Brandy Apple Pie with Cheddar Pastry

The pie filled with apple slices

The pie filled with apple slices

My roots are in the lush pasture and laden orchards of Somerset. I love this time of year in the West Country, when the countryside turns bright green as the weather gets warmer. This pie uses some of Somerset’s most prolific ingredients; apples and cheddar cheese. Like the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) which means that it must be made in Somerset by European Law. The soil and climate are also perfect for growing apples; such is the abundance of the fruit, the local farmers brew gallons of invariably strong if variably tasty cider.

If I was a self-sufficient small-holder then this pie would use up the end of last autumn’s wrinkly apples from the pantry. Alas the only thing I am growing in my Norwich flat is a pepper plant on the window-sill, so I have bought some bramleys. The Idea came from the April chapter of The Times’ The Cookery Year, which accredits the custom of serving cheese with apple pie. I then tweaked the recipe by adding brandy and spices.

Ingredients:

For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 1/2 level teaspoon salt
  • 110g unsalted butter
  • 110g strong cheddar cheese

For the filling:

  • 900g cooking apples
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp brandy
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 egg for glazing

Instructions:

  1. Cut the butter into small pieces and mix with the flour until crumbly.
  2. Add the salt, grated cheese and a little cold water and mix into a ball.
  3. Divide the pastry into two, roll one half into a sheet and line a 7 inch pie tin.
  4. Peel, core and slice the apples and lay them in the pie. Sprinkle over the sugar, spices and the brandy.
  5. Roll out the second half of the pastry, wet the edges of the lining and lay over the lid.
  6. Trim the edge, then crimp and decorate with the trimmings.
  7. Brush with a whisked egg, pierce an air hole in the top and bake for 35-40 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 220°C.

Crimped and Decorated

Crimped and decorated

The finished pie

In my excitement at cutting apple shapes out of the trimmings I completely forgot to pierce an air hole in the pastry lid, resulting in a big air pocket above the fruit. It ruined the aesthetic of the slice, but luckily it didn’t ruin the flavour. I cut the rest of the pastry trimmings into strips, glazed them and baked them for 20 minutes to make cheese straws. The top was very brown when I took them out, so I covered it with tin foil to stop it from burning.

The bite of strong cheddar along with the tartness of bramley apples is a real taste of Somerset. All I need now is a pint of scrumpey and the Wurzels on loud to transport me back to the West Country.

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Eating Organic Fruit and Veg for my Health, my Local Economy and my Genes

DSCF4577

Contents of my organic fruit and veg box (there was another apple and another orange but I ate them already). It comes to £12.30.

When the omnivore’s dilemma strikes there’s no shortage of conflicting advice on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. Yet in the supermarkets the decision often boils down to “do I eat healthily, or do I eat cheaply?” The abundance of processed ready meals in our supermarkets is a testament to our habit of choosing the latter. We are forgetting  how to prepare food from scratch and as a result we are getting fatter; “61.3% of adults and 30% of children aged between 2 and 15” are overweight (Gov.uk).  

Food decisions boil down to trust – whether you are trusting money-hungry corporations like Premier Foods to process your food or whether you process it yourself, trusting a local supplier and your own hands. For me a weekly organic veg box is invaluable to achieving this end; providing me with a variety of produce grown in local fields and polytunnels that changes week by week and season by season. I see this as a weekly investment in my health because once I have the produce, I want to use it all up. Furthermore I don’t have to trudge around the supermarket after work because it is delivered to my door. The soil association’s Organic Market Report shows that I am not the only one feeling this way; “Organic box scheme sales grew by 4.4% last year, while supermarket own-label (organic) sales dropped by 11.2%”. I like to know that these fruits and vegetables are free from artificial fertilisers and pesticides and its reassuring that my grandmother would recognise them, and her grandmother and so on.

