Saturday, 6 February 2016

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb!

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb

When I started 'big' school, the maths teacher was less than impressed with my homework.  He would show his despair at my inability to grasp calculus by writing 'rhubarb', with a furious flourish, across my pages of painfully reached conclusions.  What he meant, of course, was that my work was nonsense, rubbish, worthless stuff.  This slang use of the name of one of my favourite fruits/vegetables (discuss) presumably dates back to the 16th century when rhubarb was grown in the UK, not for its eating possibilities, but, as a purgative.  The increasing appetite for bitter coffee led to  affordable sugar in the 1700s and opened British eyes to eating rhubarb for pleasure rather than purging.  By the early 19th century we had learned, by accident, how to manipulate rhubarb's growth to produce a very different food from the thick-stemmed, pink/green shafts topped by exuberant, non-edible, leaves that grew in our gardens.  I've written about this before so go to Rhubarb Triangle if you want to read more.

Why am I returning to the subject of rhubarb?  Because of seasonality, each year in early January slim stems of soft-pink through to ruby-red 'forced' rhubarb stems briefly appear at market.  And this year photographer Martin Parr has a perfectly timed exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery, part of which focuses on 'The Rhubarb Triangle'.

If ''Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb' is familiar to you it's likely to be for those, supermarket, small pink, plastic-wrapped, decapitated  bundles or, if you're lucky, glowing sticks laid out, untrimmed, on the shelves of your greengrocer's shop.  Martin Parr's 'The Rhubarb Triangle' project digs beyond the beauty of the candle-lit harvesting of the crop and its consumption.  When I posted a snap of what I was seeing at the exhibition, someone commented "It looks like a horror movie."  Parr's project captures the dirty, cold, labour-intensive work of moving the plants from field to shed, its back-breaking nature clearly etched on the faces of the workers in this triangle of West Yorkshire land between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell.  It's an exhibition well worth seeing, along with the fantastic permanent collection of Barbara Hepworth's work and that of her contemporaries.

Image taken by me at The Hepworth Wakefield
The Rhubarb Triangle Exhibition by Martin Parr

On my visit, a detour into Wakefield market yielded no rhubarb and in Leeds market only a few sticks of the local speciality.  I hope this means that local people buy direct from the growers thereby getting the very freshest produce.

I'll happily use my allotment-grown rhubarb in various ways - crumbles, cakes, muffins and jams - but for me, by far the best way to enjoy 'forced rhubarb' is simply, and gently poached.  The addition of one of the following before poaching is good - a vanilla pod; a little preserved ginger; orange zest and/or juice; or a single clove.  Best of all, I think, is to add a teaspoon or two of rosewater just before serving.  Forced rhubarb is expensive - think of all that hard graft - particularly this winter when the necessary frosts have been few and far between.  But it is special and poaching it will give you a pot to keep in the fridge to be eaten by the spoonful, with yogurt or cream perhaps.  Here's how I like to poach my forced rhubarb, along with a great recipe for Hazelnut Shortbread from The Kitchen Revolution by Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron.  These biscuits add an accompanying buttery crunch.

Poached Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb
with Hazelnut Shortbread (and a dab of cream)

Poached Rhubarb

1 kg (36oz) pink forced rhubarb
175-200g (6-7oz)  caster sugar
Just before serving - add a teaspoon of rosewater to each serving

Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan).  
Wash and top and tail the rhubarb.  Cut into 1 inch/2cm lengths.  Place in an ovenproof dish.
Sprinkle with the sugar (if you opt to use a flavouring other than rosewater - see above - now is the time to add it).  Cover with a cap of greaseproof paper and cook for 30 minutes.  If your spears are thin ones they should be soft but still holding their shape.  If they are thicker then give the dish a very gently stir, replace the paper cap and cook for a further 10-15 minutes.  
Remove from oven and leave to cool a little.  Using a slotted spoon, gently place the rhubarb in a bowl (if you have used a clove, remove it now).  
Pour the juice into a small heavy-based pan, bring it to the boil then simmer until the juice is reduced by half.  
Cool and stir the thickened juice gently into the fruit.  The compote will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to a week.

Hazelnut Shortbread
(makes 30-40 small biscuits)

125g (4½oz) softened unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing)
50g (2oz) caster sugar
100g (3½oz) skinned, toasted hazelnuts
150g (5½oz) plain flour
pinch of salt
A little caster sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 160C (140C fan).
Grease a baking tin, approx 26 x 16 x 2cm, with butter.  Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Pulse the hazelnuts in a food processor (or bash them in a tea towel) into small pieces and add them to the butter and sugar mixture.
Fold in the flour and salt to form a light crumbly mix.
Press the dough evenly into the greased tin and score into fingers without cutting all the way through.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Remove, dust lightly with caster sugar and allow it to cool a little before breaking the shortbread into fingers along the score lines.

