Friday, 21 September 2012

The Abergavenny Food Festival...

One of the highlights of the ‘foodie year’ both in Wales and the rest of the UK, is the amazing Food Festival held each year in the sleepy market town of Abergavenny, here in South Wales. This year the visiting chefs included the fabulous Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

Originally started about 11 years ago, the Food Festival was an attempt to counteract the devastation caused to local farmers and food producers from the fall out after the BSE crisis which dramatically hit the UK farmers at the time. Nowadays the festival has achieved the big-time by wowing about 30,000 visitors each day of the two day Festival!

Abergavenny is very much an old rural market town set in the picturesque green and lush Welsh countryside at the base of the Sugar Loaf Mountain and close to the adjoining majestic heights of the Brecon Beacons.

The Festival attracts some of the top food chefs and famous names and this year was no exception with not only Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, but also the fabulous Claudia Rodin and the august Pierre Koffmann amongst others.


 Not only can you go and see each of them giving a talk or cookery demonstration but they will also be walking around sampling the delights of the festival and generally happy to talk to people. Such as Pierre Koffmann spied at a cookbook stand as we walked by!



A few years ago I was picking out some heritage apples from a stall when someone next to me beat me to a particularly fine specimen. The gentleman apologized and offered it to me and to my surprise it was Rick Stein! I’ve since met him a couple of times and he is a lovely chap and hugely passionate about local food. 


 I’ve also had the pleasure of chatting to Clarissa Dickson Wright-what a truly fascinating lady-and have met the charismatic eastern European chef Silvena Rowe.

 Apart from all these  ‘celebrities’ you also get the chance to meet local food producers and the majority of the food stalls are giving away free samples of their wares to tempt you. 


Even the decorations made by volunteers and hung from the ceilings of the old Victorian Market Hall, symbolise food with this year’s theme being wild food...



Abergavenny closes its main streets for the two main days of the festival so you can freely wander around. The old Auctioneer’s Hall is the centre of the numerous cheese stalls with tutored tastings. One of the churches and an Old Tithe Barn is the focus of the fish and seafood stall holders section and the Castle itself focuses on the more children centred food activities and has street entertainers and strolling musicians. 

The whole town becomes food obsessed with even the local wool shop having knitted bagels in its shop window... 

Another kitchen utensil shop had a very artistic display-all of which was made of cake!

The downside and it is a very big downside, is that it’s very popularity nowadays means the crowds are enormous...This small market town becomes host to about 30,000 visitors each day of the main two day festival. The mornings are not too bad and we have learnt over the years of visiting, to arrive early in order to be able to park near to the centre and then have a leisurely cappuccino before it officially open at 10 o’clock and then to hit the stalls then. By the afternoon the main areas are unbelievably busy and the crowds can make it all rather uncomfortable.

 In addition to the general ticket entry which is a very reasonable £6-£8 for each day-children are free- there are the Masterclasses and Tutored Tastings where you pay an additional fee. As these are hosted by some of the food ‘celebrities’, tickets for these can sell out very quickly. Mind you, even at £7 or so they are very good value as you get to meet the chef or speaker, and hear them give a talk or see them cook and at some get a glass of wine and some nibbles too. 

So for this Post I will concentrate on the first day-the Saturday- when we had a talk on some sublime British unpasteurised cheddars from Somerset led by Rudolf Hodgeson and Jamie Montgomery of Montgomery Cheddar Cheese. And in the afternoon we were privileged to attend a Master Class and Demonstration by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his business partner, Palestinian, Sami Tamimi who celebrated their flair and creativity with a fusion of West Bank Cuisine.


First to the cheese...


I do have to admit that cheese is a very definite weakness of mine...and as such I did have to volunteer us for a tutored cheese tasting of Artisan Somerset Cheddars...

The class was led jointly by the now revered head of the revival of cheese making in the UK, Randolf Hodgson.



Randolf started Neal’s Yard Dairy in London over 30 years ago. Passionate about British artisan cheese, he drove the length and breadth of the UK to meet the cheese makers and persuade them to allow him to sell their cheese.


