Truly Wild Deer

In 2012 I wrote here about the irony that despite large parts of the country being over-run by wild deer, we were importing 1000 tonnes of farmed venison from New Zealand every year.  The situation has continued to deteriorate since then, with the wild deer population in the UK now estimated to be over 2 million, the highest it has been for 1000 years.

Why is this a problem? Top of the list is the impact on trees.  With more emphasis than ever on the need to plant trees to help control climate change it is imperative that our efforts are not hampered by deer.  Deer numbers also need to be kept in check for the health of the herd. When their numbers outstrip the amount of food that is available to them in the wild, they turn to farmers fields, gardens, and allotments.  It is estimated there are up to 74,000 deer-related traffic accidents each year in Britain, and Highways England believes 400 motorists are injured in deer-related accidents every year.  Unless you have been directly impacted by one of these problems it can be easy to underestimate just how many wild deer are hiding in our woods. Even though I see a few during my walks with my dogs, on an occasion when I flew over the same woods in a hot air balloon, I was astounded by just how many we disturbed.

However, wild deer should not be seen merely as a pest but as a valuable source of delicious and healthy lean meat.  A market for wild deer meat is vital for hunters and, with the aim of strengthening this, The Wild Venison Working Group was recently set up.  The group is chaired by The Forestry Commission and involves stakeholders from woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping and venison suppliers.  I have been trying to understand the issues they face in finding a market for wild deer meat and the Food Culture in the UK is one.

Although the number of wild deer is increasing across most of Europe, the rate of increase is kept in check by up to half being harvested by stalkers each year.  In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe hunting is very much a part of their food culture and people retain the traditional knowledge of the appropriate cooking methods required by different varieties, ages, and cuts of wild deer.  In the UK, 50% of venison is purchased from a supermarket, and they will not sell wild deer because of their inconsistencies particularly regarding carcase conformity.  The majority of the farmed deer sold in supermarkets will come from the Red Deer species, which will have been reared in a confined environment, with rotational grazing supplemented by pellet feed, sileage or other crops, especially in the winter.  They may be housed in the winter and the calves are usually weaned.  It takes about 15 months for them to reach the desired carcase weight of 60 kg, although with more intensive feeding this can be achieved sooner.  As with the rearing of other animals, practices vary in their degree of intensity – the UK has 7 deer farms certified organic, however, the lives of all farmed deer differ considerably from one that has existed entirely in the wild.

To meet the supermarket demand for farmed venison, The Scottish Venison Association has for years been trying to encourage farmers south of the border to take up deer farming with them supplying the starting stock.  Ironically, there are no native deer in New Zealand, so most of their breeding stock came from Scotland but the number of farms soon overtook those in Scotland.  The Scottish government recently paid for detailed market research to assist the Scottish Venison Association.  The research covered the whole of the UK and showed that the home market for venison increased by almost 11% in 2019.  The retail market is dominated by two brands accounting for 59% of sales – Highland Game and Waitrose.  Almost 50% of venison is bought in supermarkets, of which a third is sold by Waitrose and is mainly imported from New Zealand.   However, Sainsbury’s (13%), Morrisons (10.7%), and most recently Tesco, all sell venison farmed in the UK “when available”.  Most of this is supplied by Highland Game.


Parkland Venison

A somewhat halfway house between farmed and wild are Parkland Deer.  Keeping a herd of Fallow Deer on your estate became de rigour for large properties, you will find them still on many estates managed by the National Trust as well as larger private houses.  Red Deer are also kept in some larger public parks, Richmond being the most famous example.  Parkland Deer are classified by DEFRA as wild and so can only be culled during their official hunting season.  The herd will be enclosed but the parkland should provide them with a similar habitat to that which they would choose in the wild, i.e. a mix of pasture and woodland.  However, unlike wild deer, which will have to rely entirely on what they can forage, the diet of parkland deer is usually supplemented during the winter and they may even be provided with some shelter.  The supplemental feed may just be sileage and fodder crops grown on the estate, but it could also be in pellets form.  The sight of a parkland deer keeper tipping out a bag of feed is such a long way from what I consider to be wild game that I would quibble with the DEFRA designation, even though it is intended to afford the protection of regulated culling seasons.   “Wild” venison from parklands is however particularly popular with the restaurant trade as it provides them with a consistent product.  I recognise that it is better they buy this than imported farmed venison, but it doesn’t do much to help the control of truly wild deer.

Truly Wild Deer

The term venison was originally applied to any furred game, including hare, although now it is used only for the meat of deer, which still encompasses many different beasts worldwide.  The characteristics and flavour profile vary considerably depending on breed and diet.

Red Deer and Roe Deer are both native to the UK and Fallow have been with us since at least Norman times if not since the Romans.  The rest (Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer) are escapees from zoos or wildlife parks and are more of a problem in some parts of the country than others.  Chinese Water Deer, for example, are found predominantly in the east of the country, the wetlands of the fens being the closest to their natural habitat.

Wild Red Deer are most closely associated with the highlands of Scotland where their diet will consist largely of heather and berries, but Red Deer are also farmed in the lowlands, where they are more likely to be fed on barley.  So, diet as well as breed will have a significant impact on flavour.

