Friday, 23 September 2011

Making ham

Now is the perfect time to start making fermented and air-dried meat, as the weather gets cooler.
We may not have as rich a history in fermented meats and charcuterie as France, Spain, Germany, Italy or Poland (although a decent Wiltshire cured ham can rival the best Jamón pata Negra, and a well-made Cumberland sausage beats any Fränkische Bratwurst) but we do have a pretty good climate for making air-dried hams; cool, humid, and windy.
I’ve started curing a few bit of meat, and although they won’t be ready for a few months yet, they are looking promising. As with anything you’re going to eat, the best quality ingredients are of up most importance if the product is to taste good. I took a whole leg of pork from my butcher. It was from a free-range Middle White pig who had lived content in Oxfordshire. A happy pig I was told.

I skinned and boned the leg, and then seamed out each muscle, a process which involves carefully separating each individual muscle in order to end up with a number of intact muscles. Each muscle in the leg is separated by connective tissue and sliverskin which must be removed before cooking or processing into any form of charcuterie. Seam butchery tends to be seen more on the continent than in UK butcheries, but is becoming increasingly popular, especially for cuts of meat like rump, where traditionally the steak is cut to include 4 or 5 different muscles – it is easy for the butcher to cut, and gives you a big steak, but the grain of each muscle runs in different directions and cooks differently…so on eating a rump steak, one part will be tough, the next bite will be tender, some bits will be rare and others overcooked. If the rump is seamed, each muscle can be cut to give smaller, but higher quality steaks which respond to the appropriate cooking method much better.
Once I had the different muscles from the leg separated and trimmed (5 decent sized muscles), I made up 2 dry cures for the meat: one fairy traditional cure, and another with a Spanish influence.
Traditional cure:                                               Spanish cure:
70% vacuum dried salt                                     60% vacuum dried salt
 30% unrefined cane sugar                              35% unrefined cane sugar
Juniper berries                                                   5% Sweet paprika
Dried Bay leaves                                                Crushed garlic
Crushed pepper corns                                       Fennel seeds

The Spanish cure was a bit of an experiment, so I used this for the two smaller muscles.               
I rubbed handfuls of the cure onto the surface of the meat so that there was a good layer adhering but so that the meat was buried in cure as the largest muscle was no more than 2 kg.

Spanish style cure

Traditional cure

After 3 hours, the cure was beginning to penetrate and draw out moisture from the meat: the beginning of the drying process.

The hams hanging up outside
 I then left the meat at 20C for a week to begin the fermentation process in the meat – raising the acidity level.
My little hams then got tied up and taken outside to hang in the breeze. They will be continuing their fermentation and as the acid levels reach their peak, and the moisture levels drop, lactic acid producing bacteria will release enzymes which will breakdown the proteins in the meat to free amino acids – which is what makes ham delicious!

They may not turn out to be as delicate and refined as a Jamón pata Negra or sweet as a Prosciutto di San Daniele, but by hanging the hams outside in the garden, their flavours will certainly express the local terrior.                                                             

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Nuts about nuts

Cobnuts - a rather forgotten little nut which seems to be seeing a bit of a revival at the moment. I was delighted to find them for sale at a London farmers’ market recently, and bought a large bag of them. The Cobnut is a cultivar of the wild hazelnut with longer, more slender shells and a sweet, delicate flavour.

Originally domesticated in the 16th century, the nut was referred to as the Filbert, and as well as being enjoyed as an autumnal treat which stored quite well through until Christmas, was used by children to play a form of “conkers”, with the winning nut being crowned “the cob”.
Filberts were popular right though until the green revolution of the 1930s, when agriculture intensified, and local and traditional crops and were ditched in favour of modern, vigorous and high-yielding varieties of crops dependent on chemical fertilizers et al.
Sadly, the Cobnut plantations, or “plats” as they are locally known were cut down, dug up and almost lost forever.  In the early 1900s, there were over 7000acres of Cobnut plats in England. This had fallen to just over 700acres by 1950, and then down to 250acres in the 1990s.
Most of these plats were grown in Kent, traditionally the garden of England due to its proximity to London for the main markets.
My nuts were golden, so they had been off the trees for a few weeks. Fresh off the tree, the nuts are green, tender and milky, but as the husks turn golden, the nut begins to dry a little, with a richer, sweeter flavour. I have been eating most of them straight from the shell, but couldn’t resist cooking with a few. A pesto made using the Cobnuts in place of the usual pine kernels, and Berkswell in place of Pecorino or Parmiggiano was especially successful.

Cobnut Pesto
Here is how I made my pretty Enlish pesto - but do adjust quantities to personal taste. 
  • Really large handful basil leaves
  • 140g Berkswell, finely grated (other English sheeps cheeses to consider; Spenwood, Fosseway Fleece)
  • 100g shelled cobnuts
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • Olive oil and rapeseed oil (I used approx 50:50 ratio)
Place the nuts and garlic in a large pestle and morter, and pound until they are well broken. Gradually add the basil, continually pounding the break the leaves and bind them into a paste with the nuts. Once all the basil has been added, and is well broken down into a paste, add the cheese and a little oil in order to loosen the paste. Pound well until the cheese is well combined into the mixture. Slowly add the oils, pounding the mixture all the time, until you have the thicken you want.
Season if need be - I added a little salt but no pepper, and use over the next few days.
The pesto will keep for around a week, provided it has oil covering it, but will begin the loose its fragrance. I made this in a rough granite pestle and mortar, but have also made plenty of pesto in a food processor. I did not toast the nuts prior to making the pesto as I wanted to retain as much of there special creamy, fresh quality as possible.

