The Musette: home-made vinegar

Who knew? All it takes to rustle up some delicious home-made vinegar is a little beer or wine, a clean jar, and some cheesecloth to let microbes in (for fermentation) and keep nasties out.

When I’m cooking, I find that a teaspoon of vinegar is often the missing link in a too-salty soup or overly spicy sauce. Also, a tiny bit of a fruity vinegar works just as well in dishes that I might be inclined to finish with a squeeze of lemon.

I started making vinegar with left over wine, generally stuff we’ve opened but haven’t enjoyed. I’ll often cook with it but sometimes I end up with too much, so hello vinegar! I just leave it to ferment in my kitchen et voilà!

You can easily check on the vinegar’s progress either by using pH strips or by tasting it. I prefer the latter method because as the vinegar ferments, any pathogens that make their way into the liquid will be killed either by the alcohol or by the acidity of the vinegar once the alcohol has transformed. I tend to age my vinegar for months rather than weeks as the flavour will keep developing as the liquid pulls in yeast and bacteria from the air.

Typically after a couple of weeks sitting on the work top in a jar, my leftover wine will stop smelling like leftover wine and start smelling faintly but familiarly like the vinegar. Finally, my outstanding ability to abandon and ignore is beginning to pay off.

Of course, once you’ve graduated from the most basic forms of vinegar-making, you can turn almost anything into vinegar. Aside from wine vinegars – red, white, sherry, or champagne –  beer is a great starting point, particularly a beer that’s low in hops (since all that bitterness will remain in the final product) but high in sugar and alcohol (which will ferment quickly).

Even with a minimal amount of effort, essentially cracking open a bottle of ale, covering the top with cheesecloth, and waiting around, you’ll end up with your own unique vinegar. Two vinegars made with the same method, and even using the same original beer, can taste wildly different depending on the flora and fauna of their environment.

I use most of my home-made vinegar in my pickles – recipes coming soon!

Ingredients

  • 1 ltr (4 cups) beer (6%-12% ABV)

Turning beer into vinegar is an ancient tradition made popular by the Brits to sprinkle on their fish and chips (malt vinegar).

One thing to bear in mind when you begin making this vinegar, is that after you mix everything together, and as time goes on, you’ll notice a layer of what looks like gelatin growing on the surface. This is the vinegar mother. Without it, the alcohol won’t be converted into vinegar.

Make sure to use a beer for this that is 6 to 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). And don’t use one that is too hoppy, or your vinegar will be bitter.

Method

1. Wash a 1 litre (1-quart) wide-mouth glass container in hot, soapy water, then rinse and dry thoroughly.

2. Pour the beer into the container. Stir with a spoon to dissipate the carbonation, and then let it sit for 30 minutes. You want the beer to be flat and not fizzy.

3. Cover the container’s opening with cheesecloth, securing it with a rubber band.

4. Let the container sit in a cool, dry, dark place for at least two weeks though longer is better. Then give the mixture a taste; if it’s sharp, tangy, and sour (like other vinegars you’ve had), it’s now vinegar (It’s perfectly okay to taste; no pathogens can survive in either the alcohol or the vinegar.) If you prefer, you can also judge its progress by using pH strips; I shoot for a reading of 4 or below on the pH scale.

The bionic man is up and running………..well, almost

Post my beloved’s stay in hospital, we’ve quickly settled into a routine. The first 10 days we had early morning calls from the local nurse to administer anti-coagulant injections, and two at home blood tests conducted by a local lab. Every week day, late morning, a private ambulance collects him, and his packed sandwich lunch, and transports him to a nearby rehabilitation centre where he undergoes three hours of intensive physio. Then he’s brought back home just in time for a reviving cuppa and a slice of home-made cake.

The results were quickly plain to see, and in stark contrast to when he broke his leg over 18 months ago. After only four weeks, he can move around swiftly on crutches, even walking and going up and down stairs unaided. He initially found the physio tiring but it’s clear that by the end of these sessions, he’ll be as fit as a butcher’s dog!

