The quick-quick-slow food movement

Roasted butternut squash

After a fun-filled, non-stop Christmas and New Year celebrating with various family members, I’ve eased myself slowly into 2015. It feels good to be home again, sleeping in my own bed, keeping my own simple routines, cooking in my own kitchen… The mince pies, Christmas cake, endless boxes of chocolates, glasses of wine and flutes of Champagne have given way to green juices and smoothies, vegetable soups, winter salads and herbal tea. Rather than feeling bereft, I actually feel relieved – it feels so good to be kind to my body after testing its limits for the past few weeks. After the obligatory Christmas cold, which persisted until the end of the year, I’ve got back into my running, donning my trainers, wooly hat and gloves to brave the cold and make the most of any glimpses of sunshine that break through the clouds and over the London rooftops.

My super-healthy culinary experimentation has been greatly helped this month by two rather fantastic Christmas presents: a Vitamix (a hugely powerful blender, for the uninitiated) and a crock-pot cooker (slow cooker). From this I can deduce that a) I have been a very good girl and b) Santa is a bit of a foodie. The Vitamix can blitz pretty much any food into a smooth purée or liquid – if you add frozen fruits and blitz them quickly, you have instant sorbet (add cream or yoghurt if you want ice cream), and if you put in raw veggies with some liquid, then blitz for a few minutes, the friction from the motor heats everything to such an extent that it makes hot soup in just 5 minutes. Magic. I’ve also been whizzing up various veggies with a little bit of fruit and some coconut water to make a healthy morning smoothie, though I’ll admit that – in a bid to create something wonderfully virtuous the other morning – I did end up with something far more nutritious than delicious. Note to self: go easy on the kale and celery in the next one…

Raw honey halva

Raw Honey Halva

This is not the crumbly-textured halva I had tried before, which is often made with hot sugar syrup and egg white; this version is chewy, like soft toffee – rather delicious and very good for you, with no refined sugar and no heat to kill off the nutrients.

Makes 4 to 6 portions.

  • 150g / 5¼oz almonds
  • 225g / 8oz tahini
  • 125g / 4½oz pitted dried dates
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  1. Line a small baking tin with clingfilm.
  2. Put the almonds in the Vitamix and secure the lid. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 6. Run for 6-7 seconds until the almonds are finely ground. Add the tahini, dates and honey and secure the lid.
  3. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 10, then to High. Run for 10 to 20 seconds until the mixture forms a soft paste, using the tamper to press the mixture into the blades and stopping occasionally to scrape the mixture from the sides of the container.
  4. Spread the mixture into the baking tin, cover the top with the cling film and chill for at least 1 hour until firm before cutting into squares. Keeps in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Banana-berry ice cream

The sweet, creamy texture that you get from blitzing frozen bananas has to be tasted to be believed! A Vitamix or similarly powerful machine is ideal for this as you really need a good motor to handle the frozen fruit. It’s important to add the yoghurt in first so the blades can rotate and do their job – if not, they get stuck on the harder bananas and berries. The dates add a little extra sweetness, but they aren’t essential. The ice cream will be very soft in texture and definitely should be eaten immediately – the lack of sugar does mean than it will get rock-hard if you leave it in the freezer.

Serves 2.

  • 120g / 4 oz coconut yoghurt (or normal dairy yoghurt if you prefer)
  • 2 frozen bananas
  • Hanful of frozen berries
  • 3 pitted Medjool dates

Add the ingredients in the order specified and secure the lid. Select variable speed 1, turn on the machine and slowly increase the speed to 10, then to High. Run for about 10 seconds until the mixture is smooth, using the tamper to press the mixture into the blades. Stop to scrape the mixture from the sides of the container and blitz again, as before. Don’t run the motor for too long as the ice cream will start to heat up and melt. Eat immediately.

Green smoothie

Green smoothie

What you put in your morning smoothie is really up to you and can depend on what nutrients you’re looking for, how you want it to taste, what’s in season, where you are in the world… I like to vary things so I don’t get bored! Fruit is full of vitamins but also sugar, so try to balance that out with some veggies to keep the smoothie from being too calorie-packed and acidic.

Serves 2

  • 4 leaves cavolo nero (black kale)
  • 200ml / 7fl oz (approximately) unsweetened coconut water (or filtered water if you prefer)
  • 1 banana
  • 5cm / 2” piece of cucumber
  • Small piece (the size of the tip of your thumb) of fresh ginger
  • Large handful of fresh or frozen berries

First, tear your cavolo nero into pieces and add to the Vitamix / blender with the coconut water. Blitz for a few seconds, then add the banana, cucumber, ginger and berries and blitz until smooth. Pour into glasses and drink immediately.

Butternut squash soup

Butternut squash soup with chilli and coconut

The chilli and ginger in this soup should be subtle, but you’ll feel their warmth spread throughout your body – perfect on these chilly winter days. I love roasted butternut squash and the addition of coconut milk gives this soup a lovely creamy texture.

Serves 6.

  • 1 butternut squash, about 1kg / 2.2 lbs peeled, deseeded and cut into large cubes, about 5cm / 2”
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 onions, peeled and cut into large chunks (same size as butternut squash)
  • 5 garlic clove, left whole in their skins
  • 1 cm / ½” slice of fresh ginger
  • 1 mild red chilli, deseeded, or a pinch of chilli powder plus 1 chilli to serve, deseeded and sliced
  • 500ml / 1 pint vegetable stock or chicken stock
  • 200ml / 7 fl oz coconut milk
  • Green herbs, eg a few chives or leaves of parsley / coriander
  1. Heat oven to 200℃ / 390℉ normal oven (180℃ / 355℉ fan). Toss the cubes of squash in a large roasting tin with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, then add in the onion and garlic. Continue to roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and soft.
  2. Add the stock to the Vitamix or blender (all ingredients can be cold if using a Vitamix, but need to be hot if using a normal blender) and tip in the squash, onion, garlic (squeeze the softened flesh out of the skins and discard the skins), ginger and chilli. Add the coconut milk, then whizz until smooth. If putting cold ingredients in a Vitamix, run the motor on high for about 4 to 5 minutes until the soup is hot.
  3. Season to taste and serve the soup in bowls with a few chopped herbs and chillies scattered on top.

A large part of my Vitamix’s appeal is the speed, impressive power and convenience (the ability to create such a diversity of yummy, nutrient-packed food in a matter of seconds or minutes makes it the ultimate fast food machine), but I must admit that they are eye-wateringly expensive. A decent blender would do a lot of the “wet” things a Vitamix can do and a food processor (like Magimix) would take care of many of the “dry” recipes (eg pastry)… but the results from a Vitamix are so impressive that it’s worth looking into if you’re keen. My crock-pot cooker, however, is wonderful for many of the opposite reasons: it’s a relatively inexpensive, economical (it uses far less power than a hob or oven would and it transforms the cheaper cuts of meat that need long, slow cooking) and it’s very simple: add the ingredients (which may need some prep first, eg searing in a frying pan), turn the cooker onto either high or low and leave it for as many hours as required, which is often overnight or all day. It may not produce instantaneous results, but with a bit of preparation the night before or that morning, it’s the easiest way to have dinner ready and waiting at the end of a busy day. The real joy of slow-cooking is definitely in the eating: meat becomes meltingly tender, sauces are rich and unctuous, flavours are deep and intense.

Cavolo nero

Cavolo Nero and chickpea soup

This is half-way between a soup and a stew… I took the original idea from a recipe for the Italian soup ribollita, but my version uses chickpeas instead of cannellini or zolfini beans and I don’t use bread, which makes it a much lighter dish, whilst keeping the essence of the original. I love making this all winter, as long as cavolo nero (black kale) is in season. As with all the slow cooker recipes here, this freezes well if you make too much.

Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small red onions, peeled
  • 2 carrots, peeled
  • 3 sticks celery, trimmed
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 pinch ground fennel seeds
  • 1 pinch dried red chilli
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 400g / 14oz good-quality tinned plum tomatoes
  • 1 x 400g / 14oz tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 200g / 7oz cavolo nero, leaves and stalks finely sliced
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  1. Finely chop your onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Add the olive oil and the vegetables to the pan with the ground fennel seeds, chilli and bay leaf. Sweat very slowly on high with the lid on for around 60 minutes until soft, but not brown.
  2. Add the tomatoes,the cooked and drained beans plus a little water and stir in the sliced cavolo nero. The soup should be thick but not dry, so add a little more water if you need to loosen it. Continue cooking on high for about 2 hours – you want to achieve a silky, thick soup.
  3. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the extra virgin olive oil before serving to give it a glossy, velvety texture.

Coconut chicken curry

The spices in this curry give it a wonderful warmth that is essential during the colder months. Turmeric also has great anti-inflammatory and healing properties – perfect for chasing away those winter germs. I like cooking with chicken thighs, especially when slow cooking, as they don’t dry out (as chicken breasts do) and they have far more flavour.

For the spice blend:

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon chilli powder (depending how hot you like it)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the curry:

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 inch cube of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into four
  • 2 x 400ml / 14 fl oz cans coconut milk
  • 1 corn on the cob
  • 2 peppers, deseeded and sliced
  • Large handful of frozen peas or broad beans
  • Small bunch coriander
  • 1 lime
  1. Combine the ingredients from the spice blend together and set aside.
  2. In the small bowl of a food processor, combine garlic, ginger and onion and pulse until it forms a paste.
  3. Heat up the oil in a frying pan, add puréed garlic, ginger and onion and stir well. Cook for a few minutes, then add the spice blend. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the chicken pieces to the pot. Cook chicken on all sides to brown lightly and coat thoroughly with the spice mixture.
  5. Transfer the contents of the frying pan into the slow cooker and pour the coconut milk over – it should just barely cover the chicken.
  6. Cut the corn off the cob and add it to the chicken with the peppers.
  7. Cook on low for 4 hours.
  8. Add the frozen peas or broad beans and cook for another 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables hot.

Pork belly carnitas

Pulled pork

This is one of my favourite Mexican dishes and this version is also pretty healthy (bearing in mind that my previous go-to recipe involved cooking the pork in a braising liquid that included cola and lard, amongst other things. Tasted fantastic, but probably not so good for the insides…) I cooked the pork for the full 8 hours and the results were so good that we were rendered speechless for a good few minutes. Seriously, if a slow cooker could only make this, it would still be worth it.

Serves 4

  • 1kg / 2.2 lbs lean boneless pork (I used a leg joint), excess fat trimmed, cut into 7cm / 3″ chunks
  • 330ml / 10 fl oz beer
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle powder (or chipotle in adobo sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  1. Heat a large frying pan over high heat. Add the pork and sear on each side until browned (about 2 minutes per side). Transfer pork to the slow cooker.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and give the mixture a careful stir to combine. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours until the pork is completely tender and shreds easily with a fork.
  3. Once the pork is cooked, preheat your grill to high heat. Use a fork to shred the meat into bite-sized pieces and then transfer it to a large roasting tin, spreading it out evenly in a single layer. Reserve the remaining broth from the slow cooker.
  4. Place pork under the grill for about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the pork begin crisping up. Remove the tin, and use a spatula or tongs to carefully toss the pork. Then pour over a ladleful of the remaining slow cooker broth over the pork. Grill for an additional 5 minutes to get the meat more crispy. Then pour an additional ladleful of broth over the crispy pork.
  5. Serve immediately with tortillas or tacos, guacamole, salsa, salad, soured cream, grated cheese, jalapeño peppers, etc – or cover and refrigerate, or freeze.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 20 January 2015.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide — from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She teaches cooking, develops recipes, blogs and has created gluten-free recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

Home for the Holidays

The holiday season has a terrifying knack of putting the fear of God into many folk all over the Western World, sending the usually sane members of society into a tail-spin, creating consumerist mayhem in high streets, shopping malls and online, while also stretching people’s patience (and credit cards) to the limits. And that’s not taking into account family dynamics. . .

My family does tick plenty of the boxes that comfortably sit at the so-called ‘dysfunctional’ end of the spectrum. But, as my sister so perfectly put it, “we actually function incredibly well”. Christmas is a great example of this: rather than trying to round up each and every sheep in our extended flock, we’re just happy to spend Christmas with whoever is there. This has meant that some years we’ve had 16 family members spanning three generations around the table — and another year, there were just three of us. Due to a propensity for second (and even third) marriages, resulting in half- and step-siblings, not to mention in-laws, mine has never been a nuclear family, so there are always various parents, siblings and in-laws to be considered.

This will mean blending different traditions, customs and cultures, quirks and routines, to hopefully to create something new and rather lovely. My mum – also known as “Mother Chef” due to her role as teacher, mentor and endless source of culinary inspiration – is hosting this year and will be working her usual magic in the kitchen. I’m not sure exactly what she’ll let me actually get stuck into on the day, but for now I’ve settled on making a gravlax in advance that we can graze on over the Christmas period, so at least I know I’ll be contributing something!

CITRUS-CURED GRAVLAX WITH CACIK

Citrus-cured gravlax with cacik on bliniI make no claims of authenticity here, since I’ve taken a very Scandinavian fish dish and paired it with a dip straight out of the heart of the Middle East. Not, I’ll admit, your typical bed-fellows, but it was the communal dill that inspired this marriage, and it works wonderfully. If you wish, you can serve the salmon and cacik on serving platters or individual plates, or you can make little bite-sized buckwheat blini that, topped with a little dollop of cacik and a sliver of gravlax, make the most wonderful canapés.

For the gravlax:

•1 filleted side of very fresh salmon (900g / 2lb)

•Very large bunch dill (80g / 3oz)

For the salt mix

•250g (9oz) Maldon sea salt (beloved by many chefs), or other quality salt

•375g (13oz) demerara sugar

•4 star anise

•1 teaspoon coriander seeds

•Zest of 2 limes

•Zest 3 lemons

For the cacik

•1 large cucumber, coarsely grated or finely diced

•500ml / 1 pint Greek yoghurt

•1 fat garlic clove, crushed

•20g / ¾ oz dill, stalks and leaves finely chopped

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

•Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle

For the blini (makes about 20 small blini)

•1 egg

•100g / 3½ oz buckwheat flour

•1 teaspoon baking powder

•150ml / 5 fl oz milk

•2 tablespoons sunflower oil

Method

1Tip all ingredients for the salt mix into a food processor and whizz until everything is combined and the spices are completely ground.

2Stroke your hand along the salmon fillet to check for any stray bones. If you find any, pull them out with a pair of tweezers or small pliers. Trim away the thinner part of the fillet — plus any fat around the edges — so that the fillet has an even shape.

3Scatter about a third of the salt mix onto a large tray in a line about the size of the salmon fillet. Lay the salmon, skin-side down, over the salt and pack the rest of the salt mix on top. Cover with cling film (plastic wrap), put another tray on top and weigh it down with a few cans or an empty casserole dish. Leave in the fridge for 3 days.

4TO MAKE THE CACIK: carefully squeeze out and discard the excess water from the cucumber (by hand, or in a sieve).

5Under cold running water, wash the salt mix off the salmon fillet, then dry with kitchen paper. Finely chop the dill. Lay the salmon on a board and cover the flesh with the dill, pressing it down to pack it onto the salmon. You can now wrap up the salmon in cling film and keep in the fridge for up to one week.

6To finish the cacik, place the cucumber in a mixing bowl and mix in the yoghurt. Add the garlic and dill, mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

7Use a sharp carving knife to cut the salmon into fine slices against the skin.

8FOR THE BLINI: using an electric beater, whisk the eggs until frothy and then mix in the flour, baking powder and milk. Beat well to make a smooth batter (don’t do this too far in advance: the baking powder will start working as soon as it’s mixed with liquid).

9Heat a little oil in a heavy frying pan and put tablespoons of the batter into the hot pan to make little pancakes (you will probably have to do a few batches). Cook until small bubbles appear and the underside of the blini are golden, then turn them over and cook the other side. Cover the blini with film or foil until required.

CHRISTMAS TURKEY & STUFFING

Turkey and stuffingMy mother’s turkey defies the usual “dry, boring, bland” fears that plague so many holiday feasts, so I thought I’d share her recipe with you. The original recipe came from Gordon Ramsay; however, my mother being a rebellious mother, it will have therefore been altered a few times.

For the herb butter

•250g / 9 oz packed unsalted butter, softened

•3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only

•A sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped leaves only

•2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the meat

•5 to 6kg / 11 to 13lb medium-sized turkey

•3 or 4 good quality, thick sausages, skins removed

For the stuffing

•125g / 4½ oz butter

•1 onion, finely chopped

•A large sprig of thyme and rosemary, chopped leaves only

•200g / 7 oz white breadcrumbs

•6 fresh sage leaves

•1 lemon, zest only

•50g / 2 oz pine nuts

•1 teaspoon sea salt

•Freshly ground black pepper

•3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

For the gravy

•1 onion or large shallot, chopped

•2 tablespoons olive oil

•125ml / 4fl oz dry white wine

•1 sprig of fresh thyme

•1 bay leaf

•500ml / 17fl oz chicken stock

•200ml / 7fl oz double cream

•Pan juices from roasting

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1Pre-heat the oven to 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven).

2Make the herb butter: mix herbs and butter together to form a paste, season well and chill.

3Prepare the turkey legs: to remove legs, cut through the skin and pull joint firmly away from body then cut through ball and socket joints.

4Cut away the ‘oyster’ on the back of the turkey so the leg and thigh come away cleanly.

5With a thin sharp knife, bone both legs and stuff with sausage meat.

6Wrap tightly in tin foil and chill to set the shape.

7PREPARE THE TURKEY CROWN: cut off wing tips and, for easier carving, take out the wishbone and cut away back bone with poultry shears.

8Lift up the breast skin with your fingers and separate it from the flesh.

9Divide the herb butter between the two breast flaps and pull the skin back over.

10Season well, place in a roasting tin and cover loosely with butter paper or foil.

11COOK THE TURKEY: put the foil-wrapped legs in a roasting pan and cook at 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven) for 45 minutes.

12Reduce temperature to 160℃ / 320℉ normal oven (140℃ / 285℉ fan oven) and cook for a further 15 minutes, then remove foil and cook for a further 30 minutes, straining off any juices for the gravy.

