Chicken & Other Birds (Book Review)

We are a nation of breast lovers. Not the Page 3 variety. The chicken variety. Around 750 million of these birds are slaughtered every year to sate our hunger. But mostly it is the bland breasts we crave. The tastier thighs barely get a look it unless they are attached to a whole roast. And let’s not mention the livers….

You can probably gather from the start of this post that I am not the biggest fan of chicken. That is to say I’m not a fan of the mass produced birds that can be sold in supermarkets for as little as two for a fiver. It’s the cottonwool like pappiness as you chew it I can’t abide. It’s hardly surprising that supermarket chicken is so tasteless when you consider the average bird only ‘enjoys’ 56 days of life before it is dispatched. This is a shame because chicken can be a succulent and tasty meat, providing the creature it came from has been given the opportunity live beyond puberty before it dies. These chooks will cost a bit more but are worth the extra expense. You can usually find them at a decent butcher or through online retailers like Pipers Farm. For tastier options I find less intensively reared birds like duck and guinea fowl offer more flavour for your money.

If you want some inspiration for how to cook your birds you may find this book useful.

Recipe Chicken & Other Birds

What is the essence of the book?

Chicken & Other Birds is a collection of recipes based around different methods of cooking various fowl and poultry. These include chapters on roasting, oven baking, barbecuing, braising and smoking as well as a few extras such as recipes for stuffings and sauces.

About the author

Paul Gayler is a renowned chef who spent 22 years at The Lanesborough Hotel as their Executive Chef. He has also written numerous recipe books on everything from vegetarianism to sausages.

Who will like it?

If you like chicken but fancy stepping over to the darker side of poultry (in terms of the meat colour rather than quality) then you’ll like this book. It’s also great for anyone who likes entertaining as it contains plenty of interesting ways to present your feathered friends at the dinner table.

Who won’t like it?

Vegetarians or anyone who is happier buying their Murgh Makhna (a.k.a. Indian Butter Chicken) from the local take-away rather than making it themselves from scratch.

What do I like about the book?

The book begins with a chapter on Getting to know your birds which includes step by step instructions and photographs on how to joint a bird. For me this is probably the most useful part of the book. So often recipes advise you to ‘ask your butcher to joint the chicken’ which is fine if you are buying said bird from a butcher. The reality is that most people buy their chicken from the supermarket. If we forget (for the moment) about the way these chickens are reared, it is still far more economical to buy a whole chicken and joint it ourselves than paying for somebody else to do it for us. Think about all the wastage there must be to keep the supermarket’s stocked up with those flabby breasts, for which the consumer will pay a premium. Fortunately, Gayler provides plenty of delicious recipes for the other, less choice, cuts from birds such as Chicken Thighs with Feta, Lemon and Oregano. There are also plenty of recipes for duck, quail and guinea fowl as well as ‘World Classics’ like Chicken Chasseur.


What aspects am I not so keen on?

As you would expect from a chef of his stature the recipes are inventive and are beautifully photographed. However, I can’t help feeling that these images are a little too cheffy and as a consequence would put a less confident cook off or mean that the book is only referenced when a dinner party is in the offing.

Would I cook from it?

Probably. It would be easy to say there is no place for it in my recipe book collection as I have so many already but there are some lovely recipes in here and I love the fact it extends beyond the overrated chicken.

Where can you buy it?

Chicken & Other Birds by Paul Gayler (Jacqui Small, £19.99)

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Deliciously Wheat, Gluten & Dairy Free (Book Review)


What is the essence of the book?

As the title suggest this is a book dedicated to wheat, gluten and diary free cooking. Containing over 120 recipes the book includes sections on starters, fish, meat, vegetarian dishes and a substantial section on desserts and baking. There are also ‘Master Recipes’ for things like gluten free short crust pastry and homemade ricotta cheese (yes, really!).

About the author

Antoinette Savill has written many books on allergy-free cooking over her 25 year career after discovering that she herself is intolerant to gluten. Her other books include The Food Intolerance Bible and Lose Wheat, Lose Weight.

Who will like it?

