ArchiveJuly 2018

The Currants are in….

The Currant and Berry garden here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School is bursting with ripe, juicy organic fruit and so are the Farmers Markets. Check out the Country Markets too and try to find chemical free fruit if at all possible. We can no longer say that we don’t know the damage that pesticides and herbicides are doing to our health and the environment….

So let’s make the most of these few weeks, sadly because strawberries are available from January to December as are raspberries, they are no longer considered quite the treat they were. Neither do they generate the excitement they used to, that’s unless they are the naturally smaller, intensely flavoured home-grown berries from your garden. When you taste one of these you remember or discover what they can taste like, although the dry conditions this year made it really challenging. In this column I’m going to concentrate on currants, black, white and red…

The latter can also be found in the shops pretty much year round coming in from as far away as Peru all over the world but black and white currants are a rarer treat as are gooseberries. Blackcurrant fool is one of my all-time favourite puddings made in minutes, sublime made with freshly picked currants but also pretty good made with frozen berries. All the currants freeze brilliantly so buy as much as you can and freeze them in convenient amounts. Don’t bother to string them, just shake the bags when they are frozen and all the strings will fall off. I discovered this a few years ago when I was too busy to string the currants before they went into the freezer….

Red and white currants have a deliciously sweet flavour and are very high in pectin so are excellent for jams or jellies. Redcurrant jelly is super versatile; use it to glaze tarts, to serve with pâtés or terrines, as a base for Cumberland sauce, good with lamb and a glazed ham too. I love this recipe for redcurrant jelly, a real gem that gives me double value from each batch of redcurrants. I use the redcurrant pulp, left over from the jelly making process to make a redcurrant bakewell slice or to add to strawberry jam to enhance the pectin content. Also delicious sugared on this frosted redcurrant and lemon verbena cake. White currants can be used in similar recipes – they too, make a sublime white currant jelly, which I particularly love, with a soft goat’s cheese and rocket or purslane leaves. White currants are also enchanting frosted.
This Blackcurrant and Rose Geranium Slice can be a pudding or an irresistible nibble to enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.

Try poached blackcurrants with beetroot and duck breast, it’s a surprisingly good combination and best of all sprinkle them onto softly whipped cream in a meringue roulade. The tartness of the currants makes a perfect foil for the sweetness of the meringue and last but not least, if you have a few currants left over make some blackcurrant whiskey for Christmas, a delectable recipe from Darina Allen’s Irish Traditional Cooking, which I will include in a another column.

Duck Breast with Beetroot, Blackcurrant and Dahlia Salad


Beetroot and blackcurrant are as surprisingly good combination – they complement the duck deliciously

Serves 4-6


4 duck breasts

extra virgin olive oil

red wine vinegar

flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Beetroot, Blackcurrant and Dahlia Salad (see recipe below)

flat parsley

First make the Beetroot, Blackcurrant and Dahlia Salad, see below.

Fifteen minutes or more before cooking, score the fat on the duck breasts in a criss-cross pattern.  Season on both sides with salt and allow to sit on a wire rack.

When ready to cook, dry the duck breasts with a clean tea towel or kitchen paper.

Put fat side down on a cold pan-grill, turn on the heat to low and cook slowly for 15-20 minutes, or until the fat has rendered and the duck skin is crisp and golden.

Flip over and cook for a couple of minutes, or transfer to a preheated moderate oven, 180C/Gas Mark 4, until cooked to medium rare or medium, 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the duck breasts.  Allow to rest for 5 minutes or more.

Put a portion of the beetroot, blackcurrant and dahlia salad. Thinly slice, cut or dice (8mm), the duck breasts and arrange or scatter on top.  Sprinkle with sprigs of flat parsley and dahlia petals.

Add a few flakes of sea salt and serve.

Beetroot, Blackcurrant and Dahlia Salad

Such an obvious combination but one I hadn’t tried until I tasted it in Sweden. We already love the marriage of raspberries and beetroot. This recipe can be served as a starter or an accompanying salad.

Serves 8

450g (1lb) cooked beetroot

200g (7oz) sugar

450ml (16fl oz) water

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced (optional)

225ml (8fl oz) white wine vinegar

¼ – ½lb blackcurrants


Wine coloured dahlias and maybe a few marigold petals.

Roast or boil the beetroot. Leave 5cm (2 inches) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet. Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don’t damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar. Cover the pot, bring to the boil and simmer on top, or in an oven, for 1-2 hours depending on size. Beetroot are usually cooked if the skin rubs off easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger.  If in doubt test with a skewer or the tip of a knife.

Meanwhile, make the pickle. Dissolve the sugar in water, bringing it to the boil. Add the sliced onion and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the vinegar, pour over the peeled sliced (diced or cut into wedges) beet and leave to cool. Add the blackcurrants bring back to the boil and then turn off the heat.

Note: The onion can be omitted if desired.

Allow the pickle to cool completely.

To serve:- surround the plate with blackcurrant leaves. Pile the salad into the centre, decorate with flowers and serve.


Blackcurrant and Lemon Verbena Sugar Squares

Makes 24


6ozs (175g) soft butter

5ozs (150g) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

6ozs (175g) self-raising flour

2 tablespoons freshly chopped sweet or rose geranium

8ozs (225g) blackcurrants

2ozs (50g) castor sugar

1 tablespoon of freshly chopped lemon verbena

10 x 7 inch (25.5 x 18 cm) Swiss roll tin, well-greased

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Put the butter, castor sugar, eggs and self-raising flour and chopped sweet geranium into a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to amalgamate. Spread evenly in the well-buttered tin. Sprinkle the blackcurrants as evenly as possible over the top.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes approx. or until golden brown and well risen.

