A bigger challenge

November 1 and I’m off again. After a few days in London, I will be spending three weeks in Cornwall. Elizabeth Heard was a nineteenth century woman printer (not that she did much of the actual printing) in Truro. She was 34 when her husband John died and she took over the business. In spite of having at least one son who entered the business on his majority, she continued to run it under her imprint. She also continued as the publisher of the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, the liberal newspaper started by her husband.

However,, she is my research mission. My food mission is as ever. Eat local in unfamiliar places. Cornwall is more familiar to me as I have been there a number of times in the pursuit of a larger research project. But, I have never been there in the late autumn and I think eating local may be something of a challenge. No berry season, but perhaps fish, Devon lamb, early winter vegetables? I have a cottage with full facilities, so my aim is, as always, to cook my own food. M&S (i really do hate the ubiquitous blast  of their chillers), the local Saturday (I think) market, the butcher shop in a little lane off Lemon Square. Who knows? Watch this space.


I returned home on Wednesday, actually leaving  on the Monday evening Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong and then on to Auckland. In some ways, I felt that the ‘experiment’ was over, yet I still tried to keep some part of my resolve in choosing appropriate meals on the flights. Largely, I failed as I didn’t fancy what was on offer. On the London/Hong Kong leg, I did chose a semi-oriental dish of braised beef and turnip, stiry fried vegetables and steamed Jasmine rice so that I could pair it with the 2010 Chateau Cap L’Ousteau Haut-Medoc. Neither disappointed. On the second leg it seemed only appropriate to ease back into New Zealand mode and I selected roasted salmon and a glass (or three) of Michelle Richardon’s 2012 Central Otago Pinot Noir. So different from the Chateau Cap Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, but each one a gem.

Reflecting on my intention to select and eat what I originally thought might be a fairly limited selection of food, I was surprised about a number of things. First was its extensive limits. I imagined I would be a great deal more constrained than I was and had either forgotten or not realised just how strong the ‘Buy British’ movement was and how thoroughly it had permeated the food sector. At no time did I feel that I was missing out an anything once I had decided (quite understandably!) to drink French wines. Second, there was a delicious and really quite specifically geographical variety of meat from the Scottish Angus steak to the West Country lamb. Once I managed to secure garlic and found local shallots, I was back in my own cooking comfort zone which inevitably features both. The fruit, as I suspected, was berry delicious, eggs were no problem, and the Cornish bries and different models of Stilton a delight. All things considered, it was an interesting experience and added a touch of challenge to the trip. I might have been different if I had to eat out all the time, but as I had rented an apartment and could cook, it was also simplicity itself.

I do have to apologise for and amend one earlier comment. Another surprise was the wonderful variety of crackers on which to perch my cheese. I clearly mis-remembered, or perhaps just never looked for so never noticed, the wide variety of cracker biscuits on offer in all the supermarkets. Most of them were made in the UK, though I imagine not all the ingredients were. What did not surprise me and I cannot amend is my lack of appreciation for the coffee. This is obviously coffees I have out, but I only found one place that made a good flat white. Many do not have it on their menu of coffee opportunities, but will do it if asked. I should have stopped asking. Usually there are flat (too flat at times) and they are white, but there the resemblance to a flat white stops. Essentially, they are just milky coffees and weak ones at that.

Last note: what would I miss out on if I kept up the experiment and kept to its intentions in the UK? Olives, olive oil, coffee, tea, lemons, limes, oranges, chocolate, bananas, tinned Italian tomatoes (the best in world), French cheese, most things curry-ish, coconut cream, papaya, pineapple (which I wouldn’t miss), almonds, cashews, dates, quite a few spices, New Zealand wine, French wine, Sicilian wine, soy sauce, sugar, passionfruit, many varieties of beans and lentils (no hummus, puy lentils or tofu), peanuts, pasta, rice…

One would not suffer from malnutrition or die from the lack of any of these. Makes you think.


Fish & chips and a surfeit of apples

Ha! Fish and chips after all. I decided not to make a planned trip to Winchester because I was still feeling the effects of the now-departed cold that appears to have morphed into mild bronchitis. I will have to revisit the spiritual home of the New Vaudeville Band some other time. Though my long walk to Woodley on Friday left me with no lasting ill-effects(Nan told me in a text that I must be fit!), I was simply not up to a day’s sightseeing. I had earlier resolved to break the bad habit of arriving back in London on my day of travel home, parking my bags somewhere obscenely expensive, and then running around the city gathering up all the things I had decided to purchase but didn’t want to carry around the countryside. This usually includes a visit to Liberty’s, the British Library, Muji and a number of other far-flung places that would have depleted my Oyster card and left me having to buy more miles to get to Heathrow. All most unsatisfactory, but there were a few things I still wanted to get, so I went into Reading just before midday.

