Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Wild Garlic

Earlier this year, an IT engineer called Mat Follas won the UK television competition MasterChef. It is a gruelling contest in which amateur cooks battle it out in a long, drawn-out process overseen by presenters John Torode and Gregg Wallace.

Follas stood out because he was different. He liked robust flavours, foraged produce and unusual combinations. His food was original. It had style.

Mr Grigg is passionate about food and an avid MasterChef fan. Last week he would have done Mat Follas proud with a delicate starter of foraged puffball and local scallops with creme fraiche and fresh coriander. So he was hooked on the programme from the start. We both cook, having created dishes for paying members of the public for a short while. But I became more interested in the programme when I learned that Mat, a Kiwi, lived in the Dorset village where Mr Grigg and I had our first home. So in our house, we were willing him to win. And, after the final, when Terry Wogan described him the next day as Ming the Merciless, I turned off the radio outraged, feeling I had been personally slighted.

Since then, there have been 'will-he, won't-he' stories in the local press and nationals over Mat's ambitions to run his own restaurant. We were then reliably informed that yes indeed he was, and it was coming to a town near us. We saw The Wild Garlic taking shape every time we drove past.

'I hope he doesn't ponce the food up,' said one friend. 'Dorset people like big portions and hate paying extra for vegetables.'

When he opened the restaurant, other snippets filtered back to us.

'Well, you need to eat something before you go,' said someone we know.

'The female maitre de is shocking,' said another. 'I don't know who she thinks she is.'

A leading local restaurateur sniffed that the 'Hi guys' greeting he and three friends in their late 60s, two of whom were eminent academics, received was hardly appropriate.

So we had feelings of trepidation before we went. There is currently around a two-month waiting list for a table in the evening, although lunches are more easily booked. It is great for Mat and the area that The Wild Garlic is so busy. But it means there is a huge amount of expectation already on the tastebuds of the clientele before they even walk in through the front door. Seldom has any other amateur cook, who has never before run his own restaurant, been under so much pressure to perform. Mat Follas criticism is in danger of becoming a new blood sport in these parts.

We have now been twice - once for dinner and once for lunch. And did we like it? Well, yes thank you. Very much so. Some food combinations worked better than others, the ubiquitous goats' cheese starter wasn't very adventurous, the full length-mirror next to the lavatory in the ladies was a bit of a shock and I was a little taken aback by the welcome of the aforementioned maitre de.

But those were my only minus points. It was an experience we would not have missed.

The decor is rustic minimalist, with big chunky wooden tables and incongruous retro chairs. There is no salt and pepper on the table, which indicates a confident chef (and delighted me, because I just hate it when Mr Grigg automatically puts salt and pepper on his food before tasting it).

The menu is very short and changes according to the season and most of the produce is locally sourced. Starters cost around £7, mains about £12 to £19 (the water buffalo has just gone up by a pound) and puddings around the £5 mark. Two of my starters were sweet chilli squid, accompanied by the most wonderful salad leaves and edible flowers, and smoked venison with beetroot and berry sauce. My main courses were lamb loin with mange tout, salad, pea puree and salsa verde and a faggot tart with hedgehog mushroom sauce. The lamb, in particular, was really tasty and pink, just as I like it.

My two puddings were fresh berry mess and lavender mousse. Delicious.

Mat makes a point of coming out and chatting to the customers after he has finished cooking. This is a good habit for him to have already got into, and very much appreciated.

There is a great selection of wine, from about £15 a bottle, so we could afford to raise a glass and toast to the restaurant's continued success.

After each of my visits, I was full up. So too was Mr Grigg, whose stomach is considerably larger than mine.

So here's to another trip to The Wild Garlic - if we can book a table that is.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A tribute to Harry Patch

As dear old Harry Patch is laid to rest, I am being encouraged to get on with editing the memoirs of my grandfather (above) another Somerset veteran of World War I.

