Saturday, 16 February 2013

Friction Burns

I am stuck. Not from the snow, although I have seen snow. Thick flurries. Slow flurries (thankfully no McFlurries). Flurries swirling in such dizzying fashion that looking out at them through the window I have wondered if I was actually in a snow dome and waiting for a giant hand to shake it some more. I have seen rain, sheets of water bouncing off the path, Scotch mist hanging in the air, swirling with the wind. Mud, floods and ice. Coldness, so penetrating, so bitter I am wrapped in a big jumper over several layers wanting to say something in Danish: Jeg er sulten! Jeg vil lave mad til alle! (Or something like that).

Either way, I am stuck, unable to move as I am avoiding spending any money. There is a certain friction between my bank manager and me that if we were connected by crocodile clips I could summon enough energy to get warm. So I am in the kitchen hugging an old gas oven for heat and finding there is nothing to do. Nothing. Grease prints of my nose, lips and finger tips on the window pane are testament to that.

The poet Burns brings an upside to all this bleakness. As an ‘Anglo Angus’ (someone who dons a plaid skirt and goes commando once a year) I feel I should do something for Burn’s Night. I have game for a stew in the freezer (I bought it earlier!) but want to do something different to accompany the meat, something traditional but with a slightly Gothick twist that is thrifty and reflects my circumstances.

With the cold, warming and filling food, like oats, comes to mind, but a gruel-like ‘mash’ does not sound appealing. And yet... (rubbing chin with fingerless gloves) I have always wanted to see just how far I could go with the savoury side of oats, for example, the classic dish of herring rolled in oats. Nigel Slater in his OFM column shows how diverse they can be, with oat dumplings and venison in port (it must be the North London air that our hands reach out for the same ingredients... I bet his flat is warmer!) My decision made, I will do a variation on a similar theme.

A slow cooked meaty venison; iron rich gamey flavours. And to serve with it? A stock based porridge of oats, a little Parmesan cheese, some chilli flakes to give it a thistle like prickle.


500g Diced Venison
100g Pancetta cubes
1 Onion diced
1 Carrot cubed
1 Celery stick diced
2 Garlic cloves crushed
500ml Stock
500ml Red wine
1Tbsp Tomato puree
2Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
Small handful of Juniper berries pressed with the back of a knife
1 Rosemary sprig, good size

150g Porridge oats
450ml Chicken or Vegetable Stock
A handful of grated Parmesan to taste
1/2tsp Chilli flakes
Flat leaf Parsley chopped for garnish


Put the oven on to 130C, 250F, gas 1. Heat a frying pan, fry the carrots a little first before adding the onion and celery. Place them in the casserole. Next fry the pancetta cubes until the fat is rendered down, remove to the casserole. Now season the venison lightly, sear in the hot frying pan until browned on each side. Keep to small amounts, four to five pieces at a time, to prevent sweating. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine, pour into the casserole, add the remaining liquids, the balsamic and stir in the tomato puree. Throw in the berries, the rosemary sprig and the garlic, put the lid on and place in the oven to braise slowly for a couple of hours, or until the meat breaks easily when you test it with a knife.

When the meat is cooked, strain the liquid into a pan and return the meat and vegetables to the casserole to keep warm. Turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until the flavour is good and it is a cream like consistency (you may need to slake some corn flour into the sauce if the flavour is ready before the sauce is thickened). When you are happy with the sauce, pour it into the casserole.

Meanwhile, melt some butter in a pan and pour in the oats. Once they start to absorb the butter, add the chilli flakes and pour in the stock (this can be done while the sauce of the venison is reducing). Stir constantly, making sure that there is enough liquid. When it is just ready (only a few minutes) throw in the grated Parmesan, enough to give it flavour but not so much that there is no other flavour (a small handful). You could add a tablespoon of double cream at the last minute to enrich this further, making it less ‘Miserables’ and more a marveille.

The result?

Moistened fibrous meat should break apart with the gentle persuasion of the fork, and it does, just; a saline, marmite-y hit comes from the reduction of the stock based sauce and red wine; in contrast, a hint of sweetness from tomato puree and balsamic vinegar, and, herbs; well, to get a stew that brings back memories of childhood, with joyously heady aromas that hit your nose the moment you walk into the kitchen, the home, you needed to throw in juniper berries and rosemary didn’t you?... oh yes, and then the oats.

A mouthful of glutenous, gruely, savoury sensation, a slight prickle from the chilli, and hints of husk that define it as not being a ‘mash’ or puree. It is hearty. Heartier than the braised venison itself in the warming, internally glowing manner (a true “Not-the-nine-o’clock-news-Ready-Brek- Windscale” sense. Does anyone remember that? Me neither!) Rich and stuffing enough to eat by itself, but sadly its visual appeal would make Anne Hathaway balk! (Almost beige wallpaper paste to look at, I will have to work on how it can best be presented).
My mouth is filled with a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures, food aimed at seeing off the cold weather with a thermal hot water bottle longevity; a lyrical mix of gastronomic metaphors that potentially do credit to the The Bard race through my mind, as I pace around the flat like a lady in labour, holding my well filled, round and slightly aching stomach (yes, it was filling). The cold snap continues but so warmed up with this ‘thermogruel’ am I, I could book a beach holiday in Solway Firth (not according to my bank manager though).  