Anyone with a food intolerance (particularly a newly discovered one) will like this book. Equally if you find yourself in a position where you have to cater for someone with a food allergy (as I did recently) you will find this book invaluable.

Who won’t like it?

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to eat anything then this may not be the first book you would reach for. That said, it seems that more and more people are being diagnosed with food intolerances these days so I would reiterate what I have said above.

What do I like about the book?

Fortunately, I can eat anything and I will confess that I was initially quite dismissive of this book when it landed on my doormat. However, having had a good rummage through its pages and cooking some of the recipes I can safely say that my opinions towards gluten/dairy free cooking have changed. I’d always felt rather sorry for coeliacs and had assumed that their diet must be quite restrictive and rather bland. This book proves that nothing could be further from the truth. The food looks appetising in the accompanying images and the sheer variety of innovative recipes is quite impressive. Frankly you could serve this food and nobody would be any the wiser as to whether or not it was gluten free. Some recipes do require specialist ingredients, such as rice flour, but many of these are now available from the supermarket. I also like the short introduction Savill includes at the beginning of the recipe.

What do I dislike about the book?

Real bread or rather lack of it. Sorry, but bread made with gluten free flour just isn’t the same. I made the Zucchini Bread (with pumpkin instead of courgettes) which was tasty but not nearly bready enough. Luckily for me I can eat the real stuff but I have increased sympathy for coeliacs who have to avoid it. That said, I wouldn’t use the lack of real bread recipes as an excuse not to buy the book.

Would I cook from it?

Already have. I cooked the Asian Prawn Fritters on p25 at my first supper club for two guests who are gluten and dairy intolerant. In retrospect I should have included them as part of the whole menu for all the guests, they were that good.

Where can you buy it?

Deliciously Wheat, Gluten & Dairy Free by Antoinette Savill (Grub Street, £14.99)

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How To Eat Outside (Book Review)

How to Eat Outside low res

I read with some dismay last weekend that the popularity of bonfire night is dwindling in favour of the highly commercialised halloween. I’ve never been a fan of the latter and have become more averse to this ghoulish ‘celebration’ since I had my children. It seems somewhat discordant to encourage our little ones to effectively beg for sweets at a time when childhood obesity rates are soaring.

I love bonfire night because it is a peculiarly English tradition. Now granted when you try to explain the reasons behind these festivities to a foreigner it probably seems equally macabre (if not more so) than halloween. The burning of a Guy must appear particularly barbaric to an outsider (never mind the fate that befell the real Guido Fawkes). Never the less there is something about the smell of wood smoke and gun powder in the air which is an essential autumnal ritual for me.

Whilst I may not share food writer Genevieve Taylor’s opinion that most of the best meals are eaten outside, I do have fond memories of the food served on bonfire night. Hot jacket potatoes served with a cube of hard butter that liquifies when it meets the smoky sweet flesh or steaming tomato soup served from a thermos. Sticky ginger bread and toffee apples. All of these make an appearance in this book in one guise or another and serve as a reminder that no celebration is complete, whether indoors or out, without a supply of real food.

What is the essence of the book?

How To Eat Outside is divided into five chapters covering all manner of outdoor eating events such as picnics, barbecues, bonfires, campfire cooking and wilderness eats. Each chapter includes recommendations on useful equipment to acquire for each scenario, which is great if you are an outdoor cooking virgin like me.

Eating Out, Bonfire Night - Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

Eating Out, Bonfire Night – Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

About the author

Genevieve Taylor is a food writer and stylist who lives in Bristol. She has published many books on food including A Good Egg (a particular favourite of mine) and also presents food films online.

Who will like it?

If like Genevieve you are an outdoorsy type and want to jazz up your food offering the next time you go camping, you’ll adore this book.

Who won’t like it?

Whilst I like being outdoors for exercise I can’t say I’m wild about al fresco eating in the UK. Sandy sandwiches, irritating buzzy things and generally freezing my butt off do not do it for me. If you share my sentiments about outdoor eating then you probably won’t be attracted to this book.

What do I like about the book?

