I don’t know whether it’s an effect of culture or genetics, but I’ve noticed that my taste for things which are simultaneously sweet and salty is one not shared by many of my European friends. At the same time, most of my Chinese relations and friends go a bundle for the combination. So over the holidays, hanging out with my Dad and brother (who like their popcorn at the cinema to be a mixture of the salty stuff and the sweet stuff, enjoy peanut brittle, sprinkle salt on guavas and will fight over Mexican candied mango seasoned with a chilli salt), it was inevitable that the snacks which repel my Mum and husband would come out to be nibbled over the sherry.
Chinese candied olives are not something you’re likely to pick up at random while browsing the aisles if you’ve not tried them before, but they’re a great treat; if you like the salty/sweet flavour combination, I think you’ll enjoy them. “Olive” is a bit of a misnomer; they’re not the same species as European olive (Olea europaea). These fruits are Canarium alba, and raw they’re a little like an avocado in texture and flavour, but their similarity in size, shape and their slight oiliness to a European olive is so marked that they’re often mistaken for the European version, especially once processed. That processing is done by soaking the fruit in a dense sugar and salt solution, then part-drying the result. You can buy these olives cracked, so the sugary brine really permeates the flesh, or uncracked for a less intense flavour. The resulting preserve is sweet, with a bit of a salty edge, and a lovely resinous, aromatic flavour. They’re great with a strong drink.
Unfortunately, the caramel crabs I’d bought for drinky nibbles really required a very strong drink indeed before you might be able to manage to choke one down. I usually really rate candied dried fish (there’s a long Malaysian tradition of sweet, dried satay-spiced fish, tiny shrimp and cuttlefish), but this packet of Japanese baby crabs was a long way from being enjoyable. Sawagani are a tiny Japanese river crab, no bigger across the body than the tip of your finger. Some really good Japanese restaurants will drop them live into a deep fryer, and their carapace is so thin that when prepared in this way they turn out a bit like an eight-legged crisp.
Was my packet past its sell-by date? Were my crabs elderly? It’s hard to say – I don’t read any Japanese (and stupidly, I threw the packet out before I had a chance to photograph it, so I can’t ask any Japanese-speakers here to help out), but these were a horrendously fishy little morsel, the shell beneath the layer of mustardy caramel a bit like eating the glaze from your Grandma’s best porcelain. Just say no to caramel crabs. It might be worth buying a packet, though, just to serve with a beer next time you have some friends round as a practical joke.
A discussion about the Elizabeth David books that inspired last week’s Poulet Antiboise got me thinking about Christmas presents. I love a food book that’s capable of making me salivate at the writing as well as over the recipes, and there’s nothing better than a book that rewards dipping in and out as much as it does reading from cover to cover. (B, K and L, look away now – you may be receiving presents from this list this year.)
So I’ve made a short list below of some of my very favourite books in this genre. Most aren’t the Jamie-Gordon-Nigella sort that you’ll find displayed in your local bookshop for Christmas; those folk get enough marketing help as it is. Each of these books has something out of the ordinary about it; I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
The Art of Eating M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was an American gastronome and prolific author absolutely preoccupied with food; she’s considered the creator of food writing as a specific genre. Her writing is full of an immense love of life, art and the joy of food; eating it, preparing it, growing it, travelling vast distances to find it, and sharing it; all without a trace of the food snobbism that infuses such a lot of later writing on the subject. Her style is so conversational and so engaging that to read her can feel like sitting over a pot of tea and gingerbread (or a bottle of champagne and some oysters), nattering away as you chew. Five of her very best books of essays: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets, are collected in this fat 50th anniversary edition. Unfortunately, and unconscionably, the book is out of print in the UK, but second-hand copies are still to be had for a sensible price on Amazon Marketplace in hard- and soft-back editions. If the book-lover in your life cares more about what’s inside the covers (as she should) than whether the corners are a bit bent, she’ll thank you for this. It’s a book to be dipped into – a wonderful bedside companion, with occasional trips down to the kitchen to try out some of the recipes scattered through it.
Here are Mary Frances’ opening paragraphs on snails. How could you not want to spend 750 pages in this lady’s company?
I have eaten several strange things since I was twelve, and I shall be glad to taste broiled locusts and swallow a live fish. But unless I change very much, I shall never be able to eat a slug. My stomach jumps alarmingly at the thought of it.
I have tried to be callous about slugs. I have tried to picture the beauty of their primeval movements before a fast camera, and I have forced myself to read in the Encyclopaedia Britannica the harmless ingredients of their oozy bodies. Nothing helps. I have a horror, deep in my marrow, of everything about them. Slugs are awful, slugs are things from the edges of insanity, and I am afraid of slugs and all their attributes.
But I like snails. Most people like snails.
