The time has come to update my ‘Where to Eat in Yorkshire’ list (for the original post, see here). I’ve continued to eat my way around this fabulous county and its diverse culinary influences since moving here in 2012, and every now and again stumble upon a gem that simply has to make it onto this blog. Here are a few new recommendations, ranging from a quirky meatball restaurant to a Spanish tapas bar, and including two of my favourite rustic pubs with some of the best gastropub food (and roaring fires!) in the country.Read More
I'm what you might call an accidental forager. Articles on how to salvage delicious edible produce for free from the countryside pop up on my gastro-literary radar (a posh term I have just invented for 'articles in various media relating to food') now and again, but I read them with little more than a cursory interest, safe in the knowledge that I am not likely to find half the glorious things they talk about within a ten-mile radius of my house (either in York or Cambridge) and, realistically, I'm probably not going to don the walking boots to achieve nothing more than a sparse handful of berries or greens, barely enough for cooking a meal for one.
My most successful foraging expeditions have actually been those that came about completely unplanned, completely by chance, and completely by surprise.
Pretty much all of these expeditions have taken place near our house in the Yorkshire dales. A casual walk a few autumns ago revealed hedgerows brimming with glossy dark blackberries, which seemed too delicious and inviting to go ignored. Unequipped with anything in which to put them, I used my cunning ingenuity and placed them all in the hood of the jumper I was wearing (which, fortunately, was quite an old one and a dark colour, so the resulting purple stains weren't too much of an issue). Subsequent autumn walks around the area have always been accompanied by a pocket full of plastic bags. Last year was particularly successful, yielding a massive tub of blackberries which sustained me through several weeks on porridge, in cakes, and squished into the roasting juices from a pheasant or partridge to make a delicious gravy.
Then there were the sloes, a couple of years ago. Again, happened upon on a quiet afternoon walk, I had to run back to get a bag for these, as there was no hood on any of my garments. The result of some slightly painful foraging (sloe trees have sharp thorns) was a kilo and a half of these plump little berries, which found themselves turned into luscious sloe gin - dangerously drinkable stuff.
There were the bilberries, gathered on a trip to Brimham Rocks in the dales. I'd been purposely foraging for these little blue berries - a wild variation of the blueberry, with a much more pronounced flavour - earlier in the year but had been fairly unsuccessful, taking about three hours to produce no more than a handful (they're quite well camouflaged in their bushes, are fiddly to pick, and are only around for a few weeks of the year). Suddenly they were everywhere at Brimham Rocks, glinting invitingly from their stalks. Again, having no bags on me, I had to put them in my red woollen glove. I ended up carrying around this giant bulging glove, stuffed with berries, and looking somewhat ridiculous (not to mention with a very cold hand). However, the result was a delicious bilberry pie.
This year, we spent Easter at our house in the dales. (There was lovely roast lamb, homemade hot cross buns, and a delicious salted caramel tarte tatin, should you be interested). I had actually jokingly said that there was no point in going out for a walk because there was nothing to forage at this time of year (I normally come up in autumn, when blackberries/bilberries/sloes are abundant). A walk around the grounds of Bolton Abbey soon proved me wrong.
All foraging guides will tell you that the best indication of wild garlic growing nearby is the scent of it in the air, and they're right. An unmistakeable waft of garlicky perfume followed us as we walked through the woods and by the river, and hundreds of bunches of the green stuff stood perkily aloft amidst the leaf litter and the trees. I wasn't sure that it was wild garlic I could smell (maybe someone was walking along behind me eating a piece of garlic bread or something - unlikely but possible), so I went over to one of the bunches and crushed a leaf between my finger. The scent is unmistakeable.
I was genuinely quite excited by my discovery. There was just so much of it, growing in huge vibrant green bunches all over the ground for miles. I've had wild garlic once before, but I bought it from a market, and it's not a common sight even when in season. It always makes me quite pleased when I see these things growing wild, things I've only read about before in those foraging articles that I tend to pass over without much interest.
Unable to resist, I picked a little clump of leaves. I'm not sure if this was strictly allowed, but I took so little and there was so much growing that I think it's probably OK. Besides, it was only going to die off, unused, eventually, so I figured it would be good to make the most of it. I had to laugh a little bit at some of the people around us, looking very confused and going 'Can you smell garlic?' to each other, totally unable to comprehend where the smell was coming from. Perhaps they too assumed someone around them was eating a piece of garlic bread.
Once again, accidental forager that I am, I had no receptacle for the garlic leaves. I stuffed a few in my pocket but wasn't keen on the idea that they might permanently impart their strong aroma to my coat, so I ended up just carrying a big bunch of them around with me.
Ridiculously, the following day I went for a walk and discovered there is an absolute forest of wild garlic growing about three hundred metres away from our front door. All that furtive carrying around of those garlicky green stems was apparently for nothing. I went back today and picked a large bunch.
What to do with wild garlic, I hear you cry? First of all, very finely chop it. You can use a food processor, which will turn it into a potent green paste that will then enrich a multitude of dishes. Apparently it's very good with both lamb and scrambled eggs, but I decided to make a beautiful spring risotto, studded with mushrooms, broad beans, peas and broccoli. I stirred about four tablespoons of very finely chopped wild garlic in at the end, along with a hefty mound of grated parmesan and a good sprinkling of salt.
It was utterly delicious. The beauty of wild garlic is that it has a really great garlicky flavour, but without any of the harshness of bulb garlic. The risotto was garlicky like the best garlic bread, incredibly moreish, greatly enhanced by the parmesan cheese, but it doesn't leave you with an aftertaste in your mouth. The flavour is altogether fresher and more subtle. Plus, that vibrant green paste turns the whole thing a beautiful pastel jade colour.
With the rest of my foraged spoils, I made a wild garlic paste. I put the handfuls of leaves, roughly chopped, into a food processor with a good teaspoon of salt and a few glugs of olive oil. It turned into a beautiful emerald green pesto-like paste, which I then put in a kilner jar along with a little more olive oil. That way, the garlic is preserved for later use - it doesn't store very well in the fridge, quickly losing its vibrancy, but kept in olive oil it should last a little while, and can then simply be stirred into anything. I plan to stir the paste into a hot pasta along with some lemon zest, pine nuts and parmesan for a delicious quick dinner.
