Bluebells and Lemon Drizzle Cake

_DSC6049For the first time in my life I might just manage to be brief. We went to Priors Wood yesterday for a walk amongst the bluebells and I’m rushing this post because I SO want you to get there too. I know that lots of you aren’t from Bristol, in fact I’m amazed when I have a peek at my blog stat’s (Oh no I’m not too neurotic about checking my “hits”, nooo not at all) and see that people are reading my ramblings in such far flung places as Colombia and New Zealand. If you do live in Britain the bluebells are in their prime right now, go, there must surely be some woodland near you? If you live elsewhere… well, I just want to show off. Yes, it rains a lot here. Yes, it’s dull, dank and unseasonably cold too much of the time, BUT where else can you find woods like these? More to the point, where else would you find lovely ladies selling homemade cakes from trestle tables in someone’s garage to raise money for the local wildlife trust?

We showed no restraint whatsoever and had coffee and cake before even setting off on the walk, it did give us time to get hold of a map and join The Avon Wildlife Trust. The cakes were all fabulous by the way, but I am a serious fan of lemon drizzle cake and it won the prize for me. I’m not going to write out a recipe, there are plenty of them around, but here’s one I’d really recommend from Felicity Cloake of the Guardian. If you want to ring the changes a little,  try adding a tiny bit of fresh rosemary to the cake- literally about 10 of the needle-like leaves chopped very, very finely (almost to a powder) and added in at the same time as the flour.

Now I’ll leave you with some pictures of the woods. Being England we did, of course, get absolutely soaked but between showers (read torrential downpours) everything had an extra glisten and the smell of damp woodland was heaven.

Real baked beans and a walk in the woods

_DSC6717Last weekend my kitchen turned into a baked bean factory. A great friend of mine, Clare Hargreaves, who runs Feast with a Chef (bringing amazing Michelin-starred chefs out to strut their stuff in a village hall),  was organising a dawn chorus walk in the woods and a fabulous breakfast to follow. Clare asked me to provide some proper baked beans to accompany the carefully sourced sausages and bacon and, since she addressed me as the “bean queen”, how could I refuse? I promised early risers that I’d post the recipe and here it is,  if you nip down to the bottom of the page.

For those of you who might need a bit of encouragement when it comes to getting out into the woods here’s a quick glimpse of our little walk earlier on today; there are bluebell woods all over Britain and now’s the time to get your wellies on. If you’re reading this blog abroad then please forgive my showing off a little, we may have plenty of dank, dark days in the UK but we get our rewards too; there really is nothing more beautiful than a glade of bluebells.

Prior’s Wood sits above the village of Portbury, just a few miles from Bristol. There are carpets of wild garlic, just beginning to flower with its lacy  white starbursts of blossom, and then the swathes of bluebells. It’s unimaginably beautiful.

There’s a carrot dangling at the end of the walk too, just to help you up the hills. Every year there’s a fabulous cake stall set up in the driveway by the footpath; villagers bake cakes in aid of St Peter’s Hospice, the church and school. Let me tell you, there’s quite a selection: fruit cakes, lemon drizzle, brownies, marmalade cake, chocolate cake, banana and chocolate chip, coffee and walnut, Victoria sponge and the cakes just keep arriving. This year we actually managed the walk before the cake, but it does take some self discipline. The cake stall will be open this year until 15th May 11am -5pm at weekends and on the bank holiday Monday ( I thoroughly recommend the banana and chocolate chip)

 

Should cakes not be your thing, or perhaps you can manage a quick cider after your cake (we did), then just a couple of miles down the lane is one of the West Country’s most glorious pubs, The Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano. It’s a proper pub that’s managed to escape the poncey -fication of recent years, no light oak and carefully placed prints, just an open fire, old chaps downing the scrumpy and the odd Adge Cutler ( he of Wurzel fame) album cover on the walls.

So that’s your next weekend’s walk and refreshments sorted and now I’d better get down to the beans.

Real Baked Beans

Serves 4 -6

750 g preferably home-cooked or 3 x 14 0z tins haricot beans
1/2 tsp English mustard powder
1 tbsp soft light brown sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
1  x 400 g can of chopped tomatoes
200 ml of good beer (I used Bath Ales – Gem)
2 small onions, peeled but left whole
4 cloves
350 g pork belly, in thick strips, rind removed
salt and pepper
Worcestershire sauce (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 140 c/275 F/Gas Mark 1

Drain your beans, if using home cooked you’ll be using the liquid as stock later, if using canned just tip the gloop away and give the beans a rinse.

