Saturday, 31 July 2010


I have recently established quite a neat relationship with one wonderful little organic farm down in Hampshire. Rother Valley and I have developed a mutually beneficial friendship, where I try to, let's say, assist with potential business, and they, in turn, supply me - for a fee of course - with a glory of organic meat. The farm specialises in pure Aberdeen Angus beef - soulful, compact cows with melancholic eyes - but they also link up with farms around, that provide other meats - chicken, pork, lamb - as well as game.

An Aberdeen Angus

I use them, however - and I mean use - to source those weird and wonderful things, that most of their clients don't want, but for which I have space in my heart and belly - offal, really fatty or chewy parts. So far I have had pig trotters, pork belly, ox tongue; have also tried to buy brains and cows feet but with less luck. Sam, who runs the show at Rother Valley, has once wondered if I 'was making a Frankenstein'..

Last week it was the turn of sweetbreads. What a bizarre name for an equally bizarre part of a body. The thyroid and the thymus of a young sheep or a calf that has apparently acquired its name because of its mild, sweet flavour (the bread is an old English word for flesh). I find there is almost something sexy about the name, an image of a young wholesome wench in Swiss Alpes with jugs of creamy milk springs into mind..

I have wanted to try cooking sweetbreads for some time now, and then Rother Valley agreed to deliver a handful of these little breads to me for free, I had to act quickly - they really do taste better as fresh as a daisy (that Swiss maid obviously still lingers in my mind).

How to prepare sweetbreads:

1. put them into a bowl of cold water and leave to soak for good 2-3 hours.

Sweetbreads a la naturel, just before soaking

2. Bring a saucepan of water to boil, put your sweetbreads into it, turn down to simmer and poach for 3-5 minutes.

Sweetbreads cooked, shrivelled

3. Prepare a bowl of iced water and plunge the cooked breads into it for a couple of minutes. Take them out and take off the outer layer, which is like a thin see-through leather. Dispose that and any grisly or fatty bits.

4. Dust the breads in a little of seasoned flour and fry them quickly (2-3 minutes each side) in a pan with plenty of butter. They should be crispy on the outside and delicate and fluffy on the inside. they go beautifully with more robust flavours, such as bacon.

Fried sweetbreads with bacon

The picture above is rather pathetic, I know, but the result was quite moorish (although to my taste the sweetbreads came out a bit too mealy - overcooked I think).

This is how sweetbreads are supposed to look.

Sweetbreads with pea puree and bacon (photo thanks to

I would suggest wrapping smaller pieces of sweetbreads in bacon, perhaps with some buttered sage and serving them fried, with a little toast, as zakuski, with shots of chilled, but not frozen vodka.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

On breaking fast and making roots

I have always admired nomads. Those wondrous soles, with no ties or attachments, who glide through the world with a quiet excitement in their eye and melancholy in their heart. But I am not one of them. I am one of us, one of you. Gliding feels like falling down most of the time to me, despite of its dream-like appeal. I have lately started to lay down roots, making out my own territory.

My parents had travelled thousands of miles from warm and boisterous Ukraine to cool and composed Estonia, on a whim, because they were painfully drawn to the 'otherness' of Tallinn - its cobbled streets, understated beauty of its architecture and unparalleled in communism cafe culture. I did the same, all those years ago, on a really cold November day, I packed up and went - spontaneity doesn't really describe what happened - only to find myself a dozen years later, here, perching on a little pretty patio; savouring the delights from lands far away, as if an observer, watching my roots slowly hushing down..

My little Eden (to be)

We have bought a place - an adorable and slightly wanky flat with a shy little garden that has its own mini Cyprus tree (perhaps I subconsciously got drawn to this place because of all the years I spent in Crimea adoring these giant pointy trees). I have never had a garden before and so got terribly paranoid about the loudly speaking neighbours next door, booming music coming from another house, crows doing their crowing business too noisily too early in the morning. A princess sleeping on a little pea, what can I say...

