Saturday 10 December 2011

Gormless in France

Until Christmas we were totally Gormless....
at last the cellier is almost complete...
The underfloor heating is connected up [and working] so the final wall area could be completed with a worktop and the fridges underneath.

This is what the sides looked like before the view was obscured.


the Tower of Gorm* is finished!
We brought with us the IKEA wooden shelving from our cellar in Leeds.

The basic frame with the new rails.
Rant Warning... Rant Warning
The German family we sold the house to didn't want anything left behind!
And we mean ANYTHING!!
They even wanted us to clear out the kitchen units... BEFORE completion!?!
Oh yes?... we thought not!! What if the sale hadn't completed?
But... apparently that's the way it is done in Germany... you move lock, stock, barrel, hinges, doors, light fittings and the kitchen sink! But we think Peter was glad we didn't remove the sink... he ended up camping in the house for nine months to work on and oversee the conversion... which was difficult. He was trying to leave a lot of the original features we had kept.... but bring the house up to modern insulating standards... very difficult to leave ornate architrave and cornices and insulate the walls they are on!

So, along with everything else we brought the IKEA shelving.
And a wardrobe and a tallboy.... because the charity shops didn't want them!
But we are very glad we did... everything that is 'reasonably' priced in France seems to be made of MDF with a paper 'skin' that is printed to look like wood.
We like real wood... something solid [massif], preferably, or a good, thick, wood veneer if not, over plywood, good chipboard or thick MDF. Something that doesn't date too much as well.
But the shelving was intended to come with us... [I just felt like having a rant there! Tim]
Our excuse... it is a dull, grey morning after a rainy windy night...

Shelves in place- a few bottles there to test the important bit!
We have turned the shelving, from wall units, into an island to fill the empty middle of a large room.... and have created room for more shelves as a result.... not too difficult when you have the uprights to use as a drill guide.
The new shelves are solid, not bars, as we are using the 7€50 pine planks from the brico. This will be very useful for the beer and the small jar shelves as things tended to tip into the gaps 'twixt the bars before [and often created a domino effect].

Some of the "more room" replaces the metal shelving that had to go to the tip before we left... it was so rusty, weak and flimsy that we'd started to store empty bottles on it to lighten the loading. Empties will now be stored in the grange in those boxes that moved our preserves, wine and beers.
We only brought back a few bottles of wine that had been purchased over here... didn't quite get the purchase/consumption level correct there... shoulda bin zero!

These are some of the home-made shelves... these are spaced for small bottles.

Then we can start emptying the boxes full of conserves, pickles and instant ice-cream mixes [just add creme fraiche or yoghurt before using the machine]. The latter came around by accident... jams that just wouldn't set... but now stuff gets bottled deliberately at the halfway stage.... after a disaster with a dead freezer and the new one that was delivered.... dead! Another reason we are so keen on older methods of preserving... and part of the reason for choosing France, where, apart from the USA, everywhere seems to sell the equipment and chemicals you need. But we haven't found a source for sausage skins or saltpetre yet... anyone?

All shelves in, filling up fast...
* The actual IKEA furniture was called Sten... but this has now been replaced by Gorm.... same stuff, but the wood is cheaper and thinner and the finish isn't quite as good. We've got both here.
And the "Rise of the Island of Sten" just doesn't have the same ring to it!!
More Gorm will most likely be purchased to store 'stuff' [Pauline's term for things Tim has in boxes] if we can brave a trip to IKEA in Tours.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Pumpkin weather

It's a miserable day today with rain and blustery winds - a perfect day for staying indoors and doing indoor things. While Tim is putting up lights in our cellier, I am converting half a Crown Prince pumpkin into preserve. This year we grew three types of pumpkin / winter squash:
  • Crown Prince - a variety originally from New Zealand and grown widely for its sweet, dense flesh. The name comes from the little warty ring like a crown around the flower end of the fruit. The skin is battleship grey and thin. The flesh is deep orange in colour and smells of apricots. Ours weigh in at up to four kilos and we got seven fruit from three plants, including two smaller ones. These keep in cool conditions until at least May of the following year. 
      Crown Prince - before the knife goes in
  • Butternut squash - two varieties of this, Harrier and Hunter, both grown for northern European conditions. Butternuts always produce a load of male flowers and take an age before any female flowers appear, but these varieties take off (sorry) a bit sooner than normal. We got a very good crop from both varieties - I've never seen either of them in France and Hunter actually came from the BBC's "Dig in" project. They look, taste and perform very much alike, producing a light-tan barrel-shaped or gourd-shaped squash that taste excellent and keep until at least March. We had to hand-pollinate to produce a decent crop - strip the petals off a male flower and dust the pollen into a female flower. Any kind of male squash flower will do for this, including courgette.
  • Red Kuri or Uchiki Kuri or Red Onion Squash - a Japanese name for the French potimarron. Graines Baumaux reckon that Red Kuri is a superior strain of potimarron, and sells seeds both of the Japanese and French strains. This is a very pretty, tasty squash, onion shaped, deep orange when ripe and comes in a nice range of sizes, from a few hundred grammes to a kilo and a half. It is truly prolific and  produces fruit much earlier than the other two. The flesh is less dense than butternut or Crown Prince, of a rich chestnut flavour. They don't keep as well as the other two, but still store well into the winter.
Red onion squash or potimarron

Here's the recipe for Pumpkin Preserve - thanks to Virginia Sandon for this!

