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?
Secret restaurants will not be a new idea to you if you’re a London foodie – they may be a little more of a surprise if you’re not based in the capital. Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve met more and more people running small, uncertified restaurants from their home dining rooms. You’ll hear them referred to as supper clubs, underground restaurants and secret restaurants; the usual procedure will involve you buying a ticket at one of these word-of-mouth places’ websites, and being emailed an address to turn up at the day before the meal. Many of the secret restaurant folk also write at the extremely extroverted end of the food bloggery spectrum. (You have a food blog either because you are a genteel introvert who wants an excuse to spend the day with a spatula and a keyboard, or because you love to share your sticky, greasy passion with as many people as you can. I like to feel I fall comfortably in the middle.)
The Secret Larder is one of these outfits operated by James Ramsden, a man with a smile and manner of the kindest, cockle-warmingest sort. (Check James’ website for details on the restaurant and bookings.) He wears an impeccable white apron, and has a heap of the kind of soft curls that are fun to ruffle on a ten-year-old. He has a brother, also radiating waves of loving-kindness – this family could start a cult – who was on waitering duty the night I visited; a sister also helps on other evenings and provided much of the artwork in the room we ate in.
Clearly, in order to operate a secret restaurant, you need an eye-bleedingly spectacular space to run it from. An Edwardian découpage screen separates the kitchen from a vaulted living/dining area full of soft chairs covered with throws and cushions, and limed, pickled and painted wooden furniture. Fairy lights twist around the cast iron rods holding the high ceiling in place, and there are books of the sort you’ll want to steal all over the room. A good conversation starter, actually; I know I’m afflicted with a horrible urge that makes me stock the bookcases downstairs, where people might actually see them, with some of the more interesting crags and peaks of the Upton book mountain, and I’d love to know if that copy of Take a Buttock of Beefe, the two (two!) copies of the Silver Spoon cookbook and the books on Joseph Beuys had been positioned with the same venal impulse.
Although the Secret Larder can cater for dozens of covers, the night I visited was much more intimate; a table was laid for eight. The room was velvety with candles, those fairylights and the lovely luminosity that only a bloodstream full of fermented grape juice can give a lighting scheme. The books, the pictures, the furniture, the lights – just the sort of environment calculated to get people talking even before we all got settled on the food and drink.
I was, along with some other food bloggers, here as a guest of Prosecco Riccardo, who were providing the evening’s wines. The brand is new in the UK, and the owners of the vineyard, held up by weather over Verona, arrived an hour or so later than the rest of us, at first appearing slightly nervous about the restaurant being – you know – in somebody’s flat. This secret restaurant thing has not yet percolated as far as the sunlit hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Happily, any lasting resentment against the British left over from their awful flight with BA was instantly soothed by the application of a fillet of fresh, oily mackerel on an earthy base of artichoke purée and a glass of their own fizz. I was reminded that my Italian needs some work. I trained years ago as a classical singer, and this meal really brought home to me that a vocabulary consisting of vaguely operatic stuff like: “Lo! Gentle shepherd! A thieving magpie! What is life without thee, Euridice?” and phrasebook stuff like: “I would like two tickets for the exhibition and a hot chocolate, please; oh, and some stamps for the United Kingdom,” does not serve you well at a dinner with wine producers. As always, though, a big smile and some elegant miming will mitigate most of the damage.
Prosecco hasn’t always been a sparkling wine; until World War 2, the Glera grapes went to make a still wine, and it was only after some bored experimentation with a demijohn in the 1940s that the standard Prosecco became a fizzy one. The still wine is still produced, but only makes up about 5% of production from the region (which now has Denominazione di Origine Controllata status), and seldom makes it out of Italy. We tried a couple of bottles of this fizz-free Tranquillo, and it knocked my socks off. At 11% ABV with the odd bubble from natural fermentation, it will remind you of a Portuguese Vinho Verde. All tart apples and flowers, it’s a lovely wine against the sort of dense earthy flavours we were tasting in the mackerel with its artichoke puree and shallot marmalade.
It’s a challenge to construct a whole menu around Prosecco, but James worked it in seamlessly. The Brut we started with – easy-drinking, not too dry, with a very jolly bubble – worked as an aperitif and performed really well against ramarino in culo, which translates loosely as “rosemary up the bum”. Little balls of steak tartare are seared on the bottom, with a spear of rosemary pushed into the still-raw top giving the whole mouthful a resinous lift. Gorgeous. The (perfectly seasonal, as was most of the meal) strawberry salad worked pepper flavours from the balsamic dressing and fresh leaves of rocket against the Brut in a way that had me making a note to try matching the wine to peppery dishes myself; I’ve spent far too long treating Proseccos as wines to drink without food, or as something to make Bellinis with.
