Another season, another one of Joanne Todd’s afternoon teas. I was invited to visit the Royal Horseguards hotel again last week for an afternoon tea timed to coincide with this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, all the patisseries flavoured, this time, with flowers. Add a pot of flowering tea, some chocolate butterflies and leaves attached to the cake stand with melted chocolate (no picture of these; my partner-in-tea snapped them off and ate them before I got to them with the camera), the compulsory scones, and a stack of neat little finger sandwiches, you’ll find yourself with a very good reason to skip lunch.
It’s the application of a fierce imagination to what’s on the plate that so charms in these afternoon teas. A Felchlin chocolate cremeux was flavoured with lavender – and popping candy. Elderflower cupcakes; chocolate chip loaf spiked with orange blossom; a lemon drizzle cake where much of the citrus aroma actually comes from lemon thyme. The raspberry and hibiscus flower jelly tart and a violet cupcake had me grinning like a lunatic. These patisseries are beautiful, they’re superbly delicate, and they make for one of those rare examples of something that really does taste as good as it looks.
The Garden Par-tea had a short run and finishes today, but Joanne is, as ever, keeping busy: look out for another Wimbledon-themed tea this June, and a children’s afternoon tea later in the summer, complete with alphabet shortbread, toy soldiers and jelly bears.
I’ve been visiting the hotel for Joanne’s teas for a year now, and it’s great to see the little refinements made to what’s on offer every time. The scones have shrunk to a much more manageable size (I still couldn’t get through two, though, especially on top of all the lovely little cakes); the sandwich fillings are becoming more complicated – and this time, there was a handsome amount of chocolate kicking around to round things off.
The hotel has undergone some renovations in the last few months, and the outside terrace (closed to diners when I visited because it was such a windy day, but I managed to get outside to take some pictures) has been completely revamped.
I’m wondering if I can convince someone to lend me their children in time for Joanne’s upcoming kids’ afternoon tea. I like the sound of those jelly bears.
I live twelve miles outside Cambridge, far away enough that the only traffic is tractors and the occasional little girl on a horse. I’m in town a few times a week, but you’ll have noticed that I don’t have a lot to say about Cambridge on Gastronomy Domine. It’s not, to put it politely, a restaurant or bar destination. The city has what the papers call a “carbon-copy high street” problem: a survey last year found it the third worst town in the country for independent retailers and restaurants.
There’s a historical reason for this. Almost all of the property in the city centre is owned by the university colleges, and their monopoly on rents means that they can raise prices to a level that’s just not attainable for small businesses. As a result, the city centre has silted up with chains. It’s kind of depressing to reach the realisation that Jamie’s Italian is the best you’re going to manage without hopping on a bike or getting a cab. (You’re not going to be driving; the parking situation is horrible too.) The bar situation is, if anything, even worse – massive chains like B Bar, All Bar One and Revolution crammed to sweaty unpleasantness with student rugby clubs and belligerent sixth formers.
So when my buddy Douglas asked me to come with him to check out a new bar right on the Market Square, about as central as you can get, I was unenthusiastic. “It’ll prolly be horrid,” I texted back; “Central Cam, ffs. All the bars here = rubbish.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be proved wrong in my life.
The 12a Club is on the upper floors of one of the only privately owned buildings in this part of town. The colleges and city council have the ability to impose some rather stringent licensing restrictions on new openings, and the restrictions they hit the owners of 12a with would have stopped most businesses dead in their tracks. The licence says the bar has to operate as a private members’ club. There can be no advertising; all new business has to come in by word of mouth. And 12a isn’t even allowed a sign outside the door. Add to this the fire department’s refusal to grant a hot food licence because of the age of the building, throw in some health and safety regulations about not being allowed to open the lovely Victorian sash windows, and you’ve got the sort of business that’s going to require some very creative thinking and a couple of air conditioning units to get underway.
