JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, August 31, 2007

World blog day

Today is the 3rd world blog day. Even though I've been blogging long enough to have participated in the previous two, I only came across it today. The idea is that you introduce five new blogs, preferably crossing boundaries.

Here are some of my favourites, all worth a look:

Dean at Mostly Macro takes wonderful photographs of birds, insects and sometimes plants. His blog is a record of the wildlife he sees close to home, often in his own garden or on walks nearby. He is knowledgeable, and has opened my eyes to a world undreamed of - a world in which we can all share, because it's around all of us, if only we have eyes to see.

Venice Daily Photo is another blog I love, although sadly at the moment it's not so frequent. It's part of the daily photo movement of blogs, where people photograph their home town, however small or grand. The Venice photos are intelligent, interesting, quirky, often thought-provoking (the one of a huge liner overpowering the Giudecca canal springs to mind) ... above all, life-enhancing.

Pomiane is another blog I look forward to reading. Its author lives by two-week turns in London and near Pisa. The food is proper food, after the fashion of the French food writer Edouard Pomiane, and recipes are sometimes, but not always, given for the three course menu for "tonight's dinner" which often ends a post. Pomiane inspires you to do things properly - and I like the differences which occur from the change of venue.

Graham Rice is another blogger who moves from place to place. You may know his name as a gardening writer, sweet peas are his thing (I'm summoning up courage to ask for advice about why I have such little luck, but I suspect the answer is more digging). Transatlantic Plantsman describes his gardening life in Northamptonshire and Pennsylvania. He's really knowledgeable about plants, so it's always a joy to read, and there's often a tip about a garden to visit, or a plant to look out for. I also like the fact that he's made the leap from published author to blogger ;-)

I first came across Sue Cooks Wild when I met Sue in London. You should visit it just to see the wonderfully exuberant photograph on the masthead. It's great - full of life, some adventurous cooking (game and fish are recurrent interests), a bit of travel. Sue's sense of fun comes shining off the screen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Slow roasted pork with plums

Yesterday, we were all busy ... Lucius was making a sculpture in the wood, the boys took Bruce down to the village for a game of cricket (we won, and Bruce took a catch off Alfred's bowling), Sam and Catrin lazed in the sun with their two tiny children, Menna, Anna and I went garden visiting .... and supper cooked itself.

The recipe is simple and infinitely variable ... you put your belly of pork into a slow oven for four hours. What you do in the way of flavouring can change every time you make it. At this time of year, like Fiona and Danny, whose recipe this is, I put it on a bed of Victoria plums, because there are masses of them breaking the boughs of our young tree (lucky us, what a great problem to have!).

As we were making a sauce with the plums and the juices, Horatio came in and asked about gravy. There's no gravy, it's plum sauce. Consternation. Call it plum gravy if you like. Disappointment. Why can't we have gravy AND plum sauce?

Over dinner, once he'd eaten a huge plateful, Horatio came up with a solution for making slow roasted pork with apple sauce AND gravy. Put a rack in the roasting tray, then put the apple slices, then the pork, so that the meat juices drip through the apples (making the apples even more delicious), and leaving juices with which to make gravy. What do you think? I think he's well on the road to becoming a food blogger!

Meanwhile, this is what we did yesterday:

Preheat the oven to 160C. Meanwhile, rub the pork belly with herbs, salt too, if you use that to make crackling (I don't, but each to his own). Put plums, as many as you have, in the bottom of the roasting tray, then place the meat on top. Put in the oven for four hours; turn it down to 140C for the last hour. When it's done, take it out to rest for 10-15 minutes, while you make the sauce. This recipe takes the same amount of time however big or small your pork is, because belly is such a thin cut ... I had to cut a little off the end of our huge piece to get it into the oven, and the smaller piece needed longer in the oven (because it was on the lower shelf).

First, pour the juices into a jug and leave them to settle. Next, ease the stones out of the plums (this is quick and easy, and best done at this point, because stoning the raw plums takes much longer). Pour the fat off the top of the juices (but not down the sink), then mush up the plums. A little wine, something to sweeten it, something savoury (especially if you didn't rub the meat with salt) ... it's hard to remember exactly what we did to make the sauce taste right.

We ate this with little new potatoes, caponata-ish, and a salad, again by candlelight out in the garden. There was a lot of rushing off to look at the moon through the telescope, and later, some people ate rhubarb and custard - the first we've picked from the rhubarb I planted last spring. I was in fast asleep in bed by then, but luckily there's some left over to eat with my breakfast porridge.

Thanks Fiona - great recipe, which contributed to a memorable evening!