Allow to cool slightly, sprinkle with caster sugar whizzed with leaves of lemon verbena. Serve in squares.


Almond Cake with Frosted Currants

We serve tiny slices of this delicious moist cake with a cup of China tea or Expresso coffee.  A mixture of frosted red, black and white currants are so beautiful adorning this simple cake.   If you only have one type of currant it will still be pretty and delicious.

Serves 10

110g ground almonds

110g icing sugar

75g plain white flour

3 egg yolks, free-range if possible

125ml melted butter

Filling: 2-3 tablespoons Redcurrant or Blackcurrant Jelly (see recipe) optional



175g icing sugar

1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice – sieved


9-12 bunches frosted red, black and white currants (see below)

Candied angelica

18cm round tin with shallow sides – A pop up base is handy but is not essential.

Preheat the oven to 180C/regulo 4

Grease the tin evenly with melted butter and dust with a little white flour.

Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar and flour in a bowl.  Make a well in the centre; add the egg yolks and the cooled melted butter, stir until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Spread the cake evenly in the prepared tin, make a little hollow in the centre and tap on the worktop to release any large air bubbles.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.  It should still be moist but cooked through.  Allow to sit in the tin for 5 or 6 minutes before unmoulding onto a wire rack.

Allow to cool.

Optional – Split the cake in half and spread with Redcurrant Jelly, sandwich the two pieces together.

To make the icing:

Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl, mix to a thickish smooth icing with the sieved lemon juice.  Pile onto the cake using a palette knife dipped in the boiling water and dried to spread it gently over the top and sides of the cake.

Decorate with the frosted redcurrants and little diamonds of angelica.

 Frosted Redcurrants

Take about 12 perfect bunches of black, white or redcurrants attached to the stem.

Whisk one egg white in a bowl until broken up and slightly fluffy.

Spread 115g castor sugar onto a flat plate.

Dip a bunch of redcurrants in the egg white, ensure that every berry has been lightly coated, drain very well.

Lay on the castor sugar and sprinkle castor sugar over the top.   Check that every surface is covered.

Arrange carefully on a tray covered with silicone paper and put into a dry airy place until crisp and frosted.

Redcurrant or Whitecurrant Jelly

Redcurrant jelly is a very delicious and versatile product to have in your larder.  It has a myriad of uses. It can be used like a jam on bread or scones, or served as an accompaniment to roast lamb, bacon or ham. It is also good with some rough pâtés and game, and is invaluable as a glaze for red fruit tarts.

This recipe is a particular favourite of mine, not only because it’s fast to make and results in delicious intensely flavoured jelly, but because one can use the left over pulp to make a fruit tart, so one gets double value from the redcurrants.  Unlike most other fruit jelly, no water is needed in this recipe.

We’ve used frozen fruits for this recipe also, stir over the heat until the sugar dissolves, proceeds as below.  You can use white currants – which will be difficult to find unless you have your own bush. The white currant version is wonderful with cream cheese as a dessert or makes a perfect accompaniment to lamb or pork.

Makes 3 x 450g (1lb) jars

900g (2lbs/8 cups) redcurrants or white currants

790g (1lb 12oz) granulated sugar

Remove the strings from the redcurrants either by hand or with a fork. Put the redcurrants and sugar into a wide stainless steel saucepan and stir continuously until they come to the boil. Boil for exactly 8 minutes, stirring only if they appear to be sticking to the bottom. Skim carefully.

Turn into a nylon sieve and allow to drip through, do not push the pulp through or the jelly will be cloudy. You can stir in gently once or twice just to free the bottom of the sieve of pulp.

Pour the jelly into sterilised pots immediately. Redcurrants are very high in pectin so the jelly will begin to set just as soon as it begins to cool.

White Currant and White Peach Tart

The pastry is made by the creaming method so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter.

Serves 8-12


225g (8oz) butter

40g (1 1/2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12ozs) white flour, preferably unbleached


675g (1 1/2 lbs) white peaches

 225g (½lb) blackcurrants

150g (5oz) sugar

egg wash-made with one beaten egg and a dash of milk

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados sugar

tin, 18cm (7 inches) x 30.5cm (12 inches x 2.5cm (1 inch) deep

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

First make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food mixer (no need to over cream). Add the eggs and beat for several minutes. Reduce speed and mix in the flour. Turn out onto a piece of floured greaseproof paper, flatten into a round wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle.

 To make the tart

Roll out the pastry 3mm (1/8 inch) thick approx., and use about 2/3 of it to line a suitable tin. Peel, stone and dice the peaches into the tart, sprinkle with sugar and blackcurrants. Cover with a lid of pastry, seal edges, decorate with pastry leaves, egg wash and bake in the preheated oven until the apples are tender, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked cut into squares, sprinkle lightly with castor sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar.

Blackcurrant Fool


Serves 6

350g (12oz) fresh or frozen blackcurrants

200ml (7fl ozp) stock syrup (see recipe)

600ml (1 pints) very softly whipped cream


Cover the blackcurrants with stock syrup. Bring to the boil and cook for about 4–5 minutes until the fruit bursts. Liquidize and sieve or purée the fruit and syrup and measure it. When the purée has cooled, add the softly whipped cream. Serve with

shortbread biscuits.

