Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Tasting notes: Suffolk cheeses

Early in May I took up the #livelocal challenge. I learnt lots in the first week some of which I’ve already blogged about. A big part of taking up the challenge was not just to do it for a week but try to think more about what I ate, where it came from and so explore food options closer to home. And so to one of my favourite foods – CHEESE.

England has a great history of cheese making, we came a bit unstuck in the Milk Marketing Board post-war era with many cheeses being lost and production becoming very industrialised. Things have moved on, particularly from the 1980’s onwards when the likes of Patrick Rance and Randolph Hodgson started championing and supporting small cheese producers. So we are now in a position where it’s not that hard to find great cheese; wonderful examples of classics such as Cheddar, Cheshire and Lancashire and newer varieties that draw on French, Italian and Spanish styles of cheese (such as brie and soft goats cheeses).

Now I LOVE cheese in pretty much all its guises and I’m certainly not intending to give up all time favourites like Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire just because its outside the area I defined for #livelocal. I thought it might be interesting to see what cheeses are produced more locally. It transpires that the counties in my ‘local’ area are not really renowned as dairy farming areas (neither now or historically) and so there isn’t a plethora of cheeses to choose from. There’s some scathing comments in Patrick Rance’s book from 17C on Suffolk ‘flet’ cheese are being ‘mean’ – it was made with skimmed milk so probably wasn’t very rich in flavour. Undeterred I decided I’d take it county by county and see what I could find.

First up is Suffolk, mainly because I already knew of some cheeses I really love and I wanted to find more. On a recent short break in Suffolk I did a bit of cheese exploring and I came up with a cheese board of five contrasting cheeses and I’m hoping there are others I’ve still to try.

The cheeses are (L-R on the board):

Buxlow Paigle, Buxlow Wonmil, Hawkston, Shipcord, Suffolk Blue.

So what were they like?

Buxlow Paigle: This is a relatively firm textured off white cheese. Its smooth, with a nice mild tang, its quite moist and a bit like (although less crumbly than) a very mild Wenslydale. It’s made from pasteurised cow’s milk on a small farm in Friston near Aldeburgh. There is also an apple wood smoked version; I didn’t taste it this time but it worked well on a wonderful rarebit I had recently.

Buxlow Wonmil: Okay lets be honest here, this is one of my all time favourite cheeses and part of my inspiration for doing this tasting. Anyway it is quite a soft cheese, a little in texture like goats cheese but not as crumbly. It’s very young and therefore soft, fresh and tangy with a lovely lemony-ness. It’s very white in colour and is sold at only two days old. It’s a classic fresh cheese that you don’t find that much in the UK. I love it in frittata but its great on the cheese board too providing a nice contrast to harder cheeses. Again it’s a cow’s milk cheese and in case you couldn’t guess from the name it’s made on the same farm in Friston as the paigle. As you can see I love it.

Hawkston: Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk and matured for 3-5 months this is slightly crumbly and quite tangy. It’s rather like the cheeses of Cheshire, Lancashire or Wenslydale in style. It’s quite white in colour and a refreshing hard cheese. It’s made at Rodwell Farm, which is near Needham Market.

Shipcord: This is made by the same dairy as the Hawston, again from unpasteurised cow’s milk. It’s matured for longer (about 6 months) and is made by a different method. It’s much firmer and yellower. Its rather like a mild cheddar or Lincolnshire Poacher. The dairy suggest its akin to some alpine cheeses and there is a sweet nuttiness to the flavour. There is also an extra matured and a smoked version available which I’ve yet to try.

Suffolk Blue: This is a blue version of Suffolk Gold. It’s made from Guernsey milk so is very creamy and rich yellow in colour. It’s a soft cheese like a firm rich brie in texture. It’s very buttery, a little earthy and has a mild blue tang with undertones of salt. It’s made by The Suffolk Cheese Company again near Needham Market.

Overall I enjoyed testing out some new cheeses that are local to me. I think my favourite of the new finds was the Hawkston but since I grew up in Lancashire maybe that’s no surprise. I’ll be adding them all to my repertoire but expect the Wonmil and Hawkston to the be the two I buy most often.

