Month: January 2015

End Game: the Last Birds of the Season

Woodcut of a pheasant by Thomas Bewick, c 1797

Woodcut of a pheasant by Thomas Bewick, c 1797

The shooting season for both pheasant and partridge comes to an end this weekend so now is really the last chance to do something with them without having to rely on frozen birds. Obviously not everyone likes game or wants to eat it, so this post is just for those who do.

Game represents incredible value for money and in general provides very healthy eating with extremely lean meat. Of course, you want to watch your teeth with lead shot around and there is some evidence of low level uptake of lead from intensive eating of shot game, but you’d need to be gorging on it every day for many years for this to become medically significant.

In our local farmers’ market (Petersfield) you can usually buy five pheasant or partridge for ten pounds and the former will easily serve two people, or could even be stretched further. Supermarkets inevitably charge more, but most country people know where to buy at competitive prices. Even the cheapest supermarket chicken, produced in horrific conditions, will be significantly more expensive, and a lot less tasty or nutritious.

Fallen birds are almost a by-product of what is a fairly major rural industry – shooting. Any environmentally aware shoot is deeply conscious of the potential reputational damage cause by even the slightest suspicion that the bag might end up as landfill. So off to the dealer they go, regardless of price, and good cooks benefit thereby. If you want keen prices it’s hard to find much better value on the lean meat front. Those who shoot regularly, or are given game as presents by shooting connections, tend to complain about too much pheasant, but this is a bit of luxury.

On the assumption you’ll be having at least one more game meal this season the question is what to cook and how. You may be lucky and get pheasant that is still relatively tender, in which case roasted breast down is best, turned at the end with some streaky bacon to protect the breast, a splash of wine, butter and salt and pepper. Cooking times vary according to size and your taste for pinkness in a wide range from forty to fifty five minutes. If you’re following tradition then roast potatoes, bread sauce and fairly rich gravy are the standard accompaniments while a spicy red cabbage dish is delicious at this time of year.

Partridge, and you’ll be so lucky if you ever get the grey legged ones, actually benefit from being served with saffron mash, having a strong enough flavour to stand up to it. It’s simple to make. You need one large potato per person, peeled and cut up into chunks. These are then boiled until soft in salted water together with a goodish pinch of saffron, some proper olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and a bay leaf. Drain them and, if you can, separate any residual oil (a separating jug is a much better bet than trying to skim it off) . The potatoes will have picked up the flavours and colours of the ingredients, taking on a good yellow colour. Get rid of the garlic and bay leaf and mash up the potatoes with more oil and any you managed to save. You could have steamed white cabbage, red cabbage or cavolo nero as a vegetable and spiced and pickled pears would always be a treat with partridge.

If you reckon your pheasant are not going to be that tender (and at this time of year cock birds may not be) then one of the best ways of cooking them is a la Normande. In essence you brown your pheasant in butter, cook a couple of chopped shallots and add, season, and then deglaze the pan with either cider or calvados before adding in chunks or rings of apple browned in butter (Coxes are good), some more cider or good stock and bring to the bubble followed by about an hour in a medium oven or Aga. Adjust the seasoning, and then add some cream or, if you’re feeling rather Puritan, crème fraiche. This is good with baked potatoes or possibly even flat pasta such as tagliatelle. It’s rich enough that a simple salad afterwards will do, although those dedicated to the good things in life might well prefer to come to a sticky end with a golden syrup or Sussex Pond Pudding.

My assumption is that most people reading this post will be experienced cooks and able to work out precise quantities, times etc for themselves, but if anyone has any queries do email and I’ll come back with further information if necessary.


Grey partridge-image Norfolk Wildlife Trust, credit Martin Staff

Grey partridge-image Norfolk Wildlife Trust, credit Martin Staff

Brambles and Butterflies



Brambles and Butterflies

At the RHS’s garden at Wisley there are two very different areas to enjoy at the moment; the Winter Walk and the Butterflies in the Glasshouse. One embraces winter while the other turns its back on the weather by creating an almost tropical environment.