13Cook the crown for 1-1½ hours at 180℃ / 350℉ normal oven (160℃ / 320℉ fan oven) until juices run clear and let the bird rest for 30 minutes before carving.

14MAKE THE STUFFING: melt butter in a large frying pan and gently sauté onion for five minutes until soft.

15Stir in the herbs for one minute then add breadcrumbs to absorb the butter.

16Mix in zest, pine nuts and seasoning and cook over medium heat for about seven minutes until crumbs start to brown and crisp.

17Take off the heat, mix in the parsley and serve warm.

18MAKE THE GRAVY: sauté the onion in the olive oil for about five minutes.

19Pour in the wine, add thyme and bay leaf and boil until reduced right down.

20Add stock and boil until reduced by half, then add cream and boil for a further five minutes.

21Season with freshly ground black pepper.

22Remove from heat, cool for ten minutes and strain.

23Add turkey pan juices, boil for two minutes, season with salt and strain.

24The gravy can be made in advance and frozen before the juices are added. When thawed, simply heat until boiling, add the juices, boil for two minutes, season with salt and strain.

I appreciate this recipe above isn’t exactly going to give Jamie Oliver’s “15-Minute Meals” a run for its money (now there’s a man who knows how to do Christmas). But it only happens once a year and, when you see my mum calmly doing her thing in the kitchen, making it all look so easy, you almost forget why some poor souls make such a fuss.

What, I wonder, goes on in other homes that can turn Christmas into such a torturous experience? And is it just Christmas, or do you see Hindu parents running around the local market in a frenzied state in preparation for Diwali? Does Eid strike panic into the hearts of Muslim mummies as they contemplate the family descending for the endless feasting? Is Hanukkah actually the most terrifying time of year for many Jewish families? And — most important of all — what do they all eat on happy days and holidays?

My friend Amit is an English-born Indian who has an impeccable food pedigree — thanks to growing up in his parents’ vegetarian restaurant, which inspired him to make the fabulous film “Jadoo”, a feature-length love letter to Indian cuisine. When I asked him what they eat during the holidays, he replied “it tends to just be loads of everything, then of course the Indian sweets…” Having eaten at his family restaurant in Leicester — with endless rounds of gorgeous, flavour-packed, colourful dishes, so delicious that I longed for an extra stomach so I wouldn’t have to stop eating such exquisite food! — I have a fairly good idea of what Holi or Diwali must be like chez Gupta: wonderful and terrifying, all at the same time.

POTATO & LONG BEAN CURRY

Amit’s mum, Mrs Gupta, has been cooking this dish for family, friends and guests for many years, but significantly, it has a rather eminent fan: Madhur Jaffrey — who liked it so much that she featured it in her book “Curry Nation”. Whilst filming with Amit in Leicester, she ate this dish regularly with chapatis, yoghurt raita and black dal. “It made me feel that I was in my own home,” she said. “Nothing could have been nicer.”

Serves 4

•5 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil

•¾ teaspoon cumin seeds

•1 large onion, finely chopped

•1 teaspoon turmeric

•500g / 1lb 2oz potatoes, cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch pieces

•250g / 9oz long beans, or green beans, cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch lengths. (Long beans, or yard long beans, are about one foot in length and are commonly found in Asian markets. If you can’t get them, use ordinary green beans instead).

•Salt, to taste

•¾ teaspoon of garam masala

1Pour the oil into a medium-sized pan, about 20cm / 8 inches diameter, and set it over a medium heat. When it’s hot, add the cumin seeds and cook for 15 seconds. Quickly add the onion. Stir and fry for about five minutes, or until the onion is lightly browned.

2Add the turmeric, stir once and add the potatoes, beans and salt. Mix well, cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost done. Stir a few times during this period.

3Mix in the garam masala, replace the lid and continue cooking until the potatoes are soft, about five minutes more, then serve.

DAL WITH COCONUT & TOMATO

Dal with tomato & coconutThis is my own go-to recipe, which I make on fairly large scale and then freeze in batches so it’s ready for when I need something wholesome, delicious, lightly spiced and comforting.

Serves 4

•250g / 9 oz toor dal (or red lentils)

•1 cinnamon stick

•1 level teaspoon turmeric

•165ml / 5½ fl oz can of coconut milk

•3 tablespoons of vegetable oil

•1 large white onion, peeled and finely diced

•3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

•2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, grated (leave the skin on)

•1 level teaspoon garam masala

•1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground

•1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground

•2 teaspoon mustard seeds

•25 (or so) curry leaves (you can buy these fresh in bulk and freeze them)

•2 whole peeled plum tomatoes (tinned is fine)

1Give the lentils a good rinse in plenty of cold water to distribute any of the starchy dust that will make the dal gluey.

2Put the lentils in a large saucepan with 1.2 litres / 2½ pints of cold water, the cinnamon stick and the turmeric — bring to a boil. Skim off any froth that surfaces and simmer for one hour, or until the lentils are cooked (you many need to top up with a little extra boiling water towards the end).

3Add the coconut milk and a little salt. Do not let this mixture boil – the coconut will curdle if this happens. Continue to cook for a further 15 minutes until it has thickened but remains soupy.

4Take the pan off the heat.

5In a frying pan over a moderate heat, add the oil. Then fry the onion until it’s soft and beginning to turn golden brown – about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and grated ginger and continue to fry for a further three minutes.

6Add the spices, mustard seeds and curry leaves – put a lid on the pan – and gently fry until the mustard seeds have stopped jumping about and crackling. Add the two tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes until broken down and mixed well with the spices.

7Add the spiced onion tomato mix back into the dal, stir well and check the seasoning.

Whereas the Midlands and East London are two of the best places to go for amazing Asian food in the UK, right here on my doorstep in North West London I have a wonderful array of Middle Eastern restaurants to choose from. Much as I love cooking up a storm at home, I can’t resist the call of my local Lebanese restaurant, The Cedar. I especially love their dips, flatbreads and salads — the perfect food to share as a vegetarian feast, or a lovely accompaniment to their kebabs and grilled meats. I wish I could get my hands on their recipe for moutabal (a smokey aubergine dip), to no avail, so I’ve tried to replicate it as best I can here.

MOUTABAL

MoutabalThe idea is to get a deep smokey flavour into the flesh of the aubergine (egg plant) — some recipes tell you to scorch the skin over an open flame but that’s not possible without a gas hob; and, even if you do have one, it really can make a mess. So, a barbecue is a great option when the weather is good. But, if not, you can char the skins in a griddle pan then finish them off in the oven.

Serves 6 as part of a selection of mezze.

•2 large aubergines (about 250g / 9oz each), slashed lengthways 4 times

•2 fat garlic cloves, chopped and mashed to a purée with 1 teaspoon of sea salt flakes

•2 tablespoons tahini paste

•Juice of half a lemon (or more to taste)

•1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

•Sea salt

To serve:

•Extra virgin olive oil

•1 teaspoon smoked paprika

•2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

•1½ tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

•Flatbreads

1Light the barbecue. When the flames have died back and the charcoal is grey but with an orange glow (after about 20 to 30 minutes), put the aubergines on the grill and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, turning often, until well charred and completely soft. Or, if you’re cooking inside rather than outside on the barbecue, char the skins in a hot griddle pan over a medium heat, then transfer to an oven preheated to 180°C / 355℉ normal oven (160°C / 320℉ fan oven), then cook, covered with foil, for 20 minutes until softened through.

2Let the cooked aubergines cool, then split them open lengthways and scrape the flesh into a bowl, cutting as close to the skin as possible — taking care not to pick up any charred skin.

3Mash the aubergine flesh with a fork or whizz in a food processor with the garlic, tahini, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. The tahini taste should be subtle (remember, you can add more, but you can’t take it out) and the lemon juice shouldn’t make it overly tart. Season with sea salt to taste.

4Put the moutabal in a shallow bowl and make indents in the top. Pour over the olive oil, sprinkle over the pine nuts and parsley, dust with smoked paprika and serve with flatbreads.

FATTOUSH

FattoushI love this salad by Sabrina Ghayour — the cucumber and peppers: crunchy and refreshing; the tomatoes: ripe and full of flavour; the lemon and herbs: a zesty tang. You can easily leave out the toasted flatbreads; there’s usually quite enough bread in a Middle Eastern meal and it’s nice to have a lighter dish to offset the rest.

Serves 10

•2 (preferably stale) large pittas or flatbreads (optional)

•400g / 14 oz cherry or baby plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

•4 heads baby gem or romaine lettuce, halved lengthways and roughly chopped

•1 large cucumber, halved lengthways and cuts into 1cm / ½ inch thick half-moons

•1 red pepper, cored, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch dice

•1 green pepper, cored, deseeded and cut into 2.5cm / 1 inch dice

•200g / 7 oz radishes, trimmed and cut into quarters

•1 bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced

•20g / ¾ oz flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped

•20g / ¾ oz mint, leaves picked and finely chopped

•1 heaped tablespoon sumac, plus extra to garnish

•5 tablespoons olive oil

•Juice of 1½ lemons

•Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1Preheat oven to 200℃ / 390℉ normal oven (180℃ / 355℉ fan oven). Line a baking sheet with nonstick baking paper.

2Cut the pittas or flatbread roughly into 4cm / 1½ squares and lay them on the baking sheet. Toast them in the oven for 15 minutes, or until they are dry and completely crunchy.

3Put all the salad ingredients into a large salad or mixing bowl and sprinkle over the sumac, olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt and black pepper to taste. Toss the salad well, ensuring everything gets a good coating of dressing. Serve it piled high, topped with the toasted croutons and an extra sprinkling of sumac.

As I bounce around from one world cuisine to another, there is one more celebratory recipe I’d like to share with you. I’ve appropriated these cookies into my own repertoire, not out of any personal claims of authenticity, but simply because I adore them. These are traditional at Mexican weddings, but they make lovely gifts and I’d happily serve them anytime, anywhere.

WALNUT WEDDING COOKIES

Walnut wedding cookiesIn these dense, crumbly biscuits, the tannins of the walnuts are perfectly complimented by the creaminess of the butter and the sweet dusting of icing sugar. The recipe comes from a fabulous trio of cookie recipes by one of my favourite bakers: Claire Ptak, formerly of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.

Makes about 35 cookies

•175g / 6 oz unsalted butter, softened

•75g / 2½ oz caster sugar

•100g light muscovado sugar

•1 egg

•½ teaspoon salt

•100g / 3½ oz buttermilk

•1 tablespoon runny honey

•½ tablespoon vanilla extract

•375g / 13 oz plain flour

•225g / 8 oz walnuts, finely ground

•Icing sugar, for dusting

1Preheat oven to 150℃ / 300℉ normal oven (130℃ / 265℉ fan oven).

2Use an electric mixer to beat the butter and sugars until pale and fluffy.

3Add the egg and continue to mix until it is incorporated.

4Add the salt, buttermilk, honey and vanilla, and beat well.

5Stir the flour and walnuts into the butter mixture and mix well.

6Use a teaspoon to scoop small balls of dough. Roll into balls and bake for 20 minutes.

7Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Toss in icing sugar and allow to cool completely. Toss again in icing sugar.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 18 December 2014.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide — from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She teaches cooking, develops recipes, blogs and has created gluten-free recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

A History of Gin – from Mother’s Ruin to The Three Graces of Chiswick: Prudence, Constance and Patience

The French may lay claim to Champagne, the Belgians can boast about their beer, the Japanese should continue sipping their sake – and the Greeks are most welcome to their dubious role as the originators of ouzo. For in London, we have gin: a most quintessentially English drink, it is as much part of this city as Big Ben, the River Thames and the Queen.

Gin, however, had rather less illustrious beginnings – and, to be honest, it wasn’t even originally British… Gin derives from the juniper-flavoured Dutch liquor “Jenever”, which became extremely popular in England in the 1600s after our armies fought alongside those of the Dutch King William of Orange, giving rise to the expression “Dutch courage”. William went on to become King of England and gin went on to become our favourite tipple. As gin-mania took hold of London, every man and his dog set up a gin still (in which the spirit is distilled) at home, churning out pints of lethally-strong, pungent booze. Juniper was then – as it is now – an essential part of the drink, but whereas now it enhances gin’s flavour, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the spirits being produced were so rough that botanics were used to cover up the horrendous turpentine flavour. So in 1751 the Gin Act came into force, making it a legal requirement for anyone distilling gin to buy a license for the astronomical sum of £50. This was far too much for most folk, whose homemade gin was now automatically classed as moonshine. Only the wealthiest families could afford the license and went on to produce top-quality gin, creating world-renowned brands such as Tanqueray and Gordon’s. These distillers have long since moved out of London, however, taking their production to a global scale and, in the process, abandoning the traditional methods in favour of more economical means of mass-production.

Prudence   Constance   Patience

Though the big names may have left town, the traditional art of London gin distillation has not been lost. On 11 January 2008, childhood friends Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall opened Sipsmith, the first copper distillery in London for over 200 years. The timing for such a bold new venture would have put the fear of God into lesser men for, on the very same day that Sipsmith launched, the London Stock Market (the FTSE 100) suffered its greatest ever fall, thus kicking off the recession in the UK and prompting the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to advise his subjects to proceed with “economic prudence”. Sipsmith took Mr Brown’s advice very seriously… and named their first copper still “Prudence”. Their bold move paid off and, almost seven years later, “Prudence” has been joined by “Constance” and “Patience”, three curvy copper beauties that reside in Sipsmith’s West London distillery. In the words of Observer Food Monthly: “Sipsmith has spearheaded a revival in London gin – although it’s hard to think that anyone else will go to quite such lengths for authenticity.” But where Sipsmith has led, many others have followed, with old-school gin distilleries popping up all over town.

Stills   Swan head

Sipsmith’s dedicated team of eccentrics make spirits the old-fashioned way; their methods are extremely labour-intensive, time-consuming and produce tiny yields… but this is what makes the results so very special. Whereas one could compare the method for mass-producing gin and vodka to making orange juice from concentrate, Sipsmith’s artisanal spirits are made more along the lines of freshly-squeezed juice, or cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. The vodka contains only English wheat and water, but the ingredients list of gin is rather longer, which is what makes it a rather more nuanced drink with many different aromas and flavours.  Jared Brown, Sipsmith’s master distiller, has created a recipe for the London Dry Gin that features a heady mix of juniper berries, coriander seeds, lemon peel, orange peel, cinnamon bark, cassia root, liquorice root, almonds, orris root and angelica root. Meanwhile, distiller Ollie Kitson was tinkering with his latest experiment in a “rotavapor” (a miniature still): a mince pie-flavoured gin that sadly won’t be on sale to the public, but will be sent to very special clients for Christmas (now that’s a Christmas list worth being on!) One of the newest and rarest additions to the range, which is available to all, is the Sipsmith VJOP: Very Junipery Over-Proofed gin. This giant of a gin has 57.7% ABV (Alcohol By Volume – most gins are between 37 and 47%!) and loads of juniper berries are added at various stages throughout its production, making it rather special – only four batches have been made in the 12 months since production started, which has done nothing to dampen the ardour of the finest bar tenders in town. I love Sipsmith’s Damson Vodka (you may remember my penchant for this lovely fruit when I eulogised about it in September): a tart and plummy, wonderfully full-bodied drink made by steeping fresh English damsons in Sipsmith’s own gorgeously smooth Sipping Vodka. If you’re a fan of mixed drinks, I would highly recommend the bold, complex and aromatic taste of their London Dry Gin for a perfectly-balanced Gin & Tonic or a smooth Martini. Whilst in the company of Sipsmith’s Georgie Woods, a self-confessed Martini Maestro, I took my chance to ask her for a few tips…Gin martini

Gin martini

The Sipsmith Martini

There are few better ways to get a party started than with a Dry Martini – it’s timeless and elegant, whilst being potent enough to really break the ice. How you take your Martini is very much a matter of personal taste, but the Sipsmiths like theirs dry, with a twist. With just three ingredients, it’s deceptively complex to mix but there are a few guidelines to attain the perfect Martini:

  1. Always make sure the glass is chilled – ideally, it will come straight from the freezer.
  2. Your ingredients should be of the highest quality – since the drink is so simple, you’ll taste a lower quality ingredient instantly.
  3. The drink should be stirred or thrown, never shaken, as the ice crystals from shaking dilute the drink (sorry, James Bond…)

Ingredients

  • 70ml / 2½ fl oz Sipsmith London Dry Gin
  • 1 teaspoon dry vermouth, such as Noilly Prat or Martini Extra Dry
  • A twist of lemon zest

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the vermouth and gin.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Martini glass.
  3. Spritz with a twist of lemon zest, which can be left in the glass as a garnish.
  4. Drink immediately.

g&t reg

The Sipsmith Gin & Tonic

A well-made G&T is wonderful… but when poorly-made, it can be an absolute shambles (I’m talking about a single measure of low-quality gin sloshed into a glass over watery ice cubes, filled up with tonic from a bar soda dispenser and topped off with a tired slice of lemon that arrived in a catering pack. Hideous.) So how should one make a truly excellent G&T?

  • Again, top notch ingredients are essential – a drink this simple relies on being made with only the very best.
  • Lime is tarter than lemon and therefore acts as a lovely balance to the sweeter hit of lemon already present in the gin. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, so do go for lemon if you prefer.
  • Don’t squeeze your wedge of lime (or lemon) in your drink as it will overpower the aromas of the gin itself.

Ingredients

  • 1 part Sipsmith London Dry Gin
  • 2 parts Fever-Tree Tonic Water (this is by far the best tonic water I’ve ever tasted – it’s superior to others in every way)
  • A wedge of lime (or lemon)

Method

  1. Half-fill a large balloon glass (so much better than a high-ball as it allows the aromas to circulate in the glass) with crisp ice cubes.
  2. Add your gin, top up with freshly-opened tonic water and add a wedge of lime or lemon.
  3. Drink immediately.

French 75

This cocktail was named after a French field gun of the same name for its comparable effect on the drinker. You will wonder what’s hit you after drinking one of these… but you’ll know it tasted extremely good! If Champagne seems a little extravagant (but then that’s the whole point of cocktails, in my book), you could use a good quality sparkling wine.

Ingredients

  • 25ml / 5 teaspoons gin
  • 20ml / 4 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 15ml / 3 teaspoons sugar syrup (made by gently dissolving 1 part caster sugar to 1 part water, then bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes)
  • Champagne, to top up

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Champagne flute.
  3. Top up with Champagne.
  4. Drink immediately.

