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 Virtual Monmouthshire Meander

Spring is certainly in the air, and usually, this is the time of year that we share our fabulous county with tourists from across the world. Although we miss the sleepier months, we rely on the tourist industry for survival, so it’s generally a very welcome return.

Of course, this year is very different. For those who have visited, were due to visit or plan to visit in the future this is my ‘Virtual’ visitors guide taking in some of my favourite famous, and secret spaces, in this little county nestled on the Welsh border. A gentle Monmouthshire Meander.

Known in Welsh as Sîr Fynwy, Monmouthshire is most famous for the spectacular Wye Valley which meanders gracefully from Monmouth down to Chepstow and out into the Severn estuary. It is said that that British tourism began here in the 18th century when a boat trip down the valley was considered a very fashionable ‘must-do’. There are outdoor pursuits galore, from wonderful hikes to canoe hire and cycling, with much in between. Why not discover wild swimming in the Wye or climb one of our spectacular hills, and be completely at one with nature?

Monmouth

Nestled on the banks of the River Wye, the county town of Monmouth is famed for several things; Monmouth Caps, Monmouth Puddings, Rockfield Studios (which, over the past 50 years has seen everybody from Queen to Oasis record in its hallowed converted barns) and The Roundhouse, a pretty piece of Georgian architecture, which served as rather smart picnicking house, and is to be found perched on the Kymin hill, high above the town.

Here, you can hire canoes and take a day trip down the river stopping for lunch at one of the riverside pubs and enjoyed spectacular cliffs, wild woods and a plethora of wildlife. Don’t miss the 13th century Gatehouse which crosses the Monnow, the small river from which the county and town gets its name. Located at the bottom end of town it’s the only remaining fortified river bridge in the UK with its gatehouse standing.

A visit to the Castle is also a must. Tucked up a side street, close to the Monmouthshire Regimental Museum you’ll find the ruins of Monmouth Castle, famous for being the birthplace of the future Henry the V, his statue can be found above the Georgian Shire Hall. It was also the home town of Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce fame, who’s life was lost in the first ever aeroplane crash, his statue sits in the centre of Agincourt Square . The castle is the perfect place for a short picnic stop. Pick up some yummy goodies from the wonderful Marches Deli, which sells, amongst other things, local bread and cheeses, ciders, wines and a good variety of pickles and relishes. Stop at Green and Jenks in the main square for an Italian-style gelato, all made from locally sourced daily and fruit with an ever-changing selection of mouthwatering flavours.

Chepstow

Monmouthshire’s most southernly town, Chepstow, has a nationally famous castle, and some of its original town walls still stand. Once in the keeping of the legendary William Marshall, one of history’s most famous Knights, Chepstow Castle sits high above the River Wye facing imposing cliffs and watching out over the border with England. Chepstow castle is also reputed to be the site of a long lost Celtic chapel in which Joseph of Aramethea is reputed to have hidden the Spear of Longinus, which was said to have pierced the side of Christ. There has also been talk of the hidden, mummified head of Shakespeare, which became the subject of a series of archaeological digs in the 1920s spear-headed by the American treasure-hunter Orville Ward Owen. Chepstow is a place of many mysteries and there are plenty of cafes to while away a few hours. A few miles upstream is Tintern Abbey, the ruins of a cistercian abbey which was destroyed on the orders Henry VIII in the 1530s. Over the ensuing 500 years the picturesque ruins have been immortalised in word and paint by the likes of William Wordsworth and JW Turner, and are quite beautiful to behold, languishing gracefully beside the gentle river. As you drive from Tintern to Chepstow, you can see climbers scaling the cliffs, as the river disappears below, setting a more isolated course as it moves the final few miles towards the estuary. A short journey towards Newport brings you to Caerwent, a Roman town, packed full of archaeological remains and a small museum telling its story.

Abergavenny

In the shadow of the Black Mountains, sitting on the banks of the Usk river, Abergavenny is famed for its annual Food Festival, now in its 22nd year and one of the biggest in Britain. Every September, thousands of people descend on this pretty little market town to hob-nob with the elite of the British food and drink industry, while picking up some rather tasty foodie offerings. The Angel Hotel has, in recent, years become rather famous for its afternoon teas and The Angel Bakery, tucked down a side street leading to the castle makes wonderful sourdough, cakes and pastries, perfect for picking up a few things for lunch before heading into the hills to explore the Black Mountains. Abergavenny Castle is, rather unfortunately, most well know for a pretty horrendous massacre at the end of the 12th century which saw the Norman lord William De Broase order the slaughter of his dinner guests, the Welsh Prince Seisyll and his retainers. The castle is picturesque, and massacre aside, makes for an interesting visit. Just outside the town you’ll find the Skirrid Mountain, well worth the effort to climb as the views are stunning and whilst you’re in the area, why not stop for a pint at the historic Skirrid Inn, reputedly the most haunted pub in Britain. In the shadow of The Skirrid is Michelin starred, Walnut Tree restaurant, enjoying legendary status and offering extremely delicious seasonal dishes or try The Harwick, owned my celebrity chef Stephen Terry, which has held a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2011. The Sugar Loaf mountain is also a delight to climb, however there is a local saying, “If you can’t see The Sugar Loaf, its raining, and if you can see The Sugar Loaf, it’s about to rain,” so wellies and waterproofs at the ready!

