Ginger and Gingerbread

Ginger has a very long history of use in English cooking for it was already in use before the Norman Conquest and probably arrived with the Romans, who used it in quantity, although mostly for medicinal purposes.  So, by the time the 12th century crusaders brought back so many of the spices that we use today, ginger was already familiar.

All manifestations, be they dried, ground, preserved in syrup, crystallized or pickled, come from the rhizome zingeber officinale, the finest of which comes from Jamaica. In medieval times ginger was as common in savoury dishes as in sweet, although it is in the latter that it really established its popularity in English baking.  Spices were not cheap, so their use was reserved for high days and holidays. At court or in other wealthy households, gingerbreads might be gilded with gold leaf.  Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, and often also gilded, was always found at fairs. In Florence White’s Good Things in England a Miss M. W. Rogers from Marazion writes that a proper and complete “fairing” included:

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway comfits

Candied sticks of Angelica

Almond comfits

Macaroons

In Yorkshire, Parkin was made especially for Bonfire celebrations around the end of October. Gingerbread was also popular on the continent, especially in Germany, where it was often used to construct cakes in the form of houses, but also in France where Pain d’Epices was, predictably, claimed to be the original.  This may in fact be true, because whilst ginger was known in Britain well before the Norman Conquest, recipes for Gingerbread only began to appear soon after it.

Gingerbread became particularly popular in the North of England with Ormskirk being renowned as the Gingerbread capital for centuries, helped by its position as a staging post between Liverpool (where the ginger was docked) and Preston. At the Ormskirk stop travellers would encounter the Gingerbread Ladies selling their wares, each proclaiming their own recipe as the best.

There can be few recipes for which there have been so many recognised variations.  For example, in Florence White’s Good things in England, written in 1932, a chapter entitled Country Teas gives 15 different ginger cake/bread/biscuit recipes (out of a total of only 50) with a further 5 appearing in the chapter on Local Specialities.

If we first remove cakes from the equation, there are still many variations on the Gingerbread theme. The first distinction is perhaps between thick and thin – oats were more widely available than wheat flour and produced a thicker, chewier version epitomised by Parkin, but the thinner, crisp, biscuity version was more dominant in Scotland and the borders.  Remember too that many gingerbreads were cooked on griddles before homes had ovens, although Bakers’ ovens accounted for earlier commercial versions.  Commercial bakers were not the enormous national companies that we see today but small family firms that played an essential role in keeping alive regional recipes, which all too often become extinct when these businesses close.   Probably the best known commercial gingerbread being made today is Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread.  Sarah Nelson’s recipe is a trade secret although Grasmere was well known for it’s gingerbread before Sarah Nelson began selling hers to tourists in the 1850’s.  In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her Grasmere journal of her efforts to buy both the thick and thin versions associated with the village.  The thick version is still made for the annual rush-bearing ceremony that takes place in the village church of St. Oswald.  Rush-bearing ceremonies occur throughout the Lake District, and in fact elsewhere in Britain, and involve laying fresh rushes on the floor of the church.  In Grasmere, St. Oswald’s church-wardens’ accounts for 1819 give the earliest record of payment for “rushbearers’ gingerbread” – the reward for those who gathered and laid the rushes.  In contrast, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is of thin type – with a sandy, almost shortbread like, texture.

Although most recipes have been updated to reflect the availability of new ingredients and equipment it is still possible detect the evolution through the recipes.  Here is the basic timeline, and example recipes can be seen here.

Timeline:

55 BC – 407 AD The Romans used ginger in large quantities but more for its medicinal than culinary properties.

407 – 1066 AD The Anglo-Saxons certainly valued spices, ginger is amongst those listed amongst the prized supply left by the Venerable Bede on his death in 735, but it would not have been in widespread usage.

1066 – The Norman Conquest – marks the earliest references to Pain d’Epices, the French Gingerbread.

C15th – The Crusaders brought back many spices and the use of ginger became almost as common as pepper, in both sweet and savoury dishes, at least in wealthy circles.  The gingerbread made at this time (note that it did not always include ginger) was served at court and on ceremonial occasions, made in elaborate mounds and gilded with gold leaf.  Smaller versions, often shaped as men or pigs, were sold at fairs and known as “fairings”.  Gingerbread at this time was made from breadcrumbs and honey.

