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.