Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Italian Night

Tonight, after all the British food indulgence of this seasons fayre, a trip into the sunny realms of the Italian hills seems appropriate. Of course, indulgence aside, the proceedings could not start without an aperitif, tonight a version of an Aviator from Simon Difford's Cocktails No.7, my current favourite, not Italian although it does remind me of the Gin and It (Italian) that my father was so fond of in the ‘60’s. Simple and suitably strong it takes 1 part gin, 1 part dry vermouth, I part cinzano rosso, 1 part Red Dubonnet and an unwaxed lemon zest twist.
Fortified, we set forth onto the primo, my minestrone (no recipe, just anything at hand, but tonight our Cavolo Nero was added as there is so much in kitchen garden right now). For secondi, a rice bombe (although Nick has just pointed out, oh so kindly, mine should be called a rice brick). It's a sort of baked risotto, started with a soffritto made from tiny cubes of leek, carrot, beans, courgette, fennel, peas and herbs and as if that wasn’t enough to feed an army, a huge pizza was thrown together as well. Below is a photograph of the tomatoes and mozzarella draining dry on kitchen paper so that the dough base bakes crispy, my only tip on making good pizza!
It was a nice trip, everything but the suntan and the scenery.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Dolce di Pane

Just thought I’d pop in a quick post about an unusual Italian Bread Pudding Cake called Dolce di Pane I made this Yuletide. The original recipe came from The Modern Cook, or the True Method of Cooking Well 1849 by Pietro Santi Puppo and reproduced in The Heritage of Italian Cooking by Lorenza de Medici. Here is my slightly tweaked version (just can’t follow any recipe without adding or subtracting a twist, I guess it's my control-freakism!)

1lb crustless fresh Italian white bread
2 cups milk
drop of Cointreau (optional)
3oz vanilla sugar
4 egg yolks
grated rind (zest only) one lemon
pinch cinnamon
4 oz mixed glacé fruits (I used one each from a gift box of pear, fig, ginger, orange, apricot, cherry and angelica)
1 tablespoon of butter for double greasing and lining non-stick load tin(s)

Tear the bread to pieces and soak in milk for an hour, then squeeze out (very little, if any, actually comes out, depending on loaf type). At this point I add the Cointreau. Combine with egg yolks, sugar and lemon zest. Add cinnamon and diced glacé fruits and mix. Fill double lined and greased tins and bake 180 degrees C for an hour or maybe a tad less depending on tin sizes (I like two small). Or cook in Aga in top oven under a cold shelf.

This makes a nice change to the rich butter desserts at this time of year and is good with a cuppa mid afternoon or even breakfast. Above is a photograph of my attempt. Below is my collection of French Sarreguemines ware similar to the breakfast plates shown in the recipe illustration.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Vine Training Techniques

Grape vines can be extremely long lived and after about 20 years vines start to produce smaller crops, and average yields decrease, leading to more concentrated, intense wines. A good pruning regime is all important and one must decide on a particular form from the start. At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2007 The Fetzer Sustainable Winery Show Garden designed by Kate Frey was awarded a Gold Medal. I took this photograph there on a blazing hot day, mimicking the Californian setting the garden was representing. In the plant list this vine was only described as Vitis vinifera, the common grapevine, which was a tad disappointing for this vine variety addict. What attracted me was the style of growing through pruning so that the truck of the vine is much taller than the traditional double or single Guyot system I'm using at home. I assume that the vines came from a producing vineyard and weren't just manicured for effect so I have been trying to research this freestanding style. The nearest prune systems I can find are either the Cruzeta a system used in the Vinho Verde area of Portugal where vines are trained to a wide cross arm about two meters off the ground, or the Gobelet (or head trained an American term) which has been used since Roman times, involves no wires or other system of support. The spurs are arranged on short arms in an approximate circle at the top of the trunk, making the vine resemble a goblet-drinking vessel. These vines are free standing and the system is best suited to low-vigour vineyards in drier climates, such as the one illustrating sustainability by Fetzer at Chelsea. If you are interested in vine training techniques I can suggest you look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Murgh/Vine_training_systems where some 50 odd are described, but not illustrated, unfortunately. Below is a photograph taken in Fetzers vineyard, apparently putting this technique into practice.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Life on the Periphery of Jazz (and Other Miscellaneous Musics)

