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.


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)


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: top tipples

    Stocking the drinks cabinet is a chore we must all undertake at this time of the year, whatever your personal preference, relatives and friends’ preferences must also be taken into account and that bottle of Creme de Menthe hidden at the back of the under-sink cupboard surely cannot last another year.

Interestingly, some of the drinks, traditionally more associated with Grand – ma thanIMG_4234 grand night out are making a bit of a come back – sherry anyone? Sherry and Mince Pies were once the height of sophistication and today we have such a wonderful choice that all palettes can be catered for. From the dry Manzanillas to the syrupy deliciousness of Pedro Jimenez, the world of Sherry is as diverse as any fortified wine. A dry, crisp Fino served with salted Marcona almonds is the stuff of dreams and even Bristol Cream has its place.  Port is also ‘on trend’ this year, there are ruby, tawny, white and rosé varieties and even some of the budget supermarkets are peddling out some pretty decent offerings in this department including vintage examples.

Gin is still ‘in’ and flavoured Gins are everywhere – I am a little suspicious of some of these brands – a ‘flavoured’ gin where the flavour is added after distillation is a IMG_4368completely different entity to those gins infused with unusual ingredients within the distillation process. Rose and Violet gins, distilled with real petal infusions are heavenly, Parma violet ‘flavoured’, not quite so delightful. The Negroni, last summer’s ‘it’ cocktail will still be on many menus, as will the more conventional choices.

Baileys is only bought at Christmas in this household, and the first bottle is usually gone within the first week – the uncool classification is lifted unanimously at this time of year, there is no disgrace in indulging – I suppose it’s the British equivalent of Egg Nog, and yes, I do know that it hails from Ireland. My local version of Baileys, Penderyn’s (Welsh Whiskey) Merlyn cream liqueur  is equally as delicious, and ultimately, probably offers a good deal more street cred.

A bottle of Madeira for gravy, a bottle of Southern Comfort for my Christmas Day trifle IMG_4170(recipe to follow), a bottle each of gin and vodka, two bottles of whisky; a decent single malt and one for ‘medicinal’ purposes, and a bottle of two of spontaneous purchases, these are often by Chase, in our household, and are usually added to Champagne to serve with canapés before lunch – the elderflower is particularly exquisite. Finally, a little bottle of vibrant Chambord  black raspberry liqueur makes the list, which is particularly excellent stirred into a fresh raspberry sauce for duck.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Easy Entertaining.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and although there aren’t many exclusively ‘Welsh’ traditions, we do have some excellent recipes to satisfy the hungriest of guests over the Christmas period.

Feeding a party is quite a challenge, but sometimes, especially in the colder weather it’s nice to offer guests something a little more substantial that the usual mince pie and canapés. In fact, cooking a large pot of something delicious is far easier, creating less stress and allowing more integrated time with your guests.

Entertaining at Christmas shouldn’t be stressful. Make sure you have a really good cheeseboard, lots of decent bread and a generously filled pot of casserole, soup or stew. Obviously, mulled wine is essential, as is mulled cider, but a great casserole filled with slow cooked beef, game or a really good Cawl, the hearty Welsh lamb and barley stew which is served traditionally with Caws (cheese) and Bara (bread), is sure to satisfy the pickiest of guests. The beauty of many of these dishes is the simple fact that they look after themselves, require the cheapest cuts and are full of the most delicious flavours.

Beef Stew with suet dumplings, the Gascon favourite Poule au Pot or even a hearty vegan lentil and brassica stew – these are perfect for the cooler weather – they freeze well and hold well, allowing guests to dip in, at will over the course of the evening.