Forgotten Skills of Cooking I bought Darina Allen’s latest book after spending the afternoon with her back in October; it’s the only book in this list to be published this year. Your gift recipient probably has a few shelves groaning under the weight of cookery books, many of them full of broadly similar recipes and techniques. He is very unlikely to have anything like this one. Forgotten Skills is full of the recipes your great-grandmother was making before mechanisation and processing; here, you’ll learn to make your own butter, yoghurt, black pudding, gorse wine, preserved meats, smoked fish, cheeses – it’s by far the most exciting cookery book I’ve seen this year, and deservedly won 2010’s André Simon prize. There’s more to this book than recipes; you’ll learn about raising chickens; building smokers; judging the tenderness of a freshly shot bunny; and jointing, trussing, boning and plenty of other butchery and husbandry skills.
The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate Jeffrey Steingarten’s writing was, back in 2005, one of the things that encouraged me to move away from educational publishing and start writing about food instead; here was someone treating food writing in a way which somehow achieved the magic combination of being blithe and hilariously funny at the same time as being considered and near-scholarly. He was American Vogue’s food correspondent, and his lucid, witty and punctilious approach to eating is a joy. “I like salad, eaten in moderation like bacon or chocolate, about twice a week.” Here, you’ll inhale the fumes of carbonised pizza through Steingarten’s pages as he tries to hack his home oven to reach the temperatures of a commercial pizza oven; learn that the air in Alsace is “as crisp as bacon and as sweet as liver sausage”; discover exactly what Joël Robuchon’s recipe for chips is; and find yourself in possession of useful photocopiable pages on Venetian seafood vocabulary for your next holiday. These books are cheering, life-enhancing and, for the committed foodie, almost as much fun as eating. Buy yourself a copy too.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking Michael Ruhlman’s little book is based on a very simple premise: that of the chef’s database. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen you’ll probably be familiar with the giant spreadsheet which tots up food costs, helps with menu planning, sub-dishes and aids in ordering. The useful part of such a database for the home cook, and the part that Ruhlman is concerned with here, is the breakdown of basic recipes – cake batters, bread doughs, all kinds of pastry, cookie and biscuit and so forth – into the ratios of ingredients that go to make them up. Adjust the ratios, and your bread dough becomes a pasta dough; your set custard a crème Anglaise. Alongside the elemental recipes you’ll find examples of ways to expand them (so that set custard and a pastry dough become a fine asparagus quiche), with encouragement to expand on these ideas and experiment yourself. It’s a very useful little book that lives on my desk rather than in the kitchen.
Ruhlman’s webpage points you at the inevitable iPhone app associated with the book. I haven’t played with it yet, but it looks jolly if you are not the sort to get upset about a phone caked in batter.
They Can’t Ration These This book is for the forager in your life, who should already own Richard Mabey’s little pocket-sized Collins Gem edition of Food for Free (only £2.50 on Amazon at the time of writing – go and grab a copy). The Vicomte de Mauduit was writing in the Second World War, when foraging had become something of a necessity rather than the jolly middle-class weekend yomping exercise it is these days. (And no bad thing, that; as the Vicomte says, “And when Peace will again come on Earth, the people of Britain, already made conscious through food rationing that meals no longer consist of a hot and then cold “joint with two veg”, will find this book a practical and valuable guide to better things”.) The recipes and foraging tips are alternately delicate and delicious-sounding – faux-capers made from nasturtium buds, beechnut butter, the tips of hops treated like asparagus – and the sort of thing that you would only go near in extremis; the starling, frog and hedgehog recipes can probably be left well alone in these fat years of the 21st century. I am depressed to learn that Mauduit was captured by the Nazis after the fall of France, and disappeared in Germany; I hope he’s looking down on us from whatever cloud Sydney Smith and his trumpets are parked on, stuffing his face with foie gras accompanied by those lovely-sounding nasturtium buds and some rowan jelly.
This is a simply beautiful edition from the Persephone Press, whose output is really worth getting to know if you love books. It’s one of those books as lovely to look at and handle as it is to read. I was particularly taken with the endpapers (when do you ever have occasion to say that?), which are absolutely in the spirit of the rest of the book, taken from a fabric design in potato-print made on sugar paper in paint from 1940.
The Oxford Companion to Food My lovely mother-in-law gave me a copy of this hefty encyclopaedia of food earlier this year, and I’ve been dibbling in and out of it ever since. Unusually for a reference book, this is an occasionally opinionated and often very funny treatment of its subject; it’s also exhaustive and enjoyably comprehensive. Did you know that the long bones of the giraffe do not yield good marrow, or that its tongue is the only eatable part of the beast? That the mahseer is the most famous angling fish of India? That if you buy fish in a Finnish market, you’ll be given a free bunch of dill?
There’s something on nearly every page here which is new to me, or which I only know the barest outlines about: Babylonian cookery, an 18th century portable soup for travellers (a sort of precursor of the stock cube for the upper sets), the brief Victorian fashion for something called paper bag cookery. There’s room on everyone’s shelf for a book like this, which has the potential to entertain you just as much as it educates.