Wild garlic risotto with mushrooms, peas and broad beans (serves 4):
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
250g mushrooms, finely sliced
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, needles finely chopped
300g risotto rice
A good glug of white wine
1 litre chicken stock
300g mixed broad beans and peas (or just peas/broad beans)
A large handful of wild garlic, blitzed in a blender to make about 4-5 heaped tbsp
Salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese, to serve
Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan and cook the onion and garlic over a medium heat until soft but not coloured. Add the mushrooms and rosemary and cook gently for a few minutes, until the mushrooms have shrunk and turned golden. Stir in the butter, then when it melts add the rice. Stir to coat the rice in the butter for a minute or so, then add the wine and stir. Wait until all the wine is absorbed by the rice, then add a ladleful of stock, stirring regularly as the rice soaks up the stock.
Wait until all the liquid is absorbed, then add another ladleful of stock. Repeat until most of the stock is used up. Add the broad beans and peas along with the last couple of ladlefuls (you may not need all the stock - taste to check the rice; it should be tender with a little bit of bite, like pasta). Once it is all absorbed, check the seasoning then stir in the wild garlic. Serve with large amounts of parmesan cheese to scatter over.
Sometimes, it is the least spectacular-looking foods that pack the biggest flavour punch, and deliver the most reward in terms of eating. Think beef stew, a mass of dark brown homogenous sludge that delivers rich, sticky umami flavours with every mouthful. In the same vein, beef rendang, that fabulous Malaysian curry whose uniform brown appearance gives no hint of the flavour explosion within: a riot of coconut, ginger, lemongrass and garlic. Banana bread - not exactly sporting oodles of frivolous decoration, yet - for me - infinitely more rewarding than any fancily decorated piece of patisserie. Lentil dhal - if made correctly, a gorgeous blend of buttery richness and warming spices, but definitely never a contender for prettiest dish of the year.
In Syria, I once took a bite from a loaf of bread that looked distinctly normal and unpromising, only to find the most incredible soft, buttery brioche texture underneath its sweet, glazed crust. In Vietnam, the homely appearance of a bowl of pho gives very little hint of the depth of flavour promised by that clear broth. In Sicily, you'd be forgiven for turning your nose up at a bowl of caponata, a sweet-sour aubergine stew, but perseverance would reward you with an incredible medley of flavours: punchy vinegar, smoky aubergine, salty capers. Curries are, by and large, mostly indistinguishable in appearance, but what a range of hot/sweet/sharp/spicy combinations lies hidden by that homogeneity.
This Yorkshire curd tart may not win any prizes for prettiness. It has no sexily oozing ganache coating, no whipped cream swirls, no sugar paste roses. There are no glacé cherries, edible flowers or decadent spirals of buttercream. It doesn't even boast a glorious colourful simplicity about it, like a lemon tart or a rhubarb crumble.
However, this is all a cunning ploy on the part of the Yorkshire curd tart. It likes to maintain a sense of exclusivity, you see. It only wants to be familiar to that privileged and select group who are 'in the know'. It doesn't want to be adopted by the plebs, cheapened by mass production that provides barely edible, over-processed, over-sugared versions to satisfy the sweet tooths of the general public. Look what happened to its good friend Bakewell Tart, or Mince Pie. It's barely worth thinking about the poor fate of Fondant Fancy. The Yorkshire curd tart never wants to find itself in the overzealous hands of that dentist's nemesis, Mr Kipling.
In order to maintain this status quo, the Yorkshire curd tart hides its fabulous nature under a cunningly-fashioned cloak of beige. It conceals its utter deliciousness beneath a cleverly uniform, nondescript crust. Even when you cut into it (be gentle, please), it gives little away, revealing nothing more than a few uncontroversial currants peppering what is otherwise a homogenous, unremarkable interior.
Ah, I can see it's fooled you too. You weren't that amazed by the photos. They're certainly not a patch on that luscious chocolate ganache cake with the glossy strawberries I made about a year ago. You're thinking, 'meh, looks a bit bland. Beige. Click away'.
Perhaps you should, because I'm not sure the Yorkshire curd tart will be very happy about me revealing its secret to the world.
Because the truth is, you see, that this is an utterly delicious piece of baking. You start with a pastry crust, which is always a good sign. You fill this with a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, blended with pale curd cheese - a little like ricotta, but firmer. This you brighten with a few aromatic spices - nutmeg, mostly - and sweet little currants, which provide a beautiful burst of flavour within the comforting, custard-like filling.
It's hard to describe the flavour of this wonderful creation. I first tried it, at the insistence of my mother, a Yorkshire lass, at Betty's tearoom (a northern institution). I was sceptical, just like you. I probably wanted to go for the shiny fruit tarts sitting next to it. The Yorkshire curd tart is unfazed by these. It is not jealous of their flouncy airs and graces - it doesn't want to attract the attention of just anyone.
However, since my first bite, I've been hooked on the glorious combination of crunchy pastry and the soft, yielding interior. Its texture is reminiscent of a cross between treacle tart and custard tart - not too sweet and sticky, but not gooey either. It's probably best described as a more dense, crumbly version of a cheesecake. Apparently it originated on farms as a way of frugally using up the curds that are by-products of the cheesemaking process. I can't think of a better way to rescue them than by combining them with butter, sugar, spices and fruit.
Having long enjoyed the occasional curt tart from Betty's (a major factor in my decision to attend York University), I decided to have a go at making my own. It seems fitting that I mark my transition to the north of England by ensuring a Yorkshire speciality lies firmly within my cooking repertoire.
While you can sometimes find curd cheese in specialist delis and cheese shops, it's incredibly easy to make - you just heat whole milk, add a little lemon juice, allow it to separate into curds and whey, then drain the curds in a sieve overnight through a cloth so they turn a little more solid and creamy. After your cheese is ready, you just make a quick pastry, line a tart tin, then beat the cheese with the butter, sugar, currants and an egg.
