In which a Christmas gift has conditions attached *

We are a horribly traditional couple, and no role model at all for our grandchildren.  If it’s jobs round the house that need doing, Malcolm’s your man.  He’s a very handy plumber, and spending the morning fiddling with the electrics presents him with no problems at all.  He’s good at what he does. I’m not even any use as the gopher.  I’ll bring him the wrong sort of screwdriver, and am apt to confuse hammers and mallets.

Cooking however is a different story.  I’ll open the fridge and plan a meal round whatever catches my eye or needs using up.  I read recipe books for fun, but rarely use them whilst actually cooking.  Spending time in the kitchen is relaxing for me.  Malcolm requires a detailed recipe, and if he finds we’re out of some minor ingredient, the planned-for dish is hastily abandoned.  In advance of actually cooking, he carefully lines up, measures and weighs all he needs, just like Delia Smith used to do.

So this Christmas, I’ve given him a present designed to remove cooking-related stress.  Here it is: a whole book of dishes needing only five ingredients, and top of the best-seller lists as well.

Jamie Oliver’s latest book.

Very meanly though, I’ve insisted that in return for the gift, he has to plan and cook a dish from it once a week.

He says he’s up for the challenge. Happily, he hasn’t given me a D-I-Y book in return. No home deserves my botched attempts at repair and maintenance. Instead, he’s given me this: much more my cup of tea.

 

  • Malcolm says I ought to call this post ‘The Poisoned Chalice’.  I think that’s a bit harsh.

Comfort food, Polish style

After a couple of emotionally draining days, we had a low-key day exploring endlessly fascinating back streets.

Rain threatened all day, and when it finally came, we knew about it. Deluge. We needed comfort food. This is what I chose at lunchtime: zureck. It tasted slightly sour, slightly fermented. I loved it.

You make a zakwas of rye flour, bread crusts, garlic, and warm water set aside for some days to ferment. Then you make a broth from root vegetables. Then you fry onions, bacon, white sausage, and add it to the strained broth. Add a hard boiled egg. And the zakwas. And you’re done. I’m going to make this at home.

This evening we shared a single portion of potato cakes, goulash type stew, sauerkraut, carrot salad served with sour cream. We almost failed to finish it. And I’ve recently acquired a taste for fruit vodkas. Expect us to have gone up two sizes at least by the time you next see us.

Season of blackberries, apples and mellow fruitfulness

It’s been quite a year for blackberries.  Fine juicy berries tumble from every bramble bush, staining our clothes and ruining our shoes.  Even if, like me, you work on the principle of eating one berry for every two you collect for the pot, you’ll soon have more than you can realistically deal with.

Then there are apples.  Kind friends have given us fruits carefully picked from their trees, but we consider these too fine to mix with other ingredients.  When we have jellies and compotes to make, we prefer to rescue windfalls from back lanes in the village, cut away the bruises and discard the insecty bits.

This year, we have two best uses for blackberries, and for apples too.

This is a blackberry bakewell tart.  The recipe is from the wonderful Mrs. Portly, and her recipe called for raspberries.  I used blackberries instead, and my greedy family demolished the lot in a single sitting.

Blackberry bakewell slice – just out of the oven.

Much of the rest of our harvest has been used for blackberry and apple jelly.  We no longer eat jam, but the intense flavour, and rich ruby colouring of this jelly  is pure essence of blackberry, and a souvenir of late summer days in the dreary dark days of winter.  It’s really worth making a few pots.

Take equal quantities of blackberries and apples.  Roughly chop the apples, which you needn’t core or peel, and place in a pan, barely covering the fruit with water.  Bring to a simmer till the apple softens and the juices run from the berries: 10 – 15 minutes.

 

Strain the juices through a jelly bag, or through a muslin-lined sieve for several hours.  Measure the juice.  Although I usually cook in metric, at this point, I go all avoirdupois, and work exclusively in pounds and ounces and pints.  It just seems to work better for me.