Sunday, 19 February 2012

A reprint of a great book with a mad name

Rich spices of cumin and cinnamon, sharp notes of lemons, muted aromas of cardamom and rose, these are some of the smells that should come from your store cupboard after reading the reprint of Diana Henry’s book “Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons” (2011, Octopus Books); a mosaic of wonderful recipes that take you from Marrakesh to Istanbul and Catalonia to Sicily in the space of a chapter, only to get the mental jet lag all over again in the following ones.

Although I thought I was going to have difficulty with the style and layout of the book, I barely realised how far into it I had gone before putting pen to paper, how much I really was enjoying it; nor, having put it down mid read to go shopping, had I consciously realised that I had ingredients for Moroccan style chicken in my basket. And that is what makes this book so good. It grows on you, envelopes the senses, and makes you see your larder in a different light.

Each of its chapters have wonderfully beguiling names, like “Fruits of Longing” and “Fragrances of the Earth” that immediately draw the reader in; each of the chapters dedicated to a set of flavours rather than the usual meat, eggs, poultry etc. Although that in itself could be a bit discomforting to the reader (see my earlier comment about the worry of getting into the flow) the joy is that given the cuisines that are written about, it is a sensible if not original way of doing it.

Familiar to me were the chutney recipe from Adam’s Cafe (which I ate on a visit there recently) and the Persian restaurant in a Portakabin in a car park in Kensington (a real blast from the past. I wonder what happened to that?) Unfamiliar were the exotic names: Ladies’ Navels; Pearl Diver’s Rice; Ottoman Lamb with Sultan’s Pleasure; Muhamara, and Crazy Water of the title, which intrigue as well as amuse.

Whilst Diana Henry provides a lot of Persian, Turkish and North African recipes these are balanced well with a collection of Spanish, Italian and French ones that remind the reader that the exotic, the delightful and mouth-wateringly flavoursome isn’t that far from our own shores: Lemon and Basil Ice Cream; Catalan Chicken with Picada; Provencal Lamb stuffed with Figs, Goat’s Cheese and Walnuts; Socca and Sardine, Roasted Tomatoes, Olive and Parsley Salad, and Ruby Grapefruit and Campari Granita (a particular eye catcher for me!) All the more inspiring because they bring something new to familiar cuisine.

Scattered liberally amongst all these mouth watering recipes and mood lifting descriptions, like the herbs and spices in the book, are various quotes. These are delicious snippets to add more metaphoric flavour to the reader’s imaginings, Biblical writers and classic authors to writers of note and others in between.

The only real downside for me was the index at the back, which doesn’t reflect the names of the recipes, nor necessarily some of the ingredients. Although it is a pleasure to flick through the book to find something and revisit some brilliant photographs (by Jason Lowe), it is a bit frustrating to look for, as an example, the Socca and Sardine recipe and see neither under ‘S’ but under ‘F’ for fish (that sort of helpfulness reminds me of a sign outside a restaurant in Cephalonia, which invited the guest to ask the owners what the fish of the day was, only to hear every time “very fine fish”).

Part of me feels it a shame that it is merely a cookbook rather than something more for the coffee table. Each introduction evokes memories of the past and imaginings of things that never happened but are just as palpable. Diana Henry’s descriptions of childhood trips to the South of France for example had me subconsciously wafting my hand over imaginary lavender whilst sitting in bed. The descriptions inspire you to want to eat what comes later before you have even read the recipes.

The final word should go to Claudia Roden, who says: “[It is] A glorious and magical feast for the senses”, I would have to agree (and wish I said that myself!) I am so happy I have this book as part of my collection; Diana Henry has written something worth hunting down if you haven’t already got it. 

Friday, 16 December 2011

Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake... a homage

Chill winds channel themselves down the Bosphorus with eye watering coldness as I stand to watch the darkening horizon, the saffron sunshine descend to pumpkin hues as the day dwindles and the night finally begins; to see houses and streets light up across the straights from Europe to Asia; to hear the Muezzin’s fervent call to prayer. Here and there birds flutter from minaret to minaret, shocked into flight by the speakers: chaos, confusion and organised prayer; beautiful, spiritual and magical... and gin, the irreverent glass of gin clasped to my freezing hand, a blessed shot of warmth (you had to go and spoil it Lou!)

Chinking wine glasses bring me out of my reverie. I am not in the cold night air of Istanbul, I am in the warmth of Kopapa in similarly chilly weather, but the complex flavours that flutter on my palate have taken me somewhere else for a fleeting moment as one spice and the next reveals itself, opens up. It is the Panna Cotta hinting at the mystic east: delicious memories, delicious food: so many subtleties and nuances. I decide there and then to recreate this in my own way, to salute the chef, to pay homage in a... well, a cheesecake actually (...and again!)

The flavour I am looking for needs to reflect the amber sun, the blend of essences to take me back to that moment again, but at the same time as this is cheesecake the spice needs to come through the cheesy creamy vanilla quite noticeably (topped with that you also have to think about the base, gingery but not overwhelming, as ginger is).  

