Thursday, 18 December 2014

Damien Trench’s Parkin and This Year’s Kitchen Music

It's about time that I paid due homage to the man widely recognised as this country's finest food writer and cook - Damien Trench. I believe that he'll be on the radio this Christmas and there's a rumour that he may grace our television screens at some point next year. I can't tell you how difficult it is to contain my excitement at the thought of it.

As a tribute to the great man I decided to make his recipe for parkin. I've hardly baked anything this year due to a lack of time and the fact that pretty much everybody I know is constantly on a diet, but surely I'm allowed at least one treat at this time of the year. I don't want to infringe Mr Trench's copyright by presenting his recipe in full but, suffice it to say, if you take this fine Tate and Lyle recipe, adjust the ratio of oatmeal and flour to favour the flour, adjust the milk up and the syrup down, use fresh rather than dried ginger and bake it for less time, then you’re pretty near it. I'm sure that the detailed recipe will appear in the next volume of Mr Trench's Diaries.
But enough of this cake-based enjoyment. I'm afraid that we’re now faced with the grim inevitability of my annual self-indulgence in the music that I've loved in the kitchen for the last 12 months.  Sorry about that.

Once upon a time knowing what music to play when people came round for dinner was so much easier. These days there's just far too much choice. In the late 1970s if you played anything other than Fleetwood Mac then the police kept watch on your house. In the latter part of 1984 it briefly became illegal to have a gathering of more than 3 people without playing Sade's ‘Diamond Life’. So do I have a suggestion for music for a modern gathering? You might as well ask if Jamie Oliver likes to drizzle – of course I do. I'd suggest Woman’s Hour (the band not the radio programme) for any informal gathering. The music is assured, stylish and relaxed. Their excellent first album ‘Conversations’ was released this year.

If that leaves you with a need for more stylish and assured music, then try PHOX, who released their début album this year. There was also a fine album 'Days Of Abandon' by the excellently named The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. I can't resist including this little clip because it's exactly like most evenings round at my house.

There was some very fine, old-style song writing and singing from the Australian Stu Larsen on the album 'Vagabond'. (If you have some spare time for more fine song writing then please give the gentle album ‘Home’ from the tea-drinking Icelander Hafdis Huld a try.)

This year also saw the release of the ‘Lights Out’ album from Bishop Allen, a band that’s been a favourite of mine for a number of years now. And if that’s all too English language for you, then there’s always Tourista from Peru. But in line with a short-lived tradition, here's my  favourite French song of the year to end with - ‘Transhumance’ from the album ‘Hirundo’ by Dominique Dalcan.

I'm off for a relaxing cup of tea and a revivingly delicious piece of parkin. Oh my actual goodness as Mr Trench has been known to say.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Tangerine Gin

This is a seasonal drink that's very easy to make, tastes lovely and might even be described as festive if I were the festive type. I decided to make some when I was thinking about how much I missed Belfast gin. There are some very fine gins available, but back in the 1980s Belfast gin with its citrus flavour was always my favourite. Sadly I believe the gin disappeared sometime in the 1990s. This is definitely not a recreation of Belfast gin, it’s just inspired by it. In fact it’s more a way of producing a posh and expensive tasting liqueur without spending too much time or money. Once the Seville oranges arrive in the country you can use those in place of the tangerines.

This is quite an old recipe - there's a version of it in the Ocklye cookbook of 1908, for instance - but it deserves a revival. You can drink a little nip as a winter warmer, mix it with tonic or sparkling water for a longer drink or add it to cocktails. The tangerine combines well with lemon or with summery flavours like elderflower and some people mix it with ginger ale, although I'm personally less convinced about that. You can even sprinkle a little tangerine gin onto desserts or ice creams. Like quite a few liqueurs this is relatively sweet so cut down on the sugar if you prefer a more gin-like flavour.
Tangerine Gin
For any readers of my generation out there please note that it's Tangerine Gin and not Tangerine Dream. I can't guarantee that even after a few snifters of this gin you won't be running from the room should anyone press play on the Phaedra album.

8 or 9 tangerines
175 g granulated sugar
Half a bottle (375 ml) gin (a neutral, but pleasant gin - a cheap one should be fine)

Wash and dry the tangerines. Sterilise a suitable jar or container (allow a bit of room in the jar for shaking the contents). Use a fine vegetable peeler to remove the outer peel of the tangerines and place in the jar. (Try to avoid peeling any pith from the tangerines, although a small amount won't do any real harm.) Add the sugar, pour over the gin and seal the jar tightly. Shake the jar to dissolve the sugar.

