Cucina Povera

I’ve chosen the Italian term for the cooking of the poor because it conveys a deserved level of respect, and even nostalgia, that is not present in other languages whose equivalent often translates as peasant food.  The respect comes from an ability to conjure great flavour from limited ingredients, to know how to bring out the best in food, respect for the food itself and a determination not to waste it.  The nostalgia derives from the fact that this approach to food is sadly lacking today but might have been demonstrated by our grandmothers.

I’m writing about it now because we hear so frequently of people that apparently cannot afford to feed themselves.  Although I might not have used the phrase Cucina Povera when I first cooked for myself, I have come to realise that the principles behind it were exactly what informed my cooking.  Further, although it stemmed from necessity, I actually feel grateful that I learnt these lessons early because they have stood me in good stead throughout my life.  Whilst I wouldn’t choose to return to poverty, I wouldn’t feel as scared as people seem to today, I know I could cope.  Of course, there are degrees of poverty, so let’s start there.

  • Defining Poverty

I was born in 1961, so now old enough to be a grandmother, and certainly having personal experience of poverty.  Although there is a measure of absolute poverty, the term poverty is now mainly used relatively.  Both measures compare with what is considered essential (normal) in the UK today.  So, for example, it is considered normal to eat out or order a takeaway regularly and to have holidays abroad, neither of which were “normal” in the 1970s.   Which brings me to a current bugbear – the assertion that people are having to choose between eating and heating.   It’s a no-brainer, let me explain why.

  • Eating v. Heating

In 1960 only 5% of homes in the UK had central heating.  They certainly didn’t have double glazing or the level of insulation of homes built today.  Usually only the main living room had a fire or heater, you put off going upstairs (or outside) to use the cold loo for as long as possible.  People didn’t wander around in a short-sleeved t-shirt whatever the weather outside.  Food was part of the solution to keeping warm, along with socks and woolly jumpers.  Of course, because it was the norm, not having heating didn’t constitute poverty.   Yes, some people did die from cold living conditions, as the ONS extract below shows, but the majority were elderly and unable to move around to keep warm.

By contrast, although the government felt the need to begin collecting data on hunger in 2019, there are no statistics on deaths available.  If you still feel you have to choose between heating and eating, it may help to remember that without food or water you will die within 8-21 days, although with adequate water intake this could be extended up to two months.

  • My personal experience of Poverty

As already mentioned, we didn’t consider ourselves poor when I was a child, but as most women didn’t work there was little money to spare.  What we did have, which many lack today, is a garden big enough to grow our own fruit and vegetables.  Homes “Fit for Heroes” were a promise made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the end of the First World War.  The programme of rebuilding, including social housing, was interrupted by the Second World War, but building to the same standards recommenced soon afterwards.  The ratio of garden to property seen in the houses built during this period is rarely matched in new builds today. Nor, much as this would be my biggest wish for improving our food today, would it be possible to recreate that space for the U.K.s current population without building over large areas of the agricultural and green belt land.

Most people of my generation will have some experience of outside toilets, even if they no longer served for that purpose.  I have strong memories of having to use the pot under the bed during the night when staying with my great-aunt as a child and then the outside privy during the day, with the walkway to neighbouring houses in the terrace passing just feet away!  The house did have electricity, and an electric cooker, but no hot water and no bathroom.  A jug of hot water, which had been boiled in the kitchen, was brought up to the bedroom for washing each morning, although I never used the iron bath that hung on the wall outside!  Food was simple, but delicious, and a salad from the garden was a usual accompaniment.

In the homes of my parents and maternal grandmother, home grown fruit and vegetables were also a regular part of meals, although it was noticeable that my mother began to embrace the convenience foods that started to appear after the end of rationing.  A typical meal at my grandmother’s might have been a baked potato topped with cheese followed by a baked apple stuffed with dried fruit (making the most of the oven whilst it was on).

