Friday, 22 June 2012

A different approach

For cooks, ingredients are the building blocks of any dish. What we put in can seriously affect the end result, so we will scrutinise, debate, agonise and obsess over our ingredients. Some have majestic reputations and are heinously expensive (step forward, saffron), while others cost next to nothing yet taste like manna from heaven (pretty much anything very local and in season). But, whatever its beginnings, when we find something good - really, mouth-wateringly, undeniably marvellous - it gets under our skin and stays close to our heart, a well-loved element that we weave into the food we serve. Everyone has their own favourites and, once you start, the list can be never-ending, but here are some of mine: Madagascan vanilla pods (and pure extract), Maldon sea salt, Green & Black’s 70% chocolate, Colman’s English mustard (a condiment rather than an ingredient, but one I cannot be without), premium Canadian maple syrup, organic unwaxed lemons and limes (for their zest and juice, which I put in seemingly everything I make)… To me, these may feel like “essentials” but they are, I admit, luxury items. You could, let’s face it, cook perfectly adequately without them. It wouldn’t be like asking someone to cook without the real basics: butter, eggs, wheat, sugar, meat, milk…

Grilled Cornish mackerel on a bed of samphire
Yet these and many other ingredients are, of course, exactly what we are being asked to omit from our meals on an increasingly regular basis. The only allergies I was aware of as a child were few, far between and unintelligible. “I’m allergic to X, Y or Z” was usually a kid’s excuse for “I don’t like…” - for example one girl’s egg “allergy” that was very pronounced around omelettes and quiches, yet vanished as she scoffed ice cream (made with raw eggs), real mayonnaise or a rich chocolate mousse. But then I started to encounter the real thing - stories of tragic deaths from anaphylactic reactions to nuts, rampant eczema brought on by cow’s milk, debilitating stomach cramps after eating wheat. You can’t argue with the facts - if something is essentially poisoning you, stay the hell away from it. Then, after allergies, we learnt about food intolerances… and this is where things seemed to get out of control. Some people clearly learnt (or rather taught themselves) way too much. Self-diagnosed food intolerances are the bain of the medical community’s existence - and a real pain in the backside for the rest of us. If you can’t eat it, fine. Please don’t. And - as an omnivore and food-lover myself - you have my sympathy. But if you want us all to coo over how interesting and unusual your self-diagnosed intolerance to hula hoops is… well, as your personal chef, I will smile politely, make a note of it, ensure I work around it and - above all - keep hula hoops out of anything you eat. But, let’s face it, most normal people would just be thinking something along the lines of “shut up and get the hell out of my kitchen”.

Strawberries from the garden
But what about the bona-fide cases of food intolerances? Lethargic, bloated, pasty drips transformed into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed balls of perky zing after they have jettisoned something as basic - and previously considered so innocuous - as wheat or dairy (the two seemingly most common culprits)? Too bloody right you want to stick to the new-found way of eating, and all power to you.

To date, it’s mainly been professional necessity that’s driven me to learn more and more about diets, allergies and food intolerances - it’s unusual to cook for a group of people without at least two or three dietary requirements cropping up. But it’s the discovery of long-term health issues relating to certain foods that are really compelling me to delve deeper and start incorporating some fundamental changes into my own diet.

Crab, avocado & tomato salad with citrus & herb dressing
A recent set of requirements came through from a client prior to their stay that made me almost choke on my cappuccino. Due to a recent illness, her list of restrictions was daunting: no dairy, no white flour, no potatoes, no sugar, no red meat (and chicken only once a week), no oranges, no grapefruit, no mushrooms, no white rice… “Kill me now!” I cried. “What on earth am I going to feed this poor lady? Fresh air sautéed with a little spring water?” OK, I exaggerate, but things seemed pretty grim. Some alternatives were suggested: xylitol instead of sugar, coconut oil as a cooking fat, tofu as a protein. Plus I could include many staples that I love: red, brown and wild rice; lemons & limes; olive oil; fish; and heaps of fresh veggies, salad, herbs and fruit. Main courses and starters were going to be just fine - but what about desserts and tea-time baking? Many people with restricted diets just go without - but what’s the point of hiring a private chef if she can’t cook versions your favourite treats? So I trawled the internet and sent messages to friends asking for help. I found out quite a lot about xylitol and how to cook with it (substitute it in the same quantities for sugar, but don’t expect it to behave quite the same. One bit of advice: don’t bother with xylitol meringues. Total waste of time and resources. Trust me.) I discovered all kinds of things to do with coconut oil and bought about 10 kinds of alternative flours and almost as many alternative milks from a wonderful health food store nearby.

