Dealing with Diabetes: the beginning of a candid journey…week 1

I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes a little over 13 years ago and was told that after my son was born, things ‘should’ return to normal. They didn’t. This led to a long period in my life where I was in complete denial. I knew my sugars were high and made some concessions, however they weren’t nearly enough. Now, finally, after several false starts in recent years I have chosen my path and have been following it for just one week. The thoughts here are my own, based on very thorough research and I, personally, have seen outstanding results in just a few days. I am following a lower carb, higher fat approach, and, after years of constant hunger, I am finally finding contentment in good food and a general feeling of satiety, for body and soul…oh, and my symptoms are easing too.

My great-grandmother was diabetic. Her death at the age of 72 was due to gangrene from a foot wound which wouldn’t heal. By this time she was on insulin and very poorly indeed. Never particularly overweight, she enjoyed a varied diet of home cooked food and brought up her many children to cook for themselves and eat well.

I started researching ways of managing diabetes about ten years ago and many half-hearted attempts followed, which never really lasted more than a day or two. I exercised more, which seemed to put my sugars up further, ate whole grains, as recommended by the NHS, and saw rising figures annually. I’ve always considered medication to be a last resort, once all other options have been discounted, so I’ve never been prescribed the drugs which are commonly used to treat Type 2.

As of last Friday my blood sugars were between 15mols and 23 mols; today they are between 9mols and 14mols, often just half of last week’s results. What have I done? Reduced my carbohydrate consumption to under 60g of net carbs a day. I’m enjoying a full range of nutritious foods; meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, glasses of wine and even dark chocolate. I start the day with bacon and eggs fried in lard, add a small amount of obscenely buttered sourdough and power through. The first few days were difficult. I was tired and had headaches but then something changed, suddenly I was full of energy. I’ve been sleeping better, my vision is improving, the tiredness which would hit me in the mid-afternoon like a brick wall is gone and I’m feeling altogether, more together.

As a food writer, I spend my days immersed in glorious images and descriptions of fabulous foods. I’ve spent hours trying to work out how my experience in this industry can be used to help others in my position and concluded that a candid post and follow ups might well be the answer, so here we are.

Today I’ve had a lovely brunch, full of good fats; avocado, olive oil, bacon, eggs and lard, a late lunch of homemade Steak Hache made from locally, (moderately) fatty beef mince and garlic green beans. I finished with a small bowl of strawberries and a good dollop of mascarpone. Sound like a diet? It’s not, in fact I dislike the word. Let’s call it a lifestyle change. So, having followed this way of eating for a week, here are my tops tips on how to deal with the first few days.

  1. Stock up on good fats and plenty of eggs: butter, dripping, olive oil, lard, coconut oil and remember ‘Fat is Flavour’
  2. Seasonal veg – try and order a veg box or grow your own. Most above ground veg are suitable for this way of eating. Fibrous veg in particular because the body does not process the carbs from fibre, hence carbs (all carbs), and ‘net’ carbs (which are the carbs your body draw on).
  3. Source some good mince from your local butcher (many are offering mail order or home delivery at the moment) – divide into 180g portions, season with herbs, salt and pepper and freeze in individual portions. When you need something quick for lunch, defrost, shape into a patty and fry, serving with a side of green veggies and maybe some garlic butter. This works with beef, pork, lamb, turkey, venison…any meat and is totally delicious and extremely satisfying.
  4. Berries are your friends – keep a stash of berries in the fridge or freezer. A small bowlful topped with double cream, clotted cream or mascarpone feels very naughty, but really isn’t.
  5. If you are going to include bread in your new lifestyle, choose a really good one…seek out your local artisan bakers and find a great sourdough, something really worth eating and tasty. A small 30g slice has only about 14g of carbs and is perfect for adding a little crunch to breakfast.
  6. Invest in some coconut and almond flour. These are so versatile, and scouring the internet you can find recipes for everything from pizza and flatbread, to cookies and cakes.
  7. Buy some Xanthan Gum – often used in gluten free baked goods, Xanthan Gum adds a certain integrity to low carb baking, helping improve texture as gluten normally does.
  8. Eat cheese. Go mad with mail order, find local and regional cheeses. I find I tolerate dairy very well, some people don’t, and it can push up sugar levels but if it works for you, go for it.
  9. Keep hydrated – drink at least two litres of water (in addition to tea, herbal tea and coffee) every day. When low carbing, hydration is extremely important. Buy a reusable bottle and fill and refill.
  10. Relax – stress causes blood sugar to rise, so a little ‘me time’ will help reduce the levels of Cortisone, and remember this is not a sprint, it’s a gentle stroll. What took several years to create will not disappear in a few weeks, there will be ups and downs.