For the biscuits in the photograph above, I rolled the dough into a cylinder (handling it as little as possible), chilled it, then cut coins of dough to place on two greased baking trays and baked the biscuits for about 20 minutes.

My maths may not have improved much but I do know that rhubarb is very far from being worthless stuff, particularly when it's Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Good & Proper Tea

Good & Proper Tea

The first really cold day of winter and I'm in need of something hot and comforting.  It's more than two years since I first queued at Good & Proper Tea's silver Citroen H van, parked up in south London, for a steaming hot cuppa.  There were hot buttered crumpets too, with honey, marmite or jam for those in need. The sheer simplicity of a good and properly made cup of tea and a freshly made crumpet was such an obvious winner, I wondered why I'd never seen it done before.

There are food and drink trucks all over London serving up everything from Pizzas and burgers  to pork buns and gumbo.  Personally, I can pass on 90% of them, but, when they really focus on what they do best, they are a glorious part of London life.  Good & Proper Tea is definitely in my top 10% category and, finding myself in Old Street, I headed straight for its first premises to refuel.

It's not easy to find right now being in a not-quite-finished office development, but if you find yourself by Old Street roundabout it's worth seeking out.  The space is small but functional.  A long bar allows you to see all the teas on offer - a selection that has grown over the past couple of years and ranges from a strong Indian Assam black tea through a savoury Sencha to a tart, ruby-red infusion of Egyptian Hibiscus.  You can take-away or, as I did, shelter from the cold on the single bench inside in the warmth.  A delicate cup of fresh, floral Oolong was very welcome and, joyously, there are still crumpets for tea - now made with a sourdough starter and all the better for it.  It's not at all compulsory but I confess I like to talk tea and Manager Ashley happily and knowledgeably obliges.  I hear a second branch, in Soho, is planned.

Somehow they've managed to keep the easy-going air of that Citroen van - which is still on the streets by the way, including south of the river at Brockley Market where I first encountered it.  Good tea, properly made, and crumpets.  I like Good & Proper Tea very much.

Good & Proper Tea Co  
The Bower
211 Old Street
London EC1V 9NR

Monday, 4 January 2016

What excites you for 2016?

Celeriac & Ardrahan Pie
at 40 Maltby Street

The last weekend before the return to work and the last party of the holidays.  The hosts are generous, they have the ideal party space, and the food is simply delicious.  It's the perfect start to the New Year.  Maybe because the guests are mostly from the arts world rather than food, and I've successfully switched off from the food side of my life, but I shouldn't have been taken by surprise by the question "What excites you for the coming year?"  He wants to know what new things I think will be interesting, intriguing and inspiring in the food world in 2016.  I open my mouth and nothing comes out for a good 10 seconds.  I'm shocked at my initial lukewarm answers - a couple of promising restaurants openings, some good new voices in food, like the lyrical Rachel Roddy.  But surely it isn't all about the new.  A quick glance back to the food press predictions of 12 months ago confirms how over-excited we can get about all those new restaurant openings and book launches.   How many lived up to promise?

I was still thinking about the question, and my reaction, 24 hours later.  So it's the subject for my first post of the New Year, because if I can't get fired up about what's happening in food in London, there is no point to this blog. For me, and most Londoners, our food lives are mostly about the tried and tested  favourite restaurants, producers,markets, shops and bars.  I'm as likely to tell you about a restaurant that's been around a while as I am to introduce you to a new one - plenty of other people are doing that and by the time I've satisfied myself they are not a flash-in-the-pan, they are no longer the newest.  But here goes.  Firstly, 2015 restaurants I haven't yet managed to get to include Bao in Soho (I love their pork buns but not the pavement queues here at their permanent home); The Good Egg in Stoke Newington, serving up all-day Middle Eastern breakfasts; Lurra in W1, which describes itself as a "Basque Grill" and is sister to one of my favourite places, Donostia, next door - excellent meat and fish, I'm assured; Kitty Fisher's in Shepherd Market - I like the sound of everything that comes on the menu but I'm no good at booking ahead; Pizza Locadeli where Giorgio Locatelli has created a pop-up pizza joint.  It may sound an unlikely diversion for the chef behind Locanda Locatelli unless you remember Spiga in Soho's Wardour Street which opened in 1997.  In its early days when, Locatelli was involved, it served up the best pizzas and pasta in town and it was a sad day when he cut loose.  Originally Pizza Locadeli was meant to end its short life at Christmas but will now, I hear, go into March 2016.