Chargrilled broccoli with garlic & red chilli
By the end of the week cooking for this lady and her family, I had discovered that - with a bit of experimenting and tweaking of recipes - it was possible to cook great food without the usual suspects, substituting all kinds of basic ingredients for things I’d previously never used (spelt, rye flour, coconut oil) or even heard of (xylitol). Most importantly, looking at the long-term health implications of ingredients like sugar and dairy, I have decided that it is definitely worth learning more about these new ingredients and moving away from some of my old faithfuls. I’m hopeful that change will spread far and wide - after all, food is a rapidly evolving culture; 30 years ago, vegetarians (not to mention vegans) were the dinner-party pariahs, provoking panic attacks in hostesses and scorn from fellow guests. But now, our herbivore friends are tolerated - and often admired. The more we learn about the ill effects of meat on our bodies and the environment, the more appealing a vegetarian or even vegan diet becomes (it’s just a deep-seated yearning for a juicy steak or crispy bacon that stops many of us from forsaking meat altogether). While there’s no denying that many have jumped on the food intolerance bandwagon with no proper diagnosis (and therefore questionable rationale), there’s much evidence to show that there are extremely good reasons for reducing our consumption of certain ingredients, or even eliminating them altogether, from our diets. Wholemeal loaves instead of white pappy bread, a drizzle of honey instead of spoonfuls of processed sugar, fresh fish instead of red meat. And, next time I spray my cappuccino all over the kitchen, it could well be made with almond milk.

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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Packing up and moving on


There's been a distinct lack of blogging over the past few months, but I can sum up the food side of things pretty quickly: the weekend meals for my Swiss family have been overwhelmingly Valaisan (of Valais, the canton we are in) usually involving terrifying quantities of Bagnes cheese, jambon cru, Gruyère, viande sechée, Fendant, Pinot Noir (the latter two aren't even food, but are very local, nonetheless) plus some comforting homemade lasagnes, pies and pizzas, too.  But there have also been a few seasonal highlights where I've been able to do something a bit different: roast leg of spring lamb from Savolèyres (one of the mountains that rise over Verbier) with garlic, lemon & herbs and capretto (kid goat) braised with tomatoes, black olives & thyme, served for Easter Sunday lunch (another family tradition from the Italian side) with griddled polenta and roasted Provençal vegetables.  For desserts, I've often chosen well-loved classics from all over the world that have now become firm family favourites: Pavlova with berries, apple or pear Tarte Tatin, crème brûlée, chocolate fondants with vanilla ice cream...  In the quest for new, it can be easy to forget the sheer brilliance and universal appeal of these wonderful dishes, so it has been good to spend the winter tweaking and perfecting a few of them.

Pear Tarte Tatin

Fresh snow up on Bâ Combe

On the glacier at Les Diablerets, 3000m up

We have just one week left in Verbier and yet, amazingly for late April, the snow still falls, giving us as much as 30cm of fresh powder overnight and huge grins on our faces as we continue to enjoy skiing conditions more typical of late January.  This has, on balance, been the most incredible season for skiing... yet already the Big Swede and I find ourselves yearning for Cornwall.  For the Swede, I know that the lure of the ocean and his quiver of surf boards are the main draw.  Yet, while I long to feel the rhythm of the waves and smell the sea air, it's the anticipation of the Cornish summer ingredients that is getting me going.  First of all, the seafood: bass, bream, mackerel, crab, oysters, squid, monkfish, sole... served with salty Samphire, the pure essence of the sea.  Endless possibilities for salads and side dishes, with a kitchen garden at my disposal and limitless combinations of ingredients, drawing inspiration from all over Europe and across the Mediterranean to the Middle East, even as far as south-east Asia.  There are also the fruits of last autumn's labours to enjoy: the 10 litres or so of damson gin (not just a good warmer for the colder months, but also delicious with tonic water in the summertime), chutneys and damson ketchup, which has spent the past few months maturing and mellowing, ready to enjoy with Cornish cheeses, sausages and local cured meats, not to mention the barbecues (thinking positive here: we WILL have plenty of sunshine this summer!)

Dreaming of Daymer Bay, Cornwall

But before we arrive in Cornwall mid-May, we have a few other treats to look forward to: a one-night stop in Épernay to enjoy Champagne's eponymous tipple, a few days at Mother Chef's in Dorset and then a long weekend in London, including a dinner at Jamie Oliver's restaurant Barbecoa, a celebration of wood-fuelled cooking in its many guises.  After five straight months of Alpine stodge, our tastebuds will think all their Christmases and birthdays have come at once.

