Historic Bites: Butterly Delicious

“With enough butter, anything is good.” Julia Child

For decades, butter has been demonised, labelled an artery-clogger contributing to high cholesterol and obesity, and replaced with low fat spreads and margarines.

An ingredient at the very heart of western cuisine for centuries, butter is one of the purest fats available, tastes ambrosial and now, rather wonderfully, is making a rather a grand comeback.

My Grandmother is 109 years old and has lived on a diet primarily composed of meat, butter, a little bread and potatoes all her life. She is fit as a fiddle, her blood pressure’s that of an 18 year old and her outlook extremely youthful. She starts every day with one slice of toast spread, very thickly, with butter. In Norwegian there is a lovely word ‘Tandsmør’ meaning ‘Tooth Butter’ – it is the amount, when spread on bread which leaves a toothmarks.

Etymologically, the word butter comes from the Greek βούτυρον (bouturon) meaning ‘cow or ox cheese’ and during the Middle Ages butter was burned in lamps, just like oil. Butter was a very important commodity and, throughout the UK, you’ll find ‘butter markets’ a legacy from a time when cheese and butter production was essential to the economy. In Rouen, in the north of France, the cathedral’s Butter Tower was built in the 16th century as a tribute to the bishop who authorised the use of butter in lamps during lent when oil was scare.

There are several types of butter; sweet cream butter (pasteurised), salted butter, raw cream butter (unpasteurised), whey butter and cultured butter, all being made across Europe and North America, and of course, Ghee (which is a clarified butter) is used in Indian and eastern cooking, the removal of the milk solids, giving it the ability to keep in hot climates, and it’s more stable at higher cooking temperatures. Classic unsalted butter, or ‘sweet cream butter’, which was first made on a large scale, in the 19th century once pasteurisation allowed for extended longevity before fermentation, but there are some wonderful artisan producers making cultured and whey butters in this country, some of whom I’ll list below.

French butter is regarded as some of the world’s best, but it was also France which first gave us margarine, after a competition was launched by Napoleon III calling for somebody to invent a replacement for butter to feed the army and the poorer population . Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès created a product, in 1869, which he called Oleomargarine, made from beef tallow, salt, sodium sulphate and a small amount of cream, amongst others things – these were actually rather nutritious in their various parts…and from this monstrosity (vis the USA who had discovered that they could replace beef tallow with hydrogenated vegetable oil) eventually came the plasticised monstrosity we know today as margarine.

So, historically, the majority of butter would have been ‘cultured’ which is fermented to some degree and gives a delicious, individual flavour. This also allowed cream from several days’ milking to be used at once, by which time earlier milk would have fermented slightly. Also, butter would have been heavily salted to help preserve it in the days before refrigeration. Butter would also be regularly ‘washed’ and re-salted to keep it fresh. The British were well known in the medieval period for their love of butter on vegetables, something which I’m rather keen on today, or vegetables with their butter as is more often the case at my table.

Sourcing British Butter

Fenn Farm Dairy: Bungay Raw Cultured Butter from Suffolk. A real treat, certainly one to savour. Simply spread on fresh sourdough and enjoy.

Netherend Farm: Organic and Non-Organic butter, from Gloucestershire. As seen on many a celebrity table, made in the Severn Vale, salted and unsalted – the perfect cook’s butter.

Quicke’s : Whey Butter – a delicious and rare heritage recipe recognised by the Slow Food movement as one of the UK’s ‘Forgotten Foods’. Made in Devon. Melt over seasonal asparagus.

Hook and Son: Raw butter from East Sussex. Excellent all purpose butter, use to fry mushrooms with fresh parsley and black pepper for a classic English breakfast.

Cotswold Butter: Made in Worcestershire, a classic salted English butter with sea salt. Perfect for those toasted crumpets.