Ideal food for a party - no fuss, no bother, really good, and pretty cheap. What more could you ask?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Beer bread

If we run out of bread, it's less effort to make a loaf than to go to the supermarket to buy another. Trouble is, I often don't notice soon enough, and then there's a crisis. Soda bread is what fills that gap (I'm making it sound as if I bake all our bread - I used to, but I've got out of the habit, and I'd like to re-acquire it). But soda bread is often quite uninteresting and bland.

This one, mixed with beer rather than water, is fabulous. Infinitely variable, very quick (under an hour start to finish), which was just as well this morning, when people started coming down to breakfast (porridge and toast) and there wasn't a scrap of bread in the house. It comes from Susan at Farmgirl Fare, who is also one of the three bakers who blog A Year in Bread, essential reading for anyone interested in improving their baking.

This recipe may be very irritating to almost everyone, because I've Europeanised the liquid and the temperature, but kept the American cups, because my sister brought me over a set from California when she was here in June. If you can't cope, email me, because I do know how to convert easily, it's just that I'm running out of time, I should be cooking lunch!

3 cups of flour - I used two of plain white (no need to use strong flour, but you can if you like) and one of malted (so lots of nice grains
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
400ml beer (or beer and water mixed)

Mix it all together, pour into a large loaf tin, and bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes at 180C. Susan says you can glaze it with egg and water; I didn't bother.

This is infinitely variable - cheese, herbs, seeds, slow roasted tomatoes, onions ... probably not all at once!

We ate it with homemade marmalade, and I've come in here to blog it so as not to look irritatingly smug. Menna's thinking about cooking on holiday in a remote Alpine chalet, nearest shop down at the bottom ... she's going to make this bread, lovely fresh loaves almost on tap, without needing much attention, the better to devote herself to walking and reading.

Very easy lamb with olive paste

This is DELICIOUS, and so easy it's almost cheating. But not in the sense of going out and buying some horrible supermarket sauce and calling it cooking. This is posh cheating, and no-one will guess if you don't tell them. So long as you mix it up before they come. Which I didn't. It tastes of the mediterranean, of sunshine and the south.

The recipe came from Tamasin Day Lewis's Kitchen Bible, which I bought last week, and which is worth a look (although Anna says she's very annoying on TV, but I didn't know she did telly). As soon as I saw it, I knew I'd cook it this weekend, when we have a crowd of dear friends (who are actually relations), all of whom are wonderful cooks and appreciate good food, and all of whom are people I'd rather be talking to. This really is good food for a crowd. Quick too, in the sense of how much of the cook's time it takes, although it's in the oven for a couple of hours.

To each kilo of lamb, you need 200g of black olive paste. TDL specifies shoulder of lamb, but the wonderful butchers at Gabriel Machin in Henley said that neck fillet would be just as good but better value. So that's what I used.

Tip the meat into a casserole. Pour on the olive paste. Mix everything well, clamp on the lid and cook for two hours at 150C.

You'll get a glossy black stew, plenty of wonderful salty sauce - very grown up, and no-one would ever guess how little effort went into it.

We ate it in the garden by candlelight, with little new potatoes and two salads ... one was chicory (very prettily sliced lengthwise, I've never done that, clever Anna, stupid me) and watercress, the other lettuce and tomatoes, some fresh, some slow roasted. Wonderful.

Next time, I'll add a branch of thyme. When I cook it in the winter, I'll add a long long strip of orange peel.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


No photo, because I slightly over cooked it, so it wasn't very photogenic ... but pissaladiere is the most fabulously easy lunch for a hot day, delicious and heart healthy, and perfect if you're fed up with pizza. Or if you're food-fad aware enough to have heard of white pizza.

Pissaladiere is a speciality of the French side of the Franco-Italian border, and is close cousin to the pizza, only without tomatoes or cheese. Sliced onions are gently stewed in olive oil, spread on a base, finished with anchovies and black olives, the saltiness cutting through the sweetness of the onion. It's a great choice for busy cooks, because you can get it ready while you're clearing up breakfast, then leave it for as long as you need to. When you get back to it, you're half an hour from eating, with about five minute's work to do.

500g ordinary white flour
2tsp dried yeast (I don't bother with the instant stuff in sachets, I just lob in the un-instant kind, & rarely bother to start it off with water first)
pinch of salt and sugar
dash of olive oil
300-350 ml tepid water

Mix all the bread ingredients, then knead it until it's smooth. You don't really need to flour the work surface (trust me), because it (and your fingers) will stop getting sticky as you knead it, and if you put more flour in, the finished base is not so soft. Put your smooth dough into an oiled bowl and cover it with a teacloth. The warmer it is, the quicker it will rise - so if you are making it in the morning to eat in the evening, put it in the fridge. At ordinary room temperature, it will take an hour or two to double in size .. but dough is very forgiving, particularly when you're not making a loaf with it, so if it rises too fast, just knead it a little, and let it rise again.