As usual, there have been plenty of announcements for the coming year but the ones that have caught my attention are Clare Smyth, having just cut her ties to Gordon Ramsay, planning to set up her own restaurant in London; Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes returning to his Viajante roots in Wapping (if he can raise enough crowdfunding cash); Monica Galetti setting up Mere in Fitzrovia's Charlotte Street after leaving Le Gavroche; and Greg Marchand arriving from Paris to set up Frenchie in Covent Garden.

Page from
30 Ingredients by Sally Clarke

There are voices in food well worth tuning into.  One book that just managed to squeeze into 2015 sounds well worth a read - First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson explores where our food habits come from, how we can influence our childrens' tastes and change our adult ones for the better.  Joanna Blythman's Swallow This was a must-read in 2015 with insights into the reality of the modern food processing industry.  On the cooking front, one of the freshest voices has to be that of Olia Hercules, whose first book Mamushka hit the bookshelves in 2015.  She is everywhere right now with recipes and stories straight from her Ukrainian heart and a work ethic to go with her talent.  And soon we'll have Rachel Roddy's second book - expect it to be laced with her lyrical prose along with excellent recipes.  Her first, published in the UK as Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome is coming out in Canada and the USA in early 2016 with, for some reason, a name change to My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and notes on Italian Cooking.

Edmund Tew
from Blackwoods Cheese Co

We all have our favourite shops and producers.  In London when a loved small producer sells out to big business it doesn't go down well with the customers and when it's a brewery it cuts deep. The end of 2015 saw London-based Camden Brewery take the money and run.  Other producers I like who are still doing it their way, and doing it well, include Bermondsey-based The Kernel Brewery, just a few doors up from cheesemaker Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein whose Bermondsey Hard Pressed, along with a few other cheeses, is maturing nicely.  His cheese toasties from a stall at Borough Market still can't be beaten - many have tried.  Another cheesemaker to watch is Blackwoods Cheese Co based in Brockley, South London.  Starting out with a simple, delicious feta-like cheese, Graceburn, sold in jars, they've added Edmund Tew and William Heaps to their range (named after convicts who were transported to Australia's penal colony for stealing cheese!). These guys know what they're doing.

I can't fail to get excited by bakeries.  Good bread used to be really hard to find in London but these days you don't have to go far to find a decent loaf or croissant - E5 in London Fields, The Little Bread Pedlar in Bermondsey, Brick House Bread in East Dulwich, Hedone in Chiswick, Bread Ahead at Borough Market, and Brixton-based Brockwell Bake being among the most notable.

Cinnamon Bun and coffee
at Brick House Bakery

A lot of these small producers are able to sell direct but London's small independent food , coffee shops and markets are invaluable in making them available beyond the close range of production.  Here are a few, The Quality Chop House shop on Farringdon Road; General Store in Peckham; Leila's Shop in Shoreditch; Jones of Brockley; Neals Yard Diary in Covent Garden and Borough; Sally Clarke's Shop in Kensington; Monmouth Coffee in Covent Garden and Borough; Fowlds Cafe in Camberwell; and La Fromagerie in Marylebone and Highbury.  It's not easy being a small independent shop in London.  I wish there were more because without them I wonder if some of London's small producers would have a local market.  Weekly food Markets are all over London, Some of the best being Brockley MarketCrystal Palace Food MarketHerne Hill Market; and, London Farmers' Markets.

I'm not one for resolutions but this year I have plans to get out of London more and try places like The Sportsman in Seasalter and the Arts Cafe in Aberystwyth, but where London's concerned there's plenty to interest, intrigue and inspire.

Now, ask me that question again, just don't expect my answer to be all about what's new.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Gifts for Food Lovers 2015

from The Little Bread Pedlar

As usual my end of year gift choices for food lovers focuses on modestly priced gifts from small independent businesses plus one pushing-the-boat-out item.  Some are made by the seller, others are simply, carefully selacted, products for their customers.  As I live in London, all of these can be bought direct and, where possible, I've mentioned alternative sources that may be closer to you. In some cases you can also buy on-line.  These are things I buy for myself or for like-minded food lovers.  I hope it gives you some inspiration for gifts for the food lover in your life and makes you think about buying gifts from small businesses close to you.

Panettone  £15.00-£17.00

Why: Much as I like a slice of Christmas cake, a Panettone always comes home with me at Christmas.  I can never resist the Ulcigrai family panettone from Trieste.  It's available at Leila's Shop in Shoreditch and also sold at Monmouth Coffee's Covent Garden and Borough Market shops. 
This year The Little Bread Pedlar has a strong homemade challenger.

