May 19 2010

Grey May

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A warm wonderful week in France raised our hopes for a clement month of May at home. Alas we were mistaken. We sailed from Roscoff in sunshine and 26 degrees, passengers sunbathing on the deck. Then, as we approached English shores, a thick mist engulfed us, swirling, whirling, twirling, it wrapped itself around the ship. Plymouth took on an unearthly presence, floating greyly between sea and sky. We drove home in foggy drizzle.
Funny fortified St Malo had been bathed in sunshine. We walked warmly the C14th ramparts which surround this island town at the mouth of the Rance; a strange town with an embattled history going back to monastic roots in the C6th Famous for piracy in the sixteenth century, it even declared itself independent for four years from 1590. It was blown up by the English in 1693 and violently liberated from Second World War Nazi occupation in 1944.
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Looking down from the battlements we watched children paddling n the sea, castles growing from the sand, dogs digging, bikini clad girls holding hands with their boys, old ladies wrapped warmly carry shopping home across the pebbles, this on all the tiny beaches beneath the great walls .
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As we turned inwards towards the town we looked down on a criss-cross of tiny narrow streets, spreading like grey ribbons between huge sombre blackened buildings .We sat outside in the sun in street cafes eating moules and frites, oysters, spider crab, salad de gesiers, all the while drinking in the bustle, warmth and laughter all around us.
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We sat eating oysters…….
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……..and spider crabs
We looked at the great sailing ships restored and working again; we visited the rebuilt cathedral with its beautiful modern stained glass, a sharp reminder of the devastation of the town in 1944.
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A wonderful sea trip in a boat run by the aptly named company, Corsaire, took us out to the ancient forts which surround the city promontory. They have been its brave defence since the Middle Ages. My French was so inadequate for the finer points of the commentary that I have already joined a French conversation class in preparation for a return visit!
Saturday morning and a quick ferry trip across the bay found us in the fabulous food market in Dinard.
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Dinard market flowers
We had no idea where the market was held so just allowed the huge crowd to sweep us along. Bursting with people, stalls, produce of every sort, bustle, laughter, raised voices, dogs, children, balloons, flowers, music; it was quite magical and the hardest part of all was not being able to buy food to cook and eat myself! There was every sort of fruits de mer, saucisson, fromage, fruits, fleurs, vin , pain, biere, legume, patisserie……………….and much, much more.
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Saucisson……..!
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..legume…
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Vin!
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and much, much more…..!
We left St Malo on Sunday and spent the rest of our week with dear friends further west in their beautiful restored medieval farm house in a tiny Brittany hamlet. We sat in sunshine in the garden marvelling at their extraordinary vision and skill. Over the last eight years an uninhabitable roofless wreck occupied by cows has become the most beautiful, rose clad, peaceful home. And they did it all themselves.
We feasted on Evelyne’s wonderful food. A local pig had been killed. We ate terrine made form all those bits of the pig disdained by us Brits, it was wonderful. We had slow cooked leg of pork with ceps marinaded in red wine. Fois gras, local cheese, salt cod baked in cream with parmesan, salad, beautiful preserved pears and, of course, all this with wonderful local wine.
We left early for the ferry not just in case of delays at the dock caused by that volcanic ash but to give us time to stock up at LeClerk on all those little things that our local supermarket seems to lack; local French wine, pate, local cheeses and that fantastic ready made pastry! Eat your heart out Mr Justroll!
Home now to a very cold May. A swingeing north-easterly wind, grey skies and no rain has had an extraordinary effect on the garden. Now in the middle of the month, fast approaching June and midsummer some trees still refuse to risk the chilling nights and open their leaves. “Don’t cut anything back” command my gardening guru’s, “just wait, things that appear dead may yet sprout” I’m waiting!
I planted out my beautiful little beans nurtured lovingly for weeks in the poly tunnel. I admired their perfect rows, boasted to my friends even: the next day they fell victim to a mid May frost unheard of here in mildest Devon. Geraniums are still imprisoned in their glass house as my anxiety level rises for the National Garden Scheme charity opening in just four weeks time. Seedlings pricked out in boxes refuse to grow; “too cold at night” they say “for us to move”. And the wind has caught my wonderful Seagull and Kifsgate roses. For years they dripped cascades of tiny flowers over the pond in June. Not this year. All branches have been flung backwards by the storm into a tangled mess. All I can do is let them flower then cut them down and hope for better things next year.
We long for rain not just for the garden but to give us much needed grass for our sheep. All across the valley the fields look sparse and dry and once more we farmers fret. We move mothers and children from field to field as a green haze appears across the hill. No danger of donkeys over indulging this year, in fact Fat Boy Luke has lost weight for the first time in sixteen years; not such a bad thing. Bunty and Nutmeg still look round and glossy, donkeys thrive on little so long as food is constant and they are dry and loved.
I gave friends some bantams last week. I felt I had far too many. Then, of course, a fox or maybe a badger made a night visit killing my poor broody girl and dining out on all her eggs! Toujours le meme chose!
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Wide eyed and beautiful….!

