Friday, 7 December 2018

British weekend trips: Durham and County Durham

Durham Cathedral, a location for Harry Potter films,  Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/

Since the Brexit vote and the resulting downturn in the value of the pound, I've been spending more time in the UK. This year I took acid for the first time in Cornwall (oh yeah forgot to mention that in the post), drank whisky in Oban, floated about on the Norfolk Broads, ate vegan in Stockport, ate puddings in Aberdeenshire, and walked around Winchester (to come). In early September I finally visited the city of Durham. 

Durham is famous for the cathedral, the Hogwarts courtyard, Saint Cuthbert, The Venerable Bede (religious historian), the mines, the university, and the North Sea. 
Durham Cathedral Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/
Durham Cathedral, the venerable Bede Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/
Durham City, Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/
Colliery miner's banner, Durham Cathedral, Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/
Durham Cathedral, Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/
Durham Cathedral, Pic:Kerstin Rodgers/

Durham Cathedral, the historic town and Miner's galas.

A tenth and eleventh century Anglo-Saxon church, Durham Cathedral has been used for both interior and exterior shots of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter film franchise. Behind the altar it houses the remains of Saint Cuthbert, a seventh century patron saint of Northern England. If you watched The Last Kingdom TV series, Cuthbert was one of the saints revered by Alfred The Great, and a symbol of a united England.

In the seventh and eight centuries, the 'Venerable' Bede wrote a history of the English which included St. Cuthbert. He taught and translated christian concepts to the Anglo-Saxons during the so-called 'Dark Ages'. It was Bede's idea to use the prefixes 'BC' (Before Christ) for dating history. His relics are also buried at the cathedral.

Practical tip: if you are driving to Durham, you need to park in one of the municipal carparks as the historic centre is paved. I know, I tried. There is no parking in the city.

The weather was drizzly in typical Northern England style. There are crooked streets, rain lashed cobbled paving, leaded glass windows distorted by time, little wooden shops and doorways. The cathedral and the castle are set upon a steep wooded peninsula, the river Wear coiled around the city. This is a characterful university town. 

Once a year, in July, Durham hosts the Miner's Gala, a nod to the long tradition of mines and worker's unions in County Durham. You can see a colliery banner in the cathedral. Coal was mined from medieval times, but many were shut down after World War 2. The death of mining was hastened in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and last Durham mine closed in 1994.
Durham, Pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

Gardens and tearooms

On the outskirts of Durham, I visited the 13th century Crook Hall, a medieval house and gardens that has been refurbished by the Bell family. Despite the rain, the gardens were particularly beautiful, with outdoor 'rooms' displaying an apple orchard, a herb garden, statuary, wild sections and a maze you could actually get lost in. 

The house was atmospherically spooky, real fires and candles were lit, and I'm sure I felt the prickling presence of a ghost. You can wander around the different rooms from the medieval hall, the Jacobean and Georgian rooms. At the bottom of the maze, I enjoyed a hefty afternoon tea with home-made cakes at the Garden Gate Café. That's the thing about the North, they don't muck about when it comes to portions.

Tea room in  Durham, Pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

 Crook Hall, Durham pic: Kerstin Rodgers/
Crook Hall, Durham pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

Stotties and Seaham

The North Sea is rough, cold and wild. Seaham is one of those old-style British seaside resorts where you will need an anorak in the middle of summer. I ate a Durham 'stottie', a kind of bread roll with a vegetarian sausage for breakfast at the Seaton Lane Inn.

Sea Glass

Seaham is famous for 'sea glass', a legacy from housing Britain's largest bottle factory. The broken bottles are tumbled about in the rough seas, and end up as delicately coloured glass pebbles of varying sizes, usually in turquoise, jade green, blue, yellow and occasionally pink or red. Sea glass collecting is a world-wide hobby, and I saw quite a few families bent over and sifting through the gravel.

The Northern Powerhouse?

The parade of shops in Seaham seemed to date from the 1960s: ice cream parlours, old fashioned sweet shops - windows crammed with tall confectionary jars which you buy by weight - and all-purpose stores which sell both wool and newspapers, fruit and veg. 
I did see poverty though, evident in people hanging around the streets and the run-down nature of local housing. This is a Brexit voting area and I could see why. People looked unemployed, many of the shops sold second-hand goods. Government spending has halved since 2010 and the transport budget for the North East of England is five times less than London. 

