Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!


My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address eve.white@bbc.co.uk and I will respond as promptly as possible.


So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

We’re here! Just starting to get settled into our new life in Cornwall.

Thank you all for your patience in the recent blogging hiatus! We’ve moved (actually, we’ve been here four weeks now, I just feel I’ve barely had a chance to pause to draw breath since then!) and are starting to settle into this beautiful spot – and really start to realise all the work that is to come…

From the garden

This really does feel like a special little part of the world. We’re well off the beaten track, without mains water or drainage (mains gas is a wild and distant fantasy!) but with the amazing quiet and stunning scenery that comes from being just that extra little bit out of the way. The broadband is serviceable – good by very rural standards, actually – but any need for a Netflix subscription is a long way off… We’re lucky to have found ourselves with lovely neighbours, who we hope will become very good friends in time, and have been made wonderfully welcome and introduced to everyone in our great local pub. So far, no one seems to mind that we’re incomers, but are pleased that we’ve come to make a life long-term in their community, which is heartwarming.

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

I’ve been taking a few photos from the garden (because it’s just so pretty I can’t stop looking at it!) – that’s Bodmin moor, in the background of those photos. Our nearest village, Altarnun, which is mostly famous for having been the parish of the dodgy vicar in Dapnhe Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, has a gorgeous church, a little river running under an ancient stone packhorse bridge, and is exactly as full of whitewashed slate and granite cottages with flowers out in front as you might imagine.

The move itself was more than a little more ‘interesting’ than it might have been – one of our lorries was involved in a road traffic accident en route, and was held up for nearly a week while a new lorry was found and the contents transferred – the driver was blessedly uninjured, thank goodness – unfortunately for us the lorry contained all our plants and trees, which got to spend a week locked in the back of a lorry in a freight yard in full sun. We asked for them to be watered and I think that must have happened as they turned up in far better shape than we had feared – a few broken branches but not dried up husks. Otherwise, we’ve suffered the usual small number of breakages – thankfully though, nothing irreplaceable.

All of that somehow pales into insignificance now that we’re here. The insect and bird-life that we’ve seen just in the last few weeks is amazing – we have house martins nesting in the barn, and flycatchers and bullfinches join the more common sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, a variety of tits and some pretty serious birds of prey – buzzards definitely, but quite possibly kites, too – that we see in the garden, on the bird feeder, and out and about. At night, the swifts and house martins give way to lots and lots of bats.

I’m completely in love with the Cornish hedges – which are no such thing, of course, they’re mounds of granite packed with soil, as many an unwary motorist has discovered to their cost over the years. These are to all intents and purposes vertical wildflower meadows stretching for mile after mile, full of clovers and vetches, foxgloves, meadowsweet, cranesbills, honeysuckle, ferns of all shapes and sizes, and wild strawberries, so very lovely and unusual to see up at head height or above, walking between cornish hedges is a bit like lying face-down in a meadow, without the inconvenience and grass stains! I’m sure the hedges – and the grazing that they surround – are the reason we have so many wonderful butterflies, bees and other insects, and the amazing bird life in turn.

The houseThe house itself is beautiful, with bags of character, thick granite walls, slate floors and open fires, but it’s over 200 years old and was always likely to be troublesome – its first ‘surprise’ for us came in the form of a curtain of water running down the dining room wall when Hubby was having a shower a couple of weeks ago. The long and the short of it is we need to completely re-fit the shower and the bathroom tiles, something that we were planning to do in due course but wasn’t a priority for our currently rather strained finances. Ah well…

Apart from taming the overgrown grass, we haven’t even started on the garden yet… but the ideas, at least, are starting to come together.

Last weekend I started making the curtains and blinds for the living room from the gorgeous floral tapestry-like fabric we found for a bargain price on the Goldhawk Road market last time we were down in London. It’s not the easiest fabric to work with, but I think you’ll agree the results are quite rewarding? (There will be a blog post on how to make roman blinds coming up – the executive summary though? Very efficient on fabric yardage, but a lot more trouble than curtains in terms of time, effort, and required accuracy!)

