It’s a special Asparagus season this year because it’s the first for the Vale of Evesham under its new protected status. It now enjoys an elite group from potatoes to Champagne which is great news for the growers. Green asparagus, grown within the defined geographical area of the Vale, produced between the months of April and July can legitimately carry the PDO label. The point is that this status helps combat imitators and increases competition throughout Europe. Good news too, post-Brexit, for those protected food products should be able to keep their PDO if Britain ensures there’s reciprocity with European growers.
The Vale has been growing asparagus since at least 1768, and the annual Asparagus Festival attracts lovers of the vegetable from all around the world. Saint George’s Day marks the start of the Asparagus season, ending in June.
Traditionally matched with a good Hollandaise Sauce, there’s nothing quite like freshly picked Asparagus direct from the source.
If you can’t make it to Evesham, keep an eye out for it in the shops.
To buy Asparagus at its best, look for firm and tender stalks with good colour and closed tips. In my experience, the thicker the asparagus, the better the taste. Once picked it starts to deteriorate so if you can eat on the day you buy it. A good way to store is in a damp kitchen towel. Before you eat it, you’ll need to snap off the woody base. They break exactly where the delicate stalk ends, and the woody part begins. Wash in cold water. Boil or Steam (the latter being my preference) until al dente. You can buy an asparagus steamer which cooks the spears from the bottom, allowing the delicate tips to remain so.
Here’s the only Hollandaise Recipe you’ll need.
Hollandaise Recipe (adapted from Julia Childs recipe)
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
225g, melted unsalted butter
A little cayenne pepper
Salt and ground pepper to taste
Add egg yolks the water and lemon juice to a bowl and blend. Melt the butter in a microwave then add slowly with a stick blender or whisk. Add salt and cayenne.
Tip the sauce over the lightly steamed Asparagus.
Syon Park is one of the last great houses of London and has been the home of the Duke of Northumberland, whose family, the Percys, have lived here for more than 400 years. It’s hard to believe when you walk around the grounds that you’re in the capital, just nine miles from Covent Garden.
If you’re a fan of the Channel 4 programme Time Team, in Series 11 the programme carried out some excavation work. What they revealed was Syon Abbey. A large, wealthy monastery for nuns of an obscure Swedish order. During the reign of Henry VIII, it vanished. Beneath the Park’s lawns, they reveal the foundations of a house and church.
Often hired for films, it’s taken a starring role in the Tim Burton film ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ as well as fashion shoots and fashion shorts.
Syon Park Landscaping
Capability Brown turned his hand to the 40 acres of gardens and the Great Conservatory built by Charles Fowler in the 1820’s.
Like most huge houses with grounds, the upkeep is phenomenal. Most of the buildings are available for private and corporate hire, the Conservatory is a wedding favourite.
There’s also a nearby Garden Centre and a rather nice looking Hilton.
I took a stroll around the gardens, and it’s beyond beautiful. Here are a few images from the two-hour or so walk. If it’s sunny, do take a picnic and your binoculars. There are plenty of private spaces to lay out a blanket and enjoy nature. In April, there’s a riot of colour from Azaleas, Rhododendrons and huge Prickly Rhubarb.
For more details on Syon Park, including admission and opening times, visit their website.
Le Pain Quotidien is doing a fabulous job by reducing and offsetting its carbon emissions, but it’s aiming high. LPQ will be carbon neutral in all of its restaurants by 2020. So what better way than to host a dinner to talk about what carbon neutrality means in practice.
It’s rare I don’t eat meat. Don’t get me wrong, I can go without it, but I just know how to handle it as an ingredient. Plants I’m not too sure of. Le Pain Quotidien or LPQ has always impressed me, and when I get an invite to one of their events, I always try to be there. Their City branch, right outside Monument tube was the venue for a Vegan supper, celebrating their carbon neutral status.
The menu wasn’t altogether appealing as a meat-lover, but as ever, LPQ pulled off a magnificent feast.
LPQ Green Credentials
Not to forget the point of the evening, there was an informal address from the advisory group co2logic who measure and pinpoint where and how to change. So how does this chain, known throughout the world, manage it? Well, they calculate their carbon emissions, reduce and offset them and invest in a carbon reducing project. They’ve chosen to invest in UpEnergy Group’s cook stove project which provides Ugandan communities with an alternative to their three stone fires. In the restaurants, it’s looking at cooking and cooling mechanisms, materials used in-store from seating to lighting, delivery to waste.
The Menage à Trois is a favourite of Alain Coumont, the chain’s founder, and the base hummus recipe is in his cookbook Le Pain Quotidien Cookbook. Three small bowls of beetroot, roasted carrot and chickpea hummus were scooped out with vegetable sticks and bread.
Chilli Sin Carne is also in the cookbook, and this vegan bean chilli’s main ingredient is tofu. I didn’t feel denied of meat in the slightest. It was a bowl of delicious and my dining partner was pretty impressed.
The Pot Au Feu was full to brimming with chunky vegetables, and quinoa and served with more LPUK bread.