Next, slice a kilo of onions as thin as you can. If you've got a mandoline, use that; but if you haven't, a knife is just as good. Toss them in olive oil, and cook them as slowly as you possibly can in a wide pan (it needs to be good quality, with a thick heavy base, otherwise the onions will catch and burn). Give them a stir now and then, but, essentially, you can leave this alone for a long time.

Half an hour before you want to eat, put your dough onto a work surface and knead it a little, then spread it with your fingers into an oblong on a baking sheet. Spread over the onions, then decorate with a few anchovies and some olives (or dabs of black olive paste). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with thyme. Cook as you would pizza in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes. (If you had the dough in the fridge, you'll need to get it back to room temperature before you can work it - about half an hour.)

I remember the first time I had pissaladiere, it was on a pastry base. That's obviously out of the question in a heart-healthy diet. I wasn't sure which was authentic, so I've just looked it up in Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Food. This is what she says:

This dish is one of the delights of Marseilles, Toulon, and the Var country, where it is sold in the market places and the bakeries in the early morning and can be bought, piping hot, by the slice, off big iron trays.

Get from a baker a piece of uncooked bread, pull it out and spread a baking sheet with it. Cover the bottom of a saucepan with olive oil. Add 2lb of sliced onions; do not brown them but let them slowly melt almost to a puree, which will take about 40 minutes. Pour the puree onto the dough, put stoned black olives on the top and decorate it with criss-cross fillets of anchovy. Cook in the oven. If bread dough is unobtainable, an excllent dish can be made by spreading the onion puree into a tin lined with .. pastry .. or thick slices of bread cut lengthways from a sandwich loaf. Fry one side lightly in olive oil, spread this side with the puree, put in a tin in the oven with a little more oil and cook about 10 minutes.

The flavour of the olive oil is essential to this dish.

So even if you're afraid of cooking with yeast, you've got no excuse!

Incidentally, this is something you really can do ahead ... you can cook up the onions a day or two in advance. I doubled the quantity of onions, and am saving the surplus for another delicious potato gratin tomorrow night. OR you could make the whole dish, cook it lightly in the oven, then reheat it when you're ready to eat. After all, that's what you're doing when you buy supermarket pizza.

And it's good for a crowd - either you can cook it in advance and then reheat it, or you can make it in the morning and assemble it quickly at the last minute.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Duck and delicious potatoes

Not much blogging going on here ... I've felt daunted by the weight of photographs which need sorting out since we got back from holiday, and also I haven't felt much like cooking. They don't much care for eating here - well, they don't really notice what they eat, unless it's pointed out to them, and then they're polite. So this evening, they were very polite, as they know I took a few pains with dinner. But then, before the last mouthful is eaten ... they switch on the radio to hear the latest on the cricket. Do I feel demoralised? Well, yes, on one level. But on another ... ladies and gentlemen, I give you ....

Duck and delicious potatoes. This is for 4 (both the girls are away)

Potato gratin with thyme and tomato

The potatoes are cooked in the oven, and they don't have any liquid or anything to cover them. I was panicking that they would dry out, the top layer would curl up and they would taste disgusting and dry. But no ... this is a piece of magic, a potato gratin dish with no calorific / fatty sauce, just the fresh and vibrant taste of its
four (yes, four) ingredients.

This recipe is adapted (that is to say, I forgot the main flavouring ingredient!) from a book I bought in the Oxfam shop in the Turl, Oxford, this afternoon, Under the Sun, by Caroline Conran. You know how they say most recipe books are kept for only one recipe? This is it - the rest is in every French cookery book I already own (lots and lots!). Just bear in mind that I left out the juniper.

450g onions
450g tomatoes
700g potatoes
1 large sprig of thyme
(6 juniper berries)
olive oil

Peel and slice the onions, and sweat them slowly in olive oil for about half an hour, until they are soft and just starting to turn golden. This should take 20-30 minutes.

When the onions are nearly cooked, peel the potatoes, and slice them very thinly, preferably with a mandolin (I bought one earlier this year, and although I don't use it very often, when I do use it, nothing else will do - and it's opened up a whole new avenue of cookery that was previously unavailable to me because I couldn't/couldn't be bothered to prepare food so meticulously. Mix them well in a little olive oil. Salt, too, if you use it.

