Tuesday, 27 September 2011
The weekend before last I had the great pleasure to attend my first-ever beer festival. There are no breweries in my town, and hence no beer festivals, but the next town north has one (sadly, it took place while I was in Reykjavík), and the next town south, which is the one I went to. I hadn't thought to look up when it was happening, but fortuitously, it was on the very day I was planning on going down there to mooch around the shops (there's an excellent greengrocer where I bought quinces a few weeks ago, and an independent kitchenware shop that sells the flip-top bottles I use for homemade liqueurs). When I mentioned it to my friends, they told me about the beer festival - so we made a date (we're all partial to beer, but they tend to shop for value, so their house is filled with mass market swill).
I've never been to either a food festival or a beer festival before - indeed, my town lacks even a farmers' market, it's so divorced from local producers. So I had no idea what to expect. I downloaded the list of beers, and organised them in order of the distance between my house and the brewery - since there were dozens, I had to decide which to try, to get my priorities straight in advance. I was told they would sell beer in 1/3 pints, as well as halves and whole pints - since I wanted to try the most possible, and not get drunk, that was ideal. Even so, I was unlikely to get through even the ones from the five counties of Northwest England (Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside). In fact, the extremely useful website Quaffale informed me there are 108 operating breweries in the region - each producing several beers, sometimes dozens. Although the beer festival didn't have anything like all of them, it had enough to stretch a determined taster for its three days' duration. We were only going for one session, so I needed to be picky.
A large hall was filled with tables and chairs in the middle, a long bar down each side, and a smaller one in a corner. After paying entry (£3), you could buy cards of £10 or £5 value, divided into 5p, 10p, 20p, and 50p (I think); the bar staff would then cross off the amount you spent on each drink - a clever way to avoid their needing tills. You hired a glass - either a pint or a half (with a marking for 1/3) for a £2 deposit. Then you could pick whichever beer you wanted. There were around 70 domestic ales (mostly local), over 40 international bottles beers (half of them Belgian), and maybe 20 draught "farmhouse" ciders and perries.
I began with the brewery in the town holding the festival. Then one just a couple of miles from my house. My friends chose more or less at random, but we soon started splitting international beers between us - so we could try the most possible, and because they were more expensive on average. So I never got much further than 20 miles away, but I managed to try 23 beers and a single cider (I hadn't intended to, but it was a good palate cleanser, and I was intrigued that they made cider in my county - I'd never heard of such a thing).
The impression I got was consistent and rather disappointing: I much prefer Belgian beer to anything produced in the UK. That is not to say every UK ale disappoints - some are superb, and I would like to source some from the nearest brewery for future festivities (such as my birthday) - nor that Belgian beers are always good. Of course, it's a matter of taste - but mine seems to favour the Trappist styles, especially lambics, which are invariably more complex, fruity, with larger, more persistent heads, and usually higher alcohol levels. The difference, I suspect, is in the yeast - British brewers tend to employ standard brewing yeast (mostly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or for lagers S. pastorianus), whereas many Belgian beers are brewed with wild yeasts (such as Brettanomyces spp.), native to the region, which produce more more varied aromatic compounds.
In fact, some homebrew shops now sell "lambic yeasts", which will probably match fairly closely those strains found in the old Belgian breweries, but I am not aware of any such beers made in this country (I am very happy to be proven wrong on that matter, however). I intend at some point, perhaps over the winter, when the garden is not a priority, to start making beer at home, so I will give it a try myself. However, I am left with the slightly annoying conclusion: I prefer Belgian beer. This means two things: most pubs do not serve the kind of beer I like (though having any real ale on tap is preferable to the standard international conglomerates' industrial products), and to drink what I like will cost more than the average pint. Ah well, one must suffer for quality sometimes...
I should point out, one style of beer I adore is not Belgian, namely IPA (especially so-called "American-style" IPAs, whether made in the US or over here). And I've had many enjoyable craft beers from the United States in other styles, and from other places too.
