June In Focus – Elderflower

wpid-wp-1434541395899.jpegJune offers an abundance of choice when it comes to the culinary calendar. 2015 has already given us a longer than is usual opportunity to try the deliciously grassy stems of asparagus and early British strawberries are now hitting market stalls across the country. This month also brings free food options with nettle tops, dandelion leaves and elderflower ripe for picking.

With brands like Bottlegreen and Belvoir introducing the floral sweetness of elderflower to the national consciousness it still surprises me how few of us utilise this delightful flower in our home cookery repertoire. Celebrity chefs annually share their recipes for home made  cordial and you will find my preferred Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe on his website.

If you don’t have time to harvest a bag full of blossoms and devote a couple of days to create your own cordial don’t despair. Just three or four of these scented blossoms can always be used to add a top note to your every day baking. In this month’s In Focus I share a few tips for harvesting and preparation along with a quick summer crumble recipe which puts the flowers to good use.

Tips for harvesting

  • Elderflower should be picked on a warm, dry day as the scent is lost in particularly damp weather.
  • Look for open, full blossoms covered in creamy coloured pollen. The bigger the flower heads the better.
  • Never wash your elderflower. Pick over for insects but remember not to shake too hard or you will also lose all of the flavour giving pollen. For this reason I try to make sure that I don’t collect flowers from the roadside.
  • The stalks can be toxic so be careful to snip the tiny flowers off close to the petal base.

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Rhubarb and Elderflower Crumble

  • 500g rhubarb (approx 4 full stalks)
  • 70ml water
  • 3 -4 heads of elderflower
  • 4 teaspoons caster sugar
  • 150g wholemeal self raising flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 100g butter
  • 50g caster sugar

Trim and chop your rhubarb into pieces around an inch long. Place into a pan with the water and three teaspoons of caster sugar. Bring to the boil, reduce to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid.

wpid-wp-1434541154537.jpegAs the fruit cooks prepare the elderflower. Using a pair of scissors snip off the tiny flowers into a saucer, catching all the pollen too. Tip all the flowers and pollen into the pan with the rhubarb and replace the lid. Continue to simmer for about ten minutes or until the stems are just cooked through.

wpid-wp-1434540923175.jpegCombine the flour and oats and rub in the butter to a breadcrumb texture. Stir in the 50g of caster sugar. Spoon the rhubarb into a shallow oven proof dish and pour over any residual syrup from the pan as this will be infused with the scent of the blossom. If you don’t like your puddings too tart then sprinkle on the remaining  teaspoon of sugar before topping with as much of the crumble mixture as you wish.

Bake for around thirty minutes at 160C /Gas Mark 4

Making York a Fair Trade City

Since 2004 a group of volunteers have been working behind the scenes to maintain York’s status as a fair trade city. They state Fair Trade – as opposed to Fairtrade – because there are many ways in which everyone can support fairly traded goods even when they don’t meet the exacting status of the official Fairtrade movement. With the celebration of International Fair Trade Day in May, Claire Davies met with Helen Harrison and Kathryn Tissiman to discuss their work within the York Fair Trade Forum.

 

Why worry about fair trade?

Most people have seen the Fairtrade label on the coffee, tea and chocolate sitting on our supermarket shelves. But fair trade is about much more than paying a little more for food and drink products imported from developing countries. For a deeper understanding of the various goals of the Fairtrade Foundation you can read more on the website. But how does this affect us on a local level? Why are the Forum working to keep York a Fairtrade city? Kathryn points out that fair trade principles apply to every aspect of trading, whether that be buying bananas grown in Columbia or milk produced at a Yorkshire Dales dairy farm. “I firmly believe that we live in a global village and we have a responsibility as global citizens. Fair trade is about fair prices and conditions for everyone.”

 

What does it mean to hold the Fair Trade City status?

