Celebrity Equinox, Murano restaurant

Cruise ships are (floating) terra incognita to me. The closest I’d managed before being offered last weekend’s very lavish freebie was a number of trips on cross-channel ferries, where the food is always so bad you’re almost obliged to pack a picnic; and my friends’ houseboat in Cambridge where we mostly eat packets of biscuits and drink tea.

I’d imagined cruise ships to be petrol-smelling, slippery-decked, claustrophobic white things, lurching gracelessly between icebergs and tugboats, and occasionally spearing clumsy whales on their prows. “We’ll have bunks,” grumbled Dr W, “and we’ll be in steerage, like Leo Di Caprio. There won’t be any windows.”

Happily, Celebrity Cruises have positioned themselves firmly at the luxury end of the market, so the cabin – sorry, state room – that we’d been apportioned turned out to have king-sized bed with a supremely comfortable pillow-top mattress; thick linen sheets; not only windows, but a private balcony for seagull-spotting; and a shower with those fantastic boob-washing jets in the wall.

The public areas feel like an attempt at a theme park crossed with a Vegas casino and Terminal 5 at Heathrow. I say this as someone who really, really gets a kick out of Terminal 5, which is sick and wrong – you have to admit, though, that the place does gave a certain delicious gleam to it. On Celebrity Equinox, two glistening atriums stretch the whole height of the ship to relieve the sense of low ceilings you can’t really escape in this situation, one with a live orange tree in a big glass pot suspended halfway down the 14-storey space. Up top, the decks are tiled with swimming pools, hot tubs, lawns, a glass-blowing studio (I’m still scratching my head about this one) and a jogging track. Inside, it’s all state rooms, cafes, bars, restaurants, a spa, a solarium, an enormous theatre, clubs, gyms and an ultraloungy sort of observation suite, all circular couches and swanky LED lighting. Everywhere you turn, somebody dressed in white is washing or polishing something.

Cruises of the sort Celebrity runs are generally all-inclusive, but for the four premium restaurants, where you’ll pay an extra $35. (It’s an American company, and the currency on board is the US dollar.) I’d been invited (with Douglas, Andrew and Julia) to lunch with Chef Jaques Van Staden. We were served a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings in Murano, the ship’s top French restaurant, all dark woods and white linens. Here’s JVS (the chap in focus), beaming at something fatuous I (on the right) have just said.

There are constraints on restaurants at sea that I hadn’t even considered before talking to him about the restaurant’s operations. The ship has capacity for 2850 guests, has to feed all these people without recourse to daily markets, and on occasion will go several days without being able to restock. This is an enormous number of people to be feeding – in one year, the company will spend $4.5m on bacon alone, so food sourcing is all centralised. Produce is loaded in shipping containers from three ports around the world, and some clever work on the menus means that the culinary team (of 1253 staff on the ship, more than half work in food and beverage) are able to assemble some surprisingly classy meals which in no way resemble ship’s biscuit. JVS is aiming very, very high in his ambitions for this restaurant, and I’m not quite sure it’s there yet; there were a few slips in what we ate for lunch. But this is a restaurant that’s barely been open for ten days, and as such, there were bound to be a few rough edges that needed smoothing over.

If there’s one thing they’ve licked at Murano, it’s the presentation. Everything was terribly, terribly pretty on the plate; the plates themselves were selected by JVS to match the coppery, woody decor (“No rims. I don’t like a plate with a rim.”) Behold a perfectly pretty amuse – jumbo shrimp in a saffron risotto. Really, really salty, but packed with saffron.

There’s a necessary reliance here on preserved ingredients, so a wild mushroom cappuccino which arrived shortly after I’d spent five minutes banging on about my hatred of foams – oops – used a lot of dried mushrooms and was accompanied by a porcini ice-cream (melting into a small pool by the time it got to my plate, but darned tasty), a clever way to extend the flavour life of the fresh mushroom. The 07 Puligny Montrachet by Louis Jadot with this course was golden and honeyed, a good match with this and, apparently, with the lobster bisque (“Very dense, very flavourful,” said Andrew from Spittoon when I asked him how it was – I have to be careful around lobsters because of the whole anaphylaxis thing, but made up for it by stealing everybody else’s foie gras later in the meal).

Spinach salad was topped off with a disc of pork rillettes (more clever use of preserves), a chicken’s egg (“I think we should use quail here,” said the chef, frowning at my plate – I’m with him on this – a chicken’s yolk is just too much with something as fatsome as rillettes) and a sliver of black truffle, all scattered with dehydrated shallots and shards of crispy pancetta. Before tasting the dish, I asked JVS how they cope with something as perishable as a truffle at sea. He responded with the full force of his giant grin. “We preserve them in port.” Surprisingly successful, and the truffle vinaigrette was a well-balanced foil to the heavy egg and rillettes. There were a few competition winners from Delicious magazine at the table too, and it was a first taste of truffles for one of them – always a lovely thing to witness, especially when the reaction is so unabashedly positive.