Put the jar to one side for 4 or 5 days but shake the jar whenever you remember it (at least 3 or 4 times a day would be good). After those long days have passed, filter the gin through muslin and pour into a nice bottle. Seal, label and put into a cupboard. (It's possible to leave the peel in for much longer for a stronger and more matured flavour, but I'm not sure that’s the way I like it).

Now in theory, even after filtering out the peel, you should leave the gin to mellow for a while before drinking. There are some old recipes that suggest leaving it for a year or two. Well, that's a nice idea but a bit unlikely in my house. I promise you that it still makes a very pleasing drink after just 3 or 4 weeks in the bottle.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Turnips with Vinegar and Maple Syrup

The other day I put my Panama hat away in the trunk marked “Not Needed In Winter”, my butler poured me an autumn Armagnac and I found myself looking back on this year’s crop from what I laughingly call my vegetable patch. It was probably a decent return for very little effort. (Mind you, I'm still very grateful that there’s a large pick your own farm just up the road).

The homegrown vegetable that I've enjoyed most has probably been the humble turnip. I've wittered on about quick growing turnips before, but I'm still very impressed by them and I can’t understand why they’re not more widely grown. I get most of my seed from France where they’re grown far more often but small British varieties can give an excellent return as well.

This is a sweet and sour take on the turnip which is very simple but does rely on the use of good, small turnips as well as decent quality vinegar and maple syrup. You can use any sort of wine vinegar but one made from a sweet wine or sherry works particularly well. I used a vinaigre de Banyuls (not an expensive one) in this recipe, but that’s a bit obscure outside of France so a sherry vinegar or a mix of cheapish balsamic with a standard white wine vinegar would do nicely instead.
Turnips With Vinegar and Maple Syrup
This will serve 2 as a generous side dish.

350 g small turnips
3 tbsp wine or sherry vinegar (see above)
vegetable stock
2 tbsp maple syrup
a generous squeeze of lemon juice

Peel the turnips and cut into small chunks. Season and fry the chunks in a small amount of butter until they start to take on a little colour. Stir in the vinegar and add just enough vegetable stock to cover the turnips. Cover the pan loosely and simmer until the turnips are almost completely tender. The time this stage takes will depend on the size of the chunks and the age of the turnips, but 15 - 20 minutes will be about right for fresh, young turnips in smallish pieces.

Once the turnips reach the almost tender stage, remove the lid and increase the heat to reduce the liquid in the pan until there’s only around 2 tablespoons of it remaining. Stir in the maple syrup and continue cooking and stirring until the turnips are coated evenly with the sauce. Finish with the lemon juice and adjust the seasoning. A little extra black pepper added at the end is usually a good thing.
Vinegar and Maple Syrup

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Soupe à la Bière

Every year at around this time Le Festival Des Soupes et Des Pains (The Festival of Soup and Bread) is held either in or around Montreuil-sur-Mer, but I've heard that apparently this year’s event had to be cancelled. So I thought I'd put this soup together to compensate myself in a small way for that loss. (Not that I could have been there physically, but I definitely intended to be there in spirit.)

There are many types of beer soup across the north of France as well as in Belgium and northern Germany. Some versions seem to me to be little more than beer warmed up with a bit of seasoning but this version is closer to a northern French recipe using some of the fine root veg from the area. I roast the veg to concentrate the flavour although I doubt that roasting is very traditional. 

This type of soup is very often served with croutons and grated cheese. Typically the cheese would be gouda or emmental although you can use whatever hard cheese you fancy - some cheddars would be a good option. Given the choice, though, I'd probably go for a mimolette. The Bernard brothers produce a particularly fine mimolette at Wierre-Effroy, which is just a little way down the road from Montreuil. (I've referred to the brothers before but I felt guilty for not mentioning their very fine mimolette).

