I’ve been spending far too much time thinking about how to winter-proof my life. I’m cycling the 12 miles into work three times a week, which has meant investing in all manner of hivis, lycra and thermals. The list of kit requirements grows every time the mercury drops by a degree and I still haven’t found a hat that I’m willing to leave the house in. My only choice seems to be a toss up between looking liken an elf or a toddler.
So it’s a good thing I’ve got this distracting, sunny post to remind me of cotton, linen and short sleeves. These photos are from a long weekend jaunt down to Somerset, just before everything started heading towards Autumn. We were visiting Toby’s brother, sister in law and little nephew and spent a glorious afternoon with them walking up and down the Mendips before catching the last of the afternoon sun in their garden.
This is cider country, where even the tiniest hamlet has at least one, if not several, pubs and it seemed each one we went into was even friendlier than the last. Driving through the Mendip’s valleys is a stunning experience, with clusters of thatched cottages lurking behind each bend, not to mention gorges and wild goats! A particular treat, a belated birthday present, was a trip to The Ethicurean. It’s been on my wish list ever since it was voted Best Ethical Eat in the Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2011, who also gave a nod to its head bartender this year.
No surprises there, their chipotle infused take on an Old Fashioned was the nicest, strongest and most unusual cocktail I’ve had in a long time. A drink to be sipped, steadily and contemplatively well into the first course. Toby’s cucumber beer from the Wild Beer Co. also went down a treat. We were lucky to arrive while it was still light, so could enjoy a stroll around the gardens and the views of the surrounding hills. The restaurant is set in a walled garden and built into a series of conservatories. The whole thing would risk being overly twee if it wasn’t for the fact that the food and drink is so damn good, you’ve got to take it seriously. Everything is, naturally, sourced or grown locally, which means the menu is incredibly innovative as these constraints demand a fair degree of resourcefulness. The staff were also fantastically knowledgeable and we left promising to go back. Hopefully soon.
We stayed at the gorgeous Longbridge House in Shepton Mallet. This B&B only has one gorgeous room at the moment, which overlooks a quiet courtyard. It was a lovely place to stay and not without some historical cudos- the Duke of Monmouth stayed at the house before the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. We were given a warm greeting by Tanya, the proprietress along with tea and homemade cake in our room, which won me over straight away and that was before I saw the enormous tub. Breakfast was cooked to order and included eggs from Tanya’s own hens. I went for a little stroll and visited their coop at the top of the house’s tiered garden and took some snaps before we drove back to London.
We’ve both been working pretty much flat out since then and I have to admit I wish we’d had a bit longer in Somerset to rest up before the whirlwind of my new job, Toby’s recording schedule and the usual run around in the build up towards Christmas. However, I’ve been able to produce a few recipes inspired by our few days there, all with that most autumnal and most Somersetian of fruit- the apple!
150g butter, softened
250g self-raising flour
1 apple, like Bramley or similar cooking apple, cubed
2 plums, cubed as best you can
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
100g caster sugar
3 eggs, beaten
For the topping:
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
Handful flaked almonds
1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Butter and line a 2L loaf tin with some parchment. Place the flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl and stir in the butter. Stir the eggs and milk together and gradually mix into the the dry ingredients. Finally, stir through the chopped fruit and raisins until evenly distributed. Pour into the prepared loaf tin.
2. Rub the butter sugar and flour for the topping together in a small bowl. Add the flaked almonds and mix together with your hands, breaking the almonds up a little bit. Sprinkle over the loaf and bake for about 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool before tucking in while still slightly warm.
This soup is a proper throwback to my Scandinavian roots. I believe apple soup is particularly big in Norway, but the combo with juniper is very Swedish too. Scandi cuisine often plays on sweet, sour and salty flavours and this soup does just that, with an emphasis on the sweet and sour. The trick is to be a bit picky about the apples you decide to use. Choose ones with a bit of teeth-sucking-oomph to them, or the soup will be too sickly sweet.
If apple soup sounds a bit strange, rest assured, the taste is not strong and apple works very well with the parsnip. It is quite filling though, so all you really need is a chunk of bread (preferably rye, of course) to go with it and you’ve got a complete lunch. You could make it lighter by omitting the cream and just adding a couple of tablespoons of half fat creme fraiche instead. This would also take it from a more autumnal soup into something a bit more summery, particularly if you replace the parsley with dill at the end (for an even more Scandi twist!).
Apple, Parsnip and Juniper Soup
You will need:
3 quite tart apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 large parsnips, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 celery sticks, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb of fresh ginger, crushed
1 L chicken stock
250 ml single cream
1 tbsp juniper berries
4 whole cardamon pods
1 small cinnamon stick
bunch of fresh parsley or dill
1. Ideally, you would have a scrap of muslin to hand which you could use to make a little bag for the spices for seeping in the soup. However, if you don’t, a tea strainer works rather well I find. Put the juniper berries, cardamon pods and cinnamon stick into the strainer. I used a nice blue plastic one I got from my aunt for Christmas.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and then add the chopped apple, celery, shallots and ginger. Leave this to fry for a minute or two while you season with salt and pepper and lower the heat.
3. Get a sheet of baking parchment, large enough to cover the pan, and run it under the tap for a few seconds. Squeeze out any excess water and place snugly over the ingredients in the pan (see photo above). This will allow the fruit and veg to steam. Cook this way for about 10 minutes.
4. Remove the paper and add the stock, cider, spices (in the muslin or tea strainer). Bring to a simmer and leave for about half an hour.
5. Remove the spices and puree the soup until smooth with a stick blender or in a food processor.
6. Bring to a simmer again and stir in the cream, if using. Taste to season and add the chopped fresh herbs.