Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Tomatoes With A Love Injection

12 heart-shaped baby tomatoes (there is a variety called Baby Heart or else, like me, you get lucky with a seed cross. Of course, any cherry toms will do)
A pinch of well ground celery or lovage seed salt
Squeeze of lemon
A dessert spoon of Worcestershire Sauce (or to taste)
A teaspoon of Tabasco (or to taste)
8 fluid oz of good-quality vodka
One or two drips of Port

The fiddly bit
Using the empty syringe (you will need the largest possible diameter needle from your friendly chemist) carefully remove as much natural juice as possible entering the tomato through the green head, you will need to wiggle it about carefully without opening a hole. Allow the ingredients to mix and mingle for ten minutes then filter through muslin, any particles will block the needle, so take time over this. Fill the syringe with the mix, tapping it a couple of times with your nail if you want to look nursey (and don't we all!), and inject through the same top hole being careful to not overfill or the tomatoes will split with the pressure. Chill. Warn everyone to close their mouths around the little tom bombs, as they are quite explosive so serve with napkins!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Mid Merlot Harvest

So many backlogged blogs remain stubbornly in my mind and not on the page. Since returning from Italy we have been inundated with crops to process, at present the vines are the priority, and not just our own harvest but we seem to be collecting other growers grape excesses via our local Freecycle. (Luckily, we have also received help with additional equipement by the same route).
So, the kitchen has become a cross between a modern laboratory and a witches' cauldon, with bins bubbling with fermentation and large pots steaming with sauces, jams and chutneys due to the tomato glut (next blog). Fruit flies abound, but hopefully have been kept out of the brews, as with all brewing, cleanliness is next to goodly-ness! In haste, more soon.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

'The greenest island of my imagination' (Byron on Venice)

Le Vignole is an isolated island dotted with farmsteads and vineyards and literally, wildly different to its neighbour, Venice. Its vineyards gave the island its name. The Isola di Sant'Erasmo (St. Erasmus) is the largest island in the Venetian lagoon, but it's only sparsely populated. It comes as a surprise, after days of exclusively floating past water transport to see vehicles including agricultural tractors near the shore and a small car park full of scooters near the vaporetti stop. The mind leaps to questions of logistics, ‘how did those get there?’ The island is particularly renowned for it’s artichokes, carciofi and is known as Venice’s market garden.
We had hoped to take a temporary mooring at Le Vignole (free short-stop moorings being clearly marked on the navigation maps) to ride the vaporetti to Murano to restock the kitchen cupboards, but meet with an irate workman with his boat demanding our space, his manic shrugging of shoulders and tutting and clucking and our lack of a shared language made an argument redundant, we gave way. He indicated a mooring under a low bridge but to get to it we had to circumnavigate the island. The mooring turned out to be nonexistent, a ploy to remove us, no doubt, but the trip around the island most pleasant. That still left us provision less, so we decided to head for Certosa. In recent times the island was used for the manufacture of gunpowder and its disused buildings are being slowly but lovingly restored.
Out of adversity one can find perfection and the mooring we found at Certosa turned out to be a little haven, a safe harbour from any miffed locals gesticulating storm. It's virtues include unhindered views of Venice (from our mooring), the helpful and willing staff of Vento di Venezia, the surrounding parkland full of monumental artworks and an amazing pontoon out into the lagoon holding a ‘request only’ vaporetti stop. The marina has a free water-taxi service after 9pm, an exciting high-speed zoom across dark and churning frenetic waterways (real men are expected to balance and stand in the wind and spray, love it). By the way, have I mentioned the Venetian men yet;-)Huge poster outside the marina offices of Vento di Venezia showing the island, its parkland and the extraordinary pontoon (left) leading to the request vaporetti stop. We have the first mooring at the mouth of the inlet overlooking Venice, fantastic.
Views of Venice from the mooring on Certosa.
On the way 'home' from provision shopping on Murano.
A long exposure of the night lights of Venice from the boat after a water-taxi has rippled by.
Monumental art work, part of the Venice Biennale, on Certosa. The coloured lozenge shapes are glass and the interiors of the posts light up and shine through the glass at night.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Tranquil Torcello