If anyone knows of any Suffolk cheeses I’ve missed then I’d love to hear about them so I can give then a try. I also need to decide which county from my ‘local’ definition to tackle next; basically there’s Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to choose from, suggestions welcome.

I found all the by just looking out what was available cheeses in farm shops in Suffolk but a useful book for English cheese spotting is ‘Great British Cheeses’ by Jenny Lindford. Its pretty up to date as it was published in 2008. It’s got good pictures and some background and tasting notes on each cheese. Unfortunately it doesn’t have an index by county!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Can I cook Chile Verde?

Tomatillos (anytime)

And can Karen cook asparagus tart

Asparagus spears (early evening)

It’s a kind of recipes at dawn this, Chile Verde vs. asparagus tart, one blogger pitched against another. Masterchef without the cameras, or the publicity, or the random commentary, or the…….well almost any of it. Just a bit of fun.

You might remember back in early May I was ‘adopted’ by Karen over at ‘Karen Cooks’. We did a blogo-interview of each other to introduce our very different worlds and in the meantime I’ve been asking Karen lots of questions about food and blogging and incorporating things I’m learning into my blog. Anyway, we thought it might be fun to have a cook-off: each pick a recipe from the others blog that would be a bit challenging and new and then cook and blog it. We agreed that we mustn’t pick something too easy but also we aren’t to email back and forth to ask for guidance if we get stuck, we’ve got to make our own judgements on how to substitute things. No winner, no loser just some fun.

But as soon as you start to think about it there’s lots of hurdles and tests.

Some hurdles, © cxvalentina -

Can you get all the ingredients? On the face of it I might have an advantage here: I’m in London, population 7.55M, over 300 languages spoken and with 40% of the population from a non British background there’s a huge variety of influences and lots of shops selling all sorts of things from around the world (hopefully Chile Verde ingredients!). Karen meantime is in Havre, Montana, population just under 10,000 so maybe the food supplies will be more limited, or maybe not. I can see she’s tried lutefisk at the local church dinner so they aren't short on interesting dishes/ingredients.

Havre, Montana (copyright Karen)

Do you even have an idea what the dish should taste like? Um no, in my case I don’t. I’ve picked it because Karen describes it as her second favourite Mexican dish ever and also she says that it’s so good you’ll taste it and think you’ve gone to heaven (well in fact the Imperial Valley in Southern California). Actually, come to think of it, I don’t even know anything about the Imperial Valley so how do I know I want to be transported there…..

And can you actually follow some one else’s instructions? Especially if you have to start to free form if you can’t find all the ingredients….

We’ll see, let the cook off commence!

Right to cook my recipe I need:

Here's Karen's ingredients (copyright Karen)
  • 10 tomatillos - I’ve heard of these so surely they can’t be that hard to find….can they? I’ve no idea what they taste like and the web’s not much help. Mainly the consensus is sour tomatoes but then someone goes and says then can be quite mild and sweet. Helpful.
  • 5lbs of boneless pork shoulder - ha easy! Britain is a veritable pork farm especially in nearby Suffolk and Norfolk. But hey 5lb (2.25kg) of pork! How many are we cooking for? Oh, right, Karen doesn’t say – maybe she had people coming over that day, or maybe it’s a great ‘make loads freeze it’ thing, but still, 5lb is a LOT of pork. Maybe we’ll scale back a bit on this. I mean imagine if we find that, for us, the Imperial Valley is more like hell and we don’t fancy a return trip, there’s now way I would want to end up with 10 portions languishing in the freezer.
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil - at least I’m assuming that what Karen means by ‘2 T’ - anyway olive oil, yup, we’ve got plenty of that to hand.
  • 1 tbsp chicken bouillon – again Karen says ‘1 T’ and she doesn’t say whether its powdered liquid or whatever. Well I’ve got cubes so they’ll do.
  • 5 cloves garlic peeled –that’s nice and simple.
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped – another easy bit.
  • 2 large jalapenos, stemmed and seeded – yeah easy, I’m sure I’ve seen them in the supermarket.
  • 7oz can whole green chiles – hmmm can this one be hard, maybe, what exactly are green chiles? This will call for a bit of checking I think.
  • 2 corn tortillas – ooo another easy bit the supermarket definitely has Mr ‘Old El Paso’ corn tortillas (Karen does kindly confirm my one question that its soft tortilla I need not nacho thingies).
So next it’s onto the internet to find out where to get my mitts on tomatillos and green chiles. A bit of rummaging tells me that green chiles are Anaheim chiles and you can get them fresh and canned, well you can, but there’s no fresh ones right now in the UK as its too early in the season. And cans don’t seem to be that easy to come by either. Ok so lets look for tomatillos. Again you can get them fresh but its way too early, they won’t be ready until at least late June and we’ve set a deadline of 16 June to post. There’s tins as well and I find that Cool Chile Co stock these and they have a stall at Borough Market – great its been ages since I’ve done a trip to Borough so that’ll be some fun AND I can go via there on my way to meet a friend for lunch AND Cool Chile do corn tortillas so I can pick up some of those.

