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: 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


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 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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The Pheasant Philosophises: Part 3 Sunday Morning Musings: Seasonality

fullsizeoutput_1600So, this week saw the end of National Cake Week, the beginning of National Seafood Week and tomorrow we look forward to the start of British Egg Week. Whilst I enjoy these specialised food and drink weeks it does make me wonder how on earth the British food industry survived for all those years without national annual promotion. Whilst these ‘weeks’ generally fall into place at the peak or opening of the season, some items are in season continually (and in the case of Cake week, it was initially established to share and enjoy a cake together), I look back and try to understand where the British food industry went wrong with seasonality. One hundred years ago, you knew that if it was December there were no strawberries and if it was August, Mussels were generally off the menu.

The only area within which we can categorically state that there is definite seasonality in the UK is through the various Game seasons.

IMG_7075The nostalgia and traditions which surround Game have managed to survive, unchallenged into the twenty first century, and so, today, many people still ‘look forward’ to the first Pheasant, Partridge or Grouse (the glorious 12th a testimony to this). Another example is the relatively new (1951), seasonal arrival of  Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November, but the general non-foodie populous are not privy to such seasonal excitements.

Perhaps this is where National Food Weeks come in? When my Grandmother was born in 1911 and yes, she’s still with us today, the seasons were heralded by the changing foods available in markets and shops. People waited almost a whole year for the first Scottish Raspberries or English grown lettuces, hot houses did exist but mostly for the rich. There has been a distinct reversal in the ensuing years. Those with money can seek out the very best of seasonal produce whilst those on budgets can buy ‘year round’ mediocre quality items from the local supermarket.

As a budget conscious nation, we have been told to buy seasonally to save money, even I have advocated this, however on closer inspection perhaps my encouragement is mis-worded. What I should say is, “when buying at specialist food shops, farm shops, farmers markets or similar try to buy seasonally because it proves far better value and generally you reduce your purchases’ food miles”.  This is where the quality issue comes in. In my earlier piece about Organic food  #feedyourhappy I recommended seasonal buying and I do stick by this. IMG_0044

I do, however, think it’s sad that we’ve lost the excitement of seasonality, those of us who produce our own foods know all too well the “No….I can’t manage another strawberry” and the  “We’ll just make jam, now” scenarios after a glut of fruit. We have eaten our fill are are quite happy to wait, in the most, another year for more fresh, sweet, glistening berries. That’s why opening a jar of summer Strawberry Jam in the middle of Winter is so evocative. It is the very fact that it is the preservation of summer which makes it ‘special’ – but that aside, it is not fresh produce like the little trays of overpriced out of season strawberries we see on our supermarket shelves at Christmas. Jam is a shadow of the memory of Summer, preserving gluts of fruit has been a ritual in world kitchens for thousands of years, whether it be drying, potting, jam-making or, more recently freezing (although again, I’m not so keen as you end with a pale example of what first went in). You cannot compare a decent jam to a bowl fresh fruit and it would be wrong to do so.

Therefore, perhaps the Britain’s Food Weeks have a place, not so much in promoting awareness and purchase of produce, but in highlighting what shouldn’t be around….it is all extremely confusing…but Happy National Seafood Week anyway!!!

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Into the woods…..The Forest Showcase Food Festival 2017

IMG_7740As a great supporter of local food festivals, I am always delighted to share my enthusiasm with anyone who cares to listen. It now being ‘food festival season’, I am spoilt for choice. Last weekend I attended a small but perfectly formed festival in The Royal Forest of Dean, about twenty minutes drive from my home.

The Forest of Dean is one of the oldest English forests still in existence and has seen Kings, Princes and Lords ride in the chase under it’s great sprawling oaks. At the heart of the forest is The Speech House, the old Verderers court (click here for the history bit) and last weekend the grounds of this impressive, Carolingian building were packed with producers, musicians, visitors, artists and, of course, food and drink.

 

The Forest Showcase has been fortunate to enjoy splendid autumn sunshine over the past five years, however this year it just wasn’t meant to be.  Despite the rain, and the organisers took extra measures to ensure everyone stayed as dry and mud free as possible, it was a very pleasant way to spend an autumnal Sunday morning. IMG_7745All my good intentions of not going over the top went by the wayside as I was presented with an Aladdin’s cave – in the form of the producers tent.

The marquee was packed, and the atmosphere was convivial.

IMG_7701French-style bread and patisserie sat beside honey producers, cheese makers, purveyors of delicious locally made jams and chutneys, artisan gin, cider and marshmallows, and some rather fabulous pies and pasties from Cinderhill Farm near St Briavels.  There was ice-cream from Forest and Wye, cheese form one of the few PDO Gloucestershire cheese makers, Smart’s   and the eponymous Madgett’s Farm with their excellent free-range chicken, duck and local game. I also discovered a new, extremely local country wine maker and sampled a wonderfully decadent Rose petal wine, the taste of which brought back memories of early summer. I indulged in Fuffle, is a fudge or is it a truffle? Whichever is the true answer, it was delicious. I was offered roasted hemp seeds which were surprisingly moreish, the most exquisite fruit cordials (which would have worked wonderfully in a gin cocktail), cheeses flavoured with honey and fig and cakes in all shapes and flavours.

 

Away from the marquees, there were cider makers, caterers, a craft market, art exhibitions and stalls from various local charities including The Dean Forest Beekeepers, IMG_7700Apple pressing demonstrations were popular and I happened upon a rather good fruit and veg stall where I stocked up on locally grown carrots and broccoli.

Throughout the day a variety of musicians entertained the crowds.

In the demonstration tent, visitors were wowed by cookery demonstrations by, among others, Yvette Farrell who runs the Forest of Dean’s premier cookery school, award winning Hart’s Barn Cookery School.

Very much a family festival, the parent and child cookery classes were filled all day, with healthy eating advisor & cookery teacher Glyn Owen at the helm producing delicious Mezze.

But, if you did miss this year’s event, do not despair….the organisers have a Christmas treat in store!

“We are very much looking forward to our new Xmas event which is at Beechenhurst Lodge on Sunday 28th November…..so those that didn’t make this one because of the weather have another chance to sample and buy the best produce from The Forest of Dean and see some amazing Christmas cookery demonstrations….”

It’s already in my diary, I just hope there’s mulled wine on offer!

 

 

Although I attended as a guest of the festival, all views are my own