Today I was both cursing and loving rural north Oxfordshire. She gave of herself but she withheld something too.

We have been travelling along the Oxford canal both marveling at its relative remoteness, and enjoying it.IMG_6806 That remoteness though managed to thwart our plans for a productive working day. We got up bright and early, settled down at our computers but, horror of horrors, there was absolutely no connectivity.

Trusty Three had failed us. There was not even one bar of connectivity, not via Three, nor via Vodafone, nor via Lebara. We have three sim cards precisely so that we have guaranteed access to the internet and, therefore, the freedom to work. Well, in this instance, we HAD to get online, we had a Skype call scheduled so we had no option but to up stakes and push on along the canal. We put our modem in the hope that that a little way along the canal the ‘NO SERVICE’ words would disappear and we would be connected again. Didn’t happen.

So we carried on through a series of locks with me cursing rural north Oxfordshire in no uncertain terms. Until something caught my eye. I stopped cursing and bent over the unassuming plant that I’d spotted in the shadows next to the lock. Was it? Surely not. It couldn’t be! But it was: not one but a cluster of of blackcurrant bushes, their  stems groaning with fruit.

Suddenly I lost interest in the modem and was scrambling to pick as many of the blackcurrants as possible in the time it took for the lock to fill with water behind me. Thoughts of connectivity, or its lack, fled my mind. Now my focus was on cooking.  Would I make blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant jelly or bake with the blackcurrants?

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Last week I bought blackcurrants, strawberries and tayberries from the Cultivate Veg Van in Jericho in Oxford. At the time I had had fleeting thoughts that it would be nice to find berries growing along the canal. I made a blackcurrant and marscapone sauce which we spooned over the strawberries and tayberries. You’ll find the recipe here on Scarlet Bennett’s creative challenge blog.

Once we were back in the land of connectivity and had moored I took my place in the galley, Richard asked, surprised, “Aren’t you working?” “No,” I said firmly, “I’m cooking.”

All thoughts of a productive day working were out the window. Over the next hour or two, I transformed the blackcurrants into a deep, dark and delicious jelly– and marvelled at the infinite charms of rural north Oxfordshire.

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As usual I made the jelly according to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s always reliable recipe. Thank you, Hugh!

In summer there are many, and varied, delights to be found in and alongside the rivers of England.

I couldn’t help thinking about all the centuries of history that came before us as we cruised up and down the Lee Navigation and then up the River Thames. That it is likely that dugout canoes from the Bronze Age and Saxon barges once plied the River Lea and that Viking raiders slipped up the river in their longboats to pillage villages.

The Thames has been described as ‘liquid history’. There is evidence of human habitation on the banks of the Thames dating back to Neolithic times.  Bronze Age settlements and artefacts have been discovered along the banks of the river, while the Romans recognised the river’s strategic and economic importance.

These rivers carried armies and freight as well as being a source of food and water.

As delightful as it was to contemplate the centuries, no, millennia, that preceded Narrowboat Patience on these venerable waterways, my interest was less in marshaling my army of one up and down the river to capture a village and more in the food I might find along the way.

I came upon supermarkets galore and pubs aplenty but the truth is, I was really in search of  something just a bit more thrilling.

I’ve had  fun in the past collecting berries on the banks of the River Nene and making a delicious jelly, but it was too early in the year for berries. I wondered if we might find fields of wild garlic as we have also done in the past, but I remembered that that was in April, and this was June.

Then one day while while impatiently waiting for a lock to fill, I admired the profusion of wild flowers on the bank. There were starry elderflowers, bright yellow dandelions, creamy nettle buds and droopy purple comfrey flowers. DSCF0969 I wondered whether to pick some nettle leaves to make tea but I had no gloves and didn’t feel like risking the mean sting of the innocuous-looking serrated leaves. I thought about the medicinal value of comfrey, aka knit-bone, and remembered drinking comfrey tea with my sister, Penny, when she broke her neck.