(Moonlight over Torcello)
The out-lying islands of the Lagoon have been a revelation; many are now deserted and returned to nature, only just keeping their heads above water. Most had another incarnation during their history, from defensive strong posts, disease isolation hospitals, penal complexes to market gardens.
Torcello is a little gem of 20 inhabitants* and some disturbingly, early-rising cockerels. In the 10th century it had a population of at least 10,000 people and was much more powerful than Venice but now it is fields with a path leading across the island from the vaporetti stop past the Ponte del Diavolo, or Devils Bridge to the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta full of glorious Byzantine mosaics. What few moorings are available are located in the shadow of the Cathedral bell tower and completely deserted after the last vaporetti leaves taking any sightseers with it. In the early morning one has the island to oneself to explore in eerie stillness, a rare treat and difficult to find elsewhere in Venice. By the side of the mooring is a beautifully laid out little vineyard, full of ancient statutes, the grapes appear to be a sweet (not tested but oh, so tempting) white variety, maybe used to make Vino Santo, a few bottles of which have found their way into my luggage for reminiscing over winter evenings. Torcello has a few smart restaurants along the island’s path, which only open for lunch to serve day-trippers and so we had to make our own supper onboard which was no hardship having stocked up with a few local delicacies such as Radicchio Treviso and Rossa Verona, good both cooked and raw in salad and a selection of antipasti tasty treats like olives, sun dried tomatoes and baby artichokes. We also found the local wines sold from vast steel vats by the litre amazingly good quality especially as they cost only a one and half euros; we’re not going to starve or, for that matter, stay sober for long.

*I read it was about 60 but will happily give way to wikipedia’s collective knowledge.

Our morning mooring neighbour
Beautiful des-res on a tiny island opposite the Torcello mooring (with it's own heli-pad, definitely how the other half live!)
Vineyard next to mooring
View of Burano from the top of the campanile of Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta
The view on being rudely awoken by over zealous cockerels.
To be continued, tomorrow, Sant'Erasmo and Vignole as we inch ourselves ever closer to Venice.

A Slow Boat to Venice

In the past we have arrived in Venice through Marco Polo Airport or it’s railway station, this time the experience was fundamentally different. Although every new visit adds something to our conception and interpretation of this endlessly fascinating city, arriving by boat, slowly over a matter of days, will have a long-lasting effect on how I will forever perceive it’s nature. We came from the Fiume Sile into the Lagoon, entering through the lock at Portegrandi, leaving behind the meandering reed-sided waterway to be exchanged for the brackish water channels sided by a low-lying, floating world of almost-terra firma islands. Passing fishing stations with their suspended nets still dangling the occasionally missed and now sun dried, silver sardine, we wind our way into the outlying channels of the Lagoon. From now on we navigate by bricola, the three posted pine pilings, that act as sign posts and channel markers through out the lagoon, all are numbered and marked on nautical charts, and some have lights to make the channel boundaries visible at night. Our pace is wonderfully slow and mesmerizing, the sun beats down, the wind is with us and with only the occasional campanile on some outlying island for reference, we glide imperceptibly closer to Torcello.A speeding camera warning on a bricola

Nearing our mooring

Bob-bobbing moored up on Torcello
To be continued........

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Mixed and Muddled Messages (and Sarah Palin)

