The Nut Brown Maid of Autumn

Walking up the hill one morning last week, the mist wreathing St Lawrence’s tower, the only sound the creak of a bird flying over the street, one could be forgiven for thinking Ludlow was either sinking into or emerging from an enchanted sleep.

Days later and we are experiencing the longest period of wind and rain we have had for months.  All is battered and buffeted. The Teme is up and roaring, bringing small trees, large branches to clutter the weir. The ducks and salmon are ecstatic. Not so sure about the walkers and their canine companions.

The chestnut by Pea Green gate has been moaning and wringing its hands, sending volleys of nuts to smash their spiny cases all over the car park, exposing their glossy treasure. There is no other word for a pristine chestnut, they glow, jewel like. I love the smooth feel of them too. I wonder how many children over the years have collected them? Apparently the game of “conkers” only became popular with the young (of all ages) in the late 19th century. Not so strange when you realise that they were planted first on private estates and in the gardens of the well to do. Due to their gregarious nature, they eventually escaped to be enjoyed and used by everyone.

During the second world war they were harvested for a starch the nuts produced which was used for something unpleasant I’m sure. Unlike the sweet chestnut, whose creamy flesh is a winter bonus, they are inedible for humans. But it doesn’t stop the fascination of collecting, either for the noble game, to make doll’s house chairs, or as a arthritis remedy, people just can’t resist them.

In the kitchen we use the other native stalwart, Hazel. That beautiful coppice we now drive by without a second glance, that bouquet of stems rising from it’s bole, making a swaying shade in summer, is now harvested. We make a hazel nut sauce for our vegetable pancake, one of our most popular vegetarian dishes.

Sliced blanched almonds are scattered on top of our honey cakes, a satisfying crunch to the sweetness. and walnuts add texture and taste to our apple and walnut cake. Before we know it the sweet chestnut will centre stage as accompaniment to brussel sprouts, in stuffing and just thrown on an open fire and roasted.

The Nut Brown Maid of autumn is stepping out with all of her bounty and colour. Take time to enjoy the homely delights of this most intimate season. I know that I will finding a good thick book, my favourite jumper, and enjoying the taste of the nuts and fruits on offer.

Enjoy our honey cake with a cappuccino or a cup of earl grey and a slice of lemon. Take one home for tea.

Make Room for the Mushrooms

They are everywhere, legion. Erupting from the dark, invading plant pots, colonising any damp filled nook or cranny.
Every meadow has its crop. Shaded lawns collect them.

Mushrooms are extraordinary, not strictly a vegetable, fruit or herb. So why this particular 1980’s advert about them should be such an ear worm for me, I confess, I don’t know. It could just as easily have been Shirley Conran’s “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom.” At least that’s culinary. Her book of household tips and how to over come the daily chore of catering for the family, was published when women were beginning to carve out careers for themselves. Now of cause there has been a revival on the domestic front, with programmes like “The Great British Bake Off” making us revaluate the task of cooking, a skill we can all at some level achieve and be proud of.

I digress. As I said, mushrooms are exceptional.  They inhabit that unique category called the fifth flavour, umami, being neither sweet or sour, salty or bitter. Their taste is rich, earthy, almost meaty and rounds out the other flavours in a dish. Mushrooms are easy to cook with, generally only requiring a few minutes to cook, although as a casserole ingredient they stand up to a long cooking time without falling apart.

Mushrooms are used in medicine offering health benefits to those who suffer from arthritis, inflammation or minor heart problems. There are literally thousands of different fungi and they have a myriad uses other than being consumed by us. Many are of cause poisonous so if you fancy foraging, please take an expert with you.

 

The most common in cooking are the white button mushrooms which are available all the year round. They are still the favourite extra on a breakfast, quartered and sautéed, we add a little fresh lemon juice to the mix.

They make a great soup and are wonderful as a stroganoff. They are added to our chicken casserole and we use them  in our vegetable risotto and omelettes. On a cold autumn morning what could be nicer than a bacon and mushroom sandwich?

 

 

 

In Praise of Autumn

Summer is beginning to drip away. The chestnut is turning russet and yellow, while the split silk of its conker cases are being squashed by cars parking underneath. Along Friars walk, in the stone wall and railings that mark out Stephens Close, small pale pink and white cyclamen have flowered. The blackberries have unfortunately been cut back, but the hips on all the roses are ripe and swing like pendent earrings in the slightest breeze.

