Good food for everyone

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Such diversity – of people and produce

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, last week I made one of my occasional visits to the Friday morning fruit and veg market stall in Newcastle Emlyn. It’s always good to get there early for the biggest choice, so I was home by ten past eight (although it did mean I missed my early morning swim). It’s a great way to buy cheap fresh veg, especially in an area like this where we don’t have the sort of permanent, diverse market that I knew when I was growing up in Leeds. There, Kirkgate Market  is an amazing place to buy all sorts of food, from game and meat to fish and fruit, not forgetting all the range of vegetables and pretty much anything else you might want to own. The place was characterised by the cries of the stallholders and I can’t hear a yell of ‘getcher caulis ‘ere’ without being transported back to the sights and smells of the market. If you want to get a feel for the place, the reviews posted here give a good flavour. I have clear memories of my mother shopping there regularly – the open air greengrocers’ stalls were right at the bottom by the bus station, so we bought fruit and veg last on any shopping trip to minimise the distance it had to be carried (these were the days when families had no more than one car and women went shopping on the bus).

Although the Friday stall is not easy to access by public transport, it’s still well used. There are people buying their weekly greengroceries, people shopping for catering supplies, people buying in bulk for preservation (like me). It doesn’t seem to attract a particular sort of clientele. Everyone in the town knows it and it’s always busy… even at 7:30am when they still haven’t finished pricing everything up! And people like me are happy to drive there from the surrounding area.

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we should all have access to this

Recently, in contrast, I read a post by Steven Croft about the exclusivity of farmers’ markets. He cited Jessica Paddock’s research which found that “predominantly working class people consider themselves to be out of place and possibly not welcome at farmers’ markets”. It saddens me that something which should connect producers directly with consumers has become divisive and too expensive (or at least perceived as such) for everyone to benefit from. “Normal” markets seem to be thought of differently. The Friday stall is not run by a producer, but by a greengrocer, and the customers do not seem to fit into any particular category… other than that they’ve all got up early!

I wonder how we best connect growers with consumers and make that connection seem normal. Neither consumers nor producers seem to benefit much from supermarkets other than in terms of convenience. All the packaging and hidden processing associated with supermarket produce cannot be a good thing for either people or the planet. Buying direct would certainly address this issue and others, but the mechanisms are challenging and the logistics within both rural and urban areas are problematic. So, all I can say is support your growers whenever you can and don’t be intimidated by farmers’ markets – they are not entirely full of hipsters seeking out venison and cranberry sausages and locally grown quinoa (pronounced keen-wah, you know!).

If you are interested in equity, ethics and sustainability with respect to production and access to food, there are some interesting articles on the Sustainable Food Trust’s web site.

A souper weekend

Over the summer we often have eggs at lunchtime, but as laying declines in the autumn and the weather turns colder I start to crave warming soups. I years long distant, I might have opened a tin, but my tastes have changed and now I just want home-made soups. Whilst I sometimes use meat stocks, most of my soups are vegetable-based. So, on Friday I went and bought in bulk from the regular stall in Newcastle Emlyn:

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my ‘haul’

I’ve spent much of the weekend in the kitchen. I started off with spicy parsnip soup – a Jane Grigson recipe. She is one of my favourite cookery writers and her ‘Vegetables’ book is pure inspiration. Second, I made spicy roasted pepper soup using a recipe from Riverford, but with a few modifications, including using yellow and orange peppers rather than red ones. Third, I made leek and potato soup – no specific recipe for this one, just leeks, onions, potatoes, chicken stock and water. Fourth, I made sweet potato and roasted pepper soup – inspired by, but not exactly the same as a recipe from a Women’s Institute cookbook. After this I’d still got ingredients left, so I made more spicy parsnip and more roasted pepper. I still have plenty more veg and I also have a freezer drawer full of portions of soup for two.

