Friday, 31 October 2008

Friday Nibbles, Special Edition - Turkey

With Christmas barely eight weeks away, and Thanksgiving just around the corner for my American brethren, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk turkeys, not least because I spent yesterday on a genuine working turkey farm just south of Cambridge (OK, it’s a tenuous segway and I know Christmas is actually a while away but I wanted to get it written down while it was all still fresh in my mind, plus I got some cool pictures that I wanted to show you).

I can now say from extensive empirical research through close proximity that turkeys are big birds and when there are several hundred of them staring down at you, it can all too easily feel a little bit Hitchcock for comfort (although I think the movie would have taken on a slightly more comedic slapstick feel had turkeys been the vengeful flock in question).

They are also fiendishly ugly with odd folds of skin that appear to be taking over their distinctly reptilian features and a general look of permanent annoyance, much like a Daily Mail reader glancing over a story about how Jonathon Ross’s salary has caused the rise/fall/stagnation of house prices or other such nonsense (if you aren’t familiar with The Daily Mail, think National Enquirer, only with a more questionable ethics and less concern for fact or journalistic integrity).

But I’ve never been one to judge books by their covers or turkeys by their wattles for that matter and despite their unattractive exterior they are friendly and placid birds that live comfortably in large groups.

I should say from the off that the farm I went to was not an intensive battery operation where the young chicks are fed a horrific cocktail of hormones, additives, drugs and growth promoters in order to fatten them up in little over three months. This was very much a free-range operation where the birds had access to locally sourced feed and as much sunlight as they wanted. They were free to spend all day running their little claws off, should they so wish. The lack of nasties in their diet means that it takes them twice as long to reach maturity but the result is a much tastier bird with a far superior texture, a world away from the dried out examples that blight so many Christmases.

The bird itself is native to Mexico and the eastern United States and although there is no historical evidence that the early Pilgrim Fathers ate one in their first Thanksgiving dinner, by the 19th century the tradition had been galvanized. Now a roasted (or deep fried (!?)) turkey is as much a part of the day as pumpkin pie and the NFL. Over 250 million are bred for the table each year and 20 per cent of those are consumed on a single day. It is not known how many people actually like turkey and how many eat it because they have to. A bit like a Brussels sprout.

Those which I met yesterday at the Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop were a rare breed called Kelly Bronze favoured and bred for a more traditional flavour and texture and a favourite of self-proclaimed domestic goddess Nigella Lawson. Personally, I think she sits somewhere on the annoyance scale between ‘patronising’ and ‘odious’ but she seems to know her stuff so I might take her advice on this one. As long as she ties her bloody hair back when she cooks it. Those luscious L’oreal locks are all well and good but not when extracting one from the depths of your throat.

So, in summary, what have we learnt? Turkeys originally resided across the pond, they are tasty enough to warrant an annual eating and don’t let Nigella Lawson cook you a soufflé.

Joking aside, when hunting out your turkey there are a few key words to look out for and a number of tips I can now offer you, having spoken to someone who really knows that they are talking about. Look for the words ‘slow-maturing’ or ‘rare-breed’. Try to buy one that hasn’t had to travel too far and has managed to see at least a semblance of daylight. The more they’ve run around and the less they’ve been pumped full of chemicals like some gross futuristic nightmare, the tastier they will be. In short, apply the same rules when buying your turkey as you would any other meat. If you’re only going to eat it once a year, might as well make it a good one, no?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Food for Free - Hawthorn Fruit Leathers

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while but a near constant stream of things seems to have got in the way including a minor run in with a large bus (funnily enough, the car came off worse) and a couple of days spent down on various farms chatting with pig breeders and turkey farmers, amongst others (full reports to follow shortly, I promise).

As a means of preservation, fruit leathers are an ancient art and were traditionally used as a means of transforming a summer glut into something that could be eaten throughout the year. It is a method that almost certainly goes back to the Palaeolithic and is still used by hunter-gatherer societies today.

Throughout September and into October, the fruit of the Hawthorn tree (haws – no sniggering at the back please) is in wanton abundance throughout the English countryside. I was inspired to have a crack at making a ‘haw leather’ (tee hee) by a wonderful post by Nick Weston on his equally wonderful blog Hunter-Gatherer Cook.

