Monday, 23 April 2012

St. George's Day Mushroom

A wet St. George's Day - perfect for the mushroom who takes the Saint's name.

The St. George's mushroom, is, of course, so named because it is always found around St. George's Day when the fungus fruits. Sure enough, each year, I return to the same site to harvest this delicious, and free food. I have spent hour upon hour searching for Porcini in the Forest of Dean, Chanterelles in Scotland, Pied de Mouton in the Lake District, and Morels in Gloucestershire, only to find they aren’t growing where I found them the previous year!
First St. George's mushrooms of the season

Not with the St. George's mushroom, for about 4 consecutive years I have found them growing in the exact same location – in large rings around the base of Hawthorn trees. I know under which tree I will find most, and always make for that one first. I went to my secret hunting ground last week, 7 days before St. George's day itself, to see if the mushrooms had begun to grow, and they were had. Amazing how they come up almost to the same week every year.

There weren’t many, but the ones I did pick were in excellent condition, with their caps just opening, and their flesh firm and free from maggots. Leaving the mushrooms to grow too big before picking often means they will be watery and slimy in texture, and full of little maggot.

Picking wild mushrooms can be a risky business, not to be advised unless you know what you're doing, but the St. George's mushroom is just about the easiest of fungi to correctly identify. The vast majority of mushrooms, both the edible and the deadly ones, fruit between late summer and late autumn, when the soil is moist and still warm from summer sunshine.

At this time of year, very few mushroom species are growing, apart from St. George's and Morels, so the likelihood of picking the wrong one is greatly reduced. The St. George's mushroom is a creamy, ivory colour, with gills of the same colour (never pick a white mushroom with white gills later on in the year, both Death Caps and Destroying Angels have a similar appearance, but are full of amatoxins, which will destroy your kidneys and liver and potentially kill you), and often gron in tight clusters on open pastures.

With this year's first harvest, I made a risotto - slicing the larger specimens, and adding the the base of sloftened onions, garlic, celery and thyme. I kept the smaller mushrooms whole, and quickly sautéed in plenty of butter, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a good amount of both salt and pepper. Whilst beating cold cubes of butter, and grated Parmigiano into the risotto, the stage known as “mantecatura”, I threw in a fistful of finely shreaded wild garlic leaves (abundant in damp woods at this time of year).

As with many very seasonal foods, the St. George's mushroom eats very well with what is naturally growing or being produced at the same time of year - think of ingredients such as asparagus, duck eggs, pea and bean shoots, milk-fed lamb, and fresh goat's and ewe's milk cheeses. I like to cook the mushroom quickly in butter, until they start to soften, then add a little white wine, and reduce until almost all the liquid has evaporated. A glug of double cream goes into the pan, and I let it all bubble down until thick and luscious.

Finally, a handful of chopped and blanched wild asparagus (living so close to the Vale of Evesham, the traditional centre of asparagus production, I find the vegetable growing wild, or at least feral, in hedgerows) and a little wild garlic join the mushrooms and wilt in the cream.

I lightly toast thick, doorwedge slices of chewy sourdough, and pile the creamy, mushroomy mixture on top. I lay slices of new-season, soft ewe's milk cheese on top – cheeses such as Flower Marie from East Sussex, or Wigmore from Berkshire work well, as would a fresh, lactic curd. This goes under the grill for a few minutes until the cheese is molten and coating the mushrooms, a very delicious, and extreamly seasonal lunch!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Baking Camembert.

Baked Camembert seems to have very quickly become very popular. Every pub and restaurant have one on their menu in some form, ranging from the sublime to the, well, horrendous. As with any food trend, the quality of the dish can suffer with its popularisation, and can be subjected to horrendous and quirky interpretation. Or at best, punches below it's weight and falls to mediocrity. Surely putting a cheese (with comes usefully in a wooden box for baking) into the oven and cooking until molten is fairly fool proof? Sadly it wouldn’t seem so – I can vouch for this having recently been subjected to a nasty version of what should be the simplest and most delicious of cheese dishes.
A firm, cold cheese (mistake number one) had been cut in half horizontally (mistake number two, I didn’t order “half a baked Camembert), dipped in truffle oil (mistake number three, truffle oil is almost always rank), nuked for 2 minutes (mistake number four), and served with cold tomato bread and cranberry sauce (mistakes number five and six: what cuisine puts cranberries, truffles and tomatoes on the same plate? A confused one apparently).