We were buzzed in through a little door between a touristy Italian restaurant and Marks and Spencer, climbed a narrow flight of stairs – and found ourselves in a 21st-century speakeasy. This is the direction the restrictive licensing has inspired the owners to take the place in: quietly masculine dark woods, raw brick and distressed leather, decoration recalling the 1920s, huge vases of lilies, and a soft vintage feel. The room pretty much instructs you to sit back and get comfortable with the aid of some snappy waitress service; the handsomely stocked bar provides all the extra encouragement you’ll need.
The champagne and wine list is, in keeping with the secretive nature of things in these parts, hidden in the back of an old book. A bookmark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a cocktail list: fantastic, grown-up, pre-prohibition cocktails of the sort we’ve almost forgotten about, all Aviations, Gimlets and Gourmets. This list is only a suggestion, meant to set the tone for your evening; even if you’re more the pink girly drink kind of person, they’ll happily knock up any cocktail you ask for. There are some people seriously educated in the art of the cocktail behind this bar, though, and it’s worth trusting their expertise and widening your horizons a little beyond strawberry daiquiris. There are six different kinds of bitters on the bar, floral syrups, a jar of house-made limoncello infusing away, and by far the most comprehensive and eclectic list of spirits that I’ve seen this side of London.
It was the little details that really caught me at 12a. The smell of wood polish in the main room; the ice in my drinks (not cubes, but hand-carved spheres, so your cocktail isn’t diluted by a fast melt); the exceptional drinks smarts of Mark, our host, who works front-of-house and performs alchemy behind the bar. He offered to “surprise me” with a cocktail – and he’d been listening so carefully to my waffling about food and drink over the preceding hour that he managed to get my taste down absolutely pat. An Old Fashioned with Gosling’s dark rum and shavings of dark chocolate, pepped up with one of those bottles of bitters (I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask which one) which married the rum to the chocolate so smoothly it was almost enough to bring a tear to the eye. Hands down my favourite cocktail so far this year. A visit later in the week with a whisky-hound friend from New York saw Mark speak to him for a minute about his preferences and come back with a soft whisky finished in sauternes barrels which, he said, suited him so well it was as if Mark had read his mind. On our original visit, Douglas was presented with a Cambridge Butterfly: a work-in-progress cocktail that isn’t yet on the menu. Grapefruit, Butterfly absinthe, and god only knows what else. I hope it makes it onto the permanent list; I don’t think I’ve tasted a cocktail with such an interesting flavour profile before, swinging wildly in the mouth from citrus to liquorice to sugary sweetness to a floral intensity.
The 12a Club is pretty new, and they’re still tweaking the formula. There are ideas for a salumi room; for a less tightly-focussed wine list (at the moment most of what’s on offer is Italian wine, which can be a little impenetrable for some); for monthly tastings of wines, whiskies and rums; members’ events like a 1920s New Year’s Eve party; and quarterly charity nights. A change I’d really like to see is the addition of an espresso machine, but given that this is the only thing that occurred to me after a couple of weeks’ considered attempt to find something wrong with the place, I’d say that they have things pretty much down pat as it is.
As of June 7, there’s a plan to open in the day so that members can have access to the two very private upstairs rooms, which have all the audio-visual equipment needed for business meetings. At the moment, these rooms are free to use on a first-come, first-served basis for members. (They’re also very pleasant for less serious get-togethers.) This sort of focus on business clients is a smart move; I can’t be the only person in these parts who has an occasional need for meeting rooms, and my experience elsewhere in the city has been both expensive and totally uninspiring. These rooms are much more up my street: beautiful, comfortable…and with waitress service and a champagne list.
