Plums in Sloe Gin — Where Summer Meets Autumn

My favour­ite place to walk is on the Dor­set coast, from the ruined vil­lage of Tyne­ham, through woods car­peted with wild gar­lic in the spring, down to the pebbly beach. The aban­doned cot­tages, empty since the gov­ern­ment com­mand­eered them in 1943, are still stand­ing, but only just. 

Walk­ing there yes­ter­day with the sun shin­ing and the sea a pier­cing blue, it felt like the height of sum­mer. But then I passed bushes clustered with huge, ripe, purple sloes, the fruit of autumn. It’s the time of year when sum­mer seeps away almost imper­cept­ibly. Plums may still be ripen­ing in the sun, but the nour­ish­ing recipes of autumn are start­ing to entice. 

The plum tree I planted last year and which pro­duced pre­cisely eight plums, has been show­ing off like a pre­co­cious baller­ina this year. But as all show-offs dis­cover, they get their come-uppance in the end. Sev­eral of the wildly over­laden branches have snapped beneath the weight of the fruit, leav­ing behind a tree trunk and not much else.

Inspired by the beau­ti­ful purple sloes by the sea, I cooked my sum­mer plums in the autum­nal sloe gin that I made last year. It’s two sea­sons on a plate at once.

Plums Baked in Sloe Gin

Serves 4

800g plums, stones removed

100g vanilla sugar

100ml sloe gin — if you can’t find wild sloes in the hedgerow to make your own gin, it’s pos­sible to buy sloe gin online

Com­bine the fruit, sugar and sloe gin in an oven­proof dish. Cover with foil and bake at 180 degrees C for about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. 

I ate baked plums for break­fast with nat­ural yoghurt and more for lunch on their own. I’ll prob­ably eat them for sup­per too. 

Posh Cheese on Toast — aka Parmesan Cream on Tomato and Olive Toast with Edible Flower Salad

Cheese on toast was a won­der­ful ally when I worked nights as a break­fast tele­vi­sion reporter. The shift star­ted at 9pm and ended at 9am… and it was bru­tal. Com­plex­ion, fash­ion sense, good tem­per and appet­ite all dis­ap­peared through the metal-framed win­dows of BBC Tele­vi­sion Centre by about 3.25 each morn­ing. Cheese on toast became the only sus­tain­ing, com­fort­ing thing to eat. 

I still love cheese on toast, des­pite its asso­ci­ations with cold, grey dawns wait­ing with a cam­era crew to ask huffy politi­cians why they weren’t tow­ing the party line on a single cur­rency. I like it so much that I’ve just made a posh ver­sion for old friends, includ­ing one of my fel­low night shift report­ers from all those years ago. 

At the end of our gruelling shifts we would decamp to the BBC canteen, so tired that we didn’t know if our cheese on toast and mugs of tea coun­ted as break­fast or din­ner. This time around we ate our posh ver­sion at 9.30 in the even­ing, drink­ing Sauvignon from smart glasses. 

Parmesan Cream with Tomato and Olive Toast with Edible Flower Salad

Serves 4

185 ml double or heavy cream 

160 ml full cream milk

150g Parmesan cheese cut into very small pieces

2 eggs

1 extra egg yolk

100g mini­ature plum tomatoes

50g black olives

Pinch of sugar

Hand­ful of salad leaves and edible flowers

4 slices bread, either whole­meal or good qual­ity white

Olive oil

A little fine lemon zest

Season­ing 

4 small ramekin dishes, buttered well. 

Com­bine the milk and cream in a small pan and bring vir­tu­ally to the boil. Take off the heat, stir in the cheese, cover and let infuse for 2 hours.

Finely chop the toma­toes and olives, add a little salt and black pep­per, a pinch of sugar and put aside.

After two hours, pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C — don’t be temp­ted to increase the tem­per­at­ure unless you want scrambled eggs. Place the pan con­tain­ing the milk, cream and cheese back on the heat and bring it almost back to the boil again. Strain the mix­ture through a fine sieve into a bowl. Whisk the eggs and yolk into a second bowl and then mix gradu­ally into the cream and cheese. Season. 