It would be laudable to write a blog with a single theme, one coherent message, a dedication to a sole subject, but my life never seems to be that simple. Instead I am multi-tasking and I feel like some Earth Warrior Mother, a many-armed Durga with spade, ladle, watering can, basket and magic wand in hands. And, of course, because I have no time for myself, I’m waking each morning inspired with ideas, imaginative goals and creative projects so numerous, that if I don’t find a few minutes at least to write these down I’m going to have trouble even remembering them, never mind fulfilling them. I want to make collage, paint, photograph, read, explore but instead I must gather, preserve, dig, cut and cook. I start one job, only to be distracted by another and so on all day long until by bedtime (or more correctly blog-time) I’m surrounded by a maze of half completed tasks to unravel. And my mind is similarly tattered, hence rambling subjects here tonight. August for a self-sufficient dreamer is Hell!
There is an expression in English, “to carry coals to Newcastle” this city being the main supplier in the 19th Century. In other words, a redundant enterprise and quite pointless. So blogging today’s lunch recipe of green fried tomatoes for my audience of mainly Americans would be the equivalent. Anyway, the Internet is fully loaded in this regard, or else, find the recipe at the back of Fannie Flagg’s book. But for anyone who hasn’t tried this Southern treat, I recommend it. Better than chips or French fries, but in that ballpark (to keep the analogy Stateside), certainly no diet food and better, just occasionally, for that. Is there anything more rewarding than upturning a barrel of new potatoes with it’s secret hoards spilling out into the previously concealed sunlight? I don’t think so. And then there’s the taste, heavenly. These are the moments for which one gives up all those painterly pursuits.
See, there is another subject; Sage Elixia, see above in bottle, it will have to wait, another time.

I’m so pleased that the British (and friends) have at last joined the debate to counteract the appalling propaganda by the American right on the National Health Service on Twitter #welovethenhs. At last, some truth from the people who have first hand knowledge. I can’t express the disgust that has been prevalent this side of the pond in what has been argued by people like Sarah Palin and the others with axes to grind and vested interests to protect. This type of mis-information is closer to Stalin's reign of terror than a modern democracy. (as I speak #welovethenhs is under attack from the right, spamming and swamping, they have a bot in charge, one would like to think that a robot was all they could find to support the case, these people are really running scared!)

Saturday, 8 August 2009

We Don’t Like Cricket, We Love It.

It’s high cricket season in England. BBC Radio’s Test Match Special is heard at every turn when out and about, there are at least five radios tuned-in just in this house, in case we feel the urge to go from room to room, not one second will be lost on turning a switch or knob! With it’s the usual mix of ball-by-ball commentary, descriptions of pigeons on the pitch, cakes received and devoured, gigging and slurping, the effervescing Jonathan Agnew, or Aggers, whiles away the hours with humour and antidote between bouts of action for the duration of the five-day Test.
It’s culturally difficult to explain, but it has always been the theme tune to an English summer.
Tonight, BBC’s Newsnight featured an article and a film from New York about how the police department there are using cricket to help improve relations with the city's ethnic minorities. Of course, the ‘public’ was asked what they knew of the game with the typical comments on the length of the game and the possibility of there being no result at the end. I guess it does take a deeper understanding to realise a draw IS sometimes a result (especially for England at Headingley this week, one fears!)
Much is made of the differences between baseball and cricket and how the American audience likes fast-paced games. I enjoy watching baseball and would love to attend a subway series, the closest thing to a Test match in endurance and I think the Yanks could learn to love cricket. The 20/20 game perhaps? After all, baseball is all statistics, nuances of pitch as in fast balls and sliders, telepathic fielding skills etc, so add into the mix, condition of ball (new ball is only offered after 80 overs and the crowd always returns it from the out field, no souvenirs here), how it turns under different cloud cover and humidity, how the pitch differs from ground to ground and during the match and don’t get me started on bowling, the permutations are almost endless. The Leg Spinner, the Yorker, the Flipper, the disguised Googly and I'm only just breaking the surface here. See More. The truth is that the whole game has so many angles that five days is too short a time to witness them all. A lifetime is required! Surely you have to love any game that stops for tea and cucumber sandwiches?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Major Marshall’s Chutney: (Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning)

Each day this week we’ve hit the ground running, no early morning chats putting the world to rights over a leisurely cup of tea in bed, no checking over-night e.mails and responding, no singing in shower, just straight to work on the harvest. The last Early River’s plum chutney is made and it’s my personal favourite, Major Marshall’s Chutney. Slightly more Indian than Anglo-Indian, a touch of the Raj brought home, one imagines, by an officer suffering sub-continent gastronomic withdrawal, but with only English summer garden produce to hand and perhaps a campaign chest of spices.

