Tag Archives: food

There are more than two coffee shops in Wales…

Way back in January of last year, one national – hah, allegedly – newspaper published a list of the fifty best independent coffee shops in the UK. Wales, apparently, has – wait for it – two. Both in Cardiff. At least they restricted their choice of London coffee shops to ten, but there were still more in the EC postcode area than in the whole of Wales. Hello?

Now this might have been acceptable, or even vaguely accurate, about twenty years ago (then again no, it wouldn’t have been either) but today it is merely lazy and complacent. There are plenty of good independents. Plenty. Even in small towns like those near me. OK, there are some bad ones and some which are merely indifferent. But there are some which are stonkingly good.

I’ve had a bit of a rant about coffee shops here before, where I contrasted a bad experience and a good one. Just to show that there’s more than one good coffee shop in Gwynedd, despite what what the Daily X might think, I’m going to have a quiet rave about another favourite: the Llew Glas Delicatessen in Harlech. It’s just had its second birthday (as it were), but it’s already hard to remember what Harlech was like without it.

Sigh. What’s not to like?

cakes at Freya'sEvery time I go in I’m reminded of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

OK, Rick’s featured a casino and not cake. And it’s not the gambling, the diamond dealing, the Nazis or Bogart in a tuxedo, either: it’s the fact that everyone ends up here. As Rene says in the film, ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’. I have seldom been in the Llew Glas and not known anybody there, but it’s not just a local haunt – some friends of mine popped in recently, complete strangers to the area, and were made to feel just as much part of the scene.

I came up with several pointers for a decent coffee shop in that earlier post – good coffee, good alternatives, good food and good service were, predictably, my top four (the others were a little more, um, idiosyncratic, including a complete absence of religious quotes and seats you can actually sit on).

The Llew Glas wins on all those; the coffee is good, as are the non-coffs, the herb tea (me), the hot chocolate (not for lactose-intolerant moi but for almost all of my friends). The food is great. There are light lunches – soups, sandwiches, a choice of scrumptious quiches – which are freshly cooked and not bought in, as well as the usual staples of gorgeous cakes and, as the sign outside says, ‘probably the best scones in Harlech’.

But for me it’s the service which shines out. An Irish friend of mine used to do a splendid act as a waitress in a newly-flash, Celtic Tiger, Dublin eaterie. She slouched up, got too close, sniffed juicily and then said, loudly and in tones of deep boredom, ‘y’aright?’. Once upon a time service like this was the norm; customers were a nuisance who got in the way. Unfortunately there are some places which haven’t realised that times have changed (another friend of mine was asked recently whether he could ‘take down’ the – accurate – reports of bad service which a restaurant had received on TripAdvisor, and was berated when he explained that this was impossible). But fake, we’re-afraid-of-TripAdvisor, service is one thing. Genuinely good service is another, and that is what you get at the Llew Glas.

Many years ago, some friends and I had a drunken conversation about something that was missing in Harlech. There were pubs (two, then, in the upper town) and a couple of very traditional cafés, but we didn’t feel that they catered for us or our friends. A wine bar was our conclusion, then. The main reason we felt we needed one was that it would provide a place for us to socialise without going to one of the pubs – no reflection on them, but they were quite a male preserve. To an extent, and a very considerable extent, the Llew Glas has filled this niche – and it’s a tribute to how good it is that it has done so without selling alcohol or being open in the evenings. After all, ‘everybody comes to Rick’s’ or, in this case, Freya’s…

harlech castleDetails? Well, the Llew Glas Delicatessen is at 3, Plas y Goits, Harlech – just opposite the Plas restaurant, in what is often known as Blue Lion (Llew Glas) Courtyard.

It’s open 10-5, Monday to Saturday; Sundays in the season, and if there’s only one piece of raspberry and coconut slice left, you won’t like it. Honest. Leave it.


Pre-ferment bread perfection

This blog shouldn’t, strictly speaking, be called ‘twelve miles from a lemon’. Things have moved on since Sydney Smith’s day, and I’m about 500 metres from a lemon (about 3 metres if you count the ones in the fridge). No, strictly speaking it should be ‘fifty-five miles or several clicks and an interminable wait for the postie from fresh yeast’. Gripping, huh?

Yup, I ran out.

I’ve ordered some now, of course, but in the meantime I had to find a solution to my immediate bread-free problem that didn’t either involve buying boiled baby’s blankets from the Co-op, waiting a few days to revive my sourdough starter or purchasing some dried yeast which would get used once and languish in the back of the cupboard until I threw it out. I’ve been corrupted, you see, by the delights of using fresh yeast. Unfortunately it can be a pig to get.

But I remembered a friend of mine, a man who has recently returned to breadmaking, telling me about his overnight pre-ferment which used very little yeast. There were some broken bits in the container, and I weighed them out – about 5g.

