Little break in Lille

The nice folks at Eurostar and Little Break, Big Difference invited me and a gaggle of other food bloggers to come with them to Lille for a day of foodie tourism. The basic idea here seems to be to demonstrate that destinations like Lille are so close to London that you can hop on a train in the morning, fill a day with Gallic excitement, and then pop back home on that same train in the evening. Once you’re at St Pancras, you’re less than an hour and a half from Lille – and Lille’s station is under five minutes’ walk from the old town centre, so there’s really very little excuse for my not having been before. It’s also, at around £60 a return ticket, far cheaper than I’d realised.

And if you’re the sort of person for whom a day’s food shopping, hunting for French tableware, tasting nibbly bits, soaking up atmosphere and dabbling at cookery lessons sounds just about perfect, you could do a lot worse than emulate the day’s itinerary that was organised for us, perhaps with a slightly later start and an evening meal in France (we left London at 7am, which meant a 5am start for lots of us, and returned before supper time). I don’t usually enjoy pre-organised, structured tourism (I get a lot of pleasure out of organising and planning things myself and get depressingly snobbish about guided tours and package holidays). Fortunately the company was so good and the city so packed with interesting food and drink – breakfast, a lunch cooked by the group at l’Atelier des Chefs, a cheese and beer tasting and an awful lot of pâtisseries – that I found myself enjoying being in something that would have felt a bit like a tour group if everybody hadn’t been quite so single-mindedly seeking out and photographing food.

It’s August, so northern France has emptied out. Lille was wonderfully quiet, especially before 10am, when the shops opened, giving us a great opportunity to take some pictures of a quiet, sunny city. We started with a spot of pâtisserie and chocolate shopping; this bread is from Aux Merveilleux de Fred (67 rue de la Monnaie), where fez-sized meringue merveilleuxes, sandwiched together with a dollop of buttercream and encased in chocolate, were also being prepared. (Sadly, a fez-sized meringue does not travel well, so Fred’s merveilleuxes remain unsampled – if you can visit in the morning you’ll have a very enjoyable few minutes watching them being made through the window.) We did buy a baguette here to sample as soon as the shop opened, and it was excellent in the way only something this fresh can be, with a crackling crust, a soft and yeasty crumb, and a total refusal to fit comfortably in anyone’s bag. We then overwhelmed the poor staff at Patrick Hermand (Rue Basse), a modern pâtisserie in a tiny lacquered box of a room, where about twenty varieties of macarons were on offer, alongside these joyous pâtisseries. Note – what you are seeing here is cakes with macarons embedded in them. A large box of macarons came home with me.

On to Meert (27, Rue Esquermoise), a pâtisserie and restaurant opened in 1761, where we sampled deceptively slim and delicate waffles in the beautiful baroque dining room at the back of the shop. They might be slim, but these waffles or gauffres are, unusually, stuffed with an incredibly dense buttercream spiked with flecks of vanilla, and at this time in the morning I could only manage one, praying inbetween bites that death from an overwhelmed gall bladder would wait until I was finished. A photograph of me enjoying a waffle a little bit too much has been put on Flickr by the ladies from Little Break, Big Difference. Note that I’ve only managed one mouthful so far in the picture. Merveilleuxes were available here too, and we split one between four, helped down with some scented, fruity iced tea and a few gallons of coffee. Shopping at Meert is well worth your time even if you don’t choose to sit down for a bite to eat; you’ll find all kinds of pâtisseries, caramels, fruit jellies, chocolates, miniature waffles and some excellent teas and coffees.

A brisk trot through town, giving us a chance to enjoy the sunny morning, to a cookery class at l’Atelier des Chefs. If I’d been planning the day myself, there’s absolutely no way I’d have been involved in cooking my own lunch, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys casual classes and an introduction to local produce a
nd flavours, you might want to look into a session here. (L’Atelier also runs classes in London and many other cities – check their UK website for details.) Divided into groups of four and clad in very swanky Eurostar-branded aprons, we had a quick drink in a room full of kitchen equipment for sale. Once in the kitchen, we were talked through the preparation of tiramisu made with speculoos, the delicious caramel and cinnamon biscuits you’ll find served alongside coffee in these parts; then we prepared cod flambéed in honey and fleur de bière, a hoppy, floral eau de vie distilled from beer. A pleasant but not fabulous meal (the honey/fleur de bière sauce made for a very unbalanced, candied flavour profile which doesn’t sit well with cod) – and once we were perched on stools to eat our meal at a table surrounded by shelves and shelves of more expensive merchandise, I found myself wishing we’d gone to L’Huîtrière in the old town instead. But I am an avowed grump who does a lot of cooking – as you are doubtless of a sunnier disposition, your mileage may vary.