In her book Deep Nutrition, Catherine Shanahan explores the benefits of eating the same foods as our ancestors. The diets of tribes like the San, Maasai, Himba, Kombai and Mongolian Nomad “still connect them to a healthy living environment whose beauty, in a very real sense, expresses itself through their bodies”. Shanahan’s research indicates that  we can ameliorate our genes within our lifetime by eating a healthy diet. I’m under no illusion that my diet will stop my hair migrating from my head to my toes (and everywhere in-between), but I know that I feel better in my skin for eating healthily.

It seems obvious that we should be eating the same roots, grains, fruits and vegetables that our ancestors ate, but its taken a geezer from Essex to remind us to pay more respect to our food and consequently to our bodies. Unlike the Massai and the Himba we are loosing the habit of respecting our elders and learning their skills and knowledge. Even now most extended families have parents and grandparents who remember the days before ready meals and the fast food boom; for whom cooking from scratch was the only option. 

You don’t have to be a hippy to make a connection with the land you inhabit. Why not give an organic veg box a go? The first two of these companies give money off your first box for an added incentive!

http://www.arthursorganics.co.uk/ (The company I use).

http://www.broadlandvegboxes.co.uk/

http://www.riverford.co.uk/

Wexford Beef Bones/ Why to eat Bone Broth

The transformation

The transformation begins

I might be flagging a dead horse by going on about the obscure bits of the animal, but everyone and their mum seems to be flogging a dead horse at the minute so I’m going to go ahead and talk about bones.

Annabel and I stayed with her parents last week on their farm in County Wexford, Ireland.  I was lucky to get to help Annabel’s Dad Servaas, her uncle Jan and her cousin Kees butcher half a cow. Amongst the cuts we made were fillet and rump steaks, topside roasting joints and majestic french trimmed beef ribs. My job was to mince about 30kg of lean meat and trimmings and bag it into 500g portions for the freezer. The pile of butchered meat rose and rose and the bone bucket filled. After an hour or so the butchery was done and we had worked up an appetite!

At work

At work

Mince man

Mince man

Tonks! What are you doing in here?

Tonks! what are you doing in here?

For lunch Annabel’s mum Frederike made french onion soup from home made beef marrow bone stock. No powdered bouillon can begin to compare to the wholesome goodness of simmered bones and vegetables. The taste of sweet and savoury caramelised onion paired with this rich meaty stock was fantastic and the dish was perfected by a soggy piece of cheese on toast floating in my soup bowl.

As I ate i could feel my immune system giving me a pat on the back. Eating bone stock boosts the health of the collagen in your tendons, ligaments and the ends of your bones. It’s good for you hair, nails and skin as well; In her book Deep Nutrition, Catherine Shanahan calls it ‘a youth serum capable of rejuvenating your body; no matter what your age.’

Gravy granules stand In opposition to this newfound holy grail of mine. They epitomise the turn our food culture has taken; away from slow, traditional processes towards ease and speed. To rub salt into the wound, the slogan “Aah Bisto” taps into a widespread emotive response to a home-cooked family meal. This emotional blackmail is propagated by Premier Foods, who also bring us Hovis, Mr Kipling and Ambrosia. The sad thing is that Bisto has won the hearts of the nation; a product that is as generic in flavour as it is devoid in nutritional value, while gravy made with real stock has been forgotten. If only the nation could taste Frederike’s onion soup, they might have tasted something worth sighing over.

Bones shouldn’t be given straight to the dog or left at the butcher’s. They should be roasted and then boiled with carrot, onion, celery and a bouquet garni. When strained, the beautiful liquid makes the best and the healthiest soups, sauces and gravies known to man. If your immune system was in the driving seat rather than your stomach, I think it would throw away the meat and use the bones instead. 

Ever got lost in Norwich Market?

Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855

I am an experimental cook and I often need one of Norwich Market retailers’ specialist products, but the thought of venturing into the market maze puts me off. Its fine if you have time to mosey around, but a pain if you’re in a rush; there isn’t even a decent map of the stalls. Tom Loudon of Folland’s Organics agrees that this is a real issue for the market; “people get lost and have to ask for directions because the signs are put up so high people don’t clock it”.  When asked how he would improve the market he said “more symbiosis between the stalls”. Why not have one zone for food, one for clothes, one for toys and another for books? Folland’s current neighbours’ underwear stall hardly drives the customers their way!

Though the market remains in the same central location as it has for the last 700 years, its significance to the lives of the people of Norwich has dwindled. The Market no longer feeds the city because the stall-holders can’t compete with supermarket prices. As a result they either evolve to sell specialist goods, or they disappear; to be replaced by stalls selling orange plastic guns and novelty clothing. The market’s 34 vacant stalls are a testament to how difficult this task can be. Folland’s Organics is one stall that has found its niche. Stall-owner Rob Folland and Tom Louden have sold organic fruit, vegetables and sundries for three years. Tom puts Folland’s success down to their customer base, in that people who buy organic tend to have an aversion to supermarket shopping.

In 2005 Norwich City Council invested more than £5 million on the refurbishment of the market. The aim was to renovate the old market while retaining its character. A birds-eye view of the colourful new design suggests that they succeeded, but the view from the inside is quite different. When the stalls are locked up the market’s aisles look identically bleak, making it even harder to navigate. The Times described the new market as “an anaemic shopping mall for health and safety inspectors: straight lines, wipe-clean boxy cubicles, all life and love drained out.” The 2005 refurbishment was the perfect opportunity for the council to regroup the stalls into accessible zones and grant Tom Loudon his wish. Instead they instigated survival of the fittest; the desirable outward-facing stalls went to whichever stallholders could pay the higher rent.

Walking around Norwich city centre I can feel the city’s rich history. You could wander down Elm Hill, with its cobbled street and distinctive Tudor houses. Or you might walk the other way through the Norwich Lanes towards the Market. Overlooked by the Norman Castle from the east and flanked on the south and west by St Peter Mancroft and City Hall respectively, the market’s colourful striped roofs and awnings seem to complete the picture postcard. But is the market living up to its historical roots and its current potential?

If it were up to me I would accept the five million spent in 2005 as being a bad investment and turn the market into an open square. This space could be used for gigs and performances as well as fetes, fairs and farmers’ markets. I would lose the stalls selling tat and instead focus on local produce; I would put real food back into the heart of the city and make it accessible to the people.

Review of The Vine Thai Restaurant, Norwich

Having recently graduated from being an impoverished student at UEA, there have not been many times when I have been able to spend £60 on a meal out. I am an enthusiastic cook and having worked many food jobs I have high expectations. A few people had recommended The Vine Thai Restaurant on Dove Street in Norwich so Annabel and I decided to check it out.

Walking into the restaurant is like stepping into a doll’s house. Two locals were sat at a bar that couldn’t have been more than two metres long in a room that held five small tables. I soon realised that its not the size of the bar that counts though but the quality of the booze in its taps and being a CAMRA pub this was fine nectar indeed; Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, Norfolk Gold and HMY Britannia.

Up the narrow staircase to the side of the bar is the dining room which is equally as small as the downstairs. Through the serving hatch leading to the kitchen I could see plumes of steam as the rice cooker was opened and hear the clink of woks and implements. The waiter was very attentive and though he stood near our table for most of the evening his presence was not at all off-putting. After we ordered, the food came out quickly which is one of the benefits of a restaurant with only six tables.

Mixed StarterMixed Starter

The dumplings in the mixed starter tasted like they were from frozen, the tastiest being the patty at the bottom right of the picture which had a delicate lemony coriander flavour. It was the dips that made the starter though; home made soy sauce and satay sauce; plum sauce and chilli sauce with and without chopped vegetables.

Main course

From the left, Stir-fried beef with green peppers and oyster sauce, Goong pad med ma muang (Stir-fried king prawns with cashew nuts and vegetables), Red Thai chicken curry and Egg fried rice.

