Seeking Chicks and Finding Elderflowers

The pot­ter Edmund de Waal, author of the mem­oir The Hare With Amber Eyes, describes his favour­ite Japan­ese net­suke, or mini­ature sculp­tures, as ones where you can ‘feel the wear’. They’re the ones that have ‘been changed by being handled; they’ve had a life, and a his­tory, and been knocked around and rubbed away.…’

I was just think­ing that my favour­ite people could be described in exactly the same way when I got a mes­sage from my very clever friend. If you’ve been read­ing Eggs on the Roof over the months you will know that she’s my neigh­bour who grows end­less amounts of deli­cious things, appar­ently effort­lessly, in a garden that can best be described as bucolic. The brief mes­sage said 3 chicks now. Newly-hatched chick­ens soun­ded worth see­ing, so I stopped think­ing about people who’ve had a life and star­ted think­ing about creatures just about to embark on theirs.

Trail­ing through the orch­ard at this time of year is like inhab­it­ing the pages of a Laurie Lee novel. The chicks were ludicrously cute and barely an hour old.

As they were tucked back under­neath their mother to keep warm, my eye was drawn to a trio of frothy, flor­idly pink bushes in the orchard.

They’re eld­er­flowers,’ said my v.c.f. ‘Would you like some?’ I had no idea that eld­er­flowers came in bubble-gum pink and the answer was ‘of course I would’. Although I’m ter­rible at grow­ing things, I love turn­ing what she grows into some­thing worth eat­ing or drinking.

In Oxford later in the day I bumped into three friends in quick suc­ces­sion. I asked each of them if they had a favour­ite eld­er­flower cor­dial recipe ‘because’, I boas­ted, ‘I have pink eld­er­flowers’. Know­ing what an incom­pet­ent gardener I am, each asked if I was quite sure that I wasn’t about to poison myself by try­ing to cook rhodo­den­drons or camel­lias. They may have faith in my culin­ary skills, but not my hor­ti­cul­tural ones.

The recipe I devised is a little bit of Alison’s, a touch of Richard’s, a smat­ter­ing of Anwen’s and a sprink­ling of my own. The flowers were pink… but would the cor­dial be?

Eld­er­flower Cordial

  • 20 eld­er­flower heads
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 1.7 kg sugar
  • 50g cit­ric acid
  • 4 unwaxed lemons

Tap the flower heads before you pick them, to get rid of dust and any insects. You don’t need to wash them. Put them in a large ceramic bowl. Boil the water in a pan and add the sugar and cit­ric acid. Take off the heat and stir until the crys­tals are com­pletely dis­solved. Thinly slice the lem­ons, add them to the bowl and tip the water and sugar solu­tion over the top.

Stir, cover lightly and allow to steep for 24 hours. Strain through a sieve and muslin cloth and pour into ster­il­ised bottles. I filled five 50cl plastic water bottles. One is in the fridge, four are in the freezer for another day.

The day that began with chicks ended very hap­pily with the flash­i­est, show­i­est eld­er­flower cor­dial I’ve ever seen. And yes, it’s PINK.

Now-ness Pitta

I’m on the hunt for now-ness or the glor­ies of the present tense. It’s a trans­port­ing concept, expressed mag­ni­fi­cently by the play­wright Den­nis Pot­ter in his final inter­view. He was already griev­ously ill and as he laboured to fin­ish writ­ing Cold Laz­arus and Karaoke, he glimpsed the plum tree out­side his window.

…it is the whitest, froth­i­est, blos­somest blos­som that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more import­ant than they ever were, and the dif­fer­ence between the trivial and the import­ant doesn’t seem to mat­ter. But the now­ness of everything is abso­lutely wondrous.’

I’ve exper­i­enced now­ness twice this week. One was import­ant, the other per­haps trivial; but as Den­nis Pot­ter said ‘the dif­fer­ence between the trivial and the import­ant doesn’t seem to mat­ter.’ Last night I atten­ded the Oxford Cham­ber Music Fest­ival spring con­cert. Priya Mitchell, Lars Anders Tomter and David Cohen per­formed Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­ations arranged for string trio. Played on violin, viola and cello instead of the cus­tom­ary harp­si­chord, it’s a work of exquis­ite fra­gil­ity and del­ic­acy. The set­ting was an Oxford­shire barn, its rick­ety walls lit­er­ally lined with his­tory in the form of reclaimed wood pan­el­ling from Glyn­dbourne Opera. It was cold, it was drafty, but the now­ness was exquis­ite — the per­fect present tense. And it was ‘abso­lutely wondrous’.