The recipe below is one I was walked through by Paul Flynn during our food bloggers’ weekend in Ireland. Paul has been called Ireland’s greatest living chef (“I don’t know who the dead ones are,” he says). As Nico Ladenis’ head chef back in London, he collected a positive galaxy of Michelin stars; and it was a surprise to everybody when he upped sticks and returned to Ireland, eventually settling back in his quiet hometown of Dungarvan to open his own restaurant with his wife Maire.
That restaurant, the Tannery, has been running for ten years now, and these days also supports a cookery school bristling with technology (Paul says that shortly, you’ll be able to stream video of lessons you’ve participated in over the internet), a rambling kitchen garden, supplying all the restaurant’s vegetables and herbs, that overlooks Paul’s old primary school (coincidentally, also the primary school of Niamh from Eat Like a Girl – there must be something in the water), and the Tannery Townhouse, a pretty little boutique hotel around the corner from the restaurant. We visited the cookery school for a lunch demonstration – there’s nothing like watching a chef like Paul Flynn prepare your dinner to work up the old appetite – the fruits of which we later got to empty down our throats like starving baby birds.
I don’t usually get a lot out of cookery lessons; it is annoying to be taught not just how to suck eggs but also how to separate and whisk them when you’ve been doing it for years. Paul’s great, though, tailoring classes to the skills level of his students without an iota of condescension, and I really enjoyed our few hours in the kitchen. Classes vary in length from the five-day, hands-on courses to evening demonstrations where a group can watch as Paul talks them through a three-course meal.
The recipe below is for oatcakes with spiced plums, and despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of its four elements, it absolutely blew me away on the day. You know those Prince Charles oatcakes from Dutchy Originals? The ones that taste a bit like salty cardboard? These are absolutely nothing like that. Creaming the butter and sugar together until the mixture is white and fluffy, then resting the dough (this is important – it needs to be very firmly chilled) in the fridge for several hours results in an almost shortbread-like texture, with a gloriously nutty flavour from the oats. These little oatcakes are very easy to put together, and the dough, uncooked, freezes very well, so it’s worth making a large batch and taking sticks of the dough out so you can cook some oatcakes fresh whenever you want some. As well as matching effortlessly with these plums, the oatcakes are beyond fabulous with a nice salty cheese. Over to Paul for the recipe (and thanks to Tourism Ireland for the two group photos):
Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the flour and oatflakes. Roll into sausage shapes, wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge. Cut into 1cm thick discs and place on a baking tray. Bake in 150ºC oven for 15 minutes.
Mix the cream and milk. Bring to the boil with the ginger. Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together. Add the boiling milk and cream to the sugar and egg mixture. Bring back up over a medium heat, stirring all the time until the custard starts to thicken. Strain and allow to cool and when cold, churn in an ice cream machine.
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 heaped tablespoon golden caster sugar
Bring apples to the boil with the sugar and stew gently until they start to break down and the juices start to flow. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Spiced roasted plums
Allow 2 per person, cut in half
To make the spiced butter:
100g soft butter
½ tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon golden caster sugar
Combine the butter with the allspice and sugar and roll into a sausage shape and chill. To serve, cut a thin slice of butter and place on the plums, and place under a hot grill until bubbling.
To put the dish together, spoon some of the compote onto the oatcakes, and top with plum halves. Serve with a dollop of ginger ice cream.
I’d been invited back to the Royal Horseguards Hotel (0871 376 9033) in Westminster yesterday to try pastry chef Joanne Todd’s latest bit of afternoon tea whimsy. You might remember the beautiful Wimbledon afternoon tea she confected in the summer, served out on the hotel’s terrace by the Thames. Now the nights are closing in, tea is served by a roaring fire in the hotel lounge, a harpist around the corner belting out oddly incongruous Andrew Lloyd Webber hits.
Joanne’s fast becoming one of my favourite pâtissiers in London. Both of the teas I’ve tried have been well-balanced for sweetness and texture, full of seasonal flavour (elderflower and strawberries in the summer, mulled wine and chestnuts for November), and so full of character, charm and humour that it seems a shame to eat them. Almost. Witness the white chocolate truffles from yesterday’s tea, flavoured with a little chilli and popping candy, and styled to look like a tiny cherry bomb. A shot of hot chocolate, thick with malt, had a couple of marshmallows in it on a stick for toasting – and there was an indoor firework/candle arrangement to toast them on.
“I wanted a really big one that sort of shot flames out of the top,” said Joanne, “but the hotel maintenance people weren’t too happy about the idea.” She looked ruefully at the spotless white ceiling with its architraving, and the handsome soft furnishings and tasselled curtains.
Much as I would have enjoyed a Roman Candle sticking out of my tea, the excellent little sparkling candles more than did the job. Here was a shot of boozy mulled wine jelly with a topping of cinnamon crème pâtissière I could have happily swum in; that most surprising of things, a roast chestnut cupcake where the icing/cake balance was absolutely correct – not too sweet, not too stodgy – with a barking mad but delicious parsnip crisp sticking out of the top; and one of Joanne’s gorgeously toothsome macaroons, this time flavoured with gunpowder tea and decorated with a little nugget of the same.
