|Fern Verrow - A year of recipes|
from a farm and its kitchen
Let me say from the outset that I know the authors of this book, in as much as I've bought produce grown on their farm ever since they started to load up a van and bring it down to London for sale most Saturdays. Last Saturday they slipped some copies of the book on the back of the van so I was able to buy a copy a few days before publication date. I grow some of my own fruit and veg so I know a little bit about where this book is coming from. I'm an enthusiast, but that's not the reason I found this book difficult to put down. The Fern Verrow land is farmed biodynamically, but this is not a book only for those of us who embrace the methods of Rudolf Steiner. If you care about how your food is grown and how it's cooked you'll love how this book draws you in with its rhythmic prose and page after page of recipes for simple seasonal food that honours the ingredients. This is food that you really want to eat.
'Verrow' comes from an old French term for a split in the land around which water flows. It describes perfectly the lie-of-the-land on the Herefordshire border with Wales in which the farm, Fern Verrow, sits. Lindsay Sekulowicz's hand-drawn map at the front of the book gives the reader a wonderful orientation to the land being described. Here is the acreage where Jane Scotter and Harry Astley raised a family while turning the land into the farm of their dreams. Here, in one of the most unspoiled areas of England, they have laboured long and hard, learning "to adapt and to live with the rhythms and cycles of the year" working in "partnership" with the land. This book concentrates on how they work and cook from "the engine room of the farm", the kitchen, where every day starts and ends and where they always find time for cooking. Many books of recipes claim to be 'seasonal'. The writers of this book know the true meaning of the word. In their words, this book "is a place to pass on our recipes, as well as the understanding of food and its cultivation that we have developed over the years. It is a celebration of what nature provides. It encourages imagination and consideration in the kitchen, and the pleasures of cooking well, with an appreciation of the different vegetables, fruit and meat as they arrive at our tables throughout the course of the year."
Fern Verrow, the book, like the farm is tied to the 4 seasons, here represented by the classical elements of Earth - Winter, where everything starts, from the ground up; Water - Spring, bringing the sprouting of life; Air - Summer, light and flowering; and Fire -Autumn, fruiting and transformation. The book gives you insights into 'Working with the soil' "our most valuable resource"; 'Working with the sun', which dictates the pattern of the day; 'Working with the moon', whose effects on water and tides and on reproductive cycles is well known, and 'Building fertility' of the soil. There's just enough about biodynamics to spark your interest, and there's a Further Reading section at the back if you want to know more.
Working with the soil
Winter, for Jane and Harry is a time to think and plan for the coming twelve months. Recipes for this time include Braised chicory and bacon enriched with double cream, Beef stew with parsley dumplings, to make the most of what is around and counter the season's icy blasts. There's Apple and lemon crumble, Carrot and almond cake and Parsnip and hazelnut oat biscuits. Spring brings birdsong, light and colour, along with new life in the greenhouse, the barn, the fields and the woodlands. For those of us who grow it also brings the 'hungry gap' when winter brassicas have gone to seed and 'spring' veg is slow to get going. But there are herbs, foraged leaves and flowers. There's wild garlic, dandelion, Jack-by-the-hedge and buttercup - heat and pungency, needing only a simple dressing to make a bowlful sing. Here are recipes for Lovage and potato soup, Spring fritters with wild garlic mayonnaise, Herb butters and Rhubarb puddings. For later in Spring there's Fried duck egg with asparagus, sage and parmesan and then Elderflower cake.
Early Summer on the farm brings cultivated salad leaves and the first of the soft fruit in the form of gooseberries. These are swiftly followed by currants, strawberries, raspberries, jostaberries and more. The bees are busy and the farm is looking its best. Weather becomes an obsession - too hot, too wet, too something - and can make for testing times. The table is laid with Fresh pea and mint soup, Barbecued chicken with sweetcorn and lime leaf relish, a Blackcurrant pie or a spectacular Summer fruit trifle. Come Autumn outward growth slows and activities turn more often to preserving late berries, plums, apples, pears and quince. Then the kitchen table bears Borlotti bean, chorizo and tomato stew, Red Florence onion Tatin, and Braised rabbit with juniper berries. Desserts are fragrant Quince and ginger upside-down cake and Steamed greengage pudding.
And, all too soon, the twelve month cycle is over.
"Our relationship with the farm continues to feed us,
the work never ceases, our lives are played out on this plot of land".
... "The gifts of the year have come full circle,
transforming the past into the seeds of the future".
Jane Scotter and Harry Astley
The book benefits hugely from the stunning photography of Tessa Traeger. But, most of all, it's the pictures painted by the prose that stay with you. I found the book difficult to put down. Some of us paddle around the edges of biodynamics, never fully getting our feet wet - it's not for the faint-hearted. A few hard working people, like Jane Scotter and Harry Astley, live the life. Caution - reading this book may make you want to go in search of your own acreage.
As is my way with book reviews, I had to try at least one recipe. It had to be seasonal, of course, and, having pulled some sticks of rhubarb this morning, I chose Rhubarb and custard fool. Silky, creamy custard and sweet/tart fruit. Ringing the changes with a little fresh ginger root or orange zest is suggested. I added a little rosewater to the rhubarb at the end of cooking. A perfect Spring recipe. If you want to see it beautifully styled and photographed, go to page 124. Meanwhile, here's a serving:
|Rhubarb and custard fool|
from a recipe in
Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen
Fern Verrow - A year of recipes from a farm and its kitchen by Jane Scotter and Harry Astley
First published by Quadrille 21 May 2015