I decided to add a few spices to enrich mine: nutmeg is a given, but I also put in a little ground ginger, and some orange peel powder. The slight hint of warm citrus that it lends to the crumbly, creamy filling is perfect. It's not too sweet a tart, instead possessing a delicious buttery creaminess, without actually containing much butter. It's rich and comforting without being heavy, a perfect late afternoon pick-me-up, or a delicious dessert with some ice cream.
I'm sure you're all intrigued. Get into the kitchen, make this delicious and underrated creation, and enjoy the unusually moreish combination of ingredients.
Then promptly forget it ever happened. Forget all about the curd tart. Definitely don't tell your friends. Let's keep it a little-known secret.
Yorkshire curd tart (serves 6-8):
For the curd cheese:
- 1.2 litres whole milk (a 2 pint bottle is fine)
- Juice of 1 lemon
- For the pastry:
- 140g plain flour
- 85g cold butter, cubed
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Ice cold water
For the filling:
- 50g butter, softened
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp orange peel powder
- Curd cheese (see above)
- 35g currants
The night before you want to bake the tart, make the curd cheese. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer in a large saucepan, then add the lemon juice. Lower the heat and stir gently, and watch the milk separate into curds (white lumps) and whey (pale liquid). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour the mixture into a sieve lined with muslin or a teatowel/clean cloth, resting over a pan or bowl. Leave to drain overnight. In the morning, scrape the curd cheese (it will look a bit like ricotta) from out of the cloth and refrigerate. You can use the leftover liquid (the whey) for making scones or soda bread - use it instead of buttermilk.
For the pastry, put the flour, butter, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add 1tbsp of cold water, pulse again, then continue to add water a little bit at a time until the mixture just starts to come together - you'll need around 2-3tbsp. Turn the pastry out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just forms a ball, then wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and use to line a 20cm tart tin or pie dish with a removable base. Don't trim the sides of the pastry yet, as they will shrink when baking. Put some greaseproof paper in the pastry case and fill with baking beans, then bake for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 10 minutes, until the case is golden.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Beat together the butter and sugar using an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the egg, beating in between additions. Add the nutmeg, ginger and orange peel powder, then add the curd cheese. Whisk gently to incorporate it into the mixture, then whisk in the currants.
When the pastry case has baked, pour the curd filling into it and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden and set - it should still have a slight wobble to it, though. Allow to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve.
If I had to name my biggest personality flaw (or, rather, select one from an epic list that includes 'raging temper', 'neuroses' and 'inability to not say what I really think'), it would probably be my impatience. I'm just awful. I notice it the most when in public places. Striding quickly down the street, for example, keen to get to my destination, I frequently find myself stuck behind some idiot who insists on dithering around, moving from side to side of the pavement and generally holding up my entire life with their sheer ineptitude.
Perhaps I'm in the pool, eager to get my sixty lengths over and done with so I can go home and eat dinner (that, after all, is the only reason I swim: so I can eat more). But oh, there's someone who is clearly blind and hasn't read the 'Medium Lane' sign properly, so is floating along on their back without a care in the world, flailing their arms wildly and preventing any kind of normal or serious swimming from going on around them while moving at a pace approximately slower than a pond snail. This is the kind of person who inevitably believes that breaststroke on your back is actually a legitimate stroke that really exists. It doesn't. You look like an idiot. Roll over and move on.
I could be on a cycle path, breezily pedalling away until I come to a crowd of people, invariably middle-aged and therefore not in a hurry, walking five or six abreast along the path, laughing away, not a care in the world, completely oblivious to the fact that I'm hovering behind them, making that 'Um, hello, there's a cyclist behind you' noise by back-pedalling. So I ring my bell, and they take approximately two hours to actually move and let me past. What amazes me is always the look of surprise and/or indignation that accompanies this action, as if the path was their sacred domain and I've just waltzed in and hideously violated it.
Oh, and don't even get me started on the tourists when I used to live in Oxford. You can tell someone who's just moved to Oxford a mile off by the fact that they actually stop to avoid getting in the way of tourists' photos. It doesn't take you long to realise that if you make that a habit, you WILL NEVER MOVE ANYWHERE in the city centre. Literally nowhere. You will be stuck, for eternity, slowly circling the Rad Cam, unable to progress beyond the Bridge of Sighs and definitely without a chance of ever passing the Sheldonian theatre. You will perish tragically, incarcerated in this touristic Bermuda triangle, unable to escape to find food, water, or your own house.
'But,' I hear you ask, 'Why don't you just say 'excuse me'?'
Because, dear readers, I long ago decided that the best strategy in all these situations is not politeness. The obvious solution is to passive-aggressively mutter 'Moron' at a decibel level that is not quite under my breath, so is still vaguely audible to the offending party, and then fly past while simultaneously making a sort of huffing noise.
It surprises me, then, that when I get into the kitchen I become a different person in this respect. What I lack in everyday life in terms of patience, I make up for in the world of cooking.
While there is a lot to be said for food that you can get on the table in a matter of minutes (but not, I think, for the crazed antics of a certain Mr Oliver who writes meal plans which are only feasible if you have a small army of kitchen minions on hand to wash everything up on the go, plug in your blender, open your packets and weigh out your ingredients), there is also much merit to be had from taking it a little bit easier, culinarily speaking. (Again, I can only do this in the kitchen - I'm totally incapable of taking anything remotely easy when it comes to normal life).
Take a stew, for example. While a stir-fry or pasta dish is a lovely thing, it can't really compete with the utterly divine aroma of a meaty mass that has been bubbling away in the oven for a good three hours or so - or even longer, if you go for that slow-roasting, oven on overnight thing (the idea of an unattended oven scares me a little, so I've never tried this). My favourite thing about stew is the total transformation it undergoes, from a mass of disparate meat and veg floating around in stock to a sumptuous, tender medley of slippery vegetables, ultra-soft meat and rich, thick gravy.
