Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

I would have liked to have ended this year on more of a bang, but this Christmas thing - it just takes over, really, doesn't it?

So, as usual, I'm running around like a headless turkey, trying to get last-minute shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning and tidying done while attempting to get into the ho-ho-ho mood at the same time.

It's working, but I think I probably need another sip of sherry. Or bottle. I forget which.

In the meantime, all bets on the blog are off for the moment - so have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year, and I hope to see you back here again in 2010!

Christmas tree

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

a few ideas for Christmas...

OK, first - disclosure time. All of the items that follow have been sent to me via the companies concerned. Having said that, noone's directly asked for a plug, but given that Christmas is hurtling towards us with the speed of something driven by Schumacher, now seems to be as good a time as any to do a little round-up.

So, just to whet your appetite, and as a little stocking filler, how about these cute packets of different varieties of teas (bags, by the way, in case loose tea frightens you) from the BelleVue Tea Lady?

Alternatively, of course, you could drink the tea while you're writing cards, wrapping presents, and putting up the Christmas decorations. In that case, you'll be needing something to go with the tea and to help keep you going. Preparing for Christmas is hunger-making stuff, after all. So perhaps consider having some festive cookies to nibble? These, made by the self-styled 'Biscuiteers', come in a dinky tin, and are available from Interflora:

I suppose you could always send them to someone you know, rather than keep them for yourself. But really, why would you? ;) Actually, they come very well packed, and the tin is plenty sturdy enough to resist the vagaries of Royal Mail, so if you know someone who has a sweet tooth and likes eating the hind legs off biscuity reindeer, then you might just have found the perfect present.

If sweet things aren't your, er, thing, then you might want to delve into the wonderful world of umami, the 'fifth' taste. It's not a particularly new concept, but it's novel enough to these shores, and it's what everyone's been talking about for the last few months. Foremost among those is Laura Santtini, who has both published a cookery book earlier this year - stuffed full of suggestions on how to give your food that 'magic' umami taste sensation - but has also launched a range of products (available from Selfridges) to make it that much quicker and easier for you to do so. The talk of Twitter in recent weeks has been her Taste No.5 Umami paste. I can vouch for this myself, too - I've used it in both a rabbit pie and a venison stew, with great results on both occasions. There's plenty more in the Santtini range, including the salacious-looking Carnal Sin rub. I haven't yet tried it, but I can report that it certainly smells promising, with lots of Eastern aromas to boot.

Try rubbing it into the turkey skin for something a little more exotic for your Christmas dinner...

Regular readers of this blog will know that chocolate tends to be a recurring theme. And that I'm a bit of a snob about it. I try not to be, but I'm afraid I just can't help myself. So I was a little sceptical when I was offered some Thornton's chocolate to try. Then again, I know they've been trying to up their game lately, and I was keen to see and taste the results. And you know what? They've won a whole host of awards for their new range of chocolate, so they're on their way. And better still, so far as Christmas is concerned, they've packaged them in a rather attractive fashion, too. Great for stocking-fillers again, or equally good for your own personal chocolate stash. I leave it to your conscience. (The one with pistachio is particularly good, though, so you might want to hang onto that one, at least.)

Flagging yet?

Hmm - me, too. Probably time to have a mince pie, then. I'm a bit partial to a good mince pie, and I'm quite fussy about them, too. Not all mince pies are created equal, after all. Happily, those sent to me via Abel and Cole, from the Authentic Bread Company, meet my requirements. The pastry is nice and short, and the mincemeat is pleasingly moist and uncloying. And I, for one, prefer my mince pies to be dusted with icing sugar rather than caster sugar, so they scored on that count as well. In fact, I defy you not to eat the whole box (of 6). If you don't, I will.

But then, just as you congratulate yourself on having got the presents sorted and having eaten your quota of mince pies, the front doorbell always goes at this time of year, doesn't it? Neighbours 'just popping round' to deliver cards, and all that malarkey. Aaargh.

Best to have something ready for them, then. For wine, I think I'm probably going to be stocking up on a very drinkable range of both whites and reds from the Australian award-winning vintner, McGuigan. But for food? A few goodies from Unearthed might do the job. Try the olives, cured meats, barrel-aged feta (my particular favourite, and great with in a pasta with chorizo, butternut squash, and sage), and panettone (always handy for making a quick pudding with, too, remember).

Right. There you go. Don't say I haven't tried. If you still haven't got any ideas for Christmas, don't come whining to me. I'm simply too busy munching my way through that lot ^^ to care any more.

Friday, 11 December 2009

talking with... Antonio Carluccio

A little while ago now, before this blog had its forced hiatus, I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Antonio Carluccio.

I must confess, I have a soft spot for the man. I find him engaging, warm and infectiously enthusiastic when he’s talking about food, and for that he gets a very big tick in my book. I’ve probably watched all his TV series over the years, and there’s something about his avuncular demeanour that I just can’t help but be drawn to.

But just as importantly, I’m a fan of his food – the food that characterises the cafe chain that still bears his name, and for which he still acts on a consultancy basis, and which fills several of the recipe books he’s penned.

I spoke to him very briefly following the publication of his latest book, Antonio Carluccio’s Simple Cooking, and had the chance to fire some rather random questions at him, related to the book. Between limited time, a poor mobile reception, no voice recorder, and my hearing loss (more about that another time), it wasn’t the easiest – but this is what I managed to salvage....

What, I asked him, was the inspiration for Simple Cooking?
It was partly the times we live in, he replied, in which food has become over fussy and complicated. He felt a need to pare it all back, and to make it simple and enjoyable again. Equally, though, he felt that it was the right time to gather together some of his favourite recipes and put them into one book.

Is there anything or any particular moment that he could remember sparking his deep love for food?
His mother was a very good cook, he said, and his father a good critic! He and his siblings were always closely involved with ‘food production’ in the Carluccio household, so it was natural for him to enjoy helping his mother and to be around food. He was often asked to go and gather ingredients from outside as well as help prepare things in the kitchen. What really changed and shaped his attitude towards food, however, was the time he spent studying in Vienna as a student. There, he became self-reliant, cooking for himself, and then others. Cooking, and sharing the food he cooked with his fellow students and friends, became part of his social agenda and then a hobby which ultimately led him to take up cooking professionally.

His fondness for mushrooms is well known. What would he choose as favourites after mushrooms?
There are so many that it’s difficult to choose, he said, but his preference is for typically Mediterranean vegetables, particularly courgettes and aubergines.

And spinach, I asked? What about those famous spinach balls? (One of the most popular dishes on the Carluccio’s menu is Penne Giardiniera – pasta with courgette, chilli, and very more-ish deep-fried spinach balls with parmesan and garlic.)
Yes, he loves spinach, too. The spinach balls were created for a friend as a favour, about 25 or so years ago. Carluccio experimented in the kitchen to come up with something new, and so the spinach balls were born.

Some of the recipes in the new book seem more novel, and less typically Italian (what would his mother have thought?), such as the dessert of mango and lime. What lies behind those?
It transpires that Carluccio likes the mango and lime dish very much, not least because it is so simple. The same goes for the other less recognisably Italian recipes, he said – he chose them for their taste and for ease of preparation. They are straightforward, yet taste amazingly good. Those were the principles of cooking that he was brought up on by his mother, and for those very reasons, he is sure she would have approved of the book, even though it is not given over entirely to specifically Italian recipes.

Does he have a personal favourite recipe in the book – one that captures everything he feels that good food, cooking, and fun should be about?
There are too many! But if he had to choose, and aside from the tagliatelle con funghi, it would probably be the giant spaghetti with onion and anchovy sauce (bigoli in salsa di cipolle e acciughe).

And what, I asked him, does he think the future hold, cooking-wise? Is the trend for simple, good food here to stay, or is it just a reflection of the recession?
His answer was immediate: food in the UK had, until a couple of years ago, become far too over-the-top, rich, and fancy. We have come to this juncture quite naturally. While simple food is very ‘now’, it is certainly something that we are all coming back to, and it is likely to stay around.

Finally, I ventured to ask, what’s next in the Carluccio pipeline?
His autobiography is planned for next year, and he may write another book. And he’d consider doing more television if asked!

There are a couple more things I should say before signing off. Despite being in the middle of a whizz-stop tour of the UK to promote his new book, Antonio Carluccio was a joy to speak to. I believe he was getting over a cold at the time, and probably rather tired to boot, but he answered all my questions with unfailing politeness and patience. It genuinely felt like a chat with a long-lost uncle rather than an interview with the man who’s arguably done the most to put Italian food on the map in this country over the last 20 years or so. To him, and to Absolute Press, huge thanks. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m off for a plate of tagliatelle con funghi.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

McGuigan wines with lunch at Roussillon - a memorable occasion

Yes, I know there’s been a bit of a hiatus here, and I’m sorry. If you’re on Twitter and follow me, you’ll know why. For those of you who don’t – very briefly, my dad was on the wrong end of a drunk driver recently, and I’ve taken a bit of time out while he recovers.

