A peek in the pantry

Its fair to say I am an inveterate hoarder of stuff. All sorts of stuff. Books. Old adminy type things. Christmas and birthday cards. Shoes. Jars. Old kitchen things. Stuff. And more stuff.

This means our house can get quite full and because its an old house there aren’t actually that many places to shove or hide all this stuff. So rooms that are supposed to have other purposes become sort of holding areas for, well, stuff. And then if someone come to visit the stuff gets shuffled about and hidden for a while in a different room only to re-emerge and migrate back to its original position. Two rooms are particularly prone to this hoarding activity: the dining room and the spare bedroom.

Some of the vodka stash

But somewhere on Friday I developed the urge to actually be able to get in the dining room and use it for its proper purpose. And to do this I needed to get all the bottles and jars, empty and full, sorted and in the pantry, which of course was full of random things instead of pantry type things. The pantry is actually off the dining room because originally what we use as a dining room was the kitchen. So things meant for the pantry have a tendency to lurk on the dining room table.

The chutney and pickle stash

I worked away diligently for much of Saturday and Sunday, sorting, getting rid, organising, putting things in boxes, regrouping, dusting, polishing, and on and on. Finally I emerged triumphant. All was sorted, everything in its rightful place and a dining room restored to its proper use, the pantry now pantry like.

Tidy at last

So to celebrate we had a big roast dinner of shoulder of pork, pommes anna, asparagus and white sprouting broccoli. Yum. Oh and couple of nips of some of that lovely flavoured voddy. Here’s the recipe, works with all sorts of fruit including rhubarb (which is in season right now):

My Legendary Fruit Vodka

I don’t use fixed measure for this but ratios.
Select your fruit of choice and weigh it. They tip it in a large glass jar (e.g. a preserving jar with a clip lid).
Add between half to the same weight of sugar (I usually used granulated) depending on how tart the fruit is and how sweet you want the result to be.
Then pour over about 1 ¼ -1 ½ times the volume of vodka as you had weight of fruit; so if you had a 750ml bottle of vodka you’d be looking to find between 500-600g of fruit.
Add any extras you think you’d like, a shaving of lemon peel is good with damsons or sloes.
Stir it all round to get as much as the sugar to dissolve as possible.
Close the jar and leave for a minimum of 6 weeks.
Check regularly and shake to help the sugar dissolve. After the first 6 weeks test the flavour and either leave to extract more flavour or strain and bottle.
Leave the bottle to mature for a further few months minimum. It gets better with age if you can resist for long enough.
  • If you haven’t got a large glass jar but have a glut of fruit you need to use up quickly then put everything a big non-reactive pan, cover and then track down a jar – it’ll be fine for the first few weeks in a pan.
  • You can use gin instead of vodka but remember gin already contains its own aromatics so you’ll get a different flavour. Sloes and damsons work particularly well with gin.
  • If the fruit is quite hard then you need to break the skin to allow the flavours to mix – I do this by putting the fruit in a large freezer bag and bashing it a bit with the rolling pin. If you’ve stoned the fruit (or its a soft fruit) then there’s no need to do this.
  • You might want to strain through muslin or even a coffee filter before bottling if you want a really clear result. If you don’t mind sediment there’s no need to bother.
  • Be wise whom you share the vodka with; once people have tried some they’ll always be angling for another bottle.

Very easy rhubarb ice cream

As the sun has been out quite a bit over the last few weeks my mind turned to ice cream making. I don’t make lots of desserts or do lots of baking – I enjoy it but we just don’t eat dessert that often so it kind of gets wasted (this is not some ‘health’ or ‘no sugar’ things its just I prefer munching on savoury stuff these days); but every now and then a sweet dish is just what’s needed.

There are some really good ice creams out there especially at farm shops – enough really to make you wonder if home made ice cream is worth it, but of course it is – it’s a great project thing and good for impressing guests (or just your other half).

I’ve been a fan of Alder Carr Farm’s Alder Tree ice creams for a good number of years and when I get the chance I indulge in a little pot, sometimes insisting on a stop off at their farm shop just to get my hands on one. My favourite flavours are; Gooseberry and elderflower, Raspberry, Stem ginger and rhubarb and Summer fruits – its so hard to pick. Anyhow, we went for a walk near Blythburgh the other day and I was hoping for an ice cream treat at the end, but we were later than expected due to a route diversion and so there was no hope of getting my mitts on any ice cream anywhere ?

Okay a big disappointment – but there are always ways to compensate and so I started planning some ice cream making. I’d picked up some rhubarb at the farm shop and hadn’t decided what to do with it so, with the cogs in my head whirring into action, I settled on either rhubarb and elderflower or rhubarb and pink ginger ice cream. I generously allowed my husband to pick between these two choices and he went for the ginger option.

This is so easy to make you won’t believe it! You’ll need:

rhubarb – a couple of sticks
4 tbsp pink ginger cordial (I used Thorncrofts)
100g of greek style yoghurt
100g of crème fraiche (basically half of the standard size tub)
an ice cream maker (much easier) or a strong plastic box and a freezer (slightly harder)

What to do?

