Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Suffolk food and drink: Hillfarm rapeseed oil, Aspall cider and Aldeburgh food festival

This blog was called The English Can Cook. The reason for this title was because, during the seven years I lived in France, many patronising and denigrating comments were made about British food. I don't write much about British food, partly because I don't cook or eat meat and many dishes contain meat. (But I think that we are world beaters when it comes to dessert or puddings.) But the reason the French are famous for their sauces is because they needed to hide the poor quality of their produce. British food may be plain in comparison but this is due in part to the high standards of our produce, we never needed to disguise it!
This last weekend I visited the county of Suffolk, a couple of hours away by train from London. I went to the Aldeburgh food festival, to Hillfarm and to Aspall, the 'cyder', apple juice and vinegar producers.

Aldeburgh Food Festival:
 Clockwise from top left: Valentine Warner with Diana Henry; Mr Bees Suffolk honey; hedgerow cordial bar; Edible hedging; VW icecream van; lady enjoying the countryside; microbrewery; Hundred River farm Suffolk hand-made butter; a view of the scene (centre).
Clockwise from top left: raw milk from Fen Farm Dairy; pickled egg competition; Pump Street Bakery van; the guys that ran Naturorange selling candied orange (centre); Hodmedods roasted peas which were delicious; one of the Hodmedods creators; Hodmedods range, I like their packaging; Saffron flour made from Norfolk saffron, I bought this.

Hillfarm oils

"We need to challenge the olive", said farmer Sam Fair of Hillfarm Oils. He grows, cold-presses, bottles and sells rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil has a fairly neutral taste and contains eleven times more Omega 3 than olive oil. The high amount of vitamin E enables the absorption of the Omega 3, but vitamin E degrades in sunlight, which is why Hillfarm rapeseed oil is in a dark glass bottle. Although the latest word on saturated fats is that they are not all bad - for instance, coconut oil is very high in saturated fats but the good kind - rapeseed oil is lower in saturated fats than olive oil. Rapeseed oil also has a higher burn point than olive oil, it doesn't smoke when you use it for roasting for instance. As it is thinner than olive oil, less viscous, when frying, it makes vegetables crispier quicker.
Rapeseed oil is a good neutral oil (although it is a brassica, so some people may detect a mustardy taste) to use in cooking, and importantly it is a British product. Sam Fairs gets frustrated with the amount of money that the European Union spends on promoting olive oil, about 15 million pounds a year. Some olive oil is quite poor quality, so it's worth expanding one's repertoire of oils.

Rapeseed oil is a British cooking oil.
Olive oil comes from mainland Europe and can be overused today. Rapeseed oil is our local oil. Every part of the rapeseed plant can be used: the leaves for greens and the seeds for the oil. In culinary terms, it is particularly good for stir frying and baking. I use it to make vegannaise.

Below: we did a comparative oil tasting: vegetable oils, palm oil, olive oil, rapeseed oil both cold-pressed and cheapo versions that are adulterated and called rapeseed oil. The big surprise was the Jamie Oliver 'light' olive oil, which was tasteless.

I've heard rapeseed crops are a bad thing?
The growing of rapeseed, known as canola in the United States, has been demonised for causing allergies and is a crop that needs the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which has led to a drop in the bee population. (From December this year the EU will ban this pesticide.) More pesticides of this nature are required after a hot summer such as this year. Here it is grown in heavy Suffolk clay, which retains moisture.

It's a tough life being a farmer:
Being a farmer is a risky business: it's expensive, a combine harvester costs 300,000 pounds. This machine enables the farmers to plough and thresh 130 acres of rapeseed a day. (An acre is the amount the average horseman can plough in a day.)
Sam is concerned about the lack of young farmers coming into the business, only 3% of farmers are under 45. "You need a lot of money to start up". There were County Council Farms for young farmers leaving agricultural college but these are being closed down or sold off.
When the weather is good, the combine harvester works late into the night and they work 7 days a week in the season. "I don't want it to stop", says Sam. "If the driver needs a break, I'll climb in and take over".
I tried the seat in the enormous machine, it is very comfortable and springy. "You need that, they spend hours in that seat", explained Sam. Normally the cab is littered with cans of red bull "to stay awake", says Sam's wife, Clare. The combine harvester is like a lawn mower, if it's damp it won't cut the rapeseed so any chance they get, when the rapeseed is ready, they are in the fields to gather the crop. Nature waits for no one. This year Sam will make a loss, he took a chance and hoped that the price of his crop would go up, it didn't, losing a third of its value. In terms of commodity prices, it is worth £100 a ton, but it costs £130 a ton to grow it.
The great thing about starting a business like this is that Clare Fairs gets to join in the business, developing recipes and doing demonstrations. "I get to see more of Sam", she says.
The brothers, Barry and Henry Chevallier Guild, who run Aspall, standing outside the manor.

