Flavoured chocolates

I’ve recently started fixating on good, high-cocoa chocolates with unusual flavourings. Forget Terry’s Chocolate Orange – I want a bar full of exotic fruits, flower flavours and exciting spices. They’re increasingly popular at the moment; branches of Hotel du Chocolat are springing up all over the place, and Rococo Chocolates, NewTree and good old Green and Black’s are now supplying supermarkets. (Those after the ultimate posh chocolate experience should put in an order at l’Artisan du Chocolat, where flavours include banana and thyme, tonka bean and tobacco. The chocolates are expensive, but those I’ve had have been absolutely excellent – sadly, though, I have eaten the grand total of two of the things in my entire life. If I can get my hands on a box for Christmas, you’ll see them reviewed here.)

At the supermarket this week, I found myself scooping bars of chocolate into the basket like a woman possessed. Made to put most of them back by Dr Weasel, I held onto an organic bar of dark chocolate and cardamom from Rococo, and a bar of lavender and lime blossom milk chocolate from NewTree.

Rococo are based in Chelsea’s King’s Road, and have been producing organic chocolates of remarkably high quality for nearly 20 years. Luckily for you, they’ve discovered e-commerce and now ship worldwide, and some of their artisan bars and gift collections now appear in Waitrose. Their flower fondants are my very favourites, and have solidly replaced Charbonnel & Walker’s rose and violet creams in my affections. Always a sucker for good packaging design, I’m absolutely enchanted by Rococo’s wrappers, which use images from an 1850s French catalogue of chocolate moulds.

This cardamom artisan bar is, for me, about as good as dark chocolate gets. Cardamom has that same affinity with a bitter chocolate as it does with good, bitter coffee, and the 65% cocoa solids and high percentage of cocoa butter give the bar a beautifully clean snap when broken. The crisp, granular shards of cardamom seeds are glorious against the silky texture of the chocolate. It is unfortunate that these are so darn good; I can quite happily eat one in a single sitting.

NewTree (beware – very busy Flash site with music) a Belgian chocolate makers, are a brand I’d not come across before, but once I saw the label on their Tranquility milk chocolate, boasting lime blossom extract and lavender, I was sold. A single bar is said to have the same relaxing properties as three cups of lime blossom tisane. The milk chocolate was slightly granular, but delicately fragranced and delicious. If in quibblesome mood, I might complain that the chocolate was a little sweeter than the ideal, but this seems almost churlish given how well blended the unusual flower flavours were. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on whether or not I was left tranquil; any calming effect may have come from the glass of violet liqueur I was drinking on the side.

NewTree’s schtick is an appealing one; they flavour their chocolate bars with spices and herbs used not only for their flavour, but also for their health applications. With names like Pleasure, Eternity, Young, Digest, Vivacity, Sexy, Tranquility, Serenity and Cocoon, NewTree seem to have hit on something the rest of us have suspected for years – chocolate really is a universal panacea. Grab a bar if you see one, and please report back in the comments section and let me know whether you really did feel serene and cocooned.

Hyères – restaurants and food shopping

Two weeks spent variously floating prone on my back in the Mediterranean, being splendidly cultural and hunting down Provençal recipes have left me tanned, educated, full of the sort of vitamins you only find in absurdly ripe fruit and vegetables, and with a groaning liver. I blame the foie gras and the local rosé wine.

The house we rented (pictured above) was glorious – a heap of palatial decay whose kitchen bristled with good equipment, including a chinois sieve, a mandoline, oyster knives, griddle pans and some of the sharpest knives it’s ever been my pleasure to handle. I do not, however, recommend its horse-hair mattresses, which made sleeping feel a lot like vigorous exercise on sacks full of prickly potatoes.