Thankfully, he’s getting better now, and so I’ve been getting out and about again.

Given the nature of what happened to my father, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that the first thing I was invited to since his horrible crash was a wine tasting. I guess life’s like that. Still, it wasn’t all about the booze – the additional lure was a meal at the Michelin-starred Roussillon restaurant in Pimlico, designed to match the wines concerned.

And what wines. All from McGuigan Wines, one of Australia’s foremost wine makers, and winners of so many trophies for their wines that their trophy cabinet must be built of particularly stern stuff. The tasting was to be hosted, too, by Mr McGuigan himself, Neil – White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge (held in September) for 2009.

Invitations like this don’t come beating their way to my door every day, so it took me precisely, ooh, 0.02 seconds to accept. The wines were obviously a big attraction, but so, too, was the actual meal. Even though Roussillon has been on my radar for some long while, and is not a million miles from where I live, I’d never visited. My interest had been further piqued a few weeks ago by watching the chef, Alexis Gauthier, put the Masterchef Professionals finalists through their paces. Suffice to say, then, that my expectations of the entire event were high.

Initial impressions were good. While it’s located in a rather unappealing and busy (with traffic) part of Pimlico, the restaurant itself is an oasis of comfort and charm. I was greeted by an elegant and efficient member of staff who swiftly whisked me off to the downstairs haven in which our tasting lunch was to take place.

Coat off, a few initial introductions, and we (a group of 12 of us in all) were immediately into the wines – an informal tasting before lunch of some of McGuigan’s readily available ‘Classic’ wines, ranging from this year’s Pinot Grigio to last year’s breathy Merlot. None of them cost more than £7.49. I’m no wine expert, but these were all pleasantly quaffable – though I admit to going easy at this stage, wary of (a) an empty stomach, and (b) a heavy session ahead... Yes, I am a wimp, and I can live with that.

And then – after a brief amusing and engaging introduction by Neil on the history of Australian viticulture, and on the McGuigan Wines – to lunch. On the menu:

Roussillon - the menu

(Apologies for the grainy photos, BTW, but we had no natural light at all.)

Oh, yum. (‘Yum’ being a highly technical gastronomic term for ‘golly, that’s a hugely attractive menu which happens to include some of my favourite foods. The wines sound promising, too. I shall look forward to this with every inch of my intestines’).

First up, the lobster bisque, paired with Earth’s Portrait Riesling 2004 (don’t ask me why that name). I won’t try to describe the wines, as others will do a far better job of doing so than me, but I will say that the slightly leathery fruit and juiciness of the Riesling was – to my palate – a wonderful match with the rich and intense sea-sweetness of the lobster. It was a contrasting pairing of the highest order.

Roussillon lobster bisque

Next, the sea bass, with the McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon 2003 to drink.

Roussillon wild sea bass and razor clams

My jury’s still out on this one. Sea bass has been one of my favourite fish to eat over the last twenty years, but this particular rendition didn’t do it for me. It was perfectly cooked, and there was nothing to find fault with, but it didn’t soar, either. The same goes for the wine – a citrusy, rather riper-than-usual style Semillon, which complemented, rather than contrasted with the dish. Don’t get me wrong, both the food and wine for this course were more than pleasant and acceptable, but they just didn’t inspire me.

Our meat course was prefaced by the pouring of the wine to match – the McGuigan Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Oh, for smell-o-blogs. This was fantastic on the nose – pepper, cedarwood, damsons, prunes, and bags and bags of juicy blackcurrants. Pure joy in a glass. I could honestly have spent the rest of the lunch simply inhaling this fruity beauty. Neil explained that, although perfectly drinkable now (well, that’s a relief, then), it will probably be at its best in another 2 to 3 years’ time, when it may well develop coffee and coconut flavours.

Roussillon - the wines

Oh, and the food:

Roussillon milk-fed lamb and thyme

The menu says it all. Thyme and more thyme. With lamb. But not just any lamb. Milk-fed, delicate baby lamb, lifted by a meaty jus. It was very good indeed.

And now for the cheese course, with a McGuigan Handmade Shiraz 2008. After the Cab Sauv, the Shiraz just didn’t tickle my nose in quite the same way. But make no mistake, there are BIG, voluptuous berry fruits in this wine, and without the cheek-sucking tannins that can take the edge off the pleasure of similar wines. Again, Neil suggested that perhaps it still needs more time to develop fully. I should certainly like to try it again in a year or two’s time.

And the feuillette?

Roussillon feuillette of bleu d'Avergne

Pastry and cheese is not normally for me. If you’re going to give me cheese, just give me the cheese. I don’t need or want the pastry, thanks. But the feuillette was a little charmer – delicate, tangy and moreish at the same. The Bleu d’Auvergne was hardly in evidence but that was, I suspect, the whole point. It’s an incredibly powerful cheese, and this pastry number demonstrated how to use a little to great effect. Also surprising, to me, was how well it went with the Shiraz.

Finally, the dessert, a quince parfait, with a ‘sticky’, the Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon 2005. It was as though Alexis and Neil had seen me coming. Anyone who reads my inanities on Twitter will know that I am a quinceomaniac. If I could eat only one fruit for the rest of my life, it would be quince. Roasted, poached, made into membrillo, ice cream – I’ll have it any way it comes. But mostly poached, because to me, that’s when it’s at its most beautiful, both in looks and taste. I also have a weak spot for dessert wines. I don’t know enough about them, but I’ve yet to find one that I don’t like, whatever their style.

So, here we go:

Roussillon quince parfait

Right. I’ll be honest – I can’t be objective or usefully descriptive about it. It was joyous. Lots of quince, with boozy sultanas, all wrapped up in a creamy (and surprisingly light) parfait, topped with a tangy yoghurt and honey sorbet which was just the right accompaniment. And the wine? Lots of honey, wax, flowers, and esters. Gorgeous to drink on its own, but even more so when matched with the quince parfait. The room, at this point, was quiet as anything, the silence punctuated only by barely perceptible sighs of pleasure. I’m so glad no one had a voice recorder running.

Roussillon - Botrytis Semillon 2005

There can’t be many better ways to spend a grey, wintry Tuesday in London than this. And it wasn’t even all about the fine food and the splendid wines. I should make special mention of the McGuigan team who, led by the lovely Neil, were as warm and entertaining as their wines. They were interesting, informative, engaging, and most of all – fun. Yes, fun. Wine tasting can be spoilt by over-bearing pomposity and obscurity, but not on this occasion. The emphasis was firmly on enjoyment and informality, and for that I, for one, was extremely grateful. Alexis, too, was in fine form, and took time out to introduce the menu and to explain his choices.

It was only fair, then, that at the end of lunch, our heroes should indulge in a minor celebration:

Roussillon chef and Neil McG

Well deserved, guys.

I understand from McGuigan's PR team that the top-end wines we had with lunch should be available from Tesco online in the New Year. Until then, I will try to wait patiently, and in the meantime sigh wistfully to myself every so often.

(Thanks to McGuigan Wines, to Alexis Gauthier and his staff, and to Chris and Scott at Cube Communications for inviting me and creating such a memorable experience. Special thanks go to Peter Hall of McGuigan who clasped his enormous warming hands over mine for a few moments to help get them back to blood temperature again following their exposure to the nasty British winter temperatures.)

Roussillon on Urbanspoon

Friday, 27 November 2009

if you like porridge, you'll love this...

Porridge Championships
to be held on at Giraffe restaurant on London`s Southbank on Saturday 28 November

Who will be crowned London`s porridge champion, prince or princess?
This Saturday (28th October) as part of their annual porridge extravaganza, seriously fruity cereal maker Rude Health is holding a freestyle gourmet porridge contest for adults and for children. Contestants have been whittled down over the past few weeks and on Saturday the finalists will battle for the title of London`s porridge champion whilst slaving over a bubbling saucepan of rolled oats. Weird and wonderful concoctions are anticipated.

In addition to the competition, the reigning World Porridge Champion - Anna Louise Batchelor - will be demonstrating the dish that clinched her the speciality category at the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championships - SPOTTED DICK PORRIDGE PUDDING.

The making of the sexiest, gourmet porridge will be filmed and posted online at

Date: 28 November 2009
Timings: 10 - 12 am
Childrens Prizes will be handed out at 10.25 am
Adult Prizes will be handed out at 11.30 am
Event: Rude Health Porridge Championships
Location: Giraffe restaurant South Bank, 1 More London Riverside, London SE1 8XX /

Friday, 30 October 2009

review: Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis

Billed as a ‘book for a resourceful cook in the prudent kitchen’, this latest publication by Tamasin Day-Lewis seems to be another of the current crop tapping into a recession-hit market. The premise is sound, and initial impressions are promising –a cursory flick through the pages suggests that any notions that cooking to a limited budget necessarily means bland and dull meals should be promptly banished. The colourful pictures promise much – feasts of delicious, vibrant food leap out from almost every page.