Elves old fashioned shop, at Seaham, County Durham pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

Luxury hotels and gourmet food in County Durham

Rockcliffe Hall

But there is money in the North East, evident when I stayed at the rather grand Rockliffe Hall, a few kilometres south of Durham. There is a spa, a golf course and a very good restaurant L'Orangery, in a greenhouse-style dining room. I ate one of the best tasting menus I've ever had, despite the fact that, and believe me this is a rare accolade, it was vegetarian. The kitchen is headed by chef Richard Allen, much of the produce is picked from the kitchen garden at Rockcliffe Hall. Allen and his team are doing all the pickles and fermentations so influenced by current food trends, but, and this is the point, they are doing it very well. 

A tasting menu costs £80 and the wine pairing costs £60. The food was accompanied by an original and interesting wine selection by charismatic Swedish sommelier Daniel Jonberger. 

I increasingly think going for the wine pairing in posh restaurants is a good idea, even if only one of you has it. (I did this at The Ledbury, and shared my tasting glasses with the rest of my table, bit cheeky but they were fine with it). In this way you get to try a variety of interesting wines that you would never pick yourself - it expands your knowledge - the sommelier will explain them all- and costs you less in the end.
The Orangery restaurant at Rockcliffe Hall, County Durham pic:Kerstin Rodgers/

Seaham Hall 

After my wild walk along the brisk sea front, I visit the elegant 18th century Seaham Hall, which has had a rather checkered history: it's been Lord Byron's family home, a military hospital, a whisky bottlers, a tuberculosis sanitarium and is now a five star spa and hotel. Sadly I didn't get a chance to stay there but I did have a delicious Pan-Asian lunch. I was surrounded by posh Mackem or Geordie women at the other tables, done up to the nines, while wearing white towelling bathrobes. Women from the North East of England are very beautiful: all chiselled features and silhouettes, influenced, I'm sure, by their Viking heritage.

Seaham Hall, County Durham pic:Kerstin Rodgers/

I was hosted by Visit Durham.

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Friday, 30 November 2018

The best food and drink books of 2018

The best food and drink books of 2018 pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

Liquorice, a cookbook, from sticks to syrup by Carol Wilson (Lorenz Books)

I love liquorice, especially the salty stuff from Scandinavia. I was delighted, then, when I discovered this book by a fellow member of the Guild of Food Writers. Liquorice started off as a medicine but has become more popular as confectionary. Wilson explains the history and production of liquorice from Pontefract to Calabria, and develops 38 recipes, from drinks and savouries to desserts. I’m keen to try out her liquorice brownies (chocolate and liquorice is a wonderful combination), Pontefract-style cakes, liquorice and fennel trout filets. Nice photography by Nicki Dowey, and a picture for every recipe.

Lateral Cooking by Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury)

Segnit's last book, The Flavour Thesaurus, was a world-wide award-winning hit, even visible on the shelves of the Camerons’ Downing Street kitchen. Eight years later, we have been gifted with Lateral Cooking, again different from virtually every other cookbook out there. No photos, no lifestyle aspirations, no pouting pictures of the author. This is a serious piece of work for those interested in thinking and experimenting with food.

Recipes are grouped into families or, more accurately, a sideways genealogy: Batter can become Yorkshire pudding or pancakes or tempura or blinis or churros, depending on thickness and flavour. The next chapter, Roux, another combination of butter, flour and milk, expounds upon both béchamel sauce and less obvious in-laws such as velouté soup. It's fascinating and engrossing. It makes you want to cook more - and there can be no higher compliment.

Flour, a comprehensive guide by Christine McFadden ((Absolute Press)

I'm a fan of one-ingredient cookbooks, obsessively researched and explored. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about flour. Western cookery, based on bread/pastry/pasta, is reliant ultimately on wheat, or grass seed, the basis for our most common flour. McFadden explores 45 kinds of other flour, from almond, lupin, cricket to sorghum, water chestnut and pea. 

Christine's knowledge is evident when she explains 00 flour, the Italian system of categorising flour by the finesse of the grind, as opposed to the British system, which is classed by protein/gluten content. 00 flour is the most finely ground, but has a protein/gluten content of anything from 7% (good for cakes) to 14% (for pasta or bread). The higher the gluten content, the stretchier the dough, the higher it will rise.

