Category: food

Reducing food miles around Bridport with Open Farm Sunday 2011

Many of us like to know where our food comes from these days. In West Dorset, we are particularly lucky to have a wealth of amazing produce and Open Farm Sunday is a great opportunity to discover behind the scenes of a couple of our local farms and really see where our meat, dairy products and vegetables come from.

Open Farm Sundays started in 2006 with 300 farmers sharing their knowledge and love of the countryside and every year tens of thousands of people enjoy asking questions, sampling produce or buying direct from the farmers.

My family went to visit Denhay and Washingpool Farms last year. I must admit that my husband and children were not totally convinced when I suggested it but they did enjoy it, much to their surprise.

Denhay Farm, run by the Streitfield family in Broadoak are famous for their Farmhouse Cheddar. We hopped on a trailer, hay bales for benches, tractor taking us up through the large farm to the dairy whilst George explained the importance of edges, how and why they have changed over the years and talked a bit about organic agriculture.

In the dairy, we discovered 21st century milking from a balcony. It’s quite a sight and was interesting for the children to see the first part of the milk journey to their glass. We might live in West Dorset and have friends who are farmers, it’s always interesting to see a farm on that scale.

Amanda Streitfield then did a talk on how their award-winning Farmhouse Cheddar is made and showed us the huge cylinders being matured into pure taste. We stocked up on cheese and bacon whilst drinking a welcome cuppa and went on to Washingpool Farm.

Locally, we all know Washingpool Farm shop in North Allington, a few minutes outside of Bridport so it was really interesting to walk through the market garden behind the shop and see where these fruits and vegetables are grown; food miles, what food miles?

For Open Farm Sunday 2011 Washingpool Farm also have sheep shearing and a photography competition. Click!

Denhay Farmhouse cheddar maturing

Open Farm Sunday website

Denhay farm website       Washingpool Farm website

Richard Guest’s Augustus in Taunton… one to follow

I remember the first time I ate Richard’s food. He’d been Head Chef at the Four Seasons restaurant in Park Lane for Jean-Christophe Novelli and they’d just opened Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell. I’d met Richard socially a couple of times, had never heard of Novelli and had spoken food (pretty rare in those days with a normal English person). I just had to try this funny, approachable Northerner’s food. It was the best I’d eaten in London and totally on a par with what I had enjoyed in France, when my father treated us to Michelin stared restaurants.

For clarity’s sake I must tell you that Richard Guest and his wife Vicky are now friends of mine. So let me stick with some facts: After a YTS apprenticeship in York, Richard’s first kitchen was the Savoy’s in London in 1990, then Novelli’s Four Seasons (Sous-Chef, 93-96, Michelin Star), Maison Novelli (Head Chef, 96-99, Michelin Star, 3 AA rosettes) then Castle Hotel, Taunton (Head Chef, 99-2010, Michelin Star, 3 AA Rosettes). If you don’t already know Richard, that should give you an idea.

I equally enjoyed W8 (another Novelli venture) and was delighted when Richard and Vicky headed for the West Country. The Castle Restaurant did not disappoint as far as the food was concerned. I did find the atmosphere a bit too cold. Whilst I don’t like loud guests when tucking into my main in a posh restaurant, feeling the need to whisper is not conducive to fully appreciate the wonderful fare on my plate. The dining room was just too old fashioned for me. Its recent closure therefore did not come as a surprise. It is understandable that the establishment is concentrating on the Brazz with new chef Raftery. I have no doubt they will do well with another great chef.

So what about Augustus then? 

Richard does fine dining well, his recognition proves it. What he has always loved though is ‘simple’ food that highlights the produce of his great suppliers and changes with the seasons. Whilst he’s never said so, I imagine that when you have an absolute passion for the joy you create, heading a kitchen that feeds dozens of people in the space of three or four hours must take its toll. I always compare chefs to artists. They create inspiring compositions for all the senses. Once on a conveyor belt, the soul gets lost.

In fact, Richard would totally disagree with me. He does not like the “airy-fairy French guys romanticising about food”  to quote his book Jam with Lamb. Well he is a no-nonsense Northerner. I have airy-fairy tendencies, French or otherwise.