Pour the beans into a large cast iron pot or casserole.

Mix up the mustard, treacle, sugar, tomatoes and beer and tip over the beans. Stud your onions with the cloves and toss those into the pot too.

Now, nestle the piece of pork down in amongst the beans with a good teaspoon of salt. Grind over plenty of black pepper.

If the beans are not completely covered with liquid then add a little bean cooking liquid or water. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid or be creative with the tin foil (you just don’t want to lose all those delicious juices) and place in the oven for 3 hours.

Remove the lid and have a taste, this is when to up the salt and pepper then, ( to play around with a dash of Worcestershire sauce if you feel the need (and usually I do). If the beans seem a little dry do add a splash of water but the end dish wants to be thick and sticky.

Pull out the pork and chop it into large chunk, stir it back into the beans and then put the pot back into the oven, uncovered this time, for another 45 minutes to an hour.

Serve with crusty bread .

Veggie Beans
The veggie beans had a sofritto of onion, carrot and celery (fried until soft in olive oil) added with the treacle etc and then were finished off with a some Shiro miso to taste. The miso is absolutely wonderful at creating that Umami  (savoury) depth of flavour.

AND PLEASE DON’T FORGET NEXT WEEKEND…….. Bristol, Food Connections Festival

Sunday May 1st –  No 1 Harbourside, 4.30-7pm
Get your pulses racing!
I’ll be taking part in a fun cook-off with a selection of local chefs. Ideas on how to make beans, lentils and chickpeas the centrepiece of so many really tastey dishes. Click here for info

Monday May 2nd – College Green, 2.00-3pm
Finger on the pulse
Ten chickpea dishes in under an hour. Family-friendly, super-tasty, cheap, healthy,  quick to prepare. Come along and let me inspire you; from simple hummus to Tuscan soup and Punjabi curry. Book here.

Wild Garlic Flower and Tomato Salad

I’m determined to make this post a short one; I’ve not got much time because I’ve been squandering it of late. I took a day away from my desk yesterday to go for a walk in the woods. I so rarely allow myself to take time out on a weekday, it’s that ridiculous Protestant work ethic we had drummed into us as children.

Well, it was glorious and now I’m determined to get out more often (I really do need a dog and then perhaps I wouldn’t feel so guilty or self indulgent).  I know that “the simple things…..” message is an old one but I often need reminding myself, so perhaps you do too?

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Prior’s Wood is just 15 minutes drive from my home in Bristol and at this time of year it’s renowned for the carpets of bluebells. The bluebells were heavenly yesterday yet I can’t help feeling that the haze of lacy, white wild garlic flowers deserve a shout too. Just like the rest of their allium cousins the flowers are arranged in glorious little star-bursty spheres and look so delicate above the lush green leaves.

The flowers aren’t just pretty , they taste fabulous too – you don’t need many to garnish a salad or a cheese plate so I’m not recommending that you set off with your empty knapsack and pick flower heads for the five thousand. Just a dozen flower heads will be plenty to serve at least four people. Have a taste, each tiny flower has a little bubble of garlicky juices that burst into your mouth as you bite.

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Wild garlic leaves are tasty too but by the time the plants are flowering they’ve often become a little bitter. So now’s the perfect season for sprinkling teeny flowers over the first of the English tomatoes, which is exactly what I did for my lunch.

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I could have added some young cheese too but those green tomatoes were spectacularly good and I wanted to savour them. So, a dash of extra virgin Arbequina olive oil and a few grains of coarse salt was all I added before garnishing with the flowers.

As I said, the simple things…..

Easter in The Languedoc – Roquefort and Walnut Salad.

Languedoc Vines and PoppiesI’m trying not to feel too blue today but I’m having a job after our chilled Easter holiday in France. I can’t believe how quickly my brain seems to get swamped by all the things I feel that I “ought”to be doing now we’re back home: the garden’s a shambles, I haven’t done my accounts for months, I have a huge pile of stuff ready to be flogged on eBay and dozens of classes to plan. If only I could just settle down for 1/2 an hour in my hammock (I’ve used it once in 2 years) with a good book and a glass of rosé and clear my brain ….but hell, the protestant work ethic kicks in and I’d be appalled with myself.