After the first two weeks, he began training in the water. No need for the stitches to come out, they’d just dissolved and the bruising had completely disappeared. This is where he began to make exponential leaps and bounds, so much so his surgeon was delighted with the rate of his progress and has advised he can train on the home-trainer – whoopee!

Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped him working which he does either side of the physio though I have had to pick up some of the slack. The best bit is the few hours peace and quiet I get when he’s out at physio working up an appetite for dinner. To keep pace I have been spending more time in the kitchen though that’s something I tend to do more of in the winter. I’ve also been hard at work coming up with different sandwich fillings and cakes for his packed lunch. He likes having something different to eat most days, which after three weeks is proving quite a challenge.

To ensure the daily grind isn’t too demoralising, I’ve organised trips each week-end so that he’s got something to look forward to. Mostly, these revolve around lunch out, a brisk walk alongside the sea or watching some live sport. All of this is building up to a few days away in Paris at the end of his physio when he’ll be crutch-free. Lastly, if all goes to plan, we’ll be out on the bikes over Christmas and New Year.

The Musette: caramel banana cakes two ways

In the same way that you can never have too many pairs of shoes, you can never have too many recipes for banana cakes. I find that they’re consistently everyone’s favourite. And when I say everyone, I mean every cyclist. I constantly trawl the internet, magazines and my vast collection of cookery books for new ideas.

Now I usually stress the need to use really ripe bananas in most of my banana muffin and cake recipes but what if you don’t have any? Then this is most definitely the recipe for you. You can either bake these as individual cakes – easier for sharing – or in a loaf-sized tin. The recipe which I’ve played around with comes from that excellent book Short & Sweet: The Best of Home Baking by Dan Lepard – required reading for any budding baker.

The end result justifies the large umber of ingredients

Ingredients (makes 12 medium muffin sized cakes)

For the caramel bananas:

  • 150g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 50ml (3 tbsp) warm filtered water
  • 250g (9oz) or approximately four medium-sized skinned bananas, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated lemon zest

For the cake:

  • 100g (1 cup) raw cane sugar
  • 175ml (¾ cup) buttermilk
  • 3 large organic eggs, approx 45g (1⅔oz) in weight without the shell
  • 50g (1¾oz) plain yogurt
  • 250g (2 cups + 1tbsp) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • ½ tsp of fine sea salt
  • 3 tbsp of fleur de sel caramel chips (optional)

Method

1. Start by caramelising the bananas. Put the sugar and water into a stainless steel saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved – after that, do NOT stir again. Bring to the boil then cook over a high heat until the sugar turns to a dark reddish caramel. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE SAUCEPAN. Carefully add the banana pieces, butter, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest – caramel can spit – and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the bananas break up in the caramel and the mixture is thick and gooey, about ten minutes. Pour the mixture into a bowl and leave to cool.

2. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

3. Take a pastry brush, dip it in sunflower oil and gently paint it all over the muffin tin. This will stop the muffins sticking to the tin if you’re not using muffin cases. If you are, skip the oil and place the cases in the tin(s).

3. Put the sugar and eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine until air bubbles appear on the surface of the mixture.

4. Add the buttermilk and yoghurt, and whisk again. Then add cooled banana mix and combine gently.

5. Sift and mix together in another bowl the flour, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.

6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and lightly combine. I find using a rubber spatula in a figure-of-eight movement works best. Ensure that no pockets of flour remain.

7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tins or cases to about ⅔rds full, sprinkle on the shards of caramel and bake in the centre of the oven for about 15-25 minutes – it’ll depend on the size of your tin –  or until golden, risen and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and then enjoy!

8. The small cakes will keep in an airtight container for 3-4 days providing I hide them from my beloved. But wrapped in cling-film (plastic wrap), they’ll keep happily in the freezer for two months.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cakes in the oven, put the timer on for five minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. You can slightly under-bake small cakes as they’ll continue cooking for a few minutes after they come out of the oven.

