A Happy Pig is a Good Pig: What Free Range Really Means

This piece was originally written for the Tiki Chris blog.

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Pork has got to be the most versatile meats. From roasting joints, loins for chops, legs for gammon, ribs for barbecue you can create all sorts of wonderful dishes from nose to tail.

While it’s tempting to rush off and start a cooking marathon as soon as possible, it’s important to consider where your meat comes from first. Of course, discerning shoppers always try to source the best quality possible to be sure of welfare standards and good flavour. However there are so many labels to decipher and even the savviest foodie is likely to be confused by the terms “outdoor bred”, “outdoor reared” and “free range”.

Based on my recent visit to Blythburgh Farm in Suffolk, here’s what they all mean:

  • outdoor bred = born outside but then moved indoors to be reared intensively for the majority of their lives
  • outdoor reared = intensively reared outside; they may be in huts or tents but they’re shut in for the whole time
  • free range = born outside, reared outside, freedom to roam large paddocks for all of their lives

If the pork you’re eyeing up in the supermarket has none of the above labels or is imported pork, chances are it’s from animals who have had relatively miserable lives.

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The explanations above are courtesy of Jimmy Butler (pictured right with his son Alistair), an experienced farmer and head of Blythburgh farmily farm in Suffolk. The Butlers converted their pig farm into the “absolutely, totally free range pork” venture it is today back in the 1990s.

Today, you can find pork bearing the Blythburgh stamp in specialist butchers around the country including my local, Hennessy Butchers in Battersea.

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You may have come across Blythburgh pork, also known as Jimmy Butler’s pork, on menus at the Savoy, the Fat Duck, the Ivy and the Hind’s Head – as well as street food favourites Chipotle and Yum Bun.

The label “Blythburgh pork” means that the meat you are buying is traceable back to one truly free range farm, which has ideal conditions for raising happy pigs.

The pigs that produce Blythburgh Free Range Pork spend their entire lives outdoors in the fresh air, with freedom to roam. Large airy tented barns in each paddock with plenty of bedding straw provide shelter when needed.

Better welfare and better taste – these pigs grow at a slower rate, so develop more flavour and succulence that is not easy to find in intensively farmed pork.

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Jimmy’s son Alistair tells us that pigs are curious, intelligent animals who love to root and play. As Jimmy puts it, “a free range pig is a happy pig and a happy pig is a good pig”.

The open spaces of the free range farm is clear to see just off a main road near the town of Blythburgh; the pig farm has become something of a landmark in these parts. You can see for yourself how the pigs happily roam in large paddocks, playing and rooting around as is their nature in the sandy Suffolk soil. I was lucky enough to cuddle one…

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After the visit, the group of food writers I was with were invited to a butchery demonstration by Gerard King, from craft butcher Salter and King, who skillfully broke down a whole side of pork and shared his top tips for preparing each cut. His recipe for rolled pork belly stuffed with chorizo sounds like a winner!

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With fine quality meat like Blythburgh pork, the simplest recipes are often the best to showcase the natural flavours. The Butlers shared one of their favourite family recipes for slow-cooked pork shoulder:

Ingredients:

  • 6kg Blythburgh pork shoulder, boned, rolled and scored
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • salt

Method:

Heat oven to 220 C. Place the pork in a roasting tray, rub the skin with oil and salt, and then sprinkle with fennel seeds. Roast for 30 minutes and then lower the oven to 120C. Cook for a further six and a half hours. When cooked remove pork and rest for 15 minutes. Remove crackling, shred pork and serve in rolls with apple sauce or with vegetables and gravy.

Find out more about Blythburgh Pork on their website www.freerangepork.co.uk and Twitter feed @BlythburghPork

Cold-press rapeseed oil: oil for one and one for oil

I originally wrote this piece for the Tiki Chris blog IMG_4759

Oil is an everyday foodstuff used in many kinds of dishes – yet the sheer range of options available can be baffling. The paradox of choice is obvious in every supermarket – how to choose between olive, sunflower, coconut, rapeseed and numerous other culinary oils and fats? The best advice is not to choose: keep a range for different purposes.