Major Marshall’s Chutney

6-8 lbs Plums stoned and halved
Pickling Spice (see below)
2 lbs red onions
2 lbs red tomatoes –skinned (green are good too –un-skinned)
1 ½ pints of red wine vinegar
2 lbs tart apples
1 lb dried apricots
1 lb golden syrup (one 450gms tin)
1½ lbs Demerara sugar
1-2 tablespoon tomato puree
6 tablespoons pickling salt

Picking Spice
½ teaspoon anise seeds (optional)
10 allspice berries
1 teaspoon of dried garlic (or four or five whole fresh cloves)
6 thin slices of fresh fat ginger
6 bay leaves
8 green cardamoms roughly crushed
6 dried chillies or 2 teaspoons chilli powder
2 two inch lengths of rolled cinnamon
6 cloves
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons dried methi (fenugreek leaves) optional but good
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 whole mace blades
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
15-20 mixed peppercorns
Muslin to wrap all the spices and tie in a bundle (faggot or bouquet garnis)

Mince the onions, tomatoes and apples in blender to rough chop. Mince the apricots to fine chop. Add all the fruit to very large pickling pot or kettle and add rest of ingredients. Add spices in muslin faggot. Cook on moderate heat until well-reduced and makes a furrow on the surface with a wooden spoon. You may need to check spicing for heat and strength and remove faggot when personal taste has been acheived. Bottle in sterilised jars. Ready immediately if you, like me, can’t resist, but will age nicely for months to come and only get better. Good with everything!
I’m afraid the rest of the story is in pictures only until I have time to write with poise, I leave you caught red handed!

Enough to start my own shop?

Plum Jam on the go.

Plum Wine starting to ferment.

Early Transparent Gages - next on the list!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Plum-full of Plums

Another day at the plum-face, the kids returned and were immediately sent down the mines, where they picked, shoveled and carted the red gold, working alongside the nearby bees and butterflies harvesting their own winter fuel. Many hands made littler work and by nightfall we had 60lbs weighed up, halved, mashed and ready to ferment. Unfortunately, this seems not to have made the smallest dent on the quantity still available on the tree. Is this some sort of endless ‘Jack and Beanstalk’ trick? The kids have a gig tomorrow night, so sadly, no more child (-ish) labour available, a shame we had a laugh, helped along by last year's plum wine laced with brandy, wild stories and dirty jokes. I’m fast running out of plumy ideas and recipes. May have to advertise for takers.

Escaped the conveyor belt production line and came up for air just long enough to cook beautiful borlotti beans and pasta feast for the comrade workers.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tuscan Plum Tart and Other Miscellaneous Plum Madness

I’m almost too tired to type. So far this ‘Early River’s Prolific Week’ I have made 20 lbs of 62% fruit/38% sugar Plum Jam, five litres of Plum Gin, 30 bottles of Old Dower House Plum Chutney, 20 bottles of Old Fashioned Plum and Beetroot Chutney, three Tuscan Plum Tarts, hence this post. I’ve been asked to publish this recipe, went down a storm at L’s birthday picnic last weekend.

Tuscan Plum Tart (taken from Darina Allan’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course)

7-10 oz sugar
4-5 fl oz water (I use Plum Wine but water is fine)

2lbs Plums
5 oz soft butter
5 oz vanilla sugar (homemade is cheaper and easy) or plain sugar will happily do
8 oz self-raising flour
3 free-range eggs

one 10inch sauté pan or cast-iron frying pan

Preheat oven to 170c/325F/Gas 3
Put sugar and water into pan and boil over medium heat to caramelise until golden. Leave to cool and set.

Halve and stone plums and lay cut side on set and cool caramel in a single tight layer.

Put butter, vanilla sugar, flour into mixer and wiz, add eggs and stop as soon as smooth. Spoon over plums evenly.

Bake carefully for an hour, testing centre for firmness, sides should shrink a little from edge of pan. Cool for 4-5 minutes, invert onto plate. (I sometimes prick the sponge through the plum stickiness and drizzle with a spoonful or two of Plum Gin for extra yumminess). Finish, enjoy!

