Thursday, 29 May 2008

A pheasant experience. Part three - Pie from the sky

After three gloriously culinary days in the Swedish capital I’m feeling invigorated and inspired with a burning desire to record each and every single detail, but before I launch into the most recent gastro-recollections there is the small matter of the newly plucked pheasant to deal with.

Where once we had a full-feathered bird, we now had something that resembled a recognisable foodstuff – a young and plump example of a bird that I’ve eaten occasionally but never truly appreciated until my hands on experience. The feathers were gone, the guts and head removed and now all that remained was to find some way to do justice to this magnificent creature. I turned to the champion off all things simple, tasty and British, a man who refuses to even grant a nod of recognition to the health police: Fergus Henderson. His book, ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ is a veritable manifesto of wholesome, and ever-so-slightly adventurous cuisine. It isn’t food that turns the stomach in the same vein as a globetrotting extreme eating adventure, more a celebration of food that has long been out of fashion but, thanks mainly to Henderson who is considered a revolutionary champion in the food world, is making a resurgent comeback. Perhaps it is a product of the current economic climate, but there seems to be an increasing interest in the ‘fifth quarter’ and those cuts that can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of the leaner parts of the animal. There is also a burgeoning realisation that it is just not viable, either economically or environmentally, to raise an animal only for the majority of the meat to end up on the scrap heap. So, with the freshest and most local meat I have ever had the simple pleasure in obtaining, I picked his book off the shelf and flicked to the section on ‘Birds and Game’.

Whilst roasting the bird, complete with a hefty amount of streaky bacon to prevent it from drying out (pheasants, like the majority of game, have little fat and so can quickly become frustratingly dry within minutes), was one option, I felt that this particular pheasant warranted more attention and thus we plumped for the ‘Pheasant and pig’s trotter pie with suet crust’. Although it might be worth noting that this is not food for those following a strict dietary regimen, I’d rather treat myself occasionally to something in this bracket and eat sensibly during the week rather than face eating a series of insipid ready meals, misleadingly marketed as ‘healthy choice’, or ‘low-fat’. But that’s just me.

This is slow food, not particularly challenging, labour intensive or time-consuming but the finest example of what Anthony Bourdain refers to as ‘culinary alchemy’ when something magical happens behind the oven door and the long slow cooking process renders the traditional peasants’ cuts tender and delicious. The sort of cooking that is perfect for the weekend and can be completed in three or four short bursts of kitchen based activity. First off, the trotters needed to cook in red wine and stock and a chunky mirepoix of vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, leek and garlic) complete with bay leaves and peppercorns (this combination is the cornerstone of slow food). Three hours was sufficient and once the cooking liquor had been strained and reserved the meat was stripped from the trotters and set aside. A hefty chunk of unsmoked bacon was then thinly sliced and fried in duck fat with four onions (thinly sliced) before being placed in a roasting dish with the trotter meat. Finally it was time for the glorious pheasant which had mellowed overnight but still retained that familiar gamey tang. After being portioned into four it was browned in the remaining duck fat then perched atop the fragrant pile of pork in the roaster. The cooking juice was poured over the top and the whole thing was covered in foil then placed into the oven to undergo its magical transformation. After filling the house with increasingly powerful and delicious smells (there is little that can beat the warming and homely intensity of meat cooking in wine and stock), it emerged from the oven to cool enough to strip the meat from the bones.

We strayed from the recipe slightly by using vegetable suet instead of the beef variety for the pastry but it made little difference and there was a frisson of excitement as the lid was rolled onto the pie dish, filled to the top with this unusual pheasant, porcine and wine combination. A little egg yolk brushed over the top completed the process and it went back into the oven for a final time.

Forty minutes later we had our pie: a golden crust like a quilted covering for the delights that lay beneath. A warm breath of enticing steam raced through the lid as the spoon cut through the pastry and I felt a pride in what had been created. It was the first time I’ve felt a profound and genuine connection with the food on my plate borne by the knowledge that I’d been involved in the entire field to fork process. My enthusiasm for such culinary adventures remains unbounded and I hope there will be many more to come. And the taste? Completely, utterly and totally delicious, made even more so by a vast spoonful of Heinz Baked Beanz and generous slop of tomato ketchup on the side.

