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

See also: for wine updates and further information on parings and recipes and to download her app.

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

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Life can be perfect (part 2 - the food)

A shudder, a jolt, and I hold on to the rail (just in case, you never know). The grinding noise begins and we are off. My first thought is the book “From Earth to the Moon”. The pod continues to shake as it makes its ascent, taking us up, not quite the speed of sound or light, not quite to the stars, but still giving us the magical feeling of being taken high up, very high up, nose bleedingly high up (I think you get the picture); a vertiginous journey. 

Our destination is, appropriately though, the Jules Verne, an Alain Ducasse restaurant set above the first level of the Eiffel Tower, where Bollinger is hosting the presentation of the RD Champagne lunch. After twelve vintage tastings, twelve swishes, slurps and spits, twelve sets of notes, all that hard work, it is time for fun. I have faim de loup to use a phrase.

With another ‘welcome’ glass of champagne, we are ushered to our tables and to enviable views over the Paris skyline, passing huge yellow spinning wheels, pulling the elevators and the crowds of tourists below, and giving a sense of motion, the impression of a Mississippi steamboat. Introductions to our fellow diners done, we are sat down and the food begins.

We began with an amuse bouche: Langoustines rafraîchies au caviar; soft pink luscious Dublin bay prawns, juicy, dribbling down the chin juicy, topped by a nutty fishy salty, greeny black caviar, and garnished with red onion, chive or lemon zest; each garnish different and each bringing a pleasant addition to the flavour. The prawns lay on a strip of crustacean mousse, saline and rich, bringing out the sweetness of the prawns, specks of cauliflower caught the eye and demonstrated intimate detail. (Frankly, if this was ‘amuse’ my taste buds were already getting hysterical!)

Next came a starter of Homard de nos côtes court-bouillonné. Pieces of meaty Brittany lobster flavoured with fennel and woody herbs, the aniseed perfuming the creamy fishy flesh. Around this, a kaleidoscopic vision of endive, spring onion, carrot, fennel and radish ‘acidulé’ giving colour to the plate and a spectrum of flavours to the palate; sharp lemon acidity, mouth wateringly emphasising the sweetness of the meat. Pepper and smoke from the endive and onions, fennel and radish, juxtaposing the acid zing, complimenting the sweeter vegetables and drawing out the lobster flavour further. This coral reef of colour rested on a bed of pink jelly, a reduction of pink champagne, perhaps, as this was the accompanying wine? (I didn’t get the chance to confirm it).

Continuing the fish theme, we were presented with a plate of Blanc de turbot doré en cocotte with a medley of pan fried Provencal figs and violet artichokes, a tangy wine and fish stock sauce added a saline kick to the plate. The turbot was pure flavoured, unadulterated juicy meatiness, and perfectly cooked. The pan fried figs and poached artichokes gave alternate sweet and sourness, caramel and subtle hints of earthiness, to this wonderfully flavoured fish. Sadly the flesh on my figs tasted a bit over toasted, a bit burnt, tainting the flavour slightly, but that aside this was a delicious dish, matched perfectly with the Bollinger 2002 Grande Année.

We followed with game: Pigeon en crapaudine cuit au sautoir.  Pan fried chestnut coloured nuggets from a spatched pigeon sliced open to reveal a wonderfully moist pink centre. Petit Pois à la Française with mange tout provided a spring fresh accompaniment, lifted further by the wine vinegary twist, and then made mellow by the dark meaty stock, hints of bacon from the pan frying and red onion adding smoke and sweetness to the gamey meat.
Brie de Mieux to cleanse the palate. Well it’s cheese isn’t it? Not quite. This was a really strong mature creamy and spicy prickly long flavoured sock’n’sweat cheese, dots of basil pesto and lightly dressed side salad garnished this very welcome and refreshing break in our meal. Along with that was the ‘vin surprise’, guests having to guess the year of the vintage, the association of Bollinger and Bond films goes back forty years (hurrah and huzzah for the Brits, Olly Smith guessed the 1975 vintage champagne correctly).