Sloe 75

I was introduced to a very tasty variation on the French 75 by mixologist Kai Dunn at Bistro Union in South London:

Ingredients

  • 30ml / 6 teaspoons gin
  • 15ml / 3 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 drops sugar syrup
  • A tot of sloe gin
  • Champagne, to top up

Method

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and add the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
  2. Stir briskly for about 50 turns, then strain into a chilled Champagne flute.
  3. Top up with sloe gin and Champagne.
  4. Drink immediately.

For more information on Sipsmith, visit www.sipsmith.com.

A version of this article first appeared on the Journal of Wild Culture on 17 November 2014.

How d’ya like them apples?

Amazing things, apples. Attributed with numerous health benefits (verging on the miraculous thanks to the old idiom “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”) they have come a long way from their scandalous beginnings in the Garden of Eden to the heart of school lunch boxes, fruit salads, tarts, pies and all manner of sauces, jellies and chutneys. I can see why Eve was tempted – their piquant, sweet taste and satisfying crunch make them extremely delicious, but if her resistance was broken by a single piece of fruit, the mind boggles as to how she’d have fared in the West Country (the largely rural area covering the South West of England), which is groaning with apples and pears at this time of year.

A

At the suggestion of a bon vivant French friend, we travelled from London to the beautiful Forest of Dean to experience just one of the many ways to make use of the apple glut: cider. I should explain that the cider we have in the UK is rather different to its North American counterpart – for a start, it’s alcoholic (in some cases, as much as 8.5%, which is pretty feisty, but nothing compared to some hard-hitting 12% stuff in continental Europe!) It can be sparkling or still, cloudy or clear, ranging in colour from delicately amber-hued to a rich, deep rust. There are mass-produced ciders on the market, usually packed full of added sugar and additives, but we were only interested in the artisanal drink, made with love and care – and a great deal of back-breaking work and no small amount of skill.

IMG_5312

Symonds Yat on the River Wye

No strangers to a bit of home cider-making ourselves, we wanted to see how the professionals do it, so headed off to Severn Cider, an award-winning business that makes cider and perry (pear cider) from carefully-selected heritage fruits. Founded by Nick, it’s a real family affair, with his son Tom making the cider and Nick’s wife, May, cooking lunches and hosting guests staying at the beautiful farmhouse that has been in the family since Nick’s father bought it for just £3,300 in 1956. Their ciders and perrys have won awards aplenty and are stocked in smart London establishments such as designers shops and art galleries, but the farm itself is truly, unashamedly authentic: mud, tractors and all the necessary machinery needed for the cider process, from harvest to bottling. Nick explained that they are extremely committed to the conservation of heritage apples and pears and therefore all the fruit they use has been grown organically in local orchards growing old, traditional varieties, including an orchard propagated from the last known surviving Box Kernel tree. Their fruit trees are all harvested at different times to ensure that each variety is picked by hand when it’s perfectly ripe, before being hand-sorted and washed, ready for milling and processing. As we sipped on our first drink of the day, a deliciously warming mulled cider, we watched Al Day hard at work shovelling scratted apples (shredded to make them easier to break down) into a wooden cider press. It looked like back-breaking work, but it was mesmerising to watch the pulp being laid between each wooden palette in the press and the juices oozing out. Apparently the remaining pulp is then used to feed the farm’s pigs and the resulting meat is packed full of apple-y deliciousness as a result. Meanwhile, the juice is fermented and then matured in oak casts until it is ready for bottling.

IMG_5320

Our cider press

IMG_5279

Al Day manning the cider press at Severn Cider

Mulled Cider

Ingredients (all quantities are rather approximate – feel free to make it spicier or sweeter as you wish)

  • 2 litres (4 pints) of good quality traditional cider
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 x cinnamon sticks
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 6 x cloves
  • 3 x star anise
  • Small piece of fresh ginger (about 2.5cm or 1” long)
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ nutmeg, grated finely

Method

  1. Heat all the ingredients in a large pan, bring to the boil and then simmer for a few minutes – this infuses the cider with the fragrance of the spices, concentrates the flavour and pasteurises the cider by killing off the wild yeast.
  2. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve or a sieve or colander lined with a clean muslin cloth. The mulled cider can then be stored in sterilised bottles for a year.
  3. Gently heat before serving.

After about 10 “tots” of different ciders and perry, we made our way (a little unsteadily) through to lunch. As I suspected, cider makes the most wonderful partner to a Ploughman’s Lunch, with four local cheeses, homemade bread, salad from May and Nick’s garden and ham cooked in cider (but of course). My favourite match for the cheese was a medium-sweet sparkling cider, but it’s deeply personal and others preferred a much drier drink with more pronounced tannins.

IMG_5274

Cecile and Claire enjoying the mulled cider

Perfect Ploughman’s Lunch

The key here is the quality of the components – supermarket bread served with sweaty, plastic cheese, synthetic ham and mass-produced chutney is NOT going to make a good lunch in any way, so take a trip to a lovely farmers’ market, farm shop or artisanal supplier to find some wonderful local products. Serve on individual plates or a big, communal platter with a steady flow of cider.

Ingredients

  • Selection of local cheeses (we ate mature Double Gloucester cheese with chives, organic cow’s camembert so ripe it was almost running off the plate – my idea of heaven, Cheddar and Shropshire Blue)
  • Chutney
  • Ham (ours had been slow-cooked in the cider)
  • Salad (rocket, sorrel, nasturtium, marigold, mint, tarragon, parsley, cucumber and tomatoes all came from the garden)
  • Homemade breads and butter

We were lucky enough to coincide our visit with a local food festival on the Sunday, which attracted artisan producers from all around the region. The sun shone brightly and, anticipating our hearty walk in the forest later, we treated ourselves to more lovely cider and a bread bun filled with succulent shredded pork and some of the best apple sauce I’ve ever tasted. The result was utterly mouth-watering – it’s hard to recreate a full-on hog roast when cooking for just a few people at home, but slow-cooking a shoulder of pork for a  is simple and completely delicious. Making apple sauce can be as simple as peeling and coring the apples then slow-cooking them in a saucepan over a very low heat until they break down into a mush (some people add sugar or butter, but if the apples are sweet, all you need is a little water to help the process and ensure the apples don’t burn in the pan). Zuni Café in San Francisco does a wonderful roasted apple sauce recipe, which I will share with you here.

IMG_5296

Our Ploughman’s lunch

Slow-Roast Pork Shoulder with Roasted Apple Sauce

Ingredients

For the pork:

  • A shoulder of pork, skin on
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or ½ tablespoon dried thyme leaves

For the apple sauce (recipe from “The Zuni Café Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers) – makes about 3 cups:

  • 1.5 to 1.8 kilos / 3½ to 4 pounds apples
  • Pinch of salt
  • Up to 2 teaspoons sugar, as needed
  • About 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • A splash of cider vinegar, as needed

Method

For the pork: start the process two days before you’re serving the pork for lunch, or the morning of the day before you’re having it for dinner.

  1. Using a pestle and mortar, blitz together the fennel seeds, garlic and thyme.
  2. Score the skin with a small, very sharp knife, rub in the salt, then rub in the mix of fennel, garlic and thyme. Marinade for about a day.
  3. Set your oven to its hottest setting and cook the pork for 20 – 30 minutes until it’s brown and crispy, then turn the oven to its lowest setting and continue to cook the pork for about 10 to 12 hours, until it’s meltingly tender and falling apart.
  4. While the pork is cooking, make your apple sauce: preheat the oven to 190℃ / 375℉ (or 170℃ / 340℉ fan oven).
  5. Peel, core and quarter the apples. Toss with a little salt and, unless they are very sweet, a bit of sugar to taste. If they are tart enough to make you squint, add the full measure of sugar. Spread in a shallow baking dish that crowds the apples in a single layer. Drape with slivers of butter, cover tightly, and bake until the apples start to soften, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your apples.
  6. Uncover, raise the heat to 260℃ / 500℉ (240℃ / 465℉ fan oven), and return the pan to the oven. Leave the apples to dry out and colour slightly, about 10 minutes.
  7. When the tips of the apples have become golden and the fruit is tender, scrape them into a bowl and stir into a chunky “mash”. Season with salt and sugar to taste, then consider a splash of apple cider vinegar to brighten the flavour (try a drop on a spoon to see if you like it).

This roasted apple sauce also makes a fabulous filling for my almond crumble. Blackberries are also in season now, so I stirred a few through the apple sauce as the two fruits go together beautifully.

Apple Crumble

Ingredients

  • 140g / 5oz plain flour
  • 50g / 1¾ oz granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon extra
  • 50g / 1¾ oz light or dark brown sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 85g / 3oz unsalted butter, softened and cut into 6 pieces
  • 55g / 2oz flaked/sliced almonds

Method

  1. Heat oven to 190℃ / 375℉ (170℃ / 340℉ fan oven).
  2. Combine flour, sugars and salt in magimix bowl – drizzle vanilla over the top.  Pulse in 5 x 1-second blasts, add butter and half the almonds.  Process until mix clumps together (approximately 30 seconds), scraping sides halfway through.  Sprinkle over remaining almonds and combine with two quick pulses.  Spread in thin layer on parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in middle of oven until chunks are lightly browned and firm (about 18-22 minutes).  Can keep the cooled topping in a jar or tupperware for a couple of weeks.
  3. To assemble and bake: sprinkle the topping over the fruit in the dish(es) and sprinkle over the remaining teaspoon of sugar.  Place in the lower third of the oven at 200℃ / 390℉ (180℃ / 355℉ fan oven) until well browned and the fruit is bubbling at the edges (20-35 minutes, depending on the size of the dish(es) – one big, or individual smaller ones).  Cool the crumble(s) on a wire rack until warm (at least 15 minutes) and serve.
  4. This tastes great with vanilla ice cream or a mix of half crème fraîche and half mascarpone, the seeds from one vanilla pod and icing sugar to taste (make in advance, scoop into sieve sat over a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave in fridge – this drains off excess water).
IMG_1284

Apple & blackberry crumble with mascarpone & vanilla cream

For more information on cider, the Bull family and their farmhouse, visit www.severncider.com.

We visited the annual Forest Showcase Food & Drink Festival www.forestshowcase.org.

LAURA POPE works as a private chef to clients in the UK and abroad. She has also cooked in some very wonderful establishments worldwide – from a boutique hotel in southwest France to the restaurants Chez Panisse in California and Ottolenghi in London. She is also a teacher on gluten-free cooking, a blogger, and creates recipe apps for the iPad.

See Laura’s website and Facebook page.

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 15 October 2014.

Damsons are a girl’s best friend

Each season has its own gems, although I must admit I have a particular fondness for summer produce: succulent crab meat, juicy berries, vibrant salad leaves, lashings of crisp rosé wine… but the long, lazy days of sunshine and holidays are now behind us and it’s time to move into autumn. Once you get over the crashing slump of post-holiday blues, you can start to appreciate the fantastic foods appearing in gardens, hedgerows and fields now. One of the best things about this latest seasonal shift is the arrival of damsons. These little beauties are currently ripening on trees, just waiting to be picked and turned into all kinds of deliciousness.

Basket of damsonWild Culture article

My mother’s Damson Ketchup deserves the first mention as it has attained almost mythical status amongst friends and family, with pleas for her recipe rolling in thick and fast around this time of year. The process makes the kitchen look like the film set from a battle scene in Game of Thrones, but the end result is extremely worth it. I’d recommend a good pair of (clean) rubber gloves and a rainy afternoon to while away in the kitchen.

Damson Ketchup

Ingredients

  • 6-8 dried chillies
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 15g (½ oz) dried root ginger, crushed a bit first (or 30g / 1oz of fresh ginger, grated)
  • 15g (½ oz) allspice berries
  • 2 whole garlic cloves
  • 3.6kg (8 lbs) damsons
  • 225g (8 oz) currants
  • 450g (1 lb) onions chopped small
  • 55g (2 oz) course salt
  • 450g (1 lb) demerara sugar
  • 950ml (2 pints) distilled white vinegar

Method

  1. Tie up the chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds, ginger, allspice berries and garlic cloves in muslin to make a little bag.
  2. Very gently heat the damsons until the juice runs and they go soft enough to put on the rubber gloves and squeeze the stones out until most of them are out. Then put the pulp in a colander to trap the rest of the stones, being careful to put all the pulp back in the pan.
  3. Add currants, onions and bag of spices.  Add half of the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 mins or until mixture is soft.
  4. Remove the bag of spices, place contents of pan in liquidiser and blend until perfectly smooth.
  5. Rinse out the pan and return the purée and bag of spices to it, add salt, sugar and remaining vinegar.
  6. Bring to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 1½ to 2 hours or until the ketchup has reduced to approximately 1.6 litres (3½ pints). At this stage, the ketchup should be slightly thinner than you would like it as it thickens as time goes by. Whilst cooking, stir occasionally to prevent it sticking.
  7. Pour into sterilised bottles, label and store for at least 6 months and up to 3 years.

Damson ketchup

Another favourite is Damson Gin – like the ketchup, it takes a little patience, not just to make it but also for it to be ready to drink, but I promise you it is very much worth the wait. The trick is to make as much of it as you possibly can as you’ll dread running out of this fragrant, jewel-hued nectar. I love drinking it with tonic on warmer days (no need for a wedge of lemon or lime as it’s quite tart enough as it is) or sipping it neat as a digestif. I wasn’t sure on the quantity of sugar to use as I’d previously only come across sloe gin; as sloes are much tarter, they require more sugar, which is why I prefer damsons – more natural sweetness and flavour, so less added sugar. I consulted Diana Henry’s fantastic book “Salt Sugar Smoke”, which yields delicious results – her recipe is below.

Damson Gin

Fills 1 x 1 litre (1¾ pint) bottle.

Ingredients

  • 500g (1lb 2oz) damsons
  • 250g (9oz) caster sugar
  • 600ml (1 pint) gin

Method

  1. Prick each damson with a skewer and put into large preserving jar or bottle with the sugar and gin. Seal the top and give the jar a really good shake.
  2. Now leave it somewhere so the damsons can infuse the gin with their flavour and shake it every day for a week, then every week for 10 weeks or so. Taste and see whether you want to leave it for longer.
  3. If you are happy with the flavour, pour through a nylon sieve and bottle. Matures after about 18 months and keeps for two years.

Damson gin

But what if you want to enjoy damsons now, without the agonising wait? A sorbet is a great way to showcase damsons as the sharpness of the fruit makes for a satisfyingly tart, assertive taste that really packs a punch. Whereas some sorbets can taste rather generic, there is no doubting the authenticity of the fruit here.

Damson Sorbet

Ingredients

  • 1 kg (2lb) damsons
  • 450g (14½ oz) caster sugar
  • Small pinch of salt

Method

  1. Put the ingredients in a medium-sized pan over a low heat. Stir until the damsons begin to burst and release their juice.
  2. Remove from the heat and strain through a sieve, pushing gently with a wooden spoon or ladle.
  3. Chill the syrup in the fridge until cold and then churn in an ice-cream maker until frozen.
  4. Remove and store in a small container in the freezer until ready to use.

A teaspoon of the sorbet can be stirred into a glass of Champagne or Prosecco to make a refreshing apéritif that is a modern take on the classic Champagne Cocktail. For a non-alcoholic version, mix the sorbet with a splash of elderflower cordial and top up with sparkling water, or homemade lemonade.

Thermometer and damsons

A version of this article first appeared on The Journal of Wild Culture on 17 September 2014.

What’s the story, morning glory?

No sniggering at the back… this is a serious problem. My little urban garden has been repeatedly engulfed by a seemingly innocuous, almost attractive plant, that is in fact a rampant nuisance. Morning glory (so called because the flowers bloom with the sunrise) can be gorgeously colourful (I particularly like the rich, ultra-violet varieties) but my flowers are few and far between, and boringly white. I wouldn’t mind it so much were it not for the fact that it takes over EVERYTHING – whether living or inanimate – at the rate of knots. So far, it has smothered the lobelia I planted, throttled the ancient roses, coiled itself around the potted trees, elbowed its way past the geraniums – and it’s even trying to consume my garden table and chairs.

Morning Glory going wild

Morning Glory going wild. There are about another five lanterns under there…

So, today I took a stand and tackled the morning glory. Like a woman possessed, I snipped, tore and prised the clingy tendrils from the trees, trellises, bushes and plants. While I was on a roll, I weeded the gravel, pulled out all the potted herbs and plants that had fallen victim to slugs and other predators, snipped back the branches of the elder tree that hangs over my garden from next door (thanks for the elderflower cordial in May, neighbours!) I filled up two enormous bags with my garden cuttings, swept and hosed down the decking and I even scrubbed the dark purple pigeon poo from my sun loungers (thanks to them stuffing their beaks on berries from the ever-bountiful elder tree).

    

My garden now feels somehow bigger. Although it really was a job that needed doing, it looks a little bare, as if it’s had a particularly brutal Brazilian wax job. Perhaps I need to learn a little finesse in the art of gardening, but at least Douglas now has easier access to the gap beneath the fence that divides my garden from my neighbours’, who have a sweet little dog called Rosa. Theirs seems a funny relationship as she regularly pines for him while he stoically gives her plaintive whines a stiff ignoring… only for him to then spend ages pinned to the fence when she’s not there, waiting for a sign that she is on the other side. Their little Pyramus & Thisbe routine is rather sweet, if a tad puzzling, but I’m sure that the sight of me ripping up the garden didn’t exactly make much sense to Douglas, either. Well, he’d better get used to it… the rate that bloody morning glory grows, I’ll be doing it all again in a few weeks.

Douglas waiting in vain for Rosa to make an appearance

Bare Food is born

I first heard about supper clubs and pop-ups emerging all over the London dining scene in 2009, which was unfortunate timing as I’d just moved from Brixton to take up the position of chef at a boutique hotel in deeply rural southwest France. I read with pangs of longing about chefs and their collaborators throwing together exciting plates of funky food in fabulous little venues all over town for one-off events… and I thought, as someone who has never felt the lure of my name hanging over the door of a permanent establishment: “That could be fun”.

