Urban Honey Bees

Lb and 1/2 Lb Jars of Balham Garden Honey

As a country boy moving to London, I’m still not used to the business of the big city:  the ever-present roar of traffic; the frantic scurry of endless herds of commuters; the high-rise sky-line under a sky criss crossed with aeroplane trails.

This human activity, however, doesn’t begin to compare to the industrial hotspot at the bottom of my aunt and uncle’s South London garden. During the height of the summer, around fifty-five thousand honey bees buzz in and out of each of the three hives. As I cycle six miles to work, Richard’s bees commute just as far in their search for food. Just as we humans can find pretty much any type of nosh we fancy in London, Richard’s lucky bees have a huge variety of floral delectables to sink their greedy proboscides into. Whereas in the countryside the farmers grow field upon field of single crops, the gardens of the city hold a dense variety of plants and flowers.

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Bee hives at the bottom of the garden

While the life-span of the average worker bee is just six weeks, the queen bee, who doesn’t leave the hive, can live up to five years. This discrepancy gives an impression of just how hard the worker bees work. As the days get shorter and colder, there is less food (nectar and pollen) for the bees and accordingly, the queen lays fewer eggs. By mid winter the colony reduces to around the ten thousand mark as the worker bees die off and are intentionally not replaced until spring.  

The jars in the picture are this year’s first harvest. It is a beautifully light and fragrant honey with a lovely runny consistency. When freshly taken off the hives, the honey is at its best, while the texture is still drizzly. Being a natural product, the honey can become stiffer as it ages, though it retains its excellent taste. If kept in a sealed jar it can last for millennia; Tutankhamun’s tomb contained jars of still-edible honey dating back to 1323 BC. I wonder which brave archaeologist decided that they had to have a taste.

 

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Dough balls in Parthenay

Due to my brother Henry’s interest in history and archeology, we always look for sites of historic interest when we go on holiday en famille. While in France this year, we wandered through the cobbled streets of Parthenay, a small, fortified town in the West of the country. After exploring the town centre and climbing the castle walls, we came across a novel French food experience.

Not far from the steep stone walls of the medieval keep, we found a little eatery called Aut’ Foueé, its doors invitingly open and a period decor visible through its large windows. Set into one wall is a wood-fired oven with glowing embers of hardwood at the back. The ceiling is supported by large black beams, under which worn wooden tables are laid with smart slate place settings and flanked by vintage cutlery. The jolly, pink-faced proprietor welcomes us inside, her medieval costume and warm, smiley face completing the scene.

Before the French revolution in France there was no such thing as a restaurant. In a restaurant you can sit at a table and choose from a list of different starters, main courses and deserts. You can even select which drink you fancy from a usually large selection of chilled beers and white wines, room temperature red wines and a number of soft drinks. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, someone who wasn’t of noble birth paying a chef to cook something that they themselves had selected was an alien concept. Instead, the inns and food halls all over Europe would serve one big pot of some stew or soup – the ‘plat du jour’.

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Which is why the food served at Aut’ Foueé adheres perfectly to the Medieval theme established by the traditional cooking methods and the period décor. We are served the one option on offer accompanied by a regional red wine or a cool local apple juice, served from terracotta jugs. Small flat breads are filled with an assortment of blood sausage, pork rillette, soft geo-rind goat cheese and home-made jams; all of which are brought to the table in kilner jars so that you can help yourself.

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While our host prepared the dough balls, she explained that in the past these morsels would be thrown into the oven to test the temperature, before the real business of baking bread could commence. Though less precise than the laser thermometer used at mum and dad’s bakery, this would be essential to prevent burning or undercooking the bread.

20140718_112552Quirky hand sink in the toilets

With full bellys and the last few flat-breads filled for the road, we were ready for the next drive; down to Ile de Ré on the West coast. As a new business in Parthenay, Aut’ Foueé is setting out on a brave venture. It is challenging people to sit down and eat without the customary element of choice. With the delicious home-made food they are serving and the fun novelty factor, I hope they achieve every success.

