Saturday, 3 June 2017

Cheesy like Sunday Morning....

and Monday, and Tuesday....

Ask the man-in-the-street to name a British cheese, and they'd probably come up with four or five: Cheddar, Stilton, Red Leicester and Wensleydale - thanks Gromit! Four cheeses, maybe five or six.....

The same is true at the major supermarkets - sure you get more choice of manufacturers, but if you look for British cheese, you still are restricted to those that can be mass produced (of course the same goes for other produce sold by supermarkets too, just ask Monty Don about plants)  and it's exactly this trend that the Slow Food network is actively countering.

So, imagine the hypothetical scene - a table with all the British cheeses laid out to try: crumbly Dorset Blue Vinny, made with milk from cows grazing on one field near Sturminster Newton,  hard Y-Fenni with mustard seed, soft and oozy Stinking Bishop and so on;  then imagine that you had the self-control to restrict yourself to eating one of these cheeses per day.

How long would it take to taste all of them?  A month?  two months?

In fact it would take over two years to taste all the cheeses - with over 700 varieties to choose from, including a dozen or more with Protected Designation of Origin status.

My favourite at the moment is a toss-up between Hereford Hop, which goes really well shaved onto grilled Evesham Asparagus, and Little Hereford, a salty hard cheese which is perfect in Welsh Rarebit. Both of these are made by the wonderful Monkland cheesemakers, who also sell online.

So next time you fancy a nibble of cheese, maybe washed down with some Unity Brewers ale, look out for something more unusual and keep the variety alive.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017


Last week I was set a challenge during an end-of-term awards celebration.  I was given 10 minutes, and two student volunteers (out of the three hundred who stuck their hand up when asked) to make something out of a random bag of ingredients the boss had brought in.

So I had three Conference pears, a tin of coconut milk, 2 chocolate and caramel eggs and a tube of chilli paste to make something from.

At the bottom of the tin of coconut milk is the thin coconut liquor with the thick solid cream floating on the top.  So, I peeled and cored the pears and poached them in this liquor for 5 minutes until soft (they were very ripe Conference pears after all).

Meanwhile I put 50g of butter and 50g of sugar into a pan with 125ml of the coconut cream and brought it to the boil, simmering for 5 minutes to make a coconut butterscotch sauce.  I grated the chocolate from the eggs, and melted half of it together with the rest of the coconut cream and the caramel from the middle of the eggs, and added about 1/4 tsp of the chilli paste to make a spicy sweet chocolate sauce, and served the pears with the two sauces and the rest of the grated chocolate.

image copyright BBC Food

Friday, 8 April 2016

Pillar to Post

Social folklore has it that people tend to have three careers during a working lifetime.  I've been variously a professional Singer, Teacher and Chef, with a few other oddments on the side - I ran an IT company for a while and have a few books published,  but generally I fit the profile.

Three months ago I took the decision to leave professional catering and return to teaching. There were a few reasons, financially it made sense, and also I needed to restore a more reasonable work-life balance: simply put I no longer have to book leave to get a weekend or bank-holiday off.

I am still just as passionate about the food that I cook at home; the provenance and seasonality of it - I've become a member of the Slow Food network, which seeks to preserve heritage foods around the world, and I have become more interested in baking thanks to my last catering job, and shall invest at some point in a stand mixer and fill the freezer with sponges and tray bakes.

I should like to go even further back and do a bit of singing again too but for the moment I am getting used to being in the classroom again - education has undergone some changes since I was last in front of a class, and some of the concepts being taught are delivered at a much earlier stage than when I was at school.

But I shall keep this blog going I think, as always with thoughts, random jottings and recipes.

If you have any comments or questions please ask

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Singin' the Blues

At work we have a large kitchen garden with bees and chickens and around 45-50 varieties of fruit and veg throughout the year, and a lot of it we try to use in the kitchen: so honey goes in cakes, fruit in jams and puddings etc.  We're expecting a bumper crop of quinces later which'll become jellies for one course of a formal dinner in October.  

Not everything grown in the gardens is used; broad beans for example are too labour intensive for the small catering staff we have - we have three outlets which sometimes only have 4 staff between them, including the kitchen - and recent changes have meant that some produce simply won't fit the menus any more but we try to use the local stuff wherever possible. And by local, I mean maybe hundreds of yards for the end result, and the original stock perhaps might come from 30 miles away tops. 

