Tag Archives: seasonal food

Elderflowers

There is no hedgerow glory finer than the elderflower

John Wright

One benefit of lockdown life is my daily hour-long meander around the green areas of Levenshulme. And at this time of year there is a real treat for those who like to forage; all I needed to do was to wait for a few dry, sunny and hot days in a row – something not that common in Manchester – and I could get my paws on probably the best foraged food, the elderflower. Patience was a virtue and last week the planets aligned, and I filled my boots. Well, my tote bag.

A freshly picked ‘hand’ of elderflowers

I love the taste of them so much and I am always disappointed if I don’t get hold of some at least once per year. The smell is heady with that earthy Muscat fragrance, and is a potent addition to many foods, classically partnered with the gooseberry. Elderflower syrups and cordials stretch back to at least Tudor times, and classic elderflower champagne seems to have become popular in the late Victorian era, peaking in popularity in the 1920s. If you have never cooked with them then you are missing a treat, but don’t worry, there is a good few weeks left of the season if you want to get hold of some – all we need are some more sunny days.

The elder has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and has a very interesting folklore; I plan to write a post on the Elder tree later in the year, so for now I’ll just talk about the flowers. Because the foliage and green stalks are mildly poisonous, elderflowers and leaves together have been used as a purgative since the days of Hippocrates. In Britain, it is traditionally used to sooth sore throats and reduce the intensity of flu symptoms. I don’t know if there is truth in any of that, but what I do know is that it has a positive effect on my mental health, so delicious is the uplifting aroma when introduced to all sorts of foods; and in these strange times we all need a mental health boost I’m sure you’ll agree.

A spindly elder tree

The elder is one of Europe’s most common trees and is an almost ubiquitous member of hedgerows and scrubland throughout Britain, only thinning out sparsely in the north of Scotland. It flowers between the months of late May and early July, the precise dates changing with latitude: the north being a good two weeks behind the south. At this time there are few trees you could confuse it with: the bark is pale, gnarly and often spindly and looks old beyond its years. At this time of year though, you smell it before you see it.

The flat arrangement of tiny cream coloured flowerheads are called ‘plates’ that also go under the name of curds, hands or (my favourite) slices of bread depending on where you are in the country. Pick them in the late afternoon after two or three days of dry sunny weather and give the flowers a good sniff to check they are full of fragrance. Snip the heads off with some scissors – aim to get between twelve and eighteen hands. Once collected, head on home and use them before their fragrance begins to dissipate.

Illustration of a flat plate of flowers, from Food in England, Dorothy Hartley

What you do with your elderflowers once home depends upon what you want to make. If they are not going to be heated up or cooked in any way, it’s important to snip away as much green stalk as possible because as mentioned the foliage is slightly poisonous. Whatever you do, don’t wash them; you’ll wash away the scent. Just check over them and pick off any insects that may be residing in amongst the blooms.

Picking elderflowers (pic: Stuart Kinlough)

Elderflowers are normally used to flavour foods, rather than as a food themselves, the only example I can think of where they are actually eaten is the elderflower fritter. When introducing them to hot liquids, snip away the stalks and tie the flowers up loosely in muslin and use it to flavour scalding hot cream or milk to make a delicious elderflower custard to pour over gooseberry pudding – or freeze it to make ice cream. I have made elderflower syllabub, blancmange and even Irish carrageen pudding, which once made it onto a seaside-themed pop-up restaurant back in the day. You can add it to cooking gooseberries if making a crumble, or pop some in toward the end of the cooking time when making gooseberry jam.

Making elderflower gin

Elderflower Gin

The best thing you can make by a country mile is elderflower gin and it is the simplest and quickest of the cold infusions. Because it doesn’t require any cooking, the true taste of the springtime hedgerow is perfectly preserved.

Snip between 12 and 18 elderflower heads into a large jar with a two tablespoons of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Seal the jar and give it a good swirl twice a day to dissolve the sugar. After three days, strain through a muslin-lined sieve into bottles and you are done. You can then enjoy the best gin and tonic of your life.

Elderflower Tom Collins:

We have now reached the pinnacle of deliciousness. This was not my idea, but my ex-business husband Mr Brian Mulhearn’s and it is very delicious. For one drink, you will need:

Ice

2 shots of elderflower gin

1 shot fresh lemon juice

½ – 1 shot gomme (stock sugar syrup)

Soda water

Place some ice in a cocktail shaker with the gin, juice and gomme to taste. Shake well and strain into a glass generously filled with ice. Top up with soda water. Bliss.

