We are pleased to announce that we have signed a massive deal to become ‘Official Potato Correspondents’ for Vine Rituals Garden Bags. Last month Vine Rituals founder Shirley asked if we could promote her sacks on our website and a quick scan of her business revealed that not only do the sacks look great for carting around garden waste, but they would also make a superb container for spud growing.
Shirley had yet to out them to the spud test so we asked if she would like us to be her Official Potato Correspondents and see how they performed to the task. “Yes” she said “I’ll send you a sack” – and thus the deal was struck.
The sacks are made of a tough fabric that is waterproof and tear resistant, has handles stitched into the top and bottom for ease of transportation, and they provides a whopping 272 litre capacity. We know about container growing from our days organising the great British Spud Off and are certain the bag will be excellent.
To give our tatties some drainage we cut a few holes in the base of the sack, filled it to around a third with home made compost and added six seed potatoes (Maris Piper) before covering with another layer of compost. As the leaves emerge we’ll cover them with more compost until they’re about a third of the way from the top when we’ll simply let them get on with it.
They’ll be watered well throughout the season (compost can dry out quickly in a container) and reckon we’ll be harvesting our bounty in around 15 weeks. And we fully expect that bounty to be massive.
Save up to 20% off Vine Rituals garden bags!
As part of the deal we struck with Shirley she has set up a discount offer for our readers which can save you between 10% and 20% on the price of her bags. To find out more you need to follow this link.
Wether you use them, like us, for spud growing, or like most people for hauling around garden stuff, is entirely up to you but, as Official Potato Correspondents, we feel this a deal very well done.
For this selection we’ve taken a beery jaunt around the world, visiting Italy, Sweden and South Africa, before finishing off with a spicy version of a Cuban rum that isn’t technically rum…
Moor Brewing + Birrificio Lambrate, United We Can, 4.7%
Part of the Citizens of Everywhere Beer Collaboration
‘Citizens of Everywhere’ is an ambitious collaborative brewing project that sees 12 UK breweries team up with 12 breweries from across Europe. The venture was devised by Moor Beer and Thirsty Cambridge, with online retailer Beer 52 managing exclusive retail distribution of the beer. We got hold of a box and have been steadily guzzling our way through a Baltic porter (brewed with the much underused juniper and pine) from Gadds (UK) and Pöhjala (Estonia); a fruit sour from Gipsy Hill (UK) and To Øl (Denmark); and an amber ale from Five Points (UK) and Bevog (Austria).
Our pick for this round-up has to be founders Moor Brewing, from nearby Bristol, who partnered Italy’s Birrificio Lambrate to brew up a pale ale with a mix of interesting European hops. Drink it without too much thought and it’s another excellent Moorish gluggable pale ale. But concentrate and you can smell melon (cantaloupe we reckon). The first sip is also soft and melony before a herby bitterness quickly rises and fades, leaving some more melon in the aftertaste. It’s a beer with a distinctive fruit-hop nuance, but falls way short of being a fruity beer… and we like it a lot.
Booze importer Morgenrot is rapidly expanding its portfolio of beer with some interesting global brands, with South Africa’s Cape Brewing Company recently being added to the list. We were sent two of their range to try – a lager and pale ale, with the latter impressing us most. It’s simple and restrained, pointing it towards the mainstream market, which is fine by us. Sniff it and you can smell the grain along with some fruity hopping, and on tasting the two ingredients also share the scene. There’s some decent bitterness along with touches of citrussy hopping, but it’s not a hopfest. Our bottle was downed at 6pm on a sunny spring Friday and it set up the evening perfectly – a simple pale ale primer for the weekend.
Brutal Brewing, Tail of the Whale. 4.8%
Another brewery with mainstream appeal is Sweden’s Brutal Brewing. We’ve only been familiar with their Pistonhead brand but it looks like they’re upping the stakes with beers under the ‘Brutal’ name, and they sent us six releases which we’re guessing will soon receive lots of shelf space. The most interesting of these was Tail of the Whale, brewed with 55% wheat malt, Scottish ale yeast and a dry-hopping of citra. It had a wheat beer crispness and lemon freshness but also some mellower fruity notes and, overall, proved to be a very simple, summer-refreshing beer which we think might prove to be popular. Also among the selection we received was a very impressive 0.0% IPA, loaded with hops to give an earthy bitterness and citrus fruitiness combining with a decent body for an alcohol-free beer.
Bacardí Spiced, 36%
Launching this month is a new spiced spirit from famous family booze-makers Bacardí. We managed to find our way onto the brand’s press list and were sent a bottle to try ahead of its store release. The first thing we noticed about the label is that it’s described as a ‘premium spirit drink’, rather than rum as we would’ve assumed. A little bit of research revealed that 93% of the contents is blended young and aged rum with the remaining 7% taken up with flavourings, natural spices and sugar.