Buying in bulk means that the ingredients are very cheap and having room for storage means that I can take advantage of this; but also knowing what to do with all these raw ingredients is important. I worry that people who don’t know how to prepare fresh foods are stuck in a trap of being forced to rely on processed and pre-prepared meals. A friend mentioned the other day that at school in ‘cookery’ classes, all her son learned was how to put toppings on a pizza base and all about the dangers of cooking food for himself (hygiene issues, food poisoning etc). She said that he was so frightened by the horror stories of what could go wrong when preparing food, that he daren’t cook for himself any more. I could weep, but instead I will continue to share recipes and inspiration, to share home cooked food with my family and friends and to encourage everyone to cook their own food whenever possible.

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many lunches to look forward to

A supply problem

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non-homogenised milk… complete with cream

The best laid plans are often scuppered by circumstances beyond our control… and so it has been this year with my cheese-making.

I love making cheese and I was happily enjoying doing it using milk from a farm just down the road until the summer. And then it all came to an end. The milk I was using was linked to a food-poisoning scare at the local farmers’ market and sales ceased. Now, we and many other local people had been drinking and using this milk for over a year without incident, including during the time the problem occurred. I haven’t been able to find out whether there was any conclusive link between the milk and the food poisoning, but the upshot is that the farm has stopped selling raw milk and have not yet decided whether they will ever start again. Whilst this should have been nothing more than a set-back for me, it’s actually turned out to have completely scuppered my home cheese-making.

The real problem is that, to make cheese, you need non-homogenised milk. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pasteurised or not, but it mustn’t be homogenised… which almost all commercially available milk is. I hunted the internet, but I’m not having much joy. You can buy it from a posh supermarket that we don’t live anywhere near, but it really isn’t commonly available. I thought that I had found another local farm to buy it from, but further investigation revealed that their milk too was homogenised.

I can only assume that homogenisation is so common because it allows milk sellers to control exactly how much butterfat there is in the milk. Sadly, it means our milk is one further step removed from being ‘natural’ and so I can’t make cheese. The other depressing upshot is that our milk for general use is now arriving in plastic packaging – something I had completely eliminated by collecting our milk in my churn direct from the tank on the farm.

So, my quest continues and in the mean time, I’ll have to buy my cheese ready-made, and eat the stock I’ve already got maturing.

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fortunately, this monster is now in the fridge maturing

The fruits of my labours

Knowing what goes into the food that I eat is very important for me. Whilst we do buy a few ready-made foods, I tend to cook most things from scratch and I love using fresh ingredients. Since this isn’t always possible, I work hard over the summer and autumn to fill my store cupboard with bottles and jars of provisions to see us through the year. Today I’ve done the last of the apple juicing for this year and now all I have are a few fresh cooking apples to use over the coming weeks and a bowl of eating apples to enjoy fresh. The preserving is mostly done for now.

So, I’d like to present this year’s store cupboard:IMGP4380Not bad, eh?

Finessing my affinage

Affinage? That’s maturing your cheese once it’s made.

In my experience, this is where the real skill is when making cheese. Up to this point you are scrupulously clean,  follow a recipe, watch your pH and handle your cheese appropriately – trying to standardise as far as possible from one batch to another to avoid variations in your end product. But what you do next can turn a simple cheese into a masterpiece. At this point, variations in temperature, humidity and surface treatment can create wildly different cheeses even from a single batch.

This was exactly the point of bringing home the four small brie cheeses that we made this week. Each of us has four cheeses and each of us is going to record what we do with them and report back.

A. is going to keep things simple and taste hers at different ages, although she might decide to try something different with one or two of them. P. is going to taste one at a young stage, surface treat one of hers with extra white mould (there’s already some in the cheese) and keep the other two under slightly different temperature regimes to see whether they develop differently. My four cheeses are going to be treated as follows:

  1. Charcoal-coated, kept at about 10-12C
  2. As-is, kept at about 10-12C
  3. As-is, for 3 weeks at about 10-12C, then tasting and trial storage in oil (with herbs?)
  4. As-is for 3 weeks at about 10-12C, then wrapped in calvados-soaked nasturtium leaves and matured for a further 3-4 weeks at 10-12C

Ash-coating of cheeses is common on the continent and I have enjoyed eating many such products, so the first treatment makes use of some food-grade charcoal powder that I already have. The third treatment is the sort of thing that you do with feta and I thought it might result in a good flavour. The final treatment is my most experimental, but using alcohol-soaked edible leaves or flowers is an approach used by various artisan cheese makers. I toyed with using nasturtium flowers rather than leaves, but I decided that they were a bit delicate for a first try, although I may give them a go in the future. The leaves are currently macerating in calvados, where they will stay until I’m ready to wrap the cheese.