One variety which is increasingly likely to be found in kitchens across the country is rapeseed oil, with sales rocketing in the last year. The golden elixir attracting shoppers is not the cheap, refined, processed stuff often labeled as “vegetable” oil you may associate with rapeseed. British farmers are now producing premium cold-pressed, extra virgin oils from rapeseed crops which comparable in quality to the best olive oils.

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The founders of Hillfarm Oil, married couple Clare and Sam Fairs, made their family farm in Heveningham, Suffolk the first farm in the UK to cold-press and bottle their own rapeseed over ten years ago. Hillfarm is now one of the UK’s leading producers, bottling over 500,000 litres of their oil for shops, restaurants and supermarkets across the land.

Clare and Sam Fairs speak passionately about the health benefits of rapeseed oil and are quick to compare the numbers to olive oil: it has half the saturated fat, eleven times more natural omega 3 and more vitamin E. While the Hillfarm branded tshirts may proclaim they are “challenging the olive”, in fact all sorts of oils should be welcome in the kitchen.

There is nothing quite like the peppery, grassy kick of extra-virgin olive oil drizzled over dishes just before serving. But olive oils are not the best for cooking: not only does the quality deteriorate, applying very high heat can cause release toxic chemicals according to scientists. Coconut oil is often described as excellent for cooking due to its high burn point, but the strong flavour and greasy mouthfeel can be overpowering. Rapeseed oil also has a high smoking point, so can be used for roasting and frying. It’s also relatively thin as an oil, meaning vegetables crisp up more quickly than with other oils. Taste wise, rapeseed certainly doesn’t pack the same punch as really good olive oil, but the faintly nutty, mustardy flavour is undeniably delicious and does not interfere with other ingredients. Instead of trying to “convert” shoppers from one type of oil to another, we should be encouraged to expand our repertoire of oils, in the same way we build an arsenal of herbs and spices in our storecupboards. Rapeseed oil has a lot going for it: the British providence, the high burn point and the distinct, mellow flavour. IMG_4787

Cake Shop Bakery, a renowned bakery not far from Hillfarm, use the rapeseed oil in many of their recipes including a stunning “British foccacia”.

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It’s not just rapeseed oil that is liquid gold, earning praise from big names like Tom Kerridge, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Hillfarm is now growing and selling rapeseed greens and seeds for culinary uses, which are popular with chefs like Mark Hix. Hillfarm also make seriously amazing mayonnaise – the yellow colour, thick wobbly texture and mellow nutty, mustardy flavour are glorious. The most recent launch is a new range of rapeseed hand soap and creams which feel lovely to use.

Time to make room in your kitchen cabinets: there is a new healthy, home-grown crop around.

rapeseed field3 I was invited to visit Hill Farm oil to learn more about the company by the Founders and Food Safari

Recipe: Jewelled Aromatic Rice by Amira

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This recipe is based on the classic Persian dish, Javaher Polow, or “jewelled rice”, an opulent dish of fluffy rice, sweet and tangy fruits and crunchy nuts. It’s traditionally served at weddings and celebrations. Each of the ingredients represents a precious jewel; berries for rubies, pistachios for emeralds. The dish is a symbol of wishing sweetness and wealth for the newly married couple – of course it was on my wedding menu last year!

So when the people at Amira rice contacted me to ask if I’d like to try their recipe, I was instantly reminded of happy, delicious memories and had to say yes. The recipe on the Amira website is not totally authentic (traditionally you’d use zereshk/barberries not cranberries, for example) but I was really pleased with the outcome, so it’s a good one to keep hold of particularly if you live in an area where sourcing Middle Eastern ingredients may be a challenge.

The buttery golden crust that develops on the bottom of the pan, “tahdig“, is the best bit – to be able to turn out a perfect crust in one clean motion is a good sign that you’re marriage material (phew – I passed the test!)

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Using high quality rice is really important – please don’t assume that all rice is the same because that’s just not true. You will notice the difference if you source properly aged rice – ordinarily I would always go for basmati for the exceptional fragrance, but Amira’s “Superior Aromatic” is not basmati yet still has the fragrance, nuttiness and and the extra long grains you would expect from the best quality rice.