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Apr 20 2010

The Race is on……

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Spring has arrived all at once in a terrible rush. A grey sleeping desolate garden has woken up with a jolt as if it had overslept; nothing, then everything. Snowdrops, weeks late poured daintily down the hillside trickling coldly, whitely into the garden, early daffodils refused to open their faces to the icy northeast wind, grass wouldn’t grow. For weeks and weeks we fed sheep and lambs up to the top fields morning and evening. Donkeys lost weight despite extra tea, no bad thing, though, for fat Mr Luke. Chickens reduced their run to a mud slide and had to come into the big barn on straw to dry off before being allowed to scratch in the orchard.
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Then suddenly we saw the sun, the orchard flooded with daffodils, the whole garden exploding in a yellow cascade as far as the eye could see, one variety after another till we lost count.
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Primroses still carpet the slope behind the house in a mixture of yellow and pink and now suddenly all is speckled with white plum blossom which we pray will be spared by late frost.
And so now the race is on. We are in the National Garden Scheme “Yellow Book” scheduled to open for charity in just seven weeks and we’ve foolishly booked a weeks’ holiday right now. So day after day, in this wonderful early April sun, I dig and plant, plant and weed, all the time staring at the soil to see what has survived and what has perished in the unnaturally cold winter. Miraculously mecanopsis are pushing up furry pale green shoots through hard cold ground. The Ceanothus looks very sick. We held our breath as we looked at the twiggy embothrium which maybe is greening up and slowly recovering its strength. Not so good, Garrya elliptica, who had to have a severe pruning to remove all branches of dead catkins dripping majestically over the pond reducing it to an awful skeletal shadow of its former self but will, I hope, shoot again. Not so my beloved blue ceratostigma. Every day I check for a sign of life on brown twigs but I fear the severe cold has done for them, alas.
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But spring growth begins again and new seeds are germinating. Some, already in need of pricking out, must be tended before my weeks’ leave. Vegetable garden squares are dug ready to receive beans, peas, brassicas, courgette, all sitting patiently in trays in the poly tunnel. Sweet peas begin the long climb up their poles. Scarlet stemmed chard, shallots, beetroot and parsley lie waiting to burst into life in the warming soil.
As we dug our way through the vegetable garden last week, I gathered a strange little crop of edible survivors; a few skinny leeks, some early maverick potatoes missed last year, eye watering roots of horse radish, twigs of rosemary and a bucketful of Jerusalem artichokes.
Last night I cooked a small Guinea fowl. We had the leeks in a light cheese sauce and the potatoes and artichokes, sliced and blanched briefly, then “stoved” till slightly crisp, in butter and olive oil; delicious.
Now is the time to finish up all last years produce, empty the deep freeze and look in the back of the larder for forgotten jams and chutneys, tomatoes in olive oil and figs in vanilla syrup!
I find that frozen beans of all varieties cheer up no end with the addition of a tin of tomatoes, a few dried herbs and a clove of garlic crushed in salt. The mange tout seem to reawaken cooked gently in butter, no water at all, but under a firm gaze so they don’t brown and turn bitter. A glut of courgettes, curried and frozen, made another transition into a delicious Mulligatawny style soup with the help of stock from the carcass of a big Easter chicken.
We’re still adding iridescent sparkling red quince jelly to yoghurt or vanilla ice cream, spreading quince marmalade on toast and eating membrilo with ripe Cornish brie. Last week I took quince from the freezer which I had frozen, without ceremony, last autumn, we had so many on our one pretty tree. They looked very unattractive as they brownly defrosted but with the addition of whipped cream, a meringue mix of egg white and sugar and a little gelatine soaked in raspberry juice they made a surprisingly respectable and delicate mousse.
Last years lamb must be eaten too. I plan a slow cooked Navarin of boned shoulder with the first new potatoes, carrots, turnips, garlic and peas and a couple of tomatoes. We’ll have roast leg of lamb with rosemary and more Jerusalem artichokes too.
Best of all, I will cook the delightfully named “Best end of neck in the style of the Bakers Wife” from Jane Grigson’s wonderful “Vegetable Book” Penguin 1978.
Traditionally this French country dish followed the bread baking into the oven at the village bakers. Each housewife would prepare her raw ingredients at home then carry the pot down the road to be cooked in the big communal bread oven as it cooled, stipulating if possible, where her dish should be placed.
First the trimmed and chined neck is browned in butter. Then it is layered with sliced onions and thinly sliced and blanched potatoes, some seasoning and a few herbs. It is baked long and slow, in a moderate oven till all flavours amalgamate and the meat falls from the bone, potatoes browned on top. It is not a million miles from our own Lancashire hotpot.
So off to France now for a week of wonderful food, the company of old friends and, of course a dash to Carrefour before the ferry returns us to Plymouth, (volcano chaos allowing) and garden toil once more.
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I am NOT a Guinea Fowl!