I know you can eat dandelions but I have never done so and as much as I looked at them and admired their sunny beauty, I wasn’t entirely sure about turning them into a meal. I knew of course one could make elderflower cordial so I thought that might be an idea. And I had in the past made borage fritters. Was borage not some sort of relative of comfrey? Could I make comfrey fritters?

The lock filled, I opened the gates, Richard expertly piloted the boat in. I closed the gates and opened the paddles so that the lock would empty and abandoning my army of one in the lock, I made a mad dash back to the elder and comfrey plants and quickly gathered leaves and flowers.

Supper was sorted. A botanical fritto misto.

IMG_6105After a quick goole search I consulted Neil Cooks Grigson for his Comfrey Leaf Fritters and Nigel Slater for his elderflower fritter recipe. I used the Nigel Slater batter recipe pretty much as it was but added a teaspoon of my friend togarashi to the mix. And to serve I drizzled the fritters with a syrup made of elderflower cordial seasoned with togarashi. A delicious sweet and spicy supper which was enjoyed by my army of one — and me, of course.

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A scriptwriter’s life is very often governed by deadlines.

When a deadline looms,  life is put on hold and the universe shrinks to a keyboard and a pair of hands orbiting a brain. Scrabble games are interrupted, conversation dries up and, unsurprisingly, meals might be missed.

If you find yourself inhabiting such a universe, and you’re not the scriptwriter, I suggest you scamper into the kitchen and have a bit of solitary fun making a tasty supper suitable for the scriptwriter slaving away in the study. You might even find that a cook’s creativity can eclipse that of a scriptwriter.

I made a three part supper that consisted of:

A  salad of carrot and coriander with spicy mango chutney sunflower seeds

carrot salad

Georgian lobio, a staple in our family introduced to us by my sister Penny,  and based on Lesley Chamberlain’s recipe from The Food and Cooking of Russia.

Wikipedia says Lobio (Georgian: მჟავე ლობიო, also Lobio Nigozit) is a family of dishеs of various kinds of prepared beans (cooked or stewed), containing coriander, walnuts, garlic and onion, popular item in the cuisines of the South Caucasus nation of Georgia. There are many varieties of lobio, both hot and cold.’

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And fried haloumi

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Carrot and coriander salad with sunflower seeds

Ingredients

8o ml raw sunflower seeds

20 ml spicy mango chutney

2 large carrots

one bunch fresh coriander

juice of half a lemon

60 ml olive oil

salt and black pepper

Method

Heat a heavy bottomed pan  over moderately high heat and scatter the pan with the sunflower seeds.

Stir the seeds until they just start to brown. 

Add the spicy mango chutney to the pan, stirring constantly, until the liquid has evaporated and the seeds are sticky and nicely browned.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Separate the seeds in to little clusters.

Cut the carrots into ribbons with a Microplane Spiral Cutter.

Chop the coriander  and toss with the carrots.

Mix the lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper together and toss with the carrot and coriander mix.

Scatter with the sunflower seeds.

Lobio (my inauthentic version)

Ingredients

2 large onions chopped

4 bay leaves

15 ml black pepper corns

5 ml togarashi seasoning (forgive me, the real recipe calls for chili)

80 ml tomato paste

30 ml honey

30 ml cider vinegar

2 x tins red kidney beans

Method

Fry the onions in oil until soft and translucent.

Add all the other ingredients except the kidney beans and simmer until nicely combined.

Add the drained kidney beans and some water (as needed) and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the beans are heated through and all the flavors have amalgamated.

Serve at room temperature.

Fried haloumi

The trick here is not in the cooking but somehow managing to by a brand of haloumi that doesn’t melt into one gigantic disc in the frying pan. In South Africa, the Woolworths brand is good. Here in the UK I haven’t had any problems. The type I bought for this recipe released quite a bit water but it evaporated and as you can see turned out crisp and golden.

Method

Cut the haloumi into 7mm slices and pat dry with a paper towel. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan – either non-stick or a heavy bottomed one. Fry the haloumi over a moderate heat turning a couple of time until golden and crisp.

P.S. I’m just sneaking this in while the cook is planning tomorrow’s menu. The sunflower seed salad came as a total shock and delight to my senses. RJB