English apple juice, tart but sweet.
Aspall History
Cider or Cyder, as an ancestor, Clement Chevallier, in 1729, called it, used to be so celebrated in Europe that it was regarded as better than wine. We seem to have lost the habit of drinking cider. I visited the Aspall manor in Sussex, the glorious seat of this family, the Chevalliers, who can trace their ancestors back to the 15th century. They count Lord Kitchener amongst their forebears. Brothers Barry and Henry Chevallier Guild invited me into their beautifully appointed living room where we looked at slides and videos of Aspall history. It was a bit like being shown the family photo album and old home movies, but this time of a particularly interesting and illustrious family. I watched sweet black and white footage of Henry and Barry as blond headed children in shorts, picking apples; their feminist grandmother Perronelle, determined to make a success of the business, one of the first women to attend agricultural college and a founder member of the Soil Association; the creator of their cyders, Harry Sparrow, after whom of their cyders is named, recounting the tragic years of world war one, where he served as a malnourished soldier.
British Cyder
Aspall are reviving the art of cider, making a range of ciders in different styles, from effervescent to flat, from sweet to dry, and a return to an original type of still cider, sold in English taverns of old, 'cyderkyn'. At the moment the market is being flooded with cheap Polish apples, as they can no longer sell them to Putin's Russia. Aspall only use British apples, using those that are not deemed good enough to sell in supermarkets because they are "too green, too red, too big, too small, not the right shape".

British vinegar
They also make vinegars ranging from apple cyder to an apple balsamic as well as the classic red, white, malt and balsamic vinegars. I use their cyder vinegars to make pickled apple relish, for instance. I talked to Henry about creating a British verjuice, something I regularly use in cooking.

I went with a large party of bloggers on this trip: virtually everyone fancied the whiskered and handsome Henry Chevallier Guild while making noises about 'always having wanted a man with a moat'. It was nice to hang out with these ladies; the breadth of knowledge about food amongst food bloggers is equal to that of any food writer.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Our food at the British Street Food awards in Leeds

Using recipes from my book Supper Club: recipes and notes from the underground restaurant, myself and Nicola Baker of The Noisy Table food truck have entered the British Street Food awards this weekend in Leeds. We decided, as we are 'newbies', to enter the less populated categories of the awards, drinks and desserts, so wish us luck!
The Pecan Pie: I made about 30 of these over the last two days. We completely sold out but I reserved a last pie for the judging today.

The root beer float: which is, guess what, primarily made from roots. Not giving away my recipe yet, saving it for a future cook book! We also did a 'float' version with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, one of my all time favourite diner foods.

Other stuff we served: the jalapeño, smoked cheese cornbread muffin with lime and chipotle honey butter.
 Fried pickles with chipotle mayonnaise. Finger lickin' good.
 Grilled Cheese: with options like truffle paste, onion, rocket, using Glastonbury cheddar.
Through the large window of the 'air stream' trailer, people would be peering in, it felt like being in a fish bowl. I would often perform for passers by.
 You're an embarrassment. Both Nic and myself had our 20 year old daughters working with us, rolling their eyes at our crass banter. Her daughter, Ells, also had her boyfriend Jonny working like a trojan beside us. Poor boy, the only male, he had to put up with an awful lot of middle-aged female cackling, tacky jokes and repartee about our toilet functions, especially once Nic's mate Jackie turned up. We were like the three witches of Macbeth.
 Ta da! It's me! Despite my perky demeanour, my body hurt so much I couldn't sleep at night. Plus my hotel had a banging techno disco all night. The people in Leeds were dead nice though, so friendly and humorous.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