A switch to the Tranquillo for the fish and the back to the Brut again for pork belly, served with chicory and a punchy salsa verde. My notebook has a drop of olive oil on it from this point in the evening, and a scrawl which I can’t interpret. I think I am trying to make the point, sozzled, that this is a very nicely prepared slab of pig, the fat rendered out over hours of slow cooking, the meat tender and herby and the flavours balanced, especially with that sharp salsa verde, the bitter chicory and the mouth-filling richness of the pork itself. What I have actually written appears to be “Not too swiney! Fat – whee!” Perhaps I should consider a dictaphone for these things in the future.
James produced something so good for dessert that I considered kidnap. Peaches caramelised in Marsala pushed into the bottom of glasses were topped off with a boozy zabaglione. And he’d made cantucci. And terrific coffee. A glass of Riccardo’s grand cru, the Cartizze Valdobbiadene, was pushed into my hand. I have to admit to a certain haziness to proceedings at this point, but I have scribbled “refined, sweeter, minerals, small bubble” just underneath the thing about the pork, and seem to remember enthusing about what a superb digestif it made.
I will (and did, thanks to pints of Prosecco – I shouldn’t have, it was rude and I apologise) admit that something about being served in someone’s home, especially when they are a mere ten feet away and so much of your conversation is about the food, is a little uncomfortable. I ached for James and Will to take a seat and join us in putting the culinary world to rights rather than slaving over a hot pig. This, though, is just a result of the fact that they made the whole evening’s experience feel like going to a friend’s house for a dinner party. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough, especially if you’re going to be sharing a table with friends – something about this set-up makes conversation flow, and the food is joyous.
If you were on Twitter yesterday at lunchtime…and for much of the afternoon…you’ll have noticed that fourfood and winebloggers and I were furiously live-tweeting a lunch from Roast in London’s Borough Market, where wi-fi had been laid on to encourage us to look like total nerds as we ate. It’s a restaurant perfectly placed to make the most of the fresh produce from the market – the emphasis here is on seasonality and wonderfully British things like haggis, pork belly and black pudding. Matching wines were provided, at a rate of two with each of the five courses along with a beer and a welcoming glass of fizz, by Chapel Down Winery. I’ll recap my tweets and pictures from the meal below for those not on Twitter – as noted on the day, I’m afraid the quality of prose and photography drops as I work my way through the wine. And read down to the bottom, because the restaurant is offering blog readers a special menu with wines if you can make it to Roast on November 24, and Chapel Down have very generously provided a special offer on a case of wine for you as well.
Something of an experimental post, this – it’s the first meal I’ve live-tweeted. Let me know what you think. (It’s likely to remain a rare event: eating with a laptop on my knee is something I’d only do at a restaurant’s request or suggestion, ‘cos it made me feel geek-tacular.) You can read more of my daily ramblings on food if you follow me @liz_upton.
Ensconced at Roast, gargling Chapel Down fizz. Expect quality of tweets to worsten as the lunch progresses – 2 pairings/course. 1:14pm, Nov 10
Smoked, dry-cured Loch Etive trout w crab cakes at Roast – trout outstanding. @wine_scribbler says shallots overpowering the wine – I like ’em! 1:33pm, Nov 10
@wine_scribbler I’m actually preferring the Pinot Reserve – and I’m not sure why I’m tweeting this, given we’re sitting next to each other. 1.36pm, Nov 10
The smoked trout *was* a tricky thing to match wines with – next up, some haggis. 1:41pm, Nov 10
A bottle of Chapel Down porter has just appeared in front of me – currently 5 glasses on table…getting confused. 1:42pm, Nov 10
Bloody hell, this porter is good. Oak chips in barrel apparently – a winemaking tech and very splendidly spicy and tannic. 1:44pm, Nov 10
We’re all making Black Velvets with the Chapel Down Vint Res Brut and the CD Porter. Delicious and also slightly shaming. 1:53pm, Nov 10
Haggis and oxtail on celeriac/spud mash. Heaven, especially w a Black Velvet!
