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November 29, 2010

Game has got to be the best thing about the autumn in Britain. We are lucky in Bristol to have a good supply from the countryside which surrounds us. The farmers market has unplucked birds for realistic prices (a brace of pheasant for a fiver) which acknowledge the fact that ‘farm gate’ prices of game are very low indeed. If you live in the right place and know the right people then you are likely to be fighting off free game all season. But sadly very few of us live in the right place or know the right people and game is under represented and under appreciated in Britain’s kitchens. Game supply is random – like all wild (or semi wild) food supplies and so it’s not easy for shops to cope with. When you realise that a big shoot could bag a couple of hundred birds you see why some end up thrown away – how do you shift that much in one go?

It’s a shame, because game is a fantastically tasty and cheap source of meat, and it would be great if more people would catch on to it. I think that perhaps the notion of hunting and shooting being for the upper classes has created a mental barrier which stops people from buying game – an idea that it is expensive and exclusive, but this is not the case at all. It may be expensive to go and do the shooting, but to cook the results is, quite literally, as cheap as chips. Well, perhaps not quite: if you want snipe, or woodcock or grouse, you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket a little deeper. But with pheasant, partridge, rabbit and venison you can eat like a king for peasant pennies.

A friend of mine’s new job has brought with it a colleague with ready supply of game birds, and he’s doing well this season so far. Much to my delight I have been cashing in on this supply of free meat and I have pheasant legs in the freezer for a rainy day’s confit to prove it.

Game is, in all honesty, best enjoyed in the countryside. You know: roaring log fire, casserole in the bottom oven, early frosts on the window pane, red cabbage, buttery sprouts and fluffy potatoes. But you can recreate that in the city. We don’t have a fire but we do have everything else, and on a frigid winter’s night, that’s a pretty appetising prospect.



October 25, 2010

I got a call last week which I very nearly didn’t answer. I’m glad I did, because it was the man from the allotments. My number has come up and my alloted plot is waiting for me. We went to see it over the weekend and almost brimmed over with excitement. It’s not a big plot, and there’s not much happening on it – a big compost heap, a little fruit cage and a couple of bloated marrows disintegrating in the frost. But, in my mind at least, there’s acres of potential. There’s a little square where a shed might sit, a few raspberry canes and a currant bush in the cage, the last few raspberries blushing red in amongst the leaves. There’s a couple of straggly roses crying out for a prune and some horsradish growing wild behind the compost heap. Best of all, there’s space: big huge bits of good soil, waiting to be put to use. I just can’t wait.

I can’t wait to fork over the first clod, to tease bindweed from the deep black tith. I can’t wait to fork in a trailer of manure from my friend Tom’s farm. I can’t wait to cover the first garlic bulbs with soil and tuck them away for a long winter of frosts. I can’t wait to spark up the camping stove and have a little afternoon tea in the cold – a cup of early grey, a slice of sticky apple cake, radio four on the wind up radio and a little bit of quiet company with my favorite girl. I can’t wait until the first seedlings are transplanted into the soil, the first crops – the broad beans, salad leaves, the peas and garlic. It goes without saying that I’m looking forward to cooking with all this, but I’m especially looking forward to having my own growing larder, ripe with inspiration. I’m looking forward to shuffling through vegetation in bare feet and hot summer sun, picking a little here and there, digging a few tatties and making a little allotment magic in a frying pan, then falling asleep in the thick pollen fug of a July afternoon.

It’s going to be a pretty good year.


October 18, 2010

Autumn is the season where I spend most time thinking about trees. Looking at, looking under, and thinking about trees. Partly it’s the changing palette of colours – wilted greens, pallid yellows, vibrant oranges and crispy browns. Partly it’s the great heaps of kickable crunchy leaf litter. But mostly it’s because autumn is the peroration of the growing cycle, and eager-to-reproduce trees hang heavy with fruits of a summer’s labour. Autumn is about food in trees.

Apples and pears are blushing to ripeness in the nation’s orchards, cobnuts being stolen by squirrels, chestnuts falling to ground with little thumps. Trees which have been contorted into hedgerows droop with a heavy crop of fruit – sloes, haws, crab apples and damsons. Here and there in the city, lonely fruit trees are dropping free food onto the pavement. An apple for your commute?