Little John

Little John 1

Me (left) and Cam (right) in front of the entrance to the cheese factory

I was delighted to be asked back for a second cheese making session in Brockley yesterday with Cameron Rowan, one of the four founding members of Blackwoods Cheese Company. In January I went along on an afternoon milk run to the Commonwork Organic Farm in Kent. On that day we added cheese culture and rennet to the still-warm milk and called it a day – leaving the curd to set over night. Yesterday however, Cam went on an early morning milk run, so I came at mid-day to see the magic happen. I arrived to find not only a batch of Graceburn on the go, but also a 150 litre vat of Blackwoods’ new washed-rind cheese, Little John.

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Cam checking the curds

Named after a cheese-thief who was banished to Australia for his crimes, the Little John is still in the experimentation phase; a little less culture here, a slight change in temperature there. The acidity level the next morning is the first indication of whether it is a good batch or not – if it hasn’t risen too much, then its time to get excited.

Every five minutes or so, Cam gently lifts and turns over a handful of Little John curd in the vat, leaving a small depression. The whey that gathers there is still slightly cloudy, which means that the curds are not yet ready to cut. It feel like nothing I’ve felt before – under a thin film of cream, it is soft and smooth to the touch; luke-warm and moist with a texture that is at once gelatinous and brittle. The Blackwoods boys rely on their understanding of the look, taste and feel of the curds at this crucial stage. Cutting too early or too late could ruin the batch and waste a morning’s work.

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Checking the pH and temperature pre-cut

The waiting cheese-maker is like a good slips fielder; ready to spring into action when the moment comes. The whey gathers clear in the depression and its time to cut. Fingers spread, we carefully lift and turn first the top layer of curd, then the middle and finally reaching right down to the bottom of the vat. The curd pieces gradually become smaller and smaller as they slip through our fingers. Where some cheese makers would use a harp to cut the curds, Cam prefers to roll his sleeves up and use his hands. The curd pieces should be no bigger than a 1p coin to let the whey drain out evenly when the curds are hooped; lifted out of the whey with a ricotta mould and drained through blue cheese cloth.

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New-born Little Johns

Its amazing how quickly we made a vat of curds and whey into  26 cheeses, packed tightly inside a cheese-cloth lined mould and compressed to squeeze out the remaining whey. The cheeses then get taken back out of the moulds, turned and replaced several times before going to Neal’s Yard Dairy‘s maturing facility in Bermondsey. This morning I got a text saying the acidity had only risen to 5.2 on the pH scale – in Cam’s words, ‘boom, not bad at all!’.

You can get hold of one of Blackwoods Cheese Company’s delicious cheeses directly from Cam, Dave, Rory and Tim at Brockley Market, Herne Hill Market, or Greenwich Market. Alternatively, you can also buy it from their friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market and Covent Garden. Look out for the 4/3/14 batch of Little John, its going to be delicious!

Buried Treasure

View from Deborah and Robbie's house

View from Deborah and Robbie’s House

Over the summer I went on a family holiday to stay with friends in the Ardèche. Its no surprise that the south of France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe; hot sunshine, steep wooded hillsides descending to sparkling rivers and bustling provincial farmers markets selling saucisson, crusty pain au levain (sourdough) and sweet juicy nectarines. For a food lover this is the perfect holiday. You spend your mornings sourcing ingredients and exploring the nearby historic towns, then its back up to the gîte for lunch, stopping off at the local wine co-operative on the way. In the late afternoon the only thing alluring enough to tempt you from the hot rocks on the river-bank is the thought of cold white wine and a fridge full of good produce for dinner.

When we arrived, after saying hello and discussing the cricket score, Robbie tells me with a grin on his face that he has a little project for me. My immediate assumption was that it would involve moving wood or mixing cement, but the task he had in mind turned out to be far more exciting. He had recently been given 100g of black truffle, sniffed out by a neighbour’s dog under an oak tree, and I was to make a meal out of it.

Slicing the truffle

Slicing the truffle

Black truffle, though less expensive than its white counterpart, is considered one of the most delicious foods around. A kind of fungus found using either a pig or a trained dog, it is often used diffused in olive oil or shaved on top of dishes. There are pros and cons to which animal you use; though the pig has an innate ability to sniff the truffles out, it is also inclined to scoff the lot before you can pull her off. Dogs are easier to control, though they do have to be trained. Its hard to blame the pig really; along with mushrooms, fermented fish sauces and meat broths, truffles contain umami – a savoury and very moorish ‘fifth taste’. I decided to make some fresh tagliatelle with a creamy mushroom sauce, and to garnish with shavings of the truffle.