 In those days he told us, most cheese was only sold locally because only a little was made. 


He had to prove to the cheese makers that he could be trusted with their precious cheese to look after it properly and sell it when it was in peak condition.


 He wanted to bring to a wider public some of these great cheeses and because he had personally visited the cheese makers and even met the cows! - he could therefore communicate the skill which went into each cheese.


Even to this day, although the staff in his shops has dramatically grown, each one will experience the whole process of the cheese so they can bring this knowledge to the customers.


Huge care will be taken to ensure the cheese in the shop is at its peak to the extent that staff have to wear wellington boots to traverse the shop floor, as the shop is kept at the required humidity for the benefit of the cheese!


Our other speaker was Jamie Montgomery of Montgomery Cheddar in Somerset.



I have met Jamie several times over the years and he is understandably exceedingly passionate about Cheddar Cheese as his family have been making it for generations...


 We had a plate of about 6-7 cheese samples and he and Randolph talked us through each one. 


We sampled some 12 month cheddars made by the Keens family, one from Westcombe and, of course, one of his own. Very nice they were too with perhaps the Keen’s being my favourite with a nice ‘bite’ to it. 


Then, however, we went on to some that had matured for 18 months and the ‘long finish’ was delicious with the 18month Montgomery then taking top place! 


Jamie and Randolf talked at length at how important the maturing process was for Cheddar. 


For them the whole rounds of cheese should be cloth-bound to allow the air to circulate in and around the cheese. 


Unfortunately modern supermarkets are demanding cheddar that is stored in plastic which ‘kills’ any long finish to their flavour. For the supermarkets it is all about uniformity whilst anybody that is lucky enough to eat artisan cheese appreciates that its taste and even the colour will change over the year depending on the season and what the cows have fed on.


 Another very worrying trend is that the supermarkets now want cheddar which tastes ‘sweeter’ as this appeals to the masses. Rather than to go back to the cheese makers and ask them to look at working at the ‘recipe’ to see if a more natural way can be found to make a ‘sweeter’ cheddar i.e. incorporating some of the Helvetia style which makes a sweeter cheese into the cheddar making, the supermarkets are simply going for the quicker cheaper option of adding sugar...


Artisan cheese is all about celebrating taste and appreciating all that goes on to making a good farm cheese. This year, with its appalling bad weather has resulted in a knock on effect to our British cheese makers. Rain sodden fields results in the protein levels of the grass being down. The farmers have had to supplement but the cows have been lethargic and understandably prefer to stand close to any shelter from hedges and trees rather than wander and graze and this has affected the overall quality and milk yield. Cheddar depends for its fantastic long flavour on the proteins in the milk being able to ‘wrap themselves’ around the fat globules. Good artisan cheese makers are very, very picky about the cheese they store as this reflects their skill as cheese makers. So far this year, Somerset Cheddar, by all the artisan producers is down by a huge 20%. And you have to remember their overall production is not very big at all compared to the mass produced for the supermarkets...


So I for one, will be making a big effort to buy some lovely artisan cheddar from Somerset on a regular basis-as if I need any encouragement!! 


And finally,


After hours wandering through the myriad of food stalls across the town, we really appreciated the chance to sit down at the beautiful old Victorian theatre and watch the cookery demonstration by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. The place had been sold out months ago when the tickets were first available as Yotam seems to be the ‘chief of the moment’! Luckily we managed to get seats right at the front and Yotam and Sammi were wandering around the stage setting up and prepping the food and rather hilariously taking photos of us the audience!


Unfortunately just before the actual demonstration we were told that no photos were allowed during the of course I put my camera down...



I do have to say the demonstration was fab!! However, I can’t for the life of me remember the names of what they actually cooked!!


Sami, with his gentle sense of humour, talked us through cooking a typical Palestinian dessert with layers of filo pastry and goat’s cheese which was then anointed with a caramel syrup-it looked divine! 