My husband and I -and many other friends- have been trying to get Richard and Vicky to join the Hix, Riverside or Wild Garlic of West Dorset and the constant sprouting of good gastro-pubs our area is enjoying. Unfortunately for us but understandably, Richard was keen to work with suppliers and a business partner he knows well and trusts. So he opened Augustus in Taunton with front of house Cédric Chirrosel, former Castle Hotel restaurant manager. It was always going to be called Augustus, after Roald Dahl’s character in Willy Wonka.

The Courtyard on St James Street is a great setting for a bistro. We parked a few steps away, the sun was shining, the outside tables were full, wine was flowing and the atmosphere was positively European. The inside is small, simple, comfortable and welcoming. Cédric is attentive, informative and helpful; Richard is nowhere to be seen, kitchen and small team oblige.

I’m not a food critic so I’ll be brief on food description: a meltingly delicious starter of Goats Cheese croquettes on a crunchy mix of salad and vegetables, a perfectly cooked main of lamb with a just-so creamy potato gratin and a ratatouille that made me think I was in the South of France. I know many people believe that Michelin is a load of rubbish. Having said that, once you have experienced fine dining of a high standard, your brain remembers it. Anything after that can be good, few will be brilliant. It’s about the small details, the subtle tastes that surprise you for being put together yet complement each other.

A few tender yet crunchy baby broad beans were a surprising firm bite in the middle of the soft salad leaves; mixed with goats cheese croquettes, it just worked. It’s about the total attention to detail, perfect seasoning (which I find really hard to achieve myself let alone find in a restaurant), trustworthy suppliers, absolute love and belief in what you create. I’ve gone all airy-fairy again. In his Jam with Lamb book written five years ago, Richard says it’s about the right produce at the right time. We know that’s true.

Richard Guest wanted to open a bistro called Augustus. He just got distracted by a few Michelin stars on the way but Augustus is here and well worth a visit; Taunton is not that far after all…

Dorset Turtle Claw Chillies Jelly

My very first attempt at making jelly. If you’re also a newbie, buy a jelly bag. It will need to hang over a bowl for the juices to drip, so prepare a butcher’s hook and make sure your kitchen cupboard door handle is strong enough: I lost a pint of vinegary liquid, it stinks… Or get a fancy jelly bag holder.

1 kg cooking apples, 500 ml water, 500 ml cider vinegar, 1 lb sugar per pint of juice, chillies (I used about 16 and it was still mild).

In a large pan: chopped apples (including skin and pips for pectin), 500 ml of water, 500 vinegar and 8 chopped chillies. Boil for a couple of mins then simmer for 15 mins. Let it cool a bit.
Kids hated the vinegar smell that invaded the house…
Pour the juice through the jelly bag (do not force or the jelly will be cloudy) and leave to drip overnight.

Next morning:
Prepare 1 lb of sugar per pint of juice. Heat juice on low heat in high sided pan, add the sugar on high heat for 10 minutes for sugar to dissolve. (I kept turning for fear of burning but have read since that you shouldn’t, so up to you). Before taking off the stove, add thinly sliced chillies (I took most of the seeds off), let the liquid cool down a bit and transfer into sterilised jars.

This made a sweet jelly and was not as hot as I thought it would be, next time I’ll put more… The Turtle Claw Chillies are very fruity and taste a bit like the long red sweet peppers you find in supermarkets (only much nicer, with a pleasant kick when you swallow and a typical clear nose afterwards). I also found a recipe with cider rather than vinegar and I’ll try that too being in Dorset and all.
If my guinea pigs like it, I’ll post it here too…

This is based on a recipe by the Chilli King. Check out their website for getting the setting point right (My freezer’s in my garage so I didn’t bother!) and more stuff on chillies.

PS. Try this recipe at your peril, and taste the chillies you’re putting in your recipe before you make four jars of jelly… Have fun, we loved it with lamb, cheese and charcuterie. My son loved it on its own, it’s really quite sweet (the jelly not my teenager).