Where in London: Ulcigrai at Leila's Shop (E2) and Monmouth Coffee (WC2, & SE1); The Little Bread Pedlar (SE16 Saturdays)

Coedcanlas Delton Martins Ontario Maple Syrup   £7-£8.00

Why: This pure maple syrup has been added to the fantastic Coedcanlas range of honeys, marmalades and fruit jellies they make themselves.  The syrup is made by the Delton Martin family from the Mennonite community in Southern Ontario, Canada from sap collected from their own maple trees.  It's the best maple syrup I've ever tasted.  I know of only two sources in London for this, both of them keep a great range of food and drink.

Where in London: General Store; Jones of Brockley 

Hand-blended teas and wooden scoop
from My Cup of Tea

Hand-blended Tea & teaware  from £8.00

Why: A beautifully blended quality tea is always appreciated.  My favourite London-based tea blender has an aromatic Earl Grey which matches Chinese Keemun black tea with natural bergamot essential oil and cornflower and marigold petals (£8.00/100g); a Spicy Indian Chai, black tea with ginger, cloves, red peppercorns and cardamom (£12.00/100g); and a Chinese Osmanth d'Or Oolong, a lightly fermented  green tea with the aroma of Osmanthus flowers (£20/100g).  They also keep a beautiful range of handmade tea bowls, scoops, strainers and more.

Where in London: My Cup of Tea (Soho W1)

La Retorta Ewes' milk cheese  £6.95

Why: This unpasteurised ewes' milk cheese is sourced from Cáceres in Spain's Extremadura region.  Made with a rennet extracted from thistles, typical of the area, it's creamy and intense with a slight bitterness on the finish.  If you prefer British or French cheeses, Neals Yard Dairy and Mons Cheesemongers are among the best sources in London. 

Where in London: Brindisa (Borough Market SE1 and Brixton SW9); Neals Yard Dairy (WC2, SE1); Mons Cheesemongers (SE1, SE16)

Pump Street Chocolate Bars  from around £5.80 

Why: Pump Street Single Origin  'Bean to Bar' chocolate is still one of my favourites.  In particular a Madagascar Criolla 74% using beans from the Åkesson organic estate producing natural flavours of raspberry and membrillo.  Pump Street Bakery has quite a long list of stockists now so you shouldn't have too much trouble tracking some down but I've mentioned below where I know you can find a good selection of bars.

Where in London: Quality Chop House Shop; The General Store; Jones of Brockley

Microplane Cube Grater  £19.95

Why: There are any number of accessories to choose from at one of my favourite kitchen equipment shops but this Microplane Cube Grater caught my attention.  As I have learned, you really can't beat Microplane and the shape and design of this one is both stylish and practical.

Where in London: David Mellor (SW1W)

Josmeyer Le Fromanteau
from Dynamic Vines

A Bottle of Natural Wine  around  £25

Why: Which wine you choose depends, of course, on what you are going to eat with it but I would be very happy to receive this Josmeyer Le Fromanteau Pinot Gris from Alsace.  "Soft and sensual" it certainly is.  Suggested pairings are meat terrine, veal and mountain cheeses such as Vacherin and Reblochon.

Where in London: Dynamic Vines (SE16) Other good sources of natural wines in London are Gergovie Wines/40 Maltby Street (SE16), and Aubert & Mascoli (SE16).  Also, there's a limited selection at General Store and Leila's Shop.

Fern Verrow - a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen
by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley

A Book: Fern Verrow - a year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter & Harry Astley  RRP £25.00

Why: Choosing just one book to recommend is very difficult.  I have 5 on my book stack this year but this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for uncomplicated seasonal food that honours the ingredients. 

Where in London: All good independent book shops

Leach Pottery Porcelain
from Sunspel

Ceramics   £18-75

Why: I'm a sucker for ceramics and love the fact The Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall is still going strong almost 100 years after Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada set it up.  You can buy Leach ware direct from the Pottery but a collaboration with British brand Sunspel means you can buy this range of porcelain from Sunspel's London stores.  Prices range from £18 for a small creamer, mugs at £22-28, and various bowl sizes from £30-75.  Alternatively, if you want to commission a one-off piece there are plenty of potters working in London.  The Kiln Rooms is a very good place to start.