We were met at Le Capsule (25 Rue des 3 Molettes), a fantastically atmospheric little bar full of French emo kids, by Aymeric Gillet-Chevais, the president and founder of ATPUB, the French version of CAMRA. Down in the damp (and very dark, so I’m showing you a picture of the town square instead) cellar, he talked us through French beer culture, and told us about the different producers. The bar is not tied to a specific brewery (unlike a shocking 99% of French bars), so you’ll find 130 beers on the list from minuscule breweries, many very close to Lille itself. We worked our way through four beers; I particularly liked Page 24, from a small brewery 35km outside the city. Chicory is a common addition to northern French beers, says Aymeric, who must have France’s very best name; and this blonde beer packs a bitter punch, rounded off with a lovely coriander nose. Four local cheeses from Philippe Olivier (3, Rue Curé St Etienne) were served too, and it is to my eternal misery that a family emergency had closed the shop for the afternoon, because I would have murdered for a slab of the Maroilles we ate to take home.

We had about twenty minutes before having to dash for the train, so I visited La Capsule’s sister shop, l’Abbaye des Saveurs and stocked up on beers and some other local goodies. Happily for all those of us in the EU, the shop also has an e-commerce arm. Homeware shops, cookware shops and delicatessens proliferate all the way round the old town, so you should be able to find some foodie bits and pieces to take home (save this for the end of the afternoon – if you’re only around for a day, you’ll be doing a lot of walking and this is no fun with four litres of beer, a camera and a bushel of macarons in your bag) no matter how little time you have.

You’ll find more about the day on the blogs listed at the top of the post, and video and more pictures have been unleashed on the Internet by the Little Break Big Difference ladies. I have to admit, I’m not too sure what went on on the train on the way home. I fell asleep.

Chocolat Chocolat, St Andrew’s St, Cambridge

I’ve wittered on at length here before about the sad fact that Cambridge is something of a food desert. Restaurant-wise, we could still improve a lot, but if you’re a food shopper, things seem to be looking up considerably. Besides long-standing old favourites like the excellent Cambridge Cheese Shop in All Saint’s Passage, the increasingly impressive offerings at the daily market, Origin8 (a deli where you can find some obscenely good pies and organic hogroast) and local village offerings like the River Farm Smokery in Bottisham (look out for Dan on The Great British Menu on the BBC) and the farm shop at Burwash Manor Barns, the city has just found itself home to one of the loveliest chocolate shops I’ve ever set foot in. This is a very splendid thing, and I hereby upgrade Gastronomy Domine’s assessment of Cambridge’s food situation from desert to leafy wetland.

Chocolat Chocolat (which is so new that it doesn’t have a website yet, and so good that they named it twice) is on St Andrew’s St, just by the entrance to the Grand Arcade. Isabelle and Robin Chappell have imported a sugary morsel of France to the city – Isabelle prepares Bayonnaise slabs of chocolate at her tempering machine by the window, Robin serves up what I am certain is Cambridge’s best icecream (the Alfonso mango sorbet is rich, curiously creamy and made me consider driving the car over and stealing the freezer), and the whole shop ripples with gorgeously selected frou frou.

The main event is, of course, chocolate, and here you’ll find tiny tongs and little wooden punnets which you can fill with hand-made chocolates from several chocolatiers, hand-picked by Isabelle and Robin. There are also chocolaty offerings from Dolfin, Bovetti and Willie Harcourt-Cooze – the Bovetti black mustard seeds enrobed in dark chocolate (there’s also coriander seeds in milk chocolate and anis in white) and the Dolfin bar flavoured with masala spices are must-tries. Robin says that Bovetti’s paté a tartiner (imagine Nutella, but approximately a thousand times nicer) sold out pretty much as soon as they opened, but more is on the way. There’s so much on offer here that it’ll take even the most dedicated chocoholic weeks to work their way through the whole selection – which is precisely as it should be.