Breakfast of local goodies

But it did get better the morning that I opened my garden doors, quite early in the morning - everyone around us still seemed asleep - brought a big mug of milky coffee with me and sat down on the steps, just as I was, wearing an oversized man's shirt and clutching my Guardian (which has became 'mine' over the years of living with J...funny how those delicate paws of roots get working...).

The area where we live is full of Greek, Turkish and Eastern-European shops (and they will certainly be a theme of many more of my future posts), and so my brunch that morning was an homage, a toast, to all those people who, just like me, packed up their bags and moved.

Grilled halloumi cheese
Toasted French sourdough bread
Chickpeas with parsley, lemon and Cyprus olive oil
Mixed salad of overgrown tomatoes, cucumbers, dill and parlsey
A few lovingly hot peppers Aci Biber

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Pirita market - sweet thorns

Don’t I like contradictions…for those who’ve read my latest melancholic musings about the disappearance of the farmers’ markets in Estonia, here is a cheery note – the market ‘scene’ in Tallinn is far from dying.

Those little cutsey creatures (for I often think of these local bazaars, full of characters and beautifully obscure products, as living beings, say playful cats that both comfort you with their foodie murrrs and make you work by demanding time and effort) pop up here and there like early autumn mushrooms, quite spontaneously, randomly organised, but all the more charming for their teasing behaviour. I encountered one such market - a small cluster of wooden stalls that I had not come across before - in the seaside area of Tallinn, Pirita.

Convent of St Birgitta, Tallinn. photo thanks to Dennis@stromness

Pirita is a solemn stretch of sand, colour of melted ice-cream, framed by pine trees and prickly undergrowth (not many things I miss in my self-imposed migration, but these foresty beaches with cool waters, so shallow and calm that they look like antic mirrors). I paint a serene picture, but Pirita is also an intensely popular area of the capital for youngests to ‘hand out’, for families to bring their off-spring, for tourists to wonder off (Pirita was the place where the Olympic games of the 1980s took place, the water game part, so it is still full of yachts, sport 'complexes' and tanned young men running fast).

Estonian forrests by the sea

The tiny market was right by the side of the road, backed up by the imposing ruins of the medieval Birgitta monastery on one side, stylish houses on another, and a forest on the third.

I saw a little stall selling tiny local strawberries in self-made paper baskets, good bread, seasonal veg – not all from nearby talus, smallholdings, but perfection is boring. My heart jumped when I saw a whole stall dedicated to sea buckthorn - a little orange berry, that used to be prevalent throughout Northern Europe, but is now in real short supply in the UK, although still in abundance in Estonia.

All things sea buckthorny at a local market

A young man was selling jams, juices, nectars, what looked like pollen for sprinkling on cereal and lots of other creations – all made from this curiously sweet and tart berry, the flavour reminiscent of an apricot, but somehow…muddier, the texture more sticky. The flavour that makes you work, a reference to Marmite is difficult to avoid (those who watched the latest serious of the Great British Menu will recall the look of disgust on the judges faces, including – impossible, I know – Matthew Fort’s. The chef who dared to used it for his dessert was Nathan Outlaw in his sea buckthorn curd meringue).

I have tried sea buckthorn jam with cold cuts of pork, or on a toasted slice of rye bread with my morning brew, mixed with cottage cheese and almonds. With venison it would be delectable.

I am yet to try the juice though. I have a bottle of this clone-ish orange nectar in my cupboard, ready for the next party. I’m planning to mix it with something sparkling and lots of crushed ice, mint should go well.

Have any ideas for my sea buckthorn juice? Let me know, and I’ll report once tried.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Russian trains and Russian tongues

Foreigners in Russia almost always note one peculiarity about Russians’ travelling habits – Russkis take food, home-made food, pretty much wherever they go.

