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Great Taste Awards 2018

Fruit Magpie has been up and running for three years now and this year I finally felt ready to try my luck at the Great Taste Awards. So back in February, after a lot of dithering about which flavours to send, I finally packed up the four I produce the most of and hand-delivered them (taking no chances!) to the Guild of Fine Foods offices in London. Then there was nothing to do but sit back and wait for the process to unfold. But announcement day is 1st August so now I have some news to share! Before I do, though, here’s a bit of background to the awards:

The Great Taste Awards are organised by the Guild of Fine Food and have been described as the ‘Oscars’ of the food world. Over the 24 years they have been running they have become, in the words of the Guild, the acknowledged benchmark for fine food and drink and the world’s largest and most trusted food and drinks awards. Customers have come to trust that if they buy a product with one or more of the coveted stars it has been thoroughly tested and independently judged to be of quality. What they probably don’t know, however, is just how thorough this testing process actually is!

This year over 500 judges working in small teams judged over 12,500 food and drink products over 65 judging days, from March through to early July.  Products are blind-tasted by selected chefs, buyers, fine food retailers, restaurateurs, food critics and writers who are told to look for “truly great flavour, regardless of branding or packaging”.

Each product starts by being evaluated by a table of three or four experts and is then referred on for further tastings by others. By the time the process is complete and the award (or not) finalised, the product has been tasted by at least six (and up to 24!) judges. Each of these makes notes on the tastings which will be given as feedback to the entrant. There are a maximum of three stars to be gained but, with only around a third of entries gaining any kind of award, one or two stars are very respectable indeed! The Guild uses the following guide to their star system:

one star “simply delicious”

two stars “outstanding”

three stars “exquisite. wow! taste that”

OK, now to the reveal! The products I entered, and their awards, were:

Apple chilli fruit cheese: one star “A good colour and good set… the chilli delivers a gentle, yet evident, heat, without being overpowering. Could pair beautifully with a game terrine.”

Damson fruit cheese: two stars “Damson flavour is stunning. Good texture and flavour.”

Medlar fruit cheese: two stars “Wonderful to see this use of the traditional fruit.. The product has a wonderful sheen and a great depth of flavour – a must for any cheese board. This product is hard to improve.”

Quince cheese; three stars “It really packs a punch of flavour and would be a must on any cheese board. We can’t find fault in this product, it is the best we have tried.”

Just… wow. My first year and everything I entered has received an award – eight stars in total for four products. I’m utterly gobsmacked, proud as punch and plan to go round grinning like an idiot for some while to come. I don’t know what this means for the future but I can’t wait to find out!

 

 

 

 

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Winterfest at Bruce Castle

Christmas waits for no man. (I paraphrase….)

It is my busiest time of year and the kitchen has been running at peak capacity for a number of weeks now. It is very exciting to see fruit cheese going out almost as soon as it is made – one of my lovely local customers may have received some jars barely cool a couple of weeks ago! So writing about the experience has been furthest from my mind, but I couldn’t let the season pass without mentioning the Tottenham Ploughman Winterfest at Bruce Castle this coming Sunday 10th December. It is a fantastic local event so if you are in the area pop by and say hello!

 

 

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Tales from Tottenham

Surprisingly maybe, for a Kent girl brought up to appreciate birds and flowers, I have long felt huge affection for my adopted home of Tottenham.

When I first arrived in the area it was to a long skinny flat at the bottom of Mount Pleasant road, five of us, then six, squished into three bedrooms. My friends and I had picked it after an evening staring at a tube map, finally deciding that, although none of us had ever been to Tottenham, it seemed to be the only place from which we could all sensibly travel to work. And it was cheap of course – the Broadwater Farm riots a few years earlier had clearly left their mark and the general atmosphere in the area was depressed and suspicious. Work on the leisure centre by the town hall had been suspended for lack of funds and it lay half-completed, surrounded by brightly painted hoarding, and on every street there were abandoned shopping trolleys: as relatively few residents owned cars it made perfect sense that this was how you got your weekly shop back from Tesco. Our local was the Hobson’s Choice (yes, really!): a sticky-carpet pub with a pool room, friendly staff and an astonishing decor of support columns made to look like tree trunks and painted chocolate brown. When we asked why there were always so few customers we were told that “it got a bit quiet after the stabbing”(!)