I am taking my basic cheesecake mix from Leith’s Bible, changing it, adding to it, and then getting downgraded by my tutors at Leith’s for it, but any well practiced recipe for a baked cheesecake will do (let me know). Here’s what I have come up with:

12 digestives (6 ordinary and 6 Duchy Original Stem ginger)
50g melted butter (more or less depending on how much will set your base/bases)

155g ricotta
100g marscapone cream
5 Tablespoons pumpkin puree (from a tin, or roasted with caster sugar in chunks and forked)
1 egg plus 1 yolk
3 drops vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon caster sugar

3 Star Anise
2 Cloves
1-2 teaspoons grated orange
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pre heat the oven to 150C.

Start with the base:

Get a pack of Duchy Original Stem Ginger biscuits 6 should be fine, plus 6 ordinary digestives. Crush them in a bag with a rolling pin or the back of a pan until they form crumbs. Pour the crumbs into the bottom of your tin. I experimented with ginger snaps but these don’t crush well and you have to use a food processor, however, DON’T use a food processor in this case as the digestives turn to a ‘dust’ and will create a greasy base. Also, try not to over crush as you want a textural mouthful when you bite into this (am I demanding? Am I?!)

Next melt the butter and pour over the crumbs. The aim is to set the base without the ‘free radicals’ (to use a phrase) but to avoid greasiness. Press the crumbs firmly into the base of your tin with the back of a wooden spoon.

Put the tin in a preheated oven for 10-15 minutes until cooked (and it starts smelling so good you want to wear it) and solid enough not to move, or fall apart when the cheese is poured on top of it.

Meanwhile, with a pestle and mortar, crush the dry spices until powdery enough to pass through a sieve (guests and loved ones will thank you for it if you do!) trying to ensure all the spices are used and that there are no large lumps (hence the sieve).

In a separate bowl mix the cheeses, add the pumpkin, the vanilla, the spices and sugar. Taste again, as the pumpkin is light but should have some flavour coming through. Adjust accordingly. Finally, add the egg and extra yolk.

Pour the mix onto the cooked biscuit base and return to the oven to cook for a good 30 minutes or until it has the slightest wobble when shaken (this may take a bit longer as pumpkin is quite watery so be patient).

Remove the cake from the tin and allow it to cool.
Freezer squashed but the idea is there... surely?
So, the result? Elements of vanilla, pumpkin and Star Anise teased the tongue; strong ginger flavours that might have overwhelmed had I not frozen mine two weeks earlier and which mellowed it (I used 12 Duchy biscuits) gave a spicy kick to the softer, sweeter top. The lightness of the cake and the softness of the mousse meeting the crunch of the biscuit base definitely provided a contrast; the cake was rich but still foamy light to the palate (a good vanilla ice cream definitely helps, maybe washed down with a Cointreau!)

In all, did I get the full Bosphorus feeling, the sense that I am back there, in Istanbul, watching the sun set and listening to the sounds of the exotic and mysterious? Well, perhaps not there exactly, more airport terminal than full city experience I think, but it was fun. Thank you for the inspiration Kopapa, I salute you... Merry Christmas

Monday, 12 December 2011

Unputdownably Unquenchable

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...” smells of pine and clove and dew, not forgetting apricots, benzene, berries and vanilla... sorry, Christmas was posted to me early this year with a book by international wine writer, Natalie MacLean and I have already got carried away.
When I was asked to review this book, it was in the heart of a tornado of chaos that is my life: moving house, Cordon Bleu course, exams, balancing friends with college, oh and being mugged (welcome to London!) This was of course the past three weeks! However, I am so glad it waited. This book is so unputdownable that it is a pity to finish it (I guess I can always read it again or wait for a new instalment).

I think Natalie would, justifiably, gouge my eyes out with a rusty old corkscrew and at best, replace them with crown caps like some Tales of the Vault wino snowman (did they do that programme?) if I start a review with the words “education can be fun”. However, the written style is so full of humour that it lends itself to teaching you new, relevant and interesting facts without you realising you are being taught; a style that has you laughing at the quips, smirking at the observations and thinking ‘interesting’ at the same time.

Aimed at the best bargains and value for money wines (and written by a self confessed 'cheapskate' - her words) it is divided into days, regions and grapes, as well as having an index at the back that matches food with the discussed wines (an asterisk for the best wine/food match to the chapter’s grape), and links to the recipes. It also quirkily has additional reading (Jaws by Peter Benchley brought a shark like cheesy grin to my face). This is brilliantly thought out. And just before you can draw breath a new day and adventure take you to further into this book.

We start off in Australia, learning what kick started the industry there. Wry comments such as describing Syrah as a “new sensation” bring a chuckle (as a grape it was first cultivated in Roman times even though it was introduced to Australia much later on). Insightful observations show her interest in the makers as well as the subject. This she does with tongue-in-cheek humour, the bubbling energy of Wolf Blass (so non-PC you can sense his PR spokeswoman cringing and Natalie’s eyebrows going stellar), and with genuine fondness, meeting the Penfolds and the Henksches make for a melodically whimsical ending in the starlit Southern Hemisphere over a supper that, frankly, you wish you were eating with them.

