It has been a few months since I penned an issue of ‘Truly Scrumptious’, having been away on a holiday of a lifetime. Then the last Digest issue coincided with the apple season when, really, the only contributors had to be our friends from Donhead Apple. Thank you to Richard and Karen, and Gavin and Kevin for their great contributions over the summer.
My holiday was truly stupendous (and mostly scrumptious). Fifteen days travelling through Cambodia and Vietnam, where the history, colours, food and countryside is breathtaking. However my heart went out to the people who, despite surviving civil war and armed conflict, were generous, kind and altogether quite remarkable. We saw some spectacular sights, like the 12th century Angkor Wat temple, one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed, and Ta Prohm Temple hidden deep in the jungle with its overgrown roots of enormous trees and vines (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed there). Having watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat our group of 12 was treated to breakfast of phở, (pronounced fur) a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of a clear broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, fresh lime slices, spring onions, a few herbs or greens, shredded chicken and slivers of red and green chili. We ate at rickety tables with paper cloths, slurping from large bowls, napkins to our chins, absorbed by the environment, smells, and tastes. It was historic and I sought phởout at our various hotel breakfast bars as we travelled, but none was quite as good.
We had a very special meal with one family, deep in the jungle on the Mekong River – a large spiky elephant fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over a hot fire and then served with a banana flower salad and jack fruit. We had seen many of these ingredients at the local food markets which my sister and I gravitated to, away from the rest of the group. We saw boxes of squid as long and thick as my arm, sacks of fresh cinnamon, mace, star anise, dried fish of every shape and colour hanging from the rafters. There were live turtles and baby alligators, as well as mutant looking fruits and vegetables. One of the main reasons for this enormous variety lies in the obsession with fresh ingredients for every meal (very little frozen meat or fish there), so the route to the consumer is short and direct – from the garden, farm, the abattoir or the dock. We saw all kinds of produce, livestock, and equipment being transported on mopeds through country roads, villages and big cities to the markets and restaurants. There are over five million of these bikes in Vietnam, often heavily laden with live ducks hanging by their feet, dried noodles reaching 6 feet above and out from the driver, mountains of coconuts, fridges, tyres, ladders – anything including pigs, cats and dogs squashed into cages for the market. Yes, they farm the latter two for the dinner table.
Nonetheless, early into our trip I dined on deep-fried tarantula. Its legs were very greasy and its hairs stuck in your teeth. The highest level of revolt was felt snacking on a fried silk worm. They were sold on the streets in paper bags, by weight, much like we would buy sherbet lemons. Our guide had a ‘quarter’ of such treats. The abdomen of this silkworm burst inside my mouth releasing its sour creamy contents. I spat it out onto the street! Whilst I found it repulsive, the eating of insects is not peculiar to Asia by any means. I read this morning that Britain’s first insect restaurant has opened in South Wales. Grub Kitchen offers bug burgers made from crickets, mealworms, and grasshoppers and served with cheesy locust croquettes. You only need to experience eating these critters the once! Buttlings and Ludwell Stores, please steer clear!
Winter Sunshine Cake (Saffron and Lemon Syrup from Honey & Co. Food from the Middle East)
Approx. £9.50 when all ingredients bought at Ludwell Stores.
A superb cake or dessert for the dead of winter. The lemon slices glow like winter sunshine, lighting up your day, your palate and your spirits.
270g caster sugar
4 medium eggs
200g ground almonds
2 tbs plain flour
1 lemon, juice and zest
½ tsp baking powder
For the syrup and topping
2 lemons, really thinly sliced
pinch saffron (big pinch)
Preheat the oven to 180ºC / gas mark 5 (AGA roasting oven, rack on the bottom with cooling shelf above)
1. Line and grease a 24 cm diameter cake tin with greaseproof paper.
2. Place the thin lemon slices in a pan of water and bring to the boil. Drain, and repeat. By now all the bitterness should be gone.
3. Drain for a second time and then return to the pan and cover with 400 ml of fresh water. Add the remaining ingredients for the syrup and boil for 8–10 minutes. The peel should be soft and syrup thickened.
4. When cool, layer the lemon slices all over the base and a little way up the sides of your cake tin (you may have lost the bit in the middle of the slices, but that’s fine as the yellow cake mix will fill them in nicely). If you can get some of the saffron fronds to show on the base, this will add to its attractiveness.
5. Cream the butter and sugar together until well combined but not fluffy.
6. Stir in the eggs, ground almonds and turmeric, then fold in the semolina, flour, lemon juice and zest, salt and baking powder.
7. Mix well and pour into the cake tin.
8. Bake in the centre of the oven (other than AGA users) for 20–25 minutes, then turn the cake around to ensure an even bake and bake for a further 10–15 minutes, until golden and firm.
9. Remove from the oven and pour over all the remaining syrup to soak in (use a skewer to make holes over the top of the cake if you wish).
10. Allow to rest for 20 minutes before turning out, turning it on its head so the bottom-side is uppermost.
Serve with crème fraîche or cream.
A truly, truly scrumptious winter treat!
These musings and recipes are gleaned from The Donhead Digest with the permission of AIF, their author.