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Friday, 6 January 2012

The Offal Truth

There are definite benefits to being a private chef over, say, working in a restaurant: cooking for many brilliant people and developing good relationships with them, better pay and working conditions and the opportunity to live and work in some amazing locations.

Champery, Swiss Alps - April 2009
Fochabers, Speyside - September 2008

As any good private chef knows, the client is usually right - you serve up what they want to eat, not what you want to cook.  This doesn't mean asking them to provide detailed meal requests - some guests want absolutely nothing to do with the menu planning, but that certainly doesn't mean they don't care what they eat.  This is where a private chef needs to be imaginative, a good listener, pragmatic, experienced, quick-thinking, patient and resourceful.  Female intuition has served me well, although I know some brilliant men who do this job.  I always say that a private chef is like a certain other ancient profession - work out as soon as possible what your client likes and provide it better than they've ever had it before (yes, this has raised a few eyebrows, smirks and even the odd false hope, but it's an analogy that I continue to stand by).  I'd love to say I've continually got it right, but I'd be outright lying... I can think of a handful of cringe-worthy situations where, with hindsight, I would have done things differently - therein lies the importance of experience.  I remember my first private job after graduating from Leiths, working for a lovely family during their holiday in the south of France.  By the end of the three weeks, I was happily and confidently knocking up lunches and suppers for up to 14 people, managing to fit in waterskiing and jet-skiing with the family in the afternoon and relaxing with them after dinner was over.  But the first few days... oh god, I was a mess.  I got lost trying to find my way around, the supermarket was baffling (even though I speak fluent French) and I was totally thrown by not being able to source many ingredients I had counted on for my meticulously-planned menu.  I made everything from scratch, from vanilla ice cream (the sugar-syrup method I learned at Leiths as there was no ice cream machine) to bread (in France, home of the baguette!) and all the cookies (and there were A LOT thanks to the hollow legs of the many teenagers lurking around).  Luckily, a tearful telephone conversation with my mother - a wonderful cook herself and infinitely more experienced - brought me to my senses.  Something along the lines of "Why the bloody hell are you making all that work for yourself?!  Just buy decent ice cream, fresh baguettes and some packets of biscuits to supplement the home-made ones!  Good grief, girl, you'll have a nervous breakdown at this rate, and they didn't employ a chef to add more stress!"  I'm so glad I had that wake-up call as I was able to really enjoy the whole experience and I continued to cook for the family back in London.

Jack the dog, my constant kitchen companion in Pyla sur Mer - August 2008

My ride in Pyla - a Wrangler Jeep

Going for an afternoon swim in the sea at the bottom of the hill from the house

Summertime in Cornwall is a real treat, both on a personal and a professional level, with amazing produce at hand and the freedom to cook interesting, enticing dishes for a variety of guests, most of them excited to try new dishes and make the most of the wonderful fresh fish and whatever the kitchen garden has to offer.  During the winter, I cook for a Swiss family spanning three generations - though a lovely bunch, the meal options and creative opportunities are rather more limited... suffice to say, I don't think I'll be voluntarily going anywhere near raclette, fondue or pizza for a while after this.  The head of the family, however, has a penchant for all things offal and so - being alone in his passion and thus finding it hard to indulge - he was over the moon when he discovered that, not only do I know how to cook the stuff, I also have a source here in Verbier.  From lamb's brain to kidneys, veal sweetbreads to testicles (haven't found the latter yet - not trying too hard to track them down, if I'm honest), he goes misty-eyed at the merest mention of offal.  While I fully applaud his attitude to nose-to-tail eating, I can't quite share his delight at the end result - apart from the sweetbreads, which I've learnt to appreciate, I am no offal-lover.  But sweetbreads, I do urge you to try.  They take a bit of time to prepare and they ain't pretty, but they are worth the effort and mild revulsion during the initial preparation... honest.  Mark Hix describes them as having "a delicate texture and taste... really well suited to all types of cooking, frying, roasting, braising and even mixing with such delicacies as lobster, langoustine tails and crayfish in either a stew or a salad."  Not bad for a lowly thymus gland...

