The brief from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire was simple: create a dish that sums up the area using the best locally sourced produce available.
Cornwall has the pasty, Bedfordshire’s got a clanger and Bury the black pudding – but Cambridge? Cambridge has…well, therein lay the problem. Our county is bereft of a classic.
The challenge to rectify this glaring omission came from our local BBC radio station. I would have a week to come up with something special and they’d then record me creating it in my own kitchen.
The obvious place to begin was looking at what local produce was available. It soon became clear that the area may be lacking in a signature dish but that isn’t for want of superb ingredients: locally reared beef, pork, lamb and game are plentiful, when in season.
In May, the Fens groan under the weight of the asparagus spears that peep through the earth. Celery and watercress also grow in plentiful abundance. The committed and enthusiastic loca-vore can even take their rod and line down to the River Cam and try to land a pike or zander. However, I didn’t think a week would be enough to organise a fishing licence (or actually learn how to fish).
Being bound to the fruits of the local land was no hardship, though and after a few days of hard research I came up with the following efforts for my Cambridgeshire Feast. Great British Menu, watch out.
Starter: Asparagus, bacon and egg
With it just sneaking into season, now is a great time to eat locally grown asparagus. The spears are sweet and tender and are yet to develop the slightly woody note that can tarnish the fern later in the year.
This isn’t a very original presentation but my goal was to keep it simple. The asparagus was steamed, brushed with butter then served with an egg (from our front garden) poached at 64˚and a couple of slices of home-cured pork jowl, uniquely preserved by the Cambridgeshire air and then fried until crispy like dry-cured streaky bacon.
Main Course: Beef cheeks, braised celery and Stilton and mustard cream
Beef and Stilton is a classic combination. Stilton and celery, likewise. Here they come together in a wonderful open pie.
Whilst most regions in Britain can lay claim to a local cheese, Cambridgeshire’s most famous dairy product can’t actually be made in the county. The PDO that proudly adorns Stilton cheese limits its production to the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire – but the town of Stilton itself lies within the boundaries of modern-day Cambridgeshire and here is where the cheese became justifiably famous.
Beef cheeks (from CamCattle, a company who locally rear cattle grazed on common land in the centre of Cambridge) were cooked slowly in red wine and stock with carrot, celery, onions and garlic until tender – then the cooking liquor reduced to a rich and sticky gravy.
The celery too, was braised by browning in a little butter then covering with a light chicken stock before being vacuum sealed and cooked for 35 minutes at 85˚ (the temperature at which pectin – the ‘glue’ that holds vegetables together –breaks down, making vegetables tender but ensuring they retain a little bite).
The celery and beef were topped with a disc of puff pastry and then a cool cream flavoured with Stilton and mustard was added to the dish, along with a some watercress for a peppery bite.
It may be a little optimistic to hope it’s a future classic, but one can always hope. It’s certainly delicious enough to warrant making again, very soon.
Dessert: Cambridge Burnt Cream with Rhubarb
Perhaps better known as crème brulee, this dessert was the closest that I came to finding a genuine heritage dish from Cambridge. Although the veracity of the origins of the dessert cannot be verified, legend has it that it was first served at Trinity College in the late 19th Century – a tale that Ian Reinhardt, head of catering at Trinity, was happy to stick to. As am I.
Rhubarb seemed a natural addition – both because it can be found all over the region at this time of year and also due to its natural affinity to custard: a pairing that almost universally tends to remind us of childhood.
Deceptively simple, the secret to a perfect ‘Burnt Cream’ lies in setting the custard to a soft texture without scrambling the egg yolk. Just don’t get it too hot.
Split a vanilla pod and add the seeds to 425ml double cream and gently bring to the boil. Whisk together 110g caster sugar with four egg yolks until pale then pour the cream over the yolks and sugar. Return to the heat and bring almost (but not quite) to the boil.
Pour the custard into ramekins and cook in a low oven (or bain marie) until set. Chill then sprinkle the tops with sugar. Use a blowtorch or hot grill to caramelise the sugar then cool.
For the rhubarb, melt 25g butter and 25g sugar in a pan. Add the sliced rhubarb then cover with orange juice. Cook until the rhubarb is tender (about 7-8 minutes), remove and reduce the liquid to a glaze to spoon over the soft rhubarb.
One final flourish that Ian kindly shared with me when I went to speak to him about the origins of this tasty pudding concerned the ‘branding’ of the caramelised sugar with a metal plate adorned with the college crest. A piece of theatre indeed, but perhaps a little extravagant for the home cook – at least, until I get my own coat of arms commissioned.
So – thoughts? Feedback? Outrage that I’ve missed a truly local classic? Get in touch in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll have a chat about it.
To listen to my Cambridgeshire menu appear on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, click here (next 7 days only). It's at the 1 hour 20 ish mark. Just after Feargal Sharkey.
Pictures by @photolotte (flickr)