4. You can substitute sunflower (canola) oil for the buttermilk, or full-fat milk with a tsp of white wine vinegar.

5. The other day I found a 350g (12oz) jar of Dulce de Leche in the cupboard close to its sell-by date prompting the question as to whether I could use that as a substitute both for the caramel in the caramelised bananas and the sugar in the cake. The answer is “Yes, you can!” Though I should probably call the end result ‘Banoffee Cake(s)’.

6. I gently heated the bananas in the Dulce de Leche and then crushed them with a potato masher. I then proceeded as per the recipe above but whisked the eggs without the sugar. I baked it in the middle of the oven, on the same temperature, in muffin cases.

7. Remember baking times will vary depending on the dimensions of your muffin tin  and your oven, so check regularly. The cakes are ready when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

8. Allow to cool for ten minutes in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before eating, or freezing for no longer than two months. The cakes will keep for a week in an airtight container providing I hide it from you know who!

9. Note: I’ve also baked this cake in a greased disposable tin-foil loaf tin 13cm x 23cm x 7cm (5” x 9” x 3”), which I lined with a couple of strips of greaseproof (parchment) paper, for 40-45 minutes.

banana caramel cake

40 years of Memorable Moments: Japan

When we celebrated 40 years of wedded bliss last year, I decided I would write a series of posts entitled “40 years of Memorable Moments.” We’ve already passed the 41 year mark and I’m nowhere near finished!

I had always wanted to visit Japan. Television programmes had whet my appetite and expectations were high when we visited back in 2007. Although it was my maiden trip, my beloved had visited Japan many times on business. We were combining the two and my beloved was going to take a few days’ vacation to finally enjoy some of the sights.

We were fortunate to time our visit with cherry blossom season. It was glorious. I’ve never before or since seen so much pink blossom. The trees were heavy with flowers, petals from which would drift to the ground like confetti as you walked past. It was truly magnificent.

We started our trip in Tokyo before heading off to Kyoto and Nara. In Tokyo my beloved had business meetings and I would occasionally join him for dinner with his clients all of whom took us to the most amazing Michelin-starred restaurants. The food literally looked too good to eat but I somehow managed it!

My days were spent with the son and future daughter-in-law of my beloved’s agent in Japan. The two had been brought up in Tokyo and had met while working for one of the many French patisseries in Tokyo. They put together a sightseeing programme that included most of the tourist hot spots and many where I was the only Westerner. In addition, both spoke excellent English so they were able to answer my barrage of questions. Without their guidance I would no doubt have gotten lost in the subterranean Tokyo subway system, never to be seen again.

The future daughter-in-law’s parents ran a couple of inns and restaurants so the pair took me to numerous neighbourhood restaurants where the food was just as delicious as that at their Michelin starred counterparts. On the few occasions my beloved and I ate together we were restricted to those restaurants which helpfully have plastic reconstructions of the meals in the windows which you just point at to order. Sadly neither of us speak much restaurant Japanese.

My first impression of Tokyo (and of Japan) was of a clean, well-organised, graffiti-free, litter-free world, filled with polite people, non-horn-honking drivers and immaculate urban landscaping. I was also struck by the quiet, quite amazing given it’s one of the world’s largest cities with 35 million people living within a 50 km radius of the centre. I soon discovered quietness, politeness and respectful behaviour is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. It is not feigned or cynically observed; it is a sincere and genuine sensibility, one of their core values.

During our visit to Kyoto and Nara, we took organised coach tours to visit the many Shinto and Buddhist temples which co-exist side by side in harmony and explored their tranquil gardens. We spent the evenings just wandering around the neighbourhood, soaking up the atmosphere and mooching around traditional shops and restaurants. It was just magical.

