Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Woodcock Experience

In case you don’t know, woodcock is traditionally served grilled on toast, and the guts and brains are eaten spread on the toast.

I had understood that something about the way woodcocks feed and digest makes their insides more edible than those of other species, but have been unable to find out exactly what that might be.

A kind client gave me a wild woodcock that he’d shot. I plucked it (inexpertly and possibly lazily, as you can see from the photo) and it felt really odd not having to gut it afterwards.

I didn’t have any decent bread that evening, so I split a wholemeal pitta bread and put one side in an oven dish, inside up. I then put the woodcock on the bread (beak under wing – again, a traditional thing) and put big wedges of butter over the bird, before cooking in a very hot oven, until crisp. I know, it looks like a horrible scorched alien foetus. It had been pretty and cute as a feathered corpse.

I dived straight in and attacked the flesh, which was unexpectedly solid. After a little nibble of the meat (very strong, dark, gamey and ‘ripe’), I broke the body apart and moved on to the guts before I could chicken out.

Having regularly come into close contact with the guts of other fowls, their smell and their contents, I was a quite scared of eating those of the woodcock. Especially as its squiggley intestines were white, like bird poo. (All other birds I’ve gutted had brown intestines. I’m not sure which is worse.) Would I be able to handle it? Would I have to admit weakness?

It was nice! Much more pleasant than my first taste of the woodcock meat! Relieved, I enjoyed all manner of its innards spread on the pitta, which had essentially deep-fried in the butter, so was exceptionally tasty. The only drawback was that I had to avoid lots of bitter blood - the body cavity was full of it, and the guts encased in it. The flavour of the intestines was like other delicate offal; sweetbreads etc. The heart, liver and other normal bits and pieces were the same as in any other game bird, but smaller.

With quite a bit of effort, I managed to crack open the head and was rewarded with a miniscule quantity of brain – so small that I didn’t bother with toast. It was creamy and nice as any brain should be. Only tiny. How does a creature manage to grow a beak, feathers, innards, skin, and fly, eat, nest, mate, lay eggs, incubate etc with the instructions from such a weeny brain?

Once I’d exhausted the guts and brain, I went back to the meat. Interesting! Mainly dark, densely textured, gamey meat, like tough wild duck. But there were also seams of white, extremely moist and tender meat, similar to rabbit.

I wonder how much woodcocks vary in terms of eating qualities?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

London Oyster Tasting, Oyster Festival & SO Much More

Oyster Tasting, Rabbit Terrine & Terrific Steak. And Foie Gras and Crème Caramel. And More.

London is falling back in love with oysters. Of course, there have always been individuals here who have been willing to hunt down a regular supply and pay for the privilege. But the new wave of interest in oysters goes beyond the generic and is reaching out for the plethora of scents and flavours that are produced by the oysters’ species, environment and the season you're eating them in, and this is making oysters a more accessible treat. I can't tell you what good news this discovery is for me, having recently moved to London from France, especially as the current interest is focussed on UK-produced specimens.

As part of their Oyster Festival (November 2011 – April 2012), Boisdale and Wright Brothers teamed up to host the Oyster Tasting Championships 2011. A panel of epicurean judges picked six winners, including three native and three rock:

Rock Category
Gold – Poole, Dorset supplied by Dorset Oysters
Silver – Maldon Rock supplied by Maldon Oysters
Bronze – Portland supplied by Fleet Oyster Farm, Dorset

Native Category
Gold – Loch Ryan supplied by Rossmore Oysters
Silver – Duchy of Cornwall supplied by Wright Brothers
Bronze – Maldon supplied by Maldon Oysters

Native oysters at Boisdale

For the duration of the festival all Boisdale restaurants and Wright Brothers Soho are serving all six winners on Boisdale’s ‘Six Medal Plate’, so oyster lovers - or anyone who is curious - can enjoy a tasting session of their own. It’s the only way to fully appreciate the differences between each variety. They are also half price from 5-6pm Monday to Friday during the festival.

This will take us a little further along the way towards oysters becoming commonplace and therefore more accessible for everyone (cheaper). Not that I want to devalue the wonderous oyster or its farmer - but a booming mainstream industry would fund itself nicely.

Anyway, I went to try the platter of winners at Boisdales in Canary Wharf, and had a great time. The only drawback as an oyster-explorer was that we weren’t able to establish which oyster was which. Boisdale & Wright Brothers, can your chefs supply labels? I’ll gladly go back and try them again, possibly on multiple occasions, if my oysters came labelled. I want to not only taste the difference but learn which one tastes of what, please.

Way More Than Just Oysters

For me, an oyster-tasting session is extremely exciting in itself.

