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Baking/ My Favourites

MY MOTHER’S IRISH TEA LOAF

Easy, good tempered, keeps well (so I'm told). What more do we need from an everyday cake?

In the spare room that also doubles up as my study/office/hideyhole, I have a box of family photographs. Not that many for rather a sad reason, but that’s another story. I was rummaging through them the other day and rediscovered one of my mother, nearly knee deep in the River Severn, fly fishing for trout. She was an excellent fisherwoman, much to the chagrin of my father who had introduced her to the sport. 

My mum, the ace fly fisher. This on the River Severn at a tiny village called From, just south of Welshpool in what was then Montgomeryshire.

My mum, the ace fly fisher. This on the River Severn at a tiny village called Fron, just south of Welshpool in what was then Montgomeryshire. About 1958, I think.

Scaling, gutting and preparing the fish she caught was all part of the sport as far as she was concerned and although I was never as good at the catching part as she, I learned how to prepare fish at a very young age. I used to think it was fun, as my mother (a theatre sister) turned them into anatomy lessons. Yes, I know, I was a weird child…

Mindful of my father’s chagrin and being bested by his wife in “his” sport, my mother spent a fair amount of time researching and practicing his favourite foods, many of which came from Ireland, home of his grandparents (and thus my great grand parents, which means I miss out by one generation on much coveted Irish citizenship…not annoyed at all…much). 

Brexit anguish aside, this pursuit of Irish food on my mother’s part led to us having some great food. Not necessarily fine dining (which I’m not sure existed in 1960’s Britain) but good, wholesome sustaining food. I still love her Soda Bread recipe above all others, but my father’s favourite was Irish Tea Loaf. He used to carry buttered slices in his fishing jacket pocket, with a flask of strong black tea, sometimes enriched with a few drops of Jameson’s. 

I hadn’t made it for so long but about three years ago, I came across my mother’s handwritten notes (you couldn’t call it a recipe)  crammed into the back of her trusty 1954 Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium. She never used scales, did everything by eye with tablespoons and teaspoons so the first time I tried it was not a resounding success. The birds enjoyed it though. Gradually, I arrived at a satisfactory recipe and I will admit I took hints from other writer’s recipes for weights and measures, but the ingredients are as she made it. The birds were very well fed that winter. 

Anyway, what I give you here is a cake (loaf?) dear to my heart and which is quick (once you remember to soak the fruit), easy, good tempered and freezes really well. It can be buttered, toasted (although better under the grill than in a toaster) and is fab with cheese. Also, not too costly so what more can we want from an everyday cake?

A word about the fruit mix: I use whatever I have and frequently use proprietary mixed dried fruit, but for example, if you only like sultanas, just use those and so on. I have tried it with dried apricots and it wasn’t that good, but perhaps I needed to chop them much smaller. I am not a fan of glacé cherries here; seems a bit high falutin’ in what is essentially a rustic, unsophisticated cake – but then maybe I’m investing too many of my country childhood memories in it.

My Mother's Irish Tea Loaf

Print Recipe
Serves: 8 - 10 slices Cooking Time: 1.5 hours

Ingredients

  • 250ml strong black tea (Barry’s for preference)
  • 50ml whiskey (or whisky or increase tea to 300ml if you prefer a temperance cake)
  • 450g mixed dried fruit (see note above)
  • 225g self raising flour
  • 0.5 tsp mixed spice
  • 0.5 tsp ground cinnamon (or all mixed spice if you don’t like a pronounced cinnamon taste)
  • 0.25 tsp nutmeg
  • 0.5 tsp salt
  • 175g soft brown sugar (or in truth, any sugar but flavour will differ)
  • 1 large egg, well beaten
  • melted butter for greasing

Instructions

1

The day before you want to bake the cake, make the tea/whiskey mixture and soak the fruit for up to 24 hours in a cool but not cold place

2

If you forget and need to make the cake in a hurry, pour tea mixture over the fruit while the liquid is very hot, stir well and leave for an hour. It’s not the same but will still make a decent cake.

3

Preheat the oven to 160C, 140C fan and butter and line a 900g loaf tin

4

Sieve the flour, spices and salt into a large mixing bowl

5

Add the sugar and break up any lumps there are in the sugar

6

Add the soaked fruit with any residual liquid

7

Add the well beaten egg and stir until everything is well mixed with no areas of cake mix unpopulated by fruit

8

Put everything into the tin, smoothing off the top and giving it a thump on the worktop to rid the mixture of any air pockets

9

Bake for 1.5 hours and don’t open the door in that time. Once it’s baked, this is a good tempered cake but is a bit of a diva whilst baking

10

When time is up, do the skewer test, giving it another 5 minutes if any mixture clings to the skewer

11

Remove from the oven and leave to rest in the tin for about 5 minutes

12

After that, remove from the tin allow to completely cool on a wire rack

Notes

It is quite crumbly when fresh and keeps well for up to about five days. It freezes well, too.

 

Food People/ My Favourites/ Producers/ Sources & Resources/ Summer/ Suppliers/ Uncategorized

FAIRY TALE FONTANAFREDDA

The recent wine trip to Piemonte, organised by Lucia Hannau of www.turinepi.com as part of Turin Epicurean Capital 2019, was a simply stunning trip, not only for the personal reasons discussed in my previous post, but also because Lucia had ensured that we saw an excellent cross section of the wineries one can visit in the Langhe.

