Baked fig and smoked mozzarella piadina

Generally, as a culture, we're getting to grips pretty well with the idea of street food. It's been the 'next big thing' in gastronomy for a while now, with nomadic vendors of everything from ice cream to burgers, particularly those in London, drawing huge crowds mainly through that potent combination of word of mouth advertising and a half-decent product to sell. I've heard countless stories of an obscure street trader suddenly faced with queues snaking round several streets, packed with people eager to sample his wares, simply because word got out on twitter. Such places are deeply trendy, especially if they start changing location and requiring you to be 'in the know' to actually be able to locate your dinner.

We're also getting increasingly au fait with street food from other countries, which is just as well really, because I don't think the British actually have a famous street food. You can find Thai noodle stalls in most major cities; you can track down the delectably filling Vietnamese banh mi sandwich in your local branch of Eat (which many agree is a curse rather than a blessing); there are countless pseudo-Japanese places offering bowls of slurpy ramen, and burritos are nearly as common parlance as baguettes.

While this is, of course, great news for us travellers-cum-foodlovers, many would argue - correctly I think - that street food away from its street of origin is never quite the same. For starters, a lot of ingredients that are found in abundance in foreign climes just don't exist over here, and those that do are usually exported and inferior in quality and flavour. Fruit and vegetables, for example. Not only are food miles bad for the environment; they're also not great for the taste of the produce either. Fruits and vegetables are picked underripe for easier transportation, and consequently arrive on our home shores barely edible.

The next big issue is cost. Recently I came home from a month in Vietnam, having indulged in gorgeous steaming bowls of beef or chicken noodle soup on an almost daily basis for under £1 a time, to find that the same thing would cost me around £10 to order in a restaurant. And I'd have to go to London to get it, rather than simply turn out of my hotel and be guaranteed to find a pho vendor on the next corner. While I understand that our economy is very different to that of Vietnam, and everything is generally cheaper in South East Asia, it still hurts me and seems against the free, gluttonous, instant-gratification-led spirit of street food to charge prices for it that wouldn't look amiss on a restaurant menu.

Then, of course, there's the fact that it simply isn't the same. Many street food sellers in foreign countries have been making those burritos, noodles or dumplings their entire lives. Their recipes were probably passed on from generation to generation. They have their dish down to a wonderful, delicious art. In Vietnam, I watched women speedily ladling rice batter onto steamers covered with muslin, then deftly rolling the resulting banh cuon pancakes around pork and mushrooms, scattering over fresh herbs and piling them onto a plate. The process took about twenty seconds from start to finish, and was repeated over and over again. They must have made thousands of those pancakes in a single day. Try as you might, you'll never be able to replicate that skill and tradition on the other side of the world. 

Plus, while you can list the obvious ingredients for a street food recipe, down to the last pinch of salt or scattering of spices, there are those hidden ingredients to be considered. The ones that I would argue are equally important. The baking heat of the midday sun. The humidity of the rainy season clinging to the air like a wet teatowel. The dust from the daily onslaught of mopeds speeding past the stall, throwing up fragments of earth. The bustle of the nearby markets, the sheer vibrance of life as it goes on around. Culture is an ingredient one simply can't buy or export, and it changes the flavour of a dish entirely. 

I could order a bowl of pho somewhere in the UK, I'm sure. But eating it on a proper chair, on a proper table, rather than a tiny plastic stool perched in a dingy alleyway corner, without a constant cascade of sweat beading its way down my face and the back of my neck, would just be wrong. It wouldn't taste the same. The whole point of street food is its sheer evocativeness. It is inextricably linked to romanticised, nostalgic holiday memories. Translating it into the harsh, often cold, reality of England is perhaps not such a good idea after all. (That said, given our climate, perhaps a hot bowl of pho is exactly what we should be eating more of...)

However, in this current climate of street-food mania, there's nothing more depressing than spending hedonistic holiday days gorging oneself on cheap and plentiful street food, only to find that your staple of choice is completely untraceable once you get home. While you may be able to find restaurants for every cuisine imaginable in our country nowadays, certain types of street food just don't seem to be able to translate across borders. 

