Dessert on Fire

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front. This is mainly because I have been training to become a retained fire fighter with Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service and so my focus has been on smoke, fire, ladders and sweat. This has now been successfully completed and my new clothing accessory, a small black alerter with flashing lights, now accompanies me wherever I go. Literally. I have no idea how well it would work if it fell in the toilet bowl but I’m trying my best not to give it a go.

Being on call for 90 hours a week has big implications for eating out. Its local restaurants only as I need to be within 5 minutes of my station so before I finished basic training Mr H and I made it a bit further to The Wild Garlic restaurant in Nailsworth. It was an excellent Groupon offer of £55 pounds for two people plus a glass of Prosecco for a six course tasting menu and we’d wanted to try it for ages.

The food was excellent, each course memorable and portions just right with the only negative being occasional heavy handedness with truffle oil for my taste. Not for the other half though – he can’t get enough. The menu included creamed Sunny Ash goat’s cheese accompanied by celeriac cannelloni and a Waldorf salad, smoked salmon with blood orange caviar served on a blini with crème fraiche, white bean and truffle cappuccino and duck with rhubarb and pomme dauphine.

However the stand out course was the dessert. Normally when I read reviews or watch food programmes and people are banging on about balance and aromas and ‘cutting through things’ with lots of gesticulating and being unreal and poncey I switch off and reach for the wine. But I’m afraid to say that with this particular dessert I got it. I almost understood where these people are coming from. It was a square segment of rich chocolate cake topped with a significant layer of shiny chocolate icing and accompanied by a shot glass of ale jelly nestling under brown bread ice cream. The cake was not too sweet and the jelly had a strong ale flavour, just these by themselves would have been quite odd but the star was the brown bread ice cream. It literally brought the cake and the jelly together and acted as a flavour bridge between the two. I’ll get my coat.

Other things I liked: the benches running the edge of the room had cushions and were the APPROPRIATE HEIGHT FOR THE TABLE. This may not seem like much but when you’re six foot tall you get pretty tired pretty quickly of wedging thighs under table edges and sitting hunched with crippling back ache when trying to enjoy a meal. The staff were attentive but no overly so – it’s very difficult to reply honestly to the question ‘is everything okay?’ when the first bite is only halfway to your mouth. They also knew their stuff – where the food was sourced, how it was prepared and how it was cooked. It felt like a nice relaxed place to eat, so often with smart restaurants the atmosphere feels slightly tense.

Things I didn’t like: Nothing.

Would I eat here again? Absolutely.

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Mince Pie Love

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The festive season is galloping along, heading irretrievably towards the finish line that is Christmas Day. I love this time of year because it means that mince pies are back on the menu.  I love a mince pie. An excellent source of minimal nutritional value except lushness, I recently tasted THE best mince pie ever. Sweet gold pastry case filled to the brim with fruity, zingy mincemeat and topped with thin shortbread, absolutely delicious. This gem was created by baker Ori Hellerstein, who together with his wife Yvonne owns the Artisan Baker, based near Stroud.

Artisan Mince Pie

Artisan Mince Pie

Oozy mince pie yumminess

Oozy mince pie yumminess

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally from Israel, Ori trained at the London branch of Le Cordon Bleu before starting work in some of the capitals best restaurants. Disliking the aggressive atmosphere of the main kitchens, he found that working in pastry gave him more of a chance to be autonomous and creative and it was from this that his passion for baking was born.  Gradually as his experience grew he began to dream of owning his own bakery. Yvonne and Ori fell in love with the picturesque village of Painswick, moved to Gloucestershire from London in 2012 and started the business.

The Artisan Baker supplies breads, pastries, biscuits and confectionary to a mix of delis, restaurants and gastro pubs. All are handmade with locally sourced ingredients and no artificial additives or preservatives. Ori is a perfectionist with very high standards and attention to detail, honed from his experiences in London, and it is incredibly important to both him and Yvonne that the products are of exceptional quality. One of the most popular breads is a South African seeded loaf called Nelson, named after Nelson Mandela. Ironically I am tasting this for the first time the day after his death was announced, and it is exceptionally good – nutty texture filled with seeds, slightly peppery but with a sweet after taste. Delicious when topped with smoked salmon and a smear of cream cheese. Fudge made by the Artisan Baker is currently in the process of being selected for sale by Whole Foods, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic produce. As you can imagine, in order to do this the product has to meet very strict criteria of acceptable ingredients.

