Monday, 25 October 2010

Damsons and a crumble cake

I had never eaten a damson in my life before this year. The past month or so, I’ve made up for lost time – it’s literally been ‘damsons ahoy’ since we picked a whole bunch of these inky blue-skinned plums on our recent holiday in the Cotswolds. If ‘purple’ had a flavour, cooked damsons would be it. When raw, they taste like a regular sweet plum, but when cooked, they’re much more intense – deep and sweet, with a touch of sourness and a hint of alcoholic cough mixture hidden in the mix…


Since neither my husband or I ever remember to eat jam (it’s not that we don’t like it, we just can’t be bothered, and I still have a jar of marmalade on the go from 2 years ago) we thought we’d make a whole stash of damson compote adding a dash of water and a scant scattering of sugar to the plums,  them simmering them for 10 minutes. Damsons are small plums with fiddly stones, no bigger than a large fat grape, and some people say not to bother removing the stones when you cook with them, but the idea of spitting out stones as you chomp through a crumble seems mental, so we thought we’d press the cooked plums through a sieve:



What you end up with is a perfect puree that is sensational stirred through thick Greek yoghurt to make a fool, or dolloped into a crumble mixture. My mate C said she’d put it on her porridge. Check the colour – it’s so rich and vivid! Definitely don’t wear your best pastel slacks or shirt when making or eating this.

I have a whole batch of compote frozen in ziploc freezer bags, and I can feel a whole bunch of crumbles and pies coming on…

One afternoon, I thought I’d make the St John’s Rhubarb Crumble Cake, but use damsons instead. It was a very relaxing process, and the ensuing cake made a lot of people smile. I mean, who wouldn’t smile at a cake with a crunchy crumble topping and a hidden fruit centre? Pure brilliant-ness.

St John’s Crumble Cake, adapted with damsons:


Serve six to eight

You will need

Three handfuls of damsons
50g caster sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange

Cake mix:
125g organic salted butter
125g caster sugar
3 large organic eggs, lightly beaten
160g self-raising organic flour, sifted
50ml full-fat milk

Crumble mix:

125g plain flour
95g organic salted butter, cut into small cubes
60g Demerara sugar
30g ground almonds
30g flaked almonds

First stone the damsons. It’s fiddly but essential. Mix them with the sugars and orange zest and set aside in a bowl for 30 minutes.

For the cake mix, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually add the beaten eggs, bit by bit to prevent curdling. Then fold in the sifted flour and last of all mix in the milk. Put to one side.

For the crumble mix, put the flour and butter into a food processor, blitz until everything resembles large breadcrumbs, then briefly mix in the ground almonds, sugar and flaked almonds.


Butter a deep 20cm springform cake tin and line the base and sides with baking parchment. Spread the cake mix evenly over the base of the tin, then place the damsons on top:


Sprinkle the crumble mix over the damsons. Place in an oven preheated to 180C and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, covering the top loosely with foil if it gets too dark. The cake is ready when a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Note: don’t mistake the cooked gooey Damsons for uncooked cake mixture – I nearly overdid this cake because I thought it hadn’t baked all the way through.

Serve warm, with custard or extra thick Jersey cream.



I ate three slices of this cake in quick succession. Easy for a greedy mare!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Cheese Box, Whitstable


A few years ago, the cheese-starved inhabitants of Crystal Palace, South London, only had a dismal branch of Morrisons in which to buy their fromages. It was a sorry state of affairs – anaemic cheddar and Edam, and not a lot else besides, sold under fluorescent strip lights. But then, lo! Rescue came in the form of a lady called Dawn and her beautiful vintage Citroen van converted into a cheese-selling wagon called The Cheese Box. Every weekend, Sarf Londoners would queue up to buy quirky independent brands of British cheeses from Dawn in the car park of Crystal Palace’s vintage Collector’s Market. I became seriously addicted to wonderful sheep and goat’s milk cheeses that made the roof of my mouth sing.

But then, sadly, Dawn and her small van disappeared off the face of the earth. Crystal Palace cheese lovers were left bereft, mourning the loss of interesting varieties such as Sussex Slipcote, Rachel Goat and Keen’s Extra Mature Cheddar. I heard on the grapevine that Dawn had escaped London and moved to the seaside. But nobody knew exactly where.

Then last weekend I found the reincarnation of the old van in Whitstable, Kent. Hurrah! I was delighted to find The Cheese Box had transformed itself into a very charming traditional cheesemongers, co-run by Dawn and the very friendly Tom. It is such a lovely shop – cheeses are temptingly displayed within throwing distance of Kentish ciders and Whitstable-produced pickles, rustic breads nestle in old wooden crates and blues music plays on the stereogram. You can pull up a chair and have a plate of cheeses and a glass of wine. It’s hard to tear oneself away.

