You’ll have noticed that posts at Gastronomy Domine have been a bit thin over the last couple of months. That’s because I’ve gone from a very pleasant part-time freelance lifestyle to volunteering considerably more than full-time for the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so meals out and recipe development have had to take a back seat.
Raspberry Pi is a educational charity set up by my husband, Eben (who most of you know as Dr W). Its aim is to democratise computing for people who can’t currently afford to own a PC, and to promote the study of computer science in schools, by producing a very tiny computer for very little money. We’ve come up with a Linux PC the size of a credit card which will cost around £15, which we should be launching by Christmas. There’s been press interest from Ukraine to Brazil; we’ve been on the TV and in the papers in the UK, have spent a few weeks on the conference circuit in America, and seem unlikely to get much sleep until we launch in December. Gastronomy Domine will be back to normal in early 2012, by which time the charity should be generating some money for itself so I can hand my work over to a paid employee. If you really can’t stand not reading me witter on before then, drop into the forums or visit the Raspberry Pi blog.
Back to the food stuff.
Opening a hamper from Forman and Field with some help from Mooncake the cat, who seems unnaturally attracted to the smoked salmon
I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, after a month of prattling on about computers. The jet lag after a month of gorgeous sunshine eight time zones away is something to behold. I wasn’t safe around knifes or saucepans, so it was a very great relief that Forman and Field had decided to send me a Christmas hamper to review a few days after my return. I’ve been stealthily working my way through it ever since: this was a generous and carefully selected set of gourmet bits and bobs, which really deserved some time to be taken over sampling it.
Forman and Field specialise in top-notch foods from independent producers all over the UK. You might have come across their smoked salmon before, which is sold at Waitrose and really stands out against the competition. The London Cure in particular is really worth your time. It’s cured in much less salt than many smoked salmons, with a less dense smoke to it, all to showcase the taste of the fish itself. There was a handsome packet in here, with a soft flavour and firm bite, alongside a pack of wild salmon, smokier, richer and creamier than the London Cure. There’s no better way to eat this than on lightly buttered slices of rye bread.
Ham, pork pie, lemon curd, lobster, cakes, and some mince pies hiding under the wood shavings
Potted lobster in a pretty little Kilner jar was the only thing in the box I wasn’t able to eat (anaphylaxis is nobody’s idea of fun, and while I do carry an adrenaline injector for allergic emergencies, I try to go out of my way not to have to use it). Dr W, though, pronounced it just the ticket; a little like potted shrimp but sweeter and juicier. Take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you serve it at room temperature so the butter can melt into hot toast.
Alderton ham from Nottinghamshire is carved off the bone, and glazed with marmalade. I made sandwiches with it and some of the British cheeses from Neal’s Yard in the hamper: a Colton Basset Stilton, which is one of my favourite cheeses in the world; some of Mrs Kirkham’s Tasty Lancashire cheese; an unidentified Cheddar; and a bit of Caerphilly. That Colton Basset is stupendous on its own, but you can raise it to positive divinity by bringing it to room temperature and drizzling a little runny honey over it before you eat it with some crusty bread. An just in case that wasn’t enough on the savoury side, there was a handsome great pork pie from Mrs King’s in waxed paper, made to the same recipe since 1853.
It’s Christmas soon, so a little Christmas pudding and some mince pies were right at the top of the package. The pudding is the only thing I haven’t eaten yet. I’m saving it for December. Mince pies came with a lovely buttery, crumbly pastry and a mincemeat sharp with brandy. I ate them as a midnight snack with a hot buttered rum. A chocolate brownie cake and banana bread made breakfast in bed for the two of us on two weekend mornings, and the little Kilner jar of lemon curd was just right for elevenses on toast with a nice hot cup of tea.
I’d reached the bottom of the hamper, but for a box of impossibly glossy chocolates from Paul Wayne Gregory. Now. For my posh chocolate needs in the UK, I usually turn to l’Artisan du Chocolat, but three chocolates into the box I was swearing undying loyalty to Paul Wayne Gregory, and by the end of the box I was both feeling sick and wondering if he’d be interested in a bigamous marriage. I still can’t decide whether I’d like the last thing I ever eat to be one of his salted caramel chocolates, the passionfruit one or the popping candy one. These aren’t cheap, but they’re worth every penny, and then some.
Paul Wayne Gregory chocolates. Be still, my beating heart.
Forman and Field hit it out of the park with this hamper. There wasn’t a single dud in there. Every item in the hamper was something I’d consider ordering off my own bat. And there is nothing nicer than opening up a beautiful wicker box like this to rummage through on the living room floor, finding surprise after surprise. If there is a greedy somebody you love very much this Christmas, I can’t think of a better present. The hampers are packaged with ice and insulation, so they arrive fridge-cold. Last orders for Christmas at Forman and Field’s website are on Saturday 10 December, with last deliveries on Friday 23. To celebrate the launch of their new website, they’re offering readers £5 P&P until the end of November.
A word of caution. Forman and Field use the Royal Mail as couriers, and last Christmas, when we had all that snow, the Royal Mail managed to lose a Pugh’s Piglets porchetta we’d ordered from them, only to deliver it a week or so later, smelling exactly like you imagine a porchetta that’s been sitting in a van for a week probably smells; they also delivered some Forman and Field foie gras and smoked eel to my lovely Mum several days late, which meant they missed the Christmas Eve gathering they were intended to feed. Probably down to the weather, but it made our Christmas run less smoothly than it should have done. At least they don’t use the Home Delivery Network.