A New Way to Cook: Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound by Sybil Kapoor (Pavillion)

Kapoor's book has a premise: good cooking requires an appeal to all the senses. Most of these senses are well-known: sight, the appearance of a dish; smell, as flavour is largely expressed via the nose rather than the mouth; touch, which is texture; taste, spanning sweet, sour, bitter, salt, umami. 

I've never before seen sound suggested as a component. Kapoor reveals recipes for crunchy 'loud' chickpeas, talks about the slurping of soup, a compliment to the cook in Japan, the squeakiness of black Chinese mushrooms in a salad. I thought of the squeakiness of cheese curds in Canadian poutine.

The Missing Ingredient by Jenny Linford (Particular Books)

Perhaps in the era of easily available free online recipes, recipe books are obsolete and writers are turning to more conceptual ideas, as seen in this book about the role of time in food. The book’s structure is cleverly divided into units of time: seconds count when blanching vegetables or making caramel; minutes for fast food or tea; hours for sourdough bread or pulses or stock; days for smoking or pickling; cheese and beer demand weeks; the seasonality of different months; years for wine and whisky. 

By far the largest chapter in the book is dedicated to minutes, neatly displaying society’s obsession with time-saving when it comes to making our food. There’s a reason Jamie's 30- and 15-minute recipe books were best sellers. 

The Wandering Vine by Nina Caplan (Bloomsbury)

I always think that drinking old wines is a form of time travel: reliving the weather and conditions of years before you were even born. France-based Londoner Nina Caplan, who writes an award-winning drink column in The New Statesman, probes Roman history in a wine-drinking travelogue. The Romans influenced wine making, leaving ruins from Champagne to Bordeaux, from Catalonia to Sicily. The title of the book alludes to the legend of the Wandering Jew and the Jewish roots of the author.

Black Sea by Caroline Eden (Quadrille)

From the beautifully designed black and silver striated cover to the photos, maps and foodie anecdotes, this book atmospherically conjures up the Black Sea region. Only slightly saline, this body of water is surrounded by Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia, perching on the rim of a bowl that Eden calls 'the world's greatest kitchen'. 

The recipes are simple and doable: borek and Tsarist cakes, pilaf and fish stews, tahini and poppy seeds. It makes me want to pick up my knives, my notebook and go.

The Meaning of Rice by Michael Booth (Vintage)

I interviewed Michael Booth earlier this year. He and his family have become quite famous in Japan, part of an anime cartoon series. This book has chapters on Japanese ingredients such as nori, sweet potatoes, ramen, koi, rice, and whisky. The chapter on yuzu inspires me to visit the island of Shikoku where they have the harvest in November. Next year I promise (to myself).

The tone is dry and comedic but not lacking the investigative research of a Japanophile. If you are interested in Japanese food or visiting Japan, this is the book for you.

Aquafaba by Sebastien Kardinal and Laura Veganpower (Grub Street)

Restriction breeds invention and some of todays most revolutionary cooking comes from vegan chefs. Aquafaba, or bean water, was invented in 2014, by a couple of vegans, working separately: a French singer, Joel Roessel and an American software engineer, Goose Wolht. The slightly scummy water drained from a can of chickpeas (or other beans) can replace egg, when whipped up. You can make vegan meringues for instance. And it doesn't taste of beans, I promise.

This book runs through savoury and sweet recipes for aquafaba and a few things to do with the actual chickpeas. Try this at home, combine 100ml of bean water with 100g of caster sugar and whisk till firm then bake.

The Gannet's Gastronomic Miscellany by Killian Fox (Mitchell Beazley)

Books like this make great stocking fillers for quizzers, know-alls and fun fact hoarders such as myself. It's entertaining with a host of fascinating tidbits and information. A bit irked that I'm not mentioned in the book under 'Underground Restaurants'. Why not Killian? Bit sick of being erased by the foodie establishment.