I’d seen the small red fruits burst from the branches of the Hawthorn trees that scatter the open land around our house but was wary of the berries themselves. I knew they were edible but having cautiously nibbled on a few raw ones, I wasn’t overly impressed by their rather dull taste and disproportionately large stone. They were far too much hassle to be of any use, surely?

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that I was wrong.

So, armed with my trusty Thai tote bag and an iPod for company, I went foraging in the chill warmth of an early autumn afternoon. Half an hour’s picking yielded at least a kilo of berries, more than enough for a first attempt at making a haw jelly, or leather.

The first step is to transform these little berries into a gloopy mush. I used a large bowl and pestle (or mortar, I never know which is which) and then proceeded to break the bowl thanks to overly vigorous pounding. Thankfully by that point it was time adopt a more hands on approach and so after transferring the mixture, rolling up my sleeves and adding a little water to the now brown sludge, I squeezed and mashed the thick gloop with my fingers. A little more water and a little more mixing and the required consistency was reached without too much effort or any more broken bowls.

Instead of merely forcing the mashed fruit through a sieve – to separate out the stones and bits of twig et cetera – and leaving it to set, I decided to freestyle a little by adding a little apple juice, sugar and cinnamon and heating it gently in the hope that a softer and sweeter taste would emerge.

Being staggeringly high in pectin, haw ‘jelly’ will set without the addition of any sugar or any form of boiling. Within minutes you will notice the mixture thickening and taking on a far more solid feel. After an hour or so you should be able to slice the resultant cake.

After warming the jelly over a gentle heat and adding the extra ingredients, the colour and texture became increasingly fudge-like and the slight bitterness softened thanks to the addition of sweet apple juice and a little sugar.

Once cool, the jelly was sliced thinly and dried out in a low oven overnight to remove the water and give the leathers a near endless lifespan. Traditionally fruit like this would have been dried out in the sun and then offered essential nutrition throughout the winter months when fresh fruits were in stark supply. Things aren’t quite that bad for us, but small pieces of the haw leather stirred into warm porridge should be a tasty treat come the colder months.

How the other half live...

As a writer I tend to spend a large chunk of my time staring in the general direction of the window waiting for the elusive muse to rain down gifts of inspiration upon me. Yesterday as I was doing just that, I saw a pheasant casually padding round our front garden, pecking at the ground and generally minding his own business.

This isn’t unusual in itself but he then made his way round the back and seemed to be as interested in Marx and Eggels, the chickens, as they were in him. I managed to grab the camera and rattle off a few pictures before he ran off into the field. I just loved the contrast of the caged chickens (not that they are permanently incarcerated) and the very much free-range pheasant.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

New banner and explanation

There it is in all its shining glory. Look, just up there. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while and every time I’ve opened the page my eyes have drifted upwards and done the visual equivalent of a sigh when I’ve looked at the vague ineptitude of the image that was there before.

But no longer. Now you can actually see the name of the blog as well as a few favourite pictures which may, or may not, change according to the seasons.

There is also a new logo up there, see? Well, new in one sense. It’s actually my old logo but it is new to this site. I designed it a couple of years ago to compliment my first business venture which I hoped would make me millions. Ultimately it just made me stressed and poor but it was fun.

The company, also called Just Cook It, was set up in the hope of encouraging people to cook from their very own personalised cookbooks. Instead of buying a recipe book and only cooking two or three meals from it, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a cookbook where every recipe was tailored to your exact requirements?

And so Just Cook It was born. Customers could subscribe and make requests, however specific, and we would create a recipe or dinner party menu based on their exact requirements which would then be emailed or sent to them along with wine suggestions and other miscellaneous information. As far as I could tell, at the time it was the only service of its kind in the world. Perhaps there was a reason for that…

But the bottom line was the bottom line and for now at least, the only thing that remains is the logo, a hammer and sickle pastiche played out with a pan and whisk designed to signify the democratisation of the kitchen and compliment the simplicity of the name. Just Cook It. That was the message.