Addendum: I joined CAMRA at the festival. I'd considered it in the past, but £20 seemed a bit much for tenuous benefits. Well, this time it made sense. They refunded the £3 entry, gave you a £5 drinks voucher card, and promised £20' Wetherspoon vouchers. I appreciate the image this organisation has (for those who don't know, it's the CAMpaign for Real Ale, which seeks to support traditional brewing and pubs), but I support its aims, and share its dismay at the direction beer, brewing, and pubs had taken in recent decades (before the micro-brewing renaissance of the last few years).
Saturday, 24 September 2011
I started taking portraits of my ripe tomatoes, one variety at a time. Sadly, I used the wrong camera settings for several, so they weren't good enough to be uploaded to Flickr, but they are alright reduced in size for use here. Clockwise, from upper left: 'Cherokee Purple', 'Gardener's Delight', 'Sun Belle', 'Jaune Flammée'.
Tomatoes are rolling in (if you'll excuse the awkward metaphor) now - a few hundred grammes every couple of days. I tend to ripen them indoors (picking them when they are ripe enough to come off the vine, but less than fully coloured), because if I don't, they get nibbled. Sadly, some have elected to go mouldy before becoming fully edible, especially 'Costoluto Fiorentino', whose ribs must provide an ideal hiding place for fungal spores. Still, their colours gladden my heart, and I've started photographing them so I have a copyright-free record (and because they are pretty).
Totals for week 15th-21st September:
15th: 1 'Jaune Flammée' tomato at 6g, 12g pumpkin flower (day total: 18g)
16th: 350g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 22g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 12g, 2 'Super Marmande' at 164g, 1 'Cherokee Purple' at 152g)
18th: 5g pumpkin flower, 21g runner beans, 6g French beans, 326g tomatoes (comprising 11 'Gardener's Delight' at 61g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 68g, 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 58g, 2 'Cream Sausage' at 52g, 7 'Sun Belle' at 52g, 5 'Snowberry' at 35g; day total: 358g)
20th: 4g French beans, 2g runner beans, 426g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Cherokee Purple' at 180g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 28g, 4 'Jaune Flammée' at 47g, 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 28g, 8 'Sun Belle' at 60g, 1 'Snowberry' at 11g, 4 'Green Zebra' at 172g; day total: 432g)
Week total: 1.158kg
Year to date total: 25.032kg
More than a kilo is respectable, and passing the 25kg mark is pleasing, if not especially significant. As a spoiler to the following week's harvest, I've got chard, turnips, and many more tomatoes and beans, so I'm pretty happy with where the garden is right now.
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
A few years ago I got hooked on cocktails. It began when I ordered a box of assorted premium spirits from an online retailer. I still have the email, so I can say it contained 3 bottles of premium plain vodka, and one bottle each of berry- and lime-flavoured vodka. Throughout my sixth form and university years, my tastes for alcohol changed, as you would expect. When I was a teenager, I drank tequila, alcopops (which were still quite new then), and whatever else was cheapest. Then vodka and orange (again the cheapest I could find) took centre stage, before I gave up drinking almost entirely for over a year. When I resumed, I started taking advantage of the good wine shops in the city, and tried numerous whites and rosés (red was still rather too challenging on a daily basis).
In France, where I spent a lot of time in my third year (I studied French, see), I drank more wine (I have fond memories of the chain Nicolas's budget rosé range, where you could get a very decent bottle for €2.50, which in those days was a pittance), and kir, which was invariably the cheapest drink in bars (white wine, traditionally Bourgogne aligoté, with crème de cassis - blackcurrant liqueur). Returning to the UK afterwards, I started enjoying the odd Long Island iced tea, and vodka. So by this point - not long before I finished - my tastes were broad, and I was eager to learn more.
I also liked absinthe, but that's another story.