My favourite were the mini toffee apples. Looking a little like very fat, handsome olives, they were actually a skin of marzipan covered with a sticky, appley glaze. Wrapped up inside was a juicy little spoonful of caramel apple compote – hopelessly good. I could have eaten ten. Lapsang Souchong, being smoked, is the obvious tea to drink with this spread, but you can choose from a large selection of loose teas.
The tea finishes up with a plate of enormous scones (two each), jams and a giant football of clotted cream to anoint them with, and finger sandwiches in good old-fashioned English flavours – cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon and ham. If you can’t face the 50-yard waddle to Embankment tube station, they’ll call you a cab. After a tea this size, I don’t think you’re going to be fitting down any Parliamentary tunnels with barrels of gunpowder any time soon.
The Guy Fawkes Afternoon Tea runs until November 7, and costs £28 per person. Joanne has something special up her sleeve for a Christmas tea in December too, and that event will be running all month – book a table while you can!
“…And we got to spend an afternoon with Darina Allen at Ballymaloe,” I said to some Irish friends back here in the UK, on my return from our bloggers’ pootle around the foodier bits of Cork and Waterford. Frequently, Irish eyes are held to be smiling. On this occasion, they all rolled back in their respective skulls with envy.
“Darina Allen? She’s the only person whose recipes I use! Em…apart from yours, of course, so,” said one friend, upon which she immediately started fiddling with her beer. “You are so lucky,” said another. “I would kill to spend an afternoon with Darina Allen.”
Her husband (English), shuffled away from her nervously on his bottom. “Who’s Darina Allen?”
This comes under the class of questions that you should never ask an Irish person if you do not wish to be scoffed at vigorously. “You know your woman Delia Smith? Like that, but good. And organic. And without the football and the shite food,” said one angry Irishwoman. “She is only the whole reason that Irish food is any good these days. And you know that pot-roast you like? And the raspberry roulade? And all the stuff from that big white book in the kitchen? I can’t believe you don’t know who she is.”
“Jaysus,” agreed Irish friend #1.
Darina is, in fact, the dynamic force behind the world-renowned Ballymaloe cookery school, set in the middle of its own 100-acre organic farm and gardens. She’s head of the country’s slow food movement, is currently very deeply involved in a project to get farmers’ markets embedded in Irish shopping culture, is the author of a vast number of cookery books, and, alongside teaching at the cookery school, works as a TV presenter and newspaper columnist. She might well be the most energetic person I have ever met – our meeting at Midleton farmers’ market resulted in an impromptu whistlestop tour of the market, followed by sublime pizzas at the Ballymaloe cookery school’s Saturday Pizza Kitchen (a business idea totally out of left-field but typically popular and successful), and a long tour of the gardens and farm. At all stages in the day, Darina was multitasking. Collecting firewood as we walked around the gardens; shouting encouragement and advice to gardening staff; swiping invisible motes of dust off pristine teaching kitchens; making sure the egg incubators were working properly; poking at piles of rotting seaweed composting down for the farm’s potatoes; discussing lists of the very few ingredients, like flour, which need to be ordered in because the farm can’t produce enough for the school, with a chef jogging alongside us; picking wet walnuts; checking the locks on the greenhouses: all I was doing was following her around, taking pictures and making notes, and it was enough to leave me breathless, exhausted and craving a glass of something strong with ice in.
It was all rather brilliant. I left wanting to take up Darina as my new exercise regime.
There’s so much emphasis at Ballymaloe on the time and effort it takes to raise food properly. Cookery students “adopt” a fertilised chicken egg and watch the egg’s progression from potential scramble to chick to hen. Their first task at the school is to plant seeds (a large part of the grounds is given over to student vegetable plots) which grow into vegetables over their time at the school. Food raised with care and respect costs time and money; there are good reasons why you should be deeply suspicious of a £4 supermarket chicken. There is solar panelling (“Much more effective than they thought it would be, because of the reflections from the sea,” crowed Darina), rainwater collection, all that seaweed being used as a fertiliser (“We do not use cow muck from cows we do not raise ourselves. Who knows what they have been eating and what drugs they have ingested?”), a refusal to take up Government grants which might impact on the way things are done here, and more ethical responsibility in the stewardship of the land than you can shake a stick at. (Don’t, by the way. Darina will take it from you and use it for firewood in the bread oven.)
Because much of the food produced here is not being sold, but being used for teaching purposes, plenty of produce is made in the old-fashioned ways, exempt from EU legislation about temperature control, hairnets and bleach. So you’ll find a breezy barn whose ceiling is packed with hooks from which charcuterie dangles, a shed for cheesemaking with big fermentation tanks alongside cloth-wrapped cheeses stacked on the wooden shelves, and garlic drying in the sun.