Tomatoes - I used some of the tomatoes I've been slow roasting for the last week, just snipped a few into the layers. If you haven't been doing this (and I wouldn't blame you in the least, although it's pretty effortless and very delicious), then slice some tomatoes thickly and soften them in a frying pan with a little olive oil.

Layer the vegetables, starting and ending with potatoes, and snipping some thyme into the mix. Caroline Conran says to put a bay leaf in, but it didn't add any flavour, and just had to be fished out of the finished dish, so I wouldn't bother next time. (Btw, the bay is the green thing in the photograph that looks as if it might be a mange tout pea that's been accidentally dropped onto the wrong dish.) I forgot to put in the juniper (crushed in a mortar), and I plan to do that next time (Sunday, when we're 10 for dinner ... this was a dry run, because I panicked unnecessarily about the lack of liquid).

Put this, uncovered (see why I panicked?) in a moderate oven, ie 170C / gas mark 3 for one hour.

Duck ... grilled duck, because this is my one and only entry for Heart of the Matter's August theme - grilling - which ends today, and which I am rounding up. You should see my face, very red and embarrassed ... I've been away, it's been raining, I don't really do grilling (I know, Ilva was shocked, too!).

This is a way to render most of the fat off a duck breast, so that you can eat it even if you are following a low cholesterol diet. Just try very hard not to eat the skin, even though it no longer has much fat.

Heat a griddle pan until it's nearly smoking. Put your duck breasts on it skin side down. Cook them for 10 minutes without turning, pouring off the fat which is rendered once or twice during cooking (otherwise you'll have a nasty mess all over your cooker). When the 10 minutes are up, turn the breasts, then put them in a hot oven for eight minutes. Then take them out of the oven and leave to stand for 10 minutes.

In the meantime make a sauce. This one's good: mix 2 tbsp olive oil with 2 tbsp hoi sin and 1 tbsp honey, together with a splash of Marsala or Madeira.

Serve on hot plates. We had a beetroot salad with this ... made with those precooked vacuum-wrapped beets, dressed in olive oil, wine vinegar and plenty of Maldon salt.

This is my entry for HotM, the round-up will appear in the next few days - and then I promise I'll make every single one of the entries as long as the sunshine holds out before winter sets in.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Smiley faces

I have been feeling rather battered by a ridiculously unnecessary family problem, so when Charlotte of the Great Big Vegetable Challenge emailed to ask if I would make a smiley face out of vegetables, I went straight to the kitchen and got to work. Now I feel much better, although the problem remains. And, sorry Charlotte, I cheated - there's rather a lot of fruit in there.

Why don't you have a go? As Charlotte said: go on, you know you want to!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Meme: fantastic four

We've been back since Sunday morning, and I haven't posted - it's not just the washing mountain, I've fallen out of the habit of writing daily, slightly scarily, since I was only without an easy connection for a week. There's been plenty to blog about, too, and not just playing catch-up with our travels: last night's dinner was duck in lavender sauce - delicious, although not very obviously lavender-y.

Fiona at Cottage Smallholder has tagged me for the Fantastic Four meme, and I'm hoping this will kick-start a bit of renewed enthusiasm for blogging (although, if I'm honest, I think it's a lazy avoidance of the work involved in sorting out the photographs).

Five areas, four points for each. This is coming straight off the top of my head ... I'd do it differently tomorrow.

Four jobs I've had in my life:

1. the first job I ever did for money was mucking out a neighbour's stables. I was probably nine, or ten. I remember being paid 2/6d, but I don't remember whether that was per session or per week. Or even for a whole holiday's worth of work.

2. the first job involving PAYE and National Insurance was as an assistant in a clothes shop. They thought I was there forever, I knew I was only there for the summer holidays. I lasted about three or four weeks before I got the sack. I really disliked the owner, whose only interest was in money and who treated his staff badly. With all the arrogance of youth, I didn't trouble myself to hide my dislike. Surprising I lasted so long, really. The very nice shop manager still works in Henley, in a different clothes shop, and always gives me a cheery hello.

3. when I first went to live in London, I worked as a temp. My first temp job was as typist in the engineering department of the umbrella organisation for the independent television companies. All day I typed incomprehensible gobbledegook for a very nice engineer, who tried to explain what it was about. Years later, I realised that he was responsible for developing CEEFAX. There was a very good deli down the road, where I used to have lunch.

4. when I first went to Hong Kong in the mid 1970s, I worked as a very junior PR for the Miss World competition, which was being held there. The phones rang all the time, there was a frenetic atmosphere, the permanent staff looked down on us temporary staff (unsurprisingly, as we had very little idea of what was going on), and there was a lot of shouting - particularly when the woman who owned the competition arrived. What I principally remember about it was the total ruthlessness of every aspect of the enterprise.

