August 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

Nothing to do with electronic devices but the easiest and most rewarding of wild foods for the first-time forager.

These beauties came from the grounds of the house on the North Wales coast where we holidayed last week. For us Mancunians, it’s like Cornwall but without the long car journey. Breathtaking mountain backdrops, glorious sandy beaches, quaint stone cottages – all it lacks is reliable sunshine.

The brambles love it there and there is excellent blackberrying to be had at this time of year if you can find a sunny spot against a dry stone wall where the fruit has had chance to ripen. The best blackberries are always just out of reach – but maybe the scratches and attendant cunning required to hook down the high branches are all part of the appeal, the annual repetition of childhood ritual.

What to do with your precious hard-won haul? If you’ve exhausted the repertoire of pies, crumbles and jellies, here’s an idea for an easy-to-make pudding that lets the flavour of the blackberries shine through. It’s a blackberry clafoutis, the simple French baked pudding from the Limousin region usually made with cherries. This version, which I’ve adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” replaces cherries with blackberries.

The house where we stay when we come to this part of Wales is a rambling manor house remodelled in the last century by Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of nearby Portmeirion. Cooking here is a pleasure as the house is blessed with a cool slate shelved pantry and well-equipped kitchen with cupboards packed with Portmeirion pottery. But you don’t need a well-equipped kitchen to make this pudding -it’s quick and easy and the proportions are forgiving so it’s perfect to make when your’re staying in a holiday house or cottage.

The berries are macerated in delicious Crème de Mûre, French blackberry liqueur, and the resulting juices are added to the batter mixture along with some blanched almonds which enrich the pudding and the subtle almond flavour works well with the blackberries.

The tip in the recipe for pouring a layer of batter into the baking dish and gently letting this cook to provide a base so that the fruit can’t all sink to the bottom really does work:

Adding the macerated blackberry juices to the mixture turns the batter an appealing but shade of pink:

But don’t worry, despite starting off as pink, the baked clafoutis will puff up and become crusty and golden brown just as the recipe promises.

Dust with icing sugar or sprinkle with caster sugar and serve with chilled pouring cream. Dig in and enjoy your the fruits of your blackberrying.

Recipe for clafoutis

Adapted from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. I give first of all the basic recipe with cherries, then variants with liqueur, almonds and blackberries. The version I cooked last week combined all 3 ie I substituted blackberries for cherries, macerated the blackberries in liqueur and added almonds to the batter as well.

Serves 6 to 8


For the batter

½ pint milk
2oz granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
2 and ½ oz sifted flour

For the fruit

¾ lb stoned black cherries
2 oz granulated sugar

Place the ingredients for the batter in the jar of a liquidiser or food processor in the order listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute. If you don’t have a liquidiser, break the eggs into a well in the flour and sugar and gradually incorporate them into the batter with a whisk, adding milk as you go.

Pour a ¼ inch layer of batter into a 3 to 4 pint capacity shallow ovenproof baking dish. Place over a moderate heat or hot oven until the batter has set. Remove from the heat. Spread the cherries over the batter and sprinkle on the sugar.

Pour over the rest of the batter and smooth the surface with the back of a spoon.
Place in the middle of an oven preheated to 160 degrees C fan; 350 degrees F and bake for about an hour. The clafoutis is ready when it is puffed and brown and when a knife plunged into the centre comes out clean.

Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve hot or warm.

Variant 1 – cherries marinated in kirsch

Additional ingredients

1/8 pint kirsch
2 oz granulated sugar

Let the cherries stand in the kirsch and sugar for one hour. Substitute the liquid that results for some of the milk and all of the sugar in the master recipe.

Variant 2 – with almonds – “À la Bourdaloue”

Additional ingredients

3 oz blanched almonds

Add the almonds to the liquidizer and puree along with the other ingredients. If you don’t have access to a liquidiser, add ground almonds to the flour instead and proceed with the well mixing method as described in the master recipe above.

Variant 3 – Blackberry

Substitute 12oz stemmed and washed blackberries for the cherries.

Increase the flour from 2 and 1/2 oz to 3 and 1/2 oz as the berries are juicier than the cherries.

Just as a footnote, if you fancy having a go at the classic Limousin version of clafoutis with cherries then I can recommend the Oxo Good Grips cherry-stoning device which I picked up on for £7.99. This gadget really is the business and the boys couldn’t get there hands on it once they realised they could fire cherry stones at one another…

Reunion lunch at Mallory Court, Leamington Spa

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Checking my AA road atlas before heading off to a long-planned reunion lunch, Mallory Court looked dangerously close to the industrial outskirts of Leamington Spa and Junction 13 on the M40.

