Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Friday, 27 November 2009

My scrumps

I ran into Old Man Mallet in the apple orchard yesterday. This was a cause for concern as a) my pockets were literally bulging with apples, b) he was carrying a twelve bore shotgun and c) it’s his orchard. As he glided down the footpath towards me I noticed a pair of squirrels hanging lifelessly from his left hand, an observation that did little to settle my unease.

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel guilty. Thousands of apples line the orchard floor; a muggy sweat of rotting fruit thickens the air with dust and vinegar. It’s an alarming amount of waste and a sad indicator of the decline affecting many English orchards; two thirds of which have disappeared in the last three decades.

Scrumping is by definition an act of criminal enterprise, the acquisition of another person’s property without consent. Theft. Robbery. Pilferage. Orchards aside, I’ve had my eye on an old pear tree that sits in the front garden of a house at the end of the road, branches flecked with russety-hued fruit. Surely too many for one household alone, this is becoming increasingly apparent as a mash of squidged fruit drifts up the driveway and across the lawn. Zero chance of confiscating a few pears off the tree though - not without stilts anyway.

This is the essence of conscientious scrumping - “a few”. Two years ago my parents experienced a sorry episode in which the plum tree on the farm was completely stripped of fruit overnight. Less scrumped, more harvested. As part of the bigger picture it’s not that important (at least it wasn’t a van load of tools), but when you’ve spent the summer looking forward to untold crumbles it’s far from ideal.

Is Scrumping a simple gesture of enthusiasm towards oft-wasted food or contemptible, premeditated plunder? I make it away from Mallet unscathed; he’s far more concerned about being late for a game of tennis at the Manor. Fruit looting has won the day, but I’m stuck with an image of him propelling dead squirrels across court with a beaten-about Slazenger. What a way to spend an evening.

Posted on 25th November 2009

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


 How I chortle, reclining on the sofa with a glass of chilled wine. “Father of two Steve from Hampcestershireboro” has only gone and prepared a plate of ravioli that boasts the visual appeal of a pile of old envelopes; judging by John’s face, the taste too. Had this moment been illustrated in The Beano, Gregg might be shaded in woozy off-green, “Boik!” captioned in close proximity. C’mon Steve, get it together. “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this” – I’d hazard that I’m not alone in thinking, “Yeah right”.

 Maybe I was a little hasty. ‘The Invention Test’ that features prominently in the early rounds of Masterchef will be one of the big attractions for visitors at Masterchef Live, which runs this weekend at the London Olympia. The premise is thus: compete against 29 other entrants, rustle up a dish with a bag of mystery ingredients in half an hour and (hopefully) make it through to the final four to have your meal judged by John & Gregg.

 I’d been pretty Zen-like en route to the show this morning, but as the expanse of hobs, chopping boards and knife blocks unfolds in front of me I feel a quiet flicker of panic. This flicker seems to ripple through the group when it’s announced that Sir Terry Wogan is to be a special guest judge; sampling the final dishes and offering a critique with John & Gregg. Being lampooned for burning the garlic is one thing; accidently poisoning a national treasure is another story.

 We’re waiting for the green light to inspect our mystery ingredients. A keeno rival on a nearby cooking station is peering into her bag inquisitively – actually, as I scan the units, everyone is. I take a look and catch a glimpse of a chicken breast, bacon rashers, Parmesan, carrots, broccoli, white wine, mascarpone, fresh mint and parsley. Storecupboard essentials like onions, garlic, sugar and spices are on a shelf under the counter. Compere TV’s Andi Peters gives the nod – it’s all on.

 “Fifteen minutes to go”. I’ve barely peeled the carrots, there’s so much left to do. What I have succeeded in is spilling a glass of water across the work surface; my trainers are soaking. I finally decided to make a chicken, mint and carrot salad with spicy harissa dressing – it’s still a long way off mind. Chicken’s poached though, which is a result.

 “10 seconds to go”. Any notions of adding a few quirky food styling tricks are out of the window; it’s literally a case of toss it all together, throw it on the plate and grin. I’m sorry Steve.

 My finished dish tastes pretty good, but lacklustre presentation looks to have slighted Nadia Sawalha, who was on hand to choose the final four. A guy on an adjacent unit seems pleased not to be up on stage with the finalists, as he shows me the raw centre of his piece of chicken I can kind of see why. The winning dish does look pretty good, a spicy grilled chicken breast with herby couscous. John, Gregg and Tel look pretty impressed. I didn’t even realise there was couscous in the bag.

Posted on 13th November 2009

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Sloe Burner

As the train grumbles towards Waterloo each morning I often note the word Sloe graffitied at regular intervals along the trackside. One can only assume that the scribe is a keen forager, gathering wild fruit from hedgerows while tag rival Kure smokes salted fish in an old tin at the bottom of the garden. Choke really should chew his food more.

Cloudy blue sloe clusters emerge during late summer, but are best picked for sloe gin after the first frosts of autumn. The slow ferment into thick, scarlet liqueur is a far cry from the grim reality of chewing on a freshly picked berry - a perennial source of entertainment as my little sister grappled with plum/sloe differentiation in her formative years. Falling victim to the ‘sloe ruse’ was to volunteer removal of the mouth’s moisture in an instant; tongue like blotting paper with a dusty, bitter aftertaste. Astringency is dispelled and a bottle made now should be ready to drink by Christmas, although extra patience is rewarded.

Pour 150g sugar into a half filled 75cl bottle of gin before filling to the rim with sloes. Piercing the skin of each berry sends inky plumes darting through the gin – a thorn from the bush is used in many traditional recipes. Gently agitating the bottle daily for the first 7 days and weekly thereafter helps everything blend together; I’m adding chilli, star anise and a cinnamon stick this year for a bit of extra spice.