In the kitchen the steady drip through the jelly bag announces damsons deep crimson juice is ready to be bottled. It goes  really well with our apple crumble, as well as an ingredient in sauces and stews.

We were fortunate to be given a small crop of local pears, grown in a high walled garden. Ludlow is replete which such spaces. The tall Georgian houses each hiding a walled back garden. How romantic. One of my favourite books is Hodgson-Burnet’s “The Secret Garden”. First read as a dreamy child, it is still taken down and read from time to time.

We lightly poached these pears in a red wine syrup and serve them with chocolate ice-cream. Local pears with a local ice-cream, what a great combination. Autumn is full of good combinations; from  apple and blackberry to venison and cranberry. It will soon be time to think about mixing mincemeat, that evocative seasonal blend of fruit, nuts, and a tipple or two of alcohol.

Autumn is coming in all the colours of a good fire in the grate. A good book by the fireside, a poached pear, chocolate, lovely!

 

 

Seeding Summer

Walking up Friars Walk these mornings I am struck by how quiet it is. The children are not at school, so no weaving between push chairs and scooters, no excited greetings as friends meet at the gate.

Children no longer play in the streets as we did. They have organised activities, dance lessons, swimming, school holiday clubs. All perfectly wonderful, but not like the summer days we spent making” camp”, riding our bikes around, exploring. Whole days were spent going to the swimming pool, which was next door to the park, which was next door to the library. I loved a day spent this way. It didn’t matter if one went on ones own, you were bound to meet someone during the course of the day. 

The grass is seeding, arching sprays over the deceptive blackberries. Deceptive because although black and ripe looking, they taste sharp, tart on the tongue. We used to play a game with the grass seeds, stripping the stem with the thumb and fore finger, making a bouquet of heads. We presented them to a friend saying, “Bunch of flowers?” and then scattering them all over them with “April showers!” as the seed caught in their hair and clothes. Ah, innocent times.

I watched a glass blower making “seeds” in glass baubles for a chandelier to hang in the renovated “Willow Tea rooms in Glasgow. These imperfections, made prisms to catch and glance from the balls, enhancing the effect, magical. We use seeds in cooking, and not just the colloquial British “pip” as in apples and blackberries, but seeds such as cardamom in pilaf rice, pumpkin in muesli, mustard seeds in stroganoff, vanilla in custard. White pepper, a must for béchamel or any white sauce is made from ripe pepper seeds.

Seeds are everywhere, taking root for a new season.  

 

What to Eat in the Heat

It’s beginning to sound like one of those duty postcards we send home from our holiday destination, when really all we want to be doing is be out enjoying ourselves; “weather fine and hot, wish you were here.”  Mild sniggers indulged in by customers who haven’t booked a summer break abroad! (what a waste of money!)

Standing under the chestnut tree Saturday afternoon, the grass had been mown and left in stripes to dry up on Gallows bank and a tree creeper with his cream speckled waistcoat hung upside down in the branches above me.

What we are going to have for supper is a question that seems to take up more of my time than I’d like it to. As with most working people, the thought of getting home and preparing a meal is sometimes a chore rather than a pleasure. When we have time, preparing a menu, buying the food and its preparation are life affirming tasks that engage all our senses. But some nights as the light lingers above the roofs, I for one want something quick and nutritious.

Supper Solutions provides a number of options from our heat and eat range. You could have world famous spicy meatballs in our own made tomato sauce over pasta with a fresh green salad, or tomato and aubergine with rice or garlic bread. How about one of our casseroles with new potatoes, or a salad of leaves, lemon and salmon? You could always find out what our specials are this week by giving us a ring. Order before 5 o’clock and we deliver free in the SY8 code up till 7’clock.
When its as hot as this, who wants to spend more time in the kitchen than you have too? Sit in the cool of the evening and enjoy one of our delicious dishes instead.

 

 

Fruits of the Earth

I recently found out that there are fifty thousand edible plant species on earth, and we manage to consume just a hundred of them. Yes that’s right, just a 100 varieties out of all the cornucopia this world provides. In the late seventies, I along with a million other people bought a book called “Food for Free” written by Richard Mabey, a slim paperback which I read more for the pleasure and information it provided, than because I wanted to go foraging.

