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Hazelnuts

Hazel is a well appreciated tree that supply wood, nuts for human consumption and livestock feed. They grow wild all over the country in woodland and hedgerow and have been considered as a magical tree.

Victorians were very fond on hazelnuts and cultivated them in colossal plantations, mostly in the Kent area, supplying hungry mariners and London wholesalers most of the year. These cultivated varieties are more commonly known as cobnuts, based in a game that kids used to play with the nuts.

Definition and species

The name hazelnut applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus, generally known as cobnuts (Corylus avellana), Filbert nuts (Corylus maxima) or Turkish hazelnuts (Corylus colurna) but all named also as hazelnuts in general terms.

They are all deciduous broadleaf trees with globe-shaped or oval nuts up to 2cm long with a hard brown shell. Cobnuts tend to be shorter and more round than filberts, but it depends on different varieties.

There are lots of different cultivars grown in the UK, being the Kentish Cob the most reliable crop with an excellent flavour. Butler is another popular variety for modern commercial production. Other varieties include Cosford, Gunslebert, Merveille de Bollwiller or Ennis. They are used for different purposes, regarding large nut sizes, sweet flavours, early and late cultivars or pollinators.

Harvesting hazelnuts

Hazel is a tree native to the UK and grows all over the country. However, most of the world’s commercially hazelnuts come from Turkey, where Nutella consumes a surprising 25% of global supply.

Now in decline, cobnuts have been traditionally grown in Kent for large-scale nut production, but they have also been cultivated in the regions of Sussex, Devon and Worcestershire and harvested annually in mid-autumn, where you can expect up to 10kg of nuts per tree when they are mature.

The harvesting of hazelnuts is done when the trees drop their nuts and leaves, picking them by hand. Modern cultivation allows shaking them from the tree and picking them with mechanical raking techniques.

Cobnuts

Foraging hazelnuts in the wild

These trees grow wild anywhere in the UK, as they have been widely used for hedging and coppicing, shaping vast tracts of woodland and mature hedgerows all over the country. They are usually quite small trees and produce a great amount of tiny delicious hazelnuts.

Ideally, they are picked when the nutshells start to turn brown, as soon as they look big enough. However, squirrels are not very patient and you will have to fight for your treasured nuts. The best is to head into the city, where you will find less wild competitors.

Fresh green hazelnuts are also delicious and have a very different flavour to the hard brown-shelled nuts. You can pick them by hand and crack them between your teeth, eating them straight away. Their flesh tastes like a crunchy nutty vegetable, not usually available in your local supermarket.

Buying and processing

You may be able to buy fresh local cobnuts from the local farm shop or grocer. Even supermarkets have started to stock them as a seasonal treat, typically found from about the middle of August through to October.

They are bigger than wild hazelnuts and are sold in their feathery husks. Whereas most of the nuts we eat are dried, fresh cobnuts are sold green and predominantly juicy, giving the nuts unique culinary uses and a distinctive flavour.

Hazelnuts harvested later or bought with full brown nutshells have their full flavour developed and can be stored in a warm and dry place for a few months in order to get your Christmas nut bowl ready. Just roast them in the oven at 140C for 20 minutes and store them in sealed bags after allowing the nuts to come up to room temperature to avoid losing their crunch.

Shelling small amounts of hazelnuts is an easy task to do with an ordinary nutcracker, but having a bag full of them it will become a tiresome job, especially when they are harvested in the wild and are very small. Try to shell them with a hammer instead and work in different batches.

Some recipes call for skinned hazelnuts, easily peeled with fresh ones. Dried nuts are trickier: just give them a light roast and tip into a clean tea towel when still hot, leaving for two minutes to steam before rubbing and massaging the nuts to release their papery skins.

Hazelnuts

Recipes

Hazelnuts are a rich source in protein and unsaturated fats and may be eaten fresh or dried, offering distinctly different flavours and the possibility to store them for a long period.

They have a great affinity for chocolate and therefore they are used very often in confectionery to make praline, chocolate truffles, baklavas and hazelnut paste products such as Nutella or Viennese hazelnut torte.