C16th & C17th – Breadcrumbs were replaced with flour or oatmeal and treacle replaced honey (a distinguishing ingredient of pain d’epices). Butter and eggs became popular additions and in the C17th white Gingerbread became fashionable especially in the East Midlands (e.g. Ashbourne Gingerbread).

C18th & C19th – Towns and villages throughout the north of England became associated with their own version of gingerbread.

Bibliography

The Taste of Britain – Laura Mason and Catherine Brown (Harper Press 2006)

Good Things in England– Florence White (The Cookery Book Club 1932)

The Oxford Companion to Food– Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press 1999)

The Gingerbread Ladies– Jack Hallam (John Siddall 1979)

Tasting Hogget

How would you feel about a shop that offered only a choice between, say, French and Spanish wine? It feels just as bizarre to farmer, Nick Miller, that the only choice of lamb available to him in his local Waitrose store is Welsh or British.  Good point Nick.  As his partner, Sarah Dickens, went on to explain during a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive evening of hogget tasting, we should be as ready to develop a vocabulary to describe the difference for lamb as we are now with wine.

It is not only the vocabulary that we are missing, but we have also lost some of the critical evaluation powers of taste, which at a fundamental level let us, and animals, select what is good for us to eat.  When I am teaching people to cook I have to remind them to taste the food, and the ingredients they are adding, to see what the dish needs.

The hogget tasting I attended in May was an initiative of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, and hosted by The Table Café in Southwark, London. Hogget is lamb that has passed its first birthday, as is often the case when lambs are grown slowly and naturally on a 100% diet of pasture.  I have written about hogget and mutton before here as well as the health benefits of a 100% pasture-fed diet, so this article will concentrate on the taste aspects for which this occasion was designed.  The Campaign for Real Farming has always believed that when people can actually taste the difference between methods of production they will be prepared to pay the true costs that sustaining it.

Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, the chef-owner of The Table Café, was himself initially sceptical about whether we would be able to discern a difference between the hoggets, but the first thing he noticed was the differences in appearance – size, colour and fat for example. To ensure that the comparison was fair, all the joints (shoulders) were cooked in exactly the same way – for 6 hours at 145°C.  This is quite a long time, even for a should joint, and not all hogget requires slow cooking, it is perfectly possible, for example, to barbeque hogget chops.

So what were the differences we might expect to taste?  Each producer explained the breed – all traditional native breeds – Cotswold (famed for its wool), Herdwick (a very hardy breed native to the Lake District), Swaledale (another hardy breed suited to the North Yorkshire Moors) and Black Welsh Mountain (especially useful on less productive pasture as they can live off almost nothing). The breed is chosen to suit the land and pasture on which it will live, the biggest distinction being between lush lowland meadows and more difficult terrain with a greater mix of plants growing on it.  We had been due to taste a hogget from Welsh salt-marshes but unfortunately the carrier had not shown up.  This would have represented the biggest difference in grazing as the sea, whilst only flooding the marshes for a few days each year, does prevent rye grass growing there but instead you find coastal plants such as samphire and sea-lavender.  However, it should be noted that the Herdwick we ate was not from its native Cumbrian fells but from a small flock that were taken to Kent during the Foot and Mouth crisis as protection against the breed being entirely wiped out in its native area.  This flock is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust and assists in maintaining the chalk grassland by browsing back woody species such as bramble and hawthorn.  The farmers jostled with one another to boast who had the most variety of plants on their pasture, but whilst there would have been differences in some to the species present, they had plenty in common in all being species rich.

Finally there were differences in the age and hanging time.  The oldest was the Black Welsh Mountain, which at 2 years actually classifies as Mutton rather than Hogget.  This was also hung for the longest – up to 3 weeks in temperature and humidity controlled conditions.  Had we been able to taste the saltmarsh lamb, this would have represented the other extreme as at only 6 month this would still be called lamb rather than hogget and was hung for just 4 days.  The rest were 12/13 months old and hung for 10-12 days.