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Apr 13 2010

Spring is here!

Spring arrives from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Mar 19 2010

Spring lambs

Spring Lambs from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

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Mar 19 2010

Waiting for Grass and Meeting the Queen

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Rain on the way
Gentle rain is falling on brown fields. Though we long for the warmth of the sun, we need it badly. We have no grass for sheep and new lambs, for donkeys or chickens. The temperature has risen at last but the hills are brown and bare after the terrible winter. Everyone is struggling to feed livestock even though spring hints at its arrival at last. Snowdrops fade as February daffodils burst into flower joining their March cousins a month late.
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Crocus glowed briefly in the sun last week, flattened now by rain.
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Camellias flowers appear all at once. I pray they will be spared by the frost. .Just one more icy sparkling morning and all bushes will be garlanded in brown limp blooms.
But the dry cold has been good for lambing; not one bottle fed lamb this year. Usually I am dashing up to the yard every four hours to juggle more bottles than I have hands to feed hungry pushy babies. Or I’m in a pen soothing a ewe with no milk while trying to help her little scrap survive, or bringing orphans back to the kitchen for warmth. But not this year, healthy lambs bounce around the field playing together as mothers feed. Every afternoon they rush to meet us as we climb the hill with high protein feed, mixed with oats and malt shreds to try to supplement the lack of grass. Great bales of haylage sit in fields and farmyard making up for the lack of pasture. We live in a part of England that is often so mild that the grass grows all year round. This has indeed been a strange year for us.
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More strange things have happened recently away from the farmyard too, not least an unexpected invitation from the Trustees of Dartington to a lunch in the Great Hall. Mystified we accepted only then to be told we would be lunching with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. We were amazed and still have no idea why we were invited; maybe names from a hat, some charity work perhaps, we will never know!
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Security was tight but relaxed, protocol detailed. We were escorted to the reception area where we were offered a glass of Prosecco and asked to wait in small groups with our table host for the Queen to arrive. We did as we were told in that delightful, relaxed slightly anarchic style of Dartington, a feeling of childhood excitement and giggles floating through the room. Then, all at once a hush fell as a very small elderly lady in mauve and orange quietly arrived.
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She went from group to group shaking hands and speaking to everyone. Suddenly it was our turn; “Mr & Mrs Vincent have a small rare breed sheep farm on the river Dart”. We each shook her gloved hand and I did the tiny bob required these days in place of the low curtsy of years gone by. Her face, so familiar yet often so stern in photographs, on stamps and five pound notes, broke into a twinkling smile. “What sort of sheep” she asked. “Whiteface Dartmoor’s, we’re lambing” we said bathing in the smile. It was so surreal to be standing talking to her that I can’t remember what else she said before she moved with grace and interest to the next person.
Lunch was served in the magnificent Hall. Local Sharpham wine, grapes grown on the estate, accompanied a local cheese salad, followed by chicken breast then crème brulee. All held up the standard of Dartington’s restuarant, The White Hart.
The Dartington Hall estate dates back a thousand years and more. There is said to be evidence of occupation of the sight by the Romans. The first written record is a mention in a Royal Charter of 833AD. But it was not until 1384 that it really came into its own when Richard 11 granted the estate to his half brother, John Holand, later Earl of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter who built the Great Hall and Courtyard between 1388 and 1400.
Richard’s reign was troubled at a time when the country was immersed in the struggles of the Wars of the Roses. He came to the throne at the age of ten, son of the Black Prince and grandson of the Plantagenet Edward 111. Although a colourful King and patron of the arts, including famously Chaucer who visited Dartmouth to try to reclaim taxes and goods stolen from looted ships, he was not a popular monarch. In 1399 he was ousted by his cousin Henry Bolinbroke and murdered in Pontefract Castle.
Despite all this Dartington remained in the hands of the Earls of Huntingdon until 1476 when the estate passed briefly to the St Leger family before passing to the Crown. It had a succession of owners and tenants including Henry V111’s wives, Catherine’s Howard and Parr before passing to Sir Arthur Champernowne, Admiral to Elizabeth1 in 1559. It remained in the same family until the Elmhirsts bought it in 1925.
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Inside the Great Hall
Their vision and commitment, so in tune with Richard 11’s patronage of the Arts all those years before, made it the place of excellence it is today working “for advancement of art, sustainability and social justice” a suitable venue for a visit from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh if ever there was one.
We drove home to the sharp reality of lambing and feeding stock, but with that slightly bemused feeling of a fading dream, pinching ourselves for a reality check and still unaware of why we had been invited!
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Goodnight