British Street Food Awards in Leeds: my first food truck

Recently returned from Portland, centre of the street food world, I collaborated with The Noisy Table to participate in the British Street Food Awards in Leeds. I first met Noisy Table's Nicola Baker when she worked for me as a chef at Camp Bestival. I've been watching her progress on Facebook for the last couple of years since she shipped the shell of a vintage (1947) 'airstream' style (Sparton Manor built by the Spartan aircraft company) trailer from the States. Nicola has completely refurbished the inside as a food truck, with 6 burner oven, hob, griddle, fryer, several fridges and freezers. It is truly beautiful, almost like the interior of an aeroplane.
Then I saw a message from Nicola, a single mum like myself, on Facebook saying she hadn't got any bookings and was considering selling it and giving up on her dream of taking it on the road. Well we couldn't have that, could we?
So I messaged Richard Johnson, supremo of the British Street Food awards, taking place this year in Leeds. I came up with an American-inspired menu. Nicola arranged for The Noisy Table to be towed up to Leeds. We managed to accomplish this in about four days.
This morning we switched on the oven, hob, griddle and fryer for the first time. There were teething problems; no fire extinguishers for the gas bottles, the water pump wouldn't work. Some of the ingredients we had ordered didn't come up to scratch, always a problem when using new suppliers. But we opened at 4pm and sold out of everything by 9pm. Here is what was on the menu:

Home-made root beer (with float option) (*our entry for the drinks section in the awards)
Mac and cheese with either: truffle paste, parmesan and garlic breadcrumbs, tomatillo and jalapeño salsa (grown in my London garden)
Grilled cheese sandwich with rocket on sourdough
Black bean and chocolate soup
Smoky cheese and jalapeño cornbread muffins with lime, honey and chipotle butter
Fried battered dill pickle spears with chipotle mayonnaise
Pecan pie with vanilla ice-cream (*our entry for the dessert section in the awards)

Tomorrow it's a double shift but in some ways it'll be easier, we know this works, we know people like the food, we know, just a little bit more, what we are doing.
We'll be serving for breakfast:
Marmite on sourdough toast
Avocado and Jalapeño on sourdough toast
Toasted bagels, cream cheese and smoked Sockeye salmon
Toasted bagels, cream cheese and gin infused trout

Street food, like supper clubs and underground restaurants, is a chance for talented cooks without big budgets to start up a business. You are getting a restaurant-quality dish for the price of a fast food meal. And I have to say, I love doing this sort of seat of the pants stuff, took me back to the early days of starting the supper club/pop up revolution, to my Underground Farmers Markets. You are on your mettle, you push yourself until it hurts, there are always a few tears but also big laughs, plus it's fun working with a team.
Here are some pictures of the day, plus some of the other amazing food stalls in the British Street Food awards. This can only get bigger...

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cooking fish the easy way: the 'hobo' pack

Hobo pack sockeye salmon

Sockeye salmon, en papillote

hobo pack salmon
People are scared of fish. What I mean by that is people are scared of cooking fish, they think it is incredibly complicated, an expensive, alien ingredient, that they can so easily get wrong. The majority of fish is bought in the unnatural form of 'fingers' or rectangular filets, covered in orange breadcrumbs. Fishmongers have more or less disappeared from our high streets and we seem to have lost the habit of knowing how to make even fish and chips from scratch. The packaged filets in supermarkets is the nearest most of us get to cooking fresh fish. According to this U.S site, the most popular seafood is shrimp/prawns, second is canned tuna and third is salmon. While in Britain the most popular fish is salmon, then tuna (no doubt canned), then cod (as in fish fingers and fish and chips) and haddock.
The United Kingdom is an island and, like Japan, which has the highest per capita fish consumption, we should have a strong fish eating culture. Yet we sell our best quality seafood to France and Spain. Ideally, we should be eating two portions of fresh or frozen fish per week.
My suggestion to those who are nervous of cooking fish is to use the 'en papillote' method, it's very hard to go wrong with this, it looks classy, and you can add all different kinds of flavours to the packet. Other tricks to make fish cookery simple is to use a digital thermometer. Because I cook on an Aga, I tend to use the oven a great deal more than most people. (The Aga cooking rule is: 20% on the top and 80% in the oven.) When I'm doing a supper club, cooking for many, I'll put say 10 filets wrapped 'en papillote' into a baking tin and check whether they are done by prodding the digital thermometer into the centre. At 62ºc/145ºf, I know it's cooked.
This is a can't-go-wrong recipe using a technique that the Americans call a 'hobo' pack. Hobo is the American term for 'tramp', or vagabond.
The name stems from the ingenious ways that hobos cooked their dinner; being on the move, often jumping onto freight trains to cross America, they had no facilities to cook. So ingredients such as fish would be placed in a coffee can on the embers of a fire. It can be flavoured with tomatoes, lemon, herbs, garlic, and seasoning such as salt and pepper. Today we can reproduce that technique with kitchen (tin) foil.
The great thing about this method is that your fish will be perfectly cooked through but moist and flavoursome.
For this recipe, I used Alaskan Sockeye salmon filets. I served them on Sunday at my Secret Garden Club supper club and my guests much preferred these lean wild salmon filets to the fatty farmed Atlantic salmon. The coral colour of the flesh is pretty too.
I've got two versions here: one with red onions and kumquats, for I think that salmon matches wonderfully with all kinds of citrus. The other is with cherry tomatoes, garlic and olives.
You'll need some kitchen foil, or parchment paper, or this Lakeland product, one side foiled, the other parchment paper, which I love.
When wrapping your pack, feel free to add any vegetables to cook at the same time, suggestions include, thin green beans, mange tout, baby sweet corn, baby carrots, a few mushrooms, spring onions, some ginger and soy.