I was brought up on the mother’s milk of Jazz. Well strictly speaking it was my father that raised me jazzy. He was a tenor saxophonist, playing swing with the big bands of the time, the 1930/40’s. I listened to Ben Webster, Lester Young (who he once stood in for) and the other greats from before my first memories. My early life was lead to the tap and accompaniment of their riffs. I am the daugther, wife and mother of musicians, so can I play? Well, no is the answer, I can just about hold a tune although the key wavers far to regularly to allow me to sing anywhere other than in the solitude of the bathroom. It’s a great sadness to me, but, hey, I can appreciate and for me that’s enough. It’s just as well as my life is still lead to the harmonic and sometimes cacophonic background of music. Above is my Dad in full flow in a now forgotten band, third from the right, below a couple of sweeties, so natural, that as far as the photo shoot is concerned, could be sitting out on their stoop in New Orleans, the every wonderful Louis and Ella, bless their cotton socks.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

A First Year Celebration of Chateau Northwood

As we ready ourselves for the seasonal celebrations, we are also rejoicing in our first year of full production in our mini vineyards. Two years ago, while touring in Loire, we saw an advertisement in a French wine magazine for Michel et Pascal Anneau, who grow and export vine plants of every variety. We got a tad carried away, a little too much dégustation, while visiting their viticulture in La Chapelle-Basse-Mer on the banks of the Loire estuary and left with 32 baby grafts in four varieties (oh, and lots of their own wines). The vines cost 60 pence each and the bottles of wine only a little more. It wasn’t until we arrived home, with our ministere de l’ agriculture export licence, I hasten to add, that we started pacing our available garden space and realised we’d over bought. We had two mini vineyards worth, so the race was on to find a small parcel of land with the right aspect and soil type to plant a second plot. We were very lucky to find such a spot within a mile from the house at an allotment, and although they had a long waiting list for plots it happened that the week one became available no one was answering their telephones, we were in!
We divided the spoils 8 Merlot and 8 Cabernet Franc at home, 8 Melon de Bourgogne and 8 Pinot Noir at the allotment and Nick started digging and digging, that was when he wasn’t gigging. The problem was that he was trying to reproduce the soil medium these guys like. Sharp grit and sand was added, manure of course and our own compost too, to a depth of three foot. Black landscaping cloth was laid, to retain moisture and keep down weeds, on top of that gravel and stones to retain the heat of the day and act as a storage heater during cooler evenings. Galvanised steel support wires were hung from beefy wooden steaks. It was a labour of love with no guaranteed return. So 2009 will tell if all the work has been worthwhile, but it is a long term project and it could be as long as 2012 until the vines really mature enough giving us good indication of quality in this northern latitude as long as we have good weather and we live that long! But on the evidence of two Merlot we planted six years ago against the conservatory, the forecast is rosy indeed, as we will soon be bottling our third year vintage.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Gardening By Firelight

Some of the most enjoyable (and lazy) gardening can be done sitting in an armchair in front of a blazing fire flicking through seed catalogues. Through the window the garden is looking frosty and dormant, but in the imagination the beds are already planted and fruiting with all the new and newly re-cultivated traditional varieties to be found within those tempting archives.
Tonight, as the temperature drops below freezing, I’m drawn to the hot weather herbs Basil Siam Queen, Mrs Burns and Red Robin from Jekka’s Herb Farm and just the downright hot, chilli peppers like the Bulgarian Carrot, Friars Hat or (a warning on the effects of eating these?) the Ring of Fire all available from Simpson’s Seeds.
Sometimes, of course, you need to wait a little longer than the next summer to see the results of all this scheming. Four years ago I planted the intriguingly named apple Pitmarton Pineapple, dating from the 1780’s and waited frustratingly until this autumn to taste the fruit. Well, it was worth all that planning and anticipation, because it is a remarkable fruit with distinctive pineapple fragrance, sweet, crisp flesh and a nutty flavour, but apparently quality can be variable, so I may have to make a habit of patience. That same winter, as I sat over the fruit catalogue from Brogdale ordering the Pitmarton Pineapple, I choose another apple, Ashmend’s Kernal, dating from the turn of the 17th century and was lucky enough to be sent two by mistake, which I planted paired either side of a central path. It has been described as ‘exploding with champagne-sherbet juice infused with a lingering scent of orange blossom’ (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall) well I’m not sure about that, but it is certainly good eating. Brogdale holds the British National Fruit Collection and is a must visit online, a great resource as they will graft any species they have in their collection onto any rootstock of your choice. In the photograph a basket of apples before being turned into apple and ginger jam.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Kids, cluck!