Despite what I’ve just said, if any book was going to entice me from my warm, dry, cosy kitchen this would do it. Genevieve’s reassuring style makes these recipes seem eminently doable even given the vagaries of cooking over an open fire. She also provides lots of helpful tips on how to make cooking outside less stressful which are particularly handy if you have kids in tow. The photography is suitably scummy too.

Eating Out, Bonfire Night - Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

Eating Out, Bonfire Night – Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

Eating Out, Bonfire Night - Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

Eating Out, Bonfire Night – Genevieve Taylor (10th October 2014)

What do I dislike about the book?

On the whole I think this is a well constructed book in terms of the way it has been written and presented. So whilst the subject of al fresco dining and cooking doesn’t immediately appeal to me, I do believe it would make a cracking present for someone who does like the outdoor way of life.

Would I cook from it?

Interestingly, I probably would although it’s unlikely I would cook outside (many of the recipes are prepared inside to begin with anyway). As Genevieve says “good, simple un-mucked-about-with food is absolutely central to life’s pleasures”. How To Eat Outside provides an array of tasty, easy to prepare recipes which I’m sure can be enjoyed indoors just as well as outdoors.

Where can you buy it?

How To Eat Outside by Genevieve Taylor is available from Amazon priced £13.49

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Duck in Pumpkin Seed Sauce

Serves 4

Duck with Pumpkin Seed Sauce and savoury pan de muerto

Duck with Pumpkin Seed Sauce and savoury pan de muerto

This recipe is an adaptation of Pechugas al Pipiàn in Lourdes Nichols’ The Complete Mexican Cookbook. The original version calls for chicken breasts but I’ve found it works well with duck. Made with tomatillos it is perhaps not the most appealing colour but don’t let that put you off. The finished result is delicious. Should you have any sauce left it’s great in quesadilla’s.

Many thanks to Gressingham who supplied the duck for this recipe and MexTrade for the tomatillos.


  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil plus a little more if required.
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 800g tin tomatillos
  • 12 sprigs fresh coriander
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ¼ ground black pepper
  • Dried oregano
  • 4 duck breasts, skinned
  • A large pinch of sugar
  • 2 green chillies, finely chopped
  • 50 – 100ml water
  • 100g ground pumpkin seeds plus 1 tbsp to garnish
  • Salt & pepper to season


  1. First prepare the tomatillo sauce (salsa verde). Heat 1 tbsp of the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan or saucepan. Fry one of the onions and one of the crushed garlic cloves until soft but not coloured. While they are cooking place the tomatillos and their liquid, fresh coriander, ¼ tsp salt, ¼ ground black pepper and a pinch of oregano in a food processor. Blitz until smooth then add to the onion and garlic mix. Simmer for around 25 – 30 minutes until the sauce has reduced slightly and has thickened. Reserved until required.
  2. Mix the remaining two crushed cloves of garlic with ½ tsp salt and a large pinch of sugar. Rub this into the duck breasts while you heat 2 tbsp oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Brown the garlicky duck in the oil. Add the remaining onion, chillies, a pinch of oregano and 50ml water. Simmer gently for 30 mins turning the breasts from time to time. Add more water if the pan looks dry.
  3. Add the salsa verde and ground pumpkin seeds. Return to a simmer and continue cooking for a further 20 minutes, turning the breasts frequently. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp pumpkin seeds just before serving. Serve with rice, refried beans and guacamole.

Duck with pumpkin seed sauce 2

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Historical Dining Rooms (Restaurant Review)

Behind an unassuming black door to the rear of the Star and Dove pub in Bristol there is some culinary alchemy at play. To enter this realm of skuets and lozenges I first have to pull the handle of a Victorian butlers bell. As I hear the muffled jangle of the bell within I half expect Lurch to answer the door. But no, I am greeted by a delightful young woman who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Lurch or any other member of the Addams family.

HDR interior

As I step over the threshold into the Historical Dining Rooms I am aware that I am leaving 21st century Bristol behind and entering an era where dinner was more of an event than a ready made meal popped in the microwave so often served today. Mahogany coloured panelling, which property developers often discard without a second thought, adorns the walls of this Victorian building. Everything from the antique furniture through to the hand painted wall paper and the muted lighting conveys the feel of a Regency dining hall minus the stern faced personnel found plonked in the corner of such rooms in England’s stately homes and museums.