Wild Alaskan Salmon Hobo Pack recipes

Each recipe serves one.

1 filet of Wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon
2 kumquats, sliced thinly
A thin slice of fresh fennel bulb or fennel seeds
A drizzle of olive oil
Sea salt
Pink peppercorns

1 filet of Wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon
3 cherry tomatoes, halved
A few slices of red onion
A few black olives
1 clove of garlic minced
A drizzle of olive oil
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200ºc/400ºf. Wash and pat dry your filet of fish, place it on the slightly oiled foil. Add the ingredients of your choice, season and wrap up the filet with the foil. Place into the oven at 200cº/400fº and bake for approximately 10 minutes or until the temperature reaches 63ºc/145ºf.
Serve with some roasted baby potatoes garnished with chives and a scoop of creme fraîche or sour cream and a bowl of rocket salad. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Weddings and food in Sicily

Sicilian on a vespa, Palermo, Sicily
Mural on side of building, Palermo, Sicily
Sicilian eating ice cream sandwich, Palermo, Sicily
Brioche and gelato, everyone was eating these.
Prickly pears, Palermo, Sicily
Prickly pear, the vendor will peel it for you so that you don't get pricked.
Green figs, Palermo, Sicily
Green figs sold in boxes lined with fig leaves
Long zucchine, Palermo, Sicily
Long courgettes/zucchine
Large green cauliflowers, Palermo, Sicily
Giant green cauliflowers everywhere
sun dried tomatoes with pistachios, Palermo, Sicily
Sundried tomatoes with pistachios. These soft tomatoes tasted of the sun unlike the desiccated sulphur dried tomatoes we have in the UK.
Black olives with rosemary, Palermo, Sicily
Black olives with rosemary sprigs
Salted capers, Palermo, Sicily
I bought a ton of salted capers and caper berries
tins of sardines, Palermo, Sicily
Sardines are an important ingredient in Sicily, leading to  typical dishes such as pasta con la sarde, pine nuts and raisins
dried beans, Palermo, Sicily
Dried broad beans and la madonna
Fresh oregano, Palermo, Sicily
Fresh bunches of Oregano
Pine nuts and raisins, Palermo, Sicily
The pine nuts were longer than usual
Street trader, Palermo, Sicily
Salvo runs a lunch stall in the food market de Capo on the Antica sede dei Beati Paoli, selling battered broccoli florets, pumpkin in oil, grilled vegetables. For five euros, you can pick four dishes.
Sicilian children dressed up, Palermo, Sicily
Wedding guests
Sicilian calender, Palermo, Sicily