And, indeed, the book gets off to an appropriate start with a core recipe for a roast chicken, and then a variety of ideas for what to do with any leftovers. Ditto a handful of recipes for using mince (without an initial roast lamb or beef recipe, though). How to get creative with leftover mash follows next (bread, potato apple ‘cake’, and parmesan potato cake, since you ask).

I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind the ordering of the sections (not helped by the lack of a Table of Contents), since next up is ‘The Saturday Bake’. Personally, I would have thought that a chapter on roasts and leftovers would follow more logically after Saturday, but maybe that’s just me. The sequence of the other chapters is equally mystifying. Still, whether you bake on Saturday or some other day, you’ll be spoilt for choice with recipes here, among them many old favourites: carrot cake, chocolate cake, fruit tea loaf, and brownies. But there are also novel versions of familiar cakes, too: wholemeal date scones, banana blondies, and bay, lemon, and honey cake, for example.

From baking, the book launches into one-pot cooking, with plenty of those hearty winter warmers that we’re all so fond of, like stew and dumplings, braised belly pork, sausage casserole, cobbler, and fish pie. Again, there are tasty twists: brisket comes with pickled walnuts, the belly pork with quince, the casserole with chestnuts, and the ‘pudding’ is lamb, rather than steak, and kidney.

If those aren’t enough to make you content, a chapter on ‘Happy food’ follows. As Day-Lewis puts it: ‘When we are broke we need to reward ourselves more than ever, with little luxuries in the absence of large’. Chocolate, unsurprisingly, features largely here – in truffles, a terrine, a truffle cake, little baked custards, and a sorbet. Other treats include a date and coffee sponge, crème caramel, and pannacotta, as well as a comfort-food Victorian nursery pudding, called General Satisfaction – something of a cross between trifle, Eton Mess, and Queen of Puddings.

Next is a fulsome section on bread, and how to use up old loaves. Many of the savoury recipes are Spanish or Italian in origin, while the puddings include old English classics such as Brown Betty and Summer Pudding.

Then it’s the chapter that takes its title from that of the book itself. The concept for Day-Lewis was born out of necessity at university, and even now ‘I still take the greatest pride in inventing suppers for a song’. Any reader following her lead will eat well: from pea, mint, and scallop custards, through stuffed squid, to little John Dory fillets with braised fennel and anchovy butter. A dessert of caramel and cardamom ice cream with Tarocco oranges would certainly have been much appreciated in my student days.

Autumnal gluts of fruit are swiftly despatched through baking, stewing, sun-drying (tomatoes), and jamming, before the book ends with ‘Something-out-of-nothing suppers’ – the kind of meals we might conjure up from our store cupboards. Again, the recipes derive largely from beyond UK shores, with Indian curries, gnocchi, tortilla, paella, pan bagna, Boston baked beans, baked penne, and pizza all appearing on the menu.

In all, it’s a cheery book for hard times. My query, though, is to what extent it will really fulfil readers’ expectations for frugality. The braised belly pork recipe suggests a 1.2kg piece of ‘ideally’ organic Middle White. And the quinces to accompany it aren’t exactly cheap. Other recipes don’t stint on top-notch ingredients, either. Organic Sierra Rica chestnuts? Pheasant? Scallops? Wild salmon? John Dory? Marsala wine? Or that caramel and cardamom ice cream recipe, anyone – requiring, amongst other things, a vanilla pod, 350ml Jersey milk, 284ml thick Jersey cream, 8 (yes, 8) large egg yolks, and 6 Tarocco or blood oranges? Crikey. If this is frugality, then we should all be getting rather more excited about it than we are.

This is not, then, a book that will square with everyone’s idea of managing on a limited budget. Neither is Day-Lewis someone to stint on quality, even in parsimonious times. She exhorts readers to buy the best they can afford, and organic wherever possible. I’ve already cited the Middle White example, and there are several similar instances. That sort of quality doesn’t exactly come cheap. She does, however, point out that those recipes using expensive main ingredients are frequently ‘balanced’ by cheaper minor ones, and there are also plenty of recipes which are genuinely cheap (and easy) to make – but the net effect is only to throw the extravagant items into sharper and more alarming relief.

In fairness, none of this – balancing expense, buying the best produce affordable – should be particularly controversial. We all deserve to eat well, and to eat good food. To a degree, Day-Lewis is right – it’s about learning to make prudent choices, and evening out expense with moderation in order to arrive at a happy status quo. Recycling a roast chicken, making the most of mince, learning how to make bread and use up stale ends imaginatively are all things that make a plenty of economic as well as culinary sense (not to mention environmental sense), and Jamie O and Huge F-W would surely approve.

It’s just that Ms Day-Lewis’ starting budget appears to be set at a rather higher level than that of the average punter. As does her expectation regarding access to good butchers, fishmongers, and supermarkets and delis. Sadly, the reality is that many of these recipes simply won’t deliver on taste and texture if lesser and cheaper substitutes are used in place of the ingredients she lists. Even the simple fried mozzarella sandwich won’t be half as good with mozzarella that is anything other than bufala campana, and anything other than ‘spanking fresh’ mackerel could render a pickled mackerel and potato salad near inedible. But then, I strongly suspect that Ms Day-Lewis’ regular audience have access to all these things and more, and can readily afford them. And so long as everyone is aware of that, then I’m sure this book will find its market.

(With thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the review copy.)

Supper for a Song, by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (2 Oct 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 184400743X
ISBN-13: 978-1844007431
RRP: £19.99

Saturday, 24 October 2009

a little piece of Love: Scandinavian Kitchen

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be aware that I've been helping to organise short food photography workshops with Chris Windsor.

Chris has been a photographer for many years, and more recently has been doing a lot of food photography projects for various clients, and for Jenny Linford's The London Cookbook and Food Lovers' London.

Not surprisingly, then, he knows a few eateries and their owners. So when we were cooking up the workshops, he suggested the Scandinavian Kitchen, just off Oxford Circus. I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I hadn't been there. It was yet another of those places that had been on my radar for a while (I defy any London foodie not to have a list of such places the length of a rather long arm), but somehow I'd never got around to going.

But now I have. And I very much liked what I saw, from the unmissable exterior...

Scandinavian Kitchen exterior

... and equally vibrant interior...

Scandinavian Kitchen interior

and, more to the point, I liked what I tasted... from a huge range of open sandwiches...

sandwich selection 1, Scandinavian Kitchen

sandwich selection 2, Scandinavian Kitchen

open egg sandwich, Scandinavian Kitchen

blue cheese open sandwich, Scandinavian Kitchen

sandwich selection 3, Scandinavian Kitchen

... to the best hot dog I've ever come across...

hot dog with relish, Scandinavian Kitchen

... and then there are the cakes... including the famous Love Cake (aptly named) ...

Love Cake label, Scandinavian Kitchen

Love Cake, Scandinavian Kitchen

... and Kladdkaka ('a bit like a brownie, but more gooey', as their label says)...

Kladdkakka, Scandinavian Kitchen

a forkful of Kladdkakka, Scandinavian Kitchen

Will I be going back? Absolutely. Except in future I think I'll leave the camera behind so I can concentrate more on the important stuff - the eating...

Scandinavian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

review: My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

Who would have predicted the television success of Julia Child? Over six feet all, already into her fifties (BBC, please note), and with a voice that irritated some as much as it enchanted others, the late TV chef’s success must surely have been as much as a surprise to her as it was to everyone else. In addition, by the time she hit the small screen in the US, she had spent almost as much time living outside of her native country as she had in it. On the face of it, then, her rise to prominence as a TV star was, to say the least, an unlikely one.

But succeed she did, and now, five years after her death at the age of 91 (she also successfully predicted her longevity), interest in her life has been reignited once more, if indeed it can be said to have been extinguished in the first place.

‘Julie and Julia’ is the film responsible, a film chronicling a period in the life of a food blogger who decided –on the verge of marital breakdown – to reinvent and challenge herself by cooking her way through Child’s famous tome, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Child’s own life, particularly her life in France, which is when she wrote ‘Mastering...’, forms the parallel tale.

Luckily for those of us who are interested in the making of ‘Mastering...’, Child wrote her own memoir of that time, aided by her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme. Called, simply, ‘My Life in France’, it takes as its starting point the moment she and her husband first moved to France in late 1948. The majority of the book concentrates on the ten years immediately following Child’s first visit to the country – the years in which ‘Mastering...’ was born – and effectively ends in 1974, with Paul’s death and her work on ‘From Julia Child’s Kitchen’.

As Child tells it, it was her first meal in France that spawned the hitherto unknown cook within her. Unfamiliar with much of the food (she didn’t even know what a shallot was), never mind drinking wine at lunchtime, her eyes were opened to a very different kind of dining experience from that with which she was familiar: “Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.” It was, as she put it, her epiphany.

