Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zest for good food at Zeen

Drummond Street is Euston's version of the Curry Mile. Well, nowhere near a mile, but there is a great selection of Indian restaurants to choose from, including several vegetarian restaurants.

One of my favourites is Zeen: not for the views (it is in the basement) but for its tasty, well-priced food, and some enticing dishes like whole crab cooked with fresh coconut, chilli and coriander, or Goan roasted chicken breast with coconut, mint and coriander.

Starters are worth pausing for: tandoori mushrooms are stuffed with paneer cheese and peppers, the individual flavours still distinct but combining to tongue-pleasing effect. Fish (the variety is not specified) and paneer cheese both come fried with chilli and are not for the faint-hearted. Mixed vegetable pakora are not startling, but a workmanlike, non-greasy rendition. Crispy fried okra with mango was not bad, but cut a bit small for my preference - it seemed more batter than okra.

Main courses are also pleasing: lamb Xacuti, another Goan dish, comes in a fiery sauce, with coconut helping to temper the heat. Dal makhani, one of my favourite pulse dishes, comes with kidney beans as well as black lentils and is in a rich creamy sauce. A lamb biryani and a vegetable jalfrezi were excellent too.

We didn't sample any of the wines, but they do a mean mango lassi, plus Tiger and Cobra lagers.

The restaurant was set up by Zeenat Harnal, daughter of "curry king" Sir Gulam Noon, although they recently mentioned that there had been a change of management, so whether she is still involved is not entirely clear. They don't take Tastecard any more either, whatever the Tastecard website may say, although with main dishes starting at £5, rising to £14 for the chef's specials, it still seems well worth the money.

You can read my review of Masala Hut, also on Drummond Street, here.

130 Drummond Street, NW1
020 7387 0606

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections on London life

The turn of the year always prompts reflections. It's been my first Christmas in London and the new year will be the first I have spent as a resident of this great capital.

(Christmas dinner, incidentally, was roasted pheasant with port gravy, stuffed portobello mushroom as the vegetarian option, plus home-made stuffing, roast potatoes and parsnips, and of course Brussels sprouts. The pheasants actually came from Norwich market, because I happened to be on a trip back there. Although they were cheaper than at the butcher in Balham I was slightly annoyed to find them cheaper still at Oval farmers market the next day! The parsnips and sprouts came from the farmers market, as did my alternative to Stilton, Bath Blue, a lovely creamy blue cheese from the Bath Soft Cheese Co.)

I have settled into a sort of rhythm of London life.
Good things (food-related): endless choice of restaurants, good choice of farmers' markets, plus street markets and convenience stores which mean I don't need to buy much in supermarkets; good value fruit and veg at markets (especially the Inverness Street market in Camden, which is small but conveniently located for my office).
Less good things: increased strain on wallet and waistline due to temptations offered by afore-mentioned restaurants; our local greengrocer is not as good as I would like; produce at farmers' markets is often stretching the definition of local. And I haven't been able to find the equivalent of the great stall on Norwich market which does all kinds of loose groceries, including pulses, grains and herbs and spices. (And a good line in sardonic banter - my request for a kilo of rye and a kilo of barley flakes last week was met with an inquiry about whether I would be shaping it into a particularly disgusting alternative to turkey.) So my home-made muesli has shot up in price now I have to buy these kinds of things in packets from the health food shop.

I've been reminded that human beings are creatures of habit. I could probably explore more shops than I have done, but once you have found somewhere acceptable the default option is simply to return there. Perhaps my new year's resolution is to be more original.

Monday, December 19, 2011

December madness, mince pies and cauliflower cake

It's been a busy December. I haven't been as busy updating this blog as I ought, but there have been plenty of other activities - Christmas parties, attempts to make Christmas cards, attempts to make thoughtful presents, shopping, wrapping, planning. My diet has definitely gone downhill in terms of healthiness. There's just so many boxes of chocolates, mince pies, panettone, gingerbread men, crisps, nuts and cheese straws to be eaten. I haven't even bought most of these things myself, but they have a way of materialising in the office or at Christmas gatherings.

Pre-Christmas socialising tends to mean you eat out more, which generally involves eating food that is less healthy, in greater quantities. Nibbles at drinks parties are invariably the kind that would score red if they had those traffic light health warnings on the front of them. My own lack of self control doesn't help - we went for an Italian meal before the office Christmas party, but that didn't stop me tucking into some of the larger-than-expected buffet when we got there. And it's not even Christmas Eve yet.

I had a lovely festive evening last night making mince pies and listening to festive tunes (Bob Dylan's Must be Santa and Boney M's Mary's Boy Child, to give you an idea). My mince pies make a small gesture towards healthiness - the pastry is with real butter, but the home-made mincemeat has no added fat and not much in the way of added sugar, unlike shop-bought mincemeat. If you'd like the recipe, I got it from Rose Prince in the Guardian.

To compensate I also bought and cooked an enormous cauliflower, which I used for Yottam Ottolenghi's unusual cauliflower cake. It's more like a thick tortilla than a cake, but pretty good. I think even cauliflower-doubters might be won over by it. We had some of it hot from the oven, and the rest at room temperature the next day, with some boiled potatoes and green beans.

My version was pretty similar, although I left out nearly all the oil, and just fried the onion in about half a teaspoonful. It didn't seem to miss it. I used nigella seeds, which I think are the same as black onion seeds, although to be honest most of them stuck to the sides of the dish anyway. Perhaps I should have used baking parchment as he said!

Here's the end result:

I reckon it would work with all kinds of other vegetables instead of cauliflower, and since you need the veg to be already cooked it could be a great way of using up Christmas leftovers. The jury's out on whether I'll be trying a Brussels sprout variety...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pig's ear of a beer festival

From wine and cheese to beer...well, it is December! Funnily enough, cheese also featured at the Pig's Ear beer festival in Hackney, which has been running this week.

The name comes from Cockney rhyming slang for beer, and is in its 24th year. It has a fantastic venue in a former chapel, the Round Chapel in Lower Clapton Road. The beers are arranged around the edge ground floor, and upstairs there is pew-like seating arranged round the gallery for those wishing to give their feet a rest and survey what is going on below.

The beer supplies were becoming depleted by the end of Saturday, which was understandable on the last day of the beer festival. But there was an excellent range for most of the night. The Real Ale Drinker's favourite was Worth brewery's Seam Cutter, a porter which he described as roasted-tasting and rich. I enjoyed the Ginger Beer from Pitfield brewery in Essex. There were quite a few handle-with-care strong winter ales, while one that can be drunk more liberally is Felstar's Two Per Cent, an unusually low gravity mild with quite a sweet, fruity flavour. The Real Ale Drinker compared it to cola, though I feel that might have been unfair.

As for the cheese, Wobbly Bottom farm from Hertfordshire had a stall there, much to my delight. I haven't seen this cheese maker since a farm shop in Cambridge some time ago, though apparently they are regulars at Islington farmers' market. It was good to see that they were selling cheese platters and cheese panini made with a selection of their own interesting cheeses - a welcome change from the cheese rolls made with bog-standard mild cheddar that you more often find at beer festivals. Their extra-strong Lancashire has a pungent aroma and is strong enough to knock your socks off. We took home some of their blue cow's milk cheese, which is simply called Blue Cow, but they do several goats' and sheep's cheeses too, including a goat Camembert.

Cheese and wine may be the classic combination, but if you ask me, a lovely pint of real ale with a tasty Cheddar or Lancashire is an all-English pairing that can't be beat.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cheese and wine matching

I love cheese in all its forms: hard or soft; white, yellow or blue; fresh and mild or smelly as a pair of unwashed socks.

I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine either, so this week I took myself off to a cheese and wine tasting at Cave a Fromage, a cheese shop near South Kensington tube. They do group tasting events in the evenings and they will cater for hen parties and birthdays too.

We started with Saint Maure, an unpasteurised goats’ cheese from the Loire valley. It is unpasteurised, log-shaped with a grey rind and a stick of straw running through the middle. We drank it with Sauvignon Blanc, which was a good match, though Sancerre or Fume Blanc would work well too. I’d describe it as medium strength. It was nice but not my favourite goats’ cheese ever, though some of the people there really loved it.