As for the big cheese, I’m keeping it simple. It’s currently on a rack drying at room temperature. By tomorrow the surface should be nice and dry and it should no longer be weeping any whey. I’m then going to use cheese coating on it – this is a breathable coating that protects the cheese from unwanted micro-organism contamination, but still allows the production of a rind with surface growth. I’ve never used it before, but the cheese is so big that it would be difficult to wax, and a challenge to store without risking surface contamination.

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It’s like waiting for cheese to dry!

Over the coming weeks I will report back about progress… wish me luck!

 

The big cheese (and the little cheeses)

So, about those large quantities of cheese in yesterday’s post…

I’ve been making cheese at home for a few years now. All my learning has been gained from books – until this week I’d never actually been shown the process by a real person and I’d never had the opportunity to ask questions. This week all that changed, when I went for two day’s training at The Food Centre Wales. Just 25 minutes from home, this amazing resource provides training and support for small-scale food producers in Wales, as well as having a R&D facility which can also be hired for production. I was lucky enough to be able to arrange training under the auspices of the Welsh Government’s Project HELIX, which is intended to support small and medium business in the food sector in Wales… including people like me who are at a very early stage of considering setting up a business.

I invited two friends who have smallholdings to join me and Tuesday saw us donning hair nets, white coats and white wellington boots to start our cheese-making adventure. We weren’t doing this small scale, either. The plan was to make two types of cheese – a hard Tomme-style cheese and a soft brie-style cheese. The first we made using 100 litres of milk and the second using 50 litres. These are tiny quantities if you are working on a commercial scale, but a huge step up from making cheese in a home kitchen like I normally do.

So we weighed cultures and mixed and added rennet and left the curd to rest and stirred, and waited and drained and filled moulds. We talked about pH and different cultures and temperatures and affinage. We turned our cheeses (the hard ones in big moulds once and the soft ones in small moulds twice) and then we went home with our heads full of new information, leaving our cheeses to drain (Brie-style) or in the big press (Tomme-style).

We returned the following day to take our cheeses out. We salted the small ones with dry salt and we made up brine for the big ones… which needed to be soaked for a total of 37 hours!

Leaving the cheeses to get on with it, we went off for a theory session and some questions and answers. We discussed suppliers and talked more about cultures and equipment. We returned to the dairy after the brie had been coated in salt for 2 hours and washed each cheese off and packed a few to take home. We turned the large cheeses in their brine, but 37 hours was a bit long to hang around for, so once we’d finished some paperwork, we sealed our buckets and each of us returned home with a large wheel of cheese and four small soft cheeses.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The big cheeses in the brine had to be turned again on Thursday morning, before being allowed to soak for the rest of the requisite time. This meant removing them from their brine late on Thursday evening… which we each did. At the same time, the small cheeses had to be put in a suitable place to begin to mature.

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Out of the brine to drain and allow the surface to dry

The next part of the process will be different for each of us. The idea is that we experiment to see what maturation conditions and affinage (finishing treatment) we like best. We’ve compared notes and in my next post I’ll tell you what we’ve each decided to do.

 

What an exciting week it’s been. And the best thing is that I’m now confident that I was doing it ‘right’ before!

Apple time

Yesterday we went to pick apples just down the road…

since then the kitchen has been a hive of activity…

There was a little time yesterday to do something that didn’t involve apples. I made harissa paste with some of the abundant chillie harvest…

A right old caper

Years ago I planted some nasturtium seeds in the garden… I have never needed to do so again, because they self-seed every year and I continue to get them growing all over the place. They provide a riot of colour, good ground cover and they are edible. The leaves can be added to salad or used in cooking (nasturtium leaf pesto, for example) and the flowers are also edible and look stunning as a garnish. The seed pods too are edible: until now I’ve never harvested them to eat, although I have eaten them elsewhere.