A twice-cooked goat’s cheese soufflé for half of us – a seared slice of foie gras and duck rillettes, spiced with star anise and cinnamon for the others. (I did my best to keep from gazing bitterly at their plates, failed and then launched into stealing as much as I could.) The soufflé was a good one – sharp with the goat’s cheese, bathed in a sea of Parmesan-scented Béchamel – and enormous, such that I ended up eating about half. These are very big portions for a tasting menu. I suspect a lot of this is to do with the demographic that makes up Celebrity’s customers – usually older Americans, from the land where the giant portion is king. That demographic suits me just fine, though – it just means more room in the clubs, the pool and the hot tubs for the food blogging contingent on board while everybody else dozes in the sun, as Andrew has helpfully recorded for posterity.

The service is super-attentive; so much so that it all feels a bit unsophisticated, as when the gargantuan pepper grinder is brought out and proffered at the start of every single course. It’s hard to mind – they’re trying so hard to impress, and everybody’s so charming, that I actually missed that grinder when it came to the cheese course. A pretty little apple sorbet spiked with Calvados came out as a palate cleanser – in his review of a similar meal that evening, Jay Rayner called this course old-fashioned, and indeed it was – but it was sweet, it was charming, and it was a nice break from all that dense eating. (I have a soft spot for the concept of a trou Normand, the little hole of space in a full stomach that a gulp of Calvados is meant to give you – my mother used to ensure my little brother and I both got a healthy slurp of hers at large meals when we went on our regular gastronomic tours of France, starting me off on a lifetime of dipsomania.)

Venison for half the table, loup de mer for the other half. A dense Brunello here to drink – not what I’d have chosen with this fish, but it was a pretty good match with the garnish it was sitting on.

Another hurdle for the cruise ship kitchen to jump is refrigeration – meats and fish need to be frozen. JVS has acquired a machine which defrosts flash-frozen meat very slowly, over a four-day period, for an absolute minimum of cellular damage. The meat is never allowed to stay frozen for more than five days. I pinched a bite from Douglas’s plate (hard work with a fish knife, so I made up for it by also stealing most of his celeriac puree – sorry Douglas) – it’s a surprisingly successful process, and I couldn’t detect any hint that the pink, juicy venison loin had been frozen. Cries of surprise went up around the table from anyone who had ever frozen a steak. Unfortunately, a similar process wouldn’t work for fish, and mine came out of the fryer a bit dry and rubbery. Again, though, the presentation was so fine I almost didn’t care – the fish was trapped in a fine net of potato and served on an incredibly dense and beautiful plate of Provençal preserves – capers, artichokes, olives and so on, bound with raw tomatoes and baba ganoush. (There’s another picture of this very pretty course with Monday’s post, where you can also see some more photos of the ship itself.) Fierce flavours, these – my bread roll came in handy to damp down some of what was going on on the plate.

A cheese course next with some ’96 vintage Graham’s port. There was nothing unusual about any of these cheeses, but they were all kept well and chosen well (Epoisses, Livarot, Roquefort, Comte and a nice crottin of Chevre). I notice Jay Rayner was displeased with the texture of his Epoisses that evening – we weren’t given any at lunchtime, although we did see the cheese sitting on the chariot, so I suspect the specialist cheese sommelier (who was great value) secretly agreed with him. The little pot contains a scoop of silky Roquefort sorbet. All the other cheeses, served at a good room temperature with fruits and nuts, were beautiful examples – I am thankful there wasn’t more, because dessert was simply enormous.

Here it is: Les VI Etoiles du Murano. I think this is meant to serve two, but I ended up with one to myself (which I ended up giving most of to Andrew, the very charming competition winner on my left, while I concentrated on the wine). From right (closest) to left, you’re looking at a rose cream with candyfloss (I annexed that one for myself); a black chocolate and coffee mousse; a white chocolate crème with raspberry coulis (the table’s favourite); strawberries poached in Chambertin; an apple and walnut crumble and a milk and caramel gelato with popcorn. Best of all, though, was what we were given to drink with this course (prompted, I suspect, by the arrival of Celebrity’s president, Dan Hanrahan) – a Tokaji from 2003, a year you will probably remember as uncomfortably sweltering. It was just great for Tokaji, such that I can barely read my handwriting in the notes I took over pudding.