Entertaining shouldn’t be complicated, the company, candles and generously poured wine is the true focus of the evening. Sometimes the simplest foods prove the best, after all, we are heading for the most indulgent period in the culinary calendar so why not tuck into some family favourites – these comfort foods can be eaten without excuses – the diet doesn’t start until January, remember!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Day 2, The Butcher’s Order

Today I’m turning my attention to planning my Christmas butchery order. Last year I chose one of Holt-Wilson’s Monmouthshire Turkeys and I was extremely impressed with the bird – it served far more mouths (with leftovers) than recommended, and was firm and img_1976flavoursome – not gamey, but rich and a real treat! I do feel that we so often over estimate the amount of turkey needed – after canapés, starters, fish courses etc you should really be looking at no more than 80g or so per person for the main course, and of course there’s only so many ways one can prepare leftovers.

img_1984Every year I also order a large gammon for Boxing Day, ideally rare breed and most certainly British, as is my bacon and my sausages. I prepare my stuffing separately, the sausage meat cooked with cranberries and orange, whilst the sage and onion goes into the Turkey neck. My sister, who always joins us for Christmas, doesn’t eat pork so a vegetarian stuffing is preferred, I usually add pears to the sage and onion, and roast a few to serve as a cranberry sauce alternative.

My Boxing Day gammon is studded with cloves and sliced clementines and glazed with a little maple syrup and eats well with hot with creamy mashed potato or cold in doorstop sandwiches with plenty of peppery mustard.

img_1983Another tradition in our household is the preparing of Duck Rillettes, this recipe comes from Gascony, where we spend the summer at our holiday home, and is great for those who find liver pâtés a little squeamish. I serve it with a good chutney on crisp toasts and it always goes down a treat – and there’s lots left over for cold plates. I will be sharing my recipe for Rillettes a little later December, and I also have a bit of cheaty method, for those who are really short of time.

One of the simple pleasures of Christmas Eve is queueing at the butchers, knowing that your order is taken care of, and enjoying the friendly banter and festive atmosphere and here in Monmouthshire we are spoilt for choice!

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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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Christmas Markets and Making Merry – All the fun of the festive fair!

This week heralds the beginning of the Christmas Market season and we are spoilt for IMG_5471choice in Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. I really enjoy visiting Christmas food festivals, they help get over the post Bonfire Night hump and provide the ideal excuse for a cheeky mulled wine or two, not to mention huge present shopping potential .

I have chosen five of my favourite (most) local festivals to take you through to the big day; already we have seen a couple of frosty mornings so here’s to winter and all it throws at us. These are not purely food festivals, many offer local crafts, musical entertainments and great street food; everything you need to get you into the festive spirit.

Abergavenny Christmas Fair  10th December 

IMG_7449The largest local Christmas Fair, Abergavenny Food Festival always holds the banner high when championing regional and artisanal produce. Two weeks before Christmas Day will find the Market Hall, and surroundings, packed with delectable festive delicacies, an excellent time to stock up on foodie gifts, drinks for those  Christmas Parties or nibbles for surprise guests. As always, expect the best of the best; it’s a great place to stock up on Christmas Sprits whilst putting you in the Christmas Spirit. There are several workshops and feasts taking place too, so please see the website for more details.

The Forest Showcase Christmas Food Festival 26th November 

This year’s Forest Showcase Christmas Festival is to be held at Beechenhurst Lodge in the IMG_7709heart of The Forest of Dean, a fairytale setting for any Christmassy event. There will be stalls, demonstrations, workshops, live music and children’s activities. Tickets cost £3 for adults and £2 for children, family tickets are also available. Expect local cider, festive bakes, local meats and cheeses and a plethora of yuletide goodies.

The Hereford Food and Advent Market Hereford Racecourse 2nd and 3rd December 

“The Hereford Food and Advent market will be a fun festive day out for all the family. Held at Hereford Racecourse on the 2nd and 3rd December 2017 from 10 am – 4pm. Cost £2 entry for adults and £1 for children . FREE parking.
We have a huge variety of food and drink suppliers and live music, where you can have lunch under a covered marquee area, and enjoy the German Christmas market atmosphere.
You can browse and purchase all sorts of Christmas gifts and visit Santa in his grotto. ( extra charge of £5 will apply )
Also available will be free craft workshops for adults and children, included in the entry price.
In addition we have a children’s creative workshop, run by The Creation Station where they can have fun with plate art, and Christmas baubles . Please visit the website and Facebook for details of The Christmas Keepsake Workshop.
Also available are fabulous Christmas wreath making workshops with Debbie from the Hibiscus rooms.”