Close to be being sorted I sit back and relax and do other stuff. How foolish of me!

On my next trip to the supermarket I check for fresh jalapenos and also look, in the somewhat small Mexican section, for green chiles. None of the latter and no fresh jalapenos either – had I imagined them in the past? There’s sliced pickled ones mind, so I might have to substitute with them.

But its okay. I’m going to Cool Chile at Borough market on 11 June and I’ll be able to make up lost ground. Yes. Well. That would be the case if the lovely RMT didn’t decide to call a 48 hour tube strike meaning its madness to go into central London unless you have to – is a can of tomatillos a ‘have to’ trip? Probably not, and as I’m in London on Friday (and the strike will be over) I might be able to pop by Borough then. No wrong again. I have to be somewhere before Borough opens (why does it only open at midday!) and there’s not going to be time to get there afterwards.

It’s getting rather close to the deadline.

Of course Borough is open on a Saturday but I’ve heard its mad busy and packed with people ambling and not buying, and I won’t even be able to do a smash and grab style shop as I don’t actually know where the stall is within the market. Although there’s a map its not that easy to read without a portable electron microscope......

In a bit of a panic I do some extra research on Karen’s site and come up with an alternative choice of Portuguese Chicken and Rice, only then I find this needs Old Bay Seasoning – okay like I’m not going to get that in time but I do find a couple of mix your own recipes if all else fails.

My husband is now set on the idea of Chile Verde, however, and shuffles our Saturday plan around then packs me off to Borough to try to get tomatillos.

Tower Bridge, London, copyright Geoffrey Metais, from Fotolia

The tube journey is amazingly fast for once and from Monument it’s just a walk over London Bridge. Well just a walk through the thronging crowds of Euro tourists admiring Tower Bridge who’ve presumably come to take advantage of the exchange rate (and not just the views). I'm glad they are helping the battered British economy (and boy does it need some help right now) and they all seem to be having a lovely time in the sun admiring the views up and down the Thames, but I’d kind of prefer it they were splashing their Euros just slightly off my direct route to tomatillo buying. You can’t have it all ways so I do my helpful deed of the day when a couple of Irish lads ask if they are near Oxford Street and, having broken the bad news that they are way off target, I point them back in the right direction (like back on to the tube with very specific instructions). 

Cool Chile Co's stall

Eventually I get to the market and plunge in through the nearest entrance, which, somewhat amazingly, brings me in pretty close to Cool Chile, and woo hoo they have tinned tomatillos. Ah, on closer inspection they prove to be giant catering tins containing 2.9kg (6lb 6oz) of whole tomatillos! Um, that’s a few more than I need. The lady says nope there are no smaller tins, they used to get them but can’t seem to anymore, they freeze well though. Right. I’ve never tasted them. I might not like them. I’ll have enough to feed a Mexican family for, well who knows how long. After some discussion we agree that I will cheat using the tomatillo salsa, it’s a normal size jar, its got a few other things in it, but it makes more sense and I won't end up with stretched arms carrying it home. 

I also find that they don’t do tinned green chiles but I am able to get the tortillas and some whole pickled jalapenos. Mission kind of accomplished I decide it’ll be nice to wander round the rest of the market and may be have a coffee from the wonderful Monmouth Coffee Store. About 2 seconds later I realise it can only have been the high of finding something that is vaguely tomatillo-y that made me think this. This market is PACKED with people ambling so slowly they are almost in reverse and there's a queue at Monmouth coffee that is frankly, even if this ranks as one of London’s best coffees (and it does), more than any sane person could take. I make my exit and tube it home to a coffee there.

