The Blog

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Here you can find a collection of our thoughts, reports and ramblings together with some fun things we find along the way. We try to update the blog at least once a week and more often during busy periods so make sure you check back regularly..

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 1 2017 10:00AM

If you're searching for an eccentric British celebration which serves no discernable purpose and whose original roots were lost, long ago, in the mists of time, look no further than the Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling.

This event, which takes place each year on the early May bank holiday, dates back to the 1800s. Essentially it consists of a round of local cheese being rolled down the hill with a large crowd running after it. Whoever holds the cheese when it reaches the bottom of the hill is the winner.

There is little formal organisation or safety around the event and, given the obvious dangers, it has officially been banned for many years now. Since 2009 the Gloucestershire authorities have tried actively to discourage people from attending, though to no avail. (You've got to be proud of living in a country where our idea of civil disobedience is to throw a nine pound round of dairy product down a moderately steep (1 in 3) incline.)

It's true that the event is essentially spontaneous and unmanaged with few formal health and safety measures. Nevertheless some 15,000 people usually attend and it is an entertaining day out whether you are participating or (rather more safely) just spectating.

Given its questionable legal status, we would advise you definitely not to go to Coopers Hill at noon sharp on the early May Bank Holiday Monday and definitely not to find further details on the (unofficial) cheese rolling website. Searching for the hashtag #cheeserolling is right out.

Since we're on the topic (and since this is essentially a blog about food), it would be a shame not to mention the cheese itself. There are two types of Gloucester cheese - Single and the Double (the latter being used in the cheese rolling). Although no one is completely certain about the origin of the "double" part of the name, it's likely to be either because double skimming of the Gloucester cattle’s milk was needed to make this creamier cheese or because cream from the morning milk was originally added to the evening milk (also with added creaminess in mind). It is a hard, orange cheese with a slightly nutty flavour and flaky texture. Single Gloucester used to be made from the partially skimmed milk left over and so was smaller, crumblier and less creamy. It now has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 13 2017 10:00AM

Britain's network of cycle paths provides the perfect opportunity to discover free food and get fit at the same time.

April is a great time to take advantage or the improving weather by getting on your bike. One of our favourite springtime activities is a bicycle path forage (borage?*).

Whether you live in the town or country, bodies such as Sustrans (the charity which organises the National Cycle Network and campaigns for sustainable transport throughout the UK) do an amazing job of opening and maintaining car-free routes for bike enthusiasts and providing us with free access to them.

Along these cycle paths, (and, in fact, all of the towpaths and footpaths which criss-cross the country), we have, unwittingly, created the perfect foraging trail. Either side of the tracks for decades, or even hundreds of years, we have disturbed the natural order of things in a number of ways; by breaking the ground, trampling plants, removing larger trees and discarding fruit stones and cores. The result is a unique environment where the truly wild and the feral co-exist.

Along every path you're likely to see apple trees, wild roses, hawthorns, blackberry bushes, wild garlic, chervil and dandelions, all of which will, at different times during the year, provide free and accessible seasonal food just yards from the paths. As you cycle, take note of the various foraging opportunities that you spot so that you can return to them later in the year.

The multitude of opportunities you'll find along a cycle path proves that you don't need to be in the 'real' countryside to have a fun day out foraging for food. Even if you haven't been on a bike since you needed stabilizers, get out there and discover the National Cycle Network.

(*Actually, this could catch on. Borage, or starflower, is a culinary herb which isn't commonly used these days but was a favourite in medieval times. It tastes a little like cucumber.)

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 11 2017 08:00AM

At this time of year we start to see some real growth in the garden. Unfortunately for the aesthetic horticulturalist, that often means weeds rather than seedlings.

In April you really need to stay on top of things in the garden if you want to avoid undesirable interlopers. The lack of frosts and plenty of rain means its boom time for garden weeds.

But there is an upside if, like us, you find it difficult to keep things tidy in the garden. As well as being much better for wildlife, you'll occasionally get a crop that you didn't intend to grow. One in particular comes into season in early spring, and if you can bear to leave a small patch of them growing in your garden, they'll provide you with your first green (and free) meal of the year.

We are, of course, talking about stinging nettles. The first young shoots will have started to grow in mid-February so by now you should have a decent, harvestable crop.

You'll need a plastic bag and a good pair of gloves. To get flavoursome and delicate leaves, only pick the first few centimetres of the plant tips. As with most freshly picked, green leaves, nettles will keep for a few days in the fridge.

There is a definite spinachy tang to nettle leaves and they can be used in most recipes as a substitute (although you should probably avoid using them in salad.) In terms of accompaniments, you'll find that nettles have an affinity for nutmeg and most recipes will be perked up by a fresh grating. You can also make a simple, refreshing nettle tea from half a dozen fresh leaves left to infuse in boiling water for a few minutes.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 3 2017 10:00AM

If you want to grow your own pumpkin for Halloween then late April is the time to get planting.

