Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Watercress and Wine

Watercress is back in season and Alresford, near Winchester, is holding its 9th Watercress Festival on Sunday May 19th. Watercress was first commercially cultivated in 1808 by the horticulturist William Bradbery along the source of the River Ebbsfleet in Kent. His watercress was sent to Covent Garden and Newgate Markets in London and he even sent watercress to the Great Exhibition of 1851 at The Crystal Palace. Watercress production soon spread and counties that grew watercress commercially included Hertfordshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire.

Alresford is the centre of watercress growing in Hampshire and more than 15,000 people visit the festival every year. This May the festival is home to plenty of mouth-watering watercress treats to tempt the tastebuds ranging from watercress ice cream and cakes to watercress beer and soup. You will also find street entertainment, Morris dancers, bands and artisanal stalls selling everything from watercress fudge to watercress sausages!

Watercress is a fast-growing, semi-aquatic plant that is one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. It's a member of the same family as Garden Cress, Mustard and Radish – all known for their peppery, tangy flavour. Watercress has always had a reputation for being a 'super food' – the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians used it to strengthen and energise themselves as well as for medicinal purposes:

  • The father of medicine, Hippocrates, founded the first hospital on the Greek island of Kos around 400 BC and grew wild watercress in the natural springs there, using it to treat blood disorders.
  • Egyptian Pharaohs served freshly squeezed watercress juice to their slaves each morning and afternoon in order to increase their productivity.
  • Roman emperors ate it to help them make 'bold decisions' (and to cure baldness and insanity).
  • The Persian King Xerxes ordered his soldiers to eat watercress to keep them healthy during their long marches.

In the 16th century the herbalist John Gerard recommended watercress as a cure for scurvy. Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) was reportedly able to circumnavigate the globe due, in part, to combating scurvy through the use of watercress in his sailors’ diets. It's not surprising as watercress contains more Vitamin C than oranges do, has more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk and more Vitamin E than brocoli.

The plant’s heyday was in Victorian times as the development of the railway allowed tons of watercress to be transported up to London. Street sellers would buy it and form it into bunches, which were eaten in the hand, like an ice cream cone – the first “on the go food”.  Nowadays watercress is being recognised once again as a 'super food' with scientific research highlighting all sorts of benefits from helping to battle cancer to getting rid of your wrinkles.

Watercress is now enjoying a boom and you can find lots of different and inventive recipes using it. It's best to buy your watercress from a reputable source as picking wild watercress carries the danger of liver fluke. Watercress is readily available in shops and farmers markets – there is also a red tinged variety that looks great in salads – but make sure it wash it thoroughly before use. Shop bought watercress can vary in strength of flavour depending on the season and where it has been grown, so it's best to take a little nibble first so that you can judge how much seasoning to add before using it in your recipes.

Watercress Soup

2 bunches of watercress (de-stalked and chopped)

450g potatoes ( peeled and finely diced)

1 litre vegetable stock

freshly ground black pepper, nutmeg and salt (to taste)

A dollop of double cream (optional)

Sprig of watercress to garnish

Add all the ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let the soup boil for 30 minutes and then remove from the heat. Once cooled you can blend the soup in a liquidiser until smooth. Return the soup to the pan to heat through, serve with a sprig of watercress to garnish.

Wine Pairing:

Fleur de Luze 2009 (100% Sauvignon Blanc) - A lovely, lively, fresh and fruity white wine from Maison A. de Luze et Fils, who have been pioneers in the wine trade since 1820. This wine is a clear, crystalline pale gold colour with a very clean citrus, lychee, and mango bouquet. It has a long, fruity after taste which follows through with a slight hint of ripe grapefruit and a refreshingly slight touch of fizz.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

English Mace, Yarrow – Spring Recipe and Wine Pairing

I discovered a herb that was new to me the other day: English Mace. Having brought my trophy home I looked it up and it turns out to be a variety of Yarrow (Achillea Ageratum Decolorans). Achillea are grown both for their decorative flowers and aromatic leaves in the border and for their medicinal uses. The Achillea family was named after the ancient Greek hero Achilles as legend has it that his soldiers used Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium) to treat their wounds – hence some of its common names such as Allheal, Bloodwort, Soldiers Woundwort.

Traditionally Yarrow has been valued for centuries for its ability to heal wounds made by iron. The French know it as ‘herbe aux charpentiers’ – the carpenter’s herb – for its use in stemming bleeding from injuries caused by tools.

Yarrows were once used to flavour ales and as an ingredient of 'sweete washing water' but English Mace is one of the few Yarrows that is known for its culinary use. The sharply toothed leaves are supposed to have a mild but distinctive Nutmeg or Mace scent. (I wonder if it takes its name from the spice Mace or whether it comes from the old English weapon?).

