A big thank you to Celebrity Cruises, who invited me and Dr W on the inaugural sailing of their new Solstice class ship, Silhouette. We spent the weekend swanking around the Mediterranean, drinking far too much champagne, soaking up the sun and nibbling on canapés.
I’ve got a few hundred pictures to edit, fifteen twinkly decks and a whole weekend’s overeating to write about. While I’m busying myself about that, you might like to whet your appetites for the post I’ll be putting up later in the week with some photos.
In port at Civitavecchia, near Rome
View from our table in The Porch Restaurant, a new addition to the regular Solstice lineup
The wine list and menu at Qsine are handed to you on an iPad. Wish I could have kept it!
Cocktail waiter perfecting his Tom Cruise impression
Pool deck at night
Dr W and yours truly in a gargantu-chair on the lawn deck
A trio of ceviches, served with a really great smile.
Steamed ginger chicken rice
This is similar to a lot of Chinese claypot dishes, and is really worth rolling out on a day when you have guests you want to spend time talking to rather than cooking for. It’s very, very tasty indeed, but it only uses one dish (or a rice cooker, if you happen to have one in the house) and doesn’t require any advance preparation or marinading. You’ll be using the food processor to blitz some chicken thighs into something a bit like a try rough chicken mince. Be careful when blitzing – you want small pieces of chicken, which steam to a really tasty, juicy result, rather than a smooth paste, which steams to a rubbery horribleness. The rice absorbs juices from the chicken along with all its seasoning, making for a really savoury dish.
I’ve been really pleased to see so many oriental ingredients make their way into even some of our…slightly rubbisher supermarkets. I found a jar of bamboo shoots in sesame oil when on an emergency tonic water run to Tesco. They’re great, and if you can track them down they’re well worth using, but if you can’t find them, substitute with canned shoots, rinsed well under the tap. All the other ingredients should be easy for you to get your hands on.
Texture’s a really important part of this dish. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a tasty crust at the bottom of the rice, created by the fat from the stock and the sesame oil which drips to the bottom “frying” the rice at the base of the dish. (Be sparing with the stock when you come to add the chicken mixture to increase the chances of a good crust.) The chicken will be soft from the steaming, and the vegetables, with their lower water content, will cook rather more slowly than the chicken surrounding them, leaving a lovely fresh crunch to things. As ever, use a home-made chicken stock if you have some in the freezer. If you don’t, I’ve had great success recently with the stuff Waitrose have been producing since their partnership with Heston Blumenthal, which is made with some kombu (a Japanese sea vegetable) for an extra umami kick.
To serve two (just multiply the amounts for more people and add an extra 5-10 minutes’ steaming time when you add the chicken for each extra portion) you’ll need:
370g jasmine rice
1 litre chicken stock
2 pieces of ginger the size of your thumb
12 spring onions
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoons Chinese chilli oil
75ml Chinese rice wine
100g bamboo shoots in sesame oil, drained
100g long-stem broccoli
Choose a Chinese claypot or a heavy saucepan with a close-fitting lid to cook the dish in. (You can also use a rice cooker – see below.) Combine the rice and 750ml of the stock in the pan with two of the spring onions, left whole, and one of the thumbs of ginger, peeled and sliced into coins. Put the lid on and bring the pan to the boil over a medium heat. Turn the heat down low and steam the rice for 20 minutes while you prepare the chicken.
While the rice is cooking, put the chicken thighs in the bowl of your food processor, and pulse gently and briefly until the chicken is chopped finely. Put the chicken pieces in a mixing bowl. Peel and dice the remaining ginger, mince the garlic and chop the rest of the spring onions and the broccoli into little pieces. Throw them in with the chicken, add the bamboo shoots, sesame oil, chilli oil, oyster sauce, rice wine and soy sauce, and use your hands to make sure everything is well combined. (I know, you hate touching raw chicken. Use a spoon if you must, but make sure everything is really well mixed.)
When the rice is ready, it’ll have little holes in the flat surface. Spoon the chicken mixture on top of it, pour over the remaining 25ml of stock, and stick the lid back on. Steam over the low heat the rice cooked at for another 25 minutes, and serve.
