Pickled Mirabelles

They are taking over. Sorry fresh veggies, butter, bacon and milk, you are now living on borrowed time. This is the age of the jars and they have decreed that there won’t be enough space for you in the fridge for much longer. Pretty soon there will be a jar in every gap, every shelf, in the drawers and in the doors and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

It used to be, in our refrigerator, that our top shelf was for preserves, the middle shelf for dairy, the bottom shelf for meat and the drawers for veg. When I say casually that lately we seem to have acquired quite a lot of chutneys, relishes, jams, marmalades, pickles, fruit butters, ketchups, mustards, chilli sauce, sriracha, hoisin, horseradish, mint sauce… well, you get my drift. Basically it’s out of control. Our vast array of jarred goods are now happily commandeering every single shelf in our fridge. So much so that I have banned myself from doing any further food shopping until we have started to finish off some of the contents of those jars. It’s easier said than done as every little jar has its own special purpose in our kitchen. Whether it’s my chinese damson sauce for my duck summer rolls or my blackberry butter for my blackberry crumble bars or even my mango chutney which I like to dollop a small amount of into my curries, so they are all needed, constantly used and enjoyed.

Pickled Mirabelles

The worst thing is that yesterday, I added another jar to the fridge so really I might as well forego proper meals completely and just dig into the horseradish with a spoon and call it lunch.

These pickled mirabelles had been stored safely away in the larder until yesterday, sealed, where they could have been left undisturbed for another ten months at least. We made them weeks ago when the allotment man at Ally Pally farmers’ market had kilos and kilos of them for sale for a few weeks running – back when it was Mirabelle season presumably. They are from the plum family in case you don’t know them and I’m sorry to say I had never heard of them until this year. They can most commonly be found in Lorraine in France but these ones were from Essex. They are yellow, tiny and particularly sweet and juicy. They do make, by all accounts, a very lovely jam, but we wanted to do something different with them.

Pickled Mirabelles

For some reason I had become convinced I needed to pickle some fruits. I had eaten pickled gooseberries as part of a cheese board at a local restaurant and was up for pickling anything small sweet and round. When we brought a kilo of mirabelles home from the farmers’ market they seemed to be ideal for the purpose. I hadn’t pickled fruit before so I followed a recipe I knew was guaranteed to be delicious as it came from the kitchen of Diana Henry from her Salt, Sugar, Smoke cookbook ,which really must be one of my favourite cookbooks of all time. It was a simple recipe to follow as well, one of those assembly type affairs where you more or less put everything in a saucepan, bring to the boil for a few minutes then decant into jars. Really, the best kind of preserving. She used her pickling recipe for cherries but I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work for our mirabelles.

Pickled Mirabelles

I can very smugly say I was completely correct. They are golden and jewel like in the jar, and when you remove them they sparkle in the October sunshine making them look utterly irresistible. They taste sweet with just a touch of sourness which makes them absolutely ideal with cheese or cold meats. They do have a small stone in the middle though so you must be careful when you pop them in your mouth that you don’t break your tooth. Yesterday, when I found an errant jar of the mirabelles in the larder I remembered that not only had I not blogged about them (shame on me) but I was thrilled that they would be ideal with the ham salad I was about to eat for my lunch. So out they came and now they have been opened, they have joined the rest of their condiment comrades in the fridge.

I wasn’t content with just pickling my mirabelles but also had a go at doing the same with some grapes with the syrup which was leftover and then when I still had some more leftover syrup after that I pickled the original cherries but added a dash of amaretto. I haven’t tasted those yet, they are still for now in the larder where they could safely reside until our Christmas cheeseboard. Something tells me though they won’t last until Halloween as I’m now working my way through these mirabelles at an alarming pace. It’s safe to say that it doesn’t look like our fridge is going to be back in use any time soon.