A completely different environment but similar characters and observations take you to the Mosel the next ‘day’. Here we start in a serene manner, the descriptions as undulating as the river itself, the eccentric and high octane characters, however, bring a vitality to this section; Again, it is the descriptive narrative that takes you to the moment that she tastes the wine, palpable or at least truly imaginable without doing a ‘me’ and throwing the full dictionary of similes and metaphors at the description; like the tasting, just enough. And again, we have the personal observations which bring the people to life as much as the wines: the elusive Prüm owner, blind tasting with his glamorous daughter; the wildly enthusiastic Löosen’s discourse at full throttle, all bring us the delights of Riesling.

The whirlwind tour continues in a ‘whirlybird’ over Niagara and is a revelation for me having only ever drunk Canadian wine from Okanagan. Niagara on the Lake, just minutes from the top tourist spot, the precarious nature of the landscape, from blights of starlings (do they come in ‘blights’?) to the climate, to natural methods for cultivating the land and organics (enlightening). Words and observations flow like the falls themselves and like the Pinot Noir of the chapter this is bursting with facts and observations that leave you wanting to rush headlong into the next one.    

Picture from Natalie MacLean's own website
Mack the Knife starts humming in my mind with the opening paragraphs of the next chapter, for obvious reasons. Natalie takes a slightly different focus in South Africa, it is a more intense chapter as it covers the full spectrum of wine, politics (apolitically), people and history in steady gulps; Syrah, Pinotage, Mourvedre , Grenache, Chenin, and Sauvignon Blanc in glassfuls; a rainbow of subjects and characters from the Rainbow Nation. One lady stands out amongst the others as a truly inspirational wine ‘activist’: Carmen Stevens, a wonderful story of hard graft being rewarded with success. Again, the chapter ends in similar mood to its beginning, landscape, beauty, peace and gloriously described flavours to match the environment.

The smouldering slopes of Etna provide a look at a lesser known wine growing area of Italy and perversely one of the oldest ones. Precarious heights match greater depth of flavours as she describes the local grape varieties, although the concentration is on (an old favourite and much maligned grape) Nero d’Avola. Laugh out loud moments come when she is seemingly leered at by an overtly familiar wine maker and then shown the level of intensity by another producer (“You should never talk to me during harvest”, to quote!) If the Sicilian’s philosophy of acceptance to change and events, coming from the island’s history of invasion from the Phoenicians to the Normans, highlighted by references to The Leopard (one of my favourite books), then passion is the overriding sentiment of the growers in one of the most precarious wine growing regions in the world.

From fiery passions of Sicily we move to the more seductive and darker rhythmic passions of Argentina. Contrast this with the newness of Argentina. Here, Natalie battles with recalcitrant ponies (I wish this book had been illustrated) in the foothills of the Andes. Vines imported by hardy immigrants from the old world to the new, battles with exports thanks to its history and politics, which caused Argentina’s wine market to stagnate and their volte face to keep up with competitors in the modern age, it’s all here. We are introduced to Malbec, the black wine grape of Cahors, imported and translated into a palatable mouth pleaser by the likes of Nicolas Catena. Each point in the chapter fascinates and with that comes the odd emotional twinge as you read the beautifully described tastings of “I want some!”

Another chapter and another river; safely taking us to the dark heart of the Douro Valley (no helicopters, Autobahns or horses on this voyage). From slate to granite and from light white Rieslings to rich ruby and tawny blends of Tourigas and Tintos, there is a “hurrah” for Port as the fortified wine, as opposed to the prevalence of growers to make wines from the ‘Port’ grapes. There are suggestions for cocktails to invigorate the port market and again, Natalie matches foods (quite unusually, but brilliantly) to the rich plummy, mulberry fruited liquid. One seminal moment is being offered a drink from an 1893 Port (which makes my 1952 champagne tasting seem like non-vintage, I have age envy!)

The final chapter takes us to the glamorous and overly chic Provence, tempered by colour not grape: rosé is another misunderstood wine that needs to be shouted about, its pastel colours not one for discerning palates (I love it, but then again...) as highlighted in comments about teasingly labelled rosés from the Languedoc or New Zealand, though the mention of manly, Hemmingway and pink wine in one paragraph did raise my eyebrows (see Truman Capote’s views on the great man). The view is that rosé inspires a degree of irreverence in growers that other wines wouldn’t. The meal with Nathalie Vautrin-Vacoillie of Domaine du Clos d’Alari based on Provençale ingredients has me salivating, and there is final visit to an ex-Pat Brit of well known best sellers. The appeal of the south of France and their Provençale rosés sadly brings the book more or less (Algonquin aside) to an end. Thankfully, I have a warm and comforting Barbera in my hand to get over it.

The book gives glass sized gulps of information that can be put down and picked up. I challenge anyone to do that though, I raced through it. I have had such fun reading this book that I am loathe to say goodbye to the author. As the front cover quote states “Natalie MacLean is a new force in wine writing”, I have to agree. It is, in short, brilliant.

Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines
by Natalie MacLean

Hardcover $24
Perigee/Penguin USA

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Teased and Tantalised at Kopapa.

Coats, perhaps? Jackets maybe? Given the humid stickiness maybe just jumpers, or the full medallion look? These are the questions I ask myself as I head across London to meet L, my Canadian friend on a stopover in London and en route to sunnier climes.

