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Category: Food & Drink

Ripe For The Picking

Country walks with the dog collecting wild foodFood for free is a passion of mine – I never walk the dog without a bag or two in my pocket in which to stash bounty. Whether it’s berries to make into jam, mushrooms for breakfast or nettle tips for soup, it all finds its way home.

It’s a hobby with a long legacy – my grandmother took me to collect cowslips and elderflower to make wine, blackberries to add to apple crumble, windfall plums for jam, and when she died I inherited her recipe book, a cornucopia of the delightful and, it has to said, the gruesome. For example, I’ve never quite had the courage to try her recipe for pig cheeks – the memory of half a pig’s head floating in a bucket in my grandma’s pantry and my sister’s resulting screams are more than enough to put me off!

However, when my husband and I got married we wanted an ‘old fashioned country wedding’, complete with ‘elderflower champagne’ for the guest cup (see below), and so out came Grandma’s little red book. The wedding was on August Bank Holiday Monday, giving us plenty of time to collect baskets and baskets of elderflowers through May and June, and allow it to ferment over the summer.

The weather was so hot, however, that the wine became what is known as ‘lively’ in the trade; it didn’t pour out of the bottles as much as leap, much to my husband-to-be’s increasing anxiety. Eventually he rang the venue, which advised him to bring the bottles in and let them chill down in their walk-in fridges. He reports that he never felt so worried in his life as he did driving 70 bottles of volatile home-made ‘elderflower champagne’ over road bumps through the middle of town in our convertible Triumph Herald – he was worried that he’d get arrested if one exploded!

Luckily all was well – on the day the corks flew over the nearby 10 foot hedge as soon as they were opened while the wine itself behaved perfectly and stayed in the bottle until it was poured, much to the delight of the guests, who couldn’t believe it was barely 1% alcohol, such was the bonhomie of the atmosphere. Magical stuff.

CrayfishOur daughters seem to have inherited, or perhaps just acquired, our liking for nature’s free treats – top of their summer weekend activities is crayfishing in the local (very clean) river. The ones that they are after are the large imported American crayfish, which are a pest, so the children are actually doing the environment a favour, as well as well as catching dinner. With bacon on the end of a weighted string, up to a couple of dozen of these beauties can be pulled out in a couple of hours with patience – some are no bigger than a robust tiger prawn, but others are as big as young lobster and just as ferocious! Best plunged in to a pan of boiling water or barbequed, and served warm with mayonnaise dip.

Spring and summer also bring free wild ratatouille ingredients, such as young dandelion leaves, nettle tips, deadnettle shoots, broom buds, and hawthorn buds (the fan shapes are so pretty). Many of these can also be eaten raw in a salad, especially tasty when mixed with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, clover and marigold petals.

Elderflowers are delicious in fritters (use the lightest of tempura batter) served with vanilla ice cream, while my children enjoy crystallising other edible flowers, such as violets (wonderful on white chocolate mousse), rose buds and petals, lilacs, apple blossom, and primroses, to add to the top of cakes and puddings, give away as gifts in fairy-sized boxes – or to just eat in one decadent picnic in the sunshine! We are blessed with a large rose garden and I use the deepest red rose petals to make a sumptious confiture de petal de rose recipe given to me by a French relative (see below).

But of all the seasons, autumn has got to be top of the list in sheer choice and abundance. Blackberrying is, of course, the staple activity, and tends to turn into a social gathering, with assorted uncles, aunts, friends and godmothers thrown in for good measure.

I still make Grandma’s apple and blackberry cake as a first choice, but over the years we have perfected our blackberry wine, discovered that pickled blackberries are delicious with Cheddar, and blackberry vodka a lovely (and very pretty) addition to the Christmas drink’s cabinet or gift boxes for special friends. I also sometimes mix blackberries with Japonica quince gathered from the bush at my parent’s house if it has a good year – it makes a glorious jelly with an exquisite perfume, simply moreish on hot buttered wholemeal toast.

We are lucky in that we are usually given a brace of pheasants each week during the season, and blackberry syrup is a wonderful accompaniment to the roasted bird, although rowan jelly is a nice alternative. The rowan tree is often the first to bear fruit in the autumn and is surprisingly common in towns as well as hedgerows – its clusters of orange berries can be skimmed off with a fork in the same way that you would tackle elderberries. The jelly is jewel red and quite sharp – perfect with rich meat or cheese of any sort.