Yotem cooked a dish with meat although he said it could be made without for vegetarians, which then had eggs carefully broken into them to cook in the simmering mixture and served with a beautiful dish of roasted and glazed sweet potatoes and figs.


I have just received my library copy of their book ‘Plenty’ so will be avidly reading it and if I find the names and recipes will let you know!


I was very, very impressed with their cookery demonstration. They happily admitted that they are perfectionists and the quality and source of their ingredients is paramount. At the same time, they want cooking to be about sharing and giving and having the utmost pleasure both in cooking and eating.


 To be able to share West Bank Cuisine with its mixture of both Jewish and Arab cultures for them is very obviously a huge, huge pleasure. They both talked about how each culture would cook with seasonally available ingredients but would have different names. Even each family would cook a traditional dish just slightly differently. If you would go out and buy food there would be certain places in Jerusalem where you would buy just the one dish and both agreed on the best place to buy hummus in Jerusalem for instance.


At the end of their cooking they took an extensive question and answer session from the audience including where they would recommend getting spices questions about their stores and restaurants in London and what they are be happy to sell online plus lots of basic questions from the audience about problems they had cooking and what the duo would recommend. I do have to say they were extremely patient with all the questions thrown at them and did their best to answer them fully.


They were available after to sign books but I’m sorry to say we anticipated the crowds would be huge and by then we were well and truly shattered so slunk off home to rest and recuperate for the next day.


Next time, if people are willing, I will go on and describe Day Two...


Until then, eat well and heartily...



Friday, 7 September 2012

The Raymond Blanc Cookery Course-Part Two...

  I do hope people enjoyed hearing about my last cookery course at Raymond Blanc’s truly wonderful Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons.


As promised here is Part Two...

To begin with, can I continue on my stroll around the vegetable garden and show you more of the delights within it...


The gardens are full of beautiful sculptures...


And lovely views...

Even members of staff are commemorated in bronze

Though apparently this lady who provides the flowers for the house, is according to rumour, none too pleased about the portrayal of her chin...or chins...

Personally, I have to say, I thought it a rather magnificent and beautiful sculpture...though a little bemused if why she is so well known for providing flowers, she is seen here with fruit... 

Anyway I digress...

Back to the cooking...

One of the dishes I still have a fear of cooking, is a classic cheese soufflé.  I adore ordering one when out at a good restaurant and tucking into the wonderful towering edifice of a glorious cheese soufflé. 

However I dread to make it at home...And such is my anxiety that it will fail to turn out well and be a disappointment to myself and others, is that I simply avoid making it.

Mark Peregrine, our fantastic Tutor, explained that some of the myths around soufflés are sheer bunkum and he recommended the following...

Don’t open the oven door for the first five minutes but after that you can-the soufflé will not deflate-and he demonstrated this ample times!

The cheese used is highly important-Comte is the one Raymond would recommend but Gruyere would also work well plus if you wanted a dish with more ‘bite’ then try using a good Colston Bassett Stilton or Stinking Bishop.

Do try adding a spoonful of Kirsch- though I’m going to try it with some local Apple Brandy-for that little extra kick...

The following is a photograph of the soufflé made by Mark in his demonstration to us and Raymond’s recipe and his notes given to us on the course.

Comté Cheese Soufflé

Comté is my home, my village, my county; it gives me a sense of place. Maman Blanc would not cook her soufflé in individual soufflé moulds, but in a large shallow earthenware dish. She would place the delicate dish on the table for all of us to help ourselves. Sometimes the soufflé mixture would fill a flaky pastry tart. Of course, Comté only would be used. Never gruyerè or emmental.

Serves (Yield):                                         4 - 6                      Difficulty:                   ●●○
Preparation time:   20 mins        Cooking time:           30 mins
Special equipment: 1 x 25-30cm earthenware oval dish, electric whisking       machine, pastry brush
Planning ahead:                 
The soufflé base can be made up to 1 day in advance, covered with buttered paper to prevent crusting.