Next was Brillat-Savarin, served with a twist – it had white truffle honey drizzled over it. I’m in two minds about this technique. I love truffles, but generally when I eat cheese I want to taste the cheese. The aroma of the truffles dominated, while the cheese itself was quite mild and very creamy. It is a triple-cream cheese (ie there is cream added to the milk) with a white rind, with a similar texture to Brie. This was served with an unusual rose made from Malbec grapes.
Picture: Andreas Nilsson

This was followed by a one-year-old Comte which was my favourite of the evening – a nutty, rounded flavour, which full but not overpowering. It was served with a robust red wine whose identity I actually failed to note, but such a cheese would go well with a Bordeaux or perhaps an oaky Rioja.

Last of all was a Fourme d’Ambert, which is one of the oldest French cheeses. It is a blue cheese, mild compared with something like Roquefort, but still fairly robust. This particular one was the only pasteurised cheese of the evening – most Fourme d’Ambert is pasteurised, although recently a few artisanal unpasteurised versions have sprung up.

(A couple of people asked me the difference – pasteurised cheese has been heat-treated, and may be slightly safer to eat, at least if you are pregnant or frail – I don't think there’s much to worry about for healthy people. Unpasteurised cheese can often have a fuller flavour, in my opinion anyway. Bizarrely enough, it is heavily restricted in Australia – unpasteurised cheese cannot be made there, with the exception of one cheese which was given special permission earlier this year. )

The Fourme d’Ambert came with a sweet fortified red wine, not unlike port and with a distinctive flavour of raisins. It would also work with a sweet white wine such as Sauternes, or if sweet wines are not your thing, try a red Cotes du Rhone or white Saumur Champigny.

You don't have to use the same cheeses, but this kind of mixture is pretty much what you want for a festive cheeseboard (or a cheeseboard at any other time of year): something hard and mature, something goaty, something soft and white and something blue. These examples were all French, but you could use English cheeses with equally good results. If you only want three cheeses, I'd lose the goats' cheese, but it's up to you. Don't worry about having too many cheeses: quality beats quantity every time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Of sweet starters and savoury ice-cream

I've been to Bocca a few times now and it has never let me down. The prices are reasonable, the food is excellent. It's the kind of neighbourhood Italian everyone should have.

I returned there last night and had a more unusual meal than most. It started with fritto misto. This translates as "mixed fried things" and is a popular Italian dish which can take many guises - often fish and seafood based. On this occasion it was deep-fried courgette flower, stuffed olives, rice balls, and custard cream. The custard cream bit sounded so bizarre that I didn't really think about - but there on the plate was some deep-fried cubes of what looked like cheese and tasted like custard cream. Later research revealed that this is indeed what they do in parts of Italy (such as Bologna), sometimes as part of a fritto misto or as an accompaniment to meat. It is a very thick custard, cooled until it sets and then deep-fried. It was by no means unpleasant, if a little strange as a starter. The rest of it was fairly straightforward, but tasty. There was a theme of soft, oozing even, fillings contrasting with a crispy exterior. The rice balls (arancini) had a melting cube of mozzarella buried within. The olives were stuffed with sausagemeat or mozzarella.

 We also shared bruschetta topped with tomato, which were much more conventional, if perfectly tasty.

My adventurousness eased for a bit as I opted for my usual main, a Mediterranean vegetable pizza. The pizzas at Bocca are huge, with impressively thin bases and generous toppings. My companion had one of their home-made pastas, an unusual dish of ravioli with beetroot filling, served with butter and poppy-seed sauce. It was pleasant, but I couldn't help thinking that beetroot is perhaps not strongly-flavoured enough to carry a ravioli filling.

We didn't strictly need a pudding by this point, but Bocca do delicious home-made ice-creams, with a changing selection. On this occasion there was a black truffle and honey ice-cream which begged to be tried. That's truffle as in fungus, not as in chocolate. At first I didn't get much flavour at all, but then a subtle muskiness came through. A bit like the beetroot ravioli, I had no regrets at having tried it, but it won't become my new favourite. I tried the strawberry yoghurt ice-cream too, which was pleasant enough, but to my mind nowhere near as good as their strawberry ice-cream, which is like eating the essence of the fruit itself.

My dining companion had a chocolate and almond cake, served slightly warm. It was nothing like what I had expected: layers of feather-light sponge interleaved with chocolate mousse. She didn't manage to finish it, but swore that was no reflection on its quality.

This was my fifth or sixth visit to Bocca in the space of four months, and none of them have let me down. It doesn't normally feel as adventurous as last night's visit. A  dessert of Sicilian cannoli, deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta and candied fruit, was probably the most unusual thing I have eaten previously. But I will definitely be returning to find out what's on the menu next time.

14 High Parade,
Streatham High Road,
SW16 1EX

0208 677 3646

Friday, November 25, 2011

Big flavours at the Tommyfield

When I last went to the Tommyfield it was a tapas restaurant of indifferent quality. That was quite some time ago. Now it is a bustling pub with a hearty menu that reads like it was written by a hungry person. There is pork belly with mash and apple sauce, sea bass with fennel and spinach, and pies which might include chicken, rabbit and lamb with pumpkin.

This is a sister pub to the Avalon, where we previously had a meal that outdid expectations. The menu here makes similar efforts, although unlike at the Avalon, there is no separate restaurant area. There are some tables set aside for those eating, but on a Thursday night the noise levels get a little high for those having dinner a deux.

There were several real ales, including Sharp's Doom Bar and Wandle from south London, which is served in great sturdy yet elegant tankards.

I started with a salad of beetroot and Golden Cross goat's cheese, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. It was a generous size for a starter, though perhaps a little heavy on the frisee lettuce. Beetroot and goats' cheese is a great combination, and the goats' cheese (from East Sussex) was creamy and tangy. 

The Real Ale Drinker had haddock smokie, which was flaked smoked haddock with a breadcrumb topping - a kind of savoury crumble. A poached egg was perched on top, ready to release its yolk onto the soft fish underneath. There were a few crispy soldiers for dipping, too.

Next I had a pumpkin and porcini lasagne, which caused me to reflect on how unusual it is to find a thoughtful pub lasagne. It tends to be something reheated from frozen, and is rarely available in anything other than a standard mince or mixed vegetable vegetarian version. This one was delicious - rich woodsy mushrooms, sweet pumpkin, and plenty of cheesy sauce, topped with flakes of Parmesan and chopped dill.

The Real Ale Drinker had grilled mackerel, which was juicy and flavoursome, with rather good chips, of the skin-on variety that seem to be all the rage these days.

We didn't strictly need any pudding, but the first two courses promised good things from dessert. A treacle tart was a chunky affair, with thick pastry and deep filling. It was not as teeth-rottingly sickly as some, and I couldn't quite decide whether this was a good thing or not. A chocolate brownie was not as rich and chocolatey as I might have hoped for, though still tasty, served hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and some hot chocolate sauce which had set firm over the ice-cream.

Prices are reasonable - £11-14 for most main courses, £5-6 for starters, and £5 for puddings. At lunchtimes there is a simpler, cheaper menu which includes a fish finger sandwich. They take Tastecard too.

The Tommyfield
185 Kennington Lane, London
SE11 4EZ
020 7735 1061

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reading between the lines

I took myself off to the Wellcome Collection last night for a talk of this title, on early cookery books and parallels with today's blogs.

The speaker was Sara Pennell, historian at Roehampton University - if you were listening to Radio Four's Today programme yesterday morning you might have heard her talking about how the Wellcome's collection of historic recipes is now available online.

17th century cookbook (not one from the Wellcome collection)

Recipe books didn't all start with Mrs Beeton, of course. There were cookery books by medieval times, although the recipes were generally imprecise and it seems unlikely they were used to teach people to cook. It was in the 16th century that recipe books began to be widespread. Some have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries, in some cases beautifully handwritten and passed on as family heirlooms. Ann Fanshawe created her recipe book in the 1650s, and it is the earliest surviving English source of recipes for both drinking chocolate and ice-cream. (The ice-cream, incidentally, can be flavoured with mace, orange-flower water, or ambergris, an ingredient derived from sperm whales.)