Made in London, the cookbook by Leah Hyslop (Absolute Press)

Telegraph journalist Leah Hyslop has written a book celebrating London recipes, some long forgotten (Tottenham cake), others well known (Chelsea buns). She also traverses the current London food scene from coffee shops, best bakeries, London-cure smoked salmon and the gin craze. The contribution of immigrants to our creative and cosmopolitan cuisine is detailed: the story of curry, how Caribbean food came to London, and Chinatown. 

Let's face it, London is the centre of the world and more books like this are needed to celebrate it. Elegant photography by Martin Poole.

Potatoes by Jenny Linford (Ryland Peters)

Jenny has had a prolific year with books on time and spuds. As a carboholic, this is right up my street. I was even touting around a potato book proposal myself for a while there. When writers create a book, choices are made, and the first job is to devise a structure. Another writer would perhaps have assigned the categories of floury v waxy; old v new; or even styles of cooking (salad, fried, baked) and the appropriate potatoes for this purpose. Linford elects to appeal to how spuds make you feel: summery, sustained, comforted, spiced up or luxurious with respective recipes such as Spanish tortilla, miso potato soup, gnocchi, potato chaat masala, and truffle mash.

This is the perfect gift book for coeliacs worn out from devising gluten-free recipes. Chips with everything!

Superveg by Celia Brooks (Murdoch Books)

Celia is one of the best vegetarian chefs in the UK, although she originally hails from the States. She also does a brilliant food tour of Borough Market in London.

Brooks explores 25 vegetables from carrots to kohlrabi, coming up with unexpected ways to make Brussel sprouts and cabbage interesting. A perfect cookbook for meat reducers or vegetarians; there are enough recipes for vegans to enjoy it too.

Murdoch make beautiful books so not sure why this didn't have the hardback it deserved. I'm not convinced about the design but it has the usual brilliant photography by Jean Cazals.

Fresh Vegan Kitchen by David and Charlotte Bailey (Pavillion)

Not the famous 1960s photographer, but the former head chef at Saf, one of London's first raw vegan restaurants, sadly closed. Everything about this book is good: great recipes and tips but it isn't saying anything different to my book V is for Vegan. The photography doesn't do it any favours and there aren't enough photos. I think the Baileys should have held out for a higher quality book.

That said, it is a good source for vegan recipes.

The Indian Vegetarian Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant (Phaidon)

Pan-Indian vegetarian cookery by a well known Indian food writer and theorist.
The recipes are very original: quince with lotus root, bamboo shoots with green chillies, morels in yoghurt sauce. This is not your British Curry House fare but for adventurous curious devotees of sub-continental cuisine.

Vegetables, soil and hope by Guy Singh Watson (Riverford Organic)

Guy Watson is the charismatic head of Riverford Organics, from whom I've been getting my weekly organic vegetable for a decade now, complete with a newsletter. This is a collection of Guys' newsletters, with short chapters, easy to dip in and out. It's organised into seasons, but the years jump about from 2002 to 2017. That's the thing about farming, seasons happen every year, and there are differences every year, but essentially the problems remain the same: what type of potato to grow? what to do about slugs? the search for the perfect tomato cultivar? rain or lack of it? why won't customers be more adventurous and start to like cardoons?

Although Guy Watson was drawn to farming from his eighth birthday, he only discovered his 'veg calling' at the age of 26. Today he's a self-proclaimed 'veg nerd'.

I'm increasingly interested in food from a farming perspective as opposed to celebrity chefs for the last couple of years, spending the last few months travelling Britain and interviewing organic carrot farmers. I think a little more adoration of farmers and a little less junk foodie tv fandom would be a good thing in our society.

Barges and Bread by Di Murrell (Prospect Books)

Di Murrell spends much of her time on the water, mostly on British canals. This fascinating food history book deals with grain transport on the river, the time when domestic commerce was usually via the inland water network, prior to the first British motorway built in 1959. The chapters cover  pre-history, the earliest farmers, the Romans, London and the Thames and at the end of the book, her personal history on the water.

She talks of 'the constancy of bread' as a food product to be transported, and of course families and businesses living upon the water needed to bake their own. She veers into Michael Pollan territory, that cooking is essential for humans, that raw ingredients were never enough to sustain our large brains.