Earlier this week I pre­pared the easi­est, quick­est sup­per. The only remotely com­plic­ated part was mak­ing fresh pitta. Much like my DIY Miso Soup, it’s a meal to assemble at the table. Per­haps because the recipe evolves as you eat it, we exper­i­enced a per­fect moment of liv­ing in the minute.

Now-Ness Pitta

Roast a chicken — my stand­ard method is to stuff it with a lemon I’ve pierced sev­eral times with a fork, cram masses of fresh tar­ragon and thyme under the skin, sprinkle with plenty of salt and black pep­per and brush with a gen­er­ous amount of extra vir­gin olive oil.

Pre­pare a vari­ety of raw veget­ables to stuff the pitta with. I prefer car­rot, radish, pea shoots, avo­cado, spring onion and sweet red pep­pers. I also opt for a good dol­lop of may­on­naise, but my chil­dren prefer hum­mus. Either is good, but not both. A fin­ish­ing flour­ish which is also excel­lent is a whole baked head of gar­lic. You can add this to the chicken tray for the last thirty minutes of cook­ing. The soft gar­lic spread into the pitta is delicious.

For the pitta bread — makes 10–12

1 heaped tea­spoon quick action dried yeast

1 heaped tea­spoon caster sugar

300ml warm water

450g plain white flour

1 table­spoon finely ground sea salt

1 table­spoon extra vir­gin oil­ive oil

Com­bine the yeast, sugar and water in a large bowl and leave for a few minutes to form bubbles. Add the flour, salt and oil and knead the mix­ture together in the bowl for ten minutes. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for about two hours.

Pre­heat the oven to its highest set­ting which will be around 240 degrees C. It sounds alarm­ingly hot, but you need that level of heat to get the pitta to rise suf­fi­ciently to make an air pocket inside while crisp­ing up at the same time.

After the dough has sat hap­pily for two hours, punch it down and knead it for another couple of minutes. Divide it into ten to twelve equal-sized balls, cover them with the cloth and put to one side for ten minutes. Roll each piece to form oval shapes around about 5–6 mm thick. Lightly flour a tin or sheet and line up the pit­tas — make sure they’re not touch­ing. Bake for just 6–7 minutes and they will puff up deliciously.

Tip the pitta onto the table, slit them open as you go and stuff each one with whichever com­bin­a­tion of chicken, salad, hum­mus or may­on­naise you fancy.

The meal was cer­tainly unim­press­ive, it was pos­sibly trivial, but in its humble, unas­sum­ing way it was as good a way of exper­i­en­cing now­ness as Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­ations for string trio.

