Sunday, 4 December 2011

RAW FOOD ONLY

This week I am having a drastic change of diet, from one centred on cooked food (or at least foods which have had some heating as part of its preparation), to a very different diet of purely raw food.
My usual diet is not conventional as such, but despite my best endeavours to eat local, organic and seasonal food as much as possible, it must be fairly representative of how much heated food is eaten in most modern day societies.
Starting tomorrow, nothing which has been heated in excess of 40C during any part of its production, manufacture or preparation will enter my body for a week.
No pasteurised milk on my cereal in the morning, no mid-morning cake, no coffee (or the sugar in it), no bread, pasta, rice, polenta or barley for supper. No pasteurised cheese afterwards. No beer in the evening. And of course, no cooked meat, fish, fruit or vegetables.
So how will I eat? I think I’ll be eating very well indeed!
I may have some sliced pears with mixed seeds for breakfast.
I could make a light mayonnaise with a squeeze of lemon and a scrap of aromatic zest, and mix into grated Celeriac with a scattering of tiny capers for lunch.
A salad of shaved fennel, very thinly sliced shallots, segments of clementine carefully trimmed of pith, with a few spoons of trout caviar (I have a little pot of this in the fridge from a local trout farm in the Cotswolds) would do very well for supper.
I hope that by putting very tight constraints on what I eat and how I prepare it, I will be discovering exciting flavours, textures and combinations in what would usually be a time of year when I’d be eating thick, rich, heavy meals - braised meats, roast game, thick broths, creamy pastas and mounds of fluffy mashed roots.
I hope to be eating vegetables in their crispest, sweetest, most pure and vibrant forms, dressed with soft herbs, virgin oils, and lemon, and meat and fish cured with salt into aromatic prosciuttos and jamóns, and fermented into salamis, as well as simply sliced into tender carpaccio, chopped as a delicate tartar and pickled as lively Ceviche.
When heated, most foods (especially vegetables) are known to be considerably lower in heat-sensitive phytonutrients and vitamins, antioxidants, and important digestive enzymes (namely lipases, proteases and amylases), so my raw food diet should not only give me a fresh approach to food and eating, but leave me glowing with health!
I will of course miss my early morning coffee, the deeply savoury, and salty, unami hit of charred meat, the chewy, sour tang of handcrafted bread, and the smoky, pungency of toasting Asian spices, I revel in the idea of my new striped back diet of uncooked, unadulterated ingredients.        

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Winter salad of alpine cheese


With roasted squash, smoky ham, and fresh, raw spinach, this salad is warming and quick to make on a cold winter evening. I used a cheese called Chartreux, a semi-firm, washed rind cheese from the Vallée des Entremonts in the French alpine Chartreuse mountains. A fruity, lively flavoured cheese, fragrant and grassy, this is a typical mountain cheeses made in the valleys of the Alps. Cheeses such as Comté, Beaufort, Appenzell, Morbier, Raclette or Tilsit would be interesting substitutes.
 Ingredients:
1 bag baby leaf spinach
150g smoked ham, cut into lardons
1 butternut squash
150g Chartreux (or similar) cheese, cut into 1cm cubes
3 cloves garlic
Rosemary
1/3 baugette
Olive oil
Sherry vinegar
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
6 banana shallots


Method: 
1.       Dice the squash into 2cm cubes, toss in olive oil, sea salt, pepper, a little chopped rosemary, and a few bruised clove of garlic. Roast at 200C for 30 minutes, or until soft and beginning to caramelise.
2.       Meanwhile peel and quarter the shallots, and place in a small frying pan with a little butter, olive oil, salt, pepper and a teaspoon of sugar. Start cooking on a high heat before transferring to the oven.
3.       Cut the baguette into smallish pieces, toss in olive oil and place in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp and start to brown.
4.       When the squash and shallots are ready, take them out of the oven, and allow to cool slightly.
5.       Place a frying pan over a medium heat, add a little olive oil, and lightly fry the smoked ham, until warmed through and taking on a golden colour.
6.       In a large bowl, toss the baby spinach, shallots, smoked ham, squash, crisp baguette together with the slightest sprinkling of sherry vinegar and olive oil.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Beaufort d'alpage


