This article is very much for gardeners as you will find it difficult to buy redcurrants and nigh impossible to buy the white variant. Blackcurrants used to be easier to find but, as we recently discovered when taking some of our surplus to our local greengrocer to sell, they seem to be as rare as their red and white cousins now. If you do find currants for sale, their price is likely to make many of these recipes prohibitive, but the good news is that they are easy to grow, don’t take up too much space and lend themselves to a surprising number of recipes as I discovered when faced with a surplus.
Leave the currants on the bush for as long as possible to eat raw, or semi-raw, for the most intense flavour. Earlier in the season they can be made into a jelly – they are very high in pectin. Redcurrants marry very well with raspberries as in the classic dish Summer Pudding, but also consider using a handful or more of red or white currant when making raspberry jam for a better set. That said, soft-set raspberry jam is also good. You can even use the young leaves of a blackcurrant bush for a deliciously scented sorbet, pick just the tips whilst they are still fresh green in colour – this will be before the fruit has ripened.
Whitecurrants are slightly sharper but otherwise very similar to the redcurrant that has more or less replaced them but, as you will see from the photograph above, they are actually pink rather than white when fully ripe. An advantage over redcurrants is that when used to make jelly the lighter colour allows any added ingredients to be seen more clearly – they are my preferred choice for Mint Jelly.
Varieties – Modern blackcurrant varieties mostly originate from Scotland and will be called Ben something or other. An old Somerset variety, which is reputedly very good although I have never tasted it, is called Mendip Cross. White Versailles is the most commonly grown variety of Whitecurrant and is over 150 years old.
It seems a lot of people will remain in the UK for their holiday this year. We did, travelling to the Outer Hebrides via the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh, The Trossachs and The Isle of Skye. The deciding factor of where to holiday is usually the weather, with more people booking holidays abroad in the years that follow a poor summer here, but cost is also important and holidaying in Britain is not cheap, but this year comparatively cheaper owing to the weak pound. For me good food is an essential element for a good holiday and whilst I find it necessary to research this more carefully at home than in many places abroad, provided I do this there is much to be enjoyed.
Scotland demonstrated a sense of place that is far less evident in England. If you had time for only one meal in Scotland to provide a snapshot of their produce it should be at The Kitchin in Edinburgh. A slice of boned and rolled pig’s head served with roasted tail of langoustine and a crispy ear salad is a signature dish that gives you an idea of what to expect. I can’t think of anywhere in London where I have eaten as well.
Langoustine (or prawns as they are modestly described by the Scots) are the ultimate Scottish ingredient. Half of the world’s langoustine catch comes from the cold seas around Scotland (and most of the rest from Iceland). The biggest markets are Spain and France – I bet more people have eaten them there than freshly landed off the west-coast of Scotland.
There are plenty of untamed places in which to forage for wild food, the first Girolles were just appearing when we visited and seashore foraging has become very fashionable. Shooting, stalking or fishing for this wild food is often what attracts people to holiday in Scotland, although sadly fishing for salmon is now more like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are several theories about the reasons for the dearth of wild salmon, including the impact of salmon farming – see http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/aquaculture-risks/ . Whatever part salmon farming played in decline in wild salmon, I hope that Scotland has learnt lessons about the importance of valuing and protecting their precious wild habitats. It is also a salutary lesson about what happens when someone decides that a food is too “elite” and must be made cheaply available to all – no-one cares whether they ever eat it again.
Somerset Maugham opined that “to eat well in England, you should breakfast three times a day”. When in Scotland you will eat so well at breakfast that you will barely have room to eat twice more! As we were travelling quite long distances on many of the days of our holiday we took full advantage of this by eating enough at breakfast to skip lunch. You may think that you would soon become bored but the variety on offer ensured this never happened. In addition to the “Full Scottish”, at its very best on the Isle of Lewis and Harris where both Black and White Puddings from Stornoway were included, there were plenty of fish options – kippers, haddock or smoked salmon, for example. Berry fruits, especially raspberries, thrive in Scotland and were usually on offer at breakfast – with porridge (of course) but also homemade bircher muesli, granola or pancakes. Scotland shares with the rest of Britain a fine baking heritage; grains, particularly oats and barley, are prominent in the Scottish diet, and good bread was baked almost everywhere. Should we feel peckish on arrival at our next destination and still a good few hours away from dinner, there was often a slice of homemade cake to accompany tea or at the very least homemade shortbread. If I could eat only one biscuit for the rest of my life shortbread would be the one!