By the end of our short trip, I realised I had merely scratched the surface of Japan. Of course, I only went to the bigger cities, but I was able to experience the ultra modern, the traditional and a lot in-between. I know different parts of Japan will have much more to offer and I’m keen to experience this. I loved every moment of this short trip which greatly exceeded expectations and I’m planning on a return visit for a longer period, maybe one autumn, to visit more of this wondrous land. So with that . . . Sayonara.

Aside from the header photo, all the others were taken from various sites as my photos of Japan appear to have gone walkabout!

 

 

The Musette: basic sourdough loaf

We have the starter and now we’re ready to bake my first ever sourdough loaf…………..well, almost!

Ingredients (makes a medium sized loaf)

For the sponge

  • About 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter (see previous recipe)
  • 250g (1 2/3 cup) strong flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture)

For the loaf

  • 300g (2 cups) strong bread flour (white, wholemeal, rye, spelt or a mixture), plus more for dusting
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
  • 10g (1 tbsp) fine sea salt

Method

1. The night before you want to bake your loaf, create a sponge. In a large bowl, combine 150ml (2/3 cup) active starter with 250g (1 2/3 cup) flour and 275ml (1 cup + 2 tbsp) warm water. Mix, cover with clingfilm and leave overnight. In the morning it should be clearly fermenting: thick, sticky, bubbly and smelling a bit sour.

2. To make the dough, add the 300g (2 cups) flour to the sponge, along with the oil and salt, and incorporate. You should now have a fairly sticky dough. If it seems tight and firm, add a dash more warm water; if it’s unmanageably loose, add more flour, but do leave it fairly wet – you’ll get better bread that way.

3. Turn out the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and silky – about 10 minutes – then put in a lightly oiled bowl and turn it to coat with the oil. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise. Sourdough rises slowly and sedately, so it’ll take a few hours in a warm kitchen. One good option is to knead it in the morning, then simply leave it all day in a cool, draught-free place until it has more or less doubled in size and feels springy if you push your finger gently into it; alternatively, knead it in the evening and leave to rise overnight.

4. Deflate the risen dough by punching it down with your knuckles on a lightly floured surface. You now need to prove the dough (give it a second rising). First form it into a neat round, tucking the edges of the dough underneath itself so you have a smooth, round top and a rougher base.

5. If you have a proper proving basket – I do – dust it liberally with flour. Alternatively, rig up a proving basket by lining a wide, shallow bowl with a clean, floured cloth. Place your round of dough smooth side down in the basket or bowl, cover with oiled clingfilm or a clean plastic bag, and leave to rise, in a warm place this time, for an hour and a half to three hours, until roughly doubled in size again. It’s now ready to bake.

6. Heat the oven to its highest setting (250C/230C fan/500F/gas mark 10 is ideal). Five minutes before you want to put the loaf in, place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

7. Just before you put your loaf in the oven, place a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of your oven to create a steamy atmosphere, which helps the bread rise and develop a good crust.

8. Take the hot baking sheet from the oven, dust it with flour and carefully tip the risen dough out of the basket/bowl on to it; it will now be the right way up. Put the loaf in the oven and leave to bake for 15 minutes.

9. Lower the heat to 200C/180Cfan/390F/gas mark 6, add more water to the roasting tin, and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the now well-browned loaf vibrates and sounds hollow when you tap its base.

10. Leave to cool for at least 20 minutes – it’s okay to slice while warm, but not if it’s piping hot. My beloved much enjoyed it for a light supper with a selection of French cheeses, and some of my pickles and chutneys.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. My dough was wet and sticky, even after using my dough hook for 10 minutes. But, you know what, it didn’t matter.

2. I used a mixture of bread flours: wholemeal, spelt and rye largely to use up odds and ends though the final loaf was largely a rye and wholemeal mix.

3. It smelled wonderful while it was baking, had a lovely chewy crust, excellent flavour and sliced easily, despite not being much of a looker!