From that point on, Child gobbled up all things French, particularly anything to do with eating, revelling in it all like a small child in a toyshop. As her gastronomic experiences quickly widened (escargots, and even more so, truffles “quickly became an obsession”), so too did her appetite for learning how to cook. Spurred on and enthused by Paul’s gift to her of Larousse Gastronomique on her thirty-seventh birthday, she attended a demonstration session at the nearby L’École du Cordon Bleu, and swiftly signed up to a six-week course.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Child soon decided she was in the wrong class, and badgered the owner of L’École to let her enrol in another. It seems to have set the tone for a difficult relationship, punctuated with somewhat wilful stubbornness on both sides. What emerges from the narrative is Child’s forceful resolve, supported by impressive self-discipline. Often frustrated by the lack of individual attention in class, she carried on regardless, and indeed, classtime neglect simply “had the effect of making me work even harder”. Becoming totally absorbed by cooking as she was, it wasn’t long before she “could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen”.

And so began the quest for culinary perfection. Mayonnaise was the subject of one early mission, by the end of which Child was of the belief that she “had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history”. She was undaunted by others’ lack of interest: when family and friends failed to respond to her foolproof new recipe for mayonnaise, Child simply reports “I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged.” By this point in the book, her reaction comes as little surprise.

Still, her tenacity saw her finally take her Cordon Bleu diploma (although not before one last stand-off with the owner). With new-found confidence, she teamed up shortly afterwards with two fellow ‘Gourmettes’ (members of an exclusively-female dining club in Paris) with an ambitious new project – to write a cookbook of French recipes for the American home cook. This itself segued into another venture between the three women, a new cookery school to counter the perceived stuffiness and archaism of the L’École.

What followed was, by Child’s account, a tortuous period of writing, editing, and persuading. Various publishing houses showed interest, only to lose it at the sight of the huge tome laid at their feet. What had, in her words, been conceived as a “modest little book” had in fact become an unwieldy behemoth of over 700 pages, as the authors – and Child in particular, one imagines – chased after every detail in their quest for recipe perfection. More than once, it seemed that it would never see the light of day. But, once again, it was Child’s sheer bloody-mindedness and determination that ensured the book finally saw the light of day, a full ten years after it had been first started. Moreover, her underlying optimism proved well placed – as we now know, the book became a huge success, and a veritable culinary bible for readers all over the world.

And so, nearly fifty years on from the date of its first publication, it is still inspires – as it did the blogger who made her own fame and fortune by cooking her way through it all (much to Child’s disgust, apparently).

It is, of course, a book largely about Child and food, and is thus a veritable literary feast for foodies. But there is plenty else of interest in here for non-food lovers – the respective backdrops of post-war France and Europe, the McCarthy era (she and Paul came under investigation at one stage), not to mention the uncertain and nomadic life of being the wife of an American civil servant.

In many ways, this is an indulgent book – Child gets to pick out her own highlights and darker times, and to pass judgement on others without restraint. Neither she nor Alex Prud’homme makes any apology for that, and why should they? Child is (or was) what she is, and by living to the venerable age of 91 and still holding court, she was surely entitled to tell it her way.

Somewhat ironically, though, through her accounts of her dealings with others, Child also lays herself bare. What emerges – strangely enough, given her success – is arguably a certain naivety, an underlying insecurity, a lack of self-confidence. Her early days in France, especially, found her plagued with feelings of inadequacy and frustration at what she perceived to be her shortcomings - most notably, when amongst (Paul’s) intellectual friends.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining not only her insatiable appetite for knowledge, but her own impatience and intolerance of those who didn’t subscribe to her views. Several family members (her father and mother in particular), as well as friends, seem often to be little more than an irritation to Child, although in fairness, such moments are just as frequently countered by moments of frank self-realisation (for example, “I could at times be overly emotional”; and of her father, “I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous to him...”). It is no surprise, then, that by the time ‘Mastering...’ was finished, one of her co-authors had vanished from the picture almost entirely, while Child’s relationship with the other was, shall we say, ‘difficult’. By contrast, those she loved, she loved unswervingly – the saintly Paul, and her younger sister, Dort, were clearly both the focus of almost unquestioning admiration and loyalty.

Whatever you may end up thinking of Child herself, ‘My Life in France’ is an engaging read. And perhaps it’s precisely because of her very human frailties – it’s almost impossible not to find yourself cheering her on in one moment, and then despairing at her lack of empathy, or at her apparent ruthlessness, the next. Just as mesmerising is her obvious energy – no one could ever accuse her of having simply stumbled upon fame. Everything that came her way did so as a direct result of colossal (some might say obsessive) hard work and force of will.

There’s also plenty of photographic evidence throughout the book, reproduced in black and white, documenting both her life and work in France – ranging from snaps from the family album to photographs (littered with Child’s numerous additions and amendments) of her ‘top secret’ recipes sent to Dort while ‘Mastering...’ was still a work in progress. They are themselves testament to Child’s scrupulous record keeping and attention to detail.

By her own admission in ‘My Life in France’, Child was not the easiest person to live or work with. But those traits responsible are undoubtedly the very same that lie behind the dynamism and sheer joie de vivre of this book. If you are a fan of hers, or of French life and cuisine, or if you’re curious to find out more about the inspiration for ‘Julie and Julia’, then this is a must-read. If you’re none of those things, read it anyway. As Julia Child puts it herself, “one learns by doing”.

(with thanks to Duckworth for the review copy)

My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (11 Sep 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0715639005
ISBN-13: 978-0715639009
RRP: £7.99

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Pierre Koffman's Restaurant on the Roof at Selfridges

I live an ordinary life. Some ups, some downs, and plenty of routine daily stuff inbetween. I have no complaints, and I’m more than happy with my lot.

But once every so often, I have moments of realisation – moments of thankfulness, even, for the sheer wonder of life and the pleasures it brings. It is not overstating things to say that my meal on Tuesday evening at Pierre Koffman’s ‘pop-up’ restaurant on the roof at Selfridges was one such moment.

I don’t want to sully the memory by giving a detailed blow-by-blow account of each course. I’m a food blogger, not a master of culinary wizardry, and I doubt I could find the words, frankly, or accurately identify all the ingredients or technical skill which comprised the taste extravaganza. In any case, others have already done that task for me and taken the photographic evidence, too.

For the record, we (two of us) ate our way through fricassee of wild mushrooms with snails and bone marrow, and pressed leeks and langoustines with a truffle vinaigrette to start; followed by Koffmann’s legendary pig’s trotter stuffed with veal sweetbreads and morel mushrooms, and royale de lièvre; and to finish, a warm chocolate mousse with malt ice cream, and Toscano dark chocolate mousse layered with hazelnut dacquoise, served with orange yogurt ice cream and Yuzu jelly. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the meal was prefaced by a langoustine bisque with a herb crème Chantilly, and tailed with a generous plate of assorted petits fours.

From start to finish, and without exception, the food was exquisite. If I had to pick my personal highlight, my epiphany, then I’d single out the pig’s trotter. Why? Because it was infinitely more pleasurable than I could ever have imagined, and quite possibly the most wonderful thing I have ever eaten (and I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at some rather special places over the years). I’ve had trotter several times before, but nothing could have prepared me for just how exceptional Koffman’s version was. I can’t improve on the adjectives others have already used: unctuous, silken, gelatinous, rich, intense, delicate, elegant, creamy, ambrosial. It was all those, and still more, as was the ‘mash’ which accompanied it. Never, in my experience, has the humble mashed potato tasted so utterly divine.

Suffice to say this was a meal that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Added to that, the service was friendly to a fault, immaculate throughout, and enhanced by the warm and attentive presence of Claire, Koffman’s partner. A more welcoming host you’d be very hard pushed to find.

The actual restaurant structure, too, completely surpassed expectations – sumptuously and imaginatively decorated and furnished (all Selfridges’ own work, apparently), with only the somewhat bouncy floors betraying its impermanence.

In short, I all but gave thanks to God while I was there (and I speak as someone who havers between atheism and agnosticism). I gave them instead to Claire. And no, I haven’t taken leave of my senses or critical faculties. I’m aware, too, that not everybody has been wholly ecstatic, and that there have been a few inconsistencies and niggles along the way.

All I can say is my own experience was flawless and memorable for all the best reasons, and for that I am truly grateful. What’s more, I’m happy to report that there IS a god, and he’s alive, well, and currently cooking majestic food in a restaurant touching the heavens above Selfridges.

Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the Roof on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

review: Sauces by Michel Roux (Snr)

If there can be said to be trends in cookbook publishing, then we are certainly going through one now. As I’ve noted previously, every second new book at the moment seems to be something to do with ‘basic’ ‘frugal’ or ‘simple’, or similar variations on those themes.

At first sight, then, it’s not the obvious time for a former holder of 3 Michelin stars to be launching a new edition of a book on preparing sauces. I mean – sauces? Lots of time and effort, surely, just for a bit of extra something on the plate? And do they really qualify for the current vogue for simplicity and thrift?