Can this really be October? Here and there, evidence of seasonal changes; a weaker sun, a bone cutting chill to the wind, patchy skies and grey, damp streets, and a millefeuille of leaves that crunch and mulch under foot. A tall, leggy blonde vision stands before me looking, as the advertisement might say, like she has just stepped out of a salon, 36 hours up and not a sign of jet lag. I, on the other hand, 36 minutes into my journey, am dripping, agitated and in need of a shower, and a cool refreshing drink!

I suggested heading to Covent Garden:  given the layers of foliage underfoot and the array of autumnal colours I wondered if an appropriate choice for the time of year, would be Kopapa; fusion food with contrasting textures, plates that give a spectrum of flavours that appeal to the taste buds as well as the eyes.

Sticking with the house Momo Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Peter Gordon’s own label), a zesty, fruity and refreshing light wine, not totally compatible to our dishes (but that was our choice, rather than the Restaurant Festival Menu’s wine suggestions), we began our meal. L and I take a swig to cleanse the palate.

A dish of Scallop velouté with a tempura cod cheek comes our way. Small bites to get our palates warmed up. This had the lightest of light tempura shells, crisp to the tongue and tooth (though slightly salty for me). Inside, the white fleshed cod’s cheek released a spectral steam, and promised an intense and lovely flavour (slightly dry flesh). The scallop, in contrast was the lightest meltingly creamy bite, a comfort food richness to the velouté, a delicately light amuse bouche (I now realise exactly how Tom Hanks must have felt kissing Daryl Hannah in, honestly!) A glorious shellfish stocky flavour, a saline smacker to get the palate aroused.

A swill, a glug, and enough time to digest some news before the tempura soft shell crab with pickled green mango and cucumber salad, with tamarind dressing arrived. Visually this had me green with envy, a perfect julienne of cucumber (my knife skills are more 19th Century East End at the moment.... think about it!) and crunchy green vegetables sharply contradicted the earthier and muddy water flavours of the soft shell crab. The plum sauce was rich, soft unctuously plummily rich, contrasting nicely with the peppery rocket and crunchy and perfect tempura, its sweetness, with the spiciness of the chilli and tamarind. The acidulated mouth, the sweetened lips, the longer earthier finish to the palate: delicious (though all that lascivious lip licking, it’s a good thing we are old friends!)

A top up, a refresh, a glug, a swill: Yellow fin Tuna tartare with sesame and ginger, nori puree, yazu saffron tapioca. This was decidedly L’s favourite. A soy saucy fishy gingery ceviche- like tartare of tuna, strong on impact thanks in part to the ginger, but this appeared to be more of a textural dish; smooth, raw flesh-like tuna, rounded bubbles of tapioca, a greeny yellow ‘caviar’ gently popping on the tongue, real textural healing (didn’t Lionel Ritchie..? Er, no!) The sesame flavour so subtle it teased the tongue to find it. I have to admit, I really enjoyed it; truly delicious and refreshing, subtle flavours slowly coming out after the initial spicy impact has eased off.

Another glass? Why not?!

We had been teased and tempted, our tongues caressed by the flavours and aromas of the dishes so far, but here is where the relationship began: Pumpkin Panna Cotta with spiced Orange Jelly, chevre truffle toastie, salt’n’pepper pecans, a Turkish treat from the sous-chef.

The cheesy, cheese straws left a lickable scented buttery residue on the finger tips, the pastry was perfect, the truffle was not so apparent (the nutty and peppery black truffle perhaps?) Either way, who can resist the salty peppery pecans for added crunch?

But it is the panna cotta that plunges me into memories of the Bosphorus, of the Blue Mosque and the electric and electrifying call of the Muezzin over the rooftops of Istanbul. Vanilla, cinnamon, star anise are blended with the pumpkin each sweet and each savoury to create a truly exotic dish. Another bite and a saline kick breaks from the eggy sweetness of the panna cotta. Sharpness of orange spice cuts through the cream and in turn tempers the salt. Clever, and yet... This plate is the dance of the seven veils, layer upon layer of exotic and delightful, flirtatious aromas and flavours that are playful and frivolous, but sadly this is a one night stand not a lasting is time to say adieu...

A gossip, a swill, a glug... And then comes the seductress... OMG! Braised beef cheeks, chilli and galangal consommé and garlic puree. A sublimely slow cooked, slow, slow, so very slowly cooked nugget of fibrous beauty (I could kiss the cow that died for this deliciousness, though Darryl Hannah would be better!) The meat is knife pressingly fall apart, so beefy, so stocky, so beautiful: the prize bull. (Was the beef wrapped in caul I wonder? I don’t care, I am in love) Hints of smoky lard melded with garlic puree tempt the tongue, the consommé to the side a warming chilli and electric galangal added zing to add spice to the refreshing soup. If the panna cotta was the one night stand this is the smouldering vamp, older, wiser. Rich, seductive subtle spices warm and caress the palate, and so, you want more... mmm... Why Mrs Robinson..!!

I put my hand over the glass, these flavour are staying with me for a bit longer. Well only a bit. The perry braised middle white pork belly on parsnip puree, preserved lemon and prune chutney, kale, cider jus arrives to take the beef’s place, and so, I have grown and have to find another love, but I am picky...