The official line is still to eat whole-grains and base your diet around starchy carbs. For me, this advice is clearly wrong but life’s a learning curve. Low carb diets have been successfully used to treat diabetes since the 18th century, so what’s changed?


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: the cheesecake of cheesecakes.

Many of us will look to that extra cheese course after Christmas lunch, and then there has to  be enough cheese in the house to take you through to the new year. I have already covered the history of stilton in my diaries but now I’d like to share with you a few of my favourite regional cheese, all of which rather handily stack to form a rather impressive centrepiece.

Many of the major supermarkets have offered real ‘cheese’ cakes this year but it’s with a little curation you can impress guests and indulge in some of the best British produce available – and don’t forget the port, although a Pedro Ximénez sherry is also rather excellent with soft blues and little beats a whisky with a sharp farmhouse cheddar.

So, with Christmas fast approaching, what can be conjured up from the supermarket shelves? Actually,  there’s an excellent choice, so here’s my personal pick.

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Smarts Single Gloucester and Daylesford Blue

The base of my perfect cheesecake has to be a good stilton, a small truckle of traditional farmhouse cheddar would then follow – I really enjoy clothed cheese, I much prefer the texture – the wax matured cheeses seem to retain that waxiness, they are fine for grating but I think a good farmhouse cheddar brought to room temperature nestled in its cloth is one of the loveliest of foods. This year I have also discovered the small cylindrical truckles of Lancashire cheese, available from Waitrose. One of these would also make an admirable layer for the cheesecake, the lemony sweetness adding another dimension. I would then pick a whole small (200g) British Camembert  and there has to be a goats’ or sheeps’ cheese, so a small Sussex Slipcote or Moody’s Rosary Ash would top it all off nicely.  Do remember the crackers, for preference I use charcoal wafers and digestives, then oatcakes with cheddar.

And, as all these cheeses are available in UK supermarkets, there’s no need to worry about mail order deadlines.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: the fruity side of Christmas.

IMG_6657Proudly displayed on my wall, above my desk, is a bill of sale dated November 3rd 1845. It relates to the sale of fruit, preserves and pickles and is signed by my great-great-great Grandfather, who, along with his wife were the proprietors of a ‘Foreign and British, fruit, oil, Italian and fish sauce warehouse’ in the elegant York Buildings in Bath. The gently sloping hand tells a tale of rare delights – hot house grapes, imported Oranges, Battle Pickles and bitter almonds…all of which apparently cost a small fortune – 5 shillings being spent on hot house grapes in one transaction (at a time when the average weekly wage for a woman was exactly 5 shillings). These were luxury items which were bought to impress guests, indulge the culinary senses and demonstrate a ‘knowledge of the world’ and it made my family’s fortune.

Today, our Festive cupboards, fruit bowls and fridges are filled with items not too far removed from these – although perhaps, nowadays, Battle Pickles have been replaced by Branston Pickle. I still enjoy oranges at Christmas, my childhood love of satsumas is something I’ve mentioned here before – the bowls filled with the easily peeled fruit which I was told were ‘better for me’ than sweets, the way I peeled them in one and the memory of the sweet citrusy juice. Although hothouses are no longer common in the UK, our imported grapes aren’t too bad at this time of year and although I would consider myself a seasonal eater, mostly enjoying local produce, Christmas is a time to branch out a little and treat myself to some imports. This year I will be buying Sable Grapes, perfect with a good cheese board; Medjool Dates, a million miles away from those horribly sweet sticky boxes which came with plastic twig-style poker, and of course, lots of citrus fruits. Cranberries have IMG_5326always fascinated me, I love watching videos of the cranberry harvests in America, the flooded fields – there are so many ideas for them besides the usual relish and ‘with Brie’ panini options – people often forget that they are a fruit, and can be used in puddings, ice-creams and baking. I also like adding cranberries to my stuffing and I’ll be including recipes for ‘all the trimmings’ closer to Christmas. Pears are also are firm favourite – poached pears with a rich chocolate sauce makes a delicious, and simple dinner party pudding, whilst served with Gorgonzola or a good, sharp British Blue cheese, like a Stickleton, it pulls both to an entirely new level, try a drizzle of honey and a handful of wallet on the side too – exceptional!


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: Stories of Stilton

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

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

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

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


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.