Vanilla is likely to be top of the spice list as that’s the most obvious flavour, accentuated by the drink’s sweetness and a slight hint of rum smokiness. The other touches of botanical spices combine to create a flavour that isn’t a million miles from one of rum’s best glass-mates, coke, making it an obvious mixer for rum and coke creations. There has been a huge increase in the number of spiced rums being released in the last year (not all of them good) and this is such an unthreatening, mixer-friendly spirit – with a popular brand behind it – that we have a suspicion it will be a big success.
Every time we have a planning meeting for this website* there’s one action point that comes up but is never carried out: we should review vegetarian meals at restaurants. We grow vegetables but don’t often enough eat vegetarian dishes cooked by cheffy experts. Not only do we think it’s worth seeking out those restaurants that do it best in order to share our experiences with our readers, but eating posh nosh helps us pick up ideas on how to cook our own home grown produce and even inspire us for what we should consider growing next (see below).
A few weeks ago we were invited to eat out at Bath’s Acorn restaurant, a fine-dining venue that regularly scoops up top awards and accolades for its modern vegan cuisine. Bath is our local city. A perfect opportunity to break our vegetarian-meal-reviewing duck.
The restaurant is tiny, tucked into one of the narrow, shadowy streets beneath Bath’s abbey, and it’s a grey, wet and wintery early April evening when we show up. This puts us bang in the middle of ‘the hungry gap’, a time when most of the autumn and winter veg harvests are over and the spring pickings have yet to fully begin. At this time, freshly grown produce lacks variety, and chefs who rely on locally sourced seasonal ingredients need to be at their most creative.
We went for the tasting menu. An appetiser followed by a starter, two main courses and two desserts, fairly priced at £48, and a great way to get an overview of what the restaurant is all about. Having nibbled our way through tiny dishes of foamy pea puree, donkey carrots** with parsley and almond, and a rich gnocchi with leek, mushrooms and dehydrated sauerkraut, we reached our second main course. It was a medley of morsels that looked like a stunning visual study in shades of brown, and it made us realise what this type of cooking is all about: extracting the simple flavours of the ingredients using innovative techniques and allowing the varying textures to take on as much importance as the taste.
For this plate we enjoyed the meaty, fleshy textures from a slab of wild mushroom; a pillowy cube of potato with a firm, crunchy top; the soft creamy layers of celeriac; a sharp bite of pickle; a thick sticky hazelnut sauce and the clean, crisp bite of burgundy-tinged chicory leaves. The centrepiece of the dish was a fluffy mushroom parfait with a shiny black coat, although it was the only element of the whole meal that we both failed to fully appreciate – “solidified mushroom soup” being the overly harsh verdict from someone who doesn’t much care for mushroom soup. Elsewhere, Rich was less keen on the gnocchi, wanting more from the sauerkraut (I disagreed and loved the combined creamy and crunchy unami flavours), while I found the pea puree slightly bland, which made me unjustly nervous about what to expect from the subsequent dishes.
If the textures contrasted, the colours were in harmony: browns, oranges and creams, as befitting a season dominated by below-the-ground root dwellers. The only green came from that pea appetiser and a mound of frozen parsley (yes, ice cold, frozen parsley) clambering over the carrot starter. Greens, the colour so often used to signify vegetarianism, dispensed with before we even made it to a main course.
It took us a while to grow into this veg only ethos – with small bites rather than a big single dish to pile into, Rich in particular felt he was eating sides without fish, but by the time we reached that main course medley he’d stopped grumbling about the lack of meat; and when we’d cleaned our plates of desserts we were both satisfyingly full. Those desserts were much more like what you might expect at any restaurant, albeit with a few twists: an apple confit with walnut and caraway, and a splendid sorbet subtly flavoured with parsnip (yes, parsnip) that sat alongside an indulgent chocolate ganache.
Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As with most tasting menus, it’s less about sitting down for a traditional meal, offering instead the opportunity to take your time exploring the creativity and attention to detail of the chef’s work. Acorn succeeded in not only providing us with excellent and innovative vegan food, but also managed to elevate those limited hungry gap ingredients to a whole new level.
Things we’ve learned
We set about using this as a learning experience for our vegetable growing and cooking, so here are our five top takeaway tips.
Green is not the only colour
We have an instinct that most vegetable dishes need some sort of greenery, even if it’s a few scattered herbs. This was a meal in which browns and creams starred and we didn’t miss the greens for a second.
Spice is not necessarily the variety of life
There was very little in the way of herbs or spices throughout the courses, giving space for the delicate flavours of the veg to shine (you really notice how fully flavoured a potato can be when expertly cooked in this context). Even when the potentially powerful parsley was used, its frozen state knocked that flavour right back to keep the focus on the accompanying carrot and almond.
