Wassailing Again

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Pete Symonds as The Butler

Forest of Dean legend Pete Symonds has finally hung up his wassailing top hat and waistcoat and handed the baton to his successor. For many years Pete has performed the role of Butler at wassailing’s all over the Forest of Dean and beyond. From Twelfth Night onwards his “master of ceremonies” confident baritone voice could be heard ringing around the counties orchards and apple barns. Wishing everyone “Wassail!!” and educating as many of us as possible in the process. But all great things change and Pete is moving on. There couldn’t have been a better bookend to our recent Wassailing piece at Apple County Cider’s Monmouthshire orchards.

In the foulest of weathers well and truly off the Beaufort scale, Pete’s bonhomie was sorely needed for the hardy bunch who had braved the winds and the stair-rod rain of storm Imogen. The resultant flooding which had turned the valley road into a lake and the inclined road to Ragmans Lane Farm into a mountain stream that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iceland! But brave it the bunch did to see Pete on his Butler’s best form for his last ever wassailing.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Ragmans Lane Farm is a 60 acre site around a cluster of farmhouse and outbuildings. It is a beacon of permaculture farming training as well as offering a myriad of complimentary agricultural courses. Matt Dunwell, who has owned and run the farm since 1990 had (in the circumstances) set aside the Mushroom Shed for an indoor ceremony – much to everyone’s relief.  Once inside the Mushroom Shed, all the visitors began to overheat under the many layers they had assumed necessary and quickly started shedding outer layers of fleece and down jackets before hanging them on the rack by the door. From the other side of the room the sweet smell of mulled Ragmans apple juice wafted from stove top pots and there was a jug of Kingstone Black cider on hand to fuel the crowd and prime Ragmans own wassailing bowl. In the centre of the shed was an apple tree in a pot. The very healthy looking sapling was very nicely decorated by Matt’s team, who had also provided straw bale seating around the edge of the room, but it was nevertheless an anti-climax.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,
Ragmans apples

Don’t misunderstand; the crowd were in good spirits. Pete was imparting about 0.01% of his local knowledge to a couple sipping on Kingstone Black transfixed by his enthusiasm and .com-like access to anything anyone ever wanted to know about wassailing, apples, cider, orchards……Really, someone should record Pete Symonds!

The folk music track of The Life of Riley band of Morris and Penny (the latter being, Pete’s accomplished and now blooded successor) set the scene against the chatting crowd, waiting for proceedings to begin. Impatient for action, the kids had already started and were careering around the cider apple tree centrepiece in a dizzying blur. Matt suggested that we all brave the weather for the traditional orchard procession. Cue furtive glances out of the windows and door and he didn’t, let’s say, have the most enthusiastic take up. But with overwhelming enthusiasm, and his offer of wellingtons to anyone without, the crowd had nowhere to go but the orchard.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Just what it all needed really. Although now wet and windswept the assembled “good healthers” exhaled their collective sighs relief at being out of the storm and the rest of the ceremony continued in the welcome warm and dry.  Good music, lots of singing, party poppers (to represent the traditional shotgun noise), adorning the tree with toast, all handed out by the wassailing “fair maiden” and the blessing for the health and wealth of the orchard for the coming year and the ceremony was bought to a close so that the Ceilidh could begin.

Bringing the wassailing year to a close, and in a final personal and heartfelt thanks, Matt paid tribute to Pete Symonds’ contribution to the Ragmans harvest and ethos in the many wassails conducted at the farm. There were attempts to get him to commit to one last year, but to me he did not look like he was going to budge on retirement.

And the anti-climactic sapling – well that will takes its place in the orchard planted in Pete’s honour as a thank you.

Pete Symonds, The Butler, David Broadbent Photography, apple, cider, wassail,

Wassail!!

wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,

 

Lots of fun being invited to the very first Apple County Cider wassail ceremony at the cider orchards at Newcastle in Monmouthshire at the weekend. For this inaugural event, there was a modest but very enthusiastic crowd too on a cold, but stunningly beautiful, Monmouthshire day. Just a short walk from the roadside car parking and we were into the orchard proper. Stark and bare at this time of year the orchard was mid-winter prune but the mistletoe was on full power with bright white gelatinous berries glinting in the afternoon sun.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Penny Plowden. The Butler. Wassail with Apple County Cider

Wassailing is a one of those fabulous pagan ceremonies that date back thousands of years. The name Wassail is thought to originate either from the old Norse Scandinavian language “Ves heil” or the old English “Was hal” in either case a hearty toast to good health. Mix in a little bit of medieval German drinking tradition and, well anyway you get the picture…Fabulous English pagan tradition that Christianity (like so many of our other traditional ceremonies) put up with, adopted and adapted.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Dogs can Wassail too.