When I finished my degree, I had a lot of spare time, and I started reading books on cocktails. You might be surprised - but a food-lover is likely to enjoy reading recipe books, and cocktail formulae are merely simple recipes. What I started to do was make lists of drinks I wanted to try, and the ingredients I needed to buy in order to make them. By the end of this period, two or three years later, I had a personal collection of well over 100 spirits, liqueurs, bitters, and many more syrups and mixers. I've since drunk, given away, or disposed of them all - my house no longer regularly contains alcohol at all, as it's too much of a temptation. However, I do enjoy making my own, and recently I've begun making liqueurs again, from seasonal fruit - sometimes home-grown.
The issue at hand
The beauty of this is, they are useful as straight drinks - Amalfi limoncello is beautiful over ice - but particularly good in simple, delicious cocktails. The fruit syrup is great too, of course, but its keeping qualities are much poorer. The alcohol in a liqueur should keep it fresh for many months, especially if unopened.
You can flavour liqueurs with almost anything. And I should say, before I continue, that by 'liqueur' (not to be confused with liquor), I mean a syrupy, sweetened alcoholic drink made from fruit, herbs, spices, nuts, and the like, combined with sugar and spirit alcohol, usually 15-25% alcohol by volume (though some commercial ones are stronger). I'll leave out cream liqueurs here, which include the addition of dairy products, and sometimes eggs, because they are rather different in production and keeping qualities.
This week I've made two, with a third in production - quince, plum, and pear. These fruits are ripe now, so are perfect for transforming into things that can be enjoyed later, but almost anything can be used - though some are easier than others.
Basic liqueur recipe
Fresh, ripe, seasonal fruit
Spirit (vodka, brandy, and rum are best, but whisky and gin are possible)
Optionally: citric acid, lemons or limes, water
- First the flavour of the fruit must be extracted. There are three main ways of doing this. First, you may juice them directly. This works well with firm, watery fruits, like apples and watermelon. Use a domestic juicer. The second method, which is suitable for all types of fruit, is to gently heat the fruit in a pan, with a small amount of water. The third is to steep the fruit, whole or chopped, in the spirit, but I'll say more on that below.
- Take the juice, or the heated pulp, and strain. The best way to do this is using a sieve lined with muslin. If there is a lot of pulp, skin, etc, you may be best sieving it without the muslin first, to remove most of the solids. Gently press the mass wrapped in muslin if you like - but the result may be a slightly cloudy liqueur.
- Then, put the clarified juice in a pan, and add sugar, lemon, and citric acid to taste. I only started using citric acid recently, but find it excellent for correcting the acid/sugar balance. It's a white powder, used in many types of cooking, and sold in some supermarkets, ethnic food shops, and home brew suppliers. A little goes a long way, but it really perks up the juice, and can help bring out the flavour of less than perfect fruit. It's also great if you add too much sugar, as it brings the mixture back into balance.
- Once it tastes right, add the alcohol. The strength is up to you - I'd say no more than 50/50. Then readjust the sweetness and acidity - remember, the alcohol will have a certain kick, or burn, and the final sugar and acid levels will be higher than in a non-alcoholic syrup in order to carry this - unless you use very smooth, expensive alcohol, which is a bit of a waste anyway.
- Once it is to your taste, pour into clean, sterilised bottles. Store in a dark, cool place. The flavours are often said to "mature" over several months - possibly due to slow chemical reactions between the alcohol, sugar, and acid - but I am not sure if there's any real difference (unlike, say, in a wine, where there's a much more complex interplay with dead yeast enzymes, etc).
The third way is more traditional. Take a large jar, and place alternating layers of sugar and fruit into it. Add the spirit of your choosing to cover. Ideally, you would fill it, otherwise the fruit will often float to the top - but you can weigh it down (this is how a "Rumtopf" or rum pot is made - but in that case, mixed fruit is usually used). Leave for two weeks up to several months, until the liquid is fruity and coloured. Strain. The problem I have with this method is there is no easy way of adjusting the sweetness until the end. It is, however, easier, and you end up with alcohol-soaked fruit, which can be useful as a dessert in itself (although it's not really my cup of tea). This method tends to produce a stronger finished liqueur than those above.