One of my favourite cheeses of all comes from the high Alpine region of the Massif Beaufortin, where the steep-sided mountains reach 3000m, with deep, lush valleys below. Beaufort AOC is a cheese which production is limited to 3 of the valleys in this remote region – Val du Beaufortin, Val du Tarentaise, and the Val du Maurienne. Here, the mountain sides are snow covered for at least 6 months of the year, but as the snow recedes in mid-spring, the “alpage” (or high mountain grazing pastures) comes to life, with hundreds of rare and indigenous grasses and flowers growing and blooming. Flowers such as gentians, saxifrage and orchids grow here on the light, limestone soils. This unique cocktail of clean, unadulterated pasture, untouched by any cultivation, fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides, along with pure air mountain air creates an environment perfect for the production of this very special cheese. This environment is grazed for 100 day of the year, from June to September, by the two local breeds of cattle, the Tarentaise and the Abondance, which are grazed in large herds of up to 200 animals. Coming from the region, these breeds are hardy, and adapted to the steep inclines of the hills and the temperature fluctuations between night and day. Milking takes place in small, mobile milking parlours, with the fresh milk being pumped directly from the udder into churns, before being taken down the mountain to the dairy.
There are 3 types of Beaufort: Beaufort d’Alpage, made using this special summer mountain milk, Beaufort d'été, made using summer milk produced further down mountain, and Beaufort d’hiver, made during winter months, when the cattle are kept inside and fed on hay.
In large copper cauldrons, the milk is heated to 32C and renneted using a solution made from strips of dried calves stomach. The digestive enzyme, rennin is released into the solution, along with lactic ferments to ripen the milk. After coagulation, the curd is repeatedly cut, stirred, and heated to 53-54ᵒC. The curds are cut to the size of rice grains, and the heating and stirring encourages syneresis, the expulsion of whey. After this cooking process, the thousands of tiny curds are left to settle under the whey, and begin to form a solid mass at the bottom of the cauldron. The cheese maker removes them by slipping a large square cloth below the curds, tying the four corners of the cloth together, and hoisting the mass out from the whey and into a mould for pressing.
The rind of Beaufort is concave around the edge as a result of the mould being tightened around the cheese before a 24 hour pressing, during which time the cheese is turned and the mould re-tightened.
Now the cheese is ready for brining, and its maturation process begins.
This week I have been eating a delicious Beaufort d’Alpage, one of the first of the season having been made in early June with the very first alpine milk of the year. It is young, milky, honey-sweet and floral, with a soft and buttery texture, and very delicious.

Beaufort is wonderful at all ages, and if the cheese were to have been kept another 6-12 months, the flavours would become richer, meaty, more complex, with a firmer texture and perhaps the satisfying grainy bite an old cheese develops.     

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pheasant terrine

At this time of year I often find myself with more pheasants than I know what to do with. They can be delicious roasted (remove the legs and roast the breast on the bone with butter, apples and Calvados for 30 minutes at 230C), confit (lightly cure the legs over night with a dry mix of course salt, thyme and juniper, before covering in duck fat and cooking slowly for 4 hours), curried, braised, pot roasted, braised….almost any recipe which uses chicken can be applied to pheasant. Pheasants usually have a deeper, more satisfying flavour than a chicken – think of the hedgerow diets of berries, worms, grubs and grains that pheasant gorge themselves on all autumn.

Whilst I’d except to pay £15-£20 for a decent chicken, pheasants are often sold for a fiver a brace in the feather in rural butchers and farm shops, and £7-8 a brace plucked and dressed.
Here is a recipe for an autumnal terrine which celebrates the abundance of this versatile game bird.
  • 1 large pheasant, skinned and gutted (keep the liver, heart and gizzard)
  • 400g fatty pork (shoulder or belly)
  • 150g good quality bacon
  • 100ml brandy
  • Small bunch sage, chopped
  • 6 juniper berries, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1 quince (roasted in 100gsugar, star anise, cinnamon for 90minutes, cooled and diced)
  • 1 leek
Joint the pheasant into 2 breasts, 2 thighs and 2 drumsticks.  Make a cut up the side of the drumsticks, remove the bone and all of the sinews and tendons. Remove the bones from the thighs. Take one of the breasts and dice into 1cm cubes and set aside, along with the remaining whole breast.
Dice the bacon and the pork, and add to the pheasant leg meat. Add the heart, liver and gizzard (cleaned and trimmed). Mix well with the salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg, juniper, sage and brandy. Put this mix into a food processor and pulse until the meats are well minced. Be careful not to blitz for too long continuously, which will destroy the protein structure, and result in a sticky, pastey texture.
In a large bowl, combine this mix with the diced pheasant breast and quince.
Bring a pan of water to a rapid boil. Take the leek, trim both ends, and make a cut half way into the leek and slice down the length, to separate each layer of the leek. Blanch in the boiling water for 2 minutes, then refresh in iced water.