Dealing with Diabetes: the beginning of a candid journey…week 1

I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes a little over 13 years ago and was told that after my son was born, things ‘should’ return to normal. They didn’t. This led to a long period in my life where I was in complete denial. I knew my sugars were high and made some concessions, however they weren’t nearly enough. Now, finally, after several false starts in recent years I have chosen my path and have been following it for just one week. The thoughts here are my own, based on very thorough research and I, personally, have seen outstanding results in just a few days. I am following a lower carb, higher fat approach, and, after years of constant hunger, I am finally finding contentment in good food and a general feeling of satiety, for body and soul…oh, and my symptoms are easing too.

My great-grandmother was diabetic. Her death at the age of 72 was due to gangrene from a foot wound which wouldn’t heal. By this time she was on insulin and very poorly indeed. Never particularly overweight, she enjoyed a varied diet of home cooked food and brought up her many children to cook for themselves and eat well.

I started researching ways of managing diabetes about ten years ago and many half-hearted attempts followed, which never really lasted more than a day or two. I exercised more, which seemed to put my sugars up further, ate whole grains, as recommended by the NHS, and saw rising figures annually. I’ve always considered medication to be a last resort, once all other options have been discounted, so I’ve never been prescribed the drugs which are commonly used to treat Type 2.

As of last Friday my blood sugars were between 15mols and 23 mols; today they are between 9mols and 14mols, often just half of last week’s results. What have I done? Reduced my carbohydrate consumption to under 60g of net carbs a day. I’m enjoying a full range of nutritious foods; meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, glasses of wine and even dark chocolate. I start the day with bacon and eggs fried in lard, add a small amount of obscenely buttered sourdough and power through. The first few days were difficult. I was tired and had headaches but then something changed, suddenly I was full of energy. I’ve been sleeping better, my vision is improving, the tiredness which would hit me in the mid-afternoon like a brick wall is gone and I’m feeling altogether, more together.

As a food writer, I spend my days immersed in glorious images and descriptions of fabulous foods. I’ve spent hours trying to work out how my experience in this industry can be used to help others in my position and concluded that a candid post and follow ups might well be the answer, so here we are.

Today I’ve had a lovely brunch, full of good fats; avocado, olive oil, bacon, eggs and lard, a late lunch of homemade Steak Hache made from locally, (moderately) fatty beef mince and garlic green beans. I finished with a small bowl of strawberries and a good dollop of mascarpone. Sound like a diet? It’s not, in fact I dislike the word. Let’s call it a lifestyle change. So, having followed this way of eating for a week, here are my tops tips on how to deal with the first few days.

  1. Stock up on good fats and plenty of eggs: butter, dripping, olive oil, lard, coconut oil and remember ‘Fat is Flavour’
  2. Seasonal veg – try and order a veg box or grow your own. Most above ground veg are suitable for this way of eating. Fibrous veg in particular because the body does not process the carbs from fibre, hence carbs (all carbs), and ‘net’ carbs (which are the carbs your body draw on).
  3. Source some good mince from your local butcher (many are offering mail order or home delivery at the moment) – divide into 180g portions, season with herbs, salt and pepper and freeze in individual portions. When you need something quick for lunch, defrost, shape into a patty and fry, serving with a side of green veggies and maybe some garlic butter. This works with beef, pork, lamb, turkey, venison…any meat and is totally delicious and extremely satisfying.
  4. Berries are your friends – keep a stash of berries in the fridge or freezer. A small bowlful topped with double cream, clotted cream or mascarpone feels very naughty, but really isn’t.
  5. If you are going to include bread in your new lifestyle, choose a really good one…seek out your local artisan bakers and find a great sourdough, something really worth eating and tasty. A small 30g slice has only about 14g of carbs and is perfect for adding a little crunch to breakfast.
  6. Invest in some coconut and almond flour. These are so versatile, and scouring the internet you can find recipes for everything from pizza and flatbread, to cookies and cakes.
  7. Buy some Xanthan Gum – often used in gluten free baked goods, Xanthan Gum adds a certain integrity to low carb baking, helping improve texture as gluten normally does.
  8. Eat cheese. Go mad with mail order, find local and regional cheeses. I find I tolerate dairy very well, some people don’t, and it can push up sugar levels but if it works for you, go for it.
  9. Keep hydrated – drink at least two litres of water (in addition to tea, herbal tea and coffee) every day. When low carbing, hydration is extremely important. Buy a reusable bottle and fill and refill.
  10. Relax – stress causes blood sugar to rise, so a little ‘me time’ will help reduce the levels of Cortisone, and remember this is not a sprint, it’s a gentle stroll. What took several years to create will not disappear in a few weeks, there will be ups and downs.

