Thanks for the emails and messages on Twitter – my Mum and Dad have finally managed to get out of Cairo, and are flying to the UK as I type. I feel as if I haven’t exhaled in a week. It’ll be good to have them home.
I met up with my most excellent Auntie L in San Jose for a couple of meals last week. Apparently she rang my Dad before seeing me to check whether it’d be OK to eat in what she terms “hole-in-the-wall joints” (like many people who read this blog, she’d somehow conceived the opinion that I don’t go to restaurants that don’t have Michelin stars). Dad, of course, said that holes in the wall were just the thing, so Auntie L and I found ourselves at Da Lat (408 E William St, 95112 San Jose. Tel (408) 294-6989) for Vietnamese noodle soup.
The Vietnamese, not content with having invented the world’s best sandwich in the banh mi, also make a contender for the world’s best soup. Pho, like so many of my favourite dishes, has a mixed heritage, with some of its roots in French (the beef, not eaten in Vietnam until the colonial era) and Chinese (the rice noodles) cuisine. The name of the dish is pronounced “fuh”, a little like the French “feu”, possibly deriving from the pot au feu that the colonial French were eating. Surprisingly, for something that tastes as if it’s been developed over centuries, it’s only been around for about a hundred years.
A good pho is all about the stock, a broth made with beef bones, browned onions and a mixture of spices, cooked over many hours. The dish succeeds or fails based on its broth, and the broth that my aunt found in a tiny, dark restaurant opposite a garage in the middle of nowhere in suburban San Jose was about as good as you’ll find anywhere. (So good, in fact, that I dropped in very quickly for another bowl on my way out of town the next day.) Get there early; the local police and fire service are based nearby, and Da Lat fills up very quickly after 12 o clock with lunching men in uniform and a huge number of local Vietnamese people.
Auntie L says that Da Lat reminds her of the restaurants we used to visit together when she lived in Malaysia, all the emphasis on the food rather than the interior. It’s clean, but the decor is ancient, and in places a bit peely in that way that formica gets after a couple of decades. It all goes to give the restaurant bundles of character, to go with the bundles of beansprouts you’ll be scattering in your pho. My aunt and I weren’t the only people doing intergenerational lunch – tucked in among all the policemen and firemen there were Vietamese grandparents spooning soup into their grandchildren, a group of old gentlemen saying something instructive in Vietnamese to two young men over a table straining to bear the weight of all the food they’d ordered, and a few mother/daughter (or possibly aunt/niece) tables.
It’s worth opening proceedings with the banh xeo, a crisp savoury crepe made with rice flour, filled with pork and prawns and studded with beansprouts and herbs. Wrap a mouthful in a piece of lettuce leaf with some of the fresh coriander and mint that has been put on the table, and dip it all in the nuoc cham, a strong, piquant sauce made from fish sauce, garlic, chillies and palm sugar. We also tried the fat, fresh battered prawns, and some spring rolls or cha gio (there’s a recipe for cha gio here on Gastronomy Domine if you fancy making your own). It’s not all soups and starters – Dr W ordered a platter of pork dishes so good that he overate quite spectacularly.
Auntie L recommends you try the Mi Da Lat Dac Biet (no 59 on the menu), a house special noodle soup that comes with a crab claw sticking out of it and plenty of pork and seafood lurking in the bottom of the bowl; she ordered it “dry”, with the soup broth on one side and the noodles in a separate bowl, which seems to be a popular way of doing things. I kept it traditional by ordering Pho Dac Biet: beef pho.
What can I say? Glorious stuff, with a broth simultaneously rich and light – it’s unusual for me to finish off a whole bowl of noodle soup, especially when it’s this big, but with the juice of a lime squirted into it, a handful of herbs stirred through and a big fist of beansprouts dolloped on top, this stuff is as good as it gets.
It’s cheap, too. That bowl of pho was only $7.95 – less than you’d spend on a meal at McDonald’s. Bring the family and eat yourself silly.
Mostly pictures today; I have a triple-whammy of jet-lag, a dose of the plague or something caught from an unsanitary bloke on the plane, and a complementary dose of blind panic about my Mum and Dad, who are stuck in Cairo. The odd text message from them is escaping Egypt, along the lines of: “Tanks outside window. Your father is having a snooze”.
I don’t usually post about restaurants more than once here, but Samurai, a little place up in South Lake Tahoe which remains one of my favourite sushi restaurants anywhere for its freshness and consistency, deserves a new post. I’ve been back to the restaurant a few times for post-skiing sushi every year since 2006, and standards at the restaurant remain as high as ever. Thanks to Geoff and Helen for being such brilliant hosts, and for making me and Dr W feel like regulars on the strength of a handful of visits separated by 12 months each year. So without further ado, some pictures. I am off to cough my lungs out and try to make a phone call to my besieged parents.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have noticed that I’m in America for a few weeks. I’ve been spending part of the time here skiing up in Lake Tahoe, an alpine lake on the border between Californa and Nevada which Mark Twain called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords”. The clear air and the long blue views up here are good for the soul, but they seem to have a curiously retarding effect on the cooking. Many of the restaurants around the lake have menus which haven’t changed in the six or so years I’ve been coming here, but that’s nothing; there are a good few menus here which don’t look to have changed since the 1960s, when many of the properties here were founded, and Frank Sinatra (who owned the Cal Neva Lodge, a hotel and casino on the north shore) and his pals Marilyn and JFK used to drop in for a steak.
