Posts Tagged ‘vegetarian cookery’

Enter the rhubarb triangle

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

No false modesty here

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.

The weigh in

We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated  by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.

I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.

It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing.  Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.

Listen carefully

Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.

It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.

in the pink

With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.

Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.

Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.

£2.50 a packet at source

Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.

That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.

Visit Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm

Find rhubarb recipes

The Big Cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano

September 9, 2012 2 comments

The Keith Richards of cheese

Chief Taster Igino Morini jabs his special Parmesan knife into a boulder sized piece of Parmesan Reggiano and it fractures like a cliff fall, tumbling into irregular lumps. ‘You never slice aged parmesan,’ he tells me through an interpreter before breaking a lump into two and jabbing a piece up under each of his nostrils.

Lumps of loveliness

His eyes glaze over and he sighs before popping a piece into his mouth. Passion is a word much overused these days, but if anyone has it he has. He lives and literally breathes Parmesan, he has to because the tasting room and indeed the whole dairy smells richly of Parma’s famous product,

‘We work every day,’ he says indistinctly through his cheese mouthful, ‘even Christmas. The cows who graze in local areas, and on carefully monitored pasture, must be milked twice a day and the milk has to be processed quickly.’

The ‘thorn bush’ in action

A cheese maker’s day starts early as I found out. That morning I’d stumbled bleary eyed into the dairy after an evening of pasta, parmesan and too much local wine in Parma town to see the team fill the ranks of giant copper lined cauldrons to begin the day’s production.

Unpasteurised milk is gently heated and stirred and a carefully judged amount of a starter culture of yesterday’s whey is added by the artisan cheese maker. Together with rennet this will begin the magical transformation of milk into one of the world’s most wonderful foodstuffs, one that’s over 1000 years old.

The heat is increased and the mix is stirred by hand with a giant whisk called a Spino (a thorn bush in Italian) to separate the rapidly forming curds from the whey, some dairies use machines to do the stirring but that won’t do for these makers. ‘You just can’t ‘feel’ the progress,’ says Igino.

That’s the whey to do it

Their master cheese maker walks along the rows of vats checking temperatures constantly and dipping in her hand to see how the now granular mix is setting. Only on her exact say so does the heating and stirring stop and the mix get left to form up.

Parmesan is a healthy cheese. Nothing is added, nothing is taken away and because of the way it’s made there is so little lactose that it is officially suitable for the lactose intolerant. It’s the long ageing process that allows the natural fermenting processes to give the cheese its flavour and textures and it’s particularly good for children and the elderly being rich in calcium and easily digestible. It also has one of the lowest cholesterol levels of any cheese.

Imagine the size of the ice cream!

Making quality Parmigiano-Reggiano needs muscle as well as passion, and after an hour two men, armed with an oversized ice cream tub wooden spoon, dip into the liquid and straining hard bring the giant ball of formed curd to the surface. It looks like the world’s biggest mozzarella, the size of a beach ball and glistening pure white.

Mr Blobby

This big soft baby is gently flipped into a sheet of muslin and suspended above the cauldron to drain. After a short while it’s cut into two and left for a further 15 minutes. Some of the whey will go to feed pigs for Parma’s other famous export, Parma Ham, but that’s another story.

Each ball is eased into a mould, a ‘fascera’, threatening to catastrophically fracture unless carefully handled. The ball will rest under pressure from a wooden lid, before receiving its ‘branding’ from a plastic wrap-around collar, which impresses an inverted braille version of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ into what will be the hard rind, along with codes to indicate date and provenance

Time for a bath

They go then to a salt bath to wallow in contemplative silence for six weeks before their final resting place in a ‘Cascina’. Here racked up on serried ranks of wooden shelves in constant controlled humidity, they will be cosseted, turned and brushed regularly for a minimum of twelve months. Igino shows me how he expertly checks each cheese at this time, tapping his little hammer on the rind and from the sound divining any problems inside.

Don’t mess with this man’s cheese

Cheeses that fail his test will be ignominiously shaved of their rind, so removing their badge of quality, and as simple Mezzano be used for products such as supermarket grated cheese. The survivors will go on to be 12 month, 24 month red seal Parmigiano-Reggiano and 36 month gold seal Stravecchio cheeses.