So I set to. And it worked, and it worked WONDERFULLY. I make no apologies for the sudden appearance of caps; the end result justifies them. In fact, I may take to pre-fermenting my bread on a regular basis. It’s a version of the sponge method, for any other bread nuts out there.

This is what I did. And thanks, Jon!

Basic bread – with an overnight pre-ferment
Makes one large loaf

pre-ferment 1For the pre-ferment:
100g wholemeal flour
250g strong white flour
a small pinch of sugar
5g fresh yeast – a teaspoon, roughly
425ml tepid water

Mix the flours and sugar together in a large bowl. Put the yeast in a jug with the water and stir until it is blended in, then add the liquid to the flour. Stir until you have something that looks attractively like wallpaper paste. Ignore its appearance, cover the bowl with cling film and pop it in the fridge overnight.

pre-ferment 2You might think this would kill the yeasts, but no; the following morning there should be plenty of bubble action going on. Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it to come up to room temperature.

Now for the rest of the process.

350g strong white flour
1.5 tsp salt

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, then add the bubbly pre-ferment. Stir everything together well, using a spoon at first if you don’t want to get too messy but hands are easier. When the mixture has begun to come together as a dough, tip it out onto a lightly floured work surface.

Start kneading, firmly pushing the dough away, bringing it back towards you and turning it as you go, and do so for 10 minutes; I set a timer or I give up too early. The texture of the dough will change – it starts to feel silky – and it should become much warmer to the touch.  Roll it into a ball, put it in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Set it aside to prove (aka rise) for about an hour or so, until approximately doubled in size.

dough in bannetonThen take the dough out of the bowl and knead it lightly once more, shaping it into a round ball (or in my case, a sort of oval ball; perhaps I was influenced in my choice by the rugby that was going on at the time).

I use French bannetons – linen-lined proving baskets which are old, well floured and were dirt cheap in Carrefour – for the next stage, but the bread can also be put into an oiled and floured tin. (Personally, I find it spreads a bit much sideways if I just put it on a baking sheet, but I am the Queen of Sloppy Dough.)

Put the dough in the basket (or whatever), untidy side uppermost. Cover it with a clear plastic bag, pulling the bag up so there is no danger of the rising dough touching the bag.*

banneton 2Leave it in a warm place to rise until doubled in size again. This may take less time, possibly about 45 minutes. In the meanwhile preheat the oven to at least 220 degrees C, GM7 – you want it as hot as you can get it, really.

Put a lightly-oiled baking tray over the top of the basket and turn it over, carefully holding the basket in place; the dough will drop down and the basket can be easily lifted off. Slash the loaf three or four times with a really sharp knife – a sharp bread knife is good, or a purpose-made blade known as a lame or grignette – and put it in the oven quickly.

bread yumBake for 30-35 minutes – until the base sounds hollow when rapped, and the top looks golden-brown and delicious.

Cool the loaf on a rack, and resist the temptation to eat the lot. Like all loaves, it slices more easily the following day, but it did have to be sampled yesterday. Especially the crust. With raspberry jam. Might have been poisoned or tasted vile. You never know…This was, after all, an experiment.


Well, I have to say that I found this loaf every bit as good as my normal loaf – in fact, possibly even more flavoursome. And, of course, it is much more economical with the yeast, certainly something to consider when the fresh stuff can be so fiddly to obtain.


I love Bakery Bits for potential supplies – but it’s not cheap and I tend to use it for drooling and idle speculation. On the other hand, if I find myself in a perfectly ordinary French supermarket I automatically head for the homewares section. I’ve found round bannetons, long bannetons, oval bannetons – and all linen-lined and costing a fraction of what I’d pay online or in a posh kitchen supplies shop. Sometimes they are evidently intended to have a decorative purpose, but even those which lurk among the cushions and tablecloths are usually perfectly practical. And are just a few euros.

*Plastic bag + sticky dough = unbelieveable mess. Ectoplasm. Something from Withnail’s sink – matter. Worse. Ergh.

Beautiful breakfast

There was a time when I didn’t eat breakfast… or so I said. What I did, of course, was not eat breakfast at home. Instead I would grab the early train, nip into a coffee bar by Farringdon Station, order a coffee, open my laptop and then find myself back at the counter ordering something like a croissant. Or maybe two.

But I’ve changed. It was self-employment that did it, even before I came to my senses (insight © my mother) and left London. I used to go for a swim early every morning instead of standing at the station trying not to make eye contact with anyone. When I came back I was so hungry I would eat the kitchen – and I mean the units, not merely the contents of the fridge. The only way of preventing tooth marks on the fixtures and fittings was to make sure there was something ready for me when I got back. I experimented with all sorts of cereals, porridge with and without salt / jam / sultanas, types of toast, condiments – but I never really solved the problem. So many of the packet cereals – whether they were gritty and brown or mainstream and quite sweet – seemed rather dusty. Cardboard, with dried fruit.

granola 1Then I moved here, and a friend passed on a recipe for a homemade morning – and a late evening after meeting friends in the pub – solution: a granola. I’ve made several versions since then, riffs on the theme, and have finally settled on an adaptation which I particularly enjoy. I’ve also added weights and rewritten some of the instructions, which originally included such highlights as ‘watch the pan while galaxies form and reform…’.

