Saturday, 28 September 2013

put the flags out

This morning as I walked, a breeze stirred the trees and a soft pitter-patter of beech nuts started to fall around me. The path was quickly covered with a crunching carpet of little triangular brown nuts – it’s a mast year! That’s when all the trees in the forest have a quiet word with each other, and get together to produce a bumper crop of fruit, nuts and seeds.  Apparently it occurs every 5 years or so, and it’s happening now.

I know from reading my foraging books, that beech mast and acorns fall into the ‘useful in times of famine’ category - but free food falling on your head is hard to ignore, right?  So in the spirit of scientific enquiry, I scooped up a couple of pocketfuls and headed on my way. A quick spot of research suggested that peeling and toasting the nuts was the way to go. Now, normally I would do this at home, (honest boss - if you’re reading), but my current kitchen-less state rules that out. (As far as I know it is not possible to toast nuts in a microwave). Also – my ongoing foraging adventures are something that I am trying to develop as potential learning activities for the museum. Coincidentally, the main obstacle to this is our lack of suitable kitchen facilities. In previous years I have run ‘Pick It, Cook It, Eat It’ sessions, using produce from the gardens. Unfortunately, our lottery funded redevelopment plans mean that the building (with kitchen space) I was using, has been commandeered for a five year temporary entrance and shop facility.

Little did I know - inspiration was about to strike. At lunch time as I stood in the staffroom waiting for the kettle to boil, my eyes alighted on this beauty

..overlooked and never plugged in, or used for the entire time I’ve been here. A quick clean, and there you have it - my very own, good as new, you beaut, mobile kitchen facility!

So anyway – let’s toast them nuts!

- shucked and shelled...

..toasted and salted.

Verdict: If I was running the ‘End of the World Survival Cocktail Bar and Grill’, I would definitely be serving these as a delicious, (but hideously overpriced) beer snack. Nothing at all wrong with them conceptually, or in the taste dept; just an enormous amount of fiddle-faddling around for not much end result - (more Heston Blumenthal than Ray Mears).

BUT – totally worth it for potentially solving my ‘lack of foraging kitchen’ dilemma.Yay!!! The nettle omelettes are on me!

Monday, 23 September 2013

mushroom fluff

A Monday highlight for me is reading a new post on Brian Francis' blog Caker Cooking - his writing just makes me laugh! The dishes that he makes are all from old church/charity style recipe books - and this month it's 'reader recipes'.

So imagine how proud and delighted I am to have made it on to this week's blog with 'Mushroom Fluff'. I urge you to check it out - but I warn you now, it ain't pretty!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

when is a bean not a bean?

This week it's been all about the beans*

A rainy afternoon on Thursday gave me the chance to shell all the beans that I harvested to store. We grow a few heritage varieties: 
  • Martock - a medieval 'field bean'
  • White Windsor - a broad bean from 1720
  • Crimson Flowered - a broad bean that produces deep red seed coats (and a few green ones)**
Then a sunny morning on Friday saw me picking the last of the runners to eat green. The rest can carry on to fatten up their seeds to eat as 'shelly beans' (mature 'wet' beans that don't need soaking overnight), or dry to 'haricot' stage. Once dry they will store for long periods, but need the full soak and boil to bring them back to life. (All mature beans will give you a seriously bad tummy if you don't cook them thoroughly - some beans have higher levels of a toxin, which is destroyed by cooking, than others). Here is a cautionary tale to help you remember.

I find it strange that as a nation of enthusiastic tinned baked bean eaters, all of which are imported, (Navy beans aren't grown commercially in this country), we are mostly unable to get our heads round the concept of mature bean as food source. Google 'Broad Beans' and you'll come up with a list of names that demonstrates their cultural spread and importance:

broad beans, horse beans, windsor beans, fava beans, habas, gigantes, ful... 

..the list goes on and on.

The rest of the world knows that this is where it's at, nutritionally speaking - there's far more bang for your buck in the bean than the green pod. Grocery stores in Italy stock bulging sacks of dried beans, purchased by enthusiastic Nonnas keen to feed their families bean puree with turnip tops. These are the beans that Northamptonshire poet John Clare (1793-1864), was referring to when he wrote the lines:

A beanfield full in blossom smells as sweet

As Araby, or groves of orange flowers;

Black-eyed and white, and feathered to one's feet,

How sweet they smell in morning's dewy hours!

But we eye them with suspicion, mentally consign them to seed packets in the garden centre, and buy imported green beans from Kenya in the middle of winter.

Now then - what's for lunch......?!?!

*(apologies for the slightly over elaborate collage - but I've just discovered PicMonkey!)
** Sciencey bit on dominant and recessive genes in seed coat colours in Broad Beans.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

ready for this jelly?