In fact, the choice at breakfast was often far greater than that offered for dinner, but I’m not complaining. This limited or no-choice menu, served to all at the same time, has largely been abandoned in England, but it is what enables the Scots to continue serving fine home-cooked local and seasonal food. Beef and lamb were popular for main courses but the one thing they struggle to obtain here is vegetables, although everyone was trying to grow what they could. Those vegetables we had were always nicely, if fairly plainly cooked, but it was the one thing that was sometimes supplemented with imports. You would struggle as a vegetarian here. But there is no point yearning for what there is not when there is so much fine produce to compensate. I would far rather this honest striving to serve local food than when the food of the world is imported to your doorstep – as in most big cities.
Nowadays picking blackberries is about the only foraging that most people do, and even the numbers picking blackberries is far, far fewer than in the past. Whilst restaurants are making a big deal about foraged ingredients many people feel that this is just an excuse for a hike in prices and that any worthwhile ingredients have by now been cultivated. This is patently not true. For example, despite the fact that some fungi that were once only found in the wild have now been cultivated with success, the holy grail for fungi hunters and gourmets alike remain boletus edulis (the cep) or the springtime Morel, both of which remain resolutely immune to any attempts at cultivation. Foraged food usually has deep cultural links and this is certainly true of Whortleberries in Somerset which, after fungi, are my favourite foraged food.
They used to be an important source of income for poorer country people, many of whom remember spending the majority of their school holidays picking “worts” or “hurts” as they are generally referred to in the local dialects. They were used not just in pies and jams but also for dying cloth, notably the RAC uniforms during the Second World War. The income from a month’s picking typically clothed a family for the year.
Picking whortleberries is, however, hard work as the bushes are very low to the ground and the berries small. Some people made “combs” with wooden or metal teeth. This makes the job quicker, although the berries then need to be separated from leaves and twigs that have also been combed from the bush. These combs are more easily found in other countries where bilberries grow – Alsace in northern France is one such, I bought mine in Italy, although it is German made. More recently Lakeland has begun selling something similar.
There is also some danger in picking as whortleberries only grow on the acid soils of moorland which unfortunately, in the south at least, is also the exact habitat favoured by the adder. In addition, ticks are now a major hazard, so no matter how hot the weather it is necessary to keep well covered and wear walking boots or wellies.
After all this effort it is a very honoured guest indeed who will get to taste a slice of whortleberry pie. It is not just me who feels this way – The Castle Hotel in Taunton now only serves this delicacy on the occasion when the Australian Cricket team is playing there. It is a tradition they keep despite the fact that finding foragers is now quite a task.
I should say that it is not only in Somerset that the whortleberry is held in such esteem but wherever it grows, although moorland itself is now a rare habitat. The various names by which this fruit is known include Blaeberry in Scotland, Whimberry in Wales and Bilberry in the North of England. In France is called Myrtilles Savages, which I have used when naming my tart as it is made in the style popular there. See August’s recipes.
As one seasonal crop after another makes its brief appearance over the summer months the usual dilemma of what to cook today is replaced with a concern to ensure that I don’t miss out on any of the seasonal treats that make a perfect summer. Many of these are linked with eating al fresco, thereby further reducing the opportunities.
There can’t be many households in Britain for whom giving and attending a barbeque is not an essential summer ritual. The Great British Banger has once again become great, but our barbeque repertoire grows ever more ambitious.
And what about the plethora of festivals, whether they be of music, food, sport or literature? Surely these are enhanced by judiciously chosen picnic fare? Or perhaps a picnic becomes the main purpose of an outing, in a beautiful spot, followed by a game of rounders?
The summer also provides plenty of opportunity for even city dwellers to get in touch with how and where their food is produced. A trip to a Pick-your-own farm is perhaps not quite as popular as it may once have been but a couple of hours spent this way means that everyone can experience soft fruits in the sort of abundance, and at an appropriate price, that enables such classics as a Summer Pudding to be made. If you relied on tiny punnets of fruit from a supermarket this much loved dessert would be consigned to the history books. Pick enough to make jam too so that you can produce a delicious cream tea when the weather is right.