Hyères itself is a town surrounded by small growers with a daily market and a huge number of small grocers and little independent foodshops. If you visit, walk up to the Place Massillon in the old town and explore the labyrinth of small streets around it. You’ll find little shops selling nothing but dozens of different kinds of goat’s cheese, artisanal bakeries (in season, you can buy lavender bread), greengrocers which only sell local produce and some fantastic ethnic grocers, including a shop devoted to Arabic spices and a really excellent Vietnamese traiteur. Rotisseries punctuate the streets, but you’re not limited to chickens; quails and pork knuckles were on offer too.

If you visit the town, you’ll find plenty of good restaurants. Les Jardins de Bacchus on Av. Gambetta is a modern gastronomic restaurant, where courses were punctuated with Blumenthal-ish little jokes like a capuccino made from langoustines and foie gras. Service was excellent, and the food very good indeed. For a more casual meal, we really liked Le Jardin (19 Av. Joseph-Clotis), where Provençal food is served on a garden patio from noon until midnight. Try the crudites, which are served with a fierce anchoide and a home-made tapenade. Saigon-Hyeres is a beautifully decorated Vietnamese/Thai restaurant on Rue Crivelli, where the Thai fondue was fragrant and delicious – order plenty, though, as the portions are quite small.

My personal favourite was the Bistrot de Marius, a restaurant in Place Massillon specialising in the local fish and seasonal vegetables. (Bistrot de Marius has no website, but you’ll find other reviews of it online.) You can eat on the square in the shadow of the Knights Templar tower, and the food is extremely well-priced, thoughtfully prepared and absolutely delicious. Their soupe de poissons was the best I had on the holiday (and I sampled many), with a dense, heady aroma, served with a glossy, garlic-y rouille. Try the moules au gratin; mussels prepared in the same way you’d eat snails in Burgundy. A hundred times nicer than snails, and the butter was a joy to mop up with your bread. Red mullet was rolled with a fatty ham and pan fried. Iles flottantes were airy, their crème Anglaise dotted with vanilla – and to cap it all, the after-dinner coffee was some of the best I’ve had. Do drop in if you’re in town.

Oriental Supermarket, Oriental City, Edgware

I needed to restock my storecupboard this weekend, so we headed for Oriental City (see my earlier post on Oriental City’s food court for directions). It’s probably my favourite source for exotic ingredients, as the supermarket extends to cover Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian and Thai ingredients alongside the Chinese bits and bobs you’ll find in many other oriental supermarkets, and has a remarkably good selection of fresh produce flown directly from Asia.

They’re currently reorganising the supermarket to extend the Japanese section, which has a grand re-opening later in August. All of the shelves are clearly labelled in English so those with problems reading Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean orthography do not accidentally buy tinned silk worms (something I have still not been able to bring myself to sample). The supermarket is also an absolute joy for fresh ingredients; the pictures below are just a small selection of the fresh goods on offer.

Six different kinds of chilli. There were more on another shelf, and a further shelf of dried chillis further back in the supermarket.

Turmeric, young ginger, galangal and other juicy, fresh roots for pounding into pastes.

Six different kinds of small aubergine. I used the purple ones towards the right in a Thai green chicken curry yesterday.

The fresh fruits, spices and vegetables extend all the way down one wall. You’ll find Asiatic pennywort, pandang leaves, banana leaves, lily buds, gourds, mooli, a million and one variations on the theme of a cucumber, perilla, lotus roots, herbs like Mitsuba…it’s a challenge to recognise everything.

While many places will only stock one kind of soya sauce or one kind of fish sauce, this supermarket prides itself on the choice it offers. I counted six kinds of fish sauce, and one side of an entire aisle is given over to different soya sauces. The chilli sauce aisle is packed tightly on both sides with bottle upon bottle of the red stuff, and there were seven different brands of instant dashi, alongside the bonito flakes and kelp you need to make your own.

Ex-pats craving snacks from home are well catered for. These Japanese snacks are on offer at the moment so they’re out of the way before the advent of the new Japanese section, which will, apparently, carry even more.

