Sheepwash, Devon, April 2014
I am going to make a supper. From the ingredients and produce of those on the list of finalists for the BBC Food And Farming Awards. The best of British food.
With 7 days to go to the awards ceremony, I think I almost have a menu for this supper. I won’t say it hasn’t given me sleepless nights. I want it to be as wonderful as everything that will go into it, to do justice to those bringing to the kitchen whatever they have grown and made. I want it to echo the celebration, tell the stories, honour the people and the land. I want it to be perfect.
It feels as if everything is on the line. So I thought I’d put myself on the line too - and write about it.
It’s not as if I don’t have the materials to work with. I’ve listened to the judges, I’ve read the blogs, been over the websites and above all, I have spoken to the finalists. I know what they are made of, these people, because it’s in their voices. To them, working with the raw ingredients of food – rearing it, growing it, preparing it, knowing what to do and when – is an instinctive, everyday thing. But when they talk about it, whether awkwardly and not much, or in minute detail, you also hear love and knowledge.
So now, I have placed my orders. And in less than a few days, things will start to arrive in the kitchen at Square Food Foundation.
From fishmonger, baker, brewer, butcher, cheesemonger, farmer, grower, forager, cook; vegetables, beef, lamb, seafood, cheese, smoked products, cured products, butter, bread, biscuits, honey, wine & beer
From sea and river, from land and farm, from markets, vineyards, orchards, hills and plains
From Somerset, Aberdeen, North Yorkshire, East Sussex, Wirral, Belfast, London, Pembrokeshire, Dorset, County Down, The Hebrides, Avon, Kent, Derbyshire
From the earth around us
You get the idea.
I have a menu. Even though it keeps changing.
I didn’t realise that herrings were out of season. Should have checked. Should have remembered. I can’t do pickled herrings then.
But the menu is beginning to take shape.
Lambs’ hearts, sliced thin, flash fried, with wafer thin pickled red onion, parsley leaves, their livers with sweet-onion compote. Rosemary. Sumac? Do I dare? Or is that a bit last year?
Beef broth, clear deep golden brown, from oxtail & bones.
Crab sandwiches made with Welsh Black Butter
Fish soup, intense, saffron, fishy,
Radishes with County Down butter, crunchy salt.
Carrots five ways: whole roast in the wood-fired oven; falafel with yoghurt; carrot cake; raw carrot with seaweed & spelt; Vichy-style with butter-braised celery
Ox-cheek with the celery
But what else from the garden, from the farmer’s market vegetable stall? New potatoes (Colleen variety) & wet garlic? Spinach, kale? Not much about – and I want to talk about this too.
The hungry gap of late March, April and almost May, is a bittersweet thing for cooks. If you shop and cook with the seasons and what grows around you, you’ll know about this gap. The wait through months of rain and darkness, growing impatient for summer and for peas, broad beans & mint.
Even now, although the days are sunny and even warm, the soil is not yet woken from its winter sleep.
There is of course asparagus - cooked soft, never, never raw; I swear I’d do time in defence of properly cooked asparagus. And we can forage in the woods for wild garlic. For the most part though, we must be inventive with kale and old season potatoes. Perhaps with a lighter touch, in deference to the blossom and the birdsong.
Onto well-cooked kale, you can spoon scrambled eggs, chilli and rosemary. Potatoes, old - even slightly soft and beginning to sprout – can be sliced thick, cooked in hardly any water with a slice of lemon and a bay leaf and transferred to a dish. Then dressed with crème fraiche & pungent rapeseed oil, sprinkled with ground cumin seeds and garlicky fried bread crumbs.
Back to the Food And Farming Awards supper
Nothing needs to be done to the smoked fish and mutton and Dorset coppa and the Lancashire cheeses, except put them on boards and plates, serve them beautifully and make sure the bread is very good.
And the wines, beers & ciders will find their matches
As the day draws nearer, so, I hope, the menu will become clearer.
Last night I dreamt it all went very wrong. It was twilight but not in a nice way. The wood-fired oven wouldn’t light. The award ceremony upstairs went on for ever and the carrots turned grey and limp. The beautiful fish soup split and I was drugged with a strange sleepiness and couldn’t tell people what to do.
It was only a dream.
And when the awards are done, the supper eaten and the tables and chairs all cleared away as if nothing had been there, the festival will begin.
If you don’t know about this festival, then it’s time you found out. It’s a food festival of our time, less about the culinary kings and queens of the flat screen, more about ordinary people, about the food life of a city and of what can happen when a great food idea takes root. It’s going to connect the whole city through food. Check it out