Sunday, November 29, 2009

My quest for the perfect Earl Grey

My favourite cuppa since I can’t remember when is Earl Grey. It’s the tea I start the day with and the tea, up to now, I’ve invariably enjoyed. But recently I’ve bought two packets that have really let me down - one from a company called Miles, the other from the ubiquitous Twinings. Both smelt like Earl Grey but tasted like black tea of the dullest kind.

Fortunately help was at hand in the form of a neighbour, Kate Gover of Lahloo Tea (right at Lido in Bristol) who predictably pointed out I’d get a better result if I used a leaf tea. (Advice, of course, I'm aware of but choose to ignore first thing in the morning.) Most Earl Greys, she told me, are made from pretty low grade teas sprayed with artificial bergamot flavouring - not even real bergamot oil. (Bergamot is a type of orange btw.) Hers is made from second flush Darjeeling, ‘a little bit’ of Assam and ‘the best cold-pressed Bergamot oil I could find'. It certainly smelt heavenly in the tin.

She went through the ritual of heating the pot and steeping the leaves (2 teaspoons for the two of us) for 3-3 1/2 minutes then removed the infuser and poured the tea which she drank without milk and I drank with a splash.

It was very different from the Earl Grey I’m used to - much more delicate and subtle and to be honest I was slightly disappointed at first sip (she says many EG aficionados initially feel the same - I suspect because our palates have been denatured by the artifical flavouring). But it grew on me, especially with an elegant Earl Grey chocolate on which Kate has collaborated with London chocolatier Damian Allsop. And it had a much longer finish and was much more refreshing and invigorating than my usual brew. The problem is that it’s a meditative kind of tea rather than a restorative quick fix which is what you - or rather I - want at 7am.

So I’m still looking. The best teabags I’ve found so far are from Sainsbury’s and a Fair Trade Earl Grey in grey packaging whose name I can’t recall but will post when I next spot it. And Taylor’s of Harrogate, which I’m currently drinking, isn’t bad though even that has ‘natural Bergamot flavour’ which usually means a natural flavouring that tastes of Bergamot rather than one that is derived from it.

Any fellow Earl Grey fans out there? Which brand do you drink or can anyone else recommend another early morning cuppa? And do you use teabags (be honest!)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cynical champagne ‘deals’

Having been to a champagne tasting this week I’ve been giving quite a bit of thought as to how good these headline-grabbing half-price champagne offers are.

Initally I got quite excited about them myself - Moet for £14, Bollinger for £18 (both at Morrisons, if they’ve not run out) sound like the deal of the decade. Certainly the visitors to the popular money site think so. Traffic has peaked at 1 million visitors a day this week with champagne being the most regularly viewed subject

But you need to pause a moment and ask how much these bottles are worth in the first place. The best known names like Bollinger and Louis Roederer now have a recommended retail price of around £37-£40 a bottle. Forty pounds a bottle. That’s ludicrously over-priced even allowing for the exchange rate.

The standard price for Averys Special Cuvee Brut which is blended in the Bollinger house style is £21.99 (and they’re bound to do some kind of an offer on it before Christmas). Sainsbury’s very decent Blanc de Noirs, which was recently only narrowly pipped at the post by Veuve Clicquot in a recent Which? tasting is currently selling for £14. (Moet incidentally only came 13th out of the 14 champagnes tested.) OK Avery’s and Sainsbury’s don’t have the cachet of a Bolly but are you prepared to spend an extra 15 quid a bottle for a label?

The champagne producers are not alone in these cynical pricing practices. Most leading brands of sparkling wine are also priced on the basis that they are going to be discounted. The standard price for Cordoniu Cava now is £11.99 enabling supermarkets to ‘slash the price’ to £5.99 (at which it’s a pretty good buy it’s fair to say) But consumers aren’t stupid as the recent demise of Wine Rack which routinely overcharged for wine in order to be able to discount it shows.

What the champagne houses offer - and have been immensely skilled at exploiting - is glamour and a sense of special occasion but don’t let the deals lure you into the idea that they're doing you any favours. If you merely want some simple party fizz I’d head to Majestic and buy the Underraga Brut from Chile at £4.99 or order some Lindauer Brut for £39.90 a case of six from Tesco (Oddbins has a few bottles of the even better rosé if you can track it down)

Have you succumbed any of the champagne offers yet? Will you? Or are you perfectly happy to serve a cheaper sparkling wine to your family and friends?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Welcome to Food & Wine Finds!

Well, it didn’t take me long to get back into blogging! As those of you who followed my previous blog The Frugal Cook will know my reason for giving up was that I’d run out of steam and felt I was beginning to repeat myself. But once I stopped I realised I had so many things to share that didn’t really fit in to my existing websites or the papers and magazines I write for and which I wanted to write about at greater length than the 140 characters offered by Twitter. So here I am at it again . . .

What will you find on this blog? Well, a bit of everything but mainly things that are not already heavily promoted and which you might not otherwise come across:

* Great raw ingredients and products and snippets of advice about what to do with them. (Though most of the stuff I write about cheese will be on my dedicated cheese blog The Cheeselover)

* Restaurants, pubs and cafés that don’t merit a major review but which are worth seeking out. (And dishes from restaurants I’m inspired by)

* Interesting bits of kitchen kit (I am, I confess, a gadget freak)

* Wines that are off the beaten track (and probably the odd beer and spirit too)

* Bargains: good deals I spot that are worth taking advantage of - and ones that aren’t quite as good as they seem . . .

* Books - not the big name glossy chef books but interesting byways like the book I’ve just published with Bristol chef Stephen Markwick. Old books too.

Interesting websites and blogs - on top of my regular links

Turkeys - most of the blog will be about things I'm really enthusiastic about but there will be an occasional brickbat . . .

So I look forward to having you with me - enjoy the ride!