I make a huge quantity, and last week I ran out. Time to load up again at the wholefood co-op and find the biggest bowl in existence. And by talking to someone in the co-op I’ve found the answer to a question which baffled me but probably nobody else: the difference between muesli and granola. Muesli is uncooked and uses no fat; granola is toasted in the oven, and uses a little. Commercial granolas tend to use quite a bit; mine doesn’t.

Gorgeous granola
Makes a giant vat. I store it in a plastic box which takes 4kg of flour.

500g porridge oats
500g jumbo oats (used in two stages)
150g dessicated coconut
150g sunflower seeds
150g pumpkin seeds
75g set honey
1 tsp malt extract
100ml sunflower oil
100g flaked almonds
150g sultanas
100g dried cranberries
100g dates, chopped

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees fan, 180 conventional (but watch for a heated element at the top – may need to adjust settings to avoid this getting too hot and burning the granola) or GM 4. Take a ginormous bowl and put in the porridge oats, 400g of the jumbo oats (set the rest aside), the coconut, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.

Put the honey – best measured by putting the full jar on the scales and spooning out honey until it weighs 75g less than it did – in a non-stick pan together with the malt extract. Then add the sunflower oil. Put the pan over a medium heat and melt everything together. As it reaches boiling point it will foam and rise up the pan (or alternatively start to look like galaxies forming); take the pan off the heat immediately and pour the contents into the bowl. Mix everything together thoroughly, breaking up any clumps that form.

When everything is combined, empty the mixture into some baking dishes. I generally use glass – Pyrex – ones; earthenware takes a little longer and metal roasting tins – tempting when you look at the sheer quantity – are unsuitable. Believe me #1. Don’t fill the dishes completely; you want to be able to turn the granola over and around to ensure it all toasts, and that’s difficult if you’re worried about spilling half of it on the oven floor. Believe me #2.

granola 2Bake the granola in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the top is starting to brown. Then take the dishes out of the oven and stir them well, bringing untoasted grains to the top. Replace them in the oven and repeat the process until all the granola is golden brown and toasty, but not remotely burnt. Warning: it speeds up towards the end and will need checking more regularly. Believe me #3.

Empty the contents of the baking dishes back into the bowl and allow the mixture to cool down completely, possibly overnight.

Considerably later or the next day, put a large dry frying pan on a medium heat and roast the flaked almonds, shaking the pan and stirring as they warm up. When they are evenly light brown in colour and beginning to smell warm and toasty, empty them into the granola bowl. Scatter in the sultanas and cranberries, then chop the dates and add them too, along with the remaining 100g of jumbo oats. Stir everything together again and put the mixture into its storage container. Hide container.

It’s delicious with yoghurt…

granloa 3One of the main reasons I love this is its sheer adaptability; the recipe above is what I prefer, but you can make it truly individual to suit personal preferences.

Adaptations I’ve tried include adding 100g each of hazelnuts and chopped brazil nuts before cooking; adding chopped dried apricots and figs after cooking; adding flaked coconut at that stage too, as well as the dessicated coconut earlier; adding sesame seeds with the other seeds (not particularly good – too small). Just one word of warning – it’s easy to make it too cloyingly sweet, and treacle and/or golden syrup: no. Or at least that’s a no as far as I’m concerned. Thank heavens I only made a smaller quantity that time!

Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…

Even more on the soup front

I am so glad that I made up a load of chicken stock, and that I firmly believe that a freezer without soup in it is just an unreasonably cold box full of the re-useable remains of natural dyeing sessions (that’s just me, possibly). Toothache turned into agony and agony turned into a removed wisdom tooth, and all I could manage for several days was soup. Soup and yoghurt. The latter got boring. The former, happily, did not.

carrot soupSo here are my two soups made at the same time as my stock, soups which gave me the left-overs to transform into stock and which stopped me starving to death in the last week. Exaggerate, moi???

The first is a spicy riff on carrot soup. I often make it, because carrots are frequently such good value, and – of course – because I love them. I’ve recently made a classic carrot soup, carrot with ginger, carrot with a little lemon, carrot with fresh coriander, carrot with chicken, carrot with – well, you get the picture. But carrot soups can sometimes be rather – not bland, exactly, but perhaps less warming than I wanted this time. So I set to work to tweak my basic recipe, and I do like the end result.

