Chef Alistair Dibbs of Hallingbury Events Company shares his foraging tips and recipe for blackberry and caramelised pecan cheesecake
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food...
As a chef, August is a very exciting time of year as it generally hails the height of the English berry season.
Being lucky enough to live near Bishop's Stortford, there are miles upon miles of hedgerows, many of which we did not discover until lockdown was forced upon us by Covid-19. Lots of these hedgerows are rich with a variety of different berries.
If you are struggling to find berries locally try the pick your own at Cammas Hall Farm near Hatfield Broad Oak. My kids have been going there for years and absolutely love it!
Along with the more common blackberry and raspberry there are many other unsung berries around. Some are sour when eaten straight from a hedgerow, but try cooking them to release the unique flavour and sweetness of each variety.
The list below shows the ones that I have used in my cooking over the years but is by no means exhaustive.
A word of warning – if you feel like going foraging for the less common berries, such as the ones I describe below, make sure you go with someone who knows their stuff or that you download an online guide, as there are as many toxic berries as edible ones.
I have always had a soft spot for gooseberries but they seem to have fallen out of favour in recent years. They are really easy to grow and can even be grown in containers if you are short on space.
I often serve them as a relish with fresh ginger paired with grilled mackerel as a starter but more commonly they are used in sweet pies and crumbles.
Again, these are easy to grow and maintain. They are often served with rich game – grouse, venison or pigeon all work well with redcurrants. They are a common partner for lamb too.
These are incredibly popular as a drinks flavouring – think Ribena and blackcurrant cordial for kids – but they have lost popularity as an ingredient in their own right and are now often limited to accompanying game dishes or desserts in restaurants.
Usually found growing wild rather than grown in gardens, elderberries are best made into wine, gin, jelly or cordial to unlock their sweet flavour. Alternatively you can turn them into savoury elderberry capers by curing them in salt, a method used by Scottish chef Tom Kitchin.
Bright red berries that are very sour – best made into jam or jelly using plenty of sugar.
These are small berries, black or dark blue in colour. They are incredibly sharp to eat on their own and have become well known as a flavouring for sloe gin, vodka or jam.
These are absolutely delicious. They are easy to grow in your garden, and usually fruit throughout July and August. The majority of UK raspberries are grown in Scotland, where they benefit from the long summer daylight hours.
There are several varieties, but most plants have the potential to grow very large, so make sure you have plenty of space.
My favourite! Although they can be messy and awkward to gather – think dark red-stained hands and clothes and very sharp brambles – the reward is well worth it!
Not only are they delicious when fully ripe, they are rich in vitamins A and C, contain antioxidants and fibre.
Everyone is familiar with a blackberry crumble so I thought I would publish a new recipe that I have been working on for a couple of weeks. Give the delicious blackberry and caramelised pecan cheesecake recipe below a try – you won't be disappointed.
Blackberry and caramelised pecan cheesecake
A word of warning – take extra care when making the caramelised pecans as the sugar will reach extremely high temperatures. Definitely not recommended for children!
24cm spring loaded cheesecake tin with removeable base
Blender or smoothie maker
For the base
150g digestive biscuits
100g roasted pecans
50g butter melted
For the filling
600g cream cheese
400g double cream
15ml lemon juice and zest of 1 lemon
Half a vanilla pod
140g caster sugar
12g leaf gelatine
For the blackberry jelly
20ml lemon juice
60g caster sugar
8g leaf gelatine
For the topping
Preheat your oven to 170C and roast the total amount of pecans (150g) for around four minutes to accentuate their flavour. Let them cool down and then blitz 100g of pecans, the cinnamon and the digestives until finely ground, then add the melted butter.
Line the base of the tin with the parchment paper and place the base mix on top, pressing it firmly onto the parchment. Place it in the freezer for 20 minutes to set firmly.
Next, make the cheesecake mix.
Soak the gelatine in cold water for five minutes. Meanwhile, semi-whip 350g of the cream and set aside.
Place the remaining 50g of cream, along with the sugar and vanilla, in a small saucepan and gently heat until it is almost boiling then remove from the heat.
Next add the lemon juice to the cream cheese and whisk them together for 20 seconds or so to loosen them.
Squeeze the gelatine to release the water and add it to the 50ml of hot cream and sugar, whisking it to ensure that it is dissolved, and then add it all to the cream cheese. Gently fold the semi-whipped cream into the cream cheese mix.
Remove the base from the freezer and place the cream cheese mix on top, pressing it down and smoothing it over with a palette knife (it is very important to get a smooth, even finish).
Don't fill the cheesecake ring up all the way, leave at least 5mm to allow room for the jelly. Place it in the fridge for an hour to set.
Now for the blackberry jelly.
Soak the gelatine in cold water for five minutes.
Next, place the blackberries, sugar, lemon juice and cassis in a small pan and heat for five minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the mixture into a blender (or better still a smoothie maker) and blend until smooth. Squeeze the gelatine to remove the excess water and add it to the blackberry mix in the blender and blend for a couple more seconds.
Now, push the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the many seeds. Leave it to cool down a little, but it still needs to be slightly warm.
Pour it over the cheesecake mix, which will now be set. Ensure you cover the entire surface of the cheesecake with the jelly. Place it back in the fridge for an hour or until set.
For the caramelised pecan topping, prepare a tray by placing an A4 piece of parchment paper on top of it. You will also need two clean tablespoons.
Place the sugar and water in a small pan and bring it to the boil. Let it continue to cook; the water will evaporate, forcing the sugar to start to caramelise. When the sugar turns a light brown, add the remaining 50g of pecans to it. Working quickly, remove the pecans one by one with the spoons, placing them on the parchment paper to cool down, which will only take five minutes.
To finish, remove the cheesecake from the fridge and grate the zest of lemon directly on top of the cheesecake. Next, pile on the blackberries and then finally add the pecans. Serve with blackberry sorbet. Enjoy!