On my last visit I went in search of the premises of a nineteenth-century printer, Edward Blackwell. He operated out of a printery in London Street during the years I was interested in. Sadly, where his building was is now part of a dual carriageway. Progress, it seems, is not only painful, but also a pain. But, I did discover a brasserie at 2-4 London Street, located in a building that is all that is left from the beginning of the street before the development of the carriageway. The building itself (once a couple of buildings) dates to the early 18th century and began its life as a toll-house at one entrance to Reading. It was listed in the mid-19th century as a public house and brewery owned by Evans & Francis with half of the building occupied by a blacksmith. Until 1999, when its current owners bought it refurbished it and opened as the London Street Brasserie, it housed a number of retail shops.

2-4 London Street, probably in the 19th century. Image from the London Street Brasserie website: http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/history
2-4 London Street, probably in the 19th century. Image from the London Street Brasserie website:

My association with it was a lunch of haddock and chips that was sufficiently delicious to bring me back to it. Last year and this, I sat at a table on the small deck outside that overlooks the river. Such is the thought gone into the business that cushions are kept in a large blanket box inside so that tender derrieres need not sit, naked as it were, on the metal chairs and rugs are supplied in cool-ish weather. And this is what lunch looks like!

Lunch, Saturday 12 September 2015. Sitting on a deck at the London Street Brasserie and watching the River Kennet amble by.
Lunch, Saturday 12 September 2015. Sitting on a deck at the London Street Brasserie and watching the River Kennet amble by.

For a pottle person, the delivery is is apt. The lemon in the foreground is contained within a piece of muslin. I imagine it stops the pips falling into the meal. Kind of cute. The green stuff in the pottle on the right is mushy peas. Not at all sure I understand them. For someone whose intention is to eat only British food, well done, me! I couldn’t eat it all. Sad but true. A constrained diet often means ending up eating less than normal and I imagine this is what I have been doing for the last two and a bit weeks. I noticed it first when a skirt I had brought to wear and trousers that I have been wearing were tending to slip floor-wards in an unseemly manner. Now it seems that my capacity for food has led me to leave some of the delish fish and chips on the plate. Coffee? Well, we won’t speak about that. Perhaps it might be a useful exercise for someone Antipodean to come to the UK and teach them what a flat white is all about. This one was flat (not all of them are) and it was white, but rather than the double shot it needed to be, it tasted more like hot water was dripped through three ground beans. Sorry, London Street, I loved everything else, but the coffee is probably the result of a general British arabica failure. I shouldn’t have been drinking it, in any case, so I have let that cat out of the bag.

However, this lovely lunch did not leave much room for a dinner in the evening, so I decided to cook the duck legs I had bought at Waitrose on Friday for Nan’s Sunday evening return.

As promised, Nan’s apple glut.

...more apples...
…more apples…
...still more apples...
…still more apples…
...and the mother of all the apples.
…and the mother of all the apples.

As I write this, I can smell the tray of Nan’s equally multitudinous tomatoes I put  into the over to roast. Roasted duck leg, thinly sliced beans and roasted tomato risotto for dinner. Yes, I know; arborio is Italian. Shoot me. And then I’ll confess to the mozzarella in the risotto.

Caramalised shallots and Cumberland sausage

Shallots from Bedfordshire! A whole bagful. I only wanted an onion to make a roasted tomato sauce ahead of Nan’s homecoming on Sunday. Being loathe to carry food from London to Reading, I had to do a small shop today. Most of what anyone might want is either in Nan’s fridge or her garden, but I needed a few bits and pieces, among them shallots. I was aware of a new M&S about 3.4 kms away, but I also knew that there was a Waitrose in Woodley, which I have been to before – in a car! But, determined that I would be more likely to get what I wanted there, I decided to put on my best feet and set out to walk. Two and a half miles, 4 kms if you count the extra bit I did when I came out after shopping and went down the wrong way. So, it’s about the same. Doubled in either case.

