Monday 31 January 2011

Review The Flavour Thesaurus

This is not a recipe book, although it does contain recipes. Author Niki Segnit has devised a flavour wheel (divided into segments like a colour wheel) made up of sections for different ‘flavour families’ – such as ‘Green & Grassy’, ‘Citrussy’ and ‘Floral Fruity’. Each of these sections gives examples of foods in that category, so under ‘Mustardy’ you get watercress, capers, and horseradish; under ‘Creamy Fruity’ there are banana, peach, coconut and mango, among others. The bulk of the book comprises exhaustive lists of the ways in which two different flavours can be paired together.
So, on the flavour wheel, you find anchovies listed in the ‘Brine & Salt’ section, and adjacent to oily fish in the ‘Marine’ section. Turn to the  chapter on anchovies and you’ll find descriptions and recipe examples for anchovies paired with cauliflower, anchovies paired with lemon, paired with beef, with sage, and so on. All the classic double acts are in here: tomatoes + basil, pork + shellfish, cabbage + bacon, peas + mint. There are also lesser known pairings: lamb + dill in the Greek soup mageiritsa, or Sauce Maltaise, the Hollandaise sauce made with blood orange juice instead of lemon and created to be paired with asparagus.
The result makes for (possibly surprisingly) compulsive reading – and extremely satisfying for a list-obsessive such as myself.  The treatment could have been dull, but Niki writes in a bright and breezy style with plenty of good throwaway lines (“The only drawback to lamb and artichoke stew is having to peel and chop globe artichokes. You end up looking as if you’ve been playing pat-a-cake with Edward Scissorhands”).  It’s not all superficial though: there are some lovely turns of phrase – she describes the flavour of cloves as ‘like sucking on a sweet, rusty nail’, and likens the ‘faint metallic tang’ in watercress and blue cheese to letting ‘the tines of your fork linger in your mouth a moment too long’. She also gives a brief recipe for Asturian fabada, under black pudding + pork, which she calls ‘astonishingly delicious’, which is just fine by me.

Niki Segnit

Thursday 20 January 2011

Review: A Taste Of The Unexpected

Mark Diacono specialises in ‘climate change’ crops at Otter Farm in Devon and is also head gardener for River Cottage. His premise in A Taste Of The Unexpected is that too many of us grow potatoes, cabbages and onions when there is no real need to do so: they are cheap and plentiful in the shops and we could be spending our time and labour on fruit and veg which is unobtainable elsewhere. I think this rather glosses over why people grow the crops they do but it certainly chimes with my own ideas on what to grow.
Mark writes engagingly with enthusiasm for flavours and scents – there are some gorgeously sensual descriptions of scrunching up leaves in your hands and tasting the produce . The author also does a good job of making a case for the inclusion of each fruit/vegetable here. It would be too easy to write about crops just because they were unusual. Here each one has to earn its place on the page. Peaches and nectarines, for examples, are included because “unless you’ve grown your own, or had the fortune of being in an Italian peach orchard in the summer, you have yet to enjoy all that a peach has to offer”. Even so I would on the whole have liked to see more on the culinary uses of the produce included here. I feel a bit as though not enough is made of the unique properties of, say, Chilean guava, or Carolina allspice: more is said about how they can be used in place of other more familiar ingredients.
I also succumbed to the combined pleasure/annoyance of seeing vegetables I already grow in here. Admittedly a somewhat smug pleasure: Ha! – I already know about romanesco cauliflower , borlottis and globe artichokes too. The annoyance is that I no longer have exclusive bragging rights over the quinces (and look, he has medlars too, s’not fair). Actually I would have found this book useful for the section on kai lan alone. From the description and the pictures, I am certain that this is the same plant that I grow as kaaillan, but Mark Diacono seems to get so much more from the crop that I do (Cut and come again? Survives the winter?). Intrigued, I will be following his growing instructions to the letter this year and will hopefully boost my yield to something approaching his.
I also like the fact that guidelines for sowing, care and harvesting are kept concise and simple. And although he makes gardening sound like an easy no-brainer activity, it’s probably not a book for the raw beginner  - even though The Directory section gives information as basic as a list of gardening tools needed.
I’ll be using this book: it’s made me think about Szechuan peppers and those wineberries, and I think it’s convinced to dump the cabbages as well.

A Taste Of The Unexpected
Mark Diacono
Quadrille Publishing Ltd

Thursday 6 January 2011

Bramble clearance: starting from scratch

After the relief of finding most crops unaffected, it’s time to get going with this winter’s Big Task: clearing the bramble hedge. This has been on my to-do list since October and while there’s no doubt other jobs were more urgent, there is a strong whiff of procrastination about this.
The boundary on one side of my plot is almost entirely taken up with brambles. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the brambles covered around two-thirds of the plot when I took it on seven years ago and I cleared it back to the edge to provide a useful windbreak – it’s on the west wide of the plot. Equally usefully, it gives me large juicy sweet blackberries every year, although the hedge has now grown and spread so much that it now produces far, far more blackberries than we could ever hope to eat, even when I coerce half the neighbourhood to come and help me pick them. 

This year, the hedge began encroaching on the adjacent vegetable beds. I hadn’t realised quite how unwieldy it had become until I realised that the paths between the beds and the hedge were now completely overgrown which means the hedge was now 2m wide. Room for another bed in there, my plot neighbour observed. Room for my nascent orchard, I thought. My son wants a cherry tree, I want a greengage and we’re running out of space.

The middle section of the hedge is cleared - still needs digging out.

Hence the clearance plan. The hedge is 12m long. So I intend to dig out the middle 4m entirely – slightly perverse, but the middle section has always for some reason had the least juicy blackberries and is also more accessible from the paths on the plot – and plant the new fruit trees there. The cherry tree is on Gisela rootstock, so we’re looking at around 3m high at maturity (so says the RHS here); the greengage will be on Pixy, I think. Then, this year, I will cut the top 4m section right down to the base and put in proper strong stakeposts and wires so that this year’s growth can be properly trained. The bottom 4m can be trimmed to keep it away from the parsnip bed but left to fruit again this year before it gets the back-to-base post ‘n’ wires treatment next winter.
This means this year’s crop will be reduced by two-thirds. I doubt we’ll even notice.

Monday 3 January 2011

Happy new year

My first ‘proper’ trip to the allotment this year was heartening. A four-inch blanket of snow insulated most crops and while the outer leaves of Swiss chard and spinach are unappealingly brown and slimy, there is encouraging new growth coming through in the middle – thankfully as these two usually keep us going through the ‘hungry’ weeks in February and March. The chicory and radicchio look pretty horrible as well, but when I peel back the mushy, frostbitten layers there are healthy pink hearts underneath. I’m thinking they could go into a tart with some of the leeks and some blue cheese.
The greatest number of casualties is in the brassica bed. Many of the purple sprouting broccoli plants have been flattened by the weight of snow on the net covering them – although thankfully, I don’t think any of the main stems have snapped as they did last year – and the mature Savoys are browned and soft. The calabrese looks dead as well: no sign of any recovering growth here.
I dug up parsnips and the very last of the pink fir apple potatoes. The parsnips taste wonderful after the prolonged freeze: sweet abd fragrant instead of that soapy flavour they have early in the season. The potatoes are remarkably unharmed: there’s a bit more slug damage than there was back in November and just as I was thinking that the potatoes were generally smaller this year than last, I found some utter whoppers under the last haulm right at the end of the row. I love these baked whole, or roasted, especially if I can mix them with some of the parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes, since a cold, wet January is hardly the time for potato salad.