Riverford Christmas Fair 2013, or, the story of Mr Carrot & the Scary Bear

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

The main hall, with Guy Watson demo in the background

As I think I’ve mentioned before just a few times (ahem), I’m a happy Riverford customer, and have been a happy veg box recipient since we moved in to our house over a year ago.

I’ve been enjoying the company’s more confident and consistent move into social media this year, and Facebook was how I found out about the London-based Christmas fair. I nabbed a couple of tickets (£6 each for us, Pickleface was free and there was a fundraising element for Shelter from the Storm, too) and last weekend we took the circuitous route out to Camden.

The whole event was extremely, joyfully, appropriately Riverford. Even the venue – Cecil Sharp House, home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society – felt the part. Activities included the big man himself, Guy Watson (who is a very smiley chap, and very easy to chat to) and Kirsty Hale doing cookery demos which filled the hall with delicious scents; there were also the typical stalls and samples and children’s activities in the garden.

MR CARROT HAS SEEN A SCARY BEAR, MUMMY

MR CARROT HAS SEEN A SCARY BEAR, MUMMY

The vegetable puppet making / decorating went down an absolute storm with Ramona, who after creating a Mike Wazowski sprout, a mushroom with a full floret of broccoli hair and the fourteen-eyed demon broccoli, finally also created the friendly Mr. Carrot, complete with pipe cleaner tail. He apparently acted as an early warning signal to alert us to the presence of a Scary Bear in the vicinity, so I spent quite a lot of the afternoon doing Mr. Carrot voices in between snaffling tasty morsels. Here he is, with his creator. Sadly Mr. Carrot eventually lost all his facial features in a tragic accident we no longer speak about.

She also enjoyed choosing her favourite fruit or veg to have painted on her face, and opted for tomatoes. I’m slightly kicking myself that I didn’t sit for a crop of blueberries myself as Kate aka “Chickpea”, who was doing the artwork, was rather brilliant. The team playing with the kids outside were awesome – Ramona was so excited when she got to play the role of a tiger helping to pull up the World’s Heaviest Turnip (it made sense at the time) and was staggered that they actually remembered her name when it was time to say goodbye. “But how did that man know my name mummy?!” “Maybe he remembered it because your name is incredibly cool?” “Oh, yes.”

For adults, there was food. Lots of it to try, and universally delicious. Samples included some gorgeous cheeses including the astonishingly good Cropwell Bishop Stilton – I’m a bit hit and miss with blue cheese but it was smooth and just strong enough without being what I call, in my grown up way, “feety” (insert maturity / cheese pun here). Absolutely gorgeous with a cranberry and port chutney. I’ve raved about Riverford mince pies before – even though they lost out to Bettys by a whisker, they’re still extremely good. We also bought a generous roll stuffed with slices of spiced beef, which Ramona quickly dispatched, and sweet braised red cabbage, which I hoovered up. A cauliflower, chickpea and coconut milk spicy soup took the chill off, and I managed to sip down a generous sample of a lovely red.

One of our real star discoveries of the day was Montezuma chocolate, which, being a hardcore Green & Blacks fan, I’ve never tried before. The milk chocolate with lime and chilli was an absolute revelation – fruity, creamy and with that surprising burst of heat at the end. I’m including it in practically everyone’s Christmas presents this year (if I don’t eat it first) and have already got my mum hooked on it. Sadly, I tried Montezuma’s Apple Crumble milk chocolate this week and found it sadly lacking (nice chocolate, a little bit of crunch but no discernible apple flavour), but it serves me right for cheating on my lime-scented lover with a flashy biscuity mistress.

All in all a lovely, family-friendly, foodie day. I look forward to next year’s!

The Great British Mince Pie-Off: Bettys vs Riverford

Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.32I never used to eat mince pies. Dense, squidgy, oversweet… in the great list of Christmas desserts I was uninterested in, they ranked just below Christmas pudding (which I’m still so-so about) and just above Stilton (which I’ve totally come round to in my old age). And then my sister moved to Leeds and we developed more than a passing acquaintance with Bettys… and I finally found out what a really, really good mince pie tastes like.

I found myself tweeting about this the other day, and Bettys – doing some excellent monitoring, as I would expect from the team that complements the brilliant Yorkshire Tea feeds – picked this up immediately and followed me. On following back, it turned out I was their 600th follower, and they very kindly offered me some mince pies to review. How on earth could I say no?