Ways to serve
A good liqueur is excellent served straight, in a small glass especially for that purpose, or a sherry schooner, small wine glass, or even a brandy snifter. Over ice can work well, and sparkling water can be added for a long drink. A simple cocktail can be made by shaking a measure or two of spirit over ice with at least as much liqueur, and possibly a little lemon or lime juice, or the juice of whatever fruit is in the liqueur, or a complementary one, and possibly sugar syrup. It's all to taste, so I can't specify - I prefer much more sour cocktails than most people. Experiment!
It goes almost without saying that this is an excellent way of dealing with a glut of fruit, and makes a lovely handmade gift for those who like a tipple. At the very least, the bright, jewel-like colours are likely to gladden the heart, especially deep in winter.
The picture above shows, in the bottles left to right, plum (also in the glass), banana, pear, and quince liqueurs, all made this month.
Thursday, 15 September 2011
Tomatoes, large and small, ripe and unripe. A good impression of the range of colours and forms the varieties I've been growing have taken.
This week was all about tomatoes. Finally! Sadly, many of the ones I picked were not yet ripe, but I had to save them from my mollusc enemies - the recent wet weather hasn't harmed the plants directly (I'd say it's been too windy for blight conditions), but has encouraged the slugs and snails to gorge - and they often take a little out of the side of an unripe tomato. They will ripen adequately indoors, though they'll lack the intensity of flavour you get when they reach full ripeness on the vine. Still, on the basis of weight alone, I should be happy.
Totals for week 8th-14th September:
8th: 12g pumpkin flower, 156g tomatoes (comprising one each 'Cream Sausage' at 21g, 'Super Marmande' at 45g, and 'Summer Cider' at 90g; day total: 168g)
9th: 74g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Super Marmande' at 67g, and 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 7g)
11th: 5g French beans, 77g tomatoes (comprising 5 'Sun Belle' at 28g, and one each 'Super Marmande' at 21g, 'Cream Sausage' at 10g, 'Jaune Flammée' at 11g, and 'Snowberry' at 7g; day total: 82g)
14th: 15g French beans, 1.083kg tomatoes (comprising 2 'Cherokee Purple' at 236g, 2 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 108g, 7 'Jaune Flammée' at 91g, 2 'Sun Belle' at 21g, 2 'Snowberry' at 12g, 12 'Gardener's Delight' at 81g, and 7 'Super Marmande' at 534g; day total: 1.098kg)
Week total: 1.422kg
Year to date total: 23.874kg
In the next couple of weeks, I'll get another picking of mizuna, possibly the first kohl rabi (some have started to swell), more runner beans (they had a second flush of flowers), and hopefully many more tomatoes. I can't say this is the harvest cornucopia I'd pictured back in the spring, but I've learned a lot through my failures - most importantly, patience.
Sunday, 11 September 2011
Here they have been put into an ovenproof dish, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The larger ones have been chopped.
The weather this week has not been kind to the tomatoes, but it has suited the autumn vegetables. We've had a bit of everything - sunshine, rain, wind - alternating rapidly. Currently, I'm awaiting the second major storm of the season, this time the remnants of a hurricane, which means outdoor work (such as fencing, painting, repairing previous wind damage) is on hold. The only minor concern is the newest addition to my garden, a quince tree, which has gone in the front. It's a pretty exposed position, though very sunny and with good soil, so I need to stake the tree today to stop it rocking about in the ground, preventing the roots settling. Other than that, ripening is slow. Too little sun has made this a summer of disappointment for many - comparing notes with family who've been visiting recently, confirmed it wasn't just a northern problem. But I have successfully ripened green tomatoes indoors with a banana in a bag (a traditional method, which never ceases to amaze, despite its simplicity) - and I suspect more fruit will go through that process than will ripen on the vine.