 Bare Food outside Bare Food Duncan serving

Back in London, I discovered that supper clubs are still going strong and the pop-up scene is thriving, especially during the summer months. I toyed with the idea of using my garden flat as an entertaining space for a reeeeeally intimate little supper club every week or so, but I soon realised that a) It probably wouldn’t be a good move if I don’t want my landlord to evict me, b) If it rains, my guests would need to come inside and squeeze around a table that barely seats six and c) I don’t particularly like anyone else in my bathroom… let alone strangers. So I decided I needed to find a space to use in my new neighbourhood… and then practically fell through the doors of CCs cake shop on Londsdale Road, newly redecorated, two minutes walk from my flat – and about to relaunch as Nineteen: café, bakery, gift shop and venue for hire!

Bare Food Nineteen sign Bare Food table and shelves Bare Food chair

I usually work alone when I cook for clients, which can be a little lonely, and I knew that this was a project I wanted to do as a team. I already had my partner-in-crime: Monique, a fellow classically-trained chef with an equally strong passion for Mediterranean food, a simple, modern approach to cooking – and a no-nonsense approach to getting on with things. My kind of girl. Luckily her boundless enthusiasm was piqued by my idea and, along with the very gorgeous Claire, Rich and Jacob in place as our Front of House, a team was born…

Bare Food plating up canapés 2 Bare Food Claire Bare Food MoniqueBare Food family sitting outside 1 Bare Food griddled veg plattes

So, with a venue and a mission in place, we now needed a name… Last summer I had toyed with the idea of doing a pop-up restaurant at Treverra (a most idyllic spot, set in a gorgeous garden with stunning views across the Camel estuary, all washed down with lungfuls of Cornish sea air), which I wanted to call the “Bare Foot supper club” in honour of the house’s beautiful pale wood floors and no shoes policy. We liked the name, but it was no good for London, whose streets would probably offer up some serious cuts, a touch of gangrene and possibly a dose of tetanus if you wandered them without shoes. But that name brought us to Bare Food, which summed up our food ethos of choosing the freshest, tastiest produce and cooking it skilfully, yet simply, so that every single individual ingredient can shine through.

Bare Food smashed peas & broad beans Bare Food cucumber ginBare Food pork and salad Bare Food drinks prep Bare Food: Pop-Up Dining

So, with a close eye on what locally-sourced meat, fish, fruit and veg were in season, Monique and I created a menu that read like a love song to the ingredients, flavours and dishes we’d tasted and cooked at home and around the world. Recipes and ideas from friends and family were woven in, from Rich’s cucumber gin to Kari’s crispbreads, as meals we’d eaten on our travels were longingly recalled and recreated for our menu. We shopped at farmers’ markets around London and from a wonderful butcher and fishmonger nearby, and the end result was, we hoped, the perfect expression of British summer produce, cooked by two chefs inspired by the Mediterranean. The next day, although we felt “like we’d run a marathon and drunk 15 beers”, we were content. We’d produced a meal of which we were proud, our Front of House team had worked like a dream (and like troopers) and our guest had left smiling, happy and full.

Click here for more about Bare Food Pop-Up Dining and follow us on Instagram @barefooduk.

All photos in this blog post were kindly donated by Sophia Shorr-Kon.

Bare Food outside at night Bare Food main course on plate Bare Food cornmeal shortcakes with peaches 1

What’s the opposite of green fingered?

Picking cherries in south west France (it turns out I am better at harvesting than I am at growing stuff).

Picking cherries in south west France (it turns out I am rather better at harvesting than I am at growing stuff).

I used to hope that two factors would make me a naturally gifted gardener (once I finally turned my hand to it):

1. My family. Loads of them are brilliant gardeners, ergo, it’s in my blood and I shall therefore be brilliant.

2. I’m a chef. That means I’m good with nature’s bountiful produce and should therefore be good at growing stuff.

Right? Oh, how wrong I was… It turns out that gardening really isn’t a walk in the park. Mother Chef, a revoltingly accomplished gardener, admitted that even the best gardeners have had many disastrous failures along the way, some of which have helped make them the green-fingered wizards they are now. Other misadventures, however, just have to be chalked down to experience – Mother Nature’s way of reminding us who’s really in charge. Gardening, it turns out, requires a lot of knowledge, patience, intuition… and lashings of luck. Right now, a decent, eco-friendly slug killer would probably improve things vastly in my little garden. Rather than buying a selection of potted herbs, petunias, lobelias and geraniums, I may as well have purchased a few bags of mixed salad leaves and scattered them around the garden as the slugs seem to think that it’s their birthday and have attacked my little infant plants with gusto. A few have survived and I’m looking at them hopefully, praying they’ll make it to the flowering stage, but I’m not holding my breath.

Behold the verdant leaves on the left... and the path of the slug's destruction on the right.

Behold the verdant leaves on the left… and the path of the slug’s destruction on the right.

So, with my borders and plant pots hosting a disappointing lack of flowers or herbs, I have cast my eyes further afield… The neighbours’ elderflowers have started blossoming, so I have ‘re-housed’ a few blooms hanging over the garden fence and am now steeping them for three days with lemons, sugar, citric acid and water, ready to decant into bottles – my first ever batch of West London Elderflower Cordial (check out May’s Recipe of the month). I’ve also got my sights set on the magnificent damson tree in my friends’ Highgate garden, which yields a decent crop about once every two years – fingers crossed 2014 is a bountiful one and we can get cracking on some damson ketchup and damson gin this autumn.

Elderflower blooms, ripe for the picking.

Elderflower blooms, tantalisingly ripe for the picking.

Damson gin, made with the bumper Cornish crop a couple of years ago.

Damson gin, made with the bumper Cornish crop of 2012.

But, until then, I will make do with the wonderful local farmers’ market every Sunday… and the gorgeous garden at Treverra Farm this summer (exquisitely designed by Natalie Ashbee), full of gorgeous blooms and succulent fruit. I’ll see if I can pick up a few tips and maybe, this time next year, I’ll be admiring the fruits of my own labours…

Treverra strawberries.

Treverra strawberries.

Jams made with Treverra fruits.

Various jams made with Treverra fruits.

The London Project… this time it’s for real

Working from home

Working from home

Back in May I wrote a post about my visit to London, which pretty much involved me eating my way around the city, aided and abetted by some food-loving friends. It was this short trip that really cemented the idea in my head to move back to London to experience its vibrant, cosmopolitan buzz once more… I had missed its hustle and bustle and was longing to take advantage of the opportunities it held.

Oxford Street at dusk

Oxford Street at dusk

Five months later I was moving my belongings into a flat in Queen’s Park, a stop-gap very kindly provided by an old friend, and found myself caught, like a rabbit in the headlights, in the glaring bright lights of the big city. My calculated risk to move back here in order work on the recipe apps I’ve been developing, whilst funding myself with private cheffing work for clients I’d previously cooked for in Cornwall, has been paying off – in spades. My work diary has been full to bursting, while some confused friends have contacted me to ask if it’s really true I’m back in town… or just an urban myth. But, though my social life hasn’t been given a chance to thrive and I have visited woefully few new restaurants, I keep reminding myself that at least I’ve been busy – far better to be drowning in work than to be twiddling my thumbs… It’s not yet been seven weeks since my return, so it’s still early days, but I’m starting to settle in little by little. Friends have been wonderful, reassuring me when it all seems to much and cheering for me when it’s all going well. The new year will bring more changes as I look for a more permanent home and create a new recipe app, but hopefully there will be consolidation, too.

Breakfast at the local farmers' market

Breakfast at the local farmers’ market

In the meantime, there is my first Christmas at home in four years to look forward to: the family, the fun, the food, the dogs, the blissful peace and quiet of the countryside… In just 10 days, I will be driving down to Dorset with a contented smile on my face and no work booked in for over a week. Well, except for the 20 or so new recipes I need to come up with by January for the next app…

Happy Christmas to you all and have a wonderful 2014! x

We’re jammin’

Some of the best recipes, I reckon, are the ones with the least ingredients. Granted, the ingredients therefore stand out more, so the result is highly reliant on how good these are in the first place… you’re not going to make an omelette delicious if you use eggs from battery hens, no matter how good your method, or a scrummy salad using limp lettuce from a sweaty plastic bag and hard, tasteless tomatoes out of season. But a few corking ingredients can make the best meal ever – one of my favourite dishes uses fresh white crab meat, creamy avocados, plump cherry tomatoes and zingy pink grapefruit. Add a few herbs, seasoning and top-notch olive oil and you’ve got an absolute winner on your hands (which is why I made it recipe of the month in July).

Crab, avocado, tomato & pink grapefruit salad

Crab, avocado, tomato & pink grapefruit salad

Jam and preserves are perfect examples of simple, top notch ingredients yielding fantastic results. At Treverra Farm, we have had some gorgeous fruit already this year: strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, currants of all colours… The charms of strawberry jam are utterly obvious, but not any less appealing, all the more so when you’re eating the jam just metres from where the fruit was picked. Early in the summer, before our own strawberries had arrived, I made a batch using bought (yet still Cornish) strawberries. It’s good… but the batch I made a few weeks later using our own fruit was worlds apart – dark, oozy, juicy strawberries that hadn’t been subjected to polytunnels, packing or travel, their flavour and plumpness was out-of-this-world.

IMG_0442

Next up, the garden rhubarb. I decided to pair this tart treat with vanilla, which turned out to be a lovely combination and worked very deliciously spread on toast, but also with natural yoghurt, cheese and – as Charlie observed – by the spoonful from the jar (the gluten-free option, he proffered).

The heatwave rolled on through July and, come August, the currants were ready for action. Red and white currant jelly is a brilliant condiment to have on hand for roast lamb and other meats and also for using as a glaze on slow-roast pork and in sauces to give piquancy and sweetness. My blackcurrant sorbet was almost too intense (almost), the blackcurrant jelly is syrupy, dark and divine (jelly as in smooth jam, not the wobbly kind, but that’s given me an idea for next summer…) The blackcurrant vinegar is my personal favourite – I use it as I would a syrupy balsamic (find out how to make it in the August recipe of the month).

Even if you don’t have a garden of fruit to pick, I would heartily recommend getting stuck into a bit of jamming, bottling and preserving right now with seasonal, local fruit. The long, hot summer has given the fruits a lovely flavour and ripeness and there’s loads to choose from: blackberries, plums, apricots, bilberries, blueberries, figs, greengages, loganberries, raspberries, redcurrants, strawberries… Take advantage of what’s plentiful and in season now, get jamming and you’ll be thankful for every summery spoonful and delightful drizzle throughout the colder months ahead.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

It’s a cliché, but especially true in the world of cooking. All cooks do it, whether a novice taking their first intrepid steps in the kitchen, or a seasoned restaurant chef at the the top of their game, anyone with culinary aspirations will, at some point, gain inspiration from other chefs. My tour of some of London’s restaurants in May was not just an excuse to spend most of my days eating, drinking and catching up with friends – I needed (yes, needed) to eat out in all those fabulous places to feed my imagination, not just my appetite. And I know it was totally worthwhile, as it gave me so many ideas and that, ultimately, benefits everyone – particularly me and my guests. Polpo was a real goldmine and I’ve been happily romping my way through Russel Norman’s gorgeous book since I bought it a couple of weeks ago, bringing a little taste of Venice to north Cornwall.

Fennel, frisée & French bean salad with walnuts recipe (slightly adapted) from “Polpo” by Russel Norman

Flourless orange & almond cake recipe from “Polpo” by Russel Norman

Jamie Oliver’s books, especially the ones related to travel, such as “Jamie Does”, “Jamie’s Italy” and “Jamie’s America”, are full of recipes that I constantly revisit. I love Thomasina Miers’ “Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home” and for pure, unadulterated travel/food porn and gorgeous photography, I adore David Loftus’ compilation of recipes “Around the World in 80 Dishes”. To remind me of my San Francisco days, I was thrilled to be reunited with my copies of Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” and Judy Rodgers’ “The Zuni Café Cookbook” (buried and temporarily lost for three long years in the bottom of a packing box) – I can almost taste the fabulous Californian produce in every sentence.

Mackerel & pomegranate ceviche recipe by Jamie Oliver

Cherry tart recipe by Bill Granger

I really enjoy cooking recipes developed by these brilliant chefs, who have a wealth of experience between them. Some I’ve been lucky enough to meet in person, others I feel as if I know, at least in the culinary sense, via their books. I hope to be joining their (very lowest) ranks soon as I am putting the finishing touches on my own recipe app for the iPad. Over the course of my career as a private chef, I have developed a collection of recipes for people who share my passion for food and healthy living. In any group of guests, often a number of them will have dietary restrictions, so I have adapted several of my favourite dishes in order that everyone around the table can share the meal and eat together. I’m hoping that my recipes take the worry and stress out of cooking for a group of people including those on special diets, and if any of my dishes become part of other cooks’ repertoires, I will be over the moon.

Photography by Beth Druce for my recipe app www.bethdruce.com

The London Project

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Celebrating the end of the Verbier season

Celebrating the end of the Verbier season

When you start to live your life according to the Bible of Bueller, it’s probably time to stop living in a ski resort. But, my god, it’s been fun. What’s not to love about the heady cocktail of unlimited skiing, fresh air, sunshine, snow-covered mountains, après-ski and dancing until dawn? However, the inevitable change of season has heralded a new era and my migration from the mountains to the sea. Cornwall beckons, but before I head back, I’ve been taking in a landscape of a very different kind…

The London Eye

The London Eye

London, my home town for almost a decade until 2009, is the kind of city of which I dream when faced with another cheese-tastic, formulaic, heavy, overly rich Alpine stodge-fest (hence the lack of blogging over the winter – I couldn’t bear to write about fondues and raclette, and I felt that banging on about skiing might be stretching the point of this blog, so I’ve kept quiet). I’ve been reading up and salivating at the prospect of some fantastic-sounding restaurants that have opened up over the four years since I last lived in London, vicariously experiencing them via blogs, newspapers, magazines and cookery books, whilst patiently waiting to get stuck in at the earliest opportunity.

So, first stop: The Modern Pantry. I’ve had my heart set on trying the restaurant out since a friend gave me Anna Hansen’s cookery book, full of incredible flavours and unexpected combinations (it made sense when I discovered that Anna founded The Providores with the wonderful Peter Gordon, who kindly let me loose in his magical and tiny kitchen during my training at Leiths). Sadly, Verbier is still in the dark ages when it comes to international ingredients, so I was stumped when it came to actually trying out her recipes myself, but I read the book from cover to cover like a food porn novel, mentally savouring every last mouthful of her gorgeous food. The restaurant is open all day from breakfast to dinner, with everything in between, and has the more formal restaurant as well as the more informal café, which is where we ate. The setting, in Clerkenwell, is perfect – fresh, modern, light-filled and buzzy. The menu reads so well that the major issue is deciding what to eat. So we cheated and ordered a total mish-mash, complete with matching wines, in order to create our own tasting menu: Wild garlic, roast celeriac & pecorino fritters, pear & tonka bean purée; Sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, green chilli, spring onion, coriander, smoked chilli sambal; Grilled tamarind & miso marinated onglet steak, carrot, ginger & preserved lemon gratin, tahini lemon cream; Pan-fried south coast cod, parsnip purée, chamomile braised fennel, tomatillo & yuzu tobiko salsa; Pomegranate ‘cheesecake’, oat & pistachio crumb, mandarin & jasmine sorbet. This miscellany was like manna from heaven to my inspiration-starved palate and the wild combinations really did work. I’d go into more details, but we went on for cocktails afterwards, at which point my memory gets hazy.

The Modern Pantry

The Modern Pantry

Next stop was my birthday dinner with some of my favourite girls at The Almeida, opposite the theatre of the same name just off Upper Street in Islington. Run by my always-elegant friend Claire, a vision of French chic and a professional yet warm manner, we were spoilt rotten with Champagne and fabulous canapés, followed by a lovely meal about which I honestly can’t remember many details as we were all in full-on filthy story mode and I spent most of the night laughing so hard that I actually stopped breathing at one point. Thankfully we were stashed away in their private sunken room, for which the other diners were probably extremely grateful.

I escaped London for a day of relative tranquility with my gorgeous London hosts, Johnnie and Gus, to take my smallest godson to Clivedon House and then lunch at Bel & the Dragon in Cookham, a small chain of stylish restaurants in the south of England with some beautifully renovated rooms upstairs. The head chef is an old London friend, Ronnie, whose deceptively insouciant manner and charm give the restaurant a lovely, relaxed feel, all the while turning out great food, including a kiddie-friendly Sunday lunch menu. I suppose that all those years working under Gordon Ramsay is bound to either burn you out or make you super-chilled and highly talented, and it’s definitely the latter for Ronnie. For someone generally so unflustered, though, I did enjoy the look of utter shock and a few choice swear words when I unexpectedly stuck my head through the pass to say hello… always good to keep ’em on their toes.

Back in London and the eat-a-thon continued… lunch at Polpo was an utter treat in many ways. First off, my companions: the afore-mentioned Claire, this time off duty, and my dear friend and super-talented writer/director, Amit, who – as luck would have it – was in town and free for lunch. We walked in without a reservation, yet still they managed to find us a little spot near the bar at the back, giving us a great view of all the little dishes coming from the kitchen. The Venetian, tapas-style food is meant for sharing so we ordered Grilled fennel & white anchovy, Broad bean, ricotta & mint bruschetta, Spicy pork & fennel meatballs, Fritto misto, Zucchini, rocket & Parmesan salad and Rabbit & chicory tonnata salad, rounded off beautifully with a Flourless orange & almond cake and espressos that really hit the spot. I was pleasantly amazed that, including a half-litre of wine and the tip, the bill for three of us came to less than £75 (but then I have spent the past five months in Switzerland and my sense of “good value” may be a little skewed).

Polpo

Polpo

Not one to shirk a challenge, dinner that night was at Bar Shu with lovely friends Joe and Tom. I’ve known Joe for many years and he’s always great company, but I have to admit that there’s also another reason why I absolutely adore going to Asian restaurants with him. As a native of Singapore, now living in London, he knows his way around the menu so well that I can just close mine and let him order, which is a very exciting thing to happen to a chef, trust me. I would not usually get excited over a dish named “Boiled beef slices in an extremely spicy sauce”, but it was meltingly tender and fabulously fiery (bless Joe, he did pick out the most lethal-looking chillis before we got stuck in). The Minced chicken with preserved mustard greens were irresistible little parcels and the Spicy, whole sea bass was fresh, tangy and punchy. Even our side dish of Stir-fried water spinach with chilli was ridiculously moreish… let’s just say I didn’t end that particular day hungry.