Oh, there’s  a bumblebee in the conservatory! I like bumblebees, though they are not partial to me or more correctly, not good for me. I have always been allergic to honey bee stings; I blow up like a balloon and am very uncomfortable for about two months after a sting. I had never known if I would had the same response to bumblebee stings until one stung me on the leg about three years ago. I was putting wood on the fire from a basket of wood collected from a pile down the back of the yard. It was a  worse reaction that I usually have to one of their smaller but less jolly cousins. I have recently read Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees, a funny and easy-to read encapsulation of the Sussex professor’s lifelong engagement with bumblebees. If I remember correctly, it is only the queens who sting and since they hibernate in winter and I had probably disturbed her sleep by gathering the firewood, it was most likely a queen who stung me. Only the best! But, if I had known then what I know now, I would have recognised her groggy state and tried to return her to some semblance of a sleeping chamber. But I didn’t and I digress.

Along with the shallots, I bought Gressingham duck legs and free-range Cumberland sausages. The sausage I shall have for dinner with Nan’s potatoes and runner beans and Bedfordshire farmer 211APB’s Waitrose caramalised shallots. Nan disparages her her potatoes as being too small, but I cannot see anything wrong with small potatoes, especially when accompanied by butter. For those who don’t know it, Waitrose has a butchery counter where you can choose fresh cuts of meat. I gather those who work behind the counter are not butchers, which is not a problem. The man in the apron and hat behind the counter in Sheen knew everything about all the meat in front of him. The one in Woodley did not and was not even sure what a Cumberland sausage was and how it might differ from other sausages. But he did check it out on the packet he took from a fridge behind him (which kind of gave the ‘fresh’ game away) and I was happy. I found quite a good selection of British bacon, but not one that identified itself as free range. There was one that claimed to have raised its pig in ‘open spaces’ (that is not exactly right, but something like it). I wasn’t sure what ‘open spaces’ (or its correct categorisation) meant, whether it was a euphemism for something less agreeable or it was simply a new way to tell me that the pigs who supplied said bacon had been raised as i would have wished them to be. Confused and knowing I would have to carry it back, I didn’t buy any bacon.

On the way back, at the corner of Wokingham Road and London Bridge Road stands The George. Nan and I had lunch there on an earlier trip and it was quite the country but but slightly up-market. I gather it is now even moreso and was tempted to take the weight off my feet and have a meal of fish and chips. This is something I almost inevitably do when I’m travelling – eat a meal of fish and chips that is. I like a sweet fish like cod, freshly cooked from scratch and chips that are large-ish and crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. There are some that would say that is a good description of me. I haven’t had the pleasure this time and probably won’t, but I remember the meal of fish and chips at The George in 2010 with fondness. I decided this time that it was one hour too far away from putting my feet up. I stole the image below from The George website. This is taken of the back of the hotel, from the river side rather than the road.

The George in Earley
The George, Earley, on the corner of Wokingham and London Bridge Roads. Image taken from The George website at http://www.chefandbrewer.com/pub/george-earley/c2190/

Nan has an apply tree that grows apples like there was no tomorrow. When I arrived there were pots of apples in the conservatory, apples on the kitchen bench, apples on the garden tables, apples all over the ground and that accounted for possibly five per cent of the apples that are still on the tree. I’ll take a photo of its abundance and put it up here when I’m able to get back up on my feet and walk out to the garden.

Really boring post

With Lesley now gone and me back in the Archives during the day, I can get on with some hope of realising my intentions. The other  bits of the chicken I had a week or so ago came out of the freezer, I bought a few cup mushrooms gathered from somewhere in Shropshire if memory serves correctly and with a caramlised shallot I bought from the Kew Market on Sunday and Nan’s garlic, I should be sitting down to a healthy and guilt-free treat in an hour or so.

The market was a surprise. Lesley and I were making our way to Kew Gardens and we came across it. What treats, but sadly, I am too close to leaving to have bought anything that I really wanted. Some beautiful goat’s cheese (one of my favourite cheeses these days) and all manner of breads that were begging to be slathered with butter. When we came to the vegetable stall, we asked if the produce was local and were told that it was not only local, but the farmer grew it all himself. Is that true? Could it be? I guess it could. I believed it and bought some shallots, one of which I added to the leftover curry from Friday night. The other, as i said, will go with tonight’s chicken.

Kew was interesting. It was relaxing; a million people lining up at the gate, but the acreage is so vast that you only run into more then half a dozen at a time in the eating places. We ate, of course. For almost twice the price of our experience at Ham House, we had coffee that was not quite as good and a Chelsea bun each that wasn’t a patch on Kitty’s scones. Captive market I suppose. Each of these were had in an orangery. Ham House in a small family-sized space and Kew in what could almost be industrial scale. Very large and very beautiful; enormous three story windows and everything painted off-white. Odd that the Victorians (who built it in the 1840s) found the there was insufficient light to grow citrus as it is an extremely light-filled building.  The statue of Eros in the corner let the side down a bit as he was sporting a few cobwebs.