The official line is still to eat whole-grains and base your diet around starchy carbs. For me, this advice is clearly wrong but life’s a learning curve. Low carb diets have been successfully used to treat diabetes since the 18th century, so what’s changed?


A Virtual Monmouthshire Meander

Spring is certainly in the air, and usually, this is the time of year that we share our fabulous county with tourists from across the world. Although we miss the sleepier months, we rely on the tourist industry for survival, so it’s generally a very welcome return.

Of course, this year is very different. For those who have visited, were due to visit or plan to visit in the future this is my ‘Virtual’ visitors guide taking in some of my favourite famous, and secret spaces, in this little county nestled on the Welsh border. A gentle Monmouthshire Meander.

Known in Welsh as Sîr Fynwy, Monmouthshire is most famous for the spectacular Wye Valley which meanders gracefully from Monmouth down to Chepstow and out into the Severn estuary. It is said that that British tourism began here in the 18th century when a boat trip down the valley was considered a very fashionable ‘must-do’. There are outdoor pursuits galore, from wonderful hikes to canoe hire and cycling, with much in between. Why not discover wild swimming in the Wye or climb one of our spectacular hills, and be completely at one with nature?

Monmouth

Nestled on the banks of the River Wye, the county town of Monmouth is famed for several things; Monmouth Caps, Monmouth Puddings, Rockfield Studios (which, over the past 50 years has seen everybody from Queen to Oasis record in its hallowed converted barns) and The Roundhouse, a pretty piece of Georgian architecture, which served as rather smart picnicking house, and is to be found perched on the Kymin hill, high above the town.

Here, you can hire canoes and take a day trip down the river stopping for lunch at one of the riverside pubs and enjoyed spectacular cliffs, wild woods and a plethora of wildlife. Don’t miss the 13th century Gatehouse which crosses the Monnow, the small river from which the county and town gets its name. Located at the bottom end of town it’s the only remaining fortified river bridge in the UK with its gatehouse standing.

A visit to the Castle is also a must. Tucked up a side street, close to the Monmouthshire Regimental Museum you’ll find the ruins of Monmouth Castle, famous for being the birthplace of the future Henry the V, his statue can be found above the Georgian Shire Hall. It was also the home town of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame, who’s life was lost in the first ever aeroplane crash, his statue sits in the centre of Agincourt Square . The castle is the perfect place for a short picnic stop. Pick up some yummy goodies from the wonderful Marches Deli, which sells, amongst other things, local bread and cheeses, ciders, wines and a good variety of pickles and relishes. Stop at Green and Jenks in the main square for an Italian-style gelato, all made from locally sourced daily and fruit with an ever-changing selection of mouthwatering flavours.

Chepstow

Monmouthshire’s most southernly town, Chepstow, has a nationally famous castle, and some of its original town walls still stand. Once in the keeping of the legendary William Marshall, one of history’s most famous Knights, Chepstow Castle sits high above the River Wye facing imposing cliffs and watching out over the border with England. Chepstow castle is also reputed to be the site of a long lost Celtic chapel in which Joseph of Aramethea is reputed to have hidden the Spear of Longinus, which was said to have pierced the side of Christ. There has also been talk of the hidden, mummified head of Shakespeare, which became the subject of a series of archaeological digs in the 1920s spear-headed by the American treasure-hunter Orville Ward Owen. Chepstow is a place of many mysteries and there are plenty of cafes to while away a few hours. A few miles upstream is Tintern Abbey, the ruins of a cistercian abbey which was destroyed on the orders Henry VIII in the 1530s. Over the ensuing 500 years the picturesque ruins have been immortalised in word and paint by the likes of William Wordsworth and JW Turner, and are quite beautiful to behold, languishing gracefully beside the gentle river. As you drive from Tintern to Chepstow, you can see climbers scaling the cliffs, as the river disappears below, setting a more isolated course as it moves the final few miles towards the estuary. A short journey towards Newport brings you to Caerwent, a Roman town, packed full of archaeological remains and a small museum telling its story.