The recipe I posted for sticky toffee pudding back in 2008 resulted in a comments thread full of people reminiscing about A La Carte magazine. Back when I was a horrible precocious kid, my Mum used to get the magazine monthly. It was a beautiful thing, with gorgeous photography (unusual for food publications in the 80s), and some masterful typesetting, which I used to think back to fondly when I started working in magazines myself twenty years later.
The recipes were heavily influenced by the extravagant, rich French style of dinner party cooking. Lots of butter and cream, everything spiked with as much booze as you could lay your hands on, and the sort of preparation that would have your mother sweating and swearing in the kitchen for entire afternoons as she stitched ducks and chickens together for hours at a stretch.
My Mum used to lay on the most fabulous dinner parties, where she’d cook from A La Carte and from books by those 80s superstar chefs like John Tovey, Robert Carrier and Raymond Blanc. I didn’t get to come downstairs to try the food, but I could smell it wafting up through the bannisters that overlooked the dining room, and sometimes got to sample bits in the kitchen while she cooked. I also sneaked downstairs in the mornings while Mum and Dad slept the night’s partying off to work my merry way through the leftovers, including whatever wine was left at the bottom of glasses, thereby starting early on a life of dipsomania. She’s amazing, my Mum. She used to make petit fours from scratch. She made lucullan heaps of fruit glazed with lightly beaten eggwhites and dipped in caster sugar so they shimmered as if coated in powdered diamonds. The table would be laid with silverware polished until you could kill an ant with the reflections off a spoon. And we kids would be packed away to bed after handing out the chocolate-dipped physalis, devils on horseback, freshly roasted almonds or whatever other pre-dinner nibble she’d settled on, so as not to aggravate the guests. It was enough to raise an appetite that, in my case, has not yet subsided.
Although A La Carte, with its complicated and time-consuming recipes, hasn’t survived, it turns out that a lot of those who subscribed to the magazine kept their copies to cook from. Mike Ratcliffe, a reader of this blog, very kindly sent me scans of two pages from the December 1984 edition. They include a Christmas pudding recipe you’d be well-advised to make now ready for December, a boned and stuffed turkey recipe that other commenters here have been waxing lyrical over, and a yeasted sugar tart that sounds just the ticket. (I think you can probably leave the smoked salmon ice made wobblesome with gelatine safely in the 1980s, though; and the Persian recipes on the second page lack the sort of spicing we’d be used to nowadays.) Click on the images to enlarge them to a readable size. If any other readers out there have copies of the magazine with scans they’d like to share, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear from you, and I know there are lots of people out there who have similarly happy memories of 1980s bacchanalia they’re just as keen as I am to reproduce.
A la Carte Christmas recipes, Dec 1984. Click to embiggen.
A la Carte Christmas recipes, Dec 1984, p2. Click to embiggen.
Ants climbing a tree
The name of this Szechuan dish is one that’s always confused me. There are, most emphatically, no ants in it; no woody bits either, unless you’ve failed to soak your dried mushrooms properly. I’ve heard suggestions that the bits of minced pork resemble ants and the glass noodles a tree. Whoever came up with that one had either been at the opium pipe, or had spent his life locked up somewhere where there are neither ants nor trees. There are other, even more unappetisingly named Szechuan dishes out there: husband and wife offal, strange-taste pork, pock-marked old woman’s bean curd. Struggle past the names – they all taste great. Szechuan cuisine lays all its emphasis on intense chilli spicing, and salty, savoury flavours.
Peculiar name aside, this makes for a terrific main dish, which you should serve with some rice to soak up the sauce. It’s important that you get your hands on glass noodles (sometimes called bean-thread or pea-thread noodles) rather than rice noodles when you cook ants climbing a tree. Their texture, slippery and glassy, and not particularly absorbent, is an important part of this dish. As always with a stir fry, make sure all your ingredients are chopped and ready to hit the wok as soon as you start to cook; things move quickly here.
To serve 6 (this also freezes well, so it’s worth making plenty even if you’re not serving that many people) you’ll need:
450g minced pork (I like a mince that’s not too lean here)
200g dry weight glass noodles
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornflour
75ml Chinese rice wine
12 spring onions
1 piece ginger about the size of your thumb
4 fat cloves garlic
200ml chicken stock (you can use half stock, half soaking liquid from your mushrooms if you prefer)
6 large, dried shitake mushrooms
6 dried cloud-ear mushrooms (sometimes sold as Chinese black mushrooms)
1 tablespoons chilli bean sauce
2 tablespoons shredded bamboo shoots preserved in sesame oil (optional – don’t worry if you can’t find these)
1 teaspoon Chinese chilli oil (look for a jar at your local oriental supermarket, and use more if you like things extra-spicy – I used about 3 heaped teaspoons in mine, but I have an asbestos tongue)
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
6 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon ground nut oil
Combine the pork with the sugar, salt, rice wine, cornflour and one tablespoon of light soy sauce in a bowl, and set aside for half an hour while you prepare the other ingredients.