Wassailing is a ceremony to wake up the trees from their long winter snooze and to give them life and vigour just as spring is about to spring (very early as it happens this year). Actually, the history of it is far more complicated than that it would seem  with any number of geographical variations. Wassail, is more accurately, the name for hot mulled cider drink which accompanies the festivities and Ben & Steph Culpin had a large pot of their cider on the burner with their secret mulling recipe on a gentle simmer. The smell of the mulled cider on the breeze was just fantastic.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

No pagan tradition seems complete without a tipple or indeed music, singing and generally being pretty hopeful that, you, having a good time and paying respect to nature will pay off with a bumper harvest. You start to see the attraction of paganism….? On accordion the magnificently bearded Morris Wintle played some lovely traditional music and with him (as Life of Riley folk band partner), Penny Plowden, in her own very first act of, master of ceremony of the wassail, led the singing and read the traditional wassail texts. Dressed in her black school teachers gown and blazer with top hat decorated with ribbon and of course, the traditional black face (no-one seems sure why, but probably just a notional “disguise”).

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

And so, what could be nicer than a couple of hours outdoors in a fabulous orchard, drinking mulled cider, respecting tradition and having some exercise with a processional walk around the orchard behind the band. We wished everyone “good health” and drank a tipple to, hopefully, a great harvest and another great year for this young but fast becoming famous Welsh craft cider maker.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Wassail with Apple County Cider

The band and the crowd moved on to The Bell at Skenfrith where to the musical score provided by the Life of Reilly in Ceilidh music and dancing mode the pagan well-wishers dined on confit belly pork, mash and cider jus or roasted sweet potato, apple, chestnut and blue cheese pie followed by apple crumble or apple tarte tatin.

 wassail, life of reilly, band, folk, folklore, orchard, apple, cider,
Cider maker Ben Culpin. Wassail with Apple County Cider

An Inn Reborn

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
The Crown at Whitchurch

 

We’ve been very busy conducting some investigative journalism in the Dean Wye lately. We’ve been looking at pubs! We’ve got some great articles with a very different slant lined up for you this year including our quest for our favourite and very best pub!

All in this very good cause, we called in for a chat with the new owners of the Crown at Whitchurch. You’ll have noticed if you have passed by recently that they have a jazzy new sign in the car park and a sparkling paint job to the exterior. This though is no, superficial facelift. There is serious change afoot in The Crown at Whitchurch and this is just the start of bringing a traditional coaching inn back to its former glory.

Coaching Inns have been around ever since people starting moving around. A place to stage a long journey and relax, get something to eat and drink, recharge those batteries, chat to fellow travellers and smell the sweet malt and hops from the on-site brewery in the sheds out back. Coaching inns existed because of the road and when journeys were long and arduous, the road needed the coaching inn. So useful was the concept that small communities started to build up around them. No Roman way station on the least travelled backwater road would be without one!

When we started to move the roads because we needed bigger high capacity highways two things happened; the vital importance and the necessity of the coaching inn was retained and service stations where born, which we all know serve only the best quality food with great service and at a very reasonable price……Mmmmm; The second was that all those lovely old traditional wayside inns were left stranded, beached like ocean going vessels when the tide had gone out, along way, and for good. Those with a village live on, but those without – who knows how many we’ve lost.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Comfy and inviting bar. The Crown at Whitchurch

Walk into The Crown at Whitchurch and you get an instant feeling of homeliness. In fact before you get in, that feeling starts. Its position, which would have dominated the old village cross roads, looks imposing and no less so today, even with the A40 traffic whizzing by. Outside under the veranda red and black chequer laid tiles hint at a Victorian innovation, the steel table and chairs cast interesting shadows in the low winter sun and the main door has that solid weight of history hanging off the hinges. Once inside the interior is surprisingly open plan, yet still very intimate, the bright and well stocked bar to the right isn’t the thing which catches your eye first, it’s the sexy Swedish log burner glowing attractively in the heath. Around it there is a shabby chic mismatch of furniture, comfortable and upholstered on a pleasing theme. A draughts board is set out ready for play on a small table below a small window and it’s invitingly snug cushion. The large window fills the bar with light and the bar itself glitters with Wye Valley Brewery beers and a chic stage-lit spirits collection – we can hear the cocktail shaker now!