Not to pre-empt future posts but we visited a small family run business (that stole my heart, but more of that in future) and two larger businesses that at first glance might seem similar but in reality were very  different. Here I want to talk about Fontanafredda, possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I do want to say upfront, however, that I am not a wine expert so this post is more about the place itself than the wine. I have friends with much more sophisticated palates than mine and I wish one of them, (yes Jim Dunlop, I’m looking at you) would write about their specialist knowledge of the wines of Piemonte. I’d just like to mention too, that is not a sponsored post; I’ve written this for love, not for money.

Despite its large size, Fontanafredda is a winery perfectly in symbiosis with its landscape and whilst obviously the viticulture has shaped the landscape, the built environment is equally sympathetic without seemingly losing functionality. The buildings themselves are girded about in the ochre and dark pink colours frequently seen in the area; this did lead to the slightly inelegant name of “the Battenburg Cake Estate” being applied to it, but somehow it works. 

It is a successful and thriving business producing wines typical of this part of Piemonte, there are two elegant and comfortable hotels, two restaurants (one that really needs a blog post all of its own) and acres of woodland walks and of course, spectacular views of the Unesco Langhe landscape. Visitors are well catered for and I thought the tasting session intelligent and informative, which I have not always found to be so elsewhere.

I say Fontanafredda is a successful business but that has not always been the case and the history of this charming place is well worth looking at at. The first noteworthy event was as a gift in 1858 by King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy to his principal mistress, Rosa Vercellana known in Piedmontese as Bela Rosin. In addition acquiring to the ravishing hunting lodge and land, Rosa, born a commoner, became Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda. After the death of the King’s wife in 1855 (she bore him eight children during the thirteen years they were married), in 1869, he then morganatically married Rosa with whom he already had two children. You will note the use of the phrase “principal mistress”; in common with much of male royalty and aristocracy, he was a man of vigorous appetites and had at least five others, one of whom he is said to have shared with both Cavour and Napoleon III.

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The stunning hunting lodge which was the gift to Bela Rosin at Fontanafredda

The King’s father, Carlo Alberto, was already a wine producer on his royal estates at Verduno and Pollenzo, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Vittoria Emanuele believed that Fontanafredda would provide a secure business for his and Rosa’s children.

The archives at Fontanafredda are fascinating and although I was not able to study through them (much as I would have liked to), there are many interesting pages from ledgers are on display. From these it is clear to see that Barolo began production from 1865, along with evidence of the building of new cellars and buildings, not to mention planting of new vines. Fortunately – or perhaps inevitably – Rosa’s son, Emanuele Mirafiori – was a talented winemaker and under his leadership, Barolo became available to the open market and not just the royal family and their elite European friends. He seems to have been a natural marketeer and in 1887, he opened his cellars to the public and began entering his wines in competitions, with some success.

The year 1894 saw the start of a series of misfortunes which led to long decline of the Fontanafredda estate and its Mirafiori brand: Emanule Mirafiori died that year, at the young age of 43, from a liver disease and his eldest son and heir to the estate died after a fall from a horse. Emanuele’s second son, Gastone, did however, prove his mettle, and until the first World War, the estate prospered with employees being treated remarkably well in terms of housing, social care and pensions. In the UK, we are accustomed to this model at that time, being familiar with Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight village and Cadbury’s Bournville. This level of care for so many employees was not, however, at all normal in Italy.

The loss of male workers to World War I, together with outbreaks of the devastating disease, phylloxera, plus disastrous hailstorms began to see detrimental changes at Fontanafredda. The estate changed hands several times, the brand was sold to Gancia and eventually, in common with thousands of other businesses at the time, Fontanafredda went into bankruptcy in 1930.

An existing creditor of Fontanfredda, the Siena-based Banca Monte dei Paschi took over the estate in 1932 and despite the privations visited upon Italy in World War II, the estate gradually began to recover. 

In the 1960s and 70s, the new attention paid to quality began to pay off;  Fontanafredda began to age their Barolo for longer than required and also began to source top quality grapes from other vineyards in Piemonte. Some of these same vineyards began in the 1980s to turn their attentions to winemaking their own grapes and boutique wineries began to steadily erode the estate’s market  share and thus their profitability. 

Once again, Fontanafredda was brought back from the precipice, first by the appointment in 1996 of Giovanni Minetti to oversee the revamp of the vineyards and winemaking process and start them on the path to a winery of quality, rather than a supermarket supplier. Ten years later, a second occurence aided their recovery: Monte dei Paschi decided that owning a winery was not a strategic part of their business and sold the estate to a consortium of investors, amongst whom was Oscar Farrinetti. 

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

The slightly mysterious cellars of Fontanafredda, with their natural temperature control. Winemaking to me, like cooking, is alchemy, so this image captures the inscrutable fascination of the process

Now, if you have been to Italy or, if you are in parts of the USA, you will know Eataly, a high end “supermarket” that sells good quality Italian foods and you can eat well there too! I know some Italians are a bit sniffy about it and in truth, I have learned in there to read labels attentively, but and it’s a big but, they are undeniably successful.  Although I live mostly in Italy now, I was delighted to recently learn that AT LAST Eataly are coming to London (just in time for Brexit…).

So whether you like the chain or not, Signor Farrinetti knows how to run a successful business and I for one am delighted to see Fontanafredda in safe, creative and ethical hands.

So this has been a post more about history than food – or wine – but the more I learn about the history of what we eat and drink, the more fascinating and inspiring stories I discover. I warmed to Fontanafredda because quite simply, it is a stunningly beautiful and enchanting place. Once I knew its history and learned of its commitment to chemical free cultivation (a cause close to my own heart), the more I loved it. I will go back and I urge you to try to see it, if you are visiting northern Italy. If you’re not, then try to hunt down their wines. If you would like to learn more about them, do visit their website www.fontanafredda.it and the excellent Kerin O’Keefe has written extensively about the estate and its wines in her “Barolo and Barbaresco, The King and Queen of Italian Wine” and which I heartily recommend. And of course, if you are going to Turin, contact Lucia at www.turinepi.com and she will ensure you see the very best the city has to offer.

