The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The eternal quest for the best Hot Chocolate!

One of the annual traditions in our household is putting up the Christmas decorations on the first weekend in December – this is accompanied by lots of steaming hot chocolate and, of course, homemade gingerbread biscuits.

I fully admit that I am a bit of a Hot Chocolate perfectionist. So often, when I order the ‘Special Hot Chocolate’ on a menu I find myself disappointed – it’s always either not hot enough, not thick enough, not creamy enough or the worst crime, just not chocolaty enough!

This has led to a multitude of experiments at home, trying everything from Spanish recipes, to cocoa powder based recipes with cream and even butter, custard based recipes and, of course, all the brands available at both the supermarkets and delis.

I finally concluded that Jersey milk and real chocolate makes the best and simplest Hot Chocolate – perhaps with the addition of a glug of Baileys or rum for the grown-ups, and there are no end of small additions to make my basic Hot Chocolate extremely festive and child friendly. Winter without Hot Chocolate is like Christmas without Santa, and when the colder weather comes, there’s nothing more satisfying than making a real ritual out of its preparation.

Recipe:

Per Person:

50g of good chocolate (dark or milk or even white)

150ml jersey milk

I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, combing the ingredients with a small whisk, never allowing the bowl to come into contact with the water. This creates the most indulgent drink, patience is the key here, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.

This is a very rich drink so serve in small cups with your choice from the following toppings and additions:

Family Friendly

Whipped cream and grated chocolate

A couple of drops of peppermint extract, whipped cream and a little crushed stripy candy cane

1/4 tsp cinnamon per serving

1/4 tsp ginger per serving

A couple of drops almond extract, cream and toasted almonds

Whipped cream and crushed smarties

marshmallows, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce

Whipped cream and drizzle of warmed salted caramel sauce

Vanilla extract and a grating of nutmeg

Adults Only

A tablespoon of your choice of liqueur per serving, some of my favourites include:

Tia Maria, whipped cream and crushed coffee beans is delicious

Cointreau, cream and grated Terry’s Chocolate Orange

Baileys, whipped cream and chocolate flake

Whisky and a sprinkle of ginger

Amaretto, cream and crushed Amaretti biscuits


Answering a few of my own questions about Clotted Cream….

What do Tolkien’s Hobbits, the Cornish Giant Blundabore, and Edmund Spenser have in common?

The answer; Clotted Cream.

Clotted cream is at the heart of every quintessentially British Cream Tea. Slavered onto scones, melting unctuously beside a warm sticky toffee pudding or just in a bowl IMG_0994alongside a pile of freshly picked, fragrant, seasonal berries. Clotted Cream is one of those delights which spring into your mind as you reach the end of the M5, putting off thoughts, for a while at least, of the long, winding A39 stretching out before you.

Cornish Clotted Cream officially received its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) stamp in 1998 and today, Rodda’s near Redruth is Britain’s largest producer, although many smaller artisanal dairies produce this, most revered of creams, throughout the West Country.  It is also known as Devonshire Cream or Clouted Cream, the clouts or clots rising to the top during its manufacturing process giving that crunchy, yet yielding crust to every pot.

Although its origins are a little unclear, The Oxford Companion to Food , which is an absolute joy to read, suggests that it may have been introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician traders in search of tin, although there is a considerable amount of folklore attached to this theory. I believe that the reason for its original creation is most likely related to the preservation, before refrigeration, of dairy products. Simply put, the higher the fat content the better a product keeps, take butter for example. Recent studies have suggested that the, once mysterious, manmade underground caves,  or ‘Fogous’, Carneunywhich are often found in Atlantic coastal areas are actually underground storage areas for keeping produce fresh, dairy included, and we know that in the 14th century Monks were producing Clotted Cream in Devon monasteries.

Traditionally made in shallow bowls in farmhouse kitchens the fresh milk is left to stand until the cream rises to the top and then heated very slowly until the clots formed. These were then skimmed off. Interestingly enough, with a minimum 55% fat content, Clotted Cream would actually be considered butter in America.

Popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was often flavoured with rose water and served alongside the ever popular Junkets and is greatly favoured by the legendary Sir Kenelm Digby  whose posthumously-written eponymous, cookery book,  ‘The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened’, is a wonderful guide to food and drink in Carolingian and Restoration Britain.

So, to the great debate; do you eat your cream tea Cornish style (jam first) or Devon style (cream first)? Both have their merits, but I suppose for me, it depends on the jam’s consistency.

And the little question at the beginning? Well, Hobbits, of course, consider Clotted Cream a staple food (who wouldn’t); Blunderbore, the giant of ‘Jack the Giant Hunter’ fame was fed clotted cream by Jenny who was to become his fourth wife, (so it obviously has aphrodisiacal qualities as well!) And finally, a few words on the subject from Edmund Spenser;

‘Ne would she scorn the simple shepherd swain,
For she would call him often heam,
And give him curds and clouted cream’

 

This post is not sponsored by Rodda’s, but was written on my own volition after receiving some of their lovely products and deciding to find out exactly what Clotted Cream was all about!


An ancient dish which has moved with the times – #worldporridgeday

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Oats have been cultivated since at least 2000 bce, they are sturdy crops, keep well, are filling, full of minerals and have saved many a country from starving to death in harder times. They have been used in soups, stews, breads, oatcakes, gruel and most famously in Porridge.

Following on from my previous article about my family’s porridge cooking tradition, I thought it would be rather interesting to explore Porridge a little more thoroughly and today’s #worldporridgeday offers just that opportunity.

There is no doubt that porridge is ‘cool’, on trend, fashionable. There is not a breakfast menu in Britain without some homage to the porridge. From the organic, whole oat, slow cooked variety served with jugs of cream and a ‘choice of toppings’ to the chia seed filled, coconut oil infused, almond milk, vegan porridges of the ‘healthy-eating’ establishments. Yes, it’s versatile, and it is surprisingly good at accepting change. I am a porridge traditionalist, I make mine with water, oats and pinch of salt. I usually douse it in thick cream and maybe a spoon or two of honey or maple syrup. I have experimented with the more extreme versions (some without oats in at all) but I am most content with the original approach, although my Scottish ancestors are probably looking down at me and cursing my sweetening their national dish!

Last week, a Swedish woman, Ellinor Persson, took the title in the 24th Annual Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. The competition guide lines are very strict and the base ingredients remain the same – oatmeal, salt and water. Always a favourite in Nordic countries, Porridge has recently been highlighted as part the world’s healthiest breakfast alongside rye bread, the Icelandic dairy product Skyr, meats and cheeses. Every country has their own traditional additions, in Scandanavia Cloudberry Jam, apples and cinnamon are very popular. Porridge was the perfect food to counteract the effects of the  harsh, freezing northern winters.

Porridge was such an important part of Scottish culture that ‘porridge pots’ were often bequeathed in wills, one such will recording that ‘my second best porridge pot shall go to my youngest daughter’. The word ‘porridge’ most likely evolved sometime in the 16th century from the word ‘pottage’ which was a thick oat-thickened soup found in every kitchen up and down the country. Although oatmeal is used traditionally most of us now favour rolled oats which cook more quickly and have a more creamy texture. The sheer variety of porridge in supermarkets is a testimony to its current popularity, from instant ‘add hot water’ pots to fruited, spelt, apple and spice…..in fact locating the plain oats takes a bit of doing, and I’ve even found Oatmeal displayed within the baking section, far removed from its cereal chums! There are the pseudo-porridges like Ready Brek, loved by kids, but, although fortified with vitamins and minerals, it is actually a pale imitation of the real stuff. There are ready weighed, microwavable sachets which I have used in the past for pure convenience and this week I’ve seen a ‘porridge bar’ launched, apparently containing the same amount of oats as a bowl of porridge (although in my day that was called a Flapjack).