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Feb 25 2010

February Rain and Warming Fare

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Snowdrops cascade down the hillside in an avalanche of petals. As they push their tiny tips up through a ravaged landscape we feel our spirits climb from the despair of winter. A tiny blue iris has exploded through crystallised soil by the back door, a camellia winks at me through the kitchen window and yellow crocus struggle to make themselves seen. The smallest vestige of hope tingles within; one day it will be spring again
In gentle South Devon, warmed by the Gulf Stream, we rarely feel the biting cold of morning frost. This year has been, oh, so different. Novembers’ relentless rain drenched our souls. December ice and snow found us skating on frozen farmyard, collecting water for thirsty animals, bucket by bucket, from the stream, the only source of unfrozen water. January brought swinging north winds, hail and sparkling, spectacular heavy frosts and now February rains again.
The ground has been frozen for weeks, now we slip and slide on mud, no grass is growing yet. Tractors travel back and forth collecting big bales of haylage to keep hunger at bay. Ewes come down to the yard at night for tea and night time shelter; lambs are born thick and fast. Each new mother is penned up with her offspring in the dry until babies are seen to be thriving and feeding well. The ladies in waiting huddle into another shed sheltering from the elements, awaiting admittance to the maternity wing.
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Wethers and last year’s ewe lambs nibble at what they can find on adjoining top fields. As they hear the tractor each afternoon they race to their respective gates waiting anxiously for tea, pushing and shoving to get to the hay and the trough first. Unlike commercial breeds Whiteface Dartmoor’s mature slowly so may stay with us for up to a year before being sold either for breeding or meat.

A New Beginning……………….. from Paul Vincent on Vimeo.

Just three donkeys now glean what they can by stretching necks over fences for a little sweet delicacy here and there of bramble or ivy, thus supplementing a manger of hayledge and the breakfast and tea served daily in their stable. Thick coats keep them warm but, unlike horses, they have no oil in their coats to keep them dry so must always come in when the rain lashes across the valley.
Time now between visits to the farmyard to catch up on all the inside jobs so tedious when the sun shines; mend the leaking ceiling in a shed, make plans for the garden, plant seeds, redecorate a bedroom, clear desks and file all those papers, tidy cupboards, take a trip to the recycling depot! And try, oh try to sit now and then by the fire and read.
It’s time, too, to use up all the food harvested from garden and farm in the summer: a big heart warming Cottage Pie perhaps.

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Cottage Pie, from the leftovers of Sundays roast
Traditionally Cottage Pie and Shepherds Pie were made from the leftovers of the Sunday roast. The cold meat was chopped up, mixed with the leftover gravy, put in a pie dish and topped with mashed potato and reheated in the oven. It was OK but a bit dull!
But made with fresh minced beef or lamb it is quite delicious and so simple to make too. Chop a large onion and three cloves of garlic. Soften over a low heat in a little oil. Raise the heat; add 500gm of minced beef or lamb and stir till nicely browned. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour, stir and add 300 ml stock, homemade or made from a cube, plus 150ml wine, and a large tablespoon of tomato puree. Stir again. Add salt and pepper, cover the pan and simmer gently for 25-30 minutes.
Meanwhile boil 1kg of potatoes in their skin, drain, cool and peel. Return to the pan and add 75gms of butter and a about 200-300ml hot milk. Mash lightly. Cold milk and overworking will produce wallpaper paste!
Spoon the meat into a pie dish and cover carefully with mashed potato. Fork the potato up and sprinkle with grated hard cheese and bake in a hot oven 400/reg 6 for 40 minutes until potato is crisp and golden. Serve with lightly cooked, fresh vegetables or a green salad

