March 24th 2013 – Things fall apart

A couple of weeks ago I saw three hares running across a field just outside Hamme-Mille.  Apparently Oestre, the pagan Goddess of dawn, fertility and rebirth had a hare as her favourite companion thus vaulting the animal to sacred status.  We still have Easter and its bunnies but I can’t help feeling that something has been lost, become a bit tame and dumbed down.  The pagan Anglo-Saxons also offered the goddess coloured eggs at the Vernal Equinox.  Fortunately, the Christians couldn’t tie Easter down though and it wanders around the April calender following the moon, a constant reminder of our ancient roots.

This can, however cause problems with the weather, especially if Easter is ‘early’ (how dare it!).  I feel as if Spring has fallen apart as I sit in my conservatory watching ‘my’ blackbird eating the currants I have thrown out for him, searching through the snow which is deeper than he is tall.  I have plenty of currants spare at the moment as it’s the season for Hot Cross Buns and I have 5 dozen to make for Friday for some customers.  I’m not sure why I offered, I’d never made them before.

Chinua Achebe died this last week and I not for the only time this weekend have I been reminded of the title of his classic ‘Things fall apart’.  It started with the practice buns yesterday and has continued ever since. Perhaps I should have read the recipe more carefully.

I used Margaret Costa’s recipe, a cook who had a great influence on Delia and who wrote in the sixties and seventies, her recipes often appearing in the Sunday Times as well as in her wonderful ‘Four Season’s Cookery Book’ from where I based this recipe.  Follow her method not mine.

I had to change one thing though – I really don’t like mixed peel.  I love the yeasty, spicy taste of the buns with their sticky glazed exterior but peel just spoils it for me.  That’s what drove me to making my own.  After all, how difficult could it be?

In fact even as I write this, things are still falling apart.  The internet keeps going down.  This doesn’t surprise me as our provider is Voo (Brutele in disguise – you may remember how good they used to be if you have lived in Brussels for any length of time) and there is snow outside and that is enough to disturb my signal, apparently!  OK, rant over, at least I save drafts regularly now.  Actually, I write it in Word and upload when finished – I’ve learned my lesson.

Spicy Hot Cross Buns

Makes 15 – 18, depending how big you want them.

450g plain flour

25g fresh yeast, about half those blocks you can find easily in Belgian supermarkets

300ml milk/water mix, lukewarm

2 teaspoons of mixed spice.  We stock this so no problem here, but you might like to use a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg as Margaret does or go French and use their Quatre Epices

1 teaspoon of salt

2 teaspoons castor sugar (sucre de grain fine)

100g currants (I don’t like raisins, too dry and hard, yuk.  Why do mothers insist on making their kids eat them?  My kids hate them now and even view nice plump sultanas with suspicion.  You could use sultanas instead or a mixture.  For the buns, not for the kids).

50g melted butter.  Get this done early on.

1 egg, beaten

Some basic pastry made with flour and water. 

Sugar syrup, 2 tablespoons water and the same of sugar, heated until the sugar has dissolved.

Sift half the flour into a bowl (I did it all).  Blend the yeast with a pinch of sugar and a little of the milk-water (I put the yeast in a bowl, added all the milk-water and then the sugar.  It took a bit of time to get going…).  When frothy add the rest of the liquid.  Make a well in the sifted flour and pour it in.

Meanwhile, sift the spices, the rest of the flour and the salt together (this was problematic as I had used all the flour) and stir in the fruit and sugar.  By this time I had some sugar crusted spiced currants in the bottom of my bowl.  When the first mixture has nearly doubled in size, add this and pour on the butter and egg.  That’s if you had melted the butter in advance.

I’m sure this is quite easy and is the reason why the flour is used in two parts.  For me it took all my effort to force the crusty currents into the doughy mass.  At one time it seemed as I would never get them distributed evenly through the dough as they seemed to rebound from the elastic surface.  Adding the egg and the (finally) melted butter made the whole thing just slip arround the bowl.  I had to add some more flour and finally the dough became workable.  This could explain why the buns (when I finally baked them, 24 hours later) were a little dense.  Not very, but…

Anyway, you will knead until smooth (7-8 minutes) and leave to prove again.