For the soufflé base:
50g                                   Unsalted butter
50g                                   Plain flour
250ml                               Whole milk
2                                         Egg yolks
100g                                Comté cheese grated
12g                                   Dijon mustard
2g / 2 pinches            Sea salt (*1)
1g / 2 pinches            White pepper

To line the soufflé dish:
20g                                   Unsalted butter, softened
20g                                   Breadcrumbs, dry.  

For the soufflé mix:
6 medium                        Egg whites
¼                                        juice of a Lemon
1g / 1 pinch                 Sea salt.

For the cooking of the soufflés:
20g of Comté cheese.

For the sauce, optional:
150ml                               Double cream
70g                                   Comté cheese, grated
4 turns of freshly ground white Pepper
Spoonful of Kirsch (optional)

Preparing the soufflé base:
Pre-heat the oven to 175ºC. Place a baking tray on the middle shelf in the oven.
On a medium heat in a small saucepan, melt the butter, add the flour and whisk until a smooth consistency; cook the roux to a blonde colour (*2).  Gradually add the milk little by little, whisking it to a smooth consistency.  Lower the heat; add the cheese and mustard, and continue to cook, stirring from time to time for 3-5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little. Add the egg yolks and stir until the mixture is consistent. Keep warm.

Lining the soufflé dish:
Line the earthenware soufflé dish with melted butter and the dried breadcrumbs, reserve.

Whisking the egg whites:
In a mixing bowl add the lemon juice and salt to the egg white and whisk until very soft peaks are formed, then continue whisking until you have firm peaks. (*3)

Making the soufflé mix and filling the dish:
For the soufflé mixture, in a large mixing bowl place the warm soufflé base and whisk in briskly ⅓ of the whipped egg whites to lighten the base. Then, carefully fold in the remaining egg whites; delicately cut and lift the mix to ensure there is a minimum loss of volume and lightness. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. (*4) Pour the soufflé mixture into the dish, smooth the top with a long palate knife and push the soufflé mixture away from the side of the dish by sliding your thumb around the edge.(*5)

Cooking the soufflés:
Cook in the pre-heated oven for 21 minutes, sprinkle the cheese on top of the soufflé and cook for a further 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Making the sauce:
Whilst the soufflé is cooking (optional) bring the cream to the boil and add the cheese and pepper, stirring continually. Once the cheese has melted, remove from the heat, taste. Of course a dash Kirsch would not go a miss. Pour the sauce into a separate sauce boat.

Place the soufflé and the sauce in the middle of the table; and let your family and friends help themselves.

Chef’s notes (*):
Salt does not help the coagulation of the egg white, it delays it. The salt helps to lengthen the whipping process. On the other hand the lemon juice does three things; it helps the coagulation of the egg white, prevents the graining, and makes the whipping of the egg white safe and easy. And as well, helps the flavour. 
By cooking the roux you make the flour much more digestible and also give a wonderful nutty flavour. In cooking the base for 3-5 minutes you are breaking down the starch molecules in the flour, which in turn will thicken the base and leave a creamy taste and texture.
For the savoury soufflé the egg white needs to be whipped a little firmer.
The Comte cheese, like parmesan holds quite a lot of salt, you should need little to none, additional salt.
To achieve a tall, even soufflé, thumb around the edge of the soufflé dish just before placing in the oven, this releases the mix, and helps the soufflé rise evenly.

The list of different cheeses to use for soufflés is endless; goats’ cheese, stinking bishop, stilton and gruyere are just a few.
As an alternative you can use individual moulds.4 x 5.5cm by 9.5cm moulds are perfect for this recipe.
If you use individual moulds, pre heat the oven to 200 degrees and cook for 10 minutes then sprinkle the cheese and cook for a further 6 minutes to achieve a great soufflé.

I have to say the soufflé made by Mark was absolutely delicious and I shall now be emboldened to make it again at home...fingers crossed!!

Another wonderful dish we made on the day and was then very fortunate to take home with ourselves wrapped up in a glorious box emblazoned with Le Manoir on it, was a tart made with in-season Swiss Chard...