A bit like modern blogs, there are comments on the recipes and occasionally autobiographical details. Some of them are a mish-mash, including versions of other people's recipes and printed cuttings. Often the books cover medical matters and home remedies as well as cookery.

Meanwhile technology is threatening to usurp the cookery book - there are cookery apps for your phone, and even a splash-proof gadget you can buy specifically to electronically store your recipe collection. Will these things prove as lasting as the recipe books the 17th century has passed onto us?

17th century cookbook (not one from the Wellcome collection)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tropical fruit and street food in Chelsea

This is an upmarket Malaysian in an upmarket bit of London. The menu prices at Awana in Chelsea (or is it Kensington?) are on the upmarket side too - but rest assured you don't need to pay them most of the time. There's 50% off food with, 50% off food for tastecard holders, Groupon special offers...I suspect the people who pay full price are mostly those who have enough money not to care.

To do the restaurant credit, those who have booked with a special offer are not treated like second-class citizens.

The restaurant is large and slick-looking, with teak and burgundy leather. An unusual touch is a couple of television screens, showing the chef's hands deftly at work making the roti.

Food is pretty good, though not mindblowing. A starter of sup kambing (spicy lamb and potato stew) was one of the highlights - somewhere between a soup and a stew, with plenty of meat, it was a hearty way to begin the meal. Spicy little deep-fried potato cakes came with a salsa which had added zing from lemongrass.  A main course of sea bass was beautifully presented, wrapped in a banana leaf. The fish was moist and flavoursome, though the seafood sauce it came with was more of a challenge. Its smell and flavour made me think of fish sauce that had been left to ferment for a long time, and I think it might be something of an acquired taste. There is a fair range of vegetarian dishes, which are perhaps not as interesting as the meaty options - my mixed vegetable stir-fry was pleasant, though.

Desserts are on the petite side but include plenty to tempt. I was intrigued by the ice-cream flavours and tried the star anise with blood orange, jackfruit with ginger and chocolate with lemongrass from a wide selection. The first of these was fantastic, the second not bad but perhaps lacking in oomph and the third certainly interesting, but perhaps too dominated by the lemongrass. A guava cheesecake was light-textured, almost more of a mousse, but with a nice guava flavour.

There is a satay bar, too, offering Malaysian "street food" in a setting about as far from the streets of Penang as you can imagine.

85 Sloane Avenue
London SW3 3DX
020 7584 8880

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Feast to cure melancholy

It's not every day you get to attend "an edible experiment". The Wellcome Collection hosted two events called Feast to Cure Melancholy. The blurb promised: "If the experiment succeeds you will take home new tools for living. Even if it fails, the evening will be an imaginative and sensory delight."

It's possible they were over-selling it slightly. I certainly didn't feel I acquired any new tools for living. On the other hand, the imaginative and sensory delight bit probably was true.

It was inspired by the Wellcome's collection of historic recipe, food and medical books, in particular Robert Burton’s 1621 work The Anatomy of Melancholy. This is a collection of advice, quotations and musings on the subject of what we would now call depression. Quite a bit of it is about food - Burton thought the melancholy man should avoid beef, venison, hare, heavy wines, cabbage and fresh-water fish, among other things.

Robert Burton

Last night's event drew heavily on the ancient and medieval theory of humours. A melancholy person was afflicted by too much cold and dry humour, and would need something hot and wet (such as duck or radishes) to balance it. A phlegmatic person is cold and wet, and could be treated with choleric foods such as wine and mutton.There were other treatments too, such as blood-letting or enemas.

Having learned all this it was time to eat - four small and unusual courses created by food artists Blanch and Shock. A couple of the dishes were "Butter-roasted onions with nutmeg and cinnamon-spiced potatoes, chestnut cream powder, spring onions and capers," and "Potted wild boar in hay-infused fat, pompion (squash) crisp, apple gel, scurvy grass and toasted hogweed seeds." This was certainly the first time I had eaten hogweed seeds, or for that matter dittander, which turns out to be a wild plant with a mustard flavour. It wasn't the best meal of my life, but it was possibly the most original.

The blurb had asked: "Can our minds benefit today from Burton’s dietary and medicinal advice on food and drink, moderation and exercise, sleeping and dreaming" Well, not as far as I could tell from last night. The theme of food and health seems timely, though, when Channel Four is broadcasting Food Hospital, looking at whether conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer can be helped by diet. There is some evidence that nutritional deficiencies can affect mental development and behaviour, including that lack of iron and iodine can affect children's mental development.

Certainly food for thought.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Richmond farmers’ market – small but perfectly formed

It took us a few minutes to find this farmers market , tucked away in Heron Square, just near the bridge over the river.

Once there, we found a stall with a good sprinkling of stalls, probably about 10 or 12 in all. There was a wet fish stall, a stall selling game such as partridges and pheasants, and a bread and other baked good stall. There was Kezi's Veggie Kitchen, specialising in vegetarian treats such as savoury tartlets and soups, as well as sweet things like flapjacks. And a fair-sized fruit and vegetable stall, where the walnuts in their shells and the interesting squashes caught my eye. I also saw Wild Country Organics, a Cambridgeshire-based farm who seem to do most of the farmers’ markets around London. They have some lovely unusual salad leaves, including sorrel and land cress.

One of the more unusual stalls was Isle of Wight Produce. As well as an array of tomatoes there was also garlic, eggs and three Isle of Wight cheeses – a hard cheddar-style cheese, a softer Camembert-type cheese, and a blue. We bought the latter, imaginatively called Isle of Wight Blue. When we bought it, it was a creamy cheese with just a hint of blue, rather like a blue brie. But a week later (it has been in the fridge) it has become a lot more forceful.

I was slightly surprised that there weren’t more cheeses – most farmers’ markets seem to have a dedicated cheese stall, though the three Isle of Wight cheeses at least cover a good spectrum, and it makes sense for them to travel with the Isle of Wight tomato company.

Next time I’ll be buying a gourmet lunch, with some of those vegetarian tartlets, and maybe a chocolate brownie or two to finish!

When and where: 10am-3pm Saturdays, Heron Square, Richmond

Number of stalls: 10-12
Range of produce: 8
Value for money: 7
Marks out of 10:7

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Autumn squash

By coincidence I had two delicious butternut squash dishes last weekend, and I thought I would share them with you. Squashes and pumpkins are in season at the moment – get English ones if you can. You could use a different sweet orange-fleshed squash such as acorn squash if you prefer.

The first of these was cooked by my friend Paul at a housewarming party. It was warming, aromatic, extremely tasty and not too much trouble to cook. I think it came from a BBC Good Food cookbook. This is my approximation based on memory rather than an exact recipe.

The second was in the cafe at the Whitechapel art gallery. It was a substantial salad of roasted squash, toasted flatbread, watercress and feta. (The gallery cafe also does tasty-looking cakes, and has some good recipes on its website. There is also a fairly smart restaurant with Angela Hartnett as executive chef). Squash and feta is a great combination – it’s that sweet/ salty thing. Again this is my approximation of it rather than the exact recipe.

(Sorry  I haven't got pictures of the actual dishes, but here are some lovely squashes and pumpkins I saw at the weekend instead.)

Butternut squash and butter bean stew

1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
1 tin butter beans, drained
Good pinch chilli flakes
1 tin coconut milk
About 275ml/ half a pint vegetable stock (you can use a cube)
Zest of one lime
A handful fresh coriander
Chopped cashew nuts

Cook the onion in the oil until softened. Add the squash and cook, stirring, for five minutes. Add the stock, coconut milk and chilli and cook for 20 minutes or until the squash is soft. Add the butter beans, lime zest and half the coriander and cook for another five minutes. Scatter over the cashew nuts and the rest of the coriander just before serving. Serve with rice.