Next stop is the supermarket and pork shoulder; drat all the pieces are rolled and ready stuffed, Sunday roast style, with apple and sage – how annoying! I spy some cut as kind of chops with no extra adornments and get those, another search (thats 3 laps of the relevant sections) but no green chiles to be found at all so I go for green bell peppers and I’ll load the jalapenos a bit to balance things out. I spy a bottle of Mexican red wine (!) and decide that will be fun (or hangover material) and grab some of that.

Back home it’s time to get a move on and start cooking.

My final set of ingredients.

I’ve got 750g of meat (so 1/3 of Karen’s recipe). It’s hard to tell from her measures how much 10 tomatillos is so I just decide to use all the jar of salsa, 3 green peppers, 1.5 jalapenos, 3 cloves of garlic, half a small onion and 1 chicken bouillon square which I whizz together in the food processor to make the sauce. I cube the pork and cook it in oil to seal it (I do it in two batches, its easier) then in goes the sauce, stir it all round, bring it to the boil, turn down and simmer for four hours. Right now its just coming up to the 2 hour mark….so I’ll be back in while to tell you about progress.

Bringing it up to simmer for 4 hours!

With 30 minutes to go I’ve popped in the rest of the onion and the chopped up tortilla. I’m musing on what accompaniments to serve. The smell is pretty good so I’m hopeful it’s going to be a hit of a dish.

The finished dish with accompaniments

We served it with rice, guacamole, tomato salsa and refried beans – who knows whether that’s what you have it with but that’s what we chose.

Mexican wine


It was fairly hot, but I’m a bit of a chile wimp. I thought it was going to build up to something that had me mopping by brow with a tea towel but it didn’t, staying tingly but with the tartness of the sauce cutting through the heat to make it a really refreshing dish. The Mexican wine was pretty good too, big flavours and fruity.

So overall a 9/10. It was delicious ☺ and in fact I’m regretting not getting the catering can of tomatillos after all because this is a definite big addition to my cooking.

Wonder how Karen's doing with the asparagus tart.....

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Back of the fridge pasta

Yesterday when I was catching up with posts on a few of my favourite blogs I spotted a pasta blogging event that Mangocheeks at Allotment2Kitchen was taking part in. So I followed the links and ended up at Presto Pasta Nights, which this week (PPN #117) is hosted by Katie at Thyme for Cooking. The concept is that you blog about a pasta dish (well anything that has pasta or noodles in actually) and as pasta is one of my favourite quick dishes I thought it might be fun to take part especially as I had pasta for lunch on Monday from a mixture of things lurking in the fridge.

As I work from home quite a lot I get to rustle up whatever I fancy each day from whatever I can see in the fridge. I don’t often buy things specifically to use for lunch but instead muddle through with whatever I can find from leftovers and store cupboard basics. Its fair to say our cupboards and fridge are fairly well stocked so it not often that I struggle to make something tasty, but I do tend to really on pasta, salads and open sandwiches a lot.

On Monday the fridge yielded:

  • some cooked garden peas and new potatoes leftover from dinner the night before
  • the remains of a bunch of asparagus that had got hidden behind something else so it wasn’t in top form any more but still edible
  • some fresh tarragon pesto that was dangerously near its use by date
  • the last of a chunk of parmesan

So I headed to the cupboard and dug out the current pasta shape (some De Cecce Tortiglioni) and cooked it as per the packet instructions. I steamed the asparagus above the pasta for about 7 minutes and then cut it into 2cm lengths. Once the pasta was done I drained it, put it back in the pan and stirred in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto, and tossed it with the asparagus, peas and potatoes (cut into 1cm dice). Into a bowl with a good grating of parmesan on the top and there was my lunch. Maybe 15 minutes from fridge to table – not bad.

Note: The fresh pesto was Purely Pesto. I’m going to be doing a producer review soon so watch out for that.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

A walk on the wild side

“Here, turn right here, this has got to be it”.

