Thursday, 26 June 2008

Royal highland show

Last week saw the 168th Royal Highland Show, which ran from Thursday 19th to Sunday 22nd of June. With it's promise of a wealth of local produce and producers, I could hardly turn down the opportunity, so I went along on the Thursday.

This was my first visit to the Highland show, though I have been to other agricultural shows before, most notably the Lincolnshire show which was the destination of a few school trips when I was growing up.

My first destination on arrival was, of course, the food and local produce area. This was crammed full of stalls, some from familiar names and many that were unfamiliar. But, the best bit was that nearly all of these stalls were giving away free samples, which given the number of them, meant that it was almost (but not quite) unnecessary to buy lunch.

The first stall we came to was an Orkney Cheese stall. Here, I learned that there are no less then 2600 diary cows in Orkney. Not bad for a population of just under 20,000. I am told that there are many more sheep, but I don't know how many. Of course, I had to sample some of the cheese, which was actually one of the brands that featured in my cheese tasting back in February. I sampled both the mild and the mature versions and both were very good.

Next, we came across Fletcher's of Auchtermuchty, who were there promoting their Fletcher's Game and in particular their venison. Now, as I've mentioned once or twice before, I'm quite a fan of venison. I got chatting to the guy on the stall and he told me that deer have never been domesticated, which is something I'd never thought of before. Unfortunately, there were no free samples here! :-(

Actually there seemed to be a lot of cheese stalls. We visited the stall from the Snowdonia Cheese Company next. They had a number of what I would call 'special' cheeses, which were a basic cheese mixed with herbs or fruit. Two in particular stood out in my opinion, which were the Green Thunder, made with a mix of garlic and herbs and the Red Devil. The later, as the name might suggest, was made with chili pepper combined with Red Leicester cheese. Both were delicious, but I think my favourite was the Green Thunder.

Also present were Rowan Glen, which also featured in my last cheese tasting and one I hadn't heard of before; McLelland, who had some strange names for their cheese, such as "Seriously farmy Cheddar". Now, it was very good, but what on earth does 'seriously farmy' mean? How can a cheese be 'farmy'? Even after several free samples, I still didn't get it.

It wasn't all cheese however. I also spoke to people from Scarlett's (Scotland) Honey, who currently have around 1000 hives. I thought that sounded quite a lot, but when the lady explained to me that they also have to move the hives around during the season so that the bees get more variety, it occur ed to me that this must be seriously hard work! By moving the hives, the bees are exposed to a greater variety of flowers, which makes for a different flavour to the honey then if they were simply left in the one place.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was a company called Mash Direct, who are making and selling ready mashed vegetables. Now, normally I am deeply sceptical of such things and always tend to give the pre-chopped salad, pre-grated cheese and pre-mashed vegetables a wide berth at the supermarket. However, whilst working my way through my free sample of mashed potato and turnip (which was very nice, I have to say), I got talking to the guy running the stall. He explained that their thinking was that by pre-mashing the vegetables, the appearance was no longer so important. We've all heard about supermarkets being so fussy about what vegetables have to look like before they can be placed on the shelves. Apparently, by cunningly avoiding this problem, Mash Direct are able to use older and more flavoursome varieties of vegetable. To be honest, I didn't buy it, I think the real issue is that we need to move away from this idea that every vegetable has to look a certain way, rather then resorting to pre-mashing our vegetables so that no one has to see how ugly they are.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Pork pies

I heard on Saturday Kitchen this morning that Melton Mowbray pork pies have recently been awarded 'Protected Geographical Indication'. This means that they have legal protection against imitation products across the EU! Champagne has famously enjoyed similar status for many years now.