A fruit tree is a truly wonderful thing. You plant it and in a few years it starts producing fruit. Then it carries on doing that for the rest of (and probably beyond) your lifetime. There’s no need to plough or scatter, not once it’s in, and you don’t even have to prune it that much, unless you want maximum yeild. Indeed, there’s really nothing that needs doing which you don’t have to do to a normal tree, which begs the question – why would anybody plant a normal tree? Just think, if all of the urban trees (not just in my fair city but in the UK) were fruit trees, how many hundred thousand tonnes of apples, pears, plums and cherries would be available in these urban orchards? Imagine further, if every garden had a fruit tree, or two. Imagine what a haul that would be, how many food miles would be wiped out in a trice.

I’ve heard what the council think about this. They think that people don’t pick the fruit, that it rots and falls on people’s heads and creates mess. People don’t pick because they don’t know. Perhaps every tree should have a little brass plaque which says something like “Bramley, cooking apple, please help yourself and use to cook with” or “Laxton’s superb – a fine eating apple. Pick late in the autumn and eat in slices.” Because then people will know not just what to do, but that they should do. Education is, I think, key. If councils made an obvious point of only planting fruit trees in places where they are planting trees, perhaps that would start to create a culture where people feel comfortable picking fruit from trees in the city, make the city an orchard.

I’m moving house in less than two weeks which brings with it a little blank canvas of a garden, and I’ve (we’ve) decided to plant an apple tree. It’s not so much to get apples – I doubt we’ll be in the same place by the time it fruits. It’s because one more apple tree in the world means a few more apples in the world, and a few years down the line someone is going to be dead chuffed to move in and find an apple tree in fruit. It’s fanciful, but I’d like to think that me planting this might encourage others to do the same. Then maybe, it’s just possible that one day I’ll move into a house where someone else has planted one, and I can reap their planting like people might reap mine.

Plant a fruit tree for the future.

Who’s with me?


October 11, 2010

I’ve had an idea which won’t work. But that doesn’t matter, because I’ll never try it out. In my head it’s a rip roaring, hugely desirable, bleeding edge little bar, and that’s good enough for me.

You see charcuterie is really pretty fantastic, and so is bread, and so are wine and beer. Really very fantastic as a matter of fact, and so it’s a wonder that no one has combined that to great effect in Bristol. Or London indeed. I know that lots of places do their own charcuterie – anyone who’s been in a pub with even the remotest pretensions of gastro will know that. And there are wine bars which serve charcuterie, and some of them make a big deal over it.

That’s not quite the point.

The point is, there are no charcuterie bars which also serve wine.

So here’s the idea. It’s in the city centre, and it’s lovely inside. You know the thing – frustic brick and wooden tables with benches and a bar with a cracking wine list, like a cheeky glass of quality red for three quid you can quaff in your lunch break. And ales, of course.

So then the charcuterie. There’d be the things you get everywhere, like terrines of sweetbreads, and hamhock things with parsley and jelly, and pork rillettes. But there’d also be things like chicken galantine, and home cured saucison sec with just a bit of garlic, and there’d be cured tenderloin and bresaola, and pork pies and pate en croute, brawn and pate a tete, and proper rustic pate de campangne and sausages stuffed inside goose necks and all that sort of thing. It’ll all be rustic, not preened, rough around the edges and fucking delicious. Really good charcuterie.

Because that’s actually really difficult to find. Sure, you can get a ham hock terrine in any old place, but a goose neck sausage? Not a sausage.

There’s more. In a big glass cabinet, which might be half the space, there’d be a maturing room hung with strings of saucison, chorizo and salami, york hams and jamon hanging from the rafters, and people would be able to watch over two years as a leg of pork turns into the most stunning piece of ham you’ve ever seen and it would be brought out into the bar with great ceremony and trumpets. Of course, a venture like this would never last two years, but I know someone with a trumpet so we could work around that.

