When I lived in New Zealand, I was exposed to lots of unfamiliar ingredients and food terms. Things like kumera and feijoa were unknown, Egg and Bacon Pie and Ginger Crunch new taste sensations, and what the hell was silverbeet? One of my most trusted companions through the world of pumpkin, tamarillo and gurnard was Stephanie Alexander’s rainbow-striped doorstop of a book, The Cook’s Companion. I borrowed a copy from the library and ploughed my way through all 1,075 pages, taking notes as I read, and learning how to cook on the other side of the world. I admired Alexander’s breath of knowledge, loved the recipes she included from cookery writers like Annabel Langbein and Elizabeth Luard and it did my far-from-home heart good to find Darina Allen’s recipe for Soda Bread included.
In 2005 I had a chance to see Alexander present in person at that year’s Savour New Zealand event. She was there to talk about her Kitchen Garden Foundation, a project that she started in 2001 to get children gardening and cooking and eating together at the inner city Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. I remember looking at this on the programme, thinking that I’d prefer her to focus on the Cook’s Companion – but going along anyway. I wrote afterwards that she was the most inspiring presenter at the event. She electrified the room with her absolute passion for and belief in the importance of getting school-level children involved in gardening, cooking and eating. This was my first introduction to the problem of childhood obesity; Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners was also broadcast that year and saw him wrestling with similar problems that Stephanie had experienced when setting up the first Kitchen Garden. These are problems that haven’t gone away.
And now she’s coming to Ireland. On Saturday 5 May, Stephanie Alexander will talk about The Grass Roots of the Revolution: Edible Education, along with the legendary Alice Waters (the Edible Schoolyard), Bill Yosses (The Dinner Party Project) and Darina Allen. The discussion is just one of the events of the Ballymaloe LitFest of Food and Wine, a weekend which is, for any cookbook lover, packed with similarly spine-tingling moments. Taking a look at the schedule, which includes people like Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Myrtle Allen and Skye Gyngell, is like seeing one of my bookshelves come to life. I’m honored to be included in that line up, talking about Food Writing for the Digital Generation, with Aoife Carrigy, Lucy Pearse and Michael Kelly. It promises to be a weekend to remember.
I had never come across Date Scones before I lived in New Zealand; when I first made them, I used Stephanie Alexander’s recipe from The Cook’s Companion. Over the years, it’s been changed and revised and is now an amalgamation of a Darina Allen scone recipe, with a few tricks from my mother.
450g self-raising flour
A pinch of salt
25g light muscovado sugar
100g dates, finely chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Egg or milk and demerara sugar to finish
Preheat the oven to 230°C (210°C fanbake).
Sieve the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub in until the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, dates and nutmeg and mix well. Beat the egg in a bowl with the milk, add to the dry ingredients and mix into a soft dough.
Knead together quickly, turn onto a floured work surface and pat out into a 2cm thick round. I cut these into wedges and squares so I don’t get them mixed up with normal, round scones. Place on a floured oven tray, brush with egg or milk and sprinkle with some demerara sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.
Best split, buttered and eaten while still warm. Eat with jam – raspberry or blackcurrant for preference – or with slices of a crumbly, mature cheddar cheese.
Makes approximately 10 large scones.