Festive Goodies from The Wye Valley and The Forest of Dean

Every year, I do my very best to source my Christmas foods locally – and living in such a fabulously foodie area, it’s surprisingly easy to do. Restaurants place such an importance on food miles and rightly so, but it’s not just about the environmental impact, it’s about supporting those small businesses who a passionate about their products and who are relying on you for survival. So, here’s my guide to the best places to source delicious food and drink for your festive celebrations in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean.

Party Drinks and Nibbles

There’s no doubt that you’ll find yourself hosting at least one party over the coming

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©HannahFreeman

weeks, or at lasting bringing some goodies to a friends gathering. One of the most popular drinks at this time of year, and perfect for the colder weather is Mulled Cider and, being in the heart of the British cider country you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice. I think a medium cider is most suited to mulling, you are then in control of how much sugar or honey you add. I like Awre based Severn Cider, a family business dedicated to its art. I enjoyed a tour and tasting a few weeks ago with other members of The Guild of Food Writers and was extremely impressed by the quality and variety on offer – we were immediately furnished with mugs of mulled cider which was very welcome after a long, and rather, chilly day. I like to add honey, cinnamon, cardamon, apple slices, fullsizeoutput_1814grated nutmeg and a splash of cider brandy (Dymock’s Charles Martell’s is perfect) – but its all down to taste, and you can cheat with one the supermarket sachets, then add some cinnamon sticks and apple.  And what to serve alongside your mulled cider? How about a good old sausage roll – surely an essential part of Christmas! I love the  delicious Wild Boar sausage rolls from Cinderhill Farm in St Briavels, it’s hard to stop at one (and they are extremely generous portions). Served alongside one of Chepstow based, Claire’s Kitchen’s chutney they make a very simple addition to any drinks party or buffet.

Christmas Dinner

Many people look for a simple, no cook starter for their Christmas Dinner, I think that fullsizeoutput_1842really top quality smoked salmon fits the bill perfectly – my personal choice would be the smoked Var salmon from Chaxhill’s Severn and Wye Smokery. Having been lucky enough to tour the factory recently, I learned a lot about the different varieties and curing styles. Having tasted my way though their entire catalogue I settled on the Var which offers a good balance or smokey richness and full flavour. Served alongside some good local bread and a handful of organic leaves, it allows plenty of time to relax with your guests before the main event.

There are the traditionalists who favour a good free range turkey – I have ordered mine from Monmouthshire Turkeys near Raglan – and those who look for a different option so how about a Free Range Goose or Slow Cooked Confit Duck from Madgett’s Farm? Well IMG_1706known throughout the area they offer a really good selection of poultry and game, and make some rather excellent sausages and stuffings to serve alongside.

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Veg is from Organic grower Paul’s Organic Veg. For really fresh brassicas (including those essential sprouts) Paul is your man and he offers veg boxes of various sizes to take all the veg buying hassle away. Next you’ll need some really good sausages and bacon. I think its hard to beat the bacon from Trealy Farm, found in some of the most exclusive hotels and restaurants in the UK, the charcuterie is second to none. For sausages, the Cowshill Herd in Hewelsfield are my first choice, their rear breed pork sausages are perfect for wrapping and serving alongside the bronzed bird.

Pudding, or cheese and pudding?  Of course making your Christmas Pudding is preferable IMG_7705but where cheeses are concerned we are extremely fortunate. A good cheese board should comprise a hard cheese, creamy, goats and blue. A good start would be a wedge of Smart’s Double Gloucester, then a round of deliciously soft Angiddy, a Welsh cheese made from Jersey Milk at Brooke’s Dairy, a slice of the internally famous Stinking Bishop and for a blue…..well, you may have to nip out of the area, The Marches Deli in Monmouth has some excellent and well-kept artisan cheeses and they are always happy to guide you through them. If a heavy classic pud is a little too much why not try some extremely naughty adult ice-cream from Forest and Wye, this artisanal ice-cream comes in flavours such as Baileys and Kahlua, Islay Whiskey and Coffee and Speyside Whisky and Coffee – all remarkably individual and all packing a definite punch. They’re more conventional flavours are pretty fab too – or for those in the Monmouth area its hard to beat Green and Jenks Italian Gelato, take-home packs always available.

So to finish a good meal you need a good digestive and some choccie. Again, I would turn to Charles Martell and one of their devious perry, cider or plum spirits – these are a real treat. The Chocolate Bar in Lydney’s Taurus Crafts is one of the best local makers of fine chocolate, with a moreish selection knowing when to stop buying can be tricky but some good truffles on the table to serve with coffee are essential.

IMG_1852Whatever your foodie preference this Christmas, look about you and explore. Half the fun of the festive season id sourcing all those seasonal goodies that you restrict during the year – indulgence is Christmas and in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean, you can indulge to your heart’s content!