On the most basic level it involves engaging local business, institutions and public services with fairly traded products. Local retail outlets such as Fairer World and Alligator Wholefoods are longstanding stalwarts of the fair trade principles. The Forum have supported a total of 79 churches to become fair trade champions and hope to encourage more to join through 2015/16. More recently York City Council have also come on board – with a recent display in West Offices and a commitment to use Fairtrade tea and coffee throughout their offices.

With the status under review every two years, the Forum set new goals and objectives to keep improving year on year. The annual Schools Conference engages children, parents and teachers with concepts such as global education and social justice, laying the foundations with generations to come.

 

In an attempt to become a more diverse group the Forum also holds links with the city’s universities and a student body from York Uni now attends the monthly meetings. A publication around the history of fair trade throughout the ages and a booklet with details of a fair trade trail around the city are also in the pipeline.

 

Where will I find fair trade products?

The selection of food and drink establishments is varied. A full list can be found  on the traders section of their website, but as a local food enthusiast I wanted to finish on a few of my favourites. To find out more about the work of the Forum and how to get involved you will find York Fair Trade Forum on Facebook or at their website.

Places to visit

Bar Convent Café, 17 Blossom Street

Explore Central Library café – Library Square

Alligator Wholefoods – 104 Fishergate

Henshelwoods Delicatessen – 10 Newgate

Tarts and Titbits Delicatessen – 78 Gillygate

YorkMix – Pie Week celebrations

York’s best pies – a slice of perfection in a pastry case

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To celebrate Great British Pie Week we sent food writer Claire Davies to track down perfection under pastry. This is her report

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Golden goodness… a Mr And Mrs Fisher pie. Photograph: Richard McDougall

In the year 43AD the Romans begin their conquest of the British Isles.

They bring with them many new foodstuffs that will become ingrained in the English food culture, introduce modern farming practices and demonstrate a number of revolutionary cooking techniques.

One of these methods – the baking of meat and gravy in a pastry casing – is embraced by the natives.

Jump forward to the 15th century and the inedible pastry ‘coffin’ evolves into a more delectable mixture of fat, flour and water. This makes way for a variety of recipes from classic apple to the ubiquitous pork pie.

So the British love affair with the pie begins. Last week was Great British Pie Week, and I used it to track down the finest in the city. Here is my favourite selection of pies to be found across York.

Best pie to eat out

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Me and Mrs Fisher’s Friday Pie Day

This welcoming craft café on Lord Mayors Walk celebrates the start of the weekend by offering diners the chance to order their cheese, leek and potato pie.

Served with salad, coleslaw and chutney this delicious pie is a tasty choice for both meat eaters and vegetarians alike. It’s also great value at £6.95.

Best pie to take home

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The York Pie Company Steak Pie

This locally made pie from The York Pie Company has a generous filling of British beef and is the recipient of more than one Gold Award.

Perfect to take home for tea and available from Swain Family butchers in York market for just £1.65. You can also find The York Pie Company through theirFacebook page.

Best pie made to order

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Alice’s Apron Caterers

The round up wouldn’t be complete without a sweet fruit pie. This one comes from Alice’s Apron in Easingwold, set up by Natasha Howard in 2013.

She provides a variety of baked goods for special occasions and her crumble topped apple pies are delicious. Details of how to order these classic pies can befound on Facebook.

YorkMix – Lunch Review

Restaurant review: Happy Valley, Goodramgate, York

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Small gem… Happy Valley on Goodramgate

To celebrate the Chinese New Year on Thursday (February 19), Claire Davies visited an unsung restaurant in the heart of town

In my role as food writer with YorkMix I aim to share a number of smaller local gems that can be easily missed in our busy schedules. In my eyes, The Happy Valley Chinese fits this description perfectly.

As an office worker based in the city centre my husband visits once a week, and it was he who recommended the lunch time special, comprising of two courses for £7.25.

Residing in Our Lady’s Row, Goodramgate, The Happy Valley does not immediately strike you as a Chinese restaurant.

Were it not for the menu boards propped outside, the whitewash walls and open wood beams would trick any visitor in to believing that it was a quant, English tearoom which stood before them. This impression continues as you head inside.