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today’s little harvest

Today I had a bit of a headache and decided to go out in the garden. Looking round I noticed the abundance of nasturtium seeds. So I picked some – it didn’t seem like many, but turned out to be about 140g. Consulting the River Cottage preserves book, I found that to make a couple of small jars of “nasturtium capers” I only need 100g, but that they do have to be soaked in a light brine for 24 hours before they are pickled with peppercorns and herbs. I, therefore, can’t actually pickle them until tomorrow. In the mean time they are soaking and I no longer have an excuse for not getting on with some work…

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24 hours to go

 

 

Hard to Swallow

As you know from many, many posts on here, I am a big fan of ‘real’ food. I love cooking, especially using ingredients I have grown myself or that have come from producers I know. Of course, this isn’t always possible – we’re short of wheat-growers in Ceredigion, for example. However, most of what we eat Chez Snail, I make from scratch and processed foods do not feature much in our diet. This  happened gradually over the years and has been helped by the fact that, for the last 10 years, I have mostly worked from home, so that I can intermingle earning a living, growing food and cooking. I do understand the challenges of living in a city and going out to work every day when it comes to sourcing and eating good food, so I’m really not criticising anyone who can’t do what I do.

IMGP3955My motivations are many, but mainly I like to know what’s in the food I’m eating. My suspicious about the content of processed and packaged foods have, however, been not only confirmed, but greatly surpassed by a book that I read recently: Swallow This by Joanna Blythman. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is a real eye-opener, revealing, for example, the fact that anything that can be classified as a “processing aid” does not need to be declared in the ingredients of a product. This means that things like enzymes that can be used to change the flavour or consistency of an ingredient/product but none of which remains in the finished food do not need to be mentioned – not even if that enzyme is derived from animals and the product is for vegetarians.

From ‘clean labelling’ to ‘modified atmosphere packaging’, the food industry abounds with ways to dupe us into thinking that the food we buy is ‘fresh’ or ‘natural’ when it is anything but. For years we have been told that saturated fats are bad for us, so the food industry has gone out of its way to create low fat foods that are, instead, heavy on the carbohydrates to give them desirable ‘creamy’ textures (low fat, Greek-style yoghurt, anyone?). There is an ever-growing body of evidence, however, showing that saturated fats are not the health problem that we have all been led to believe but that there are issues associated with eating loads of carbohydrates and that polyunsaturated fats are not the panacea they have been made out to be…. and as for margarine, let’s just not go there!

If you are looking for motivation to cook more and source more products direct from producers, Swallow This may be just what you need to read… you will certainly never read the ingredients on a flavoured yoghurt or look at a bag of salad leaves the same way again. Whatever your position, though, I highly recommend this book – it is in all our interests to be knowledgeable about the food we eat.

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It’s good to know what’s in your food…

8 Meals 8

… and even better to have grown it yourself

Apple time

Although I was given some windfalls a couple of weeks ago, yesterday saw the arrival of the first of the big apple harvest: lovely eaters given to me by Katy the Night Owl. We eat apple all the way through the year because I bottle it, but there are some recipes that demand fresh fruit, so I can only cook these for a limited time. I absolutely will not buy apples out of season, although some varieties last a good long time if undamaged.

Anyway, I have started our apple festival with an apple plait. This fabulous cinnamon and apple bread is delicious fresh, and once it’s a couple of days old makes the most wonderful French toast. Just the smell of it baking is enough to make me start salivating.

Basically it’s an enriched dough (i.e. it contains egg and milk and butter and take a long time to rise), filled with apple, brown sugar, a little butter and cinnamon. I always make it as a plait, but you could easily adapt it to any shape – swirls, buns, a rolled loaf, whatever you fancy.

The second recipe on my list of things to make when we have fresh apples is Dutch apple pie. This is really nothing like the apple pie I grew up with, and I only discovered it a couple of years ago (recipe here), but it has become a firm favourite in our house… especially since it requires no pastry-rolling and is like a cross between a pie and a crumble. In fact, now I’ve mentioned it, I want to make one for dinner tonight… excuse me, I could be some time…

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