The Pheasant Philosophises: Part 4: Queen Victoria’s Pineapple

In a society of sexual equality, I often think to the past and wonder what stories lie fullsizeoutput_173ebehind others. In childhood, I was always regaled with tales of my Great Great Great Grandfather, an interesting character who had, apparently, owned an Italian Fruit Warehouse in Bath during the 1840s and 50s. As a man he intrigued me, there were tales of Plantations in the West Indies, of his being butler to Lord Aberdare; there were rumours of Covent Garden premises and a pineapple presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ first birthday. He always struck me as being interesting, with an obvious passion for food and I wondered whether I inherited my love of food from him. A few years ago, after I had my son, I fell into one of those “I need to discover my true heritage” moments and 6 years later I now have a story quite different to the one offered to me as a child.

Lewis Evans called himself ‘A Gentleman’ when he was married, in Bath in 1837. His address was Milsom Street, now the extremely busy high street. He lived with his cousin and her husband, another Gentleman, in this fashionably city. He had no profession. I cannot even conclusively find evidence of his father or mother (in fact his father was listed as a shoemaker, an odd profession for the parent of a Gentleman). So he was a bit of an enigma. I delved into the census records and found him, four years later, no longer a gentleman but a Fruiterer. How did this come about? Well, are you sitting comfortably? I’ll begin.

In the 1830’s two sisters from Cheltenham went into business. Their mother had been a Fruiterer and their father an Innkeeper. The sisters were called Louisa and Eliza Clayton-Bourne and as partners they opened a delicatessen on the Promenade, in the centre of town. Nether being much over 20, these two woman worked hard for their living and it proved successful. So successful, in fact that by 1836 the younger sister, Eliza aged about 18, left her sister to set up a second ‘branch’ of the business in Bath, Somerset. The address was also prestigious. It was located in the York Buildings, a few steps from Milsom Street. This shop stocked all manner of wonderfully exotic foods, supplying the gentry and aristocracy of the City with out-of-season fruits from hot-houses in the country; Italian oils, cheeses, Westphalian Hams, and many of the other unusual and fashionable foods which graced the tables of Britain’s elite in a time of foodie enlightenment.  So, Victoria is about to ascend to the throne and we have two, very young and successful business women. What happens next?IMG_7841

The arrows of love strike. As a young woman in fashionable Bath surrounded with frock-coated, stove-pipe hatted gentleman, Eliza Clayton-Bourne meets and  marries Lewis Evans; a few days before which, she breaks partnership with her sister. The sisters have not fallen out, Eliza’s business has simply ‘gone’ to her husband. She is now his possession, as is her business. Now, whether or not he had an active role in the day-to-day running of the business is uncertain. I have invoices which he has signed, his name appears in the newspapers of the day advertising the wonderful array of produce in store. In 1842 he is thanked for the gift of a pineapple to the royal household but Eliza just disappears into thin air. By the early 1850s, and several children later, the business at York Buildings is sold and the newspaper which advertises the new proprietor unwittingly gives us a wonderful clue to the true nature of the business. The first is a letter from Mrs Lewis Evans, thanking her customers for their business over the previous years and inviting them to continue to purchase from the shop which is quite safe in the hands of the new owner – a man. Just below this letter is another letter from the new proprietor. He kindly thanks the previous owner whom he names as Mr Lewis Evans, and respectably invites previous customers to continue their accounts. Not once does it even mention Eliza, not even a Mr and Mrs Evans.

This makes me wonder how many businesses  run by women in the Victorian era and beforehand, have lost these crucial details under the name of their husband. Louisa, the elder sister, did not marry until well into her 30s, by which time she had sold her Cheltenham business and moved to Bath where she owned and ran a boarding house for those taking the waters. An independent woman for as long as she could be, Louisa eventually ran a successful restaurant in Cardiff with her new husband.

In one final interesting note; I have seen the marriage certificate of Lewis Evans and in the space below his trade and next to the name of his wife somebody has started to write something, only a few dots of ink, but I do wonder whether she was overruled in her insistency to put her own trade down, she was of course literate and her handwriting was far better than her husband’s.

Oh, how I wish I could have been a fly on their wall. My gut feeling is that Eliza was the driving force behind the business throughout it’s existence; something she fitted around having five or six children. Yes, they lived comfortably…until something happened, something I’ve yet to find out, and the family scattered throughout the country.

Perhaps she did ultimately resolve to hand the business to her husband and maybe he just wasn’t as good at it as she was.