Wye Valley Brewery ales. The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Wye Valley Brewery ales. The Crown at Whitchurch

To the left, the very simple and very pleasant restaurant again with an eclectic collection of tables, chairs and tableware, awaits seated diners, although this is set for refurbishment before Easter.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Very inviting. The Crown at Whitchurch

And so just how do you breathe life back into a coaching house? Step one; have a lot of passion about it. Step two; have a vision. Three: get a good team behind you who share your passion. Nicola and Tom do not lack passion for the place! And so has the team. They already know most of them well because most of them are family, no we actually mean family. Apart from Nicola and Tom, there is Samara (daughter) as front of house manager and so it goes on, Tom’s brother and niece, Nicola’s son and other daughter and a niece on patisserie! We not even sure that’s all of them!

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
The Crown at Whitchurch

Back to what’s happening for 2016. As we’ve said the bar sparkles with the glittering hand pumps of Wye Valley Brewery Butty Bach and Dorothy Goodbody as well as locally made ciders and all the components of a great cocktail bar on the back. The main craft ales are feature beers and so change regularly – always worth a re-visit then. At the moment food is great pub food but Nicola tells us that Owain Jones, their 25 year old Welsh but South African classically trained chef is chaffing at the bit to do more. It show’s in the specials, Owain is putting his classical training and previous experience (Llangoed Hall restaurant) for inventiveness to good use. He’s already established a great Sunday Roast – not to be missed – and in the week we visited the bar special was confit duck! For the upcoming Six Nations Rugby, (which The Crown will be showing) there is a bar menu in tune with the playing nations. Great homemade Fish and Chips and Aberdeen Angus burgers for the England Scotland match for example. They are also just starting their Phileas Fogg inspired world tour too. “Around the World in Eight Weeks” kicked off with Indian and Mexican so check out their web site for what’s next before it’s too late and you’ve missed the balloon.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Old Ross Road. The Crown at Whitchurch

With a full refurbishment of the already pretty restaurant planned to open at Easter, no doubt Owain will allowed to go for it – we definitely look forward to seeing what he comes up with and we’ll be bringing you a full report on the menu tests.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Huff!

All in all we like what’s happening at The Crown at Whitchurch. So do the customers and the bar and restaurant is beginning to establish it’s own steady and loyal band of locals and visitors. Nicola and Tom have clearly thought out what they want to do and how they want the place to look which is reflected in the décor. The plan for their 21st century coaching inn (the bar is as big as the restaurant) is to develop it as a great pub but also a great place to eat.

A40, The Crown at Whitchurch, David Broadbent Photography
Front terrace. The Crown at Whitchurch

When you walk in to The Crown at Whitchurch It has a very welcoming colour scheme and it’s also very light and airy. But somehow it doesn’t feel overly trendy, it’s not trying too hard, it feels…….well, nice….., comfortable, familiar……., like home, like a place you would want to sit, have a drink, something to eat and wait for the next stage coach instead.

 

What about these beauties!

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Not just craft in the beer as these elegant new Forest Oak pump handles newly installed in the Speech House Hotel show. All from a chance meeting between Paul Williamson at Hillside Brewery and the Forest of Dean Wood Turning Group no doubt over some sort of sampling opportunity. And so the challenge was laid down to the group members to get creative with the lathe and bingo the winning entry was installed on the famous forest hotel bar. It wasn’t easy though as the members had inspired and the competition was tough.

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We chatted to Paul Hannaby at the wood turning club who told us; The club meets at Weston-Under-Penyard village hall on the third Wednesday of the month. We have twenty five members and the club is thriving with a full and active programme. The beer pump handles came about from a chance meeting with Paul at the Dean Heritage Centre. The brewery thought it would be a good idea if the woodturning club could make some beer pump handles. Paul thought that wood was likely to produce a handle more in keeping with their artisan beers. A subsequent brewery visit and tour was organised to confirm dimensions (of course – Ed) and the challenge was made even more interesting by the brewery prizes of local ales for the best handles. A total of eleven handles were entered in the competition. The brewery team loved them all. They eventually selected their favourites and a prize of a case of 12 bottles of beer was awarded for each of these handles Every other handle won 6 bottles. First prize was taken by Jeff Belcher who accepted the case of beer graciously.

Both businesses, Hillside and The Speech House, are both committed to sourcing locally wherever that is possible and so the first fine pair of handles are a real pleasure for both Peter Hands and Paul. In fact, Paul was so impressed these handles will used to pull beer from any of the pubs who stock Hillside beer. A real case of a craft handle to pour a craft ale – now, how many local artisan glass blowers do we know?………..