Where in London: Sunspel (W1, E2, SW1, W11) The Kiln Rooms (SE15)

Happy shopping.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Five Books for Food Lovers 2015

A page from Sally Clarke 30 Ingredients
(original photograph by Tessa Traeger)

Time for my annual food-book roundup.  This year I've limited myself to five, three of which I reviewed in full earlier in the year.  It has been a pretty good year for food books, so the choice wasn't easy.  As usual, I've included one book that wasn't newly published, but let's start with those that were.  The first is a story of adapting and living with the rhythms and cycles of the year and the delicious uncomplicated food that results; next comes a book that helped me to unlearn what I thought I knew and is constantly in my kitchen both for the recipes and the writing; there's a baking book stuffed with brilliant recipes and fine writing taking you into the life of a busy bakery and restaurant; next up is an offering of 30 favourite ingredients from one of my all time favourite chefs. My final choice delves into the culinary and social history of Sicily whilst taking a close look at 'Virgins' Breasts, Chancellor's Buttocks, and Other Convent Delicacies'

Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen
by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley

Let me say from the outset that I know the authors of this book, in as much as I've bought produce grown on their farm ever since they started to load up a van and bring it down to London for sale most Saturdays.  Last Saturday they slipped some copies of the book on the back of the van so I was able to buy a copy a few days before publication date.  I grow some of my own fruit and veg so I know a little bit about where this book is coming from. I'm an enthusiast, but that's not the reason I found this book difficult to put down.   The Fern Verrow land is farmed  biodynamically, but this is not a book only for those of us who embrace the methods of Rudolf Steiner.  If you care about how your food is grown and how it's cooked you'll love how this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for simple seasonal food that honours the ingredients.  This is food that you really want to eat. .......... Read more .....

Five Quarters - Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome
by Rachel Roddy

Five Quarters may seem a strange title but it's easily explained.  The number five recurs as the book goes along but Quinto Quarto (the Fifth Quarter) is the name of the distinctive style of cooking created by the workers at the Testaccio slaughterhouse towards the end of the 19th century.  Wages were partly paid in-kind with offal.  This being a quarter of the animals weight, it was known as the 'fifth quarter'.  The slaughterhouse is long gone and, no, this is not a book about offal, but it is firmly rooted in the Testaccio quarter of the city of Rome which this Englishwoman calls home.

The "notes" referred to in the sub-title are as delicious as the "recipes".  Arriving in Rome, almost by accident, the tourist decided to stay a while in a tiny flat above a bakery, next to the "coarse and chaotic" old food market.  As she began to get under the skin of this "straightforward, traditional, ordinary" part of Rome, a sense of guilt that she was part of the gentrification taking place in the area led her to resolve to buy local and truly embrace the life of this quarter and its "fierce sense of community". ........ Read more .....

Honey & Co - The Baking Book
by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

"Our days are governed by the rhythm of the pastry .... ".  For Honey & Co, this tiny restaurant in a London backstreet, it's the pastry section that provides the essential underpinning to their busy days, from breakfast to end of dinner treats.  Here is the book that has been so anticipated since last year's publication of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich's much loved debut Honey & Co Food from the Middle East.  I wrote about the 2014 book here.  Where the first book concentrated mostly on savoury Middle-Eastern food, The Baking Book offers recipes for sweet and savoury bakes, with the emphasis on the sweet ones. ....... Read more .....

Sally Clarke 30 Ingredients

by Sally Clarke

This second book by Sally Clarke comes 16 years after her first which was meant to be her only one: 'Sally Clarke's Book - recipes from a restaurant, shop and bakery'.  The latest is a celebration of 30 years of her eponymous, hugely influential, London Restaurant.  The principle is as simple and effective as the Chef's style of cooking - offering 30 favourite ingredients with a variety of ways to use them.  A glance at those 30 foods, from apricots and asparagus to sweetcorn and tomato, suggest a vegetarian focus and this is true in many, but not all, of the recipes.  For me, it's the way I want to eat - a little good meat and fish, and lots of fruit and vegetables.  The stated intent of the book is to "help to build confidence in the inexperienced cook and give guidance to others who simply need inspiration".  With Alice Waters as a friend, influence and mentor and 30+ years in kitchens, Sally Clarke is well qualified to to deliver on this aim.  The book is full of simple, effective suggestions like cracking the stones of apricots to extract the kernels to add another dimension to a a jam; how a generous seasoning of freshly made Gremolata can lift a meat or fish dish; how to make a classic Petits pois a la Francaise that truly celebrates the peas, lettuce and butter; and how to make perfect roasted potatoes. Uncomplicated recipes range from Scallop ceviche with landcress  lime and chilli; Salad of blood oranges, beetroot and pomegranate; Smoked haddock and leek pastiesQuince and rosemary Tarte Tatin; to Tomato salad with nectarines and feta.