Eating fish in sight of the sea is another of my great summer pleasures. Simple “shacks” have sprung up all around our coast providing freshly caught shellfish, a gourmet delight at reasonable prices. Better still, you should really take the opportunity to catch your own, whether crabbing off a pier or mackerel fishing from a boat in the bay this is fishing that anyone can manage. The lazy might settle just for a crab sandwich or fish and chips, but they should be of the finest quality and again, eaten within sight of the sea.
Whilst on the subject of fishing, a wild salmon still marks the pinnacle of achievement both in fishing and eating terms, but this is perhaps largely a sign of its rarity. I do however have an expectation of eating the equally delicious but thankfully still more available Sea Trout at least once each summer.
What about wild foods? There is a growing interest in seashore foraging, particularly for seaweeds, at which I am still rather a novice myself. But bilberries, the wild relation of cultivated blueberries, are, after wild fungi, top of my list of must have foraged ingredients. Few people know that raspberries also grow in the wild, and whilst they do contain more pips than the cultivated varieties, if rubbed through a sieve to remove the pips, they are just as delicious.
Finally, everyone should grow something themselves during the summer months, even if it is only on a windowsill or balcony. Herbs, chillies and cut-and-come-again salad leaves are all possible in limited spaces, whilst if you have more of a garden the very British runner bean can really only be properly enjoyed when freshly picked, ditto courgette flowers, which are wonderful deep fried and served with a pre-dinner Pimms.
Top Five Summer Eating Pleasures
Pick-your-own Raspberries. Make Summer Pudding and Raspberry Jam for Cream Tea.
I have talked often about our sense of Taste, but in fact all five senses are involved in tasting, as Heston Blumenthal demonstrates so clearly through his tasting experiences, which might include sound played through headphones and certainly much visual trickery.
In this article I want to focus on the link between taste and smell. Whilst the basic taste receptors are contained mainly (although not exclusively) on the tongue they are just a trigger for the entire tasting process. About 80% of the experience is olfactory, i.e. linked to the sense of smell. The tongue is able to identify only 5- 7 basic tastes (the first 5, sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami are by now well established, two further taste receptors on the tongue – fat and metallic, are still being researched). You will know that when you have a cold and your sense of smell is affected food doesn’t really taste of much. However when the nose is bought back into play we can experience tens of thousands of flavours. The words “taste” and “flavour” are, in common usage, pretty much interchangeable, but when talking about our total taste experience the first refers to what we experience via the tongue and the second to those experienced via the nose.
Our sense of smell is linked directly to our memory, whilst the rest of our senses have to pass first through the thalamus where they can be analysed. This means that our reaction to smell is based on raw emotions, a primitive safety mechanism enabling us to identify poisonous plants without needing to taste them. Professional wine tasters, sometimes referred to as “noses”, make great use of the olfactory senses to identify nuances of flavour, which they link to their own personal memories often to the confusion of the rest of us! For the cook, the strong emotions that smells evoke can be both a blessing and a curse, as we cannot predict when a smell has been linked to a negative memory. It is also known that your olfactory neurons, which are constantly wearing out and being replaced throughout most of your life, cease to replace themselves as efficiently when you get old.
Imagine how awful if must be for anyone who cares about food to lose their sense of taste prematurely. Molly Birnbaum lost her sense of smell (and therefore taste) following an accident. Over a period of years it did return, but in the interim she wrote her memoirs Season to Taste about the experience, and the renowned Elizabeth David also lost her ability to taste salt accurately following a stroke at the age of 49. The stroke was minor, and she kept it rather quiet, but the books that she began writing at this time (although not published until many years later) Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen and English Bread and Yeast Cookery were far more academic than the early writings that earned her fame for her ability to write so evocatively, conjuring up the tastes and smells from her travels abroad.