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All images supplied by Hillside Brewery

 

 

 

Turkey

 

Well it’s that time of year again and all thoughts are slowly turning toward the festivities (and a much needed break for some). It’s time to plan your parties and your menus and over indulge, just for a while, until you throw yourself headlong into your New Year resolutions for half a day or so. That’s right, let’s face it those few extra pounds from the Christmas feast are never going to go away!

Some of our favourite suppliers have great offers for the holiday period. Particularly at this time of year when we treat ourselves and spoil ourselves a little there’s no better time to BUY LOCAL and BUY QUALITY. Even those of us on a tight budget are thinking of a blow out so why not spend some (or all of that) money locally. It’ll help the local economy, it’ll help our great local producers and most of all the products and service is GREAT.

Let’s start with that great “British” tradition of turkey. There are lots of great alternatives but this is the time of year when we all go mad for the big bird! Home for Christmas is not something that is guaranteed. But when I’m home there is nothing I like more than my own traditional ritual. I’m a sucker for a turkey lunch at Christmas. I love preparing it, cooking it, and eating it….for days. I love the cold cuts for Boxing Day brunch, love the thinly sliced breast meat for turkey sandwiches, love the turkey curry and the finale Christmas lunch soup!!

The prelude is calling in at Taurus Crafts Christmas Market (first two weekends in December) to choose a tree, which always gets me in the mood. Although there is always lots of lovely food and drink to enjoy, it’s normally choosing the tree and the singers Taurus find that really kick-starts those Christmassy feelings.

The actual ritual starts mid-morning on Christmas Eve with a visit to Brian Baker at Close Turf Farm (on the back road from St Briavels to Lydney 01594 530277 to order).  Here I pick up the big bird ready for the following day. Brian raises his turkeys at the farm from hatchlings until they are ready for market and like all of the produce from Close Turf – absolutely top quality.

I love the feeling of pulling into the farmyard and chatting to the whole Baker family who by Christmas Eve have already been working like mad! But they are still cheerful and ready for that one last push. All their birds are plump and have that desperately fresh aroma.  Fresh and complete with their pluck, the big bird comes home to begin preparations.

Turkey chicks on the farm
Turkey chicks on the farm

Nothing fancy on the big day either, just traditionally and liberally covered with butter and good streaky bacon, with two halves of orange and some bay leaves inside and sitting on a bed of stock vegetables. Traditional veg too of course, roasted potatoes, carrots and parsnip and of course the famous Brussel sprout. I love them and cook them the way Yvette Farrell at Harts Barn Cookery School suggests (leave out the lardons if you need to). Then it’s in the oven during Bucks Fizz at the stables Christmas morning get together before home for lunch!!

Our family table is often a mix of poultry lovers, poultry hater’s and vegetarians. Which sounds complicated – but it’s not. All the veg is prepped and cooked to suit everyone (with the exception of 2-way Brussel sprouts) and the main components are cooked individually and to order. Simples!

 

 

Beurre blanc recipe

 

Ross on Wye really is a lovely town to wander around isn’t it? Historic buildings, the River Wye and river life as well as a very traditional and thriving High Street. What better then after a nice Herefordshire market town stroll, than a nice spot of lunch!

Wilton Court Hotel, Ross on Wye.
Wilton House Hotel, Ross on Wye.

We choose the Wilton Court Hotel overlooking the Wye, where Helen & Richard run a very popular and extremely nice traditional hotel and restaurant. Starters looked great very appetising. A Gin cured salmon Gravlax on pickled beetroot and an Italian meat plate (see The DeanWye reminds me of Tuscany). We really enjoyed the simple classic dish from the lunch time menu of fried Sea bass on greens with boiled potatoes and a beurre blanc sauce. These classic dishes, with fresh ingredients and simplicity at their heart, to let the subtle flavours of each element come through, always work so well if, as we always say, they are done properly!

Wilton Court Hotel, Ross on Wye.
Wilton Court Hotel, Ross on Wye.

Buerre Blanc works perfectly with white fish, scallops, other shellfish and vegetable dishes

Finely chop 2 shallots, combine with 150ml white wine and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in a hot pan and reduce until it’s down to a couple of tablespoons in volume. Add a tablespoon of cream and when it bubbles reduce the heat to low. Cube 250g of butter and add a couple of cubes whilst on the heat and whisk. Turn the heat off and whisk in the rest a cube at a time. Season to taste and serve.