I've long been a Sally Clarke fan, eating her delicious food countless times and reaching for her first book, particularly when I had some exceptional ingredient to do justice to.  Her philosophy of "the fewer ingredients on the list, the better the product" is one I share .  You'll never find Sally Clarke 'gussying-up' a plate of food unnecessarily.  I've only had this book a few weeks and am bookmarking recipes constantly.  It's also a beauty as photographs are by the fantastic Tessa Traeger.  

Sicilian Food - Recipes from Italy's Abundant Isle

by Mary Taylor Simeti

Mary Taylor Simeti's book was first published in 1989 as Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food.  I have never lived in, nor even visited, Sicily so whether this is "the definitive work on Sicilian cooking" the book notes claim, I cannot say.  I do know that Giorgio Locatelli admires Simeti's work and references her several times in his own excellent book Made in Sicily.  I enjoyed reading Simeti's writing for the culinary and social history it explores, taking us on an odyssey through the exotic tastes of conquering Greek, Roman, Arabic and Norman invaders to the cooking of more recent times, "those of hunger and faith, of pride and jealousy and joy". The book is peppered with quotes from Homer, Plato and Apicius as well as later travellers to the island who recorded their experiences there.  Recipes, collected from written sources, word of mouth and experimentation range from 'Strattu, the intensely flavoured dark red paste made by salting and sun-drying tomato puree; Tabcchiere di Melanzane (Aubergine Snuffboxes); the classic Cassata Siciliana (Sicilian Cassata Cake); to Granita di Limone (Lemon Granita), mentioning the delightful sounding habit of many bars in Sicily of dropping a scoop into a glass of iced tea.

I hope there is something in this list to inspire you.  

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spiced apple and hazelnut upside-down cake

The Orchard at the end of October

When we first took our allotment the orchard always felt like it was off-limits.  There were the bees, of course.  Seven hives of industry standing sentinel-like, strategically located at the northern end of the old orchard.  Through spring, summer and autumn activity is intense, a constant stream of one-track-mind bees roaming the allotments.  Dispersed, we welcome them, waggling from raspberry to gooseberry blossom, borage to squash flower.  Where they come together, in the vicinity of the hives, we growers keep a respectful distance most of the year.  Undoubtedly they are the most effective guardians of the orchard.  But there was also the Committee.  The first year we took on our allotment nobody mentioned the orchard.  In the second year we were invited to gather up a few windfall apples.  It was five years before we were invited to pick some plums and pluck a few apples direct from the trees.  Finally, it seemed, we were accepted.

One gnarled old apple tree hugs a hive, its weighted boughs bob invitingly in the breeze.  All through late summer we eye the tree, longing for the bees to calm down.  By the time the traffic to and from the hive slows to a lazy trickle, everyone else has filled their store and lost interest in the tree.  All except me.  Because this is the best variety in the orchard and this year the crop is spectacularly good - thank you bees.  Finally, right at the end of October, the bee activity began to slow down and we dared to approach the tree.  It was worth the wait.  Not that anyone knows what kind of apple it is.  Three varieties of plum and five apple of unknown variety in the orchard.  Each year there is a plan to find out what they are.  Each year this doesn't happen.  One day I will take on the task.

Late pickings in the Orchard

Apple trees thrive in wet and windy Britain.  The cultivation of over 2,000 dessert, cooker and 'inbetweener', in addition to several hundred cider apples is testament to our love for them.  Late July/early August sees the first apple harvests with Discovery, Gladstone, Laxton's Early Crimson, Beauty of Bath and Grenadier arriving at market.  Late summer brings Egremont Russet, James Grieve, Scarlet Permain and, in late September, a favourite of mine, the tiny but exquisite Oaken Pin.  Blenheim Orange, Falstaff,  Howgate Wonder and the cooking apple Bramley follow on through October, with Braeburn, Sturmer Pippin, Boiken and the cider apples like Herefordshire Redstreak bringing the season to an end by mid- to late November.

Spiced Apple and hazelnut upsidedown cake

I love an apple pie or crumble as much as the next person, but a good dessert apple cake recipe has eluded me up to now.  Having such a good crop this year, I've been able to experiment a bit and at last I have a recipe I will make again and again.  I knew I wanted a kind of apple upside-down cake, so I borrowed the creamed butter, muscovado sugar and honey mix from a Nigel Slater Honey Pear Cake recipe which I cut out of the Observer magazine a couple of years ago.  I wanted hazelnuts for flavour and for the oil they contain to keep the cake moist.  Personally if I'm buying nuts shelled I prefer skin-on.  I dry roast them in a frying pan until the skins loosen enough to, mostly, rub off.   I also wanted spice, particularly at this time of year, and went for plenty of cinnamon, a little vanilla and nutmeg.  I hope you like it too.