If you plan on cooking this in a rice cooker, just cook the rice with the stock, ginger and spring onions under the normal white rice setting, then set it to steam for the required amount of time. If your cooker doesn’t have a steam setting, just set it to “keep warm” when you’ve added the other ingredients, which should provide enough heat to steam the topping, but may take a little longer.
I’ve got collection of bad habits which do nothing to endear me to my local Indian takeaway. If we’re having takeout, I usually cook our own rice, occasionally heat up some oil for DIY poppadoms, and then fail miserably to order anything other than vegetable dishes, which happen to be the least expensive thing on the menu. This doesn’t all come from being a hideous cheapskate; it’s just that I like my own pilau rice better than the stuff with the red and green food colouring in it, and have had a preference for vegetable curries ever since I got food poisoning in India in 2005. (A tip: if you’re in a city where the sewers drain directly into the sea, don’t eat the prawns.) And poppadoms are great fun to make at home, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried.
Sadly for the local takeaway, I’ve started to take to making bhindi bahji, which is probably my all-time favourite curryhouse dish, at home too. There are a few reasons for creating this extra work for myself: home-made bhindi bahji is a lot less greasy than the restaurant kind, which always comes drowning in ghee for no reason that I can really make out, and I can control the cooking of the okra to make sure it doesn’t produce any of the snotty slime that puts so many people off the vegetable.
I love okra. I like its texture (I even like slippery, slimy okra, especially for its ability to thicken the base it’s cooked in), its flavour and the shuddery feeling I got aged about ten when my parents used to refer to it as “ladies’ fingers”. It’s a much maligned vegetable, and I’d encourage you to have a go at making this dish if the only okra you have experienced is olive green and exuding stuff that looks as if it came out of a snail. Cooked like this, it is crisp, fresh- tasting and entirely snot-free.
To serve two as one of two curries on the table, you’ll need:
150g fresh okra
12 fresh, sweet cherry tomatoes
1 medium red onion
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1½ teaspoons turmeric powder
1 tablespoon ghee or groundnut oil
Chop the okra into pieces about an inch long (larger pieces mean less potential for slime) and dunk in a large bowl of water with a couple of spoons of salt dissolved in it. Drain in a colander. Halve the tomatoes and set aside, and chop the garlic.
Cut the onion in half, and slice it into half moons. Heat the ghee or groundnut oil to a high temperature in a frying pan or wok, and throw the onion in. Stir fry it for three minutes, then add all the spices and the garlic to the pan. Continue to stir fry until the onion is turning translucent (a couple of minutes) and the spices are giving off their fragrance.
Add the drained okra to the pan and keep stir-frying for one minute. Add the tomatoes, and continue to cook, stirring all the time, until the tomatoes start to collapse in on themselves and the okra is a bright green and piping hot. Taste for seasoning, and add some salt if necessary.
I’ve been busy working on some new recipes while having a month off from blogging. This is a really good-looking tart, great for parties. I love working with filo pastry; it’s very forgiving (any little tears can easily be ignored as you layer new sheets on), and the crisp finish is second to none, fantastic against the softened vegetables and the bite of the halloumi.
For one 20cm tart, you’ll need:
1 large white onion
1 large sweet potato
4 pointed peppers
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
10 sheets filo pastry
25g melted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200ºC (390ºF). Toss the pancetta, the onion, diced finely, and the peeled, cubed potato in the olive oil with a large pinch of salt and some pepper. Roast for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through the cooking time. The sweet potatoes should be turning golden-brown, and the onions should be sweet and golden. Turn the oven down to 190ºC (370ºF).
While the sweet potato mixture is roasting, cut the peppers in half and grill them, skin side up, until the skins turn black and start to blister. Seal the hot, blistered peppers in a plastic freezer bag. The steam they release will help to loosen the skins and make them easy to slip off with your fingers.
Line a loose-bottomed 20cm tart dish with filo pastry. Lay a sheet halfway across the dish and fold over any that dangles over the edge. Lay another sheet across the other half of the dish, brush them both with butter, and rotate the dish 45 degrees. Repeat the process until you have used up all ten sheets. Prick the base of the pastry a few times with a fork, and line with a circle of greaseproof paper. Fill the tart case with baking beans and bake blind for ten minutes. Remove the beans and paper.