The taste most often disliked in wild venison is usually described as gamey or livery.  Yet some species are more often likened to lamb (or mutton) and beef.  This is particularly so for Muntjac, but opinion is definitely split over whether this is preferable to the more gamey taste of Roe or Red deer.

The texture of wild deer is also much firmer than in farmed or parkland, their muscles developed because they travel over a much wider area to obtain food.  Roe, which is never farmed or managed, has a close-grained texture; whilst fallow deer, usually from parklands, is very soft, some might even describe it as “pappy”.  Its flavour is mild making it an ideal beginners venison.

Red deer have the strongest flavour; they have interbred with Sika deer to such an extent that there may no longer be pure native Red Deer in Scotland, but in any event the flavour of Sika is usually on the strong side.

Chinese Water Deer, unlike most deer which are very lean, have a thick layer of fat across their backs, which prevents them drying when cooked but could also be a factor in them often being likened to lamb.  They are small animals so their cooking needs to be adjusted for this too.

It is really high time that we stopped referring to venison generically when their characteristics can be so different. Roe deer, highly rated in France, are always specified as Chevreuil.   In Sweden Roe, Reindeer and Elk are always specifically named although a generic Hjort is used to cover “other” deer.  It amazes me that sellers, particularly online, tell you that they manage herds of both red and fallow deer but then fail to tell you which you are buying!  Each seller is, naturally, convinced that their venison is best but if a consumer has had a bad experience with venison once they will often write the whole thing off when all they need to learn is their own taste preference.

From field to table

Talking of bad experiences, these can often be the fault of an amateur stalker who doesn’t have the right facilities to process the carcase.  Whilst the problem of poaching still exists, most legitimate stalkers are actually very well versed in all aspects of deer handling, thanks to qualification through the British Deer Society.

The size of a deer carcase brings its own challenges.  A red deer stag could weigh up to 190 kilos, although the hinds (females are usually smaller and lighter than males) come in at between 60 and 120 kilos. A fallow deer will be about half the size and a roe about half again.  The stalker will need a refrigerator large enough to hang the carcase otherwise the meat may spoil; and the skill, space, and equipment to butcher the beast into manageable joints.  They will usually want the customer to take the entire carcase although if they have a sales outlet (such as a farm shop or stall at a farmers’ market) they will be able to sell individual cuts.  As with many other foods nowadays, the onus is often on the seller to do much of the preparation and cooking too.  To overcome a lack of cooking ability it is considered necessary to present game in an easily recognisable, non-challenging format, like sausages and burgers, or sell ready cooked pies and meals that just need heating.  These actions help sell venison, but don’t address the long term lack of knowledge about the meat and how to cook it.


Further Information:

Market Research for Scottish Venison Association:

Waitrose Deer Policy:

A presentation by John Gregson of Waitrose to the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust was primarily intended to explain their ban on lead shot game.  The lead shot issue is not really in dispute, the various shooting associations having all committed to phasing this out over the next five years and work on alternatives is coming on apace.  The presentation does, however, share a lot of Waitrose’s thinking on satisfying the Millennial market, on which they are clearly focussed.

Wild Venison to Feed Children

The Country Food Trust provides games meals to those in need.  In 2020 they have focussed on the provision of meals to children and also added wild venison bolognese to their range of meals.  It costs them £5 to provide each meal.  You can read more and donate via their website.

Deer Management Training:

The British Deer Society organises courses for those managing and stalking wild deer.  You will also find information, including open seasons, for the species found in the UK on this website.

Deer Farming in the UK

Insight provided by a vet.

Species Tasting Guides:

What information exists mainly comes from the shooting community and you will see from the results of the tasting I conducted for my previous article that opinions vary.  The more this is discussed the better!

Bluebell Woods Wild Venison (Norfolk)

My cookery tips:


British Walnuts

A fundamental principle of the Campaign for Real Farming is to use British produce as far as possible and import only those foods that we cannot grow here.  Walnuts challenge this principle in that we can grow them, but mostly don’t, at least not commercially.

As the country steps up its tree planting to help combat climate change could walnut trees feature in this planting and at the same time improve our food security?

Almost 40% of the worldwide export in walnuts comes from California, with the UK being their 5th largest market.  Walnuts are rich plant source of Omega 3, and so of special importance in vegan and vegetarian diets, although valued by all for their health-giving antioxidants.  The UK market looks likely to continue to expand whilst repeated drought and wildfires in California throws into question walnut production there.  However, Californian walnuts are sold in supermarkets for less than half the price of the rarely found home produced walnut.  The CBI provides market information for potential new entrants, although personally I would hesitate to recommend growing them from a purely commercial standpoint, although the value of walnut wood is apparently good.

My enthusiasm for English walnuts stems from their culinary attributes.  Californian walnuts are what I had eaten for most of my life until a friend brought a sack back from France.  These walnuts were from Grenoble, the first fruit to receive the French quality symbol that went on to become known as “Protected Designation of Origen”.  Périgord was later also awarded PDO status and is probably the better-known region for French walnuts.  The ones my friend had brought home from Grenoble were a complete revelation to me.  Finally, I understood the fuss about walnuts and from then on Californian just wouldn’t do.