Then there’s an old fashioned Lancashire Hotpot
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We have two hogs coming back from the butcher on Monday so my mind drifts back to old cookery books. Mutton is not on the menu very often now and has definitely fallen from grace until a very recent revival. I think of mutton chops and Lancashire Hotpot. How the methods vary. Dorothy Hartley in her wonderful “Food of England” flours and browns her mutton chops before standing then on end in an earthenware pot. She packs in an onion per chop, large pieces of carrot, then “some oysters”. Next she covers the lot with sliced potato overlapping like “tiles on the roof” She makes a thick, and to my taste, rather heavy, old fashioned gravy with flour, boiling water and the fat from the fried meat. To this she adds salt, pepper and, she insists, a sprinkling of sugar. Most important, she says, no, no, I say! Then in goes a dash of Yorkshire relish or anchovy essence. All this is poured over the meat and vegetables and the whole is covered with a lid and baked “with a good fire” for two hours.
Mrs Beeton fries nothing but simply layers meat and vegetables in a fire-proof baking dish, no oysters here, just water, salt and pepper. The lid is removed twenty minutes before the end of cooking to crisp the potatoes. Constance Spry favours the oysters, mushrooms and a good stock. She covers the pot with grease proof paper instead of a lid removing it some twenty minutes before the end of cooking to crisp and brown the potatoes. I must say I favour these to versions above Mrs Hartley but I suspect a tour of Lancashire itself would bring as many, maybe more, variations. So I’ll steer a course through the middle, probably leaving out the oysters and cooking everything a day in advance, cooling overnight and removing the fat from the top before reheating. I was amused to discover no mention, of course, of such a dish from Elizabeth David. Her mission was to encourage us to look beyond our shores.
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Pickles and Vegetables just waiting………………..
Roast Shoulder of Whiteface Dartmoor Lamb
Out of the deepfreeze comes a shoulder of lamb which I boned and rolled a while back.
To bone any meat use a sharp flexible bladed knife and, sliding it into the meat, work your way along and around the bones. Blunt knives are much more dangerous than sharp ones because you need so much more pressure, then you slip and cut yourself!
Sprinkle the meat with course salt and freshly ground pepper.
Herbs are always a welcome addition to the pan. This time I have the prunings of the Thyme plants from the garden and I will roast the lamb on a thick bed of these thymey twigs. Rosemary and garlic are also particularly delicious with lamb and later in the year a bed of mint permeates the meat as it cooks and smells of spring. But beware sage, it’s too strong for lamb and belongs with pork.
This piece weighs some 3lbs (about1.5 kg) so it will feed us for a couple of days, hot and cold.
Hot : Roast in a hot oven 20 mins to the lb (45 per kg).
Blanch peeled potatoes for 2-3 mins, drain, then roast round the meat. We will have red and yellow stemmed chard from the polytunnel and Puy lentils with garlic and ginger to accompany the meat.
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Red & Yellow stemmed Chard
And gravy of course; it surprises me how often I am asked how to make gravy without those disgusting gravy granules! Lift the meat from the roasting pan when it’s cooked and put it to “rest” on a serving plate or board, cover and keep warm. This will make it easier to carve and give you time to finish every thing else. Drain the spinach chard or other vegetable and keep the water. Return the roasting tin to the heat, scrape the residue with a wooden spoon and gradually stir in some of the veg water. Simmer, then stir in a teaspoon of corn flour mixed to a thin paste with a little water. As the gravy heats it will loose the cloudy look and become glossy and a rich brown. Adjust thickness to your taste with a little more stock or corn flour mixture, if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Next day we will add baked potatoes with crème fraiche to the cold lamb. A rocket salad once more gleaned from the remains in the pollytunnel will be sprinkled with course salt and virgin olive oil, and maybe a dash of fig balsamic vinegar. Or perhaps I‘ll make some mayonnaise instead. Home made plum chutney will finish things off and of course a glass of wine.