Occasionally we get something unusual to try on an unsuspecting clientele; last year the garden staff asked us to try Asparagus Lettuce, which you allow to bolt, when it forms a spear of growth which looks vaguely like asparagus, and which purportedly tastes like asparagus too.  I can only say that whoever wrote the rubric in the seed catalogue had either never eaten the lettuce or never tasted asparagus because the result was unbelievably vile. Bitter and acrid it made my lips tingle. 

At the moment we have a crop of heritage potatoes to use - Purple Majesty - which are the most incredible purple colour throughout. Some colourfully-skinned potatoes, such as Rooster or Rudolf are just that - colourfully skinned ( which in no way denigrates the flesh - rooster make fantastic roasts and fondants) but Purple Majesty are something different.

High in antioxidants they were marketed a few years ago in the supermarkets as 'the healthiest potato to eat' 

They certainly make a talking point when brought to the table; they change colour slightly when you cook them, going a deep cerulean blue, and your mind expects something that tastes like beetroot and you expect them to stain your fingers, but they are after all potatoes, and cook and mash and taste like potato. 

Purple Majesty are brilliant, they are available from the shops, and seed potatoes are readily available too.  Let's keep these heritage varieties alive.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Busman's Holiday

This week I'm on leave from work ( and realised that the last time we had more than a couple of days off together was a year ago! ) so of course we've managed to fill nearly every day with catching up on jobs and seeing people we haven't had a chance to; we've done all the formal meetings pre-wedding - registrars, venue nitty gritty and photo-shoot, been or have yet to visit relatives in London and on the south coast, and have walked the dog probably further than she's ever been walked in one go in her life! 

During one of our voyages we stopped at a farm shop where we bought some smoked bacon scotch eggs, and where the lady serving was desperately trying to dissuade a young couple from buying two slices of topside of beef which they wanted to barbecue. In amongst the packets of pasta and shortbread there was a shelf full of jars of pickles and chutneys labelled 'home-made' and this initially caught my eye because that's one of the phrases which we're not allowed to use at work. Trading Standards occasionally will do spot checks and are like limpets when they see something that they don't like. I fully understand that you can't sell produce as 'organic' if it's not certified as such, nor 'free-range' if it isn't, and the phrase 'gluten-free' has been replaced by 'made with non-gluten-containing ingredients'. But we're also not supposed to use the descriptions 'hand-made' or 'traditional' or indeed 'home-made' so seeing these jars professionally packaged prompted me to have a squint at the flyer which was tucked behind a jar of plum jam. 

But sure enough, they were all made by someone who had given over their kitchen to run a small business (as I will once I find a niche market) and funnily enough they were based in a street maybe fifty yards from where we live.  

There are of course strict laws concerning what you have to include on food labelling. Traffic lights and nutritional information aside, you have to state the ingredients, including any of the 13 allergens recently prescribed as essential knowledge (I still remember a bag of doughnuts I bought from a petrol station which had a label saying 'these doughnuts may contain traces of nuts, crustaceans, molluscs and lupins'), plus things like a use by date.  We make a chutney at work which is very popular, and pretty much every week someone will ask whether they can buy it in the the shop and the answer is 'no' because it's not cooked. And they shake their heads and mutter about health and safety and I explain that we can sell it for immediate consumption but not if there's any chance of someone keeping it for weeks.....(it's a pickle, it keeps for weeks....)

And then I say 'would you like the recipe?' and their faces light up a bit. I usually have to convert it into Imperial, but here's the metric version.

900 grams each of
Apples, peeled, cored and chopped 
Pitted dates, chopped
Sultanas, chopped,
light brown soft sugar
White wine vinegar 

1 tsp each of ground:

Salt and pepper 

Mix all together and leave for 24 hours. 

As with my approach to all cooking, if you want to tweak the ingredients, add, remove, increase etc. please do.

Ps this goes really well with cheese and black pepper scones.......

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hints and Tips

I've been writing this blog for a while, and it's been largely anecdotal, so I thought I'd go off-piste with this entry and simply put down a few thoughts on my top five hints and tips for cooking.