So, what is the future of porridge, and how much more can one dish be messed about with? There are some truly extreme versions out there, Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Snail Porridge’ being no exception. The one thing that remains constant (inflation aside) is its cost and place in society. It is a pan-class dish, one which has graced the tables of kings, lords, farmers, miners, factory workers, even those in the workhouse; and it is a cheap dish to make at home, even organic oats are not overly expensive, although when breakfasting out, I have seen some eye-watering prices attached to a bowl of this, most stalwart of cereals.

Some of  my personal favourites are  Rude Health’s Organic Scottish Oatmeal or Mornflake Organic Oats  , however, my grandmother always used Scott’s with that dashing kilted, wholesome (obviously porridge eating) Scotsman on the front! I will certainly be continuing my porridge ritual and maybe, just maybe, a recipe will surface which will encourage me to stray out of my Porridge safety zone for good!


Digging for Ancestral Roots in our Cookery…..?

I think that most of us were probably taught to cook by family members; whether Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents or the more extended family. IIMG_4936 learnt a lot from my Grandmothers; though each was very different in their approach to cookery. One was very much a bake-from-scratch cook; still alive today (at 106) she taught me bread making, jam making and gravy making; she learnt all that from her mother who was born in the late 19th century. Grandma’s rubbed-in cakes and Welsh bake-stones have weathered the years and are still regularly baked in my kitchen at home. Grandma was very much a wartime wife; she embraced rationing, skinned rabbits and ‘made do and mended’.

My other Grandmother, Nan, born in 1922 and sadly no longer with us, was a classic 1950’s housewife; she enjoyed convenience, loved M & S and, as she got older, rarely cooked at all, but when I was a child she would make choux pastry Chocolate Eclairs (which I’ve always considered rather complicated) and Coconut Pyramids (from the eponymous Marguerite Patten); her Beef Stew with Dumplings was always served on a plate rather than in a bowl and the trifles which adorned the birthday table were always from a packet. However, there was something she always made from scratch and which we all found rather amusing – Porridge. At home, porridge was a thick and creamy affair, adorned with honey or syrup or sultanas, it was thick and unctuous. My Nan’s on the other hand was solid, a greying cloddy mass made with half water and half milk then surrounded by another pool of cold milk. It stood like an iceberg, its undercarriage swamped and its head lightly adorned with sugar. It tasted fine, but it looked….well ‘different’! IMG_7474

It was only after doing a bit of research and talking with my Nan that I realised why this porridge was ‘different’ – and it was all down to her ancestry. My Nan made porridge that way because she had learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother – and that lady (all the way back in the mid-19th century) was called Florence MacDonald and was born a little way outside Inverness in 1858. Having looked into the Scottish porridge tradition I discovered that it is served, very thick, in bowls and alongside is placed a communal bowl of cream. The horn spoon goes into the porridge (which is served savoury or sweet) and then dunked in the cream. The leftover porridge was then tipped into a ‘porridge draw’ and spread about so as to set firm; this

IMG_1821was carried by crofters and workers to eat during their lunch break as it travelled more easily than oatcakes which tended to crumble.

Although, it’s likely that this was how Florence cooked and served her porridge, a gentle evolution has obviously occurred – an amalgamation of two bowls into one and the result being my Nan’s ‘different’ porridge. Having discovered this I do wonder whether I should make my porridge that bit thicker and carry on the tradition….who knows how far back it goes? I’m sure if we looked about us, we could

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 find dozens of hacks and recipes which travel deep into our family history, not all of us are lucky enough to have a family recipe notebook added to and stained and use, to carry these recipes, we just have our memories and these memories should be treasured and handed down to the next generation. In a gesture towards my heritage I do always stir my porridge with a Spurtle (the traditional carved stick-like porridge stirrer) and I only stir clockwise, superstition or tradition; you decide.