I wonder if there’s a body out there that can rescind qualifications you’ve acquired in the past. Since a GCSE passed with flying colours 20 years ago, the only German I’ve encountered has been sung at me on my iPod by David Hasselhoff and the odd choir – and you can tell. Reduced to gurning, miming and pointing over schnitzel and pig knuckles, I am reminded that the brain is a muscle, blah blah blah, and that a mild attempt to keep up learned skills in adulthood might not have been a bad thing. If you intend to enjoy eating while travelling in a European country where you don’t speak the language, you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of Eating Out in Five Languages, which fits nicely in your handbag or a coat pocket and covers 10,000 restaurant and food terms in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. I found it invaluable, and it’s always reassuring to know that the words for lark, nettle or lung are just a quick flip away.
If there were such a thing as a bloggers’ licence, I should probably have that rescinded too. I’ve just spent a week in a city a-throb with UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I managed to leave my camera out of the hand luggage while trying to get the case to meet Ryanair’s weight restrictions, and forget to put it back in again. All the pictures you see here are courtesy of the Bremen tourist board.
So, you’re in North Germany. You’re probably thinking sausage, and you’re definitely thinking beer. The local cuisine is heavy on the meat, light on the vegetables, tends towards onions for flavouring rather than garlic, and favours mustard and caraway above pretty much every other spicing. You’ll find the local foods all over the city, in bierkellers, restaurants, and in the biergartens strung like beads along the river Weser.
Your first destination in Bremen should be the market square. This is where all the UNESCO World Heritage goodies are – a statue of Roland and the gothic fruitcakery of the Ratshaus (town hall), both built around 1405. If it isn’t supper time yet, you can fill any gaping holes you might possess with a wurst; there are three permanent stalls here to the left of the town hall where you can pick up a sausage in a bun, with some potato salad, or without any accompaniment at all. Currywurst (in Bremen sometimes called Kanzlerschnitzel, or Chancellor’s Schnitzel – any German speakers know why?) is a popular choice: a grilled sausage slathered with sweet tomato sauce, then dusted with garam masala. There’s no chilli heat at all in one of these beasts, but plenty of flavour from the curry spices.
Underneath the Ratshaus, you’ll find the Ratskeller, an enormous cellar tavern which originally housed all the wine sold in the 15th century city. Now, if you are someone with a horrible addiction to computer role-playing games of the medieval fantasy sort (not that I know anyone like that. Oh no), you’ll be all over this place. It’s the perfect instantiation of ye olde cellar tavern, all vaulted ceilings, sconces just aching for a flaming torch, cast-iron stands for your coat and your sword, and gorgeously baroque dark wood carvings. Seated next to a gargantuan wine barrel with armorial markings from 1740-odd, I was perfectly primed for an attack from a party of kobolds while I wrestled with my Bremer Knipp.
Knipp (pronounced with a hard “K”) is a very local dish you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in Germany. The closest you’re likely to have come to it in the UK is a haggis; Bremer Knipp is made from oats, beef liver, pig’s head and pork belly, seasoned with onion and some sweet spices, all minced together into a patty and fried crisp in lard. You’ll be thankful for the pickled gherkin it’s served with, which neatly cuts the fatty richness of the Knipp. We found ourselves big fans of Bremer Knipp; if you’re someone who enjoys offal, you’re likely to like it too. (If you’re a haggis-avoider, give it a miss.) The local dishes seem to be by far the best at the Ratskeller: try the Labskaus, a sort of corned beef, potato and onion hash.
Two minutes’ walk away you’ll find Böttcherstrasse, about 100m of narrow medieval street as reimagined by 1920s expressionist architects in brick. It’s a jewel of a place (look out in particular for the Haus des Glockenspiels, where a carillon of bells made from Meissen porcelain plays an eight-minute concert on the hour in the daytime) lined with little shops and restaurants. We particularly enjoyed the cavernous Ständige Vertretung, a beer hall themed, rather weirdly, around German politics. My, the conversations we ended up avoiding for reasons of cultural sensitivity over our herrings. Beer here – frothy, crystal-clear Kräusen from the local Haake Beck brewery by default, although you can choose other beers – is sold in little 20cl glasses, which are topped up as the evening goes on. (They’re fragile; clink, if you must, with the bottoms rather than the tops. My friend T ended up with a shard of glass in his pilsner.) A tally is kept on your beermat; it’s easy to drink a lot like this, but when you feel you’ve had enough, just pop your beermat on top of your glass.