Totals for week 1st-7th September:
1st: 11g French beans, 11g runner beans, 193g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 57g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 61g, 2 'Snowberry' at 8g, 6 'Gardener's Delight' at 35g*, and 5 'Sun Belle' at 32g; day total: 215g)
2nd: 28g summer squash, 2g French beans, 45g tomatoes (comprising 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 17g, 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 21g, 1 'Snowberry' at 7g; day total: 75g)
4th: 13g pumpkin flowers, 1g runner beans, 15g radish, 49g tomatoes (comprising 6 'Sun Belle' at 20g, 5 'Gardener's Delight' at 23g, 2 'Snowberry' at 6g), 483g apples (day total: 561g)
6th: 30g French beans, 30g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Snowberry' at 14g, 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 14g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 2g; day total: 60g)
7th: 2g French beans, 61g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 47g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 12g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 2g; day total: 63g)
Week total: 974g
Year to date total: 22.452kg
Still, nearly a kilo of produce in a week is not bad - around half of that apples, from the smallest 'tree' in the world (a tiny, knee-high standard my grandfather passed over to me a couple of years ago; last year it carried no fruit at all, this time it had nine, though all were very small). Enough tomatoes for a few meals, enough to gladden the heart and give me an incentive to grow more next year (as if I needed one). Their taste is incomparable.
Meanwhile, I've had a lot of bought produce to deal with. It's a time of plenty, with fruit and vegetables very cheap in all the shops, so I've been making liqueurs, and have plans for more preserves and frozen desserts. Stocking up for winter!
*I couldn't remember exactly how much, between 30 and 39g, so I split the difference.
Saturday, 3 September 2011
I have Nigella Lawson to thank for this one. Well, her and the local chain of posh supermarkets, which has a habit of bagging up old bananas and selling them off cheap. A kilo or more for 50-60p. Now, I'm not a fan of overripe bananas. Until recently, I didn't even like ripe ones - my preference was for those large, perfect fruits that were still blushed with green. Not unripe - those have a mouth-drying character bordering on the tannic - but not yet fully yellow. I've since moved on to those whose banana aroma is fully developed, but whose flesh is still firm, and not at all mushy. Anyway, I still won't eat these reduced bananas, but they are a wonderful resource for cooking.
The best thing to do is, as soon as you get them home (or, in my case, a day or two later), peel and chop them, lay them out onto trays lined with something non-stick, and freeze them. Then, the next day, split them between freezer bags, and keep them until needed. A handful in a smoothie provides richness, body, and a cool sweetness without the need for ice cubes. They can be softened in the microwave and added to porridge. Best of all, however, they make banana bread - a simple luxury, rich and warming.
The original recipe (or, I should say, the previous iteration, since Nigella explains hers is but a refinement of another recipe) is in How to be a domestic goddess, but the first time I had occasion to make it, I was lacking a couple of ingredients. Now, many banana bread recipes I have seen call for nuts, as hers did (walnuts, to be precise), but I rarely have any in - I do, in fact, like nuts now (as a child I hated them), but they are so expensive, I must reserve them for very special occasions. As it is, I don't see that they add much beyond a crunch in this context. By all means, add some if you have them to hand, but they are not essential.
The other missing ingredient was alcohol. Ms Lawson does so revel in rich food, and she recommends poaching the sultanas in bourbon or rum before incorporating them into the cake, but this is another ingredient I rarely have. I have a little too much love for liquor, so I don't keep it in the house (or perhaps I should say, I buy it, but it never lasts long). I don't see that an alcoholic tang would sit well with the other ingredients, so I'd advise leaving it out, even if your drinks cabinet is fully stocked.
So, my version of this recipe is pared down, simplified, but no less indulgent for it. A word on the name - this is, quite clearly, a cake, not a bread. But 'banana cake' lacks a certain cadence, and besides, it conjures up an image of something with a layer of caramelised, possibly semi-dried, whole fruits - like a pineapple upside-down cake. This is rather different (and often baked in a loaf tin).