For the pasta, I mixed 4 free range eggs with 400g of pasta flour into a dough, then put it in the fridge for a few hours. Deborah and I extruded the dough through the pasta machine, using all four of our hands to feed lumps of dough in the top, turn the handle and gently ease the pasta sheets out the other side. The sheets then went through again on the linguini setting, before resting on the back of just about all of the kitchen chairs covered in clean tea-towels.

For the mushroom sauce I finely diced an onion and sautéed it with some crushed garlic, plenty of chopped mushrooms a little cream, and some salt and pepper. While dad shaved the truffle with a razor-sharp knife, the pasta cooked in a few minutes in salted water and then the meal was ready. Tagliatelle with mushrooms and black truffle

Tagliatelle with mushrooms and black truffle

The tagliatelle was fantastic, the mushroom sauce a umami hit and to top it all off, the truffle was… tasteless. All the truffle shavings added to the meal was a grainy texture and some stray grit that had escaped our not-so-scrupulous cleaning of the outside of the fungus. After all the hype we were disappointed with the black truffle. However, home-made pasta is always a treat, and the meal was not a complete disaster. Hopefully I’ll try a better specimen some day – I can’t help feeling there must be a reason the pigs go so crazy over these black fungal nuggets! 

Chocolate Pot

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Scraping the vanilla seeds

This pot of vanilla infused dark chocolate is gently baked in a bain marie before chilling in the fridge for six hours; you have to break through a firm crust to get to the thick baked mousse underneath. This is a recipe from  the Chocolate chapter of Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. The chapter is dedicated to unadulterated decadence; every recipe rich with dark chocolate and double cream. I chose this one in particular because I like serving desserts baked in individual portion-sized ramekins.

We have Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to thank for this pud, who is said to have introduced both vanilla and chocolate to Europe on his return from Central America. Vanilla is the sun-dried seed pod of a climbing orchid. It is the most expensive spice after Saffron because the flowers must be hand pollinated and the pods dried very slowly.

Ingredients:

  • 175ml double cream
  • 1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthways
  • 75ml milk
  • 125g dark, bitter chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 2 small egg yolks (size 5-6)
  • 1 heaped tbsp icing sugar

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 140°C, warm the cream with the vanilla pod, whisk to disperse the seeds then leave to infuse for 30 minutes.
  2. Melt the chocolate in the milk. Beat together the egg yolks and the sugar, add the chocolate milk and vanilla cream  and blend thoroughly.
  3. Pass through a fine sieve and pour into small ramekins. Bake for 45 mins-1 hour or until slightly puffed up and spongy.
  4. Cool thoroughly in the fridge for at least 6 hours before serving.

DSCF4695 Egg yolks and icing sugar

DSCF4689Broken chocolate and milk in a bain marie

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Ready for the oven, what a mess!

DSCF4702The finished desert, you can see the spongy texture

I left the pots to cool on an improvised chopstick rack before refrigerating them. Six hours later we served them with some stewed strawberries and plums.

Urban Harvesting


Alf with the pigs

Me with the pigs in Somerset

Growing up on the rural Devon-Somerset border I have always been aware of the crops the other side of the hedgerows and the animals grazing the fields. In our back garden we grew our own vegetables and had chickens scratching around, laying eggs in all the wrong places and getting in the way of our football games. I’ve missed this while living in the city, but you can’t take the Westcountry out of the boy and I’ve found a surprising number of ways to harvest produce in an urban environment.

1) Foraging;

In Norwich in the summer there is an abundance of elderflowers to be made into cordial; if you know where to look there are sloe berries to flavour gin and blackberries for pies. The Rosemary used in the Anchovy and Rosemary Butter came from a bush just down the road.

2) Allotments;

Norwich is a green city, it is home to more than 1,619 allotment plots on 18 sites. The average rent is £40 per year for a 250 square meter plot; plenty of space to keep you in vegetables throughout the growing months. The only problem is the waiting list, which was three years when I last checked; clearly a popular option!