The following year I saw “wet-walnuts” for sale in Somerset and, despite their unappetising appearance, leapt to buy them.  Walnuts are “wet” when they first ripen in September and you could literally squeeze oil from them by hand.  The shells are blacker at this stage, so they don’t look particularly appetising.  When you crack them open the skin is still soft enough that you can peel it away and, as the skin is the most bitter part, you may wish to do this.  Wet walnuts are ideal for pounding to make a sauce – for example to serve with pasta or fish.  However, the nuts won’t store for long unless you dry them.  Walnut oil is very unstable, so even when dried they are best eaten within a few months.  The freshness is probably what made my first taste of Grenoble walnuts so wonderful, and I am now firmly wedded to the seasonal aspect of the nut.  If I see them listed amongst the ingredients of an otherwise clearly summer dish it really jars with me, so whilst some people might see them as a year-round provider of essential nutrients, for me they shout Autumn and Winter.

In addition to the over-riding importance of freshness, the question of the suitability of the trees to a particular area definitely intrigues me.  I accept that the regions of Périgord and Grenoble in France are ideally suited to growing walnuts, but what I can’t say, at this time, is whether we have similarly suitable areas in the UK.

Walnut trees are slow growing but long lived.  They require plenty of space and the land beneath becomes fairly barren owing to the chemical juglone produced by the roots, so it is often planted on the periphery in agroforestry.   It takes 10 years for a tree to start producing a decent number of nuts, and even then, nut production is fairly hit and miss.  No-one seems to be quite able to explain why some trees do well and others do not.  There is an old rhyme that hints at this problem although containing no sensible advice:

A woman, a dog and a walnut tree,

The more you beat them the better they be.

Certainly, walnut trees are unlikely to produce nuts consistently in the northern part of this country and locally in Somerset I have found them to be more forthcoming on the warmer southern flank of the Mendips than on the north, although even here I know ancient trees producing well and others that do not.

In the late 17th century Surrey was at the heart of walnut growing in the UK.  This came about when John Evelyn was asked by the Royal Society to draw attention to the damage done to England’s wooded estates during the English Interregnum and to encourage reforestation. His findings were published in 1664 under the title “Sylva or a discourse on forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions”.  He championed the growth of walnut plantations on several family estates, including his own around Godstone, and elsewhere in Surrey, notably at Leatherhead and Carshalton.  The walnut tree was clearly suited to the Surrey soil, although whether it was especially so or just the result of many large estates being found in proximity to the court is not certain. Whilst some people are lucky enough to have their own walnut tree, because of the space required they have always been more associated with large properties.  Their prestigious status is evident from the number of times their presence at a property, even as a single tree, is reflected in the house name.

However, Evelyn’s project came to an abrupt end just two years after his death, when the bitter winter of 1708 destroyed most walnut trees in northern Europe.

Trees were replanted, but commercially it became their timber that produced the greatest value.  Walnut wood is used in cabinet making, marquetry and for gun stocks.  Many trees were felled for this later purpose for the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.  The same thing happened again in the Crimean War to the extent that one Birmingham arms maker had to transfer his operations to Turin where the supply of walnut wood was more assured.

And so, we find the current position in Britain today is that walnut trees are mainly grown in isolation, if the garden is large enough, an ever-rarer occurrence; or the remnants of large estate plantings might be found around its margins.  Bossington, part of the Holnicote on Exmoor, provides a great example of the latter.  You can find seven walnuts trees of varying ages around the green and more along nearby roadsides.  The once famous giant tree which had dwarfed a cottage beside the green was felled in the 1950s.

Bossington Walnuts

A more recent estate planting exists near Glastonbury.  Roger Saul decided to replant walnut trees at Sharpham Park when he discovered evidence of them having been grown there when it was a monastery.  300 trees were planted in 2004 and 12 years later they were producing enough nuts to sell.  British walnuts (and Sharpham Park’s are Organic) sell for about £20 a kilo. You can also buy British walnuts online from Potash Farm in Kent.

As yet, few people seem to appreciate the qualities of British walnuts enough to create much demand, although I am convinced that when they taste them, especially the young wet walnuts, they will never look back. The most widely planted variety of walnut tree in the UK is Broadview, but If you are thinking of planting there are many modern hybrids available to suit specific requirements – see the websites below.

I do now have my own walnut tree, but don’t get many nuts from it.  Squirrels are the main problem here.  The tree does produce a decent crop, but the squirrels take the vast majority.  In an effort to beat them to it, I have harvested some of the nuts when “green”, in early July, and pickled them.  Pickled Walnuts are the only culinary use for walnuts for which the British have gained any renown, although we are not by any stretch, the only culture to use this method to preserve them.  One researcher identified more than 60 distinct recipes for pickled walnuts from countries as diverse as Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine.  Two features stood out that distinguish “British Pickled Walnuts” (those originating in British speaking countries): – none of them include garlic and all of them include sugar of some type.  About half of the British recipes include ginger.