Crab apple also makes a lovely jelly, especially as a Christmas gift when spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, while hedgerow jelly makes the best of any wild fruit you can find, including blackberries, hawthorns, bullaces (wild plums) crab apples, hips, and sloes.

Squashes are not always free but are usually available in such abundance that it feels criminal not to do something with them, especially after making Hallowe’en lanterns when all that pumpkin puree is on the verge of being thrown away.  My favourites here are pumpkin pie, made the American way and served with ice cream – people have been known to write from the other side of the world for my recipe – and pumpkin preserve, which is so pretty it seems almost criminal to eat it.

Chutneys are the other great harvest time bounty, and the choice can be almost overwhelming between what you can gather from free in the hedgerows and the surplus you will receive from neighbours and friends. One of our favourites is Irish Whiskey marrow chutney, a great way of using the ‘ones that got away’ in the courgette patch and apple orchard and, as it says on the label, mixed with a little Irish whiskey so it’s a great keeper that matures to a rich mellow finish perfect with cheese on Boxing Day.

Later in the autumn the nuts start to ripen, and we collect hazel nuts and sweet chestnuts when we walk home after school just as the dusk gathers in. Mostly these get eaten straight from the shell or husk, or roasted on the fire, but surplus might find its way into crunchy harvest butter made with wild plums or apples, later to be added to pies and tarts throughout the winter, and served with thick custard or crème fraiche.

And finally we come to mushrooms, an early morning treat these, gathered while walking the dog in the morning mist. My grandfather would put a bucket over favoured areas where horse mushrooms grew – he believed it made them grow sweeter and larger. They are certainly delicious fried straight up with bacon for a proper breakfast, as are spotted ink caps, which must be used almost immediately they are gathered (and obviously it’s important to know your mushrooms before you pick them).

Food for free is nature’s bounty, despite parts of our countryside having become so sterile and chemically-overloaded as a result of intensive farming and rationalisation – and it hardly needs saying to avoid areas of high pollution and chemicals when you are gathering your harvest. But with care you can still find a huge amount of food for free still thriving in the hedgerows, along abandoned railway cuttings and beside canals, and let’s face it, it only adds to the pleasure of the table to know that what you are about to eat didn’t have to be bought or grown.

Red roses make the best rose petal confitureJosette’s Confiture de Petal de Rose

Based on a kilo of petals (adjust as necessary)

• Non-chemically treated red rose petals – for preference use ones that are just about to drop as they are softer

• Place petals in the preserving pan

• Add a small amount of water – for a kilo for petals, use 300ml of water

Pectin sugar to your taste

• Bring to the boil for 7 minutes so they form a setting consistency, and then bottle in sterilised jars.

Elderflowers make a great prosecco type wineGrandma’s Elderflower Champagne

1 gallon cold water

1 ½ lb sugar

7 heads of elderflowers – make sure they are the really fragrant ones; some smell a little of cats, which isn’t nice. They are also better at the end of a hot sunny day.

2 lemons, sliced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

• Bring the water to the boil and pour over the sugar; when cold add the flowerheads, lemon slices and the white wine vinegar.

• Cover and leave to stand 24 hours.

• Syphon off and bottle, using strong bottles (ideally champagne bottles).

• Cork well as this wine is very fizzy, hence its name.

• Drink young, ideally within 6 months.

© Claire Burdett. First published in Woman’s World, January 2010.


Seville Orange Marmalade

Oranges in SevilleFor those with a passion, the annual arrival of Seville oranges in Britain is an eagerly-awaited arrival akin to the first Beaujolais in other circles. They usually make a brief appearance just after New Year and fly off the shelves as cooks seize the chance to make their own home made marmalade.

The tart oranges from Seville are the ones that make the most superb marmalade and sauces, such as France’s classic duck a l’orange. The Seville orange has thrived in and around sub-tropical Seville for centuries and the tart fruit ripens slowly, hence their appearance on our shores in mid-winter.

The practice of making marmalade, albeit with the peel of the orange or, indeed, any citrus fruit at all, originated way back with the ancient Greeks. There  μελίμηλον melimēlon or “honey fruit” referred to quinces cooked with honey into a fruit paste. This was transformed into “marmelo” by the Romans in a cookbook on how to make various fruit preserves with honey.

Preserves of quince and lemon appear—along with rose, apple, plum and pear—in the Book of Ceremonies of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, and a few centuries later, Henry VIII received a “box of marmalade” , which was likely to have been marmelada, a quince paste from Portugal. The extension of “marmalade” in the English language to refer to citrus fruits was made in the 17th century, when citrus first began to be plentiful enough in England for the usage to become common.