Bear with me, there’s only so long even I can bang on about food, but I have to end with a special shout-out to my old stomping ground, Brixton Market, which has transformed from being a scruffy, sometimes ugly little duckling into a rather hip, food-tabulous swan (am I getting a bit fusion with my metaphors?) It’s a real joy, in particular, to spend a couple of hours wondering around Brixton Village, sampling different cuisines in the little cafés that line its avenues. There’s something about Federation Coffee that is instantly appealing – the way that certain spaces just feel right, with quirky touches and a cool but friendly vibe. Along the avenues, cuisines from across the world happily sit side by side, from Japan to Mexico, via Spain, Italy and Beijing. Gaby, Snow and I had set our sights on the excellent sourdough pizzas at Franco Manca and had more than our fill with two of their veggie options between the three of us. We left full and happy, with a couple of bottles of Prosecco from Market Row Wines for later. I can’t help wishing that the market had been this way when I lived on Acre Lane for all those years, but I am really happy to see such a welcome development in my old neighbourhood. Brixton has always had amazing spirit, heart and soul, as well as a great music scene, but now the food scene has evolved and it truly is worth shouting about.

Federation Coffee

Federation Coffee

I left London with my tummy full and my head packed to the brim with ideas, which I can’t wait to try out using the wonderful and fresh produce in Cornwall. But I barely even scratched the surface of what the city’s food scene has to offer and, now I’ve had my fix, resistance is futile… see you soon, London.

Golden Jubilee Bridge

Golden Jubilee Bridge

The raw truth

So my mission to find a better way of eating has continued throughout the summer… my initial forays into free-from cooking weren’t great, from my disastrous xylitol meringues to the rather disappointing dairy- and sugar-free wholewheat & courgette muffins. I did manage to make some delicious sorbets with lemon juice and a syrup made with xylitol and infused with herbs, but after 48 hours in the freezer they had all taken on the consistency of a glacier. An ice pick is not a good look when you’re trying to serve dessert.

But, nevertheless, fuelled by some excellent writing by cancer survivors and scientists, juicing enthusiasts and raw food cooks – and even a Michelin-starred chef turned vegan convert – I’m learning more about how and why foods affect our bodies in certain ways, and how to go about cooking and eating to make life not only healthier, but also tastier. The right diet and lifestyle may not be able to eliminate all chances of getting diseases like cancer, but I’ve realised that it is undoubtedly possible to significantly lower the odds.

Despite all my jibes about soy chai lattes, mung bean pancakes and tree hugging… I am steadily cutting out cow-derived dairy from my diet – and even the Big Swede (from a nation of dairy devotees) has followed suit. Instead of cow’s milk, we now buy either almond, soya or coconut milk (rice milk is fine if you like skimmed milk, but we both find it too watery) and, though I still have been using a bit of butter when cooking and on toast (out of habit more than anything), I am increasingly ignoring it in favour of olive, coconut and vegetable oils.

A big incentive to eating far better is the juicer we bought – it’s got a chute big enough to fit whole apples (so there’s not the faff of peeling, chopping or coring – we just chuck ’em straight on in there) and it’s a doddle to clean, which means that we actually use it at least once a day, instead of it gathering dust. Well, I say “we”… Big Swede has taken to juicing with a fervour bordering on the religious. His latest creation was called “Swamp Juice”, which was ridiculously healthy and a deep, rather lurid shade of green, but he’s a sucker for berries, so each morning I’m often handed something akin to an all-natural, virgin cocktail. It’s only a matter of time until there’s a cherry and umbrella on top…

Today is the start of another week cooking for the clients who set into motion my quest for a healthier diet. In anticipation of their arrival, my head is full of ideas, while the fridge is bursting with fruit, veggies and herbs, the larder is stocked with my Norwegian crisp breads, buckwheat noodles and cookies I’ve made without resorting to sugar, butter or white flour, and the freezer has about five different flavours of totally sugar- and dairy-free ice creams, including Brazil Nut & Vanilla, Rasbperry and Coconut. I really, really hope they’re hungry…

A different approach

For cooks, ingredients are the building blocks of any dish. What we put in can seriously affect the end result, so we will scrutinise, debate, agonise and obsess over our ingredients. Some have majestic reputations and are heinously expensive (step forward, saffron), while others cost next to nothing yet taste like manna from heaven (pretty much anything very local and in season). But, whatever its beginnings, when we find something good – really, mouth-wateringly, undeniably marvellous – it gets under our skin and stays close to our heart, a well-loved element that we weave into the food we serve. Everyone has their own favourites and, once you start, the list can be never-ending, but here are some of mine: Madagascan vanilla pods (and pure extract), Maldon sea salt, Green & Black’s 70% chocolate, Colman’s English mustard (a condiment rather than an ingredient, but one I cannot be without), premium Canadian maple syrup, organic unwaxed lemons and limes (for their zest and juice, which I put in seemingly everything I make)… To me, these may feel like “essentials” but they are, I admit, luxury items. You could, let’s face it, cook perfectly adequately without them. It wouldn’t be like asking someone to cook without the real basics: butter, eggs, wheat, sugar, meat, milk…

Grilled Cornish mackerel on a bed of samphire

Yet these and many other ingredients are, of course, exactly what we are being asked to omit from our meals on an increasingly regular basis. The only allergies I was aware of as a child were few, far between and unintelligible. “I’m allergic to X, Y or Z” was usually a kid’s excuse for “I don’t like…” – for example one girl’s egg “allergy” that was very pronounced around omelettes and quiches, yet vanished as she scoffed ice cream (made with raw eggs), real mayonnaise or a rich chocolate mousse. But then I started to encounter the real thing – stories of tragic deaths from anaphylactic reactions to nuts, rampant eczema brought on by cow’s milk, debilitating stomach cramps after eating wheat. You can’t argue with the facts – if something is essentially poisoning you, stay the hell away from it. Then, after allergies, we learnt about food intolerances… and this is where things seemed to get out of control. Some people clearly learnt (or rather taught themselves) way too much. Self-diagnosed food intolerances are the bain of the medical community’s existence – and a real pain in the backside for the rest of us. If you can’t eat it, fine. Please don’t. And – as an omnivore and food-lover myself – you have my sympathy. But if you want us all to coo over how interesting and unusual your self-diagnosed intolerance to hula hoops is… well, as your personal chef, I will smile politely, make a note of it, ensure I work around it and – above all – keep hula hoops out of anything you eat. But, let’s face it, most normal people would just be thinking something along the lines of “shut up and get the hell out of my kitchen”.

Strawberries from the garden

But what about the bona-fide cases of food intolerances? Lethargic, bloated, pasty drips transformed into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed balls of perky zing after they have jettisoned something as basic – and previously considered so innocuous – as wheat or dairy (the two seemingly most common culprits)? Too bloody right you want to stick to the new-found way of eating, and all power to you.

To date, it’s mainly been professional necessity that’s driven me to learn more and more about diets, allergies and food intolerances – it’s unusual to cook for a group of people without at least two or three dietary requirements cropping up. But it’s the discovery of long-term health issues relating to certain foods that are really compelling me to delve deeper and start incorporating some fundamental changes into my own diet.

Crab, avocado, tomato & pink grapefruit salad

Crab, avocado, tomato & pink grapefruit salad

A recent set of requirements came through from a client prior to their stay that made me almost choke on my cappuccino. Due to a recent illness, her list of restrictions was daunting: no dairy, no white flour, no potatoes, no sugar, no red meat (and chicken only once a week), no oranges, no grapefruit, no mushrooms, no white rice… “Kill me now!” I cried. “What on earth am I going to feed this poor lady? Fresh air sautéed with a little spring water?” OK, I exaggerate, but things seemed pretty grim. Some alternatives were suggested: xylitol instead of sugar, coconut oil as a cooking fat, tofu as a protein. Plus I could include many staples that I love: red, brown and wild rice; lemons & limes; olive oil; fish; and heaps of fresh veggies, salad, herbs and fruit. Main courses and starters were going to be just fine – but what about desserts and tea-time baking? Many people with restricted diets just go without – but what’s the point of hiring a private chef if she can’t cook versions your favourite treats? So I trawled the internet and sent messages to friends asking for help. I found out quite a lot about xylitol and how to cook with it (substitute it in the same quantities for sugar, but don’t expect it to behave quite the same. One bit of advice: don’t bother with xylitol meringues. Total waste of time and resources. Trust me.) I discovered all kinds of things to do with coconut oil and bought about 10 kinds of alternative flours and almost as many alternative milks from a wonderful health food store nearby.

Chargrilled broccoli with garlic & red chilli

By the end of the week cooking for this lady and her family, I had discovered that – with a bit of experimenting and tweaking of recipes – it was possible to cook great food without the usual suspects, substituting all kinds of basic ingredients for things I’d previously never used (spelt, rye flour, coconut oil) or even heard of (xylitol). Most importantly, looking at the long-term health implications of ingredients like sugar and dairy, I have decided that it is definitely worth learning more about these new ingredients and moving away from some of my old faithfuls. I’m hopeful that change will spread far and wide – after all, food is a rapidly evolving culture; 30 years ago, vegetarians (not to mention vegans) were the dinner-party pariahs, provoking panic attacks in hostesses and scorn from fellow guests. But now, our herbivore friends are tolerated – and often admired. The more we learn about the ill effects of meat on our bodies and the environment, the more appealing a vegetarian or even vegan diet becomes (it’s just a deep-seated yearning for a juicy steak or crispy bacon that stops many of us from forsaking meat altogether). While there’s no denying that many have jumped on the food intolerance bandwagon with no proper diagnosis (and therefore questionable rationale), there’s much evidence to show that there are extremely good reasons for reducing our consumption of certain ingredients, or even eliminating them altogether, from our diets. Wholemeal loaves instead of white pappy bread, a drizzle of honey instead of spoonfuls of processed sugar, fresh fish instead of red meat. And, next time I spray my cappuccino all over the kitchen, it could well be made with almond milk.

 

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Packing up and moving on

Gentianes

There’s been a distinct lack of blogging over the past few months, but I can sum up the food side of things pretty quickly: the weekend meals for my Swiss family have been overwhelmingly Valaisan (of Valais, the canton we are in) usually involving terrifying quantities of Bagnes cheese, jambon cru, Gruyère, viande sechée, Fendant, Pinot Noir (the latter two aren’t even food, but are very local, nonetheless) plus some comforting homemade lasagnes, pies and pizzas, too.  But there have also been a few seasonal highlights where I’ve been able to do something a bit different: roast leg of spring lamb from Savolèyres (one of the mountains that rise over Verbier) with garlic, lemon & herbs and capretto (kid goat) braised with tomatoes, black olives & thyme, served for Easter Sunday lunch (another family tradition from the Italian side) with griddled polenta and roasted Provençal vegetables.  For desserts, I’ve often chosen well-loved classics from all over the world that have now become firm family favourites: Pavlova with berries, apple or pear Tarte Tatin, crème brûlée, chocolate fondants with vanilla ice cream…  In the quest for new, it can be easy to forget the sheer brilliance and universal appeal of these wonderful dishes, so it has been good to spend the winter tweaking and perfecting a few of them.

Pear Tarte Tatin

Fresh snow up on Bâ Combe

On the glacier at Les Diablerets, 3000m up
We have just one week left in Verbier and yet, amazingly for late April, the snow still falls, giving us as much as 30cm of fresh powder overnight and huge grins on our faces as we continue to enjoy skiing conditions more typical of late January.  This has, on balance, been the most incredible season for skiing… yet already the Big Swede and I find ourselves yearning for Cornwall.  For the Swede, I know that the lure of the ocean and his quiver of surf boards are the main draw.  Yet, while I long to feel the rhythm of the waves and smell the sea air, it’s the anticipation of the Cornish summer ingredients that is getting me going.  First of all, the seafood: bass, bream, mackerel, crab, oysters, squid, monkfish, sole… served with salty Samphire, the pure essence of the sea.  Endless possibilities for salads and side dishes, with a kitchen garden at my disposal and limitless combinations of ingredients, drawing inspiration from all over Europe and across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, even as far as south-east Asia.  There are also the fruits of last autumn’s labours to enjoy: the 10 litres or so of damson gin (not just a good warmer for the colder months, but also delicious with tonic water in the summertime), chutneys and damson ketchup, which has spent the past few months maturing and mellowing, ready to enjoy with Cornish cheeses, sausages and local cured meats, not to mention the barbecues (thinking positive here: we WILL have plenty of sunshine this summer!)

Dreaming of Daymer Bay, Cornwall

But before we arrive in Cornwall mid-May, we have a few other treats to look forward to: a one-night stop in Épernay to enjoy Champagne’s eponymous tipple, a few days at Mother Chef’s in Dorset and then a long weekend in London, including a dinner at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Barbecoa, a celebration of wood-fuelled cooking in its many guises.  After five straight months of Alpine stodge, our tastebuds will think all their Christmases and birthdays have come at once.

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The Offal Truth

There are definite benefits to being a private chef over, say, working in a restaurant: cooking for many brilliant people and developing good relationships with them, better pay and working conditions and the opportunity to live and work in some amazing locations.

Champery, Swiss Alps – April 2009
Fochabers, Speyside – September 2008

As any good private chef knows, the client is usually right – you serve up what they want to eat, not what you want to cook.  This doesn’t mean asking them to provide detailed meal requests – some guests want absolutely nothing to do with the menu planning, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t care what they eat.  This is where a private chef needs to be imaginative, a good listener, pragmatic, experienced, quick-thinking, patient and resourceful.  Female intuition has served me well, although I know some brilliant men who do this job.  I always say that a private chef is like a certain other ancient profession – work out as soon as possible what your client likes and provide it better than they’ve ever had it before (yes, this has raised a few eyebrows, smirks and even the odd false hope, but it’s an analogy that I continue to stand by).  I’d love to say I’ve continually got it right, but I’d be outright lying… I can think of a handful of cringe-worthy situations where, with hindsight, I would have done things differently – therein lies the importance of experience.  I remember my first private job after graduating from Leiths, working for a lovely family during their holiday in the south of France.  By the end of the three weeks, I was happily and confidently knocking up lunches and suppers for up to 14 people, managing to fit in waterskiing and jet-skiing with the family in the afternoon and relaxing with them after dinner was over.  But the first few days… oh god, I was a mess.  I got lost trying to find my way around, the supermarket was baffling (even though I speak fluent French) and I was totally thrown by not being able to source many ingredients I had counted on for my meticulously-planned menu.  I made everything from scratch, from vanilla ice cream (the sugar-syrup method I learned at Leiths as there was no ice cream machine) to bread (in France, home of the baguette!) and all the cookies (and there were A LOT thanks to the hollow legs of the many teenagers lurking around).  Luckily, a tearful telephone conversation with my mother – a wonderful cook herself and infinitely more experienced – brought me to my senses.  Something along the lines of “Why the bloody hell are you making all that work for yourself?!  Just buy decent ice cream, fresh baguettes and some packets of biscuits to supplement the home-made ones!  Good grief, girl, you’ll have a nervous breakdown at this rate, and they didn’t employ a chef to add more stress!”  I’m so glad I had that wake-up call as I was able to really enjoy the whole experience and I continued to cook for the family back in London.

Jack the dog, my constant kitchen companion in Pyla sur Mer – August 2008

My ride in Pyla – a Wrangler Jeep

Going for an afternoon swim in the sea at the bottom of the hill from the house
Summertime in Cornwall is a real treat, both on a personal and a professional level, with amazing produce at hand and the freedom to cook interesting, enticing dishes for a variety of guests, most of them excited to try new dishes and make the most of the wonderful fresh fish and whatever the kitchen garden has to offer.  During the winter, I cook for a Swiss family spanning three generations – though a lovely bunch, the meal options and creative opportunities are rather more limited… suffice to say, I don’t think I’ll be voluntarily going anywhere near raclette, fondue or pizza for a while after this.  The head of the family, however, has a penchant for all things offal and so – being alone in his passion and thus finding it hard to indulge – he was over the moon when he discovered that, not only do I know how to cook the stuff, I also have a source here in Verbier.  From lamb’s brain to kidneys, veal sweetbreads to testicles (haven’t found the latter yet – not trying too hard to track them down, if I’m honest), he goes misty-eyed at the merest mention of offal.  While I fully applaud his attitude to nose-to-tail eating, I can’t quite share his delight at the end result – apart from the sweetbreads, which I’ve learnt to appreciate, I am no offal-lover.  But sweetbreads, I do urge you to try.  They take a bit of time to prepare and they ain’t pretty, but they are worth the effort and mild revulsion during the initial preparation… honest.  Mark Hix describes them as having “a delicate texture and taste… really well suited to all types of cooking, frying, roasting, braising and even mixing with such delicacies as lobster, langoustine tails and crayfish in either a stew or a salad.”  Not bad for a lowly thymus gland…

Calves’ sweetbreads with Madeira sauce or sauce Gribiche
If doing this for dinner, start the morning of the day before.
First, soak your sweetbreads in cold water for about 4 hours – this helps to remove the membrane and general gunk that coats them (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?).  
Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then your sweetbreads – simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the sweetbreads and place in iced water until cold.
Using your hands, peel the membrane from the sweetbreads and lay them in a single layer in a dish.  Place a dish (an identical one, if you have it) on top and weigh it down with a few cans.  Put in the fridge for between 12 and 24 hours to flatten the sweetbreads.
Dry the sweetbreads with kitchen paper and slice them on a slant, about 1cm thick.
Set up three plates – one for flour (season with salt and pepper), one for egg (beaten) and one for breadcrumbs.  Coat each slice in flour (shake off excess), egg (again, shake off excess) and breadcrumbs, then lay on a plate until ready to fry (if you wish, you can do this a few hours in advance and leave them, covered, in the fridge).
Clarify some butter (melt in a pan and pour off the white curd, leaving just the yellow butter – this burns at a higher temperature, meaning you can get the pan nice and hot) and heat up your pan.  Add clarified butter and fry the breaded slices of sweetbread for a minute or two each side (in batches, if needs be), until the coating is crispy and golden brown, but not burnt.  When cooked, lay on a warmed plate and keep warm until ready to serve.
Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and a Madeira sauce, which I make simply by adding Madeira to some reduced veal stock in a warm pan, simmer for a couple of minutes and finish off by whisking in a few cubes off butter at the last minute.  Or you can serve the sweetbreads with a sauce Gribiche, which you make by mixing together the following ingredients to a texture like that of Tartare sauce – if it’s too thick, you can add a few drops of water:

  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 4 gherkins, finely chopped 
  • 2 Tblspns capers 
  • 2 tspns Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tblspns mayonnaise 
  • Juice of half a lemon 
  • 2 eggs, hard boiled and grated or finely chopped 
  • ½ Tblspn tarragon leaves chopped
  • ½ Tblspn chervil, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To accompany, I like a salad of baby leaves or lamb’s lettuce with a tangy vinaigrette dressing and some crusty bread on the side.

