Inheritance recipe: wild garlic pesto

An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.

garlicky stream

Wherever you go and whatever becomes of you three, I hope that you will always be within foraging distance of a patch of wild garlic. Then I will know that you must be near to trees, possibly in ancient woodland, and with luck some running water too.

bend

with anenomes

The wild garlic in ‘our’ woods has been up for about ten days now. It’s one of the heralds of spring round here, part of an overture to the growing season that begins with lesser celandine in March, continues with the garlic and wood anemones. and segues into inky splashes of bluebells all across the banks of the stream.

greens

You can track the progress of spring just by the garlicky smell. This morning I caught a faint tang just before I turned onto the path; soon the entire valley will reek of it. The trees are mostly bare still, but the valley floor is thick with the garlic, along with celandine and wood anemone. While I was picking the leaves I could hear wrens, robins and a nuthatch. A great spotted woodpecker was drumming in the distance.

bud1

I’ve always called the plant wild garlic, but ‘ramsons’ is at least as common a name. It’s also known as stinking nanny and Londoner’s lilies. According to Richard Mabey’s extraordinary book Flora Britannica (you need a copy of this), the Old English root of ‘ramsons’ is hrmsa, a word that crops up in a slew of place names: Ramsey Island, Ramsbottom, Ramsholt, Ramshorn and more.

In a few weeks the woods will be brimming with its starry white flowers. By then, though, it will be too late to forage as once the flowers are out, the leaves become tough and bitter. See if you can get out and find some now, and then try this wild garlic pesto recipe which your dad and I are having on wild (but not foraged) salmon tonight.

Walnut and wild garlic pesto
Traditionally, you make pesto with pine nuts but they are expensive so I decided to use walnuts instead. What follows is adapted from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe here. I’ve probably already told you: if I could only have one cookbook it would be Hugh’s River Cottage Veg Every Day.

ingredients

You will need:

  • About three large handfuls of wild garlic – around 75g
  • 50g walnuts (without shells, obviously)
  • 35g hard, mature cheese. Parmesan is the obvious choice; I used a hard goat cheese; a salty, grainy Pecorino would also be good, or you could use a vegan substitute
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • About 120ml extra virgin olive oil

Put the walnuts in a baking tin and roast at 180 degrees for about eight minutes. Use a timer: they will go from toasty brown to blackened cinder in seconds. Leave to cool.

Wash and dry the wild garlic thoroughly (chances are you’ve picked it somewhere muddy), chop it roughly and throw it in a food processor. A liquidiser would probably work too.  Add the cooled nuts, the finely grated cheese and the lemon zest. Blitz to a paste.

processor

Leave the processor running, add the lemon juice and then the oil in a steady stream. The pesto will be quite sloppy but it firms up a bit in the fridge.

finished pesto

The end result is DayGlo bright with a big, gutsy flavour that explodes in your mouth. It can be a bit throat-catching when you first taste it, but it calms down once it’s incorporated with other ingredients in a meal. You could always add a handful of (preferably flat-leaf) parsley to take the edge off.

Rhubarb rhythms

After eleven years of living in this beautiful corner of Sheffield, I have learnt the rhythm of spring in our woods. It goes like this: celandine, wild garlic, wood anemone, bluebell.

IMG_3099

Celandine

IMG_3174

Wood anemone

We’re into wood anemone time at the moment, and the wild garlic is also thick on the ground. Soon it will be time for a bit of foraging but first I need to pay homage to that other great harbinger of spring in Yorkshire: forced rhubarb.

rhubarb

I’ve written enthusiastically about this delicacy before, and a couple of years ago I posted this recipe for sharlotka, which I still rate highly. However, when we were in Edinburgh recently, some lovely friends produced a brilliantly simple rhubarb dessert that I just have to share here. Delicious results from very little time in the kitchen, and also including a hidden ginger nut – what could be better?

I’ve tweaked it a bit, drawing on a recipe for rhubarb syllabub from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, which is one of my go-to books when I’m trying to decide what to do with a vegbox, or a glut of vegetables from the garden. Highly recommended.