1. Invest in a decent, sharp knife.  A knife is the cook's main tool in the kitchen - there are loads to choose from in the shops ranging from a tenner all the way up to celebrity-endorsed ones topping hundreds of pounds.  A good knife should be well balanced, and made of a fairly hard steel that will take regular sharpening.  If you watch a butcher, they'll be sharpening their knives between every task, and letting the knife do the work.  Sharpening with a whetstone is best I think, imagine that you're shaving very thin slices from the stone towards you and away from you, and you'll have a razor-sharp knife in about six moves

2. Use your senses.  Cooking is a sensory experience, so look at the ingredients as you cook them, taste as you go, smell the food, listen to it cooking - a buzzword around at the moment is 'mindfulness' - be mindful as you cook (always makes me think of Jedi training!)  A big influence on my cooking has been the idea known for centuries in the near and Far East of balance between flavours; sweet, sour, salty, sharp and the new kid on the block, at least in Western cooking, of Umami - food rich in this are mushrooms, soy, anchovies, parmesan cheese and many others.  Also important to me is the texture of food - some foods I don't like simply because I don't like the texture - bread & butter pudding or baked beans - but a dish should have a mix of textures, created either by the cooking e.g. frying meat before you add it to a dish (this is done not in order to 'seal in the juices' which is a myth, but to cause something called the Maillard effect, which caramelizes the natural sugars in the meat to bring out the flavour and to create another texture in the mouth when you eat), or by the combination of the ingredients. 

3. Let the food cook.  I once watched a TV chef giving advice on cooking steaks - he said quite simply something along the lines of - lay the steak in a hot pan and leave it alone! - no lifting or prodding or stirring until halfway through when you turn the steak over.  Of course you need to stir food to stop it burning, or to avoid lumpy sauces and that is correct, but I've seen so many cooks prolong the cooking process by lifting food off the heat to see if it's cooked, or constantly opening the oven doors and so on.  Use a timer, use your eyes and nose to tell when things are done but let the food cook.

4. Make time to cook from scratch.  I work on average ten or eleven hour days, which isn't that much in catering, and many people work much longer, and on occasions at home we'll say, 'let's get a takeaway',  which is only right, but mostly at home we'll cook from scratch - there is something very satisfying and therapeutic about measuring, preparing and combining ingredients to come up with a dish that's better than one you could buy from a shop.  I'm not suggesting that everything needs to be home-made - puff pastry for one thing is much easier to buy than make and just as good, but if you take the time to make things like sauces from scratch, and to find out what works or not, and what you like or not, then you're bound to become a better cook.  And it's generally cheaper and better for you!

5.  Be creative!  I'm not a proponent of mixing thousands of ingredients or pairing weird and wonderful flavours as seems to be the current trend, if television cookery programs are to be believed - strawberries and fish, or scallops, ginger and black pudding spring to mind - but get to know what works well or not.  Recently I made a rhubarb cake: rhubarb is coming to the end of its season now, and gooseberries are coming on, so I'll be making gooseberry cake - it can be as simple as that. If you don't like one ingredient, or can't get hold of something, use something else that fits.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

(False) economies of scale

A long time ago, in a career path far far away, I was responsible in part for a fairly large IT project involving a number of different educational institutions. We were dealing with national and international companies such as Apple and Microsoft and it was here that I came across the vagaries of procurement policies and the problem of economies of scale. 

Because of the regulations surrounding procurement and in efforts to be transparent, the big suppliers had to tender for work, and the same products were put in place across the board in the spirit of economy. The problem came when you tried to put any form of creativity or spontaneity in to play. For example, at one point we began to focus on the use of Film as a teaching and learning tool. To get the film from the cameras onto the computer to work with it we needed to install dedicated graphics cards. You could buy what we needed for £20 at the time, but because there was a list of suppliers and products from which we couldn't deviate, the one we had to buy was ten times that price. 

The same thing is happening in catering: suppliers have to tender for contracts, squeezing out smaller companies even if their products are better or cheaper or both. Recently I was phoned by a small family company who'd been one of our suppliers for years. They'd been part of a consortium of suppliers for years, but because of their size, they are not able to compete with other bigger players in the consortium. The people who hold the purse strings had decided that it would be more cost effective to use a standardised product from one the more wide ranging suppliers. As a result, our smaller local firm had simply lost huge amounts of business in one fell swoop. For the same reason we have to buy products from countries such as Morocco and Kenya, when the same thing is growing 300 yards away. Small independent local businesses need to be nurtured and supported. What hope is there as long as the companies that can use them simply won't?