Native cooking is making a comeback

Mark Hix has spent a year travelling the British Isles, truffling out the best producers. Here he shares the recipes he picked up along the way
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Over the past year I've been travelling around the country, checking out regional food and producers. One of the pleasures is that it confirms how native cooking is making a comeback. Good eating starts with the produce, and at last the people who still make traditional delicacies, or have started making unusual ones, are getting full credit. More and more restaurants are putting producers' names on their menus, which not only boosts the farmers' and makers' confidence but helps customers feel more involved in the process and realise the value of locally produced food.

One of the chefs who has made a thing of promoting producers in his region is Nigel Howarth at Northcote Manor and the Three Fishes in Lancashire. On 27 January I'll be up there cooking for his annual food festival, and I'm really looking forward to devising a menu that does justice to the freshest and best local food. Nigel is so determined to credit the North-West's producers that his Three Fishes menu has a map on the back pointing out where you can find those who supplied him.

Whether it's as seemingly everyday as a pork pie or as obscure as krappin, a marine haggis, these regional foods are an important part of our history, and it's high time they had a revival. Some are made on such a small scale you won't find them far beyond their home where there's enough local demand to keep them as busy as they want to be. Margaret Davies and her daughter Catrin began making Gorau Glas cheese on Anglesey in only 2002 but won a gold in the British Cheese Awards in Nantwich that very year. She can't even produce enough for that cheesemonger and champion of artisan cheesemakers, Neal's Yard Dairy. I would probably be able to buy a few cheeses directly by post but otherwise you have to go to north Wales for them.

I imagined that was the case with Tim and Bronwyn Youard of the Derreensillagh Smokehouse in Kerry. I bumped into them in Waterville market then came across them again in several other local markets. They seemed only to sell locally. We met up and chatted over a few shots of Power's whiskey in Freddie's bar in Caherdaniel and they clearly needed to start selling their smoked salmon further afield. I suggested they try Borough Market in London and a few weeks later they phoned me to say they'd been given a pitch and were on the way over in the van. They are the only smoked salmon producer in the market, and even bring their friend's soda bread over to serve with it. Another good reason to visit Borough, if you are in the area. Or to resolve to see what treats are being made in your region.

Macroom oatmeal biscuits

Makes about 24 biscuits

Donal Creedon owns and runs probably Ireland's best example of a proper oat mill. His oats are quite unique and lightly toasted to give them a very original flavour, especially when made into porridge. Cooks and bakers all over the country use Donal's oats. This recipe, from the legendary Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House, which uses Donal's flour and oats, appears on the back of the oatmeal packet. You can buy the oatmeal from Neal's Yard Dairy in London, or use what the Scots call pinhead oatmeal. To make the biscuits more savoury leave out the sugar. Then they'll be perfect with Ireland's special farmhouse cheeses.

140g Macroom oatmeal
140g plain white flour
170g butter cut into small pieces
55g caster sugar for sweet biscuits

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Mix together the oatmeal and flour, rub in the butter to a breadcrumb-like consistency and add the sugar. Knead the mixture to a pliable dough and roll out to about 3mm on a lightly floured table. Cut into rounds or rectangles and place on a non-stick baking sheet, or on baking parchment. You can re-roll the trimmings to get more biscuits. Bake for 15-20 minutes, remove from the oven. They are quite delicate so remove from the tray when still warm. Leave to cool. Store in an airtight container.

Parkin with rhubarb

The English forced-rhubarb season has begun. Up in Yorkshire, growers such as Janet Oldroyd-Hulme, whose family owns one of the world's largest rhubarb forcing sheds in Carlton near Wakefield, make up what is commonly called the rhubarb- or pink-triangle in a 30-mile area, between Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield. Farmers here grow the country's finest rhubarb and until the 1960s, 93 per cent of the world's forced rhubarb came from here. Another great Yorkshire winter food is parkin, a rich, dark, spiced loaf-shaped cake traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night, but as ginger and rhubarb are perfect partners, the parkin is great eaten warm with rhubarb and thick cream or custard.

October up to Christmas would have been the traditional time to use spices in cooking and a way of being a little extravagant. Now they've become less of a luxury we can use them all year round. In a Dorothy Hartley book from 1954, which I have in my collection, she suggests it was popular practice to make extra parkin to serve hot with apple sauce, almost like an early version of what's become sticky toffee pudding.