I hope to visit fairy tale Fontanafredda again this autumn and in the meantime I will remember my summer visit whilst enjoying a glass of their finest.  

My Favourites/ Summer

IN ITALY

My blog has suffered from severe neglect for over a year. Only now do I feel might actually have something to say that might be remotely interesting to anyone other than me and possibly Edoardo, my partner. Even he switches off sometimes, for which I don’t remotely blame him.

The last year has been rather difficult, frequently tedious but sometimes wonderful. Despite the wonderful bits, I stopped my blog for a variety of reasons; I hadn’t quite clarified its purpose or what I wanted to say – indeed if I actually had anything to say at all.

I then found myself living in northern Italy in Edoardo’s apartment in a small Commune just south of Milan. Because an EU directive requires a citizen from another member state to register with their local Comune if they intend to stay longer than three months, I had to do just that: register with my Comune. (Interestingly, successive British Governments have elected not invoke this directive but that is a whole other story).

Now, before you all throw up your hands and gloomily predict that I am going to tell a tale of woe about the horrendous experience of dealing with Italian bureaucracy, stop right there. The people I dealt with were hands down amongst the kindest and most competent people I have encountered in any bureaucratic situation. They tolerated my faltering Italian, were slightly bemused by anyone wanting to come to this corner of Lombardy and were unstintingly helpful and courteous.

So, inspire of having emerged unscathed from my encounters with Italian bureaucracy, I couldn’t feel any enthusiasm for continuing with a blog that was mainly predicated on living and cooking in the UK, with the ingredients available there. I was having to learn how to shop, cook and eat in a whole new way, and that is hugely different to doing it for most of the year, than it is for a few weeks a year.

So there I was pottering along with Twitter and Instagram, plus continuing my interest in and support for Slow Food, but apart from looking forward to participating in Slow Food’s Cheese19 at Bra, Piedmont in September, I couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for anything. Not writing anything longer than an Instagram post had calcified me in some way.

It is said that people and circumstances are sent into your life for a purpose. I guess the trick is recognising them when they happen along. I was about to toddle off to a fabulous annual food event for the third year running, but if you feel you are at the bottom of a well, even the prospect of the terrific Turin Epicurean Capital convention at which there would be marvellous food writers and producers doesn’t give Stella her groove back.

Having said that, I was going to Turin, the city I love most in the world (and I have travelled extensively so have much to compare it with), so yes, I was thinking it would be a good trip. Particularly good as it would be preceded by three days of wine tasting in the Langhe region of Piedmont. And we all now about the truffles of Piedmont but how many of us have the privilege of seeing a young dog being trained?

What I had not anticipated was five specific people I met on the Langhe trip and the effect they had on me, individually and a group. Remarkably, I already knew four of them and I can’t really explain how the group and individual dynamic restored me, but for sure, during that trip I got my mojo back. I have analysed the thing to death but haven’t arrived at a conclusion – what or who was it that worked its magic on me? The three relaxed every-detail-taken-care-of days in the Langhe? Seeing the sheer hard work and hours put in by two of them – bloggers in the USA with big followings – to keep their social media feeds going? The determination of a Torinese colleague to keep her food business going despite health issues? Was it the two Italian guys who started a Slow Food accredited gelateria in Leicester and apart from making delicious gelato, are achieving international recognition and acclaim, despite their worries about the impact of Brexit?

Heaven knows what it was but I do know for sure that something clicked inside my head and my heart; I realised that I missed the act of writing and instead of bemoaning my inactivity, realised too that I have much to be grateful for and probably quite bit to write about. The realisation that it was me, not circumstance, that had put down my pen for a year or more was not easy to face, but now I know that a) I need to write like a plant needs rain and b) I know what I want to write about. I need too, to devote time to this like it’s a corporate job and stop being a dilettante.

I’ll still be the Watchful Cook  as quality, cost and conscience will still be my guiding principles, and lord knows I need to watch my language (in terms of improving my Italian, I mean). I’ll write about learning to live in Italy, studying for my Master of Cheese qualifications (probably just lots of cheese, to be honest), the food for which I shop, then cook and eat, the wine I drink, the places I go, the people I meet and inevitably the mistakes I make as I find myself getting to grips with living in Italy.

PS The group photo is courtesy of the lovely Antonio de Vecchi, who is the happy chap on the right at the back – if you are in or near Leicester, do visit www.gelatovillage.co.uk It’s the real deal!

The fantastic people in this picture are:

L – R back row: Daniele Taverna (@cereaneh), Christina Conte (@christinascucina), Antonio de Vecchi (@antonio_de_vecchi)

L – R front row: me, Edoardo, Cynthia McCloud Woodman (@whatagirleats), Benedetta Oggero (@miss_bee_foods)

Books & Blogs/ Equipment/ In My Kitchen/ My Favourites

DESERT ISLAND KIT

Desert Island Discs is, as I’m sure you know, an almost mythical BBC Radio 4 programme and I adore it. I tend to listen to it irrespective of the guest, so consequently have learned about all kinds of things that I would not otherwise have heard. I am not keen when it’s what I would call trashy celebrities but even then one can be surprised, and I do love a good scientist!

Listening to this past weekend’s edition got me pondering the concept of Desert Island items and I began to wonder what eight kitchen items I would want to take to a desert island, which food or cookery book I’d take and what would my luxury kitchen item be? Yes, I know, there might not be means to cook on a desert island but can we play by my rules and assume there is a source of fire with matches, twigs and timber for the fire?