First, a sauce shouldn’t really be regarded as an optional ‘extra’. A meal without a sauce, or an appropriate sauce, lacks its cornerstone. It’s unthinkable, incomplete, a half-meal. As M Roux himself insisted when I spoke to him, ‘Sauces are a must, the top priority’. Any viewer of Masterchef (particularly the ‘professionals’ version) will have seen many a young chef die a culinary death as a result of a sauce no-show, or by serving a misjudged one. Get it right, and the simplest meal can be elevated into something memorable; get it wrong, and perfectly good food can be made unpalatable. So, sauces are, in fact, very much a case of ‘back to basics’.

Roux’s book makes sauce preparation look straightforward and appealing. Many of the recipes are reasonably quick and inexpensive to make. However, if you fancy using more luxurious ingredients and taking your time over making something particularly special, there are sauces to tick that box, too. All the classics are in here, but so are more novel and more intriguing creations, too (parmesan water, anyone? parsley nage with lemongrass? sea spray sauce? Arabica fig sauce?). In short, this is a book which makes you wonder why on earth you haven’t been making sauces regularly before.

With this book to hand, you have all you need to become a maestro. Every aspect of preparation is covered, with all the explanation and help you could ask for: equipment, ingredients, flavourings, whisking, blending, thickening, reducing, enriching, straining, and even how to keep sauces warm properly. And then, onto the real ‘meat’, so to speak – sections devoted to different types of sauces, including all the classics: stocks and marinades, infusions and nages, white sauces, emulsion sauces, vinaigrettes, flavoured oils and butters, salsas and other piquant sauces, vegetable coulis, sauces for fish, and for meat. And then, for the sweet tooths, savoury fruity sauces and chutneys, coulis and other fruity dessert sauces, custards and sabayons, chocolate and other rich creamy sauces.

All the way through are tips, hints, and suggestions aplenty – ranging from how best to keep a sauce (and whether it will freeze, what ingredient substitutes can be used successfully, through how to vary the core recipe, and what foods the sauce best accompanies. The reader is, for example, warned against overcooking a stock: ‘With long cooking, a stock becomes heavy and loses its savour; this applies particularly to fish stocks, which can also acquire a bitter taint’. Béchamel sauce will apparently keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days, and should be reheated in a bain-marie. Cumberland sauces tastes best the day after it is made. Grapefruit coulis with mint goes well with blackcurrant sorbet. And so on – a veritable food geek’s delight.

There are over 200 recipes to try. Twenty new ones have been added since the original edition, reflecting changes in tastes since 1996 (the date of the first edition) and Roux’s own current interest in lighter food – salsas and nages occupy more space this time around, for example. By far the majority of recipes are under a page long (including the list of ingredients), and broken down into simple, short steps, so even the most easily scared or novice of cooks shouldn’t be daunted.

No expense has been spared in the publication of ‘Sauces’, either, which is just as it should be, really, when the author is as esteemed as M Roux Snr. It’s printed on premium quality paper, making it joyous to handle. The text is set out so that there’s plenty of white space around it, and the font is a good size, making the recipes easy to read. The high production standards don’t stop there, either – the photography is both exquisite and inspiring.

And just to complete the book properly, there’s a comprehensive food/sauce matching section at the end, together with a thorough index.

All in all, it’s no surprise that the first edition is revered as a classic, both in France and in the UK. I see no reason why the second won’t be just as successful, and appeal to a whole new audience, too. For anyone wanting to master sauces, it’s an absolute must.

(With thanks to Quadrille Publishing for the review copy.)

Sauces, by Michel Roux
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Quadrille Publishing Ltd (2 Oct 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1844006972
ISBN-13: 978-1844006977
RRP: £14.99
Available now.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

want to cook with Theo Randall at The InterContinental Hotel?

Theo prides himself on using the freshest ingredients sourced daily to create dishes inspired by northern Italian cuisine. On Saturday 5th December, Theo will be sharing his culinary skills in his monthly cookery class, which will focus on fish dishes. Traditionally, Italians abstain from meat on Christmas Eve in celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day and some serve the ‘Feast of the 7 Fishes’. Keen cooks can learn how to re-create at home some of the fish dishes available from Theo’s menu, depending on which ingredients are available on the day. These could include Spaghetti con Aragosta (spaghetti with Dorset blue lobster, plum tomatoes, parsley and chilli), Insalata do granchio (fresh Devon crab with rocket, fennel, aioli and bruschetta), Cape Sante (Scottish scallops with chilli, capers, parsley and lentils di Castelluccio) or Branzino al cartoccio (sea bass baked in foil with porcini mushrooms, thyme, vermouth and Italian spinach. Priced at £150 per person the class takes place from 9:30am until 3pm, including a wine tasting with head sommelier Cristian Fusco and a three-course lunch.

To make a reservation at Theo Randall at The InterContinental or book a place at the cookery class please call 020 7318 8747 or email

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

something for all aspiring food writers... Simon Seeks YOU

I KNOW there are loads of you out there, otherwise you wouldn't have a blog in the first place, would you?

Well, here's another site to which you can devote your energies, and maybe earn yourself some money for your efforts, too: Simon Seeks travel guides.

Dedicated to travel and food, it's a foodie's delight. So why don't you offer up your knowledge of hidden gems and the like, and then we can all benefit?

C'mon - stop reading this, and get writing!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

review: The Eagle Cookbook

Microsoft, Burger King, MTV, Hewlett Packard, and The Eagle pub aren’t necessarily names you’d expect to hear mentioned in the same breath. And yet they share one thing in common – born out of recessions, they’ve all gone on to huge things. Granted, The Eagle might not have quite the same global reach as Microsoft, but its effect on pub food culture in the UK has been barely less dramatic.

The Eagle first opened its doors in 1991, serving up good food at very reasonable prices, mostly to hungry journos from the Guardian’s offices right nextdoor. If ever there was an exemplary case of ‘location, location’, then this, surely, is it. Where better to put your new business than next to a building full of people whose very job it is to spread the word? And so it proved with The Eagle. Before long, the word was out, and happy punters started packing the place to the rafters.

Clearly, the owners – David Eyre and Mike Belben – were doing something very right. And (even though Eyre has since moved on) still are. Even today, nearly 20 years later, it’s nigh impossible to get a table there at lunchtime if you arrive after 12.30. Happily, for those of us who can’t make the trek to Farringdon, or who aren’t prepared to do battle for a table, there’s a new cookbook. Actually, it’s not quite new – it’s a revamped, expanded version of the original which came out in 2001. Like the pub itself, the book has benefited from an injection of fresh blood and some added inspiration during the intervening years.

So what, exactly, is all the fuss about? Open the pages and you might think, at first glance, that some of the recipes are for dishes that look rather familiar. But that’s just it – they ARE familiar. The Eagle ‘effect’ has been to help make them the standard, the common food currency. So you won’t find cutting edge, sharp-ended recipes here. You’ll get the stuff on which The Eagle’s reputation as ‘the granddaddy of them all’ was founded: plates of hearty, fuss-free, comfort food, big on flavours and great ingredients - the kind of meals alongside which you can just as easily sup on a pint of ale as you can a glass of red.

The real beauty of The Eagle’s food – and of the cookbook’s recipes – is that, down the year, its various chefs have each brought different flavours to the pot. The result is a menu, or list of recipes, full of distinctly Mediterranean riffs. A quick flip through the main sections will give you an idea. ‘Soups’ opens with Portuguese ‘stone’ soup; ‘Meals on Toast’ begins with bruschetta with warm ricotta salad; while ‘Eggs for Dinner’ includes huevos a la Flamenca. Nor does the southern-European feel stop with the more tapa-like parts of the meal, either. For ‘Fish’, you might have grilled squid piri-piri, and for meat, fabada Asturiana (pork and butterbean stew). Not that anyone’s complaining, mind. In fact, this meld of culinary cultures points to the very reason for The Eagle’s success – the London pub acclaimed for revolutionising pub cooking across the country has itself been revolutionised by the changes to the capital’s population mix over recent years. The Eagle’s food succeeds because it reflects this most cosmopolitan of cities and is the food we now demand.

For that reason alone, this is a book that should please a lot of people. But there are plenty of other good reasons, too. None of the recipes is complicated, needs chef-level skills, or requires an overwhelmingly long list of ingredients. The majority are illustrated with fine photographs designed to get your salivary glands working overtime. There are helpful explanations introducing most of the dishes, and some sound advice on ingredient shopping, and on cooking and serving techniques (e.g. for making a risotto, or for grilling meat).

Highlights? Too many to mention. Die-hard Eagle fans will be pleased to see the perennial favourite, the steak sandwich, while other old friends include grilled fennel sausages with lentils and green sauce, lamb shanks with chickpeas, and belly pork stew with peas and saffron. But it’s not all about big, meaty stuff. There are plenty of vegetable soups (e.g. Andalucian garlic soup; cold roast aubergine soup; black mushroom soup; red onion and red wine soup) salads, plenty of pasta and rice, and fish, not to mention some excellent side vegetable dishes (my personal favourites, caponata, and spinach with raisins and pine nuts make an appearance).

