The Lost Gardens of Heligan – Harvest Time

Apple label, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall

Today marks the beginning of the ten day harvest display at The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Megavissey, Cornwall.  For those who’ve never had the pleasure of visiting, the story behind the gardens is a romantic tale akin to ‘The Secret Garden’; after decades of neglect the gardens were revived to their original splendour in the 1990s by a team including Tim Smit (who went on to create The Eden Project).

The real centrepiece of the gardens for me is the ‘Northern Gardens’ section, made up of the vegetable garden, walled flower garden and melon yard.  These are all in full production, and all through the year you’ll find a huge array of food being produced – amazingly, this includes oranges, lemons, melons, peaches and even pineapples!

The photos below are from our visit in early October when the weather was glorious, and should give an idea of the kind of things that will be coming together this weekend. The harvest display really needs to be seen to be believed, an army of fruit and vegetables toppling over one another, there is a temptation to dive headlong into the display and start biting…

Twitter:  @HeliganGardens
Links: Main Website, Heligan Blog

Riverford Farm – Fresh, Tasty & Organic Autumn Vegetables

Riverford Farm vegetables; butternut squash, sweet potatoes, multicoloured

On Saturday we schlepped across the countryside for a much-anticipated trip to Riverford Field Kitchen near Buckfastleigh in Devon, and learned two things in the process: one, however tempting it is to cut across Dartmoor, don’t bother – the roads get curlier and slimmer the further on you go, and as beautiful as the scenery is, it does not make for relaxed driving.  Two – if you miss the sign with the lorry on it and take the sign for the farm shop, you’ve gone too far.

However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the small but perfectly formed Riverford Farm Shop needs to be seen to be believed – a huge array of vegetables toppling over each other and begging to be popped into a basket and driven straight home.  We spent a frantic 5 minutes gathering armfuls of candy-like tomatoes and chillies, luscious green tuscan kale and swiss chard, spiky romanesco cauliflowers, squashes, sweet potatoes and sweetcorn, and still had to leave behind mountains of other tempting morsels too numerous to mention.  Even for an hour and half drive (curly roads or not), I can’t wait for the return visit.

And the field kitchen?  Just, amazing.  A real celebration of food, presented in beautiful surroundings by a team of people who have the desire and the ability to give you one of the best meals you’ve ever eaten.  We were treated to guinea fowl on a bed of kale with cannellini beans, romanesco cauliflower and fennel with walnut dressing, beetroot and squash salad, swiss chard gratin and an aubergine and tomato bake.  Perhaps the descriptions don’t really do justice to the food, though to be honest if you are looking for a review there are plenty more authoritative critics than I who have sung its praises. The freshest ingredients, produced with love and care, cooked with respect and expertise, and served humbly and unpretentiously.  I can’t think of anything better.  The whole experience was surreally but perfectly framed by a large group of local apple growers, young and old alike, engaged in the frantic but efficient process of pressing and bottling apple juice on a huge old press in front of the restaurant.

Needless to say, after following up the above with freshly prepared mango pavlova and baked cheesecake (plus the sticky toffee pudding my fellow diner graciously offered me), we left with taut trousers and big smiles, only to attempt to replicate the experience the next day with a huge sunday lunch made from the vegetables you see in the picture (and more!); creamy leeks with mature cheddar, roasted sweet potatoes, roasted butternut and onion squash with chilli and sage, heaps of greens (chard, tuscan kale and purple kale) with caper and tarragon dressing all washed down with a rich wild mushroom & madeira sauce.  At some point I’ll upload some recipes for these delights, but for now I need to find some elastic to sow into these shrinking jeans…

Paella Valenciana – The Original Paella, Not a Prawn in Sight…

Paella Valenciana

Paella Valenciana, L'Establiment, El Palmar nr Valencia

Most of us are familiar with the seafood or mixed paella served at tourists spots across Spain, but the original Valencia Paella is a far cry from these modern interpretations.

The paella that most of us are familiar with (and is served in tourist spots across Spain) consists either of a seafood paella or a ‘mixed paella’; bright yellow rice with pink prawns and mussel shells strewn across the surface of the rice, and perhaps the odd lemon segment mysteriously nestling amongst its fishy neighbours.  But the original Paella can be found in and around El Palmar, a village hidden among the rice fields south of Valencia, where the shellfish don’t get a look in…

Traditionaly cooked over orange wood fires that imparts a smokey flavour to the dish, the dish uses ingredients that could be found in the paddy fields and the canals that feed them – specifically rabbit, little stripy snails and duck (though chicken is an acceptable substitute, shown in the dish above), together with various types of beans.  This is the true definition of local sourcing –  measured in food metres, not miles!