One of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy (and I have eaten a lot in Italy) is a piadina. I first tried this in Turin, where it was basically a tortilla wrap filled with cheese and vegetables and grilled so the cheese melted. It was nice. But then I went to Ravenna, a beautiful city in the Emilia-Romagna region and home to some incredible UNESCO-listed mosaics. Here I found the piadina to be a rather different creature: this was a big flatbread, much thicker and squidgier than a tortilla; in fact, almost like a naan bread. Its soft, supple texture and fluffy crumb is due to the inclusion of pig fat (strutto) in the dough. This is stuffed with a variety of fillings, grilled to melt the filling and toast the outside of the bread, then served in a sleeve of foil. 

This is a photo of me in Ravenna. My smile is entirely due to a diet of piadina, not the fact that I was riding the most ridiculous hire bike in the world.

Oh, if I could only go back and eat one thing from my travels to Italy, it would probably be that. The combination of toasty yet squidgy bread with its molten filling is beyond tasty. A favourite combination for the piadina is that classic Italian triumvirate of prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket, but there were other delightful fillings too, mostly based around a cheese-meat-rocket combination (gorgonzola and bresaola, for instance, which is salty salty heaven).

My favourite, and something I still dream about a little bit, was a mixture of squacquerone cheese and caramelised figs. The cheese - pronounced s-quack-er-oh-nay - is a soft, spreadable cheese with a slightly lumpy texture. It has a very mild, creamy flavour with a bit of a tang to it. The taste is actually reminiscent of Dairylea cheese, those awful processed triangles I used to love as a kid, but this is a million miles from that. The figs are a big thing in the Emilia-Romagna region. They appear in huge, dark vats in delis, flecked with their nutty seeds and all clumped and tangled together into one delicious, sugary mass. I imagine they're cooked for hours in some kind of sugar syrup, possibly with some balsamic vinegar to add that acidity. Their flavour is so strong it tastes almost alcoholic. Coupled with the mild cheese, they are gorgeous. Add some Parma ham, and you may as well never eat anything else again.

I can't understand why piadina hasn't travelled over here. It's the perfect street food - quick to make, filling, involving pig fat, and with all sorts of potential for different delicious combinations of flavours. To this day I lament the fact that I can't find it here. So when Crosta & Mollica, makers of authentic Italian breads, announced a new addition to their range -  packs of piadana breads (also known as piada) made in Emilia Romagna - memories of that cheese/fig combo flooded my mind and I just had to have a go at recreating it. 

I should point out straight away that this is definitely not the same as the piadina in Ravenna. This is much closer to the type I tried in Turin. It's thicker than a tortilla wrap, and more pliable, but definitely not the squidgy, lard-enriched beast of Ravenna. Because of this, it's ideal for warming and filling with whatever you like. I shouldn't really have teased you with that enticing description of the fluffy pork-fat bread, only to tell you that it's still a maddeningly distant prospect, but this is the next best thing.

Although I do have a jar of fichi caramellati from Emilia-Romagna, I had some baked figs left over in my fridge (as you do - recipe coming shortly). I went to the wonderful cheese shop in York on the off chance that they'd have squacquerone, but was (predictably) disappointed - I've never managed to find it in the UK; I imagine because it's soft and mild it doesn't travel well, like fresh ricotta. However, I did find some smoked mozzarella which was a bit exciting, and decided to use that. Most cheeses work well with figs, though - you could go strong, with a nice gorgonzola, cheddar, pecorino or stilton, or mild, with some ricotta, buffalo mozzarella or taleggio. I put the piada bread in a dry, hot frying pan and scattered half of it with sliced cheese, sliced figs, some pea shoots for crunch (rocket would also have worked0, and some lemon thyme (works so well with cheese and figs). 

As I'd hoped, the cheese started to melt. Once the bread had softened, I folded the unfigged half over the filling and flipped it over, to toast the other side. The result was a deeply satisfying combination of toasty, crunchy flatbread with gooey, smokey cheese and sweet crunchy figs. It was very reminiscent of a quesadilla, that Mexican toasted tortilla sandwich. 

It's been too long since I had melted cheese between pieces of bread. I feel this needs to become a regular fixture in my life.