Darina and the rest of the staff at the cookery school have done the seemingly impossible – turned traditional, ethical, methods of raising, marketing and cooking food into something that’s not so much a business as a movement that seems to be sweeping through Ireland. Ballymaloe is still one of the most respected places to train as a professional chef, but also runs short courses and afternoon demonstrations for amateurs – which I mean in the word’s strictest sense of those who are passionate – in food. If you’re the short-course holiday type, I can’t think of a lovelier or more inspiring place to spend your time.
The recession has hit hard in Ireland. For the country’s food businesses, it’s been a double-edged sword; some restaurants are now choosing to open seasonally, or for only part of the week, and you can’t help but notice the closed shops as you drive through the small towns.
But closures aren’t the whole of the story. Markets and local producers are winning shoppers away from the supermarkets with some superb produce and giddily good pricing, while also weaning the restaurant business off reliance on wholesalers; most of the menus you’ll see are packed to the gills with meat, fish and vegetables sourced from only a few miles around. Innovation in food, from special Saturday pizza kitchens, to Irish-Indian spice blenders and microbreweries specialising in the kinds of real ale that knock Guinness into a cocked hat, are under every mossy stone you overturn – and they’re drawing in the punters. And best of all, you remember all that stuff you’ve heard about Ireland being an expensive place to visit? Not true any more. This is a perfect time to visit the island; you’ll holiday like a king, and while you’re doing it, you’ll be supporting an admirable local food economy which really deserves a few of your vacation Euros.
I was in Cork and Waterford for three nights as a guest of Tourism Ireland, who have done all the work for you if you fancy planning a gourmet trip to the country, with the very informative foodie bit of their website. The schedule they’d worked out with the brilliant Niamh from Eat Like A Girl had five food bloggers churning up the countryside in a minibus, speeding (I mean that literally; Paddy, our driver, was in a constant hurry to get back to his wife) from market to museum to butcher to cookery school to farm to…kayak in an exhaustive tour of what the two counties have to offer. I can heartily recommend kayaking through Cork’s two main city channels at sunset if you’re in the mood to burn off some of what you’ve eaten; Jim and Barry from Atlantic Sea Kayaking put even the most nervous of us at our ease – and nobody got wet.
If you’re in the country, it’s really worth your while making use of the refrigerator in your hotel room, packing a coolbag in your suitcase and shopping for some market produce while you’re there. Stand-outs which you can transport quite easily include the smoked fish, especially Frank Hederman’s exceptional product from the Bevelly Smokehouse. We bumped into Frank himself twice, once at the English Market in Cork, where Kay Harte from the Farmgate Café and restaurant took the time to give us a market tour, and once at the lovely little farmers’ market in Midleton. In the winter, try his buttery-smooth smoked mackerel; Frank says the fish don’t eat over the winter and stop producing stomach acid, which results in a much less acid flesh in the fish as a whole. However it’s done, I’ve never sampled a better smoked mackerel. If you can’t get to Cork, Frank also supplies Selfridges in London with his silky smoked salmon and some other smoked products.
Spiced beef is a Cork favourite. The shipping lanes which used to pass through Cork at the height of the British Empire (you can learn more about this at the city’s wonderful butter museum, where we saw a 1000-year-old chunk of bog butter preserved in a case) injected the city’s traditional cuisine with flavours not seen in the rest of the country. Paul Coughlan at the English Market is making spiced beef to his family’s old recipe, (“We use cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, pepper…and some secrets”) , brined in a wet spice mix, poached, then rolled in a dry mix. Thin slivers are terrific as a charcuterie with drinks; in Cork it’s very popular at Christmas, and again, it’ll travel well in your suitcase.
Local soda breads are available all over the country, from the very dark brown kind made with molasses to the pale golden kind, sometimes spiked with caraway seeds. There’s not as much in the way of yeasted artisanal bakery here as you might find in other countries, soda bread having such an important role in Irish food tradition, but we found some very good breads at the markets we visited, all the better for being made in small batches. And the sausages – we enjoyed some from Catherine O’Mahoney at the English Market, who is a third-generation butcher – along with black and white pudding for breakfast, are a local necessity. Braver souls should head for O’Reilly’s in the English Market to sample driheen, a very traditional beef-blood sausage flavoured with tansy. It’s traditionally served with tripe in a bechamel; O’Reilly’s is one of the last places in the country that still makes and sells what’s becoming a fast-vanishing local speciality. Driheen and tripe are also served at the Farmgate café in the market, which I’ll expand on in a later post.
We saw lots of soft farm cheeses; these won’t travel so well, but can make a lovely picnic if you’re foraging for lunch at a market. Desmond and Gabriel are two hard cheeses from the West Cork Natural Cheese Company, and are sold all over; they’ve a Parmesan-like tang to them, and are well worth bringing home with you. Most places selling the cheeses should let you try a nibble before you buy. I also stocked up with some spice mixes from Green Saffron, an Irish food success story who blend a dizzying array of spice mixtures, and a few packets of the house blends from the tiny Cork Coffee Roasters.
