Friday 21 August 2020

Fruit leathers

No, they don’t sound terribly appetising do they?  We need to come up with a different name – but this old traditional one does describe their appearance so well and gives them a certain character.  But it gives no hint to their intensity and flavour impact – and the surprise is part of the pleasure maybe.

Leathers are a traditional technique for preserving fruits; made well, they will keep fruits as a snack sweetmeat through the winter. They require a lot less sugar than jam or jelly, and pack more flavour.  Made carefully, they don’t need much cooking either and so can keep flavours bright and intense.

We have a ‘duplicated’/mimeograghed copy of fruit preserving leaflet from the 80s in which leathers feature prominently, but it wasn’t until my Wild Wonders course last year that I was re-introduced to their possibility.  I struggle with how to manage fruits in the chocolates – they are wet, acidic and often don’t carry intense enough flavour to make a great impact in the ganache.  Acquiring a dehydrator has helped – and drying some fruits helps manage the moisture without too much boiling or added sugar; raspberries and sea buckthorn work particularly well in this way.

But leathers offer a way to process fruits and weave round chocolate in a different way from ganache filled chocolates, and I began to play around with them last year.  Blaeberries were my first real success;  I went to a great talk by Eva Gunnare, a Swedish forager, as part of the Foraging Fortnight and she gave us blueberry leather and described how simple it was to make.  You can reduce your fruit pulp by simmering and boiling, but better still – reduce through dehydration.  The sugar added can then be more about taste than preservation as you are removing excess water through the dehydrating process not the boiling/simmering/sugar concentration.  This is why freezer jams for rasps and strawberries are so delicious – preservation is managed through freezing and not sugar concentration and moisture reduction through boiling – the flavours are fresher, brighter and more intense.

For wet fruits like blaeberries leather making was the answer – get it right and you have a soft, slightly chewy, intensely flavoured nibble – that is just perfect dipped in the right chocolate.  We made these for the Wild Food Festival last year and they disappeared really quickly.

They are though, a lot of work.  Foraging wild fruits is in itself a labour requiring meditative levels of patience and endurance.  Blaeberries, raspberries, wild strawberries (actually I have never gathered enough of these at any one time to do anything other than eat them!) – but the joy of leathers is that you can make from any fruit or vegetable I imagine.  So we have tried rhubarb, Japanese knotweed, elderberries and sloes.

I cannot really give you a recipe, more like a process.  So much depends on the fruit, the flavour you want, and what equipment you have for dehydrating.  I will describe the process for raspberries and blaeberries, and hope that this serves as enough of a guide to help you get started.

Pick over your fruit to remove any mouldy or badly damaged fruits; remove stalks and leaves.  Wash carefully and drain.  Weigh the fruit, and add a third of that weight in sugar (less if you think the fruit already sweet).  Mix in and leave covered for a few hours – stirring occasionally to help bring out the juice.  By the end of this period, there should be lots of juice, possibly submerging all the fruit.


Quickly bring to the boil, just to kill off any bacteria or yeasts; if you don’t mind the seeds, then mush up into a pulp.  Otherwise strain into a bowl; using the back of a metal spoon, force as much of the juice and soft fruit pulp through the sieve, until you have only seeds and skin in the sieve.  If the strained liquid is really thin, you could heat and evaporate off some of the excess water – but be careful about monitoring the taste, as this will change with prolonged cooking.

Prepare trays to go in the dehydrator – maybe line with silicon baking paper, and pour a thin layer of the pulp (say 0.5 to 1cm deep – depending on how thick you would like your leather to be; remember it will shrink considerably through drying so take this into account *).

Dehydrate on a low heat – 115 to 120 F – until tacky enough to handle.  Remove from the paper, peeling it away carefully.  To store, lay the sheet onto fresh paper and then roll up with the paper so that there is sheet of paper between each layer of the leather.  Wrap in a plastic bag, or in a sealed food box.  When you want to use, unroll and cut into strips.

Have fun!

*I tried making a rhubarb leather once that was too thin and it dehydrated to hand-made paper thinness – infact thinking about it, it was hand made paper – edible and beautiful pink green mottled colouring.  OK – a whole new possible craft industry – edible fruit papers!

Thursday 27 February 2020

How to judge a chocolate?

The Academy of Chocolate was established to promote the concept of ‘good chocolate’ – chocolate that is ethical, sustainable, creative and delicious.  They hold an Awards competition every year, and their Bronze, Silver and Gold awards are coveted and adorn very fine chocolates from all over the world.

I saw a call out for judges for this year’s competition, and as I was not entering anything myself, approached the organisers to see if I would be eligible; I am not a member of the Association, I hold no formal qualitifications in Patisserie or chocolate making – but it seems all I needed was a passion for good chocolate, and that along with a reasonable good understanding of working with chocolate – would qualify me.

