My Secret Ingredients

When I first heard about Delia Smith’s Cheats’ Cookbook I was quite sniffy about it. Fancy using tinned mince instead of fresh, I thought. On further reflection I realised that at some time or other that’s what we all do - resort to the ready made - myself included. Maybe not the tinned mince, but I certainly use things like jars of tuna, tinned tomatoes and stock cubes. Like everyone else I make good use of any number of readily available items rather than make a whole dish from scratch. So while Delia is not a particular favourite of mine, I can’t argue with the principle she puts forward - when you are short of time, take a short cut.

I have quite a long list of what I think of as my “secret ingredients”. Which means when friends come to dinner and compliment me on the delicious meal, I don’t usually broadcast the fact that I may have used McDougals Instant Thickening Granules instead of making up a proper beurre manié, or that my deeply flavoured mushroom sauce owes more to Shake O’Cini wild mushroom powder than to ceps freshly gathered from the forest that morning. Such products provide useful shortcuts in cooking. When I include them in a recipe, they will have an asterisk against them and you will find them on this page. Here I will tell you what they are, how to use them and where to locate them. My secret ingredients range from the  boringly mundane to the slightly esoteric but all are useful things to have in your store cupboard.

Some of the products on my list are not particularly unusual, but, as in the case of the first few, are easy to find in any French supermarket, more difficult to locate in the UK. Other items are there because they are included in  a recipe or because I think their properties and the different ways of using them could be better known.

As time goes on I will add more to the list; and hopefully work out a better way for you to find the one you want to check out quickly and easily.


§ Black Garlic

Another superb flavour enhancer. Though it looks a bit yukky being nothing more than very old garlic it is really good. Waitrose had it for a while but it didn’t really take off and has now been pushed off the shelves to make room presumably for a better seller. You can’t argue with that I suppose but it might have survived if people knew how to use it. There are loads of recipes to stimulate your interest on the web-site

§ Bonne Maman L’Orange

Again, easily found in France although I have seen it in specialist food shops in the UK. This particular product is more like a slightly sharp, very fruity orange confit, rather than a proper jam or marmalade. Although delicious in its own right spread on toasted brioche, I use it, among other things, as the base for my orange butter sauce. This sauce works really well with asparagus, shell fish, artichokes and green beans.

§ Canadou Sucre de Canne Liquide

Add this to your French supermarket trolley. You will find it somewhere on the shelves where they keep the rums and various fruit flavoured eau-de-vies. Straightforward sugar cane syrup, it is usually used to make cocktails and the exotic aperitifs the French are so fond of and which I certainly would not say no to. But in my case, it is what I use on any fresh fruit salad that benefits from a little extra sweetness. Add it little by little as it is very intense. Fresh raspberries lightly crushed with the back of a fork, mixed with a small amount of sugar cane syrup and a splash of ratafia, spooned into tiny ripe hollowed out Charantais melons, then left to get nice and cold in the fridge, makes a smashing summery starter or dessert.

§ Figaro Mesquite Liquid Smoke

This is an American product which is meant to add flavour to barbecued meat. I have never tried doing this. I do add it to almost any casserole or sauce which I think will be enhanced by the wonderful smokiness it imparts. Obvious candidates are beefy stews but anything faintly Spanish using red peppers and paprika benefits from a few drops, as does a red wine gravy. A little goes a long way. Buy it and try it.

It occasionally turns up in specialist food shops in the UK but you can go to <> to find stockists.

§ Hazer Baba Apple Tea

What a great ingredient this is to have to hand. Not only does it make a pleasant refreshing drink but I use it make syrups and sauces for puddings, as a salad dressing ingredient and in ice creams and sorbets.

You might find it on a supermarket shelf alongside the tea and coffee; Waitrose certainly used to sell it but more likely you will have to track it down on the internet at <> British importers are Hider Food Imports Ltd., tel: (01482) 561137/504333 who can probably tell you your nearest stockist.

§ Knorr Jus de Roti

I don’t know why you can’t get these stock cubes in the UK but I have only ever seen them in French supermarkets. Find them on the shelves where all the jars of herbs and spices live. Use one to increase the amount of gravy you are making or to strengthen the flavour when you do a roast. When I’m making the gravy I crumble about 1/2 a cube into the roasting tin, pour in some wine, let it reduce a bit, add water and stir well. Reduce again if it needs a stronger flavour or add the rest of the cube if you want more gravy.

§ Knorr Touch of Taste Concentrated Stock

The reverse is true of these useful bottles of concentrated stock. Easy to find in any UK supermarket but not used at all in France. I always have one of beef and one of chicken stock in my stores cupboard and are absolutely invaluable. I often add a dash to a wine reduction when making a sauce or to soup and casseroles.

