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Posts Tagged ‘cobbler’

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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My area, like so many others, used to be farmland. Farmlands are often edged in brambles, and brambles often mean wild berries—strawberries, blackberries, currants. 100 years ago, during the warmer months, people would take baskets out to the brambly edges, fill them with whatever happened to be growing there, and pick until their fingers were stained and the baskets were full. Then it was back to the farmhouse, where Mom and assorted sisters would turn the berries into pies, cobblers, grunts, slumps, and Brown Betties for breakfast. The rest, the bulk of them, became jellies and jams to put up for the winter.

This is something I easily forget when I’m rushing hither and yon on a Monday morning, parking the car at a store* that’s flush against some of the last bits of wild and unclaimed acres in New Jersey. But today, when the sun slanted through the trees and hit gleaming bits of red, I stopped to investigate.

Yep, there they were: a raspberry’s unmistakable hairy, thorny canes. I threw my bag and sunglasses into the car, lest they fall into the poison ivy that was absolutely everywhere, and reached and gently pulled. The berries were much smaller, shinier, and firmer than cultivated raspberries, and were ruby red instead of rosy violet-red. And tart! Holy cow. Only a handful was available, but I can imagine a sweetened pie of these would be a thing of uncommon beauty.

No one else saw them, or maybe they saw them but didn’t trust that they were raspberries, and steered clear.

Nibbling on them as I write this. I’ve never eaten wild raspberries before. Crazy. And enjoying them slowly, the best way to enjoy something rare.

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*I’m not telling you what store. They’re mine. Okay, mine and the deer’s.

 

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This is the time of year when my uncle’s cherry tree would be starting to sprinkle its petals like powdered sugar over the yard. The tree wasn’t a tidy, perfect, Martha Stewart-esque magazine deal. You’ve seen those, the kind that are practically sparkling in some verdant pasture. This was planted a few yards from the tree house, next to the driveway, and almost hidden among other shrubs and trees. But those cherries—sour ones—made the best pies and cobblers I’d ever tasted.

Once my uncle lost interest in harvesting them, some ten years ago, he’d let us go over with a ladder to get them down before the birds or rain got to them. The pie above is reminiscent of the tree itself—not perfect—but like so many things in life, it was galaxies better than perfect.

A few years ago my uncle sold the house he and my aunt and cousins had lived in since the early 60s. The current owners must not have known what they had, because they took down the tree house and my uncle’s plantings and the tree with them. The yard is now tidy and prettified. But I remember it all, and can still taste those pies.

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Wildly gorgeous lilacs that still grow at the edge of the honey guy’s driveway.

Next stop on the sweet memory train is the above. I finally turned into the low gravel driveway one day to look around. What I found was an old man in an older building, in a small room lined with honey jars. He’d collected it all. The hives—weathered, seafoam-green wooden painted boxes—were stacked like lopsided sandwiches the end of the steeped gravel driveway. There were no decorations on the walls; it was plain shelving, the jars, and him. It might as well have been his garden shed.

And I never got his name, but haven’t forgotten his Steven-Wright delivery.  “This is the best,” he said, handing me a jar of blackberry honey. The local bees knew where to source the berries—there was a blackberry field just a few yards away. And the guy was right—that honey was impossibly spicy-fragrant with blackberries. “You’ll be back for more,” he said.

A month later I walked in and and he didn’t even say hello. Just looked at me and smirked, “Told you you’d be back for more.”

It’s now a women’s clothing store or some such nonsense, because there aren’t enough of those in the world while we can barely cross a Wegmans without tripping over jars of local blackberry honey, right?

Grr. And to further emphasize: Grrrrr.

Never had anything like that blackberry honey, before or since.

 

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Last stop is another regret, but thank goodness I had the foresight to take pictures before the owner ripped out his Christmas tree farm way off the road within an old-growth pine forest in order to build a cluster of houses with aluminum siding.

This place was a dream. A pine-soaked, wood-smoky dream. Your gloves and boots would be stuck with sap and pine needles and your coat would be dusted with the remains of funnel cake and then you got to take home a Christmas tree. The look and the feel and the smell of this place—I swear it was like Scandinavia or Iceland (wait–is it Iceland that’s covered with ice and Greenland that’s covered with green or the other way around? Crap.), not that I’ve ever been to either place. But that was the thing about it—you were there anyway. It was a dream. The particulars didn’t matter. That’s a picture of the view on the drive in to the center of it all, and the owners’ kids’ tree house overlooking the lake. Can you feel it?

They had a suckling pig twirling around on a spit. You’d pay for your tree at a cute little shed and the girl would give you loose apples to take home. And their hot chocolate was served in yet another cute little shed amid a bunch of others that sold greenery and the funnel cake. The hot chocolate was basic stuff, but it was creamy and hot and good; and the experience of drinking it just amplified the delicious sensory explosion going on around and above.

What are you still tasting?

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