While I frequently make a loaf of soda bread for breakfast, enabling me to have fresh, warm, cake-like bread on my plate slathered in jam in under forty-five minutes, it can't quite compete with my homemade sourdough, the starter for which has been months in the making. The actual loaf takes pretty much a whole day to make, but oh my goodness is it worth it. The first time I took homemade sourdough out of the oven, I may have done a small gleeful dance when I spied its burnished, floured crust, looking exactly like something you'd pay good money for at an artisan baker's. When I bit into it, and tasted that tangy, sour, aerated crumb, it was so worth the days and days of stirring up an increasingly pungent mixture of flour and water.
Then there are marinades - nothing quite like placing some lovely meat or fish in a veritable bath of flavour for a few hours then taking it out to cook, knowing it's been soaking up all that deliciousness. I'm always suspicious of recipes that instruct you to marinate something for around 30 minutes - surely that's not enough time for proper absorption to take place. I love the feeling of sticking a tray of spice-rubbed, oil-soaked meat or fish in the fridge before I go to bed, knowing it's sitting there becoming tastier and tastier as I sleep.
Then there are the joys of preserving. While it is a faff, during the height of summer, to slice and poach kilos of apricots before packing them into a jar, spooning over syrup and sealing them in the oven, when there are gluts of these gorgeous fruits at the market, it is so worth it a few months later, in the middle of January, when I can spoon these delicious golden fruits onto my morning porridge; just as tasty as they were when they were in season. While my first instinct with gluts of fruit is just to gorge myself on them, pure and unadulterated, there's a lot to be said for taking the time to make jam, to be enjoyed at a later date.
Last autumn, I made sloe gin. I couldn't resist picking the sloes that were everywhere up in the Yorkshire dales when I was on holiday for a week. It's funny to read that post, where I extol the delights of Yorkshire eating, a year later, now that I've ended up living here.
I spent an hour or so dodging thorns to end up with a bag of fat, speckled sloes which I put in the freezer then bashed with a rolling pin until they were all crushed. They went into a big jar with gin and sugar, and then the waiting game began. I shook the jars every week or so, to let everything mingle nicely. It was a good seven months later before I had my first taste. Definitely more patience involved than I've ever had in public.
Sloe gin is a delightful beverage. Unfortunately it's so delightful because it's sweet and warming, and you can easily forget it's alcoholic. That way awkward drunkenness lies. However, as luck would have it, it's also wonderful to use in cooking. During the summer I baked halved peaches and apricots with a splash of sloe gin in a foil parcel in the oven and on the barbecue, and they were utterly luscious. The gin imparts a gorgeous rich syrupy sweetness.
So, in the spirit of using two classic autumn ingredients, I've combined our lovely sloes with one of my favourite autumn fruits: the fig. While figs are generally imported from Turkey at this time of year, you can grow your own if you're lucky. Running with the idea of the baked peaches and apricots, here I've baked halved figs in sloe gin and brown sugar until the figs mellow and soften, leaving behind purple syrupy juices. It's sweet and delicious, and a beautifully simple way to enjoy the perfection of a fig without too much messing around. All you need is a spoon and some good ice cream.
Figs baked in sloe gin (serves 2):
- 6 figs, ideally fairly ripe, but rock-solid ones will still work
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 5 tbsp sloe gin
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Slice the figs in half and place into a baking dish that will fit them snugly. Toss them together with the sugar and gin, then arrange cut side down in the dish. Cover with foil and bake for 20-30 minutes, until soft and tender. Serve with some of the cooking liquid spooned over.
"All around it looked so cold and raw: the long willow-leaves were quite yellow, and the fog dripped from them like water; one leaf fell after the other: the sloes only stood full of fruit, which set one's teeth on edge" ~ Hans Christian Andersen
If this country were a kitchen, its larder would be Yorkshire
. I never fail to be amazed by all the wonderful produce around me whenever I go and stay in our house up north. There are the two excellent butchers three minutes away from our house, whose steak and ale pies, sausages and sirloin steaks are to die for, and whose meat all comes from farms barely a stone's throw away. There's another butcher a five minute drive from the house, where I picked up six partridge and a mallard for under £15 last week (more on the partridge at a later date...). There's the quaint little deli where I've found treasures like shocking pink Yorkshire rhubarb in late winter, or beautiful glossy damsons at the close of summer, and which can always be relied upon to sell oddities that you'd normally never find in a local country shop: tahini paste, quinoa, pomegranates, fresh fennel. However, it's not just the produce that I have to pay for that I love, but everything that's available for free, too.
Take a short walk into the dales, and you'll be rewarded with even more edible goodness, without having to spend anything at all. Towards the end of summer, ripe blackberries hang heavily from their bushes, lining almost every stone wall in sight and glistening invitingly, begging you to snatch them up before they're gobbled by greedy birds. A couple of years ago I went on a walk, without realising that blackberry season had started. I passed so many beautiful berries on my stroll that I couldn't bear to leave them behind, but I hadn't brought any form of receptacle in which to carry them.
However, dear readers, there is no end to my initiative and resourcefulness when food is at stake. I carried them home in the hood of my jumper.
It doesn't stop at blackberries, though I've collected enough in a single day in Yorkshire to freeze and last me nearly a whole year (delicious on porridge with chopped pear and honey, or in a crumble, or in a lovely apple and blackberry jam). There are also bilberries, a curious and rare wild version of the blueberry. They are notoriously hard to pick and only grow in certain places (usually rather high up, requiring much climbing, scrambling and huffing and puffing) on the dales, possessing a very short season towards the end of summer. I was mad enough to go foraging for them in August during a torrential downpour...but more on that in another post, when I finally get round to cooking my gains. They're currently sitting in the freezer, awaiting the invention of a recipe special enough to justify the intense discomfort involved in peeling off a pair of completely saturated skinny jeans and acquiring a hideous illness for the entire week afterwards, which I'm sure resulted from the combination of wind, rain, and three hours hunching over mud and occasional ubiquitous dog excrement in order to pick these damned berries. I christen said illness "Forager's Downfall". I'm sure I'm not the only one to have succumbed.
