A romance of Exmoor

  

Yesterday I returned from a foodie weekend break to beautiful Exmoor. From its bleak moors to its rugged coastline via its winding roads it is a stunning place to visit, even with the howling winds and driving rain of a British November day. It is also a foodie paradise, close to the border with Devon, this part of Somerset is very proud of its local produce, there is excellent beef, lamb, honey, cider and a plethora of chocolatiers. 
On our way across to the coast we couldn’t resist stopping at a cider farm. Torre cider provided a well needed break from the arduous journey – delicious mulled apple juice held back the chill and we stocked up on some Somerset scrumpy, cider vinegar and apple juice. There was a delightful farm shop selling cheeses, jams and churneys as well as a little cafe offering a delicious cider cake alongside more traditional fayre.

  

Saturday lunchtime found us in the picturesque village of Dunster, just inland, and with a commanding castle and famous round maketplace. We dined at an old coaching inn, The Luttrell Arms, a vast ancient building with great log fires, antlers adorning the walls and splendid mullion windows. I chose a minute steak ciabatta with rocket and Parmesan, a side of chunky chips dunked in Stoke’s tomato ketchup and a glass of excellent local ale.

   
 

 A quick stop in Porlock Weir as darkness fell forced us  into another sampling of the local brew and a brief walk along the seashore ensured we were thoroughly damp as we made for our destination, The Notley Arms, in Monksilver.

  
Nestled on the edge of Exmoor in a chocolate box village full of thatched cottages and ancient looking houses, Monksilver is an excellent place to pass the night. The Notley Arms is a 2 AA rosetted gastropub with prerequisite wood burner, leather sofas, quirky decor and a modern British menu. 

Once settled into our 4* room (with a thoughtfully provided thermos of cold milk and a cafetière of coffee) we unpacked and were very impressed with the facilities but having booked a table for seven thirty, and already feeling tired from the days exertions, we headed into the Pub. 

We were made to feel very welcome and were offered a cosy table for two tucked into the corner. The menu, which changes daily, was well composed and based around local produce. 

  

It was, of course, difficult to choose but eventually I decided upon the Sea Trout, Duck Faggot and Rhubarb.

We ordered bread and olives to begin.

  

The bread was almost brioche-like and complimented the balsamic olive oil beautifully, the olives were meaty and delicious.

My first course, hot smoked sea trout with picked cucumber, yoghurt and horseradish cream was absolutely perfect, presented in an outsize bowl it was fresh and zingy, the hit of dill from the pickling liquor was complimented admirably by the horseradish cream. 

  

The main course, rich duck faggot was extremely rich indeed. Served with a smooth and creamy truffle infused mash and a flavoursome jus, the faggot itself was as light as a feather but extremely filling. It took faggots (of which I am extremely fond) to a totally different level and is something I will be trying to replicate at home. 

  

For pudding I chose ‘Tastes of Rhubarb, Vanilla and White Chocolate’. Presented on a large charger it comprised various preparations of rhubarb, a concentrated Apple syrup, a rich mousse speckled with vanilla seeds, flavoured with white chocolate and topped with a black sesame seed brittle.

  
A couple of glasses of Pinot Noir Grenache, which worked surprisingly well with all courses, was followed with coffee and an excellent evening came to a close.

Breakfast the following morning was equally delicious with flavoursome butchers sausages and toast made from the excellent bread we had enjoyed the previous evening – the bacon was a bit of a let down but the yummy chive-speckled scrambled eggs partially made up for it. A good selection of Bonne Maman jams and Coopers marmalade was offered. All in all The Notley Arms is a place I will defiantly revisit, even as the wind howled about throughout the night it was warm and cosy and welcoming. 

www.luttrellarms.co.uk
www.torrecider.com
www.notleyarmsinn.co.uk

Breaking the fast….

  
So, during the last couple of weeks we’ve seen many articles about the consumption of processed meat and its relationship to cancer. My father is currently winning in the battle against colon cancer, so over the past year I have read through an extremely long list of articles, books, blogs and posts regarding the subject and thought I’d share a few thoughts. Beginning with breakfast.

Britain has started the day with the traditional fry-up for generations. Once the idea of breaking the fast (Breakfast) was conceived, becoming a third meal in the day, it was to the savoury items that people first turned. 