For more on Fergus Henderson, click here (St. John Website)

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Swede Sensations

Firstly, thanks for all your great comments and messages. It’s great to know that people are reading and it seems that the pheasant story struck a chord with you, which I’m really pleased about. Secondly, I’m off to my motherland for a few days to spend some quality time in Stockholm hopefully imbibing vast quantities of schnapps and herring so won’t be posting for a few days. I shall return shortly with tales of Nordic cuisine, culture, coffee and cakes. And the final part of the Pheasant trilogy, of course.

A bietntôt.

Friday, 23 May 2008

A pheasant experience. Part two - Plucking hell

I knew that there was a vast, epic, sprawling world of difference between a nicely pre-packaged pheasant neatly presented in a butcher’s window and the actual real-life bird but I did not appreciate the actual feathered physical reality of it until very recently. After contemplating the task I was about to undertake I steadied myself with a large glass of wine before reaching for my instruction manual – an excellent book originally released in the early 1960’s by an unwittingly hilarious fellow called W.M.W. Fowler. ‘Countryman’s Cooking’ is not just a superb cookbook but also an excellent read that harks back to a gentler age when the raging inferno of feminism was but a gentle glimmer and it was possible to write witticisms such as ‘having fortified your pasty maker with a couple of stiff gins, let her loose with some flour, lard, a bowl and a rolling pin’ without fear of scathing repercussions. Aside from such occasional, accidental and innocently archaic interludes, the book also has passages that are eerily prescient today with some prophetic ideas about the potential damage of intensive farming and the declining popularity of wild food, such as rabbit. But that was for another day, my immediate concern was where to begin with my pheasant, a bird Willie Fowler held in such high esteem that he devoted the entire first chapter to it.

My mind, beginning to feel the numbing effects of the alcohol, was developing a genteel confidence which was immediately shattered on reading the words ‘the pheasant is the most tedious of all birds to pluck’. I let out an audible sigh, reached again for the wine and carried on reading. ‘Holding the bird in the left hand begin plucking at the back of the neck about three inches above the shoulders and pull the feathers out one at a time.’ Although the evening was growing cold, this was not a job for the kitchen and so it was to the garden where, bird in left hand, I cautiously grasped a single feather and pulled. And nothing happened. So I pulled again a little harder this time and still failed to remove the tenacious little thing. My third attempt could have wrenched Excalibur from the stone and sure enough after offering brief resistance, the feather popped neatly out of the bird’s skin between my fingers. One down, a mere thousand, or so, to go. I made myself comfortable and carried on, stopping only occasionally to imbibe more wine. After half an hour I stopped to assess the progress I hadn’t made and found myself nodding in agreement with old Willie – this surely was a tedious process. My girlfriend emerged from the kitchen and looked at me sympathetically, and then at the growing pile of feathers between my feet which were making there way across the lawn at the merest hint of a breeze. ‘Do you think you should pluck into a bag?’ she asked. I nodded humbly by way of agreement and attempted apology.

After another ten minutes of plucking (into a bag) my patience began to wane and, having exposed enough of the breast, I picked a sharp knife from the kitchen and began to skin it instead. This proved a much faster and infinitely more satisfying approach and before long the bird was bereft of both feathers and skin apart from a small, shit-covered, clump around the parson’s nose which I was less keen on removing. This, I assumed, was what my guide euphemistically named the ‘vent’ and was where the gutting would begin, a process I wished to put off for as long as possible.

The head and neck were removed with ease using a pair of scissors and I was left looking for the crop, a ‘bag made of thin membrane situated at the base of the throat.’ It was then pointed out that that I should ‘try not to break it and you will save yourself the trouble of clearing up the resulting mess.’ Had I read down the paragraph a little earlier I would probably have taken more care not to puncture this small bag full of partially digested food that let off a deeply foul stench as it seeped over my fingers but I paid the price for my eagerness. After a few deep breaths and a healthy glug of wine I managed to fight back the rising tide of vomit that was gradually making its way up from my stomach thanks to the smell of rotting organic matter that was residing within the crop and was readying myself for the gutting.