The versatility of nuts
A lot of modern vegetarian cooking comes scattered with nuts and seeds, but they’re often given little more thought than to provide protein and add some visual appeal. Carefully chosen nuts can add much more to the flavour and texture, and have the ability to be used in more imaginative ways across sweet and savoury dishes.
The UK has never fully embraced chicory in the way some of our European neighbours have, but what a fine vegetable it is. It has been ages since we grew any ourselves and has now leapt to the top of our list of things to sow this year.
All hail the parsnip
We’ve regularly praised the parsnip for being more versatile in the kitchen than you might think (and for making a mighty fine wine too). But we’ve never had it as a sorbet before and it shone – delicately done it was fresh, sweet and even faintly aromatic.
**Big carrots. No donkeys. This is a vegan restaurant
Note: We were invited to eat at Acorn free of charge, but were under no obligation to give the experience any coverage. We only give coverage to things we like and have chosen to review our meal because we enjoyed it – irrespective of who footed the bill.
We’ve just taken delivery of a few sacks of barley, oats and wheat seed for our latest brewing experiments. Lucky old us*. And to contain our grassy stash, we’ll be building a lovely new raised bed down on the allotment. But how do you make raised beds, we hear you ask?
It’s easy. Read on, green-fingered friends, read on…
Raised bed gardening is an advantageous way of growing plants. The general idea is that plants grown in a deep container that sits on the earth will be insulated from the chill of the ground, retaining warmth for longer, thus creating favourable growing conditions. It’s a technique bourn from traditional permaculture methods designed to maximise cropping; plants are also sown closer together in raised bed gardening, helping create a tight canopy to inhibit weeds, and it also means you are not reliant on the native soil in your garden. In theory you could build and fill a bed for plants that thrive in alkaline soil, and construct a separate bed for those that prefer to nestle down in soil more acidic.
For those less adept at DIY, raised beds can be bought in kit form, with a minimal amount of construction required before you are up, running and ready to plant. For those that like to get stuck into a rewarding garden project, there are three main construction types to consider…
Wooden Raised Beds
Advantages: Easy to build. Cheap(ish).
Disadvantages: Slugs will like to hang out in the damp, woody corners. Wood rots – You might need to replace the panels after a few years service.
How to build
Choose your wood carefully. Pressure treated wood, although made to prevent premature rotting, has its concerns. Back in the old days, chemicals used in the pressure treating process contain chromated copper arsenate (CCA) which uses arsenic – not the kind of chemical you want leaking all over your spuds. Fortunately, most modern PPT treatment uses Tanalith E, an organic based preservative which is safe to use and will retail your organic vegetable status – if that is important factor in your gardening. Old Scaffolding boards are a good choice, and another cheap option would be getting hold of a few pallets to break down. Garden centres are a good source of palettes – ask nicely and they might let you have a couple to take home. Steer clear of any blue ones though – these are hire pallets and unless you want a hefty fine landing on your doorstep, they shouldn’t be touched, let alone set upon with a hammer and saw.
Use square retaining stakes for each corner, and for maximum stability, every metre. Hammer the stakes into the ground to a depth of around 25 cm.
Fix your wooden panels to the retaining stakes. Screws will last longer and make things easier if you want to deconstruct your work, but nails are the quickest option. Whatever you choose, make sure they are galvanised for maximum corrosion protection.
Don’t forget the spirit level! Keep checking your levels as you go.
Brick walled raised beds
Advantages: Built to last – bricks won’t rot.
Disadvantages: Time consuming and costly to make. You’ll need a bit of basic brickworking skill to construct a brick bed.
How to build
Mark out the designated area using stakes and string.
For a strong and stable bed wall, put down a hardcore base approx. 10 cm deep before laying your bricks.
If you plan to construct your brick raised bed on concrete or an existing patio, leave the odd gap between brick joints to provide drainage. Cover the holes with mesh to stop them clogging.
Sleeper raised bed Advantages: Looks the biz. Will last for years. Disadvantages: Sleepers can be expensive to purchase and can potentially leak undesirable chemicals into your soil.
How to build
Choose your sleepers carefully – old railway sleepers may look lovely and rustic, but will most likely have been treated with tar and creosote which will seep into your soil in warm weather. Pay a visit to your local garden timber yard, who will be able to advise. Look out for new, softwood sleepers that have been treated with eco-friendly preservatives. Softwood sleepers are also a lot lighter, making them easier to lug around the garden.
Ensure the ground you intend to build on is firm and level.
Overlap the sleepers like brickwork if you are building a bed more than two sleeper levels high.
Fix in position by hammering metal rods into the ground, either side of the sleeper walls.