A good starting point for the Winter Walk is, conveniently, viewed from the main café. The low winter sunlight shines through a collection of dogwoods and willows creating a striking display of reds and oranges. The stems are sufficiently bright that even on an overcast day they shine vividly. This is one of the times that I wish I had a larger garden. I’m useless at judging distances, but these stems must be 50-100 yards away from the window seats, the same effect could not be created with the 10ft depth that I have.

Close up the plants are equally spectacular. The path weaves along the edge of the lake through the stems, the colours changing at every turn. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is bright red, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has stems which are orange at the base, rising to a brilliant scarlet at the tips and there are greeny-yellow willows (whose name I am not sure of). In between everything grows a bramble, Rubus biflorus. This is probably my favourite winter plant. Its long arching stems appear to have been whitewashed, with only the occasional tip remaining green. It is as if the cold has spread up from the ground and painted the stems. Vicious thorns make it clear that this is not a plant to walk casually through, or even past, but you can look into it and imagine a world such as Narnia, held fast in its grip. Horticulturally, it looks particularly good when combined with the vertical red stems of dogwood.

The walk continues past witch hazels, whose spidery flowers are now in full bloom. Deutzias and Christmas box may not be as spectacular to look at but their sudden wafts of fragrance are a delight. The winter honeysuckle is also in flower, with a delicate scent that you will miss if you walk by too quickly. Little snowdrops and hellebores line the paths and there is a new winter border of heathers, grasses and conifers, which looks attractive when viewed from the lake.

The walk leads to the Glasshouse (it is frankly not worth walking up past the Piet Oudolf borders at the moment as they are mostly a sad display of fallen stems and blackened seed heads) and into an extraordinary contrast. A wall of warmth hits you as you pass into the building, increasing as you walk round into the Tropical area. At this time of year the Glasshouse is full of a wonderful collection of butterflies. In shades of brilliant red and electric blue they flutter in between the plants, pausing photogenically at strategically placed feeding stations. They have beautiful names too: Giant Owl, Tree Nymph and King Swallowtail. The plants they fly between are also beautiful and a spectacular treat for those of us trapped in the depths of winter: huge agaves, colourful strelitzias, callistemons with their fluffy red bottle brushes, Plumbago indica and oranges and lemons. They combine to make a wonderful display, but it is not one I can get terribly enthused about. A single visit to the Glasshouse is lovely, but outside the views are constantly changing and reminding us that, even though it may still be cold and dark for much of the time, our gardens are waking up.        

Soon the daffodils will be in flower, the blossom will be out and, when the tulips arrive, Wisley will be a riot of colour. Many of the winter displays will either fade or be cut back to prepare for next year but, for the moment, for me at least, it is the dogwoods, willows and brambles that steal the show.



An Empire of Plants


Brugmansia arborea, Angels’ Trumpets

Andrea Wulf’s “The Brother Gardeners” (Heinemann) appeared in 2008, but is still well worth buying. Indeed it makes near-essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of many of the trees and plants we today take for granted. She points out the range of plants available to gardeners in the early eighteenth century was relatively limited and “it is perhaps difficult to imagine just how dull and dreary the late seventeenth – and early eighteenth century garden looked for at least five months of the year”.

It is hard to realise just how much we owe to the “Brother Gardeners” she describes. They formed an international network of collectors, merchants, nurserymen, learned institutions, ordinary garden owners and the rich and famous.

Her book focuses on the period from 1734 to the end of the eighteenth century and concentrates on six men in particular. These are the London cloth merchant and passionate gardener Peter Collinson who worked closely with the Philadelphia farmer and plant collector John Bartram. Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden was responsible for enormous practical advances in propagating new plants, despite a tense relationship with the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’s one-time protégé Daniel Solander eventually transferred his loyalties, until his untimely death in 1782, to the rich aristocrat Sir Joshua Banks.

Banks, in turn, a passionate botanist and skilled organiser, rose to be central figure in plant collecting and exploration, willingly paying £10,000 so he and his staff could accompany Captain Cook on his voyage to the Southern Hemisphere from 1768 to 1771. His energies and activities drove the discovery and introduction of new species from the Pacific and South Africa in particular; he remained at the centre of all things horticultural until his death in 1820. A man of immense charm and application, he clearly had a great gift for friendship as well as organisation. This didn’t prevent him taking a firm line with his collectors where, Wulf informs us “Banks liked to remind the collectors they should not travel as gentlemen but as servants, and in general he preferred to employ Scottish collectors for their ‘habits of industry, attention and Frugality’.”