Traditional British food isn’t entirely forgotten, either, and it’s good to see the inclusion of some of this nation’s simple pleasures: smoked haddock with horseradish mash and poached egg; mutton chop and potato hotpot (hurrah for mutton!); casseroled beef; pheasant casserole; and celeriac mash.

If you’re a keen cook, it’s quite likely that you’ll have some of these recipes, or at least variations on them, already. But I’d still suggest it’s well worth getting. Not only will you be buying yourself a little piece of gastropub history, but having those 100+ self-styled ‘robust’ recipes bound together in one volume, ready for cooking that comfort-food hit, is frankly just too handy to resist.

So it’s your choice. Prepare yourself for the crowds and the queues, fight for a table, and have a meal and a pint at the Eagle? Yes, I know – all very nice, but.... Or, spend that same £20 on the book, and be able to recreate over a hundred of their very best recipes in the comfort of your own home? If I hadn’t already been sent a copy by the lovely people at Absolute Press, I know exactly which I’d choose.

(With thanks to Absolute Press for the review copy.)

Further details:
The Eagle Cookbook, by David Eyre and The Eagle Chefs
Hardcover, full colour photographs, 192 pages
Published by Absolute Press, 2009
ISBN-10: 1906650055
ISBN-13: 978-1906650056
Price: £20.00
Available now.

Monday, 28 September 2009

a quick review of Polpo, Soho

Why a quick review?

Well, because I seem to have way too many things to do at the moment, and simply not enough time in which to do them all. I also didn’t take any photographs which will, I know, deter some of you from reading on...

Wot not photos? Why didn’t I take any? I think it’s just rude, to be honest. Call me a prude, but I really don’t wish to spoil other diners’ meals. The lighting in Polpo was very low indeed (without the candle on the table, I think I would have failed to read the menu at all - must be getting old), and to take any photos would have meant using my flash. I, for one, would rather not have a flash going off near me every 10 seconds - given the tapas-style dishes at Polpo - while I’m trying to enjoy my dinner with my nearest and dearest.)

So. Polpo. Set just off Oxford Street, and just on the edge of Soho as it is, this is clearly a place with ambition. I dread to think what the rental figures must be like in a location such as this, but I’m sure they’re sufficiently lunar to ensure that every potential new eaterie owner here needs to think long and hard before signing on the dotted line. And they need to have ambition. Lots of it.

Clearly, Russell and Tom (the chef) do. They made several trips to Venice to make sure they recreate the essence of a Venetian bácaro (a kind of Italian equivalent to a Spanish tapas bar) as faithfully as possible. Recipes were tested and tested again. Russell signed up to Twitter to help spread the pre-opening word, which is how I got to hear of it.

The ‘decor’ (or lack thereof) involves a lot of exposed brickwork – but not in an ostentatious way, somehow) – and tiles, wooden floors, mismatched tables and chairs (reclaimed from churches, by the look of them), bare light bulbs complete with glowing filaments, and a faux stucco ceiling. Fun, low-key, warm, and suitably atmospheric. Oh, and it’s pretty intimate. I doubt there’s room for more than 40 covers here, so space is at a premium. We were fortunate enough to bag the one alcove, so bear in mind if you’re not the social sort.

It means the emphasis is on the food and drink, which is just as it should be. The menu is printed on your table mat, so you can easily peruse while you’re sipping your (very good) Campari spritzer and nibbling at the accompanying pizzette.

It’s divided into 6 short sections – cichetti, breads, meat, fish, vegetables/salads, and desserts. Each section offers around half a dozen choices, none costing more than £6 or £7. Cichetti and crostini are, for once, properly priced – all around the £2 mark or less. As Russell says, they’re trying to ‘keep it real’. Good to see. (You can also buy wine by the glass, 50cl or 1l or bottle, the latter starting at £14 to the most expensive at £36 –another welcome move.)

It was hard to choose from such an array of tempting-sounding food, but choose we did, aided and informed by the ever-helpful Russell. He’s conscious that not every dish is as perfect as they would like it to be yet – but then, that’s what preview nights are for.

So, as though we were on Countdown, we ordered 3 from the first section of the menu (please, Carol), then 2 from the third, 2 from the fourth, and 2 from the fifth (thank you, Carol). And 50cl of Cortese.

Onto the verdicts. I can’t ever get terribly excited about crostini, but the fig, prosciutto and mint version here was good – generous with the meat, with a perfect slice of ripe fig and a leaf of mint to complement it all. The salt cod on grilled polenta divided us – I liked it, but The Other Diner didn’t so much, saying it tasted as though it had mayo in with the cod (it didn’t, BTW). I’d add that the combination of textures might not be to everybody’s taste but, like I say, I liked it just fine. The arancini? Ah. Never arrived.

Next up, the meaty goods. The slow roasted duck, with black olives, tomatoes, and green peppercorns was a stunner. The meat was perfectly tender, the sauce lip-smackingly unctuous. The addition of peppercorns to the mix lifted the whole thing just a notch. I could have eaten quite a few plates of the stuff.

The calves’ liver was equally pleasing. Moist, with a near-melting texture, and served with gently caramelised onions, this was another winner. So far, so good, and another plate licked clean.

Our fish choices comprised that Italian standard, fritto misto, with another (less standard), cuttlefish in its ink. Gotta love a place that chooses to serve up a dish that looks like bits of tubing in dense, pitch-black tar. Is anywhere else in London serving it? If not, Polpo is where to come to satisfy your cuttlefish cravings. The fish was cooked just right – tender, but with a bit of bite. The ink was as black as you like, fishy, and rich and slightly piquant. It’s not one for the faint-hearted, but if you like this kind of thing, you’ll love it here.

The veg/salad dishes we ordered were really to accompany the rest rather than to have in their own right, but they’re still worth a mention. The grilled polenta was just as it should be – light but sufficiently firm, with tasty streaks of char. The real showstopper, however, was the fennel, green bean and cobnut salad. The fennel was sliced as thin as you like, carpaccio-style, and tossed in a delicate olive oil with a little lemon juice, with a few of the slenderest green beans you’ll ever see, and a scattering of beautiful, milk-sweet cobnuts.

Desserts (2 from the last section, please, Carol) didn’t disappoint, either. Ciambella with chocolate sauce was extraordinarily good. Subtly lemony, fluffy sponge, surrounded by a more crunchy outer layer (think doughnuts, which is what a ciambella cake traditionally resembles), dribbled with a fine chocolate sauce. Double yum. If you don’t think that lemon goes with chocolate, think again. Our other dessert was a honey and walnut semifreddo, served in a lovely, biscuitty cornet – again, given those all-important Italian touches with a coating of chocolate around the rim of the cone, and also about an inch filling the very bottom of the cone. The semifreddo itself was wholly pleasant, if not outstanding, with the flavours failing to materialise much above that cornet.

Finally, coffees were as good as you get in Italy. Served tiny, in little glasses. Like.

Other pluses? All the waiting staff were generally pretty efficient, polite, and friendly, and all passed that vital litmus-test – when asked about a dish, they were able to describe it properly, and even offer recommendations. Check.

Gripes? Well, not so much gripes as minor glitches. Like I said, the arancini went AWOL. The Cortese could have been quite a bit colder. The service was, at times, just a leetle on the slow side - but only a little, and they were very busy. It certainly didn’t become a watch-watching, finger-drumming issue, or anywhere near.

By the time the night was over – their third preview night – Polpo had been visited by 5 restaurant critics. When they open their doors for real, on 30 September, I think they can expect a good few more, along with several legions of the food-loving public. So go now before it becomes impossible to get a table. I, for one, will be amongst those you’ll have to scrap with for the rights to a seat.

Actually, that wasn’t a quick review at all, was it? Oh well. Better luck next time.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

review: Easy Tasty Italian, by Laura Santtini

There are recipe books, and then there are recipe books which set out to transform our expectations of a ‘recipe book’. Laura Santtini’s new publication drives with a turbo-boosted charge straight through the former category, and parks itself – with a natty handbrake turn – straight into the latter. But then, Ms Santtini is Italian (or half Italian, as she’s keen to explain in the preface). And Italians have, of course, always set the standard when it comes to driving. But is that standard a force for good or bad?

There’s no doubt that, visually, the book is as appealing as a shiny new Ferrari. It goes for the ‘food as porn’ appeal, with a black and gold cover, with a rich spectrum of full, glossy colours splashed across the interior, and lots of lavish photography. But the content, I hear you ask – what about the actual content, nay, the performance? Well, so long as you can suspend any thoughts about what you might expect of a ‘normal’ recipe book, the performance is as beguiling as the flashy exterior.