William Percy Withers was born near Wells in 1894. I was nine years old when he died in 1970. I was too young to understand the horrors he had seen all those years ago, nor did I much care. He was by then just Grampa, an old man with a walking stick. A retired tenant farmer, wedded to the land and his large family.

Like Harry Patch, Grampa was an ordinary man. But he had a gift. He was always scribbling away writing poetry, some of it funny, some of it sad. After he died, my aunt had the wonderful idea of publishing some of his work, giving each of the grandchildren a bound copy of his book.

The copyright remains with my sister, Alison, who attended Harry's funeral today. I am sure, though, she will not mind me sharing this with the world, in memory of Harry Patch and all his old comrades. A generation gone but not forgotten.

The Contemptibles

They were just ordinary chaps,
Away back in 'fourteen,
Not saints nor sinners; yet perhaps,
Just somewhere in between.

From every kind of home they came,
From slum, from cottage, hall,
But were, in one respect, the same,
For they were heroes, all.

But had somebody told them so,
They'd treat it as a jest,
"Blimey! That's just rot, you know,
We only did our best."

"Contemptible" - the Kaiser's word -
They hailed it with acclaim,
Then, with a humour quite absurd,
They took it for their name.

Their orders were "You must retreat";
The way was long and hard,
But they, despite their aching feet,
Contested every yard.

At last, from Ypres to the sea,
They held the foe at bay,
Determined that the enemy
Should never pass that way.

Quite soon some other chaps appeared,
To hasten to their aid;
These were the first who volunteered,
Ill-trained, but unafraid.

Outgunned, outnumbered hopelessly,
All hope indeed seemed gone,
They still hurled back the enemy,
And grimly soldiered on.

And now was Britain, through their fight,
Enabled time to gain,
To organise again her might,
To enrol, to arm, to train.

The outcome now of their great deeds
is plain for all to see;
Their heroism sowed the seeds
That bloomed to victory.

A watered ribbon, silver rose,
A crude star made of bronze -
An emblem proud indeed to those
Who wear the Star of Mons.

Men yet unborn will hail their fame,
Though the last one has gone;
On history's page a glorious name -
And time goes marching on.

Grampa fought with the North Somerset Yeomanry where he saw service in the Somme and lost many dear friends and comrades. When the war ended, Percy took up a farm tenancy in Barton St David, Somerset, before moving to farm at Donyatt, near Ilminster, in 1920.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

At last, I've been provided with a link to an interview with my Uncle George, a modest, lovely man, who died last week.

I've just come back from his funeral, which was more of a celebration of a life well lived, a celebration with lots of family and friends.

God bless him.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Someone in Somerset

George Withers 1924-2009

My Uncle George, who died last week, had been singing all his life. But it was only in the mid-1980s when he retired from farming that he was able to give full rein to his hobby.

From singing at socials and harvest suppers, George went on to appear at folk clubs and festivals all over the country and abroad.

As a tribute to my uncle, I am reproducing an article I wrote for The Marshwood Vale Magazine in February this year.

With a song in his heart

My Uncle George is something of a legend in our family.

When our large farming tribe got together at his smallholding next to the River Isle at Isle Abbotts, four miles north of Ilminster, we could always rely on him to come out with an old folk song or two. When I was young, it was always the funny ones I liked best. And he would always oblige. Singing Susanna's a Funniful Man, complete with whistles, grunts and snorting, until he was blue in the face. My little cousin Roger was almost sick with laughter.

Ours was a family rich in song. But I was primary school age then, back in the 1960s. At the time, I didn't appreciate George's more serious songs. I didn't realise it is people like my uncle who keep old traditions alive. But now, verses come into my head out of nowhere and I find myself singing choruses along with my busker sister. The comic song, Someone in Somerset, is as dear to me as anything. George learned it from his mother, Madeleine, my granny. There appears to be no record of it anywhere else.