Pickled Mirabelles

Pickled Mirabelles
Adapted from Diana Henry’s ‘Cerises au Vinegar’ in Salt Sugar Smoke

1 kg mirabelles
600ml cider vinegar
½ cinnamon stick
900g granulated sugar
4 cloves
¼ tsp nutmeg

  1. Prick each Mirabelle with a cocktail stick so the fruit doesn’t split in the pan, the place in a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 4 minutes.
  3. Take off the heat and remove the mirabelles with a slotted spoon, decanting into sterilised jars.
  4. Place the syrupy vinegar back onto the heat then bring back to a boil and keep at a rolling boil for about 10 minutes until the syrup reduces slightly. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
  5. Once cooled, spoon the syrup into the jars with the mirabelles until filled and seal.
  6. If there is any vinegar syrup left over then decant into a separate bottle and use for salad dressings.

Skopolos

I can only apologise for my tardiness in posting lately. I have been away but I felt the wrench of leaving my blog behind nearly as much as it pained me to say goodbye to my three little monsters for a week. However, it was generally decreed that we all needed a jolly good holiday. Willow and Wesley went south to be puppy-free where they could play with their toys to their hearts’ content at my mother’s in Berkshire and Billy Buddy went in the opposite direction to my in-laws to spend the week on the canals of Cambridgeshire. Meanwhile, before any of our parents could change their mind and demand their money back we hightailed it to the nearest airport and boarded a plane for the remote Greek island of Skopolos.

It has been over a year since our last holiday, our much talked about adventure in the deep south of America, but this year has been so busy that we craved the complete opposite of that experience. My husband has been sweating it out in the unrelenting demands of a job in the city and ever since I quit working as a TV producer last year I have been toiling to carve out the rewarding existence I had promised myself. The addition of Billy Buddy to our household was the final piece of lego to turn our lives back to front and upside down. Stroud Green Larder and Billy have given my days a fulfilling and haphazard structure but loving what you do so entirely means that it’s sometimes too hard to take a break.

The past few months I have been dreaming of white-washed buildings, cobblestones underfoot, awe-inspiring vistas, the crystal clarity of the azure ocean but most importantly, a pool, a Kindle chock full of the pulpiest material and gin and tonics on tap.

It’s a bit of trek to Skopolos, our taxi collected us from North London at 1.30am to take us to Gatwick. The early hour was only made bearable by a very chatty cabbie who was giving us all the gossip of his celebrity passengers; Gary Barlow – miserable, Michael Barrymore – horrendously drunk, Nadine from Girls Aloud – the most normal of the band, Jude Law – a top notch bloke.

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The flight to Skiathos in Greece is only 3 hours, but then you taxi it down to the port and then jump on the catamaran to the neighbouring island of Skopolos. Due to lack of sleep and then plane delays which meant we had to hang around on the runway for an age and then missed our catamaran connection, the journey felt as torturous as the time I was forced to watch the extended cut of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. By the time we had dragged our rental car up the vertical incline of the Skopolos mountains to reach our villa nestled in olive trees we were fit to drop. And we did, directly into our pool’s embrace, not to emerge for the whole week.

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You may not have heard of Skopolos but you may have seen it as it was the prime location for Mamma Mia. Luckily the island has mostly survived unscathed by the experience, the only impact this had on us was that we had a great game location- spotting on our various trips out. Now I don’t like Abba music at all, which is strange as I am not at all discerning in my music tastes. However, I do love the film due to its sheer cheeriness, and the best scene without question is Meryl Streep’s fabulously over the top performance of The Winner Takes it All and her utter commitment to wresting such unbridled emotion from every single lyric as she’s flinging her arms and her shawl about on the stone cragged steps leading up to her daughter’s scenic wedding chapel.