To each 4lb / 1800g pumpkin you will require:
     4lb / 1800g sugar
     ½ lb / 225g butter (unsalted)
     juice and zest of 6 lemons

Remove seed and peel from pumpkin and cut into dice approximately ½ inch / 1cm square. I find it easiest to quarter a hard pumpkin like Crown Prince, remove the seeds, cut it into 1cm slices vertically, peel the slices then dice them. Steam the diced pumpkin for half an hour or until soft enough to penetrate easily with the tip of a sharp knife. If using soft moist pumpkin, place the cooked pumpkin in a muslin bag and drain overnight (not necessary with Crown Prince or butternut). Weigh the cooked pumpkin and measure the other ingredients accordingly.

Put everything in a preserving pan and bring gently to the boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil gently for 20 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. The result should be a fairly thick spread; some little pieces of pumpkin may be expected. Put into warmed jars and seal.

This half yielded 3lb of cooked pumpkin

The yield from exactly 3lb of cooked Crown Prince was six Le Parfait "Home Made" 385ml jars. These jars are on special offer at Intermarché at the moment at €9.90 for twelve - that's a genuine bargain!
Potted up and cooling - then on with the labels.

Friday 25 November 2011

And the beet goes on ....

Today I picked the last of the Cylindra beet (betterave), sown at the end of March and eaten (or given away) one or two at a time over the summer and autumn. The first one was picked on 24th June, so that's exactly five months of good eating. Not one went "woody" (turned into something resembling a piece of tree) or bolted (sent up a flower spike, rather a shame in a way as beetroot in flower can be spectacular).

Here's one we ate earlier, along with some carrots and parsnips.

I sowed the seed in a tray and pricked out the resulting 21 seedlings into modules at the end of April, then planted them out in mid-May. Beetroot seed are "polycarpic" - they come in little clusters and you always get multiple seedlings from one lump, so you have to thin out over 50% if you sow direct into the ground (or else buy a variety called Monodet which is monocarpic and expensive). I hate to throw away seedlings I've brought into the world myself - it makes me feel like I'm murdering them. Cylindra are firm fleshed, a deep purple and, as the name would suggest, cylindrical in shape rather than "round or globe", as the allotment show schedule used to have it.

We bake them combined with other vegetables such as pumpkin, or microwave them in a lidded Pyrex casserole with a little water for 8-15 minutes depending on size (the biggest, which weighed nearly a kilo,  took 20 minutes).

I also pickled some beetroot (variety Boltardy this time, which are round). Tim doesn't like "shop" pickled beetroot which he finds much too vinegary and catches in his throat. I therefore tried Miles Collins' recipe, which suggests a little sugar. This single thread has been going since September 2007 and has lots of additional tips and fine adjustments. I added a bay leaf, white peppercorns, coriander seed, a cinnamon   stick and a star anise to 500 ml of white malt vinegar, plus four tablespoons of sugar, boiled it up, allowed it to cool then poured it through a sieve over the cooked, peeled and sliced beet in a Le Parfait jar. The pickle has now had two weeks to mature so we sampled it. I think it's excellent. Tim rates it as "better than any pickled beetroot he's ever had" but he's still not a fan. All the more for me!

Thursday 24 November 2011

Cats in clover part 2

Our cats are both catnip crazy. For Christmas last year, each got a catnip fish from Culpepers (they sent small items like this to European countries by mail, very good value). Bagger licks his fish very messily, gets it nice and soggy then sucks up the resulting brew. RonRon rolls on her fish, or Bagger's after he's finshed with it. The fish started out neat white cotton items with a colourful floral print - now are both a dirty green from Bagger's attention.

Alas! Culpepers has gone into administration! We will have to grow our own catnip, or catmint, Nepeta Cataria (I have some seed, from Thomson & Morgan) but we may have to construct an island in the middle of the Aigronne to grow it where the cats can't get at it. Particularly worrying is the fabled old lady up the road with 30 cats - what if they get wind (literally) of the catnip? Here is T&M's catmint cat - an anti-Bagger to the life!
Don't let this cat meet ours or there could be an explosion

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Cordon Pied Bleu

I like mushrooms, especially wild ones, but only use a few, readily recognizable species... and one of these is the Blewit. We used to get these on our allotment in Leeds, so the first time I saw them here under the Lime tree I was very pleased. [For more on the Blewits go here on our Aigronne Valley site]

The ones I found late on Saturday were photographed, identified [to be sure to be sure] and then sliced and cooked.

These are the caps ready for slicing.

We had a simple omlette of Pied Bleu, Turbo onion and Lidl's Black Forest ham using local, "outdoor chicken" eggs [free-range], a spoonful of the "stand your spoon up in it" La Borde 'treble' cream.

Being fried up with the sliced onion, before the addition of the ham.

And talking of eggs... I wonder if there were a few broken windows in the vicinity of where this egg was laid. An 'En with a rifled bum!?

Ooooooo! Sqwaaaaaak!!