An alternative presentation is to layer the purée and softly whipped cream in tall sundae glasses, ending with a drizzle of thin purée over the top.


Frozen blackcurrants tend to be less sweet. Taste – you may need

to add extra sugar. A little stiffly beaten egg white may be added to lighten the fool. The fool should not be very stiff, more like the texture of softly whipped cream. If it is too stiff, stir in a little milk rather than more cream.


Stock Syrup

Makes 825ml (20fl oz)

450g (16oz) sugar

600ml (1 pint) water

Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes, and then leave it to cool. Store in the fridge until needed.



Blackcurrant Ice-Cream/Parfait

Leftover fool may be frozen to make delicious ice cream. Serve with coulis made by thinning the blackcurrant purée with a little more water or stock syrup.

Blackcurrant Popsicles

Add a little more syrup.  It needs to taste sweeter than you would like because the freezing dulls the sweetness.  Pour into popsicle moulds, cover, insert a stick and freeze until needed.  Best eaten within a few days.

An Irish boy in The Dairy


The introduction to Robin Gill’s book, Larder enraged me and brought me close to tears. Robin’s graphic description of his long and tortuous journey through many kitchens both in Ireland and the UK to become a chef, makes harrowing reading and speaks volumes about the reason why there is now a proper chef crisis in so many restaurants, What Robin, who comes from Malahide in Dublin, and many others have had to endure is NOT OK, the verbal and physical abuse, sadism and downright cruelty is unconscionable and in any other walk of life would land the perpetrators in jail. How come, degrees of this behaviour have been acceptable for so long…

We’re all guilty; we need to ask questions about what’s going on in the kitchen to put the food on our plate. Get a grip, it’s only food after all and it is absolutely not necessary to have a toxic atmosphere to produce delectable morsels on a plate.


In fact quite the opposite, a happy team ooze energy and creativity Myrtle Allen herself was a wonderful example to all of us. In all the years I worked in Ballymaloe House kitchen, I never, ever, heard anyone shout or swear, despite all the pressure of a busy kitchen and Myrtle’s unwavering commitment to quality.

It’s a long road that doesn’t have a turn. Robin eventually chanced upon a 2 star Michelin; family run restaurant in Italy with a farm overlooking Capri called Don Alfonso 1890. There he learned the true meaning of ‘farm to table’.

Robin wrote “It was my first exposure to true cooking with the seasons, when something was in such abundance and at its best and had to be put to use. It was a revelation to me. Whatever couldn’t be used was preserved and kept for a season less generous. It was natural (and beautiful) in every way” He learned how to hold back and let the produce speak for itself. For the first time he truly understood what it means to be seasonal, how to walk the walk, not just talk the talk as sadly so many restaurants do. He spent several years with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxford, of which he speaks highly as a teaching kitchen. In 2013 he and his wife Sarah were ready to open their own place on a on a prayer and a shoestring in an old building on Clapham Common. It’s called The Dairy, has a herb and vegetable garden in crates on the roof and is the first of three restaurants Robin and Sarah now own. Finally back to Robin’s book aptly called Larder published by Absolute Press.


This is an interesting and unusual book , a combination of exquisite but seriously time consuming ‘cheffy’ recipes at the back of the book and a whole amazing section on pickling, preserving, smoking, fermenting, making miso, brewing, infusions  and curing  recipes at the beginning of the book that make up the basics of his larder. Many of the recipes are super simple, fun to make and will transform your food as well as get you addicted to stacking your larder shelves.



Robin Gill’s Beetroot Gin


makes 750ml (1 pint7fl oz)


4 raw beetroots, peeled and diced

750ml (1 pint7fl oz) gin


Add the diced beetroot to the gin in a large sterilised jar seal and leave to infuse in a cool, dark place for 3–4 days.

Strain through a fine sieve.

Store the gin in a sealed jar or bottle in a cool, dark place.

From Larder by Robin Gill (Absolute Press)  Photography © Paul Winch-Furness



Robin Gill’s Charred Mackerel, Cucumber, Dashi, Sea Purslane


Generally speaking, mackerel must be at its absolute freshest – I detest mackerel once it has been more than two days out of the deep blue – so when buying your fish, make sure the flesh is firm, the gills are bright red and the eyes are bright and glistening. We use salt to season and firm up the fish, and I like to serve it medium-rare. This is a really fresh and vibrant dish to serve in late summer.


serves 4–6


dill-pickled cucumber

2 small cucumbers or ½ regular-sized cucumbers

75g (3oz) ice

75g (3oz) caster sugar

75ml (3fl oz) Chardonnay vinegar

a bunch of dill, fronds picked a large pinch of fine table salt


dill oil

150g (5oz) picked dill fronds

150ml (5fl oz) rapeseed oil


charred mackerel

3 medium mackerel, filleted

fresh lemon juice



4–6 teaspoons Roast Garlic Miso Purée (see recipe below), at room temperature, 1 teaspoon per serving purslane leaves

sea purslane, blanched for 30 seconds

Wild Garlic Capers with some of the pickling liquor or capers

160–240ml (6-9fl oz) Dashi (see recipe), warmed – 40ml (1 ½fl oz) per serving

Maldon sea salt


Peel the cucumbers and set aside; reserve the skin. Blend together the ice, caster sugar, vinegar, dill, the cucumber skin and salt in a blender or food processor. Strain through a fine sieve and pour this liquid over the peeled cucumbers. Leave to marinate for 1 hour


Blend together the dill and oil in a blender or food processor for 1 minute. Transfer to a pan, bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 2 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl set over ice to cool.