And to a large extent it still is. This blog isn’t about endless lists of recipes or restaurant reviews or the occasional post about what I had for my meal last night. It’s about food and cooking in a more general way and I do try to put those centre stage. Naturally it is about my experiences with food but I do try to put something of a spin on my writing to make things both interesting and relevant to as many people as possible because, as a writer, that is pretty much my raison d’etre.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Olive Oil

For almost as long as there has been civilisation, there has been olive oil. The liquid gold that runs from these small fruits has been used by countless generations for a monumental chunk of our collective history whether for food, for washing, for lighting, for trading or a host of other reasons.

Archaeological evidence suggests that by the Neolithic era (about 8,000BCE) our ancestors in modern day Turkey had realised that the fruit from the olive tree tasted pretty good. The transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to more sedentary groups reliant on farming led to the domestication of the plant about 2,000 years later in either Asia Minor or Mesopotamia (what we know now as Iraq).

From there, the tree spread throughout the Mediterranean and quickly became essential to the Etruscan, Minoan, Greek and Roman empires. Oil extracted from the olives could be turned into soap, used as fuel for lanterns and, of course, eaten which explains its central role in cuisines stretching from The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, across Europe and all the way into North Africa.

Now the vast majority of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain, Italy and Greece with Spain alone responsible for just over a third and the International Olive Oil Council is based in the country’s capital, Madrid. Suffice to say that they take things quite seriously over there, seriously enough to consume 13 kilos of oil per person per year.

The first pressing of the olives results in extra virgin olive oil, this is the good stuff that hasn’t been messed about with, the sort of oil you want to dip some seriously fresh bread into and eat all on its own for lunch whilst sat under an awning and gazing at the Umbrian Hills or over the Mediterranean sea. Much like wine or whiskey, different oils possess different flavours and textures. Don’t be surprised to hear someone banging on about peppery or honey notes balanced with a gentle acidity, in much the same manner an oenophile would when eulogising over a rare Bordeaux.

In terms of absolute kitchen essentials, olive oil tops my list, much as it does that of numerous other cooks, food writers and chefs. I dare say that I use it more than any other item in the kitchen whether it is for frying a piece of meat, dribbling over a plate of fresh tomatoes, making a batch of aioli or any of a thousand other uses. And what’s more, it’s staggeringly good for you, which, in my book anyway, makes it a near perfect ingredient.

Lunch - Fried Tomatoes and Bacon

I know it’s Friday and today’s nibble is on the way but I just wanted to write up a quick post about lunch and simplicity.

We had some bacon offcuts left over (we tend to buy them to put into soups, stews and ragus. They are insanely cheap and just as tasty as the real deal) and they either needed to be frozen or eaten sharpish before they turned a disgusting shade of ming and made their way to the outside bin.

So I fried them up in their own rendered fat and then stuck in a couple of tomatoes I was given yesterday (another story for another day – I spent a couple of hours on a pig farm chatting to the delightful Simon and Amanda of Pigs in Parcels) and served it all with a hunk of home baked bread and a dollop of brown sauce.

I know this is little more than a bacon sandwich with a rustic shaped ego but it was so very tasty. Highly recommended, plus the chunks of bacon offer more bite and, ultimately, a modicum more satisfaction thanks to their thick meatiness. It's not big, fancy or clever but sometimes simplicity is all that's needed.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Updates and excuses and tasty bread.

Some of you may be aware of a discernable dip in output of late, certainly in comparison to the voracity with which I was churning out culinary tales over the summer months. This is not due to a waning interest in matters gastronomic nor a declining desire to write. On the contrary, it is precisely for this reason that I’ve had a little less time to craft the various food stories that grace these electronic pages.

As much as I adore welcoming you into my metaphorical bosom and telling tales of pheasants, pigs’ ears, delis and other such delights, the remuneration package is not particularly attractive. I dare say that I might be able to earn more money stitching Nike footballs in a Singaporean sweatshop.

As a result I’ve had to partake in a little moonlighting. Not only have I started tutoring again but I’ve also had my head down working on a collection of short stories as well as making a start on a novel and, sadly, I only have so many hours in my day. The short stories should be finished within the next couple of months, the novel will take considerably longer but they will come. And you wonderful people will be the first to know.