My new best friend, Willie Fowler, devotes just two sentences to the evisceration procedure: ‘make a longitudinal cut from just below the breastbone to the vent. Insert the first and second fingers of the right hand and hook out the insides’, and I am sure that to the hardened countryman this is a simple process akin to putting on a tweed cap and wax jacket. But to a wet-behind-the-ears fledgling as myself this was not the easiest of matters to attend to. It required a firm hand and significant mental fortitude, neither of which I possess at the best of times, let alone a bottle of Rioja down. Under the guiding light of a torch held by my intrigued and attentive partner, I made the cut and peered into the belly of the beast trying to see a way in. there wasn’t one so I just rolled up the sleeve of my jacket and followed the simple instructions that had been lain out to me. In went the fingers and out flopped the guts, with little effort on my part. It was as if they were just waiting to make their escape. How such a small bird can have so many insides I’ll never know but there they were slopping into a plastic bag between my feet slowly leaching red onto their feathery bed.

And so it was over. I’d done it without squealing in horror or recoiling in fear or fainting or being sick quietly in the corner. Granted, my senses had been numbed by a significant quantity of wine but we now had in front of us an oven ready bird that just two hours previously (yes, it took that long) had been hanging in the garage complete with head, feathers and insides. I’d passed successfully through my own rite of passage, gone through a faintly traumatic liminal stage and emerged triumphant on the other side.

I highly recommend Countryman’s Cooking, an intelligent and thought provoking read, not to mention an excellent cookbook.
Click here to find out more about the book (Daily Telegraph article)
Or click here to purchase it (

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A pheasant experience. Part one - A bird in the hand

Any ethnography will contain a substantial section on ‘rites of passage’. The study of anthropology places much attention on these transitionary periods because they appear to be something of a universal, common, in some respect, to all human societies. They mark the transition from one phase of life into another, often involving some sort of test to prove that one is worthy of inclusion. A rite of passage combines three distinct phases: separation, when the subject is ‘removed’ either physically or metaphorically, from their previous existence, a ‘liminal’ period where they are effectively in limbo – neither one thing or another, often incorporating some sort of ‘test’, and an ‘inclusion’ where they are welcomed back from their exile and begin enjoying the trappings that come with their new status. If all this sounds a little exotic and foreign think again. Baptisms, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, drinking society initiations, 21st birthdays, graduation – these all contain the three basic elements common to all rites of passage. This may all seem a little off topic for a food related blog but I like to educate as well as inform and record the myriad of culinary adventures that make up a vast proportion of my existence. Plus it is related in a rather circuitous fashion as I underwent a personal rite of passage, of sorts, last week.

Contrary to what many of the larger supermarkets would have us believe, meat doesn’t grow in neat little packages ready to wrap in plastic and place into a chilled cabinet. It actually comes from living, breathing fur and feather covered animals which need killing, skinning, gutting and chopping up before they arrive in those neat little packages. They have heads and eyes and hearts and guts (lots of guts) and a whole body full of less than pleasant bits which have got to be removed before those sanitised pieces of flesh can be put in the oven or frying pan and chewed down in a spirit of gentle innocence and slight ignorance as to where they came from. Meat can now be enjoyed without even considering the consequences or chain of events that led to it being arranged on a plate with some tasty veg and gravy. This really wasn’t intended as a standing on soapbox style rant, honestly. More a precursor to explaining my little initiation ceremony into the warm embrace of life in the country which involved the dubious privilege of transforming a full creature, squidgy bits and all, into something worth eating.

It started with a pheasant in a field. A dead pheasant in a field that was easily accessible without breaking too many laws regarding trespassing or poaching. I vaulted the fence with the gentle grace of a heavily pregnant sow and picked up the dead bird to give it a once over and a good sniff, just to make sure that it hadn’t been mauled by a passing predator or been dead long enough for the smell to make me dry heave. Thankfully it looked, and smelt, fresh, a small hole in the breast suggesting a glancing shot had caused its death. After meeting the approval of my incredibly understanding and equally intrepid girlfriend we took the bird home and hung it up the garage for three days which we were informed was an optimum length of time for those who don’t like their game to be too ‘high’. There was something strangely macabre and slightly medieval about seeing a dead pheasant swinging from one of the beams in the garage, as if some horrific lynching had just been carried out by a feathered mob and the image stayed with me for some time even after the garage door had been shut. And there it hung for three days until the time came for me to make my first foray into plucking and gutting.

To be continued.