Tasting terms for Hogget

Before tasting we were given a helpful prompt in the form of a list of words that are sometimes used to describe the flavour and texture of hogget, although we were encouraged to add any other words we feet appropriate.  The suggestions were:

Aromatic Terms –  herbs, sorrel, rocket, green salad, sweet, honey, cider cask, fragrant, root crop, beer, tannin, sweet hay, grassy, buttery, grainy, artichokes, parsnips, rosemary, creamy.

Terms related to hanging time – Gamey, salty, fishy, smoky, rich, fresh, light colours, dark colours, sweet, earthy.

Length of Flavour – Intense, complex, light, fresh, deep-rooted, lingering.

Texture – Succulent, tender, dense, melt in the mouth, butter, marbled.

The Results

The texture was the first thing to strike about each variety, although the length of cooking had broken down the fibres and rendered all the fat completely.  In the order in which we tasted, my own notes were as follows, but the group summary can be seen on  http://www.pastureforlife.org/news/diners-praise-the-different-flavours-of-grass-fed-hogget and a further report of the evening from https://www.indiefarmer.com/2016/06/16/why-the-grass-might-be-greener-for-a-new-breed-of-sheep-farmers/

Cotswold – texture soft and stringy.  Flavour intense and buttery.  Pleasing amount of flavoursome fat.

Swaledale – leaner and less fibrous than the Cotswold.  Sweet, rugged, earthy and intense flavour.

Herdwick – quite pale in colour, flesh marbled with fat, which dominated the eating.

Black Welsh Mountain – Of the four this had the most savoury (umami) flavour, which persisted for longest.  It had the least fat and was slightly gamey.

Nearly half the group chose the Cotswold as their favourite, the Swaledale and Black Welsh Mountain tied in second place with the Herdwick trailing in at a definite fourth place.  Having tasted both the Cotswold and Herdwick breeds before, I would say that the flavour was more influenced by pasture than the breed.  In particular, the Herdwick seemed to be fat because it is a hardy breed living in easier conditions than it is used to.  The Cotswold was a pleasant surprise as I have not particularly enjoyed it before.

It is important for every producer to understand the flavour profile of the meat they produce, and how to cook it to it best advantage.  As these hoggets were all cooked in exactly the same manner I would be interested to know whether any of them would recommend different methods for the same joint.

If I were I to organise a tasting for the general public I think I would start with wider differences in the meat – a lowland breed that had perhaps been fattened on grain versus one fed entirely on pasture for example, and then an entirely pasture fed hill breed as a comparison to the lowland.  I would also like to have all of the meats in front of me at once, and tasted blind.  I think it is quite possible that, in comparison, we would have found more words to describe the differences and that we could have made a good stab at matching them to the profiles given by the producers.

However, these thoughts about alternative tastings just confirm what an enjoyable and valuable experience it was and I hope there will be many more!

Here are some of my recipe suggestions for enjoying leftover Hogget.

Picnic Fare

What is your idea of the perfect picnic?  A picnic sort of implies an event in itself, i.e. you choose to set off somewhere beautiful to eat outside, although I think this is fairly rare now.  When I was a child, my brother, whose birthday was in August, often chose a picnic for his birthday “party”, usually beside a shallow river in which all the children used to play.  Nowadays we might decide to pack a meal for an open-air concert, a day at the races or some other special event, but less often do we just pack up our lunch and head out for a day, so easy is it to find somewhere to buy food and so affordable do we now consider this option.  Yet I think we miss out – not only on the type of food that constituted a simple picnic, but also on the freedom to spend time in the countryside rather than in search of a pub.

In addition to memories of my brother’s birthday picnics, other fond memories include the greatest Cornish Pasties I have ever eaten, made by a Cornishman living on Orkney, and eaten on the beach in less than perfect weather.  But sheltered amongst the rocks the warm pasties gave sustenance to both body and soul.

Pasties are, of course, the classic example of what constitutes ideal picnic food – easy to eat and transport.  Commercial versions are a world away from homemade, although it has to be admitted that they are time consuming to make.  My advice would be to freeze some so that they can be cooked on the morning of the picnic and eaten, hopefully, still warm.