Soak the mushrooms for at least 20 minutes in freshly boiled water (I like to soak shitakes for an hour or more for the sake of texture; the cloud ears won’t need so long). Chop the spring onions, keeping the white and green parts separate. Dice the garlic and ginger finely. Pour boiling water over the noodles, soak for 10 minutes and then drain. Remove the mushrooms from the soaking liquid and slice them into fine strips, discarding the woody stalks of the shitakes.
Heat the oil until it starts to smoke in a wok, and throw in the garlic, ginger and the white parts of the spring onions. Stir fry for a few seconds until the aromatic ingredients start to give up their fragrance, and tip the contents of the pork bowl into the wok. Stir fry until the pork is browning evenly, and add the mushrooms to the wok with the bamboo shoots, stock, chilli bean sauce, chilli oil and soy sauces. Stir well to combine everything and add the noodles, stir again until the noodles are dispersed evenly through the wok, and turn the heat to medium. Allow the dish to bubble away until the sauce has reduced by about a third (a mixture of absorption and evaporation in this dish means this won’t take long). Remove from the heat and stir through the sesame oil and the green parts of the spring onions. Serve immediately with rice.
Update, Oct 22 2011: This quick review trip was so blissy that I’ve just booked a seven night stay at the Scarlet for the week before Christmas. Which I believe is what people are talking about when they mention putting your money where your mouth is – and I can’t wait.
Regular readers will have seen that last week I was invited to check out (and check into) a couple of very different hotels in Mawgan Porth. Mawgan Porth is a tiny Cornish village perched on a cliffside overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bay, where waves which have built up enough momentum on their journey across the Altantic to make a surfer’s day crash over an impossibly yellow, sandy beach.
Mawgan Porth from the Cornwall Coastal Path. The Scarlet is the large curvilinear building in the middle (click to enlarge the photo) with the black roof.
The Scarlet opened a couple of years ago with a very individual take on what a top-class hotel should offer. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s no reception; instead, you’re shown to a comfy chair by a fireplace, with a birds’ eye view across the bay, while the receptionist comes to you and takes your details. There’s a library, a sitting room, and a large and quiet spa; the place is full of tranquil little corners to bolt yourself away in, and children are not allowed – as well as a well-stocked and lively bar, and a very classy restaurant (of which more below). There are only 37 rooms, which makes for a pleasantly calm atmosphere, and you’ll find Cornish sculpture and paintings displayed prominently all over the hotel, which has the feel of something between an art gallery and the home of a really good and hospitable friend.
The view from the entrance to the hotel - a lobby with no reception desk. That's not a swimming pool, but a decorative feature which I am sure serves some ecological purpose besides being decidedly pretty.
The Scarlet was built with the firm belief that it’s possible to provide a luxury hotel experience while making the minimal ecological impact, so you’ll discover that hidden away are biomass burners, solar panels, a very clever cooling system that relies on natural ventilation but offers a similar level of cooling to air conditioning, and as much recycling, reusing, and electric car charging as you can shake a (locally sourced) stick at. It’s all deeply sensible stuff of the sort that should occur to anyone who has to run their own home efficiently: unfinished bars of hotel soap are used in the laundry as stain removers, the drippy bits left behind in the bottoms of candlesticks are sent back to the candlemaker to be made into new candles, grey water is recycled, rain water is collected, and where possible, the hotel’s supplies are bought without packaging. All that you, the guest, will notice here is that your sugar cubes aren’t individually wrapped up.
The hotel library - a perfect place to relax with a cream tea and a good book.
Best of all, though, from my perspective, was the way the eco-friendliness had been carried across into the hotel spa, becoming a feature rather than an economy. Here is an outdoor pool that’s really a sort of swimming pond overlooking the sea, filtered and cleaned not with chemicals, but via a gorgeous reed bed which forms part of the pool itself. It’s a bit nippy in September, but Dr W manfully took a dip and pronounced it lovely before scampering inside for a hot shower. The pool indoors is solar-heated to a nice bathroom sort of temperature, and cleaned with very low-dose bromine instead of the more skin-unfriendly chlorine. And the hot tubs are perched on the cliff-top lawn and, charmingly, heated by stoves full of logs. (Those logs can create sparks in high winds, which, thanks to hurricane Katia, precluded my having a soak.) You can book a hot seaweed bath in one of these tubs, which look for all the world like giant red teacups; the seaweed is harvested locally, and apparently does all kinds of wonderful things for the skin.
The blissfully warm indoor pool. A better option on a chilly day than the sea or the outdoor swimming pond!!
Our room had big, sliding balcony doors at the foot of the bed, from which we could walk out onto a lawn on the cliff, and straight down to the sea. This was one of the best hotel rooms I’ve stayed in this year (and I’ve stayed in a lot this year; in the last month alone I’ve slept in a W in New York, a Fairmont in California and a Hilton in Arizona, none of which has rooms a patch on what’s on offer at the Scarlet). A lovely, light space coloured by the sea outside with crisp linens, blond woods, sea-toned textiles and sculptural decorations. The lighting is not something I usually do anything other than curse about in hotels – you’re probably familiar with the situation where you’re presented with six separate switches in different parts of the room, none of which do what you want them to. At the Scarlet, though, the lighting is designed to switch between seven different situations: your lighting can be architectural, ambient or mood-matching, and it’s all controlled from a central panel by the bed or one by the door. A bathroom is integrated into the room over a low wall, with a huge tub and basin on the bedroom side, and a shower and toilet hidden behind a heavily frosted glass wall. It all adds up to a sense of airy lightness, enhanced by the sun and the waves an outstretched arm away outside the window.