I'm not going to give a recipe for this, because it's so straightforward. Get yourself a pack of Crosta & Mollica piada flatbreads (they stock them in Waitrose and Ocado). Put one in a hot, dry frying pan. Scatter your choice of filling over half the bread. Some suggestions for fillings:

Goat's cheese and roasted red peppers with a scattering of basil
Rare roast beef and stilton or gorgonzola
Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, with some sliced tomatoes
Smoked salmon and cream cheese
Smoked cheddar and caramelised apples
Turkey, brie and cranberry

Once the cheese starts to melt a bit, fold the bare half of bread over the filling. Flip the whole thing over and toast the other side. Remove, cut in half, and eat with your hands. Relish the contrast in textures and temperatures. 

Then start saving up for a plane ticket to Ravenna, so you can try the real thing. Because, as with all street food, it's just not the same otherwise. 

Five things I love this week #3

There's a definite autumnal feel to my 'five things' this week; that much is evident from the muted beige tones of these photos. After a wonderfully warm October, I think I'm finally ready to embrace the onset of autumn, and all the delicious produce it brings with it. 

1. Wild mushroom and truffle risotto. I've been craving risotto ever since I had a beautiful starter at the Yorke Arms last week: truffled partridge boudin with ceps and carnaroli rice. The rice was a gorgeous risotto-like concoction, heady with the musky fragrance of truffle, the rice still with a little bite to it, creamy and savoury and incredibly delicious. I couldn't ignore my truffle/risotto cravings any longer, and succumbed with this lovely recipe. 

It's a standard risotto to which I added chopped chestnut mushrooms when frying the onion and garlic; I also used soaked porcini mushrooms and added their soaking water to the chicken stock used to plump up the rice. The risotto is finished off with some pan-fried girolle and shiitake mushrooms (shockingly expensive, but a nice little luxury, and so much more interesting to eat and look at than standard mushrooms), a drizzle of truffle oil, lots of lemon thyme leaves and a hefty grating of parmesan. Savoury, umami-rich wonderfulness. 

2. Pumpkins and winter squash. It's easy to just pick up the knee-jerk butternut when planning winter squash recipes, but the other day I discovered these beauties at the farmers market. I think the pale blue one is a Crown Prince squash; the others I'm not too sure about. 

I cut them all into chunks (risking life and limb and a hernia in the process; who needs a gym when you can spend an evening hacking your way through an unyielding orb of orange?) and roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lots of chopped fresh rosemary. They softened into intensely flavoursome, sweet, fudgy deliciousness. Their flesh was much more dense and full-flavoured than your standard butternut squash, while the skin went beautifully dark and caramelly. 

I served them alongside roast partridge (recipe to come) and also mixed them with some couscous, feta and cherry tomatoes for a salad. Winter squash are great with anything salty, like bacon, feta or goats cheese. The possibilities are pretty much endless. I'm definitely going to seek out different kinds of squash in future (and perhaps an axe to chop them with). 

3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.

4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.

5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.

While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.

Altamura bread, fresh figs, ricotta and smoked prosciutto

"For water is sold here, though the worst in the world; but their bread is exceeding fine, inasmuch as the weary traveller is used to carry it willingly on his shoulders" ~ Horace

It's dark outside while I'm cooking dinner. I've bought a sexy new pair of black suede ankle boots with a fur trim. My electric blanket is, without fail, switched on every night at 10pm. There are cooking apples, plump and red-tinged, burdening the branches of the apple tree that overhangs our garden. There are even more of them lying, half-rotten, on the lawn, reminding me to get off my backside and do something about drying them into foamy rings, or turning them into jam or crumble. The blackberries have been and gone, leaving crinkled little green stumps where once there were glossy, dark, edible treasures. I feel the need for my favourite pair of thick, lilac knitted socks when I'm just lounging around the house. A new series of Spooks is underway. I've started thinking about my Christmas list and - more excitingly - soaking the fruit to make the Christmas cake a couple of months in advance. My cotton dresses and harem pants have been relegated to the 'summer clothes' bag in the loft, to be replaced with Ugg boots, knitwear and leggings. I have to put my dressing gown on every morning just to survive the journey from bed to bathroom. 

I feel I may soon have to accept that autumn is well and truly underway.