I wasn’t blown away by the prawns or the beef. In the former the cashew was the prevailing flavour but the dish was hindered by fairly tasteless vegetables just as the prawns were let down by the unstimulating sauce. Equally the green peppers in the beef were sharp and tangy and the meat was nicely pink in the middle, but that couldn’t make up for another sauce that never really turned up.

The fragrant, slightly chilli Red Thai Chicken Curry saved the day. The dish contained tender pieces of chicken,  rubbery bamboo shoots and a few fresh thai basil leaves tossed in at the end. This delicious aniseed flavour assaulted my taste buds and had me fishing around in the dish to find more; alas they were all gone and only the memory of the leaves remained.

Cleansing lychees in syrop and vanilla ice cream followed and then the bill. The meal came to £57.90; £48 for the set menu for two, and £9.90 for two small glasses of house red. Considering all of the above I thought it slightly on the expensive side, but due to the Thai Red Curry, the friendly service and the novelty of the venue, I still left a happy customer. I wouldn’t fancy tackling that tiny winding staircase after a few rice whiskeys though!

Ears, Trotters and Trimmings; a Perfectly Porky Pie

My ongoing quest to find traditional British food has lead me to a 14th century pork pie recipe in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England; 

‘Flea Pyg and cut him in pieces, season with pepper and salt, and nutmeg , and large mace and lay in your coffin good store of raisins and currans, and fill with sweet butter and close it and serve hot or cold’.

After consulting a few more recent recipes, I decided to give it a go. I made my ‘coffin’ out of hot-water pastry moulded around a jam jar. The filling is pork trimmings and smoked bacon from my local butcher. The jelly is made from trotters and ears boiled with carrot, celery, onion, peppercorns and sea salt. This concoction is boiled for three hours and then cooled overnight. The fat is skimmed off the top and it is boiled again, before being poured into the pie through a hole in the pastry lid.

Over the last few days the kitchen has filled with a catalogue of porky smells; from the foul steam pouring off a pan of simmering ears and trotters to the delightful aroma of hot-water pastry baked in a hot oven.

The famous Melton Mowbray pork pie is made using a pastry case that has been ‘raised up’ around a pie mould or jam jar, filled with seasoned pork and topped with a pastry lid. Like Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar and Jersey Royal potatoes, The Melton Mowbray pie has had a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) since 1993. Other pies make use of a band to prevent the bowing of the sides, or a pie tin with a removable bottom; some pies use minced, cured pork and different spices, but none of these pies can be called Melton Mowbray pies by European Law.

The jelly ingredients

The Jelly ingredients

Jam jar and pastry dough

Jam jar and a ball of pastry dough

The pastry raised around the jar

The pastry raised around the jar

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

Out comes the jar, in goes the pie filling

The lid crimped, the foil belt fastened

The lid is crimped, the foil belt fastened

The finished pies

The finished pies

After cooling on a rack, the pies are refrigerated to allow the jelly to set. They should be eaten at room temperature with chutney or piccalilli.

I find it Ironic that many of today’s meat eaters shun cuts like offal and trotters while scoffing processed meat products by the kilo. This is an unsustainable way of eating meat. Using the whole animal is the best way to respect a creature that has been sacrificed for our tables and cooking from scratch is the only way to respect our own bodies. I have decided recently to eat less meat, and when I do to seek out the most weird and wonderful cuts on offer in my local butcher. If I’m going to dine on pigs ears I at least want the bragging rights of knowingly doing so.

The lesson we need to learn from the horse meat scandal is not to tighten up regulations and increase spot checks, but to stop eating processed meat all together.