Places I have lived:

1. I was brought up in Henley on Thames, a smallish market town in the Thames Valley, world famous for its annual five-day rowing regatta. I still live within a mile or two of the town centre, rather to my surprise, and am thoroughly rooted here.

2. In my early 20s I lived in central London, in various short-term flats. My favourite area was Pimlico, then a rather sleepy unfashionable village. There was a terrific Italian deli in our street, it was our corner shop. (I remember buying smoked cod's roe there and making taramasalata from a Robert Carrier recipe, none of us having any idea at all what it was, but everyone loving it.) Pimlico is "within the division bell area" (which means that MPs can install in their houses the bell which rings in the House of Commons shortly before a vote is to take place), so there were a few MPs living around, including one next door. One evening, when I had uncharacteristically gone to bed early, I was woken by a loud explosion nearby, then another and another. It was the start of the IRA mainland bombing campaign, that particular night directed against politicians. Life has never really been the same since in this country.

3. I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years in the mid 1970s, first in Wanchai, the red light district, where there were late-night triad fights, and where you might occasionally get propositioned by a drunken sailor. Later I went to live in a small fishing village in the New Territories, where I was the only white woman. I spoke kitchen Cantonese (mostly forgotten now), and haggled for all my food in the market.

4. I have lived, in short bursts, in northern Somaliland - a country quite unlike anything you have read in your newspaper. It is peaceful, well ordered, the only fully-functioning democracy in Africa. A little piece of my heart belongs there. The swallows you see in Greece during the summer spend their winters in Somaliland.

Four places I have been on holiday:

Hard to choose ... Brittany for years and years, both as a child and with our children (Erquy and the north coast, like Cornwall with better food - at least, then). Scotland, ditto (Hebrides, Edinburgh, Fife). Italy - mostly recently Friuli (by train, recommended). Suffolk (Britten-austere, rather than nouveau-Aldeburgh, such a shame). This leaves out some memorable holidays, places I love. Another time.

Four of my favourite foods:

This is SO hard.

1. Vegetables ... well, obviously you'd like me to be more specific, so I'll reach for my pin and say - broad beans.

2. Fruit - nectarines (but only because I'm eating them like crazy at the moment, now that the raspberries have gone over).

3. Oily fish, any really, but, if you press me, then clearly I'm going to say salmon when I might easily have said mackerel. What about kippers?

4. Now here is the moment when I have to decide whether I'm a vegetarian in my soul (although not in actual fact) ... and I rather think I am, because, honestly, I'd rather have a tin of anchovies in olive oil. Well, at least, that's if you count non-meat eaters as vegetarians, which probably you don't.

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. In my garden. Although it doesn't look the way I'd like it to (and I'm never going to reach that nirvana), I love it ... the scents, the textures, the colours, the things to nibble at (I don't grow anything on an allotment scale). And I should be there right now, because the sun has suddenly, unexpectedly, started shining.

2. Reading a book under an apple tree. Preferably a good cookery book. Perhaps Centaur's Kitchen by Patience Gray, which has been sitting on my desk unread for quite a long time.

3. With Lucius at a performance of anything by Verdi, or perhaps Norma, by the Welsh National Opera, either in Cardiff (I haven't been to their new premises) or in Bristol.

4. In my kitchen, cooking something delicious for all my family and one or two best friends to eat for dinner. That's real happiness.

The last part of this meme is to tag four other blogs, always a hard decision, especially since some great bloggers don't "do" memes. Here are four I like, picked almost at random, except that yesterday I sorted out my feed reader, and these are in the category "blogs I read daily". David, a naturally inventive chef at Book the Cook. Hannah, like David a Masterchef finalist, who makes the most exquisitely decorated cakes you have ever seen, at Hannah's Country Kitchen. Sophie at Mostly Eating, who writes about the food she eats from her point of view as a nutrition scientist. And Amanda, at Figs Olive Wine, a beautiful blog from New York, where you'll currently find a recipe for slow roasted tomatoes which you preserve in olive oil.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Edinburgh festival, day 6

Our flat has broadband, but I can't make it work on my computer, although Lucius can make it work on his ... which means no photographs until we get home in a couple of days.

Today I have been looking at pictures. First I went to the Queen's Gallery at Holyrood Palace in Canongate. I didn't know what the exhibition was, but it never seems to matter when it's the Queen's Gallery, because she has probably the best fine art collection in the world, and employs good curators for the exhibitions. I'd never been to the gallery in Edinburgh, although I have often been to the one in London.