This was served up with a couple of leaves of 'salad' with Benedicta Citron mayo and finely grated carrot in a lemon and hazelnut oil dressing.

This is what it looked like on the plate with a hunk of pain épis to mop up the juices.

Simple healthy eating

Tuesday 15 November 2011

25 Carrot gold

The last vegetable we expected to do well in our stony soil was carrots. Stones are one of the reputed causes of "fanging" - forking into lots of little roots instead of one nice big one (another is fresh manure). Imagine our surprise when fine fat straight carrots emerged from the soil!

There was very little damage from carrot fly, too. This again was a surprise, as one of the commonest meadowland weeds around here is the wild carrot, daucus carota. Thinking about it though, the carrot fly population will be in balance with its natural predators, so the same level of damage - almost nil - as that of the wild carrot should be expected. The wild carrots come up with long slim white roots with a lovely aroma of carrot, though rather tough and not much taste.

This year we grew a French variety called Nantaise améliorée 3, available in the UK under the name "Early Nantes Improved". The "early" tag of this tasty stumpy-rooted variety means that it has a short growing season, enabling us to grow two crops in a year. The May-sown row suffered in the drought, despite watering, but we still got a few meals out of them. We sowed again in late July, on ground previously used for onions and shallots. The second sowing has benefited firstly from the rain and then from the Indian summer we are experiencing at the moment. They are producing an excellent crop and the next cake could well be a carrot cake.

We are also growing January King, a hardy favourite from England which we have grown for many years. They are also doing well. Carrot fly mined our former allotment crops into inedible black-and-orange mush, until we started growing under mesh, so thank you, nature's balance!

Friday 11 November 2011

Do the saumonette rock

The Thursday market in Le Grand Pressigny has a new fish stall - infinitely superior to the old one. No mégots behind the counter - "a little fagash with your fish sir?", I don't think so! The fish on the new stall looks very fresh, with bright eyes and a pleasant smell. The stallholders are apparently based in Normandy, but they are running at least four weekly markets in Touraine and Tim thinks they are using local facilities as a pick-up point for freshly-caught fish. Some of the produce that caught my eye were organic salmon, a large monkfish and an even larger whole cod, about a metre long. They had a good queue of customers last Thursday, so we thought "Friday - fish!" and joined the queue.

A popular choice was saumonette, which had a long cylindrical pink-and-white banded body devoid of skin. This was being sliced into steaks rather like salmon, but it was clearly a cartiliginous fish such as dogfish. Rock Salmon! That takes me back to my childhood when the chippie in Yardley served "rock". So rare was the treat of a chippie meal that I have no memory of what rock salmon tasted like, but Tim remembers it as tough. Well, overcooked fish is tough, and frozen fish can be tough too. It looked good, and at 14.95 a kilo was just over half the price of the salmon, so we bought a couple of steaks on the spot.

Once at home we googled our new purchase, and had our ideas confirmed. Wikipedia defines saumonette as the commercial name used in France for a number of small species of shark and dogfish, once anything that might put the prospective purchaser in mind of Jaws, such as the head, tail and skin, has been removed. Because of the size of the 'body' Tim suspects that the fishmongers' specimens may have been of the species known to fishermen in the British isles as "tope".

Google suggested a few recipes, all very simple. As we have a basket of late tomatoes ripening in the kitchen, a simple tomato sauce seemed ideal. I softened a chopped small onion in a little olive oil, then tipped in a small bowl of chopped tomatoes and a couple of garlic cloves, minced. Lid on the pan, cook for about twenty minutes until nicely mushy, then stir vigorously. You could skin the tomatoes, you could blitz the sauce, but I like a chunky sauce, so that I can taste the fish or whatever. Saumonette steaks into pan on top of simmering sauce, lid back on, cook on low with heat diffuser mat to steam for fifteen minutes turning once. I served them with pak choi and plain boiled potatoes. Saumonette has two new fans! Delicately flavoured, meaty, tender flesh and no waste except for the central bone. That's definitely coming again! I suspect it might make good kebabs....

Thursday 10 November 2011

Brioche Osborne

No not a way of cooking the Chancellor, or the budget for that matter, but a variation on Osborne Pudding. [Itself a type of Bread and Butter pudding]
The Good Housekeeping recipe uses brown or wholemeal bread.
But for this version I used a commercial sliced Brioche and NO butter.... except the 9% that was in the loaf... and also no sugar.

Ingredients are as follows:
The better part of a packet of sliced Brioche [all I had left were the crusts and four slices... but it is all down to the size of the dish you filling with the bread.]
A jar of marmalade [to use for spreading on the slices.]
Two eggs and 500ml of full milk [this is 'comfort' food!]
Some Vanilla extract - to taste [NB: not essence]

Spread one side of each slice with some marmalade [to taste] and arrange it in the dish.
You are trying to get a good amount of the top crust of the loaf in the air when it is cooking.
Once the dish is full [you may have to use some half slices towards the middle... tuck them in so that the middle slices are forced apart, or lifted up.]
Then, using a large bowl, whisk the eggs well and then whisk in the vanilla and milk... try and get a lot of air into the mix and then pour it over the marmaladed brioche in the dish... and leave it to stand. It needs at leaste 10mins to allow the custard to soak into the bread.
Then pre-heat oven to 180C [350F/Gas Mark 4] and once it is up to temperature put the pudding in for 45 minutes [or 40 if the oven is on fan assist.]
Meanwhile make some Bird's Custard!!
When the top is nice and dark and the pudding is well risen remove from the oven and serve up quickly with some custard [or cream or creme fraiche!]