Slow cooked lamb with Mediterranean herbs

Don’t you love it when guests want a recipe after you’ve spent hours slaving at the stove, or as in this case, left it in the oven to do its thing pretty much by itself… Even better. Perfect for a chilled Sunday lunch…

So here goes: slow cooked shoulder of lamb with Mediterranean herbs. (Inspired by Hugh FW’s Moroccan spiced shoulder of mutton but went back to my roots of olive oil, rosemary, thyme and garlic (as in one of Jamie’s recipes).

Ingredients: Shoulder of lamb at room temperature – Rosemary, thyme, garlic (how much depends on you) – Olive oil – A glass of white wine, 250 ml stock

Oven: 180C/200C 20 minutes, 120C 4 hours or more

In casserole dish put a lug of olive oil, rosemary (about 10 sprigs), thyme (about same), garlic cloves (half a head with skins on) and place shoulder on top. Score the fat with a sharp knife length and width a few times (about 5 mm, just so you get to the meat).

In a mortar, mix and bash rosemary and thyme ‘leaves’ (about five sprigs of each, stick the twigs in the bottom of the dish) and about 6 peeled garlic cloves with olive oil and freshly ground pepper. Rub the oily mix into the shoulder, making sure to go into the cracks with the herbs. Grind pepper on top.

Hot oven for about 20 minutes, the fat will turn gold (and maybe a bit black…). Take out and turn oven down to 120C. Add a glass of white wine and about 250 ml of stock (I used chicken). Cover with lid (or if it touches a tent of foil!) and put back in warm oven (120C) for about 4 hours… That’s it.
No need for thin slices, just take bits away from the bone with a fork…

It may have made a difference that I did the hot oven bit in the electric oven and the slow cooking in the Esse. Have never used the Esse before (as it runs on oil…) but I’ll have to do again as the compliments at the end of the meal were such a joy!

We all also enjoyed a couple of Chilli jellies that complimented the lamb rather well. Liz’s Loscombe Crab Apples and Chillies Jelly was redder and wonderfully sweet. My Dorset Turtle Claw Chilli and Cooking Apples trial was also sweet but had more of a kick when you got lucky with a chilli (or unlucky with a seed…).

Recipe in the next post…

Dorset Chillies

Fungi foray frolic in West Dorset

A fungal foray with John Wright is not mushroom hunting as I know it. Childhood memories of my mother’s picnics and my father whistling to keep hunters away are miles from a day at the Kingcombe Centre in West Dorset.

There are similarities of course. Baskets, knifes, eyes to the ground, a reassuring smell of decay when the nose gets closer to the undergrowth and that warm feeling of joy when a mushroom is found. Or a toadstool.

The point of taking part in a foray with Mr Mushroom himself is to learn. There were a few newbies like me and a few reoffenders who clearly thought it was worth re-foraging with Mr Wright. The world of fungi is a vast underground world where the initiated want to learn more and the foodies don’t want to go home empty handed.

Our foray was at the Kingcombe Centre in West Dorset, part of a Nature Reserve where the fields have never seen fertiliser, where the preservation of our local ecosystem is not a fashion. A very special place not just for the lucky visitors but also for the underworld. The 75 different types of fungi we found in about four hours should prove my point. Only one do I uncompromisingly know, a very exciting one at that, a chanterelle.

Our first lucky find in the hedge outside Kingcombe Centre was tall, thick stemmed, white with a greenish cap. It brought a big smile to John’s face as he dug it from the ground, bag at the base and all. He proudly showed the group and introduced us to the one mushroom you should avoid at all costs: The Death Cap. Need I say more. Not as pretty as its red and white cousin that fairies are keen on but more dangerous.

Of the remaining 73, I had come across a few but could sadly name none fully. English name or latin name. A beautifully fat boletus find was quite exciting. Being red though, it was totally the wrong colour for supper but perfect for a photo opportunity. John obliged by holding it up against the cloudless blue sky.

I still don’t know the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom. I might be the proud owner of a signed copy of the River Cottage Handbook No. 1 (John commented that he was honoured to sign his ‘Mushrooms’ book for a Française, cheeky charmer) but to me, they’re still all Champignons. All 4,000 species that you can find in Britain.