I have been cooking, I promise. There is a beef, onion and porcini pie baking in the oven and two fresh loaves cooling temptingly in the kitchen as I write these very words (pictorial proof supplied above). I’m off to meet some pig farmers and spend a couple of hours on a turkey farm tomorrow and with a (hopefully) crisp autumn and winter ahead of us there should be plenty of opportunity to both eat and write about some hearty comfort food.

But in the mean time, please bear with me whilst I get my head down, adopt the saddened tone and gaunt features of an impoverished writer and try, desperately, to make this work so that we can afford to heat the house this winter (cue violins).

Friday, 17 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Garlic

After last week’s jaunt into vaguely luxurious territory, I’ve chosen to bring things back down to earth a little with today’s ‘Nibble’. I started doing this series a couple of months ago in order to create a semblance of structure to my seemingly incoherent culinary rambles but they’ve quickly become one of my favourite aspects of the blog.

Naturally, it’s wonderful to launch into a few paragraphs explaining my views on molecular gastronomy or extolling the virtues of delicatessens, but these are far removed from the majority of my experiences in the kitchen. I really wish that I spent my days experimenting with spherification techniques, trying to find the perfect salami or eating in fabulous restaurants but, alas, this isn’t the case.

Which is how ‘Friday Nibbles’ were born. They are about examining the unsung heroes of the kitchen and trying to explain why they are just as interesting or just as important as the latest fad or fashion or restaurant or recipe. Personally, I think there is too little written about the apparently mundane aspects of cookery. They tend to be glossed over in favour of the things that seem more glamorous but actually strike a chord with far fewer people.

Not everyone gets the chance to eat at Per Se or WD-50 but everybody has a kitchen of their own. So these are an attempt to redress the balance slightly and look at those wonderful items that no cook, professional or domestic, could possibly live without. So without further delay, let’s celebrate the simple.

I’ve been saving garlic for a few weeks now (as a topic as opposed to a weird collection). Even before I did the very first ‘Nibble’ I knew that garlic would feature at some point but I wanted to get into a stride before eulogising over this amazing plant.

I cannot imagine what direction cooking could possibly take if it weren’t for this pungent little allium which adds its unique flavour to countless dishes from all over the world.

It is unknown from where the ancestral progenitor of garlic originated although it is likely to have been somewhere in Asia. From there it spread rapidly to almost all corners of the world to a point where it now features in more global cuisine than any other ingredient I can possibly think of. In fact, the only area I can recall that doesn’t feature garlic in its traditional regional cooking is northern Europe where the presence of a harsh climate would likely have prevented the plant from becoming truly domesticated.

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic from the tightly packed and highly pungent Purple White to the delightfully named Elephant Garlic with its distinctive large cloves and milder flavour. Most are relatively simple to grow in the garden or in small pots on the windowsill and now is a good time to get them planted, just before the first frost. Incidentally, frost is essential to the formation of garlic cloves: without a cold snap, you’d end up with a large garlic ‘onion’ as opposed to the separate sections we all know and love.

But what can you do with it? I honestly don’t think I have the time to go into this. You could write entire books on the uses of garlic and you’d barely manage to get out of Europe. You’d struggle to get beyond France, in fact, and Italy would be an entire series on its own and that’s without even mentioning south east Asia.

Suffice to say it is, in my opinion, the most versatile and essential ingredient that it is possible to have in the kitchen. From utter simplicity – think spaghetti tossed with olive oil, garlic and chilli – to deep rich and complex winter stews, garlic is virtually the first ingredient in the pan and one that I keep a constant supply of in the kitchen. It doesn’t even make it to the cupboard, but rather sits happily on the windowsill in a little copper pan.

And don’t think it stops with savouries. I recently had lunch at a two star restaurant in Cambridge where, for dessert, we had a spiced apple tarte tatin served with the subtlest and most delicious foam I have ever tasted. Subtle and delicious garlic flavoured foam. Not that I’ve tasted many foams, but still.

Anyway, here’s to garlic. Have a great weekend and for more, don't forget the other blogs: Candid Food which exposes the seedy underbelly of food modelling, and Alex Rushmer, a collection of miscellaneous musings

Monday, 13 October 2008

Sheer Awesomeness - Molecular gastronomy in the home

Of all the culinary fads and fashions and phases and phenomena, molecular gastronomy is perhaps the one that excites me most. Of course, I adore and pursue simplicity in much of my cooking and gastronomic pursuits but there is something so wondrous, so exciting and almost ethereal about re-imaging food in way propounded by Heston Blumethal, Ferran Adria, Hervé This et al.

