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 http://www.boatstories.co.uk/fishing-for-clovelly-herring.html  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 https://ffl.org.uk/

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.

Taking Stock of UK Dairy Farming in 2019

Throughout February the dairy industry has promoted the positive aspects of dairy under the hashtag #Februdairy.  This was, at least in part, in response to the negative press that dairy has received at the hands of vegans, including the shocking revelation that a list of dairy farms to be targeted for abuse exists.  As if having to contend with bTB and prices so low that many dairy farms have already gone out of business weren’t enough, our farmers are now being persecuted for feeding us. The #Februdairy campaign was one that I was happy to support, mainly from my perspective as a cook but also as a long-standing protector of endangered foods.  One of the advantages of a month-long focus on one single aspect of food and farming was that I discovered several new producers and initiatives.  What follows is a summary of my findings over this month.

Milk – nutritious and affordable

The Campaign Mission4Milk was launched on 22nd February to continue the work of promoting the health benefits of milk post #Februdairy.  Dairy is now widely seen as fattening and dairy-free is a phrase all too frequently seen as a positive.  Yet rickets, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Britain, is again on the rise, and milk is one of the main dietary safeguards against this.  It is as near a whole food as we can get and personally, when I am struggling to get my young nephews to eat a balanced diet, I heave a sigh of relief that they will always drink milk.  The fact that it is so cheap (too cheap) makes it one of the best sources of nutrition for those on very limited incomes.  Whilst I have concerns about the effectiveness of blanket marketing of dairy products (see below), these attributes remain tremendously important.

Grazing as protection against the effects of climate change

The highest temperatures ever to be recorded in February occurred this year and most farmers were able to turn their cows out to graze.  Whilst one incidence of unusual temperatures is not proof of global warming, the subject did get a lot of coverage this month.  School children went “on strike” to highlight their demands for climate change to be declared an emergency and a book, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, was published stating that things were much worse than previously thought.  This brought the role of grazing in land management into focus.  Despite last year’s drought and predictions of similar this year, the UK climate is still one of the best in the world for growing grass.

Two-thirds of UK farmland is down to grass, much of it unsuited to growing any other type of crop.  Grazing it with livestock is the only way to convert grass into food for human consumption.  The degradation of our soil and its inability to hold water can also be restored by effective grazing, broadly termed “mob grazing”, which has is much more effective than random grazing or just spreading slurry.  The land and air quality can be further improved by Silvopasture – planting trees and hedges.  Far from being bad for the environment, grazing should be considered part of the solution

Whilst nearly all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly grass-fed, the amount of time spent grazing outdoors varies considerably, in addition the health benefits of grass-fed diminish considerably in a pretty short time of grain feeding.  Two organisations to look out for are Free Range Dairy whose Pasture Promise label guarantees a minimum on 180 days a year outdoors, and Pasture for Life, which certifies 100% grass fed meat and, for the first time this month, cheese.

The Ethical Dairy

Animal welfare is the first objection to dairy raised by vegans.  They believe that milking animals for the benefit of humans is an abuse of those animals and there is probably nothing that can convince them that dairy cows are very well looked after and happy.  However, there is one aspect that dairy farmers themselves are uncomfortable with, and that is what to do with the bull calves.  Finding someone to take them can be difficult and some farmers have to give them away but there is a slowly increasing market for veal and for some farms this is a profitable diversification.

An increasing number of micro-dairies are even affording to keep the calves with their mothers until they are ready to be weaned.  Obviously, this reduces the volume of milk available for sale, but people seem prepared to pay for it (up to £3.90 a litre) and Radio 4’s Farming Today programme recently discussed how this approach could be upscaled.


“Business as usual won’t convince Millennials to consume dairy” is the title of an article by micro-dairy and beef farmer Alex Heffron, the full text of which can be read here: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/business-as-usual-wont-convince-millennials-to-consume-dairy/

It expresses perfectly the thoughts that had been gathering in my own mind.  As someone with a passion for food who can afford to pay for it to be produced in the way I prefer, I needed to question whether micro-dairies will remain a niche market or whether in fact they provide a way forward for dairy farming.

I have been fully behind Farmers for Action in their efforts to force a fair price for milk.  However, I believe that a system that has seen milk reduced to a mere commodity will inevitably see it traded as such.  Under this system there is no reward to the farmer who takes better care of his land or animals, whose milk might taste better or be more nutritious.  It all ends up, literally, in the same pot, with organic being the only significant differentiation.  Below are three extracts from Alex’s article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but these points explain why I have concluded that his approach is right.