Seville orangesThere are lots of different recipes for marmalade using Seville oranges, Dundee and Oxford marmalade being the most well known.

Oxford Marmalade


1.4 kg (3 lb) Seville oranges
3.4 litres (6 pints) water
2.7 kg (6 lb) brown sugar
Makes 4 kg (9 lb)

Peel the oranges and cut the peel into strips and the fruit into small pieces, reserving the pips. Put the pips into a small bowl. Put the strips of peel and chopped fruit into a large bowl. Bring the water to the boil and pour 600ml (1 pint) over the pips and the remainder over the orange peel and fruit. Cover both bowls and leave for several hours or overnight.

The next day, the pips will be covered with a soft transparent jelly which must be washed off them into the peel and fruit. To do this, lift the pips out of the water with a slotted spoon and put them in a nylon sieve. Pour the water the pips were soaking in over the pips into the large bowl. repeat the process, using water from the large bowl. Discard the pips.

Boil the peel, fruit and water until the peel is very soft – the longer this mixture boils the darker the marmalade will be. When the peel is quite soft, remove the pan from the heat and add the sugar, stirring until it has dissolved. Boil very gently until the marmalade is as dark as you like it, then boil rapidly for about 15 minutes. Test for a set and, when the setting point is reached, remove the pan from the heat and skim the surface with a slotted spoon. Leave to stand for 15 minutes, then stir to distribute the peel.

Pot and cover the marmalade.
Oxford marmalade

Raise Your Glasses!

A round of drinks at the pub


In Britain we are now lucky to have an ever-increasing range of beer to choose from, from the very light, such as the Golden Ales (Exmoor Gold) through Old Ales, which are usually matured in bottles (such as Theakeston’s Old Peculiar) and Scottish Ales, which are darker and richer than most of their English counterparts, to the profoundly dark stouts and porters, the most famous of which is obviously Dublin’s Guinness.

The brewing of beer in this country goes back as far as we have records. In medieval times, brewing was almost exclusively a female occupation, and most homes would produce its own ‘small beer’, which was considered nourishing (like liquid bread) and much safer to drink than most of the water. Many of these female ‘brewsters’ became the first publicans, selling beer from their homes. All beer is made from sprouted barley – the grains of barley are first soaked in water and allowed to germinate (you can see how the whole process was first discovered!).

When germination is complete the grains are heated and this affects the type of malt produced – high heat produces dark roasted malts, lighter heats lighter coloured malts – and this gives the beer its colour, body, and flavour. Once the malt has been roasted, it is crushed into a powder and mixed with hot water, and this is left in a vessel called a mash tun (hence the coat of arms and the pub name) for several hours before being boiled with hops. These add a bitter flavour and aroma to beer, and also act as a preservative. After boiling, the liquid is filtered and cooled, and yeast is added. Brewers go to great lengths to preserve their own specific yeasts because it gives a unique flavour to their beer. Usually they take a little bit of each batch of yeast and grow it somewhere secure (Guinness lock there keep yeast in a safe) ready for the next batch of beer – which means some beers are made using yeasts that go back centuries.

Perry and Cider
After some decades in the doldrums, English cider and perry are starting to find favour again, with new orchards beginning to be planted, and many traditional growers beginning to see at upturn in demand. If you are a cider newbie, try Somerset scrumpy for a real traditional cloudy cider. Ciders made in the West Country are made with true cider-apples and pears, and so tend to be sharper in flavour. Cider made in Wales and Kent, such as Biddenden’s ciders, is usually made with dessert apples and pears and so tend to be clearer and more wine-like.

Made from fermented grapes, the type and character of wine is influenced by the type of grape, where the grapes are grown, the weather, as well as the type of yeast and what is done to it. We Brits consume the most wine per head of anywhere in the world, and yet only 0.2% of the total amount of wine consumed in this country is actually produced here, and while we may wish for an indigenous wine producing culture, at least we are lucky enough to be able to able to choose wine from right around the world – after all, in France, French wine is more or less all you get! If you are wanting a specific wine to pair with food, check out www.matchingfoodandwine.com, while if you are just quaffing, most pubs now stock a good selection of wine – and if you think the wine is yesterday’s from the way it tastes, don’t hesitate to ask for a glass from a newly opened bottle!

