My first ever job was grape picking. I was fifteen, lived near a wine making area and wanted some money and the feeling of being more like an adult than a like a child. I worked there only for two weeks, school starts in mid-September so students usually only work for the first few weeks of vendemmia, the harvesting. Some of you may have harvested grape, or other fruits, before. If you haven’t, let me warn you: it’s physically draining. The thought of spending a few days picking fresh fruit for a bit of easy money sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? The sun is shining, the fruit is ripe and fragrant and you are part of a chatty group of people who laugh and joke.
The reality is that, even as late as September, the sun is scorching, there is no breeze to speak of, the fruit is ripe, sticky and surrounded by thousands of insects of various kinds who start buzzing around as soon as you touch their lunch. As far as the people are concerned, this is what happens: half of your group is made up of students from school or university, and half is made up of retired men and women from the surrounding area who every year take this job to add a bit to their pension income. I might be a bit biased when I say this, but they (the pensioners) seemed to believe that we (the students) couldn’t do the job properly and always looked at us with some disdain, as if we weren’t worthy enough. They worked along their vines, we along ours. They knew the managers, we didn’t. Receiving the cheque and seeing the amount of money I had earned (not very much) was the highlight of the job.
After that experience, I swore to myself that I would never, ever grape pick again. Up until now I have kept that promise and I think it’s fair to say that as long as I live in England there are little chances of me going back to grape harvesting. What I did do, however, was go to a pick-your-own farm near where we live called Greenbank Farm and pick some gooseberries. I felt a bit guilty after my last post, in which I went on and on about how the British weather makes stone fruit, especially apricots and peaches, impossible to grow and how imported fruit lack any flavour to speak of. As it turns out, it only takes some plump gooseberries for me and Britain to make peace. What the British isles lack in stone fruit, they more than make up for it in berries. Therefore, I made scones. Not only scones and cream are the quintessential British teatime treat (and it is a treat: this is the second time I’ve had them. In my entire life!), but for the first time I’ve also had the pleasure of eating gooseberries, another one of those ingredients that in my mind automatically associate with England, along with rhubarb, parsnips, Marmite and, *gulp*, gravy granules!
There was something so peaceful and calm about slowly making our way through the rows, choosing which branches to leave and which to lighten up of their fruits. Despite the insects, which did remind me a bit of grape picking, the heat and fruit-induced stickiness were nowhere near the levels encoutered in the vineyars all those years ago. We also spent a lot less time at Greenbank Farm than what I used to do during my glorious grape-picking career: it didn’t take 8 hours to fill four small baskets of strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants. The strawberries were delicious and we ate them fresh and finished them not long after picking. The gooseberries ended up puréed and mixed with elderflower cordial.We have some left in the freezer and I am contemplating having them alongside grilled mackerel. As for the blackcurrants, you’ll have to wait and see.
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Compote adapted from a Good Food’s Gooseberry, elderflower and vanilla fools recipe, scones recipe adapted from a National Trust recipe, via The Guardian.
Ingredients for the compote
300 gr fresh or frozen gooseberries, topped and tailed
30 gr caster sugar
3 tbsp elderflower cordial
Ingredients for the scones (makes about 15)
350 gr plain flour
pinch of salt
2 scant tbsp cream of tartar
1 scant tbsp bicarbonate of soda
100 gr butter, softened at room temperature
120 ml milk
to serve: clotted cream*
Start by making the compote. Put the gooseberries and the sugar in a small pot and warm up on a gentle heat. When the gooseberries start to open up, they will release a lot of liquid and you’ll think it’ll never work. Not so! Gently mash up the fruit with the back of a fork or a potato masher and leave on a gentle heat for about 5 more minutes. Turn the heat off and stir in the elderflower cordial. Leave to cool.
Turn on the oven to 190°C and prepare two baking sheets lined with baking parchment.
Sift the flour together with salt, cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda in a big bowl. With cold hands, rub in the butter until the mixture resembles that of thick breadcrumbs. Work very quickly. Now pour the milk in and mix quickly until you have a dough-like texture. Flour the board and with the help of a rolling pin roll the dough until it’s about 1.5 cm in height. Cut into rounds of about 6 cm diametre, arrange them on the baking sheets and bake for about 15-20 mins, until golden.
Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes before tucking in, but don’t leave them until the enxt day because they don’t keep very well.
*Look, you can even make your own!