The chapel of Agios Ioannis, where this scene was filmed, is considered the ultimate in tourist destinations, and was so even before the film. Our visit was purely magical and not just because of its location where waves crash wickedly beneath the plummeting steps carved steeply into the rock, but because of what we found at the top. It was a surprise as we were struggling up the perilous incline when a be-suited and flustered man tore down the stone stairway, nearly sending us to our doom, followed in hot pursuit by a blonde beauty in a scarlet dress and high heels giggling about what a hurry they were in. I mean I was struggling in my trainers, how she ran down the steps in her skyscrapers without plunging into the sea is absolutely commendable. It soon became apparent when we climbed the last few steps what their hurry was as a bride was looking on bemused at the commotion, tucked behind a flour white wall before her grand entrance, as her maid of honour and the best man raced to fetch the forgotten wedding rings, 100m below in the car.

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It was there then that we witnessed the most romantic wedding I have ever been to. A delicate aisle made from white gauze set the scene just outside the matchbox sized chapel, as high as the clouds, where ribbons breezily hung from a stooped tree as the sun set in the background of this most intimate of gatherings. It made Mamma Mia seem like a circus show. The wedding party were delightfully tolerant of the cluster of five or six tourists lolling about discreetly, snapping away at their special moment.

Now, I am very fortunate that I am a cat lover. Or cat obsessive, whatever. If I were to live in a sci-fi novel then I would definitely like to live on a planet of cats and Greece does not have that long to go before that sci-fi sitch is made a reality. There are cats ev-er-ry-where, which was quite honestly brilliant! Our villa even came with 3 cats, a little kitten whom we christened Jessop before we had even got out of the car on day one, her pregnant mum, Penny and her Dad Agamemnon, named just because we were in Greece – we weren’t much more imaginative than that. There were cats weaving in and out of your legs as you ate your meals in courtyard restaurants, there were cats sleeping on stone steps, doorways, shop windows and street benches. The local cats are known to all the residents and we were given a running commentary on all the cats in one bar we went to, one particular cat that slunk by was singled out for being a ‘bad cat.’ When we enquired as to why we were told that he liked to bite the other cats. A bad cat indeed. Since our return we are contemplating putting Willow and Welsey on diets. Our fat lazy housecats seem quite at odds with the felines we have been frolicking with all week, when I first saw Wes I thought he had been eaten by yogi bear so ginormous he seemed in comparison.

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Like many travellers I like to go on holiday to eat, but probably more so than most as I am horribly greedy. Greek food is a little hit and miss. I have had excellent Greek food in the past, but the problem is that a lot of places we went to were offering very lazy versions of moussaka, stifado and kleftiko. However, there were a few dishes which stood out. One of the specialities of Skopolos is the Skopolos cheese pie, a curl of filo pastry stuffed with thick molten cheese, easy to get very wrong I should imagine depending on where you order it. It sounded so intriguing though and I am thankful that I tried it at Anna’s, a lovely courtyard restaurant swaddled within the twisty stone streets of Skopolos Town where pomegranate trees plump with fruit droop becomingly over your table. The Skopolos cheese pie I ate there was studded with strawberries and graced with almonds. The crisp of the pastry contrasted delightfully with its soft oozing interior.

This was not the only time where I appreciated the art of filo and surprisingly I ate a most delicious minced meat pie from a tiny bolthole in Skiathos on our stop through whilst journeying home. It was so simple but the pastry was crunchy around the soft meat and chewy at the edges. I rarely cook with filo and this is definitely something I will rectify on my return.

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Skopolos is rightly very proud of their plum trees which are prevalent throughout the island, so in turn you cannot open a menu without seeing plums or prunes paired with some sort of roasted meat. The best example of this was at Angelo’s Restaurant in the harbor of Skopolos Town where I was served meltingly tender goat with fat plums, perfectly cooked rice and two fist sized roast potatoes. I am terrible as I love the Greek habit of serving rice with white potato, for some reason this carby combination is one of my creature comforts and this was easily my favourite, if not the most sophisticated, meal I ate on the island.