Meeting the same “ideal picnic food” criteria are pork pies, although in this instance it is still possible to buy very good examples.  The best of these that I have ever eaten was actually in Italy, but made by the British Pig Association to showcase traditional British Food.  What made these so remarkable was that they too were eaten warm and such a revelation that it encouraged me to have a go at making them at home.  I include a recipe in case you are similarly inspired and made in a tin (rather than traditionally free formed) they are not actually that difficult.

Freshly cooked is what elevates these familiar picnic favourites – Scotch Eggs are another example, for which I have given a recipe here before.  I also love egg sandwiches when they are freshly made, although I would never choose to buy them ready-made.   They are my standby for a fairly impromptu picnic on days when the weather just demands to be enjoyed.

Recipes

Salad Days

Sadly a “British Salad” all too often conjures up images of flabby tomatoes, pickled beetroot, a limp lettuce leaf and Salad Cream.  We have learned to love salad again, but it is foreign food cultures rather than our own that have shown us what it is all about.  I think the time has now come for us to re-invent the British Salad – based on fresh home-grown ingredients.  It’s not that I have anything against them per se, but I am getting rather bored with peppers finding their way into every salad!  The starting point ought always to be the freshest, and therefore local, ingredients.

Our climate has a lot to do with our lack of confidence when producing a dish from cold ingredients.  It doesn’t produce wonderful tomatoes like those that taste of the sun – no matter what British tomato growers would have us believe.  Our climate also means that we have fewer days that suggest a salad is exactly what is called for.  Yet despite these setbacks, a British salad can be a wondrous and delicious thing and in fact, if we dig back further into our past, plenty of examples can be found.

The word salad is derived from the Latin Sal (salt) which yielded salata meaning salted things, such as the raw vegetables eaten in classical times with a dressing of oil, vinegar or salt.  Salads (sallets) were first recorded in England in 1390 in The Forme of Cury written by the cooks to Richard II.  At this time salads comprised green leaves and herbs sometimes with flowers, onions or fennel, dressed with “rawe oil, vinegar and salt”.  Later, at least in England, fruits such as oranges and lemons were added.  During the glory days of English cooking in the 17th and 18th centuries, many more salad dishes were recorded.  In 1685 Robert May gave 14 Grand Sallat recipes these were very much a visual composition designed as a centre piece and with a multitude of ingredients including meat or fish– Salamagundie is one such, based on chicken, which would make an impressive lunch dish today –  just the thing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  In 1699 the first book dedicated to the subject of salads, Aceteria: A discourse of sallets, was written by the famous diarist and gardener, John Evelyn.  In addition to Grand Sallats there were also Preserved Sallats (mainly using vinegar as in pickled cucumbers, samphire, purslane or broom; or flowers preserved with vinegar, e.g. violets, primroses and cowslips) and Boiled Sallats (e.g. cooked spinach).

John Evelyn’s Aceteria is still an important work on the subject of salads.  It begins with a list of 73 herb and vegetable ingredients that could be used in a salad (no fruits, other than orange, lemon and melon were included).  The characteristics and virtues of each were discussed.  I have included the list at the foot of this article just to remind us of what a wide range of ingredients can be grown here and how limited, even with the imported supplements, out choice has now become.   The book also includes the first prototype recipe for vinaigrette, a dressing he named Oxoleon:

“Take of clear and perfectly good oyl three parts, of the sharpest vinegar, lemon or juice of orange one part and thereone let steep some slices of horseradish and pepper”

The inclusion of mustard, hard-boiled egg yolks, and milk or cream in dressings can be traced back to the 17th century although it was not until 1914 that H J Heinz and Co invented Salad Cream.  When they tried to discontinue it in 1999, there was such an outcry that the product was granted a reprieve.  Containing no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives it perhaps doesn’t deserve to be condemned as junk food.  Of course, the French sneered at it, although in truth they make something rather similar called mayonnaise charcutière (pork butcher’s mayonnaise).  Both dressings are more economical than mayonnaise, cooked and designed to keep.  If you want to try making your own I have included the recipe here:

The Art of Composing a Salad

Even though no cooking, as defined by the application of heat, is involved, composing a pleasing salad is a real mark of a cook’s skills.  A good salad should excite all of the senses so when choosing the ingredients it is worth considering them in relation to the senses:

Visual

Consider the colour, which doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be more than one – a green salad can look extremely appetising, but there are several optional ingredients that boost the visual appeal.  For example, you might use flowers – the flowers of some herbs such as chives not only taste good but look good too.

