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. 


Proustian Thoughts…

  

 

I had a relatively unusual childhood. As the product of musician parents I spent a good deal of time with grandparents and my love of food and cookery lies very much in the hands of my Grandmothers. My paternal grandmother was from the Welsh Valleys; she was from a rather poor family who had little but made the most of what they had; she was famous for her Chocolate Eclairs which she would bake in rather nifty 1950’s eclair tins, always to the same exact recipe, all timed and usually perfect. Her standard dish, come Autumn, was her Stew which would be served with dumplings, on a plate with a knife and fork to eat it with (yes, we always found it odd). It was simple food but tasty, the meat would be coated in flour and the whole thing pressure cooked until the braising steak fell apart and it was ready for the dumplings,  but I recall that there never were enough dumplings. I assume that these recipes came from the Marguerite Patten cookbook sat alongside one or two photo-history books , bible and dictionary, which completed her rather meagre library.

My maternal grandmother, who is still alive and very much ‘with it’ at 104 was born into a middle class Cardiff family and grew up near the docks in Newport. Her memories are amazing, she recalls everything in such great detail; the shops and shopkeepers, her mother’s food, her father’s breakfast choices, which bacon and sausage were accepted and which were considered beneath them. 

As a little girl I would stand on a stool, clean tea-towel serving as an apron, in Grandma’s tiny, dark, Welsh cottage kitchen, more of a lean-to than anything and knead dough, add tiny drops of browning to gravy or coat buns with a sticky sugar and water glaze. She would make proper chicken dinners, the veg would be yellowing and over soft, yet comforting. There would be a rice pudding baking in a chipped enamel tin, another Roses tin filled with cakes to take home. There were always battles in that household as my Grandfather, a rather bohemian artist-type would insist that Grandma bought the wrong bread (he was all for wholemeal, not white) so he would be forced to make his own, a dense crumb and pale crust with a hint of honey sweetness. He would also cook great pans of butter-beans and eat then with with a spoon, bread and butter on the side.

As I have previously mentioned, my life is remembered in tastes; sometimes colours as well, but always tastes. To me, even air tastes different. I recall the tang of the Parisian air as I was walked about the city at the age of eight; the warm, soft, herb tinged air of Provence, almost honey sweet; and the cloying scent of my home town in Autumn, the fruit and decomposing leaves, again, creating a taste memory rather than a smell. 
Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on the origin of these Proustian moments, my mind first identifying happiness or sadness, then offering the final pieces of the puzzle; a definite ‘ah’ moment. I want my son to have these memories…after all as you can never quite recreate the whole food/surroundings moments once experienced, you must just make new ones – the sea salt on the lips as you devour Padstow fish and chips, the exploratory mouthfuls of goats cheese at a market in the south-west of France. I really enjoy these ‘Mummy, remember when we ate…’ moments; even shop bought antipasti eaten in front of a roaring wood fire whilst listening to Verdi’s Requiem has its place in my sensory library; the juxtaposition of a continental summer versus a cold Welsh autumn.

 I recall once eating a superb piece of pork in a cream and apple sauce in a seafood restaurant in Brittany; against the grain, yet remembered in detail. One taste of pork with cream and I’m back there, remembering the blue tiled floor and paper tablecloth. Another taste/smell memory comes from Estonia where, in a wooded clearing, beside a lake, the air full of pine trees and smoke, I ate barbecued, herb strewn fish, so fresh that it was almost still breathing; the dill and salt and pepper crust hiding a pale, delicate pink flesh…it was sublime and entirely unique.


Offally Good for the Autumn

I think, on this cold and damp autumn day, that I should spend a few minutes extolling the virtues of offal. Once very much on the British menu it became a no go area due to health scares and the increasing availability of cheap prime cuts, from intensively farmed animals. Now there is a little bit of a revival with gastro-pubs and on-trend restaurants offering an ever more offal based menu.

I believe that you should choose the best pasture raised or/and organic meat possible, there is a wonderful density to proper meat; almost as if its very molecular structure is more solid than its over-farmed, overbred counterparts. But, yes, it is expensive, however it doesn’t need to be so when you consider offal. Admittedly I am not a kidney fan but am happy to cook with pretty much any other part, sweetbreads are a particular favourite along with liver, heart and head (although not sure that’s strictly offal).

I, for one, would indubitably  prefer to eat offal from a good source rather than chance fillet from a bad. It is also ‘offally’ good for you, packed with iron and minerals in which many of us are depleted. Telling children to “Eat up your liver” is rarely heard today in our low-fat, diabetic, obese society and it is a shame. You can always hide liver in faggots or cottage pie, fresh liver doesn’t taste too strong and lamb’s liver is naturally much milder than Pig’s.  Sweetbreads are delicious floured and fried and no, they aren’t anything to do with a Lamb’s genitalia as many think, they are in fact  the thymus gland, located in the neck, or the pancreas. Heart benefits from stuffing and slow cooking and tastes dense and meaty, it was very much favoured during my grandmother’s childhood when the First World War, followed by the depression,  made meat relatively hard to come by and heart was considered a treat.