Carrot, coriander and cumin soup
serves 3-4, depending on consistency

I large onion, chopped
1 tsp vegetable oil (often rapeseed – check ingredients and go for it if it is)
a scrape of butter
1 large stick of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 small potatoes
500g carrots, chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
half tsp cumin seeds, ground
200ml chicken stock
750ml liquid (water or vegetable stock)

Put a large pan over a gentle heat. Soften the onion in the oil and butter, keeping the lid on so that it doesn’t colour. Cook until transparent – about 5-10 minutes. Then take the lid off and allow the onion to colour a little for a minute, and add the celery and garlic. Peel the potatoes, chop them up and add them too. Lower the heat, add the carrots and the spices and stir everything together. Put the lid back on and cook for a further 10 minutes or so – check during this time to make sure that nothing is catching; the potato is particularly susceptible.

Add the chicken stock and cook for another 5 minutes, then add liquid to cover. Bring to the boil, then knock back the heat and cook for a further 10 minutes or so, until everything is soft and the liquid is much reduced. Blend the soup and add some more liquid to get the preferred consistency. Reheat, season and serve.

soup2And now for soup 2.

This second soup is based on one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipes – but heavily adapted to suit me and what I had in the cupboards (there was no way I was going anywhere other than the dentist with a face like a football).

I used to put pulses in my soups a lot but have recently fallen out of the habit; I don’t know why. I think I’m back in it now!

Leek and bean soup
serves 3 hungry people

3 leeks
1 tsp olive oil
a scrape of butter – about half a tsp
a sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 x 400g tin of flageolet beans (haricot beans can be used instead, or any white bean)
2 dried chillies, seeds shaken out
a pinch of dried herbes de Provence
100ml chicken stock
2 tsp tomato purée
water to cover

Trim the leeks, slice them lengthways and then chop them. Put them in a large bowl of water and sloosh them about to shake off any soil. Warm the oil and butter in a pan. Lift the leeks out of the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan, then add the leaves from the thyme and the bay leaf. Put the lid on the pan and cook the leeks down for about 5 minutes. Drain the tin of beans and chop the dried chillies finely.

Add the beans and chilli to the pan, then add a pinch of herbes de Provence as well. Stir everything together and add the chicken stock; then add the tomato purée and water to cover. Increase the heat and simmer the soup until everything is tender. This should not take long but if it seems a little thin, increase the heat again and cook some of the liquid off. Check for seasoning and serve.

Now I’m dreaming of what I will eat when I’m able. Bacon sandwich!

In praise of stock

It’s often said that good stock is the basis of good soup – and stews, and risottos, and many other things I love making, and so it is. But I’ve battled with finding a decent one. Oh, apart from Marigold’s vegetable bouillon – and even that is a bit salty for me (I don’t care for taste of the reduced salt version). In my past life, I used to bring stock cubes back from France, but that’s no longer a realistic option and, let’s be honest, it was a bit daft even when I was using the Eurostar as an extension to the Northern Line.

Recently all sorts of stock options have become available, even in my local supermarkets, but I’m still not thrilled. There are fresh stocks, coming in at about £2-3 for 300-500 ml; fresh gels at roughly the same price for a smaller quantity, but they’re more concentrated; improved cubes – I don’t really need to make my own, do I? Oh yes I do:  how appealing does this lot sound?

‘Water, Glucose Syrup, Salt, Sugar, Flavourings, Lower Sodium Natural Mineral Salt*, Yeast Extract, Chicken Fat (2.1%), Carrots, Vegetable Fat, Leek, Parsley, Gelling Agents (Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum), Garlic, Chicken Powder (0.2%), Colours (Plain Caramel, Mixed Carotenes), Maltodextrin, Carrot Juice Concentrate, *Contains naturally occurring Potassium’.

That’s, by the way, a chicken stock gel, but probably the 2.1% of chicken fat and the chicken powder (???) gave the game away. And why the need for four forms of sugar: glucose syrup, sugar, caramel and maltodextrin? AND, and, and, remember the rule of ingredients lists – they’re in quantity order. So there’s more glucose syrup, salt and sugar than chicken or vegetables. Hm. Think I’ll make my own.

stock remainsBut doesn’t it take ages? That was my objection before I started, and I soon discovered that though it is a long process – and one that can be, er, fragrant – it can easily be fitted around anything else I’m doing, because 99% of the time I can just leave it to do its thing.

Another objection was that I might not have enough bits and pieces and I didn’t want to end up buying things specifically for stock – after all, part of the aim was to be economical as well avoid the chicken powder, locust bean gum and maltodextrin I didn’t particularly want to add.

That was easily addressed.

I like a roast chicken, but I love a good one. So I pay decent money and don’t have roast chicken all the time. That’s my choice, and it means that I use flavour-packed, healthy chicken. It would be criminal to throw out the remains, but one chicken isn’t enough for a decent quantity of stock – so I pick over the carcass, get rid of as much fat and skin as possible (the birds love it), and freeze the bones until I have enough.

And then I make my stock, often combining making it with cooking something else like a carrot soup which will give me other left-overs: carrot peelings, the ends of celery sticks and leeks. OK, the remains can look like something rather unpleasant, but the stock – wow, the stock.