Molecular gastronomy is oft misunderstood and seen as over-complicating cooking purely for the sake of it, merely for showmanship and bravado. Its deriders see it as a pointless addition or fleeting distraction from the tried and tested elements of classical cuisine: a bastard off-spring of that much parodied style nouvelle cuisine.

Granted, in the wrong hands, this form of cooking can lead to gross misrepresentations and laughable creations. I dare say that there are a number of enthusiastic young chefs who feel as if they can forego learning about the base elements of cooking and move directly into the world of culinary alchemy with some horrendous Dr. Frankenstein style creations ensuing. Words like ‘deconstructed’ and ‘emulsified’ appear on menus as chefs allow their egos to pollute their food.

But this is not what molecular gastronomy is about. It is about understanding. It is about breaking things down to see why they work, how they work and how they can be improved. How flavours, textures, tastes can be made better and new combinations created. It is about finding how much truth there is in kitchen folklore, such as should you salt your steak before cooking and does searing meat help retain juices (the answers are yes and no, respectively). It is an exciting and wonderful way of cooking that utilises new techniques and complicated sounding ingredients which has thus far been the preserve of chefs and scientists and unavailable to the home cook

Until now.

Ferran Adria is one of the founding fathers of molecular gastronomy. As the chef/owner of El Bulli, deep in the heart of Catalan country close to Spain’s northern most tip, he has been the recipient of the prestigious ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ award no less than four times. His 30-some course tasting menus have become legendary and it is close to impossible to book a table at this place of gastro-pilgrimage during the six months of the year that it is open.

For the second half of the year, Adria and his team of chefs spend countless hours in the restaurant’s lab kitchen creating new dishes, refining old ones and conjuring up exciting new techniques to stay ahead of the game. They use a selection of weird and wonderful ingredients to achieve the remarkable techniques that they showcase in the restaurant: airs, jellies, spheres, caviars and numerous others. And they’ve recently made them available in quantities suitable for home use.

I had no idea that they were available until I picked up my (fabulous) girlfriend from work on Friday. She was clutching a box wrapped tightly in bubble wrap and smiling a broad and slightly cheeky smile. ‘I’ve got you a present’ she announced. I had to wait until we got home and we were sat down before she would let me open it, which was probably a good job because I might easily have fallen over had I not been on the sofa.

It was a sleek black box with the words ‘Minikit Sferificacion’ picked out in stark white lettering on the front. Although not immediately obvious what I was holding, the words ‘Albert y Ferran Adria’ made things clearer. Cut into the cardboard housing were five round holes, each offering a tantalising glimpse of the contents.

I’d previously only read words like ‘lecite’, ‘algin’ and ‘xantana’ in This’s books and on sites like Ideas in Food. Now I had five intricately packaged tins on my lap each containing one of these magical ingredients. This was exciting stuff, seriously exciting stuff. As well as the powders, the package contained a set of precision measuring spoons and a plastic syringe.

All those amazing creations I’d admired and read about are quite suddenly within reach. Spheres, jellies, airs, foams, suspensions and other intensely flavoured delights are no longer in the realm of impossibility but available to any enthusiastic home cook.

This is where the line between cooking and science becomes very blurred indeed and I cannot wait to start experimenting with these strange and alien additions to my kitchen.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Parmesan Cheese

The focus of previous Friday Nibbles has been very much on the frugal side of cooking. Items featured have been, invariably, cheap and in possession of an innate versatility that renders them almost essential for any kitchen store cupboard whether you are an accomplished chef or a mere beginner when it comes to matters culinary.

But with the world’s economy crumbling like stale bread, banks collapsing like a series of failed soufflés and trillions of dollars going up in smoke like fish fingers left under the grill (apologies, but I ran out of analogies there), a little luxury might be needed in order to raise a smile. Not luxury in the manner to which we have become worryingly accustomed, I’m not talking of white truffles or Jamon d’Iberico, more like small luxuries, more luxury in terms of simple pleasures that are almost guaranteed to raise a smile.

