Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Fern Verrow

Crab apples
at Fern Verrow

Like many people I find I'm eating more and more fruit and vegetables these days so I thought it was time to write about some of my favourite places to buy what I can't grow.  I'm lucky to have a small biodynamic allotment.  It's impossible to explain biodynamics in one sentence but both organic and biodynamic gardening has an emphasis on the soil rather than, as in conventional gardening, the plant.  The idea is to work with nature rather than try to dominate or subdue her. Biodynamics goes further than organics in that, as the Biodynamic Association puts it, practitioners believe "vital soil = vital food".  Follow the link to the Association if you want to know more.

at Fern Vera

I know from talking to friends there are many good independent greengrocers in London, so if I'm going to tell you about some they had better be pretty special.  I'm starting with the cream of the crop, Fern Verrow.  Before I got my hands on an allotment where I could put my enthusiasm into practice, I bought from Fern Verrow every week.  Back then they set up stall at London's Borough Market on Saturdays.  The 16 acre farm, in the foothills of the Black Mountains in Herefordshire, is farmed by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley to biodynamic principles.  Truly seasonal, almost everything is outdoor grown with one greenhouse for tomatoes, cucumbers and some salad leaves. The farm produces over 300 varieties of vegetables. Pigs, cattle, sheep and poultry are reared. These days Fern Verrow harvests on a Friday and makes the round trip to London setting out their produce on Saturdays at Spa Terminus  in Bermondsey.  Almost everything you will find is grown on the farm.  Anything that isn't is carefully selected from like-minded organic and biodynamic producers.

'Custard' Pattypan squash
at Fern Verrow

As a biodynamic grower I can appreciate the amount of effort that goes into the produce harvested from this system.  If you are in any doubt about biodynamic growing being worth the effort, just take a look at the produce here. Squeaky-fresh cabbages follow the seasons from pale green Spring to autumn/winter's spectacularly beautiful green/purple January King; heads of super-fresh lettuce keep for days, not because they've been kept cold in bags pumped with gases but because they are bursting with real freshness and goodness; summer sees sweet soft-necked Florence Red onions and courgettes, straight and crook-necked; soft fruit arrives in the form of raspberries, strawberries, loganberries, jostaberries and, if you're lucky, their own farm-grown peaches.  From late summer, potatoes make an appearance and several varieties take the season right through into the following year.  In autumn/winter squash and pumpkins take centre stage along with leeks, parsnips, chard, and brassicas.  These are joined by apples and pears.  Apart from a scant few weeks in mid-winter, the seasonal bounty keeps on coming all year round.  Some excellent meat from the farm's pigs, cattle, sheep and poultry also makes it to the table.  From spring to autumn there's a stunning selection of flowers thanks to a cutting garden and meadow.

at Fern Verrow

Seeing what Fern Verrow grow has inspired my own planting over the years.  I almost wish I didn't grow quite so much myself so that I could sweep up the bounty from those laden trestle tables each week.  Growing biodynamically is as labour-intensive as cultivating can be. Food of this quality doesn't come cheap but Fern Verrow really is as good as it gets.  Even though, or maybe because, I grow some of my fruit and vegetables biodynamically I am in awe of what Fern Verrow achieve.  I do  grow a fair proportion of what my household needs but, sometimes, a few special things still find there way into my shopping bag on a Saturday.  If you want the very best, it's definitely to be found in this little corner of Bermondsey.

Fern Verrow
Tel: 01981510288

Fern Verrow trade Saturdays 8.30-2pm at:
Spa Terminus
Unit 10
Dockley Road Industrial Estate
London SE16 3SF

Spa Terminus map 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Chocolate Brownies

Double Chocolate Brownie 1

I never thought I would post a recipe for chocolate brownies.  There are a million-and-one takes on the brownie out there but not one has lived up to my expectations.  There are the tooth-jangling over-sweet versions, the much too 'cakey' ones, the brownie that's really a chocolate and the 'let's throw everything in' options.  Finding a recipe that suits everyone is a challenge.  The kids don't like the chocolate too bitter; the adults don't want it too milk; others can't abide nuts.  I give up.  At least for a while.  Then inevitably someone utters those dread words "can we have brownies", and I'm back on the quest for a good recipe.

Double Chocolate Brownie 2

I reach for my cuttings file - am I the only person who still does this in the age of the internet?  Biscuits to Vegetables by way of Eggs, Game and Preserves, scraps of paper carefully filed away in case they should disappear into the ether of the on-line world, or a fat finger should find the delete button.  There it was, an, as yet, untried recipe filed under 'Puddings, incl cakes' (such is my patent filing system).  OK, I didn't have all the ingredients - the wrong chocolate and nowhere near enough walnuts - so a bit of artistic licence would be coming in to play.  But look where sticking rigidly to recipes had got me up to now.