When our house of friends split up and went separate ways I wanted to stay in the area. My first taste of London had been the vastly more glamorous Kew, where I was a student at the Botanic Gardens, but although I clearly couldn’t afford to move back to west London, there was in any case something I really liked about Tottenham. Despite everything I found people friendly and welcoming and in the few short months I’d lived there I’d quickly started to feel at home. My boyfriend and I moved a few roads away to a ground-floor flat with a sunny garden.

Twenty-something years have passed since then and while I still live in the same flat all around me Tottenham has changed beyond recognition. Not quickly at first (unless you count Tesco’s remodelling of the landscape by putting coin locks on their trolleys!) but lately at a dizzying pace. Heritage Lottery Fund money has allowed Lordship Recreation ground to blossom into a park with a river flowing through it and a much loved eco-build community centre. Some lovely cafes have sprung up. There are dozens of community groups and events these days and the area positively fizzes with energy (something I’ve always loved about the place). There are some great places to eat and even a farmer’s market on Tottenham Green.

And one last surprising change that is taking some getting used to: I no longer get pitying looks when I tell someone where I live.

Main pic: moving in with the use of the late 1980s free Tottenham transport system (thanks, Tesco!)

tottenham community press crop

Pic above: article by Lisette Allen in Tottenham Community Press, Jan 2017.  TCP launched in Nov 2016 and is a free community newspaper, by and for local people.

 

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Happy Cheester!

When I dropped off some membrillo I’d made at one of Wildes Cheese market stalls three years ago it hadn’t crossed my mind that this would mark the start of a new business. It really was their enthusiastic response which got me excited about the possibilities and started on experimenting with recipes. Things have moved on a lot from the days when they were my only customer, but I am very pleased that this fellow Tottenham foodie business still sells my membrillo with their delicious cheese.

Nowadays the ‘Urban Cheesemaker’ tends to buy a few blocks from me as and when they need and include a slice in each of their cheese hampers. However they are definitely not beyond surprising me – when I got a text from Philip three weeks ago asking if I could supply 25kg of membrillo I wondered if there was meant to be a decimal point in there somewhere. No, 25kg it was, “probably more”. What??! Er, well, yes! When do you need it by, again?

Wildes had been working on a new project for Easter with food blogger Annem Hobson (So Wrong it’s Nom). Annem is clearly a big cheese fan and, as the developer of a cheese advent calendar, has good experience of getting it into the places you might expect to be filled with chocolate. In a smart move she also trademarked the word “Cheester”. She approached Philip and Keith of Wildes to make a solid cheese Easter egg and, after some experimenting, they managed to produce an egg-shape using their highly popular Napier cheese. The Cheester Egg was born!

Although I knew this was happening, what I wasn’t expecting (and I think fair to say they weren’t either) was an absolute explosion of interest in the eggs. The story was picked up by the Telegraph, the Evening Standard, The Sun, The Daily Mail, Stylist magazine, ITV’s ‘This Morning’ programme, Cosmopolitan, Lad magazine…. the list goes on and on. There was a piece on Fox News. The dairy was thrust into overdrive.

And to every Cheester Egg hamper some membrillo. They were right, the order did go up – in the end they took 32kg. And then I (and quite possibly everyone else involved) went to lie down for a week.

 

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Jamie Oliver’s CEO CookOff

There may have been a month’s lull in activity on this blog, but it certainly does not reflect quiet at this end! I am full of pride to report that this week Fruit Magpie attended the first ever UK CEO CookOff, a huge fundraising event hosted by Jamie Oliver, as one of the official suppliers to the event.

A little background…

The CEO CookOff was started by Ronni Kahn’s OzHarvest in Australia in 2012 and has been hugely successful in rescuing and redistributing food that would otherwise waste. The UK arm of the charity, UKHarvest, was launched at the end of 2016 with similar aims. For this event it teamed with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution to raise funds to tackle hunger, food waste, and food education.

The event took place in Old Billingsgate Market, London on 21st March. Sixty business leaders were invited to partner with thirty of the UK’s top chefs to cook a feast for “everyday heroes” i.e. ordinary people working in schools, hospitals or other public service. However the CEOs were not there just for fun, they had serious fundraising targets to meet, each was required to stump up £1,500 to enter and to work towards a target of £10,000.