Parmesan is a little luxury. It’s slightly too expensive to be on a weekly shopping list but cheap enough to be bought without feeling any pangs of guilt. It doesn’t go off so you needn’t worry about leaving it too long on the fridge and I can think of no better way to watch the encroaching depression than with a big bowl of pasta covered in slightly too much Parmesan cheese melting into it. If it’s all going to shit, might as well forget the healthy eating plan.

But is this cheese worthy of inclusion on the Friday Nibbles Hall of Fame? In a word, yes. Simply, yes. We don’t get through a huge amount of the stuff but there is always a chunk of it in the fridge poised a ready to be grated over steaming pasta, a salad or even a plate of beans on toast. It melts into delightfully stringy strands and lends a real cheesy richness to whatever meal it meets.

Real, genuine Parmesan comes from Parma, Italy and only from Parma. Like Champagne and Stilton, Parmesan is guarded by a PDO – a Protected Designation of Origin – a legally enshrined concept that prevents any Tom, Dick or Harry within the European Union from muscling in on the worthy name of a famed product. We take our foods very seriously here in Europe.

The cheeses are made in huge rounds each weighing about 38 kilos (80 pounds) before they are cut into more manageable chunks and exported all over the world and have enjoyed a notable reputation for many centuries. During the Great Fire of London in 1666, diarist Samuel Pepys buried his Parmesan in the ground to prevent it from being damaged by the flames:

‘…in the evening Sir W. Penn and I did dig another [pit] and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan as well as my wine and some other things.’ 4th September 1666, Diary of Samual Pepys.

So wonderful to hear a voice from centuries ago speaking of cheese with such love and referring to his ‘other’ items with such casual flippancy. Truly a man after my own heart.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

In Praise of Delicatessens

I have a real ‘thing’ for delis; you know a vaguely irrational adoration bordering on obsession. A deli is the absolute epitome of culinarianism. Of course, I have a deep set admiration for butchers, bakers (less so for candle stick makers), cheese mongers and the myriad of other ‘mongers’ you care to mention, but, for me, a delicatessen trumps them all.

In a deli you can be absolutely sure that each and every item in there is worthy of its place. You just know that there is not a single item on the shelves or in the fridge that is freeloading and hanging on to the coattails of its counterparts. Every slice of salami, every wedge of cheese, every loaf of bread deserves to be there and has been hand chosen after the owner has tasted, tested and compared hundreds of other contenders.

In a deli, quality is king. The delicatessen owner knows that his or her reputation hangs by the sheerest gossamer thread and as such they have to adopt a perfectionist’s attitude. To be fair, if they weren’t utterly passionate about charcuterie and cheese and sourdough bread, they probably wouldn’t have opened a deli in the first place and as such take extreme pleasure in stocking only the finest produce from the best suppliers.

As one who enjoys talking about food to any who care to reciprocate, I know that a suitable conversation can be virtually guaranteed in an independent deli. Within seconds of a smiled greeting, the conversation will almost invariably turn to seasonality or provenance or the benefits of raw milk cheeses over the pasteurised variety.

And they know so much. It’s all very well knowing the vague area from which a specific air dried ham originates but knowing the name of the farmer’s secret illicit lover? I’d fully expect them to be able to tell me the particular grass that a particular sheep has feasted on to make milk for a particular cheese but knowing the shepherd’s mother’s favourite wine? Wowee.

OK, OK, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly. Seriously, these are the places to go if you need any culinary advice at all. Not only will they be able to sell you the ideal cold cuts to serve as a light lunch in June but also the right pickles and wine to go with them. They’ll be able to put together a cheeseboard of such complexity and excellence that you’ll doubtless be rendered speechless by its sheer perfection. And you’ll be able to pick up some suitably artisan oatcakes to go with the cheese.

This isn’t about showing off, or one-upmanship. It’s about approaching food in the same manner as you would art or music or repairing a car. It’s great to fumble around by yourself for a while but sometimes it’s best to reign in the services of an expert, someone who does this for a living because it is what they love and is what they are fucking good at (please excuse the expletive but I really do feel very passionately about this).