I learnt lots of interesting facts about fungi. For a start, they are the reproductive organ of a world that lives underground. From there, inevitable sexual innuendoes follow. How about the nipples on the magic ones that can take you to seventh heaven or leave you sorely disappointed and a carefully pronounced volva at the base of the hard stem of the Amanita phalloides. I’ll leave it at that, not my forte, I was brought up by a Catholic mother who was master picnic organiser but stayed away from such language. John on the the hand was far more masterful with his words, let alone knowledge, and had us giggling throughout the day.

A few titbits I gathered were of far greater interest. The reason mushrooms are often found at the edge of a wood or near a car park is not, as I thought, because mushrooms need a bit of sunshine to warm their caps but because the organism that lives under the ground is suddenly worried that the environment it is thriving in is running out. Time to reproduce and out come the fruits for spores -babies in the making- to be scattered, and for animals to pick, munch or nibble.

Of far more interest for my stomach is that the mushrooms my family still hunt for, once the first rains have blessed the sunny South of France and its pine and oak forests, can be found in this country. The Saffron Milkcap. For once, the clue is in the Latin name: Lactarius deliciosus. I found one years ago, somewhere in the South West and John confirmed you can find them in this country. I wasn’t dreaming after all.

Should I tell you where? If a delicious mushroom is to be found, should its location be shared? Well, here is one thing the French and the English have in common. My Dorset farmer friend and his father don’t share their secrets for Field Mushrooms hotspots with each other. My family don’t divulge their pine forest autumn picnic locations to all and sundry.

It looks like I will be spending the next few years hunting in pine and oak woods of Dorset to leave my children our own little mushroom secrets. I’ll be thanking John for renewing my love of the forest undergrowth, his little book in my basket, keeping away from beautiful white tall mushrooms with a volva.

John Wright shows off the Death Cap:

John Wright's Death Cap

Photogenic Boletus:

Beautiful boletus

Kingcombe Centre courses:

The inn down the lane

From nouvelle cuisine to a country pub down a tarmac lane so remote, it has grass growing on it. The sun is shining so we decide to drive around West Dorset lanes just for the sake of the views and find the Three Horseshoes Inn just around lunch time.

Pub with rooms. The menu is more gastro than old boys’ local and they’ve run out of Bath chaps and Hooke Farm trout. No matter, I fancy a Blue Vinney ploughman and the husband goes for battered cod with triple cooked chips. Yep, good ol’ fish and chips for lunch. Takes all sorts.

We can hear children as we sit down on the terrace with wide green views. You’d think they are just behind the wall, a perfect demonstration of how sound works in amphitheatre. A few minutes later, the school below starts work again for the afternoon so the only sounds left are the birds, the wind in the parasols and a distant dog listening to himself. Otherwise you’d wonder whether there’s much life around.

When my square wooden platter arrives I pull a face. There’s a heap of thin and pretty greenery on the edge and I am wondering how to eat this without half of it ending up on the floor. It looks like young sweet pea shoots and tastes delicious. Brain figures that fingers are de rigueur. If the man in the nice restaurant in France (many years back) thought it was OK for me to eat with my fingers because chefs don’t like plates coming back with food, then why not?

Apart from the juicy shoots, there was a large chunk of blue veined Dorset delight, some very light and airy home made bread and two chutneys. The first was classically vinegary with soft fruits -no crunchy out of a jar sharp stuff here-  the other more of a compote that has not reached mushy state so the soft bits of fruits have a gentle texture. This one would have probably complimented a Farmhouse Cheddar better, Blue Vinney being a bit stronger it overtook the palate (ok, killed the fruits if you prefer).

The husband enjoyed his triple cooked chips and battered cod. The cod portion was large enough and the batter was a bit on the heavy side but the chips were deemed delicious. There is a price to pay for triple cooked chips at lunchtime and I can hear the husband snoozing. You can’t beat a Ploughman in a country pub. And as country pubs go, this one sure has the location, a great terrace with half a dozen tables, the pretty church next door and new owners.

Our terrace neighbours said: “Very pretty but I wouldn’t want to live here; silly little roads”. Fair enough, this is a place you come to because you like being remote. No marquee, no sea views, just an inn and a village. The Jurassic Coast may be down the lane, it may as well be abroad. That’s why I liked the place.