Foie gras is also enough to animate me, and ditto top-notch steak. So, I was quite overwhelmed by consuming the following menu at Boisdales, after the oysters:

Generous slice of foie gras (sadly a bit over-cooked for my taste but nice to have anyway) with a truly fantastic rabbit terrine, containing all sorts of perfectly placed surprises, like pistachios and fruit.

Wonderful rare filet steak and trimmings – can’t remember the trimmings as the steak stole the show, just as it should.

Delicious (if inappropriate after such a heavy meal) crème caramel with a rich chantilly.

Each course was served with a well-matched wine, starting with champagne with nibbles and finishing up on sauternes with dessert.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pot Roast Partridge

A client gave me a beautiful partridge he'd shot in Ireland. It was the first chance I'd had in ages to pluck, gut and prep a bird for the table, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process - precious memories of self-sufficiency came flooding back. It seemed strange to be plucking a fowl in London!

I cooked the partridge whole with stock vegetables (leek, celeriac, onion, lots of garlic), thyme, chanterelles, horns of plenty, a little red wine and water. I also added the bird's heart, liver, feet and gizzard to the stock, and draped bacon over it, before covering and cooking gently for about 90 minutes. I then uncovered it and cooked until the bacon was crispy, before taking the bacon off and crisping up the partridge's skin. I served it with kale and grilled it's feet as a tasty, crunchy accompaniment.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Danish Delicacies

Just got back from a wonderful weekend with the gals, visiting a friend who lives in Copenhagen.

We managed to pack quite an impressive number of local delicacies into our two days, including numerous tasters at a food market. We bought an amazing pesto gouda and an extremely strong, soft, nutty artisan gouda, tasted licorice and chili salami (surprisingly and stunningly good), and we cooked ourselves traditional meatballs. I love the Scandinavian breakfasts of slivers of cheese on bread or rye bread.

I was in my element when we sat outside a restaurant by the quay and shared platters of mixed seafood specialities, including smoked salmon, rollmops and other cured fish, all washed down with akvavit. We chose one akvavit that had been matured in barrels while being sailed to the equator and back, which was mellow and caramelly, whilst still very clean-tasting. The other one we sampled was flavoured with dill. It was exceptionally good, went beautifully with the food, of course, and sipping it made transported me to wooden cabins in forests and on heathery heaths.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fragrant Figs

A timely visit to my parents' place in Sussex, meant I could scrump some of their massive fragrant figs, at optimum ripeness. I took them back to London to have with Greek yoghurt and the wonderfully nutty, toasty Ugandan honey that my Dad gave me ages ago. They made a very special breakfast, accompanied by coffee and enjoyed on the sunny terrace.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Italian Deli Delivery, London

I was very disappointed that the local supermarket didn't have buffalo mozzarella to go with the basil growing in the garden - I had a real craving for it. But then I remembered I am now in London, so I can get what I want whenever I want it!

The next day the rather strangely named Nifeislife delivered several balls of real buffalo mozzarella straight from Italy. It had only been in the buffalo a few days previously! The online Italian deli flies in the cheese from Campania - home of the original mozzarella di bufala - twice a week.

I also got some superbly complex, soft and sweet parma ham that is freshly sliced by Nifeislife's in-house chef, some lovely mini plum tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, and some interesting buckwheat pasta called pizzoccheri.

There's loads to choose from on the site, but next I will definitely be trying some burrata cheese (mozzarella style cheese with a soft creamy centre), and provola - a smoked fresh mozzarella. They also do mozzarella plaits that I used to go mad for when they had them in Waitrose, as well as countless non-mozzarella-based products!

Still can't believe these things can be delivered the same day or next day, right to my door, and Nifeislife is no more expensive than a normal Italian deli, but without the travel expenses and time of getting there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Borough Market, London

After recovering from the awful Thailand trip, I was about to start another adventure; moving to London. I'll still have my tiny stone cottage to escape to in France, but for work I really needed to be smack bang in the middle of things. So, after eight years of the good life, I said goodbye to the markets, foraging, foie gras, walnuts, my garden and close friends. Some things I would really miss, but there is plenty I am looking forward to about being in the UK and in The City. Here they are:

• Food from around the world, including top quality Spanish, Italian, Asian and tropical ingredients and produce. Just can't get them in France.

• Massive choice of high quality restaurants for every imaginable cuisine.

• Fish 'n chips, real ale, pork pies etc., freely available around every corner.

• The buzz, and a cutting edge, cosmopolitan vibe - rural France is backward. That can be charming if you want to get in touch with local customs and traditional recipes, but it sadly goes hand in hand with fascist attitudes; arrogance about the local way of doing things, racism, xenophobia, sexism... and don't get me started on the bizarre gender politics. This does also reflect in a very 'stuck' cuisine, with irritating, unsophisticated chefs assuming a celebrity persona because they manage to present their dated dishes with a couple of inappropriate chives crossed over the top.

• London-residing friends who I'll be able to see regularly again.