Smacked in the chops

The Happy Valley, inside and out. Click to see a bigger image

The décor is simple and clean. I was seated quickly and provided with both the standard and the appropriate set menu options.

After a brief perusal I ordered the hot and sour soup to start, followed by king prawn satay with fried rice. A glass of tap water and a pot of loose leaf Jasmine tea (£1.80) provided the liquid refreshment.

My first course arrived promptly and steaming hot. The smell alone enough to get the taste buds smarting, the first spoonful hit me square in the chops with all the zest and spicy heat I would expect from a hot and sour soup.

It was delicious and over all too soon. It filled the purpose of a first course perfectly and left me wanting more.

The friendly, efficient staff cleared the way for the second course as I sipped on my Jasmine tea – the floral, gentle flavour an excellent foil to the heat of the previous dish.

Padded beams

Happy Valley food and drink… Click to see a bigger image

Pretty soon my king prawn satay was laid out, accompanied by a small dish of fried rice. This was a light, nutty sauce packed with crunchy stir fried peppers and a generous portion of superbly cooked prawns.

The portions were ideal for a daytime meal, leaving me full but not overwhelmed.

In summary, The Happy Valley Chinese is an excellent value restaurant offering honest, freshly cooked food.

The staff are helpful and want customers to have a positive experience. This is evidenced by the nice touch of padding some of the lower overhanging beams so that people like me don’t hurt themselves when not paying attention on the way out.

YorkMix verdict

Food
Atmosphere
Service
Value for money
Overall

Total bill – lunch for one: £9.05

Where and when

Happy Valley
70 Goodramgate
York
YO1 7LF
01904 654745

Sun–Thurs Noon-10pm
Fri & Sat Noon-10.30pm
Closed Tuesdays

Chocolatastic!

There are days when I love being part of the food scene in York. Last was definitely one of them as I was lucky enough to be invited to be a judge at The International Chocolate Awards during their stay in York.

20150420_105748In a session of approximately two hours we were asked to judge around fourteen samples of dark chocolate. Some were single origin, others moulded and filled with flavoured caramels and a couple of beautiful ganache chocolates made it onto my platter too.

Whilst this was great fun for my taste buds there is a serious side to the International Chocolate Awards. Active since 2012 – it is the only independent international competition and aims to promote small companies, chocolatiers and artisans working with the finest in craft chocolate. 2015 notes their first visit to York and is part of the movement to make York a shining light on the European chocolate scene. Other stages are to be held in  Italy, USA, Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium.

Judges are made up of individuals from across the food sector. I found myself seated next to master chef and chocolatier David Greenwood-Haigh from Coeur De Xocolat and the team from Malton Cookery school. David regularly delivers workshops on the correct technique for tasting chocolate so was on hand to guide those of with less experience.

Following  a short exercise to calibrate our taste buds the serious tasting begins. Each sample is accompanied with a number and short description of what the producers aim to achieve with their product. Every one is placed gently on the tongue and allowed to melt whilst we consider factors such as depth and balance of flavour, texture and appearance.

This is to be done without consultation with your neighbouring judges so that marks awarded are your own –  not influenced by the opinions of others. All products are submitted anonymously and I shall be keeping a keen eye on the results to see if some of my favourites gain the awards they deserve.

Souper Aliums

wpid-20150215_122157.jpgSunday is soup day in winter. It allows me to use up any leftover vegetables and get ready for lunches in the week ahead. A flask of steaming soup is almost compulsory for outdoor market days when the February cold creeps through my coat. This week I had an abundance of leeks and onions and I could hear their gut boosting properties calling to me from the bag. To boost the nutritious qualities even further I threw in garlic, chilli and half a bag of black kale waiting to be used up. The now trendy kale has a deliciously earthy, slightly iron flavour and is high in vitamins K, A and C. It is also the nearest modern cooks can get to the wild cabbage our ancestors once foraged.

I am generally reluctant to imbue particular foodstuffs with health boosting claims but, along with the ubiquitous chicken, onion soup sticks in the psyche as immune boosting and all round healthy fare. Anything that can lift the body and mind towards spring is welcome in my kitchen.