Calves' sweetbreads with Madeira sauce or sauce Gribiche
If doing this for dinner, start the morning of the day before.
First, soak your sweetbreads in cold water for about 4 hours - this helps to remove the membrane and general gunk that coats them (I'm really selling this, aren't I?).  
Bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt, then your sweetbreads - simmer for 10 minutes.
Drain the sweetbreads and place in iced water until cold.
Using your hands, peel the membrane from the sweetbreads and lay them in a single layer in a dish.  Place a dish (an identical one, if you have it) on top and weigh it down with a few cans.  Put in the fridge for between 12 and 24 hours to flatten the sweetbreads.
Dry the sweetbreads with kitchen paper and slice them on a slant, about 1cm thick.
Set up three plates - one for flour (season with salt and pepper), one for egg (beaten) and one for breadcrumbs.  Coat each slice in flour (shake off excess), egg (again, shake off excess) and breadcrumbs, then lay on a plate until ready to fry (if you wish, you can do this a few hours in advance and leave them, covered, in the fridge).
Clarify some butter (melt in a pan and pour off the white curd, leaving just the yellow butter - this burns at a higher temperature, meaning you can get the pan nice and hot) and heat up your pan.  Add clarified butter and fry the breaded slices of sweetbread for a minute or two each side (in batches, if needs be), until the coating is crispy and golden brown, but not burnt.  When cooked, lay on a warmed plate and keep warm until ready to serve.
Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and a Madeira sauce, which I make simply by adding Madeira to some reduced veal stock in a warm pan, simmer for a couple of minutes and finish off by whisking in a few cubes off butter at the last minute.  Or you can serve the sweetbreads with a sauce Gribiche, which you make by mixing together the following ingredients to a texture like that of Tartare sauce - if it's too thick, you can add a few drops of water:
  • 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 4 gherkins, finely chopped 
  • 2 Tblspns capers 
  • 2 tspns Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tblspns mayonnaise 
  • Juice of half a lemon 
  • 2 eggs, hard boiled and grated or finely chopped 
  • ½ Tblspn tarragon leaves chopped
  • ½ Tblspn chervil, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To accompany, I like a salad of baby leaves or lamb's lettuce with a tangy vinaigrette dressing and some crusty bread on the side.

I'd add a photo, but I've never found this the most photogenic of dishes.  But trust me when I tell you that they really are delicious and they look a bit like chicken nuggets.  Instead, here's a nice photo of my view, taken a few days ago...

Sunet on New Year's Day 2012, Verbier

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Monday, 26 December 2011

From sand to snow and everything in between

We've certainly had a month of contrast - after our sun-drenched Moroccan holiday, we came back to find Verbier still behaving like it was mid-Autumn: sunny days, mild nights and absolutely no snow in sight.  Worrying stuff for a ski resort, especially after last season's no-snow...

Sunset over Lac Leman as we took the train home from Geneva

But we needn't have worried - ours prayers and snow dances were soon answered in a truly fantastic way with the most epic snow dump imaginable.  The snow started falling in early December... and it's just kept on going, giving us about 2 metres of the white stuff in time for Christmas.  In just a matter of a days, more snow fell over Verbier than in the whole of last season.  

Le Cradzet (the little chalet in our garden) in the first of the snow, 5th December

The view from our apartment after the first couple of days of snow...

Serious snowfall by 16th December - by this stage, some of the chalets on Savoleyres were being evacuated due to the avalanche risk

Although the season officially starts on 1st December, we seasonaires had the place more or less to ourselves for the first couple of weeks, meaning that we were free to play on the mountain in the more-than-decent early snow before the Christmas crowds arrived...

Lac de Vaux before it froze over, 8th December

Me and the Big Swede enjoying our first ski of the season

Christmas has now been and gone - Father Christmas outdid himself this year with some stunning "bluebird" days (when a night of snowfall is followed by a blue-skied, sunny day) - and things are now hotting up in the resort as we approach the New Year, one of the busiest weeks of the entire season.  Accommodation prices go sky-high and the parade of high fashion and luxury cars gets very serious - you will never see as much fur, diamonds, shiny chrome and immaculate make-up at any other time of the year in the Alps.  Tickets are on sale for New Year's Eve parties in the clubs and bars around town for up to 500CHF per person - for that amount, it has got to be one hell of a party and I'm pretty sure that it'll only be the tourists paying (the strong Swiss franc means that 500CHF is about £340, €410 or the same amount in US$).  Perhaps they don't realise quite what they could be doing instead... the smart money is on the locals' plan: armed with a few bottles of booze, some warm clothes and a group of friends, you can head up to a good vantage point to watch the fireworks over Verbier as 2012 arrives in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.


Cabin Montfort

Heading down to Verbier at the end of a day's skiing

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Friday, 9 December 2011

Hustle, bustle, surf & turf

What can I say about Morocco that hasn't been said already?  'Discovered' in the 1960s by the beautiful and the damned, it now forms part of most modern travellers' repertoires, keen to soak up some north African sun and immerse themselves in an exotic culture.

