The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: just a little trifle, please!

Christmas is now the only time of the year I make trifle. Growing up it was a mainstay of my grandmother’s birthday and Christmas tables, but the tradition now firmly sits within the festive period.

There’s something wonderfully decadent about the layers of creamy comfort, the hit of booze and the digging down to the bottom for the jelly. Purists, of course don’t use jelly, just sponge, jam (or fruit), cream and custard. This historical favourite is familiar to many as the Birds Trifle…that little packet of magic which seemed such a treat.

Today, trifles have become rather fashionable again. There are so many flavour combinations which satisfy the sweetest tooth.

Every year I make a Southern Comfort and Mandarin Trifle, it’s  so simple and tastes amazing. I use trifle sponges and soak them in Southern comfort and the juice from tinned mandarins, then spoon over the fruit, a layer or orange jelly, custard and finally whipped  cream. I usually buy an edible gold spray for the cream as it catches the light beautifully and looks extremely christmassy.

For a taste of Eastern Promise why not try rose water or rose liqueur soaked sponge, fresh figs, lemon jelly and rosewater cream – a little cardamon in the custard lifts the flavour admirably too.

A delicious, more traditional trifle, is Madeira cake spread with raspberry jam, a few tablespoons of sherry or Amaretto, fresh raspberries, custard, whipped cream and a good scattering of toasted almonds.

Chocolate and Salt Caramel Trifles are very popular flavours these days too. Chocolate cake, Dulce de Leche, a gentle scattering of sea salt flakes, chocolate custard and cream topped with grated dark chocolate makes an extremely rich pudding (and a little dash of Tia Maria is always worth a thought)

One of the most decadent trifles is my Black Forest Trifle, again, no jelly here just good sponge, a good quality dark chocolate spread (or homemade ganache) lots of Kirsch, a jar of black cherries, chocolate custard and whipped cream finished with grated dark chocolate.


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: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!


Frontier Style Cherry Skillet Pie

It’s #NationalCherryDay so here’s my recipe for a very simple cherry skillet tart or pie.

Combining cinnamon with the flour gives a delicious crust which, when filled with the kirsch flavoured cherries, is really quite moreish. This pie is very juicy, almost self saucing, and the crisp outer crust can be ripped off and dunked into the cherry juices.

This recipe originated in the frontier days, when families travelled across America by wagon train, with very few personal possessions- perhaps only a griddle, a skillet and a cauldron which formed their kitchen, so, the frugality of the recipe is rather fitting. They would have cooked using communal ovens, Dutch ovens and most often over a wood fire.

Many Welsh mining families emigrated to the ‘wild west’ in the later 19th century – some of my ancestors included – so this is a little homage to them.

Ingredients

100g cold unsalted butter, grated

250g plain flour

1 tsp cinnamon

2 heaped tablespoons of brown sugar

2 eggs

Water to mix

Pinch of salt

250g stoned fresh cherries

1 tbsp kirsch

4 heaped tbls golden caster sugar

Method

Rub the flour into the butter until you have fine breadcrumbs

Stir in the cinnamon and sugar

Add a beaten egg and bring the pastry together, if it’s too dry add a little water or milk, if it’s too wet add a little more flour

Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees c

Roll out the pastry roughly and use it to line a greased skillet or tin. Make sure that the pastry goes over the edge a little as this will form your crust

Add the cherries, then sprinkle over 3 tbls of sugar and the kirsch

Fold the edges up and over to form a rustic pie crust, then glaze with beaten egg,

Sprinkle the crust with the remaining sugar and a dusting of cinnamon

Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden and the cherries bubbling

Serve warm with ice-cream, cream or custard – or all three!


Humbled by Pork!

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a press day organised by porc.wales, a new, assembly backed initiative to promote small producers of proper pork in Wales.

Wales and Pork have a history which goes far back (although not too far, as the pig was sacred to the celts) but up until the early twentieth century, when it was finally outlawed, many Welsh families kept a pig which was sent for slaughter to keep the family in meat – no part of the pig was wasted – it was true nose to tail eating.

The porc.wales press event was held at Humble by Nature, the Monmouthshire farm championing sustainability and tradition. Owned by television presenter Kate Humble, Humble by Nature offers a wide variety of practical courses as well as being a good family day out – with an excellent cafe and regular supper clubs.

A study conducted into the Welsh pork industry found that in general the herds were substantially smaller than those in England – and often comprised native or heritage breeds.

At Humble by Nature we enjoyed a masterclass in faggot making from Gloucestershire charcutier Ruth Waddington who, alongside husband Graham, runs Lydney based Native Breeds www.nativebreeds.co.uk which make delectable products with the best possible pork (I can very much recommend their British Frankfurter) and very much enjoyed the accompanying talk about paring foraged ingredients with meats to create a storyboard for the recipe. Liz Knight, from borders based Forage Fine Foods www.foragefinefoods.com is obviously extremely passionate and introduced us to delightful flavour bombs such as acorns, giant hogweed and chamomile.


Having finally produced our faggots we had a guided tour of the farm from farmer Tim Stephens and met the pigs, of course! Humble by Nature’s dedication to sustainability is obvious – their animals are extremely well cared for and look extremely relaxed.


Lunch was splendid, as you can see, a few green beans and some creamy mash on the side, not forgetting my first ‘stock shot’ of cooking liquor which was packed with flavour – the sticky toffee Spotted Dick which was followed was equally yum! A glass of Humble by Nature branded cider finished off the day perfectly (along with a little bit of foodie debate)

For further info on foodie and countryside courses search www.humblebynature.com