Lew Mar Nel’s, at the Station House Inn in South Lake Tahoe (a note to Best Western, the owners: “The world’s largest hotel chain” is probably one of the worst tag lines you could have chosen), is one of these joints that’s been around since before they filmed the Godfather Part II a few miles up the road. Detective work centred around the drinks menu and the art on the walls (a Vesper and Dirty Martini are called Lewis and Nelson Martinis here, and splodgy oil paintings of vases of flowers on every wall have MARGIT signed assertively at the bottom right) suggest where the name might have come from back in the day, although there’s no trace of Lewis, Margit and Nelson left now besides the cocktails and pictures. The restaurant is built in a log-cabin style, with bare wood walls, a rustic log bar, and benches in the booths covered with a very slightly sticky burgundy velour. It’s all lit with wobbly orangey dimness, so any stains are well hidden. The menu is a historical record of steakhouses long vanished – all Wienerschniztel, peppercorn steaks, trout amandine and escargots – and Glenn Miller’s band warbles softly over the PA system.
This might sound charming, and I’ll admit that I was coerced in by the retro menu, but it is not an unalloyed good thing. You’re paying heftily for the privilege of taking a trip in Tahoe’s equivalent of the Mr Fusion-ised DeLorean, and while a couple of hours channeling your youthful grandmother on a slightly pissed night’s jolly might be a giggle, it’s not necessarily worth the $100+ we paid for a meal and a couple of glasses of wine, especially given the food, which was of a quality that any self-respecting 1960s chef would have drowned himself over in the lake next door.
In keeping with the retro nature of what’s on the menu is a retro method of ordering: although there are plenty of appetisers on the menu, you are presented on arrival with a cheese fondue with a hunk of bread – “fresh-baked sourdough”, they say, but it’s actually just a lump of commercial baguette par-baked in a factory somewhere else, and finished off in the kitchen – and a salad with your choice of dressing, whatever your main course choice happens to be, so those appetisers remain unexplored for all but the hungriest. The fondue is made with something the Americans seem to call cheese (at least, our waiter did), but which European visitors, or Americans who are familiar with the output of an actual cow, may balk at. It’s curious stuff; silky in the mouth with a low melting point (lower than that of, say, cheese), very salty, very umami and very rubbery when dripped on something cold and left to congeal. It is the yellow of motorway maintenance men’s jackets, and tastes almost nothing like cheese.
The compulsory salad was a high point; it’s hard to get a salad particularly wrong, and I am a fan of blue cheese dressing, which actually managed to taste cheesier than the nominally cheesy fondue. Garlic croutons appeared to have been made in the kitchen, and there was a certain charm to the moulded pyrex plate it all arrived on (I am a sucker for things which remind me of my Grandma, whose salads were lousy – getting them wrong might be hard, but she made it look effortless thanks to an addiction to Heinz salad cream – and always involved a pyrex plate).
I ordered the veal cordon bleu. When do you ever see a veal cordon bleu on a menu these days? It was overcooked and dry (the cheese and ham sandwiched inside it went some way to mitigate the dryness), and came with a little gravy boat full of what might just be the world’s worst mushroom sauce. Echoing the restaurant’s decor, this stuff was a glossy brown. And full of woody chunks of mushroom. Like the banquettes, which every now and then revealed a coin-sized spot of mystery goo to the palm you forgetfully rested on them, it was further enhanced by the occasional discovery of a slithery something on your tongue. And the flavour is hard to communicate in words, but reminded of that day when you were a kid and you confused chunks of leftover OXO cube in the kitchen for chocolate cake crumbs, surreptitiously swiped them, then honked everywhere.
I will not mention the vegetables.
Apple pie was a soggy affair, but at least it tasted of apples. I ordered an Amaretto coffee to try to drown out the memory of the mushroom sauce, and was presented with a glass full of bitter black coffee into which the waiter poured a shot. I must have looked confused, because it was only on seeing my face that he said “Would you like cream?” I said cream would be lovely. Mistake. He went to the kitchen, came back with a can of squirty cream, and depressed the nozzle over my coffee for a generous count of a whole two seconds. Then ran off.
The really weird thing about Lew Mar Nel’s is the more stratospheric bits of the wine list. They claim to have Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon for purchase in every year from 1966, the vineyard’s first year of operation; and Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve in every year from 1957 ($1500 a bottle). Someone here, pyrex plates and all, is either taking the piss, or is a giant chancer; after all, who would order a wine like that in a place like this? Apparently, the Wine Spectator has given them a nod for their list six times (although it’s unclear whether or not that happened in this century).
I’d actually suggest you pop in just to sit at the bar and soak up some of the old-time atmosphere and the bronze cowboy statues. Avoid the food, though – and let me know if you order any of those dizzying wines from the cellar. I’d be interested to hear whether or not they really exist.
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!
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.