Last week, as Autumn drove its claws into the country properly for the first time I made a simple liver and bacon dish with a kale colcannon mash and a port gravy. The liver was lamb and very fresh. Do not be put off by the leathery  liver offered by your primary school – which was a world away from the pink, juicy and smooth textured liver from a fresh Lamb. I use proper dry cured smoked bacon, thickly cut and pan fried until crisp and glistening with fat. Set aside to keep warm – in goes the liver, lightly coated in seasoned flour; it takes minutes – no more that two per side, it should rest as steak but not for too long for then it takes on the leathery quality all too familiar to us seventies and eighties children. I deglaze the pan with a little port, add a spoonful of flour to make a paste, throw in some caramelised red onions (first cooked very slowly in a generous amount of butter), whisk in my homemade lamb stock, then a dash of gravy browning and finally some seasoning. Bubble for a few minutes over a low heat. My colcannon is made with local white potatoes, double cream and some sautéed Kale which is just in season. Kale is considered a superfood and it’s irony taste can be overwhelming for some, however, alongside the liver it works splendidly. Serve the colcannon in generous dollops topped with a spoon of salted butter to melt in. The liver should be meltingly yielding, the bacon crisp and the gravy rich. Perfect for a cold October night.


In praise of Squash

  
The squash family are very much in season at the moment; whether it be the familiar Butternut, the inelegant Onion Squash, the Turk’s Turban or the versatile Spaghetti Squash – and those are just a few – squash is both nutritious and surprisingly tasty and for those low-carb devotees contains only 8g per 100g. 

   
  Gloucestershire grown Squash from www.overfarmmarket.co.uk

 
Each variety is very different in taste, and there are so many ways to enjoy them. Classically, a good first dip into the world of the Squash is with a soup. Butternut Squash soup makes a lovely light lunch choice – and is surprisingly sustaining.

Autumn Spiced Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 6-8

Peel and dice one 1kg Butternut squash, making sure to scoop out the seeds

Fry one large onion  in 30g unsalted butter until the onion becomes translucent 

Add one small diced chilli, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp turmeric and stir in the butternut squash 

Make up 1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock (I use the gel pots) as directed and pour over the vegetables

Cover and reduce the heat, cooking for about 30minutes until the squash is very soft

Remove from the heat and blend with a stick blender or blender

Season to taste – if the soup is a little thick add a little more stock, if it is too thin reduce over a medium heat 

Serve sprinkled with some freshly chopped coriander and finely diced chilli – some wholemeal Indian flatbread eats very well with this soup 

Today, for lunch, I had a bit of a leftovers moment. I roasted some chunks of Onion squash, with the skin left on, with olive oil and a little salt and pepper, once they began to soften I added chunks of ripe fig and a drizzle of local honey. Serving as I salad, I drizzled with the caramelised figgy honey juice and topped with some small pieces of Bleu d’Affinois – a very mild French blue-rinded cheese (had I had some Welsh blue Perl Las www.cawscenarth.co.uk it could have been even more local). This melted beautifully in the soft buttery squash whilst the fig lifted the flavour and offered an autumnal decadence to the very simple dish.

  
 


Humbled by Pork!

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a press day organised by porc.wales, a new, assembly backed initiative to promote small producers of proper pork in Wales.

Wales and Pork have a history which goes far back (although not too far, as the pig was sacred to the celts) but up until the early twentieth century, when it was finally outlawed, many Welsh families kept a pig which was sent for slaughter to keep the family in meat – no part of the pig was wasted – it was true nose to tail eating.

The porc.wales press event was held at Humble by Nature, the Monmouthshire farm championing sustainability and tradition. Owned by television presenter Kate Humble, Humble by Nature offers a wide variety of practical courses as well as being a good family day out – with an excellent cafe and regular supper clubs.

A study conducted into the Welsh pork industry found that in general the herds were substantially smaller than those in England – and often comprised native or heritage breeds.

At Humble by Nature we enjoyed a masterclass in faggot making from Gloucestershire charcutier Ruth Waddington who, alongside husband Graham, runs Lydney based Native Breeds www.nativebreeds.co.uk which make delectable products with the best possible pork (I can very much recommend their British Frankfurter) and very much enjoyed the accompanying talk about paring foraged ingredients with meats to create a storyboard for the recipe. Liz Knight, from borders based Forage Fine Foods www.foragefinefoods.com is obviously extremely passionate and introduced us to delightful flavour bombs such as acorns, giant hogweed and chamomile.


Having finally produced our faggots we had a guided tour of the farm from farmer Tim Stephens and met the pigs, of course! Humble by Nature’s dedication to sustainability is obvious – their animals are extremely well cared for and look extremely relaxed.


Lunch was splendid, as you can see, a few green beans and some creamy mash on the side, not forgetting my first ‘stock shot’ of cooking liquor which was packed with flavour – the sticky toffee Spotted Dick which was followed was equally yum! A glass of Humble by Nature branded cider finished off the day perfectly (along with a little bit of foodie debate)

For further info on foodie and countryside courses search www.humblebynature.com