Garbure
Now for real comfort eating while we wait for spring! Old English Boiled Beef and Carrots, Italian Minestrone, Welsh Cawl, Suffolk Stew, and then there’s Garbure. Somehow this last wonderful pot of South West France brings so many regional dishes together. And as an English woman all be it with a tiny amount of French ancestry, who am I to say how it should be cooked! Well bravely, here’s my Anglicised version!

To begin: soak 500gms of dry white beans overnight. Make a good rich stock with a chicken or duck carcass in the usual way. Drain and rinse the soaked beans and bring to the boil in a heavy pan. Boil briskly for ten minutes, rinse and drain again. Blanch a 500gm piece of belly of pork.

Next put the pork belly, a ham hock, an onion stuck with cloves and the blanched beans into the strained stock. Simmer for about an hour. Add a couple of diced potatoes, 2 leeks, a turnip, a few carrots, green or red pepper, cut in strips, salt, pepper, crushed garlic, a little paprika, dried herbs. Simmer until the vegetables are nearly cooked. Add a shredded white cabbage, 500gms of garlic sausage and most importantly, confit of duck. Opinion varies as to whether or not the duck fat is added too. It’s a matter of taste, a little will enrich the whole, I think. Warm the Garbure through.
Just before serving take the meat from the pot and keep warm. Serve the broth on thick slices of bread as a first course and follow with the meat.
And then there are all those Beetroot and Jerusalem Artichokes
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As I look through old cookery books I remember why so many people wrinkle their noses in distaste at the mere mention of beetroot despite its recent media renaissance. Remember those insipid pinkish, soggy, malt vinegar soaked balls trapped in plastic or bleeding into fierce salad cream?
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Think of a big bowl of fresh Borsch made with a really good home made stock, grated raw beetroot, shallots, tomatoes, a potatoe or two and a sliced courgette, all cooked quickly and served bright and glistening with sour cream and chopped spring onions.
Beetroot is wonderful hot too, baked in its skin in the oven like a potato and served with marmalade…yes really!….or warm in a salad of apple, goat’s cheese and walnuts with a rich green virgin olive oil.
I love Jerusalem Artichokes too and as always I had bumper crop. Though as my old nanny said to my horrified and terrifyingly austere grandmother all those years ago “no thank you, madam, rather windy things….” She was right of course, a little go a long way. Nevertheless I shall make soups. I’ll fry crispy artichoke chips and “stove” some too cooking them in butter and olive oil, oh so slowly in a sauté pan on the top of the cooker with a few sliced potatoes. They’ll be topped with parmesan or, better still, served with a Béarnaise sauce, delicious with grilled meat. I will roast some in the oven round a leg of lamb or a piece of beef.
But whatever I plan to do with them, first they will be carefully peeled before cooking and plunged into acidulated water to stop them turning grey which they do almost immediately their peel is removed. Oh, and just a very few will go back into the soil for next year and grace the garden with their sunny, yellow autumn flowers.
Cavolo Nero
One of the most versatile and handsome vegetables standing majestically in my vegetable garden this winter is the Italian cabbage, Cavolo Nero. It’s thin, long dark green leaves are the essential part of Ribollita, the famous Tuscan bean and cabbage soup, made a day in advance and “re-boiled”. Yesterday’s minestrone!
Walking back from the farmyard to the house today, I picked a hand full of leaves and pulled up a leek. With the addition of a couple of carrots and potatoes, a parsnip, shallot, a tin of haricot beans and a tin of tomatoes, and a handful of scraps of ham will have a thick and delicious soup for supper. Ribollita tomorrow!
Bon appetite soon it will be Spring!

I grew my plants from seed for the first time last year. I planted them out in blocks where they now stand like little green palms in the bare earth. The narrow green leaves can be snapped off the plant encouraging new growth. Tiny new leaves are wonderful in winter salad with the variegated chicory, radicchio sotto marina, mizuma, and land cress all over wintering in the poly tunnel.

Cavolo Nero can be braised with garlic and ham and become a meal in itself. My favourite way to use it, though, is with rich garlicky flageolet beans. Rinse the dried beans and then soak for 30 minutes. Bring to a fast boil for 15 minutes. It‘s important to pre boil all dried beans because some contain toxins and the best rule of thumb is pre boil them all! Now drain them, rinse again and simmer gently for about an hour. Do not salt the water; this toughens the skins of the beans.