We swerve round the corner and bounce along the driveway. “Nice pond, but where’s the big house?” There’s plenty of rolling parkland and a cluster of outbuildings but no grand house to be seen.

There’s also a tall affable looking chap wearing wellies and a big chunky jumper so we slow up and roll down the window. “Here for the food foraging?” he says, “follow the track round between these buildings and you’ll see a group of parked cars and over to the right people on the lawn, that’s were you need to be.” So we drive on as instructed and sure enough there’s about 15 cars and a bunch of people standing about having coffee. I get out and amble over and my husband drives off to a day of peace and quiet.

At last, I’m at Food Safari’s first foraging event at Henham Park in the depths of rural Suffolk.

I get a coffee and Polly (half of the duo that makes up Food Safari) passes me some still warm flapjack (yum! this is a good way to start) then introduces me to the rest of the group – none of whom I’ve met before but some of whom I’ve been chatting to via twitter (yes that's you @Farctum and @EssexGourmet). Once everyone is here Tim (the tall affable chap in wellies, he’s the other half of Food Safari) tells us the format of the day. We’re going to be foraging for wild foods here on the estate and then also down by the river Blyth (also on estate land) then we’ll be off to The Anchor at Walberswick for a lunch show-casing some of the wild foods.

Tim hands over to Jacky (aka WildFoodie) who’s our foraging expert today. She explains that we are on private land so sadly we can’t entertain any thoughts of popping back sometime to bag some more goodies; well I guess not unless we can get to be new best friends with Hektor who manages the estate, I imagine he’s probably got enough friends already though. Jacky also explains that the weather in Suffolk has been so dry recently that we probably aren’t going to find enough stuff in really good condition for us to take bagfuls home. We are going to have to be content to watch and learn, that’s the nature of foraging, it’s a real luck of the draw thing. Jacky had a scout about yesterday so she’s got lots of examples to show us and she’s been able to collect enough goodies for our meal later.

Then we move on to our first spot, I’m expecting we’re going to have to walk a good distance across the park perhaps into a wooded area, but no, there’s plenty to see only steps away from where we are. Take a look - what can you see that’s edible?

Hmmm looks like a bunch of weeds in a badly tended garden if you ask me…..but hold one we are going to find at least FOUR, yes that’s four, edible goodies in this patch.

Okay so clearly I’m in nappies on the foraging front compared to the likes of Jacky – I can’t see a thing I’d fancy eating. But with Jacky’s expert guidance we learn about ground ivy, cleavers (aka sticky willy – hmmm), nettles, ground elder, burdock and elderflower – blimey that’s six – and I don’t think Jacky was even trying hard….she tells use how to identify each of them through look, feel and even sound and also which bits to pick and even how to pick (clever scissor movement with your fingers for nettle tops). We taste as we go when things are okay to eat raw. Mostly everything we test has a fresh but quite bitter taste but there are differences between them.

Next its time to move on to the river. But before that a few of us think a comfort stop might be good so Polly takes us over to the stable block, which has been converted into a rather lovely looking B&B, and we get to use the facilities there. I also get a quick lesson in the intricacies and long running feuds of the Rous family and learn that the final version of the big grand house was knocked down (some say a fortuitous fire…) in 1953, so that’s why we couldn’t see it. There are plans afoot for a new house to be built.

Anyway down to the river – I would say bank but here the estuary is really wide and flat so it’s more like a gentle slope. The estuary systems in Suffolk and Norfolk are havens for all sorts of things and in particular marsh samphire

If you look really hard you can see the samphire at the front of this picture

I’ve had this before, bought from local farm shops and I love it. We are a little early in the season but we can see the samphire starting to sprout like some kind of mini primeval forest. We get to test the samphire and its wonderfully juicy with a salty tang –I’m looking forward to it being available in the farm shop soon and hoping we get some at lunch. We also find sea purslane which looks a bit like a succulent version of sage although it tastes nothing like sage. Again it’s juicy and salty.

Sea Purslane

And finally we head off to The Anchor pub at Walberswick with our appetites suitable whetted. But before we get to tuck into lunch we take a quick look at the pub’s allotment where Jacky tells us about poppy leaves (nice and sweet and almost pea like in flavour), hops shoots, dead nettles and chickweed (plus other assorted things you might just throw away but can actually eat!).