§ Kushcuisine Orange, Mango and Cardoman Marmalade

This stunning marmalade is one of a range of award-winning hand-made preserves made with a Caribbean twist. Ian and Sadie Jennings are responsible for the whole production from the cooking all the way through to the label design. They often sell in Farmers’ Markets and at shows in the UK but all their products can be found  at

§ Le Fumoir de la Seille

At her recently opened smokery beside the river at La Truchère my friend Sonja produces the most mouth-watering array of smoked foods. Her specialities like the smoked silure and the frogs legs are local to the region and only available from her. The trout, duck and chicken breasts lend themselves to lovely summer mains and delicious starters. The smoked prawns and chicken wings are tasty nibbles with an apero. I shall be publishing some of my recipes for her smoked food on my blog during the summer. At the moment you must phone to order and arrange to collect but a website is coming soon and she will be able to despatch orders further afield. If you have a boat then you’ve got it made - just pull into the pontoon and look for her sign on the wall.

Route du barrage, La Truchère.  Tel: 06 26 20 12 34

§ Leonardi’s Caramelised Figs in Balsamic Vinegar

I originally found this wonderful concoction in Sainsbury’s. These little jars labelled Mostarda di Figues appeared on the shelves which house a range of rather less “run of the mill” products than you normally would expect to find in the store. I know from long experience that if you find something interesting here, then it’s best to buy as many of that item as is feasible at the time. They will not be there for long; if you ask about them the shop staff will have no idea what you are talking about - these jars of caramelised figs are a prime example.

On its own it is absolutely stunning with pâté de foie gras. I thin it down with a drop of water and some olive oil to make the dressing for my Asparagus with Figgy Balsamic. A teaspoonful of the stuff improves my balsamic mint sauce no end and enhances the dressing for my Minty Melon Salad. I use it to dress beef carpaccio and as a savoury counterpoint to a dish of Piel de Sapo melon, fresh figs and Parma ham. Get some and you will soon find yourself using it in no end of different ways.

So now you must go to <> to track it down. Do please try.

§ Leonardi’s Saba Dressing

This is a condiment made from slow cooked grape must aged in barrels. It is the basis of balsamic vinegar. in this form it is hauntingly sweetly reminiscent of a rich dessert wine. Saba has been around since Roman times and can be used in a variety of foods both sweet and savoury. Leonardi’s is quite expensive, though a little goes a long way. You can find cheaper versions - I have a little bottle of something called Vincotto which works very well. Track it down by googling Saba/Vincotto condiment or go to Leonardi’s website - see above.

§ Loch Fyne Smoked Mussels

These 200g pots full of smoked mussels are absolutely delicious. Eat them as a starter - just four or five per person placed on a round of toast and warmed gently under the grill. Finish with a scattering of fine chopped parsley and lemon zest, a squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of the pepper mill. Sensational.

Make a thick and creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup. Mix finely chopped smoked mussels and parsley with thickened double cream and serve in a blob on top of the soup. Delicious.

If your fishmonger can’t supply then order them through a Loch Fyne restaurant or on the internet from the Loch Fyne mail order shop

§ L’Olivier Truffle Salt

I have several favourite Olivier products <>. L’Olivier’s is the best balsamic vinegar I have ever found. I love the bergamot scented olive oil and their tomato powder is so intensely flavoured and great for sprinkling on a variety of dishes. The truffle salt is lovely - a little goes a long way, though it’s a good idea to use it up fairly quickly as once opened the salt goes hard. Try it sprinkled over a slice of foie gras or a spread of hot roasted bone marrow on toast.

§ L’Olivier Olive Oil with Bergomot

Bergomot is like lemon but with limey edge to it. It’s quite an old-fashioned flavouring although it does turn up now and again in recipes. I’ve seen a bergamot tree but never the fruit. I love using this oil as a simple dressing especially with asparagus and avocado and it’s great on a beef carpaccio. As a bonus it comes in a really pretty tin, lasts for ages and unlike other flavoured oils, retains its intensity.

I really enjoy my annual forage at one of the Olivier shops in Paris, Lille, Lyon or Strasbourg - all cities which are easily accessible by barge. We recently found one in Namur, too. However if you are UK based they do now have a London shop at:

15, Kensington Church St. W8.

tel: 020 7937 5114 or email:

§ Maille Mayonnaise

This is found in the refrigerated section near the butter and cream in most French supermarkets. Made by Maille, a company best known for its Dijon mustard, it is quite mustardy for a mayo. Depending upon how I am intending to use it, I will thin it down a bit with cream to soften the flavour, or mix it with other ingredients or do a bit of both. Please note this is not a substitute for real home made mayonnaise which you intend to use on its own, but is excellent as the base for mayo-type dressings. I often add it to my own standard salad dressing for certain dishes like Asparagus and Smoked Salmon Salad.

A jar of this will live happily unopened in the fridge for ages, and even, once opened, will keep for several weeks.

