For the last five years, Christine McFadden has lived on the remote Bridehead estate in Dorset with, 'no streets and no shops' but within a short distance of cheese producers and longhorn beef and sheep farms. A perfect backdrop from which to research and write about small, local food producers, her new book the Farm Shop Cookbook is a culmination, to a certain extent, of life on her doorstep.
‘I need hardly ever go to supermarket,' says Christine during a phone interview. ‘I may go to pick up lemons and pasta, but writing the Farm Shop Cookbook has made me eat even more seasonally than before. We are living off kale this month.'
When not experimenting with green vegetables, her favourite meal is a freshly caught piece of mackarel or plaice from nearby Lyme Bay, chips, and a homegrown salad, served in the local pub.
Managing fruit and vegetable gluts are challenging - even to those well versed in seasonal cooking. The Farm Shop Cookbook, with a practical A-Z format, is a hefty addition to any cook's arsenal.
‘Supermarkets have started to sell different varieties of say, apples, but farm shops will present many more, their produce is also freshly picked,' she says.
Aside from advice on which are the most tasty varieties of fruit and vegetables (experience gained through sitting on many a tasting panel), she lists animal breeds to look out for, when things are in season and makes storage and preparation suggestions. Highlights include a wonderful Coq au Vin recipe, a green bean and dill pickle (or how to deal with green bean glut), farm cheeses by region and a fresh look at iconic British vegetables such as cauliflower and kale.
Down on the Farm
There are over 1,700 farm shops in the UK, a huge jump from the few that existed in the 1970s. Their growth rate, McFadden claims, outstrips any other type of food shop.
‘Farmers have been encouraged to diversify - from farm holidays to farm trips and then farm shops. In the process, many have become adept at retailing. Since no middle-men are involved, the farmers get more for their goods, and artisan producers have a chance to keep their traditional skills alive.'
She cautions against farm shops that are eerily more like emporiums: 'too big with too many scented candles and not enough mud and corrugated iron.' The better, McFadden says, grow their own produce (and raise their own animals) and sell what is freshly picked. Many have their own dedicated butcher, and in coastal regions sell fish. Genuine farm shops will be accredited by FARMA- the National Farmers' Retail and Markets Association.
Farm shops can become destination places for urbanites on a ‘day out' - especially those attached to a Pick-Your-Own farm. And more and more farm shops are opening closer to cities or to motorways, Christine says.
Yet farm shops are a way of life for many in many rural areas.
‘With farmers' markets, you can't rely on the same people being there. Yes, it's a fun shopping experience, but they can't be used that often. With a farm shop, if you are familiar with it you can go there regularly.'
What did she discover while writing the book?
‘Apart from the seasonality and varieties, one of the most fascinating things was about squirrels. I thought it was strange, reading in newspapers that a couple of farm shops were selling grey squirrel. Then I learned there was a campaign in Northumberland - "Eating a grey saves a red". I got in touch with a game dealer who sent a pack of 6 'oven ready' squirrels. They looked like rats in a pack, but had a Chestnut flavour and tasted extremely nice.'
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor
The Farm Shop Cook Book by Christine McFadden, Absolute Press, 2009, £20
Christine's picks for late June and July
Taken from the Farm Shop Cookbook
There is something quintessentially English about gooseberries. They remain one of our few truly seasonal fruits, enjoying their heyday in the early 1800s when the industrial north was a hotbed of working men's gooseberry clubs. As the late garden writer Edward Bunyard stated somewhat snootily in The Anatomy of Dessert, 'The plebian origin of the Gooseberry has been, I fear, a handicap to its appreciation at cultured tables.' He goes on to say, quite rightly, that if the flavour were found in a tropical fruit, it 'would be exalted in the most fervent language'.
Gooseberries often get a bad press, but they are not necessarily green or sour or bristling with hairs. Some are as smooth and taut as an inflated balloon, others are soft and downy. Some are a strange milky white, others look like lemon drops, and there are those that are a deep exotic red.
Like apples and plums, gooseberries are classified as cooking or dessert, though the boundaries are somewhat blurred. Cooking gooseberries are the first on the scene, signalling, as they do, the possibility of summer. Dessert gooseberries are harvested later; they may be a dedicated variety, or a cooking variety left longer on the bush to sweeten. They are larger and softer, irresistibly juicy and sweet, with an almost translucent skin.
With their tart grassy flavour, gooseberries need plenty of sugar to help them along. They are natural candidates for jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys, and they also make excellent ice cream.
Sweet gooseberries are very good roasted with honey, orange and star anise. Put 600g topped and tailed gooseberries in a small roasting tin, drizzle with 4 tablespoons of clear honey and dot with butter. Add 3 decent-sized strips of thinly pared orange peel and 5 star anise pods, roughly broken up. (Star anise has a delicate flavour that goes well with gooseberries in the same way as elderflower.) Roast at 200°C/gas 6 for
20 minutes, stirring halfway through. By then the berries should be bubbling away and appetisingly browned in places. Serve hot or warm with whipped Jersey cream or very cold ice cream.
Late June and early July is the time to look for 'green' pickling walnuts, traditionally eaten with cheese and cold meats. At this stage, the shells and kernel are undeveloped and encased in a thick fleshy green coating. The main crop is harvested in October at the ‘wet' stage. These choice specimens are easily cracked to reveal two immaculate halves of moist milky nutmeat with a golden papery skin. In this pristine state they last for only a few days, and quickly become mouldy. Walnuts sold later in the year are dried and therefore keep better. The nutmeat has an altogether different quality; the kernels are less plump and creamy, and the papery husk is darker and somewhat bitter.
Walnuts are big and meaty with a flavour to match. I cannot resist adding them, preferably freshly cracked, to peppery and fruity salads such as Kohlrabi, Apple and Watercress Salad with Walnut, and Roasted Peppered Pear Salad with Sheep's Cheese, Honey and Walnuts. They just seem so right.
Their mild bitterness is also good with duck and game and, with port, Stilton and crisp celery, they are exactly what's needed after a festive meal.
Finely ground fresh walnuts add substance and velvety richness to sauces to serve with grilled meat or fish. Greek cooks whizz them with breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and white pepper.
Walnuts are equally delicious in sweet dishes. Try them in the exquisitely rich Walnut and Chocolate Tart or Sweet Puffy Pancakes with Walnuts. They also make excellent cakes, biscuits and pastry. For a heavenly breakfast, mix freshly shelled wet walnuts with clear honey and add to fruit or yogurt.
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