JVS oversees the menus at all the onboard restaurants – 3786 different dishes are available across the whole ship, and around 12,000 meals and nibbles are served daily. It’s a hell of an operation, and it’s clearly wise of the company to run day-cruises like ours to help the staff learn to cope – this was only day ten of operations, and our evening meal at the much less swanky main dining room was a bit of a let-down after lunchtime’s service. Food in the gargantuan Silhouette dining room was glacially slow in arriving, so our fellow diners had to skip a course to make it to the theatre in time for the show, and the whole table’s main course plates appeared to have missed a crucial pass through a microwave, arriving fridge-cold. Thank God I’d ordered gazpacho for my starter. (I suspect that this is the sort of problem that won’t occur once the ship is up and running properly.) Wines in the complimentary restaurants aren’t good (to be honest,
the white was so awful I ended up drinking Newcastle Brown Ale instead, to the horror of the ladies I was sharing a table with). It’s clear that a cruising foodie needs to be dedicating himself to find that extra $35 a night to eat in one of the five speciality restaurants – and then to spending the rest of the day on the jogging track to burn off all that Béchamel.

Celebrity Equinox

I’ve just spent the weekend on board the brand-new Celebrity Equinox, sailing in circles in the English Channel and eating and drinking far too much. Four food bloggers (Andrew from Spittoon, Douglas from Intoxicating Prose, Julie from A Slice of Cherry Pie and I) had been invited to eat at the Chef’s Table at Murano, the ship’s swankiest restaurant, and to gad about on a night’s preview cruise before the ship starts its formal cruise itinerary. (Update 29/07 – you’ll find a long review and more pictures of the ship here.)

As you can probably imagine, faced with only 24 hours on ship filled with bars, nightclubs, a vast number of restaurants, swimming pools, a spa, cocktail-making presentations, video game arcades, libraries, croquet lawns (!) and even a glass-blowing studio (more !), I have slept very little, and I still didn’t get to see everything. So I’m going to shut up now and leave you with some photos as an appetiser – more on the ship and its food coming up later this week.

View of the library and the bars on the floors below

Midnight on the top deck
Andrew and Douglas. Unfortunately, this sort of Mexican photo standoff is what happens when you invite a load of food bloggers to your cocktail demo.

Baked goods at the breakfast buffet, all prepared onboard.

Cheeses at breakfast

One of several lawns, and the glassblowing studio. No, I have no idea why either.

And something to whet your appetite for tomorrow’s post – a couple of courses from the Chef’s Table at Murano.

Le Gavroche, Upper Brook St, London

A confession – I have a (probably pathological) dislike of writing about my absolute favourite restaurants here. There aren’t that many which fall into that category; a couple in London, a couple in the US, a couple – OK, more than a couple – in France; but there’s an unpleasantly selfish part of me which really, really doesn’t want to share. It’s irrational, and lately I’ve pledged to get the hell over this particular issue, which is good news for you, because you are finally getting to read about places I keep returning to, like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Le Gavroche (the pic is pinched from Wikimedia Commons – I hate bringing a camera to places like this). You’ll also get to read about several of my favourites, so far jealously unshared, in October, when Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe is released – it’s a National Geographic publication, and 20 of those extraordinary places were written about by me. More on that when the book finally comes out.

So. Gavroche. You know the chap – grubby urchin in Les Miserables. And you’re probably aware of the food royalty that own and still run the restaurant, founded in 1967 by Michel and Albert Roux. The kitchen is now run by Michel Roux Jr (son of Albert), and both older chefs still take an active interest in the place; good news for chefspotters. (I’m an avid one, and I was as pleased to see Albert Roux walk past my table on Monday as I would have been to see Brad Pitt, who is doubtless much less deft with artichokes.)

As usual, I rolled up for a weekday lunch, part of what I consider the freelancer’s dividend. I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’re in a position to do this, it bears repeating: many of London’s best restaurants offer surprisingly well-priced lunch menus in the week. The weekday set lunch menu here is, at first glance, pricier than elsewhere, at £48 a head – but this sum includes half a bottle of wine (you’re given a choice of four, which are always beautifully selected – ours was a 2004 St-Emilion Grand Cru from Chateau Vieux Sarpe, carefully decanted at the table); half a bottle of Evian; and coffee and petits fours, which most other places will have you pay for separately at lunchtime. The food itself is as good as you’ll find in the UK, and generous amuses bouches and petits fours (who knew that physalis, caramel and coconut was such a good combination?) round things out so well that you’ll leave thrilled at the value of what you’ve eaten.