In the introduction to Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen Elizabeth David writes…
“House-bound during a temporarily incapacitating illness during the early nineteen-sixties I enjoyed my compulsory leisure re-reading old favourites in my cookery library”… Amongst these books was The Art of Gentle Cookery by Mrs Hilda Leyel, the founder of the Society of Herbalists and the Culpepper herb shops. Elizabeth wrote a tribute to her in The Spectator and it is clear that her writings of the spices and aromatics of the Levant touched a deep cord within Elizabeth, sufficient to sow the seeds for Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. It must have been terrible for Elizabeth, who greatly feared losing her sense of taste to have this fear, at least in part, realised. Knowing the backdrop to the book increases its interest to me, although as Elizabeth herself admits it barely scratches the surface of the subject. The herb chapter of the book seems particularly shallow when read today, but that perhaps just illustrates how our use of herbs has grown since it was published in 1970. It also makes no mention of edible flowers, particularly those used for their aroma rather than just their visual appeal.
Aromatics in the Kitchen
Herbs and spices are the most frequently used aromatic ingredients in the kitchen and at this time of year (July) the full range of herbs are available as well as most edible flowers. Another reason to experiment now is that Summer is, predominantly, linked with positive memories, minimising the risk that what might be a pleasurable memory for you is the exact opposite for someone else!
Top of my personal list of scented culinary plants are: Lemon Verbena, Lavender, Rose and Scented Geraniums.
Lavender and Roses are, of course, widely grown for their decorative value, but can also be used in cooking. Lavender is part of the traditional mix known as “herbes de Provence” and in this form used in savoury dishes, but I tend to use Lavender on its own in sweet dishes. If you can buy Lavender honey (and are any of the increasingly common Lavender farms in the UK producing their own honey?) use the fresh buds to accentuate the delicate flavour, for example in an ice cream. A Provencal style iced nougat parfait would be my top choice.
To use rose petals in cooking you want the strongly scented Damask roses. These are usually, but not always, deep in colour as well as scent and were used in the past for scenting creams or Junkets – good for serving with soft fruit. The white triangle at the base of the petal is a little bitter so best removed by snipping it out with a pair of scissors, especially if it is quite large. Rose petals are also used other cultures, particularly the Middle East, where rosewater adds scent to food. A rose petal jam is a real delicacy. A few years ago I tasted one that was being made with wild roses by the Saxon Village Preserves in Transylvania. It was exquisite – one woman was reduced to tears, but I put this down to the strong link between smell and memory, I think it had evoked a happy childhood memory for her.
Flavouring sugar is a good way to keep either lavender or rose at hand for future use. For immediate use the flavours are usually infused in milk or cream which can then be used in a variety of ways, e.g. ice cream, pannacotta, junket.
My “signature dish” would be a dessert of hot fruit with a herb or spice ice cream. I have variations depending on the season, but at this time of year I am spoilt for choice, both of fruit and herb flavourings. There is however one combination that will definitely be used each year – an ice cream made of Lemon Verbena to accompany baked peaches. Lemon Verbena is not the easiest of herbs to grow, at least where I live, as it likes a lot of sunshine and a sheltered position. I grow it in a pot on the kitchen windowsill, but I know of people in Hampshire who have an outdoor bush about three feet high, so it does depend very much on where you live. Once you have used it you will never want to be without, but as an alternative you could try lemon thyme. Similar growing conditions are required for peaches, and if I was lucky enough to be able to grow them I would no doubt enjoy them straight from the tree. Baking them does however transform even a not-so-ready-to-eat supermarket peach.
Another plant that I tend to grow indoors, although it is perfectly happy outdoors in the summer, is scented geranium. Unlike the geraniums that are grown for their cheerful flowers, these are mostly leaves, although some of these are quite pretty in their own right, but the flowers if they come at all are pale and small. The scent is everything in these plants and there are a wide variety of different scents to choose from including. However my preference is for the rose-scented varieties – Graveolens, Lady Plymouth or Attar of Roses. Bringing the pots indoors enables you to over-winter the plants, although they are quite prolific growers, so that I do not see this as strictly a summer scent. I particularly like them with apples (I have given recipes for this here before) but the leaves have also been used to scent a Victoria Sandwich or cream for soft fruit – the scent is much stronger than rose petals alone.
Surprisingly many leaves can be used in cooking. It is usually the aroma that you are diffusing and it is often surprisingly reminiscent of the taste of the fruit or flower itself. Blackcurrant leaves are one example. When I was a child we had blackcurrant bushes large enough to hide in, and I frequently ate the fruit, raw, from underneath the bush. Now, whilst waiting for the fruit to ripen, I can recreate that experience by using the young leaves to make a sorbet.