800g-1kg rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 2cm pieces
150g Demerara sugar
Thick cream or custard to serve

for the parkin

225g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
2tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp mixed spice
1/2tsp salt
110g coarse oatmeal (pinhead oatmeal)
175g dark muscovado sugar
115g butter
50g golden syrup
115g black treacle
150ml milk
1 large egg, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt into a bowl. Stir in the oatmeal and sugar and make a well in the centre.

Meanwhile melt the butter, golden syrup and treacle over a low heat, whisking to emulsify, then remove from the heat and leave to cool a little. Mix into the flour mixture with a wooden spoon then beat the milk and egg together and stir into the mixture until well mixed. Pour the mixture into a greased, preferably non-stick loaf tin and bake for 45-50 minutes, leaving the mixture slightly soft to the touch. Leave to cool for 30 minutes or so before turning out.

Wrap in cling film and store in a dry place if you're not going to use it on the day.

Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Put the pieces of rhubarb into a baking tray and scatter with the sugar. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes, or until tender, basting with the cooking liquid every so often. Leave to cool and serve with the warmed parkin and thick cream, or custard.

Deep-fried sprats

Serves 4-6

I remember how, when I was a kid, at this time of year my father and his mates would wait on the beach in West Bay in Dorset with small rowing boats and Seine nets. They were expecting the huge shoals of sprats that used to come in so close to the shore they would occasionally wash themselves up on the beach. It seemed like a cult thing to do among locals to get a few beer vouchers for a good night out.

Sprats are from the herring family and are the poor cousins of whitebait. They're about 6-7cm and generally need simple cooking, coated in milk and flour and deep fried. You can leave the heads on or, if they're bigger, cut them off, run your finger down their stomachs and open them into butterfly shapes. A fishmonger should be able to order them. Serve with tartare sauce, mayonnaise mixed with crushed garlic and parsley, or just lemon.

600-800g sprats, prepared as above
A cup of milk
100g flour
Salt and cayenne pepper
Oil for deep frying

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer. Season the flour well with the salt and cayenne pepper then coat the sprats well in the flour, shaking off any excess. Put them briefly in the milk then back through the flour. Deep fry them in 2 or 3 batches for 3-4 minutes, or until golden and drain on kitchen paper.

Bacon chop with laverbread and cockles

Serves 4

Laverbread is one ingredient that is unique to Wales, and while I was there on the Gower coast, we stumbled by accident across a small-time producer of this nutritional seaweed pulp. We had checked out a couple of large-scale cockle and laverbread producers and on our way back, Horace, father of Richard Cook of the Severn and Wye Smokery, remembered a chap he had bought laverbread from a couple of years ago. We found the house and went into his back garden, where he had just finished the boiling and mincing process of this locally gathered sea weed. He let me stick my finger into one of the stacked up trays of steaming laver. It was quite delicious and you could just taste the nutrients on the end of your finger.

Laverbread is traditionally eaten with bacon and cockles for breakfast but can be served with grilled or steamed fish, or as a side dish, and is a perfect replacement for a nut cutlet for vegetarians.

I've used a bacon chop here which can be cut from a piece of whole back. You could use thick slices cut from a side of streaky or back bacon. A good old-fashioned pork butcher will sell a piece of whole bacon joint to cut into chops, or you could settle for thick rashers of bacon. Laverbread is sold fresh locally and in cans from specialist food halls. Depending on where you live you will find laverbread fresh, or canned. Try to buy the fresh if possible as there is a world of difference.

4 thick bacon chops weighing about 120-150g each (on the bone they will be heavier)
200-250g laverbread
A good knob of butter
350g fresh cockles (optional)

If you are using cockles, leave them in a bowl of cold water, agitating them every so often with your hand to loosen any sand, then wash under clean running water for 5 minutes.

Pre-heat a grill, or griddle and cook the bacon chops for 4-5 minutes on each side. Meanwhile put the laverbread in a pan with a knob of butter and gently reheat. If using cockles, put them into a large saucepan with a little water and a teaspoon of salt and cook on a high heat with a lid, shaking the pan every so often until they open, then drain in a colander.

Spoon the laverbread on to a plate with the bacon chop and the cockles scattered over.

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