The use of pickled walnuts varies is as variable as the recipes, but here in Britain they are almost exclusively used as an accompaniment for cold or grilled meats.  I have given Dr Kitchener’s recipe for “Wow-Wow Sauce” which dates back to 1817 as an example of the particularly British use of pickled walnuts.

You can see my walnut recipes here.


A Passion For Trees: The Legacy Of John Evelyn, by Maggie Campbell-Culver 2006

Potast Farm – includes a link to companion crops that seem unaffected by juglone.


How has Covid impacted on the UK Food Culture?

Although we are still in the grip of the global pandemic Covid 19, the three months lockdown from March 23rd 2020, which in the UK saw all but “key workers” confined to their homes, has now ended and some initial analysis of the impact is possible.

Our food culture is constantly being shaped by changes in our wider social, political, technological, and economic environment. When you look back, the differences between the food culture of one decade and another are quite marked and, whilst Covid is unlikely to prove as significant an event as, for example, the Second World War; this period when all “normal” activity was suspended is sure to have left its mark.  The two other significant influences working at this time are climate change and the role that agriculture plays within this; and our withdrawal from the European Union, leaving us free to determine our own rules, such as how we subsidise farming, but also with whom, and on what terms we will trade.

The Campaign for Real Farming has, since its inception, called for a radical rethink about the way our food is produced and distributed. It has long since given up hope that the level of radical thinking this will require is likely to be achieved by any political party, and instead recognised that change needs to be driven by “Ordinary Joes”.  Covid has already achieved what would have been unthinkable to anyone only a year ago, in that it has forced governments worldwide to put human issues ahead of financial growth; although the desire appears to be a return “to normality” as quickly as possible.  But, having been given the opportunity to step off the treadmill, some of Joe Public appear reluctant to step back on.

The obvious reason for this is a continued fear of catching the virus.  Medicine has made tremendous advances in the last century and we have almost come to expect that it can cure any illness.  Certainly, we do not live with an expectation that a proportion of our family will die prematurely owing to disease.  Beyond this there are many other forces at work, some of which are intimated in this poem, which has been widely shared during lockdown:

And people stayed home
And read books and listened
And rested and exercised
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped
And listened deeper
Someone meditated
Someone prayed
Someone danced
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed
And in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
Even the earth began to heal
And when the danger ended
And people found each other
Grieved for the dead people
And they made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of life
And healed the earth completely
Just as they were healed themselves.

Kitty O’Meara


Working from Home

Almost 50% of the workforce worked from home during lockdown (compared with about 4.7% in 2019) and many of them have decided that they don’t intend to return to the office.  Above all they want a better work/life balance, having realised what can be achieved by releasing an extra hour or two a day that was previously spent commuting.  Financially, those furloughed on 80% of their normal salary, realised that the cost of going to the office accounted for at least the other 20%. They were saving more than this in transport costs, office clothing, buying lunch and coffees.   On average, people were able to reduce their personal debt by £1000 during lockdown.   Of course, this lack of spending in cafés and restaurants was a major driver in the government wanting people to return to work, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Meal Deals.

Whilst not every job can be done from home, and not everyone wants to work this way, employers too have found that, thanks to modern technology, home working can be remarkably productive.  Providing office space, especially in cities, is hugely expensive and it is predicted that some 20% of current office space will remain vacant.

If these predictions are correct, and estate agents are confirming a rise in enquiries for properties further from cities and suitable for homeworking,  it will surely impact not just on those businesses that currently exist mainly to service office workers, but also on our food culture, which is what I am here to consider!


Home Cooking

Around a third of our household expenditure on food and drink is spent on “out of home” meals.  This caused one of the biggest difficulties for our food distribution system when suddenly all of the food that had previously been destined for the wholesale market was instead required at home.  Meanwhile, those at home found themselves required to cook for the whole family three times a day, day after day.  This came at the time of year commonly referred to as “the hungry gap”, when our winter store of fruit and vegetables is nearly depleted, and the seeds for the current year’s crop not yet planted.  We are more dependent on imports at this time of year than any other, and some produce, most notably flour, became in truly short supply.

People coped brilliantly.  From the National Food Strategy report¹ we learn that people were more likely to have cooked from scratch, eaten together as a family, cooked meals to freeze for later, eaten more healthily, shopped locally, and thrown away less food.  From social media we saw that making bread, especially sourdough, was particularly popular, and it seemed that everyone used up bananas by making a loaf.  If people needed advice they could always ask, and there was usually an on-line video available.  The lessons learnt during lockdown are now there for life, and pretty much everyone now has a repertoire of dishes that they can easily reproduce when the need arises.


Cooking from Scratch

39% of people reported cooking more food from scratch and buying less processed food ¹.  Ready meals have become a key feature of our food culture.  We spend 28% more on pre-prepared foods than France, 64% more than the Spanish, 101% more than the Germans and 178% more than the Italians ¹.