So, I’ll lose myself in a spot of reminiscing and try not to be the post-holiday bore with the blow by blow account of market trips and restaurant meals, in fact the pictures tell the story so much better. This wasn’t a Provençal boutiquey hotel vacation, we’d opted for a less fashionable (and rather cheaper) week’s hire of a slice of an old olive mill in The Languedoc. I have to say that many of the local villages have a bit more of the Carrefour tracksuit about them than Gallic chic, but with that comes a reassuring lack of nick-nack shops selling lavender bags, pottery and ludicrously expensive tapenade. Although I did, I’m almost ashamed to admit, have a bit of a lavender moment myself as you can see from my holiday purchases.

We managed a bit of beach time, some moules & frites and Imi found an ice cream shop with over 50  “parfums” …she went for the Cola (quite revolting, but then she could have gone for the terrifyingly turquoise Red Bull option). I’d definitely go to the port of Sète again, where we had fabulous Italian influenced seafood and quite the best scallop linguine that I’ve ever eaten, I’ll have a play around and give you a recipe very soon. But, rather predictably for me, the highlights of the holiday weren’t sight seeing or restaurant trips but mornings in the local markets collecting bits and pieces to eat for lunch in our shady little garden- nothing exotic just sauscisson- sec, cheese, pâté, olives, poulet rôti and very good bread. We gorged on local asparagus, radishes and strawberries and slung back PLENTY of  wine – The Languedoc region apparently produces more wine than the whole of Australia. And, I know that the French have often been a bit sniffy about rosé but there’s more and more of it produced and there’s nothing that screams holiday-in-the-sun quite so loudly for me.

I’d conveniently forgotten my bathing things for our river swimming excursion, although I did rig myself up a dodgy suit out of a sarong (pictures will not be published) but Imi swam and Peter did the lifeguard bit in the icy waters at Roquebron. The town is a magical place with a beautiful old bridge across the river, a sort of stony river-beach and a microclimate that allows oranges, lemons and plenty of Mediterranean plants to thrive despite the distance from the coast.

Once we finally sat down at Le Petit Nice Restaurant  over looking the river it was suprisingly hot and all I felt like eating was a salad . It’s years since I’ve had a Roquefort and walnut salad and it just reminded me that it really is a fabulous mix, the sheep’s cheese (which incidentally comes from the Languedoc too and could even be the elixir of life if you believe what you read ) is really sharp and salty so you don’t want much. You probably don’t need a recipe – but just in case? (and it does give me an excuse to have some for lunch)

Roquefort and Walnut Salad  ( for 2)

3-4 large handfuls of salad leaves – preferably including a bit of radicchio for some colour and a touch of bitterness.
150 g of walnut halves
150 g Roquefort cheese

For the dressing: 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1-2 tbsp red wine vinegar, 1 tsp Dijon mustard, 1/2 – 1 tsp honey, salt and black pepper

No rocket science required here- just shake up the dressing in a jar and balance it well, keeping in mind that the cheese is sharp and salty.

Toss the salad leaves around in a bowl with the dressing, then divide between the plates and sprinkle over the cheese and walnuts.

Suggestions– Now I did love the fact that the salad was SO very simple, and we Brits do often tend to overcomplicate things, but the salad would be very good indeed with
– Some smoked lardons and sourdough croutons (fried up in the bacon fat) -sprinkled over whilst warm.
– Ripe pear and a few chopped chives.
– Roasted beetroot, roasted red onions and a few cooked Puy lentils

And here we are enjoying our salad OUTSIDE in the English sunshine- birdies cheeping, bluebells out and Crab apple blossom on it’s way. You’ll be pleased to see that Peter is sporting some French holiday footwear (with socks of course!)