Ploughman: £7

Battered cod + triple cooked chips: £11

Three Horseshoes Inn, Powerstock

A pinch of art and a large dose of love

“Cuisine is a few grams of passion, a spoonful of technique, a pinch of art and a large dose of love”

When chef Eric Bendel wrote this, he clearly meant it. His restaurant is in the middle of nowhere, well actually right bang in the middle of France in Bruères-Allichamp. We were driving South and found that all the hotels in Bourges were full. A short drive on an empty route départementale and we were grateful to find a small hotel along the Cher river. Les Tilleuls isn’t the prettiest of hotels, rather a long 60’s wooden affair.

No credit card or passport were asked, what a delight and oh so rare these days. Our rooms were clean and comfortable although sound proofing is probably not high on the list. The big surprise came when we sat down for dinner. The menu is a short list of about nine items that change fortnightly and you choose how many you want. Children just get smaller portions, no fish and chips to be found anywhere.

When I read Eric’s poem I figured we should be in for a treat. When I read the menu, it was definitely an artist talking. Proof was definitely not just in the pudding. It started with not one ‘mise en bouche’ but two: three verrines each of cress, celery and cucumber gazpachos followed by crayfish with a courgette soup topped with herring caviar, all beautifully presented.

It’s one of those menus some people find pompous. Verrines are pretty little glasses filled with soups or layered puddings. Gaspacho is after all a cold soup. Yes it’s nouvelle cuisine if that means a pleasure for the eye and yes there were foamy additions to perfectly balanced plates. Last time I had a meal that made me feel like a child again was when I ate at Les Ambassadeurs, the Crillon’s restaurant in Paris. Proper posh with a stool for my handbag. Jean-François Piège was in the kitchen, I was scribbling notes for a magazine. This time, I was with my family, paying my way. Seeing my children get all excited by beautifully presented plates and happily discover new tastes was a joy.

Laure has done a great job decorating the restaurant, husband Eric clearly cares passionately about his work, attention to detail is faultless; although I must admit there were only two tables that night, being mid-week and off holiday. At around £60 per person for four properly crafted courses including nice wine, aperitifs and digestifs, we got an evening that we will remember for a long time. The joy of the unexpected, the subtlety of tastes, the fun of new discoveries; the love did show.

Some call it professionalism. That’s not enough. The passion has to be translated to provide a memorable experience.

I can still taste the mini pistachio rice pudding with strawberry cream and poppy mousse.

Thank you Bourges for being full that day.

Hotel restaurant Les Tilleuls

Foraging with the Wild Garlic Masterchef

Nettle soup followed by a poached breast of chicken wrapped in wild garlic leaf and wild garlic pesto could sound a bit weird. Then again, when it comes at the end of a foraging day, it not only makes sense it demonstrates what it’s all about. But is it tasty and worth the effort?

There’s much talk about foraging these days but let’s face it, however good a reference book is, it is not conducive to go out there and find out on your own. I prefer a hands on approach so I booked a foraging day with Masterchef winner Mat Follas. Nine of us met at the Wild Garlic restaurant and were greeted with a coffee before we set off on our walk towards the woods.

We took a lane I have walked many times. I had noticed these pretty little purple flowers but never knew they were called Ground Ivy let alone that I could eat them. Most people will know these (unlike this French townie) and want to get rid of them on their lawn. It spreads like mint, in fact it rather tastes like it. Jack-by-the-hedge (or Garlic mustard), the good old nettle, hogweed and wild garlic can also be found in abundance in many places.

Theo, who helps Mat on his foraging days was an absolute mine of information. Once people got over his tattoos and his ‘traveller status’, we quickly realised he is a sharing kind of guy and knows his stuff. He pointed out that many of the plants we now consider weed or that grow in our hedges were in fact imported by the Romans for eating purposes. Nettle soup is not such a novel idea after all. Of course we can’t eat all the leaves we come across, it may be on private land or a dog may have marked them as his territory.