So here goes. This isn’t an organised recipe, really, but it is seriously worth trying – and I’ll follow it in the next posts with a couple more soups I made with the start of the stock ingredients.

Chicken stock

A heap of chicken bones, the result of two or three roasts, picked over and frozen
Ditto of carrot peelings (wash the carrots first) and ends
Ditto leek – also carefully washed – or you can use an onion instead
Ditto celery…

And that’s it. I might add some parsley from the garden in summer, or maybe a sprig of thyme in winter – but I go easy on the additions because they can become emphatic when frozen, and this stock is going to be frozen. That’s also why I don’t add any seasoning; the dishes eventually containing the stock can be seasoned when they’re being cooked.

I put the vegetables and the frozen chicken bones in a large casserole, cover them well with lots of water and stick the casserole on the hob. I bring it to the boil and then leave it simmering for a couple of hours over a really low heat. Of course it could go in a stove or indeed on one – I’ve a friend who simmers her stock casserole on her woodburner, but that assumes the existence of a woodburning stove with enough room above it for a casserole and a family who don’t mind the smell, because there’s no doubt that boiling up bones does smell. Not offensively, or at least I don’t find it offensive – just, um, unappealing. I don’t skim my stock at this stage; if I’ve done a good enough job of picking over the bones and washing the veg, I find I don’t need to. Then I go and do something more interesting.

When I go back, the veg are all soft and the meat has fallen off the chicken bones. This is the draining stage and is when the debris looks truly horrible. I get a large bowl and a large sieve, a bigger sieve than I think I need since my first attempt which left boiled bones on the floor, and empty the casserole into the sieve. I prop the sieve above the bowl on a couple of jars and just let it drain while I go away and – you guessed it – do something more interesting.

Then I remember, possibly an hour or so later, and give the sieve a final shake. (All the bits go in the food recycling bin; I don’t put cooked stuff or bones in my compost bins.) The bowl – now full of cold stock – is covered with cling film and put in the fridge overnight.

My fridge is cold (and quite new – my old one got tropical, ahem, but I’m more careful now) and when I take the bowl out the following morning, a layer of fat has formed on top. If I’m very careful lifting the bowl I can manage not to disturb it, and it’s consequently quite easy to remove. Then I pot up the stock into freezer containers. I use a ladle which holds 100ml comfortably, so I know that a freezer box has, say, 300ml in it. But I also fill little 100ml tubs, which are phenomenally useful. And tasty.

(Of course, the long, slow cooking that stock requires can seem uneconomic, but I don’t make stock all the time and, when I do, I make shedloads – enough to keep me going for a couple of months at least. It’s so flavoursome that I don’t need to use a lot, which is why the 100ml tubs are so good. They give a dish a depth of flavour without overwhelming everything else. Right, I’m making carrot soup – where are those bones?)

Tomato soup – the best comfort food ever?

I’ve been soooo busy. Not quite sure what I’ve been doing (apart from my tax return), but I’ve been rushed off my feet. And last weekend I suddenly had to give lunch to seven hungry spinners. Spinners of wool, ahem, not spinners on bikes – but they get just as hungry. Soup had to be one answer; it so often is at this time of year… and raiding the freezer had to be another.

Now, I admit it, I’ve a weakness for at least one tinned soup – tomato. Who hasn’t? Well, apart from people who either don’t like tomatoes, can’t eat tomatoes or who, as in my case, are lactose intolerant – my favourite, Heinz, has milk in it (‘dried skimmed milk, milk proteins’ to be exact), as many do. And most of the prepared tomato soups also are high in an ingredient which I don’t use in mine, and which is finally getting the negative press it deserves: sugar. Half a tin – half a tin – typically contains nearly 10g of sugar, 2 teaspoons. Yikes.

tomato and red pepper soupSo I recently set to work to produce as credible an imitation as I could, given certain variables, and I think I finally got there. As a result I had lots of single-portion containers stashed in the freezer, and boy did they come in handy. They weren’t all identical, as I’d been experimenting with different ways of thickening the soup, but they were close enough to work together well – and I just had enough for my starving spinners.

So here’s the recipe, and with the two most successful alternative ways of thickening the soup given: using a potato or some cannellini beans. For the latter, you can (of course) use dried beans instead of the tinned ones given in the ingredients; soak 120g overnight, then rinse and cook them until they are just soft before adding to the soup.

Tomato and red pepper soup
serves 4

1 tsp olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 red peppers, de-seeded and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans, OR
1 potato, about 150g
half a tsp sweet smoked paprika (pimenton dulce)
a few thyme leaves
salt and black pepper

Warm the oil in a large casserole or pan over a medium heat and add the chopped onion. Stir it in, then put the lid on and sweat the onion for about 5 minutes; check that it isn’t catching. Then add the celery, the peppers and garlic and cook, lid off, for a further couple of minutes.