The amuses are always good – to be honest, they’re often extraordinary. Artichoke Lucullus, cut into elegant crescents and stuffed with summer truffles, foie gras and chicken mousse; sea bass carpaccio; little toasts with a blue cheese mousse so beautifully balanced I could have eaten a dozen more for a main course.

Once you launch onto the menu proper, you’ll find there’s some clever work going on balancing luxe ingredients like truffles and foie gras with delicious things which cost the kitchen far less – a perfectly poached egg balanced on a Russian salad of potatoes, peas, carrots and celeriac sounds good but dull until you realise there are a couple of gargantuan slice of summer truffle perching on top, and a creamy truffle emulsion binding the vegetables together. Girolles are paired with a slow-cooked lamb’s tongue, cut into meltingly tender slices. It’s one of those menus where you’re hard-pressed to make a decision, everything sounding so perfectly edible – I should also point out that it’s one of those menus that’s written entirely in French. I used to live in Paris, and I’m the sort of anal-retentive who takes great pleasure in memorising the French for things like guinea fowl and fairy-ring mushroom. Even so, I came unstuck and had (horror!) to ask for help from the waiting staff. My friend and I were pretty sure Maigre was a sort of fish – but what sort? And what was a Sauce Antiboise? (It’s a white fish related to the sea bass, it turns out; and Antiboise simply means ‘from Antibes’, which I should bloody well have known. It’s a raw tomato concasse with basil and olives…and probably much more, but my dining companion was very sensibly preventing me from eating everything on her plate under the pretext of making notes.)

The staff (to a man/woman, French) are supremely helpful and will offer all the help you need with translation – you are clearly not expected to know what a maigre is, which makes me question the usefulness of the monoglot menu. Two of them are also supremely disconcerting. They’re identical twins, with matching extravagant hair dye, matching statement glasses, and matching mis-matched earrings. Cue a nanosecond of worry that an hallucinogen has been slipped into your Salade Russe.

This is the sort of restaurant where I’m happy to order veal liver. There’s a certain mental accounting you need to do when you next encounter it on a menu. Consider for a moment how much veal you see in British restaurants. There’s very, very little; even saltimbocca is usually made with pork these days. Now consider how much veal liver you see on menus (a surprising amount), and how many livers the average calf has. (That’s one, for those without a Biology GCSE.) There are simply not enough veal calves being eaten in the UK to provide the number of livers you’ll see on menus. The inevitable upshot is that much of the stuff you’ve ordered under the guise of veal liver has actually been beef liver – with the coarser texture, strong odour and flavour that that implies – so I never, ever order veal liver unless I’m somewhere I’m absolutely confident won’t palm me off with a superannuated gland. The liver at Le Gavroche is the real thing, so fresh it gives to the teeth like the flesh of a ripe plum, and its delicate flavour is seasoned sensitively with a very gentle green peppercorn sauce and a shallot confit. Ask for it to be served pink – simply beautiful stuff.

The cheeseboard is simply enormous, stacked high with French bliss, but we had our heads turned by the poached peach with champagne and raspberry mousse. A whole, peeled white peach, stone still in, had been poached to perfect silky softness in champagne, like a solid Bellini, and stood up in a swirl of raspberry mousse, just tart enough to offer a contrast. Regular readers will know that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but even I would have turned down a fine bacon sandwich if offered this instead. (This doesn’t sound like much of a compliment. Believe me, it is. I will do almost anything for a fine bacon sandwich – husband, take note.)

Of course, not everything here is perfect, or I would have set up a tent under one of the tables by now. Gavroche, the eponymous urchin, appears thumb-sized and in glorious 3D at the bottom of the shaft of all the cutlery, and frankly, he’s hideous. Like the decor – this restaurant perfectly apes a 1980s gentleman’s club, down to the carpeting, the green leather banquettes and the awful art on the walls. When I was a kid in the 80s, we had a very wealthy hotel-owning, huntin’, shootin’ neighbour, who affected plus-fours and displayed photos of himself with strings of recently murdered trout on his walls. He’d be right at home here with the ugly beaten-metal sculptures
of edible birds, which the restaurant sells for thousands of pounds to…someone. The room, and its clientele, is overwhelmingly masculine – we were the only all-female table in the place. But I don’t care – they welcomed me with a crescent of artichoke full of foie gras, truffles and chicken mousse, so they can be as ugly and male as Rasputin for all I care.

Summer competitions

Just a quickie today – my buddies at Allrecipes are running a cocktail competition, where UK readers can win a professional blender and cocktail set. Get shaking!

