A Local Taste of Christmas

A Feast of Local Food for Christmas

Its true there is a grass roots resurgence of interest in local food, growing your own and a desire for a closer connection to the source of our ingredients by uncovering the stories behind our food producers.  In some cases we are becoming proto hunter- gatherers ourselves typified by the keen foragers amongst us.  But in reality can most of us regularly eat local produced food, do we know the source of much of our food and even if we do how can we get hold of it?

We posed this question at our recent Taste of Christmas event.  Specifically can you eat local food for each meal on Christmas Day?  A keen bunch of Sheffield foodies gathered to watch demonstrations given by PJ taste’s Ian Martin and Mat Webster along with guest John Lord who has been making amazing free range Yorkshire Pork Pies for over 50 years.  I was able to put forward my theory that yes you can eat like a King from local food, and from a taste, nutrition, animal welfare and often cost point of view you can do so much better than from those pesky supermarkets.  But and this is a big but the convenience factor is a lot less.  The supermarkets have made themselves very easy to buy from and seduce us with a constant drip drip of their insidious marketing messages.  My challenge for the independent food producing and retailing businesses in Sheffield and elsewhere for 2012 is to work hard on improving the distribution and awareness of local food making it truly Sheffield Food for Sheffield People.   You can see our recipes and my recommendations for Sheffield suppliers and producers for a Christmas day feast here.

Back at our Taste of Christmas event we were able to introduce a range of fabulous local producers as well as some foraging enhancements.  There is a fine line between gardening/allotmenteering and foraging and when you cultivate or at least permit to grow weeds on your allotment you are straying into foraging territory.  Starring in our welcome nibbles were chickweed and interestingly fennel roots both from wildish pedigree on my allotment.  Chickweed has a lovely nutty flavour and usefully grows year round, thriving particularly well through this year’s warm autumn and early winter.

It forms a loose mat of many stems creeping between cracks in pavements, gardens, filed edges and allotments.  With small bright green leaves and star shaped white flowers it is quite distinctive.  However, there are a few basic features to distinguish it from mouse-ear chickweed (Ceratium vulgatum) which is not so pleasant to eat and another poisonous plant – Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) which is obviously not so good to eat.  Briefly chickweed has one distinct line of fine hairs running up the stem into the leaves, whereas mouse-ear chickweed has random hairs all over the stem.  Scarlet pimpernel has no obvious hairs and a square stem with red blotches on the underside of its leaves.  A good book with more information on these and many other common weeds/excellent foraging fodder is “Edible Wild Plant by John Kallas 2010.

The chickweed was used as a nutty addition to our Squash Shots – intense glasses of butter nut squash soup with a pumpkin seed and oil garnish and the fennel roots on a simple brushetta.  The fennel root canapé became the mystery dish with no one in the room being able to guess its origin as the flavour is more celery/celeriac/parsnip like than the taste from actual fennel bulb or the upper herby fronds of the herb normally tasted.

To me this was a great example of how when you are close to the source of food production you can experiment and ensure that every part of the produce is used.  I would wager that you will not find fennel root in any supermarket near you soon.  The supermarkets would argue that if there was a demand for it they would stock it but in the way that they condition and narrow choice prevents us from exploring new possibilities.  They are working on the principle that most of us conform to the way Henry Ford saw things typified in his famous quote –  ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’’’

The star of the show was a traditional Plum Pudding made with wild Sheffield plums and real beef suet from Coppice House Farm in the Rivelin Valley.  What has morphed into our better known and in my experience little loved Christmas Pudding started as a vehicle for preserving meat into the winter.  The spicing, encasing in fat and long cooking all helping to ensure there was food when the animals had been slaughtered in the Autumn to save feeding them through the winter.  I was pleased with the lovely sweet and sour flavour and the rich moistness we achieved.

All the recipes from the evening are available at www.peterpjtaste.wordpress.com and a review by the ubiquitous Sheffield food Missie Cindz, who launched her Sheffield Favourites Hamper at the event, is at www.cindycheung.co.uk/missie/ .

However, in the spirit of Christmas here is my Christmas Pudding recipe loosely adapted from a Mrs Beetons traditional recipe with some local foraging thrown in.

Finally a Happy Christmas to one and all and I do hope you are able to get out into your local patch for some Christmas foraging during the festive season.  There is still free food to be had including the mentioned chickweed as well as rosehips, hawthorns, rowan berries and even some wild apples still clinging on (I once picked some on new years Day!).

PJ taste Christmas Pudding

8 oz moist sugar (use soft brown )
8 oz chopped suet – we used Rivelin Valley beef suet
8 oz sultanas cleaned
8 oz raisins halved and stoned – we used Sheffield wild plums which had been frozen and increased the quantity to 16oz
4 oz currants washed and dried
4 oz shredded mixed candied peel – Cut your own or use ready cut
4 oz of plain flour – Carr house Farm Spelt Flour

4 oz breadcrumbs

2 oz almonds blanched and shredded
the grated rind of a 1 lemon
3 eggs
a salt spoonful of  nutmeg grated
half a teaspoon of salt
quarter pint of milk
1 small wineglassful of brandy (optional)

Mix all the dry ingredients together, stir in the well beaten eggs, milk and brandy.

Turn the mixture into 2 well greased basins, and steam for 5 to 6 hours.