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?