Variation: Use Apricot Jam and some chopped moist-dried apricots [the ones that are sold to snack on!] soaked in Apricot brandy [or just use brandy if you don't have the liqueur].

Monday 18 July 2011

How does our garden grow?

Our potager is now producing healthily. We are experimenting this year with varieties that we know and love, and that have performed well for us on our allotment in the UK, as we still have plenty of unfinished packets. We are also trying French varieties, sometimes alongside British ones. Astonishingly, our stony soil produced insanely long carrots and parsnips (both locally purchased fresh seed), straight as you like with no forking! Beetroot and chard, both sown in trays and transplanted, have done really well. Climbing beans are feeding us nicely, and we may have overdone it with eight cucumber plants. Still, we have some nice pickle recipes, of which more no doubt in a later blog.

A tasty trugful.

One particular thing we noticed is the short harvest period for some crops. This was most true with the Petit Pois variety "Peawee" (available from Marshalls). I could pick a row on the allotment for about three weeks. Here the window between the mange-tout and marrowfat stages was about three days. Once the pods set, there were no more flowers. We picked the peas industrially, by uprooting the plants and stripping them, shelling them on the spot and freezing them.

Scuse the gardener's hands!

Generally, summer brassicas have performed poorly, under attack from battalions of flea beetles and aphids. We know a song about flea beetles, don't we? Back in May I tried red cabbage and tenderstem broccoli, both hopeless!
Disaster area featuring red cabbage and field bindweed.

The kales I planted recently are looking quite strong, and I hope they may do better. Red Russian Kale is a wonderful vegetable, highly decorative as well as excellent to eat, but I had to order it from the UK. Kings came up with the goods, bless them! Black Tuscan kale, by contrast, was on sale among the bedding plants at the Point Vert in Loches.

Monday 4 July 2011

The dreaded Onion Fly

My poor "Jermor" shallots, planted in November and just about ready to lift, were infested with the grubs of onion fly. The first signs were a yellowing of the leaves, which is also a sign of the shallots being ready, but when I lifted a sample of the yellowest, the bulbs were rotting from the neck downwards. There were signs of little white grubs (mostly dead) and a few pupae.

Grub and pupa of onion fly

According to my gardening books, this little perisher emerges from pupae in the soil in May, but I suspect that it was earlier this year because of the warm weather. The organic treatment is netting to prevent the flies getting to the leaves, and of course growing alliums (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks) in a different place every year, cultivating the soil well so that the birds can get to the pupae.

I'm sure I have had such infestations back on the allotment, but never with the same effect. But then there was so much onion white rot that I often lost 50% or more of the harvest. Some plotholders didn't bother to grow alliums because of the losses. White rot is a fungus, and its spores can remain active in the soil for thirty years. No white rot here! It can only come in on infected sets - moral, don't plant supermarket shallots or garlic!

The grubs have not in themselves done much damage, and most of them are dead, but rot has taken hold where they have been working - just above the neck of the shallot - and unless I cook or freeze the bulbs immediately I will lose the lot. For that reason I'm making some more shallot confiture. I'd have made that anyway, but not with green shallots, so it'll be interesting to see if there's a difference.

The garlic and onions are also affected. I've lifted the garlic ("Germidour") and found tunnels and pupae, but not the rot, as yet. The garlic harvest is magnificent, with large, even-sized heads and decent-sized cloves.

The Germidour haul

The wounds caused by the grubs have scarred over, so I've hung the dried bulbs in bunches in a cool place away from the mice.

Monday 20 June 2011

A sad day for Leeds

Brewing at the Tetleys Brewery in Leeds ceased last Friday. Tetleys has been on the same site, just across the bridge from the City Centre, since 1822, and 170 workers will lose their jobs. A lot of Tetleys Bitter has flowed under the bridge since then, and Tim and I have had a bit of it, not to mention Tetleys Mild and (while it existed) Imperial. Not among the world's greatest brews in my opinion, but back in the early 80's when we used to collect all the beers for York Beer Festival ourselves (no beer agencies then), we had to ensure that there was a supply of Tetleys Bitter for those punters who insisted on drinking nothing else. For every beer ticker there's a beer conservative, though the latter are now more inclined to stay at home drinking Smoothflow out of cans rather than they are to go to beer festivals, or to pubs for that matter. Thank goodness for the number, quality and success of microbreweries, both in Britain and in France.We had a very pleasant bottle of Turone Blanche yesterday!

