Christmas at Columbia Road Market

Yvonne Harnett and her trees.

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
from Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

Yesterday we got up very early to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. We go every Sunday, but this week we were under strict instructions from stallholder Yvonne Harnett not to slope up at our usual, slothful 10ish if we wanted a really big Christmas tree. And we always want a really big Christmas tree. Yvonne’s husband Shane is a fourth generation nurseryman and his family have sold Christmas trees on this corner of Columbia Road and Ravenscroft Street for over a hundred years, so I’m inclined to do as she says.

We reported for tree-purchasing duty at an eye-blinkingly early 8.30am, fortified ourselves with coffee and excellent sausage rolls from the Lily Vanilli Bakery and picked out a fine 10-foot Nordman Fir from Yvonne and Shane’s stall. Then we loaded ourselves up with other Christmas essentials: some scarlet poinsettias, a tray of miniature cyclamen, a bag of fir cones and a couple of Turkish fruit wreaths which I’ll use to decorate our table with the addition of some fat church candles. Next week, I’ll stock up on holly, ivy and mistletoe to drape along mantles and banisters and hang from chandeliers. I am a maximalist.

Urban forest.

Stuart with his poinsettias. Every week he makes me laugh with his cheeky sales pitches.

Mick and Sylvia Grover. During the summer, they sell all kinds of culinary and medicinal herbs but at this time of year, their stall is piled high with wreaths and garlands which they make themselves. They give our dog Barney a Christmas present every year and are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. It shows in their faces, don’t you think?


Mick and Sylvia’s wreaths.


Turkish fruit and berry wreaths. I bought two of these for the Christmas table, so pretty with a fat church candle in the middle.


Sean, whose bric-a-brac and book stall is a great favourite of mine. I think he would make a very good Father Christmas.


Fortifying sausage roll from Lily Vanilli Bakery


Festive decorations around the door of this café.

Jones the Baker gets into the Christmas spirit.

Dazzling proteas.

Sparkly branches.

Ilex berries.

Fat amaryllis buds, one of my favourite winter flowers.

Mountains of holly and mistletoe.

Birdfeed baskets.

Christmas planters.

Crates of pine cones.

Pots of hyacinths. Do what I do – transplant these into pretty bowls and pretend you’ve grown them yourself.

A (fish) bone of contention…

Politeness is the flower of humanity.
Joseph Joubert

Maggie Beer's Salmon with Pea Salsa

I know, I know, I should have walked around the corner and bought my salmon from The Fishery on the High Street like I usually do. Not only would I have got a lovely piece of fish rather than the scraggy tail-end bits I ended up with, I also might have got a smile from Danny who owns the joint and shared a joke with his dad, Johnny, who seems to have been put upon this earth to increase the jollity of the masses. But what can I say? I was in a hurry, so I popped into Wholefoods on Church Street instead.

I just got Maggie Beer’s new book, Maggie’s Kitchen, and I was oh so keen to try her Salmon with Pea Salsa. All I needed were the salmon steaks and there they were in the chiller cabinet, not as thick as I’d like but hey, ho. I couldn’t tell if they had the skin on or not, so I asked a nearby assistant if they did.


Is that the merest suggestion of an eye roll, or is it just me being hypersensitive? Erm, no, I’m not. Apparently, I’m very stupid. ‘Well it doesn’t matter does it, as it only takes a second to take the skin off.’ She’s looking at me like I’m probably not to be trusted with sharp objects. ‘But I need it with the skin on,’ I explain meekly. More eye rolling (honey, you’ll get wrinkles) and much prodding of the packaging to try and flip the fish over. ‘There, it’s got skin, you can see it,’ she thrusts it at me and I’m sure she’s speaking a little slower to compensate for my dimness. ‘Perhaps they should put whether it’s skinned or not on the label,’ I brave. At this point, I am obviously a complete moron. ‘Why do you need that? When. You. Can. See. It.’ Hmmm.

I’d love to stay and explain that – in my 20 years of working around food, reading about it, writing about it, cooking it – encouraging customers to poke and prod at something as delicate as fish is probably not a good idea. But if I am to continue to enjoy the Wholefoods experience, I really need to get back to work to pay for it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people filling the shelves there. The produce guy is lovely and you couldn’t buy shampoo from a more charming person than the German woman who’s queen of the natural remedies section. Forget the lavender oil, she makes me feel calmer just looking at her. But some of the others … As my friend Virginia would say, ‘I see we’re going to have to build an extension on that charm school’.