Sam and Claire’s rhubarb and ginger layer

To serve 6

  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 6 stems young pink rhubarb, about 500g
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 gingernut biscuits
  • Greek yoghurt

You will also need six ramekin dishes

ingredients

stewing

Warm the orange juice and sugar in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Cut the rhubarb into thumb-length segments and cook in the orange juice with the zest, cardamom and star anise for 8-10 minutes, then cool. Reduce the liquid by lifting out the rhubarb pieces and boiling the juice until it becomes syrupy.

Put a ginger biscuit in the bottom of each ramekin and spoon the rhubarb over the top. Finish with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and refrigerate before serving.

finished1

Tastes as though it took ages.

hope: an update

ask not what

Recently graffitied by locals, the old health centre in Todmorden, west Yorkshire has lain empty for years while the multinational corporation that owns the site decides what to do with it

Coming face to face with the fact that tens of thousands of people in our city are going to bed hungry can be gut wrenching, as I wrote in my last post.

The danger is that it can also be overwhelming, and it is only a short step from feeling overwhelmed to sinking into despair.

Back in January I chose HOPE as my one word for 2013. I thought  then that I knew what it meant but here we are at the end of November and I have realised that it is a lot more difficult to pin down than it seems.

When I taught English to speakers of other languages I found that sometimes the easiest way to explain the meaning of a word was to give its opposite. So far, my understanding of real hope is mostly around the fact that it is ‘not-despair’.

Despair rarely achieves anything. It paralyses us at exactly the time when we most need to be doing.

But where despair results in paralysis, real hope not only leads to action, it is often birthed there.

I used to think that hope came first and then you acted because you were hopeful. It sounds logical but this year I realised that I had it the wrong way round. The more you act, the more you grow in hope.

When Incredible Edible Todmorden co-founder Mary Clear ripped out the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Food to Share’, I am sure she did not think of herself as a prophet.

But her action demonstrated another key aspect of hope, which is imagination.

Despair is like a fog. It clouds our vision and numbs us into thinking that things can never be different. We need prophets, poets and seers to pierce that numbness, stimulate our imagination and remind us that there is always another way of doing things.

We also need to recognise that these visionaries are walking among us, living life beside us. They do not (necessarily) have long beards and sandals.

 

plaques

Incredible Edible plaques made by Linda Reith

Mary’s action gave people a new way of seeing things, a way to re-imagine the world. It was one of the jumping-off points for the whole Incredible Edible movement.

I have taken several friends to Todmorden and they all come away seeing land differently. They send me texts saying things like: ‘I’m noticing bits of wasted space all over my town. I keep telling people we should plant some food there.’

Runner beans in a Todmorden cemetery

Runner bean plants in a Todmorden cemetery

The point is not that we are going to solve world hunger, or even UK hunger, by handing out free vegetables. Of course we’re not. The point is to shift people’s perceptions so they can imagine a different way of doing things.

It’s about helping people realise that there is more than one story to live by, and then it’s about demonstrating a way to take the first few steps into that new way of being in the world.

One woman I interviewed for our book about Incredible Edible told me she used to think growing food was ‘a whole other world of strangeness that could never have anything to do with me’.

Then she took on one of several raised beds that Incredible Edible has built at her son’s school and now the two of them eat home-grown, fresh vegetables for nine months of the year. Not only that but they have saved money, made new friends and grown in self-confidence.

What I see in Todmorden is that actions like growing food lead to more actions like, say, signing up for a class to learn how to cook that food and then, for some people, actually teaching other people how to grow and cook things.

You can’t predict exactly where these actions will end up. Someone who spent an entire winter helping another Incredible Edible co-founder, Nick Green, build a rabbit proof fence is now learning about advanced permaculture and training apprentices to become market gardeners.

The point is to start.

And once people start, they grow in imagination and they develop real hope – and who knows where that might lead?

They like to say that Todmorden is the town of the example. They’ve been living the Incredible Edible story for the past six years and literally thousands of people have visited the town to see what they are doing.

One of the reasons I am so determined to get our book about Incredible Edible out into the world is that I think it has the potential to inspire people who can’t make the trip to Todmorden to get started on a different way of doing things in the place where they live.

A way that will build community, increase skills and even benefit the local economy. A snowballing of hope, if you like.