NB – there is a photographic record of the entire event. If there is enough interest, it shall be included.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Caking it

Ah, the humble banana. One of the original superfoods, this snack in a jacket was providing us with a nutritional boost before those young pretenders like açai and goji berry were even saplings. Technically a herb, the average banana contains hefty doses of vitamins B6 and C as well as a hit of potassium and a decent amount of dietary fibre. In addition they are packed full of complex carbohydrates and score low on the glycaemic index (bonus if you happen to be following Anthony Worrall Thompson’s diet of choice, although I’m not sure if that is a ringing endorsement considering his ample girth and his apparent willingness to lend his name to more products than St. Michael) and 72 million tons of these yellow wonders are consumed every year. In short they are a supremely tasty, healthy and convenient foodstuff, the ultimate fast food.

With this in mind I set about attempting to neutralise the incredible positive effects of the banana by mashing it up and mixing it with quantities of sugar, butter, flour and eggs to make a cake. And what a cake it was. Simple, sweet, light, soft and very banana-y. Perfect for filling that space between lunch and dinner with a mug of tea on a slightly damp Sunday afternoon. I urge you to try this.

Lazy Sunday Banana Cake
(I only have the old fashioned measurements, sorry. But should see you right if you insist on doing things the metric way)

5oz plain flour
5oz caster sugar
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2oz unsalted butter, cubed
2 (very) ripe bananas, well mashed (imagine you are about to feed them to a baby)
2 eggs, whisked lightly
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Turn on the oven to about 180 degrees. Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a sufficiently sized mixing bowl. Add the butter and attempt to incorporate it into the dry ingredients with the fingertips. As soon as it looks like it is half mixed, pour in the bananas – if you’ve mashed them enough they should pour, or rather slop, out of the bowl – eggs and vanilla and stir it with sufficient enthusiasm to turn the mixture into something resembling a batter. Pour it into a loaf tin and bake for about 25 minutes, or until it has darkened on the top and cooked within. Eat it hot from the oven with a dribble of plain yoghurt to try to mitigate the fact that you’ve transformed a sensational superfood into a calorific cake.

Friday, 16 May 2008

A Tasty Badger

I’ve recently spent some time working at a food magazine based close to Portobello Road in west London (every single time I think, say or even write the words ‘Portobello Road’ I end up with a tenacious little ear worm of the song of the same name from the innuendo ridden Disney musical ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie the reference will no doubt be lost, those of you who have seen it will now be humming the song relentlessly for the next couple of hours and for that I apologise). Given my proximity to Notting Hill and the fact that I was working on a food title, it is hardly surprising that I enjoyed a few gastronomic related experiences during my time there: As one who has an almost unhealthy passion for bookshops and all things food related, ‘Books for Cooks’ on Blenheim Crescent is something of a personal Mecca and I did well to limit my purchases to a solitary tome. The market rivals many that I’ve seen on the continent, even on quiet days, although Friday is by far the best day to experience it. I also had a truly outstanding falafel from a small van although my request for hot chilli was almost denied to me and it was only on proving that I could handle the fiery sauce by sampling a small amount that he relented and tipped some onto my wrap. A Spanish food shop nestling just under the Westway had the largest selection of Manchego cheese I’ve ever seen and the Gran Reserva that I plumped for was an exquisite example. But by far my favourite moment was a serendipitous visit to a pub called The Fat Badger.

I’d phoned the pub earlier in the week to talk about a campaign that the magazine was running in support of British pig farmers and ended up chatting to the amiable head chef, Will Leigh, formerly of Kensington Place. His unbridled enthusiasm for food was immediately evident and we spent a good few minutes discussing the delights of cruibeens and other such delicacies. A couple of days later, I’d arranged to meet a friend there and walked over after work. He was running late and so I ordered a drink and went in search of the chef to indulge in some food chat with a fellow enthusiast. As it was barely half past five, the quiet before the storm of evening service meant he was more than happy to talk and it was a genuine pleasure to discuss matters ranging from the provenance of his pork to the benefits of buying smoked eel from Holland with someone so profoundly passionate about it. Gradually, as the place busied we realised that few people would get served if he wasn’t behind the stove so we shook hands and parted company, he to the kitchen and I to a worn Chesterfield sofa with a pint and my book waiting for Tom to make the arduous journey from Shepherds Bush (a treacherous two miles). I was busy thinking of ways to convince him that we should stay for more than just a drink when Will returned from the kitchen and headed over, bearing a plate of what looked like incredibly tasty food.

And it was. It was one of the tastiest plates of food I’ve had in a long, long time. Thick chunks of pork belly rillons with soft, meltingly soft fat and succulent flesh with artichoke hearts and crunchy croutons and a zingy fresh gremolata which gave the dish a zesty lift. Good? The best description, and compliment, I can give is that it was the sort of food that just forces an unstoppable smile spreading across the face thanks to its absolute perfection and I can’t wait to go back.