I left mine to prove and then realised I was running out of time.  Marie-Rose had abandoned me to go to a really important meeting (her words) and I had to set up the market by myself.  This was going to take time and I realised that I couldn’t set it up and come home to finish the baking as she wasn’t there!  So I had to wrap the expanding dough in clingfilm and put it in the freezer.  The dough struggled with this and kept pushing through the clingfilm like some kind of culinary hernia but several sheets later I had finally trapped it.

You, however, will now pat the dough onto a floured surface and divide it into 16 ‘equal’ parts.  In fact they may be quite variable in size, at least mine are.  I always seem to end borrowing dough from some of the larger brutes and giving to the less endoughed.  Perhaps I should use repeated halving instead of guessing how much dough to take off each time.

Make your little dough strips.  I made a shallow cross-cut with a sharp knife in each. You will need to wet slightly the surface of the dough to encourage them to stick.  If not you will lose your temper as the strips insist that they are your best friends and refuse to part company with your fingers.


Pre-heat the oven to about 220°C.  Place the buns on a greased baking sheet and leave some space between them.  I did but there wasn’t much point as the yeast was stubborn after its night-long stay in the freezer.

Place your strips on the buns and bake for 15 minutes.  Take out and put on a wire rack to cool.  Brush with the sugar syrup.  Split in two, stuff with unsalted butter and eat, letting the butter dribble over your sticky fingers.  You can lick them as you go, but only if you are alone in kitchen at the time.


The buns were a little dense but they were good.  I’ll follow the recipe next time.  It’ll make for a calmer morning.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013,

March 17th 2013 – I love you just the way you are

The snow has melted away, not without having wreaked havoc on my daffodils.  True, they would not have opened for St. David’s Day but certainly would have made St. Patrick’s.  The foliage and flowers could not take the hard frost and snow cover of the start of this last week.

The time comes to think about what else I shall grow in my potagers.  Success with vegetables and fruit, if you are not a person willing to indulge high-maintenance plants, relies on knowing what works with the soil and climate you have.  I have tried to force my allotment to grow chillis and tomatoes, but these unsurprisingly fail.  I am also rubbish at leeks and sprouts, the soil probably needs more drainage for the former and I always forget to net the latter against the butterflies of late summer.  As I do kale.

Carrots work well, so I’ll plant successions of the short, fat chantenays.  Also Mangetout, so I’ll make a rustic structure for these to clamber up.  Potatoes and Broad Beans are already in and just in case we get a wet summer I’ll have Runner Beans too.  They love the damp, Atlantic air – too low humidity will hinder the setting of the bean.  Also, it makes sure that at least something fine comes from the Julys and Augusts of the last few years.

I’m at peace with my allotment and this is because I understand what it can offer and grow accordingly.  I’m sure the ground is happy not being asked to do things it just can’t in the  unfriendly atmosphere that results.  The beds would look sad and unloved and I’d be embarrassed to seen together with them; our relationship would obviously be seen not be working.

And it’s the same for our own relationships.  Too often in the past have I tried to make someone something they are not, tried to force them to change in a way that didn’t show respect to their qualities but focussed on their short-comings.  People have tried to do this to me too but happily these relationships are in the past.

The Dunmow Flitch trials, first mentioned in The Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales, award a flitch of bacon to married couples from anywhere in the world, if they can satisfy the Judge and Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors that in ‘twelvemonth and a day’, they have ‘not wisht themselves unmarried again’ (thanks to for this information).  A flitch is half a (dead) pig, cut lengthways.

I’d like to think that me and Marie-Rose would qualify for this as we still are happily married, it being our anniversary today.  This relationship feels right, we are happy to let each other be themselves and our relationship grows and bears fruit as a result. Not children though, we are too old for that.  My three from a previous marriage are quite sufficient for both of us!