4. What of the rest of the starter? It’s resting in the fridge until I need it next week-end for more sourdough bread and pizza.

The Musette: sourdough starter

The secret to great bread 

Many of our favorite foods are the product of carefully controlled ageing: dry-aged beef, sharp cheddar and umami-packed miso paste all owe their complex, pungent flavours to microbial fermentation. Sourdough bread works the same way, but instead of fermenting after baking, it all happens on the front end with something called a sourdough starter.

I love sourdough bread but until now have lacked the patience to create a starter to make some. Thankfully, it’s not difficult, just stir together some flour and water and let it sit. That’s right! No mysterious rituals required – just regular injections of flour, water and a lot of patience. Every time you “feed” the starter with fresh flour, those microorganisms get to work converting complex carbs into flavourful sugars, acids and alcohols.

The key here is the wild yeast. Bread is typically made from commercial yeast (fresh or dried) because it’s easier for mass production, it’s easier to store and use, and it proofs breads and pastries in a fraction of the time of the wild version.

By comparison, wild yeast is a bit like an unruly teenager, it has to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast prefers cooler temperatures, acidic environments and works much more slowly to proof breads and pastries.

So why bother? Because the flavour and texture of products made with wild yeast is way better. The taste is more complex and interesting, the texture is sturdier and more enjoyable to chew.

Note: Making a sourdough starter takes about 5 days. Each day you “feed” the starter with equal weights of fresh flour and filtered water. As the wild yeast grows stronger, the starter will become more frothy and sour-smelling. On average, this process only takes about 5 days, but it can take longer depending on the conditions in your kitchen. As long as you see bubbles and signs of yeast activity, continue feeding it regularly. If there are zero signs of bubbles after three days, start again!

Method

Day 1: Make the Initial Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Weigh the flour and water, and combine them in the glass bowl. Stir vigorously until combined into a smooth batter. It will look like a sticky, thick dough. Scrape down the sides and loosely cover the container with cling film (plastic wrap).

Put the container somewhere with a consistent room temperature of 20°C to 25°C (70°F to 75°F) and let it sit for 24 hours.

Day 2: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Hopefully, your starter will have a few small bubbles here and there. The bubbles mean that wild yeast have started making themselves at home, eating eat the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide (the bubbles) and alcohol. They will also increase the acidity of the mixture, which helps fend off any bad bacteria. At this point, the starter should smell fresh, mildly sweet and yeasty.

If you don’t see any bubbles yet, don’t panic – depending on the conditions in your kitchen, the average room temperature, and other factors, your starter might just be a bit slow to get going.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per day 1.

Day 3: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

By now, the surface of your starter should be dotted with bubbles and visibly larger in volume. If you stir the starter, it will still feel thick and batter-like, but you’ll hear bubbles popping. It should also smell sour.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per previous 2 days.

Day 4: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

The starter should be looking very bubbly with large and small bubbles, and it will have doubled in volume. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday and full of bubbles. It should also smell pungent.

Add ingredients as per three previous days.

Day 5: Starter is Ready to Use

The starter should have doubled in bulk since yesterday and look very bubbly, even frothy. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday, be completely webbed with bubbles and even more pungent.

If everything is looking, smelling, and tasting good, you can consider your starter ripe and ready to use! If your starter is lagging behind a bit, continue on with the Day 5 and Beyond instructions.

Day 5 and Beyond: Maintaining Your Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Once your starter is ripe (or even if it’s not quite ripe yet), you no longer need to bulk it up. To maintain the starter, discard (or use) about half of the starter and then “feed” it with new flour and water.

If you’re using the starter within the next few days, leave it out on the worktop (counter) and continue discarding half and “feeding” it daily. If it’s going to be longer before you use your starter, cover it tightly and place it in the fridge. Remember to take it out and feed it at least once a week.  I usually let the starter sit out overnight to give the yeast time to recuperate before putting it back in the fridge.