Fast forward to 1980, at which time I left home, married and we bought our first house.  There were still many houses which, although not needing to be demolished as had by now happened with most slums, were nonetheless lacking in what by then we considered the basic amenities.  Thankfully the Thatcher government was passionate about encouraging home ownership, and grants of between 50 and 90% of the cost, were available for these essential improvements.  The house we had bought had an inside toilet, but no kitchen, save for a sink unit, both housed in a lean-to addition to the original property.  My neighbour recalls that she could sit on the toilet whilst she cooked the supper when they first moved in!  So, a new kitchen was to be installed in one of the two downstairs rooms, and the second bedroom divided into two to create an upstairs bathroom.  Loft insulation and central heating were also planned to be part of the subsidised improvements.  The process was slow, you had to submit quotations for each job, get approval before starting, and then apply for the funds to be released after the work was completed.  This usually meant having saved enough to pay for the work before starting the process again for the next job.  We hit an early problem when, in removing the old stairs, we found that what we had been advised was a small corner of dry rot had in fact rampaged throughout the house behind the plasterwork.  We had to strip everything out, and then move out whilst the dry rot treatment did its work.  We moved back to a shell, with only a ladder to access the second floor.  Cooking was in the lean-to addition that contained just the sink and our two-ring camping gas stove.  I cooked like this for a year before the new kitchen was obtained.

In December 1981, severe cold set in followed by heavy snows which lasted until mid-January.  It was one of the coldest winters recorded in Britain.  We had the new upstairs bathroom by then, but the water was frozen in the pipes and was solid in the toilet bowl.  We went to bed fully clothed, including coat and hat.  I developed chilblains on my fingers and feet, which still occasionally flare up, although chilblain ointment, common at that time, is now very hard to find.

As if the cold wasn’t enough, Britain also entered the most severe recession since World War 2 as the government tried to control inflation. The recession had begun in 1980 and was at its most severe in 1981, with unemployment topping 3 million.  Having only just moved to the area in order to afford to buy a house, taking up new jobs, my husband was made redundant.  In fact, I was the only one left working out of the four adults in our house and our neighbours.  Having turned to them for help so much already, I felt the pressure to return this help now.  My husband decided to retrain as a hairdresser, having previously been an electrician.  This involved borrowing money for a 7-month course in London, plus a season ticket for travel.  Even when he qualified, he didn’t exactly earn much, and with loans to repay he was unable to contribute to household expenditure for some years.  It was the final straw for our marriage, although it took me another 5 years working my way up the career ladder until I earnt enough to buy a property on my own.  So, I had plenty of opportunity in which to practice Cucina Povera.

  • Comparisons with current cost of living crisis

For many people now will be their first experience of inflation, whilst in the 1980’s we experienced mortgage rates of 15%.  Inflation has its flip side – you earn interest on any savings you may have but debts are more quickly reduced in real terms, so if you can ride the situation for a while you will find yourself in a stronger financial position.

One critical difference between the current financial situation and that of the early 1980s is the availability of jobs.  Today there are jobs for anyone who wants one, in fact currently many businesses are held back by a lack of staff, keeping wages in these sectors buoyant.  Whilst some businesses might go under, there are likely to still be others looking for workers.  Currently, at the start of this economic downturn, we have bounced back from Covid without the expected unemployment and there are a substantial portion of people affluent enough to choose not to work more than 3 days a week.  The hospitality sector is much larger now than it was in the 1980s, when people still ate out only for special occasions.  It provides the possibility for a second job, which gives social contact and perhaps even a hot meal, to help make ends meet.

Whilst the world we are living in has changed since the 80s, some things are not that different. People experience poverty for a variety of reasons and most live through it for a period in their youth – there are plenty of cookery books written with students in mind.  When times are hard the challenges are often complex, but rarely unique.  Reading Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (first published in 1970 but now reissued) I am reminded that two rings on my gas stove were a luxury she would have envied as she struggled with just one ring, and that lack of storage or preparation space were par for the course in a bedsit.   Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray is another inspirational read, about living and cooking in various remote locations around the Mediterranean.

