We have now been at Hillside for six weeks during which time we have left the village just twice. Our daily lives have settled into a regular routine, which provides the reassurance of structure. The furthest we venture from the house each day is for two dog walks, one around the valley after breakfast and the other shorter one up the lane to our top fields after we finish work. Apart from our DPD delivery man (with whom we have rapidly become much more familiar) the only people we see regularly are our immediate neighbours.
Living in a tiny community the local support network kicked in very quickly here in mid-March. Josie and Rachel, sisters who live up the lane, are in their 80’s and have lived here almost all their lives and still live to the rhythm of an earlier time. When we first moved here they told us that our top fields used to be known as the ‘hospital fields’, since they were left ungrazed for the cows to be allowed in at certain times of year to self-medicate on wildflowers. When we first got a swarm of bees they arrived, unannounced and kitted up, to see if we wanted some help learning how to manage them, as they have been beekeepers for decades.
Each evening we meet them at the gate to the hospital fields as we return from our dog walk, where they feed the two beef cattle they raise each year in the neighbouring field. We have always stopped for a quick hello in the past, but there is now an enforced closeness and intimacy in our communications. Very quickly after lockdown we started talking chickens. The fenced orchard that abuts their garden is home to a large brood and their cockerel can be heard most mornings waking the upper reaches of the village. We had thought that now, unable to leave home, might be the time to get chickens of our own. While we still haven’t committed, we rely on our now weekly delivery of eggs from the ladies up the lane.
Now that we are smack in the middle of the hungry gap, everything in the vegetable garden is up for kitchen consideration and things that may once have been a passing fancy demand a treatment that will turn them into a real meal. The sorrel, which is in its prime right now, is sending out sheaves of squeaky green leaves that just invite harvest. Due to its reputation for sourness, and the fact that, like spinach, it cooks down to nothing (whilst also turning an unappetising shade of khaki) it is not the easiest of leaves to use. However, the sorrel custard filling of this tart both extends and carries the lemony flavour of the leaves beautifully, while also disguising the somewhat murky colour since, with the yellow of the eggs, it cooks to an attractive chartreuse. Since sorrel isn’t available to everyone it could be replaced by young spinach, de-stalked chard or wild foraged greens like wild sorrel and nettle. The addition of a tablespoon or two of lemon juice will add the requisite tang.
This recipe is essentially Richard Olney’s from Simple French Food. My only adjustments are the addition of a tablespoon of fine polenta to the pastry (I like the sandy crunch it brings to savoury pie crusts) and a little less double cream. However, more than that I would not be tempted to fiddle. The plain simplicity of this recipe is its secret, particularly in these times of renewed frugality. The alchemy and pleasure of turning straightforward pantry items and produce from the garden into something memorable and delicious.
125g plain flour
125g unsalted butter, put into the freezer for 30 minutes
1 tablespoon fine polenta
A pinch of salt
5-6 tablespoons iced water
300g sorrel leaves, weight with stalks removed
2 medium onions, about 300g
250ml double cream
Ground black pepper
First make the pastry. Put the flour into a medium sized mixing bowl and then grate the frozen butter into it. Using a sharp knife and fast cutting motions, cut the butter into the flour, until the mixture resembles sand. Add the salt and polenta and stir to combine.
Sprinkle the iced water over the flour and butter mixture two tablespoons at a time, and use the knife to incorporate it after each addition. Then when it looks as though it is damp enough, use the very tips of your fingers to quickly pull the dough together into a ball. Wrap tightly and put in the fridge for 1 hour.
While the dough is chilling boil the kettle and put the sorrel leaves into a large saucepan. Pour the boiling water over the sorrel and stir with a wooden spoon. The leaves will turn khaki. Drain immediately and thoroughly.
Gently heat half the butter in a smallish pan. Press the sorrel leaves against the side of the colander to remove as much water as possible, then stew in the melted butter over a low heat, stirring from time to time, until you have a puree with no surplus liquid. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
While the sorrel is cooking gently heat the other 30g butter in a smallish pan. Add the onion and saute over a very low heat, with the lid on, for about 30 minutes, or until they are very soft, translucent and completely uncoloured. Allow to cool to room temperature, then add to the sorrel. Heat the oven to 180°C.
Take the pastry from the fridge and roll out very quickly on a well floured surface into a circle 28-30cm in diameter. Carefully use to line a 23cm tart or cake tin. Prick the base with a fork several times. Line with baking parchment, fill with baking beans and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove the beans and baking parchment and return to the oven for 5 minutes or until the pastry looks dry and lightly coloured. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Beat the eggs and cream together in a bowl. Season with pepper and salt. Add to the sorrel and onions and mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the pastry case and bake for 40-50 minutes until firm in the middle and lightly coloured.
Serve warm with a green salad.
Recipe and photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 24 April 2020