Jenny Bristow: ‘As a child growing up in the country, harvest was always my favourite time’
Northern Ireland is full of flavour right now as growers reap the bounty from the autumn crops. Eleanor McGillie talks to Ireland’s Good Food Ambassador Jenny Bristow about apples, foraging and the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre.
When I was much younger I was more of a tomboy than a cook, but when I was indoors I always remember watching Jenny Bristow on the TV. My mother loved her programme and has Jenny Bristow’s cookery books piled on the kitchen dresser.
The popular Irish cook always had a warm demeanour, a welcoming persona, a house you would leave home for, and, if anyone was ever going to inspire me to get off the skateboard and into the kitchen, it was going to be Jenny Bristow.
So, when I heard Ireland’s Good Food Ambassador is to lead the cookery demonstrations at the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre today, I knew I had to get her take on the Orchard County, the fruit it bears, her love for foraging and her love of all things old.
So I travelled to her home in Cullybackey in Co Antrim where Jenny runs her cookery school in a beautifully restored apple barn at the side of her house.
Set on 100 acres, this family home is full of rustic charm, with its autumnal wreaths and dried flowers. It’s a home full of warmth with evidence of Jenny’s passion for foraging hanging from the walls.
“I grew up in the countryside,” says Jenny, as we sit down at her kitchen table to enjoy her lemon and elderflower shortbread and Granola biscuits with a pot of freshly brewed coffee.
“We were never bored. I was always rooting through the hedges to see what I could find. We also had our own apple trees. I remember we couldn’t pick them until they had ripened. I remember waiting and checking on the apples. And the excitement, of course, when they were ready to pick was fantastic.
“When you are a child there are so many things to explore outside. I spent much of my childhood outside. That’s what makes memories. The smell and textures of the fruit, the berries, the foliage and the greenery. We used to get apples, tie them to string and hang them from the ceiling.
“And it’s now that people appreciate fruits such as the Bramley apple. Berries, pumpkins, butternut squash — these are all popular ingredients for cooking at this time of the year.
“The Bramley apple is a part of our life. Co Armagh is famous for its apples. When we were all growing up we were either eating Bramley apples or cooking with Bramley apples. We are so lucky to have this wonderful piece of fruit growing right here on our land. It’s wonderful for cooking. Apples and brown sugar is a match made in heaven.
“This time of the year is truly wonderful and I am a beaver for finding ingredients to use because it’s something we had done as children.
“The Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre is known as a celebration of all things apples so I am delighted to play a part in this year’s cookery demonstrations where I will also be joined by chefs from The Food Heartlands Initiative.”
Jenny, who will be doing two solo live cookery demonstrations in the food marquee, said people are spoiled for choice for recipes incorporating apples at this time of the year.
“There are so many dishes to make and I love sweet and savoury,” she said. “You could cook a fire cracking casserole with apples, sausages and champ, potato apple cakes, upside down tarts using the Bramley apple and also an apple jack pork homecoming casserole.
“I love wholesome foods. There is nothing like the smell of wholesome foods cooking as you come through the door. I love food which warms the body and the soul.
“The harvest has always been my favourite time of the year. This is the time for people to go out foraging with their children. There are rosehips, elderflower berries, apples, chestnuts and seeds.
“And now, of course, is the time to forage for Christmas as well. This season is bursting with opportunities. You can forage now and then dry fruit off for making Christmas wreaths.”
Jenny gave up work as a home economics teacher so she could stay at home with her three children Robert, Jane and Peter.
But her love for cooking never swayed. Indeed, if anything she admits to becoming even more passionate about it so she found a way to incorporate it into her lifestyle.
So her apple barn at her Cullybackey home was renovated and soon became the backdrop for her ever-popular TV programme which captured hearts right across Northern Ireland.
Today, the same outbuilding is the setting for her popular Jenny Bristow Cookery School Experience, which people flock to from all over the country.
The setting is simply stunning, with the colours and fruits of autumn hanging from the mature trees and bushes which line her property.
“I love welcoming people here,” Jenny says. The cookery school is unique and people coming are welcomed into the house first of all. We all sit in the drawing room and have a glass of mulled wine, sit by the fire and take in the smells of the season. It’s a lovely chance to get to know people attending the demonstration.
“From the drawing room we walk over to the cookery school where the girls will have been doing lots of prep so the smell is always fantastic as people arrive.”
After coffee we go for a stroll around the family home. Gates lead into woodlands, vast lawns are decorated with golden leaves and the smell of the countryside is just wonderful.
“I look round,” she says, “and everything is just beautiful at this time of the year. One of my favourites is making soup in a pumpkin and also Dromona pie. Years ago, I actually received a request from Washington to see if I would fax over my recipe for Dromona pie so it could be served at an IMF conference. Obviously, I obliged.
“I think food which connects us to our land is very important and Armagh is famous for this. There is a lot of good work ongoing in Armagh to promote the county and its produce and the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre will be a fantastic way to showcase what the county has to offer.