Gloucester Quays Victorian Markets 16th-26th November, daily until 7pm

Gloucester Quays is a prime example of thoughtful regeneration. The docks, once one of fullsizeoutput_41athe busiest in England, went through a period of decay until being reborn as a fabulous tourist attraction offering everything from pubs, restaurants and bars through to designer shopping and even canal boat hire. The Victorian Christmas market is very beautiful, the little wooden booths offering gifts, regional foods, mulled wine, arts and crafts. It’s a lovely place to visit as dusk falls, when the Christmas lights reflect off the calm waters of the dock and, with a glass of mulled cider in hand you can explore this, most historic, of sites.

Taurus Crafts Christmas Markets  2,3,9,10,16,17th December Free Entry 

Taurus Crafts, near Lydney in Gloucestershire is part of The Camphill Village Trust, a charity which offers support and a community environment to people who may struggle with everyday challenges. Founded in Scotland, in 1939, the charity aims to help all, regardless of disability and its Taurus Crafts based community is a testament to its success. The Christmas Fair offers a holistic festive approach; food, drink, gifts, crafts and Christmas trees can all be found alongside music, choirs and activities. Full of little workshops and unusual, quirky stalls, Taurus Crafts is a really lovely place to pass a few hours being at one with Christmas, sipping hot chocolate and tucking into one of their delicious homemade cakes.


Heavenly Bread @ The Angel Bakery

  

 
Abergavenny is a relatively small, very rural and ancient market town in the north of Monmouthshire but it’s always been far ahead of the competition in its foodie credentials – I have written about the famous annual food festival before and today, on a cold, crisp, sunny afternoon I set off to discover its most recent culinary offering – The Angel Bakery. 

The Angel Hotel is one of Abergavenny’s great success stories – once the hub of the thriving town (my great-great aunt worked there at the turn of the 20th century) it fell a little behind the times but in recent years has been restored and is now holder of the title ‘AA Hotel of the year’ as well as enjoying great renown for its afternoon teas (one of the best in the uk) but that’s for another day – I was here to visit the very stylish Angel Bakery hidden to the side of the hotel in the street which led up to Abergavenny’s famous castle.

The Angel Bakery is beautiful, from its elegant shop to its enormous light and bright bakery with its huge window overlooking the tiny street. Officially opened on the 19th December the bakery predominantly makes sourdough bread, the traditional way with organic, British milled flours. 

  

The Bakers hail from London as does the sourdough culture which, interestingly, is changing in flavour all the time, due to the local water, air and flour. The flour is all organic and each loaf is developed through much testing to decide which flour is best for the job – three different mills are currently used Shipton, Gilchester and Cann Mill however there are plans to use more local mills in the future. Aside from sourdough loaves which come in several different varieties,

 

The Angel Bakery produces splendid baguettes, beautifully crisp, yet yielding, which take me straight back to French summer holidays;

  

 

Buttery croissants which really do melt in the mouth;

  

Rich and vibrant Focaccia which adds an elegant authenticity to a platter of antipasti;

  

And Brioche – the cake of Marie-Antoinette’s famous misquote. The grapefruit glazed individual Brioche is a picture to behold, glistening and unctuous, calling for little more than a good cup of cafe au lait, of course they also make the classic larger sharing Brioche (though who would want to…) with its sugar coating and pleasantly fluted undercarriage – Fig jam is my personal choice with good Brioche although my son favours (rather heinously) Nutella.

  

The bakers are obviously very passionate about their bread, as I was there a batch of fig rye was being placed into tins ready to prove. There is a wonderful newness and lively competence about the place – The ovens are immense and had to be installed before the feature window due to their size. 

   
 

The shop also offers takeaway hot drinks, delicious coffee and tea.  

I see a great future for this bakery – as a champion of slow food nothing beats real soughdough lavishly spread with fresh butter, and sourdough, once the realm of the ‘knit your own yoghurt’ brigade is now very firmly back on the culinary map and as someone who thoroughly disagrees with the modern fast bread of the white sliced generation I for one will be a regular!