Fishing boat in Essaouira

Having spent the summer in Cornwall and with five months in the Swiss Alps ahead of us, we wanted a holiday with plenty of sunshine, bright blue skies, enough waves for surfing and a different way of life - but without the expense or jet lag of a long-haul flight.  Choosing to go to Morocco on the hunt for sunshine in November was always a gamble, but thankfully the weather gods were smiling on us (for all but 2 days of our trip) and we did indeed come back bronzed and refreshed, content to be back in Verbier and ready to start the winter season.

Just three of Morocco's many, many waifs and strays

We started our trip in Essaouira, which lies about three hours' drive west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast.  A city by the sea, it is made up of the Medina (old walled town) by the harbour, with the new town stretching (and growing at quite a rate) away from it.  We stayed in a small riad in the Medina, an extremely lucky find, where we were looked after beautifully whilst being given many fascinating insights into the local scene, customs, mentality and way of life by the English/Moroccan couple who run the place.  They were very relaxed and more than happy for us to use the kitchen... but with only five days and hundreds of places to eat out, I was happy to hang up my chef's whites and be indulged and titillated by what Essaouira's food scene had to offer.  With only a couple of duds (one being the over-priced fish stalls on the harbour, hell-bent on fleecing tourists), we ate like kings - but at paupers'  prices - during our stay.  Having got into our stride on the Cornish coast, we continued our seafood love affair and ate fish for almost every lunch and dinner - bream, sardines, mackerel, red mullet and other species that I couldn't even recognise.  The local style is to butterfly the fish, grill over a hot fire and serve with local bread and a salad of tomatoes, herbs, green peppers & red onions - simple, delicious and the kind of thing we long for whilst living in the mountains.  But we deviated from fish one lunchtime, following a hot tip from our host: the 'couscous lady' in the little side street of Berber cafés, who only opens on Friday lunchtime - we were warned that she usually runs out early, such is her popularity with the locals, so we were excited to find that she had some left when we arrived: a bowl of perfectly-cooked couscous with chicken and vegetables, all for 20MAD (less than 2€) each.

Side street where we at lunch from the couscous lady of Essaouira 

The rain came the day before we left Essaouira and followed us as we headed down the coast to Imssouane, a tiny fishing village beloved by surfers for its long, rolling waves and laid-back vibe.  Our arrival was inauspicious: torrential rain making its way through every nook and cranny in our auberge, which made Fawlty Towers look like a slick, professional operation.  The morning after our first night, woken by the sounds of screaming drills and hollering builders, we headed out in search of improved (and completed) accommodation - spying some rather smart houses on the hill, we met Saïd, who seemed to be Imssouane's local fixer: the man with a plan, everybody's friend and our saviour.  He led us to a simple but spacious and clean one-bedroom apartment on the second floor with a huge terrace and panoramic views of the bay.  And, to make things even better, the rain had gone (for good) and the sun was out in force.  We settled in and things were looking up - after a storm out at sea, the waves were settling down into something quite surfable, I had a big (and, quite importantly, private) space for sunbathing and we had found our way around the village (it took us all of 10 minutes).  We didn't need a big selection of restaurants - we found our favourite café and, besides, I had some cooking to get down to... with two fresh bream bought from the fishermen that morning, we picked up olive oil, spices, vegetables and herbs and headed home to cook and eat our first ever fish tagine.  Following the suggested method of the young chef at Imssouane Café, we put our faith in impeccably fresh fish and a tried and tested Moroccan classic.  We weren't disappointed - it was delicious, thanks partly to our efforts and largely down to the quality of what was at hand.  Luckily, we'd been warned that Imssouane doesn't have any alcohol shops, so we had bought a bottle of Domaine de Sahari gris (like a light rosé) with us from Essaouira - the perfect match for the delicate fish, spices and veg.

Swell lines coming into the bay, Imssouane

High street, Imssouane

Fish tagine in the making...