Finally, presented in a space age Sputnik dish, surely a nod to Moonraker, came the Vacherin citron fraises des bois. It was so flavoursome that I almost forgot to appreciate it, let alone digest it. Why? Again, on a theme of sweet and sour; the flavour of the light but rich strawberry creamy moose was quite intense, the feather light creamy melt-in-the-mouth teaspoon sized meringue curl and a scattering of crispy marshmallow style candies provided all the sweetness you could ask for in a desert. Contrast that with the refreshingly zingy lemon juice and lemon curd opposing the strawberry, so light it was almost imperceptible and a crisped lemon slice as sharp as you can get and mouth puckeringly tart. Poured over this, the coulis with Little Scarlet sized wild strawberries in it. I throught I had died and gone into orbit (to paraphrase).

After all the champagne and rich food; the flavours; the sharpness versus the sweet, the drinking, the eating, the force feeding until I felt fit to burst, the idea of cramming myself into a small lift..? I needed air, to take the stairs, to burn it off. With gravity working in my favour, my pace increased as I descended, first slowly, then faster and faster, steps becoming a blur (or was I just flattening them?). It seemed like I was racing the lift to the finish. But, in truth, like my waistline, I lost.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Life can be perfect (part 1 - the champagnes)

“Well” to quote Shirley Valentine, “I won a competition, you see”... A writing competition for Bollinger’s Life Can Be Perfect competition to describe in a short amount of words a perfect moment in time. I went back to my former life in Paris, but just transposed the beaker of cheap Rhône with a glass of champagne.

So I am, seated amongst the most notable wine experts, journalists and television presenters of the world feeling a little out of my depth even with my own wine qualification and getting a little star struck too (two hours sitting next to the entertainingly brilliant Olly Smith, for example).

The prize? To be taken to Paris, stay in a boutique hotel, be whisked off the next day by chauffeur driven limousine to the Jules Verne, an Alain Ducasse restaurant on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, to taste half a century of Bollinger RD (Récemment Dégorgé) going back to 1952. Twelve bottles; twelve tastings, all presented by Bollinger’s cellar master, Mathieu Kauffmann. Can you imagine? No. Neither can I. That is why I am still pinching myself a week later. 

Récemment Dégorgé comes from an idea conceived by Lily Bollinger, in layman’s terms means some of the vintages were held back from release to mature for longer on their lees, usually a minimum of 10 years (all our wines were disgorged on 7th March with the exception of the 1952 in 1969). The champagnes will have a greater chance to develop unique characteristics of aroma and taste from this ageing. This is enhanced by the fact that the fermentation process is in oak barrels, giving more nutty, woody and smoky smells, but also bottle aged with corks rather than crown caps for longevity.

Out of the twelve tastings, two stood out as truly notable for differing reasons. But a quick run down of the wines overall (prominent vintages in parentheses):

Truffle smells (’66) and mushroom (‘88) , smoke (’97)and toast (’76), brioche and nuts (’59), coffee (’85), leather... (leather? That was the smell from the leather coated pens they provided, which stuck to my finger... didn’t I feel foolish)... stewed fruits (’66) and vegetal elements (‘79) such as asparagus, and of course, lemon and lemon pith. These were the aromas coming out of a lot of the various vintages as we went through the ages. 

On the palate an array of flavours: gooseberries (’97) and lemon sherbet prickle (’88), apples (’95) and light tannic wood (’79), caramelised fruits (’76) and honeys (’66), snow peas (’59), steel and flint (’96); flavours mingling on the palate from the initial smack or caress, depending on the wine, to the long, slow acidity that keeps the mouth watering long after the last sip.

So, the outstanding ones? For me, the 1961 and the 1952 vintages. Both years were hugely different in taste and texture but both amazing: one for quality and one for emotive reasons.

As the vintages got older so the colours got richer. The 1961 had a rich golden yellow colour and light petillance in the glass. On the nose, there were very light creamy notes and lemon, alongside hints of mushroom and smoke. This promised to be a dry glass, especially after they honey hit of the 1966. A second nose dive into the glass brought the mellower fruits to the fore.

On the palate, the taste promised what the nose had suggested. Sharp lemon high notes with hints of flint and wood, smooth and rich, though much more tempered than later years, and rounded, but not necessarily creamier (these are extra brut wines with an average sugar level below 4g per litre), with a good length of acidity. This was a perfect balance, challenging the taste buds to discover another flavour on each and every sip. 