How do people who aren't interested in food cope with the onset of autumn?

I can bear the chill weather and the prospect of long, dark days because partridge and pheasant have started appearing in the butchers. Quinces, some of the most handsome I've ever seen, are piled high in the market. Small but perfectly formed crisp English apples - orange-scented Coxes and my favourite, the flavoursome Russet - bring a welcome change from the ubiquitous (and foreign) Pink Lady. Butternut squash, one of my favourite vegetables, will soon be everywhere, its sweet, sticky, golden flesh promising a plethora of delicious uses. I can finally cook the eight pigs' cheeks sitting in my freezer, braising them for hours in a sticky concoction of orange juice and star anise that will be just the thing to provide some cheer on a dark evening. Fine English pears are abundant, just waiting to be baked in crumbles or cakes, or scattered over my morning porridge with an obscene amount of nutmeg. As are some wonderful varieties of plum, so much juicier and taster than foreign imports, ideal baked with cinnamon and ginger for a warming breakfast or dessert. Earthy wild mushrooms will be somewhere, if I can just find them, ideal for coupling with fresh, zesty lemon thyme for an umami-rich risotto. I can't wait to take my potato ricer to some good old-fashioned floury potatoes, to make a rich mash to accompany a beef and ale stew.

Without all that to look forward to, I think I'd consider hibernation.

If you know anything about anything, or have any sort of taste whatsoever, you will of course have noticed the glaring omission from the above list.


I've devoted many words on this blog to the rapturous praise of figs. Every time I find myself bulk-buying them, I try and figure out precisely what it is that makes me so obsessed. I have come up with several answers.

1. Figs are beautiful. There's no fruit quite like them; the closest comparison would be a pomegranate, I think. With their beautiful red-pink interior, bursting with glistening clusters of golden seeds, their delightful deep purple skins, tinged slightly with green, and their curvaceous form, just begging to be held in the palm of one's hand, they are incomparable in their aesthetic appeal.

2. Figs are versatile. My favourite fruits are those that work as well in a savoury context as a sweet. Figs tick all the boxes. Wonderful baked with a little sugar or honey, or tucked into an almond tart for a dessert, they are equally delicious added to the cooking juices of duck, pork or lamb before serving. Juicy warm figs coupled with the rich meat of a slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a pan-fried duck breast is one of the best taste sensations you will ever try. Ditto figs with parma ham or goat's cheese. In fact, most cheeses, and most meats. Like pomegranate seeds, they add a wonderful burst of sweetness that is subtle enough not to overpower other savoury flavours.

3. Figs are elusive. Like a child, I want that which I cannot have. Figs appear for such a sadly brief season, and even then are rarely cheap. However, like the equally elusive Alphonso mango, I justify the cost because I am an epicurean at heart, and fully believe that money spent on good food is money well spent. So what if I spent approximately £60 on Alphonso mangoes over the summer months? (Oh dear...I think it might actually have been closer to £80, and now that I think about it that really does seem obscene). Well, I don't really buy inferior supermarket mangoes at £1-2 each for the rest of the year, so I'm only spending in one go what I'd spent in smaller stages year-round otherwise. Or something. Yes, OK, I concede that maybe that's too much to spend on mangoes. Moving swiftly on...

One of my favourite ways to enjoy figs - though now the season is in full swing I'm going to be experimenting with more - is combined with one, or both, of the following: Parma ham, and goat's cheese. After a delicious bruschetta I had at Polpo recently, I was inspired to try ricotta instead of goat's cheese. I've developed a bit of a fetish for ricotta ever since I started making my own (recipe here). Its crumbly, grainy texture and slight sweetness make it a wonderful match for nearly every fruit. I've been enjoying it with mangoes and peaches on toast for breakfast all summer. 

Sometimes I try to be healthy and enjoy this dashing triumvirate of cheese, figs and ham in salad form, usually with lentils because leaves alone cannot satiate me enough to last until dinner (actually, neither can lentils - I'll always have some sort of mid-afternoon snack...). This was my virtuous plan for the week, until fate undid all my good intentions and supplied me with some of the best bread to ever pass my lips.