A helping of Spiced apple and hazelnut upside-down cake

Spiced apple and hazelnut Upside-down cake
(for an 18-20cm round cake tin)

50g (2oz) softened unsalted butter
65g (2½oz) muscovado sugar
1 tbsp mild honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 450g (16oz) eating apples
115g (4oz) softened unsalted butter
115g (4oz) raw cane caster sugar
A few drops of vanilla extract
A little grated nutmeg (about a quarter of a whole one)
2 large eggs, lightly mixed
65g (2½oz) plain soft flour
50g (2oz) hazelnuts, dry roasted and ground medium fine
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp milk

Heat oven to 180oC/160oC fan/Gas 4.

Lightly butter your cake tin.
Cream together 50g butter, 65g sugar and 1 tbsp honey.   
Spread evenly over the base of the cake tin.  

Peel (or not if you prefer), core and slice the apples fairly thinly.  Arrange in a closely overlapping spiral on top of the mixture.

Sieve together the flour and baking powder.  Stir in the ground hazelnuts and nutmeg.  

In a separate bowl, mix very well 115g butter with the 115g raw cane sugar until soft and fluffy.  Add the vanilla extract and gradually beat in the eggs, adding a little of your dry mixture if it looks like it might curdle.  Fold the dry mixture in gently, incorporating the tablespoon of milk at the end.  Smooth the mixture over the top of the apples.

Bake for about 45 minutes.  Rest for 15 minutes.  Place a plate on top of the tin, hold securely and turn over to release the cake upside-down.  Give the plate and tin a jiggle if it doesn't turn out straight away.

Best served warm, with our without cream but the cake does keep well for 2-3 days.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spring the restaurant

Spring restaurant

There's a freshly-picked quince on the table. It's there because it's seasonal, its fragrance is exquisite and it is on the menu.  This is my second visit and it's a good start.

The arrival is undeniably grand.  The long stone-flagged corridor in the West Wing of Somerset House, which used to echo to the footfall of scuttling civil servants, now directs diners in their best shoes to the door of Spring.  High ceilings; graceful windows; white cornicing; and a perfect shade of duck egg blue on the walls.  The cool blue and white theme is enhanced by ethereal artworks composed of white porcelain petals.  The space, warmed by caramel-coloured chairs and a little smokey-hued glass here and there.  A single, unfussy but thrilling, seasonal flower vase sits in the perfect place to arrest the eye and stop you scanning the whole vast space of the room in one go.  There's plenty of time.  You don't come here just to grab lunch.

Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing
at Spring restaurant

We're celebrating so, today we put aside the Set Lunch menu.  Agnolotti of buffalo ricotta, spinach and tomato with marjoram butter looks just like what it is, a plate of pasta.  Surely one of the most difficult of foods to arrange on a plate.  But the aromas and flavours of its ingredients are excellent and the pasta is perfectly cooked.  The seasonal quince makes its appearance baked to a caramelised softness in a Salad of quince, celeriac, cobnuts with Fern Verrow leaves and tarragon dressing.  Juicy, crunchy, aromatic, Autumn on a plate.

Wild halibut with spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing
at Spring restaurant

That appetite piquing salad was the perfect lead-in to Wild halibut, spinach, chilli and preserved lemon dressing.  At £34 this dish was pushing the boat out, but worth every penny.  A thick tranche of succulent flaky, firm textured expertly cooked fish, vibrant vegetables, and the sweet/sour pep of the lemon dressing.  I only wish my photograph did it justice.  And how could you not be happy when someone puts a meltingly perfect Slow-cooked pork with girolles, datterini tomatoes and polenta in front of you on a blustery October day?

Slow cooked pork with girolles, datterini and polenta
at Spring restaurant

Again my photograph does not fully convey the meltingly tender 2 cuts of meat, the intense jus and the smoky girolles - this is my idea of comfort food. We finished on Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel. The panna cotta here formed the base of the dish, its richness cut by damsons served as both syrup and ice cream.  A few leaves of the freshest wood sorrel added a lemon note and a buttery biscuit gave texture. Given my own fig leaf ice cream experiments, the lure of Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream hooked me.  Right at the end of the fig season, the fruit was a little jammy but suited the crunch of the spelt pastry, and the caramel running through the ice cream made for a lovely version.

Buttermilk panna cotta with damson ice cream and wood sorrel
at Spring restaurant

The front of house staff seem to effortlessly pull off a focussed yet relaxed attentiveness which produces just the right level of cosseting.  It's a well drilled team who can engage with diners who want to talk about the dishes.    