I’d add a photo, but I’ve never found this the most photogenic of dishes.  But trust me when I tell you that they really are delicious and they look a bit like chicken nuggets.  Instead, here’s a nice photo of my view, taken a few days ago…

Sunet on New Year’s Day 2012, Verbier


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From sand to snow and everything in between

We’ve certainly had a month of contrast – after our sun-drenched Moroccan holiday, we came back to find Verbier still behaving like it was mid-Autumn: sunny days, mild nights and absolutely no snow in sight.  Worrying stuff for a ski resort, especially after last season’s no-snow…

Sunset over Lac Leman as we took the train home from Geneva

But we needn’t have worried – ours prayers and snow dances were soon answered in a truly fantastic way with the most epic snow dump imaginable.  The snow started falling in early December… and it’s just kept on going, giving us about 2 metres of the white stuff in time for Christmas.  In just a matter of a days, more snow fell over Verbier than in the whole of last season.  
Le Cradzet (the little chalet in our garden) in the first of the snow, 5th December

The view from our apartment after the first couple of days of snow…

Serious snowfall by 16th December – by this stage, some of the chalets on Savoleyres were being evacuated due to the avalanche risk
Although the season officially starts on 1st December, we seasonaires had the place more or less to ourselves for the first couple of weeks, meaning that we were free to play on the mountain in the more-than-decent early snow before the Christmas crowds arrived…
Lac de Vaux before it froze over, 8th December

Me and the Big Swede enjoying our first ski of the season
Christmas has now been and gone – Father Christmas outdid himself this year with some stunning “bluebird” days (when a night of snowfall is followed by a blue-skied, sunny day) – and things are now hotting up in the resort as we approach the New Year, one of the busiest weeks of the entire season.  Accommodation prices go sky-high and the parade of high fashion and luxury cars gets very serious – you will never see as much fur, diamonds, shiny chrome and immaculate make-up at any other time of the year in the Alps.  Tickets are on sale for New Year’s Eve parties in the clubs and bars around town for up to 500CHF per person – for that amount, it has got to be one hell of a party and I’m pretty sure that it’ll only be the tourists paying (the strong Swiss franc means that 500CHF is about £340, €410 or the same amount in US$).  Perhaps they don’t realise quite what they could be doing instead… the smart money is on the locals’ plan: armed with a few bottles of booze, some warm clothes and a group of friends, you can head up to a good vantage point to watch the fireworks over Verbier as 2012 arrives in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Gentianes

Cabin Montfort

Heading down to Verbier at the end of a day’s skiing
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Hustle, bustle, surf & turf

What can I say about Morocco that hasn’t been said already?  ‘Discovered’ in the 1960s by the beautiful and the damned, it now forms part of most modern travellers’ repertoires, keen to soak up some north African sun and immerse themselves in an exotic culture.
Fishing boat in Essaouira
Having spent the summer in Cornwall and with five months in the Swiss Alps ahead of us, we wanted a holiday with plenty of sunshine, bright blue skies, enough waves for surfing and a different way of life – but without the expense or jet lag of a long-haul flight.  Choosing to go to Morocco on the hunt for sunshine in November was always a gamble, but thankfully the weather gods were smiling on us (for all but 2 days of our trip) and we did indeed come back bronzed and refreshed, content to be back in Verbier and ready to start the winter season.
Just three of Morocco’s many, many waifs and strays

We started our trip in Essaouira, which lies about three hours’ drive west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast.  A city by the sea, it is made up of the Medina (old walled town) by the harbour, with the new town stretching (and growing at quite a rate) away from it.  We stayed in a small riad in the Medina, an extremely lucky find, where we were looked after beautifully whilst being given many fascinating insights into the local scene, customs, mentality and way of life by the English/Moroccan couple who run the place.  They were very relaxed and more than happy for us to use the kitchen… but with only five days and hundreds of places to eat out, I was happy to hang up my chef’s whites and be indulged and titillated by what Essaouira’s food scene had to offer.  With only a couple of duds (one being the over-priced fish stalls on the harbour, hell-bent on fleecing tourists), we ate like kings – but at paupers’  prices – during our stay.  Having got into our stride on the Cornish coast, we continued our seafood love affair and ate fish for almost every lunch and dinner – bream, sardines, mackerel, red mullet and other species that I couldn’t even recognise.  The local style is to butterfly the fish, grill over a hot fire and serve with local bread and a salad of tomatoes, herbs, green peppers & red onions – simple, delicious and the kind of thing we long for whilst living in the mountains.  But we deviated from fish one lunchtime, following a hot tip from our host: the ‘couscous lady’ in the little side street of Berber cafés, who only opens on Friday lunchtime – we were warned that she usually runs out early, such is her popularity with the locals, so we were excited to find that she had some left when we arrived: a bowl of perfectly-cooked couscous with chicken and vegetables, all for 20MAD (less than 2€) each.

Side street where we at lunch from the couscous lady of Essaouira 

The rain came the day before we left Essaouira and followed us as we headed down the coast to Imssouane, a tiny fishing village beloved by surfers for its long, rolling waves and laid-back vibe.  Our arrival was inauspicious: torrential rain making its way through every nook and cranny in our auberge, which made Fawlty Towers look like a slick, professional operation.  The morning after our first night, woken by the sounds of screaming drills and hollering builders, we headed out in search of improved (and completed) accommodation – spying some rather smart houses on the hill, we met Saïd, who seemed to be Imssouane’s local fixer: the man with a plan, everybody’s friend and our saviour.  He led us to a simple but spacious and clean one-bedroom apartment on the second floor with a huge terrace and panoramic views of the bay.  And, to make things even better, the rain had gone (for good) and the sun was out in force.  We settled in and things were looking up – after a storm out at sea, the waves were settling down into something quite surfable, I had a big (and, quite importantly, private) space for sunbathing and we had found our way around the village (it took us all of 10 minutes).  We didn’t need a big selection of restaurants – we found our favourite café and, besides, I had some cooking to get down to… with two fresh bream bought from the fishermen that morning, we picked up olive oil, spices, vegetables and herbs and headed home to cook and eat our first ever fish tagine.  Following the suggested method of the young chef at Imssouane Café, we put our faith in impeccably fresh fish and a tried and tested Moroccan classic.  We weren’t disappointed – it was delicious, thanks partly to our efforts and largely down to the quality of what was at hand.  Luckily, we’d been warned that Imssouane doesn’t have any alcohol shops, so we had bought a bottle of Domaine de Sahari gris (like a light rosé) with us from Essaouira – the perfect match for the delicate fish, spices and veg.

Swell lines coming into the bay, Imssouane

High street, Imssouane

Fish tagine in the making…

… and the end result

My favourite stray pup outside Momo’s surf shack, Imssouane

We were sad to leave Imssouane, but felt excited about our visit to Marrakech, tinged with a sensation that we were about to get a rude awakening – after 10 days of laid-back living surrounded by the ocean, we were heading into the lion’s den.  Gorgeous, dirty, manic, exotic, relentless… Marrakech is a lot to take in, but what a feast for the senses it is.  We weren’t there to shop, yet within 24 hours we were on a mission to find the ideal Moroccan teapot (having already purchased a wonderful backgammon and chess set made from tuya wood and lemon tree in Essouira), which we continued until we fell up “the one” on our penultimate day.  But even if you don’t intend to buy, the Marrakchi stall holders will find a way to draw you in – with mind games and cunning ploys that should earn them high-ranking positions in politics, the young men of Marrakech were playing a game that everyone was involved in, but only they knew the rules.  Our song for the Marrakech leg of our trip became “I’m a hustler, baby” – and with good reason.  But it’s all part of the rich experience… isn’t it?  The mopeds, however, we could really do without – no matter how tiny (or seemingly pedestrianised) the street (even inside the souks), we were constantly jumping out of the way of two-wheeled vehicles bearing anything up to five people, weaving and tooting their way around the pedestrians and each other.  Amazingly, we didn’t see one crash or accident the whole time we were there.

Our Moroccan teapot at sunset on our riad’s roof terrace, Marrakech
Patisserie stall, Marrakech souk

Marrakech is famed for its diversity of restaurants – there seem to be a vast amount of places serving European and south-east Asian cuisine, but if you spend long enough in Morocco, you’d be forgiven for hankering after something other than tagine, couscous, harira and brochettes… wouldn’t you?  Ah, but you’d be (partly) wrong as there are so many other Moroccan delicacies to seek out, such as briouates (parcels of vegetables, meat or seafood wrapped in filo pastry), pastillas (with a variety of fillings, but arguably the best is pigeon and almonds) and wonderful patisseries filled with almond paste (like marzipan) or peanut butter (much coarser and darker than what you find at home) and scented with orange blossom, rosewater and spices.  There are some restaurants, usually to be found in riads, that combine European touches, techniques and standards with a Moroccan team and style, resulting in a seriously special evening – we were recommended a French riad near Place Djaama el Fna (the epicentre of Marrakchi nightlife and craziness) that really blew us away – four elegant, delicious courses served to us by a friendly, charming team in the most beautiful poolside setting.

Place Djaama el Fna, Marrakech

Spices and stuff, Marrakech

But, inspired by our wonderful bargain couscous lunch in Essaouira, when we walked past a tiny opening in a small side-street with a row of tagines bubbling away on the pavement and enticing smells beckoning us, we were instantly curious – we were seated at a long, narrow table and, within minutes, were joined by a bunch of locals in their blue workman’s overalls.  Language instantly became redundant as we all got stuck into delicious lamb or chicken tagine – our smiles were saying it all, with occasional tears & laughter when one of us (Moroccans included, I was comforted to see) got a mouthful with a particularly hot chilli.  Utterly inspired, now we just have to figure out how we’re going to introduce tagines and couscous to the slopes of Verbier…

Tagines cooking for lunch, Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains
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Battening down the hatches and bottling it

When I wrote my last blog, I knew we were teetering on the edge of summer, ready to topple head-first into autumn… but I had forgotten just how impressive Cornish sideways rain can be, thanks to gale-force winds straight off the Celtic Sea.  However, Cornish flora – just like the fauna (I include native Kernowyon in this) – is made of strong stuff and, despite spending storm-ravaged nights convinced the roof would blow off our little cowshed (that’s if it wasn’t crushed by a falling tree first), Treverra has survived the autumnal storms so far and is looking lovely (no small thanks to the team who keep it all going, with special creds this week going to the boys in rubber who spent two days in masks and wetsuits repairing the magic pool cover).

Treverra after a good ravishing by Katia

Men In Black come to the aid of the Treverra pool cover

Ironically, given the tempestuous weather, we’re experiencing a lovely little lull right now, a calm patch in between the busy summer and October’s half term holidays and shooting parties.  With the tourists mostly gone (except in Padstow – it seems it’s always busy in Padstow), the Cornish roads are emptier (and safer without Rock Mummies careering around in Chelsea tractors and their big-wig husbands taking road rage to new heights) and the beaches are tranquil.  But the hedgerows and trees… they are busting out all over the place with apples, damsons and autumn berries.  So, what’s a girl to do except buy 8 litres of gin and get stuck in?  Ahhh, damsons, you sexy little things – eye-wateringly sharp, yet with a wonderful depth of flavour and a velvety, delicously dark hue.  With Hurrican Katia rampaging outside, I turned about 4kg of damsons picked from the field next door into damson ketchup (a Mother Chef special recipe) and another 5kg into damson gin, its aromatic, boozy fug enveloping the house.

Damson ketchup – from the Mother Chef, aka Gill Fuglesang
8 lb damsons

8 oz currants

1 lb onions, chopped small
2 oz coarse salt

1 lb Demerara sugar

2 pints distilled white vinegar



Tie up the following in muslin
:
6-8 dried chillies

1 tblspn black peppercorns

1 tblspn mustard seeds

½ oz dried root ginger, crushed a bit first (I usually just use about 1 oz fresh grated)

½ oz allspice berries
2 whole garlic cloves
 


To save having to stone the damsons by hand, I just very gently heat them until the juice runs and they go soft enough to put on the rubber gloves and squeeze them through a colander, pushing the pulp and juice through into a large pan and trapping the stones, being careful to put all the pulp back in the pan.  Add currants, onions and the bag of spices.  Add 1 pint of the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 mins or until mixture is soft. 
 
Then remove the bag of spices, place contents of pan in a liquidiser and blend until perfectly smooth.  Rinse out the pan and return the purée and bag of spices to it, add the salt, sugar and remaining 1 pint of vinegar.  Bring to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 1½ – 2 hrs or until the ketchup has reduced to approximately 3½ pints.  (From experience I know that you should have it slightly thinner than you would like it when you bottle it as it thickens as the months/years go on – especially years!)  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and leave to cool for a few minutes before pouring into bottles.  The recipe tells you to then sterilise the bottles for 10 mins, I never have done and have never had a problem with ketchup going off so I wouldn’t bother if I were you (that’s my mother for you – cavalier as ever, and usually she gets away with it, but I’d advise you to wash and rinse the bottles thoroughly and put them in an oven at 90°C for 10 minutes to make sure they’re sterile before filling them).  Leave for at least 6 months before eating to allow the ketchup to mellow.

Autumn and damsons have definitely come to Treverra

Damson gin – getting eyed up from all sides, I just hope it makes it to next autumn

Damson ketchup – like being a paid assassin, it’s a messy job, but someone’s got to do it…

Sadly, due to damsons’ tannins, the gin and ketchup need to mature for a while before they are fit for consumption.  Luckily, there are a few other Treverra-made treats to sample in the meantime: apple & rosemary jelly, “44” (a Madagascan recipe where you steep an orange, 44 coffee beans, 44 teaspoons of sugar and a few vanilla pods in a litre of gin for about 44 days – if a measure of that doesn’t warm you up in winter, I can only suggest a second, third or even fourth attempt…) and raspberry vinegar.

Typically, this being Cornwall, my cosy, autumnal domestic bliss may be short-lived.  Apparently we are getting an Indian summer on Wednesday, bringing blazing sunshine and temperatures well into the 20s (for a couple of days, anyway).  Which is most excellent news – my damsons are dealt with, the garden’s looking lovely, the pool cover is fixed – bring on the Pimms and a bikini.

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Summertime, and the cooking is easy

In my family, the BBQ season has been known to start as early as March.  In fact, as long as there’s not actually snow or frost on the ground… GAME ON!  Even rain doesn’t stop play – just find a bit of shelter and it’s all good.  (Perfect example was many years ago at my dad’s birthday BBQ on 6th July – the rain started at 4pm and didn’t stop.  Undeterred, my Uncle Rob – Head BBQ Chef for the night – stationed the Webbers in an open-sided, roofed area behind the house and cooked his way through the steaks, seafood and chickens in order to feed the 70 guests.  The guests, for their part, felt sorry for him outside so kept the booze flowing in his direction.  3 hours and about 60 units of alcohol later, Rob emerged red-eyed from the smoke and a bit unsteady on his feet, to announce: “I’m nissed as a pewt.”  Bravo, sir.)

BBQs have always been a big favourite here at Treverra Farm and this summer has been no exception, but we entered a whole new league with the unleashing of the fire pit for some hardcore Argentinian asado action the other night.  The lovely Loftuses arrived with five organic, free-range chickens that had been spatchcocked and then were marinated in olive oil, lemon & rosemary.  A make-shift spit was created out of some metal stakes, the chickens were skewered and then suspended over the fire.  Watched by his team (fuelled by Dark ‘n’ Stormies and Provençal rosé), Charlie was a man on a mission, braving the searing heat to baste the chickens, rotating and adjusting them until they were cooked to succulent, smoky perfection.  Add a perfect Cornish summer’s evening, with some potatoes baking slowly in the embers and some salads from the garden, we couldn’t ask for more… the arrival of our neighbours in their helicopter overhead was simply the icing on the cake (thanks to Jo for the fantastic aerial shot).
Photo by Joanna Vestey

Dark ‘n’ Stormies
Half-fill a glass with ice cubes, then add a slug of good dark rum (Morgan’s Spiced is great here), top up with ginger beer (Old Jamaica has a nice kick to it) and squeeze in a couple of wedges of lime.  Most importantly, make sure the BBQ chef’s glass is topped up AT ALL TIMES.
But Cornwall is, without a doubt, one of the best places to get seafood that I’ve ever known and it’s at the heart of many dinners here.  I am very lucky to get my fish from Matthews Stevens & Son, based in Newlyn, who have supplied me for the past two summers with gorgeous, locally-landed fish. On Thursday evening, with 10 for dinner and the sunny days stretching on, I rode the Mediterranean vibe I was feeling and looked to Ottolenghi for inspiration.  One of my favourite chefs, his recipes really come into their own during the summer – fresh, light, delicious dishes that are perfect for relaxed, communal eating.  As I prepped the salads, the Big Swede got the BBQ going, throwing fresh herbs onto the coals for added aroma and then cooking three large grey mullets that I’d prepared:
Whole grey mullet for the BBQ
You can use other whole fish here, like rainbow trout, salmon, sea bass, etc – grey mullet just happened to be available and particularly good at the time.  Ask your fishmonger to scale and gut the whole fish, then stuff the belly with herbs (I used coriander and flat-leaf parsley), slices of lemon & lime – ginger and chillis are also good.  Sprinkle olive oil in the belly and season.  Cut a few slits in the skin and rub with olive oil, sea salt & black pepper, then wrap in foil.  Once the BBQ is ready, cook for about 10 minutes on each side until just cooked through, then you can lift the flesh off the bone onto a warmed platter, scatter with chopped herbs and serve with wedges of lemon.
Photo by David Loftus

Summer dinner for 10


To start:
  • Chargrilled nectarines & Prosciutto, with endive & baby chard leaves and a Balsamic, maple & rosewater dressing

Remove stones and slice nectarines vertically into 6 wedges, then toss in olive oil, salt and pepper.  Heat up griddle and char the slices to give them distinct grill-lines on all sides.  On a platter, lay out torn endive, the Prosciutto and the nectarine slices, then scatter over the baby chard leave and drizzle with dressing of olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, rosewater, salt & pepper.

