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?