Isabelle is originally from France, and alongside the chocolates, she and Robin have imported some sugary nibbles I’ve never seen on this side of the Channel before. Fight through the inevitable crowd of French students to get to the Carambars (a stick of caramel which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a French exchange), the chocolate-coated marshmallow bears and the utterly divine callisons. There are Cote Garrigue jams in flavours like lavender and Cavaillon melon; nougat straight from Montelimar, scented with rose, violet and pistacho; Anis de Flavigny cachous; Palets Bretons (the world’s butteriest, most friable biscuit) and Madeleines from Commercy. Robin doesn’t know it, but in promising Pain d’Epice (gingerbread – but so much better than what you’re used to) direct from Dijon soon he made my heart flutter like a schoolgirl’s.

I plan to head back as soon as possible to apply a further good, hard sugar shock to my pancreas. Chocolat Chocolat is one of the most exciting additions to the town centre I’ve seen in years – head over there as a matter of urgency if you’re in town, and tell them I sent you.

Jean-Talon market, Montreal

One of the things that makes food in this city so fabulous is the abundance of lovingly raised, local produce. I’m just back from Marché Jean-Talon (between Jean-Talon and De Castelnau metro stations). This is probably one of those occasions where pictures speak louder than words.

Yes, that’s me. I look even more cheerful than that now, because I’m gorging myself on strawberries from the first picture.

Beer-leavened rye bread

Why is rye flour so tricky to get your hands on in the UK? I’ve been craving rye bread ever since we were in Finland, and ended up sending away to Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, where you’ll find some extraordinary speciality flours. How about mucking around with some Swiss dark flour, organic chestnut flour or something called Emmer wholemeal – an ancestor of modern wheat? There are eight white flours alone, including a specialist cake flour, a French white flour especially for baguettes and an Italian variety for ciabatta. Shipton Mill is fantastic for baking nerds.

I ordered a few kilos of flour, including some dark rye. I’ve not handled rye flour before, so I’ve started here with a relatively easy recipe (no sourdough starters, which need feeding for days), where the rye flour is supported by some strong white wheat flour. The gluten in rye is more fragile than wheat gluten, so you’ll need to treat the bread dough a little more gently than you might with a loaf made entirely from wheat. The beer and brown sugar give the bread a lovely malty quality, and we really enjoyed it with some smoked salmon, capers, diced shallot and crème fraîche. To make two loaves you’ll need:

375 ml beer (use something with some bite – I used an English bitter)
125 ml water
5 tablespoons softened butter
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
200g dark rye flour
350g-400g strong white bread flour
1 pack instant yeast

Melt the butter and heat the beer and water together until they are lukewarm. They should be around body temperature – test the liquid on the inside of your wrist. Stir two tablespoons of the butter, the sugar and the salt into the beer and water mixture until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

Sift the rye flour and instant yeast into a large bowl, and add the lukewarm liquid to the bowl, beating with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Add the strong white bread flour to the bowl a handful at a time, stirring all the time, until you have a soft dough. (You may find you do not need as much as 400g of flour to achieve a soft dough; you will probably need somewhere between 350g and 400g.) Make the dough into a ball and leave in the bowl, covered with a damp tea towel, for 15 minutes. This will help the gluten develop.

When the dough has rested for 15 minutes, knead it for five minutes. (This is less kneading than you would require with an all-wheat bread.) The dough should be soft and no longer sticky. Coat the inside of another large bowl with another tablespoon of butter and put the ball of kneaded dough into it, covering the dough ball with a tablespoon of softened butter too. Cover the bowl with the damp tea towel and leave in a warm (not hot) place for two hours to allow the dough to rise.

After two hours, punch the dough down and knead it gently for one minute. Divide the dough into two and form it into two round, flat loaves on baking sheets covered with greaseproof paper. Allow the bread to rise in a warm place again, this time uncovered, for forty minutes, while you heat the oven to 190° C (375° F). When the loaves have risen, drag a serrated knife across the tops to make a pattern.

Bake the loaves for around 45 minutes (start checking them from about 35 minutes in) until they are golden on top and sound hollow when you knock on the bottom. Glaze the loaves with the rest of the butter, melted. This bread is delicious served while it is still warm, but will keep for a few days in the bread crock.