Even the opening section, which at first glance seems to be broadly conformist, serves up twists on old themes. It’s divided in two: kitchen tools, and basic procedures and preparations. So far, so ho-hum. But look closer, and ‘Tools’ reveals not only kitchen equipment details, but pages on ‘the umami larder’ (complete with full explanation for the uninitiated) and ‘the alchemic larder’(which, in case you’re wondering, should ideally contain edible gold, silver, dried florals, various elixirs, beetroot powder, 100% Venezuelan Black... the list goes on).

Similarly, ‘Basic Procedures and Preparations’ opens with a paragraph headed ‘flavour bombs’. Move over, Heston - Ms Santtini has been busy with the alchemy, too. And I quote:

For years I have been plotting to extract and combine power-packed glutamates with igniting inosinates to build The U (for umami)-BOMB, the ultimate taste explosion and a culinary force to be reckoned with...

(Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)

This sets the tone for all that follows – for most recipes, you have the option of sticking with the ‘basic’ recipe, or of making things distinctly more interesting for your tastebuds by adding a flavour bomb. For example, there are instructions for preparing a ‘basic red wine marinade’ – completely fine and dandy in itself. But if you want to jolly or umami it along, Santtini suggests 7 variations on the theme, including such enticing prospects as ‘orange, anchovy, and cinnamon marinade’ and ‘mocha chilli barbecue marinade’. Whatever else this book is, it’s certainly not your ordinary ‘Easy, Tasty, Italian’ recipe collection.

The slightly fantastical theme permeates the rest of the book. Not for Santtini the more conventional ways of dividing recipe books into sections. You won’t find ‘Starters’ here, any more than you’ll find ‘Desserts’. Instead, you’ll be given a tour of the elements: Air, Water, Fire, Earth, Spirit (and Ether).

‘Air’ turns out to comprise recipes ‘using only truly raw ingredients’, and the key to success here will surely rely on you being able to get your hands on the best, uber-fresh ingredients. Flavour/umami bombs abound. You can have good old ‘basic’, i.e. beef, carpaccio, or you can have any of 4 variations including, for example, salmon and rose carpaccio. You want dips? You can have ricotta. Or, if you want to go fancy, aubergine and lavender.

‘Water’ unsurprisingly features soups. You’ve no doubt come across sweet potato soup. But have you topped it with lemon mascarpone and scorched almonds before? Or thrown a bomb into it of tomato, pepper, orange, and cinnamon paste? Well, have you? If not, now’s your chance. But ‘Water’ also covers pasta (with a useful guide on how to best cook the stuff), an exposé of tomato sauces, ‘the top 10 classic pasta sauces of all time’, risotto, and then 2 poached fish recipes, a recipe for bagna cauda, and a page on meatloaf.

‘Fire’ takes us into the realms of grilling – including techniques, rubs/seasonings, toppings, and bits to have on the side. There are some mind-boggling recipes in this section, and I only wish I’d had the time to try them before writing this review. Consider, for example, ‘Beef Tagliata with Radicchio and Black Chocolate Elixir’ or ‘Martino’s Coppiette Skewers Al Modo Romano with Bitter Orange and Renaissance Stardust’. Failing that, you can always choose from recipes from the ‘Roll, Wrap, and Splash’ pages (rolling the main ingredient in a coating of some sort, wrapping the whole thing with another ingredient, e.g. prosciutto, and then splashing with say, olive oil and grappa). Another part of ‘Fire’ deals with ‘Rub and Roast’ – ideal for that Sunday ‘what-shall-I-do-with-the-roast?’ dilemma. Roast never looked like this when I was a kid – beef fillet with mascarpone and rose horseradish, I ask you? Some children are going to have quite a childhood.

‘Earth’ opens with slow cooking, swiftly followed by the ‘Top 10 Italian Vegetable Dishes’. The latter includes ‘Magic Pink Broccoli, and ‘Sweet Lavender Parsnips’. Clearly I’ve been missing something in my Italian vegetable sampling to date. Then we’re into ‘12 Quick and Easy Desserts’. These really live up to the billing – none will take you more than about 10 minutes to prepare, if that. Perhaps the most enticing is the parmesan ice cream with balsamic strawberries and black pepper – sure to be a hit with the umami-seekers. The ‘Earth’ section ends with suggestions as to how to ‘pimp your plate’. If making your food look dressy isn’t your forte, this short and snappy guide will give you some handy pointers.

‘Spirit and Ether’ opens with a bedazzling photo of ‘Aqua degli Angeli’ – a gorgeous, clear, artisan-type bottle filled with a clear spirit of choice (vodka, grappa, eau-de-vie), jazzed up with a bright red chilli and swirling gold flakes. Also included are ‘Rhubarbcello’, the more classic ‘Sgroppino’, and a ‘botanic’ cocktail comprising vodka, rosemary syrup, and prosecco.

As bewitching as the book is (I defy you not to feel like you’re in middle of a Venetian masked ball while you’re reading it), there are niggles. The font is a tad on the small side, and the division of some pages into columns of recipes means that the recipes themselves aren’t the easiest to read. The categorisation of some of the recipes isn’t always intuitive or user-friendly (although a comprehensive index helps). Oh, and unless I’m mistaken (I stand to be corrected here), I couldn’t find indications as to how many servings each recipe will make.

The final verdict? It certainly fulfils the brief. Easy? Check. Tasty? I confess to not having tried the recipes, but they look as though they’ll deliver, particularly on the all-important umami taste experiences. Italian? Well, yes, albeit in ways you might not always recognise.

Overall, this is a book which will amuse, entertain, educate, enthrall, and possibly frustrate (if you don’t stockpile edible metals, florals, etc , in your larder), depending on the reader. One thing you’ll never be able to accuse it of being, though, is dull. To revisit my initial metaphor, Ms Santtini’s book is what Ferraris are to Fords. It’s bold, beautiful, and daring.

If you like your kitchen a little on the zippy side, then zoom to your nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy now. Even if you’d rather stay in the slow lane, you’d do well to take a look – the basics are given plenty of coverage, and you’ll have some fun along the way, too. You never know, you might even want to use the throttle from time to time. Just don’t let Nonna catch you.

Further information:
Easy Tasty Italian, by Laura Santtini
Published by Quadrille, 2009.
Hardback, full colour photographs, 192 pages.
ISBN-10: 1844007553
ISBN-13: 978-1844007554
Price: £20.00
Available now.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

if you like salads...

...Chop’d, London’s leading gourmet salad bar chain, is bringing its seasonal salads to the West End with the launch of a limited edition Selfridges Salad into Selfridges Food Hall. Until 2 October 2009, the luxury salad packed full of fresh ingredients like smoked salmon, crayfish and caviar is available for £8.50 only at Chop’d Selfridges.

Friday, 18 September 2009

review: Simple Cooking, by Antonio Carluccio

As we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, nothing is as it used to be. The last couple of years have brought with them public panic, uncertainty, and anger as the world’s financial institutions have crumbled in front of our eyes, plunging us all into an economic and social maelstrom of the kind no one has seen before.

No wonder, then, that we seem to be casting around for something to hang our hats on - something cheering and comforting amidst the gloom, and capable of transporting us back to supposedly happier, more innocent times.

Cookbook publishers, like everyone else, have picked up on the zeitgeist. Hardly a week goes by at the moment without a new recipe book appearing with words like ‘simple’ or ‘cheap’ or ‘100 ways with...’, in the title. Yes, we’re going back to basics (haven’t we been there before?), and shunning over-priced restaurants and over-exposed celeb chefs in favour of good, nourishing home-cooked food, preferably conjured up from vegetables we’ve grown in our own veg patch or allotment. Generations brought up on fast food and ready meals are now doing it for themselves. Eating in is the new going out, and thrift is the new handbag spend.

Amidst the crop of current new cookbooks is one by a character who, reassuringly, seems always to have been around. Antonio Carluccio, he of all things fungi and the originator of the popular Carluccio’s caffé chain, is ‘back’ if, indeed, he can ever be considered to have been away.

His latest offering, Simple Cooking (could there be a simpler title?), is a little different from the rest out there. First of all, while it chimes with the times, that’s as much by accident as by design. Anyone who has been to the cafés will know that Carluccio’s ‘signature’ has always been relatively simple food, big on flavour and strong on ingredient sourcing. Here, then, is the book which marries that ethos with suitably appealing print and pictures.

Second, the book represents a genuine wish by Carluccio to distill some of his vast experience and his extensive recipe list into one volume. Thus he calls up long-cherished recipes and fond memories of meals past. And what idyllic recollections they are – of a childhood spent helping his mother to forage and then prepare food for the family, and later student days spent in Vienna, when pretty girls and friends flocked to his kitchen as he developed his cooking skills.

Running through it all is a common theme, Carluccio’s love of sharing – his love of food, his culinary knowledge, and meals with friends and family. And this, in short, is what the book captures so well.

It is not, then, for aspiring chefs who want to slave away in the kitchen for hours on end, in pursuit of perfecting a complex recipe. It is, instead, for those who want simple, tasty, and fuss-free meals which they can share readily with others over a good glass of wine. At the same time, though, there are hints and tips at the end of most recipes so that you can try variations, or make a dish more special, if you so wish. And, in true keeping with the times, suggestions for ways of using leftovers (not that you’ll have any) so as to make another meal are also included. Novices and more experienced cooks alike should therefore be appeased.