Now, this reminds me (once again I have a few eggs that need using up) of what the late, great Keith Floyd said in 1987 about the Quiche Lorraine in ‘Floyd on France’, BBC Books:

‘The poor Quiche Lorraine, once aptly (and sadly) described by Elizabeth David as a culinary dustbin, is blazoned on blackboards in art centres and wine bars throughout the land.  And the resulting soggy pastry case containing congealed custard dotted with bits of ham, tinned asparagus and sliced mushrooms is a belly-chilling travesty’.
He would have agreed that some of the best things in life need to appreciated for what they are, without adornment or frippery.  I like salmon and broccoli, but melded with a quiche does nobody any favours.  It is wrong.  I also don’t agree with chocolate, coffee or chillis in beer, for that matter.
So few ingredients are used that there is no place to hide so everything must be of the highest quality so use free-range eggs and make your own pastry using the finest flour and butter.  The bacon could come from your very own flitch too, but this is unlikely, for many reasons!
Don’t make the Quiche into something it is not, love it just the way it is.
So as Keith Floyd exhorts us

‘This is how it should be done.  These are the only ingredients you are allowed to use!’
Quiche Lorraine
Serves 4 – 6
Pre-heat your oven to 200°C  You will need a well-buttered 8” (20 cm) pie dish.  I like loose bottomed ones.

250g shortcrust pastry

4 eggs, beaten

450 ml double cream

Salt and pepper

50g smoked bacon, diced and lightly fried

2 teaspoons butter, cut into small pieces

Line your well-buttered pie dish with the pastry.  Prick all over with a fork.  Beat the eggs and cream together and season well.  Sprinkle the bacon bits over the pastry case and pour in the eggs and cream.  Bake in the hot oven for 25 minutes or so until set.

Next week, Hot Cross Buns.  Never made them before…

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013,

March 10th 2013 – Ghosts

It seems that the Grand Feu was not totally successful – the snow has come back.  I was ready for it and put bubble-wrap sheeting over my potato beds, hoping to preserve any new-found warmth in the soil.  My sorrel has started to push through as well so I was able to harvest just enough for a selfish treat.  More on that later.

The seasons remind us that in prediction there also has to be variation.  We know that something should happen, but exactly when and how are not precisely known.  We expect to see things, but the weather dictates when and sometimes if.  My apples failed last year because of the weather, as they did for others in the village.  There weren’t enough pollinators around when the apples were in bloom.

Ghosts are very different, in that they can and do pop up in unexpected places and at unexpected times, not just their regular haunts.  They can lay dormant for years and then spring to ‘life’ if certain conditions are met.  Maybe a room which has lain undisturbed for years is accessed, freeing the dormant spirits.  Perhaps a grave is opened…

I find ghosts from time to time, and non are more welcome than those who fall from the pages of old cookery books, awakened by the turning pages which have remained closed for decades.  I like old cookery books and don’t look for 1st editions and perfect dust jackets.  I like the well-worn browny-green hard covers with faded gilt spine titles and a collapsing dust-jacket an added bonus.

A recent find is ‘Mrs. Lucas’s French Cookery Book’, published (3rd Edition) 1931.  Within this book was a thin sliver of blue airmail paper, with a recipe written on each side.  On one side was a Zabaione recipe but on the other ‘Yung Chung Chow Sub Yutz’ or at least that’s the best I can make out.  You can see for yourself:

Chinese recipe

I would love to know what the name of the recipe translates to.  It is a simple stir fry, with sherry added, presumably as a rice wine substitute.  It is served with boiled rice and soya sauce and must have seemed very exotic at the time.  I also love the airmail paper as that transports me back to a pre-email time when I was living in Peru, sending my mum letters every month.  Or at least that was what I intended.

Now, back to the sorrel and my selfish act.  This is a rite of spring and I share it with no-one, there simply not being enough jeunes pousses d’oseille to go round.  Young enough, they don’t need stripping from their stalks.  This will be necessary later in the year when Paling in’t groen is wanted.

Sorrel omeletteServes 1

You will need your favourite 2-3 egg omelette pan, some unsalted butter and warmed plate.  In addition:

Sorrel, young and fresh, straight from the potager

3 eggs, straight from the chickens

A little fresh cream, as good as you can find.