Abergavenny

In the shadow of the Black Mountains, sitting on the banks of the Usk river, Abergavenny is famed for its annual Food Festival, now in its 22nd year and one of the biggest in Britain. Every September, thousands of people descend on this pretty little market town to hob-nob with the elite of the British food and drink industry, while picking up some rather tasty foodie offerings. The Angel Hotel has, in recent, years become rather famous for its afternoon teas and The Angel Bakery, tucked down a side street leading to the castle makes wonderful sourdough, cakes and pastries, perfect for picking up a few things for lunch before heading into the hills to explore the Black Mountains. Abergavenny Castle is, rather unfortunately, most well know for a pretty horrendous massacre at the end of the 12th century which saw the Norman lord William De Broase order the slaughter of his dinner guests, the Welsh Prince Seisyll and his retainers. The castle is picturesque, and massacre aside, makes for an interesting visit. Just outside the town you’ll find the Skirrid Mountain, well worth the effort to climb as the views are stunning and whilst you’re in the area, why not stop for a pint at the historic Skirrid Inn, reputedly the most haunted pub in Britain. In the shadow of The Skirrid is Michelin starred, Walnut Tree restaurant, enjoying legendary status and offering extremely delicious seasonal dishes or try The Harwick, owned my celebrity chef Stephen Terry, which has held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2011. The Sugar Loaf mountain is also a delight to climb, however there is a local saying, “If you can’t see The Sugar Loaf, its raining, and if you can see The Sugar Loaf, it’s about to rain,” so wellies and waterproofs at the ready!

Usk

Named after the river upon which it sits, Usk is a very sleepy market town with a fabulous farmer’s market, held on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month. Usk Castle, which sits nestled in trees above the quaint Twyn Square, and is privately owned, is available to hire for events. Around the town there are plenty of craft shops selling hand-crafted goodies, a small museum of Rural Life and several rather good places to eat and drink. Why not head to The Mad Platter for cocktails and nibbles, before a meal at the historic Three Salmons coaching inn? A little outside the town, on the Llanbadoc road is Morris’ of Usk, garden centre and farm shop – it’s a great place to stock up on locally produced, and regionally sourced products, and they do a rather yum breakfast in the onsite restaurant – the road eventually arrives at the Roman Fortress of Caerleon, with its impressive ruins and recently renovated museum, however this is no longer Monmouthshire, but the county of Newport.

For further information please click on the following links:

http://www.wyedeantourism.co.uk/

https://www.visitmonmouthshire.com/

https://www.visitwales.com/


A little British cheesiness – saving tradition

Two years ago, I wrote a feature for Speciality Food Magazine about the British cheese industry. It was flourishing. World exports were increasing monthly, and the range of artisanal cheeses was wonderfully impressive; from the famous Fenn Farm Dairy’s Baron Bigod, in the far south, to the classic cheddars of Somerset and Devon, to the prize winning continental-inspired Welsh cheeses of Caws Teifi, not forgetting one of Britain’s most ‘marmite’ options, Gloucestershire’s Stinking Bishop. There were the creamy Wensleydales and Lancashires and the dozens of really small producers making elegant goats’ and sheeps’ cheese, not forgetting the UK’s own Mozarellas, Fetas and Halloumi style offerings.

And now, I appeal to you to help save the British artisanal cheese.

Now the time has come for us to do our bit for this exceptional industry. Hit hard by the economical effect of Coronavirus many have had to halt production, their wholesale orders dwindling to a fraction of the norm. Many are offering Mail Order services which is where we can help. Buying from these producers won’t only save businesses, but also traditions, it’s taken a quarter of a century to re-built the heritage (and contemporary) British cheese market – we have lost hundreds of varieties in the past few centuries and now, when the future was looking rosy for these producers, disaster has struck.