Tip Top Tapas

Even the best-laid plans can sometimes be scuppered by external circumstances. As a result of the appearance of a substantial amount of cloud and rain displacing the unseasonably delightful weather we have had recently, yesterday’s summer themed meal of fresh rocket, Jersey potatoes and lamb failed to materialise and we were left with a dinner shaped hole where it had previously been residing in the consciousness. As an alternative I decided to attempt an exercise in improvisation by using up the various items in the fridge and cupboards that were nearing the end of their consumable existence. Better they end up as sustenance rather than compost. An aging chorizo sausage provided ample inspiration for a mini selection of hearty tapas, perfect for conjuring up images and flavours reminiscent of more Mediterranean climes while outside the rain dripped down the window in energetic streaks and the trees shook at the whim of the wind.

The piquant chorizo was cut into little gem sized cubes and fried in a little olive oil until the edges were beginning to crisp and the paprika had leached out and stained the oil a deep red. At the last minute two generous handfuls of broad beans and some chopped garlic were added to the pan and cooked for no more than a minute. The pale, almost translucent, green of the mass of beans was studded throughout by tasty little morsels of sausage. To go with it, a simple tomato sauce (garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika and a tin of tomatoes blitzed to a smooth consistency) was reduced down to an intense and warming thickness and pepped up with a little cayenne pepper before being poured over some fried potato to make a quick patatas bravas.

Buoyed by my recent bread making success I felt it would be right to bake an appropriate loaf to match the general theme. Using white bread flour and olive oil in place of wholemeal flour and sunflower oil resulted in a lighter loaf with an amazing resistance and slight chewiness that was just perfect for mopping up the tasty sauces that were left over. Unfortunately, hunger proved victorious over patience and we sat down to eat picnic style on the lounge floor before we could even think of taking any pictures. But we did manage to get one of the bread. Again.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Getting green fingered

I’ve never been the most agriculturally minded individual. Prior to moving to the countryside, despite my best intentions to plant a veggie patch last year, the closest I had got to growing my own was planting some cress seeds in an empty egg shell at primary school. Granted, the egg shell did have a face painted on it and the cress was cut into a Mohican style hair cut after it had sprouted but as sustenance it wasn’t a great success.
It was certainly time to rectify this. One of the aspects of moving that excited us most was the prospect of becoming more self-sufficient and we wasted little time in transforming large areas of the garden into functioning vegetable patches. I had no idea how much hard work this involved and for four days afterwards my back, neck and shoulders ached with a deep-set pain and a layer of dirt resolutely refused to shift from underneath my fingernails. But it was a great feeling, made even sweeter by the knowledge that just a few short months ago I was whiling away my days in a strip lit, climate controlled office where the windows wouldn’t open and everything felt sanitised and slightly unreal. Now the sun was on my back and I was spending my days doing everything I loved and nothing I didn’t. We’d planted an ambitious selection of edible goodies into five seedling trays and the excitement when the first of the tiny green shoots popped through the lightly compacted earth was phenomenal. Within a week all of the various seeds that we had planted had begun to push their way through the surface and were rapidly outgrowing their little temporary homes, eager to be planted into the newly dug beds.

This was about four weeks ago and now, whilst we still have a considerable wait for many of the plants to bear fruit, the leafier of the plants are looking lush and ready to eat with continental salad leaves and rocket leading the charge. The pace and voracity with which they’ve started to take over their little corner of the garden has been mildly alarming but also strangely comforting. As a measure of success it appears as if we’ve come out on top and now it is possible to see the effects of the hard work that went into the beds just a few short weeks ago. It makes the whole process worthwhile and, while I’d always been attracted to the idea, only now am I truly beginning to see the benefits and attraction of slow food, there is just something that resonates with a profound satisfaction of seeing the progress of food in this way. So much so that think we need wait no longer and these vibrant little green leaves will be eaten tonight with a gently roasted piece of lamb breast and some delightfully spring like Jersey potatoes.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Loafing about