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Giving an exact recipe for soup seems to go against the very nature of the dish itself. From Anglo – Saxon pottage to the traditional Italian home cooked minestrone, soup has been about taking whatever the season has to offer and turning it into a sustaining and delicious meal. For this reason I am going to give the foundations of my Winter Alium Soup and let your instincts do the rest.

Ingredients

  • 5 – 6 medium leeks
  • 6 – 7 brown onions
  • winter greens
  • 2 low salt stock cubes
  • garlic cloves
  • fresh chilli
  • dried thyme
  • dried sage
  • red lentils
  • salt and pepper

Method

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  • Finely slice the onions and leeks and place in a large pan with a little rapeseed oil. Fry slowly until translucent and much reduced. This might take 30 – 40 minutes.
  • Wash and tear the winter greens, removing any tough stalks at the same time. Toss into the pan along with the stock cubes. Add the herbs, garlic, sliced chillies and seasoning to your preferred taste. I usually start small and add more as it cooks.
  • Pour on enough water to cover and then a bit more. Bring to the boil and simmer for another 30 – 40 minutes. Keep tasting and adjust flavourings as needed.

Are you giving anything up for Lent?

My relationship with food has fluctuated since my birth almost forty years ago. After a struggle with breastfeeding I was, so I am reliably informed, fed with carnation milk. My toddler self was extremely fussy but this thankfully morphed in to a constant hunger and willingness to eat anything once. Home cooked food in the eighties was simple but made of good quality, ‘real’ food – as opposed to many of the ‘food like’ products consumed today. Mum’s cooking certainly laid great foundations for my appetite as an adult.

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As a young woman my pre-existing heart condition began to have an impact on my well being at around the same time as my interest in cookery appeared. As the illness developed so I learnt to hold on to health through good food choices. This became crucial as I entered the final phases of heart failure and battled to not only stay well but maintain a healthy weight with very little physical activity.

In 2009 I received a heart transplant and a healthy lifestyle was the lynch pin to my initial recovery. Sadly, as a result of my experiences with life limiting illness I am now taking the first steps to tackling clinical anxiety and depression. My patterns of eating fluctuate with how well I feel at the time and I tend to swing between eating way too much – and eating obsessively healthy foods.

I have found mindfulness a useful approach, most particularly with regards to my anxiety levels. As a food lover I was fascinated to read about the principles of mindful eating and happened across author Julian Baggini and his book, The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think. Here he discusses the choice of abstinence as a form of mindful eating;

True freedom therefore requires the ability to exercise self-control rather than simply being carried by whatever desires and impulses arise in you. Only eating certain things at certain times…is a way of countering our tendency to slavishly follow our desires, breaking the link between desire and action, impulse and acting on it…It’s a way of exercising choice very knowingly.

As a teenager I took part in a sponsored 24 hour famine to raise money for the charities working in Africa. I then made an active choice to adopt a vegetarian diet for two years. Twenty years later my fascination with medieval food introduced me once again to the concept of fasting. But it wasn’t until reading chapter 16 in Julian’s book that I considered it as a part of my own life. Last summer my husband and I attempted abstinence together and gave up meat for the month of July. It was a fascinating and empowering experience.

My mental health has wavered in recent months and along with it every iota of self control. Despite knowing that processed sugar does me no good whatsoever I continuously reach for the cakes and biscuits. The run up to Shrove Tuesday and Lent prompted my thoughts back to that piece on fasting, and this blog post. For the first time in my life I have decided to observe Lent and will give up processed sugar. I hope to introduce greater mindfulness to my food choices and in some sense, press the reset button on some bad habits.

You may not wish to join me on this abstinence path but if you are interested in combining philosophy with food then I fully recommend getting hold of a copy of Julian Baggini’s new book. There is certainly plenty of food for thought.

A slice of life.

Today I share my first bite of food writing. Originally written for The History Girls, A Slice Of Life evolved into an opinion piece and doesn’t truly fit their remit any more.