I’ve also been emailed about a competition that readers in the US and Canada can enter – PartSelect are after pictures of domestic appliances that readers have painted with a pink ribbon. They’ll donate $25 to Breast Cancer Research for each valid entry, and the prizes are not to be sniffed at; who wouldn’t jump at the chance to own a pink Kitchenaid mixer and a whole host of other pink kitchen equipment? I suggest you use water-based paint…

Chicken with smoked oyster stuffing

I was meant to be going to New Orleans early next month, but unfortunately that trip’s been postponed until next year (chiz chiz chiz). I’m meant to be writing about the place, and about its unique food culture; New Orleans is the least American of American cities, and has a cuisine unlike anything else you’ll find in the US. That cuisine is influenced by the fertile land and sea surrounding the city, and also by the mix of cultures and ethnicities that called the city home – African, French, Acadian (or Cajun) and Creole flavours coming together to create something you simply won’t find elsewhere.

To console myself over my postponed trip, I decided to invent a chicken stuffing along the lines of something you might see in Louisiana (if you squint a bit). This stuffing is gorgeous – it employs the so-called “holy trinity” of green bell peppers, celery and onion as a base, with garlicky, cheesy bread croutons which retain their crunch through the cooking, some typical Louisiana spicing, and a little tin of smoked oysters, chopped finely, to give the whole dish a warm, smoky background. You may think you don’t like smoked oysters – they look pretty unprepossessing, and they can taste a bit strong when used on toast or as canapés – but in this dish they just give the stuffing and the meat of the bird a wonderfully rich, umami smokiness. Surprisingly (totally) un-fishy. The recipe will make enough to stuff a 1.5kg bird and to prepare a separate tray of the stuffing to serve with the meal – you’ll want a separate tray, because it’s totally delicious.

To serve 4 (with some leftovers for sandwiches tomorrow, if you’re lucky), you’ll need:

1 plump chicken, weighing around 1.5kg (use a larger bird if you like – there will be enough stuffing, but you’ll need to adjust the cooking time)
½ loaf white bread (unsliced)
4 grated cloves garlic
20g grated parmesan
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions
1 green pepper
2 sticks celery
1 large knob butter
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, ground
1 teaspoon ground chipotle peppers (use cayenne pepper if you can’t find chipotles)
1 large handful (25g) parsley
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 small tin smoked oysters
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
Salt and pepper

Take the chicken out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Dry the skin well and snip any fat you find inside the cavity out of the bird – either discard it or render it down in a dry frying pan to make schmaltz to use for another recipe. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) for the croutons.

Remove the crusts from the bread and chop the white part into cubes about 2cm on each side (a large-ish crouton is nice here, the outside turning crisp and the inside retaining a bit of squashiness). Arrange the croutons on a baking sheet – they should cover the bottom in one layer. If you find you have more space, chop a few more croutons out of the remains of the loaf. Grate the garlic into the olive oil, mix well and drizzle over the croutons. Toss them well in the oil so every side is covered with the garlicky mixture, then sprinkle over the parmesan and toss again. Bake in the hot oven for ten minutes until golden, but start checking after eight minutes – these are quite easy to burn. Turn the oven temperature up to 230°C (450° F) and set the finished croutons aside.

You can start on the other stuffing ingredients while the croutons are cooking. Chop the celery, onions and pepper finely and fry off in a generous knob of butter with the spices, keeping everything in the frying pan on the move, until the onions are turning golden, as in the picture. Remove the contents of the pan to a large mixing bowl, and add the chopped parsley, the juice and zest of the lemon, the drained and finely chopped oysters and the soy sauce. Fold the croutons into this mixture and taste it for seasoning – you may not find you need any salt, but a generous amount of pepper is good here. Stuff the chicken with the mixture, using toothpicks to hold the flaps of skin at the end of the chicken closed. There will be plenty of stuffing left over; put it in a small baking dish and keep to one side until the end of the chicken’s cooking time.

Rub the chicken with plenty of salt and roast it, covered with a piece of tin foil, for 1 hour and 20 minutes, removing the foil and adding the stuffing dish for the last 15 minutes. Prick the chicken at the fattest part of its thigh at the end of the cooking time to check it’s done – the juices should run clear. If they are pink, get the stuffing tray out of the oven and keep it in a warm place, and give the chicken another 10 minutes in the oven, repeating the prick test at the end of this time. Make gravy from the pan juices and a splash of stock and white wine if you fancy some lubrication, and scatter the chicken and stuffing with fresh herbs of your choice – I used some Cypriot basil and some parsley. The stuffing and chicken are fantastic with a tart salad, sautéed potatoes and lemon wedges.

Pork rillettes

Dr W pitched up with two kilos of pork belly a few weeks ago, having spotted it on offer at the butcher’s. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know that there are plenty of options here for cooking this particular cut – it’s one of my favourites. Mind you, who wants to roast or casserole in this weather? Time to experiment with some charcuterie.