1. cut the rhubarb up pretty small – about 5mm thickness max – you don’t want big stringy bits of rhubarb in your ice cream. Then simmer in about 2tbsp of water (no sugar) it until its soft and breaks up easily (10-15 mins should do it). Leave it to cool completely.
2. when its cool mix in the 4 tbsp of pink ginger cordial (undiluted); or of course elderflower cordial if that’s what you fancy. Check the taste and add a bit more if you like things extra sweet.
3. stir in the yoghurt and crème fraiche – it’ll be pretty sloppy
4. fire up the ice cream maker if you have one and pour in the mixture, allow to churn. It’ll take at least 30 minutes to get to a good frozen but soft scoop consistency. Eat.
5. if you don’t have an ice cream maker then first of all get on to your loved ones and drop hints that you’d quite like one – the ones where you freeze the bowl start at around £35, if you’ve got rich loved ones make noises for one that has its own freezing unit (£220+). Then once you’ve done that put the mix in the plastic box, put it in the freezer and take it out every now and then to stir it as this breaks up the ice crystals and mkes for a smoother consistenty, probably every 2 hours will do it. It’ll take about 8 hours if you can wait that long.  

Enjoy, and feel smug.


G20 antics

Police and protesters; they’re ranged up against each other outside the Bank of England spoiling for a fight about something, anything, important or otherwise.

Meanwhile over at ‘Word of Mouth’ (The Guardian’s food blog) the real action is already underway with journalists praising Jamie O’s menu for tonight’s exclusive dinner at No.10 and the posting populace getting very het-up about seasonality, authenticity, diversity and why oh why its Saint Jamie in the limelight again. 

So lets just try to take a balanced look at things (because I’m sure Gordon and Barack will be aiming for balance today and tomorrow, if not dietary then economically at least).  

The brief: 

Mr Oliver has apparently been given a brief to create a menu that showcases the best of seasonal British food and cooking including finding things to represent each of the parts of the United Kingdom. Now some of you may think that ‘best’ ‘British’ and ‘food/cooking’ in the same sentence is something of an oxymoron and that St Jamie is a fool to have accepted the gig. But as we know from past form there is nothing like a challenge to get Jamie’s enthusiasm racing away with him and him saying ‘YES’ before anyone has any chance of stopping him. Even the imminent arrival of his third child is not enough to stop Jamie pouncing on this chance.

Remember it’s a BIG BIG GIG. 

So as we proceed through this analysis of the menu lets remember the brief is ‘BEST SEASONAL BRITISH’ cooked for people from 20 different nations with all the restrictions that entails. Because if you were on The Apprentice doing this and you junked the brief straight off Mr Sugar would be firing you right back to where you came from in no time.

The menu:

You’ve probably seen it already but lets see if and how it sticks to the brief:


Baked Scottish Salmon with Seashore Vegetables, Broad Beans, Herb Garden Salad, Mayonnaise and Wild Garlic-scented Irish Soda bread
Vegetarian option is Childwickbury Goat’s Cheese with Roast Shallots, Seashore Vegetables, Herb Green Salad and Wild Garlic-scented Irish Soda Bread (no mayo)


Slow-Roasted Shoulder of Welsh Lamb, very first of the season Jersey Royals, first of the season Asparagus and Wild St George Mushrooms. Mint Sauce and Gravy
Vegetarian option is Lovage & Potato Dumplings with first of the season Asparagus and Wild St George Mushrooms


Hot Bakewell Tart with Home-made Custard

A quick look in any seasonal cooking book or any of the various online seasonality resources will show you that Jamie is potentially quite restricted in some areas e.g. fruit = pretty much nothing, meat = wild pigeon!. And once he has to factor in a whole range of dietary requirements the options get cut further. So lets just be clear here: the guy has to create something uniquely (and identifiably) British and WOW that fits with a plethora of dietary restrictions and a rather thin set of seasonal choices.

So his only option is to get top notch ingredients and try to make them sing.


Salmon: in season, very recognisably British, represents Scotland (still part of the UK last time I looked despite the best efforts of may a Scotsman and woman). Obvious choice but shellfish is probably a no no and many might squeal at eel.

Seashore Veg: identified on most sites as sea kale and samphire. Well he’s on the mark with sea kale but I’m a bit doubtful about the possibility of samphire – it’s a shade early for that really but he can hardly have had it grown in a poly tunnel so he must know a secret source. I have seen it growing on the mud flats of Maldon fairly early in previous years so its not impossible. And its very British.

Broad beans: pretty British, very early so these have got to come from under glass, possibly from somewhere like the Isle of Wight or Channel Islands. And before we all go off on one about producing things early under glass lets just remember that they’ve been doing it since way back in the 1500’s – what do you think they used Chelsea for before they built posh houses and football clubs on it!