Tomorrow, it’s Plum Wine Day, another 60 lbs to stone for 20 litres of wine. (Thank God ‘River’s’ is a free stone). Two more heavily laden gage trees to go.
Below, Blackberry and Black Peppermint Sorbet freezer bound and bottles and sugar queuing up for processing by the kitchen door.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Tea and No Sympathy

Two pastel drawings from Saturday’s CHADO /Japanese Tea drawing day with Akemi Solloway. Our classes are always so enjoyable, not only for the art practice but primarily for the fantastic company, we’re a lively and interesting group. Akemi was not only a good model but also most interesting about her culture and country. Shame I mangled her hands in the above drawing, but you live and learn. The quick 3 x 10 minutes sketches more successful as always, no time to over work the drawing. Added a little collage material from some origami papers I had lying around instead of trying to reproduce the beauty of the kimono.

As always, this is the time for artists to open their studios or grab an exhibition space for their annual show. One of our group has built himself a cleverly designed studio at the bottom of his garden but it’s certainly no garden shed.
I returned home inspired by the work on the wall and the studio itself and asked Nick if he wouldn’t mind building me such a desirable workspace.
“So, that’s an allotment shed, a yoga/meditation pagoda, a fruit cage and now a studio, I might just build you a cage, you can draw and meditate in that!”
Demanding, moi? It is his own fault and a complement to him that I believe he can just about make anything, I’m the divine inspiration, and he’s the oily rag ;-)!
I have always been drawn to handmade buildings. I have a great little book called Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art, very much a product of the San Francisco hippy movement of the late 60’s early 70’s. Written by Art Boericke, (himself, what he calls a ‘ticky-tacky’ builder) and photos by Barry Sharpiro, one of which I have reproduced below showing you where I got the idea for my meditation pagoda all those years ago. Unfortunately, still no manifestation.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Plum of Life - Sweeter the Older it Grows

It’s been a strange week. Swine flu is sweeping London, sadly with more fatalities than expected, which puts in mind questions of life and death, making the most of what one has, maybe even daring to think of precious times one can lose. It’s also been a week for looking back, I fear I might be the last person on earth to discover Friends Reunited and in doing so, and at last being reunited, I feel some things never change, for instance, I seem to still be bucking authority, will I never grow up, and do I really want to?
Tonight we consoled ourselves with fine wine and dining, fiddling as Paris burns perhaps (coincidently, Dan ‘s combo is called Nero, I must suggest this as an upcoming album title!).

This recipe uses everything fresh and seasonal from the garden.

Duck Legs with Drunken Plums
Tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
4 large duck legs
2 ounces of speck /pancetta
2 tablespoons of minced herbs : rosemary, sage, thyme and winter savory if available.
2 teaspoons of herb salt (homemade mix of celery seed, lovage seed and fennel seed ground in a little salt is good)
12 new shallots
2 small new leeks
12 large juicy plums
1 bay leaf
2 cups of Prosecco or dry wine wine
1 shot of Brandy or Grappa
1 cup of chicken stock

Marinade the skinned and de-tendoned (is that a word?) legs in a mix of oil, vinegar, herbs and herb salt for a day. Fry speck, shallots, and leeks carefully not to brown too much, followed by the drained and dried legs. Remove and keep warm. Deglaze with the strained marinade, brandy and wine. Add chicken stock and return duck and vegetables to the pot adding plums. Cook in very slow oven for two to three hours. Enjoy (while you still can!) with Barolo or a nice Barbera D'Asti and a side of podded baby broad beans. Wishing you all good health in these infectious times.

Above plum 'Early Rivers' photo taken two or three weeks ago. Early Rivers (Rivers' Early Prolific) is a small, deep purple skinned plum with a golden-yellow coloured flesh. It has a very rich flavour, and can be used for both eating and cooking, making an excellent flavoured jam. The plum can be a little sharp early in the season, but as it becomes very ripe it becomes very sweet.
Raised in Sawbridgeworth, first introduced in 1830

Friday, 3 July 2009

Oh to be in England now that fruit time’s here.