There are recipes: the earliest form of bread- flatbread; Essene bread - sprouted and 'cooked' in sunlight; Ezekiel bread - a bible recipe that God gave to the Israelites; Maslin bread - a medieval loaf; Manchet bread- using beer; an Anglo-Saxon bread. Murrell delves into the history of flour, what type of flour we use, mostly imported Canadian, and artisanal flour from local mills (something I always buy when I come across them).
Today fewer people eat proper bread as a result of the mechanised Chorleywood process "though problematically, growing numbers of people are finding that this same daily bread makes them ill".

I read this book while on the Norfolk Broads earlier this year. It's an interesting, gripping, philosophical, practical, food history from an original perspective.

Vegetable Cakes by Ysanne Spevack (Lorenz Books)

The cover of this book shows a ludicrously bright green cake, which turns out to be a 'rocket' powered cheese cake. We all know about carrot cake, but author Spevack goes further, much further. She has devised sweet recipes using vegetables: velvet artichoke heart cupcakes, spinach macaroons, and a gorgeous courgette rosette tart.

If you struggle to get your kids to eat vegetables, there are some great ideas within this beautifully styled and photographed book. If, as an adult, you battle to reach your seven a day, you may find the solution here.

Disclosure: All links to Amazon will earn me a tiny sum if you buy through this page. It all helps to keep the blog going.

Ps: I also highly recommend Victoria Moore's The Wine Dine Dictionary but I can't find my copy of it right now. Perhaps that's down to my new 'colour coding' system of filing. I'll be back to talk about this.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Warming Aberdeen recipes: Cullen Skink and Sticky Toffee Pudding

Findon, near Aberdeen, is known for the Finnan haddock, which makes the best Cullen Skink. I had a delicious bowl of this soup at The Silver Darling restaurant, overlooking the harbour. 

Aberdeen competes with the Lake District and Canada to claim that this is where Sticky Toffee Pudding was invented.

Here are my versions of these comforting warming dishes, perfect for the shortening days as we approach winter.

Cullen Skink soup

Serves 6

500g undyed smoked haddock
Bay leaf
Knob of butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 leek, washed, cut into chunks
4 medium potatoes, cut into chunks
500ml whole milk
Chives, finely chopped

Put the fish into a pan and cover with cold water. Add a bay leaf and bring gently to the boil. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.

Melt the butter in another pan on a medium-low heat, adding the onion and the leek. Cover and allow to sweat, without colouring, for about 10 minutes until softened. Season with black pepper.

Stir in the potatoes, then pour in the haddock cooking liquor and bring to a simmer. 

Break the haddock into flakes, reserving some for the garnish. Lift out a few potatoes and leeks, also for garnish. 

Add the milk and half the haddock to the pan, stir then blend.

Season and serve the soup with a garnish of potato, leek and haddock in each bowl, plus a sprinkling of chives.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Serves 6

200g whole dates, stoned and roughly chopped
150ml coffee
1 tsp vanilla  
90g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
150g light muscovado sugar
2 large free-range eggs
2 tbsp maple syrup
175g self-raising flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100ml whole milk (preferably jersey or gold top) 
250ml crème fraîche

For the toffee sauce:
225g light muscovado sugar
Good slug of brandy or rum
100g unsalted butter, softened
275ml double cream
1 tbsp maple syrup 

Soak the dates in the coffee with the vanilla for 30 minutes, then mash with a fork. Butter a 15x20cm ovenproof dish. Preheat the oven to 170°C.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between. Add the maple syrup.
Mix the flour with the bicarb and gently fold into the butter mixture in thirds, alternating with the milk.
Stir in the soaked dates with their liquid. Tip into the prepared dish.
Bake for 50 minutes, or until the pudding is risen and firm and a skewer pushed into the middle comes out clean.
For the toffee sauce, put the sugar, brandy, butter and half the cream in a medium, heavy-based pan and heat gently. When the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat, stir in the maple syrup stirring for 2-3 minutes until the mix is a rich toffee colour. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the rest of the cream. Keep warm.
Leave the pudding to cool for 20 minutes, then skewer it all over and pour over half the sauce. 
Serve with a jug of the sauce and a scoop of crème fraîche.

Cullen Skink soup pic: Kerstin Rodgers/
Sticky Toffee Pudding pic: Kerstin Rodgers/

I'm hosting an Outlander inspired supper club on New Year's Eve this year which will be bursting with Scottish Hogmanay dishes.