A refreshed palate (yes, a swill, a glug, but I thought you might have assumed...) and I start with the bit I least like; the kale. Soft but with the cabbage crunch that should be there, very irony, very nicely done, I am just not fully converted. Contrasting this brassica high is the natural sweetness, smoothness and glossiness of the parsnip puree (I bet they didn’t have to sieve it like I did the mash this week!) But wait! The chutney knocks me off my seat, it is so sexy, the salivatingly sharp preserved lemons balance against the rich and sweet velvety prunes in a sticky preserve (imagine Nigella saying ‘oooomahmee’, a licked finger, a pout, a wink - yes, you’ve got it!) Brine and acidity meets syrupy toffiness, sweet meets sour.

Now add that to the melt in the mouth pork, beautifully cooked, translucent fat just disappears on the tongue; a chunk, a dollop, a touch of the puree (ok I have a big mouth and people are looking!) This is bliss. I can just about mouth “oh!” as my best exclamation. I don’t really want to swallow but instead to just savour the flavours, though the strength of the lemons does slightly weaken the porky meatiness; either way, this is deliciousness to savour. I blush.

We slurp... (you know us by now).

The final dish comes: Pan Fried market fish on braised fennel, borlotti, cavolo nero, brown shrimp and yuzu dressing.

For me, this is the moment in the film “Oh What a Lovely War” when Maggie Smith, all legs and basque, flirtingly offers a kiss and a shilling to the recruits if they sign up, and when they get on stage for the kiss they wish they had not as she is not the sex bomb they were expecting? That was how I felt. Seductive sounding, fennel and fish always a winner, brown shrimp and yuzu dressing (well I have not been there before). So when this light and lovely sounding dish arrived, and the beans looked a bit grey and dull and the shrimp sauce a bit underwhelming in flavour, I only wish I had had this dish first so my food love-in could have ended on a Wagnerian crescendo.

Don’t get me wrong, the fish was beautifully cooked and melt in the mouth flaky, the fennel gave it that beautiful smoothness that the dish needed but after trying all the other plates I wanted a bit more contrast, a bit of a flavour slap then a tongue caressing taste bud kiss. This was in need of a bit of the same saline punch that the amuse bouche gave, only the skin had that.

L and I had another gulp and swill and slurp and gossip before we left, it was a heady evening of seduction on the part of the food and a marathon for the tongue, I needed to lie down with my thoughts (though before I left I managed to have a short gossip with Frith before whacking here with a request for work experience in April, so I apologise for being a cheeky beggar).

The chill outside required a night cap or two and then thankfully the jet lag had kicked in and L was keen to depart, the eventual shock of the night air bringing the evening to a sharp and cruel close, but then again, Kopapa is such a seductive place, the menu always evolving and yet, always managing to excite the senses and tease the palate as well as the mind. My next flirtation with flavours is very near.

PS Apologies for the lack of photos this time, my phone battery was flat.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Classic reading from Quadrille Publishing

Shelves darkened by lines of books, heaped to block out much of what little light comes in through the window, piled to turn the path no more than a foots length and make you walk heel-to-toe, all of them waiting for some dust to be blown off if not deliberately then by a sneeze (asthmatics like me should beware!); the musty smell of the cotton and card or embossed waxy covers, the graininess of the creamy pages, made dark and brittle in parts by sunlight; the tactile pleasure, the joy of holding something by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson, or others, that is fifty years old or more is one the internet can never provide. I love hunting down older, original (sometimes first edition) cook books. It is an occasional treat for me, the chaotic drive, then a leisurely pub lunch followed by the slow perusal of the second hand bookshops to find something new, well new to the collection.

So there was a frisson of excitement when I received two books from the Classic Voices range by Quadrille Publishing  to review: “The Gentle Art of Cookery” and “Simple French Cooking for English Homes”. Both beautifully bound in the old style card and weave as if the post had been delayed for the decades or so since its first publication. The feel of the covers reminiscent of the old style books that represent a quality made to last. These are enjoyably tactile and the vibrant colour pleasing to the eyes, and smell as fresh as the dandelion on one of the covers. As Skye Gyngell is quoted as saying, they are indeed wonderful bedside readers to dip into and put down at leisure.

These are collectibles, but there is the rub. I WANT to use them, I want to be able to give the recipes a try, use their historical knowledge and encyclopaedic wisdom to help a food craving or an idea take shape, and that is my only disappointment (and I say ONLY). As beautiful as these are and collectible as they may become, the gilt edge of the Boulestin (and my own copy of Mme Prunier’s silvered pages) are not practical to use with greasy or flour covered hands. Rather like “Venezia” by Tessa Kiros (a beautiful if impractical book), I could be put off buying them if I didn’t feel I could actually use them in a practical sense without leaving sparkling traces in my pastry, for example, (though it may actually improve my offerings) but they are so well presented retro collectibles that I want to buy them. A shame but that is my only real dilemma, my only complaint; and that is, truthfully, it.

But to start, in chronological order, “Simple French Cookery for English Homes” (originally published in 1923) comes in a custard yellow cover printed with a pair of brown heifers on the front, gilt edged (see earlier comment) it is half the size of the other book I receive but just as practical and in some senses the more enjoyable to read.