You can of course simply open a tin of flageolet beans! Put the cooked beans in a pan with a dash of olive oil, a crushed clove of garlic and a teaspoon of dried herbs. Leave to infuse.

Strip the tough storks from the cabbage leaves and blanch for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Drain thoroughly and stir into the beans. Warm through gently. Serve with any grilled meat, roast shoulder of lamb ( see recipes for cooking lamb) or braised sausages with gravy and mashed potato for a comforting meal on a cold winters evening.
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Spring is on its way

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Jan 15 2010

New Year for Old

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Snow has melted, now sleet drives sideways across the valley. As early afternoon January darkness falls, icy shards bounce off frozen ground. This is our twenty eighth Christmas, twenty eighth January in this beautiful valley and it is the very first one without the reassurance of a New Year snowdrop.

Rain fell relentlessly all through November. We slid muddily around the farmyard, squelching through soggy fields crushing any precious remaining grass despite our best efforts. Then it froze. Muddy farmyard turned to ice rink. Tractors slid around and so did we. All pipes ceased to yield water to thirsty animals. Thick ice sealed off all water troughs . At first a good kick shattered the surface, it got colder:-
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A hammer became necessary to render a trickle, then eventually ice welded to plastic and the whole became a solid shining mass. We rigged up a bucket on a rope over the still flowing stream and laboriously heaved out gallons morning and evening. Sheep eating oats, beet shreds and haylage instead of grass sucked it up thirstily as fast as we could scoop.
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Then the snow arrived. We don’t get snow in South Devon, at least not often. The last really bad winter here was 1986! I had forgotten just how upside down it turns our unaccustomed lives. Dogs, cats, donkeys, sheep have never seen anything like it.
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“…..never seen anything like it!”
Chickens crowded at their pop hole, tentatively placed an outstretched claw on the strange shining white stuff, squawked and flew clumsily into the air. I laughed as I watched them dare to land, peck gingerly then retreat hastily into their shed in disgust only to try again minutes later in disbelief.
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Dear old Dandy with his faithful friend Humphrey
The donkeys have been in their big barn for weeks now. Rain, ice and snow are no friends to them. Dear old Dandy finally gave up the fight on a cold December Friday just before Christmas. He died quietly in true stoical donkey fashion, no fuss, no struggle. On the Wednesday evening he eeyored to me across a wet field, warm inside his big blue coat, reluctant to walk down the slope into the yard for tea. I coaxed him and talked to him and, oh so slowly, he tottered stiffly into the big barn. On Thursday I kept them all inside. He seemed a little better but on Friday morning we found him lying in the straw exhausted. We propped his head on a thick bed of straw, covered him with his coat and took it in turns to sit with him, his head in our lap, stroking his big soft ears, tears gently rolling down our cheeks as we came to terms with his inevitable departure. He simply faded gently away and by evening he had left us. Dear boy had a wonderful fifteen years here and although very, very old indeed, about thirty eight we think, left us a well fed happy donkey, a far cry from the skinny , mangy fellow we loaded into a trailer with his balding friend, Sweep, all those years ago. We buried him beside her and once the ground allows, we will plant a walnut tree nearby to give him summer shade. He was the sweetest, most gentle fellow, friend to so many children, frequent star of Nativity and Easter Procession. We miss him badly.
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“…..we will miss him badly”

Christmas came and went, happily despite Dandy’s demise, with all the fun that children bring to the yearly ritual; decorating the tree, hanging up stockings, Father Christmas, unwrapping presents, struggling to church on Christmas morning on the ice, roast turkey, mistletoe, Christmas pud, friends, laughter, love, happiness, five dogs, crackers, chaos, treasure hunt, champagne, regular sorties to the farmyard to feed animals, kiss donkeys, play on the climbing frame, try out new roller blades, trudge through muddy icy fields, sing carols, eat too much. New Year found us with our dear old friends once again for a quiet delicious dinner; a good omen for the year ahead.
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…..a good omen for the year ahead?
This is the time of the year to gather friends around for long warming delicious lunches.; to eat comforting food, and drink wine by a log fire, to exchange stories, love and laughter till the snowdrops finally arrive and the first daffodils peer nervously above crumpled grass assuring me that spring really will roll around again.