Rillettes (pronounced ree-etts) are a kind of coarse pate, made from gently cured meat poached in stock and its own fat (and, in this case, some fat from a duck) for hours until it becomes soft, falling into shreds. The fat is there to carry the flavour to the tastebuds, to provide some really world-beating texture, and as a preservative; once you’ve sealed your rillettes into sterilised jars, covered with a layer of the creamy fat, nothing will be able to get in there, so you’ll be able to store them in the fridge for months. I’d recommend, in fact, that you don’t eat your rillettes as soon as you’ve made them if you can possibly help it; a week or so in a jar will allow the flavours to develop fully.

Traditionalists will tell you to cure your meat with nothing but salt and pepper before cooking, and to avoid adding extra flavourings to the meat as you poach it. Traditionalists are, in my experience, a bloody miserable lot. My brother (currently right off pork, as he recovers slowly from swine flu) makes spectacular rillettes at Christmas, which he packs with lots of crushed juniper berries. I like mine garlicky and boozy, with plenty of aroma from a generous scattering of herbes de Provence, and some bay, lavender and thyme from the garden. To make your own (reduce the amounts if you want, but this keeps very well and makes an excellent gift – given that it’s mildly fiddly, you’ll be rewarded for making a large batch), you’ll need:

2kg pork belly
1kg pork shoulder
2 bulbs garlic
2 heaped tablespoons herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons salt
6 fresh bay leaves
1 small handful (20g) thyme
1 small handful (20g) lavender leaves
750g rendered pork fat (I used duck fat from the confit I made earlier this year – you can also substitute goose fat here)
2 glasses white wine
Pork stock or water

Cut the pork (leaving the skin on the belly) into long strips about 1 inch square, and put it in a large mixing bowl. In a mortar and pestle, grind the salt, bay, thyme, lavender and herbes de Provence together. Rub the resulting mixture all over the strips of meat, cover and refrigerate for 48 hours. Curing the meat like this before cooking (you’ll notice that the confit the duck fat came from was cured in a similar way) gives it what the French call a goût de confit – a very specific and delicious flavour you only really find in confited meats.

When the meat has cured, chop the strips, retaining the belly skin, into smaller pieces, about the size of your thumb. Put the meat and any salt and herbs from the bowl in a large casserole dish with the unpeeled garlic bulbs, chopped in half across their equators, and pour over the wine. Carefully pour over stock (I happened to have some pork stock in the freezer, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it – water will be fine) until it barely covers the meat, then spoon the rendered fat into the casserole dish. Heat the oven to 150°C and bring the casserole dish to a very gentle simmer on top of the stove. Pop it into the oven with the lid on and ignore it for five hours.

Remove the casserole from the oven and remove the meat and garlic from the liquid ingredients with a slotted spoon, putting them in a large mixing bowl. Leave the liquid in the casserole to stand and separate while you work on the meat.

When the meat is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to remove the skin from the belly pieces and discard it – it’s done its work now and will have given up its gelatin to the cooking liquid, which you’ll be using in a bit. Shred the meat (now lovely and soft, with all the fat rendered out) into another bowl, and squeeze the garlic from its skin into the bowl of shredded meat, discarding the skin. When all the meat is shredded evenly, use a ladle to skim all the fat from the liquid in the casserole, and put it in a jug. You’ll be left with a glossy stock in the pan. Stir two or three ladles-worth of the stock into the shredded meat to moisten it, and pop the rest of the stock in the freezer for another day. Now ladle the liquid fat into the shredded meat bowl and mix everything in the bowl thoroughly and evenly, reserving a couple of ladles of fat to cover the rillettes in their jars. (Exactly how much you’ll need depends on the size of jar you’re using.) Taste the contents of the bowl for seasoning – this recipe benefits from some robust salting.

Pack the rillettes into sterilised jars, leaving half an inch of room at the top of each one for the fat you’ll seal them with. (I also popped some in a terrine dish for serving to friends later in the week.) Pour fat into each jar/dish to cover, seal, and refrigerate until you come to eat them. I like to let the rillettes come to room temperature before spreading them on chunks of baguette, with some caper berries and cornichons on the side to cut through the velvety fat.

Cherry vodka

A quick and dirty one today – I’m in Cardiff to celebrate my sister-in-law’s PhD graduation. I am now officially the only Upton of my generation who can’t put the word ‘Dr’ in front of her name. Rats. (And congratulations, Stevie! I envy you the Tudor bonnet you get to wear for the ceremony like you wouldn’t believe.)

