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

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.