River Farm Smokery, Bottisham – home-made taramasalata

This sticky pair of sci-fi slippers isn’t some poor creature’s lungs. It’s my supper – a beautifully smoked chunk of cod’s roe from River Farm Smokery, a couple of miles outside Cambridge. Dan, the smokery’s production manager, contacted me a couple of weeks ago and whetted my appetite with a pack of some exceptionally fine smoked salmon. I dropped in on Thursday and bought a selection of the fish on offer in the smokery’s little shop. (I shall be back shortly to throw myself upon the meat counter and the smoked olives – everything I came home with was seriously, seriously good.)

Cambridge and Newmarket readers take note – this place is on your doorsteps, and if my experience is anything to go by, you don’t know it’s there. Dan keeps a blog about the smokery, on which there is a handy map, so you have no excuse. The shop also carries a really thoughtful range of delicatessen products, and if that’s not enough to convince you, the glorious smoked salmon actually costs less than it does at the supermarket.

Dan showed me around the smokery; I’ll go back soon with a camera. Hot and cold kilns, thick, fragrant tar, bags of oak chippings, eels, olives – and my God, the soft, downright seductive smell of all that smoke. Someone should bottle it and sell it. (It is my sad duty to report that Stilton cheesemakers have done the same and are trying to market the smell of feet as a ladies’ perfume.)

Alongside the smoked salmon, trout, eels and an excellent mackerel pate were more unusual offerings, including these roe – peeled and released from their tough skins in this picture, so you can make out the mass of tiny eggs. Dan says that he sells a lot of these roe for spreading as they are on toast. I decided to use them for taramasalata. Some taramasalata recipes will tell you to soak the whole roe before peeling, but I didn’t find that necessary with these, which weren’t over-salted. If you are in Greece, use pressed, salted grey mullet roe. If, like me, you have never seen a pressed, salted grey mullet roe, go with the smoked cod’s roe. It’s fantastic.

To serve four, you’ll need:

  • 4 slices white bread
  • ½ cup smoked cod’s roe, skin removed
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ½ red onion
  • Juice of 1 ½ lemons
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Black pepper to taste

Grate the onion and garlic and put in the food processor with the bread, roe, pepper and lemon juice. Whizz until everything is smooth, and with the blades still whirring, dribble the olive oil into the mixture in a thin stream, as if you are making mayonnaise. When everything is amalgamated, transfer to a bowl, and refrigerate for half an hour for the flavours to meld. Serve with strips of pitta bread and raw vegetables. The taramasalata will keep in the fridge for around a week.

While you eat, consider the fact that despite the pink roe and the red onion, this is not remotely as pink as the factory-processed stuff you’ll get in supermarkets and, sadly, in many restaurants. There’s a reason for that. It’s called food colouring. Oh – and Alban, who asked me for more quick recipes, should be pleased to learn that he can make this in under half an hour, so no more excuses; get cooking.

Reach Fair 2006 – toffee apples

First of all, an apology for not having posted for a week and a bit. A visit from family, a series of busy evenings of unbloggable dinners (at the houses of friends who weren’t seeking Internet fame, at the University where the lights are dim and the meals a bit swillish) and finally a really, really nasty brush with salmonella all conspired to stop me posting. I’m better (and thinner – positively svelte, now I mention it) again now, and I and the seven colleagues who ate the coleslaw at the pub on Perne Road have called Environmental Health in.

Cast your minds back a week and a half.

Astute readers familiar with Cambridgeshire will have worked out by now that I live in Reach, a tiny village about fifteen miles from Cambridge, set around a large green. The village is complete with a Roman canal, a ruined Norman church (I’m looking at it out of the living room window as I type – see above for a picture taken at the end of March – the roundabout on the left is the view out of the front garden from the last week of April) and marks the start of the seven-mile Devil’s Dyke, a perfectly straight chalk earthwork which was put in as defence by Hereward the Wake’s lot. It is, you might gather, a village with a fair old bit of history.