Blowtorch, barbecue or grill (on a hot ridged grill pan) the skin side of the mackerel fillets –you are just looking to scorch the skin and lightly cook the fish to medium-rare. Season the fillets with lemon juice and salt to taste.


Drain the pickled cucumbers and slice into rounds. Spread a teaspoon of miso purée in each bowl, then add the mackerel. Top the fish with the cucumber slices (fanned). Place the fresh purslane, sea purslane and wild garlic capers to the side. Drizzle over some dill oil. In a jug, season the warm dashi with a little of the pickling liquor from the wild garlic capers. The dashi should be poured over each dish at the table




Robyn Gill’s Roast Garlic Miso Purée


Makes about 650g


350g (12oz) garlic cloves (peeled)

a drizzle of vegetable oil

demerara sugar

175g (6oz) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

150ml (5fl oz) sherry vinegar

175g (6oz) sweet white miso

175g (6oz) malt extract



Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/2oo°C/Gas Mark 6. Toss the garlic cloves in the oil and coat them in demerara sugar. Wrap the cloves loosely in foil to create a parcel. Roast for 25 minutes. Open the parcel and return to the oven to roast for a further 5 minutes. Tip the garlic into a food processor and blend the cloves to a smooth puree.


Put the butter into a pan set over a high heat and cook until the butter starts to foam, brown and take on a nutty aroma. Immediately remove from the heat and cool quickly to stop the butter from burning.


Boil the vinegar in another pan until reduced to 75ml.


Add the brown butter, vinegar, miso and malt extract to the garlic purée and blend until smooth. Cool. The puree can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 1 month.



Robin Gill’s Dashi

makes about 1 litre (1¾ pints)


25g (1oz) dried kombu

1 litre distilled water, boiled and cooled (or use filtered water or still mineral water)

1 sheet of dried nori (about 3g)

15g (½ oz) bonito flakes

2 teaspoons white soy sauce

10 wild garlic leaves (if unavailable use 2 sliced garlic cloves)

Maldon sea salt


Add the kombu to the water in a pan and bring to a very gentle simmer (do not boil). Simmer for 1 hour.

Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a jug.

Season with the nori, bonito flakes, soy sauce, wild garlic leaves and a pinch of salt. Allow to infuse for 5 minutes. Taste to check the seasoning and adjust as required: the dashi should be salty and savoury with umami. Strain the dashi through the fine sieve.

Once cooled, it can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for 2-3 days

From Larder by Robin Gill (Absolute Press)  Photography © Paul Winch-Furness



Robyn Gill’s Pickled Radishes


Makes 1.5kg (3lb 5oz)


300ml (10fl oz) water

300ml (10fl oz) white wine vinegar

300g (10 oz) caster sugar

1.5kg (3lb 5oz) radishes



Combine the water, vinegar and sugar in a pan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour this boiling pickling liquor over the radishes in a bowl. Allow to cool, then decant into sterilised jars and seal. The radishes are ready to use straight away or can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 months.

From Larder by Robin Gill (Absolute Press)  Photography © Paul Winch-Furness




Robin Gill’s Carrot and Caraway Pickle

makes about 1kg (2¼lbs)


40g (1½ oz) caraway seeds 1kg mixed heritage

carrots 200ml (7fl oz) cider

vinegar 200ml (7fl oz) water

200g (7oz) caster sugar



Toast the caraway seeds in a dry pan until they smell aromatic. Set aside.


Peel the carrots, and then slice into thin rounds on a mandolin.


Combine the vinegar, water, sugar and caraway seeds in a suitable-sized pot. Bring to the boil, then add the carrot slices and remove from the heat immediately. Decant into a sterilised 2-litre jar and seal.

The pickle can be stored for 1 year in a cool, dark place. Once opened, keep in the fridge for up to 3 months.

From Larder by Robin Gill (Absolute Press)  Photography © Paul Winch-Furness



 Robin Gill’s Apricot and Lemon Thyme Jam


makes 6 x 228ml jars


1kg (2 ¼ lbs) fresh apricots

50ml (2floz) water

50ml (2fl oz) fresh lemon juice

600g (1¼lb) jam sugar

100g (3½ oz) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

100g (3½ oz) honey

3 sprigs of lemon thyme, leaves picked

1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt


Before you begin making the jam, put three or four small plates in the freezer. Cut the apricots in half and remove the stones, then cut each half into quarters. Place the apricots and water in a large pot and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes to soften. Stir in the lemon juice and sugar and bring the mixture up to 104°C/225°F


Reduce the heat and allow to simmer, stirring now and again, for
a further 20 minutes or until the jam has reached soft setting point – use the wrinkle test to check. To do this, take the pan off the heat and carefully spoon a little jam on to one of the cold plates. Let it stand for a minute, then push the blob of jam with your finger. If the surface of the jam wrinkles then it has reached setting point; if it is still quite liquid, then put the pan back on the heat and boil the jam for another couple of minutes before testing again, using different plates from the freezer.


Meanwhile, make a brown butter by melting and heating the butter cubes in a pan over a high heat until the butter starts to foam and brown and gives off a nutty aroma. Once this occurs, remove from the heat immediately and cool quickly by setting the base of the pan in cold water, to stop the butter from burning.


Put the honey in another pan and cook over a medium heat to a dark caramel colour. Remove from the heat and stir in the brown butter. Add to the apricot jam while still warm. Stir through the lemon thyme leaves and salt. Ladle the warm jam into sterilised jars and seal.


