Greenhouses, Cats and Bawdy Gooseberries

The base for our new greenhouse is down and dry and officially approved by a couple of the local cats. It is a universal law that no area of fresh concrete will survive without the gift of feline footprints. There must have been some serious toe licking going on this week. 

Other news from the farm front is that we have, thankfully, sold the apple crop in advance. Last year's crop was the poorest in a decade, like many apple orchards around the UK, and no commercial buyer was interested in what scant fruit there was so we juiced a few ton ourselves. This year's harvest will definitely be an improvement but the wet and cold spring were not kind to the blossom and pollination (we still have little pockets of blossom around the orchard now!) so we'll be selling 'per bin' picked. The apple-buyer reckons that he'll start picking around the end of September, nearly a month later than usual, a sign of the late development and growth despite the subsequent heatwave we've been experiencing.

Which is not the ideal weather for making jam. But it was the best option for a couple of pounds of gooseberries our cherry farmer friend gave us. I know there are fools and crumbles and pies but Tony's not a fan of 'sharp' fruit in any dessert and I could imagine his face puckering like a crumpled paper bag. And, even better, gooseberry jam has to be the easiest jam to make ever. Its high pectin content makes it set in a boiling whizz, and it looks so pretty too. 

I also discovered that it goes amazingly well with cheese, in particular the creamy, and gradually more pungent as it ripens, Pie D'Angloys. Add a crusty french stick, one of our recent, delicious, balmy evenings, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were on holiday in Provence. Although gooseberries wouldn't be the easiest thing to find there - hot, dry summers on southern plains are not the best climate for them. 

The origin of their name isn't clear. If you want to associate them with geese you probably can. Or even fish. The French call them groseilles à maquereau - mackerel berries. And they do sit nicely alongside them too.

And to add a sprinkling of British bawdiness to the discussion, 'gooseberry bush' was 19th century slang for pubic hair which is where we're supposed to get the expression of being born 'under a gooseberry bush'. 

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about a cat.
Write about making your mark.
Write about dryness.
Write about your name, what it means, where it comes from.
Write about being born. 


On Greatness. And fish fingers.

I ran a writing workshop at Highsted Grammar School for Girls in Sittingbourne, Kent this week. 'How many of you in this room think you're great?' I asked. Unsurprisingly, not a murmur. 

An hour later the room was pulsating with greatness, all the greatnesses we agreed to recognise and appreciate in ourselves.

I am great at making scrambled eggs. My secret is the dollop of creme fraiche I add just before the end of cooking time that keeps them soft and velvety. Then I sprinkle them with chopped chives.

Scrambled eggs with 'dry-fried' day old croissant slices
People love my scrambled eggs. 

Between 11 and 14 I'd have been the girl in the corner of the room staring hard at the blankness of the white page beneath the phrase, 'I am great at...'. Perhaps with encouragement I might have been able to recognise that I was great at 'reading'. Or, 'reciting by heart all the names of the books in the Old Testament'. But it's never too late to recognise your greatness.

The inspiration for this exercise came from a blog I discovered by accident: Greatness & Gratitude. One of my favourite posts is: I am great at walking in stilettos. I am grateful for laughter. I would love to be great at walking in stilettos. 

I am also great, according to my nine-year-old grandson, Oliver, at making fish fingers. Of course the making is less making and more slipping out of a frozen box and baking until they're crisp and golden but I'm happy to accept the accolade. 

And I know the secret of fish fingers. I'd already been inducted into understanding their greatness by my great niece and nephew, Ffion and Iwan. They have to be Bird's Eye. They have to be cod. 

Oliver's other Nan tempted him with Waitrose fish fingers. But they didn't even nudge greatness. 'Too fishy,' Oliver said.  

12 fish fingers between three under tens = 9 plus 3 left over. And it was while reading Nigel Slater's Eating for England, a bite-size feast of everything peculiarly British - Spangles, Fray Bentos Pies, Steamed Puddings, Garibaldi Biscuits, Iced Gems, Bisto and hundreds more - that the idea of a fish finger sandwich came to mind. 

Okay, I made it with hand-cut slices of black olive bread rather than 1960s homogenous Mother's Pride but I retained the authentic heart of the sandwich with a good lick of Heinz Tomato Ketchup.

I can't really say it reminded me of my childhood. Fish fingers only came on a plate with chips and peas, with thin slices of bread and butter on the side, when I was growing up. And while a sandwich made with the few remaining chips might have been tolerated at the table I suspect a fish finger one would have been frowned upon.