Don’t get me wrong, I adore a dish full of molten, gooey cheese, but not if its been buggered about with.
A decent Camembert isn’t too hard to track down. For a real cheese, choose a Camembert de Normandie Appellation d'origin contrôlée, and look out for the phrases “moule a la louche” and “au lait cru” - hand ladled and made with raw milk. A cheese whose box bears these words should be good, but always inspect the cheese inside before buying – the rind should be delicate, not too thick or with too many brown areas. A little brown is fine, a good indication the cheese has developed well and is ready, but too much and the cheese could be eye-stingingly sharp and full of ammonia flavours.

Before baking, let the cheese come to room temperature for an hour. This will help the cheese cook more evenly, and not leave you with a cold, uncooked centre.

Remove the cheese from its wooden box, and take off the waxed paper. Carefully place back into the box and make a small cross in the centre of the cheese. Lightly crush a clove of garlic and bruise a small sprig of thyme, and push them deep into the cheese.

Place the lid of the box over the cheese and wrap the box in foil – to catch any escaping cheese as it melts. Cook for 15 minutes, at 180ºC until the cheese is molten and collapsing.

Eat as soon as the cheese comes out of the oven, with toasted chunks of chewy sourdough to mop up the liquid cheese, a fruity chutney to cut through the richness, and a glass of soft and buttery Burgundy Pinot Noir.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Marcel Petite Comté

A certain French cheese has been receiving a lot of attention recently. Since Raymond Blanc covered Marcel Petite Comté on his series, “The very hungry Frenchman” two weeks ago, UK sales of the cheese have soared. That evening Comté trended on Twitter - #TheRaymondBlancEffect. And rightly so. Comté is far and away one of the most diverse French cheeses, with layers of complex flavours and aromas. But of equal interest is the production of the cheese, and the strong links in the chain of milk farmers, cheese makers and affineurs.

British farmhouse cheese tends to be produced using single herd milk, on the farm, where it is ripened and sold ready to eat. The system which is established for Comté production is quite different, and controlled with rigour. Milk is produced by some 3000 small scale farmers, whose herds are seldom more than 30 cows, but often as low as 12.

Map of Comté producers
95% of the cows are the Montbéliarde breed, with the remaining 5% of milk coming from the Simmental. Each cows must have 1 hectare of pasture during the summer grazing months. The milk is sent to the local fruitière – the dairy where the cheese is made. 170 fruitières are dotted around the Jura Massif and the Haut-Doubs, the two departments of the France-Comté region in Eastern France where Comté must be produced, and can only process milk from farms within an 8 mile radius. This co-operative system of production has been established for a thousand years, and has ensured that Comté cheese is can only be made on small scales, crucially by limiting the zone in which milk can be used by each fruitière and ensuring an extensive method of milk production.

The recipe for Comté is just as protected as the milk production, essentially each fruitière makes the cheese to the same method, in copper cauldrons, traditionally heated over a fire of spruce.
Equiptment for alpine cheese making

Compared to a British territorial cheese, the Comté recipe is very quick, with the milk being heated to 40°C and a solution of whey which has been used to rehydrate strips of calves stomach to extract rennin for the coagulation. Once the milk is set, the curd is cut and heated to 53°C, being constantly stirred rapidly to speed up syneresis (expulsion of whey from the curd structure). The curd will shrink to the size of rice grains, and have little acidity development at this stage, remaining sweet. The natural starter has a balance and range of microflora very specific to the indervidual fruitère, giving each fruitère a defined flavour profile.

Once the cheesemaker has made the cheese, he sells the fresh cheese to the affineur, who takes care of the ripening of the cheese, before selling it on to the cheese monger. It is the affineur who uses his senses to judge the cheese, and how is best to take care of each batch of cheese he buys.
Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine

Marcel Petite is generally regarded as the best Comté affineur, and the cheeses matured at 1500metres altitude in the Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine are the very highest quality. It was in 1966 when Marcel Petite purchased the fort (which was built in late 1800s to protect France again Prussian invasion from nearby Switzerland). Marcel Petite developed a new method of maturing Comté cheese, using the naturally low temperatures of the stone fort to age the cheese slower, and for a longer period of time. This changed the nature of the cheese in two ways: a low temperature reduced the likelihood of “eyes” forming in the body of the cheese as a result of yeasts activity, and a greater complexity of flavours from increased enzyme activity over a longer time period.