HDR Interior 2


So even before I peruse the Bill of Fare it’s clear that Leigh Pascoe, Tim Denny and Matt Duggan, the chefs behind the Historical Dining Rooms, take the historical provenance of food very seriously indeed.

Roof top garden

Roof top garden

Capturing the flavours of the past and keeping a keen eye on the seasons are so important they have a roof top garden where rare and largely forsaken varieties of vegetables and herbs are grown to supply the restaurant. This includes Rat-Tailed Radishes (favoured by Queen Elizabeth 1 as a digestive) and a Victorian delicacy, Daubenton Kale. I’m initially introduced to this as an hors d’oeuvre served with a frothy glass of Mrs Beeton’s lemonade (a deceptively innocuous cocktail with the propensity I’m sure to knock you for six if more than a couple are consumed). The crispy leaves sprinkled with instant vinegar powder arrive at my table in an old fashioned toast rack. I can safely say it is the most original and possibly tastiest salt and vinegar crisp I’ve ever eaten.

Rat Tailed Radish

Mrs Beetons Lemonade

Mrs Beeton’s Lemonade

But before my historically inspired culinary journey can begin I am instructed to refresh my hands in Thieves Vinegar, a fragrant recipe devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 infused with herbs from their roof top garden. I regularly remind my children to wash their hands before dinner but had never considered the ceremonial significance of the act. It was common practice among the ancient Greeks and with medieval European nobility but has largely fallen by the wayside, except evidently in England. I have to confess it’s hard not to feel a little affronted when, as an adult, you are asked wash you hands although they did indeed feel refreshed and not in the least bit vinegary.



Rather than being rooted in one era the menu skips around the centuries. The initial course of ‘Snacks’ commences in the mid fifteenth century with the enigmatically entitled roasted milk (a mild, milky mousse topped with honeycomb from their own hives which also live on the roof); dips back to the late fourteenth century with a crunchy Lozenge (an early form of pasta, in this instance fried until crisp) topped with cream cheese and crushed long pepper; then zips forward to the eighteenth century with a Regalia of Cowcumber (a delicious warm roundel of breaded cucumber, served with lamb bacon and red wine). It’s worth mentioning here that the bread served at the same was accompanied by homemade whey butter and dripping topped with crushed crackling. Why more restaurants don’t serve bread with dripping (an underrated spread in my opinion) is beyond me. Dripping has a savoury intensity you simply don’t get with butter. If you haven’t tried dripping on toast or warm bread you haven’t lived.



But I digress. Those of a nervous disposition when it comes to eating offal should really try the Skuets. The original dish from Eliza Smith (author of the Compleat Housewife) dates back to 1753 and featured sweetbreads skewered with bacon then grilled and served with a fricassee of sheep’s tongue. At the Historical Dining Rooms the veal sweetbreads are served cunningly disguised as small sausages and arrive in a glass presentation box shrouded in smoke. As for the fricassee of sheep’s tongue your tastebuds would have no idea that they had been metaphorically licked by shaun the sheep so tender and un-tongue-like was this morsel. If you need convincing that historical food is not all stodgy pease pudding or over spiced ‘rotten’ meat then Skuets would do the job. This dish is highly accomplished in its execution and is an absolute pleasure to feast on visually and literally. (Sadly whilst the subtle lighting works wonders for the overall ambience of the restaurant it did me little favour when taking photos. These images really do not do the food justice!).

Pea Mousse

Pea mousse pre starter

The flavours Leigh and his team employ are robust but not over powering. The pickled components such as the black walnuts and wild garlic kernels in the Stockfish course are piquant without being astringent. The candy striped vanilla and chocolate sponge encasing a delicately flavoured green tea ice cream in the manner of an Arctic Roll (but far more sophisticated than Captain Birdseye envisaged it) served with a whipped chocolate cream contains an appropriate level of sweetness. The salty porkiness captured in a cloud like pea mousse seemed impossibly tasty for something so light and was perfect as a pre starter. The wines were also beautifully matched to each course and were largely English too. The whole meal was served at a considerate pace and with impeccable grace with sufficient time allowed between each course to reflect on the culinary experience. And everything is presented with the panache befitting a top end restaurant. Something of a surprise perhaps when you consider the restaurant’s humble location.