There are a few notable delis that I try to frequent when time, location and budget allow. La Fromagerie in London I’ve written about before, ditto the Cheshire Smokehouse. The Cambridge Cheese Co. is now my closest and certainly the best that I know of for miles. Finally, there is Barbakan, just south of Manchester city centre which we paid a visit to a couple of days ago.

As well as some of their famous bread we picked up some Polish kabanos, a small packet of chorizos and a healthy chunk of Italian lardo, cured pig back fat from Tuscany.

Most exciting, though, was the presence of this season’s first Vacherin Mont D’Or, in its distinctive round, wooden box, a sure, and tasty, sign that we are truly into autumn. This seasonal cheese is produced on the Swiss-French border using only milk from Montbéliard and Simmentaler breeds who graze on the lush summer grass of Franche-Comté. It is a real treat and I try to buy at least two or three during the winter months for special occasions. Using the well-known adage ‘if it grows together, it goes together’ as a point of reference, you could do a lot worse than cracking open a bottle of soft Burgundy to go with it. Hardly the healthiest way to end a meal but certainly one that should bring warmth and smiles to any cold and miserable winter night.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Friday Nibbles - Eggs

A couple of months ago I managed to pull a muscle in my side, the one that stretches from your shoulder blade right round the front. I wish there was a rugged and manly explanation for this injury like I’d been wrestling a bear or paddling a raft full of orphans to safety across roaring white water. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, there isn’t. I managed to sustain this particular mischief by sneezing whilst in a slightly awkward position. And it was quite possibly the most painful thing I have ever done, and that includes falling off a large horse at the age of eight and being badly winded.

For about three weeks I couldn’t breathe deeply because the pain caused by pressure in my side was too much too bear. Every time I wanted to turn around in bed I had to mentally prepare myself like a wounded sailor readying himself for an amputation with only brandy anaesthesia to numb the pain. Swimming was virtually impossible and even the act of drinking was a chore. Sneezing also held a particular fear – every time I did so (and this happened an awful lot thanks to the high pollen count and my body’s frustrating inability to deal with it) it felt liked I’d cracked a new rib and I couldn’t help but grimace and emit a loud grunt that either of the Williams sisters would be proud of.

I also learned that comedy injuries, much like football, are a universal language thanks to a protracted encounter with a Thai masseuse in Bangkok. Despite my protestations, I was ordered by my girlfriend – no doubt increasingly concerned over my growing reliance on the strongest painkillers it is possible to purchase over the counter – to go and avail myself of the services of the nearest Thai massage expert (no sniggers or jokes please, this was entirely above board and no ‘happy finish’ was mentioned).

I tried to keep my injury secret but there are few places to hide when wearing but a pair of pants and lying down on a padded table. As soon as she started prodding, poking, kneading, pushing, pulling and stretching me where it hurt there was nothing I could do to stop myself recoiling in pain. She soon became fascinated with my right side and took all of about nine seconds to realise there was something wrong.
In broken English she asked me how I’d done it. I doubted whether the word ‘sneeze’ was one she had picked up and I toyed with the idea of saying ‘fight’ but it’s hard to act out that particular action whilst semi-naked, prostrate and with an arm held behind your back. With a combination of mime and enthusiastic sound effects I managed to convey that it was, in fact, a nefarious sneeze that was the cause of my ills.

She laughed so hard that she momentarily lost the ability to massage. This was, evidently, too good to keep to herself and within a few seconds of regaining the ability to speak she had summoned her fellow masseuses to come and stare in wonder at the crazy farang who’d managed to render himself incapable through sneezing. I found myself surrounded by Thai ladies each fascinated by my injury, each wanting to have a poke and prod and each struggling to conceal intense laughter.

After the kafuffle had died down and the gaggle of masseuses (a gaggle of masseuses? A pummel of masseuses? I just don’t know what the collective noun for such a group is) had vacated, she got to work on my side with tenacious enthusiasm. By the time she’d finished I could lift my arm above my head without wincing, I could sneeze without fear of bursting my rib cage, I had a full 360 degrees of motion. I was cured!