The photo above shows a huge wagon wheel sized Paella (the name for the pan as well as the dish) from the L’Establiment on the north end of Paella.  The restaurant somehow manages to be stylish and yet unpretentious and welcoming, and if the weather is good (it wasn’t) you can sit outside by the canal and paddy fields that have provided your meal.  A good Paella is a real treat – intense rich flavours with buttery rice and a range of textures that can make sharing with your dining partners somewhat precarious (tradition says you should never cross over the invisible line into your neighbours section – fork rapped knuckles ensue).  Paella is only ever eaten at lunch in Spain – restaurants will serve it to you in the evening, but expect to be eating it on your own.

I would recommend phoning and ordering ahead (ours took an hour to cook), and remember that the Spanish lunch runs later than most – we arrived at 3pm, and people were still ordering food at 4 and eating at 5. If you can’t get to El Palmar, then look for restaurants that serve Paella for a minimum of two people – then you know it is being cooked fresh each time.

Given that this is a dish that has evolved and changed to become different dishes within its own country, I also think that we should all worry less about using traditional recipes when cooking it at home.  Look to the original spirit of the dish, and use what is in your immediate vicinity; think local game and seasonal vegetables if you’re inland, or native shellfish like oysters, mussels and langoustine if you’re by the coast.  Just ensure that you’re putting plenty of flavour into the dish, and maybe serve it to your diners on their own plates – then fork blows to the knuckles can be avoided…

Valencia Mercado Central – A Market for Seafood Lovers

Jamones, Valencia Mercado Central
  Jamon, and on and on…

I’ve just come back from a holiday in Valencia, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Mercado Central‘ market in the city, one of the largest and longest running markets in Europe.  The food market is divided into sections, with areas for vegetables, fish and meat.  It’s great to see so many things that you just don’t see in British markets, from unusual cuts of meat (sheeps head anyone?) to fish stalls that resemble alien invasions.  The seafood really is the star of the show too – the Spanish allegedly eat more seafood per person than anyone else at the world, and the range is really startling.  I draw the line at the rather bloody live eel executions though…

razor clams
Razor Clams – thhpppthpth

Razor clams are generally available at larger fishmongers and markets in the UK, though they can be quite expensive.  Cook as you would mussels – butter, garlic or shallots,  white wine, parsley. Now for something completely different…

Clams, Murex and Percebe Tellina, Canailla and Percebe.

Admittedly these are the spanish names for these little chaps, but the English translations won’t help you much either:

Tellina: As far as I can make out, Tellina is a type of clam, but many English recipes just refer to it as a Tellina.  Widely used in Italy, they are sweet tasting and can be eaten raw, or cooked in a tomato sauce.

Canailla: This is definitely the spanish term – the English term is ‘Murex’.  Which doesn’t help much… It is a type of whelk, widely used in Malaysia – it can be boiled and served with chilli sauce.  Apparently they used to be harvested to make purple dye.

Percebe: Known to the English speaking world as goose or gooseneck barnacle, I know of these from my childhood rockpooling days, though I had no idea they were edible.  And if I knew how expensive they were (£100+ per kilo), I would have gathered up the 200 or so of them that were dumped on Summerleaze beach in Bude about a month ago.  They have a similar taste to Lobster and are becoming rare, hence the expense. Boil them, strip the skin from the stalk, and eat the flesh.

Red Prawns
 Prawnography

The langoustines in the foreground seem like the standard fare we get in the UK, but of particular interest are the huge red prawns just behind them.  I can’t find anything about them online (they were labelled ‘Rojos Frescoes Especiales’), and I was already too laden down with food to buy them,  but if anyone knows what they are, please leave a comment! (EDIT: I think they are rose shrimp, Aristeus Antennatus, who knew there were so many kinds of prawn…)

 Mojama Time

This is another Spanish speciality – Mojama, or salt cured tuna fillets.  It takes like a cured ham, with slight fish undertones.  Not unpleasant, more surprising than anything else, it should be eaten finely sliced with good olive oil.

I’ve only included a sample of the food available at the market, round every corner there was something new and unusual, but hopefully this shows how you can really discover a lot about country and regional food from a visit to their markets.  And although we often think that we already get the best of a countries offering in our own supermarkets and markets, there really is a lot more to be discovered.