There was much more to the weekend’s gorging than you’ll want to read at one sitting, so I’ll follow this up later with a post touching on some of the restaurants we ate at, some of the cookery demonstrations we enjoyed, and some of the hotels we stayed in. Many thanks especially to Niamh “Eat Like A Girl” Shields, Sarah and Aoife from Tourism Ireland, and Denise “Wine Sleuth” Medrano, Ailbhe “Simply Splendiferous” Phelan and Signe “Scandilicious” Johansen for being among the best company I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a weekend with. I’m off to fry up some white pudding.
A picture post is what’s needed here. I’ve written at some length about the London Atelier, and one of the lovely things about Robuchon’s globe-circling string of restaurants is that service, the food itself, the décor and the ambience are absolutely consistent across the lot of them; a long post about the restaurant here would just be repetitious. We visited the Vegas Atelier at MGM Grand, helmed by chef Steve Benjamin, for our wedding anniversary. We pushed the boat out with two different tasting menus: the nine-course Menu Decouverte de Saison ($155) and the five-course Menu Club ($95), both of which we shared. It’s a good way to try a handsome cross-section of the restaurant’s menu, only semi-bankrupting yourself in the process. Wine pairings with Menu Decouverte are $105; the Club pairing is a relatively bargainsome $65. In the end, we went for a couple of Kir Royales to start things off with, and a bottle of J Vineyards‘ superb vintage brut to jolly the food along – a much less expensive option than champagne, and a meticulously made, gorgeously complex, appley, toasty mouthful. As far as I can make out, the J Vineyard (which is in California’s Russian River Valley) doesn’t yet have a UK presence. Somebody should get in there and start representing them over here quickly – this stuff’s joyous.
Here are some highlights from the two tasting menus.
The Vegas Atelier, unlike other outposts of the restaurant, doesn’t serve lunch. “Vegas isn’t really a lunch city,” said our server, commiserating, “Most people visiting here are breakfasting at 4pm.” The restaurant is small, and it’s always packed – make a reservation if you decide to visit. In a nod to the recession, there is now a $49 three-course menu available early in the evening, so a visit needn’t break the bank: you can visit the baccarat tables to do that later on.
I’m off on my summer holidays tomorrow – I’m headed back to Las Vegas and Utah for a mixture of hiking (to keep the pounds off) and restaurant crawling (to put them back on again). I may post a few pictures while I’m away, but I’m planning on spending most of the next fortnight well away from any computers.
In the meantime, I leave you with some pictures from Andrew’s Really Secret Event. Note the acronym – Andrew seemed awfully pleased about it, and it would be churlish not to draw your attention to it. This was a wine tasting on Coombe Hill in Buckinghamshire, which you may have noticed me tweeting from a couple of weeks back. Andrew Barrow, annoyingly good photographer, proprietor of Spittoon and a proper gent despite the tendency to humorous acronyms, marshalled a sundry group of bloggers (Eat Like A Girl, Simply Splendiferous, Supermarket Wine Reviews, Wine Sleuth, Cook Sister, Wine Woman and Song and Wine Passionista – all worth a click if your Friday becomes too much like hard work) and marched us up to the top of a hill. A very steep hill, not made any better by the fact that Andrew got lost on the way to the top – how do you get lost on the way to the top of a hill? – and ended up trailing a line of terrified bloggers through a dark and boggy wood, all of us convinced that he was about to turn on us with a shotgun and subject us to some sort of Shallow Grave-style performance art.
Happily for readers of food and wine blogs everywhere, we survived and made it to the top, where Andrew and a group of friends had set up gazebos, laid out a huge picnic, and, most importantly, prepared a blind tasting, courtesy of Nick from Bordeaux Uncovered. My favourite wine of the afternoon was the Champagne Barnaut Seconde-Collard Blanc de Noirs Brut NV, with a lovely toasty nose and a crazily low price, coming in at less than £20 a bottle.
A lovely afternoon, with some great company. Only one request, Andrew – next time you do one of these, can we please go somewhere with a toilet?
I’d been invited to lunch at the Freemasons Country Inn in Wiswell, Lancashire, by the fine folks from American Express and the London Restaurant Festival. This year’s LRF sees chefs from ten London restaurants pair up with ten restaurants from all over the country to produce gala menus on October 10, especially for American Express card holders. (If you don’t have an American Express card, get a friend who does to book for you.) There are some big names taking part – Alain Roux, Raymond Blanc, Mitch Tonks, Richard Corrigan – alongside some rising stars you’re bound to be hearing much more about very soon.
Wiswell is a tiny village, arranged precariously along a single-track path that curves up a dripping wet Lancashire hill. I got lost on my way there, and had to stop at a petrol station in nearby Clitheroe to ask for directions. A man wearing a fuzzy jumper in the crisp aisle knew exactly where I was meant to be going: he’d just had his wedding anniversary meal there. (“Seven courses! You’ll eat like a king; it’s a magnificent restaurant.”) Locally, the Freemasons has developed a huge and loyal following, as evidenced by the fact that they were packed to the gills with diners on a soaking Monday lunchtime in August, traditionally one of the restaurant industry’s slowest months.
