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.)

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