You'll need a sunny spot in the garden or on the vegetable patch which is reasonably sheltered from any cold winds. They are quite easy to grow from seeds and although most people only want a large, orange pumpkin, it's worth buying one that is good for eating as well as carving.

Start with a visit to your local garden centre to buy seeds. Although you can sow the seeds straight into the ground we usually like to give ours a head start by sowing them indoors in a seed tray or small pots. (If you're sowing outdoors it's worth waiting until mid-May when any chance of frost has passed. Alternatively, buy plug plants from the garden centre which can usually be planted straight out.)

You should follow the instructions on your seed packet but most will suggest planning to plant out your seedlings in June. Until then you'll need to keep them indoors, warm and well-watered.

A couple of weeks before you plant out, dig a hole for each plant in your chosen spot and fill it with compost or manure. At the same time, leave your seedlings outside, (ideally in a cold frame, but otherwise bringing them in at night) for a fortnight to acclimatise.

Once acclimatised, you can plant the strongest looking seedlings. Make sure you space them far enough apart to allow room to grow (you'll need at least 30cm and up to 1.5m for the biggest pumpkin varieties).

Next to each plant, sink an empty plant pot into the ground. They will need plenty of water when the warm weather arrives so you can use the empty pot to ensure the water gets straight to the plant's roots rather than staying on the surface where it might rot the fruit and leaves.

Your plant should flower in early summer and start to bear fruit the following month. Place a piece of plastic under each pumpkin to prevent it from rotting.

Let the fruit mature on the plant for as long as possible before Halloween but harvest it before the first frost when it might be damaged. (You can store most ripe squashes in a dark, cool place for many months before they spoil.)

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Mar 13 2017 11:00AM

The European hare (Lepus europaeus) is perhaps best known for being “mad” in March. Its mating antics are certainly a bit loopy and worth trying to spot in early spring.

It was previously thought that the "boxing matches" between hares seen in the spring months were bouts between males competing to breed with females. However, they are actually fights between females and males, the former rejecting the advances of the latter early in the mating season. The poorly matched couples are a sure sign that spring has sprung.

Hares live in open countryside and rely on their exceptional pace to outrun predators. They can run for short periods at up to 40 mph, making them our fastest land mammal.

The health of hare populations varies greatly across the country. In some places they are now a rarity. This is particularly the case in the South-West. In Eastern counties, notably Norfolk, they are still thriving.

To go looking for hares, you'll need to be up early or late; dawn and dusk are the best times to spot them as they are very wary of humans. Even if you don't manage to see the animals themselves you should be able to spot signs of them - look for tunnels in long grass leading up to barbed wire or brambles. You'll often find patches of light brown fur caught on the fence or thorns.

Hares are eaten during the game season. They have an intense, often very gamey flavour and the best known way of cooking them is in Jugged Hare, a casserole which includes blood and sometimes bitter chocolate. But they are protected by the Hare Preservation Act which bans the sale of their meat from 1st March to 31st July during the mating season and, given their uncertain conservation status, if you do plan to eat them, you should only source them from reputable butchers or game dealers

"The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won't be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March." – Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Mar 7 2017 09:00AM

The cool, clear waters of the UK provide the perfect growing environment for one of nature's tastiest aquatic treats - the mussel.

This beautiful, blue bivalve can be found growing on most parts of our rocky coastline and harvesting some yourself is one of the most rewarding foraging experiences you can have.

Traditionally, you should only collect mussels in months with the letter ‘r’ in. The rule of thumb (which applies to most shellfish) is actually a shorthand way of saying that it's best to avoid shellfish during the summer months and there is some good science behind the principle. All shellfish tend to accumulate certain toxins that are found in (perfectly natural) algal blooms which tend to be at their peak during the warm weather. If you buy your shellfish from the shops there's no need to worry since all stocks are regularly checked for toxins but it does mean that March, before the warm weather arrives, is a good time to go on the hunt.

Pick the larger mussels – not only will they make for a better meal but they will have had chance to breed, keeping the population healthy. The plumpest specimens will be found below the high water mark on rocky beaches so check a tide table before you visit then get down there with your wellies and a good sized bucket. On the journey home, keep your catch cool with a damp tea towel.

When it comes to cooking, mussels need just a few minutes to steam open so they're the perfect convenience food and a rich reward for all your hard work.

If you look out the window and think it's too cold for a trip to the beach (and let's face it, March often is) then get down to the shops. Either wild or rope grown mussels are fine (three quarters of rope-grown mussels in the UK are now classified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.) They are excellent value and you'll find them in any good fishmonger during the season.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Mar 2 2017 11:00AM

The crisp, clear nights of early spring make March a good month for star gazing. Just make sure you wrap up warm.