Smell

Whilst you may not actually smell them from a distance, herbs are intensely aromatic and so the pleasure in eating them is not experiences not solely through taste.

Touch/Texture

When eating we talk more of texture than of touch, since we rarely actually eat with our hands.  But a variation in texture is important.  Never dress a salad with oil until the last moment or it will go slimy.  Include some crunch either through crisp salad leaves or other crisp ingredients such as peppers, radish, raw peas (whole sugar snap peas or mangetout become crisper if refrigerated for a while first), seeds and nuts, croutons etc.

Sound

The crisp ingredients will also provide a gently audible crunch.

Taste

Of course it must taste good, but we can break this sense down further into the key taste areas to ensure they are all covered:

Sweet  – e.g. raw peas, grated carrot, beetroot

Sour – partially provided in the salad dressing via vinegar or lemon juice

Salt – preserved foods like capers and anchovies can provide an intense hit of saltiness

Bitter – usually provided by one or more of the leaves such as Rocket.

Umami – crisp pieces of bacon, aged balsamic vinegar, parmesan shavings

For more inspiration about potential ingredients take a look at the list below, which shows what we were eating in salads back in 1699:

John Evelyn’s Salad Ingredients

Alexanders; Artichoke; Basil; Balm (lemon – Melissa); Beet (root and stems); Blite (English Mercury/All-good); Borage; Brooklime; Bugloss; Buds (including caper, ash-keys, broom buds); Cabbage (including cauliflower and seakale); Cardoon; Carrots; Chervil; Clary; Clavers; Corn-sallet; Cowslips; Cresses (includes watercress and nasturtiums); Cucumber; Daisy; Dandelion; Dock; Earth-nuts; Elder; Endive; Fennel; Flowers (a long list many of them herbs); Garlic, Goats Beard; Hops, Hyssop; Jack-by-the-Hedge; Leeks; Lettuce (a long list of types); Lemon;  Mallow; Melon;  Mint; Mushrooms;  Mustard (seed and leaf); Nettles; Onion ( a list including chives and shallots); Orach; Orange; Parsnip; Peas; Peppers (sweet and hot); Parsley; Pimpernel (Salad Burnet); Purslane; Radish; Rampion; Rocket; Rosemary; Sage; Samphire; Scallions; Scurvey-grass; Sellery (celery); Skirrits; Sorrel; Sow-thistle; Sparagus (Asparagus); Spinach; Succory (a wild chicory leaf); Tansy, Tarragon; Thistle; Trick-Madame; Turnip; Vine; Viper-grass (Scorzonera/Salsify); Wood Sorrel.

When to eat Salad

There are no hard and fast rules here – just observations.  The British have tended to eat salad as a main course.  Grand Sallats such as Salamagundy are perfect examples of this way of eating, even if they were not always quite as “Grand”.   Today, if a salad is to be a main course, it tends to be eaten more often at lunch time than in the evening and is more popular with women than men – the mainstay of Ladies who Lunch!  We have also adopted the custom of serving side salads.  They come with our main course instead of vegetables.  In France a salad is still served pretty much every day but the traditional place for it within the meal is after the main course, where it serves as a palate cleanser before the cheese.  I also love serving cheese with a salad, not as a lunch main course, or even a starter, although both are possibilities, but after the main course and before dessert in a formal meal.  The recipe for Spinach and Goat’s cheese Salad with Hazelnuts and Honey Dressing is a good example of this type of salad and would be suitable for pairing with any young cheese including the British “Crumblies”, such as Cheshire, Wensleydale and Caerphilly, which are at their best at this time of year.

Recipes

Salamagundy

Homemade Salad Cream

Spinach and Goats Cheese Salad with Hazelnuts and a Honey Dressing

Real Bread Maker Week

The Real Bread Campaign has designated this Real Bread Maker Week.  I have taken an interest in this campaign since its outset, having at the time been chairing something similar on behalf of bakers and millers within Slow Food.  It is interesting to see the erosion of the slight differences between the two campaigns’ definitions as to what makes bread “Real”, but then this should really be no surprise as many of the same bakers and millers were involved with both initiatives.