Melt a bit of butter in a pan and wilt the sorrel down slowly for a few minutes, 3 – 4 should do it.  Add a little cream to bind, not too much.  Keep warm.

Make your omelette in your usual way, not forgetting to season well.  When just set, add the sorrel to one half and then flip the other half over the filling.  Slide onto your plate, sit down and eat immediately.  Now you can kid yourself that spring has well and truly sprung.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013,

March 3rd 2013 – Leeks, Potatoes and the Circle of Life

The weather is definitely milder and I was able to start planning for my 50th birthday.  It’s not until July but 7 Ps as they say.  I am already reasonably sure of one thing that I will want to eat – new potatoes, butter and fresh mint.  I don’t have a cow but mint I do and as for potatoes…

The What-whats really are a boon.  The eggs they lay are welcome but they help much more than that.  I follow Charles Dowding’s no-dig and raised beds allotment philosophy and just add a layer of compost to the surface annually.  I’ve had my best compost ever this year, thanks in part to the chicken litter that gets added to the bin once a month.  The compost was just right, clean smelling, light and crumbly.  I was surprised as I hadn’t kept it particularly dry over the winter but my two bins are in a sheltered corner of the garden under a large weeping willow which seems to have kept the worst of the rain away.

Not only do they improve my compost but I’ve let them on the raised beds during the winter.  They clean the soil well of overwintering bugs and I’m sure the surface raking has not damaged the structure.  The poo is good too.

In went the Pentland Javelins and I was pleased to see many little wriggling baby earthworms in the soil.  These do the digging for me, processing the top compost back into the soil.  Charles has taught me that digging destroys soil structure and my crops keep getting better following his guidance.

The last of the leeks came out today and although I like the idea of growing them, they don’t seem to like the idea of growing here.  I guess the soil and climate are against them, my potagers are close to a pond and the soil is quite compacted and wet 4 to 5 inches below.  Nevertheless I have a good few in the kitchen waiting to be cooked.

Leeks and potatoes.  Vichyssoise?  Leeks and potatoes together?  I take one out and then plant the other, they don’t coincide for me.  However, this reminds me of when my Grandad was breathing his last in the Johnson hospital in Spalding, Lincolnshire.  There were two wards, the other being maternity.   I don’t know how comforting the sound of newborn babies crying was on the the terminal ward but for me it seemed reassuring and natural.  Things ending, things beginning.

It was also St. David’s Day last Friday so I couldn’t pass the opportunity to celebrate with my leeks.  I’m not Welsh but that matters not one jot.  I’ll celebrate anyone’s national day, be it bigos with my Polish friends or haggis.  Despite a little research I don’t know what the Welsh eat to celebrate their national day, anymore than I know what the English eat on April 23rd.  So here is what I’m doing with my leeks.  I thank the late Arto der Haroutunian for this recipe.  It is on the same page (110-111, Classic Vegetable Cookery) as an Armenian Baki Sumpoogi Moussaka or ‘Lent-Style Aubergine Pie’.  Like all well-used cook books there are stains aplenty on these two pages.  I’ve cooked both many times.

Arto doesn’t indicate where this recipe comes from, but with the use of leeks, cream and nutmeg it is completely at home here in Belgium.

Leek Pie

Serves 4

You will need a pie dish, big enough.

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C (moderately hot).

1/2 kg puff pastry.  Make it if you wish.  If not, make sure it is a 100% butter puff pastry.


50 g butter

1 large thinly sliced onion

750 g leeks, trimmed, washed, thinly sliced and drained

125 ml double cream

2 heaped teaspoons flour

1 teaspoon ( or more if you like) salt

1/2 teaspoon black or white (better I think) ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg


1 egg, beaten

Melt the fat in a large saucepan, add onion and fry gently until soft but not coloured.  Golden-brown is not wanted here.  Add the drained leeks and cook for 10 minutes or so, until soft, but again, not coloured.

Beat the cream, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg together and add to the leeks.

Put the leeks into the pie dish and cover with the puff pastry.  Decorate as the fancy takes you.  Brush with the egg yolk.

It will take a half-hour or so.  Eat hot with some green vegetables.  The sprouting broccoli is nearly ready.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013,