Chop the halloumi into pieces the same size as the chunks of sweet potato, and chop the skinned peppers. Toss the halloumi, peppers and thyme with the sweet potato mixture. Spoon the filling into the tart case. Bake for another 30-40 minutes until golden. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before popping the tart out of the case and serving.
It’s been a very busy month and a bit, and I’ve been taking a bit of time away from this blog to recharge the batteries. I don’t want to bore you with wittering on about the psychology of blogging, but six years’ regular blogging top of some fairly exhausting stuff at home left me feeling a bit…drained.
I spent part of this month in Spain (where I very deliberately avoided taking ANY photographs of food, and didn’t take a SINGLE note about what I was eating – it was bliss, I tell you), where my fantastic little brother Ben was marrying the lovely Katie. Here they are, in a photograph rudely stolen from my aunt Kathy. (Sorry, Kath!)
Ben and Katie's first dance
Ben and Katie had asked me to give a reading at the wedding. I chose this section from the introduction of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s advice that works admirably for the management of relationships as well as kitchens.
Pay close attention to what you are doing while you work, for precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food. If a recipe says, “cover casserole and regulate heat so liquid simmers very slowly,” “heat the butter until its foam begins to subside,” or “beat the hot sauce into the egg yolks by driblets,” follow it. You may be slow and clumsy at first, but with practice you will pick up speed and style.
Allow yourself plenty of time. Most dishes can be assembled, or started, or partially cooked in advance. If you are not an old campaigner, do not plan more than one long or complicated recipe for a meal or you will wear yourself out and derive no pleasure from your efforts.
If food is to be baked or broiled, be sure your oven is hot before the dish goes in. Otherwise soufflés will not rise, pie crusts will collapse, and gratinéed dishes will overcook before they brown.
A pot saver is a self-hampering cook. Use all the pans, bowls, and equipment you need, but soak them in water as soon as you are through with them. Clean up after yourself frequently to avoid confusion.
Train yourself to use your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments. Train yourself to handle hot foods; this will save time. Keep your knives sharp.
Above all, have a good time.
Congratulations to the pair of you. And for everybody else, normal blogging has now resumed.
So here I am in Southern California, getting too much sun and doing a lot of hiking. We spent most of Sunday clambering over stuff up Palomar Mountain, a few tens of miles of orange groves away from San Diego. Chef Carl Schroeder has been raking in the plaudits at Market (3702 Via De La Valle Del Mar, CA 92014, tel. (858) 523-0007) for his minutely, obsessively prepared dishes full of bouncingly fresh farm ingredients, so we swung by that evening, in the middle of the white corn season, to see what was on offer.
Andouille and fresh corn chowder
For me, the best of Californian cooking is all about the produce. This is one of those menus where the provenance of every last green bean is described, along, of course, with the sourcing of all the meats on offer. Schroeder is using whatever is at the peak of its season here, so those beans, the picked-this-minute sweet corn, and tomatoes bursting with the Californian sunshine all find a place on the plate. The chowder above was gloriously, thickly complex. Dense stock, a really good andouille sausage providing a velvety background of pork and spice, and astonishing depth of flavour from a whole garden of vegetables and herbs supporting the sweetness of some corn picked at the height of its ripeness.
All types of cuisine can be had at the many restaurants San Diego California has to offer.
Braised short rib
I ordered Schroeder’s signature dish, a beef short rib braised in Cabernet – the beef and the wine local, of course. A stupidly American portion size (what you can see in the picture above is only half of what was on the plate), and I was a little ashamed to finish the whole thing. Blame the hunger caused by a day’s hiking and the fact that this short rib was really pretty darn fabulous. All its connective tissues were reduced by long, slow sous-vide cooking to a perfectly tender mouthful, the dark Cabernet jus penetrating all the way through the joint. This was once a well-marbled and cheerfully pudgy cow, and all the fat had melted through the beef, carrying flavour and a lovely mouthfeel. More corn here, and some balsamic cippolini onions alongside a sweet onion and potato mash, just in case you don’t feel affairs on your plate are rich and dense enough already.
