When we lived in France, the easiest way to persuade a French friend that you did not have their interests at heart was to produce a spiced dish, especially one with chillies in.
‘Oh, we love spicy food’, declared Henri and Brigitte when we broached the subject of cooking them a curry. All the same, we were careful. We dished up a korma so mild that it barely qualified as spiced at all. ‘Ouf!’ exclaimed Henri, after the first tentative mouthful – ‘are you trying to kill us?’
With this in mind, it was a huge surprise to us when one Friday in Lavelanet market, we came upon a man with a stall full of chillies. Orange chillies, yellow chillies, green chillies, purple chillies, fresh chillies, dried chillies. He had no customers at all. So he had time to chat to us, and explained that he’d come to love chillies, and to be passionate about seeking out new varieties, growing and using them. He was one of two such growers in France. We bought from him. He had other English customers. The French? Not so much.
That was five years ago. After relying on northern Europeans to bail him out, slowly but surely he started to attract a few French customers too. He’s still in business. Perhaps, despite the danger represented by a Red Savina chilli rated 500,000 on the Scoville scale, he hasn’t managed to kill anybody off yet.
M. Chilli’s smallholding, devoted exclusively to chillies, chillies, and more chillies.
Wild garlic is the ingredient du jour these days. Good Lord, you can even buy it in the shops. Just as you can buy dandelion leaves in France. It even turned up in my veg. box last week: which was faintly annoying, as I can have as large a haul as I want of the stuff, simply by stepping out of the door and taking a two-minute walk to the woods.
It was fine though, as it made sure I tried this recipe from one of my favourite food bloggers, Linda Duffin, aka Mrs. Portly. A recipe for gnocchi? Good. With wild garlic? Excellent. But fried in butter and oil before serving? Wasn’t that a little odd? No, it wasn’t. It changed those gnocchi from comforting nursery fodder into something altogether more satisfactory to accompany a fine plate of local sausages and some barely cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Don’t tell Linda, by the way, but I steamed my potatoes rather than baking them. It was absolutely fine.
Linda’s asked me to cut and paste her post rather than reblogging it. I hope this won’t dissuade you from exploring her site. You’ll find some recipes you’ll want to try out within moments.
Wild garlic abounds at this time of year … everywhere except in my neighbourhood. I am planting some for next year but in the meantime I have to forage far afield to find it. There are alternatives though if it’s equally elusive where you live.
You can replace it with three-cornered leek, which often grows wild where garlic doesn’t, or steal a few leaves from any domestic garlic bulbs you may have growing in the garden. I haven’t tried it with the green part of spring onions but it’s worth experimenting.
You don’t have to pan-fry the gnocchi (in which case try brown butter, a few fried sage leaves and grated parmesan) but it’s a lovely way to eat them, either as a side dish, or on their own with a good tomato sauce.
We ate them with seared venison fillet and purple sprouting broccoli, steamed and tossed with a mixture of butter, lemon juice and zest and anchovy.
Any leftover gnocchi can be frozen, uncooked, in a single layer. Transfer to a sealable bag and when you want to eat them, cook from frozen, straight into boiling water.
A note on foraging: it’s not illegal to pick flowers, fruit, fungi and foliage in the UK provided it’s for personal rather than commercial use. There are exceptions to this: local by-laws may forbid foraging and for obvious reasons you can’t do it at Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
It is illegal to uproot a plant and it’s sensible to pick a leaf or two from lots of plants rather than to denude one. And bear in mind that while foraging isn’t classed as theft, you may still be committing the civil offence of trespass. If in doubt, ask the landowner.
Bake the potatoes until soft. As soon as they’re cool enough to handle, scoop out the middles and push through a ricer into a bowl. Allow to cool.
Blanch the garlic leaves in boiling water for a minute, drain very thoroughly and chop finely. Add to the potato along with the eggs yolks and stir with a fork to mix.
Season well and add three-quarters of the flour, stirring with the fork again. Form into a dough and add more flour as necessary until you have a soft, pliable but not overly sticky dough. You may not need all the flour. Try not to over-work it or your gnocchi will be tough.
Dust your work surface lightly with rice flour. Divide the dough into four and roll into sausages, about 2cm in diameter. With a sharp knife, cut into 2.5cm sections.
You can either use these as they are, as little cushions, or roll them over a floured fork to make indentations. These ridges are supposed to help sauce adhere but honestly, I don’t think it makes much difference and unless you are deft and experienced, there’s a danger of over-working the dough.
