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 Pheasant Philosophises; part 2

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A couple of weeks ago I trawled my county (and adjacent ones) searching for the best produce I could find to fill my fridge and cupboard for the week ahead. Today I went to a supermarket and it was as though I saw it all with new eyes. I was disgusted by the rows of processed rubbish- filled refined carbohydrate based foods, pesticide covered veg and dubious meat. As I was with my son, who at 11 still has the odd craving for Doritos and Cereal (in between demands for goats cheese and olives), I decided to do a bit of a test. Telling a child that something is bad for them never seems to put them off, in my experience anyway, so I resolved to encourage a little bit of self-education. We put a pack of Doritos in the trolley and compared the ingredients to the most basic tortilla chips available in the shop, for price comparison it was £1.40 vs 45p. He read the ingredients with an ever changing expression of horror, by the time he got to MSG which he knows is not good he was thoroughly put off and returned the product to the shelf. He then took up the, unappealingly plain, packaged Tortilla Chips; ingredients Maize, Rapeseed Oil and salt. “It’s a no-brainer Mum” , he said as he put them back in the trolly.

Which got me thinking; why do people assume that the value brands are rubbish? In a society where there are people struggling to make ends meet, why do so many buy branded products. I have watched programs on the television about people learning to get by on benefits and often they fill their trolley with brands believing that you pay for quality – which you do, but really only when there is a greater divide; an organic chicken and a basic chicken for example. But when it comes to basics versus own brand I don’t see a big difference and often the basics ingredients list is far more transparent and uses far fewer (unnecessary) ingredients hidden behind their chemical names.

But, as a consumer, you must remember that shops always place their value ranges below eye level forcing you to look a bit harder. I fully believe that even those on a low budget should be able to feed their families well, and the very basics such as pasta, rice and flour are not expensive. Perhaps look towards vegetarian options or make use of sustainably sourced tinned fish; a little goes a long way! And finally do a bit of planning, if you know what you’re having on each day it’s much easier to stick to a budget.


Waste not, want not….

  

Two years ago, on Christmas Eve, a relative of mine was in Lidl and witnessed the staff throwing frozen Turkeys into black bags. Where were they going? she inquired. The bin, she was told. They weren’t allowed to give them away, they had to be destroyed. The staff were very upset but they were under orders. Last year was a little better but as we approach the season of overindulgence I think we should all think about what we buy and what we let rot.

We are all guilty of buying too much, advertising and the choice we are offered allows for a much more varied diet. In our parent’s and grandparent’time food was generally associated with a particular day, leftovers from the Sunday roast became bubble and squeak on Monday and soup on Tuesday. Friday was fish day, a ham was boiled on a Sunday for the week’s sandwiches. People didn’t mind ‘eating up’ the firmer slices of bread or ‘trimming up’ the cheese.

Today the most popular dish in Britain for a Monday night is Spaghetti Bolognese; fresh mince, pasta, nothing from the day before. Of course now we can’t just eat Spag Bol, we need garlic bread, coleslaw, salad….and more often than not the salad (bagged and prewashed in chemicals) is sitting in its own juice come Friday. Into the bin it goes.

  
 As a nation we have been encouraged to obey all sell by dates – when I was a child we used our noses – if something smelt ok, it probably was. Which leads me to wonder whether, now preservatives are used throughout the food industry, they mask the smell of ‘off’ food or preserve beyond the dates stamped…as humanity has survived for thousands of years without use-by dates why can we not trust our instincts now, even if companies are obliged to provide such dates. 

  
The amount of food wasted in this country is ridiculous. With celebrity chefs taking up the cause I think it’s about time to tackle this issue.  If we try and cook from scratch we are less lightly to waste, so dig out those recipes from granny, plan meals and perhaps use leftovers for packed lunches or as the basis for soups or pasta sauces; and enjoy the simple pleasure of cold cuts with chutneys and sauces. Bake your own cakes and you rely on their feel, a sponge gone a little hard? Warm it and serve with custard or make a trifle. Think outside the box – you may be surprised at what can be achieved.