Istanbul spice bazaar

I’ve just got back from Istanbul, where I spent several days gorging myself on kebabs, dates, grilled fish, honeycomb, morello cherry juice and other good things. I am currently too jetlagged to come up with any really sparkling prose, so this will mostly be a picture post from the city’s spice market, where about 100 small stalls in a covered bazaar sell everything from henna to sumac. It’s an essential shopping destination if you’re in the city and you’re at all interested in food.

Turkish sweetsThis stall was selling loukhoum (Turkish delight – here’s my recipe) and baclava, the tooth-hurtingly sweet pastries soaked in a sugar syrup that you might have had with coffee in Turkish or Greek restaurants. I did not sample the aphrodisiac delight on the right, but judging by the huge chunks that had obviously already been sold on the day I visited, some people must think it’s effective. Behind the blocks are tins of Iranian caviar. The caviar is also sold from blocks, sliced and then jarred. Nilgun, our excellent guide, suggested putting a dab of butter in the top of the jar to keep the caviar fresh.

Spice marketRaw spices, including several grades of flaked chilli and powdered paprika. I’d already tried some of the very dark chilli in the second row, sprinkled on a rotisserie chicken; we came away from the market with a little packet to use at home. At the left-hand side of the picture you can see almonds for sale, still in their shells; the dried roots at the front next to the bundles of cinnamon are turmeric and ginger. There’s more caviar in tins above the display, next to jars of pomegranate molasses.

HoneycombRaw honeycomb, kept behind glass to keep insects away. There was a big slab of this laid out every morning at our hotel breakfast; we squashed it with a fork to drive the honey out of the waxy comb, and then ate it with yoghurt, on croissants and on toast.

SaffronThis stall was labelling several substances as saffron. None of the yellow/orange things on offer was real saffron; the powder at the front was turmeric, and the fat orange stamens on the plastic trays at the left (much fatter than the thread-like real thing) were safflower, which doesn’t taste of much and is used primarily in dyes. Caveat emptor.

Dried fruitFour grades of dates, some prunes, and two grades of apricots. Most stalls selling dried fruit sold hunza apricots in their dark, untreated form alongside the bright orange ones (which are treated with sulphur dioxide to preserve their colour). If you find the less attractive brown ones, buy them; all the flavour and aroma of the fresh fruit is concentrated in them, and they’re much better than the orange ones. We sampled several grades of date, and there was method in the pricing; the expensive ones really were the best, with thin skins and a moist, fudgy interior – it was hard to believe that what you were eating was a fruit.

I’ve got some restaurant recommendations for you, some street food tips and some more market exploration coming up – watch this space.

Mexgrocer – Salsa Verde recipe

Mexican ingredientsThose of you who read this blog regularly might remember that about a year ago, I mentioned in passing that I couldn’t find any tomatillos in the UK. There were a few Mexican ideas I wanted to try out with some of the little green beasties, but besides growing my own, it looked as if there was no way I’d be able to find any.

Eventually, I gave up on tomatillos. Then, about two weeks ago, I had an email from Sol, half of the husband and wife team that runs After we’d chatted for a bit, Sol sent me a lovely box of Mexican ingredients to play with, and nestling at the top of the box, I found a bag full of beautiful fresh, ripe tomatillos, wrapped up in their papery husks. Other things in that box went to make a big meal for a group of friends (you’ll read more about that meal later on this week). Sol and his Mexican wife have made sure that you will be able to find ingredients which have been unavailable in the UK for years. There are chocolatey moles (a thick, savoury sauce which I used to smother some sticky sauteed chicken pieces), tamales, nopales (prickly pear cactus – a very delicious vegetable), a breathtaking selection of fresh, dried, smoked and bottled chillies, and some herbs and spices I’ve never seen on this side of the Atlantic.

TomatillosSo then, you ask. What are these tomatillo things? It’s probably simplest if I explain what they aren’t. They’re not cape gooseberries, even though they have a papery, Chinese-lantern-type husk protecting the fruit (cape gooseberries and tomatillos both come from the physalis family). They’re not unripe tomatoes, even though a tomatillo without a husk looks precisely like a green tomato. They have a fresh, lightly acidic, juicy taste, lots of tiny seeds, and are firm and gloriously green when ripe. They feature very heavily in green sauces in Mexican cooking, and if you’ve not tried them before, you’re in for a treat.