I was here with Matthew Foxon from the Criterion, who has been paired up for Amex’s shindig with Steven Smith, the Freemasons’ chef. They met precisely two hours before I rolled up, and in that time had become such firm friends that I found myself addressing them as one chefly entity called Matt’n’Steve. They announced in unison: “This is a good pairing. We’re on the same wavelength.” They have lots in common besides the haircuts: a very similar approach to sourcing ingredients, to the importance of texture in a dish and to flavour combinations. Steven’s team prepared lunch from the Freemasons’ menu, Matt’n’Steve developed a dish for October while I watched, and I ate myself silly.
The Freemasons was not what I’d expected from a country pub. Downstairs, it’s pure pub: a bar, wooden tables, stone flags, shootin’-huntin’-fishin’ prints and the odd bit of taxidermy. (The upstairs houses a more formal dining area and two private dining rooms.) At a first glance, the menu looks like solid, pubby, starch-and-stodge stuff. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll be disappointed. Steven has subverted the standard pub menu and made it a jumping-off point for some of the most elegant restaurant food I’ve eaten this year. These were jewel-like, complex presentations, with each beautiful element on the plate calculated to complement the whole dish. No bangers in a bun here. Sourcing is a matter of pride for this kitchen – by the end of the meal I knew the first name of the man who grows the restaurant’s beets, the life history of the piglet who sacrificed himself for my superb terrine (and that of his parents), and the precise bit of Scottish coast my scallops had lived on.
Steven draws inspiration from the best bits of English cuisine and from the local area. He’s a Lancashire lad, and knows the countryside and its suppliers intimately. There’s a nod to the local Asian population in the spicing of the scallops; some traditional piccalilli and pork scratchings are given a very unconventional treatment; and what looks like a walnut whip but turns out to be a light-as-air puff of caramelised meringue. A pork jelly sits on the plate with no pork pie in sight, and works as a salty, mellow foil to slivers of sweetly pickled fennel. And who knew that pear and beetroot were such a good flavour match?
Once service was over, I was invited to the kitchen to have a look at one of the dishes the two chefs are developing together for the LRF event. Matt was busying himself about some exquisitely delicate sheets of pasta while Steve piped a coil of leek and potato purée onto a pasta base, dropped a fresh yolk into the centre and topped the lot off with another pasta sheet to make a large piece of ravioli, which was poached briefly so the egg was barely set. Matt had brought a large and handsome truffle up on the train with him (I feel for the hungry souls who shared a carriage with him) – it made a heady sauce, drizzled around the pasta and some more leeks with another leek purée, with more of the truffle grated over the top. I’ve seldom seen such focussed attention as Steve gave that single raviolo – and it did them both proud. I was caught swiping at the yolky, truffly, leeky bits on my empty plate with a finger and sucking it, and was roundly laughed at; I felt somewhat less than proud, but it didn’t stop me going back for more.
Wiswell is easy to get to from either side of the Pennines (I was coming from a weekend over the hills in Leeds; Manchester is close by, and the M6 is right on the doorstep), and this restaurant should be a must if you’re in that part of the world. Book early; it’s guaranteed to be packed out. (See the links at the top of this page for booking details.) If you’re down south, try to get an American Express card-holding friend to grab you a table for the 10-10-10 event, where you’ll be able to try several of the dishes above – but get in quickly, because tables are selling out fast.
Secret restaurants will not be a new idea to you if you’re a London foodie – they may be a little more of a surprise if you’re not based in the capital. Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve met more and more people running small, uncertified restaurants from their home dining rooms. You’ll hear them referred to as supper clubs, underground restaurants and secret restaurants; the usual procedure will involve you buying a ticket at one of these word-of-mouth places’ websites, and being emailed an address to turn up at the day before the meal. Many of the secret restaurant folk also write at the extremely extroverted end of the food bloggery spectrum. (You have a food blog either because you are a genteel introvert who wants an excuse to spend the day with a spatula and a keyboard, or because you love to share your sticky, greasy passion with as many people as you can. I like to feel I fall comfortably in the middle.)
The Secret Larder is one of these outfits operated by James Ramsden, a man with a smile and manner of the kindest, cockle-warmingest sort. (Check James’ website for details on the restaurant and bookings.) He wears an impeccable white apron, and has a heap of the kind of soft curls that are fun to ruffle on a ten-year-old. He has a brother, also radiating waves of loving-kindness – this family could start a cult – who was on waitering duty the night I visited; a sister also helps on other evenings and provided much of the artwork in the room we ate in.