How did the Magpie get involved?

Shortly after the Urban Food Awards last September I was astonished to receive an email from one of the organisers introducing me to a lovely woman from Jamie Oliver’s team. In her message she explained the concept of the CEO CookOff and that the intention was to work with food producers with an anti food waste ethos. Well, I could truthfully say that this concept is central to what I do with Fruit Magpie, although I still couldn’t quite believe that this would be enough to turn me into one of the suppliers to the event. When all went quiet for a few weeks I turned my attention to the Christmas rush and tried not to daydream too much about starry fundraising events.

Come the end of January things though started to step up. More details came through and were requested. I sent samples and waited nervously for the verdict. When it came I had to read it over several times: the email was titled “Jamie loves them”. Well, what can I say?!

The damson fruit cheese was selected to be part of a canape partnered with whey cheese from Kupros Dairy, micro-leaves from Growing Underground and beer bread crostini made using Toast Ale.

The Big Day

I was invited by Jamie’s team to to have a stall at the event, to serve samples and chat to the guests about what I do. I was delighted of course, and keen too to meet the other six stall-holders, also working to produce sustainable food.

Mary and I arrived early to set up; our small panic over a lost cab driver was swiftly replaced by a far larger panic when the fruit cheese refused to stick to the delicious bread they had provided. However by the time Jamie came over to speak to us we’d got our samples in order and I was happy with the way the stall was looking. And what a lovely chat with the Big Man we had, on fruit cheese production, medlars, and freezers behind the sofa. And his verdict on the fruit cheese? “Delicious”. Wow!

And you want a little Jamie tip? Use the damson cheese as the “secret ingredient” in a gravy to really boost the flavour.

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Observer Food Monthly

Today the Magpie is featured as one of the Observer Food Monthly’s “favourite foods, cooks, restaurants and more: fifty things we love in 2017” and I am chuffed beyond words. I’ve known for a few weeks that this should be coming up but still couldn’t quite believe it wouldn’t be edited out at the last minute. One of the OFM 50? Amazing. Number 17, to be exact, right after Alain Ducasse!

Huge thanks to the journalist Lisette Allen who picked up the story.

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How sweet it is

Ever since I met Vivien Lloyd last summer I have been thinking about how sugar works in preserves and continuing to experiment with recipes. I don’t pretend to be a food scientist but I can share what I’ve learnt from her, from reading and from my own experiments.

One of the things I knew about Vivien well before I met her was that she was a passionate advocate for traditional preserving methods. A preserver of preserves, if you like. However you shouldn’t mistake this as nostalgia for a golden age of jam when our grandmothers stirred copper pots on the range. Oh no: she is talking about science.

The traditional level of sugar in preserves is 60%+, which is the level at which they have a wobbly, gelled consistency and a bright colour. If you were to experiment by progressively lowering the amount of sugar in a recipe it would become progressively more difficult to achieve a set (especially if not using commercial pectin) and, for many fruits, the colour will start to take on the look of faded curtains.  High levels of sugar also ensure that the resulting preserve actually does what it was originally designed to do – preserve – by preventing the growth of microbes. This action starts to fail at levels below around 60% which explains why, once open, you need to keep reduced sugar preserves in the fridge and eat them relatively quickly.

But surely we should be trying to reduce our intake of sugar for health reasons? This is quite likely true of the average diet but we should not kid ourselves that eating reduced sugar preserves will make a big difference.  Take jam, for example: a traditional jam will be 60-65% sugar, a reduced sugar fruit preserve maybe 45-50%. So if you are in the habit of spreading a generous layer on your toast every morning, switching from one to the other will reduce your sugar intake by around half a teaspoon a time – not terrible, but hardly a statistic to impress your dentist.

Personally, I’m much more interested in how sugar relates to flavour. Logically, a higher fruit to sugar ratio should dictate a better flavour and indeed it often does, yet things are a little more complex than that. The variety of fruit, how it has been grown, when it was picked and how (and how quickly) it is processed all have a big impact on flavour. I was recently fascinated by this Guardian article about the celebrated American chef Dan Barber, a passionate advocate of sustainability; where he states his belief (if I read this right) that flavour starts with the quality of the soil. (But I digress – maybe a topic for another blog!)