The jam can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Once opened, keep in the fridge and use within 6 weeks.

From Larder by Robin Gill (Absolute Press)  Photography © Paul Winch-Furness



Merlin Lebron

The Summer 12 week Certificate Course students had a special treat last week, when Merlin Lebron Johnston from Portland Restaurant in London came as guest chef to The Ballymaloe Cookery School. This gentle young man is the youngest Michelin starred chef in the UK


His back story is intriguing. Merlin had a distinctly, rocky relationship with school, eventually he was fortunate to be sent to Ashbourne, a progressive school in Devon, where the students in conjunction with the teachers made the decision that going to lessons was not compulsory on the assumption that if they did turn up to class, they would be interested and give it their all. This worked brilliantly for 95% of the students, but Merlin was not interested in any class so he hung around for a bit…The secretary, a lady called Joanna doubled up as a cook and produced school dinner every day. Three courses – vegetarian, organic and delicious. The students could either have packed lunches or school dinners but the latter was expensive so Merlin would plead with Joanna to give him some food, “She made rice pudding and crumbles, crème brûlée, great salads, pasta. I would beg her for some. We made a deal. If you want to cook you need to wash up, fine with me and seeing how I wasn’t that busy I started helping her cook and after a bit she got busier and eventually I started to cook for my school at 15….” When exam time came the teachers said, “Well you seem to love cooking, we think you should be a chef”, so Merlin left and got a job. “Once I found cooking I became pretty obsessed and became totally focused on working in the best restaurants”.

For the next five years Merlin worked in top restaurants in the UK, Switzerland, France and Belgium, both classic and experimental, including In De Wulf in Belgium where there was a big focus on foraging and fermentation. At 23 he became sous chef there. Meanwhile in London, Will Lander and Will Morganstern were looking out for a head chef for a new restaurant they planned to open in Great Portland Street, so at 24 he became head chef at Portland and was awarded a Michelin Star within 9 months of opening, the youngest chef in England to be awarded that accolade.


Here are some of the delicious dishes he showed us how to cook.

Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Smoked Cod’s Roe with Grelot Onions or Leek Greens and Chervil

We used spring onion greens instead of grelot tops.


Serves 10-12



1.5pcs smoked cods roe (good quality!) (1kg/2 1/4lb approx.)

3 slices white bread, crusts removed and soaked in milk

2 peeled and crushed garlic cloves

lemon juice of 2 lemons

lemon zest of 1 lemon

100ml (3 1/2fl oz) olive oil

250ml (9fl oz) sunflower oil


Grelot top green oil

400g (14oz) grelot tops or leek greens

650ml (1 pint 2fl oz) sunflower oil


Mustard Seeds

600g (1 1/4lb) white wine vinegar

400g (14oz) water

200g (7oz) sugar

400g (14oz) yellow mustard seeds





First make the mustard seeds pickle:  Pour boiling pickle over mustard seeds and leave for 12 hours


Remove the roe from the sacks and discard the sacks. Using a food processor blend the roe with the garlic, bread and the lemon zest. Slowly incorporate the oil bit by bit to make a smooth thick mayonnaise like emulsion. If it becomes too thick let down with a little of the milk used to soak the bread. Season with salt and lemon juice. Pass through a drum sieve if not completely smooth and put in piping bags. It should be thick and velvety.


Grelot onions or leek greens

Separate the onion bulbs from the green tops. Reserve the green tops and set aside. Place the onion bottoms in parchment or tin foil envelopes with a pinch of salt and a glug of olive oil and close ‘en papillote’ bake at 180C for 12-15 minutes until cooked but not soft. If the onions are different sizes divide them into 3 different ‘grades’ and cook them all separately in batches (i.e. longer for the larger ones) so that they are all perfect.



Roughly chop the green tops and blend with the oil in a food processor on full speed for 4 minutes then strain through cheesecloth and leave to hang in the fridge. Freeze the strained oil. Once frozen scrape the frozen oil (gel) into a new container leaving behind the frozen leek/water residue. This will give you a perfectly clear green oil


To Serve

To serve, pipe large blobs (equivalent of 3 tablespoons) into a bowl, use a spoon to create a well in the centre of the cod’s roe. Put 2 tablespoons of onion oil in the well. Dress the onion petals in the white wine vinegar and place around the edge of the cod’s roe. Place a generous amount of chervil over the onion petals and serve.


Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Crudo of Wild Sea Bass, Smoked Cream and Heritage Radishes

If you are unable to get wild sea bass you could substitute it with brill, turbot, halibut, large plaice or sea bream.


Serves 6-8


300g (10oz) thick sea bass fillet, skinned and pin boned

100g (3 1/2oz) salt

100g (3 1/2oz) sugar

1 bunch heritage radishes

200g (7oz) best quality crème fraiche

1 large shallot, finely diced

1 lemon


raspberry powder


Mix the salt with the sugar and sprinkle a layer on a tray place the sea bass fillet on top and sprinkle with the rest of the cure. Leave for 30 minutes then wash thoroughly in cold water. Dry in a towel.


Cold smoke the cream using a commercial smoker or big green egg. Mix with the chopped shallot, the juice and zest of the lemon and a little sea salt.


Thinly slice the radishes on a mandolin. Slice the fish as thinly as possible using a very sharp knife. Lay the slices on a cold plate in a circle. Cover the fish with the smoked cream. Cover the layer of cream completely with the sliced radishes, then dust with raspberry powder.



Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Lightly Cured Wild Trout with Elderflowers, Unripe Peach and Watercress

Serves 8-10

1kg (2 1/4lb) wild trout fillet, skinned and pin boned

15g (1/2oz) salt

10g (1/3oz) sugar

2 lemons


elderflower vinegar (white wine vinegar infused with lots of elderflowers and elderflower branches)

100g (3 1/2oz) homemade yoghurt, hung overnight it muslin cloth to remove excess whey.

2 unripe peaches

150g (5oz) small watercress

good quality extra virgin olive oil

sea salt


Mix the 15g salt, 10g sugar and zest of 1 lemon together and sprinkle over and underneath the trout fillet/s. Use your hands to rub the cure into the fish to make sure it is evenly distributed. Leave for 10-12 hours in a fridge. Use a clean cloth or kitchen towel to wipe the fish fillets dry and remove any remaining cure. Taste a few slices of the fish to check for seasoning. Wrap the fish in a clean cloth.


Season the yoghurt with salt and a little lemon juice.


To serve, cut the fish into slices (a little thicker than sashimi or carpaccio but not too much!) and place on a cold, flat plate. Put a few dollops of the seasoned yoghurt onto the plates. Slice the peaches on a sharp mandolin and arrange on and around the trout slices. Dress the watercress with elderflower vinegar and olive oil and add to the plate. Sprinkle with lots of fresh elderflowers, grated lemon zest, sea salt and generous amounts of good olive oil.



Merlin Labron-Johnson’s  Ricotta Gnudi with Courgettes, Walnut and Nasturtium

 Serves 6-8

350g (12oz) smooth, thick Ricotta cheese (Galbani can work) left to hang in muslin cloth overnight

30g (1 1/4oz) parmesan, finely grated using a microplane

1 egg yolk

grated nutmeg

1kg (2 1/4lb) semolina

4 x green courgettes

1 large yellow courgettes, sliced into thin rounds using a mandolin

100g (3 1/2oz) spinach leaves

1 onion

olive oil

nasturtium leaves and flowers

30g (1 1/4oz) walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped


Put the ricotta in a mixing bowl. Add the egg yolk, grated cheese and season with a little grated nutmeg. Mix well using a wooden spoon.


Put some 1/3 of the semolina in a large plastic container ensuring there is an even layer on the bottom. Using your hands, roll the Ricotta mix into ping pong sized balls and place directly onto the layer of semolina ensuring there is a distance of at least 1cm between each one. Cover the Gnudi with the remainder of the semolina ensuring that they are completely buried with semolina in between and on top of each ball. Place in the fridge for a minimum of 16-24 hours.


Peel the green courgettes and reserve the peel. Cut the flesh into cubes, 1cm approx.., and sweat slowly in olive oil until soft taking care not to add ANY COLOUR! Leave to cool. Boil the Courgettes skins in salted for 1 minute and refresh in iced water. Boil the spinach in the same water for 30 seconds and refresh in iced water. Drain the spinach and courgette skins and place in a blender with the courgette flesh. Blend on full speed with 4 ice cubes until very smooth and very green. It should have the consistency of a thin puree/thick soup. Loosen with a little water if necessary and season with salt.


To serve, boil the Gnudi in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and dress with a little olive oil. Warm the yellow courgettes slices in a small pan with a little water, olive oil and lemon juice until they start to go translucent (just cooked) and season with salt. Warm the courgette puree and place in the bottom of a warm bowl. Place the Gnudi on top of the puree and top some chopped walnuts. Cover the Gnudi in the slices of yellow courgette and decorate with lots of nasturtium leaves and nasturtium flowers.



Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Buttermilk Ice-Cream with Meringue, Raw Honey and Wild Flowers

 Serves 8-10

150g (5oz) cream

142g (scant 5oz) sugar

75g (3oz) glucose powder

120g (scant 4 1/2oz) milk powder

4g (scant 1/5oz) salt

750ml buttermilk

170g (scant 6oz) icing sugar

160g (5 1/2oz) egg white

1 tablespoon dried or fresh lavender flowers

80g (3 1/4oz) raw fresh honey

35ml (scant 1 1/2fl oz) elderflower vinegar

5g (1/5oz) fresh elderflowers

selection of edible flowers


To make the ice cream, boil the sugar with the cream. Leave to cool. Using a hand blender add the glucose powder, milk powder and salt. Add the mixture to the buttermilk, mix well again using a hand blender. Pass through a sieve and churn in an ice cream maker. (This makes just under 1 litre. The recipe can be multiplied according to the size of ice cream machine)


To make the meringue put the egg white in the bowl of a kitchen aid with a squeeze of lemon juice, using the whisk attachment, whisk slowly until the meringue starts to form very soft peaks. Start to add the icing sugar, one spoon at a time until you have a thick glossy meringue. Using a spatula spread the meringue over non-stick parchment paper so that it is flat and evenly spread. It should be the thickness of a £1 coin. Sprinkle with the lavender flowers. Place in an oven at 70 degrees with low fan and leave to dry until crisp and easy to remove from the paper in large shards. Place the shards in an airtight container.


Warm the honey and add the elderflower vinegar and fresh elderflowers. Season with a squeeze of lemon juice depending on the sweetness of the honey.


To serve, put a few scoops of ice cream into very cold bowls (preferably stored in the freezer for 30 mins before serving) and decorate with shards of meringue, add lots of wild flowers and drizzle over the warm dressing of honey and elderflower vinegar.