The Ginger Pig

Eggs On The Roof Reviews


The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde
Pub­lished in hard­back on 7th May 2011 (Mitchell Beazley, £25.00)
Pho­to­graphy Kristin Perers
If I was a pig I’d like to grow up on one of Tim Wilson’s farms. The pink-cheeked and chubby York­shire farmer describes his book The Ginger Pig as a ‘meat manual for the inquis­it­ive domestic cook’. But it’s really an inspir­ing and often touch­ing pan­egyric to the joys of rear­ing happy, healthy animals.
Co-authored by the food writer Fran Warde, The Ginger Pig answers every ques­tion I can think of about live­stock, cuts of meat and how to cook them. It’s also a won­der­fully enter­tain­ing book that reveals the pas­sion, ded­ic­a­tion and hard labour that goes into pro­du­cing some of the country’s finest meat. Kristin Per­ers’ pho­to­graphs of the farms, the anim­als, the staff and the recipes are magnificent.
The book explains why super­mar­kets prefer to sell meat with flavour-enhancing bones removed — sharp bones pierce shrink-wrapped plastic pack­aging — and why meat dif­fers in fla­vour from sea­son to sea­son. It also includes endear­ing descrip­tions of the per­son­al­it­ies and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of dif­fer­ent animal breeds. The ‘small, chubby rears’ of Plum Pud­ding pigs appar­ently make excel­lent roasts and they’re ‘blessed with a sweet tem­pera­ment.’ The ‘skinny rears’ of the Large White breed don’t cut the mus­tard when it comes to ham but their long backs make for good bacon. The Blue­faced Leicester sheep hates bad weather, while the Black­face is the per­fect mother.
So appeal­ing do the authors make life on the farm sound, it’s easy to for­get how gruelling life can be. Tim’s diary puts that straight. In sum­mer his days start at 4.30 am and end after 10 pm. In the run up to Christ­mas Tim and his staff ful­fill orders for 1,000 tur­keys, 500 geese, 180 pigs, 80 lambs, 30 car­casses of beef and a moun­tain of pies, saus­ages, bacons and hams.
The Ginger Pig is peppered with over one hun­dred recipes, from spring roast lamb with oregano, to hog­get stew with capers and olives, to an alarm­ingly hearty trencherman’s Toad-in-the-hole packed with whole chicken breasts stuffed with saus­ages and tied together with rib­bons of bacon before being cooked in batter.
The busi­ness that star­ted with three Tam­worth pigs called Milli, Molly and Mandy and a boar called Dai Bando now has three farms in York­shire and four Lon­don butchers’ shops. The shops inspire such loy­alty that one cus­tomer at the Hack­ney branch com­mis­sioned a three tier meat pie for her wed­ding, instead of a cake. The bot­tom layer was a clas­sic pork pie, the middle sec­tion a chicken and bacon cre­ation and the top tier was mixed game topped with cran­ber­ries glossed in farm-made gelatine.
Rather touch­ingly, the man who has nur­tured lit­er­ally thou­sands of pigs, cattle, sheep and chick­ens con­cludes his book by say­ing rue­fully that he’s ‘spent so much of my life try­ing to pro­duce the per­fect animal that I may have for­got­ten to start my own fam­ily’. There’s a pho­to­graph in the book of him talk­ing to a six-week old Tam­worth pig­let, the breed after which The Ginger Pig was named. I swear the pig­let is say­ing ‘thanks Dad’.

Review: The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde

Pub­lished in hard­back on 7th May 2011 (Mitchell Beazley, £25.00)

Pho­to­graphy Kristin Perers

If I was a pig I’d like to grow up on one of Tim Wilson’s farms. The pink-cheeked and chubby York­shire farmer describes his book The Ginger Pig as a ‘meat manual for the inquis­it­ive domestic cook’. But it’s really an inspir­ing and often touch­ing pan­egyric to the joys of rear­ing happy, healthy animals.

Co-authored by the food writer Fran Warde, The Ginger Pig answers every ques­tion I can think of about live­stock, cuts of meat and how to cook them. It’s also a won­der­fully enter­tain­ing book that reveals the pas­sion, ded­ic­a­tion and hard labour that goes into pro­du­cing some of the country’s finest meat. Kristin Per­ers’ pho­to­graphs of the farms, the anim­als, the staff and the recipes are magnificent.

The book explains why super­mar­kets prefer to sell meat with flavour-enhancing bones removed — sharp bones pierce shrink-wrapped plastic pack­aging — and why meat dif­fers in fla­vour from sea­son to sea­son. It also includes endear­ing descrip­tions of the per­son­al­it­ies and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of dif­fer­ent animal breeds. The ‘small, chubby rears’ of Plum Pud­ding pigs appar­ently make excel­lent roasts and they’re ‘blessed with a sweet tem­pera­ment.’ The ‘skinny rears’ of the Large White breed don’t cut the mus­tard when it comes to ham but their long backs make for good bacon. The Blue­faced Leicester sheep hates bad weather, while the Black­face is the per­fect mother.

So appeal­ing do the authors make life on the farm sound, it’s easy to for­get how gruelling life can be. Tim’s diary puts that straight. In sum­mer his days start at 4.30 am and end after 10 pm. In the run up to Christ­mas Tim and his staff ful­fill orders for 1,000 tur­keys, 500 geese, 180 pigs, 80 lambs, 30 car­casses of beef and a moun­tain of pies, saus­ages, bacons and hams.

The Ginger Pig is peppered with over one hun­dred recipes, from spring roast lamb with oregano, to hog­get stew with capers and olives, to an alarm­ingly hearty trencherman’s Toad-in-the-hole packed with whole chicken breasts stuffed with saus­ages and tied together with rib­bons of bacon before being cooked in batter.