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2015 is soon developing a focus on traditional bread making skills. Before January was out The History Girls had enquiries for an Anglo Saxon loaf, a workshop on sour dough techniques and plans are even afoot for an exciting collaboration with Love Bread CIC in Brighouse. Then, lo and behold, Radio 4’s The Food Programme met with growers working to resurrect some near lost variations of wheat.

As some of you know I work for a local baker, selling his hand made bread twice a week on the market. It is a fantastic opportunity for chatting with people about their concerns and as you might expect, the issue of wheat and it’s place in our diet is a regular topic. Is it the modern breeding of wheat triggering the intolerance that so many people describe –  or the Chorleywood bread process upsetting our constitutions? Do these intolerances exist or is wheat simply the newest ingredient to be vilified by the diet industry? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the recent Food Programme episode seemed to confirm my suspicions that modern production demands take precedence over variety and possibly nutrition. Where once we consumed a small amount of a large number of different and locally native grains, we now have access to a vast quantity of only a few, globally farmed forms of wheat. Then there is the previously mentioned Chorleywood process – producing a loaf which couldn’t be further from the often home baked bread we consumed just a hundred years ago.

Throughout history bread has provided a crucial source of carbohydrate and calories. During World War Two it was the one food stuff to never go on ration as it was deemed so important to both diet and morale. Seventy years on and some in the dieting industry portray it as fattening and unhealthy. I truly feel that instead of instructing people to omit a whole food group from their plates, we should be campaigning for better access to real bread made with a diverse range of grains.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as hand made bread, or as tasty as a sourdough loaf. It is one of the oldest methods for producing leavened bread and there is something archaic about the chewy, tangy flavour. I encourage every one to give it a go and try this ancient flavour for themselves. Whilst making a starter is relatively simple, the various stages can be intimidating so this is the first in a series of posts aimed at guiding bakers through the steps of making their own sourdough loaf.

Sourdough starter

Stage One

250g strong white bread flour

250g flour of choice. Try ancient wheat varieties such as spelt, emmer and einkhorn, or wheat free rye and barley.

130ml water (room temperature)

Whisk the flours and water together in a large bowl or jug. There is some belief that the chlorine in tap water can prevent the natural growth of bacteria required for a ‘sour’ starter so I use bottled mineral water. Leave, covered with a teatowel, for 3 days.

Stage Two

125g flour
85ml water

After three days the mixture should have developed a sweet smell and you should be able to see bubbles forming. Throw away half the mix and ‘feed’ it with the extra flour and water. Cover and leave for another two days.

In 5 days time we will see how your starter should be looking and take the next step towards home made sourdough.

Light bulbs

It is a little cliché, but a writers life seems to be full of light bulb moments. Particularly – it seems – when food is the muse. The difficulty is not finding things to write about but managing the sparks before they trigger an inferno and leave you struggling to douse the flames. Uncontrolled they simply run around my head shouting for attention. I end up with a headache and writing nothing.

Thankfully the trusty notebook is at hand. At the moment I am writing for three different spots – Greedy Wordsmith, The History Girls blog and local on line magazine YorkMix. Without my notebook I could never keep track. All I need to do now is put the hours in to plump these rather thin notions of thought into the rich, satisfying dishes they deserve to be.

But first, breakfast. Ah, now that’s an idea.

The First Post

Getting started on a new blog is the ultimate challenge in the blank page, blank mind phenomena. My plans for Greedy Wordsmith are simple enough, a home for me to grow my skills in non fiction, document my experiences as a writer in my chosen subjects and, ultimately, act as a platform for me to demonstrate my work to potential employers.

I already produce a blog on behalf of The History Girls in York. HG is a collaborative project offering events and other projects in hand with other local businesses. I love this work as I am passionate about food history but, as a food writer I often find myself with a desire to write on the numerous contemporary issues related to what and how we eat. If you leave my page with thoughts on your next meal I have succeeded in my goal.

So we have the first post.