Bedroom overlooking the cliff-top lawn
This is Gastronomy Domine, so you’ll want to hear about the food. As I mentioned in the piece I wrote about the Scarlet’s sister hotel, Mawgan Porth is very close to Padstow, a town entirely colonised by restaurants, hotels, cafes and gift shops run by Rick Stein (who himself prefers to spend his time in Australia these days). This means that an unholy number of food tourists visit the area – and the result has been to cause other, non-Stein hotels and restaurants to raise standards to a very high level. At the Scarlet you’ll be eating with that spectacular view along one wall of the restaurant, all chocolate and purple velvet and private corners.
The localism that characterises the Scarlet makes itself felt in the menu, where the food is impeccably seasonal and chef Ben Tunnicliffe emphasises quality ingredients. What’s more September-y than the sweet, pinkly bloody breast of a grouse served with cobnuts? The heather these little birds live in grows in abundance all over Cornwall, and after a day yomping over the moors, I can’t think of anything better to round things off than this beautifully prepared dish, so well-balanced in flavour and texture. Fish, of course, is as fresh as can be, and the monkfish tail wrapped in bacon and served with a mussel tagliatelle was based around the sort of dense and rich seafood stock that you can only dream of producing at home in a kitchen where your only fish is from the supermarket. Venison terrine, blackberry crumble (deconstructed so it arrives on the plate looking like some of the hotel sculpture) – this is a thoughtful, ultra-seasonal menu which will have changed to reflect what’s best at the moment you visit. The restaurant was packed on the night we visited, and there was a bit of a delay between courses – but when that’s the worst criticism you can come up with in a 24-hour stay, somebody’s doing something very right.
Grouse with a quail egg, cobnut and bacon salad - one of the best starters I've eaten this year. Simply beautiful stuff.
Roast monkfish tail wrapped in smoked bacon, roasted courgette, mussels, creamed tagliatelle
Rhubarb panna cotta
Breakfast follows in the same vein – local bangers and hog’s pudding are on the menu (waiter service here, none of your buffet scrummage) alongside Tregida kippers, which are currently vying with Frank Hederman’s kippers from Ireland as my pick for world’s best. They’re very heavily smoked over oak, with an ethereally sweet and buttery flesh. I’ve been very pleased to discover that the Tregida Smokehouse’s produce is available by mail; I’ll be placing an order when I’m back in the UK. There’s apple juice on the table, pressed locally: a lovely way to wake up after a night listening to the waves break over the beach below.
Breakfast table setting. Augment this lot with pastries, porridge, coffee and some world-beating kippers, and you're all set for the day.
We got into the car for the drive home absolutely miserable to leave the place behind. A 24-hour stay simply wasn’t long enough. I’ll be back at the Scarlet as soon as I can as a paying guest, and I hope you decide to take someone you love very much too, for a weekend or so of calm, indulgent grown-up time.
I was invited to spend a weekend at the Bedruthan Steps hotel and its sister, The Scarlet, in Mawgan Porth in Cornwall. These are two hotels catering for very different audiences, but sharing an ecological, food-loving ethos – and one of the greatest sea views you’ll ever wake up to.
Clifftop view from the Cornwall Costal Path, a few paces from the Bedruthan Steps
I don’t have kids. It means that I’m blissfully ignorant of things like baby monitors, the school gate experience, feeding times and other arcane kid stuff. So I was a wee bit worried about being invited to the Bedruthan Steps, which is heavily advertised as being family-friendly. I’d resolved to steel my way through a day of kids, then collect my reward at the Scarlet in the company of grownups the next day.
Bedruthan Steps from the outdoor pool
A total surprise, then to pitch up at the Bedruthan Steps, admittedly full of pre-vocal people accompanied by their carriers/feeders/cleaners, and find it weirdly tranquil. The management know that not everybody wants to spend their day being poked with a plastic shovel, so to that end, there are plenty of adult-only areas (and a teenager-only area which Dr W had a good old whinge about not being allowed into so he could play pool). This works well for parents, too, who don’t have to worry about their kids’ noise and play annoying the kid-free; the kid-free are all in the adults’ lounge, the bar, or the adult-only pool. Breakfast saw us and all the other childless visitors put in a child-free section of the restaurant. There’s also a no-children swimming pool and spa. And this place is beautiful. Externally – well, not so much; you’re looking at a white 1950s monolith stacked up the cliffside in steps. But inside, the Bedruthan Steps is a lovely thing: all marine colours, pale woods, sculptural shapes, Cornish artworks and handsome textiles.
Cornish cliches in Mawgan Porth village: clotted cream ice cream, pasties and surfing. All that's missing is a scone and some tea.