Today, the fort at Saint Antoine houses over 100,000 40KG wheels of Comté, selected mostly from the higher altitude fruitières, each cheese bearing a casein label with the producers details. A team of robots patrol the aisles between highly stacked shelves of cheese, turning, dry salting, brushing and washing the cheeses.

The one part of the affinage of the cheese the robot can not, and will not ever be able to, is to test the cheeses, a highly refined skill of a small team of tasters, lead by the “chef de cave” - Claude, who “rings” each wheel regularly, by stroking the rind of the cheese in a circular motion, feeling the crust, followed by repeatedly knocking the cheese from the centre outward with his cheese iron, listening to judge the density and texture of the curd – keeping watch for cheeses with cracks or holes forming. The cheese iron is plunged into the paste, turned 180°C, and pulled out to reveal a golden sample of the cheese. The sample is sniffed, manipulated between the thumb and forefinger, and tasted. Each cheese is treated individuality, and selected for specific customer needs. A lot of the cheeses are ready for eating after 12 months, some after18 months, a few after 24 months, and a very select few make it to 36 months and over. At this age they have the greatest complexity and depth of flavour, and a dense, fudgey texture - peppered with a gritty, calcium crunch. I remember tasting the 3 years cheeses at St Anotine, magnificent cheeses which the richest, pineapple, caramel, coffee, praline, biscuity flavours. One of the most memorable mouthfuls I've had.

Sunday, 12 February 2012


Marmalade as we know it has a great history, with the Scottish town of Dundee being reputed to have created the first jellied preserve set with shreds of orange peel. Prior to this, marmalade would have been of a more solid consistency, paste like, and usually made from quinces. The name comes from the Spanish "marmalada" – the predecessor of membrillo – the sticky quince paste found all over Spain, Portugal and re-created in Latin America.

It is written that King Henry VIII was gifted “a box of marmalade” from a gentleman of Exeter, in 1524. This would have been imported from Spain, and made from quinces, but started the English tradition of creating “sweetmeats”, set fruit pastes, which were formed in decorative moulds of animals, flowers and family crests.
The consumption of candied peel, both as a confectionery, and to flavour baked goods was a common practice through the Tudor times, and already oranges were noted for their medicinal qualities, so it was a natural progressing for small pieces of peel to find their way into a breakfast preserve. In 1797, Janet Keiller opened the first commercial marmalade factory in Dundee. Her husband had received a delivery of Spanish bitter oranges from Dundee harbour and Mrs Keiller took the decision to create a very different marmalade than was being written in English cookery books at the time. Instead of pounding the fruits to a paste, and concentrating the pulp to a thick paste, she followed a French method – a quicker recipe, where the peel was finely cut, and the juice boiled with water and sugar, and the marmalade we eat today was invented.
In 1861, Mrs Beeton wrote “the appellation of marmalade is applied to those confitures which are composed of the firmer fruits, as pineapples, or the rinds of oranges; where as jams and made of the more juicey berries...Fruit pastes are a kind of marmalade”.

Marmalade was quickly becoming an integral part of the British breakfast table, and an increasing number of confectioners were producing the preserve in the early 1900s, companies such as Wilkins of Tiptree and Frank Cooper of Oxford, who are still producing the countries highest quality marmalades.
Today, almost all of the bitter oranges grown around Seville are destined for the British marmalade market.

The season is at its peak now, find boxes of the fruit in greengrocers and farmshops, but only for a couple more weeks – the Seville orange season is always brief. I got mine from Daylesford, with green stalks and healthy leaves still intact.

This is how I make marmalade, which gives a rich, dark jelly, with a very deep citrus flavour and bright acidity. Up the sugar to taste if desired.

12 Seville oranges

1200g sugar (1000g preserving sugar, 200g muscovado)

2 lemons, chopped

3 litres water

Using a very sharp pairing knife, remove the skin of the oranges, with 2-3mm of white pith intact. Shred the peel to the thickness you like, I prefer a very fine cut.
Finely shredded peel

Cut the peeled oranges into quarters, and squeeze all the juice, flesh and importantly, pips out of each quarter. Place the squeezed oranges in a pan, and strain the juice over, so in theory, there are no pips, and minimal flesh in the pan.

Seville orange juice and pips, to be strained.

 Gather the shredded peel in a piece of muslin, and tie tightly before placing in the pan. Add 3 litres of water and the chopped lemons, and simmer for 2 hours. Pick out the muslin bag of peel, and strain the juice from the now pulpy orange quarters, gently squeezing to extras as much juice as possible without breaking up the oranges too much.