The publication quality of the book admirably serves the purpose. The recipes are easy to read, with lots of white space on the page, and are printed in a good size font. Most recipes (though not all) are accompanied by lavish, saliva-inducing photographs. And – a sure sign that the publisher knows what it’s doing – the book is bound so that it can be laid out flat on your worktop.

As for the content, well, it’s all in here. An introduction from the man himself is followed by short but useful sections on how to produce the best flavours (‘Savouring the Flavour’), how to create an Italian store cupboard (‘The Italian Larder’), and which kitchen utensils work well for Italian cooking (‘Tools and Cooking Utensils’). The rest of the book is given over to familiar divisions – Starters and Salads; Soups; Pasta; Gnocchi, Polenta and Rice; Meat; Fish; Vegetables; and Desserts. Each division is given a brief explanation by Carluccio, although ‘Pasta’ merits a full three pages. If you ever wanted to know what pasta shape should go with which sauce, whether you should add oil to the cooking water, or even how to eat your spaghetti Italian-style, this is where you’ll find your answer.

And the recipes? Well, they’re short, sweet, and they WORK (not least because they are so straightforward). Second, if you know the Carluccio caffé chain at all, you’ll find quite a few recipes in here for familiar dishes. My personal favourites include the caponata, spinach balls (invented by Carluccio for a friend, over a quarter of a century ago), the arancini di riso, linguine vongole, and the ever-wonderful tagliatelle con funghi. I could list several more. But there are also a number of arguably more surprising, but still suitably simple and homely entries, too: cabbage and onion pasta, egg broth with chicken dumplings, Florentine-style veal tripe, beef olive stew, Sardinian pasta with lamb sauce, to give but a few examples. Carluccio’s own favourite might surprise you, too, not only for its simplicity, but also for its slightly unusual combination of ingredients – giant spaghetti (bigoli) with onion (not garlic, as you might expect) and anchovy sauce.

But as well as recipes for the more thrift-minded, there are others that allow you to indulge, too – recipes which, for instance, include truffles, scallops, shrimps, saffron, duck, and parma ham amongst their ingredients (but not all at the same time, I hasten to add). ‘Simple’ certainly doesn’t have to mean ‘boring’ or frugal.

There are several options for desserts, too, although as Carluccio explains, they’re not such a big thing for the Italians, who often prefer to finish a meal with some fresh fruit. Hence they don't occupy many pages of this book. Nevertheless, the emphasis is again largely on familiarity, comfort, and trusty old favourites – zabaglione, tiramisu (Carluccio’s special MOF MOF version – Minimum of Fuss, Maximum of Flavour), and ricotta tart all appear here, as do polenta biscuits.

A word about the index. Indices are all too often omitted altogether or scrimped on these days. To do either is false economy - a poor index can render a book instantly frustrating, while a good one can make a book a pleasure to use. Thankfully (and again, a testament to the publisher’s production standards), the index to ‘Simple Cooking’ falls into the latter category. Recipes are listed in their Italian, English, and even ‘inbetween’ versions, so you should always be able to find what you’re after. What you and I might refer to as ‘mushroom pasta’ is therefore indexed variously under ‘mushrooms’ (‘mushroom noodles’), tagliatelle (‘tagliatelle con funghi’), and ‘pasta’ (‘mushroom noodles’ again).

Perhaps best of all, the book really does magic Carluccio into your home. If you’ve ever watched his programmes, or heard him speak, you’ll ‘hear’ him again in these pages. You can hear his passion for food, his enthusiasm for robust flavours, and his keenness to convey the pleasure of cooking and eating, particularly with others. Occasionally, you can even hear his infectious chuckle.

Why should you buy this book, then? As the title says, it’s about the simple delights of cooking. It’s about the love of food and the food of love. It’s a joy to read and a joy to use. Every home should make room for it.

(Thanks to Quadrille Publishing for sending me this book to review. A big thank you, too, to the maestro himself, who very kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me.)

Further information:
Simple Cooking, by Antonio Carluccio
Published by Quadrille, 2009.
Hardback, full colour photographs, 176 pages.
ISBN 978 184400 734 9
Price £20.00
Available to buy now.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

a rather splendid afternoon tea with Bella and Crumb

So-called 'underground'/'pop-up' restaurants are taking over London at the moment, but during the summer there's been a small and welcome twist on the theme - afternoon tea. To my knowledge (please correct me if I'm wrong, someone), the first was the Hidden Tea Room, but a more recent addition to the scene popped up for the first time in August - provided by the wonderfully-named Bella and Crumb.

Since the pair responsible for this latest foodie venture have more than a passing connection with Rococo chocolates, it was perhaps no surprise that the chosen venue was the gorgeous 'Marococo' garden at the Motcomb Street branch.

And since the menu was as tempting as it was long, it perhaps comes as no less surprise that I had to get myself along there. Oh, and also because it was for a good cause. All money raised goes to the BeatBullying charity. An admirable scheme. And so, with three other friends, I booked in to the first available date, on 13 August.

And at 2.30 on the dot, there we were. In the glorious garden. Which itself was the most amazing suntrap on what was already proving to be a rather lovely summer's day.

Marococo garden, Bella and Crumb

a north African oasis in the middle of London

A truly splendid setting. Made immediately all the more splendid by the addition of some rather good Prosecco.

prosecco, Bella and Crumb

if I said I only had one glass, would you believe me? No, I thought not.

Oh, and tea. Not just yer standard pot to be getting on with, but a list of 5 loose leaf teas and endless tea bags (particularly if you like fruit and herb teas) from which to choose. After some serious debate, we opted for Fortnum & Mason's Royal Blend and Darjeeling Broken Orange Pekoe, and very fine they were, too.

And then - to business. First up, leek and gruyere tart, finger sandwiches, cheesy feet biscuits with throat-tickling spiced tomato jam.

cheesy feet etc, at Bella and Crumb

hot damn hot jam. And cheesy feet. Not traditional, but we don't care

Sticklers for tradition might well take umbrage at the cheesy feet and spiced tomato jam - hardly your standard afternoon tea fare. But to get uppity about such things and refuse to partake would be to miss a trick. Let me tell you - they were VERY good, especially that jam, which had several tea-goers begging Bella and Crumb for the recipe. So - ner to all the nay-sayers, and good on Bella and Crumb for going a bit left field. 'Twas a bold move which more than paid off.

But really, when you have an afternoon tea, it's all about the scones, isn't it? So, as tasty as our little amuse-foots were, we were eager for our next 'course' listed on the menu - 'fresh scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam'. Clotted cream. Be still, oh my beating heart.

Or rather - bring it on...

Loading up... (cream on jam? or jam on cream? we spent quite a while discussing the issue. Inbetween mouthfuls of the stuff, naturally.)

scones, Bella and Crumb

cream on jam, or jam on cream? You decide. Amazing how heated the arguments became. Or would have, had we really been that bothered. Which we weren't because we were all too busy scarfing the lot.

scones 2, Bella and Crumb

Whatever the technically or historically correct cream/jam order, let it be said that the scones, cream and jam were superb. Fresh from the oven, the scones were light, tasty, and wholly moreish. The clotted cream was all that. And there was plentiful, quality jam.

Of course we had seconds. It would have been tremendously rude not to.

By now, it should be said, we were approaching satiation levels. And our arteries were no doubt approaching saturation levels.

But Bella and Crumb hadn't finished with us yet. Oh, no. If you're going to do tea here, you're here to do it hardcore.

And so you have to have cakes next. Cakes, and brownies, and biscuits, and sweets, and chocolates, no less.

cakes, Bella and Crumb

Crikey me, as Sarah Beeny would say. Crikey me, indeed.

We gave it our best shot. We demolished the cupcakes (lemon with raspberries; vanilla), attacked the brownies, wolfed the chocolates (Rococo's own rose, lychee, and raspberry ganache), and... then somewhat gave up. As lovely as the personalised biscuits looked, and as comically redolent of sweet-stuffing childhood days as the lovehearts were, we really just could not cope with any more.

All that was left was to quench our sugar-induced thirsts with more tea and zingy homemade lemonade...

traditional lemonade, Bella and Crumb

... and to sit and wait a while until we felt like we could actually move again. Which probably took another hour.

And the cost of all this - this sun-filled, food-stuffed, vintage-crockery adorned, tea-fuelled afternoon of gastronomic jollity? A mere £15.00 a head. And all for charity, remember.

In short - it's for a great cause, is in a beautiful location, provides all the food and drink you'll ever manage for a tea time, and is all laid on by two very generous hostesses who do a very good job of spotting empty Prosecco glasses at twenty paces. And there are more dates coming up soon: check here for details.

Go, or miss a real treat and a rather fun afternoon out.