Altamura bread is made in Altamura, in the region of Apulia, southern Italy. It's famous within the country as one of the finest and oldest types of bread, so much so that it was the first baking product in Europe to be granted a DOP certificate; it uses yeast, grain, water and salt from within the region only. It's dense, with a thick crust and yellowish interior from the use of durum wheat. It last a surprisingly long time - at least 15 days - given the lack of chemical preservatives. Altamura is famous for this bread, and has been for centuries - the poet Horace described it as "exceeding fine".

Crosta & Mollica, makers of quality regional Italian breads, have brought Altamura bread to the UK (they sell their products in Waitrose, Selfridges and Ocado). Their bread is made using 100% local durum wheat, and has been baked by the Forte family in Altamura for over 50 years. I am eternally grateful to them for giving me my first taste of this incredible bread.

Altamura has quite a lot in common with sourdough. It lasts a long time, toasts well, has a satisfyingly crisp crust and a slightly sour crumb. Crosta & Mollica suggest using it for bruschetta, and I can't think of a bread that would work better. I topped mine, toasted, with ricotta cheese, slices of smoked Parma ham (I found this in M&S and am wondering where it has been all my life - the posh person's bacon, it's rich and deeply flavoured, a substitute for Parma ham with a certain je ne sais quoi), warm halved figs, and a little basil.

Oh, what a lunch. While ricotta, Parma ham and figs are always a good idea, putting them on this bread transformed a good lunch into a great one. The bread had just the right balance between a really crisp, crunchy crust and a yielding crumb with a slight tang to it. It's hard to describe what makes it so good, but I'd really urge you to try it. It's not hugely cheap, at £1.79 for a packet of five slices, but the slices are very large ones. I'd love to see what a full loaf looks like (and by that I mean "I'd love to eat a full loaf of this bread. In one go. With figs and cheese and ham, sitting on an Italian hilltop watching the sun go down, with a good glass of wine"). Each slice would probably constitute one meal for a normal person. I, being greedy, had two slices per lunch (which means, annoyingly, that I now have one slice left in the packet that I don't know what to do with - I personally think packs of six slices would be a better idea, but that I suppose is irrelevant).

I won't insult your intelligence by posting an exact recipe for this combination. Instead I suggest you head down to Waitrose and get a packet of Crosta & Mollica's Altamura bread (or, if you can't find it, some really good sourdough). Put it under the grill until nicely toasted on both sides - put the figs under the grill too, to heat through. Spread with ricotta, then layer over a few slices of smoked Parma ham (or normal Parma ham). Halve the figs with your fingers and place on the ham, using a knife to sort of spread them out so they cover the ham and cheese. Add a few leaves of basil.

Devour, and be glad for the rich bounty of autumn and Italy.

Seared duck breast with figs and red wine

There are few culinary events more rewarding than slicing a perfectly cooked duck breast into thick slices. The way the knife meets resistance as it hits the golden, crispy skin, flecked with crunchy pieces of dried herbs; the springiness of the grainy meat underneath; the way the pink juices pool in the centre of each slice, promising a mouthful packed with flavour. It looks beautiful fanned out in slices across a mound of creamy mashed potato. Duck is definitely one of my favourite meats; it's gamey and rich in flavour but lacking the dryness that is characteristic of some game; there's a wonderful contrast in texture between the crispy, fatty skin and the moist, rare meat; and it is strong enough in flavour to partner fruit, which goes perfectly with its richness and guarantees a good meal, in my opinion. 

Duck breasts in the freezer, some rather sad-looking figs in the fruit bowl, celeriac languishing in the vegetable drawer, half a bottle of red wine to use up in the cupboard. An occasion where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts:

It's probably one of my easier recipes but also one of my favourites, and pretty good considering it occurred to me halfway through a swim yesterday morning. The first thing to do is put the mash on: chop a baking potato and half a celeriac into cubes and boil until tender. While doing this, slash the skin of the duck breasts and rub all over with a mixture of dried sage, fennel seeds and dried/fresh thyme (you can do this several hours in advance for more flavour). Season. Get a pan quite hot and add a splash of olive oil and a knob of butter. When it is bubbling, put in the duck breasts, skin-side down. Press down - you will hear the most incredibly satisfying sizzling noise. Cook for a couple of minutes until the skin is crispy, then flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Then put the duck in a preheated oven, at around 180C. It's hard to give timings because it depends on how rare you like your meat - the easiest thing to do is to take it out after a few minutes and cut into it to check the done-ness - you'll be slicing it anyway so it doesn't matter. I like mine quite bloody, but not everyone has my vampiric tendencies when it comes to meat.