To mark Real Bread Maker Week the Campaign has issued the following list of questions that all bakers, both professional and amateur, should be asking themselves in the quest to make better bread.  It highlights some of the hidden dangers that home bakers may not be aware of, such as the additives that are allowed to lurk, unnamed, in the flour or dried yeast that you buy.  On the presumption that if you bake bread at home you really don’t want to be replicating the mass produced loaves you could buy, I reproduce this list below. Some of the issues have already been covered in our Food Culture section, but do post any baking questions they throw up and I will  do my best to answer them.

I had hoped to run a course, using my outdoor wood-fired oven during this week, but the weather is making this impractical.  Later this summer, when the sun (hopefully) shines, I will try again, so please let me know if you would like to be contacted with more details.

Is there any need to use fast-acting / instant yeast?

Dried active yeast (usually sold in cylindrical tins) is much cheaper than sachets, widely available, just as convenient – even in bread machines if added with the water, will keep in the fridge for months, and, unlike most brands of the instant stuff, contains no artificial additives. Or you could get your mitts on the fresh stuff.

Do I really need to add sugar?

Flour contains more than enough food to keep yeast thriving. So unless you’re making a sweet bread try leaving out the empty calories of sugar, honey, syrup or whatnot.

Do I really need to add oil or fat?

Delicious, moist Real Bread is not reliant on either, so unless you’re making an enriched bread (such as a buttery milk loaf, or focaccia drizzled with olive oil) then these are just more unnecessary empty calories.

Could a no-knead recipe be what I need?

Homebakers: If you feel kneading is too much work, takes too much of your time or that you’re just not up to it, then try a no-knead Real Bread recipe. These effortless doughs are given more water and more time (theirs, not yours) allowing you to just mix, leave and bake.  Professionals: not exactly no-knead, but you might like to experiment with an autolyse method…

Could I use less salt?

Homebakers: when baking Real Bread try using not much more than a teaspoon (6g) per 500g of flour.  Professionals: the Food Standards Agency’s target is 1% or less by loaf weight.

If I’m using any artificial additives, do I know exactly why?

Homebakers: before throwing a pinch of ascorbic acid (or flour with it added already) into dough, please ask yourself why and find out how it works. You can only make great loaves of what we call Real Bread without it.  Professionals: if using artificial additives they are making you miss an opportunity to offer your customers what the Campaign calls Real Bread. Might ditching them open the doors to you increasing your skills as a baker even further?

Could I slow things down?

Homebakers: the more time dough has to ‘ripen’ the more flavour it develops, but extra dough time is not your time, freeing you to go off and do something else. Rather than rushing dough by putting it somewhere warm to rise, using large amounts of yeast or adding sugar, make it fit in with your schedule by slowing things down instead. Using a recipe with less yeast and letting dough rise somewhere cooler can allow you to leave it unattended for hours – or even overnight in a fridge.  Professionals: try retarding your dough. Some bakeries find overnight proving even helps them change shift patterns to more sociable hours…

Could I use locally-milled stoneground flour?

Stoneground flour (wholemeal or sieved to make it lighter) not only tastes great but also contains more of wheat’s natural goodness. And if you’re lucky enough to have a locally-owned mill nearby, you’ll be helping the local economy, too. Even better if it’s locally-grown grain milled by an eco-friendly wind or water mill!

Is sourdough the way forward?

As well as boosting flavour, the ‘friendly bacteria’ (sorry for using such a yuck marketing phrase) in genuine sourdough have a natural preservative effect – without unnecessary additives or extra salt. There is also a growing number of very interesting scientific studies reporting all sorts of health benefits of sourdough bread making – though the Campaign would like to see much, much more being invested into research.You can find more information on these thoughts and more, as well as recipes, courses, events, competitions, discounts and other offers, places to buy Real Bread, and links to a whole world of bready matters at realbreadcampaign.org

Herb of the Month – Tarragon

Artemisia dracunculus although a native of southern Europe is almost universally called French Tarragon – apart from in Germany, where they call it German Tarragon!  I’m not sure when exactly it first became known as French Tarragon, but it is a flavour so inextricably linked with that country that it would be unthinkable to attempt much French cooking without it.  I love the way that one herb can so readily epitomise a whole nation’s cuisine, and whilst it is undoubtedly true that it is used more in some parts of the country than others, Tarragon Chicken would shout France to most foreigners.