If these wines were paintings, perhaps the 1961 could be a cubist painting; a Picasso, challenging to the senses, each angle a twist. And yet, take it all in and the picture is one of marvel and brilliance. The 1952, in that context has to be La Giconda, the Mona Lisa. Why? Very simply put, the painting is not da Vinci’s greatest work (opinion is divided as to whether he squandered his talents on science instead of art for example. But I digress). And yet... and yet with that comes a sense of awe; a sense of respect; a nod to its age. And this is where the 1952 comes into the spectrum.

The colour of this wine is so rich it is golden, not yellow gold but a darker hue, almost like it should be an Alsace wine were it not for the bubbles in the glass (I know there is Cremant d’Alsace but humour me!) Pure toast and smoke, hit the nose as well as the richer smell of black coffee and spice. Another smell and there are hints of zingy herbs, complementing the spice, almost edging toward mint.

This wine is much smoother on the palate, with some natural maderisation , sweeter to the tongue and more unctuous. Lemon fruits meet wood and cream, but maybe candied lemon; sharp but slightly honeyed. Sublime in so many ways, and a privilege to be one of the few people in the world to have tasted it.

However, that was the last wine we tasted and by the end my taste buds had gone into paralysis and I had “leather tongue”. It was time to have lunch and drink lots of water. Life can be perfect? It surely can.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Rites of Spring

It has been a long wait; a long, cold and damp wait for spring. Bright colours now bring the countryside to life:  puffballs of blossom dapple the trees in pinks and whites; flurries of petals and wispy spores dance in the wind like a Diaghilev chorus; bluebells bring a cornflower haze to nearby woods and forget-me-nots sprinkle lawns and grass banks. You can smell the freshness, the change (well, in my case, with a large dose of anti-histamine).  
I am trying hard to get inspired, to cook something that matches the change of season. A hot sun tells us that winter has been banished; hearty, slow cooked stews and heavy red wines are too rich to contemplate; lighter, greener, refreshing meals come to mind and yet... ah! Vivaldi’s “Spring” plays on the radio, a perfect accompaniment to this weather, sharper notes contrasting with the melody remind us of the cold breezes that remain. Musically, I think he is saying don’t forget your jumper.

The answer to my quandary reveals itself during the April rush at the local farm shop, customers hare boxing for the new season’s asparagus (rather like the clamour for the iPad, such is country life).

Asparagus spears bring with them a craving for fresh flavoured dishes; a sharp green freshness. However, the chilling breezes and the cool night air are a sure sign that something comforting needs to be consumed. I have gone for risotto. Hearty but fresh tasting, warming but with a zing. But I can’t decide on the best method, so I have gone for three choices: classic asparagus risotto, risotto with asparagus and crisped Parma ham, and finally, my own nod to Primavera.  


Arborio rice 225g
Chicken stock (I have made my own) 850ml 1 ½ pints
Asparagus 500g
1 Escallion shallot
1 Garlic clove
Sea salt
Olive oil
Vermouth (dry such as Noilly Prat or a dry white wine)
A handful of grated Parmesan

Additional ingredients for plate two:

1 pack of Parma ham (about 70g)

Additional ingredients for plate three:

1tbsp frozen peas (a similar amount in butter)
2 or 3 mint leaves
A few basil leaves
¼ tsp chilli flakes
Zest of ¼ lemon and a small squeeze of lemon juice (or a small dribble of dry white wine).


Heat the stock in a pan. Cook the asparagus for a couple of minutes in boiling water. Separate the tips of the asparagus from the stalks, keeping the heads to one side. Mince or finely chop the asparagus stems. Chop the shallot and garlic clove and mix with the asparagus stems. Grate the Parmesan. Roll the Parma ham into a cigar and slice into thin julienne strips to fry.  In a blender mix the peas, mint, basil, chilli, lemon zest and butter into a paste and leave to one side. (Not forgetting the glass of wine at hand to keep you going, everything should be ready).