Ingredients:
300g high quality rice such as Amira Superior Aromatic Rice
Generous pinch of saffron threads
150 g dried cranberries
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
60 g unsalted butter
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp cardamom pods
1 cumin seeds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To finish
100 g walnuts, roughly chopped
Seeds picked from 1 large pomegranate
Generous bunch of parsley, chopped
Finely grated zest from 1 orange
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

Method
Add rice to a sieve and rinse under running water. Tip into a bowl and cover well with cold water. Set aside to soak for 1 hour. Add the saffron to a small heatproof glass and cover with 2 tablespoons of boiling water, then set aside to soak. Add the cranberries to a small heatproof bowl and cover in boiling water, set aside to soak.

Add the oil and half the butter to a deep frying pan and set over a low heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion, cinnamon, cardamon and cumin and fry gently for 30 minutes until the onion is soft and lightly caramelised, then turn off the heat.

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Drain your rice and add to a large saucepan. Pour over boiling water so it comes a generous 3 centimetres above the rice and set over a medium high heat. Boil for 3 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold running water to cool and drain well. The rice will have started to cook but will still have plenty of bite and the grains will not yet be fluffy.

Combine the cooled rice with the onions, along with the saffron, cranberries and their soaking water. Stir well but be careful not to break the grains of rice, which would make them stodgy and starchy – you want separate, elegant grains! Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then dot the surface of the rice with the remaining butter.

Using the handle of a wooden spoon make 5-6 holes through the rice all the way to the bottom of the pan – this helps it to steam evenly.

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The recipe instructions said: “tear off a sheet of baking paper, scrunch it up under cold running water, shaking off the excess, then lay snugly over the surface of the rice. Cover the pan tightly with a layer of foil and set over a very low heat.”

I did what I’ve always done to achieve a perfect tahdig: wrap the lid of your saucepan in a tea towel to ensure a snug fit, so no precious steam escapes. Pomegranate pattern optional!

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Cook for 40 minutes on a very low heat, after which time your rice will be fluffy and a delicious buttery crust will have developed on the bottom.

While your rice is cooking, toast the walnuts in a dry frying pan until golden. Tip into a bowl and stir through the pomegranate seeds, parsley, orange zest and garlic. Set aside.

Once your rice is ready, remove the lid, place a large platter on top and in one swift, brave movement, flip the pan upside down. Your rice should slide out in a cloud of fragrant steam. Ta da!

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(If you’re not feeling brave, you can scoop the rice out onto your serving dish and then scrape the lovely crunchy caramelised rice from the base of the pan to arrange over the top.)

Enjoy! We ate ours with chicken thighs cooked simply with diced onion, garlic, saffron, salt and pepper over a medium heat, with sides of salads, yoghurt, and my mum’s torshi (Persian pickle) – keep meaning to post the recipe here, bear with me.

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I was sent Amira rice to sample and review and will definitely be buying it in future! Amira rice is stocked at selected Morrisons, Asda, Tesco and Waitrose stores.

Farewell to Food for Thought…

Food for Thought is the oldest and longest running vegetarian restaurant in London. After more than forty years of service, it will close its doors on Sunday 21st June – Father’s Day.

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My father has been a regular since it opened in the 1970s. He took me when I was young; I too fell in love with the alternative vibe and hearty, homespun, delicious and low priced food.

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As the team from Food for Thought put it, “It has been a remarkable venture. That such an awkward, cramped and unconventional set-up could have survived so long is, in no little measure, due to the commitment of our staff and the loyalty of our customers.”

The news that it’s shutting in a few weeks because of escalating rent prices is incredibly sad, but my dad and I will always smile at the fond memories we’ve had here over the years. I love the food scene in London and how there’s always an exciting new opening, but the flip side is seeing historic stalwarts like Food For Thought shut down more than they should.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy – thank you for sharing memories with me over the years, including our last meal together at Food for Thought.

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The Botanist Broadgate Circle

This piece first appeared on The Holborn

London is most certainly a city of villages: whether you are loyal to the tribes of the north, south, east or west, you are never too far from a venue owned by the ETM Group, which has gastro pubs all over town. Over the past 15 years brothers Ed and Tom Martin have learnt a thing or two about adapting successful concepts according to their location.