At last it really is time for food. We wander over to the beautifully refurbished stable block and are served with glasses of refreshing elderflower scented beer from Lowestoft whilst nibbling on fresh asparagus, tempura hop shoots and absolutely wonderful chickpea and samphire mini pancakes. These are so divine we are nearly knocking each other out of the way to get our hands on them; I’m definitely going to be trying to recreate them at home.

Mark then guides us into the stable block itself where a huge long table awaits us and a further three courses of food with matched beers. Mark is an absolute mine of information about the beers and clearly likes to surprise his guests with things such as a Gueuze he describes as having aromas of sweaty horse saddle and horse piss - great! Hektor and I try to tell him that we are not especially familiar with either of these but to no avail. Food wise every thing was delicious but dishes and flavours that particularly stood out were the chicken of the woods in the risotto, 

The chicken of the woods is the pinky/orange bits

a very meaty mushroom that might make some vegetarians shudder, the semi pickled carrots in the salad, the elderflower panacotta

and finally my favourite local cheese, Buxlow Wonmil. It makes a change to have lovely food paired with beers rather than wines and is something I might try myself. Of the beers I think my favourite was the Frambozen although the Gueuze was much nicer than Mark's description would lead you to expect; its kind of nicely tangy and refreshing, a bit like liquid sourdough.

Its time for everyone to head their separate ways, full of new knowledge, exceptional food and plenty of beers. I have a glass of Benedictine for the road (fortunately my husband is collecting me) and we waddle off clutching our information packs, happy foragers that we now are. 

You can find out more about Food Safari’s days out in Suffolk on their website, arrange gift vouchers for loved ones or simply book a treat for yourself. I’m hoping to try another one of their days soon.

To view the menu and other information about The Anchor at Walberswick click here. Go on treat yourself to some great food and beer.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Feeding time at the sourdough zoo

A little while back I set a sourdough starter running. The first ten days to two weeks you are just supposed to leave the mix of flour water and grapes to get on with doing its own thing although the urge to peek, tweet and blog about progress got the better of me. In the process I experienced the joys of seeing the starter come to life and also its unique and pungent smell!

After 10 days it was time then time to start the daily feeding routine. This involves feeding the starter twice daily with flour and water. It becomes a regular routine but it too has its interesting nuances and moments of both joy and concern.
So what happens? Well first of all you get rid of the grapes.
Remove them from the starter:

Squeeze any remaining juices from them back into the starter. And discard, their work is done:

Tip away about 1/3 of the mixture (roughly 4-500ml):

Then top up with 250150ml of water and 150100g of flour. Mix it in and pop the lid back on.

Everyday, twice a day, you discard 200ml of the mix and add 150ml of water and 100g of flour. You do this for TWO WHOLE WEEKS. It gets a bit monotonous. Then you start to worry, when after a few days, nothing seems to be happening, there might be a few bubbles but not much, the smell is much less (which is nice, but also makes you wonder if all is on track). Each time you lift the lid the flour will have settled out and so you need to stir the mix to get a lovely wallpaper paste type consistency before you discard 200ml. Oh and if you are thinking this discarding is wasteful, well maybe, but do the maths and you’ll see that you’ll have gallons of the stuff if you just keep adding water and flour and not getting rid of any – which is fine if you are planning on starting a bakery but not if you’re simply hoping to make some tasty bread for home consumption.

After about a week of not much happening, and egged on by Dan at FoodUrchin (he’s about two months ahead of me in the sourdough game), I dared to taste the starter. WOW. Its sort of like sherbet fizz stuff – this is the progress we need. We are on track.

In the second week of feeding the starter got lots more active with a good thick yeasty top each time it was feeding time. This might have been temperature fluctuations as well as the starter getting going because week one of feeding was pretty cool and week two we had what, by UK standards for May, was almost a heat wave. At each feeding your stir the yeasty topping back in before discarding some.

At last, at the end of two weeks feeding, preceded by two weeks of waiting/peeking, there was a starter that looked good and active.

It was time to move to baking bread…….but that’s another story.