The most important thing is that we keep buying. Even when lockdown is over, and we can begin returning to some sort of normality, its important seek out local cheesemakers, make a day of it (many offer tours and farm shop purchases) and rediscover the taste of fabulous British cheese.

Here are a few of my favourites, all of whom are currently offering a mail order service.

Quickes Clothbound Cheddar

(cow and goats’ milk cheddars from Devon)

2. Farm Farm Dairy

(raw soft cheeses and butter from Sufolk)

3. White Lake Cheese

(sheep, cows and goats’ cheeses from Somerset)

4. Caws Teifi (Dutch-style cheese from West Wales)

5. Moydens Cheese

(British hard and soft cheeses from Shropshire)

6. Shepherds Purse

(Sheeps’ cheeses from Yorkshire)

7. Charles Martell & Son

(Gloucestershire cheeses, Single and Double Gloucester and Stinking Bishop)

8. Godsells Cheese

(Gloucestershire Cheeses, Single and Double)


Lockdown Birthday Strawberry Shortcake (purists look away now)

Today is my birthday, and I admit, it’s a bit of a strange one. The weather has been amazing, the sky has barely seen a cloud. Normally it would be cocktails with the girls, a trip to one my favourite restaurants, maybe a spot of shopping…this year has been unusual but we must follow government advice (and it does give me an excuse for another celebration after lockdown).

I’ve made the best of it, starting with a glass of Bucks Fizz with bacon and scrambled eggs, put on a pretty frock, applied make-up for the first time in forever and made the best of it. There’s been lots of lounging around in the garden, reading through favourite recipe books, plenty of delicious food and drink, and some rather excellent, though entirely inauthentic Strawberry Shortcakes (recipe below) served for afternoon tea with a glass of Pimms.

Now looking forward to dinner, and making a pretty decent effort. The Wild Mushroom and Chicken Liver Parfait is chilling in the fridge, the beef is waiting to be Bourguignan-ed and all that will be finished with a rich chocolate mousse and accompanied by a few glasses of a good red, so really, the day’s been kind and although I’m celebrating under lockdown I am fortunate to have my family about me, the advantage of multi-generational living.

Recipe for Strawberry Shortcakes (Purists looks away now)

Aside from the classic cartoon character from my childhood, I’d never really considered exactly what Strawberry Shortcakes were, I suppose I always thought it was just an American word for Scone, however they are actually quite different.

Most recipes include an egg, however, this is an egg-free recipe, mainly due to the challenge in acquiring eggs these days, but it works very well….and we must all make lockdown allowances.

I made mine using Shipton Mill spelt flour, which I was lucky enough to order in a 25kg sack just before lockdown began. I use spelt for all my baking as I find that it is easier to digest, the Roman army which marched on its stomach, marched on a diet of spelt bread, so it obviously has its advantages.

Makes 6

8oz (227g) white spelt Flour

1 heaped tsp of baking powder

2oz (57g) butter

1oz (28g) caster sugar

5fl oz (150ml) full cream milk (Jersey for preference)

Heat your over to 180 degrees c

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and rub in the butter

add the sugar and bring the mix together with the milk to form a soft dough

Roll out to 1.5 cm thick and using a cutter or a wine glass, cut into 6 (or more) circles

Brush with a little milk and bake for approximately 10 minutes until golden brown and gently risen then cool on a rack until just warm

For the Orange Flower and Vanilla Cream

Whisk 250ml (1/2 pt) of double cream with 1 tsp of orange flour water, 20g (3/4 of an oz) icing sugar 1/4 tsp of good vanilla extract, until thick (be careful not to over whip or you’ll end up with butter)

Slice 150g (5oz) of strawberries and dredge with a little icing sugar, leave to macerate for a few minutes

Split the warm shortcakes and fill with whipped cream and strawberries