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that some beautiful fabric I had bought to make bedroom curtains for our old cottage – and never got around to because it soon became clear we would be moving before long – is *just* long enough to make two pairs of curtains for the new bedroom, even accounting for the inconveniently long 62cm pattern repeat. This discovery has made me implausibly happy.

Bookshelves!Just today we’ve managed to empty a load of book boxes onto the shelves. It’s amazing how much more lived-in – and less echoey – full bookshelves make a room seem! The cookbook collection finally has some space to spread out, a whole bookcase to itself! Of course I’m weeks behind with Cooking the Books now – who knows if I’ll ever manage to get caught up??

And of course, when we’re not trying to sort out the house, and I’m not at work (which feels like all the time at the moment!) there’s the wonderful Cornish coast and countryside to enjoy. Dave dog is absolutely delighted with his at-least-weekly visits to the seaside, something that could only be a very occasional treat when we were in the Midlands. We were even greeted by a swim-by of a pod of dolphins at Trebarwith Strand, Dave dog’s favourite beach.

What it's all about!

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since we got here, which is both a joy and a torment, when I’m stuck at work sweltering staring at a beautiful sunny Westcountry summer’s day out of the window. Too warm, sometimes, for doing the things that we need to do around the house and garden – the pond remains un-dug and the trees are not yet planted – but at least the paint dries quickly!

I’ll stop rambling now as it’s a gorgeous sunny evening and while I’m sat in here typing, I’m not out there enjoying it! Hopefully the blog will feel a little less neglected over the next few weeks, though as I seem to be working all the hours, I’m not making any promises… All the stress and upset of the compulsory purchase of our lovely old cottage does seem to be fading into memory, and though I’m not a fatalist, something about how I feel about this place makes me wonder if we were meant to end up here all along..?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Spice Up Your Life – with these quick spicy Thai-style noodles

I have no idea how authentic these are – my honest guess is ‘not at all’ – I made them to go with the spicy crab cakes I wrote up for Cooking the Books, but they’re just too good not to deserve a recipe post in their own right. There’s a sort of a dressed noodle salad vibe going on, I suppose, but served hot – though, come to think of it, they might be very good cold, too! As well as making a lovely side dish, these would make a really great quick lunch or supper dish in their own right.

Actually, I’m a little bit gutted about the timing of coming up with this recipe – I’ve spent the last two years working somewhere with no microwave to heat up lunches, and the succession of cold lunches and soup from a flask gets a bit wearisome after a while! If you were to replace the egg noodles in this recipe with the thin white rice noodles that you can cook just by adding boiling water, this would have made a perfectly fabulous hot lunch (think top-notch, gourmet pot-noodles)! Obviously, I’ve just finished working there.

The heart of this dish is the spicy dressing for the noodles, which should keep well for a little while in a jar in the fridge if you end up with more than you need.

For the dressing, combine the following, and mix well –

  • Spicy noodle ingedients2 tbsp chilli oil
  • 2 tbsp of a neutral oil (I used cold pressed rapeseed oil, but olive oil would be fine)
  • 1/2 tbsp of roasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 1 heaped tsp of honey

How hot this dressing ends up will depend on the character of your chilli oil, the ratio of chilli oil to neutral oil (there’s nothing to stop you using 1:3 – or 3:1, for that matter, if you’re a hard case!) and your personal taste in chilli heat. These proportions work for me, but feel free to experiment. I would keep the combined amount of chilli and neutral oil at 4 tablespoons, though, or the balance of the rest of the flavours is likely to be off.

Cook your noodles according to the instructions (these fine egg needed to be boiled for 3 minutes – I allowed one ‘nest’ per person). You could use fine rice noodles instead, or even thin pasta, if that’s what you have to hand.

Now, prepare –

  • Prepared vegetables & dressingHalf a carrot, grated
  • 2 spring onions, chopped
  • A handful of fresh coriander leaves
  • A few peanuts, roughly chopped, if you have them (cashews or pine nuts might work, too, to give a little crunch)

When your noodles are cooked, drain them, add the dressing, mix through with the carrot, spring onions and coriander, and serve with a sprinkle of chopped nuts. Enjoy!