This has taken me quite a while to even begin to firm up on, and if you were to confront me with this list in a month or a year’s time, I might change it completely. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my list:

  1. A Henckels knife or can I cheat and say my whole knife block? That’s one item isn’t it? I bought my first one in Düsseldorf when I was working there in 1996 and one knife transformed my whole way of preparing food. I understood suddenly how important a knife – used well – is in a kitchen and how it can replace dozens of useless gadgets that live for a day and then fester unloved in a dusty drawer. I went on to do Knife Skills courses at Leith’s which an investment I have never regretted. It does mean, however, that I find some TV cooks all too hair raising to watch and I sometimes hide behind a cushion when they are chopping.
  2. A tablespoon. I have a silver one, hallmarked for 1764, all worn away on one side and I love it. Wish it could talk.
  3. A teaspoon. Another old piece although a young gun at 1823.
  4. A wooden spoon. I have one that dates back to 1976 (how I know that is a whole other story) and it’s acquired a patina that for me represents years of stirring, scraping and prodding. I will never discard it.
  5. A fork. Again I have an old silver one, a bit big for everyday eating but on this island, it will do double duty as a kitchen fork.
  6. A Le Creuset casserole, not a huge one; I have a 20cm round one which I was given in 1979 and I have cooked pretty much anything and everything in it: soups, stews, puddings, bread, I could go on but you get the picture
  7. My huge steel pasta cooking pot with internal drainer – they would serve many purposes: drawing water, draining stuff, heating water…
  8. A jug; I have a old Spode Blue Italian one and again it has history with me and would fulfil multiple uses in my rudimentary Desert Island kitchen; my other half has pointed out that a metal jug would be more practical as I could use it on the fire but I am sticking with my bit of history

It was interesting to me that many of these items are old friends in my kitchen and perhaps I have chosen them as much as friends as utility items. I will miss companionship on this island, although if I end up talking to a spoon, perhaps I should be left there.

Luxury Item

Please may I have an endless supply of Illy Espresso Dark Roast coffee? No sugar, no milk, just the hard stuff.

The Book(s)

On Desert Island Discs proper, the castaways are allowed The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book of their choice. So, playing this game by my rules when I am washed ashore, Leith’s Cookery Bible and the collected works of Nigel Slater (whose writing about food is every bit as lyrical as Mr Shakespeare) will already be sitting there waiting for me. Actually in the spirit of full disclosure, Nigel’s works are not yet collected into one tome but this is fantasy land, right? So that leaves me one further book to choose…

Oh my, how terribly difficult this was. I have well over 100 food/cookery books in English, French and Italian and while I may not cook from all of them, I read most of them regularly. Over the years, I have learned that not only do recipes have to work for me, but I also need to have good writing in order to really enjoy the book. In modern times, we are lucky enough to have Nigel Slater, Felicity Cloake, Sybil Kapoor, Diana Henry, Rachel Roddy, Anna del Conte, Nigella Lawson…not an exhaustive list by any means.

If we look at departed writers, I become even more confused: Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Patience Gray, Marcella Hazan, Florence White, Dorothy Hartley. I give up. I couldn’t even make a choice after half a bottle of a very good Barbera and I have to say, I have usually formulated world peace after that, let alone chosen a book.

So stone cold sober, I have surprised myself by choosing Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed. She writes so well about having to fashion kitchens in difficult circumstances so will be an endless source of inspiration. Those who know me well may be surprised that I have not chosen Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking; it is a masterwork and I refer to it frequently but Mrs David would not, I fear, be a congenial companion for me in these isolated circumstances. Yes, I will have Nigel for company but I don’t want to live with what I feel would be Mrs David’s frowning disapproval of my efforts.

So, there we are, my Desert Island Kit; I would love to know what yours is?
PS I have just remembered about my subscription to La Cucina Italiana; what about seagull post?

Lunches & Light Suppers/ My Favourites/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses

ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

When the first English asparagus hits the shops in late April, early May, it scarcely seems possible that one can have too much of a good thing. I know that one can now have asparagus all year round, but to me it is one of the last true seasonal foods left. I don’t buy anything but English and make the greedy most of the short season.

It is just so easy to prepare and no, it isn’t necessary to have a special pan for cooking it, although admittedly the stems take longer to cook than the tips. To get round this, I tend to steam rather than simmer, as I can prop up the tips on the side of the steamer and then poke them back down for the last two minutes.

If I roast them, there isn’t really any way round having crunchier tips than stems but as they still retain intense asparagus flavour, I tend to just accept that’s how things are. For such a wonderful food, small compromises are worth it, I find.

Asparagus has an interesting history and appears as an offering to the gods on friezes from circa 3000BC. The Romans loved it so much that their followers of the Greek Epicurus developed ways to dry it and in the high Alps, freeze it for the Feast of Epicurus which I think is our January. In the Attic calendar it was in Gamelion which is difficult to equate to our modern calendar as it was Lunar, not Solar. Anyway, if you can help me out on understanding that, please feel free!

Its first appearance in a cookery book is in the oldest surviving book, Apicius’ “De re coquinaria” from the third century AD. Galen mentions it as beneficial to health in the second century AD and then it disappears from writings until about 1410, when it appears in al-Nefzaoui’s famous “The Perfumed Garden”, although the earliest translation into English that I can find is 1886, by the famous explorer Richard Francis Burton. I found some interesting uses for Cinnamon in that, but we’ll stick with asparagus here! It is perhaps from al-Nefzaoui that asparagus gains its (clinically unproven!) reputation as an aphrodisiac and it is documented as having been a favourite of Madame de Pompadour……..