There are infinite ways of using them in baking when finely ground, as it adds a crunchy texture to cake and biscuit recipes. Use the powder as a substitute of flour to make a torte, sprinkle over the sides of Kiev cake’s meringue or use them to make a layer of hazelnut meringue in a Dacquoise.

They can be used ground for a hazelnut-flavoured coffee with a naturally sweetened and less acidic taste or chopped up to enjoy in granola or muesli. It is also a primary ingredient of the vodka-based liqueur Frangelico and it is used to make strongly flavoured cooking oil extracted from pressed nuts.

Normally regarded as a sweet snack, they are also used to flavour savoury dishes. They are widely used in Turkish cuisine and typically used there in a sauce made from garlic and hazelnuts to serve with shellfish. They are especially gorgeous and unusual with sweet fried scallops, but you can try it in a pesto sauce or sprinkled as a crunchy topping in warm salads.

 

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Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

I have been waiting for the Birmingham Independent Food Fair for a while after the success of #FutureFoodies last year. This second Dine Birmingham event took place last Saturday 13th at the iconic Millenium Point, showcasing around 40 independent local traders, including restaurants, producers, street food stalls and food & drink retailers.

Birmingham proved that has much to offer in the independent food scene, with plenty of local businesses and an important international cuisine that brings all the best from each country.  On the other hand, I missed more traditional British food to feature local quality ingredients at its best.

Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

The festival run with an innovative method that provided sample cards for visitors. They entitled to taste 8 samples (double for VIP ticket) at the stalls, getting a box signed off everytime you claimed a sample to taste. The method had its pros and cons, but made the fair unique, providing excitement when choosing wisely where to get your samples. This way, requests to sample food are really genuine, but this limited the chance to discover unexpected finds. Furthermore, most of the stalls run out of samples very quickly and at the end of the afternoon, only drink was left to taste.

There was a main area with a good choice of traders and a number of fantastic street food vendors outside taking advantage of the nice weather. A VIP gallery upstairs, with Hotel La Tour and Aalto restaurant offered lots of canapes and drinks to entertain fellow bloggers, press and Yelp members.

Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

The fair allowed to sample food & drink, buy products or portions to eat in place and activities like cocktail mixology and cooking demonstrations. I could not manage to find room to see “how to fillet a fish” demo, led by Nathan Eade from Epi restaurant in Bromsgrove but it really looked very educational. He also mentioned the use of foraged ingredients in its restaurant, which I find really interesting.

After the demonstration I got to wander and explore what was on offer. Deli & Specialist food traders provided the starters. All Greek Delicatessen sold Mediterranean produce, featuring a nice goat cheese and a marmalade. Iona’s Delight served hand crafted filo pastry and Peel & Stone  stunning bread. Unfortunately, I was late to taste the goats cheese & beetroot focaccia, because it was finished very quickly.

Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

Street food vendors offered top quality food. Tasted the Barek Oscarek’s pierogi ruskie, a Squisito barbequed sausage, a Bare Bones wood-fired pizza slice and the utterly delicious pakoras of  Hibiscus, a South-Easian cuisine catering service that proved to be a complete success in this fair, along with the pizza guys.

Restaurants served portions of the dishes they cook. Le Truc Cafe offered some samples of their quirky-French inspired restaurant, Centenary Lounge served scrumptious sandwiches and Don Diego offered paella, that surprised myself, as being made by Spanish chefs it included chorizo, that changed completely the taste of a proper traditional paella.

As a dessert you could try sweet treats from Henley Chocolates, VMF Restaurant and Kneals Chocolates to wash it down with premium quality coffee from The Urban Roast Coffee Company.

Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

To end, we had some drinks. You could try Langley’s 8 Gin, BYWine, Soul Tree Wine and Purity beer. Bodega cocktails were really refreshing and nice, with option to choose between mango & tequila and ginger beer, tequila & lime, both of them excellent!