Fruit cheese differs from other preserves in that it is more concentrated, with a lower water content as a result of a longer cooking time. Sugar levels are therefore correspondingly high but I have long been fascinated with how to achieve the strongest, most true flavour of the fruit, not too sweet, whilst still maintaining a good set, texture and colour.  Not asking much, then!

Unsurprisingly this has led to a long trail of failed experiments, but these have gradually failed less as I learn more and become better at understanding the process. My method is to start with an existing trusted recipe, where one exists, then to pull it and stretch it until I identify the minimum amount of added sugar needed to make the recipe work. This is not an exact science as there are other factors at play such as batch size, temperature, speed of cooking etc but I now finally have a set of recipes that I am more or less happy with. Some fruits have stubbornly refused to co-operate: I have had to admit defeat with the medlar as lowering the sugar even a fairly small amount caused the ‘cheese’ to set at the surface but remain unset beneath. (By the way, if anyone can tell me why then I’d love to hear from you!)

So in summary? Sugar levels in preserves will determine some of their properties quite reliably but are far from being the only factor when it comes to flavour. The only real way to know that is to trust your taste buds!

 

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Jellied Eel magazine

Back on a glorious sunny day last summer Jellied Eel magazine commissioned photographer Miles Willis to pop over to my place to take photos for the January issue. I was delighted of course. Miles rang me to arrange a time and explained that it would be a fairly swift visit – that was not accounting for us both talking nineteen to the dozen about food, though!

You can see more of Miles’ gorgeous photos on his website here

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Christmas is a-coming…

…and if you are looking for an ethical, handmade foodie gift our fruit cheeses are now available to buy at Yumbles. I’m very proud to be listed on their site as it is packed with gorgeous things, in fact my main challenge will be not to buy more from them than I sell!

As well as the flavours I make year round – quince and apple with chilli – I am listing medlar cheese which really comes into its’ own at this time of year with its’ rich flavour and light spice. I’m also listing the glaze for ham (and other roasts) that I wrote about previously (but with a slightly different recipe).

Happy Christmas, everyone!

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Membrillo glazed ham

We have been working hard at getting the quince crop in for the season and after three weeks of intense work are finally there, with the trees picked and the freezers packed. Today, to thank my friends and helpers, I cooked up a Sunday roast. This also gave me the opportunity to try a new recipe!

Many people know that fruit cheese makes a great accompaniment to cheese, but fewer that it also pairs well with charcuterie or roast meats and can make a delicious addition to sauces or glazes. This recipe, adapted from the BBC Good Food website, is ideal for Christmas. I found the vinegar of the original recipe a bit overwhelming so have adjusted accordingly and you can also miss out the spices if you wish to make it a bit less festive.

Serves 10-12.

Ingredients:
3.5kg boneless, higher welfare* gammon joint
1 onion, halved 
2 leeks, chopped into large chunks
2 carrots, chopped into large chunks
2 sticks of celery, chopped into large chunks
2 bay leaves
approx. 20 peppercorns
cloves

For the glaze:
100g membrillo (quince cheese)
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon 

Equipment:
Large saucepan for gammon
Small saucepan for glaze
Roasting tin
Stirring spoon/spatula
Weighing scales

ham

1. Weigh the gammon joint to calculate cooking times. Put into the large pan with the chopped vegetables, bay leaves and peppercorns and add enough water to cover and simmer gently for 30 mins for every 450g weight. Don’t raise the temperature too high or you risk toughening the meat.

ham-2

ham-3

2. Heat the oven to 190C. Remove the joint from the cooking water and pat dry with kitchen towel, then score a criss-cross pattern into the fat and stud the centre of each resulting diamond with a clove if you wish. Place in a roasting tin.

3. Put the glaze ingredients in a small saucepan and cook for a couple of mins to blend them together and dissolve the membrillo. Brush half the mixture over the gammon, then roast for 15 mins. Brush on another layer and roast for another 15 mins until golden and sticky. Rest for 15 mins before carving.

*Look for meat labelled as outdoor reared, free-range, organic or ‘RSPCA Approved’  (a scheme dedicated to high standards of farm animal welfare: https://www.rspcaassured.org.uk/ )