And yet again I do have to highly recommend this, served warm or cold it is an absolute winner...and yes-it was most timely,  given the abundant growth of  Swiss Chard in all its glorious colours-ruby, white, green, golden etc that I have been fortunate to have had grown in my garden this Summer...

Gruyere Cheese & Swiss Chard Tart
The photo below is my own effort and the following recipe and notes given are Raymond’s given to us on the course. 

This dish is a tribute to the magnificent region of France where I come from, and one day you must make it part of one of your dinner parties!

Serves (Yield):               8 guests Difficulty:          ●○○
Preparation time:       30 mins   Cooking time:    30 mins
Special equipment:     2 tart rings 18 x 2 cm; a baking sheet

Planning ahead:                 
The pastry must be prepared at least 30 minutes in advance and refrigerated.
The tart can be made up to half an hour prior to the meal and kept warm.

For the pastry:
250g                                Flour, plain
1g / 1 pinch                 Salt
125g                                Butter, unsalted, diced
55g / 1                           Egg, medium organic

For the filling:
200g / 2 stalks          Swiss chard, peeled (*1) and cut into 4cm Batons
30g /2 tbsp                 Butter unsalted
60 ml / 4 tbsp             Water
100ml                               Milk, whole organic
100ml                               Cream, whipping
110g /                            Eggs, medium organic
200g                                Cheese, Gruyere
5 rasps                            Nutmeg - optional
2g / 2 pinches            Sea salt
1g / 2 pinches            Pepper, black freshly ground

Preparing the pastry:
First to make the pastry, place the flour and the salt into a large bowl.
Rub the cold diced butter in with your fingers until the mixture is even in colour and resembles fine breadcrumbs, and then add the egg in the middle of the well. Work the mixture with a pastry scraper, adding water if necessary, adding a little at a time, until the dough begins to hold together.
Bring the dough together with your hand and shape it into a ball (*2).
Push the dough into a patty shape, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Then roll the pastry to 2-3 mm thick between two sheets of clingfilm and line the tart tin and refrigerate for a further 1 hour(*3). Pre heat the oven to 190ºC.

Blind baking the pastry case:
Line the inside of the pastry with greaseproof and fill with baking beans. Blind bake the pastry in the oven for about 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove the baking beans and replace into the oven to ensure an even golden colour. Egg wash the interior of the pastry and place in the oven to set the egg wash.

Preparing the filling and baking:

Simmer the chard stalks in the water, butter and seasonings for 10 minutes until the chard stalks are soft and melting but retain their texture. In a large bowl mix together the milk, cream, eggs and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg (*4).
Sprinkle evenly the grated cheese and arrange the chard pieces on the base of the tart case.
Place the tart back into the oven and gently pour the mixture into the tart.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
Once cooked, remove from the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving to your guests.

Chef’s notes (*):
If the Swiss chard is young it will not require peeling. As the stalks become older they can become quite fibrous and may require peeling.
Do not overwork the dough, or the pastry will become tough.
This will prevent the pastry from shrinking when you cook it.
Gruyere cheese holds a substantial amount of salt, so take care when seasoning this dish.           

Gruyere can be replaced by Emmental, which is less salty.
Other fillings you could use are Roquefort and celery, Pumpkin and Spinach, Goats cheese and tomato.

I do have to say that travelling home to Wales after the course had ended with the warm quiche it in its lovely box on the back seat; the aroma in the car was mouth-watering!

My apologies but I do seem to have gone on a bit...

However I just wanted to share the pleasure and enjoyment I had from this course. The place is magnificent, the cookery school a delight to work in and the staff so, so pleasant and helpful. The recipes and the extra hints and advice were very good indeed and Mark Peregrine as Head Tutor is an exceptional and gifted teacher.

You leave the course not only with the fantastic quiche in its lovely box to take home and share but also a framed certificate which now sits very proudly in my kitchen and your own chef’s white jacket emblazoned with the Raymond Blanc’s motif and other goodies. The memories and experiences gained are truly wonderful.

Highly, highly recommended!!

Until next time...
Eat well and seasonally.

Ps. This is one snail I would love to have in my garden...