Take a left at the top of Böttcherstrasse, and with another few minutes’ brisk trotting, you’ll find yourself in the Schnoor district, a maze of medieval streets. Restaurants here tend towards the touristy (avoid the Beck’s restaurant), but Schröter’s Leib und Seele, especially on a sunny day, is a great lunch spot – and there were more vegetables on the menu here than I saw anywhere in the rest of the city. It’s attached to Schröter’s Konditorei (cake shop), so save plenty of room for dessert, which is the best part of the meal here.
The city’s set up for long, drinky evenings. You’ll find atmosphere in buckets in all the places I’ve mentioned, but on a sunny day you’re best off by far along the river embankment (Schlachte). Here, you’ll find a line of terraces under the trees, where you can eat from the restaurants opposite the river. At weekends, pigs appear on spits, mackerel is grilled over coals and things get substantially busier than they are in the week. We spent a lot of time sitting at the picnic tables here, soaking up a positively professional amount of beer with sausages and schnitzel. My favourite spot along the Schlachte is Paulaner’s, where there are actual honest-to-god beer wenches, with boobs hoisted up near their chins on a sort of lacy shelf arrangement. Great schnitzel, too, served at this time of year with beautiful fat white asparagus and hollandaise (everywhere has a seasonal menu featuring asparagus at the moment; I wish we’d pick up on this idea in the UK), along with a totally unnecessary lake of butter.
Alcohol-aided bravery might be necessary for you to try out another local trick in the beer gardens: white wheat beer with a shot of flavoured syrup. You’ll find banana (a really surprisingly good flavour match to the hoppy Weissbier), cherry and Waldmeister (woodruff), which turns your beer a startling green and gives it an aromatic, honeyed flavour. Woodruff beer is also called Mai-Bier (May beer), and is meant as a particular springtime drink. Just be ready for a little teasing when you order one of these – on ordering a Pilsner and a banana-flavoured Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse I was told by a smirking fella in an apron: “Hier ist das Bier für einen Menschen. Und hier ist ein Bier für ein Mädchen.”
I’d be happy just to eat all of the new-season’s asparagus steamed or grilled with some butter or some parmesan – maybe with some hollandaise, some truffle oil or a squirt of lemon juice. But every now and then it’s nice to gussy things up a bit, so here is a downright swanky way with one of my favourite vegetables.
Don’t be scared of either the filo pastry crust or the beurre blanc. Both can appear to be quite intimidating ingredients, but filo (which you can buy ready-made at the supermarket) is actually very, very easy to handle; and if you follow the instructions below you’ll find the beurre blanc a breeze to make.
To serve 4 as a main course or 6 as a starter you’ll need:
10 sheets filo pastry
150g unsalted butter
500g salmon, or a mixture of salmon and another firm white fish
1 teaspoon tarragon
Salt and pepper
225g unsalted butter, cold from the fridge
2 shallots, sliced
1 bay leaf
5 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon creme fraiche
4 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
Salt and pepper
Start by infusing and reducing the wine and vinegar for your beurre blanc. In a small pan, combine the wine, vinegar, the sliced shallot, the bay and the peppercorns. Over a medium heat, reduce the contents of the pan until you have only a tablespoon of syrupy liquid left. Remove the pan from the heat, discard the bay and peppercorns, and reserve the shallots.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF) and steam the fish for ten minutes.
While the oven is heating, assemble the croustade in a metal baking dish about the same size as a single sheet of filo. Melt the butter and brush the bottom of the dish with a layer, then place the first sheet of filo on the buttered surface. Brush the top of the filo sheet with butter, add another layer of filo and butter the top of that, until you have built a stack of five buttered sheets.