If you do have kids, then you are really the person this hotel is catering for. Baby monitors in the rooms; a children’s club; an adventure playground with scrambling nets and a kids-only zip wire (cue more howls of disappointment from Dr W, an 8-year-old in a six-foot microchip architect’s body). The spa offers those special pregnant-lady massages, alongside all the usual treatments. All the baby stuff that my baby-owning friends have to tote around with them is provided, so you’re not going to have to pack the car to the gills – you can use the hotel’s plastic baby cutlery, cots, bibs, reusable nappies and potties (four words which I hope never appear again on this blog) for free, and if you want, you can also rent strollers, sterilisers, bouncing chairs and bottles for a very small fee. Our room had a double bed separated from the rest of the room by a half-wall, and two single beds for our imaginary children to sleep in in the living area.
Hotel room - and that view!
There’s a lot of attention to detail in the child facilities, and I did feel that that same attention to detail was missing in small ways in the rooms (perhaps it was just the bad luck that comes with being assigned room 13) – I could have done with a towel rail and loo roll holder that stayed attached to the wall, and I could really have done without the half-used bottle of lubricant that a previous guest had left in the bedside drawer. But the view from every bedroom, of Mawgan Porth’s gorgeous little sandy cove and the impossibly blue Atlantic pounding up to the beach – that’s worth all the nasty bedside drawer surprises in the world. We opened the window in the night to breathe in the sea air, and to listen to the wind and the waves; better than any prescription sleeping tablet. There’s lousy cell phone reception up here on the cliff, which makes for a fantastic excuse not to pick up the phone to talk to work while you’re away.
View from the lane down to the sea
You can walk down to that beach in about five minutes. It has a dedicated lifeguard and makes for a perfect sandcastle-making spot. It’s also good for surfing, and you can arrange lessons with Nick via the hotel’s front desk. The hotel is only a few yards from the Cornish Coastal Path, and there’s some great walking in both directions along the cliffs.
Mawgan Porth bay
Padstow, now entirely colonised by Rick Stein restaurants, gift shops and hotels, is just up the road. This has been great news for diners visiting this part of Cornwall – rather than allow him to have the lock on good eating in the area, the other hotels and restaurants around here have really raised their games. Dining at the Bedruthan Steps, overlooking the bay through the restaurant’s ceiling-height windows, you’ll find a menu that changes daily; mixing simple, traditional cooking with more exotic (but never unapproachable) flavours like sumac and green curry. The fish here is local, admirably fresh and carefully selected, but if you’re not a fish person, there’s lots of choice, from vegetarian dishes to some great locally, organically raised meats. Locally fished mackerel stuffed with cracked wheat, currants and pistachios had sweet flesh, rich with oil, underlined by a sharp, herby gremolata dressing. And a beef casserole, full of local vegetables, had a lovely dumpling floating in the middle, light and airy: this is family food just like my Mum used to make. Cornish plums and Mawgan Porth lavender in a tarte tatin – locavores can quite literally eat their hearts out. Cornish beers (I was there for a Harvest Festival celebrating local beers and produce) stand alongside some extremely good Cornish fruit juices – of course, if you’re a wine drinker, there’s also an extensive, non-Cornish wine list.
Mackerel stuffed with cracked wheat
Beef stew with an ethereal dumpling and some terrific onion rings
Roast plum and lavender tarte tatin - and a compulsory dollop of Cornish clotted cream
Alongside this localism, you’ll see a real commitment to sustainable, ecological management of the hotel. The food and drink aren’t the only locally sourced things you’ll see here – soaps, stationery, and even the hotel’s building materials are all from the local area. There’s solar heating for the outdoor pool; the rooftops are planted with grass; and the hotel has a year-round commitment to keeping the beach clean. There is constant waste and energy monitoring, motion-sensitive lighting in some areas, and a slightly irritating towel rental policy if you want more than the one per person that you’ll find in the room for the pool or beach.
Bedruthan Hotel spa
If you’re a parent of children of any age, I can’t think of anywhere you’ll find a better mix of things for the kids to do and for you grown-ups to enjoy too. There’s so much to do in the surrounding area, but if you want to stay in the hotel, there are weekend activities for adults: shoe-making, bread-baking, beekeeping, toddler-management, yoga and so on. (Check the hotel website for what’s on when.) Summer in Cornwall is late in finishing; when we were there in early September lots of families with pre-school-age children were taking advantage of the final flush of the south-west sun. Older children appear in the school holidays. Just watch out for the contents of the bedside drawers in room 13.
Niamh and some of Frank Hederman's smoked salmon with cucumber relish on potato pancakes
My friend Niamh, who blogs at Eat Like a Girl, has just published Comfort and Spice: a beautiful recipe book, densely packed with recipes. (Important, this. Have you noticed how a lot of recent cookery books have a lot of pictures, very big text and surprisingly few recipes? Not this one.) If you’ve been following UK food blogs at all over the last few years, you’ve probably come across Eat Like a Girl. It’s one of my favourite UK cookery blogs: Niamh’s writing voice is just like her conversation, wry and full of energy; her photography is jealousy-inducing; and her recipes are, it goes without saying, bleedin’ marvellous.
Comfort and Spice, the new book in question, is the result of a year’s hard slog, and it’s full of new recipes which don’t appear on Niamh’s blog. The comfort’s all in the home-made butter, pork crackling, parma ham-flavoured salt and parmesan bone marrow that fills the book; the spice brings warmth and depth to the recipes – rose petals, cinnamon, lemongrass, Szechuan peppercorns and bay leaves in a flurry of international recipes.