For weeks the damsons have been tempting me into the orchard to test them for ripeness - but their deep purple colour belies their eye popping sharpness, and each time they have turned my tongue to chalk. 

Then suddenly this week they have relented - finally softening and ripe with deep plummy juice. 

I climb the ladder to pick the abundance of fruit and their perfect bloom rubs off on my fingers. They fall into my bucket with a soft thud-ud - the sound of ripeness as well as the feel and taste.

Portioned up and ready to sell to my colleagues. Every year a small band of afficionados and jam makers wait impatiently for me to deliver the fruit to the staff rooms.

My lack of kitchen means I won't be creating any damson delights this year. But my colleague Sara made damson cheese with some of the fruit, as part of her 'Tudor Tastes' demonstration for our Food Fest. She presented me with this one as a gift to try - it's so beautiful. 

The most intensely flavoured jelly.

Sweet cubes to complement salty cheese, or bake into muffins as tiny flavour bombs.
Just a few more weeks and I will cook again ...
(In the meantime thanks to all our lovely friends who have been feeding us in our hour of need   xxx)

Monday, 9 September 2013

harvest festival

We all breathe a small sigh of relief and loosen our belts a little at work when the school holidays are over. About a third of our annual visitors come through the door in those six weeks - a quarter of a million give or take.  So I've had a peaceful week in the September sunshine gathering produce for our Harvest Festival display.

One of our reconstructed buildings at the museum is a Unitarian chapel from West Wales. Every year we host a Thanksgiving service and the gardening team always decorate the chapel with flowers and produce from the Estate. Since 2010 we have also held a Food Festival, so it seemed like a good fit to combine the two.

The food fest is a great event that has really blossomed in the last couple of years. It feels like the entire Welsh food community come together to celebrate and showcase their work. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly - the perfect way to round off the season. As a complement to the commercial stall holders, we have been working hard to build up the museum interpretation aspect of the event. In previous years I have done some kind of 'Traditional Techniques for Storing the Harvest' demo, but this was to be 'Year of the Teabag'.

Earlier in the summer, (and we did actually have one this year), I harvested and dried a whole load of mint and lemon balm from the cottage gardens. Just add some fennel seeds, dried elderflower, and the creative genius of the lovely Siân - and you've got the perfect recipe for a fabulously successful, Food Festival 'make and take home' activity. We bought a whole bunch of 'fill your own' tea bags, and Siân made a template sheet for everyone to make a cute envelope and tag for their bag. I ran the blending and bag filling side of the operation. We were so busy I didn't have time to take many pictures.

Siân made these pretty things... are a couple of my efforts.

Didn't get a picture of a filled bag, but this was the herb blend we created.

It was an exhausting weekend but we had fun.

Go Team Teabag!

Monday, 2 September 2013

digging my potatoes

The history of the potato is one of subjects that I can bang on about till the cows come home. At the museum where I work we try to match the gardens to the dates of our reconstructed buildings (as far as possible). So up to about 1720 there's no potatoes at all - they first appear in the garden of a house set at 1780. Potatoes were in Britain by 1597, (first written reference in Gerard's Herbal), but despite the common notion that Walter Raleigh bowled one up Plymouth Hoo, then we all went to the chip shop - they didn't become the staple food of the common man for about another 150 years. Before that the staple carbs were cereals, and in Wales that was mostly oatmeal. It was baked into oatcakes and boiled into flummery - a kind of solidified blancmange texture that you could slice.

(I could go on - but I won't)
*hears appreciative sighs of relief*

So this week I have been lifting some spuds - we have some of the earliest named varieties of potato still in cultivation. Two of these are 'Lumpers', most famous as the crop that failed so drastically and caused the Irish Potato Famine, and 'The Yam' which is dated back to 1771.

The big ones will be a feature of my harvest display for our Food Festival at the weekend,
 but I thought I'd take some of the small ones home to do a bit of a taste test.*

I scrubbed them, and steamed them for 25 minutes,

and served them with butter, salt and pepper.

The texture of both was good - more floury than waxy. It was definitely worth steaming, rather than boiling them - I have had freshly dug spuds turn into a pan of smush on me before now. The Yam edged it slightly on taste, but they were both pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised, as they don't get rave reviews in the history books.

They are low yielding and disease prone compared to more modern varieties, so I don't think they'll be making a commercial comeback anytime soon. We grow them to help preserve the genetic material - potatoes have to be grown every year to keep them going, you can't stick them in the deep freeze like seeds.

*Here is a picture of the current state of the kitchen - not exactly a food blogger's dream. We've just started Week 7 and I feel like I'm starting to come slightly unglued now.