Jamie, the Essex boy, came up with a great method to save your whisking arm. Warm a thermos flask with hot water, empty the water and throw in the shallot reduction (sieve if you want – we don’t) into the hot flask, throw in the butter and put the top on. Shake to emulsify and season. You can keep the sauce warm in the flask while you get on with the other elements of the dish and little shake just before serving. We are thinking picnic BBQ fish now……

 

Exclusive – New Single Variety

Not everything that tastes fantastic looks fabulous.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a great piece, intended to compliment another of his insightful food investigation programmes, for the BBC recently. It was unequivocally about food waste. The waste caused domestically was examined but one of the other main themes was about perfectly good vegetables that go straight from farm to skip! Why? They aren’t pretty enough for the supermarkets root vegetable fashion parade and ever present size and shape guidelines. Interestingly echoing the same point we made out in why the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley is a bit like Tuscany piece.

We spent a great morning, albeit an early start on a misty October dawn, in Monmouthshire with Apple County Cider inspecting and photographing the individual apples for their single variety Dabinett and Vilberie award winning ciders – and they have the Golden Fork Great Taste trophy to prove it!

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

If you have ever been to a craft cider producers you will know that any preconceived romantic notions of wooden barrels, rickety small outbuildings and ancient machinery are , well just romantic. More likely is a somewhat more workaday air – which incidentally, we here at WyeDean Deli Confidential are hopelessly romantic about anyway. The raw materials don’t get much better in the fashion stakes either. Cider making varieties, taste sharp and sometimes very dry (Dabinett has a dessert apple flavour at first with a very dry note on the back of the palate) and they look anything but appealing. They are small, perfectly formed – but small, and the cider maker doesn’t care much for how they look – scabby, with chunks missing is just fine. Piled up in the cider yard they look for all the world like a Waitrose sound stage back lot of the extras that didn’t quite get the Director’s nod. We watched them getting their first wash of the process from the elevated water contents of a large mechanical digger bucket from about ten feet high. It made them glisten but they still looked about as far away from a dessert apple as you can get.

But the skilled cider maker, as Ben Culpin has already proved himself (against stiff national competition) to be, can see the whole Act and Play and not just Scene 1. Ben is interested in the backstory and the bitter-sweet sub-plots, essential if you are intending to make a block-buster with appeal and longevity rather than a B movie. It’s the complex taste and personality, not the look, that is in demand. It’s a bit like, instead of casting Hale Berry in the female lead you choose ______________, sorry we bottled offending anyone – so insert your own suggestions in the space provided!

Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider
Ben Culpin. Apple County Cider

Tell you what Ben, don’t go for the easy option of using any apples you can get and then blending. Why not try and make stunning single variety ciders and a perry in a traditional method and then trying wowing the public and cider glitterati and winning national awards for your work? Oh, you did that already! Anyway, there is the crux of it. It’s all about the taste. In Ben’s and Steph Culpins’ case, the quality of the taste of the craft product they are happy to call Apple County Cider.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Apple varieties. Apple County Cider

It is sometimes frustrating (identifying cider apples can be a very nuanced hobby!) but always very rewarding to see the varieties in the growers orchard. The difficulty of identification can be easily demonstrated by “Googling” images for any apple variety and trying to work which, of the half dozen different results, is the right one! WyeDean Deli Confidential always brings you the news and back story to makers, growers and suppliers. Although we can’t say too much, we think that there may be news in the not too distant future of a possible new variety from the Apple County Cider yard……Exclusive alert!! You didn’t hear it from us but we think that a single variety Yarlington Mill cider will soon be added to the Apple County stable. If you do, and we recommend you do, visit their cider shop you’ll find all the same great taste in farmyard chic but always remember it’s really about the taste. Stock up for the holidays.

Apple varieties. Apple County Cider
Steph Culpin. Apple County Cider

 

Why the DeanWye reminds me of Tuscany..

As well as being editor, chief photographer and head washer-upper at WyeDean Deli Confidential I also, amongst other things, shoot travel pictures for an agency with offices around the world. Of course a significant part of capturing the spirit of any place is the local quality food and drink and the people that go with that. Markets particularly, so long neglected in England, seem to attract me like a moth to a bedroom light. So, having spent most of September in three regions (equivalent of UK counties) of Italy, I am feeling particularly spoilt! I know, it’s tough isn’t it – please don’t, sympathy isn’t good for my self-esteem…..

Call it the vino rosso, the sunshine or the total immersion in the language of love, but a very funny feeling struck me during that trip on more than one occasion – How similar to the countryside of Tuscany, Italy is the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley. OK, I know that the similarities do have some limitations but before you write me off as a hopeless romantic or a raging drunkard, let me try and convince you.