George is now retired and lives at Horton, near Ilminster. He has been singing all his life but since leaving farming, the songs have taken him to folk festivals in the area and further afield, including Ireland and Canada. His singing days are behind him now, but only just, because of poor health. Luckily for the family, which includes his wife Avril, three children and grandchildren, George's rich and mellow voice has been recorded for posterity on a number of CDs and tapes, including Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all (Veteran, 2004), a collection of folk songs sung in the West Country, and The Land Remains (Frequency Studios, 2004).

George was born in Somerset in 1924, the same year that renowned collector of folk songs Cecil Sharp died. Sharp's songs, taught in schools throughout Somerset, are a staple part of George's musical heritage. Brimbledown Fair was one of George's father's songs. The family lived next door to James Bishop, whose version Sharp published. George first learned the song The Seeds of Love at school. This was the first song that Cecil Sharp collected.

The Withers family came from Wells where they farmed the same land for 400 years. George was the fifth child and only son of six children. My mother, like me with my four siblings, was the youngest.

George and the girls: From top, identical twins Marjorie and Joan, Edith, Muriel, George and my mother, Pamela.

George's love of singing began from an early age. His mother and father were both musical. His mother used to sing old music hall songs to the children and his father, Percy, sang regularly in choirs and village concerts.

In Bob and Jacqueline Patten's book, Somerset Scrapbook (1987), George recalls: "Father was a dairy farmer and there were six of us children and no milking machines in those days.

"We used to milk a few cows in the morning before we went to school and again in the afternoon when we came home. I've been milking cows, on and off, since I was about four years old.

"Well, we'd be there in the cow stall, milking, and Father'd be singing out of one side of his mouth, so as not to get the cow hairs in there, and always sang while he was milking.

"And I always sang while I was milking, even when I had a milking machine. He sang the songs that he enjoyed singing, that lasted a good long time, about twenty five verses. That would last out three cows, sort of thing. And I suppose I had a memory for things like that and they just stuck. That's all there is to it, that's how I came to sing these older songs."

The family moved to Donyatt in 1927 to one of the Somerset County Council smallholdings created for servicemen returning from the First World War. George's father had served in the North Somerset Yeomanry and fought at the Somme. The council bought all the land in Donyatt in 1918 for £100,000 from the estate of R T Coombe. Somerset led the way in this initiative and Donyatt was something of a model village, with the school, post office, pub, baker and provision dealer's ship, smithy, the businesses of wheelwright, cobbler, ropemakers, potteries, grist mills and quarry all included in the purchase.

A practical farmer and good Christian, Percy was a sensitive soul and wrote poetry that ranged from his horrific war experiences to countryside subjects and local people. George has inherited his father's love of words and the countryside. His CD, The Land Remains, features a poem with the same title about the changing face of country life, and Milking on the Moor.

"I wrote the verses to the memory of those hardy farmers who started their careers by hand milking their cows out in the fields, largely on the Somerset Moors," George says. "My dad was one of them. It was a tough life but the lovely surroundings were some compensation."

George can be heard reading some of his father's poems on Farm Radio - - the internet site for small family farms and all those interested in the countryside.

First published by The Marshwood Vale Magazine February 2009

Monday, 15 June 2009

Rape seed oil, The Seed Company-style

DORSET is beginning to get a name for itself with the cold-pressed rapeseed oil produced by The Seed Company.

Made from a single variety of seed chosen for its flavour and versatility, the oil contains naturally occurring Omega 3,6 and 9 and vitamin E and has half the saturated fat of olive oil.

Ken Tuffin is managing director of parent company Pearce Seeds, and Paul Roberts who looks after the new enterprise.

The rapeseed project shows how with a bit of creative thought, energy, and cooperation between local enterprises, ideas can translate into exciting opportunities for the area.

Pearce Seeds was started more than 40 years ago by Michael Pearce, who came from a farming family in Warminster.

Says Ken Tuffin: “He worked in the seed trade and decided did to set up on his own in the village of Trent just north of Sherborne.