If you're expecting the kind of subtly flavoured French soup that you might find in a refined French restaurant then think again. This soup has a strong and distinctive flavour and, for that reason, I think it's best served in small bowls as a winter starter. The amounts given here will provide you with 4 starter portions. Of course, if you really love beer, then by all means have a large bowl.
Soupe à la Bière

3 average or 5 small carrots (I used small chantenay carrots) - a total weight of between 200 g and 250 g
1 leek
1 large or 2 small shallots
½ tsp sugar
250 ml bière blonde (use an interesting lager if you can’t find a French bière blonde)
300 ml chicken stock, plus another 100 ml on standby just in case the soup needs it (use a vegetable stock if you prefer, but chicken stands up better to the beer flavour)
4 - 8 tbsp crème fraîche
100 g hard cheese (see above)
A few thin slices of baguette for croutons

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Wash and peel or scrape the carrots (if they need it) and cut them into large chunks. If you’re using smaller carrots, then cutting them in half lengthways should be enough. Coat the carrot pieces in a little oil and place on an oven tray. Wash the leek, dry it and place it on the oven tray alongside the carrots. You don’t need to do anything else to the leek. Put the tray in the oven and roast for around 30 minutes until the carrots are almost completely tender and the leek has softened and collapsed a little. (Don’t worry if the leek looks a little brown or even burnt on the outside; you don’t need the outside leaves.)

Chop the shallot finely and, using a large pan, soften it slowly in a little butter. While that’s happening remove and discard the base, the outer leaves and any coarse green part of the leek. Chop the softened leek and carrot pieces roughly. Once the shallot has softened add the leek and carrots to the pan, season and pour in the beer and stock. Stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil, cover loosely, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Liquidise and adjust the seasoning. You may also need to add a little more sugar if the beer is a less sweet variety. Add a little extra stock if the soup is too thick. Pour into bowls and stir in as much of the crème fraîche as you think the soup needs. Don’t skimp on the crème fraîche: it’s an important part of the soup and not simply a garnish.

Fry or toast the slices of baguette to use as croutons and grate your chosen cheese on top of the croutons or into a small bowl to serve alongside the soup.


By the way, if you've never been to Montreuil-sur-Mer and feel that you might be tempted to visit one day (after all it’s less than an hour’s drive from the tunnel) then it might be helpful if I point out a few random things:
  • First, it’s not ‘sur mer’. It hasn't been ‘sur mer’ since roughly the end of the middle ages. The access to the sea silted up about then, but why change a perfectly good town name?
A Montreuil Walk
  • Second, it’s been described as the Carcassonne of the North. Well, it has impressive ramparts and I can recommend a bracing stroll around them but if you compare it to Carcassonne then I’ll have to put on my doubtful face. It’s not as elaborate, it’s not as touristy and it’s not as fairytale. It’s more like a real northern French town with added ramparts.
Montreuil Ramparts
  • Third, it has a surprising number of cobbles.
Street Scenes in Montreuil
  • Fourth (and this might be less helpful), I'm rather fond of the place, even if the festival of soup has been cancelled.

Monday, 6 October 2014


I'm lucky enough to live only a short distance from the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley. Towards autumn they often sell some of the fruit grown in the garden and that means a chance to try some of the more traditional and rare varieties that you’ll never find in a supermarket. And that’s how I ended up with a fine bowlful or two of apples and pears. With that much fruit on hand, I thought that a flognarde might be called for.
Apples from Wisley
I've come across some versions of this dessert that seem like an attempt to make uninspiring apples a bit more interesting. But if you start with interesting apples or pears, then it’s so much better than that. The flognarde (or flaugnarde) appears to have started life in the Limousin region of France, although it turns up in other places such as the Périgord too. You might be tempted to ask what’s the difference between a flognarde and a clafoutis with apples in it, but please don't - that question gives me a headache.

There's a little drop of rum in this recipe and I know that will put some people off. Rum just doesn't seem to be a popular flavour these days. You could leave it out altogether or substitute some calvados but please try the rum if you have some lying around because it adds a lot to the overall taste in my very biased opinion.

I used a 24 cm square tin that was sold as a Yorkshire pudding tin on this occasion. This size will give quite a thin centre to the flognarde, but that’s the way I like it (and the way that I first came across it). Some people like a thicker result and so use a smaller tin if you prefer. Don’t use a loose bottom or springform tin, though, because the batter is thin and likely to leak.
I reckon that this will serve 8 people but 6 is more realistic if you have hungry friends.