Main course:
  • BBQ whole grey mullet with lemon, lime & herbs and a tarragon aïoli
  • Fillets of sea bream with a tahini, lemon & parsley sauce, scattered with pomegranate seeds
  • Camargue red rice & quinoa with orange & pistachios
  • Fennel & feta with pomegranate seeds & sumac
  • Cucumber & poppy seed salad
  • French beans & mangetout with hazelnuts & orange
  • Baby leaf green salad

And finally:

  • Blackberry tart with crème fraîche sorbet (blackberries picked from the field next door)
Blackberry tart (recipe adapted from the Cherry Tart recipe in Bill Granger’s book “Holiday”)
To make the pastry, melt and cool 125g unsalted butter, then mix in 90g caster sugar, followed by 175g plain flour and a pinch of salt to make a soft dough.  Press the mix into a greased, 24cm round, loose-bottomed tart tin, place onto a baking tray and cook at 180°C for 12-15 mins until the pastry is puffing up.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of ground almonds over the base, then leave to cool.
For the filling, whisk together 170ml cream, 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons of vanilla and 3 tablespoons of caster sugar. Add 2 tablespoons of plain flour and whisk until well mixed.  Arrange a couple of large handfuls of fresh blackberries (or cherries – stoned and halved – or other soft fruit that’s in season), slightly overlapping, over the pastry base and pour the cream filling evenly over the fruit.  Return the tart to the oven for a further 40-50 minutes until the filling is firm.  Leave to cool and serve with cream or ice cream.

Crème fraîche sorbet
In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups crème fraîche, ¾ cup cane syrup (if you can find it – I mix half & half golden syrup with homemade sugar syrup), a good pinch of salt, ¼ cup lemon juice and ¼ cup sugar (I didn’t have quite enough crème fraîche this time, so I made up the quantity with a bit of vanilla yoghurt and it worked beautifully – I may be onto something…)  Chill the mix in the freezer for about 15 mins and then transfer to an ice-cream machine to chill and churn for about 30-45 mins (check your machine’s guidelines).  Keep in the freezer – this is best made the day before to give it time to firm up and then it’s best eaten within a few days of making.

True to form, I made more food than even 10 hungry mouths could eat, but the great thing about all the dishes above is that the leftovers make for no-effort lunches over the next couple of days, leaving you to enjoy the last hazy, lazy days of summer… isn’t that what it’s all about?
Daymer Bay
Follow on Twitter @LauraLPope

Plus ça change…

Our studio on Treverra Farm

I woke up to the sound of a small creature clamouring for attention outside my window, followed by a chorus of buzzing: flies. The inquisitive small child has now gone, but the cows are back in the field next door, which means they bring their little friends with them. Joy. Still, one look at my view of rolling green fields, perfect lawn, summer flowers and blue, endless sky is enough to soothe my fly-angst (not to mention a frenzied attack with a fly swat that killed about 10 of the buggers).

Near Lundy Bay

Sound familiar? There are indeed echoes of my time spent in the Tarn, my busy life working as a chef in a beautiful, tranquil corner of France with many creatures of all sizes to entertain and infuriate me. But Le Manoir de Raynaudes is long gone and I have moved onto new pastures (and cows, and flies…) My life is still nomadic, but I’m getting a sort of rhythm going, which feels like progress – I’ve found places I keep wanting to return to. And someone to return with: the Big Swede. Well, actually he’s a French-Swedish hybrid, but the name suits him and it’s stuck. We met in the Swiss Alps and are set to return there for our third winter together. For the summers, we live in Cornwall, with me working as a private chef and him mostly working on his surfing. Together, we look after the guests staying in a beautiful house and cottage in an idyllic site on the north Cornwall coast, set up away from the swarming crowds of tourists, with an uninterrupted view of fields and the estuary. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Treverra Farm House
Before I get lost in smug ramblings, I must remember the point of reigniting the blog: food. It turns out that my comments and photos on Twitter or Facebook about something I’ve just cooked are prompting responses along the lines of “Enough with the chat and give us the recipe, woman!!” When I post recipes, I’ll do my best to be accurate with the quantities and be clear in my methods, but feel free to ask me if something just doesn’t add up. First up: slow roast pork.
Although I’ve always been a fan of cured or smoked pork – Spanish jamón Iberico and chorizo, Prosciutto, Salami, etc – and it’s true that I view sausages as a sacred food group in their own right, I was never a fan of roast pork. Dry, uninspiring, bland… and I never got the point of crackling. But then I tasted slow-roast pork belly in Spain and things shifted – pork that was juicy, super-tender and almost caramelised. So I experimented over and over again, changing recipes, methods, timings, temperatures, suppliers – everything in the quest to recreate the mouth-watering dish I’d eaten all that time ago. Results varied and, despite a few moderate successes, I was far from satisfied. But then I received a golden piece of advice: forget perfect meat AND perfect crackling – you can’t get both at the same time. So I divided and conquered:
SLOW ROAST PORK
Slow roast pork, salads and roast potatoes & red onions

 

This recipe and method have worked for me with both pork belly and a shoulder of pork – the former is better for smaller numbers, whereas a whole shoulder of pork (bone in) is a great way to feed about 20 people. The paste recipe is adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Aromatic shoulder of pork ‘Donnie Brasco’ and the method is thanks to Jamie Oliver and his brilliant advice, which he based on much experience and many conversations with “meat geeks”…
For the paste to rub on the meat
In a pestle & mortar or a coffee grinder, pulverise:
2 star anise
2 tsp fennel seeds
4 cinnamon sticks
4 cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns

Add 1 tblspn of this powder (you can keep the rest in an airtight jar for future use) to the following (if you’ve got a stick blender with a mini chopper accessory, this is ideal – if not, you can grate the garlic and ginger and mash everything in the pestle & mortar):
5 large garlic cloves, peeled
5cm piece of fresh ginger root, peeled
2 tspns dried chilli flakes
2 tspns ground ginger
1 tblspn brown sugar
4 tblspns flaky salt
1 tblspn sunflower or groundnut oil
1 tblspn soy sauce

Meat

Pork belly (it’s tricky to give weight – best to ask your butcher based on how many of you there are and use your eyes to gauge how much you want to eat – and remember that the meat will shrink by about a quarter during cooking), OR
Whole shoulder of pork, which weighs between 5kg and 8kg

Cooking – bearing in mind cooking times, you will need to get things going up to a day in advance
Turn your oven to 110°C.
Take the skin off the meat, using a small, sharp knife, causing as little damage as possible to the meat, the skin and your fingers. Score the skin with a sharp knife (a stanley knife works best if you have one), chop into strips or squares and put it in the fridge.
Line a roasting tin big enough to hold the piece of meat with two layers of tin foil that are big enough to wrap around the whole piece. Put the meat in the roasting tin and rub the paste all over it, then wrap the meat up and seal up the foil around it.
Put the meat in the oven for about 6 hours for a piece of pork belly or up to 24 hours for a big, whole shoulder of pork. That’s very approximate, by the way – it should be wet at all times and you cook it under the meat is falling apart – check it a couple of times during cooking and turn it over once or twice.
When it’s finished cooking, remove the pork from the oven and turn it to 160°C, transfer the meat from the foil into a roasting tin and strain the juices into a saucepan. You can smother the meat in a jelly of some kind at this point (I used a homemade red- and white-currant jelly) and put it in the oven for about 20 mins (belly) to 45 mins (shoulder) to dry out a bit.
Heat the juices in the pan and reduce to a nice saucy consistency – add a teaspoon of jelly if you want to sweeten it a bit and a squeeze of lemon often doesn’t hurt if it needs a zesty kick.
Meanwhile, for the crackling, sprinkle salt on the skin and lay it in one layer in a roasting tin in a searingly hot oven (250°C-ish) for about 20-30 mins until it is crunchy, but don’t let it burn. Sprinkle with more salt if you fancy before serving.
To serve the meat, pull out any bones and discard them then, using two forks, tear the meat apart and put onto a warmed platter. Put the sauce in a jug to serve on the side.
What you serve it with depends on you and your guests – my favourite accompaniments have been sticky coconut rice, chargrilled broccoli with chilli & garlic and Jamie’s free-styled salad of finely diced carrots, cucumber, apple & coconut with tarragon & parsley and a dressing made by tempering oil with mustard seeds, ginger & cumin, finished off with a good squeeze of lemon – a bit off-the-wall on its own but AMAZING with the pork and coconut rice. Last night I was feeding 16 guests, some of whom had more conservative tastes, so I did balsamic-roasted new potatoes & red onions, a marinated green bean salad with a Dijon & shallot dressing, a crunchy salad of carrots, fennel, cucumber & courgette and a simple green leaf salad.
We ate leftovers at about 10.30pm last night and I am still rather full, so have managed no more than a cup of detox tea so far this morning (pathetic, really). The Big Swede, however, got up at 5.30am to go surfing (the buzz on the Twittersphere tells me it’s the best swell of the season so far, so there is method to his madness) so he will probably return soon, absolutely famished, and I can attempt to assuage his hunger with a sandwich of torn, slow-roast pork, some garden lettuce and a bit of English mustard and mayo. Ooh, is that my appetite I can feel returning?

Belated tales of Alpine adventures


I guess I should have started this chapter of the blog about five months ago, when I first came to the Alps. But, here I am and here I blog… First, a quick update: after six months cheffing in the Tarn, I went to California to follow my dream of working at Chez Panisse. I then found myself in Verbier on 26 December, ready to spend the next week cheffing for CK Verbier, cooking and skiing my way into the new decade. As often happens, those seven days became four months and I did my first ski season – rather unexpectedly – aged 32. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried…


Anyone who has ever been skiing will know that there just aren’t enough hours in the day – with all the skiing and partying to be done, sleep tends to take a back seat. Well, try fitting all that around working six days a week for an exclusive chalet company. But, we managed it pretty well (this goes some way to explain the lack of blogging – solitude and spare time are rare commodities during a ski season).










In my life as a nomadic chef, I have been able to come back to Verbier for June. It feels a bit like a ghost town, but it’s extremely beautiful and tranquil. The snow and ice have melted from all but the highest slopes, leaving acres of lush, green grass and delicate alpine flowers. The blueberries bushes are looking promising and – if the weather ever makes its mind up – we may finally be in for some lovely summery days (May was a wash-out and over the past week it’s been oscillating between sunshine, heavy mist and torrential rain…)

Although the mist has once more enveloped the mountains, the sun was shining hazily earlier today, so I strapped on my hiking boots and made my way from Verbier up to Clambin, where I even managed to find my friend’s chalet – the last time I came here, we arrived by snowmobile at night, so it was breath-taking to see it in the daylight. Finding my way around is always a confusing process (I wasn’t blessed with the best sense of direction), but I’ve already discovered that exploring on foot, unencumbered by ice and snow, is a revelation – at this rate, I might be in danger of knowing where I’m going…

First course…

Chez Panisse continues to amaze and teach me more than I could have ever hoped. The chefs I work with are utterly inspiring, making the most incredible food night after night, with smiles on their faces and minimum fuss. Why aren’t all restaurants this way and how on earth did I get lucky enough to be here? I have been really fortunate that they have so much faith put in me, as they not only let me help prep the meals with them – teaching me about the fantastic produce they use and showing me lots of great techniques – but the head chef Jean-Pierre and and sous chef Jerome (yes, I am back in with the French) have put me on the line each night, which means that I am actually part of the team of cooks getting to execute and serve the dishes to our guests each night.













As the set menu changes every day, I am constantly seeing new dishes, from amazing fish such as Catalina spiny lobsters served in a ragout with leeks and chervil or grilled Monterey squid and scallions with grilled peppers, aioli and salad, to wonderful locally-sourced meats, like grilled Sonoma duck breast with roasted fig relish, green beans and turnip and potato gratin or grilled rack, leg and loin of Elliott Ranch lamb with autumn vegetable tian and rapini. It’s a masterclass in the best of Californian-French cuisine. Although I don’t work on the pastry section, the girls work alongside us, always happy and proud to show me what they’re making and offering samples. I didn’t think I had a sweet tooth, but they are doing a good job of changing my mind…



But it’s the core restaurant family to whom I will be eternally indebted: patient, wise, talented, brilliant and gracious (even with the relentless mocking of my English pronunciation, which seems to cause constant amusement, especially to the boys when I am calling out orders to the front-of-house team). Only a team of cooks as devoted to great food, to each other and to the restaurant that they love so much – and as confident and secure in their collective ability and experience – could be so generous with their time and energy. I am one very, very lucky line cook right now.

Back in the Bay

I’m back and have found San Francisco (and its inhabitants) as gorgeous as ever. Sunshine, beautiful views, wonderful people, great food and a few days of rest and fun before heading into my first stage at Chez Panisse. One of California’s best-loved and most-respected restaurants, it has an impeccable ethos, serving the finest sustainably-sourced, organic, and seasonal ingredients, prepared with love, talent and unwavering care. Simple, yet brilliant – and representative of everything I admire and aspire to as a chef. So, it wasn’t really a surprise to find myself shaking with nerves and excitement at the prospect of spending a fortnight in their kitchens. I had been assigned to work in the restaurant, which serves a set menu each night (as opposed to the upstairs café’s more informal, à la carte menu). At 1.30pm, I arrived to meet the restaurant team, who were relaxed and friendly, whilst awesomely knowledgeable and passionate about food. With one chef off sick, I was truly thrown in at the deep end – Jerome, the chef in charge that night, assigned the starter to me, which – under his guidance – I prepped and served up to 100 guests:


Monday, November 2, $60
  • Frisée and rocket salad with confit gesiers, hearts, pancetta, green beans and liver toast
  • Poulet à lestragon: spit-roasted Soul Food Farm chicken with tarragon, crème fraîche, wild mushrooms, and fried potatoes
  • Meyer lemon meringue tartlet with huckleberries
I’m learning that Chez Panisse not only makes its customers extremely happy, but it seems that you’d be hard-pushed to find a happier workforce, too. Unlike the grim-faced, ashen, exhausted creatures who inhabit some of London, Paris or New York’s leading restaurant kitchens, the cooks here genuinely love their work – this isn’t some ordeal to survive in order to bolster their CVs and to prove they can hack the worst that can possibly be thrown at them. Many have been Chez Panisse for two decades or more and obviously take enormous pleasure and pride in their work – and each other. I didn’t here a single raised voice or cross word – just encouragement and gentle, constructive criticism where needed, which was always received with grace. Split shifts (where you work two shifts back-to-back with a short break in between) are totally frowned upon as it’s genuinely understood that cooks working longer than a 9-hour day are too exhausted to work properly – and, more importantly, to have a life of their own outside of work. All very sensible, but sadly, all too rare in most restaurants. (The café chefs doing the early shift start at 7am, but go home at about 4pm, handing over to the evening team). Too perfect to be true? Time will tell, but it’s not just the food that they seem to be getting completely right here.


La Fin


After 182 days, 1,000 dinners, 700 breakfasts and 1,800 hours in the kitchen, my stint in France is coming to an end. I’m looking back at the past six months and trying to sum them up… but I just can’t. I arrived not really knowing what to expect, yet it became strangely familiar almost immediately as Peter, Orlando and Monique swept me up into their extraordinary Raynaudes existence. For six days a week I’ve been up early to make breakfast and have fallen into bed sometime after dinner is over, leaving me so tired at times that I could fall asleep standing up. That kind of exhaustion can leave you feeling raw and was sometimes made worse by intense loneliness – life can feel pretty empty when living somewhere so isolated, the only contact with friends and family is over the internet or phone and the excitement about a brief visit from someone is tinged with the premature dread of saying goodbye. But since leading this active life in the middle of the countryside, I’ve been healthier and fitter than ever and – for much of the time – happier. I have laughed more in this job than any other, as Peter oscillates between dry wit and high jinks and Orlando relentlessly regales me with his hilarious anecdotes and observations (when he takes a break from teasing Jude, who has popped back throughout the season to help with front-of-house. Her calm, warm charm has not only worked wonders with the guests and the team, but our girly chats have played a big part in keeping me vaguely sane). And I’ve never felt such a sense of achievement, amazement and satisfaction – and that makes it all worth it a hundred times over.











The visits from friends and family have really shown me how lucky I am to have lived and worked here – whilst also making me appreciate the people I love all the more. I had my youngest ever visitor in September – what he lacked in years, he made up for in extreme importance. Hunter Jefferson Crawford, my heavenly godson, born to my dear friend Cat on 4th July, made the journey from Edinburgh via Paris, accompanied by his gorgeous mummy, aunty Johnnie and Gus (over from Chicago) and Gus’ parents, Richard and Leonee. Staying in the Cévennes meant they were almost a four-hour drive away, but distance was not going to get in the way of coming to dinner at Le Manoir. Cooking for close friends is a nerve-wracking experience at the best of times… doing so for a fellow (and more experienced) chef (Cat) really ups the ante, but they made it one of the most special meals I have ever cooked and I was so proud and touched that they came all this way. We then drove all the way back to Valleraugue, arriving at the house at 4am. The next day was perfect – Johnnie, Cat and I made up for months of missing each other and catching up, with Hunter a peaceful, much-adored focus of all our attention.













