Wednesday 19 June 2019

'Greenfeast' and Gooseberries

Dear Nigel,

It is a green Summer this year, I think. The constant rain of late has raised the water table and made the weeds grow in abundance. Over in the vegetable garden I am feeding an army of obese slugs with tiny salad seedlings. The petals of a newly opened clump of blue geraniums lie dashed against the ground from the last downpour. More than anything I dislike the sense of heaviness in the air before a clap of thunder releases the tension.

You have a new book out: 'Greenfeast'. I take my copy to the fireside to savour with my cup of coffee. This is a book that speaks to the way I also choose to eat these days. I have my meat days, and my meat-free days. I like both. The meat-free days make me feel generally lighter over all, as the mere idea of dieting to stay the same weight (an age thing, I'm told) fills me with abject misery.

My days in the garden are dealing with triffids as the weeds take hold. I am scything down huge branches of rhubarb and chopping them into bags for the freezer. But first, I realise, there is still a whole pile of last year's assorted produce stacked in there waiting to be used. So I make some jam. 'Gooseberry and Elderflower Jam'. This year's gooseberries are not quite ripe, so it is good to deal with last year's excess first. The recipe is a simple one and uses elderflower cordial for ease. (Lovely, I know, to go and pick elderflowers when in flower, but sometimes it is just 'another thing' which puts the whole operation into jeopardy.)

As I stand there stirring my jam, waiting for the set, I realise that it has actually been a great many years since I last made Jam. I like to THINK I make it - and at one time I made it all the time - but not lately, it seems. And elderflowers go so well in recipes with gooseberries. At the artisan bakery I used to work at we made a wonderful gooseberry cake, adding the elderflower cordial to the icing sugar instead of water to ice the top.

Gooseberry and Elderflower Jam

2 kg gooseberries
200ml elderflower cordial
1800g granulated sugar

1. Place the gooseberries in a preserving pan with 500ml water and the sugar.
2. Cook over a low heat, stirring now and then, until the sugar is dissolved.
3. Turn up the heat and boil for about 15 mins. Stir regularly so that it doesn't stick and burn.
4. Use a stack of small plates placed briefly in the freezer to check for a good set with 'the wrinkle test',
5. When it seems right to you, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the elderflower cordial.
6. Leave to cool a bit. Meanwhile sterilise your jam jars in a warm oven.
7. When sufficiently cool, decant into jam jars, place a waxed disc on top (if you have them, or make your own) and take pride in writing your Homemade labels. I did.
8.Feel virtuous.

I find my first recipe that I want to cook from 'Greenfeast'. It is 'Baked Ricotta, Asparagus.' Unusually, this year I have not over-done the British Asparagus thing. Sometimes, I think I see the small window of seasonality (May really) as a kind of call to eat, whatever else is planned; as if to refrain would mean you might be missing out in some way, be impoverished. We are children let loose in a sweet shop and sometimes we don't know when to stop.

This recipe is comfort food for a wet weather day. It is 'more pudding than souffle, but nevertheless light and airy.' There is a little thyme to remind us that it is actually the height of summer, and a sprinkling of Parmesan to gild the baked top. You opt for a tomato salad to accompany it. I am thinking that a large hunk of sourdough bread to mop up would fit the mood right now.

You were right about the tomatoes; though, as we sat there eating it I was craving a plate of fried cherry tomatoes (possibly the weather again), slightly caramelised at the edges.

Working in a Vegetarian cafe, there is always a constant tweaking of recipes to suit the season. There is nearly always a quiche on, for instance. I had made a 'Courgette, Feta and Mint' soup at home for a friend visiting us. It was both warming and light and Summery at the same time. We decided to try the three key ingredients in a quiche at the cafe. It is nice to take one idea or taste and use it elsewhere. I didn't get to try the quiche as I wasn't working that day, but normally we would be keen to try things for our own staff lunches to check that this was something we would enjoy eating and like to put on the specials board again.

Courgette, Feta and Mint Soup

10 courgettes, cut into large chunks.
4tblsp Olive oil
2 cloves of garlic (crushed)
1200ml vegetable stock
100ml double cream
150g feta cheese
2 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped

1. Heat the oil in a soup pan.
2. Add the courgettes and garlic and cook over a medium heat for 20 mins. until soft and lightly browned (stir regularly), keeping the lid off the pan.
3. Add the stock and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Add the mint and feta cheese, and stir over a low heat until the feta has almost melted.
5. Blend until smooth.
6. Reheat gently and add the cream. Stir well.
7. Season with salt and pepper.

Last Sunday was 'Open Farm Sunday.' We went to an organic farm near us in Hartington. Lower Hurst Farm has about 300 acres of stunning pastures, and it was good to be driven around the farm on the back of a trailer and to see all our normal haunts from a slightly different angle. The cattle there are beautiful Herefords and it all seems fairly idyllic from a farming perspective with its rolling pastures and hand-carved rocks picturing sheep and cows.

(Not that all farming around here is like that. There are many many small hill farms with 'make do and mend' philosophies; and everything tied together with baler twine. I notice this most markedly at harvest time when every tractor - however old - that ever lived and breathed, is brought out coughing and wheezing and pressed into service; along with every old farmer, his wife, grandkids and anyone else nearby.)

The main market for Lower Hurst Farm is Waitrose, and, until fairly recently, they were supplying Jamie Oliver's Restaurants with all their kids beefburgers and meatballs. My children like these beefburgers too so I buy their catering boxes to keep in the freezer at home. I think it is good for children to be able to see the animals properly cared for and having a good life. This isn't an argument for or against vegetarianism, but I do know that I like to see a countryside populated by sheep and cows and a great deal of the hills and moorlands around us are not really suited for anything but sheep.

(I took this photo and my older children joked - 'Rock on Sophie''s not quite Glastonbury...I remind them they were all country kids once.)

Over in the barn we watch a young girl deftly shearing a sheep. It is some kind of rare breed with almost a full clump of dreadlocks going on. There are three ladies spinning nearby and the prize bull on the other side (father of 95% of the herd) looks like he is enjoying a well-earned rest. I am fascinated to see the sheep placed back in a small pen with its lamb once more. The lamb is bleating for its mother. Even when she is in the pen - and it's a small pen - he continues to bleat for some time. He cannot seem to smell his mother now that her coat has been removed.

I am waging war, back at home, with two large crows and a Magpie. I have this very nice metal hoop arrangement hanging from the bird feeder. It has a little metal plate and a spike on which to put a fat seed ball. It looks very nice; but day after day I have turned my back for five minutes and the fresh seed ball has completely disappeared. The other day I caught the culprits in the act. A large crow was using his pneumatic beak to hammer through the ball, taking it out in quarters. I have tried tying the feeder on to the bird table with gardening wire, and tying the seed ball to the feeder with wire. I am determined not to be outwitted by this black hooded duo and their more flamboyant accomplice. My next move, I think, is to get one of those little net bags that nuts used to come in and put the seed ball in that and wire it on to the spike. One way or another they are not about to win this one.

Back to the slug patrol. I am picking the little blighters up and flinging them across the stream, presuming that they haven't been training for swimming the channel, to get back and polish off what they left behind. Gardening means war in this climate; never mind the Pimms.

Love Martha x

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