Chicken with Garlic, Chorizo and Fennel

The Dit’sum Players came to lunch just before Christmas, some twenty two of us in all squashed up in our dining room. I cooked a huge dish of chicken with shallots, fennel. celeriac, pancetta, chorizo, potatoes, olives and whole cloves of garlic; a kind of Orvieto with Spanish overtones. It was delicious! We ate it with baked vegetables in cheese sauce, boiled potatoes and green salad followed by apricot and apple tarts, ice cream and cheese and biscuits.

For four people:

1 plump chicken thigh or drumstick per person ( allow a few extra for second helpings!)
Two or three fat chopped shallots or a large sliced onion
3 bulbs of garlic ; about20 cloves left whole and unpeeled
2 cloves of garlic crushed with salt
Large head of Fennel and 400grms celeriac both cut into match sticks
400 grms cooking Chorizo sausage sliced thickly
150ml dry white wine
150ml chicken stock (stock cube if you must!)
A few black olives
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Brown chicken pieces in olive oil. Stir in chorizo, crushed garlic and shallots ; sizzle for a few minutes to soften. Add stock and wine, stir well to deglaze pan scraping gently with a wooden spoon. Bring to steady simmer and put in a moderate oven for thirty minutes.
Meanwhile blanch fennel, whole garlic cloves and celeriac for 2 minutes , plunging all into fast boiling water.
Drain thoroughly and add to chicken and chorizo. Cook a further 10 minutes. Test chicken is cooked through.
Drain off juices and use to make veloute sauce. Melt 25gms butter in a small pan. Stir in 25grms flour off the heat then slowly add 300ml of pan juices stirring continuously till smooth. You may need to make up the quantity with extra stock. Stir over heat till thick and very hot. Continue for a couple more minutes to make sure flour is cooked.
Pour the sauce over the chicken, scatter with olives and serve.

Turkey Pie

Friends and family sat down to a huge Turkey Pie for a post Boxing Day lunch.

I chopped some shallots, a few sticks of celery and a big handful of mushrooms before quickly sautéing them in olive oil and a little butter. To this I added a handful of dried herbs, the remains of the gravy, bread sauce and chestnut stuffing with dregs of red wine from the bottom of a Christmas Day bottle. I stripped all the turkey meat from the carcass and put it in a big pie dish. I tasted the rich hot sauce, added salt and pepper then poured it over the meat. I rolled out some ready made pastry, covered the meat using my dear old blackbird chimney to let out the steam as it cooked. I decorated it with pastry flowers and leaves in the traditional way, quickly brushed it with beaten egg and put it into a hot oven 180-200c for 30-40 minutes till crisp and golden: great way to use up the turkey
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Jan 15 2010

Chicken with Garlic, Chorizo and Fennel

Our local drama group, The Dit’sum Players, came to lunch recently, some twenty two of us in all squashed up in our dining room. I cooked a huge dish of chicken with shallots, fennel, celeriac, pancetta, chorizo, potatoes, olives and whole cloves of garlic; a kind of Chicken Orvieto with Spanish overtones. It was delicious!  We ate it with baked vegetables in cheese sauce, a substantialand very nice vegetarian alternative, boiled potatoes and green salad followed bybig apricot and apple tarts, ice cream and cheese and biscuits.

For four people:

1 big free range chicken
Three of four fat chopped shallots or a large sliced onion
3 bulbs of garlic; about 20 cloves left whole and unpeeled
2 cloves of garlic crushed with salt
Large head of Fennel and 400grms celeriac both cut into match sticks
400 grms cooking Chorizo sausage sliced thickly
150ml dry white wine
150ml chicken stock made from the carcass; see making stock under soup section(or stock cube if you must!)
A few black olives
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

First joint the chicken into six pieces. Save the carcass for stock.  Brown chicken pieces in olive oil. Stir in chorizo, crushed garlic and shallots ; sizzle for a few minutes to soften. Add stock and wine, stir well to deglaze pan scraping gently with a wooden spoon. Bring to steady simmer and put in a moderate oven for thirty minutes.
Meanwhile blanch fennel, whole garlic cloves and celeriac for 2 minutes , plunging all into fast boiling water.
Drain thoroughly and add to chicken and chorizo. Cook a further 10 minutes in the oven. Test chicken is cooked through.
Drain off juices and use to makeVeloute sauce. Melt 25gms butter in a small pan. Stir in 25grms flour off the heat then slowly add 300ml of pan juices stirring continuously till smooth. You may need to make up the quantity with extra stock. Stir over heat till thick and very hot. Continue for a couple more minutes to make sure flour is cooked.
Pour the sauce over the chicken, scatter with olives and serve.

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