There were quite a number of sweet chestnut trees, one of them rather venerable I believe. They are about to drop their lethally sharp fruits onto the ground, I wonder what park staff do with them, as we are considering cutting down our tree at home because they are a pain to use in cooking and the dogs find them painful underfoot. Ouch!

Well, if I’m going to eat this chicken, I need to get on with cooking it. I will try to be more interesting in my next post. The problem with Interludes is that they could just become one long mea culpa and nobody’s interested in that, are they?

Interlude #2

Not much of an interlude as I have managed to eat more or less local as well as locally. A friend from Edinburgh came up to London for the weekend and we began with Waitrose cod (finally got the cod!), beans from Hampshire and ‘tender broccoli stems’ from Worcestershire. Beginning of course with the last of the soft Stilton-ish blue and the odd Stornoway crackers. She likes them so will be taking them home with her. Happily, as I am loathe to throw them out.

We had planned to go to the Richmond branch of Cote Brasserie, but I have caught a cold. No, that’s silly, I did not catch it. Why would I? I someone threw it to me I would purposely and purposefully drop it. So, shall I say that someone forced it upon me? That sounds more like the truth. In any case, I did not feel like going out, so we wandered up to Waitrose again, picked up some free-range chicken tenderloins and made a curry with spinach (grown by someone called Emmett from Lincolnshire) and naan bread. The curry was lively, but the naan was a little like eating someone’s shoe. And rice, of course, so the local was not met in that regard. The remainder of the naan will be donated to the birds on our walk along the river this morning to Kew.

Yesterday, we set out to go to Ham House, a grand 17th century house, the most intact example of Stuart architecture in the world. Built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour and became the residence for Henry, Prince of Wales and son of James I. Through a variety of leasings and passings-on that managed to skirt around the thorny issue of Civil War, the house eventually ended up in the possession of one of its daughters, Elizabeth Tollemache. She and her second husband, John Maitland the first Duke of Lauderdale, who enlarged, furnished and decorated it and it remains much the same as they made it. Most of the furnishings, paintings, statuary and textiles are those that Elizabeth, primarily, put into the house 400 years ago. The gardens are formal, symmetrical, spare, but beautifully peaceful and more to be gazed upon rather than wandered through. The old Orangery is the café and we stopped there for a coffee. We ordered scones, Lesley cheese and me fruit, which were served to us by Kitty and, she said proudly, made by her as well. She had every reason to be proud as they were delicious. Scones are tricky little numbers, they require just the right amount of butter and the lightest touch. A whisker less of one and more of the other results in a gray lump. Not so Kitty’s scones. The coffee left something to be desired, but I find coffee in England to always be so. The point of a flat white is that is needs to be flat and strong, so fluffy with too much milk weakens the effect. Of course, since it’s coffee, I shouldn’t be drinking it at all, but this was an interlude.

We had booked into the Cote on our way to Ham House, bookings being necessary we thought because there was a rugby game on that day. Then we wandered down what turned out to be the wrong side of the river, but it was a quiet, peaceful and tree-lined path with few people around. Eventually we came to a ferryman who regularly takes people across the river to the other side and charges the princely sum of £1 for his effort. We had fantasies of somehow displeasing Henry VIII and being ferried down the river to the Tower and a certain fate. But no, just to the other side and a short walk to Ham House. We walked back on the right side and eventually ended up at the brasserie. It didn’t look right. The décor, the menu, the choices; something was wrong. Then is became clear. We were in Strada; Cote was next door. So we said, sorry, made a mistake and took ourselves off next door.

Seated once again in the right place, I ordered sea bass, something I have never had and a a reassuringly English fish. It was cooked beautifully, sweet and soft and with a buttery sauce that enhanced, rather than overwhelmed it. By the time we had finished, I was feeling considerably sorry for myself, so we made our way back to the flat in Mortlake and I promptly went to bed, emerging some twelve hours later and feeling very much better and ready for the expedition to Key Gardens. I have spent many hours in the Archives, yet have never taken the time to go to the gardens, so I shall address that omission today.