Melt some butter in a pan with a splash of oil and add the shallot, garlic and asparagus stems. Fry the mixture until translucent. Add the Arborio rice and coat thoroughly before adding the first ladle of stock. Keep going until the rice is cooked and almost all the stock has been absorbed, in other words it is not completely dry.

Plate one:

Once the rice has absorbed the stock but still has a ‘bite’ to it add a knob of butter and most of the parmesan and stir. Finally add a glug of Vermouth or wine. Some people believe in adding the wine or vermouth before the stock however, I stick with the majority and add it at the end. Stir in or arrange the asparagus tips on top and serve with the remaining parmesan.

Plate two:

As the rice is absorbing the stock, in a separate frying pan, dry fry the Parma ham until it is crispy. Again, stir in the butter and most of the parmesan, a glug of Vermouth or wine and half of the ham. Again, serve by stirring in or arranging the tips of the asparagus and the ham in a decorative manner, topping with the remainder of the parmesan.

Plate three:

Not wanting to over gild a gilded lily, I have chosen small enough amounts to give enough balance in this version without drowning out the asparagus flavour altogether. So, just before serving add the pea butter mix and stir. Squeeze a hint of the lemon juice and arrange the tips accordingly. Add a small scattering of Parmesan.

Flavour wise the first risotto was good but to be honest, I put a little too much cheese in which did slightly subdue the flavour of the asparagus, thankfully, though, the heads ensured that some flavour remained. The overall result was a rich mix of stock, creaminess from the rice and cheese, cut through with the green freshness of the asparagus and a slight kick of the herbal wine, with enough bite to the rice and to the asparagus heads to give it some good textural contrasts.

The second was more my kind of dish; rich stock and creamy, nutty rice, vegetable freshness contrasting with slightly crispy, smoky, saline and sweet meat; hints of parmesan giving more cream to this plate and a sharp, headier, herbaceous wine rush adding to the stock flavour but reducing the chance of a cloying mouthful.

Finally, my version; the ‘experiment’ (should I have named it?) Given that a true Primavera would have broad beans as well as asparagus and peas this had a real mix of contrasts that balanced well.

There was just enough of the pea, basil and mint freshness to still get the softer more muted asparagus flavour, the taste was definitely cleaner and lifted it from the creamy stock, the lemon zest and small squeeze of juice also breaking down the richness. Gentle, warming chilli lingered in the mouth to give it a longer finish. Rich, yes, but also more-ish because of the ‘cooling’ herb and sharper lemony flavours.

I happily washed this down with Panizzi 2009 Vernaccia di San Gimignano. I am a huge fan of this man and his wines which are probably the best in San Gimignano. Subtle vegetal and pithier citrus flavours merge to complement the asparagus.

The ‘insulating’ warmth of the risotto, helped in part by the gentle heat of the chilli, is as comforting as any blanket for the cool night air, and my smile has spread almost as much as my waistline. Asparagus may be the food that signals spring has arrived, I think to myself in my armchair as I try hard to stay awake after my feast, but for now, I am ready to hibernate.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Little satisfaction in Little Venice

It is a cold, very cold night. Wisps of mist on the canal gain an ethereal quality from the reflection of the street lights. With foggy breath we hurriedly make our way over bridges and through the quiet streets of Little Venice towards The Warrington, a gastro pub belonging to the Gordon Ramsey group. No “pea souper” to add to the atmosphere but even so, it could almost have been romantic were we not shivering.

Buses, taxis, maybe a Boris Bike, the Bakerloo had closed, so arriving on time meant a twenty first century version of “Monte Carlo or Bust”. With all the chaos, two of the party were unable to make it without some Herculean attempt to cross London and, smile on my face, I was left to entertain the girlfriends.

I have to admit to being wary of gastro pubs. They leave me very confused. Is it a pub? Is it a restaurant? Is it a bird, a plane, etc?! I have experienced the joys of places like, for instance, the Canton Arms in Vauxhall, which served really excellent food, but that enjoyment was countered by the shock of the wine list prices which seem to take the pub into the realm of restaurants… or have I missed the point?