Friday 29 April 2011

Getting the potatoes in

At last all our seed potatoes are installed in the ground, supplied with their ration of fertiliser and buried under as much soil as we could pick out from between the rocks. Richard Décharte confirmed our suspicions that we were actually digging up a cobbled yard in front of the hangar (metal barn). Back when this was a real farm, a big load of rocks was actually imported and laid down so that the cows would have something solid to walk on. The soil, when we find some, is extremely fertile, and all the seeds I have sowed so far have germinated, the latest being coriander and parsnips. I am watering them every evening - we had a sprinkling of rain last Saturday, but only one decent rainy day in the whole of April.
The potatoes are a bit of an experiment - seeing what varieties like our growing conditions. The order of play is:
Rows 1 & 2 - Red Duke of York
Row 3 - Sunrise (new variety)
Row 4 - Salad Blue
Row 5 - Jaerla (new variety)
Row 6 - Taster row of Sunrise, Salad Blue and Jaerla
Row 7 - Charlotte (we know this grows well)
Row 8 - King Edward
Row 9 - International Kidney
Rows 10 & 11 - Remarka
Row 12 - Pink Fir Apple
Rows 13 & 14 - Stemster
Row 15 - Sarpo Mira
Row 16 - Forty Fold & Yetholm Gypsy (Heritage varieties)
Row 17 - Linzer Delikatess
We still have to find room for leeks, beans, tomatoes, beet, chard, red cabbage, broccoli, kale ... The only thing that keeps me going is the possibility of finding a prehistoric stone tool among the rocks.

It's raining! It's RAINING!

Monday 21 March 2011

A touch of Pickle?

Behind the longère, a spiny shrub is in full flower. This is a sucker from the rootstock of the old plum tree, which we've allowed to grow. There's another specimen just the same in the orchard, but with no other prunus species anywhere near, and until now we thought it was a blackthorn, like so many other of our bird-sown trees. We have now identified this shrub as a cherry plum or myrobalan, prunus cerasifera (i.e. the plum that bears cherries). Myrobalan is widely used as a rootstock for plum trees. It has edible (sour) fruit rather like a sloe, but bigger and round, and it makes great sloe gin. If you think you're seeing blackthorn in flower right now, it's a cherry plum. The blackthorn won't be out for another three weeks.

OK, there's an obvious reason why we have a cherry plum behind the longère - the old plum. So where did the one in the orchard come from? We think it dates from our first planting, a mirabelle from the nursery that used to be near the Weldom store in Descartes. This tree got whacked when Richard mowed the field later in the year, and we thought no trace of it remained. When we planted the tree, we scattered a pinch of the ashes of our old tabby cat, Pickle, who died at the age of 19 years, blind and senile but still beautiful in her stripes. She was a tough old girl, and a reminder of her will always be with us. We hope to drink her health in sloe gin, maybe next year (don't count your sloes until they're ripe! But you can make a very nice drink from some young shoots, brandy and wine called Epine Noire - more on this later!!)

Prunus cerasifera... Cherry Plum. a close-up of "Pickle's" blossom
 For a full sized picture of Pickle in bloom visit Aigronne Valley Wildlife.

Friday 18 March 2011

Muffins - fast and furious

When Susan Reimer, a Canadian with a science background and a love of baking, moved to Britain, she was frustrated to find that her favourite recipes didn't work. Eventually she realised that measurements and ingredients needed translation - two countries separated by a common language, once again. Experimentation led eventually to a cookery book, Muffins Fast and Fantastic, now in its third edition, and at one time available from Lakeland, one of the great cookstores. I have bought all three editions, but stick to the second edition as it's ringbound - I don't have to bend the spine to follow a recipe. It's full of useful information on the different cooking cultures and terminology, there's an explanation of what each ingredient means and why it's there, and the recipes are just so easy! I've located and unpacked my set of nesting Tupperware plastic bowls. All I have to do now is translate the ingredients into French...

Earlier in the week I made carrot and walnut muffins. The result was very like carrot cake, but without all that oil. You can also add chopped raisins, or just make straight carrot muffins. I mixed farine de blé with 20% wholemeal cake flour which came with me from the UK, and this gave them a bit of extra texture.

For 11-12 muffins:
10oz (280g) plain flour
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder (half a packet of levure chimique)
1 teaspoon (5 ml) bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons (10ml) ground cinnamon
1 egg
2-3 fl oz (60-90ml) milk or water
2 tablespoons (30ml) honey
4-5 oz (110-140g) white granulated sugar or light brown soft sugar
12 oz (340g) carrot, finely grated or processed
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla essence
3 fl oz (90 ml) vegetable oil or 3oz (85g) butter
2-3 oz (60-85g) chopped walnuts or raisns (optional)

For cream cheese icing:
2oz (60g) cream cheese (e.g. St. Moret), softened,
4 oz (110g) icing sugar, sifted (I use ordinary sugar, ground in my old Moulinex)
¼ teaspoon (1.2ml) vanilla essence

1. Prepare muffin tins. Preheat oven to 375 - 400°F (190-200°C) or for a fan-assisted oven, to 170°C.
2. In a large bowl (the blue one), sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, and cinnamon.
3. In a separate bowl (the green one), beat the egg with a fork. Add milk/waterm honey, sugar, carrot and vanilla, followed by oil/melted butter. Stir well.
4. Pour all the liquid mixture into the dry. Stir just until combined, adding walnuts/raisins during the final strokes. Do not over-stir.
5. Spoon the mix into the tins. Bake for 30-25 minutes, until tops spring back when pressed gently.
6. Allow muffins to cool before icing them. If you want to ice the muffins, blend the ingredients using the back of a spoon (in the yellow tupperware bowl) and you get quite a runny mixture. Tim's more of an icing man than me, and he showed me how to do it - to build up a good thickness took three layers, allowing each to set for about half and hour between layers.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Golden Delicious