For the fruit:
     30 g butter
     2 - 3 tbsp caster sugar (depends on how sweet your apples or pears might be)
     4 apples or a mixture of apples and pears - peeled, cored and sliced

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the caster sugar and the apples or pears and cook gently for five minutes or so. Stir now and then to ensure that the fruit is coated in buttery juices but don’t allow it to break up. Set aside.

For the batter:
     80 g plain flour
     ½ tsp baking powder (this probably isn't traditional, but I think it helps the texture)
     60 g caster sugar, plus a bit extra for dusting the tin
     4 eggs, lightly beaten
     1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
     1 tbsp melted butter
     2 tbsp dark rum
     150 ml milk (whole milk is probably best but semi-skimmed will be OK)
     20 g softened butter
     1 - 2 tbsp caster sugar for sprinkling on top of the flognarde

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Butter a suitable pie dish or oven tray (see above) and coat with a light dusting of caster sugar. Mix the sugar and flour together in a large bowl.

Whisk the eggs, vanilla paste, melted butter and rum together and then whisk this mixture into the flour and sugar mix. Gradually whisk in the milk, while doing your very best to avoid any lumps. Stir in the apples (or whatever fruit mixture you’re using). (If there’s a lot of juice, then you don’t need to add it all). Pour the mixture into the prepared tin or dish.

Break the softened butter into small pieces and dot them over the top of the batter. If you can, avoid putting any of the butter too near to the edges of the tin.  Bake in the oven for around 30 minutes. The centre should be set, but still soft and the top should be browned in places, especially at the edges. (Personally, I think the slightly crisper edges are the best bit).

Sprinkle with an additional tablespoon or two of caster sugar as you take it out of the oven. If you’re serving this hot from the oven then it’s best cut into pieces before removing from the tin. If not, allow the flognarde to cool in the tin and then the whole thing can be lifted out carefully and divided up appropriately.

This dish is usually served hot, ideally straight from the oven, but I think it’s also pretty good at room temperature or even chilled. A little crème fraîche or cream would be nice alongside, but it’s not essential. I know that some die-hard flognarde fans even like a room temperature slice for breakfast the next day and, actually, I reckon that’s not a bad idea.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Tarte au Maroilles – The Lazy Person’s Guide

Bonjour tertous ! OK. that's just about all the ch'ti I can speak but I thought it was about time for a ch'ti recipe. After all, it's from just across the channel so it's almost a local dish.

In case you're not familiar with Maroilles, it's a soft cow's milk cheese with an orange rind that's made in northern France. Those simple facts sound harmless enough but there's a little more to it than that. The aroma of Maroilles can be scary. If you don't eat it quickly, it could start to set off fire alarms and endanger low-flying aircraft. On the other hand, it tastes great. As well as being a fine addition to the cheese board, it’s also a superb cheese for cooking.

One of the commonest dishes using this pushy little cheese is the Tarte au Maroilles. You can find different versions of this tarte around Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy but the most traditional form has a yeasted dough base rather than a layer of pastry. Think of it as a sort of enriched pizza dough. (I've now upset everyone from the north of France by saying that).

If you can’t get hold of any Maroilles, then you could substitute another cheese.  If you happen to venture into the Boulonnais region then you could do worse than to look for some of the cheeses made by the Bernard brothers in Wierre-Effroy. The Fruité du Cap Gris Nez would be ideal but the Fleur d’Audresselles or the Fort d’Ambleteuse would also do very nicely indeed. (As usual I should point out that I've no connection with the brothers and haven't received anything for nothing. I just like their cheeses.) Failing that use a cheese that isn't too soft and ripe but does have a powerful flavour: Chaumes, Reblochon or Pont-l'Évêque come to mind.

This is not a difficult dish to make but, if you happen to have a bread making machine, then it will need remarkably little effort. (The dough's not difficult to make without a machine, if you'd prefer to remain traditional). I use a Panasonic bread machine and it recommends the addition of the ingredients in the order I've given here, but follow the instructions for your particular breadmaker since the recommended order is often reversed.
Tarte au Maroilles
You can serve the tarte hot or cold, but I think it’s at its best when warm and accompanied by a green salad. This makes one 25 – 26 cm tarte, which should serve at least 8 as a starter, or 6 as a lunch.

