Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Blackberry Patch Rules

Freshly churned
Blackberry Ice Cream

It's mid-August and the sun is on our backs at last.  In a summer when we've seen so little of it, it's far more welcome than it would normally be on a summer allotment visit.  Hot, unrelenting sun is not ideal when there's back-breaking work to be done.  But in truth there's been a bit of an uncharacteristic lull on Plot 45.  Though, even at this late stage, there are signs of a possible surge.

Peas and broad beans have all been harvested, their mottled stems cut down to the ground for the last residues of nitrogen to disperse into the soil.  The crop to follow on next year - Brassicas - will benefit.  The garlic planted last autumn is lifted and hangs in the cool, dry conditions it needs to be useable right into late winter with any luck.  All the early La Ratte potatoes have been eaten - a few not by us, it has to be said - as Salade Niçoise has been a constant request this summer.  We have started harvesting the Charlottes and most of the storing onions are drying on the balcony while we make successive forays into the Florence Red onion bed.  These long-necked non-keepers, grown from seed, cook to an unmatched silky smoothness and make a wonderful Onion Tart Tatin (thank you Fern Verrow) and a sweet partner to salty anchovies in Pisssladière.

Harvest of Blackberries, Raspberries
and fragrant sweet peas

This year we confidently constructed extra cane wigwams for Runner and Borlotti Beans.  Hubris met its nemesis in the form of slugs and snails, their population has exploded this year and we're still waiting for our first climbing bean crops.  Chard, spinach, beetroots, courgettes and pumpkin plants have also battled to recover from constant cropping by armies of these gastropods.  But we have had an abundance of extraordinarily fragrant roses and sweet peas to compensate.

Blackberry Ice Cream
with blackberry fruits

Strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants are now but a memory - though the freezer is stuffed with pots of fruit and purees for making ice creams and sorbets.  We've moved on from 'summer' to 'autumn' raspberries but the ripening blackberries are a godsend in this lean year on the allotment.   You can buy blackberry plants to cultivate, some are even thornless, but why would you when they grow so prolifically in the wild.  That said, not all 'bramble' patches are equal.  Find one with large, juicy berries and remember where it is for next year is my advice.

This day we circle 'our patch', searching for spots where the fruits are particularly wine-dark and plump.  This year, they look full of promise but taste is all so, of course, we try a few to make sure. They live up to our hopes.  Their flavour is, I think, so much more intense than the cultivated varieties and it's that intensity I want to preserve.  We try not to take too many.  They can be good until late September so there's time aplenty.

Blackberries are undeniably seedy, more noticeably when they fruit after long, dry spells.  Last year's crop was exceptionally seedy here, the year before we hardly noticed seeds, and this year the fruits fall somewhere in between.  As fond as I am of a Blackberry and Apple Crumble, sometimes it's better to sieve out the seeds and make a puree that can be used straight away or kept in the freezer. So, let's make ice cream.

Blackberry swirl

In the UK we tend to think of ice cream beginning with an egg custard base, but as Caroline and Robin Weir point out, in their invaluable book Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati - The Definitive Guide, egg yolks in ice cream didn't appear in England until the middle of the 18th century, probably influenced by the French who wanted to enrich the original Italian recipes.  This recipe from the book dispenses with eggs because, as the authors point out, "Blackberry is a flavour that is all too easy to lose" and in a no-cook ice cream "it comes over loud and clear".

Blackberry Ice Cream 
(makes about 1 litre/4 cups/32 fl oz)

450g (1 lb) Blackberries
150g (5 oz)unrefined granulated sugar
Juice of half a lemon, strained
2 tbsp Crème de Mûre (optional, I find)
500ml (16 fl oz) Whipping/Heavy cream (around 36% fat), chilled

Pick over the blackberries and rinse in cold water.  Drain and place them on a double thickness of kitchen paper then leave to dry off.  
Put them in a food processor or blender with the sugar and blitz for 1 minute.
Strain the pulp through a nylon sieve into a clean bowl, rubbing until all that is left are the seeds.
Add the lemon juice (and Crème de Mûre, if using) to the puree.  Taste and add a little more lemon juice if you wish.  Chill in the fridge.
When ready to make the ice cream, stir in the cream and churn according to the instructions for your ice cream machine.

If you're not eating it straight away, keep in the freezer but allow 30 minutes in the fridge to soften for serving.