Check out the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association website for more details:

I think this is exactly what British food needs because it will hopefully lead to increased recognition of quality, regional produce. All to often, when people think of British food, or try to name some classic British dishes, they can only think of the bog standard 'fish and chips'. Fish and chips can be great, but British food has so much more to offer then that! Think of Stilton cheese, Lincolnshire sausages, Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pastie, I could go on and on. I think it is a real shame that we seem to have almost completely forgotten that we have so much regional variation and that 'British food' isn't a single genre.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Tomato chutney

I mentioned a few posts ago that the tomato chutney had turned out to be a bit of a disaster. I have to say that it tasted amazing, it was really fresh and crisp and went really well with sausages. Oddly enough, after having been left to mature for 3 months in the stainless steel container, everything was fine. But, once it had been open for a few weeks I noticed that the container had begun to leak. Closer inspection revealed that the side was beginning to split and it was obvious from the inside that some form of reaction was going on between the tomato chutney and the steel. As you can see, it didn't look good:
So, I decided it was probably best not to eat any more of it :-(

Well, I shall just have to make some more, which I can do now that British tomatoes are back in season. This time, however, I shall use some glass jars to store it!

Grilled salmon fillet

I've mentioned grilled salmon fillets a few times now, so it seem about time to put up a bit more information! I usually cook my salmon using the following method:

Step 1: Lightly season the fillets with salt and freshly ground black pepper on all sides, including the skin side. Then add finely chopped Dill to the side without the skin, as shown:

Step 2: Next heat some oil in a pan. Notice that I'm using the Oleffra cold-pressed rape-seed oil here, this isn't strictly necessary, but it is at least British!
Step 3: Get the pan nice and hot and then fry the fillets, starting skin side down. You can tell when they are ready to turn by looking at the side, once it has turned pale pink up to about the middle, it's time to turn it over. I prefer not to over cook the salmon, but at the same time, you don't want it raw in the middle either. I have found that it takes a bit of practice to get this right and, of course, depends on the size of the fillets. However, it generally takes about 10 - 15 minutes to get them just right. You can always make sure by cutting into one to see how it's doing on the inside. This spoils the presentation a bit, but at least you know it's done! :-)

Step 4: Serve with boiled potatoes and peas, as shown:

Step 5: Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 June 2008

In season...

Many interesting things are coming back into season now! I noticed last week that British tomatoes are back on the shelves in Sainsburys. Although, I got a punnet or British grown, yellow tomatoes from the farmers market a few weeks before that. My tomato chutney turned out to be a bit of a disaster, but I'll say more of the that once I'm able to put the photos online... So, this gives me the chance to try making some more.

Asparagus is back in season, so I expect to be cooking one of my many classic dishes - grilled salmon fillet on a bed of lightly steamed asparagus. Super.

Local strawberries and raspberries seem to be big at the moment. I don't actually eat all that much fruit, but if I'm going to have either strawberries or raspberries, I only ever get British ones in season, simply because they taste so much better then the imported ones you can get at any time of the year.

Edinburgh taste festival

Well, it has been a long time since my last post again! I must say, however, that the eating British thing is still going on, I've just been far too busy with work and stuff to be able to update the blog for a while.

Anyway, this weekend saw the Channel 4 Taste Festival come to Edinburgh again. Since I missed it last year, I figured that I really should make the effort to go this year. I only went to the evening session, on Saturday, but I think that was enough.

It was quite expensive, I paid £25.00 for a premium ticket, which included £15 worth of 'crowns'. For some reason, none of the stall inside accept (real) money or plastic, so they use their own, internal 'currency'. Strange, but fair enough. I was a bit annoyed that from the outside, there was no way of knowing how much things were going to cost once you got in, so it was quite difficult to work out whether it was worth buying the premium ticket for £25.00, or simple getting a regular ticket for £12.50. Still, that's only a small complain really.

Once inside, the event had a really nice, festival type of atmosphere. There were stands there representing many of the more exclusive restaurants in Edinburgh, such as David Bann, Fourth Floor at Harvey Nichols and Tigerlily, to give just three examples. I suppose the great thing about this festival is that you get the chance to sample the food from such restaurants, for somewhat less then it would cost to actually go there (I assume, I don't think I've been to any of the restaurants that were there). This isn't for free however, the cost of the 'meals' varies from 6 crowns, up to 10 crowns. Many of the main courses cost 10 crowns. I have to say that the portion sizes were extremely disappointing and I heard many people around the festival complaining about that. I guess that it's only supposed to be a taste, but when you've forked out 10 crowns (equivalent to £5) for a dish and you get only two or three spoonfuls, it does rather feel like your being ripped off a bit.