Inside a Russian train (a more luxury version). Photo thanks to Tatters:) at

Trains in particular are a sight of numerous feasts. Soviet trains are of course like nothing else in the world – almost double the width of their European compatriots, snail-speed slow but wonderfully public (which may or may not be to your liking - ‘platzkart’ being the most common type of a carriage – no doors, just 6 bunks of beds in each row and a little table in between. I remember long strands of white sheets hanging off the top beds as if to make a little self-made alcove, to allow women to change clothes. It all seemed so much fun then…not because of changing women of course...although this might have been fun now..hmm, sorry, back to trains).

Food in Russian trains. Photo thanks to streats.files.wordpress

A common scene encountered on those long, clickety train journeys would be families, babushkas, young ladies – all taking out their carefully wrapped goody bags, laying them out on tables in between the rows of bunk beds, sharing these ‘products’ with their fellow compartment comrades. These offerings, which could include anything from stacks of buterbrody (open sandwiches) to home-pickled gherkins and full blown hot meals, always had to have some hard-boiled eggs. I still remember their very characteristic smell whifting through the carriages, the sound of spoons clattering in tall glasses with dark tea, quiet cluckering of women over their offspring…

Recently I have re-created – ish – these childhood memories on my way from London to Tallinn, Estonia – the motherland, as I sometimes refer to it. This was the kind of upgraded version of the old Russian train-food experience:

Location – Stansted airport, waiting lounge

People – common human crowd all around, a good – Russian – friend next shoulder

Food – Chilled ox tongue (home-made), gherkins, rye bread (Waitrosely good), forgettebly named Russian chocolate

Drink – ex-yoghurt 100ml* plastic bottles filled with red wine and half and half wine and vodka

Feasting at Stansted airport, London a la russe

We had a blast. Gorging on all this beautiful – rather odorous – food right in the middle of, basically, a massive shopping meal, brightly lit as a hospital, it was especially enjoyable because of all the misunderstanding looks grazing, oops, glancing at us. The smell of garlic, which the tongue was packed with, and alcohol, followed by the sounds of cucumbers plopping in our mouths and us talking increasingly loudly, made – I’m sure – for an amusing and rather annoying sight.

Bring on the socialist order (a Conservative-Communist coalition anyone?)! These people have not tried the real publico-social method of travelling – or eating.


If you would like to simulate (it can be just that of course – the real thing is at least 3 hours flight away, and some 20 years ago perhaps), then here’s the recipe for the Ox Tongue that we have so successfully consumed amongst the capitalist consumerism of the London airport:

Cooked Ox Tongue

Cooked ox tongue, post ice-water treatment

1 ox tongue (they usually weight about 700-1000 gramms)

garlic liberally

bayleaves + peppercorns

1. They look huge, scary and unpleasant - hold the disbelief. Put in a large saucepan, cover with cold water. Once start boiling, take off the scum (but don't bother too much), then add a couple of bay leaves and 5-10 peppercorns.

2. Simmer for 1.5-2 hours

3. Prepare a large bowl full of ice and cold water. Plunge the cooked tongue into water and keep it there for a couple of minutes.

4. Take out and peel off the outer skin. You'll see, it comes off like a banana skin. The tongue will instantly look that much more appealing.

5. Cool a bit more if necessary, so that you can handle it with hands. In the meantime, slice thinly 2-3 gloves of garlic.

6. Make short, shallow cuts randomly across the tongue, so that you can insert slivers of garlic into these holes. Don't matter, how and when, just pack'em up!

7. Place the tongue onto a flat-ish plate, find something heavy to press it with. I normally put another plate on top, to cover the tongue, and then a saucepan full of water - some careful balancing is required.

8. Chill in a fridge over night.

9. When taken out, the tongue will be flat and ready to be gorged on. Slice it thinly, add horseradish, pickled, bread, and vodka, of course, and you are ready to go.

Train or no train.

* for those far from London - bigger containers are not allowed to bring into British airports for ‘security reasons’.