Likewise many herbs produce flowers, which taste very similar to the leafy part of the plant. The aroma is not usually their main attraction, but they look pretty whilst also reinforcing the link with the more powerful smelling leaves. The flowering heads of fennel, for example, can be used in the same way as the frondy leaves and are particularly trendy at the moment – if such things bother you!
Each year, on the first Tuesday in August, the oldest surviving gooseberry show takes place at Egton Bridge in North Yorkshire. For over 200 years gardeners have competed for the title of Champion Grower of the largest gooseberry. It is a uniquely British competition – firstly to be growing fruit for size rather than flavour, and secondly in the fruit itself, a native of Britain and appreciated here more than anywhere else in the world.
The hobby of growing giant gooseberries was particularly popular in the industrial midland and northern counties and formalised in the nineteenth century via The Gooseberry Growers’ Register. At its peak in 1845 this recorded entries from 171 shows but today only the Egton Bridge Show and a group of about 7 small shows around Goostry in mid Cheshire survive. To achieve the largest berry the bushes are drastically pruned, with most of the fruit removed, so that all of the plant’s energy is concentrated into the few remaining berries – what a waste of the rest of the fruit!
Whilst gooseberries were mainly a fruit grown by the working classes, the Victorians brought them to wider popularity when they began growing them commercially. Today it seems that they are once again becoming a speciality available only to those who grow their own, remaining popular with allotmenteers, but having fallen out of favour commercially.
This gulf between foods that are now found only in private gardens and those available via supermarkets was the very thing that first induced me to try gardening. A decade ago I needed to source new bushes for our own garden to replace the ones that have been in existence for at least 50 years and experienced first hand how hard it is to find the traditional varieties. In 1831, the entries for the Gooseberry Growers’ Association competition recorded 171 different varieties, most of them unknown today. Whilst size was the major consideration back in 1831, today we appear more concerned with mildew-resistance, despite the fact that this is relatively easy to avoid, and just two varieties, Hinnomaki and Invicta, predominate. I have already planted, and enjoyed, a Hinnomaki Red, said to be similar to the old Whinham’s Industry, but I am loathe to lose our heritage by replacing entirely with modern varieties. Deciding which heritage varieties to plant is made all the harder by the fact that you are unlikely to have had the opportunity to taste them and so need to place your faith in the written accounts of yore. What follows are some of my considerations thus far.
The Gooseberry Season
The August date of the shows indicates the conclusion of the season, although Edward Bunyon in The Anatomy of Dessert recommends the variety Lancer for late consumption saying… “as August gooseberries are in such demand when schools break up, lateness is a virtue which can hardly be overrated”. I don’t remember ever demanding gooseberries when I was a child, but clearly if you are planting a number of bushes it makes sense to spread the season.
Tradition dictates that the first gooseberries are eaten at Whitsun (end of May), when raised, suet crust, gooseberries pies were made. These pies, famed particularly in Oldbury, Gloucestershire, are quite an oddity today – they look like a pork pie, but containing gooseberries sweetened with sugar. They would certainly have needed plenty of sugar, even if the intention was for them to be more of a savoury dish, as the end of May is exceptionally early to be picking gooseberries. The main season is throughout July and the earliest varieties I have found (Early Sulphur and May Duke) ripen in late June.
Like apples, gooseberries are designated as either dessert or culinary although I have been told that any gooseberry becomes a dessert gooseberry (i.e. one that could be eaten straight from the bush) if left to ripen for long enough. Nonetheless gooseberries are usually bred for one purpose or the other, culinary gooseberries are normally green in colour, ripening perhaps to yellow, whilst dessert gooseberries are more likely to be red or possibly white. It makes a lot of difference to the success of a recipe to start with the right type as no amount of sugar can compensate for a lack of sweetness in what is supposed to be a dessert gooseberry.
Other considerations are whether you like your fruit hairy (apparently no longer fashionable) or smooth; small or large (vital if you intend entering competitions); the bushes with or without spines – they can be quite vicious spikes that make the fruit difficult to pick although they are present on most old varieties. The biggest selection I have found are from R V Rogers Ltd: www.rvroger.co.uk .