I'm off to pick more blackberries.  There must be a bit more space in the freezer to preserve this special taste of summer.  With any luck I'll need my sun hat, and, who knows, there may be beans, chard, spinach and courgettes on Plot 45 at last.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Gimlet Bar

Gimlet Bar Event

Are you a Razzle Dazzle kind of person or is a Tongue in Cheek more your style?  Would a Quince Shrub float your boat or is a Sweet Almond Orgeat more to your taste?  Are you a Zoophagus Maniac or a Quondam Lover?  I confess a liking for all of these.  I'm talking cocktails, but not just any cocktails.

I'd never really got the appeal of cocktails.  Too many glasses of distinctly lacklustre, sugary concoctions laced with dodgy indeterminate slugs of alcohol had been thrust into my hands over the years.  Then someone handed me an exquisitely made 'Gimlet' - made properly it's a short, sour cocktail made with Navy Strength gin, lime syrup and fresh lime juice - and finally I got it.

Gimlet Bar Event

Sometimes I keep things to myself for far longer than I should.  Sometimes it's good to take your time and just enjoy something before it gets too popular rather than jumping on the 'look where I've been' bandwagon.  But, it's time I told you about Gimlet Bar, the London-based portable cocktail bar for hire.  Available for parties and events, this bar, for my money, is the best around.  So how do I know this when I'm top of nobody's party list? Because when Gimlet Bar find an interesting venue, run by someone they want to work with, they hold their own party.  It's not just about popping-up the bar. A lot of thought goes into each event with drinks invented to reflect where and when it's being held and what's happening alongside.  You may be sipping on a warming Horse's Neck in an open-fired Soho townhouse in winter; downing a Silver Bullet on a foggy autumn evening as Count Dracula swoops on the silver screen; or sitting down to a game of backgammon along with your Lover's Leap on a languid summer evening in the city.

Gimlet Bar

The fun that's had with the naming of cocktails doesn't hide the fact the ingredients and the mixing, are first rate, and the serving of them professional and full of charm.  Gimlet Bar make all their own cordials.  You'll find them in a few good London food shops, like General Store in Peckham, and they are selling them to some bars and restaurants, available via the Gimlet Bar website.

Gimlet Bar

In September I notice Gimlet Bar are taking part in four of the 'Cocktails at The Geffrye Museum Garden Variety Bar' events running during August and September (Gimlet Bar dates 2 & 3, 16 & 17 September) when they'll be serving up cocktails based on infusions and ferments created from cuttings taken from the Geffrye's gardens.

In The Geffrye Museum Gardens

Perhaps the most unusual venue so far was the recent event at Novelty Automation near Gray's Inn. This hidden eccentric collection of coin-operated machines created a real challenge - how to make a cocktail machine - and the answer put 3 cocktail mixologists in a small "Whack a Waiter" cubicle and serve imaginative cocktails including a Nocciola dispensed from an oilcan! Hard to imagine? well here's a photo to help:

Gimlet Bar
at Novelty Automation

The 'Gimlet' may have been my cocktail epiphany, but others stick in my memory, like Elysian Fields, Delicatessen, Knife in the Water .....  Did I tell you I didn't like cocktails?

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Sweet-sour berries

My Strawberries Balsamic

The 18th century French philosopher Diderot described strawberries as being like 'the tip of wet-nurses' breasts'.  Thankfully he was referring to small wild strawberries, the large cultivated varieties we mostly eat today being some way in the future.  I owe this knowledge to Jane Grigson, who in every chapter of her Fruit Book serves up exquisite gems of information that add enrichment to the recipes she offers.  Recipes including classics such as Strawberries Romanov, Strawberry Shortcake and Soupe aux Fraises.  But, this time, I turned to Jane Grigson not for one of those recipes but rather for that 'gem' to lead me in to a dish I tasted in America two decades ago.  I loved it so much as soon as I got home I recreated it and have been making it every summer since.

I'm sure I'm telling you nothing you don't already know in saying strawberries benefit from a little added acidity - wine, lemon or orange juice all help to bring out their flavour.  Strawberries with vinegar seemed like a step too far when I first visited San Francisco a couple of decades ago and tasted them married with syrupy, sweet/sour balsamic vinegar.  Later I learned that in Emilia Romagna, the home of Aceto Balsamic production, they had been flavouring strawberries with it for decades.  Bringing things right up to date, Modena chef Massimo Bottura recommends aged balsamic to season not only strawberries but peaches and cherries too.

Strawberry munching slug

The very best Aceto Balsamico is made from a reduction of pressed white Trebbiano grapes aged for 12, 18 or 25 years (or even more) to a thick, dark viscous syrup and is, not surprisingly, expensive. Cheaper  'balsamic vinegar' exists but it's likely to have been made from wine vinegar thickened with guar gum or cornflour and enriched and coloured with caramel.  They are different beasts but all have their place, I guess.

