Grow your own gold!

Saffron – three times more expensive than gold.A brief article in a newspaper caught my eye the other day: “For the first time in two centuries, saffron is being grown in Essex – just outside Saffron Walden, the town to which it gave its name.” Well, I thought, that’s interesting…

I love Saffron, both for its unique, warming flavour, and its rich red gold colour. It perfumes dishes and has a slightly sweet but earthy taste that can be used to flavour salty or sweet recipes, and is perfect for adding to basmati rice for that authentic Indian curry! It always seems terribly exotic to me, as if it has been shipped in on an old spice route… but of course, it is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. First cultivated in Greece, it can be grown perfectly well here in the UK, as witnessed by the town of Saffron Walden.

Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocusSaffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The dried stigmas of the saffron crocus can only be picked by hand but, fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way…! I buy a little pot for about £5 and it will probably last me 3 or 4 months.

Saffron has been around since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the spice to scent and purify their temples. The ancient Romans bathed in saffron water. Cleopatra supposedly used it as a facial mask… perhaps an early example of an ‘orange tan’!? Throughout medieval times, saffron had great commercial importance in Europe, especially as a dye, with saffron-coloured clothes being worn by royalty and nobility – a clear sign of how wealthy you were.

So, back to 2014 and Saffron Walden – apparently, local farmer called David Smale is now Britain’s only commercial saffron grower and he started growing saffron crocuses 10 years ago. Saffron growing thrived in Britain in the 16th century, before eventually dying out owing to cheaper imports. Today, he sells the spice to Fortnum and Mason for a whopping £75 a gram – that’s three times the price of gold!

The town sign – complete with crocus!I might just try growing a few saffron crocuses myself – Suttons Seeds sell them, complete with instructions on how to harvest the saffron. With beautifully scented autumn blooms, Sutton’s say that it’s actually very easy to grow – you certainly don’t need to have green fingers! Just plant the bulbs in a sunny spot in your garden and unlike their more well-known spring-blooming cousins, once established they put on a display of beautiful and deliciously scented blooms. They will thrive in a well drained border, but can easily be grown in a container on the patio. Plus, they’re super-hardy and they’ll multiply rapidly from year to year. 

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Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you! 

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Local producer feature: Tarquin’s Gin

Tarquin with bottles of his gin and his Cornish pastis (rather like Pernod).I’ve always enjoyed a long refreshing gin and tonic but, in these days of trendy drinks, gin has taken a bit of a back seat and become rather ‘old hat’. But now, it seems, gin is in! Boutique gins are all the rage and small artisan gin producers are springing up all over the place – we have several in the Westcountry. My partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, recently interviewed a new young Cornish gin maker for an article she was writing and, as soon as we discovered he used Devon violets in his gin, we thought you’d like to hear more about it…

At just 26, Tarquin Leadbetter seems rather young to have set up his own distillery – but that’s just what he’s done, making him the first person to craft gin in Cornwall for more than a century.

Tarquin is from Devon and, after living and working in London for a few years was very keen to get back to the Westcountry and start up his own business ‘doing something’ in the food and drink industry. Settling in Cornwall, he identified gin as a market with potential and spent the next 18 months distilling the spirit in a traditional copper still on his kitchen cooker.

”After a lot of work and research, I finally perfected my own recipe,” he says. “I use 11 botanicals in addition to the traditional juniper in my gin, resulting in a contemporary take on a classic London Dry.

“One unusual ingredient is the Devon violet. From these I take the delicate leaves, which add a vibrant green freshness to the gin and create something deliciously unique. At the heart of our process is a special flame-fired, copper pot still called Tamara, goddess of the Tamar. The copper gives the gin a very smooth finish – there’s no stainless steel and industrial quantities here! We make small batches of gin, fewer than 300 bottles at a time, and I check every one personally.”

The essential oils present in gin have also been used in herbal medicine for centuries. By looking at each botanical he uses – and its known effect – Tarquin has had fun drawing up a complete character profile of his gin.

“This might provide insight into the effects of drinking Tarquin’s Gin!” he jokes. Here’s the result of his research:

  • Juniper – a natural stimulant, great for versatility and effectiveness
  • Coriander – soothing and calming
  • Lemon – a mood enhancer
  • Orange – creates a feeling of happiness and warmth
  • Grapefruit – increases ones sense of humour and well-being
  • Cardamom – soothes the mind
  • Cinnamon – reduces drowsiness and irritability
  • Orris – therapeutic
  • Angelica – has a protective quality, but also helps to release negative energy
  • Bitter almond – wonderful scent and flavour
  • Liquorice – soothing
  • Violets – relaxing, soothing and inspiring

His gin is delicious. It is a little dearer than standard gin, but as a treat it is well worth trying. It comes in lovely wax sealed bottles and you should be able to find it in independent wine merchants across the country. If you come on holiday to Devon or Cornwall, you’ll have no trouble finding it as it is becoming immensely popular in this area. We reckon Tarquin is onto a winner!