The pairing of gooseberries with elderflower is a classic, and deservedly so, but further confounds my thoughts on the earliest picking date. Whitsun is also, approximately, when the first elderflowers appear, but despite photographs in cookery books of gooseberries being cooked with the flower heads, only once, after a particularly harsh spring in 2021, did I find the two crops at the same time. Usually I am able to enjoy this flavour combination only by making elderflower syrup and keeping it until the gooseberries ripen, usually a full month later. Whilst by the time the gooseberries are ripe elderflower are over, Meadowsweet is in bloom. It does not have the same muscat flavour and scent as elderflower, but I do like the combination of the sweet liquorice flavour of meadowsweet with gooseberries, and it also cuts down on the amount of sugar needed.
Most of my preferred recipes for elderflower are sweet, but if we rewind for a moment to the savoury uses, whilst I’m not sure how exactly you would classify the Oldbury Gooseberry Tart with its savoury pastry and sweet filling, the idea of gooseberries in a raised pork pie does appeal and is something I intend to experiment with. Gooseberry Sauce with Mackerel is my favourite savoury use of the fruit.
The best sweet gooseberry pie I have eaten is with a meringue topping. I first cooked this from a recipe in Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food, but have subsequently seen the idea in Jane Grigson’s earlier Fruit Book. Gooseberry Fool is another classic, although it has to be said that it is not such a favourite with me as a Rhubarb Fool. Whilst I make the latter using just good unpasteurised Jersey Cream, I think a Gooseberry Fool is helped by incorporating homemade custard in an equal proportion to the cream. This mixture frozen to make ice cream, flavoured always with elderflower cordial, is sublime, but make sure that the gooseberries you use are of the dessert variety.
Because gooseberries varies considerably both in sweetness and the amount of liquid exuded, most recipes begin by precooking the fruit to allow adjustment. Surplus juice, being high in pectin, is ideal for making jellies. I give a recipe for gooseberry and meadowsweet jelly with wild strawberries to top scones, but the same combination would also be good set with gelatine in a glass.
This coming Saturday, 28th July 2012, Stephen Marwick will hang up his apron for the final time after 35 years at the stove. He is a very modest man, but really deserves to take a bow and receive a standing ovation for all the pleasure he has brought to diners throughout his career.
He belongs to an genre of restaurateurs that prefer to be known as cooks rather than chefs, adhering to the principals of good cooking that were once to be found in bistros throughout France, although now, even there, are a rare find.
Stephen is a direct disciple of George Perry Smith, considered the grandfather of the Anglo-French restaurant tradition; he is in fact the last chef cooking in Britain to have worked with George. Whilst he readily acknowledges the influence of George on his cooking, remarking that the longer he has been at the stove the more he returns to the principles instilled in those early days working with him, Stephen has nonetheless made his own distinct mark on the restaurant scene.
There are absolutely no shortcuts in his style of cooking, yet it is completely without pretention and cares not a hoot about the latest food fashions. Without the whistles and bells that sound so loudly around many restaurants, I think that some people may have wondered why this simple bistro was held in such high regard. On the other hand genuine food lovers, who knew a bit about cooking themselves, could appreciate just how much love and effort goes into achieving his consistently well-tuned performance. Whilst front of house his wife, Judy, perfectly mirrors that standard and you know that neither of them would be there if they didn’t enjoy it so much.
Over 35 years Stephen has evolved and perfected a menu of well-loved dishes that his customers welcome back as the seasons turn. These same customers are often also the source of his ingredients, such as the figs that grow behind Horfield Prison or the crab apples that are turned into jelly to accompany game. Stephen has always shown a keen interest in the raw ingredients he uses, perhaps learnt from his father, who was a great gardener. He found the very best suppliers and even went himself for those fiddly-to-pick barberries grown by local herb expert, Anthony Lyman-Dixon.
There are a few dishes that you can expect to see whatever the season – Provençal Fish Soup is one such and as Stephen himself says he would be lynched if it ever disappeared from the menu. This recipe originated with George Perry Smith, an economical fish soup from wartime France. It continued to be a favourite at Joyce Molyneux’s Carved Angel restaurant, an early offshoot of George’s disciples, where Stephen worked for a number of years before returning to Bristol to open his own restaurant, Bistro Twenty One. I have a handwritten copy of the recipe given to me by Stephen from his days at Markwicks, which contains more herbs and spices than the one Joyce served. It was however only when Stephen published his own recipe book in 2009 that I learnt the further important secret of thinning down the aioli with warm water to make it easier to amalgamate into the soup. The creamy texture of Stephen’s version had, up until that point, eluded me.
