Wednesday, 30 June 2010

cheese, please, but pass on the service: La Fromagerie

Cheese. A world without it would be very dull indeed, IMHO. As I've noted before on this blog, I bloomin' love the stuff, and would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And sometimes I do.

It's not going to take you more than a shake of a lamb's tail, then, to anticipate that I'm likely to be a supporter of London's finest cheese emporia. Neal's Yard, Paxton & Whitfield, Hamish Johnston, La Cave à Fromage... they're all close to my heart, not to mention my stomach. But La Fromagerie, tucked away in a quiet corner of Marylebone, should be on that list, right?

La Fromagerie exterior

And it is, kind of. The cheeses there are worth the trip. A huge selection, all in pristine condition, ready and ripe to go. But the rest? The shop? The café? Not so much.

I visited a few weeks ago, and although satisfied by my intake of the whiffy stuff, was distinctly less so by the service throughout. Put simply, the latter put the dampers on my lunch, and might have blighted my entire afternoon, were it not for a post-La Fromagerie visit to Ginger Pig's droolworthy shop right next door, where service is cheery, friendly, helpful, and expert. The contrast could hardly have been greater.

Ginger Pig shop

La Fromagerie, pleeeeeeeeease take note: if you're going to sell premium products, then please at least TRY to make sure the service is up to scratch, too. So, having sight of a menu when I'm seated would be good. Not 15 minutes later. If I ask for a wine recommendation to go with my cheese, I do NOT expect, 'Well, if you like white, go for the house white, but there's the red, if you prefer red.' I mean, WHAT??? Oh, and - in the event that I do in fact opt for a glass of vino after such brilliant guidance - I'd prefer to drink it from a clean glass, please. Not one that seems to have been handled by the entire staff first, going by the number of fingerprints all over it. And the slices of pear that come with the cheese plate - any chance they could be replaced with slices that aren't bruised?

Grrrrrrrrrr. I expected better. A lot better.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the pics:

La Fromagerie waiting area
Waiting to be seated. I'm expecting a disco in the interim, 'cos of the glitterball, natch.

La Fromagerie seating
Seated. It's a little on the cosy side. But you've gotta love that clock.

La Fromagerie goodies
The view behind me. Cheese room in the background - where the service is as chilly as the room temperature, but more of that later...

La Fromagerie cheese plate
The cheese plate. Can you see the bruise on that pear slice? Thought so.

OK, well, the cheese was good. Clockwise, starting from 3 o'clock as you look at the plate - Sariette de Banon (goat), Camembert Fermier Durand (cow), Haut Barry (ewe), Lou Bren (ewe), Devon Blue (cow). For me the standouts were the Sariette de Banon - creamy, flaky, and slightly fruity - and the Haut Barry - earthy, slightly sweet, and nutty.

And what I also liked about the Haut Barry was its ridiculously colourful (and wholly natural, I hasten to add) crust...

La Fromagerie Haut Barry

Pretty, innit?

Portion sizes, although the picture may not suggest as much, were pretty much spot on, I thought. Not too little, not too much, and just about acceptable for the moolah involved (£13.50).
And then, my friends, is the small matter of cake. Or rather, the large matter of cake:

La Fromagerie meringue cake

Soft hazelnut meringue filled with Valrhona ganache? Really? Do I have to? Oh, go on, then.

La Fromagerie meringue cake 2

Again, you probably don't get quite the sense of scale from the photo, but these slices were IMMENSE. A couple seated next to us gasped when they saw what was being put in front of us. I smiled back, reassuringly. Of course I can, and will, eat it all.

I didn't. But one of these days, I might try again. Because I don't like being defeated by cake. It pains me. Still, on this particular occasion, the pain was relatively short-lived, because we had a pressing engagement with the cheese room before we left.

For a cheese lover, a cheese room is surely ultimate fantasy, the room we'd all have built into our homes were it not for the fact that space and money don't permit. At La Fromagerie, you can indulge that fantasy a little without paying an architect for the privilege.

La Fromagerie cheeses 2

But only a little. Because, frankly, the whole experience is (or was, for us) spoiled by the affineurs, whose brusqueness and coldness made for a tongue-biting and teeth-gritting time. I know a fair amount about cheese (four decades of eating the stuff helps), and I don't appreciate being treated like a numbskull, least of all by an arrogant and patronising schmuck (sorry, affineur) seemingly barely out of nappies. And in any case, what I may or may not know about cheese is wholly irrelevant. If I'm asking questions about the cheese, wouldn't you want to help me, to get my interest, convince me, maybe let me try some, and, y'know, SELL IT TO ME? You are failing your customers, La Fromagerie, and doing your business a disservice.