Rum Syrup Jug Wine

If time travel were possible would I really want to do it? There are so many questions I would like to ask, events I would like to witness and forgotten foods I would like to taste. Yet there is a certain mystique about the past. Surely, one of the reasons we find history so alluring is the fact there is so much we don’t really know? It’s exciting to interpret people’s vague words and to guess at what they really meant particularly in the kitchen. The Historical Dining Rooms prove that it is possible to re-imagine the flavours of the past in a very 21st century fashion whilst reminding us that some ingredients (and customs) are well worth revisiting.

With thanks to Leigh Pascoe and his team who allowed me to dine as their guest at The Historical Dining Rooms.

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Year of the Goat?

If you’ve become curious about eating goat following Matt Gillan’s appearance on the Great British Menu then you’ll be please to hear that all of his dishes from the show are now available at The Pass.


Matt explained that every course in his menu used a single ingredient as a theme. So his Sowing and Growing starter features onions in the guise of puree, whole bulbs and lightly battered rings. Sardines (although not in their canned incarnation) are the focus of the Jamming and Canning fish course and include a pan fried fillet, a crunchy spring like roll and rather moreish tartare. The addition of some poached lobster and crispy chicken wing are a lovely touch but the not too sweet rhubarb jam really pulls it all together. A hexagonal ‘comb’ of honey infused desserts draws Matt’s menu to a close with a honey sponge, panacotta, parfait and yoghurt topped with fragile almost transparent honey wafters.

Sowing and Growing

Sowing and Growing (onion/malt/cocoa nib)

Jamming and Canning

Jamming and Canning (sardine/rhubarb/chicken wing)

Back to Black (and Yellow) Honey/Fennel/Yoghurt

Back to Black (and Yellow) (honey/fennel/yoghurt)

But judging from the conversations I had with my fellow journalists over lunch and the response to my Instagram pictures of the meal, it is the goat people are most intrigued by. Matt said this was the easiest dish for him to develop for the competition. His mother cooked goat meat for him as a child although it is quite hard to source in England. He said he found this puzzling given that the UK has a large dairy industry. Matt subsequently discovered that around 40,000 billy goat kids are destroyed each year. In the spirit of the Women’s Institute’s philosophy of waste not, want not he decided to use goat as the central element in his main course. And so his Teaching and Preaching course was born which scored a unanimous 10 out of 10 across the board in the finals of the Great British Menu (the teaching aspect is a nod to the Institute’s Denmam College).

“I never set out to start a campaign for eating goat,” explains Matt. “It just sort of snowballed.”

Matt’s goat fuelled main includes a ridiculously tender steamed shoulder which falls apart at the slightest nudge of the fork; a stuffed roll of leg; a juicy piece of fillet and a mini herders pie with a creamy mash topping (comfort food at it’s pinnacle). There is also a light scattering of crumbled dehydrated goat’s cheese (fortunately the dehydrator at The Pass was working fine unlike the one at the Drapers Hall on the eve of the banquet); a dumpling and some roasted pineapple. Although Matt claims that the latter was a tongue in cheek addition it beautifully compliments the other elements on the plate. Like all of his previous courses it is impeccably presented but rather theatrically arrives in a Herder Box complete with a Brothers Grimm style story book (wonderfully illustrated by Jo Parry) detailing the plight of the nation’s billy goats.

IMG_1220 IMG_1222

I have tried goat before and wasn’t particularly enamoured with it. The goat I had previously eaten had a definite farmyard tang about it somewhat reminiscent of manure. Matt explained that the meat I had eaten was probably taken from an older animal. Goat like sheep has a less intense flavour when the animal is slaughtered young (think lamb vs mutton). Matt has been sourcing goat kid meat from James Whetlor of Cabrito in Devon for the past six years. James realised that culling billy goat kids shortly after birth made no sense ecologically, economically or gastronomically. He now supplies many London restaurants besides The Pass. Texture wise, goat kid meat it is very similar to lamb but unlike it’s gambolling playmate it has much lower fat content. In fact it contains less fat than skilled chicken.