Tom has been a cheesemonger for 15 years, grew up in Whitstable and knows just about everything there is to know about cheese. He’s also an artist when he’s not mongering cheeses. He’s very happy to let you taste everything, and knows a lot about the area and its history, should you a have time to linger and have a natter. Here he is below:


The wonderful range of stonking British cheeses:


Fantastic decor – eclectic and very personal:


If you happen to be spending a day by the sea in Whitstable, you could do much worse than pop in to see Dawn and Tom, try a few cheeses that have big personalities and perhaps pick up some interesting ciders. Who would have known that we Brits could make such good fromage, eh? Dawn and Tom have sussed out some of the best independent producers in the Kentish area and beyond. Beats buying shrink-wrapped soapy slabs of mild cheddar in the supermarket any day. Oh – and they deliver, which means that there is possible salvation for the inhabitants of Crystal Palace…because even though we now have a Sainsbury's, it's not quite the same thing, is it?

The Cheese Box
60 Harbour Street
Kent CT5 1AG

Tom Swift, cheesemonger and artist

Monday, 18 October 2010

Wild Man: foraging with Fergus Drennan


When the end of civilisation is nigh and we are all scrambling over each other to get the last tin of beans in Sainsbury’s, forced to scavenge rubbish out of bins and inevitably turning into crazed zombies, the one man who will outlive anyone (at least in Kent) will be Fergus Drennan, wild food forager extraordinaire. As well as woodlands and seashores, he knows how to find nutrition in the form of edible plants and fungi from areas of waste ground, carparks and motorway verges. If you hang out with him long enough, you will never go hungry.

We had booked a day’s course with Fergus to learn how to identify and pick wild foods, having had our appetites whetted by sloe picking earlier this year. What we didn’t anticipate was an adrenaline-soaked adventure lasting the whole day and most of the night. At 9am sharp, Fergus greeted us wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a wooden box of eclectic and gnarly looking mushrooms under his arm. He drove us at breakneck speed to a nearby woodland and proceeded to talk very fast and excitedly about all the Latin names and characteristics of the fungi we were finding, barely pausing for breath. Every few feet or so, we would come across a new species of mushroom and Fergus would run around waving his arms, hollering “Come and see this one, it’s even better than the last!” We harvested amazing bulbous cep and boletus mushrooms with their reddish brown tops, delicate chanterelles and something resembling a large brain called Hen of the Woods, growing at the foot of an oak tree:


N with his prize Cep – what a corker!


Hedgehog fungus (see the spines):


We examined many poisonous fungi, with Fergus telling us to look out for cobwebby threads, milky sap and colour changes when the mushroom flesh is cut into. When we came across the poisonous yet beautiful Fly Agaric toadstool (below), he recounted the time he rubbed some Fly Agaric skin onto the back of his head where it was absorbed by the skin, causing him to collapse immediately and fall down onto his front, with his foraging knife underneath him. “I still don’t know whether I passed out for several hours or a whole day,” he mused. “If the knife had stuck into me, I would have probably died. But if you leach the mushrooms in liquid for a day or so, you can make a great risotto with them.” Hmm, might give that a miss…

Fly Agaric:


Fergus then produced a flask and poured us thimbles of his own roasted substitute coffee, made from a mixture of roasted goose grass seeds, acorns and some other seeds whose names I can’t recall. It actually tasted remarkably coffee-like, and it turns out that goose grass is in the coffee plant family – fact! As we emerged from the woodland, I noticed some unopened cans of Fosters lying at the roadside – my key contribution so far to the foraging bounty. Fergus seemed very excited, saying he might whip up a beer batter with our dinner later. I wondered if we had just plucked items from the scene of a car accident, as there was lots of broken glass and a couple of hub cabs lying next to the cans…but waste not, want not, right?

Then to a grassy seashore verge, where we picked bags of Sea Purslane (salty leaves and seeds, tasting a bit like Samphire) Sea Beet (like salty spinach), Alexanders (the leaves and roots taste like a cross between Thai lime leaves and chervil) and mallow leaves (mild and good for salad).

Sea Purslane:


Common Mallow:




Sea beet:


Fergus then led us down a steep grassy slope and instructed us to tear off branches of sea buckthorn, whose bright orange berries would make a great pudding later on. It felt a bit wrong pulling actual branches off the trees, but Fergus said he’d been harvesting from the same ones for over seven years and that everything grew back extremely quickly.

Sea buckthorn:


We then found a tiny apple tree growing miniature fruits – Fergus said that it had most probably grown from an apple pip deposited in a bird dropping. It looked like a tree you might find in Alice in Wonderland – just a bit higher than waist height:


Then Fergus instructed us to run down to the seashore and harvest seaweed off rocks – all in a sustainable manner, of course, snipping off just enough with scissors so that the roots and stems remained in order to re-grow.