The Brother Gardeners’ lives and activities were woven together, despite conflicts of personality and background, to transcend class, geography, politics and war in furtherance of a passion for plants and a taste for gardening. All their arguments, quarrels and entertainment aside; botany and gardening have benefitted from so many of the plants we take for granted today. By the end of the century scientific principles of classification, breeding and propagation were well established and driving the pursuit of botany. Very many of the plants we know today had by then been brought into this country by collectors, nurserymen, scientist and a network of trade and discovery hardly imaginable eighty years before

Red Oak in the Appalachians

Scarlet Oak Growing in the Appalachian Mountains

Plants either introduced or previously only infrequently available but brought into common usage, during the period covered by the book, include trees such as the red oak, tulip tree, black walnut, monkey puzzle and numerous birches and firs. Shrubs and smaller trees included stag’s horn sumach, many magnolias, viburnums, brugmansias (angels’ trumpets) and catalpas; while flowers such as rudbeckias, Campsis radicans, fuchsias and nerines were all either introduced or made freely available at this time. The images in this post are all of plants introduced or made generally available during the period the book covers (all are ex Wikipedia Commons); they show Brugmansia arborea-introduced in 1733, Campis radicans-introduced in 1640 but very scarce until propogated for everyday use by Collinson and Miller; and the Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea, whose acorns were collected and shipped in quantity to the UK by John Bartram over four decades.

Campis radicans

Campis radicans

Wulf’s book is strong not only on what was introduced when, but just as interestingly, on the difficulties, personality clashes and complexities of finding and introducing new species. She is excellent at describing this tension and especially the evolving relationship between Peter Collinson and his plant collector John Bartram. Collinson was not only a successful and very prosperous cloth merchant but also a passionate amateur botanist. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he was the confidante and intimate of plant collecting aristocrats such as Lord Petre and the Duke of Richmond. As Bartram’s knowledge grew Collinson was gradually obliged, despite an acute awareness of his own social position, to treat him as more of an equal and to recognise his importance and abilities in supplying the plants that were so in demand.

As usual we would encourage you to consider buying this book from your local independent bookseller, who you might miss should it disappear.


A Feast of Vegetables

DSC00114Yotam Ottolenghi has now published five books, of which “Jerusalem” is perhaps the best known and the latest of which, “Plenty More” (Ebury Press, 2014, full cover price £27.00), covers vegetarian cooking. Jonathan Lovekin’s photographs occupy as many full pages of the book as the text itself does and show excellent composition, balance and saturation of the intense colours associated with the best vegetarian food. They contribute enormously to the pleasure of reading and possessing the book as well as helping visualise sometimes exotic ingredients and dishes.

This is a book both practical enough to cook with and sumptuous enough to keep on display, even if not on a coffee table. It is the sort of book you might give or be given as a present, admire for its visual fireworks and relatively trendy subject matter; and then surprise yourself by actually using it, again and again.

Its production was clearly a team effort, from an outfit that now embraces restaurants, provisions and media. Ottolenghi’s acknowledgements to those he works with are both fulsome and full of character, for example he writes “Lucy, who’s in charge of Ottolenghi’s purchasing and of my life in general, isn’t hard to please but can be highly observant”

The author points out in his introduction that the prospect of vegetarian cooking can worry many people, as it once did him. Firstly a lot of the dishes, techniques and possibilities are not commonly known and secondly he, like many people, suffered an initial terror of running out of ideas. No danger of that once you’ve been using this book for a couple of weeks.

Its twelve chapters are respectively headed Tossed (salads), Steamed, Blanched, Simmered, Braised, Grilled, Roasted, Fried, Mashed, Cracked, Baked and Sweetened. They demonstrate the range and variety of dishes that can be prepared without the use of meat or fish and those I have tried are frankly delicious. A tart apple and celeriac salad is made special by the use of quinoa, coriander, thinly sliced red onion, poppy seeds and chilli. A rice dish is boosted by the use of cinnamon stick, lemon and fresh curry leaves; delicious pasta made with tagliatelle incorporates roasted walnuts and lemon juice as well as judicious amounts of cream and grated parmesan.