People have been massively supportive of the campaign we’re running with Kickstarter to raise enough money for the first print run of the book. I am truly grateful for the people who have already pledged money and overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the messages of encouragement.

However, we need more of that support to translate into cash if we are to reach our target.

I’d be so thankful if you could spread the word as widely as you can and – if you are able and you haven’t done so already – pledge a bit of money towards it. 

You can pledge as little as £1 and it’s all perfectly safe. If we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. Also, I won’t be making any money personally out of the campaign.

Thank you!

The Kickstarter page is here.

comfort by numbers

 There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Emily Dickinson

I am not good at winter afternoons, especially after the clocks have changed.

When the nights start closing in early I need quick fixes that don’t demand a lot of energy or thought.

Enter my soup formula.

A bowl of home-made soup when I am in for lunch at this time of year has become almost essential. It’s a hug in a bowl, a practically instant comfort food with no guilt attached.

It’s much cheaper than the posh cartons you can get in the shops and much more delicious than the canned stuff.

It’s also incredibly simple – so much so that I’ve reduced it to a formula.

1 onion, sweated in a little oil + I kg vegetables + I litre liquid + seasoning

x 30-40 minutes on the boil

=

soup

I think it’s quite hard to get this wrong. I have made lots of concoctions from odd combinations of veg that just happened to be a bit past their best and rarely had one I didn’t like.

You can tart up this basic formula all sorts of ways, depending on what you have in the house and how creative you feel. A stick of celery, chopped and added at the onion stage always improves the flavour.

The liquid can simply be water. If I have it in the freezer, I use chicken stock; most often I use Marigold vegetable bouillon, dissolved in boiling water.

I prefer smooth, thick soups so I always liquidise the mixture. I use a stick blender for minimal washing up.

These are a few of my favourite mixtures, the ones I go to again and again to bolster me against a grey winter afternoon.

Pea
The easiest soup in the whole wide world is a bag of frozen peas boiled in an equal volume of water for about 15 minutes and then liquidised. You can even skip the onion stage of the formula as the peas work fine without it. With judicious amounts of salt and pepper, this actually gives you several bowls of proper, comforting soup.

You can make it a bit more interesting by adding a handful of chopped mint, a swirl of olive oil or – a tip I read in a Nigella Lawson book – by boiling it with a Parmesan rind for a subtle saline kick that gives an added depth of flavour.

Butternut squash and/or sweet potato
Some chopped ginger sweated with the onion gives this added layers of warmingness.

A big handful of chopped coriander leaves stirred in near the end is also delicious.

Some home made soup, especially the ‘what I had left in the fridge’ variety, can be a rather uninspiring shade of khaki. This one is the opposite – it’s the shockingly bright orange of autumn beech leaves that more or less dares you to go on feeling miserable when you are looking at it.

Today's formula: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + i litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Today’s formula for lunch: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + 1 litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Carrot
This is sweet and earthy. I think it works best if you include a medium-sized potato in the total weight of veg.

A fat pinch of dried sage goes well. You can also use orange juice for part of the liquid, although in that case I’d omit the sage and use fresh, chopped coriander instead.

For an even more nutritious soup you can add a handful of lentils to this: it’s what I always gave our children when they were run down and sniffly towards the end of a long school term. You’ll need to increase the amount of liquid as the lentils absorb a lot.

Celeriac and thyme
I wouldn’t do this on a completely miserable day  because the celeriac can be a bit awkward to peel and you have to remember not to let the flesh stay exposed to air for too long or it goes brown. But it really is worth the (slight) extra effort. The secret is to add absolutely masses of fresh thyme leaves near the end of cooking. I haven’t tried it with dried but I think that could work as well. As with the carrot, I think a potato is needed to give the finished product a really velvety texture.

Curried parsnip
An old favourite that my mum used to make when anything spicy was considered quite daring in England. I use a tablespoon of curry powder, stirred into the softened onion, and about equal quantities of parsnip and potato. No longer daring, just comforting.

I’m always looking for new combinations – leave me some suggestions in the comments if you like!