Like all of us I have picked blackberries in autumn, ate hazelnuts, and young shoots of hawthorn, (bread & cheese). I’ve picked mushrooms, and prickly sloes for gin. My mother as a young girl was sent out to harvest the hedges for rosehips during the second world war, as they were a good,”free” source of vitamin c.

But there are so many wild plants we not longer value, from the humble dandelion, best gathered fresh in spring, a great leaf for salads, young tips of nettle, a good substitute for spinach, to green sea weed which is becoming quite trendy dried as a condiment. We have become disconnected from the countryside, viewing it as a vast play ground interspersed with industrial sized farming units, which provide us with the “correct” food to eat.

Now I realize that there are plants out there that are poisonous, or just taste plain strange to our modern palette. But with a good reference book, or in the company of an experienced forager, the walk you take for pleasure could also give you ingredients for a meal.

 There are so many recipes for “wild food” out there, from Elderflower fritters, to a four herbs vinegar,

(Cut basil, borage, mint and chives just before plant flowers. Bruise the leaves and pack them into a glass jar. Heat white vinegar and pour over the leaves. Cover and infuse for fourteen days shaking occasionally. Strain and store in glass bottles with screw top lids.)

that whole books are devoted to recipes, drinks and tonics made from natural products. If you have a favourite wild food recipe, we would love to hear about it. Why not drop us a line?

Pea Green has been celebrating summer with something slightly different, a wonderful fresh tabbouleh medley, made from puy lentils, sweet baby orange tomatoes, lemon, mint and spring onions. Served with our Asian Slaw and new potatoes, an exotic mix which is going down really well.

Take the few short steps across the car park. escape the glare and come into the cool, shaded Pea Green café for a taste of summer.

 

The Dog Days of Summer

Let’s get this out, before we go any further, I am a frost worshipper. A clear blue sky and crisp clean air with a rime to every leaf and blade of grass is the weather I like.  Now we have the blue sky, but it’s hot, hot, hot and I am torpid in the heat. Even the sparrows have been invading the cool vault of the café. Tim has become a bird whisperer, getting adept at enticing them out of open windows and doors.

The roads outside are quiet, the car park a smell of gravel, dust and baking cars. The only shade is by our outside tables or under the chestnut tree, which has become the premium parking space. In the by roads and lanes around the town, the wild roses and dog daisies are starring the verges, celebrating the dog days of the year, July and August the hottest months. The name comes from the dog star Sirius, which is the brightest star in the sky.It can been seen at the feet of the constellation of Orion the hunter, one of his hunting dogs. “Dog” is also a Latin tag for wild, feral.

Lunch time and salads and piquant prawns are the orders of the day; crisp lettuce, sweet tomatoes, beetroot, radishes. the bounty of summer. Ice cream has replaced custard as dessert accompaniment. The clink of ice against glass, a cloud of elderflower, sunshine orange.

Why not order a pic-nic sandwich and fruit or cake from us and take it to eat beside the river or up in the cool trees of the forest?

Outside the houses opposite shimmer in the furnace of the sun. Inside, I bless the high ceilings, cool white walls, and gently stirring curtains. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen they say.

 

 

Make a Brew

I love a cup of tea, it’s how I start my day and the beverage I chose after our evening meal. We use a good quality tea from the West Country which makes a pleasant tasting cup. But I also enjoy tisanes, a word we borrowed from the French, which applies to any drink made with herbs, flowers and spices, they are refreshing and make a nice change from the caffeine infused drinks.

Some teas can aid the digestion, both mint and chamomile tea are good after a meal. Sage and ginger supress colic. The medicinal qualities of different teas are endless, and many people use them as a gentle remedy, but that’s another blog!

For me, the real pleasure comes in the look, smell and taste of the drink. I used to enjoy blending teas, the aroma of Rosehip, Anise, Raspberry, Nettle and Liquorice with a waft of spices clove and cardamom was one of my favourites. It’s called Herbal Harmony and is a real feel good drink. The colours make it look particularly appealing.

Rose tea helps calm you down. It’s aroma is that of a summer garden, with just a hint of sherbet. You can mix dried rose petals with a black loose leaf tea for “Rose ” tea. You can buy loose wild rosebuds which make a pink beverage and has no caffeine.

Some herbal and fruit tisanes are lovely chilled too. Hibiscus, a tea that is popular in the middle east, has a deep red velvety colour. Over ice with a twist of lemon its a great summer drink. Keep some in the fridge for mixers or straight drinks.