How to Reduce the Amount of Starter:

Maybe you don’t need all the starter we’ve made here on an ongoing basis. That’s fine! Discard half the starter as usual, but feed it with half the amount of flour and water. Continue until you have whatever amount of starter works for your baking habits.

How to Take a Long Break from Your Starter:

If you’re taking a break from baking, but want to keep your starter, you can do two things:

Make a Thicker Starter:  Feed your starter double the amount of flour to make a thicker dough-like starter. This thicker batter will maintain the yeast better over long periods of inactivity in the fridge.

What next? Get baking!

40 Years of Memorable Moments: frightening ordeal by fire

Recent events in California, with the incineration of a town called Paradise, reminded me of our own close call with flames. Yes, this incident was memorable for all the wrong reasons. The Christmas we moved into our partly renovated apartment, I invited the neighbours round for aperitifs on Boxing Day evening. A number of them bought us small seasonal arrangements, in pots with candles.

Friends came round for dinner in the New Year and, to make the place look a bit more festive, I lit the candles in these arrangements which I sat on some of the remaining packing cases. We’d yet to have the flat decorated, though much of our furniture was in situ, along with the new kitchen and bathrooms.

It was before Epiphany, so the tree was still up and decorated. Against my better judgement, Richard had persuaded me to have a “real fir tree.” We had an enjoyable dinner and evening with our friends who in typical French fashion stayed chatting until the early hours. I’m not a night owl, so could barely keep my eyes open before I headed off to bed. Having tidied the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher, I asked my beloved to extinguish all of the various candles dotted around the apartment.

I’m usually asleep before he joins me in the bedroom but I must’ve been overtired and hadn’t fallen asleep. We chatted for a few minutes and both fell asleep only to be awakened by a loud crash. The bedroom is next to our lounge/diner and we could see that light was pouring onto the terrace. Our initial thought was that someone had broken in and switched on the lights.

My beloved leapt out of bed, naked, ready to do battle with the intruder. He rushed back shouting “Fire!” He flapped ineffectually at the fire with some wet towels but it had seized hold of the contents of the packing cases, all wrapped in plastic bubble wrap. It was sobering to see how quickly the fire spread and the amount of thick black smoke that was filling the flat.

We abandoned the fight and closed the doors on the fire. We scrambled into shoes and dressing gowns before he rushed downstairs to fetch our guardian (a former fireman) while I alerted our upstairs neighbour and rang the fire brigade.

Our quick thinking guardian doused the fire before the firemen arrived and created total havoc with their hoses. We were checked over for smoke inhalation before being advised to sleep somewhere else. Feeling as if we’d just lost a couple of our nine lives, we beat a hasty retreat to our newly decorated, former holiday flat for a good night’s sleep before returning next morning to survey the damage.

The window in the dining room was shattered, I think that was the crash we heard the night before. The contents of the three packing cases – luckily I had a list of everything that was in them – were carbon. A thick black greasy sludge covered all the walls of the lounge/diner – thank goodness we’d yet to decorate. The ceiling and floor were badly singed along with a couple of pieces of furniture and the Xmas tree.

My beloved’s new white, fully tiled, bathroom was also covered in black soot as he’d left the door open. Fortunately, everywhere else they were closed, mitigating the potential damage. Our decorator was scheduled to start work the following week but was delayed while he awaited for the “expertes” to opine. Fortunately, our household insurance covered all of the damage and we hadn’t lost anything that couldn’t be readily replaced. It could’ve been so much worse!

We never did find out exactly how the fire started but thereafter my beloved banned me from having lit candles in the flat.

The Musette: petit salé aux lentilles

Petit Salé aux Lentilles is traditional French cooking, the sort you’ll find in French homes the length and breadth of the country. The meat and lentils are cooked, together with carrots, onions, celery and a generous bouquet garni of herbs, then served in a soup plate with the cooking liquid.