Spinach Saffron Pearl Barley with Roasted Vegetables

Spinach saffron pearl barley with roasted vegetables

Spinach saffron pearl barley with roasted vegetables

When its cold, wet and dark outside, the oven-side is the best place to be. From the moment the dial is turned to the rush of hot air exploding into the room when the door is opened and the dish removed, the prospect of a delicious meal in a cozy kitchen banishes winter doom and gloom. Through the oven door the Butternut squash gradually softens as the edges of the onions begin to crisp. The shells of the garlic cloves split and the skin on the bell pepper shrivels. In the yellow glow of the oven light the olive oil bubbles and spits in the tray while the whole kitchen fills with the roasting smell of natural sugars caramelizing.

Roasted vegetables

                                                     Roasted vegetables
On the stove top the pearl barley gently simmers away. I like pearl barley because It is rich in fiber and has a wholesome chewiness. Adults need 21 to 38 g of fiber a day; I have found that eating high fiber foods makes me feel healthier, gives me more energy and makes me happier. 
Saffron seeped in warm water

Saffron steeped in warm water

For the vegetables;

  • 1 red pepper
  • I courgette
  • 1 onion
  • 1/2 a butternut squash
  • 6 big cloves of garlic
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, or enough to coat all the veg
  • sea salt and black pepper

For the pearl barley;

  • 200g pearl barley
  • enough boiling water to cover
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 cloves crushed garlic
  • a few big handfuls of spinach
  • a pinch of saffron strands
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • a splash of olive oil

Instructions;

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees, roughly chop all of the veg, toss them in a bowl with the oil, thyme and seasoning then distribute on a tray in the oven.
  2. Steep a pinch of saffron strands in a little warm water and set aside. Bring the pearl barley to the boil in the salted water and simmer for 35 minutes or until nearly cooked.
  3. Drain the barley and dry the pan. Put the pan back on the heat and gently fry the garlic. Add the barley back in along with the saffron water and the spinach and stir for a few minutes until the spinach is cooked. By this time the Vegetables should be done; either mix the two dishes in a big bowl or serve side by side. Garnish with chopped parsley.

It is delicious as is (and totally vegan), or even better with a slice of warmed sourdough spread with pesto. This meal has the healthiness of a fiber-rich grain, the sweetness of roasted vegetables and an exotic saffron touch. An impressive meal that is very easy to assemble!

Stop getting ripped off in the supermarkets; buy real cuts of real meat from a local butcher

Why does the man eating his dinner have blinkers on? Because the horse in his lasagne doesn’t need them any more.

In your local butchers you can see the animal from which your cut has come; your butcher has nothing to hide and he is proud of the contents of his shop. Try doing the same in the supermarket and you will have a different experience. DNA tests on hundreds of UK meat products are showing just how much the big meat processors are concealing from us – how much they are cheating us. The supermarket employees don’t have the answers, but they might send you to one of their suppliers, where if you are lucky you might get shown the room where the last suggestion of flesh is power-hosed from the animal carcasses before being swept off the floor and sent to be processed.

Ready meals

Ready meals

What real meat there is in the supermarkets has been marked up so much that we are forced to go for the cheaper, processed alternative.They have us on a leash, thinking that we are making our own decisions when really they are making them for us. buying real cuts of real meat is often cheaper in small butchers than in supermarkets. The difference is that your local butcher has to look you in the eye when he serves you whereas the CEOs of big meat processing companies can happily screw you from a safe distance and line their pockets with the proceeds.

Processed meat

Processed meat

As if our food culture wasn’t already the laughing stock of Europe before the horse meat scandal. According to Joanna Blythman we buy the most ready meals in Europe, and we eat more packets of crisps than all of the other European countries put together. We are so used to seeing an ingredients list that is longer than our attention span that we have learnt to switch off. As a nation we have regressed to the stage where we scoff down foods made from liquid pasteurised egg, maltodextrin and diglycerides of fatty acids, and even my spell check doesn’t recognise this last one! I’m ashamed to think what my ancestor would say; who died from eating a hitherto unknown poisonous berry so that future generations might learn what is food and what isn’t.

