29 April, 2007

spring cooking from the market

The day dawned warm and sunny today, so after John dropped Avery off at the stable for her day of glorious mucking and polishing and riding, we headed off with, as you see, the darling orange basket given me by my friend Becky, for some shopping at the Marylebone Farmer's Market. It has to be one of my favorite places in the world, among the top ten for sure. Sometimes the direction that the world seems to be headed gets me down: everything getting more and more like everything else, places getting larger and larger and more anonymous, people less and less connected to anything but the internet (not that I'm anti-internet! but there is a limit). At times like that, when the incessant people traffic a block away in Oxford Street threatens to turn me completely antisocial and petulant, it's time for a trip to the market.

What I love about it, even more than its excessively cool cousin Borough Market, is its scale and intimacy and familiarity. I could shop for a long time at Borough Market and not know where everything is, or necessarily recognise the fellow who sold me my mussels last week. But somehow, even though the location of the stalls often changes at Marylebone, the same faces appear to console me. There's Tim Norris, of Harvest Moon Organic Farms, there to sell us a gorgeous roasting chicken and, even more tantalisingly, three bunches of impossibly fresh watercress, plump and bright green. I came home to read of this farmer's struggles to get permission to build on his own land! Then the lovely folks at Grove Farm, Hollesley, who produce the most outrageously rich and fresh raw milk you have ever had. Come to think of it, have you ever tasted raw milk? I had not until last year at the Food Festival at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. It's unpasteurised, which means a lot of things, namely controversy. Of course the reason milk began to be pasteurised to begin with (heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, or even higher to get the -- to me -- scary shelf life of dairy products labelled "ultra-pasteurised") was to eliminate dairy-borne germs that make people sick. But the raw milk advocates (and like any advocates, they can get a little strident) argue that along with killing germs, the process kills valuable vitamins and valuable bacteria. Of course foodie types like me skip all the arguments about health and move directly to the issue that matters most: does it taste better? OF COURSE it does. It's unbelievably flavorful compared to pasteurised milk. Of course there are variables here. The raw milk I buy is also organic. I suppose the proper taste test would have to remove the variables and get down to comparing raw organic milk and pasteurised organic milk, and so far even I have not had sufficient time on my hands to do that. But I will, someday.

Anyway, since I have no soapbox on which to perch, I can say only that at my little farmer's market there is really wonderful raw milk. It makes me realise that the milk I normally drink is like water with a piece of chalk dissolved in it to make it white. You have not lived until you've had a cafe au lait at the market (the dairy farmer is wise enough to have a coffee maker right there alongside the milk) with raw milk foamed into it. I don't even like coffee; it makes me very jittery. But often I cannot resist and it's always worth shaking like a leaf for a few hours afterward. I can type faster, too.

We picked up some really lovely Estima potatoes too, and had a nice chat with Potato Man (as Lord Peter Wimsey would say, "I cannot lisp the tender syllables of his name because I do not know it") about the proper varieties for this or that dish. You know why I love him? He's not pretending to care. It was heartwarming to have him say, "Nice to see you all again, see you next week," and know he means it. He likes to see who's eating his Nicolas and his King Edwards and his Claret Reds (which are white as the driven snow, so go figure). I bet he's a member of the British Potato Council. I wish I were. Probably there's an American equivalent, but it won't sound as charming.

Then there's the lovely lady with the "iced lemon cake" that Avery adores for breakfast, and because I am a wicked mother with the wrong priorities I give it to her. So rich and handmade. We were tempted by the carrot cake, but Avery is not a nut girl (although she's a pretty nutty girl) and no matter how you chop a pecan, if you don't like them, they're not small enough. But lastly we came away with a loaf of onion bread for pastrami sandwiches for lunch, and were happy. I had had my dose of the kind of people I admire: people who devote their working lives to doing something unusual, old-fashioned and difficult, and who are so charming while they're at it. It reassures me that while teeming city streets still exist, peopled (I use the term advisedly) with really awful types at times, plugged into things so that they appear to be in another world, I still have my serene little market filled with things to bring home and cook.

So I did. Fancy a little healthy soup for your lunch?

Watercress and Potato Soup with Creme Fraiche
(serves six)

3 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 banana or 3 round shallots, roughly chopped
3 medium or 5 small potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 cups chicken stock (or veg if you like)
2 large bunches watercress, stems removed (ish) and carefully washed
1/2 cup creme fraiche
salt and pepper to taste

I really mean it, wash that watercress. You don't want sand or dirt or whatever they grow it in to get in your teeth and ruin the fun.

Now, melt your butter and sweat the garlic and shallots till soft, then add the potatoes and the stock and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the watercress and give it a good stir, then walk away for just a minute. Toast some onion bread, maybe. Now whizz the soup with your hand blender, stir in the creme fraiche and season to taste. Isn't that beautiful? So green you just know it's good for you.


The creme fraiche I used is to die for: spoonably thick in a beautiful glass jar, from Les Peupliers in Normandy. They have a very sweet web site, but I also think you can get yourself over to the dairy purveyors (lots of French things in glass jars, but I don't know their names) in Borough Market and pick some up.

Well, enough ramblings about food. Tomorrow I have to post about something else or my father will stop reading the blog. And we don't want that.


Jack said...

So glad that you're back. For a short period I thought you had gone exclusive on us. I had withdrawal symptoms almost immediately. Loving you're recipes as usual.

jane222 said...

I'm glad you're back too! And I'm going to check out the raw milk at that very market soon, it sounds lovely and I've always wanted to try it!