Just been given an obscenely good slice of grilled black pud to sample. Ramsey of Carluke in Lanarkshire – superb. 1:58pm, Nov 10
Leaving the red undrunk. This is *highly* unusual for me. 1:59pm, Nov 10
…and we pause briefly while we collect ourselves. Jealously guarding my glass of Black Velvet from the v attentive wine waiters. 2:02pm, Nov 10
@foodguardian is having trouble liveblogging because of his “Fisher Price phone”. I have no sympathy. 2:04pm, Nov 10
A wine made with the Bacchus grape (English) has just arrived. Rather excited. 2:09pm, Nov 10
I’m getting tuberose and rubber off this wine – Bacchus not a grape I know well, but v intriguing. 2:10pm, Nov 10
I lie – that was an 06 Pinot Blanc in an ident. glass. The Bacchus is actually weirdly sweet and unacidic – and v nice. 2:12pm, Nov 10
BTW, I think we should open a book on precisely when we are all going to be too pissed to continue tweeting. I say by course 4.2:13pm, Nov 10
Roast’s signature dish – pork belly w mash spuds and apple sauce. Hubba – look at that crackling. 2:23pm, Nov 10
Pork belly outstanding – soft, tender meat, killer crackling. And there’s almost as much butter in this mash as at Robuchon. 2:25pm, Nov 10
Chatting to restaurant owner about these spuds, which I could happily *live* in. King Eds at the mo, but only because seasonal. 2:33pm, Nov 10(On speaking to the chef later, I discovered that actually they’re Maris Piper year round. Damn good, anyway.)
Christ almighty. Apparently, portions usually x2 this size – that pic was just the *tasting* portion (of which I ate ½). 2:36pm, Nov 10
Winemaker a bit unconfident about what’s up next – UK dessert wines a bit difficult. This is pretty good, but more aperitif-y.2:45pm, Nov 10
Spiced clementine custard w anise biscuits – pud like Grandma used to make. Chapel D Nectar gorgeous, but questionable match! 2:51pm, Nov 10
So I *really* like this Chapel Down Nectar, but not necessarily with food. The pannacotta underneath is fabboo. 2:54pm, Nov 10
You might notice that at this point in proceedings the quality of writing and photography is descending *fast*. Sorry. 🙂 3:01pm, Nov 10
And an 08 varietal English Pinot Noir. Chocolatey, dry, unoaked. Prolly my favourite of the Chapel Down wines so far. 3:07pm, Nov 10
Warm chestnut & pear cake w hot choc sauce. Melting, so excuse me while I eat. 3:18pm, Nov 10
Chef has emerged, with a light coating of sauce. 3:25pm, Nov 10
Chef’s belly tips – Stanley knife, rub salt & lemon, C230 for 30 mins, then down to 165 for 3 hours. 3:31pm, Nov 10
…And I’m shutting the computer down now. Feedback’s very welcome – how do you lot feel about live-tweeted lunches?
Roast and Chapel Down are offering a special menu with wine pairings for blog readers on November 24. They asked for our help in selecting three of these courses to point you at, and we ended up going for the menu below (with pairings selected by the folks at Chapel Down).
On arrival, a glass of Chapel Down Brut Rose
Ramsey of Carluke haggis with celeriac and oxtail sauce, with a glass of Chapel Down Rondo Regent Pinot Noir NV
Slow-roast Wicks Manor pork belly with mashed potatoes and Bramley apple sauce, served with a glass of Roast Bacchus Reserve 2007 (NB this will be the full sized portion, not the tasting portion from the pics above)
Spiced clementine custard with anise biscuits, served with a glass of Chapel Down Nectar 2007
Tea or coffee
With the wines, the menu will cost £44.50. If you want to book, call the restaurant on 0845 034 7300 and mention that you are booking for the Chapel Down Roast Bloggers’ Dinner on November 24.
Chapel Down are also offering readers a case of their Pinot Reserve 2004 for £99 for a case of six, including delivery to any UK mainland adddress. (A case usually retails at £150 plus delivery.) All you need to do is call the vineyard on 01580 763033, ask for Lizzie or Wendy and quote Blogger Offer.
A reader from France emailed me a few weeks ago with her own recipe for Crème de Cassis: blackcurrant liqueur for making Kir with. Kir is one of my favourite apèritifs – use one measure of Crème de Cassis or Crème de Mures (the same liqueur made with blackberries rather than blackcurrants) in a glass of five measures of chilled white wine. A Kir prepared with sparkling wine is a Kir Royale, and is also blimmin’ brilliant. Thank you very much, Jacqueline – and if you email me again to let me know what your surname is, I can give you a full credit for the recipe!
In this part of the world, blackcurrants are hard to find and very expensive when you do get your hands on them. Blackberries, however, quite literally grow on trees at the moment, and the method and amounts you’ll need for a crème de mures will be exactly the same. So if you want to make the most of this year’s surprisingly good blackberry harvest, get gathering at the weekend and produce a couple of home-made bottles of crème de mures (or crème de cassis if you have a handy currant bush) to impress people with.
Jacqueline says you’ll need:
1.5 kg ripe blackcurrants 2 litres of red wine (NOT the absolutely cheapest plonk) Sugar
Wash the blackcurrants or blackberries, place in an earthenware pot or pyrex bowl and crush with a wooden spoon. Add the red wine and leave to macerate for 48 hours.