 

making food happen


Trigrad, Bulgaria

Trigrad, Bulgaria

If you go to the ‘supermarket’ in the little Bulgarian village of Trigrad you will find crisps, biscuits, imported chocolate and, if the season is right, a few bunches of grapes. There is homemade pizza that can be heated to take away, a counter of cured meat, some cheese and, in the morning, bread.

The whole thing is about the size of a London corner shop and the range of food fits on four shelves that run round two of the walls.

You’d be wrong to think the inhabitants were short of things to eat though. Wander around this sprawling village in the Rhodope mountains, not far from the border with Greece, and you will see food growing everywhere.

 

Trigrad tomatoesborlotti beans

 

Trigrad turkeys

We visited in early September: there were tomatoes sprouting out of old oil cans, borlotti beans ripening on canes, watermelons dangling in front gardens and even a few turkeys scratching in someone’s yard.

On the lower slopes of the mountains there were rows and rows of brightly painted beehives, and everywhere trees laden with fruit: pears, apples and wild plums.

Trigrad beehives

Trigrad pears

There are no fancy hotels in Trigrad but you can stay in a family guest house. Ours looked down over the town with its jumble of red roofs, tiny mosque and even tinier church.

Trigrad church

Every evening our landlady Nadia and her husband Vincy invited all eight of us into their dining room, where Nadia served a three-course meal prepared entirely from scratch in an ordinary domestic kitchen. Meanwhile Vincy plied us with rakia, a clear spirit made from plums that goes surprisingly well with just about anything, particularly by the time you get on to your third glass.

The couple took huge pride in what they gave us. Through our Bulgarian-speaking friends Nadia told us how the trout she was cooking had been caught only hours before in a river just ten minutes’ walk away.

Trigrad river

Vincy explained that the rakia had been made by a friend of his. As I understood it, this meant it was not the absolute best we could have (that would be Vincy’s own) but it did come a close second.

In Trigrad it seemed as if not just the growing but also the preparing of food was woven tightly into everyday life. At the start of one of our walks we passed a woman carrying a plate piled with slices of warm cake: she insisted that we all took a piece. We saw another woman roasting peppers in her garden. They may have been the very ones Nadia served us that night, dripping with garlic and olive oil, meltingly soft and tasting of smoke and sunshine.

Trigrad peppers

What struck me forcibly in contrast with England was the range of food-related skills on display. It seems it is normal in Trigrad to be able to build a beehive, harvest honey, pickle vegetables, distil spirits, construct a barbecue and produce three meals a day for a roomful of complete strangers – and that’s just what we saw in one very short stay.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of Trigrad wish their local store carried a wider range of food. I’m guessing some of the women we saw harvesting squashes might wish they didn’t always have to go out in the blistering midday sun.  I didn’t see many young people either, so I’m not trying to say this was some kind of romantic rural idyll.

But I did see enough to realise that these people have something many of us in the UK have lost. It’s a kind of confidence around food and growing, and a pleasure in eating that seems devoid of the self-consciousness and class assumptions that often accompany conversations about food over here.

With even supermarket bosses admitting that food prices are likely to rise substantially in the near future, it’s a confidence we urgently need to recover.

I often go on about Incredible Edible Todmorden, the brilliant project that is trying to give everyone in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden access to good local food. On one of my visits recently, a resident told me about the difference that joining a growing project at her son’s school had made in her life.

‘The idea of growing something used to seem like an enormously daunting scary world of otherness that was nothing to do with me and I couldn’t possibly learn that – it was for other people,’ she said.

‘But I’ve found that it is such a simple but satisfying experience and the feeling is growing in me that if everything goes tits up and we can’t get any food anywhere then I have the means with which to provide food for myself and my son.

‘I am starting to get to the stage where I’m learning more every year that I’ll be able to make food happen.’

I love that phrase of hers – ‘able to make food happen’. The residents of Trigrad seem able to make food happen almost without thinking.

The residents of Todmorden and other Incredible Edible projects around the country offer hope to those of us who find it more daunting.

Todmorden police station

Todmorden police station

knot your regular apple crumble

Knotweed stemsTwo words to strike fear into the heart of any gardener: Japanese knotweed. This is a plant unparalleled in its thuggishness, more invasive than the Romans and so difficult to eradicate that it is actually illegal to put it in your dustbin.