The mince pies duly arrived – 12 gleaming beauties in an elegant little box (usually £9.50 and delivered around the UK) – and I managed to eat at least five of them while still giving the vague impression that I was sharing them with other people.

photo 1

And then my Riverford box arrived, and the little weekly insert – one of the highlights of the whole procedure, these proud yet melancholy missives from Guy Watson, with the slightly mud-streaked recipes on the back – was so convincingly effusive about Watson’s brother’s mince pies that I began to wonder if there could possibly be a challenger to the Bettys crown. Plus, in order to be a truly honest review, I felt I needed something to compare them to. Riverford’s pies are award-winning and the company is beset by offers to mass-produce, which are declined so that they continue to be made by hand; one of the chosen testimonials celebrated their ‘wonkiness’ and how they were the best bet for faking it if you didn’t have time to bake!  I was sold and hit the button to buy a £4.95 box of six.

And now… the verdict.

Bettys

Screen shot 2012-12-07 at 20.32.04What makes these mince pies such Christmas classics? Well, for one, they constantly tread the perfect line between elegant and twee: pretty but not fussy, generously deep but not oversized. I also love that they’re not sealed, so there isn’t an overwhelming mouthful of butter to plough through.

But my very favourite thing about them is their filling; it’s quite a soft mixture – a delicately spiced liquid studded with fruit rather than a dense raisin sludge.

Finished with a little icing sugar and a star-shaped shortcrust topping, these are outstandingly moreish, and thoroughly delicious.

Riverford

photo 2Even at first glance, these are quite clearly a different beast. Almost oversized, flat and fully sealed in quite thick pastry dusted with granulated sugar, they really do look pleasingly hand made.

The filling is rich, densely packed and slightly more heavily spiced. The pastry can only be described as unctuous, being so outstandingly buttery as to be a little overwhelming, especially as they are very large… but I still managed to put away two in a sitting!

Definitely needing a big glass of water or a soothing cuppa, these are incredibly indulgent, and very, very good.

And the winner is…

For me, Bettys just has the edge. It really does come down to personal preference, and the hint of refinement in Bettys’ pies means north takes the crown over south (something this London-born woman doesn’t say that often).

It’s just as well I’m heading to Yorkshire over the Christmas holidays, really.

Making the most of a veg box delivery (and a recipe that makes Brussels sprouts taste ace)

I’ve been meaning to sign up for a weekly vegetable box delivery for, oh, about two years now. The main reasons have been because when I’m actually faced with the rows of veg in the supermarket I tend to go for the same things over and over – regardless of season – and I never really branch out. I’m getting more and more into cooking, and really wanted to challenge myself while at the same time eating plants while they’re actually at their best.

I signed up with Riverford because of a friend’s recommendation, largely (and because last time I checked their box was better value than Abel & Cole’s equivalent, though you should always check these things). I go for the Seasons Veg Box, which is 8-10 varieties of veg, designed to feed 2-3 adults, and never contains potatoes. I have until 10pm two days before delivery to cancel or make any changes or additions to my order.

There are basically two issues with veg boxes:

– What if I don’t like that vegetable?

– What the hell do I do with this?!

(There’s also issue number three, which is “oh my God, what am I going to do with 15 onions?” after you’ve failed to use enough week by week, but honestly they last forever, so don’t worry about it.)

The answer to question one is to be inventive. Disguise it. (More about this, and Brussels sprouts, in a moment.) Or, you think you don’t like it because someone boiled the hell out of it when you were a child, and as a grown up you can approach it again with all thoughts of yellow veg cast aside. Or you can just check what’s in your box early in the week and change / cancel your order to avoid it. That’s not really entering into the spirit, though, and we’ll all be judging you just a little. Sorry.

Question two is partly resolved for me by Riverford recipe sheets that arrive with the box every week, and by their website, which is heaving with recipes. But it’s also a great opportunity to start thinking not just about the elements that go into your food – carbs, protein, fat – but the flavours.

Take Brussels sprouts, for example. I have never really liked Brussels sprouts, though I discovered last Christmas that the rumours are true: if you just, just cook the buggers they taste considerably sweeter and more pleasant than if you have those crossed-and-boiled-to-oblivion cabbage-y bullets people usually put on the festive table. The key is timing – just three or four minutes for small sprouts, up to six for bigguns – and also ensuring that you plunge them in some cold / ice water afterwards to stop the cooking process so they stay beautifully bright green and crunchy. You also don’t need to cross them; they will cook to the centre anyway. They’re not like the Earth; there are no layers of crust and magma to breach.

