The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Driving Home for Christmas.

Traditionally, the ‘Designated Driver’ has not been terribly well catered for, an orange juice and lemonade, glass of coke or coffee is the usual choice however, now there are dozens of alcohol free choices out there, waiting to be discovered – so, even as the driver you can enjoy some seriously festive drinks.

With almost 25% of 18-25 year olds turning teetotal, and with a general reduction in the consumption of alcohol across the country, drinks businesses are turning to exploring the work of non-alcoholic drinks, I don’t think that all these can be described as ‘soft drinks’ because they are geared primarily to the adult population, offering flavours which would appeal more to the mature palette. Perhaps there should be another term devised to describe these products, so, with our further ado, here’s my top 5 alcohol free Christmas Drinks.

Seedlip – the Gin alternative 

As I driver, I am very content to be sipping a Seedlip, it tastes enough like gin to satisfy, behaves like gin (i.e you can drink it with your choice of mixer) and tastes very grown up indeed. There are three varieties, my favourite being Garden 108 and all offers subtle flavour blends which can be savoured and enjoyed slowly – the only downside is the cost, the same as a decent gin but it’s also served in spirit measures, so drink for drink isn’t too bad. Also keep an eye out in future for their ‘whisky’ style alternative – long in the perfection, it could be a real game changer.

Lurvill’s Delight

From Wales comes this delightful Botanical Soda, inspired by a couple of brothers from the Welsh Valleys who made and sold this product in the late 19th century. Their profits were used to re-settle mining families in America. The Original, and Lavender Spice varieties are delicious, again very grown up – one of those drinks that you can sit for hours guessing the ingredients, also good as a mixer, but stand extremely well on their own. Their Botanical Cola is a world away from commercial brands, considerably less sweet and well worth seeking out.

Real Kombucha

Kombucha had been very ‘on-trend’ this year. A  beverage made from fermented tea it had a plethora of health giving attributes, is great for the gut and tastes pretty good too. Real Kombucha offer three choices, each with a discernibly different flavour profile. Drinking this actually makes you feel as if you’re doing your body some good and at Christmas, that’s never a bad thing. It really is an alcohol-alternative and with its quirky packaging, certainly ticks all the boxes.

Nosecco, bubbles without the hangover

Can’t cope without bubbles over the festive season? Try Nosecco a de-alcoholised wine made in France. Available from Ocado and other online retailers, it’s ideal to serve at parties or with Christmas Lunch and will leave your head perfectly clear to enjoy Boxing Day un-compromised. A bargain, too, at just £3.99.

Nonsuch Shrubs, Ancient Formula, Modern Elixir

A Shrub is a herb infused, vinegar based drink, again with excellent purported health benefits. Nonsuch make a variety of shrubs based on Apple Cider Vinegar and flavoured with fruits, herbs and botanicals. These are really good, and the vinegar flavour bends well into the background allowing the other flavours to come through. Lightly sparkling and jewel coloured, these Shrubs are perfect for the coming season.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Kitchen Essentials

Over the past few years, I have accumulated a huge amount of kitchen equipment. Aside from all the pieces brought for styling shoots, there is a core of ten or so items which I couldn’t be without, items which are used every day and make working in the kitchen much more pleasurable. Christmas is always a good time to add a few solid basics to the kitchen cupboards, and although some of these items are quite pricy, you’ll have them years down the line and won’t, for a moment, regret buying them.

Kitchenaid Artisan Mixer

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One of the most decadent purchases, but also one of the most used pieces of equipment in my kitchen is the classic time-tested Artisan Mixer.  Perfect for cakes, meringues and bread, the Artisan is solid, and made to last. Mine is now twenty years old and still in tiptop condition. Aside from looking great, they make light work of so many jobs. I chose classic cream but they can be found in many colours – although do consider that if you are going to have it standing in the kitchen for several decades, choosing a neural colour might be preferable.

Le Creuset Casseroles and Saucepans 

I have several Le Creuset casseroles and two sets of their cast iron saucepans. Many of these were vintage finds in French flea markets, however, investing in new Le Creuset is still worthwhile – they do outlast many of of cheaper brands. I use a Le Creuset casserole almost daily, for soups, broths, stews, sauces….even baking bread, creating a ‘Dutch’ oven. The saucepans are extremely durable and all cast iron works on induction which is great for contemporary kitchens.

Global Knife

If there were one single knife to invest in, I would recommend a small Global Santuku – it’s amazingly sharp (so long as you look after it properly) not overly expensive, and can be used for most kitchen tasks. Beautifully weighted, its not intimidating, as some knives are – it’s also aesthetically pleasing.

Le Creuset Rectangular Roaster 

IMG_6668A decent sized cast iron roaster has so many uses, it can be used on the hob for gravy – for lasagne, roasts, Yorkshire puddings, drying herbs, roasted veggies or even making crumbles. It retains heat very well so keeps food warm before serving. Mine is vintage, with folding metal handles, but the new ones are just as good and also come in a variety of colours.