I did it, I finally did it. I baked bread. Proper tasty, delicious bread with a light and fluffy interior and an incredible crust. I managed to exorcise my demons and banish the bread gremlins to the proverbial dustbin (along with the many corpses of failed loaves past) so from now on we’ll be able to have the freshest bread whenever we want. Which is a good job really because it seems as if I won’t be able to afford to buy it for much longer considering the price of bread appears to be rising faster than the one I baked this morning. So to every failed loaf, every sunken effort, every chewy, dense and inedible example, each loaf that dripped with vindictive scorn as it steadfastly refused to behave in the manner in which it should – you’re toast. Metaphorically, at least.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Making a right (and left) pig's ear of it

There is a truly wonderful cookbook called ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ by a chap called Fergus Henderson who is the chef/owner of the famed St. John restaurant in London. His philosophy runs as follows ‘Nose to tail eating means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet’ (Henderson, F. 1999). And he is right. Within the pages of this delightful monochrome tome are such gastronomic adventures as Duck’s Neck Terrine, Pot Roast Brisket and Pheasant and Pig’s Trotter Pie with Suet Crust all of which will grace our table at some point. By the time I finally bought it I felt as if I’d already read it several times over due to the number of times I’d flicked through it in bookshops and so when I learned that there was a follow up on the way I was overjoyed, and with chapter titles as gloriously simple and intriguing as ‘Pig’s Head’ how could a budding foodie adventurer fail to get excited?

The first step was to procure some of the more interesting ingredients that you won’t find behind the butcher’s counter at Waitrose and so a trip to somewhere with slightly less squeamish and sanitised attitudes to food was in order. Cambridge’s Mill Road is a multicultural melee of shops, cafés, bars and restaurants with Middle Eastern eateries squeezed next to Chinese supermarkets, sheesha bars and independent bookshops. Consequently, it is one of my favourite places. At the far end of the road is an Asian supermarket where, towards the rear of the shop tucked behind the brightly packaged noodles, fresh vegetables, Thai curry sauces and frozen seafood, is a freezer section for bold gastronome. Hand written signs, predominantly in Cantonese, offer tantalising clues as to the contents of each section. A block of what looked like locusts turned out to be a hefty chunk of about a hundred duck tongues, next to those a lurid red mass was labelled simply as ‘lung’ and there was no mistaking the bag of chicken feet or the, now standard, trotters. It wasn’t all like Dr. Frankenstein’s deep freeze – liver and oxtail were also sat happily alongside the more exotic cuts – but it was the pig’s ears that I was most interested in. So with a degree of what could be termed, in hindsight, foolhardy hubris I bought four, each the size of a large hand. The small Asian man at the till looked at me with a mixture of surprise and delight that this farang was willing to explore the gastronomic delights that, in the words of Fergus ‘lie beyond the fillet’. Granted, I wasn’t jumping straight into pig’s uterus or cow tendon, but it is still quite a step to go from juicy, tender sirloin to the slightly less juicy and more cartilaginous ear.

On returning home I proudly showed my purchases to my girlfriend who was strangely excited by them, although less sure as to why I bought four. I struggled to find an answer that sounded reasonably coherent and sensible so I shrugged and muttered something about how they ‘might be really nice’. She looked less than convinced but left me to carry on regardless.

Step one was to wash them. Thoroughly. Why? Because, and I wish I was joking when I say this, because pigs get earwax too and no-one, not even the Chinese, eats earwax. Once they’d been completely cleaned they went into a pot, complete with a healthy selection of stock vegetables, onion, garlic and a bay leaf, to cook for three or four hours over a low heat. The smell was good, not unlike trotters – distinctly porky with a homely warmth added by the veggies and as they cooked I was feeling more confident about the prospect of giving them a go and perhaps even getting through all four. Eventually.

After four hours cooking they become well and truly floppy so they were left to cool whilst we decided what to do with them next. Our new bible, the River Cottage Cookbook, suggests barbecuing an entire ear and eating it with tartare sauce but after careful consideration we felt that this might be little too adventurous for first timers so we went for the ‘slice, smother in butter, mustard and breadcrumbs and bake’ option. After half an hour they’d taken on a tempting golden brown colour and occasionally jumping off the tray so the consensus was that they were ready. And they were good. Not so good that I felt the need to eulogise about them, taking a plate of them into the street with a megaphone and attempting to convince innocent passers by that the crunch of porcine ear is a treat to behold, but good in a way that they were akin to slightly tougher pork scratchings – crunchy, salty and with a definite piggy taste. Of course the generous helping of pungent aioli helped and we didn’t manage to chow down all four but they remain in the freezer, ready to be roasted and passed off onto unsuspecting guests as a gourmet treat. You might not be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but you can certainly make a tasty snack.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A sting in the tale