Butternut squash, feta and flatbread salad

1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch or small bag watercress, washed
One or two flatbreads eg Moroccan flatbread, or use pitta if that is what you can find
150-200g feta

Roast the squash in 1 tbsp oil at gas mark 5 / 375F / 190C for half an hour or until soft and slightly charred at the edges. While this is happening, toast the flatbread for about a minute on each side or until crisp but not too browned. Allow to cool so you can handle them, and then cut the flatbreads into small pieces – triangles look best. Mix the squash with the flatbread pieces, the watercress and feta. Add the oil and some black pepper (you can add salt if you feel it needs it, though bear in mind that the feta is salty). Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you have any favourite squash or pumpkin recipes, let me know using the comments.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A gastropub delight

Avalon was the fairy isle of Arthurian legend, the place where the sword Excalibur was forged. It is also a Balham Hill gastropub, which underwent an equally magical transformation a couple of years ago from a dodgy pub called the George to a smart foodie destination.

These days it is part of a mini-chain called Renaissance Pubs, also including the Stonhouse and Abbeyville in Clapham, Rosendale in Dulwich, the the Tommyfield in Kennington and the Bolingbroke in Battersea. There seems to be a general theme of attention to food and decor, a modern-British menu with touches of other popular cuisines, and a level of gastro-pubbiness that doesn’t mean you feel you can't just have a drink there.

Avalon is a big place, with a large bar area at the front and a rather nice restaurant area at the back – no tablecloths, but huge light fittings made of chainlinks, like an industrial chandelier, and cream-tiled walls with old photos set into them.

We didn’t peruse the wine list, opting instead for the real ales on handpump – Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best for me and Landlord for the Real Ale Drinker.

We got off to a solid start with ham hock terrine with piccalilli (£5.50) and pumpkin and ricotta ravioli with parmesan cream (£5.50 on the menu, though it seemed to have gone up to £6.50 by the time it appeared on the bill). The terrine was excellent. The Real Ale Drinker thought there might have been a bit too much piccalilli, though as I pointed out, he could have just left some of it. The piccalilli was good stuff, anyway, with just the right level of spicing, with a mix of crunchy vegetables including baby onions. I couldn’t honestly tell what was in the tortellini, though to be fair by the time you wrap a small amount of filling in a complicated pasta casing, and serve it with sauce, it is by no means unusual for the filling to get lost. The parmesan cream – think a very rich cheese sauce - had bags of flavour to make up for it.

A vegetarian main course (£11) was nicely presented and something a bit unusual – half an aubergine and half a courgette, stuffed with puy lentils and topped with buffalo mozzarella. There was some roasted red pepper to complete the autumn flavours, with some escarole, a vegetable I haven’t knowingly eaten before, but which is related to curly endive and once cooked, looks and tastes quite similar to chard.

The other half was quite impressed with his whole plaice (head removed for the squeamish) with caper butter, new potatoes and slightly salted spinach (13.50).

The chocolate tart (£6) was lovely – dark, not too sweet, with a slightly soft filling that contrasted with the crisp pastry. It came with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream that was nothing special – I should have gone for the crème fraiche option instead.

The sticky toffee pudding (£5.50) filled me with happiness – light sponge, lots of toffee sauce with a deep, brown-sugar flavour, and a scoop of ice-cream again.

All in all it was an excellent meal, and most unusually, I couldn’t find much to complain about. Well, the ice-cream could have been a bit better, but that’s about it. They do 50pc off food with Tastecard, and judging from the bookings sheet there were quite a few Tastecard tables there on our visit.

There is a pleasant garden, too, though sadly I can't see myself using this for some months to come.

16 Balham Hill
London SW12 9EB
020 8675 8613

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Foraging for chestnuts, and an unusual soup

It seems to be a good year for English chestnuts. Maybe it is partly that I live a bit further south now, but I have seen a fine crop of them this month. The best were some we gathered on a bike ride to Esher in Surrey. The trees in question were just outside Oxshott and we didn’t need to do more than stop by the side of the road to pick them up. They were pretty big, too – often the trouble with wild chestnuts is that they are nowhere near the size of those you can buy. We got a carrier bag full within about ten minutes. Apart from blackberries, this was the first bit of foraging since we have moved to London, so it was a good feeling.

When I gathered these a few days ago the chestnuts were raining from the trees even as we were picking them – making it slightly hazardous as we dodged small prickly missiles.

I’ve tried various methods of cooking chestnuts, including roasting, boiling and microwaving. I think boiling them is best, especially if you are putting them in a recipe (I guess roasted are nicer for a snack). Boil for about 20 minutes and leave in the water to stay warm while you peel them. You will want a sharp knife to make the initial slit in the skins. They have a papery skin inside the hard casing, which can be hard to get off, but I don't find it too much of a problem if the skin stays on. (Apparently the skin comes off more easily if the chestnuts are fresh.) Peeling can be a slow process and I recommend doing this in front of the television, ideally the night before you want to cook them, or at any rate not when you are hungrily waiting for dinner!

One of my favourite things to do with chestnuts is to add them to a pie filling with mushrooms, Stilton and stout, topped with puff pastry. But I had some nice local celery that needed using, and I thought I’d try something different. So I made this soup. It worked quite well – the sweetness of the chestnuts helps to balance out the celery. I’m not sure that I would buy chestnuts for this recipe, as it uses quite a lot and they can be quite expensive. But if you have some wild ones to use, it is well worth trying.

Celery and chestnut soup

1 large head celery, roughly chopped
1lb peeled and cooked chestnuts, plus a few extra whole chestnuts to garnish
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 large potato, peeled and diced, or two or three small ones
1 stock cube
A little freshly ground nutmeg
Thyme sprigs, to garnish (optional)

Put the onion and the oil in a large pan and cook, stirring, until the onion is softened. Add the celery and the carrots, and continue stirring for 5 minutes. Add the chestnuts, potato, stock cube, thyme and nutmeg, plus just enough water to cover the vegetables, and simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the veg are tender, and discard the bay leaf. Puree the mixture until smooth. Taste and season as necessary - you can add a little more nutmeg or thyme if you think it needs it. It will probably be quite thick, so dilute to your preferred consistency with water or stock - or use milk for a creamier soup.

Serve each bowl garnished with three or four whole chestnuts (these should ideally be warmed first, and will float on top if you are careful) and a couple of sprigs of thyme.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A treasury of apples, plus an apple cake for autumn

Do you have a favourite apple? And how many apple varieties can you name?

The British apple season is at its peak, and shops are full of green, red, gold and russet treasures.

The future of Britain’s orchards has come under the spotlight in recent years, with the National Trust and Natural England among the bodies which have been making an effort to save them. The last major survey found that more than half of our orchards have been grubbed up since 1970. A move to intensive farming and supermarkets preferring imported fruit have been blamed for this. At least there is now a bit more awareness of our apple heritage, and last month a Morrison’s store in Kent was rightly criticised for stocking Chinese apples instead of those from nearby orchards.

Farmers’ markets are an excellent place to find more unusual apple varieties at the moment, and your local farm shop is a good place to try too. There is not much in agriculture more beautiful than an orchard in spring, or, as now, laden with fruits glowing red in the autumn sunlight. We can all do our bit to preserve this by buying English apples (and not just in autumn – stored fruit means they will be available for months).

Blenheim Orange, Devon Crimson Queen, Cotehele beauty – traditional British apples are worth preserving for their names alone. But even if you can't find any obscure varieties, the traditional Cox’s Orange Pippin is still a lovely apple.

Yesterday I went to the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley. They were holding a Taste of Autumn festival, with plenty of space devoted to apples. My parents had an anonymous apple from their garden identified (a Newton’s Wonder, apparently). Best of all, there was the chance to taste more than 20 different apples and choose your favourite. I had never tried so many apple varieties side by side before and it was fascinating to compare the differences in flavour. One or two were sweet but bland, while others were really aromatic. Choosing a favourite was a difficult task but I think it may have been the Herefordshire Russet, a new apple which tasted of pear drops. The Cornish Aromatic was excellent too.

The festival featured some interesting food stalls, especially the Kentish Cobnut products from Potash Farm. Cobnuts are a variety of hazelnut, eaten fresh rather than partly dried. You can get cobnut fudge, cheese biscuits, shortbread and brittle, as well as the nuts themselves. I was blown away by the cobnut oil, which is pricey but with an astonishingly pure nut flavour – great for salad dressings or dipping. I imagine it would make good cakes and biscuits, too.