Our national larder didn't disappoint last week when I visited. During a little afternoon stroll I stumbled across a group of large bushes hanging heavily with little dark fruits, rather like overgrown blueberries but darker, and mottled in places. Having read a little bit about sloes and sloe gin in various food media lately, I had a strong inkling that these were, in fact, the elusive sloes. I'm still not actually sure they are true sloes - apparently sloes and bullaces, which are like small damsons, look very similar - but I'm hoping my resulting gin will taste delicious nevertheless.
I've always liked the idea of making sloe gin, but having never seen sloes before (not much chance of them in central Cambridge, I don't think) it was one of those items on my long-term gastronomic to-do list (I have various lists, you see, all relating to food. It's very stressful trying to keep on top of them all, actually). I don't really drink much alcohol; I only like wine, preferably white, and gin, and even then in quantities so small it makes most of my friends laugh. I often recall the depressing incident whereby my boyfriend and I drank a whole bottle of wine between us one night over dinner. I was immensely impressed with my tolerance, seeing as usually I can only manage a small glass. Flushed with my success, I then inspected the bottle more closely, only to find that the wine contained 5.6% alcohol. Sad times.
However, I do like gin-based drinks, and sloe gin is particularly tasty due to its higher sugar content and fruity flavour; it has a taste reminiscent of summer berries, with a pleasant blackcurranty tang. You can buy it, of course, but when there's a huge bush sporting hundreds of sloes only minutes from where you're staying, it seems rude not to take advantage of nature's offerings.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a hood to put the sloes in. I had to go back for a bag.
A happy half hour of dodging prickles and getting some very quizzical looks from a field of sheep later, I had 1.6 kilos of sloes, enough to make at least two litres of sloe gin.
Although I love the almost-instant gratification of most cooking - chop, stir, bake, eat - I also enjoy the occasional longer-term food project, mainly because it gives me an immense sense of self-satisfaction and makes me feel a little bit like a Victorian housewife or a home economist (not particularly glamorous role models, admittedly, but certainly useful ones). I enjoy making my own jam and chutney, and have made various forays into that arena over the years.
There was the fig jam, hastily whipped up with a plate of semi-rotting figs that I couldn't bear to let go to waste; the rhubarb jam and chutney made with an immense glut of rhubarb given to my mum by a colleague; the apple jam and chutney made with the windfall apples from the tree overhanging our garden; the quince paste made in a moment (more like five hours) of madness that I heartily regretted when I got cramp trying to press insufficiently soft quinces through a sieve; the red chilli and tomato jam that nearly had me in A&E because I got such severe and agonising chilli burns on my left hand (still remains to this day the most painful experience of my life, but at least I didn't do what a chef I used to work for once did, and went to the toilet without washing his hands after chopping chillies...).
I've also made my own preserved lemons (incredibly easy - stuff lemons with salt, pour over boiling water and leave to mature in a jar for a few months) to use in Moroccan cooking; my own bottled apricots for when these lovely fruits aren't in season; I dried my own apple rings one year, from the windfall apples in our garden; I made a jar of my own sun-dried tomatoes, by putting seasoned tomatoes in the oven on a very low heat for half a day. Projects like these are not only - eventually - tasty, but there's a certain satisfaction in opening a jar of preserved lemons that you've made yourself, or gorging yourself on sweet, soft apricots in syrup in the middle of February, or spooning homemade jam onto fresh toast. It always tastes better than shop-bought, even if that difference is entirely psychological.
This is another such long-term project. The gin needs to be left to mature for a good couple of months before drinking, though I intend to leave mine for a bit longer. However, there's very little work involved, and once it's all mixed you can just leave it, shaking or stirring it occasionally.
Basically, you mix your sloes with sugar and gin.
There you go, readers - Nutmegs, seven's shortest ever recipe.
You need about 450g sloes for every 750ml gin, and about 225g of granulated or caster sugar for every 450g sloes, though you can add more if you have quite a sweet tooth. Then you just need to combine them in a jar or tub with a watertight lid, leaving a bit of space so you can either stir or shake the mixture.
You can either do this the painstaking way, and prick each sloe with a pin so that they release their juices into the gin, or you can do it the easy way, and freeze your sloes so the skins split, before defrosting and then squeezing them to mush in their bag (intensely enjoyable). Then you can add the sugar and the gin. Apparently it doesn't really matter what quality of gin you use - no point in splashing out on some Bombay, for instance - but I wouldn't suggest using Tesco Value gin. The next one up would be fine, though. I got mine from Asda - £20 for 1.5 litres, which isn't bad for two bottles of tasty sloe gin.
I made my gin in two large 3-litre Le Parfait jars - although they're not even half full, the space left gives you room to shake the contents vigorously to ensure they're well-mixed. Put the fruit in the jar, sprinkle over the sugar, pour over the gin, and clip on the lid. Then shake, shake, shake, and leave in a cool, dark place. Keep shaking it every day or so for a couple of weeks, then leave to mature for a couple of months at least.
I'm not sure whether to take the sloes out and strain the mixture after a couple of months before leaving it to mature further, or just leave the sloes in right up until I want to drink it. Apparently it's possible to do both, though I think leaving the sloes in for longer might give a better flavour, so that's probably what I'll do.
I'm also looking forward to using the gin-saturated leftover sloes for something delicious; I've read various people suggesting them as an accompaniment for game. What better partner for Yorkshire sloes than some nice Yorkshire venison, or pheasant?
Incidentally, sloes are not good for eating raw. I tried one out of curiosity, but Hans Christian Andersen was right when he wrote that they "set one's teeth on edge". Your whole mouth puckers up from the astringency, rather like trying to eat a lemon or gooseberry.
So that's a brief summary of my latest food project. If you know anyone who might have some sloes growing near them, ask nicely for a few and try it yourself. I'm going to decant the gin into lovely old-fashioned stoppered bottles when it's ready and make some nice hand-written labels for it, to please both my inner home economist and outer rampant aesthete.