A while back I went an entire year without having my hair cut. It wasn’t a concerted effort to release the inner hippy or have an instant ‘Neanderthal man’ costume should I be invited to any fancy dress parties, more a result of circumstances – those circumstances being a product of having more important things to spend my money on, like rent, bills and food. It crept up on me and went through a rather wild phase that required a significant amount of hair stuff and even an alice band to prevent it from springing out into a large bouffant before it could finally be tamed into pony tail and eventually loose curls that hung down rather than out. I was content with my general look but it was a comment from my grandmother that finally convinced me that I should probably pay a visit to the hairdresser: ‘ooh, you look just like that Hugh Fearnley chap’, she said on seeing me for the first time in a couple of months. I glanced into the mirror that adorns her lounge wall and could see that it was an uncomfortably accurate observation. I duly trudged off to the barber before she could say ‘Whittingstall’.

Aside from the aforementioned similarly unruly hair, dark rimmed glasses and a fondness for cooking and writing I’d not thought of myself as bearing any other similarities to HFW, I didn’t go to public school for a start, but I’m gradually realising that this situation is changing. At a slightly unnerving pace. For the last 24 years I’ve viewed nettles as a pain in the arse, or arm or wherever they happen to sting you. Between the ages of about four and twelve I reckon the average child is stung approximately ten thousand times by nettles lurking furtively in bushes, ready to attack as soon as a hand moves in to retrieve a lost tennis ball and every child knows someone who knows someone whose cousin ‘fell into a whole bunch of them and ended up having to go to hospital. Honestly, I’m not lying, you can ask my mum’. They are like the tabloid paedophile of the plant world. But now that I am a paid up, card-carrying, straw-chewing, welly-wearing resident of the countryside, nettles are no longer a menace, they are a bountiful, tasty and free foodstuff residing in large colonies around every corner just waiting to be transformed into something delicious and full of vitamins.

With this in mind my girlfriend and I embarked on our first foraging mission armed with scissors, gloves, a plastic bag and visions of a vivid green nettle risotto as a reward. Neither of us had ever tasted nettles and my decision to wear jeans with gaping holes in the knees proved to be a little foolish, but good intentions are important as are the valuable lessons learned from experience. And, apart from forgetting that I was wearing wholly (holey?) unsuitable jeans and kneeling into a healthy pile of the vindictive weeds, it was an excellent experience. There is something gloriously gratifying about gathering your own food, especially with someone as wildly and unashamedly enthusiastic about it as I am. After no more than ten minutes picking we’d gathered a generous half bag of young leaves from the top of the nettles lining the country road and were on way back home to attempt an almost alchemic transformation. Granted, there are few foodstuffs that cannot be improved with the addition of a generous amount of butter and cheese but nevertheless, nettle risotto is a triumph.

After a thorough wash and wilting in a pan, the nettles were sautéed over a high heat in a little butter, just enough so that the edges were tinged with a gentle brown colour and taking on a slightly caramelised quality. The smell was fresh, deeply redolent of the countryside with a jumpy vibrancy and grassy softness and stirring them into a rich risotto at the last minute was a great way to make the most of them.

Since then we’ve been foraging again – with more substantial trousers – and made skate with wilted nettles and cinnamon and, of course, nettle soup although I haven’t yet been able to pluck up the courage to munch down a nettle salad, as recommended by a number of ‘raw food’ websites.

Seen as the recipe for nettle risotto is virtually complete above, I thought I’d include my recipe for making nettle soup. If you want to attempt this, be quick – nettles aren’t good eating after they begin to flower, usually sometime in June.

Nettle Soup (approximate ingredients)
One small onion, finely chopped
Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Four or five generous handfuls of washed nettles (don’t forget to use gloves)
Two medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced
One vegetable stock cube
One litre of water
Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

Gently fry off the onion and garlic in a generous glug of olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan large enough to take all the ingredients. After ten minutes over a gentle heat, add the nettles and wilt slightly. Pour in the water, add the potatoes and stock cube and leave to simmer for about twenty minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked. Blitz it up then return it to the pan. Check for seasoning and serve with crème fraiche or natural yoghurt stirred through. And plenty of warm bread, of course.