The exhibition was lovely - botanical drawings and paintings, together with birds and animals. The first room was entirely given over to drawings by da Vinci, and would have been worth the price of admission (£5) alone. In the last room, there was an even better treat, better because it was so totally unexpected and so totally up my street - botanical drawings by Alexander Marshal (1620-1682), a London gardener who lived during a time when there was an enormous increase in the plants available (to the rich). He collected them, and then he painted them - roses, tulips, daffodils, irises, a sunflower, hyacinths, auriculas, a Sevile orange ... all, wonderfully bright and fresh on the page, 150 pages, shared with other collectors, and eventually given to George IV. I suppose the modern equivalent is gardeners going out to photograph their gardens with their digital cameras - but the photographs of my garden in my computer can't begin to compare with Marshal's florilegium (isn't that a lovely word?). I'll post some pictures when I get home.

Then I went to the museum of modern art and looked at Picasso works on paper - drawings, etchings, lithographs, lino cuts, all the decades of his working life represented. It makes me wish I'd left time to see the exhibition of Picasso ceramics that's on here - especially when now, on our last evening here, I don't feel I've seen anything truly memorable at the fringe, although there's been some fun in some of the shows.

I also went to see the Richard Long exhibition. Last year, we saw Iain Hamilton Finlay at Inverkeith House, the exhibition space at the botanic gardens. Lucius Horatio and Alfred came out of that exhibition saying that it was pretentious drivel. I liked it, just as I like his garden, which I saw a couple of years ago. I like the work of Andy Goldsworthy. So I ought to like Richard Long, an artist working in landscape. But I didn't. All that obsession with circles - so what? And you find yourself asking, which is art, the circles made of twigs in a landscape (worthless), or the photographs of the twigs in a landscape (potential for sale)? I think that photographs of installations are fine and fun, but somehow not quite the thing ... so much less of a piece of art than Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes, which I saw for the first time a couple of days ago, and which are so much better than their photograph. If you see what I mean. It's so easy to get pretentious discussing art.

Meanwhile, back at Holyrood, I had a fabulous slice of cake for breakfast ... raspberry and almond cake. Isn't that what we used to call Bakewell tart? The thing that was so disgusting at school with lumpy custard? This was DELICIOUS and moreish, and I suppose the difference is that the Queen's caterers use the best ingredients, whereas the nuns at my 1960s convent used the cheapest they could lay their hands on.

I've nearly finished Frances Bissell's book The Scented Kitchen. It's such a different way of looking at cookery that it's worth reading from cover to cover. It's so sad to be reading it in August, because even she recognises that it's really a summer cookery book, because you can't buy the ingredients in a shop, you need to grow them, or beg them from someone who grows them. I'm impatient to know if there's any lavender left in my garden, to make some lavender sugar. Basically, you make it just like vanilla sugar - drop the lavender into the sugar. Or, you can make lavender coloured sugar by grinding the flowers into the sugar. If you're going to do that (I don't suppose I'll bother, it sounds like a bit of a faff compared to dropping the flowers into the sugar!), you need one part flowers (detached from stems) to 10 parts sugar, and you grind it in a food processor. Best if you let the flowers dry out for an hour or two before you start, she says.

Time to go home, back to my real life - although next week I'm off to the West country for a couple of days ... Lettice is going on holiday to Salcombe with a gaggle of girls (all wanting to be away from home when their exam results come through), and I'm the one who's got to fetch them home. So I'm going to take a couple of days to get there, and visit some of the lovely gardens in Somerset and Devon that I've wanted to see for years, and which none of my family want to see. I also have a yen to visit Lyme Regis, although I imagine it's hugely busy at this time of year - I could have a French Lieutenant's Woman moment on the end of the Cobb, which, I'm told, is now covered in signs absolving the council of any responsibility in case of personal injury. Perhaps I'll give it a miss!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Edinburgh fringe, day 4

We've spent the last few days rushing from one thing to another. Our young seem to have an insatiable appetite for stand-up comedians, most of whom are pretty dire ... but they don't seem to mind, in fact, dire seems to be what they like - perhaps so that the jewels shine brighter.

Last night Lucius and I went to see Louis de Bernieres, the man who wrote Captain Corelli's Mandarin ... it was so dire it was good, if that makes sense - the evening had charm, if not talent. He played a lot of musical instruments rather badly (although nice pieces); read poems, some good some bad, also rather badly, because he has a rather slight voice; told terrible jokes, most of which he said had been given to him by Akker Bilk, the 60s jazz musician. And yet it was nice - mostly, I think, because he's obviously a nice man, and because he was obviously enjoying himself. But I did find it rather incredible that several members of the audience had been to last year's effort. Once was definitely enough.