Serve with side dishes of your choice

This is really really good, quick, fresh, tasty (and healthy!) food. The balance of hot, sweet and sour is perfect (well, for me anyway), and there’s a real depth of flavour and complexity, and a deep satisfying savouriness from the sesame oil and soy sauce.

This dish breaks down really well as ‘lunch-box’ fare, too – just take the dressing in a little pot, and the prepared vegetables separately, and cook the noodles just before eating.

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Elderflorescence – it’s not too late for elderflower cordial, champagne, and how about vinegar?

The scent of an elder tree or shrub, in full flower on a hot sunny afternoon, is one of the heady, intoxicating, unmistakeable aromas of high summer.  This year the elders seem to be making up for last season’s poor showing – they’re simply smothered with elderflowers right now, dressed up from tip to toe in ivory flowers like a fairytale bride.

Elderflower buds, just breaking

Last year, we really struggled to harvest the elderflowers I needed to make my traditional annual batch of elderflower cordial and champagne. I blogged at the time about the ritual of gathering my elderflowers, and what it means for me. Well, this year, the elderflowers are in abundance – what took several hours and a five mile walk last year, we achieved in ten minutes on a short length of our country lane on Sunday. That’s one of the things about foraging – it’s never ever the same!

A chilled fizzy glass of summer!I adore elderflower ‘champagne’. My grandmother used to make it, and it was my gateway to home brewing, I suppose! My favourite recipe is here, with full instructions. It’s a great and rewarding introduction to home brewing, so even if you’ve never tried to brew before, do consider giving it a whirl. It’s not as scary as it seems, I promise, and the result is a fun summer tipple, fantastic for bbqs and parties, and which costs very little.

Under Pressure!Unfortunately for us, it’s really bad timing for starting a batch of elderflower champagne just now – but you most definitely should! Just be aware, it’s a lively beast, and I would under no circumstances advise trying to store it in glass bottles – even those tempting-looking pop top Grolsch-style ones. Just look what it did to the stout small plastic bottles I used last year!  With a little luck there will still be enough flowers around that I can get a late batch on the go in a few weeks time! Otherwise – and this would be nothing short of a minor tragedy – we’ll have to go without this year!

Elderflower cordial, steepingBut – thank goodness – I have found time to make my elderflower cordial, and it  is steeping in the kitchen as I write – I’ve made it this way for a few years now (full instructions & photos blogged last year), and the results are always amazing. If you’re not a brewer, or don’t want to use campden (sulphite) to stabilise the cordial for storage at room temperature, how about freezing it in carefully washed out milk bottles or juice cartons?

Filled marlalade jarsAnd don’t neglect the lemon and orange slices from the cordial once it’s finished – they make really great marmalade!

Those of you who read the blog regularly know that I’m always up for trying something different! So, considering the success of the chive blossom vinegar, I’ve started an experimental batch of elderflower vinegar.

Stripped elderflowersFor this, I’ve stripped the elderflowers off their stems – I finally found a technique that works for me, which is closer to rubbing the flowers and stamens off the green stems than it is to picking off the tips, and gives flowers almost entirely without green material.  Give the flower bunches a good sharp shake first, to dislodge any ‘passengers’ who might be hitching a ride.

You will probably find, despite this, there are some tiny little insects in amongst your flowers once you’ve picked them. Just ignore these (certainly don’t be tempted to wash the flowers as you’ll wash away much of the lovely flavour!). The vinegar will be filtered through fine muslin later, in any case, and if that still doesn’t reassure you, consider that you eat large numbers of insects and associated material every day already – just take a look at the US Food & Drug Administration’s pamphlet on allowable levels of insect and other contaminants in different foodstuffs if you don’t believe me!

Elderflowers steeping in vinegarI filled about half a 1 litre kilner jar with loose flowers, and then filled it up with cider vinegar. In retrospect, I may have used something with less aroma of its own, like rice wine vinegar, but cider vinegar was what I had, and hopefully the fruity note of the cider vinegar will complement the elderflowers beautifully. Put the filled jar somewhere warm to infuse – unlike the chive flower vinegar, there’s no need to keep it out of the light as there’s no problem with colour fading.  I expect to leave it for a couple of weeks before straining and bottling.