Tala Measure

The Original Cooks Dry Measure sitting on my shelf belonged to my grandmother who bought it in the 1950s – very little has changed in their design since. The new ones do have the advantage of grams as well as ounces but sentimentality prevents me from upgrading. These make baking a cinch, no more dragging out scales and separate bowls, they also measure rice, lentils and peas, are simple to clean and look pleasingly vintage.

Pyrex Measuring Jug

I have several of these, different sizes, the oldest was in our kitchen when I was born, the latest is wide and can be used for mixing, microwaving and baking, as well as measuring. I do try to avoid the dishwashers with these as the writing does become difficult to read after a while (at least on the newer ones). A Pyrex jug goes hand-in-hand with the Tala measure, completing the baking duo.

Cast Iron Griddle: These have been central to Welsh cookery for centuries

Coming from Wales I have been brought up with Welsh Cakes cooked on a Bakestone, and img_7866served hot, scattered with caster sugar. I have three, one contemporary (pictured) and two antique. Of the older two, the first is about  25 cm in diameter, cooks Bara Planc (bread) beautifully and isn’t too heavy…the second is 40 cm in diameter and is brought out for industrial Welsh Cake making, family gatherings etc. This one is extremely heavy, Victorian, and wonderfully pitted on one side by years of use. In Wales, these are heirloom items, hung by the fireplace and used frequently. Welsh Cakes or Pikelets are cooked on the hob now, but once, the griddle sat on top of an open fire or was balanced over the fire on a three-legged stand. I would highly recommend Netherton Foundry’s Shropshire made Griddles, they will certainly stand the test of time and make delightful heirlooms, beautifully handcrafted they are the current by-word in artisan British Kitchen equipment.

Mason Cash Mixing Bowls 

Everybody’s Grandparents had any least one iconic Mason Cash mixing bowl, established in 1901 these classic pieces can still be found in antique fairs and even car boot sales. Today, they are no longer made in the UK, sadly, however they are available in a range of pastel colours and still follow the original design. Mixing the Christmas Pudding in one of these is sure to ignite nostalgic feelings and they look good too.

A Traditionally made Frying Pan (spun steel)

My monster of a frying pan (40 cm in diameter) came from an antiques fair in south-west France, it had been neglected for a fair few years, but some wire wool and several ‘seasons’ later and it’s fabulous, we’ve made Spanish omelettes to serve 10, cooked breakfast for the whole family and even roasted chestnuts. It does take two hands to carry though, but it’s very pleasing to use. Finding exceptional frying pans can prove quite difficult in the UK so, returning to Netherton Foundry, I sincerely recommend their range of Spun Steel Frying Pans. With their wooden handles and vintage rivets, these pans are built to last and get better with each use. No non-stick coating to peel off, just Flax Oil seasoned, these really are a delight to use. Made by hand in Britain they are the legacy of centuries of metalworking tradition in Shropshire and have such integrity – used by all the top chefs, a set of these will be a pleasure for ever.

An End Grain Chopping Board 

IMG_6667 2If you’ve invested in a decent knife, you need to invest in decent chopping board. End grain boards are strong, durable and follow the same pattern as the large butcher’s blocks. I would recommend choosing one at least 8cm deep – a wooden board doesn’t blunt knives as others do. They are naturally hygienic and looks great on the worktop. They can also be used to present food, cheese boards, cold meat platters, bread etc,  so are pretty multi-functional.


The Pheasant Philosophises in Gascony: Market Musings

PoudenasAlmost twenty-five years ago, my parents bought a large, honey coloured stone village house on the borders of three French departments; the Lot-et-Garonne, The Gers and The Landes. Three departments with extremely different culinary influences yet all exceptional in their own way.My first ever piece of food writing was for my GCSE English coursework portfolio. I wrote about French Markets, they enthralled me with their colours, smells, tastes and vibrancy. I had always enjoyed writing but when I wrote about food and drink it was like coming home. Every holiday I made it my business to learn everything I could about the local French food – I tried it all and discovered so much.

So, twenty-years later, what’s changed in rural France? 

The village hasn’t, the markets haven’t – although there has been a wonderful resurgence in artisanal beer which has proved very popular with my other half. The pace of life is still the same…a few more shops open on Monday than used to, and one or two of the supermarkets are opening on Sunday mornings. There have been small injections of more contemporary culture – only this morning I spotted a designer coffee stall offering lattes and syrup-garnished cappuccinos; but in general, my little part of South-West France has remained the same and that is quite wonderful. 

I think the British could learn a lot from the French attitude towards food – they are proud of their regional dishes, simple as some are, and in Britain we too have a great deal to celebrate, culinarily. Whilst France is synonymous with fine dining, rural France indulges differently – not in the most elegant and visually perfect – but in the freshest and most nutritious, children are fed well from an early age, their palates are educated, they’ll often choose salad and fruit over some fake sugary concoction. Unlike the UK, France is not at the height of an obesity crisis, although twenty years ago it was rare to see any obesity in the county, today it is about – something which has fallen in line with the expansion of ready meals and highly processed products arriving in the great, overly lit hypermarkets which are sadly now ever present. 

