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.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: just a little trifle, please!

Christmas is now the only time of the year I make trifle. Growing up it was a mainstay of my grandmother’s birthday and Christmas tables, but the tradition now firmly sits within the festive period.

There’s something wonderfully decadent about the layers of creamy comfort, the hit of booze and the digging down to the bottom for the jelly. Purists, of course don’t use jelly, just sponge, jam (or fruit), cream and custard. This historical favourite is familiar to many as the Birds Trifle…that little packet of magic which seemed such a treat.

Today, trifles have become rather fashionable again. There are so many flavour combinations which satisfy the sweetest tooth.

Every year I make a Southern Comfort and Mandarin Trifle, it’s  so simple and tastes amazing. I use trifle sponges and soak them in Southern comfort and the juice from tinned mandarins, then spoon over the fruit, a layer or orange jelly, custard and finally whipped  cream. I usually buy an edible gold spray for the cream as it catches the light beautifully and looks extremely christmassy.

For a taste of Eastern Promise why not try rose water or rose liqueur soaked sponge, fresh figs, lemon jelly and rosewater cream – a little cardamon in the custard lifts the flavour admirably too.

A delicious, more traditional trifle, is Madeira cake spread with raspberry jam, a few tablespoons of sherry or Amaretto, fresh raspberries, custard, whipped cream and a good scattering of toasted almonds.

Chocolate and Salt Caramel Trifles are very popular flavours these days too. Chocolate cake, Dulce de Leche, a gentle scattering of sea salt flakes, chocolate custard and cream topped with grated dark chocolate makes an extremely rich pudding (and a little dash of Tia Maria is always worth a thought)

One of the most decadent trifles is my Black Forest Trifle, again, no jelly here just good sponge, a good quality dark chocolate spread (or homemade ganache) lots of Kirsch, a jar of black cherries, chocolate custard and whipped cream finished with grated dark chocolate.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Getting ahead with Christmas, a Duo of Sublime Stuffings

Things which are time consuming relating to the Christmas Lunch are far better done early and the advantage of a good sized freezer makes preparing for Lunch extremely simple indeed.

I like to serve two stuffings. One meat, and cooked separately from the bird, and one to stuff in the neck cavity, to take on the flavours of all those delicious juices. Over the years I have experimented with lots of different recipes but now use just two. Pork, Cranberry and Orange, and Pear with Chestnut and Honey. Both can be frozen and the second, also made with gluten-free bread if there are any allergies to be catered for. A few minutes spent prepping now, will make for an effortless Christmas Lunch. After all – no one really wants to be in the kitchen, too much, over the festive period.

Pork, Pancetta, Cranberry and Orange Stuffing

Serves 6-8

I like to cook this in a loaf tin,  it turns out very well but also looks good brought straight to the table. You can also replace the sausage meat with chicken, or duck sausage meat and leave the pancetta out, for those who don’t eat pork.

Ingredients

500g good sausage meat

100 gram slice of pancetta, finely diced

The juice and zest of 1 large orange

1 clementine, sliced into disks with the skin still on

100g cranberries, roughly chopped

20ml port

Method

Fry the diced pancetta until golden brown and set aside to cool thoroughly

Mix the sausage meat, orange, cooled pancetta, port and cranberries – smoosh (love that word) it all together and fry a little to test seasoning, season to taste. Press the mixture into a loaf tin, cover with foil and pop in the freezer.

Remove on Christmas Eve and allow to defrost overnight in the refrigerator. Decorate with a few slices of clementine and a few whole cranberries, recover with foil and bake for approximately 40 minutes at 175 degrees c, testing with a skewer to make sure it’s cooked thoroughly. Remove the foil for the last ten minutes of cooking and serve.

Pear, Chestnut, Sage and Honey Stuffing 

IMG_6709This should stuff a turkey large enough to feed at least 6-8 with leftovers

Ingredients 

700g slightly stale bread (sourdough also works very well), all the crusts removed, then diced into 1 cm cubes

1 large tin of pears in juice, drained and the pear cut into 1 cm dice ( I have also used fresh pears, but as these are already cooked there are no worries about the pears discolouring)

100g cooked chestnuts, peeled and roughly chopped

1 heaped tablespoon runny honey

1 heaped tablespoon finely shredded sage

Seasoning to taste

Method

Melt the honey until liquid and add the chopped sage, allow it to infuse for a minute.