While tidying-up after breakfast yesterday it was remarked upon that I was a little out of touch with my ketchup bottles. This youngster suggested I should adopt plastic. I assured her that that would happen ‘over-my-dead-body’. Perhaps a little too enthusiastically, she fell into laughter and derision. “But why?” she asked hardly containing herself. So it fell on me, with ardent, if unusual, backup from Nick to explain the aesthetics of the glass sauce bottle. More laughter. I made my case not only on the appreciation of beauty and good taste but also on ecological grounds and from today after a reconnoitre at the supermarket on a financial footing too. Philistines these young’uns, if it isn’t squeezy food (saving on nanosecond of precious gaming time) or if it’s a black and white film (just too boring, no matter how classic) or, god forbid, in subtitles (requiring a smidgen of concentration) it’s out.
Proud to be of an older generation.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Choco shelf-elves

The shelf-elves have been busy in the village Waitrose. Sometime in the night they employed tiny elfish bulldozers to empty the shelves of usual groceries and replace them with Christmas chocolate. Every possible seasonal concoction is represented clothed in tempting iridescence splendour or wrapped in blissfully bowed boxes, just crying ‘Buy me!’
I love the idea of chocolate, but I am of the unhappy few, unable to enjoy a pick-me-up therapeutic binge, in that after the first two or three mouthfuls I find it clawing. The problem with that is that after my reduced nibbling the rest mysteriously disappears, pilfered by guilty hands lurking around the house. So my treat is glacé fruits, nobody purloins those, still too sweet, but less additive, so that after just one I can walk away. I promise to keep persevering with chocolate in the hope that one day, hooked, I will need my fix like other normal well-adjusted women. Off to practice on the hard stuff, Excellence 85% Cocoa.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Crème Brulée a La Maison de la Truffe

I’m planning another trip to Paris to stay with my dear friend Helene. In 2006 I stayed in her beautiful 9th arrondissement apartment near Montmartre for three weeks and roamed free each day while she worked, meeting up in the evening to eat. My days would start with a goal, a galley or museum, a market or garden to visit. Deliberately, I would take a less known route and wander off course, often finding hidden treasures and byways and maybe a hideaway restaurant or bar to while away a few hours with drawing pad and a digestif. There is something very enticing about finding your way around a foreign city on one’s own, daring to lose oneself both geographically and introspectively.
The day I took this photograph I had lunch in La Madeleine at La Maison de la Truffe, something wonderfully truffly and finished with this vanilla packed crème brulée (yes, it was difficult to stop eating it long enough to photograph it). La Madeleine is certainly not a back water, but sometimes you have see the sights and I could hardly visit Paris without joining the jostle of tourists at her most famous grocery stores Fauchon and Hediard, both now over 100 years old and cornucopias of the exotic and sensational. The other photograph was taken later that day, enjoying an early evening Campari Spritz, (alternatively known as The Venetian Spritz, indeed a drink I came to know and love in Venice) in the heady daze of a tobacco-filled bar. No smoking in Paris bars these days, of course, how I’ll miss them this time round.

Fontevraud Abbey

I’ve just finished watching Roland Joffé’s Vatel set in 1671 at the Château de Chantilly. It tells the story of François Vatel, a French chef, famous for inventing Chantilly cream during a visit from the court of Louis XIV. The kitchens in this charming film reminded me of a photograph I had taken at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon. The abbey dates from the 11th century and contains the tombstone effigies of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart who were buried here.
I loved the cookhouse chimneys each one denoting an oven and it’s hexagon architecture. The Abbey was unusual being both a nunnery and a monastery and to my taste has been over restored. The inner spaces tell little of the story of it’s inhabitants expect, maybe, in the nun’s ‘warming’ room off the cloisters and the kitchen, but this could be my imagination, as these two areas appear to be the only rooms that had fireplaces. Could it be that they warmed both the occupants and my opinions? Admittedly the austerity of the place was matched by the coldness of the day, however, warmth and cheer was at hand in a glass of Chinon cabernet franc wine.