TomatillosTomatillos keep very well in their husks – pop them in the fridge and they’ll last for a couple of weeks. You can also freeze them successfully if you’re going to be using them in a sauce.

An uncooked, emerald-coloured salsa is the ideal way to show these little fruits off. This salsa couldn’t be easier to prepare, and it’s fantastic with rich foods, its fresh zing cutting through fatty, creamy sauces. To make salsa verde for six, you’ll need:

400g tomatillos
2 mild green chillies
6 spring onions
1 large handful coriander
100 ml water
1 teaspoon salt

Tomatillo salsaRemove the husks from the tomatillos and wash them to remove their natural sticky coating. Halve them, removing the woody bit where the stem met the fruit. Remove the seeds from the chillies, and wash the spring onions and coriander carefully to remove any grit.

Put all the ingredients in the food processor, and whizz until you have a slightly chunky mixture. Chill before serving. This salsa is great used as a dip, and it’s also delicious as a topping for rice, or as an ingredient to lift the flavour of a lovely meaty taco.

US shopping – chillies and peanut butter

Regular readers will have noticed that there are a number of American recipes on this blog, some of them requiring ingredients that are hard to source in the UK. I usually deal with this by dragging a very heavy suitcase full of cans of creamed corn and hot sauce back home every time I visit America.

Happily, I’ve found an online company operating in the UK (and delivering worldwide) which stocks almost all the American ingredients I use habitually. (See this post for other online suppliers.) There’s Franks Hot Sauce for making Buffalo wings (in the picture above); Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker cake mixes (great for cheats‘ cake recipes); creamed corn (unaccountably hard to find here) and cornmeal to make cornbread; Aunt Jemima pancake mix; and all the Cap’n Crunch you can shake a milky spoon at. The Stateside Candy Co has slightly awkward navigation, but once you’ve found your way round, it’s easy to get your hands on what you’re after. Prices are a little higher than they are in America, but shopping like this does mean that you don’t need to buy an extra suitcase.

Alongside several pints of Frank’s hot sauce and enough creamed corn to bring the digestive tracts of a small village to a shuddering halt, I bought a jar of one of my favourite things on Earth: Smuckers Goober Grape (pictured left). This is a wonderful swirled confection of peanut butter and grape jelly (grape jelly being yet another thing it’s hard to find here) to spread on your toast direct from the jar. This is the problem (at least for me) with shopping for food online – it seems perfectly calibrated to make me buy snacks. I also ended up with a pack of Scorned Woman cheese straws made with chilli sauce (mediocre, full of additives and not recommended) and some perfectly noxious but also perfectly addictive pretzel bits filled with cheese.

Best of all was the bottle of Amazon Peppers. These are preserved in vinegar, and their small size and prettiness might obscure the fact that these are basically the hottest things I have ever put in my mouth. The orange ones at the neck of the bottle are orange habaneros – at between 200,000 and 300,000 Scoville Units, these are among the hottest chillies in the world. Touching the edge of your little fingernail to one of these guys and then touching the nail to your tongue will have you running to the tap for a big glass of water.

Habaneros are deliciously fruity, and, treated with respect, can act like a solid hot sauce. I used one between the two of us to accompany the Coca Cola chicken I cooked on Monday, and we sliced minuscule slivers off it to dab on the chicken pieces on our forks. We sweated a lot and found ourselves screaming occasionally, but we were happy. The yellow and red peppers in the bottle are the much more benign (at 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) Capsicum frutescens, the same pepper that’s used to make Tabasco sauce. Happily, the vinegar has carried the heat from the habaneros at the top all the way to the bottom of the bottle. You can use the very spicy vinegar as a cooking ingredient, and top it up when you’re done – heat will continue leaching out of the chillies.

Excuse me as I wrap up this post early. I need to go and wash my tongue.

Feminist cheese

I have an absolutely excellent brother, who sent me a big box of cheese from The Fine Cheese Company in Bath for my birthday. (He’s got the hang of this birthday lark; he sent my Mum a big box of oysters for hers. Go Ben.)