However, I overcome this inner turmoil as ‘F’ and I reach the door. Stepping through tile and terracotta, it is a veritable stage set of Edwardiana, oak framed mirrors, and some stained glass panes add to the cultured soft tones of gloominess. Hints of its history as a former brothel, art nouveau-esque swirls of reclining naked ladies on an ochre wall. As we pass upstairs into the warmth of the restaurant, it is almost possible to picture acrid fog of cigar smoke, to imagine the pianoforte hammering a popular tune in the background, to see bowler hatted gentlemen keenly lapping up the attention of louchely dressed young girls, while downing port or ale … no, you could. Really! I look around for Dick van Dyke.

We went for the Winter set menu. A nice basket of various home made breads were presented and consumed quickly. Wonderfully warm with the butter served on a small slate coaster. The waitress offered us more bread but we declined.

I tried a spoonful of the soup that one of us had ordered. White onion, Westcome cheddar and roasted almond soup. Wonderfully rich. Not too cheesy, a great stock flavour, nothing overwhelming the palate. A deliciously gentle combination of flavours.

However, I chose the Smoked ham hock, truffle potatoes, poached hens egg and mustard vinaigrette, in other words a Frisée aux lardons but in this case, with mixed baby leaves and potatoes.

I love this salad. It is one of my favourites. Simple and light, the smoky sweet and saline mix of pork, the prickly pepperiness of the salad leaves, and the cloying warmth of yolk from the poached egg broken down by that sharp wine vinegar acidity. Mopped up by fluffy bread, naturally.

My ham hock was really tender and flavoursome, just perfectly moist and moreish, hints of honey with the saltiness. The egg’s yolk was perfectly runny and hot. What is not to get wrong with this salad? Well, for me, there wasn’t enough sharpness of vinaigrette for my liking. I need that instant fix and cutting tang of a wine vinegar to break through the cloying yolk. Evidence of it was there with the small mustard grains but not enough to create an even balance. The truffle potato was indeed dark and nutty, strong in iron and floury, emphasising the greenness of the leaves.

I would have loved more, but had already eaten enough bread to become the face of Pilbury and was saving myself for the main course. Braised Dedham Vale feather blade with carrot purée, roasted field mushrooms. Chunks of slow cooked dark almost black beef in its jus, served with a shock of orange carrot and an earth coloured mushroom topped by vibrant green spinach.

The beef, apart from one rather tough and slightly dry chunk, was tender enough to break with the lightest touch of the fork. Perfectly rich in flavour. The carrot was sweet and earthy, and vibrantly appealing to the eyes. Spinach perfectly cooked, just wilted but slightly over salted. The flat mushroom, well it’s a mushroom isn’t it?

I was hungry and the ‘sensible’ portions now seemed to be rather light. I ended up feeling slightly, well, disappointed and wondering whether the à la Carte would have made any difference. Luckily, I had ordered some potatoes on the side which were nice and buttery though not nutty enough for me. However, they performed their remit and made up for the meat.

To go with this, we decided on a Côtes du Ventoux 2008 which although a bit cold at first, warmed up quickly to give tannic and berry flavours.

To finish, I was tempted by the Berry Panna Cotta with shortbread and berry compote but it was very hot in the restaurant and I was tired. We decided to move on to the coffee and short bread (an additional £3.50) instead. The coffee arrived but there was no short bread (although this omission was correctly reflected in the bill).

Shortbread aside, the attention to detail by the staff was really missing throughout the evening. And here is the rant: passing the card machine in front of my face to my friend instead of going behind me; spraying cleaner (a rather foul smelling one) and setting up of the next table while we were still drinking coffee (this at nearly half past ten); my coat lying on top of the drinks trolley at the top of the stairs rather than being put in a safe place (laid on top of glasses and next to a naked flame I should add, my bag on the floor beside it).

All these leave an impression that isn’t good. Friendly though it may be, and it was very amiable, there is no excuse for casual service, even if it is a pub, gastro pub, gastro pub restaurant, or whatever you wish to classify it as.

For value it was fine, really, fine. The bill was very reasonable, the food I ate was on the whole, good, well sourced and flavoursome, even if I was greedy for more. Stepping back into the freezing wind my coat, scarf and gloves were barely warm enough to combat the weather. So it was ironic then that The Warrington also left me feeling a bit cold, a feeling that it was just “fine, really fine”.