Stir the chopped pear, bread and chestnuts together and pour over the sage honey, making sure all the ingredients are well coated, add a good sprinkle of salt and black pepper.

Place into a freezer bag, or Tupperware and freeze until Christmas Eve.

Remove and defrost thoroughly before stuffing into the neck cavity of the bird. This is quite a chunky, almost medieval style, stuffing and compliments the meat stuffing very well. Do make sure that you secure the neck skin well to stop the stuffing escaping during cooking – my great grandmother used to actually sew the neck up using a needle and string (although they more often had a chicken or capon for Christmas Lunch)


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Fuss Free Canapés with a Welsh Twist

Last year my sister published her first book and asked me to make some canapés for the launch. I didn’t have much time to prepare, so wracked my brains for something quick, easy and delicious.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and, as I have mentioned before, am a great believer in the old cooking methods, so I turned to one of my favourite recipes and IMG_6707adapted it to suit. Welsh Cakes. Made on cast iron griddles for centuries, most people know them as the current speckled, sugar-dredged teatime treat but with a little experimentation I was able to produce 3 different savoury canapés, to suit all tastes. I cook my Welsh Cakes on a large cast iron griddle but you can use a heavy based frying pan just as well, it’s also possible to bake them on sheets in the oven but the exterior texture won’t be quite the same.

These also freeze extremely well, before, and after cooking.

Savoury Welsh Cake Canapés – this recipe will easily make over 100 depending on the size of cutters

Ingredients 

750g self raising flour

150g butter

150g lard or vegetable fat

3 eggs, beaten

1 heaped tsp sea salt

good grinding of black pepper

75g mature cheddar cheese

1 heaped tsp wholegrain mustard

1 heaped tsp dried dill

the zest of half a lemon, finely grated

Method 

Rub the fat into the flour, salt and pepper until it resembles ‘breadcrumbs’. Divide the mixture between three bowls.

Into the first bowl, add the cheese and mustard

Into the second, add the dill and lemon zest

Leave the third plain

Add a beaten egg to each bowl and form into a ball, if it’s too moist, add a little more flour, too dry, add little milk or water

Wrap each ball in foil or cling film and place in the fridge until chilled. This allows the pastry to rest and makes it easier to roll out later

Once the pastry is chilled, roll each ball out on a floured board to a depth of 1 cm. Cut into any shape you like – at this time of year it’s quite nice to use festive shapes, small leaves, bells, holly etc.

Heat your Bakestone, Griddle or frying pan over a medium heat and cook the cakes in batches, they shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes a side, larger cakes will, of course take longer.

These can be kept in a lidded Tupperware until needed. If you would like to make a version suitable for vegans, use all vegetable fat instead of butter.

Toppings

Ideas for the Plain Welsh Cakes

Bacon, Brie and Cranberry (not the most imaginative but universally liked)

Hummous, Olives, Baba Ganoush, roasted peppers, mozzarella, smoked tofu

Pear, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Chestnuts and Roasted Butternut Squash

Ideas for the Cheese Welsh Cake

Butter fried leeks and Caerphilly

Any cheese with chutney or relish

Sun dried tomatoes

Pastrami and Cornichons

Ideas for the Lemon and Dill Welsh Cakes 

Any sort of smoked fish: salmon, trout or Gravadlax with accompanying sauces

Fish Pâté – mackerel, trout, potted shrimps

Prawns in Cocktail Sauce (retro but good!)

Caviar with Sour Cream

Smoked Cod Roe


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Down Memory Lane

Growing up in the 1980s there were so many things which ‘made’ Christmas. One of the main questions being, were your family ‘Team Quality Street’ or ‘Team Roses’? My parents were firmly ‘Team Roses’, whilst my paternal Grandmother was ‘Team Quality Street’.Of course, this was in the day when a tin of chocolates was really made of tin and extremely generously filled with all the family favourites – however, the Strawberry creams were always left until well after the new year though, and often consigned to the bin as they were far too sweet.