According to the R.V Roger catalogue, Golden Delicious is the most widely grown variety of apple in the world. It adds the information that this variety was found as a sport in 1890 by a grower in West Virginia, USA. British reference books such as Hessayon's "Fruit Expert", and reputable British Growers, advise that the variety is not really suitable for the British climate. Hence the thousands of tons of Golden Delicious in British supermarkets come mainly from France. And pale, bland and pappy they are too, turning to brown mush in a few days. I hate them, and I'd never buy them.

So why do I remember so well the first Golden Delicious I ate, as a small child in the fifties, as such a great pleasure? And why did I buy a barquette of Goldens (as they are known here) yesterday? They were sitting in the Simply Market saying "take me home with you" like plump puppies. They were large, firm and juicy, glowing primrose yellow flushed with rose, smell heavenly and taste - appropriately - delicious. And they are local produce - well, from Sepmes, which isn't exactly far. The last Goldens we bought kept for at least 6 weeks in the cave. Indre-et-Loire is one of the great fruit and vegetable producing areas in France, and the producers know how to store fruit so that it remains in excellent condition. They don't need to pick it until it's ripe, if it's only going 20 kilometres. The real damage to the imported apples sold in Britain is done by the chiller, where underripe fruit is kept just above freezing point in an inert atmosphere, effectively in suspended animation, so it looks perfect but starts to disintegrate because of cell damage as soon as they are put on the supermarket shelves.

Plump puppies!

Thursday 24 February 2011

John Bull Memories

From 1973 until 1987 I lived in York and it's still dear to me. Somehow I became associated with an organisation called the Campaign for Real Ale, can't imagine why. Another CAMRA member was Neville Hobson, who worked in his family bakery and yearned to be a publican. When his father passed away, Neville sold the bakery and sought to realise his dream. At that time (1982) there was only one pub in York that was a "free house" (the Spread Eagle): all the rest were tied to breweries. It was a struggle for anyone without years of experience to break into the licensed trade as Nev wished to do. At length he found an ex-pub, built in "road house" style in the 1930s, in use as a store by the Mazda garage next door. He and, as I recall, a bunch of CAMRA members cleared out the old pub, and eventually the John Bull opened. Thanks to a succession of highly responsible bar staff (Jeff, for example, and Rowan), the Bull became recognised as a great place to meet and socialise, where you could get an excellent range of beer and stonking sandwiches. Rowan used to get supplies for the sarnies from Sainsbury's just round the corner and across the river Foss. Half a loaf, a slice of cheese an inch thick, ditto of pickles and about two inches of green salad, were combined into a sandwich you had to dislocate your jaw to eat, anaconda style. On Youtube are two videos of the pub in its last days. The Mazda dealership wanted to expanded their showroom, and the John Bull was in the way, so in 1994, some while after Nev himself had moved on, it was demolished. On the first of the videos you can see the list of sarnies! Cheese, Houmous, Beef, Ham....

There was no juke box, no piped music, and no TV. Particularly nice was that as a female I could go into the John Bull on my own, or on one occasion with the cat in her carrying box (the vet was just up the road) and find good conversation on any topic whatsoever. Many of the regulars were staff or students of the University. This week we welcomed two of those ex-regulars to our house in France - they live less than ten miles away in Charnizay! Who'd have thought it?

Friday 11 February 2011

Do the Stemster Mash (it caught on in a flash)

For anyone living in France who likes a tasty mashed (puréed or creamed) potato, go along to your local Bricomarché or garden centre now and pick up a bag of Stemster seed potatoes. We grew half a dozen plants last year on the recommendation of an allotment association friend back in Leeds. Those six plants gave us half a sack of decent sized, clean and healthy spuds, including a good proportion of bakers. They are obviously very tolerant of drought, because they were planted in April then left to their own devices until we moved house, and they did better than anything else we grew. The skin is pink and the flesh is a pale creamy colour. They keep well too - we are still eating them, although down to the last four. The picture, needless to say, is from Alan Romans (see below).

An awful lot of seed potatoes in France are an attempt to produce a better salad spud than Charlotte (on yield possibly, on flavour - no contest) or a better all-round spud than Bintje (high yield not much taste). In the UK we used to enjoy the "Grow Organic" Potato days, where it is possible to buy varieties one has never tried before by the single tuber, or however many space permits. That introduced us to Belle de Fontenay, BF15, Roseval, La Ratte and Linzer Delikatess, all long-established salad potatoes available here and excellent they are too. However a commercial "sample pack" both here and in the UK is 25 potatoes.

No doubt many people like "mild" potatoes, but I like mine to taste of something. And Stemster is Scottish! It was developed by Jack Dunnett in Caithness, just as far North as you can go in Britain and still be on the Mainland. Stemster is one of a couple of villages in the "lowlands beyond the highlands" and the name is of Scandinavian origin.