Double Chocolate Brownie 3

So thank you Tom Kitchin for the sound recipe, and excuse my tweaking it out of necessity.  By using two-thirds dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) and one-third milk (34% cocoa solids), hardly any walnuts and going easy on the vanilla, I produced a brownie everyone liked - even me.  Finally, I've got my recipe.  Just need to make sure I file that scrap of paper.

Double Chocolate Brownie (adapted from Kitchin Suppers by Tom Kitchen)
(makes 15 pieces)

200g unsalted butter, diced
200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
100g milk chocolate (34% cocoa solids), chopped
90g plain flour
A pinch of sea salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
3 medium eggs
250g soft dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
50g walnuts, chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 170C (Fan 150C)/Gas 3.  Line a 30 x 20cm x 4cm baking tin with baking parchment.  
Put the butter, 150g dark and 50g milk chocolate in a heatproof bowl and place of a pan of simmering water until melted.  Stir until smooth then remove the bowl from the pan and allow to cool a little.
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into another bowl and set aside.
In a third large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract until slightly thickened. Fold in the melted chocolate/butter mixture then gently fold in the sifted flour followed by the remaining chopped 50g dark and 50g milk chocolate and the chopped walnuts.
Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking tin, gently spreading it into the corners. Bake for 20-25 minutes.  The top should be nicely crusted but the brownie still soft in the middle.  Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes.  Carefully lift the cake out of the tin and allow to cool on a wire rack before cutting into 15 squares.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Give a Fig - stuffed and roasted

Roasted stuffed figs

It's peak fig season and if you were in any doubt that this has been an exceptional summer in the UK, check out the English figs reaching markets this year.  Yes, keen gardeners do plant fig trees but outdoor grown figs at best amount to a semi-ripe handful of fruit; at worst, a maddeningly unripe crop of waxy green globes.  Summer's lease usually expires right when we're thinking just one more week of sun, please.  So, if you don't have your own fig tree, the chances of getting even a single English-grown fruit is, usually, a forlorn hope.

The fig is a member of the mulberry family.  Notable European figs include Black Ischia, (dark purple in colour with golden flecks and a luscious violette-red pulp); Adriatic, (a green fig tinged with purple or red with a deep red interior); and the sweet Marseilles, (coloured yellow/green with green flecks and a white pulp).
"... couldn't give a fig"
meaning: to care little, or not at all

The Romans brought figs to England but very few of the more than 800 recorded species can be grown in our damp, cool climate.  They can do well grown in containers if placed in a sunny spot and brought into a cool frost-free place to over-winter.  Unlike Mediterranean areas where two harvests a year are expected, we're lucky to get a single useable crop.  Figs will not ripen after picking so fruits need to be harvested when they are yielding to the touch between September and October.  A droop in the stalk is a good invitation to try your luck.  RHS advice is to remove any large fruits that have failed to ripen in autumn but leave any pea-sized embryonic fruit.  If they survive the winter, these are the fruits that could provide you with a useable crop.  Fruits formed in the spring may ripen on trees grown in a greenhouse but rarely on outdoor trees.

Ripe fig

The best varieties of fig for our English climate are Brown Turkey.  Its skin ripens to a rich coppery-brown with whitish flesh shading to pink or light red; Violette de Bordeaux is a small purple/black fruit with a strawberry coloured pulp; Madeleine de Deux Saisons bears yellow, amber-tinged fruits with flesh a delicate shade of pink; and the Brunswick fig which ripens to yellow with red flesh.  If you yearn for your own fig tree, you might enjoy this recent piece by Anna Pavord on the subject.

Figs respond to both sweet and savoury pairings.  They go deliciously with a good pecorino or a slice of prosciutto.  As a dessert, a perfectly ripe fig is perfection just as it is.  Some need a little help to bring out their best, but less is definitely more - a sprinkle of sugar or a spoon of honey and a little heat work wonders.  If you want it to look like you've made an effort, try these almond stuffed figs. This recipe is based on a memory of a Rose Carrarini way with figs, which must go back 10 years or more.  I looked in vain for the recipe in her book Breakfast-Lunch-Tea.  My recollection is bound to be not quite accurate, but this buttery, orange scented almond mixture works for me.

Stuffed & Roasted Figs
(Serves 4)

8 large (or 12 small) ripe figs
50g (2oz) unsalted butter, softened
25g (1oz) unrefined caster sugar (or vanilla sugar if you have it)
50g (2oz) almonds (skin on), roasted then ground
Zest of 1 orange

Pre-heat oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4.
Beat the butter and sugar until pale in colour.  Incorporate the ground almonds and orange zest.  Slice the top of each of the figs and keep to one side.  Scoop out a teaspoon of pulp from each and mash it into the creamed mixture.  Spoon the mixture into the figs - pile it high - and replace the caps.  Place in a baking dish and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.  Test if ready by giving a fig a gentle squeeze - if it feels soft and releases a little juice they are ready.  Serve straight away with a little cream or crème fraîche.  However, you choose to treat them, give a fig!