While the populous prepares for summer holidays abroad; sweetness abounds in the kitchen gardens and allotments of England. It’s fruit time and whether it is our climate or latitude, lack of distance traveled or old varieties grown, there is nothing like it available though out the year from the supermarket. Soon, I will wake each morning and tipsy-toe through the dewy orchard grass to pick my breakfast apple. Firstly, in August, the early super-sweet Worcester-types of Discovery and Pearmain, then later the sub-sweet and crispy Laxton's Superb and Ashmead's Kernal (developing nicely above) and as the earth grows cooler under foot the strongly individual Pitmaston Pine Apple.

July brings abundant soft fruit. I grow five varieties of gooseberries and have inherited a jostaberry patch (a cross between a gooseberry and a black currant) at the allotment. I start thinning by picking in June, allowing these early sour fruits to be used for preserves and stewed for dessert concoctions. Sweet pickled green gooseberries are wonderful with lamb. My family and friends are all too familiar with my favourite leg of lamb recipe, La Coscia della Sposa or the Bride’s Thigh, a marathon of three day marinating and massaging (hence the bride's thigh), short wood smoking and slow cooking resulting in butter-tender, aromatic meat, which I serve with said gooseberries and a rich meaty redcurrant gravy. An easy (ish) version of this recipe can be found in Marlena De Blasi’s Regional Foods of Southern Italy.

I had the fortune, in the allotment stakes, to be neighbours with Jack, a brilliant and intuitive vegetable gardener, who grows the most delicious currants, and who slightly madly doesn’t like to eat them! His loss is my bonanza through his generosity. He is great company, a good teacher of technique and his fennel is the best, succulent and delicious. Using his raspberries, I made the sorbet recipe below, Jack: “you have them, I don’t like the pips” I’ll make him some High Summer Fruit Spreading Jelly in return, recipe below.

As a child, summer meant ‘pop’ through a straw. Both of the following recipes include small amounts of pop instead of water, because I find they impart that summer taste from childhood. I can’t drink modern pops, too sweet, surely the sugar industry has been lobbying the drinks companies, or is it my imagination that these lovable nectars have become ultra sticky since my 1950’s memories.

Finally, a quick mention of fruit alcohol, as it is tasting time for the 2008 brews. Last year I made cider for the first time and then promptly forgot about it, a good move as it turns out. While entertaining some cider-loving friends from Devon, I remembered the bottles and our guests were impressed by it’s quality, ( here I'm pausing to puff my chest out with pride) it's complexity and (get this) it's sophisicated taste. I just wish I could remember how I made it! We have also been polishing off the 2008 Merlot, not a keeping year as the fruit never developed the sweetness required, but easily quaffable.

By the way, an apology, my recipes are always in mixed measurements, metric, imperial and the useful American cup, can never decide on just one unit which must make following both frustrating and infuriating!

Raspberry Sorbet
One kilo soft ripe raspberries
One cup of Barr’s Soda Cream With A Twist Of Raspberry
Poach very ripe raspberries until they turn to juice.
Add two tablespoons of Cassis or Kircsh to the well-sieved liquor
Pour into ice cream churner. Refrigerate.

High Summer Fruit Bread and Butter Jelly
Half a kilo very ripe raspberries
Half a kilo red and white currants
Half a kilo mixed other red juicy summer fruits (I used ripe cherries, gooseberries, plums, jostaberries and strawberries)
Two cups of Barr’s Dandelion and Burdock
Two large leaves of Borage
One teaspoon raspberry balsamic (optional)
Poach all the above ingredients (except balsamic) until all turns to juice. Turn into jelly bag and strain (don’t be tempted to squeeze bag) Measure liquor (should be about a litre) and add sugar to taste (approx 12/14 ozs ie 60% fruit juice to 40% sugar depending on sweetness of fruit for a sweet/acid balance) Add balsamic. Bring to a rolling boil for a minute or two. This should reach setting point within that time due to the lack of water used. Bottle in sterilised jars. Spread on real bread and butter. Enjoy, sitting out under blue skies.