Inherently though, there is a good nutritional underpinning and food is celebrated. Families gather together to share a meal, the summer evenings offer nocturnal markets showcasing the very best the region has to offer, there are feasts dedicated to individual dishes – the Gascon Garbure for example – which is a wonderful hotchpotch of meats boiled with vegetables and sometimes white beans, then served with great reverence – I suppose it’s a little like our Welsh Cawl, that ever boiling stock pot which had been part of Welsh culture for centuries. 

This morning I visited one of my favourite local markets, about 30 minutes drive away. The town of Eauze, in the Gers, is famed for its Roman remains and the market which snakes through the streets on a Thursday morning is one of those places that tourists hope to happen to happen upon to tell friends about at home. Divided into two halves, one for clothing, household goods, gifts, jewellery and the like and the other – my favourite – is in the lower square under the shadow of the trees and is, of course, the food market.

Packed into a relatively small space are dozens of traders – some selling a few vegetables or eggs from their gardens, some on a much grander scale. It’s like Pandora’s box, around each corner is something delicious waiting to be discovered. 

Today, it being mid June, I picked up some delicious local strawberries, absolutely on the point of perfection (so perfect in fact that they had to be eaten rather quickly after lunch), deep, green courgettes with their smooth, tactile skin, and deep, vibrant red cherries from the Gers. There were the first of the season’s melons – still an expensive treat until July when they fill the markets in abundance with that sweet smell which begs you to buy them. There were haricots blancs, haricot vert – the vendor snapping the fine beans to display their crisp freshness. A little further on were organic cheeses; goats, cows and sheep, wrapped in waxed paper and proudly displaying their ‘Bio’ credentials. Another stall was packed with glistening barrels of olives, all varieties and flavours – beside which were drums of preserved fruit from the sweet local prunes of Agen to the candid pineapples of the exotic West Indies, and littles packets of spices from across the globe. 

What is wonderful about France, is the opportunity to regularly buy exactly the amount you need. Markets are held daily somewhere in the area, most towns are no more than a 30 minute drive apart and there is no shame in buying three tomatoes, 100g of olives or a handful of cherries. There is certainly less waste, which, in this age of over excess and a throwaway economy, is surely welcome. 

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A Few Foodie Thoughts In The Bleak Midwinter

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After Christmas, the harsh month of January brings about a distinct need for creative culinary construction. It begins with the craving for spring. Soon after the Christmas items disappear, just as the Easter eggs start filling the supermarket shelves my heart yearns for oranges. There’s something wonderful about those Spanish oranges which conjure up the most vibrant sweetness winter has to offer. There is a historical decadence –  I can imagine standing on the dock waiting for the old orange boats to arrive, perfuming the air – and, now I am compelled to share a fetish – a peeled orange sliced into rounds, sprinkled with sugar and served at tea time with white bread and butter. This was my paternal Grandmother’s stalwart, a strange comfort of my childhood.  Of course, oranges mean marmalade and the chore of prepping pound after pound, however, when you open one of those little jars in the warm of a summer’s day,  it’s suddenly worth all the effort.

January, often the darkest and bleakest month – and certainly, the most depressing,  is a time of soup or Cawl as we call it in Wales. Cawl gyda caws – cheese with soup, a surprisingly good combination especially if one pairs a good, hard sheep’s cheese with a lamb stew. In times of revolution the Welsh called for caws gyda bara (cheese with bread); and I am inclined to agree, simple yet always satisfying.  Soup is still ‘home’ – My mother constantly has a pot of lamb Cawl waiting for us to dive into any time we pop around. A hearty, steaming bowl, a thick slice of Alex Gooch (alexgoochbaker.com) sourdough bread smothered in fabulous Netherend Farm Butter made on the other side of the Forest, and, maybe a slice of Smart’s Double Gloucester, a fine example of one of the few great Gloucester cheese-makers remaining.

Weekdays often begin with a Winter breakfast of thick creamy porridge bathed in maple syrup and double cream, the oats first soaked overnight – a perfect start to a days foraging, although not foraging in the conventional sense. A circumference of 15 miles encompasses all manner of fabulous local producers giving a varied choice of specialised products most of which far exceed those found even the better supermarkets. And afterwards? Arriving home to a Winter frost calls for steaming mugs of cocoa, made the old way with thick, creamy, non-homogenised, whole milk (Oh for the days of unpasturised legality!). Whisking the mixture over the stove creates a delightful froth on which to balance the all-important marshmallows, whilst selfishly hiding the usually alcohol-infused nectar. I think a dollop of whipped double cream is essential (providing the cocoa is scalding hot), as is a freshly baked biscuit or bun, something plain to enhance rather than interfere with the robust chocolate flavour.

