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.


My Organic 60/40 #feedyourhappy

Yesterday saw the launch of The Organic Trade Board’s #feedyourhappycampaign. This EU backed initiative aims to encourage people to ‘go organic’, even if it’s only a little bit!

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I have been a strong supporter of organic produce for many years and try, cost permitting, to use organic produce as much as possible. I think there are certain foods which should always be organic; without compromise Organic milk is always in my fridge, and the majority of my fruit and vegetables are also organic. Most recently I have been researching organic meat and have discovered several local suppliers (more on them soon) whose meat is not organic but very high welfare and pasture fed. This is a really good compromise as organic meat can take a rather hefty chunk out of the weekly budget; and also, with any farm seeking organic certification, the goalposts are set extremely high before the certificate is awarded, so there is a transition period.

So, can we eat entirely organic?

I’m sure there are those out there who can, but it isn’t terribly easy. Generally, it’s probably easier to eat organic in cities, where there are lots of organic restaurants, cafes, and market-fresh produce available on a daily basis. You do have to (forgive the pun) dig rather deeper in the countryside. Then of course there is the issue of origin. I can walk into Waitrose and fill my basket to the brim with organic produce yet how much of it British? As someone passionate about our native produce I have to ask myself – do I go for the bag of local apples which are not certified organic but which I know to have been grown without pesticides, or the certified organic New Zealand grown apples flown thousands of miles and probably chilled near to death? British always wins.fullsizeoutput_18e

The solution is to stand up for British organic farmers; supporting this campaign is showing the farming community that we want organic and we want British and there is a market out there to justify the initial outlay. We want improved health, better tasting products and more easily accessible products.

I think that a 60/40 rule should generally apply (occasionally stretching to 80/20). Even I am guilty of the ‘Mum, can we go to McDonald’s?’ moments; and no one (generally) is perfect. I do try and ensure that under my roof food is nutritious, not packed with poisonous pesticides and generally locally sourced (although I admit to trying Gousto over the really busy summer,  as who can resist their opening offers?). But now that school has started and life isn’t quite as busy it’s time to sift through my recipe book collection and plan some fabulous, and obviously, budget conscious meals.

Here are my tips for cutting down the costs whilst enjoying organic:IMG_2231

1: Buy mince; it’s so versatile and organic mince is so much cheaper that the larger cuts, steaks or fillets. For everything from homemade Burgers to Shepherd’s Pie, soups and stews, mince is an essential – so load that freezer! It can also be bulked out with organic lentils (which are also quite reasonable) to make Chilli or Bolognese.

2: Buy a whole chicken; it’ll do Sunday Lunch, Monday supper and soup for at least two days lunches. Bone broth is totally delicious and amazingly good for you so make sure not to waste a drop – and also using the whole bird takes away any ‘expense’ guilt

3: Buy offal – again really nutritious. Chicken livers can be whipped into a light and delicious parfait; lambs liver served with bacon, mash and onion gravy is a forgotten delight. Organic Pig’s liver makes excellent terrine, even better served with a side of windfall apple and cider chutney. liverandbacon

4: Buy seasonally; go with the sturdy brassicas in winter and the radishes and tomatoes in summer – eating with the seasons is a sure way to reduce costs; and who wants to eat strawberries in the middle of December anyway?

5: Finally, try and buy in bulk; flour, oats, rice and pasta are all more affordable when bought in larger quantities; I buy 20kg sacks of organic, stoneground flour directly from the mills via amazon, or from Sharpham Park shop and it’s always far better value for money.

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Is it Autumn yet?….

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I am an Autumnophile (if there is such a word). I get terribly excited in about July and wait for that change in the air which denotes the beginning of the new season and having become extremely sensitive to this natural phenomenon I can state that Autumn does begin in August, usually when I’m in France on about the 7th. This year it was on the 5th and I admit to phoning Mr D (who was working in the UK) at 7 am in the morning to let him know, although I don’t think he entirely shares my enthusiasm for cold, damp days and soggy leaves!

I’m not sure where this date stands from an ‘equinox’ point of view but meteorologically the Autumn is supposed to begin in late September. However, the leaves are just starting to turn here, the air is muggy and warm, there are plums in abundance and our abandoned grape vine is bending with fruit. I sense a difference in the light, I can’t quite pinpoint the exact first feelings of Autumn (before the traditional ‘signs’) but it does seems to be in the light, which changes to a more golden hue from the bright, fluffy light of summer. Growing up, I  was always told that Mayday was the first day of summer, with its Green Men and general frolics (now apparently the first day of summer is sometime in late June which surely is close to Midsummer’s Day, the clue being the word Midsummer.) In December we don’t sing “In the Bleak Early Winter” as is meteorologically correct. And I’m sure Midwinter is around the equinox of the 21/22/23rd, therefore, Winter must actually start in November which is ‘meteorologically’ Autumn. See how confusing it all is? Answers on a postcard, please!

But for now, all I can really think about is the prospect of Autumn food, long boots, snuggly jumpers, candles and log fires (although I know it’s too early to indulge). So….to help my with my addiction  I’m going to share a few of my favourite Autumn things over the next few weeks, items which I think are essential to enjoy the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping. I know there are many of you who seek the last days of the summer, praying that it’ll eek out into September, but sorry to say an ‘Indian summer’ is just a ‘Warm Autumn’. Perhaps we are just conditioned to hibernation, the arrival of the orchard fruits in abundance call out to our early genetic makeup to ‘stock up and store’ for the hard winter (which we fail to have now).

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When I take the Collie out, along the lane beside the river and up into the woods the smell of autumn is just creeping in – it is of course the smell of decaying vegetation, and not the most desirable if analysed, but I so enjoy driving through the cider orchards and inhaling the fruitiness in the air before the fruity smell turns slightly alcoholic in early October. I do think a cider post will be essential around that time – after all, it’s only fair to guide my readers through the perils of scrumpy, Perry and the like. But for today, overcast and slightly warm, I think I’ll stay indoors, bake something and just ponder on the wonderful season ahead.

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Breaking the fast….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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