Spring is the creation of chef Skye Gyngell.  Her book 'Spring the cookbook' details what a labour of love it was.  I confess I never ate at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe where she made her name.  I know the Michelin star she was awarded there didn't sit comfortably on her shoulders and she has declared she'd rather never have another.  On both my visits here she has been in the kitchen and, judging by the cooking, I'd say she has cause to be very happy with what she is achieving.  The best ingredients, not necessarily the most expensive ingredients, are the foundation of her cooking.  For me the best chefs are those who maintain a link to the land and a feeling for the basics.  Gyngell sources from producers like biodynamic farmers Fern Verrow and shows an enthusiasm for making in-house breads, butters, yoghurt, ricotta, ferments and cordials.

This, I think, is a special occasion restaurant but there is a Set Lunch menu at £27.50 two course; £31.50 for three.  Portions are generous and it's good value for cooking at this level.  We could have chosen from Starters including a Fern Verrow salad, mains of Spatchcock quail or Onglet with a slice of Apple Tart to finish.  On a previous visit in June we ate from it very happily.  Including service, expect to pay around £75 per person a la carte with a couple of glasses of wine or £55 if eating from the set menu.

Fig and spelt galette with roasted fig leaf ice cream
at Spring restaurant

There is also a less formal, adjacent, Salon at Spring serving a simple menu and aimed particularly at those looking for a little something pre- or post-theatre.

For me, having sampled summer and autumn, roll on winter and spring for those set lunches - or maybe I can find another reason to celebrate.  

Somerset House
Lancaster Place
London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 3011 0115

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Autumn arrives on Plot 45

Seed saving - Sunflowers

Rays of late summer sun pierced the canopy of the tree.  The shady path curved gently right, its rough surface dancing with light and shade as a spirited wind whipped through the branches.  A handful of what looked like freckled limes littered the way stopping me in my tracks.  Walnuts, their fibrous, leathery casings showing signs of exploration by sharp-toothed or strong-beaked harvesters.  Swiftly I bagged them up.  In truth, my expectations were low - too early, too green, too fibrous perhaps.  On into early autumn, each walk down this path was accompanied by a nonchalant sweep of the ground for bounty.  Each time, taking the path that skirts the warm stone wall of the priory, I passed through the creaking gate into the sanctuary of the allotments.

Walnut harvest

Now we are really into autumn and each plot offers a little treasure as I pass by - a handful of lovage seeds to the right; the dried umbelliferae of fennel to the left; stiff sculptural poppy pods over there; and  decapitated heads of sunflowers atop a compost heap here.  On my own plot there are beans and pumpkin seeds to be saved, and I have my eye on a particularly beautiful nasturtium that has crept across from my neighbour.

Sunflower - Old Rusty

If I've learned anything since taking on this plot 9 years ago, it's that no two growing years are ever the same.  Just because something grew well one year does not mean it will thrive the next and the crop that did badly last year may well surprise you this.  In 2015 the stars have been the legumes and soft fruit, but leaves and beetroots have faired badly.  The herb bed is still looking fantastic, though for some reason parsley didn't thrive at all.  Yes, everything has gone if not yet to seed then certainly to flower, so goodbye to pungency.  And soon we'll be hit by frosts, meaning goodbye to the ritual of gathering bouquets as I leave the plot.  What's certain is however good a gardener you think you are, nature will always put you in your place.

Borlotti beans

So, you may as well take some chances, because you never know how things are going to turn out.  Which is why I've taken on the extra strip nobody seemed to want.  Unloved, uncultivated, dumped on and neglected, this hillocky patch of nettle infested ground is now mine.  Which is why, right now, I'm so often to be found chasing back nettle roots and levelling ground under this glorious autumn sun and praying for the weather to hold.

Herbs and Kabocha

I say it's mine but there are sitting tenants.  The field mice nesting low down in the base of the heaps.  Each time my hand hovers over a soft, furry bundle guilt overcomes me and I move on, leaving it to snuggle back down.  The squirrels treat it as a larder, their stash of walnuts far exceeding anything I managed to accumulate.  I'd like to take them home - the nuts I mean - but that guilt thing kicks-in and I carefully pile them up on one side of the plot like a helpful dinner lady.

Seed Saving - Poppies

But this beautifully prepared bed isn't for fruit or vegetables.  Maybe I'm mad, but I'm planning on roses.  Biodynamic roses.  Maybe, at last, I'll make rose petal jam.


Oh, and those walnuts?  Well worth amassing a stash.