Add the tomatoes (if using whole tinned toms instead of chopped ones because that’s what you’ve got in stock, break them up in the tin first). Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, if using, or peel and chop the potato, and then add to the pan. Finally add the paprika and the thyme leaves, then stir everything together. Fill the empty tomato tins with water, swirl round to collect all the tomato juices, and add them to the pan too.

Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until the peppers are soft; add a little more liquid (boiling water or hot vegetable stock) if the soup looks as though it’s going to be too thick, but try and wait until after blending because this soup is best quite thick, and it’s difficult to judge when it’s still in chunks. Blend the soup until it’s smooth, and then add more liquid to get the consistency you prefer. Reheat the soup, check for seasoning – and serve with some chunky wholemeal bread.

(On the sweet smoked paprika – it’s getting easier to find, but the most frequently stocked smoked paprika is the hotter one. The really useful sweeter version can be bought economically online if necessary, and a tin will last for ages.)

The elephant in the foodie room

I can’t ignore this one any longer, and I’m not apologising if it turns into a rant (though I’ll try and control myself, honest, keep my red flag furled and my barricade-building tools firmly in the shed).

Sometimes the world of food writing can seem a little precious. Obviously there are some great exceptions, from food campaigners to bloggers who push eating well on extremely little money, and they’re brilliant. But it really hit me in the run-up to Christmas this year, reading reviews and flashy ‘best-buy’ comparisons in the media, that many food writers appear to operate in an exclusively well-off, middle-class, home-counties bubble full of exclusive restaurants and exotic ingredients. And yet there is a massive food story going on at present which many people are failing to cover. It’s not glamorous, it’s not going to inspire an elegant table setting or chic contribution to a dinner party. But it’s everywhere; nowhere is immune, even my own community here in beautiful, picture-postcard Snowdonia.

When I was about thirteen, I remember asking my father about the lack of younger people in the part of Sutherland that was so dear to us. Ever political, he took care to explain the economic situation in detail, much of which I don’t remember clearly. But I do remember his closing statement, almost something of a cliché, but true nonetheless: you can’t eat scenery.

Living somewhere beautiful is no barrier to deprivation. Turn your back on the beautiful views and look at the increasingly run-down council estates; go off the main road and explore some of the ex-slate-mining towns and villages which the newer road has bypassed. We tend to think of economic deprivation as being an urban problem, but it isn’t. Recovery? What recovery? There isn’t much of one in some of the places I know well. And this is where the food banks come in.

food bank hoursEighteen months ago there was one official food bank in North Wales, in Mold. Now we are further into this alleged economic recovery we are apparently having, and strangely they have increased in number, and are continuing to do so. Food banks now cover more of Flintshire as well as Wrexham, Caernarfon, Denbigh, Welshpool, Bangor and even the jolly holiday town of Barmouth. And those are just the ‘official’ ones.

There are many other community- and church-based ones, such as one in Pwllheli. Some have a web presence (like the splendid Telford Crisis Network), but more do not and rely on word of mouth. Some are purely individual, prompted by highly-motivated people, such as one which sprang up in Rhyl recently. Their contribution isn’t quantified but, bearing in mind that Trussell Trust food banks alone fed nearly 350,000 people in 2012-13, it has been estimated that they have helped over 500,000. The Trussell Trust pulled out the number of children from their stats: 126,889 kids were fed by their food banks in the same period. These figures do not include this Christmas season, when some anecdotal evidence I’ve been given points to even more use.

I find it depressing that there are members of the current administration who decry the existence of the food banks which, according to them, are unnecessary and have a ‘political agenda’. There have also been comments about the banks supplying exotica, so let’s look at the typical shopping list recommended by the Trussell Trust (I was given a copy when the Barmouth bank started collecting outside local supermarkets, but it’s on their website). Powdered milk, sugar, a carton of fruit juice, bottled pasta sauce, tinned soup, baked beans, tinned toms, tinned sponge pud, tinned rice pud, cereals, tea, instant coffee, rice, pasta, tinned meat or fish, jam and biscuits. Pretty wild, huh? And it’s also been reported that some people have been returning those items in their boxes which require heating up. They can’t afford it.

Now I’d like to think about the reasons why people end up – at the end of their tether, having tried everything else and often deeply ashamed – using food banks. Yes, there are more food banks, so more people are using them (that’s the ‘reason’ given by some members of the government for their increasing use), but a food bank is not something that’s set up on a whim, nor can someone in need just materialise at a Trussell Trust food bank and demand some tins of rice pudding – they have to be referred. Right, here goes: benefit delays bring 29.69% of people; low income, 18.45; benefit changes, 14,65; debt, 9.52% – and so on. The full list is on the Trust’s website.

Presumably the Red Cross have a political agenda too, since they’ve also been organising food collections in the UK in the run-up to Christmas. The last time they were involved in large-scale food aid here was during WW2. Just saying.