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I am always inspired by the local ingredients on holiday and like to stay in my own villa if I can so I can experiment. The cooking is just as fun as going out to restaurants, working from a limited larder where the focus of your cooking is sharpened. I made a stew of cinnamon chicken, a celebration of the best produce Skopolos had to offer – with large juicy prunes and richly fragrant honey. I used chicken in my version as we ate a lot of red meat out at the restaurants and I was looking for something that night a little lighter. If I were to make it at home, I would make it with chicken thighs which are more flavourful and probably lose the sausage but if you are working with chicken breast which is a lot leaner then the sausage gives the dish a bit of oomph to brazen out the sweetness of the sauce.

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The Greek Salad at Angelo’s

One of the most refreshing things about the restaurant menus on Skopolos, besides telling you exactly which dish was made from frozen produce, was the wide and varied range of salads on offer. They are given their own section, they are not only served at lunchtime and they are celebrated just as much as any other dish on the menu. We always included a salad with every meal we ate, which some of the restaurants found a bit odd as we would order it alongside our main dishes which is not really the done thing. We also made sure we ate at least one Greek salad every day. There was one fateful day where we ate it twice, but that was considered a touch too far in the feta aftermath. The Greek salads you get in Greece are worlds away from any Greek salad you could possibly make at home. The reason is simple, you just cannot get Mediterranean tomatoes in the UK. It’s the unabashed heat of the roasting sun which ripens the tomatoes on the vine which give the fruit its flavour and polytunnels in the Isle of Wight just do not do the same job. The flesh is soft and warm without any hint of fluffiness and the juice inside is sweet and luscious. The cucumbers are remarkably unseedy with firmly rippled emerald skins and tight bodies. If you are going to make a Greek salad at home, purchase the best feta you can find which crumbles to the touch, choose the tomatoes which have travelled to your farmers’ market the least distance and ugly organic cucumbers which are far superior to their slimy supermarket counterparts. The addition of honey and cinnamon to the dressing is not authentic but once I cheekily included the honey first time round it brought such a rich forest flavour direct from the mountains of Skopolos that I couldn’t bring myself not to include it every time. The cinnamon I snuck in just because it turns out that at the moment I can’t bear to prepare any meal without a pinch of the auburn spice to add a pep of warming sweetness and Greek cinnamon is quite wonderful.

We eat a lot of tzatziki at home, the version noted below is a little different to the one I normally prepare where I usually grate the cucumber and add a touch of coriander and plenty of mint. In Skopolos though mint is swapped out for dill and it makes the dish taste entirely different but just as delicious. The tzatziki we were treated to in restaurants were punched through with handfuls of garlic to complement the accompanying herb and fish roe fritters which we ate in the beautiful Agnanti restaurant in Glossa or the flowers stuffed with rice and spices which we ate in great mounds at the restaurant of Molos on the harbor of Skopolos.

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Skopolos Tzatziki

200g greek yoghurt
¼ cucumber, finely diced
2 tbsp finely chopped dill
2 garlic cloves, crushed
a pinch of sugar

Mix all the ingredients together with plenty of seasoning and serve.

Cinnamon chicken with prunes and honey
Serves 2

1 chicken breast
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
120g pork sausage
1 glass white wine
1 tbsp honey
10 prunes, stones removed and chopped
Plenty of seasoning.

  1. Dice the chicken, then sprinkle with seasoning and cinnamon and set aside whilst you begin cooking the dish.
  2. Place the olive oil in a large saucepan and bring up to heat. Add the onion and garlic and sweat them gently until just turning translucent.
  3. Add the cinnamon chicken and the sausage and stir together until the chicken begins to brown.
  4. Splash in the white wine, turning up the heat to middling. Then add the honey, prunes and some more seasoning.
  5. Toss everything together then simmer for 10 minutes until the prunes are plump and the honey has melted.
  6. Serve with rice or a simple Greek salad.

Greek Salad
Serves 2

100g feta, crumbled
2 good sized tomatoes, diced
¼ cucumber, diced
¼ red onion, finely sliced
1 tsp honey
A pinch of cinnamon
Squeeze of lemon juice
A generous tablespoon of olive oil

Don’t be shy with this salad, chop your ingredients heartily and mix it all together with abandon.