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!