Cocktails date from the Edwardian era, at the turn of the last century, which is when most of the classic cocktails were first invented, and consequently many have a wonderful history.

Gin and Tonic
After stating out as a 17th century Dutch medicinal drink (the juniper was added as a tonic for the kidneys), sweet gin became so cheap and widespread that addiction became the norm in some of the poorest areas of London in the 18th century, hence the nickname ‘mother’s ruin’. A century later, gin was relaunched as a dry spirit and returned to respectability, becoming a popular Colonial drink and essential element of cocktail hour. At the same time, British colonials in the Far East and Africa were being badly affected by malaria. Eventually medics found out that quinine, an ingredient in tonic water, was useful for getting rid of the disease. However, they had problems getting the British to drink the strange-tasting tonic until it was mixed with the newly arrived dry gin… a slice of lime (not lemon at first) was added, and the rest is history.

Pour gin into a highball glass over ice cubes and top with tonic water. Stir and serve.
Black Velvet
The Black Velvet, also known as the Bismarck or the Velvet Hammer, is made from Guinness and champagne. The Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, lays claim to having first invented it. A Black Velvet is made by filling a tall champagne flute halfway with chilled Guinness and floating the champagne on top. The differing densities of the liquids cause them to remain largely in separate layers. Cider or perry is sometimes used in place of the more expensive champagne, which is known as “Poor Man’s Black Velvet”. If cider or perry is used, the Guinness is floated on the top.

1 part Champagne
1 part Guinness

Pour Guinness into a glass, then gently pour over the champagne.

Vodka Martini
The very essence of cocktail hour, many legendary historical and fictional figures have favoured it, including Churchill, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cary Grant, W Somerset Maugham, and, of course, the fictional James Bond. The classic martini was stirred – as W. Somerset Maugham declared, “martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other,” although James Bond, and his creator, Ian Fleming, always ordered his “shaken, not stirred”.

3 parts Vodka
½ part Martini Bianca (dry)
1 green olive or slice of lemon
4 ice cubes

Put the ice cubes into a mixing glass.
Pour the vermouth and vodka over the ice and stir vigorously, without splashing.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Drop in the olive and serve.

Singapore Sling
Many connoisseurs consider the wonderful Singapore Sling as the best cocktail in the world. It was created by Ngiam Tong Boon at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Raffles was infamous as the hang out of the rich, fashionable and racy (and mainly British colonial) crowd at the turn of the last century. The original drink uses an eau de vie, kirshwasser, instead of cherry brandy – it is much drier than a cherry brandy although not as dry as maraschino liqueur.

2 parts gin
1 part cherry brandy
Soda water
juice of half a lemon
1 lime slice
dash of sugar syrup
5 ice cubes

Shake all the ingredients (except the soda water) with cracked ice. Strain and pour into a tumbler. Top up with soda water.

Old-fashioned lemonade
The essence of every Boy’s Own adventure, Enid Blyton Famous Five stories, and Swallows and Amazons, proper old-fashioned lemonade is summer in a glass.

6 lemons
200g white sugar
4 litres cold water, with extra if necessary for taste

Juice the lemons.
In a large container combine everything together, and stir well.
Adjust water to taste.
Chill and serve over ice.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008.


Chocolate – May the Gods be With You

The History of Chocolate
Originally cacao trees were native to the tropical rain forests of South America. The ancient societies who held sway here during the 1st to 16th Centuries considered the beans of the cacao tree so precious that they used them as currency, as well as making them into a sacred drink, latterly known as xocoatl. Depending on the rate at the time, an egg cost between one and three beans, a rabbit cost between four and 10 beans, and a slave as much as 100 beans, so to actually grind the beans and make the xocoatl was something only the rich and powerful could afford to do. And it was what the beans contain naturally that was so important: the stress-relieving, feel-good chemicals, phenylethylamine, alongside the ‘energy rush’ of the theobromine and caffeine, gave rise to the belief that it gave those that drank it ‘special’ (ie intellectual and sexual) strength.

To be honest, Xocoatl was not much like drinking chocolate as we know it. For a start it was bitter (cacao beans are, naturally, and no sugar was added) and gritty (the grinding process was very primitive), and it was very spicy, with such ingredients as musk, vanilla, pepper, maize, pimento, chilli, and cinnamon, added to the drink – the number of different ingredients increased with the status of the person drinking it. Before serving, the cocoa mass and water had to be whipped into a froth to stop the cocoa separating.

Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, didn’t drink anything but the frothy, spicy xocoatl, which was served to him in a golden goblet from which he ate it with a golden spoon. It is said that at least 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and a further 2000 for the rest of the court. It must have tasted very bizarre to those unfamiliar with it, and indeed Christopher Columbus couldn’t help spitting it out at the first taste! Later, however, the Spanish conquistador, Herman Cortes, quickly came to realise the cacao bean’s special properties as a tonic, and in a land where wine, the mainstay of an army, was restricted if not non-existent, chocolate came to take its place, albeit often sweetened with honey to make it more palatable. As Cortes noted…“just one cup was enough to refresh a soldier for the whole day.”

By the mid 16th century, chocolate drinking in the afternoon salons of well-to-do Spanish ladies, who were excited by the idea that it increased desire and fertility, had become de rigeour, to the point where the creation of beautiful copper and silver chocolate pots was a thriving industry. These were shaped like a bulb towards the base and designed with a spout and handle, plus a hole in the lid through which a whisk could be inserted so that the chocolate could be easily whipped before being poured into exquisite porcelain cups and saucers. The chilli, musk, maise and pimento had been lost from the mix, although the vanilla and cinnamon were retained, and each lady added her own sugar and milk to counteract the bitterness.

However, the chocolate drink still remained a far cry from the hot, smooth, and mouth-rich beverage we know today. This started to change by the end of the century, however, when Sir Hans Sloane, eminent collector and physician and after whom Sloane Square is named, invented ‘hot chocolate’ while collecting plant species in Jamaica. In the Caribbean the locals liked to drink cocoa in the traditional manner, mixed with cold water. Sloane found this nauseating, but he regarded chocolate as an important tonic and so mixed the cocoa powder with hot milk to make it more palatable. He liked the result so much that he bought the recipe back with him to England and started to prescribe it to his patients… and thus changed the way we drink chocolate forever.

By the end of the 19th century, British manufacturers, especially Quaker families, such as the Fry family and the Cadbury brothers, had further refined and developed chocolate for British tastes, creating such well-known brands as Dairy Milk. Chocolate was here to stay, and in all parts of society. Children for example, were routinely given ‘hot chocolate’ at bedtime despite the caffeine content, while by the mid 20th century, children’s adventure stories, such as Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, weren’t complete without the obligatory chocolate bar tucked in the pocket!

The UK has always had a thriving chocolate tradition, not just the mass market appeal of Cadburys and Fry’s (now owned by Cadbury’s), but also specialist and artisan producers ranging from the long-established, such as Bendick’s and Charbonnel et Walker, through organic Green and Black (now owned by Cadbury’s – see www.greenandblacks.com) and the ever-popular Thornton’s. There is also a strong tradition of artisan chocolatiers in the UK, such as Brighton’s Choccywoccydoodah, Aphrodite Chocolates in Essex, Browne’s chocolates in Devon, and London’s Rococo, Amelie Chocolate and Paul A Young. France has an even stronger artisan tradition, with most towns boasting at least one specialist chocolatier, and in the 1980s the wine term ‘grand cru’ was coined by French company Valrhona, when they pioneered the use of a single couveture (ground chocolate mass) made from one type of bean from one plantation – the first ‘origin chocolatier’. This has opened the floodgate to specialist and gourmet chocolates of all sorts, such as those produced by UK gourmet ‘origin chocolatier’ Hotel Chocolate.

• Criollo (also known as the Caracas) – the original cacao tree, makes up 5% of world production as is fragile and difficult to grow. The beans are exquisite and highly aromic.

• Trinitario – cross between the other two.

As the trees are pretty delicate, the pods are fragile and easily damaged, and the yield low (each tree produces roughly 1,500 beans each harvest), production as a whole is exacting and very labour intensive. Disease can be a problem, with fungus thriving in the humidity, for example. As chemical control is too difficult for many small farmers, a bad attack can wipe out a year’s income in one go, while swings in fashion and demand can also affect the profits of smaller producers. Child slavery has commonly been used in chocolate production as a way of covering the lower profit margin, and government statistics indicate that more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire in ‘the worst forms of child labour’ in 2002. Hardly an angelic process for this most heavenly foodstuff, and this has led to cocoa and chocolate being available as ‘fair trade’ items in some countries, including the UK, although Fair Trade chocolate (www.fairtrade.org.uk) still only represents a tiny percentage of the total trade.

So choose your favourite chocolate. Take a bite. Let it melt in your mouth … and know that the gods are with you.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2007


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