I missed some of the promised stands, like Thai Edge and especially Miss Apple’s sweets, that was a huge success in the last #FutureFoodies. I also missed some cheese to taste.

I really had fun and tasted lots of very nice food and drink. We also met some interesting people as well, like a couple of Yelp guys that deleited us with their knowledge in local restaurants and international food. Hopefully there will be another edition next year so we can keep discovering more independent local food and drink businesses in Birmingham!

Birmingham Independent Fair 2014

 

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Whitby crab

Whitby crab
Whitby is a charming fishing port on the East coast of England with a significant fishing fleet and fish market that has developed an interest for tourism alike. Beautiful stone houses in narrow streets are surrounded by the river Esk, compose a magical picture for the visitor.

However, the main tourist attraction in Whitby is the marine gastronomy. There are several fishmongers offering a vast range of fresh fish and seafood from their own boats. The town is described as a big chippy and it is highly renowned by their crabs. It is said Whitby crabs are better quality than your average crustaceans, with a very sweet and juicy meat.

Crabs form an important source of income to the fishermen in Whitby, being brown (Cancer pagurus) and velvet crabs (Necora puber) the most important species to the local fishery.

Crabbing in the harbour

Many visitors of Whitby gather by the harbour at the side of the Swing Bridge with their rudimentary crab lines to fish some crabs as a great family pastime, getting the place very crowded in warmer days.

Crab fishing is called ’doggering’ by the locals, as they call the crustaceans ‘doggers’.  The activity involves a basic hand held fishing line and a little weight to lower the bait that could be a fish head or a slice of bacon. Don’t expect to catch a giant crab and in fact, most of them are so small they are not worth as food.

On the other hand, commercial fishing provides the good catch to the local fishmongers if you want to experience the good Whitby crab and cook with premium ingredients.

Preparation

In order to prepare live crabs, you have to cook them first. Boil them in salted water for 15 minutes per kg up to 1kg, then 5 min per kg thereafter. Leave it to cool, but don’t put it in cold water, as this would make the meat soggy.

Hand picking is the most usual method to remove the meat, although compressed air jets are sometimes used, especially to make the most of the legs.

There are two kinds of meat: the white meat is removed mainly from the claws and legs, meanwhile the brown meat is from the body of the crab. You can eat everything soft except the yellow papery stomach just behind the mouth, the ‘dead man’s fingers’ and other papery membranes.

Recipes

The simplest way to enjoy Whitby crab is by eating the claws as a snack with lemon and mayonnaise or making crab sandwiches and salads as an alternative lunch.

But maybe the most popular way of preparing the crustacean comes usually as a dressed crab, served in the carapace with a fresh salad, brown bread and a wedge of lemon. Other old-fashionable alternatives include potted crab and crab cakes. These contain their meat with breadcrumbs and egg, slightly flavoured with spices, formed into patties and fried.

After cooking and removing the meat out of the carapaces, it is wise to make the most of the crustacean and boil them in water in order to make a good stock for sauces or soups.

 

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I bought this book a couple of years ago. I was very interested because I love foraging, but I felt I needed a pocket guide to check when going to the countryside to pick some wild greens. Possibly it is the best book in the British market teaching about this topic, apart from Richard Mabey’s Food for Free bible.

About the author

John Wright is a regular lecturer and guide at River Cottage HQ, natural from Dorset and passionate about foraging: picking  hedgerow fruits, mushrooms or seashore greens and molluscs. He describes himself lucky by turning a hobby into a job and encouraging people to forage through his writing, guided walks, talks and media appearances.

Wrights’ style is knowledgeable, very entertaining, witty and humorous. Well written, in plain English and avoiding very scientific terms, John is the kind of person you would like to go for a long walk with. He is always reminding little stories, anecdotes and curiosities that make the read even more interesting.

About the book

The book itself is a practical guide to gathering edible greens from the countryside, describing the main plant species in the British Isles and including poisonous species you could mix them up with.

