Spring Asparagus

Asparagus

Tender, juicy and full of flavour, the UK grows asparagus that is some of the best in the world. 

There is perhaps no greater ringing endorsement of spring than the bunches of asparagus that start popping up in farm shops around the country in late April.  Even the supermarkets get in on the act, and the miserable little South American tips are replaced by fat bundles of green spears emblazoned with the Union Jack.  But there is good reason to put in more than the usual effort when seeking out this British champion.  Asparagus contains natural sugars that start to deplete as soon as it is harvested; it is this troublesome characteristic that have led many to take the kitchen to the field, allowing them to cook it immediately over a portable stove.  Such effort is probably beyond most of us (unless you are growing your own), but with a little local research you can get close to this ideal. Continue reading

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…

Jamón Ibérico – Fine Food with No Bitter After Taste

Jamón Ibérico, an artisan product that is not only renowned for its flavour, but also shows the benefits of good animal welfare.

On a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, a work colleague described with great enthusiasm a Spanish ham made from the meat of black pigs left to roam free in the mountains and eat acorns.  Beyond my surprise that pigs ate acorns (though of course Piglet was very keen on them), the idea seemed very romantic, and a far cry from the questionable animal welfare practices that plague most mass-produced meat products.

Jamón Ibérico is becoming well-known across the world, and is an artisan product of such a standard to be mentioned in the same breath as caviar and champagne.  The hams come from the black Ibérico pig or ‘pata negra’, a pig with layers of fat running through the muscle which allows the hams to be cured for much longer (two years or more).

Despite my delight at the image of all these pigs running through the mountains, gorging on acorns, this is not the case for all Jamón Ibérico – only the pigs designated for ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ status (literally, Acorn Ibérico Ham) enjoy this winter ‘montenara’ period of immense gluttony for 3-4 months.  And as gluttony goes, it’s impressive – each pig can gain up to 2 lbs per day, doubling their weight over the period.  It’s little wonder that the Spanish refer to the pigs as ‘olives on legs’.

In addition to the bellota PDO variety, the range of products produced under the moniker is as confusing as balsamic vinegar, and not always from free range animals.  Simon Majumdar wrote an excellent article in the guardian last year on the different types – look for the aforementioned Jamón Ibérico de bellota, Jamón Ibérico de recebo or Jamón Ibérico cebo de campo which are all outdoor reared.

As easy as that sounds, it may not always be possible.  I bought the ham in the photo above from the excellent Darts Farm in Topsham, Devon. At the time, I knew nothing of these variations, and it was described simply as ‘Iberico Ham’.  I called them to ask if there were any more details on the label for the ham, but it apparently simply says ‘Jamón Ibérico’.

The price was comparable to the bellota variety (compared to the online price from bellota.co.uk), and the taste was incredible, nutty and sweet, similar to a mature cheddar, but with a flavour that kept on changing and developing. It’s something that any meat-eater should taste at least once in their life – a true example of an artisan food with characteristics that elevate it far above mass-produced fair. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I’m sure I could detect a flavour reminiscent of acorns (now I just need to eat an acorn to make sure).

Crucially, despite the price this is not an elitist food. You don’t have to have a ‘sophisticated pallet’ to appreciate it, pure and simple it is just very, very tasty.  Open your mouth, pop it in, close your eyes and enjoy.

I bought about 50g for £5, and it was well worth it even for those few slices.  If I had one complaint, it was that the standard of carving was not up to much (see that chunky looking wad at the front of the plate), so I ended up with scraps and chunks rather than neat wafer thin slices. Next time I plan to glare at the carver throughout the slicing process, and maybe wail dramatically if the slices come out too thick.

I should probably apologise now for making reference to Piglet in a post about ham. Sorry about that.