In 1201, King John granted a charter to the village allowing it to host an annual fair on May 1. Historically, the fair had huge significance in the region, and was a big event for those wishing to trade in livestock and the goods which had come down the Roman canal (which, in 2006, is still navigable, although it’s not been used commercially for about a century). Back then, the fair was a three-day affair, drawing visitors from all over the east of England.

Eight hundred and five years later, the fair is still running every year, although now it’s an old-fashioned funfair which only opens for a day, with a merry-go-round, swingboats, hoopla, a coconut shy and a helter-skelter. The local schoolkids dance around a maypole, the village is infested with morris dancers and squeezebox players, mock battles are held on the playing fields, and there’s a hogroast.

There’s food everywhere you look; excellent local ice-cream, vans full of sweets, the coconuts nobody is winning because they appear to be weighted with lead. Our very splendid local pub also has a beer tent most years. These toffee apples are particularly magnificent, and they’re a staple of the fair. To make your own, you’ll need:

450 g soft brown sugar
50 g butter
10 ml malt vinegar
150 ml water
1 tablespoon golden syrup
6-8 medium-sized apples and the same number of good wooden sticks. (I’ve used pencils in emergencies – and no sticks for your toffee apple is, as far as I’m concerned, an emergency par excellence.)

Put the sugar, butter, vinegar, water, and syrup into a large pan with a heavy base. Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then raise the temperature and then boil until the temperature reaches 143°C (soft crack on your jam thermometer). At this temperature a drop of the mixture in cold water will separate into hard threads which are not brittle.

Push the sticks into the clean apples. Dip the apples into the toffee and swirl them around for a few seconds until they are covered in the toffee. Leave to cool on a sheet of greaseproof paper.

I’ll leave you with a photo of the fair in the 1930s. See those people sitting on the verge on the left? These days, that’s my front garden.

Wholemeal flour from Lode Mill, Cambridge – and a loaf of bread

Lode Mill, a working, eighteenth-century water mill, is in the grounds of Anglesey Abbey, a Jacobean house near Cambridge which is built on the grounds of a medieval priory. The mill itself operates on the first and third Sunday of every month (subject to the water level), and is open to the public who can view the mill workings, and buy the oatmeal and wholegrain flour produced there. Saturday’s visit to the winter gardens at Anglesey Abbey saw me buying up armsful of flour bags and quizzing the miller in enormous detail, all to keep you happy.

There has been a mill on this site since the Domesday survey, but the current mill is only about 300 years old. The building has four storeys; a ground floor; a stone floor where the mill stones are kept and operated; and two upper storage floors. This huge central shaft (the wheel you can see here is the spur wheel which drives the gears under the mill stone) is made from a whole sweet chestnut trunk; other wood in the mill building and wheels is seasoned oak, which, according to the miller, is as hard as iron.

There are four pairs of stones, each of which has to be dressed (cut with chisels) every ten uses to keep them sharp for grinding. The resulting flour is pushed from the outside edge of the mill stones and falls down a chute to the ground floor. It takes 30 seconds and ten tons of water to make 1 ½ kilograms of flour.

If you’re using wholemeal flour for bread, it’s a good idea to mix it with some strong white flour. An all-wholemeal loaf made at home can be chewy and dense; it’s especially hard on very young jaws. (A primary-school aged Mr Weasel was, in an episode he recites every time he eats a sandwich, told off by a school dinner lady for hiding a homemade, wholemeal sandwich in his pocket; he wanted to get out of the dinner hall and play, but chewing the bread was taking so long his friends had left without him.) For one large loaf you’ll need:

3 sachets instant yeast
30g honey
625ml water at body temperature
500g wholemeal flour
500g strong white flour
30g salt

Half an hour before you start, put the flour in a warm place.

Dissolve the yeast and honey in half the water. Put the warm flour in a large bowl with the salt and make a well in the centre. Pour all the yeast and honey mixture into the well, and mix with your hand until it’s all soaked into the flour. Add the rest of the tepid water and continue mixing until you have a soft dough. Knead for ten minutes to develop the gluten in the dough; you should end up with a soft, stretchy mass. Return it to its bowl.