The Monmouthshire/Gloucestershire culinary traditions are deep-rooted in those whose families arrived here for work, moving from the rural farm professions into a more promising industrial future.  When one says ‘Gloucestershire’ three things spring to mind pork, cheese and cider. Monmouthshire is a more veiled delight, clinging to many Welsh traditional recipes whilst asserting its Anglo allegiance. Monmouth Pudding, probably the most famous Monmouthian dish is rarely seen on a menu yet is one of those fabulously rib-sticking puddings deserving of a place after a robust Sunday roast. Moist layers of jam and crumb-thickened custard give the Monmouth Pudding its distinctive red stripe. Personally I believe it to be named after the famous Monmouth Cap, historically made in the Overmonnow district  – their distinctive shape reminiscent of the pudding bowl. And so we are spoiled for choice every Sunday, will it be a handsome leg of Welsh Lamb, enrobed in its buttery sweet fat studded with rosemary from the gnarly old bush which sits, like a pondering wise woman, in the corner of the courtyard; will it be a plump Madgett’s Farm chicken, encrusted with crunchy sea salt, its sage and onion voluptuousness bursting from its moist depths; or will it be a handsome Gloucester Old Spot shoulder, rolled and stuffed, its crackling crisp with a surprisingly delicate perry gravy at its  side; finally and perhaps the King of the Sunday table, a prime rib of Usk Valley Beef, rare and juicy, with puffed up, courtier like, Yorkshire Puddings sitting alongside this, most decadent of dishes. A stately queue of puddings wait in the shadows for their moment, and arrived flanked by homely jugs of rich yellow custard. This is how a weekend should end; or how the week should begin.

January is also a wonderful month in which to bake. Childhood memories are filled with the smell of sticky buns cooling on the kitchen table; my maternal Grandmother, now almost 107 and still thriving, would stand me on a stool in her tiny cottage kitchen, a tea towel for an apron, and let me pound the rich dough, showing me, with her cool hands the ebb and flow of the master baker. I’d wait beside the oven demanding a bun straight from the tin, but no, they needed glazing. On went the sugar and water, the buns proudly glistening until, juggling the hot bread from hand to hand, I managed to take a bite.

In the adjoining sitting room, the fire would crackle alluringly, the little brass toasting fork waiting to be called into duty, creating piles of slightly charred toast to anoint with rich salted butter. There would be buns to take home in an old Danish cookie tin, perhaps some fairy cakes and best of all some fruit fingers made with pastry leftover from the apple pie. Folded with sugar and dried fruit, and sliced into rectangles, these ensured that nothing went to waste. My maternal Grandfather, a somewhat eccentric artist, would make bread with wholemeal flour and honey, and would stand over the stove, stirring great pans of butterbeans or ‘fruit on the turn’ to make into his legendary ‘Rocket Fuel’ wines. Some memories stay with you for ever.


The Monmouthshire Food Festival – Fit for a King (or the son of one anyway!)

Last weekend, Thomas of Woodstock’s once splendid castle at Caldicot played host, for the second time this year, to The Monmouthshire Food Festival. In general the weather held and there were some moments of dazzling sunshine, as visitors were treated to two splendid days of food, drink, demonstrations and workshops.

Although not the biggest in the area, there is a quaintness to The Monmouthshire Food Festival. It’s cosily snuggles into the courtyard of Caldicot Castle, and has ample stalls to while away several hours. On offer was everything from Squirrel meat to artisanal soda, passing through cheeses, sauces, jams and all manner of alcoholic and non-alcholic drinks.

In the demonstration tent visitors were treated to a broad range of wonderfully seasonal  recipes from passionate local chefs including BBC Masterchef: The Professionals semi-finalist and former sous-chef to, amongst others, Marcus Wareing,  Liam Whittle; who IMG_0405produced an outstanding Duck dish with flavoursome Quinoa and Salmon in Asian Style Broth – needless to say, both were delicious.

There were also guided tastings; I enjoyed a beer and food pairing workshop with Brecon Brewing’s Buster Grant and Gloucestershire based Hillside Brewery’s Paul Williamson; and found myself tasting a variety of foods from The Blaenavon Cheddar Cheese Company’s Oak Smoked Cheddar through to the rather excellent chocolate of Black Mountain Gold, by way of a deliciously chewy Lavabread Salami from Cwm Farm. All the beers were good, some pipped others to the post, but generally the extremely knowledgeable brewers had it all spot on.

The street food was excellent; prize-winning Welsh street-food  purveyors, The Original Goodfilla’s Company were offering their trademark calzone style Pizza, and I was delighted to discover Hereford based The Grub Shed with their obscenely decadent Brisket Fries, and, a bottle of Somerset Elderflower Lemonade from Somerset based Hullabaloo’s was just the ticket to wash it down.

It’s always wonderful to find new local producers to add to my every-increasing dossier and this time was no exception. I tasted cured Mutton by Gwella, a Welsh delicacy which was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and which I had even contemplated trying to produce at home due to the lack of commercial availability; amazing freezer friendly curry sauces from Rayeesa’s Indian Kitchen, artisanal botanical syrups from Tast Natur (some of which took you straight back to a summer meadow), the extremely potent Eccentric Gin whose Limbeck New Western Style Gin was one of the most innovative I’ve tasted yet, and I was introduced to Lurvill’s Delight (more on that soon).

I also managed to acquire a bucket of traditionally Welsh-style loose tea from Morgan’s Brew Tea Company and a yummy Nutella Swirl from Baked on Green Street.

I really enjoyed my day at The Monmouthshire Food Festival and could easily have loaded my larder fit to burst with the sheer array of produce on offer. However, I had to draw the line somewhere,else we would have struggled back to the car!