I also enjoyed the cheeses from Bookhams, including a delicious nutty Cheddar and a Parmesan-style cheese. Both of these are made with vegetarian rennet (unlike Parmesan). The Parmesan cheese is called Not Just a Pasta Cheese. It was previously known as Twineham Grange or Farmer’s Hand, but has been rebranded. I’m not that sure about the new name, but it is a lovely full-flavoured cheese. And perfect with an apple, actually...

Here’s my favourite apple cake recipe:


350g/12oz self-raising flour
140g/5oz butter, softened
175g/6oz sugar (granulated or caster are both fine, or you could use dark brown sugar if you wanted a slightly deeper, more treacly flavour, or use half and half)
125g/4oz sultanas or raisins
2 tsp mixed spice or ground cinnamon (freshly grated from a cinnamon stick, using the very fine holes on a grater, tastes best)
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg (you could use a pinch of ground cloves instead if you prefer)
450g/1lb cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces
3 eggs, beaten
pinch of salt


Heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2. Grease and line a 20cm/8in tin.

Sieve the flour and salt together and rub in the butter.

Stir in the sugar, sultanas or raisins and spices. Mix in the apples and then stir in the beaten egg. The mixture might seem a bit dry, but don't worry - the apples should moisten it as they cook.

Bake for 1½-2 hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I'd be interested to know your favourite apple variety, or your favourite apple recipe.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cheese and wine festival

Cheese and wine - truly one of those combinations made in heaven.

Despite the potential, the Cheese and Wine Festival at the South Bank at the weekend left me less than excited. It was more of a market than a festival, for a start - there was a cookery theatre (a bit small for the number of people there) but otherwise it was just stalls selling things. Mostly cheese and wine, obviously, though there was also a surprising amount of cake.

It did a good job of bringing lots of cheese retailers together, including really top-notch ones like La Fromagerie, based in Marylebone. But I would have liked to see more cheese producers represented, to give visitors a more direct insight. More samples would have been good too. And frankly, it was a bit too packed, though you can't really blame it for being popular. 

As I'm a bit late in writing about it, I won't dwell on it any further. The same people are organising a tea festival and a chocolate festival later this year, but I don't think I will be rushing back.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The curse of high expectations

A rave review can be a double-edged sword. From the restaurant’s point of view, the result is usually more business. The diner gets to hear about a place worth trying. But then the result of going with high expectations can easily be disappointment.

Newtons, a smart-casual restaurant in a smart-casual bit of Clapham, has a glowing review from Time Out. It gets four stars out of five, but having been to quite a few of Time Out's three-star restaurants and had excellent meals, I expect four stars to be out of the ordinary.

And the food at Newtons was...good. But not particularly extraordinary. To be fair, most of it was very good. But there were two low points – one being sweet potato chips that were skinny cut and then overcooked, so they were overly brittle, even burnt-tasting in places. The main event, the pork fillet which they accompanied, was very good, so it seemed churlish to complain. But still...

Time Out particularly praises the service. This was mostly good, although I am not personally a fan of places where they top up your wine for you. It was let down (this was the other low point) by a small point of billing. What had happened was this. Us: "Have you got a vegetarian option that isn’t grilled tofu with pepper stew?" (The pepper stew had a fancier name than that, which for some reason escapes me) Waiter: “You could have tofu curry [no thanks, it’s the tofu we don't want]; or pepper stew with maybe some couscous and salad?” “Yes please.” So the food arrives – and all credit to them for showing flexibility with the menu – with salad in a separate bowl placed between us. And I was a little surprised to see the salad as an extra on the bill at the end. It was only a matter of £3, so hardly the end of the world, but surprising when we hadn’t specifically ordered salad. When we queried it, the waiter said “But you did have salad, didn’t you?” but did remove it from the bill.

Enough of the complaints. There was plenty that was praiseworthy, especially a lemon tart with perfect texture and tanginess, and warm chocolate brownie that was enhanced further with the addition of chocolate sauce. I had a starter of picos blue cheese with candied pecans and salad leaves. It was served as a wedge of cheese, rather blurring the line between starter and cheese course, but I didn’t mind this at all. The other half had spicy courgette and crab cakes. He said the crab flavour got a bit lost, but I think that was his ordering error, to be honest – it’s difficult for crab not to get lost underneath the spices and bulked out with courgette. I nicked some of the chutney served with them, which was actually astonishingly good.

We also had a reasonable bottle of Spanish red, though I think we had the last one, so I won’t tell you any more about it, but the house selection starts at £14.95.

The a la carte prices are not the cheapest, though they do a Tastecard deal and also a set menu for £15 for two or £18.50 for three courses, which seemed very popular. Otherwise starters are £6 to £7, main courses £11 to £15, or £18.50 for rib-eye steak.

We left well-fed but slightly underwhelmed. But I think much of this may be down to expectations. This is the danger of rave reviews.

33-35 Abbeville Road
020 8673 0977

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A very superior "beer and a curry"

It would be wrong not to acknowledge that it is National Curry Week. So I will share with you the story of some fine curry I had at Hop and Spice in Balham – not Indian but the Sri Lankan variety.

I love Sri Lankan food – I only wish it was more widely available, although to be fair it is infinitely more available in London than it was in Norfolk. There are around 20 Sri Lankan restaurants in London, mostly in the south and west.

Hop and Spice is unusual on two counts. It serves curry tapas-style – the idea is that you order a selection of small dishes. And it has a wide range of beers, as well as suggestions for matching beers and curries. I particularly like this – I would rather drink interesting English ale than Tiger or other bland lager any day.

One effect of this is that you pay a bit more than you might expect. You are advised to order six dishes between two, each priced from £3.95 to £5.55, plus rice or bread (plain steamed rice is £3.10). So you are looking at a minimum of £15 per person for a main course, based on three curries and one rice. If you don’t want to do the tapas-style thing, you can order a main-course style dish, priced £14.45 to £16.80, which includes rice and raita. Bottled beers start at £3.95, while bottle-conditioned beers are over £5 - £5.45 for Hopback Summer Lightning (5pc). I know that bottle-conditioned beers have a shorter shelf-life, but this strikes me as a touch steep. Having said that, they do an offer with Tastecard which makes the food pretty reasonable.

Not all the food is exactly as you would find it in Sri Lanka – some of the fieriness has been toned down to suit English palates, and there are some English adaptations of Sri Lankan dishes – I have never seen a mushroom curry in Sri Lanka, for example. Apparently this reflects the background of the owner, whose mother was Sri Lankan but brought her children up in Wales and even managed to curry leeks.

The mushroom curry was fantastic, actually – real depth and richness from the mushrooms which was the perfect match for the spices. This was one of the hotter curries, prepared with home-roasted masala. A complete contrast was a dish of fine beans in coconut oil, which was mildly spiced with fennel and cumin and full of light, fresh flavours. The Real Ale Drinker was seeking the kind of fish curry you get everywhere in Sri Lanka, often made with tuna (which seems to be the staple fish there) and a mixture of spices including cinnamon and curry leaves. The closest thing to it was probably the Batticaloan salmon in a tomato and coconut sauce, but even that was quite different.

The only other fish curry was deep-fried jackfish, though there are also seafood dishes with squid, king prawns or crab. The last of these, the crab vada, was a mild dish with shredded crab meat, lemon and curry leaves. A few other curries were equally delicious (the range goes from chilli chicken to coconut lamb to warm devilled potato salad). We skipped starters, but you can get devilled king prawns, home-made samosas, or spicy lamb and potato cakes.

We drank St Peter’s ale from Suffolk (whose brewery I have had the pleasure of visiting in my East Anglian days), which has a light hoppiness that goes very well with the curry.

The desserts were not quite as strong as the main courses. We had a non-Sri Lankan chocolate brownie, seduced by the description of its dark stickiness, but it was not as intensely chocolatey as I would have hoped. The wattalapam, a Sri Lankan custard with coconut and ground nuts, was good but not mind-blowing.

Not a bargain-basement "curry house" (I have put this term in inverted commas, having read it described as lazy, but I hope it is acceptable in this context), but one that offers something a bit different, and very good curries to boot. There are certainly worse ways to celebrate National Curry Week.

