November 2010


I’m suffering from a touch of self-sufficiency envy. In fact, I’m typing this with Giles and Sue Live the Good Life on in the background. I might live in a tiny studio flat in N1, where the waiting list for an allotment is so long (about ten years) that they’re not even taking names anymore, but I still harbour wistful dreams of pottering about on a vegetable patch of a weekend. Oh to have a glut of something to deal with! I long to preserve, can, and bottle things because it’s the only way to get through the hungry gap; it’s just not the same when you have to go to the farmers’ market to buy a lorryload of quinces.

Anyway, come Christmas time, I let my inner Barbara Good out and allow her to make chutneys, jellies, and jams to foist on my nearest and dearest. Hopefully they find this endearing, rather than irritatingly cheapskate. To jazz it all up a bit, I’ve also made some sweet treats in the past; chocolate truffles and chocolate and peanut butter cups have both gone down well.

This year, I’ve splashed out on a preserving pan, having learnt from my last couple of tries that there are few things hotter or more stubbornly sticky than chilli jam that’s escaped from your too-small saucepan all over the top of the hob. Yesterday was the pan’s first outing, as I made clementine and whisky marmalade (from The Preserving Book) followed by spiced pumpkin chutney (from Kitchen).

The marmalade is pretty straightforward; you can painstakingly shred 900g organic clementines by hand, or blitz them in a food processor until finely chopped (not to a pulp). After simmering in your preserving pan or suitably large saucepan in 900ml water to soften the rind, add 900g caster sugar and the juice of two large lemons (to help the set, as apparently clementines are not particularly high in pectin), stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and simmer for around 30 minutes until the setting point is reached. Stir in a wee dram (or 1–2 tbsp) of whisky before spooning into warm sterilised jars, topping with waxed paper disks, sealing and labelling. I was pretty smug by this point, I can tell you. This recipe fills four 80z/250ml jars.

Paddington would be proud

Since I was on a roll, spiced pumpkin chutney was next on the list. My initial optimism was rapidly cooled by the fine-dicing of an enormous butternut squash. Damn you, Nigella. Once slung into the preserving pan with a chopped cooking apple, two chopped onions, sugar, spices, and vinegar, it’s just a case of leaving it to simmer for about an hour until it thickens and the squash is tender. Then it’s the usual sterilise/spoon/label/congratulate self routine. Chutney needs at least a month, and two if at all possible, to sit in its jar becoming delicious before you tuck in – don’t get greedy and dig in beforehand, or it’ll just be horrible and the most vinegary thing you’ve ever eaten.

The major drawback of chutney making in particular is the acrid, all-pervading stench of vinegar. There really is no getting rid of it for a few days afterwards, so it’s a good idea to try to make all your vinegar-based condiments in one go. Next on the list for me: red onion marmalade and chilli jam.

I can’t believe it’s almost a week since I landed at Heathrow after a week in sunny Spain. Seville is a beautiful city, with a maze of impossibly narrow winding streets and incredible architecture… but obviously my main concerns were a) sherry and b) FOOD. I knew that it could prove tricky to eat a varied vegetarian diet there, Andalusia’s obsession with jamón and bacalao being what it is, but I managed perfectly well. With hindsight, it might have been a good idea to book some self-catering accommodation to take advantage of all the delicious-looking fresh fruit and vegetables we spotted in the markets (but which never seemed to appear on the tapas menus).

My favourite Sevillan speciality was definitely salmorejo – think extra-thick, concentrated gazpacho. I discovered after the first night that it usually comes topped with chopped egg and ham, so Paul spent most of the week scooping the ham off the top for me while I tried to pretend that there was nothing piggy about it all. Tortilla was a great staple, as were slices of manchego cheese (often drenched in olive oil, as if it isn’t delicious and greedy enough as is).

Vegetables, where they appeared in tapas, were generally smothered in cheese and baked – no bad thing, but I craved some fresh veg once the novelty had worn off. A notable exception was Las Golondrinas II, just around the corner from its sister bar, and recommended by Sevilla Tapas as a veggie-friendly choice. Most of the dishes on their menu contained fish, but a selection of small salads included amazing radishes, simply dressed with olive oil and sea salt, and a plate of tender beetroot with red onion. All washed down with copious quantities of Tio Pepe, of course.

Another great recommendation from the Sevilla Tapas website was Soravito, south of the city centre. A wonderfully convivial and low-key neighbourhood favourite, the bar was run by a very friendly multilingual lady who recommended their mushroom croquettes, amongst other dishes, including homemade chocolate tart and cheesecake. We soon realised that we’d been very lucky to get a table there at all as the room filled up very quickly, but, as in every bar we visited, there was never any pressure to pay up and clear the table – lingering over a glass of wine was positively encouraged everywhere.

The weirdest thing I ate all week was without doubt ajo blanco, a cold soup of (I think) milk, almonds, garlic, and grapes. I was initially excited and enthusiastic about something so deliciously different, but soon came to realise that it was the sort of soup of which a shot-glass would suffice. A large bowl of cold garlicky milk soon loses its charm, even when consumed in a cosy characterful bar that takes its name from its speciality.

Ajo Blanco

Venturing out of Seville for the day to visit Córdoba, we found all the recommended restaurants packed out at lunchtime, as well as being alarmingly expensive for what they offered, and so ended up having much the same tapas spread as usual for lunch. We kicked ourselves pretty hard later, when we stumbled upon El Astronauta for a late-afternoon beer and read their lunch menu, which looked inventive, exciting, and tasty. A pity we were too stuffed with fried food to manage anything there.

El Astronauta

We tried to be relatively frugal throughout our stay in Spain, sticking to tapas bars wherever possible, but we did splash out a bit on lunch at ConTenedor, which prides itself on market-fresh produce and hosts art exhibitions on some days of the week. There was nothing vegetarian to be found on the menu at all, but the lovely French waitress managed to convince the kitchen to produce a plate of their rice and mushrooms (much better than it sounds!) without the promised duck. Paul nursed an admittedly naïve and unfounded hope that his jamón iberico and bread might come with “some sort of salad” – as if! Sherry again for me, and we finished with a meltingly tender chocolate fondant to share.

ConTenedor

So now it’s just a question of trying to adjust to not starting every meal with a sherry, not having a sleep in the afternoon, and having to wear layer upon layer of clothing every time I leave the house. Sad times.