Flour the top of the dough and use scissors to score it; this will help it to prove faster. Leave it somewhere warm until it has doubled in size (an hour or so in a warm room), then knock all the air out of it, kneading for a couple of minutes. Divide the dough into six pieces, and form them into balls. Arrange the balls in a cake tin, flour them and leave the tin in a warm place again until the bread dough has doubled in size once more.

Put the tin gently (without knocking it about) in the oven at 225°C for half an hour. Check to see that the bread is done by taking it out of the tin and tapping the bottom; if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. (Be careful; wholemeal bread takes a bit longer to cook than white bread does. Exercise judgement.)

This flour makes a lovely, malty bread. Enjoy it toasted with honey, and bask in the smell filling your house.

Literary cocktails

I am female and approaching 30 at a headlong rush. This means I like cocktails. I am fortunate, then, in living near Cambridge, where the River Bar and Kitchen perches above the river, over a gym whose window gives a splendid view of a hot tub full of svelte ladies which you have to sidle past to get to the bar.

The Kitchen part of the River Bar and Kitchen is not as glorious as the Bar part, so I’ll gloss over it; I ate there with some friends a couple of weeks ago and was rather disappointed (dry meats, vinegary preparation, identikit saucing). The cocktails, though, are well worth a visit.

A few months ago, gurgling happily over a Manhattan (equal measures bourbon and vermouth, with a cherry and some orange zest and a dash of bitters), I was told by a friend with something pink and creamy on the end of her nose that I only like pretentious grown-up cocktails. I think this means that I prefer cocktails which aren’t sugary and full of things squirted out of a cow, but I will admit to a certain mental frailty – I get a tiny kick (OK, a massive one) out of the Literary Cocktail. Knowing which brand of lime cordial you should use to make a Gimlet like the kind Philip Marlowe enjoyed, and being able to argue with the barman about it. That kind of thing.

The drink at the top of the page is a perfect example of pretension in cocktail form, and it’s my very favourite cocktail, the alcoholic drink I would happily forgo all others for; a Vesper Martini. This is the original Martini James Bond creates in Casino Royale (1957, the first Bond book), named for Vesper Lynd, Bond girl and double agent. He instructs the barman:

‘In a deep champagne goblet . . . Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.’

Bond knew what he was talking about; this is a beautiful cocktail.

Kina Lillet is a vermouth, and the guy at the River Bar uses only a tiny breath of vermouth; he says tastes have changed since the 50s. (They certainly have; Tom Lehrer sang about ‘Hearts full of youth/Hearts full of truth/Six parts gin to one part vermouth‘ in Bright College Days, and this is a very vermouth-y Martini indeed to my youthful, truthful tongue.)

My next Martini was a Zubrowka (a vodka flavoured with fragrant bison grass, which is added during distillation) one. I have a great love for W Somerset Maugham. In The Razor’s Edge, Isabella says:

‘It smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it’s soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight.’

Even though her ultimate aim in rhapsodising about the stuff is to drive another character to a sodden alcoholic grave, I can’t help but feel Maugham himself must have been pretty keen on Zubrowka too. (Another Somerset Maugham favourite was avocado ice cream, which is, you may be surprised to learn, absolutely divine – watch this space.)

For some reason I can’t fathom, some apple schnapps and other fruity stuff found its way into my Martini when I wasn’t standing at the bar to keep a firm hand on the barman (there really shouldn’t be anything other than gin or vodka and vermouth – find me the man who invented the chocolate martini and I will show you an man without tastebuds but with an uncanny understanding of what drunk women will pay for), but it was still pretty fabulous. Excuse the lipstick on the rim in the photograph. It is hard to remember to photograph your Martini before drinking it when you’ve already had a few.

My friends were now on the champagne cocktails. In the back here is a Carol Channing. Those who have seen Thoroughly Modern Millie, a glorious film with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, James Fox and a biplane, will remember Carol Channing’s dance with the xylophone and her habit of shouting ‘Raspberries!’ A Carol Channing is made with muddled raspberries, sugar syrup, Chambord and raspberry eau de vie, topped up with champagne.