I’m lucky, and I know it. It’s not that I’ve got lots of money – I haven’t; I’ve spent years working around the book trade and that does not bring you great riches, even when augmented by freelance journalism – but if I want a delicious bar of artisan chocolate from the farmers’ market, if I want to test the latest blend from a local coffee roaster, I can afford it. I’m sensible, though. I don’t see this as meaning that I have to miss out on anything, except possibly roast peacock stuffed with truffles, but sooner or later Lidl will add that to their frozen foods alongside the lobster. I am lucky. And it’s no great loss to me if I add a tin or two of soup to my basket, or buy something I normally would not, like powdered milk.

Just one final word before I get off my soapbox and back to cooking. In the 1920s, Joseph Rowntree didn’t contribute to the soup kitchens in York (another place long combining picture postcards and poverty), despite his wealth. Instead, he set up his Trusts to try and do something about the root causes; check out the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s website for more up-to-date information on the whole issue. So while things like food banks will always be a sticking plaster, I take the view that the sticking plaster is necessary. People can and will be very generous (on one collection day before Christmas, the Tesco Extra shop in Talbot Green couldn’t cope with the amount being donated, for example; some people gave whole trolly loads to the Pontyclun food bank), but it doesn’t mean you should lose sight of the underlying wound…

Soups unite against the cold – pea and ham

I love soup. I’m a bit of a soup head, really; always have been, always will be. And it always, always astonishes me when people don’t make their own, because producing great soups is so quick, so easy and so affordable. Soup also freezes brilliantly, so you can make oodles and store the rest (though use heavily spiced soups promptly; spices can intensify). Admittedly some ready-made soups have a strong comfort factor – Heinz tomato being a case in point – but you can make much, much more, and with greatly reduced expenditure, and without any strange ingredients when you do it yourself. I don’t need extra ‘milk proteins’ with my own soup, for instance, and accidentally discovered a more-than-passable version of the Heinz fave while trying to factor those out (red pepper is key, BTW). I don’t need modified maize starch, added caramel or high levels of salt, either, and my butternut squash soup will contain a lot more than 12% butternut squash, and 0% additional preservatives. Grr.

There are some soups which, undeniably, might take a little longer than 30 minutes to cook, notably those involving pulses. But there are ways round this, such as cooking them while you’re doing other things or – for heaven’s sake – using tinned pulses or a pressure cooker, the latter not as terrifying a prospect as it once was. It’s not rocket science, and it saddens me deeply when I hear someone on the radio, as I did the other day, bemoaning the fact that they miss their grandmother’s soup. Takes too long to do, apparently, and the presenter agreed. It was pea and ham. How sad…

pea and ham soupSo, with ‘killer snow’ in the forecast (thanks, Daily Express), what better time could there be to come up with a quick and easy pea and ham soup? One that doesn’t involve buying a packet from the supermarket, either. No sodium triphosphate; no dextrose, no added ‘beechwood smoke’ whatever that is, no tricalcium phosphate, etc., etc – plus I know the ham it contains is ham I’d be happy to eat and not some miscellaneous bits of pig, only appetizing if you can’t see them ‘raw’.

Let’s not forget the aesthetic element, either. It’s a beauty – satisfying to the eye as well as the palate. Perfect for this time of year, with the sky suddenly darkening and sleet rattling on the window (maybe the Express was right). Even if it failed completely to help me with the crossword.

Pea and ham soup
serves between 4-6, depending on how thick you like your soup

2 small potatoes
1 small onion or 2 large shallots
1 tsp rapeseed oil
1 small pinch of salt
900g frozen peas
100ml unsalted chicken stock
75g ham offcuts from the supermarket deli counter

Chop the potatoes (leave the skin on) and the onion fairly finely. Warm the oil in a heavy pan over a medium heat, and add the chopped vegetables. Give them a stir in the oil, making sure they don’t stick, and add a small pinch of salt. Cover and leave for a couple of minutes, then add the chicken stock and stir.

Add the frozen peas, cover the pan again and let the peas defrost in the heat and begin to cook. Then add water to cover – about 750ml – and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and cook for 5 minutes. While the soup is cooking, pick over the ham pieces, removing excess fat as much as possible. Chop the pieces and add them to the pan, then continue to cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until everything is cooked and heated through thoroughly – note that it’s important not to overcook the soup as it will lose the gorgeous green colour. Blend it by hand, preferably, giving it a rough texture, and thin to the required consistency with water if necessary. But it is best nice and thick!

Hazelnuts, history – and a sweet treat

Phew. This is the foraging season par excellence, and I’m knackered. It’s a spectacularly good wild food year (so far) and this will be the first of several posts devoted to the art of getting something – at least partly – for free. It’s a wonderful year for nuts especially – a ‘mast’ year, when trees go into overproduction. Nobody really knows why it happens although there are many ideas floating about, but the net result as far as I am concerned is that the squirrels can’t keep up (and that’s one of the theories – overproduce, and some will be left to grow). But this also means that there’s a vague chance of me gathering some hazelnuts too.