Why does this matter?  Health is usually given as the key reason as ready meals are likely to contain higher levels of salt, fat, and sugar than you might use if you made them yourself.  My brother made a birthday cake during lockdown and was astounded at how much sugar it used (he takes an artificial sweetener in his tea and probably therefore considers that he doesn’t really eat much sugar).  He lost weight during lockdown as a result of everything being cooked from scratch; although he was in the minority – 21%, compared with the 40% who gained weight during lockdown ¹.   However, under such stressful circumstances comfort eating (and drinking) is not unexpected.  A growing awareness of the link between obesity and poor outcomes for Covid sufferers has perhaps already seen some of this initial weight gain being shifted.  It will be interesting to revisit these statistics six months down the line.

My biggest gripe with ready meals is that we lose control of the source of the individual ingredients.  This bothers me most with meat.  Even in restaurants, unless the source of the ingredients is stated (and known to me), I tend to order a vegetarian option.  There is a lot of concern that when we strike trade deals with new countries, we will admit foods that have been produced to lower standards than we allow in the UK.  This is not an entirely new problem, and certainly food labelling does not make things clear. For example, whilst people might select an organic chicken if they were choosing  one to cook, when it comes to the chicken in their sandwich or ready meal they have no idea of its provenance and it is here that the most inferior produce lurks.  However, I would not classify all ready meals as “junk food”.  We might spend nearly twice as much on them as the Italians ¹ (presumably on twice the number) but following a delayed flight home from Italy the fresh produce and comparatively good quality ready meals available at Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in a motorway service station on the way home made me feel almost proud of what we can find here in comparison to Italy.


Sharing meals at the table

Our tendency to grab meals “on the hoof” is evidence of our weak food culture.  The French spend twice as long eating each day.  Here is an extract from the full table, showing the lowest and highest figures:¹





Country Minutes spent eating per day
USA 63
Canada 65
Ireland 75
Spain 126
Italy 127
Greece 128
France 133



Pre lockdown only 58% of families were able to routinely share weekday meals and long working days, including travel time, were the main reason for this. The rise of not only after-school clubs but also breakfast clubs, evidence the problem.  During lockdown 26% reported eating together as a family more often. ¹. Its not actually as great an increase as I would have hoped, but I have a hunch that those who did have seen the benefits of doing so, it may even be something that they felt guilty about before.  Research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity in conjunction with Bite Back 2030 ² found that 60% of young people, when questioned about their eating habits during lockdown, thought that the increase in shared family meals had been good for their health and well-being.  Harvard psychologist Anne Fishel cites a daily family meal, during which children have a chance to share their feelings and be listened to, results in children who are more optimistic, do better at school and generally enjoy a higher level of well-being ³.  It is, she says, a warm and welcoming atmosphere at table that is most important, the benefits don’t spring from making a gourmet meal.

I normally look after my primary school aged nephews once a week and have been amazed by their fascination with our dining room and “formal” dining accoutrements such as knives and forks!  You only have to glance around a restaurant to see how many adults today seem never to have been taught to use them.  Laying the table is all part of the occasion and, I have insisted my husband join us even though it is earlier than our usual mealtime because I have seen how important it is to them.  The difference in behaviour between British children in a pub or restaurant and the behaviour of those native to the countries at the top of the table above cannot have gone unnoticed.

The current culture for feeding children seems to be “little and often”, yet our British snacking habit is one of the worst things about our food culture and a big contributor to type two diabetes.  At school too, “cafeteria style” options are now the norm and there seems to be little emphasis on the social side of enjoying a meal together.

I would suggest that if the government wants to tackle our obesity problem, they focus some attention here.


Growing your own

This is another aspect in which the government has a role to play.

Estate agents are already seeing considerable demand for properties suitable for home working.  Rightmove and Savills have conducted surveys into the changed priorities.4   The top priority, stipulated by 71% of property searchers, was a garden and outdoor space.  It is not clear how people intend to use this space although of those that already had a garden at the time of lockdown it was notable via social media how many began to grow their own vegetables for the first time.

The council houses that were built after the First World War always included generous gardens with the expectation that families would grow their own vegetables.  Horticulture is a difficult sector to make profitable on a commercial basis, the vegetables sold in supermarkets are so cheap that one almost wonders why anyone would bother to grow their own, unless of course you consider freshness and flavour within the reward!  People growing their own contributes to our food security but the connection to nature and the seasons is fundamental to good eating.  I would put a return to including gardens within housing plans top of the list of actions that the government could take to encourage the positive food practices that we saw in lockdown.  Where this is not possible, they should look at the provision of allotments.  Every school should have a school garden.  The contribution that gardening makes to mental well-being should amply repay the expenditure.  Even those without a garden should be encouraged to grow something – herbs or salad leaves are perfectly possible in a window box and unlike most vegetables, they are usually overpriced in supermarkets.


Obesity is not only caused by Gluttony

The final element of Part I of the National Food Strategy that relates to Food Culture has to do with our health, and particularly the impact that obesity has on Covid 19 patients.  Even before the report’s recommendations had been delivered the Government had announced a “new obesity campaign” proposing legislation to block TV advertising of “junk food”, displaying calories on alcohol and menus, and ending “buy one, get one free” promotions.

The National Food Strategy report expresses concern that the causes of obesity need to be more thoroughly understood and any campaign more precisely targeted and wholeheartedly agree.

