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By Well Seasoned, Feb 13 2019 02:08PM

We're creeping slowly towards the warmer weather of spring. Although we may well still have some snow and sleet before we get there, we're starting to notice some of those early, welcome signs. In the last blog we looked at snowdrops. Today, we listen out for the beginnings of the dawn chorus...

The chorus of garden birdsong signals the start of the mating season as our feathered friends start looking to attract partners and defend their breeding territories. Beginning with blackbirds and robins in late February, other species will gradually join the chorus through to late May, when it reaches a glorious crescendo.

The sunrise singing provides a fascinating insight into the world of our birds. With a little patience, you’ll soon learn to distinguish individual species and the order in which they start to sing each day. They stick to a fairly rigid timetable and you might well prefer simply to soak up the atmosphere as you lie in bed – it begins around 4.30 a.m. this month, and as early as 3 a.m. as we reach the early summer.

The order of the birds song is dictated by the foods they eat and their ability to see in the low morning light. The early birds (blackbirds and robins) literally do catch the worms. These species have comparatively large eyes compared to their bodies and are able to see in the earliest, dim light of dawn. As the sun rises and light levels increase, insect-eaters (wrens) wake from their slumber. Finally, the seed-eaters (finches and sparrows) take their time and wait until just before daybreak.

So, expect to hear, in order:

Blackbird – monotonous chink, chink, chink followed by a distinct, low-pitched melody

Robin – high-pitched tick, tick, tick, followed by a cascade of warbling notes

Wren – chur, chur, churrrrr (at an impressive volume for such a small bird)

Chaffinch – distinct pink, pink, pink, followed by one of several flourishes

House sparrow – chattering and repetitive chirrup, chirrup.

By Well Seasoned, Jan 9 2019 09:47AM

January tends to get a raw deal. It’s the cold, dark, hungover month, often now sacrificed to the god of abstinence (or the new false prophet, detox). But as the new year begins, I think we should resolve to think more positively about it.

Cold, crisp mornings, bright blue skies, the days getting longer, snow... January has plenty of positive attributes. Granted, there’s still a long way to go until the warmer, brighter weather of spring, but it should be an exciting month. The short days mean we have plenty of time indoors to make plans for the year ahead. So, stock up on outdoor kit in the sales, brush up your nature knowledge and put the year’s seasonal adventures in the diary.

On the food front, the game season is still in full swing, with partridge, pheasant and duck all bringing a touch of wild class to our tables. Frost-resistant roots like parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and carrots are all quite content to sit tight during the coldest part of the year, doing nothing much apart from staying fresh.

Our coastline is still teeming with a great selection of fine fish that thrive in Britain’s cool, clear waters. Shellfish such as cockles, mussels and oysters are especially good this month and worth exploring as a tasty, lighter alternative to meat (especially if, like me, your trousers tend to inexplicably shrink over the Christmas period). If you’re feeling a bit cold at any point, you might spare a thought for our ever-reliable fishing fleet who are out in (nearly) all weathers so that the worst we have to endure is a slightly nippy stroll to the fishmonger’s.

After the gluttony and excess of the festive season, January is a bracing, fresh start to the year and the perfect place to begin our seasonal journey.

Our Out and About section this month looks for the emergence of snowdrops, one of the earliest signs that spring is on the way, and in most years you’ll see the very first ones make an appearance in late January. They are also known in some parts as Candlemas because of the time of year they emerge. As the saying goes, ‘The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day’ (2nd February).

There are several species of snowdrop. Our native wild flowers have drooping white blooms with a small green patch on the inner petal tip and just one flower per stem. If you see any other kind on your winter walk it’s likely to originate from a cultivated variety (of which there are many). So, towards the end of the month, wrap up warm and take a wintery wander through damp woodland near to streams or ponds, keep a close eye on the ground and you should spot them. The delicate flowers you see were actually formed nearly a year ago, but they wait until the following winter before pushing up through the soil. (They contain a natural anti-freeze which helps them survive the icy weather. It’s so effective that the wild plants were harvested during the First World War to make de-icing chemicals for tanks.)