The best time to harvest the leaves is in the Spring - only the sweet, young, tender shoots are suitable for use in the kitchen as later, the taste is bitter and resinous. As the leaves have a mildly astringent taste they are great for sauces made with cream as their flavour cuts the richness of the fat. English Mace is apparently a good combination with asparagus – for example using it in Asparagus Quiche, or in Cream of Asparagus soup.

The leaves can be used fresh or cooked and add piquancy to chicken, pork, fish, cheese, pasta and rice dishes. They can be used in stuffings, salads (especially potato salads), soups and stews. Dried leaves are used as a tea.

I intend to try my English Mace out with Jekka McVicar's recipe from The Complete Herb Book:

Chicken with English Mace

4 chicken breasts
2 tbsp yoghurt
2 tbsp dijon mustard
olive oil
6 tbsp chopped English Mace leaves
juice of 1 lemon

Mix yoghurt and mustard and coat chicken. Season. Place on foil with mace leaves. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Wrap foil into parcel. Cook for 30 minutes at 190C/375F

Wine Pairing:

Bordeaux White – Chateau Mayne Pargade 2010 (80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc) from Soulignac in the Haut Benauge. This is very aromatic with notes of sweet summer hay, fragrant broom blossom and beeswax. With good crisp acidity, great structure and balance with flavours of pear, quince and lime, Mayne Pargade will pair really well with this dish.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Mangos, Chutney and Salsa

Could Mangos be the next 'superfood'? Mangos have been in the news recently as researchers at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) have found that Mangos have properties that can help regulate blood sugar levels in a positive way as well as have anti-inflammatory properties.

Mangoes are native to India and South East Asia and are the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines. There are well over 100 varieties, ranging in size from a large fist to a rugby ball. Shapes, skin and flesh colours also vary. The Alphonso Mango (named for Alphonso de Albuquerque – a nobleman and military expert who helped establish the Portuguese colony in India) is becoming increasingly popular in the UK with top chefs including it in their menus. However the Mango first came to our shores in a different form - in the 17th century, Mangoes were shipped to England as pickles to preserve them as the fruits would not keep during the long sea voyages. By the 18th century, the word "mango" had become a verb meaning "to pickle".

Mangoes are widely used in Indian cuisine and British colonials often brought recipes for chutneys home with them - Mrs Beeton includes a 'Bengal Recipe for Making Mango Chutney' in her 1861 book of household management in which she says “This recipe was given by a native to an English lady, who had long been a resident in India, and who, since her return to her native country, has become quite celebrated among her friends for the excellence of this Eastern relish.”

In the 19th century types of chutney such as Major Grey's were created for Western tastes and shipped to Europe. Major Grey is an elusive character but Crosse & Blackwell (founded in 1706), reported that he was an officer in the Bengal Lancers and was something of a food connoisseur. While in India, he or his Bengali cook created this chutney by combining mangoes, raisins, chilies, garlic, vinegar, sugar and spices. Crosse & Blackwell purchased the Major's formula and the rest is history.

I have a recipe which uses Mangoes which hails from a completely different continent: Mango Salsa - it's excellent as a topping for Halibut. Salsas originated in Central and South America in pre-Columbian times with the Aztec, Incan and and Mayan cuisines. They were made from a mixture of tomatoes with chili peppers and ground squash seeds. The Aztecs used it as a condiment, to be eaten alongside turkey, venison, lobster, and fish. The Spaniards introduced salsas to Europe after their conquest of Mexico and it was Alonso de Molina who first gave the name ‘salsa’ to the mixture, in 1571.

The sea-faring Portuguese introduced the Mango to Brazil in the 1700s. Mangoes arrived in Mexico in the early 19th century and reached the USA in 1860. Mexico is now the largest exporter of mangoes in the world. 

Mango Salsa

2 fresh mangoes
1 red onion
1 orange bell pepper
4 red jalapeños
pinch of salt
1 tsp cumin
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 orange
A big handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Peel the mangoes and slice into small pieces. Dice the onions very finely. Remove the seeds from the orange bell pepper and jalapeños and dice very finely. Mix the lime and orange juices together with the salt, cumin and chopped cilantro. Mix all the ingredients together and serve over the halibut.

Wine Pairing

A good white Bordeaux will be lovely with this dish – Chateau Le Rondailh is an excellent match as it is an aromatic wine with good acidity made from a 20% Semillon and 80% Sauvignon Blanc blend of grapes. Full of character, pure, fresh and well balanced, it has flavours of ripe pears, lemon, lime flowers and red gooseberries with subtle nuances of melon, minerality and passion fruit.