Hop and Spice

53 Bedford Hill
London SW12 9EZ
020 8675 3121

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Savouring the last tomatoes of summer

Tomatoes are my current obsession. It's the realisation that the season is virtually at an end, so I am seizing the last chance to make the most of them. Thanks to the autumn sunshine there are some pretty good tomatoes around, and they compare well to most other fresh vegetables on price.

Just make sure they are ripe - my pet hate is orange-fleshed, bullet-hard tomatoes - I would rather get slightly overripe ones, which you can sometimes find being sold off cheaply at greengrocers and market stalls, than underripe ones any day.

My favourite tomato dish at the moment is one which I discovered in Julian Barnes' entertaining book, The Pedant in the Kitchen. It is Tomates a la Creme from the French cookery writer, food scientist and dietitian Edouard de Pomiane.

Tomates a la creme, served with rice

Barnes quotes Elizabeth David on this recipe, which "tastes so startlingly unlike any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guidebooks as a regional speciality."

You take six tomatoes, halve them, melt a lump of butter in the frying pan, add the tomatoes cut side down, cook for a minute, prick the skins, turn them over so the juices run out, turn back again, add 3fl oz cream, let it all bubble, serve. Barnes is forced to make it with orange, hard tomatoes in February, but having added a little sugar, salt and pepper, he describes it as "unbelievably good - the method had extracted richness from tomatoes which looked as though they had long ago mislaid their essence".

After this build-up the resulting dish was perhaps not quite as intensely flavoured as I had been led to believe, but still very good. It is as rich in flavour as something you have slaved over for hours, but only takes five minutes.

I made it twice - the first time according to the recipe (unlike Barnes, I didn't add sugar or salt), the second with my own variations. I didn't bother with the butter, but added the cream at the beginning, along with two finely sliced cloves of garlic. Garlic and cream are natural bedfellows and the second version seemed even richer and more complex. A few basil leaves scattered over at the end made a nice finishing touch.

This dish makes a great quick lunch or snack, served with crusty bread or sitting on toast to soak up the juices (use thick slices of a substantial loaf - you don't want your toast just turning to mush). I liked it even more with rice, roasted whole onions and a green salad for dinner.

More tomato suggestions here soon...and if you have a favourite tomato recipe, please let me know using the comments.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Blinis and beetroot at Baltic

Eastern European cuisine is not always the most glamorous. I mean, we're talking about gherkins, sausages and beetroot, aren't we?

Despite this, Baltic manages to be remarkably slick, sexy even. It doesn't give away much from the outside on Blackfriars road, but once inside there is a long bar where you can get dozens of different vodkas, or perhaps a cocktail based on once of them - fancy a Vodka Daisy (with home-made pomegranate syrup), a spiced pear mojito or a beetroot martini?

Behind the bar is the restaurant proper, a large, cool space - there is a high ceiling with daylight coming down between the wooden timbers, white walls interspersed with exposed brick, and some interesting design touches. I liked the modern light fittings and wall decoration made from dead (or should that be dried?) roses, though they may not be to everyone's taste.

Blinis at Baltic. Picture by Kake Pugh

The menu is more Polish than anything else, but draws from across the spectrum of European cuisine. I have visited a couple of times. The first time it was the blinis that stuck in my mind. If you have never had blinis, think Scotch pancakes, except from Russia. These were feather-light. You can get them with smoked salmon or keta caviar (maybe eastern European food can be glamorous, after all), but we had them with wild mushroom pate and a garlicky aubergine "caviar" - I think there may have been a touch of tomato in there too, at any rate it made me think of the Med more than the Baltic Sea. Some tzatziki and sour cream turned up too.

The second time it was the wild mushroom soup that lodged in the memory. This was a deep brown broth with enough flavour to knock you over. Unlike much mushroom soup, no dairy products had been added; the richness of the mushrooms simply spoke for itself.

We have also tried Sczcawiowa (sorrel and vegetable soup) which was a thick, slightly tangy soup, with unexpected pieces of hard-boiled egg. Braised rabbit leg with figs, bacon and spaetzle dumplings was all dark and rich and meaty. An excellent beef stew with smoked sausage and potato dumplings arrived in an individual cast-iron pot, some of the contents of which were ceremoniously ladled onto the plate by the waiter. The dumplings, as with the blinis, can be ordered as a starter or a main course. I had pierogi with potato, cheese and spring onion. These semi-circular dough dumplings had been fried to a golden brown. They came with sour cream and a welcome wedge of lemon - I felt in need of some vitamins at this point, as well as the acidity to cut through the fattiness on the tongue. They are delicious, if rather unhealthy. The plate was rather missing something green (or indeed any colour other than white, beige and brown) and if having them as a main course again, a side order of broccoli might well be in order.

All of this sounds more like stodgy comfort food than glamour food, but it is really very good. And there are plenty of more elegant options, such as salmon baked in pastry with leek, spinach and mushrooms, or pan fried sea trout.

After all the sour cream and carbohydrate I have yet to manage to try the desserts, but options include apricot torte, honey and poppy seed cake, or Polish pancakes with sweet cheese, nuts and raisins.

Fear not, though - beetroot and gherkins have not been forgotten. When you sit down a little dish of beetroot pate and a saucer of gherkins (sometimes other pickled vegetables too) appears, along with some excellent bread. And hey, I'm not complaining - I love gherkins.

Baltic Bar/Restaurant
74 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8AH
Tel: 020 7928 1111

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bad behaviour in the kitchen

I went to a thought-provoking talk on this subject at the Wellcome Collection (if you've never been, I recommend a visit - it's free, and there are some interesting events too).

As the summary of the event put it: "Our attitudes to food reflect underlying fears about changes in lifestyle, family and society as a whole, and food is a powerful tool for criticising the behaviour of individual consumers, especially when they are responsible for nurturing the next generation."

One member of the audience certainly felt criticised, lambasting one of the speakers as a snob. He felt that food should be about good times, not about ethics and morality, and claimed that worrying about food miles got in the way of the simple enjoyment of breaking bread (or slurping noodles, scoffing sweets or whatever) with friends and family.

I couldn't help but feel that this was over-simplification and something of an abdication of responsibility. Can't we buy food with ethical (or health) considerations in mind, and still enjoy it? To extend his argument, most people drink alcohol for enjoyment, but that doesn't mean we should ignore alcohol-fuelled violence or health ill-effects.

Anne Murcott, Professorial Research Associate at the Food Studies Centre, SOAS, pointed out that our views on food come laden with history and convention. We have certain expectations for our meals. You can't eat what you would normally have for dinner at breakfast-time, and vice-versa, without being thought very odd. Snacks, on the other hand, are much more flexible - a snack might be an apple, a biscuit, or a portion of chips. She suggested that proponents of healthy eating are more likely to succeed in changing people's behaviour if they target snacks (aka unstructured food events) rather than meals (structured food events). It's an interesting thought. I wonder if anyone will take it up?

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Three Wine Men

The Three Wine Men are Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith. You may have seen them separately slurping vino on television, and now they have got together to hold wine tasting events.

There was one at the Lords’ cricket ground in London last weekend, another in Manchester this weekend (October 1-2) and another in London on December 3 and 4.

I have been to a few wine tastings over the years, but not as big as this one or on quite the same scale. It seemed well-organised, with unlimited wine tastings and plenty of opportunities to meet the wise wine men themselves.

Tim Atkin at the Three Wine Men tasting
A selection of wine producers and retailers were offering their wares for sampling. There were also themed wine-tasting sessions, where you could taste six wines while being talked through them by one of the experts. These were first-come-first-served and very popular.

Meanwhile Oz, Tim or Olly held court in a more informal manner, doing impromptu talks on particular wines and dispensing samples as a small crowd gathered around them. We got a front-row position while Oz talked about Innis and Gunn beers with great enthusiasm. Innis and Gunn, by the way, is an unusual Scottish brewery which makes oak-aged beers, including some aged in bourbon, rum or whisky casks. They demonstrated that beer can be every bit as complex and full-flavoured as wine.

Wines started at fairly cheap and cheerful prices and went up to champagnes and 30-year-old sherries. Spittoons were on hand, and visitors were encouraged to use them, but there seemed to be a fairly even split between swilling and swallowing.