By Well Seasoned, Dec 14 2018 03:40PM

Well, we're in December and hasn't 2018 flown by? It seems only a few weeks ago we were basking in the heat of a record breaking summer. Now we're scraping the ice off the cars and wondering why we didn't have the boiler serviced back in October.

This is probably the last post before 2019 so a quick thank you to everyone who is still reading the blog and to everyone who has bought a copy of the book. It really is exciting seeing it on bookshop shelves but even more thrilling to hear from people who are cooking from it and taking inspiration from it throughout the year. And to those of you who haven’t yet laid hands on a copy, there’s still time for that last minute Christmas present!

As a family we’re thinking what we should eat this Christmas. There will only be four of us for the big day itself and so turkey isn’t really an option and chicken seems a bit ordinary. We’ve settled on a couple of pheasants, which gives me the perfect opportunity to try one of our December recipes.

Across the British countryside, the familiar croak of pheasants in late summer signals the release of birds into the wild and the imminent start of the game season. Feathered game is one of the most traditionally seasonal elements of the British diet. The very fact that game can only be shot at particular times of the year means it is strictly (and legally) a seasonal treat.

We saw the partridge and duck season begin at the start of September and pheasants join them on the menu from 1 October. Early-season birds can be a little underweight so I usually prefer to wait until they have filled out after a few more weeks of feeding and flying in the field. There is a tongue-in-cheek Victorian saying that reflects the economics of shooting – ‘Up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence and down comes half a crown.’ Although the currency may have changed, the broad principles remain the same. Shooters, referred to as ‘guns’ will pay considerable sums to shoot pheasant, but the shoot will then sell an entire bird in the feather to a game dealer for well under a pound (sometimes they are simply given away). That means that, even once gutted and plucked, you rarely need to pay more than a fiver for a bird large enough to feed two people (and make a decent stock from the carcass). Prices drop even further midseason as shoots across the country produce a glut of birds, and all of that puts December bang in the middle of great value and taste.

Pot-roasted pheasant with cider and apple

As with most game, pheasant it is very lean, though, and care needs to be taken with the cooking to keep the flesh moist. Most game birds are better cooked a touch pink to keep them from drying out and, whilst the accuracy of the cooking is important, it’s always better to aim for under rather than over. Pot-roasting is a great technique for smallish birds such as pheasant as the meat cooks gently in the steam and is flavoured by the aromatic liquids and the caramelization from the initial sear in a pan. Fat from good streaky bacon also helps and, as with any meat cookery, the final stage of resting is absolutely vital.

Serves 4 as a main course

2 pheasant crowns

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

150ml cider

200ml chicken or pheasant stock

4 slices smoked, streaky bacon, stretched with the back of a knife and cut in half

2 Braeburn apples, peeled, cored and cut into 8 wedges

75ml double cream

1 tsp wholegrain mustard

1 tsp cornflour slaked in 1 tbsp cold water

Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 160˚C.

2. Rub the pheasant skin with 1 tsp of oil and season well. Heat a heavy-based frying pan and very quickly seal the pheasants on the skin side. Remove the pheasants and use the same pan to soften the onions in the remaining oil, adding a pinch of salt.

3. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes longer. Pour in the cider and reduce completely. Add the stock and bring to a simmer.

4. Tip the onion mix into a large casserole which will hold the pheasants fairly tightly. Place the sealed pheasants in the casserole, cover the birds with the strips of bacon, scatter the apple around and seal with a tight-fitting lid. Cook in the oven for 25–30 minutes.

5. Remove the pheasant to rest in a warm place. Take off the bacon and crisp under a hot grill. Drain the liquid from the casserole into a pan, add the cream and mustard and place over a high heat to reduce slightly. Thicken with the cornflour, adding gradually as you may not need it all – a thick double-cream consistency is what you are looking for. Adjust the seasoning and add the sauce back to the apple and onion mix.

6. Carve the breasts from the pheasant, checking for shot as you do so. Divide the sauce with the apple and onion between the plates, top with the pheasant and finish with the bacon.