I can't wait for the first sip of this sweet, warming, fruity concoction.
Have you done any foraging this year, or dabbled in the joy of home preserving? Do you have a favourite recipe for an abundance of wild ingredients?
"Michelin". It's funny how one word can possess the power to make or break a career, to spell the beginning or the end of business, to bring boom or bust. As an avid follower of everything gastronomic, it's a word I find myself reading a lot, to the point where it really means very little. "Michelin star" is bandied around so much these days (numerous friends of mine in Oxford are adamant that their college is the only one with a "Michelin-starred chef" - apparently one lone chef bearing this accolade has been doing the rounds, pinched from Christ Church by Univ before being passed on to Trinity, etc. etc.) that I bet few people realise that the original Michelin guide, published over a hundred years ago, was designed by the Michelin tyre company to help drivers maintain their cars, find accommodation, and eat well whilst touring France. It wasn't all about restaurants back then: the guide included listings for filling stations, mechanics and tyre dealers, along with local prices for fuel, tyres and repairs. It wasn't until 1926 that the guide started to mark outstanding restaurants with a star, and the 1930s that two- and three-star listings came into being. I won't bore you for too long on the history, though - if you're interested, click here. Essentially, one Michelin star means "very good cuisine in its category"; two mean cuisine worth a detour, and three, "exceptional cuisine worth a special journey".
I don't think I quite played by the rules here, because the first Michelin-starred restaurant I attended was approximately two hundred miles from my house, thereby definitely involving a "special journey", yet it only had one star, not three. I hasten to add that I didn't travel two hundred miles simply for a good eating experience (though knowing me, it's not out of the question); I happened to be on holiday only five miles from the delightful Yorke Arms in north Yorkshire. My culinary radar was going mad, obviously sensing the wealth of edible potential in its vicinity, and I couldn't leave without seeing what all the fuss was about. I've read and heard so much about Michelin-starred chefs and their food (in fact, I even worked for one once) that I found it a bit hard to believe I'd never tried it before. The Yorke Arms, having recently had a great review in the Telegraph, seemed a good place to start, set in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside rather than some grim, smog-saturated highway in London.
The Yorke Arms is both a hotel and a restaurant, though it clearly prides itself on being the latter, referring to itself as a "restaurant with rooms" on the website. Frances Atkins is the head chef, awarded a Michelin star in 2003. The restaurant was also awarded "best game restaurant" by the Sunday Times in 2007, which excites me more than its many other accolades because of my fetish for all things wild and shootable. Unfortunately it wasn't really game season when I visited, which just means I'll have to go back. What a shame.
The 18th century building is in Ramsgill, a charming village in Nidderdale that nestles amongst the dramatic dales landscape. It feels rather like a very posh gastropub as you walk in, with wood panelled walls and white linen, though we ate unexpectedly on the outside terrace. It was a lovely bright courtyard, heady with the scent of the lavender and rosemary growing in pots on the wall, next to a stream beyond which lay the vegetable garden (we saw one of the chefs go out and pick some vegetables while we were eating, which was rather nice and authentic). Apart from an onslaught of hoverflies and some slightly uncomfortable chairs, the setting was lovely. We had a quick peek around the vegetable garden afterwards, and also found the restaurant's egg suppliers (as well as some of the largest swans I've ever seen; so large that when I could only see their necks amongst the greenery, I got excited and declared that they were ostriches).
However, the setting is clearly not what earned the Yorke Arms its Michelin star, so I won't bore you any more with that. I perused the menu. Nothing particularly new to me, in its style of listing a couple of key ingredients followed by a highly simplistic, single-word description of their accompaniments. Something similar happened on the menu of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant I went to in February; the uber-trendy Polpo in Soho likes to do it too. I sometimes think there should be an internet "Michelin translator" that you type your meal into and watch as it emerges in posh-restaurant jargon. Roast beef with all the trimmings would become "Beef. Batter. Jus. Carrots." Lasagne might be "Mince. Pasta. Cheese and milk infusion. Tomato". It seems a hallmark of above-average restaurants to try and boil their dishes down (not literally) to the key components. Michelin menu minimalism.
Despite this, I wanted to eat it all. The sparse description left me intrigued and salivating, which I imagine is the idea. Ordering the main course was easy - although I was torn between the venison and the sea bass, the mention of lobster swung it for me. If I was going to be paying thirty-five pounds for my lunch, I'd make sure it contained some expensive components. Choosing the starter was almost as simple, though the cauliflower ravioli sounded almost as enticing as the seared tuna. I just love the texture of good, squashy ravioli. But the notion of a "tuna kiev" was simply too exciting to pass up, particularly as my boyfriend had eaten a chicken kiev in front of me the evening before while I tucked into a plate of salad (like some clichéd scenario out of a bad rom-com), and left me with serious cravings for oozing garlic butter. Not that one really needs a specific incident to instil serious cravings for garlic butter. As someone with a chronic case of menu-indecision, I was delighted when I was able to choose my dessert without any reservations whatsoever - I find chocolate a bit boring and I absolutely adore gooseberries, so that was that (the poor cheese plate didn't even get a look-in).
Before I could revel in my tuna kiev and native lobster, however, I had a couple of amuse-bouches to work my way through. I've only had such a thing once, in a pretentious restaurant in Oxford that I was "reviewing" for the student paper (oh, how I miss those days). These were infinitely better. First up came a little parmesan tart. You know those classic egg custard tarts? The ones you can buy in supermarkets that have a perfect smooth circle of yellowy egg custard in the centre adorned by a neat scattering of nutmeg or cinnamon? These were like that, only bite-sized, and savoury. They were absolutely incredible. I actually just wished, at that moment in time, I could cancel my kiev and my lobster and just request another plateful of parmesan tarts. The crumbly pastry was slightly sweet, which made the most amazing contrast with the deeply savoury, quivering custard centre. I always think there's a slightly sweet quality about good parmesan, reminiscent of really dark chocolate, and this tart exploited it perfectly.