Here’s that crab again, with some other fish so you can get an idea of scale. The fish counter is one of the fewI’ve found that will actually carry fresh, properly prepared fish specifically for making sushi and sashimi at home. (It’s also a good place to find roes like tobiko and a fresh salmon roe.) Cuts of meat which aren’t usually represented in UK butchers are also easy to find here; chicken’s feet come frozen or fresh, and there are even duck tongues for the brave.

If you live in or near London, or if you’re just passing through, try to pay a visit to Edgware and see what you can find at the supermarket. Cook with something you’ve never tried before. Try to find out which is the strongest chilli. Use those canned silkworm larvae to broaden your experience. I’d love to find out how it goes.

Burwash Manor Farm Larder

Burwash Manor Farm (New Road, Barton, 01223 263423), just outside Cambridge, is host to a rather special selection of shops. We’d dropped in to pick up some peg rails from Providence, a Shaker cabinet and interiors firm run by a couple from New England. I then swung by Nest to check out the salvaged 1950s kitchen equipment and refurbished typesetters’ cabinets, grabbed a quick cup of tea and a toasted teacake in the tearooms, and finished the shopping day in the Larder, a delicatessen whose owners have a real eye for quality products.

The Larder benefits enormously from being on a farm; on the day we visited, three people were outside the shop in the rain cleaning and preparing asparagus straight from the fields. Asparagus is popping up a few weeks later than usual this year, because it’s been so cold. Grab some now if you can; the season is very short. (No pics of the asparagus for you today – it was so good it deserves a post of its own.)

Everything on offer is organic, much of it from small suppliers. A lot of the fresh produce comes straight from the farm. This does mean that sometimes the product you’re after might not be in stock, so if you want the sourdough starter (which always sells very fast), the fresh eggs from the cheerful-looking hens, or happen to be after a particular type of vegetable or fruit, ring ahead to check on stock. (Alternatively, just do what I do: roll up and pick from the enormous selection on offer, letting availability dictate what you’ll have for dinner.)

Local produce is strongly represented, with apples and juices from Coton orchard, just around the corner; wines from Chilford vinyard on the other side of Cambridge; local beers; and local pork pies and cheeses. Everything you might want from further afield is on offer, from organic Darjeeling tea to Ortiz tuna and soft chorizo for cooking. Loose produce is carefully labelled, so the buyer is aware of its source and its organic credentials.

I’m in awe of the owners’ ability to pick suppliers. The balance of locally and exotically sourced produce is really well-measured, and the products are chosen with a flair for flavour and quality; Valhrona chocolate rubs shoulders with Cox’s apple juice, paella rice and marinaded mussels. And the cheeses – oh, the cheeses. I think this picture can probably more eloquently describe the fantastic sprawl on offer than I can.

We bought a selection from the chilled cabinet for supper; some caperberries, some pork and apple chutney pies, and a little crottin of goat’s cheese with a piece of truffle pressed into the top, scenting the whole cheese. Some crusty bread and some tomatoes later, and we had an instant supper. Do visit if you get the opportunity; you’ll be unable to leave the shop with your hands empty.

Prague Christmas markets

I spent most of this morning thinking of you, dear reader, and doing my very best to take photographs of market stalls while not being noticed. Prague’s Christmas markets are the lure for many tourists (including Family Weasel), and tourists, being hungry for culture and local colour, also need feeding.

The main Christmas markets are spread out in the square in the old town, beneath the astronomical clock, and in Wenceslas square. You’ll find other, more local marketplaces scattered around the city; these sell the more ordinary fruit and vegetables and were actually where we found the best seasonal food and drink; they move around, so keep an eye out. At this time of year, there’s a lot of gingerbread and mulled wine, and lots of sweetmeats made with almonds and other nuts. The picture at the top is of a stall selling gingerbread and wrapped cakes made from hazelnuts (red wrappers) and almonds (blue).

The local almonds also emerged in yesterday’s endive salad, whole and blanched. Although indisutibly almonds in flavour (and sweet ones, at that), they’re a rather different shape from the almonds you might be used to; they are rounder and shorter, and seem to contain rather more oil.