After inspecting all of the restaurant stands, I was quite hungry. I went for three main course options; the braised shin of Ross-shire beef, pearl barley and root vegetables from Martin Wishart. I also had the confit breast of Borders lamb with Ayrshire potatoes and nicoise garnish from Number One at The Balmoral and, for something a bit different, I went for the spicy Thai smoked tofu fritters, with homemade mango chutney, plum sauce and mustard leaf from David Bann. I have to say that they were all very good, although the shin of beef wasn't really anything special. I tried to have a burger from Malmaison, but the queue for these was huge. They were clearly very popular, but I suspect that this was more because people had figured out that they represented the nearest thing to a proper meal at the whole festival, rather then there being something amazing about the burgers themselves.

As well as the restaurant stands, there were also three or four live theatres, where they were holding regular shows on various food topics. I went along to a talk titled "Discover the secrets of Scotland's natural larder" which was given by Sue Lawrence. From the title, I was expecting to learn about great local food, particularly local delicacies that grow here in Scotland. Sadly, the talk itself fell rather short on this front. She cooked (live) a creamy chicken risotto (not exactly a traditional Scottish dish), smocked haddock and black pudding done in the over (I'm not sure what she called this now) and an Orkney fudge cheese cake. They all looked amazing, but guess what? No one got to try them out! This really surprised me, she had easily made enough of each one that everyone who was watching could have had a taste, so I really don't understand why they didn't do that. In terms of the risotto, she added chopped up Ayrshire bacon. Interestingly, she explain that Scotland has only one local cure of bacon, which is the Ayrshire bacon. England, in contrast has many different ones. She finally served the risotto with Parmesan cheese, again, hardly from Scotland's natural larder... But, she did point out that it worked very well with Isle of Mull Cheddar.

The smoked haddock and black pudding was rather more interesting. She was using uncoloured smoked haddock, so not the bright yellow, high visibility variety. She placed these on a baking tray, rolled up slightly and stacked a slice of Stornoway black pudding on top of each one, so at least this was local. She then wrapped each of these in a rasher of Ayrshire bacon. This then went into a hot over, along with some cherry tomatoes, at 230C for around 10 minutes.

The cheese cake was simply made from grated Orkney fudge, mixed with cream cheese and lightly whipped double cream. When left over night, the fudge apparently melts into the other ingredients, making it all smooth and creamy. For the base, she recommended either an oaty biscuit, or a shortbread biscuit. I will have to try this one out next time it's my turn to make cake at work! In conclusion, it was all very interesting, but I felt slightly cheated by the title of the talk!

I also went to a talk by Clare MacDonald, who replaced Antony Worral Thompson. Apparently, he couldn't be there because it was his wife's birthday. Honestly, I'm sure I would have been able to come up with a better excuse then that! :-) Clare talked and talked and talked. Eventually it became clear that she wasn't going to be doing any cooking at all, so people started to drift away. Before I succumbed to the temptation to find something more interesting, she talked about how she considered food to be the central core of family life - a point of communication, and how important it was for everyone to sit down and eat together. She also argued that there are so much 'myth and misery' about food at the moment. We're constantly being told that we mustn't eat this and we mustn't eat that. She pointed out that moderation is the key and that it's much better to enjoy the food you like, but not to eat too much of it, then to eat it and feel guilty. The phrase 'no s**t, Sherlock' sprang to mind. She did, however, also stick up for local food. Interestingly, it was at this point that a noticeable number of people got up and left. She argued that it is vital to support the local economy, something I completely agree with. She particularly mentioned British pork, something that I have written about here already. Now, of course, the people who left at this point may well have simply hit their boredom threshold, but there do seem to be quite a number of people who find this idea of supporting local farmers to be something quite offensive. It's almost as if they consider farming to be something dirty and unclean, which should be done far away in other counties where we can't see it. Strange.

Overall, it was an enjoyable way to spend the evening, especially since the weather was amazing! Typically, there were plenty of lobster pink people by the time I left.