Thursday, 18 April 2013

April 18th - Blackbird Pie and Ramsons for Lamb

Dear Nigel,

Coming home is like a different land. It doesn't matter how short the holiday, nothing is quite the way you left it somehow. The dust has settled and the air has been sucked out of the place. You feel as if you're a balloon tied to a string, bobbing around - tethered, yet not quite of this place. Not yet. You open the windows to let the house breathe and try and ground yourself in a life you distantly remember living.

I find the best way to ground myself is to cook back a memory. Yesterday I made a Blackbird Pie - an old, old family favourite. The Blackbird in question wasn't real, of course, just a nursery rhyme remnant fashioned in clay and glazed. Some of my earliest memories revolve around this bird and the Steak and Kidney pies my Granny used to make, fashioning the initials out of pastry to mark the divisions. The kidney had to be tucked down one end of the pie so that those of us who loathed the stuff could enjoy the rich gravy it gave without the strong, acquired taste.

 A great deal of fighting went on between my brother and sister and I as to whose turn it was to have the blackbird on their plate in order to be able to gnaw off the baked pastry round its neck. And the Blackbird I remember always had eyes. The badly made modern ones have little more than a touch of yellow on black. For years I have been searching for a Blackbird with eyes; and then, like buses, three came along at once in an antiques emporium. So I bought all three to prevent the inevitable infighting. Yesterday's Pie had two atop - mind you, it does rather pinch the space from the nice golden crust.

 Of course it would be easy to look at this little blackbird and think it rather naff - and, of course, it is - but that would be failing to see the memory behind the meaning behind the function. We may look at some immaculate house on 'Grand Designs' and imagine for a moment how great it would be to live there, but for most of us, the things around us that matter have provenance and memory attached to them. Sometimes you look at these incredible homes with little more than a few pebbles in a large goldfish bowl (in both senses) and wonder if they keep their children in the cupboards.

Spring is eventually underway here, though its progress is slow. There are catkins on the trees by the stream and a handful of celandines in the meadow. The flowering currant has lobes like mulberry fruit and the rhubarb is making a come-back after being submerged under a foot of snow. No doubt things down your way are streets ahead.

 Lambing has been mercifully late for most, although a couple of local farmers at Alstonefield lost almost their entire flocks to the snow. We had huge cutting machines here breaking through on the roads, which resembled a bobsleigh run with ice banked up 8-10 feet on both sides, in places. Thankfully all gone now and in its place howling winds and warmth enough to turn the heating off. It is lovely to see the little lambs out in the fields at last - most had kept lambing under cover this year as the depressing sight of a newborn lamb frozen to the quick is heartbreaking, and financially quite a blow, too. My friend Jenny is knee-deep in lambing at the moment and Ruby rarely makes it to the bus in the morning on time. They are looking tired but thankful that lambing for them came just as the snows abated.

Someone has been bringing you wild garlic to cook with. I have searched the woodlands here and, although I can tell by the wonderfully fresh and overwhelming scent that it is on its way, there are barely a few tips to be seen above the surface. This is such a wonderful, abundant plant to forage for, tasty, and unmistakable for beginners to find. Its Latin name is Allium ursinum, and derives from the fact that it is a favourite food of the brown bear, who loves to dig the bulbs up. It is also a favourite of the wild boar, and one can only imagine what such a diet would do to enhance the taste of the meat naturally.

You say, 'you can grow the leaves in the garden or on an allotment. I have tried to get a prolific patch going, in much the same way as I have with sorrel. But some things seem to resent being told where to grow.' I have to admit to never having tried growing wild garlic because I have always found so much to pick elsewhere - and half the enjoyment of the walk being to come back laden with bounty - but I am surprised that you have had the same problem with sorrel. It is one of my great fish accompaniments in the summer, and, although not particularly attractive-looking (it rather resembles that weed that we called 'tea leaves' as children) it is very useful and productive if not allowed to bolt.

The recipe for 'Roast lamb with garlic butter' ( page 158) has spring onions and garlic leaves chopped and mashed into butter and slathered on lightly browned lamb fillets. More leaves are used to wrap the meat and it is roasted in the oven. The new wild garlic leaves (when they arrive) are milder in flavour and repeat on you less. Later on in the spring it is wise to use them more sparingly, unless you have an iron digestion and no friends.

Yesterday, you decided to make lemon curd - real, pampered, first-class lemon curd, using 'the most fragrant lemons, the sweetest farmhouse butter and the freshest organic eggs...(to make) a preserve that is head and shoulders above ones made with lesser ingredients.' After all, such a delight is fleeting. Unlike some of the jars stacked on supermarket shelves, a true lemon curd like this one (page 161) will only keep a couple of weeks in the fridge - so there's little point making a huge quantity, unless you have friends and neighbours to give it away to. My favourite uses for lemon curd are as a filling for a sponge cake with icing sugar merely sifted on the top, or stirred into thick yoghurt for decadence. You fold it into softly whipped double cream and freeze for an instant ice cream. That sounds marvellous, and one that could preserve the taste for a Summer's day, like the taste of a proper cloudy lemonade made with Sicilian lemons. Other suggestions I like the sound of are as a filling for pancakes or on toasted teacakes ( a speciality here). The Peak District Dairy in Tideswell (which makes superb local ice cream) also makes its own butter ( which not many people round here seem to know about). So now for some local eggs and fragrant lemons (which may be more of a challenge - but I'll know them when I see them, that's the great thing about good produce: It's obvious).

Martha



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