The Pass is a Michelin starred restaurant so you can expect to pay top end prices. Matt’s Great British Menu costs £57.50 but does include an additional pre-starter. Is it worth it? For impeccable flavours, presentation and service, yes it absolutely is. 2015 may well be the Chinese year of the goat but I suspect (rather sadly) it will be sometime before we are all eating this meat regularly. Although if anything is going to convert you to eating goat this menu will.

Pre-starter of Snacks

Pre-starter of Snacks

Many thanks to South Lodge Hotel and Davies Tanner for this lunch at The Pass.

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Why Did the Chicken Cross the World by Andrew Lawler (Book Review)


“Add up the world’s cats, dogs, pigs, and cows and there would still be more chickens. Toss in every rat on earth and the bird still dominates. The domestic fowl is the world’s most ubiquitous bird and the most common barnyard animal. More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet at any given moment, three for every human.”

Having recently joined the scores of people in the UK who keep chickens for their eggs I was intrigued to read on to find out why this bird has become so prolific.

What is the essence of the book?

Rather than being a lame joke, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World is an in-depth study of the journey this ubiquitous fowl has made from the jungles of South East Asia to the Western dinner table. It is an intriguing look at commodity we very much take for granted. Each chapter examines the role this bird has played in different societies, so it’s not a strictly chronological path. Lawler explores Victorians fascination with this bird; cock fighting in Manila; the chickens’ use in modern medicine and just about everything in between.

About the author

Andrew Lawler is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines, including National Geographic, on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish. You can read more about his work on his website

Who will like it?

If you have an inquiring mind and like your social and cultural history then this book is likely to appeal to you.

Who won’t like it?

If you couldn’t care less about the answer to the question on the front cover or prefer fiction then this isn’t going to be your thing.

What do I like about the book?

In the wrong hands this could have been quite a dull topic.  Lawler’s laid back style with humorous undertones prevents this. Plus he piques the interest by starting chapters with sentences like “The cock has no cock.” I also like the pertinent quotes at the start of each chapter, from people like Herman Melville and Alice Walker. Whilst the chicken is at the core of each chapter the areas each section covers are extremely diverse and display the wealth of research he must have undertaken to complete the book. For this alone he earns my respect.

You can hear Lawler talking about this topic in this podcast of last week’s Food Programme with Dan Saladino.

What do I dislike about the book?

Whilst I did find this book intensely fascinating at times occasionally I found the chapters a bit long winded for my liking. Fortunately, it’s a book you can dip in and out of so this is not a big issue. Plus it contains heaps of useful information so I’m sure I will return to it again and again in the future.

Where can you buy it?

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World by Andrew Lawler (Duckworth Overlook) is available from Amazon priced £9.99

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Marguerite Patten Charity Lunch

I will be helping the Guild of Food Writers celebrate the life of Marguerite Patten on 4th November (which would have been her 100th birthday). I have taken inspiration for this retro menu from her 1972 book Cooking Today and will be donating the profits to the Anthony Nolan Trust. This charity was dear to Marguerite’s heart as she lost her grandson to leukaemia earlier this year shortly before she herself passed away.


Tickets for this special sumptuous 3 course lunch are £25 and include entry into a raffle with prizes from Black Dog Hill Vineyard and Field & Forrest. You can book a ticket by emailing me at but be quick as there are only 12 seats available!


Repast Supper Club Presents

A Celebratory Lunch For Marguerite Patten

Wednesday 4th November, 12.30 – 15.30

Complimentary Bucks Fizz on Arrival

Grilled Marinated Prawns with Cucumber & Dill Hollandaise and Pernod Scented Cucumber Ribbons

Beef Olives with Wild Mushroom Stuffing, Red Wine Gravy, Duchess Potato & Kale

‘Arctic Roll’ – Marguerite’s Marshmallow and Cherry Ice Cream Encased in an Almond Sponge

If you have any specific dietary requirements (e.g. vegetarian, gluten free etc) please let me know and I’m sure I will be able to come up with a delicious alternative.