This vinegar smells beautiful after only 24 hours,  with a gorgeous fresh elderflower fragrance. So does the cordial, actually, so my kitchen is a sweetly-scented haven right now, and with my living room full of little posies of gorgeous sweet peas from the garden, the house smells nicer than a perfumery!

Elderflowers and citrus fruit

So, if you do nothing else this week, seize the opportunity to capture – even if just in a small batch of cordial or vinegar – one of the ephemeral scents and flavours of high summer.  During the long dark winter months, it’s amazing what a taste and smell of elderflower can do to lift my spirits!

And of course, with elderflowers so abundant this year, we can only hope for a great elderberry season to come!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Growing and Healing – back after an unscheduled break from blogging

So the blog’s been quiet for a bit! Sorry about that! I feel like I owe you all a bit of an explanation, so here goes – 

Back at the end of March, Hubby and I set off for a well-earned holiday, our annual-if-we-can-manage it ski trip.  We left my lovely in-laws looking after the house, garden, Dave the dog and the gaggle of poultry. A few days into our holiday, news came that Dave wasn’t well.  We tried not to worry – after all, we were almost half-way around the world, and there wasn’t anything we could do from there – he was in good hands and had been to the vets.  The days went by and rather than getting better, he was getting sicker.  By Easter weekend, he was in the hospital on a drip, having refused food for most of a week. By the time we arrived home the following week, he’d been admitted to a specialist referral centre – they were concerned that his liver might be failing, and didn’t know why.

We both hate to leave Dave and had been looking forward to the joyous welcome-home he normally gives us.  Instead the house was silent. We went to visit him at the referral hospital and he barely had the strength to give us a squeak of greeting.  A few more days went by, and after a CT scan which yielded a few answers, perhaps – ruled out some really sinister possibilities anyway – and a plan, kind of, he was fitted with a feeding tube.  Meanwhile, in a silent house, we were both struggling to keep our heads above water.  Times like this, if there were ever any doubt, we know what these creatures we invite into our lives truly mean to us.  I wonder if they understand how much they’re loved.

Dave with his feeding tubeAfter five day with the specialists, still not eating for himself but being fed through a tube inserted through the skin of his neck and into his oesophagus, Dave came home for us to care for.  He was incredibly weak and I really feared we wouldn’t be able to bring him back to health.

But one pill at a time, one liquidised-feed at a time, his strength returned and he started to eat for us again.  A week and a half ago his feeding tube came out, and he has continued to do better in the days since.  He’s still taking a pharmacy full of medication, and looks like a patchwork dog with all the hair that was clipped off to allow investigation and treatment, but over the last few days I finally feel like we’re getting our wonderful, beloved dog back, and while there are never any guarantees in this life, we have hope, and real joy.

Dave enjoying the sunshine

Some of you have been following the saga of Dave dog’s illness on twitter, and I would like to thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for your kind words and thoughts over these past few very difficult weeks.  They’ve been an immense source of strength and comfort, and have meant the world to me.

Of course, it’s a truism that whatever our personal turmoil, time doesn’t stand still.

It’s spring! At last! It really did feel like the winter that would never end! And while the blog has been quiet, we’ve still been very busy.

Dave the dogThe greenhouse we built in March is now stuffed full of seed trays and little emerging seedlings.  It has been performing wonderfully, and the automatic opening vent – a birthday present for myself and admittedly a bit of an indulgence – has been working brilliantly and prevented it becoming a seedling-cooking device on sunny days when we’re not around!  Incidentally, the giant climbing triffid in the foreground is one of my hop plants, grown from a bare root rhizome this year. It’s quite something, isn’t it!

Vegetable bedsOutside, we’ve almost finished sorting out the vegetable beds, and the potatoes are planted.  Now I just need to get a bed prepared for the cutting flower patch I’m experimenting with this year!

My window ledges are packed with chillies, tomatoes, and other things too tender yet to survive in the unheated greenhouse.  I’m hoping we’ve now had the last of the really cold nights and they may be able to go into the greenhouse in the next few days.