We came across a stall selling trdlo, a soft yeast dough which is wrapped around a hot metal pin and baked into a cylinder, then rolled in ground local almonds and sugar.

The lady on the left is rolling out the sweet dough, which has been kept warm to rise, and is wrapping it around the metal spindle.

The dough is brushed with egg yolk and handed over to a third person . . .

. . . who grills it over a gas flame.

When you buy a hot, fresh trdlo, you’re gestured towards a tray of ground almonds and sugar to roll it around in as much as you like. We saw other trdlo being made in stalls which didn’t seem as even and golden as ours were. Watch your food being cooked (if you can) before you commit to buying it. These trdlo were crisp and sweet on the outside, with a beautifully tender crumb.

Away from the tourist areas we found a food market, where you could buy non-uniform vegetables. The greatest curse of the supermarket back home has been to encourage farmers all over the world to produce perfectly straight cucumbers, spherical swedes, beans of identical length and bananas which all curve in a sinister, congruent fashion, nesting together like bits of organic jigsaw puzzle. In emphasing shape and size, we’ve completely sacrificed taste; I promise you that you will never find a banana that tastes of cardboard in Malaysia, where they grow the things (or, it seems, in Prague, where they don’t). These peppers were a delight; different colours, different shapes (and different spiciness, according to the stallholder); you were encouraged just to pick out the ones you liked the look of.

I wish I had an oven here.

Spices are sold in little plastic bags. Although my Czech is non-existent, I was able to identify these by sight (and by helpful words on the packs like ‘barbecue’ on some of the mixtures) – I’m sure you can too. Everything looked fresh and smelled good. I bought a stick of marzipan from the lady on this stall, but unfortunately it vanished into Mr Weasel’s sugar-craving maw before I had a chance to photograph it. Every spice you’d use in a European kitchen was represented here; as well as these bags of caraway, allspice, pepper, coriander and nutmeg, tiny vials of saffron and whole vanilla pods were held behind the counter, out of the reach of shoplifters.

Shopping, especially outdoors, is crucifyingly cold at this time of year in the Czech Republic, where in the winter the temperatures seldom come above freezing. Although I was wearing what passed for ski-less ski gear, I am still, hours later, unable to feel my left ear; bring a hat.

Of course, the big emphasis in Czech cuisine is on the meat. In a little supermarket I found this counter of preserved sausages. (This evening’s meal incorporated a sausage a lot like Mortadella – Baloney, for you Americans – preserved in vinegar and chilis. I’ll write about it later on.) Every part of the animal is used here, and there are vendors on many of the streets cooking and carving pieces of meat for you to eat on the move.

This man is preparing a piece of ham for spit-roasting. Sadly, his fruitwood-roasted ham knocked the socks off anything I’ve been able to cook at home; the whole of the Old Town Square was filled with a smoky, porky aroma which went directly from my nose to the most animal parts of my brain, persuading me to hand over my Czech crowns while trying to mask the embarrassing dribble behind my scarf.

The biting cold is easily remedied with a glass of one of the many hot alcoholic drinks you can buy here. You can choose from
something called grog, which appears to be Southern Comfort, hot water, sugar and a slice of lemon (deadly and not really awfully nice; I don’t recommend it); punč (pronounced ‘punch’), which is port and brandy with hot water, sugar and a slice of lemon; and a mulled wine which has been excellent wherever I’ve bought it. If you visit Prague, you may want to try these drinks in the cafe inside the House of the Stone Bell, the city’s oldest building (in the Old Town Square, next door to a bookshop where Kafka lived). It’s now an art gallery. You can see the bell on the left of the picture; the building is well worth a visit. Happily, I failed to pupate, fall prey to an execution machine or do anything else Kafka-esque; somebody should really tell the Restaurant Metamorphosis down the road that their name is scaring me away from pushing their door open.