Filling your raised bed
To aid drainage, first lay an 8 cm layer of gravel or stones, on top of which lay a weed inhibiting membrane. Fill your bed with topsoil. If you can, avoid filling with soil sourced from elsewhere in the garden to prevent any weed contamination. Remember to add a generous amount of well rotten manure, and dig over the area thoroughly before planting.
But unlucky for our allotment neighbours, who will be cursing our wandering seed when it makes its way into their soil beds, borne on stiff breeze and avian beak.
We say it often: we’re living in a golden age of beer. Choice and quality has never been so high and it feels as if the whole world has suddenly cottoned on to the magic of beer. One reason often cited by the craft beer innovators for starting up breweries was as a reaction to the blandness of beers on offer at the time – and in most instances these would likely be the kind of global big brand lagers that dominate the sales charts.
We rarely drank these lagers before the craft beer boom, and resort to them even less now there’s more choice, but have they been harshly treated? Along with the rise in quality beers, has there also been a rise in beer snobbery, with those world lagers at the receiving end of unfair criticism?
Along with an increasing array of imported craft beers, big brand lagers from far flung places are also being made more readily available to UK consumers. To find out if any of them are worth flinging your earned cash at, we’ve decided to taste test a collection of boozes from five different countries.
Seeing as it’s the Germans who historically kicked off this global lager passion (familiar names including Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Coors and Miller were German migrants who set up breweries in America and went on to conquer the world) we’ve also included a traditional German pils in our taste test as a ‘control’. We’ve worked with Krombacher quite a lot over the past year so it’s their pils that we’ve used for taste test purposes.
Krombacher Pils is smooth and malty with a distinctively Germanic spicy and grassy hop bitterness. It’s quite soft and bready, a touch sweeter than other pils, and the light hopping helps to crisp it up at the finish. We like it as a daytime sipper and it goes especially well with vegetable dishes or a Sunday roast chicken – there’s enough flavour to make it worthy of a place on your dinner table, but it will never overpower those more delicately flavoured dishes.
So with the German control safely guzzled it’s time to check out five more big brand lagers. In drinking order…
Country: Argentina We first tried this Argentinian import while researching beers to represent each country at the World Cup and, though not a world beater, it certainly did the job of providing refreshing boozeiness while watching football. It has sweet malt flavours common to lots of mass produced lagers with only light hopping at the finish. Nothing overtly nasty to report and an acceptable fridge beer for when your main focus is on the tv sporting action.
Country: Namibia There’s very little wrong with this. You could make a strong case for it being bland but not everyone wants full flavour all of the time. It’s close to Krombacher in its initial sweet grainy flavour and it has a noticeable bitterness that edges towards grassy. The high carbonation suits its light, crisp body and at 4% it’s the kind of lager you would want to neck to see off a sweat.
Country: Canada This really is a bland beer that has somehow managed to suck flavour from the grain and hops to leave behind a thin, dry drink with a light fizz and a bit of sweetness. Despite those criticisms it’s far from horrible (there are a lot worse out there) and we can see the appeal. It fills a gap between beer and water, and if it were the only thing on offer at a bar we would stick with it for a few pints.
Country: Thailand Something in our memory banks suggested this tasted great when drinking it in the hot and humid streets of Bangkok but when we got back home it became one to avoid. However, it has been a long time since we last drank any. Trying it now we notice how different it is from the other beers, with very little bitter hopping, an almost vinous homemade wine tang to the body and some sharper lemony notes prodding the palate. Rice is among the ingredients, which is partly responsible for this change in feel and flavour, and is a reason the purists will criticise it. Treat it as a different kind of product than a regular lager and it becomes a more acceptable drink, albeit one we would only want to experience in a hot and humid Bangkok setting.
Country: Japan We assumed this beer was flown in from Japan but it’s brewed under licence in Wolverhampton by Marstons. Weaker, paler, lighter and fizzier than Chang it also has a bit of peppery Germanic hopping at the finish. A basic lager but no complaints from us.
With the exception of Krombacher, none of these are the kind of beers we would choose to drink that often, but it has been a fun exercise comparing lagers from around the world and picking out a favourite. Even the most committed Big-Brand-Lager-Refuser probably has at least one they don’t mind drinking (call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ if you like) and of the five we tried it’s Namibia’s Windhoek that is our top pick. Heck, we might even get a case in for the fridge – with summer approaching everyone needs a quick and simple thirst quencher to fall back on.
Our latest instalment of the best booze we’ve been sent or stumbled across sees us gearing up for St Patrick’s Day (please note: the photo of Rich swigging whiskey in his Emerald green leprechaun outfit and floppy felt Guinness hat has been deemed unsuitable for this website)
Glendalough Rose Gin, 37.5%
Our booze table has been creaking of late, thanks in part to the enormous amount of Irish whiskey samples left over from Nick’s latest iBuys feature, their golden, glassy cylinders bedecking the surface like a kitchen-based Giants Causeway. But it’s not just whiskey that’s been passing our lips this month – we’ve also been busying ourselves sampling other Irish boozes, one of the highlights being this pink gin that made the journey with its malty mates, over the Irish sea and into our grubby, soil-stained mitts.