But I was reminded of the fish finger's greatness: crisp and soft, white flakes of cod in a golden coat. McDonalds knew what they were doing when they introduced the Filet-O-Fish, although you won't find cod in any of them. It's Alaskan pollock or hoki which, my young culinary advisers tell me, isn't great enough. 

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about your greatness.
Write about the person in the corner of the room.
Write about walking.
Write about a sandwich.
Write about hard and soft.


Science and Chocolate

This is the first week of my online Science and Gastronomy course with Coursera. I was a little nervous about the 'high school level science' prerequisite - I dropped chemistry and physics and miserably failed my O level biology - but I'm happy to report that I'm more than managing the science bits, probably down to the clarity and the sound-bite design of the video lectures. And I'm learning stuff! I use that exclamation mark consciously. Learning stuff at school tended to be a drag, apart from French. I am sure there are people who reveled in, and blossomed during, their senior school years, but I definitely wasn't one of them. But with age, maturity and the desire to expand my knowledge of the world, learning is now exciting.

Science of Gastronomy Course Banner
So far I've learned the difference between convection and conduction, how to make water boil at more than 100 degrees centigrade (add salt or sugar), and about leptin (the appetite inhibitor) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone), and about neural control.

The idea that variety and contrast in food types, flavours, colours, temperatures and textures can make for a more pleasant eating experience isn't news to me. And I doubt it'll be news to the majority of the other food bloggers who are also subscribed to this course. 

And then we got to chocolate. I love chocolate but I don't want to keep eating it, why? announced the title of one of the video lectures. Ummm... but I do! And I'm betting it was a man who wrote that. (I accept, in advance, any accusations of gender bias or sexism.) Okay, I do have a satiety level but I think it's a lot higher than 10 pieces, which was the amount of chocolate suggested for one of the first assignment's sensory-specific satiety tests. 

My own test involved eating nine crackers followed by one piece of chocolate at three minute intervals. Cracker, in the UK, tends to mean a Jacob's or a  Carr's Water, and I'm thinking that the course leaders, who are based at the University of Hong Kong, had more of a prawn cracker in mind. Or at least something of a similar size. There was no way I was ever going to munch through nine Jacob's Cream Crackers in half an hour so I cut my Jacob's into four and got on with it. 

All the ingredients you need
for a vanilla and caramel fudge cone.
I have never, in the whole of my life, been so obsessed with a small piece of chocolate. And I think you can probably guess that my 'pleasantness' score was pretty high when I got to it. 

The rest of today's diet will be rather more varied: a thai chicken and salad wrap with a trickle of Nando's hot Peri-Peri sauce. And an ice-cream cone, the box of which called to me in the sweetest of voices from the first aisle of Waitrose's this morning. I'm pretty sure that my  sensory-specific satiety levels are pretty high when it comes to Carte D'Or Vanilla too.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about something you learned.
Write about not wanting to eat.
Write about a test.
Write about an obsession.
Write about ice-cream.


OCD vegetables

Tian of Provencale Vegetables
That's what my step-daughter said when she saw them. And she has a point: these are vegetables who'd insist on straightening all the cutlery, folding each napkin exactly. Vegetables that would tell you to sit up in your chair and keep your elbows off the table. But you'd forgive them for their insistence on order and their interference after you've brought them to silence with a knife and fork.

I've had a recipe postcard for these in my cookery scrapbook ever since I moved back from France over 18 months ago but the British summer weather hasn't been conducive to the colours and flavours of the Mediterranean... until last weekend. 

I also invented (I use that term loosely!) a burger wrap. Chargrilled burger, sliced red onion, salad and a few dabs of piri-piri hot sauce all neatly enclosed in a wheat and white wrap. I think the OCD vegetables had more of an effect on me than I realised! 

burger wrap
I think it's still in its developmental stage though. Putting the wrapped burger back on the chargrill, just for a minute each side to get those lovely grill marks, would improve it. I'll keep practicing though as it was a massive improvement on those strangely soft and synthetic burger rolls. 

The vegetables start out in a rather more relaxed form. And there's really not too much to say about them. My french recipe suggested 'sweating' the tomatoes with a sprinkling of salt. Next time I'll lay them on kitchen paper to absorb the water and also do the same with the courgettes. 

I used tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, sweet onion, slithers of garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper, fresh thyme and olive oil. 

Baked Tian

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about keeping order.
Write about three colours.
Write about sweating.
Write about something or somebody changing your mind.
Write about sweetness.