The busi­ness that star­ted with three Tam­worth pigs called Milli, Molly and Mandy and a boar called Dai Bando now has three farms in York­shire and four Lon­don butchers’ shops. The shops inspire such loy­alty that one cus­tomer at the Hack­ney branch com­mis­sioned a three tier meat pie for her wed­ding, instead of a cake. The bot­tom layer was a clas­sic pork pie, the middle sec­tion a chicken and bacon cre­ation and the top tier was mixed game topped with cran­ber­ries glossed in farm-made gelatine.

Rather touch­ingly, the man who has nur­tured lit­er­ally thou­sands of pigs, cattle, sheep and chick­ens con­cludes his book by say­ing rue­fully that he’s ‘spent so much of my life try­ing to pro­duce the per­fect animal that I may have for­got­ten to start my own fam­ily’. There’s a pho­to­graph in the book of him talk­ing to a six-week old Tam­worth pig­let, the breed after which The Ginger Pig was named. I swear the pig­let is say­ing ‘thanks Dad’.

The mythology of cake

When I was grow­ing up, tea after school was my favour­ite meal. It’s hard to relay the awful­ness of school din­ners in those days and by teatime I was raven­ously hungry. On the bus jour­ney home and the long walk from the bus stop, I fan­tas­ised about what there might be to eat.

My great aunt made my tea each day and the best days involved cake. There was a par­tic­u­lar cake she bought from the frozen food sec­tion at the super­mar­ket — vanilla sponge with whipped cream. When she was short of time, the sponge would still be icily solid and the whipped cream coldly leath­ery in tex­ture. Bit­ing down through a frozen slice I would muffle my teeth with my lips to shield them from the nerve-jangling cold.

I have a hazy memory of a short story in which a smart host­ess expresses dis­dain that an already-cut cake might be served at teatime. In her opin­ion cake had to be a com­plete, uncut circle of deli­ciously airy sponge. Once a wedge had been removed it lost its magical prop­er­ties. I don’t believe in such a tyr­an­nical approach to sponge but I do believe in the myth­o­logy of cake. It’s a euphem­ism for home, gen­er­os­ity and celebration.

Chest­nut and Roas­ted Hazel­nut Sponge With Whipped Cream and Rose Geranium Jelly

150g whole hazelnuts

180g softened butter

180g caster sugar

Half tea­spoon pure vanilla extract

4 eggs

125g self rais­ing flour

125g chest­nut flour — it has a beau­ti­fully sweet, slightly smoky fla­vour, but a short shelf life. If you can’t find it, simply double the amount of self rais­ing flour and omit the bak­ing powder

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

300ml whip­ping cream

Enough rose geranium jelly to spread thinly over the sponge. If you can’t get hold of rose geranium jelly, you could try a thin layer of chocol­ate filling per­haps, or leave it out alto­gether and rely on the cream

Pre­heat the oven to 170 degrees C.

Line two 18cm cake tins with buttered bak­ing parchment.

Toast the hazel­nuts in a dry fry­ing pan for five minutes or so, until they turn slightly golden in col­our. Once cool enough to handle, rub them between your hands to flake off most of the powdery skins. Tip the nuts into a food pro­cessor and pulse them into a crumbly-textured gravel.

Beat the but­ter and sugar together until light and creamy. Mix in the vanilla extract and then add the eggs one at a time. Tip in the ground nuts.

Sift the two flours and bak­ing powder together into the bowl and mix until com­bined. Divide the mix­ture between the two tins and bake in the oven for around 25 minutes until car­a­mel brown on top. While they’re bak­ing, whip the cream until it forms peaks.

Once the cake is cooked, cool it for five minutes and then remove from the tins. Once cold, spread one half with jelly, the other with cream, and sand­wich together.

This cake won’t keep long because of the whipped cream filling. Much like the posh host­ess who gasped at the idea of hanging on to an already-cut cake, I had to get rid of my sponge quickly. I asked my very clever friend who lives a few doors along from me if she’d like a slice. Ever resource­ful, she sug­ges­ted to one of her Bed and Break­fast guests that he knock on my front door. Newly arrived from Vienna he was bemused to be sent to a strange house to ask for cake. But he seemed rather touched to be presen­ted with a paper-wrapped bundle of sponge, so I will mark that down as fur­ther proof of the glor­i­ous prop­er­ties of cake. Who knows, he may go back to Vienna report­ing that it’s an ancient Eng­lish cus­tom to wel­come strangers with sponge. And that really wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.