…I think the dairy industry needs to look at what’s underlying consumer concerns. Why is it, for example, that older generations say dairy is good for them, and younger generations say that it is bad for them? What’s happened in the last couple of decades that’s led to such a wholesale change in opinion? Dairy is still the nutritional food source it always was – after all, northern Europeans are very well adapted to consuming milk thanks to a chance genetic mutation thousands of years ago.

…Identity can lead to trust – or lack of it. If your milk is packaged in a bland, plastic bottle and you don’t know what farm, region or even country that it’s produced in and there’s no information about how it’s produced, then it’s hard to trust its provenance. I think farmers underestimate the importance of provenance, as they take knowing where their food comes from for granted. The general public are wanting to know more about their milk, as well as other foods. The dairy industry’s mass marketing campaigns for a nebulous product are missing the point.

…There are two basic issues that face farmers and they’re both intertwined. They’re paid too poorly, and they’re undervalued and under-appreciated. This is inevitable in a commodity market. The rebranding and re-localisation of milk is an essential first step towards addressing these issues. Farmers will feel better about the work they do, and rightfully get paid more for it. There is a revolution in dairy waiting to happen and some innovative farmers are already starting to reap the rewards. Those who are investing in bottling their own milk, producing their own cheese, yoghurt or kefir, and connecting with their customers are getting a head start in a completely uncontested marketplace. It can be done on the individual farm level or in co-operatives, but it won’t be achieved in supermarkets. This is a chance for farmers to take back some of the power from large corporations.

Unique Selling Points

To market your own milk you need to have a “unique” selling point.  In addition to the health and welfare angles discussed above here are some more things that people are willing to pay more for:

  • Breed – Most of the early adopters of direct selling have traditional dairy breeds. Several of these sell their milk raw. They have also been the most likely to have the alternative of selling their milk to a cheesemaker who will pay a higher price for the suitable fat structure.  There is a shortage of milk suitable for cheesemaking as Francis Gimblett found when he started his Surrey cheese business three years ago.   Of the 23 farms within a 30-mile radius, most couldn’t supply him, either because their contracts with the big dairies wouldn’t allow it, or the milk quality wasn’t good enough for making cheese.  When people can really taste the difference, they are far more likely to remain loyal to a brand.  There are fewer options for those who followed the high-yield path provided by Holstein, but it has been done!
  • Glass Bottles – Concern about plastic has led to a rapid rise in those who would like to buy their milk in a glass bottle, or even their own re-useable vessel.  Glass bottles stand out on the shelf.  A vending machine can give both options.  Josh Hares runs a 200 head herd of Holstein Friesians at his farm near Wells and the decision to install a vending machine as well as finding a market for his bull calves enabled that farm to turn things around following a long period of bTB.  Full article here: https://www.fginsight.com/vip/vip/making-dairy-pay–17994
  • Diversification – sorry to use the word, but I’m not talking Yoghurt not Yurts here!  I live next door to the headquarters of Yeo Valley Dairy, who made their name selling yoghurt when it was still a niche product.  Today’s equivalent would, I think, be Kefir.  Only a year or two ago it was only to be found in a health food shop but now even Arla are doing it.  Those really interested in health want a pure product but the price paid reflects that, e.g. Daylesford Organic Milk Kefir sells for £4.99 for 500ml via Ocado and their flavoured Kefir, via their own shop, for £3.99 for 250ml.  Ice Cream has proved another popular route to getting value from your milk and there is still plenty of potential for good butter, of which we are still a net importer.

You can see Suzanne’s #Februdairy tweets on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie

The Joys of The Table

Sir, Respect Your Dinner,

Idolize it, enjoy it properly.

You will be many hours in a week,

many weeks in the year,

and many years in your life, happier if you do.

(William Makepeace Thackeray)

The Thackeray quote above is one I try to live my life by – it is included in my introduction to Food Culture.  Over the past year, I have been reminded to return to it and re-examine whether my approach to setting a table is in keeping with the sentiment.

The annual Real Farming Conference, which takes place in the first week of January, provides a perfect platform for making food related resolutions.  The topics debated are of the utmost importance to the future sustainability of farming in the UK.  Against this worthy backdrop it is almost apologetically that I tell you that my food resolution for 2019 relates to how I set the table, but please indulge me!