I always enjoyed visiting my paternal Grandparents in the run up to Christmas; the left hand cupboard in the G-Plan sideboard would be slowly filling up – there would All Gold, Black Magic, Mint Matchmakers, Chocolate Orange, Chocolate Brazil Nuts, After Eights (with their own silver plated ‘trolley’), a tin of Quality Street and some York Fruits, always the gift of choice between my paternal Grandmother (Nan) and maternal Grandfather, who was rather challenged in the tooth department – I don’t think anybody ever actually liked York Fruits – finally there were those little lemon and orange slices, covered in sugar, in a little round box.

My Nan’s Christmas Cake was generously enrobed with almost rock hard ‘snow’ icing, topped with a 1950s plastic Christmas tree, a gold plastic ‘Season’s Greetings’ sign, and a pink crepe paper ruff adorning its middle. There would be a Bird’s Trifle with multi coloured sprinkles and homemade Chocolate Eclairs, the tins for which, I still have in my kitchen cupboard.

My maternal Grandparents, who lived in a tiny Victorian cottage near Newport, then in Gwent, celebrated Christmas in a far more relaxed way. Grandma would make cakes and plenty of mince pies, they would roast a chicken and enjoy the TV – there were no Christmas Trees or decorations save for one or two made at school by myself. Christmas was kept quietly, a few treats would be bought but Grandma was, as is still at 107, very thrifty.

Today, with so much choice all the year round, we have perhaps lost the magic of those days, the annual traditions which signified the opening of the season – although even now I wait in anticipation for the first satsumas to arrive, I still buy the bag of mixed nuts – although the carved wooden bowl which would sit with the nutcracker on the nested G-Plan tables in my Nan’s front room is long gone – I am still partial to a Bendicks or Elizabeth Shaw mint, although my tastes have naturally diversified, and a selection box (always one of my presents from my Gran) still appears in my son’s stocking.

I think, at Christmas, we do try to cling on to nostalgia and tradition a little more, especially as we get older – even though things probably weren’t better in the ‘olden days’, it’s still a comfort, to us, to believe they were!


The Pheasant Philsopher’s Christmas Diaries: Party Punch and Mulling

No Victorian Christmas party was complete without a gleaming punch bowl full of inhibition-removing deliciousness. In richer households, these bowls would be silver or silver gilt, with matching chased cups and ladle, in middle class houses cut glass or crystal was offered, whilst lower down the social pecking order china, wood or pewter was most often used.

The tradition of Punches, although at their height during the 18th and 19th centuries, could well have emerged from an even earlier tradition, one of which dates back to Saxon times, and perhaps earlier; the Wassail cup. This was a communal vessel, passed around a party to the shouts of ‘wes þú hál’ old English for ‘good health’ or ‘be healthy’ and was often brought out during Yule or Christmastide, filled with warm spiced ale, mead or more usually cider, it was also drunk to bless the orchards and ensure a successful harvest.

Mulled Wine also has much older roots too, Roman and medieval Europe offered wine sweetened with honey and spices known by the name ‘Hippocras’ which was often served warmed in the colder months – the spices were placed in a conical strainer and steeped in the wine – the name derived from famed Greek physician Hippocrates who is said to have invented the strainer to filter water.

Mulled Wine

serves 6

1 bottle good red wine

50ml brandy

2 cinnamon sticks

40g root ginger, peeled and sliced

6 cloves

40g brown sugar

1 orange sliced

1 cardamom, crushed

Gently warm all the ingredients together in a heavy pan – careful not to boil!

Wassail (Cider Cup)

Serves 6

1 litre still cider (or scrumpy if you’re brave enough!)

50ml Apple brandy (calvados)

50g honey (depending on personal taste and type of cider used)

1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

1 cinnamon stick

15g root ginger peeled and grated

2 star anise

2 dessert apples, sliced

Mull the ingredients together over a low heat to allow the flavours to infuse and serve with a cinnamon stick

An 18th century Fruit Punch Recipe

Peel six lemons and, using a pestle and mortar or strong bowl and the end of a rolling pin muddle in 375g white sugar and leave to sit for a couple of hours.

Juice the peeled lemons and set the juice aside

Pour 500ml of dark rum into a jug or bowl, add 250ml of brandy and 1.5 litres of water. Add the lemon juice, sugar and lemon, then leave for a further two hours before straining and serving with lots of ice


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!