Then back for more Toulouse fun to say goodbye to Jude… rather worryingly, I’ve now been back to my new favourite city there a few times and – despite walking around it for hours at a time – I still can’t get my bearings and spend half my time happily lost. We have, however, found a fantastic wine bar – I have no idea what street it’s on, but it’s called “Au Père Louis”. If you come across it, do stop in for a “quinquina” – their house apéritif that has something to do with quinine and wine. Whatever. After a couple of those, you won’t be able to get your bearings either, but you probably won’t care…












What next…? London, southern Italy and then California to do stages at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Zuni Café in San Francisco. I’d love to tell you what the plan is after that, but right now I have absolutely no idea. Watch this space…



“C’est normal”…

… a frequently-heard phrase in these parts – but it doesn’t mean exactly what you’d think it does. For the French, it’s more a way of saying “of course” or “don’t mention it”. But I hear it so often that it has made me realise that what I hold as “normal” has taken on a whole new meaning since I’ve been here…

After being so accustomed to the hubbub of London, I’m now quite used to the tranquility of Raynaudes (ok, admittedly punctuated by the odd bellowing animal), although the stillness continues to captivate me, even after five months – I could listen to the cicadas for hours at night, their chirruping a continuous, soothing presence that I will sorely miss when I leave. And the bone-chilling, face-numbing, spirit-dampening cold and rain of home seems unimaginable as I am warmed every day by the blazing Occitan sunshine. I can’t imagine how my daily routine used to involve a cramped commute on London Underground into work, where I would then spend most of my 50 working hours a week sitting in front of a computer screen or trying to stay focused during a three-hour meeting. Now, of course, my working hours total more than 80 a week and are mainly spent in an infernally hot kitchen, trying not to give myself third-degree burns or chop any fingers off, but that’s my chosen life now – and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I honestly can’t think of a better day’s work than one that involves cooking the produce I’ve selected from our local market and suppliers with vegetables, fruit and herbs that I’ve picked from our garden to create food for enthusiastic, lovely guests to enjoy. And then, of course, there’s the pool and sunshine to concentrate on for a couple of hours in the afternoon..

But the “norm” around here is not all pastoral, idyllic perfection. Despite the Brits returning from their French holidays full of praise for the more relaxed approach to life taken by our Gallic cousins, they can seem like a bunch of absolute slackers when you’ve got a short amount of time to get a lot done. I’m sure we’d all welcome the idea of a two-hour lunch break every day, with a working week capped at 35 hours, but trust me – it simply isn’t practical. Not an awful lot ever gets achieved around here – and nothing is ever open when you need it. After London’s 24-hour culture, where you can get almost anything anytime, we must now grit our teeth and bear rural France’s more “relaxed” attitude to business. Not only do many shops and restaurants close daily from 12-2pm – as well as all day on Sundays and Mondays – but many don’t open on Wednesdays as French children have the day off school in order to received the religious instruction of their parents’ choice (it isn’t provided as part of the secular school system. Of course, they don’t do anything of the sort – Wednesday is unofficially “teenage-loafing” day around town…) And, on the subject of shops – how on earth did the store-planners for our local supermarket decide that the dental floss belongs in amongst the condoms? The locals might have a good explanation (as did Jude, although I’m not repeating it here), but I’m still trying to figure that one out – and am rather worried about French attitudes to both oral hygiene and contraception…


And yet… if we think the local ways of life are a bit unusual, what on earth must Le Manoir’s guests think when they see Orlando paddling around the lake in a red kayak, hurling white powder all over the surface (and himself) or catch sight of Peter on the back on a tractor being driven around the field? And it’s not every hotel owner who sits down at the piano after dinner to sing “I am 16, going on 17” to the chef while she’s dressed in a candy-pink dirndl, doing her best Julie Andrews twirls? (Yes, there are photos. No, you can’t see them). If you think that’s a bit unusual… well, I never promised you normal, did I?




All creatures not so great and small

Mother Nature has a funny way of reminding you who’s boss… For any city-dwellers imagining that the countryside is the place for peace and quiet, think again. Once the hotel gets full, we ship out, so I have spent a number of nights staying with our lovely farming neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Regourd. They live next door to Georgette Cayre, a plump, no-nonsense widow with a living larder – not, as some of our guests innocently think, a bunch of pets. She keeps them for food, plain and simple. I used to feel sorry for the poor little things (non-sensical, I know, as I eat and cook meat), but having been woken up every morning at quarter to five by her pair of competing roosters, if she doesn’t do something about them soon, a new dish of “coq au vin” is appearing on the Raynaudes menu…


And once the roosters have had their early-morning crowing competition, the woeful braying from the Regourds’ donkies starts up – apparently they’re not deeply distressed, as we’d all feared – they just do it for the hell of it… Or maybe they, too, are being subjected to regular nibbles from the mosquitos? But nothing has come close to the recent fly infestation – the worst in living Raynaudes memory and of quite biblical proportions. Thankfully, as the heatwave has passed its worst (we hope), the flies have abated a bit – in the nick of time, as we were being driven completely insane by the constant buzzing and swatting. Teetering on the brink of insanity is not the time for shocks – luckily when I discovered the lizard having a swim in the loo, I was too exhausted to bat an eyelid….

There’s definitely mischief in the air – the Regourds’ Red Setter Sam has a new favourite nighttime”frolic”: he waits for the front door to open when I come home and then streaks out and off into the night, with me giving chase all over Raynaudes while he antagonises all the neighbourhood dogs, eliciting much snarling and barking from the dogs and much cursing from me. He comes back eventually, with a smirk on his face and a Mutley-style snigger…

To escape the crazy animal kingdom that is currently ruling Raynaudes, I went to the Sunday market at Saint Antonin Noble Val on the River Aveyron – a touristy kind of scene, but with a buzzy atmosphere and some lovely food stalls in amongst the over-priced, ubiquitous tie-die creations. I had a leisurely lunch in the dappled sunshine of the courtyard at Restaurant Beffroi – the staff were busy and I was happy to take my time, which meant that I spent more than two hours enjoying a glass of rosé, salmon with couscous and chocolate fondant. Apparently being patient and a French-speaker helps, though – after just a brief exchange with the waiter, who had expressed amazement when I told him I was English, my bill only listed the main course – “the pudding and wine are on me”, he said in perfect English, with a little smile as he sailed past me. I left with a big grin on my face. Never mind the discount and light flirting – he’d thought I was French…

The end of the world? No, just the start of August…


So, I’d been told that the weather can get a bit unpredictable in August, but this is truly ridiculous… Having been lured back to Toulouse, I spent the day roaming the city in glorious sunshine. When day gave way to dusk, it brought a change in the weather as the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. By the time I was in the car driving home, the rain was falling hard – and then things really got interesting… Lighting bolts lit up the sky as I drove through the vineyards of Gaillac, but the full extent of the storm was wreaking havoc closer to home. My first hint was the foliage covering the road approaching Cordes-sur-Ciel and, by the time I reached the town itself, I was swerving to avoid whole trees that had fallen across the road.

 

Numerous diversions and a white-knuckle ride later, I finally made it back to Le Manoir de Raynaudes, trying not to run over the frogs hopping all over the driveway. I ran through the rain into the house, where Orlando, Peter and the guests were intact and jubilantly recounting the evening’s dramas and heroics, including chopping up trees that had fallen across the driveway (one guest even fell into the lake in the process), dodging flying roof tiles and giant hailstones, cooking dinner through an hour-long power cut and chasing after airborne pieces of garden furniture.
This morning saw another hurricane take us by storm: our housekeeper,
Monique. A force of nature in her own right, she came to us on her day off to help clear up the mess. Within hours, we had returned the place to a near-normal state, with no more lasting damage to the buildings than a few shattered roof tiles. However, many of our plants are wrecked and we’ll never be able to prove to the doubting French that you really can grow seedless grapes, since our especially-imported vines were destroyed. But we survived, the guests thought this was the best entertainment they’d had in ages – and life goes on. As planned, we’re still on to serve dinner in an hour’s time, but I think we’ll be eating indoors tonight…

The heat is on

Chefs have a complex relationship with heat…  Too much and the food burns, too little and nothing ever cooks.  A few degrees out and a dish can go horribly wrong – especially true when tempering chocolate or taking sugar syrup to the right stage, but also the difference between deliciously pink or overdone meat.  The source is also highly important (most cooks prefer gas, but I’ve been forced to convert to induction hobs here and they’re slowly seducing me, especially when it comes to cleaning).  A powerful fridge-freezer not only preserves our food, no matter how hot it is outside, but it can save a pastry dough that needs rapid chilling or set the perfect sorbet for that evening’s meal.

But the most interesting effect of the heat here isn’t on the food… it’s on the people.  The sun is high, the days are long, the evenings are balmy and our guests visibly start to relax and glow as the sunshine takes hold.  Given half a chance, I tend to gravitate towards a patch of sunlight, stretch out and read, my basking punctuated by a few lengths in the pool.  But the deeper we get into summer, the more guests come and therefore the more mouths there are to feed…  so in the kitchen I must stay.  “Hot” doesn’t even come close to describing the Manoir kitchen midway through service on a busy July night.  Foie gras slides, salads wilt, the flies go crazy and ice cream doesn’t just melt, it disintegrates if left out of the freezer for longer than a minute…  Only when service is over do we stop, exhausted, panting, a bewildered look and hopefully a satisfied smile on our faces.  I half-stumble, half-fall out of the kitchen – usually straight into the pool, which has become my sanctuary, especially when tempers rise along with the mercury.  We’re now mid-way through the season – nerves are frayed, sleep is scarce and cabin fever is setting in.  Tough, but only natural in a team of just four people striving to provide perfect service whilst working and living in such close proximity to one another, with no time and little opportunity for a life beyond these walls.










Thankfully, though I may not have much time to get out into the world (although I did manage two speedy trips back to the UK for weddings), occasionally it comes to me.  My latest visitors were Pete and Maggie, who made it to Raynaudes for a couple of days in the middle of their European extravaganza.  Having come all the way from San Francisco, I did my best to ensure that they saw the majestic cathedral in Albi, the castle in Najac and the ramparts in Cordes – yet I swear that Pete took most of his photos when I snuck him into the kitchen…

The guests have been particularly entertaining lately.  Although they don’t have to sing for their supper, they seem more than happy to, with Orlando accompanying anyone game enough on the piano, be it to “Cabaret”, “The Boyfriend”, Abba or “The Sound of Music”.  The high camp continued with the arrival of Peter’s youngest son, Andrew, whose stay happily coincided with his father’s birthday and Bastille Day, which of course necessitated Champagne, candlelight, poetry reading, dancing and skinny dipping.  Not sure that our noisy renditions of Julie Andrews’ songs at 1am in the depths of the garden were quite so necessary, though…

Fast bike, big city

I ♥ Toulouse.  It was a brief romance, but I’m smitten.  Just 24 hours in the “pink city” (so-called because of its distinctive brick architecture) was enough to make me fall for its cute cobbled streets, blue skies, unusually beautiful graffiti and great atmosphere.  Maybe I’ve been in the depths of the countryside for too long, but the city pulsed with a sense of excitement and the Toulousians seemed friendly, flirty and fun – and why wouldn’t they be?  They have great bars, restaurants, shops, weather and culture at their fingertips – and the Pyrenées mountains, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea aren’t far away.  And if that wasn’t enough, Toulouse was the home of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (OK, so that may not swing it for everyone, but he’s a bit of a hero of mine: the author of one of my favourite books, “Le Petit Prince”, and a French flying ace, who mysteriously disappeared in the African desert during World War II).  I don’t know when or how yet, but I can really see myself living there one day…




 




Back to Raynaudes and straight into the  kitchen to prepare for our annual dinner for the Raynaudes villagers – all 12 of them.  They are not only incredibly welcoming and supportive of us, but they also greet our guests with big smiles, sometimes incomprehensible, patois-laden French and impeccably-maintained gardens, so we like to invite them over once a year to say thank you.  After a Vietnamese-style soup to start, then fillet of beef, we brought out the pud: hazelnut, berry, chocolate and caramel meringue cake.  If you think that’s a mouthful to say, just try eating it…  Not that it fazed our neighbours – they demolished the lot, which just goes to show what an outdoor, active lifestyle does to your appetite, whether you’re 9 or 99.  Impressive stuff.

Speaking of impressive, how many people would get on a motorbike and cross France (from Zurich and via a wedding in Provence) for a visit lasting less than 48 hours?  Voila Ben, fearless explorer and old Paris buddy from 10 years ago, who arrived on Saturday night on a Triumph bike and just 2½ hours’ sleep, plunged straight into a 6-course dinner, followed by a nighttime swim.  Legend.  After a good night’s sleep and Raynaudes breakfast, we went off exploring – the Tarn had never looked or felt better than it did from the back of the bike, as we sped from one bastide town to the next.  I think I’m now spoilt – there is no other way to travel…

Mother Chef in the Tarn

Ladies and gentleman – may I introduce the lady who made all of this possible: my mummy.

Not only my mother and undoubtedly my biggest supporter, she’s also the greatest source of cooking knowledge throughout my life and a humbling reminder that no catering challenge is too much (who else can single-handedly throw a gourmet birthday party for 110 without batting an eyelid?)

In addition to being a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen (not to mention other talents), she’d give Apollo a run for his money in the sun-worshipping department and, on her first morning here at Le Manoir de Raynaudes, she had turned towards the sun and stripped down to a bikini before I could utter “Piz Buin”.  Between murmers of “Uh!  It’s heavenly here” and “Ooh, my wine seems to have gone down rather quickly” (and this from a supposed lightweight), we did manage to fit in a bit of culture (Albi, Cordes, Najac – you know the drill – plus Puycelsi, St Antonin and St Martin-Laguépie) and some lovely food, including a loooooooong supper at our local, Auberge Occitane.

After six glorious days, she was gone, leaving Peter and Orlando in awe of my brilliant mother and me missing her hugely.  I climbed one of our cherry trees the morning she left and, as I remembered the kilos and kilos of cherries she’d stoned for me while she was here and I looked out across the fields towards the Pyrenees, I thought of her oft-used phrase: “It’s not a bad life, really.”  So true.  Come back soon, Mummy.  You fit perfectly into my idyllic little Raynaudes existence.

Home alone and in charge

Well, I must be getting things right as Peter and Orlando left me in charge of all things culinary – and the small matter of looking after the Manoir and our guests – for a few days while they went to the Jesmond Dene Food Festival, where Orlando was hosting a big dinner and doing a food demonstration for the guests…


Menus planned, crisis management in place and off they went… Luckily we have a new recruit: Debbie from California, who came here two years ago for her cousin’s wedding, is taking a career break and has come here for three months over the summer to help out.  After the mother of all crash courses from Peter on running front of house, she threw herself into looking after the guests.  They didn’t disappoint – taking the “smother them with kindness” approach, we steered our charges through their stay here and everyone came out smiling.  Well, Debbie and I emerged absolutely knackered, but in a good way…

And praise be to Saint Lawrence (patron saint of chefs) – everything turned out extraordinarily well.  We were actually getting a bit freaked out because, let’s face it, despite constantly mumbling “I am not at home to Mr F*ck-up” under my breath, I was pretty nervous about maintaing Le Manoir’s high standards…  But I turned out food that I was truly proud of, Debbie and I chatted the guests up a treat and I even managed to fit in a swim every afternoon (a sure-fire way to clear even the most befuddled brain and stretch the most knotted muscles…)
Here are photos of a few of the dishes (all starters and puddings as the main courses always seems to be on the plate and raring to go before I have a chance to point my camera at them): salad of cherries with Ecir en Aubrac cheese and hazelnuts; chocolate and cardamom torte; the blackurrant leaves I picked at 4pm to make the sorbet for that night, served with an almond tuile and rose and pansy syrups.

So, now Peter and Orlando are back, the place is still intact, the guests left happy and promising to return.  Final score?  Laura and Debbie: 1; Mr F*ck-up: nul points.


A taste of home and a bit of culture

Although life here is about as good as it gets, what I really miss are my friends and family, so I was seriously excited about the arrival of my great friend Gaby and her lovely mum – my first visitors since I arrived.  After all the photos and  weeks of hearing about where I’m living, what I’m cooking, who I’m working for (and, let’s face it, the pool I’m scrubbing), it has been wonderful to actually have somewhere here so they can experience it for themself.  And I think Le Manoir did itself proud – I certainly hope so, especially as Gaby was hear to write an article about us for the Telegraph.  So, as well as feeding them to within an inch of their lives, we thought it was essential to fit in a bit of local culture, too…
First stop was Albi, to visit the huge, brick cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, as well as lunch at Epicurien, a wander around the old town (confusingly reburbished in the mid-80s) and a browse of the shops.



 




The next day we visited two of the prettiest local bastide towns: Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn and Najac, in the Aveyron.  Amazingly deserted, we had the place to ourselves, which made for an eerily quiet, but very peaceful stroll.











A visit to Le Manoir wouldn’t be complete without a lounge by the pool – and then came the only miserable part of their stay: it was time for Gaby and Dixy to leave.  Rather appropriately, it didn’t stop raining for 24 hours after they left…

Country tales

My day off ended in our local bastide town, Monestiès, built in Medieval times and complete with a castle, an old stone bridge over the River Cérou and the Saint Jacques chapel, which used to be a stop-off for pilgrims on the way to Compostela.  It’s not exactly bustling on a Sunday evening, but I wandered into  the Auberge Occitane for an apératif and was greeted by its owner, Davide – a coffee balanced in one hand and his 6-month old baby daughter, Clara, on his hip.  One of the great things about living in the country is that the owners of the local restaurants and shops recognise and greet you – and seeing a new face provokes enough interest here that people make sure they get to know you if they didn’t already.  After going for a stroll round the town, I bumped into our local shopkeeper, Bernard, who is president of the local football team, in the middle of celebrating a victorious final match of the season.  Reassuringly, 11 drunk, French football players really aren’t that different from the ones back home…




The sun was setting as I drove past a local farm – it’s nothing special to look at, but it has a great story…  Many years ago, the farmer’s wife decided that she’d had enough of clearing up after her husband and three doltish sons, so shipped over a servant from the island of Réunion to do all the housework.  The young servant possessed a dangerous combination of beauty, grace and brains.  It took her under two years to pick out the most promising of the three brothers (not a great selection, admittedly, but she had to work with what was available) – and married him.  She then became the new chatelaine and they had a son, Francis, who now runs the farm with great success.  But as for her two brothers-in-law?  Well, our neighbour Mauricette (source of all the best local gossip) tells us they have never married or left the farm and still sleep in the barn with their 200 cattle…