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and drop in the gnocchi in batches. Don’t overcrowd the pan. They’re about done when they bob to the surface, around three minutes. Give them another 20 seconds then taste one: it should be cooked through and not floury. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil with a good knob of butter in a heavy-based pan and fry the gnocchi on each side until golden brown. Eat straight away.
Surely it’s only in England that you would find an annual festival dedicated to marmalade in all its forms? And it’s no surprise to find it hosted in a delightful country house, Dalemain, the family home of the Hasell-McCosh family.
Eleven years ago, Jane Hasell-McCosh devised this very British festival, and now in March every year, some 2,000 marmalade makers submit their entries to be judged .
The day kicked off in a rare rain-free moment with local schoolchildren belting out a jolly song about the delights of marmalade. In this ballad, they rejected any treat they were offered, preferring instead a slice of toast, well slathered with this bitter orange preserve. As if.
Marmalade celebrated in song.
Dan Lepard and Jane Hassel-McCosh start the day off.
The judges of 2000 pots of marmalade get their reward.
MC was one of my baking heroes, Dan Lepard. He introduced everyone, and announced the winners. And then we went into the house, to visit room after room stuffed with pots of marmalade. Each jar is awarded a series of marks, and is given an individual critical commentary. I was quite cross that I hadn’t in the end made the effort to enter any of my own efforts.
The entrants though are not only true Brits, eccentric or otherwise. In our B&B we had met Chris Brown, a baker from Vancouver, who had come for this one weekend only to enter his marmalade. He’d already won gold medals in previous years. So many Japanese have done well that the Japanese Ambassador himself came to the opening ceremony and made a gracious and witty speech. There were Australians there, and Kiwis, South Africans, Americans, someone from the Czech Republic ….
The competition has categories for Seville orange marmalade of course, for marmalade with a twist, for any citrus marmalade, for dark and chunky marmalade ….. all this could be predicted. But a category for marmalade makers who are also campanologists? Octogenarians? ‘The Establishment’: those redoubtable and upstanding members of society, such as bishops, MPs and judges who used to be the only people who could verify your likeness for a passport application?
This is entirely in keeping with the professional-but-with-a strong-hint-of-the-amateur feel of the festival.
Dan Lepard and Jane Hassel-McCosh open the proceedings.
I paid extra to go to Question Time. Baker Dan Lepard, food historian Ivan Day, marmalade guru Pam ‘the jam’ Corbin, and Martin Grant, MD of Mackay’s Marmalade made the hour whizz past. One conversation stood in my mind. ‘If we sent each of you home with a basket of raspberries, or blackcurrants and asked you to make jam, you’d all come back with much the same product. If we sent you home with a bag of oranges, you’d each come back with something quite different.’ And it’s true. They’d range from dense, dark and treacly with big chunky chewy peel to bright jewelled orange jellies with a delicate filigree of fine strands of zest suspended within. And all stops in between. This immense variety to be had from a product made simply with oranges, a bag of sugar, a lemon, and perhaps a little secret something is what gives marmalade its continuing appeal.
After lunch, we popped into Penrith. The town had gone orange for the weekend. The face of the town clock was orange: the shop windows were dressed in orange, and there was an orange-themed market in the town square. Marmalade anyone? It was all good fun, despite the unremitting rain.
The town clock turns orange for the weekend
Stall on the market square
Next morning, we headed home. The rain was so intense that newly established rivers and waterfalls cascaded from the hills. Older-established rivers burst their banks and flooded across roads. Fields developed impromptu lakes. It reminded us of a remark that Malcolm had overheard at the festival: ‘I come every year. But it always rains’
One of the bells of Ripon Cathedral sounded this morning: sonorous, measured and slow. The pancake bell. It’s rung out every Shrove Tuesday for centuries now, just like other bells in other churches, countrywide. It reminds good Christian folk to come to church and confess their sins, before Ash Wednesday. Some also believe it was to remind thrifty housewives to use up their eggs, butter and milk before fasting during Lent.
Nowadays it’s a signal to gather outside the cathedral and have a bit of fun. Somebody has already cooked a pile of pancakes. No point in making lacy delicate crepes. These pancakes are in for a tough time as props in the annual pancake race. Contestants have to run from the Cathedral, down Kirkgate, pan in hand, tossing as they go …. onto the pavement, as often as not.