Line a terrine or bread tin in cling film, and lay each leek left along the bottom and sides (see picture below).
Start adding the meat, pressing firmly down to avoid air pockets. When almost half of the mixture is in the tin, take the whole pheasant breast, and lay it on top of the mixture, then add the rest of the mixture to encase the whole breast in the centre. When you have all the mixture in the tin, pull the cling film tightly over the top to seal, and cover in foil.

 Place in a bain-marie and cook at 180C for 70-80minutes. Take the terrine out of the bain-marie and allow to settle for an hour or two. Keep the terrine in the tin and find a weight slightly smaller than the tin to press the terrine with. A standard brick works (wrapped in foil). Leave in the tin, with the weight on top for 12 hours before cutting and serving.
The addition of quince gives a sweet flavour to this dense, meaty terrine.

Serve with watercress, toast and cornichons.  

Monday, 7 November 2011

Potting Crayfish

If you go down to the river today….look out for crayfish! The American Signal Crayfish is causing mischief and mayhem in our waterways. They’re bigger and badder than our little native crayfish and are rapidly destructing their habitat, eating their food, and spreading disease.

During the 1970s, a new inland form of aquaculture took hold across the UK as a response to the public’s growing acceptance to new foods and flavours. Ponds and lakes were stocked with fast growing crayfish from America. Inevitably, they escaped before too long and have been having a great time ever since – spreading across most of the UK, hidden deep under water. Something must be done to control the invasive Crayfish before it’s too late for our native stock….eat the bastards!
Find Crayfish at farmers’ markets, food fairs, on decent menus (the Kingham Plough makes lovely use of them), or catch your own. All you need is a small trap (similar to a lobster pot), some bait (fish guts work well) and a licence from the Environmental Agency.
These fine specimens were caught in Cotswold spring-water fed ponds near Moreton-in-Marsh, and were sweet and juicy. In the kitchen they are just as versatile as any seaside crustacean.  To kill the Crayfish, place them in a box in the freezer for 15 minutes, they chill out and begin to go into hibernation. Bring a large pan of salted water to a rapid boil, and tip the sleeping Crayfish in. They die immediately from the temperature shock, and turn bright red in seconds. Boil for 3-4 minutes, and then plunge into iced water to halt the cooking (an over –cooked crayfish is a soggy morsel). They are now ready for peeling and eating.
I potted my Moreton Crayfish, much like Morecambe Bay pots its Shrimps.

For 100g of cooked, shelled Crayfish, clarify 100g of unsalted butter by melting it ion a pan slowly, and scooping off the white, creamy solids. Add generous pinches of cayenne, freshly grated mace and nutmeg, and take off the heat. Add the Crayfish and a good half teaspoon of salt. Pour the butter and Crayfish into a small dish and leave to set. If all the Crayfish are well buried below the butter, this will last for a good week.


To serve, allow the potted Crayfish to warm up a little, so the butter is spreadable, and eat on hot, brown toast.    

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

A question I often get asked as a cheesemonger - "do I eat the rind?"

Well, this I feel is a very personal thing, but I'd say, try it, and if you like it, eat it! Many cheeses have delicious rinds (or skins, or coats, what ever you want to call them).

A few weeks ago I got told, to my dismay that a cheese looked "really ugly". I gave a taste of the ugle cheese to he who judged the book by it's cover, and won him over - the cheese was undeniably delectable! But to me, the cheese was beautiful, the work of an artist, and in this case, beauty was more than skin deep.

So here are a few beautiful (or ugly, depending on personal preference) rinds...


 Tomme de Savoie, an alpine cheese with a soft, velvet-like rind, which gives off a scent of cellar and walnuts.










Gorwyyd Caerphilly, Todd Trethowan's Welsh Caerphilly cheese has a simular mucore rind, with with its proteolytic nature, breaks down the curd beneath to a buttery, semi-soft texture.








Mahon, a traditional cows' milk cheese from the island of Menorca with a rind rubbed in olive oil and paprika giving a exciting, spicy flavour.






Langres, from the Langres plateau in Champagne, is washed in brine with a little annatto give a light orange colour to the rind. The bacteria (Brevibacterium Linens) which the washing of the rind encourages breaks the salty, flaky curd down to a creamy, sometimes runny consistency below the rind. A yeast (Geotrichum) gives the wrikled, "brain-like" appearance.




Reblochon de Savoie is dipped in whey from the previous days cheese making before being rubbed in brine during the ripening period. The rind slowly ripens the cheese to a creamy, yielding consistency with a savoury, brothy flavour to the rind.