Grilled Prawns with Cucumber Hollandaise Beef Olives Arctic Roll


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Cakes: Regional & Traditional by Julie Duff


With the final of the Great British Bake Off achieving the dizzy heights of most watched TV programme to date in 2015 it seems apt that Grub Street should release a revised and updated edition of this book in paperback. It was originally published in 2003 and was short listed for the 2004 Glenfiddich Book of the Year.

What is the essence of the book?

The book covers British cakes in all their delectable glory from small and large regional cakes like Northumberland Singing Hinnies to Dorset Apple Cake to Country cakes of all sizes and gingerbreads. This is not a book filled with flouncy “show stopper” creations. As Duff notes in her introduction, Cakes charts the story of ‘wholesome honest food’. It contains many familiar recipes like butterfly cakes and rediscovers other recipes which perhaps are not as popular as they once were, such as wiggs.

About the author

Julie Duff runs an award-winning cake business, Church Farmhouse Cakes, in Lincolnshire which supplies fruit cakes to some of the country’s premier shops.

Who will like it?

Anyone who loves to bake will naturally like it, even if they already have a lot of books on cakes. Plus it would be a great book for baking novices young and old.

Who won’t like it?

Cake haters, coeliacs or anyone following a low sugar diet. Equally if you have a fascination for sugar craft and making cakes look pretty this isn’t going to tick your boxes.

What do I like about the book?

I love the fact that she prefaces each recipe with a bit of the history (or myth) behind it. It gives you a real feel for how our love of cake is ingrained in our social history from simple griddle cakes through to more elaborate creations such as the Lawn Tennis Cake (a variety of which made an appearance on this years Great British Bake Off).

What do I dislike about the book?

To be honest I had my doubts as to how interesting/useful a book dedicated to British cakes could be but I really do think this book is fab. What you have here is a book on how to make simple and delicious cakes without the pretentious garnishes or decoration. For that alone, I applaud it and can find no fault in it. To quote the author herself:

“The most important aspect of cakes is that they give pleasure in every way, pleasure to the cook, pleasure whilst cooking…and pleasure whilst eating. What more can you ask for from a cake?”

Enough said.

Would I cook from it?

Luckily for me Cakes arrived just as I was researching gingerbread recipes to help promote my new historically themed supper club, Repast. I tried several recipes from this chapter and can safely say they are well written, easy to follow and extremely delicious. It was a tough decision to make but in the end I went for the classic sticky gingerbread loaf although I made it in the form of cupcakes.

IMG_1198Where can you buy it?

Cakes: Regional & Traditional is available from Grub Street priced £15

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Born Again Baker

Faith is a funny thing.

There are those who unswervingly follow their chosen religion, despite the numerous ills in our world, secure in their conviction that there is an all powerful creator.

There are the gamblers who firmly believe that one day soon their number will come up despite being tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

Then there are people like me. You could say I’m one of nature’s sceptics. I not only have to see something to believe it, I have to be certain there is no jiggery pokery behind it. I don’t believe in miracles but I do think there have been some very clever illusionists over the course of history. On the rare occasion I have a flutter on the horses I do so in the knowledge that I have kissed goodbye to my stake. If I win it’s a bonus and a very rare one at that.

As a cook I do have faith in my ability. I know what combinations of flavours and which methods work because I have tried them and have tasted or seen the results for myself. But sometimes this faith is tested, none more so in the field of sourdough.

I love the naturalness and artistry of sourdough. I have had several forays into the world of making this bread. I have bought books on the subject and followed recipes to the letter. I have nurtured starters made from all manners of flour to find ‘the one’. I have a cupboard filled with bannetons, scrapers and baking stones. Yet I have never achieved anything close to those wonderful springy boules with their chewy crusts you find at farmers markets. I fear the natural yeasts required to produce these fantastic loaves are lacking in my Sussex home.