X (Xavier) Marcel Boulestin was the original bon viveur having been a journalist and a translator, before doing the occasional stint as a private chef and wine advisor to the wealthy (which led him to get the commission for this, his first book) and finally, and more importantly, the original television chef in 1937.

Matthew Fort is quoted as saying the original modern cook book was due to Boulestin and it is clear why; here and there you can almost see his Gallic flare of the nostrils or a David Suchetian wag of the Poirot finger to warn us not to err down a certain culinary path, notably in his ‘Remarks’ section.

His raconteur character comes through in the almost romantic paragraph introducing soup, where the opening picture whisks the reader off to the rolling hills of the Auvergne or further south. Here he explains the North South divide (I guess they invented that one too!) telling us that soup and wine is the traditional peasant fare from the centre and south of France rather than poor coffee and bread in the north. Again, there is the tale master spinning his yarn to warm us to the traditional idea of French food.

First comes the chapter on Sauces with the caveat that all sauces are part of the dish mentioned in the subsequent meat or fish section. It is a really useful and easily readable chapter from the Courte Bouillon to the Hollandaise.

Whilst he cautions us (finger wagging) on the need to keep Egg recipes simple, and has no comment on the various fish dishes, the section on Meat opens with a small dig at the ‘perfidious’ Swiss getting in the way of our understanding of French Cuisine. (We should be at one, cooking from the same page but they got in the way; why did they do that to us? Why?) The least we can do therefore is to disguise their influence with a head of garlic in a leg of mutton.

On salads, the finger wagging goes ‘metronomical’ (tick, tick, tick), the iron fist in velvet glove comment “I cannot help wondering if an English salad is the result of ignorance or the aim of a curiously perverted taste” is a prime example. Ouch! And yet, you have to laugh. But the reader’s attention is grabbed and he goes on to explain why.

Ending the food section (following a good selection of deserts) is a suggested daily menu starting from Sunday and working its way through the week, a progression of dishes using leftovers for the following day with a page explaining his reasoning, and a late evening supper (suggested at 3am so not only the original TV Chef but also the original clubber?)

Finally, he flourishes with an exceedingly useful chapter on wine as if taking the amateur gently aside (in the same way as a Frenchman might take you gently aside at a wedding reception and say “your wife is having an affair with the Mayor but we have to be adult about it” type ‘gentle aside’, a Gallic shrug, a pat on the shoulder, an almost imperceptible shake of the head). He advises on storage and how we serve our whites (too cold – agreed) and our reds too warm, undecanted and cooked in the bottle by the fire (thank goodness the microwave hadn’t been invented then!)

In other chapters there is not so much commentary or introduction having already discussed most of his thoughts in his Remarks both General and Special, though there are quotes from Brillat Saverin, Meredith, Galsworthy and even Darwin add to the flavour.

“Simple French Cooking for English Homes” made me smile, laugh and fascinated me all at once; a rare gem.

“The Gentle Art of Cookery” on the other hand, is a collaboration of two ladies who sound like a pair of ex-debutantes or nannies than writers; Mrs C F (Hilda) Leyel, the wife of an theatrical impresario who used her dining menus as a basis for writing this book before going on to write others, and her assistant, Miss Olga Hartley who was a suffragette, journalist and noted author.  

The rich herb green cover, silver spine and large dandelion pattern have a visually comforting appeal. Inside recipes are described in a matter of fact, no nonsense way. The writing has no fuss or frills, no nonsense, no delicious metaphors or gastro-prose verbage like, oh, my blog for example, just straight talking; an approach reminiscent of Fanny Craddock but without the harpyish, hand slapping bossiness. Most of the chapters have quotations and an introduction on the importance of the key ingredients such as eggs, mushrooms, and so forth.

Many things stand out in this book however, the flower chapter, to which the front cover alludes, starts with an introduction on the history of flower usage from ancient Sparta to medieval times and to the Far East with Orange Pekoe and Jasmine. Hilda Leyel’s knowledge as an herbalist really comes to the fore with examples of Dandelion Puree and Eggs with Marigold.

The chapter for Children’s recipes is as amusing as it is a revelation, listing some amazing things that the reader can do for children, ‘To Make an Ostrich Egg’ (using pig’s bladder and several ordinary eggs), or that children can do for themselves, ‘Omelettes in Saucers’ (although Boulestin in his Egg chapter says that an omelette is not the easiest thing to get right), Meringues and a Gingerbread House, for example. All done in a simple no nonsense way, but something that gets children excited about cooking (that can’t be bad).

The Egg chapter has an introduction including the historical significance of eggs both in food and in society which is almost worth buying the book for alone, and there is a potentially lifesaving section on mushrooms for the amateur forager. However, I could not understand the need for separate chapters on Almonds and Chestnuts when walnuts are mentioned in vegetables (that’s the author’s decision, who am I to question?)  

For a themed party there is a chapter called Arabian Nights. Although the recipes are based on those in Burton’s book of ‘The Thousand Nights and a Night’ (also known as Arabian Nights) the release of the film ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ with Douglas Fairbanks (1924, when the book was probably being assembled) must surely have had a massive influence. In fact, at the time of writing the book (published in 1925) the Empire Exhibition had opened, Art Deco was arriving from Paris, Tutankhamen’s artefacts had done a whistle stop visit to Wembley, Kingdoms were emerging in the Middle East, and all things exotic were being produced. Having said all that, given her classic comments on ancient mythology and food history, Mrs Leyel perhaps failed to digest Leviticus in this particular chapter. LARD? BACON?! Or am I being too particular (though I am very much tempted to give Oeufs a la Constantinopolitaine a go)?