In front is a proper champagne cocktail – that is to say bitters soaked into a brown sugar lump, with champagne poured on top. A lovely drink, and a very, very old fashioned cocktail; it first pops up in 1862 in Jerry Thomas’s How to mix drinks. (Click the link for an online facsimile of the book.) There are only a very few true cocktails in the book (the other recipes are flips, juleps, punches and recipes for flavoured syrups and so forth), and the champagne cocktail is the only one you’re likely to recognise in 2005.

Somebody (as the evening wore on I lost track of who was ordering what. Can’t think why) ordered a Mojito (muddled mint and sugar, rum, lime and soda water). A Brazilian friend has special mint-muddlin
g pots and sticks, like a conical mortar and pestle, for making these; she brings cachaça, a Brazilian rum, home to England when she visits her family, and uses it to makes the best Mohitos and Caipirinhas (lime, soda, cachaça and sugar) I’ve tasted.

I should wrap this post up. Mr Weasel is on his way home from the supermarket; he has gone to fetch a bottle of Big Tom’s tomato juice, which we will adulterate with some vodka I’ve been steeping chilis in for a few months. I love weekends. Those wondering about the Philip Marlowe Gimlets, by the way, should read The Long Goodbye, where Marlowe informs us that ‘A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice, and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow.‘ He’s right; Rose’s is the only one made only with real, fresh limes. Try it some time – cut down on the Rose’s if you find it too sweet.

Beer or pudding?

Meantime Chocolate Beer, from the Greenwich brewery, is, they say, specifically aimed at women, who, according to those marketing it, drink alcopops in preference to beer. Nonsense. Some of the best nights (and worst mornings) of my life have been courtesy of the Cambridge Beer Festival, where both Mr Weasel and I have ‘worked’ (I use the term advisedly) as staff in previous years. One of the things that swung the choosing of our present house for me was its handy location next to a real-ale freehouse with a fantastic restaurant (nothing like having your Fenland ale within staggering distance – those who email me and appear reasonably sane will be told where it is, but I’m not publishing its name here for fear of people breaking into the house to steal my cake). Beer and I have a glorious, long and ultimately pretty intimate relationship. Girlie beers are not for me.

Or are they? A while ago, when Sainsbury’s started stocking Meantime Chocolate Beer, I thought I would try an experimental bottle of the stuff. Damn me if they haven’t come up with something grown-up, silky and both beery and chocolatey at the same time. I may be a real-ale bore, but this stuff, marketed to death and not out of a pump (it is, however, bottle-conditioned, which means that new beer and yeast is added to the finished beer in the bottle, making it finish its fermentation and develop fizz after the lid has been put on) is just magnificent. There’s not a hint of sweetness to it; any chocolate flavour is the smooth, dark, dry taste you get from a very high cocoa-mass chocolate and not overpowering, and it combines beautifully with this extremely malty, quietly hoppy beer to make something quite disturbingly drinkable. A note of vanilla ties the malt and chocolate together. This is definitely not a novelty beer. If you’re in Sainsbury’s, pick up a bottle; I think you’ll like it.

Now, clearly, buying only one bottle of beer would be the action of someone who wasn’t thinking awfully hard. I was thinking hard. So I bought another. My second bottle was one of Liefmans‘ utterly gorgeous Kriek, or cherry beer, which comes wrapped in a pretty twizzle of printed paper.

Perhaps I do like girlie beers.

Liefmans Kriek is considered one of the very best cherry beers. (Kriek, by the way, is pronounced ‘Creek’, if ever you are in Belgium and struck with a terrible craving.) It’s an unexpectedly sour drink which almost makes your mouth pucker; tart and fruity, but rounded and terribly, terribly delicious.

The beer is a deep, wine-red, with a pretty pink head. (No photograph in the glass, I’m afraid; I forgot to take one before I started drinking, and the glass has lipstick and fingerprints on it. Disaster.) It’s unfiltered and unsweetened (important, this; lots of cherry beer is sweetened, and it’s not anything like as good), and so full of cherries they almost dance in front of your eyes as you sip it. There’s a hint of almond, possibly from the cherry stones. It’s like a wonderful fruit juice. A wonderful fruit juice that makes you fall down and giggle.

Yeast. This week it’s my number one microbe.