For the base:
     ½ tsp easy bake fast action dried yeast
     300 g strong white flour
     ½ tsp salt
     2 tsp caster sugar
     15 g softened butter
     1 egg, beaten
     100 ml milk
     20 ml water
For the topping:
     300 g Maroilles
     200 ml crème fraîche
     1 egg
     Plenty of pepper, a little salt, a sprinkle of paprika and a pinch or two of ground cumin

Add all of the base ingredients to the breadmaker in the order recommended by your manufacturer. If your machine has a pizza dough setting then use it, but, if not, use the basic dough setting. Once the program is complete, you should have a light, slightly sticky dough. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover and leave to prove in a warm place for 45 – 60 minutes.

Butter a 25 cm or 26 cm diameter pie dish. (The tarte topping tends to bubble up more than you might expect and so a deeper dish is no bad thing.) Knock the dough back and roll it out until it covers the base of the pie dish. Some recipes suggest that you should fully line the dish by spreading the dough up the sides, but I was told in Picardy that it should remain flat.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Slice the Maroilles quite thinly and cover the dough base with the cheese. You don’t have to remove the rind of the cheese, but unless the cheese is very fresh then I think it’s better if you do. Beat the egg and stir it into the crème fraîche. Season this mixture with the pepper, salt, paprika and cumin. (The paprika and cumin aren't traditional, but they do add a little extra something). Pour the mixture onto the tarte and spread it out to cover the whole of the surface (you don’t need to be too fussy or precise about this). Bake in the oven for 30 – 35 minutes or until the top is golden and puffed up.
Tarte au Maroilles
I will be forever grateful to Richard of ‘Maison de Plumes’ in Heuchin for persuading me to try Maroilles for the first time a few years ago. (Of course, I'm sure that he would never sink so low as to use a breadmaker).

Friday, 8 August 2014

Slow Cooker Carrot, Lemon and Almond Chutney

I'm a fan of slow cookers but I often seem to forget about them except when making casseroles of one kind or another. They're much more useful than that. Using the slow cooker for chutneys means that you don’t need to watch them too carefully but, even better than that, the slow cooking seems to blend and enrich the flavours exceptionally well. On the down side, it’s very difficult to give precise instructions on timings for slow cookers and I think it's quite tricky to get the amount of liquid in a preserve recipe correct. Slow cookers seem to vary a great deal, not only in the temperatures they reach, but also in the amount of liquid they tend to lose while cooking. So, it’s possible that after the initial cooking period you may need to transfer the chutney to a conventional pan and boil it for a short while to get the desired consistency.

This particular chutney is a classic combination but it’s one that works very well with a range of different foods and that seems to lend itself very well to slow cooking. You do need to allow time for the flavours to blend, so it’s best to make this chutney over a two-day period. Like just about any chutney the flavour is likely to improve after it’s been stored for a week or two, although this particular chutney is pretty good even if eaten straightaway. This amount will fill roughly 2 conventional jam jars or 4 small ones, although this will depend a little bit on how much you thicken the chutney before putting it in the jars. I feel confident that this will store very well for many months but, to be honest, so far I've just gobbled it down too quickly to be certain of that.
Carrot Lemon and Almond Chutney
500 g finely grated carrots
60 g ginger, peeled and either finely grated or reduced to a purée in a processor
300 g caster sugar
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp salt
Zest of 2 lemons, finely grated
Juice of 2 lemons
50 ml runny honey
100 ml cider vinegar
40 g flaked almonds

Mix the grated carrot, ginger and caster sugar together and stir in the coriander, cumin, chilli flakes, pepper, salt and lemon zest. Pour the lemon juice, honey and vinegar into a jug and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour over the carrot mixture. Cover and leave overnight. (If you really can’t wait that long, then allow a few hours at least).

The next day, stir the mixture and cook in the slow cooker on its ‘High’ setting for 2½ hours. At the end of this time, the carrots should have softened a fair bit, without falling apart and the flavours should have combined and intensified. At this stage, check how much the liquid has reduced. If the chutney has thickened sufficiently, then stir in the almonds and leave to cook for a further 15 minutes or so. If the chutney still has too much liquid for your taste, then transfer it to a saucepan and boil it for a few minutes before adding the almonds and simmering briefly. The chutney will thicken somewhat as it cools.

Allow the chutney to cool slightly before spooning it into sterilised jars. Seal the jars and store somewhere cool and dark.


Happily, this month’s Slow Cooker Challenge hosted by Janice at Farmersgirl Kitchen is for preserves and so I'm duly offering this as an entry.