One of my favourite things about going on holiday is buying local produce, especially food. There are a myriad different things to try at farmer's markets, farmshops and food festivals throughout the region, but for now I want to focus on some fantastic local produce available right now within walking distance of Blackdown Yurts.
Mia and I took the dog on a little walk to Henland, which is on the way to Orway, to buy some asparagus and duck eggs from farmers Marcus and Liz. Henland is really only two farms, Upper and Lower (where Liz and Marcus farm), and it is an out of the way little place, tucked under the main escarpment of Blackborough, with beautiful views out across the gently undulating green countryside.
Henland is a bit of an enigma - local lore has it that a thousand years ago Alfred the Great gave the tithes of Henland over to the monks of Cullompton in payment for their prayers for the souls of men lost in battle against the Danes. Henland continued to be the responsibility of the Vicars of Cullompton after the reformation so any Henland occupants wishing to marry had to travel an additional three miles to Cullompton, rather than their nearest church at Kentisbeare, to have their banns read. Not much of a big deal now in the age of motor transport as we can whizz to Cullompton in under 15 minutes, but back when people walked or rode horses everywhere it would have been! (source: Under the Blackdowns by L C E Chalk).
Apparently Henland may be so-called because "in Saxon times wild birds frequented it". Now it is frequented by hoards of not so wild Jemima Puddleducks, free to roam outside, and gorgeous little quail, free to fly in barns, busy laying eggs for West Country Produce Ltd.
Asparagus and eggs have a natural affinity to one another (have you ever tried freshly cooked asparagus dipped in a runny boiled egg or with hollandaise sauce?) so it makes total sense for Liz and Marcus to grow both. Marcus supplied me with a dozen green and a dozen purple asparagus, freshly cut from the field that morning. I'd not seen purple before but Marcus assured me they are sweeter than green. I had planned to only buy duck eggs but Mia thought the little quail egg boxes were so adorable (they are) that we came away with half dozen of each.
Cooking is one of my passions, something I really enjoy when at home or away. It is my creative outlet, a comfort, an indulgence, a way of showing love to your loved ones, and a mindful practice that I find really enjoyable and relaxing. I adore inventing new dishes and often spend time thinking about what I'm going to make that evening as I go about my daily chores or when driving the children to and fro. So, what to do with these asparagus and eggs?
I did a little googling for inspiration and found mainly starter suggestions, but I wanted to make a dish substantial enough for a main meal. The idea of a Nicoise salad popped into my head, but with some substitutions: asparagus instead of green beans, duck and quail eggs instead of hens' eggs, radishes instead of tomatoes, and skip the tuna as we are attempting to eat mainly vegetarian these days for the good of the environment (and also I think it would ruin a jolly good asparagus and duck egg salad!). Add another fabulous seasonal ingredient in the form of Jersey Royal new potatoes and you have the basis of a great meal.
How to make it:
I had a Cos lettuce from my Riverford veg box in the fridge so I used that as my base but really you could use any lettuce you have to hand. I washed and chopped it and placed it on the plate. Topped with thinly sliced radishes and sliced Jersey Royals that had been boiled til tender.
I snapped the cut ends off the asparagus spears (my sister-in-law showed me this - if you snap it rather than cutting it, it naturally snaps at the point where it becomes woody so you can discard the tougher ends and keep just the delicious tender spears). I decided to try the asparagus two ways, so cooked half in boiling water for barely four minutes. I chucked the quail's eggs in for the last 2 minutes 15 seconds to soft boil them then plunged them into iced water to stop them cooking. The asparagus were rested on kitchen paper after cooking.
I laid the other half of the asparagus on an oven tray and drizzled over some olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper before grilling them under a hot grill until tender. (The purple asparagus retained their colour much better when grilled than when boiled.)
Alongside I made a crumb of seeded bread and hazelnuts by whizzing them together in a small food processor. This was placed on a baking tray and drizzled with olive oil before grilling for a few minutes alongside the asparagus. Watch it as it colours quickly!
This aspect was inspired by this recipe from Cockles and Mussels. They poached then deep fried their duck eggs in a brioche and hazelnut crumb. I didn't do this for two reasons - firstly I thought the chance of me mucking up the eggs was much greater if putting them through this process and secondly, I don't really like deep-frying for the health aspect but also because it takes up so much oil! So I did a deconstructed version and sprinkled the crumb over the top of the salad at the end. I did however use their dressing recipe with melted butter, olive oil, walnut oil, lemon juice, chives and chopped hazelnuts, which was delicious.
It only remained to poach the duck eggs. I used a pan of boiling water with a tablespoon of white balsamic vinegar but you could use white wine vinegar. Crack your eggs into a cup first as it is much easier to gently plop them into the water from there than from the shell. Get the water simmering, swirl the water into a whirlpool and slide in the eggs one at a time, quick as you can. Start your timer for 3 minutes and fish out the eggs in the order you put them in with a slotted spoon. Place them on a plate covered with kitchen paper to remove some of the moisture. I popped them into the still-warm oven (not on) to keep warm while I assembled the salad. I laid the boiled and grilled asparagus spears on top of the lettuce/potato/radish assembly, then balanced a poached duck egg on top. I carefully peeled the quails eggs and halved them before placing them on the salad too. The whole lot was sprinkled with the hazelnut crumb and then drizzled with the delicious dressing. Voila! Salade not Nicoise with a sophisticated twist...
I was really pleased with how this dish turned out. In particular that I didn't overcook the eggs. I liked both colours of asparagus (I'm not sure they tasted markedly different from one another) but preferred the grill cooking method as I think it concentrates the flavour and retains the colour better. You can do this with whatever asparagus and eggs you have to hand, but if you want to get a hold of Liz and Marcus' produce find out how to get there at the bottom of the page.
A super speedy quick supper with asparagus and duck eggs:
A couple of weeks ago I had some asparagus and duck eggs and was very short of time so wanted to make a quick supper. Luckily I had some leftover mashed potato in the fridge so I fried that up with some leeks to make little colcannon cakes, then simply topped each with a fried duck egg and asparagus spears. Delicious.
How to get to West Country Produce at Lower Henland:
From Mortimer's Cross (where you will find both Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurt's signs by the road) head south on the lane (sign to Pirzwell should be on your right and for Halsbeer Farm on your left) to the junction at Stowford Water. Go pretty much straight on, signed Orway, for just under a mile following the West Country Asparagus signs. Look out for a turning on your left with a stand selling asparagus and eggs at the side of the road. Turn left here. If you don't want to walk or drive all the way up to the farm, Liz and Marcus often put the slightly wonky spears down there so go up to the farm if you want dead straight asparagus! If walking you can take an off road route by walking partway up the road to Sainthill (second left at Stowford Water signed for the baptist church), then turn right along the track opposite the entrance to Hollis House. Carry on up there until you reach a lane, turn left and soon you will find Lower Henland farm on your right. There are numerous footpaths crossing the area, so pick up one of our maps before you go and you could find your way back via Blackborough perhaps.
You may be lucky and find some eggs and asparagus in the post office in Kentisbeare. As well as supplying local shops and restaurants Liz and Marcus supply Waitrose so you may find their eggs in there.