Filter, weigh the juice and add the same weight of sugar. Pour into an enamel or stainless steel saucepan (Jacqueline and I both used a Le Creuset pot) and heat to just boiling. Let it boil gently for 5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon from time to time. Leave to cool to about 40°C, filter and bottle.
If filtered well, and bottled into sterilised bottles and well corked this will keep indefinitely. Jacqueline says that for a filter, she makes bags out of calico with loops for suspending from the legs of an upturned stool, making sure the bowl can be lifted out from between the stool legs when full! I have a Lakeland jam stand – I’m not awfully fond of it, given that these days it’s a bit peely, but it does the job. Don’t be tempted to hurry up the filtering process – just leave gravity to do its job.
With the collapse of the global financial system, I notice my local butcher is displaying some less expensive cuts, like lamb shanks, oxtail and pork hock, more prominently than usual. The meat in this dish, which would have comfortably served four, cost £3. (That pork hock is in the freezer, and it cost £2.30 – I think I’ll cook it in a Chinese style later this week.)
Oxtail has a very distinctive, rich, dense flavour, unlike other cuts of beef. It’s well worth making good friends with in winter – slow-cooked, it’s one of the most warming dishes I can think of. A casserole made with oxtail will be pleasingly dense without adding any thickening agents; the gelatin in the meat thickens the sauce with no need for flour.
Cooking on a budget needn’t mean a life of porridge and baked beans. I cooked this delicious oxtail until its meat became meltingly soft in a red wine and beef stock sauce (cheap red wine, home-made stock – buy a tub from the supermarket chiller section if you don’t have your own), with some new potatoes I’d walloped with the side of the rolling pin and roasted with some whole, unpeeled garlic cloves and plenty of salt and pepper. There was sauce left over, gelatinous and rich, and studded with vegetables and butter beans. I warmed it through and spooned what was left over a baked potato for lunch the next day.
To serve four, you’ll need:
1kg oxtail, joints separated 150g smoked lardons 2 medium carrots 1 large onion 4 stalks celery 5 cloves garlic 1 bouquet garni 1 bottle red wine 150ml beef stock 2 generous tablespoons tomato purée 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar 1 can butter beans Salt and pepper Parsley to garnish Olive oil
Dice the onion, carrot and celery into small, even cubes, and slice the garlic finely. Set aside. Heat some olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and brown the oxtail carefully all over. Remove the oxtail to a plate. Fry the lardons in the pan until they start to crisp and release their fat. Lower the heat to low/medium and add the diced vegetables and garlic to the pan. Sauté, moving around vigorously, until the onions and celery are softening and have turned translucent. Return the oxtail and any juices to the pan, stir well to mix, and pour over the wine and stock with a teaspoon of salt and a generous amount of pepper. (You are allowed to subtract a glass of wine from the bottle before you add it to the pan if you really want: cook’s privilege.) Add the bouquet garni, tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar to the pan and bring to a gentle simmer, turn the heat right down, pop the lid on and leave to cook gently for four hours, stirring every now and again.
At the end of the cooking time, reduce the sauce with the lid off a little if you’d like it even thicker and richer. Drain the can of beans, and add them to the casserole, simmering for fifteen minutes. The meat will be falling away from the bone easily. Serve with plenty of starchy potatoes to soak up all the delicious sauce.
A quick post today – it’s Christmas Eve, and the house is bulging at the seams with family, all of whom want something to eat. The Great She Elephant is also spending Christmas with us. Those readers of her blog who would like me to take photographs of her when asleep or looking otherwise ungainly should send bribes to the usual address.
I’m cooking a ham today (the recipe is here). Everybody else seems to be too, it being a Christmas recipe; lots of friends have been asking for the recipe, and my Mum’s doing one at their house tonight. It’s a Christmassy dish, but it’s made all the more Christmassy (Christmasic? Christmasular?) by a good, large glass of mulled wine on the side.
I have spent years perfecting this recipe. If you leave out any of the spices I will set the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come on you, so don’t.
1 bottle Merlot (I got a cheap one from Waitrose, which was discounted because it was a bin end) 1 wine-bottle of water 3 tablespoons honey 3 tablespoons maple syrup 2 oranges 1 lime 1 lemon 20 cloves 2 stars of anise 3 cardamom pods 1 cinnamon stick 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger 1 grating of nutmeg
Stud one orange with the cloves, and slice the other one. Slice the lemon and the lime, and put all the fruit, the spices, the wine and the water in a large, thick-bottomed pan with the honey and maple syrup. Bring up to the lowest possible simmer, and simmer very, very gently for twenty minutes. Strain through a sieve to get rid of the bits, and serve.
You might want to add a couple of shots of cherry brandy, but I think you’ll find you don’t need to. It’s not that strong, but for some reason it’s dreadfully warming and potent, so don’t give any to the cat.