Given his culinary history and background it is unsurprising that Middle Eastern seasonings, ingredients and techniques play such a major part in this book. As the author points out with dishes like these, quality of ingredients is paramount and freshness and condition essential to a first class result. Some of the ingredients may be difficult to obtain outside large cities (verjuice, panch phoran and shriracha sauce seem to spring to mind) but many can be obtained through Ottolenghi’s website (

A small caveat is that, while nothing in the book is actually difficult to make, knife skills are definitely required and the amount of chopping, cutting, peeling and dicing is non-trivial. These are dishes to be prepared with concentrated love and eaten with serious pleasure. On the other hand the recipes are sufficiently filling, interesting and varied to ensure that if you so wanted you could eat off them happily for a very long time.

If you can get a competitive price at your local independent bookshop (it is heavily discounted at certain online outlets) please do consider using them to obtain it. As we always point out, you will probably miss them if they go.


Quince Jam and Jelly

Quince Jelly, jam and Curd

Membrillo may be the way most people come across quinces in shops, but there are other, equally delicious ways of preserving the fruit. Now is the time to take advantage of the last of the quinces and make jam and jelly. This post was meant to go up before Christmas, but jam and jelly make perfect New Year presents too and, if you don’t need to give it away, you can eat it! These recipes come from Quinces, Growing and Cooking (Prospect Books), which I wrote with Sue Dunster.

A Couple of Tips

Making jam and jelly is perfectly simple and incredibly satisfying, but there one or two points to be aware of. Unless specified the instructions below apply to both jam and jelly even though I have referred only to jam.

The type of sugar you use will not alter the taste of the jam but it will affect how it sets. Most importantly you must always use cane sugar rather than beet. Apparently in chemical terms there is no difference between the two, but cane sugar sets much better. If you use beet sugar your preserve will take ages to make and will always be on the runny side. Whether you use granulated or preserving, refined or unrefined is entirely up to you. Preserving or jam sugar is more expensive than granulated and not quite so readily available. The individual grains of sugar are larger and this means they dissolve more easily and, in turn, this speeds up the whole process. It is good if, like us, you are impatient but it doesn’t make better jam. Using refined or unrefined sugar is entirely a matter of personal preference.

The aspect of jam making which tends to worry people most is the setting point. This is the point at which the hot bubbling liquid in your pot will set when it cools. It is crucial not to overcook jam or jelly as they can become solid and rubbery and may taste burnt. The important thing to remember is that you can always cook the jam bit more, you cannot uncook it. With this in mind, always remove the pot from the heat when you test the jam. This way it will immediately stop cooking. It does not matter how many times you do this, you can even recook cold jam if you decide it is not sufficiently set. Testing whether the jam is set is very simple. Before you start put several saucers into the deep freeze. When you think the jam may be ready, remove it from the heat and, using a teaspoon put a small amount of jam onto one of the cold saucers. The jam will rapidly cool. Push your finger through it and if it forms a wrinkly skin it means the jam is ready and will set when cooled in jars. The jam is then ready to pour into jars. If it remains runny replace the pan on the heat and retest using another cold saucer.

When cooking the jam you will probably find a scum forms on the surface. Do not scoop this off while the jam is cooking as you will end up wasting a lot. When making jam you can disperse the scum by adding a little butter. Once the setting point has been reached, put a knob of soft butter into the jam and stir it until it melts. Any scum will miraculously disappear. The amount of butter you need will depend on the quantity of jam you are making and how much scum there is, so start with about ¼ teaspoon and add a little more if necessary. When making jelly you will need to scoop the scum off eventually as it will spoil the clarity of the jelly. Once the jelly has reached setting point allow it to cool slightly and then scoop off all the scum using a clean spoon. It doesn’t look terribly attractive, but tastes just as good and can be put in a separate jar and eaten.