The Botanist Broadgate Circle is the latest addition to the ETM Group, recently opened in a corner of London which has just undergone significant redevelopment. The concrete area near Liverpool St has seen a flurry of buzzy openings from big names like Jose Pizarro, artisan coffee house Beany Green, sourdough pizza specialists Franco Manca, and brand new surf&turf concept Crab Tavern.

Botanist BGC Exterior smThe Botanist Broadgate Circle is one of the latest to join this newly dressed up restaurant hub. Named after its “sister” restaurant in Chelsea, the family resemblence can barely be detected: something was lost in translation in the few miles travelled from West to East. Arriving at the restaurant is a bit of a shock if you’re expecting the genteel vibe of the original outpost of The Botanist: in this neck of the woods, you’re greeted by an outdoor terrace heaving with thumping music and braying suits fresh out of their Square Mile offices.

The familiar name is there to appeal to punters who know the Sloaney stomping ground, while the wholly new offering has been calculated to appeal to punters from the Square Mile heartland.

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Dining booths

The venue is all handsome dark wood and leather banquettes over two floors, with surprising flourishes such as exotic taxidermy in the downstairs nightclub the “Soda Room”. Unfortunately the sound system for the whole venue is connected to the club, meaning it was impossible to hear anything.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, having to strain to understand the waiter and your table-mates, and going hoarse from shouting to be heard, is not an enjoyable experience. By all means, crank up the volume when the night has moved on from dinner to dancing, but most people don’t want to dine among nightclub-level volumes – it can’t be good for digestion and unfortunately taints the whole dining experience.

The only similarity to the Sloane Square Botanist is the drinks. The waiting staff know their way around the cocktail and wine lists, recommending a bottle of South African Kanu wine with confidence that we would enjoy the unusual variety – shame there had to be so much shouting and pointing to order it.

The menu is an appealing mix of British and European dishes, with market-fresh fish sourced daily from Billingsgate and a solid selection of steaks.

For a starter, I ordered the special of salmon cured in Thai flavours of galangal and lemongrass. Slivers of fried lotus fruit, crisp radish and shiso leaf scattered on top added crunch to a pleasingly fragrant, fresh starter. Meanwhile my companion was busy piling forkfuls of her dressed crab onto delicate melba toast.

Crab

Monk’s beard, is an underrated green vegetable which is available for so short a time each year that I am compelled to order it whenever possible. My main course of roast cod, clam chowder and monk’s beard was a showcase for the best foods in season.

Roast cod, clam chowder, monks beardIf it hadn’t been so good I would have succumbed to food envy for my friend’s Iberico pork shoulder, served with almonds, pickled nectarines and nasturtium flowers.

Iberico Pork shoulderThe dessert menu was a surprisingly long list of tempting dishes, all vying for our attention. In the end we ordered the sticky date pudding, served with a refreshing, clean-tasting cornflake milk sorbet which captured the very essence of cereal bowl dregs, in a good way.

Sticky date pudding, cornflake milk sorbet

It alternated beautifully with spoonfuls of the other dessert we shared, coconut and lime panna cotta with mojito sorbet.

Coconut and lime panna cotta, Mojito sorbet

The Botanist Broadgate Circle is a decent, dependable addition to the City, but will be vastly improved once the issue with the music is sorted out.

This restaurant’s food is commendable, and deserves an appropriate setting; it is a disservice to the kitchen’s skilled cooking to serve it in an oppressively loud environment.

While my ears recover from the evening entertainment offered at The Botanist, I will return for one of their weekend brunches: great value at £25 for three courses and surely 11am is a quiter time of day (depending on the number of bottomless Bloody Marys you order)… Until the sound system is sorted, I will have to agree with the Sloaney saying, at least when it comes to The Botanist: west is best.

The Botanist, Unit 5 Broadgate Circle, City of London, EC2M 2QS, 020 3058 9888.

botanistlondon.com
@botanistlondon

Something for Everyone at Maze Grill, Park Walk

I originally wrote this piece for the Tiki Chris blog

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan’s suggestion for healthy, balanced eating habits has a simple, bold clarity which rings true on a deep level. We should all be eating less meat, for both health and environmental reasons.