Blackthorn itself is often depicted in folklore as being a tree of ill omen. Many a witch or heretic made their exit on a blackthorn pyre, no doubt surrounded by irate villagers clutching pitchforks and sundry garden paraphernalia. The berries are said to purge the body of evil maladies – an expulsion probably aided by various medicinal benefits (including a high vitamin C content).

Whether it’s added to a stock reduction, lightly sweetening a tagine or simply drizzled over ice cream for a quick dessert, it’s good to have a bottle of sloe gin at hand in the kitchen. Top on the list has to be a small measure in a flute before topping up with champagne - amazing stuff. Not amazing enough to make me skulk around old railway lines with a spray can though.

Posted on 20th September 2009

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Roasted chestnut and herb pesto

A giant sweet chestnut tree stoops over the platform as I wait for the 7:58 with a huddle of sleepy commuters each morning. Even the slightest breeze sends a shower of prickly hail advancing towards us; as the startled panic subsides I quickly gather a handful of nuts into my pocket before shoehorning onto the train. A simple pesto is a good way of using up herbs in the garden before the cold sets in; replacing olive with rapeseed oil helps bring the chestnut and herb flavour through.

100g sweet chestnuts
Good handful mixed basil, parsley and mint leaves
50g grated parmesan
150ml rapeseed oil
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper

Cut a small cross in each chestnut and roast for 30 minutes (200°C). Cool before crushing with the flat side of a knife, removing shells and blitzing kernels in a food processor. Throw in remaining dry ingredients and pulse until finely chopped. Add oil, mix together and season to taste.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Beware the friendly stranger

 With a flourish of deranged abandon, a crazed pheasant flung itself across the windscreen of the car last night. My initial horror at its scant regard for the Highway Code was quickly replaced by the need to inspect the rear view mirror; both for signs of a jam sandwich in our wake, and the glint of steel in the shadows.

 As times get harder and the cost of food rises, poaching is becoming increasingly common throughout the countryside and urban fringes. Dorset police have reported cases of bread and jam being used to lure unsuspecting deer in front of cars; with subsequent, vehicle-dispatched venison stolen into the night after motorists leave the scene.

 In acknowledging the genuine seriousness of the situation, it’s hard not to be sidetracked by flickers of surrealism. Jam sandwich bait? It’s almost cartoon-like in its conception, as if Wile E. Coyote has been brought in as a consultant. A silhouetted figure leafing through the pages of a well-thumbed ‘Acme Poacher’s Compendium’, thin spirals of cigarette smoke twisting through low branches. Trout, hare, chickens, pheasants and (almost as bizarrely) bees, the rise in poaching is a reflection of the times - one that dustily echoes much older ways of life.

 Game abounds at the village butcher. I’m busy contemplating the venison steaks when a quietly spoken exchange at the far end of the shop spills into laughter. “Don’t bring too many in, I’ll never shift ‘em” smirks the man in bloodstained white, his acquaintance nodding in agreement before trudging up the high street. The butcher knows I’m onto him, there’s a shimmer of malevolence in his eyes as he slides my venison across the counter. That, or he forgot to take an antihistamine this morning. It’s hard to tell really. I grab a box of farm eggs and faux-nonchalantly enquire about the locality of his wild meat. “We get allsorts in ‘ere, I’ve a man who helps me out – clean shot to the head is the best way.” Heading back to the car, it’s still not clear if he was referring to the deer or those who ask too many questions.

 A handful of raisins and chips in a paper cone feel like an appropriate, Dahl-inspired addition to my game stew, the former swelling gently as they simmer away in the thick sauce. Hazy memories of the ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ school of poaching seem a million miles away in this day and age; poaching is a lucrative and large-scale business. Watch out for preserve-laden snacks in the headlights.

Posted on 14th September 2009

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The heart of the matter

 I was ill-inclined to rekindle the ashes of what had been a brief and tempestuous relationship with the globe artichoke. Last year’s debacle - an event that quickly imploded into a spectacle of profanity and vegetable abuse, was blighted from the outset and resulted in an oversized thistle making a prompt, window facilitated exit from my life.

 Simple start this time: cut the stalk off, trim the top and boil for 35-45 minutes. After draining and resting the artichoke on a board I begin to peel off the outer scales - they fall away easily, my fingertips quickly pointing out that the inner layers remain hotter than the surface of the sun. A generous slab of butter over the steaming leaves prompts an unusual development - scraping the smooth, pulpy inside of a scale into the mouth with your teeth feels odd yet strangely satisfying. Still, not one to order on a first date. A recipe I’ve found in an old book enthuses the merits of chewing on the tough outer scales too, an opinion that upon reflection, seems misguided. They’re horrid. Spooning out the furry choke is the final step en route to the heart.

 “Is that it?” remarks a visibly disgruntled girlfriend, eyeing the heart suspiciously while offering a cusory glance at the heap of debris on the board. Nonplussed, I quarter the heart before adding a sprinkle of salt and few grinds of black pepper - it’s a brief but tasty affair.

 Having spent the best part of an hour unravelling its babushka doll exterior, I’ll concede that the resultant volume of ‘choke heart matter appears less than impressive. In its uncooked form an artichoke has a fantastic sculptural beauty; the aesthetic transition is the equivalent of arriving at the Albert Hall to find Dick Van Dyke on stage performing ‘The Planets’ solo on a nose flute. No actually, I’d pay good money to see that. Maybe it is worth the effort.

Posted on 24th April 2009