The reason I’m mentioning this now is because I’ve managed to suffer an almost identical injury but on my left side this time. And it wasn’t thanks to a rogue sneeze. After an hour chopping firewood (with an axe, no less. Can’t get much more manly than that) I returned inside to have a cup of tea. As the day wore on I developed a realisation that all was not well with my side muscle and each deep breath was bringing with it an eerily familiar pain. By the time I got to bed I had to resort to super strength painkillers in order to dull the ache enough to fall asleep and come morning I found that I couldn’t roll over without doing the sailor/amputation mental preparation routine again.

Of course, this digression has little, if anything, to do with this week’s Friday Nibbles. I was merely hoping to amuse with this self-deprecatory tale of woe. And perhaps garner some sympathy. Anyway, onto more relevant matters.

The egg is a single celled wonder. A magnificent and spectacular piece of natural engineering housed within its own little shell temple. Without the egg, the kitchen would be a far less interesting place bereft of so many things we take for granted. We’d have no cakes, for a start. No muffins. No mousses. No soufflés. No consommé. No custard. No crème patisserie. No pancakes. No meringue. No béarnaise, hollandaise, mayonnaise. No pasta. No tempura. And that’s before we even begin on omelettes, scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, fried eggs, poached eggs, coddled eggs, baked eggs, oeufs en cocotte…

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. Eggs are pretty much essential to any and every kitchen. Unless you are a vegan, in which case they’re not. But you’re missing out, seriously.

Need a hearty breakfast? Fried eggs on toast is ideal. Brunch would be incomplete without pancakes or eggs Benedict. Hard-boiled egg at lunch time? Don’t mind if I do. Need to impress at dinner? Twice baked goat’s cheese soufflé should do the job. Feeling peckish just before bed? A quick omelette should fill the hole. Suffering from a hangover? A bacon and egg sandwich is virtually guaranteed to cure what ails ya.

And the most amazing thing is that we’re only just beginning to understand what goes on inside these little wonders. Hervé This, the famed molecular gastronomist, dedicates a large portion of his time and a huge amount of experimentation to eggs. He has found ways to cook and uncook eggs without the application of heat. He has discovered a way to cook an egg to a temperature that renders the yolk pliable and mouldable like play-doh. He knows exactly how much mayonnaise can be created from a single egg yolk (the answer is a lot) or how much meringue can be made from a single egg white (buckets of the stuff). He knows more about eggs than anyone else in the world.

But none of this matters when a fried egg, sat atop a piece of lightly toasted wholemeal bread is waiting to be devoured. Truly egg-shellent food indeed (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Comfort Food

If there are two words more, well, comforting than ‘comfort’ and ‘food’ then I am yet to hear them (although ‘Obama’ and ‘landslide’ do come a very close second). Even the simple act of saying those two little words can cause smiles and quivers of anticipation and an insatiable desire for a large plate of something warming and stodgy.

Comfort food is more than sustenance. It is food for the soul as well as the belly, a meal that warms the heart and the head in equal measure and leaves you in a faint fug of tiredness with a look of happy exhaustion playing across your face and a desire to fall asleep on the sofa while episodes of favourite comedies play themselves out on the television.

It is a concept that means different things to different people. One of the most interesting occurrences to come out of the ‘Desert Island Food’ game was the stark difference in what is considered to be comforting. For those raised on a western European diet, potatoes and bread feature heavily whilst those of Asian extraction showed a bias for rice. I dare say that, broadly, the pattern would be repeated in other parts of the world and I look forward to reading more ‘Desert Island Food’ lists. If you haven’t yet taken part, the original post is here.

With the mornings and evenings getting increasingly cooler, we’ve finally had to succumb to the wonders of central heating. We’ve also had our chimneys swept so that we can enjoy a real log fire instead of merely flicking the switch to turn on the radiators – far more appropriate, and satisfying, for life in the countryside.

There are few meals more apt for eating in front of a crackling fire than sausages and mashed potato, complete with decadent amounts of onion gravy, naturally. Add to that a bottle of rib-stickingly thick red wine and a few episodes of The Wire and you have a recipe for the ultimate comfort scenario. So, that’s exactly what we did.

Sadly no photos – by the time it was all ready the light had gone and we were left with an un-photographable plate of deliciousness – but for lunch I turned the leftover mash (pepped up with some fiery English mustard) into potato cakes, fried in a little olive oil and goose fat.

This is the best use of leftovers ever. Ever. Ever. I challenge you to think of one that trumps it.