Oz Clarke at the Three Wine Men event

Water biscuits were provided to cleanse the palate, but I would have liked to see more opportunities to buy food – always important when large amounts of alcohol is involved! As far as I could tell there were little plates of bread and cheese on offer but nothing more.

For cricket fans I suppose sipping wine by the hallowed turf of Lords would add an extra dimension.

And as for a favourite wine? I couldn't even begin to decide. I remember being quite impressed by the Chateau de Pennautier AOC Cabardes (available from Majestic and the Wine Society) but there were too many to choose!

Tickets, incidentally, are £20, though I think the London weekend in September had not sold as well as hoped, because a special offer for Groupon members offered tickets at just £8 the day before the event started.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Updated: The best ice-cream in London, part two

The second half of my round-up of my favourite places for great ice-cream. Quick, while the weather's still nice!

I've updated this after a weekend of October sunshine and more ice-cream eating opportunities.

29 The Pavement
Clapham Common

Should  I admit that I went to this place twice in one day? Well, it was an astonishingly hot October day - that's my justification anyway.
There are so many flavours at Nardulli that it's hard to choose, including some unusual varieties. Using all my willpower I managed to bypass my usual favourites of hazelnut and strawberry in favour of something different. So I tried the cardamom, whose elegant, slightly sweet flavour goes remarkably well with ice-cream. It's fairly subtle, not overpowering as I had feared. I can also recommend cinnamon, which reminded me of a warm oven full of biscuits and cake mixture - unexpected associations in an ice-cream, but downright delicious. The fig flavour, like the black cherry, is a swirl of fruitiness mixed with vanilla ice-cream. The black cherry variety contains pieces of fruit, while the fig is a reduced, sticky (almost syrupy) burst of fruit against the creamy background.
Other flavours include macadamia (nice, but I think I'll be sticking with hazelnut in future) passionfruit (bright yellow, beautifully intense), caramel, bacio (hazelnut and chocolate), Nutella (not sure how this differs from the last one), tiramisu, lemon, coconut, amaretto, pistachio, fior di latte, chocolate orange...
Expect queues on sunny weekends.

Ice-cream from Nardulli, In case you were wondering, that's cardamom on the left, fig on the right, plus some macadamia mostly buried underneath.

Lab G
6 Granville Arcade  
Coldharbour Lane
Brixton SW9 8PR
Proper Italian gelato is the order of the day at this tiny ice-cream parlour in Brixton Village.
We trued the chocolate sorbet and the hazelnut ice-cream – both very, very good. Chocolate sorbet is a winner to my mind, because I love dark chocolate and find that often chocolate ice-cream is too creamy and just not chocolate-y enough. With this chocolate sorbet, the pure chocolate flavour sang through with no creaminess to get in the way.
As you may have noted, I also tried the hazelnut ice-cream at Gelupo, and I would say they were equally good.  
Other flavours include stracciatella, proper vanilla (with tiny flecks of seeds), cherry and salted caramel.

14 The High Parade
Streatham High Road
London SW16 1EX 

This is my local Italian restaurant, but their home-made ice-cream is really very good. They do a very good hazelnut (are you spotting a theme here?) but actually the Bacio (kisses) variety, with chocolate and hazelnut, might be even better. I also love the very fruity, soft strawberry ice-cream. I didn’t actually have high hopes for the blueberry sorbet (blueberries are pleasant enough but to my mind don't have the strength of flavour you want in an ice-cream or sorbet) but it was much better than I expected – they had obviously used lots of fruit.
You can have it at the end of your meal – a single scoop is £1.60 and is quite a generous size, making for a very cheap dessert – or get a cone or a cup to take away.

Read part one here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The best ice-cream in London

One of the delights of moving to London has been the ready availability of ridiculously good ice-cream.

In my former home of Norwich you could buy decent, locally-made ice-cream in tubs to take home, but there weren't really any ice-cream cafes, and if you were buying ice-cream by the scoop it would usually be mass-produced stuff that you could buy anywhere in the country.

In London there is fancy ice-cream aplenty. I think breast milk ice-cream (allegedly available from Icecreamists in Covent Garden, but more of a publicity stunt than something you can actually buy) may be a bridge too far, but I thrill at the thought of grapefruit or tramontana flavours.

We are promised warmer weather for this weekend, so I might indulge myself while ice-cream still seems reasonably in keeping with the season.

These are my favourites so far:

Gelupo, 7 Archer Street, Soho

Unusual flavours as well as the classics, and a selection that changes regularly. Their hazelnut, made with lightly roasted nuts from Piedmonte, is one of my favourites. So is the chocolate ice-cream with chilli and cinnamon. It has quite a kick, actually - I adore its intensity, though I couldn't eat too much of it.
Compared with those the ricotta and sour cherry ice-cream was a bit of a wallflower. But if you like more subtle flavours it could be the one for you.
Did I mention the raspberry and clementine sorbets? Both were beautifully smooth and full of fruit, though the raspberry is the one that sticks in my mind - the flavour seemed to explode on my tongue on the first taste.

It's worth checking out the upright freezer (past the ice-cream dispensary on the left) before making a purchase, as this contains goodies like ice-cream bonbons (a surprise flavour, dipped in chocolate) and chocolate cones ready-filled with ice-cream.
Gelupo stays open late if you fancy an ice-cream to round off your evening.

Oddono,14 Bute Street, South Kensington

This was the first of the top-class London ice-cream parlours I visited. My friend and I both ordered an ice-cream, ate them with wonder, and then immediately ordered another one each. We were almost unable to stop giggling as we left - call it an ice-cream high, if you like.
They do smooth Italian gelato in an array of flavours - luckily you can have some samples to help you choose. This was the first place I ever hard hazelnut ice-cream, and I have been in love with it ever since. Their chocolate ice-cream is unusually intense, made with Valrhona chocolate, and I can also recommend the strawberry.

More ice-cream parlour recommendations to follow soon...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oval farmers' market

There has been something of a hiatus in my efforts to visit all the farmers' markets around London. But the mission has re-commenced with a visit to Oval farmers market. Actually, two visits (such is my dedication to in-depth research on your behalf).

The location is one of its advantages - in the grounds of St Mark's Church, Kennington, right opposite Oval station. It's a tranquil green space in busy south London, so when the weather is warm enough you can make a picnic from your purchases without having to walk more than a few feet.

Stalls include some that I have encountered at other farmers' markets, including Honest Carrot (interesting vegetarian snacks like Brie and mushroom pudding or a spicy London Roast). I have mentioned the Cakehole before - their orange and almond cake is still moist, tangy and luscious. I tried the excellent  cream-filled chocolate sponge, too.

Baked goods are quite well represented, with breads and sweet things from the Old Post Office Bakery, plus a whole stall of giant cookies (the cookie stall also does a wonderfully rich brownie) and another stall selling home-made madeleines, meringues, cheese scones and few other savoury things. Their cinnamon cookies were pretty good (and my grandmother thought so too!)

A new producer to me was Bath Soft Cheeses,  selling three of their own cheeses (they were there last Saturday but not today, so not sure if they go every week). There is Wyfe of Bath, a medium strength cheese like a Gouda, Bath Blue, and my favourite, a soft cheese simply called Bath Soft Cheese, somewhere between a Brie and a Camembert, which goes nicely runny when ripe. The stylish packaging also has the original recipe, dated 1908, on the back.

A second cheese stall sells some very fine English cheeses (Appleby Cheshire, Tunworth, Blue Monday and much more) alongside some Continental ones. But I can't help thinking that farmers' markets should ideally be staffed by the producers - if you sell cheese from all over the country, are you doing anything different from a cheese shop? (It also struck me that Bath is a long way from Oval - this long-distance aspect of London farmers' markets has been perplexing me.)

There are also vegetables, soft fruit, eggs, Giggly Pig sausages, apple juice and quite a few other things.

A tip: go with sufficient cash. The only functioning cash machine I could find in the area was the kind that charges you for the privilege of extracting your money.

Vital stats:

When and where: Every Saturday, 10am to 3pm, St. Mark's Church, The Oval, Kennington, SE11 4PW
Number of stalls: 15 (approx, on my visit)
Range of produce: Good
Value for money: 8
Marks out of 10: 8 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The last of the blackberries and a luscious baked cheesecake

I am a little distressed at how quickly the blackberry season is coming to an end.