Maroilles, another washed-rind cheese, is bathed regularly in brine to give a very sticky rind and a strong, pungent aroma. Again, the bacterial growth on the rind alters the texture of the cheese below to a creamy, soft texture and a rich, fruity flavour.






Mont d'Or, from the Jura and Haut-Doubs. The undulating rind is tender, and coats a melting paste inside the cheese - scented with the aroma of the spruce bark which surrounds the cheese.








Dorstone, a goats' milk cheese from Herefordshire is coated in ash before a thin Geotrichum rind forms, followed by downy tufts of Penicillium Candidum.









Mimolette is made in the French Flanders, and can be likened to a vieux Gouda - nutty, sweet, caramel, and fruity flavours with a brittle, chewy texture. The rind is pitted and craggy from an aging period of upto two years, during which time cheese mites burrow around the crust.









Stichelton, the raw milk blue cheese from Nottinghamshire. Here, the rind has a multitude of yeast, moulds and bacteria on the rind. Firstly yeasts - Geotrichum reduce the surface acidity to create a hosptiable environment from the bacteria - Brevibacterium Linens to grow, which is followed by the white mould Penicillium Candidum...whilst inside, blue Penicillium Roqueforti blooms when the cheese is pierced.



So a rind should always be sniffed, and not sniffed at. It ripens the cheese, it protects the cheese, and can often give you flavours, aromas and textures (the main reason for eating most things) unfound in the body of the cheese.

Montgomery Cheddar, bound in cloth and coated in lard.






Friday, 21 October 2011

Bletting the medlars

“I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
Stream within stream.”
So wrote D. H Lawrence on the medlar in his poem, “medlars and sorb-apples” from “Birds, Beasts, and Flowers”.

The medlar is a small fruit which to look at is somewhere between a small apple and a large rosehip, and is related to both. I have a small medlar tree which crops very heavily without fail each year. The tree can often be found in old orchards or growing feral in hedgerows, especially in the Midlands, Nottinghamshire and Kent – historically regions where medlars were popular.
When young, the fruit is coated in a fine peach-like down which is lost as the fruit matures and forms a rough, course skin. It is brown-russet in colour with a bowl shaped depression at the bottom end.
The medlar was grown as a food source since at least the 2nd century BC by the ancient Greeks, who valued the tree due to the fruits’ late-ripening. Traditionally the medlar would be the last fruit to be picked in the orchard, after an abundant autumn crop of plums, pears, apples and quinces, the medlar could be left on the tree until hard frosts began. But once picked from the tree, the medlar must undergo a unique preparation before it can be eaten. The fruit must be “bletted”, or rotted. Perhaps “controlled fermentation” sounds a little more appealing.
To blett a medlar, the fruits (hard and inedible from the tree), are put in a box and covered in sawdust. Hidden beneath the sawdust, the inside of the medlars break down from a hard, bitter, acidic flesh to a moist, brown, soft and fragrant paste ready for eating. D. H. Lawrence described the bletted medlars as having “wine-skins of brown morbidity” and “an exquisite odour of leave taking”. The smell is powerful and pungent, but not over powering; like the smell of an orchard in late autumn; full of wet leaves and decaying fruit. And the flavour of the medlar at this point isn’t dis-similar; a slightly alcoholic flavour, sweet and succulent, a little acidity and an earthy, woody, appley taste.
The Victorians scooped the soft pulp from the skins, separated the 5 large seeds, and mixed the fermented medlar flesh with cream and sugar and eaten as an accompaniment for port.
As much as I like the idea of this very antiquated fruit, I have to say, there’s something about the texture of a bletted medlar that I can’t quite stomach. However, I capture the aroma by making a medlar jelly, adding sugar dulls the more “fermented” flavours and brings out a honeyed, floral quality, not unlike quinces. To make the jelly, I chop the bletted medlars roughly, cover with water and stew for 30 minutes until very soft and pulpy. I strain this through a large square of muslin for 24hours – the juice must drip through very slowly to give a smooth-texture and clear appearance, never squeeze or apply any pressure to speed up the dripping.
Measure the quantity of medlar juice you have (discard the dry pulp left in the muslin) and add the same quantity of sugar. Slowly bring to a simmer, stirring continuously to dissolve the sugar. Once you are sure all the sugar has dissolved, bring the jelly to a rolling boil for 10 minutes before testing the set. When the jelly has the level of set you want, pour into sterilised jars and allow it to cool down and set.  
The jelly is a beautiful shade of deep crimson, and is delicious served alongside game - with roast partridge, pheasant or mallard.  

The medlar (once know as "dog's-arse")


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Bonjour Mont d'Or!

