Digging in the hope of victory!

This year has been a bit of a challenge for us, aside from current circumstances, as we were flooded in February and have had to move, temporarily into a new property. It’s very lovely with a large lawn but nowhere to grow vegetables….however, as luck would have it (although not considered so at the time) our brand new oak kitchen floor was languishing under a foot of flood water and had to be pulled up. So, we have created a little container garden, with (hopefully) enough veg to keep us going throughout the summer.

We have planted, and successfully germinated:

Green Beans (French and Runner)

Beetroot

Radish

Tomatoes

Peppers

Cucumbers

Chilies

Herbs

and we are waiting for the first signs of

Carrots

Potatoes

Leeks

Onions

It’s very easy to grow a few veg, and extremely satisfying, there’s something so exciting about that first meal entirely grown at home. Vegetables have so many options; you can freeze them, preserve them, dry them…there are infinite salads to be created and recipes to devise, and it really does encourage children to eat more veg. Even the fussiest eater can usually be tempted by a homegrown carrot stick.

My grandmother, who is now 109 and lives with us, always grew her own tomatoes and strawberries. In her younger years she grew a lot more, and my husband’s father took to gardening as a young teenager, to such an extent that he was soon supplying the local pubs with vegetables. I would love a walled garden, full of herbs, packed with veg, netted patches of soft fruit and esplanade orchard fruits…one day, I promise myself. In the meantime we have to be clever and use what’s to hand. I’ll keep you posted as the season moves on and, hopefully there’ll be lots of delicious produce and recipes to share.


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 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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Back to school, foodie festivals….and sticky buns!

IMG_1722For years, those words, banded about from about mid-June terrified me. I admit that I did not enjoy school; I was classic bully fodder and suffered terribly. Now, Master A is about to start secondary school; luckily he takes after Mr D and is very popular albeit a little geeky around the edges and after twenty five years I am finally at peace…I think (although I have been having anxiety dreams for the past week).

I still associate September with fresh starts. I think it is ingrained upon you as a child that the true New Year is actually your first day back to school in September; I have implemented diets,  started projects and freshened things up, all in that first week of September. Perhaps that’s why I am an Autumnophile.

In other news, the food festival season has now started and most weekends will find me surrounded by delicious foods and sampling all manner of little drinkies, all in the name of research of course. However, as they are on weekends I do have to ensure that Master A, when he comes with us, always has something to look forward to, rather than trailing around after Mum, lamenting his enforced separation from various gadgets. Luckily, he only gets bored after a couple of  hours; he is a cheese fanatic and will, ostensibly,  try anything (even though he is rather more picky at home). Last year saw us sharing our car with a lovely wedge of the famous Stinking Bishop, perry-washed cheese whose odour is somewhat akin to trench-foot!

I do believe in feeding your children a nourishing diet, certainly not without treats though.  I have found that limiting sugar and swapping white for wholemeal, heritage grains or sourdough does help with concentration hugely. I enjoy baking and always make sure that I stock up the tins with lots of yummy treats. This week I have been making Spelt Buns, with an egg-enriched dough. We are split into two camps in our household – Camp Cinnamon (myself and Master A) and Camp Fruit (Mr D), so I made both. Using spelt flour makes these buns more easily digestible and you needn’t kneed quite so much as with wheat flour.

IMG_7026

These can be made with only a small amount of sugar (and a tiny dusting of icing sugar) as the fruit or cinnamon adds its own natural sweetness.

The Bun tradition is Britain is wonderfully regional, with almost every county and often town having its own variety. The most famous buns being the Chelsea Bun and the Bath Bun (which is also home to the Sally Lunn which possible originates from the French Sol et Lune, sun and moon). In Cornwall, Saffron Buns are found; rich, yellow and slightly spicy. Obviously the most famous is the Hot Cross Bun which is pan-British; however if you delve into those dogeared cookery books you’re bound to find hundreds of small variations which give each bun its individual identity.  The lesser know varieties (mostly from the Bun-loving 17th century include;

The Real Current Bun (Hampshire late 17th C)

The Colston Bun (Bristol mid 17thC)

The London Bun (Unk. but NEVER to be confused with the finger bun!)