The Latin name dracunculus means little dragon and there are several theories as to why, but the one that rings most true for me it that it refers to the strength of flavour.  It is rather a love it or hate it herb, and it needs to be used with discretion.  One story has it that Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon for her reckless use of the herb!

In an earlier article I referred to the quartet of herbs known in French as fines herbes, of which Tarragon is the last in the year to make its appearance.  At last you can use this wonderful blend of chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon.  The proportions of each herb are certainly not equal, otherwise Tarragon would be far too dominant – you need at least double the amount of each of the other herbs, i.e. Tarragon accounts for no more than one seventh of the final blend.  Both Chervil and Tarragon lend an aniseed flavour, and although the blend of fines herbes is nearly always cooked, if I am considering its individual constituents I would say that the more delicate aniseed flavour of Chervil is the one I would eat raw, for example in salads, whilst the far more powerful Tarragon I reserve for cooking.

You may occasionally see the fines herbes blend dried.  Don’t go there for a second!   The volatile essential oils contained in most herbs are lost when dried (the only two exceptions being bay and oregano) and dried herbs, like stock cubes, have a musty flavour that becomes the predominant taste whenever they are used.  If you want to preserve Tarragon, the best way to do so is by using it to flavour vinegar (see recipes) or, at a pinch, you could freeze it.

Cultivation

It is well worth growing your own Tarragon because it’s not that widely sold.  French Tarragon cannot be grown from seed and instead needs to be propagated by dividing the roots.  Take care when buying your original plant to ensure that it is Artemisia dracunculus rather than A. dracunculoides.   This related plant, commonly known as Russian Tarragon, originates from Siberia and is therefore much hardier, and does seed in this climate.  However, whilst easier to grow, it is a very poor relation in terms of taste.  If the plant is described only as Tarragon it is likely to be the Russian variety, the leaves are coarser and slightly serrated, and a quick taste will reveal that the flavour is nothing like as pronounced as in French Tarragon, it is instead slightly acrid.

Having ensured that you have planted the French variety, it is best to divide the plant every couple of years to keep it healthy and at its optimum flavour wise.  To do this you need to dig up the underground runners in spring (you will see the first growth around the end of April).  Separate the roots by pulling gently apart – you will see little white growing nodules.  Place each of these in a separate pot and cover with compost.  Grow on in the greenhouse until they are well-rooted and then plant out in the summer.  Water just sufficiently to keep the soil from drying out, but avoid over-watering.

Using Tarragon

The best flavour will come from leaves harvested in early summer, before mid-day, so this is the time to make your Tarragon Vinegar.

In addition to being a classic partner for chicken, Tarragon is good with mushrooms, tomatoes and fish.  As a constituent of fines herbes it also makes many classic French sauces, such as Bearnaise for serving with steak and is ideal in many egg dishes.

Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of what makes a plant a herb, it is generally agreed that they are “useful” plants, the use having originally mainly been medicinal.  However whatever medicinal properties Tarragon was once thought to have had (curing snake bites for example) they now seem largely irrelevant, but French Tarragon is right up there in any cook’s top 10 culinary flavourings.  And whilst culturally it is far more associated with France than the UK, the ingredients it complements are widely used here, so let’s embrace the herb too!

Recipes

Tarragon Orange Chicken

Tarragon Vinegar

Sauce Béarnaise

Mushrooms marinated with Tarragon vinegar

See also recipes using Fines herbes

Elderflowers

Elderflower

In warm sheltered areas the first elderflowers are now out and if you want to make elderflower cordial you should pick them whilst the flowers are still young.  Although you can buy perfectly good elderflower cordials it is nice to make something yourself – and the flowers are free!  Each year I make a little more but, by the time I have given some away to friends, it is still never enough.  Not only does it make the most refreshing drink when mixed with sparkling water it is also a great flavour to have in many desserts using our soft fruits as they appear throughout the summer.  The classic combination is with gooseberries, but gooseberries sweet enough for dessert won’t be ready until July – cordial is the way to enable this magical taste combination to happen.