Processed meat has always been a stalwart on the breakfast plate whether it be bacon, sausages, black pudding, hogs pudding or white pudding. I believe that one of the reasons why processed meats are causing increases in cancer is the universal change in the techniques of preserving over the past fifty or so years. 

Proper, dry cured bacon, smoked in the chimney of a cottage or farmhouse is a traditional method which has no nitrates, no additives and no dubious leaking white liquid upon cooking. Black pudding has always been happily consumed, often being the first thing made and eaten after the household pig was slaughtered in Autumn. It works exceptionally well with Apple, blackberries and other hedgerow fruits. Sausages would be made, although in Britian we tend not to dry them as on the continent. Proper sausages without false fillers are splendid, who doesn’t find comfort in bangers and mash on a cold winter night. Hog’s pudding,  often forgotten, but found in the south west is absolutely delicious and perfect for those a little squeamish about eating blood pudding, it has a very ‘English spiced’ flavour and is of a similar texture to spam, but do not let that put you off! 

The traditional breakfast is high in protein and will sustain for hours, so what do we do? Listen to ‘expert’ advice and give it up, or continue as your forebears and tuck into a full English of a morning? We can shop locally, seeking out those artisan producers who’s products are true to tradition, we can choose to listen to those who believe that saturated fat is good for us, we could fry in coconut oil and add sweet potato rosti – ditching the toast.

  
Perhaps it’s not the meat casing the cancers but the rise in the consumption of sugar and simple starches, wheat composition has changed so radically in the past 50 years that it has very little in common with the swaying wheat of legend, and sugar is now consumed in ridiculous quantities. Maybe this is the true cause of cancer, obesity, brain malfunction and diabetes?

Maybe science has been the true culprit in the downturn of the nation’s health…besides, scientists also create the drugs needed to treat such conditions…definitely one to think about. 

Proustian Thoughts…

  

 

I had a relatively unusual childhood. As the product of musician parents I spent a good deal of time with grandparents and my love of food and cookery lies very much in the hands of my Grandmothers. My paternal grandmother was from the Welsh Valleys; she was from a rather poor family who had little but made the most of what they had; she was famous for her Chocolate Eclairs which she would bake in rather nifty 1950’s eclair tins, always to the same exact recipe, all timed and usually perfect. Her standard dish, come Autumn, was her Stew which would be served with dumplings, on a plate with a knife and fork to eat it with (yes, we always found it odd). It was simple food but tasty, the meat would be coated in flour and the whole thing pressure cooked until the braising steak fell apart and it was ready for the dumplings,  but I recall that there never were enough dumplings. I assume that these recipes came from the Marguerite Patten cookbook sat alongside one or two photo-history books , bible and dictionary, which completed her rather meagre library.

My maternal grandmother, who is still alive and very much ‘with it’ at 104 was born into a middle class Cardiff family and grew up near the docks in Newport. Her memories are amazing, she recalls everything in such great detail; the shops and shopkeepers, her mother’s food, her father’s breakfast choices, which bacon and sausage were accepted and which were considered beneath them. 

As a little girl I would stand on a stool, clean tea-towel serving as an apron, in Grandma’s tiny, dark, Welsh cottage kitchen, more of a lean-to than anything and knead dough, add tiny drops of browning to gravy or coat buns with a sticky sugar and water glaze. She would make proper chicken dinners, the veg would be yellowing and over soft, yet comforting. There would be a rice pudding baking in a chipped enamel tin, another Roses tin filled with cakes to take home. There were always battles in that household as my Grandfather, a rather bohemian artist-type would insist that Grandma bought the wrong bread (he was all for wholemeal, not white) so he would be forced to make his own, a dense crumb and pale crust with a hint of honey sweetness. He would also cook great pans of butter-beans and eat then with with a spoon, bread and butter on the side.