It hails from the Glendalough distillery, based on their wild gin recipe, but redistilled with fruit, flowers, spices and no less than three different varieties of rose petal; the Damsak rose, the Heritage rose and wild rose, the latter having been harvested in the Wicklow mountains by expert forager Geraldine Kavanagh http://www.wicklowwildfoods.com/ who advises and provides the distillery with fine local botanicals.
As you’d expect from a rose-infused booze, it’s wonderfully fragrant with a subtle pink tint.
It’s a decent neat sipper but it really comes alive with tonic, tasting fresh, sweet and spicy with a subtle hint of turkish delight. A good, alternative Guinness chaser to accompany this years St Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we reckon.
Marks and Spencer has been selling decent beer for a long time, which is good news for Nick who counts his local branch as his closest supermarket. And despite the recent addition of two excellent bottle shops in town he still buys most of his beer from M&S. A few weeks ago his wife came home clutching a previously untried bottle of Oatmeal Stout, from one of our favourite breweries, Ilkley, trumpeting “why pay £4.50 for a can when you can get this for £2.50.”
It’s another excellent member of the M&S own-label range, a thick black brew that has a bit of up front sweetness and drys out with a touch of bitterness and a slightly fruity rasp. A full flavoured beer with a simple, light touch and a wallet-pleasing price. It’s not Irish but if you’re looking for a stout for St Patrick’s Day then give it a go.
Spirit of Hven Organic Single Malt 7 Stars No 6:2 Alcor, 45%
We were recently introduced to the Spirit distillery of Hven by our booze-peddling chums Amathus Drinks while researching for a piece on world whisky. The distillery, based on the Swedish island of Hven, has an impressive line up of spirits with their experimental, limited edition single malt whiskies being of a notably high standard.
This release was distilled from a mash bill that includes lager malt, peated malt and chocolate malt before being matured in four different American and European oak casks. It has a distinctive peatiness running through the dried fruit flavours, taking in toasty notes of chocolate and coffee, with a sweet oak finish that’s longer than the whisky’s name. A great piece of modern Scandinavian drinks making.
J&B Rare isn’t exactly a new whisky (it was first produced in the 1930s) but it’s currently going through a marketing push in the UK that will see it pitched at a female audience, with a ‘Mother’s Day Cocktail’ being one of the tricks rolled out this month (see recipe below). We thought this a good enough excuse to reacquaint ourselves with Justerini & Brooks’ classic blend that, apparently, is the fifth best selling blended Scotch in the world and number one in Southern Europe.
Blended from 42 different whiskies it’s actually quite a classy drink, possessing light touches of sweet fruits, oaky tannins and creamy toffee with a clean and zesty citrus freshness. A great entry level whisky that can be sipped neat and is ideally suited to cocktail making – if you don’t fancy the effort for the Mother’s Day then we would suggest it goes well with coke and ice.
Cocktail recipe: A Rare Discovery – designed by Drake & Morgan:
Ingredients 10ml Kamm and Sons British Aperitif Bitters 40ml J&B Rare 20ml Peach Puree 10ml Elderflower cordial 15ml Lemon Juice
Mix them all together, pour into your loveliest glass, add ice and give to your mum with a bunch of flowers.
Rum is a spirit on the rise. Far from being a tipple only enjoyed by salty sea dogs and Cuban bartenders, it is now being appreciated by a new generation of drinkers keen to flex their taste buds in new directions. From mature sipping rums, to bright cocktail classics and unique flavours from far flung islands, rum’s diversity is its main strength. To celebrate rum’s renaissance we’ve unearthed five fantastic facts…
Light & Dark
As rum is made all over the world, using different raw ingredients, the rules as to what constitutes a rum are varied and confusing. Most are produced in the Caribbean or Central America and broadly fall into three national influences: English-style rums from the English speaking Caribbean islands tend to be dark, molasses based spirits; Spanish-style rums, from Spanish speaking countries, are known as ‘Ron’ and usually lighter in style; while French speaking countries have a ‘French (or ‘Rhum) Agricole’ style which are produced from sugar cane juice.
The colour of the rums is down to ageing and filtering. White, light or silver rums will have spent a shorter time in casks and are often charcoal-filtered to remove colour. Some golden rums then have caramel added to give them their colour. Aged rums gain their deeper tones from a longer time spent in the barrels, while dark rums will be produced from caramelised molasses and aged in charred barrels for extra depth of flavour and colour.