There are plans for four Monmouthshire Food Festivals next year, including two in Monmouth’s Shire Hall (almost on my doorstep).

I think they’ll be very well received, because our county’s commitment to buying local and artisanal produce is ever-growing and we have so much to be proud of.


Answering a few of my own questions about Clotted Cream….

What do Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Cornish Giant Blundabore, and Edmund Spenser have in common?

The answer; Clotted Cream.

Clotted cream is at the heart of every quintessentially British Cream Tea. Slavered onto scones, melting unctuously beside a warm sticky toffee pudding or just in a bowl IMG_0994alongside a pile of freshly picked, fragrant, seasonal berries. Clotted Cream is one of those delights which spring into your mind as you reach the end of the M5, putting off thoughts, for a while at least, of the long, winding A39 stretching out before you.

Cornish Clotted Cream officially received its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) stamp in 1998 and today, Rodda’s near Redruth is Britain’s largest producer, although many smaller artisanal dairies produce this, most revered of creams, throughout the West Country.  It is also known as Devonshire Cream or Clouted Cream, the clouts or clots rising to the top during its manufacturing process giving that crunchy, yet yielding crust to every pot.

Although its origins are a little unclear, The Oxford Companion to Food , which is an absolute joy to read, suggests that it may have been introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician traders in search of tin, although there is a considerable amount of folklore attached to this theory. I believe that the reason for its original creation is most likely related to the preservation, before refrigeration, of dairy products. Simply put, the higher the fat content the better a product keeps, take butter for example. Recent studies have suggested that the, once mysterious, manmade underground caves,  or ‘Fogous’, Carneunywhich are often found in Atlantic coastal areas are actually underground storage areas for keeping produce fresh, dairy included, and we know that in the 14th century Monks were producing Clotted Cream in Devon monasteries.

Traditionally made in shallow bowls in farmhouse kitchens the fresh milk is left to stand until the cream rises to the top and then heated very slowly until the clots formed. These were then skimmed off. Interestingly enough, with a minimum 55% fat content, Clotted Cream would actually be considered butter in America.

Popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was often flavoured with rose water and served alongside the ever popular Junkets and is greatly favoured by the legendary Sir Kenelm Digby  whose posthumously-written eponymous, cookery book,  ‘The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened’, is a wonderful guide to food and drink in Carolingian and Restoration Britain.

So, to the great debate; do you eat your cream tea Cornish style (jam first) or Devon style (cream first)? Both have their merits, but I suppose for me, it depends on the jam’s consistency.

And the little question at the beginning? Well, Hobbits, of course, consider Clotted Cream a staple food (who wouldn’t); Blunderbore, the giant of ‘Jack the Giant Hunter’ fame was fed clotted cream by Jenny who was to become his fourth wife, (so it obviously has aphrodisiacal qualities as well!) And finally, a few words on the subject from Edmund Spenser;

‘Ne would she scorn the simple shepherd swain,
For she would call him often heam,
And give him curds and clouted cream’

 

This post is not sponsored by Rodda’s, but was written on my own volition after receiving some of their lovely products and deciding to find out exactly what Clotted Cream was all about!


Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness…A little taster of the project I’m currently working on…

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The Forest of Dean is at its best in the Autumn months, when the great oaks, once famed the country over for their strength and height, and used in shipbuilding, are burnished in the golden light of an Indian summer. The forest’s leaves encompass all shades from tawny yellow, to ruby-red and dark earthy brown. Coaches drive through these wild woods, their occupants’ cameras poised for the perfect shot, whilst those who live there barely notice the beauty as they drive, eyes front, through this, most ancient of royal forests. The law of the Freeminer and the word of the Verderer still hold here. Any person who works for a year and a day in one of the few mines still in existence is awarded the status of Freeminer allowing mining rights anywhere within the forest. The Verderer’s court, held in the Stately Speech House, a building with more than a hint of Judge Jeffries about it, talk of the free roaming sheep shepherded by the Badgers, or the wild boar.

Ancient legends speak of the Wild Hunt, a fairy army waiting in the forest’s depths to carry you off. Wise women were consulted as doctors were few and far between; tinctures from foraged plants cured all manners of ailments, even into the middle of the twentieth century. Public houses were prolific; breweries filled the village air with the scent of warm malt and hops. Here, rooting out fabulous local foods becomes a pleasure, from the game of the Lydney Park Estate to the fine meat, dairy and chaucuterie of Severnside. Many restaurants have taken up the flag of local and homemade seems to be ‘de rigour’. The Wye Valley, the gateway to the Forest for many, is aristocratically confident in its seasonal changes. Sheltered as it is, autumn arrives a little later and without the violence of the more exposed Forest. Here, the Kingstone Brewery’s experienced brewers produce exemplary real ale, the Tintern Parva vineyards, their vines elegantly placed overlooking the famous abbey and village, produce excellent wines and mead, a legacy of the Cistercian monks who once made this village with its breathtaking abbey a prime example of total self-sufficiency. To stop at one of the many inns between Chepstow and Monmouth, in the autumn is a great treat and, local drink in hand, whiles away many pleasant afternoons.