It also, of course, has another reputation which I will ask Marcel Proust to describe: “all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of [asparagus] they played at ……..transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume”. Always overdoes it, does Marcel Look what a madeleine did to him. Nice enough with a cup of tea, but I ask you….

There is also a perception that asparagus is difficult to pair with wine. My own view is that it difficult with a tannic or oakey wine, which according to my in-house Sommelier is because of the asparagusic acid (the culprit in making Proust go over the top), which is an organosulphur carboxylic compound. This is the point at which my eyes glaze over until Roberto returns to the wine itself, preferably opening one. Anyway, his advice is to go with Sancerre, Pouilly Fume or Riesling. My favourites are Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto, but take the time to search out decent ones. Italian whites seem to be marketed in supermarkets at the “I’ll drink anything as long as it’s cheap” consumer, so it may be better to find a reliable vintner who takes Italian wine seriously.

I think I will leave the last words on asparagus to Samuel Pepys. I am quite fond of Sam although he had some less than admirable attitudes and habits; you have to have some affection for a man who, when the Great Fire of London threatened his home, thought more of saving his Parmesan cheese than his silver: “So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street, a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d. We had them and a little bit of salmon, which my wife had a mind to, cost 3s” April 20 1667.

Much as I adore our wonderful English sparrowgrass, after about four weeks, however, the joy of having simply cooked fresh asparagus with either melted unsalted butter or hollandaise begins to, well, not pall exactly but I begin to cast around for Other Things To Do. Much depends on how much effort I feel like putting in, so it might be as simple as roasting it, wrapped in Parma ham and finished with flakes of Parmesan. I also have three recipes which have become firm favourites, none of which is complicated and in fact, the base recipes can be re-used with other ingredients.

ASPARAGUS RISOTTO

Print Recipe
Serves: 2

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch English asparagus
  • 75 g Carnaroli rice (Arborio can be used but I prefer Carnaroli as it produces a creamier risotto)
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely (you can use onion; shallot gives a more subtle flavour)
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, chopped finely (juicy fresh garlic is seasonal at the same time as asparagus but you can use dried)
  • 1 litre hot vegetable stock (can use chicken but I prefer to keep the “purity” of a vegetable based dish)
  • Unsalted butter
  • Olive oil
  • Finely grated Parmesan cheese - about 40g
  • White wine or dry martini (optional!)
  • Saffron, either the powdered or pistils (the crocus “threads”); if the latter, soak a couple in a couple of tablespoons of warm water

Instructions

1

Start by preparing the asparagus: snap off the bottom of the stem where it naturally wants to bend

2

Steam for about 5 minutes, drain and chop into short pieces about 1cm long; separate the stem bits from the tips as you will add them at different points

3

The snapped off end bits can be steeped in the stock to rev up the flavour, then discarded; I find this worth doing but don’t worry if you forget

4

Using a wide thick based pan (I use a Le Creuset casserole that is wide and shallow), add about 1tbsp of olive oil and a good knob of butter over a low to medium heat

5

Add the onion and garlic and soften but don’t let anything burn, keep stirring around

6

Add the rice and allow it to gain some transparency

7

Add the alcohol element - about a glassful of either a dry white wine or slightly less of dry martini

8

Turn up the heat slightly and keep stirring until the alcohol has evaporated and been absorbed

9

Add the stem pieces of the asparagus with the first ladleful of stock, stirring all the while and add the stock by the ladle, keeping an eye on the heat as you don’t want the risotto to burn

10

Adjust the heat as necessary to avoid boiling or burning

11

Add the saffron around this time but go easy with it, the risotto doesn’t need to glow in the dark!

12

After about four ladles of stock, start to check the rice - eventually you want slightly softer than al dente and don’t worry if you don’t use all the stock, or indeed if you need to top it up with hot water

13

When you get to the last couple of ladles of stock, add the asparagus tips and when the stock is absorbed, turn the heat off

14

This is the only tricky part of risotto, as you don’t want to end up with a stodgy mess, nor do you want a soup; the Italian phrase is that is should be “all’ onda” - like a wave, so you’re looking for the rice to have some movement but not sloshing around like a soup

15

At this point, stir in a couple of good sized knobs of unsalted butter and two or three tablespoons of finely grated parmesan (in truth, add to taste but try not to swamp the flavour of the asparagus)

16

Now taste for seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

17

Serve more Parmesan at table

Notes

If you have the technique of risotto under your belt, you will open a huge reservoir of recipes that you can vary to suit what you have and indeed, what you like. Quantities can vary every time you make the same risotto, as small things such as changing the brand of rice you use can make a noticeable difference to the quantity of stock you need. I can advise you only to practice, tasting as you go and experiment with ingredients. Small things do make a big difference to flavour, such as using unsalted butter, buying good quality parmesan in a piece and grating your own and if you don’t have fresh stock, use a good powder like Marigold or a Kallo cube.

My Favourites

QUEEN OF PUDDINGS. NOT.

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Not possessing a terribly sweet tooth means that guests here tend to be under-pudding. And under-caked. They will however, probably be over-cheesed but that another story. Part of this is, I think, because I don’t get so much pleasure from making puddings and cakes as I do from savoury dishes. I have just thought that maybe that’s because I don’t get as much pleasure from eating puddings, but I am a tad worried that might make me a selfish cook…..oh dear.

I think as well that I might have a rather French or Italian approach to dessert, as in my experience, in these countries when a stunning dessert is required, it is left to the professional in a local patisserie or pasticceria. I too take this approach and am lucky that I have such a place locally that produces superb gateaux, that I could never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares, frankly) produce.