And, just in case you’re heading to The Languedoc anytime soon here were a few of my highlights-
Pézenas has a fabulous Saturday market, loads of giftee shopees but still a stunning town.
Sète was a real surprise for me,  a bustling port with loads of canals and bridges and really., really great seafood.
St Chinian has one of those dappled-shady market squares ( Thursday and Sunday market),  beautiful little back streets and very chilled atmosphere. A.O.C also home to some great red wines.
Roquebron – I’ve mentioned above and is really worth a visit (don’t forget your swimming things)

A Walk in the Woods, Wild Garlic Risotto & Other Stories

It felt as if it might rain at any moment  last Saturday but I was determined to collect my ramsons, as the wild garlic leaves are often known. In fact wild garlic has many common names such as wood garlic, buck rams, bear leek and even stinking Jenny (which sadly reminds me of my childhood nickname, Smelly Jenny, that was always banded about at Christmas when I just couldn’t leave the Stilton cheese alone) I’d been planning a trip to the woods ever since Jules asked me for some wild garlic recipes during a most fabulous dinner at Bell’s Diner a couple of weeks ago (there’s another blog post – I promise). So this post is for you Jules.

The damp air magnified all those incredible deeply earthy, vegetal smells of woodland and everything was so lush. The new beech leaves were that almost fluorescent green that lasts just a few weeks. Then, once we reached the sweeping carpet of wild garlic, the ground seemed an unnaturally vibrant shade of Pantone green, the sort of colour that Imi might paint a picture of a jungle. Old stone walls were blanketed in feathery moss, it was simply stunning and the waft of garlic almost overwhelming. The wild garlic is apparently an indicator of ancient woodland just like the bluebells that so often grow alongside – how amazing to think that this scene has probably changed so little over the centuries. It will be a picture here in a couple of weeks time too, with the white garlic flowers and the huge swathes of lilacy bluebells, but you’re best to pick the garlic now as the leaves do become more bitter as the season goes on.

I’m always dreaming of getting a dog, firstly because I adore them but also because they make you take the time out for a walk, and I just don’t do it often enough. The garlic hunt brought my friend Kate, me and our girls out into the woods on a day when you’d probably never have planned a stroll-  it seemed so gloomy and threatening and yet it was breathtaking. So get out there, come rain or shine, but do be a bit careful that you are picking garlic and not the rather similar Lily of the Valley. The smell will shout garlic at you and each leaf grows from a separate stalk where as the toxic Lily of the Valley leaves grow 2 or 3 leaves to a stem.

DSC_9617And what to do with your booty? I was planning on making and photographing a number of different dishes but I’m afraid we kept eating them before I got a chance to whip out the camera. The wild garlic leaves give a more chivey taste than the more familiar bulbs of garlic we buy all year round and I particularly love this flavour in anything  to do with eggs.
So here are a few ideas to set you on your way.

  • French Omelette- ( for 2) fry 1/2 a diced onion in a blend of olive oil and butter. Beat 4 eggs up with a splash of milk, pinch of salt and a handful of sliced wild garlic. Add the softened onions to the mix and then fry 1/2 of the mixture at a time in a small omelette pan. Grate over a little cheese such as mature cheddar as you are frying. (Don’t forget that omelettes are fab’ cold  in sandwiches – the Spanish do it all the time) Throw some into a Spanish tortilla with the potato or an Italian frittata with some courgettes and parmesan.
  • Scrambled Eggs – obvious but delicious all the same. Chop up a good handful of garlic leaves into ribbons and stir into the scrambled eggs for the last minute of cooking (just enough for the garlic to wilt.
  • Risotto- I’m being lazy but assuming that most of you probably have a basic risotto up your sleeve ( I should probably have done the same for the omelette!) Just stir a good handful of sliced ramsons (per 2 portions) into the rice a couple of minutes before you finish the cooking. I fried up my left over risotto the next day too…. Add a couple of eggs to the cold risotto to bind the mixture and throw in a bit of extra parmesan. Fry in a flat cake in your omelette pan, flip over using a plate and brown the other side too and serve with a tomato salad.
  • Pesto – Try substituting garlic leaves for the basil in a traditional pesto recipe. I like to make the pesto using Pecorino rather than Parmesan in this case. Don’t just use this for pasta, try it blobbed into soups or stews too.

I’m planning on coming up with a few more adventurous recipes over the next few weeks (Kate had a wonderful wild garlic bread and butter pudding in the Tyntesfield Café)  but I’m desperate to get this post off tonight and entice you into a bit of foraging whilst the garlic’s at its best.

And a little reminder to all you West Country-ites – there’s a BIG food festival happening in Bristol next month. I have a couple of classes here, on May 6th Eat your Way to a Healthier Lifestyle and May 7th  Spring into Summer. Take a peek at the full line up of events on the Bristol Food Connections website

Bristol Food Connections