... and the end result

My favourite stray pup outside Momo's surf shack, Imssouane

We were sad to leave Imssouane, but felt excited about our visit to Marrakech, tinged with a sensation that we were about to get a rude awakening - after 10 days of laid-back living surrounded by the ocean, we were heading into the lion's den.  Gorgeous, dirty, manic, exotic, relentless... Marrakech is a lot to take in, but what a feast for the senses it is.  We weren't there to shop, yet within 24 hours we were on a mission to find the ideal Moroccan teapot (having already purchased a wonderful backgammon and chess set made from tuya wood and lemon tree in Essouira), which we continued until we fell up "the one" on our penultimate day.  But even if you don't intend to buy, the Marrakchi stall holders will find a way to draw you in - with mind games and cunning ploys that should earn them high-ranking positions in politics, the young men of Marrakech were playing a game that everyone was involved in, but only they knew the rules.  Our song for the Marrakech leg of our trip became "I'm a hustler, baby" - and with good reason.  But it's all part of the rich experience... isn't it?  The mopeds, however, we could really do without - no matter how tiny (or seemingly pedestrianised) the street (even inside the souks), we were constantly jumping out of the way of two-wheeled vehicles bearing anything up to five people, weaving and tooting their way around the pedestrians and each other.  Amazingly, we didn't see one crash or accident the whole time we were there.

Our Moroccan teapot at sunset on our riad's roof terrace, Marrakech
Patisserie stall, Marrakech souk

Marrakech is famed for its diversity of restaurants - there seem to be a vast amount of places serving European and south-east Asian cuisine, but if you spend long enough in Morocco, you'd be forgiven for hankering after something other than tagine, couscous, harira and brochettes... wouldn't you?  Ah, but you'd be (partly) wrong as there are so many other Moroccan delicacies to seek out, such as briouates (parcels of vegetables, meat or seafood wrapped in filo pastry), pastillas (with a variety of fillings, but arguably the best is pigeon and almonds) and wonderful patisseries filled with almond paste (like marzipan) or peanut butter (much coarser and darker than what you find at home) and scented with orange blossom, rosewater and spices.  There are some restaurants, usually to be found in riads, that combine European touches, techniques and standards with a Moroccan team and style, resulting in a seriously special evening - we were recommended a French riad near Place Djaama el Fna (the epicentre of Marrakchi nightlife and craziness) that really blew us away - four elegant, delicious courses served to us by a friendly, charming team in the most beautiful poolside setting.

Place Djaama el Fna, Marrakech

Spices and stuff, Marrakech

But, inspired by our wonderful bargain couscous lunch in Essaouira, when we walked past a tiny opening in a small side-street with a row of tagines bubbling away on the pavement and enticing smells beckoning us, we were instantly curious - we were seated at a long, narrow table and, within minutes, were joined by a bunch of locals in their blue workman's overalls.  Language instantly became redundant as we all got stuck into delicious lamb or chicken tagine - our smiles were saying it all, with occasional tears & laughter when one of us (Moroccans included, I was comforted to see) got a mouthful with a particularly hot chilli.  Utterly inspired, now we just have to figure out how we're going to introduce tagines and couscous to the slopes of Verbier...

Tagines cooking for lunch, Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains

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Monday, 26 September 2011

Battening down the hatches and bottling it

When I wrote my last blog, I knew we were teetering on the edge of summer, ready to topple head-first into autumn... but I had forgotten just how impressive Cornish sideways rain can be, thanks to gale-force winds straight off the Celtic Sea.  However, Cornish flora - just like the fauna (I include native Kernowyon in this) - is made of strong stuff and, despite spending storm-ravaged nights convinced the roof would blow off our little cowshed (that's if it wasn't crushed by a falling tree first), Treverra has survived the autumnal storms so far and is looking lovely (no small thanks to the team who keep it all going, with special creds this week going to the boys in rubber who spent two days in masks and wetsuits repairing the magic pool cover).

Treverra after a good ravishing by Katia

Men In Black come to the aid of the Treverra pool cover

Ironically, given the tempestuous weather, we're experiencing a lovely little lull right now, a calm patch in between the busy summer and October's half term holidays and shooting parties.  With the tourists mostly gone (except in Padstow - it seems it's always busy in Padstow), the Cornish roads are emptier (and safer without Rock Mummies careering around in Chelsea tractors and their big-wig husbands taking road rage to new heights) and the beaches are tranquil.  But the hedgerows and trees... they are busting out all over the place with apples, damsons and autumn berries.  So, what's a girl to do except buy 8 litres of gin and get stuck in?  Ahhh, damsons, you sexy little things - eye-wateringly sharp, yet with a wonderful depth of flavour and a velvety, delicously dark hue.  With Hurrican Katia rampaging outside, I turned about 4kg of damsons picked from the field next door into damson ketchup (a Mother Chef special recipe) and another 5kg into damson gin, its aromatic, boozy fug enveloping the house.