The book is divided into smart chapters, which you’ll actually find useful in the kitchen. Quick suppers are always a useful resource, but best for me is the section on eight great big dinners – with pointers to what to do with the leftovers.
Overnight-cooked pork shoulder
Niamh invited Dr W and me round for dinner with some other friends to try some bits from the book, and some recipes which didn’t make it in. All fantastic – bacon-infused vodka (not in the book – I hope the recipe turns up in a book or online soon) sounds mad, but made a simply superb bloody mary. Overnight-cooked pork shoulder with a spiced apple relish is pure Niamh: packed with flavour, trimmed with lovely bits of crackling, and sauced with real gusto. Irish potato pancakes with smoked salmon and cucumber relish are in the book, and I was quickly face-down in them, only to be diverted by something called bacon jam with the book’s blaas (one of the few yeasted Irish breads).
Now, if you’re not familiar with Niamh’s cooking, I can’t think of a better place to start than with the bacon jam, which is like a meaty version of crack. Seriously. Once you start eating it, it is basically impossible to stop; a very unattractive look, especially if there are eight other people trying to get to the bowl. It’s on her blog already, so didn’t appear in the book, and she’s given me permission to reproduce the recipe here. Go and cook it, and make sure that you’re alone when you eat it, because bacon jam smeared all over a salivating face is not attractive. Then go and buy the book to induce some more salivating.
Bacon jam, about to be shovelled into the gaping maw of Dr W
500g streaky bacon (it has to be streaky), chopped into small dice
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely diced
50g brown sugar
50mls maple syrup
50ml cider vinegar
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
250ml fresh brewed coffee (NOT instant – important)
2 chipotles in adobo (2 chillies – NOT 2 tins!), finely chopped
Sauté the bacon over a medium heat until starting to crisp.
Take the bacon out and fry the onion in the bacon fat until softening but not coloured. Add the garlic for about a minute.
Transfer the bacon, onion, garlic to a large pot with the rest of the ingredients (excluding the red wine vinegar). Simmer gently for one hour, adding a little water every 30 minutes if required (I only had to do this towards the end). Add the red wine vinegar in the last 5 minutes.
You can pulse the jam in a food processor briefly (to retain the course texture) although I felt it didn’t need it as the bacon was chopped quite small.
Ready to serve. Will keep in the fridge too although I doubt you will have any leftover.
Another quick and dirty one today. This recipe’s a great addition to a table full of tapas. Good prawns, sweet, fat and succulent, are at their best when treated simply. Here, they’re just flavoured with garlic, piri-piri chilli peppers and olive oil, and cooked very quickly.
I get a bit repetitive with the following whinge every time I blog about prawns, so skip this paragraph if you must – but the lack of availability of raw prawns with their heads and skins still attached in this part of the country (and, to be honest, in many other parts too) absolutely infuriates me. If you’re in Cambridge, you can sometimes find big, whole tiger prawns at Seatree on Mill Road (a fish and chip shop with a small wet fish counter). I’ve not had great success with the fish stall on the market, which smells far more strongly than a good fish seller should. Aside from this, you’re out of luck for dedicated fish sellers. Get into the supermarkets early and you might get lucky; there are sometimes raw prawns in the freezer cabinet too. Good luck with heads and shells, though; as you can see, I wasn’t able to find prawns with heads although I did get lucky withs shells. Both add flavour – there’s real depth of flavour in those shells, and the squishy bits that some people call brains (actually the prawn’s hepatic organ) are really delicious if you can get around the squick factor. Do not hang out with Chinese families if the squick factor is a problem for you. We tend to crunch those shells and suck the brainy bits out at the table, and it’s only partially because we think they’re totally delicious. At least ten percent of our motivation is to put off the people we’re eating with so they leave some extra prawns.
South African piri-piri peppers are botanically indistinguishable from Thai bird’s eye chillies (cili padi or phrik khi nu if you’re in an oriental supermarket). Use whichever you can get your hands on.
To serve two with crusty bread to dibble in the juices, you’ll need:
750g raw prawns with shells and heads on (500g if, like me, you couldn’t get your hands on heads and shells – mine had shells but had been decapitated.)
5 fat, juicy cloves garlic
2 bird’s eye or piri-piri chillies. These are very hot, but if you’re brave you can add another one.
4 generous tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon parsley to scatter
If your prawns are frozen, defrost them thoroughly and dry them on paper towels.
Warm the olive oil over a medium flame in a large frying pan and throw in the roughly chopped garlic, Sauté, keeping everything on the move, until the garlic is softening and giving up its scent (about a minute). Add the prawns and chopped chillies to the pan and continue to sauté until the prawns have turned from grey to pink (3-5 minutes). There is nothing as good as the smell of prawns cooking with garlic – your kitchen will smell wonderful.
Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with the parsley. Eat immediately, while they’re still piping hot.
Stuffed Peppadew peppers
They sell something very similar to these in one of my local delicatessens, but rather more mayonnaise-y – and they sell them for about £1 per pepper, which is a simply amazing markup when you consider that a whole jar of the things, unstuffed, will only cost you about £2.50. Add a small can of tuna and a few ingredients which you probably have in the fridge already, and you’ve got (if you’re making them at home) a very inexpensive and very easy canapé, which you can make well in advance of any party you might be serving them at.
