Monday, 28 March 2011

Wild leaf and spring flower salad

At some point during the weekend I'll find myself drifting listlessly

along the salad aisle; inspecting withered, asphyxiated leaves as they

breathe beads of condensation onto tightly-sealed plastic shells. I

can't pretend to be a wild food/grow your own martyr (eight times out

of ten a bag of rocket is flung into the basket) - but today, as the

sun shone, it just wouldn't do.

Amélie and I had been out for a walk the morning before, so I had a

rough idea of what was around. On the off-chance I wandered up the

track next to the wild apple - bunches of young ox-eye daisy leaves

were poking up though the grass. Juicy and succulent, I think they're

equal to any salad leaf.

Wild leaf and spring flower salad

• Ox-eye daisy leaves

• Dandelion leaves (used sparingly, they can be quite bitter)

• Hairy bittercress (leaves and flowers)

• Pink dead nettle (leaves and flowers)

• White dead nettle (leaves and flowers)

• Common vetch shoots

• Gorse flowers

Friday, 25 March 2011

Young forager

We found:
Hairy bittercress
Pink dead nettles
White dead nettles
Common vetch

Wood sorrel

Monday, 21 March 2011

Wild garlic

Every time I put this old coat on I forget that the lining in the right pocket's completely worn through. The story unfolds in a similar fashion each time - absence of small change, no oyster card, notes jotted on paper gone; to an observer the trail in my wake must look like a poor, Hansel and Gretel-inspired means of finding the way back home. Rage ensues, invariably vocal and with reference to "That bastard coat" - yet still, a year or so will pass, I'll see it on the hanger and think, "I haven't worn that in ages!".

There's spot by the Whitewater River that I head to each year when the Wild garlic is in full swing. Cross the old moss-covered bridge and a familiar garlicky hum drifts out of a small patch of woodland by the riverbank; closer inspection reveals clusters of green, ribbon-like leaves unravelling across the ground towards the water's edge. I parked the car by the roadside and made my way through the trees, basket in hand. Having gathered a few large bunches, cut cleanly at the base with a knife, I headed back to the car.

Could I find the (only set of) car keys? Reader, it took me twenty five minutes to find those bloody things in the woods, rifling frantically through the Ramsons as if foraging for some rare, key shaped truffle. I eventually found them, concealed from the eye by a heap of broken branches - by which point my nerves were shot to bits.

I like to keep things simple with wild garlic - last night I stirred a finely-chopped handful through a block of softened butter, wrapped it in foil, then rolled it into a cylinder shape. Kept in the fridge, a couple of pound coin-sized slices melting on a juicy steak are a thing of wonder. The coat is back on the coat rack, after a good bit of stitchwork.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Panch phoran pork belly with roasted grapes

We used to own two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, somewhat cruelly

christened 'Sweet' and 'Sour'. Not that they were ever destined for

the pot; they spent their days snoring in the barn, chewing lazily on

leftovers from the kitchen. Soon after their arrival, Riley the duck

(easily slighted, not regularly clipped of wing) made an ill-advised

bid for freedom. The last I saw of him was a scribble of black

feathers flapping enthusiastically towards the fox-filled wilderness.

It may seem macabre to segue from family swine anecdotes to crispy

pork recipes, but for me it compounds the importance of knowing my meat's

heritage; making sure that the animal led a happy life, raised in good conditions.

I learnt the method of twice-cooking pork belly a couple of years ago - it's a winner.

Panch phoran pork belly with roasted grapes

A piece of pork belly

1tbsp Panch phoron (an equal mix of Coriander, Cumin, Mustard, Onion and Fenugreek seeds)

Sea salt

Vegetable oil

Black grapes

1 Star anise

Heat your oven to 150C/fan 130C/gas 2. Crush the Panch phoron in a pestle and mortar, add salt, then rub the mix into the pork belly. Place the pork belly skin side up in a deep, oven-proof dish, then completely cover with vegetable oil (so that it's submerged - don't worry, the oil won't soak into the meat, it actually draws fat out). Cover with foil and cook in the oven for 3 hours.