Early in autumn, as August comes to a close the air is heady with fruit. The lane, to the front of the farmhouse, is shaded by low hanging boughs of ripening orchard fruits, the tiny cherry plums, not seen in the supermarkets spill onto the cool tarmac. We pick these with relish, to be turned into crumbles and jams to fortify the larder throughout the winter. Some are deep red, some buttery yellow, yet none is bigger than a fifty pence piece. They pop satisfyingly in the heavy cast iron pan before cooling and sieving, the ruby juice is returned to the pan with an equal volume of preserving sugar. The ancient, roadside hedgerows are also home to glistening, bulbous blackberries, more of which make it to the stomach than the jam pot, especially if my son is with us. High above, the elderberries wait their turn, their tiny dark berries will be made into a cordial to ward off coughs and colds, also to provide a simple sauce for a rare grilled duck breast. IMG_7742
Apples of all varieties abound, the larger ‘cooking’ apples are peeled, cored, sliced and cooked until they yield their juice before being bagged, labelled and frozen for winter crumbles and pies. Some are made into chutney, enhanced with a dash of cider and left to mature in the deep dark cupboard alongside the fireplace. The desert apples are stored between straw in the old dairy; the darkness preventing their rotting. We bake these, stuffed with a medieval mixture of dried fruit, herbs, spices and honey. They are grated into cake mixtures; we have even experimented with apple and cinnamon Welsh Cakes.

Late autumn picnics make the most of the fine weather, simple fayre a Gloucestershire Squab Pie (Bacon, onions and apples in a short crust pastry) satisfies most appetites, whilst a Plum Upside-down cake provides a sweet finish, throw in some crusty bread, good cheese, chutney, ham and some hard-boiled free range eggs and you have a splendid banquet. As we drive across towards the Severn the Pheasant dash out in front of us providing sport for the distant guns. A brace of Pheasant is modestly priced and will provide an elegant dinner for four people. Drawn, plucked and halved, anointed liberally with goose fat or lard, as Pheasant has a tendency to dry, and roasted, it is simple and delicious. Cold roasted pheasant can be turned in the decadent old French dish Salmagundi; a combination of minced pheasant or other game, wine and rich spices. Roast Pheasant needs Game chips on the side, a spiced red cabbage, and perhaps a light jus flavoured with a little Hedgerow Jelly. We make Hedgerow Jelly as the fruit season is drawing to a close, following a final, desperate scramble to pick anything left. The fruit is boiled, strained through muslin and returned to the pan 500g of sugar to 600ml of juice. It keeps beautifully and adds a deeper, darker dimension to many savoury dishes.
In the Forest the wild boar are on the rampage, barely a week goes by without someone or other ‘cheating death’ when a Boar entered their garden. They leave furrows in the ground, there are official advice sheets on what to do when confronted by one. They are, however, extremely tasty as my Wild Boar Terrine will testify. In France wild boar is often cooked slowly with plenty of red wine, garlic and herbs; a Beef Bourguignon for those made of harder stuff. The flavour is dark; the texture takes you back to the halls of Medieval Europe. It is a perfect delight.

Some years we take a weekend away, most recently to Llantony Priory, a hamlet dominated by its once magnificent abbey in the heart of the Black Mountains. The car packed with the staples needed, children, dogs and kites included, we spend a couple of nights amongst friends, no television or wi-fi to disturb us here. The evenings are filled with good-humoured banter, discussions and confessions. We’ve made a thick, spiced apple cordial from the more weather-beaten of our fruit. It’s adds warmth and sweetness to rough local cider and alone proves a perfect alcohol-free tonic, diluted with warm water or apple juice for ‘I’m not tired’ children. In the morning we become a breakfast station. As a great believer in the traditional British breakfast there is no shortage of crispy dry cured bacon, sizzling chipolatas, stewed baked beans, eggs all ways, mushrooms, potato fritters and piles and piles of golden toast. The teapot is full, the mugs stand to attention. There is a strange formality about the British breakfast; without intention we are drawn to it at times when comfort is needed, curing the heavy head, setting oneself up for the day. Not for our Wild Welsh Weekends, the muesli and low-fat yoghurt brigade. We take tray bakes or slab cakes, robust enough to travel; scones ready to be decked with their thick clotted cream and homemade jam blankets. A walk works up an appetite; the communal meals of the evenings a showcase of hearty fayre. In the morning there will be jugs of cocoa for the children, who for a moment, put down their gadgets and communicate with each other.


Daylesford Harvest Festival – Organic in bundles!

I have always been intrigued by the Daylesford brand and have intended on paying them a visit for quite some time. Last weekend, I found the perfect excuse as they were holding their annual Harvest Festival. It was a lovely day out and although the day began a little gloomy, the sun shone on Daylesford.

Without doubt, Daylesford is marketed towards a certain type of person; its shops and ethos have been criticised for being elitist but I found it quite lovely. It is like entering a magical world where nothing is wrong, almost like Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon with its pre-wiped hen’s eggs for collection and its beribboned lambs. Daylesford is geared towards those to aspire to the country life. Everything is exceptional quality and the prices reflect this, however they also reflect the ‘behind the scenes’ effort which goes into the food, products and service offered by Daylesford.