§ Marks and Spencer ‘Terribly Clever’ Blackcurrant Jelly

Try this jelly before it disappears. It comes in a bottle. The flavour is intense. It is quick to make and by adding a tablespoon or two of crème de cassis, it becomes a nicely grown-up dessert.

§ McDougalls Thickening Granules

As I’ve mentioned this product already on this page I might as well tell you more about it. It’s definitely not a French thing, so if you are barging about in France, you will need to bring it with you from the UK. Easily found in most big supermarkets near the flour and baking stuff, it is nothing more than a thickening agent; a mixture of cornflour and vegetable oil that has been processed into granules. Unlike some of the old-fashioned thickening products like Bisto, it is tasteless and colourless. I use it like a beurre manié and add it towards the end of the cooking process. Because the granules dissolve quickly, it is easy to add a little at a time until the right density is achieved. I use it if I want to thicken a gravy and often when I’m adding cream or crème fraîche to a sauce as it seems to make it more stable.

§ Merchant Gourmet Black Beluga Lentils

Although I love the French Puy lentils and often cook them from scratch it’s always worth having a couple of sachets of MG’s black ones in your store cupboard. They lend themselves to so many things and are the basis for many soups and salads. You can serve them, suitably flavoured, as a side dish for both fish and meat based meals and are ideal veggie food. Useful too for a quickly prepared meal after an overlong aperitif hour with friends. I buy them in Waitrose when I’m in the UK otherwise you can order Merchant Gourmet products from their website at

§ Noilly Prat  

I’ve never drunk this as an aperitif in a bar or restaurant - probably because I’m never certain how to pronounce the name. It is easily found among the ports, sherries and other fortified wines on supermarket shelves in both France and the UK. It is the base for virtually every pale sauce or gravy I make. A few fine chopped shallots and a slosh of Noilly Prat reduced down to little more than a teaspoonful is the classic start to many sauces. I much prefer it to white wine for that initial reduction; its slightly bitter herbiness seems to have more punch and is better at bringing the various elements of the sauce together.

§ Opies Pickled Walnuts

I sometimes have a deep yearning for pickled walnuts and without doubt Opies are the best, indeed probably the only ones, unless you want to make your own. Easily available in almost any British supermarket and a website from which you can order. I love the smokiness they impart to a beef casserole and the way they increase the depth of flavour in other savoury dishes.

§ Panzani Sauce Tomate

I have never seen this product in the UK but it is easily found in any French supermarket.

This comes in a tube and you can use it like tomato puree. It is less harsh than the standard puree as it is made with the addition of some vegetables. I use it in any number of recipes - soups, sauces, casseroles, ratatouille, whatever. You can even make the quickest sauce ever for pasta. Squirt about a tablespoon or two into a small saucepan, thin down with a little water, pour in some double cream or crème fraîche, whisk all together whilst heating gently. Pour over fresh pasta. Serve with some parmesan. It is quicker to make than to write the recipe!

§ Salsa Truffina

This is a great little jar of mushroom puree strongly flavoured with truffles. A couple of teaspoons mixed into almost any mushroom dish will really make it zing. Do this at the end of the cooking so you don’t lose the truffle flavour. Add it to a creamy mushroom sauce to top some pasta or stir it into a mushroom rissotto. I add a little to my mushroom fricassée and to my trompettes de la mort mousseline. It keeps for several weeks in the fridge once opened.

This is a product that both Waitrose and Sainsburys sometimes sell. I have never seen it on sale in France. You can find stockists or order it on line at <>

§ Shake o’Cini wild mushroom powder

Despite its silly name this is an exceptionally good product. Not only does it increase the depth of flavour of any mushroom dish you may be making, especially if the only ones to hand are the common old white ones, and added to beefy casseroles and meat-based sauces like bolognaise, it gives an added intensity to the dish.

I first came across Shake o’Cini on Sainsbury’s shelves of special products, and just like all the other good things that turn up there, it disappeared again soon after. The second one, I bought from Divertimenti cook shop in London. I hope they still stock it as my current tin is almost empty, otherwise it can be tracked down on the Internet.

§ Védrenne Supercassis and Crème de Mûre

Although I fear the great M&S instant jelly I mentioned above has probably by now been and gone there are plenty of other things which are greatly enhanced with a quick splash of one of Védrenne’s many fruit liqueurs beyond being the basis for a delicious aperitif. (See Recipes from Barging into Burgundy). I love a splash of Crème de Myrtille on blueberries when I make an instant blueberry crumble. I also add Crème de Mûre to the juice in which I soak the bread casing of a Summer Pudding. A tiny splash of Supercassis can enhance a sauce or gravy for calves liver or pigeon breasts. Buy Védrenne - it’s the best and not too expensive; don’t go for the fancy bottles; it was around £12 a bottle last time I bought some.