Sicilian children, Palermo, SicilySicilian children, Palermo, Sicily

aperativo, Mondello, Sicily
 Very 80s, fruit in a vase to go with my Americano cocktail
Cannoli,  Palermo, Sicily
Cannoli as in "Leave the gun, take the cannoli"
Sardines, Mondello, Sicily
Sardines at the port of Mondello
Wedding dress fashion show, Mondello, Sicily
Wedding dress fashion show
Ice cream poster, Cefalu, Sicily
 Ice cream sandwich menu
Tagliatelli with tomatoes and sea bream, Cefalu, Sicily
Tagliatelle with tomatoes and sea bream
Crema di cafe, Sicily
Crema di caffé, my addiction on this trip, a kind of coffee granita or slushy
Bruschetta, Mondello, Sicily
Bruschetta classica
Cefalu ceramics, Sicily
Cefalu is famous for ceramics
Beach huts, Mondello, Sicily
The beach huts at Mondello
Mondello, Sicily
Mondello port
What did I eat and drink in Sicily?
  • Campari: with orange juice, with soda, as an Americano cocktail with Martini Rosso
  • Ice cream sandwiches: French women don't get fat but Italian women don't care. For lunch everyone ate buns filled with ice cream. 
  • Granita: like a posh slushy. My favourite type was coffee flavoured, eaten in the morning with brioche or lemon flavoured, after dinner. These cost 2.5 euros.
  • Aubergines: their aubergines are round, sitting squat, the size of footballs. They are eaten in pasta alle Norma (pasta with tomato and aubergine sauce) or Caponata, an agrodolce (sweet sour) aubergine and caper stew, sometimes with swordfish.
  • Pistachios: green slivers, in pesto, on pasta, as a snack, as a spread, also in sheep cheese. 
  • Oranges: I wasn't there in season for the famous blood oranges but they are delicious sliced with either dark anchovy fillets or boquerone style anchovies in a salad, again that whole salt/sweet thang that I love.
  • Bruschetta: pronounced brusketta, with diced ripe tomato or slices of aubergine sprinkled with cheese
  • Cannoli: a kind of fried pastry filled with ricotta or ice cream. 
  • Artichokes: god I love artichokes. I can consume them by the jar. Big Sicilian ingredient.
  • Coffee: no one does coffee like the Italians, nobody. The cappuccino, the expresso, but I also made a discovery, 'latte' just means milk, you have to order caffe latte to get coffee in it. Plus I had coffee flavoured yoghurt, like all your breakfast in a small plastic tub. 
I went to Sicily because of a wedding that I wasn't invited to. My mum and dad were going and I asked if I could come. "You'd better not", they said darkly. "You'll cause ructions. You know what this family is like, a vendetta can start from the smallest thing". My dad's side of my family is Italian/Scottish/Irish. Everybody is an uncle, an auntie or a cousin, even if they are not. I heard family history recounted, old stories repeated, and the odd new one. How my dad, as a fatherless British orphan, was sent to Switzerland for a month as a child, a gift from the Swiss to celebrate the Queen's wedding. How Nanny Savino, who was born a Criscuolo from Sicily, moved to Naples and then England. How she adopted a son who was not 'blood' (this said sotto voce). Something about two brothers who set off from Naples and wrecked their father's boat and were too scared to go home to face the music so became part of our family instead. How Gennaro 'Gancio' (nicknamed the hook because he would pull the girls) Contaldo was courting a girl in Minori and my aunt had to chaperone them & how he stayed with nanny when he first came to England.
(Even my very English mum is not 'blood'. Nor is Auntie Sandra's partner who is clearly 'English' too. The English wives and husbands huddle together protectively at family occasions, rolling their eyes.) My family are supposed to be English but we are not. We are loud, expressive and emotional and most of us are fat and short like vibrant little cuboids made of flesh. But we dance well. This wedding was that of a second cousin, the son of Uncle Dixie who was a boxer, so I was not offended not to be invited. I arrived at midnight Saturday night as the wedding finished. Then I couldn't be accused of being a wedding crasher. 
Sicily is full of weddings; people get married mid-week. Every time we passed a church, a wedding party would exit, once simultaneously with a cloud of white doves. The men are sharp in dark smart suits, with the whitest shirts gleaming at the collar, a glint of diamond on their cuffs or even in their ears, hair slicked back. The women are a treat for the eyes; extravagantly beaded hair, tall shoes, flaming nylon dresses, floral sleeve tattoos. Like TOWIE but with a real tan rather than spray-on. The children are decked out in frou-frou prom-style frocks.
I was staying near Mondello, on the outskirts of Palermo. Mondello doesn't have many restaurants or shops, but has a clean sandy white beach with yellow umbrellas and pastel beach huts, shouldered by looming cliffs. Palermo is worth a visit, particularly the old town, with a food market and Romanesque architecture. I wish I'd known about this particular food tour around Palermo. We drove to Cefalu, along the coast, which was pretty with some good restaurants, rather more lively than Mondello. But a warning: if you miss your turning on Sicilian motorways, it will be miles before you can turn around. I wanted to visit Corleone in the interior, where the Godfather was filmed, despite the warnings that it was mafia country, but my mum doesn't like windy roads. Next time.