“Mike and I got together just over 20 off years ago when I came out of a farming family in Dorset. I’d gone and worked in the seed trade and I came and joined Mike.

“We’ve slowly grown over the intervening time, starting off purely as a seeds and then agrochemicals and advisory business and diversified out.

“So now we’re a wider ranging group with interests in animal feed in terms of game feed etc for the shooting fraternity. We’ve also got a seed production business taking seeds and working very closely with the breeders to multiply up seed from little parcels that the breeders have just bred right the way through to selling it to the farmers in high quantity volumes.

“We have the energy side where we’re supplying farmers with diesel and the general public with heating oil. It is a wide ranging business now but all family owned.”

Ken now runs the business with his wife following the Michael Pearce’s retirement.

“Years ago we started a scheme to employ young students during the summer to do market research for us. One of the projects we gave the first guy was to look at how we dealt with the rising number of orchards coming in Somerset with the rise of the cider fraternity. We were being asked by our customers who were planting apple trees could we look after them? And to be honest the answer was no because we didn’t understand apple trees.

“It’s a very specialist area so from that we took on Robert Fovargue, who is a top fruit specialist. He now works across the south of England doing cider and trees in Somerset and Dorset right through to Kent where he’s doing the edible market.”

The Seed Company was launched in 2005.

Says Paul: “The son of one of Ken’s customers was at Cirencester and they wanted him to have something to do in the summer rather than work on the family farm so they asked if we could employ him.

“That’s when the bio diesel project reared up again, so he came on board to start looking at that. But the facts and figures showed it wasn’t really a goer. “But he found out about culinary rapeseed oil and work that had been done on how healthy it is and how it is becoming more popular.

“So he came to us and said ‘can I look at that?’ Over the course of that summer he started the project off and we came up with some varieties that we thought might work for culinary oil.

“We got some initial tests done on the quality of the oil health benefits and was it matching up with what the market was looking for. We got some varieties crushed, because varieties are like an olive - they produce different flavours, colour, viscosity so it wasn’t just a case of crushing anything we wanted to be very specific.”

Through blind tastings and cooking trials, it was narrowed it down to four varieties.

Paul says: “We roasted them, made sauces with them, did dipping with them and from that we got the most popular, which is the one we still use today.

“It produces a lovely golden yellow colour, it’s a nice, thick oil that clings very well. It’s got a lovely taste to it, it’s not overpowering, but there’s some very subtle tones, with a very clean taste on the palate. You’re not left thinking ‘my mouth’s full of oil’ and its proved very versatile in both high temperature cooking, dressing and dipping oils and anything else.

“You can even use it for baking to replace butter. So if you’ve got someone who’s allergic to dairy products they can still have nice tasting cakes and things like that but by using the oil that is healthy for them.”

The whole enterprise has a very circular nature, with the company producing the seed, the local farmer growing it and then the company taking it back.

Says Ken: “That’s very much the ethos right the way through. We see our role as working with farmer. We’re not trying to sell them something.

“They know what were trying to produce, they know it’s not perhaps the highest yielding variety so we have an agreement whereby I will pay them a premium so they don’t lose out. It’s a very much a commercial arrangement but they’re prepared to support me and grow this variety which is my baby.

“I have a bee in my bonnet about the fact that we’re in the south west of England. I’m a Dorset man, generations of Dorset man. I listen in the seed trade to all the seed breeders who are based in East Anglia so I’ve spent my life being told how marvellous the East Anglian seed is and all the breeding over there. The south west really was a bit of an enclave away, so it’s become one of my things. I am looking for varieties suitable for us. We have a different climate.

“When we came to looking at the rape it was to find the variety that suited, that we could grow well here, that worked well with the culinary side of it and then working with local farmers. And when I say local I mean the two adjoining farms.

“We can crush it and bottle it here on site so food miles and the green elements are kept well under control.”