Cherries come into season just in time for you to lock them up in a cupboard with sugar and vodka until Christmas. Brandy is a traditional medium for fruit infusions; if you prefer to use that, the method will be the same. The five months between now and then will be just long enough for the liqueur to age into something nicely rounded and rich – an ideal tipple for Santa to enjoy with his mince pie. As always with fruity infusions, the making of this stuff is as easy as anything. You’ll need:

500g cherries
1 litre vodka
5 heaped tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract

Halve the cherries, keeping the stones embedded in the fruit for their almondy fragrance (I should pre-empt the inevitable “but you will die of cyanide poisoning!” comment – you won’t), and put them in a large Kilner jar or another large, airtight vessel. Pour over the sugar and almond extract, and top the lot off with the vodka. Seal, and forget about the jar for half a year or so, straining into bottles when the liqueur is ready. Note that the colour will leech out of the cherries, leaving them greyish and unappetising-looking in December; some like them with ice cream, but I prefer to just consign them to the bin and busy myself with the interesting part of this recipe (the vodka).

You can use dessert cherries (which is what I’ve used here), or sour bird cherries. I have a tree full of bird cherries in the garden, but they all grow so high I can’t actually reach any – plus, the birds seem to get a kick out of them, so I leave them where they are. If you’re using a sour cherry, double the amount of sugar in the recipe.

Bagna cauda

A miracle! The English summer actually seems to be taking itself seriously this year – we have blissy sunshine, bone-loosening heat and, in my village at least, a lovely smell of hay in the air. These conditions do not lend themselves well to lots of roasts and meaty things, so I looked to Provence and Piedmont for today’s recipe – a bagna cauda, rich with garlic and anchovies, for dipping hunks of bread, crudités and hot, steamed artichoke petals into. (There have been some fabulous and enormous artichokes kicking around the market in Cambridge this week – if you’re local, go and grab a few now.)

This bagna cauda has a texture a lot like mayonnaise, and it’s made in a similar way, but without any eggs. (The proteins in the cooked garlic and anchovies help to emulsify the oil and butter in the way that an egg yolk does in mayonnaise.) Like mayonnaise, it keeps well in the fridge and works amazingly well in sandwiches, so if you don’t polish off the whole lot in one go, just treat it as a flavoured mayo for next week’s packed lunches.

To make enough to serve six as a robust dip with bread, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, new potatoes…or anything else you can think of, you’ll need:

1 fat bulb garlic
1 tin anchovies
300ml extra-virgin olive oil
350g unsalted butter

Start by peeling the garlic. Choose the sweetest, fattest kind you can find – the Really Garlicky Company grow Porcelain garlic, which I think is the among the most reliable and delicious in the UK. They supply Waitrose, but if you don’t have a local branch, they also sell their garlic online. Pop the peeled cloves in a little pan, cover them with milk and simmer for ten minutes, until the garlic is soft and cooked through. Discard the milk.

Put the anchovies in a bowl with a cover and nuke in the microwave for 45 seconds. They should cook down to a paste. Scrape the anchovies into a saucepan (not the milk pan, which will have milky bits stuck to the bottom) with the garlic, and use the back of a fork to squish them together.

Chop the butter into little cubes about the size of the top joint of your thumb. Put four of the cubes into the saucepan with the garlic and anchovy mixture, and turn the heat on as low as possible under the pan. As soon as the butter starts to melt, start to whisk the contents of the pan with a balloon whisk. When the butter cubes are nearly melted, add four more, still whisking, and continue until all the butter is incorporated. As you continue to whisk, drizzle the olive oil very gradually into the warm mixture as if you were making mayonnaise. Eventually, you’ll have a thick, glossy bagna cauda. Remove to a bowl, plonk it down in the middle of the table, and get dipping immediately.

Strawberry lemonade

Yes, those are LEGO ice cubes. What of it?

This hot summer has meant that we’ve been blessed with some truly gorgeous strawberries this year – fat, fragrant, juicy and sweet. If you have a glut, this lemonade is so delicious you may well find yourself drinking it instead of eating a dessert. A shot of vodka in the bottom of the glass wouldn’t go amiss either.

I’ve used the strawberry variety called Florence here, which is more fragrant and flavourful than Elsanta (the potato-ish variety you are most likely to come across in the shops). This method, though, where you will find yourself macerating the chopped berries in sugar overnight, makes the most of even Elsanta. Macerating somehow makes them much fruitier in flavour, so use whatever variety you can get your hands on.

To make a jug of lemonade large enough for four glasses, you’ll need:

2 punnets of strawberries (about 500g)
4 heaped tablespoons caster sugar
Juice of 2 lemons

Slice the strawberries into four or five pieces each, and sprinkle generously with the sugar in a large bowl. Mix well with a spoon, making sure every piece of fruit is well sugared, then cover the bowl with cling film and chill in the fridge for about 24 hours, until you are ready to make the lemonade.