“I am looking forward to Saturday where I will be demonstrating some cooking techniques, people will be able to talk with me about what I am cooking and I will also be keen to incorporate Armagh produce into my cooking.”
As we walk around the grounds it’s so easy to see Jenny’s passion. Her eyes always veer towards the hedgerows or upwards at expanse of overhead branches.
She is surrounded by beauty. Her appetite for the natural environment is inspirational. Her passion for cooking is unrelenting.
To see Jenny cook, visit the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre today, from 9am-5pm. She will be cooking throughout the day and there’ll be lots of opportunities to sample the results
Autumn Spiced Blackberry & Apple Pie
Preparation time 40 minutes
Jenny says: “I have so many different recipes and ideas for apple pies, tarts and crumbles.
“This apple pie is one of the simplest to make, but it has all the essentials — a good crumbly shortcake pastry and lots of Bramley apples.
255g/9oz plain flour
55g/2oz ground almonds
175g/6oz butter — softened
zest of ½ lemon
1 egg yolk
1-2tsps of cold water
6 Bramley apples — peeled, cored and finely sliced
100 g/4oz blackberries
55g/2oz caster sugar
juice of 1 lemon
milk or beaten egg
For ease, this pastry can be prepared in a blender. Place the flour, almonds, butter, zest, egg and water in the blender and blitz until the mixture just binds together.
Remove pastry, wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for 15 minutes. Place apples in a dish and sprinkle with sugar, lemon juice and cloves. Leave to sit for 10 minutes.
Remove the pastry from the fridge and divide it in two. Roll out each piece so that it will fit a deep 23cm/9in ovenproof plate. Place one piece of the rolled out pastry on the plate and spread the apples, blackberries, sugar and cloves evenly on top. Brush the edge of the pastry with cold water before laying the second piece of pastry on top. Squeeze the edges of the pastry together to seal them. Make a slit on the top of the pie to let the air through.
Brush with a little milk or beaten egg and bake in the oven 180°C, 200°C conventional, gas mark 6 for 30-35 minutes until golden. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with cream, fromage frais, or yoghurt.
Roasted Apple & Butternut Squash Soup
Jenny says: “This soup makes the most of two of winter’s finest ingredients.
“The slow-roasted squash and apple combine with the spicy flavour of cider (or apple juice) to make a warming and delicious first course or light lunch.”
3 large cooking apples/450g/1lb — peeled, cored and halved
900g/2lb prepared butternut squash flesh — cut into large chunks
2 onions — cut into chunks
2 carrots — cut into chunks
3 cloves garlic — finely chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary — chopped
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground mace
25g/1oz soft brown sugar
25g/1oz butter or 1 dsp olive oil
4-6 tbsp water
570ml/1pt vegetable or chicken stock
275ml/½ pt cider or unsweetened apple juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp Horseradish sauce
125 mls Greek yoghurt
Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Place the apples, squash, onions, carrots, garlic, rosemary, ginger, mace and sugar in a roasting tin. Mix well. Dot with the butter or drizzle with oil and sprinkle the water over the top. Cover with foil and roast until all the vegetables have softened, approximately 1-1 ½ hours.
Scoop some of the vegetables from the roasting tin and place in a food processor. Add some of the stock and puree until smooth, then pour into a large saucepan. Repeat until all the vegetables have been pureed. Stir in the remainder of the stock and the cider or apple juice and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes to blend the flavours. Season to taste.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, mix the yoghurt, horseradish cream and use to garnish the hot soup with a little coriander or basil.
Roasted Pumpkin and Pancetta Risotto
Jenny says: “A great dish, using the best of the season’s harvest.”
450g (1 lb) pumpkin flesh
6 dsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic — chopped
1 onion — finely chopped
500g arborio risotto rice
200g (8oz) mushrooms
100g (4oz) Pancetta — finely chopped
4 spring onion — chopped
500mls (1 pint) vegetable or chicken stock
1 glass white wine — optional
50g (2oz) parmesan shavings
1 dsp flat leaf parsley
50g (2oz) butter
1 dsp fresh seasonal herb
Grinding of black pepper
Pre-heat oven to 200°C (gas mark 6). Place the pumpkin, half of the oil, garlic, wine in an oven proof dish and roast in the oven for 30 mins until the pumpkin is golden and soft. In a large pan heat together the olive oil in a large pan the chopped onion, garlic mushrooms, spring onion and pancetta and cook for 8-10 minutes over a low heat.
Add the rice and stir until all the grains are coated with oil and look shiny and translucent; add the rice and remainder of the oil and cook for 3-4 minutes slowly.
Add the wine and stock a little at a time, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid before adding more; continue until all the liquid has been absorbed. Next, add the sliced cooked pumpkin, herbs, parsley and adjust the seasoning. Simmer slowly untill all the liquid has been absorbed.
In the final stages of cooking, add small slices of the herb butter made by blending together the butter, herbs and pepper, which can be wrapped in greaseproof paper and chilled in the fridge well in advance.
Finally remove from the heat, scatter with parmesan and parsley leaves.
Serve hot — this dish can also be served inside a pumpkin.