Chilli seedlingsI’m especially pleased with my chilli plants, despite an initial disaster (top tip here – don’t take your beautiful heated-propagator-raised chilli seedings outside on even a lovely sunny early March afternoon to prick out and pot on), the survivors, and second sowing are now thriving. I’ve grown two varieties – ‘Vampire’ (the purple-leaved ones in this photo) and ‘Twilight’ this year.  What is it about naming chilli varieties, incidentally???

Seedlings for the cut flower patchStarting these seedlings, and waiting for them to grow, has been the most amazing therapy and displacement activity against the stresses and worries of the past few weeks.  Seeing them start to grow and thrive is always such a great source of faith and hope for the year to come, but this year it’s felt particularly poignant somehow!

Oh, and I seem to have accidentally taken up crochet… more of which, no doubt, another day!

Thanks for your patience in the hiatus, folks, and I’m hoping that more normal (and frequent) blogging service will now be resumed!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Stocking Fillers – perfect home-made giblet stock – Blog Advent (24)

We made it, WE MADE IT!  First of all, a huge thank-you to those of you who’ve followed me through this little blogging adventure, for your kind comments, ‘likes’, and contributions.  We did it!  24 days of daily blogs for Advent.  Well, it’s Christmas tomorrow, NORAD is tracking Santa towards us as I type (best get to bed before he gets here!), the Boxing Day ham is boiled and glazed, the gifts are wrapped, and the giblet stock is made.

Giblets are so often overlooked.  The grotty little plastic bag that accompanies any ‘special’ roasting bird (sadly now completely absent from generic supermarket chickens) and which, I fear, most people will be throwing away some time tomorrow morning.  Offal is so horribly out of fashion that an awful lot of people – certainly those who aren’t of the older generation – have no idea where to start.

Last year, on Christmas morning, while I was waiting for my guests to wake up, I blogged my ‘how to’ for giblet stock.  I didn’t have any photos at the time, so here it is again, in the hope it’ll be useful to some of you, re-edited and with some new photographs to help you along!

If you’ve bought a bird for roasting today, there’s a good chance it’s come with a little plastic packet of ‘bits’.  Whatever you do, don’t throw them away!

All the gibletsThese bits are the giblets – the offal – from top-left, clockwise –  the neck (in one or two pieces), the gizzard, the liver, and the heart.  The gizzard is a thick, muscular structure with two hard abrasive grinding plates that the bird uses to crush up corn and other food items to make them digestible.  

Giblet stock is quick, simple, and makes the most wonderful Christmas gravy.

I have a goose this year, but the following applies just as well if you have a chicken or turkey.  Personally, I use the goose heart and liver in one of my stuffings, so only the neck and gizzard are available for the stock.  But if you’re not going to use the heart and liver this way, just chop them roughly and add them to the stock-pot with the rest of your giblet meat.

Stock vegetables, herbs and spicesIn addition to the giblets, you need the following:

  • Stock vegetables.  I use one onion (red or white) and a couple of carrots.  I don’t like celery so I don’t use it, even though it’s the often-quoted third member of the stock vegetable trinity.  But if you do like it, you should add a couple of sticks.
  • A bouquet garni.  This is just a posh culinary term for some herbs. I use some bay leaves, rosemary, and sage, along with some whole peppercorns.  Dried herbs are fine, if you don’t have fresh to hand.
  • Water.  Glug of white wine (optional).
  • A splash of olive oil.

Prepared gizzardsPrepare your gizzard by cutting away and discarding the hard plates (use a small sharp knife inserted below and parallel to the plates).  It can be a bit tricky to get your knife through the outer membrane, but once it’s in, as long as it’s sharp enough, you can just run it behind the plate.  Discard the hard plate material, along with any grotty-looking offcuts.  Then, simply chop the rest of the meat roughly into cubes.

Brown giblets and vegetablesAdd a splash of olive oil to a nice big saucepan, and brown the neck and gizzard meat, and then add the roughly chopped onion and carrots and sautee for a couple of minutes.  Now add about a litre of water (and the splash of white wine if you want) and the bouquet garni, bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour.  