The Fine Cheese Company are great – their cheese is beautifully kept, and the cheeses in the box arrived at a perfect stage of ripeness: the stinky cheeses were stinky, the soft ones meltingly gooey.

This particular selection, called the Sisters in Cheese Box, is all produced by female cheesemakers. My initial reaction on learning this was ‘Out of what?’, but it turns out that the milk in question is actually squirted benignly out of sheep and cows. I think I just have a filthy mind.

You can see the cheeses above. The top cheese, soft and unctuous, was my favourite. It’s a half baby Wigmore, made by Anne Wigmore in Berkshire from ewes’ milk, and it’s a wonderfully sticky little beast. Moving clockwise, the hard cheese with the yellow label is a Curworthy, made to a centuries-old recipe. The next cheese is a delicious unpasturised Brie made by Debbie Mumford in Sharpham, Devon, and was by far the best (and best-kept) English Brie I’ve tasted. Finally, the wedge of cheese is the fruity Keltic Gold, a rind-washed hard cow’s cheese from Cornwall.

A useful card on the proper storage and keeping of cheese for those of us without a lovely cool pantry is included with the box, and this cheesy cornucopia kept us busy after dinner for several days, accompanied by lots of wine, some Bath Oliver biscuits and some digestives. Thanks Ben and Katie!

Indian sweets

Monday’s post massaged my online shopping gland. For several hours after writing it, I found I wasn’t concentrating properly. My thoughts kept wandering in the direction of squashy, silky, sugary Indian sweets like the ones from Ambala Foods. Eventually I gave in and ordered a 500g box. At £3.90, these boxes are fantastic value, so their purchase won’t weigh heavily on your mind. ( Your hips are another matter.)

Ambala cooks the sweets on the day they’re ordered and ships them immediately, to arrive with you within 24 hours. I don’t know whether it’s the freshness or the light but calculated hand with highly fragrant spices that makes them so exceptionally good, but I can tell you that we polished off a whole box in one evening. My pancreas still hurts.

It hurts because these sweets are…well…incredibly sweet. If you love the milky, tooth-hurting, concentrated sweetness of good English fudge, you’ll roll over and whimper with happiness when presented with a box of Ambala’s sweets. The 500g box contains a selection of Barfis (a condensed milk block); Halvas (sweetened nut pastes cut into rectangles); some syrup-soaked, spongy Gulabjamun and Chamcham (packed in a little plastic bag to keep them moist); a ceremonial sweet called Motichoor Ladoo (the round sweet in a black paper cup at the top of the page); and my favourite, the milky, silky pera.

Here’s the Motichoor ladoo. It’s a traditional sweet, eaten only at very special occasions, like weddings and festivals. It’s also given as a very special gift. It’s a lovely little mouthful made from little pellets of gram flour, sugar and ghee, which is cooked in a sugary syrup. A little pistachio is sprinkled on top.

Pera (right) is, according to Ambala, a sweet which is loved by children. I love it too – it’s made from sugary curds of milk, flavoured with saffron, and is sweetly silky. Each of these sweets is available to order individually, alongside some other mixed boxes, including one which is full of very lovely, fudgy Barfi.

My favourite Barfi are the plain ones. Their scented flavouring is beautifully put together; the flavour comes from orris root (the root of a highly fragranced iris, which is also used in perfumery) and cardamom seed. This box also contains Barfi with almonds and pistachios, and a slice of amazing carrot Halwa, which is also flavoured with that incredible orris root.

I’ve gone off fudge for good.

Online product shopping

In the last week or so, I’ve had several emails and comments on old posts asking me where to find certain products I’ve mentioned. I thought listing some favourite suppliers here would be more useful than replying in the comments section of each post. So here, in no particular order, are the online suppliers who I find myself using again and again. Most of these companies deliver outside the UK. If you are in the USA, have a look at Amazon, where you’ll find a lot of the ethnic ingredients listed below. (Sadly for those of us on this side of the Atlantic, Amazon in the UK is very slow in catching on to the grocery shopping it offers in the US. I’m hoping they’ll roll out the service soon.)