The gleam atop their chocolate gateaux is such that only a professional can produce and whilst I am up for having a go at most things culinary, my life is not enhanced by tempering chocolate. And tempering is an appropriate word, as I think it’s tricky stuff, chocolate. Maybe I just don’t have the touch, but it does have a temperament approaching the diva: turn my back for a moment when melting it, and it stomps off scowling, immediately becoming lumpy and singed. And that’s doing it over a bain marie, not the mysterious process of microwaving it, which in my (admittedly limited) experience produces a foul, stinking mess from which any chocolatey goodness has been expunged. 

You see, the weird thing is that I can turn out hollandaise and mayonnaise without turning a hair and arguably they are equally tricky. Why can’t I melt chocolate? Maybe I’m a bit frightened of chocolate or maybe it knows I don’t like it? Well, I do, but only as a piece of chocolate. Not interested in chocolate cake or mousse and suchlike. No, chocolate and I are not going to get along in the kitchen, so it’s perhaps just as well that I have a much less fraught relationship with fruit, so I can turn out a few respectable puddings. 

In fact, when I (usually reluctantly) decide to make a pudding, I enjoy working with fruit in a sweet context, as much as when using in a savoury dish. One of the cornerstones of my repertoire is this delightfully simply pudding-cake. I know, that’s not exactly a technical term but does describe this moist, almondy cakey pud, that has never been known to fail, either in the oven, or to please. Works well warm (but not hot) and cold, but has rarely lasted long enough for me to serve it cold. I have used raspberries in this recipe, but I have also used blueberries, which tasted delicious, but given their tendency to explode when baked, did make for a slightly messy looking appearance. I have also used chopped fresh apricot, which worked well, but for reasons I am not sure of, peach and nectarine don’t work so well – turned out a bit soggy. Whatever you use, this is quick, simple and delicious!

RASPBERRY ALMOND PUDDING

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 large unwaxed lemons
  • 115g softened unsalted butter
  • 115g caster sugar (I like golden, which does beneficially affect the finished cake colour)
  • 3 medium free range eggs, beaten
  • 40g self raising flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp almond essence (I like a pronounced almond flavour, but use less if you prefer)
  • 300g raspberries
  • 20cm loose bottom cake tin, lightly buttered and base lined with buttered parchment

Instructions

1

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C/fan 180 degrees C

2

Finely grate the lemon zest and in a large bowl, add to the butter and sugar

3

Beat until light and fluffy; I believe there are some people who use a wooden spoon but I use my hand mixer!

4

Add the eggs gradually, beating well after each addition

5

Fold in the flour, followed by the ground almonds, then the almond essence, finishing with the juice of one of the lemons

6

Spoon into the buttered tin, smoothing it off with the back of a spoon

7

Scatter the raspberries over the top and press them into the mixture, not so that they disappear forever, just so they are properly embedded in the mixture

8

Sprinkle the top with a further 1 tablespoon or so of caster sugar

9

Place it in the oven for 30 minutes and then test with a skewer; if it comes out clean, it’s done

10

If mixture still clings, give it another 5 minutes and test again; repeat until you have a clean skewer

11

In my oven, this only ever takes 30 minutes, but I have known it take up to about 40 minutes in friend’s ovens

12

When done, leave to cool for a few minutes in the tin, then remove carefully to a rack to cool until you are ready to serve

Notes

A rather nice variation is to replace the lemon zest and juice with a tablespoon or so of strong espresso coffee and top with flaked almonds (add these about half way through, otherwise they can become burnt) and fewer raspberries. In this instance I do reduce the almond essence to half a teaspoon. I expect someone other than me could tame the diva and produce a chocolate version - please tell me the secret if you do!

 

My Favourites

REAL BREAD, EVERY DAY

Is there a more traduced and reduced yet basic foodstuff than bread? How can we possibly have allowed this staff of life to have been subjected to the degrading influence of the Chorleywood Process and how can we, as intelligent consumers, have been duped into believing that something that comes in a plastic wrapper and that keeps for weeks, is bread?

I will admit, I fell for it. Before I began to question seriously what I was actually eating, in terms of the ingredients of the food I was buying, I bought bread in supermarkets usually thinking about how long the loaf might last and would it freeze OK. Now, I am not going to launch into an assault on supermarkets; they are necessary and in any event, if we are naive consumers, we will buy badly. It is our responsibility to buy well – not just what the supermarket has on offer that week. There is good bread to be found in supermarkets, but it’s never on the shelves at your eye line: you will need to bend down or look up to find it.

You can find Crank’s Wholemeal and Poilane Sourdough in UK supermarkets and no, it won’t be the cheapest bread BUT it will not have fillers, colours or preservatives in it and best of all, it tastes wonderful! There is however, a “but” and that is cost. At the time of writing, a 450g loaf of Poilane Sourdough is £3.00 and a Cranks Organic Wholemeal at 800g is £1.55. Both of those are expensive and whilst worth it, not perhaps sustainable dependent on one’s budget.

There are alternatives in supermarkets and we all need to become avid label readers to avoid some of the ingredients that appear in some loaves. I kid you not when I say the following are used regularly in bread in this country: Calcium Propionate (to inhibit mould growth), Soya Flour, “Vegetable Oils”, Emulsifiers…….

If a loaf needs a mould inhibitor, to me that says something quite profound about the product; neither of the loaves mentioned above use them and it doesn’t sit easily with me to eat it. I have read of studies linking it to damage to stomach lining, adverse behavourial effects on children and migraines. I make no claims to be a medic but for me, if I don’t need to eat an additive, I don’t.