Stock, before simmeringOnce you’re happy with your stock, strain it, discarding the solids, and return the stock to the pot and boil again until reduced in volume by half.  That’s it.  Set aside in the refrigerator until you make your gravy (the stock will easily keep overnight – so make it on Christmas Eve if you have time). You won’t regret it!

Well, here we are – the advent candle is all but burned down, and the Blog Advent journey is over.  I’d love to say it’s been an undiluted pleasure – more than one evening I’ve got home from work, sat down after dinner, and muttered something about ‘still having to do the sodding blog!’, but it’s great to know that I can do it, even at this time of year.

Advent - day 24

I plan to have a few days off now – I think Hubby’s feeling like a bit of a blog-widow!  I wish you all a wonderful Christmas (don’t forget that tomorrow is only the start of the 12 Days of Christmas, which go on until Epiphany – it’s not called Twelfth Night for nothing!), and after the dust has settled I’ll have a few updates, and things which are still secrets for now, to share with you.

Merry Christmas everyone!

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Pressing The Flesh – home-made coarse farmhouse pate – Blog Advent (23)

While I suppose a lot of people have their eyes firmly on Christmas Day at the moment – family and friends, food and drink, gifts and treats – I’m also looking through and out the other side, to Boxing Day.  Probably if I’m honest I put more time and effort – certainly ahead of time – into the food on Boxing Day than I do to the food on Christmas Day itself.  After all, Christmas dinner, in the end, more or less boils down to a roast dinner with pretensions!

Boxing Day dinner so often is Christmas leftovers – but in my house it’s a feast of cold cuts.  The ham, which I smoked earlier this month, is slowly defrosting ready for cooking tomorrow. I have a handful of lovely cheeses, all ready.  The spiced plum chutney I made in the summer is now nicely matured.  The sourdough, of course, I made yesterday.  There may be some leftover goose, depending on our appetites.  There’s a game pie, which we collected today from our local farm shop butcher.  And to complete the feast, of course, we’ll be wanting some pate.  I’ve always bought this in the past, and always been slightly disappointed compared to the rest of the wonderful spread.

This recipe is mostly inspired by Delia Smiths’ recipe for Coarse Country Pate, and by the Farmhouse Pate recipe in Raymond Blanc’s classic ‘Cooking For Friends’ which I picked up in the Oxfam shop last time I was in Launceston.

Pate ingredientsTo make this pate, you will require –

  • 800g of really good quality minced pork.  Mine was a mix of minced shoulder and minced belly pork from the butcher. The unidentified packs of minced pork in the supermarket will work, of course, but I suspect at the expense of flavour and quality.
  • 275g of smoked streaky bacon.  I used my home-cure smoked Christmas bacon – so I suppose you could substitute the most expensive artisanal pancetta money can buy… not that I’m biased!  More seriously, make sure it’s dry cured, you don’t want nasty phosphate water from smoke-flavour brine-injected bacon leaking out into your pate!
  • 225g of liver.  Strictly the recipes call for pigs’ liver, but I couldn’t get any this morning I used lambs.  Actually I prefer lambs’ liver, it’s softer and creamier in flavour, but it will be interesting to see how this affects the flavours.
  • To season, 20 each of juniper berries and mixed peppercorns, a teaspoon of salt (I used smoked salt, but this isn’t compulsory), a pinch of mace, two crushed cloves of garlic, and a heaped teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves (dry would do, but make it a level teaspoon).
  • To lubricate, a small glass of dry white wine, and a single measure of brandy.
  • Finally, to decorate, some bay leaves, a few more juniper berries, and a couple of slices of streaky bacon.
  • A 2lb loaf tin, or terrine, and a roasting tin big enough to contain it.

SeasoningsMince up the bacon in a food processor, leaving a bit of texture to it (how much texture is up to you!).  Then, seperately, mince up the liver, again to leave a bit of texture though this will go smoother faster, so watch carefully!  Combine all of these together in a mixing bowl, do it thoroughly and for goodness’ sake use your hands!  Now crush the juniper berries and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar along with the salt.  Add the herbs and spices to the meats, and again mix as thoroughly as you can.  Finally, add the liquids, and mix again.