Many of the supermarkets in the UK now offer an online delivery service. I prefer to do my own supermarket shopping (and I get much of my fruit and veg from the very good market in Cambridge), but friends who use Ocado (Waitrose’s service) have been delighted. Tesco and Sainsbury’s also offer a similar service, but I find that the quality of the produce at Waitrose is much better, with Sainsbury’s coming in second place.

American ingredients
**Update 08 June 2007**
If you’re looking for American ingredients, check out this post.

Chinese, Thai and other oriental ingredients
The Asian Cookshop is fantastic if you’re living somewhere with no access to good Oriental supermarkets. They stock Mae Ploy curry pastes (my favourite brand), some fresh ingredients including pandang leaves and galangal, bottled sauces which are hard to find even in some Chinese supermarkets, and dried goods. They also carry Bombay Duck, an Indian dried fish which was unaccountably banned by the EU for a few years. It’s legal again now, and if you’ve not tried it, I’d really recommend buying a pack to eat as a garnish with curry. This is where I come for Vietnamese spring roll wrappers, Chinese lily pods and dried mushrooms. There’s even a sushi section. The Asian Cookshop delivers worldwide.

Wholesale spices and other Indian ingredients
Sweetmart, an Indian wholesalers in Bristol, sells a great range of large boxes and bags of whole spices, alongside other Indian ingredients including some excellent curry pastes. They also carry speciality flours made from barley, beans and so forth. Check out the recipe section.

Ambala foods are a great supplier. Their thoughtful range of sweet and savoury nibbles is wide, their service is impeccable (they’ll always deliver within 24 hours, and are always exceptionally friendly and helpful on the telephone if you need to talk to someone in person). Sweets are posted on the same day that they are made. Try the absolutely delicious Ferrari Chevda (a nibbly, salty, spicy mix with puffed rice, cashews, sev and other good things) and the amazing Assorted Sweets box. Ambala delivers worldwide.

Herbs and spices
Seasoned Pioneers carries a vast range of spice blends from all over the world; I always have their Ras-al-Hanout, shrimp paste and tamarind paste in the cupboard. Every major cuisine in the world is represented in their range, and I love their resealable packs. The blends are fantastically imaginative, and the quality of the product is much better than anything you’ll find in those little glass pots at the supermarket. (The opaque packaging helps here too.) Seasoned Pioneers delivers worldwide.

Steenbergs Organic are appallingly, addictively good. The whole range is organic, and they are the first British herb and spice supplier to use the Fairtrade mark. Alongside all this social responsibility, they’ve managed to find an absolute genius to blend their various seasoning mixtures; their Perfect Salt is something I simply can’t manage without. They carry some fascinating and esoteric spices (the person who asked about pink peppercorns should look here). Look out for grains of paradise, a medieval English favourite; sumach (hard to find elsewhere) and white poppy seeds, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. Their recipes are great too. Give your credit card to someone responsible before you click on the link, or, like me, you might find yourself buying nearly everything they sell.

Steenberg’s do deliver worldwide, but if you are not in the UK you will have to contact them to arrange postage.

I’ve not found any British suppliers as good as Patiwizz in France. They sell flower essences which I love for sweets and cakes (there is nothing as good as a violet fondant). The baking essences are listed alongside other flavourings I’ve not dared try – artichoke, sea urchin, lamb… Patiwizz are currently developing an English-language site, but for now you’ll need to be able to read French to order. They deliver worldwide.

Mexican food
I’ve got a soft spot for Mexican food. Mexican ingredients are really hard to find in the UK, but Lupe Pinto’s in Edinburgh is a terrific source. You’ll find ingredients like chipotle chillies in adobo (an delicious ingredient regular readers will notice I use almost to the point of obsession), taco sauces, whole yellow chillies and my Mexican holy grail, canned tomatillos. They stock the hard-to-find chipotle Tabasco sauce, which means I don’t have to import it from America any more. Lupe Pinto’s also carries some American groceries for hungry ex-pats, and a great selection of tequila.

Lupe Pinto’s only delivers to the mainland UK at the moment, but they hope to expand.

The English language is not sufficiently developed yet to allow me to express just precisely how good l’Artisan du Chocolat, based in London, is. I promise that you have never, ever tasted chocolates this good. The prices reflect the quality of the product, but once you’ve got one in your mouth, the chocolates feel like an absolute bargain.

L’Artisan du Chocolat delivers worldwide.