 

Return the extract to the pan with the juice of a lemon, and for every pint of juice, add a pound of granulated sugar.  Stir till the sugar has dissolved and boil rapidly till a ‘jell’ is obtained on testing. If you’re new to making jelly or jam, this article is helpful.

Our blackberry jelly will taste all the better because we had help from grandson William, aged two. He gathered berries, and hunted for windfalls.  He’s a London child, and his parents were keen for him to help with any job not available to him in a city park.

 

His parents have taken a pot of jelly back to London as a souvenir, of course.

Dozens of plums, hundreds of plums ….

This is Gillian’s orchard. Her apples were more photogenic than her plum trees. Thanks for all this fruit, Gillian!

We don’t seem to eat jam any more.  And gifts of English style chutneys, full of summer and autumn fruits and piquant with the inevitable malt vinegar sit reproachfully at the back of the food cupboard, uneaten and unloved.

There are only so many plum frangipane tarts you can eat, delicious as they are (thanks, Mrs. Portly!) Or plum cakes.

What to do with all these plums we’ve picked?  Open freeze some for winter cakes and puddings?  There, that’s sorted a kilo out.  Now what?

Gathering greengages.

Well, perhaps we could make some chutney after all.  Fired up with chillies and warming spices, they could make a decent addition to a simple winter supper.  Finding a recipe that fits our bill is a task Google was made for.  And here it is, courtesy of a blog new to me that I’ll be following with interest from now on, The Cottage Smallholder.

Hot spiced plum chutney
 
Author: Fiona Nevile
Prep time: 30 mins
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours 30 mins
  • 1.45 kilos approx of sweet plums
  • 500 ml of white wine vinegar (don’t use malt or white vinegar)
  • 4 chunky cloves of garlic sliced fine
  • 175g of dried apricots chopped
  • 600g of white granulated sugar
  • I lemon cut lengthwise into 8 slices and sliced very fine (ours weighed 100g)
  • 1 large pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of coriander powder
  • 7 red birds eye chillis sliced fine, include the seeds
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of allspice powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp of balsamic vinegar
  • 5 juniper berries
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp of dried chillies, chopped fine with seeds
  1. The night before you want to make the chutney, stone the plums and put them in a large heavy bottomed saucepan/preserving pan and add the vinegar. Bring to the boil, cover and leave to cool until the next day.
  2.  Add all the ingredients apart from the sugar and the dried chillies.
  3. Bring slowly to simmering point and add the sugar. Stir constantly until you are certain that the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring the chutney back to a good simmer and, after an hour or so, add the dried chillis to taste.
  5. Stir every few minutes to stop the bottom burning (this is a labour of love after all).
  6. Eventually depending on the strength of your simmer, the chutney will start to thicken (more like very thick soup than chutney), stirring every 10-15 minutes or so. Test for thickness by putting a spoonful in the fridge for half an hour and take the saucepan off the stove during the test.
  7. When you have a consistency that you like, very gently reheat the chutney and when it reaches simmering point pour into warm sterilised jars and seal with plastic lined metal lids. Leave for a month to mellow.
  8. N.B. Don’t use cellophane jam pot covers as the vinegar will evaporate and you will be left with relics from a Pharaoh’s tomb after a few months.

We haven’t had the chance to taste the fully matured version.  But this seems to be the business.  Hot, fiery, with complex flavours that aren’t overwhelmed by vinegar.

Chutney bubbling away.

And if you still want another chutney, good old Saint Nigel delivers another spicy treat in his cooking bible, ‘Tender’

Nigel Slater’s hot and sweet plum chutney
. 750g of plums (about 1 1/2 pounds)
. 350g of onions (about 3/4 pound)
. 125g of raisins (about 3/4 cup)
. 250g of light muscovado sugar (1 1/4 cups)
. 1/2 tsp of crushed dried chillies
. 2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
. 150ml of apple cider vinegar (5 1/2 fluid ounces)
. 150ml of malt vinegar (5 1/2 fluid ounces)
. a cinnamon stick broken in two

Halve the plums, discarding the stones. Peel and roughly chop the onions. Put the fruit and the onions into a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for about an hour. (DO not forget to stir it occasionally as it may catch if you don’t and you don’t want that to happen!) Pour into hot and sterilized jam jars. Seal. Allow it to mature for at least a couple of weeks.