Sea laver (the black stuff):


It suddenly dawned on Fergus that we were running very late for lunch at his house, as it was now 3pm. I was on the verge of fainting from hunger, and considered the possibility of going and foraging a Mars bar from a nearby local pub, but seeing as we were going to enjoy feasting on the ingredients we had just bagged, didn’t quite have the motivation. A Mars bar might have lowered the tone a bit….but to be honest, I would have eaten my own arm at this stage. “I’m going to freak out,” I whined to my husband, who shot me a look as if to say, “Don’t ruin my birthday treat, you old bag...” I decided to man up and shut up…and before too long we were enjoying an eye-opening lunch at Fergus’s house, all made with the foraged ingredients…

Rosehip and beetroot soup with yoghurt:


Wild mushroom quiche made with acorn flour pastry, potato mash with chopped Alexander leaves, and braised Alexander stems:


Mixed leaf salad with raw wild mushrooms, purple mallow flowers and Feta cheese:


Vanilla pannacotta made with seaweed carageenan and candied bramble stem (black star shaped garnish):


Sea buckthorn sorbet (amazing – sweet, aromatic and almost alcoholic tasting):


I asked Fergus how he got into foraging. He said he started as a child, rooting out choice leaves and dandelions for his pet tortoise. “Then when I was at university,” he said, “I was so poor in my final year that I had to live in a tent, eating the remains of stew that the refectory was throwing out. I got heavily into foraging then to survive.” Fergus’s house was filled to the rafters with jars of intriguing looking pickles and preserves, and he owned three freezers to store big batches of produce. He produced a large jar of acorn flour, which was the last of his 18 kilo batch. He had to meticulously pick the acorns, soak them in a river for weeks to leach the tannins out, roast them, remove the husks and grind each kernel. He had no plans to make any to sell commercially, surprise surprise. I asked him what he thought of supermarkets. “They have great toilets,” he laughed. “Plus good car parks, where I can forage lots of plants.” Good answer, I thought.

Full to the eyeballs after our amazing lunch, with a myriad of new flavours dancing on our tongues, Fergus then drove us to some scrubland next to a busy main road, where we harvested rosehips to perfume vodka. “Great if you leave them steeping for six months, then filter the rosehips out, then add dog rose petals for a maximum of 2 days, then leave it for as long as you can bear,” said Fergus. The result would like “nothing you’ve ever tasted before,” he assured us.

Rosehips for the vodka infusion – use the squashy ones for the best flavour:


We also found wild fennel growing at the side of a council estate, which bore aromatic seeds:


Darkness fell, and Fergus handed out the head torches. We arrived at a pitch black field, and he scampered over to some wild damson bushes growing at the side of a verge. I have never picked fruit by torchlight – it was exhilarating and made us feel like a naughty children. (It wasn’t trespassing as such – Fergus always asks permission from all landowners before he picks plants on their land). We stumbled back to the car with two baskets of dusky blue plums, for that evening’s pudding.

Night time damson harvest:



And then back to the beach for dinner. Despite the fact that there was a gale blowing, it was absolutely freezing and that it was intermittently pelting with rain, Fergus insisted that eating a three course meal down on the sand at high tide was the best plan. (The other option was to have dinner in a more sheltered wood, but he admitted that the area was so secret that he had trouble remembering how to find it in the dark). So we stumbled behind him in the gale, head torches blinking, carrying wood, pans, crockery and everything we had foraged that day. Despite the freezing temperatures and the fact that I couldn’t feel my hands or legs most of the time, it was one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten. Fergus allocated us all various tasks like an army sergeant, then proceeded to make a trio of  fires, grinning like a maniac. He put a wok filled to the brim with vegetable oil over the intense flames, and deep fried four different types of seaweed, and each time he put the wet fronds in the smoking oil, a mini explosion of flames would rise up from the wok. I thought he’d blown himself up at one point…

Fergus gets the oil nice and hot:


Ka-boom! Fergus adds the wet seaweed to the boiling oil:


Fergus is still alive:


Main course was sea bass fried with laver seaweed, fried sea beets with sesame oil, plus fried mixed wild mushrooms. De-licious!


Pudding was a less successful damson and apple crumble. Fergus forgot the milk for the custard, and thought it would be a great idea to replace the liquid with Fosters lager. Then he added cherry vodka to make it pink. Inedible is an understatement – most of this ended up in the sea!


I will never forget that evening – there was a moment when I was at the sea’s edge fetching water in a pan from the churning waves and I thought I was going to get swept out to sea when my wellington boot got stuck between two rocks and a huge wave smacked into my legs. As I looked back to the group, I saw the orange embers of our three fires, Fergus gesticulating and waving his arms, and six blinking head torches, with people sat on rocks chopping up apples, stoning damsons and stirring mushrooms in their pan (in the rain). It was surreal, energising and completely mad. I loved every minute!

Cooking dinner in a gale, beach-style:


Our wild foraging man drove us all back to Canterbury, and I snoozed all the way home, dizzy on cherry vodka. Fergus, you’re a crazy dude and we salute you – thanks for a captivating experience!


- Wild Man Wild Food – Fergus Drennan’s website

- Fergus cooks roadkill badger and declares owl to  taste ‘of urine’