7. Serve with creamy mash and some buttered greens.

By Well Seasoned, Nov 2 2018 01:00AM

The word ‘venison’ used to refer to all wild, non-feathered meats (venatio being the Latin for ‘hunt’) and would have included animals such as wild boar and goat. But it’s now used almost exclusively to refer to deer meat. In days gone by, as a result of its aristocratic connections, deer was very much a rich man’s food. Only the offal was affordable to commoners (the ‘pluck’ or offal of the animal was also called the ‘umble’, the origin of ‘humble pie’). These days, however, venison is widely available and inexpensive. With six species of deer in Britain (Chinese water, fallow, muntjac, red, roe and sika) and different seasons for stags or bucks (males) and hinds or does (females), there isn’t a month of the year when you won’t find venison of some kind available from your local butcher. Even better, while, from an ethical perspective, wild venison ticks all the boxes, deer aren’t reared intensively in Britain so you can also eat farmed or park (from an enclosed estate) meat with a clean conscience. Hinds, especially of the smaller species, tend to have a slightly less gamey flavour than bigger stags, and November is the month when the females of our three most commonly eaten species (the red, fallow and roe) are in season. It means a plentiful supply of good value meat. In addition, venison partners particularly well with a number of other ingredients, savoury and sweet, that are in season this month (think rosemary, cobnuts, juniper and pears). So, while there’s no ‘bad’ month for venison, from November through to February is most certainly a very good time of year for this lean, iron-rich and well-flavoured meat.

Venison, celeriac and mushroom suet pudding

Baking suet pastry gives a very different feel to this pudding than steaming would. I like them either way but the crisp texture of baked suet pastry contrasts so nicely with the soft meat and tender celeriac in this dish. serves 4 hungry people or would make 6 puddings at a push!

For the filling

500g diced venison, 1½–2cm pieces

olive oil

200ml red wine

2 rashers smoked, streaky bacon, cut into lardons

1 onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, sliced

100g chestnut mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

350ml beef or venison stock

muslin bouquet garni of 2 bay leaves, 6 sprigs of thyme and 6 juniper berries

1 small celeriac, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes (250g)

1 tsp cornflour, slaked in 1 tbsp cold water Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the suet pastry

250g plain flour

1½ tsp Maldon sea salt, finely ground

125g suet

cold water to mix (approximately 180ml)

1. Preheat the oven to 140˚C.

2. Season the venison with salt and pepper. Heat some oil in a heavy-based frying pan and seal the venison over a high heat, caramelizing well. Do this in a couple of batches. Tip the venison into a casserole dish and deglaze the pan with a little of the wine. Add this liquid to the venison. Wipe out the pan, add a little more oil and cook the lardons until the fat starts to render, then add the onion and garlic. Cook for around 10 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is soft. Add the mushrooms, raise the heat and cook until the mushrooms start to colour. Add this mix to the venison.

3. Pour the remaining wine into the pan and reduce to a syrup, then add the stock and bring to a simmer. Pour over the venison, mix well, add the bouquet garni and cover. Cook in the oven for 1 hour. Add the celeriac and cook for a further 20 minutes. Check that the meat and celeriac are tender.

4. Drain the majority of the cooking liquid into a clean saucepan and reduce to approximately 150ml. Thicken with the cornflour, adding gradually, to give a thick double-cream consistency. Remove the bouquet garni from the venison, squeezing out any liquid. Add the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Allow to cool.

5. For the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the suet. Gradually add cold water, mixing with a blunt knife until a soft dough is formed. Flour the work surface and knead the dough quickly into a ball. Cut threequarters of the dough and roll out to around 4mm thick. Cut out rough circles, 20cm in diameter. Roll the remaining pastry with the trim and cut out 12cm circles for the lids.

6. To assemble, butter four 10cm aluminium pudding basins and line with the larger pastry circles. Trim the excess, leaving around 1cm overhang. Fill the basins with the venison mix. Brush the lids with water and place over the filling. Squeeze the two layers of pastry together and trim off the excess. Brush around the rim of the pudding with water and roll the sealed edge inwards to create a double seal around the rim.

7. Turn the oven up to 180°C. Place the puddings on a heavy baking tray and bake for 20-30 minutes. The pastry should be crisp and golden and the filling hot right through. The puddings should tip out easily but may need the point of a knife run between the pastry and the basin.

8. Serve with seasonal greens, roasted carrots and mash.


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