Variations:

For a liqueur far superior to St Germaine, make as for the gin, but use vodka and add between 120 and 150 g of sugar, depending upon the sweetness of your tooth.

For elderflower vinegar, make as for gin, using 500 ml of cider vinegar. Leave in a sunny spot for a week, swirling regularly. For a great salad, dress some rocket leaves and a few halved or quartered strawberries with the vinegar plus salt and plenty of black pepper. It makes an excellent accompaniment for poached salmon.

Elderflower Tom Collins

References:

Collins Tree Guide (2004), Owen Johnson & David More

Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabeth Country Cooking at Home (1986), Hilary Spurling

Food in England (1954), Dorothy Hartley

River Cottage Handbook No.7: Hedgerow (2010), John Wright

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Summer Pudding

Summer pudding is one of the best and one of the most surprisingly versatile puddings there is. It’s also great fun to make and seeing as the first soft fruits crops are coming in, I thought I’d share my recipe with you. Before I do though, I should get the uninitiated up to speed on this quintessentially British dessert.

Summer pudding is typically a mix of red summer soft fruits lightly poached and set in a pudding basin that has been lined with berry juice-soaked white bread. For many, the thought of cold soggy bread makes them feel a little queasy, but they shouldn’t because the texture is not as one would expect; it is soft and giving and nothing like the texture of soggy bread in hot broth, for example. One way it is versatile, however, is that you can use other things in place of the bread, such as slightly stale slices of madeira or pound cake. Indeed, this is the way I prefer to make it because this way, you quickly dip the cake in the juices (otherwise it just breaks apart) unsoggy and much more pleasing in texture, rather like the base of a trifle, though a less vibrant colour. It’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it.

The other way in which it is versatile is in the fruit you can use. There are many who are purists who insist you use 100% raspberries, for others there must be at least 50% redcurrants, and some think there is no place for the strawberry. These people are all pudding fascists. I’m not picky and I go for what’s in season at the time: gooseberries, red, white or blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, whatever.

The summer pudding goes back to the nineteenth century as far as I can see, the earliest mention of something resembling it popping up in an American publication from 1875. It describes a hot pudding consisting of currants and sugar steamed in a basin lined with bread. I’ve also found a British ‘midsummer pudding’ that is also hot but uses a suet crust and is – oddly – more recent. A cold pudding made in the manner we know and love today appears around the turn of the twentieth century under the curious name of ‘hydropathic pudding’, so called because it was introduced to ladies at health spas as a low-calory alternative to regular stodgy suet puddings.

I have also found other recipes for autumn pudding and winter pudding, that have swapped the summer fruits for stewed apples, pears and dried fruit or blackberries, sometimes switching white bread for brown.

This is my recipe and it makes just one small pudding, unlike most other recipes that make a giant one using a re-mortgage worth of redcurrants, so this is the recipe for those who do not grow their own. In fact, all you should need are two or three punnets of soft fruit.

Serves 4:

300 g ripe soft summer fruits (raspberries, blackcurrants, red or white currants, blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries etc)

80 – 100 g caster sugar

A shot of an appropriate liqueur such as Chambourd, optional

2 or 3 slices slightly stale bread, crusts removed, or one stale madeira or pound cake, cut into 7 to 10 mm slices

To serve: clotted cream or lightly whipped double cream

Rinse the fruit, cutting any large fruits such as strawberries and gooseberries into halves or quarters as appropriate. Scatter in the sugar, but don’t make things too sweet, especially if using cake rather than bread. However, if you are using green gooseberries you many want to shake in the full quota. Pour in the liqueur if using, stir, cover and leave to macerate overnight.

Next day, put the contents of the bowl in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar, trying not to squish the fruit too much. When dissolved, bring to a boil and simmer gently for two minutes, then turn off the heat. Set aside to cool down.

Cut your slices of cake into enough pieces to line a 450 ml / 1 pint pudding basin. I cut rectangles that taper slightly at one end so that they fit nicely.

Dip each piece of cake or bread in the juicy warm fruit and press into the inside of the basin. Repeat with more slices until you have covered the sides, then cut a circle to fit in the bottom. Be careful if using cake at this point as they are prone to break when soggy.

Now spoon the fruit mixture into the pudding, packing everything in well with the back of a spoon.

Cut more cake or bread to make a lid, press down hard with fingers, then place a saucer on top with a suitable weight and place in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, loosen the pudding a little with a knife before inverting it on a plate. Be patient as the pudding leaves the mould – do not be tempted to hurrying things, lest disaster strikes. If using a plastic basin, massage it a little to help it along.

Serve with any remaining juice or fruit and the cream.