Fallopia Japonica was brought to the UK by the Victorians who liked its ornamental appearance but did not realise that their descendants would forever curse them for introducing a plant that can grow a metre in a month and has the power to displace tarmac and even force its way through brickwork.

Huge sums of money are spent by local councils attempting to kill off this brute but it takes a place like Incredible Edible Todmorden to find a way of putting it to good use. Up at Incredible Farm, a brilliant social enterprise that is, among other things, training young people to become market gardeners, they’re harvesting the knotweed shoots and cooking them up for a new kind of gastro experience.

Helena Cook, herbalist extraordinaire and the brains behind Todmorden’s fabulous apothecary garden, goes so far as to call Japanese knotweed ‘the new superfood’. According to her, it has been used for centuries in eastern medicines to treat a range of ailments from heart problems to liver disease. Pharmaceutical companies use it to produce resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that can slow the ageing process and reduce age-related illnesses.

New shoots of Japanese knotweed look a little like a pink version of asparagus but the taste is similar to rhubarb. I’ve tried them lightly fried in olive oil, which was OK, but tonight I thought I’d try one of Helena’s suggestions: a fruit crumble.

colander

I had a cooking apple that needed using up, so I mixed that with some freshly picked Japanese knotweed shoots and Demerara sugar, scattered a crumble top over and baked it for about half an hour. It was absolutely delicious.

This is the recipe as best as I can remember it. The crumble top is in ounces because it’s my mum’s formula that she’s been using for more than half a century and to convert it into grams would seem a bit sacrilegious somehow.

Japanese knotweed and apple crumble

 Base
About 250 grams Japanese knotweed shoots
One medium cooking apple
About two heaped tablespoons of sugar, preferably Demerara for the crunch

Topping
5 ounces plain flour
2 1/2 ounces butter
2 ounces soft brown sugar

::Cut the knotweed into pieces about 4 cm long. Peel, core and slice the apple, mix with the knotweed and sugar and place in an ovenproof dish.
::Whizz the flour and butter in a food processor and mix in the sugar. Scatter on top of the fruit and bake in a medium oven for about 30 minutes.
::Serve warm, preferably with custard. Crème fraiche is good too but lacks the comfort factor.

 

crumble

Incredible Farm’s apprentice Jed wrote a nice blog about Japanese knotweed here. I’m looking forward to hearing what ingenious recipes Helena comes up with for Jed’s harvest.

Rules for disposing of Japanese knotweed can be found here.

And as Jed says: ‘The same caution should be exercised consuming Fallopia japonica as to other plants that contain oxalic acid.’ See www.netplaces.com/foraging-guide/becoming-plant-wise/allergies.htm

alone with a lobster

After I read about Barbara Diggle’s amazing granny, the woman who knew how to use every scrap of a sheep’s head to feed her family (blogged here), I came across another bit of food history that couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We rented a holiday cottage that had an Aga in it and, gloriously, the instruction booklet dated back to at least the early seventies. I know this because at one point it mentions the cost of fuel as being ‘about 3/- or 15 New Pence’ and decimalisation came in in February 1971.

The Aga was introduced to England in 1929 and by the early 1970s it was clearly a considerable status symbol.

This aspirational tone is everywhere in the booklet, but especially in the illustrations. Take this for example:

This lucky lady in her pristine white dress has not only produced meringues, jam tarts and a couple of roast chickens from her spotless, shining Aga, she also has a lobster. A lobster. I asked my mum, who never had an Aga but who was very busy cooking meals for her growing family in the 1970s, if she could remember how common it was for people to eat lobster and she replied tartly that it would have been ‘far too expensive for schoolmasters’, a reference to the job my dad did all his life.

Now I’ve nothing against people who own Agas, although I’ve never had one myself. My point in writing about this gem of a booklet is that I think it contains some important clues as to how and why we severed so many of our connections with that most basic of processes – the journey from plant to plate and all the growing and cooking knowledge that goes along with it. I’m pretty sure many other food-related publications of the time would contain similar messages.