Falling off the wagon and getting back on it

Falling off the wagon and getting back on it

Over the last few days, I have treated myself to a meal of West Country lamb and a cod cake. The latter was made by Waitrose rather than by me, which is something of a cheat, but there you are. The woman serving on the fish-counte assured me it was English cod. It is interesting to think of fish as being peculiar to one country or another as water-based boundaries seem even more arbitrary than land-based borders. The cod wars fought over the right to fish cod in Icelandic waters which resulted in Iceland pre-empting a world-wide 200 mile limit and, ultimately, in the closure of the fishing grounds to Britain. See here for a little history of the cod wars between Iceland and Britain: http://britishseafishing.co.uk/the-cod-wars/I suspect that won’t work the way I wish it to, but you can reliably cut and paste.

Perhaps I can safely accept that my cod cake was made with a fish of English nationality. It was very nice, especially with a dollop of the ‘Made in UK’ tartare sauce I got from Marks and Spencers. Again, I imagine that not all the ingredients were sourced here. Living the ideological life is not easy.

The frenched lamb chops were succulent and sweet…and free range!. I was a little nonplussed to first see free range lamb in the Kew butcher shop. Lamb and free range seem axiomatic to me but apparently some early lambs in England are reared inside in what can often be cold weather. I’m still somewhat perplexed as I would have thought that the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand could get pretty cold at lambing. Do I assume, I wonder, if this has something to do with industrial farming practices? There was something on a radio programme on BBC4 the other day about New Zealand farmers in Wales and the interviewer wondered what they might have to offer Welsh sheep farmers. They replied, among other things, that sheep farming was all about raising grass, which seems to deal with the issue of rearing lambs inside. My West Country lamb chops were also free range and while I’m still somewhat bemused about that, I guess I was pleased.

Dalehead Foods is based in Cambridgeshire and, in previous incarnations, has supplied lamb (and pork) to Waitrose for over thirty years, so I imagine this is what I bought. Dalehead is part of a larger conglomerate business, but apparently maintain the core values with which it started out. It notes that raising lambs in the mild West Country allows them to be grass-fed. I thought I could taste grass! I noted with interest that they supply New Zealand lamb in the winter months when the season of British lamb is over. I wonder if there is a difference in price between the two. I paid just over £3 for two chops which is about what I would have expected to pay in New Zealand. I say ‘expected’ because we are still eating the lamb that began in our small paddock and ended up in the freezer. Whoops!

Having run out of crackers for my cheese, I spied a box of ‘Stag WAFERS SINCE 1885’ that were made in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. My very small connection with Stornoway is related to a research project I was involved in, so I was intrigued, in spite of the indication that it was made partially of seaweed. Not that I don’t like seaweed, but I thought it might taste fishy and indeed it does. Not really to my taste, but, like Sauvignon Blanc, this is my problem not that of the cracker. But, back to Stornoway.

In the 1870s the New Zealand Government sent a number of agents to Scotland to entice the ‘stalwart Scots’ to emigrate. They traveled the length and breadth of the highlands, lowlands, and the inner and outer isles. One agent, James Seaton, displayed posters on Stornaway street corners that advertised his lectures on New Zealand and what it offered to impecunious Scottish seafarers. He needed to be enterprising as Canada was a bigger draw being both closer and more generous with offers of free land. He had an advertising poster hoisted up the mast of a steamer that transported local fishermen home from their fishing grounds. He felt they would thus have ‘ample notice’ of his presence in the area and his willingness to speak to them about New Zealand. Unfortunately, New Zealand has no Seaton-inspired Stornoway descendants as he got no takers whatsoever.

I mentioned Yeo Valley yoghurt in an earlier post. This is the kind of yoghurt I prefer, though I do tend to blow hot and cold on the issue of yoghurt generally. I eat it avidly for weeks and then go off it for no apparent reason . A sad pottle sits in the fridge, half empty and quietly going strange. In the end, the dogs get it. They seem to be partial to strange yoghurt. But, the point is, it is natural yoghurt. I am not partial to yoghurt with built-in fruit, preferring instead to add my own bits of fruit. But, as my partner will tell you, I am partial to interesting bowls and pottles. When I spied a pretty cornflower-blue clay pot of yoghurt in the chiller in the organic shop in Kew, in spite of the fact that it was not made in England, it was a strawberry yoghurt and would therefore on all counts be most unsuitable, I bought it. It was very nice and now I am yet again having to climb back on the ‘local’ wagon. I will stuff the pretty blue pottle with socks or something to take it home with me. Otherwise, there would have been no point, what with the strawberries and the not local and all.

The yoghurt pot before I opened it. There is no mistaking it for an English yoghurt.
…and after I had disposed of the contents. There were not tell-tale lumps of fruit, but just strong and delicious traces of strawberry.