The first part of the book is an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall followed by a forager’s calendar and a short prologue about conservation and laws. The core of the book is the collection of perfectly illustrated fact sheets about edible plants which the book is all about, featuring after that some poisonous species to avoid. At the end of the book you can find yummy and simple recipes to cook all your pickings.

The best thing about the book is the fact that is portable, so you can pop this book in your rucksack when going out to the countryside. Since I bought this book I have improved my knowledge in foraging and I feel quite confident when going into the woods. I also bought N0.1 Mushrooms and No.5 Seashore and highly recommend these reads and hope you find it as interesting as I did!

 

English asparagus

English asparagus

One of the most celebrated seasonal vegetables in Britain is the asparagus. It’s a gem only available in the UK for a short period of time in spring and it’s worth waiting for the season. Freshly picked, it has a powerful unique flavour that stand-out in your meals.

When is the growing season?

Nowadays, asparagus is available almost all year round in supermarkets but it will only be at their best in season, traditionally starting the 23rd April in St George’s Day and ending the 23rd June in Midsummers Day. Asparagus is very climate dependent, so they depend on the weather that may change the seasons.

The native English asparagus (asparagus officinalis) is the green variety, as it is matured in the sunshine, contrasting with the white variety, which is deprived of light when growing. They take roughly 3 to 4 years to produce from the day the seed is planted and need saline soils because the plant often originated in maritime habitats, what makes an appreciated vegetable difficult to grow.

The only edible part of the vegetable are the young shoots, and in fact, the word comes from the Greek ‘asparagos’, meaning ‘sprout’.

The Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire is renowned for ‘gras’ production, as they call them. The British Asparagus Festival is held in town, where numerous events take place throughout the Vale, making this a good opportunity to show the people the power of this vegetable. Several local pubs and restaurants offer special asparagus menus and all the local farmers’ markets sell them along the county.

Select and storage your asparagus

When you buy asparagus in your local market, go for firm and smooth stalks with an evenly bright green colour and compact and unwrinkled heads, but do not get obsessed for the appearance, as sometimes imperfect vegetables are the tastiest.  The most important thing is to look for freshly cut ends.

Asparagus are recommended to be stored in a vase of water as flowers and they will stay firm for up to a week, but they can also keep well in the fridge for a few days. It is always advised to eat them as freshest as possible to not lose all the flavour.

The vegetable is grown in sandy soil, so always make sure you wash them thoroughly removing any grit before cooking. Cut any tough ends or peel with a vegetable peeler if necessary.

Preparation and cooking

Asparagus is easy and simple to prepare and can be cooked in many ways. In general terms, fine thin asparagus suit for slightly grilling, stir-frying, roasting so you can appreciate their crispness. Thicker spears are good for steaming, as you can appreciate their tender meaty texture with hollandaise sauce, butter or any other dressing. Very fresh asparagus are perfect very lightly steamed with a squirt of lemon or even tossed raw in salads.

When you decide to boil or steam, it is always wise to tie them in bundles of a dozen of even–sized spears for cooking, so they can be removed all at once. Boil for roughly 5 minutes upright with the steams submersed in salted water, so the tender tips get lightly steamed.

Asparagus wilts when it is overcooked, so make sure you check the spears are tender enough with the point of a knife and carefully leave the bundle out, lay on to a tea towel to drain. When served, they are ideally eaten slightly warm, not being too hot.

Recipes

The best way to enjoy your fresh asparagus is using it in a salad. Select the youngest and finest spears, chop roughly and combine with fresh peas, sundried tomato, feta cheese and lemon dressing. You can also prepare a warm salad by steaming for a minute or two.

Maybe, the most common way in Britain are grilled or roasted with lemon butter or steamed and covered in hollandaise sauce, but there are plenty of possibilities with this versatile and delicate ingredient: asparagus frittata, risotto, cheese gratins, stir-fries, stews, pickled, wrapped in Serrano ham or smoked salmon or turned into soup or cream.

A good seasonal combo would be tossed with morels, stir fried with wild garlic and lemon butter or taking the advantage of the wide range of spring greens, which certainly, will make your meals more exciting.

 

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