The catalyst for this was not the Real Farming Conference, but a new responsibility I have taken on for looking after my two nephews after school until their parents get home from work.  It includes giving them their evening meal.  Interesting them to a wide variety of food and learning how it is produced is, unsurprisingly, my main focus.  The bigger surprise to me was how important the table is in this endeavour.  Being comfortable whilst you eat is important.  Ideally, children should eat at a table of a size where their feet will touch the floor.  I cannot provide this, but have observed carefully what else I can do, and it seems that involving them in setting the table helps.  Initially, my husband and I ate after the children had been picked up but, and thankfully it is only once a week, we now eat with them at 5.30 pm.  Rather than being presented with their meal already plated, they like to have dishes on the table from which to help themselves and frequently return for more.  Yes, this makes more washing up, but it got me wondering why we save our best tableware for the occasional dinner party.

There has been quite a backlash against formal dining.  Dinner Parties have been replaced by Kitchen Suppers.  Please don’t mistake me, I am not an advocate of formality.  I can’t bear to eat in the sort of establishment that won’t even allow me to pour my own wine.  At the same time, I have become fed up with having to fold paper to stabilise my table, sit down gingerly on a chair that looks as though it might be about to collapse, and drink wine out of tumblers that would look more at home in a bathroom.  Showing proper respect to the winemaker by serving wine in a glass that will enable the bouquet to be appreciated is surely a better approach to drinking alcohol than treating it as mere plonk?

I have been asked in the past whether my insistence on knowing how, and by whom, my food has been produced doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.  Actually, I find quite the opposite.  I am very fortunate that I have often either visited the farm or know something of the producer’s history for the vast majority of food that appears on my table.  The feeling of connection is deeply satisfying.  In a similar way I am rediscovering the pleasure to be found in remembering who gave us this of that particular plate or dish.  It is not only children who find lighting a candle makes an occasion special.

Therefore, my food resolution this year is to extend my mindful approach to the presentation of the table, even if it is nothing more than ensuring the kitchen table is clear of other clutter and picking a few extra herbs as decoration rather than just for the pot.  Life is short, but every meal is an occasion.

A British Halloween

A British Halloween

I’ve come to hate Halloween with the adoption of American traditions such as Trick or Treat.  If you have children you will find it hard to fight against, but perhaps reintroducing some of our own traditions will help.

Ever popular with children is Apple Bobbing and indeed apples feature in many Halloween traditions.  Also perpetually popular is sitting around a fire telling ghost stories.

Fires were lit to ward off evil spirits and, thus protected from harm, people believed that the ghosts could help foretell the future.  Nuts might be thrown into the fire – if a nut burnt brightly it meant that the thrower would still be alive in twelve months’ time.  If it flared up suddenly, it foretold marriage within that twelve months.

The most common question put to ghosts concerned future marital prospects.  Apple pips could be thrown on the fire in the same way as nuts with the name of the loved one being said as the pips were thrown.  If they were lively as they burnt, spluttering and popping, it meant the love was returned, but if they burnt silently this was not a good sign.

There were several other ways that apples were used to foretell romantic prospects.   One involved peeling an apple in one long piece – the length of peel predicting the length of life remaining.  Women who wished to predict who they would marry would then throw the peel over their left shoulder – the form it took was meant to spell out the first initial of their future husband.  If a woman had more than one potential lover in mind as her future husband, she could stick apple pips to her face – one for each lover.  The pip that remained stuck for the longest would foretell who would remain most true.  Another method was to cut an apple into nine pieces then, at midnight on 31st October, begin eating the pieces whilst looking into a mirror.  When she got to the ninth piece, rather than eating it, it was thrown over her left shoulder and the face of her future lover was then supposed to appear in the mirror.

Cakes or puddings were made which contained fortune telling charms:

A coin for wealth

A pea for poverty

A button for a bachelor

A thimble for a spinster

A wishbone for your heart’s desire

That someone’s fortune was so bound up with marriage seems very old-fashioned and some charms, such as the matchstick, which predicted that your husband would beat you, have thankfully disappeared. Nonetheless I remember buying Halloween Brack in Dublin, finding a wedding ring and thinking how much more pleasant this was than trick or treating.

Baking Classics

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

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

  1. 1. Overnight Risen London Bloomer

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

  1. 2. Regional Yeasted Bun

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

  1. 3. Crumpets

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

  1. 4. Scones

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

  1. 5. Shortbread

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

  1. 6. Suet Pastry

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

  1. 7. Hot-water crust pie

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

  1. 8. Teabread

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

  1. 9. Eccles Cakes

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

  1. 10. Trifle

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

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

Plums, Damsons and Gages

Mirabelle Plums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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