Pour the cream and egg mix­ture into the buttered ramekin dishes and cover each with a disc of sil­ver foil. Place the dishes in an oven-proof tin, pour in enough hot water to reach half-way up the sides of the dishes and then bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove when the cus­tard is firm-ish but still a little wobbly. Care­fully take the dishes out of the pan of water and allow them to cool. 

Toast the bread and cut into circles about the same dia­meter as the parmesan creams. Pour off any liquid from the tomato and olive mix­ture and divide it evenly between the four circles of toast. Run the point of a sharp knife around the edges of the ramekin dishes, turn the dishes upside down and tip the parmesan creams care­fully on top of the tomato toasts.

Dress the salad leaves in a little oil and grated lemon zest and pile a heap of leaves on top of each cream. 

Parmesan cream sounds more com­plic­ated than it really is. It’s infin­itely more demand­ing to make than its rugged cousin, but eas­ily worth the effort. Think of it as Chris­tian Louboutin heels com­pared to Wel­ling­ton boots. There’s a place for both.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever inven­ted, so why are most of the ref­er­ences to it in lit­er­at­ure unashamedly dis­mal? Soup is usu­ally a meta­phor for hard times, dour land­ladies and dubi­ous chefs. The 20th cen­tury Amer­ican author Mar­garet Hal­sey cap­tured the ‘sad soup genre’ per­fectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fight­back. This spin­ach and sor­rel soup should have a son­net writ­ten about it. Or a novel in which the prot­ag­on­ist is restored to good health and good for­tune after just one spoon­ful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vin­tage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to any­one who so much as looks at it. 

Sor­rel is a beau­ti­ful herb, espe­cially this red-veined vari­ety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allot­ment purely so she can main­tain her sor­rel sup­plies. But this week I spot­ted an entire tray of pot­ted sor­rel in my local shop, with reduced price stick­ers attached. So I res­cued the lot.

You may know by now that I love pic­nics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mus­tard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spin­ach and sor­rel soup would be the per­fect walk­ing companion. Make it, eat it and start writ­ing in rhym­ing couplets.

Spin­ach and Sor­rel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into sim­ilar sized pieces

1 clove gar­lic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml veget­able stock

400g fresh spin­ach, coarsely chopped

40 sor­rel leaves — the sor­rel gives a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach and add a little grated lemon zest

Hand­ful of micro herbs such as cori­ander and red amar­anth to sprinkle over at the end — or just some chopped chives

Spoon­ful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the but­ter in a pan and cook the onion, gar­lic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without col­our­ing them. Add the veget­able stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle sim­mer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spin­ach and all the sor­rel leaves, sea­son with salt and pep­per and cook for a fur­ther five minutes. The sor­rel leaves give a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, just add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remain­ing uncooked spin­ach. Blend imme­di­ately and adjust the season­ing. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprink­ling of herbs. Adding half the spin­ach at the end keeps the mag­ni­fi­cent deep emer­ald col­our of the soup. 

Review: In at the Deep End by Jake Tilson

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Wafts of fishy scent drift insist­ently into my nos­trils as I talk to artist and writer Jake Tilson in his Peck­ham stu­dio. ‘Oh, it’s that’, he says, point­ing upwards, when I ask him what the smell is. Hanging from the ceil­ing above my head is a large dried cod. The wizened, grey fish is just one of lit­er­ally thou­sands of fishy souven­irs piled up around us: nets, floats, snorkels, dried squid, pack­aging, a plastic grilled plaice, empty tins of sprats, boxes of anchovies and fish-shaped jelly sweets.