To the hot duck pan, add a couple of sprigs of thyme and splash of red wine. Again, that beautiful sizzling noise will occur, steam will rise, the wine will bubble and the kitchen will be full of the smell of duck and wine - no bad thing. Put some figs, halved, into the pan along with a teaspoon of honey and some salt and pepper, and let the sauce bubble up and soften them for a few minutes (you may need to turn the heat down). Keep tasting the sauce - you may need to add more honey, or more pepper, or more salt, depending on how it tastes. A knob of butter is nice stirred into it too, though there's probably enough flavour there from the duck fat.

When the potatoes and celeriac are tender, drain and mash. I add a bit of creme fraiche and lots of salt, pepper and nutmeg to mine. Spread the mash out on a plate. Take the duck out of the oven when it is done to your liking and slice widthways. Don't waste any of the juices on the chopping board - pour them back into the fig pan and stir.

Finally, place the figs around the duck, and pour the jus over. Garnish with fresh thyme.

You could use pears and white wine, or even oranges, French-style. The important point is the contrast between the rich, gamey meat and jus and the lighter, sweeter fruit, brought together by the earthy notes of celeriac in the mash (though normal mash would be fine too). This really is good.

Also, many thanks to my exceptional boyfriend and duck-eating companion for the beautiful photos.

A much-needed autumnal dose of sweetness and spice

Again, more dishes that have autumn written all over them. Not just in their golden and caramel colouring, but also in their rich stickiness and sweetness. I see no reason for not including fruit in two out of a meal's three courses, particularly when the cold weather comes around and you need the sugar to revitalise your spirits. 

To begin with, though, a mushroom, bacon and cheese tart. I can't take credit for this - it was kindly made by my lovely friend Jonny. Cooked mushrooms, pieces of bacon, grated cheese, and chopped parsley, all on a buttery flaky pastry base. I could probably have just eaten this and nothing else for dinner.

To follow, braised pork, Eastern-European style. This is wonderful and perfect for a chilly evening. Cubes of pork shoulder are braised with onion, celery, thyme, bay, cider, mixed spice, and dried fruit (prunes, figs, apples and cranberries) soaked in cold tea, until the meat is tender and falling apart. I always think the best part of a casserole is when the meat comes apart in strings as you pull it with a fork. What really makes the dish though is the addition of brown sugar and vinegar, giving it a sweet-and-sour flavour that fits perfectly with the rich meat. It really is fantastic and takes very little effort. Lovely served with brown rice to soak up the sticky sauce. This may join lamb tagine at the top of my "favourite stews" list. I can't resist the combination of fruit and meat, particularly when the sweet and savoury elements marry as well together as they do in this.

Finally, a fig tarte tatin (see first photo). This is a Nigel Slater recipe and an attempt to enjoy one of my favourite fruits before they go out of season. It involves a very crumbly pastry made with a large ratio of butter to flour, and a couple of egg yolks. First you melt some butter and brown sugar in an ovenproof frying pan, then add some halved figs and cook for a couple of minutes. Then roll the pastry out into a circle and press down over the figs before putting the pan in the oven for half an hour or so. The result is amazing: a buttery, thick pastry base into which have soaked all the syrupy, sticky, fruity, caramelly juices from the figs and butter. There is immense satisfaction to be had from the moment when, after removing the pan from the oven, you put a plate over the top and flip it over to reveal the golden stickiness that is the caramelised fruit on top.

I also made a vanilla yoghurt ice cream to go with it, which involved mixing vanilla yoghurt with icing sugar and churning it in the ice cream machine. It has a slight sourness which is good with the very sweet figs, though vanilla ice cream would be nice too, or creme fraiche. 