It is important to sterilize your jars properly otherwise you run the risk of the jam going mouldy. It is perfectly okay to remove any mould and eat the jam below but it doesn’t look very good if you give away a jar of proudly made jam and a layer of blue mould has crept in. To sterilise, first preheat the oven to 110C / Gas ¼. Wash the jars and lids thoroughly in hot, soapy water and rinse well. You can run them through a cycle of a dishwasher if you prefer. Put the jars upside down in the oven and leave them until they are totally dry. If you are using metal lids they can go in the oven too. Drying the jars in the oven removes the risk of wiping them with a less than spotless cloth and also means that they are hot and will not crack when you pour the hot jam into them.

When cooking, simmer the fruit slowly to break it up and dissolve the sugar. Then boil it rapidly, as the quicker it reaches the setting point the better the flavour will be.

Quince Jam

This is a wonderful jam which is not too sweet and really thick with fruit.

  • 1kg quinces
  • 1.8ml water
  • 1.250-1.5kg granulated or preserving sugar, according to how sweet you want the jam
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Small piece of butter
  • This will make between 3 and 6 jars depending how juicy the quinces are and how runny you like your jam.
  • Put a couple of saucers in the deep freeze for testing the jam.
  • Wash the jars and put in a low oven (110C / Gas ¼) to dry.

Wash the quinces, removing all the fluff and cut out any bruised flesh. If the fruits are large, cut them in half as they will cook quicker this way. If there are signs that any of the fruits have been eaten by grubs it is worth cutting them anyway to check the inside. Put in a large steel pan, add the water (which should cover the fruit) and simmer until soft. This should take between ½ to 1 hour depending on the size of your quinces. Check periodically to ensure the pan does not dry out.

Lift the quinces out one at a time, place on a saucer and pull apart with a knife and fork and remove the core. You do not need to worry about the skin as this will break up when you boil the jam. The fruit will fall apart as you remove the cores. Cut the pieces in dice sized chunks.

Return the quinces to the juice in the saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar and then boil hard until the setting point is reached. (See above.)

Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal and once the jars are cool, label.

Quince Jelly

One of the joys of this jelly is the beautiful, clear colour, quite apart from the fabulous taste. It can be eaten on toast or scones and is also a delicious accompaniment to chicken, turkey and pheasant.

1kg quinces

Sugar – granulated or preserving

Depending on the fruit 1kg of fruit will give you about 300ml of juice which will, in turn, make just over a jar of jelly.

Wash the quinces and rub off the fluffy down. Remove any bruised or blemished parts and cut all the rest into chunks, you don’t need to worry about peeling or coring.

Put into a large, heavy bottomed saucepan and add enough water so the fruit is just submerged.

Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit has turned to pulp. Stir and squash down periodically to help the fruit break up and to prevent it sticking. This will probably take a couple of hours.

Pour the contents into a jelly bag and allow the juice to drip through into a bowl. It is easiest if you spoon the fruit into the bag first and then pour the liquid over. The whole operation is quite difficult and much simpler with two people, one to hold the bag open and one to pour. Do not squeeze the bag or press the fruit down as this will turn the jelly cloudy. The jelly will take a couple of hours to drip through and can be left overnight.

Put a couple of saucers in the deep freeze to use for testing the jelly.

Wash the jars and put in a low oven (110C / Gas ¼) to dry.

Measure the juice and for every 500ml juice add 400g sugar. Put into a clean saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Once the liquid is clear, turn up the heat and boil hard until setting point is reached. (See above.)

Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal and once the jars are cool, label.



The Land Where Lemons Grow

DSC00118Helena Attlee has written one the best books I have read this year: “The Land Where Lemons Grow” published by Particular Books at a cover price of £20. This is much, much more than piece of horticultural history and is really a portal to the entire Mediterranean world and in particular to the agglomeration of cultures, cuisines and histories that has now become Italy. The title comes from Goethe’s The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister; where Mignon, the daughter of a wandering musician sings “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn” simply translatable as “Do you know the land where lemons bloom?” The line encapsulates the slightly sinister beauty and warmth of Italy and its lure for the more frigid civilisations of the north.