References:

Cookery from Experience (1875) Sara T Paul

English Food (third edition; 1992) Jane Grigson

Pride and Pudding (2015) Regula Ysewijn

‘Summer Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/summerpudding.htm

‘Winter Pudding’, Foods of England website http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/winterpudding.htm

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Gooseberries

‘Country life has its advantages’, he used to say, ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good…and there are gooseberries.’

Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898

The humble gooseberry is not the first of the British summer fruits that springs to mind, but it is the first of the season, and I think it should be celebrated just as much as the strawberry or blackcurrant.

It’s quite difficult to find gooseberries in the shops these days – even good greengrocers don’t seem to sell them, which is odd, because they keep better than any of our other soft fruits. I suppose one of the reasons for its unpopularity is that they are usually sold when vibrant green, looking lovely and fresh but tasting very sour and astringent. In this form they need to be cooked and sweetened with sugar. Its other disadvantage is that it usually has to be cooked, no competition amongst the huge variety of exciting dessert fruits available. It’s a crying shame. Gooseberry season starts in June, but you have to wait until July for them to ripen into dessert fruit. Patience is a virtue, after all.

The gooseberry is usually a fruit more suitable for cooking, needing considerable sweetening for palatability unless a savoury accompaniment for meat or fish.

Laura Mason & Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain

The gooseberry is one of 150 species of the Ribes genus, which also includes the smaller and daintier black, red and whitecurrants. They can be found growing wild in patches of scrub all over Britain, so keep an eye out wherever you see such areas on walks, there may be a hidden gooseberry plant (I have my own a secret patch). Gooseberry shrubs are typically three for four feet high, and as any gooseberry forager knows, somewhat spikey.

Gooseberry colour plate from the Oxford Book of Food Plants

There are many cultivated varieties including two hybrids; red and white gooseberry varieties have been crossed with red and whitecurrants respectively. The hybrids make excellent dessert fruit, helpfully indicting ripeness when they’ve achieved a good ruby or white colour.

Though looked over now, gooseberries were extremely popular and have been cultivated in Britain since al least the Fifteenth Century. They were important because they were the first soft fruit of the summer, cropping well as far north as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. In the Midlands and Northern England they were revered, a tradition of competitive growing quickly developing. There was a single aim in these competitions: to grow the heaviest berry. These clubs were widespread and at one point there was 170 growing clubs, a handful still exist today in Yorkshire and Cheshire. To achieve heavy berries, by the way, you must strip your shrub of berries as soon as they appear, leaving behind a dozen so that the plant can put all its energy into growing just a few fruits.

A gooseberry shrub in the rain

Gooseberries are also known colloquially as feabes, feaberries, carberries and wineberries – the latter name coming from the fact they make excellent wine.

Aside from some parts of northern Europe, gooseberries haven’t really travelled much further than Britain from a culinary point of view. According to Jane Grigson, the French ‘have no name for them distinct from that of redcurrants’. This does seem to be the case; the French word for redcurrant is grosielle and when gooseberries are called for, they are called grosielle à maquereaux – the mackerel redcurrant.

Although sometimes served with goose, it is not the origin of the gooseberry’s name as you might assume. It comes from the Old Norman/Middle English groses or grosier, the old word for – wait for it – grosielle, the French for redcurrant, so in effect we called gooseberries redcurrantberries! All of these words come from the Frankish root krûsil which means ‘crisp berry’, and the gooseberry certainly is that.

Yellow and red are dessert fruit, let them lie on the hottest sunshine till warm through before serving – it brings out the sweetness and flavours.

Dorothy Hartley, Food in England

Preparing and Cooking Gooseberries

Whether you are picking them or buying them, you need to know how ripe your gooseberries are. This important because small, vivid green gooseberries are best for accompanying savoury dishes, and large riper ones are best made into puddings. I remember as a child, dipping raw, tart gooseberries straight into the sugar bowl. I expect the Sugar Police would have something to say about that these days.

The top and the tail

To prepare your gooseberries, wash well with and top and tail them with sharp scissors or pinching fingernails.

If you have lots of gooseberries, you can do several things. Pop some straight into freezer bags or stew them with sugar, a little water and a knob of butter and freeze that. I prefer to make jam or vinegar if I’m going to preserve them. When they cook, they start to lose their colour and if boiled very thoroughly, like for jam, they attain a lovely deep pink.

Gooseberry compote is very useful; it can be served simply with ice cream for a quick dessert, or baked in the oven as a pie, crumble or cobbler. A classic dessert is gooseberry fool, simply compote folded into lightly whipped, sweetened cream, or even better a mixture of custard and whipped cream.