As I have previously mentioned, my life is remembered in tastes; sometimes colours as well, but always tastes. To me, even air tastes different. I recall the tang of the Parisian air as I was walked about the city at the age of eight; the warm, soft, herb tinged air of Provence, almost honey sweet; and the cloying scent of my home town in Autumn, the fruit and decomposing leaves, again, creating a taste memory rather than a smell. 
Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on the origin of these Proustian moments, my mind first identifying happiness or sadness, then offering the final pieces of the puzzle; a definite ‘ah’ moment. I want my son to have these memories…after all as you can never quite recreate the whole food/surroundings moments once experienced, you must just make new ones – the sea salt on the lips as you devour Padstow fish and chips, the exploratory mouthfuls of goats cheese at a market in the south-west of France. I really enjoy these ‘Mummy, remember when we ate…’ moments; even shop bought antipasti eaten in front of a roaring wood fire whilst listening to Verdi’s Requiem has its place in my sensory library; the juxtaposition of a continental summer versus a cold Welsh autumn.

 I recall once eating a superb piece of pork in a cream and apple sauce in a seafood restaurant in Brittany; against the grain, yet remembered in detail. One taste of pork with cream and I’m back there, remembering the blue tiled floor and paper tablecloth. Another taste/smell memory comes from Estonia where, in a wooded clearing, beside a lake, the air full of pine trees and smoke, I ate barbecued, herb strewn fish, so fresh that it was almost still breathing; the dill and salt and pepper crust hiding a pale, delicate pink flesh…it was sublime and entirely unique.

Remember, remember the 5th of November….

  

Admittedly, I’ve been a little lax with this blog in the last week – if was of course half-term and the days were spent juggling outings, appointments and ‘I’m bored’ – however I did notice (and possibly for the first time) Vast quantities of Christmas products in shops alongside Halloween things.

 When I was a child in the 80’s Halloween was very much on its own, it followed back-to-school which rather depressingly always fell in July and preceded Bonfire Night which, aside from fireworks and sparklers wasn’t really the big event (and foodie push) that it is today. 

Bonfire Night was never heralded by large adverts of rosy-faced children in knitted hats clutching rare breed hotdogs in brioche rolls with a side of ‘lighter style’ slaw – there weren’t any glamorous articles advising how to entertain with enamel mugs of hot chocolate or mulled wine, wrapped in rough linen with a cinnamon stick tied to the side with rustic twine. But it was a special occasion in so much as I was allowed a ‘mad cow burger’ with a floppy, melted piece of ‘fake’ cheese and lashings of overly sweet  ketchup – with a can of Top Deck shandy on the side. 

Historically, there have always been dishes associated with Halloween and Bonfire Night – Halloween cakes made to ward of the devil were often part of country culture and were made until the middle of the twentieth century. Bonfire Night with its Guy and fireworks required something easily left unattended so jacket potatoes were often eaten, having been abandoned to the wood or coal fired oven whilst the family watched the fireworks and then served simply with good butter and salt – to be eaten with a spoon – sometimes a luxurious glug of cream was poured into a hole made in the top. 

Today we are encouraged to used these events as a foodie platform – inviting some friends over to have supper after the display – providing a simple, autumnal, locally produced meal which showcases the ‘Best of British’ in a slow-cooked form (in case the display runs over) and can be served in pretty bowls with a torn chunk of artisanal bread, warmed of course. 

Yet, sometimes the best recipes are the most simple and it’s hard to go wrong with a good stew with local meat – here in Wales we make Cawl, a Welsh lamb stew which was served with wedges of cheese (caws) and bread (bara). 

Cawl is a glorious dish which can be made with pretty much any seasons vegetable, the fattier the meat the better and if mutton is obtainable – go for it. It has so much depth of flavour and can be left happily for hours whilst you go about your business. The most simple Cawl comprises meat, potatoes, onion and carrot, maybe a bit of turnip or swede and lots of seasoning. This should please all meat eating guests. Follow with some warm gingerbread, very traditional on Bonfire Night (especially the heavier Parkin with its oatmeally solidity) and a glass of ginger wine.  For children, toasting marshmallows is a must – there is something wonderfully decadent about the hot, crisp and gooey mallow, so hot that it almost burns the lips as it passes through. 

Mulled cider is perfect to offer guests and paper cups are fine – handmade pottery cider beakers, although they look splendid, do not fare well with darkness and children. I combine 2 litres of good, still local cider with 1 litre of cloudy Apple juice, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, a good grating of nutmeg, a couple of tablespoons of clear honey, a thumb of ginger bruised and, finally, I stud some small apples with a couple of cloves and float them in the pan. Warm without boiling and serve.