Petit salé means lightly salted so if you can get hold of salt pork, use it, otherwise any cut of pork and/or sausages will be just fine. The pork is traditionally placed in cold water with aromatics, usually onion, a couple of garlic cloves, carrot, some peppercorns, a handful of bay leaves and a clove or two. The whole lot is then brought to a light simmer before the lentils are added. However, I think my twist on the classic recipe is more flavourful.

If like me you are using salted pork, soak it in water for at least 7 hours, preferably overnight, regularly changing the soaking water.

Ingredients (serves 3 hungry cyclists)

  • 500g (1lb) pork belly, soaked overnight
  • 2 Montbeliard sausages
  • 250g (9oz) green lentils
  • 2tbsp olive oil
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium onion,peeled and diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 500ml (2 cups) vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste

Options to serve:-

  • 1 blood sausage, cooked and crumbled with handful of breadcrumbs
  • handful toasted, skinned hazelnuts
  • freshly chopped parsley

Method

1. Add the olive oil to a large saucepan and add the chopped onion, carrot and celery with a pinch of sea salt. Cook on medium heat until the onion is translucent (15-20 minutes).

2. Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute before adding the herbs and lentils and cooking for another five minutes.

3. Add vegetable or chicken stock, bring to boil and then lower heat to a simmer. The lentils should take approx. 30 minutes to cook. After 15 minutes, add the sausages and, if necessary, more hot filtered water to ensure the lentils don’t boil dry.

4. Meanwhile, heat oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F/325°F fan) remove pork belly from soaking water and pat dry. Score skin and rub with olive oil, scatter some (optional) fennel pollen over pork flesh and pop into oven for 90 minutes. I don’t like to “boil” the pork as it’s quite a fatty cut. This way the fat melts leaving just the juicy, succulent meat and crispy crackling.

5. Once the pork belly is cooked, remove crackling and chop pork into bite sized chunks. Add to lentils. Remove sausages and slice on the diagonal, return to lentils. Remove bay leaves and thyme stalks. The lentils should be soft and there should be very little liquid in the pan.

6. Add mustard and vinegar, stirring well to incorporate. Season to taste. Serve in soup bowls decorated with piece of crackling, and one or all of freshly chopped parsley, chopped hazelnuts, crispy black pudding crumbs and a further splash of vinegar.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If you’re in a rush, you could use tinned lentils which will reduce cooking time by 30 minutes.

2. I use ordinary green lentils rather than Puy as I want some of them to meld into the sauce.

3. I often make this dish with the remains of roasted pork belly rather than salted pork belly but always add sausages and occasionally small new potatoes to make the dish go further.

4. Because the dish, apart from the crackling is soft, i like to add a bit more crunch with toasted, chopped hazelnuts, and/or sausage crumb.

5. I make the blood sausage crumb by skinning a blood sausage and cooking it on a low heat with a handful of home-made breadcrumbs. I find it adds a nice crunch and piquancy. You need smooth black sausage similar to French boudin noir, not Spanish morcilla or British black pudding. If you can’t find these, a nice Toulouse meaty sausage would probably suffice.

4. The dish benefits from reheating, happily resting in the fridge for a couple of days. Equally, the dish can be frozen.

 

Amateur cheats

Ahead of the recent New York marathon, an article in The Guardian newspaper made me laugh. It was about amateurs cheating in marathons. It reminded me of when I ran took part in the London marathon and an enterprising young fellow offered to lend me his anorak for a tenner – or was it a fiver? – to nip through a short-cut and avoid running around Docklands.

When I declined his kind offer, he inferred that there were plenty happy to avail themselves of it. I had pointed out that it would’ve been cheating, plus everyone who knows me would have treated my time with disbelief. Instead I had an entertaining day out and even more amusing tales to tell.