I feel I should divert from my recollections here to mention quickly that I don't normally photograph food in restaurants. It's one of my absolute pet hates, something I feel quite strongly about. I sometimes google a restaurant before visiting, just so I can gauge whether it's worth parting with my hard-earned cash or whether I'll be sorely disappointed (food-related disappointment is not quite as bad as money-related disappointment, but combine the two and you have a potently tragic mix). I like to read fellow bloggers' reviews, because they're often far more down to earth than those of the upper echelon of restaurant critics, who are used to much more expensive and pretentious fare than I am, and may be highly critical of something that I might actually quite like. But what absolutely spoils everything for me is when I see the grainy, camera-phone photos that the blogger has posted alongside his or her review. I grant that this isn't always the case, but generally if you're taking photos of food in a restaurant, the lighting is going to be terrible, you're probably not fully equipped with flash, lenses and tripod, and consequently the food is never going to look as appetising as it did in the flesh. It's like those awful touristy restaurants you find clustered over Europe, that proudly display hideous, over-saturated, over-exposed photos of their fare outside as if to entice diners, when really all they do is remind one of a kebab van. Photos of food outside a restaurant or on a restaurant menu make me walk away.
For me, part of the excitement of eating out is ordering something and then being pleasantly surprised as the words on the menu are transformed into 3D, into a wonderful edible delight. Not knowing what it's going to look like is all part of the fun; it makes the dish so much more appetising and exciting when it finally arrives. Looking at someone else's dark, blurry photos of every single dish totally ruins the magic. Especially if the dishes are fairly basic-looking, like a salad or pizza. If there's a spectacular-looking dessert that just begs to be captured on film then fair enough, but I really don't appreciate an onslaught of average photos when I just want an idea of whether a restaurant is nice or not.
As I said, this isn't always the case. I've read some bloggers' restaurant reviews where the photos have been excellent, often because the meal took place during the day and the lighting was good. But generally I prefer reviews that let the words speak for themselves, and leave the magic there. However, I completely went against all my own principles this time, mainly because we were sitting outside and the lighting was perfect, and because my boyfriend and I both had our posh cameras with us. That and the food just looked so beautiful I had to get the camera out. Without the photos, in fact, this post would probably not exist, as I've forgotten a lot of the components of my meal (there were about 20 on each plate) and therefore would give an inaccurate representation of the Yorke Arms's food. So I just thought I'd excuse myself, if you too hate seeing photos of restaurant food on blogs. Hopefully these are slightly better than the usual blurry iPhone specimens.
Next up came a small square of truffled goats' cheese with macerated cherries, which explained why I'd been inhaling the delicious scent of truffles for the last few minutes. Cherry and goats' cheese is a combination I've been meaning to try for a while (and did recently, but that's an upcoming post), and I'm glad I had a Michelin-starred chef to show me how it's done. The creamy, tart cheese was delicious paired with the slightly sharp, sweet fruit, and the shavings of truffle gave it a rich earthiness. I was sceptical about the inclusion of truffle, as expensive ingredients can sometimes seem to be included just for show rather than because they contribute anything, but in this case it worked very well.
I should also mention the bread basket, which arrived with the amuse-bouche. When asked how my meal was, the first thing I've been telling people about is the bread basket. Perhaps that's ridiculous, seeing as you don't pay thirty-five pounds for a good bread basket, but it really was amazing. There were several different mini rolls as well as a couple of slices of the best sourdough I've ever tasted, dense and flavoursome, reminding me why it's called sourdough. There was a pumpkin roll, a plain white roll, a multigrain roll, and a couple of others which I've shamefully forgotten but I can tell you that they were all absolutely sublime. They were still warm from the oven, and everything a good piece of bread should be; dense yet light, packed with flavour (which you don't often get with bread), and the perfect receptacle for the olive oil and butter we were given alongside. I hoped the waitress would replenish the bread basket once she saw it was empty, but unfortunately this didn't happen. Black marks for not pandering to my carbohydrate-related gluttony.
Finally, the tuna kiev made an appearance. Although to say that is rather misleading, because it implies that the tuna kiev was the star of the show. In fact, it was a small, unassuming little sausage on a plate bursting with colours and textures: gorgeous generous pieces of seared tuna, brown on the outside and rosy in the centre; a fat little langoustine, buttery and sweet; a smattering of earthy lentils and tomato; a piquant mustard-like sauce. The kiev, as it should, emitted a great flood of butter onto the plate as I cut through it, and was wonderful. I'd never have thought of using tuna to make a kiev, but this was deliciously meaty and moist. I imagine it was fresh tuna, perhaps the offcuts, finely minced and seasoned before being inserted with butter and fried. As with the parmesan tarts, I could have just eaten a whole plateful of those. My boyfriend had the duck and foie gras terrine, which was similarly beautifully presented, adorned with little puckered gooseberries and a soldier of spiced bread (see first photo of post).
Had I been unsatisfied with the seasoning of my sea bass, I could easily have rectified the problem by nipping over to the pot plants on the terrace. It was pungent with rosemary and lavender, which sounds odd but worked quite well with the natural sweetness of the fish, a generous thick fillet perfectly cooked with the crispy skin separated and used to sandwich a blob of what seemed to be lavender jelly to the fish. There was the obligatory scattering of vegetables, which really made me think about the attention to detail that goes into these dishes; the few coins of chargrilled courgette were the best tasting courgettes I've ever eaten, incredibly smoky and sweet, nestled underneath a tangle of salty samphire and studded with fresh, slightly crunchy, peas. The rosemary-scented gnocchi were satisfyingly squidgy, although I would have liked a few more. It became apparently halfway through the main course that I was not going to leave clutching my stomach in a sense of chronic repletion; a few more carbohydrates wouldn't have gone amiss, despite the wonderful bread basket. Everything on the plate was just so good that there wasn't enough; I'd have liked a couple of big bowls of those courgettes and that gnocchi.