Addition to blog - I ordered my seed potatoes from Alan Romans, ex schoolteacher, potato nut and now supplier to, among others, Thompson and Morgan. UK potato growers seem to like a bigger seed tuber than the French - it will be interesting to see if there's much difference.

My seed potatoes are now in a cool room in mushroom trays "chitting" - allowing the sprouts, that will inevitably start now, to grow upwards and not get tangled. Studies have determined that it doesn't make any difference to the yield whether or not a potato is chitted (sprouted) when it is planted. However it won't do the poor things any good to sit in a net bag (or, worse, a plastic bag) so that the sprouts go through the mesh..... So which way up should the potato go? There are three clues. (1) A potato normally has a patch where buds are concentrated; this is called the "rose end" and the potato is positioned with this patch uppermost. (2) The root connecting the tuber to the plant often leaves a little tuft or a string. This should be positioned downwards. (3) Individual buds often nestle in a crescent shape. This should be positioned to look like a smile.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Off on a Junket

Junket ... is another [like fruit creams and syllabubs] of the dishes fast becoming obsolete. In the west of England, especially, this preparation of milk is still locally popular, but elsewhere there are numbers of cooks who have no idea how to make it, although the process is such a simple one that no child who has been shown the way should fail. I found this quote of 1896 from M. M. Mallock's A Younger Son's Cookery Book while browsing through Classic Cheese Cookery by Peter Graham.

Junket (in french, le caillé) is a very light curd cheese, which is basically warm milk treated with the enzyme rennet. The name comes from the Norman French word la jonquette for a rush basket (les joncs are rushes) which was used to drain off the whey from the curds. Junket looks rather like milk jelly and is usually sweetened and flavoured. Rennet (la présure) is found in the stomach lining of an unweaned calf or lamb, and its purpose is to separate milk solids (which the animal can digest) from the liquid (mostly execreted). Nowadays much rennet is of vegetable origin, such as Vegeren derived from the mould mucor mehei. Tim and I are at the latter end of a chesty cold and didn't feel anything like cooking, but I was sure I had some rennet somewhere....

As Tim was going to Perruson, he went into LeClerc to enquire if they had any présure. The customer service assistant, a lady of 'about our age', replied that they did, because she had bought some there herself. She enquired of her computer, and got a surprise. "Computer says nooooooo...." Mallock's prediction seems to have reached France, albeit a century later. Probably the wholefood shop in La Roche Posay will have some. Meanwhile, it turned out we did have some Vegeren, best before February 2003. It's an enzyme! It'll be totally defunct! What the heck, give it a try! We have some La Borde unpasteurised milk. If it doesn't work we'll just end up with a pint of sweetish vanilla-flavoured milk, and I can make rice pudding out of it.

Vegeren's recipe for Junket is:

Warm 1 pint / 570ml of milk to 32° Centigrade / 90° Fahrenheit. Add 1 tablespoon (15ml) of sugar, a few drops of vanilla essence and 10 drops of Vegeren, stir well. Pour into a bowl, allow to cool and set. Serve with fresh fruit.

So I did that... except that I doubled the rennet, given its age. We used our thermometer from a sommelier's kit, rather than dipping a finger as implied by the Good Housekeeping Cookery book, to test the temperature. It was perfect! A pint of milk makes enough for four to six people.

The finished [and set] junket.

Next time I might try Peter Graham's recipe, which is basically the same, but with a different flavouring:

Warm 1 pint / 570 ml milk to blood temperature (about 37° C / 98°F, use a thermometer to be [on the safe side). Dissolve a tablespoon of caster sugar in 2 tablespoons (30ml) rum or cognac in a bowl and pour in the milk. Add 1 teaspoon (5ml) rennet - any more makes the junket taste salty - and stir gently. [I'd dissolve the sugar in the milk, much easier!] Leave the mixture undisturbed at a comfortable room temperature, i.e. about 20°C / 68°F, until set. If possible, transfer to a cool place for a couple of hours before serving. Peter Graham recommends serving this with clotted cream sprinkled with freshly ground nutmeg or cinnamon.

As served.. au nature [left] and with poached quince [right]

Wednesday 12 January 2011

The Spice Rack's back!

In our house in Leeds, one entire kitchen wall was occupied by a rack carrying all our spices and pulses, plus a few ornaments and bits and pieces. Tim made it from second-hand floorboards that he rescued when an old shop in Dewsbury was being remodelled, and you could still see the marks of stiletto heels on the wood. This rack travelled with us and has been sitting in the cave waiting to be mounted. The slightly narrower space available, and the need for access to the water piping and electric sockets, meant a certain amount of revamping* to the structure was necessary before this could take place. But it's there! Complete with worktop and space for storage drawers underneath. At last I have access to the full range of herbs and spices, and I can cook properly again. We can sample some of the many varieties of dried bean I grew in 2009 and packed away in jars. Thank you so much Tim, it looks beautiful.

This view will not last long... it will be hidden behind "The Island of Gorm!"

[*Ed. The revamp consisted of 2cm cut off each plank at the end to clear a plug socket and coming forward from the wall by 2cm to clear the pipes!]