I am so glad that, with the help of Fiona Becket, Stephen managed to find the time before he retired to set down some of his best-loved recipes – a second book followed a year after the first. Both books are still available from their website www.culinariabristol.co.uk . Now it is up to us, his past customers, to keep his cooking alive. He has set the bar very high and there is no pretending that the dishes can be effortlessly recreated, but I know that as each season comes around the yearning to taste again those wonderful flavours will be too strong not to rise to the challenge.
At this time of year many herbs are flowering, but for some the flower is the main event – Lavender and Pot Marigold being just two examples. Many people will grow these as a flower without ever considering their medicinal or culinary properties.
Although I have included the key medicinal qualities of each herb I have written about so far my expertise is in their culinary usage. It has therefore been wonderful to meet a young couple growing herbs whose main interest is from the health and beauty perspective – the main focus of this month’s article.
A young couple’s first steps into farming
When Ben Lyons inherited a house with six acres on the top of Mendip at the age of 21, despite the advice from family to sell it, he was determined to live there and begin farming. He was trained as a tree surgeon and his wife, Vicky, although always been a keen gardener, otherwise had no experience of farming. With only six acres their options for making a living from the land were restricted. They wanted to keep some livestock – pigs helped them clear a plot for growing and sheep graze the adjoining pasture. They initially began selling vegetables to local pubs and restaurants, but soon decided to focus on the herbs as a higher value crop that takes little space to produce. Having chosen their focus they believe that fate then gave them a helping hand because they got the opportunity to buy up the stock from a bankrupt herb farm. It took a bit of a leap of faith however, because the snow was lying thick on the ground at the time of the sale and so it was impossible for them to assess the state of the plants they were buying, to know how many, if any, would have survived when the snow thawed. However the gamble paid off – they had bought 6000 herb plants and there were a good array of varieties, most of which survived.
They have used the usual ways to introduce their herbs to local people – farmers’ markets, agricultural shows, farm and village shops etc. However, it quickly become apparent that they needed to add further value to the herbs and this they have done by turning them into body products such as Dead Sea Salt scrubs, aromatherapy bath soaks and Shea butter moisturisers. They have also just added online sales to the ways that customers can buy www.lyonsleaf.co.uk .
They have been very generous in sharing their knowledge, not just with me, but anyone who reads their website can learn how to make herbal beauty preparations for themselves. The loss of traditional knowledge about using herbs was a large part of the motivation when starting this business. Ben and Vicky acknowledge the value of modern medicines, but are concerned at how these have quickly displaced traditional knowledge and also at the corporate interests behind this. Everyone needs to make a living, but this traditional knowledge is part of our heritage and owned by no-one.
One plant runs through all of their products – Calendula (Pot Marigold). It has been valued since antiquity for its healing and rejuvenating properties and used in many different cultures: Indian, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, through to the American Civil War where doctors on the battlefields used marigold leaves to treat open wounds. The flowers contain antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, which explains their reputation as promoting healing. Calendula has been known to be used in treatments as diverse as spots and pimples, varicose veins, chilblains, impetigo, conjunctivitis, thrush, warts, corns and calluses. Ben and Vicky ensure they grow all they need of this particular herb, although actually a little goes a long way – in their first year of selling beauty products a single row approximately 20 metres long was sufficient for everything they produced, although this year they have tripled the amount they have sown. All of their products use 100% natural ingredients; in addition to herbs that they grow themselves they buy Shea butter and some essential oils. The absence of water means that there is no need to use antimicrobials (e.g. parabens) and the Shea butter base also makes the products go much further than water based preparations. All have a valid safety certificate.
You are unlikely to have to buy seeds more than once as they self-seed quite prolifically. They will grow almost anywhere, unless the ground is very waterlogged, but best suit a sunny position because their cheerful faces will open and turn to the sun, much like sunflowers. The heads will close again on damp and overcast days. Deadhead the flowers to keep them coming throughout the summer. They can be used as a decoy plant for whitefly, but do not confuse them with French or African Marigolds (Tagetes) which have other uses as in companion planting.
