Saturday, 27 October 2012

October 27th - Bread of life

Dear Nigel,

It's been a little while since i was in any kind of regular routine of bread making, and it's amazing how quickly you forget the little things that make it special. Like the smell of fermenting yeast and dough - instantly memorable yet forgetable. And the weight. Hold a homemade loaf in your hand and the comparison is stunning. Weight for weight you are paying a small fortune for fresh air when you buy an ordinary loaf from the supermarket. Even the artisanal bread on offer seems somehow insubstantial. It's not that I'm in the habit of making rock-hard doorstops, you understand, but homemade bread is generally denser and more chewy and you need less of it to feel satisfied.

We had the first proper hard frost today followed by a blue blue sky with copper beech trees glowing in the sunlight - a sight to rival any Autumn in New England.The Lebanese lentil and chickpea soup i made is left uneaten by my lentil-hating, chickpea-hating sons. Bet you don't have this trouble when folks come to lunch! The second row of logs are stacked and we are ready for all a hard winter can throw at us.I am finding all those junk mail catalogues very useful as firelighters.

You, too, have been using lentils to make supper, but green ones rather than the ordinary red ones i poured into my soup.Your supper is a simple dish of boiled green lentils with red wine vinegar, olive oil and parsley, eaten with slices of ash-rolled goat's cheese. It's probably a good thing you have no inclination to invite my sons for supper, unless you have a very hungry dog to polish up the plates.

I am very taken with your Raspberry vanilla ice-cream cake (pg 316) which relies on nothing more than bought sponge cake, bought ice cream, Raspberries and icing sugar, which is then moulded back and refrozen as a cake.The result reminds me fondly of those simple jam and cream sponge cakes that my mum sometimes bought us for Birthday cakes and that we ate half-frozen with the cream still solid at the centre, rather like those arctic rolls which also hailed from that era and are no longer eaten. A variation you suggest would be to use brioche or panettone instead.

This would be a good recipe for the dark days of January when there is usually a panettone sitting around in a tin wondering what to do with itself. They have an amazing life-expectancy, those crown shaped loaves. I've occasionally come across one lurking in a tin six or more months later, still looking like it could be used, if you dared.Whatever they are embalmed in, i don't know, but if it could be bottled as an anti-ageing formula, some little baker in Italy would be very rich. I love the colourful  tins the Panettone come in. Each year i add one to my collection at the start of my preparations for the Christmas season. Sometimes, when there is so much rich food and chocolate on offer, you start to crave the  plain and simple as a kind of rebellion against mince pies. These are the days when you head out into the hills for a walk when all around you are sunk into sofas and glued to the box. Ahh, the family at Christmas; another tale.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

October 17th - Robbie Williams' apple juice and a weaver of fairy tales

Dear Nigel,

There's only one fruit, to my knowledge, so universally used and abused (see Halloween) and given a day all to itself, as the humble apple. From apple bobbing to apple crumble we all love this simple fruit. A few days ago the nation celebrated Apple day. I took the children along to a farm near Longnor where there was to be   an open-invitation celebration of the apple.

Over in a disused barn a couple from Transition Leek had set up a beautiful wooden Vigo Apple press. They  told me that thanks to Robbie Williams (or rather a grant foundation he set up to help initiatives in Staffordshire), they were able to purchase this press. They travelled around various markets and other venues and simply pressed batches of apples that individuals brought in from their own gardens and mini-orchards into first class apple juice for them to take back home with them. We tasted some of the local apple  juice and it was sublime - unlike any single variety posh bottled juice I've ever tasted. Whether it was because there was no oxidising agent added - and it was starting to look like a mature cider from the outset - or because it was completely fresh, i have no idea, but it was an eye-opener.

We toured around the orchard looking at all the different varieties growing. An old, wizened (man-looks-like-his-apple) expert was guarding his table of precious fruit over to one side. We were allowed to sample some of the rarer, local varieties. I was looking for an apple that would grow well in our fairly harsh climate, and, more to the point, would produce fruit. Most apple trees need another apple tree to pollinate them and the chances of a bee from the one apple tree next door flying over to my tree seem fairly remote. In the end we  decided that the more common Egremont Russet, which is a wonderful burnished gold and a particular favourite of mine, would be an ideal candidate since it is self-fertile. It seems a good thing to do to plant an apple tree to begin a new life of plenty.

The bees were still flying into the hives though their numbers are down. The bumble bee can survive in temperatures 10% lower than the honey bee - must be those luxurious thick fur coats of theirs. We tramp back across the bottom of the valley to the kitchen where a huge array of apple cakes, strudels and cider bread are on offer. In true spirit there is no charge for anything today and donations are for Bat preservation.

Perhaps it is the unseasonal golden sunshine that colours the side of the valley, or the look of glee as a young boy emerges from a tub of ice cold water with a small apple between his teeth, but there is magic in the air and everyone around can somehow sense it. There is a buzz around the craft table where apple fairies are being crafted and small children perch on hay bales listening to suitably gory tales from a storyteller-par-extraordinaire in a merlinesque cloak and flowing beard. I find a smile twitching as i watch the very-PC parents squirming as the story man tells of hacking off the giant's limbs, their offspring entranced on the mat.

Back home i look for a favourite apple cake recipe and i find one in my spattered and battered, well-thumbed copy of Mary Berry's 'Ultimate Cake Book'. Her Devonshire Apple Cake is a simple classic. Apple cakes can be a bit heavy and stodgy when cold, but are just made to be served warm with cream. True comfort food for the season.

You have been in apple mood, too. You have planted apple trees - a Blenheim Orange and a Discovery, but neither have fruited well this season. My neighbour was bemoaning the sparseness of his crop this year. I think the heavy rains we had at the beginning of the summer stopped much of the pollination as bees don't fly when it's raining.You are entranced by the smell '..the pear-drop notes of the honey-skinned Russets', but what you really like is a crunch 'so crisp they make your gums ache.'

I turn to your diary having already made my apple cake and find that you have been making.....English apple cake. Slightly apologetic for not having made this my first port of call i compare the two recipes. Like Mary Berry this 'slim, moist cake (is) best served warm...(and) will keep for a day or two wrapped in foil', which is  a good tip. Mary's recipe contains almond essence and flaked almonds whereas you plump for cinnamon and demerara to toss your apples in - a match made in heaven....perhaps we need a little more comfort food here to drum the mizzy weather away.

The season is your chance to pig out on one of your favourite meats, pork, of which you say: 'My appetite for pork is what stops me being a vegetarian.' You make pork ribs with honey and anise, and roast pork with grapes, juniper and vin santo with meat from wonderful old breeds like Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot.

The logs are being delivered tomorrow, the apple cake is in the tin. Time to cuddle up on the sofa and read a good book,