P.S. Danny, Johnny, please forgive my cheating heart, or wallet. I promise I won’t make the same mistake again.

Maggie Beer’s Salmon with Pea Salsa

Maggie Beer’s my Aussie food heroine. I love her bold flavours, passion for eating seasonally and must-make-it-right-now recipes. This salmon’s a winner – simple enough for a midweek dinner, elegant enough to place it in front of fussy guests without fear.

I came home to find my chervil had withered away and died – and in the recent combination of sweltering heat followed by torrential rain, even hailstones, who can blame it? So I hacked away at my seemingly invincible parsley instead and it tasted great. I think the salsa would also be good with mint in place of the chervil, a sort of posh mushy peas, but then I’m Northern.

4x140g salmon steaks, skin-on (Got that, skin on!)
Flaky sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil for trickling over the top
10g unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Chervil sprigs and lemon wedges to serve

30g unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil, for cooking
2 golden shallots, finely chopped
¾ cup chicken stock
1 ½ cups frozen peas
1 sprig chervil
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pea cavalcade You know how sometimes you say things aloud which should probably have remained in your head? I once announced on a radio show that ‘A day without peas is like a day without sunshine,’ something my friends tease me about to this day. I don’t mind really. Because it’s true.

For the salsa, melt the butter in a deep frying pan with a little olive oil over a medium heat, then add the shallots and sauté for 10 minutes or until translucent. Meanwhile, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a small saucepan.

Add the peas and chervil (or parsley, or even mint) to the shallots, then, when the peas have thawed, add the hot chicken stock and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. Puree the pea mixture in a blender (or use a mouli if you have one), then season with salt and pepper if you like.

Peas in the mini chopper

Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Season the skin-sides of the steaks with salt. Add a splash of olive oil to the hot pan, then cook the fish, skin-side down, for two minutes or until the skin is crisp and you can see from the side that they are cooked at least halfway through.

Season the other side of the fish with salt, then quickly wipe the pan with a paper towel, drop in the butter and, when melted, gently turn the salmon over, using either a palette knife or spatula. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, then leave the steaks to sit in the hot pan for five minutes. The centre of the fish should be just set or a little rare.

Place the salmon steak on each plate, then top each with a spoonful of pea salsa. Squeeze over the lemon juice, sprinkle with chervil and drizzle with a little olive oil, then serve with lemon wedges on the side.

TIP To get a nice, crisp skin on fish, warm the pan over a medium-high heat, add a tiny splash of oil, and then put the fish into the pan, skin-side-down. Then wait. Don’t poke and prod at it. When it moves easily, the skin is seared and crisp and you can turn it over easily.

Old friends and new discoveries

Click to EnlargeWhat’s the definition of an optimist? Someone who digs out her copy of Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking as soon as the thermometer flirts with anything over 15°C. This weekend, I leafed through my old copy, with its stained pages and broken spine, my name written territorially on the title page. I bought it the summer I graduated, when the world was opening up before me, full of delicious possibilities.

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That summer, I shared a first floor flat in a large Edwardian terraced house with three boys. Every second Saturday, I trotted down the stairs to the flat below to give our rent to the elderly son-in-law of the entirely ancient lady who owned the building. He looked exactly like Freud. He even spoke with a refined though pronounced Austrian accent. This would not have been quite so disconcerting had the room in which the transaction took place not resembled so closely the study in the Freud Museum just up the road, complete with antique rugs, heavy wooden furniture and strange little bibelots of mysterious origin and sexuality. I was never quite sure if I should hand over the cash right away or lie down on the sofa and tell him a bit about my childhood first.

Our kitchen was so tiny and prone to condensation that, summer and winter, we had to push open the large sash window every time we wanted to do anything more extravagant that make tea. Still, we managed to throw some great parties, tossing the key down on a string from that same window to our visitors below to save ourselves the trouble of the many stairs. One hot August night, I lay in bed listening to the sounds drifting up through my window from neighbouring houses. Soft laughter, the clack clack clack of a type writer and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain being played over and over again – fresh from a tiny Scottish university, I thought I was living in the height of bohemian splendour.

Since then, this tatty book has travelled with me from a Moscow tower block to summer rentals in the Languedoc, as well as across several London postcodes. It’s been packed away and then hastily unpacked in increasingly large and better-ventilated kitchens. We’re friends. We have history. We can not talk for months, years even, but when we get back together it’s as though we’ve never been apart, fish kebabs, crab soup, omelette aux fines herbes and apricot ice cream, our lingua franca.