Cheating is not limited to marathons. On my first cycling sportif, slowly riding the shorter of two distances, unbeknown to me, I had fallen behind the broom wagon. When I arrived at the feed station, along with a number of riders doing the longer course, it was assumed I too was riding it. I corrected their false assumption and one rider asked why I’d done that as my club would’ve got more points if I’d “completed” the longer ride. I advised him it was cheating and no one at the club would’ve believed I’d completed the longer one.

On another sportif around Monaco and Menton, the organisers used volunteers to block off a number of side roads. When I’d stopped to enquire why I was told that the roads were short-cuts and if they weren’t blocked inevitably some people would cheat!

Needless to stay I find it somewhat staggering that participants would cheat in an event where the whole point is taking part: there are no individual winners. It was only as I started to help with the organisation of our club’s sportif, I rumbled yet another wheeze perpetuated by a number of clubs.

Sportif: Club Volunteers

Most sportifs offer two different courses. Clubs earn one point for everyone doing the shorter event and two for those completing the longer. As these aren’t timed events, the points for each club are typically calculated on the number of participants. As both events are similarly priced, clubs would enter more riders into the longer event though many would only ride the shorter one. I soon nipped this in the bud and awarded points based solely on the length of the course completed.

With this level of skull duggery at local amateur events, where club and personal honour rather than grand sums of money are at stake, is it any wonder that further up the food chain there’s much more sophisticated cheating?

 

The Musette: white chocolate, cinnamon and apple rocky road

Winner of Great British Bake Off in 2015, Nadiya Hussain is now a familiar figure on cookery and food related programmes on British screens. When I saw her prepare this recipe I knew immediately that the sons of some friends would love this, particularly with my teeny, tiny tweaks. I was not mistaken. But then hands up who doesn’t love rocky road? Exactly, no one.

Aside from my friends’ sons, I also made these for my beloved’s niece and her friends to eat after they’d completed the recent Nice-Cannes Marathon. They were well received.

Ingredients (makes 15 bars)

  • 200g (7oz) white chocolate chips or chopped block of white chocolate
  • 2 tbsp Grade A maple syrup/golden syrup/date syrup
  • 130g (4½oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
  • pinch sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 200g (7oz) cinnamon (Speculoos) biscuits
  • 100g (3½oz) white (preferably) mini marshmallows (if you can only find large ones, use scissors to chop them into small pieces)
  • 100g (3½oz) dried apple rings, chopped into small pieces
  • 50g (1¾oz) fat juicy raisins
  • 1 tbsp rum (optional)
  • 1 tbsp icing (confectioner’s) sugar for dusting

Method

1. Lightly grease the inside of a 23cm (9″) square baking tin with butter. Line the base and sides of the tin with greaseproof (parchment) paper or cling film (plastic wrap).

2. Gently melt the chocolate, syrup and butter in either a bain marie (heatproof bowl over saucepan with small amount of just simmering water) or microwave on low heat in 30 sec bursts.

3. Stir contents and as soon as the mixture is smooth and liquid, take off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

4. Add the salt and cinnamon to the mixture. Warm the raisins in the rum in microwave on high for 30 secs.

5. Roughly crush the biscuits by putting them into a freezer bag and bashing them with a rolling pin – hugely satisfying! Empty the contents of the bag into the chocolate mixture and give it a good stir.

6. Add the marshmallows, apples and raisins and stir until everything is well coated.

7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and use the back of a spoon to flatten and level it, not forgetting to press it well into the corners.

8. Put the tin into the fridge and leave it for at least 1 hour, or until set, before taking it out of the tin, dusting with icing sugar and cutting it up into 15 bars.

9. The bars can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks but they won’t last that long – trust me!

 Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If the chcocolate is too hot when the marshmallows are added, you will get into a sticky mess, so make sure you allow the chocolate to cool for 10 minutes.

2. Heating the rum on high in the microwave eliminates the alcohol but can be replaced with a tablespoon of hot water if you prefer. This makes the dried fruit juicier.

3. If you don’t use cinnamon biscuits (Speculoos), add another 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon to compensate.