Despite a feeling of slight nanny knows best commentary and my occasional criticism I loved this book, it is a treasure trove of information, very much worth the cost to sit proudly anywhere, be it by the bed, on the coffee table, or, like mine, in the kitchen where it will be well thumbed and highly valued.

The Classic Voices series is an excellent collection brought together by Jill Norman, the series editor, who also writes a great introduction to each book. They bring an almost other worldliness to the present with mentions of taking food up to the nursery in the vegetable section of Leyel’s book and cellaring wines in Boulestin’s, phrases that have no place in the modern and instant world that we live in and yet although dated are not something that distract from the recipes and ideas themselves, in fact, are a pleasure to read: different worlds, different lives. Jill Norman has created a real joy and collectible pleasure for the buyer and whilst there are only a few books in the range (so far?)I cannot wait to get my hands on more editions.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Yellow Cab in Paris

Blinding sunlight like the flash of a camera’s bulb rushes through my mind. Blinding sunlight, searing heat and buildings of honey hued limestone, dusty and dry. A hot cityscape revealing itself, contrasting with the cool marble shaded concourse of Bordeaux station in the late 1980’s. Backpacking with two friends (I wonder what happened to them?) we arrived from an overnight trip hungry and unwashed. In front of us a fast food joint serving burgers; burgers, breakfast, station parade? I guess I was asking for it, but I was a gangly, skinny, spotty teenager who was starving and could have eaten a horse; and in part that is what I did, literally! 

But this is July 2011 and I am sitting at a table in the Marais. I am older and wiser (no, really), and certainly not skinny having been on a gastro-ride through 60 years of Bollinger and several courses of delights from Alain Ducasse at the Jules Verne earlier in the day. It is late, and although it is dark, the heat resonating from the limestone landscape, buildings similar to Bordeaux, brings back the memories of my teens as well as the speciality of the chef I am reading on the menu. I need to spread out and relax.

The table is in Le Taxi Jaune, owned by Chef Otis Lebert, whose biography includes Tante Claire and l’Ortolan in Britain. This is to outward appearances, a traditional bistro, where the French cuisine is innovative; brought up to date. A menu that gives the impression of someone who enjoys the true elements of French cooking but with hints at the slightly alternative, the quirky sense of humour is demonstrated by the neon lights above the bar. So when he recommends his speciality, steak, then smiles and clarifies, horse steak, I gulp, swig down my aperitif and say yes (well it is his speciality).

I started light (it was the heat): Salade des haricots et girolles. The plate was an elegant and simple salad; a delicious balance of fresh green and truffley mushrooms, small and tobacco tan in colour. Simple? I think that would be understating what lies beneath.

While the haricots were perfectly non-squeaky cooked, the mushrooms provided a wonderful soft contrast in texture, then the subtle slightly crunchy rosy pink spots of finely chopped shallot. There was a prickle, something teasing the lips and tongue, coming from the merest hint of cayenne pepper (though with the humidity and wine tastings, I had, to paraphrase Mike Leigh’s Abigail, sensitive lips) but I saw the specks, the tiny red dots, they were definitely there; tarragon and parsley, topped by the shallot, bring out the dressing, adding light liquorice and pepper notes; layers of complexity thanks to the subtle added flavours and spices. So, ‘simple’? No, delicious.

The main course arrived: Merlan de Cheval. On the plate a medley of food, colourful and rich in perfume; round slices of meat with a dark, chocolate brown, tangy and prickly peppered crust, hints of spiciness on the nose and tongue, then a beautifully fruity red bloody centre. The red onion butter, turned pink from the slow cooked slices, adds sweetness to the strong slightly bitter flavour of the meat. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have the grassiness or bloody iron ‘whack’ that beef gives, though it is similar in richness and does have a powerful flavour; sweetness and earth are perfectly combined.

Farcis of courgette and tomato accompany the dish. The courgette is a vibrant green stuffed with a lightly curried aubergine, raisin and tomato ‘ratatouille’, gentle in flavour and very more-ish.  The tomato was stuffed with the more traditional style of ratatouille, pepper, courgette and onion, again subtle and tasty. Finally, herbed mash gave balance, green flecks playfully opposing the rosy butter.

Otis Lebert recommended the Pichon Paillé 2009 Graviers  Bourgheuil to go with the main course, a leathery and vegetal cabernet franc, slightly meaty, and a perfect complement to the main.

I said my thanks and we shook hands (I actually wanted to bear hug him it was so good) and stepped into the sticky night air, swaying pendulously from the food and the wine. For some Joe le Taxi started running through my head, maybe it was an infantile obsession with Vanessa Paradis, whose song was around when I was travelling all those years back, more obviously the name of the restaurant stuck in my mind. Whatever the reason I zigzagged my way through the streets without the need to look back, on a large bed in a cool room with a contented grin on my face, I knew I would be back some time soon.

Restaurant Le Taxi Jaune
13, r. Chapon
Paris 75003
+33 1 42 76 00 40