Usk

Named after the river upon which it sits, Usk is a very sleepy market town with a fabulous farmer’s market, held on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month. Usk Castle, which sits nestled in trees above the quaint Twyn Square, and is privately owned, is available to hire for events. Around the town there are plenty of craft shops selling hand-crafted goodies, a small museum of Rural Life and several rather good places to eat and drink. Why not head to The Mad Platter for cocktails and nibbles, before a meal at the historic Three Salmons coaching inn? A little outside the town, on the Llanbadoc road is Morris’ of Usk, garden centre and farm shop – it’s a great place to stock up on locally produced, and regionally sourced products, and they do a rather yum breakfast in the onsite restaurant – the road eventually arrives at the Roman Fortress of Caerleon, with its impressive ruins and recently renovated museum, however this is no longer Monmouthshire, but the county of Newport.

For further information please click on the following links:

http://www.wyedeantourism.co.uk/

https://www.visitmonmouthshire.com/

https://www.visitwales.com/


Finding a new ‘normal’

I find myself writing my first post in extraordinary times on a  fine spring day, which Winnie the Pooh would undoubtedly declare ‘blustery’, but look at the trees…they have begun to unfurl their tiny leaves, the blossom is out and all is fighting against the elements…and winning. Just as we, the world, is fighting against a disease equally as unrelenting. We will hold out, just as the leaves, and it will not take our dignity or beauty away. We must adapt to a new normal and sometimes, forced adaption can be incredibly cathartic.

Just 8 weeks ago, if somebody had said that everybody in the UK would have to stay inside, not enjoy the freedoms and liberties our fore-fathers fought for, they would have been declared insane, and yet, here we are…so we must look to the good of this situation, the reconnecting with ourselves, reading books, playing games, getting out into the garden and growing our own food. All these things which were the ‘norm’ in our grandparents day, must soon be our ‘norm’ too. We have become teachers, councillors, gardeners, cleaners, caterers….time is standing still and allowing us to regress a little. Perhaps this regression is much needed in a world of relentless technology and busyness, from having to make time for things to having the time to enjoy things in a more leisurely way, to take pleasure in the little things like a pot of real tea or a home-cooked family meal. We have time to stop and think, and we are showing gratitude in a way not seen for decades.

In my little corner of the world, farming goes on, the milk tankers arrive morning and night to collect from the dairy herds, a few miles into Herefordshire the soft fruit is beginning to ripen, the fields are ploughed and sown and everything seems normal. However, these, often forgotten workers are now being thanked for keeping food supplies going, just as the NHS staff are for their life-saving work. Maybe new knowledge will come from this, perhaps children will began to know where milk comes from, people won’t take all supermarket produce for granted and maybe, just maybe, the world will began a quiet revolution. After all, it only takes two weeks to create a habit!


Late Summer Blackberry and Almond Cake

I adore autumn, I love the foods, the smells, the weather…everything! For me the appearance of blackberries, plums, hips and haws all signify the beginning of a season of abundance, a season which I feel completely at one with. This morning I took a basket and followed the little lane outside the farmhouse until I came across the most enormous crop of blackberries, an absolute abundance of them, my son and I picked (probably a ratio of 5:1 basket vs mouth) a couple of kilos.

Digging through the post-holiday larder I found a packet of whole almonds, the remains of a bottle of rum and a small quality of rich dark muscovado sugar – and this cake was born. It’s really moist, almost pudding-like and would work exceptionally well with a blob of clotted cream or a drizzle of fresh custard as an autumnal pudding.

I’m also really looking forward to the later blackberries, the smaller pectin rich, black gold nuggets which can be readily turned into jams and jellies so a post or two certainly, to follow.

Ingredients

125g self-raising flour

75g almonds, roughly ground

65g dark muscovado sugar

65g golden caster sugar

125g unsalted butter

3 small eggs

1/2 tsp baking powder

125g blackberries

1 tbsp spiced rum

Method

Pre heat the oven to 170 degrees c. (fan oven)

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy

Add the eggs, one at a time

Add the flour and baking powder (sifted), then the almonds

Add the rum, then incorporate the blackberries, very gently, so they remain intact

Butter, and line a 20 cm x 10cm round cake tin

Pour the batter into the tin and place in the oven

Bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown ( check that the cake is fully cooked using a skewer or knife point – it should come out clean)


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!

pumpkins

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.

spelt