When you come to put the lemonade together, pour the pink syrup that will have developed in the strawberry bowl (see picture) into a large jug, and transfer the macerated strawberries themselves to a sieve, making sure you catch any drips in a bowl. Use the back of a ladle to push the strawberries (which will have become very soft in the sugar bath) through the sieve into a bowl until you are left with the seeds and a stiff pulp in the sieve, which you can discard.

Add the pureed strawberries to the syrup in the jug and squeeze in the juice of two lemons. Now add between 1 and 2 glasses of water to the jug (the mixture will be too sweet and sharp without dilution) until you reach a level of flavour you find just right – amounts will vary depending on the particular strawberries you have chosen. Stir well and serve immediately with ice. This drink is unspeakably good packed into a Thermos flask for a picnic – give the Thermos a swift shake before pouring if you use one.

Som tum – Thai green papaya salad

Thanks for being so patient while I bunked off from blogging and from my other work for an indolent week. It’s been lovely – I’ve been to the seaside, got sunburned, drunk lots of lovely summery booze, eaten some great meals, and done lots of work on new recipes: it means I’m able to come back to you fully recharged. There’s lots to look forward to over a very busy couple of months to come, when I’ll be blogging from Cardiff, a cruise ship just outside Southampton, New Orleans, then Vegas and Phoenix – you can probably see why I felt I needed a short break before getting back down to things!

So then: som tum. You might have ordered this dish (and if you haven’t, you should; I’d rate it as one of the world’s best salads) in a good Thai restaurant. Green papaya makes the base of this salad, its dense, crisp texture made the most of with some careful shredding with a sharp knife. It’s bathed in a dressing which, for me, promotes it right to the head of the international salad flavour conspiracy. (See also: coban salatasi, panzanella and Swedish cucumber salad.) Som tum dressing touches every part of your tongue. It’s sweet with palm sugar, salty and umami with fish sauce and dried shrimp, sour with fresh lime juice, and spiked with chilli to give the whole mouth heat. Some aromatic herbs give it a lovely nose as well – for my tastes, this is about as good a picnic dish as you could make.

Green papaya is surprisingly neutral in flavour. If you can’t find any, Natacha de Pont du Bie, who encountered it in Laos, found to her pleasure that you can substitute a raw turnip in similar Laotian salads and that doing so will even fool Laotians, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t make the same substitution here. My papaya came from the Chinese supermarket on the railway bridge on Mill Road in Cambridge, and other oriental supermarkets with good fruit and veg sections will probably be able to help you too.

To serve up to six as a side dish, you’ll need:

1 green papaya
2 fat cloves of garlic
1 Scotch bonnet chilli (or three or four Thai bird’s eye chillies)
1 small handful (about 20g) dried shrimp (available from the Chinese supermarket in the chiller section)
8 cherry tomatoes
Juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar (use soft dark brown sugar if you can’t find any)
1 large handful coriander, chopped finely
1 small handful mint, chopped finely

Start by shredding the papaya. Peel it with a potato peeler (surprisingly easy), and cut into the thinnest possible strips. Some find that holding the papaya in one hand and making lengthways cuts like lots of guitar strings halfway into the fruit, then slicing down along those cuts so the shreds fall away from the fruit, is a good method. I prefer to cut the whole fruit into thin pages, and then cut piles of those into strips, because I have trouble with the hollow centre of the fruit when using the first method. Put the shredded papaya into a large bowl.

Crush the garlic thoroughly in a pestle and mortar, and add the shrimp, pounding it with the garlic for about 20 seconds. The shrimp won’t reduce to shrimpy rubble, but they should be well-squished and full of flavour from the garlic. Mix the garlic and shrimp well with the papaya in the large bowl, and add the halved tomatoes, tossing everything in the bowl thoroughly as if to bruise the tomatoes and papaya a little.

Make the dressing in a jam jar so you can adjust seasoning as you go. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and very finely chopped chilli to the jar and shake it with the lid on until the palm sugar has dissolved. Taste the sauce – you may feel it needs to be sweeter, saltier or more sour depending on your taste, so adjust it with some extra juice, sauce or sugar. Pour it over the salad in the bowl, add the finely chopped herbs and toss vigorously again.

This salad will hang around happily for hours, so it’s great to take to a picnic. I particularly love it with fatty meats or barbecued foods, or, of course, to accompany a Thai main dish.

Will you look at that – a hailstorm. Looks like I chose just the right moment to get back to work.