The season for Mont d’Or has finally arrived!
 After a long summer of grazing the hillside pastures of the Haut-Doubs and the Jura to produce milk for Comté d’estive and Morbier, small herds of the regions’ famous Montbéliarde have been moved into winter housing in preparation for the harsh alpine winter months.  
It is now, when the cows are being fed only the purest, sweetest alpine hay cut and dried from May-August, that Mont d’Or (or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs) is produced. Not only has the cow’s diet changed, but the lactation cycle of the herd will be coming to an end, a time when the fat level of the milk naturally increases.
Calving is usually staggered in larger herds of cows, to give a continual milk supply with changes in milk composition at various stages of the lactation being lost in the volume of milk. A smaller herd will tend to “block calve” so all the cows give birth at around the same time, and are all on the same lactation cycle. This rich, fatty milk is better suited to making soft cheese than hard cheese (although Comté is always made using partly-skimmed milk), and so is utilised by making a very special cheese – one of Frances greatest soft cheeses.

Mont d’Or is beautiful to look at; beautiful to taste; and with a beautiful story of respected tradition and regional agriculture behind it – the seasonal movement of animals dictated by landscape and climate, and the seasonal production of artisanal cheese, dictated by the milk.



The famous spruce band which makes Mont d’Or such a visually striking cheese is tied around the cheese when the cheese is very young, before the rind has begun to develop. The spruce cambium (a thin, pliable layer between the bark and wood of a tree) serves a practical function – to hold the ripening cheese together as it develops a melting, almost liquid texture, and also imparts the most striking aromas to the cheese. An aroma of rubbed pine needles, of Christmas trees, of soft-wood resin. As the cheese ripens and this unmistakeable aroma begins to develop, a thin rind starts to form – a delicate geotrichum bloom which breaks down the firm paste of the cheese, giving a creamy texture and yeasty flavour. Fluffy white moulds coat the cheese and act with the geotrichum to ripen the cheese and also give the rind an undulating or crumpled appearance.  Once fully ripened, Mont d’Or will have a tender, delicate rind with a powerful aroma – not just of spruce, but of cream, cauliflower and cured meat.

Try baking a small Mont d’Or. Stud the cheese with thin slivers of garlic and small sprigs of thyme before sprinkling with a little white wine and baking for 25 minutes.
The cheese comes hot and molten from the oven, scented with garlic and thyme. Spoon the cheese over toasted pain de campagne, baby celery hearts, French mountain hams, saussie de Morteau, acidic little cornichons and maybe a salad of frisée dressed with the lightest drizzle of walnut oil. This is one of the best meals of the year.
The Mont d’Or will be available from specialist cheesemongers until February or early March when the season draws to an end. The cows are dried off, for a few months before returning the hillsides for the first spring grazing after a winter under snow.
It is here where the herds will calf, and begin to produce milk for summer hard cheese making. Here they will stay, grazing in the summer until next autumn when the Mont d’Or season will start again, just as is has done for over 200 years.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Making ham

Now is the perfect time to start making fermented and air-dried meat, as the weather gets cooler.
We may not have as rich a history in fermented meats and charcuterie as France, Spain, Germany, Italy or Poland (although a decent Wiltshire cured ham can rival the best Jamón pata Negra, and a well-made Cumberland sausage beats any Fränkische Bratwurst) but we do have a pretty good climate for making air-dried hams; cool, humid, and windy.
I’ve started curing a few bit of meat, and although they won’t be ready for a few months yet, they are looking promising. As with anything you’re going to eat, the best quality ingredients are of up most importance if the product is to taste good. I took a whole leg of pork from my butcher. It was from a free-range Middle White pig who had lived content in Oxfordshire. A happy pig I was told.

I skinned and boned the leg, and then seamed out each muscle, a process which involves carefully separating each individual muscle in order to end up with a number of intact muscles. Each muscle in the leg is separated by connective tissue and sliverskin which must be removed before cooking or processing into any form of charcuterie. Seam butchery tends to be seen more on the continent than in UK butcheries, but is becoming increasingly popular, especially for cuts of meat like rump, where traditionally the steak is cut to include 4 or 5 different muscles – it is easy for the butcher to cut, and gives you a big steak, but the grain of each muscle runs in different directions and cooks differently…so on eating a rump steak, one part will be tough, the next bite will be tender, some bits will be rare and others overcooked. If the rump is seamed, each muscle can be cut to give smaller, but higher quality steaks which respond to the appropriate cooking method much better.
Once I had the different muscles from the leg separated and trimmed (5 decent sized muscles), I made up 2 dry cures for the meat: one fairy traditional cure, and another with a Spanish influence.
Traditional cure:                                               Spanish cure:
70% vacuum dried salt                                     60% vacuum dried salt
 30% unrefined cane sugar                              35% unrefined cane sugar
Juniper berries                                                   5% Sweet paprika
Dried Bay leaves                                                Crushed garlic
Crushed pepper corns                                       Fennel seeds

The Spanish cure was a bit of an experiment, so I used this for the two smaller muscles.               
I rubbed handfuls of the cure onto the surface of the meat so that there was a good layer adhering but so that the meat was buried in cure as the largest muscle was no more than 2 kg.