So during the day, in the kitchen I’d just be making charcuterie, and an arrogant but lovable French man called Claude would be serving nice wines by the glass or by the bottle. Then at lunch time, people who work in horrid offices would come and have a slab of pate de campagne and a great hunk of crackling fresh bread (we’d have great bread) and a few nice little gherkins or a bit of chutney, and a carafe of wine (which would be better value) and for an hour, everything would be right with the world. There wouldn’t be pudding, or cheese, or main courses, or salad, but who needs them. Actually, there might be a bit of salad, but that would be it.

In a book I’ve got, there’s a black and white picture of a crusty old French man holding a huge platter out before him. On it are enormous slices of bread, cut from a huge miche de pain, and they are layered with equally huge slices of pate, just great doorstops of food which makes this shallow stair case to the top of the plate. And I just think that if I could do that, and sell it to people, wouldn’t that just be great?

Southville Supper Club

October 5, 2010

The date is fixed and I’ve come up with a rough idea of the menu for the night, now with vegetarian options. Date is 20th October, time is 7.30, place is secret, price is £15 and menu is as follows.

Wild Mushroom Broth


Duck hearts, smoked potato, beetroot, apple


Smoked squash, chestnut, hazlenuts, potato, malt


Baked apples, ice cream and salt caramel


Gorwydd Caerphilly and Quince cheese

Reservations and main course choices to samjleach[at]gmail[dot]com please. I will email all further details forthwith. The menu could well change depending on availability of produce or on a whim.

Autumn this year

October 4, 2010

My chickens have started laying. I opened the lid of their house with great expectation this morning and was not disappointed – a small, buff, tapering egg lying there in the sawdust of the nest box. Good old Thelma and Louise.

Life is pretty good right now, and not just because of the little backyard bantams. I’ve been away in Kyrgyzstan for a month, climbing mountains and sampling the local cuisine. Smoked horse and fresh naan bread were highlights, fermented mares milk and horse fat/gristle sausage a particular low. I’ve been mushrooming in the New Forest, discovering the proud parasol, the coral like cauliflower fungus, the diminutive but fascinating hedgehog mushroom and the substantial and abundant bay boletes. Obviously, I’ve been frying them with bacon and eating with relish. I’ve been back in the bakery, pleased to be back with the familiar feeling of dough between my hands and pleased to be washing flour from my hair at the end of the day.

I’ve eaten out a bit more than I can afford: a shockingly bad meal at Cafe Maitreya and a superb one at the Three Coqs Brasserie to make up for it. I’ve been making jam and chutney and jars are jammed into every space on the kitchen shelves, with more planned – rosehip syrup this evening, sloe gin tomorrow, rowan jelly and apple butter when I find time, and quince cheese on wednesday. I feel like a WI lady preparing for a long winter.

I’ve been writing too, not on this blog (apologies) but for real magazines that are printed on paper, and I’m loving every second of it.

And I’ve been dreaming, oh yes, I’ve been dreaming. This month I’ve mostly been thinking about the next supper club date, about substantial charcuterie I’m going to tackle this autumn, about a larder to stack my jam jars in, and about the restaurant I want to open in a few years. In fact, I’ve been dreaming a lot about that last one. Menus, tables, paint, opening hours, it’s all planned out.

So that’s what I’ve been up to, and what I’ve been thinking about, and why I haven’t done any writing on here. So sorry. Tomorrow, I’ll have details of the next Southville Supper Club. It’ll be the best yet, if my dreams can become a reality.

The Supper Club

August 7, 2010

I probably should have got onto this straight away, but I didn’t. Marketing isn’t my strong point. A few weekends ago saw the second edition of the nicknamed Southville Supper Club, which was really very nice. Unfortunately I didn’t have as many guests as I’d have liked, but such is life. The food was (mostly) a success, and renouned food blogger Essex Eating has written a nice little review on his blog, as well as putting up some photos, which are most flattering. There will not be another until the autumn, while I explore Kyrgyzstan for unclimbed mountains and fermented yoghurt, but I can assure you I have plans brewing. I hope EE’s photos might whet your collective appetite  to come to the next one. Stay tuned.