Recently I went all the way to China … The impetus for the trip was the news that my last book Grow Cook Nourish had been shortlisted for a World Gourmand Cookbook award. It was up against stiff competition including Stephanie Alexander’s ‘Kitchen Garden Companion’ and Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Food, Health and Happiness’… I reckoned that my tome urging people to take back control over their food, grow some of their own and cook it, wouldn’t have a chance. Nonetheless it was an excuse to spend a few days doing some edible research in China and surprise, surprise, Grow Cook Nourish WON a special award and my publisher Kyle Cathie received the Publisher of the Year Award so that was definitely the ‘icing on the cake’ …..

On this trip we took in Beijing, Datong, Pingyao and Yantai where the awards were hosted.

Yes, I walked on the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, The Summer Garden and the totally awesome Hanging Temples near Mount Hengshan in the Shanxi Province but in this piece, I’ll concentrate on the food and the many good things we tasted.

The pace of change, in virtually all Chinese cities is just jaw dropping, most of the traditional single or double storey houses have been demolished to make way for gigantic skyscrapers 28-30 stories tall, the horizon is dotted with the tallest cranes I’ve ever seen.


Peking duck is the great speciality of Beijing. Of course there are a myriad of restaurants who serve it, Mongolian hot pot too, but if you have a craving for McDonald’s or KFC they are there aplenty, however I’m always on a mission to taste the local street foods and so far, they are still a part of everyday life, even in Beijing where it seems there is a huge push towards all things Western. A wander through a local vegetable market is also an illuminating window into local culture and eating habits. One of Beijing’s most fascinating is the Sanyvanli Market, opens at 6am and has stall after stall of beautiful super fresh vegetables and exotic fruit, mangosteen,  durian, lychees, pomelo, also ripe mangoes and huge hard scary grapes, some round, others pointy. All the fruit and vegetables were beautifully presented and packed including, boxes of spanking fresh waxberries (myrica rubra) also called Chinese bayberry, all juicy and delicious.

Stalls were piled high with fish and shellfish, scallops, sea urchins, crabs, lobsters, crayfish, much of it still alive.


Butcher shops selling freshly slaughtered meat, black and white skinned poultry and tons of offal. A wild mushroom stall with a mind-blowing selection of fungi including cauliflower mushrooms the size of a baby’s head.  Two little bakeries, making Chinese flat breads, were nestled among the stalls. I loved watching them rolling huge rounds of dough – 2 feet in diameter and cooking it on a hot griddle, sometimes plain but often with chopped scallions or garlic chives incorporated. I took a little video so I can experiment, it was so delicious, I hope I can manage to recreate this popular breakfast bread at home.

The night markets are also a must, there are many but we visited the one just off Wangfujing Street, Beijing’s posh shopping street where all the luxury brand shops cluster. This area really comes to life after sun down.

Here I ate scorpion kebabs and crispy silk worms, surprisingly delicious once you grit your teeth and decide to be adventurous. Lots of offal, squid and dumplings, chicken feet and gizzards and tiny toffee apples- a Beijing speciality. Lamb kebabs were also delicious but a roast goat (kid) leg with cumin and chilli was the best of all. This market was fun but a bit touristy.

Street food vendors are still a vital part of everyday life in China. Dough stacks, youtiao, snacks like scallion pancakes, Jianbing . Sweet potatoes roasted in old cooking oil drums are also delectable.

Don’t leave China without attending a tea ceremony, a wonderful ritual after which tea will never be the same again. We tasted ginseng, jasmine and gunpowder tea and puer, exquisite but sadly the teas I bought having been assured that they were identical quality were anything but – sadly a frequent occurrence in China, from taxis to restaurants. Follow the guidebooks advice, insist on using the taxi meter and check your bill meticulously…..otherwise a brilliant and delicious experience.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fisherman’s Prawns with Chinese Chives

This is based in a dish I enjoyed eating in Yueyang, where it is made with small river shrimp, cooked in their shells. I’ve adapted the recipe to be made with shelled prawns, which have a different texture, but are still delicious (prawns and Chinese chives are a particularly happy combination). If you want a glossy, restaurant – style sauce, add a little stock at the end of cooking and thicken with a mixture of potato flour and water.


500g (1lb 2oz) fresh or frozen raw prawns, thawed if frozen

100g (3½ oz) Chinese chives

2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon shopped salted chillies or 1 teaspoon dries chilli flakes

1 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar

1 fresh red chilli de-seeded and thinly sliced.


1 teaspoon sesame oil

200ml (7fl oz) groundnut oil for cooking


For the marinade:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon potato flour

1 small egg white


Shell and de-vein the prawns, removing and discarding the heads and legs, if necessary, then rinse and shake dry. Put them in a bowl; add the marinade an ingredients and mix well; set aside.


Trim the chives, discarding any tougher or wilted leaves (they should be pert and fresh) and cut into 3cm / 1¼ pieces.


Heat the oil in a wok over a high flame until it reaches 150°C/300°F. Discard any excess egg white from the prawns, then add them to the wok and fry briefly until pinkish but not fully cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.


Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil. Add the garlic and chopped salted chillies and stir fry briefly until fragrant. Add the prawns, stirring well, followed by the vinegar.


When all is sizzling and delicious, add the chives and fresh chilli and stir-fry until they are barely cooked. Season with salt to taste, then remove from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.