3) Roof gardens;

Edible roof gardens absorb water, clean the city air and promote green living in an urban environment. In the past growing food in London has been a pipe dream for many, but developing roof space into gardens is opening up acres of previously unused space. Urban gardens have been endorsed by Boris Johnson as part of the capital’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

4) Guerilla gardens;

In the city of Los Angeles there is 26 square miles of arable land, enough space to grow 724,838,400 tomato plants. Guerilla gardening is Ron Finley’s way of reclaiming the streets and providing an alternative to fast food; projects for the mental and physical health of the community. His team of volunteers dig up vacant lots across the city and plant fruits and vegetables; “we’ve got to flip the script on what a gangster is; if you aint’ a gardener, you aint’ gangster, get gangster with your shovel, ok? and let that be your weapon of choice”.

5) Aquaponics;

Dan Barber is a chef and researcher. His research into aquaponics led him to Veta La Palma in South West Spain where he discovered “A farm that doesn’t feed it’s fish; a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators; a farm that is literally a water purification plant… farming extensively, not intensively”. Aquaponics relies on creating a self-sustainable ecosystem, which is why the farmers at Veta La Palma don’t scare away the birds who eat 20% of the farm’s fish. The pinker the flamingos’ feathers, the healthier the system is and therefore the tastier the fish will be. Companies like FARM:shop in London use aquaponics on a smaller scale to inspire the local community to grow and eat their own food.

The act of harvesting fruit and vegetables, whether they are foraged from the wild or cultivated in a garden, is the best possible incentive to eat a healthy diet free from processed foods. Gardening is a therapeutic process that sustains the body at the same time as satisfying the mind. There is nothing like the feeling of planting a crop, tending it, and cooking straight from the garden; as fresh as fresh can be.

Lambs Kidneys with Anchovy and Rosemary Butter

After making a stock from pigs ears and feet a few weeks ago, I feel ready to face any part of the animal that crosses my path. The thought of eating charred, slightly pink in the middle kidney seems a trifle in comparison. The role of the kidneys is to filter excess water and waste products from the blood and for this reason I searched out the freshest organic kidneys in Norwich. I arrived at Harvey’s Organic Butchers just after the lamb delivery, so the kidneys couldn’t have been much fresher; the butcher brought them out still wrapped in their suet jackets, which he gave me for free to go in the freezer for dumplings.

The recipe I followed is from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. I’ve read that veal kidneys are one of the best things you can eat, but I couldn’t find any; the lamb kidneys that I used were delicious anyway.

Ingredients

  • 50g tin of anchovies, drained of oil
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 225g butter, softened
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 rosemary sprig, leaves only
  • black pepper and salt
  • 2 veal kidneys, suet removed and trimmed of any excess fat and membrane (I used lambs kidneys)
  • Watercress and lemon wedges to garnish

*I halved these quantities to make enough for two.

Instructions; (paraphrased)

  1. Puree together the anchovies, lemon juice, butter, garlic, rosemary and pepper. Check for salt, pass through a sieve and refrigerate for at least four hours.
  2. Cut the kidneys into 5mm slices, season with salt, pepper and a little olive oil and sear on a very hot griddle for no more than 45 seconds-1 minute.
  3. Serve with a piece of the butter and the lemon and watercress.

*I served them with roast parsnips and a salad.

Searing hot griddle

Searing hot griddle

Roast ParsnipsNeeps and garlic pre-roasting

Lambs Kidneys with Anchovy and Rosemary Butter

Lambs Kidneys with Anchovy and Rosemary Butter

One of the benefits of working for a deli is occasionally using the wholesale discount we get from our suppliers. For £3.60 I picked up half a dozen local oysters to guzzle down as a starter; I had one au naturel, one with lemon juice and one with lemon juice and finely chopped parsley. The first is the purest way, an unadulterated shot of Davey Jones’ Locker, but my favourite was the third option as the lemon and parsley leave a lovely fresh taste in the mouth.

Oysters and kidneys, this was probably one of the most adventurous meals I have eaten. You might have noticed the lamb leg steak on the left hand side of the griddle; Annabel was not feeling quite so intrepid! Kidneys are a great source of vitamins and minerals and the tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture of fresh young lambs kidneys is a real treat. Because there is not much demand for offal nowadays, they hardly broke the bank; four for just £1.50.

 

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.

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

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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/