Clearly, in order to operate a secret restaurant, you need an eye-bleedingly spectacular space to run it from. An Edwardian découpage screen separates the kitchen from a vaulted living/dining area full of soft chairs covered with throws and cushions, and limed, pickled and painted wooden furniture. Fairy lights twist around the cast iron rods holding the high ceiling in place, and there are books of the sort you’ll want to steal all over the room. A good conversation starter, actually; I know I’m afflicted with a horrible urge that makes me stock the bookcases downstairs, where people might actually see them, with some of the more interesting crags and peaks of the Upton book mountain, and I’d love to know if that copy of Take a Buttock of Beefe, the two (two!) copies of the Silver Spoon cookbook and the books on Joseph Beuys had been positioned with the same venal impulse.
Although the Secret Larder can cater for dozens of covers, the night I visited was much more intimate; a table was laid for eight. The room was velvety with candles, those fairylights and the lovely luminosity that only a bloodstream full of fermented grape juice can give a lighting scheme. The books, the pictures, the furniture, the lights – just the sort of environment calculated to get people talking even before we all got settled on the food and drink.
I was, along with some other food bloggers, here as a guest of Prosecco Riccardo, who were providing the evening’s wines. The brand is new in the UK, and the owners of the vineyard, held up by weather over Verona, arrived an hour or so later than the rest of us, at first appearing slightly nervous about the restaurant being – you know – in somebody’s flat. This secret restaurant thing has not yet percolated as far as the sunlit hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Happily, any lasting resentment against the British left over from their awful flight with BA was instantly soothed by the application of a fillet of fresh, oily mackerel on an earthy base of artichoke purée and a glass of their own fizz. I was reminded that my Italian needs some work. I trained years ago as a classical singer, and this meal really brought home to me that a vocabulary consisting of vaguely operatic stuff like: “Lo! Gentle shepherd! A thieving magpie! What is life without thee, Euridice?” and phrasebook stuff like: “I would like two tickets for the exhibition and a hot chocolate, please; oh, and some stamps for the United Kingdom,” does not serve you well at a dinner with wine producers. As always, though, a big smile and some elegant miming will mitigate most of the damage.
Prosecco hasn’t always been a sparkling wine; until World War 2, the Glera grapes went to make a still wine, and it was only after some bored experimentation with a demijohn in the 1940s that the standard Prosecco became a fizzy one. The still wine is still produced, but only makes up about 5% of production from the region (which now has Denominazione di Origine Controllata status), and seldom makes it out of Italy. We tried a couple of bottles of this fizz-free Tranquillo, and it knocked my socks off. At 11% ABV with the odd bubble from natural fermentation, it will remind you of a Portuguese Vinho Verde. All tart apples and flowers, it’s a lovely wine against the sort of dense earthy flavours we were tasting in the mackerel with its artichoke puree and shallot marmalade.
It’s a challenge to construct a whole menu around Prosecco, but James worked it in seamlessly. The Brut we started with – easy-drinking, not too dry, with a very jolly bubble – worked as an aperitif and performed really well against ramarino in culo, which translates loosely as “rosemary up the bum”. Little balls of steak tartare are seared on the bottom, with a spear of rosemary pushed into the still-raw top giving the whole mouthful a resinous lift. Gorgeous. The (perfectly seasonal, as was most of the meal) strawberry salad worked pepper flavours from the balsamic dressing and fresh leaves of rocket against the Brut in a way that had me making a note to try matching the wine to peppery dishes myself; I’ve spent far too long treating Proseccos as wines to drink without food, or as something to make Bellinis with.
A switch to the Tranquillo for the fish and the back to the Brut again for pork belly, served with chicory and a punchy salsa verde. My notebook has a drop of olive oil on it from this point in the evening, and a scrawl which I can’t interpret. I think I am trying to make the point, sozzled, that this is a very nicely prepared slab of pig, the fat rendered out over hours of slow cooking, the meat tender and herby and the flavours balanced, especially with that sharp salsa verde, the bitter chicory and the mouth-filling richness of the pork itself. What I have actually written appears to be “Not too swiney! Fat – whee!” Perhaps I should consider a dictaphone for these things in the future.
James produced something so good for dessert that I considered kidnap. Peaches caramelised in Marsala pushed into the bottom of glasses were topped off with a boozy zabaglione. And he’d made cantucci. And terrific coffee. A glass of Riccardo’s grand cru, the Cartizze Valdobbiadene, was pushed into my hand. I have to admit to a certain haziness to proceedings at this point, but I have scribbled “refined, sweeter, minerals, small bubble” just underneath the thing about the pork, and seem to remember enthusing about what a superb digestif it made.
I will (and did, thanks to pints of Prosecco – I shouldn’t have, it was rude and I apologise) admit that something about being served in someone’s home, especially when they are a mere ten feet away and so much of your conversation is about the food, is a little uncomfortable. I ached for James and Will to take a seat and join us in putting the culinary world to rights rather than slaving over a hot pig. This, though, is just a result of the fact that they made the whole evening’s experience feel like going to a friend’s house for a dinner party. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough, especially if you’re going to be sharing a table with friends – something about this set-up makes conversation flow, and the food is joyous.