At Pea Green we sell fruit and herbal teas as well as the quality tea from Miles. With the roses scenting the air, and the herbs thriving in the heat, ready to  be picked and used. Enjoy a summer tea with us the next time you’re in.

First Fruits

 

 

This is the time of year when our lovely soft fruits come into season. With the prospect of fine weather the berries begin to plump and swell. We are fortunate to live close to an area that grows a variety of soft fruits so buying and picking a good quality fruit is easy, we are spoilt for choice. Strawberries are most peoples favourite, they have been part of our diet since Roman times. We use them in flans, tarts, puddings, jams and preserves. Apparently they are very good dipped in black pepper, though I haven’t tried them that way. Being an old fashioned girl, I enjoy a cream tea, strawberries and clotted cream, what’s not to like?

But my favourite soft fruit has to be the raspberry, which belongs to the same family as the rose. I love the soft texture and velvet sweetness in my mouth. I particularly like them in vanilla yoghurt which is for me a breakfast treat. Raspberries were once cultivated for the mass market in Scotland, and a special train ” The Raspberry Special” ran loaded with the precious cargo daily “down south.”  Raspberries contain more vitamin c than oranges, and are also high in folic acid  and potassium. They have been with us even longer than the strawberry, being eaten in pre-historic times. You can also buy, red, purple, gold or black raspberries! I will be looking out for them. The gold are apparently the sweetest.

We use and serve a variety of fruit in the café, from an attractive fruit bowl as part of one of our many lunch time buffets, to fruit crumble, which is still one of our most popular puddings. I love the citric yellow of the lemon slices we hang on the side of the piquant prawns Lemons help to cut the sweetness of our classic treacle tart. They enhance the flavour of smoked salmon in our salads. A twist of lime over cheese cake makes it look special, and they are an essential ingredient of the dressing for the Asian Slaw.

Blossom has long gone, but the promise of good things to come is everywhere. From the green nubs on the apple tree, to the elder flower showing its party dress before revealing the dark berries of autumn. by which time we will be thinking of making jams and syrups, jellies and cordials.

A pretty way of persevering fruit is to make it into candied peel. Stored in air tight jars it lasts for months, making edible cake decorations and great gifts.  In my last incarnation as a retailer, we sold in the autumn months 100’s of kilos of candied peel. I loved the luscious slices of yellow lemon and warm orange. We had a good reputation for selling a wide range of quality peel and candied fruit. One of our best sellers ? Candied Strawberries.

 

 

 

 

Friendly Lions & Wise Old Owls

I have a long connection to Herbs going right back to childhood. They were clouds of fragrance and spice as I brushed passed them in the gardens of which ever National Trust property we were visiting, a fleeting glimpse of another way of life. They permeated many of the books I read, from, The Little Grey Rabbit series to Tom’s Midnight Garden.

More prosaically they were one of my favourite television programmes. I was lucky enough to grow up in the era of the late great Oliver Postgate, and The Herbs were memorable. They were a motley bunch from; a very friendly lion called Parsley, through to Dill the Dog, Bayleaf the Gardner, and  Sage the Owl among others. They were enchanting, and herbs have been that for me ever since.

Herbs seem to create a slower way of life. They need to be picked, washed, chopped or shredded all the while releasing their wonderful aromas. The mere whiff of sage and onion and a whole roast dinner is conjured up.

There are over 14 different mints, of different strengths and flavours. I love mint, and have grown a range of them. It is probably my favourite herb. I could write a whole piece on just this versatile plant. It goes so well with new potatoes, but it can also compliment peas, lamb and chocolate. We use it in our Asian Slaw which is a lovely fresh garnish and pretty salad accompaniment. (Chef’s Tip, Moroccan Mint makes the best tea.)

Parsley is a vibrant, peppery herb full of calcium, iron and vitamin C. It can be used as a breath freshener. There are many varieties of this herb, but the most common are flat leaf or curly.
A firm favourite in white sauce over fish, but it can also be used in soups , stuffing, crusts and salads. We use it as part of our mushrooms in garlic.

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” Add a Bay Tree, some mint and a pot of Basil and you have a good range of herbs. Now we can buy “fresh” herbs of all sorts in all seasons. But a few pots of herbs on a sunny window sill, or in a plant holder in the garden, to cut and come again, will give you scent and flavour for minimum effort, all summer through.