Maybe this is because I live further down south now, but mid-September seems too soon to wave goodbye to this autumnal fruit. My recently-fertile hunting ground on Tooting Bec common is now full only of soggy or mouldy fruit.

A blackberry bush can actually be any one of hundreds of different species, some of which fruit later than others. So if you look carefully enough (or live further north than me) you should still find the last of the blackberries.

I can't think of much better to do with them than this cheesecake. (The ambitions I had been harbouring of making blackberry chutney may have to wait till next year).

I adapted the following recipe from a raspberry cheesecake recipe from BBC Good Food. It is actually the first baked cheesecake I have made. I was pretty proud of myself - it looked good and tasted even better, if I do say so myself. Baked cheesecakes can be prone to cracking when they cool, but this one didn't.

I have decided that baked cheesecake is the way to go when it comes to cheesecake. And all too often the uncooked style of cheesecake can be too creamy, without the depth of flavour you get from cheese. This one has a bit of extra richness from the eggs, and a touch of welcome acidity from the cream cheese.

Unfortunately I wasn't quick enough to take a picture before it all got eaten, so you will have to use your imagination.

For other blackberry recipes, see my earlier post here.

10 digestive biscuits
40g butter, melted
600g/ 1lb 5oz/ 3 standard tubs cream cheese
2 tbsp plain flour
175g/ 6oz sugar (granulated or caster will both work fine)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
142ml / 1/4 pint pot soured cream
200g/ 7oz blackberries (plus optional extras for the top)

1. Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Crush the biscuits to crumbs by putting them in a plastic bag and hitting with a rolling pin or similar heavy implement). Mix with the butter. Press into a springform tin (it needs to be somewhere between 20 and 25cm in diameter) and bake for 5 minutes, then cool.

2. Beat the cream cheese with the flour, sugar, a few drops of vanilla, eggs, the yolk and soured cream until light and fluffy. Stir in half the raspberries and pour into the tin. Bake for 40 minutes and then check, it should be set but slightly wobbly in the centre. Leave in the tin to cool.

3. Scatter any remaining fruit over the top. It doesn't really need any accompaniment - I personally feel cream would be gilding the lily, though you could have a spoonful of clotted cream or crème fraiche if you insist.

If your foraging mission has failed to yield any blackberries, you could use raspberries or blueberries instead. Blackcurrants would also work, although if using them I would be tempted to reduce the quantity to 150g/ 5oz as blackcurrants have a stronger, sharper flavour.

(A note on cream cheese: I used 1 tub full-fat Philadelphia and two tubs of a cheaper alternative described as medium-fat, which is about 11pc fat so similar to reduced-fat Philadelphia. You could probably get away with using all medium-fat, or go for all full-fat if you want a slightly richer flavour).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fishy feasts on the South Bank

This weekend is the Thames festival - a celebration of the end of summer and an opportunity for fun on and around the winner.

It's a well-established event, although this is the first year I have been along. Events are scattered all along the river, but we mostly explored around Southwark Bridge and Bankside. The bridge was closed to traffic and instead of cars there were stalls and a huge communal dining table. On the bridge there was a fishy theme, sustainable fish in particular. For £10 you could have dinner (if you bought a ticket early enough) made from discard fish and waste vegetables. Alternatively, for a small donation you could get a bowl of cooked red signal crayfish, an alien species which damage riverbanks and have driven out the native white-clawed crayfish. The crayfish were fiddly (you throw away a lot more than you eat), but sweet and juicy. And you get to feel virtuous about eating them.

I listened to a talk about sustainable fishing (the world of fishing turns out to have much to do with the world of banking, and as with many forms of food production in this country, the big outfits seem to have most of the power and money).

There was a giant fish-shaped cake with gingerbread biscuit scales individually decorated by children. There were even chips, also made from cake. Later on the cake was cut and everyone in the vicinity got a free generous slab of cake. The "chips" didn't have any icing on, but you got a squirt of jam so it looked like ketchup on a oversized chip.

There were gourmet food stalls at the south end of the bridge- everything from biodynamic burgers with Stichelton cheese to paella to mezze, plus cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy. And fish and chips, of course (the fish all had to be sustainably sourced). Tnd there were even more food stalls along Bankside outside Tate Modern (home-made ice-cream, coffee, fajitas, cupcakes and more).

Festival events continue on Sunday - sadly I doubt there is any more free cake to be had.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An uninspiring end to a search for a bargain

Just in case you were thinking that I rave about every restaurant I go to, here is a place that was distinctly average.

It wasn't a bad meal (with the exception of one dish), but certainly uninspiring, and I left feeling a bit disappointed that I had not been to one of London's many more exciting dining options.

Massala Hut is one of many Indian restaurants on Drummond Street, not far from Euston. The street is pretty much your best bet in the Euston area for finding somewhere to eat that's not a chain restaurant or a characterless hotel bar. I admit my choice was partly guided by the fact that Massala Hut does a discount with Tastecard (that and the fact that I didn't want to go too far from the excellent Bree Louise where we had been having a drink). Nearby Zeen, which looks a bit better, claims to take Tastecard too - but not at the moment, they told us over the phone.

Starters were quite good - lentil soup, suitably spicy and with a wedge of lemon, and peppers stuffed with a spicy chilli and potato mixture. I hadn't had the latter before so can't say how authentic it is, but it was quite pleasant. The food took a while to arrive, but then we had turned down the offer of poppadoms and I have an only semi-serious theory of Indian restaurants that the punishment for refusing poppadoms is that your food takes longer to arrive!

For mains we tried two of the chef's specials - kareli ki nihari, a north Indian dish of slow-cooked lamb, and tandoor cooked paneer in chilli and onions. The lamb was a bit oily. It was fairly complex in flavour but could have been a bit more spiced. The paneer would have benefited from being in chunkier pieces, I thought.
We also had a Bengal aubergine side dish which I thought tasted overpoweringly of oil. I couldn't eat it but
the Real Ale Drinker did. We also had rice and chapatis which were on the small side but otherwise pleasant enough.

We drank mango lassi, which was not as sweet as some with a pronounced yoghurt taste. It was a fairly small glass for £3.30, I thought.

Decor is of the modern, shiny variety, with chairs that look like they are made from bits of industrial metal. A screen shows Bollywood music videos on silent. They kept seating people at the table right next to this screen, and invariably they would complain about the glare/flicker and ask to be moved.

To be fair, with the Tastecard the food was pretty cheap, with a bill just under £30 including one lassi each. (All diners have 12.5pc service added to the bill. The service was ok but no more). But I think we could have done better elsewhere on the street. Maybe that's what you get when you look too hard for a bargain!

Massala Hut
161-163 Drummond Street, Euston, London, NW1 2PB - Tel: 020 73876699 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Candy floss flavoured grapes?

There has been some discussion of the fact that Sainsbury's have started to sell so-called "candy floss flavoured grapes".

All of the coverage I have seen seems to have overlooked the fact that candy floss doesn't really taste of anything except sugar. Its ingredients are usually sugar and food colouring. Most of the distinctive quality of candyfloss comes from the texture - which I am pretty sure these lack. So why not call them sugar-flavoured grapes? Or very sweet grapes? They could have called them marshmallow-flavoured grapes and it would have been about as informative.

I haven't tried the grapes, but if they really do taste of nothing but sugar it doesn't sound very appealing. I enjoy grapes for their fragrance and fruit flavour, not sweetness alone. 
Picture by I like

The grapes were developed at International Fruit Genetics in California and grown by Grapery for Mack Grapes, whose parent company Mack Multiples imports them into the UK. The new variety is actually called Cotton Candy (American for candy floss). Fair enough, new plant varieties always need new names and just calling them "Sugar" might have been a bit less poetic. But I think Sainsbury's may be overdoing it a bit when their press release boats that the grapes have "a distinctive but extremely sweet flavour and surprising taste of candy floss." They are echoing Mack Multiples, whose commercial director describes the grapes' "distinctive candy floss flavour". A triumph of marketing over substance perhaps?