Herb garden salad: definitely seasonal, not especially British but that will depend on the actual herbs selected and what’s available. Hopefully he’ll have some sorrel or watercress or early spinach in there.

Mayonnaise: not reknowned for being particularly British but it is tasty and we could make a slightly weak argument about it allegedly being brought back from Mahon in Minorca after Richelieu defeated the British there in 1756 (bit tenuous though). I think he should have plumped for a dressing made with rapeseed oil and a herb or fruit vinegar.

Wild garlic soda bread: wild garlic is definitely in season and grows across much of the UK; and soda bread is found both North and South of the border in Ireland so it fits (regardless of your politics on the UK/Irish matter).

Vegetarians: sadly its goats cheese again for them it seems (a stock answer to ‘oh dear how do I cope with the veggie people’) but since good goats cheese is so lovely and a staple of the British food scene these days I’d be happy to opt for this and they get to have the same supporting vegetables.

Main: This is a tough one to call. The options are limited and some of the things on the menu are VERY early in the season. I imagine there’s been a lots of frantic sourcing going on to get some of this stuff but the choices are all well known British options and show the range of possibilities from across the UK

Lamb: of course it is now April! Its a bit early in the season but not impossible to get lamb that’s mature enough – I suspect since its being slow roasted it’ll be close to 1 year old rather than new season. Pretty tough call to find another option when pork and beef are probably both of the menu due to dietary restrictions and everyone would simply roll their eyes if its was chicken being served up.

Jersey Royals: if they are ready I say bring them on, fantastic.

Asparagus: after the cool winter I’m doubtful this is really in season yet but he must have managed to get its somewhere – I love asparagus so I’m quite jealous.

Vegetarians: good to see that the supporting notes are the same as for the meat option, veggies are so often just palmed off with a totally different mushed up irrelevant dish whereas this references back and adds lovage which will be in season.

Dessert: oh dear this is where the controversy really warms up. For a start most people say the real thing is Bakewell Pudding and it’s pretty easy to search out bucket loads of supporting evidence for that assertion. But many of the same sources also suggestion that Bakewell Tart is not such the chav newcomer most of us would have and recipes can be traced back at least to the mid 1800s for dishes that are more tart like less pudding and indeed tarts akin to Bakewell have a heritage going back further across most of the UK. So, as long as St J isn’t just opening a pack of Mr Kipling’s then I’m sure things will be okay. Pudding, dessert, whatever you want to call it there must have been lots of options to consider. I think he’s slightly lost the seasonal plot though here as he could have done something interesting with new seasons rhubarb (like the a wonderful dish I tasted at Northcote Manor in Lancashire earlier this year of Rhubarb Carpaccio, Custard Crumble Parfait, Rhubarb Granita which was real wow), even a simple fruit fool would have done the trick I think (and stopped the arguing about tarts and puddings).

So overall has he met the brief?

Well I’d say he’s well over 90% of the way there with this menu, plus its relatively simple and accessible and crucially for him straightforward to prepare. It’s a meant to be a working dinner not an off the scale gastronomic experience. I can quite imagine that St Jamie will pull it off again and by tomorrow when those who tasted comment we’ll be hearing about how great it was. And if not, well then I’ll eat my words or at the very least some seasonal British food.

Think you can do better? Look out for tomorrow’s post to join in the debate and have the chance to create your own G20 menu moment and also find out some useful resources on British food.


First rhubarb harvest

Today we harvested our first stalks of rhubarb this season. Coming in at six stalks it made a nice compact handful. We’ve got 3 rhubarb crowns and one seems to be slightly ahead of the others so all the stalks came off the one plant. 

Over the last few seasons we’ve had mixed cropping results – in the first few years after they were properly established we got a pretty good crop and then a couple of years ago they started to bolt very early in the season. We would get curious but quite attractive flowering rhubarb stems but very little worth harvesting and the flower stems are hollow so no good for the pot. It seems that letting them flower or bolt reduces the crop. This year we could see the same thing was going to happen again so after some searching in gardening books (most of which simply didn’t even seem to recognise the problem) we found some advice in a wonderful old book (The New Illustrated Gardening Encyclopaedia by Richard Suddell, from the 1940’s I believe, its full of lovely pen and ink illustrations) which said the flower buds should be removed as soon as they appear at ground level. So we’ve done that and it seems to have worked so far; I’m hoping for a better crop this year.

I really love rhubarb, its such a wonderful part of the British seasonal kitchen, it can be refreshing and light or warming with a tang depending on how its prepared. For this first batch I decided simple was best and just cooked the cut up stems briefly in a small amount of water with a little sugar added until they became soft but still held some shape. So now there is enough lightly cooked rhubarb to last me this week, for adding to breakfast muesli or making a quick desert with Greek yoghurt. I’m looking forward to its refreshing tang and starting to think of some different recipes to try when the next batch comes through. I might even decide to force one crown next winter to extend the season and make me feel revitalised by the onset of spring a little sooner.