The heaps of fishy objects are the flot­sam col­lec­ted over years which Jake has used to illus­trate his beau­ti­ful book, In At The Deep End. He’s a pas­sion­ate, obsess­ive col­lector and con­siders noth­ing too small, crumpled or insig­ni­fic­ant to bring home. While in Japan he gathered hun­dreds of soggy fish labels which had been trampled under­foot in the vast fish mar­ket. Before fly­ing home he washed them in his hotel bath­room and dried them on the heated loo seat. When he spot­ted a par­tic­u­larly fine wooden fish crate, he tried to pack it into his suit­case but found it was a frac­tion too large. So he simply bought a ham­mer, took the box to pieces and rebuilt it in Peckham.

In At The Deep End began as an attempt to shrug off a fish pho­bia that developed from read­ing a lav­ishly illus­trated book about sharks when he was a boy. But his research turned into a pas­sion­ate desire to know everything about just about every edible spe­cies. By the time this eclectic, magical and indis­pens­able book ends, it’s moved from pho­bia ther­apy to become a gently per­suas­ive polit­ical mani­festo, alert­ing us to the eco­lo­gical dangers of over-fishing. Think of it as a recipe book, mem­oir, travelogue and a cul­tural his­tory and you will get just a hint of what In At The Deep End con­tains within its jaunty yolk-yellow covers.

Jake has designed, pho­to­graphed, drawn and writ­ten this work of art with a metic­u­lous eye. Each double-page spread took him up to a week to con­struct, made up as it is of a mosaic of images, draw­ings, frag­ments of text and pho­to­graphs blen­ded and over­laid. He designed spe­cific typefaces for each chapter, so the sec­tion on Scot­land uses let­ter­ing inspired by the regis­tra­tion num­bers hand-painted on Scot­tish fish­ing boats. The chapter on Aus­tralia uses a typeface developed from the intric­ate, lacy iron­work that appears on the bal­conies of Fed­er­a­tion era houses in Sydney. In At The Deep End is a fishy cor­nu­copia on a breath­tak­ing scale that con­tin­ues to reveal new delights with every reading.

Jake’s wife, the ceram­icist Jen­nifer Lee known as Jeff, and their daugh­ter Han­nah trav­elled with him to Sweden, Venice, Scot­land, Aus­tralia, New York and Japan to research the book, devel­op­ing recipes as they went. The book is as much a touch­ing test­a­ment to fam­ily as it is to food. The delight with which Jake describes find­ing a flattened, rusty tin on the floor of a fish mar­ket, know­ing that Jeff will be thrilled because ‘she loves rust’ is infec­tious. ‘The book wouldn’t, couldn’t have exis­ted without the three of us trav­el­ling together’, he says dis­arm­ingly. ‘Jeff and Hannah’s names should really be on the front too.’

For a man so obsessed by visual details, it’s per­haps odd that he prefers to buy cook­ery books without pic­tures. ‘It’s because I get very bored by styled recipes’, he says. ‘I don’t do any styl­ing at all. I might move things to the light, but that’s it. It’s a protest against the norm.’ There’s a won­der­ful pho­to­graph in the book, taken at his mother-in-law’s farm­house in Scot­land to illus­trate a recipe for smoked had­dock and bacon. The star of the pic­ture is an ancient fry­ing pan, its cracked handle proudly and defi­antly stuck together with par­cel tape. 

In At The Deep End has been seven years in the mak­ing, a remark­able test­a­ment to hard work and per­sist­ence. Not that Jake cares how long some­thing takes. ‘I just love mak­ing things. I am a cre­ator. If you were writ­ing a novel you wouldn’t dream of cal­cu­lat­ing your hourly rate. I’m the same about design. You have to be gen­er­ous with your time. I look at my book now and I’m just very happy that it’s finally here. In the end it’s the one copy that sits on my shelf that mat­ters. If other people like it, then I’m pleased.’

Like it? I’m mad about it. So much so that I was for­lorn when I got to the final page. In At The Deep End is a book to read, study, mar­vel at, cook with or simply to smile at. It’s the finest book about food and fam­ily that I’ve read in years.