Autumn fruits and their perfect partners

I was going to start this post by declaring that I am a happier person when both figs and quinces can be found in the market. However, I realise that is not strictly true. I am, in fact, a more anxious person - anxious that their short season will be over before I can exploit them to their full potential. I've already devoted at least two whole posts to the magnificence of such fruits - they seem exotic and otherworldly, somehow, yet both grow quite happily on our own English soil - so will spare you the raptures. Instead, I will write about a meal that did actually make me a happier person, comprising as it did both figs and quinces and ticking another of the "things I want to try with figs and quinces" list. 

I set out for the market intending to purchase a nice fat chicken with which to make a fig and walnut tagine. Unfortunately, lack of said chicken meant I had to compromise. I would go as far as to say that this was in fact infinitely better than compromise - it was improvement. I ended up with a shoulder of lamb on the bone, a cut I don't normally use, preferring to use diced shoulder in a tagine or casserole. However, I figured I could still incorporate elements of the originally intended tagine: I rubbed the lamb with saffron, cinnamon and ginger mixed with olive oil. It went in a hot (240C) oven for 15 minutes and then I turned it down to 160C and let it cook away for a couple of hours. How long exactly I am not sure - as long as it took for me to read a few pages of Gifford's Dialogue Concerning Witches and decide that it was too late in the day to be reading annoying early modern script where all the S's look like Fs.

Next, some couscous stirred up with the seeds of half a pomegranate. The pomegranates I found at the market today are truly fine specimens, infinitely better than the watery, pale pink and slightly bitter versions I've been putting up with so far this autumn. The seeds of these have a real sweet sourness to them and are a beautiful vibrant colour. I also put some crumbled walnuts into the couscous. For the last five minutes of cooking, I put some halved figs into the roasting tray with the lamb and drizzled over some honey. The shredded lamb meat went in with the couscous with the figs on the side. They had turned molten and scarlet, almost the colour of the pomegranate seeds, and went beautifully with the lamb. I'd forgotten how much I love lamb shoulder cooked on the bone; the meat is sublime and so versatile. 

For dessert. something from the new Nigel Slater book, Tender II. This book is enough to bring me to the verge of tears because I don't have Mr Slater's metabolism. There are enough recipes for pies, crumbles and tarts in there to guarantee I'd never see my hipbones again. How he manages it, I really don't know, especially because he recommends serving everything with "cream: thick, yellow, unpasteurised". The photo for the recipe of "soft quinces under a crisp crust" simply looked too good to resist.

Said crisp crust is a mixture of brown sugar, flour, butter, brown breadcrumbs and ground almonds. It is a bit like the pear betty topping I made a few weeks ago; much crunchier and more buttery than a traditional crumble topping, I think it will be my new blanket with which to wrap up warm fruits. The quinces are sauteed into soft, golden tenderness with butter, sugar and lemon juice and then baked under the crumble for half an hour or so. I put a pear in with the quinces just for a difference in flavour and texture. They go rather well together, which makes sense, seeing as they are quite similar in shape. 

I must say, however, that the task of peeling, halving, quartering, coring and slicing four large quinces is enough to mean I probably don't need to do any arm-based weightlifting at the gym tomorrow. Especially with a blunt knife. I can almost see why so many people overlook these fine fruits: preparation is a faff and a half. 

But so, so worth it, however, when you bite into that mouthful of perfumed, buttery, juicy fruit and its crunchy topping, with hints of treacle from the dark brown sugar used and little nuggets of toasted breadcrumb. I might have to make this one again; it is beautiful. As are its colours, which I think look like autumn in a bowl.

So there we have it. Two of my favourite things, and some excellent other things with which to partner them to maximise their full potential. Delicious.

A duck salad, and more figs

This is one of those "put many of my favourite things in a bowl together, stir, and hope it tastes nice" recipes. Couscous, parsley, fresh mint, coriander, pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachios, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and then the shredded meat from roasted duck legs, tossed with more pomegranate molasses before adding it to the couscous. It's delicious. Sliced rare duck breast would work well too, as would lamb. 

For dessert, poached figs and ice cream. These specimens were not quite luscious enough to eat raw with cheese, but simmering them for five minutes in a syrup of honey, saffron, orange flower water and cinnamon rendered them rather lovely.