Spanish style cure

Traditional cure











After 3 hours, the cure was beginning to penetrate and draw out moisture from the meat: the beginning of the drying process.

The hams hanging up outside
 I then left the meat at 20C for a week to begin the fermentation process in the meat – raising the acidity level.
My little hams then got tied up and taken outside to hang in the breeze. They will be continuing their fermentation and as the acid levels reach their peak, and the moisture levels drop, lactic acid producing bacteria will release enzymes which will breakdown the proteins in the meat to free amino acids – which is what makes ham delicious!

They may not turn out to be as delicate and refined as a Jamón pata Negra or sweet as a Prosciutto di San Daniele, but by hanging the hams outside in the garden, their flavours will certainly express the local terrior.                                                             

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Nuts about nuts

Cobnuts - a rather forgotten little nut which seems to be seeing a bit of a revival at the moment. I was delighted to find them for sale at a London farmers’ market recently, and bought a large bag of them. The Cobnut is a cultivar of the wild hazelnut with longer, more slender shells and a sweet, delicate flavour.

Originally domesticated in the 16th century, the nut was referred to as the Filbert, and as well as being enjoyed as an autumnal treat which stored quite well through until Christmas, was used by children to play a form of “conkers”, with the winning nut being crowned “the cob”.
Filberts were popular right though until the green revolution of the 1930s, when agriculture intensified, and local and traditional crops and were ditched in favour of modern, vigorous and high-yielding varieties of crops dependent on chemical fertilizers et al.
Sadly, the Cobnut plantations, or “plats” as they are locally known were cut down, dug up and almost lost forever.  In the early 1900s, there were over 7000acres of Cobnut plats in England. This had fallen to just over 700acres by 1950, and then down to 250acres in the 1990s.
Most of these plats were grown in Kent, traditionally the garden of England due to its proximity to London for the main markets.
My nuts were golden, so they had been off the trees for a few weeks. Fresh off the tree, the nuts are green, tender and milky, but as the husks turn golden, the nut begins to dry a little, with a richer, sweeter flavour. I have been eating most of them straight from the shell, but couldn’t resist cooking with a few. A pesto made using the Cobnuts in place of the usual pine kernels, and Berkswell in place of Pecorino or Parmiggiano was especially successful.

Cobnut Pesto
Here is how I made my pretty Enlish pesto - but do adjust quantities to personal taste. 
  • Really large handful basil leaves
  • 140g Berkswell, finely grated (other English sheeps cheeses to consider; Spenwood, Fosseway Fleece)
  • 100g shelled cobnuts
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • Olive oil and rapeseed oil (I used approx 50:50 ratio)
Place the nuts and garlic in a large pestle and morter, and pound until they are well broken. Gradually add the basil, continually pounding the break the leaves and bind them into a paste with the nuts. Once all the basil has been added, and is well broken down into a paste, add the cheese and a little oil in order to loosen the paste. Pound well until the cheese is well combined into the mixture. Slowly add the oils, pounding the mixture all the time, until you have the thicken you want.
Season if need be - I added a little salt but no pepper, and use over the next few days.
The pesto will keep for around a week, provided it has oil covering it, but will begin the loose its fragrance. I made this in a rough granite pestle and mortar, but have also made plenty of pesto in a food processor. I did not toast the nuts prior to making the pesto as I wanted to retain as much of there special creamy, fresh quality as possible.

Hopefully this delicious nut will continue to grow in popularity and new plats will be planted across Kent in the future. I am certainly thinking of planting a few Cobnut trees here in south Warwickshire.        

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cheese tasting at Waterford Food Festival

Last week I had the privilege of representing The School of Artisan Food in a series of artisan tastings at the Waterford Food Festival in Ireland.
The tastings and demonstrations were being held in the impressively equipped catering department at the Waterford Institute of Technology, and were open to chefs, catering students and the general public.
My demonstrations were on cheese tasting and traditional and contemporary cheese making in the British Isles.