• Decent music scene.

One of my first commissions after arriving in London was to write about British food heritage for an Indian lifestyle magazine. I needed to take photos of scones, clotted cream and pork pies among other things, so I went a mere 15 minutes up the road to the fantabulous Borough Market at London Bridge. I found plenty for my photos and article, as well as plenty more for myself. There was even a demonstration of how to make pork pies.

I tried essex oysters, buffalo mozzarella 'ice cream' cones doused in pesto, black pepper cheese, village taboulé and goats' milk ice cream. Bring it on!

Mmmm clotted creeaaam :P

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thailand Food Adventure

After many years of almost weeping from jealousy while watching inspiring footage of Rick Stein sampling street food in Thai markets, I finally made it there myself. Sadly, the experience was rather ...difficult. I did manage to thoroughly enjoy the food that I had, and explored what was on offer as much as possible, under the circumstances. A combination of frequent rain (it was not supposed to be rainy season), all my money being nicked from my room (my insurance wouldn't pay up) and - worst of all - a truly terrible tropical skin infection, conspired to make enjoying anything a challenge. The best bit was the food, of course, but I was so ill from the skin thing that I couldn't even face the fried insects that I'd normally be dying to try.

So, for once I won't bore you with a long story about the beautiful places I stayed in (e.g. beach shack on Ko Chang island), the elephant ride, the warm sea and the mountains covered in lush tropical greenery, or other colourful descriptions about every part of the adventure. I'll just stick up the food photos below and succinctly annotate.

The skin thing, by the way, was finally diagnosed in the UK 3 weeks after my return as the moving larvae of dog hookworm. Lovely. You pick it up from damp tropical beaches.

Ko Samet Island

First meal in Thailand was lunch at a beach restaurant, of squid salad so hot with chili my eyes were streaming. "Yes!", I thought, "This is what I was after". That evening we went to a restaurant that doubled as a tattoo parlour and contained a moped. This was the kitchen, where the lady made a delicious tasty prawn dish in literally about two minutes. Fresh ingredients, oil, spices and pastes, wok, heat, finito.

Resulting dish - fast food Thai style

There were food sellers that walked up and down the beaches carrying their wares or ingredients on each end of bendy bamboo sticks. This guy was making spicy papaya salad, with shredded green papaya, roasted peanuts, fresh chilies and garlic, dried shrimps, green 'snake' beans, palm sugar, limes, tomato and a mix of oil and ginger. Wonderful!

Papaya salad

On the other end of the papaya salad makers' bamboo are full-on barbecues with marinated chicken cooking over them

Barbecued chicken served with sweet chili sauce

Another beach food-seller. This time, dried barbecued squid and hard-boiled eggs. Really tasty snack!

Ko Samet greengrocers

Deep fried morning glory, with seafood salad

Spicy squid dish

Selection of bugs. Want to try them now, but couldn't stomach them at the time due to feel under the weather - I really wasn't myself!

I did manage to eat a chicken foot before I was too ill, but it wasn't crispy how I like them; flacid fat horrible batter with barely cooked boney old foot inside. Bugs would have been a better option!

Ko Chang Island

The best restaurant at Lonely Beach:

Grilled catfish

Lovely stash of ingredients in the open kitchen. The kitchen and grill were at the front, tables and chairs behind.


Pickled crab in papaya salad, with squid, prawns and morning glory in a spicy sauce.

By 'pickled' I think they mean 'put in salt water for a few seconds'. I attempted pickled crab a couple times, but would never choose it again. It's just really hard-shelled raw crab with no trace of any meat! Impossible to get a taste for these inedible little bastards, pretending to be food. Everything else served with them was great, though.

Photo taken just before the elephant sprayed me with water from her nose. Nice.

Brilliant Bang Bao fishing village, all built on stilts

Fishing boats


I had a day of looking at numerous temples, crossing the river by ferry and searching out food stalls. Had a good time at the beautiful Flower Market - which also contains a food market.

Garlic stalls that put France to shame



Dried fish stall

Thai roti is like a cross between an english pancake and a Caribbean roti. It was fried in loads of ghee and very nice too.

My last meal in Thailand; street food. Fantastic, extremely hot fish dish. The big chunks of white fish (no idea what species) were so tough, I had to get out my swiss army knife to eat it. I don't know how locals managed with the bendy plastic cutlery or chop sticks. Really enjoyed it though.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


These little tubers resemble fat maggots, but still manage to look appetising - you can almost see that Crosnes (Chinese artichokes) are crunchy and juicy. They are very moreish if munched raw - great in salads. They retain their crunchiness if boiled or steamed, and their mild, nutty flavour benefits from some salty melted butter. They reach a high price in posh markets around the world, but are also pretty cheap in places where they are commonplace. I got a whole bag for about €1 from the local French market. One thing that is harder to come by in France is water chestnuts, and crosnes make an ideal substitute.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freshly Roasted Peanuts

Since my visit to Sierra Leone, about 4 years ago, I've been keeping an eye out for fresh, uncooked peanuts. The roasted peanuts I had there were sooo much tastier than those you buy in a packet in Europe, and I was hoping to recreate the flavour. I wondered if they needed boiling first (they are often served simply boiled in Sierra Leone, when they are served warm, crunchy, slightly sweet and juicy) or weather simply toasting would transform their translucent flesh into the waxy nut we are familiar with in The West. I finally found out when I was rewarded for my regular greengrocer searches by these fresh peanuts (AKA groundnuts) in a Grand Frais supermarket in France.