Tuesday 11 January 2011

The Grimwade Perfection Patent Pie Dish

One of my favourite cooking items is an old oval stoneware pie dish, inherited from my parents. They found it a convenient size for a meal for two - a cottage pie, say, or a rice pudding. The dish is a little knocked about, but still serviceable. It has every right to show its age, which could be as much as a century - it's a Grimwade Perfection Patent pie dish, as it says in a bold but slightly fuzzy transfer on the underside. Furthermore, this dish is "grooved at bottom with 4 vents for air passage to prevent burning at bottom". A patent number follows which could indicate that the patent was taken out in 1908.

"Messrs. Grimwade Brothers established their Winton Pottery (Stoke) in about 1886. A wide range of useful and decorative earthenware was produced."
From: Jewitts 'Ceramic Art of Great Britain 1800-1900'.
After 1900 the firm was known as Grimwade Ltd, becoming Royal Winton in 1995.

Little seems to be known about Grimwades's utilitarian items, even though they are not at all uncommon on Ebay and other auction sites. Sellers seem cagy about attributing a date to their items. In addition to the pie dish, I have seen a pie funnel, a "hygienic drainer", a jelly mould and a pudding basin, labelled "art deco" or "20s - 30s". All bear the "Grimwade Perfection" blazon pointing out their unique features with instructions for their use. There is also a Grimwade Perfection Patent "female urinal" - a bedpan.

The "Quick cooker" steamer pudding bowl is particularly ornate, as it has several features designed to improve hygiene and reduce cooking time. An internal funnel allows steam to circulate through the middle of the pudding and cook it from the inside as well as the outside. The cover is grooved to hold strings so the cover and bowl can be tied closely together. The cook is exhorted, after filling the bowl and before putting the cover on, to place a small piece of pastry or dough in the hollow around the neck of the funnel. This will form a seal once steaming commences, eliminating the need for a pudding bag. Inside the cover you find advertisements for several other products, although unsurprisingly not the bedpan. As you might guess, I want one!

The next three pictures [from an eBay auction] show the marvellous "Quick Cooker" pudding bowl.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Rice pud

Rice pudding is a dish full of memories for me. The best of all was at school in the sixties. The fifth form girls waited on everyone else at lunch time, dragging trolleys out of the kitchens loaded with piles of plates and dishes of hot food. The rice pudding the girls ate was nothing to write home about - sweetened rice and water - but the staff always had the option of a real rice pudding as dessert. The girls on waitress duty ate after everyone else, and if there was any staff rice pudding left, there were squabbles over it. Cooked in the bottom of the oven for at least two hours, it had a hide like a rhino, a creamy texture and you could stand a spoon up in it. The real deal!

Going fast!

Also from my childhood - Sunday lunch always finished with a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice between the three of us. Pleasant, but no skin (the best bit).

Rice pudding was on the menu at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, only a few miles from my old school, when I was in for an operation a few years ago. I was really looking forward to that pudding, having not eaten for 24 hours before the operation, then being unable to keep any food down for another two days after the anaesthetic. Horror! It was sweetened with aspartame. Misery! Worst taste in the world!

At school, we girls all studied "domestic science". Everything - measures, temperatures, techniques - was exactly prescribed. It's engrained now - I find it really difficult to sling in a bit of this and a bit of that, or to measure using cups or coffee spoons. "A teaspoon" of something is 5ml, and "a tablespoon" is 15ml. These little measures come as a set, on a ring. I got my first set at the age of 11, when the manufacturers of Stork margarine gave a cookery demonstration. I still have them nearly 50 years later. Yes, I'm brainwashed. But I'm fighting it! It's rarely important for such precision to be at all necessary.

The changes in the recipe for rice pudding in our three copies of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book (GH) reflects the changes in cooking technology over the years, and the relentless rise of the exact measure. Tim's 1954 edition speaks of "a slow oven" - no gas marks or degrees, neither fahrenheit or centigrade. I got the 1965 edition in 1969, when I went to college, entirely in imperial weights and measures and fahrenheit. The 1976 edition in the longère kitchen dates from the interim period when direct translation of imperial into metric, rather than a truly metric recipe, was the norm, with unintentionally hilarious results. So the 1976 GH recipe starts off nicely metric...
45 mls round grain rice (three tablespoons)
30 mls of sugar (two tablespoons)
568 mls of milk (a pint - come on now! I haven't got a burette, should have nicked one from the chem lab when I had the chance)
Freshly ground nutmeg
A knob of butter

Heat the oven to 150 degrees centigrade / 300 Fahrenheit (we're doing OK)
Butter a 900ml ovenproof dish (that's a 1½ pint dish, can you find a 900ml one?).
Wash the rice and put it in the dish with the sugar. Pour on the milk (that's unpasteurised full cream milk from La Borde), top with shavings of butter and grate some nutmeg on the top. Bake for about 2 hours, stirring after half an hour.

Eat on its own or with jam, honey, bottled fruit .. also delicious cold. Serves four.

PS that pie dish is a whole blog entry in itself - we have a Grimwade Patent Perfection pie dish which does the job nicely.
PPS GH has recipes for both rice pudding (baked) and creamed rice (cooked in a saucepan on the hob). Ken's scrumptious recipe for gâteau de riz is therefore based on creamed rice, not rice pudding!