I talked about the School of Artisan Food; the short courses available, the diploma course, and the Welbeck estate. I spoke of my travels to the USA, France and around England learning the craft of artisan cheese making. I explained the fundamentals of cheese making; of bacteria, yeasts and moulds, and we discussed different ways of serving cheese, compiling a cheese board and cooking with cheese.
As these topics were covered, we tasted a selection of 5 artisan cheeses I had chosen to give a representation of some of the most important cheese types. 4 of the 5 cheeses were Irish, with an English hard cheese thrown in as the 5th cheese for interest.
We started by tasting Gortnamona – a bloomy rind goats’ milk cheese made at Cooleeney farm in County Tipperary. The batch we tasted was very young, with a firm, acidic centre, and just a little creamy breakdown beneath the white, fluffy rind.
Next was a magnificent piece of Coolea – a farmhouse Gouda style cheese from County Cork. This cheese gave me the perfect opportunity to explain the process of “washing curd” by removing whey and replacing it with water in order to quickly slow down acidification development, leaving more lactose un-converted to lactic acid. The Coolea was a younger cheese than I would usually choose, and although the gritty calcium crystals and complex layers of flavour which always draws me to this cheese had yet to develop, it was still interesting – with warm, buttery flavours, a soft, fudgy texture and a fruity, tropical aroma.

To follow the Coolea was the English cheese. I had chosen Berkswell, the hard ewes’ milk cheese from Ram Hall, near Coventry. The Berkswell was a cheese made on the 02/04/11, and was delicious, but a totally different cheese from the Berkswell I had been tasting the previous week – cheeses from the 01/04/11. This cheese was nuttier, dryer, and not as sweet. More like a Sardinian Pecorino perhaps.
Ardrahan
We then moved back to Ireland for the penultimate cheese, but continued with the ewes’ milk cheese. It was Crozier blue from Tipperary, made by the Grubb family, makers of the famous Cashel blue. The Crozier was rich and full flavoured but sweet and delicate.
Finally, we tasted one of my favourite Irish cheeses, Ardrahan - made by Mary Burns in County Cork. Ardrahan is one of the wonderful washed rind cheeses produced along the south-east coast of Ireland.
We galloped through the world of artisan cheese at top speed, covering all of the about and a little more in a 2 hour slot.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Pechegos: a Tarn valley goat's cheese


Pechegos - washed rind goat's cheese from the Tarn valley
 The past few days have been turning increasing autumnal, with the early morning air being cold enough to want a scarf.
Blackberries have ripened, plums are around by the bucket load -tender Victorias, rich and delicious Opals, and the first, small damsons.
Apples too, pink fleshed Discoverys are now joined by Falstaff, Worcester and Blenheim Oranages at the farmers' market. 
It will still be a good month until the real glut of apples hits, joined by quinces, game, pumpkins, root vegetables and spice. 
When it begins to get a little colder, as far as cheese is concerned, I like to eat something robust. More earthy, savoury and meaty than the creamy, delicate cheeses of warm summer days.
Something with a washed rind and big, bold flavours.
Pechegos was the perfect cheese this week, a washed rind cheese from the Tarn valley in the Languedoc-Roussillon, made using raw goat's milk from local herds grazing the limestone hillsides of the Tarn.
Like the famous Mont d'Or (or Vacherin if you prefer), this cheese is encased in a band of spruce, which imparts a sappy flavour of the forest to the cheese, and holds together the soft, melting paste.
Pechegos is ripened for 6-12 weeks, so cheeses being sold now will have been made with milk from the herb rich pasture of mid-summer, resulting in cheeses with deep, full flavours. 
Over the ripening period, Pechegos is washed in brine, to encourage the development of Brevibacterium linens, giving the cheese a moist, sticky, orange rind and the typically meaty flavours of a washed rind cheese.
The finished cheese is quite unlike any traditional French goat's milk cheeses - soft, almost runny, rich and buttery, bold, meaty flavours, not unlike wild mushrooms or truffles.
Made by a sole producer, Le Pic (a small co-operative producing a range of both modern and traditional style cheeses), Pechego is seasonally available from Paxton and Whitfield, La Fromagerie and Androuet.

Bouchette cendree, a small, ashed
goat's cheese from fromagerie Le Pic.