The fact I still have strawberries on my allotment patch (the slugs, thankfully, having lost interest) and that the raspberry canes are now fruiting abundantly means the time has come to make this recipe again.   The good people of Emilia Romagna may not approve of including raspberries in the mix, and what Massimo Bottura would think I don't know, but this recipe is based on a particular memory of two decades ago, and raspberries were certainly involved.  So, I can't call this a classic but it is a recipe that takes me back to that first visit to San Franciso. It's also particularly good for perking up less than perfect strawberries - something we growers are well acquainted with.  

First pickings of the year
Raspberries on the allotment

My Strawberries Balsamic

(serves 4-6)

About 1kg (2lb) strawberries
100g (4 oz) raspberries
50g (2 oz) caster sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water

Clean and hull the strawberries and put in a large bowl.
Put the raspberries and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. Cook until the sugar dissolves and the fruit breaks up.  Remove the bowl from the heat, blitz briefly with a hand blender and sieve out the raspberry pips.  Mix in the balsamic and the water.
Pour the raspberry syrup over the strawberries and mix gently to coat the strawberries.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

I think this needs nothing else.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Picking peaches

Baked peaches with Lemon Verbena

As usual, I couldn't resist the first peaches.  Too pale, too firm, too early.  Just like every year I succumbed to the downy cheeks of those seductive under-ripe fruits which bring the promise of summer.  Jane Grigson’s advice on choosing peaches holds true - to refuse those that are bruised or soft, for “softness indicates woolliness and cannot be redeemed, as hardness sometimes can, by cooking."

Many cuisines have a tradition of macerating peaches in wine.  Most prefer yellow-fleshed fruits for this treatment.  The Spanish have Melocotones al vino.  In Claudia Rodin's The Food of Spain she tells us “The people of Aragon have been growing a special type of sweet yellow-fleshed peach, the melocotón de Calanda, since medieval times", skinning and macerating them in sweet wine;  whereas in France, they are commonly sliced straight into a glass of red or white wine or champagne - with a sprinkling of sugar if the fruit is under-ripe;  In Italy, Pesche al Vino involves pouring boiling water over the fruit, skinning, slicing and immersing them in red wine, also adding sugar if the peaches are not sweet enough. 

Warmth and sweetness can be enough to rescue an unripe peach - cut in half, sprinkle with sugar and pop under the grill - but sometimes a little extra is called for.  The flavour of peach pairs well with berries, particularly the raspberry (remember Peach Melba), and appreciates the flavours of vanilla, almond, rose, clove or bay.

Baked Peaches with Maple Syrup and Vanilla is a delicious Nigel Slater suggestion from his book Tender V. II; Jane Grigson in her invaluable Fruit Book offers up Pêches Chinoise - peaches cooked in the syrup from a jar of preserved ginger and served with chopped ginger, walnuts or almonds;  from Honey & Co The Baking Book comes Peach Cakes flavoured with vanilla, fennel and the almond-like spice mahleb (made from the kernel of the St Lucie cherry) which works deliciously.

Lemon Verbena

If I want a quick way of perking up peaches I poach them in syrup - or rather I bake them as they hold their shape much better that way.  I love the sherbet lemon character of lemon verbena with peaches, or sometimes I add the peppery spice of basil leaves instead.  So this is my way with those under-ripe peaches you just couldn’t resist. It will bring out the colour and flavour and add a little extra "something".  Personally I don't remove the skins as they improve the colour of the syrup, and what's wrong with the skins anyway?

Baked peaches (or nectarines) with lemon verbena
(serves 4)

4 Unripe round or flat peaches
100ml water + the same volume of caster sugar (you can reduce the sugar a little if you wish)
4 leaves of tender fresh lemon verbena (or 2-3 basil leaves)
A handful of raspberries for each plate (optional)

Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/Gas 4.  Lightly butter an ovenproof dish.  
Cut the peaches in half and remove the stones.  Place them cut-side up in the dish.
Dissolve the sugar in the water over a medium heat and add the lemon verbena leaves.  Bring to the boil and cook for 2 minutes.  Pour the contents of the pan over the cut peaches.  Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the peaches.  If the fruits are particularly hard, cover with foil to speed up cooking.  Baste the peaches a couple of times during cooking and, if they are not softening, turn them a couple of times in the syrup.  

Serve with the cooking juices spooned over and, maybe, a fresh leaf of verbena.  If you have raspberries, add a few to each plate.  And where there are peaches, there should be cream.