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Owned by Lady Bamford of JCB fame, and located on the Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire border between Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh , in the heart of the Cotswolds,  it is one of the most sustainable working farms in the country. Fully organic, Daylesford comprises the working farm, holiday cottages, cookery school, original farm shop, restaurant, cafe, lifestyle shops, spa and nursery. The Daylesford branding is everywhere, which is strangely comforting and provides effortless continuity. Granted, some of the prices (especially in the clothing department) were eye-watering for mere mortals but the food hall was an absolute delight. I was extremely impressed by the chilled cheese room which offers dozens of cheeses including their own Single Gloucester, Double Gloucester, Blue and a Camembert-style cheese, all of which were excellent. The butchery and fish counters were impeccably presented and offered a rich variety of produce, predominantly from the farm (although of course not the fish!)

It being an open day, we enjoyed visiting the animals and learning about the different rare and historic breeds which make up the Daylesford livestock. There were sheepdog trials, cray-fish catching, donkey patting….everything shouted ‘true country living’ (although quite a number of their clientele had driven up from Town and were a little under equipped for the muddy fields!).

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I have to say, Daylesford is ‘well done’, its sister shops in London are stocked with the same superior quality ingredients as the Farm Shop and everything feels fresh and good for you (even the cakes). I didn’t dine in the restaurant as it was extremely full (although I full intend to return soon) but took the opportunity to indulge in a ‘smart’ takeaway – their wood-fired oven was offering glistening mozzarella and salami covered organic pizzas which looked delicious, however we chose the slow-cooked pulled beef with ‘slaw in an organic roll. Eaten in the sunshine with a cold bottle of their own cider it was idyllic, although extremely busy. The day finished with the purchase of a few delicious pastries, made in the on-site bakery; and a bag full of sumptuous cheeses, organic milk and a rather super organic mint jelly.

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Daylesford should be billed as an experience; I’d recommend a weekend away in one of their beautiful holiday cottages (which form the bulk of the original farmhouse) – you’re but a few steps away from a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner – indulge in a treatment in the spa, sip a coffee on the Cotswold stone terrace or sign up to a masterclass or day course at the cookery school. There is a lot to do but do go with very full pockets, you may need to book up almost a year in advance due to the popularity of the holiday accommodation. All in all, it’s a place to forget about the world, forget about the credit card bill and just indulge.


The Abergavenny Food Festival Part 2: The Producers #AFF2017

 

 

PrintAs I mentioned in my earlier post, the stars of Abergavenny Food Festival are without doubt the producers. Whether nestling between the little booths or creating fine displays in the prestigious Market Hall,  the producers have an infallible passion for food and drink which is infectious and wonderful. Most are happy to chat and I unreservedly apologise, to those who are behind me in queues, for holding them up. I am a questioner; I want to know about the product, the sourcing, origin and inspiration. I’ve been privy to some wonderful tales from lost family recipe books, to accidental discoveries, to lifelong ambition; as well as meeting those farmers whose forebears have farmed for generations through difficult times; inherently believing in their crop or herd – families for whom the ‘organic’ and ‘buy local’ campaigns are finally paying off.

 

 

IMG_7331I love that there is always something new to be learnt. Food is an ever evolving subject and the little  things gleaned at such festivals can often form the basis for longer articles, recipes or books. I do feel a little guilty though, because were I to buy from every stall I taste (and enjoy) I would be empty of pocket and overly full of larder; however that is not to say that I can’t take my new found knowledge and share the products at a later date and so many companies offer internet shops or mail order these days. I always rather fantasised about those great hampers ordered from Fortnum and Mason and arriving in the Highlands, at grand houses, after spending the night as freight on those wonderful steam trains – I suppose I seek nostalgia – and having seen the creative thought which goes into much of the artisanal packaging these days I feel a return to these glory days are on the horizon, and it warms my heart!

I also get great pleasure from passing a stall with a hand-drawn ‘Sold Out, see you next year’ sign; whilst it is obviously a great accolade for the producer (who are no doubt cursing themselves for not having made enough, even though many were working on very little sleep and far too much coffee in the weeks leading up to the festival) it also demonstrates a belief in future success.

The diverse and  rich varieties of food and drink related produce to be found at festivals are a testament to the British public’s return to real, local and artisanal foods, whether it be sauces, whose recipes come from as far away as Borneo wth Sorai; delicately flavoured gin with autumnal botanicals from Sibling Distillery or a jar of Forage Fine Foods herb rub bursting with the smells and tastes of a summer meadow, there is a story and a demand – rubbed into a leg of Welsh lamb and then slowly roasted, the herb rub is absolutely exquisite.