I watched teams from the Rotary Club, from local primary schools, from the Italian restaurant down the road.
Sadly though I missed seeing the clergy do their bit: things to do, places to go. It all seemed amiably uncompetitive. Just a chance to chat to the Hornblower (who keeps us safe through the night here in Ripon), to friends, and to take a few snapshots of this happy little Shrove Tuesday tradition.
David from the Rotary Club gets a bit of practice in.
The Ripon Hornblower keeps a friendly eye on the proceedings.
Children from Holy Trinity School tussle it out.
Later, much later, Malcolm and I had pancakes too, delicate lacey ones, served with lots of sugar and lemon juice. We tossed them of course. But we didn’t run down the street with them.
We love Bean and Bud. Without a visit to this coffee (and tea) shop, no visit to Harrogate is complete. It’s a compact and friendly place, on a busy little street filled only with small independent and charity shops.
Bean and Bud sets the gold standard by which all cups of coffee should be judged. Choose between one of their two weekly featured beans – or something else if you prefer – and your coffee will never be churned out, just because they’re busy. Your cup will be perfectly prepared, with attention to every detail – a glass of iced water with your espresso, for instance.
They got our loyalty the first time we went. For years, every coffee shop we’ve visited has lazily assumed that Malcolm, as the Real Man in the relationship, would need the espresso, whereas the Little Lady (me) would require a version with milk in. Actually it’s the other way about, and Bean and Bud made it their business to find out – and then remember – our preferences.
I don’t care for tea much (yes, I am English) but friends who do admire the speciality loose leaf teas, weighed and brewed for just the right amount of time. Perhaps I ought to give them a go.
At lunch time, there are just a few types of sandwich on offer, but they’re on decent bread, well-filled with proper ingredients – local cheese, good serrano ham, fresh zingy salads, home-made chutneys. But could you resist the home made cakes? They’re not airy calorie-fests filled with cream and topped with thick layers of icing, but densely flavoured with gingered treacle, poppy seeds, bitter chocolate, citrus zest.
Come with a friend, and you’ll find a cosy corner to sit and chat while your coffee or tea is made. If you’re alone, there’s a decent selection of newspapers to read. This is a Daily Mail free zone.
There, I’ve gone and made myself nostalgic for another of their fine espressos. Time to plan the next visit.
William has Christmas sorted. He doesn’t know it, but he’s going to become a home-maker and possibly a shopkeeper.
By December 25th, William, my grandson, will be almost 18 months old. Time to learn how to keep house, then. His parents are planning to give him his very own kitchen. Here it is:
It’s very different from the affair my son and his sisters had when they were small. Their appliances were fashioned from sturdy boxes and painted to look rather like the simplest of student kitchens.
His other grandparents are planning to stock this ultra-smart 2016 kitchen with pots and pans, teacups and plates. And my son, William’s dad, remembered that when he was small, I supplied him with home made play-food. He’s asked me to make a larder full for William.
So here we are. For the past week or so, I’ve been kneading salt dough, and fashioning food of all kinds to bake in the oven, paint and then varnish.
If you call to see William in January, he may offer you a meal of fish and chips, sausage egg and chips (no fine dining here, I’m afraid) with oranges, lemons, apples or pears to follow.
If you want to cook instead, there are just potatoes, onions, leeks, mushrooms, tomatoes – cabbages are too unwieldy, peas too accident-prone.
I’ve had fun. Let’s hope William enjoys his kitchen, and turns out to be as good and creative a cook as his dad – and mum – are.
We’re almost packed for Korea. We’ve remembered to pack the Marmite for Emily.
My friend Penny’s packed and left for France, where she’s staying at Maison Grillou with Kalba, happily exiled from England. She’s remembered to pack the Marmite too. Two jars – large.
What is it about us Brits? We can live abroad for years and years, and learn to do without Proper Tea (very easy for me, that one), baked beans on toast (even easier), and Bird’s custard powder (easier still). But deprive us of our Marmite, and we go into a steady decline. It’s not as if we all like it. Marmite themselves never try to convert anyone in their advertising. They know full well we either love it or loathe it, and there’s no point whatsoever in trying to persuade a Marmite-hater to give it another go.
What is clear though is that you do have to be British to love it. I’ve never spoken to anyone born outside the UK who could understand our love for this peculiar, salty yeast extract, a by-product of the brewing industry.
What’s your take on it? Incredibly, there’s even a board game to help you decide. I don’t need to play. I love it.