Although this is primarily a herbal flower to grow for health and beauty preparations, it can also be used in cooking. The petals make a good culinary dye – a lot cheaper than saffron. You could use it as a replacement in any dish that calls for saffron, although the taste is not there, the colour will be.
You may have noticed that my food articles don’t contain too many health claims. There is so much conflicting advice around that I eventually concluded that including maximum variety in my diet was the most important thing to do. That standpoint hasn’t changed, but at one time, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I spent some time trying to include more oily fish in my diet. Oily fish is good for all of us, but is said to be particularly beneficial to those with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
Oily fish tend to be pelagic in nature – that is they swim in large shoals, migrating around the coast, so that they are at times found in very large numbers but then move on somewhere else. The migratory path of herring was once so predictable that the fishermen and women processors followed the shoals around the coast, until over-fishing led to their virtual disappearance. Herring stocks are again at replacement level, although they are not as abundant as other varieties of oily fish such as mackerel and sardines. Sardines, or the larger members of the family formerly known as Pilchards, were once synonymous with Cornwall until they also virtually disappeared. After a long period in which no-one bothered to fish for pilchard, Nick Howell, who runs the Pilchard Works in Newlyn, was the first to look for them again. The fish may previously have just moved on or, more probably, the period without fishing enabled stocks to recover, but for how long they might have been back before someone bothered to look is anyone’s guess. Nick was also largely responsible for their re-branding as Sardines, something the British had discovered on their holidays in places like Spain and Portugal, whilst Pilchards were still associated in people’s memory with wartime deprivation. Following the war people felt they never wanted to see or eat another Pilchard again.
Because the high fat content would quickly turn rancid, oily fish need to be eaten very fresh. Mackerel, which have the highest fat content of all, were once the only variety of fish that were legally allowed to be sold on a Sunday. Luckily, especially given that when you hit a shoal they are likely to be caught in large numbers, the same oily attributes make them very suitable for various methods of preserving. Smoking was, and still is, the most popular means, giving us that 70’s pub lunch and dinner party staple of smoked mackerel as well as the breakfast treat of kippers. Less popular in the UK, but extremely so in Italy, was salting. In 2005 The Pilchard Works in Newlyn finally closed its salting operation as even the market in Italy had now dried up. Salt fish are extremely concentrated in flavour, so that just one fish might flavour a meal for a whole family. They were especially important in inland areas as even a dozen miles from the sea was too far when horses provided the main means of transportation. Although my recipes are usually British I include the wonderful Sicilian dish of pasta con le sarde both because it is such a useful one to know for those of us who still find ourselves without an easy source of fresh fish, and also in recognition of the role that Britain once played in exporting salted fish here. The anchovies that I have listed as an optional ingredient are a substitute for what once were probably our salted pilchards.
Canning is another method of preserving fish. Sardines canned whole, i.e. on the bone, are actually said to improve with age. Margaret Costa’s classic Four Seasons cookery book actually devotes a whole chapter to the subject of tinned sardines. From this I learnt that Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, founded a vintage sardine club before the war and held tastings from members sardine cellars. They considered 1959 to be the best post-war sardine vintage. Sardines should actually be kept for at least a year before they are eaten, which makes them ideal for buying in bulk. The place to buy them is France, where the very best sardines are preserved in good olive oil, often with a slice of lemon. These are of a quality that should be enjoyed as they are, in a salad, but they are also what I use in my Pasta con le Sarde. The make to look for is Connétable. I would love to be able to recommend those canned by the Pilchard Works in Cornwall. Their fish and methods are good, but sadly, having done some consumer research, they found the British prefer their sardines ready filleted and their favourite sauce was the sweetened tomato sauce that the French produce for children. Come on Britain! Let Nick know that you would like to buy your fish on the bone and preserved in good quality oil.
Just a final word for those who are particularly interested in the Omega 3 health benefits associated with oily fish. One mackerel provides as much as three portions of a more moderately oily fish like salmon and tuna, although rich in Omega 3 when fresh, loses most of this in the canning or bottling process. This is peculiar to tuna and not true for sardines, so do keep a store in your cupboard.