A similar recipe uses finely chopped garlic stems instead of Chinese chives; the method is the same except that you stir fry the garlic stems with the ginger and chopped salted chillies until fragrant before adding the prawns.

From Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop


Scrambled Eggs with Shrimps and Coriander

In Beijing this was served with rice but I enjoy it with hot buttered toast or fresh soda bread.


Serves 4

8 organic eggs

175g to 225g (6oz to 8oz) cooked small shrimps


good pinch of chilli flakes (optional)

a  knob of lard or butter

2 tablespoons full cream milk

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh coriander, coarsely chopped or Chinese (garlic) chives


Break the eggs into a bowl, add the milk and season with salt and pepper. Whisk well until the whites and yolks are mixed well. Over a low heat, put a blob of lard or butter into a cold saucepan, add the chilli flakes (if using), pour in the egg mixture and stir continuously, preferably with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon, until the eggs have scrambled into soft creamy curds. Add in the cooked shrimp, coriander or chopped Chinese (garlic) chives.

Serve immediately on warm plates with lots of hot buttered toast or fresh soda bread.





Fuchsia Dunlop’s Quick Fried Lamb


The city of Liuyang lies on the banks of the Liuyang River, amid gentle, wooded hills to the east of the Hunanese capital. There ‘the mountains are beautiful, the water is beautiful and the people are even more beautiful’ (shan mei, shui mei, ren geng mei), so they say. Although the two cities are no more than 50 miles apart, Liuyang has its own distinctive character and its people speak a dialect that is incomprehensible to the inhabitants of Changsha. Liuyang is a world centre of firework production, and is known poetically in Chinese as ‘the home of smoke-flowers’ (yan hua zhi xiang)


A meal in Liuyang, like its most famous product, is an explosion of glittering colours; the lovely green of fresh soybeans, the brilliant red of fresh or pickled chilies, the warm sunset of a pumpkin soup. I remember one day, when grey mist had reclaimed the hills, sitting around a table laden with dishes as torrential rain rattled on the rooftops outside and thunder cracked the sky. This is one of the dishes we ate, a colourful stir-fry traditionally make with one of Liuyang’s famous products, the black goat (hei shan yang), but which works equally well with lamb.


300g (10½ oz) lamb, lean and boneless

1 tablespoon of Shaoxing wine

1 teaspoon 0light soy sauce

½ teaspoon dark soy sauce

¼ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

2 fresh red chilies or ½ red pepper

75g (2 ½ oz) fresh coriander or Chinese celery

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger

2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (optional)

1 tablespoon finely chopped Chinese Angelica Root (optional)

1 teaspoon sesame oil

3 tablespoons groundnut oil for cooking


Cut the lamb across the grain into thin slices. Place the slices in a bowl; add the Shaoxing wine, soy sauces and salt and mix well; set aside.


Cut the red chilies into thins slices (if using red pepper, cut into small squares.) Cut the coriander stalks or celery into 5cm (2 in) sections. Reserve some leaves for a garnish and set the other leaves for other uses.


Heat the wok over a high flame until smokes rises, then add the ground nut oil and swirl around. Add the ginger, garlic, fresh chilli or pepper, chilli flakes and angelica root, if using and stir fry briefly until fragrant.


Add the lamb and continue to stir fry adding salt to taste, if necessary. When the lamb is almost cooked, add the coriander or celery and stir a few times until barely cooked. Turn off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve with coriander leaf garnish if desired.



The same method can also be used to cook beef.

From Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop


Kei Lum’s and Diora Fong Chan’s Pork with Beijing Scallions a quick dish from China: The Cookbook.

This one comes from the Shanding region

Serves 4


300g (11oz) pork belly, sliced into lardons

1 tablespoon cornflour

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 Beijing scallions or 6 scallions (Spring onions) cut into 3cm (1/4 inch) lengths

1 tablespoons Tianmianjiang (sweet bean sauce)

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste

steamed rice


Combine the pork with cornflour in a bowl, and then stir in 1 tablespoon oil.


Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large skillet/frying pan. Add the pork and stir-fry over a medium-low heat for 4-6 minutes until cooked and crisp. Transfer the pork to a plate and set aside.


Put the scallions into the wok and stir-fry over medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Add the Tianmianjiang, soy sauce, wine, salt and the pork, stir-fry over high heat for another minute. Season with salt and taste. Serve with steamed rice.

From China: The Cookbook by Kei Lum and Diora Fong Chan published by Phaidon

 Congee with Chicken, Shrimps, Mushroom and lots of Coriander

Congee is a rice porridge – a staple breakfast food often eaten with dough sticks to dunk, in China and Hong Kong.  I also love it as a soup – vary the additions or add some extra tasty titbits at the table.


Serves 4-6


250g jasmine rice (well-washed and drained)

2 litres water

100g raw or cooked shrimps

100g shredded raw chicken breast

1 teaspoon ginger

1 chilli, thinly sliced, optional

100g thinly sliced mushrooms (cooked)

Vegetable oil for frying

1-2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons spring onion, sliced thinly at an angle

2 tablespoons coriander leaves

Salt and freshly ground pepper



Put the rice into a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until the rice is cooked and slightly soupy.  Add the finely shredded chicken and shrimps, ginger and chilli to the rice, cook for 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the mushrooms on a hot pan in a very little vegetable oil.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.   Add to the soup, drizzle with sesame oil and sprinkle with spring onion and coriander leaves.   Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.  Serve this comforting nourishing soup as soon as possible.

From Grow, Cook, Nourish by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books.






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