It identifies 6 eater profiles and compares their typical BMI, both current(?) and projected at age 50.¹  This is a useful start point for considering the very varied reasons for weight gain, albeit of necessity still simplified into just 6 eater types.

Dr James Le Fanu, writing in the Daily Telegraph, expressed his own concerns about the likely ineffectiveness of the new Government Obesity Campaign stating that the tenor of the proposals, in attributing obesity to a combination of ignorance and self-indulgence, is patronising, moralistic and – wrong.  Whilst the average Briton may be a stone heavier than 50 years ago but, he cautions, as Cambridge nutritionist Andrew Prentice has pointed out we are eating one fifth less food than back in the Seventies.  The culprit, he concludes is not gluttony but a decline in energy expenditure and cites driving rather than walking as an example.

Exactly so, although the example that I most identify with is the introduction of central heating.  As a child in the 1960’s I vividly remember the ice forming on the inside of my bedroom window and a rapid scramble to dress in front of the living room fire.  Similarly, I remember the reluctance to leave the fire to visit the freezing bathroom when nature called.  By 1970, the point from which weight gain is being considered, 30% of households had central heating installed but the percentage increased rapidly from then – 60% a decade later and 95% by 2018.5  The 1970’s saw a plethora of convenience foods, “junk food”, the like of which I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole nowadays.  Yet I was a skinny child; and didn’t start to put on weight until I hit my 30s.  Of course, no-one would suggest we should abandon central heating, but perhaps turn the stat down a bit?  I find almost every public building unbearably hot and our planet might benefit too!

I’m sure there are changes to be made to our diet, which will also benefit the planet and our health, but the issues are complex and although Covid has provided a tremendous unplanned “teachable moment” we need to ensure we make the right decisions going forward – but I am sure Mother Nature will teach us more than any government could ever do.





¹ The UK has had no formal food policy since the end of the Second World War, but leaving the EU, who had been making the majority of our food decisions, had prompted government to call for a National Food Strategy.  DEFRA commissioned businessman and owner of the Leon chain of restaurants, Henry Dimbleby, to carry out a full review, which is due this Autumn.   Part One of this report, specifically considered the cracks in the food system exposed by Covid and mindful of the trade deals the UK is now negotiating, has been published.  The report contains some useful statistics relating to our food habits during lockdown, which I have referred to throughout this article. You can download the report at

² Hungry for Change project

³ The Family Dinner Project






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.



Home Cooking 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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






Hot on Sunday,

Cold on Monday,

Hashed on Tuesday,

Minced on Wednesday,

Curried on Thursday,

Broth on Friday,

Cottage Pie on Saturday.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Herring are a pelagic fish, that is they swim in huge shoals.  This characteristic plays a huge part in their history, even the name herring, from the German word heer meaning an army, reflects the vast shoals they in which they swim.  The trouble with these shoals is that they appear and disappear on a whim.  During the 13th and 14th centuries, Skâne (then in Denmark, now part of Southern Sweden) was the capital of herring until the shoals disappeared, quite suddenly, around the beginning of the 15th century and reappeared in the North Sea.  The shoal tended to migrate around the British Isles in a south-westerly direction, and Scottish “Herring Girls” who had developed a tremendous speed and skill in cleaning and salting the fish, followed the shoal to provide their services.

The traditional way of eating herring fresh is rolled in oatmeal however when the supply of fresh fish is so sporadic preservation is essential.  Whilst the Baltic countries mainly preserve their herring by sousing in vinegar, Britain preferred smoking and kippers became a staple of our breakfast diet.  Our oldest form of smoked herring was the Red Herring, yes it did exist, and was cold smoked, un-gutted, until very hard and dry.  Bloaters replaced the Red Herring, using a lighter cure and smoking them for only a short time so that they remained soft.  Bloaters can still be found and are considered something of a delicacy because they need to be eaten with 2 or 3 days.  Britain did also use an old Dutch cure, applied to the un-gutted fish before they are hot-smoked, a faster process than cold smoking, which also cooks the fish.  Herring prepared by this method are called Buckling, but I have never seen them for sale.

Between 1950 and 1960 the herring catch in the North Sea fell by half, and this was not a result of natural movement of the shoal but over-fishing.  It spelt the end of many of the herring fisheries and our consumption of Kippers obviously fell too.  Until very recently, when it appears kippers are enjoying a revival in popularity with every supermarket reporting an increase in sales ranging from 12% (Waitrose) to 79% (Sainsbury’s Fresh Fish Counter).

Stocks of herring in the North Sea are now back at a sustainable level and rated as a “Fish to Eat” by the Marine Conservation Society.  They are high in Omega 3, so very good for our health, at least one portion of oily fish per person per week is recommended by the NHS.  The third, and perhaps most significant factor in the revival of the kipper’s popularity, is that smoking prolongs the fish’s shelf life.  Preserving, something that was a necessity for these pelagic fish, has allowed people to buy fish miles from the sea even when they have no fishmonger at hand.