In the world of the Aga catalogue, that most basic of cooking implements – an oven – become a sign of your status, but even worse than that is the insidious suggestion that cooking is all about performance. ‘Why do good cooks love the Aga?’ demands the first page of the booklet. ‘And why do people who thought they weren’t good cooks, suddenly discover that they are?’ The sort of thing a good cook does is, again, suggested by the illustrations. Here’s another Aga lady, dreamily admiring the fruits of her labours.

Elaborate pastry, a whole Dundee cake, more jam tarts, glazed ham, lashings of butter … hang on, this is impossible for one person to do in a day, Aga or no Aga.

And here’s a third picture demonstrating something else that is impossible.

Sorry, but you cannot feed a family on cream-filled meringues and Victoria sponge (not to mention those jam tarts again) and still have hipbones that show through your dress.

These women are so isolated. Apart from the little boy in the last picture, they are always alone in their kitchen. Early in the booklet the reader is told that ‘the slow oven is perfect for keeping plates warm, or meals hot for tardy husbands or football-crazy sons’.  In other words, while the male of the species is out working, socialising or enjoying sport, the female is home alone, sweetly ensuring that he has a hot meal to come back to. And cooking food that she cannot possibly eat herself if she is to keep her Twiggy-style figure.

It all adds up to a grotesque contrast with the memories you can read about on the history section of the Incredible Edible Todmorden website. In these interviews, people celebrate the connections they made around food – the fishmonger who kept a good herring back for granny, the children who spent whole days picking bilberries together – and express a real pride in genuine cooking skills, such as knowing how to turn stale bread into crumbs to make a cake.

I’m really not advocating a return to the days when ordinary people couldn’t even afford meat at Christmas. But I do think a lot of people were robbed when an increasingly affluent and consumerist society made food into something that isolated and excluded, rather than a source of connection and celebration.

And I know I sing the praises of Todmorden a lot on this blog, but the incredible edible project is doing a wonderful job of restoring food to its rightful place as something that builds relationships as well as sustaining our bodies, and of making sure that as many as people as possible can reclaim the satisfaction of growing and cooking their own meals.

The world of the Aga booklet is one of impossible standards and a constant struggle to outdo your neighbours. The ‘fairer, kinder, greener’ world of Todmorden is one of renewed connections, from person to person and between people, the land and the food it produces. I know which one I’d rather live in.

 

lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.

What to Eat

What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.

Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.

The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.

Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.

My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.

best of Yorkshire

After nearly ten years in Sheffield, I still get excited about the first Yorkshire rhubarb. Forced in dark sheds on farms in the famous Rhubarb Triangle (roughly between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield), it comes out the most glorious shade of pink.

I love the contrast with the yellowy, crumpled leaves.

This delicate, early crop is quite different from the coarse stuff that comes along later. The challenge is always to find a recipe that does it justice. It’s pretty much perfect when simply roasted with sugar and a vanilla pod; however this year I experimented a bit and came up with something I think is just as good.

I got the idea from Liz, who had in turn adapted it from Smitten Kitchen.

Behold: Rhubarb Sharlotka.

This is a winner on all counts. It tastes fabulous and really lets the rhubarb flavour sing. It is quick and easy to make. Also, unbelievably, it is cake without the calories. Or with fewer calories, anyway. No fat, apart from what is in the eggs, and only a small amount of flour. I had to bulk out the rhubarb with a cooking apple. Rhubarb and apple are great together, but purists could always replace the apple with a couple more sticks of rhubarb.

Rhubarb sharlotka

7 sticks Yorkshire rhubarb

I medium cooking apple

4 medium eggs

200 grams caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

125 grams plain flour

I cooked it in a deep, non-stick cake tin with a 20cm removable base.

:: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees

:: Line the base of the tin and butter the sides.

:: Chop the rhubarb and apple into robust chunks and pile them into the tin.

:: Beat the eggs with the sugar until thick. The whisk should leave trails in the egg mixture.

:: Beat in the vanilla extract.

:: Lightly stir in the flour.

:: Tip the batter over the rhubarb and apple and smooth the surface. You need to press down a bit too, to encourage it to penetrate the gaps between the chunks of fruit.

:: Bake for 55 minutes. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or cold, dusted with icing sugar, on its own or with cream or crème fraîche. A mug of Yorkshire tea would be a fine accompaniment.