So I was surprised to discover a recipe I hadn’t noticed before, one for Maqlub, the Persian aubergine and rice dish more frequently called maqluba or makloubeh. Its name means ‘upside down’ and truthfully, that’s the only tricky part of making this fragrant and lovely dish – inverting the hot casserole requires a cool head and sturdy oven gloves.

Click to EnlargeI went to the Turkish Food Centre on Ridley Road to buy my ingredients. I love it there, tucked away behind the market. It’s like being on holiday (without the sadistically small baggage allowance), with aisle upon aisle of intriguing ingredients and some of the cheapest, freshest produce in London. I always end up buying more than I’d planned. I may go in for a jar of tahini, but I’ll come out with rose petal jam, some marinated olives, a packet of sumac, honeycomb, a pot of lebneh, a loaf of pillowy, still-warm flat bread, huge bunches of herbs… Yesterday, I was quite restrained, restricting myself to things for the maqlub, some fresh green almonds and a few loquats to nibble for breakfast. I was very proud that I managed to swerve the vine leaf press, a slab of earthenware with holes in it I imagine intended to keep dolma from unfurling while they’re cooking. But I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.

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Elizabeth David wrote: ‘Although this is rather a trouble to make it is one of the best of all aubergine dishes, and the rice, which has absorbed some of the flavour of the meat, is particularly good. A good bowl of yoghourt can be served with it, and a tomato or green salad.’

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I’m giving you this recipe as Elizabeth David wrote it, apart from converting it to metric and making some small details of technique more explicit. When I make it again, I might make a few very small adjustments based upon what I’ve read about maqlub since I made it. I might try making the first layer out of sliced tomatoes and I’d definitely brown the mince in the pan once I’ve finishing frying the onions. Elizabeth David suggests you can use raw or cooked meat and I used raw, which clumped up a bit in the cooking process. I think cooked lamb would combine more seductively with the whole dish. I might add a little more seasoning, a pinch or two of cinnamon and nutmeg and a few grinds of black pepper to the meat, and I might toss a few toasted almonds over the top with the parsley.

4 medium-sized aubergines
600g minced lamb or mutton, cooked or raw
200g of rice, I used basmati but any long-grain rice will do
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
50g flaked almonds
½ tsp ground allspice
400ml beef stock
1tsp of finely chopped thyme leaves or marjoram

Olive oil for frying – not extra virgin
Parsley, finely chopped, for garnishing

Cut the unpeeled aubergines into 6mm slices, sprinkle them with salt and leave them for an hour. Put the rice into soak in water for an hour. Mix the allspice, thyme or marjoram and garlic with the meat. Rinse and dry the aubergines. Heat about 1cm of oil over a medium-high heat and fry the aubergines on both sides until just starting to turn golden. When you have finished frying the aubergines, fry the onions until soft and translucent.

Brush a round casserole lightly with oil. Put a layer of the fried aubergines into the bottom of the casserole (I used a third, so I would end up with three layers), sprinkle on a layer of meat. Click to EnlargeSprinkle with a few blanched almonds and a third of the onions. Repeat until all of the aubergines and meat are used up, and on top put the drained rice. Pour over half of the stock, cover the dish and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes. Add the rest of the stock and cook for another 30-40 minutes until the rice is almost cooked. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4.

Put an ovenproof serving dish or plate over the pan, carefully turn out the contents of the casserole and put into the oven for another 10-15 minutes. The rice will finish cooking and any liquid left will be absorbed.

We ate it with a few peeled, deseeded and sliced cucumbers tossed in yoghurt with a pinch of sea salt and chopped mint. I trickled a little good olive oil over it just before serving.

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Aubergines. Do you salt them or not? In the past, they were always salted to remove any bitterness and some of their moisture, but with modern varieties it’s not really necessary. I only salt them when I’m going to fry them, as in this recipe, so they don’t soak up quite so much oil – though, be warned, they do still soak it up as keenly as a drunk in a bar five minutes before closing.


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I love Steenberg’s spices, a fantastically extensive range of organic, often Fairtrade seasonings sourced and sold by Axel and Sophie Steenberg in North Yorkshire. They now stock chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee too.

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I was not an original bride. I did my best to convince Sean that our marriage licence would not be valid without being able to show proof of ownership of at least three Le Creuset casseroles. Nearly 12 years later they’re still going strong. Despite being shamefully overworked and sometimes being the object of much incendiary abuse, they’re still perfect – the same might be said for Sean.