And yet. The “mostly” in the famous phrase is a giant loophole, carte blanche to veer off course in the quest for wholesome living – once in a while. In my view, if red meat, seafood, rich sauces, dairy and other delicious non plant-based food is acceptable occasionally, it makes sense to make those times a real occasion.

Book a table at a restaurant with carefully sourced meat, handled with skill by people who are passionate about the whole process: somewhere like Maze Grill Park Walk in Chelsea.

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The beauty of the menu is that there is something for everyone; it would be an excellent option for a reunion with old friends, or a family gathering of various generations. The space is cosy with a chic interior design – somehow the restaurant manages to pull off an exposed brick wall in swanky Mayfair.

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The restaurant specializes in rare-breed, dry-aged prime beef, a mixture of British native breeds, US prime steaks and Japanese wagyu. Some of the cuts can be seen maturing in Himalayan Salt Block ageing cabinets, which help draw the moisture out of the beef.

T-bone

Taking equal billing is a “raw bar” making sushi and sashimi to order. We tried the California Roll (£9), which comes topped with a generous pile of snow crab and tempura crunch. Scallops Yuzu (£14) which was finished with frozen yuzu grated at the table caused chopsticks to clash over the last bites. Another stand-out dish was the Salmon Nashi (£10) with the silky, high grade salmon contrasting pleasantly against thin slices of crunchy, refreshing Nashi pear. The sashimi selection showed off the pure quality of the seafood at maze Grill.

Sashimi selection (2)

The small plates section of the menu comprised modish dishes like Smashed Avocados with Sweet Potato Chips (£4) and delightfully retro Tuna Devilled Eggs (£4), updated with the addition of dill and nori seaweed in the filling.

Tuna devilled eggs

In the past I have felt indifferent to Gordon Ramsay Group restaurants such as Heddon St Kitchen, which neither wowed nor disappointed. But I left Maze Grill Park Walk thoroughly impressed – there were simply no duds on the menu. Even the salads were astonishingly good – if you have taken Michael Pollan’s advice to heart, you could still enjoy a fantastic plant-based meal at this restaurant without feeling at all deprived. The Shaved Cauliflower side dish quietly stole the show: paper-thin slices tossed with creamy pureed cauliflower, parmesan and dill dressing. The contrast between the silky dressing, toothsome raw veg, crunchy toasted almonds and fragrant herbs was addictive.

Honestly I happily ignored the last bites of the giant T-Bone steaks my companions were digging into in favour of the Young Kale and Nori salad – this one was given a deep kick of savoury, salty umami with bottarga fish roe.

Young kale and nori salad (1)

Between us we tried a few desserts and surprisingly, the best was the “Frozen Lime Yoghurt with Toasted Meringue” (£6) – light and refreshing after the previous hearty courses. Next time I will leave more room for the “Monkey Bread”, spiced cinnamon rolls with pecans and ice cream (£12 to share).

Whether you’re a carnivore, omnivore or vegetarian, maze Grill Park Walk is somewhere you will want to go more than once in a while.

I was invited to dine at maze Grill as a guest of the restaurant, to give an honest review.

maze Grill
11 Park Walk
SW10 0AJ

http://www.mazegrill.co.uk

Foodies Film Club in the Kitchen

Last minute one this, but thought the idea of combining food and film was cute and some of you may be interested!

JW3 is hosting a special screening and baking event tonight in Finchley.

The film of choice is 2007 hit Waitress, about a woman trapped in an oppressive small-town marriage who dreams of a way out. She pours her heart and soul into baking, using her daily woes and occasional joys to create decadent and delicious pies.

Tonight’s event will start with a hands-on demonstration in the kitchen, where you will explore ideas on getting creative with pie fillings with Kosher Roast and get stuck into some old-time baking.

Then you can sit back and see the film (start time 8.30pm) in the comfy JW3 Cinema.

If you would rather leave the baking to the silver screen, you can also watch the film without attending the demo.

More information here: https://www.jw3.org.uk/event/foodies-film-club-kitchen-waitress-film-demo#.VWVkLRcdUkr