The first attempt at recreation was to grill them, skin on, until thoroughly browned. And it worked! The papery skin came away easily, and I was left with delicious African-style roasted peanuts, to dip in flakey salt. Yes, I may have to work on evenness of toasting, but the flavour was spot-on.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Baby Goats Being Born!

I needed to speak to the farmer two days ago. In the distance, I saw her slip into the barn through a side door, so I followed her. I walked into a utility room, with brooms and buckets and lots of grey cement. I called out quite a few times, but no answer, so I pushed open the interior door that I assumed must lead into the main section of the barn.

Immediately to my right as I looked around the door, were large goats in their stalls, head through the wooden bars, munching hay just next to my face. I had the right place. I called out again, but still no answer, so I walked further in. This barn looks so industrial, cold and unfriendly from the outside, but is magical inside: Everything nestles on a thick bed of hay; dusty, yellow sunlight gives everything a warm, honey colour; massive round hay bails tuck everything and make it feel cosy; the dozens of goats crunch slowly and rhythmically on the hay.

I saw some movement at the other end of the barn, and called out again. This time, she turned around and said "Oh, so you found me, then?"

I went over to this lovely, smiley, twinkly-eyed lady, and we talked for a minute about nothing much. I asked if the baby goats had started to be born, and looked into the stalls. No kids were visible, and the farmer said "No, not yet - very soon now, though".

When the babies are born each February, they are mostly kept in an old stone farm building next to my cottage. Yesterday evening, I heard some teeny bleeting next door, as the first kid was born, and the farmer lady saying "the-e-e-e-ere now, my beauty, there now". Such an amazing thing to hear happening!

Since then, I've heard a few more making their way out, and look forward to helping the farmer feed them. They nuzzle and rub and bleat for stokes and attention. It always makes me sad, though; they are crying for their mummies, and every time they hear me move outside I get a cacophony of bleating in response. But our society means that it is very expensive to raise goats naturally with their mum, so the babies will all be sold on for less than a euro in a few weeks' time. Some will only be a few hours old when they are sold and taken away in a lorry, some a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the pining mothers - whilst lucky to be in a beautiful, cosy barn, with a caring farmer, will not even get to suckle the kids they carried for months. The babies are fed by bottle, and the whole point of the pregnancy was the subsequent milk production, so the mums now fulfill their destiny.

I do know goat farmers locally who do things the old fashioned way, and let the mothers live with their babies and suckle them, despite the farmers taking some milk for cheese. But this is rare. They are a dying breed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ethiopian Cooking

I have a lovely, rustic ‘Exotic Ethiopian Cooking’ book*, that my brother bought for me in Ethiopia. It has loads of information about food culture in Ethiopia, as well as hundreds of inspiring and interesting recipes, including some for fermented drinks.

A lot of the recipes require ingredients I can’t get in France, so the first recipe I’ve tried requires callaloo (collard greens in American), which I have growing in the garden, along with other very simple ingredients. The results were outstanding.

The recipe is for ‘Collard Green Mixed In Spiced Cottage Cheese’. Sounds very simple, but you need to make your own cottage cheese, because shop-bought stuff won’t work at all.

So, starting a few days in advance, I bought raw milk and let it go sour for a couple of days on a warm windowsill. Then, you shake the milk in a jar, until it turns into [exceptionally wonderful] butter. Put the butter in the fridge, and then heat the buttermilk really gently, until the curds separate. Once cool, refrigerate, and you now have homemade cottage cheese! It is amazing. It tastes like mozzarella, and, when heated, behaves like it, too.

Homemade cottage cheese

For the dish:

• Chop callaloo (you can also use spinach) and boil for a few minutes
• Mix black pepper and butter with the cottage cheese
• Stir in the hot callaloo.
• Serve with injera or other thin flatbread, or as a side dish

You can also mix in spices, like chili, caraway, cumin, cardamom, coriander seed etc and I felt it needed some salt, too.

This is a really special dish. I can’t wait to try some more Ethiopian recipes, and Ethiopia is very high up on my list of adventure destinations…

*Book by D J Mesfin, published by Ethiopian Cookbook Enterprises.