Soya Flour: any person knows that this has mixed press. I am not going to get into an argument for which I am manifestly not qualified to arbitrate, except to say that because of my medical history, I avoid Soy in all forms.

“Vegetable Oils”: nothing too horrid here, unless this is hiding the use of Palm Oil, which from an environmental perspective, can be a disaster. This bothers me, so I have researched this topic and have elected to avoid it wherever possible and where it is needed, try to use products with sustainable Palm Oil sources.

Emulsifiers: As far as I can see, these exist to soften a dough and/or harden a dough. Really?

So what on earth are these things doing in bread? It’s because as an ill-informed public in 1960’s, the vast majority of people in the UK just wanted cheap food. The Chorleywood Process was born and our daily bread went downhill fast after that. No wonder that our bread became, by and large, the laughing stock of Europe. If you want a blow by blow account of the Chorleywood Process, I recommend Elizabeth David’s  excellent book “English Bread and Yeast Cookery”; it is worth reading if only to understand that we should never allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes in such a way again.

Mercifully, there were enough people left who did value real bread and thanks to them, we now have the choice to buy real bread, made from good flour, yeast, water, maybe a little honey or sugar, and a fat with integrity. The wonderful RealBreadCampaign.org is a great place to start looking for your local baker and then please, please support them! Good bread isn’t cheap, but I come back to the fact that few things are more influential on our everyday health than the food we eat.

These fabulous people also support home baking and I have been experimenting with an everyday loaf that can fit into a busy life. I started with Doris Grant’s Wholemeal Loaf, adjusted it via the Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread recipe and have finally landed on a version that suits us. I make this every week, and it’s easy to double up the quantity for a bigger family. Don’t be deterred by the use of fresh yeast: I buy mine from ocado.com and freeze it. Please don’t think this is onerous or any way difficult; it really isn’t but there is one problem: it is far too easy to eat too much of it! Making this bread doesn’t involve bouts of kneading or baby-sitting bowls of dough (although that can be very satisfying sometimes); it’s hard to believe something that tastes so good can be so simple to make.

 

If Edoardo and I are exercising (some) self discipline, this keeps well in an airtight tin (I use a cake tin) for several days. It also freezes well but doesn’t seem to last so well after thawing, but that isn’t a problem for us.

Honestly, this is so simple, when I began to make it, I was astonished that it fitted so well into my busy life. I have also experimented with the ingredients and have added seeds to the mixture, replaced some of the wholemeal with granary or strong white (for a lighter loaf) and also made a half quantity with added walnuts. On the whole, I like the original – which also makes divine toast – and it comes in at about 84p per loaf!

SIMPLE WHOLEMEAL BREAD

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 450g strong wholemeal flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 425 ml blood heat water
  • 20g fresh yeast (non GM)
  • sunflower or pumpkin seeds (optional)
  • room temperature unsalted butter
  • 1 x 1 kg/2lb loaf tin or any tin measuring about 12.5cm x 20cm

Instructions

1

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees C/210 degrees fan

2

Measure the flour into a large bowl

3

In a small bowl or jug, mix the honey with about 150ml of the water and crumble in the yeast. “Crumble” can be misleading as fresh yeast can be quite sticky, so do your best to add it in small pieces, rather than one lump

4

Leave in a warm place for up to 10 minutes, during this period, grease the tin lightly with the butter; it is possible to use sunflower oil, I just prefer butter

5

Check that the yeast is coming to life; it needs to be popping tiny bubbles to the surface and if it isn’t doing this, it doesn’t matter if it takes a few minutes longer to acquire the frothy head that is needed. If you are not seeing any movement, you might have dud batch of yeast; it does occasionally happen but in a year of baking this loaf, it’s happened only once to me

6

When you have a frothy head (no, when the yeast mixture has a frothy head…), pour into the flour along with the remaining 275ml of water and mix it up. Don’t mix until all the water is in, otherwise for some reason, it will go to lumps from which, in my experience, there is no way back!

7

The mixture should be too wet to knead but not too liquid.

8

Put directly into the greased tin and sprinkle with seeds, if wanted.

9

Cover with a clean tea towel (prevents skin forming) and leave to rise.

10

This can take between 10 - 25 minutes depending on the ambient temperature

11

Once the dough has risen almost to the top of the tin, put into the hot oven and give it 20 minutes

12

After that time, reduce to 200 degrees/180 degrees fan and leave it for 40 minutes

13

At 40 minutes, slip the bread out of the tin and knock on its bottom with your knuckles; it should sound distinctly hollow

14

If it doesn’t yet sound hollow, slip it back into the tin and give it another 5 minutes

15

If you want crisp crust all over the loaf, leave the loaf out of the tin for the last 10 minutes of cooking but omit this step if you want softer crust

16

A point on the rising stage, if you get absorbed in something else and forget about your loaf so that it rises to the top of the tin, it will slightly overflow the tin when you bake it. It will not affect the flavour of the main loaf, although you will have a “muffin top” on your loaf, which may become a bit too crisp.

Autumn/ Lunches & Light Suppers/ My Favourites/ Spring/ Summer/ Suppers, Dinners & Main Courses/ Winter

IN THE SOUP

When our British weather sends us something miserable, is there anything more comforting than a bowl of homemade soup? Is there anything else that tells us that life isn’t that bad and it will get better? (OK, so wine or chocolate work here too) After all, think of the theme of so many of the advertisements for bought soups; they usually focus on the homely theme or on the fresh and natural aspect. So far, so good – until you read the ingredients or check the cost. Not so good.