The hills around Bagni di Lucca and Seravezza are heavily wooded with broad leaved trees, most of which, Beech, Oak, Ash, Chestnut,  would be easily recognisable to any DeanWye inhabitant, Although steeper that anything here, the mountains are home to and have a long history in, quarrying – marble in their case. The people are either typically conservative country people of those who have moved into the area because they too want to become “typical country people”. There is a real sense of community and local pride in the small towns and tiny villages. The countryside around the villages is teeming with natures larder. Then there’s the weather….sorry, it’s all too easy to get carried away with these comparisons. Apart from the last example, the parallel to the DeanWye is, in my estimation, very difficult to deny.

Italy 2015
Italy 2015

But, somehow they are very different. Firstly, September is the busiest time of year in the Italian wild mushroom season. Wild mushrooms are very important to Italians. No not the farmed ones; the wild ones. Chefs and restaurant owners all have their own mushroom men – fungaioli. Men who venture into the woods, on dark damp dusks and dawns to secret spots and locations whispered to them by their fathers father. They tend to be students of the natural world and lifelong woodsmen. Mushroom season is a prelude to Chestnut season which gets equal billing with the Italian countryside residents and, well, I think you get the picture. Much, much more on fungi later. Here, I’m not to sure many normal people even think about seasonal wild foods with any passion at all – why is that?

Italy 2015
Ceps

This natural food of the forest, like all other wild foods, is noble food in the Italian psyche. It’s tied up in the peasant and wartime partisan lifestyle ethos of eking a living from the land in the absence of anything else. But that ethos isn’t something that is obvious or even expressed. It is the taste and the earthy, nutty smell of the product which confers the nobility. On one lazy Sunday lunch sitting outside in the shade, I ordered Tagliatelle al Tartufo (black truffles) and I could smell my lunch as soon as it passed the kitchen door – heaven!  It’s the sense of occasion that stems from the seasonality, passing of the seasons and the transition of one part of the year to another. It’s in the occasion that everyone can be involved in and enjoy. It’s in the added luxuriousness it brings to the already very simple, tasty and fabulous Italian food. And of course, this being Italy – it’s time for a festival on the subject where locals and visitors alike have the day off, drink a little wine and and eat very well indeed!

Bread served in a paper bag
Bread served in a paper bag

Forget the UK as a whole. Ask yourself why don’t we in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley prize this wild local crop as highly? Why don’t we value the fabulous venison, boar and game? Why don’t we all go mad for the hedgerow berry bonanza? And why don’t we go wild foraging for wild salads and herbs? All of it is right there! It’s what makes our area so special and yet we lack the passion for it. Perhaps it’s because we have lost connection with the land itself, the growing of and the variety of food, unaffected by chemicals, drugs and fertilizers. Then ask yourself this; if we have in fact lost that wondrous adventure of first finding our food, or some part of a meal, before we eat it in favour of what we like to call convenience – is that convenient trade-off to our quality of life really worth it?

We stayed in Bagni di Lucca as a guest of Tuscan Rooms a remarkably beautiful four storey town house and former soda syphon factory in a  previous life. The fully restored accommodation, complete with a real lift (extremely rare in Italian villages), vertiginous garden terrace and original four flights of marble staircase is ideally situated to explore the region. Right beside the river and in the heart of the lower town and distance walking to a great bar, a pasticceria and several restaurants, guests can rent a room, a floor or the whole shebang. Paul and Colette, the owners, will even pick you up from the airport by arrangement. If you would like to see some of the images from that trip visit my Travel gallery on Facebook

Italy 2015
Italy 2015

 

More mushroom-iness

If you regularly slip on obvious wet patches in the office lobby, don’t secure your ladders properly, don’t wear your seat belt or are constantly scolding your hands under the tap marked hot – this warning health is for YOU!

Some mushrooms are edible, delicious and good for you. Some are not. Some, no one knows if they are edible or not. Some need specific cooking preparation before eating and some can only be eaten in small quantities or the toxins build up in your body. IF, you have no idea which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF the jury is still out on which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF, you nevertheless go ahead and eat it anyway – please leave some of the raw ingredient in a convenient and obvious place for the para-medics to find or, as one eccentric mycologist did, write the scientific name in full on your hand in biro in the last remaining seconds before becoming comatose.

Fungaioli, skilled Italian mushroom hunters, gather mushrooms because they happen to know all about the habitat, natural and social history of a species from a collective experience of people like themselves. They tend not to be transient fungi hunters in it for the money between recorded episodes of “The Only Way is Essex”.