I needn’t have worried as this is the view from the hotel terrace:

The M40 is there in the background but practically invisible. Mallory Court could be the setting for one of those beer ads “if Carlsberg did Motorway service stations” – long camera pan up the drive to the honey-coloured ivy-clad stone walls of the manor house; cut to guests sitting in cosy oak panelled dining room; lingering shots of guests sipping coffee on the terrace overlooking immaculate formal gardens…

So what was the occasion? Having exchanged nothing more than Christmas cards with Mike and Lynnette for years, it was Mike’s very good idea to meet up for lunch in the centre of England as we live at opposite ends of the country. We all met on a week long residential tennis course at Windmill Hill in Sussex in the early 1990s. Those who know me will confirm that my tennis didn’t really improve but we had the best of weeks – looking back I recall it as a week of sunshine, Glyndebourne, drinks and fun. Oddly (or perhaps not) I seem to have forgotten how to hit a double-handed backhand or how to apply topspin to my lob.

It was therefore very fitting for the three of us enjoy a hedonistic lunch after all these years. We had a lot of catching up to do so my attention was on conversation and company rather than the finer points of the food, which is after all how it should be.

Despite its name and initial impressions, Mallory Court is not an ancient manor but an Arts and Crafts trophy-house built in 1914 for a retired Manchester cotton baron. The house changed hands a number of times before being converted to a country house hotel in 1976. It’s now owned by Midlands entrepreneur (sounds posher than Brummy businessman doesn’t it?) Sir Peter Rigby who dabbles in hotels and airports as well as his main IT services business SCC Group.

The immediate impression on entering the hotel is one of welcoming efficiency. There are cosy armchairs to sit in and staff appear just when you feel like ordering a drink without the feeling of being hovered over. I always use the ladies’ loo as a bellwether of attention to detail in an establishment. Mallory Court did not disappoint:

After champagne and nibbles we were shown to our table in the dining room. White damask-clad tables are spaced discreetly apart to allow diners to talk business in privacy and there’s a comfortable, club-like atmosphere.

This is a Michelin-starred establishment so we began with the obligatory amuse-bouche. This comprised a tiny precise cylinder of smoked eel mousse together with vibrant magenta beetroot served three ways, the flavours pointed up with a scattering of micro-cress and flavour explosions from tiny shards of deep-fried caper.

I suppose the purpose of an amuse-bouche is for the chef to summarise his approach to food in one tiny little plateful. This is what chef Simon Haigh did here – what it told me is that this was a chef who likes classic combinations brought up to date, applies precision and attention to detail and has an eye for colour and texture. It came as no surprise to learn afterwards that Haigh learned his craft under Raymond Blanc at the Manoir au Quatre Saisons. In fact he seems intent on creating a Manoir-like atmosphere here in Warwickshire using produce (including that beetroot) fresh from his own kitchen garden.

I chose a rather weird sounding first course of egg purée, crispy ham hock and pineapple chutney, trusting the chef to turn it into something edible. This is what arrived:

The crispy ham-hock turned out to be a spring-roll type affair, and the egg purée a super smooth scrambled egg or perhaps a hot savoury custard. Very clever and no idea how you’d go about recreating it at home.

Main courses were a little more classic and little less off-the wall. Mike chose pork loin served with the most adorable Mirabelle plums looking like miniature apples:

Lynnette and I both chose sea bream with black squid ink risotto, squid rings and Mediterranean vegetables. This should have been served with fillets of red mullet, one of my favourite fish, but (disappointingly but reassuringly I suppose) they’d sold out by the time we ordered hence the substitution of sea bream.

Another picture on a plate, but with every element contributing to the harmonious balance of flavours. A square plate this time, as weirdly shaped crockery seems to be de rigueur these days for any restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

I’m not normally a pudding person, but this wasn’t an everyday occasion so I chose crème brûlée with honeycomb mousse and strawberry sorbet.

This was a perfect size for a post-lunch pudding and each element was technically perfect.

I’m sorry to say we were a little greedy at this stage and, purely out of intellectual curiosity of course, ordered another pudding to share – peanut ice cream with caramelised bananas and bitter chocolate tart. Peanut or peanut butter ice cream is popping up in smart restaurants everywhere these days and this one did not disappoint, nor did the intensely flavoured bitter chocolate tart:

We concluded our lunch with coffee and petit fours on the terrace outside.

In fact the coffee here is both cheaper and a darn sight better than a slop-bucket of Starbucks from WelcomeBreak Warwick North. So next time you’re speeding along the M40 I recommend you take the slightest of detours from junction 13 to refresh the soul as well as the body.

Contact details

Mallory Court Hotel
Harbury Lane
Royal Leamington Spa
CV33 9QB
01926 330214

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