‘Parmigiano Reggiano is produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and parts of Modena and Bologna’ explains Igino back in the tasting room. ‘The Consortia del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano was formed in 1901 and today the EU through its Discover The Origin campaign helps us protect the good name of proper parmesan and its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin )’.

‘The colour of the rind tells you the cheese’s age,’ he says peering along the side of a split Parmesan wheel, ‘the deeper the orange the more mature it is. The paste too varies in yellow with age, the younger the lighter. The grain also tells you the age and at 24 months crystals of what people often mistake for salt, but which are in fact amino acids, appear.’

How to break a cheese

Young cheeses smell milky with hints of grass, while at 24 months you can detect butter, pineapple and citrus fruits, nuts and meat stock, the ‘umami’. At 30 months or older that nuttiness is more pronounced and spice comes through. The cheese has now become the big daddy of cheeses, packed with flavour.

Guess what’s in these.

‘Eat it in chunks with fresh or dried fruit,’ recommends Igino, ‘or add to salads with balsamic vinegar. Make anolini with it and cook them in brodo, try it with nuts and of course cook with it – an aubergine alla parmagiana for example. And don’t forget to melt the rind into a minestrone. There are so many ways to enjoy it.’

Packed to perfection

He generously gives me a large hunk of the 36 month aged Parmesan to take away, seriously threatening my baggage weight allowance. No matter, I’ll pay the excess if needed. This big cheese is definitely worth every penny.

Always look for the certification marks to make sure you’re buying the real deal. A red seal ‘Stagionatura Parmigiano-Reggiano means 18 months ageing, silver means 22 months and gold is over 30 months. A big piece will keep in the fridge for months vac-packed and for weeks well-wrapped once opened.
I travelled to Parma as a guest of Discover the Origin. Thanks go to Igino Morini of the Consorziodel Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano and to Giovanna for her translation services
There is a wealth of Parmesan recipes on the DTO website including:
ParmigianoReggiano and Cannellini Bean Fritters
Caramelised Onion & ParmigianoReggiano Cheese Tart
ParmigianoReggiano Ice Cream and Fig and Parma Ham Tatin

Salt Sugar Smoke: The Definitive Guide to Conserving, from Jams and Jellies to Smoking and Curing- Diana Henry

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Diana Henry is, for my money, the best of our newspaper food writers. Her style is clean and simple, highly readable and to the point. Her book on leftovers Food From Plenty  is one of the most stained in our house, indicating how often it gets used. This book again takes a fascinating subject and runs with it.

Preserving food is one of mankind’s oldest struggles. No matter how good the summer, how healthy the animals, winter was always a time when we lived on what we had stored. In our cupboards and around our muscles. This is why I don’t fear winter, I am well insulated. Back in the day we salted, we smoked, we made jams and we didn’t rely on the often fickle power of electricity. Freezer melt down anyone?

Preserving saves seasonal vegetables in glut to be enjoyed as themselves later, but it also magically transforms things into something else. Relishes, chutneys and mustards for example. And who doesn’t like a home pickled onion? The apple-crispness is a sensatiion shop bought ones never seem to have, perhaps because they use the shortcut of brine and not packed salt, as my father always used to insist on. Read more…

Classic Vegetarian Cookery: Arto der Haroutanian

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Bean there, done that

Like many people my flirtation with vegetarianism ended with the waft of a bacon roll. Working in advertising I was frequently on film sets at ‘sparrow fart’, as times before dawn were called, and when you’re hungry, cold and hungover a bacon butty is irresistible.

There was also the dawning realisation that the girlfriend, who was the real veggie, was frying everything in order to make it tasty and I was ballooning in weight. This was the 1980s you understand, we knew more about Rick Astley than we did about eating a wholesome diet.

It was clear though even then that the tastiest vegetarian meals came from the East or Middle East. Those cultures had long traditions of eating vegetables as something more than a boring side dish and could do things to them that made them stars in their own right.

Classic Vegetarian Cookery has been unavailable for almost 20 years, the author Arto der Haroutanian can now be seen to have been ahead of his time. An Armenian by birth he was brought up from the age of 12 in the North West of England and was a painter of international distinction, as well as the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants where Armenian cookery featured. Read more…