Initially, marketing for the oil was carried out by the company itself, with Paul and Ken donning aprons at Fortnum and Masons at one point to demonstrate the oil’s versatility.

Says Paul: “We weren’t sure how the market was going to react to this product. Everyone knew about olive oil and when you say about rape oil people say ‘oh yes, those yellow field, they make me sneeze.’

We spent a lot of the last two years trying to educate people about the good things about rape seed oil.”

Says Ken: “We’re trying to keep very much to farm shops, farmers’ markets, local delis, specialist food retailers rather than particularly charging straight into the supermarket.

“We want to have a more widely-based product range rather than be beholden to a supermarket.”

The Dorset Seed Company is looking at doing other collaborations with other Dorset people.

Says Ken: “We have got a lot of great producers, be it farmers, the likes of Olives et Al, Moores. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been a fantastic exponent of rapeseed oil.”

For more information go to

First published by The Marshwood Vale Magazine May 2009

from an interview on Farm Radio

Monday, 20 April 2009

Fagin's Antiques, Devon

We have just spent a morning browsing round a rather interesting antiques emporium. On the hunt for an old oak refectory table, we went to Fagin's, at the old Whiteways Cider Factory at Hele, between Cullompton and Exeter.

This place is stuffed full of antiques - pine, oak, beech, all sorts of furniture, collectibles, memorabilia, taxidermy, bric-a-brac, architectural salvage- and junk, all over several floors.

It's worth a visit just to have a nose around this place which has grown like topsy from a market stall. But you won't find a bargain. On the top floor are musty old prints inside broken frames. The cost? About £20 each.

We found two tables that were suitable - one with a £700 price tag and another at £2,200. So we have decided to join together the two pine tables we already have, sand them down and put a dark stain on them.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Hugh's gaff, Axminster

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been running The Local Produce Store and Canteen in Axminster, Devon, for some time.

Up until now I've resisted entering its hallowed doors. I have a natural aversion to anything remotely 'celebrity' or 'popular'. And I have mixed feelings about the man who I once saw described in a holiday brochure as 'the one who put Dorset on the map' (wasn't that Thomas Hardy?) But when I learned that friends whose opinions I respect go there regularly for lunch, I felt a visit was probably overdue. Especially as the sustainable chef has just opened up a restaurant in Bath.

So Mr Grigg and I combined it with a trip to the Axminster Carpets factory shop where you can get top quality carpets at a fraction of their normal price. (The sale starts on April 25).

However, I digress. The store is in a large building in the centre of Axminster. It's full of local produce, much of it very expensive and aimed at those who would like to make their own but, for whatever reason, don't. As we already make and grow our own and have done for years, it was only the canteen part of Hugh's enterprise we were interested in. So we made our way to the back, a chapel to the industrial age with high ceilings, wrought iron beams with cobwebs in among the metalwork, and bricks and breeze blocks painted in cream and slate blue.

Chunky, purpose-built, rustic tables, with beer glasses containing fresh daffodils and surrounded by random old chairs occupy the room. You order at the bar where coffees and drinks are dispensed. Unlike the rather sniffy reviewer from The Telegraph, we didn't have a problem with this.

The service was cheerful, efficient and unobtrusive. The atmosphere was very relaxed.

But how about the food? A very simple blackboard menu had six choices of main course for lunch, plus a mushroom soup and Lyme Town Mill bread for £5. There was a choice of three puddings for between £6 and £7.

I chose the most glorious leek and goat's cheese spelt risotto, with Palestinian olive oil (£7). It was creamy, tasty and just the right amount. Mr Grigg went for the pan-fried pig's liver and bacon with three-root mash, greens and sage gravy (£10). His verdict? I didn't hear a word from him until he'd finished. 'Excellent,' he said as he put down his knife and fork.

This was washed down with a couple of bottles of Otter Beer (£3.50 each).

The prices were on a par with the pubs around these parts but the quality was far superior.

Yum, yum.