We are just about to go to a musical called something like Tony the Blair Years, in which Iain Duncan Smith's son Ed (who was at school with Horatio) plays Alistair Campbell. It will, as always on the fringe, either be the best thing we've ever seen, or completely dreadful. There never seem to be half measures at Edinburgh, and the audiences are always optimistic!

In the mean time, we've been eating all sorts of delicious things at Valvona and Crolla's cafe (it's just up the road from our flat) - one unexpected delight was a pudding of good gorgonzola drizzled with honey (yes, really) and pinenuts. Fabulous.

In the absence of a kitchen, or any food to cook, I am reading a WONDERFUL cookery book (only a food blogger would read a cookery book on holiday, with no access to a kitchen!): The Scented Kitchen, by Frances Bissell. Cooking with flowers is the subtitle, and it has lots of things I can't wait to try. The trouble is that I should have been reading it in the spring. However, it will make ordering seeds easier this winter! I'll keep you posted about it in the next day or two. And finally post some more photos! I'm about to run out of time in this internet cafe ...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Edinburgh Fringe, day 1

Yesterday we had a day of rain rain rain, and running around in it from venue to venue, missing one another and generally not getting it quite right. Having said that, we saw some wonderful Korean gymnasts, a terrific magician called Pete someone, who hauled Lettice up on stage to help him with a trick, and who produced a beer bottle out of a hat which he then gave to Horatio ... this is what you get for queueing early to get a seat in the front row, but don't do that when it's stand-up or else the comedian will pick on you over and over and over again. That happened to Lucius last year when the boys dragged him to see a show called How to Butcher Your Loved Ones - I'm afraid I couldn't bring myself to go, and from everything I've ever heard, it was a good decision.

Food not great, which is a pity in this city ... coffee at Costa, lunch at Cafe Rouge (both British chains, okay but - well, this is a food blog), supper at an indifferent Italian restaurant where I had very good spinach and a plate of mushrooms because I wanted to get back to eating lots of veg ... why is that so hard anywhere except at home?

Last show of the day was a group of young comedians, one of whom, Jack Whitehall, was at school with Horatio and then went on to the school Alfred is now at. I remember seeing him steal the show in a minor role in a school play, so I thought he'd be worth watching - he was the last of the four, and much the best. Lots of witty jokes about combatting terrorism - but perhaps you had to be there.

Today, the others have gone off to listen to some music - I'm here quietly blogging, because I didn't know what time it was, and they didn't leave enough time for me to get there - I'm footsore, and walk much more slowly than the rest of the family, and it seems to be hard for them to factor that in. Never mind. I'm going to go and look at some pictures (Raeburn, Warhol, Picasso - the choices are amazing in this city in August). I think they've planned to see hundreds of other things, but I'm not sure what, and I'm feeling a little weary, so will probably come home after seeing Nick Mohammed, who we saw last year, who we thought was very funny, whose jokes we are still laughing at - and who Alfred imitates to complete perfection. Amazing that he hasn't been on TV.

Food ... I think I'll visit Valvona and Crolla today, too. And sort out a couple of photos.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Lunch at the Whitehouse, Lochaline

Now in Edinburgh, via the most delicious lunch at the Whitehouse, Lochaline on the Morvern Peninsula. Lovely flat ... two late-night shops opposite, and a baker, which, amazingly, opened for business at 11pm, having been shut earlier in the evening. I bought rolls for breakfast there, delicious soft baps to set us up for a frenetic day at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday started out leisurely, on the Fishnish to Lochaline ferry, then a tiny walk (so tiny that we stopped at the first available spot to finish the crossword puzzle!), and a stroll up the hill with our friends to the Whitehouse. This is a beacon of excellence in an utterly remote part of the British isles, all the ingredients sourced locally, and beautifully presented - in lovely unpretentious rooms, the plain tables laid with slate mats and linen napkins. Perfect.

The short menu is presented on a blackboard by a friendly waitress - it's the kind of menu where you want to eat everything, so it's really hard to choose. Fish for the adults, huge portions of meat for the young (you'd think we hadn't been feeding them all week!), all beautifully presented. As you can see from the photograph, I had the mackerel ;-) with what is called in that part of the world a prawn, but by the rest of the country a langoustine.

The great discovery for all of us was the herb sweet cecily, which looks like nothing so much as a miniature frond of bracken, and which tastes utterly wonderful, sweetly scented, an essence of summer.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cured mackerel, an update

We ate the mackerel last night ... lovely soft flavour, better by far than smoked salmon, a real delicacy, and SO easy.