Because of our strict planning laws and plenty of remote locations, Britain has some of the best skies for star gazing. Galloway Forest Park in Scotland was the first place in Europe to be given the status of a "Dark Skies Park" by international astronomers and both the Brecon Beacons and Exmoor have now also been awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status. If you can make it to an official Dark Skies Park you'll see up to fifty times more stars. But don't worry if there's not one near you - there will be plenty to see wherever you are.

You will need:

• A dry, clear night, ideally when the moon isn't full

• Warm clothes (lots) including hats and gloves. If in doubt, take an extra layer

• A waterproof blanket or a deckchair

• Torch, ideally with with red filter (to help you keep your night vision)

• Star guide (you can download these for free from astronomy websites)

• A flask of hot chocolate or other warm drink and something to eat

• A compass to find your bearings (if you don't have one, get to your chosen spot before sunset and note West, where the sun goes down)

In a clear spring sky you should be able to easily see constellations including:

• Orion (the Hunter) – look for the three bright stars forming his belt.

• Ursa Major (the Great Bear, also known as the Plough) – look for a group of stars forming a shape like a saucepan.

• Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) – look for a smaller saucepan shape to the North West of Ursa Major.

• Sirius (the Dog Star) – a very bright, single star to the South East of Orion.

If you're lucky you'll also be able to spot the planet Jupiter (named after the Roman King of the Gods), a bright planet to the South East of Ursa Major and North East of Orion, as well as satellites tracking across the sky and maybe even a shooting star.

Did you know…? There are 88 recognised constellations, most of which are named after Greek or Roman gods or mythical creatures. Ancient astronomers believed all stars were stuck to the inside of a giant sphere that surrounded the earth known as the Celestial Sphere.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them." Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor, 161-180 AD).

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Mar 1 2017 11:00AM

St. David is the patron saint of Wales. He was a Welsh bishop and son of the king of Ceredigion (a kingdom forming part of west Wales).

St. David's Day is celebrated on 1st March, the day he died in 589AD, reputedly aged more than 100 years old. The celebrations do not have a particularly defined format but most involve daffodils (the national flower of Wales), that most famous of Welsh vegetables, the leek, and laverbread.

At first glance, a plate of greeny-black gunge isn't that appealing, but bear with us. Laver is the name of a particular seaweed that grows in the littoral zone (that's the beaches) of the UK and around the world. It is widely eaten in Asia and you might have seen it as "nori" on Japanese restaurant menus. The green outer layer of sushi rolls (which you can buy dried in many Asian supermarkets) is also nori.

To make Laverbread (Bara Lafwr in Welsh) the raw laver is boiled then finely minced to create a thick paste. Most commonly the paste is coated in or combined with oats before frying and the usual accompaniments are bacon and cockles to create a hearty breakfast fit for any hardworking coal miner or fisherman.

For some reason the English and Scots rarely go near laver and yet the delicacy is a Welsh national dish. It has a distinct flavour that owes much to its high iodine content. Other foods with lots of iodine include olives and oysters so you can get an idea of the sort of taste your letting yourself in for - flavoursome and pretty unique.

Did you know…? There are no poisonous seaweeds in the British Isles. Some don't taste great but none of them will kill you. If you're not quite ready to forage your own you'll find laverbread in some supermarkets and several online fish retailers sell it as an accompaniment.

"Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus!"

(Happy St. David's Day)

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Feb 14 2017 11:00AM

The Feast of St. Valentine on 14th February commemorates the beatification of Valentine, a priest imprisoned and executed by the Romans for preaching Christianity.

It was only in the Middle Ages that Valentine's Day started to become associated with romantic love, particularly thanks to the writing of Geoffrey Chaucer, and by the 18th Century it had become the festival that we recognise today with sweethearts exchanging cards, presents and flowers.

Despite the over-commercialisation that it has undoubtedly been subjected to, most of us still look forward to receiving a card or two and to the opportunity to cook a meal for our loved ones. But it’s possible that the day has its roots in something much older and more lascivious.

The pre-Roman festival of Lupercalia was celebrated between 13th and 15th February. Lupercalia celebrated Lupa, the wolf who had suckled Romulus and Remus (the twin founders of Rome), and Lupercus, the Roman god of shepherds. The party would kick off with a sacrifice of goats and dogs. As part of the festivities, the animals' skins were cut into thongs and used to whip girls and young women to ensure their fertility. So, hardly the mushy, romantic stuff of today.

Whether or not Lupercalia is, in fact, the mother of the modern day Valentine’s Day is hotly debated by academics. But they do share some similar themes and it is not hard to see how feasts and festivals falling around the same date might have become intertwined.

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Feb 8 2017 11:09AM

In my recent post I introduced Russell Brown, hugely talented chef and co-author of the Well Seasoned Book.

Russ has his own website for his consultancy business Creative About Cuisine and, in his February newslettter you'll find his thoughts on the book together with a fantastic seasonal recipe to try - Caremelised Onion Cheesecake. I highly recommend you check it out.

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