Italy 2015
Wild mushrooms Italy 2015

Fungaioli are also very savvy Fungus Sales Executives. They often deliver their treasure trove of truffley goodness in an attractive open topped wooden fruit box when the restaurant is open and full of customers just to ramp up the anticipation of the food obsessed Italians. Restaurant owners love this as it’s more likely that customers will return to THEIR restaurant for their autumnal fungus fix having seen the overflowing mushroom box come through the front door! Porcino (piglets in Italian) are the favourites amongst Italian chefs and restaurant customers alike. We know them by the common name of Cep but in fact, they are from a group more properly referred to as Boletus. With around 36 different Boletus in the British fungus list alone, most of which are edible, you start to see the sheer variety available and we haven’t even started on the Ink caps or the newly emerging Parasols!

Fungi
Chicken of the Woods Sulphur Polypore

In the current Tesco magazine a passionate and no doubt very nice Managing Director of somewhere or other, reports delivering 5 tons of three varieties (one of them native to Asia) to Tesco of mushrooms a week – three varieties! In the Dean Wye we have another giant flavour of the wild mushroom world – Chanterelle – a soft egg yellow funnel shaped mushroom with an exquisite taste. In spring Morels with their honeycomb heads, grow under our apple tree! Another spring fruiting mushroom is Chicken of the Woods, delicious when young and fresh. The Germans and the Dutch love them! Parasols, mentioned earlier, are delicious and gloriously paper-white when cut, if picked very early. The text books will tell you that, although not poisonous, they can be very bitter once opened.

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Morel

With a gay spirit of adventure I decided to test that assertion of bitterness and sliced one of the open caps (they are so large – small kids use them as parasols hence the name) before frying them in a little butter, I added parsley and a little black pepper just before serving and tried them. They looked fabulous but the text books are accurate and I pulled a muscle in my contorting face trying to get them out of my mouth as soon as possible.

Even if you can identify a specimen, the common names don’t always instil confidence. Take for example, Trombette dei Morti (Trumpets of the dead). This mushroom apes the shape of a black trumpet but its Halloweenesque name actually arose because it grows around the 2nd November, All Souls’ Day. It’s other common name of Truffles of the Poor hints at its widespread use once dried and powdered as a food additive because of its intense aroma.

If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms we can recommend the book Mushrooms by Roger Phillips. It has very helpful with, sometimes life-sized, images of each mushroom together with a useful information panel and notes on edibility.

 

 

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel

Hari and Colin Fell at the Tudor Farmhouse have been a little bit busy lately. As well as investing heavily as proprietors in all aspects of their fine hotel and restaurant dream to get it to their own high standards, they also work very hard running the very beautiful and very successful 20 bedroom Clearwell hotel (which – by the way – is ideally situated to explore the best of the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley). Amazing then that they have the energy for regular physical exercise lifting all that silverware at recent awards – Taste of the West Champions “Best South West Restaurant 2015” and Hotel of the Year 2015 from Sawday’s. Impressive!

Hari Fell owner at the Tudor Farmhouse hotel
Hari Fell owner at the Tudor Farmhouse hotel

We caught up with Hari over a very nice midweek lunch. Hari is a very efficient and hard-working co-owner and keeps the place ticking like a clock, but she is also very friendly, charming and attentive and her staff looked after our table of two very well. Lunch – was a real winner and very tasty too.

I saw the smoked Haddock, leek and oyster soup in the list of three starters and to be honest I had already decided on the first course before I read the other two. A very similar thing happened across the table and so – “that’ll be two soups please”. For the second course we ordered one Stone bass, also known as Wreckfish in the UK, with attendant vegetables and one roasted cauliflower steak with pickled shallots and mash.

Smoked Haddock, in my opinion, always has the potential to make for a fabulous soup, if you can get the accompanying balancing ingredients spot on. Think of Cullen Skink a Scottish speciality of smoked Haddock, cream and potatoes a tour de force when done properly (Yorkshireman Brian Turner makes the finest I’ve ever tasted) but if it’s just off perfect, well, you have got trouble.

Head chef Rob Cox has the Tudor Farmhouse haddock, leek and oyster just right. A few nice pieces of haddock to give that great smoky flavour and aroma, with a few diced potatoes and some very fine julienne of fried leek with a golden yellow egg yolk in the bottom of the plate. The soup is well seasoned and served from a small jug at the table. As it pours the creamy light green soup fills the bowl to create an island paradise of the rest of the ingredients. Break the yolk and mix a little in each spoonful to complete the rich creamy and luxurious taste of the whole dish. Very nice indeed.