Strong & Stronger
While most rums are bottled at around 40% ABV, there’s one category of rum that is considerably stronger: Navy Rum. Its bottling strength of 57% ABV is a nod to the minimum alcohol level required of the Royal Navy for sailors to ‘splice the mainbrace.’* Wet gunpowder from booze spillage was a potential problem for naval vessels and 57% was the strength at which the explosive substance would still ignite if it came into contact with rum. The booze was tested by mixing a bit of gunpowder with rum and lighting it – if it went up in flame then it was ‘proof’ of alcohol (hence 57% being referred to as 100% English Proof).
Rum & Coke
Rum is, of course, a vital booze for anyone who likes to dabble with the art of cocktail making, and rum & coke is one of the popular cocktails around, due to ease of making and effectiveness. It began in Cuba around a century ago where it’s known as the Cuba Libra and uses the local light rum, served with or without a squirt and slice of lime. From Cuba it spread to America, then the rest of the world, where many variations have sprung that use rums of all distinctions. To make the classic version mix 120ml coca cola (no other coke will do), 50ml white Cuban rum and 10ml fresh lime juice in a highball glass filled with ice. Top with a wedge of lime. Dream of sunshine.
Dark & Stormy
Another popular rum-based cocktail is the Dark ‘n’ Stormy which is a combination of dark rum and (stormy) ginger beer, served in a tall glass with ice and a slice of lime. For a proper Dark ‘n’ Stormy the rum should be Gosling Brothers Black Seal – the company lays claim to the creation of the original cocktail in Bermuda and has trademarked the Dark ‘n’ Stormy name. They’ve even packaged up pre-made cocktails in their own Dark ‘n’ Stormy cans.
Rum & Raisin
Dark rum is one of the best drinks to have hanging around the kitchen. Not only is it great for a quick cocktail fix but it’s also a useful ingredient for cooking where its sweet, rich and boozy characteristics can pep up a plethora of puddings and sauces. Its most famous partner in recipe books is the raisin, first combined in ice creams by Sicilians, and since used in cakes, fudge, chocolate and other sweet confections.
Five rums to try
Aged rum for sipping
El Dorado 15, 43% Country of production: Guyana
El Dorado produce a range of award winning rich, fruity and spicy aged dark rums. The five year old is a bargain; 15 is exceptional and great value; or for money-no-object options they have even older rums.
*This nautical phrase means to partake in an extra ration of rum or grog – splicing (repair) a mainbrace (the rope used to support the mast of a sailing vessel) was a tough task so the successful repairman was rewarded with an extra helping of booze
February, eh? What a scorcher! We spent the latter half of the month prancing around in shorts, waving at early emerging butterflies and sniffing the sweet scent of early spring*. As we now creep into March, the weather has gone back to being a bit parky, and our thoughts waft back to this time last year when we had to wade through chest high drifts of snow on the way to the Co-op to fight someone for a pint of semi-skimmed.
Winter often has a sting in its tail, and a rerun of last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ would certainly curtail our short-flouncing fun, not to mention being rather problematic for my hungry wood burner, should it need to be called back into action. Having coveted Nick’s wood store for the last year or so, I managed to bag my own –courtesy of Bentley Tools – and busied myself during the winter months by stuffing it with choice logs foraged locally**. My wood stash took a bit of a bashing over Christmas due to frivolous burning brought on by the dark evenings and cold, moaning relatives, and as you can see by the photos above, my store is in desperate need of replenishment.
Anyone with a log burning stove will likely have had the temptation to round up any old bits of timber they can get hold of and chuck them on the flames: from trees lopped in your own garden, to fallen branches from the surrounding land or even tired old bits of furniture, but to get the best out of a wood burner (and to protect your chimney from sooty deposits), you really need to feed it with seasoned wood.
How to season wood
Seasoning wood is the process of leaving chopped bits of timber to naturally reduce their moisture content until they’re ready to burn. Most wood has between 30% to 45% moisture which should be reduced to 20% to 25%. If you’re chopping a tree for seasoning then winter is the best time to do this as it’ll be in its dormant period with no sap rising, giving you a better starting point to begin.
Chop the wood into fire-ready pieces (smaller lumps dry quicker than big lumps) and make sure it’s stacked in a way that air can circulate throughout. Hence, the open, slatted sides of a wood store. If you’re lucky, depending on tree time and drying conditions, your winter-chopped wood could be ready for the fire in the following winter, but in most conditions it’s worth leaving it for at least 18 to 24 months if you can.
If you can’t get your hands on seasoned wood, then look for fir – it’s a wood that burns better than most while still green. Fir has a high resin content which will cause spitting and crackling when flung on a fire, but it will generate an instant, high level of heat. For this reason, it’s an excellent choice to use as kindling.