S'mores (kind of)
Another signature dish for dessert – pastry chef James Foran’s take on a s’more. If you’re English, you may not have come across s’mores. Imagine your Girl Guide/Boy Scout marshmallow-on-a-stick souped up, American style. Here, kids around a camp fire sandwich that marshmallow between two Graham crackers (nearest UK equivalent: the humble digestive biscuit) with a chunk of chocolate, and perform complicated grilling manoeuvres until the innards are melted. Here at Market, the chocolate is a fondant in a shell bearing only the barest resemblance to a Graham cracker – which is to say, that shell is crispy – and topped with a swirl of marshmallow. The shell is cheek-suckingly rich, flavoured with chocolate and cinnamon, and that marshmallow is made with brown sugar and a little smoked sea salt. Add a scoop of malted chocolate ice cream, and you have one hell of a dessert.
It’s a warm-feeling room, all chocolate leather, persimmon walls and modern-googie design touches. And there’s a fantastic and thoughtful wine list (although I ended up with a bottle of Kanchiku junmai sake, which was a great accompaniment to everything I’d ordered). A couple of duff notes: some insipid and tasteless asparagus with a smoked salmon starter, which stood out after the great season we’ve just had in Europe and alongside the other impeccably seasonal vegetables, especially since the kitchen had tried to remedy matters with a far-too-sharp dressing. Tables are uncomfortably crammed in. I felt awkwardly party to every detail of the second date going on to my right and the birthday on my left. And there’s really no excuse for making your parking valet-only, Market, when it takes less than ten seconds to walk from the end of the car park to the restaurant door. Still: all in all, a lovely, bright and fresh meal, and a restaurant I’d definitely visit again.
Food blogging demographics are a decidedly odd thing. A totally disproportionate number of us have at least one South-East Asian parent. (KevinEats has noticed the same phenomenon in LA food blogging circles.) And of that disproportionate number, an even more disproportionate number have family from Singapore or Malaysia. Not so much of a surprise, I suppose; I’ve never been anywhere else in the world where food is such an ingrained part of the overall culture of a country.
Drinks nibbles: freshly roasted peanuts, ikan bilis (crispy baby anchovies) and Goz's amazing five-spice pork crackling
So when Goz (behind the cooker) and Wen (front of house) started up the +(65)/plusixfive Supper Club, named for the Singapore telephone code, they probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as they were that the first night’s bookings filled up with a positive legion of bloggers nostalgic for pandan cake and crispy fried anchovies. At my table alone, there were four of us, shutters clicking, making “eeee!” noises every time a new dish arrived, and slapping each other away with the serving spoons in an attempt to get to the best bits.
Goz and Alex hard at work filling pie tee moulds
Supper clubs are a tricky thing for the hosts to balance. Too much formality can be uncomfortable for diners; too little, and your service can fall apart. You’ve got to hope that your guests will get on well: ideally, the food should provide a talking point to get conversation moving. I’m amazed that this was only the first time that Goz and Wen, with help from their friend Alex, had hosted a supper club. The service was slick; the hosts were warm and great fun to chat with. The company was superb – nothing brings a table of strangers together better than a shared interest in a particular cuisine – and the food, the most important part of the evening, was like going back to Malaysia and eating in my auntie’s house.
Satay with plenty of raw shallot and cucumber to dip in the sauce
Goz prepares the food in a tiny kitchen area overlooking the open-plan dining room. There are two rice cookers on the go, churning out fragrant coconut rice. There’s a wonderland of woks hanging from the walls, and by some magical space-bending trick, dish upon dish upon tray upon baking sheet of food keeps coming out of the tiny space. Where was it all hiding?
The pie tee, filled. These have to be eaten within about five minutes of preparing so the shells don't go soggy. Unsurprisingly, we didn't have any trouble eating them in time.
I feel personally responsible for putting Goz to a lot of trouble over one dish. We got talking on Twitter about kueh pie tee, or top hats: cotton-reel sized shells made from a very thin rice flour batter, and filled with any number of ingredients. They’re a nightmare to prepare, and I’ve never managed to make them well enough to blog (there’s lots of faffing with heated brass moulds on a stick and woks full of terrifying boiling oil). So I was touched, thrilled and a bit ashamed when Goz made a giant stack of the things in addition to the eight courses already on the menu.