I spent years under the illusion that Peppadews (a brand name rather than a botanical name) were some sort of fruit which wasn’t related to the chilli. I think that perhaps I was a victim of some 1990s marketing. They’re actually a round chilli pepper, which grows in the Limpopo region of South Africa (cue chants of “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river” from all those of us who absorbed Kipling’s Just So stories at our mothers’ knees), and is processed to remove the seeds, then preserved in a sweet pickling mixture. Removing the seeds reduces the chilli’s heat, and it also leaves a nice, tidy hole in the top of the chilli which is just right for pushing stuffing into.
You want something salty, savoury and assertive in a stuffing here, that won’t get overwhelmed by the sweet and strong fruitiness of the chillies. Tinned tuna and capers are a really good match here. To fill a jar of little chillies (which will serve 4-6 as a nibble with drinks), you’ll need:
1 jar Peppadew peppers
1 small can tuna
Juice of ½ lemon
1 heaped tablespoon crème fraîche
1 stick celery, cut into tiny dice
½ shallot, cut into tiny dice
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 heaped tablespoons chopped parsley
Easy as anything: just mix everything except the Peppadews thoroughly in a bowl, and use a teaspoon to stuff the peppers with the mixture. Chill before serving.
Pan con tomate
It’s a total mystery to me how Catalan cuisine, out of all the cuisines in the world, could have given birth to the ultra-complicated school of molecular gastronomy headed up by Ferran Adria. Catalan cooking, in its non-molecular state, is centred in simplicity and great ingredients; there’s a growing collection of super-simple tapas here on Gastronomy Domine, all of which are typical of the region.
My newly minted sister-in-law, Katie, has family in Barcelona and studied Catalan at university. She and my brother married just outside Barcelona, which afforded them the perfect opportunity for a wedding meal made up of course after course of delicious tiny nibbly tapas, alongside a whole leg of Iberico ham (complete with a knife-wielding dude to carve it), three enormous dishes of paella cooked over propane burners and enough fruit tart (standing in for wedding cake) to sink an armada.
Pan con tomate, as you’ll have guessed if you’ve ever visited Barcelona, was on the wedding table (alongside chorizo al vino, padron peppers, positive gallons of sangria, and some garlicky prawns, croquetas, boquerones and other bits and bobs I’ll blog recipes for later on). It might just be the recipe with the best ease-of-making to total-deliciousness rating ratio in the world. I’m not even going to list amounts below – it’d go against the whole nature of the thing.
Quality of ingredients is always important, whatever you’re cooking; but if you’re making something this simple it becomes absolutely paramount. You should look for a really dense bread (not wholemeal) with a decent chewiness to it. And the tomatoes – hoo boy. There is no point in making this recipe at any time of year when you can’t get a decent supply of juicy, fresh, large tomatoes. You’re best off by far with tomatoes from your own greenhouse, and the things that resemble red potatoes from the supermarket should be avoided at all costs. Reckon on using half a tomato on each slice of bread. Your garlic should be plump and unblemished, and your olive oil the very best you can get your hands on.
Good sourdough bread
Very ripe, large tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt (I like Maldon salt here)
Grill the slices of bread until golden, and rub each slice with the garlic pieces, which will wear down to nubbins as you go. Cut a tomato in half and rub it on a garlicky slice of bread, pushing as you go to make sure the juices and seeds are pressed into the piece of bread. Discard the pulp.
Pour a generous slug of olive oil over each slice of tomato bread, and sprinkle with a little salt.
These are fantastic just on their own, and can be made even better by laying a slice of raw Iberico ham on top before taking a bite.
Caesar salad (anchovies optional!) at the new Porch restaurant
The Japanese have a business philosophy called kaizen, which means continuous improvement. No matter how slick a process is, kaizen says that constant small improvements can – and should – always be made.
I have a deep suspicion that Celebrity Cruises are practising kaizen.
I’ve been invited on the inaugural cruises for Celebrity’s last three Solstice-class ships. These enormous floating palaces are the largest and swankiest in Celebrity’s already pretty large and swanky fleet, and although plenty of what’s on board will be recognisable across all four ships, there have been changes in each new launch – some, like the tweaks to Murano’s cheeseboard, so small you might not even notice; some surprisingly large, like the wholesale transformation of Michael’s Club from a cigar bar to a craft beer venue. If you read my reviews of the previous ships in the fleet, you might remember my bafflement at the inclusion on the last three ships of a glass-blowing studio. That’s gone on Silhouette, to be replaced by a prepossessingly calm and comfy cabana area on one of the ship’s lawns (these ships all have lawns – an amazingly difficult thing to maintain in the salty atmosphere at sea, but maintained they are, and handsomely) and a new barbecue restaurant.
I only had two days on board to explore all the changes, and two days is nothing like long enough to work your way around all the menus on board. The standard dining, and unlimited standard drinks (a variety of beers, wines and spirits) are all included in the price of your cruise. The included dining covers the huge formal dining room; the buffet, which stretches over nearly an entire deck; the pool deck grill, serving chilli, nachos, hot dogs and other poolside goodies; a terrific gelato bar down on deck 5; sandwiches, patisseries, tea and coffee in Cafe al Bacio; cocktails and nibbles in several bars; and the odd little treatsome canapé left in your room if you’re travelling concierge or Aqua class.