Nelson Bread

Nelson Bread

Yvonne and Ori openly admit their naivety when it came to starting the business. Yvonne had originally planned to return to her marketing career after the birth of their son George but soon found that the amount of work created by the baking business was far greater than they had anticipated. Now they operate as a team, Ori doing the developing, baking, teaching baking classes and Yvonne handling orders, customer service and marketing, as well as being the resident food critic! They share deliveries, often with baby George by their side, and are building up an excellent reputation for very high standards and quality products. In the beginning, Ori would trawl around local suppliers with samples, looking for orders. He recalls the first order being for their sea salt caramel chocolates – small spheres consisting of a thin crisp outer shell and rich caramel oozy centre, dusted with cocoa powder – but now, customers are coming to them with requests.

Sea Salt Caramels

Sea Salt Caramels

There’s no getting away from the fact that food is very fashionable these days and with the popularity of shows such as The Great British Bake Off, baking has seen its profile rocket.  Ori has noticed this in the number of people who bake at home as a hobby, with more and more of them signing up to his baking classes. But make no mistake, baking as a business is hard work. Ori laughs when I ask him about a typical day. We’re talking ten hour days, a distinct lack of time off, baking long into the night, long hours manning their stall at local farmers markets, deliveries, on going product development, constant order filling, all the hard work that goes into creating and building something from the ground up. Ori has recently taken on an apprentice, Clarice, but still has a huge daily workload. It is physically and emotionally exhausting. So why do it? And the answer is that you have to love it. And for that reason it’s very inspiring meeting people who work exceptionally hard for something that they love. I know a few people who would give their right arm to care about anything half as much.

In the future Yvonne and Ori want to see their business grow and grow, whilst continuing to retain their core values and beliefs. Eventually Ori would like to step back from the day to day running of the kitchen and focus more on product development, particularly confectionary, as well as developing his own profile as a renowned pastry chef.

It was a privilege to spend a Friday afternoon in the company of Yvonne and Ori, and although Ori has now ruined shop bought mince pies for me forever, 2014 looks bright indeed for the Artisan Baker.

You can find further details on the Artisan Baker, including information on baking classes and where you can buy the products, at www.theartisanbaker.co.uk

Ori and Yvonne - Artisan Baker Team

Ori and Yvonne – Artisan Baker Team

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Wet Samosas

It rains a lot in Gloucestershire. But if you let that put you off you’d never leave the house so I paid a visit to Stroud Farmers Market this weekend. It was my first real foray into the local foodie world since moving counties and I wasn’t disappointed.

Awarded Best Farmers Market in the UK this year and the recent Taste of Gloucestershire award for outstanding contribution to local food development it’s held in the Cornhill Market place and surrounding streets on Saturdays. Parking was straightforward with a multi-storey just down the hill, and there are a number of easy to locate cash points.

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There were stalls overflowing with seasonal vegetables; the deep autumnal colours of squashes, pumpkins and beetroots nestling amongst the greens of giant cabbages and curly kale. I sampled toasted garlic mayonnaise from The Garlic Farm, scoops of English honey with a heady, heathery taste, white chocolate and raspberry fudge, chilli jam, oozing Brie, rapeseed oil with an amazing truffle flavour and silky fresh cream from Jess’s Ladies Organic Farm.

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I met some lovely food producers including Yvonne from The Artisan Baker who sold me a giant wedge of golden focaccia and chocaholic Sarah from Fair and Square chocolate brownies whose flavours included salted caramel, pecan and walnut and apple and cinnamon.

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Floating over the whole market was the aroma of frying sausages, falafel and Thai noodles and some of the best tasting samosas ever!

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A large number of products were vegetarian, vegan and gluten free and such a good place to get some extra special things for Christmas – smooth caramel and fudge sauces for drizzling over mince pies and Gourmet Mulling Syrup – just add to red wine and cider for the perfect festive season tipple.

I bought a lot and ate a lot and my feet got wet but it was worth it.

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Death by gadget

My husband has recently decided to do more cooking.  This has benefited two main populations in our household; me and ALL of the pots, pans, utensils and gadgets we have ever owned. Every now and again all the deconditioned kitchen tools are woken from their dusty slumber and enrolled into boot camp. And I mean every. Single. One. If I make the mistake of trying to enter the no go kitchen zone during these periods there is a distinct threat of permanent injury from towers of dribbling pans, slops of water and the roaring flames of unused, but yet lit, gas hobs.

But truly, it’s great. I love that he is cooking for me because I always thought he’d enjoy it if he started. And honestly, I’m a teensy tiny bit jealous about how good he is – a recent chocolate tart was akin to heaven. The problem is that I’ve been relegated to table layer and wine selector, something that I’m hopelessly unqualified for, a bit akin to talking to internet companies about broadband and various cables. It’s normally him who does that bit.

