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.

20140304_114636

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.

20140304_130121

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.

20140304_150241

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!

Advertisements

An Afternoon with Blackwoods Cheese Company

Graceburn
As a huge cricket fan, you would assume that spending six days at the Salisbury Christmas Market with an Australian during England’s recent humiliation down under would be unbearable. Luckily though, Cam and I share a love for traditionally crafted artisan cheese as well. After spending a week together in a smelly cheese-filled chalet, I got to learn a bit about Blackwoods Cheese Company. Set up in 2013 by Cam and his three mates Dave, Rory and Tim, the company makes delicious fresh cheese in Brockley, South East London, using raw organic cow’s milk.

Yesterday I went with Cam to Commonwork’s Organic Dairy Farm to collect the milk for a batch of Graceburn – a fantastic creamy feta-like cheese marinated in oil and herbs. We loaded ten empty milk buckets into the company van – a wagon that bears the faded liveries of both Monmouth Coffee Company and Neal’s Yard Dairy on its sides. We headed south east, gradually leaving the city smoke behind and beating our way into rural kent, past muddy field gates and through winter woodlands.

It was imperative that we arrived just as the cows were having their afternoon milk. in the tank room next to the parlour, we filled the buckets with rich warm milk that came gushing from the pipe all frothy and steaming. While Cam filled up, I sprinkled cheese culture into each bucket so that by the time we were back on the road to London, the cheese making process had already begun.

As we got back on the M20, Canary Warf and the Shard loomed big and bright in the distance. When we got back to Blackwoods HQ, I got suited and booted and received delivery of the milk from Cam through a hatch in the inner factory wall. After adding the rennet and with the room temperature a steady 18 degrees centigrade, our work was done – the curds are then given time to form, before being cut, wrapped in cheesecloth and steeped in brine the next day.

We agreed that we should reward our efforts with beers and Chinese food. After a quick bus journey over to Camberwell, we met up with Rory and Dave, two of the other Blackwoods boys. Over pints and the best Chinese food I have ever eaten (at Silk Road), I got a sense of the exciting stage Blackwoods Cheese Company is at. With orders for their first three fresh cheeses picking up and a new washed rind cheese in the pipeline, the lads are really beginning to see their hard work paying off. An Australian raw milk cheese company taking the English market by storm. What better model to pursuade the Australian Food Standards Agency of the value and importance of raw milk cheese?

You can purchase Blackwoods Cheese Company’s cheeses direct from Cam, Dave, Rory and Tim at Brockley Market and Hearne Hill Market, or from their friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market and Covent Garden.

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.

 

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/

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.

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?

Experimenting with Sourdough

Every sourdough bakery across the land houses a bucket of gently bubbling, slowly fermenting batter made from flour and water. Some bakers call it a culture because much like yoghurt it contains friendly bacteria. I’ve also heard it referred to as sourdough mother or a starter because each and every new loaf is made using some of the original ongoing mix. Whatever you decide to call it, this simple mix is the baker’s supply of fresh wild yeasts. Adding more flour and water every day keeps these yeasts healthy and happy and it also means that the baker never runs out of culture. Bread leavened with a natural culture like this has been made for thousands of years.

Making sourdough involves a series of six or seven short processes with one or two hour interludes. This morning I fed my mother at 9am and again at 11am before going to work, then I left it warming in the sun on a south-facing window ledge. After my shift I checked the starter; it had become bubbly, giving off a sweet fermenting smell.

Starter Starter

I deemed the starter sufficiently active to make bread with, so I put 100g, along with 500g of bread flour, 300g of lukewarm water and 1tsp of salt into the food processor for three minutes, using the dough hook attachment. Alternatively this could be done by hand, mixed in a bowl then kneaded on a work surface. The resulting dough goes into an oiled bowl with clingfilm over the top to keep in the moisture. At 5.30 I put the bowl near the radiator, then I went for a climb.

Just mixed dough Just mixed dough

I got back from the climbing centre aching all over and excited to see how much my dough had risen. I am always slightly awed by the process, after all the only ingredients are flour water and salt. The stringy bits are where the gluten molecules have joined together to form long chains. This network of stretchy protein is then slowly aerated by carbon dioxide; produced as a byproduct when yeasts convert starch into sugar to feed on.

Dough after four hours Dough after four hours

The dough gets stretched over a wiped, oiled table which both stretches the gluten chains and, when carefully folded up again, aerates the dough. Dad stretches each batch of dough twice at Tracebridge Sourdough, but tonight I only had time for the once.

Stretching the dough

Stretching the dough

The dough is folded up and then shaped into a boule as gently as possible; it is important not to knead the dough at this stage. Sourdough is less robust and springy than packet yeasted bread which means that it needs some tlc. At 10pm the boule was ready to go into my swanky silicone bread tin for an hour’s final prove under some oiled cling film. At 11pm I removed the cling and put the dough into an oven preheated to 200 celcius for 40 minutes.

The finished loaf

The finished loaf

Cooling

Cooling

Cross-section

Cross-section

When I peeped through the oven door I found that my dough had grown and developed a beautiful golden crust. It is definitely a long process, but results like this make it worth while!

Valentine’s day photos

As promised here are the photos from the Valentine’s day menu I posted last week. I ended up omitting the prosciutto from the starter; my Italian employer told me that meat doesn’t go on bruschetta, and it did seem like overkill. I got to the  fishmonger on Magdalen Street just in time after work and I bought mussels, prawns and a big piece of coley; a white fish which is similar to cod. Having chopped the veg, scraped the mussel shells and blitzed the rouille beforehand, the meal was a simple assembly job when Annabel arrived.

After seasoning the soup, in went the seafood for no more than three minutes; just enough time for the prawns to turn bright pink, the fish to become flaky and tender and the mussels to hinge open revealing their hidden orange treasures.

Charred red peppers

Charred red peppers

Cumin, coriander and fennel seeds

Coriander, cumin and fennel seeds

Saffron strands filling the air with their pungent aroma

Saffron strands filling the kitchen with their pungent aroma

In go the fish and the prawns

In go the fish and the prawns

The finished stew

The finished stew

Artechoke Bruschetta

Artichoke Bruschetta

Tunisian Fish Stew

Tunisian Fish Stew

Panpepato and coffee Panpepato and coffee