Now then.  All you have to do is source your plums …. and get cooking.

The backdrop to all our picking activity. Not bad, eh?

‘Au cas où’ you need some wood, or a bag of fruit.

We’ve been getting in touch with our inner Ariègeois(e) today.

Our foraging country in the Ariège

We spent six years in France, living in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the Ariège, a département where almost everybody still had firm roots in the simple self-sufficient lifestyle of their forbears.  Nobody that we knew would have considered installing, as David Cameron recently has, a faux shepherd’s hut in the back garden.  Instead, most people had a serviceable shed, built of bits of this and that and adapted to personal requirements.

Nobody that we knew ever bought firelighters for their wood burning stove.  Instead, we’d all hang around as the weekly market packed up, rescuing the wooden fruit boxes, now empty of peaches and pears, which when broken up provide perfect kindling material.

Everyone we knew never left home without an ‘au cas où‘ (‘just in case’) bag, to fill with wild mushrooms, or walnuts, or sloes, or chestnuts, or apples, or any free food that came their way.

Foraging in the Ariège…..

That’s been us this week.  We don’t need a garden hut.  But we have got a wood-burning stove.  And today we’ve been re-purposing the wooden casing that our delivery of logs came in.  It’s soft wood, so we know we can only use it sparingly on our stove.  But it’s there – and we will use it.  So here we were, sawing it into manageable lengths, sorting and storing it.

We’re the odd-bods who gather the discarded fruit boxes at Ripon market. We’ve been breaking those up today too, for kindling.

 

Malcolm does a fine job of sawing up some wooden pallets.

And yesterday, our friend Gillian had us over to raid her plum trees.  We came back with a pail full of greengages, and a pail full of czars. Today was the day when we started to convert this ripe fruit into chutneys and cakes and hooch and crumbles.  Our French friends would definitely approve.

 

‘Here we go making mulberry gin….’

My morning sortie to gather a bowlful of mulberries for breakfast (actually, forget the bowl.  Mulberries go directly to mouth) has suddenly got much harder.  Autumn’s in the air as I traipse across the dewy grass.  The mulberries are fewer.

The mulberry tree still bears fruit.

This isn’t just the fault of the weather.  We have some new residents in the garden.  A family of moorhens: mum, dad, and five chicks.  They like mulberries too.  The windfalls that used to be mine, all mine, are now theirs, all theirs.  But who could begrudge such charming tenants?

 

Anyway, I suddenly realised that if we were going to have our much talked-of mulberry gin in time for Christmas, we needed to act.  We had a houseful of helpers.  Not just Malcolm, but Emily and her boyfriend Miquel, over from Barcelona.

Out came the bowls.  Out came the small steps.  Out came the team.  We stripped the tree of any berries that were ripe enough to fall into our hands, as the moorhen chicks cheeped and protested from their lair in the flowerbed.

Emily concentrates on the task in hand.

The rest was easy.  Wash the berries.  Half fill an empty bottle with gin.  Poke berries into bottle.  Add sugar.  Argue about whether to follow the recipe that suggests adding a handful of roasted almonds or not.  Decide to leave almonds out today, but add them to the next batch.  Screw cap on bottle.  Shake.  Place in cupboard with note to self to shake bottle daily for a couple of weeks, then wait for months.  That’s it.  Tidy up.  Before Christmas we’ll strain off the gin, re-bottle it … and look forward to sampling it on Christmas Day.

How many people does it take to fill a mulberry gin bottle?

Or … if you’re on our Christmas present list, you might get a bottle too.

Mulberry gin in the making.