You can follow him on Facebook or look for stockists on his website.

 

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There’s no need to gild the lily…

My garden is a constant source of inspiration – whether it’s for colour, scent or form. Just by looking at it out of the kitchen window, nature reminds me that so often, less is more, and it’s best to keep things simple.

I have included edible flowers in various recipes lately and, especially in the height of summer as now when we are all eating lots of salads, a delicate sprinkling of blooms or petals can make an ordinary meal look amazing. I threw this nasturtium and calendula salad together when we were working on a recent photo shoot for the blog and I thought how stunning it looked.

Although I have quite a range of edible flowers in my own garden I recently discovered a local company called ‘Greens of Devon’ who sell boxes of beautiful edible flowers by mail order. They also have a great website that includes a guide to all the edible flowers they sell – and there are a lot – and quite a few that I didn’t know were edible. For example, did you know you could tuck into tulips? That was a new one on me! They also include some very tasty recipes that you could try. Click on each flower in their guide and it tells you what the flower tastes like and suggests how you might use it – really fun!

Their boxed flowers are very much special occasion prices (!) but it is so easy to grow them yourself, cost should not be an issue. All these very common flowers are edible:

Pansy, borage, viola, pea, mallow, primula, dianthus, chive, rose and sunflower. Note that I am talking flowers and petals here and NOT bulbs – that’s a whole different area.

Just as with anything you do design-wise, think about colour and form to get the best effect with edible flowers. For the salad, as I was using big bold nasturtiums, I didn’t want to confuse things with a mix of colours, so used a similar coloured calendula to keep it striking and simple. Other times, when I have sprinkled petals, or tiny flowers like violas, over cakes I might go for a range of colours to give more of a naturally scattered look – but hey – the choice is yours! Experiment! Go mad and chuck a few petals around the kitchen! Richard, poor chap, is used to me doing such things, so never bats an eyelid on his way to make a coffee. Hey ho! 

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An ancient ‘fast food’!

Think of Devon, and you probably think of cream teas. Think of Cornwall and it’s pretty likely you’ll think of a Cornish pasty. Gosh, didn’t we enjoy tucking into them as children on the beach – sadly, my memory is always of pasty with added sand! But this immensely popular dish is a great example of an early packed lunch or convenience food.

There’s lots of historical evidence confirming the existence of the Cornish pasty, the earliest as far back as the 13th century during the reign of Henry III. The pasty became commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries and, by the 18th century, it was established as a Cornish food eaten by poorer working families who could only afford cheap ingredients such as potatoes, swede and onion. Meat was added later. 

By the end of the 18th century it was the staple diet of working men across Cornwall. Miners and farm workers took this portable and easy to eat convenience food with them to work because it was perfect for their needs. Its size and shape made it easy to carry – its pastry case insulated the contents and was durable, while its wholesome ingredients provided enough sustenance to see the workers through their long, hard working days. 

There are hundreds of stories about the evolution of the pasty’s shape, with the most popular being that the D-shape enabled tin miners to eat them safely. The crust (the crimped edge) was used as a handle which was then thrown away due to the high levels of arsenic in many of the tin mines – ugh! 

The Cornish pasty recipes were handed down from generation to generation, often by word of mouth and rarely written down because they were made almost every day. Young girls were often made to practice crimping techniques using plasticine before being allowed to work with pastry!

You’ll find lots of different recipes online, but here’s a nice simple one to try. I personally think the addition of white pepper helps give it that lovely peppery kick that I remember so clearly from my childhood. Enjoy!

To make 4 Cornish pasties

Ingredients 

  • For the pastry
  • 125g chilled and diced butter
  • 125g lard
  • 500g plain flour, plus extra
  • 1 egg, beaten 

For the filling 

  • 350g beef skirt or chuck steak, chopped
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
  • 175g swedes, peeled, finely diced
  • 1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tbsp ground white pepper 

Method

 

  1. Rub the butter and lard into the flour with a pinch of salt using your fingertips or a food processor, then blend in 6 tbsp cold water to make a firm dough. Cut equally into 4, then chill for 20 mins. 
  2. Heat oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas 7. Mix together the filling ingredients with 1 tsp salt. Roll out each piece of dough on a lightly floured surface until large enough to make a round about 23cm across – use a plate to trim it to shape. Firmly pack a quarter of the filling into one half of each round, leaving a margin round the edge. Brush the pastry all the way round the edge with beaten egg then carefully fold the empty half of the pastry across to form a semi-circle, or ‘D’ shape, and pinch the edges together to seal. Lift onto a non-stick baking tray and brush with the remaining egg to glaze.
  3. Bake for 10 mins, then lower oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4 and cook for 45 mins more until golden. Great served warm for lunch, in a picnic… or on the beach!

 

 

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