Sourdough BV (Before Vanessa)

So I booked myself on a Sourdough Clinic run by Vanessa Kimbell. As her website states:

“There is nothing more frustrating than not quite getting it quite right. If you have had a go at baking sourdough and had some success yet things still aren’t quite as great as they could be then you will want to know where you are going wrong and what you can improve.”

This sounded exactly like the help I needed. I headed to Northampton with a specimen of sourdough and my latest batch of rye starter.

Vanessa approaches sourdough with an evangelical zeal. It is obvious as soon as you meet her that she (1) knows just about everything you need to know about making bread and, (2) she has no doubt that her bread will be light, fragrant and a delight to eat. Put simply she has complete faith in the transformation of flour, salt and water into a daily loaf without any artificial interference.

An example of Vanessa's sourdough baked during the Sourdough Clinic

An example of Vanessa’s sourdough baked during the Sourdough Clinic

First she examined our home baked breads. If there were an award for ‘how not to make sourdough’ then I would have won it hands down. Over proved, not enough salt and erring more towards the leaden than light side. None of my classmates (some of whom had produced very respectable loaves indeed) were rushing to taste my loaf.

After explaining the refreshment of the starter (‘the mother’ of all loaves) and role of different flours, sugar, salt and hydration play in sourdough making she produced a quivering bowl of dough. This looked like no dough that I had ever produced. Hers was light and lively with a discernible spring when pressed. Vanessa is precise in her instruction but relaxed in her delivery. As she gave us guidance on how best to shape our dough (apparently one of the things I had not been doing properly) at no point did we feel we were about to be rapped over the knuckles for committing a major faux pas. Vanessa’s enthusiasm for the subject is quite infectious although I still had my doubts. Within a short while her kitchen was filled with the delicious aroma of freshly made bread. The loaves emerged well risen and browned. We had conquered sourdough. I left Northampton armed with a still warm loaf, some detailed instructions and a jar of Vanessa’s starter eager to recreate the magic at home.

But you know how it goes. Life (or in this case the school holidays) gets in the way. The bread was quickly devoured by my family and declared to be better than my previous efforts. The starter was placed in the fridge and duly forgotten about until last week. Tweets about #SourdoughSeptember suddenly triggered the memory of that day and prompted me to resurrect the it.

I plucked the starter from the back of the fridge. It looked sullen and was rather smelly (as no doubt would you or I be if we too had been abandoned in a dark room for several weeks). Frankly, if the starter had decided to send me to baking Coventry and refuse to work for me I couldn’t blame her. I had no hope whatsoever that I would be able to produce a loaf even vaguely resembling the one I had come home with. I followed Vanessa’s detailed instructions none the less, utterly convinced of my failure.

To my amazement the starter was easily revived. My dough took on a similar form to that I had witnessed in Vanessa’s kitchen. Not only that, it rose during the proving process despite being placed in the fridge overnight (according to Vanessa’s instructions) which I felt for sure would spell disaster. I don’t own a cloche so I improvised by placing a stainless steel bowl over the loaf when I gingerly turned it out onto the baking stone (a tip given to me by the man from the Flint Owl bakery at Lewes Farmers Market). OK I did forget to slash my loaves. Even so after some 50 minutes or so I had a rather enormous but light loaf which didn’t leave you feeling like you had eaten a load of lead afterwards. Eureka!


Sourdough AV (After Vanessa). Still room for improvement but definitely heading in the right direction.

I still approach this baking process with a degree of trepidation but I think it’s fair to say my sourdough faith is growing. Whether you are a beginner or sourdough doubter like me I’d definitely recommend Vanessa’s courses (they’d make a great Christmas present). They’re well worth the trip to Northampton. Plus in attending them you become a member of the sourdough club and get access to some fantastic recipes to use up that grumpy ‘old’ starter.

Vanessa’s next book Food for Thought is due out next month.


Useful links

Visit Sourdough Club for a full list of Vanessa’s Courses

Bakery Bits. A great place to buy baking equipment and ingredients including Vanessa’s starter.

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