Flake the steamed fish into pieces and chop the asparagus spears (discarding the woody ends) into pieces about the length of your thumb. Scatter the fish flakes and the asparagus over the filo. Dice the shallots from the beurre blanc mixture with the fresh shallots, and scatter those over too, along with a little salt, plenty of pepper and the tarragon.
Layer the remaining five pieces of filo, buttering each one as you go, over the top of the asparagus mixture. Use a knife to score the top sheets gently into squares in the size you want for serving. Put the croustade in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the top is crisp and a dark gold colour.
About 15 minutes before the croustade is ready to come out of the oven, make up the beurre blanc. Chop the cold butter into pieces about the size of the top joint of your thumb (there are lots of finger measurements in today’s recipe). Stir the creme fraiche into the wine and vinegar reduction you set aside earlier, and put it over a medium heat.
Drop three of the butter pieces into the reduction, and whisk until they are half-melted. Drop another three in and continue to whisk until the original three pieces have melted completely, then add another three. Continue to add the butter pieces three at a time, whisking hard, as the ones you have put in before melt, until the butter is all incorporated. Remove from the heat and stir through most of the chives, reserving two teaspoons to garnish. Taste for seasoning, adding extra salt and pepper or a little lemon juice if you think it needs it.
Use a sharp-edged spatula to divide up the croustade along the marks you made earlier, and spoon some of the beurre blanc over each serving with a little sprinkle of chives. Serve immediately.
I kind of wish that supermarkets wouldn’t sell asparagus out of season – we’re all familiar with the tasteless, slightly limp kind whose sugars have long turned into starch, because the spears themselves have been bussed in from South America. Nothing’s going to taste good after that long in a cargo hold. It’s enough to make you forget just how good a sweet, fresh English stem of the stuff can be. The English season is short, but it’s worth ignoring asparagus for the rest of the year and waiting for early May. From now on, we’ll have about eight weeks of tender local asparagus in the shops.
I’ve got two great asparagus recipes for you this week. This tart is a doozy; it takes advantage of the lovely affinity between asparagus and goat’s cheese, and can be served hot or cold. I haven’t called it a quiche because I know some of you are squeamish about quiches…
To make one 20cm tart, you’ll need:
Shortcrust pastry – either buy a pre-made roll or make your own with:
A little water
3 banana shallots
50g pancetta cubes
200g fresh English asparagus spears
120ml creme fraiche
1 heaped teaspoon thyme leaves
200g goats cheese log (I used Neal’s Yard Ragstone, which is pretty strong – for a milder flavour use a younger cheese)
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper
If you are making your own pastry, rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, and add just enough water to make everything come together into a ball. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out on a floured surface.
Use the pastry to line your 20cm tart dish, and pop the whole thing in the freezer to firm up for 30 minutes while the oven heats up to 200ºC (390ºF). While the pastry is chilling, fry the finely chopped shallots with the pancetta cubes in the butter, until the shallots are golden.
When the pastry has had 30 minutes in the freezer, prick the bottom a few times with a fork, line the base with greaseproof paper, pour in some baking beans to hold everything down, and blind bake (this is just a way of saying part-bake; you’re doing this so that the crust is crisp and cooked) for 20 minutes.
Remove the tart case from the oven and turn the temperature down to 180ºC (350ºF).
Arrange the raw asparagus spears, chopped into pieces, to cover the bottom of the pastry case. Sprinkle over the pancetta and shallot mixture with the thyme. Use a fork to beat together the eggs and crème fraîche with half a teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper until smooth, and pour the egg mixture into the case. Finally, slice your cheese log into ½ cm pieces and lay them on the top of the tart.
Bake in the cooler oven for 30-40 minutes, until the filling has set and the top is golden. Serve hot or cold.