Elderflower Cordial Recipe.

Keep Asparagus Special

Is any new season more eagerly greeted than the start of the British asparagus season? I guess with only 14% of British households eating it, there is room for debate, but it certainly seems to be held in very high regard by those who are.  Only 5 years ago British asparagus was still very hard to find, with supermarkets importing from places like Peru right through the peak of the home season.  However, over the last 5 years the amount grown in the UK has increased by 84% and in its season home-grown now accounts for 90% of the total market.  The hard winter followed by a warm April is expected to result in another increase in the amount cropped this year, although our consumption is still very modest in comparison to other European countries (Germany, for example, consumes around 10 times as much as we do per capita).  So, a growing market with plenty of scope for further growth it would seem.

Supermarkets are responding to this by putting pressure on growers to extend the British growing season which begins at the end of April (St. George’s Day on 23rd might, if you are lucky, see the first cut) and is over by Midsummer’s Day in June.  So far growers have resisted, because they want to keep British asparagus special. Whilst it is encouraging that our supermarkets now seem to want to put home-grown rather than imported asparagus on their shelves, it highlights the inherent problems in the supermarket distribution system.

British asparagus is certainly a very special product, but what makes it so?  The fact that it is one of the earliest crops of the year always adds a certain kudos, but freshness is the critical factor in the quality of asparagus.  From the moment asparagus is cut the natural sugars start turning to starch.  I have heard of some aficionados who will take a camp stove out into the field rather than waste precious minutes returning to the kitchen to cook it.  Contrast this with the supermarket offerings and you will realise that most people have never tasted asparagus at its best.  Instead we are seeing a quiet but steady resurgence in the popularity of pick-your-own or roadside sales.  At Iver in Buckinghamshire, fruit farmer Peter Shaw has switched 10 acres of land to asparagus and at peak periods 100 people a day come to cut their own.  Combining asparagus with fruit farming is not a new idea, the Vale of Evesham gained its reputation for fine asparagus when it was grown to utilise the ground between plum trees.

Other PYO soft fruit farms have also begun growing asparagus because the season overlaps with the first of the strawberries.  I have noticed that many do not allow the public to cut their own, but because they are already open for selling strawberries, they have a ready outlet for the asparagus.

Mention of strawberries brings me back to my original plea to keep asparagus special.  The southern slopes of Mendip, where I now buy organic asparagus, were once famed for their strawberries.  Crop rotation was ignored in the desire to maximise production with the inevitable consequence that the land became diseased and production had to move to the lower slopes.  This is the area where Cheddar strawberries are still grown today, the plants imported from Holland and planted into growbags that come from Ireland.  Polytunnels provide the warmth that once resulted naturally from higher slopes relationship to the sun.  As one grower admitted to me recently, there is nothing of “Cheddar” in today’s Cheddar strawberries, and despite the fact that in every taste test I’ve conducted they perform poorly in comparison to strawberries grown in the open ground, enough people are still buying them to enable the continuation of roadside stalls that open just for the summer.

The asparagus I buy comes from a far more enlightened farmer.  The mixed farm produces pork, beef, lamb, vegetables, eggs and of course asparagus, and has been certified organic since 2001.  So popular is their asparagus that it takes no effort at all to sell.  As it is cut the bundles are placed beside the road and a steady stream of buyers swing past.  I have tried, when I wanted to be certain of procuring enough for a special occasion, to ask for some to be kept aside for me.  However so certain are they of selling all they can produce that such requests fall on deaf ears!

So what would be so awful about extending the season?  I must admit, I’m not entirely sure what is involved, but I presume it involves growing under plastic.  I have, on this website, already extolled the virtues of Victorian forcing pots for hurrying spring along, so what’s the problem?  Apart from the detrimental effect on flavour that I have noted with strawberries (and Jersey Royal potatoes would be another example), I think the brevity of the season is part of the allure.  How many times would someone be willing to make the special effort to pick their own or get up extra early to ensure they don’t miss out?  At the moment asparagus is a fantastic incentive to persuade people to abandon their usual supermarket buying behaviour.  Let’s capitalise on that and then see what we can tempt them with next.

See asparagus recipes.