That is my only complaint, however, because the fish dish was wonderful. My boyfriend's plate of pig and cow was a rather wintry spectacle, with its dark jus and root veg, but he said the pork was delicious. The liver, however, we both found disgusting. I don't think that's anything to do with Ms Atkins's cooking; I think I just hate liver. It had a disgusting slimy texture and a horrible metallic flavour. I'd never tried it before, apart from in pâté, and figure that if a Michelin-starred chef can't convert me, it's probably something I'm not going to like. Which makes me a little sad, because my list of things I don't eat is very very short (parsnips; yoghurt), and adding something new to it feels a little bit like failure.
Dessert. An ode to the humble and much-maligned gooseberry. There was a square of gooseberry semifreddo, which tasted rather strange, a little too tart, possibly alcohol-ridden, but had an interesting crunchy texture (as the name suggests, it tasted semi-frozen, a bit like biting into a choc-ice straight from the freezer). There was a scoop of what I think was gooseberry sorbet, which was delicious, light and frothy. There was a delicious buttery, caramelly sesame tuile, ideal for scooping up the last of the sorbet. There were the same little raisin-like gooseberries as on the duck terrine starter. There was also a truly wonderful gooseberry frangipane tart. Once again, though, the portion sizes disappointed. I wanted a huge great wedge of that tart and a giant bowl of that sorbet with many many sesame tuiles. Instead, I practically licked the plate clean, to the amusement of the waitress. "Oooh, not much left there!" she chuckled, as she removed our plates.
The simply-titled "plate of chocolate" was a thing of beauty, a veritable playground for chocoholics. There was a mini chocolate fondant with an oozing, molten centre; a teardrop filled with feather-light chocolate ganache and topped with candied orange peel; a deep, dark mini chocolate tart with a rich, creamy centre; and a tiny trio of mousses that looked a little like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream, but tasted about a thousand times better. I think I would have needed a giant cup of tea to help me polish that off, as I'm incapable of eating chocolate without a hot drink. It was beautiful, elegant, refined, and delicious. Had it been my dessert, again, I would have wanted more of certain items (i.e. a huge plateful of artery-clogging chocolate fondant, possibly with some chocolate mousse on the side).
After all this, we declined tea or coffee (a mistake, quickly realised after seeing the adjacent table's coffee arrive with a beautiful plate of petit fours) and sat in the Yorkshire sunshine (a rare thing) while I contemplated the immense complexity and precision of the food I'd just consumed.
My experience at the Yorke Arms actually left me with a strange sense of relief. Part of me wondered if I've been missing out, rarely visiting fancy restaurants, generally preferring the Italian near my boyfriend's house (amazing crab linguine and apple tart) or staying in to cook. Maybe I should devote a greater part of my budget to trying out restaurants, instead of spending it on weird and wonderful ingredients to use in recipes of my own invention, I thought. I was deeply curious about what was out there, about what this "fine-dining" lark was all about, wondering if maybe I should be aiming to eat on a weekly basis in the kind of restaurants I see reviewed in the national papers. However, I left safe in the knowledge that restaurants like the Yorke Arms are the kind of thing best reserved for very special occasions. I enjoyed my meal immensely, but equally I definitely couldn't eat like that on a regular basis (even if I could afford to).
First of all, the simple experience of eating everything is just exhausting. There are so many different items on the plate, so many different flavours and textures, and so little of each, that you really have to concentrate to ensure you're getting the maximum out of every single mouthful - because you've only got about five before the plate is empty. It's all so fiddly, with its tiny little blobs of sauce or pieces of courgette. There were about seven peas on my main course. By the time I'd paired a single pea with each of the other components, they were all gone.
Which brings me to the second thing: I just wanted more of everything. Everything was so damn delicious that I was actually left with a strange feeling of dissatisfaction and longing. I wanted more parmesan tartlets, more lentils with my starter, another of those butter-spurting tuna kievs (or five), many more chargrilled courgette pieces on my main course, a whole bowl of those rosemary gnocchi to accompany my fish, and a giant rustic slice of that gooseberry tart. I know that isn't the point of Michelin cuisine, obviously, but the greedy pig in me was so enamoured with the flavours and textures that I wasn't ready to let go just yet. Unfortunately, I had to, as there was no more. However, the Yorke Arms gets top points for their incredible bread basket. Were it not for that, I would definitely have left hungry. Instead, the bread brought a pleasantly rustic element to the whole eating experience, a reminder that sometimes the simplest things can be the most wonderful, that the chef really does know what people actually like to eat. The parmesan tartlets are another example of that. The flavours were amazing, spot-on, but required rather a lot of concentration to enjoy them fully.
I conclude that eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant is the food lover's equivalent of going to a museum or art gallery. It's a fascinating, almost educative experience. It taught me a great deal about cooking techniques and flavour combinations (the sea bass with rosemary and lavender, for example, was inspired, as was the tuna kiev). It was immensely enjoyable with that slight sense of serious purpose that you get from going to a museum or gallery related to something you're interested in.
It's not really the sort of place you'd go if you'd had a busy, exhausting day and were ravenous - we had contemplated walking the (hilly) five miles to the restaurant and back, and my boyfriend pointed out that it was a good thing we hadn't, because "we'd get there and all we'd want would be a huge pie and mash". He was right: sometimes you're just so hungry that only a big bowl of pasta, a pie, or a steak will suffice. Sometimes you just want a big rustic pile of creamy risotto, or a loaf of bread and some good cheese; arrangements like these have their own kind of beauty, without the need for fancy splodges of sauce or stacks of seared meat. Michelin-starred food is definitely not satisfying in the way all these things are; it's a totally different kind of experience, less about satisfying hunger than satisfying curiosity. But it's the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion, or to linger (our lunch took over two hours) over excellent food with someone important. The service was excellent, friendly but not intrusive; the setting was beautiful; all the little details had been impeccably thought out. The food, despite all my little quibbles, was incredible.
I think that's really the root of the problem: I'm just too greedy to find satisfaction in the highly-styled, minimalistic food that characterises the Michelin-starred restaurant. I'd always want more of it.
All that said, it still left me with a pretty big smile on my face. Many thanks to my dear mother for funding such extravagance.