The other photos show the boys returning from clearing out the loch above the house where we are staying (mud, mud, glorious mud!), and my live brooch, which flew in threw the kitchen window and stayed on my shirt for about an hour, until Lettice said it spooked her out. I wish I knew more about moths, and could identify it.

Today we're off to Edinburgh, via lunch at the Whitehouse at Morvern, reached via the Fishnish ferry to the mainland. I'll keep you posted!


Friday, August 03, 2007

Fresh mackerel: gravad max

Yesterday morning, our host took four teenagers out on the boat to catch mackerel and set creels (in that order, because you need mackerel as bait to catch lobster). They also went to the beach, where they found mussels. So when they returned, just before supper, they had a large bucket of mussels (they'd scraped the barnacles and pulled the beards on the way back in the boat), and a huge basket of smallish mackerel.

Bridget made moules marinieres in a huge saucepan, using a whole bottle of white wine for the "soup". Delicious. We threw the shells into champagne buckets (the house in which we are staying used to be a hotel, and has a great deal of useful kit which is not found in most private houses). Roast chicken to follow.

Many of the mackerel will be used for lobster bait, straight from the freezer. A neighbour here on Mull is a particularly successful lobster fisherman, and this is his secret: he puts his bait in a large plastic tub, covers it in salt, then seals it and leaves it for a year to ripen ... the smell is appalling, but the lobsters like it!

Meanwhile, for the second year running, we made this delicious gravad max, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook. This needs to be made at least a day in advance, but is better left for two or three days beforehand.

Gravad max
For 10 large or 20 small mackerel

Mix: 100g caster sugar, 75g coarse salt, and a handful of chopped fennel sprigs (HFW says dill, but that's not growing round here).

Fillet the fish. This can be done in one of two ways - either use a sharp knife to take a fillet off each side of an ungutted fish, or behead and gut the fish, slit them open, press them flat and then tease out the backbone.

Layer the cure and the fillets in a plastic box (DO NOT use metal). Start with cure, then fish skin side down, then cure, then fish skin side up &c. When you've finished, weight the whole thing down with a board and some bottles or tins (if you are using tins, then you must put them into another, smaller, plastic box). HFW has a third layer, because he puts the fish into a perforated (wooden) box, and therefore needs something to catch the drips. We've dispensed with this, because his instructions tell you to baste the fish with the drippings from the fish box, and I always like to simplify things to make life a little easier when possible.

After one, two or three days, your fish is ready to eat - cut it with a sharp knife at an angle towards the skin, as if you were cutting smoked salmon. Serve with lemon juice, a little green salad, and plenty of good bread. HFW makes a creme fraiche sauce flavoured with mustard vinegar and dill, but we may not bother with that (it will rather depend on what we find in the fridge).

Last year, Craig brought fish fresh from the sea, and filleted them for us in moments with his very sharp knife (and superior knife skills). This year, a work party gutted the fish, and we all then wished we'd filleted them, because teasing the backbones out of very fresh raw fish is time-consuming (Ola, pictured below, did the most). HFW says that filleting them whole is more wasteful - that may be, but it's certainly much quicker, and a great deal less trouble. If you're buying the fish, none of this need trouble you, just get the fishmonger to do it for you!

This is wonderfully good for you, free if you're lucky (or pretty cheap if you buy the fish), and a really good dish to make for a crowd or a party, because you do the bulk of the preparation well in advance. It's also a delicious treat.

PS I think you could do this with any oily fish, and when I get home, back to Oxfordshire, the English county furthest from the sea in every direction, I will try it with whatever oily fish I can buy.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Oysters for lunch in Ulva

Yesterday we went to the island of Ulva for lunch. We took baps filled with cold chicken, and a little fruit, and when we had eaten all that, visited the little cafe to buy oysters and Guinness. Some of the children hadn't eaten oysters before, so we bought one plate raw with onion and lemon juice, the other cooked with butter and garlic. All eaten in short order.

While we were eating them, we saw the fishermen checking their creels for lobster, and fish being transferred from boat to van ... I should think that it's in Spain by now.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It's a mad, mad world: fishing

Yesterday, Bridget and I went to the fishmonger to buy prawns. We are on an island surrounded by prime prawn-fishing seas. In the past, we have rung the fisherman to ask for prawns, and then fetched them in a big plastic bag. This time, they came in a box, packaged individually for travel, some of them quite keen to escape.

It's quite hard to buy prawns here. Those of you that are on holiday in Spain will be eating prawns fished in these waters. And this is how they get there, the boxes packed onto refrigerated lorries:

We bought kippers for lunch.