Restaurants too are now frequently including cured fish on their menus.  Smoked haddock has enjoyed a leap in popularity at least to that of kippers.  Sharing plates are popular and fish is now often replacing meat charcuterie as an option.  Some chefs are keen to develop their own methods of curing and the release in 2019 of The Whole Fish Cookbook shows the level of innovation that is being achieved and that the nose-to-tail principle need not be restricted to meat.

So, what is the future for herring fishing in the UK?  Although we leave the EU on 31st January we immediately begin a transition period when we have to obey the Common Fisheries Policy again.  Boris Johnson has promised that this transition will not be extended into 2021 and if he is good to his word, and does not barter away our fishing rights as part of a larger deal, we will then have a substantially larger share of the herring stocks in the North Sea – 81% compared to the measly 9% we are currently allocated under EU quota systems.¹

Denmark, who have the lion’s share of the 91% of North Sea herring under current EU arrangements, are demanding that we give them 60% of the fish as their rice for allowing the UK a trade deal with the EU.  The Danes catch 221,000 tons of herring in British waters at the moment, which, when processed, would have a value of around £400 million.  We are, of course, unlikely to eat all of this ourselves, but our fishermen want to grant access only on an annual basis and then in exchange for reciprocal fishing opportunities in areas outside our own waters.

The Danes are not the only country demanding continued fishing rights in our waters, but I use them here as an example here because I am writing about herring.  Actually, there is also some 60,000 tons of West Coast mackerel, worth around £240 million processed, that could also be repatriated predominantly from the Danes and their Sandeel vessels strip, on average, around 200,000 tons of sandeels from the North Sea annually to use as pig feed or to burn in their power stations.  This latter catch we would like to ban entirely as sandeels form the natural base of the marine food chain.

I recently attended the annual Herring Festival in Clovelly, north Devon.  This pretty fishing village, famed for its steep cobble street, is now mainly just a tourist destination.  Yet there are still some fishing for herring and who would like to see a sustainable fishery revived here.  Their story is told via  and just as described here, on the day before I attended the festival, seals had stolen the catch from the nets so a second, early morning, catch had to be made.

This is small-scale fishing, but when Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox recently asked listeners what delicacy they missed from their hometown it was heartening to hear “baked herrings from Whitby” and “Arbroath Smokies hot off the smoker eaten on the harbour wall” amongst the replies.  Seems that these regional specialities haven’t been forgotten at all but are just waiting to be revived on a larger scale.

Herring Recipes

¹ Statistics from

British Garlic


Those of a certain vintage will remember when garlic was most definitely not British.  To older generations it epitomised all that was wrong with foreign food.  Now its place in British cooking is firmly established.  A clove of crushed garlic is added as a seasoning to most recipes that begin with chopped onion.  The Isle of Wight has become so synonymous with garlic that several varieties have been developed here, although it will grow pretty much throughout the UK.  Traditionally, garlic planted on the shortest day of the year (December 21) should be ready to harvest on the longest day (June 21st) although planting can begin as early as October or indeed, provided you choose a variety specifically designed for planting in the spring, as late as March.  June is when we look forward to fresh ‟wet” garlic, perfect for roasting whole.

As with any “seasoning” the correct amount is hugely personal, and individuals do vary in the way their bodies process garlic.  The cause of the pungent smell is allicin, a sulphur containing molecule, which is released when the garlic cells are ruptured.  These sulphur molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream and escape when we breathe, and through our perspiration.  Getting rid of the smell on your hands after handling garlic is easy, the little stainless steel “soap” you can buy works because stainless steel binds the sulphur molecules.  Getting rid of the smell after you have eaten garlic is somewhat more difficult.  The common accompaniment to garlic is parsley and, when chewed raw, this does help, but sadly the only real answer is 24 hours of normal bodily functions to flush it out!

There is a considerable difference between garlic that is consumed raw and that which has been cooked although not as great a difference as I had thought and discovered whilst on holiday with friends.  They had young children and we took it in turns to eat out or babysit.  One evening I ate a delicious whole bulb of garlic, roasted, as an accompaniment to lamb.  It tasted sweet and mild, and I suffered no unpleasant aftertaste.  The following evening my friends chose the same dish and, when I complained about the smell the next day, they told me they were getting their own back!

Despite the disappointing discovery that if you aren’t experiencing any after affect from eating garlic it doesn’t mean that neither is anyone else, my own capacity to enjoy garlic is largely determined by whether it is eaten raw or cooked.  Raw garlic does, for me, produce an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and an aftertaste that lingers throughout the next day.  What might have been enjoyable at the time ceases to remain so.  Elizabeth David, who is largely responsible for introducing the British to garlic in Mediterranean food as opposed to curries which had formed the bulk of their previous experience, notoriously blamed garlic presses for the unpleasant aftertaste.  Writing in Tatler in 1986, she records her delight in finding that in John Tovey she had an ally on the subject.  He regarded them as “utterly useless objects”.  Elizabeth David wrote …‟I’d go further than that.  I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic, their effect being precisely the reverse of what people who buy them believe will be the case.  Squeezing the juice out of garlic doesn’t reduce its potency, it concentrates it and intensifies the smell.  I have often wondered how it is that people who have used one of these diabolical instruments don’t notice this and forthwith throw the thing in the dustbin.  Perhaps they do but won’t admit it.”