It is possible to eat well on any income by buying the cheaper cuts of meat from a local butcher and eating less meat in general. Kicking the processed meat habit is better for your health, your wallet, your community and the environment; just because supermarket shopping is easy doesn’t mean its good! Britain’s green and pleasant land produces some of the best meat in Europe, but the reality is that without the support of their communities local butchers will be a thing of the past. Then we will really see how expensive real cuts of real meat will become in the supermarkets. Without the competition, who is going to stop them?

5 cooking lessons from my Mum

With today being International Women’s Day and with Mothering Sunday just around the corner, I thought that I would share some of my mother’s cooking wisdom.

  1. If a mussel won’t open during cooking, or has a cracked shell then don’t eat it. If it tastes queer, or if you have any doubts then spit it out!
  2. When mixing a cake by hand be soft like a feather; not heavy like an elephant
  3. Pasta should be eaten as soon as it is cooked
  4. Don’t eat the blue smarties
  5. The difficult part about cooking a meal is getting all of the components hot on the plate at the same time.

That last one is so important! Definitely one of the signs of a good cook.

The throw of the dice gave mum and dad three boys and though Bess is a constant source of female affection, she is more into long walks and chasing birds than anything else.

Nice Bess

Nice Bess

Mum is a woman who achieved a distinction in the Masters degree that she studied alongside working full time. A few days ago I spoke to her on the phone while she cooked a tortilla for my dad and brothers even though she herself was fasting.

She is a Quaker, a baker, a consultant and a cook. She is a Reiki Master and a gardener; she is a strong woman who has taught me a hell of a lot.

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie

I accredit my particular liking of oily fish to two childhood memories: The first is of a fisherman at Branscome beach on the Dorset coast who takes groups mackerel fishing in the summer. We would spend an hour racing to see who could catch the most and then barbecue the lot on the beach that evening. The second memory is from one of my favourite children’s books, The Mousehole Cat. Based on true events, the story tells of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock and his trusty cat Mowzer who brave the winter storm in their fishing boat to save the starving people of Mousehole.

Mousehole Cat

Mowzer soothing the raging sea-cat

In the book the storm is personified as a raging storm-cat who is soothed by Mowzer’s purring. When the intrepid duo return they bake their catch into an enormous Stargazy Pie to feed the villagers. Traditionally this pie uses whole sardines whose heads poke through the pastry crust to gaze at the stars. Baked in this way the oil released from the fish during cooking is contained within the pie. Folk lore tells that Stargazy Pie, along with other unusual Cornish pies, prevented the Devil from crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. He reasoned that the Cornish seem to put anything and everything into a pie and decided to return to Devon before they take a fancy to ‘Devilly Pie’.

In Dorothy Hartley’s book Food in England she claims that ‘the vegetable or herb that the beast feeds upon is the best condiment to it when cooked… thus, Thyme for mountain grayling, watercress for brook trout’. Now, I’m not claiming that pilchards feed upon the following, but I think that bacon lardons, mushrooms, leeks and a mustard sauce compliment their flavoursome oily meat in my Stargazy Pie.

Instructions

First of all make 350g of pastry an hour or so in advance and let it sit in the fridge.  Crisp up bacon lardons in an oiled saucepan and add the vegetables to soften with a lid on. In a separate pan boil two or three hard boiled eggs.

Meanwhile roll out enough pastry to cover the bottom of your greased pie dish and par-bake. When it comes out of the oven, lay six gutted, deboned sardines on top of the pastry with their tails meeting in the middle and their heads poking out of the side of the dish.

Spoon over the fish the sliced eggs, vegetables and a sauce made from flour, butter, milk and mustard. Then cover with another layer of pastry so that the heads are poking out like the handles of a ship’s wheel. Crimp the edges and brush over with an egg glaze.

Bake at 220 celcius for 15 minutes, then turn down to 180 for a further 25-30 minutes. Serve with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli.

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Pie vegetables

Vegetables

20130305_192248The fish laid in the par-baked pastry.