The point of wild food foraging is to use common sense. Whilst wild food is very much what spices Mat’s cooking, it does not mean that he forages anything that is not abundant. He may have to supplant it with some home grown version as he feeds rather more than a family of four but many people can find new tastes for their salads or greens in their back garden if not in the woods.

The seaside was a revelation for me. I have walked along our gorgeous beaches many a time, avoiding treading on those purple and green thick leaved, wavy looking plants. Look closer. It must be a cousin of the broccoli, only sweeter. These lovely balloon like tiny white and pink flowers? Pick a few Sea Campions (and leave plenty) and garnish your salads.

So back in Beaminster, what was the food like… The nettle soup, presented in a mini saucepan was light, fresh and surprisingly tasty. The wild garlic flower on the side not only looked pretty, it gave a little kick and balanced the starter perfectly. The poached chicken breast that followed was wrapped in a wild garlic leaf with a wild garlic pesto and was totally succulent. I will try this at home although I doubt it will taste the same. New potatoes and a spoonful of horse radish ice cream completed the main course. I don’t normally like horse radish as I find it too strong but this was subtle and spiced the chicken surprisingly well. Pudding? A rather tidy berry Mess. Got the girls Oh’ing when it arrived and kept us quiet for once.

We were a rather chatty kind of group. Friendly forager wannabes met a kiwi chef and a traveller to learn about the British wild food in the middle of what used to be a Norman town. That tickled my fancy. Mat and Theo were a fitting combination of forager and chef who obviously love their food (Theo’s mother was trained by French chef extraordinaire Bocuse) and are willing to share their passion. We weren’t prompted to give Theo a round of applause when he left us to our lunch to get back to his kids nor did we feign our appreciation when we thanked Mat for a fun and instructive day. The beautiful surroundings were the cherry on the cake or in this case, a wild garlic flower on the nettle soup.

Bull Hotel, relax… you’re in Bridport

As you drive into town, you can’t miss the dark blue 17th century Inn with a gold Bull overlooking the pavement. A Bridport artist gilded that Bull, old fashioned way; she works on the St Michael trading estate. I like that about the place. The meat comes from the butcher next door, the apple juice at breakfast is from a farm down the road, the amazing beds from a company whose impressive showroom is just outside Bridport.

I’ve been a few times for cheap and cheerful lunches (they have a ‘crunch lunch’ for a fiver which is great value for money) and once for a friend’s 40th which was a great laugh. I was curious to know what an overnight stay would be like and thought a night without the kids would be a great idea…

And it was. The bed was wonderfully comfortable (although ours did creak a bit but hey) egyptian linen and all, the Neal’s Yard bottles were bathroom size (no nasty plastic throwaway stuff) and we loved the mixture of old and new. Philip Starck lighting worked well with a french inspired Toile de Jouy wallpaper and plain chocolate walls with a silver tinge. Taste is very personal and if you like twee, you might want to find somewhere else. If you like bold statements and smile at quirkiness this should be down your road.

Supper? Well, we liked. Went for a sharing evening all the way with a Côte de boeuf and a cheese platter. The meat was tender in the middle yet crusty and black on the outside, sliced onto a wooden tray laden with hand cut chips, crispy yet not fatty, oversized sweet and crunchy onion rings, a large mushroom and some rocket salad. There was also a tomato each. I don’t understand tasteless tomatoes in winter (southern french pompous palate probably) so I gave mine a miss. It went back with the herbed butter which was unnecessary. The meat was succulent and did not need any addition. It did not need any more salt either, if you’re one of these add salt before tasting, beware.

The cheese platter was a good selection of local fare, from the famous Blue Vinney (which I love) to the Dorset Red (delicious if you like smokey) via a Somerset Brie and of course a farmhouse Cheddar. The husband liked the chutney which tasted too much like curry for my liking. He also loved the pudding of raspberry soufflé which was a bit too sugary for me but then I’m more of a savoury kinda girl.

There’s been a fair few reviews on Bridport’s Bull Hotel since they opened. They appeal to the growing number of people who have moved back into the area after a London stint or time elsewhere, as well as visitors who want comfort and a certain amount of luxury in a relaxed, modern atmosphere. Think affordable Babington House and you won’t be far wrong.