So, this week we got the dread mini-cabbages and I wanted to think of a way to cook them that would be not just edible, but actually yummy. Other vegetables to hand were a rather teeny Romanesco cauliflower (looks like an alien crystal, tastes like a cross between cauli and broccoli) and two week-0ld leeks. I also had a ridiculous amount of cheese – there was a 3 for 2; don’t judge me – and a 500g bag of wholemeal fusilli. All it needed was bacon lardons… you can skip to the end here, if you like.

The point, of course, is that I never would have set out to make this particular dish. But it’s huge – at least six adult-sized portions came out of it – and utterly delicious. Though veg boxes seem quite expensive, it’s a fair bet that you will use everything in them and design dishes that will last for several meals. And when you know several days earlier what you’ll be getting, it’s easy to search for recipes and make sure you have everything else you’ll be needing well in advance. You’ll also probably find that you have more meat-free or low-meat days just by virtue of the fact that there’s so much veg you’re happy for it to take centre stage.

So, here are my tips:

– Take advantage of knowing what’s coming to menu plan. One week I wrote out an entire grid of meals and stuck to it, meaning I had several fresh, quick and interesting dinners and a week’s worth of lunches with no fuss.

– Keep a good stock of staple carbs, which can be the basis for practically anything. With onions, sweet Ramiro peppers and earthy portobello mushrooms making a regular appearance at the moment, I know having garlic and cous cous to hand means a super fast meal when I’m tired and ravenous. Pasta is the other obvious helpful staple, and a can of chopped tomatoes is always handy too.

– Get your pretend MasterChef hat on, and think about nicely complementing flavours. Brussels seem a bit unpleasant? Not with cheese and bacon. Beetroot a bit stodgy and dull? Not with apples and walnuts (okay, and more cheese). Lots of root vegetables? Throw in a few sprigs of rosemary, turn up the oven and get happy with the olive oil and you have a Mediterranean feast on your hands.

Cheesy Pasta Bake with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon and Leeks

Ingredients  (you’ll notice there are vague amounts because I improvised desperately. Google is your friend here.)

Butter – around 30g
Flour – plain, around 30g
Cheese  – really, whatever you’ve got to hand. Different types of strong cheese are nice; I used small blocks of Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, Cheddar and Wensleydale; around 120g, with more for grating on top
Cream cheese (I had half-fat; with all the butter it was fine) – around three heaped tbsps
Milk – around a pint
500g pasta
A packet of bacon lardons
2 leeks, cut into medium-thin slices
Brussels sprouts – I used a net of small ones – would probably make slightly fewer next time, as it can get a bit unbalanced.
Some sort of brassica – in my case, a small Romanesco cauliflower

1. First, deal with the ingredients that need boiling. Cook the pasta until nicely al dente, and drain. Put aside. Then quickly boil the sprouts and make sure they’re plunged into cold / ice water after. Do the same with the cauli; it should only need five minutes to be just soft enough. Preheat the oven to 200-210 (fan assisted).

2. Now, the cheese sauce. Melt the butter, and stir in the flour until you have a thick paste, then gradually add milk, stirring constantly. My hand slipped, a great big slosh went in and I ended up with roughly one million lumps; that’s fine – if you stir like your life depends on it and have patience, they will melt eventually. Let the sauce thicken a bit. Add the cream cheese and crumbled lumps or grated cheese and make sure they’re thoroughly melted in. Taste and adjust, with more milk or cheese as needed. This is just enough sauce to coat the pasta but doesn’t make a thick, macaroni cheese type sauce – you’ll need more (and a decent recipe) for that. I also don’t add salt; between the cheese and the bacon, God knows there’s enough of it.

3. Fry the bacon lardons until slightly browned and then add the leeks. I didn’t add fat to the lardons because I felt vaguely guilty about the massive cheese content, but you’ll get a nicer brown if you do. Make your peace with it as you will. Let the leeks wilt and brown but retain some crunch, and then toss the bacon and leeks, sprouts and brassica in with the pasta. Put them all in a large, deep casserole / roasting dish and pour on the sauce, mixing thoroughly. Top with grated cheese / small cheese chunks in as much abundance as you can cope with.

4. Pop in the oven for 12-25 minutes until the cheese has melted and it’s as browned and crisp at the edges as appeals to you.

5. Eat three bowls of it and wonder why you can’t move anymore.