Nearby are some woods where the hazels are both productive and accessible; some years I’m lucky and beat the squirrels and foraging dog walkers to the bounty, but I didn’t need to go there this time. I was in a friend’s garden a couple of weeks ago, near the woods,  and I suddenly realised I was walking on a carpet of nuts. My friend didn’t want them (?), so I gathered as many as I could – a sort-of public service, helping her tidy her garden.

hazelnutsAs I sat in front of the television cracking the nuts, such a boring job, it struck me that I was simply doing what inhabitants of this area have been doing for time out of mind, and indeed what the prehistoric inhabitants of most of Britain would have been doing at this time of year. Except they wouldn’t have been in a comfy cottage watching Strictly (go Dave Myers!); they’d probably have been sitting outside a bender-like home and listening to someone telling stories about how the land their father used to hunt over was now too wet to walk on.

Once archaeology has bitten you in the ankle, in my case at the age of about six, it never lets go. The Mesolithic – the period just before the development of farming (if you can draw clear boundaries at all), when there was extraordinary environmental change – has always been my passion; let’s say broadly from about 9000BP to about 5000BP, depending on where you are. Hunter-gathering always held more appeal for me than a settled, farming life with the growth of hierarchy; it was a world I could relate to. And one of the major food resources exploited by the Mesolithic people of Britain was – drum roll, please – the hazelnut.

Like us, they’d have foraged for them at this time of year. Their harvest could have been stored (roast nuts store quite well, and many of the hazelnut shells retrieved from archaeological sites have been burnt), or they might have been processed in some way for future consumption – ground and made into a paste, perhaps. It’s also noticeable that the spread of hazel and the spread of people seem to keep pace; they were clearly a vital resource. There’s even some speculation that the growth of hazel was deliberately encouraged by setting fires which would clear the land. This would also make hunting easier – a double benefit – and there’s no way of telling (yet) which came first; they seem to be simultaneous. At Goldcliff East on the Severn Estuary there’s evidence of this firesetting, plus of the actual preparation of hazelnuts, plus – amazing, this – the direct traces of the Mesolithic people themselves: footprints. And we know hazels flourished in Doggerland before it was drowned; analysis of peat dredged up from the North Sea tells us this. And of course it wasn’t only the nuts; the bendy, flexible wood was useful for many things, too.

As befits such an ancient food, hazelnuts crop up in legend, myth and superstition all the time. Hazelnut shells can be used in divination on Halloween; the wood was sacred and used to kindle the need-fire at Beltane; the ‘milk’ of hazelnuts might be given to Scottish children born in autumn as their first drink because it would bring them good luck and health. In Celtic myth they’re a signifier of wisdom. Even in Victorian times ‘nutting’ had a suitably, er, outrageous and almost pagan reputation. In Flora Britannica there’s a reprinted complaint from the owner of Hatfield Forest: ‘…as soon as the Nuts begin to get ripe … the idle and disorderly Men and Women of bad Character from Stortford … come … in large parties’ – and got up to all sorts of things, and not just picking hazelnuts, ahem, ahem, filth. Disgusting.

I’d probably class as a Disorderly Woman, certainly when I was whooping about my friend’s garden, scooping up nuts. So what did I do with my haul? Recreate a Mesolithic house in my own garden and sit outside it, contemplating the level of the Irish Sea? Nah. When it came to it, I didn’t have that many – the nuts are often blind, and some of the ones I picked up had also been there too long. In the end I adapted a River Cottage recipe.

Toasted hazelnuts in honey hazelnuts

A quantity of hazelnuts
clear honey
Greek yoghurt

You never know how many hazelnuts you are going to have, so just adapt the recipe to suit. Find a small jar (or several if you’ve been lucky), and put it in a low oven to sterilise it while you shell the nuts (you can also sterilize a jar in a pan of boiling water, more economical and practical unless you have shedloads of nuts). Allow the jar to cool. Rub any loose skin off the shelled nuts.

Put a dry frying pan on the heat and put the hazelnuts in it. Roast the nuts, shaking them about so they don’t burn. When they begin to smell warm and toasty, take the pan off the heat and tip them onto a plate. Put a layer of nuts into the bottom of the jar, and add a teaspoon of honey, then more hazelnuts and so on, until you have run out of nuts, making sure they are covered in honey. Press the nuts down into the honey; they will float upwards, but just keep pressing them down as you use them (this is why you need a small jar). Cover the jar and set aside.

This mixture is absolutely delicious spooned over Greek yoghurt – you don’t need much, either. I tested them over ice cream (briefly – I’m lactose intolerant, after all) and found them too sweet, but that’s another suggestion. And they’re perfect on porridge, at least according to me…

And I’ve no idea how long they’ll keep because – well, because I’m eating them fairly quickly. I’d have starved to death in the Mesolithic.