Simple banana bread
makes one large loaf
300g bananas (peeled weight), as ripe as you like - even very bruised fruit will do
150g sugar (a golden sugar, as in so many things, adds extra richness)
125g butter, melted
175g plain flour
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
a dash of vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
I've found it really doesn't matter what order you do this in; mash the bananas until mostly puréed (a few lumps are no problem), add the butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and sultanas, and mix together thoroughly. Combine the dry ingredients, then mix with the rest, until you have a batter (make sure no lumps of flour remain). Pour/spoon into a loaf tin, or cake moulds, or even muffin cases; note that the smaller the cakes, the shorter the cooking time, so I'd advise rather than a set length, just keep your eye on them, and test with a skewer when they look done - if the (metal) skewer comes out clean, they are ready. Bake at gas 3/170ºC until done.
You can do this in a food processor - but in that case, reserve the sultanas and stir in at the end (or they'll get pulverised).
Friday, 2 September 2011
Say hello to mizuna pesto. I harvested so much I had to find a recipe that required a lot. It's such a vibrant green - though I don't yet know whether it will be delicious.
I'm continuing the practice of lumping together the final part of the month, even though it exceeds seven days - it doesn't make sense to have a 'week five' post for three extra days. So the figure below can't be seen as a week's harvest, but given the low figures this month, I don't suppose it will matter. Ultimately, my totals will be for the whole year (when it's over), so there's no need to nitpick.
Growth may have slowed in some areas (the tomatoes are putting more energy into swelling existing fruit, than getting much bigger or setting a lot of new ones), but is still fast elsewhere - windowsill herbs, and autumn-cropping leaves and roots are racing ahead. However, I'm still very much waiting for the harvest. I've all but given up on my 50kg total tomato haul, although my attitude goes from positivity to pessimism almost daily. It depends largely on how much the larger fruits weigh - the 'Cherokee Purple' have grown quite fat, though ripening is nowhere to be seen. The smaller varieties are well underweight - in fact, everything I've picked so far has been less than a quarter the lower expected average weight, which means my sums will be all wrong. To put it in context, I'd assumed the average weight would be 50g per tomato, and so far only two or three fruits has exceeded that. At this rate, unless I harvest several times more fruits than I estimated, I will miss my target by an order of magnitude.
Totals for week 22nd-31st August:
22nd: 89g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Cream Sausage' at 30g*, 4 'Snowberry' at 24g, 2 'Jaune Flammée' at 23g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 7g, and 1 'Sun Belle' at 5g)
24th: 6g runner beans, 5g French beans, 34g tomatoes (comprising 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 24g, and 2 'Snowberry' at 10g; day total: 45g)
26th: 43g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 22g, 2 'Sun Belle' at 11g, and 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 10g)
27th: 6g runner beans, 2g French beans, 32g tomatoes (comprising 1 each 'Jaune Flammée' and 'Snowberry', both 5g, and 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 22g; day total: 40g)
28th: 40g mizuna, 25g radish, 3g chives, 54g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 11g, 2 'Snowberry' at 15g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 8g, and 4 'Sun Belle' at 20g; day total: 122g)
30th: 16g runner beans, 39g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Snowberry' at 9g, 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 12g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 6g, and 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 12g; day total: 55g)
31st: 3 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes at 266g**, 408g mizuna (day total: 674g)
Total for 10 days: 1.068kg
Total for August: 2.536kg
Year to date total: 21.478kg
Over a kilogramme! Mostly tomatoes and mizuna. The latter has been an unexpected star - it was ready before I expected, based on average cropping time, and it regenerated in just a few days after its first cutting. I've had it in salad, stir fry, and will use the biggest batch for a kind of pesto.
I suppose September will be the month for tomatoes. I can see signs of ripening on dozens of fruits now, inside and out. The kohl rabi, turnips, black radish, swede, and beetroot are beginning to swell, so I might get some by the end of the month. The carrots are slower, so they may be an October crop. The stem lettuce have swollen alarmingly, but I don't know the crop well enough to know how long they will take to mature. There's still time for more sowing, so I hope to have a lot more in the ground in a few weeks - it's easy to think of September and October as autumn months, but the average temperatures aren't much lower than summer, so the harvests should continue for weeks to come.
*These were suffering from blossom end rot, but ripened regardless.
**A large truss split, and three fruits snapped off, unripe. I'm hoping to ripen them indoors with the aid of a banana.