Remove the meat from the oil and let it cool for a bit on a board. Put piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet, then transfer the meat onto the paper. Place another sheet of greaseproof on top of the meat, then complete the sandwich with another baking sheet on top. Weigh down with tin cans and leave in the fridge overnight.

Heat the oven to 220C/ fan 200C/ gas 7. Put the pork in an oiled baking dish, nestle the grapes next to it and drizzle with olive oil. I wedged a star anise in between the grape stalks for a bit of extra flavour. Roast the 20-25 minutes, 'til the pork skin is crispy, and the grapes are squidgy.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Birch sap and lemongrass syrup

As crisp Sunday mornings in early March go, additional layers would have been a benefit. A green woodpecker took exception to my presence in a small patch of heathland, flouncing off grumpily in a sinusoid of lime green across the heather tops. I'd had notions of a badger or suchlike stumbling into my carefully balanced bottle during the night, but all was well. Birch sap is at it's best during the first few weeks of March. It takes a bit of time to reduce to syrup but it's well worth it, the results boasting a subtle caramel flavour.

To tap a silver birch tree
Find a good sturdy birch, well off the beaten track. At a smooth point on trunk about two feet from the ground, drill a hole approximately 1.5" deep, at an upward angle. Sap should start to trickle out immediately; insert a thin piece of tubing into the hole. A large bottle or medium-sized demijohn, neck wedged over the tube, will collect the sap. It's by no means a spritely endeavor, so come back the next morning to collect. You’ll need look after the tree once you have finished with it; a piece of dowel wedged into the hole stops the flow of sap. I also cover the point with a bit of clay to create an extra seal.

Silver birch and lemongrass syrup
1 litre Fresh silver birch sap
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 lemongrass, bashed about

Bring the birch sap to the boil and reduce by approximately nine tenths; this gets rid of most of the water and the sugary birch flavour intensifies. Stir in the sugar to dissolve. Add the lemongrass, removing after just a few minutes (the lemongrass notes are there to compliment, not usurp). Allow to cool before drizzling over fresh fruit.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Wattle corner

Wattle Corner sits less than a mile from Stone in Oxney in Kent, nestling on the horizon as one winds up the narrow road from the village. A shroud of branches all but conceals the 17th century house from the roadside; patches of weathered brickwork flicker briefly into view as you pass.

It's here that my childhood friend John Davis and his parents used to live over twenty years ago. Although I didn't really think about it until recently, I'm sure that the years spent exploring the house, its garden and the surrounding countryside with him helped shape my passion for food and a love of the wild.

Vast open fields fall away towards the River Rother on the south side; dense woodland resides to the north. The wood was stocked with pheasant for the game season; I once had the bright idea of attempting to poach one (homemade bow and arrow being the rudimentary weapon of choice). This idea quickly dispersed when the gamekeeper chased us out of the wood, brandishing a twelve bore. Terrifying. Nevertheless, there were often a brace of birds hanging in one of the outbuildings back at the house; lord knows where John's mum got them. The butcher's probably, like most people.

I'm cautious about rose-tinted skews on the past, but this place genuinely felt like it was a cook's paradise. An old orchard sprawled alongside the house; gnarled, lichen-covered apple and pear trees blossoming excitedly in the spring, then creaking under the weight of heavy fruit come late summer. Espalier damsons crept up the south face - or were they plums? Can't quite remember. Then there was the vegetable garden.

John grew and tended everything (startlingly impressive in retrospect - we were about 9 at the time). The garden was filled with neat rows of carrots, potatoes, beetroot, broad beans, lettuce, fennel - to name but a few. I'd never seen a globe artichoke before, let alone eaten one. Clumps of wheat and barley swayed in one corner, gooseberry, raspberry and blackcurrant bushes crouched in the other. The greenhouse was full of young seedlings in trays, waiting to be planted when their time came. I think the deal was that John grew it; his mum cooked it, which seemed fair enough – she was a great cook.

The house was sold, the family moved and John and I sadly lost touch. Such is the way I guess. That garden was amazing though. It's still the benchmark in the back of my mind as I sort through a pile of seed packets, preparing to get our little veg patch up and running again. I've knocked the poaching aspirations on the head though. For the time being anyway.