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel
Tudor Farmhouse Hotel

Stone bass looks like the big brother of the more familiar sea bass. The local name of Wreckfish comes from it’s chosen habitat in deep water shipwreck sites and it’s most often caught by trawlermen in UK waters as it’s generally too deep for sea anglers. The meat is white and firm and because the species is a little larger, makes for a substantial fillet with a meatier texture than its more familiar relative.  Tudor Farmhouse serve it perched on lovely dark green “black” cabbage which makes a wonderful contrast with cumin scented carrots and carrot and swede puree. Lovely crispy skin side up, it looked fab on the plate. How did it taste – well nothing went back!

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel
Stone bass

Vegetarian food can so often be side lined in a carnivore’s mind-set and overlooked on a menu. This in my estimation is a great mistake. Although a lifelong carnivore, I love main course vegetable dishes (that happen to be suitable for vegetarian customers in my own mind-set) when they are done well with the same attention to detail you expect from the rest of the menu. Cuisines from around the world don’t seem to have such a problem with this. Think of the great Chinese and Asian vegetable dishes and things like the Vegetable Thali, a medley of several different vegetable dishes, served in good Indian restaurants.

The butter roasted cauliflower steak was great! A thick slice of cauliflower cut from the heart of the head and down through the main stalk to hold it all together before being oven roasted with butter was just perfect. The stem was tender with just the right amount of bite and the florets were soft and delicious. The roasted butter gave a delicate nutty flavour and there was a touch of piquancy from the topping of pickled shallot. A spoonful of very creamy mash and I think, Rob Cox, you can call that a great success. I would certainly order that again!

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel
Tudor Farmhouse Hotel

Chosen dessert was a very attractive vanilla mouse with apple, rosemary and sweet rosemary oil with nasturtium leaves and a little granola for crunchy texture – again very, very tasty and it looked fab on the plate.

So well done Tudor Farmhouse our superb lunch was served in very homely surroundings in the smartly furnished warm honey stone and original timber front dining room you would expect from a good class country hotel. The cooking was inventive and skilful with great flavours in exactly the right balance. The two course lunch was £22 and my lunch partner couldn’t resist the dessert for just £3 extra!

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel
Tudor Farmhouse Hotel

Honours well and truly deserved Hari & Colin.

Visit the Tudor Farmhouse Hotel website to read Colin and Hari’s blog and sign up for the newsletter to get all the latest news, events and offers.

+44 (0)1594 833046 email – info@tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk

www.tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk

Food Pairing Update

As an update to our blog of 18th August about the, then upcoming, Food and Beer Pairing event hosted by Harts Barn Cookery School and Hillside Brewery we caught up with Paul Williamson and Yvette Farrell to see how it all went.

Paul; the evening was a great success, with lovely feedback from our 40 visitors. The atmosphere was great too, very lively with great food and beer, with a fun interactive pub quiz based on beer throughout the evening.  Derek Orford, Master Brewer & Beer Sommelier, kept everyone entertained and informed with his wisdom and deep knowledge discussing the beer and food pairing. The food of course, (menu and food created by the talented Yvette Farrell) was a complete hit! Check out the menu in our previous blog post Food & Drink Pairing

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Unashamed plug time

Paul says; Hillside is an exciting brewery running green sustainable brewing methods with a wide range of beer & craft ales. It’s a family owned and run company, based in the Forest of Dean on a stunning 40 acre farm. We opened in May 2014 and have since received over 16 awards. We offer Brewery tours & tasting, team building days including additional fun activities, cookery classes and more! We also have an onsite shop selling our beers, merchandise, and local produce such as wine and chutneys and even beer ice cream! We are the perfect location for the perfect day out! We pride ourselves in producing high quality ales in small batches of the finest ingredients using traditional methods which have been developed and mastered over a lifetime. We want to change people’s perception of beer and what can be achieved. We are dedicated to sustainable brewing and we want to share our passion for great beer with you.
Yvette; Harts Barn Cookery School launched in 2011 and have gone from strength to strength. We believe in the ‘socialisation’ of food, bringing people together whether they are learning a new skill in the kitchen to sitting down and enjoying the fruits of their labours. Most of all though, we believe in the food, the freshness, the quality, the flavours, the localism and above all, great ingredients cooked simply to produce the finest plate from the Forest & Wye.

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Upcoming Events for food and beer lovers.

Check out both websites for full events listings this autumn and winter.

Have a beer and warm your cockles by the fire – Hillside bonfire night on Friday 6th
November, Christmas Market 5th and 6th December and a Christmas carol service on Friday 18th December.

Harts Barn have published their Supper Club schedule with “Indian and the 80’s” on 30th October, “Asian Flavours” on 27th November, Traditional Christmas Supper – several dates and a homage to the apple at their Wassail on 15th January 2016.