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Rich chocolate tart with fresh raspberries and clotted cream

Recently the dish of the day was fish pie, chunks of fish, egg and peas in a rich creamy sauce, topped with whirls of smooth mashed potato. However, starting to cook apparently comes with high standards and extreme anxiety about lumpy mashed potato.  I tried to reassure him that a few lumps really weren’t an issue and that it was good for your molars to have something to do, but he wasn’t having any of it. So he was equipped with a masher, some milk, copious lashings of butter and advised that elbow grease was the way forward. A few minutes later, red faced and slightly sweaty he asked if we owned a gadget that could perform this function for him. My husband is a huge gadget fan. I am less so. I like the satisfaction and imagined moral superiority of achievements with your own bare hands and I’m slightly nervous of technology.

He suggested employing Maggie. Maggie is the Magimix, bought as a birthday present she lives next to the microwave. Our relationship initially involved utmost respect on my part and judgement on hers. She considered most jobs I gave her to be easy and would chop, dice, mix, shred, pulverise, mulch at super speed with the expression of a giant roaring bodybuilder lifting a kitten – ‘call that a challenge?! Give me MORE!’. Part of the problem was her terrifying array of razor sharp blades, lids and plastic thingies which left me in fear for my own safety.

But then I discovered her little secret. You see Maggie has a weakness, a fatal flaw. She leaks. Maggie is incontinent of soup. A terrible affliction for one with such pride and overconfidence I’m sure you will agree, and so we now have a deal. I ignore the need for multiple rolls of ultra-absorbent kitchen roll and she accepts the fact that I have never used her dough mixer.

I suggested not employing Maggie due the length of time that it would take me to clean her component parts after letting her loose on the mashed potato and he reluctantly agreed, returning to the kitchen with a wistful look towards the sofa. But it did leave me wondering, what is the best way of achieving silky smooth potato? A quick internet search revealed that a ricer could be the answer but it would mean yet another gadget and the possibility of a jealous Magimix. I’m not sure I’m prepared to upset the balance.

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Blueberry Porridge

This was my entry in the finals of the Carol Trewin Food Writers Award 2013. Although The Blueberry Brothers are based in Devon, not Gloucestershire, it was discovering their story that inspired me to continue food writing.

My husband recently went rogue with our weekly shopping and went ‘off list’.  This is always dangerous. Normally it means the purchase of another expensive gadget from the man crèche section of the supermarket but this time I found myself adding yet another large box of porridge oats to our collection. This left me in a quandary. Being a seasonal breakfast consumer I normally reserve porridge eating for dark, cold winter mornings and spend the summer with something light and fluffy for the first meal of the day. To avoid drowning in porridge oats clearly I needed to find a way of updating my porridge into a summery breakfast dish.

Amongst various other unlisted items in the week’s shopping were two small plastic punnets of blueberries.  Now I was slightly suspicious of these. Unlike strawberries or raspberries I don’t remember watching them grow in fields, picking them as a child or even eating them regularly in the tarts, puddings and jams that my mum used to make.  I don’t recall seeing them at all.  However in the interests of summer porridge I began to use them. I stirred them in, sprinkled them over the top and added a couple of tablespoons of Greek yoghurt.  I started snacking on them in the evenings, amazed at the powerful punch of flavour that a tiny little blue berry could pack. I learnt that the star shape on the underside of each berry comes from something called the ‘settle’, a small star shaped cup on the blueberry bush where the blueberry grows.   In short, I started to become a bit of a blueberry fan. And then I discovered that blueberries are being grown locally, in a gorgeous sunny cleft of Dartmoor at the family home of Nick and Toby Hewison.

The settle

The settle

The Devon village of Lustleigh is picture perfect.  Bright blue skies tossed with fluffy white clouds, quiet ridges of Dartmoor along the skyline and narrow country lanes striking the fear of god into the reverse phobic car driver.  Surrounded by family photographs and mementos, and with a background in marketing and branding for major companies, Nick is non-stop enthusiastic about all things blueberry.

Nick and Toby, also known as The Blueberry Brothers, began growing their first crop of blueberries in 2005. The Hewison family has strong farming genes with connections to Wales, Oxfordshire and the Orkney Isles and it was their mother Jenny who planted the first blueberry bushes at the family home in the 1990’s. A keen gardener, she instilled into her sons a love of food and the outdoors, and a talent for spotting business opportunities. In the late 1960’s Jenny and her husband started a business growing Christmas trees on their land which was highly unusual at the time and proved to be very successful. Now it was their sons turn.