I have tried to remember these constraints whilst compiling my list, below, of those elements of Cucina Povera that I think remain essential no matter where or when we are living.  There are many recipes on this website that meet my criteria to be described as Cucina Povera.  I have noticed them particularly during the UKs “hungry gap”, and realised that, rather than turn to more plentiful imports, I have instinctively drawn on Cucina Povera at a time when the raw ingredients themselves are in short supply.  Links to some of these recipes are included below.

  • The essential elements of Cucina Povera

No Waste

Nothing is wasted in Cucina Povera.  The leftovers of one day are frequently rolled over into the next.  A deep-freeze was one of my first “luxury” purchases, as they expand the options for saving and re-using tremendously.  Homemade meat stock is always available from my freezer.

  • Foraging for wild foods

Not the occasional pick of wild garlic but an eye that sees food everywhere.  It is not restricted to the countryside – are the leaves of that tree edible? Those weeds?  Every border has dandelions and hairy bittercress growing in them.  Initially I mainly picked berries to make homemade wine – thankfully no longer necessary.  However, foraging has become a passion and your knowledge expands so that there become few walks that wouldn’t yield something to eat.

Edible Weeds

Mendip Wallfish (Snails)

  • Growing your own

The 1975 TV series The Good Life made self-sufficiency a dream for many but at the very least you should grow some herbs and a couple of pots of salad leaves.  I managed this even when I lived in a flat.  Buying herbs is a ridiculous waste of money.  I have planted them alongside the public footpath running beside our property to create a community herb garden, but they are perfect for guerilla gardening on any waste land if you don’t have your own space.

Sorrel Orzotto (or risotto)

  • Core Ingredients: Eggs, Milk, Bread

Cucina Povera depends heavily on a few staple ingredients.  Bread is pretty universal, but in some locations other carbohydrates predominate e.g. pasta, rice or potatoes.  Carbohydrates are cheap and filling, but some are more nutritious than others so be careful not to rely too heavily on white bread.  Beans and pulses are good healthy options.

A fortnightly tray of eggs was a mainstay of my diet in difficult financial times.  Now that I keep my own hens, I am always aware of those customers for whom they are similarly important.  As Delia Smith said, if everyone from the age of 9 to 90 could cook an omelette they would always have on nutritious dish to sit down to in no time.  Similarly, remember that our first food was mother’s milk and that the full milk from cows or goats provides pretty much all of our nutritional requirements.  Never substitute it with skimmed or semi-skimmed as you lose the nutrients this way.  Start the day with the classic warming dish of porridge made with full milk.

  • Uses ingredients to hand

This goes further than just using up leftovers.  Start planning your meal around what you already have in your garden or in the wild and think about what is produced locally.  Work with the seasons, they will tell you what is best and cheapest at any time.  See the Food In Season recommendations for each month.

  • Eschew food fashions & fads

Many foods that were once the food of the poor, e.g. oysters, later became fashionable and therefore expensive.  Unfortunately, no sooner does a TV chef recommend a “cheap cut” of meat than it becomes expensive.  By eating the opposite of whatever is currently in fashion you can save money and eat well.  Relying as it does on highly processed and often imported foods, fads like veganism have no place in Cucina Povera.

  • Cooked from scratch

Cucina Povera means cooking from scratch, from raw ingredients.  Yes, it takes time, but remember you are paying for someone else’s time whenever you buy takeaways or ready meals, leaving little over for the cost of the ingredients.


British Asparagus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more cooking tips and recipes see here.

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

Further reading:

May Fairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway Comfits

Candied Sticks of Angelica

Almond Comfits



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

Fairing Recipes

Raising Agents in Cakes

Everyone seems to be baking during lockdown and whilst all flours are hard to come by, I have noticed people talking of needing self-raising even though they have plain.  Time for a recap on the history of raising agents ending with notes about adding your own to plain flour.