As I looked forward to the experience, and told people the reason for my trip to London, I was tickled by their amusement of the concept of spending three days judging chocolate (was it going to be a Britains’ got Talent style affair, with Chocolatiers vying for the top award, me and other judges sitting like Simon Cowell pooring derision and scorn on entries?).  I also realised that I had a number of anxieties about putting myself forward for this; do I know enough?  Are my tastes in chocolate too narrow, or at worst at odds with what is ‘popular’?  are my taste buds discerning enough?

I was put at ease very quickly by both AoC organisers and other volunteer judges as soon as I arrived.  It was wonderfully relaxed, and as I chatted with others I found that I was not the only newby, and not the only chocolate maker.  Participants ranged from food journalists, chefs, chocolate makers, interested foodies, a coffee taster.  We were mainly but not all from the UK – but we covered a range of professions and a range of food cultures.

The judging room is large, with three tables situated as far apart from each other as possible!  At each end there are tables with entries waiting to be judged;  small plates of 5 or 6 samples of each entry, nervously waiting their turn to be scrutinised (Ok, they are just chocolates sitting on a plate – but out of their sumptuous packaging they do look vulnerable, exposed and out of place – and hence, a little nervous).  There are glossy brightly coloured and decorated ones, plain ones with no décor, simple, elegant ones – all sorts.  The plain ones seem more anxious, maybe wishing they had a little colour to them – or maybe quietly confident as they felt they would star when it comes to flavour. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds – the makers are not in the room and so these small confections are their representatives and embody the nerves of their makers, just as much as they embody their creativity and ambition.

In a separate room, busy people organise the entries.  Table tops, trolleys and benches are piled high with all manner of boxes – all the entries having been sent from all over the world – carefully packaged to ensure that they arrive in the best possible state.

I am allocated a table number and join my other four group colleagues.  Introductions, some guiding wisdom from Silvija Davidson of AoC,and we start – presented with three entries to assess.  As we finish those, more are randomly delivered to the table – some enrobed or panned, some white chocolate, some nut categories – constant variety to keep our senses busy.  We set about dissecting and scrutinising people’s hard worked creations; inspecting the product visually first – is it well presented, does it look pleasing?  Then cut through the middle to see how well it is constructed and put together.  Smell, look and then taste.  We are scrutinising people’s livelihoods and it feels deeply uncomfortable; to respect that responsibility, we have to stay true to a critical line; is this well made? Is it balanced? Does it give joy?  Even a chocolate I personally don’t like can give joy – in texture, look and ambition – and it is heartening that we as a group are really respectful of that.  We are not judging on just ‘do I like it or not’.

C, and we start – presented with three

By the end of the first session, I am sugared out; my mouth is complaining.  I stop at a café on my way home thinking a coffee will sort me out, but it just seems to be another assault on my overworked taste buds!  I have read that people crave salad after a session of judging – clean, crisp, cool brightness and I fully get that.  A cool swim after frenzied overindulgence

Judges are volunteers and so some do one or two sessions, others do more; for me, this goes on for two more days. We taste on; each session I find myself with a different group and the table has a slightly different dynamic about it.  I learn to refresh my palette more often with water, plain bread and thin sliced apples.  I gain confidence in putting forward my thoughts and observations to the group.  In my last session I am asked to be the scribe – and have to note and summarise the group’s feedback and thoughts on each entry – this will be the feedback that makers receive – so it needs to be clear and constructive, helpful to the maker to further improve their product – another level of seriousness and respect for the entries.

In 3 days I think I might have tasted about 120 or more chocolates; chocolates from all over the world with flavours ranging from the familiar – hazelnuts, raspberries, to fruits I have never heard of before (longans), through peppers and teas, liqueurs that spill out of their chocolate shells, to algae and fish!  Each one a discrete package that represents its makers creativity, expertise and ambition.  Some with stories attached (the descriptions of the chocolates that entrants are asked to give range from a straightforward overview of the chocolate, to stories of local traditions that lie behind the flavours used).  This all helps in the judging.

I come to the end of my three days – the judging goes on for another couple of days for this part of the competition (the filled chocolates) and will go on for the next month or more with judging of bars.  Those entries that we identified as silver or gold will go to the grand jury for confirmation of award.  Once in a while, we completely disagreed on a chocolate as a table, and when opinion varied wildly, it felt fairer to ask another table to give a second opinion.

I really enjoyed the experience – and home again and making chocolates, it has made me conscious of my own practice and challenged my own approach to chocolate making.  I had volunteered to learn, meet other people within the sector, see what other people are doing – and achieved all that.  I am looking forward to when the awards are announced, knowing that I was involved in a small way.

Thanks so much to AoC for involving me – and to all their hard work in bringing all this together.  And maybe next year, I might enter the competition!