LubricantsSomething magical happens when the wine and brandy mix with the meats – what started out a bit like a big bowl of sausage meat suddenly becomes silky and the aromas, oh my! Allow the bowl to rest for an hour or so in a coolish place.

Arrange the bay leaves and juniper berries in the bottom of your loaf tin.  Now take your two rashers of streaky bacon, and place then between two sheets of baking parchment.  Roll them out really thin with a rolling pin. They will easily double in width, and a bit more.  To get them into the loaf tin, I cut away all but the parchment under them, and push this rasher-side-down into the bottom of the loaf tin before carefully peeling away the paper.

Bay leaves & juniper berries   Streaky bacon  Rolled out streaky bacon

Now pack all the pate mix into the tin, levelling it carefully.  Put the loaf tin into the roasting tin and fill this half way up with boiling water, and put the whole lot in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour and three quarters.

Bacon in tin  Before cooking  After cooking

The block of pate will shrink back from the sides of the tin during cooking, and will be surrounded by fat and jelly juices. Let it stand until nearly cool, and then it’s time to press the pate.  It’s pressed for two reasons – firstly, to compact it and reduce the risk of it crumbling when you slice it, but secondly – and just as importantly for me! – to compact the bottom so you can turn it out neatly!  It smells *wonderful*, just as I would have hoped.  To press it, I covered the top with a double layer of tinfoil, put an old tupperware container on top, and then piled it up with all the weight I could muster.  So, four tins of beans, and four litres of fruit juice ought to do the trick!

Pressing the pate

Once it’s had a really good squeeze, and cooled right down to room temperature, put the pate and whatever weight you can conveniently keep on top of it, move it into the fridge, where it will keep quite happily in its juices and rest and improve for three days before serving.

It’s a new recipe to me, so I’ll be back to tell you how it worked out!  But the smell, oh my, I can’t see it being anything other than lovely!  With crusty (maybe toasted, even?) home-made sourdough.  And pickles!

Advent - day 23

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Not Long Now – final preparations for Christmas – Blog Advent (22)

So, somehow it’s got to be the final weekend before Christmas, and it feels like only a few days ago that we hung out the fabric advent calendar, and I started on my mad-cap plan to blog every day in Advent, as if there wasn’t enough to do in the run up to Christmas!

There’s always a lot to do in the final few days, and while today has been almost entirely occupied with preparations for the big day, there’s not an awful lot in there which is very blog-worthy, mostly for reason of avoiding spoilers for guests and gift recipients reading this blog.

christmas sourdough

The sourdough loaves for Christmas and Boxing Day are baked.  Sourdough has been one of my great discoveries this year – I really can’t figure out how I lived without great home-baked bread!  On Christmas Day, we’ll have it as a starter, with home-cured and smoked trout and goats’ cheese.  On Boxing Day, it will be part of the traditional day-after spread of cold ham, meats, pates, cheese, pies and pickles – and I think it’s going to stand up to that, really, very well!

We did our final shop for food and drinks today – it’s always a blasted nuisance, but fortunately we’ve planned ahead and sourced as much from local suppliers, farm shops, and home-made as we could, so it was less of a chore than it might have been.  Good to feel everything is under control, and we collect the goose from the local farm butcher’s tomorrow.

I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon sorting out, labelling, and wrapping the Christmas gift hampers that are a big part of my gift giving for close family and friends.  I know that some of them read this blog, so no details for now I’m afraid!  But here they are, all packed in recycled boxes (I’ve been saving, begging and borrowing Amazon boxes and suchlike from colleagues the last few weeks!), and the contain jams and preserves (which, if you’ve been paying attention over the last six months, you may have had a hint about!), hedgerow liqueurs, and some other home-made surprises which I’ve carefully not been writing about here!

Hampers almost ready to go

And we’re very close now, three sleeps ’till Christmas, and the Advent candle that started burning 22 days ago is now very nearly gone…

Advent - day 22

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>