Damson ketchup - from the Mother Chef, aka Gill Fuglesang
8 lb damsons

8 oz currants

1 lb onions, chopped small
2 oz coarse salt

1 lb Demerara sugar

2 pints distilled white vinegar

Tie up the following in muslin
6-8 dried chillies

1 tblspn black peppercorns

1 tblspn mustard seeds

½ oz dried root ginger, crushed a bit first (I usually just use about 1 oz fresh grated)

½ oz allspice berries
2 whole garlic cloves

To save having to stone the damsons by hand, I just very gently heat them until the juice runs and they go soft enough to put on the rubber gloves and squeeze them through a colander, pushing the pulp and juice through into a large pan and trapping the stones, being careful to put all the pulp back in the pan.  Add currants, onions and the bag of spices.  Add 1 pint of the vinegar, bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 30 mins or until mixture is soft. 
Then remove the bag of spices, place contents of pan in a liquidiser and blend until perfectly smooth.  Rinse out the pan and return the purée and bag of spices to it, add the salt, sugar and remaining 1 pint of vinegar.  Bring to simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 1½ - 2 hrs or until the ketchup has reduced to approximately 3½ pints.  (From experience I know that you should have it slightly thinner than you would like it when you bottle it as it thickens as the months/years go on - especially years!)  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and leave to cool for a few minutes before pouring into bottles.  The recipe tells you to then sterilise the bottles for 10 mins, I never have done and have never had a problem with ketchup going off so I wouldn't bother if I were you (that's my mother for you - cavalier as ever, and usually she gets away with it, but I'd advise you to wash and rinse the bottles thoroughly and put them in an oven at 90°C for 10 minutes to make sure they're sterile before filling them).  Leave for at least 6 months before eating to allow the ketchup to mellow.

Autumn and damsons have definitely come to Treverra

Damson gin - getting eyed up from all sides, I just hope it makes it to next autumn

Damson ketchup - like being a paid assassin, it's a messy job, but someone's got to do it...

Sadly, due to damsons' tannins, the gin and ketchup need to mature for a while before they are fit for consumption.  Luckily, there are a few other Treverra-made treats to sample in the meantime: apple & rosemary jelly, "44" (a Madagascan recipe where you steep an orange, 44 coffee beans, 44 teaspoons of sugar and a few vanilla pods in a litre of gin for about 44 days - if a measure of that doesn't warm you up in winter, I can only suggest a second, third or even fourth attempt...) and raspberry vinegar.

Typically, this being Cornwall, my cosy, autumnal domestic bliss may be short-lived.  Apparently we are getting an Indian summer on Wednesday, bringing blazing sunshine and temperatures well into the 20s (for a couple of days, anyway).  Which is most excellent news - my damsons are dealt with, the garden's looking lovely, the pool cover is fixed - bring on the Pimms and a bikini.

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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Summertime, and the cooking is easy

In my family, the BBQ season has been known to start as early as March.  In fact, as long as there's not actually snow or frost on the ground... GAME ON!  Even rain doesn't stop play - just find a bit of shelter and it's all good.  (Perfect example was many years ago at my dad's birthday BBQ on 6th July - the rain started at 4pm and didn't stop.  Undeterred, my Uncle Rob - Head BBQ Chef for the night - stationed the Webbers in an open-sided, roofed area behind the house and cooked his way through the steaks, seafood and chickens in order to feed the 70 guests.  The guests, for their part, felt sorry for him outside so kept the booze flowing in his direction.  3 hours and about 60 units of alcohol later, Rob emerged red-eyed from the smoke and a bit unsteady on his feet, to announce: "I'm nissed as a pewt."  Bravo, sir.)

BBQs have always been a big favourite here at Treverra Farm and this summer has been no exception, but we entered a whole new league with the unleashing of the fire pit for some hardcore Argentinian asado action the other night.  The lovely Loftuses arrived with five organic, free-range chickens that had been spatchcocked and then were marinated in olive oil, lemon & rosemary.  A make-shift spit was created out of some metal stakes, the chickens were skewered and then suspended over the fire.  Watched by his team (fuelled by Dark 'n' Stormies and Provençal rosé), Charlie was a man on a mission, braving the searing heat to baste the chickens, rotating and adjusting them until they were cooked to succulent, smoky perfection.  Add a perfect Cornish summer's evening, with some potatoes baking slowly in the embers and some salads from the garden, we couldn't ask for more... the arrival of our neighbours in their helicopter overhead was simply the icing on the cake (thanks to Jo for the fantastic aerial shot).

