The beauty of blossom

Blossom – it’s a lovely full, rounded, blousy word (or onomatopoeic if you want to be fancy!) – and at this time of year, there’s a lot of it about.

I absolutely adore seeing trees and hedgerows in bloom and can’t wait until things bursting out, usually in March. The best blossom occurs after cold snaps, so a good chilly winter should mean billowing blossom. Each blossom flower lasts for one or two weeks, weather permitting – so fingers crossed this year’s don’t all get blown or washed away too soon.

First up in the countryside in early March are the blackthorn hedges. Devon, where I live, is blessed with wonderful hedgerows and up on Dartmoor the frothy blackthorn blossom is really striking against the stark moorland. Blackthorn really makes the most of its blossom as it emerges before the leaves, so the white flowers contrast beautifully against the bare branches.

In domestic gardens, the wonderfully showy magnolia should also be out by this time and Cornwall is a great spot to see magnolias in bloom early.

Once things start to warm up, ideally by April (fingers crossed!), we can look forward to the gorgeous sight of cherry blossom. I love seeing its pretty pink and white blooms, so cheering. I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan several times through work, and if you can time it to coincide with the cherry blossom, it is a wonderful sight to behold. They have over 200 varieties of ornamental cherry and it is such an important part of Japanese life that they have a daily ‘Cherry Blossom Forecast’ to tell people where the best blossom can be found as ‘The Cherry Blossom Front’ sweeps slowly north.

Unsurprisingly, the month of May sees the arrival of may blossom, or hawthorn. Again, Dartmoor is a great place to see may blossom where hawthorn is widely used to produce tough stock-proof hedges.

Apple blossom, so delicate and pretty, will start to appear in May. Apple orchards are wonderful things and it is great to see how much work has been put into saving old apple varieties, or ‘heritage’ apples as we are supposed to call them. Just the names make me feel all nostalgic – Worcester Pearmain, Orange Pippin and Egremont Russet – like characters from a Wodehouse novel!

June sees pretty much the end of blossom in this country and the last one to make a showing is the enchanting elder, its frothy blossoms being wonderful in cordial and wine. While many other parts of the world have exotic and technicolour blooms, I remain immensely fond of our delicate and slightly restrained spring blossom.

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Surprise pies…

This week has been British Pie Week – the list of ‘national awareness days’ just keeps on growing! The past week has also been ‘National Conversation Week’ (and I do mean conversation and not conservation!) and the whole month of March is designated ‘National Bed Month’! But let’s focus on the all important Pie Week… I decided to do some Googling about pies and it was quite a surprise!

Pies have been around a very, very long time. Technically, everything used to be a pie. The pastry shell was originally nothing more than a baking dish and storage container for the filling. The Romans would use meats, oysters and fish in their fillings while a mixture of flour, oil and water made a sturdy shell, or case, to keep the filling in place. Not surprisingly, the pastry was tough and inedible and designed to be thrown away. Our wonderful west country pasty’s distinctive ‘D’ shape was apparently designed to enable hardworking miners and labourers, with grubby hands, to eat their meal more easily using the thick crimped crust as a handle.

It’s hard to believe a culinary dish can have a sinister side to it, but the pie does. As someone always on the look out for an ‘interesting’ way of finishing people off for murder mystery purposes (literary, not literally!), I was amazed at how often the pie has been used as a way of killing characters.

The evil Sweeney Todd has to be the most famous pie-killer. He and Mrs Lovett baked their victims in pies and sold them. A fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, it has long been speculated that it was based on true events, but I couldn’t find any clear evidence. Even the bard himself, William Shakespeare, has turned to the pie as a weapon and killed off two characters with a pie! In Titus Andronicus, Titus wreaks revenge on Queen Tamora and her family for their evil deeds by baking her sons into a pie and serving it to her. Ugh!

That king of killjoys, Oliver Cromwell, virtually banned the pie in 1644, when he decided it was a ‘pagan form of pleasure’. It wasn’t a complete ban on pies though, just a ban on Christmas celebrations and foods that were associated with the ‘pagan’ holiday, such as mince pies and turkey pies. Fortunately, the ban was lifted, but not until 1660.

I think most of you will remember the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ that contains the rather worrying line ‘Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It seems that in 16th century England ‘surprise pies’ were all the range among the upper classes and live animals would jump out when a pie was cut open – extraordinary! All kinds of creatures were placed inside pies including frogs, squirrels, foxes and, as we know, large numbers of blackbirds. Some records even suggest that at a dinner attended by Charles I, a huge pie was put on the table and when the crust was removed, a dwarf jumped out! My goodness, we think there are some strange things on the internet these days, but it seems some people have always had a taste for the bizarre!

After discovering such a lurid background, I’m not entirely sure I shall ever be able to regard a pie as just a tasty thing to eat ever again!

Main photo: @britishpiesweek

 

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Beauty within…

If you were choosing your veg purely for their looks, I suspect celeriac would not be high on your list. It is knobbly, often muddy and all in all, a bit of an ugly beast. But don’t let that put you off!