I read recently that tinned soups are one of the biggest offenders for salt and as for ingredients, I am speechless (not a frequent occurrence….). What on earth are Wheat Flour, Citric Acid, Modified Cornflour (modified how?), Polyphosphate and Sodium Phosphate doing in soup? Fresh soups are by far and away less offensive on the ingredient front but that is unfortunately reflected in the price.

It is possible to easily avoid these dilemmas by making your own. It is so easy to make soup, it almost criminally simple and once you have the Foundation Recipe under your belt, you can use whatever ingredients are seasonal, well priced, or just what you fancy!

Before I dive into the Foundation Recipe, I want to just make a few comments on the ingredients I have listed:

I soften my onion, carrot and celery mixture in olive oil, unsalted butter or a mixture of both. It depends on the flavour I want to achieve; you’re free to use what you like, including sunflower oil. Personally I avoid rapeseed oil as I can always detect it in a soup (or indeed in most dishes) and I dislike it.

Note too that the ingredients I just listed are not mandatory. I pretty much always use an onion (or shallot if I want a more subtle flavour) and frankly, carrot and celery isn’t always needed.  I find it helpful to just take a moment before I decide, to imagine the end flavours I want to achieve; if it doesn’t include carrot or celery, I don’t use them.

Stock is a fraught subject that can bring normally calm, restrained cooks to scarlet-faced fury. Yes, it is lovely if you can always have homemade chicken stock to hand and if you have had a roast chicken and you have the time, yes, make some. But, please, don’t stress about it, or even shy away from making soup simply because your freezer isn’t stocked with homemade stock! It is perfectly acceptable to use bought stock (Waitrose and Truefoods both produce excellent stock without salt) and I always have Marigold Organic Reduced Salt Bouillon Powder and Kallo Organic Very Low Salt Vegetable Stock Cubes in the cupboard. That Swiss brand or the three letter brand – don’t even go there. Have you read the ingredients?

Garlic – love it, so it finds its way into most of my soup. If you don’t like it, don’t use it but might I plead with you to give it a gentle try in at least tomato soup?

OK, sermon over, let’s get started. I have tried to give very clear instructions here and if I have over done it and trespassed into the “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs” territory, sorry, but some of you might never have done this before and I am a tad evangelical about the numerous benefits of homemade soup!

In terms of cost, this comes at about £1.29 and can serve four as a first course or two for lunch as a single course. This compares well, I believe, with about £1.89 for 600m of fresh tomato soup in the supermarket. Yes, tinned tomato soup is cheaper, at about 99p for a well-known brand. But does it really taste of tomato?

Now, moving on to other flavours. You can make soup from pretty much any vegetable, pulse or bean. Let’s say you want lentil soup: soften the soffrito as above then instead of tomatoes, add a couple of handfuls of red lentils and perhaps cumin and a scrap of dried chilli flakes. You might need more of the stock at this stage and also, lentils are devils for catching on the bottom, so keep the flame low and stir frequently, while the soup simmers lazily, with the occasional plop. You might want spinach and broccoli soup, so add washed broccoli florets, let them cook for about 10 minutes and then add washed, torn spinach, cooking for another ten minutes or so. This is splendid with a scrape of nutmeg and a generous amount of cream and in my mind, does need blending before adding the cream.

You can experiment, vary and play with this foundation recipe to your heart’s content. The only thing I would say is try to keep it seasonal and use left over vegetables, too. They just need less simmering. I did try to make something once with left over roast potatoes. Don’t. Just don’t. Horrid. Oh and taste, taste, taste as you go, and if you do succeed with roast potatoes, let me know!

In The Soup

Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
  • 1 stick celery, chopped into 0.5mm dice and if it’s a bit stringy, swipe a potato peeler down it to whisk away the strings
  • This combination is called a soffrito in Italian cookery. I know it exists in French cookery too, but a) I can’t remember the French word for it and b) my heart is in Northern Italy and particularly in her kitchens!
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 (or more) cloves of garlic, finely chopped, or crushed under the blade of a knife (see over in My Kitchen under Techniques for how to do this)
  • I tin Italian tomatoes, chopped or whole - no matter - but they MUST be Italian
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tbsp Italian tomato puree
  • 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock - see above
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions

1

Take a pan or flameproof casserole with a thick, heavy base. I use an ancient and much loved 20cm Le Creuset which has been with me for more than 30 years

2

Put it on a low heat, add the oil and butter then the soffrito, stir and allow to soften until everything becomes soft and fragrant

3

Under no circumstances allow this to burn, so you might need to be a bit hawk-like at first, until you understand how your pan and flame perform together

4

You can add a modicum of salt at this point, but go easy

5

Add the garlic and soften that too, but again no burning, as burnt garlic is just horrid

6

I like to add the thyme at this point and to be honest, don’t always bother to strip the leaves off the stems; they will fall off in the process of cooking and just remember to fish out the stems before you blend

7

Add the tin of tomatoes all in one go; if they are whole, mash them up a bit with a wooden spoon

8

Add the tomato puree and then the stock, using at this stage probably about 750 ml, and stir everything round

9

Add a few grinds of pepper, partly cover the pan having brought the contents to a gentle simmer

10

Leave it for about 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing catches on the bottom

11

The soup should reduce a little during this process, which helps to concentrate the flavour

12

Turn off the heat and let the soup cool a little

13

This is the point at which I like to blend a soup, usually using a trusty Kenwood Stick Blender which is just so easy to wash up (just remember to fish out the thyme stems!)

14

You can of course, use a conventional blender or food processor, and indeed you can leave it chunky and rustic

15

After blending, it may appear quite thick so just thin it out with the remaining stock

16

To finish, swirl in some cream, yogurt or creme fraiche and top with a sprinkle of finely chopped chives or parsley