The earliest form of cake making arose as a sideline to bread making, i.e. a little of the dough (which at this time was leavened with an ale barm) was enriched and sweetened.  Although ovens have existed since Roman times, they were not a feature of ordinary households, so many of these yeasted doughs were cooked on a flat iron plate (griddle or girdle) suspended over the fire.  Others were taken to a communal oven to be baked.


Seed Cake, flavoured with caraway seeds, which are much lighter than the fruit usually added to cakes, was one the first large rich cakes to be made using eggs instead of yeast as its raising agent.  By the 18th century it had become a tea-table favourite and it remained so throughout Queen Victoria’s reign.  Madeira Cake was also popular in well-to-do households of the 19th century when it was served to morning callers accompanied by a glass of Madeira wine.


Food historians believe that the use of Sodium Bicarbonate dates back to ancient civilization although there is little record of its use until the late 1700’s.  Once it became widely accepted that it would create carbon dioxide in the presence of certain acids, housewives began making their own chemical leavenings but it was not until a commercial mix, Baking Powder, was developed in the mid 1800’s that it became widely used and many yeast-risen doughs were abandoned.  Compressed yeast was not developed until the late 19th century by which time baking powder was already firmly established as the preferred raising agent.


Despite its age-old use, Baking Powder is a chemical compound and it is useful to consider the methods formerly used to avoid over use of a chemical additive.  By including whisked egg in a cake mixture we can use air as a raising agent instead of carbon dioxide.  Even in creamed mixtures, where the eggs are beaten rather than whisked, provided the correct proportion of eggs is used and the mixture well beaten, little additional raising agent is required.


Although self-raising flour is often stipulated in recipes and has the advantage of the raising agent already being thoroughly blended with the flour, it is an all-purpose mix. By understanding the chemistry involved in the use of chemical raising agents, you could create your own more exact blend dependent on the recipe, the quantity of acid ingredients it contains, and the extent of rise required.  This can be done by adding an appropriate amount of commercial Baking Powder or creating your own from a blend of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar.  The un-combined elements keep for far longer than when blended and you avoid the cornflour or other starch that has to be added to them, which is both a waste of money and not exactly helpful to the cake.  As well as their possible effects on health, too much chemical raising agent imparts an unpleasant taste and can even result in the mixture becoming over-risen and collapsing.


Homemade Self-Raising Flour


I never buy self-raising flour, partly because I don’t make cakes that often, but also because I have often have raw soured milk and can use this in place of some, or all, of the cream of tartar.  Here are some notes to help you blend your own:


  • The active ingredients of baking powder in the UK consists of 2 parts cream of tartar (the acidic element) to 1-part bicarbonate of soda (alkali).  In ready blended self-raising flour, baking powder is about 5% of the total weight, so 250g of self-raising flour is 225g of plain four plus 25g of baking powder (not all of which is the raising agents).


  • Whilst Delia Smith recommends 4 teaspoons baking powder (10g)/200g plain flour, Nigella reduces it to 2 teaspoons/150g flour.  Because I use the separate raising agents rather than baking powder, I can reduce this even further.  I find 1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda plus 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar perfectly sufficient to raise 200g of plain flour in most dishes.  Of course, where the recipe already includes other acidic ingredients, such as buttermilk or sour milk, you can reduce the amount of cream of tartar, probably by half.


  • Remember to make sure that your raising agents are well blended with the flour, and keep the dry ingredients separate from the wet until the final mixing.



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


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.


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.


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 and a further report of the evening from

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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


The crisp ingredients will also provide a gently audible crunch.


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.



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

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.


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!


Tarragon Orange Chicken

Tarragon Vinegar

Sauce Béarnaise

Mushrooms marinated with Tarragon vinegar

See also recipes using Fines herbes