  There are obviously quite a few people taking their glut seriously.  For quite some time I was under the naïve misapprehension that shop bought preserves were so good it was not worth making your own.  Whilst it is true that there is quite a thriving cottage industry in preserves don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.  What started out as a sensible way of dealing with plenty in preparation for the harsh times ahead can be every bit as commercial as the rest of food production.  Preserves made in genuinely small batches at home are likely to be fresher in colour and taste than that which has had to cook for longer because of the batch size.  And it’s a year-round industry too.  Even in the peak of home-grown produce many will choose to import their main ingredients from abroad because they are cheaper or more consistently available.  Ironically many ingredients have already undergone one process of preserving as another solution is to use tinned or frozen ingredients for preserving.  Many recipes, particularly from chefs, show a lack of understanding about the science that underpins successful preserving.  If you can be in Somerset on 21st October, a cookery demonstration and lunch with preserving expert Vivien Lloyd will help get the essentials of preserving clear in your mind.  Further details are below.

Meanwhile I hope that my own recipe for runner bean pickle would pass Vivien’s strict standards (she is a former World Marmalade Champion and a WI judge to boot).  My runner bean pickle is what is known as a “mustard pickle” in the piccalilli style, although quite a bit quicker to make.  As well as providing a vegetable accompaniment to winter cold meats it is my “secret” ingredient when making pheasant curry to use up another surplus ingredient – although this time in the depths of the winter.

I have no hesitation in recommending my bilberry tart recipe to you.  It is an absolute winner, but first you must pick your bilberries.  Lakeland has just started to sell the combs that used to be easily available here but in recent years I have found only when abroad.  They make the job of picking so much easier.  You will find bilberries only on moorland.  In their absence you could substitute blueberries, but it is the bilberries that I think might get you hooked on foraging.

Here’s to plenty!

See Recipes

Preserving Orchard Fruit

Cookery demonstration and lunch at Lakewood, Blagdon on 21st October.  Tickets £15 from Abigail Smith 01761 463366