Oh, and I was told that I wasn't allowed to hold my point-and-shoot closer than about a metre away from the cheeses (no reason given, and no, I'm not exaggerating).

OH, YEAH? So sue me, then.

La Fromagerie cheeses

La Fromagerie cheeses 3

With the teeth-gritting rendering me in danger of an imminent dentist's visit, we chose just 2 cheeses from the many to take home. By this time, I really didn't feel like lining La Fromagerie's pockets and propping up some overblown egos any more than we had already done.

Our choices:

La Fromagerie Vache Porte d'Aspe

This is a favourite of mine, but I have to be in the mood. It's strong, verging on brutal (any idea why I chose it on this particular afternoon? No, me neither). Its taste is pungent 'fading' to something resembling a chilli burn. It's an acquired taste, I guess, but fun.


La Fromagerie La Laurentine

This is a lovely, rich, creamy goat's cheese. If you like goat's cheeses - and I know they're not everyone's favourite - do put this on your must-try list.

And so, some GBP sterling lighter, but pounds of cheese and waistline heavier, we took our leave and dived into the Ginger Pig shop next door. Our experience in there threw that of La Fromagerie into even greater relief. And not in a way that was favourable to the latter.

Drinking wine, eating top-notch cheese and cake, and choosing more cheese to take home, should surely be a pleasure, a joy. I regret to say that on my visit, La Fromagerie didn't make it so. I'd heard great things, but I left disappointed and disgruntled. I may end up returning at some point, if only because I love the cheese, but what it comes down to is this: there are other cheese shops/cafés I'd rather go to first, where the service is everything it should be and the customers leave with happy hearts and bellies. So it's probably safe to say you won't see me back at La Fromagerie anytime soon.

La Fromagerie on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 June 2010

rhubarb, rhubarb...

rhubard vodka and cordial 1

Yes, that's rhubarb, twice over.

It would be true to say that, once the first signs of summer arrive, I develop a bit of a rhubarb habit. I don't think it controls me, but on balance, it's probably a good thing that it's not available all year round. Any which way it's possible to do so, I'll consume it. Compotes, jams, fools, pies, crumbles, jellies, cakes - I've been there, done them, and will no doubt do them many more times yet.

But drinks - not so much. Not until this year, anyway, when several conversations with various Tweeters, and especially @goodshoeday (a veritable doyenne of bottling all things fruit and veg), and the acquisition of Mary Prior's rather brilliant little book, Rhubarbaria, made me think it was high time I tried making my own rhubarb beverages, too.

And now that I have, I can tell you that it's a dangerous path to tread. Making rhubarb drinks is so darned easy, for one thing. And the results are just too good to make you want to settle for anything less. You WILL be making them time and time again. Consider yourself thoroughly warned.

Thus far I've made a ridiculously simple and oh-so-refreshing rhubarb and orange cordial, which involves nothing more than a bit of a boil-up of, well, rhubarb, orange, lemon, and sugar:

making rhubarb cordial

Pretty, innit? And even prettier at the end, when the finished product has a pinky-peachy glow to it. I recommend you make this recipe EXACTLY as Lotte Duncan suggests - the balance of flavours, sweetness and acidity is perfect, and so much better (and far less sticky) than any shop-bought varieties. Make it up exactly as you would any other cordial.

Of course, there are times when only a drop of the hard stuff will do. At such times, rhubarb vodka is your friend.

There are so many recipes for this that you're spoiled for choice, frankly. I refer you back to @goodshoeday's blog for one way of making it, but in this instance, I used one of Mary Prior's recipes:

300g/12 oz rhubarb, chopped
120g / 4 oz sugar
60 ml / 2 fl oz water
1 litre vodka

Cook the rhubarb with the sugar and water until tender. Put in a large glass storage jar or bowl. Cool. Add the vodka and cover. Store for about a week. Strain the vodka off the fruit pulp and bottle. Leave to mature for a bit. (Ha! Define 'a bit'...)

HOW EASY IS THAT?? No excuses, you CAN make this.

I love this stuff. I particularly love it neat, poured over 3 or 4 large ice cubes, in a large glass. I don't know why (and I'd be grateful if someone could explain), but adding the ice cubes seems to bring out more of the rhubarb flavours than if you omit them and simply drink the vodka chilled. Answers on a postcard, please.

Meanwhile, I'm off for a little sip of something...

rhubarb vodka and cordial 2