This attraction is something we all feel in winter. Visiting RHS Wisley gardens this New Year’s Day it was so cold, so dark and so horribly dank that I fled into the warmth of the citrus collection in the glasshouses. The intensity of the orange and lemon blossom was overpowering and it was easy to feel the magic that has attracted generations of English and Germans to the Riviera and the Amalfi Coast as well as Sicily. Equally one can understand the drive to create the orangeries and hothouses where these then exotic species could bloom and fruit.

Helena Attlee is a distinguished garden writer and leads tours round many Italy’s best historic gardens. In this book however she moves well beyond horticulture alone, although her obvious expertise in this area informs the whole text. Attlee’s book encompasses not only history and horticulture but mythology, biology, sociology, cooking (with some excellent recipes), perfumery, the story of taste and architecture and Italy’s contentious politics (mafia included), as well as numerous visits she has made to the once great cultivation sites of the various citrus fruits the country contains.

Attlee goes into the minute details of the people and places she visits on her journey of discovery whilst never losing sight of the symbolic importance of citrus fruits as a whole and as symbols of the warm world of our imaginations and desires. She ties them in to the contexts of both the mythologies once associated with them and those we have more recently created around them.
She explains how, via trade and invading Arabs, the citrus fruits reached Spain and then Sicily and elsewhere in the country from their far off origins in the Himalayas, Burma, northern India, the Malay Archipelago and China. She describes how they subsequently interbred promiscuously to provide the varieties of citrus now cultivated. She discusses the origins and cultivation of lemons, oranges, bergamots, the chinotto, clementines, tangerines and the fabulous but strange citron whose perfect fruits will sell for several hundred dollars as an essential component of the Lubavicher Jewish Sukkoth feast.

Citron Medica at Wisley 15-01-2013 01-25-28Amongst the many fascinating stories she tells is the tale of citrus’ role in the prevention of scurvy amongst sailors through the daily consumption of lemon juice. The Admiralty does not emerge covered in glory from this, although there is no reason to believe its intentions were not good. It took some forty years to act after a controlled clinical trial by a naval surgeon, James Lind, in 1747 conclusively proved lemon juice’s effectiveness. Even then, by eventually substituting lime juice in the mid 19th century, storing it in open vats and passing it through copper piping to be dispensed to the sailors, much of the reduced quantity of vitamin C the limes contained was effectively destroyed. In the eighteenth century the nouns applicable to citrus fruits were commonly interchangeable and lemons were frequently referred to as limes. Hence the area containing the docks where the navy’s lemons were landed from Sicily and Malta was referred to as Limehouse. I at least never knew before I read this book.

Throughout the book, Attlee weaves in events from the wider world. When the Arabs brought lemons and sour oranges to Sicily after they invaded in AD 831 they brought with them all forms of science and technology, including sophisticated water storage and irrigation systems that were used to extend and repair the original and dilapidated Roman aqueducts.

As the book makes clear, the cultivation of citrus fruits needs extensive knowledge, skill, resource and time. Since it tends to be capital intensive it is always liable to exploitation from those with the power to manipulate markets and intimidate the smaller growers. Helena Attlee does not shrink from exposing the ways in which the Mafia in Sicily (primarily a nineteenth century organisation in its origins that included many aristocrats, prelates and prosperous merchants as well as bandits and ruffians) murdered, bullied, corrupted and intimidated small growers and producers to gain control of the trade. She likewise discusses role of that other criminal infrastructure, the ‘ndrangheta, in Calabria.

Yet she never loses sight of the sheer sensuous beauty of the trees, their blossom and their fruit. You get an intense feeling for the local and the specific as she, for example, visits a small factory extracting essential oils from bergamots in Calabria which are used in perfumery and medicine. At the end of the visit the owner, Annunziato Bova, tells her how proud he is of what he does and then, generously and inexplicably, presses into her hand a small and very valuable bottle of golden green oil.

Finally the book contains a number of interesting recipes placed in boxes throughout the text. These include tagliolini with orange and lemon, an Arabic recipe for lamb with sour oranges and spices and, as something of an historical curiosity, one for tortoise pie made with a real tortoise.

This is a book really worth reading, and buying. If you do decide to buy, although it is widely available, please consider getting it from your local independent bookseller. We will miss them if they go.