Celeriac is a great winter vegetable. It combines rooty texture with a spicy celery flavour and is delicious roasted and also excellent for pepping up winter salads. You can roast it in chunks, add it to soups or make a rich mash as a change from potato.

Available all year round, celeriac is at its best from September to April. Choose a firm root that feels heavy for its size and avoid those that are discoloured. To prepare it, use a sharp knife, top and tail, then use a potato peeler to remove the tough skin. It’s quite hard going, but not as bad as a butternut squash!

Remoulade, a classic French salad, is really easy to make and also delicious. This recipe is dead easy – you might want to check how much mustard you add… I like it with a bit of a kick, but you may prefer less.

Ingredients

  • 7 tbsp good quality mayonnaise
  • 3 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • Juice of a lemon
  • 1 small celeriac about 600g (1lb 4oz-ish)

Method

  1. In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice together thoroughly. Add a generous sprinkling of salt and some freshly ground black pepper, so it all becomes one sauce.
  2. Peel and quarter the celeriac, then, working quickly, coarsely grate it and stir into the sauce until evenly coated. And that’s it! Serve on toast, or with a salad instead of coleslaw. It will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Cook’s tip: Celeriac is one of those vegetables that goes brown when cut up so, if preparing in advance, leave it in water with a dash of lemon juice.

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The not so humble cabbage

Today, I feel inspired to write about the cabbage! Many people think of the cabbage as a bit of a poor relation in the veg world, a dull old veg and one that many of us were presented with at school in a disgustingly overcooked state. This is very unfair as cabbages are versatile, great to grow in your veg plot and good for you.

Cabbages come in many different shapes, sizes and colours and every variety has its own character, texture and flavour. With a little planning it’s possible to pick them fresh nearly every day of the year in your garden. They can be used raw in salad or coleslaw, and as ingredients in soup, boiled, steamed or braised.

The savoy cabbage, a wonderful dark green and heavily textured individual, is wonderful when slowly braised with onion and finished off with a dash of cream. You can also give it a quick plunge in boiling salted water and then toss it with butter and black pepper, simple but so delicious.

Other thick-leaved cabbages, such as January kings, are excellent for using as wrapping and making parcels for meat stuffings.

The pale green pointed spring cabbages have sweet, delicate leaves that are tender enough to stir fry or even char on a griddle.

In contrast, red cabbage is sturdy and tightly packed and traditionally used for pickling. Braised red cabbage has become immensely popular as a Christmas vegetable when cooked slowly with red wine, cinnamon, apples or cranberry. It is also superb for adding some colour to a boring winter salad when shredded finely.

Last, but not least… the classic white cabbage! A tightly packed, football-sized bundle of excellence it is the mainstay of coleslaw, a popular healthy salad at any time of the year and certainly one of my favourites.

Cabbage is very low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and is a good source of fibre, so it’s a good way to fill yourself up for very little calories. What’s more, it is a good source of vitamin C and vitamin K. We all know how important vitamin C is in our diet, while vitamin K makes bones stronger, healthier and delays osteoporosis. Like other green vegetables, cabbage helps provide many essential vitamins such as riboflavin, pantothenic acid and thiamine that we need for a balanced diet.

So if you tend to think cabbage is a bit of a dullard, please think again and, if you can, try growing some yourself – they taste even better!

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Clotted cream at Christmas!

clottedsprouts

Have you ever seen sprouts look so delicious?

I came across a sweet little free booklet this week entitled ‘Clotted Christmas Recipes’. Aha, I thought, this looks interesting! I think most of us tend to think of clotted cream as a summertime treat for afternoon tea in the garden, served with a scone and homemade jam. This little booklet, and then a trip to Trewithen Dairy’s website soon made me rethink that view!

Their website has lots of delicious recipes and the one that caught my eye was for… wait for it… sprouts! How seasonal is that? Do have a look at their other recipes, there are some lovely ones… and it is a Westcountry product, so I am all in favour!

We love sprouts. We love clotted cream… so why not put them together? The clotted cream will coat the sprouts with a rich glaze while the crispy bacon seasons them with a lovely umami quality. You can prepare your sprouts traditionally by scoring the base with a cross before boiling or for a slightly different version make a sprout hash by shredding them finely and steaming for 1-2 minutes before sautéeing with the bacon and coating in clotted cream.

Serves 6clotted

Ingredients

  • 700g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved and washed
  • 4 rashers crisp-cooked bacon, finely sliced
  • 50g crème fraîche
  • 25g Trewithen Dairy Clotted Cream
  • 2 teaspoons horseradish sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 10ml vegetable oil

Method

  1. clotteddairyIn a bowl mix together the crème fraîche, clotted cream and horseradish sauce, and set aside.
  2. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the sprouts and simmer for 4 minutes, drain well in a colander.
  3. In a frying pan, add the vegetable oil and fry the bacon strips until crisp and golden, carefully remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on some kitchen paper.
  4. In the pan add the sprouts and carefully sauté in the fat from the bacon for a few minutes until they just start to colour, remove from the heat and add the cream mixture and crispy bacon, ensure they are liberally coated, taste for seasoning and serve.

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and that your sprouts are delicious, however you cook them! Smiles, Joanna.

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