Squeezed oranges

Add the sugar and shredded peel, and slowly bring to the boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Take to a rolling boil, and cook until it reaches 105˚C. This may take 30minutes or more. The syrup should darken, and thicken slightly. Drop a teaspoon on a plate (cold from the freezer) to test the gel. To ensure the peel is evenly distributed through the marmalade, leave off the heat for 15 minutes to begin to thicken, stirring often, before pouring into sterile jars.
A jar of the finished product.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Testun alla Paglia

The practice of making cheese using milk from more than one type of animal is common on the continent, but not something seen often in the UK.
In remote mountain areas, goats and sheep graze the steep and rocky hillsides, and cows tend to be kept on flatter, more gently rolling pastures, lower down in hills. In order for the remote mountain dairies to make cheese all year round, milk from high yielding cows is mixed with the milk from either goats or sheep, depending on which is available at the time.
From the beginning of spring to midsummer, cheese makers in the hills above the Piedmont town of Cuneo blend new season sheep's milk – sweet and fatty, with the year-round supply of cow's milk. One of the cheeses made is the Testun alla Paglia, a semi-soft, pressed “Toma”.
Testun alla Paglia

The rind of this artisanal cheese is rubbed in the herbage specific to the region ("Paglia" translates to "hay"), directly imparting the aromas, flavour and essence of the hills to the cheese. As the cheese ripens, the scent of the flower-rich hay develops through the cheese, giving an intense complexity and diversity of flavours.
To begin with, the cheese has clean, milky flavours, soon building acidity and mouthwatering fruitiness, with layers of buttery richness and a fair level of salt.
The cheese remains on the palate long after swallowing, with the lingering flavour of sheep's milk - a distinct almond-like quality.
This cheese is robust and bold, but balanced, with great subtlety and nuance. 
A product which truly portrays its origins.

The hay-coated rind of the Testun alla Paglia.

Saturday, 7 January 2012


One of the phrases of 2011 which kept croping up in the cheese world was the notion of "3D flavour" achieved by the use of animal rennet in cheesemaking. Charlie Westhead's goats' cheeses were often noted for their depth of flavour resulting from both his use of kid's rennet in the make, and unpasteurised milk.
It is hard to describe in words what the term "3D flavour" means, but I suppose the easiest way to desribe it is a round, deep and interesting taste experience, as opposed to a flat, one dimentional flavour profile. In a wholistic and pureist approach to cheesemaking, the milk should be coagulated using rennet extracted from the same animal - so calves rennet for cow's milk cheese, lamb's rennet from sheeps' milk and kid's rennet for goats' milk. It seems the most natural way of cheesemaking (which is in essence a natural process, controlled to a varying extent by the hand of man).
Charlie Westhead's Ragstone and Dorstone goats' cheeses are amongst the most well made, interesting and sensual cheeses of their type in the UK. The cheeses are made at Neal's Yard Creamery, situated on a hill above Hay-On-Wye, in Herefordshire's Golden Valley, using the unpasteurised milk from a local goat farm.
They both start off life as the same product - a lactic set curd slowly coagulated over night, from both acid development and a very small amount of kid's rennet. The kid's rennet gives the  complexity of flavour in the cheeses as well as strengthening the coagulation; turning what would otherwise by a yoghurt-like structure into a delicate white gel.
If Ragstone is being made, the curd is ladled into long, thin, drainpipe-like moulds which are refilled several times as the curd sinks from gravity and the expulsion of whey from ladling.
If Dorstone is being made, the curds are placed in pillow-case like cheese cloths to pre-drain as a mass under minimal gravity, giving a lighter, more moussey texture with lower moisture and acidity.
The drained curd is scooped into small moulds to form, and firm up into small, individual cheeses.
Where as Ragstone is brined, Dorstone is dry salted and dusted with wood ash to control moisture loss and lower the surface acidity, creating a good environment for a thin geotrichum coating.
After 2-3 weeks ripening, Dorstone is ready for eating, with a wrinkled, blue/grey rind scattered with white, downy mould, and a light, fluffy interior.

The cheese has a delicious balence of acidity and rich, sweet cream, with both zesty, bright flavours and a softer nuttyness. As well as being a beautiful addition to any cheese plate, I like to cook with Dorstone. Whether it is grilled on sourdough and sat on a few bitter leaves sprinkled with honey, walnuts and fine herbs to make a salad au chèvre chaud, stirred into a risotto or crumbled into a savoury custard to fill a lunch time tart, Dorstone is a versatile little cheese.