Lawn Club Grill being set up for the evening crowd
All this means that once you’re on board, there’s really no reason to spend any extra money on eating or drinking – but if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty motivated by food and don’t mind spending a little more for something a bit different. For those who are looking for something special, Silhouette houses a number of other drinking and dining venues, all with different ambiances. I wrote about Qsine (an additional $35 per head) at the restaurant’s launch on Eclipse, and the whole interactive eating experience has proved so popular (you have to admit that a burger is much more fun when you’re squizzling your own sauce on it and draping it with your own idea of the right amount of fried onion) that they’ve introduced another interactive dining venue on Silhouette. The Lawn Club Grill, up on the top deck, where you’ll pay an extra $30 per person, has DIY pizzas for the kids, and DIY flat breads for you. The real draw, though, is the barbecue element where New York strip, filet mignon and rib-eye steaks, snapper, salmon, veal, lamb and a big selection of kebabs are available for you to grill yourself to your own liking at your own table. If you’re not up for barbecuing your own dinner, the chefs will do it for you – but where’s the fun in that? There are some pretty special accompaniments on offer, which will be delivered to your table. Allergies prevented me from trying it myself, but I’m told I must encourage you to sample the lobster macaroni cheese in particular.
Also up on the top deck, you find The Alcoves, a pretty little lawn with eight cabanas which can be rented by the hour or the day. Picnic baskets are available here for a price, and there’s also waiter service for drinks and snacks. These new venues replace the glass-blowing studio that’s been on the top decks of previous ships (I have never been able to get my head around the presence of a seagoing glass-blowing studio), along with a $5 dining venue (one of a few on board), The Porch. Here, you’ll find paninis and salads. It’s a lovely quiet spot if you’re looking to get away from the hurly-burly of the pool area, one deck below.
Tuscan Grill ($30), Blu (complimentary for Aquaclass passengers), Qsine ($35) and Murano ($35) are still the first-class restaurant lineup at the back of the ship on the fifth deck, which is the deck where those with a care for their stomach will be spending most of their time. There are changes down here – Murano is now offering a champagne afternoon tea, with some terrific little finger sandwiches, strawberries, pastries and the inevitable scones, jam and clotted cream. In the spirit of kaizen, little changes have been made to dishes I’ve eaten in these restaurants on previous ships: I’m not quite sure exactly what’s happened to Qsine’s Disco Shrimp, but it’s gone from a merely-quite-good dish to an absolute must-order, sweet, tender and very, very tasty. Ceviches are also very good now, and any dish which has its origins in the SW of America is pretty much guaranteed to be worth ordering: Chef Jaques van Staden’s Las Vegas roots do show now and then! Murano’s duck foie gras and rilettes dish has turned into a foie and confit plate, the confit appearing in a Moroccan pastilla, crisp, paper-thin bric pastry doing great things to its texture. What used to be a tomato coulis in this dish is now candied mango. On my first visit to Murano, two ships ago, I didn’t feel it was really competitive with top-class restaurants on land, but it’s now pulling its weight: witness the sea bass (picture at the bottom of this post), previously a bit tired, salty and dried-out; now succulent, elegantly sauced and good enough that you’ll be dibbling your bread on the plate when you’ve finished the fish.
Murano is probably the most romantic spot on board for dining, with private-feeling booths and a clever layout to make you feel remote from other diners. I’d especially recommend it to those cruising to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary. Portions are still enormous. This is a direct result of the ship’s American ownership and international clientele. This feels a bit odd in a fine-dining restaurant, but when someone feels like giving me a gargantuan portion of foie, I am not going to complain.
Get chatting to your server. The staff on board these ships are universally friendly and helpful – and if you make friends, as we did with the utterly charming Anne Toures, a chef de rang at Murano, you might find the service elevates itself to superhuman levels. Anne, after a couple minutes’ chatting about blue French cheeses (I’d been wittering on about how it’d be nice to see a blue that wasn’t a Roquefort on the large chariot de fromages), disappeared and came back with a piece of Rochebaron from Auvergne for us that hadn’t made it to the cheeseboard – soft, blue, with an ash-rolled rind and completely new to me. A real treat.
I love watching the way these ships evolve. I love being surprised every time I visit by the force-ten smiles of every single member of staff, the shimmering cleanliness of everything on board, and the clever little features like the ice bar, and the Enomatic machines in Wine Masters (charge a swipe-card, and organise your own tasting – there are some really exciting wines on offer in here). I love waking to the sound of the sea, I love that I can retire to a Deck 11 treehouse, of all things, if things get too much; and I love the fact that there’s an iLounge and a Bulgari shop on board. Keep at the kaizen, Celebrity – you’re doing a great job.
Ceviche trio, Qsine. Three beautifully balanced ceviches, and a rather random helping of chips.
Sea bass at Murano
Another iPad menu at Qsine. I swear: you have never in your life seen a cleaner and more smear-free iPad than these.
A very good veal chop at Murano, sized for American appetites. Fantastic accompaniments - breaded cauliflower and little garlic spinach cubes.
Les Six Etoiles de Murano - Murano's signature desert. To be shared!
A lovely view to take in over an evening gin and tonic at the Sunset Bar, located right at the back of the ship.