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! 


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.


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


  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.

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


  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!

No Mere Mushroom Risotto

Dried porcini mushrooms

Dried porcini mushrooms

Rice first arrived in Italy and Spain in the Middle Ages from the Arab states. The humidity of the Mediterranean climate best facilitated the growing of short grain, starchy rice; perfect for making a dish with a luscious sauce. The first ever risotto was made in Milan, containing locally grown rice and saffron. Milan was ruled by the Spanish at the time, which is why short grain rice and saffron pop up in the Spanish paella as well.

In order to make a mushroom risotto that stands out from the crowd I went for the sweetness of forestière and the intensity of dried porcini.


  • 20g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Half an onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 250g arborio risotto rice
  • 200ml white wine
  • 250g forestière mushrooms
  • 500ml stock (home-made is best, Marigold Bouillon otherwise)
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 3 tbsp grated parmesan


  1. Pour boiling water into a mug containing the porcini mushrooms. Slice the forestière mushrooms and set aside
  2. Warm the oil on a medium heat, dice the onion, crush the garlic and toss them into the pan until soft
  3. Make up your stock and keep hot in a pan on another burner
  4. Add the rice and stir to coat each and every grain with oil. From this moment the risotto needs to be continuously stirred. Set the timer for 10 minutes
  5. Strain the porcini; add the liquid to the stock pan and the mushrooms to the risotto pan
  6. When the rice has absorbed the wine, ladle in the stock, only adding more as the last ladleful has been absorbed
  7. When your timer goes off, add the forestière shrooms. Keep stirring and adding stock. After 10 minutes test the firmness of the rice. It should be slightly al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  8. Take off the heat, add 2 tablespoons of the parmesan and stir; keep 1 tablespoon to sprinkle on top.

Don't stop stirring!

Don’t stop stirring!

Rehydrated porciniRehydrated porcini

Mushroom risotto

Mushroom risotto

The end result was a powerfully shroomy flavour and a deliciously creamy texture; this is a food that is high up on my list of comfort eats!