Both John Tovey and Elizabeth David agreed that the best method was to crush a peeled clove of garlic lightly with the back edge of a really heavy knife blade.  It certainly saves the bother of cleaning the garlic press, although it is a good idea to reserve a board solely for crushing garlic to prevent transferring the taste of garlic to the next thing you chop, however carefully you have cleaned the board.  I was given a tiny board for this purpose years ago and still use it to this day.  I have to confess that I do also own a garlic press and, when used to add a single clove of garlic to the base of a casserole or other long-cooked dish, I can’t detect any over-powering taste.  However, for any dish where the garlic is to be consumed raw, or lightly cooked, I do revert to my board and knife blade.  I also purchased this beautiful looking pottery garlic spiral:

It was made by the wonderful potter John Leach and I couldn’t resist it.  However, it does involve using your fingers to rub the cut clove around the spiral (smelly) and then you have to transfer the paste to the dish you are making and wash the fiddly spiral, so I quickly reverted to the board and knife blade method.

A pestle and mortar can be used when you require a very fine paste, for example when making aioli, but make sure you have a smooth mortar not one of rough granite or it is a bugger to clean.

Whichever way you prepare your garlic, the fact remains that when eating it raw it is very pungent. When do we want to eat it raw?  I gave the example of aioli above, but there are plenty more examples and several different approaches to ameliorating the harshness of raw garlic.  One already mentioned is pairing it with plenty of raw parsley – the Italian Gremolata also includes grated lemon, another ingredient that help counteract the harshness.  Sometimes it is appropriate to blanch the garlic briefly, this is what I do when making pesto.  Likewise, when making Babaganoush, the garlic slices are roasted with the aubergine rather than added raw.  The Southern American condiment of Chimichurri, which accompanies meats, especially steak, also includes plenty of chopped parsley and, it should be noted, is also left to infuse for several hours, like a marinade, which may in itself tame some of the rawness.

Then there is the Italian habit of bruising a clove of raw garlic by rubbing it over a slice of tasted bread.  Even then the taste is quite pungent, which is fine if you want it to be the dominant flavour but less so if you are topping the toast with other ingredients, such as chopped tomato and basil.  For this sort of thing I prefer to use garlic infused oil.  You can make your own, although you need to remember to do so several hours in advance.  Finely slice a peeled clove of garlic into a pan of olive oil and heat very gently.  The garlic may be allowed to brown lightly before being left to infuse but on no account should it turn darker than this as burnt garlic has a very acrid flavour and is the reason why it is always added to onions in the final minute of their cooking rather than at the beginning.

I was given a bottle of Lunaio garlic infused olive oil and since that first bottle I can’t bear to be without it in my store cupboard.  The infusion is done at ambient temperature over several days so that it doesn’t affect the quality of the cold-pressed olive oil.  The flavour of garlic is quite intense although not harsh, so that often I can mix just a couple of tablespoonfuls with other olive oil.  This is what I do with hummous and other dips.  You can taste and adjust to the strength you desire.  Ideal.

Black Garlic is a fairly recent ingredient in the UK, which can be used without fear of overdoing it.  In fact, its lack of pungency means that you can eat whole cloves without fear.  Black Garlic is aged until it becomes so sweet it has been likened to Balsamic vinegar.  It doesn’t cook down like a normal clove of garlic so needs to be chopped quite finely to disperse it throughout a dish.

The fact that you can eat whole cloves of Black Garlic as a snack makes it an ideal way of enjoying the health benefits of garlic without the smell, although you can also buy odourless capsules if you want to take it for health.  So, what are the health benefits?  The list is varied and impressive, including curing warts, protecting against MRSA and food poisoning, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.  It was first suggested to me whilst suffering from a stubborn chesty cough for its decongestant properties (which are similar to those found in any of the allium family).  That is can also act as a decongestant for the blood by lowering cholesterol is, in my view, a better option than putting everyone over the age of 50 on statins.  Of course, I am not qualified to comment on the use of garlic in health, but it may be something you want to explore further.

Yes, garlic certainly seems to be firmly embedded in today’s British food culture, albeit with a lighter hand than is used in other parts of the world.

Useful websites for further information:



Chimichurri Recipe

This is my preferred proportions but feel free to adjust to your own taste.  There is no one authentic recipe for Chimichurri.


2 large cloves of garlic

Teaspoon of coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano

2 tbsps red wine vinegar

4 tbsps olive oil


Finely chop the garlic then sprinkle with sea salt and crush with the flattened blade of a large knife (or you could do this with a pestle and mortar). Transfer the garlic to a bowl containing the red wine vinegar and whisk in the olive oil.  Stir in the freshly chopped herbs and leave to infuse for at least 2 hours before serving over grilled meat.


First Earlies

St George’s Mushrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Herb of the month – Sorrel

Young Broad Leaf Sorrel

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

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

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

Wild Sheeps Sorrel

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

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

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

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

Regional Baking for Easter

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

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

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

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