A gooseberry haul from just two modestly-sized shrubs

Other desserts include steamed puddings and a delicious baked pudding rather like an Eve’s pudding: I shall be certainly posting a recipe for that. Old fashioned pies called Oldbury tarts made with hot water pastry used to be very popular. Sometimes the pies were filled with red or whitecurrant jelly, just like an old-fashioned raised pork pie – I bet they would be great served with cheese.

I cannot talk about the culinary potential of gooseberries without mentioning elderflowers. I love their delicious sweet-musk scent and add it to anything I possibly can. Back in the days of the restaurant, I made an excellent elderflower blancmange with gooseberry compote and shortbread biscuits, and I must say it was one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.

To add an elderflower air to your gooseberry dishes simply tie up a few heads in muslin before dunking them in your gooseberries or whatever.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you some of the recipes I have mentioned above, just in case you get a glut of them or spy a punnet in the greengrocers.

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Asparagus

asparagus plate

A botanical plate showing the life cycle of the asparagus plant

Asparagus season in the UK very short, going from only May until June. Of course, these days we are no longer a slave to the seasons and can have fresh asparagus that has been grown in Peru or Kenya whenever we like. I love the stuff, but I do feel that our food loses some if its magic when seasons no longer matter. It is for this reason I only buy British asparagus.

Asparagus has been eaten in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and has been loved in France for many centuries, and it is the carefully cultivated and selected French type of asparagus that made its way to Britain in the seventeenth century, a time of great ‘vegetable improvement’, and it is still grown here today. This does not mean that prior to this date we did not eat it or try to cultivate it.

The etymology of asparagus is interesting – many people think that it was called sparrow grass, but the upper class thought it a vulgar term and subtly changed its name to asparagus to make it sound more posh. This is not quite true: it actually began life as asparagus coming from Mediæval Latin, then it was shortened to sparage in Late Old English and then further modified to asperages in Middle English. It was anglicised to sperach or sperage in the 16th century, but strangely it was officially spelled as asparagus to be in line with Latin. The word asparagus became associated with “stiffness and pedantry”, and the “folk-etymologi[s]ed” sparrow grass arose in reaction to these Latin throwbacks. All this information came from the wonderful Online Etymological Dictionary. I love the Old English word – eorðnafela – sounds like some kind of elf queen from a Tolkien book.

There are three main types of asparagus which all come from the same plant: there are the common all-green tender spears that have very good flavour, and then there is white asparagus, made by ‘forcing’ the spears to grow in the absence of light by earthing up around and over tips. These are not typically grown in Britain, though you do spot them from time to time, though they have usually come from Holland or Belgium, where white asparagus is popular. Lastly, there is lavender-tipped asparagus which is simply white asparagus that has been allowed the see the sun again and just colour slightly. White and lavender-tipped are much more fibrous than the green but have a much more delicate flavour.

Asparagus is also infamous for a certain side-effect after it has been eaten and digested: the distinctive smell it leaves in our urine, which is liked by some, but hated by others:

[Asparagus] cause a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows.

Louis Lemery, Treatise of All Sorts of Food, 1702

all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of [asparagus], they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Times, 1913

[Proust always overdid things – have you ever read his description of madeleines?]

The chemical in question is called asparagusic acid, though not everyone has the ability to produce it (though most do) and not everyone has the ability to smell it (though most can).

Proust

Big ponce: Proust

Preparing Asparagus.

It is very straight-forward to prepare asparagus. You first need to remove the woody part at the base of the stem. You can do this with a knife, but this involves guess-work, so it is easier to break the spears one at a time because they have a natural snap point where the woodiness lessens. You can trim the ends of course if you want to be fancy. If you have very thin young spears, you may not have to snap them at all. Along the stem of the plant there are strange little leaves that lie flat against the stem; you can remove these if you like, but I tend not to unless the spears are particularly thick.

Asparagus and Eggs

Asparagus needs little cooking: just a few minutes steaming is required. Traditionally it is cooked in a tall asparagus pan so that the spears can be boiled upright. Here’s how I like to cook mine – it shows off the flavour of asparagus cooked simply.

Prepare your spears and place them in a pan in just a few tablespoons of water and a knob of butter. Cover so that the asparagus part-boils and part-steams. Check if they are cooked by probing the thickest part of a spear – it should be nice and tender. Asparagus spears of a middling thickness will take no longer than four minutes, and will most likely be done in three. Once cooked, season with salt (if needed) and black pepper.

Serve on toast with some of the asparagus-flavoured butter and poached eggs.

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