Wen's family dish: pork belly with mui choy (mustard greens)
Goz is in charge of the kitchen, for the most part, while Wen deals with the administrative side of things. She also contributed a family recipe: a braised Hakka pork belly and mustard greens concoction which possesses the uncanny ability to take you straight back to your grandmother’s knee, being spoon-fed coconut rice soaked with the rich soy gravy. (If you have a Hakka, Malaysian or Singaporean grandmother, that is. If yours is from Skegness, I doubt the pork belly will have quite the same impact.) She plans to blog the recipe; I’ll add a link here when she does. (Update, about four hours later: with terrifying promptness, Wen has blogged the recipe here.)
Goz's ox-cheek rendang
Even if you’re not an expert on Singaporean/Malaysian food, you’re likely to recognise some of what arrives on the table. Goz’s chicken satay, lemongrass-fragrant and spiked with peanut sauce, is terrific, little nuggets of skin left on so they crisp under the grill. Beef rendang is also a dish you might have come across in restaurants in the UK. Goz’s beef rendang (my recipe for rendang is here - you’ll notice that rendang is basically impossible to photograph in a way that makes it look pretty) has a twist to it, though; it’s made with succulent, flavour-packed ox cheeks.
Tofu and century eggs with a soy and sesame dressing
Tofu in a sesame and soy dressing was served with century eggs. I love century eggs: back in Malaysia we ate them with strips of pickled ginger, and I think they’re fantastic studding a bowl of congee with shreds of roast pork. They also work as a good personality test. I find that if someone who’s never encountered one before eats a piece with gusto, transparent brown white and greeny blue yolk and all, I’m almost certainly going to like them.
Teochew duck, eggs and tofu
Goz saved the savoury dish that we thought the best for the end. Teochew braised duck with hard-boiled eggs and spongy tofu, all the better to soak up a gorgeously rich, dense and meaty dark sauce. Terrific alongside the Hainanese vegetables with glass noodles and a dollop of that coconut rice.
Tea ice cream and a sort of cornflake praline. I could have eaten as much of this as Goz had room in his freezer for.
Kuih ubi kayu. If you visit Goz and Wen, make sure you save plenty of room for these - and make sure you grab a bit that touched the edge of the pan.
Teh tarik (pulled tea) ice cream made with an almost impossibly strong black tea was a lovely way to cool the mouth. Teh tarik is a sweet, strong, milky tea which is cooled by pouring in great loops between two glasses until it’s warm and frothy. Goz served it with crushed caramelised cornflakes; a terrific flavour match and texturally really good with the ice cream. Kuih bingka ubi, a lovely soft, syrupy, mouth-melting cassava cake, was meant to be a petit four to accompany our coffee, but our table ate them all in about five seconds flat, before the coffee had even brewed. Goz, not to be outdone, toasted up some pandan cake for us instead. Pandan cake will be familiar to all Singaporean or Malaysian readers, and can be bought at some oriental bakeries and supermarkets in the UK. It’s a very light chiffon cake with a bright green crumb, flavoured with the grassy fragrance of pandan leaves. None of us had every tried it toasted before, and I don’t think I’m ever going to go back to eating it straight again. Broken into chunks and grilled until the edges are barely crisp and golden, it made for a lovely accompaniment to the coffee, imported from Singapore roasters.
Pandan cake, toasted
I live an hour and a half from +(65)/plusixfive, but I’m already planning my next trip. Goz, Wen and friends are doing something really special here: Singaporean home cooking and Singaporean hospitality that makes you feel a million miles away from London. Keep an eye on their website or follow them on Twitter @plusixfive to find out when they’re next hosting an evening, and bring plenty of Tiger Beer!
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.
Tiny scones with a positive mountain of clotted cream and jam, and some super-duper finger sarnies
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 Royal Horseguards terrace, just across the street from the Thames
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.
View over Cambridge's Market Square from the 12a Club
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.
Main bar area, 12a Club
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.
A stack of wine lists masquerading as books
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.
Behind the bar
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.
The club has a bare-bones website with contact details and membership information. Head on over to have a look!
Bremen town hall. Image from Bremen tourist board.
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.
Bremen Ratskeller. Image from Bremen tourist board. Kobolds etc. probably lurking in barrel.
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.
Paulaner's beer garden in the evening. Image from Bremen tourist board.
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.”
Even I have enough German to understand that.