Monday, 29 August 2011

Pontack Sauce

I have just made something which I'm not supposed to eat until 2018. Pontack sauce, a historic, English concoction based on Elderberries. Once made, the sauce must be bottled, and kept for 7 years before opening. I’ll be 27 before I get to try it. Prior planning indeed.
Apparently the sauce dates back to the 17th century, where it was served at the Pontack’s Head Tavern in Lombard Street, London.  I scoured old cookery books for a recipe, but even Mrs Beeton failed to give me a recipe. So did Escoffier. Even Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford companion to food” skipped from Pond Apple (a type of custard apple from the American tropics) to Pont l’eveque (a cheese from Normandy). A quick Google search reassured me that I hadn’t made up the existence, or perhaps, once existence of Pontack sauce.
I wonder where the Elderberries used by Mr. Pontack himself came from? I’m pretty sure there aren't too many Elderberry trees growing in EC3 today.
I wanted my Pontack sauce to have a little history of its own, so I picked my berries from a hedgerow behind my house, on farmland which would have been cultivated by Anne Hathaway’s (Shakespeare’s wife) family.
Not knowing what Pontack sauce tastes like (and not being too keen on Elderberries at the best of times) I only picked a modist amount of berries, about 500g.

In a pan, I simmered 200ml of vinegar, ½ a slice onion, 500g golden caster sugar, finely chopped ginger, grated nutmeg, mace, and 2 star anise for a few minutes, until it began to thicken ever so slightly. Then the elderberries went in. I cooked it for perhaps 15 minutes, the berries had broken down to a pulp and the onions were soft and melting.
I strained the liquor from the pulp and re-boiled to kill any bacteria or yeasts which may have been lurking in the sieve or the bowl in which the sauce was strained into. A few more minutes boiling and I decanted the sweet, sharp, spicy sauce into a jar. The jar was too big, but very sterilized, so I hope it will be OK for its 7 year ripening.

On that note, is it going to “ripen” or “mature”, or “mellow”? Both the jar and the sauce were in theory free from any micro-organisms. But chutney is supposed to improve with age. On a chemical level I don’t know why??    
Anyway, Pontack sauce has been made, and I’m already thinking about opening it to eat with my Christmas Goose. I guess life is too short to wait 7 years for a sauce to be ready.





Thursday, 25 August 2011

Reblochon de Savoie

Cheese makers in the Savoie and Haute-Savoie in eastern France produce some of the best cheese in the world. Magnificent hard cheeses, weighting between 35kg and 100kg, such as Beaufort, Emmental, and Comté as well as much smaller, individual cheeses, Reblochon de Savoie and Chevrotin des Aravis.

The Aravis is a high mountain range, running from the eastern edge of the Haute-Savoie to the northern borders of the Savoie. In the centre of the Aravis is the Thônes valley, where farmers and cheese makers have made cheese since the 14th century, when the local herdsmen were taxed by the landowners according to how much milk they produced. In order to escape paying the full tax on his cows, the herdsman would always leave some milk in the cow’s udder. One the taxman had gone, and the cows were relieved from their remaining milk, cheese was made. This second milking was known as reblocher, meaning “pinching the udder again”, hence the cheese was named Reblochon. Novel stories like this are common for almost all French cheeses, which makes them so historic and interesting.
Today, hundreds of small scale cheese makers make Reblochon up and down the Thônes valley, sometime using milk from herds of just a few cows. Milk fresh from the cows is kept warm and very slowly acidified. Calves rennet is stirred in and once the curd is set, it is cut into small cubes and stirred in the whey before being scooped into muslin lined moulds and weighed with a metal disc. This ensures the cheeses are close textured and evenly shaped. At the point, the producer lays a small casein label on top of the cheese. Look out for this when buying Reblochon. Green labels identify a fermier cheese, made by hand, using milk from a single herd. Red labels are applied to industrial cheeses made on a larger scale in dairies using milk collected from numerous farms.

Once the cheeses have been dipped in brine made from salt and whey, the cheese maker sells his cheeses on to the local affineur, who looks after the cheeses for the next 5 weeks. Each affineur has his own secret methods of transforming the fresh, white curd into the aromatic finished cheese. He will keep the cheeses in cellars or caves deep in the mountain side where they will sit on spruce-wood shelving, and be repeatedly wiped with a sponge soaked in brine. On these shelves, surrounded by cool, still air, the cheeses grow delicate rinds. Pink, orange, grey and white moulds, yeast and bacteria settle on the cheese and break the firm, sweet curd down to a creamy, almost melting cheese.  
When you cut open a perfectly ripened Reblochon, the interior should hold itself together, but begin to run as the cheese warms up. The flavours are buttery and rich with floral, nutty qualities. Sometimes the cheese is quite earthy and farmy, but is always an absolute pleasure.
Chevrotin des Aravis is made in exactly the same method as Reblochon, but uses milk from local goat herds which roam the herb filled, rockier pastures above where the cows graze. Chevrotin are typically half the size of Reblochon, but has the same creamy texture.