As I wander through the markets the smells which waft about are all too tempting; from the jars of Joe and Seph’s Willy Wonkaesque popcorn, to the elegant displays of cakes, pasties, real breads and finely sliced charcuterie. The cheese market is difficult to pass through without adding at least another four cheeses to my already overladen refrigerator. This years haul, (chick in tow, who is possibly even more of a cheese lover than me) added mature yet smooth unpasteurised cheddar from Batch Farm; IMG_7492award winning firm Somerset goat’s cheese, creamy and surprisingly mild, and charmingly named ‘Rachel’ from White Lake Cheese ; the Bath Soft Cheese Company’s Wyfe of Bath, an organic Gouda inspired cheese (although there was much debate over whether to also buy their rather marvellous Bath Blue); and  finally a donation to Macmillan (sponsors M & S’ chosen charity) secured us two packets of classic soft and milky Abergavenny goat’s cheese, a fitting final choice given the location. Soft goat’s cheese is something I always have in the refrigerator, it’s my go-to topping for oatcakes, toasted sourdough or even to add  a surprising savoury lift to cheese cake.

The street food stalls at Abergavenny do encourage gluttony, however when you’re presented with everything from Taiwanese Bao Buns to the South West’s (and that’s Bristol not the U S of A, whatever image the logo may inspire) now legendary The Pickled Brisket and their outstanding salt-beef stuffed brioche rolls; chocolate dipped authentic Churros or The Guardian’s 2017 number one choice for Pizza, our own Cardiff based  The Dusty Knuckle Pizza Company.  There was hog roast, Aberaeron honey ice-cream, Legges of Bromyard’s traditional British pies, Welsh venison and even Ghanaian street food – you could have easily taken all your main meals for a fortnight and still not covered everything. Abergavenny Food Festival champions all good food, yes a lot of it is classically British, but also a lot of it stems from other cultures; many of these chefs and producers, although British born and bred, have carried with them a great passion for their ancestral cuisine and it’s rather lucky for us, that they have. DSCN0635

I could quite easily write a whole book about just one year’s festival in Abergavenny, there is so much to see and do and taste; but alas, I am forced to be content with rifling through my collection of cards, leaflets and recipes until I can match taste to name and put in my online orders. I have also been know to drive Mr D rather mad on weekend breaks when I’ve insisted on searching the lanes of some rural county (inevitably without a sat-nav signal) for a farm shop selling something of which I only half remember the name, but found absolutely delicious at Abergavenny.

Of course, I obviously am looking forward to next year’s 20th anniversary celebration but may well have to consider some sort of abstemious routine in the early days of September!

Whilst I attended the Abergavenny Food Festival as a guest, all opinions are my own as are the images.

 

 


Digging for Ancestral Roots in our Cookery…..?

I think that most of us were probably taught to cook by family members; whether Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents or the more extended family. IIMG_4936 learnt a lot from my Grandmothers; though each was very different in their approach to cookery. One was very much a bake-from-scratch cook; still alive today (at 106) she taught me bread making, jam making and gravy making; she learnt all that from her mother who was born in the late 19th century. Grandma’s rubbed-in cakes and Welsh bake-stones have weathered the years and are still regularly baked in my kitchen at home. Grandma was very much a wartime wife; she embraced rationing, skinned rabbits and ‘made do and mended’.

My other Grandmother, Nan, born in 1922 and sadly no longer with us, was a classic 1950’s housewife; she enjoyed convenience, loved M & S and, as she got older, rarely cooked at all, but when I was a child she would make choux pastry Chocolate Eclairs (which I’ve always considered rather complicated) and Coconut Pyramids (from the eponymous Marguerite Patten); her Beef Stew with Dumplings was always served on a plate rather than in a bowl and the trifles which adorned the birthday table were always from a packet. However, there was something she always made from scratch and which we all found rather amusing – Porridge. At home, porridge was a thick and creamy affair, adorned with honey or syrup or sultanas, it was thick and unctuous. My Nan’s on the other hand was solid, a greying cloddy mass made with half water and half milk then surrounded by another pool of cold milk. It stood like an iceberg, its undercarriage swamped and its head lightly adorned with sugar. It tasted fine, but it looked….well ‘different’! IMG_7474

It was only after doing a bit of research and talking with my Nan that I realised why this porridge was ‘different’ – and it was all down to her ancestry. My Nan made porridge that way because she had learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother – and that lady (all the way back in the mid-19th century) was called Florence MacDonald and was born a little way outside Inverness in 1858. Having looked into the Scottish porridge tradition I discovered that it is served, very thick, in bowls and alongside is placed a communal bowl of cream. The horn spoon goes into the porridge (which is served savoury or sweet) and then dunked in the cream. The leftover porridge was then tipped into a ‘porridge draw’ and spread about so as to set firm; this

IMG_1821was carried by crofters and workers to eat during their lunch break as it travelled more easily than oatcakes which tended to crumble.

Although, it’s likely that this was how Florence cooked and served her porridge, a gentle evolution has obviously occurred – an amalgamation of two bowls into one and the result being my Nan’s ‘different’ porridge. Having discovered this I do wonder whether I should make my porridge that bit thicker and carry on the tradition….who knows how far back it goes? I’m sure if we looked about us, we could

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 find dozens of hacks and recipes which travel deep into our family history, not all of us are lucky enough to have a family recipe notebook added to and stained and use, to carry these recipes, we just have our memories and these memories should be treasured and handed down to the next generation. In a gesture towards my heritage I do always stir my porridge with a Spurtle (the traditional carved stick-like porridge stirrer) and I only stir clockwise, superstition or tradition; you decide.