The Kitano, a few blocks south of Grand Central Station, is one of my favourite places to stay in New York. The hotel is Japanese owned and run, and stepping off the Park Avenue sidewalk into the lobby is a bit like stepping through a teleporter, straight into an Asian hotel. There’s Japanese floral art, a service ethic imported straight from Tokyo, a green tea machine in every bedroom – and it’s wonderfully, extravagantly clean. Best of all, there’s a simply superb Japanese restaurant in the basement; one of those inexplicable well-kept secrets, which you won’t read much about in guide books or online. I am assured by a Japanese friend that given the decor, kimono-swathed waitresses, and lacquered tableware, it is very easy to mistake Hakubai for somewhere similarly swanky in Kyoto before you even get to the food.
I was there for the food rather than the hallucinatory experience of being in another city, but I have to admit: going from a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to a restaurant that feels half a world away is a great sensation.
Hakubai was on my list of must-eats in New York because it is one of the very, very few restaurants in the city that offers a kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a bravura food-as-art performance of a meal. This isn’t hyperbole; a kaiseki meal really is regarded as art, and like other kinds of art, it has a formal structure. You’ll find many exquisitely prepared tiny courses, which are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Looks and taste are equally important here, and there should be a very wide variation in textures between the courses. Modern kaiseki usually proceeds with an appetiser, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course (not necessarily in that order), perhaps with additions from the chef. The courses are served at carefully timed intervals on decorative lacquer and porcelain dishes, decorated with real leaves, flowers, and tiny pieces of edible garnish. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course; Hakubai offers two kaiseki menus, one at $170 a head, and an oknomi kaiseki (what-you-like kaiseki, which is what I ended up ordering) at $95.
Because a kaiseki meal is meant to appeal as much to the eyes as it does to the mouth, the best way to take you through what I ate is through pictures. This is a meal worth saving up for if you happen to be visiting the city. We had the excuse of a couple of celebrations – a birthday, the end of a university course – but if I were you, I’d do my very best to make up some reason to celebrate, sell the car, and use the money to hotfoot it to Hakubai.
While recovering from flu, I’ve found myself turning to the wok even more than usual. It’s the perfect cooking implement when I’m feeling under the weather; there’s not too much washing up, you can get dinner on the table very quickly (you should be able to prepare this stir fry in under half an hour). Stir frying invites the use of powerful aromatics and savoury, fiery ingredients like soy and the chilli bean sauce I’ve used below – just what you need if you’re feeling a bit bunged up.
If you’re in a Chinese restaurant in the UK, you’re most likely to see cashew nuts paired with chicken. I prefer them with pork, which gives you a denser and more interesting flavour, and to my mind works much better with the sweet cashews. You’ll need raw, unsalted nuts. Most supermarkets seem to sell them these days, but if you can’t find any there, your local health food shop should stock them.
To serve three, you’ll need:
500g pork fillet
75g raw, unsalted cashew nuts
10 spring onions
3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon chilli bean sauce (I like Lee Kum Kee’s sauce, which you’ll be able to find in any oriental grocer)
2 fresh red chillies
1 tablespoon caster sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cornflour
2 tablespoons ground nut oil
Salt and pepper
Chop the cylindrical pork fillet into bite-sized slices measuring about 4 cm by ½ cm. Put the slices in a bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of the rice wine, 1 tablespoon of the light soy sauce, the sesame oil, the cornflour, a large pinch of salt and several grinds of the peppermill until everything is well mixed. Leave to sit on the working surface to marinade quickly 15 minutes while you put together the rest of the ingredients and have a cup of tea.
Cut the white parts of the spring onion into thin coins, and put in a bowl. Chop the green parts finely and set aside. Chop the chillies finely, and make sure that the other ingredients are all within easy reach of the stove top.
Heat the oil to a high temperature in your wok, and stir fry the pork for three minutes. Remove the pork to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Add the cashew nuts to the wok and stir fry until they are turning gold (about one minute). Now add all of the other ingredients except the green parts of the spring onions. Return the pork to the pan and stir fry everything for another two minutes. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the green parts of the spring onions.