But what kind of wood would a wood burner burn if a wood burner could burn wood? Here’s six of the best to feed your fire.
The best wood to burn
Ash Ash is considered one of the best woods to fling on your fire. It’s one of the few woods that can be burnt green (unseasoned) and produces a strong, steady flame with excellent heat output.
Beech Seasoned beech is another popular flaming beauty. It gives off a nice feisty flame and churns out decent heat. If you can, give it at least two years seasoning before burning.
Apple Keep hold of those apple tree prunings – when dry apple wood it burns nice and slowly and gives off a pleasant aroma.
Hawthorn Another good burning wood that is well suited to stoves. We also like hawthorn berries...
Oak Oak takes the longest to season – ideally it should be left for a minimum of two years – but if you’re after a nice, slow burn, oak is the one to go for.
Birch Gives off great heat and a pleasant aroma, but it burns relatively quickly, so mix it with slower burning wood. It can be burnt unseasoned if you choose to do so, but be aware that birch wood can be quite sappy which will cause sooty deposits in your flue. For a birch-ey bonus, peel off the barch and use it as a firelighter.
And three to avoid…
Laburnum Burning laburnum will create toxic gas. See also: Yew. Avoid.
Willow Smells like dog shite when burning – an aroma guaranteed to spoil the cosiest of fireside gatherings.
Driftwood A beachcombers stash of salt saturated wood can release toxic chemicals when burnt. Best save this timber for making rustic signs and flogging on Etsy for £££s
Charles Bentley wood store available from BuyDirect4U for £99
* Whilst try to ignore the elephant in the room – the elephant being irreversible climate change and impending global catastrophe.
** Taken from my neighbours supply, under the cover of darkness.
We’ve been bombarded with press releases piggybacking Dry January, Burns Night and Valentine’s Day. Here’s a selection of the boozes we guzzled for the occasions…
Alcohol Free Beers
At the back end of last year we put together a list of the best alcohol free beers for the Independent following a mammoth, week-long tasting session.* Since then we’ve been inundated with breweries and PR companies asking if we’ve tried their products. In most cases the answer was ‘yes’, but they weren’t good enough to topple the winner, vandeStreek Playground. Of those that failed to get a mention but deserve some credit were alcohol-free versions of Adnam’s Ghost Ship and Green King’s Old Speckled Hen (both 0.5% ABV). Each one tasted remarkably similar to their booze-backed namesakes with the only obvious tell tale signs of difference being a slightly thin finish to Ghost Ship and a touch of raw malt Speckling the Hen’s flavour. We would both gladly drink them in place of alcohol in future.
Joining the alcohol-free party was a new rum punch called ‘Punchy’. As with our beers, the producers have created two versions – one with alcohol (at 4% ABV) and one without. They were both similar tasting and very decent drinks, with tropical fruit flavours and a touch of ginger coming through at the finish. They managed to avoid the over-sweet, syruppy taste of similar drinks with some dry fizz giving them a bit of sophistication. The rum in the alcohol added an extra layer of smooth warmth and some richness to the flavours – and although the alcohol-free version was perfectly drinkable, the dab of rum reminded us why alcohol is so great: it’s not just about its intoxicating effects, it simply makes perfectly good drinks taste and feel even better.
Supermarket giant Tesco recently unveiled a new range of single malt whiskies at bargain prices, each representing a different whisky making region of Scotland: Speyside, Highland and Islay. With the press release arriving just a few weeks short of Burns Night our eyes were drawn to the tactically smart food matching notes of the Highland offering: “Pair with a veggie or traditional haggis supper.” Nick got himself a bottle and performed haggis and whisky scoffing duties, mixing his glass of Highland malt with soda water to make it a more meal-friendly drink. His gravy-stained, scribbled tasting notes read thus: “Enough oaky depth to cope with the peppery haggis and mustard, and there were also accents of floral honey riding the fizz, adding a refreshing touch to the meal.”
Tesco’s new Glenfairn single malt whiskies, including our Highland edition, are all priced at £20 per 700ml bottle and are available from the Tesco website
Nelson’s Gin, 41%
With Valentine’s Day looming we were at the end of a flurry of marketing emails promoting romantically themed boozes (and some limited edition Marmite). One such notification that caught our attention came from Nelson’s Gin, who released a limited edition rose and raspberry gin that was promoted by Master Distiller Neil Harrison with this line: “The combination of the dopamine-boosting alcohol, aphrodisiacal rose petals and libido-enhancing raspberries is the perfect way to get things going this February.” We prefer to focus on flavour rather than other potential fruity shenanigans and can report that it’s a floral delight with subtle hints of fruitiness from the raspberries.
The gin is available on its own (at £40 per 700ml bottle) or in a gift set with chocolates (priced £58.82) from the Nelson’s Gin shop.
