A weekend at two harvest festivals, Alex James in Oxfordshire and Jimmys in Suffolk, was full of small exhilarating moments, some slightly nerve wrecking, others of great joy.
I travelled with Mark Hannell, ex-Ottolenghi currently-NOPI chef, with the unclear position of companion / assistant / sous / big spoon.
Our drive from London to Oxforshire on a serene Saturday morning was going so smoothly that we just had to manufacture some drama. Waiting for two and half minutes for the coveted blue wristbands (VIP!), allowing you to roam freely in the grounds, threw Mark into a fit of rage.
Here is Mark, livid at having to wait at the gates:
And then, finally, the desired bands:
Then, some real drama. We are sat sipping wine minutes before our demo on the big stage, with screens and other paraphernalia all around, when earlier demonstrator, Nuno Mendes of Viajnte
, (pictured below with Gee, the back stage manager) blurts something about having to bring all his ingredients with him from London. A shiver down the spine, a violent bout of cold sweat, a tight knot in the stomach... Ingredients? What ingredients? And Mark and I are marching/running/sprinting towards the back stage, arriving breathless with pleading grins: Gee, Gee, Ingredients? Maybe?
“Oh, it’s all been sorted out hours ago, of course”, says the annoyingly chilled Gee. Pheeeww.....
The rest went smoothly and delightfully. I cooked couscous, a seafood stew and fennel with soft goat’s cheese (recipes below), the audience seemed happy, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
featured prominently, Richard Corrigan tried kicking me off the stage and Mark even got an autograph request (he’ll never hear the end of it from fellow NOPI-chefs)
Fat Freddys Drop
were brilliant on stage and dinner at The Chefs Table with the festival team, Jay Rayner
and Ravinder Bhogal
was delicious, even if I was (arguably) responsible for some of the dishes.
The next morning we were at Jimmy’s where there was no drama, real or made-up, just a perfect peaceful festival atmosphere, mostly blue skies and a loving crowd. Couldn’t ask for more!
Green couscous (adapted from my book Plenty)
100g fregola (giant couscous)
170ml boiling water or vegetable stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
50g shelled unsalted pistachios, toasted and roughly chopped
3 spring onions, finely sliced
1 fresh green chilli, finely sliced
80g rocket leaves
Grated zest of 2 lemons
3 tbsp chopped mint
2 tbsp chopped tarragon
2 tbsp chopped dill
120ml olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Place the fregola in a pan of boiling salted water (1 tablespoon of salt per litre) and simmer for 18 minutes or until aldente (this may vary according to brand). Drain into a colander and run under plenty of cold water. Leave to dry completely.
Place the couscous in a large bowl, cover with the boiling water or stock and drizzle with half the olive oil. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave for 5–10 minutes. Use a fork to fluff up and then stir in the cooked fregola.
Meanwhile, fry the onion in the remaining olive oil on medium heat until golden and completely soft, 10-15 minutes. Add ½ a teaspoon of salt and the cumin and mix well. Leave to cool slightly.
Next, make the herb paste by placing all the ingredients in a food processor and blitzing until smooth. Add this to the couscous and fregola and mix everything together. Add the cooked onion, the pistachios, spring onions, green chilli and rocket and gently mix. Taste, add salt if needed and serve at room temperature.
Tiger prawns, scallops and clams with tomato and feta
250ml white wine
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
600g peeled and chopped Italian plum tomatoes (fresh or tinned)
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
200g tiger prawns, peeled and de-vained
200g large scallops, cleaned
120g feta, broken into chunks
3 spring onions, thinly sliced
Salt and black pepper
Place the wine in a medium saucepan and reduce to 1 quarter. Add the clams, cover immediately with a lid, and cook for about 2 minutes, shaking occasionally, until the clams open. Transfer to a fine sieve to drain, keeping the cooking juices. Remove the clams out of their shells, keeping just a few in the shells to finish the dish.
Set the oven to 220ºC.
Cook the garlic in the oil for about a minute, until golden. Carefully add the tomatoes, clam liquids, sugar, oregano and some salt and pepper. Shave off 3 lemon skin strips, add them and simmer gently until the sauce thickens well, about 20-25 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper accordingly.
Add the prawns and scallops, stir gently and cook for just a minute or two. Fold in the shelled clams and transfer everything to a small ovenproof dish. Sink feta pieces inside the sauce and sprinkle with spring onion. Top with some clams in their shells and place in the oven for 3-5 minutes, until the top colours a little and prawns and scallops are just cooked.
Remove the dish from the oven, squeeze a little lemon juice on top and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.
Caramelised fennel with goat’s curd and fennel seeds (from my book Plenty)
4 small fennel heads
40g unsalted butter
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 garlic clove, crushed
50g dill, roughly chopped
140g goat’s curd or a young and creamy goat’s cheese such as rosary
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
Start by preparing the fennel bulbs. First take off the leafy fronds and keep them for garnish. Then slice off some of the root part and remove any tough or brown outer layers, making sure the base still holds everything together. Cut each bulb lengthways into 1-1½cm thick slices.
Melt half the butter and half the oil in a large frying pan placed over high heat. When they start to foam add one layer of sliced fennel. Do not overcrowd the pan and don’t turn the fennel over or stir it around in the pan until one side has become light golden, about 2 minutes. Turn the slices over, using kitchen tongs, and cook for a further minute or two. Remove from the pan. Continue with the rest of the fennel using up the remaining butter and oil. Once the entire fennel has been seared, add sugar, fennel seeds and plenty of salt and pepper to the pan. Fry for 30 seconds and then stir the fennel slices back into the pan, caramelising them gently for 1-2 minutes (they need to remain hard inside so just allow them to coat in the melting sugar and seeds). Remove the fennel from the pan and leave to cool down on a plate.
To serve, toss the fennel in a bowl along with the garlic and dill. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Arrange on a serving plate, dotting with spoonfuls of goat’s curd. Finish with a drizzle of oil, scatter with lemon zest and garnish with the fennel fronds. Serve at room temperature.