Photo by Joanna Vestey

Dark 'n' Stormies
Half-fill a glass with ice cubes, then add a slug of good dark rum (Morgan's Spiced is great here), top up with ginger beer (Old Jamaica has a nice kick to it) and squeeze in a couple of wedges of lime.  Most importantly, make sure the BBQ chef's glass is topped up AT ALL TIMES.

But Cornwall is, without a doubt, one of the best places to get seafood that I've ever known and it's at the heart of many dinners here.  I am very lucky to get my fish from Matthews Stevens & Son, based in Newlyn, who have supplied me for the past two summers with gorgeous, locally-landed fish. On Thursday evening, with 10 for dinner and the sunny days stretching on, I rode the Mediterranean vibe I was feeling and looked to Ottolenghi for inspiration.  One of my favourite chefs, his recipes really come into their own during the summer - fresh, light, delicious dishes that are perfect for relaxed, communal eating.  As I prepped the salads, the Big Swede got the BBQ going, throwing fresh herbs onto the coals for added aroma and then cooking three large grey mullets that I'd prepared:

Whole grey mullet for the BBQ
You can use other whole fish here, like rainbow trout, salmon, sea bass, etc - grey mullet just happened to be available and particularly good at the time.  Ask your fishmonger to scale and gut the whole fish, then stuff the belly with herbs (I used coriander and flat-leaf parsley), slices of lemon & lime - ginger and chillis are also good.  Sprinkle olive oil in the belly and season.  Cut a few slits in the skin and rub with olive oil, sea salt & black pepper, then wrap in foil.  Once the BBQ is ready, cook for about 10 minutes on each side until just cooked through, then you can lift the flesh off the bone onto a warmed platter, scatter with chopped herbs and serve with wedges of lemon.

Photo by David Loftus
Summer dinner for 10

To start:
  • Chargrilled nectarines & Prosciutto, with endive & baby chard leaves and a Balsamic, maple & rosewater dressing
Remove stones and slice nectarines vertically into 6 wedges, then toss in olive oil, salt and pepper.  Heat up griddle and char the slices to give them distinct grill-lines on all sides.  On a platter, lay out torn endive, the Prosciutto and the nectarine slices, then scatter over the baby chard leave and drizzle with dressing of olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, rosewater, salt & pepper.

Main course:
  • BBQ whole grey mullet with lemon, lime & herbs and a tarragon aïoli
  • Fillets of sea bream with a tahini, lemon & parsley sauce, scattered with pomegranate seeds
  • Camargue red rice & quinoa with orange & pistachios
  • Fennel & feta with pomegranate seeds & sumac
  • Cucumber & poppy seed salad
  • French beans & mangetout with hazelnuts & orange
  • Baby leaf green salad
And finally:
  • Blackberry tart with crème fraîche sorbet (blackberries picked from the field next door)
Blackberry tart (recipe adapted from the Cherry Tart recipe in Bill Granger's book "Holiday")
To make the pastry, melt and cool 125g unsalted butter, then mix in 90g caster sugar, followed by 175g plain flour and a pinch of salt to make a soft dough.  Press the mix into a greased, 24cm round, loose-bottomed tart tin, place onto a baking tray and cook at 180°C for 12-15 mins until the pastry is puffing up.  Remove from the oven and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of ground almonds over the base, then leave to cool.
For the filling, whisk together 170ml cream, 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons of vanilla and 3 tablespoons of caster sugar. Add 2 tablespoons of plain flour and whisk until well mixed.  Arrange a couple of large handfuls of fresh blackberries (or cherries - stoned and halved - or other soft fruit that's in season), slightly overlapping, over the pastry base and pour the cream filling evenly over the fruit.  Return the tart to the oven for a further 40-50 minutes until the filling is firm.  Leave to cool and serve with cream or ice cream.

Crème fraîche sorbet
In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups crème fraîche, ¾ cup cane syrup (if you can find it - I mix half & half golden syrup with homemade sugar syrup), a good pinch of salt, ¼ cup lemon juice and ¼ cup sugar (I didn't have quite enough crème fraîche this time, so I made up the quantity with a bit of vanilla yoghurt and it worked beautifully - I may be onto something...)  Chill the mix in the freezer for about 15 mins and then transfer to an ice-cream machine to chill and churn for about 30-45 mins (check your machine's guidelines).  Keep in the freezer - this is best made the day before to give it time to firm up and then it's best eaten within a few days of making.

True to form, I made more food than even 10 hungry mouths could eat, but the great thing about all the dishes above is that the leftovers make for no-effort lunches over the next couple of days, leaving you to enjoy the last hazy, lazy days of summer... isn't that what it's all about?

Daymer Bay
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