Green Grow is an innovative new business that has developed sustainable techniques for growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds and whisky grains, which are then used to produce ready-to-cook meals. We caught up with Business Development Manager Dr Isabella Guerrini de Claire (pictured with Director Iain Findlay) to find out more about the project and how mushrooms can play a key role in creating a more eco-friendly future…
You grow mushrooms using coffee and whisky grains. How did the idea for this come about? The idea is originally from the Blue Economy work of Gunter Pauli but in our case, we wanted a showcase to help companies understand the principles of the circular economy which we mentor start-ups in, and promote to other organisations, both private and public. Re-using bio-resources like coffee and grains is a necessary step to make better use of resources without depleting natural systems. The mushrooms grown on coffee seems to be an effective way to demonstrate these principles so that people quickly grasp the idea more generally. I was cycling past a distillery one day and just watched as all that heat went to waste. I thought it would be a perfect match-up and we approached the distillery who were happy to let us try.
What are the techniques you use to grow the mushrooms and what are the advantages of growing them this way? We use fairly standard mushroom growing techniques but have adapted some parts. For example, we’re re-using captured waste heat from a distillery as well as growing on the grains. The low grade heat in the water is normally allowed to disipate into the atmosphere before the water is released into the environment. We re-channeled the water into shipping containers to create the necessary warmth and humidity to make the mushrooms grow. The advantages are that we save on fossil fuels and make better use of the used bio-resources to create at least two more products, mushrooms and mushroom compost.
We collect sawdust from a local sawmill to use as a fuel source. We also re-use plastic containers thrown out by a local bakery as our growing containers. These can be re-used multiple times, rather than the single use plastic bags that are used in oyster mushroom production. Our new system uses some pretty fancy engineering to create good growing conditions and we can control this remotely using feedback from the system. And finally, the ready-to-cook meals are plant based so that encourages people to eat a healthy diet. The mushroom compost is then added to the soil to re-build natural capital, a prime goal of the Circular Economy.
Does the growing medium affect the flavour of the mushrooms? Ha. If only that were true. No, the mushrooms digest the lignin in the growing medium and all they taste of is really lovely mushrooms.
What type of mushrooms do you grow? We grow oyster mushrooms on the bio-resources. Mushrooms inhabit an enormous variety of niches in nature as decomposers and are adapted to those materials only. We will likely start to grow other kinds, but on the coffee and distillery/brewery grains we stick to grey oysters.
Where do you get your whisky grains from? We get them from a Speyside distillery. We have signed a non-disclosure agreement and can’t tell you their name. We also use coffee grounds collected from a local Costa cafe, but also sawdust from a local sawmill at Logie Estates near Forres, who power their machhinery using renewable energy sources.
Where do your mushrooms get used? We are using them to add to our vegan ready-to-cook meals, but we also sell some locally through a vegetable box scheme.
You’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. How can people get involved in the business? Yes, the crowd-funding campaign is aimed at helping us to understand potential customers but also to fund raise for the equipment we need to develop some of the really interesting aspects of mushrooms. We want to use the roots, the mycelium, to develop bio-degradeable packaging for our products – mushroom meals wrapped in their own roots. People can visit our website www.greengrowfoods.shop.
They can also follow us on twitter @GreenGrowFood or on Facebook for updates and fascinating fungi facts. We need to get access to some machinery and also fund the R and D. Most perople are now aware of the danger we are in because of plastic packaging. Mushroom based technology can play a part in develping alternatives that are bio-degradeable, compostable and even nutritious if a passing turtle or fish comes across a piece.
How do you see your business developing over the next few years and are there any plans to try other sustainable growing mediums? We want to expand the number of people growing mushrooms using our system. They can then sell the product themselves or sell them back to us for inclusion in the ready-to-cook meal boxes. This allows them to focus on growing the mushrooms without having to put in lots of effort to sell them. Our system, developed with a renewable energy company, allows for the growing conditions to be monitored and controlled making it easier for people to be successful, but it also allows for product traceability which is important for some of the higher end applications we want to explore, like medicines and packaging materials. We are working with some very cool groups in Belgium, including a PhD, to develop the mycelium packaging. If we can do it for ourselves, then we can develop transformative solutions for other companies who need eco-friendly packaging.
We’re looking into other sustainable growing mediums but need to focus on what we know works for the moment. There are a lot of grains and coffee out there that can be re-valorised and turned into healthy food, exceptional soil conditioner or new packaging materials.
Finally, can you recommend a mushroom-based dish and a whisky to have with it. I would have to go with our mushroom lentil meal. The lentils are grown at 1,000m in Italian co-operative farms and are really delicious. If I was drinking whisky with that meal I would probably have to go with a Bowmore 12 year old. And yes, I would add a wee dash of water too.