Somerset Apples

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! 

      

         

Hearty Chicken Stew with Apple Dumplings
You will need:
For the stew:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large chicken, jointed or 8 free-range chicken thighs, bone in
2 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves
2 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 turnip, roughly chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
500ml chicken stock
750ml good-quality medium English cider
2 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
Large handful parsley

For the dumplings:
120g self-raising flour
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
120g suet
1 large cooking apple, or two smaller ones, finely diced
2 tbsp rosemary , chopped
1 small bunch parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten

Method:
1. Heat the oil in a large pan, season the chicken and brown in batches, until lightly golden all over.  Set to one side and drain off all but 2 tbsp of the fat in the pan.  Add the onions and fry over a medium heat until softened.  Add the cider and allow to bubble down until syrupy, about 5 min, scraping any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.   

2. Tie the bay leaves, rosemary and about half of the parsley together with some string.  Add this, along with the garlic and the remaining vegetables to the pan.  Finally, return the chicken to the pan and pour in enough stock to just cover.  Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked,  the meat is starting to come off the bone and the sauce has reduced and thickened.   

3. While the stew is cooking, make the dumplings.  Mix together the flour, breadcrumbs and suet.  Add the herbs and seasoning and then slowly beat in the egg to form a wet mixture.  Stir through the diced apples and then divide into roughly 12 even sized balls.  Add these to the stew about 20 minutes before the end of the cooking time so that they just sit on top of the chicken.  Cover and allow to steam until soft and cooked through.  Divide into large bowls and scatter with the remaining parsley. 

 
Somerset Jam
(From Diana Henry’s ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’)
You will need:
1kg cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
600g blackberries
400ml cider
800g granulated sugar
50ml Apple brandy (Somerset, preferably of course, but I only had French), plus a little extra
Method: 
1.  Put the apples and blackberries into a large pan or a preserving pan with the cider and slowly bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until the fruit is completely soft and mushy, adding a little water if it is looking too dry. 
2.  Add the sugar and continue to cook on a low heat, stirring to help dissolve the sugar.  Then, turn the heat up to and cook until the jam reaches setting point.  You can test for this by placing a saucer or small plate in the fridge, then putting a tsp of jam on it.  Allow to cool before ‘pushing’ the jam across the plate with your finger.  If it wrinkles up, the jam has set. 
3.  Finally, stir in the brandy and pour into warm, dry sterilised jars.  Leave to sit for about 7 minutes, then pour in a another slug of brandy into each jar.  Cover, seal and leave to cool before storing.  Keeps for a year, refrigerate once opened. 

Apple and Blackberry Loaf Cake with Almond Crumb Topping
You will need:

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
75g raisins
3 eggs, beaten
75ml milk

For the topping:
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
25g butter
Handful flaked almonds

Method:

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.