The Blueberry Brother’s first aim was merely to have a seasonal crop of fruit.  It turned out that they had a unique selling point and soon found themselves increasingly popular, producing blueberries and selling them at local farmers markets. Customers were amazed that blueberries could be grown in the UK and Nick continues to encounter this disbelief on a regular basis. He believes that this is evidence of our pervading societal disconnection with how food is both grown and produced, from the pollination cycle and relationship between plant and pollinator to the true meaning of words like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainability’.  Nick and Toby discovered that they had the perfect soil for growing blueberries, (slightly acidic) and that the flavour of the berries was fantastic, particularly in the first two weeks of the season from July to September.  In a claim to fame their berries were even discovered by Michael Caines, the Devon based two Michelin starred super chef, when he sampled one that a member of his team was eating.  Today, the Blueberry Brothers blueberries continue to be amongst the breakfast offerings at the luxury country house hotel Gidleigh Park, which was named best British restaurant in 2010.

Blueberry Beer

Blueberry Beer

After an enviable three years cornering the local blueberry market, competition from other producers began to arise. With these changes in supply and demand and the rising cost of petrol, Nick and Toby didn’t have enough cultivated land to be commercially successful. They had also discovered that blueberry bushes can be fickle things. On the one hand they are rough- tough, living to a ripe old age and capable of withstanding very low temperatures. But prune them too much, plant them in just the wrong type of soil and they are capable of sulking for a long time. They’re also pretty selfish, not wanting to share any water with grass or weeds, and as such need to sit in their own individual, specially cleared patch of ground. This means a single blueberry bush needs a lot of care and attention in order to produce its fruit and commercial blueberry production is an exceptionally tough business. Whilst buying products from small artisan producers is very idyllic and romantic, it needs a strong coating in reality and Nick and Toby had some tough decisions to make – where was their blueberry business going and how were they going to make it work.

The answer came, as all the best answers traditionally do, in a bar. This bar happened to be in America, where blueberries are very popular as they are indigenous to the land and have been cultivated there since the 1900’s. Native American Indians use a mix of animal fat, cranberries and blueberries to make something called pemmican which is basically indestructible, everlasting meatloaf. Most of the research carried out into the health benefits of blueberry consumption is also American, and blueberries have been found to be rich in anthocyanins , compounds which have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Anthocyanins have been linked to memory improvements in older adults and a reduced risk of heart attacks in women.

Nick and Toby had just paid a visit to the unlikely sounding ‘Blueberry World’ in rural Maine which, according to Nick, is surrounded by concrete domes of various sizes, all painted blue. Nobody was queuing to get in but inside they discovered anything and everything that could possibly contain blueberries, from cosmetics and toiletries to pies, juices and cookery books devoted entirely to the little blue berries.

Blueberry and Lime jam

Blueberry and Lime jam

Just like their parents before them, Nick and Toby had a light bulb moment and spotted a business opportunity. After starting out as two brothers growing a limited number of blueberries on their own small plot of land, they were inspired to think bigger and started  work on a range of their own great tasting, quirky and original blueberry products. The first was blueberry beer but the range soon expanded to include blueberry cheese, blueberry brownies, prize winning giant squidgy blueberry muffins, frangipane and blueberry tarts and blueberry and lime jam. Excitedly in development are blueberry chocolates, blueberry vodka, blueberry marzipan fruits and potentially blueberry cosmetics. So far this enterprise has been very successful and the products are currently sold at farmers markets, food festivals, local shops and cafes, with the brothers own blueberries in the jam and others sourced from all over, sometimes fresh, sometimes frozen.  The exceptionally popular blueberry and lime jam goes from sharp to sweet, with whole blueberries providing texture and leaving the taste of zingy lime on your tongue. The frangipane and blueberry tarts consist of crisp, sweet pastry covered in a shiny glaze with a cool, almondy dense interior and pockets of blueberry tang.

Blueberry muffins

Blueberry muffins

The Blueberry Brothers journey so far has been a steep learning curve with highs and lows.  As new products are developed and international distribution mentioned they would love to grow more blueberries and expand the business, using blueberries from all over the world and selling their products far and wide. In keeping with their family history, Nick and Toby are also very keen not to lose the local side of their business. They strongly believe in increasing the viability of the village community as a whole, and would like the future to include employing skilled, local workers and offering career progression.  As Nick says, ‘The one thing I’ve learnt is that the reaction to blueberries is always positive. It is about happiness. And that’s the core of what we are about.’

I am now a committed blueberry lover and enjoying my new found blueberry knowledge.   Consumer awareness is more important than ever before, particularly in light of recent food scares, and the more questions we can ask and the more knowledge we gain can only help us to connect back to the food chain and make informed food choices.

Now the only problem left to solve is how to persuade my husband that Maine is very nice this time of year.

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