Cookbook road test: Fern Varrow
Basically, I want a farm. This book does nothing to dissuade my enthusiasm for the simple life where lettuces, picked straight from the ground, with their “milky sap and pert, squeaky leaves” beg to be simply dressed. Where I “wake to the sound of cockerels competing with each other for the greatest crow, lie in bed and listen as the light arrives.”
Fern Verrow, the title of the book (and also the name of the farm) is an ode to the land – to the cultivation of, and respect for, life in all its forms. It’s beautiful in its ethos, narrative, art direction and photography. The recipes are uncomplicated, and told from an educated voice that knows what to do with produce this good – and that is: not much.
Jane Scotter and Harry Astley of Le Cordon Bleu and Leith’s respectively, have been tending their biodynamic property in Herefordshire for nearly 20 years, and the results are quite spectacular. The book is a combination of curated information about biodynamic farming, descriptions of the couple’s romantic sounding daily life (see: cockerels) and a good mix of sweet and savoury recipes.
I have to say I greatly admire this book, and the people behind it, but I think to get the best out of the recipes it would be wise to source the best ingredients you possibly can. Lucky for Londoners, Fern Verrow sell their incredible produce every Saturday in Bermondsey.
Most of the recipes are very simple. Their intention is to showcase the ingredient, whether it’s leeks or nettles, in a pared back form. When the ingredient itself is of such high quality, the food is great, but I fear the average punter using store-bought ingredients will not have as much joy.
The recipe test:
I tried the cauliflower salad, which tasted a bit like cardboard with a lovely dressing. Sadly, the quality of store-bought produce just didn’t hold its own with this simplified treatment.
The cheesecake with poached rhubarb fared much better, though the texture had a mixed response in our office, I thought it was nice and creamy, though it did lose a lot of the lightness overnight in the fridge. The amount of washing up and time it took to make does fit with my ‘life on the farm’ ideal.
Baked cheesecake with rhubarb compote
- 175g gingernut biscuits
- 50g butter, melted
- 550g full fat cream cheese
- 180g caster sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp gated lemon zest
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 eggs, separated
- 200ml double cream, lightly whipped
- 50g cornflour
- Icing sugar to dust
For the rhubarb compote
- 500g rhubarb, cut into 3cm lengths
- 100g granulated sugar
- 50ml water
- To make the compote, place the rhubarb, sugar and water in a 22cm diameter saucepan (not an aluminium one,) cover and bring slowly to the boil. Immediately reduce the heat as low as possible and leave the rhubarb to steam, without stirring for about 15 minutes, shaking the pan gently a couple of times to help disperse and melt the sugar. When the rhubarb is done, it should be tender but still holding its shape. Turn off the heat and leave to cool with the lids on the pan, check for sweetness.
- For the cheesecake, heat the oven to 160’c/ 140’c fan/ gas 3. Lightly grease the base and sides of a 22cm springform cake tin. Put the ginger biscuits in a food processor and whiz to make crumbs. Combine them with the melted butter, then spoon into the tin and press evenly onto the base.
- Mix the cream cheese with half the sugar, plus the salt, lemon zest and vanilla. Beat in the egg yolks and then fold in the whipped cream. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Add the remaining sugar, a tablespoon at a time, whisking constantly until the whites are very stiff. Sift the cornflour over the surface, then add the cream cheese mixture and fold it in gently. Pour the prepared base.
- Place in the oven and bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Don’t open the door for the first hour or the cheesecake may sink. Once it’s golden brown and the surface has begun to crack, revealing the creamy curd inside, turn off the oven. Leave the cheesecake in the switched off oven for a couple of hours to cool. Cover with cling and chill for at least 2 hours.
- Remove the cheesecake from the tin and dust with icing sugar, serve with rhubarb compote.