Hopefully this delicious nut will continue to grow in popularity and new plats will be planted across Kent in the future. I am certainly thinking of planting a few Cobnut trees here in south Warwickshire.        

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cheese tasting at Waterford Food Festival

Last week I had the privilege of representing The School of Artisan Food in a series of artisan tastings at the Waterford Food Festival in Ireland.
The tastings and demonstrations were being held in the impressively equipped catering department at the Waterford Institute of Technology, and were open to chefs, catering students and the general public.
My demonstrations were on cheese tasting and traditional and contemporary cheese making in the British Isles.

I talked about the School of Artisan Food; the short courses available, the diploma course, and the Welbeck estate. I spoke of my travels to the USA, France and around England learning the craft of artisan cheese making. I explained the fundamentals of cheese making; of bacteria, yeasts and moulds, and we discussed different ways of serving cheese, compiling a cheese board and cooking with cheese.
As these topics were covered, we tasted a selection of 5 artisan cheeses I had chosen to give a representation of some of the most important cheese types. 4 of the 5 cheeses were Irish, with an English hard cheese thrown in as the 5th cheese for interest.
We started by tasting Gortnamona – a bloomy rind goats’ milk cheese made at Cooleeney farm in County Tipperary. The batch we tasted was very young, with a firm, acidic centre, and just a little creamy breakdown beneath the white, fluffy rind.
Next was a magnificent piece of Coolea – a farmhouse Gouda style cheese from County Cork. This cheese gave me the perfect opportunity to explain the process of “washing curd” by removing whey and replacing it with water in order to quickly slow down acidification development, leaving more lactose un-converted to lactic acid. The Coolea was a younger cheese than I would usually choose, and although the gritty calcium crystals and complex layers of flavour which always draws me to this cheese had yet to develop, it was still interesting – with warm, buttery flavours, a soft, fudgy texture and a fruity, tropical aroma.

To follow the Coolea was the English cheese. I had chosen Berkswell, the hard ewes’ milk cheese from Ram Hall, near Coventry. The Berkswell was a cheese made on the 02/04/11, and was delicious, but a totally different cheese from the Berkswell I had been tasting the previous week – cheeses from the 01/04/11. This cheese was nuttier, dryer, and not as sweet. More like a Sardinian Pecorino perhaps.
We then moved back to Ireland for the penultimate cheese, but continued with the ewes’ milk cheese. It was Crozier blue from Tipperary, made by the Grubb family, makers of the famous Cashel blue. The Crozier was rich and full flavoured but sweet and delicate.
Finally, we tasted one of my favourite Irish cheeses, Ardrahan - made by Mary Burns in County Cork. Ardrahan is one of the wonderful washed rind cheeses produced along the south-east coast of Ireland.
We galloped through the world of artisan cheese at top speed, covering all of the about and a little more in a 2 hour slot.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Pechegos: a Tarn valley goat's cheese

Pechegos - washed rind goat's cheese from the Tarn valley
 The past few days have been turning increasing autumnal, with the early morning air being cold enough to want a scarf.
Blackberries have ripened, plums are around by the bucket load -tender Victorias, rich and delicious Opals, and the first, small damsons.
Apples too, pink fleshed Discoverys are now joined by Falstaff, Worcester and Blenheim Oranages at the farmers' market. 
It will still be a good month until the real glut of apples hits, joined by quinces, game, pumpkins, root vegetables and spice. 
When it begins to get a little colder, as far as cheese is concerned, I like to eat something robust. More earthy, savoury and meaty than the creamy, delicate cheeses of warm summer days.
Something with a washed rind and big, bold flavours.
Pechegos was the perfect cheese this week, a washed rind cheese from the Tarn valley in the Languedoc-Roussillon, made using raw goat's milk from local herds grazing the limestone hillsides of the Tarn.
Like the famous Mont d'Or (or Vacherin if you prefer), this cheese is encased in a band of spruce, which imparts a sappy flavour of the forest to the cheese, and holds together the soft, melting paste.
Pechegos is ripened for 6-12 weeks, so cheeses being sold now will have been made with milk from the herb rich pasture of mid-summer, resulting in cheeses with deep, full flavours. 
Over the ripening period, Pechegos is washed in brine, to encourage the development of Brevibacterium linens, giving the cheese a moist, sticky, orange rind and the typically meaty flavours of a washed rind cheese.
The finished cheese is quite unlike any traditional French goat's milk cheeses - soft, almost runny, rich and buttery, bold, meaty flavours, not unlike wild mushrooms or truffles.
Made by a sole producer, Le Pic (a small co-operative producing a range of both modern and traditional style cheeses), Pechego is seasonally available from Paxton and Whitfield, La Fromagerie and Androuet.

Bouchette cendree, a small, ashed
goat's cheese from fromagerie Le Pic.