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 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 Abergavenny Food Festival Part 2: The Producers #AFF2017

 

 

PrintAs I mentioned in my earlier post, the stars of Abergavenny Food Festival are without doubt the producers. Whether nestling between the little booths or creating fine displays in the prestigious Market Hall,  the producers have an infallible passion for food and drink which is infectious and wonderful. Most are happy to chat and I unreservedly apologise, to those who are behind me in queues, for holding them up. I am a questioner; I want to know about the product, the sourcing, origin and inspiration. I’ve been privy to some wonderful tales from lost family recipe books, to accidental discoveries, to lifelong ambition; as well as meeting those farmers whose forebears have farmed for generations through difficult times; inherently believing in their crop or herd – families for whom the ‘organic’ and ‘buy local’ campaigns are finally paying off.

 

 

IMG_7331I love that there is always something new to be learnt. Food is an ever evolving subject and the little  things gleaned at such festivals can often form the basis for longer articles, recipes or books. I do feel a little guilty though, because were I to buy from every stall I taste (and enjoy) I would be empty of pocket and overly full of larder; however that is not to say that I can’t take my new found knowledge and share the products at a later date and so many companies offer internet shops or mail order these days. I always rather fantasised about those great hampers ordered from Fortnum and Mason and arriving in the Highlands, at grand houses, after spending the night as freight on those wonderful steam trains – I suppose I seek nostalgia – and having seen the creative thought which goes into much of the artisanal packaging these days I feel a return to these glory days are on the horizon, and it warms my heart!

I also get great pleasure from passing a stall with a hand-drawn ‘Sold Out, see you next year’ sign; whilst it is obviously a great accolade for the producer (who are no doubt cursing themselves for not having made enough, even though many were working on very little sleep and far too much coffee in the weeks leading up to the festival) it also demonstrates a belief in future success.

The diverse and  rich varieties of food and drink related produce to be found at festivals are a testament to the British public’s return to real, local and artisanal foods, whether it be sauces, whose recipes come from as far away as Borneo wth Sorai; delicately flavoured gin with autumnal botanicals from Sibling Distillery or a jar of Forage Fine Foods herb rub bursting with the smells and tastes of a summer meadow, there is a story and a demand – rubbed into a leg of Welsh lamb and then slowly roasted, the herb rub is absolutely exquisite.

As I wander through the markets the smells which waft about are all too tempting; from the jars of Joe and Seph’s Willy Wonkaesque popcorn, to the elegant displays of cakes, pasties, real breads and finely sliced charcuterie. The cheese market is difficult to pass through without adding at least another four cheeses to my already overladen refrigerator. This years haul, (chick in tow, who is possibly even more of a cheese lover than me) added mature yet smooth unpasteurised cheddar from Batch Farm; IMG_7492award winning firm Somerset goat’s cheese, creamy and surprisingly mild, and charmingly named ‘Rachel’ from White Lake Cheese ; the Bath Soft Cheese Company’s Wyfe of Bath, an organic Gouda inspired cheese (although there was much debate over whether to also buy their rather marvellous Bath Blue); and  finally a donation to Macmillan (sponsors M & S’ chosen charity) secured us two packets of classic soft and milky Abergavenny goat’s cheese, a fitting final choice given the location. Soft goat’s cheese is something I always have in the refrigerator, it’s my go-to topping for oatcakes, toasted sourdough or even to add  a surprising savoury lift to cheese cake.

The street food stalls at Abergavenny do encourage gluttony, however when you’re presented with everything from Taiwanese Bao Buns to the South West’s (and that’s Bristol not the U S of A, whatever image the logo may inspire) now legendary The Pickled Brisket and their outstanding salt-beef stuffed brioche rolls; chocolate dipped authentic Churros or The Guardian’s 2017 number one choice for Pizza, our own Cardiff based  The Dusty Knuckle Pizza Company.  There was hog roast, Aberaeron honey ice-cream, Legges of Bromyard’s traditional British pies, Welsh venison and even Ghanaian street food – you could have easily taken all your main meals for a fortnight and still not covered everything. Abergavenny Food Festival champions all good food, yes a lot of it is classically British, but also a lot of it stems from other cultures; many of these chefs and producers, although British born and bred, have carried with them a great passion for their ancestral cuisine and it’s rather lucky for us, that they have. DSCN0635

I could quite easily write a whole book about just one year’s festival in Abergavenny, there is so much to see and do and taste; but alas, I am forced to be content with rifling through my collection of cards, leaflets and recipes until I can match taste to name and put in my online orders. I have also been know to drive Mr D rather mad on weekend breaks when I’ve insisted on searching the lanes of some rural county (inevitably without a sat-nav signal) for a farm shop selling something of which I only half remember the name, but found absolutely delicious at Abergavenny.

Of course, I obviously am looking forward to next year’s 20th anniversary celebration but may well have to consider some sort of abstemious routine in the early days of September!

Whilst I attended the Abergavenny Food Festival as a guest, all opinions are my own as are the images.

 

 


A few thoughts on foodie fashion….

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As a food writer by profession (for more years than I care to remember), I have been fully immersed in the revival of the British food industry. I’ve always found it interesting to observe fashion and food fashion is no exception. Over the past decade we have seen quite a swing in the direction of ethical, local food; small producers and cottage industries had popped up all over the place. Television programs, such as The Great British Bake Off have encouraged us back to our cookery roots and it’s difficult to attend a dinner party these days where the origin of the ingredients aren’t discussed for the greater part of the evening. I think all this is wonderful! We should be proud of our heritage and our brand of British cuisine. We should be promoting our farmers and those taking up the reins of the great brewers, bakers, cheesemakers and butchers of old. These days a recipe ‘discovered’ in an old, well used cookery book is a great an accolade; ten years ago it was pesto and goats cheese tartlets; today ham hock terrine and piccalilli.

Buying local is far easier now than it ever has been; seasonality is a delight and companies promoting both (as well as ethical production) have a golden ticket. For the past six years I have written a monthly ‘foodie’ column in which I have tried to promote my ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ food and drink; it has been a privilege to research and I have discovered so many little gems. From my previous posts, you will see some of my favourites are still businesses thriving today and I continue to champion British food on a daily basis.

So….Lets hope this isn’t just a fashion, that’s its here for the duration and not tied up with the current ‘hip’ penchant for tweed and gin and beards (lovely as those trends are). If we really considered the quality and sourcing of our foodstuffs we would be healthier – for years our British staples have been messed around with by large corporations until they are genetically virtually unrecognisable – wheat being one
the main victims. Our daily bread is not the daily bread of old (but no doubt more on that in the future) – we are a society of allergies and intolerances, of cancers, fibromyalgia, and heart disease, not to mention type 2 diabetes. Can this be changed by diet alone? I, for one, believe it can.