Just in case we had room, an organic lentil and avocado salad was a bright plate of freshly shaved fennel, raw slaw, chickpeas, drizzled with a basil vinaigrette.
A wedge of Pear and Chocolate Cake was next and a portion too far, so we shared this and the chia seed and coconut milk pudding.
Did I say that this veritable feast was washed down with free-flowing wine for those who wanted?
“Good For You And Good For The Planet” indeed.
Yottam Ottolenghi loves his olive oil. He even reviewed them for the Guardian and here’s his conclusion:
“Cost-wise, it makes sense to have two or three oils on the go at once – a cheaper variety for basic dressings and frying and a more expensive one for that final drizzle. The oil I want to dip my bread in or use to finish off a dish is highly aromatic but with the freshness of newly cut grass. The oil I drizzle over a simply cooked bit of fish is, similarly, smooth, velvety, fresh and balanced. The oil I use for everyday dressings, on the other hand, is less grassy and aromatic, and more one-note: punchy flavours can be brought in from garlic, honey, mustard, and salt.”
Olive Branch Olive Oil is his oil of choice, it’s used by him in his restaurants and delis and hails from a family farm in the Lasithi province of Crete.
It’s run by Yiannis Koinaki and his daughter and founder of Olive Branch Oil, Maria. The farmers work in a co-operative, growing the Koroneiki Olive, harvested at the same time each year and cold pressed in the community co-operative. The process is fully managed from the field to the bottle.
Producers in Greece and Italy have experienced a bacteria that’s wiping out olive trees. Tunisia has suffered low levels of rainfall. Tunisia you say? Yes, the North African country has taken the top olive oil exporter spot and is the second-largest producer after Spain. All this, coupled with Brexit, could mean trouble ahead.
America is clamping down on labelling. And why wouldn’t they? The country has become something of a dumping ground for fraudulent products, particularly olive oil. No one can control the 350,000 tonnes entering the country, mostly from Italy. Today, even after the news, scandals and general awareness, adulterated bottles of oil are still on supermarket shelves. Olive oil is commonly marketed as Italian. More often than not, it’s grown elsewhere and is just packaged in Italy. If you see the words ‘bottled in Italy’ on the label be wary. Some have been mixed with seed and are actually making customers poorly. Oils are also being coloured, mixed with chemicals and blended before being sold as olive oil. America wants to sample all foreign olive oil to determine whether they’ve been adulterated or misbranded.
So why does this matter to the producer in Crete? Well, it has profound effects on the market of authentic virgin and extra virgin olive oil that are more expensive, for obvious reasons. So there’s no real incentive for anyone to stock the great stuff if they can get ‘Olive Oil’ cheaper in the supermarket. Everyone’s got used to the low price, whether it tastes great or not. A real shame. When you get to taste a great Olive Oil, it’s like a fine wine.
This piece is to encourage you to try this small producer from Crete. It has a story, here are the pictures. It also has a Great Taste One Star. I’ve tasted it and can see why Ottolenghi gives it his stamp of quality. Put your mind at rest, support the small people and reap what they sow.
Flower piping nozzles put to the test ….
Decorating cakes is a skill I’ve never fully mastered so if there’s a corner to cut you have my attention. Russian Piping Nozzles or Flower Piping Nozzles from Amazon are huge in size, in comparison to conventional piping nozzles and the ‘flowers’ they produce take up a pretty large area on any cupcake or fairy cake. They also look pretty impressive.
I bought this set from Amazon. It comes with a silicon piping bag, disposable piping bags, a coupler and a set of 13 Russian Tips. I’ve only tried a couple of the nozzles, but my favourite has to be the rose bud. I added some foliage with a Wilton leaf nozzle number 352.
A regular buttercream 350g icing sugar/175g unsalted butter works perfectly well until the bag and icing start heating up and then the results aren’t great. When it starts to show signs of softness, give it 5 or 10 minutes in the fridge. The icing has to be firm, not runny for some of the flower tips, especially those with fronds. The idea is to pull up, not too quickly, and wiggle the bag to release the flower.
I’m sure meringue buttercream would work with a few of the nozzles but with a more confident hand.
A great tip for piping, if you want a two-tone buttercream or want to change your bag, is to roll the buttercream in cling wrap.
Secure both ends like a sausage, snip the end going into the piping tip and slip straight into your piping bag. Paint the cling wrap with a couple of stripes to add an extra depth to your flowers. Pipe onto a piece of kitchen towel to get the flow started and keep it to hand to remove any failed splurges. These can be easy lifted off with a knife and set aside.
This takes time. Practice and practice before you let yourself loose on the cupcakes. Some ice a layer of buttercream on top of the cake but it’s quite a lot to digest so I just leave mine with a sponge top. It really does depend on the look you’re going for.
Don’t expect to master these tips immediately, it takes a little practice, but you will get the hang of it. I piped a fair few cupcakes and I was pretty pleased with my first attempt.
How are your piping skills? Have you got any flower nozzles or particular skills to share when it comes to icing? I’d love to hear from you.