Stevie and I were talking carrots - to be precise, the non-germination thereof. I suddenly thought, this is so tragic, that the business of life should have shrunk to whether or not the carrots have hatched. Of course, I feel strongly about Iraq, global warming, wind farms and the euro but, when push comes to shove, the great carrot conundrum is, in its way, quite as mysterious, intractable, fascinating and, yes, significant. For after carrot chat comes courgette chat, discussion of beetroot culture, a disquisition on salads, a dialogue on glut management and a celebration of compost. In short, we're talking about the food chain here, and if a chap doesn't care about that, there isn't much hope for the human race.
Stevie and I have quite a few discussions of this sort, usually at his vegetable patch to which we've been banished by our wives, bored with "Your veg talk". Hah, I say, and triple hah. Bored they may be, but they are happy to eat the bounty of our labours.
One of life's joys is knowing that your hosts approach food with the same enthusiasm and greed as you do, that they care for the provenance and quality of raw materials, that they have the skill to make sure they're properly cooked. In short, that you're going to eat better than you do in your own home. That is the feeling I always have when summoned to the Lewises.
Recipes serve four
Make sure you get nice, fat, very fresh fish, and ask the fishmonger to do the filleting. Once pickled, you won't have to worry about light lunches or easy suppers until it's time to do another batch.
Stage 1: Salting
1kg herring fillets
Salt the herrings overnight, or for at least eight hours, to draw out any liquid and tauten the texture. Judging the time is quite tricky, but it is better to undersalt them. Wash off the salt very thoroughly.
Stage 2: Pickling
2 large onions, finely chopped
250g caster sugar
150ml white-wine vinegar
1 dssp pickling spices
1 tsp peppercorns
Put all the ingredients in a non-reactive pan, and bring to the boil. Simmer for two to three minutes, then set aside to cool. Place the salted herring in a shallow container, then pour the marinade over. Refrigerate for at least five days before eating. They will keep for up to a month.
Stage 3: Eating
250g crisp apples , peeled and sliced thin
150ml single cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
You can eat the herrings on a slice of rye bread or crispbread, and very lovely they are, too. Or cut them up into bite-sized chunks, and mix with apple, cream and mustard. Or use your imagination.
Pigeon breasts with fig balsamic vinegar
Stevie is keen on foraging. Mushroom man, fisherman, shooting man. He shares the cooking with his wife, Jane. I'm very fond of their way with wild pigeon, a largely underestimated (and so relatively cheap) bird. It must be cooked very fast or very long. This and the next recipe explore both approaches.
4 tbsp olive oil
12-16 pigeon breasts
4 tbsp fig balsamic vinegar (or apple or straight balsamic vinegar)
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a frying pan. When smoking, add the breasts. Leave for three minutes, then turn and fry for three minutes more. Remove from pan, season and keep warm. Add the vinegar, scraping up any residue at the bottom of the pan, and reduce. Pour over the breasts when you serve up.
3 tbsp olive oil
1 stick celery
115g smoked bacon
1 clove garlic
4 juniper berries
1 bunch thyme, parsley and bayleaf
200ml sweet cider
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a casserole and brown the birds all over. Add everything except the butter, mace, salt and pepper. Braise slowly for 90 minutes. Strain the juices into a clean pot, and reduce to about four tablespoons' worth. Meanwhile, remove all the flesh from the carcasses and cut into strips. Season. Pack the meat tightly into whatever container you want to serve the dish from. Pour over the reduced juices and leave to cool.
Melt the butter, season with mace, pour over the pigeon and refrigerate for at least 12 hours. Very good with toast and salad as a light lunch or first course.
Chard and gruyère tart with caramelised onions
500g shortcrust pastry (made with 280g plain flour: 120g unsalted butter: 4 tbsp iced water)
2 large onions, thinly sliced
3 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Line a 23cm tart dish with pastry, then line the pastry with greaseproof paper and weight with baking beans or rice. Blind bake for 35-45 minutes.
Fry the onions in butter until soft and slightly golden, and set aside. Strip the chard from the stalks, then chop the stalks into short sections and the leaves into shreds. Bring a large pot of unsalted water to the boil, plunge in the stalks and cook for two minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, plunge into cold water, drain and set aside. Do the same with the leaves, but boil for only 30 seconds. Squeeze as much water out of the leaves as possible.
Break the eggs into a bowl, and mix in the cheese and chard. Spread the mixture over the base of the pastry case, spread the onions on the top and bake for a further 25 minutes.
Mulberry summer pudding
Jane makes these in individual moulds, but an 850ml basin would do just fine. The addition of strawberries is an inspiration, because they bring a natural sweetness to the tarter mulberries.
150g caster sugar
7-8 slices soft white bread, thinly cut
Hull the strawberries and cut into four. Mix with 400g of mulberries, sprinkle with 75g of sugar and leave to macerate for several hours. Whizz the remaining mulberries and sugar in a blender or food processor. Strain through a fine sieve and keep the juice. Line the basin with bread, overlapping slightly and pressing together to form a seal. Fill up with fruit. Cover with another slice or so of bread. Place a plate on top, and put a weight on top of the plate. Leave overnight (or over day) in the fridge.
Unmould on to a large plate and pour the reserved mulberry juice all over. Serve with unpasteurised Jersey cream